The most curious travel combo, Philippines & Ethiopia – Nov & Dec 2017

Child-friendly Philippines is an unbeatable destination for beach-loving young families

The ultra child-friendly Philippines is an unbeatable destination for beach-loving young families

Sixteen years after it first came onto my radar screen, I finally got the opportunity to visit and explore the Philippines with my family. They say good things are worth waiting for… And the Philippines is just that. With three weeks at our disposal, we could only select a handful of the most alluring islands and exotic attractions. Nonetheless, the Philippines dramatically exceeded our collective expectations and proved itself to be a country we certainly hope to return to in the years ahead to continue our island hopping adventures.

Thresher sharks at Monad Shoal

Thresher sharks at Monad Shoal

Our first stop was little Malapascua Island, eight kilometres off the northern tip of Cebu. Situated at the quieter end of Bounty Beach, Evolution (http://evolution.com.ph) was our home-away-from-home for the first week. Owner, Matt Reed was our friendly host, sharing his local knowledge of the island, surrounding dive sites and other must-see attractions in the Visayan Sea. Aside from the great accommodation, vibe and dive set up at Evolution, the three highlights of our time on Malapascua were diving spectacular Monad Shoal at dawn to see the iconic thresher sharks that visit the cleaning station at sunrise. In fact it was such a unique and enjoyable experience that I dived it three times during our stay! Highlight number two was the day boat trip to idyllic Calanggaman Island – a narrow strip of alluring sand surrounded by turquoise water and some decent wall diving. A final culinary high point was Angelina’s pizza and their real Italian gelato – a decadent dessert that left you wanting more!

Chocolate Hills

The iconic Chocolate Hills on Bohol Island

From Malapascua, we retraced our steps south to Cebu City and onto a ferry to Tagbilaran city on low-key Bohol Island. We opted to stay at the Oasis Beach Resort (http://seaquestdivecenter.com/oasis/) on neighbouring Panglao island. Located on beautiful Alona beach, Oasis is just that: a. peaceful refuge at this popular beach destination. Apart from wiling away the days building sandcastles and swimming in the enchanting ocean, we took a day trip to explore Bohol. We spent the morning admiring the world-renowned Chocolate Hills – 1268 conical hills that are believed to be the product of coral and limestone deposits sculpted by erosion – before moving on to track down the endangered cousin of the lemur. The diminutive primates look uncannily similar to bush babies with their sloth like behaviour thankfully ensuring we got some great sighting of the little critters.

Exclussive Sangat Island

Picture-perfect Sangat Island was a highlight

A spectacularly scenic flight then took us west to Busuanga Island: gateway to Coron and the Calamianes Island group. Wanting a Robinson Crusoe-like experience away from the crowds, we splurged on a week at the private Sangat Island. Craggy and imposing Sangat Island (http://sangat.com.ph) – with its beachfront cottages built on stilts –  is the quintessential tropical island retreat. A 300 metre long white-sand beach, lapped by azure waters and hemmed in on three sides by towering cliffs and jungle-clad peaks, creates a simply sublime setting and mesmerising scenery.

Sangat Island Dive Resort markets itself as a premier destination for eco-conscious paradise seekers and scuba divers: an apt description for this enchanting island retreat. The scuba diving focuses on eight nearby World War II Japanese shipwrecks sunk by American aircraft during the Battle of Coron Bay in 1944. The most interesting and notable of the four I explored was the wreck of the Akitsushima (a sea plane tender with some impressive guns) lying at thirty metres close to Manglet Island. Above-water, circumnavigating Sangat in sea kayaks and a boat trip to the white-sand beach of Pass Island for a day of swimming and sandcastles with a picnic lunch were perfect excursions for the whole family.

Boat Excursion Seven Commando Beach

El Nido boat excursion to Seven Commando Beach

The grand finale of our Philippine adventure was four days at friendly Mansion Buena Vista (https://mansionbuenavistaelnido.com/) in El Nido in northwest Palawan with daily boat cruises to admire the wonders of the Bancuit archipelago. The boat cruises are affordable, popular and consequently the best natural attractions, such as the (not so) secret beach and small lagoon (two personal favourites) can get busy, especially in the prime season of December. But there is good reason for their popularity: the ubiquitous towering limestone islands, their beaches and azure surrounding waters are jaw-dropping to say the least. To the north, Nacpan beach – rated the best beach in the Philippines – is wild, beautiful and the perfect complement to the tourist-trafficked island tours that run from El Nido.

Hidden Beach

Family photo at Hidden Beach

But perhaps the greatest accolade that I can pay the Philippines – and specifically the country’s friendly people – is that of the 75 countries I’ve been fortunate enough to visit to date, the Philippines undoubtedly rates as the most family-friendly place of them all. The Filipino people simply adore children and go out of their way to greet and assist the kids all the time.

An unexpected bonus for a young family that loves to travel like ours… And this in itself is reason enough to go back to this fantastic country.

Undiscovered Nacpan Beach is a massive expanse of sand with few tourists

Undiscovered Nacpan Beach in northern Palwan boasts a huge expanse of sand with few tourists

 

New SGF Canine Unit and Chem Chem Safari, Tanzania – Sept & Oct 2017

DJ searching

Radar searches a building for hidden ivory as part of a canine unit training exercise

On September 11th four very special rescue dogs – Tony, DJ, Radar and Popo – arrived at Singita Grumeti. Carefully selected and rigorously trained by Montana-based Working Dogs for Conservation (https://wd4c.org), the two Belgian Malinois and two chocolate Labrador mixes were painstakingly transformed from a ragtag bunch of mutts into a formidable quartet of highly-driven law enforcement canines.

