The Elusive Snow Leopard Trail

What makes anyone wake up early morning, for a sight of the snow leopard in the Himalayas amidst the cold altitudes, the tough treks, with likelihood of actually seeing nothing, and maybe, an adventure waiting to happen? It is the presence and voice of David Attenborough that encourages one to take the plunge. After all, it seems so nice and easy when he narrates the story. Eventually, we did venture for the trip

Goaded by our intrepid wives, we “soft” men had to relent eventually to buy warm clothing for the journey and get through flight bookings for the adventure.

It was told to us that viewing snow leopards could only be done in the winters, when the weather draws them down, following the blue sheep, their favourite dinner, from 15,000 ft. to about 12 -13000 ft.

Landing at Leh, I was pleasantly surprised – the Hotel was really nice with all the right facilities, and the guides were gung-ho about the adventure too. What’s more, it was cold but in the warm clothes,-10 degrees seemed all right. The next morning, I complained about a slight headache and then ended up in hospital bed for the whole day strapped to an oxygen cylinder owing to altitude sickness! I was the only one in the group to get admitted at a total cost of 13 rupees – about 15 pence for the day.

But the oxygen did the trick. We spent the next couple of days trekking for leopards without climbing much higher. Within the next overnight stop, the guides spotted a family of leopards in the distant mountain. As they pointed out, everyone in the group got excited. I was lost at first, but then I was searching in the wrong direction. I saw the family of leopards through the spotting telescope – a family with two cubs – a terrific sight!

It was a truly emotional moment for us; since we had spotted 4 leopards in only our first trek!After the sighting, I could bear with unheated huts, natural toilets and -15 degrees of cold. Returning back to our comfortable hotel, we realized that the sighting merely whetted our appetite more such adventures.

Back to Leh and on the following day, we ventured on a trek deep into the high altitude Himalayan National Park. After a drive into the area with no roads, we trudged uphill for about 20 kilometres.  With low oxygen, it was difficult but we were surprised watching local kids playing football. The guides were excited as we neared the homesteads as someone apparently sighted a leopard up front and urged others in the group to hurry.

There indeed was a leopard that had just killedone of the blue sheep. I didn’t join the group and preferred to rest at the “basecamp”. But I quickly regretted it, since the pictures that my wife brought back, were absolutely stunning.

The village consisted of only 9 homes and ourgroup mingled with them. A wonderful family, who used their traditional log stove, and prepared food for us, made us feel at home. The village generator that was used from 6 pm to 10.30pm was used for generating lights. The whole group could gather in one of the homesteads for dinner. Several storieswere exchanged and provisions were brought from Leh that was miles away on a train of ponies while the domestic yaks provided them with daily milk.

With clear air and no ambient light, the night sky was a sight to behold – unbelievable.  And we had a memorable stay at the homestead despite the temperatures reaching -30 degrees at one point.

The snow leopard that had killed its prey went to a safer spot the next day, away from the wolf packs. We spotted it resting, getting up, stretching, looking around, and even continue to eat the flesh. For the next few days, we could see it enjoying itself from a distance of 150 yards away. We also spotted the giant eagles and the vultures, especially the lammergeier vulture with its 9 foot wingspan living almost entirely on bones.

It was all an unforgettable experience– the people, scenery, the animals and birds, and of course the 5 snow leopards – the adventure is something, no one should miss.

GOA – The Land of Beaches and Relaxation!

The main reason I planned for a Goa trip was the beach and an experience of the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. I am not too sure what I was expecting in the first place, since it depends onthe beach to which you are staying close enough! Some are boisterous to say the least and they are usually located in north Goa whereas those preferring relaxed stayswould venture to the south.

We stayed at a cottage on the Baga Beach (north Goa). The cottage was part of a big Hotel and one of the dining features included the Bistro on the beach.

We enjoyed delicious fresh fish on the beach at sunset amidst warm breeze. We also took leisurely walks along the beach with many eateriesin the vicinity, water sports, et al.

