Family Friendly Sri Lanka

Family Holidays, Sri Lanka

If you are wondering where to go with your family to chase the tail end of the summer why not consider an escape to Sri Lanka, which is an ideal family destination during October half term and the festive period.

Sri Lanka is a superb destination for families – think sandy beaches, national parks and bicycle trails.  Families can get out and about in the hills, exploring tea estates, or channel their inner Lara Croft in the Cultural Triangle, home to spectacular ruins of former ancient capitals. Stories about kings and queens, a different culture and friendly people all give them something to remember and talk about when they return home.

Family at a cultural site, Sri Lanka

The island is incredibly diverse and comprises ancient ruins, colonial forts, beaches, wildlife reserves, tea estates and coconut plantations. Thanks to Sri Lanka’s relatively small size, many of these sights can easily be visited on a round tour and together they offer plenty to keep the youngest family members busy.

Many of our hotels are ideal for families – Why House, Taylors Hill, Camellia Hills, Fort Bazaar, The Last House, Noel Rodrigo’s Leopard Safaris and Leopard Trails, Water Garden – Sigiriya and The Wallawwa are some of our standouts.

Why House near Galle is superb for families – all rooms except the cabanas can fit extra beds for children (two in anterooms or a mezzanine to give parents’ their own space), there’s a big walled garden, a huge pool, outside games and a very accommodating team of staff who can arrange Sri Lankan cultural shows, snake charmers and even a visit from an elephant at a drop of the hat. They also have kids’ menus and can offer a babysitting service.

Leopard Safaris, Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Children over three years are catered for at Noel Rodrigo’s Leopard Safaris who have family tents and offer a range of activities (such as animal footprint identification games and amateur photography classes) for younger members of the family. The summer months are ideal for spotting big game on safari as the onset of the dry season and dieback of the bush in July and August makes them much easier to see. Blocks 1 and 2 of Yala are often closed in September for a month, so as an alternative you’ll visit blocks 3-5. These don’t incur much extra travel time due to Noel’s advantageous location to the north of the reserve.

The Wallawwa, close to the airport, has family rooms and is ideal for a first or last night’s stay. Sister-hotel Fort Bazaar, in the World-Heritage listed Galle Fort, also has a Family Suite and interconnecting rooms. If a family is looking to stay put beside the sea, The Last House is an excellent choice – the Cinnamon Suite comprises adjoining double and twin bedrooms. Upcountry, Taylors Hill and Camellia Hills – are both small houses with big views ¬– and excellent Family Rooms. Further north in the Cultural Triangle, the freestanding villa rooms at Water Garden – Sigiriya are huge and they have two-bedroom duplexes as well as a kids swimming pool.

Swimming Beaches

So where are the best places to swim with children? On the south coast, beaches such as Dalawella and Kabalana are accessible from Why House, Fort Bazaar and Kahanda Kanda while Mawella, where The Last House is located, is a super long beach with good seasonal swimming.

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s Big Five

Sri Lanka is a huge destination for wildlife lovers. There are few places in the world where you could be sighting blue whales in the morning, and photographing elephants and leopards on safari by the afternoon. Other notable wild animals to look out for include leopards at both Yala and Wilpattu National Parks. The Indian Ocean is also home to dolphins and sperm whales.

Christmas and new Year Availability

There are still rooms over the festive period.

Where to Travel?

Sri Lanka offers some of the most family-friendly boutique hotels and villas, and a couple of suggested itineraries can be viewed here. 

Children viewing Elephants, Sri Lanka
Special Seasonal Offers

Travelling in the quieter summer and autumn months represents excellent value for money as prices are lower and attractions much less busy. Hotels also promote special offers such as free night stays valid between now and mid December.

Kaziranga

Kaziranga is in the north-eastern state of Assam; it is famed for its one-horned rhinoceros and the density of its tiger population: here there are more tigers per square kilometre than anywhere else in India. However, due the fecundity of its flora, sightings of the latter are harder to come by but that is no reason not to go there.

Kaziranga is a child of the Brahmaputra River valley and its 430 square kilometres are a unique mix of grasslands, semi-evergreen, tropical, mixed deciduous forests, swamps, wetlands and sandy chuars that create a diversity that is a wildlife haven. I quickly see the dotted spots on the back of one hog deer and the softness furriness of another’s new horns of another, a boar wallowing contentedly in the mud and elephants foraging in the undergrowth.

Everything is green, whether it’s the tall elephant grasses that rustle noisily in the wind or the jungle of ferns, bromeliads, lianas, vines and orchids a month or so away from flowering. Forest authorities have subjected occasional swathes to controlled burning and here the regimented stripes of the burnt grasses stand in contrast to the lush green and look like a conifer of porcupine quills.

Everywhere I look, I see the casual browsing of rhinos. They are nonchalant and unperturbed by the attendance of the ubiquitous egrets and swamp deer. The flick their ears occasionally, oblivious to the perils that face their kind, the trophy on which they carry on their nose.

Lady Curzon allegedly travelled to Kaziranga in the early twentieth century and chanced upon the unfamiliar footprint of a species she had never encountered before. Asking what animal this was she became fascinated by the description from locals – how do you describe a rhino to someone who has never see one, even in this modern day and age, let alone over a century ago – and was told that it belonged to a four-legged animal with a horn. Little wonder that its Latin name is Rhinoceros unicornis.

The grey silhouettes of rhinos, many sleeping on their haunches, dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. Buffaloes rest their heavy horns on the green grass; this is a time of laziness, even indolence. The monitor lizard is unmoving, reptilian in its repose. The tiger is nowhere to be seen.

Everything is still. The turtles which have lined up on a log in the river are motionless. The landscape is imbued with a soporific feel. A leaf flutters noiselessly to the ground. The tiger sleeps, unobserved.

It is a time for birds. North-east India is home to more than 850 species of birds. I don’t count every bird that I spot but I do see Asian open-billed stork, green bee-eater, osprey, serpent-headed eagle, black-necked crane, pelicans and darter, locally called the snake bird for the way in which it swims through the water.

The fluttering flight of the pied kingfisher before it smacks into the water, unsuccessfully, only to resume its hovering vigil to knife into the water once more. The darting flight of the drongo. A heron peers from the parapet of a treetop, surveying the landscape. A grey headed fish eagle circles for prey. It is rare to see the common kingfisher.

The call of the barbet, the whistle of the oriole, the cry of the eagle, the crash of leaves as the jungle fowl ploughs through the undergrowth.

The resplendent red of the fowl’s plumage. The flash of yellow wings from an oriole. The green of an emerald dove as it flies low through the forest. The dazzle of blue as a kingfisher darts along the river.

Kaziranga National Park

A female hornbill is glimpsed. Or rather her bill as she cleans her nest in a hollowed-out part of a tree. Nuts or berries – the remains of her food provided by her male partner as she prepares her nest for the imminent arrival of their young – are dropped one by one out of the hole. It was comical yet fascinating to watch. Glimpses and insight proving that it is not about the picture postcard image but the experience.

The tiger evades me once more. My search continues. My fascination undiminished.

An Adventurer’s Insight – Q & A with Rosemary Crill

Rosemary Crill

Rosemary is the former senior curator for South Asia at the V&A Museum in London, specialising in Indian textiles and paintings. She has published many books and articles on these subjects and has travelled widely in India. She was co-curator of the exhibitions Colours of the Indus (1997), The Indian Portrait (2010) and The Fabric of India (2015-16). It was her research into Odisha’s ikat textiles that first took her to the region and she has returned several times since.

We asked Rosemary to share her thoughts on who has inspired her, her best travel advice and more.

How often do you or have you travelled to India?

I’ve stopped counting, but it must be over 50 times, as I’ve been going to India for over 30 years, sometimes up to 3 times a year. Some of these have been short trips for meetings or conferences, but others have been longer stays of up to 6 months travelling, researching a book or working in museums.

What surprises you about India?

The clash of the very old and the modern, like having to squeeze past a cow to access an ATM, meeting a dread-locked sadhu who was a former bank manager or visiting craftspeople – potters, sculptors, weavers – still making things in the same way that has been done for thousands of years.

What is your most amusing travel story?

One I can think of is turning up very dusty and dishevelled at a hotel in rural Orissa to find it completely staffed by immaculately dressed hijras (trans-gender people), who viewed us as very disreputable females and offered to give us a make-over. Or being followed by police and questioned as suspected gem-smugglers in tribal Madhya Pradesh. Or being instructed to take a large jar of Horlicks as a gift to a highly revered monk in Sri Lanka…

What are your favourite places / experience in India?

I love visiting small towns that have maintained traditions in architecture and skills and have a lively bazaar to wander in – places like Bhuj in Gujarat, Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh and Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu. Or for relaxation, when it gets too hot in the rest of India, I love the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, with beautiful villages and temples with amazing views of the Himalayas.

What is the one essential you travel with?

A folding hand fan, invaluable for hot journeys. Also a small jar of marmalade or Marmite as an alternative to the truly horrible Mixed Fruit Jam that is usually provided for breakfast in hotels – but if you’re lucky they may provide honey.

What is your best piece of travel advice?

In India, try not to be too dependent on a tight schedule, and try to have a Plan B in mind. Trains often run late, landslides may block the road and whole villages may be suddenly deserted because everyone has gone off to a wedding.

I also think it’s good to have some kind of theme or focus to your trip. This can be quite informal, whether it’s visiting textile makers or craftspeople in a particular region, seeking out obscure temples with interesting wall-paintings or sculptures or perhaps tracking where your grandparents lived – these will give you a reason to venture off the beaten tourist path and see more interesting aspects of India.

Who has inspired you to do what you do?

The craftspeople who have kept textile traditions alive in the face of increasing industrialisation in India, and the individuals and NGOs who continue to give them work. India is in transition and these skills would so easily be completely lost without a lot of effort and dedication.

Where is next on your travel ‘bucket list’?

In India, I would like to travel more in South India. In the rest of the world, I would love to see something of South America and West Africa – both great areas for textiles as well!

India group tour – Textiles and Temples of Central India

Accompany Rosemary on our small group tour in November 2018. Journey from Delhi to the central heart of India. Discover the fascinating textiles of this region and learn more about its influences on India’s history and architecture.

The Spirit of the Indian Jungle

‘’There, can you see it?’’
I scanned the horizon. Nothing.
‘‘The ear, can you see it twitch.’’
I picked up my camera and extended the lens.
‘’See the log, just behind you’ll see it.’’
Both my eyesight and lens had let me down.
‘’Ok, let me drive closer’’.

Namrata, our naturalist in Pench National Park, ushered to the vehicle in front of her. She pointed to where she had spotted the tiger and urged them to approach slowly and quietly. The vehicle, sped off towards the area, closing in four hundred, three hundred, two hundred metres. Their haste is de rigueur, it seems, in India’s national parks.

