THE FORGOTTEN PEOPLE OF THE BWINDI IMPENETRABLE FOREST IN UGANDA

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THE FORGOTTEN PEOPLE OF THE BWINDI IMPENETRABLE FOREST IN UGANDA

For thousands of years, the impenetrable rainforest in southwest Uganda was home to an indigenous minority known as Batwa pygmies.

 

The Batwa inhabited this lush region on the border between Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda for over 60,000 years. Here they built their shelters of branches and leaves, gathered plants, wild honey, and fruits, hunted small game with bows and arrows, spears and nets. The forest was more than a physical home for the Batwa. It was their spiritual source of energy, the world they had learned to respect, protect and venerate for generations.

 

 

But their way of life came suddenly to an end when, in 1991, the area was declared a National Park and in 1994 a World Heritage site to protect the precious lives of the last remaining 350 mountain gorillas.

 

All of a sudden the Batwa were evicted from their ancestral world and exiled to pockets of land sandwiched between their original home and the farming communities that surrounded it.

 

Photograph by Tony Sernack

We visited one such community just outside the forest’s protected boundary.

 

We were shocked to see the desperate conditions in which this particular group of approximately two hundred Batwa is forced to live. Landless, marginalised, speaking a language few understand, uneducated and unable to continue to practice their hunting and gathering techniques to feed themselves.

 

Not skilled in farming and animal husbandry, the Batwa pygmies have been facing extreme poverty, serious malnutrition, and poor health, as well as racial discrimination and neglect ever since they were driven from their forest home.

 

We were told through our interpreter – guide that indeed many had died soon after they were relocated. They lost their identity and their pride. Now they live like squatters with no rights and always in fear of being cheated, evicted and accused of stealing. I felt they were prisoners in a jail without bars. A jail whose confines, however, were very real and seemingly insurmountable. Forced relocation also meant loss of their connection with their spiritual source. Many Batwa today suffer from depression and cannot find a way forward.

 

 

Their longing for the forest and what it represents cannot be underestimated.

 

During the rainy season, the emotional pain is greater. The Batwa long for the mountain caves that gave them shelter and kept them warm and dry unlike the flimsy shelters of branches and leaves they have today.

If their land rights are recognised, tribal peoples thrive. If they’re not, the outlook is bleak” Jonathan Mazower, advocacy director, Survival International

Help is now available

Fortunately, a couple of international NGOs, the most successful of which is the Kellermann Foundation, have taken up their cause and are working with some of the Batwa families in the Bwindi area to help them become self-sufficient.

 

Through targeted sponsorship programmes, some of the pygmy children have started to go to school, but they face harsh discrimination from other tribes.

 

The Kellerman Foundation has also built a hospital and funds educational agricultural programmes that contribute to improving the lives of the Batwa.

 

The road ahead is long and arduous.

 

The numbers of mountain gorillas have more than tripled as a result of the work done in the National Park. Gorilla tourism is a major earner. As we left Bwindi we could not help thinking that in a world rightly concerned about saving endangered wildlife, we forget that there are entire tribes of human beings at risk of extinction and marginalisation who suffer in silence.

 

If you or a friend are interested in discovering the wonders of Uganda or of any other part of Africa, share our blog and contact Nomads Secrets. I will personally curate a fully customised journey that will showcase the best of this diverse and unforgettable region.

A PICNIC WITH TREE-CLIMBING LIONS IN UGANDA

As we were driving along a dirt track in Ishasha, a section of Uganda’s Queen Elisabeth National Park, all of a sudden our guide JP stopped the car and asked me for the binoculars. He pointed to a magnificent sycamore tree a couple of hundred metres from where we were. JP confirmed with the binoculars what his sharp eyes had seen.

 

What JP had picked up were the legs of a couple of lions dangling below the foliage.

 

Once he told us what to look for, we could make out our lions. The colour of their coats camouflaged them, making it difficult to see their entire bodies until we got really close. It was our third and last day in Ishasha. We had come specifically to see the unusual behaviour of the lions in this area, one of only two places in Africa where they climb trees. They do this to improve their ability to spot their favourite prey: the beautiful Ugandan Kob and also to avoid some of the ground insects when they rest.

 

We had learned that these rare lions are very few in number. In fact, the tree climbers form only two prides that inhabit a particular section of the park. We based ourselves in a beautiful tented camp set by a river from where we could hear their roars at night.

 

Photograph by Tony Sernack

It took a while to figure out how many there were in the tree.

 

The most visible was a young male. He laid on one of the lowest branches only a few meters from the roof of our vehicle. We noticed that he was wearing a radio collar and later learned that all males in the park are radio-collared to monitor their movements, establish the range of their hunting areas and any changes in behavioral patterns over the years. Ignoring our presence he stared into the distance at a herd of female Ugandan kob. On other branches further up the tree, we spotted three lionesses resting and facing different directions. One of them glanced up further into the tree’s canopy and following her gaze we noticed two young cubs sleeping. One cub was barely visible, the other was curled up in a sort of nest at the intersection of two boughs. After taking some photos and circling the tree, we decided to turn the engine off and have our lunch watching them. We were alone with six beautiful lions and no one else in sight. While we tried to be as quiet as possible as not to disturb their slumber, the smell our food aroused their curiosity from time to time. They would lift their mighty heads to sniff the air before slumping for another catnap. It is always a wonderful experience to see animals in the wild; especially so when it is a rare experience.

