Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Art of Idleness

I’m not very good at being idle but it seems like a skill that should be relatively easy to acquire during a year-long sabbatical.  However, nine months in, I realized that I really hadn't spent much time doing “nothing”.  If not engaged in travelling (due to the amount of “bumping” involved in journeying in developing countries, this cannot be considered idle time!) or fitting in lots of sightseeing and activities then one is usually planning ahead and working out where to go next, how to get there, where to stay, how long to stay, what to do and how to do it.  Even when seemingly doing ‘nothing’, my brain is working on a mental to-do list and generally trying to find the answers to the meaning of life (all of them, all at once).

The Oxford English Dictionary gives a couple of good descriptions of ‘idleness’:

“Idleness – a state of inaction; inactivity”
“Idleness – characterized by inaction or absence of significant activity”

I quite like the second one – “significant” being the operative word.  It also offers “laziness; indolence” but I find these to be far too judgemental and derogatory.  In our busier and busier lives, “idleness” seems like a luxury, but one which could allow us to regain control for short periods of time and give the poor old brain a welcome rest.  If meditation isn’t my thing then maybe selective ‘idleness’ can be.

In the beautiful, laid-back and friendly environment of Cambodia, it seemed time to give this a go.  The project started in Sihanoukville but really came into its own on a paradise-style island called Koh Rong.  In my beach bungalow in Sihanoukville, I set myself the task of not doing anything all day (apart from eat and read) and, more significantly, not to feel any guilt.  The experiment went pretty well (the laptop remained largely turned off) but as I didn’t actually like Sihanoukville (some great views but utterly lacking in charm), it wasn’t the place to continue putting the theory into practice.

Koh Rong is an island 30 miles off the coast of Cambodia and takes 2-3 hours by boat, depending on the weather.  It is a small island with a handful of villages, and in the main village there are about 75 local families.  Koh Rong has only had tourist development on it for a couple of years and the four “resorts” are small low- keys affairs aimed at the lower end of the market (bungalows from $15-$45 dollars).  One boat runs back and forwards to the mainland each day, weather depending.  If you arrive without a room reservation and everything is full, there is no way back that day but a couple of enterprising locals have basic guesthouses or one of the expats might find you an unfinished building to sleep in.

Idling seemed to come very naturally for me at Monkey Island resort and my experiment made great strides forward.  I sacrificed an “en-suite” bathroom for a sea front bungalow so that I could lie in my hammock and watch the sea and sky unimpeded by man-made structures.  Life is simple on the island.  There is no mains electricity and the resort’s generator only comes on for lights from dusk until midnight (they use a car battery during the day for the bar/restaurant, recharged in the evening).  With no fan or aircon, you don’t linger long in bed after sunrise and so I quickly settled into a routine beginning with an early morning swim followed by some quality time in my hammock before heading off the 20m to the restaurant for breakfast.

The gentle rhythm of the rest of the day involved mainly swimming, reading, gazing, snoozing, eating (repeatedly, in a variety of orders) as well as watching the local entertainment. In the mornings, the local children would scamper around in the water laughing and splashing and then in the afternoon, a little black dog would practice his favourite game of winding up the water buffalo, resulting in the odd chase up the beach.

I had attempted to idle elsewhere but in the end I concluded that it was easy to idle on the island as the conditions were just right:
1.       Everyone around you is also living in a relaxed manner
2.       The limited decisions required were only based on a couple of options: “Stripy t-shirt or blue sundress over my bikini?”, “Daily squid special or vegetable curry?”, “Breakfast now or swim first?”, “Fresh lime juice or a beer?”, “Stroll to the other lovely beach or just stay here?”, “Read book or gaze out at the view?”
3.       Everything is padlock-able (every traveller worth their salt has an assortment of combination padlocks) and so there is no need to carry a key.
4.       No electricity means no wifi and so any random thoughts worth capturing were jotted down with old-fashioned pen and paper and put aside to be used at a later date (i.e. now)

I enjoyed watching the new backpackers arrive off the boat each afternoon, from the comfort of my hammock.  They would stop along the beach and shake their heads in wonder, gazing at the paradise they had chosen. Often, the water buffalo would be taking his afternoon bathe.  The only thing to do when you arrive is to throw your cossie on and sprint into the clear blue, shallow warm water.  Once they had finished their swims, I would head into the water for my sunset hour bathe.  I don’t think I’ve spent so long in the water since France in early 90s.

In my four days on the Koh Rong, I did manage a challenging jungle hike/climb to the other side of the island to the reward of a magnificent empty beach and a water taxi home.  And, whilst my brain may have been idle of any daily concerns, I have been working my way through this year’s Man Booker short list.  This intellectual pursuit feels like utter luxury and fitted perfectly into the idleness agenda.  With only “The Sisters Brothers” left on the list, I concur with the judges; Julian Barnes' “The Sense of an Ending” is still my favourite.

Returning to the mainland, I worked my way down the coast via Kampot to an eco-retreat/organic farm up among the pepper farms near Kep.  There is plenty to do and see in this area and so it was time for a new type of idling: integrating it into days that also contained significant activity.  Many of the people who come out to the Vine Retreat are expats looking to escape the craziness of Phnom Penh (they quickly become repeat customers).  Whilst I’ve been here, there has been a fascinating mix of people: short & long term travellers, Phnom Penh expats and local NGO workers.  Whilst lying by the pool, I often hear day visitors exclaiming from the balcony, “ooh, c’est magnifique…”.

I instantly felt at home here.  I think that there is something very comforting about leaving your shoes outside on the rack with everyone else’s (guests & staff) and wandering around barefoot.  There are eight simple guest rooms (excellent mattresses and sheets) and two floors full of places to sit and relax – you can choose from the long communal table, hammocks, floor cushions and, my personal favourite, the raised cushioned benches along the outside of the balcony.  These overlook the garden and swimming pool, as well as the local pepper farms and hills, and on a clear day, Vietnam.  While having an aperitif with your book, the resident cat might come and curl up on your lap.

I seem to need time and space for idling and lots of natural light and fresh air.  These are in plentiful supply at the Vine Retreat and again, there is a pleasing lack of choice!  In the evening, you can have their daily set menu (sourced from their organic vegetable garden and fruit trees) and so the only question is, what time would you like it?  It obviously helps that the incredibly friendly staff make your bed every day, serve you lovely healthy food and often pop by with a glass of water and an encouraging word.

Here I have managed to fit in a day trip to Kampot, a visit to the local village & NGO, a tour of the farm and pepper plantation, a good early morning hike up a local hill in addition to hours of interesting conversation with other guests, dips in the pool and yet more reading.  If I make tentative plans then they inevitably change as I go with the flow and take the opportunities that present themselves.  I haven’t felt guilty in days.

So, what is the point of all this idling and have I mastered it?  I’ve definitely improved!  It’s good for the spirit.  If achievable in spurts in a busy city lifestyle, then it has the potential to hand back control.  I think I might need a hammock in London…

Idling photos:

Want to know more about idling?  I recently enjoyed Tom Hodgkinson’s book “How to be Idle” which is described as:
“an antidote to the work-obsessed culture which puts so many obstacles between ourselves and our dreams. Hodgkinson presents us with a laid-back argument for a new contract between routine and chaos, an argument for experiencing life to the full and living in the moment”.  

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Dodging torrential downpours

From Kathmandu, I was due to fly to Bangkok, visit Maria (fellow African trucker) and then the vague plan was to head north by train and work my way to Luang Prabang (Laos) via the slow boat.  These plans were however rendered useless by the floods in Bangkok.  This became apparent on the Wednesday I arrived in Lhasa but as I had booked my flight with Nepal Airlines and it was Diwali and then Saturday (non-working day in Nepal), changing the ticket with the Nepali travel agent took a lot longer than expected.  Finally on Sunday afternoon my Monday flight was changed and my new destination was Kuala Lumpur on an overnight flight.

It felt time to leave Nepal.  After the freezing temperatures in Tibet and the subsequent chilly weather in Nagarkot (lovely place 1 ½ hours outside Kathmandu), it was time to find some warmth, guaranteed hot showers and clean toilets.  After a chaotic check-in (everyone tells you to avoid Nepal Airlines – more for the disorganisation rather than any safety problems – but they are half the price of Thai Air!), Nepal Airlines came up trumps and upgraded me to business class.

