Posts Tagged ‘Wildlife’

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

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

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

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

Swimming and camping next to the Grumeti River

Swimming and camping next to the Grumeti River

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

Chem Chem game drive

Elephants are a big hit on Chem Chem game drives

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

Forest Chem Chem lounge and dining area

Forest Chem Chem lounge and indoor dining area

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

Eating on the beach with sand between your toes

Dinner on the beach with sand between your toes

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

Quality family time at Pongwe Beach

Quality family time at Pongwe Beach

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

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

The magical infinity pool at Pongwe Beach Hotel

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

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

Seychelles swimming

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

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

Desroches Island from the air

Desroches Island viewed from the air

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

The beach on the west coast of Île Desroches

The beach on the west coast of Île Desroches

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

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

Fregate beaches rival the very best in the world

Fregate’s beaches rival the very best in the world

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

Electric golf carts allow guests to explore

Electric golf carts allow guests to explore at their leisure

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

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

Anse Intendance in the southwest of Mahé

Anse Intendance in the southwest of Mahé

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

Seychelles sundowners

The ladies providing some sundowner entertainment

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

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

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

The luxurious villas perched high on Fregate Island Private

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

 

Singita Kruger National Park and Singita Sabi Sands – South Africa

Enjoying a riverside lunch at the new Sweni Lodge

Enjoying a riverside lunch at the new Sweni Lodge

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

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

A suite at Singita Ebony Lodge

A guest suite at Singita Ebony Lodge

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

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

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

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

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

Agra and Kanha tiger safari, India – March 2018

Taj Mahal at sunrise

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

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

Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra

Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra

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

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

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

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

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

The Penry family enjoying the Taj

The Penry family enjoying a visit to the Taj Mahal

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

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

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

Male tiger displaying flemhen

Distinctive grimace of a male tiger displaying flehmen

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

Peacock in flight

Peacock in flight

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

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

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

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

Congo Hounds

An afternoon out tracking with the ICCN Congo Hounds dog unit

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

Old military hardware litters the roadside

Old military hardware litters the roadside

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

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

Chimp trekking

Chimp trekking success

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

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

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

Mountain gorillas

Mountain gorillas up close

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

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

Virunga NP 138

The SGF senior team celebrating atop Nyiragongo

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

The SGF senior management team

On safari in off-the-beaten-track Virunga

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

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

Nyirigongo Volcano lava lake

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

The most curious travel combo, Philippines & Ethiopia – Nov & Dec 2017

Child-friendly Philippines is an unbeatable destination for beach-loving young families

The ultra child-friendly Philippines is an unbeatable destination for beach-loving young families

Sixteen years after it first came onto my radar screen, I finally got the opportunity to visit and explore the Philippines with my family. They say good things are worth waiting for… And the Philippines is just that. With three weeks at our disposal, we could only select a handful of the most alluring islands and exotic attractions. Nonetheless, the Philippines dramatically exceeded our collective expectations and proved itself to be a country we certainly hope to return to in the years ahead to continue our island hopping adventures.

Thresher sharks at Monad Shoal

Thresher sharks at Monad Shoal

Our first stop was little Malapascua Island, eight kilometres off the northern tip of Cebu. Situated at the quieter end of Bounty Beach, Evolution (http://evolution.com.ph) was our home-away-from-home for the first week. Owner, Matt Reed was our friendly host, sharing his local knowledge of the island, surrounding dive sites and other must-see attractions in the Visayan Sea. Aside from the great accommodation, vibe and dive set up at Evolution, the three highlights of our time on Malapascua were diving spectacular Monad Shoal at dawn to see the iconic thresher sharks that visit the cleaning station at sunrise. In fact it was such a unique and enjoyable experience that I dived it three times during our stay! Highlight number two was the day boat trip to idyllic Calanggaman Island – a narrow strip of alluring sand surrounded by turquoise water and some decent wall diving. A final culinary high point was Angelina’s pizza and their real Italian gelato – a decadent dessert that left you wanting more!

Chocolate Hills

The iconic Chocolate Hills on Bohol Island

From Malapascua, we retraced our steps south to Cebu City and onto a ferry to Tagbilaran city on low-key Bohol Island. We opted to stay at the Oasis Beach Resort (http://seaquestdivecenter.com/oasis/) on neighbouring Panglao island. Located on beautiful Alona beach, Oasis is just that: a. peaceful refuge at this popular beach destination. Apart from wiling away the days building sandcastles and swimming in the enchanting ocean, we took a day trip to explore Bohol. We spent the morning admiring the world-renowned Chocolate Hills – 1268 conical hills that are believed to be the product of coral and limestone deposits sculpted by erosion – before moving on to track down the endangered cousin of the lemur. The diminutive primates look uncannily similar to bush babies with their sloth like behaviour thankfully ensuring we got some great sighting of the little critters.

