Barefoot Woman

Barefoot Woman

Barefoot Woman

The historic Kaalvoet Vrou (Barefoot Woman) statue stands proudly in South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains. It commemorates Voortrekker Susanna Smit who, in 1837, said that she would rather walk barefoot back over the Berg than live under British rule. Bridget and Andrew Batchelor went in search of her…

We’re here – but are we there?  We should be, but here is just a small scruffy bit of tarmac behind a rusty fence and an open gateway.  No sign, no explanatory panel – and no sign of a statue.  ‘Drive for 25 kms on the gravel road’ the instructions had said, which is what we’ve done. So, are we there?

“Let’s look round,” suggests Andrew.  “There might be at least a decent view.  After all, the Voortrekkers were supposed to have thought this was the Land of Milk and Honey.”

Out of the car, we are swept by a chilly breeze. It is after all winter here in South Africa and we are quite high up.  But the air is clean, fresh, delicious.  The dust our car had kicked up has settled.  We are miles – correction, kilometres – from anywhere, the only sounds are distant bird-song and the odd hum of an insect.  The sky is an amazing, clear blue.

At the back of the car-park is a gap in the rusty fence.  Two gate-posts sag at different angles.  It looks like humans are meant to be here, and guided off somewhere, so we take the hint.  Around a bend in the path, we stop dead.  The view down, down, down over a succession of rolling hills, lush and inviting even in winter, takes our breath away.  If this is what those Trekkers of long ago saw, then no wonder they thought they had been guided by God to this land.  Even today there is nothing but emptiness; no roads, no farms, no sign of man.

“No wonder they went for it,” I whisper.  “They couldn’t have known the Zulus had got there first.”

We drink in the view in silence.  A piercing bird call seems to accentuate the isolation.  There is just the blue sky and the wind and the emptiness and the promise of a place to settle in peace, to live life as you want without interference, to worship as you please.

After a few more moments of awed contemplation, we turn back.  Andrew says idly “I wonder why someone put a scarecrow up there?”, and points to the skyline to our right.  There indeed is a scarecrow, coat flapping in the wind, seemingly protecting nothing from the odd bird of prey.

We decide to investigate.

We scramble up the steep slope, following a dusty half-path.  As we approach from behind, the penny drops.

 

“That’s her!” I shriek.  “That’s Susanna!  See, it’s a statue, with a bonnet.  It must be bronze or something.  We’re in the right place after all.”

And we were.  On this little ridge in the middle of nowhere, Susanna Smit strode back the way she and her people had come.  

The original sculptor had given her wind-swept hair and skirts wrapped around those resolute legs with their bare feet.  But someone visiting one of the lesser-known Boer landmarks  – a descendant of those stalwart Trekkers, maybe? – had wrapped her in a plaid blanket, fastened with what looked like a giant kilt-pin.  

Someone had wanted to leave a message to future visitors that the story of Susanna had not been forgotten.  To someone, Susanna was a woman of huge courage whose public declaration that she would rather walk back barefoot the way they had come than live under British rule had changed her people’s history.

We walk all the way round the life-sized statue, in awe of yet another Boer statue which told its own story, and of the visitor who had left this tribute, now flapping in the winter wind.  There was no explanatory plaque.  There was no need.  Anyone who took the trouble to come to this landmark knew the story behind what they would find. 

We take some photos, trying to do justice to the location’s loneliness and resolution.  Then we walk in silence back to the car, turning back as we reach it for one last look at the scarecrow figure highlighted against the cloudless sky, forever telling, in one piece of cast bronze, one of the more powerful Voortrekker tales.

 

Images © Bridget Batchelor

Our thanks to Bridget for this lovely piece – and watch out for our ‘Face to Face With’ interview with Bridget, coming soon.

Do you have a Tribes’ travel story you’d like to share?

We love to hear from our travellers with tales of their trips with us. If you’d like to submit a blog post, please contact our blog editor, Karen  – she’d be delighted to chat it through with you!