Landing into Kuala Lumpur was like entering a forgotten universe – air conditioning, clean toilets, road lane markings…  I am a city girl at heart and enjoyed my two days in KL wandering around, indulging in a little clothing and nice toiletry shopping and varying my diet to include properly cooked pasta and eggs Benedict.  I rode the monorail and prepared to head off to Penang by train.  The weather was most definitely a lot warmer (and humid) but as it is monsoon season here, every afternoon was livened up by a big thunderstorm.  I’ve always loved a good thunderstorm (these competed well with hols in the Dordogne in the 1980s) and enjoyed my first KL one whilst having afternoon tea on a covered outdoor terrace.

A very uneventful 7 ½ hour train journey took me from KL to Butterworth.  From the train station you can walk directly to the ferry which will take you to Georgetown, Penang for the pricely sum of 25p.  The ferries run every 10 mins or so and take no time at all.  In the end I stayed for five days in Penang pottering around the old town looking into all the workshops, visiting the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion and jumping on the bus up to the beach at Batu Ferringhi.  I did do a cookery course (#1 thing to do on Trip Advisor, chef had made TV appearances..) which I looked forward to telling you all about.  Alas, it was largely underwhelming and so there is little to recount.  The weather precluded much else and there is a limit to how many shopping centres a girl wants to visit.

A three hour ferry carried me up to Langkawi Island to laze by the beach for a few days.  After day one, the weather was generally kind to me and I enjoyed some long sunny days reading by the sea & the pool as well as doing a little island hopping.  I found a fab spot at Frangipani Beach to sip a Tiger beer and watch the sun set.  Whilst lovely, my budget on Langkawi couldn’t afford me a dreamy bungalow on a beach and so it seemed like time to move on.

Singapore had never been on the agenda but the flight times and prices to Siem Reap with Silk Air made the most sense and so I decided to spend two days in the “clean” city.  I will admit to a few prejudices before arriving – that it would be too clean and boring.  I’m happy to admit that I warmed to Singapore very much and took advantage of being in a big city by going to the National Museum, both the cinema and theatre (Indian dance performance) and partaking in a very pleasant Tanqueray Ten Sling at the Long Bar at Raffles.  

Have to dash, boarding for my flight to Siem Reap is being called.  Angkor Wat awaits…

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Seven days in Tibet

If you need a little recap of your Tibetan history, here are a few (admittedly biased) pointers.  The Chinese attacked and “liberated” Tibet in 1950.  Tibet ultimately suffered from its own introspective nature and failed to find any help from the outside world.  Many Tibetans subsquently fled in 1959 following a failed uprising.  Fearing kidnap, the 14th Dalai Lama also fled at this time, and along with the exiled government, is now based in India in Dharamshala.  In the years following, many monasteries were shut down (some were later re-opened).  These monasteries now function under tight political control and exist largely for tourism.  Following the unrest in 2008, many monks were killed or arrested and so their numbers are dramatically down.  Chinese permission must be sought for any monk to enter an order.

Being so close to Tibet seemed too good an opportunity to pass up, even if, in some regards, entering Tibet from Nepal rather than via China is pretty restrictive.  To travel to Tibet from Nepal, you must join a group and be accompanied at all times by a guide.  The entry requirements change quite regularly depending on how paranoid the Chinese are feeling.  Travelling to Tibet either from Nepal or China requires a special TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region) permit.  There is no such thing as independent travel and foreigners are banned from public buses.

Lots of travel agencies in Kathmandu sell trips to Tibet.  They all take a similar form – five days driving and then 2 ½ days in Lhasa before either flying or driving back to Kathmandu.  This is the classic overland route along the Friendship Highway.  When booking such a trip, you should definitely bear in mind the Lonely Planet warning that your guide will be “pretty useless” and that if you think you have booked a jeep rather than a bus or a single supplement, you should expect to be disappointed!  My expectations were therefore set before I booked and my travel agent was honest about the bus and that the first two nights’ accommodation would be “very basic”.  I was travelling for the scenery, remoteness and the sense of mystery.

The night before the trip started, my passport was returned to me (phew!), along with a photocopy of my new Tibet visa (the real entry and exit visas was handed over the next day so that everyone had less time to lose them before we got to the border).  I had been told a couple of days before that there would be 25 people in the group.  Essentially all the tour agencies pool their clients together and all trips leave either on a Tuesday or Saturday.  Arriving at the bus the next morning, this number had increased to 37 people and therefore two buses.  After the beautiful journey to the border, we learned that actually, there would be sixty of us in total and two larger more comfortable buses on the Chinese side to collect us.  It says a lot about some of the journeys I had made in Nepal that I actually thought that the bus for the Nepal side of the journey was pretty comfy!

As soon as you cross the border you see the greater wealth of the Chinese.  On the Nepal side, immigration is somewhat chaotic and old but as soon as you get across, there are armed border guards and a shiny immigration building.  Suddenly you are assigned a number (from your group visa – I was no 11) and everything is conducted in order.  Not such an easy task with sixty people who don’t know each other.  We never did work out who the ever delaying number 8 was…  The main aim of the customs checks appears to be to find pro-Tibetan literature and any photos of the current Dalai Lama.  My Lonely Planet was conveniently hidden on Kindle but a few others had their hard copies investigated, flicked through and returned (I later heard that others flying into Lhasa had theirs confiscated).  It is intriguing (and decidedly disappointing) that the Chinese refuse to put any mention of your Tibet trip into your passport.  Would I be travelling incognito in China?  I think not J  Army controls continued daily all the way to Lhasa.

At the border, we were amazed to see some of the packages that were being carried across.  Men and women were waiting to carry up to 100kg parcels across the border (China to Nepal).  The lorries don’t attempt to cross (the road on the Nepal side is not wide enough to handle them) and so each parcel (maybe 350 woolen sweaters for example) is stood up (this takes three men) and, using a head strap, someone then loads it onto their back and crosses through customs to deliver them to someone on the other side.  I can’t imagine these (mainly women) are paid very much for this back breaking work.

Once out of customs, two buses were supposed to be waiting for the 60 of us but only one was available and so, after some delay, the rest of us were sent ten minutes up the road in taxis.  We then hung around in cold for an hour until the one bus appeared with our black shell suit and shade wearing Chinese guide (I never did find out what the one bus did for an hour…).  After a bite to eat, we again waited for more taxis to be arranged to transport us to our first overnight stop of Nyalam.  It should have been a beautiful 1 ½ hour journey but sadly, due to the transport disorganisation, we ended up making it mainly in the dark.  The guesthouse definitely lived up to its “basic” description with grim toilets and no showers.  The four bed dorm rooms were actually fine but my word they were freezing (rumour was -7C).  I was glad of my thermals and sleeping bag!

One of the very strange things about crossing the border is that your clock moves forward 2 ¼ hours.  The time in Tibet is very unnaturally aligned to Beijing time (around 4,000km away) , making for very strange sunrise and sunset times.  The sun rises very late and the heat of the afternoon sun continues well into what we would expect to be the balmy end of the afternoon.

The next morning marked the start of a big day and we were due to set off at 10am (far too late in everyone’s opinion apart from the guide).  Sadly, bus number two had still not appeared.  Cutting costs, the agents had sent it on an extra journey to the border and so we didn’t start our long day of driving until after 11am.  It was really at this point that we realised that we had absolutely no recourse to anybody and that all complaints would go unheard.  You have to show some respect to our guide for his ability to shrug his shoulders and look “not bothered” regardless of the complainant and the nature/justification of their complaint.

This was not however to detract from the main highlight of the day – various views of Mount Everest.  The weather was very much on our side – bright crisp blue (as it remained throughout our journey).  We reached some heady altitude heights this day – crossing passes three passes above 5,000m, the highest being 5,150m at Tong La Pass.  Many people were really feeling the altitude this day but I seemed to manage fine (no racing up hills!) and never suffered more than a couple of easily remedied headaches and a little breathlessness climbing stairs.  Keep hydrated and eat light meals seems to be the best advice.  I’m really not convinced about the need to take Diamox.  It surely isn’t good for you to take a drug which speeds up the heart…  If you give the body time, it is perfectly capable of learning to cope with the reduction of oxygen in the air.

