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Nothing but bad news seems to emanate out of Zimbabwe at present, whether it is rumours that the undeniably toxic president celebrated his 91st birthday with a million-dollar banquet or that the National Park service is busy selling-off elephant calves and lion cubs to stave off bankruptcy.
What is less publicised is what remains - one of the safest and hassle-free countries in Africa where, despite the unpleasantness of the political elite, the ordinary people, both black and white, are delightful and genuinely pleased to see you.
Zimbabweans have always been understandably proud of their wildlife estate which does not present the same emotionally charged reaction as land ownership. But in a country where the government struggles to supply the basic education and healthcare to its people the protection of natural resources comes to be seen more and more as a luxury, not an essential, and the only way to preserve it is to continue to give it value. If it pays it stays.
Some people may feel uncomfortable about tacitly supporting an oppressive regime by spending their tourist dollars here – but the counter-argument is that never has the wildlife department or safari operators needed your support more, and the wildlife areas have stayed surprisingly unscathed by the economic chaos that has reigned around them. Nature is remarkably resilient.
So the up-side of visiting now is, in addition to the warm glow that you may feel by supporting a cause in-need, the level of service and sense of exclusivity are probably better than they have ever been. Both the die-hards who never left and the generation of new guides coming through are all very aware that their guests could have chosen to go elsewhere, somewhere easier with less risk of it hitting the headlines pre-departure.
Zimbabwean guides remain the best trained on the continent and this has always enabled enterprising operators to offer real adventures, there has been no race to the bottom here, no lowest common denominator approach where one size has to fit all. Whether a multi-day canoe trip down the mile-wide Zambezi or exhilarating walking safaris in one of the wonderful multi-syllabic parks - Gonarezhou, Matusadona, Chimanimani - the very fact that Zimbabwe is, in concept at least, a challenging choice has helped it attract adventurous souls looking for genuine experiences.
With Zimbabwe it is all too easy to talk of what has been lost – prodigious commercial farms have been turned in to a patchwork of subsistence small-holdings, great guides have moved on and are now plying their trade further north or have left the industry turning their hands, as Zimbabweans were always able, to another trade on another continent. But the game and wilderness remains, for now.
A boycott of Zimbabwean tourism as suggested by a clique of citizen journalists on social media will have a catastrophic effect on the very thing that they are purporting to support – wildlife and wild areas.
Tourism in Africa has an enormous trickle-down effect; one person employed in a camp will often support tens of people. Remove this in an already depressed economy and the pressure to use protected forests for fuel, wildlife as a food source, poach elephant and rhino for cash and open the door to mining in National Parks (because they are no longer an asset but a liability to the Government) is enormous – the list of regression is both long and frightening.
Edmund Burke famously stated that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” and this certainly holds as true now as it did when first uttered in 1795.
Choosing Zimbabwe is a progressive choice - and as well as having a great time in some of the most diverse and game-rich habitat on the continent while being guided by the best in their field you will be actively supporting the long-term survival of the wilderness areas in this incredible, friendly, welcoming and law-abiding country.
If I were ever to endeavour to see the maximum number of decent sized land-mammals in a fortnight - ie no rats, no bats - then I'd be hard pushed to choose anywhere other than Kenya for this mission.
Steve Carey of the wonderful Laikipia Wilderness Camp reckons that there is a possibility of an astounding 89 species on such a safari by incorporating a few days in the little visited Meru National Park, Laikipia, the Aberdares and the Masai Mara. Admittedly ten or so of these are pretty rare and unusual so a good dose of luck would be essential for finding them - but an incredible 64 are common, a shoo-in and so virtually guaranteed. To give this some perspective I gauge a total of 35 mammals seen on a single-country safari to be a generally realistic target, by going mammaling in Kenya you can double this.
Kenya gets a rough press from some quarters by being too popular and visions of hordes of zebra-stripe minibuses come to mind. However the truth is that these places are, given some expert advice, incredibly easy to avoid and the variety of game, birds, scenery and genuinely owner-operated camps of great charm to stay in, is second to none. Distances between entirely different eco-systems are manageable and so don't take all day, nor cost a small fortune as they may elsewhere.