 

Meanwhile, the kob in the distance kept on grazing seemingly oblivious that they were being watched and that, come nightfall, one of them may provide the pride’s next meal.

 

Later that afternoon, on the way back to our lodge, we stopped on the rim of the escarpment. The lodge staff had set up drinks and snacks for our sundowners, while we enjoyed the view across the valley floor, watching a group of hyena on the move. I started to chat with one of the armed rangers who had joined us. I told him we had spent time earlier in the day with a group of lions perched on a fig tree not far from the camp. He shared stories of lions hunting, of cubs being born and of mating rituals. We asked how many of these tree-climbing lions were in the park and he related a shocking story on human-wildlife conflict.

 

On 10th April this year, eleven lions belonging to the second pride of tree climbers had died, poisoned by a local community living just outside the park.

 

Our first reaction was of sadness, outrage, and disbelief, but the ranger said we should not pass harsh judgment. While he spends his days patrolling the park to protect its wildlife and is deeply troubled by the unnatural death of any animal, he said that the lions had been poisoned because they killed the livestock belonging to families in the community. For the locals, their cattle are the lifeline of their family. It gives them milk and meat and allows their children to grow up reasonably healthily in one of the poorest countries in the world. In a place where many survive on less than a couple of dollars a day, losing a cow can mean losing their means of survival.

 

I later found out that the death of these lions had become part of a National Geographic documentary on the lions that had taken six months to film. It will go on air on Big Cats week in November this year.

“A lion’s work hours are only when he’s hungry;
once he’s satisfied, the predator and prey live peacefully together”

Chuck Jones

Why Is Responsible Tourism Important?

Responsible tourism offers the key to saving wildlife and natural habitats. It can provide a sustainable source of employment and also the resources to educate and support the populations on the margins of national parks to live alongside their wild neighbours.

 

If you or a friend are interested in discovering the wonders of Uganda or of any other part of Africa, share our blog and contact Nomads Secrets. I will personally curate a fully customised journey that will showcase the best of this diverse and unforgettable region.

THE GORILLAS OF BWINDI IMPENETRABLE FOREST

“No one who looks into a gorilla’s eyes—intelligent, gentle, vulnerable—can remain unchanged, for the gap between ape and human vanishes; we know that the gorilla still lives within us”

 

The quote is from George Schaller, who as a young 26-year-old biologist left America in 1959 for Uganda to study the Mountain Gorillas. His ground-breaking work was to inspire Kenyan based paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Louis Leakey of Olduvai Gorge fame and, in turn, Dian Fossey and her quest to save the mountain gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo.

 

Tell anyone you have just been in Uganda and the gorillas will likely be the first thing they will ask about. So it was with some anticipation that at the end of three weeks travelling through Uganda, my partner Tony and I came to Bwindi in the south-west of the country. Adjoining the mountainous border region with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is home to the largest number of mountain gorillas; about half of the total remaining population. Some families have been habituated to the presence of humans and can be visited, under strict controls.

 

Baby mountain gorilla learning to select his food

Photograph by Tony Sernack

We arrived in Bwindi late in the afternoon. From the veranda of our lodge, we looked across the valley to the forest, mist-shrouded, primeval and seemingly vast. However, it was once much more extensive. The gorillas’ habitat has been reduced by the massive growth of the human population and demand for farmland and timber. During rebellions and wars, the forest became a refuge for insurgents and the gorillas were hunted for meat. The 1994 UNESCO listing protected the forest from further destruction and gorilla treks were established for scientific and tourist reasons. They now provide the major source of income for the region.

 

Early the next morning, we made our way to the park’s headquarters. We had secured our tracking permits well in advance (only 24 are issued each day). We were broken up into groups of eight and assigned a gorilla family. Ours was the Mubare group, the longest studied in Bwindi. We were fortunate to have David, the head park ranger as our guide. He briefed our group on what to expect and how to behave once we were with the gorillas. There are strict guidelines. Gorillas can pick up human ailments, so anyone not well can’t proceed. Children are not allowed on gorilla treks until they are 16 years of age. We are also told not to make any sounds or imitate the gorillas as they may misinterpret our intent and, above all to keep calm and quiet. David assured us that no-one had been harmed by the gorillas, the rules are in place to respect the fact that they are wild animals and it is a privilege for anyone to observe them in their natural habitat.  The only one where they can survive.

 

We then set out and drove for about 25 minutes to our starting point. David joined us in our Landcruiser, along with our two porters, who would help carry our picnic lunch and our camera equipment. Hiring porters is very important, not only because they make it easier for visitors to trek unencumbered by additional weight, but also because it provides an income to locals and training for them to step into other more senior positions over time.