Exclussive Sangat Island

Picture-perfect Sangat Island was a highlight

A spectacularly scenic flight then took us west to Busuanga Island: gateway to Coron and the Calamianes Island group. Wanting a Robinson Crusoe-like experience away from the crowds, we splurged on a week at the private Sangat Island. Craggy and imposing Sangat Island (http://sangat.com.ph) – with its beachfront cottages built on stilts –  is the quintessential tropical island retreat. A 300 metre long white-sand beach, lapped by azure waters and hemmed in on three sides by towering cliffs and jungle-clad peaks, creates a simply sublime setting and mesmerising scenery.

Sangat Island Dive Resort markets itself as a premier destination for eco-conscious paradise seekers and scuba divers: an apt description for this enchanting island retreat. The scuba diving focuses on eight nearby World War II Japanese shipwrecks sunk by American aircraft during the Battle of Coron Bay in 1944. The most interesting and notable of the four I explored was the wreck of the Akitsushima (a sea plane tender with some impressive guns) lying at thirty metres close to Manglet Island. Above-water, circumnavigating Sangat in sea kayaks and a boat trip to the white-sand beach of Pass Island for a day of swimming and sandcastles with a picnic lunch were perfect excursions for the whole family.

Boat Excursion Seven Commando Beach

El Nido boat excursion to Seven Commando Beach

The grand finale of our Philippine adventure was four days at friendly Mansion Buena Vista (https://mansionbuenavistaelnido.com/) in El Nido in northwest Palawan with daily boat cruises to admire the wonders of the Bancuit archipelago. The boat cruises are affordable, popular and consequently the best natural attractions, such as the (not so) secret beach and small lagoon (two personal favourites) can get busy, especially in the prime season of December. But there is good reason for their popularity: the ubiquitous towering limestone islands, their beaches and azure surrounding waters are jaw-dropping to say the least. To the north, Nacpan beach – rated the best beach in the Philippines – is wild, beautiful and the perfect complement to the tourist-trafficked island tours that run from El Nido.

Hidden Beach

Family photo at Hidden Beach

But perhaps the greatest accolade that I can pay the Philippines – and specifically the country’s friendly people – is that of the 75 countries I’ve been fortunate enough to visit to date, the Philippines undoubtedly rates as the most family-friendly place of them all. The Filipino people simply adore children and go out of their way to greet and assist the kids all the time.

An unexpected bonus for a young family that loves to travel like ours… And this in itself is reason enough to go back to this fantastic country.

Undiscovered Nacpan Beach is a massive expanse of sand with few tourists

Undiscovered Nacpan Beach in northern Palwan boasts a huge expanse of sand with few tourists

 

The Northern Circuit – Ethiopia

Lalibella

Church of Saint George

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

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

Castles of Gondar

Castles of Gondar

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

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

Dominant male Gelada monkey displaying

Dominant male Gelada monkey displaying

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

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

Climbing Ras Bawit with Chennek below

Climbing Ras Bwahit with Chennek below

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

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

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

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

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

Running the Tusk Safaricom Marathon in Lewa, Kenya – May & June 2017

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is a stronghold for the critically endangered East African black rhino

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is one of the last strongholds for the endangered East African black rhino

Having withdrawn from the Lewa Safaricom marathon (http://www.lewa.org/support-lewa/safaricom-marathon/) in 2016 due to a lingering ankle injury, I was determined to get back there in 2017. All looked good and my training was going well when a freak mountain bike accident left me with a severe groin strain. With abductor muscle and tendon damage, it became a race against the clock to see if I could rehab and recover in time to make it to the start line. The thought of missing out again was too much to bear and in the end a compromise was reached whereby the doc agreed that I could run if I downgraded to the half-marathon.

Its a tough race and finishers wear their medals with pride

Finishers wear their medals with pride

Situated at a lung-burning 5,500 feet above sea level, Lewa (http://www.lewa.org) is not the easiest place to run. But thin air and screaming lungs are only part of the problem, the relentless sunshine and heat add to the challenge, and lest we forget the entire event takes place inside a Big Five reserve with plenty of wildlife wandering around the race track!