Tony prepares for detection work

Tony prepares for detection work

After their lengthy travel ordeal from Virginia to Tanzania, the dogs quickly settled into their new African surroundings and state-of-the-art kennels. Through continuous training and regular field operations, the high-functioning dogs have formed inseparable bonds with their primary handlers, working happily and tirelessly to protect the Serengeti’s unparalleled wildlife.

The new Singita Grumeti Canine Unit is a great example of a successful collaboration between aligned conservation organisations and generous donors with a shared desire to safeguard the threatened wildlife resources of the western Serengeti ecosystem. Guided by the expertise and experience of Working Dogs for Conservation, the Singita Grumeti Fund (www.singitagrumetifund.org) created the new canine law enforcement unit to complement and enhance existing anti-poaching efforts and technologies.

Dj is the most formidable tracking dog

DJ and Radar are the most formidable tracking dogs

The Singita Grumeti canine handlers and their relentlessly determined four-legged law enforcement recruits are a potent team that supports a network of game scout patrol camps, strategically-located observation posts, rapid reaction anti-poaching teams, reconnaissance drones and covert cameras.

The dogs have been taught to detect wildlife contraband – including ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales, bushmeat, weapons and ammunition – as well as to track poachers. Further target scents, such as poison and even wire snares, will be added in due course. And it is expected that illegal incursions and poaching incidence within the protected area will drop as word spreads of the dogs’ detection skills and seemingly psychic tracking abilities, creating a powerful deterrent effect to would-be poachers.

For further info check out: https://wd4c.org/tanzaniaantipoaching.html

The Singita Grumeti Fund Canine Unit dog handlers

The Singita Grumeti Fund Canine Unit dog handlers ably led by Mgoye Rugatiri

 

Conservation collaboration with Chem Chem

Omo is Chem Chem's most famous and adored giraffe

Omo the leucistic giraffe

Building upon my mid-year visit to Chem Chem and an invitation from the owners, Katherine and I took our two boys with on a ‘working holiday’ long weekend to Little Chem Chem and Chem Chem Lodge (http://www.chemchemsafari.com) in late October.

The purpose of this visit was to engage with Fabia, Nicolas and the rest of the Chem Chem conservation team to share ideas, experiences and best practices in an effort to learn from each other and to support like-minded conservation organizations.

The Chem Chem team really pulled out all the stops to make us feel welcome and I believe our three days together laid a very solid foundation for greater collaboration and idea-sharing in the future. It was also reassuring to see how much of our conservation and community development thinking aligned – albeit on a slightly different scale – and I have no doubt that the relationship will continue to strengthen over time. We now look forward to hosting Nicolas, Fabia and Riccardo at Grumeti in early in 2018.

Lake Manyara with its rich food sourceis a seasonal haven for flamingoes, storks and pelicans

Lake Manyara with its rich food sourceis a seasonal haven for flamingoes, storks and pelicans

Northern Safari Circuit and Isla Mujeres, Tanzania & Mexico – July & Aug 2017

The Rufiji River must be home to one of the most impressive concentrations of crocodiles on the continent

The Rufiji River is home to one of the most impressive concentrations of crocodiles on the continent

Towards the end of July, I met up with old friends from North Carolina who were on a month-long East African safari extravaganza. Having finished up in Kenya, I joined them for the Tanzanian portion of their safari adventure, which included forays into the Selous, Manyara, Grumeti and Serengeti Lamai.

Open-air accommodations at Kiba Point

Open-air accommodations at Kiba Point

Our first port-of-call was the 50,000 square kilometre Selous game reserve. Kiba Point (http://www.nomad-tanzania.com/south/kiba-point-selous), situated a mile downstream of Sand Rivers, is Nomad’s flagship private safari camp in the Selous. It’s an idyllic family-friendly retreat on the banks of the perennial Rufiji River in the heart of the Selous’ main tourism area. Boasting four impressively large, open-air rooms – each with its own deck and plunge pool – we were able to appreciate the thrill of swimming and sleeping within earshot of hungry hippos and enigmatic elephants.

Although the Selous is famed for its enormous elephant herds, poaching has inflicted catastrophic losses on these giant pachyderms with the elephant population collapsing from 110,000 to 43,000 in five years. First-hand evidence of the elephant genocide that has ravaged the Selous was evident from the fact that during our five days in the heart of the game reserve, during a peak wildlife-viewing month, we never actually saw a single elephant. The stomach-churning magnitude of the slaughter defies belief.

Stiegler's Gorge

The raw wilderness of Stiegler’s Gorge

By contrast the picturesque Rufiji River must have one of the highest densities of big crocodiles for any waterway in Africa! And it is the river, along with spectacular Stiegler’s Gorge, that is the modern-day highlight of any Selous safari. What a shame that Tanzania’s thirst for hydropower will rob the world of this iconic natural asset and quite likely cost the Selous its precarious World Heritage Site status in the process.

After exploring the beleaguered wilderness of Selous, we climbed aboard our Cessna Caravan and flew to Manyara airstrip and transferred to the ‘slow safari’ destination of Chem Chem Lodge (http://www.chemchemsafari.com) on the eastern edge of Lake Manyara. Aptly known as ‘the sunset camp’, it’s luxurious without being lavish, blending in with the unfenced wilderness of the Burunge Wildlife Management Area and forming an important wildlife corridor between Lake Manyara and the wildlife-rich Tarangire National Park.

Emilio

Chem Chem super-tusker Emilio

Chem Chem has much to recommend it: top quality guiding (with Alex), attentive management (from Kelly), outstanding food, friendly staff and a diverse range of safari activities. From gawking at the giant flocks flamingos and enjoying sunset drinks overlooking Lake Manyara to Masaai-guided bush walks and game drives on Little Chem Chem, there is something to appeal to everyone. But for most visitors, Chem Chem’s greatest drawcard is its staggering concentrations of elephants – and especially its giant tuskers.  They are indeed a sight to behold when jostling and cavorting at a busy waterhole on the Little Chem Chem concession.