 

We hiked up the mountain along a dirt track, skirting fields of bananas, corn, coffee, and tea, till we reached the edge of the Impenetrable Forest. David had been in constant radio communication with his trackers, who had been in the forest since 5am, locating our family. Typically anti-poaching patrols follow gorilla groups for around 16 hours a day, often accompanied by scientists, wildlife photographers and documentary makers. Today the trackers reported that the Mubare family had had a confrontation with an unhabituated gorilla group. There was nothing to do but wait till our family settled down and returned to foraging. After about 45 minutes we were given the all clear and entered the forest, descending down a steep slope.

 

The ground was soft underfoot, huge trees towered above us and we had to watch not to be ensnared by the undergrowth. The light in the forest is dim, but soon one’s eyes adjust. It is a spectacular, primal place, breath-taking in its own right. We felt Lilliputian in an oversized world. Our guards carried rifles to scare off forest elephants if need be and machetes to clear our path. After walking for around 30 minutes, we came to a clearing. After leaving our walking sticks and daypacks with our porters we proceeded with only cameras in hand. There, in the thick undergrowth, was our first gorilla, the patriarch of the Mubare family, a huge Silverback. As our guides cleared some of the foliage, so we had a better view, he continued eating, largely ignoring our presence. Other members of the family were foraging nearby, half hidden in the undergrowth. One female made a charge of sorts towards Tony and two others in our group, who were huddled together taking photographs. There was no real danger, but it got their hearts racing. Soon the silverback was on the move followed by the females with their young. They very quickly traversed the clearing, went up and over a ridge and disappeared into the thick forest.

 

We followed, albeit without the same agility and eventually caught up. The family had stopped and were relaxing. The Silverback, surrounded by some of the females, was quietly watching proceedings. A cute baby was robustly playing with two of his older siblings, wrestling and beating their chests. Meanwhile, other members of the family appeared to be just taking it easy and grooming each other, although all seemed to keep an eye on the youngsters. These extraordinary animals were only a few metres from us. We heeded David’s advice, kept quiet and still, but were also able to position ourselves to take some good photographs. We spent a wonderful 4 hours with the family before we left them to their precious forest, hiked out into the light and enjoyed our picnic lunch, reflecting on what we had just experienced.

 

“No one who looks into a gorilla’s eyes—intelligent, gentle, vulnerable—can remain unchanged, for the gap between ape and human vanishes; we know that the gorilla still lives within us” – George Schaller

Why should you want to be with Mountain Gorillas?

Being with these gentle giants is a wonderful and truly mesmerising experience. It is difficult to fully describe and really something deeply felt. I think George Schaller perhaps put it best.

 

Photograph by Tony Sernack

Photograph by Tony Sernack

Photograph by Tony Sernack

Photograph by Tony Sernack

If you or a friend are interested in discovering the wonders of Uganda or of any other part of Africa, share our blog and contact Nomads Secrets. I will personally curate a fully customised journey that will showcase the best of this diverse and unforgettable region.

A PLACE OF RARE BEAUTY, JIUZHAIGOU

In the heart of Central China, at the foothills of the Minh Mountains, lays Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve.

 

The Chinese say “Nowhere else under the sky can match Jiuzhaigou”.

 

This fabulous wilderness of pure streams, lakes the colour of opal, and thick forests of spruce, maple, rhododendrons, azaleas and bamboo, is so vastly different from the rest of China that needs to be visited to truly get a sense of the variety of landscapes and environments that make up the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

The amazing colors and clarity of the lake in Jiuzhaigou

The Y-shaped valley of the nine villages (the English translation of Jiuzhai) was discovered accidentally by loggers in the 1960s. Up until then only the 110 families of local Tibetans knew of its existence. A legend attributes its creation to the shattering of a precious mirror that had been polished with clouds and wind as a gift for a beautiful goddess. The goddess, however, dropped it while she was admiring herself and its shards, falling to the ground, created the surreal lakes and ponds of Jiuzhaigou’s 72,000 hectares of wilderness.

 

Today we know that this superb landscape was created around 2 to 3 million years ago. At that time the Earth’s crust folded and rose in cataclysmic upward thrusts that created the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau of which the Minh Mountains are part. The deep valleys amongst the peaks became vast reservoirs of travertine, lime and other elements contained in the rocks that give the lakes in Jiuzhaigou, and the Hanglong pools, their surreal colouration. In 1978 Jiuzhaigou became a Nature Reserve and all logging stopped to protect the rare and ancient spruce and pine forests. In 1992 UNESCO declared it a World Heritage ecosystem.

 

The local Tibetan population has lived along these valleys for nearly 3,000 years. Their beliefs and their proximity to nature have given rise to a rich tapestry of agrarian and mystic traditions based on Buddhism and the more ancient Bon religion. Their music, murals, folk tales and dances recount fabulous stories of demons and dragons populating the lakes, caves, and mountains, and of valiant warriors defeating them in strenuous duels aided by benevolent gods.

The Jiuzhaigou Valley is a fairyland landscape of crystal clear, strange-coloured blue, green and purplish pools, lakes, waterfalls, limestone terraces, caves and other beautiful features.

UNESCO

Why Visit Jiuzhaigou?

When I visited Jiuzhaigou, autumn tinged the landscape in hews of brown, red and yellow contrasting sharply against the sparkling crystal-clear turquoise, emerald and garnet waters of the lakes and ponds. I walked the 60km or so of wooden walkways and bridges that crisscross and loop around this wonderful natural enclave. Far from the hustle and bustle of Chinese cities, this is a region with a fascinating history, culture and nature.