 

A Nature Adventure in Mainland Ecuador

A Nature Adventure in Mainland Ecuador

 

 

 

 

A Nature Adventure in Mainland Ecuador

When our guests travel with us to Ecuador it’s normally via Quito to the Galapagos Islands, but I wanted to see what else there was. So, from the history and culture of Quito, I took a short domestic flight to Coca in the Amazonian part of Ecuador.

© Shutterstock – Goran Safarek

© Shutterstock – SL Photography

Within a couple of minutes, a young Tapir comes out of the jungle and stands on the bank looking at us.

The flight is only about 30 minutes but the starting and finishing environments couldn’t be more different. The altitude and more rugged habitat of the highlands and mountains is replaced by the humid and lush Amazon rainforest, which couldn’t be more evident than when you step off the aircraft. As you step down from the aircraft a waft of dense humid air welcomes you as you walk from the aircraft to the arrival’s terminal in the newly rebuilt airport, only opened in early 2019.

A 5-minute taxi ride took me to the boat dock where you don a life vest and board the long, covered canoe like boat for the river journey to the lodge. It is a great way to start this part of the journey as within about 15 – 30 minutes of arriving you are travelling down the Napo river amongst the other everyday river traffic. You begin to get a sense of the jungle on either side of you as you pass villages on the river banks and see the winding expanse of river stretch ahead of you.

After about two and a half hours on the river we arrived at the dock where my bags were taken for me on a hand cart and while we walked along a raised wooden walkway into the jungle for about 10 minutes. At the end we board a smaller hand paddled canoe, our bags go in another, but before we set off our guide stops and listens, then begins to call out. Within a couple of minutes, a young Tapir comes out of the jungle and stands on the bank looking at us. “That’s Tony.”, the guide says and while he is wild, he is also quite friendly and curious. I’m 10 feet away and it is probably the closest I have been to a wild animal of that size (like a large pig) in its’ natural environment. Tony seems a little non-plussed and ambles off to do Tapir things.

 

Our canoe is then paddled through a mangrove swamp for about 10 minutes and at this point you can really start to smell the aroma of the jungle, hear birds, insects, monkeys and other wildlife, which belies a stillness underneath it all. It is easier to experience than describe but the jungle seems to draw you in and hold your attention as if you are listening through the natural sounds to the heart of something.

We come out of the mangrove swamp to Lake Challuacocha, where Sani Lodge is nestled among the jungle canopy with its’ more traditional wooden structures. It is owned and run by the Sani Community who are an indigenous people of around 600 inhabitants with stewardship over about 40,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest.

 

© Shutterstock – Mark Richard Waller

It is worth noting that the Sani Community face constant pressure from oil companies to sell parts of their land for oil exploration, pressure which they continue to resist as they protect their way of life and environment. Their aim is to promote sustainable practices so that travellers like myself and like you can experience their way of living in harmony with the forest. They are incredibly friendly and genuinely enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge and stewardship of the forest in conjunction with sustainable ecotourism.

I lived in the Amazon jungle in Northern Peru not far from the border with Ecuador for three years, and I developed a close feeling for it mixed with a lot of respect. So I was pleased when my Sani guide took me on a tour through the jungle to the tallest tree in the area, where the Sani staff have built a covered metal tower stairway that takes you to the top of the tree canopy. At the top there is a metal gangway which reaches out to a wooden platform the staff built into the tree. From this platform, 45 metres (150 feet) from the ground, you can see the tree canopy of the forest stretching out into the distance as far as you can see in all directions.

© Shutterstock – Dr Morley Read

After walking through the forest floor below for over an hour, the view from above is impressive. There is not a single man-made structure (except the stair tower!) to be seen anywhere but neither can you see the ground beneath you, just the canopy of thousands of jungle trees. Primary tropical rainforest is vertically divided into at least five layers: the overstory, the canopy, the understory, the shrub layer, and the forest floor. The overstory refers to the crowns of emergent trees which soar 20-100 feet above the rest of the canopy. The platform I was standing on is in the ‘Overstory’ and the view is breath-taking, we sat up there for an hour and chatted.