Our next stop on the itinerary was no more than a stone’s throw from home for me at the exclusive-use Singita Serengeti House (https://singita.com/lodge/singita-serengeti-house/) at the base of Sasakwa Hill. Completely refurbished in mid-2017, the newly appointed Serengeti House embodies sophisticated safari living with a relaxed family-orientated atmosphere in the Grumeti Game Reserve: one of Africa’s most iconic conservation areas. Thanks to the outstanding work of the Singita Grumeti Fund (www.singitagrumetifund.org) the 350,000 acre concession has been secured and rejuvenated to once again harbour wildlife populations and animal densities that rival the very best in Africa. Singita Grumeti is a genuine conservation success story and a beacon of hope for what can be achieved with an effective public-private partnership.

Female leopard

The Mkomre female leopard prepares to hunt

In amongst a plethora of quality sightings, we enjoyed excellent leopard, lion and cheetah viewing. A procession of thirsty animals queued up to slake their thirst at the waterhole in front of the camp and we notched up sightings of elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, hyena and cheetah without even climbing out of the swimming pool! Add to this ultra-luxurious accommodations and attentive service, and Serengeti House is one of those rare safari lodges where you quite legitimately feel that you don’t even need to go out on game drive, because the animals come to you.

The grand finale – from a wildlife perspective – was a short plane hop away in Lamai where the wildebeest migration was in full swing already. We stayed at Nomad’s self-contained Mkombe House (http://www.nomad-tanzania.com/north/mkombes-house-lamai). Beautifully styled, the private house has a fresh contemporary feel, although the lack of an outdoor fireplace and heavily chlorinated swimming pool were a disappointment.

Wildebeest dominate the Lamai landscape

Wildebeest dominate the Lamai landscape

Designed for families and thoughtfully built around the rocks of the Kogakuria Kopje, it is conveniently located in the midst of one of Serengeti’s richest wildlife habitats with magnificent views across the Northern Serengeti towards the Mara River.

Sadly, the Lamai is no longer the safari backwater it once was and after the privacy and seclusion of the Singita Grumeti concessions, sharing our wildlife sightings and avoiding the safari hordes took some getting used to again. But, with careful planning and sensible route choices, we managed to notch up some sensational sightings of a female leopard and her cub on a wildebeest kill, lions taking down a wildebeest, a gigantic crocodile snatching a wildebeest during a river crossing, and carpets of noisy wildebeest that stretched as far as the eye could see. The ungainly gnu dominating the Lamai action!

Lamai

Elephant sunrise on our final morning game drive: a fitting finale to an epic Tanzanian safari experience

 

Isla Mujeres – Mexico

Dinner on the beach

Dinner on the beach

Picture-prefect Isla Mujeres (http://www.isla-mujeres.net) – The Island of Women – is a beautiful, peaceful paradise lapped by warm, turquoise waters. Known for its beautiful white-sand beaches, calm crystal-clear waters, and the friendliest people in the Mexican Caribbean, the island is a sun-seeker and beach goer’s paradise. Just five miles long and half-a-mile wide at its widest point, and located a mere eight miles across the Bahia de Mujeres from Cancun, Isla Mujeres couldn’t be any more different to its more illustrious and horribly over-developed neighbour.

For hundreds of years Isla Mujeres was nothing more than a sleepy fishing village and even though it has evolved to embrace a tourism-driven economy, the charming island still retains its laid-back vibe and tranquil atmosphere. A rich Mayan heritage further infuses the vibrant island life and culture.

The boys celebrating another day in paradise!

The boys celebrating another day of island life!

As we explored the island and strolled through the narrow streets, we saw local families gathered together in Caribbean-style homes tucked between small hotels and lively restaurants, giving the island a small town feeling that’s light years away from the high-rise hotels and designer stores of Cancun on the Mexican mainland.

Playa Norte – AKA North Beach – is considered by many to be the best beach in all of Mexico. With soft white sand, idyllic palm trees and water so blue that the sky looks pale, North Beach is the quintessential place to relax and destress. To ensure we were able to maximize our beach time, we opted to stay at the super-relaxed and kid-friendly Nauti Beach – http://nautibeach.com/en/ – adjoining this iconic strip on bone-white sand in the north of the island. The self-catering hotel proved an inspired choice and when our week was up nobody wanted to get back on the ferryboat for the short return cruise to the Mexican mainland and back to reality.

Idyllic Playa Norte on the northern tip of Isla Mujeres is picture-perfect

Lapped by gin-clear waters, idyllic Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres is the quintessential island paradise

Running the Tusk Safaricom Marathon in Lewa, Kenya – May & June 2017

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is a stronghold for the critically endangered East African black rhino

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is one of the last strongholds for the endangered East African black rhino

Having withdrawn from the Lewa Safaricom marathon (http://www.lewa.org/support-lewa/safaricom-marathon/) in 2016 due to a lingering ankle injury, I was determined to get back there in 2017. All looked good and my training was going well when a freak mountain bike accident left me with a severe groin strain. With abductor muscle and tendon damage, it became a race against the clock to see if I could rehab and recover in time to make it to the start line. The thought of missing out again was too much to bear and in the end a compromise was reached whereby the doc agreed that I could run if I downgraded to the half-marathon.

Its a tough race and finishers wear their medals with pride

Finishers wear their medals with pride

Situated at a lung-burning 5,500 feet above sea level, Lewa (http://www.lewa.org) is not the easiest place to run. But thin air and screaming lungs are only part of the problem, the relentless sunshine and heat add to the challenge, and lest we forget the entire event takes place inside a Big Five reserve with plenty of wildlife wandering around the race track!

