Posts Tagged ‘Wilderness’

Subansiri, Varanasi and the Andamans, India – December 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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