Meeting Darwin and Gremlin

Meeting Darwin and Gremlin

Meeting Darwin and Gremlin

Tribes’ Amanda Marks goes chimp trekking in Tanzania

“What?! They’re right up there?” I said.

A mountain of impenetrable green forest loomed in front of us. There was no doubting the beauty of this national park – the remote Mahale Mountains rise up from the deep waters of Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania – but the thought of trekking along the ridge that lay ahead of us to get almost to the summit of one of the peaks … well, it was daunting to say the least. I’m not a big fan of ‘uphill’.

I should have known, of course. Six of us had come to see wild chimpanzees and at this time of year (June) they still tend to frequent the higher reaches of the mountain range since that is where they can find food until the trees and shrubs lower down start to flower and fruit from about July to October. And the chances of us actually finding the group?

“The tracker who left earlier this morning has spotted them, so we know where they are.”

Wonderful!

“But they’re on the move and if they head into the gully over that ridge, we’ll lose them. It’s impossible to get down there.”

Not good.

At first, the forest was quite kind to us. Yes, our guides had to hack a few vines and help us to cross a couple of streams and we had to watch out for stinging nettles, roots and other plants with nefarious intentions, but it’s a beautiful place to be, the birds were singing and the incline was not too strenuous. Soon, though, we were not hacking vines but using them as ropes to haul ourselves uphill, and roots were no longer seen as trip hazards but steps to be grateful for as we tried to conquer precipitous inclines. The guides were incredible with us. Helping us find footholds, carrying bags that had become too heavy, pulling us up particularly difficult bits, and encouraging us with word from the trackers that the chimps were still within our reach.

“A mother chimp, Kupi, was sitting there on the rock grooming her boisterous baby in the sun….”

Three and a half hours later and we were nearly there. Suddenly, the air rang out with the familiar calls of chimpanzees. The sounds echoed around us like a welcoming fanfare heralding our arrival. We stood for a moment, thrilled by the obvious proximity, and we hardly noticed the last push to the top. And then, there they were!

We’d come out at a small clearing with a huge boulder in the middle. A mother chimp, Kupi, was sitting there on the rock grooming her boisterous baby in the sun. My heart was beating so fast I could hear it. We all put on the masks we’d been given so as not to infect the chimps, and then we simply sat with them, and watched, and laughed, and took photos. We were within 10-15 metres of them and, after an initial glance, they totally ignored our presence and carried on with life.

The baby’s father, Bonobo, came and sat with his family (which is apparently quite rarely seen); two adult males, Teddy and Orion, sat in the shade of the trees by the rock grooming each other; another chimp sauntered across the rock and headed off into the forest further up. Our guide asked me if I wanted to follow, and so, leaving the others, I followed further into the trees. It turned out that the big male we followed was Primus, the alpha male. He sat up a tree, just watching. It’s hard to explain why, but you could see in his face that this was a chimp with stature. He soon decided to move on and to my astonishment, walked right past me. I meant nothing to him but being in his presence meant everything to me at that moment.

 

 

We tried to follow Primus but he was too fast, and instead we came across a male called Darwin.

This gentle chimp had the kind face of a well-loved grandfather, with grey hairs and slightly watery eyes, and he just lay on his back on the forest floor with his head propped up on his arm and his feet on a nearby branch. He was the picture of Sunday morning relaxation.

The guide and I sat quietly with him for about ten minutes. He looked over at us occasionally. I just stared, drinking him in. It was one of those moments never to be forgotten.

“We were lucky this day as the chimps had come down the slopes.”

Two days later, I was sitting in another piece of forest further north, but still on the edge of Lake Tanganyika. This was Gombe National Park. You may know the name through the work of Dr Jane Goodall who was the primatologist who first habituated the chimpanzees in this area, back in the 1960s. She is in her eighties now, but still firmly involved and her foundation is still going and still a key force in the park.

Though the terrain at Gombe is very similar to that at Mahale, we were lucky this day as the chimps had come down the slopes. This made the experience here very different, and far more similar to the trek you would expect (even in Mahale) if you visited from about July to October. It took us only 20 minutes walking to find our first groups of chimps in the Kasakela community. The forest at this level is not so dense and there are more pathways that make the going much easier, though of course the chimps aren’t necessarily going to follow the paths – and they didn’t!