The Tusk Safaricom Marathon (http://www.tusk.org/safaricom-marathon-2018) allows privileged local and international participants the opportunity to compete in an internationally acclaimed event whilst running through wildlife-rich Lewa: one of Africa’s most breathtaking nature conservancies. Although regarded as one of the toughest marathons in the world, the event has grown to become one of East Africa’s most popular sporting events and is acclaimed by Runner’s World magazine as “one of the world’s top ten must do marathons”.

The race was first held at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in 2000 with a mere 150 participants, but by 2017 it had grown to attract a field of over 1,400 runners and raised more than £350,000 for needy conservation and community projects across Kenya.

The reticulated giraffe

The distinctive coat pattern of the reticulated giraffe

Running through a wildlife-rich Big Five reserve is not without its challenges and incidents… Two years prior to our race, the start was delayed by two hours when a pride of hungry lions killed a buffalo in a swamp between the race village and start line, causing the event organisers a few grey hairs in the process! Thankfully, this year everything went according to plan and we started on time.

Up front the race is run at a formidable pace by the top professional Kenyan athletes, but for most of us mere mortals just finishing the event in a vaguely respectable time is a major achievement given the altitude, hills, heat and wild animals. For those who enter light on training, race aspirations soon evaporate in the stifling heat to be replaced by a desire to simply survive the punishing conditions and make it across the finish line for covered race finisher’s medal.

The Lewa marathon team

Our Lewa marathon crew celebrate a job well done

I came to Lewa with a couple of friends who work for Conservation International and while the other guys ran the full marathon, I was – given my lack of training and injury concerns – quite content simply to finish the half marathon injury-free in a semi-ecent time of 1h45.

But regardless of whether you’re up front with the pros challenging the course record of 1h05 or taking it easy and enjoying the scenery, running through Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (http://www.lewa.org) is in itself an honour and a privilege. Whether running past a herd of endangered Grevy’s zebra, or enjoying the quizzical stare from a stretch of reticulated giraffe, the scenery and wildlife render the pain and heartache inconsequential and ensure that the Tusk Safaricom Marathon is a highly rewarding experience for every entrant.

Despite witnessing the sorry state of many of the marathon runners as they collapsed at the finish line, I was left with an unshakable sense of unfinished business… And I hope to be back in 2018 to tackle the full marathon and finally succeed in putting a big tick on my bucket list in the process.

Lewa is the gold standard of law enforcement effectiveness and wildlife protection

Lewa sets the standard in terms of wildlife protection and law enforcement effectiveness in East Africa

Safari Extravaganza at Singita Sabi Sands, South Africa – April 2017

The Sabi Sand is world renowned for its incredible density of super-relaxed leopards

The Sabi Sand is world renowned for its incredible density of super-relaxed and highly visible leopards

Singita (https://singita.com) is a world-renowned luxury safari and aspiring conservation brand that punches way above its weight class, and it has been an honour for me to be involved with this exciting industry-leading and trend-setting organization for the past two years. Having visited and spent time at all the Singita lodges and protected areas, except for the two flagship Sabi Sand lodges, it was with great anticipation and high expectations that Katherine and I flew to the South African lowveld in late April to spend a week at Ebony and Boulders (https://singita.com/lodge/singita-boulders-lodge/).

Singita Sabi Sand is a romantic getaway

Singita Sabi Sand is a romantic safari getaway

The two neighbouring lodges enjoy enviable locations overlooking the perennial Sand River in the heart of the leopard-infested Sabi Sands private reserve. The area’s reputation for high quality leopard viewing is well deserved and Singita did not disappoint, as we were treated to regular sighting of these supposedly elusive felines. A mother and her cub that had taken up residence at the lodge started off a string of superb sighting that culminated with the holy grail of sightings: a mating pair out in the open during the day! The Sabi Sands truly is in a league of its own when it comes to high quality leopard encounters on a daily basis.

The Sabi Sands (https://www.sabi-sands.com) is also swimming against the tide when it comes to rhino with only a handful lost to poaching in the last couple of years despite the rhino genocide raging across southern Africa. What a privilege to see and spend time in the company of so many of these prehistoric looking beasts. We can only hope that the huge (and costly) investment made by both Singita and the Sabi Sands into anti-poaching staff, equipment and supporting technologies will continue to ensure the security of this important sanctuary for the beleaguered rhinoceros.

Seeing leopards mate is the holy grail of safari sightings

Seeing leopards mate is the holy grail of safari sightings

But the Singita Sabi Sands experience is not only about enjoying legendary leopard and ridiculously relaxed rhino sightings, the opportunity to go mountain biking, walking and even running in the nature reserve provide an opportunity for active safari enthusiasts to work up a hunger and earn the right to indulge with impunity in the delicious daily feasts on offer at the lodges. Boulders, in particular, had a delectable spread of mouth-watering dishes that are quite simply impossible to appreciate in moderation, so we happily overindulged and then assuaged the guilt by donning our running shoes to make space for more!

There is good reason why the aptly-named Singita is known as the “place of miracles” and if you have not yet had the good fortune to experience this for yourself, then best you make a booking soon. With their Sabi Sand lodges now running at over 90% occupancy, you get the distinct sense that the highly successful Singita recipe is no longer the safari secret it once was…

Both Singita Ebony and Singita Boulders enjoy enviable locations perched overlooking the languid Sand River

Singita Ebony and Singita Boulders both enjoy enviable locations overlooking the languid Sand River

Climbing Kilimanjaro via the Lemosho Route, Tanzania – March 2017

Mount Kilimanjaro towers above the campsite

Mount Kilimanjaro lurks behind a gigantic boulder as seen from the Karanga Valley campsite

Mount Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano in northern Tanzania, actually comprises three volcanic cones – Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira – and it’s the highest mountain in Africa, rising to 5,895 metres (19,341 feet) above sea level at its summit. The mountain and its shrinking glaciers are protected within the Kilimanjaro National Park, which generates over US $50 million per year in revenue, while trekkers create seasonal employment for an estimated 15,000+ mountain guides, porters and cooks.

