Posts Tagged ‘Tiger Safaris’

The Karnali River, Bardia NP and Everest, Nepal – May 2011

Like a fine red wine Nepal just gets better and better the longer we spend savouring this impressive country!  It is certainly proving to be an incredible and varied little Himalayan kingdom and the prefect playground for a couple of outdoor lovers and adventure sport aficionados.

After a gruelling two-day bus ride west, we reached the end of the road at Sauli Bazaar on the banks of Nepal’s biggest river – The Karnali.  We were part of a ten-man crew (including two ladies!) for a week-long river trip with Equator Expeditions (http://www.equatorexpeditionsnepal.com/).  It turned out to be a fun group and we had endless laughs on the raft as we skirted some big rapids and camped on sandy beaches next to the river.  Sleeping around a campfire under the star-studded heavens was a definite highlight for both of us.

The expedition ended at Chisopani on the boundary of Royal Bardia National Park and after a week on the river the comfort that awaited us at Tiger Tops’ Karnali Lodge was just what the doctor had ordered.  We soaked up the luxury, devoured great food and thrived off the quality wildlife experiences.  I was desperate to catch a glimpse of my first Indian one-horned rhino, so to end up having numerous close up sightings of five different rhinos feeding and swimming was very very special indeed.  Crouching in a bush watching a seven month old calf suckling from its mother while I was on a walking safari was the ultimate high of our wildlife-viewing extravaganza.  We topped the safari off with two tiger sighting – a young female with a hog deer kill and a handsome male escaping the pre-monsoon heat by sleeping in a pool of water.  What a great place Bardia turned out to be!

After a couple of days recuperating in Kathmandu we boarded a plane for Lukla and the start of our two-week Everest trek.  We chose a circuitous route to base camp via the sacred emerald green lakes of the Gokyo valley and over the Cho La pass to Gorakshep and Everest Base Camp. The weather gods smiled on us and we were treated to some idyllic weather for the epic Himalayan views from the summits of Gokyo Ri (5357m) and Kala Pattar (5545m).  Sitting on the top of these rocky vantage points gave us ringside seats to a jaw-dropping wraparound vista that defied belief … a host of snow-covered 8,000m+ peaks (Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, etc) rubbed shoulders and seemed almost close enough to touch.  These scenes of raw beauty exuded an overwhelming sense of mother nature’s awesome power.

After living in India for three years and enjoying nine weeks adventuring through Nepal, the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon (http://www.everestmarathon.com/) proved the genuine grand finale to our time in Asia.  It was with a combination of great excitement and a little trepidation that I approached the start of the race.  The 29th dawned grey and cold.  Mist swirled through Everest base camp (5360m) and thick grey clouds hung ominously overhead.  When I cracked the ice off my tent zips, I was greeted by a white world of snow and ice.  When the start gun fired at 7am the temperature was well below freezing and the unrelenting snow refused to let up until we were 16km into the race!  The start took place inside the infamous Khumbu Icefall and after jumping a small crevasse we ran over the frozen rocks and ice of the glacial moraine for 8km while my lungs continuously screamed for more oxygen.  My plan was simple – and borne of necessity – run everything that is flat or downhill but walk/climb the hills.  As we slowly descended towards the half-way mark at Dingboche the conditions improved and I found it a little easier to breathe.  Reaching the half-way stage in 3h10, I truly believed a six-hour finish was on the cards, but two viciously steep hills between the 32 and 37 kilometre marks killed that idea and in the end I was more than happy to finish in 6h34, which put me in a respectable 6th position out of 68 international participants.

With the tiny Himalayan nation of Nepal wowing us in so many ways, the final chapter in our Asian sojourn has proved to be an absolute cracker!

The adventures for June appear to be somewhat tamer … our next stop is London to visit my sisters and then it’s onto Iceland and USA.  The journey continues and we’re loving the ride…

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…

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!

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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