When I say chatted, I mean I asked about a hundred questions and my guide, thankfully, responded with the same enthusiasm. What impressed me is their intimate knowledge of the jungle and all the different life in it. They know how to walk through the jungle as part of it, where you and I would hack and stumble and likely get lost. They know which plants are food and which are medicine. They know the signs and trails of creatures, when and how to keep their distance from those with young. Intimate is the correct word for their knowledge as they do, in a real sense, share an intimate and living connection with it.

© Shutterstock – Magda Chonillo

There is an entirely different pace and feeling in the jungle. If you have just come from Quito you might likely just lay on your bed after sunset, which happens around 6pm everyday and is quick, and listen to the night sounds. There are few things like the sound of a jungle at night, a feeling of mystery and the unknown, that may sound a little poetic but it is true for me. We are used to different sounds in the UK, often man made but natural ones also, the jungle chorus at night sounds a little alien but entirely natural and is quite compelling. For me it becomes like a lullaby and eventually puts me to sleep.

The amount of life is also quite compelling, there’s barely a millimetre of space in the jungle that isn’t supporting life in some way. If you walk 50 metres, you’ll pass dozens of different flora and fauna, some of the most important of which your guide will point out and explain. Many jungle plants are studied by pharmaceutical firms for their medicinal applications, for the indigenous people the jungle is their pharmacy and this is part of the cultural heritage they are seeking to sustain and protect.

© Shutterstock – Zaruba Ondrej

A visit to the Amazon jungle is quite safe if approaching this environment in the proper way, taking light weight trousers, boots (provided by the lodge), long sleeved shirt, a hat and following the advice of local guides. Moreover, the rewards are worth it. It is an environment that along with the diverse and abundant wildlife and plants which can be seen, also takes you away from 21st century life in to a remote place which seems, certainly at night, otherworldly yet undeniably natural.

My time here, sadly, finishes and I take the river journey back to Coca and the short flight back up to Quito.

©Shutterstock – Luis Louro

Recreate Rory’s journey with our five-day Sani Lodge Amazon Discovery trip, or enjoy a three-day cruise on the upper Napo River, Ecuador’s primary Amazon tributary.

To explore even more of mainland Ecuador, take a look at our 15-day Highlands and Amazon holiday – or why not enjoy the classic combination; a 15-day Rainforest and Galapagos adventure?

Magnificent Malawi – and a touch of Zambia!

Magnificent Malawi – and a touch of Zambia!

Magnificent Malawi (and a touch of Zambia)

Image ©Shutterstock – Alex van Schaik

I didn’t think that safari holidays got any better than the one to Botswana which Tribes arranged for me in 2015 – until last year!  I had long wanted to visit Malawi, and particularly the Nyika Plateau, but couldn’t find an appropriate group tour.   Then I saw that Tribes ran several 2-centre holidays in Malawi, and these included nearly all the places I hoped to visit, including South Luangwa just over the border in Zambia. Sinead arranged for me to stay at some wonderful places, and a driver to take me.

“Hippos wallowed, and waterbuck, kudu, impala, warthogs and bushbuck grazed.”

Liwonde National Park on the Shire River in Southern Malawi was a fantastic place to stay.  Mvuu Camp overlooked the water meadows, where hippos wallowed, and waterbuck, kudu, impala, warthogs and bushbuck grazed.  On river cruises we also saw elephants and could admire various kingfishers, fish eagles and many other birds as we quietly chugged between the hippos – and over the top of a couple of them!

Drives in the forest found some newly-released lions – to the vociferous objection of  nearby baboons – and, a first and a highlight for me, sable antelope.  Rhinos have also recently been introduced but had not yet ventured far from their acclimatisation site.

