Nagaland

Head Hunters of Nagaland

A hunter from Nagaland was asked by his birding group what a certain bird was. He looked up, shot the bird and as it fell to the ground replied, “A dead bird.”

Such a remark has connotations of a wild west feel, which are certainly true of this frontier province in the north-east of India. History vindicates this reputation: neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh was called the North East Frontier Agency by the British, it was effectively a no-go zone.

As I stand at the border of Nagaland at a small outpost called Tizi, the betel-red smile and pierced ears of a member of the Konyak tribe announce my arrival in the land of the headhunters. Naga is a Burmese word for a piercing in reference to the piercings of nose and ear of the people.

As we cross into Nagaland, the concrete walls of the houses in Assam have been replaced by bamboo; solid roofs have transformed into thatch. The topography has become wilder, the flat of the plains of Assam is overshadowed by the precipitous hills of Nagaland. The flora and fauna is more unkempt and the fertile, alluvial soil has given way to rocks. The road is no longer tarred but rocky, bumpy and jarring. Our speed is reduced to a standstill as we literally seem to go back in time.

An age later – it takes us some two-and-a-half hours to travel sixty kilometres – we arrive at Mon, the district capital. An unappealing town of a disconcertingly large size, 100,000, Mon is crammed onto and squeezed between the hills. It is a simple bed for the night before heading further into Nagaland.

After a cursory stop at a police station for some form-filling, we leave Mon on a single-track bumpy road that meanders tortuously through the undergrowth and hillside. The smell of burning porcine flesh wafts by as blow torches are used to prepare pigs for the celebrations over the next few days. We pass young men walking back to their villages for the festivities. We are passed by a convoy of motorbikes, one young man resplendent in his headdress and shades as his younger sister and baby brother sit behind. I remark at the beauty of his sister and then doubt the wisdom of doing so for fear on incurring the wrath of a headhunter.

We arrive at the village of Hong Phoi. My guide doesn’t know the meaning of the name due to differences of dialect – such is the nature of the terrain and the hostilities between tribes and villages over the centuries that language has evolved so differently. Thankfully, the fearsome reputation of the Konyak is no longer quite what it was. Their fighting prowess was diminished in the mid nineteenth century with the advent of opium but sadly in the 1950s, a far more powerful drug, namely religion, put paid to the last vestiges of violence as the missionaries persuaded the Konyak to put down their machetes. The influence of the missionaries and the proliferation of Baptist churches and their size – out of all proportion to the modest huts and homes and to the wealth of the community – were a constant surprise to me.

Notwithstanding my views on the missionaries, our reception was warm and welcoming. Indeed, we were quickly ushered into the morung, a male reserve where traditionally the elders discussed war and hostilities but nowadays far more mundane topics are discussed, such as how to petition the local government to improve the roads.

The elders were preparing themselves for the Aoling Festival. Unlike the Hornbill Festival, a construct of the local government and tourist board to celebrate the 1st December 1963 when Nagaland came into being, Aoling is a Spring festival that is very much, and always has been, a festival celebrated by the villages and communities of the region that spans a number of days. The first day is about sacrificing animals, mainly pigs, a day of preparation. On the second day, the village celebrates. The third marks a family feast and the fourth is about remembering the dead and visiting cemeteries, whilst the fifth is about planting, sowing the seeds and regeneration.

Today in Hong Phoi was festival day and there was a real sense of occasion and expectation among many of the elders sitting in and entering the morung dressed in their finery. In spite of their frailty – many were octogenarians – there was an evident pride in their dress. Even if not at the height of their physical prowess, their dress looked the part.

Elephant tusk bracelets adorned their upper arms. Across their left shoulder was an ancient musket not quite 1870’s vintage when muskets were first introduced by the British replacing bow and arrows or machete, but not far off it. Slung diagonally across from their right shoulder to their left hip was a chung pak, a beautifully embroidered piece of red cloth with yellow and green diamonds, that supported a battered old cane basket on their backs. The basket would once have been used to carry heads and trailing from the basket would have been palm leaves. Heads and palm leaves have been replaced by vegetables and shredded plastic respectively.

Around their necks were brightly coloured beads traded from Burma and boar tusks hunted from the forest. On top of the beads were further necklaces of small horns and tusks and bronze trinkets, some of which were in the shape of small human skulls. Their faces were tattooed blue as once was the custom and from their long ear lobes hung boar tusks.

The pièce de résistance was the headdress. A red cane hat decorated with yellow, given drama by white horns and festooned with tufts of black bear hair. The crowning glory was a long white feather with a black band on it – the distinctive feather of the hornbill.

Some of the younger Konyak men, having not been headhunters, were clearly not in possession of the genuine article and had to use their artistic licence in their costume. Some had daubed their faces with paint, others had added foliage to their outfits and one even wore a multi-coloured punk wig.

I warmed to one elder in particular. He had an avuncular face, a welcoming smile and a twinkle in his eye. Moreover, he was touchingly affectionate with his young grandson, patiently helping him adjust his headdress, so that it was just right. It was only when he raised his necklaces to reveal an array of faded blue tattoos, markings from a previous life that revealed that he had killed five men, I realised appearances can be deceptive.

We headed out to the football field. Anticipation was mounting. Young children eagerly rushing to be on time, not wanting to miss out. Women holding umbrellas sat calmly on old wooden benches. Children squatted on the grass or adorned the crazily contorted branches of an ancient ficus tree. The blast from muskets being noisily fired by mischievous teenage boys, echoed from the fringes of the festival.

This was not some celebration of the past. While dramatically photogenic, the reality was more prosaic. There was a programme of dances and dancers were carefully supervised and marshalled. There was a commentator announcing proceedings over the loudspeaker.

Yet to bestow the scene with order and stage management would be going too far. At one point, the microphone was given to one of the elders as he led the dancing and singing. Unhappy that his troops were not following him as they should be, he turned round to chastise them, forgetting that he was still holding the microphone. His comments were broadcast to the ribald laughter and amusement of the assembled crowd.

Other dances included the bamboo dance in which eight women held either end of two bamboo poles forming a square. In metronomic rhythm, they would open, close and open the bamboo poles as further women, dressed in orange-red skirts, black vests and orange bead necklaces and headdresses, would dance neatly between the poles. Young boys got their opportunity to please their mothers with a short dance whilst adolescent boys got to please their beaus in showcasing their process at climbing bamboo poles. But as befitting of the occasion, it was the elders who had the final dénouement with a reenactment of a hunt ending in an ear-splitting fusillade that was not in unison.

Time has tainted their timing. These heandhunters of old will not see many more Aoling festivals. With them will die an infamous epithet.

The Aoling festival rejuvenates elderly limbs, puts smiles on old faces; however, it will not keep them alive forever. What the festival does sustain is respect. Veneration for traditions and in particular the elders, who were always spoken to with reverential tones and whose say still holds sway. Aoling is about camaraderie and unity.

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Steppes Big 5: Reasons to Travel to Rajasthan in March

Steppes Big 5: Reasons to Travel to Rajasthan in March

It is not too late to book a holiday to Rajasthan this Spring. We have collaborated with our key hotel partners, Oberoi and Taj Palaces to bring you some unbelievable savings for a memorable last minute getaway.  So what are the benefits of travelling in March?

Weather

March and April are stunning months to visit Rajasthan, with the weather getting much warmer and a wind that typically arrives from the northwest. The average monthly temperature is around 27.C with over 11 hours of daylight hours. What a welcome change to the long winter we are soon to emerge from.

Ease of the E-Visa

Changes made by the Embassy on 15 August 2015 saw the introduction of an E visa application for UK Nationals. This facility is in addition to the existing visa services.

The introduction of the e-Tourist Visa is to facilitate tourists who plan a trip to India at short notice. The visa has a maximum validity of 30 days from the date of arrival in India with single entry facility only. You can apply online a minimum of 4 days in advance of the date of arrival making India a real contender for last minute holidays. The fee is also substantially lower at US$60.

Visit the Taj Mahal before the dome restoration project begins

Cleaning the monument is time-consuming and challenging. To remove discolouration, workers suspended on scaffolding are caking Fuller’s earth — a mud paste that absorbs dirt, grease and animal excrement, and that is commonly used to treat skin impurities — on the entire monument. The mud is then washed off, leaving a pristine surface. Restoration work on the dome was due to start early 2017, but in true Indian bureaucracy, it is yet to begin so go now and marvel at the truly impressive Taj Mahal. It never fails to impress. The Oberoi Amarvilas is the place to stay.

Steppes Big 5: Reasons to Travel to Rajasthan in March

Rajasthani Festivals

If you find yourself in Rajasthan during March you are in luck as there are plenty of festivals.  Gangaur Festival is the most important, celebrated over two days, starting March 20th.  Colourful processions of bejewelled images of goddess Gauri wind their way all over cities and villages accompanied by local bands.  The Mewar Festival follows, welcoming the arrival of Spring. Held at Gangaur Ghat on the banks of Lake Pichola in Udaipur it is a fantastic opportunity to see a range of traditional instruments being played.

Of course, Holi is celebrated across India too, on the eve of March 1st. On the evening of Holi, people light bonfires in a ritual called holika dahan. Why not join in the celebration of the Mewar royal family in Udaipur where there will be a magnificent palace procession from the City Palace to Manek Chowk. Or visit Hotel Diggi Palace in Jaipur for the well-organised festival of colours.

Stay in Leading Hotels of the World. Luxury doesn’t have to cost the earth

See the very best of the region through the four well-known cities of Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur. We have collaborated with our key hotel partners, Oberoi and Taj Palaces in Rajasthan to offer an exclusive rate for holidays commencing in India no later than the 31st March 2018.

Taj Palaces: Now wonderful heritage hotels the Taj Palaces were originally built as residences for the royal families of Rajasthan, of which some are still in situ. They are undoubtedly some of the grandest choices of accommodation found in Rajasthan.

An 8-night holiday staying at the Taj Palace hotels in the key cities of Delhi, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur and Mumbai. From £3,500 per person including flights.  A total saving of £ 1900 based on two people travelling.

Oberoi Vilas: Experience world-class palatial living at the award-winning Oberoi hotels. These distinctive hotels boast some of the finest iconic residences in Rajasthan. Enjoy Rajput hospitality at its best. Visit the newly refurbished Oberoi New Delhi, reopening after a two-year closure.  Stay at the iconic Amarvilas with the enviable view of the Taj Mahal from every room, stay within the beautiful greenery of the Raj Vilas whilst in Jaipur and the lakefront setting of Udai Vilas, a traditional Mewari palace planted along the shore of Lake Pichola.

A 10-night stay with Oberoi including the Vilas properties in Jaipur and Udaipur. When staying at the Oberoi Vilas property receive an additional free night for every two-night stay. From £3,995 pp. Savings of at least £2000 per booking, based on two people travelling.

There is a wealth of exclusive complimentary offers extended to anyone confirming a holiday to travel before 31st March 2018.

Ranging from VIP meet and greet at Delhi airport, a bottle of bubbly on arrival, upgraded room categories, a spa voucher each to indulge at any one of the hotel spas, and a complimentary Indian speciality meal whilst in Rajasthan.

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The Hunt is On – Indian Wild Dogs of Nagarhole National Park

“For a split second the jungle went completely quiet. The quiet before the storm.

Then, with an electrical charge, a jolt of energy that could be felt, the quiet was broken. The herd of around 20 chital, or Indian spotted deer, suddenly broke cover and ran as fast as they could through the dry, crackling undergrowth. Various warning calls shrilled and competed to be heard from the tree tops. With our cameras poised and our hearts beating in our throats my fellow safari goers and I watched on. In this prey-rich environment the deer could have been pursued by a tiger or a leopard, or perhaps the elusive and secretive black panther that calls Nagarhole National Park home. But on this occasion the deer were being stalked by three hungry dhole – Indian wild dogs.