The surprising aspect was that Goa looked and felt different than the rest of India – a huge amount of Portuguese influence, ruling the area, with similar names of people and places, and even some Dutch influence in major places. This isn’t noticeable if you just stay on the beach, but if you venture into the town and villages, suddenly it is a different world altogether.

The architecture in the town resembled the colonial British style and was typically Portuguese. My favourite place was the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa. It has 16th Century architecture and is a World Heritage Monument housing the holy remains of St Francis Xavier – the patron Saint of Goa who died in 1550s.

The other surprising thing was the green vegetation as you went inland into the villages. The Festival we went to in the Panaji market was straight out of Portugal.Don’t miss the Latin Quarter there or the flea market on the Anjuna Beach.

The sunset over the Arabian Sea, the warm waters and the soft breeze was a perfect way to relax and unwind and I treasure the visit in my memories.

Darjeeling – The Tea Estate Heaven!

One of the charms of India is that despite the diversity, parts of it retain the old colonial look and feel as though nothing has changed in the last 100 years. This is evident in the hill stations than anywhere else and the old tea estates come closest to the nostalgic lifestyle of those days gone by. Then there are some hill stations with added attraction of steam toy trains that run up and down.

Close to Darjeeling, nestled almost in the shadow of Kanchenjunga, and by River Rangeet is the Glenburn Tea Estate – a luxury hotel and a working tea estate dating back to 1859. There are only 8 rooms, some in the original structure amidst plantations and some in Burra Bungalows – where we stayed. It was an absolute revelation learning about the different harvests of tea and how it is matured before packaging.

I don’t think anything could have changed in the ambience, since its Scottish “origins”. The meals are served in gardens, the beautiful dining room or the verandah. The experience was akin to staying in a house rather than a hotel. All guests could gather for pre-dinner drinks in the lounge and dinner was served on a large dining table, big enough to accommodate all hotel guests. The room was candle-lit and the table consisted of wonderful local dishes. It was a luxurious country house stay like in old times.

In terms of adventurous activity, we went on walks near the Himalayan foothills, and through the tea estate, fished in the River Rangeet by the Glenburn lodge – where one could stay and have a chef cook your dinner. And all the time, one is conscious of the snow-covered Himalayan ranges with Kanchenjunga visible through the clouds. You could just sit in the gardens with a book and enjoy the afternoon tea. Then there was the steam toy train chugging its way through the streets of Darjeeling.

I loved it all  – the most romantic stay and the steam toy train!

Chole – a magical retreat

After much research my first trip to mainland Africa was to be Tanzania. South Africa appeared to be too much like a staged show for viewing the big game – but I still fully intend visiting this wonderful country.

Our first stay in Tanzania was not in one of the safari parks, but on a small island. Chole is just off Mafia Island and we had booked at the Chole Mjini Lodge. The magic started the moment we got off the car, near beach. I saw a holiday resort just on the beach – it looked wonderful and just as I had started to smile at the prospect, our driver and guide said “not there – we are on the island just across from here”. The mode of transport to get to the island was a boat bobbing in the sea. I failed to see any jetty and then caught on – with shoes off, and rolled up trousers, we waded out to the boat. As we scrambled in, the luggage was also added to the boat.

Waiting to welcome us at the Chole beach was Lyndsey (the Lodge Manager). We waded out through the water and had our first introduction to Chole Mjini. Lyndsey was bare feet, and we soon realised that shoes were unnecessary; all the pathways round the estate were covered in sand.

A brief introduction to Chole Mjini was followed by first sight of “our” tree house – named Tano (meaning number 5, I think!). A fantastic, luxurious structure set amongst the treetops with sweeping views, especially from the upstairs relaxing area. In keeping with living on a tree house Chole Mjini has no electricity – except for solar powered torches; however there is a facility to charge mobiles, laptops etc.–that is if you want to try to keep in touch. The great charm of the place is no TV, eco friendly drop down toilets (not a hint of any smells), and not even running water. A tank was filled everyday for the unique open air shower – water heated by a small paraffin filled can. I, and others, spent ages working out how on earth it could produce an instant hot water shower? I am doing my best to acquire one of these from Tanzania. This too was part of the magic of Chole.

