Mayan culture and marine magic, Belize – July & August 2018

Caracol

The Sky Temple at Caracol remains to this day the tallest manmade structure in all of Belize!

We had planned to go to the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras, but the flight logistics were horrendous, so it was quite late in the day that we discovered Belize. Flying into Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport, we picked up the world’s oldest 4×4 rental from Budget and headed west to the authentic town of San Ignacio. Based at the wonderful La Casa del Caballo Blanco eco-lodge (http://casacaballoblanco.com) we spent a couple of enthralling days exploring both the local town and the surrounding Mayan cultural sites of the Cayo District.

Caracol

Spectacular Caracol sees very few visitors

A scenically spectacular two-hour drive through the wild Chiquibul Forest brought us to Caracol (www.mayan-ruins.org/caracol/). Hidden deep in the jungle – right on the Guatemala border – lies the largest and most impressive Mayan site in all of Belize. Ancient Caracol was occupied as early as 1200 BC, but its greatest construction and development occurred during the Maya Classic period between 600 and 900 AD. At its peak, the sophisticated city was believed to house more than 200,000 residents in over 35,000 buildings. The most impressive structure is undoubtedly the Sky Palace – also known as ‘Caana’ – which also happens to be the tallest manmade structure in all of Belize!

Its off-the-beaten-track location meant that we had four hours roaming through an almost completely deserted Caracol; and the boys loved exploring the forgotten city and climbing the huge staircases of the impressive ruins. I can honestly say that Caracol was an experience that way exceeded my wildest expectations.

Carol Pech

Cahal Pech is ideal for kids to climb and explore

The second Mayan site we visited was Cahal Pech. Located on an imposing hill above the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena, Cahal Pech was inhabited from 1000 B.C. to around 800 AD. Comprising 34 structures, including temple pyramids, two ball courts and an alter; the central part of the ruins affords visitors a panoramic view of the surrounding area.

We chose Xunantunich (shoo-nan-toon-ich) as our third and final Mayan cultural site to explore. After having the previous two sites all to ourselves, it came as quite a shock to have to share this place with lots of other tourists. Xunantunich means ‘maiden of the rock’ or ‘stone woman’ in Maya, and its location just a mile across the Mopan River from San Jose Succotz on the Western Highway means that it is far more accessible and consequently much busier than isolated Caracol.

Xunantunich

El Castillo sits atop the peak at Xunantunich

Xunantunich is a Classic Period ceremonial centre with six major plazas and more than 25 temples and palaces. The primary attraction is the main palace building with its astronomical carved frieze. At over 40 metres high, this is the second tallest temple in all of Belize and well worth a visit.

Find out more about the best Mayan cultural sites in Belize: https://www.belize.com/top-ten-maya-sites-in-belize/

After our cultural extravaganza, we drove the picturesque hummingbird highway to the coast, spending a couple of rainy days in Hopkins before moving on to Maya Beach Hotel in Placencia. The perfectly adequate hotel was in need of some maintenance and upkeep, but the attached bistro restaurant was excellent – if a little pricey.

Silky Caye

Silky Caye boasts Belize’s best beach

The highlight of the south coast of Belize was a day spent scuba diving off the two tiny islands the make up the idyllic Silke Cayes – AKA Queen Cayes. This fifty metre long sand-spit has a few palm trees on one end, a white-sand beach at the other, and pristine reefs encircling this piece of paradise. Staghorn, fire and elkhorn corrals abound with steep walls dropping away into the deep blue beyond. Inquisitive nurse sharks and loggerhead turtles were highlights, along with a final snorkelling stop where fishermen clean their catch, attracting more sharks and rays than you could shake a stick at!