How you can pusue your quarry is similarly varied - while the Kenyan National Parks themselves are quite stringently regulated, no walking, no night drives and no open vehicles, by staying on private land in game-rich country (which Kenya has in spades) you get all wildlife with none of the rules. Here you can walk, track Wild Dog, ride a horse - or camel, swim in untamed rivers and search for the myriad of animals in an open vehicle by day or night.
So if you ever have the urge to look for everything from Aardwolf to Zorilla (sic) - seek 26 antelopes from hulking Eland to diminutive Dikdik, 15 predators including six cats, or find any of the splendidly named Guereza Colobus, Blotched Genet, Bat-eared Fox, Masai Giraffe, Kongoni, Topi, Gerenuk, Bongo and Besia Oryx drop me an e-mail and we can plan a tailor-made trip to do just that.
And what a bird to do it with... New additions are often vagrants, disorientated individuals blown off-course and taking shelter from the storm in some hitherto unvisited place, never to be seen again once the weather clears. And if not lost, they are most likely to be a miserably-drab little fellow that looks identical to all the other birds for several pages of the book, but makes a slightly different tweet or whose lesser coverts are just a little fainter. Or worse, it could be an invasive exotic such as a House Sparrow or Myna which are colonising wild places and pushing out the natural incumbents.
The Pel's Fishing Owl is none of these. It is cinnamon colossus with five-foot wingspan and a bird that has adapted uniquely to its environment, forgoing the silent flight feathers of other owls (because fish can not hear them coming) and evolving spiky scales on the bottom of their naked feet (as Osprey and Fish Eagles have) to help them grip their slippery prey and minimise the amount of plumage they get wet.
Residing in the riverine woodlands of some of the most beautiful rivers in Africa the Pel's Fishing Owl has become one of the most sought-after birds in the world. More often heard than seen, its call famously described as "like a lost soul falling in to a bottomless pit" (you know the sound?), a particularly obliging individual posed patiently in a Borassus Palm as we were exploring the stunning Bahr Salamat on foot, having fly-camped on the river the previous evening (and where I finally saw an Egyptian Plover, a wader like no other and a bird that I have lusted after for 30 years, but that is another story).
It is always a pleasure to see a Pel's, particularly in the daylight when its fabulous colouration is not bleached out by the lamp, but to be honest we did not realise quite how important this sighting was at the time. Before departing I had done a fair amount of research on what might occur and had noticed that Pel's did not feature so assumed that it was not there, because despite being secretive, it is large, loud and almost impossible to misidentify. Suspecting that it could be a new record for the Park I consulted the excellent Field Guide to the Birds of Western Africa and realised that the distribution map for Pel's excluded all of Chad, so I then checked the official list only to find that the Pel's was not there, a few of e-mails to a couple of authorities were sent and confirmation duly received that this is indeed a new record for the country.
So what does it take for a record to be accepted? Not long ago a specimen was required, this led to the infamous case of a Ross's Turaco being shot when it popped up in the Okavango in 1974 and unsurprisingly, given the hostile reception, this stunning bird has never been seen there since. Fortunately these days photographs are accepted, or even field notes with a description from a reliable witness and interestingly an increasing number of species are being added to national lists that have never been seen in-country as satellite telemetry proves categorically that they visit.
In our case photography (that is the very owl above) and reliable witnesses was not a problem given that we were a group of guides who have each spent much of the last quarter-century in perfect Pel's habitat.
In short we were lucky, most of life is luck isn't it? but what this record really tells us is two things, firstly how well protected Zakouma is - the Pel's is a sensitive species that needs fish-rich rivers and is extremely vulnerable to overfishing or poisoning. More importantly it shows just how wild and unexplored Zakouma is.
There are very few places remaining that you can go on a week-long safari and add a species to the Country, or even a National Park, list - but the chances are good that this will be repeated in Zakouma, as long as African Parks continue their incredible work to protect the area - and not just with more birds but also mammals, plants and insects.
To contribute to the knowledge of a wild place in quite so spectacular style is a rare treat indeed and the perfect illustration of what there is still to discover in Chad.
If you're interested in visiting Chad we can help, beginning in early 2016 Rod Tether will be leading a small number of trips Zakouma. Drop him an e-mail on Rod.Tether@NaturalHighSafaris.com if you would like to find out more.