I did enjoy gazing at Mount Everest although at first I was definitely looking at the wrong mountain… our guide wasn’t very clear.  I actually thought that the mountain that I chose as Everest was in many ways more impressive but maybe that was simply a perspective thing from our first viewing point.  Our best view all day was from the town where we ate lunch, Tingri.  If you walk away from the main strip then there is a lovely peaceful view of the mountain range which is perfect for photo opportunities.  And so from here onto our second “basic” overnight stop in Lhatse.  Hilariously, Torunn (Norwegian girl who had coincidentally also been at Sadhana at the same time as me), scored us an amazing “upgrade” – a room with only twin beds (not four) and with duvets, soft pillows and that classic hotel “white striped” bedding.  We apologised to everyone else about our good fortune and let them come and use our ensuite J (still had freezing water though!).  I farmed out my warm sleeping bag and silk liner to a needy cause.

Day three was a relatively short drive and we arrived at our hotel in Shigatse before midday.  Shigatse is famous for the Tashilumpo Monastery which was founded in the 1400s and is the traditional seat of successive Pachen Lamas (Tibetan religious leader, second behind the Dalai Lama who is the head of state).  During the visit, it was forbidden to ask any questions about the 11th Pachen Lama.  The one chosen by the 14th Dalai Lama “disappeared” with his family and the Chinese selected their own, who resides in Beijing and is never seen.  Sshhh, you never know who might be listening…

Again, day four was a short drive to Gyantse.  It should have taken about 90 minutes but our shell suit guide and cowboy bus driver managed to draw it out to three hours.  The journey was very attractive - brown hills looming large over the golden fields where wheat and barley had just been harvested.  Gyantse offered us lovely tree lined streets through the old town (the leaves were turning golden and dropping) and the famous Kumbum monastery.

As you drive through Tibet, it is starkly apparent what a tough life the people lead.  This is a very remote part of the world and, the odd sparkly Chinese building aside, people live very simply alongside their animals.  Based on the level of hygiene on view, these are hardy folk.  Having read “Seven Years in Tibet” whilst trekking in Nepal, my appreciation increased as I began to visualise the epic journey through such unforgiving terrain.  The Tibetan people are clearly battling hard to maintain some religious freedom, continuing to make pilgrimages to their monasteries and temples and hang up their prayer flags.

A long day on day five took us up over the Kharola Pass (5,010m), around the magnificent Yamdrok Lake, arriving into Lhasa, the highest inhabited plateau on earth, at the end of the afternoon.  Lhasa itself is now unrecognisable from the world that Heinrich Harrer described in “Seven Years in Tibet”.  Very much a Chinese city, the population has risen from 20-30,000 to 500,000 people (for the most part, not Tibetans).  There are fast highways, wide featureless avenues and electronics shops abound.  Armed police and soldiers stand patrol on every corner, ready to quell any discontent, not least in the square in front of the Jokhang Temple.

Nevertheless, Lhasa is a wonderful place and if you focus on the old town, you can watch a more traditional way of life and enjoy views of the Potala as, from that angle, it still rises majestically above the city.  Just ignore all the semi-automatic weapons on display.  The Potala Palace is a truly magnificent structure and fascinating to visit.  My particular highlights in Lhasa were watching the monks debating at the Sera Monastery (slapping their hands to make a point and alternating between whole hearted laughter and seriousness) and looking out at the Potala Palace and Barkhor Square from the Jokhang Temple.

Overall, from a comfort point of view, my expectations were generally exceeded (they had been set very low!).  Things improved every day until everything was very comfortable in Lhasa, staying at the Trichang Labrang hotel.  This former residence of the 14th Dalai Lama’s tutor has been beautifully restored.  The food throughout was reasonable (fried rice, chowmein, noodle soup) and although I generally didn’t trust the meat, I was a convert to the yak burger in Lhasa!  It did seem a struggle to get fresh vegetables but there was plenty of fruit to buy in the streets.  After the first two nights, the standard of hotel was pretty good – especially considering what a budget trip we were on.

Flying out of Lhasa back to Kathmandu was very special indeed and, from my window seat, provided continual views of the Himalayas on the very close horizon.  I was number 11 for the last time as our exit visas were taken away, theoretically removing all formal written trace of the visit.

So, should you go?  Absolutely!  Tibet is a wonderful place and the scenery spectacular.  There is clearly a rich history to be explored.  If you are travelling from Nepal and want to travel by jeep (more comfortable than a bus and more flexible than having to move around in a group of 60!), then make sure that your trip doesn’t leave Kathmandu on a Tuesday or Saturday.  That way you shouldn’t end up on the “throw them all together” trip with useless guide.  If you want the budget trip like me then shop around in Kathmandu and find the cheapest package (mine was $365 for the trip, $85 for the visa  and then the cost of the flight) as no matter what you pay, there is only one type of bus and one type of shared hotel room.  The alternative is to fly into Beijing and take the world’s highest railway – 48 hours to Lhasa by comfortable train.  Having said that, I’m not sure I would have wanted to miss either the overland journey and its scenery, or the flight back to Kathmandu from Lhasa over the Himalayan mountain range.  Maybe I’ll just have to go again one day… and visit a free Tibet?

Day1: Drive to Nepal/Tibet border.  Continue to Nyalam.  Sleep at 3,700m
Day2: Nyalam to Lhatse, lunch in Tingri (~8 hours).  View Mount Everest.  Sleep at 4,350m
Day3: Lhatse to Shigatse arriving at lunchtime.  Tashilumpo Monastery. Sleep at 3,900m
Day4: Shigatse to Gyantse arriving at lunchtime.  Visit Kumbum.  Sleep at 3,950m
Day5: Gyantse to Lhasa (~8 hours).  Sleep at 3,650m
Day6-7: Lhasa – visit Potala Palace, Jokhana Temple, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery
Day8: Fly from Lhasa to Kathmandu over the Himalayas

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

You are what you eat; you are what you think

Checking into Sadhana Yoga for a 10 day “Yoga Holiday” offered the chance to purge my system of all the UK summer excess of red wine and fancy food.  Within a day of arriving at Sadhana, you relax into the warm family environment, the gentle daily routine and the wonderful food which magically appears at various points throughout the day.  The hardest part is making it up the hill to the house on day one.  However, if you can manage that, you can achieve anything that Sadhana then throws at you!

The routine starts each morning at 5.30am with the ringing of the gong.  This is the signal to get out of bed in order to be ready for meditation at 5.45am.  This may not sound gentle but, when 9pm becomes a “late” bedtime, it really is not so bad.  It is perfectly acceptable to enter the meditation room and lie down on your mat and cover yourself with a blanket for a few minutes.  Or you can be over-keen and do some stretches…maybe not.

After 15 minutes of instructor-led exercises to prepare the body for stillness, you take your cross legged position (there are a variety to chose from, some harder than others), ready for 30-40 minutes of meditation.  I very quickly realised that “mantra” meditation was not for me.  The purpose of meditation is to clear the brain of all thoughts and focus on the here and now.  With mantra meditation you repeat an expression (“mantra”) continually for the period of the session, sometimes aloud, sometimes in your head.  Sadhana’s chosen mantra is “so-ham”.  I found this to be too associated to the town of a terrible crime in England.  Despite trying my own mantra instead, I generally couldn’t clear my brain and stop it from racing.  Its natural state is at least two threads of thought at a time. 

On two occasions I did manage to remain in my cross-legged position for the entire session.  Afterwards, it took my legs a good ten minutes to forgive me.  Throughout my stay, I continued to attend morning meditation and after completing the exercises, would lie down and look at the trees and the sky.  After a while, I even managed to stay awake in this position!  I would sit at the back of the room to avoid disturbing others.  For afternoon meditation, I would lie and contemplate the paragliders – their graceful movements in the sky were very relaxing to watch.  Eventually I abandoned afternoon meditation for some quiet time on the upstairs balcony with a book.  I realised that what I was really looking for is a way to relax the brain and that cross legged, closed-eye meditation is not necessarily the way for me to achieve that.