As our vehicle approached the tiger, Namrata turned the engine off and rolled to a stop. Reaching for her binos, a smile crept to her face. ‘’Wow’’. She stood up in the vehicle, one hand held her stomach as her eyes lit up, she was in a childlike awe. Despite having been a naturalist for four years with the world renowned Taj Safaris, spotting India’s mightiest and most majestic creature never seemed to lose its charm.

Despite settling in Mumbai working as a graphic designer, Namrata felt the jungle calling to her. Her love of discovery and wildlife had been ignited whilst travelling the world in her teens as result of her father’s work. I asked what her best experience on safari had been. She paused; ‘’there’s so many’’. A pivotal moment, however had been at Kanha National Park. Aged 24 she experienced her first night on safari. From the safety of her lodge she had heard the roar of tigers in the middle of the night; ‘’I had no idea what the sound was, but I knew I wanted to hear it again and again. I knew I wanted to make this my home.’’

Taj Safaris have been pivotal in championing female naturalists, currently employing four across their different properties in India, including the two lodges that I was privileged to stay at – Baghvan in Pench and Banjaar Tola in Kanha. It seems Taj are attracting locals from all walks of life. Whilst staying at Baghvan we meet other naturalists who have left high flying jobs in the city. One, a former consultant at Ernst & Young, spoke to me about his decision to leave the city for a more fulfilling calling. Yes, his parents were shocked at what is a little bit of an unconventional career choice but as he recounts his experience of the last tiger census at Pench I see that, much like Namrata, he couldn’t ignore the jungle calls.

Namrata is certainly no token gesture as the only female naturalist in Pench. Calm, collected, yet still irrefutably excitable at the sight of wildlife, game drives with her seemed to end much too soon. Sight aside, her knowledge of the wildlife was incredible. We were treated to stories of Collar Walli, the Princess of Pench – one of four tiger cubs intimately filmed by elephants wearing hidden cameras on Tiger- Spy in the Jungle – and Langari, a tigress born with a twisted paw but a defiant attitude to change her fate. The tigers here in Pench are all assigned numbers, for the naturalists however, they are on a first name basis.

Elusive, surprisingly well camouflaged, and fiercely independent, tigers are not a guaranteed spot. We were on our third game drive at Pench and so far we had only seen a tiger from afar, striding beyond the teak trees before disappearing altogether along with around seven other safari vehicles all queued up on a single lane track. We yearned for our very own close up and with at least one of the 53 tigers in the park we thought our luck would be in. But this is unlike safari experiences in Africa. There is no sense of instant gratification. No guaranteed sightings of game on each drive. Patience is key.

The right naturalist has a sense for where the tigers may be, which direction they’ll be heading in. The best naturalists, however, will ensure that your game drives uncover all that the park has to offer.

Golden hour was upon us. The ominous teak trees are tinged with a saffron shade of yellow sun. Taking its name from the meandering Pench river we drive through different landscapes of forests and valleys. You may be there for the tiger but you’ll be listening for the warning calls of the langur, looking for the photogenic so called ghost tree that has shed all its bark to the always unexpected feeling of droplets from the cicada filled trees in the forest. The park is alive and your senses constantly alert. We spot gaur, sambar deer, jackals and rhesus macaque and peahens with ease. Indian rollers, greater racket tailed drongo and night jars fly overhead. On one occasion what we think is a tiger turns out to be a leopard sprawled across a log. Another phenomenal spot by Namrata.

‘’Do you see it now?’’ Namrata asks.
She leaned forward and asked for my camera so that she could focus on it for me.
‘’Yes, yes I do.’’

A smile crept onto my face as I watched the tigress peer up out of the long grass to scan the horizon. We sat, silenced by the view of her. The sunset was beginning to highlight her head, the glow making her appear ever more like the spirit of the Indian jungle.

Be sure to follow Namrata’s experiences on Instagram – @nams9140

Assam

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The grandeur and glitz of Mumbai airport seems more than a three-hour flight away as I emerge out of the single building brick terminal of Jorhat in northern Assam. The airport’s simplicity a gauge of the way of life in Assam that I am about to experience.

Assam is in the north-east of India. An area that is remote, close to the Chinese border and politically sensitive. The Chinese make a cheeky point of not requiring the Assamese to have a visa to visit China as they are part of the same country, namely China. But that does not mean that its 78,000 square kilometres (one third the size of the UK) is uninhabited. This is India: the population of Assam is thirty-two million.

Tea is ubiquitous – camellia assamica – a tree that grows to fifty feet in height but looks like a bush as it is kept in check by the back-breaking labour of the tea pickers. This assiduous work is not done by the Assamese but tea tribes who have migrated here from eastern India. Late in the day, the tea workers walk alongside the roadside in brightly coloured saris with baskets and bags balanced on their heads. Dotted amongst the bushes are trees cloaked in the vines of black pepper. Every inch of space is utilized. The fecundity and the productivity of the soil ever-giving.

Tea or visiting a tea plantation is an undoubted highlight of visiting Assam. So too the Hindu temple of Kamakhya in Guwahati, the Brahmaputra River and in particular the island of Majuli and the national parks of Manas, Nameri and the glorious Kaziranga, home to the one-horned rhino and the highest density of tigers in India. But for me, it is the people and laid-back way of life of Assam.

Tidy squares of parched paddy fields and dried up water ponds in front of the houses bestow a simple order on the landscape. The land is flat, strikingly so. The even horizon only broken by the silent sentinels of chimney stacks used to bake bricks. The one hint at industry.

Bamboo fences frame the extent of the property’s area. Laundry dries on the line. A certain neatness.

Betel palms and bamboo trees are evidence of a lushness, a productivity of the soil.

Life is unhurried. Whether girls, in the red stripes of the Karbi tribe, ambling down the lanes or the pace of traffic on the roads. The laidback pace of life is summed up by the Assamese expression lahe lahe, “slowly slowly.” Sound advice.

The Cat That Crossed My Path

Leopard at Yala

‘Leopard!’ The jeep stopped suddenly and I looked around in anticipation. Over to the left, sure enough, a leopard had stopped on the path mid-walk and was looking right at us. It was only a few metres away, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was breathtaking.

We held its gaze for half a minute before the silence was broken by the sound of two jeeps arriving. As the vehicles came around the corner, the startled leopard darted into the bushes. We were at a fork in the road in Yala National Park, the other two jeeps, having got a glimpse of the leopard, went to the left where it had just been. Our driver drove the opposite way then stopped and turned off the engine. ‘The leopard will cross over our path in a few minutes’ said Hari, our ranger, confidently. I had no idea how he knew this, but I trusted his judgement.

We sat in silence waiting, you could have heard a pin drop. Every now and then we were treated to glimpses of the leopard, which was now prowling through the bushes. A few minutes later the leopard crossed our path and we had the perfect view. Hari explained that it was a two-year-old male and we were incredibly lucky to see one so close, especially on the open path. I certainly felt extremely lucky, it’s the kind of sighting you dream of.

Hari’s knowledge was impeccable throughout the entire game drive and I tried to absorb all the information he gave. He is one of the rangers from Chena Huts in Yala National Park and I really love that they pride themselves on not following the crowds in the park.  I think it is important as Yala is the most popular National Park in Sri Lanka and famous for Leopards, meaning it attracts a lot of visitors. Chena Huts have their own rangers who are trained to differentiate the game drives from the other jeeps. If everyone else is heading left, they turn right.

My first experience of a safari in Sri Lanka was a huge success and I honestly believe it is down to Hari and our driver, the time spent there was mostly away from other jeeps but still with great sightings.

It was my first visit to Sri Lanka and I can say with confidence, it is my favourite country I have visited. I have taken away great memories and an impressive leopard photo to show off.

OSCAR Foundation

“The moment that I kicked a football I forgot everything.”

As witnessed at the bustling fish market at Sasson dock earlier that morning, work in the fishing industry is hard. The fishermen spend days out at sea in unseaworthy vessels and return with an ever-decreasing catch. The market itself is full of smells and sounds as the night’s catch is bought and sold. Women push past eager not to miss out – their focus on the job in hand is absolute. The colour of their saris and the flags of the fishing boats do little to alleviate the gloom that pervades.

The quote sounds as if it had been said by a multi-millionaire Premier League football player. In fact, they are the words of an inspiring young man who grew up with nothing in the fishing community of Mumbai, India. His name is Ashok Rathod and the name of his charity, which spawned from his enthusiasm, is the Oscar Foundation which uses football to inspire change.

I was walking through the fishing community with Ashok. He was very quick to use the word – community – as opposed to the more derogatory word of slum. For him it is about individuals and neighbourhoods and he does not believe people should be labelled as to where they come from.

Back in the fishing community, children run riot on the narrow dirty spaces between the houses. Their parents are out at sea or still at the market. These children have nothing to occupy themselves. Except that is for the Oscar Foundation. Ashok points out a tiny room accessed by a rickety ladder in which six children sit on the floor reading battered books that have been donated from charities. In another room, eight older children are coming to grips with the heat, bulky computers and a scratchy mouse. It is not much, but it is a start for these children that they cling on to for dear life. The Oscar Foundation rents these threadbare rooms and trains the helpers/teachers.

Ashok turns a corner and we are in a narrow dark alley. My eyes adjust to the dimness as Ashok knocks on a door announcing, “This is my parents’ house. They will not be here but maybe my brother’s children.”

He opens a door to a room of about seven feet by seven feet, the walls lined neatly with pots and pans. A gas plate for cooking in the top left-hand corner and place for washing in the right.  In the bottom corner are some wooden steps which lead to another level where his parents and nephews sleep at night. His brother and his wife sleep downstairs in the room in which we are.

We emerge from the fishing community and further down the road enter the laundry community. The walls of the houses are painted in bright colours, the roofs are crammed full of drying clothes, sheets and towels. I am disbelieving that in this melee of laundry, items are not lost. But as throughout India, there is a system that navigates the chaos.

Next, we head to the Maidan, a communal field near to Mumbai University where cricket, as it does with the rest of India, dominates. The Oscar Foundation team occupy a dusty corner.

“Why did you not focus on cricket?” I ask Ashok.

“Because I had nothing, as do the boys and girls we work with. You need bat and a ball for cricket and then later on pads and the rest. With football, all I needed was a football, even if it was homemade.”

Ashok inspects the worksheet of the young man taking the practice. The template is impressive – asking for details on warm up, skills, timings and all with diagrams – as is all of the Oscar Foundation. It is the attention to detail and structure that enables the Oscar Foundation to encourage leaders to mobilize communities. It is about empowering others at grass-roots to spread the word rather than relying on the Foundation to do so. It stimulates self-reliance and independence.

