So said Miles Kington. I wonder if he was ever in Nemo, a village in Ladakh that's built on the Indus flood plain, surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the world and cut off from everywhere during the winter. Or whether he was ever lucky enough to eat Gajar Ka Halva, a pudding made mostly from grated carrots.
Ladakh's closest neighbours are China so the Indian Army are well represented here: it's they who fly supplies into Leh airport – the second highest in the world after Lhasa – between December and end of March when the main Srinigar to Manali road is closed.
Dry goods, matches, fruit and vegetables, tomatoes and carrots, all come in this way so things get scarce in winter, the prices rocketing. Tomatoes, 120 rupees a kilo in the summer, can reach 1200 in January.
The Ladakhis are self reliant as a result – barley and wheat are grown in the short summer season, some south facing slopes of terraced fields can manage two crops in the year. All the food grown is stored below the village houses, trapdoors in the kitchen floor allow access to the basement when the temperature outside is -30 and the snow is too high to open the beautifully carved front doors.
Animals and people share the houses, sheep and yaks, donkeys and zos – a cross between a yak and a cow, prized for high yields of milk and looking like a Frank Oz creation – on the ground floor with the grain, families above. Small windows with wooden shutters try to keep out the worst of the weather, even in the Summer it's very cold once the sun goes down.
Severe winters govern everything in Ladakh. The terrain, the trees, the population. Western clothes have arrived, no question, plenty of school children wear bright pink Hello Kitty anoraks but they're worn over thick wool waistcoats and knee length tunics. Then there's the food. In a place where keeping warm is a full time task, fat is consumed in a way that we couldn't possibly imagine.
Yak butter tea is a strangely delicious staple, black tea is served with lots of milk and powdered barley – tsampa – and food is cooked in plenty of oil and butter. When choice is limited, cooks get inventive and one of the best things to eat in Ladakh is Gajar ka Halva – or Carrot pudding.
The carrot isn't a fruit – everyone knows that - but when it's served in a beaten copper dish, with slivers of roasted almonds and tiny sprigs of saffron, at over 3500 metres above sea level, no-one's going to question the wisdom of using it for one of the most delicious puddings ever made.
The Victorians didn’t believe in Gorillas. This is a fact and it’s just one of the many amusing facts about a group of people whose hubris apparently knew few bounds. At one point they also famously decided that there was nothing left to invent, so closed the patent office (although it soon needed re-opening when someone invented yet another device for covering the sexually provocative legs of pianos.)
Anyway, back to Gorillas because ridiculous as it seems to us now, it is of course a default position for most of us to at least question the existence of something that isn’t there for us to see. Put another way, there’s a chance we only find what we look for.
A story caught my eye this week on the BBC website showcasing a study conducted on Rock Hyraxes, the thrust of which was to question whether all the extensive snorting and whistling noises that they make add up to anything more than..well, snorts and whistles. At first glance, the conclusion, like most scientific papers seemed to lie somewhere between “definitely’ and “probably not.”
But one of the things that caught my eye was the suggestion that “The hyrax is one of only a few mammals which have syntax.” And this is where I’m reminded Victorians and Gorillas. Because I wonder which is more likely – that God singled out a few animals (people, dolphins, hyraxes and the odd parrot) to be able to talk, then got bored and left the rest out, saying “Let Them Make Only Meaningless Squeaks All the Days of Their Lives”? Or that those are some of the few animals we’ve got round to paying attention to? I think it’s also known as observer bias.
Most of the many mammals that I’ve spent time watching in Africa, whether elephant, lion, or the countless smaller species (including the hyrax) or the Gerbils, Hamster (RIP) or Guinea pigs that my sons now keep, seem to make pretty significant use of vocal communication (roughly on a par with that of my sons). I wouldn’t mind betting that the overwhelming majority are pretty good conversationalists…if only someone will listen.
Of course none of this would really add up to a hill of beans if it didn’t illustrate quite so clearly the contrast between our collective position as custodians of the planet and our total lack of qualification for the job. The Victorian refusal to believe in Gorillas is pure comedy, but today’s misunderstandings – from climate change to how to stop rhino poaching (another thought provoking article) - are far less funny.