After meditation, you enjoy a cup of herbal tea and then go down into the garden for ”nasal cleansing” with your neti pot.  This sounds as funny as it is in practice.  However, if you can get past the fact of feeling ever so slightly silly, then this exercise is very effective at cleaning the nasal passages.  You tilt your head and pour water into one nostril to flow out of the other, switching nostril half way through.  You then force out the water using a number of funny exercises, culminating in a bizarre chicken-style jump.  This was considered essential for our morning yoga practice which focussed heavily on breathing exercises.  Hatha yoga is gentle rather than being a workout.  Gloriously, all of our yoga took place in the courtyard outside and you could gaze at the view over the lake or up to the Peace Pagoda while holding your position.

The morning is the busiest part of the day at Sadhana.  A mountain walk is offered before breakfast and then either a steam or mud bath.  After lunch you are free to chill out, pop next door for slow internet, debate meditation failures with fellow naughty back-rowers or bask in sunshine and breeze on the 5th floor balcony.

Things gear up again at 3.30pm when the gong chimes for Karma Yoga.  Karma Yoga is a half hour slot devoted to a selfless task.  We would all be asked to do something to help with the upkeep of Sadhana.  Generally this would be some kind of non-strenuous task – watering plants, weeding in the garden, hoovering the meditation room or setting up the cushions for chanting.  The best part of Karma Yoga (apart from being helpful obviously) is that afterwards you go upstairs for Masala tea and big bowls of popcorn!  It was one of our favourite parts of the day.  From here we moved onto chanting with Durga and then to the final yoga practice of the day with Asanga.

After four days, I decided that it was time for fasting (there is no requirement to fast at Sadhana – it was purely choice).  The gastric cleansing took four days in total.  On day one, you are given two apples per meal plus a honey/lemon drink.  In between meals, you can consume as much water and herbal tea as you want (how generous!).  On day two, you are only given one apple per meal and on day three, none!  I’m proud to say that the packet of sour cream and chive crisps on the shelf in my room remained untouched for the entire exercise.  In fact, they didn’t really ever appeal.  I would however eat my apples out on the balcony looking out towards the lake with my back to the dining room, trying to ignore all the lovely food smells from inside!

On day four, you begin to “cleanse”.  This involves drinking a large quantity of a salt water mixture combined with a series of exercises which encourages your body to flush out all the rubbish.  I wasn’t very good at this bit as I struggled to drink the required quantity of water.  Nevertheless, the process ended up being generally successful.  You are gradually brought back onto food with a rice/lentil soup for lunch and dinner (tasty and filling, if bland) and then a delicious porridge the next morning for breakfast.

As an exercise, I’m not sure if it made any lasting physical difference but fasting is an interesting experience.  Many people in the world exist on very little food – in quantity as well as in flavour and variety.  It does no harm to remember that.  I was surprised that I didn’t really ever feel hunger pangs during the day.  I had expected to feel quite sleepy during the day but although I was low on energy on days 2&3, my brain felt sharp.  Admittedly, I was living a low-key life style at Sadhana.  I managed all the activities on the first two days but did take things easy on day three.  When I did feel hunger was during the night – on both nights two and three, I woke up hungry and struggled to get back to sleep.  Gulps of water were not enough to satisfy the body.  I was happy to enjoy another couple of days of normal food again before I left Sadhana to return to the relative metropolis of Pokhara.

During my time at Sadhana Yoga, there were anywhere between 10 and 19 people staying.  Every day, people come and go.  Some stay a couple of days, others 6 or 10.  Many people extend their stay each morning until they have no choice but to get back to the real world.  On occasion, people stay for months!  I was particularly fortunate with the great company I enjoyed while I was there – American, Swiss, South Korean, Israeli, Australian, French and Nepali.  Asanga (yoga guru) and his wife Durga and their children welcome you into their home and take care of you.  Bipin and Surrenda run around making sure that everything runs smoothly and Sunita controls the delicious food coming out of the kitchen – fresh banana lassi and fruit-laden muesli for breakfast, tasty dal bhat for lunch and generally a soup with chapattis for dinner.

You shouldn’t go to Sadhana if you are feeling cynical. You need to be in the mood to embrace what is on offer.  What I liked was that everything was so chilled out – no-one was taking anything too seriously.  Definitely lots of people there were looking to make a breakthrough with meditation but everyone was respectful of anyone’s reason for being there.  Some people came to relax in a calm environment, others with the purpose of practicing yoga.  I was thrilled to meet so many interesting people my own age, also taking some time out.  Throughout my time at the top of the hill, there was lots of humour but no obligations and this resulted in plenty of time to think and relax whilst enjoying great company and food.  Stop by next time you are in Nepal – there’s no need for a reservation!

Sadhana daily routine
5.30am: wake-up gong
5.45am: pre-meditation practice
6am: meditation
7am: tea
7.15am: nasal cleansing
7.30am: morning yoga
9am: mountain walk
9.45am: breakfast
10am: mud bath, steam bath or simply relax
Midday: pre-meditation exercises
12.15pm: afternoon meditation
1pm: lunch
3.30pm: karma yoga
4pm: masala tea and popcorn
4.30pm: chanting
5.30pm: evening yoga
6.45pm: dinner
8pm: bed?!?

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Annapurna Panorama

The Annapurna mountain range lies in the Nepali Himalayas. Annapurna 1 (8091m) was first conquered by a small French expedition, led by Maurice Herzog, in 1950 (he wrote a famous book).  The summit of Everest (8850m) was not reached until 1953, in a British led expedition.  Today many people enjoy the trekking around Annapurna and/or Everest ranges in a variety of different forms and lengths.

I had intended to complete the 10 day Annapurna Sanctuary trek (up to Annapurna Base Camp – 4130m) but I was slightly mislead by the trekking company I had chosen.  In the end, I made the decision to shorten my trek to the Annapurna Panorama trip – a five day trek which provides a view of the Himalayan mountain range from Poon Hill (3210m).  My fellow trekkers were Melissa and Anil (from Shepherd’s Bush!) and a Finn called Bakka.  Our small group was accompanied by our Nepali guide, Fatta, and two young porters.

We set off on a Monday morning on our “teahouse” trek – a two hour drive from Pokhara to Naya Pul and then a leisurely 3 ½ hour walk to our first overnight stop at Hile.  Teahouses are small guesthouses in villages up in the hills which provide simple accommodation (think plywood walls!) and food. You will always be guaranteed a dal baht (plate of rice, dal, curry, pickles & vegetables) with as many refills as you need to fill up those hollow legs.  Moving away from dal baht can result in some very interesting dishes – you might find that your spaghetti arrives sizzling!

Day two of the trek was by far the hardest in terms of height gained and “up”.  We started at 1430m and slept up at 2860m.  The day started with four hours continual uphill.  You are generally walking on man-made steps but they are of varying heights and so this can end up being quite a strain, particularly if one suffers from short legs J.  However, after heavy monsoon rain overnight, we had a beautiful clear morning and had discovered the healing qualities of the “hot lemon” tea stop.

As we were trekking the week before the Dasain festival, many goats were being brought down the trail.  Every family sacrifices a goat for Dasain and so this is big business.  The goats are brought from Tibet or China and many herders bring the goats overland to increase their margins (trucks are expensive).  They buy the goats for $100 and sell them at market for $200.  Four or five men will be herding a couple of hundred goats for 7/8 days and it can get somewhat chaotic!  Goats are pesky creatures who quite like to dart off as well as stop for frequent grass feeds.  For us, they provided the perfect excuse to have regular breaks to let them pass – you don’t want to get caught up in the middle of a hundred goats coming down a narrow mountain pass!  There is a distinct smell of goats’ cheese each time they pass – not necessarily in a good way, even for an aficionado like me.

On the morning of 3rd day, we enjoyed a clear view of the Himalayas from our base at Ghorapani (2860m), including Annapurna South, Himchuli and Fish Tail.  On day 4, we covered a lot of distance, up and down with the some very enjoyable “undulating” stretches.  Each time we looked back, we couldn’t believe how far we had come.  All day we ploughed on in the knowledge that we would be ending the day at the hot springs at Jhinu.  We soothed our aching bones in the gloriously hot water as the river raced past on the other side of the wall – the only thing lacking was a nice cold beer!

As my legs felt like lead by the end of the trek (hardcore downhill on the last day), I think the 10 day trek may have been a step too far.  It took a couple of leg massages before I could stand up without wincing!  Far better to relax in Pokhara and then come up to Sadhana Yoga for a 10 day retreat.  Sadly, with only a vegetarian menu, there was no goat on the menu for Dasain!