The hunt was masterful. The dogs fanned out and began to trot toward the deer displaying menace and intent, but also a practised nonchalance. The deer stood shoulder to shoulder with ears pricked and eyes alert. They knew the dogs were there but they were still a little way away and there was no need yet to run. Then suddenly, as the dogs narrowed the gap, an in-built survival instinct took hold, and the deer took to their heels. The dogs came together on the dirt road, dropped their heads, and ran as hard as they could at the pack of deer. A smaller and weaker deer at the back of the pack faltered momentarily, and the lead dog lunged at the trailing leg, narrowly missing. The deer herd split at this point and scampered in various directions into the brush. As quickly as it began the hunt was over. Masterful but on this occasion unsuccessful.”

Joe, our India specialist, recently explored the Nagarhole National Park in Southern India and was fortunate enough to encounter the endangered dhole in a heart-stopping chase to capture its prey.  Perhaps not the most common of experiences one would expect to witness on a holiday to India, but truly unforgettable nonetheless. If you would like to hear more about Joes India Safari drop him a line on 01285 880 980.

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Join Lee Durrell this April on an Indian Voyage

Durrell’s work with the iconic pygmy hog is one of the most enduring field programmes. So how would you like to meet them? As part of this true ‘once in a life time’ Indian expedition, you’ll do just that. Joining Lee Durrell, you’ll also encounter rhinos in Kaziranga National Park, spot the rare South Asian river dolphin on the Ganges, and experience a whole lot of ‘real’ India along the way.

Travelling with Lee Durrell offers a fantastic opportunity to learn about a diverse range of wildlife and gain insight about the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. She has a phenomenal knowledge, based on years of experience. A great leader, it is her presence that makes the trip exceptional.

By travelling on this tour you are directly supporting the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. A contribution will be made on your behalf to the specific projects that are visited whilst in India. Spaces are limited.

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The bare necessities of Tiger Tourism in India

Popcorn flies in the air as my seven-year-old jumps out of his seat as the menacing Shere Khan launches himself at the unsuspecting Mowgli. “Run Mowgli, run,” my son shouts at the screen.

This weekend I saw the newest Disney version of “The Jungle Book” in the company of my twelve-year-old daughter and my enthralled seven-year-old son.  There are enough nods to the 1967 cartoon to satisfy my childhood nostalgia, but the new film breathes delightful new life into a longstanding family favourite, lending digital depth and a hint of darkness to the familiar anthropomorphic encounters.

As Shere Khan, Idris Elba scares; as Kaa, Scarlett Johansson seduces; as Baloo, Bill Murray amuses; as Louie, Christopher Walken is intoxicating. The film has ethical values and is a storytelling classic. But the real success of the film is its computer-animated graphics. Shere Khan is realised in such extraordinarily hair-perfect detail, his movement so persuasive, so visceral, he might as well be the real, tooth-and-claw deal. The birds come alive in the trees with stunning attention to detail.

In every way, this quietly majestic film should be considered a triumph. So too the announcement earlier this year that the estimated number of wild tigers worldwide has risen for the first time in a century. The World Wildlife Fund and Global Tiger Forum announced that 3,890 tigers had been counted in the latest global census.

Such success is in no small part due to tiger tourism – your visits to see tigers bring money and security to India’s national parks. Only yesterday clients reported seeing thirteen tigers whilst in Tadoba National Park.

However, it is not a time for complacency or to rest on our laurels. Now is the time to enjoy the thrill of seeing tigers in the wild rather than on screen. Now is the time to go to ensure that we maintain the tiger’s habitat giving them a chance of survival, ensuring that they are not consigned to books and computer-generated imagery.

With over 25 years of experience, our Steppes India experts can guide you on how to best experience the wildlife of India, whether it be a couples holiday or a family affair on your first tiger safari holiday in India

Get in touch with our India tiger safari specialists today, email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753. 

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India’s Taj Mahal to undergo face lift in 2017

In 2017, for the first time in the building’s history, a mud pack cleaning process will be applied to the main dome. This process restores the whiteness of the marble. It’s one of the safest cleaning methods available for such monuments as it’s non-abrasive and non-corrosive.

What does this mean for visitors in 2017?

The work is due to start in April 2017, carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India, and last just shy of a year. This may get pushed back depending on technical studies taking place. The mud cover, once applied, is protected under polythene sheets to ensure that absorption takes place properly. This will be for two to three days at a time. There will be a form of iron scaffolding tied on the dome during this time.

The interiors and beautiful gardens are still available in all their splendour. Please ask our Indian Experts for updates when booking your holiday to India with us.

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After 10 years Planet Earth II returns to BBC2

Attenborough’s Planet Earth II will be the BBC’s most high- tech series ever, utilising ultra-high definition cameras on drones.  The experience guarantees to be immersive, allowing the viewer to travel with the animal, whilst showing the epic scale of the environment it lives in. This is utterly game changing for how documentaries are produced, uncovering stories about the natural world that we have simply never been able to witness before.

Unmanned drones let cameras get close to creatures such as the snow leopard, and follow animals where helicopters cannot fly. By using “camera traps”, the animal triggers a sensor which activate the camera to capture the footage.

Taking over three years to make this six-part series will be broadcast later this Autumn.  To learn more about our tailor made holidays to India or to join our small group tour in search of snow leopard email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601751.

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Searching for snow leopards in Ladakh, India

Mountains in Ulley

The silence echoes around Saspochey village where the yaks walk in slow motion and the air is so clear it sparkles. I spin a prayer wheel and stand back to count the revolutions.

My concentration drifts across to the highest peaks on the horizon and in my mind’s eye, I picture the unmistakable profile of the Ghost of the Himalaya, lightly treading across fresh snow with an air of inscrutability before it slinks off into a mist filled gully, out of sight.

I have come to Ladakh to fulfill a dream of seeing a wild snow leopard. Not long ago, this dream would likely have remained just that however there are changes afoot, and the snow leopard is no longer “that damned elusive Pimpernel”, berated by countless big cat enthusiasts for remaining out of sight, yet paradoxically worshipped for being so enigmatic. Sightings are becoming more frequent and it was a conversation with my friend in India, Rahul that piqued my curiosity.

“Come to Ulley valley with me and I promise you will see a snow leopard.”

My friend, Rahul is one of life’s eternal optimists, but when it came to wildlife he always gave very measured advice. His next comment intrigued me further and made up my mind to book a ticket and make the journey to Ladakh.

“The snow leopard is no longer seen as a nemesis by the local people – they love him now!”

So what has changed? There has been a change in mind-set amongst the rural community in Ladakh, largely down to the development of a homestay enterprise that allows local people to benefit from snow leopard tourism. As such, the snow leopard is no longer persecuted for killing livestock but rather celebrated for enticing wildlife lovers from around the world and with them a much needed revenue stream. So while five years ago a six night stay in the Indian Himalayas would rarely have resulted in a snow leopard sighting, today, in areas where homestays are thriving, the snow leopard is being seen with increasing regularity. While news of these sightings is received with excitement, there are also questions to be considered; will this ongoing habituation conversely lead to greater human-wildlife conflict? Will sightings become so common, the thrill of seeing a snow leopard will be diminished? Will local homestay owners be tempted to lay down bait for snow leopards and in doing so create a dangerous dependency? Will field biologists finally be able to build a clearer picture of snow leopard behaviour and begin to understand critical information like the animal’s range and population?

These questions are on my mind as I sit on a rock in the middle of Ulley valley, with a small group of Steppes’ clients, eating a lunch of tandoori chicken, sweet mango chutney and fresh chapatti. Before stopping for something to eat we had been walking for an hour, north of Saspochey village, during which time my guides, David Sonam and Norbu used a walkie-talkie to keep in close communication with their trackers. This group of beady eyed, local Ladakhis had been mobilised earlier in the day, strategically placed across key snow leopard territories in the valley. Norbu knows these mountains and valleys intimately, having been born in Ulley and turning his home into a homestay style lodge. His guiding partner, David is one of the founders of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, and while a city boy by birth (born in Leh), his love for and knowledge of snow leopards is remarkable. In conjunction with their carefully chosen trackers they make a formidable snow leopard tracking team. It was David whom took me to one side to calmly break the news that high up on the mountain side above us, two snow leopards had been spotted by trackers with well-trained eyes. I am immediately skeptical and over-excited all at once.

“Two! Are you sure…where?”

David smiles but says nothing (the Ladakhi way) and gestures to me to sit down. He begins to unpack his bag in preparation for a picnic.

“Lunch? Now?” I ask incredulously.

David lays out a small, snow leopard embroidered table cloth across a large rock and neatly lines up knives, forks, plates and cups.
“Our trackers are with them. They are not going anywhere so now is a good time to eat. Do you like tandoori chicken?”

As I resignedly eat lunch, the thought that the icy glare of two snow leopards may be upon us, gives me goose bumps. I eat as fast as I can but then remember the comments made by Jigmet at the Snow Leopard Conservancy with whom we met before coming to Ulley, about how snow leopards are very “clean eaters”. I curb my hog like instincts and “eat cleanly”, wishing I hadn’t put so much on my plate so we could just get moving.

Norbu finishes his lunch and speaks into his walkie talkie, presumably to check on the snow leopards’ position. After a brief exchange he beckons to the group to follow him and we march as quickly as our full bellies and the altitude will allow, into a ravine and up onto a high vantage point that looks across at a steep mountain side. Scopes are deployed and following several conversations on the walkie talkie, Norbu invites me to take a look through the scope. Rocks. All I can see are rocks. My eye darts around the circle of the scope, desperate to lock onto the vision I have had in my mind’s eye since contemplating this trip but all I can see are rocks.

“He is moving” exclaims Norbu.

My heart sinks, as I am convinced the snow leopard will move out of view and off the mountain, taking with him any chance I have of seeing the Ghost of the Himalaya.

“He is climbing onto the rock!”

I know Norbu’s commentary is intended to help but my response is tetchy.

“Which rock!?”

Norbu stays quiet but then everything around me seems to go silent as my eye locks onto the mistakable shape of a large cat in the centre of the scope. Draped across a rock, the snow leopard is the epitome of feline insouciance with eyes half closed to combat the effect of the sun’s glare. His gigantic tail is curled round in front of him as if he is reluctant to let it out of his sight. It flicks and twitches as if charged with an electric pulse while the rest of his body is motionless, absorbing the heat of the afternoon sun. To his left I can just make out a pair of feline ears (which I later learn belong to his brother) pointing above the top of a boulder. The ears suddenly move as the second snow leopard jumps onto the rock he is using as cover and sniffs the air. For a glorious moment there are two snow leopards visible in the scope before they both nimbly jump across the rocks and disappear from view.

I step away from the scope, lost for words to articulate my feelings about what I have just witnessed. The smiles on the ordinarily inscrutable faces of Norbu and David convey a collective sense of exhilaration better than any words could do justice. Rahul was right; Ladakhis love the snow leopard. Combined with an intelligence and an entrepreneurial spirit like that shown by Norbu and David, this love for the snow leopard could just be what is needed to save it.

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India: Village Wildlife Guardians prevent tiger poaching

With the astonishing success of the Village Wildlife Guardians programme in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in India, this year the project is being introduced in Kanha National Park with sponsorship from Steppes Travel.

 

In December 2014, TOFTigers, in partnership with Tigerwatch and the Field Director of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in India, launched a project to recruit up to 20 Village Wildlife Guardians. Particular emphasis was placed in those villages prone to wildlife conflicts with the large population of villagers bordering the famous Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.

Over the past few years the projects results have been astonishing. Poachers have been caught red-handed, animal movements monitored across huge areas of landscape, dens protected, illegal mining and wood chopping stopped and the villager’s safety improved.

In fact it’s been such a success that the Field Director of Ranthambore wants more guardians.

This year the programme is being introduced in Kanha National Park and Steppes Travel are sponsoring the project with other partners.

 

How the programme works

Tigerwatch recruits and coordinates each individual guardian, trains them and pays them a retainer to report to the local park authorities any suspicious movements or activities on the fringes of the park near their homes and farmlands, including potential poaching activities for both tigers but crucially for prey species like wild boar, spotted and sambar deer, as well as illegal logging or interference with wildlife den sites of creatures like hyenas, wolves, foxes, sloth bear or leopards, often moving outside the park. A few individuals are also skilled trackers and can be used to track tigers who stray out of the park often for weeks on end as they search for food and new territory.