The boys and girls – Oscar Foundation does not discriminate – look immaculate in their red shirts and shorts and white socks. I am surprised not to see them so well turned out but at the expense of kitting everyone out. I ask, “Does everyone in the foundation get a shirt, shorts and socks?”

“When we first started, the Muslims used to stick together and so too the Hindus. The people from the laundry community would not mix with those from the fishing community. Once we gave them some kit, all that changed,” replied Ashok. The power of uniform.

This in essence is what the Oscar Foundation does. It brings children together who have little or no hope and shows them a path forward. It gives them a confidence.

Finding the Soul of India in the Land of the Rajputs

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Rajasthan

“Namaste Memsahib”, a handsome, sparkly-eyed gentleman greets me with a warm smile, hands clasped in front of him as if in prayer. “Welcome back to India”.

Four years of absence from a country that is always calling me, it’s been far too long. Yes! I am back. I’ve travelled to India many times and still, I am enchanted and mystified by her intoxication.  An Indian friend once said to me “Everyone must come to India at least one time in their lives and I defy anyone who says they’ll never return, for she has many charms! She is a beguiling temptress, you don’t notice her creeping up on you, enveloping you in her warm embrace and before you know it, you are lost to her”.

This time around I am visiting Rajasthan. Known as the Land of the Kings, everywhere you go you hear of the Rajputs, (ruling princely tribes), and their battle-scarred heritage. Many of whom built magnificent palaces, forts and hunting lodges, several of which are now gloriously unique hotels. Rajasthan is well-known for its royal cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur which dominate most itineraries, the huge forts and majestic palaces an undeniable draw. The Golden Triangle encompassing, Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. However, I’m not here for the royal cities, I’m here to venture off the tourist path, to reach the rural hinterlands of this vibrant state and experience the beauty of the open countryside.

Tucked away, far from the madding crowds and cities, amid golden, sandy scrubland and patchwork fields, sits Shahpura Bagh (Bagh meaning garden). It is here that I feel I have landed in the true peace, calm and beauty of India. This is timeless Rajasthan, relatively untouched by modernity and a haven in which to submerge yourselves.

Shahpura Bagh is the historic residence of the rulers of Shahpura, the family still very much at home. Now run immaculately as a warm and welcoming boutique hotel with only nine luxury suites, set in vast gardens filled with mature trees of Neema, Ashoka, Peepal and Mango and adjacent to a fishing lake. There are walking trails, hammocks and charpoys located at scenic spots to relax, read, or watch the birds, and a superb swimming pool surrounded by large comfy day beds. The highlight of any visit to the Shahpura area is a visit to the village and a to climb Dhikhola Fort. In the early evening light, the sun setting, standing at the top of the fort ramparts, you can hear village life floating upwards, birds swoop close by, calling out before heading to their nests, the air is soft and warm against your skin.  This is rural India at its very best.

It confirmed to me, once again,  the importance of leaving the city behind when in India. One cannot deny that the cities are noisy and chaotic here, there is the very apparent squalor, created by the burgeoning population (1.3 billion). Initially, it can feel like an assault on the senses and although fascinating, it is essential to reach out towards the countryside, as it is here that India will begin to envelope you.

The city chaos fades and the true beauty of this incredibly diverse country shines through. India offers something that is rare to find, the power to awaken your soul. You begin to see the beauty everywhere.

From the way the light plays on the wings of the green bee-eaters, the sound of birdsong and peacock’s calling early in the morning, the green of the Khejri Tree against the dry, sand coloured earth. Bright coloured saris adorn women who walk elegantly on their way. Long warm days and majestic, shimmering sunsets.  The quality of the early morning light, playing through the branches of the Banyan trees,  aside lakes teeming with birdlife. The handsome, proud faces of men with glistening moustaches, orange turbans and twinkling eyes. The village children who run free, laughing, welcoming, eager to be near you, to shake your hand. Just for a moment, time stands still, and you feel your soul soaring, your heart is full.

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.

Steppes Big 5: Reasons to Travel to Rajasthan in March

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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.

Sri Lanka – Our Man in Colombo

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Sri Lanka - Our Man in Colombo

I left my hometown of Buenos Aires at 17 and never looked back. Now 43, I’m still on the road with no end in sight. Sometimes people ask me what my motivations were for choosing the life of a perpetual wanderer and I always tell them the same thing – fear of boredom.

One of my biggest inspirations has been ‘The Tao of Travel’ by Paul Theroux, while this quote from the Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy has always stayed with me: “Choose your country, use guidebooks to identify the areas more frequented by foreigners – and then go in the opposite direction.”

Europe, Latin America, Asia, I’ve travelled through them all, and never been tempted to stay in one place for long or stick to the map. Over the years one comes to realise that the memories from the road that stick to you most are the experiences that you never expected.

Life in Colombo

I fell in love with Colombo through literature, especially the brilliantly dark descriptions rendered by Carl Muller. He spoke of an obscure underlying force dwelling underneath the new malls, the fancy shops and cafes, one that has been there all along. With the right kind of eyes you might be able to see it for yourself, so keep yours open.

Something to remember when exploring Galle Face Green 

On the morning of April 4th, 1942, the Japanese launched a massive air raid on Colombo using over 125 aircraft commanded by Mitsuo Fuchida, the naval captain who led the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their target was the British Eastern Fleet, which the Japanese mistakenly thought was still at Colombo, but, in fact, it had been moved just days previously to the Maldives and Trinco. Fuchida had to content himself with sinking the HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall.

A few British Hurricanes took to the skies in defence. One pilot was hit but managed to land on Galle Face Green to the surprise of passers-by. He was able to walk to the nearby Galle Face hotel where someone called: “You need a drink!” He was handed an amber liquid that turned out to be cold tea. It was only 8.30am and the bar was still closed, but the Japanese had failed in its attack on Ceylon. 

Leonard Woolf in Ceylon 

Colombo can sometimes feel like a bit of a madhouse with the bustling crowds and the heat combining to form a heady effervescence. The writer Leonard Woolf described it thus: “…there was something extraordinarily real and at the same time unreal in the sights, sounds and smells – the whole impact of Colombo, the Grand Oriental Hotel, and Ceylon in those first hours and days, and this curious mixture of intense reality and unreality applied to all my seven years in Ceylon.”

If you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka then a copy of ‘Woolf in Ceylon’ by Christopher Ondaatje makes for an insightful introduction to the country. The Grand Oriental Hotel which Woolf saw in the early 20th century is still standing, a wonderful monument to a bygone era.

Jaffna

For adventurous travellers or return visitors to Sri Lanka who want to see a different side to what they’ve previously experienced, Jaffna in the northern province should certainly be on your itinerary.

I wanted to create a programme in Jaffna that would help pave the way for tourism to return to the area and revitalise the economy.  In essence, many larger operators tend to use Sinhalese guides to take tourists to Jaffna, guides who often don’t know the area well, know even less about its history, and don’t get along with local Tamils.

We began a tourism program that is run by and for the benefit of local people. We believe this is the first initiative of its kind in Sri Lanka, and it has been met with amazing feedback from clients and locals alike, something that gives us immense pride.

We aim to develop Jaffna tourism in a way that’s true to our values and our vision of sustainability. We also want to highlight unique experiences here and open the door to more remote destinations such as Delft. Originally a Portuguese island known as ‘Isla de Vacas,’ it was taken over by the Dutch and renamed after their city of Delft which, as you may know, was the birthplace of Vermeer. This is a place of haunting beauty, with walls made of coral, no cars and wild horses that run freely around the landscape. In all of Sri Lanka, this is the place about which I am most passionate, and I love introducing it to first-time visitors.

Joe versus the Thames Path

From Saturday 20th May until Friday 26th May I will attempt to run the 184 mile Thames Path from the river’s source in Gloucestershire (around 5 miles from the Steppes Travel office) to the Thames Barrier in east London.

I will be running the equivalent of seven marathons in seven days to raise money for Restless Development a youth-led development agency placing young people at the forefront of charitable development in Africa and Asia. I first heard of Restless Development when they came to the Steppes Travel office and gave us an excellent presentation. Shortly after this I visited one of their projects in India, a small IT centre giving young girls from a poor neighbourhood in Chennai basic IT tuition. It was such a moving but inspiring visit – the girls were so keen to learn, the teacher (unpaid) such an asset, and the centre so basic but so valuable. I walked away acutely aware of how much we have in the West and realised I wanted to raise money for Restless Development to build more centres like the one I saw. As a keen runner, swimmer and cyclist in my spare time I am drawn towards long distance events so the options for raising money were always going to involve my own physical discomfort but initially I was struggling to think of a decent challenge.
Then one day I had a ‘lightbulb moment’. I grew up by the River Thames and have swum in it, fished in it, boated and kayaked on it, picnicked beside it, and spent a considerable amount of time running its banks. The idea to run the length of the river as quickly as I can came to me whilst camping with a friend in Sweden. We were sat by the fire sipping whiskey and telling stories having spent the day kayaking around the island we were staying on. I don’t really know why the idea to run the Thames came into my head but it did and the next morning it was still there.

At home I started looking into the details and when I divided 184 (the length of the official Thames Path in miles) by seven (days) I could hardly believe that the figure I got was 26.285. 26.2 miles is the length of a marathon. Seven marathons in seven days has a nice catchy feel to it. The source of the river lies in a field roughly five miles from my desk at the Steppes Travel HQ, I grew up by the river near Marlow, the Restless Development office is a stone’s throw from the Thames near the London Eye. It just seemed to make sense. Armed with a map and pencil I worked out a provisional schedule sticking as close to the marathon distance of 26 miles a day as I can. This kind of worked although I have generously (read stupidly) given myself 30 miles to run on the last day! I’ll be carrying everything I need for each day on my back – food, drinks, rain jacket, phone etc.

With my challenge in place I announced my intentions to Restless Development and to anyone else who would listen. All that was left to do was train, get as fit as I could, and raise some money for Restless Development. With five days to go I am in reasonable shape although training has been a bit up and down due to niggling injuries. Fundraising, thanks to my wonderful friends, family and colleagues is going well and I have been given some wonderful support for which I am extremely grateful. On the run I will give 110% to reach the finish and raise as much as I can for Restless Development. If you would like to read more about my challenge or indeed would like to sponsor me then please visit my justgiving page – https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Joe-vs-the-ThamesPath

Wish me luck!

Joe

The below photo was taken at the end of a 45 mile ultramarathon I did as part of my training.

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

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“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.

Join Lee Durrell this April on an Indian Voyage

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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.

The bare necessities of Tiger Tourism in India

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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. 

An Interview with Henrietta Cottam from Why House, Galle

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There are an amazing group of people behind our collection of stunning hotels in Sri Lanka. With first-hand experience of Sri Lanka as a luxurious holiday destination, these interesting people each have their own unique story. We thought you might enjoy getting to know them too. Here we give you a Q&A session with Henrietta Cottam, Guest Relations Manager at Why House, near Galle.

