Ladakh Floods & Climbing Mountains, India – August 2010

Two days before I was supposed to depart for Leh and an expedition through the Grand Canyon of Asia on the Zanskar River, disaster struck Ladakh.  The torrential rain that had uprooted millions across Pakistan spilled over the border into northern India.  Massive thunderstorms and heavy rain triggered flash floods across Ladakh.  Villages were washed away, landslides blocked roads, bridges were destroyed and hundreds of lives were lost.  The runway was even submerged and all flights into Leh were cancelled.  Aquaterra Adventures was forced to take the extreme decision to abandon our river trip as tour operators and travel agents across India scrambled to cancel their Ladakh departures and expeditions.

A week later the situation in Leh had stabilised, a massive relief effort was underway and I climbed aboard my Kingfisher Airways flight to check out the situation on the ground for myself.  Vehicles wedged inside building, massive boulders and collapsed buildings provided irrefutable evidence of the scale and ferocity of the water by the time it reached the downtown areas of the city.  Higher up in the tourist zone, there were virtually no signs of the calamity that had ravaged the city just a week earlier and the Ladakhi people were unanimously happy to see the few tourists who had stuck with their holiday plans to visit Ladakh.  The words of a local shopkeeper summed up the viewpoint of locals in the face of the terrible situation that had befallen them: “We all survive off the tourists.  Visitors come here and spend money and that is what sustains us during the long cold winter.  Now everyone is staying away because of the flood and we don’t know what we will do.”  I estimated that tourist numbers had plummeted to 20% of what they were in August last year.  The bottom line is that people who cancelled their visits out of respect for the Ladakhi people, not wanting to burden them during a difficult time, were actually exacerbating the problem and perpetuating their woes.  Now is the time to go to Ladakh and by spending your money up there, you can really  help the locals get back on their feet.

After a couple of days acclimatising and exploring monasteries, we headed for Zingchen and the start of our trek.  During the course of the following days we crossed the Stok La pass at 4890 metres before making our way to Stok Kangri Base Camp.  The campsite had a picturesque setting on a high altitude meadow next to a stream in the shadow of towering snowy peaks.  This was our base for the next four days as we adjusted to the challenges of walking and climbing at altitude.  During these ‘rest days’, we practiced walking in snow shoes with crampons and tested our climbing equipment on the Stok glacier above camp.  It was necessary preparation for the summit bid that lay ahead.

On Friday the 20th of August at 10pm we set off from camp on what would prove to be a 14 hour round trip slog to the summit.  We reached the foot of the glacier at midnight and stopped to attach crampons and rope up for the journey across the ice.  Under the expert guidance of two seasoned Stok Kangri climbers our group of four intrepid amateurs concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and not falling onto any of the crevasses.  It was hard work as long snow sections were interspersed with tricky obstacles of slippery ice and exposed rock.  Throughout the night we continued climbing upwards in the dim glow of our headlamps.  Just before dawn we reached an exposed ridge with steep drops on either side that demanded a careful traverse.  A final push over treacherous rocky outcrops and deep snow carried us onto the 6,153 metre summit.  Our celebrations on reaching the peak were anything but raucous as everyone collapsed exhausted and it took real effort just to gather the tired troops for a victorious summit photo before we retreated to a more hospitable altitude.  After a half hour on the top of Kanglacha, we turned and retraced our steps towards home.  Descending in the daylight we enjoyed spectacular views down onto the glacier bowl and noticed that our route descended between the debris of two recent avalanches!  Climbing Stok Kangri was a seriously exhilarating and exhausting adventure.

Finally, on the subject of my Indian admin woes… After six weeks of trying I still don’t have approval for opening a bank account, but at least I am legal.  Thankfully my visa extension finally went through on the 25th of August allowing me to remain in India until the end of January 2011.  An Indian friend recently told me that India is officially rated the sixth most difficult country in the world for foreigners to conduct business in… I have no plans to try and track down any of the top five!