“You must keep to a distance of 10m and wear a face mask. You cannot visit them if you are ill – even with a cold – as you could wipe them out.”

We found a few different groups of chimps as we walked, as these chimps were not in such a sedentary mood as the Mahale chimps had been. We walked and stopped, walked and stopped for a couple of hours. We saw Gremlin and her high-spirited twins, we met Gaia and her family, we watched Google and Grendo having a chat on a log, we were there as Golden suckled her baby, as they all ate, squabbled, played and groomed each other.  I could have stayed all day.

All in all we had one hour with each group. I am more than thankful for the experience, for the fact that they still exist and that they accept our presence, that the forest is still here for them, that I was able to have the opportunity to come here, that they are being protected thanks to tourism. However, my heart was also full of concerns after leaving them: could the forest – their home – be protected from logging (either commercial or simply from nearby villagers needing land or wood); could the chimps be protected from poaching (wild meat poachers are known to still cross from DRC); will the tourists like us be the unwitting cause of the destruction of these incredible creatures through the transmission of disease; can these wild chimp populations be assured of a future?

Sadly, I don’t think anyone can offer a confidently positive answer to any of these questions. All we can do is do our best to ensure that forest creatures such as these magnificent chimpanzees are given all the protection we can afford them. They deserve it. This is their planet too.

So, is it worth the expense and the travel and the exertion to see these extraordinary creatures that are so like us?

Yes, yes, and yes again. Do not hesitate. Just come.

Can you help protect chimpanzees?

VISIT THEM IN THE WILD
Although tourism is a double-edged sword because it can bring disease if not carefully managed, in the view of most conservationists, it remains the strongest weapon we have in the protection of the species and their habitat. There are about 700 chimps in Mahale, but only around 100 in Gombe. The numbers in both communities are in decline. Up to 30 visitors per day can visit the chimps, with a maximum of 6 people per group for only 1 hour. You must keep to a distance of 10m and wear a face mask. You cannot visit them if you are ill – even with a cold – as you could wipe them out.

Please come and visit these remarkable creatures. You’ll be helping them to survive as tourism pays for their protection.

Tribes offers sample itineraries on the websites – Ruaha, Katavi, Mahale (11 days)Chimps, Serengeti and Spice (11 days) but we can tailor-make any itinerary you want.

DONATE FUNDS TO THEIR PROTECTION

If you are not able to visit, but still want to help, please consider donating to a charity such as the Jane Goodall Institute. www.janegoodall.org.uk
Their work is critical to the well-being of the chimps at Gombe National Park.

All images © Amanda Marks

On the right tracks

On the right tracks

On the right tracks

Header image © The Blue Train

Side image © Imvelo Safari Lodges

There can be a romance in rail travel in foreign countries that’s hard to find in the 11.05am from Ipswich to Liverpool Street. From luxury trains crossing South Africa, Peru or India to  switchbacking up and down an almost sheer cliff face in Ecuador, there’s something rather special about taking to the tracks on holiday.

Image © Belmond

First class all the way…

Cocooned in elegance, spectacular landscapes viewed through picture windows as an attentive waiter proffers a glass of champagne, a fine afternoon tea or splendid silver-service dinner before you retreat to your peaceful, sumptuous cabin, to be lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the rails… a luxury train journey is a thing of beauty.

Thanks to a certain Agatha Christie book and the subsequent A-list star-packed films, the iconic and exotic train that immediately springs to mind is usually the Orient Express. However, let me present some others for your consideration…

The Belmond Andean Explorer  is owned and operated by the same organisation that runs the Venice-Simplon Orient Express and there are clear echoes of that famous piece of rolling stock to be found in what was the first luxury sleeper train in South America.

“Coccooned in elegance…”

Images © Belmond

One of two distinctive, midnight-blue Belmond trains running in Peru, the Andean Explorer is a glorious way to travel from Cusco to Peru’s famed ‘white city’ Arequipa or Lake Titicaca, stopping at points of interest en-route. You get an amazing view of the glorious scenery from the observation car and can even relax with a massage in the spa car.