Thursday, 22 September 2011

An armchair in the sky

All year I have wanted to jump into the sky.  My desire to skydive in Namibia was sadly thwarted due to local bureaucracy.  One of the many advantages to travelling to Pokhara from Kathmandu was that Pokhara is THE place in Nepal for paragliding.  As soon as I arrived in Pokhara yesterday, I wanted to seize the moment and go and sort out a flight.  I visited several paragliding places for a chat before finally plumping for Sunrise Paragliding.  They seemed suitably professional and were offering a 15% discount for a one hour “Cross Country” flight.  I signed on the dotted line.

This morning, after a light breakfast, I had extra time to wind myself up as they were running behind schedule due to having had to fit in all the flights which hadn’t been possible yesterday (due to weather conditions).  We finally left the office an hour and a half late for the 20 minute drive up to the take off site at Sarangkot: three passengers and three pilots.  I was quiet on the way up.

Things happen pretty quickly once you get to the take-off spot.  My pilot, Herve “The Master”, has been paragliding for 22 years (4 here, 18 near Chamonix).  He is one of the elder statesmen of the Pokhara paragliding world and instantly put me at ease.  Within minutes, I was strapped into my “armchair” and ready to take off.  When Herve said “walk”, we walked and when Herve said “run”, we ran – up and away without any fuss.  I felt surprisingly calm about the whole thing and relaxed back into my armchair.  Beyond the undemanding “walk, now run”, as a tandem passenger, you have nothing to do other than enjoy the flight and take photographs.

Paragliding is of course all about the wind and taking advantage of the thermals.  We moved around watching the birds and then Herve took his guide from them.  Before long, we were moving higher and higher thanks to the thermals and ended up in the clouds.  I had asked Herve before we took off about how it would feel.  “Like being on a motorbike with the wind in your face”, he said.  I was amazed at how peaceful it was and that he could and I could converse normally.  This was important so that I could listen to his advice to “look forward, not down”.  It was very liberating to be floating in the sky looking down over the Pokhara valley.  Watching the other paragliders, they seemed to be whizzing around (like on a motorbike) but from where I was sitting, it felt that we moved around very gently.

We had excellent weather conditions in the end and were able to stay up for pretty much an hour.  It was too cloudy to see the Himalayas but I'll be seeing them up close in a few days time.  We climbed high up above Sarangkot, moved around over various villages and then hovered for a while above the forest trees looking for monkeys.  We then spent some time over the lake before coming into a very gentle landing – again, I was surprised at how easy it was.  Bizarrely, landing had been one of the main fears for the whole thing.

My stomach has now recovered sufficiently for me to be enjoying a Gorkha beer with some chips at Moondance.  New to-do list: where can I skydive in the following countries?  Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia.  Answers on a postcard please.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Monsoon rains in Nepal

It is the middle of the night and the monsoon rains are falling heavily.  Kathmandu was completely dry for the first 24 hours and so I naively believed one of the locals who told me that the rains were pretty much done for this year.  The UK isn’t the only country where a pocket umbrella is of the utmost convenience.  Alas, I packed mine away on the North Circular J

Having left Africa in mid-July and spent the rest of the summer in various parts of England, with a slight detour to Pakistan, it feels a little strange living out of a rucksack again and having to sort everything out for myself.  I arrived without much of a plan other than that I wanted to trek and do some yoga.  There are to be no “Eat, Pray, Love” comparisons, thank you very much.  Javier Bardem, however, is welcome to make an appearance...

Things started slowly in Kathmandu.  Maybe it was the long flight and losing a night but I seemed to wander somewhat aimlessly for the first couple of days, unaided by an erratic sleep pattern.  The sleep clearly still isn’t right but after three nights in a cheap (very clean) hotel room with little natural light, I have upped the budget to enjoy a hotel with a garden (and which does not reside above a nightclub).  Things are looking up and the puzzle of how to spend the next 45 days is starting to come together.

I shall be abandoning Kathmandu on Wednesday to head for Pokhara.  It has a reputation for being far more chilled out than the madness of Kathmandu and is also the start point for my Annapurna Base Camp trek on Sunday.  The trek will take 10 days, should involve regular showering, and is hopefully the perfect prelude to 10 days of yoga and meditation near Pokhara.

With a visa extension, it looks like I should be able to head back to Kathmandu and then join an eight day trip to Tibet.  I just need to get my head around paying the airfare from Lhasa to Kathmandu when it is in the opposite direction to my desired travel plans.  The fact is that the Chinese authorities force you to return to Kathmandu at the end of the trip and you can only travel into Tibet from Nepal on a group tourist visa.  But if not now, when?  And so I shall likely suck it up and hand over the cash.  It is apparently a spectacular flight.

And so, after a few weeks of relying on comfortable English trains, it is nearly time to get back on a bus for 7-8 hours. A “tourist bus” runs between Kathmandu and Pokhara each day, and if reports are to be believed, it will not be too cramped.  Hurrah!  I’m not ready for local buses again yet…

Friday, 9 September 2011

Hindu Kush Adventure

I took a taxi yesterday to my storage unit on Hanger Lane with the more valuable contents of my shed.  I sat in the front next to the driver and it turned out that he was of Pakistani origin.  This swiftly led us into a conversation about my recent trip to Pakistan.  At the traffic lights near BBC TV Centre, he insisted on shaking my hand – “respect” for the fact that I had been to the Chitrali mountain range.  He himself had been some ten years ago but on his recent trip to Lahore this summer, he hadn’t made it past Murree.  Too dangerous, man!

At the beginning of the summer, I needed a plan for August that would amuse me post-Widcombe Grange and before spending a week at Lakeside Road between tenants.  Everywhere seemed too far, too hot or frankly, likely to be full of families away during the school hols. I needed to escape to somewhere a bit random… which is how I ended up choosing a Wild Frontiers trip to Pakistan.  It was all very last minute and in fact, I only picked up my visa at 5pm on the evening before my 8.40am flight to Islamabad.

Some people definitely questioned my sanity ahead of the trip and many more after the fact.  A few others simply rolled their eyes.  I had to acquire some super-duper “non-FCO recommended country” travel insurance and added on some extra terrorist cover for good measure.  It is important to note that the FCO only advise against all travel to four countries currently: Libya, Somalia, Syria (darn shame) & Yemen.  Anyway, my trip was in the North West provinces of Pakistan, bordered mainly by Afghanistan so surely all would be fine J.  On a more serious note, when a well respected travel company has their “signature trip” to Pakistan, I presume that they have the clients’ safety under control.

The trip started well, arriving into Islamabad on time and the weather was hot, but not too hot.  Our guide, Zafer, kept mentioning that he was monitoring our flight for the next morning.  Today’s flight to Chitral had left and the weather for tomorrow looked good.  The daily 1 hour flight from Islamabad to Chitral is on a very small plane and gets cancelled not infrequently.  All looked good on Saturday morning when we got up at 4am and after a light breakfast, headed to the airport for our 7am flight.  We checked in our luggage and made our way to the departure gate.  There were two planes on the tarmac and only one of them matched the description of our small plane for Chitral.  It was a little upsetting when it took off for Gilgit…

It took until 7.30am before the departures board suddenly changed to show “cancelled” for our flight.  Fortunately our minibus had stayed until the car park to wait until we had taken off and so by 7.50am we had collected our luggage and were setting off on the 12-ish hour journey to Ayun, near Chitral.  As we were travelling during Ramadan and food can be hard to come by during daylight hours, Zafer stopped to pick up some snacks and fortuitously to make a set of photocopies of the list of our passport and visa details (4 Brits, 1 Canadian, 2 Aussies & 2 Americans).

We passed uneventfully through the Swat valley but then progress slowed when we had to stop at an army check point in the Dir province.  Sitting opposite a Chitrali Scouts barracks, we waited for an hour whilst Zafer negotiated with the army to allow our passage.  The army had decided that we lacked a “No Objection Certificate” (a relatively new invention). A few times, it seemed that Zafer had collected his document folder and was on his way back to the minibus when suddenly the army chief would suddenly call him back and he would sit down for some further discussions.  A lot of phone calls were made.