Monsoons & Bureaucracy, India – July 2010

July has been an extremely hot, humid and frustrating month in India.  Faced with a growing list of commissioned stories to write and with deadlines looming, there was no option but to put the travels on hold and get writing.  Unfortunately, the spectacularly frustrating and tediously slow bureaucracy of India has tried its utmost to thwart my best efforts at productivity and efficiency.

Trying to open a bank account and extend my Indian visa have drained Katherine and me of all our reserves of patience, persistence and politeness.  As the month draws to a close, we have devoted many long days to the Ministry of Home Affairs and FRRO, but I still do not have my new visa (police verification of information still pending) and, after seven visits to the bank and sacrificing a small forest for all the paperwork we’ve had to submit, our bank account has yet to be approved.  Amongst the many reasons given by Standard & Chartered for refusing to open the account, was that my signature didn’t seem authentic enough for them!  India certainly seems to be trying its hardest to wear us down and this is compounded by the unrelenting heat and humidity of the monsoon season, which refuses to abate.  This has not been our happiest month in India to date.

The good news is that (provided my visa gets approved this week) I will be headed to Ladakh and the Himalayas for 3 weeks in August.  Having recently agreed with a publisher and sponsor the terms for my book India Whitewater, I will be collecting more photographic material and experiences on an expedition down the Zanskar River and through the Grand Canyon of Asia.  After that trip I will join a friend, Ben Sheppard, for a climbing adventure as we tackle the 6,153 metre peak of Stok Kangri in the Indian Himalaya.  So, fingers crossed, I’ll be headed to Ladakh at the end of the week.

Otherwise, the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about… I’ll be given 36 hours to leave the country and will be back in South Africa before the end of next week. Lets just hope that the Gods of Indian bureaucracy decide to be a little more friendly during August and deign to let me to stay and explore some of the great rivers and wilderness areas of the spectacularly wild and beautiful Indian Himalaya.

African Success Stories, Rwanda & Zambia – June 2010

During June I was privileged to travel to two of Africa’s most exciting conservation projects: Akagera National Park in Rwanda and Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia.  These previously neglected reserves form part of African Parks Network’s (APN) portfolio of privately managed conservation areas across the Africa continent.  APN have pioneered an innovative approach to conservation with a park management model that combines sound conservation practices with solid business principles.  They only enter into management agreements for neglected conservation areas at the request of sovereign governments and in partnership with local communities and wildlife authorities.  Their management style is hands on and long-term with the goal of slowly building capacity and sustainability over time.  The end result is that neglected and abused chunks of wilderness are effectively rehabilitated into fully functioning ecosystems capable of sustaining themselves long after African Parks have pulled out.

After 36 hours of flight delays courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines, I finally arrived in Kigali and made my way east to Akagera National park on the Tanzanian border.  Akagera is the newest addition to APN’s portfolio of parks and the project is still in its infancy, yet there is an undeniable feeling that the tide has turned and the park is looking forward to a bright and exciting future.  New vehicles, uniforms and infrastructure development have raised morale, while training and capacity building are underway to mould an effective team capable of propelling Akagera onto the tourism map as a must-visit East African safari destination.  Under the direction of Bryan Havemann, the project looks to have made impressive headway in its first few months of operation.  A great accolade to the new team’s tireless efforts was being asked by the incumbents to please not work so hard!  A sure sign that things have changed for the better.

The park is made up of an incredible diversity of habitats from rolling hills and open grasslands to lakes, wetlands and woodlands.  The Kilala Plains in the north of the park still boast sizable herds of game with good numbers of topi, bohor reedbuck, zebra, buffalo and defassa waterbuck, as well as giraffe and eland.  Sightings of elephants near the lake shore and rare roan antelope in the surrounding hills, not to mention an incredible array of 525 bird species within its 110,100 ha, means that Akagera has the potential to rapidly bounce back from decades of heavy poaching and neglect.  With the committed support of the Rwandan Development Board (RDB) and the resources and expertise of APN, there is little doubt that Akagera will soon realise its massive potential and emerge as a successfully rehabilitated and fully-functional conservation area.