Trekking routes on Mount Kilimanjaro

Official trekking routes on Mount Kilimanjaro

The first successful ascent of the mountain was achieved by Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller in 1889. Wishing to follow in their footsteps 128 years later, the senior management team of the Singita Grumeti Fund – www.singitagrumetifund.org – set off on 1st March 2017 with a shared desire to emulate their feat. We enlisted the services and skills of Shah Tours – http://www.shah-tours.com/treks/mt-kilimanjaro/ – in order to get our group to the summit of Uhuru Peak.

There are seven official trekking routes by which to ascend and/or descend Mount Kilimanjaro: Lemosho, Machame, Marangu, Mweka, Rongai, Shira, and Umbwe. After much research and careful consideration, we opted to climb Kilimanjaro via the scenic and less trammelled western flank approach, known as the Lemosho Route, using the Mweka Route for our decent.

SGF team

Happy teammates at the top of the Barranco Wall

Many experienced Kili climbers rate the wilder Lemosho approach as their favourite of all the routes on the mountain – and we would certainly have to agree. Our eight-day Lemosho trek, which began below Shira Ridge, afforded us a spectacular start to our climb as we walked through the pristine indigenous forest that blankets the lower western slopes of Kilimanjaro. Inside the cool forest, we were treated to regular sightings of troops of acrobatic black-and-white colobus as well as inquisitive blue monkeys. The primates thrived in this idyllic and undisturbed environment.

Exiting the trees, the trail then took in some stunning scenery and sensational views, while providing plenty of time for our weary climbing crew to acclimatize properly with a gradual ascent that included a highly memorable crossing of the wild Shira Plateau.

Dinner time

Refuelling in the mess tent after a solid day of hiking

Having traversed the plateau, we detoured to Shira Ridge and Cathedral Point, which marks the summit of Shira Peak. Standing atop the ridge and gazing at the route ahead, we were left under no illusion that the real ascent would kick off the following morning, as we continued our assault on the imposing summit of lofty Uhuru Peak via Barranco Wall, Karanga Valley, Barafu and Stella Point.

Because Lemosho is the longest route on Kili, you not only get to see and enjoy more of the mountain, but your body also gets the best opportunity to acclimatise and adapt to the altitude-induced challenges. Consequently, the Lemosho success rates for summiting Kilimanjaro is significantly higher than for pretty much every other Kili climbing route.

Karanga Valley Campsite

Mount Kilimanjaro bathed in silver by the moon with Karanga Valley Campsite in the foreground

It is worth clarifying that the Lemosho route ultimately merges with the Machame track on day four just below Lava Tower, and at this point the serenity and privacy of the preceding days gives way to a much busier and noisier trail. This loss of tranquility and eroding sense of wilderness continues all the way to the summit and for the duration of the decent on the popular Mweka trail too.

While our experience climbing Kilimanjaro was rewarding and enjoyable, galvanizing the team with every passing day until we all stood together atop the summit on day seven, there were two factors that detracted from the ‘Kilimanjaro experience’…

SGF team on the summit

Singita Grumeti Fund team celebrating on the summit

The first was TANAPA’s seeming complete lack of interest in cleaning up the abundant litter and squalid toilets that are a never-ending nightmare when trekking on Africa’s highest and most popular mountain. It is unfathomable to me that those entrusted with caring for the ‘crown jewel’ of Tanzanian natural heritage are not doing a better job of cleaning up and safeguarding this iconic natural asset for future generations to enjoy.

The second disappointment was the large groups of loud-mouthed foreign louts that were drawn to Kilimanjaro to tick ‘summiting Kili’ off some imaginary list of machismo.

The relentless decent and vistas from Stellar Point

The steep decent from Stella Point back to Barafu Camp

We experienced this phenomenon firsthand during the final stages of our trek when a large group of inconsiderate Welsh yobs – along with their grossly insensitive guides – wrecked all sense of natural serenity and destroyed the wilderness vibe with their late night singing, shouting and general hooligan behaviour. Sadly, there is currently no code of conduct to police and control these types on unwanted visitor who degrade Tanzania’s wild places.

Those two small gripes aside, the week we spent climbing Kili was a highly rewarding and extremely motivating experience that will undoubtedly stay with the entire SGF team for many years to come. I would go a step further and say that conquering Kilimanjaro is a worthy accomplishment that should be included on the bucket list of every Africa addict.

Summit in sight

Mount Meru pokes above a sea of clouds on the left, while Kilimanjaro casts its shadow to the right

Southern Africa’s Leading Conservation Programs, Zambia – Jan & Feb 2017

Sunset over the wild Luangwa River

A fiery sunset in Zambia’s flagship national park turns the Luangwa River gold beneath a blood red sky

In mid-January 2017, I headed to Zambia with Grant Burden, Head of Special Projects at the Singita Grumeti Fund – www.singitagrumetifund.org, on an educational visit to share ideas and learn from some of the premier non-profit conservation organisations currently operating in Southern Africa. We spent two weeks getting to know the ins and outs of Conservation South Luangwa (CSL), North Luangwa Conservation Program (NLCP) and Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ), as well as attending some informative and collaborative meetings on how to enhance intelligence capabilities to promote greater law enforcement effectiveness.