Lack of electricity, however, did not stop the bar – on a tree house, where else – from having ice and chilled drinks. A gas refrigerator performed this miracle. But, actually, it was Lyndsey and her staff, who made the stay a unique experience, performing a real miracle daily.

Dinner spot varied – in the ruins, by the beach, under the stars, and so on – and all the guests preferred to eat together round a big table.

The walk round the village and the school was both enjoyable and enlightening; snorkeling was fantastic; but we missed seeing the turtles hatching or the whale sharks as this was not the right time of the year. We also never spotted the mice that eat any soap left in the open – how did they acquire a taste for it?

But I shall be going back to Chole Mjini for these. What a magical place to chill out. My trip was arranged by Chillout365 www.chillout365.com

Satpura National Park

I have seen tigers before – in Ranthambore National Park as well as at Kanha and Bandhavgarh. But wonderful though it was to see these magnificent creatures, I wondered what it would be like to be away from all the other jeeps and cantors in Ranthambore. Was it becoming more like a zoo?

So it was with interest that I read about a National Park where you could experience “a real wildlife experience”. What did that mean? – particularly as it went on to say that if your idea of a vacation is to lounge comfortably with a glass of wine in hand with no insects about then this is not for you. I love tigers with but viewing them in comfort – especially enjoyed at the Taj Camps at Kanha and Bandhavgarh, though the latter was not as sumptuous as Kanha. All I wanted was to experience the viewing of tiger in a more natural setting with fewer jeeps around. And at the same time not forgo too much of the comfort.

But in search of tigers in true wilderness I was willing to give this new place a try. This was Satpura National Park – Reni Pani Jungle Lodge in Madhya Pradesh – about in the middle of India, with Bhopal being the nearest airport. There are trains from Delhi as well, whichget you even closer to the Park, but these take a long time.

My first impression of the lodge, after a three-hour drive from Bhopal, was that they had been understating it. Reni Pani Jungle lodge was more than comfortable – verging on luxury but in an eco friendly way. It blended with its surroundings but still had a pool to cool down in, and superbly comfortable lodges – each with its own butler to look after you. The outdoor shower had all the privacy needed but with views of the jungle. Nobody need have any fear of discomfort here; on the contrary I would rate this as a luxury eco lodge spread over 30 acres. So having the comfort sorted out (but I will come back to it) I was keen to explore the park for true wilderness – after all that is why I had come here.

The first surprise was that I was not just limited to going round the park in a jeep; I could instead use a boat, an elephant or even walk to explore the jungle. Apparently I could even use a cycle or a horse.

Getting to the Park entrance, accompanied by the resident naturalist, was the easy part. A boat ride across the river and we were ready. I chose jeep on the first excursion so that I could get a feel for as much of the park as possible, but on the other days I also walked and “took” the elephant. The park nestles under some low hills of Satpura etched against the sky.

We saw a leopard, sloth bears, gaur, wild dogs, deer of many variety and even greater variety of monkeys amongst the many animals in the jungle. I am not too sure what was the highlight, seeing a leopard stalk a noisy Langur monkey or the gaur, the world’s largest wild ox that we met on our walk – a huge wild-eyed creature that looked permanently bad tempered? I am not a bird watching enthusiast but amongst the many types my personal favourite were the Malabar pied hornbills flying across the sky. Indeed this is probably one of the best parks for bird watching. The sweet flowers of the Mahua tree ferment on falling so act as the local reservoir of hooch for the birds and bears. It’s not unusual to see drunk bears sleeping off the drink – never found out if they get a hangover!

There were many other highlights including seeing a pack of wild dogs trotting down the trail on an expedition to hunt for food. We never did see a tiger though we walked along its trail for a long while. A truly enchanting National Park, still as it would have been in the days of Kipling – had he visited this one. A true wilderness meeting all my expectations for a proper jungle safari.

The first day ended with a swim at the campsite and return to the cottage to change for the sundowners and the dinner. I remembered the advice of not to stroll out in the dark as the camp is after all inside the jungle. But the butler was there to accompany me to the ever changingsites round the camp for drinks and dinner. I had to try the mahua martini. It was wonderful and I could understand why the bears were so fond of eating the fermented flowers of the mahua tree. The food was excellent – most of it sourced from the local village and totally organic. The staff too were from the village and it was nice to feel that at last there was something that was benefiting the local community and at the same time having a respect for the wilderness.