 

Although Jiuzhaigou is unknown to foreigners, it is a dream destination for Chinese travellers, especially honeymooners. So if you decide to visit, do not expect to be alone. To enjoy some solitude one has to be prepared to explore passed the throngs of awe-struck local visitors, who, thankfully, only venture as far as the easiest-to-reach locations.

 

In the last few years, the luxury hotel industry has built some great properties, with spas, villas and even a golf course that allow travellers to this region to enjoy its wild beauty from a comfortable and very pleasant base. If you are considering a trip to China and would like to experience Jiuzhaigou and the country’s most iconic and memorable locations, contact Nomads Secrets and I will curate a fully customised journey that will showcase the best of this diverse and interesting land.

 

Lucia O’Connell

 

The travertine ponds of Huanlong

The waterfalls become particularly spectacular in Autumn

The bridges that connect the pathways in this vast wilderness

The warm hews of Autumn grace the entire landscape

THE GREAT BARRIER REEF

Stretching from the wild outer reefs of the Coral Sea to the tangled mangrove and rain rainforest in the state of Queensland on Australian’s East Coast, the Great Barrier Reef is a 2,600 km wonder of nature!

 

Created by billions of tiny polyps in partnership with microscopic plants, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on the Planet. Let’s hope that we humans do not destroy over a short time what nature has taken eons to create!

 

Like all other reefs, the Great Barrier Reef is an extraordinary phenomenon in an otherwise barren tropical “waterwold”. What is unique however is its size, the wider ecosystem it is part of and the variety of life it supports.

 

This natural paradise is, in fact, part of a beautiful region made of lush mountainous islands, tiny cays barely rising above sea level and a coastline that hides as many other beautiful experiences and the Reef itself.

 

The Great Barrier Reef from above

Photograph by Tony Sernack

To experience its true magnificence it is not enough to spend time at ground level; it is vital to view it from the air or from beneath the waves.

 

From above the Great Barrier Reef is an immense opalescent space dotted with a myriad of seemingly abstract patterns, where deep blues morph into shades of aqua, turquoise, white, emerald, jade, brown, and grey.

 

The sea that sustains and hides it, is a perfect liquid skin that touches the shores of perfectly smooth atolls, clashes against calcareous and jagged rocks and is streaked by the eddies of streams and rivers flowing into it.

 

From the air, this translucent skin reveals a hidden world where dark shapes can be seen occasionally moving slowly in the distance. These are large gropers and medium size sharks going about their business or shawls of smaller fish being chased by bigger predators.

 

When snorkeling or scuba diving beneath the waves, the Reef reveals its magic with infinite detail. From this perspective, a circus of iridescent colour is revealed in shades of blues, yellows, oranges, black and reds. Little creatures can be observed darting away, while others hover languidly over swaying anemones. Large fan corals jut from the sloping terrain and the sandy seafloor hides fish lurking patiently in waiting for careless prey to pass nearby.

The Great Barrier Reef is in danger, it is time to step up

– Sir David Attenborough –

Why visit the Great Barrier Reef?

This mesmerising and silent world of so much beauty and creativity is a compelling force for anyone who has seen it or wishes to see it to quickly become an ambassador for its protection.

 

From ground level, the Reef appears like an immense swimming pool surrounding fabulous islands and luxurious resorts. After a dip one can return ashore to sunbake, stroll barefoot on the soft sand, feeling it slip through the toes. Time all of a sudden seems to stands still!

 

The balmy temperature and light breezes invite romantic feelings and thoughts of candlelight dinners with lobster and seafood after the activities of the day. Life feels perfect for a time and we are energised again.

Let’s not lose this wonderful world full of life that provides so much happiness to its visitors.

 

Lucia O’Connell

 

If you wish to discover the best of the Great Barrier Reef and its entire ecosystem, it is important to travel at the right time of year and seek advice from local experts. Contact Nomads Secrets, and I will personally ensure your journey is truly insightful, relaxing and unforgettable.

 

Bedarra Island

I’m an Image Caption ready-to-use.

Scuba diving over fan coral

I’m an Image Caption ready-to-use.

DISCOVERING THE LIGURIAN RIVIERA WITH GUSTO

“There is nothing in Italy more beautiful to me than the coast-road between Genoa and Spezzia” 

 Charles Dickens.

 

As a Ligurian, I know this is no exaggeration.

 

The eastern end of the Ligurian Riviera conjures idyllic images of sunshine and a shimmering blue sea hugging a steep and rugged coastline with olive trees and bright blooms of red and purple bougainvillea. Palms and citrus trees line the streets and gardens of Liguria’s charming villages and towns, while magnificent villas, hotels and extravagant yachts play host to European royals, film stars and writers.

 

Santa Margherita Ligure.

Photograph by Aaron Peterson

This romantic image of the Riviera was magnificently captured in the movie “Enchanted April” in which four bored and eccentric English women rent a castle on the Ligurian Riviera in the 1920s to escape the misery of a gloomy London and their everyday troubles with husbands and lovers.