Q: How long have you lived in / been coming to Sri Lanka?

A: I came for Christmas in 2009 and stayed at Why House, which was then owned by a great friend. I came back in 2011 to set up Why as a hotel at his request and, despite a change of ownership, I am still here five years later.

Q: What encouraged you to visit, stay and settle?

A: Why House has a magical quality to it and the staff I inherited are still here, which makes it hard to leave as we have all been on such a journey. I have also had the opportunity to create a product from nothing, which has been an amazing experience especially since this was my first foray into tourism. Timing has played a good part too as I hit Sri Lanka just as it piqued people’s interest again and is now a hot destination.

Q: What do you love about Sri Lanka?

A: The weather fascinates me as it truly is so changeable. I also have a deep regard for the people who also intrigue me. I love their humour…. Only in Sri Lanka am I rendered speechless on a daily basis. My favourite is: “Madam, I am 100% not sure!”

Q: Where is/are your favourite places for a Sri Lankan getaway?

A: Dare I say it, but Kahanda Kanda. It is a very romantic and special place to me and I love the peace and quiet, and the staff. I also love Mamboz in Tangalle because the food is delicious and it has a hippy vibe that I can just about handle (I am an air con sort of a girl).

Q: Name three Sri Lankan must-sees or experiences

A:  Polonnaruwa: I loved it and found it haunting and beautiful.

Ratnapura: For all the trading, markets and hustle and bustle.

Koggala Lake: Sunset on the lake is pretty fabulous from a boat or lake side villa.

Q: What three items do you consider essentials for a Sri Lankan road trip?

A: Some good snacks – Sri Lanka’s ‘short eats’ can be heavy going when it is all that is available – a soft pillow, pashmina and car chargers for phones!

Q: What do you love about Sri Lankan food, and can you name a favourite dish?

A: I love the freshness of the food, the variety of cooking techniques and the use of local produce. I could become a vegetarian easily as the use of vegetables is extraordinary. My favourite dish is an okra curry – who’d have thought it! What a total surprise!

Q: Can you share a surprising/little known fact on Sri Lanka?

A: At Sri Lankan parties, they go home as soon they have eaten! Hence, it’s best to eat before a party, as food is always served late and one can be ‘nicely refreshed’ if not careful before the food is served.

Q: Can you share any tips with tour ops planning Sri Lankan itineraries?

A: Be realistic about the transfer times and manage the client expectations on how far things can be from each other. Sri Lanka is big!

Contact our experts for a tailor-made Sri Lanka holiday on 01285 651010 or email inspire@steppestravel.com

India’s Taj Mahal to undergo face lift in 2017

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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.

Flavours of Sri Lanka

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Sri Lankan cuisine is very distinctive, an exotic blend of tastes and aromas enriched by ethnic diversity and centuries of interaction with outside settlers. From early Arab traders to the European colonisers, Sri Lankan food has a wide range of international influences and is rich in flavour and variety. From rice and curry – a meal with a deceptively simple name that incorporates seven separate dishes, from curries to sambols – to the ever-popular string hoppers served hawker-style on the streets, something to please everyone can be found on your Sri Lanka holiday.

Sri Lanka has long been known for its spices, which Sri Lankan people use liberally in their dishes. Visit a spice garden and see how some of them are grown and processed, including clove, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace and pepper – and other favourites such as chocolate and vanilla.

Tea is also widely cultivated on this fertile tropical island, especially in the cool hill country but also in the lowlands. Sri Lanka has been renowned for its tea since the 19th century and is now the world’s fourth largest exporter of the product – take a tour of a tea factory and watch how the plant is processed from the leaves into this much-loved drink.

From bustling local markets bursting with tropical fruits and bizarre vegetables, vibrant aromatic spices and glittering fish to the delicious fresh crabs, prawns and other seafood found all along the coastline, there are many culinary delights to be seen and sampled. Your chauffeur-guide will be only too happy to help find you some tasty treats whilst you are on the road, or recommend a restaurant renowned for its excellent food.

Tickle your taste-buds

From Market to Mouth – Galle

Meet your host chef early in the morning at bustling Galle market, who will show you the core vegetables and spices used in Sri Lankan cuisine. Then, take a boat ride and bicycle ride to a rustic wattle-and-daub hut in a rural village, where your chef will show you how to prepare a range of dishes.

Jaffna Crab Curry – Jaffna

Jaffna cuisine is renowned for its use of the fresh seafood, and the region is especially famous for its crab curry. Learn the secrets to cleaning fresh sea crabs and how to prepare a traditional Jaffna crab curry. To finish off the experience, sit down to one of the best meals you will eat whilst in Sri Lanka.

Cinnamon Experience – Koggala

Sri Lankan cinnamon is regarded as the best in the world, and is a major export of the island. After taking a walking tour of a working cinnamon plantation, try your hand at cinnamon peeling and head to the factory to see it being processed. Finish with a cinnamon-themed lunch at Kahanda Kanda on the beaches of Sri Lanka.

Artisan Tea Tasting – Colombo

Join the Founder of Sri Lanka’s first designer tea brand, TEAELI in Colombo, for a fascinating session where you will learn all about the processing and manufacture of tea and the many varieties of tea found in Sri Lanka. You will also taste a selection of green, black and fusion teas from the artisan TEAELI collection.

Sri Lanka – an enchanting Christmas escape

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Sri Lankan Fishermen

Sri Lanka is an exquisite choice for a holiday during the festive season: December arrives and with it comes the island’s peak season, which runs until April. Most of the country basks in glorious sunshine, and the seas of the sought-after beaches of the west and south coasts become safe to swim in.

Christmas is a very popular time to visit Sri Lanka – the hill country, Kandy, Galle and the south coast are booked up months in advance and will be bustling with tourists come December. However, for those still seeking to escape to the island at this time of year, there are many other beautiful parts of Sri Lanka to be explored.

This blog takes you from the north-west coast to the untouched east, highlighting the best areas for finding a lively atmosphere, utter escapism or complete tranquillity – however you want to spend the holiday season, you can find it in Sri Lanka.

The north-west coast is not frequented very often by tourists, but also enjoys the plus points of peak season – great weather, and calm waters ideal for swimming and whale and dolphin watching. This region boasts exhilarating water-sports and stunning colonial-period architecture, and is particularly suitable for families.

Negombo is a youthful coastal town positioned approximately an hour north of Sri Lanka’s capital city Colombo. Known for its laid back beach bars and lively atmosphere, Negombo also boasts beautiful old architecture, mainly in the form of colonial churches. The town was an important port during the colonial periods – in the late 17th century the Dutch built a network of canals, over 100 km in length, that were used to transport valuable cinnamon and other spices from the inland plantations to the coast. A photographer’s paradise, from the gaudy, chaotic festivals erupting on the streets to the bleached, beached and beautiful Oruva outrigger canoe catamarans. These driftwood sculptures have been used for centuries and are a key part of the fishing industry, which is the beating heart of Negombo – rise at dawn and watch the fishermen delivering their catch to the bustling, early-morning markets.

The Wallawwa – It might be situated just a few kilometres from the airport but this seventeen-room boutique property is far from being a transit hotel. Nestled amongst acres of stunning gardens, The Wallawwa is a 200-year-old manor house, the most ancient wallawwa in the entire province and still maintains many elements of its original architecture. The bedrooms are positioned around a central courtyard pool and the interiors are a blend of traditional décor and modern comforts. A sanctuary of serenity and style, The Wallawwa offers exquisite food, extensive spa facilities and is wonderfully convenient for both the airport and Negombo, which is just a thirty minute drive away.

Another vibrant coastal location, Kalpitiya is a beach town situated at the tip of a small strip of land on the north-west coast. Well-known for being a fantastic spot for water-sports, this is area is particularly good for kite-surfing and windsurfing due its close proximity to the ocean and the Kalpitiya Lagoon. It is home to a 17th century Dutch fort and church, stunning beaches and offers travellers the opportunity to see Blue Whales, Sperm Whales and the acrobatic Spinner Dolphins within a fifteen-minute boat ride.

Bar Reef Resort – Bar Reef Resort is an eco-resort set on a private beach stretch in the rural fishing village of Alankuda. Set amidst swaying palms, this property is utterly tranquil and has an enchanting rustic feel. Six mud cabanas and two larger villas stand either side of a central avenue which is dotted with periwinkle flowers and lit with gas lamps at night. There is a large salt-water infinity pool fronting the property, shadowed by a majestic ambalama, which appears to blend straight into the ocean beyond. This swimming pool is illuminated at night with lights in the shape of star constellations, making for a magical evening dip. Beach living at its most classic, this property will charm you.

Spinner Dolphins and Blue Whales

Accompanied by an experienced naturalist, take the thirty-minute boat ride from Kalpitiya Beach out into deeper ocean waters. Before long you will be surrounded by Spinner Dolphins leaping and spiralling into the air – sometimes up to 300 can be seen together at one time. Blue Whales and Sperm Whales also travel through these waters, and between December and March there is a high likelihood of seeing these mighty creatures. Unlike the busy south coast, whale and dolphin watching here is a much more tranquil experience with far fewer boats, giving you a better chance of seeing these incredible creatures up close.

Wilpattu National Park
One of Sri Lanka’s largest and oldest parks, Wilpattu is spectacular. Comprised of dense scrub jungle, dry-zone forest, small lakes surrounded by grassy plains and a coastal border where you can see the remains of Queen Kuweni’s palace (thought to date from the ancient times), Wilpattu National Park is home to leopards and sloth bears, as well as elephants, different types of deer, wild boar, water buffalo and mugger crocodiles, and abundant species of bird and butterfly. Wilpattu is frequented much less than some of the more commercial parks in the island, such as Yala – you may not even see anyone else during your safari.

Gal Oya

Gal Oya is slightly inland from the east coast, centrally located between Batticaloa and Arugam Bay and positioned to the east of the Senanayake Samudra, one of Sri Lanka’s largest lakes. Gal Oya National Park, an extensive wildlife sanctuary, sits beside this lake, which is scattered with small islands that wild elephants can sometimes be seen swimming between. The park also houses Axis Deer, Muntjac, Water Buffalo, Sambar, Leopard, Toque Monkey, Wild Boar, Mugger Crocodile and Star Tortoise. Gal Oya is also home to the Veddas, the country’s indigenous people who still retain a distinctive cultural identity.

The Gal Oya Experience: a walk with the veddas, Sri Lanka’s indigenous people.
The veddas are the aboriginal people of Sri Lanka and are more shrouded in secrecy, mythology and mystery than any other group of people on the island. This walk with Gal Oya’s vedda chief provides a unique insight into a culture which is rapidly disappearing. Taste their honey and marvel at their traditional hunting weapons. This is a community on the brink of extinction: as you trek through the forest listening to the somber melodies they chant, you will gain a deeper understanding of how fragile this tribal existence is.