The Tusk Safaricom Marathon (http://www.tusk.org/safaricom-marathon-2018) allows privileged local and international participants the opportunity to compete in an internationally acclaimed event whilst running through wildlife-rich Lewa: one of Africa’s most breathtaking nature conservancies. Although regarded as one of the toughest marathons in the world, the event has grown to become one of East Africa’s most popular sporting events and is acclaimed by Runner’s World magazine as “one of the world’s top ten must do marathons”.

The race was first held at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in 2000 with a mere 150 participants, but by 2017 it had grown to attract a field of over 1,400 runners and raised more than £350,000 for needy conservation and community projects across Kenya.

The reticulated giraffe

The distinctive coat pattern of the reticulated giraffe

Running through a wildlife-rich Big Five reserve is not without its challenges and incidents… Two years prior to our race, the start was delayed by two hours when a pride of hungry lions killed a buffalo in a swamp between the race village and start line, causing the event organisers a few grey hairs in the process! Thankfully, this year everything went according to plan and we started on time.

Up front the race is run at a formidable pace by the top professional Kenyan athletes, but for most of us mere mortals just finishing the event in a vaguely respectable time is a major achievement given the altitude, hills, heat and wild animals. For those who enter light on training, race aspirations soon evaporate in the stifling heat to be replaced by a desire to simply survive the punishing conditions and make it across the finish line for covered race finisher’s medal.

The Lewa marathon team

Our Lewa marathon crew celebrate a job well done

I came to Lewa with a couple of friends who work for Conservation International and while the other guys ran the full marathon, I was – given my lack of training and injury concerns – quite content simply to finish the half marathon injury-free in a semi-ecent time of 1h45.

But regardless of whether you’re up front with the pros challenging the course record of 1h05 or taking it easy and enjoying the scenery, running through Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (http://www.lewa.org) is in itself an honour and a privilege. Whether running past a herd of endangered Grevy’s zebra, or enjoying the quizzical stare from a stretch of reticulated giraffe, the scenery and wildlife render the pain and heartache inconsequential and ensure that the Tusk Safaricom Marathon is a highly rewarding experience for every entrant.

Despite witnessing the sorry state of many of the marathon runners as they collapsed at the finish line, I was left with an unshakable sense of unfinished business… And I hope to be back in 2018 to tackle the full marathon and finally succeed in putting a big tick on my bucket list in the process.

Lewa is the gold standard of law enforcement effectiveness and wildlife protection

Lewa sets the standard in terms of wildlife protection and law enforcement effectiveness in East Africa

Safari Extravaganza at Singita Sabi Sands, South Africa – April 2017

The Sabi Sand is world renowned for its incredible density of super-relaxed leopards

The Sabi Sand is world renowned for its incredible density of super-relaxed and highly visible leopards

Singita (https://singita.com) is a world-renowned luxury safari and aspiring conservation brand that punches way above its weight class, and it has been an honour for me to be involved with this exciting industry-leading and trend-setting organization for the past two years. Having visited and spent time at all the Singita lodges and protected areas, except for the two flagship Sabi Sand lodges, it was with great anticipation and high expectations that Katherine and I flew to the South African lowveld in late April to spend a week at Ebony and Boulders (https://singita.com/lodge/singita-boulders-lodge/).

Singita Sabi Sand is a romantic getaway

Singita Sabi Sand is a romantic safari getaway

The two neighbouring lodges enjoy enviable locations overlooking the perennial Sand River in the heart of the leopard-infested Sabi Sands private reserve. The area’s reputation for high quality leopard viewing is well deserved and Singita did not disappoint, as we were treated to regular sighting of these supposedly elusive felines. A mother and her cub that had taken up residence at the lodge started off a string of superb sighting that culminated with the holy grail of sightings: a mating pair out in the open during the day! The Sabi Sands truly is in a league of its own when it comes to high quality leopard encounters on a daily basis.

The Sabi Sands (https://www.sabi-sands.com) is also swimming against the tide when it comes to rhino with only a handful lost to poaching in the last couple of years despite the rhino genocide raging across southern Africa. What a privilege to see and spend time in the company of so many of these prehistoric looking beasts. We can only hope that the huge (and costly) investment made by both Singita and the Sabi Sands into anti-poaching staff, equipment and supporting technologies will continue to ensure the security of this important sanctuary for the beleaguered rhinoceros.

