Posts Tagged ‘Diving’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helicopter

Preparing to take off and begin the count

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

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

Black and white colobus

Black and white colobus monkey on the move

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

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

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

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

 

Boundary Waters and Figure Eight Island, USA – August 2016

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

Paddling across a glassy lake at sunrise

Paddling across a glassy lake at sunrise

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

Enjoying a classic Boundary Waters sunset

Enjoying a classic Boundary Waters sunset

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

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

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

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

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

Kicking back on La Digue and Mahé, Seychelles – March & April 2016

The warm Indian Ocean surrounding the Seychelles beaches

The warm Indian Ocean produces decent waves at Grand Anse on La Digue’s southern coast

You know life is treating you well when you get to spend an entire month with your family, enjoying the postcard-perfect beaches and azure seas of the idyllic Seychelles.

Villa Verte

The aptly named Villa Verte

As our Kenya Airways flight touched down at the quaint Mahé International Airport, I realised – with some surprise – that it had been 23 years since my last visit to these captivating islands!

The island nation of the Seychelles is spread of an enormous oceanic expanse. There are three main islands – Mahé, Praslin and La Digue – with the latter being the least developed and most alluring of the trio. The large and populous island of Mahé is the commercial and political capital of the Seychelles, but we had our hearts set on escaping to something smaller and quieter, so we boarded a ferry and set sail for La Digue.

Until recently there weren’t even any cars on La Digue and all transport was done courtesy of bicycles and ox carts. Sadly, this has all started to change and – in the name of development – the government has authorised 55 vehicles to operate on the island.

The ultimate way to see the island

Bicycles provide an easy way to explore the island

These buses, taxis, canter trucks and private vehicles have inevitably begun to change laid back La Digue from a sleepy island backwater into a more developed and mainstream tourist destination. And there is no mistaking that the number of small hotels, guesthouses and self-catering cottages has exploded on the island.

Despite these changes and the increased development, the island of La Digue remains an unbelievable family holiday destination. The island is small enough that it can be explored by bicycle with ‘pedal power’ enduring as the primary means of island transport. Every morning we would load our beach bags, along with our two little boys, onto the back of our bikes and head for the beach. Whether you are looking for a picture-perfect beach, such as Source d’Argent, or a quiet little cove of powdery white-sand, such as Anse Caiman, there is a beach to suit all tastes.

Source d'Argent beach

Picture-perfect Source d’Argent beach on La Digue

Can there be a better place for a one-year-old and a three-year-old to spend a month hanging out with mom and dad; I doubt it. The fact that some of our extended family joined us for the first and last weeks meant the boys had grandparents, aunties and cousins to add to their idyllic beach holiday mix. Charlie and Ollie thought they had died and gone to heaven.

Spending the first half of our vacation at the self-catering Villa Verte on the much more tranquil eastern side of the island was an amazing experience. Bimal and his lovely wife ensured that the house was always clean and that we had everything we needed. The ocean view from the front veranda was nothing short of sensational.

The view over Praslin from the Eagle's Nest

The view looking over Praslin from the Eagle’s Nest

When our extended family departed, it was with some reluctance that we relocated to Ylang Ylang (www.selfcateringylangylang.sc) on the western edge of La Passe. This move gave us easy access to a host of new beaches, such as Source d’Argent and the postcard bay of Garand Anse in the south. Although this part of the island was busier, we enjoyed the change of scenery, close proximity to restaurants and shops, and time together with just our family. I have many treasured memories and photos from this special time.

It wouldn’t be right to blog about La Digue without making mention of Chez Jules: a restaurant beyond compare. Tucked away towards the end of the road at Anse Banine on the far eastern side of the island, gregarious Jules serves fresh line-fish, a ‘to-die-for’ calamari salad and ice-cold Eku beers.

A family stroll along an empty stretch of beach on Isle Conception

Taking a family stroll along an empty stretch of sand on Isle Conception off the coast of Mahé

Seychelles beaches are perfect

All Seychelles’ beaches are stunningly beautiful

Mahé is not for everyone. It is the biggest and busiest Seychelles island by far, especially around the commercial hub of Victoria, but it does have some exquisite stretches of sand. My dad and stepmom, along with two of my sisters, flew out to join us for the final week at world-renowned Beau Vallon Bay on Mahé. We were accommodated in fine style, staying at the luxurious apartments of Sables d’Or (www.sables-dor.sc). Not only were the spacious apartments fully kitted out and tastefully decorated, but they also enjoyed an enviable location right on the beach.

