Wednesday, September 23, 2015

What's a Flatdog?

Flatdogs Camp was the first of my three camps in South Luangwa National Park, one of the finest safari destinations in Africa. It is the closest camp outside the main gate of the NP. Although fairly large, the camp is nicely spread out so there is no feeling of over crowding. Unlike many safari camps, guests are not 'hosted' here - so guests take their meals independently, rather than communally with a guide or manager. At the open-sided main area, there are plenty of seating options, inside or out, you can order something at most times of the day. It operates more like a restaurant than safari camp - there is an à la carte menu with no set meals or set meal times. To support the surrounding community, it does try to source food locally. I really enjoyed the meals here - the atmosphere casual and relax, the food varied, tasty and fresh, with generous proportion. They have the chocolate brownies to die for! There are different accommodation options available here like the chalets, tree houses and standard and luxury safari tents.

leopard and 2 cubs 
I stayed in one of the new luxury tents with a good view of the Luangwa River. It is set under a thatch, simple, spacious, with a double bed, mosquito net, a standing fan, bedside tables and lamps, tea/coffee-making facilities and outside sitting area. The walled open top bathroom is located through a door at the back. It is spacious but simply done, with stone floor, flushing toilet, washbasin and hot and cold shower. Both day and night game drive are offered here with a good level of guiding though because of its size, it is rare to have a vehicle all to yourself. Apart from a pride of 19 lions, the most memorable sighting here was a leopard with two very playful cubs. The flexible approach here suits to me because of my independent minded nature. It is also very good value for money, bridging the gap between budget and high-end safari camps in this area. It is owner run and manage which is a good thing. The engaging conversations with them - priceless. Flatdogs = Crocodiles.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Tracking the Last Rhinos on Foot II

Snugly wrapped in a fleece blanket, I set off with three trackers and five other travelers at 530 a.m. in search of black rhinos. We drove down to the Klip valley looking for fresh rhino tracks. Because rhinos tend to drink during the night, our plan was to first lookout for signs around water holes frequent by the rhinos and go from there. Grootberg Lodge in the Khoadi /Hoas Conservancy was the ideal base. The lodge itself is nothing short of breathtaking - standing at the top of a plateau near the edge overlooking a network of canyons. I took a short sunset drive on the plateau the day before and it was incredible to say the least. The game density was exceedingly high - oryx, mountain zebras and springboks abound on such a small area (the plateau is about 8 km long). Because of the elevation, it produced a visual effect of infinity with the animals at times appeared to be standing nearer to the edge than they actually were. And whenever the drive took us close to the edge, the view was stupendous. We stopped for a sundown drink at the opposite end of the plateau from the lodge. It was lovely and I would have wanted to stay longer but a troop of baboons was ominously closing in on us. Next morning en route to the waterhole, one of the trackers spotted a rhino near the top of a plateau a couple of kilometers away. We stopped the 4X4 along the riverbed and went on foot from there.

 my rhino trackers and the black rhino
Following our lead tracker, we climbed steadily up and across the rocky slopes. Halfway to the top, we walked downward and across and then up again before reaching ground level. Tracking epitomizes abilities that humans have almost completely lost - to read the landscape and be aware of its smallest details. Nearly an hour past and our trackers conceded that we had lost the rhino. We made our way back to the river bed where our 4X4 was already waiting. As we enjoyed a cold drink, our trackers spotted another two rhinos a few kilometers away. They were on the slope but this time nearer to the river bed hence more accessible. We drove along the river bed toward them and set off on foot again. A few minutes of walking before reaching the foot of the plateau, we came within 30 meters of a bull elephant. It was eating from the thorny branches of an ana tree. "He's not bothered by us," one tracker whispered. We detoured and increased our pace once we passed the elephant. After a short climb, we found the rhinos. They were on higher ground roughly 50 meters away behind an ana tree. The calf was suckling. Keeping ourselves at a distance, we stood in silence and enjoyed the tranquil landscape. The rhinos then started to move and we tried to keep up discreetly. We then came face to face with the mother rhino barely 30 meters away. Waves of emotion rushed through me as I stood still before her. It's a moment I will never forget.... and the rhinos get to live.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Tracking the Last Rhinos on Foot