The Belmond Hiram Bingham is an unforgettable way to travel in classic style to Machu Picchu. Fantastic, 1920s-style elegance transports you back to a time when polished brass and wood were the norm and Pullman carriages were the only way to travel. Crossing Peru’s Sacred Valley, heading to the iconic ‘lost city of the Incas’ on board this superb train is something that’s definitely on my personal bucket list. They take it slow, so you get to enjoy around three and half hours of refined style and impeccable food, wine and service as you look out onto cloud forest, mountains and valleys and ancient towns and villages.

Belmond never forgets that this is a Peruvian adventure. Enjoy a Pisco sour, take in traditional local music performances on board, and savour fine Peruvian wines and local delicacies with a sophisticated twist.

PeruRail…

PeruRail’s Vistadome train, which travels between Cusco, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu, allows you to enjoy contemporary Andean style and elegance. On board you’ll also be treated to a fashion show demonstating the newest trends in alpaca clothing, together with live traditional dance performances. The rail carriages  have vast expanses of glass, wrapping up to the roof, to help you make the most of the panoramic views.

PeruRail’s Titicaca train crosses the Andes between Cusco and Puno and features 1920s-style Pullman carriages and an open-air observation car which is ideal for photographers looking to capture shots of the jaw-dropping landscapes.

 

 

Traverse South Africa in style

In South Africa you have a choice of luxury sleeper trains between Cape Town and Pretoria and vice versa; the Blue Train and Rovos Rail.

The Blue Train has operated since 1946 and the 1,600-mile, two-night journey is unforgettable. Think of it as a five-star hotel on wheels, with a glorious and ever-changing view and the finest of South African wines and haute cuisine. Oh, and your own butler on call.  The Blue Train also travels to Kruger National Park, and I can think of no finer way to arrive on safari.

Equally sumptuous, Rovos Rail is another wood-panelled piece of handsome rolling stock. Before you even step on board, the exclusive Rovos Rail pre-departure lounge at Pretoria station puts you in the frame of mind for the opulence that lies ahead.

 

Main image and top side image © The Blue Train

Bottom side image © Rovos Rail

“Game viewing as the train trundles along.”

Imvelo’s Stimela Star is a private sleeper train running from Victoria Falls to Hwange National Park. It may not hit the luxurious heights of Rovos Rail or the Blue Train, but, with its cheerful and endlessly helpful staff, recently-restored retro accommodation and excellent food, it’s immensely charming and a great addition to your safari holiday without busting the budget. If you’re staying at Imvelo’s Bomani Tented Lodge or Camelthorn you can extend your rail journey on Imvelo’s Elephant Express, an open-sided single railcar that provides game viewing as the train trundles along the tracks to the lodges.

 

Elephant Express and Stimela Star images © Imvelo Safari Lodges

“A fantastic way to travel across a country famed for its rail tradition.”

Palace on Wheels images © Nav Jyoti TV Studio

See India from the Palace on Wheels

How about an eight-day sleeper train ride through Northern India? The Palace on Wheels maintains the longstanding Indian tradition of rail travel, taking in Agra, Bharatpur, Dehli, Chittorgarh Fort, Jaipur Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Ranthambore National Park, the Taj Mahal and Udaipur en-route. It’s a fantastic way to travel across a country famed for its rail tradition, with guided tours of the famous stopping places.  Of course, there’s a huge choice of rail journeys in India and our consultants often book overnight trains for our travellers; they’re a great way to travel between the game parks of central India for example. These aren’t luxury trains, but are a very convenient way to travel and a fantastic way to see another aspect of day-to-day Indian life.

If you’re a narrow gauge railway fan heading to India, make sure you talk to us about one of the ‘toy trains’, which operate on a number of routes including from Kalka to Shimla or Ooty.

 

All aboard the Ecuador Cruise Train

Here’s something new and a little different – Tren Ecuador is not a sleeper train but a way to see Ecuador at a leisurely pace by rail while stopping at hotels and lodges en route. Two levels of travel are available, Luxury and the upgraded Gold class, with the difference being in the hotels or haciendas you say in on the journey. You’ll travel on the same luxury train, through incredible ever-changing scenery, stopping at fascinating places and meeting local craftsmen and women, visiting markets and enjoying traditional cuisine.