 

The castle in the film truly exists! Castello Brown rises above the world-famous resort town of Portofino where the movie was made. However, that special feeling of being off on your own enjoying total freedom and a splendid adventure, can prove hard to find if you are not a local.

 

Mass tourism and a travel media that pumps out images of picture-perfect destinations with the promise of the “once-in-a-lifetime” holiday, foster the smothering of some places under the weight of too many people on the wrong budget and with unrealistic expectations. The damage that this kind of indiscriminate commercialisation causes physically and to the atmosphere of a location, could be immeasurable if left unharnessed.

 

Along with Capri, the Amalfi Coast and Venice, the Ligurian Riviera is in danger of losing the very charm it has become famous for.

 

As a travel designer and as Ligurian, I think it is really important that travellers get to explore this very special region (and indeed Italy) in a way that provides the sense of place, authenticity and a high quality not experienced by the tourist throng.

 

Let’s not forget that this this part of the world has attracted sophisticated and discerning visitors, like Winston Churchill, Princess Grace of Monaco, the Agnelli family, Dolce e Gabbana, Princess Diana and Bill Gates, as well as many well known singers and actors like Rex Harrison, Rita Hayworth, Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Robert De Niro, Liza Minnelli, Alain Delon, George Clooney, Madonna, Peter Gabriel, Denzel Washington, Ringo Starr, Barbra Streisand, Rod Stewart and many others.

 

“A small village, Portofino unfolds like a crescent moon around this calm basin.”

Guy de Maupassant

Why is the Ligurian Riviera special?

Liguria has become the playground of the rich and famous not just for its natural beauty. It has a rich history and local culture that have forged its unique identity.

 

Ligurians are typically solitary and reserved. Their tough character is a result of their beautiful, but difficult environment.

 

The proximity of the sea turned them into excellent fishermen and sailors. Menfolk spent long periods away from home like Christopher Columbus who eventually left the area to seek patronage from the Spanish crown. Their wives grew accustomed to fend for themselves and for their children. To pass the time after the day’s work, they made fine lace, velvet, and embroidered cloths to adorn their homes, fill their daughter’s dowry chests and clothe their family. Their skills have been passed down from generation to generation and local women still make wonderfully embroidered items by hand using complex implements and techniques that are typical of this region.

 

On land, those who did not embrace life at sea, toiled very hard to terrace the mountainous coastline to increase the area they could cultivate. Beyond growing what was needed to feed their families, they planted grape vines and olive trees to make wine and oil, grew roses, carnations and lemons to sell and make a living.

 

The Ligurians’ capacity for skilful had work and innovation was first discovered by the Romans then by the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Spanish, and the French. Goethe and Byron, Keats, and Shelley were mesmerised by the beauty of the area and learned about local customs. In their writings, they exalted the qualities of the natural and man-made landscapes, the climate, the weather, the architecture and the local people.

 

Their admiration gave Liguria international notoriety. Towards the end of the 19th century, the first international visitors started building the sumptuous mansions. Their holiday homes overlooked the fishing villages described by the famous writers in their search for betterment and transformation through travel.

 

By the beginning of the 20th century, local and European nobles flocked to the Ligurian coastline. Lord Carnarvon and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany helped cement the area’s burgeoning reputation further within the European aristocracy.

 

Then came the American socialites and industrialists from Newport in search for places to buy. From the privacy of their homes and luxurious yachts moored close by, these beautiful people enjoyed the delights of the Ligurian Riviera and the friendship of their blue-blooded neighbours.

 

Today the stories of those days, the beautiful buildings and villages, the trees and sparkling blue sea are still there, so are the yachts and the hotels. It is still therefore possible to experience the Italian Riviera in the style of those halcyon days. All you need is an adequate budget, intimate planning and time to enjoy it.

 

This is why we travel.

 

If you are considering exploring this area and its history to truly appreciate its beauty and charm, please contact Nomads Secrets and I will personally craft an exclusive journey just for you.

Lucia O’Connell

 

Rugged coastline with Saracene defense tower. Photography Adee H

Portofino. Photography Jean Luc Thos

13th-century stone and marble church in Porto Venere. Photography by Anthony Quinsey

The 1,000-year old abbey of San Fruttuoso. Photography Andrea Federighi

THE PUSHKAR FAIR – AN AUTHENTIC WINDOW INTO RAJASTHANI CULTURE

For two weeks in late October/early November as the moon reaches its fullness during the Kartik Purmina, the small desert town of Pushkar in India’s central-eastern Rajasthan, becomes the epicentre of religious festivities and the largest livestock fair on the subcontinent.

Cameleers and traders, Hindu faithful and visiting travellers flock here in their tens of thousands to experience the atmosphere of the Pushkar Mela. This ancient folk festival with strong religious overtones provides a wonderful opportunity to experience northern Indian village culture, sporting prowess and local Rajasthani pageantry. Some think that because of the publicity that the Pushkar Mela has received in recent years from the travel press, it has become “too touristy”. Superficially it may seem so, but the festival holds enormous importance in Indian culture and is an authentic expression of ancient traditions and religious beliefs that still hold true today.