The final stop on our Belize sojourn was Caye Caulker (http://www.gocayecaulker.com). We traded our old 4×4 in for a water taxi and took the 45 minute boat ride out to this small Caribbean island. To the south is the island’s only settlement, Staying at self-catering Caye Reef (www.cayereef.com) on the northern side of Caye Caulker Village, we were only a few steps from the narrow channel called ‘the Split’ where the island’s best swimming spot is located. Caye Caulker was a very chilled little island with a great vibe, but it was the marine reserves and underwater world surrounding the island that stole the show.

Half Moon Caye

Half Moon Caye in the Lighthouse Atoll

An epic day of scuba diving saw me take a three-tank dive trip to the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. Starting with the deepest of our dives, I was not disappointed by the much talked about Blue Hole, which proved much more than a bucket list dive. We dropped down to 42 metres and swam under an overhand, zigzagging between overhanging stalactites, while big Caribbean reef sharks circled just below. Nitrogen narcosis fuelled the surreal experience. The Blue Hole is not a reef dive and colours are limited, but it is an exciting and different underwater experience for more advanced divers.

Caribbean reef shark

A Caribbean reef shark cruising past divers

Our second dive of the morning was at Half Moon Caye wall. Half Moon Caye is located at the southwest corner of Lighthouse Reef Atoll and the wall disappears into an abyss. The wall and neighbouring reef are home to large numbers of jacks, groupers, snappers, hogfish, stingrays and garden eels. The visibility on this dive was sublime, and the Caribbean reef sharks were friendly which made for a highly memorable dive despite my dive buddy running out of air towards the end! We finished off with a final immersion at the Aquarium where we were accompanied by a giant green moray for most of the dive.

Stressless Eco Tours

Snorkelling with Stressless Eco Tours

Our last day in Belize was spent with the Caye Caulker-based Stressless Eco Tours (https://www.stresslessecofriendlytours.com) enjoying a six-hour snorkelling smorgasbord where we got to sample all the best sites on the surrounding Belizean Barrier Reef. Caye Caulker Marine Reserve, Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley were the pick of our snorkelling stops. My two little boys were amazing snorkelers and loved every minute in the water, chalking up quality sightings of over 20 nurse sharks, stingrays, an eagle ray, loggerhead turtle, barracuda, horse-eyed jacks, groupers and even a West Indian manatee!

The world renowned Blue Hole in the Belizean barrier reef

The world renowned Blue Hole dive site in the Belizean barrier reef

Grumeti Camping, Chem Chem and Zanzibar, Tanzania – May & June 2018

Sunday morning runs with the boys on their bikes enjoying the wide-open Serengeti plains

Sunday morning runs with the boys on their bikes enjoying the wide-open plains of western Serengeti

Even though we live inside the game reserve, it is important we take the time to get out with our children and go camping inside the protected area. At four and two years of age, camping is one of Charlie and Ollie’s favourite things to do. We have the option of a rustic tented camp called Bangwezi in Ikorongo – a beautifully remote part of the concession – as well as a couple of great wild campsites on the banks of the Grumeti River.

Swimming and camping next to the Grumeti River

Swimming and camping next to the Grumeti River

Wild camping on a sandy beach next to the Grumeti is everyone’s absolute best. We typically drive out mid-afternoon, arriving at the river in time to go swimming on a shallow sandbar before lighting a fire and setting up our tents. After an active afternoon of swimming and playing in the river, a braai really hits the spot with the grand finale being cooking marshmallows over the fire. It doesn’t take long for the boys to collapse into bed in the tent, leaving the adults to sit around the fire chatting and enjoying a civilized beer. It is at this time of night that the Serengeti really comes to life. And it isn’t uncommon to hear hyena, lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo in and around the camp at night!