The Castle was built during the 2nd World War by Italian prisoners of war. In the 1980s a new section was added by present owner, Alex Nunes. Occupying an austere location overlooking the Burma Valley in Zim's Eastern Highlands, The Castle is a small owner-run hotel. It is pretty quirky: heaps of antiquey bits, and some novel design features, including a toilet built into great boulders (allegedly "the throne" used by the Queen Mum on her visit to the area) and a dumb waiter which yields delicious meals from what appears to be a large dresser in the corner of the dining room. Many other high-profile bods, from politicians to movie-folk, have enjoyed g&ts on the battlements overlooking expansive views of forests and mountains.
During a three night stay at The Castle we enjoyed some lovely walks, runs and bike rides. The area is great for birds and there is a Botanical Garden which is a little past it’s prime but still pretty. There was one or two mandatory visits to the famous Tony's Coffee Shop for cake (it's not just cake...that doesn't do it justice at all...it is a culinary work of art, the memory of which lingers longer than the extra 3inches it will add to your waistline).
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about travelling is the liquorice allsorts of people I find myself rubbing elbows with. As a camp manager, where tourists came to look at the animals, I was often lodge-bound and ever so slightly crazy with cabin fever, so the variety of human life that passed through my patch provided no end of entertainment (I’m conscious that this little revelation is likely to spark mass paranoia amongst the holiday-makers, but really, look around...what d’you expect?). I’ve had high-flying New York types that tripped out of helicopters for a dirty weekend and recoiled from the visitor’s book in case they incriminated themselves (small world that it is). There have been mummy’s little darlings who refused anything to eat but fanta and bread, buried toothpicks in the sofas, and were rather light-fingered in the gift shop. Other camp managers tell stories of a “goth” woman who insisted on seeing her orange juice squeezed in front of her and required mineral water to wash her hair...and this on a remote beach in East Africa. I remember scratching my head over the menu for a diabetic, lactose and gluten-intolerant raw foodist, with an allergy to monosodium glutamate (sigh). You get my point.
The locals can be a strange bunch too. On a trip through Malawi, our 1958 Land Rover ground to an agonising, clunking halt, as only a Land Rover can, in a mosquito-ridden swamp called Kazilizili. From behind a dark bush materialised a man wearing a broad hat fashioned from black bin bags and fishing line, strumming a jaunty tune on a homemade banjo. He was joined by another rural type, clad in a fashionable, though grubby, Burberry trench coat, who brought a Tipex bottle to his nostrils, declaring in the Queen’s own English: “Where’s my snuff? Where’s my snuff?” It’s not something that you easily forget, and inhabitants (or should I say inmates?) of Kazilizili still appear to me in disturbed moments.
And then there are the nomads of the world. While working in Kenya’s Rift Valley, a visit to market day in a Maasai village yielded a pair of handsome sun-burnished French folk, wearing what looked like school uniform, carrying a small backpack each. They were in the process of walking from Cape Town to Jerusalem (as you do), trusting only in the generosity of people along the way, and a film has since been made about them. We spent hours listening to their tales of soaking in the hot-tubs of South African millionaires, and of sharing meals with warlords in countries that you only hear about for all the wrong reasons.
Incidentally, this week I bought an apple pie from a lady dressed as a fairy standing at a Harare traffic light. Apparently the apple pie, in addition to a good thing to have with a cup of tea, was also the secret to eternal life. I’ll let you know how that pans out.
As the saying goes; “there’s nought stranger than folk”.
Amongst other things, social media has sanctioned the voyeuristic tendencies within many of us. Consequently it’s now okay to keep a much beadier eye on the doings of others than previously acceptable, without being considered even a little weird. Therefore, I am unashamed to admit that I get regular feeds on a few individuals through whom I vicariously enjoy adventures when reluctantly tethered to my desk, and therefore incapable of having any of my own.
Within a few weeks, a couple of these souls have embarked/are about to embark on pretty incredible personal journeys and every few days I read with a mixture of awe and envy of their latest exploits, bug-bears and conquests. One of my Facebook friends, Julian Monroe Fisher, will shortly begin walking across the belly of Africa, from the coast of Mozambique to the Atlantic in Angola. The second person is someone I regard with the same curious incomprehension as a fax machine: I have no idea what makes it tick but think it is quite marvellous in any case. Well-known ocean rower, Roz Savage, is a few days into her mammoth 4000 mile solo row across the Indian Ocean.