My next stop was Liuwa Plain National Park in western Zambia; a park that already stands out as a rare African success story.  In 2004 APN partnered with the local Lozi people and the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) to take over managerial responsibility for Liuwa.  During the last six years poaching has all but been eradicated from the park and animal numbers have swelled.  This is best illustrated by considering that the number of migrating wildebeest has more than doubled to over 40,000 during the last five years.  Liuwa is home to Africa’s second largest wildebeest migration, but boasts considerably better birdlife than the Mara or Serengeti can offer.  Predators abound.  Huge clans of hyaenas dominate the open plains, while wild dog packs and cheetah have returned to roam the grasslands in search of their favoured oribi and steenbok prey.  However, Lady Liuwa, the much publicised ‘last lioness in Liuwa’, inevitably steals the show.  After many years of solitude, this fine ambassador for Liuwa was recently joined by two majestic male lions from Kafue and it is hoped that cubs will once again stalk the plain before the year is out.

In the space 48 hours, accompanied by Craig Reid the Liuwa park manager, I witnessed some of the most amazing wildlife viewing of my entire career.  We watched lions stalk wildebeest, three wild dog kills (including one scrub hare chase viewed ‘Planet Earth style’ from the air in a microlight), hyaena-wild dog wars over the carcasses and all of this under a full moon on the wide desolately beautiful plains of Liuwa.  It has been my privilege to visit hundreds of parks through out Africa and indeed the world, so when I say Liuwa is in my top three parks worldwide,  I genuinely mean that this is a very special place and one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories.

Adventures in Darkest Africa, Congo & Zambia – May 2010

It took me a little while to get back into the swing of things after all the fun and festivities that dominated April.  However, there was no easing my way back into things and I hit the ground running with a three-week trip to Zambia and the DRC.  My assignment was to collect information and photographic material to document and publicise the good work that African Parks Network (APN) are doing to restore and manage some of Africa’s most valuable and neglected wilderness areas.

My first stop was the Bangweulu Wetlands where an old friend, Ian Stevenson, is managing a community conservation project to sustainably protect these valuable swamps in conjunction with the local fishing communities.  Bangweulu is Zambia’s Okavango Delta: a totally undeveloped and neglected chunk of watery wilderness.  The birdlife is spectacular and includes reliable sightings of the enigmatic shoebill.  Wildlife numbers have been depleted, although we still saw countless herds of endemic black lechwe (estimated to number in the tens of thousands), along with zebra, buffalo, elephant and hyaena!  While working with the communities can be challenging and the decision-making process can be excruciatingly slow at times, the wetlands undoubtedly have incredible potential and should take off as a unique Zambian safari destination in the near future.

After my week in northern Zambia, I travelled via Nairobi to Uganda driving from Entebbe diagonally across the country to Arua and across the border to Aru in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  An APN light aircraft with a crazy French pilot, Stephan, met me for the 50-minute flight into Garamba in the northeastern DRC.  Garamba is a World Heritage Site and one of the oldest national parks in Africa.  It is unique in that it is a rare savanna ecosystem hemmed in by the rain forests of Central Africa.  The result is a reserve characterised by vastly differing habitats and an incredible diversity of species.

Garamba was also the last stronghold of the critically endangered northern white rhino.  However, with no sighting since 2007, the rhino has almost certainly been relegated to the pages of history by Congolese and Sudanese poachers armed with automatic weapons.  The tyrannical Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) retreated into the Congo and set up their headquarters in Garamba in 2005 ensuring that there was no respite for the beleaguered wildlife sanctuary.  Not surprisingly, the worst poachers of all are the undisciplined soldiers that constitute the rag-tag FRDC (Congolese army), which is supposedly in Garamba to fight the LRA.