Get in touch with one of our experts to discuss a tailor-made holiday to Sri Lanka on 01285 651010 or email inspire@steppestravel.com

After 10 years Planet Earth II returns to BBC2

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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.

Why Visit Bhutan?

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Paro Valley, Bhutan

Bhutan is a land of breath-taking, far reaching, mountain views, terraced farmland, dramatic river valleys and glittering streams, of people who are never in a hurry but are full of life, of unique architecture and impressive and colourful Dzongs.

I can confidently say that anyone who visits this incredible land cannot fail to be affected by its beauty, spirituality and uniqueness. It left an everlasting impression on me.

Here are my five reasons to visit to Bhutan.

1) Spirituality and Gross National Happiness

Setting it apart and adding to its intrigue is Bhutan’s exceptional determination to preserve its culture and tradition and protect its natural environment above all else, in a world where everywhere is changing so fast. Their priority, and rightly so, is Gross National Happiness, a development philosophy based on Buddhist values which measures the quality of life by looking at the spiritual and mental well-being of its people. Every decision is carefully considered for the benefit of its people, with a high value, low volume tourism policy, external modern influence is kept at bay while nurturing Bhutanese values at home.

2) Festivals (Tsechus)

Major annual Buddhist festivals are hugely impressive and take place in most towns across Bhutan. If there is a festival on, make sure you take part in the festivities. Dance ceremonies are performed by monks in spectacular costumes and are watched by the local people, who dress up in their finest clothes. Incredible displays of art, textiles and music are also part of the celebrations.

3) Forts and Monasteries (Dzongs)

Impressive and vast, Bhutan is strewn with huge, imposing structures housing political and administrative centres, the Royal Family and the Buddhist monk communities. Some of the most rewarding to visit are; Tiger’s Nest (Taksang), located in the cliffside of the Paro Valley, a prominent Buddhist sacred site and temple complex and the Punakha Dzong, arguably the most beautiful dzong in Bhutan, particularly in spring when the lilac-coloured jacaranda trees are in full bloom. The monastery is situated on the confluence of two rivers and is the administrative centre of the region. It is also full of life with monks and people going about their daily lives.

4) Mountains and trekking

Without a doubt Bhutan offers some of the most spectacular scenery and trekking terrain on earth. There is a huge range of day walks to full-on treks offering some of the most exceptional, description-defying views you could imagine. Trek teams and equipment have improved hugely and easily compete with trekking in Nepal, and also avoid the crowds and litter.

5) Special places to stay

Having somewhere incredibly beautiful and comfortable to stay with great food makes a holiday and Bhutan offers some very special places to stay. Como Hotels and Aman Resorts have a number of lodges spread across the country, both located in unique positions offering first class service, comfortable bedrooms and delicious cuisine. There are a number of privately run, boutique hotels too like Gangtey Goenpa Lodge, which overlooks one of the most picturesque valleys in Bhutan.

To learn more about our tailor made holidays to Bhutan, email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753 for further information.

Searching for snow leopards in Ladakh, India

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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.

India: Village Wildlife Guardians prevent tiger poaching

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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.

New Wildlife Experience – Dudhwa National Park, India

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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.

Sri Lankan Cinnamon Production and Tri, Lake Koggala

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Did you know that Sri Lanka is one of the most prolific cinnamon producers in the world? The island is heady with the aroma of cultivated spices, and is responsible for producing over 80-90 per cent of the world’s supply of true cinnamon (cinnamon zeylanicum), the purest form of the spice which is prized for its thin smooth bark, golden yellow colour, highly fragrant aroma and sweet taste. The spice is carefully cut from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree, peeled by trained hands, before being packed into cigar-shaped quills and dried to a papery golden brown. Whilst on a Sri Lanka holiday guests can get a glimpse into the humble world of cinnamon production by staying at Tri, on Koggala Lake.

History

Arabian traders were some of the first to trade in Sri Lankan cinnamon and it wasn’t long before Europe took interest, keen to eliminate the middleman, with navigators setting out for the world’s most aromatic shores. The first European country to wrest control of Sri Lanka’s spice trade, particularly cinnamon, was Portugal, when they stumbled upon the island in 1505. The Portuguese subsequently tamed Sri Lanka’s wild cinnamon into cultivated crops, and held a monopoly over the spice for over 100 years before they were ousted by the Dutch who established a trading post in 1638. As one Dutch captain reported: “The shores of the island are full of it… It is the best in all the Orient. When one is downwind of the island, one can still smell cinnamon eight leagues out to sea“. Subsequent battles for control of the island were largely down to the value of cinnamon, along with gems, ivory, pearls and elephants.

Process

The delicate golden cigar-shaped quills of cinnamon are produced entirely from hand in a long and painstaking process with no wastage; oil is extracted from the leaves and the unwanted wood is used for cooking. The inner bark is carefully peeled off using a knife and then tightly packed together to form traditional quill shapes. It is an innate skill, and very hard to master. The quills are then air dried. Cinnamon peeling is traditionally a family business with skills passed down through the generations and family members taking on different roles.

The cinnamon experience

Cinnamon used to grow wild inland from the south and west coasts, though is now neatly cultivated. One of the best areas to see the process of cinnamon production is around the spicy shores of Koggala Lake, near Galle, on the island’s south coast. This meandering waterway is home to ‘Cinnamon Island’, and the Tri Hotel, which overlooks the lake, offering its guests trips by dhoni to the island for a cinnamon peeling demonstration. On returning to the hotel having enjoyed a superb journey across the lake, guests will return to a feast of traditional Portuguese pastel de nata (egg custard tarts infused with cinnamon) and cinnamon iced tea.

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

Leading Ladies: One of our own – Q & A with Zara Fleming

Zara-Fleming

Zara Fleming is an independent art consultant, researcher and exhibition curator who has specialist knowledge of Buddhist art. She first visited Bhutan in 1976 and has been returning ever since. She has been responsible for the Tibetan and Nepalese collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum and Assistant Projects Director in Europe for the Orient Foundation. 

We asked Zara to share her thoughts on what motivates her to do what she does, who inspired her, which place she is happiest, her best travel advice and more…

1. What was your earliest childhood ambition?

I am not sure which came first to become a farmer (as I was brought up on a farm and loved looking after the animals and living the outdoor life) or to travel to Tibet and the Himalayas. From the age of 7, this was my ambition (I had a teacher who told us about the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile which had happened that month (March 1959) and according to my teacher I was very moved…….and got the school to raise money for refugee children. We also had a colouring book with a picture of the Himalayas and a Tibetan lady with a yak and I knew then that this was the place I really wanted to explore. I now live on a sheep farm in North Wales and travel frequently to the Himalayas.

2. What motivates you to do what you do?

The joy of living and the pleasure I get from sharing my love of the Himalayas and Buddhist culture with others. This could be through travelling, lecturing, organising exhibitions or researching a client’s Tibetan object. I also love initiating or contributing to small scale health and education projects in the Himalayas, to give something back to my friends in the Himalayas – who have given me so much.

3. Who has inspired you to do what you do?

My first teacher (Mrs Pipe) was hugely influential by introducing me to Tibet and by instilling in me the importance of being true to myself.  The inspiration for travel and adventure came from my grandmother, but also later from Peter Hopkirk who encouraged me to become a travel guide and lead the first British tour to Tibet in 1981. And last but not least I am inspired by the many Tibetan lamas whom I have met, who have introduced me to a path of wisdom and compassion.

4. What ambitions do you still have?

Whilst I am still physically fit, I would like to trek and explore various parts of the Himalayas which I have not yet been to – and be able to introduce more people to this inspirational part of the world and to a Buddhist culture which I love so much.

Whilst my mental powers are still OK, I would like to write a book of my travel experiences. And although not a real ambition, my aim each day is to think less of myself and to make other people happy.

My immediate ambition is to take my husband to Bhutan later this year, as we got engaged at Takstang in November 1976 – to celebrate 40 years of being together and to thank him for his patience when I travel solo.

5. What matters most – ambition or talent?

A combination of both, talent is doing something you are good at and enjoy and ambition is the driving force which gets you where you want to go. But you also need enthusiasm!

6. If your 20 year old self could see you know what would she think?

When I was 20, I was somewhat shy and naive and although I had trained in museum studies and still wanted to go to the Himalayas, I did not have a future plan.  Looking at me now, I think she would be somewhat amazed that I had ended up with a career that combines my love of Buddhist art and travel in the Himalayas.

7. If you had to rate your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

Eight or eight and a half.

8. In what place are you happiest?

Where I feel at home and this is where my heart is, which is either in the hills of North Wales or the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, preferably surrounded by those I love.

9. Do you consider your carbon footprint?

Definitely, as the earth is a very precious place and we should look after it for future generations.  However, I wish I had wings so I could still travel eastwards without increasing my carbon footprint!

10. How often do you travel?

I usually lead 3 or 4 group tours a year and together with other travel for lectures, project work or fun – I am probably away for 3 – 4 months of the year.

11. The one essential you travel with?

Apart from my passport (and a copy), my much travelled small red rucksack, a comfortable pair of boots and a pot of Vicks (good for colds, smells etc!)

12. Your best piece of travel advice?

Travel light, go with the flow and don’t just look “at” the places you visit, but look “into” and immerse yourself in the local culture.  Expect the unexpected and always have a sense of humour.

13. What advice would you give to young ladies wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Follow your dreams, but work hard and enjoy what you do and never never give up. If you believe you can do it, you can.  And treat others as you would like to be treated.

14. If you could do it all over again, is there anything you would change?

Not that much. It has been a privilege to have led the life I have and yes there have been downs, but hopefully I have become a better person through them. If anything, I wish I had written more whilst travelling.

Get in touch to start planning your holiday to Bhutan. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

The Gardens of India – Steppes Top 5

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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.

Cycling in Tiger Country

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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. 

Discover the vibrancy of Sri Lanka

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I am writing this blog retrospectively and as I do so I look out of the window at the kind of grey, bare, biting November day that inspires travel-related day dreams of a holiday to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is so vibrant. Not just vibrant in the sense of colour, spice, sun, and tropicality but also vibrant in the sense that the country is changing. Fantastic hotels are springing up, Living Heritage Koslanda by way of example. Interesting new excursions are bursting on to the scene – walking around the capital city with a hugely knowledgeable local guide (a doctor and an engineer, no less) opened my eyes and totally changed my perception of Colombo that, in large part owing to the civil war that ended in May 2009, had all but completely hidden its charms from its visitor.