Finally, it was agreed that we could continue and the army chief would call ahead to all the check points that we would pass over the coming week and inform them that we should be allowed swift passage.  Unfortunately this message did not reach the next check point up the road.  We enjoyed the questioning of an enthusiastic army officer who was concerned that we had been kidnapped by our guide and driver.  I wonder if it was almost a disappointment that we hadn’t and that boringly, we were exactly who we said we were – tourists.

The subsequent few hours passed in a blur, nibbling on almonds and biscuits and occasionally having to close the curtains on the minibus to avoid the attention of unwelcoming locals.  Late afternoon, we arrived at the PTDC Hotel in Dir and were thrilled to be served tea and meet our jeep drivers (Mufti, Nasir and Daman) who had come from Chitral to collect us (a slightly longer journey than if we had arrived into Chitral airport).  By 5pm, Liz, Ken and I were settling into our jeep with driver Nasir, looking forward to arriving at Old Masoud Fort in 3-4 hours time.  The journey would take us up the Lowari pass and somewhere near the top, we would leave the Dir region and enter the Chitral area.  As Nasir repeatedly said “Dir – bad people, Chitral – good people”.

As we approached the Lowari pass, we requested permission to use the Lowari tunnel but we were refused on the grounds that it was too dangerous for foreigners.  It is debatable whether this related to the potential of what could happen within the tunnel or simply due to the state of the road on the other side.  We had no choice but to head up the pass itself at the onset of dusk.  The problem was that since our drivers had driven over the pass at 1pm, there had been heavy rain causing many landslides… Our skilled jeep drivers handled these landslides with aplomb despite being bemused at how the road could have changed so much during such a short time.  “No problem”, Nasir would tell us with a grin.

Suddenly at 8pm, we met our match.  “Problem”, said Nasir, “Go back”.  Liz gave him all her snacks so that he could break Ramadan. We set off back down the mountain, my front seat affording me a great view of mountain pass, even in the pitch black.  At the bottom of the pass, the army again refused us permission to travel through the tunnel but promised that they would allow us to travel through the following morning.  Back to the PTDC at Dir then…  As there was no mobile signal, they were not expecting us and the chef had gone home for the night.  Rooms were found for us and our jeep drivers headed off to find us a “takeaway” which we devoured at 11.30pm.

We were granted a late start the next morning (and boy did we sleep well) and headed back to the pass.  I don’t think very many foreigners have travelled through the Lowari pass tunnel and definitely we were the first Wild Frontiers group to do so.  It took a bit more negotiating but eventually we set off in convoy followed by a variety of Bedford trucks carrying live chickens.  My jeep led the 30 minute drive through the dark wet tunnel.  No Taliban jumped out along the way.

When we arrived at the other side, it was clear that we wouldn’t be going anywhere any time soon.  The heavy rains had washed the road into the dry river bed.  Zafer was convinced that there was a route through for the jeeps but Mufti just laughed.  In the end we left our main luggage with the jeeps and scrambled over to the other side.  The jeeps would follow us later in the day once the army had restored some form of "road" over the river bed.  The plan was to walk until some taxis could be found to take us the rest of the way.  In the end, an enterprising minibus driver was found and he drove us to Ayun.  With the state of the roads, this took another four hours: ouch.  Old Masoud Fort could hardly have scored more highly as a picturesque destination.  A cup of tea, late lunch and a hot shower later and all was well with the world again.

The journey may have been long but everyone remained pretty relaxed and in good humour throughout.  Zafer remained calm at all times but as days at the office go, these were two fairly stressful ones!  Those photocopies proved invaluable - every check point seemed to want one.  You could even go so far as to say that this itinerary was an improvement on the original as it took us much deeper into Pakistan and gave us a better insight to the troubled regions.

That evening, a controversial announcement was made to Zafer.  For the next five days, we would be supplied with a police escort to ensure that we were safe.  This meant that wherever we went, we were accompanied by five police officers, including a local chief.  All the Pakistanis we met were furious and convinced that this was officiousness.  However, a little googling since I returned suggests that this has become standard since October 2010.  The police joined us for the drive to the Kalash Valley and as we were in the front jeep, we were able to laugh at their inability to take the corners properly.  Relations relaxed a lot once the chief of police discovered that he & Zafer were both Ismaili and from the Hunza Valley.  Suddenly the police were all smiles and we could be trusted!

Whilst it was a little annoying have a continual police presence, they were generally charming and keen that we were enjoying out stay in Pakistan.  When we trekked up to 3,800m (much of which was scrambling), they carried our rucksacks and waters and were always ready with a helping hand.  Following our schedule did mean that they ended up doing a lot more exercise than normal!  The negatives obviously are that when you visit a village, the locals associate the arrival of foreigners with police and also, you are never free to just wander.  Our guesthouse owners were also obliged to provide lodgings and food for the policemen.  Clearly if a police escort is to become standard practice, then it should be the tourists or the police covering the costs and not the local guesthouse owners.  The times when the police put their flashing lights on to get us through traffic was mortifying and wholly unnecessary.  

Where we ever in any danger?  Probably not, but then I'm no foreign policy expert.  In the Kalash Valley, we were a day and a half walk from the Afghan border but the locals didn't feel there was any issue.  For the Pakistani authorities however, we were a potential PR disaster and so ultimately it is their decision.

The rest of the trip was fairly straightforward!  We loved our three days in the Kalash Valley and the walks to the various villages & hardcore trek up to 3,800m.  In our simple guesthouse, we chatted with the owner Saifullah and enjoyed mulberry gin instead of Kalash fruity wine (last year's grape harvest failed).  I stayed in Michael Palin's "room" and if you'd like to know more about the Kalash then "Palin's Travels" provides a far more succinct description than I could achieve.

From the Kalash Valley, we travelled to Chitral, Mastuj, the Shandur Pass, Phander, Gilgit, the Hunza Valley (where we saw Rakaposhi and Ladyfinger), ending up at Shigar Fort after 14 hours of being bumped along jeep track.  The people of the Kalash & Hunza Valleys shone out as the most welcoming.  Elsewhere we were largely ignored.  It was a long way from the continual waving in Africa earlier in the year.  Our return flight to Islamabad from Skardu did leave on time which saved us a two day drive back to Islamabad.  I'm not sure we'd have all managed the same sang-froid as we had at the beginning of the trip!  Pakistan is a beautiful country with a lot to offer the tourist but I fear that it will be a while yet before it becomes a main stream destination again.

·         We advise against all travel to Swat, Buner, and Lower Dir, including travel on the Peshawar to Chitral road via the Lowari Pass. In these areas there are ongoing reports of military or militant activity.  Localised curfews may be imposed at short notice.
·         We advise against all but essential travel to the Kalesh Valley, the Bamoboret Valley and Arandu District to the south and west of Chitral in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. These areas have seen an increase in militant activity recently which has included abductions, violent armed robbery and murder.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Kingdom of Swaziland

I arrived in Swaziland from Mozambique by local mini-bus.  You might have thought that I would have been put off by my journey up to Tofo, but no, the return Maputo to Tofo journey went smoothly.  After spending a lovely Sunday afternoon in Maputo with Keith, Simon and their twins Andrew & Cameron, I was ready to brave the chapa station again on Monday morning.  Conveniently I had overheard a Dutch student, Isabelle, asking for advice on travel to Swaziland at the backpackers on Sunday evening and before long I had two travel companions for the journey.

Maputo to Manzini is really not very far at all.  About 70km on the Mozambique side and then the same again in Swaziland.  We were crossing via the Goba border which turned out to be incredibly peaceful and efficient in its lovely mountain setting.  Our only real hold up of the day was turning up at 7am (as recommended) but the bus not being full and therefore ready to leave until 11am!  We chomped on delicious fresh bread while we waited, one eye monitoring our rucksacks which had been placed into a trailer.  Just before departure, they were unloaded and the trailer filled with produce.  Our rucksacks looked precarious on top but the driver dug out some cord and secured them down.  I have to admit that I turned and checked them various times during the journey to ensure that they hadn’t bounced off into the countryside.

Swaziland instantly felt very welcoming and by 5pm I was installed at a lovely B&B called Malandelas, in the Malkerns Valley.  Time for a beer, sunset and some Wimbledon on the TV in the “pub”.  Swaziland gained independence from the British in 1968 and certain influences remain.  The next morning it became clear that I could do some more game viewing in Swaziland (yippee!) and that there was a backpackers (Sondzelas) inside the Mlilwane National Park, 2km down the road from where I was staying.  I booked in for two nights.