While rhino have been slaughtered into extinction, the elephant population that numbered over 40,000 in the 1960s has been blasted to 3,500 in less than fifty years!  There is no denying that Garamba has been ravaged by poachers; however, the park’s wildlife is stubbornly hanging on.  When I drove through and flew over Garamba, I saw huge herds of buffalo, elephant, hartebeest, kob, defassa waterbuck and hippo, along with even more spectacular sightings of rare Congolese giraffe, regal lions and an excited clan of hyaena noisily devouring a hippo carcass!

Although Garamba is undoubtedly one of the most difficult, logistically challenging and volatile parks in Africa, APN (somewhat surprisingly) agreed to come in and manage the desperate park.   They opened a new tourist lodge in the park this month providing an incentive to dedicated visitors who take the plunge and embark on the adventurous trek into wildest Africa.  Garamba is one of Africa’s greatest wilderness areas, so, with the demise of the LRA and the dedication of APN, lets hope that it can finally embark on the long-awaited road to recovery.

After spending ten days delving into the history, challenges and quagmire that constitute Garamba, I bid farewell to the park and its dedicated APN team and headed for South Africa.  Knee surgery fixed a 16-month old running-induced ITB injury before I boarded a plane and returned to the brutally hot temperatures of pre-monsoon India where I was reunited with my very understanding wife!

Next month I will be back in Africa when I travel on an assignment to cover Akagera National Park in Rwanda and a carnivore research project in Zambia’s Liuwa Plain National Park.  However, before I return to the wilds of Africa, it’s time to do some long-overdue work and get cracking on a growing list of magazine articles with looming deadlines.

Back to Africa, South Africa & Mozambique – April 2010

April was a truly memorable month jam-packed with weddings, travels and quality time catching up with friends and family.  There have been so many exciting experiences and great moments during the course of this month that it’s really difficult to do them all justice in this short blog, but I’ll give it a try…

The month kicked off with my sister Carolyn marrying Jean Marc Gaudin at Suikerbossie Restaurant in Cape Town.  A memorable evening of drinking and dancing provided an excellent catalyst for bringing our extended family back together from their various far-flung corners of the world.  The nerve-wracking job of being MC aside, it proved to be a very happy and fun-filled evening.

The following day I flew up to Johannesburg and travelled on to Mozambique for another wedding.  A good friend from Stellenbosch University, Garth Kingwill, was getting married in Tofu Mozambique.  We managed to squeeze in some superb diving with whale sharks and manta rays, but, in essence, Mozambique turned into a weeklong bachelor party with all our old Hombre Koshuis friends.  The week culminated in a rip-roaring wedding celebration that spilled out onto the beach in the early hours of the morning.  A superb reunion with old uni friends that we’ll all remember forever.

Upon my return from Mozambique, I managed to squeeze in one day of work in Joburg and had two very productive meetings with African Parks Network and &Beyond (formerly CCAfrica) before rushing back to Cape town to meet all of our American family who had just arrived on their first two-week holiday to visit darkest Africa!

The next two weeks were planned as a non-stop South African extravaganza aimed at providing all the visiting family with the quintessential South African experience.  The trip kicked off with five days in a house on Llandudno beach that provided the ideal base from which to explore Cape Town, climb Table Mountain, visit Robben Island and take a tour of the townships.  The next stop was luxurious Burgundy Bourgogne in Franchhoek for fine dining, wine tasting and Katherine and my South African wedding celebration at Cathbert Country Inn (www.cathbert.co.za).  After a short blessing ceremony amongst the vines, we enjoyed a fun-filled afternoon surrounded by all our closest friends and family.  The beautiful location, amazing food, great wine, good music and perfect weather resulted in a ‘garden party’ that lasted twelve hours!