Seeing leopards mate is the holy grail of safari sightings

Seeing leopards mate is the holy grail of safari sightings

But the Singita Sabi Sands experience is not only about enjoying legendary leopard and ridiculously relaxed rhino sightings, the opportunity to go mountain biking, walking and even running in the nature reserve provide an opportunity for active safari enthusiasts to work up a hunger and earn the right to indulge with impunity in the delicious daily feasts on offer at the lodges. Boulders, in particular, had a delectable spread of mouth-watering dishes that are quite simply impossible to appreciate in moderation, so we happily overindulged and then assuaged the guilt by donning our running shoes to make space for more!

There is good reason why the aptly-named Singita is known as the “place of miracles” and if you have not yet had the good fortune to experience this for yourself, then best you make a booking soon. With their Sabi Sand lodges now running at over 90% occupancy, you get the distinct sense that the highly successful Singita recipe is no longer the safari secret it once was…

Both Singita Ebony and Singita Boulders enjoy enviable locations perched overlooking the languid Sand River

Singita Ebony and Singita Boulders both enjoy enviable locations overlooking the languid Sand River

Southern Africa’s Leading Conservation Programs, Zambia – Jan & Feb 2017

Sunset over the wild Luangwa River

A fiery sunset in Zambia’s flagship national park turns the Luangwa River gold beneath a blood red sky

In mid-January 2017, I headed to Zambia with Grant Burden, Head of Special Projects at the Singita Grumeti Fund – www.singitagrumetifund.org, on an educational visit to share ideas and learn from some of the premier non-profit conservation organisations currently operating in Southern Africa. We spent two weeks getting to know the ins and outs of Conservation South Luangwa (CSL), North Luangwa Conservation Program (NLCP) and Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ), as well as attending some informative and collaborative meetings on how to enhance intelligence capabilities to promote greater law enforcement effectiveness.

CSL Detection Dog Unit training

CSL Detection Dog Unit training

Our first stop was Mfuwe, where we stayed at the cheap and cheerful Marula Lodge – http://www.marulalodgezambia.com – while spending our days in the company of the dedicated team from Conservation South Luangwa. It was a productive couple of days spent observing the hounds from the detection dog unit undergoing their training drills, engaging with the CSL senior management staff to learn from their collective experiences, while also finding time to catch up with Dr. Matt Becker from the Zambian Carnivore Program (ZCP).

Under the long-standing leadership of CEO Rachel McRobb, Conservation South Luangwa – http://cslzambia.org – recently underwent a facelift and rebranding exercise to revamp what was formerly the South Luangwa Conservation Society when last I visited Zambia and shadowed the SLCS and ZCP teams on their de-snaring operations and carnivore research projects.

In collaboration with the grossly underfunded Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), formerly known as the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA), CSL was established to stop poaching, eradicate wildlife trafficking and protect South Luangwa’s beleaguered wildlife populations. The organisation actively engages with the surrounding communities, recruits and trains local staff, and focuses on developing and implementing sustainable Zambian-driven conservation solutions.

North Luangwa sees no more than a couple of hundred adventurous tourists per year

True wilderness: North Luangwa receives at most a couple of hundred adventurous tourists per year

From South Luangwa, we took a spectacular two-hour flight in a four-seater Cessna, tracing the Luangwa River all the way up to the Mwaleshi confluence where we swung west and followed this tributary into the very heart of North Luangwa National Park. The Mwaleshi is an absolute Eden with large herds of buffalo and elephant lining its banks as well as big prides of lions and excellent general game frequenting the verdant floodplain.

FZS Base Camp

FZS base camp in the heart of North Luangwa

Our flight into North Park in the Cessna, and again daily at sunrise in the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s two-seater Husky, were highlights of our time in Zambia, allowing us to use the telemetry device fitted to plane’s wing struts to locate and observe a number of the black rhino reintroduced to Zambia after they were poached to local extinction in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Founded in 1986, the ground-breaking North Luangwa Conservation Program (NLCP) – https://fzs.org/en/projects/north-luangwa/ – is a protected area management and law enforcement partnership between Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and DNPW that aims to sustainably conserve 22,000 square kilometres of the greater North Luangwa ecosystem. It is in my humble opinion the leading conservation initiative in Zambia and I would go a step further and say that NLCP ranks amongst the very best protected area restoration programs in all of Southern Africa.

The Conservation Lower Zambezi Dog Unit in action at a road block heading from the park into Lusaka

Conservation Lower Zambezi Dog Unit in action at a road block en route from the park into Lusaka

After three days of productive Lusaka meetings with Vulcan Inc. and members of the top conservation organizations operating in Zambia, the final stop on our Zambian sojourn took us down into the idyllic Zambezi Valley. Having spent three years living and working on the mighty Zambezi, the park remains very close to my heart. I hadn’t set foot in the valley since late 2008, so it was with much anticipation and no small measure of excitement that I returned to my old stomping ground.

