Posts Tagged ‘National Parks’

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!

African Success Stories, Rwanda & Zambia – June 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures in Darkest Africa, Congo & Zambia – May 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

Return top