A quiet Sunday allowed some recovery time before we headed for the game reserves and four days of outstanding game viewing in Addo Elephant National Park.  Memorable wildlife viewing included hundreds of elephants, along with a good hyaena sighting and lions feeding on a kudu!  With plenty of boerewors (farmer’s sausage) on the braai (barbeque) every night, this really was proving to be the ultimate South African experience for all the visitors.  After a last few days spent on the canals at Saint Francis it was time for all the family members to dodge the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud and take a long flight back to the USA bringing down the curtain on a thoroughly enjoyable and action-packed South African extravaganza!

Katherine and I flew from the Eastern Cape to the Lowveld where we joined two of my oldest friends for another week in the African bush.  We were treated to a very relaxing and indulgent holiday in the northern Sabi Sands Game Reserve.  In between all the beers and good food we saw great wildlife, including more leopards than you could poke a stick at…  Wow, wow, wow!  However, above all else, our time at Cruise Camp provided a great opportunity to catch up with friends, reflect on the last month and process a long list of back-to-back experiences that will, over time, become those special memories that last a lifetime.

In summation April has been an insanely enjoyable and action-packed month of weddings and travels with great friends and family.  I got married for the second time in less than a year (but to the same lovely lady!) and I managed to squeeze in just one day of work this month, which in itself tells the story of just how much fun its been…

Ranthambhore and the Ganga, India – March 2010

March delivered some spectacular wildlife viewing during two separate trips to Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan. Asia’s iconic cats treated me to a couple of superb sightings early in the month.  The first was a 2.5 hour sighting of a big male tiger on a territorial patrol through zone 4 of the park.  After marking his territory, he stopped to rest and scared some spotted deer half to death when they unknowingly grazed a little to close to him.  After taking an hours ‘cat nap’, he headed off again in search of some Sambar deer near one of the perennial waterholes.  Unfortunately, a setting sun robbed us of the chance to see him in action as he slowly stalked towards the unsuspecting deer.

A few days later, on a morning excursion in picturesque zone 3 of the park, I experienced my best game drive in India to date.  A well known tigress T17 (AKA ‘The Lady of the Lake’) was hunting and we were fortunate enough to witness her multiple attempts and stalking manoeuvres before she got lucky.

Fortune favoured us as we sat watching a herd of spotted deer grazing the green grass along the shore of Raj Bagh Lake.  A cacophony of tiger-induced distress erupted from the deer as the feline burst out of the forest at full tilt. However, somehow the chital managed to evade her best efforts and escaped. The tigress turned and retreated into the ruins of an old hunting palace before emerging out the other side to cross a thin strip of land cutting through the middle of the lake.  It was a spectacular sight to see her crossing shortly after sunrise with her reflection mirrored in the glassy lake.  After stopping for a noisy drink and rest in the water, she detoured to Padam Talau Lake where she spotted another unwary herd of spotted deer grazing along the lake shore. She bided her time until two rutting males engaged each other in a fight, then she charged.  Bursting out of the aptly named ‘tiger grass’ she was at full speed by the time the chital became aware of her.  The distracted male deer never stood a chance.  She barreled into one of them knocking him down and going straight for the throat.  Five minutes later his legs stopped flaying and peace once again descended on the scene as the tigress retreated back into the grass with her prize to feed.  What a sighting…

After enjoying such superb tiger sightings I doubted that anything could eclipse these great experiences.  However, as we raced for the gate one evening a pair of mating leopards tried their best to steal the honours for ‘the most spectacular sighting of the trip’.  Later in the month we spent over an hour with a big male leopard in zone 1 as he tried to escape the incessant alarm calls of some perplexed langur monkeys and sambar deer that shadowed his every move.  He was a brute of a leopard with a huge dew lap hanging from his neck and he walked with the swagger of a cat that knows he owns the place!

It wasn’t only tigers and leopards that entertained me royally while I explored Ranthambhore.  Khem Villas provided a luxurious and friendly base offering a pristine nature experience on the fringe of the park.  Extremely friendly staff, delicious food, beautiful cottages overlooking small lakes with a rich birdlife kept Katherine and me suitably entertained outside of game drive hours.  This lodge comes highly recommended for anyone fortunate enough to visit Rajasthan’s most famous wildlife sanctuary. Those with budgetary constraints should opt for the Ranthambhore Bagh, which is a great mid-range option.  Dicky Singh is the owner and a keen wildlife photographer.  His excellent images adorn the walls of the hotel ensuring that you will ‘see’ plenty of tigers as you dine!