If you want to see a wildlife park in its natural state, to be able to walk it, to see and feel how a jungle would have been, in the days before us tourists, then Satpura National Park is for you. An ideal romantic holiday in the great outdoors with luxury thrown in. Better do it now before it is “discovered”. I shall be going back to Reni Pani – after all I didn’t actually see the tiger, and I do want to see it in its natural worldand not on display as in a zoo. Which of course makes the sightings more difficult, but why should it be easy! Satpura has as many tigers as Ranthambore and I am anxious that they remain shy of us humans. And I want to meet up again with the friendly, most hospitable people at Reni Pani. A truly enchanting experience.

There is also another lodge at Satpura – the Forsyth Lodge. It is a year or so older than the Reni Pani but it is also very good. I preferred Reni Pani as the cottages are more spread out and you get a greater feeling of living in the wild. Both the campsare fighters for the environment.

I arranged my trip through Chillout365 www.chillout365.com

My first trip to Kerala

I had been looking forward to enjoying a holiday in Kerala but in the end it was a business trip, close to Kerala, which finally got me there. The first impression was the huge difference from north India – tranquility, greenery and the abundance of water.

What can I say? Gorgeous Kerala, with its palm fringed beaches and lush tropical backwaters, is the perfect combination of culture and relaxation – India at a slower, more relaxed pace. This short trip showed me how good are the holidays where you can just relax and let the world drift by.

I thought that breakfast at the German Bakery – freshly baked croissants, and the delicious farmer’s breakfast, which includes bacon-potato-cheese scrambled eggs – would keep me going all day. But a speedboat ride along the spectacular Hawa beach coastline, and lessons in surfing from the professionals at the Kovalam Surf Club soon had me wanting some foodandrest. It also convinced me that surfing is not for every one – and most certainly not for me!

A stroll along the Lighthouse beach, a buzzing hub for many restaurants, soon cured the hunger. But most of all, in the few days I had, I loved lying on a sunbed under an umbrella at the Samudra beach, watching life go by lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

I can understand why the locals call this “God’s own country” – and fully intend returning to spend some time in the spice plantations and the backwaters (and of course the fabulous beaches). I may even roam wearing a lungi – just like the locals.

Swimming with Rajan – The Elephant

Elephants don’t like me – see my blog on making elephants bend to my iron will.

So here I was in Andaman Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, closer to Myanmar and Thailand but still in India. I was expecting pristine white beaches, superb diving and snorkeling, and an idyllic time just lazing far from any wild life. At first it was all as I expected, and more, including pristine white sandy beaches, hardly any people, and I could sense the superb diving and snorkeling awaiting us.

It was on the second day that the guys at the hotel asked whether we were “going with the elephant”? I expressed my puzzlement – elephant on a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean? Had it swum there I asked? Ignoring the kick under the table I looked enquiringly at the waiter. My joke (or sarcasm as my wife tells it) was wasted. Apparently it might well have.

It turned out that the island had an elephant, which when he was in the right mood, took a swim in the ocean accompanied by any intrepid guests who happened to want a swim at the same time. To want to swim at the same time required handing over some money, presumably to bribe the elephant, but also to get a loan of the snorkeling equipment. Needless to say I was overruled despite the fact that neither my wife nor I can swim more than length of a small pool and my wife only manages that if the pool was no more than 4 foot deep.

The swimming elephant guide found it easy to assure my wife that skill at swimming wasn’t important in the Indian Ocean; but I wasn’t keen on  “swimming” close to a moody and apparently bribable elephant. Maybe elephants, like whales, can communicate over vast distances – even from as far as Tanzania or Corbett.

The guide helped my wife with the swimming and Rajan, the elephant, tested the water and just walked into the ocean and swam (almost danced) in really deep water for about 20 minutes, as its people attendants accompanied it in the swim. Rajan then swam and walked out to dry himself on the beach, and got bribed with edible goodies. All who swam with Rajan found it the most exhilarating experience they had ever had – and I regret not going in. I will next time.

