Posts Tagged ‘India Travel’

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

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

Climbing Kilimanjaro via the Lemosho Route, Tanzania – March 2017

Mount Kilimanjaro towers above the campsite

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

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

Trekking routes on Mount Kilimanjaro

Official trekking routes on Mount Kilimanjaro

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

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

SGF team

Happy teammates at the top of the Barranco Wall

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

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

Dinner time

Refuelling in the mess tent after a solid day of hiking

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

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

Karanga Valley Campsite

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

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

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

SGF team on the summit

Singita Grumeti Fund team celebrating on the summit

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

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

The relentless decent and vistas from Stellar Point

The steep decent from Stella Point back to Barafu Camp

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

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

Summit in sight

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

In Wilderness with Wild and Tracking in the Lowveld, South Africa – June 2012

Ebb and Flow Rest Camp in the Wilderness Section of Garden Route National Park

The month got off to a cracking start when Katherine joined me for an action-packed Wild magazine assignment to explore the hugely diverse Wilderness Section of Garden Route National Park (www.sanparks.org/parks/garden_route/) on the Cape South Coast.  An activity extravaganza of hiking, running, canoeing, birding – and even some flying – dominated our active, outdoorsy itinerary during a memorable four-day stay at the Ebb-and-Flow Rest Camp on the banks of the picturesque Touw River.

While we had great fun hiking all the local Kingfisher Walking Trails within the park, paddling the Serpentine and Touw rivers trumped the trailing as we glided effortlessly across the water  amidst a dazzling array of avian entertainment.

Soaring above Wilderness in a 'para-trike'

However, nothing could hold a candle to the grand finale: an epic 75 minute flight with Fly Time Paragliding (www.flytimeparagliding.com) over the lakes, beaches and indigenous coastal forest of the Wilderness area. Flying in the Garden Route’s only tandem ‘para-trike’ (a type of motorised paraglider) ensured an unrivalled bird’s eye view of the intriguing and varied terrain of this tract of coastal wilderness nestled between the Indian Ocean and the Outeniqua Mountains. With fabulous early June weather to boot, it proved a highly enjoyable assignment and an outstanding ‘long weekend away’ destination.

A week later, my lovely wife pulled out all the stops to ensure I celebrated edging closer to 40 than 30 in fine style.  Running the Old Fisherman’s Trail Challenge (www.fishermanschallenge.co.za) with my ART team-mates in the morning was followed by  Test rugby and drinks at our Three Anchor Bay apartment before moving on to a birthday bash to remember at Pigalle Restaurant (www.pigallerestaurants.co.za/capetown/) in Green Point.  The wine flowed freely, the food was excellent and the live band got everyone fired up on the dance floor of Cape Town’s most diverse and truly New South Africa party venue.

A final magazine assignment for the month of June took me up to Thornybush Game Reserve to interview tracking guru Louis Liebenberg for an article to be published in the October 2012 issue of Africa Geographic.  Based at Royal Malewane (www.royalmalewane.com) for the second time this year, I caught up with old friends and colleagues at the lodge while simultaneously gathering material and researching the story.  I was privileged to accompany some of the Lowveld’s finest trackers as they interacted with trainees and aspirants while tracking down rhino and lion on foot.

Finally – on the subject of recently published articles – it was a busy month for me with features on Namibia’s Sossusvlei and South Africa’s Mokala National Park coming out in the trade and travel magazine Explore South Africa, along with some additional publicity for the Lesotho Wildrun trail running event (which I participated in back in March).  For those who are interested, check out the links below to view PDFs of these entertaining stories:

Running The Old Fisherman's Trail Challenge with ART teammate Duncan Gutsche

Good bye India and Nepal here we come, India – March 2011

It has been a hectically busy and enjoyable month with plenty of travel on the go … the month kicked off with a trip down to Chennai to watch South Africa choke against England in the cricket .  It certainly wasn’t fun to be seated in a sea of Poms as the last wickets tumbled, but it’s worth checking out this entertaining and accurate blog http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2011/03/07/supporting-england-is-a-health-risk/ that a friend Will did upon our return from the heart-breaking match.  I was then straight off to Assam in the northeast for some more CRS photographic work, followed by a highly enjoyable escape to Corbett Tiger Reserve and Camp Forktail Creek http://www.campforktailcreek.com/.  It was a highly memorable nine day wildlife safari in the Himalayan foothills that included plenty of great wild elephant action, a big male tiger and – the absolute highlight – a couple of days walking through the Loachaur Zone in the north of the park while accompanying a multi-day elephant-back safari.  An absolutely superb experience and a rare treat to be able to walk inside one of India’s premier national parks.