Beau Vallon Bay is a busy beach, but it is one of the most idyllic beaches for young children: no rocks, no corral, just sand and a warm Indian ocean. Perfect for swimming, lounging about on a lilo, or paddling a sea kayak at sunset. A nearby marine park – easily reachable by boat – provides an opportunity to snorkel with an abundance of marine life hidden just below the surface.

Seychelles, rest assured, we will be back again soon!

Extended family enjoying playing in the warm water

Hanging out and catching up with the extended family in the warm shallow waters off Mahé

Sensational Safari, RSA, Zimbabwe, Zambia & Botswana – July & Aug 2014

Phinda Game Reserve 022

Phinda Private Game Reserve boasts some of the finest cheetah viewing in all of Africa

During August I was fortunate enough to accompany the fabulous Traggio family from Connecticut on one of the best safaris of my life. After a disappointing stay at the sub-par Saxon boutique hotel (www.saxon.co.za), we said goodbye to the big smoke of Johannesburg and escaped to &Beyond’s Phinda Vlei Lodge: a highly rewarding safari destination in northern Kwazulu-Natal.

A suite at Phinda Vlei Lodge

One of the luxurious suites at Phinda’s Vlei Lodge

Overlooking a large, sweeping, dry (during August) vlei system on the 23 000 hectare Phinda private game reserve, this intimate ten-bed lodge (www.andbeyond.com/phinda-vlei-lodge/) boasts great game viewing from the comfort and safety of your own private veranda or plunge pool. I was thrilled by the night time visits from a friendly bull elephant that came to drink from my swimming pool by the light of a full moon. While during the day, we enjoyed some superb cheetah viewing, including watching a mother with three cubs bring down a nyala right before our very eyes!

But the ultimate highlight was undoubtedly taking a day trip to Sodwana Bay where we got to dive with whale sharks at close quarters, while watching humpback whales frolic nearby.  An incredible experience.

The elephants of Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve in southeastern Zimbabwe

The elephant bulls of Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve in southeastern Zimbabwe

Bidding farewell to friendly staff at Phinda, we flew to Zimbabwe to visit a perennial old favourite: Singita Pamushana Lodge (www.singita.com/pamushana-lodge/) on the scenically diverse Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve (see previous blog for a write up on this incredible place).

Pamushana bush dinner

Pamushana bush dinner below an ancient baobab

In the company of talented local guide Tengwe Siabanda, we enjoyed great sighting of lions feeding on an eland, a male roaring in the midst of our sundowner spot, mud bathing elephants, and an abundance of white rhinos and general game. The top experience, however, was wiling away the midday hours secreted away inside a hide overlooking the last remaining waterhole in the south of the reserve. From this unique vantage point we were treated to close up visuals of elephant toenails and a non-stop procession of wildlife – warthogs, impala, kudu, hartebeest, sable, zebra, buffalo and elephants – that would have made Noah blush.

Livingstone Island tour and swimming in the precariously located Angel's Pool

Livingstone Island tour and swimming in the precariously positioned Angel’s Pool

Next stop was Tongabezi’s Tangala House (www.tangala.com) on the outskirts of Livingstone in southern Zambia. This spacious family-style home located on the banks of the Upper Zambezi River – 15 km upstream from the magnificent Victoria Falls – looks across southern Africa’s premier waterway and into the Zambezi National Park in neighbouring Zimbabwe.  But, even more rewarding than a tasty lunch on an uninhabited island or surveying ‘the smoke that thunders’ from vantage points within the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, was the indescribable feeling of swimming in the Angel’s Pool right on the lip of the falls with the river thundering past and spray raining down on us!

A pack of African wild dogs - Africa's second most endangered large carnivore - bond ahead of hunting

A pack of African wild dogs – Africa’s second most endangered large carnivore – bond before hunting

Our final two destinations were across the border in Botswana. After flying over the sprawling elephant and buffalo herds of Chobe, we touched down at Wilderness Safari’s 14-suite Vumbura Plains Camp (www.wilderness-safaris.com/camps/vumbura-plains) in the Okavango. Tucked beneath a canopy of leafy trees with magnificent vistas over the watery wilderness, Vumbra was an ideal base from which to access the delta’s prolific predators with some top quality wild dog sightings and prime leopard viewing topping the charts.

Uncharted Africa's San Camp sits alongside the Makgadikgadi salt pans of northern Botswana

Uncharted Africa’s San Camp sits on the edge of the Makgadikgadi salt pans of northern Botswana

The final stop on this incredible two-and-a-half week Passage to Africa itinerary was idyllic San Camp (www.unchartedafrica.com) perched on the edge of the ethereal Ntwetwe Pan in the midst of the sprawling Makgadikgadi saltpan complex. Although hampered by mediocre management and poor guiding, this stunning colonial-style camp of yesteryear does enjoy one of the finest locations of any safari lodge in Africa, sitting aside an arid, white wilderness like no other place on earth.