CSL Detection Dog Unit training

CSL Detection Dog Unit training

Our first stop was Mfuwe, where we stayed at the cheap and cheerful Marula Lodge – http://www.marulalodgezambia.com – while spending our days in the company of the dedicated team from Conservation South Luangwa. It was a productive couple of days spent observing the hounds from the detection dog unit undergoing their training drills, engaging with the CSL senior management staff to learn from their collective experiences, while also finding time to catch up with Dr. Matt Becker from the Zambian Carnivore Program (ZCP).

Under the long-standing leadership of CEO Rachel McRobb, Conservation South Luangwa – http://cslzambia.org – recently underwent a facelift and rebranding exercise to revamp what was formerly the South Luangwa Conservation Society when last I visited Zambia and shadowed the SLCS and ZCP teams on their de-snaring operations and carnivore research projects.

In collaboration with the grossly underfunded Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), formerly known as the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA), CSL was established to stop poaching, eradicate wildlife trafficking and protect South Luangwa’s beleaguered wildlife populations. The organisation actively engages with the surrounding communities, recruits and trains local staff, and focuses on developing and implementing sustainable Zambian-driven conservation solutions.

North Luangwa sees no more than a couple of hundred adventurous tourists per year

True wilderness: North Luangwa receives at most a couple of hundred adventurous tourists per year

From South Luangwa, we took a spectacular two-hour flight in a four-seater Cessna, tracing the Luangwa River all the way up to the Mwaleshi confluence where we swung west and followed this tributary into the very heart of North Luangwa National Park. The Mwaleshi is an absolute Eden with large herds of buffalo and elephant lining its banks as well as big prides of lions and excellent general game frequenting the verdant floodplain.

FZS Base Camp

FZS base camp in the heart of North Luangwa

Our flight into North Park in the Cessna, and again daily at sunrise in the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s two-seater Husky, were highlights of our time in Zambia, allowing us to use the telemetry device fitted to plane’s wing struts to locate and observe a number of the black rhino reintroduced to Zambia after they were poached to local extinction in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Founded in 1986, the ground-breaking North Luangwa Conservation Program (NLCP) – https://fzs.org/en/projects/north-luangwa/ – is a protected area management and law enforcement partnership between Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and DNPW that aims to sustainably conserve 22,000 square kilometres of the greater North Luangwa ecosystem. It is in my humble opinion the leading conservation initiative in Zambia and I would go a step further and say that NLCP ranks amongst the very best protected area restoration programs in all of Southern Africa.

The Conservation Lower Zambezi Dog Unit in action at a road block heading from the park into Lusaka

Conservation Lower Zambezi Dog Unit in action at a road block en route from the park into Lusaka

After three days of productive Lusaka meetings with Vulcan Inc. and members of the top conservation organizations operating in Zambia, the final stop on our Zambian sojourn took us down into the idyllic Zambezi Valley. Having spent three years living and working on the mighty Zambezi, the park remains very close to my heart. I hadn’t set foot in the valley since late 2008, so it was with much anticipation and no small measure of excitement that I returned to my old stomping ground.

Over one hundred elephants were lost in 2016

Over one hundred elephants were poached in Lower Zambezi in 2016

During our time in the Lower Zambezi, we were hosted by Ian Stevenson: an old friend and the CEO of Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ): a non-profit organisation committed to the long-term protection of wildlife in the Lower Zambezi valley.

CLZ – http://www.conservationlowerzambezi.org – was set up in 1994 when local safari operators and other concerned stakeholders recognised the need to provide organised support to the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) to help combat the poaching pandemic that was decimating the wildlife populations of the Lower Zambezi. From its humble beginnings, CLZ has grown and diversified its support activities and protection efforts throughout the wider ecosystem.

Today CLZ assists DNPW with its mandate to protect the natural resources and wildlife of the 4,092 square kilometre Lower Zambezi National Park, while also providing logistical and law enforcement support to the adjacent community-owned Chiawa, Luano and Rufunsa Game Management Areas (GMAs) within the much larger 20,000 square kilometre Lower Zambezi Area Management Unit.

Flying over the Zambezi escarpment and along the swollen Zambezi with its lush green floodplain was a very special experience, although spotting a couple of elephant carcasses from the air also hammered home an important message about the scale of the ongoing poaching challenges facing difficult-to-protect conservation areas like the Lower Zambezi. During our visit, we also had the opportunity to spend time with the new LZNP Canine Unit at an active road block, watching the determined dogs search vehicles for ivory, bushmeat and other contraband.

Throughout our time in Zambia, we took advantage of the knowledge and expertise of our hosts, brainstorming and debating the best ways to identify new opportunities and embrace technological innovations that might help overcome the ever-increasing challenges confronting Zambia and Tanzania’s iconic protected areas. There is no question that our time in Zambia was rewarding and worthwhile with new relationships forged, exciting collaboration opportunities explored and valuable new information gleaned that will help to enhance our Tanzanian operations.

A small breeding herd of elephants feeds on grass on a flooded island in the midst of the Zambezi

A small herd of elephants feeds on grass on a flooded island in the midst of the Zambezi River

Island time on Pemba and Zanzibar, Tanzania – Nov & Dec 2016

Vumawimbi Beach in the northeast of Pemba is amongst the very best beaches in East Africa

Vumawimbi Beach in the northeast of Pemba must rate amongst the very best beaches in East Africa

The grand finale for 2016 was a month-long exploration of Pemba and Zanzibar islands in the azure Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania. After a hectic couple of months in the Serengeti, twenty-nine nights on the islands sounded heavenly. However, our exploration of Pemba got off to rather ignominious start at the tired and dilapidated Kervan Saray Beach Lodge – www.kervansaraybeach.com – on the northwest coast of the island.