The route includes the dramatic switchbacks along the Devil’s Nose route (see images above and below) – and if your itinerary won’t allow for the full six-day experience, you can board the train just for key sections, including the Devil’s Nose. There’s also the Tren de la Libertad, which crosses bridges over steep canyons and through seven tunnels between Ibarra and Salinas, where its arrival is greeted with the tune ‘La Bomba’.  Salinas is home to the Afro-ecuadorian people, and a visit to this town, with its colourful murals and fascinating museums, is a great way to spend a day.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the available train journeys so, if you fancy getting on the right tracks on your holiday, don’t forget to ask us about the opportunities for rail travel in your chosen destination!

 

Beneath the surface

Beneath the surface

Beneath the surface

 

You don’t need access to an ocean to be able to enjoy fabulous underwater landscapes and ‘wildlife’; you can discover a whole new world beneath the surface even in the middle of Africa or a land-locked part of Brazil.

One of the world’s biggest tropical fish tanks…

Images © Mumbo Island Camp, Lake Malawi

Teeming life in ‘the calendar lake’

Lake Malawi is 52 miles wide and an astonishing 365 miles long, hence its nickname ‘the calendar lake’. Think of it as one of the world’s biggest tropical fish tanks, with a huge and fascinatingly diverse range of inhabitants, easily visible in the wonderfully clear waters.

Sailing on Lake Malawi is a joyful experience, and it’s a brilliant location for water-skiing, kayaking, tubing and parasailing; for all watersports basically.

But slip beneath the surface, whether that’s with a mask and snorkel or on a full-blown scuba dive, and a wealth of fish species are waiting to greet you, most notably the colourful cichlids.  There are more than 600 different species of cichlids which are endemic to the warm, freshwater depths of Lake Malawi. In fact, the lake has the largest number of fish species in the world; they have evolved in this ancient body of water over a period of some two million years!

Keep an eye open for blue stripy mbuna, electric yellow cichlids and the turquoise Livingston’s cichlid, and kampango and bombe catfish, and perhaps take a guided night dive to see nocturnal creature such as dolphinfish.

Not a diver? Not a problem! Snorkelling in the lake is hugely rewarding, as you find yourself surrounded by a rainbow of vibrant tropical fish. There’s an added bonus for those who choose to snorkel – as you’re not submerged beneath the waters, you can look up as well as down, and enjoy the glorious birdlife including fish eagles.

Snorkelling in Lake Malawi is hugely rewarding.

Image ©Kaya Mawa

A wealth of fish species are waiting to greet you.

Image left © Kawa Maya

Our consultants would be delighted to discuss the best places to stay for watersports at Lake Malawi, including Kaya Maya, Blue Zebra Island Lodge and Mumbo Island Camp.

We can tailor-make an itinerary for you or you might like to consider one of our suggested itineraries such as the Lake Malawi Holiday. If you want to combine Lake Malawi with a safari (the lake makes a wonderfully refreshing contrast to safari life), why not think about our Bush & Beach in Malawi itinerary, Lake of Stars or Nyika and Lake Malawi trip  or Zambia and Malawi Safari and Beach?

River snorkelling in Brazil

About 50km from Bonito, the south-western Brazilian eco-tourist hotspot, you can find what is regarded as the best river snorkelling in the world, in the crystal waters of the ‘silver river’ Rio de Prata. Rich seams of limestone on the riverbed act as natural filters, making it easy to see some of the stunning numbers of fish and plant species (see images above and below). You can also snorkel in the Rio Sucuri, – the world’s third clearest river, known for its fairytale-like underwater landscape.

There is a trick to river snorkelling in the Rio de Prata or Rio Sucuri; just float. Don’t kick, don’t splash and don’t touch anything. This makes it wonderfully relaxing and very easy for just about anybody but that’s not the reason why these rules (and they are rules) are in place. Kicking or splashing would stir up the sand at the bottom of these shallow rivers, significantly reducing visibility and impacting on the creatures that live in the waters. Big, chunky black pacu, slightly intimidating golden dourado (some up to 1m in length) and yellow-finned piraputanga will swim around you in Rio de Prata as tiny tetra emerge from beds of star grass to gently nibble on you in a friendly fashion.