Brown hyena displaying

Brown hyena displaying

Despite being predominantly a scenic nature destination, Makgadikgadi is renowned as the place to visit for high quality sightings of less frequently encountered animals like brown hyena and aardvark. Our visit didn’t disappoint on this front when late one afternoon we bumped into a brown hyaena and spent the next half hour up close with the inquisitive creature, as it put on quite a show bristling a long shaggy coat to increase its size.

Habituated mobs of meerkats are another big attraction in this area. But, it was the chance to drive quad bikes out onto the great white openness of the pans on the final evening for an alfresco fireside dinner and sleep out under the stars that proved the proverbial ‘cherry on the top’ at the end an amazing Southern African safari with six really great people.

Enjoying sunrise out on Ntwetwe Pan after sleeping out under the stars

Enjoying sunrise out on Ntwetwe Pan after sleeping out under the stars

 

The birthday boy

The birthday boy

Aside from competing in Franschhoek’s Bastille Day Trail Run and tackling the brutally tough Hout Bay Trail Challenge, the only other big news to report for the past couple of months was that we have finally taken the plunge and bought our first home in Constantia. It’s a quaint four-bedroom house with a leafy garden, surrounded by greenbelts, and with easy access onto Table Mountain. We now patiently await transfer and look forward to moving in during November to begin the next exciting chapter of our life together as a young family.

And, finally, on a sunny Saturday in late August, we celebrated Charlie’s first birthday at Deer Park Café.  All his little mates, along with our close friends and family, attended the festivities and generously showering him with gifts and attention. Dressed in a little suit he charmed the socks off everyone during a wonderful celebration to mark the end of an incredible – and absolutely life-changing – year for both Katherine and me!

Celebrating Charlie's first birthday at Deer Park Cafe

Celebrating Charlie’s first birthday at Deer Park Cafe

Subansiri, Varanasi and the Andamans, India – December 2010

Without doubt this has been my best month in India to date!

December kicked off with an epic 10-day descent of the Subansiri River.  Snaking its way through the rugged wilderness of Arunachal in the remote northeast, the Subansiri is arguably Asia’s ultimate river journey.  With idyllic weather, exhilarating white-water and picture-perfect beach campsites nestled under star-studded skies, it was a rafting adventure to savour.  The Aquaterra (www.aquaterra.in) trip afforded an incredible opportunity to paddle through wild jungle-clad valleys devoid of people: a rare privilege in India.  I feel incredibly lucky to have been one of the fortunate few to experience this rare and unique Indian wilderness.  In April 2014, this amazing river trip, along with 38 000 square kilometres of pristine jungle, will be lost forever when the new Hydel hydroelectric dam on the Lower Subansiri is flooded.

With the arrival of our first Christmas visitors, we headed off to Varanasi to share an authentic Indian cultural experience with Katherine’s family ahead of two weeks in the Andaman Islands.  Varanasi was a pleasant surprise to me and, although I feel its claim of being ‘the Venice of India’ is dubious at best, we did spend a thoroughly enjoyable long weekend in the holy city.  We boated along the Ganga at dawn spellbound by the scenes unfolding all around us.  From the wood pyres of the busy crematoriums with gangs of stray dogs chewing bones to the swimming Ghats and evening religious ceremonies, exploring Varanasi proved a lively, invigorating and eye-opening experience.

Between Varanasi and the Andamans, I squeezed in a work assignment to Hyderabad to document a CRS-sponsored project rescuing and reintegrating woman who had been trafficked into sexual slavery.  These brave ladies shared their harrowing tales with me recounting the unthinkable abuses they’d suffered after being enslaved as sex workers before eventually escaping or being rescued.  It was a sobering experience that stood in stark contrast to our family excursion to Agra and the Taj Mahal the following day.

The month culminated with an epic two-week trip to the Andaman Islands over Christmas and New Year.  The Andamans were nothing short of superb.  The laidback island lifestyle couldn’t have been further removed from the frenetic pace of mainland India.  We alternated our days between scuba diving and chilling on ‘the best beach in Asia’ (according to Time magazine) with body surfing, biking and beach bats to keep us suitably entertained.  Every evening we feasted on platters of delicious fresh seafood and cold beer.  However, the unanimous highlight of our time in the Andamans was chartering our own boat for a four-day excursion to explore little-visited Long Island and its surrounding waters. Lalaji Beach and diving on Campbell Shoals were the ultimate highlights of this great island adventure.

Returning to work in cold, foggy Delhi on January, 7th was a real shock to the system.

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