Nyika, in the north, was a complete contrast.  On a vast high plateau of open, rolling hills, almost uninhabited apart from the lodge and campsite, were herds of zebra, eland and reedbuck and something I found very special – roan antelope.   Much of the grass had been burnt, as a firebreak and to control bracken, and colourful flowers were among the first plants to appear amongst the regenerating grass.  Zebras particularly were interested in watching the visitors, and keen to pose for us!   Nights were frosty, but the cabins all had log fires in the evenings and this was another amazing and very hospitable place to stay.  Walks and cycling were possible in addition to game drives.  Some elephants had emigrated from another game park, and were due to be joined by others soon to be released from an acclimatisation site, but they evidently preferred the woodland on the lower ground and, like leopards, were seldom seen.

Travelling between game parks, I stayed a night or two beside Lake Malawi, with a chance to swim in the lake.  Even better, at three lodges where I stayed in transit, there were local riding stables and I was able to ride through the forests.   One each at Zomba Plateau and Luwawa were in the same ownership, with lovely, well-kept horses and excellent, friendly management.   Complete novices and experienced riders could be catered for; not having ridden for a long time I rated myself between the two and had a quiet and sociable ride with the respective managers.

 

At Zomba Plateau, I stayed at the famous Forest Lodge.  As with most places where I stayed, this was far from any town.   It is British run, and our host was much involved with the local community, arranging planting schemes, footpaths and firebreaks over a large area. How did he manage to produce such excellent meals, with no electricity and so far from any shops?  All the facilities relied on solar power or firewood.  Local people would call at the scattering of local houses to see if any of their fresh produce could be of interest and, ingeniously, our host had given a local man a loan to buy a motorbike, the loan being paid off by its owner delivering provisions up the long winding track from the market, as required. My (excellent) driver was staying in the town and very kindly charged my camera battery for me.

My tour ended, after a short flight, at the famous South Luangwa Park in Zambia.  Flatdogs Camp was another wonderful place to stay, beside the Luangwa River and just across from the National Park.  We had been instructed not to have any food in the tents, in case the elephants came to help themselves and, on my first night, I could hear the trunk of a passing elephant swishing through the leaves just outside my tent.   At lunchtime two days later, a family group of about 10 elephants strolled right through the camp, later to be seen with a group of giraffes, grazing just beyond the camp.  As at Liwonde, guests were accompanied by guides when walking between their tents and the restaurant buildings after dark.

 

South Luangwa was truly safari paradise: from seeing and hearing hippos, elephants and impala from the camp, to the abundance of animals and birds seen on game drives.   The drivers knew the best places to see lions and leopards, as well as huge herds of buffalos; many antelopes, zebras, warthogs and the odd civet cat.  There were a great many birds too – so much to see that sometimes it was hard to know where to look!  One special morning a group of us followed some giraffes on foot.   Evening drives revealed the smaller, nocturnal, animals including genets, mongooses and a very well camouflaged chameleon – and a stalking leopard.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this very special safari holiday was seeing different species, such as elephants with hippos or giraffes, impala with zebra grazing together in the wild, often with attendant egrets and also sharing predator alerts with baboons and flocks of helmeted guinea fowl.   I should also mention how friendly and helpful everyone was everywhere I went and how well all the organisation worked.

 

EXPERIENCE MALAWI FOR YOURSELF…

There is so much beauty and wildlife to enjoy in this wonderful country. We have a range of fantastic holidays for you to choose from, plus unforgettable experiences such as snorkelling in Lake Malawi.

And, of course, we can always tailor-make a dream holiday in Malawi just for you…

All photos © Janet Van den Berge, except header image.

The unexpected is often the best

The unexpected is often the best

The unexpected is often the best

 

When Dr. Robert Climie travelled to Northern Tanzania with Tribes in January 2019, he wasn’t expecting one of the highlights of the trip to be a simple road journey…

…children waved and shouted greetings…

It was Sunday morning and we had just left the wonderful Tarangire National Park.  We weren’t really looking forward to the three-hour drive to Lake Manyara, despite the possibility of seeing lions in trees.             

