On Location: Istanbul

September 29, 2011

The chaotic heartbeat of Istanbul was unmistakable. As we wandered from stall to stall, merchant to merchant, in the narrow alleyways around the Spice Bazaar, the age-old commerce that has been a central theme to this great city was evident all around us. Istanbul’s prime location at the border between Europe and Asia, and on the Bosphorus Strait between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, secured its fate long ago as a crossroads for culture, religion, and trade. Now, in the 21st-century, although much has changed throughout its history, so much of Istanbul remains the same.

Shortly before sunset, we found ourselves gathered on the Clipper Odyssey’s outer decks as she plied the narrow strait north towards the Black Sea. The sun’s low angle light illuminated the domes and minarets of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, grandiosely perched above the Golden Horn in the old part of the city. As we passed beneath bridges decorated with an ever-changing show of lights, we watched the myriad of ships, ranging from small yachts to huge tankers, that use this greatest of maritime superhighways.

On Location: Istanbul

September 29, 2011 | Tags: Istanbul

The chaotic heartbeat of Istanbul was unmistakable. As we wandered from stall to stall, merchant to merchant, in the narrow alleyways around the Spice Bazaar, the age-old commerce that has been a central theme to this great city was evident all around us. Istanbul’s prime location at the border between Europe and Asia, and on the Bosphorus Strait between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, secured its fate long ago as a crossroads for culture, religion, and trade. Now, in the 21st-century, although much has changed throughout its history, so much of Istanbul remains the same.

Shortly before sunset, we found ourselves gathered on the Clipper Odyssey’s outer decks as she plied the narrow strait north towards the Black Sea. The sun’s low angle light illuminated the domes and minarets of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, grandiosely perched above the Golden Horn in the old part of the city. As we passed beneath bridges decorated with an ever-changing show of lights, we watched the myriad of ships, ranging from small yachts to huge tankers, that use this greatest of maritime superhighways.

Welcome Home from Wild India!

September 28, 2011

I trust you all had safe journeys home and as you review and edit your photographs that you are enjoying happy memories of our fantastic experiences in India. Our busy wildlife-watching itinerary took us to three national parks: Bandhavgarh and Kanha in Madhya Pradesh and Kaziranga in Assam, allowing us to experience some of the great wildlife diversity that northern India has to offer.

On reviewing our wildlife sightings, it is amazing to think that between us we saw 30 species of mammals and nearly 250 species of birds. It was the supporting cast of so many birds that kept us focused in the field, and with our senses tuned hour after hour to make so many of those mammal sightings possible. Of course, those birds also provided us with some stunningly beautiful scenes, sounds, and encounters in their own right, too; after all who can forget the gorgeous colors of the white-throated kingfishers; the green-blue-tailed and chestnut-headed bee-eaters; or the Indian rollers that we all admired so many times.

From Delhi’s new air terminal, we flew to the site of Khajuraho. On arrival the temperature was a sizzling 98°F, so we checked in at our hotel and allowed the temperature to fall a little before setting off to explore. The extraordinary carvings of the Khajuraho were not merely Kama Sutric as they are so often depicted, but also encompassed a wide range of scenes of daily life in all its forms, and were the cause of entertainment, amusement, bewilderment, and even amazement at some of the gymnastic poses!  Our local guide, Sahu, had an astonishingly encyclopedic knowledge of the site and could have led us around for several days before running out of stories to tell us. By the time we reached our hotel, cooling drinks were in order and we concluded the day with dinner.

After an early breakfast, we continued southwards into Madhya Pradesh, to Bandhavgarh National Park. As we drove we witnessed the unreeling of daily life along the roadsides for the five and a half hours of our journey, making stops along the way to admire a giant fruit bat roost/colony through the telescope and for tea and coffee. We settled quickly into our comfortable Bandhavgarh Jungle Lodge, and set off into the park on the first of our many game drives. The forest was ablaze with the deep orange trumpets of the flame of the forest trees and vines. During the following days, in addition to many other birds and mammals, we were extremely fortunate to have multiple sightings of the Bengal tiger. For me, the most powerful encounter was at night, when some of us heard the alarm barks of a Sambar, followed by a tigress roaring deeply over and over again “aum….aum…aum,” from the forest edge not far from our lodge. The disconcertingly sad fate of this fabulous creature was brought home to us during Amit Sankhala’s presentation on the park and the pressures on its most charismatic creature, and made each of our views feel even more precious. The rarity of this wonderful creature means that sightings are no longer guaranteed, and it was tremendously fortunate that all of us had such good views. While in Bandhavgarh we were also able to participate in a village visit and a local birding walk, adding to the diversity of our experiences.