 

The Village Guardians eyes and ears provide invaluable information, and help secure the very porous boundaries of the park. Their cooperation is the difference between life and death for many creatures (and even villagers), and ensures all the parks flora and fauna can survive to live another day.

 

Village Guardians undertake a two-day intensive training course where they are taught the key elements of their new role on behalf of the Forest department. One or two guardians, who have the ability to communicate with visitors, are also trained as guides to any visitors or sponsors who want to meet them in the field.

 

Steppes Travels sponsorship will contribute to paying a monthly fee to the individual for being the ‘eyes and ears’ of their community. They get the use of a smartphone to report and photograph signs, sightings and any valuable poaching intelligence they acquire to the forest range officers of the respective parks – invaluable information for protection teams.

Please ask our travel expert to arrange a meeting with the Steppes’ designated guardian during your holiday to Kanha National Park so you can visit their village and learn more about the work they do.

Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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New Wildlife Experience – Dudhwa National Park, India

Dudhwa National Park reopens on the 16th November this year. Wildlife lovers trickled in by the handful last season and they were greatly rewarded for their efforts of travelling through Uttar Pradesh towards the Nepalese border. I was fortunate to be one of them.

Dudhwa offers amazing sightings without the stresses of Central Indian parks. Last season there were daily sightings of rhino, crocodile, deer, snakes and numerous birds. The elusive tiger and leopard have given fantastic sightings on many occasions. The local area itself, inside or outside Dudhwa National Park is so pristine that I spotted a young leopard only metres away from my vehicle whilst travelling through the buffer zones.

Currently there is only one lodge in the vicinity. Jaagir Lodge oozes family and community history and holds strong ties with the surrounding Jaagir village. Having only recently opened doors to tourism, it has delivered a luxury stay in the wilderness and has teamed up with outstanding naturalists.

Unlike other parks there is no issue with availability of safari Jeeps – no online bookings and no queue. Don’t leave it too late to visit. The bureaucracy has not arrived as the government has seemingly overlooked this sleepy backwater of India. You can reach Dudhwa NP by flying to Lucknow and driving 3.5 hours north. Contact our experts to organise a tailor-made wildlife holiday to Dudhwa today.

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The Gardens of India – Steppes Top 5

Mehtab Bagh Garden on the bank opposite the Taj Mahal

If there was ever an opportunity to experience India’s aesthetic richness it is to explore one of its historic and gardens. Emperors and dynasties have created some extraordinarily beautiful gardens from grand Mughal style terrace lawns to botanical gardens with diverse and rare flora. Step into one these gardens for a moment of contemplation and tranquillity to take a break from India’s exhilarating pace of life.

1.Delhi – Mughal Gardens

The Mughal Gardens are a group of beautiful gardens built by the Mughals in the Islamic architectural style. Located in the Rashtrapati Bhavan premises, the official residence of the Indian President. These gardens are utterly unique, divided into a grid of squares with handsome lotus shaped fountains. They have over 250 varieties of roses, 60 varieties of Bougainvillea as well as other flora with 250 varieties of bonsai plants and 33 varieties of medicinal and aromatic plants in the Herbal Garden. (The Mughal gardens are open to the public in February-March every year from 9.30pm till 2.30pm).

2. Agra – Mehtab Bagh

This Mughal style garden is located on the opposite bank of the river from the Taj Mahal, offering picturesque views of the ‘monument to love’, particularly at the sunset. It is believed that the great emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal for his queen, wanted an identical structure for himself at Mehtab Bagh. Though no structure exists here, archaeological findings have proved the existence of a garden complex. Mehtab Bagh is worth a visit as it provides bewitching views of the Taj Mahal. The garden has been renovated by the Archaeological Survey of India and planted with more than 40 species of flora. (Open daily from 6am to 7pm).

3. Jaipur – Sisodia Rani Ka Bagh

This royal garden was built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh in 1728 for his second queen Sisodia. Sisodia Rani Garden is adorned with beautiful wall paintings of the Radha-Krishna love story. The paintings on the wall and the narrative details truly represent eternal love and befits the essence of this garden which itself is a symbol of love. This lush green royal garden is replete with flowerbeds, foliage, beautiful water fountains, pavilions, galleries, iridescent water channels and murals. (Daily opening from 8am to 4.30pm).

4. Srinagar – Nishat Bagh or the ‘Garden of PleasurE’

Designed in 1633 by Asaf Khan, brother of Nur Jehan, Nishat Bagh is the largest of the Mughal Gardens in India. Rising from the Dal Lake in a series of manicured terraces and avenues of fountains playing against the blue mountain background, the gardens offer a beautiful view across the lake to the Pir Panjal mountain range to the west. The 12 terraces represent the signs of the zodiac and are planted with cypresses and cedars. The gardens also have the remains of some Mughal buildings including a double storey pavilion with latticed windows. (Daily opening from 9.30am to 7pm).

 

5. Kolkata – Indian Botanical Gardens

The world famous gardens, now known as Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden, is a treasure trove of exotic flora amidst beautiful grounds. The highlight of the garden is the world’s largest Banyan Tree, over 250 years old, with as many as 2,880 aerial roots supporting a canopy covering 1.5 hectares. It is an awesome sight and well worth visiting during a stay in Kolkata. (Opening times 5.30am to 5pm Tues – Sun)

Get in touch to learn more about our Indian holidays. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Cycling in Tiger Country

Biking-through-tiger-country,-India

When we learnt of a pioneering new trip that involved cycling in the buffer zone linking two of India’s better known Tiger reserves there was considerable excitement in the office. As tiger habitat shrinks and human, animal conflict increases, these ‘tiger corridors’ are vital in the conservation of the species as they enable tigers to move freely between the National Parks, undisturbed.  A three-way tussle ensued over who would be lucky enough to go and recce it and after a certain amount of ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ I managed to manoeuvre our Product Director and Managing Director aside and emerge victorious.

Less than two months later, in the middle of a teak forest between Pench and Kanha National Parks, I was in the saddle of a top-spec mountain bike having skidded to an abrupt halt next to an unmistakably fresh and enormous tiger pug mark. Langurs crashed through the trees around me and the sense that a tiger may be watching us was real. Very real. It was awesome – if the use of surf vernacular can be forgiven/is permissible.

Two hours and twenty odd kilometres later and I was sat beside a roaring fire with an ice-cold gin and tonic in hand. My cycle companions and I were reflecting on the beauty of the scenery, the charm of the small but immaculately kept villages we had cycled through, and also the merits of our recently purchased and newly broken-in padded cycle shorts. These merits, incidentally, are considerable and the padded cycle short must be at the top of anyone’s packing list if embarking on this trip. We cyclists, for that is how we now saw ourselves, shared the warm glow not just of the fire (and the gin) but of the sense of achievement and peace that comes about from cycling and seeing new landscapes from the saddle.

Moving at cycling speed you see more, feel more, and are more accessible to the local people. ‘Cow dust time’ is a wonderfully simple and evocative term used to describe the moment when, at around five pm, the light softens and the air smells like a summers evening in England. Cows who have spent the days wandering and grazing begin slowly making their way home. As they walk the dust on the trails rises up and twinkles in shards of sunlight. There is a pervading sense of calm at this time of day as the villagers work is done and they are sitting outside their homes. At cow dust time I would pedal slower and answer the village children’s calls of ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ with a big smile and a wave. I would also return their charming ‘thank yous’. I was thanking them for allowing me a glimpse into their lives in an area that has captured both my heart and my imagination.

Over the next few days we cycled a lot more and it never grew old. It was exhilarating and a huge amount of fun. We also learnt an awful lot about tiger conservation and the importance of tigers moving from one park to another. It was an excellent trip and a real adventure, one that I’m excited to recreate for our clients.

Get in touch with our India tiger safari specialists today, email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753. 

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Pedalling Through Paddy Fields

Our day in Kerala began early on the beach, watching fishermen and traders bartering for wicker baskets brimming full of fish, some still jumping around desperately trying to make it back to the water. It was smelly, crowded and frenetic but very organised.

Trading on the beaches has been happening for centuries. Everyone has a job to do, someone will catch the fish, another will walk it up the beach and someone else will negotiate the fairest price with the traders. Small loans are also offered, giving people with cash flow problems the opportunity to buy fish to sell at the local market. Loans are repaid the same day for a nominal fee and I was assured that no ‘heavy’s’ are involved; it has been happening like that for years.

After the beach we went on to a farmer’s house where we ate delicious, homemade banana curry and chocolate cake. We got kitted out in safety gear (helmet and high vis vests) and with fuel in our bellies we went on our way. To be honest I don’t normally take such precautions when I cycle around the Cotswolds but I was quite glad that I was going to stick out like a sore thumb on an Indian road!

Once we set off I realised the high vis jacket wasn’t needed; the roads were quiet and the drivers courteous and I soon worked out a few of the signals needed for Indian roads. For example, when a rickshaw driver is turning he will stick out his foot on the side he wishes to turn. Indian roads have always been a mystery to me but as soon as I was in charge of my own vehicle everything started to become clear.

After a short ride we turned, firstly to visit a small village where residents survive on small rations from the government and a couple of other charities. There’s even a charity that helps people pay for weddings and funerals – very expensive events Indian society. As Kerala is the most literate state in India the village also has a reading room where people contribute to daily newspapers and books.

The rest of the journey was devoted to cycling through paddy fields and water bodies, the tracks were wide and cows roamed aimlessly around, happy and undisturbed. We lifted our bikes onto dugout canoes to cross waterways and we experienced cycling against the monsoon rains and chatted to locals along the way. The ladies we passed were curious, most of them giggled and laughed at me – probably at my extremely attractive helmet hair and fetching vest, it was hard not to miss me.

I caused much amusement when I almost fell off my bike into a huge puddle of thick mud, I paused for a moment before I sunk my clean left trainer deep into mud to save myself from further embarrassment. The rest of the day I hopped around on one leg, visiting the kitchen of the house where we began earlier in the day and watching fishermen throw out leaded nets in the most elegant way possible.

On the wall inside the house is a picture of the farmers father, he lived until he was 102 years old and after capturing a glimpse of what his life might have been like, I’m not at all surprised.

Get in touch with me for more information on your South India holiday with Steppes, call me on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

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Steppes Beyond | India: Tigers & Snakes

The tiger experts at Steppes Travel have years of experience in planning private safaris in India and know how to deal with frustrating Indian bureaucracy to ensure everything runs smoothly. We will plan your itinerary to avoid weekends and Indian public holidays where possible, but most importantly, we will create an Indian wildlife holiday that suits your individual requirements.To ensure the best game drive allocations book early and we will advise you where private vehicles are possible, so you can maximise your enjoyment through having access to an exclusive naturalist.

Below is copy of my presentation on India at our Steppes Beyond event in March 2015. For more information on any of our destinations please do get in touch.

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A Short Walk With A Ladakhi Princess

Princess didn’t seem a likely name for a seven-year-old Bactrian camel. For a start, Princess was male.

But in him I trusted for the next two days, as he sure-footedly carried me through thickets of razor-sharp sea buckthorn, over rivers, and up and down milky sand dunes in the far north of Ladakh. In other parts of the world, I’ve thought camels are best missed; prone to spitting, they make clear their mutual distaste. Princess proved me wrong on a two-day road test of a new camel trekking experience in the Indian Himalayas.

Ladakh is northern India’s ‘land of the high passes’, wedged in between Pakistan and China. To get here I was driven expertly up and over Khardung La – the world’s highest motorable road.  Not for the faint-hearted, the Khardung La winds from Leh (already high at 3500m) to a giddy 5600m above sea level before dropping past scampering marmots and bushy yaks into the Nubra Valley,

This is the world stripped bare. Jagged peaks burst out of the barren landscape; they reach skywards, and seem to grow as I watch. But on a camel, travel slows down. The stride is almost hypnotic.