Mlilwane National Park only has small game (antelope, zebra, hippos, crocs) and as a consequence you can do self guided walks and hire bikes.  There was a slight hiccup when Sondzelas forgot to come and pick me up but the chief of the Malkern’s Police ended up helping me out when I accidentally dialled the police station.   I quickly forgave Thulani for forgetting me when I spotted his Steven Gerrard sticker on the dashboard.  There were some nice Brits staying at the backpackers and it was such a lovely retreat that I stayed an extra night enjoying a sunset game drive, self guided walks, a guided cycle and an impromptu sunset bathe in the local natural spring.  Walking to and from the backpackers to the main camp, I said hello to the zebra, impala and warthogs.  Although winter and therefore the dry season, the countryside was lush and beautiful.  It must be even more so in the summer rainy season.

Whilst there, I started reading up on the other game reserves in Swaziland and realised that both Hlane National Park and Mhkaya Wildlife Sanctuary were easily accessible via public transport (Swaziland isn’t very big – 120km by 180km).  Before long I found myself with a reservation for two nights at Hlane (big game – lions, elephants, rhino) and one night at Mhkaya (main attraction: black & white rhino).  Neither of these parks has any electricity so I charged everything to the full and set off on the bus.

Hlane National Park is separated into a couple of different sections – the main section where you can go on guided walks and cycles and then the big game section where the lions, elephants and rhino hang out.  Whereas Mlilwane had seemed relatively lush during the dry season, Hlane was absolutely desolate.  Many of the trees were dead (blame the elephants – they eat the bark and/or knock them down) and all the grass was yellow.  It seems amazing that the animals find enough to sustain them during the winter.

I headed out on a sunset game drive on my first evening and was spoilt by seeing a crèche (about eight – that’s a new collective noun for you!) of white rhino followed by three lions prowling around.  I sipped my beer while they played.  One rhino did starting running towards us but then seemed to change his mind and turn around.  We later came face to face with an old elephant on the road and had to gently back away while he continued to move forwards.  At night, it was very dark at camp and my room was lit solely by gas lamps.  I could hear the hippos moving around near the waterhole as I went to sleep and the roar of lions when I woke up.  But noise travels quite far, right?

The next day I decided to try a 2 hour guided cycle.  Although this only takes you around the main section of the reserve with small game, on our return we saw the same three lions as the night before, all walking past the gate of the big game section.  They had full bellies and so clearly the previous night’s hunting had been successful!  They eyed Themba and I up as dessert but that would have involved the effort of trying to jump over the very big fence and, like crocs, lions are not that inclined to make effort – they sleep for about 20 hours a day!  If my guide doesn’t look concerned then I try to be relaxed…  In the afternoon I enjoyed watching 4 big rhino taking an afternoon drink by the waterhole visible from the camp.  I then spoiled myself with another game drive at sunset and we came across more elephants, rhino and an old lion curled up asleep next to his kill.  Based on the smell, it wasn’t very fresh… and appeared to have once been a blue wildebeest.

I set off to Mhkaya the next day, a little sad not to have seen any giraffes.  A couple of easy mini-bus journeys later, I sat waiting by the side of the road to be picked up.  No guests can drive into Mhkaya; a pickup has to be arranged at either 10am or 4pm.  Having left plenty of time to get there I found myself sitting reading a book for an hour surrounded by goats and chickens, much to the amusement of the local children coming home from school.  Mhkaya is a little different to the other parks as you pay a set price and then everything is included: accommodation, all meals and a variety of game drives & walks.  The stone cottages are partly open (fresh air instead of windows) and so your loo most definitely comes with a view.  Again, everything is lit by gas lamps making for a wonderful “enchanted forest” feel.

It quickly became apparent that I was the only guest staying at Mhkaya (low season) and so the staff were ever so attentive.  Whilst it would have been nice to have some people to chat to, the situation did mean that I had most of my game drives/walks with a private guide.  I could ask Bogano as many questions as I wanted and always have the best seat in the jeep!  After our sunset game drive (lots of white rhino by the watering hole), a table had been set for my four course dinner in front of a roaring fire.  It was just me and Madame Bovary.

My lovely bed was covered in a big cosy white duvet and blankets so there was no worry about me being cold – especially when I realised that during dinner, the staff had been and slipped a hot water bottle inside the sheets!  It was a magical place to sleep and incredibly peaceful – I had expected to hear more animal noises and therefore possibly spend the night worrying about the lack of door/barrier!  I was woken the next morning by one of the ladies bringing me coffee and a muffin at 6am in preparation for my 6.30am game drive.

Entering the big game section of the reserve, the first thing we encountered was two white rhino fighting.  We drove very close as Bogano tried to separate them by making a lot of noise banging on the side of the jeep and revving the engine.  They took no notice and so I snapped away.  They were separated later in the morning by two rangers who put their vehicle between the two animals (who had injured each other).  I questioned Bogano about the ethics of stopping the fight – surely nature should be allowed to determine the outcome.  The answer is that normally, yes, but rhinos (as we have discussed previously) are disappearing fast and the purpose of Mhkaya is to protect endangered species to allow for the re-population of Swaziland’s other game reserves.  Swaziland has some of the world’s strongest anti-poaching laws.  Between 1988 and1992, the so-called “Rhino War” was fought in Swaziland.  Rhinos were being poached and the poachers finding loopholes in the law to avoid punishment.  A couple of months ago, the first rhino since 1992 was poached at Hlane.  The poachers are already behind bars for 15 years with no possibility of parole.  Very efficient.

Later on, we went on a two hour game walk, coming very close to various female rhinos and their young ones – the littlest was just 3 weeks old!  A French family joined me for the afternoon game drive.  I exercised the brain a little by translating things and we enjoyed yet more white rhino (sadly no black rhino), some playful elephants and ended with a family of giraffes close to some zebra.  As they are all my favourite animals, this seemed like a fitting ending to me.

Coming from Mozambique, Swaziland felt more prosperous but it seems that many people dream of moving to Europe.  It is a lot more relaxed than South Africa and it is nice not to see armed security guards everywhere like in SA and Mozambique.  I would highly recommend Swaziland to you, not simply for the wonderful and relaxed game reserves but also because it is a very beautiful country, easy to navigate and the people are extraordinarily welcoming and helpful.

Top Twenty Swaziland photos on FB

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Game drives through Africa

From eastern to southern Africa, I have enjoyed more game drives than is perhaps normal, if not for one lifetime, then most definitely for one half year.  From the very beginning, I was spoilt by the wildlife we saw and the guides who accompanied us.  As time went on, we actually saw less “impressive” game but learnt a lot more about the lives of the animals & birds themselves, the tracks they leave, the precariousness of their habitats, and the very real risks presented by poachers.

There is much debate about what time of year to visit different game reserves.  For example, many people visiting the Serengeti like to time their trip to coincide with migration - this is the time when many animals are moving great distances to find new sources of food and water and so the likelihood of spotting lots of animals is very high.  Additionally, you can be very successful when water is scarce – the animals will need to travel more often to find food and water.  At other times of year when water is plentiful, you may have to travel further, be prepared to be patient and return from some drives with little to jot down in your notebook.  The advantages of these periods of the year are that you will encounter far fewer people and not be racing other jeeps to get to the reported sighting of a lion or leopard.  If that is the case though, you need a nimble driver who can out-manoeuvre the other jeeps into the choicest spot for your photographic ambitions!

For most first timers, the crucial thing is to spot the big five: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant & buffalo.  Despite visiting towards the end of the rainy season when water was plentiful, on my trip we managed 4 out of the 5 in Kenya on our first day but then had to wait until the Serengeti to add the leopard to the list.  We didn’t just see lions on day one, but mating lions!  Being spoilt so early on, I came to have great expectations of all game drives and had to re-adjust at times and remind myself that we were not viewing these animals in a zoo but in the own natural environment and that we were the intruders.  These fascinating creatures may not always fancy coming out to play on your chosen route!  At all points, you need a good guide with eagle eyes who can spot camouflaged animals whilst driving – a fine skill indeed.