Chem Chem game drive

Elephants are a big hit on Chem Chem game drives

It is not just the western Serengeti that we endeavour to make a point of exploring, whenever we get a rare opportunity in amongst the busy Singita Grumeti Fund (www.singitagrumetifund.org) conservation projects, we try to take a gap and escape for a few days to recharge the batteries. The opportunity to return to Chem Chem in June. Situated between Tarangire and Manyara, Chem Chem is a special place and conservation project on the up. I had some meetings and discussions scheduled with the enthusiastic local conservation manager, and the Chem Chem folks generously invited Katherine and me to bring our boys along to test out the new exclusive-use Chem Chem Forest Camp (www.chemchemsafari.com/article/announcing-forest-chem-chem) as part of their soft opening. My mom joined us to take care of the kids during our meetings and it proved a winning formula for everyone involved!

Forest Chem Chem lounge and dining area

Forest Chem Chem lounge and indoor dining area

Nestled in a pocket of fever trees next to the Tarangire River with two vintage tents and one four-person family tent, the beautifully appointed camp sleeps up to six adults and two children. Inspired by fever trees in blossom, the design and feel of Forest Chem Chem is resplendent with hues of soft yellow, gentle grey and rich black. Designed to bring people together whether sitting around a giant outdoor wooden table or crackling campfire, exclusive Forest Chem Chem provides is a luxurious bush camp in the heart of Tanzania. With its understated luxury, delicious food and privacy, this is the ideal place for families and friends to reconnect with the nature, with each other and with themselves.

Eating on the beach with sand between your toes

Dinner on the beach with sand between your toes

Leaving the giant tuskers of Chem Chem behind, we flew across to Pongwe Beach (http://pongwe.com) on the east coast of Zanzibar. The beachfront rooms of Pongwe Beach Hotel are situated on a picture-perfect private beach with white powdery sands, turquoise waters and shady palm trees. In stark contrast to the rest of the frenetic island, Pongwe Beach is one of Zanzibar’s most relaxing hotels with a stress-free environment in a stunning location. A beautiful infinity pool means swimming sessions can alternate between the azure Indian Ocean waters and the wave-free swimming pool. The food is also outstanding and the menu child-friendly. All in all, the place is great.

Quality family time at Pongwe Beach

Quality family time at Pongwe Beach

It is very seldom that I return somewhere I have travelled before… The world seems too big and has too much new to offer for me to be revisiting places I have already seen and experienced. There is also that nagging suspicion in the back of my mind saying ‘what if the place doesn’t live up to my last visit or meet my expectations?’

So perhaps the greatest accolade I can pay the friendly, laid back Pongwe Beach Hotel is that we enjoyed our second stay here even more than our Christmas visit 18 months ago!

The magical infinity pool at Pongwe Beach Hotel

The magical infinity pool at Pongwe Beach Hotel on the east coast of Zanzibar

Island luxury and Singita, Seychelles & South Africa – April & May 2018

Seychelles swimming

Seychelles swimming at the World’s Best Beach – Anse Victorin – on Fregate Island

The Seychelles is the kind of island paradise that you simply can’t get enough of. So in April, I took my family along on my fourth visit to these tranquil Indian Ocean islands. This time around we opted for three weeks split between the islands of Desroches, Fregate and Mahé.

Desroches Island from the air

Desroches Island viewed from the air

Quiet Desroches Island or Île Desroches (www.desrochesislands.com) is the main island of the Amirante group and classified part of the Outer Islands of the Seychelles. This flat coral island is located 227 km southwest of Victoria: the capital city on Mahé island. The island is 5.5 km long and has 13 km of fine sand beaches hugging its entire coastline. A well-developed network of paths and tracks is perfect for early morning runs or leisurely bicycle rides where dodging giant tortoises and fallen coconuts is the order of the day!

The beach on the west coast of Île Desroches

The beach on the west coast of Île Desroches

We were fortunate to be guests of the Seychelles Island Development Corporation (IDC) who arranged all the logistics for our visit to Desroches Island where we stayed in the comfortable IDC guesthouse in the west of the island alongside the prime swimming beach. The only other accommodation option on the island is the luxurious Four Seasons resort and villas in the south.