Now there is a buzz in Colombo that demands one’s attention. Wonderful old department stores, such as Cargill’s, are being renovated and the Old Dutch Hospital now boasts designer shops and magnificent eateries. The chilli crab I ate at the ever popular Ministry of Crab hit me for six. It was sublime.

Away from the capital the country is as sleepy and as scenically splendid as I remember it from my previous visits but you can now see more of it and, importantly, see it in style. The old favourite hotels are still there and still excellent but they are now facing more and more competition which is healthy and good for the traveller.

Now is the time to visit Sri Lanka.

Start your Sri Lanka holiday with us, call us on 01285 880 980  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Pedalling Through Paddy Fields

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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.

Steppes Beyond | India: Tigers & Snakes

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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.

A Short Walk With A Ladakhi Princess

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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.

 

India Visa Updates – All Your Questions Answered

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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.

Celebrating Holi

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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. 

The Floating Hotel of ABN Rajmahal

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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.

Wonders of the Monsoon

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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 Brahmaputra river with Steppes Travel – avoiding the rain.

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

Snakecatchers of India

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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.

Beyond the Tigers of Tadoba

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“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”.

Delhi – A different perspective

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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.

Wilpattu National Park | A Tall Order

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It has it all, turtles walking across busy roads, Land Monitors lizards sloping around looking like they are up to no good, elephants en masse, casual leopards posing for pictures and shy sloth bears jumping out of bushes.

For an island around the same size as Britain, a Sri Lanka holiday can certainly pack a lot in. The first park I visited on my trip was Wilpattu in north Sri Lanka, it recently opened its doors again to the world and thankfully for me tourism has yet to take hold.

We entered Wilpattu National Park through an enchanted wood, trees bent around one another, twisted and turned forming a frame around the road ahead, an unusual and mysterious way to enter a national park. As the drive went on we drove through fjords, around stunning lakes that were full of mugger crocs and spotted several of the national bird – Jungle Foul, which always scurries around busily in and out of bushes, never staying long enough to get photographed.

Before coming out to Sri Lanka I was asked what animal I would like to see and never in my wildest dreams did I actually think that I would see it. I have been to many safaris in India and always wished I would see a real life Balou. Sightings are few and far between and when they happen it is usually too quick to photograph but today was my lucky day.

At first I could only see his back side, it looked a bit like a boulder but once he turned and looked through the bushes at me I could see his whitish long nose. He stared at us for a few minutes, then looked away and tried to hide behind a bush. I find it amazing how a big black fluffy bear can be so well camouflaged in the dry bush of a Sri Lankan park, everything else seems so well suited to its environment apart from the sloth bear. I am fascinated to know why they are only native to Sri Lanka and India when they both have such hot climates. Of course they are nocturnal animals, only venturing out in the cool of the night or very early in the morning which is why I was lucky enough to spot one, just as the sun was coming up.

The fluffy mass of bear that I saw was shy and inquisitive, he didn’t look like he would hurt a fly but appearances are obviously deceptive. Along with buffalo, sloth bears are the most dangerous animals in the park, they have claws long enough to scratch through termite mounds (built as hard as rock) and if they are confronted by an enemy or human they are renowned for scratching and clawing to death.

Eventually he found the confidence to dart cross the path we were on, his black mass of fluff and white nose now clearly defined against the burnt red path, it couldn’t have been a better sighting for me, the best thing about it was that it was just our jeep full of lovely people from Leopard Safaris, the bear and possibly a sly old leopard watching from afar to share the experience with – perfection!

We have a number of holiday ideas and suggestions that take in the National Parks, our Family Adventures in Sri Lanka can be perfectly tailored to your needs and family requirements. Contact our experts for a tailor-made Sri Lanka holiday on 01285 651010 or email inspire@steppestravel.com

Jule Chamba Camp!

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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.

The forgotten north, Jaffna & Little Delft Island

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There were no other vehicles for about a mile, it felt as though we were zipping along an American highway but instead of burger joints and service stations there were UN Habitat houses, Australian Aid camps, army camps, special task forces outposts and police headquarters scattered equally along the long straight road.

I was on my way to Jaffna, passing through Killinochi town where a huge water tank lay on its side as a result of the civil war, and was heading for the Elephant Pass. Along the highway, for about half a mile, danger signs mark the sites of unexploded land mines which haven’t yet been cleared from the area.

Once I had reached Elephants Pass I walked up to the large war memorial which sits looking over salt pans. The water around it is bright green and the sand gleams in strong sunlight, it’s beautiful but sobering at the same time. It was along this pass that the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE had three major battles and where the Sri Lankan Government cut off Jaffna’s supplies in hope that the lack of food, petrol, oil, soap, telecommunications and much more would weaken the LTTE defence.

Almost immediately after entering Jaffna’s city I was taken to the interestingly shaped cubic Fort (originally built by Portuguese), not much is left of it after the war but what little remains is being lovingly restored with Dutch funding. Inside I found the remains of a church, prison, bell tower and a small war monument in memory of soldiers that were killed there in my life time. It looked as though a bulldozer had charged its way in, leaving parts of the buildings still recognisable. As I passed through the fort gates it was easy to make out the thousands of bullet holes and graffiti left on the walls; parts have been patched but whats left leaves a lace like pattern all through the walkway.

I also went to the library, where in the 1980’s the Sinhalese government are rumoured to have burnt all the books in an attempt to hinder the education of local Tamils. When I left I spotted a man walking towards me, he had also been inside, under his low worn, washed out red baseball cap his big eyes looked around nervously, as he continued to walk closer I smiled at him, all of a sudden he turned direction and walked away looking back over his shoulder towards me again. My driver, Brian gave me a knowing look and I realised that it wasn’t just me that thought the man was acting strange.

The following day in my attempt to dig deeper into Jaffna’s past it was recommended that I contact Dipesh a local guide and it wasn’t until half way through a tour of the city that Dipesh announced it was him at the library, he wanted to approach me to ask if I needed a guide but had second thoughts and walked away.

Dipesh was a tall man, he looked old before his time, he had huge brown eyes with yellowed whites, he wore what was left of his hair combed over to one side and hidden underneath his cap. He had studied geography! Sri Lankan history and he had also survived a war of 30 years in his home town, he announced shortly into the tour that he had seen a gun before he seen or used a telephone and that to listen to the radio they would wire up push bikes to make a dynamo. I could tell instantly that he was well read, an intellectual not really a socialite.

Education has always been important in Jaffna, in fact it is home to one of the countries best universities and during the war education is what focused the young and helped them look towards a brighter future. The problem the city now faces is that highly educated young people with top class degrees no longer want to stay in the northern province and are tempted by better opportunities elsewhere, either in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo or further afield in Australia.

It’s rumoured that locals who fled Jaffna during the war to seek refuge in other countries are now beginning to return, but a good number of them are claiming claiming back their land, selling it and taking their cash back home with them. The city is recovering slowly but until people are confident that the troubles are over it seems unlikely there will be any major investment in the near future, which can only add to the problem of unemployment.

Most people in this province are involved in agriculture or fishing and although you wouldn’t know it now, the hard working farmers did well when the area was cut off from the rest world, people had no choice but to source their food locally and as a result demand was high. These same farmers survived for many years without modern irrigation systems, pesticides or fertilisers, they invented clever ways of irrigating their land using the wells which are still doted all around and used organic methods such as planting marigold plants near crops to deter pests.

As you move north it is obvious that fishing is the main source of income and at the recently opened, most northerly tip of Sri Lanka I found fishing villages that suffered badly from the tsunami. It is a beautiful, lively part of Jaffna and like the rest of the north, it’s been untouched by tourism and is seeped in history. I was lucky enough watch the huge red sun set from the end of the road with music from a near by temple blasting through the air.

During my visit to the north I also visited Delft, a strange and intriguing little island where the pace of life is slow, the landscape reminded me of the isle of Gigha on the west coast of Scotland apart from the dry stone (or coral!) walls made from dead brain and fan coral that neatly divide the land. The little 30km island has a post office, court, prison, market area, several schools, some of which are funded by the church and international aid. To reach the island I took a cargo boat, it’s blue wooden sides had been battered from years of hard work ferrying essential supplies and passengers to and from the main land. The journey took just over an hour, not to be sniffed at when there were no seats or shade from the blazing sunshine, it was gruelling and I had to return exactly the same way.

Whilst on the island I met with Reverend David who gave me a whistle stop tour of the island, he showed me the baobab tree, one of only two found in Sri Lanka and the ruins of a fort, prison and hospital that had all been sadly destroyed during the war. After the short tour we stopped at the beach, the water was clear blue and waves were gentle, it felt far removed from the sophisticated beach resorts near Galle, in the south of island, but there was no one in sight, no honking horns, no beach touts or beer to be found. To my horror I though, also saw the beginnings of a small hotel, a two or three story monstrosity that has been promising to open this year and I realised that this little island may not stay undeveloped for long, as tourism creeps it’s way further up to the north leaving luxury hotels in its path, it will eventually hit little Delft and when it does, I can only hope that it’s charm and innocence isn’t lost along the way.

We have a number of holiday ideas and suggestions that take in Jaffna and the north, our North Sri Lanka Discovery can be perfectly tailored to your wishes and must see places. Contact our experts for a tailor-made Sri Lanka holiday on 01285 651010 or email inspire@steppestravel.com

Blissful Bhutan

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We walked from early morning, passing farmland and locals threshing rice and tending to their livestock. The valley view, the crystal clear streams and blankets of blue Primulas encouraged me to keep moving on.

Walking in Bhutan is immensely rewarding but not always a gentle stroll. The atmosphere was calm and serene and as we arrived into Laktsapha village, to our camp for the night, my legs were heavy but my spirits soared like the towering snow-capped peaks watching over us.

Traditional Bhutanese houses with their carved façades and painted doors set the scene with flame red poinsettias adding to the colour. Smiling faces of the local people looked down on us from shuttered windows, amused I’m sure by the sight of us setting up our tents and preparing for a refreshing, if rather chilly bucket shower. Sitting outside my tent I gazed down over the sweeping valley below, rice terraces and temples dotting the view and then, one of the best sights of the afternoon – our cook Namgay heading towards me with an ice cold beer and a slice of cake – blissful Bhutan indeed.

Bhutan and Nepal – Land of the Thunder Dragon

We still have some availability on our Bhutan and Nepal group tour.

Timed for the colourful Paro festival (tsechu) and the first flowering rhododendrons of the spring, experience ancient temples and distinctive monastic fortresses (dzongs) set amidst spectacular mountain scenery.

– Experience the Paro tsechu, a colourful and atmospheric festival
– Spectacular scenery of the Eastern Himalaya
– The charming Bhutanese people

Whales and Leopards of Sri Lanka

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I’ve just spoken to one of our well travelled cilents who are keen wildlife enthusiasts who are both delighted travellers following their holiday in Sri Lanka. The main reason for their trip was to see wildlife so I was thrilled when they told me of the amazing sightings they’d had.

