Tag Archives: Elephant

Mthethomusha Safari

I’ve just returned from a fantastic 17 day trip to South Africa and, as always, my first priority – to the chagrin of my long-suffering boyfriend, who would rather I was emptying my suitcase or helping to clean the flat – has been to edit down my several hundred photos. Here, I present to you: Part I. Yes, that means there will be more to follow.

The trip started with four days on safari in the Mthethomusha game reserve, just outside Kruger National Park. We stayed in Bongani Mountain Lodge, perched high above the valley and enjoying breathtaking views across to the Drakensberg mountain range. Impala and baboons were frequent visitors around the lodge, elephants roamed the hills, and from the lookout you could often see zebra and wildebeest drinking from the watering hole. We even saw two male giraffes fighting whilst relaxing one day by the pool – David Attenborough eat your heart out!

Our regular guide was Johnson, a big, serious guy, who insisted on running through umpteen safety procedures before each drive and yet had no qualms about taking himself off on foot into the bush in search of lions. He was an excellent tracker and got us up close to rhino, buffalo, kudu, giraffe, nyala and a whole host of other animals, as well as spotting much smaller creatures…such as the tiny chameleon he clocked on a tree branch from a fast-moving jeep one evening, after the sun had already set! Yeah, he was impressive. The drives themselves, all off-road on bumpy, dusty tracks at dawn and dusk each day, were fantastic. I never want to forget how it felt to climb to the highest point in the area to stop and stretch our legs, taking in the incredible views and listening to the stillness as the sun rose.

The lions eluded Johnson though, to his frustration. It wasn’t until our trip into Kruger itself that we managed to see them up close: three males and a sleeping female. Seeing them in the wild is actually a little scarier than I was expecting; you realise how exposed you are in a topless jeep! Kruger was mind-blowing. Bigger than Wales (why is it always Wales?), the flat landscape stretching into infinity in all directions and the undergrowth teeming with animals. In addition to what we’d already encountered in Mthethomusha, we saw elands, hyenas, hippos, warthogs, bushbucks, vultures, tortoises, purple starlings, lizards and vervet monkeys. It was such an exciting and memorable experience.  And that evening we returned to the lodge for a braai (Afrikaans for ‘barbecue’) in the boma, a large circular eating space with open fire. Perfect!

So, four out of the ‘Big Five’ ain’t bad. Here are a small selection from my ridiculous number of photos…

IMG_9800

IMG_9483

IMG_9883

IMG_9926

IMG_0071

IMG_9496

IMG_9909

IMG_9602

IMG_0057

IMG_0115

IMG_9810

IMG_9970

IMG_9895

IMG_9945

IMG_0089

IMG_0026

IMG_0131

IMG_0175

IMG_0122

IMG_0041

IMG_9578

IMG_0154

The Golden Triangle

I’d had the foresight to book an extra day off work at the end of my trip (ostensibly to recover from jet-lag), which now provides the perfect opportunity to write up my time in India before the details escape me. So, where to begin? Well, I should first of all make clear that I absolutely loved the country. Adored it. Couldn’t get enough of it. Can’t wait to go back. That should be enough of a disclaimer to satisfy my lawyers. You can’t now complain about the ensuing hyperbole and frequent gushing. From hereon in, you’re going to have to put up with as many synonyms for ‘beautiful’ as I can prise from my semi-literate brain. I make no apologies about that. Here we go…

IMG_7791

So, I’ve already given the wrong impression in that opening paragraph. I haven’t seen the country. I’ve seen a very small portion of two states in the north, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, as well as the National Capital Territory of Delhi. I’ve only scratched the surface of this vibrant, exciting part of southern Asia. But it was a good start. And, to be honest, India – if you hadn’t realised – is huge. So doing it in chunks is the only real option for those of us beholden to the man, unwise enough to have foregone a gap year. India is approximately 3.3 million kilometres squared, and with around 1.2 billion inhabitants it’s the most populous democracy in the world. To say that India is ‘bustling’ would, then, be an understatement. Every home, street and mode of transport literally groans with the weight of its occupants.