After spending some quality beach time on Desroches, we flew back to Mahé and met our boat transfer across to the idyllic Fregate. Six-star Fregate Island Private (https://www.fregate.com) is the ultimate escape from reality. Arriving at this old pirate hangout, you disappear from the world at large leaving every stress and worry behind.

Fregate beaches rival the very best in the world

Fregate’s beaches rival the very best in the world

Fregate is a quite indescribably beautiful island retreat and valuable conservation sanctuary surrounded by warm, marine-rich sapphire seas. With just 16 secluded villas set amidst three square kilometres of pristine tropical island nature and boasting seven beaches, including the world renowned Anse Victorin, this is a very special island. Top of a long list of prime attractions sits Anse Victorin: undoubtedly the most beautiful beach on Frégate Island and in all of the Seychelles. The fact it has been awarded the prestigious accolade of ‘best beach in the world’ more than once supports this bold and audacious claim!

Electric golf carts allow guests to explore

Electric golf carts allow guests to explore at their leisure

Fregate exudes carefree luxury in harmony with our precious environment. Luxurious cliff-top villas secluded in lush foliage merge seamlessly with the spectacular surrounding scenery, while alluring infinity pools spill into the blue horizon. This is an island paradise that invites guests to immerse body and mind in nature’s beauty. It is also an idyllic playground for young children… We drive ourselves around the island in golf carts, detouring around giant, lumbering tortoises and stopping to explore all the island’s beaches. The warm, calm water is oh so inviting and our boys (two and four years old) can’t get enough of it and learn to swim during our visit. We dine on the beach at night and take lunch in a high tree house surrounded by birds. We go in search pirates treasure and I get to scuba dive with sharks and manta rays. Fregate is truly a heavenly experience.

Perhaps National Geographic put it best when they described the island as “part tropical paradise, part wild isle – a place where brochure-worthy beaches are inhabited by creatures seemingly plucked from the Galápagos.”

Anse Intendance in the southwest of Mahé

Anse Intendance in the southwest of Mahé

We very reluctantly left Fregate after six wonderful days immersed in this island paradise and make our way back to Mahé where we meet up with my sister and her boyfriend at Chalets d’Anse Forbans (www.forbans.com). The place was great; the surly, rule-obsessed management less so. Nonetheless the comfortable four-bed, self-catering family beach bungalow proved perfect for our crew and made for an ideal base from which to enjoy Anse Intendance (www.seychelles.org/beaches/anse-intendance) – Mahé’s number one beach – that was just a short five minute drive away. We visited this spectacular beach every day with swimming, sand castles and sun tanning soon becoming a daily ritual and tried-and-tested recipe for all-round enjoyment.

Seychelles sundowners

The ladies providing some sundowner entertainment

Our final week in the Seychelles was spent with family staying at the Sables d’Or luxury apartments (www.sables-dor.sc) on Beau Vallon Beach in the northwest of Mahé. These sophisticated and stylish apartments right on the beach are a great place and perfect for extended families.

Relaxed beach days spent swimming and catching up were interspersed with long beach runs and a fabulous boat trip around the north of the island to the Sainte Anne Marine National park where we could explore, snorkel, swim and enjoy a picnic barbeque on the beach.

After three idyllic weeks of amazing accommodations, postcard-perfect beaches, azure ocean swimming, scintillating scuba diving and quality family time, it was a sad day when we had to bid farewell to our island paradise and board the flight back to reality. But I know it won’t be long until we return again.

The luxurious villas perched high on Fregate Island Private

The luxurious guest villas hanging over the ocean atop Fregate Island Private

 

Singita Kruger National Park and Singita Sabi Sands – South Africa

Enjoying a riverside lunch at the new Sweni Lodge

Enjoying a riverside lunch at the new Sweni Lodge

In May, Katherine and I took our second trip to the Singita Lowveld properties of Lebombo and Sweni in the Kruger Park, along with Boulders and Castleton in the Sabi Sands. It was an all too brief visit to Singita’s SA lodges (https://singita.com), although we did get the opportunity to engage with a wide cross-section of Singita management and guiding staff.