I managed to fit in one more trip up to the Ganges River before the rafting season draws to a close next month.  A friend, Rory Pryde, was visiting from Australia and he joined Katherine, me and a couple of Delhi mates for a fun weekend of wild white-water just outside of Rishikesh.  The weekend culminated with us running The Wall – a grade 4+ rapid – in a little two-man inflatable ‘ducky’.  We surfed a big hole towards the end of a long stretch of white-water before getting cleaned up and washing out the bottom of the rapid.  Rory’s saucer-sized eyes greeted me when I popped up downstream and, after we realised we had survived, it was high fives all around!

As I look ahead to April, Katherine and I will be heading home for 5 weeks of ‘home leave’ to enjoy the ‘wedding season’ in South Africa.  My sister gets married over the Easter weekend, then a good University friend, Garth Kingwill, gets married the following weekend in Mozambique and, finally, Katherine and I will be having a South African wedding celebration for all our friends and family that couldn’t make it over to Minnesota last year.  So next month will see us enjoying a change of scenery back in Africa and a much-anticipated holiday back home to catch up with friends and family.  Watch this space for further details on this next adventure…

Jodhpur, Corbett and the Ganga, India – February 2010

I spent the first half of February in Delhi catching up on a backlog of work and chasing multiple article deadlines.  Katherine and I did manage to take a long weekend over Valentines Day and escaped to Jodhpur in Rajasthan.  It was our first visit to Blue City and we deliberately coincided our trip with the opening of our good friend Dickie McCallum’s latest Flying Fox zip line tour.  The Flying Fox course in Jodhpur took us on an epic flight over the battlements of Mehrangarh Fort as we clipped onto six separate cables for an aerial view of the fort that is hard to beat.  What a great experience!

The end of February saw me travel up to Corbett National Park on behalf of Leisure Hotels.  I spent a fantastic week staying in their Corbett Hideaway and Hideaway River Lodges in the Himalayan foothills.  The River Lodge is the only camp to be situated inside the park with an enviable location on the picturesque Ramganga River in the reserve’s northern zone; it was a real treat to spend 5 days in this wilderness paradise.  Although I was up there to collect material for Leisure Hotels’ promotional photo essays, I had plenty of fun and great game viewing in the process.  Wild elephants strolling across the grassy plains, a rare leopard cat feeding on a Langur monkey and a beautiful tigress on the hunt one evening where especially memorable sightings, especially when the tiger started growlling at some Sambar deer that where sounding the alarm and warning other animals of her presence!  Corbett is a stunningly beautiful reserve and the wildlife viewing is definitely under-rated.  I hope to return again next season to stay in some of the old colonial Forest Rest Houses inside the park’s wildlife-rich Dikala tourism zone.

Next stop on my Leisure Hotels itinerary was Lahore House in Haridwar to briefly experience the ceremonies and festivities of the sacred hindu pilgrimage known as Kumbh Mela.  Millions of devoted hindus undertake this pilgrimage (that comes to Haridwar only every 12 years) and bathe in the holy waters of the Ganga River.  It was quite an experience to witness the religious fervor of this grand event which includes the meditions and rituals of naked Naga Babas. However, photography was a challenge as my trip coincided with  Holi – the festival of colour – and all the coloured dyes and water bombs didn’t agree with my cameras, not to mention the cultural challenges of photographing people at religious events.