IMG_8927Worth pausing here to acknowledge that – beautiful and vibrant the country may be – but it’s impossible not to be affected by how incredibly poor most of those inhabitants are. Despite being one of the fastest growing economies on the planet, most of the wealth of the country is held by a tiny fraction of the population and the majority of people you see live very simple lives. It’s hard not to sound trite when you say it’s humbling, or – worse – to fall into the trap of romanticising the existence of sari-clad women carrying firewood home on their heads. But this is the reality for millions: a meagre rural village life, where the fields are tended by hand with the help of oxen and camel; or a meagre city life, where many build their homes amongst the rubble and litter, working as roadside barbers, bone doctors, tailors or in a plethora of other small cottage industries in makeshift shops constructed of corrugated iron and tarpaulin. These city dwellers live alongside an array of domestic animals – literally alongside – with cows, pigs and goats sprawled on porches and wandering aimlessly amongst the honking traffic; they get their water from hand pumps on the street corner, share giant communal pots of daal and queue barefoot to attend the temple. I know that description is far from adequate, and – trying desperately not to sound pompous – I recognise that you only truly appreciate the reality by seeing it in person, but I’ll create a separate blog entry with some photos of street life to help paint a better picture. I just wanted to explain upfront that, while much of what follows is focused on the stunning World Heritage sights and accounts of the colourful history of opulent kings, I wasn’t blind to the other side of India’s coin.

IMG_6788

We stayed first in a colonial style hotel in Delhi, my dad and I, where we were welcomed with garlands of marigolds and sweet lassi. After a nine-hour flight, a bath and a rest would have been welcome, but instead – conscious of the short amount of time we had in the capital – we set straight out to see some of the sights of New Delhi. Built during the British rule or Raj period, the area was a showcase for the Empire and so the antithesis of everything I’ve just described: by far the most spacious, clean and picturesque streets of the whole trip.

IMG_6855We saw the India Gate – a war memorial for Indians killed during WWI and the third Afghan war – and the official residence of the President of India, which served as the palace of the Governor-General of British India before independence in 1947. Next we drove over to Jami Masjid, the largest congregational mosque in Asia. The mosque was built in the 17th century by Emperor Shah Jahan and took nearly five thousand workmen to construct. The huge courtyard accommodates up to 20,000 people, especially during Friday prayers and Id. It was calmer when we were there, close to dusk on a Saturday, but you could imagine what a spectacle it would be filled with a sea of worshippers. Donning paper shoes, we explored the marble domes and watched as people prepared themselves in the central ablution tank. It is a grand and peaceful site, in direct contrast to the bustling bazaars and night markets that surround it. The last stop, before a well-earned dinner of paneer makhani, butter chicken and dum bhindi, was Raj Ghat – the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi – a simple black marble platform that marks the spot of his cremation.

During the rest of our time in Delhi, we took in two major UNESCO World Heritage sites. Humayun’s Tomb is the memorial to the second Mughal emperor and is the first great example of a garden tomb, thought to be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. It’s a very impressive sight indeed, commissioned by Humayun’s ‘senior’ widow and built by a Persian architect. It was lovely to walk around in the slightly cooler early morning air, watching the chipmunks skittering around and the jays and parakeets circling.

IMG_7160The second sight of historical significance was the Mehrauli archaeological park, and specifically Qutb Minar, the world’s highest brick minaret. The area was built during the time of the Delhi Sultans, when the fabulous wealth of India attracted Arab traders and raiders. Muslim rulers established themselves in northern India and built an empire that lasted from around the turn of the first millennium until the early 16th century. Qutbuddin Aibak, a slave general, built the first storey of the brick minaret and a mosque to proclaim his victory over the Rajputs. The subsequent stories were added by his successors and the architecture shows a fusion of Hindu and Islamic styles, with decorative panels, domes and arches. It was here that I spent most of my time being followed by a little fan club of Indian teenagers who were insistent on having their photo taken with a young(ish) western girl. I obliged – about ten times – before hiding in Iltutmish’s tomb for some respite.

Other things of note during our time in Delhi: an amazing lunch of baingan ka bharta (puréed aubergine curry, a speciality of the Punjab region) with vegetable paratha (you didn’t think you’d escape constant mentions of food, did you?) and a colourful Sikh wedding in a carpark. But after too short a time, we journeyed forth into the countryside of Uttar Pradesh and onward to Agra. The countryside was dotted with tall chimneys, kilns for brick making, and farm workers harvesting the land, tilling fields using bull and cart. Agra at first doesn’t feel much less rural, with camels, oxen and donkeys on the bumpy roads and abandoned residential areas now overrun with rhesus macaque monkeys.