The best times for spotting wildlife are first thing in the morning when the animals are getting up (yes, some of them go to bed just like us!) or late afternoon when they are moving to find their spot to settle for the night.  On any game drive you can end up travelling hundreds of kilometres through national parks, often not spotting much at all for long periods of time.  It’s funny though how that disappears to the back of your mind when a herd of elephant comes storming past you on their way down to the water.  Suddenly, it’s one of your favourite drives!  We also did a couple of game walks although due to the smaller distances travelled and the luck of the draw, we didn’t spot a great deal.  We did come across a hippo that seemed to be seriously considering charging us until our guide cocked his AK47…

We were also lucky to view some different scenes at night.  In Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, we ventured off in our jeep in thermals, fleeces, woolly hats and sleeping bags (ooh, it was chilly!) for a night game drive and rather naughtily woke up some baboons.   We were avenging all the things that the baboons had stolen from us (bananas, sandwiches, suntan cream, our guide’s fancy binoculars).  We also saw a variety of animals who only venture out at night.  At Etosha National Park in Namibia, our campsite was next to a waterhole where viewing platforms and spotlights had been set up.  Sitting there in the cold night air, we had the wonderful sight of a solo rhino coming to drink water and when he had left, a lion and lioness majestically strolled down to the water’s edge.  Afterwards they seemed to be behaving quite cagily and we were convinced that they were looking for a kill.  On the contrary, they were looking for a secluded spot.  We may have lost them from sight (uber-binoculars with great night vision would have come in handy), but there was no mistaking those roars!  After reaching a tally of nine, we decided that they must be done and headed back to the tents.  Oh no, our lions roared all through the night.

Camera and binoculars should be a major focus when considering any trip involving game drives.  It is easy to become very frustrated when the animals are far away – especially when it is your first leopard sighting!  I don’t consider it a proper sighting unless I can get a recognisable photo.  Obviously good position and composition are vital for a photo but having a powerful zoom lens is crucial and can help you get some memorable shots.  My Canon DSLR has a 75-250mm lens but I was always wishing that I had more!  Many of today’s small cameras have very powerful zooms but if you want to be able to blow shots up and frame them, then you will be better off with a camera that has manual settings.  My recommendation would be to get some photography lessons before heading out – my shots improved dramatically after Jésus switched me over to manual settings rather than automatic and I learnt how to adjust the settings based on the light available.  However, sometimes it is just nice to sit and watch the wildlife with the binoculars – you can really see their faces and movements and look right into their eyes.  You are there to observe and learn; not just to be trigger happy.

A topic that came up for discussion more in Southern Africa rather than East Africa was poaching.  Much work has been done to make poaching illegal and the punishments harsh but nevertheless it remains a very serious issue and if things continue as they are then rhinos will soon be extinct.  Rhino horns are a very valuable commodity in the farcical belief that they can make man more potent.  For the poachers, the animal itself is just collateral damage in the search for rhino horn to make their fortune.  Sadly, many of these rhinos live in countries with limited resources (e.g. Zimbabwe) and where many people are desperate.  Rhinos are particularly vulnerable not only due to the market value of their horns but also because mating takes an hour and so population growth amongst a diminishing population does not happen quickly!

Success stories against poaching would be the gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda.  Tracking the gorillas may not be cheap for a foreigner (~$500 in Rwanda for a foreigner, a minimal fee for a local) but the protection programme is now self funding and the gorilla families are expanding.  The threat however remains very real.  Whilst the local community has been educated and become involved via job creation, the site of the gorillas in Rwanda is scarily close to the very unstable Democratic Republic of Congo.  There is a reason we were accompanied by so many AK47s that day.

The one missing thing I had really wanted to see was a kill.  That may sound a little gruesome but I think it is actually quite important to remember that these game parks contain delicate balances of wildlife and that what might look cute and cuddly to me from the safety of my jeep, is actually an important source of food.  If too many animals survive, there is not enough food (be it prey or greenery) and water to go round.  We did see some lions protecting their prey as well as some vultures feasting, and a stripped carcass lying under a tree ready for the hyenas to find that night. 

Nevertheless, I love the protective practices of the different animals.  We were watching some giraffes drinking one day (they bend down in the most hilarious manner) when all of a sudden they all started sprinting away from the waterhole.  An impala had appeared from nowhere sprinting and they had all reacted instantaneously in self defence – it could have been a predator but in reality was just an impala having fun.  As one giraffe drinks, another keeps guard. While drinking, they are very vulnerable to attack.  With elephants, the babies are very vulnerable to attack and so they always travel protected by the group, often within the legs of one of the adults.  I liked the story we heard about the mother of a young elephant who was attacked by a crocodile.  She picked it up with her trunk and threw it far into the river!

So, what was my favourite thing?  Impossible to say…  The lions were majestic but I never bored of seeing elephants, zebras or giraffes.  I love to watch elephants and giraffes eating.  Even when I’d seen hundreds of these animals moving around and chomping away on grass or trees, they could always do something to surprise me and show themselves to us in a new light.  I’ll never forget seeing elephants play fighting as they crossed the road or watching them swim and the teenagers fooling around in the water.  I had seen so many placid zebras and then all of a sudden two were having an argument and one starting chasing the other, racing at incredible speed.  I didn’t see giraffes drink or run until the later part of the trip.  The animals always had some new way to surprise and amuse me.

I’ve been tempted too much now and so I will need to visit more reserves in the future.  It would be nice to focus on one area for a whole week.  You need a fair amount of luck when you only visit certain reserves for one or two days.  You also don’t have time to focus on the geography of the area and actually try to track the animals.

Where did I go and what were the highlights?
Ø  Sunday 3rd April: Lake Nakuru, Kenya – afternoon game drive. 
o   Pelicans, flamingos, water buffalo, zebra, impala, white rhino family, giraffes, mating lions. Baboons at campsite
Ø  Monday 4th April: Lake Nakuru, Kenya – early morning game drive. 
o   Black rhino, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, impala running & jumping
Ø  Thursday 7th April, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda
o   Chimp tracking
Ø  Friday 8th April: Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda – afternoon boat ride followed by short game drive. 
o   Hippos, birds, crocs, water buffalo.  Solitary elephant
Ø  Saturday 9th April: Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda – early morning game drive. 
o   Lots of elephants
Ø  Monday 11th April: Ruhengeri, Rwanda
o   Gorilla tracking – Sabyinyo family
Ø  Thursday 14th April: Lake Mburo, Uganda - early morning game walk
o   Hippo charging through the swamp – you’d be surprised by the speed
Ø  Tuesday 19th April: Ngorongoro Crater then into Serengeti National Park, Tanzania – all day game drive
o   Buffalo, wildebeest, flamingos, antelopes, zebras, elephants, giraffes, sleeping lions, cheetah (in the distance)
Ø  Wednesday 20th April: Serengeti, Tanzania – early morning game balloon ride followed by game drive.  Afternoon game drive
o   From balloon: large herd of buffalo moving across the plains.  Family of 20 elephants running
o   From jeep: leopard moving around our jeep.  Play fighting elephants, hyenas
Ø  Thursday 21st April: Serengeti, Tanzania – early morning game drive
o   Lion asleep, leopard in a tree
Ø  Saturday 7th May: Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe
o   Rhino bush walk – only tracks, no rhino!
Ø  Sunday 8th May:  Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe - afternoon game drive.  Night time game drive.
o   Elephants, giraffes, baboons, springboks
Ø  Monday 9th May: Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe – early morning game drive
o   Giraffes and zebras, impala
Ø  Friday 13th May: Chobe National Park, Botswana – early morning game drive.  Afternoon game cruise.
o   Large herd of elephant storming down to the water.  Elephants swimming and playing in the river.  Lizard & crocodile.  Ukudu and springboks
Ø  Sunday 15th May: Ovavango Delta, Botswana – afternoon game walk
o   Nothing!
Ø  Monday 16th May: Ovavango Delta, Botswana – morning game walk
o   Waterhog, wildebeest
Ø  Friday 20th May: Etosha National Park, Namibia – afternoon game drive
o   Ukudu, black faced impala
Ø  Saturday 21st May: Etosha National Park, Namibia -  early morning game drive, afternoon game drive, evening by the waterhole
o   Daytime: black rhino, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, jackals, mongoose, antelopes
o   Nightime: black rhino, lion & lioness

Top twenty photos from East Africa on FB

Top ten photos from Zimbabwe on FB

Top ten Botswana on FB

Top ten Namibia on FB