Below Spioenkop, a battlefield notorious for courage and defeat in equal measure, is a valley so peaceful, so timeless that despite it's backdrop it is hard not to think of other gardens, biblical ones, where grazing antelope lived harmoniously with raging lion. A lake covers the valley floor, early morning sun makes diamonds of the dew on the ridiculously green grass.
The crenellated Drakensbergs are purple in the distance. Ancient cattle kraals, built by the first Zulus in the area from rust coloured rocks, crumble among flat topped acacias. Antelope do graze, not with raging lion - a relief for those of us walking - but with warthog, eland, giraffe, hundreds of birds and possibly the most prehistoric creature still clinging to earth. The White Rhino.
There are an estimated 17,000 White Rhino left in the world. Their name comes from the Dutch wijd meaning wide, misinterpreted by the British in their Victorian hubris to mean white. Twenty seven live in Spioenkop Game Reserve, last year there were thirty; this is a creature clinging on for dear life. But cling they do, fenced into the reserve and monitored by guards who risk their own lives to protect them.
A hundred and fifteen years ago this area was rather different. Not only were there thousands more rhino with no-one giving a thought to their preservation - except possibly in jars of formaldehyde in museums - there was also no lake, far fewer trees and the valley was filled with troops negotiating the Tugela, a river that became a dangerous torrent in the rains.
The Second Boer War was being fought all around these low hills, the relief of Ladysmith proving a logistical impossibility for the British, and as we walk among zebras and reed buck that barely blink, let alone run, we scour the ground for buckles or bullet cases that might have been exposed by recent rain.
In the 1960's the Tugela was dammed in a scheme that was meant to provide water for the farms around Uppington, nearly 1000 kms away. Among the tracts of requisitioned land was a farm called Rhino Springs. The engineering measurements were slightly off, the water didn't quite slip over the mountains as it should, so the action moved over towards two other dams at Woodstock and Sterkfontein. From this happy accident came Spioenkop Lake and the surrounding reserve
On the way back to the lodge, we spot three boulders in varying sizes, that move slowly and quietly under and around the thorn bushes. A male, female and a four month old calf. They're not white, but they've got horns, really wide mouths and they look very prehistoric.
At 4071 metres, Jebel Mgoun is the fourth highest mountain in Morocco. Attached to its lower slopes are mud walled villages that are surrounded by stone terraces full of of barley and wheat. It can take five painstaking years to build the terraces, they need constant maintenance after the heavy winter rain and some have had crops growing in them for over 300 years.
In late March they are vivid emerald, completely free of weeds and are watered by a complicated irrigation system which, it turns out, doubles up as the ultimate Pooh Stick course.
Above one of these villages, high up in clumps of cumin coloured grass, is another terrace, much bigger than the rest. At first it's hard to work out what could possibly be planted here – no water channels bubble along the path and there's nothing in the way of fertile earth, just dust and small stones.
The terrace is completely flat and framed with rocks with a gap at either end. It would have taken a great deal of time and effort, and must be tremendously important.
The mountain peaks stretch long shadows in the evening light and the boys who've followed us up from the village rush onto the terrace, running in and out of the sun. As one of them kicks an imaginary ball towards the gap in the rocks and throws his arms over his head in celebration, it becomes clear what this terrace is.
There might not be much in the way of hallowed turf this high up in the Atlas Mountains but season tickets are probably easy to come by and the transfer fees are non existent. In Morocco at least, football's still a beautiful game.
In some countries, riding around a city in a horse and carriage is something done mostly by tourists. Who else would brave the onslaught of cars, trucks, motor bikes and scooters armed only with cameras and a guide book? In Morocco though, the horse (or mule) and carriage is another way of saying taxi – not literally, it's caleches and taxi – but if you want to go anywhere, you hail a horse.
The carriages vary, some are nothing more than a flat bed on wheels piled high with sacks of chick peas or bales of grass still with butterflies attached, the driver perched up on top of the load. Others, especially in towns, are incredibly ornate, with bells, tassels and fringes that wouldn't look out of place in Oklahoma!. Comfort levels vary too, even the most decorated might not have much in the way of suspension or cushions to sit on – but what are those thick guide books for anyway?