IMG_7046Agra was the imperial Mughal capital during the 16th and 17th centuries. It was from here that the emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shag Jahan governed their vast empire and the city flourished, attracting artisans who built luxurious forts, gardens and mausoleums. The city, of course, has some big hitters. Foremost among them: the Taj Mahal. One of the modern wonders of the world and one of the most photographed spots on the planet. It really does not disappoint. Built to commemorate Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite wife of Emperor Shah Jahan, it is breathtakingly beautiful. I don’t think I’d appreciated before the effort that was taken to make it so symmetrical, and it’s perfect proportions certainly enhance it’s impact. Gazing at its shimmering splendour, you can see why it’s variously described as a prayer, a vision, a dream, a poem, a wonder. We spent two hours wandering around the main tomb, lotus pool and two flanking mosques, marvelling at the inlaid marble, tall calligraphic panels, filigree screens and towering minarets. I can’t recommend it enough. Whether you consider it the greatest monument to love ever created or not, it is undeniably sublime.

That same evening we also visited Itimad-ud-Daulah (known locally as the Little Taj), a gorgeous white marble and mosaic tomb built for the Lord Treasurer of the Mughal empire by his daughter. On any other holiday, this would probably have been a highlight in itself, but on a trip with such tough competition it was merely a sideshow and a prelude to a walk through the nearby Mughal Gardens, from where you can see across the Yamuna river to the Taj.

IMG_7348We arrived in the gardens just before sunset and the views were incredible. The dusty haze of the day prevented a really strong sunset, but seeing a young girl herding goats past the yellowing sky in front of the Taj is a memory I’ll treasure.

While in Agra, we also visited the fort – another UNESCO site – and Fatehpur Sikri, a ‘ghost town’ about an hour’s drive outside the city. The latter was a real surprise. I hadn’t known what to expect, but was bowled over by the place. Built by Emperor Akbar, it was the political capital of the Mughal empire for only a decade or so, but is an architectural wonderland of palaces and pavilions, and – in its heyday – would have also been surrounded by beautiful parks, residences and mosques. In the 16th century travellers noted that is was larger and more populous than London. However, only a short time after being completed, the city was abandoned in favour of the more militarily strategic Lahore, and became virtually unknown for hundreds of years. Its a rubbish analogy, but some of the architecture brought to mind the Indiana Jones film The Temple of Doom. It’s a ruined – though well preserved – kingdom, with dark tunnels of arches and plenty of decorated hidden knocks and crannies. My favourite part was the Panch Mahal, a five-storey open pavilion overlooking the Pachisi Court, where Akbar’s queens could sit and savour the cool evening breeze and play a version of Ludo, dancing between each move.

monkeyLeaving Agra, we took a train from Bharatpur to Sawai Madhopur. The train journey was an experience in itself – not quite Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited (my reference point and inspiration), but not far off. People take their lives into their hands to travel on the railway: hanging off the side of the train, crossing the rails to get to the platform, wandering down the tracks with milk canisters and teapots. We, thankfully, had seats, but it was great to watch all this going on. Out of the window, rural life unfolded: farm-stays made out of twigs, cattle wandering in and out of the home, children carrying water jugs on their heads, people working on the track as we navigated past, including women in saris working cement mixers. And all manner of wildlife crossed the tracks during the short journey, including dogs, piglets, goats, cows…small children. Happily none of these were stationary on the track long enough to hold up our journey.

IMG_8060

We arrived in Sawai Madhopur in the pitch black. There were few lights in the station and no street lighting at all on the roads outside. When we got to our hotel, a nice family run place near Ranthambore National Park with a lovely pool area (and delicious masala dosas for breakfast), there were semi-frequent blackouts. We had a thrilling couple of days in Ranthambore, but I’m conscious that this entry is already quite long, so I’m going to do a separate blog on the park (thereby also allowing for more animal pictures to be included), and skip to Jaipur.

I think that Jaipur was my favourite of the three cities we visited. It’s incredibly colourful, the sights are fantastic, we had amazing weather and we enjoyed excellent spicy Rajasthani food like lal maas (a rich mutton dish), lots of different vegetable curries, amazing rotis and naans (the breads in India are fantastic) and various interesting desserts like gulab jamun (deep-fried milk and flour dumplings in a thick syrup). It was also – unfortunately – the only time on the trip that I succumbed to a stomach bug. Hey ho. It would have been pretty much unprecedented to avoid one completely.