After an hour or so on a main road, driving past Sunday markets and various Maasai warriors and their cows (interesting, but not the Big Five) we turned into a small road, happily leaving behind the white-uniformed police who pull you over demanding money for their breakfast.

Heading past a couple of small rather run-down towns and some paddy fields we were suddenly confronted by green cliffs. Peter, our excellent driver and guide, told us this was the edge of the Great Rift Valley. Grabbing our binoculars we scanned the area but could not see palaeontologist Richard Leakey anywhere, which was slightly disappointing.

Our journey started to take us through villages consisting of small houses surrounded by lush vegetation and crops of corn and mangoes. Immaculately dressed families filed out of tiny churches, the children in – I think – their school uniforms, the boys in pristine white shirts and red ties. They were almost immediately replaced by files of similarly dressed people going into the church; clearly there was no rest for the priest on Sundays or the ironing board on Saturday night.

As we carried on children waved and shouted greetings. We waved back but our Swahili was not up to replying. On a few occasions Peter stopped and chatted to the children while we gave them biscuits and the fruit from our lunch boxes – admonishing the older children who ran away with most of the spoils but, to be fair, they always came back and shared!

They all looked very healthy and had very good teeth so we didn’t feel too guilty about the biscuits.

Eventually we reached Lake Manyara National Park. We saw lots of flamingoes and hippos – and the famous lions in trees –  but by far the overriding memory is of the happy, friendly children and not a mobile phone – or even one of the Big Five – in sight.   

 

Let our Tanzania Specialists take you on your own Tanzanian adventure!

If you’d like to have your own friendly encounters while exploring Northern Tanzania – or, indeed, any part of Tanzania – why not have a chat with our experts?

Footloose in Africa

Footloose in Africa

Footloose in Africa

If you’re staying in a lodge or camp outside of the National Parks on your African holiday, you may be given the opportunity to take a walking safari or a nature walk together with an experienced and knowledgeable guide. It’s well worth taking up the offer…

Why?  You may well ask!  Nowhere can you connect with your surroundings quite as much as you can on a walk through the seemingly untouched wilderness of Africa. It’s a very different beast to a game drive or boat cruise – it’s just you, and nature with nothing in between.

I had been living in Botswana for a number of years before I finally embarked on a guided walk, and I wished I had done it sooner. The feeling of being out there, a tiny dot on the landscape, (together with your armed guide of course) gives way to a humbling feeling.  Your senses come alive and start to work in overdrive, particularly when you come close to wildlife. Speaking in hushed tones and hand-signals, your guide will relay more of his or her invaluable knowledge. 

 

 

“Each walk will probably leave you wanting more as you soak up the tiny details and the in-depth knowledge that your guide will pass on to you .”

On one such walk, we came across an elephant a short distance away, browsing and slowly making his way, oh so quietly, through the undergrowth.

As instructed by our guide we stopped, dead still and observed this magnificent gentle giant from a distance.  We were downwind from him, so at that point he had no idea we were there, observing him as he went about his daily business. It’s a surreal feeling. The hairs on my neck started to bristle and I realised I was holding my breath and somehow my senses of smell and hearing seemed heightened.

There is something very different about seeing an elephant on foot, away from the comfort of the vehicle. I consciously tried to file away the feelings, sights and smells of this encounter so that I could relive it at a later date – it was unlike any other experience I had ever had and it left me wanting to repeat it – and I have been lucky enough to be able to do so.

 

Each walk is unique and this can be down to many things –  the area you are walking in, the guides you are with and what you see and encounter on the walk.  You may not come across a lot of wildlife on some walks, but they will never be dull. There will always be tracks to be examined, bird calls to identify, animal droppings to study, plants and trees galore, some with medicinal or everyday uses for local people, it’s a fascinating learning curve and I guarantee you’ll never look at nature the same way again.

Each walk will probably leave you wanting more as you soak up the tiny details and the in-depth knowledge that your guide will pass on to you and file it in your memory banks.  Their knowledge is seemingly endless – I can now identify whether giraffe droppings come from a male or female giraffe and I know the difference between an active termite mound and an abandoned one.