Somewhat surprisingly, all March’s travels and experiences have suddenly faded to a seemingly distant memory as we stare at our empty apartment knowing that after three action-packed and adventure-filled years in India, this chapter in our lives will draw to a close in less than 48 hours from now.  All our worldly possessions fitted into 49 boxes and they’re already loaded aboard a ship and headed for Cape Town and greener pastures.  So it’s with a surprising amount of sadness that Katherine and I bid farewell to our home in India and a country that has fascinated and frustrated us in equal measure.  On balance our time living in India has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, but we feel ready to embark on the next exciting adventure and look forward to the next chapter in our life together.

After a braai and some beers watching India take on Sri Lanka in the much anticipated Cricket World Cup final, we fly out of Delhi bright and early on Sunday morning bound for Kathmandu and two months of exciting adventures in Nepal.  A month trekking in the Annapurnas (rated the number one trek in the world by National Geographic) will be followed by a rafting expedition down the wild waters of the Karnali River, a wildlife safari in Royal Bardia in search of Indian one-horned rhinos and perhaps a final tiger sighting.  We finish off our two month outdoor extravaganza with a trek into Everest Base Camp and I’m running the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon http://www.everestmarathon.com/ on May the 29th!  So much to look forward to in the Nepalese Himalayas … fresh air, the great outdoors and some long overdue quality time with my wife!

April is most definitely going to be a month to savour…

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.

Jaisalmer, Amritsar and Manipur, India – November 2010

Half marathon done and dusted!  The morning began with a typically hectic and disorganised start to the event – which involved a small contingent of security personal trying to frisk 18,000 lycra-clad runners for hidden weapons of mass destruction – before Katherine and I ran the entire 21 km race together.  After finishing in a very respectable time, we headed home with friends for a boozy braai and some well-deserved R&R.

The month actually kicked off with consecutive weekends away to Jaisalmer and Amritsar, as we looked to take advantage of the great travelling weather and extra days off work due to Diwali (The Festival of Light).

A small, lively city sprawling around an impressive fort, Jaisalmer is India’s gateway to the Thar Desert in far western Rajasthan.  Although Diwali was an action-packed and somewhat noisy time to visit Jaisalmer, we found the rooftop terraces of hotels and bars atop the Havelis (heritage hotels) to be a godsend, providing some much-needed respite from the firecrackers and mayhem raging down below.  We also took a day out to drive further west into Desert National Park where we explored the dune fields of Khuri and Sam on foot.  With chinkara (Indian gazelle) nimbly picking their way across an arid peaceful landscape of pristine dunes, Khuri provided a genuine desert experience to savour.  By contrast Sam was manic.  The dunes were obscured by thousands of people, tons of garbage and a gazillion camels carrying their screaming passengers charging over the dunes.  It was a sight to behold and we stayed just long enough to take a few photos and videos of the crazy scenes unfolding all around us.

Barely a week later, we were in Amritsar appreciating another equally bizarre spectacle.  The daily border closing ceremony of the only land transit point between India and Pakistan is the quintessential Indian experience.  Thousand of patriotic citizens turn out on both sides of the fence to support their soldiers as the flags are lowered.  While the soldiers try to out perform and out march each other, DJ’s belt out popular Hindi tunes, people dance in the streets, sing, scream, cheer and hurl regular abuse at their neighbours.  Fervent nationalism oozes from the jam-packed stands of patriotic fans, making for some very humorous and animated exchanges between the legions of Indian and Pakistani supporters.  A visit to the world-renowned Golden Temple is another must-do experience in Amritsar and the temple complex is well-worth appreciating both at night and during the day.

A mid-month work assignment took me to the northeast of India on my first visit to the small state of Manipur, which is located on the border with Myanmar (Burma).  I was collecting photographic material and interviewing people involved with Project LIFE AID: an HIV/AIDS programme assisting affected people in the high prevalence states of northeast India.  It was a very productive and enlightening assignment that revealed a project that is doing a lot of good for a lot of very grateful people.

Next month sees me return to the northeast to join the final descent of India’s spectacular Subansari River on an exhilarating ten-day rafting expedition, and then it’s off to Varanasi for a long weekend before finishing up the year by enjoying Christmas in the Andaman Islands with visiting family.  Roll on December and the good times…

CWG, Kali-Sarda & Bandhavgarh’s Tigers, India – October 2010

October proved to be a great month in India!  After an incredibly wet monsoon, the rain eventually abated, the humidity disappeared and the weather became tolerable once more.  The changing seasons signalled that it was time to start travelling again and, hopefully, enjoy some fun-filled adventures along the way.