Camel Herders walking along the path to the auction ground

Photography by Glen Losack MD

First and foremost Pushkar is the location of the most sacred lake in India and the seat of one of the few Brahma temples in the country. Hindus are supposed to visit it at least once in their lifetime to pay their respects and be cleansed of their sins.

According to legend, Brahma, the Hindu Lord of Creation, let a lotus blossom fall from heaven as he was performing a sacrifice. It struck the earth in three places and water sprang forth creating the lake around which the settlement was established. To this day Hindu families from all over India come in their most colourful and beautiful clothes, adorned with gold and silver ornaments to attend the pujas (prayers) at the Brahma temple in town before visiting the lake for the ceremonial ablutions. The sacred waters can be accessed from 59 ghats (steps) that run along the edge of the lake. Sitting in a café terrace directly over the lake we have the perfect vantage point to observe life unfolding.

We observe women laying flowers on the sacred waters and children held by their parents are submerged briefly.  Totally water-soaked heads and transformed faces in deep prayer, emerge from the lake’s surface. Their jet-black hair speckled with jewellery dangling from their necks and ears sparkle in the sun. The deep devotion of these pilgrims is etched on their faces.

As the harsh mid-afternoon light morphs into the warm sunset hews, the hundreds of temples surrounding the lake start glowing, with candle and oil lamps heralding the fascinating evening Arti rituals. Elsewhere at the livestock fair, wiry turbaned men, some descendants from the famed Rajput warriors, show off their skills as accomplished camel riders and stockbreeders. In the nearby arenas there are camel races, wrestling games and prizes awarded to the best of the highly groomed livestock that are paraded in the judging ring.

Throughout town, houses are freshly painted for the festival and some walls are adorned with scenes of Hindu gods and other colourful divine creatures indicating the presence of newlyweds.

In the camps on the outskirts of town, camel traders engage in long and tense negotiations buying and selling their precious animals. Many of these tough and handsome men travel here with their families. The women tend to the children, fill the water pots, and prepare the simple meals consisting of lentils and chapatti over the campfire. The evening meal is a time away from trading, a time to relax and bond.

A Nomad I will remain for life, in love with distant and uncharted places

Isabelle Eberhardt

As we walk around, we have the feeling these scenes have changed little since Mogul times. Sure as we meander through the encampments we meet other photographers, westerners and street vendors hoping to make the most of the moment, but upon reflection at the time of the Moguls the Pushkar Mela attracted the visitors and traders of the time, who came here from as far as China and Persia to buy, sell and to participate in the festivities. The Pushkar Mela was then as it is now an authentic window into the Rajasthani culture!

On the last day heavy trucks and carts slowly roll away as fairgoers return to their homes, some to their nomadic life deep into the Thar desert. As the town begins to return to normal (or at least Indian normal), we vow to return for the chance to be part of this unique experience in Indian culture.

Photography by Koen

Photography by Tony Sernack

Photography by Brigid Abrito

Photography by Tony Sernack

Why should you visit India?

India is a colourful world of wild jungles and rainforests, exotic animals and vast deserts, sacred rivers and ancient beliefs. Its people are engaging, its food appreciated everywhere in the world and its art and history amongst the oldest on Earth.

India is truly unique, chaotic and thoroughly intoxicating, but its exploration requires masterful planning, knowledge and experience.

If you are considering a journey through the wonders of the subcontinent, get in touch with Nomads Secrets and I will personally create a truly unforgettable tailored made adventure just for you that will showcase the best India has to offer to the curious traveller!

EASTER ON THE ISLAND OF MALTA

Easter is the perfect time to visit Malta if you want to experience its true soul and the grand pageantry of its heritage.

I have spent several holidays here. My fondest memories are of my Easter breaks when I start the day eating the special Easter sweets before venturing outdoors to see local life unfold along the streets of Malta’s wonderful capital Valletta.

I remember especially the spectacle of the religious processions commemorating the Via Crucis or the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. The pomp and ceremony on display remind me of the traditions established long ago by the Spanish crown and the Knights of Malta. The illustrious and aristocratic crusader military order ruled the Maltese archipelago from the mid 1500s till the French occupation in 1798.

The French, however, were quickly replaced by the British in 1800 with the defeat of Napoleon and governed the archipelago till 1964 when Malta gained its independence.

These people and civilisations left behind many signs of their sophisticated cultures and sense of aesthetic beauty that still resonate today across the Maltese territory and the smaller islets of Gozo and Comino.

Locals have many tales to tell of their ingenuity to save their treasures of silver and gold housed in the churches and aristocratic homes around the islands from the invaders.

Easter coincides with the beginning of Spring; temperatures are balmy and the sun shines brightly. Proud locals decorate their charming towns, homes, and villages with wonderful flower arrangements and nature seems to awaken all of a sudden from the winter slumber.

Everything sparkles and feels fresh and renewed. The coastline reveals pristine biscuit-coloured beaches, sheer cliffs and enigmatic caves laced by the vivid blue sea. The inland meadows are dotted by blooming wildflowers and people leave the comfort of their homes to spill onto the streets and lanes to bask in the sun and enjoy each others’ company promenading along the main Corsos, wining and dining in trendy restaurants and coffee houses.

This tiny nation-state right in the centre of the Mediterranean is a delightful treasure trove of marvellous experiences for the curious traveller.