While based in Galle we’d booked a private boat for whale watching trips and while on the water they’d seen pods of dolphins, Pilot whale and the elusive Blue whale – what a rare treat. Moving onto Yala National Park they were lucky enough to have seven leopard sightings and all this topped off by an hour observing a solitary Sloth bear.

Sri Lanka really does manage to offer something for everyone but if wildlife is you’re thing and you’d like to experience these sightings for yourself then why not consider our Wilderness and Beaches holiday idea?  You could visit the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society, working hard to support wildlife on this enchanging island or explore he waters off Trincomalee, home to a historical harbour and where dolphin and whale watching trips can be organised.

Do give me a ring if this appeals, having visited Sri Lanka three times I’d be more than happy to regail travel stories – I promise not to bore you!  Sally Walters. Product & Commercial Manager, Eurasia.

Contact our experts for a tailor-made Sri Lanka holiday on 01285 651010 or email inspire@steppestravel.com

Elephant Safari in Chitwan

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Experiential is the buzz word in travel at present. An elephant safari at Tiger Tops in Chitwan National Park, Nepal, is certainly an experience. Yes you can go on a ‘tiger show’ in India and ride elephants in search of tiger but as its name suggests it is a performance, a parade. This is not the case in Chitwan.

Staying at Tiger Tops Lodge, famed for its ‘tree houses’, I had the benefit of experience and training both in terms of the wealth of knowledge accumulated over the years by the naturalists of Tiger Tops and its elephants. My guide was Rajdeen, whose insight was invaluable, and my elephant Hira Kali, who as a sight was magnificent.

Tiger Tops has thirteen working elephants and part of the thrill at staying at the lodge is spending time with and learning about them.

“Each has seventy-five sandwiches a day, each sandwich consisting of unhusked rice, molasses, chickpea and salt. It takes three men to make the sandwiches for one elephant,” Rajdeen explained, revealing that this was no small undertaking on the part of Tiger Tops. “They don’t have diabetes – each elephant eats about 500lbs of fodder and drinks 200 litres of water.”

Having got to know a little more about Hira Kali, i felt that I had earned the right to ride her: time for the elephant safari. Seated on a comfortable platform on her back, we swayed out into the forest. I was full of boyish excitement. Part of the thrill was being able to enjoy the bond between elephant and mahout – who sits astride the head of the elephant and guides it with gentle prods of his bare feet behind its ears – and access parts of the forest that are simply not passable by man or vehicle. With the snow capped Himalaya in the distance and the sun on my back, I was
blissfully happy.

Hira Kali strode slowly but confidently through the luxuriant vegetation of tall elephant grasses. Rajdeen had explained earlier that these grasses are the preferred habitat of the greater one horned rhino, of which there are over four hundred in the park. Given my knowledge of its African cousins I felt that we would have little chance of seeing one. I was wrong and more than once – we saw several individuals and also several mothers with young calves.

Moreover, I was surprised by how close we were able to get to the rhino, literally a matter of yards. And then with a loud snort of derision he swung round and trotted off into the sanctuary of the grass, his armour plated backside wobbling in defiance.

We also saw hog deer, spotted deer (chital) and gaur, the largest wild cattle. But of course tiger was the real draw. There are some sixty breeding tigers in Chitwan which is 923 square kilometres. Rajdeen astride on the back of the elephant as scouring the landscape for any sign of the apex predator.

“You see the pug marks there. Reasonably fresh. Earlier today.”

“Where the grass is all depressed – that was where the tiger was lying down not long ago.”

“Look there,” Rajdeen points. “Tiger claw marks on the tree. Marking its territory.”

I was amazed. Not by the marks but how high up they were – the size of our elusive prey suddenly dawned on me. In spite of Hira Kali’s height it would be incredible and a little daunting to see a tiger.

But in spite of the best efforts of Rajdeen and our mahout, the tiger remained hidden, retaining its mystery and again illustrating that unlike India this is not a show.

I will be back to enjoy the experience again – hopefully for longer than one night and thus with a greater chance of success.

Three more sleeps

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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!!

An Indian Safari

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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.

Travel to Kashmir – A Refreshing Visit to India

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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.

Tiger Watching in Ranthambore National Park

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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.

Tiger Tourism Ban – Update

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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.

Bhutan – On the cusp

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“Mountains. Those are not mountains. They are hills,” explained our guide Karma. I was about to question his judgement – the so-called ‘hills’ were well over four thousand metres – but then I remembered that I was in Bhutan. Generally speaking, travel in Bhutan is helped by a suspension of rationality, consistency, chronology and any tendency towards impatience.

It is indeed a magical land in every sense of the word. On the one hand it is a strange mix of the bizarre and the extraordinary, the Asian equivalent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fantastical realism. A country that quite simply defies stereotype and cannot be pigeon-holed. It is a Buddhist culture that abhors killing, yet archery is its favourite pastime. To the Bhutanese the yeti is not a myth – Sakteng National Park has the unique distinction of being the only reserve in the world created specifically to protect the habitat of the yeti. There is even a post of the Royal Yeti Spotter, a post that has been occupied for the last fifteen years, needless to say without success.

On the other hand Bhutan’s magic is of a different nature: its enchantment lies in its wonderfully endearing and friendly people. Right from the moment I stepped off the plane, I was taken aback by their charm. The soldiers were not only unarmed, but smiling and welcoming, even allowing tourists to take photographs. The immigration officials joked and smiled animatedly with all those waiting in line. Given the friendliness of the people throughout our stay, the king’s statement, “I am not as much concerned about the Gross National Product as I am about Gross National Happiness” does not seem so ridiculous.

Our stay, as with most visits to Bhutan, began in Thimpu, the capital. Thimpu is unremarkable and hardly worth a mention, except to say that it has the curious distinction of being the only capital in the world without traffic lights. It does however have one roundabout, which was policed by two traffic officials. Judging by the three dogs sleeping on the roundabout, this was perhaps a little excessive.

The next morning we headed east along a never-ending succession of hairpin bends. As we twisted and turned, I quickly realized that a Roman road is an alien concept in Bhutan and any gear higher than fourth is redundant. Fortunately there was a panacea to such nauseous twisting and turning: the scenery. It was continually and constantly impressive and is undoubtedly a defining feature of the country. It gives this mountain kingdom a sense of isolation and inaccessibility. It is this remoteness that has hitherto left the Bhutanese largely untouched and distinctive.

I was captivated by the snow-capped peaks, the sea of steel blue silhouettes of wave after wave of mountain, the steep forested ridges and precipitous drops to seething torrents far below. Ubiquitous prayer flags fluttered colourfully in the wind at the top of every pass. Blue, green, red, yellow and white symbolising the elements water, wood, fire, earth and iron, their expectant messages blown across the plains below. Occasionally bright and new, mostly old and tattered, the prayer flags were always evocative.

So too were the houses. Surprisingly large, white-washed structures, with ornate dark wood frames, they stood perched on hillsides with commanding views over the panorama. They’re far grander than one would expect. Some have traditional woodtiled roofs, others sport shiny new corrugated iron, nearly all have a blaze of chillies drying on them. Colourful prayer flags rise up beside the houses, scattering dreams to the wild mountain winds. The walls, especially the windows, are a whirl of colour and religion with elaborate floral patterns of lotus, clouds and auspicious patterns. Each colourful and intricate design contributes to the unusual appearance of the whole.

Bhutan is often compared to Switzerland, not only because the two countries are geographically of a similar size but also because Bhutanese houses are oddly reminiscent of Swiss chalets. Driving along, such comparison struck me as unfair. For one, the scenery in Bhutan is far more striking. And secondly, although Bhutanese houses do at first glance resemble Swiss chalets, closer inspection reveals that much of their decoration is a little too crude and brazen for Swiss taste and sensibility. Many of the walls are decorated with phalluses, a Bhutanese symbol for luck and fortune.

It was, however, the dzongs that I found to be the most visibly striking architectural aspect of the kingdom. Of Tibetan origin, these huge citadels dominated valleys, rivers and major towns. Containing monasteries and set in commanding positions on hilltops or at the confluence of rivers, dzongs were built as military fortresses and administrative centres. Once upon a time they provided refuge to entire populations, today they house the state religion of Bhutan, the Drukpa sect of Kagyupa, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism.

Religion, Buddhism, plays an important part in everyday life. Throughout Bhutan, from the most densely populated valleys to the most remote mountain pass, religious monuments and symbols bear witness to a deep and respected faith. Prayer wheels turn, prayer flags wave in the breeze, sending the message of Buddhism forth on the winds. Even on lonely alpine passes the sacred mantra Om Mane Padme Hum is found, carved on slabs of stone and rocky hillsides.

Yet to portray Bhutan as an archaic and isolated Buddhist kingdom would be an oversimplification. Whilst Y2K filled the rest of the world with trepidation and horror at the possibility of meltdown due to a millennium bug, the king acquiesced and allowed TV into the country for the first time. He recognized the need for change yet at the same time is wary of importing western culture wholesale. Thus Bhutan remains a contradiction of past and present. Traditionally dressed archers use modern high-tech bows that are stronger and more accurate than their traditional counterparts. The country is a curious mix of old and modern and perhaps nowhere was that more evident than the Bumthang festival, the Jampar teschu.

We arrived in Jakar, central Bhutan, to find it crowded – this is obviously a relative concept given that the population of Bhutan is only 600,000. The crowds were evidence that the teschu, a series of dances over four days in honour of Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century, was in full swing.

The dances of the tsechu were old and simplistic. Being religious they symbolised the destruction of evil spirits. The costumes were bright and colourful. With much twirling, twisting and turning demons were banished much to the delight of the crowd. There was a pantomime atmosphere with astaras, clowns, mimicking the dancers and performing comic routines. One clown, wielding a large red phallus, was a particular favourite with the crowd causing great hilarity by picking on individuals. The comedy was slapstick and appealed to the mischevious Bhutanese sense of humour.

Strangely it was not so much the dances that I remember but the carnival atmosphere of the whole. It was provincial and colourful, reminiscent of a farcical village fete. Stray dogs wandered across the small arena much to the delight of the clowns who would make great show of trying to kick the dogs, which in turn made the audience roar with laughter. Toddlers ambled unaware into the fray, much to the horror and embarrassment of inattentive mothers. Families sat together picnicking. Dads carried young toddlers. Babies were strapped to their mothers’ backs. Friends gossiped together. Children wandered around carefree and happy. Young boys took great pleasure shooting each other with plastic guns. Manna for the camera-touting tourists.