These are just two tiny snippets of what I have learned on various walks in the African bush – there is so much more but we’ll be here forever, why not try it out for yourself and see how much incredible bush knowledge you can pick up?  It will astound you and it’s a memorable experience to boot!

 

If you fancy going footloose in Africa, talk to us about including a walking safari or an experience such as a Maasai walking excursion in Kenya or a walk with San Bushmen in Botswana in your itinerary.

Or why consider one of our itineraries that already feature this experience, including:

Do not miss out on Quito, gateway to the Galapagos

Do not miss out on Quito, gateway to the Galapagos

Don’t miss out on Quito – Gateway to the Galapagos

Quito is not a place on the wish list of most travellers but as gateway to the Galapagos Islands, it’s an opportunity to see a little of Ecuador.

We receive a lot of enquiries from clients who visit our Galapagos Specialists website and, as you might imagine, the focus of these enquiries relate to visiting the Galapagos Islands.  To get there you do have to fly into Ecuador first – usually Quito or Guayaquil – and it seems a pity to miss the fantastic often unthought-of gem which is the Ecuadorian mainland and the city of Quito.

 

© Shutterstock  – Alessandro Pinto

Most Tribes’ guests fly into Quito first, and often have just the one night there. You are likely to be surprised on arrival at how modern the airport is. It was only opened in February 2013 to replace the old airport which sat in the middle of the city and could no longer safely handle the increasing volume of larger aircraft and passenger numbers. It sits about 11 miles East of Quito (at 0 degrees Latitude on the Equator) To make this easy for you, we generally have a representative meet you in the arrivals hall to guide you through to your private transfer for the 40-minute journey (a little longer at peak hours) to the city centre.

Quito itself, a UNESCO World Heritage City, sits at 2850 metres (9350 feet) in a spectacular setting. It is quite something when coming from the mainly flat Suffolk, where I now live and work, to be surrounded by mountains (and an active volcano) on all sides.

I looked around at residential houses on different hills and, while they are only separated by short distances in a straight line, getting from one to the other looked like a game of snakes and ladders. I asked my guide how people visited each other, to which he wryly replied, “Down, around and then up.”

It’s also a pretty good description of walking around Quito, either going up or going down, but the architecture and views are certainly worth it. I did a little online research before leaving and read that, “The historic centre of Quito has one of the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centres’ in the Americas”, and it is a sentiment I can certainly agree with. I was fortunate to be accompanied by a genuinely interesting guide who clearly possessed a depth of knowledge of Ecuador’s pre- and post-colonial history, people and culture.

© Shutterstock – Papa Bravo

Two things which fascinate me – and travel provides the opportunity to experience them – are nature and culture. I was glad to have a good guide in Quito so that when we visited the Church of La Compañía de Jesús, a Baroque style church begun in 1605 and built by Native Americans, he was able to point out some things which he knew would interest me.

The church itself took 160 years to build; men spent their entire working lives on it and went to their graves never seeing it completed. Inside, the whole church is profusely decorated with gold leaf, the attention to detail is something that must be seen to be believed. I am not religious at all but found it to be quite moving.

My guide wanted to show me something at the high altar and, as he pointed out the different figures, he asked me what I could see above them all. It was the symbol for Inti, the ancient Incan Sun God, so I asked him how it got there in a Catholic church.

“That’s how the Spanish encouraged the native people to embrace Christianity. They said ‘Look, even your own Sun God shines down on our religion.’”, he replied. Right there above the altar was the historic intersection of two very different cultures 400 years ago, preserved in gold leaf. I would have easily missed it without my guide, instead it turned into one of the memorable moments for me where a work of art brought history and culture alive.

There is so much more to see and do that I wished I had longer there myself. One night is definitely not enough to do justice to the culture and architecture of this amazing city. A gateway to the Galapagos, yes. But also a destination in its own right.

© Shutterstock – SL-Photography