"If a rhino charge at us, we stay together behind a tree," our guide/tracker was going over the safety briefing with us. "If we encounter lions, don't turn your back on them, observe their behavior then slowly back away," he continued. "The worst thing we could do is to run away from an animal - we'll be finished," he warned us. There are approximately 5000 black rhinos left in the world and Namibia has the highest numbers of them with (approx.) 1700. Only about 700 of them are free-ranging (i.e. not confined in National Parks and sanctuaries) that are found in the Northern Namibia desert. It was these free-ranging rhinos that we were here to track. In January 2014 Texan hunter Corey Knowlton won a $350,000 bid for a permit to shoot a black rhino. In recent years, the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism had allowed three permits a year, and Knowlton's permit marked the first time a black rhino hunting permit had been auctioned outside the country. Knowlton, the Dallas Safari Club who sponsored the auction and some conservationists and scientists insist that you can save the black rhinos by killing one. In theory, only surplus males are hunted, with each case considered on its merits. They would target an aging bull who was beyond his reproductive years and who posed a threat to younger rhinos. It would also provide much needed funds for rhino conservation projects. Read this.

pool area at grootberg lodge
But other animal rights organizations have criticized this conservation strategy and argue that the better focus would be eco-tourism, raising money from people willing to pay to see endangered animals up close in the wild. Killing endangered wildlife to save it is just wrong. It does not make sense morally, economically or from a conservation-incentive point of view. Economically, the actual benefit to the local people from trophy hunting have been found to be exaggerated or practically non-existent in some cases. For conservation work to be sustainable, engaging the communities is vital. On 29 April (exactly a month before my trip to Namibia), Knowlton shot his rhino. Grootberg Lodge in the Khoadi /Hoas Conservancy was the base for my rhino tracking. The building cost of the lodge was funded by European Union. It is the only lodge in Namibia that is wholly owned and operated by the community. The establishment of the lodge brought employment and a more sustainable income to community members as well as a revenue stream to aid and promote social initiatives and resources. It is a fine example of sustainable conservation. The lodge itself is nothing short of breathtaking - standing at the top of a plateau near the edge overlooking a network of canyons.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Lunch at the Catedral

Woke up this morning to some splendid news - Atletico Madrid had just beaten Chelsea (England) to set up a Madrid derby Champions League final later this month. It inspired me to write this post and I finished it in record time too. There were previously finals with both teams from the same country but this is the first time we have both from the same city. I'm a big fan of Spanish football and I love the city of Madrid so this is very pleasing for me especially when a team like Atletico, a perpetual underachiever (last league title in 1996 and last European final 40 years ago) emerges from the shadows of the big two. Atletico are also in great position to win the domestic league so it could be a double this year for them. Besides my dream finalists, there is also a certain connection I feel for this year final. At the competition group stage last October, I watched my first ever European cup game at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Real won that game easily against lowly Copenhagen but who would have thought they will go all the way this year. They are of course giants of European football but then again they have failed to progress further than the semis since 2002 so....

venue for the 24 may final
On the same trip, I visited the Estádio da Luz - home to the Portuguese giants Benfica and the venue of the final on May 24. The stadium visit was completely impromptu. I was going to watch a World Cup qualifying match between Portugal and Israel later that evening at the Estádio José Alvalade - the home to Sporting Lisbon (Benfica cross town rival). I had also earlier watched a league game at Alvalade so I felt that I should at least do a stadium tour or something at the Estádio da Luz. At first, the idea was to pop in for a quick look about but I curiously followed a tour group into a restaurant. The restaurant turns out to be a match day VIP area and opened to all on non match days. The food was excellent and good value for this level of service and quality. The best part though was the view. While dining here, you can almost see the entire stadium through the full length and width glass windows. At the end of my meal after the tour group had left, the waiter let me in the stadium VIP seating area for a private tour. Perhaps he sensed my enthusiasm the moment I stepped into his restaurant. On the day of the final, I will be on safari in Zambia... may the best team win.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

There's Something About Malaika - East Africa (D14/15)

Even in November when the big herds had all but moved on down to Serengeti, the density of game here in Masai Mara was still extraordinary. We saw plenty in the first afternoon game drive - little wonder why it is one of the top game parks in Africa. Mara is one of the smaller game parks (approx. 1510 sq km) that I have visited but it is still more than twice the size of my home country and it has one of the highest density of lions in Africa. It did not take long for us to find them too - two big male lions sleeping away. Immediately I noticed the manes on them were conspicuously thicker and darker than those in Selous and Ruaha, presumably due to the cooler year round climate here. Our guide then brought us to a two day old hippo carcass. It was a lion kill and only vultures and a couple of black-backed jackals were left feeding on it. Interesting spectacle but when the wind shifted, the stench and flies became almost unbearable. There were also many first sightings for me like the topi and Thompson gazelle on that drive. A lone young lioness laid in wait on a herd of zebras but she was hopelessly open and expose and didn't stand a chance. On the way back to camp, we drove by to see the two male lions again. They hardly moved at all since we left them. It was a good first game drive with much less vehicle traffic than expected. I stayed at the Mara Explorer Camp, a small camp owned by a chain. Set within the Masai Mara NP by the Talek River, it was atmospheric and rather luxurious compared to the other camps on this trip.