Southern Pemba is an idyllic beach destination

Southern Pemba is an idyllic beach destination

Kervan Saray bills itself as “the birders, divers and kayakers lodge: a simple affair with superb food and service”.  I certainly can’t argue that the kayaking at sunset was a highlight and a daytrip to the superb white sand expanse of Vumawimbi Beach was also paradise, but the ‘lodge’ (and I use the word ‘lodge’ in the widest sense of the word) was a disaster. While it quite likely began its operations as a rustic, cheap and cheerful dive camp, Kervan Saray (AKA Swahili Divers – www.swahilidivers.com) has degenerated into a run down operation with the undesirable claim to fame of being the only place I have ever left early, forfeiting four pre-paid nights in the process. With water shortages, broken toilets, electric problems, ceiling fans that no longer whirled, and more creepy crawlies inside the rooms than an active termite mound… this was not a spot to linger. After a couple of scuba dives and kayak sojourns we bailed and never looked back.

Boys riding a seahorse

Charlie and Ollie riding a ‘seahorse’

By contrast enchanting Emerald Bay Resort – www.emeraldbay.co.tz – on the south coast of Pemba was nothing short of spectacular. Emerald Bay sits in exactly the same price bracket, but in stark contrast the food was sensational with delicious fresh seafood prepared by a chef of an exceptional calibre. While the Arabic-influenced hotel design with just six rooms was absolutely delightful, the food superb, and the staff ever so accommodating and friendly, it was our daily boat jaunts out to the white sandbanks amidst cobalt-blue waters of Emerald Bay that truly stole the show. Emerald Bay was so amazing that we stayed for 12 days!

Emerald Bay sand banks

The daily boat trips and picnic lunches out on an Emerald Bay sandbar were an absolute highlight

 

After two glorious weeks on Pemba, during which time we only saw 14 other tourists in all, we took the short hop back over Mnemba to Zanzibar. Having felt like we had Pemba and Emerald Bay all to ourselves, there was some nervous trepidation for our transition to touristy Zanzibar. We kicked off with a really good, guided exploration of Stone Town and its rich history, which my culture-craving wife absolutely adored.

Pongwe Beach splashing

Sandbar splashing at Pongwe Beach

Our two little boys are more beach-bum than culture-vulture, so it wasn’t long before we were headed back to the seaside. Matemwe Beach – www.matemwebeach.net – proved a comfortable place to stay in the northeast of the island with two great swimming pools and a lovely sandy outdoor dining area and bar. The beach itself was long, wide and sandy – perfect for hot and humid runs first thing in the morning – but the ocean here is no good for swimming and there was also a fair amount of harassment from touts and villagers on the public beach. I also got to do a bit more diving on the reefs off nearby Mnemba atoll. The visibility was excellent, but the sites were heavily overfished and a pale shadow of a decade ago when last I visited.

Kayaking

Zanzibar kayaking with Charlie at Pongwe

Pongwe Beach Hotel – www.pongwe.com – was the final stop on our island extravaganza and it more than lived up to its billing. Situated on its own private, picture-perfect, powdery white-sand beach peppered with shady palm trees and lapped by turquoise water, Pongwe Beach Hotel is the ultimate Zanzibar holiday destination! Val, Heather and the Pongwe team pride themselves on running one of Zanzibar’s most relaxing, stress-free and friendly hotels, and they certainly did not disappoint. Our beachfront room spilled out onto the sand and where we built sandcastles with the boys, kayaked together as a family, swam in the sea and infinity pool, drank ice-cold Safari beers at sunset, and generally just revelled in the carefree beach-dominated lifestyle. Pongwe Beach is certainly a special place to which we will have to return in the future.

Mutemwa Beach Hotel

We had Mutemwa Beach Hotel and its swimming pools all to ourselves except for the occasional cow!

 

Christmas at Singita Grumeti, Tanzania – 25th December 2016

Present time

Present opening time

Upon our return from the Spice Islands, Katherine’s mother joined us at Sasakwa for our first Christmas with the boys in the Serengeti and it was awesome. Although having to work over Christmas and New Year is not everyone’s first choice, it turned out really well for us. Because so many people are on holiday at this time of year, the email was considerably quieter than usual and I was actually able to catch up a bit and get a decent amount of work done. It also afforded Katherine and me the opportunity to spend some quality time with grandma and the boys.

Christmas day kicked off with opening presents from under our ‘African Christmas tree’ – provided courtesy of the elephants that pushed it over a couple of days earlier! The boys and grandma beautifully decorated the tree and room. After a couple of hours of work, during which time Katherine and the boys took toys down to the kids at Makundusi, we made our way to a friend’s house where Nadine had put together a veritable feast for the five thousand… Spit roast lamb, turkey, duck, roast potatoes, veg, dips, cheeses and even malva pudding. The table groaned under the weight to the banquet she had prepared! We also set up the pool on the lawn and the kids swam and ran riot. Christmas in the Serengeti certainly didn’t disappoint!

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Charlie and Ollie enjoying their first Christmas in the Serengeti

The migration returns to Singita Grumeti, Tanzania – Sept & Oct 2016

Long columns of wildebeest plod steadily southwards into Singita Grumeti

Long columns of wildebeest returning from the Mara plod steadily southwards into Singita Grumeti

I strongly believe that 2016 will go down in the history books as one of the best years on record for viewing the migration at Singita Grumeti. After a spectacular May and June with dense concentrations and large columns of wildebeest heading north, July and August then delivered record zebra numbers across the concession area before the wildebeest returned again in September. The September/October migration window – as the wildebeest head back south to calve on the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti – has traditionally been far more variable and unreliable to the point where in some years the wildebeest bypass Singita Grumeti altogether on their return through the western corridor.