I breathe deeply, filling my lungs with cool air. A flash of movement to the right reveals a hare bounding across the sand. There is no sound. I can hear only Princess, his gait sure and ancient, as old as the Silk Road trails his ancestors once rode and which still criss-cross this landscape.

 

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India Visa Updates – All Your Questions Answered

Navigating how and where to get visas can be cumbersome at the best of times. Given the recent visa changes for travel to India, we thought we’d help clarify the process a little. If you have further questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

There are now four methods of obtaining a tourist visa for India.

Mail Applications

Applications by mail directly to VFS Global/ Indian Visa Online. Applications made by post must select UK- London (Hounslow Application Centre only) when completing their application form online. The advised processing time is 2- 3 weeks. This visa is valid from date of issue for six months. Charge for this visa (as of August 2015) is £89.44 including VAT.

http://in.vfsglobal.co.uk/

Application in Person

Application made in person at a regional centre. Please ensure you have a prior appointment to apply in person and on arrival must ensure you print both the online application form and appointment confirmation letter and bring it along with you. (All family members are not required to appear in person at the application centre.)  Please reach the centre 15 minutes before the scheduled appointment time. Again please submit the application through http://in.vfsglobal.co.uk/

Visa Agency

Steppes Travel recommend applying for an Indian Visa through CIBT Visa Services who can obtain this on your behalf saving you the need to attend an appointment. By using our recommended visa service you can avoid the visit to the High Commission. CIBT will send a dedicated courier on your behalf. For more information the website is cibtvisas.co.uk Please use the following link www.cibt.com/steppestravel for the application form. CIBT’s fee for providing the service (and peace of mind) is £52 + VAT.

Online E Visa

Recent changes made by the Embassy on 15 August 2015 sees the introduction of an E visa application for UK Nationals. This facility is in addition to the existing visa services.

The introduction of the e-Tourist Visa is to facilitate tourists who plan a trip to India at short notice. The visa has a maximum validity of 30 days from date of arrival in India with single entry facility only. You can apply online a minimum of 4 days in advance of date of arrival and inside 30 days. The fee is US$60, which is non-refundable. Processing time is expected to be four days.

https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/tvoa.html

Whilst Steppes Travel are happy to advise on the necessary entry requirements and can recommend a visa service for UK nationals, it is your responsibility to obtain and allow sufficient time to process the visa.

Need inspiration for your adventure to India? Get in touch with our experts – email inspire@steppestravel.com or call 01285 880980.

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Celebrating Holi

Holi is nearly upon India, celebrated nationwide and  tourist friendly, this annual event stops this vast country in its tracks. In rural locations such as Maheshwar, it is often the case that the Holi festivities last for days, and very little gets done! The Hindu spring festival marks the coming of Spring is usually celebrated in March, the day after Holika. This year it falls on Friday 6th March. It’s an incredible display of fun and colour, with the throwing of powdered paint and coloured water. The night before is often a time for families to gather and light bonfires, from which the ashes are thought to bring good luck.

A lesser known festival following on from the Holi celebration is the Holla Mohallah. An annual Sikh festival held a day after Holi, has the
drama and colour that Indian festivals are known for. A traditional display of bravery and valour by the Nihang warriors that is a must see With impressive displays of weaponry, archery and wrestling, there’s also music, poetry and prayers, singing and chanting. An important part of the festival is the langar (community food) that is served to pilgrims irrespective of their religion or caste. The Nihang Warriors also demonstrate thrilling horse riding shows where the riders gallop bareback, performing tricks such as riding astride two horses, racing etc. Holla Mohalla is held at Anandpur Sahib in Punjab, and it is estimated that over 100,000 Sikh devotees attend the festival.

Steppes Travel can organise an unforgettable journey to Rajasthan incorporating the Holi celebrations and witness to off the beaten track Holla Mohalla, Punjab.

Read about my experience during Holi at Maheswar or call us on 01285 880980 for more information. 

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The Floating Hotel of ABN Rajmahal

Each time we go ashore we are greeted with large smiles and small faces shouting “One photo please, photo please”. Young boys try to stand very close to me and get their friends to take pictures from afar. I know this tactic all too well now.

Today I spotted a man following us around taking pictures of us and he was far from discreet. The pen in the top right hand pocket, smart brown slacks and well oiled hair gave him away amongst a crowd of loin cloths and colourful saris but I confronted him anyway. It turns out that he’s a local reporter for The Hindustan Times. He had heard that a large ship was sailing from Patna to Farakka. The ABN Rajmahal was in uncharted waters and he wanted to let everyone in the area know about the huge boat that had been drifting past their farms and homes.

I and my fellow ABN Rajmahal passengers are going to be famous. I am off into town tomorrow to buy myself a copy.

Newly built for service on the Hoogly and Ganges, the Rajmahal has been built with a shallow draft to cope with shallow waters. A larger boat with 22 cabins, split between upper and main deck, the Rajmahal has a small spa and a vast canopied sun-deck compliments the communal areas, all keeping with traditional Indian inspired designs.

Watch the ever changing colourful landscapes float by, with villagers rushing to the banks to wave vigorously at you and wildlife amidst the wilderness in India. Get in touch with our India team for more information on our river cruises.

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Wonders of the Monsoon

The recent screening of Deluge on BBC2 captured some stunning scenes of Kaziranga National Park, India in the full flow of the monsoon rains.

With rivers bursting banks, elephants are filmed in their yearly plight to escape rising waters and flee to the hills. The screening of this episode put Kaziranga firmly on the map. Visit this region of  Assam and cruise along the Bramaputra river with Steppes Travel – avoiding the rain.

Catch up on I Player for the next 4 weeks Wonders of the Monsoon. 3 more episodes to be shown.

 

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Snakecatchers of India

Love them or hate them (and let’s face it there is no in-between) one cannot deny that snakes are fascinating creatures and make for the most challenging yet inspiring photographic subjects.

This Summer I travelled along with Chris Haslam to discover some of India’s most mesmerising snakes. A journey, which even for a snake enthusiast, got a little hairy at the best of times. Watch the video below to learn more about the relationship between man and snake, allowing for each to live side by side.

We have now introduced a special photography tour on the trail of India’s most exotic snakes guided by leading experts, including David Plummer.

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Beyond the Tigers of Tadoba

“It is not just about the tigers though” he added, keen to point out that Tadoba Andhari National Park is no one trick pony.

“We have leopard, sloth bear and Indian wild dog in Tadoba…the dogs were here only yesterday afternoon”.

As we enjoyed a simple lunch of vegetable Thali, Tiger Trails’ owner A.D. exuded an unwavering confidence that we would see a tiger on our game drive, later that afternoon.

“What, literally right there?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes, let me show you the photos.”

That’s the thing about Tiger Trails. Not content with offering game drives where tiger sightings are commonplace, they also have a series of camera traps set up around camp that continually monitor the comings   and goings of the local wildlife. You can sit and eat delicious mattar paneer with freshly made chapattis and watch live links to what’s happening in the park. It’s like Spring Watch but with bigger animals and none of the inane banter.

Tiger Trails is a simple camp on the edge of Tadoba National Park, owned and run by a no-nonsense father and son team, who eat, sleep and breathe wildlife conservation. While their shared passion is palpable they are also pragmatic and wise to the nuances of state government bureaucracy and have worked closely with local authorities to ensure conservation is never far from their agenda. They are fortunate in that they have a forward thinking Director of Parks in the state of Maharashtra who has implemented radical policies in Tadoba that have reduced wildlife human conflict and have allowed tourism to flourish. And guess what? Tigers are thriving. Official numbers put the tiger population at 74 but this does not include the cubs and miscreants that inevitably dodge the census. A.D’s son, Aditya thinks the number is more like 105 and he puts the healthy population down to a progressive management and a high prey-base.

“The park is bursting with tigers” he says with unadulterated happiness.

On 4 drives in the park I enjoyed 2 excellent sightings of tigers – a female cooling herself down in a lake and a male whom we were told was in search of the 4 cubs he had recently sired.

Of course it isn’t just about the tigers; a leopard sighting and a fleeting glimpse of a sloth bear were also memorable encounters. However, the wild dogs made the biggest impression. Having called in on Tiger Trails the day before my arrival, the dogs then headed into the park and took down a chital deer. I caught up with the pack to find them feeding on the poor animal.

The Indian wild dog – or the dhole to give it its local name – is a slight creature, no bigger than a slender collie or dingo however the visceral power the pack displayed when feeding on their prey was both brutal and impressive. The dogs were vilified by the colonial British when hunting in India’s national parks, as they felt they were cruel animals who exhausted their prey and then ate it alive. As a result they went out of their way to cull the animal to extinction. They almost succeeded but were up against a tenacious opponent. While numbers were decimated the dhole survived so that a more enlightened generation can marvel at its hunting prowess today.

“We love the dhole” said A.D over breakfast on our last morning “he is always welcome at Tiger Trails”.

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Delhi – A different perspective

Viewed by many just as an entry point to northern India, I feel Delhi is given rather short shrift.

With 25 million people calling Delhi home it is the world’s fourth most populous city – a sprawling giant continuously inhabited since the 6th century BC. It is the world’s most polluted city but ever-proud Delhiites are very keen to point out how green it is. And they are right.

There are lots of parks in Delhi where monkeys swing from the trees, joggers jog, and tourists contort themselves into yoga poses. If you venture further out you can even find forest. The Delhi Ridge, an extension of the ancient Aravalli Hills, is known as the lungs of the city and helps protect Delhi from the furnace-like blasts of wind that roll in from Rajasthan’s deserts.

Few people know that The Ridge, as it is known locally, is also responsible for earning Delhi the tag of the World’s Second most bird-rich Capital city beaten only by Kenya’s Nairobi. Not bad for a city famed for smog cover that at times almost entirely obscures it’s many architectural gems.

 

 

Discover a different perspective of Delhi with Joe, you call him now on 01285 880980.

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Jule Chamba Camp!

The man on the motorbike did a double take as I flew past him with a hearty jule (hello). I was in Ladakh, in north India, on a push bike hurtling down National Highway 1D the main road between Leh and Srinagar. My destination was the small village of Nimoo and I was accompanied by Dorje, my excellent guide from the Chamba Camp where I was staying.

The Chamba Camp was blissful. Tucked away from the road surrounded by sunflowers and in the shadow of the fabulous Thiksey Monastery the location is hard to beat. Each morning, after a deep sleep, I would wake and unzip my tent to gaze on the mountains as they impassively observed the break of a new day. The sky, blue and pink, gradually brightened revealing previously unseen cracks and fissures on the flanks of the mountains. As I sat quietly watching the peaks a pot of fresh coffee would appear. The service at Chamba Camp is impeccable and while you never want for anything the staff allow you space. They all smile and are happy. A good sign. The food is so good it warrants a separate blog.

To my left two rivers collide in a riot of colour. This is the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus Rivers. I brake, a little sharply, and pause to soak in the view. I turn to Dorje who has just hopped off his bike. A grin cracks across his face and I smile back.

Sometimes it isn’t necessary to say anything.

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Three more sleeps

My stomach is already grumbling with anticipation and I have flutters of excitement as I count down the sleeps until I fly. It has been many years since I’ve travelled in south India and the memories of coconut flavoured curries laid out on huge leathery banana leaves are already flooding back.

For me travelling is all about the food, it defines the landscape of a country, the waist line of its people and the personality of a nation. Last time I travelled to south India I was vegetarian, I didn’t even sample the famous Goan Fish curry but this time it will be different. Rick Stein’s recent cookery programmes featuring South Indian fish curries made my mouth water and I’m keen to not only get stuck in but learn some new cookery skills along the way.

As my good friend Sanjay Thakur (leader of the Tiger Study Tour) always says – it’s that we all have two stomachs, one for savoury and one for desert. If that’s true then I must remember to take both along for the culinary adventure of their lives!!

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An Indian Safari

There was a knock at the door and my favourite honey, lemon and ginger tea was delivered to my hut on a silver tray. As I drank it down, I began to think that the concoction could be used as an analogy for India. Honey for the people – sweet, grounded and comforting, lemon for the contrast, the life and the edge and finally ginger for the spice, the food and the history.