Over one hundred elephants were lost in 2016

Over one hundred elephants were poached in Lower Zambezi in 2016

During our time in the Lower Zambezi, we were hosted by Ian Stevenson: an old friend and the CEO of Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ): a non-profit organisation committed to the long-term protection of wildlife in the Lower Zambezi valley.

CLZ – http://www.conservationlowerzambezi.org – was set up in 1994 when local safari operators and other concerned stakeholders recognised the need to provide organised support to the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) to help combat the poaching pandemic that was decimating the wildlife populations of the Lower Zambezi. From its humble beginnings, CLZ has grown and diversified its support activities and protection efforts throughout the wider ecosystem.

Today CLZ assists DNPW with its mandate to protect the natural resources and wildlife of the 4,092 square kilometre Lower Zambezi National Park, while also providing logistical and law enforcement support to the adjacent community-owned Chiawa, Luano and Rufunsa Game Management Areas (GMAs) within the much larger 20,000 square kilometre Lower Zambezi Area Management Unit.

Flying over the Zambezi escarpment and along the swollen Zambezi with its lush green floodplain was a very special experience, although spotting a couple of elephant carcasses from the air also hammered home an important message about the scale of the ongoing poaching challenges facing difficult-to-protect conservation areas like the Lower Zambezi. During our visit, we also had the opportunity to spend time with the new LZNP Canine Unit at an active road block, watching the determined dogs search vehicles for ivory, bushmeat and other contraband.

Throughout our time in Zambia, we took advantage of the knowledge and expertise of our hosts, brainstorming and debating the best ways to identify new opportunities and embrace technological innovations that might help overcome the ever-increasing challenges confronting Zambia and Tanzania’s iconic protected areas. There is no question that our time in Zambia was rewarding and worthwhile with new relationships forged, exciting collaboration opportunities explored and valuable new information gleaned that will help to enhance our Tanzanian operations.

A small breeding herd of elephants feeds on grass on a flooded island in the midst of the Zambezi

A small herd of elephants feeds on grass on a flooded island in the midst of the Zambezi River

The migration returns to Singita Grumeti, Tanzania – Sept & Oct 2016

Long columns of wildebeest plod steadily southwards into Singita Grumeti

Long columns of wildebeest returning from the Mara plod steadily southwards into Singita Grumeti

I strongly believe that 2016 will go down in the history books as one of the best years on record for viewing the migration at Singita Grumeti. After a spectacular May and June with dense concentrations and large columns of wildebeest heading north, July and August then delivered record zebra numbers across the concession area before the wildebeest returned again in September. The September/October migration window – as the wildebeest head back south to calve on the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti – has traditionally been far more variable and unreliable to the point where in some years the wildebeest bypass Singita Grumeti altogether on their return through the western corridor.

Regurgitating (9)

Wild dogs denning on the edge of Nyathi Plains

The year 2016 was, however, not one to disappoint. Not only did the wildebeest return in large numbers, they lingered far longer than previously. A few early season rain showers had greened up the concession nicely, ensuring water and plentiful grazing for the colossal columns of transient herbivores. When the clouds vanished the wildebeest loitered, waiting for more rain to drive them further south, but a very poor short rainy season this year has meant that the big thunderstorms didn’t arrive and the wildebeest hordes remained scattered across the Sasakwa, Sabora, Nyathi and Kawanga plains for months (instead of the usual weeks) with the migration only finally moving on again in November!

Celebrating World Rhino Day with a fun run on 22nd September

World Rhino Day Fun Run on 22nd September

While the unseasonably low rainfall experienced throughout the Serengeti in late 2016 ensured a spectacular and lingering second passage of the migration at Singita Grumeti, it does not bode well for the months ahead. A few more showers will see us through January 2017, but without meaningful rain in the coming months, we will be in for a very dry and challenging start to 2017. Not only will the wildlife populations suffer with limited food and water availability, but our neighbouring communities also are at risk: crops fail, human-wildlife conflict escalates, bush-meat poaching and snaring skyrocket… Everyone and every animal will have a tough time of it, so lets hope for some late season rains even though the forecast remains rather bleak.

Wildebeest scatter across the western plains in high densities

Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest returning from the Mara lie scattered across the western plains

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

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