If you like meandering the maze of streets and lanes of cute towns and villages, this is the perfect place for you. Here one can wonder unhurriedly; quietly stumbling upon impressive villas, public building, and squares with delightful cafes and tavernas from where it is possible to observe local life go by while enjoying a delicious meal or coffee. Or if you have the right connection you can dine with the descendants of crusader knights in their palaces and hear the family stories of mythic voyages to the Holy Land from their castles in southern Europe and the exploits of their battles as they have been passed down from father to son through the generations.

Saint John’s Co-Cathedral – Valletta

Photography by: Henrik Aronsson

For art and history buffs the grand Baroque churches with their extravagant marble floors and gilded ceilings are a wonder of human creativity and skill. For those who are drawn instead to the spellbinding appeal of the sea, the ramparts of the 16th century Fort St Elmo in Valletta are the perfect spot to take in the sweeping views over the island’s capital. From here your gaze will fall on the mighty port that once was home to one of the Mediterranean’s most powerful and feared navies.

If you enjoy fish and seafood you can then dine in one of the elegant restaurants in St Julian’s Bay rubbing shoulders with Europe’s rich and famous.

For movie aficionados, the island offers tremendous opportunities to visit the locations where famous films have been shot and where actors, singers, and glitterati of the likes of Madonna, Brad Pitt, Oliver Reed, Daniel Craig amongst many others, have spent many happy hours.

Malta has been also the favourite retreat of many European royals since Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh (later Queen Elizabeth II), and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, first visited its shores in 1946 and later lived here for some time while Philip was stationed in Malta as a young naval officer.

The Queen has described her stay on Malta as one of the best periods of her life, as it was the only time she was able to live “normally”. Here she enjoyed a freedom that was rarely afforded to her as the heiress to the British crown.

And if this is not enough, Valletta this year has been nominated “2018 European Capital of Culture”. This great honour has spurred the local government to restore many historical buildings, and create new cultural events and activities throughout the island for everyone’s enjoyment.

Major archaeological sites have been brought back to their former glory and today the island is more beautiful and welcoming than ever.

Malta is also home to some of the Planet’s earliest and rarest pre-historic artefacts and temples. In Valletta’s elegant National Museum of Antiquities, one can view the extremely rare and well preserved 5,000-year-old Sleeping Lady and the 3,000-year-old Venus of Malta while two of the oldest prehistoric temples in the world dating back to between 4,000 and 3,000 years BC rise in dreamy-like locations along the coast. UNESCO has described them as: “Unique architectural masterpieces, given the limited resources available to their builders”.

Its treasures form part of the mosaic of interesting things that can be seen and experienced while on a sojourn here.

Elsewhere on the island, it is well worth visiting the old capital of Mdina known as the silent city. At Easter, however, the silence is broken on Easter Sunday when the bells of St Paul’s Cathedral ring to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. It is said that after St. Paul was shipwrecked on Malta while on his way to Rome, he met the Roman Governor of the island in this location and Mdina became Malta’s principal place of worship and devotion. Today despite its small population of only 250 people, Mdina is the pride and joy of Malta.

From here one can enjoy sweeping views over the plains and the sea in the distance and its Medieval origins make it a very special place to visit. It is also worthwhile taking a boat ride on a typical Maltese fishing boat called Luzzu to the other smaller islands in the archipelago and spend a few happy hours exploring their shores.

It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow”.
Robert H. Schuller

Why you should visit Malta:

Malta ranks amongst the most incredible gems on my list of world destinations. The gods have endowed the Maltese archipelago with great natural and artistic beauty, a contagious outdoor lifestyle and a relaxed and happy atmosphere that keep me going back time and time again. I now invite you to travel there and take a look.

Contact me at Nomads Secrets if you want to see the best of Malta through the eyes of knowledgeable locals who will open the doors to the secrets of their unique world.

That is why we travel!

Lucia O’Connell

Marsaxlokk – Photography Ant-Sacco.

Azure Window, Gozo – Photography: KB

Medieval town of Mdina – Photography: KB

Blue Grotto, Malta – Photography: Giuseppe Milo

SWIMMING WITH THE HUMPBACK WHALES IN THE KINGDOM OF TONGA

In the topical waters of the South Seas, we can hear a male humpback whale singing to attract a mate as we snorkel off an uninhabited island in the Kingdom of Tonga.

Holding onto to the anchor chain of our yacht we try to breathe quietly to hear the whale’s distinctive and haunting call echo through the water.

These gentle giants come to these waters to mate and to deliver their calves. They will remain here for several months before returning to their feeding grounds in Antarctica.

The waters around the Tongan Islands are warm, calm and contain very few predators – the perfect conditions to rear humpback young. The calves are vulnerable despite being 3m long and weighing nearly a tonne. They need their mother’s full protection including when they tire of swimming and risk drowning. Their mothers come to the rescue and assist them by pushing their large heads beneath their offspring’s bodies and gently nudging them to the surface.

Our guide tells that that the calves suckle approximately 500 litres of milk a day, but their mothers eat nothing at all. They practically starve during the five months they will remain here because their food source does not survive in these warmer waters. Like many tropical shallow seas, the crystal-clear waters around Tonga lack the necessary nutrients essential for the growth of plankton – the staple of humpback whales.