Just getting to the snorkel site is an adventure in itself, with a 20 minute or so trek through the jungle. Then you’re issued with your snorkel and fins and a knee-length wetsuit (to protect the wild inhabitants of the rivers swimmers aren’t allowed to wear sunscreen or insect repellent), then you float face down and enter a whole new world. Take time also to look up, though – there are 200 different species of birds living in the lush vegetation that border the rivers.

If you think this might be for you, check out our ‘Rio, Waterfalls, Rivers and Coast’ trip or talk to us about a bespoke itinerary.

Wild inland swimming

There are lots of places where you can swim in the Amazon river but the water is too dark and murky to snorkel. Yes, the Amazon is home to piranhas but, contrary to what we’ve all seen on James Bond films etc., they don’t actually attack people! Tribes’ consultant Paul Cook – a huge fan of snorkelling in Rio de Prata – went kayaking and swimming on a cruise on the Peruvian Amazon aboard the Delfin and, we are happy to report, came back in one piece!

Sacha Lodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon has created a swimming pool within a mesh-enclosed area of the Pilchicocha Lake. This lets guests shake off the rainforest heat in the lake without running the risk of encountering caiman or 6’ long giant otters, who look cuddly but are very territorial and have a nasty bite. You may still be able to enjoy seeing them swimming on the other side of the net, but have the reassurance that the encounter will remain friendly!

Costa Rica has plenty of river floats and waterfalls. At Rio Perdido they have a unique thermal river. It’s fed by hot springs and is bathtub temperature. You can walk along the river and jump in and out without worrying about the temperature, and the river it is too hot for anything to live inside. So, no snorkelling possibilities, but what a fabulous experience!

 

Why a homestay?

Why a homestay?

Why a homestay?

Staying as a guest in someone’s home has a very different feel to staying in a lodge, hotel or even a B&B. A night in a private home is a fascinating way to see at first-hand what life is like when you step out of the travel environment and into the daily life of the people in the destination you have travelled to. For many it forms one of the most memorable parts of their holiday.

“Our hostess was very welcoming and smiley.”

As a homestay guest you will eat the food your host prepares for you, cooked in their home kitchen and consumed with their family. You spend the night in a room in a ‘normal’ village or city home and neighbourhood and your host family will do all they can to make you feel at home. There is plenty of time to talk to your hosts, to learn about their way of life and their homeland, gain a new perspective on the destination you are visiting and maybe pick up the kind of insider knowledge you wouldn’t find in a guidebook.

Most homestay hosts love to meet new people so are very welcoming, and you also have the satisfaction of knowing that you have directly benefited the local community.

Amantani Island homestay, Peru

The pre-Inca Aymara people of Amantani island on Lake Titicaca, Peru, welcome guests and their guides for overnight stays with local families. The island is between four and five hours by boat from Puno and a stay here is usually preceded by a visit to the floating reed islands of Uros, with a trip to Taquile island the following day. Guests are assigned their host family on arrival on Amantani, with the islanders taking it in turn to host visitors.

As a guest in an Amantani island homestay you are likely to have the best bedroom in the house or outbuilding, though it is likely still to be fairly basic by western standards, possibly with limited or no electricity. Remember, you are living as the islanders do.  You’ll enjoy wholesome, simple local meals and may well be invited to the village meeting place for a dance afterwards.

Just as you would do if you were a guest in someone’s house in your home country, it is nice if you take a small gift for your hosts, perhaps vegetables, fruit or bread or candles.

Tribes’ guest feedback includes comments such as ‘Our hostess was very welcoming and smiley and produced tasty food from her stock-pot over an open fire and a gas cooker’, and ‘Walter and Vilma and their children welcomed us with open arms and treated us like friends, the food and level of service was wonderful.’

 

Indian homestays 

Hospitality is one of the most valued traditions of Indian culture, with guests in Indian homes being seem as representatives of God. Tribes’ directors Amanda and Guy Marks recently stayed at Rosie’s Homestay in Meghalaya in north east India. This is larger than the usual homestay, with four guest bedrooms and Rosie is an excellent cook who is happy to give cookery lessons to her guests, who can also watch local craftspeople at work.

 

Hospitality is one of the most valued traditions of Indian culture, with guests in Indian homes being seem as representatives of God.