The blogs relate a repertoire of interesting happenings thrown across their paths (Roz seems to be frequently pelted by flying squid), and describes the very human afflictions which make life on the explorer’s pedestal sometimes less than comfy. From painful blisters to sunburn, annoying insects to homesickness... hurrah, they are mere mortals after all. I find myself searching for what motivates these people to take up the mantle of extraordinary endeavour. Much like my great grandfather, who set off from Scotland in the early 19 hundreds to carve a new life for himself in East Africa, I imagine that much of the reward comes from stepping off the well-trodden path and relishing the unexpected.
Whatever it is that galvanises such people, the interesting thing is that the inspiration they provide can come in many forms and you can take what you will from it. Whether it means choosing a different country to visit next year or throwing in a tedious job to do something on your own, pushing your physical and mental limits in running that marathon, or reading a controversial author...the message for me is that boundaries are there to be pushed and only in doing so do we make room to grow (or, less philosophically, experience the novelty of being hit in the face by air-borne seafood).
Nature is frequently required to remind us diminutive little bipedals who’s boss. For all our technological prowess, at the end of the day we’re still squishy, pink and about as impressive as limp lettuce in the face of our world’s capacity to awe. While sometimes these reminders come in devastating quakes and giant waves, at other times they are beautiful and gently surprising. This year, the rains in Namibia have topped the charts, breaking 100 year old records in terms of quantity and wreaking havoc on roads and previously high-and-dry safari camps. Some places received a year's worth of rain in a month. This is all relative of course. We’re talking about a country which enjoys over 300 days of sunshine annually (I know, sickening). So when we say it’s been a record rainy season, bear in mind that the creatures of the Namib mainly subsist on sea fog and may only see 100mm of rain in the whole year. But, if you happen to be a tok-tokkie beetle and have to stand on your head every morning to catch drops of fog running down your back for your morning cuppa, you might agree that in the desert, a little rain goes a long way. Ordinarily, the colours of the Namib and wider Skeleton Coast are vivid and captivating. In fact, you run the risk of sounding like a stuck record and exhausting your personal store of enthusiastic adjectives as you exclaim repeatedly how simply astonishing it all is. Add a little water to the equation and you have tumble-weed grass turning from gun-metal grey to psychedelic green and deep-red sand wearing a carpet of yellow flowers. Shallow mirage-like lakes of water appear for the first time in a decade beneath the giant dunes of Sossusvlei . Late afternoon electric storms paint the sky with bruised purple clouds and sheet-lightning. There goes that blue planet, got a new trick and showing off again... If you haven’t planned what to do with all those public holidays at the end of April/beginning of May, think about heading out to Namibia to witness nature’s little party in the desert.
Have a look at these great pics from the Kulala conservancy near Sossusvlei on our Facebook page. Give us a call on +44 1747 898104 if you'd like to know more about safaris in Namibia. *The above image was taken on Wolwedans in the Namib Rand Reserve. Courtesy of Wolwedans.
On our way for a night under the stars, we came across a hungry young elephant bounding up to his mama for a drink of milk. We thought you might like his story... A very touching moment to witness in the Kenyan wilderness!
If only I could blow on the soles of my feet! Pain, pain, ouch, ah, ah...hot, hot! Sporting my preferred attire of shorts and bare feet, I took off at a pace that could leave Usain Bolt in the dust, determined not to return to my tent like any sensible person and don appropriate footwear. Sadly, my fleet-footedness wasn’t in the least bit athletic or dignified; in fact I fear that I looked much like a frog doing Riverdance. Not cool.
Unjustly cursing the deep red sand of the Namib that had left my feet somewhat tender, I went to soak them in the pool. I swam up and down with torpor appropriate to a mid-thirties afternoon in the Namib (the desert was mid-thirties, not me...let’s be clear). It occurred to me that I was swimming lengths on top of a sand-dune. There can’t be many places in the world where you can say that. Having cooled my heels, I joined my fellow travellers for the obligatory sundowner. The open landrover wound its way along the “road” (two tracks in the red sand), between dry-blue grass that looked rather like clumps of tumble-weed, ready to scatter in the wind at any moment. Suddenly, the ridge of dunes gave on to a 180° view of such depth and emptiness that I could do nothing but just stare and stare. It was vast yet the silence and emptiness made it almost two-dimensional – like a film set all prepped and ready for something dramatic to happen. Huge gnarled mountains provided a back-drop which changed from grey to red to purple in the setting sun. Fairy circles (more about these later) dotted the wide straw-coloured valley floor as though some divine interior designer had opted frivolously for polka-dots for a bit of a laugh. Sitting with cold green glass bottle in hand and feet wiggling deeper into the sand, warm wind stroking my bare arms....I wished for time to stand still. Later that evening, I seriously considered sleeping on the lounger on my verandah because it seemed such a waste to cover up the gzillions of stars with canvas. It’s hard to do this place justice with mere words so may I suggest you saunter over to our Facebook page and lose yourself in some stunning imagery from Wolwedans.