And then I came around, it was 5am and I wasn’t dressed for the morning drive. I quickly realised that there was no time to shower and make myself presentable – It was important to arrive at the gate early to ensure we had the most experienced park guide. Most of the older guides have patrolled the park since they were children they often belonged to the villages that once inhabited the park.

This was my first safari and my first visit to this area of India. Madhya Pradesh is remote, hot and rural. Forget the honking of horns and the crowded images of India’s cities – this was different.

It was March, the mornings were cold and the tourists were long gone, the heat of the afternoon was soaring and the Mahua Trees were in flower. Everywhere I looked on the way to the park gate ladies were carrying huge baskets upon their heads, dressed in the finest silk saris in bright vivid colours. The image optimised rural India – it was a photographers dream. I quickly realised that this was the best time to visit Kanha National Park.

The sticky sweet flowers of the Mahua tree bring life to the forest. Everyone and everything is busy collecting the flower in order to enjoy its heady alcoholic effects. Farming families have licence to brew the flowers to make a strong whisky type drink which they can sell at local markets. At this time of year it is not uncommon to find Sloth Bears, Samba Dear, Spotted Dear, Barasingha (Swamp dear), Langur Monkeys and Wild Boar eating side by side under the branches of a Mahua tree.

I had been warned that the mornings would be cold and as we drove through the park gates and into the thick Saal forest the cold wind rushed through my clothes – I was glad that I had managed to find the time to ‘layer up’ during my morning sprint around the hut. I had no idea what to expect from my first game drive. Thoughts and questions were rushing around my head as we began to travel deeper into the park – Would there be a toilet? Would we stop for something to eat? What if I get colder, what if I get too hot? What if I don’t see a tiger but what if I do?!

I felt as though the park guide and naturalist wanted me to see a tiger with every inch of their bodies, they live and breathe the park, they understand the animals and the language they use. They decode calls from all directions, hearing noises barely audible to the untrained ear. From them, I learnt that Jungle Book’s ‘Baloo’ was the name for a Sloth Bear in Hindi and that Indian Rollers are my new favourite birds.

As the sun came up and the heat of the day was fast approaching we decided to stop for breakfast, our naturalist pulled into a clearing in the forest. We watched as he unloaded a breakfast fit for a king – an abundance of freshly baked muffins & cookies, fruit, paranthas with pickle (pan-fried flatbread – a typical north Indian breakfast) and a flask of steaming of hot chai were all carefully arranged on cheesecloth upon the bonnet of our jeep. As I washed the delicious treats down with the syrupy chai, my mind settled, I was warm, refreshed and ready to face the jungle again.

I was told that the overbearing heat brings the tigers out of the bush in search of water, so half of me hoped for a scorcher and the other half of me was hoping the sun went easy on us that day. By that point in the morning I was well and truly bitten with the tiger bug. My camera had not left my hand, I had taken pictures of nearly everything that moved but now I was in search of more. I had shocked myself, even though I knew that the chance of seeing a tiger was slim, I still wanted to see one and I didn’t want to leave the park until I had. With only 89 tigers living in 940 square kilometres I knew it was a going to be a challenge.

As we whizzed around the park following calls from all around with no results my enthusiasm began to dwindle. Not only that, I could see the disappointment growing on my guide and naturalists faces and I felt sad for them – they knew what I was missing. It was at that low point that we decided to rest for a short while in the shade, lucky for us a pair of peacocks were fighting and showing their feathers and for a few moments I was mesmerised. My daze was broken by a Langur monkey that was sat right beside us; he was grinding his teeth so hard that it was making my toes curl.

The naturalist shot up and out of his seat as a leopard appeared from the bush and walked nonchalantly down the track towards us, saliva falling from his mouth. As he got closer, my heart raced. It was my first sighting of a wild cat and I could never have anticipated how it would make me feel. The guide sensed my fear and placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder. The naturalist slowly turned and whispered to me ‘‘it is very rare to see a leopard walking along the forest path like this, it is acting completely out of character so don’t make any sudden movements. Don’t be nervous… just enjoy it!’’.

Those ten minutes of my life has now become one of the most exhilarating moments I have ever experienced. Given the chance I would relive that moment again and again, it was pure excitement – it was beyond the ordinary. I had forgotten all about my desperate hunt for a tiger, I had witnessed something far more mysterious, I had shared a moment of my life with one of the most elusive creatures on the planet – a real life Bagheera.

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Travel to Kashmir – A Refreshing Visit to India

I was sitting in the pub with a very dear friend of mine who was talking animatedly about something or other. I am a little hazy on the details as although I was looking at him and occasionally nodding or mumbling in agreement I was actually miles away. Nearly 6,000 miles away to be precise. I was daydreaming about Kashmir; walking under a cloudless blue sky, jagged snow-capped peaks, fields full of bright flowers, and occasionally a shepherd leading a flock of sheep.

‘Same again?’

‘Huh, yeah, sure…’

A couple of weeks later and I was no longer in a cosy pub in the West Oxfordshire Cotswolds. Instead I was in Kashmir, sat on the roof terrace of a magnificent houseboat called Sukoon, eating fruit salad with curd, drinking sweetly spiced chai, and staring at the Pir Panjal mountains reflecting in the glassy waters of Srinagar’s beautiful Dal Lake. A luminous shikara glided silently past, the boatman gently nodding ‘good morning’. A bright white egret slowly picked its way through the shallows at the side of the boat before clumsily taking flight. The air was cool and crisp but the sun was steadily growing in strength. Perfect weather for the day’s activity, a walk and picnic lunch in the forested valleys around Yusmarg – 2 hour’s drive away.

The road from Srinagar to Yusmarg was frankly unremarkable at first, but after a while the houses and shops thinned out, and gorgeous yellow fields of mustard began to dominate the landscape. The mountains were our constant companion – tall, spiky, and brooding. Deep into April they were covered in snow and strongly hinting at adventure. Our wonderful guide Mansur spoke of largely unexplored multi-day trekking routes where walkers are accompanied by porters carrying food, water, and tents. Snow leopards are said to call these mountains home. I will certainly be planning another trip!

Arriving into Yusmarg we parked the car and jumped out. We were met by a group of men wearing pheran, traditional knee length cloaks, some of whom led horses. A sign listed destinations and prices and it became clear that horse riding trips to points of interest in the valley were being offered. In the interests of research we decided to deviate from our planned walk and instead to ‘saddle up’.

Within minutes we had left the concrete path and were descending some rough cut stone steps by a gurgling stream. I am by no means a skilled horseman, having only ridden once before, but the going was slow and I soon settled into the saddle allowing myself to enjoy the magnificent scenery as we emerged from the trees into a clearing with a wider stretch of boulder strewn river, tall towering pine trees, and views of snow-capped peaks. This was the Kashmir I had day-dreamed about and it was magnificent!

To find out more about Joe’s trip or for his expert advice on planning a holiday to Kashmir please call on 01285 880 980 and start planning an Indian adventure with a difference.

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Tiger Watching in Ranthambore National Park

Male tiger, Tadoba National Park, India

“This is the territory of Machali, a very special tigress…”

Mohan, our guide in Ranthambore National Park, was not a demonstrative man and certainly not prone to histrionics, but when he spoke of Machali his eyes sparkled and his voice took on a tone of pride and reverence.

“She is almost 18 years old and is the oldest wild tiger in the world.”

Machali is a remarkable animal, defying all the odds to live so long, outwitting hostile male tigers, aggressive sloth bears and poachers to bring numerous cubs into the world. The grand dowager of Ranthambore is a born survivor and even as old age has cruelly deprived her of her canine teeth she still manages to hunt and kill successfully. Tigers are ambush hunters and their usual M.O. is to knock the prey off balance and use their giant canines to make a killing bite on the neck. Machali has adopted an alternative killing method that involves breaking the prey’s neck rather than puncturing or suffocating the animal with her teeth. The prospect of seeing her was too exciting to even contemplate however it was to be her daughter that stole the show on this particular game drive.

The drive did not start auspiciously with Mohan, our guide, immediately spotting pug marks heading down a steep slope and in the direction of a deep ravine inaccessible to vehicles. “Fresh prints. A male.” Mohan’s shoulders sagged a little. “He has probably gone to ground.”

Fortunes can change quickly on a game drive and in less than 5 minutes, the previously dejected figure of Mohan was enthusiastically holding court, explaining the dynamics of tiger courtship, while a male and female tiger dutifully performed a practical lesson no more than 5 metres from our vehicle. The female was Machali’s daughter, T17, or by her more colourful name, Krishna. The male was T25, another Ranthambore legend, as back in 2011 he adopted the role of mother to the cubs he had sired when the cub’s own mother died.

To see wild tigers mating in the early morning sunshine at Ranthambore was an experience beyond my wildest expectations. There are supposedly 48 tigers now in Ranthambore and if Krishna has her mother’s cunning, survival instincts and luck, there just maybe over 50 by the autumn, when Krishna should be due to give birth.

To hear more or for help planning your own tiger watching experience in India please contact the team on 01285 880 980 for expert advice.

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Tiger Tourism Ban – Update

Latest news on tiger tourism in India

While I am relieved that the “ban” has been lifted I am frustrated that much energy, money and time has been spent saving tiger tourism outright instead of focusing combined resources on improved conservation management and introducing a more sustainable model of tourism.

What happens next is still less than clear as the Supreme Court’s assertion that only 20% of National Park’s “core areas” be used for tourism requires further clarification given that the definition of “core area” is different depending on whom you speak to. What is unequivocal is that for anybody with a burning desire to see tigers in their natural habitat, the parks of Bandhavgarh, Tadoba, Kanha and Kaziranga are still the best places to visit. Given the increased restrictions on core area access one could argue that chances of seeing tiger are now diminished but with time, patience and the services of an experienced guide, tiger sightings are still a strong possibility when visiting these parks. Below is an excerpt from a piece written by a kindred spirit – conservationist and tiger expert, Valmik Thapar, entitled Learn from the Africa Example:

“A nearly four-month ban on tiger tourism in more than 30,000 sq km of tiger landscape led to much concern both in the government and the tourism industry. Tiger activists were worried that poachers would have a field day after the ban and in some places in south India, they must have. The process led to huge cancellations of bookings and financial losses for both the tourism industry and those governments that run lodges in the tiger territories.

Innovative tourism can save tigers but our fledgling — but immature — tourism industry would have to organise itself into a strong and effective force to do so. They must share some of their profits with local people and the wildlife. Those in the industry must learn from the examples from Africa where genuine partnership between the industry and locals has led to enormous differences in places like Kruger National Park in South Africa, the Masai Mara in Kenya, the Gorillas in Rwanda and dozens of others. No one can dream of banning tourism there as the industry is a strong force: well informed with strong connections with the locals. It also contributes huge amounts to the local and national economy. India is still to understand such vital priorities and start this process.

However, this can happen only when the mindset of people in the forest department changes. They are key players responsible for making tourism rules and enforcing those rules. On both counts, they have failed miserably. The rules they make are poor and unimaginative and the enforcement is so weak that many get away with doing nothing.

In tourist areas, the department spends most of its energies on VIP tourism but the forest department has to keep away from the horrors of such tourism. This has damaged the reputation of this department and has created a new form of unregulated tourism for bureaucrats and politicians. Instead of benefitting forest officers, as they thought it would, such tourism has turned counter-productive and probably is the cause of the original ban on tiger tourism and the chaos in our tiger parks.

Instead of being a control freak, the forest department has to retreat from exercising absolute power and create genuine relationships with the tourism trade and locals so that innovative rules that benefit wildlife, the visitor, the locals, and the tourism industry can be created. It happens all over the world. So what on earth is stopping us?

The National Tiger Conservation Authority and the ministry of environment and forests should get their act together and learn from this ban that tourism does not kill tigers but poachers do. When providing affidavits to the apex court on the problems tigers face, they need to admit the negligence and responsibility of governments in the extinction of tigers in Sariska and Panna and the drastic declines in Ranthambhore, Palamu, Valmiki, Buxa, Indravati and so many other tiger reserves and all of which had nothing to do with tourism.