Sitting in our carriage in Taroudant the pace is slow and companionable. Things completely missed from a car or bus are part of the ride - the heady smell of onions, cumin and paprika from tagines cooking in pavement cafes, the scent of a hidden orchard thick with blossom. The sound of a football match from a barber shop radio, the shout of small boys as they rush home from school.
It's easy to get lost, both in the narrow streets and in time. The speed of a trot transports you back centuries. The driver points out ancient crenellated walls, once the gruesome scene of many an execution, now the home of thousands of swifts. We lean back, looking at the first stars high above the flat roofs, thinking how good this would be at home. Then we remember the size of the garage and promise instead to come back and do it again.
Our drive to the aptly named Serenity in Kerala was a kaleidoscope of colourful interest both on and off the road. Not least we passed a highly over-laden lorry - a great mountain of palm leaves on wheels - which was heading two hours up the twisting road to Serenity to feed its resident elephant.
The following morning after breakfast Lakshmi, said pachyderm, arrived alongside her attentive mahout to spend the morning with us. She works afternoons in the surrounding rubber plantations that cover the hills as far as the eye can see. All the Serenity staff came out from the plantation bungalow to greet her as elephants are much revered here. During festivals they’re painted in patterns of shocking pinks and bright yellows and taken into the local Hindu temple. Lakshmi is the name for the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity and the embodiment of beauty so she’s always in demand and the absolute star of the show.
It seems that the way to an elephant’s heart is through her stomach and we were given an assortment of food to offer her. Bananas proved to be very popular as were crushed coconut, (crushed, that is, underfoot by Lakshmi), mangoes and jack fruit. It’s very strange feeding an elephant, as the trunk approaches your hand it resembles a snake weaving its way through the air before curling itself around the fruit and deftly swooshing it back to its mouth. The elephant’s twinkling eyes suggest she’s enjoying every mouthful and everyone watching can’t but smile. When one jack fruit failed to pass muster, either it was bad or unripe, it was thrown to the ground and then stamped on hard in utter disgust!
Having very slowly and gently knelt down to allow the children to clamber on top Lakshmi’s meal continued with delivery now from above and behind. Her trunk stretched gracefully over her back in a wide arc to delicately search for food offered from those onboard and now out of sight. Breakfast over, for the moment, Lakshmi then proceeded to set off down the track, complete with her passengers and amble down to the river for her morning bath.
If I were looking for a simple answer to the question, “What’s Namibia like?” I’d begin by directing you to a satellite image of Sub Saharan Africa and suggest you looked at the bottom left hand corner. And I‘d expect that the first thing you’d notice, was that in contrast to the lush green of the rest of Sub Saharan Africa, the southwestern tip of the continent is bright orange, and looks as if it’s been dipped in a pot of sepia ink.
And simplistic as it sounds, this ought to give you a clue what to expect when you get to Namibia; a country dominated by a staggering sense of space, an overwhelming intensity of light and colour…and quite a lot of sand.
With its immense deserts and elaborate rock formations, epic clear blue skies and incredible colours, (most of which sit between blue and orange in the spectrum), this must be one of the most photogenic places in the world. When you see your photos from Namibia, you too will feel like a National Geographic photographer.
Surprisingly for a country that is roughly 90% desert, Namibia lends itself well to a self-drive exploration. You can easily head off for a couple of weeks driving your self between one remote gem of a camp and the next, but If you’re looking for a truly exceptional way in which you see it - to experience it close up as well as from afar; examining minerals in a remote desert floor on your hands and knees, or viewing radiantly coloured desert landscapes like huge expressionist works of art, then it doesn’t get better than from a small light aircraft piloted, and guided, by someone who’s experience of the country is born of a lifetime of exploring it.
This is how I was lucky enough to experience it last November, when, having organized a flying safari for Richard Grant from The Telegraph (due to be published 8th Feb 2014), we set off for three extraordinary days that felt about as far from the daily routine as it’s possible to imagine.
Picked up in Swakopmund by the highly charismatic Henk Schoeman, youngest of the four Schoeman brothers, we were whisked away at what would have been treetop height if there had been any. Over three days we flew over massive seal colonies, skimmed over impossibly beautiful dune fields that stretched as far as the eye could see.