We were there to raise awareness and share updates on the conservation and community work being done by the affiliated Singita Grumeti Fund (www.singitagrumetifund.org) in Tanzania. Like any complex organization spread across multiple countries and numerous protected areas, it is all too easy for people to get caught up in their own little bubble without being aware of the bigger picture and what is happening within the wider organization. We were there to engage the staff and ensure everyone had a better awareness of the bigger picture.

A suite at Singita Ebony Lodge

A guest suite at Singita Ebony Lodge

We managed a couple of rewarding game drives, especially in the wilder N’wanetsi concession in Kruger (where we has quality leopard and lion sightings in the same drive), devoured the imaginative and tasty food (as well as appreciating the vibey atmosphere) at Lebombo lodge, savoured a lunch to remember on the riverside deck at the recently refurbished Sweni lodge, and felt privileged to see so many rhino roaming the Sabi Sands.

Travellers choose to stay at Singita’s 12 award winning lodges spread across five distinct geographic regions, because of the expansive space and beauty of the reserves in which the company operates. Limited guest and vehicle numbers, extraordinarily consistent game viewing and the exceptional care that is taken of every guest during their transformative stay are the primary reasons for people returning to Singita time and again.

There is no denying that Singita is indeed ‘the place of miracles’ and undisputed standard setter in the African safari industry.

An exclusive Singita game drive in the world renowned Kruger National Park

An exclusive Singita game drive in the world renowned Kruger National Park

Agra and Kanha tiger safari, India – March 2018

Taj Mahal at sunrise

There are precious few manmade monuments that can rival the Taj Mahal’s magnificence and beauty

Touching down at the new international airport in New Delhi marked my first visit back to India since we left our home in Anand Lok seven years earlier. It was both strange and thrilling to back in the country where Katherine and I spent three years of our lives. While many of our expat friends had moved on and returned home to the UK, South Africa and Hong Kong, I was able to catch up with a few old friends and colleagues, including Vaibhav Kala – the owner of Aquaterra Adventures (https://www.aquaterra.in): the premier rafting and trekking operator in India.

Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra

Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra

I was in India with the Penry family with whom I had enjoyed a couple of great African safari adventures over the years. With only limited time at our disposal, this would be a whirlwind visit and, as such, we decided less was more and chose to focus on just two key destinations…

Our first stop was Agra. The new highway from Delhi is a revelation and has dramatically improved the travel experience and reduced the time required to drive between the two cities. After a painless journey, we checked into the opulent Oberoi Amarvilas (www.oberoihotels.com/hotels-in-agra-amarvilas-resort/). It is hard to do justice to this amazing hotel in a couple of sentences, but the fact it recently scooped the ‘Best Resort Hotel in India’ award in this year’s Travel & Leisure World’s Best Awards, should hint at what a special place this is to stay. The Mughal hotel enjoys an unrivalled position amongst luxury hotels in Agra, being located just 600 metres from the iconic Taj Mahal with every room enjoying uninterrupted views of this ancient monument to love.

Itmud-ud-daulah – often referred to as 'Baby Taj'

Itmud-ud-daulah – often referred to as ‘Baby Taj’

We started our sight seeing escapades at the tomb of Itmad-ud-daulah – more commonly known as the Baby Taj – that provides a great introduction to Agra’s cultural sites and monuments. It is an enduringly peaceful, white marble monument alongside the Yamuna River. An afternoon at the Baby Taj was followed by a trip to Mehtab Bagh – the 25 acre Mughal garden complex known as the Moonlight Garden. The garden lies directly across the river from the Taj Mahal and it provides spectacular views of the Taj at sunset, hinting at what lay ahead for us to enjoy the next morning.