The future lies in creating new partnerships and models of governance based on trust and faith among all players. There has to be a collective approach and when that happens, we can learn a lesson or two from the Supreme Court rulings. Not only has it been a wake-up call for everyone but it should also result in serious introspection by states so that they can find a way forward on how to manage their forests.

I believe Africa is a good learning ground where instead of being relegated to defunct committees, most individuals with talent and interest are busy working in the field. The governments encourage that vision unlike what we do in India. India requires much reform in this sector but the first priority has to be an attitudinal change in the thinking and mindset of the government and the people who serve it.”

Valmik Thapar has worked for 37 years with wild tigers and has written 24 books on tigers. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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Tiger Tourism ruling in India’s Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of India has ordered an embargo on tourism in the “core zones” of India’s government run tiger reserves. There is a further hearing on 22 August, at which Travel Operators For Tigers (TOFT) will present an argument to the Supreme Court for a review petition, allowing for the continuation of sustainable tourism in India’s National Parks and reserves.

As is often the case this announcement poses more questions than it answers so below is an attempt at clarifying what is a very complicated and ambiguous situation:

*Is this the end of tiger tourism as we know it in India?*

It is important to understand this is not a blanket ban on tourists entering national parks but is an order to stop tourists being taken into the Core Tiger Areas of the parks. The key issue to come out of the next hearing is what the Supreme Court means by “core zones”. There are already agreed lines of demarcation that separate the Core Tiger Areas from the rest of the reserves and so we are assuming the Supreme Court is referring to these established zones. In some of the parks, tourism is reliant on these zones for a large proportion of game drives – for example, in Pench Tiger Reserve 62.5% of tourist activity takes place in Core Tiger Areas. In Panna however this figure is much less at 15% and in Satpura the figure is only 7.5%

The ruling then will have a significant impact on some parks more than others but what is clear is that tour operators and guides will have to approach game drives in a different manner, right across India. Tour operators will need to stop being tiger centric in their marketing and tourists will have to change their perspective and embrace the diverse myriad other wildlife in India’s parks and understand that seeing a tiger is not a given right but a privilege.

*What is the background to this ruling?*

The Indian government has lost patience with the Indian states that are responsible for the parks and the welfare of their animals. The government has been telling the parks to put their stall in order and come up with initiatives to better protect tigers and the significant revenue that tourism attracts. In the eyes of the government the states have not acted enough and apparently, a ‘junior’ lawyer was sent to the Supreme Court to represent the states, which was seemingly the final straw.

Only time will tell whether this is sabre rattling designed to give a wake-up call to the states however the timing of this order is telling. Given that most national parks are already closed to tourism at this time of year it would seem that this announcement has been timed to have maximum publicity but minimum disruption to national park operations and revenue. Hopefully this is a sign that the Indian government is acutely aware of the economic importance of tiger tourism, and is not about to implement measures that will jeopardise this.

*Are tigers better or worse off with tourism?*

Below is an excerpt from a press release on the recent order, written by Julian Matthews, Chairman of Travel Operators For Tigers:
“We are perplexed that the Supreme Court has chosen to disregard the clear evidence that proves that wildlife tourism within India Tiger Parks is not harming tigers. The highest densities of tigers can be found today in the most heavily visited Tiger Reserves including Corbett, Kaziranga and Bandhavgarh. The latest NTCA Tiger census published in March 2011, show that the tiger numbers went up in all these parks – at the same time as tourism numbers have increased significantly. At the same time, unseen and unloved sanctuaries and forest corridors lost all their tigers and wildlife to poaching, grazing, neglect, agriculture and extractive pressures.”

Not only common sense but hard facts all support the argument that tourism places a spotlight on tigers and provides constant scrutiny of their health and welfare. Remove this spotlight and the door is left wide open to poachers, illegal loggers and other people who do not have the tiger’s best interest at heart. Tourism in the parks needs better regulation as nobody benefits – neither wildlife nor tourist – from irresponsible driving and over exuberant guides. Banning it altogether though is the final nail in the coffin of the tiger.

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First holiday to India – Calcutta

Wow, a chance to go on a holiday to India – the thought was hugely exciting, but terribly daunting too. People say India is a country that changes the way you see the world; I was intrigued to see what effect it would have on me.

Arriving into Calcutta (having never been to India before) was certainly a baptism of fire! Sarah (who was travelling with me) and I were the only westerners on the flight from Dubai and two of few women, so we drew rather long, fascinated stares that lacked the British embarrassment at being caught!

On landing, the heat and humidity hit me like a brick wall and even the air smelled different, there were people everywhere, the constant ‘peep’ of horns and far too much for my eyes to take in at once – what an assault on the senses.

After a quick chat with a cockroach in the toilet, we were met by our guide Avi whose smile put me instantly at ease and we set off in the cool of our air-conditioned car. Air-conditioned it may have been, but this didn’t prevent my heart from leaping into my mouth every other second as we fought our way through the crowded, over-crowded…no, full to bursting roads. This style of driving is not for the faint hearted – even Avi expressed that he would not drive there! We darted through the traffic with millimetres to spare, weaving, beeping the horn, avoiding cars, people, bicycles, animals and all manner of other things.

I have never been somewhere that is so full; every inch of space that my eyes fell upon was busy with people and activity. People walking home from work, people stuffed into buses, people washing, people sleeping, people selling, people buying – and this was ‘quiet’ late evening.

We then spotted our hotel, a beautiful colonial building – with no clear entrance. As we turned off the street and pushed our way through the millions (or so it seemed) of people, we entered the sanctuary of the Oberoi Grand. What a contrast; the noise of the street instantly disappeared, the cool of the lobby descended upon us, delicious fruit juice was at the ready and the wonderful rooms provided the chance to wash off the journey and sleep.

To make the most of our short time in Calcutta we had arranged to have 2 half day tours, this was really worth it and I considered it the best way to find out the most about Calcutta. Our guide was Malini. A Master of linguistics; she was intelligent, engaging and had an infectious enthusiasm for this bustling city. It was great to have an insight into life in Calcutta and to be given the inside track on what to see.

We started our tour with a trip to the flower market; it is one of the largest wholesale markets in India and so is little visited by tourists. Wear proper shoes! We made the mistake of wearing flipflops and enjoyed squelching through the mud and flower waste. It was all worth it though; what a beautiful site, down by the river. Between the ‘go-downs’  (warehouses), stalls were full of brightly coloured flowers. We weaved our way through the market, packed full of people, ducking for baskets and huge bundles atop of people’s shoulders all the while admiring the vibrant colours and delicately made garlands and wedding head dresses. Climbing up to the Howrah Bridge (used by around a million people a day!) we had a wonderful view of the area (as the photos above show).

We then drove through Calcutta stopping off to view the amazing colonial buildings like the imposing red bricked Administration building, the old post office, the stark white Victoria Memorial and the grand Governor’s residence with its huge gardens. We also found time to include the Marble Palace, a family residence that is full of marble statues and contains a bizarre little ‘zoo’; the huge second-hand book market near College Street (so named due the 17 colleges along it) and the “Jewel Box of Calcutta” – opulent temples adorned with coloured glass and precious gems belonging to the strict Jian faith. Also well worth a visit is the home of Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity; Mother Teresa is buried here and spent much of her life working with the people of Calcutta. A truly inspiring and humbling experience and highlights the important work her ongoing charity provides.

St John’s church was next. One of the oldest in Calcutta, it still houses the original funiture of the first office of the East India Company and a memorial to the tragic and much discussed Black hole of Calcutta. One of my favourite stories here was about the Johann Zoffany painting of the Last Supper hanging inside. It is thought that Zoffany painted himself as Jesus, his girlfriend as Mary Magdalene and a man he disliked intently as Judas! Not surprisingly ‘Judas’ took great offence to this and you can still see the now repaired slash mark where he tried to destroy the painting with a knife.

Finally, we visited the long road called Rabindra Sarani; each section is dedicated to a different trade, jewellers, book stores and, where we wandered, the Pottery Village. The Pottery village is full of clay statues of many of the Hindu Gods all in various stages of construction. The clay used comes straight from the river Hooghly and the beautifully painted statues are used in festivals and weddings.

As we wandered, Malini told us the wonderfully captivating and beautiful stories behind many of the Gods. My favourite was Sheba – the Goddess of destruction. She killed many demons that were on Earth; if a single drop of their blood hit the ground more would be born from this spot – to prevent this she drank their blood until she was sent mad by their evil. No one could stop the powerful Sheba, and so her husband lay down in front of her and she accidently stepped on his chest. This is seen as very disrespectful in Indian culture and so Sheba was shocked back to her senses. This is why Sheba is often depicted with her tongue out and her foot on her husband’s chest.

What an introduction to the country … now to board our boat!

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India – The ultimate introduction

I have just returned from India, a 17 day extravaganza taking in some well known favourites like Jaipur, Ranthambore and Jodphur and also visiting some less visited places like Orchha, Gwalior and Chambal.

For those visiting India for the first time, here is my recommendation for the “ultimate introduction to India” which offers the best combination of busy, colourful cities with peaceful hidden retreats.

Begin with a flight into the historical capital of Delhi where you spend a few nights acclimatising and easing into the swing of things at the Imperial Hotel. From here you take a short flight east to the quiet and well presented town of Khajuraho, where you spend 2 or 3 nights at the Sarai at Toria in the safe hands of Joanna and Ragu who provide a
wonderfully warm welcome and contrast to the busy city of Delhi. Spend the day visiting erotic temple sites followed by a gentle evening boat ride on the River Ken viewing the excellent bird life and listening to the sound of silence. Continue your journey by car to Orchha where you have time for lunch and a stroll around the many temples and palaces this town has to offer.

After a short drive to Jhansi you board the super fast and comfortable Shatabdhi Express Train to Gwalior where you stay at the characterful Usha Kiran Palace. An authentic heritage experience of a certain quality and standard that not only enhances the enjoyment of exploring the mighty Gwalior Fort but makes it it an extremely memorable visit. Your journey then takes you to Agra to visit the romantic Taj Mahal with a stay at the Oberoi Amarvilas offering the best views of the Taj from it’s balconies. A drive west brings you to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan and a buzzing, thriving city that is rocketing its way to becoming an extremely modern city (once all the road works are completed!!)

Stay at the Oberoi Rajvilas for the ulimate oasis of calm, relief and random celebrity spot! For those short on time head back to Delhi in order to fly home, otherwise continue west towards Jodphur with a must stop at Chhatra Sagar. Comfortable and immaculate Rajasthani tents overlook a beautiful lake, rich with birdlife, run by the very splendid Raj, Nandi and Harsh. Again another perfect “resting” place which offers a welcome contrast to the otherwise hectic cities and roads of Rajasthan.

Finally, continue to Jodphur for a few days where you end your holiday in the old town at The Raas hotel or at Mihirgarh Fort, located in the surrounding desert. Jodhpur is the most wonderful town with a medieval heart which has changed little over the years. Days can be spent in and around this area strolling in the bazaars, visiting the Fort or exploring desert villages. It’s an easy place to unwind and relax before returning home.

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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

To all you film goers out there – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has just been launched in cinemas.

It follows a group of British retirees who decide to outsource their retirement to the less expensive and seemingly exotic India. They take up residence in what they believe to be a newly restored grand hotel. Clearly not as luxurious as first advertised their adventure begins on arrival in Jaipur with some anxiety. However, slowly but surely they become enchanted by their surroundings and this remarkable country.

Anyone who has ever travelled to India will know that the best thing to expect is the unexpected, but if you travel with an open mind and an open heart India delivers a truly wonderful experience and no two trips, areas or indeed cuisine is the same.

India has become a bit of an obsession with me – so much so, that I lived there for a while, and have been lucky enough to travel the length and breadth of this amazing country. The colours, palaces and deserts of Rajasthan have all the scale and romance of an epic movie. The people, from the Royal Maharajah’s to the warrior caste Rajputs and the tribal villagers are all warm and welcoming and I defy you not to fall a little bit in love with this princely state.