Regurgitating (9)

Wild dogs denning on the edge of Nyathi Plains

The year 2016 was, however, not one to disappoint. Not only did the wildebeest return in large numbers, they lingered far longer than previously. A few early season rain showers had greened up the concession nicely, ensuring water and plentiful grazing for the colossal columns of transient herbivores. When the clouds vanished the wildebeest loitered, waiting for more rain to drive them further south, but a very poor short rainy season this year has meant that the big thunderstorms didn’t arrive and the wildebeest hordes remained scattered across the Sasakwa, Sabora, Nyathi and Kawanga plains for months (instead of the usual weeks) with the migration only finally moving on again in November!

Celebrating World Rhino Day with a fun run on 22nd September

World Rhino Day Fun Run on 22nd September

While the unseasonably low rainfall experienced throughout the Serengeti in late 2016 ensured a spectacular and lingering second passage of the migration at Singita Grumeti, it does not bode well for the months ahead. A few more showers will see us through January 2017, but without meaningful rain in the coming months, we will be in for a very dry and challenging start to 2017. Not only will the wildlife populations suffer with limited food and water availability, but our neighbouring communities also are at risk: crops fail, human-wildlife conflict escalates, bush-meat poaching and snaring skyrocket… Everyone and every animal will have a tough time of it, so lets hope for some late season rains even though the forecast remains rather bleak.

Wildebeest scatter across the western plains in high densities

Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest returning from the Mara lie scattered across the western plains

MN Boundary Waters and North Carolina beaches, USA – July & Aug 2016

Giraffe are one of the many mammal species counted during the Singita Grumeti aerial survey in August

Giraffe are one of the mammal species counted during the Singita Grumeti Aerial Census in August

Every second year during the months of July and August, a Riparian Survey and Aerial Census is conducted across the 350,000 acre Singita Grumeti concession area. The counts are done from a helicopter with the Riparian Survey focusing on all the major drainage lines and river systems within the concession area. Species of key interest that are recorded during the survey include the black and white colobus monkey, vulture and marabou stork nests, bushbuck, lion and leopard.

Helicopter

Preparing to take off and begin the count

The Singita Grumeti Aerial Census follows directly after the Riparian Survey and follows a more conventional approach of flying transacts over the entire concession area in order to record all sightings of resident wildlife species to assess the overall population trends and health of the game reserve.

The results that emerged were encouraging overall with most wildlife species showing fairly stable or increasing populations. The elephant numbers were especially gratifying because this was the first count at Singita Grumeti to exceed 1,500 pachyderms and considering the way they have fared in the rest of Tanzania in recent years, these numbers provided irrefutable evidence of what a conservation anomaly and success story Singita Grumeti really is. The lion and leopard numbers were also the highest on record, suggesting a very healthy ecosystem.

Black and white colobus

Black and white colobus monkey on the move

A few species did reveal concerning trends that will require follow up research work in 2017. The number of marabou stork nests has collapsed for no obvious reason. We still see large numbers of these birds, so perhaps they have moved to new nesting sites outside of the concession or perhaps their nesting/breeding time has shifted slightly? Roan numbers also remain perilously low and a dedicated masters research study starting in 2017 should hopefully shed light on why these beautiful antelope are not faring too well. The populations of most other species surveyed remain healthy and robust.

Find out more at: http://www.singitagrumetifund.com/blog/conservation/counting-wildlife/

A handsome leopard spotted from the helicopter during the Singita Grumeti Riparian Survey

A handsome leopard spotted from the helicopter during the Singita Grumeti Riparian Survey

 

Boundary Waters and Figure Eight Island, USA – August 2016

We took our usual family holiday to America during the month of August. Undoubtedly, the two highlights here were spending a week in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota and a family escape to a beach house on Figure Eight Island in North Carolina.

Paddling across a glassy lake at sunrise

Paddling across a glassy lake at sunrise

The Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area – www.bwca.com – encompasses over a million acres of protected lakes and river systems. The Boundary Waters is in fact part of a far larger wilderness area that extends into the wider Lake Superior National Forest and up into Canada’s Quetico National Park in Ontario. Once you have acquired an inexpensive permit, you can quite literally lose yourself in this magnificent North American aquatic wilderness for weeks or even months. Simple campsites on the edge of lakes have a pit latrine toilet and fireplace. You need to pack everything else in and back out with you. This provides the recipe for an active nature experience second to none.

Enjoying a classic Boundary Waters sunset

Enjoying a classic Boundary Waters sunset

We left the boys with their grandparents in Saint Peter and Katherine and I escaped into this canoe wilderness for a week. It was our fourth foray into the Boundary Waters and it didn’t disappoint… Paddling on glassy lakes and rivers, off-the-beaten-track wilderness camping, a real chance to reconnect with my wife, spectacular sunsets and lots of downtime to catch up on sleep!!

I would unreservedly recommend the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area to any and every nature enthusiast who enjoys active multi-day excursions into expansive wilderness areas and camping in the great outdoors.

The final stop on our American sojourn for 2016 was a weeklong trip down to the spectacular and exclusive Figure Eight Island – www.figure8island.com – near Wilmington on the coast of North Carolina. We spent a weekend catching up with the Penry family and then stayed on for the week at their idyllic beach house. It was quality family time for the four of us with a typical day seeing us go for a run around the island first thing in the morning, followed by a swim and a morning beach session, then lunch at the pool and naps followed by the afternoon beach session and ice creams before finishing off in the evening with a braai and few cold local beers. It was heavenly.

Quality family beach time playing in the tidal pools of Figure Eight Island

Quality family beach time hanging out and playing in the tidal pools of Figure Eight Island

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