The Penry family enjoying the Taj

The Penry family enjoying a visit to the Taj Mahal

My visit to the Taj the following day was my sixth visit to the ultimate monument to love. And I can honestly say that every time I step through the gate and behold the Taj, it is as impressive and as arresting in its beauty as the first time I saw it.

Both the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort have been deservedly been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and these are two unique places you will never tire of exploring or appreciating. We took our time and basked in the splendor of the memorial to love along with Agra’s nearby fort.

From Agra we retraced our steps to Delhi airport and flew to Raipur: the gateway to Kanha National Park – India’s foremost tiger reserve and a hotspot for Asiatic wildlife viewing. Five days on safari here would yield a diverse array of birds and wild animals. Notable sightings included dhole (the Indian wild dog), gaur (Indian bison), barasingha (the endemic swamp deer) and tigers!

Male tiger displaying flemhen

Distinctive grimace of a male tiger displaying flehmen

We chose Taj Safari’s flagship Banjaar Tola lodge (https://taj.tajhotels.com/en-in/banjaar-tola-kanha-national-park/) as our safari base. Built within 90 acres of privately owned Sal forest, the safari lodge is split into two nine room camps strung out along the banks of the Banjaar River and overlooking the heart of Kanha National Park. Each elegant camp boasts its own swimming pool with indoor and outdoor lounge areas and a variety of intimate dining spaces under the stars. The cuisine at the camp celebrates tribal flavours presented with all-time Indian favourites to titillate every palate.

Peacock in flight

Peacock in flight

Sadly, the luxury tented camp was looking a little tired and rundown compared to my previous visits shortly after the &Beyond (formerly Conservation Corporation Africa) and Taj Hotels joint venture launched nine years earlier. While the lodge and food were perfectly adequate, it was the enthusiastic head naturalist guide assigned to show us around Kanha that made our Kanha safari such a win. Nara Rangaswami is without doubt the best field guide I have ever had the pleasure of exploring the wild areas of India, and I would certainly wholeheartedly recommend him to anyone fortunate enough to be visiting Banjaar Tola on safari.

Indian wild dogs - locally known as dhole - hunting spotted deer at dawn

Indian wild dogs – locally known as dhole – hunting spotted deer as a pack at dawn

SGF exposure visit to Virunga National Park, DRC – Jan & Feb 2018

Congo Hounds

An afternoon out tracking with the ICCN Congo Hounds dog unit

In February 2018, the Singita Grumeti Fund senior management team embarked on our annual weeklong teambuilding excursion to the iconic Virunga National Park (www.virunganationalparkcongo.com) in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The Virunga National Park, formerly named Albert National Park, is a 7,800 km² national park that stretches from the Virunga Mountains in the south to the Rwenzori Mountains in the north. Located in the southeast of the country, close to the UN stronghold of Goma, Virunga is as scenically spectacular as it is cursed.

Old military hardware litters the roadside

Old military hardware litters the roadside

An estimated 130 guerrilla armies and rebel militias roam the forests in and around the protected area and wreck havoc and lawlessness upon this beleaguered national park. This renowned biodiversity hotspot has 800 well-trained and dedicated rangers to defend it, but they are up against an estimated 2,000 heavily armed guerrilla fighters. Sadly, it is the local people and wildlife that bear the brunt of this never-ending armed conflict and the on-going insurgency. Yet, somehow, through all the fighting, civil unrest, shifting insecurity and corruption, Virunga has managed to endure under the most challenging of circumstances.

Despite its unenviable location, Virunga is undoubtedly the DRC’s premier tourist drawcard. The magnificent national park offers a wide range of attractions, tourist activities and exciting conservation projects. We went to Virunga (https://visitvirunga.org) to immerse ourselves in everything on offer; and we wanted to learn from our conservation counterparts.

Chimp trekking

Chimp trekking success

While Virunga tourism focuses primarily on the multiple groups of habituated mountain gorillas within the park, we also hiked in search of semi-habituated chimpanzees, visited the Congo Hounds canine project, met the incredible women from the widows cooperative (over one hundred ranger wives have been widowed in the continuing conflict), had a special tour of the extraordinary Virunga hydroelectric program, and undertook the magnificent hike to the top of the active Nyiragongo volcano.

We started off basing ourselves at Rumangabo – the national park headquarters – where we stayed at beautiful Mikeno Lodge. This base afforded our team easy access to a detection and tracking demonstration by the Congo Hounds; the opportunity to go chimpanzee trekking; visit the Rumangabo gorilla orphanage, engage with the widows cooperative that ensures a sustainable income for the wives and families of deceased rangers; and the chance to take a full-day trip to see the unbelievably high tech and impressive Virunga hydroelectric operations.

From Mikeno, we made our way to Bukima Tented Camp: a rustic, mid-range camp that used to be the exclusive domain of gorilla researches. While it lacks the class and refinement of Mikeno, it is ideally situated for gorilla trekking excursions and exploratory hikes into the local lava tunnels.

Mountain gorillas

Mountain gorillas up close

Setting off early, a solid uphill forest hike culminated in our trackers locating the gorilla group and we enjoyed an amazing hour sat amongst a family of our close relatives watching them feed, groom, fight, play and dose. They interacted as if we weren’t even there; only a few of the youngsters showed interest in tormenting and playing with us: undoing shoe laces and sneaking up behind people to give them a fright. They were so human in their behaviour and interactions and it was an hour that will never be forgotten.

We then headed to the recently opened Kibumba Tented Camp where we could enjoy a night-time view of the fiery glow emanating from Nyarigongo Volcano and the goal for our next adventure. Next day we drove to the trailhead and collected our guides, porters and rangers for the long uphill slog to the ultra-basic A-frame Nyiragongo summit shelters. The five-hour trek to the top is tough and rewarding in equal measure. The volcano trekking experience and overnighting on the crater rim above an angry, molten lava lake rivals gorilla trekking for the accolade of ‘ultimate African safari bucket list experience’.

Virunga NP 138

The SGF senior team celebrating atop Nyiragongo

Sitting on the crater rim with legs dangling over the edge and staring down into the explosive lava lake inside the crater cauldren was an experience like nothing I’d ever witnessed before. Perched atop an active volcano high above the city of Goma watching the lava swirl, boil and bubble below with plumes of smoke and steam rising high into the night sky was a mesmerizing and hypnotic experience. I sat there long after the icy wind had driven everyone else to bed and it was only with great reluctance that I eventually tore myself away and retreated to the shelter for some rest.

The SGF senior management team

On safari in off-the-beaten-track Virunga

Descending from Nyiragongo the next day, we made our way back to Goma and the lake where a boat was on standby to whisk us away to Tchegera Island Camp for some well-deserved R&R. The time at Tchegera also gave us an opportunity to reflect on an incredible visit to Africa’s most diverse, hauntingly beautiful and undiscovered safari gem – Virunga.

Unfortunately, on 11th May 2018 – just a couple of months after our visit – a Virunga tourism vehicle was ambushed, a ranger was killed in the contact, and two British tourists were abducted for ransom. Although they were later released, along with their injured driver, Emmanuel de Merode, Chief Warden of Virunga National Park, made the difficult decision to shut down all tourism operations for the remainder of 2018 to enable the ICCN team to audit and improve their security protocols and procedures. I sincerely hope that the park will be open for business again soon, because it offers one of the most genuine, varied and spectacular safari experiences in all of Africa.

Nyirigongo Volcano lava lake

Fires flare, molten magma shoots skyward and steam hisses from the boiling Nyiragongo lava lake

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

 

The Northern Circuit – Ethiopia

Lalibella

Church of Saint George

After three weeks of sea, sunshine, snorkelling and sublime beaches in the Philippines, it was time to mix things up with some culture! Our flight routing between Tanzania and the Philippines took us via Addis Ababa, so we decided to spend ten days exploring Lalibela, Gondar and the Simien Mountains in northern Ethiopia. It was a big ask for our little boys, but they adjusted really well despite being outside their comfort zone with unfamiliar food, questionable hygiene, cooler temperatures in the mountains, and visiting cultural and religious sites that often necessitated they be quiet and respectful.