Two days ago I was holding my breath whilst an overgrown cub of a desert lion stood within 3m of our open vehicle. Today I sit with champagne and fresh Namibian oysters in hand as a cape fur seal leaps from the cold Atlantic Ocean onto the deck of the boat. I do a reality check...perhaps this champagne and the strong sun is having unexpected effects. Nope...there is indeed a seal on the boat, currently being scratched under the chin by Nick, our jolly, bearded and sizeable skipper.
This surreal contrast is typical of a journey through Namibia. Every other day the scenery changes so dramatically that it is hard to believe you are in the same country. This morning, for instance, I awoke to the chill of a dense sea fog draped over the very German coastal town of Swakopmund and now I sit beneath a warm African sun surrounded by the azure sea. Nick pilots our little vessel expertly from Namibia’s only deep-water harbour past oil rigs in for a service, container ships and even an abandoned diamond-mining boat, registered to Panama. This one has been running up IOUs in many different ports and skipping town without paying the bill. Interpol finally caught up with it in Walvis Bay and it is now the centre of a court battle. We learn about how gravel and sand is vacuumed from the seabed and sifted for the precious stones. As we skip across the glittering waves, we are joined by the “Namibian Airforce” – a fleet of pelicans that fly alongside the boat, hopeful for a fresh snack. At such close quarters, their fabulous anatomy can be appreciated fully and Nick gives us the benefit of his knowledge about these and the accompanying seagulls as we go. Everyone on board turns National Geographic photographer as we are treated to clear glimpses of both bottle-nose and heavy-sided dolphins breaching alongside the hull.
At Pelican Point, the seal colony proves a good fit for our trip theme...more mating animals. The males weigh in at upto 350kg and at almost half their weight, no wonder many of the females end up practically buried in the sand during “the act”. Youngsters lollop along the sand in search of their mothers. Turning for the harbour, we see where the meaty oysters that we are drenching in lemon and Tabasco are grown. Seed oysters come from Chile to thrive in the chill Benguela current. They are huge and truly delicious. Windswept and freckled by the sun, we step back onto dry land and head back through the dunes of the Namib for coffee and cake in a German bakery. Quite surreal really. Click here to see more images.
As I stand on the lonely airstrip at 6 o’clock in the morning, I regard the plains where rocks are strewn as if in a giant Japanese garden, stretching to the foot of the mountains beyond. Towering flat-topped basalt hills encircle me and there is not a living thing to be seen. The silence is eerie and complete. There are no bird calls, no sounds of cars or planes, no conversation, no trees for the wind to rustle. The edge of a pale blue sky is scalloped by the hills; 360 degrees of rock exploding with the deep red of the dawn light. The silence, space and emptiness makes me feel light and exuberant; I feel I am the only person on earth – only it seems more like Mars
The day before, we land on a white sand beach upon which the Atlantic beats with frothy waves and the wind whips sharply around my ankles. I walk barefoot away from the plane and into the bare reaches of sand, rock, and gravel to feel the emptiness of the desert. The wind is quick and gusty and fills my lungs with fresh salty air. There is not a cloud in the sky. The impression is one of liberation, felt deep in the chest: it touches all the senses.
The following day, from our birdlike vantage point, we witness the patterns of rock and sand created by ancient processes. At the right time of day, the paper-sheaf of angled rock is thrown into relief, the shadows emphasising every sinuous curve. Patterns like veins in the sand made by rare water courses spread beneath us. As we descend, the knobbly bald heads of rocky outcrops race by the windows. I never knew the earth to be such a canvas of patterns and colours. It is beautiful. As I try desperately to preserve the impressions in my brain of all I have seen, and touched, and felt so that I can revisit it all in later years, I realise that this nothingness is what I came for. And the nothingness provided one of the richest experiences I have ever known. Amanda travelled with Andre Schoeman (pictured above) on the Skeleton Coast Flying Safari in November 2010. Check out our Facebook page for more stunning images and watch this space for more blogs of Amanda's trip.