This film showcases some beautiful parts of India, and we reckon its one to watch…. if it inspires you to see India for yourself then take a look at our Rajasthan holiday ideas or call Charlotte on 01285 880 980.

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Tiger Tiger Burning Bright

Female tiger, Tadoba, India

*Panna Tiger Reserve witnesses a “global first” – the successful breeding of an orphaned tigress.* Fantastic news from one of my favourite National Parks. I first visited Panna in 2004 and was lucky enough to see my first tiger in the wild. I’d joined our ground breaking India Tiger Study Tour and was out in a vehicle doing transects and identifying species with our researchers when we came across some flattened grass and a sambar deer who had just fallen prey to a male tiger. We were the first to spot this big cat so radioed the park rangers and were lucky enough to go on elephant back safari to see him sleeping off his lunch!

*Panna National Park, India*Great news. The orphaned tigress relocated from Kanha National Park 6 years ago has not only found her mate but has become a global first by breeding and giving birth to two healthy cubs.

“It is a rare and beautiful story of survival whereby a hand-reared orphaned cub fulfilled her destiny to adapt to the wild and become a mother. The Panna Tiger Reserve proudly stands witness to this achievement—a first globally,” PTR field director R.S. Murthy told The Hindu.

There are five tigers -four females and a male in Panna, all reintroduced after 2009 when it was feared that Panna’s tigers had all but disappeared.

Of the four females, three have managed to breed successfully, but, it is the first time in the world, claim officials that an orphaned tigress has
mated successfully and given birth to two healthy cubs.

This Valentine’s day, the Panna team discovered two “perfect and separate racts” of cub pugmarks, along with those of her mother in the Madla Range of Panna Tiger Reserve.

Moved by the development, the team dedicated this Valentine’s day to all rphaned tiger cubs of the world and decided to observe 14th February as the ‘Orphaned Tiger Cubs Day’.

“Just three years ago, Panna was in the news for all the wrong reasons. But he Madhya Pradesh Forest Department and PTR team have turned the tables on the critics by achieving this rare feat,” said Mr. Murthy. Join our India iger Study Tour departing next month which supports tiger conservation and ffers your chance to track tigers in Panna and Bandhavgarh National Parks.

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Walking in the land of the tiger

I was lucky enough to join our most recent group of clients on our Tiger Study Tour, which visited Panna and Bandhavgarh National Parks, the latter certainly known for its relatively high numbers of tigers, but where I had one of my most enjoyable wildlife experiences in India – and not a tiger in sight.

I had opted to visit the hilltop fort at Bandhavgarh – with legend dating the construction to around 800BC (the same time of the epic Indian Ramayana) but which has slowly been consumed by the forest since the turn of the 16th Century, when the Bhagel Dynasty left for Rewa. Subsequent Maharaja’s have managed the park well to ensure a good hunting ground, but have left the tumbling ruins in peace, which makes for a fascinating walk.

Much of the large temple complex is spread out across the top of a commanding ridge, just over 800metres high, with spectacular views across the park. As I followed my guide through the moss covered fort gates, complete with overgrown weeds and vines slowly strangling the foundations. The first thing I noticed was the stench of bats – and with a quick flash of the torch, the roof of the cavern suddenly exploded into life in series of squeaks and the soft flapping of hundreds of wings.

We continued climbing the cobbled path winding its way up the ridge, stopping to look at the hornbills which were now at eye-level, sitting in pairs on the highest branches of the trees below us langur monkeys leapt from tree-to-tree, dropping fruit and leaves, eagerly eaten by the Sambar deer that sat and waited for their lunch to arrive underneath. Every so often small splashes of colour could be seen growing out of the fort walls, as hundreds of butterflies and dragonflies fluttered around small flowers. We then came to a number of smaller outlying temples, ancient and still in the undergrowth, with small statues inside representing various reincarnations of Vishnu – stone fishes and enormous turtles, in amongst rubble of carved slabs, their sandstone images faintly visible after centuries.

On reaching the top we reached our destination – a large temple, guarded by two saints, ordained holy men whose sole job it was to maintain the temple and bless those who made the pilgrimage from the plains below. On a far wall, there was a small statue of Ganesh and above this, covering most of the wall were coloured handprints in a variety of shapes and sizes like a child’s painting. This is where the faithful come to make offerings – a wish for children, a good wife, wealth. One hand print for the wish and they return to complete the pair once the wish is granted. Judging by the number of hand prints covering the wall, this is was a particularly auspicious place.

I was offered some snacks and chai by the guards, who were also radio operators for the government – and with that they showed me a small short wave radio, alive with the chatter from all of the vehicles in the park looking for tigers. The fort is the highest point in the park and as such the signal for any radio is perfect. As a result, they are given the job of monitoring the airwaves, keeping a tab on the movements of the game talking to the guides. “We don’t feel the need to visit the parks” he said “if you ever want to know where the tigers are, this is the place to be.”

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In the footsteps of the snow leopard

Snow Leopard Ladakh Tour

After reaching the first floor of the guest house in Leh, after a short flight of stairs, I was breathless and dizzy. At that moment, I didn’t rate my chances looking for snow leopards in the wilds of Hemis high altitude National Park, made up of deep valleys and rugged snow-capped peaks, some over 6,000m.

The next few days were therefore spent acclimatising in the region, visiting nearby monasteries, holding their spectacular winter festivals, which, unlike those in the summer are devoid of all tourists. We joined hundreds of villagers and monks, crammed into the monastery wrapped in the deep folds of their coloured robes, with small prayer wheels a constant motion in their hands.

The procession began with monks from the Yellow Hat Sect, playing the ornate Tibetan Horn and with a clash of cymbals, dancers in huge papier-mâché masks appeared, depicting gods, animals and some creations too bizarre to even fathom, complete with flowing robes and sashes, spinning around the courtyard as the crowd looked on. After many costume changes and breaks for yak butter tea (an acquired taste) we were able to explore the 500 year old building itself, which seemed less to cling to the cliffs on which they were perched and more to grow out of the rock itself. Being a particularly auspicious place for a cremation (so carefully avoiding any recent looking piles of ash) we stepped through the heavy wooden doors, worn smooth with age into a dark room, lit by the odd shaft of sunlight. As our eyes became accustomed to the room, we began to notice the small offerings tucked away in the shadows.

Prayer beads and ribbons of white silk draped over small statues of Shiva, rupee notes stuffed into their hands, brass bowls overflowing with fruit and chocolate bars. Oil lamps and incense burnt in the corner whilst the high priest or Kushak sat watching us, his mobile phone charging silently behind him.After making my own offering, hoping for a snow leopard to grace us with its presence on the trip (I needed all the help I could get), we stepped out into the fierce sun and thin air, the pure white of the gompas and the bright fluttering prayer flags, dazzling after the darkness.

The following day we began our drive into Hemis itself, along a road no less than 10 years old carved out of the rock face that wound its way along the mountains, following the Rumbak river, in the valley hundreds of feet below us. After leaving the vehicles, we stepped onto the trail in trepidation and incredibly, saw pug marks after an hour or so. The excitement of the group grew – was the snow leopard in the mountains above, watching us already, and would we even get a glimpse? We continued past pack horses taking rice and vegetables to the villages deep in the valley in which we were to stay later in the week, past small shrines at the base of poplar trees, past frozen waterfalls, the temperature fluctuating wildly in between the sun and shadow. After arriving at camp, the masala chai (and chocolate biscuits) were a god send and then after a soul warming lunch of rich stew and rice, we climbed the nearest ridge to begin our search – our guides from the Snow Leopard Conservancy up the ridge like a shot – the rest of us lightheaded and breathing hard, dragging ourselves along the scree. On reaching the top, the spotting scopes were already set up, with binoculars pointing every which way and excited chatter between the guides. After we had settled down, we began to scan the horizon for any signs. The blue sheep were there, the snow leopards favourite dish and we looked and looked – I’d never seen so many snow leopard shaped rocks in my life. After a while as the ridge fell in the shadow of the mountains and the temperature dropped, we headed back to camp for more delicious, warming tea and biscuits. Over dinner that evening our guide discussed the plight of the snow leopard. No one knows for sure how many there are, sightings are incredibly rare and they are one of the most well camouflaged cats in the world. Not to be put off, we retired to bed – feeling positive after the tracks we saw in the morning and warmed by the hot water bottles that had been tucked into our sleeping bags.

By the time I’d realised what was happening the following morning, the snow leopard that had been spotted above the ridge in our camp 5 minutes before I was awake, was already making his getaway. David had been the first to see it, halfway through his morning shave and our guides were already telling us to run up the ridge behind the mess tent for a better view. We all stumbled out through the camp, pulling on boots, gloves and hats, zipping up jackets, keeping one eye on the rocky ground and the other in the hills above us, grabbing camera’s as we went. Whilst the effects of the altitude were almost gone, running up mountains 5 minutes after waking, at 3,500 metres half dressed, brought them back and with spinning heads and gasping lungs we reached the ridge and began looking through the scopes.

And there it was. On the ridge opposite our camp only a few hundred metres from where we’d been, crouching in the rocks – the ghost of the Himalaya’s and one of the world’s rarest creatures. We knew how unbelievably lucky we had been.

But to have a second sighting later that day was something else…

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Snow Leopard Conservation

In the period May-July 2011 a team from Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT), along with its partners, conducted a Snow Leopard population estimation survey.

Using remote camera trap captures and identification of separate individuals inhabiting the study area, of which the astonishing results have just been released.

The pilot study on the remote camera traps has been designed by Dr. Koutubh Sharma and Jigmet Dadul from the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust, both of whom also met our recent group in Leh for an exclusive presentation on their work.

The study is to serve as a pilot for setting up a greater monitoring program which should also serve to help validate the skills of field personnel in aging scrapes or pugmarks that will make up crucial components of the large scale monitoring program. 15 camera traps were set in chosen areas known to be regularly visited by Snow Leopards. Some cameras were placed in different valleys and others in the mountain ridges known to be frequently visited by the Snow Leopards.

From the first fieldtrip a total of 8 cameras from 5 different sites, and from the second field visit 5 cameras from 4 sites had captured Snow Leopards. After the collection of the cameras and the downloading of the pictures, a rough estimate was prepared. 6 individuals were estimated to have been captured by the camera traps placed by SLC-IT for the period May-July 2011. No-one really knows how many snow leopards there are, with estimates ranging between 4,000 to 6,500, but the work of the SLC-IT helps play a vital role in snow leopard conservation.

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Working city life – Mumbai and Delhi

After visiting India last year for the first time and falling in love with this wonderful country, I couldn’t wait to go back. My recent short second visit took me to the cities of Mumbai and Delhi. I am not usually a city person, however this tour challenged my opinions and exceeded my expectations.

Mumbai, originally known as Bombay, is the capital of Maharashtra and the economic powerhouse of India. It is the fastest moving, most affluent and the most industrialised city in India.

The highlight for me was visiting the Dhobi Ghats. It is termed as the world’s largest outdoor laundry and features row upon row of open-air concrete wash pens, each fitted with its own flogging stone. As you can see in the picture above, men work at the laundry, doing 12 hour days and they all live there too. They provide a complete service of collecting the laundry, washing and ironing it and returning it clean and pressed.

At midday, we visited the Church gate station to see how the Mumbai Dabbawalas carry out their day to day duties. These “men with boxes” are part of a unique service industry whose primary business is collecting freshly cooked food in lunch boxes from the residences of the office workers (mostly in the suburbs) and delivering it to their respective workplaces. Various means of transport are employed in the process. Due to their immensely successful systems of operation, Dabbawalas have been invited to give lectures at prominent business schools all over the world.

After our busy morning, we spent the afternoon enjoying a wonderful curry in The Oberoi hotel overlooking the sea. This is a great place to stay in Mumbai.

I could have easily spent a few more days in Mumbai, but being a short visit it was time to fly on to Delhi. I will definitely have to go back to Mumbai and I would really like to visit the slums and also see the fishermen at work.