IMG_8808Jaipur is known as the ‘pink city’. It’s a labyrinth of bazaars, opulent palaces and historic wonders. On the streets, camels and elephants jostle with mopeds, turbaned elders and snake charmers sit on street corners, and monkeys clamber over the old city walls. Those walls were built by Sawai Jai Singh II, a statesman and scholar who ruled for 40 years. It is one of India’s finest examples of a planned urban city, with a grid of nine sectors representing the nine cosmic divisions of the universe and seven proud gates. At dawn on our second day there, I took a jeep ride to the base of Amer Palace (otherwise known as the Amber Fort) and then an elephant along the battlements to the palace itself. It was only my second time riding an elephant and made me quite giddy – they’re such majestic creatures and mine, adorned with bright face paint and tassels, was a gentle soul and provided a smooth ride.

IMG_8848

Amer was originally a Rajput fort. The Rajput clans rose to prominence in the northern region in the late 7th century, claiming a high caste warrior status. After losing Delhi and Kannauj to the Muslims, they confined themselves to Rajasthan and their influence is very apparent in the architecture of the state. The fort was augmented over the centuries, with a citadel added in the 16th century and various other buildings, making it a sprawling complex. It reminded me a little of the Alhambra Palace in Granada. I loved it! After coming through the main courtyard area, you pass through the Ganesh Pol, a shimmering three-storey gateway leading to the private apartments of the Maharaja and his twelve wives. Each wife had identical living quarters with secret passageways to the Maharaja, to prevent any getting jealous that another was favoured or that they were having more private time with king. I thought the Sattais Katcheri, an open area covered in archways where the record books were written, and the Jas Mandir, the private audience room with a marble screen overlooking the Maota Lake below, where particularly lovely, but the Sheesh Mahal (hall of mirrors) was the most unique room. Light from a single candle is reflected in thousands of tiny mirrors embedded in the chamber, transforming it into a twinkly starry night.

IMG_8980Inside the walls of the pink city itself, we also visited the Jantar Mantar, one of five astronomical and astrological observatories built by Jai Singh II. It is considered the best preserved of the five and looks and feels like a sculpture park, with its weird and wonderful stone instruments dotted about. Some of the instruments are still used to forecast the length of summer and the intensity of the monsoon season. Hindus have come here for centuries to get their astrological signs read, in order to determine if their proposed husband or wife will be a good match. According to Hindu Vedic Astrology, the higher the compatibility of the 36 ‘Guns’ (character traits), the higher the probability that the bride and groom will have a happy marriage. The nearby City Palace is also worth a visit, if only for the Pritam Chowk (‘Court of the Beloved’) with its four stunning painted doorways representing the four seasons. Finally, a trip to Jaipur would not be complete without seeing Hawa Mahal (the Palace of the Winds). This is not a palace that you go in to, but merely a facade. It has, however, become an icon for the city, with many believing that when seen from afar it looks like the crown of Lord Krishna’s head. It is adorned with a thousand or more windows, allowing ladies of the court to watch parades unseen and be kept cool from the searing heat by the gentle breezes that the design facilitates.

So, that was my whistle-stop tour of India’s ‘Golden Triangle’. Absolutely fabulous! I’ll certainly return at some point – maybe to the south next time – but right now I have rather a lot of washing to do…

IMG_8988Monkey Trouble

IMG_7927Learned Colleagues

IMG_7922Doorway Heaven

IMG_8795Travelling in Style

IMG_7617Baby Taj

IMG_7751Real Taj

Wats and ‘Phants

I spent an amazing three weeks in South-East Asia in the autumn of 2008. Hong Kong and Singapore were fabulous (more on those another time), but it was Thailand that I really fell in love with. It’s hard not to when the food, people, sights and culture are so vibrant and exotic.

We first flew to the island of Phuket. Our hotel – The Cape Panwa – was in an idyllic, secluded bay of white sand and crystal-clear turquoise water. Heavenly! There was a colonial-style restaurant right on the beach and the hotel had its own jetty into the sea. The food was incredible – giant langoustines, thai curries and delicious cardamom rice pudding – and the beach was the nicest I’ve ever been to. Swimming, sunbathing, reading, and seeking out crabs were the order of the day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As tempting as it would have been to lie in a hammock for a week, Phuket has many other attractions. You can’t visit without taking a long tail boat trip into the Andaman Sea to Phang Nga National Park, with its many beautiful islands. We stopped at James Bond Island (so named for featuring in The Man With the Golden Gun) for a look around, spying iguanas on the beach and wading through rock pools. You wouldn’t know that the area had been devastated by the Tsunami in 2004. It’s simply stunning. We also stopped at Ko Panyi, a Muslim fishing village built on stilts by Indonesian fisherman from Java. We visited the small primary school and floating football pitch, and strolled along the raised streets, where hundreds of chillies were hanging from washing lines drying in the sun.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also headed into the hills for an elephant trek. This was a real highlight for me. We were able to feed the baby ‘phants with bananas, stroking their trunks as they pulled the fruit from our hands, before climbing onto the backs of their parents for a journey through the jungle rainforests and up to a mountain village. The views over the island were lovely and our elephant was beautiful, giving us a smooth ride. We meandered at a leisurely pace, occasionally stopping for some shade. In the village, we had a cookery lesson – making a spicy red curry – and a ride on a cart pulled by a water buffalo. We were also shown how the villagers make baskets from coconut husks and how to tap rubber trees. Great fun!