In Lalibela, we stayed at the curiously-named Top Twelve Hotel (http://www.toptwelvehotel.com) with a convenient location that was within easy striking distance of the many rock-hewn churches for which the Lalibela region is known. With the on-going political strife in Ethiopia there were few tourists and we had the whole place almost to ourselves as we explored the impressive rock churches cut into the mountainside or chiselled from solid granite underground.

Castles of Gondar

Castles of Gondar

From Lalibela, we made our way to the ancient royal city of Gondar and Lodge de Chateau (http://www.lodgeduchateau.com). It was a clean and basic place to stay, but it had a wonderful upstairs restaurant and was located right up against the old city wall, meaning that it was within easy walking distance of the castles. Exploring the old castles and fortifications of Gondar was great fun and also afforded the boys the opportunity to run around and burn off some energy. But, by the end of the final castle tour, little Ollie (all of two years old) turned to his mom and politely said, “No more castles mom, OK?”

Aside from its diverse array of cultural and religious tourist experiences, Ethiopia is home to some unique wildlife, including a number of endemic species as well as prolific birdlife with 861 species recorded. So the final stop of our Northern Ethiopia exploration was the spectacular cliff-top Limalimo Lodge (http://limalimolodge.com) on the edge of the Simien Mountains National Park (https://simienpark.org).

Dominant male Gelada monkey displaying

Dominant male Gelada monkey displaying

Situated 100 kilometres north of Gondar on the eastern side of the Axum road, the Simien Mountains are one of Africa’s largest mountain ranges sporting at least a dozen peaks above the 4,000m mark. Frequently referred to as the Grand Canyon of Africa, the Simien Mountains were deservedly declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the area’s extreme natural beauty, jaw-dropping escarpment vistas, alpine meadows and unique indigenous wildlife. Hemmed in by villages and farms on every side, three endemic Ethiopian mammals survive within this highly pressured protected area: the gelada monkey, Walia ibex and Ethiopian wolf.

Trekking in the Simien Mountains is spectacular with arresting views around every bend in the trail. The park is also home to Ras Dejen – the highest mountain in Ethiopia and the fourth-highest peak in Africa at 4,533 meters. With limited time and small children in tow, I chose to focus my mountain climbing attention on Ras Bwahit – the second highest massif in the Simien Mountains at 4,430m.

Climbing Ras Bawit with Chennek below

Climbing Ras Bwahit with Chennek below

We left our vehicle at Chennek and initially found ourselves climbing through grasslands peppered with giant lobelia where large troops of Gelada monkeys were a common sight; we even glimpsed Ethiopian wolves out foraging at sunrise in this area. Later, the vegetation rapidly gave way to a more windswept alpine type landscape dominated by rock and ice, but the views and picnic on top were worth every lung-busting step to get there!

Whether on a short half-day hike, or multi-day trekking adventure, exploring the Simien Mountains is best done on foot. But be prepared for some energy sapping ascents, undulating plateaus traverses amidst groves of giant lobelias, and staggering escarpment views… Imagine sheer rocky cliffs, plunging waterfalls (such as the exquisite Jinbar waterfall) and rocky towers rising from the forested valleys below.

The stunning views and spectacular trails of the Simien Mountains, combined with the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, impressive castles of Gondar, otherworldly Danakil Depression, and a night-time odyssey to meet the hyena men of Harar should also feature high on the bucket list of every adventurous African explorer.

Gelada monkey surveys the Simien Mountains National Park from atop the escarpment

Gelada monkey enjoying the first rays of morning sunshine from atop the Simien escarpment

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

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