The men looked resplendent in their ghos, a knee-length garment not dissimilar to a smart dressing gown with large white cuffs. Ghos come in a wide variety of patterns, which although reminiscent of Scottish tartans do not hold the same clan or regional allegiance. Anything goes except red as this is the colour worn by the monks. Women wear a long ankle-length dress called the kira, which is made of bright coloured fine woven fabric.

In theory the gho and kira are compulsory attire and to be fair the majority of the population does wear them most of the time. The Bhutanese are proud, and rightly so, of their customs and national dress is very much part of that heritage – so much so that I even saw a scarecrow wearing a gho! But things are changing. Whereas in the past the police would have enforced the rules to the letter, nowadays there is greater leniency. As if to illustrate this point a couple of young men staggered past in jeans and jackets. Later that night I fell into conversation with two young guides who were adamant that the gho will be in everyday use in ten years time. I am a little more sceptical and think that the gho will be pushed further and further to the back of the proverbial cupboard, assuming a largely ceremonial role.

Around the temple, the inexorable signs of further change were apparent. The atmosphere was ribald and raucous as the Bhutanese drifted amongst the various stalls. Some were intent on gambling, others on showing off their archery prowess or laughing derisively a friend’s failure to hit the target. But perhaps the biggest draw were the food stalls, not so much for the food but the Star TV that blasted forth – the new religion of Bhutan.

In search of the past we headed east, away from the madding crowd. East Bhutan is separated from the rest of the country by a large and extremely steep chain of hills that runs from the Tibetan border almost to the Indian border. As we crossed the range by the Rushing La pass of 3,770 metres it did not surprise me to read that the road is vulnerable to landslides and is closed for periods of the year. It added to the remoteness of where we were headed, the sense of isolation on entering a hidden, forbidden world.

Leaving behind the cool, crisp mountain air we dropped some three thousand metres to the small village of Artuso, barely more than a collection of huts and houses alongside the roadside. Our arrival caused quite a stir – allegedly we were the first foreigners here for a couple of years – and as we sought out a beer in the local store a crowd of curious children began to gather. Inquisitive faces peered through the window and feet were shuffled nervously as everyone strained to get a look at us.

Timid at first, the children slowly grew in confidence and eventually one boy stepped forward and asked, “Where are you from?” As a delightful series of questions and answers began, I was impressed not only by the fact that they spoke English in this far-flung part of the country but how well they spoke it. Bhutan is a wonderfully friendly country but the fact that English is so widely spoken makes it more so – the Bhutanese are more approachable and travelling in Bhutan is less of a culture shock. Speaking of which I was shaken out of my reverie by their next question, “Do you like Beckham?”

Despite their interest in David Beckham, the children were delightful and it was sad to bid them farewell the next morning as we left Artuso to begin trekking. With bright blue skies we set off, walking through sleepy rural villages. Gurgling mountain streams rushed through the villages turning prayer wheels. The incessant chirp of cicadas, a crowing cock and tinkling of distant bells accompanied our progress. The occasional and distant murmur of voices drifted to us from fields far below – in defiance of the steepness of the slope, much of the hillside was terraced. Gentle rural hues dominated these scenes of Bhutanese bucolic bliss.

It was a magical day’s walking and we arrived at our first campsite not feeling tired and footsore but rather rejuvenated and revitalised. Warmed by the afternoon sun, it felt great to lie back on the grass and enjoy the enormity of the vista surrounding us. That was until we were set upon by a group of children returning from school. But rather than being upset at our peace being disturbed the children were great company. They were captivated and intrigued by us as we were by them. It was difficult not to be moved by their demure and smiling faces.

I decided to take a photo of them with my polaroid camera. As the flash went off and the photo shot out there was a startled intake of breath. This turned to wide-eyed fascination as the image began to take form before their eyes. And then laughter at the realisation that the image was of one of them. I handed the photo to one boy as a gift. He took it with both hands, studied himself in detail, smiled and handed it back to me. Such is the polite charm of this untouched part of Bhutan. Such moments are rare and special. They are to be treasured, stored up in that memory bank of indelible images

Another morning of sad farewells but as before we had much to look forward to in the day’s trek ahead of us. We began walking through a riot of green vegetation – moist alder, hemlock, flowing fig and giant rhododendron steaming in the morning sun. By late morning we had climbed past the tree line to be confronted by stunning panoramas and views in every direction. In the distance, to the north, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalaya stood defiant and proud. By early afternoon we had reached a pass and it was down into yet another valley, even more secluded than those that had preceded it.

Thus when we stopped to pitch camp later that afternoon, we felt remote and isolated. Invigorated by the beauty of our surrounds and miles from anywhere, I was both surprised and sceptical when Karma told us that we would have some local villagers singing for us later that night. By now I should have learned to trust in Karma and Bhutan.

Later that night under a star-filled sky the singers duly arrived. They were mainly women, all wearing kiras with their hair short and cropped. Their cheeks reddened and cracked from the harsh environment, they stood in a circle around a lantern as we sat by the fire with a group of children, one of whom rested her head in the lap of her elder sister. The women began their nasal, plaintive singing, the sound and tone so alien from anything occidental. The subject matter was more familiar: laments about unrequited love.

As they sung they danced in a large circle, taking four steps in a clockwise direction with their hands wafting gently in rhythm by their sides. Four steps then the slightest skip to change direction, almost like one sets to your partner in Scottish reeling. It was not spectacular, it was not choreographed but it was amazingly special to be a part of that night. And we were very much a part of that night, for as the evening progressed they did not allow us to remain bystanders but insisted that we join in the dancing.

It is perhaps here that I should end, sparing you the reader a day by day account of our trek and the long three days drive back to the relative civilisation of Thimpu, an inevitable tedium that one has to endure in returning form remote places. But I think my experience in the small nondescript town of Mongar is a worthy epilogue of my time in Bhutan. We arrived in Mongar to find that there was no room in the inn, our basic hotel for the night. Rather than being housed in the manger, a reference somewhat lost in a Buddhist culture, I was generously housed in the family shrine.

As I settled down to sleep under the watchful eye of lamas past and present, I felt privileged to be in this room. It was symptomatic of the disarming generosity and trust of the Bhutanese. Yet it was more than that. With the flickering glow of the butter lamps, beautiful thangkas covering the walls and floor-boards polished from years of prostration I finally appreciated that despite the new religion, TV, blaring noisily in the front room, the old religion was very much a part of Bhutan and its people.

That night it all slotted into place. Bhutan is undoubtedly changing; it is on the cusp. But I also knew that for all its change and slow embrace of the outside world, Bhutan and its people retain a memorable allure and appeal. It is still a magical kingdom and one well worth getting to know.

 

Tiger Tourism ruling in India’s Supreme Court

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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.

First holiday to India – Calcutta

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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!

India – The ultimate introduction

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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.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

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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.

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright

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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.

Walking in the land of the tiger

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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.”

In the footsteps of the snow leopard

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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…

Beautiful Bhutan

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“Have I just arrived in heaven” my sister whispered as we landed in Bhutan, a small, far flung Kingdom hidden away in the heart of the Himalayas. I knew exactly what she meant as the sheer beauty of the surrounding scenery struck me even though I had visited before and new what to expect.

Our journey began in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, which is most unlike any capital you will visit in the world. An easy, gentle pace of life, the local people go about their daily lives with warm smiles and a geniune interest in your presense in their country. Although tourism has been developing here for some years I was relieved to find that nothing had significantly changed since my first visit, even with the introduction of new luxury hotels and increasing tourist numbers.

Thimpu still has no traffic lights (the only capital city in the world not to have them!), the local people still wear their national dress and haven’t given up the very smart “Goh” and elegant “kira” for jeans, t-shirts and trainers. New hotels and businesses are being constructed but with sensitivity in accordance to the strict building regulations applicable across the country and Gross National Happiness is still very much the phrase of the moment.

Continuing east from Thimpu we took the road to Punakha, a 2 and a half hour drive and well worth the visit for the change in climate, altitude, landscape and the magnificent Dzong (monastery). Situated between the confluence of 2 mighty rivers, the Pa Chu and the Mo Chu, the monastery dominates the valley with it’s golden roof glowing in the sunlight. You could spend a whole day here watching the local people coming to pray and experiencing the numerous ceremonies held by the head monk. We were lucky enough to witness the younger monks chanting and playing their musical instruments.

We also visited the Probijkha Valley, otherwise known as Gangtey, a few hours drive from Punakha. The valley floor, a marshland where Black Necked cranes come to rest for the winter, is breathtakingly beautiful. Travel here at any time of year is special but during the spring time the valley floor comes alive with colour, a patchwork of purple flowering buck wheat and yellow mustard seed. Dotted around are houses and farms, all beautifully constructed in traditional Bhutanese style.

We had no time to journey further east to Central Bhutan and the Bumthang Valley so returned back west to Paro, another pictureque valley and home to the better known Tigers Nest Monastery or “Taksang”. This was without a doubt the highlight of our trip, albeit a rather strenuous climb to reach it, it was well worth the effort.

Losing my thoughts in the view across to Tigers Nest I reflected on my visit. Bhutan truly is a land of breath-taking, far reaching, mountain views, terraced farmland, dramatic river valleys and glittering streams, of people who are never in a hurry but are full of life, of unique architecture and impressive and colourful Dzongs. I can confidently say that anyone who visits this incredible land cannot fail to be affected by it’s beauty, spirituality and uniqueness. It has certainly left an everlasting impression on me.

To speak with Charlotte about her holiday to Bhutan, or for further advice about planning your tailor made holiday to Bhutan please call 01285 651 010.

Snow Leopard Conservation

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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.

Working city life – Mumbai and Delhi

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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.

Holi – A festival of colour in India

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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

On the trail of the tiger

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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.

First step into India

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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.

Steppes Discovery wins award for commitment to sustainable travel

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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.

Summer in India

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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.

Tourism saves tigers

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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.

India Tiger Study and Snow Leopard Tracking Tours

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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*

Eye opening view of Everest

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Despite the influx of trekkers heading to Everest Basecamp, the Khumbu valley is still a very beautiful and awe inspiring corner of Nepal.

The white glacial waters of the Dudh Kosi river carves its way deep into the valley, with the incredible mountains soaring up on either side.

We weren’t heading to basecamp, our highest point was a seven day trek to Tengboche. Famous for its Buddist Monastery and a first glimpse of Everest.

Reaching this altitude was a struggle, even the fittest of the group did not escape the exhaustion that comes with a lack of oxygen. With only two lodges in Tengboche, we were lucky to be able to overnight here. Cold and weary we headed to bed for a restless night at our highest altitude.

The next morning, scraping the ice off the inside of the window, I realised it had been worth the effort. Watching the sunrise over Everest, tucked up in my down sleeping bag with a cup of ‘bed tea’ is a memory I will always cherish.