Leaving the lodge after an early morning birding walk would have been a sad affair, were it not for the fact that we were headed for another four-night stay at an even more delightful spot—Kanha. Our journey took us through varied and interesting rural countryside, through farmland and villages on a road that has greatly improved in recent years. The agricultural and village sights seemed somehow medieval—albeit with cell phones and motorcycles! We paused along the way to view another giant fruit bat roost, to wander through a colorful local market at Shapura, for observations of waterfowl at Niwas Pond, including bronze-winged jacana, pheasant-tailed jacana, garganey, and cotton pygmy goose, for a picnic lunch at the Niwas Circuit House, and a final comfort stop at the holy Narmada River and Temple. Despite the long journey we were settled in at the splendid Kanha Jungle Lodge, on the edge of Kanha National Park, with our hosts Tarun and Dimple Bhati and their son Jai, in time for dinner. We even managed a first glimpse of the eye-shine of an Indian giant flying squirrel.

The following morning we began the first of our many relaxed safaris into Kanha. This fabulous area, inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, did not disappoint, with mist rising from the meadows in the mornings creating beautiful scenes. Our wildlife sightings here included excellent viewing of the magnificent gaur, the giant wild cattle of India, the diminutive barking deer, the rare barasingha or swamp deer, repeated views of the Indian giant flying squirrel as it emerged from its day time roost and glided off into the forest, and yet more tiger sightings. In fact, by the time we were ready to leave Kanha, some of us had accumulated no fewer than ten sightings. With views of tiger pug marks in the sand, claw scrapes on trees, scenes of scent-marking, and views from elephant rides and our jeeps, as a group we had seen more signs of tigers than any other group I have led in the last five years—alas, not an indication of increasing overall tiger numbers, merely of our tremendous good fortune. Our very last safari into Kanha was a great example of that extraordinary good fortune, with many of us enjoying either a tremendous sighting of a tiger feeding on a sambar kill, or of a female and cubs. What memories to carry away from a trip!

After a very long travel day, from Kanha to Raipur by road and then on to Kolkata by air, it was a relief to arrive in the comfortable ITC Sonar Hotel, Kolkata, less than an hour from the airport. The following morning we set off after a leisurely breakfast for our flight from Kolkata to Jorhat in Assam. Soon after we left the airport we realized what a different part of India we had arrived in: it was slightly cooler, more humid, the people have very different facial features and language, and the roads are better than further south. Eating a late picnic lunch on the way, we drove through the lush countryside of Assam on our way to the lovely Diphlu River Lodge.

The following morning we were off early once more, but this time so that we could experience a misty morning ride on elephant back in search of rhino; we were lucky and encountered 14 including several females with young calves. ­­

Kaziranga’s three separate ranges (Western, Central, and Eastern) gave us more than enough to do; not only did we visit all three areas, but we also enjoyed three excellent elephant rides through the damp grasslands to photograph rhino at very close range. Combining our sightings from all three ranges, we counted an amazing 94 Indian rhino—a fantastic total. On our early morning visit to the Eastern range we saw several capped langur and heard hoolock gibbon greeting the morning sun, while on another day we visited Burra Pahar and the south bank of the mighty Brahmaputra River to see the immense, sandy ‘moonscape’ that this huge river runs through. There we encountered several elegant river lapwings and yet more capped langurs. Each evening before dinner, we met up with Vijay to discuss aspects of this fascinating country and to consider modern Indian society: the world’s largest English-speaking nation, the largest democracy, the largest country driving on the left, an economic and IT powerhouse, yet a country with huge swathes of its population still seemingly living in centuries past, bound by what seem to many of us as out-dated social conventions, yet that for most Indians merely represent normality.