mind blowing experience
We set out in search of cheetahs and leopards next morning. An hour or so into the morning drive, we found two cheetahs - a mother known locally as Malaika and its nine month old cub. It was my first sighting of this elegant cat and it also turned out to be the most mind blowing experience! Our guide shut off the engine and Malaika approached our 4X4. Then like she had done it many times before, she leaped onto the bonnet and went on to climb and sit right above me on the roof frame. Our guide had earlier mentioned that cheetahs here sometimes use stationary vehicles as vantage points. By now, the cub was hissing and seemingly frustrated for unable to climb up to join its mother. For almost 45 minutes, Malaika sat there hardly moving except to switch sides several times. Time flew by and Malaika jumped off just as suddenly as the manner she got up and went back into the bush with its cub. Because Malaika was probably looking to hunt earlier, we went back after breakfast hoping to catch her in action. We found them but they were not alone. A hyena was loitering around and when it wandered too close, Malaika charged and it ran away. Bold move by Malaika especially when she is no match for a hyena. Cheetahs will not hunt in the presence of hyenas so we moved on. At a leopard sighting, there was already five vehicles ahead of us and we could not get close enough or a proper angle for any photos.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Valley of the Condors - Peru (D 5-8)

The timing could not be better. The Cruz del Condor was already packed with camera-clicking tourists when I arrived. After settling on a spot near the vehicle drop off point, the first Andean condors emerged from the steep canyon walls circling near another viewpoint 200 meters further down from where I was. I reckoned there were easily a dozen of them gliding around those lucky folks. It was the second day morning of my Colca Valley guided tour out of Arequipa. The city of Arequipa makes an ideal base for such a tour to the Colca Valley. With El Misti as backdrop, its Plaza de Armas is one of the most beautiful squares in the whole of Peru. Spent an afternoon visiting Convento de Santa Catalina - the most visited building from the Spanish era of the city. A city within a city, this beautiful place with its colors, flowers and little streets made me feel like I have traveled back in time. The spectacular 154km drive from Arequipa to Chivay, the main village of Colca Canyon, traversing the high plains of the vast, barren Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve. After tasting the rarefied air of the Patopampa Pass (4910m), we dropped sharply into Chivay (3630m). Stayed the night at Colca Lodge - a spa and hot spring lodge by a river set in a tranquil ravine nearer to the town of Yanque. Too bad I got dropped off at the lodge rather late in the afternoon as it was pure magic soaking in one of the stone built thermal pools by river.

best photos taken with my modest compact camera
We were at the Cruz del Condor cliff around 8am when the condors are most active using the thermal uplifts that rise from the valley's shadowy depths. As with other wildlife viewing, the condor sighting was by no means assured so I was ecstatic to see them. Then bit by bit, condors began to appear around our viewpoint and before long, I was completely overwhelmed as they swished by from different directions. Andean Condors are magnificent birds. They mate for life, they both take care of their chick, they do not kill animals, only eat their remains, they live up to 50 years in the wild, and they look the way they do for very specialized reasons. The condors are mostly black, but males have a distinctive white collar around their necks and some white markings on their wings as well. Andean condors are massive birds (wingspan more than 3-meter and male weigh up to 15kg), among the largest in the world that are able to fly. Because they are so heavy, these birds prefer to live in windy areas where they can glide on air currents with little effort. Whether it was having a condor zipping by so close above my head or a family of condors that landed on a rock at the edge of the cliff barely 20 meters away, remained there even as I left, the Cruz del Condor was undoubtedly the finest and most awe-inspiring moment of the entire trip. That is saying a lot especially in a trip that also included a little known place called Machu Picchu.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Watching a European Cup Match

Guess I'm being nostalgia but I still like to refer Europe's premier club football competition by its old name. I arrived in Madrid after a long haul flight in the morning on match day so it was going to be one long day for me. Late morning all over the historic center, the stark FC Copenhagen visiting fans were already in the mood and up for it. Got my first glimpse of the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in the afternoon when I went to collect my ticket from the machine. It is one of the biggest (approx. 85,000 capacity) stadiums and home to one the most glamorous and successful clubs in Europe. I returned to the stadium a couple of hours before the game to soak in some pre-match atmosphere. The first thing that I noticed was the huge police presence for the game and they cleared out an entire road where fans were earlier gathering to watch who's who and I supposed the team buses as well driving into the stadium complex. After being chased off, I sat at a small park near the metro station. As more fans arrived in droves, some of the seemingly intoxicated away fans started to use the park as an open air toilet while laughing and shouting away. This did not go on for long before the police reacted and the offenders were subjected to some rough treatment. I heard loud sirens behind me and saw the Real Madrid team bus with police escort passed by. Pity I could not whip out my camera quick enough.

champions league anthem
I got fantastic 1st tier lateral seat almost right in the center for the game albeit at a price. It was nice to enter the stadium early just to watch the superstars of Real warm up. The regular fans seemed to turn up just in time as the stadium really only got filled up close to kickoff. This was my first European game and I got goosebumps when the famous Champions League anthem was played. Without disrespecting FC Copenhagen, I was hoping for tougher opponents like the Italian giant Juventus but I was really happy just to be there. Throughout the match, I thought the home crowd was rather subdue and even the ultras chanted and sang only in short bursts. By contrast, the small contingent of traveling ultras managed to outdo the nearly 80,000 home supporters for long periods and I thought that was simply amazing. On the pitch however, the home team won comfortably as expected with Ronaldo and Di Maria bagging two a piece in a lively and entertaining match. I managed to capture the second goal by Ronaldo on camera so check them out. This season (actually they have been trying for the past ten seasons), Real Madrid will be gunning for 'La Decima'  - a record tenth European Cup title. Buena Suerte. I hope that someday in the near future, I would be writing a post titled 'Watching a European Cup Final'.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Timeless Athens - The Balkans (D17 -20 End)

Nice to be in sunny Athens for a change after days of relentless rain in Albania - so I thought. This was my second visit and unlike the first when I started off from here, it was the end point this time. Given the generally poor value of the hotels in Athens, I booked an apartment stay two blocks from Syntagma Square (convenient location for a short visit but not when there's a commotion). I also planned for more time here as felt that I somewhat hurried through a couple of years ago not doing justice to this timeless city. After a lunch of my favorite Greek fare (moussaka, grilled sardines and boiled octopus washed down with local beer), I started my afternoon walk at the Zappeio Palace where the 18th World Olympics Collections fair was ongoing. It then dawned on me that the city where it all began was playing its role in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics. Continuing to the Panathenaic Stadium - an athletic stadium that hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and is one of the oldest in the world. Moving on, I came to a familiar surroundings of the ornate gateway of Hadrian's Arch and the striking Temple of Zeus. Entering Plaka from there and then came my favorite part of the walk - the Anafiotika quarter. A peaceful and picturesque maze little whitewashed houses brimming with flowers bedecking the walls. Emerging from Anafiotika, I found another familiar site of the Roman Agora (marketplace). Its standout structure is the Tower of the Winds - a twelve meter octagonal tower. My walking tour ended at the Hadrian's Library next to Monastiraki metro station. Not a bad workout especially when considering I had just arrived that morning.

anafiotika quarter and acropolis
I spent the next morning window shopping around Ermou Street and downed a souvlaki before setting off to the Acropolis. Taking a different route from two years ago, I approached the Acropolis main entrance via the south slope. At the right place at the right time, I fortuitously caught the Olympic Torch Relay Exchange at the Parthenon but at the same time, the weather began to change for the worse. It started to rain suddenly and my trusty 400 lekë umbrella bought in Tirana was rendered useless under the gutsy winds. It was extremely disappointing but I had no choice but to leave especially when I only entered the complex a while ago. After my visit to the Acropolis got rained out, I slowly made my way by foot back to the apartment. It continued to rain mostly for the rest of the afternoon and early evening so I called it a day for sightseeing. On my third and final full day here, I braved the sporadic rain and visited the Stoa of Attalos, its museum and the Roman Agora. Athens would be a perfect base for travel to the neighboring Balkan states if not for the occasional unrest caused by its economic woes and reforms. Wandering along the streets, stumbling upon an ancient church or archaeological site at a turn in the middle of the city and seeing the glorious Acropolis perched high or illuminated after dark from many different parts of the city, Athens is a gem. And those Greek fare, ouzo and wine.... I cannot wait to go back. Watch this space.

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