The adult whales, therefore, will feed again only when their playful calves are strong enough to make the long journey to the Southern Ocean.

As the adults conserve their energy and swim slowly, minding their young, we enjoy watching them from a safe distance to avoid disturbing them. We observe them breach out of the water with thunderous vigour, swim quietly with their dorsal fins glistening just above the water’s surface and when they are ready for a deep dive, we watch them pick up speed and gain momentum by using their large tails before they disappear into the dark blue yonder as the calves wait for them.

The crystal-clear waters surrounding Tonga’s islands

Photography by Stefan Heinrich

Occasionally a lone male announces his presence by explosively expelling air through his blowhole just beside our yacht.

Being on a sailboat is the perfect way to move through these picture-perfect isles without making any noise that may upset these large cetaceans, As a reward of our consideration, they allow themselves to come close to our hull if their curious calves stray off their side to check us out. They are comfortable as we do not threaten them. Our engine is switched off and we are propelled forward only by the natural power of the wind filling our sails.

All of a sudden we see a large fever of Manta rays with a few turtles crossing our path.

This is day five of our 10-day adventure and so far we have had only great moments.

 

“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in the net of wonder forever!”

JacquesYves Cousteau

To plan our trip, we sought the assistance of expert marine biologists from the University of Queensland, in Australia who gave us a better understanding of the best time to see the humpback whales and how to orgainise the logistics of hiring a high-quality boat and a seasoned skipper who knew these waters like the back of his hand.

Tides and coral make sailing quite challenging and risky for the inexperienced sailor. Our skipper, on the other hand, is a seasoned sailor, who learned the ropes as a young boy from his fisherman grandfather. With him at the helm, we sail from island to island without a hitch and often along channels that other sailors avoid, for lack of experience.

Provisioning the boat with all the supplies that make a sailing vacation greatly enjoyable, requires thorough planning too, but the reward is worth it. We can enjoy gourmet meals, fine wine and delicious cocktails as we watch the sunset in the distance or the moon rising overhead.

Why should you visit the Kingdom of Tonga?

The Kingdom of Tonga is a delightful island paradise little visited by travellers as it requires spending time on a privately chartered boat for several days to fully enjoy its beautiful and unspoilt nature of tiny specks of land separated by several miles of ocean.

Our thorough preparation for this trip meant we can totally enjoy everything this land has to offer and this is true of anybody eager to visit an unspoiled and nearly pristine world truly off the “beaten track”.

If you want to read more about our exploration of Tonga, have a look at the 8th edition of our e-magazine Fellow Traveller and if you too want to have a rewarding sailing holiday in Tonga contact us to learn how to do it in style.

Photography by Tony Sernack

Photography by Stefan Heinrich

Photography by Kozy and Dan Kitchens

Photography by Tony Sernack

MAGIC JUNGLES OF INDIA

The mist clears slowly as our jeep winds its way along a jungle trail. Every turn has the possibility of a revelation.

Cries of different creatures fill the air, but their location remains a mystery. Suddenly a tiny owlet appears in a hole in a gigantic tree. It seems completely oblivious to our presence – strangers who have suddenly appeared in its world.

The jeep stops and all seems suddenly quiet. After a short while, the sounds of the jungle become clearer and louder, more distinguishable and intoxicating. Suddenly we hear a loud and painful roar echoing from the cliff overhead. We learn that a couple of leopards are mating somewhere close by amongst the thick and impenetrable vegetation. We cannot see them, but we know they are there. The female’s roar gave away their presence.

I’m an Image Caption ready-to-use.

Photography by:  Tony Sernack

We sit still and wonder for a moment about the number of creatures that inhabit this jungle and go largely about their lives unobserved; presumably oblivious to their beauty, our desire to see them and how much they mean to their own ecosystem and nature as a whole.

As we continue driving, we come across a herd of Spotted Deer, suddenly alert and on guard when they hear the warning call of the Langur monkeys. Is there a tiger nearby? Will we be able to see it too? As exciting the prospect, we realise that whether we see one or not it is not really important. We are not here to tick a box! For that, we can go to the zoo and get closer to a tiger than it would ever be possible in the wild.

We are here to experience their unique world and understand it a little better with the help of our very experienced naturalist.

“When a man wants to murder a tiger he calls it sport; when a tiger wants to murder him he calls it ferocity.”

George Bernard Shaw

Why should you visit India?

India is a colourful world of wild jungles and rainforests, exotic animals and vast deserts, sacred rivers and ancient beliefs. Its people are engaging, its food appreciated everywhere in the world and its art and history amongst the oldest on Earth.

India is truly unique, chaotic and thoroughly intoxicating, but its exploration requires masterful planning, knowledge and experience.

If you are considering a journey through the wonders of the subcontinent, get in touch with Nomads Secrets and I will personally create a truly unforgettable tailored made adventure just for you that will showcase the best India has to offer to the curious traveller!

 

Photography by:  Tony Sernack

Photography by:  Tony Sernack

Photography by:  Tony Sernack

Photography by:  Tony Sernack

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