Bidding a fond farewell to paradise, we flew on to the capital: Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit (or Bangkok to you). The city’s ceremonial name translates as “City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s behest”. Nice, huh? After checking in at our hotel on Rajdamri Road, we caught a taxi to the riverfront and jumped on a boat down the Chao Phraya. The taxi driver had ripped us off, it transpired, but given I’m used to London prices I didn’t notice. It was only after comparing the price of the return journey that I realised we’d paid about six times too much. Still, you live and learn. The boat trip was lovely, taking us past Wat Arun and many other famous sights, then down tributaries into more residential areas, with the houses perched precariously on stilts driven into the alluvial plains. An Asian buffet atop Baiyoke Tower II, the tallest building in the city, and a stroll through the Ratchathewi and Pathumwan districts concluded the day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next morning we tried to get to Dusit Palace, but – fearful of political unrest and protests against the Prime Minister which were taking place in the area – our taxi driver instead suggested a visit to Wat Saket and The Golden Mount. It’s worth the climb to the top of the Mount for the views over Bangkok, and without the usual throng of tourists the temple is one of the most peaceful in the city. Having waited patiently for us while we wandered around, and only charging us about £3 for doing so (further reinforcing my conviction that yesterday’s driver was a ne’er do well), we went on to the Phra Nakhon district. The Grand Palace was also disappointingly off-limits, the result of a royal birthday or funeral (I forget which), so it’s difficult to say how it would have compared, but Wat Pho was certainly one of the most impressive places I’ve been to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s named after the monastery in India where Buddha is thought to have lived and is home to the gigantic (160 foot) Reclining Buddha as well as over 1,000 other images of ya main man. The large temple complex takes a long time to get round, with its various shrines, gates, statues and courtyards, and we were ready for a sit down in a cafe by the end. Only a short pause though, before we headed into the district of Samphanthawong in Chinatown and to Wat Traimit, home of the largest solid gold statue in the world (Buddha, of course). Here I received a blessing from a Buddhist monk (for a small fee) and we were able to sit in the shade for a while, our legs having started to ache. Time to head back to Thanon Ratchadamri, with its western shopping malls and restaurants, for a bite to eat. An outdoor beer festival was in full swing, so we tried some Thai brew and got a bowl of the spiciest soup I’ve ever tasted thrown in as a free accompaniment. No longer able to feel my tongue or lips, it was time to call it a night.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next morning, we rose at the crack of dawn and drove out of the city, boarding a long tail boat to Damnoen Saduak. Sailing past salt fields and rice paddies, you arrive at the network of canals that form the traditional floating market. It’s really bustling, with women in straw hats paddling in boats laden with mangoes, coconuts, Chinese grapefruit and other exotic fruits and vegetables. Some were also cooking up large cauldrons of broth and curry.  The smells and sounds were fantastic. I didn’t dare barter for anything – it was all too frantic and several of the traders had large snakes around their necks – but it was enough to soak it all in. Next we travelled to Phra Pathom Chedi in the town of Nakhon Pathom and climbed the many steps – in the now searing midday head – to the largest pagoda in Thailand. The pagoda is a huge upside-down bell-shaped structure, surrounded by some of the more uniquely-posed Buddha statues. After that it was on to the Rose Garden cultural centre, where were saw a performance of fingernail dancing, Thai boxing, an elephant parade and a recreation of a traditional Thai wedding ceremony. A great end to our Thailand adventure!

Luckily we flew onward to Hong Kong before the take-over of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport by the activists of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which saw around 3,000 tourists and locals trapped in the terminal for about a week. While I would happily have spent longer in the country, it was most definitely a lucky escape!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABig feet, Big shoes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWat Dat

IMG_2687East meets West

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABetter than Tesco

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAParadise