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.

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