Amanda said “Rosie is a lovely Khasi lady with plenty of oomph! And she is a great cook too; we had a superbly tasty pork dinner. Her 4 bedrooms are clean and have the basic necessities. Ask her to take you for a walk around her little lake and grounds if you come, and maybe even ask for a cooking lesson. A stay here is not about luxury, it’s about seeing a bit of (middle-class) Khasi life.

Homestays aren’t restricted to villages; travellers to Dehli can enjoy daily family life in an affluent residential suburb of the city with a stay at Aashiyan Homestay, a contemporary house where hosts Kiran and JP Singh  go out of their way to make guests feel at home. And, for a peaceful night just 4km from Mysore city, the spacious and elegant Gitanjali Homestay in the Chamundi Hills provides relaxing air-conditioned comfort and Kodava cuisine.  Cookery classes can be arranged, as can yoga sessions and Ayurveda treatments.

So, if you’d like to live like a local for a night or two on your holiday, let us know!

Travels as a father

Travels as a father

Travels as a father

With Father’s Day this Sunday, June 16, I asked that seasoned traveller, Tribes’ Director Guy Marks, about his experiences of seeing the world through the eyes of his sons…

“You don’t get a second chance to experience something for the first time, but sharing someone else’s experience comes a close second.”

What age were your boys when you started taking them on ‘serious’ holidays, and where was the first destination you took them to?

Or youngest, Luke, was five and our oldest, Dan, was eight when we first took them on safari in Tanzania.

Where else have they travelled to with you?

We’ve been to a few places in Europe and even UK holidays to Cornwall; but the real travelling has been taking them as a family to wonderful long-haul destinations – Nepal, Jordan, South Africa and Costa Rica. And I’ve also taken Dan to Brazil for a trip deep into the Amazon.

As somebody who specialises in helping other people have their own dream holidays, how did it feel to start to see the world through your sons’ eyes? Did it make you look at anywhere, or any experiences, in a different way?

When you have done as much travelling as I have, a lot of things that other people would think were out of the ordinary become pretty normal to me and sometimes go unnoticed. So to see the boys experiencing things for the very first time certainly made me sit back and take another look. You don’t get a second chance to experience something for the first time, but sharing someone else’s experience comes a close second. It was fabulous to watch them see their first lions and elephants, or smile as they tried new exotic foods in Nepal, especially when Dan tried something too hot! And the thrill they got from white-water rafting or from seeing a chameleon change colour in front of their eyes was simply enrapturing.

 

Some people shy away from taking their children on safari, but your boys have been lucky enough to experience a number of trips. What are your best or most exciting memories of taking them on safari?

A five year old has a short attention span even if he is on safari, but I remember how brilliant our driver-guide was in Tanzania, taking Luke on his lap at the wheel of the Land Rover so that he thought he was driving the car himself. 

And at age 7 and 10 they tried their hand a horse-riding whilst on safari in South Africa, only to come face to face with rhino. Most adults don’t even get the opportunity to do that, so to see the two of them get such a magical experience at such a young age and on their first ride was certainly memorable.

Most children love seeing wildlife on safaris and holidays to places like Costa Rica – what were your sons’ most memorable wildlife encounters?

I think for Luke it was seeing a sloth in Costa Rica, but only because it so closely resembled his older brother!

Many of your trips have been as a family, but you have also travelled just with your oldest son. Tell us about that.

Yes, I took Dan to Brazil on a work trip when he was 15. A great age where he was old enough to get the most from it and to put up with me doing some hotel inspections, but young enough still to want to go on holiday with his dad. We did Rio in a couple of days, making time to see the key sites, and then we headed for Manaus in the heart of the Amazon. Taking a river boat cruise into the smaller tributaries gave us amazing encounters with everything from tarantulas to pink river dolphins, and monkeys to piranhas. Then we went deeper into the jungle to a floating lodge in the Mamiraua reserve in search of the elusive uakari. It’s a white-coated monkey with a bald bright-red face. I’m pleased to say we saw several. It was a wonderful time and fabulous to have Dan there to share it with me.

 

“Travel has given them more than just a great thrill… it has given them a broader field of reference for life”

How do you think the travel experience has impacted on your sons? 

