Sunday, October 25, 2015

Puku Ridge

Puku Ridge Camp was the second of my three camps in South Luangwa NP. It was also the smartest and most luxurious of the three. The camp is owned by Sanctuary Retreats - a company that owns luxury properties in Africa and operates expedition cruise in Asia. Ideally it should be saved for the last but my agent was unable to find availability for that. Built on a rocky hillside in the central part of the NP, it overlooks the Kakumbi Floodplain teemed with wildlife including the puku antelope which the camp is named after. It is small and intimate camp and has been constructed to blend into the local surroundings. The oversized tent has it all - a king size bed with mosquito net, indoor and outdoor shower, bath tub, small lounge, writing desk and private deck with full view of the floodplains. Tea /coffee is brought to the rooms during the morning wake up call.

interior of my luxury oversized tent
 The main bar/dining area has a high thatched roof, under it is a simple concrete bar and high bar stools. In front of this is the lounge area and below it is the dining area. It affords dramatic view of the plain and the two waterholes that lie far below. These waterholes are floodlit at night. The dining style and quality here is akin to fine dining in any good city restaurants. There were plenty of wonderful sightings from the game drives as well - leopards and large herds of buffaloes and elephants. Puku Ridge Camp is without doubt a luxurious and high quality camp that delivers but I somehow feel that the operation and management reminiscent that of a big chain group. Nothing wrong with that but I personally would prefer an owner run and manage camps more.

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 with two very playful 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 is best suited for people of 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.

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