Delhi has been called the soul of the country, with its centuries of colourful history. Today, the city is a curious blend of the modern and traditional; skyscrapers, beautiful gardens and wide tree-lined avenues perpetuate the Mughal passion of landscaping and architectural excellence.

I was equally excited to explore Delhi, especially Old Delhi. We had a wonderful guide for the day and I found the Red Fort a fascinating place. The guide really gave us a sense of what life was like in India and I only wish I could have stepped back in time. There was such intricate detail on the fort and palaces.

To finish off we had a fun rickshaw ride through Chandni Chowk, the busiest market in Old Delhi. It was noisy, chaotic and filled with smells of India.

Both cities make for a perfect short break to India or if you have more time there is so much more to India than the cities.

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Holi – A festival of colour in India

I have made a conscious effort to bypass the hotels of Delhi and Mumbai, of which there are many, and seemingly increase daily. Rather than report back to our valued traveller information on plasma TV screens and fast internet connection, I am filled with a warm glow to confirm that the “real“ India is alive and kicking outside of these busy metropolises.

The people are incredibly hospitable and welcoming, age old customs and lifestyles are still firmly in place, and traditional festivals are celebrated by entire communities with much gusto.

I am still washing away the striking colour of pink from my arms and hands, two days on from Holi. The celebrations that I took part in were set in the most stunning location of Maheswar, sat aside the Narmada River in Madhya Pradesh. I was staying as a guest of HH Prince Richard Holkar, within his royal residence at Ahilya Fort. The fort dominates the town and is an integral part of the community still today. The sunrise over the holy Narmada, the ancient temples casting shadows at noon and the sound of song and laughter of women and children at work, drift upon the wind from the ghats – this place whispers tales of the past from every crevice and corner.

Holi is usually celebrated in March, and the entire country shuts down for at least one day. The significance is to mark the end of winter. In rural areas, such as Maheswar, the festivities can last up to four days. The Holkar family ensured all their guests were completely immersed into family celebrations at this time.

An atmospheric bonfire lit, a priest blessing guests and family alike, wishes and prayers made as we cast flowers into the fire. I anticipated this evening to be the beginning of the most memorable few days.

The next morning, wearing old white cloth, tentatively and expectantly stepping into the streets of Maheswar the party atmosphere can be felt in the air. Live wired children, head to toe in striking pink and green colour. Cheeky boys hiding in the shadows, armed with water pistols, beaming smiles, showing purple teeth. Elders, women, cows, goats and even dogs the colour of the rainbow!

After the colour, a swim from the Ghats is the done thing. The Narmada River is a holy river. On this day it is not only washing your sins away but also the paint. As the day passes, the watery Ghats turn from blue to pink. From sunrise to sunset this day felt like a party of a loved one, which indeed it was…my beloved India. Thank you again for showing me your true colours!

Browse our journey ideas for India

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On the trail of the tiger

The first indication we had that a tiger was nearby was from the faint tracks our guide spotted in the early morning light, with dew still on the surrounding bush (and the bonnet of our car – it gets surprisingly chilly in Indian parks at sunrise).

We slowly followed the tracks through high grass, when a beautiful male Sambar appeared from nowhere, stopping briefly to fix his commanding gaze on me who was staring back equally wide eyed.

As we continued our search, our guide was keen to point out the unique wildlife the rest of the park has to offer as many people are so focused on the big cats (who doesn’t want to see a tiger?) that other wildlife often take second place. We saw vultures nesting in rocky cliffs, monkeys grooming each other, their infants fluffy hair almost glowing in the morning light, the flash of brilliant blue from Kingfishers and crocodile tracks, but a sudden warning bark from the deer focused our attention back on the tiger.

The noise attracted other vehicles in the area and we were soon joined by other eager safari goers although our own 4wd and not the large 20 seater canters many other companies use, was able to to explore the much more inaccessible areas, the place where a tiger would most likely be hiding and we soon left them behind. After our guide had clearly picked up the scent, we set off at some speed along the tracks and as we turned a corner, I saw the sleek silhouette of the tiger, her tail flicking from side-to-side, slowly walking away from us, catching glimpses of the deep orange sheen of her fur as she walked in and out of the shadows.

The image was so powerful that whenever I think of the moment it seems I am remembering a perfect picture I have seen, rather than the animal itself, such was the elusive, ephemeral quality of the cat. Regardless of the sightings one may have in tiger parks, the beauty of this trip was that no matter what you see, the tiger’s presence is always felt – seeing them for me was just the icing on the cake.

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First step into India

A first time visit to India and what an amazing place, in fact amazing isn’t enough of a word to truly encompass the wonder of this country. Old Delhi is as hectic as they say and New Delhi still retains a ‘sense of British Raj’ with wide avenues and neatly clipped lawns. An eye opening and jaw dropping journey towards Agra was our first taste of driving, or being driven in India. So very British of me to keep saying ‘but why do they let the camels walk the wrong way up the road’ but you soon become familiar with and grow to love this ad hoc approach to the Highway Code!

With the Taj Mahal at sunset and then again at sunrise this was our first of our many remarkable experiences. No, I didn’t have my photo taken on the bench made famous by Princess Diana – but just stared in awe at this creamy, dream like building. No post card can do it justice. From here the places we went to and the things we saw just got better. Ranthambore National Park was a treat. The majestic fort watching down from the hill at the Sambar Deer and migrating birds. We did see a tiger, allbeit on the road out of the park, looking quite relaxed and not bothered about us at all. We were lucky enough to celebrate Diwali at Bundi, a charming town off the beaten track. Home to intricate and beautiful stepwells and quite the most stunning palace we saw on our trip. Only six other visitors so we had it pretty much to ourselves. Bundi’s night sky lit up with fire works, families celebrating the festival of light – these two days were most definitely a highlight of the trip.

Moving round to peaceful Shapura and Udiapur with its Lake Palace looking like a wedding cake and plenty of shopping to do, then onto Jaipur for the Amber Fort and colourful elephants. With a relaxing few days at the end at Amanbagh to reflect and digest on all we’d seen and done, I was left feeling that it was the people who make India so special. We visited many rural villages and were welcomed into their homes, into their temples and surrounded by bright eyed children all wanting to have a photo taken. It was in these villages that we really fell in love with this country. It was the genuine warmth that we had experienced throughout our trip that has got us already planning to go back. The colourful images you see of woman in beautiful, bright saris are not done for effect, it is exactly how it is. India is bright, cheerful, chaotic and mesmerizing and I cannot wait to return.

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Steppes Discovery wins award for commitment to sustainable travel

Steppes Discovery has been highly commended in the category “Best for conservation of wildlife & habitats” at this year’s Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards.

The Judges said “Steppes Discovery has continued to adapt to wildlife tourism issues worldwide. Unhappy with the Norwegian government’s recommendations on whale watching they withdrew one of their most popular wildlife viewing trips – Orcas in Norway. Their tour guides are often experts in wildlife conservation and Steppes Discovery are leaders in their campaigning for Tiger conservation through ‘Travel Operators For Tigers’ (TOFT).”

Chosen from a list of 1,765 nominees, we are delighted to be recognised for our commitment to sustainable travel. When you feel as passionate about wildlife as we do, it is not enough to offer exceptional wildlife holidays without giving something back. By joining forces with local research projects and carefully chosen wildlife charities, Steppes Discovery is able to give privileged insight into the natural world while supporting conservation and local communities. Importantly, we continue to look for emerging wildlife destinations in order to alleviate pressure from the path well trodden so if you share our pioneering spirit then keep an eye on our website and e-news for new small group wildlife holidays to Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Patagonia.

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Summer in India

Having never visited India, I went with an open mind and now I’m back I am already planning my next trip. I was overwhelmed by their hospitality and friendliness and the sheer beauty of Kerala. A colleague asked me what the highlight of my trip was and I said I couldn’t choose one as I thoroughly enjoyed every day.

I spent one day in hot sweaty New Delhi, taking in the sights of India Gate, the parliament buildings and Qutub Minar. The high temperature was soon forgotten as I become engrossed in the history of Qutub Minar and the detail. I stayed in a homestay outside of Delhi and enjoyed a swim in their pool in the evening.

The rest of my time was spent in Kerala, so very different to the hustle and bustle of Delhi. Our first night was spent in Fort Cochin and home to the famous Chinese fishing nets. We then spent two nights in the mountains of Munnar. Our homestay was in a perfect location with incredible views and wonderful hosts. We spent a day travelling higher up into the mountains with a visit to the highest tea factory in the world. My photo gives you an idea of the lush, rolling green hills of the plantations – it was lovely to have a cup of tea too!

Thekkady was our next destination and another beautiful spot. I hoped to see a tiger but maybe next time, however I really enjoyed my trek in the Periyar National Park. Another highlight was visiting a school next to our homestay. We were greeted with huge smiles and welcomed into their classrooms.

I was excited to reach Alleppey and go night fishing. Vembanad Lake was on the homestays doorstep and the fisherman was waiting for us. We enjoyed fresh lobster that evening in a typical Keralan home. The next day we went out on the lake again but in one of the famous houseboats. They are fantastic and we all relaxed whilst taking in the scenery. I couldn’t have asked for a better final evening, locals came to our homestay and played live music for us.

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Tourism saves tigers

So the Indian Government are thinking of stopping tiger tours and tiger tourism in a bid to save tigers?!??

This is the kind of bizarre thinking the National Tiger Conservation Authorities have for trying to save tigers.

For six years, I (and many others) have been saying to NTCA and Forest Department that where tourism exists, tigers are still surviving. Corbett has the highest numbers of tigers left in India and 65000 visitors – a fact not mentioned. Bandavgarh has 5 breeding females and 14 cubs in the Tala Tourism zone today and with 45000 visits – unbelievably high densities – given that tourism is meant to be ‘killing’ tigers and destroying habitat.

The reality in India is: NO tourism = NO Tigers (or very few). The 15 tiger reserves that have no tigers, have historically had very little tourism.

There are many reasons why tourism saves tigers. Alternative livelihoods and the presence of tourists prevents destructive activities such as marginal farming, poaching, grazing and forestry. Forest staff are paid better and are accountable for their work. Tourism channels resources into the regions and enables the millions of people who care about nature to visit them. In turn this provides millions of additional dollars in the Forest department’s coffers to return into conservation efforts.

Habitats that have no visiting tourist are in a desperately poor state of health; overgrazed and burnt – simply ‘unloved’. You don’t have to be a wildlife research scientist to see this! I am not justifying the damage mass tourism can cause (outside of park boundaries of course) – a lot of it is poor and unsustainable. For years I have been advocating better rules, regulations and ENFORCEMENT.

ONLY the Government can affect this by laying down a template for the effective use of tourism. Blaming tourism is just an easy target, it is those in power who have the capacity to make a difference.

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India Tiger Study and Snow Leopard Tracking Tours

For our intrepid traveller whom has a dream of tracking the Tiger and Snow Leopard in India our exclusive tours offer you this one off opportunity. To inspire you the BBC have numerous wildlife programmes which compliments are tours perfectly – ‘The Lost Land of The Tiger’ and ‘Natural World – The Himalayas’ are due to be launched this summer and the BBC Cat Diaires, previously based in Africa, and now being filmed in India.

Natural World – The Himalayas will broadcast on BBC2 in August and takes a fascinating look into the wildlife of this stunning mountainous region and in particular the secretive world the snow leopard. The Lost Land of The Tiger takes a small team of big cat scientists to the Himalaya in search of tiger, snow Leopard and clouded leopard. The expedition is part of an ambitious plan to help the survival of these incredible and elusive animals, some of which are on the brink of extinction through poaching.

Steppes Discovery group tours work in conjunction with the charities that support these majestic animals and help sustain their environment , namely the Snow Leopard Conservancy in Ladakh and TOFT (Travel Operators For Tigers).

*Group Tours:*
In Search of the Snow Leopard Lost Land of the Tiger Tiger Wildlife Study Tour

*Please contact 01285 651 010 for further information on these exclusive
tours*