Travel has given them more than just a great thrill and experience. It has given them a broader field of reference for life that can only be a positive thing in understanding the world and their place in it. When you see how other people live and what the wild places on earth are really like then you appreciate the society and privileges we have here, and have a greater understanding of global concepts like conservation and the destruction of biodiversity. 

And how did travelling with your sons impact you?

For me, having already gained that wide field of reference from an unbelievable amount of travel in my life, the impact has been less profound. But the best thing about it has simply been the fun – the joy of spending quality time with the people I love most in the world.

 

Kaziranga and the Big Eight

Kaziranga and the Big Eight

Kaziranga and the Big Eight

AMANDA MARKS

“We have our own Big Five here: the one-horned rhino, elephant, swamp deer, wild buffalo and tiger. I think we should have the Big Eight though, and include the Hoolock gibbon, Malayan giant squirrel and giant hornbill.”

“A tiger just swam across the lake and went into the elephant grass over there”

Our guide, Hrishi, was obviously proud of his park, but I had come with few expectations of what we might see here; perhaps one or two rhinos if we were lucky and maybe a wild elephant – I would be happy with that. I assumed a tiger sighting wouldn’t even be worth hoping for since, although the park has one of the highest densities of tigers, they’re not easy to see here; you’re far better off in central Indian parks such as Ranthambore, Kanha or Tadoba for tigers.

We headed off with a guide and driver in our Gypsy. These are the jeep of choice for Indian wildlife parks since they’re small and light which makes them suitable for the narrow tracks, though if you’re used to African game vehicles you might be slightly shocked by the lack of suspension and space.

We didn’t care though. Within three minutes of driving through the central gate we saw our first one-horned Indian rhino … with a baby! We stopped and Hrishi pointed out that there were also 3 other rhinos in the distance, plus an elephant and three hog deer (one of the three species of deer in the park – swamp, hog and barking). 

“Within three minutes of driving through the central gate we saw our first one-horned Indian rhino … with a baby! ”

AMANDA MARKS

 

As we carried on along the earthen track that wound through a pretty area of broadleaf woodland, we stopped again. A handsome jungle fowl assiduously kept his back to us but there was no missing the striking plumage of this ancestor of our domestic chickens.  Less obvious was the little owl hiding deeper within the foliage but, as it turned out, our guide was a good spotter and didn’t miss much.

The park was a mix of grasslands, swamps and lakes, and wooded areas. It was mostly very flat but, on the western edge, the Burrapahar Hills offered a hazy backdrop in muted tones of grey. As we reached a lookout tower near a large lake, there was definitely some excitement in the air. A group of six people were training their binoculars on a stand of tall grasses at the edge of the water.

“A tiger just swam across the lake and went into the elephant grass over there,” said Hrishi. We had just missed seeing it. A matter of moments earlier and … But no, it wasn’t to be.

 

“We left Kaziranga very happy to have seen seven of his Big Eight!”

We might not have seen a big cat, but we were really lucky with our sightings of wild elephants. Sometimes they hid shyly in the tall grasses, but one family came to splash in a muddy lake and it was joyous to watch them. Wild elephant numbers in India are dropping at a staggering rate and it’s thought there are now only around 27,000, with 1900 in Kaziranga.

The following morning we went to the far west gate and the sound of gibbons echoed round the forest. I hadn’t realised just how rare Hoolock gibbons are, and this is the only ape to be found in India. They weren’t easy to photograph, but you could definitely see them and hearing them was no problem at all. It felt like a privilege to stand beneath them as they peered imperiously down at us.

But it was the rhino sightings that surprised us the most. In two days in the park, taking morning and afternoon game drives from our lodge on the edge of the park (Diphlu River Lodge), we counted 65 of these armour-plated mammals!  Kaziranga has 2400 Asian one-horned rhinos, which is about 70% of the world’s population, and that number is slowly growing. It is the best place to see them, and what an accolade for the protection teams working here; they are doing an incredible job.

Hrishi was disappointed that we’d missed the tiger, but that definitely didn’t spoil our visit as we’d not really coming expecting to see one. In fact, we left Kaziranga very happy to have seen seven of his Big Eight!

Remote North East India trip

If you would like to explore the forests and unique living root of bridges of Meghalaya followed by safaris in Kaziranga National Park, home to two thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos, click here to view this unique trip.

See Amanda’s blog about the Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya, also in northeast India.