The month kicked off with a visit from an old Welsh friend, Huw Roberts, and his Australian girlfriend, Celi.  Their stay happened to coincide with the much-maligned Commonwealth Games taking place in Delhi, so we decided to brave the terrible traffic, collapsing pedestrian bridges, high security and a dengue fever outbreak, and headed to the main stadium to watch the Athletics finals.  It was without doubt the most spectator-unfriendly event I’ve ever experienced, highlighted by the fact that the stands were, at best, only 15% full for the men’s and woman’s 100 metre finals.  What a pity, especially for the athletes.

I decided to escape the rest of the CWG carnage in the capital and joined Aquaterra Adventures (www.treknraft.com) for a weeklong expedition down India’s most under-rated Himalayan river.  The Kali-Sarda traces India’s international border with Nepal as it snakes its way through deep valleys and a pristine wilderness dominated by wildlife, warm water, enjoyable rapids, idyllic weather and picture-perfect riverside beaches for camping.  Twice, when we beached our rafts and kayaks for the night, we found fresh leopard tracks criss-crossing the beach we were about to sleep on!  It was an action-packed and highly entertaining week on the water and I succeeded in collecting some great photographic material, as well as cool experiences on the ‘ducky’ (an inflatable kayak), for my book India Whitewater.

After a frenetic week back in Delhi processing photos and chasing magazine deadlines, it was time for the highlight of the month… A stay at the Taj Safaris luxury lodges of Pashan Garh and Marua Kothi courtesy of AndBeyond India (www.andbeyondindia.com).  After spending a day marvelling at the spectacular and erotically sculpted temples of Khajuraho, we headed to Pashan Garh: an ultra-luxurious bush retreat on the outskirts of Panna National Park.  Panna was a true wilderness experience and, with almost no other vehicles in the reserve, our enthusiastic naturalist guide, Dipu, shared the park’s secrets with us.  On top of some great wildlife viewing, quality birding, boating on the crocodile-infested Ken River and soaking up the beautiful mountain scenery, he also managed to track down a staggering four leopards during our 3-day visit!

From Panna we drove four hours across Madhya Pradesh to reach Marua Kothi, situated a stone’s throw from India’s premier tiger reserve.  Bandhavgarh was the antithesis of Panna.  Peace and solitude went out the window the second we entered the fray in the revered Tala tourism area.  This is India’s most famous tiger-viewing zone, renowned for having the highest density of relaxed tigers in all of Asia.  The frantic nature of the tiger search took some getting used to, but in the end Yugdeep tracked down a couple of the iconic cats for us.  We enjoyed an especially memorable sighting of a 4.5 year old male silently stalking cheetal (spotted deer) right past our vehicle.  When the spotted deer eluded him, the King of the Jungle proceeded to roar: an unbelievable sound that capped off the quintessential Bandhavgarh sighting.

The action looks set to continue throughout November with trips to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, Amritsar in the Punjab, and a photographic assignment to Manipur in the remote northeast of India all on the cards during the upcoming month.  To top it all off, Katherine and I will be tackling the Delhi half-marathon on the 21st of November!

Monsoons & Dissertations in Delhi, India – September 2010

September has been a month of all work and no play.  While relentless, heavy monsoon rains wreaked havoc with the mad rush to complete stadiums and infrastructure for the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, they provided the ideal environment for me to finally sit down and complete my Master’s dissertation.   I had done much of the research work and background study during the preceding months, but in August I stepped it up three gears and pulled long days and nights pulling everything together and writing up the research report.  It was a really great feeling to submit it at the end of the month.

I did manage a couple of all-to-brief study escapes during the course of September.  The most notable was definitely an excursion to Gwalior with Katherine and a few friends.  Our good South African mates, Guy and Katie, treated us to an extremely enjoyable weekend away at the luxurious Usha Kiran Palace (www.tajhotels.com/Leisure/Usha%20Kiran%20Palace,GWALIOR/).  Long lazy days drinking beer around the swimming pool, champagne on the terrace and wine at dinner were the perfect tonic for a relaxing and recharging break.  We did venture out on the Sunday and explore the huge hilltop fort and palace that overlook the city; otherwise, it was very much a poolside retreat.

With my backlog of magazine stories and newspaper articles pretty much cleared, I am no longer staring down the barrel of multiple deadlines, so I look to October with my sights set on exciting new assignments, adventures and travels.  The Kali-Sarda beckons for a river rafting adventure through the pristine wilderness along the Nepalese border in mid-October, while tiger tracking will be the order of the day when Katherine joins me on an assignment to cover two more of &Beyond India’s luxury safari lodges in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh towards the end of the month.

It’s always good to finish off on a high note, so I’ll leave you with some unexpected good news… I finally have a bank account!  After sacrificing a small forest in a bid to provide all the paperwork required, two months of heartache and suffering drew to a close last week when Katherine and I were finally deemed worthy enough to deposit our meagre riches with Standard and Chartered Bank.  A very happy ending to a long soul destroying confrontation with some of India’s finest bureaucracy!

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!

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