Assam and Kaziranga provided a fitting finale for our wildlife explorations of northern India. During our trip we were exposed to the richness of ancient and modern Indian culture, to ancient architecture and carving, to the diversity and color of modern Indian roadside life and to a great wealth of insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

All too soon our trip came to a close; perhaps it felt all the sooner because we were such a relaxed and enthusiastic convivial group, almost like an extended family sharing our common interests in culture and wildlife. Some of us left straight from Delhi Airport and some were to stay on in India for several more days or to travel on to other holiday destinations, but those of us who remained said our farewells over dinner at the Radisson Hotel near Delhi’s international airport, and left for the delightful distractions of home with memories of India fresh in our minds.

As you all know by now, I love traveling in India, and it was a great pleasure for me to be able to travel with you and to share the many and varied aspects of India with you. Thank you so much for being such wonderful travel companions and for taking such a great interest in the many facets of our trip. It was a joy to share everything with you.

 

With my warmest regards to you all,

Mark Brazil

 

 

Interested in visiting this vibrant country? Learn more.






David Conrad's History of South Africa

September 28, 2011

If you are anything like me, exploring a country means not only appreciating its aesthetics, but also getting to the core of how its people and culture have shaped its history. And, the amazing part of Zegrahm’s upcoming expedition to South Africa is that we’ll see its rich history come to life. Our journey is punctuated by encounters with the local people—enjoying their food, language, and customs—and visits to some of the country’s most historically significant places.

Acknowledged as a cradle of the human species, South Africa is also regarded as the source of human creative art. This fascinating fact is based on several findings that attest to the time-depth of South Africa’s cultural history. Imagine the discovery of 75,000 year-old snail shells drilled with holes, indicating they were meant to be strung as a necklace; paintings on flat stones by San people that, in some cases, may be 26,000 years old; and cave paintings dating to around 10,000 bce. The San, who were mainly hunter-gatherers, and the culturally similar Khoikhoi, who were mostly pastoralists, were the only indigenous inhabitants of South Africa’s western Cape. The eastern Cape, south of the Limpopo River, was home to Bantu-speaking black African cultures including, among several others, Zulu in the north and Xhosa in the south. During our voyage we’ll have the opportunity to enjoy a traditional Xhosa lunch, after visiting New Brighton Township.

In the mid-seventeenth century, South Africa’s human history changed drastically as the Cape became a station for re-supplying Dutch ships bound for the East Indies. A colony of Dutch farmers (eventually known as “Boers”) was established, and they were joined by smaller populations of English, Scandinavian, and French settlers. To produce commodities cheaply enough to make a profit, they all acquired slave labor from West Africa, the East Indies, and local Khoisan groups. Essence of the French and Dutch will be especially prevalent during our time in Franschhoek and Stellenbosch with distinct architectural styles and tastings at wineries, where the settlers originally brought French grapes over to create their vineyards.

The language of Dutch seamen and elements of other European settlers’ vocabulary mixed with local African languages and those of imported slaves, gradually developed into the Afrikaans language of today. The scarcity of white women within the European community led to the mating of white settlers with nonwhite slaves and indigenous folk, producing a mixed class of “Cape Colored” people who became a major population group also known as “Griqua.”

By 1805 the Cape was under British control, and the rest of the nineteenth century saw conflicts of varying intensity between antagonists competing for land, cattle, and political power. Boer slave owners fought against British abolitionism, and both Boer and Griqua skirmished with Xhosa and other Bantu farming and cattle-herding populations. Several great African leaders emerged using armies to establish their own states. Three of the most talented and successful of these were Shaka, the famous Zulu leader, Moshoeshoe, who founded what eventually became Lesotho, and Mzilikazi, who became king of a Zulu group called Ndebele. Conflict between British and Boer settlers led to the latter’s “Great Trek” northward across the Orange and Vaal rivers, and establishment of two independent Afrikaner republics, the Orange Free State and Transvaal. Nearby, in a disputed region called Griqualand West, diamonds were discovered, and in 1871 the British joined the northward movement by annexing that territory. The 19th-century influence of the British is quite obvious as we explore the Victoria and Albert Waterfront during our overnight in Cape Town.