We landed on beaches in the middle of nowhere, touched down in remote desert canyons that felt like they’d never seen a human, flew in intense evening light over magical landscapes populated with magnificently marked oryx, drove and ran down monstrous dunes and crawled into caves to discover bushman rock art.
By night we slept in the Schoeman’s wonderfully old-school camps, ate like kings, drank plenty and laughed a great deal, which isn’t hard to do in the relaxed company of Henk.
The danger these days, with too much information too readily available, is that you might - if you’re unlucky - discover too much about this trip before you get there. All I can say is that this would be a real shame. Resist the urge to over research this, trust to more than 40 years of Schoeman know-how and you’ll most likely be letting yourself in for a treat that you’ll never forget.
In 20 years of running and organizing safaris, including many years flying as a bush-pilot in some of East Africa’s most stunning and wild locations, I honestly thought I’d lost the capacity to be that blown away by an experience. Thank goodness I was wrong.
Surely it's no coincidence that it’s so close to the French mélange – a “set of diverse elements”? or even “Melee” meaning a "confused or agitated scramble"?
I’m pulled from my reverie when the crowd in front of me parts to reveal a wild-eyed horseman, on an even wilder-eyed horse, approaching at what feels a lot like a gallop. One arm held aloft like the lone ranger he utters a loud yell as he bears down on me. Just as I’m beginning to wonder if this is personal he brings his horse to a stop in a cloud of dust about 10 yards away, with the equestrian version of a handbrake turn, before disappearing headlong into the crowds again.
This, it turns out is a fairly representative example of what Sonepur is like; loud, intensely colourful and brimming with spectacle; like the Bath and West show on speed. But despite the intensity of the sensory assault, I’m struck by the sense of order that prevails within the chaos.
There’s no feeling of threat or panic here, despite the sheer weight of people who walk shoulder to shoulder through the narrow streets. As any first time visitor to India notices, the concept of personal space has little traction here, but even as a 6ft 5 giant I’m amazed that I don’t feel more uncomfortable - perhaps in the setting of the fair with its elephants, snake charmers, bull, bird and dog markets, I blend in as just one more oddity among many.
Sonepur Mela, in the state of Bihar is a remarkably ancient institution; far less known than fairs like the Pushkar camel fair in Rajasthan, but it’s both larger and older. Visited by Chandragupta Maurya in the 3rd Century BC who came to buy elephants across the Ganges, the fair has drawn countless generations of others who came – and still some - to trade animals from elephants to bulls to horses, birds and dogs.
Today the elephants are no longer officially for sale, but they are still here in the haathi bazaar and deals these days are allegedly are done behind closed doors. The bull, horse, dog and bird markets still thrive.
To the outside world, despite being the home of unified India and the birth-place of Buddhism, Bihar is one of India’s lesser known states. A victim of poor economic policy in the 60s and 70s that some suggest robbed it of the birthright of its natural mineral wealth.
In recent decades Bihar has been plagued by dissident activists and suffered a lack of tourists as a result. To date tourism infrastructure remains minimal so Sonepur Mela has remained steadfastly off the radar for all but the most determined of visitors. Of course this feels like a real privilege and I’m aware of being one of a very small number who are walking around with cameras; this is still a place where people watch things that they find interesting with the naked eye, rather than through the frame of an Iphone.
Staying aboard the stunning river boat, the MV Sukahpa, owned by the wonderfully named Assam Bengal Navigation Company, we travel by village boat to the fair and spend two full days exploring. We witness elephants being made-up with colourful paints by their mahouts, spend time chatting to their owners who sit in deckchairs beside their beasts (just out of trunk range) basking in their reflected glory.
We accompany a huge bull elephant as he walks through the tightly-pressed crowds, somehow avoiding squashing anyone, to the banks of the Ganges, and we share his palpable joy at being allowed to roll over into the cooling water to have every inch washed by his mahout.
I’m powerfully reminded of bath-time with my sons when they were little, with even the same commands issued in a tone somewhere between a request and a threat “leg up please…leg UP!” “turn over… please turn over” all the while the elephant much absorbed in the blowing of bubbles and the all pervading joy of feeling weightless.