I won’t even attempt to describe what took place during the swim as there is a video on the website which speaks volumes – and better than any writing could do it justice. The islands are a wonderful experience but add in Rajan and you have something unforgettable.

Andaman Islands – pristine white beaches, superb diving and snorkelling, but the highlight of my trip was swimming with Rajan, The Elephant See Video

My Elephant Experience – Tanzania & India

I suppose elephants and I don’t get on. My first experience of wild African elephants was at Kigelia Camp, Ruaha Park in Tanzania. On introduction to our really sumptuous tented accommodation we were shown a good old fashioned whistle sitting on the table, just like the ones used by referees in football. Apparently we were to use it should we run into problems – scarily they failed to specify what sort these might be. But I was soon to find out.

After lunch, in the dining tent, I was drawn to a confortable sofa and a book on African wildlife. Slowly other guests and the camp staff drifted off to have an afternoon nap – ready for the drive in the evening.

A loud munching noise drew me to the entrance of the dining tent. Outside, about 10 yards away under the shade of a tree, was a herd of elephants. Actually only 3 but when they are only 10 yards away it seemed like a herd. A large female flapped its ears and turned to warn me; I think she also snorted and took a lunge to reinforce her threat. All totally unnecessary as I had no intention of moving  – I was frozen to the spot. After what seemed an hour but really only 10 minutes, I eventually discovered that the elephants didn’t mind me moving inside the tent – but had obviously taken enough dislike to me so as not want to see me outside.

From inside the tent my wife had noticed the encounter – and moved up to have a proper look – without venturing outside. We had never seen elephants this close or realised, when close up, how enormous and threating they look. However the pattern was set: we could sit inside the tent but not try to leave it. My wife thought some pictures would be good and suggested I go to our tent and get the camera. Apparently, on no evidence, she claimed that they didn’t mean us any harm, probably just as scared as us, and anyway I could use the other rear entrance. As soon as I tried to slink out of the back entrance the elephants noticed it and made it clear that when they say stay inside they meant it. I made a mental note to keep the whistle with me instead of the tent – though would blowing it not upset them? They seemed to get upset on the flimsiest of things.

After about two hours the elephants decided to move. It was only then that we noticed a tiny baby elephant, which had been, shielded from our sight by the other elephants. It had apparently sat down and gone to sleep – the mother and others just stopping to guard over it until it woke. With the little one’s nap finished they just moved away – eerily quietly and merged into the shrubbery within seconds.

My other experience was in India. We were staying at Jim’s Jungle Retreat in the Corbett National Park. The guide suggested an early morning walk through the jungle; he assured me, tapping his backpack, that should we meet anything dangerous he had the necessary things. I was impressed that he was carrying a gun to guard us.

The walk was fantastic as the guide pointed out various birds and animals and also the spoors of a tiger, which had been there very recently. I brooded on the word “recently”. Tigers are solitary animals – not surprising as they attack and eat anything they come across. As it so happened we didn’t come across any tigers but there was a roar, which the guide said was a herd of elephants but quite distant. The noises got nearer but the guide was unruffled – claiming that they would just pass us by, as they didn’t bother anyone unless they felt threatened. I promised not to threaten them.

Soon the herd was within a hundred yards or so and they stopped to have a look at us. Just like the African elephants, these too apparently feel threatened on the flimsiest of evidence – basically just seeing me. They made a mini charge towards us, we moved behind a large tree to flummox them. To display their displeasure at this, one of them uprooted a fully grown tree and threw it aside. Our guide had been undoing his backpack and took out what looked like a small firecracker. I was expecting a gun but the guide confidently lit up the cracker and threw it towards the elephants and it exploded – like a small firecracker! The elephants didn’t even notice the noise and started to move towards us. The guide said run and matched his talk with action. He was surprisingly nippy but not nearly as nippy as my wife and I. The elephants roared their frustration at us disappearing so fast.

Over breakfast the guide suggested an elephant safari. Apparently you feel quite safe riding them through the forest.