Success in the diamond fields led to vast wealth for Cecil Rhodes who became Prime Minister of the Cape in 1890 and influenced events that led to the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Despite the Boers’ military defeat, Afrikaner nationalism gained strength until the Nationalist Party was voted into office by a white electorate in 1948 and apartheid became official government policy. Opposition by the African National Congress (ANC) evolved into increasingly militant resistance with the appearance of a new generation of black leaders led by Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Nelson Mandela, many of whom were imprisoned in the mid-1960s. Decades of vicious white nationalist oppression ended when Mandela gained his freedom and in 1994 became president of an ANC-led Government of National Unity. A particularly interesting excursion is a visit to Robben Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the prison where Mandela was incarcerated for 18 of his 26 imprisoned years.

Interested in the nature of South Africa? Read Jonathan Rossouw's description, here.

To learn more about our incredible South Africa & Namibia by Sea expedition, visit our trip page.





A Cornucopia of Color: An Interview with Jack Grove

September 28, 2011

Zegrahm Expeditions cofounder and marine biologist Jack Grove, recently took time to answer some questions about the Seychelles. Learn about his most memorable journeys to the exceptional archipelago, below.

 

How many times have you been to the Seychelles?

My first trips to the Seychelles were prior to the formation of Zegrahm Expeditions. I have not counted but I think it’s safe to say I’ve been at least 12 times since 1984. It is one of my favorite destinations.

What is the most memorable experience you’ve had while visiting the area?

Aldabra and Astove Atoll are my two favorite destinations, though the most beautiful beach in the world is on La Digue. Snorkeling at the World Heritage Site of Aldabra is unsurpassed. Leading a group of snorkelers on, what I refer to as, a high adrenaline drift snorkel, surrounded by large fish that have no fear of you, through a channel adorned with healthy corals and sponges—is amazing.

Astove Atoll has a special place in my heart; it is uninhabited by humans and home to one of the largest nesting areas for green sea turtles in the Indian Ocean. The seas surrounding the atoll are crystal clear and few people get to visit this natural wonderland, because it is so remote. I have been involved in trying to get it accepted as a new World Heritage Site, which has included meeting with the World Conservation Union and the World Wildlife Fund, discussing the value of this isolated marine habitat.

What is your favorite activity to do there and why?

There is no doubt that I have a bias toward marine life and given a choice, I'll use a mask and snorkel rather than a pair of binoculars. One of my favorite fish in the Seychelles is the radiant blue surgeonfish—it will knock your socks off. It’s called a powder blue tang; to swim among a school of such brilliantly colored fish is to be enveloped in the beauty of nature. A cornucopia of color!

Can you explain the difference between the northern islands of the Seychelles versus the outlying southwesterly islands and atolls?

The archipelago is dramatically different from north to south. The islands were spread out like pearls across the western Indian Ocean as Pangaea split up, and the Indian subcontinent drifted to the northeast, eventually colliding with the Asian continent giving rise to the Himalayas.  The granite rocks that comprise the northern islands have been sculpted by millions of years of weathering, and the Salvador Dali-like sculptures afford the most incredible seascapes in the world. In the central area of the island group, the islets are low-lying and surrounded by lush sea grasses where sea turtles abound. But for a guy like me, the real gems are in the south where submerged granite has been encrusted by luxuriant coral reefs, growing in concentric forms called atolls. There are no more beautiful, serene isles in the oceans of the world. I can hardly wait to return.

What’s unique about the Seychelles that can’t be replicated any place else?

White sand beaches embroidered by surreal pink…granite boulders and palm trees with the world’s largest coconut…the giant tortoise…and several World Heritage Sites including the fabled Valle de Mai, home to the coco de mer. It is one of those places you have to experience firsthand in order to believe it is real…Come join us and you will know that the Seychelles are more than unique—these islands are out of this world.

 

Join Jack on our Ultimate Seychelles with Aldabra Atoll expedition departing January 13, or join Zegrahm cofounders Peter Harrison and Shirley Metz on our Classic Seychelles with the Comoros & Zanzibar expedition departing January 24. Plus, check out our exclusive conversation with Peter regarding his love for the Seychelles on our Facebook page.