The final stop on my trip was Leisure Hotel’s Camp Five Elements on the Ganges River.  This beautiful beach camp provided me with the ideal base from which to experience and photograph the white-water action of the mighty Ganga.  Just north of Rishikesh lies the epicentre of India’s white-water and adventure sports industry.  There are base camps strung out along both sides of the river with well over a hundred companies operating on this short stretch of river, although Camp Five Elements and Himalayan River Runners definitely lay claim to the two finest beaches on the whole river.  I spent three days paddling down the river and setting up next to the biggest rapids and shooting the action as a procession of rafts and kayaks tackled the white-water. Notorious rapids like The Wall, Three Blind Mice, Golf Course and Club House provided the best opportunities for getting the money shots with the low water levels at this time of year.

As I look ahead to March I have some more great adventures lined up with two visits to Ranthambhore National Park in search of tigers and other Asiatic wildlife, as well as a return trip to the Ganga for more white-water entertainment.  An action-packed and exciting month lies in wait… Bring it on!

Pench & Kanha, India – January 2010

I recently returned from an unbelievable ten days exploring and photographing Asiatic wildlife in Pench and Kanha National Parks.  These parks, located in Madhya Pradesh, constitute two of India’s top tiger tiger reserves.  I was visiting the parks courtesy of AndBeyond and Taj Safaris who had invited me to stay at their spectacular lodges while I collected material for some magazine commissions.

Starting off at Baghvan Jungle Lodge in Pench was a real treat.  This national park is the place that provided Rudyard Kipling with the inspiration to write the Jungle Book and it remains an enchanting place to this day.  Best of all, it is less popular than its illustrious neighbouring parks so, if you are lucky, you might have it pretty much to yourself, especially mid-week.  It is the first place in India where I have been privileged enough to do a three hour afternoon drive without encountering even one other vehicle!  The forest is also more open with large grasslands making wildlife viewing more productive.  I enjoyed some spectacular sightings of Gaur (Indian bison), big herds of Chital (Spotted deer) and families of Sambar deer.  A sighting of a rare jungle cat (with an uncanny resemblance to our African Wildcat back home) pouncing into long grass as it hunted small birds was especially rewarding.  However, nothing could match the sheer excitement of viewing a ‘streak of tigers’.

Sitting on top of an elephant and being surrounded by five tigers was a sight that I’ll never forget.  The tigress had just killed a Sambar deer and the four sub-adult cubs were enjoying some boisterous play ambushing each other and fighting before they settled down to a tug-of-war over the deer carcass.  It was an extraordinary sight and only my second time to have ever seen tigers in the wild.  I felt very fortunate to witness the behaviour and interactions of a group of Asia’s endangered iconic cats.  I jumped at the opportunity to return the next day and we were greeted by five very fat tigers chewing on the last few bones from their kill.

The next stop on my itinerary was at the newly opened Banjaar Tola Lodge on the edge of Kanha National Park.  Katherine flew in from Mumbai and joined me for an amazing long weekend of luxury in the bush.  There is no doubt that this AndBeyond/Taj Safaris lodge has raised the bar three notches above their nearest competitor.  They are setting the standards in India with a product that can hold its own against the best lodges in Africa: something previously unheard of in India.  Great service, friendly staff, excellent food, a stunning location on the Banjaar River and thoughtfully designed luxurious safari tents all combine to produce India’s premier wildlife camp.

I was photographing the new lodge for AndBeyond and, at the same time, collecting photographic material from Kanha National Park for my magazine stories.  This was not a ‘hardship assignment’ and what a bonus to get to share it with Katherine.  While the tigers continued to elude her, we still enjoyed some top sightings of the rare Barasingha (Swamp deer), Gaur, Sambar, Chital and Langur monkeys.  A morning drive up onto the plateau (unsuccessfully) in search of Dhole (Indian Wild Dog) rewarded us with some spectacular views over the park and a rare sighting of a Black Eagle.

All-in-all a thoroughly worthwhile trip that provided me with some great material for magazine pieces (first one is due out in the March issue of Discover India) and a chance to experience two of India’s top wildlife safari operations.  Can’t wait for my next assignment back in the bush, which comes in March with a return to Ranthambhore in Rajasthan.  Until then…

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