And there’s another side to the fair that interests me – as a traveller culture is a fascinating allure, but it’s easy to subconsciously apply an authenticity filter and miss things. For all the horsemen, snake-charmers and decorated cattle, there’s a brash and indescribably noisy side to this event, but a side that is no less valid as a cultural experience. Its icon must surely be the Tannoy public address system.
Albeit hand painted and decorated, it blares almost nonstop through the tight streets by the Hariharnat temple and the rows of commercial stalls selling mostly the same blankets, bangles, vermillion and small brass pots for placing offerings in the temples. There’s a harder commercial edge to this side of the fair – the pots these days aren’t hand-beaten brass, but all bear the stamp of a single company in Gujurat. It’s an undeniably modern aspect to the mela, but of course still a resoundingly valid cultural experience.
At the far end of the rows of stalls I find the apotheosis of the modern cultural experience. A tall structure made of cast iron and wooden floorboards towers above me. Rickety staircases climb the sides going up not one, but three shaky stories to a set of balconies that look down, like a steampunk version of Shakespeare’s Globe, into a deep, sheer-sided well.
This is a Wall of Death, India style. While Tannoys outside blast their sales pitch in competition with the un-silenced roar of the motorcycles warming up, we wait while almost three hundred people climb to the balconies to witness the spectacle. 20 minutes later we’re off and within minutes the wall is – incredibly – populated by what looks like a vertical rush-hour.
Four motorcycles, the first driven by a girl of no more than twelve in a gold shalwar kameez, compete for wall space with 2 small Maruti family cars whose drivers sit not inside, but outside on the doors, even reaching across to shake hands. At speed. While hurtling round and round the wall vertically.
It is instantly and unforgettably outrageous - a mixture of comedy and reckless jackass-ery. There must be a word to describe this chaos, this disorderly scramble. There is, what I’m looking at is a melee.
If you're interested in visiting India we can help - you can download an itinerary for this trip here. Andrea has more than 10 years of experience travelling in the Indian Subcontinent and organising spectacular trips there. Drop her an email if you'd like to find out more
Here the mineral world prevails over the animal and vegetable. It’s hard not to feel like a spec of organic plankton adrift in a sea of sand.
For two days I’ve been camping in the dunes behind Sandwich Bay, in the company of Bruno Nebe, a highly experienced guide who after a lifetime in this area knows it like the back of his hand. Carrying a small simple camp we’ve explored Sandwich Bay itself, the Kuiseb River Delta and the extensive dune system that surrounds it.
The dunes are mesmerizing on many levels; their extent and beauty are beguiling and there’s a fascination that comes with the latent threat the desert exudes; like staring at the patterns of a venomous snake. Without Bruno, just how long would it take to lose my bearings in such a place?
But perhaps most striking are the shifting patterns and colours that the dunes throw up as the light shifts, which it constantly does. The picture is rarely still and the immense blond dunes create abstract patterns with their shadows.
Ridges and intricate ripples are etched into the surface of the sand, crisp and immaculate, constantly refreshed by the wind. In places the sand has a vivid purple patina that glows in the sunlight.
Approaching one such area we get down on our hands and knees to take a closer look. What we see are distinct patches of purple sand, lying in the troughs between ripples.
Using our reversed binoculars as magnifying glasses, we zoom in to see individual grains of sand. And at this point we realize it’s not simply sand that we’re holding in our hands, but gemstones.
The purple colour is a haze of garnets. And as any prospector worth his sand will tell you, garnets are one of the better indicators that you’re in diamond country.
To walk along the skeleton coast is a tantalizing experience; Namibia is the richest diamond producing region in the world, with almost 20% of the world’s gem quality diamonds coming from the forbidden region, a short distance to the south of where I’m standing at Sperrgebiet.
It is entirely possible that amongst the trillions of anonymous pebbles that I crunch blindly beneath my boots, lies a diamond, created 3 billion years ago, washed out of the diamond pipes in the Kimberley region of South Africa, down the Orange river into the South Atlantic and thrown up on to the shore by the ocean’s gigantic sorting machine for me to find.
Its tempting to keep staring at my feet, but I’m keen not to lose sight of Bruno…
We organise safaris throughout Namibia, including trips into the Namib Desert, which can be easily combined with a visits to the rest of the country