What makes Kenya a good travel destination?
The promise and guarantee of spotting the wild animals all year round.
Top 3 things that every traveller must know about Safari experience in Kenya?
• When you observe the behaviour of the animals in their habitat, you can’t miss the uncanny semblance they have to human behaviour – especially the male Lion, lazing around while the Lioness works hard to get a kill & feed the family
• So many words in Swahili and Hindi are similar – Safari (Safar) = Journey; Duka (Dukan) = Shop; Gari (Gaadi) = Car; Dava (Daru) = Alcohol …..
• The huge ethnic Indian influence, especially the Gujarati influence, where sometime even the local Kenyan might throw in a phrase like “Biju kai?” in a restaurant
When is the best time to go on safari in Kenya?
It is a year-round destination. Once is never enough
Ideally one must visit, once during migration season and once during the non-migration season.
What items and clothing should one pack when travelling to Kenya?
Travel very light
-One open & 1 closed pair of shoes
-Cotton / Linen Shirts
-Cotton Trousers / Track pants
-Glasses (no Contact lenses)
-Lip Balm, Sunscreen, hair-oil
What sort of preparations do you need to make before travelling to Africa?
One must take Yellow Fever Vaccination and Polio Vaccination (oral) which is a requirement by Indian Ministry.
When is the great migration?
Mid-June – Mid Sep (depending upon the rain pattern)
Can you tell us a little about the life of the locals?
Locals are mostly into cattle rearing, but also hold white collared jobs today.
They are strongly rooted & connected to their families
What are the local delicacies/drinks which one must try in Kenya?
Food: Game Meat: Ostrich/ Crocodile/ Ox etc, Kasava (Tapioka chips)
Drinks: Tusker Beer
According to you what is the best thing about going on a safari in Kenya?
Being in absolute nature, which is supremely calming. Not many digital/technological distractions. As a family, Safari Van is the best place to bond & reconnect!
“Once is never enough, you have to visit Kenya multiple times if you love the wildlife & the bush”
It is believed that the most fortunate alone get an opportunity to journey to Kailash-Manasarovar, the abode of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati.
Considered sacred by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and the followers of an ancient, indigenous religion called Bon, the 21778-feet high Mount Kailash is located roughly a 100 km from the India-Nepal-Tibet tri-border. For Hindus, Kailash is the seat of Shiva, from where the sacred river Ganges descends from heaven. In Buddhism, Kailash is the mystic image of Meru, the great mountain at the center of the universe. It is believed that a single parikrama of Mount Kailash washes away the sins of a lifetime, while 108 parikramas will achieve salvation/nirvana.
The yatra is not only considered among the most sacred, but also one of the toughest. I was blessed to have undertaken this pilgrimage – an experience of a lifetime.
Traveling with a couple of friends, I took the route through Kathmandu instead of the one via Uttaranchal. The journey from Nepal is routed straight to Tibet and does not entail extensive trekking. In Tibet, travel is undertaken in Land Cruisers, with trekking limited to the three days of the Kailash parikrama/ kora.
Tibet is a fascinating land steeped in religion and tradition. Its remoteness strikes you immediately on crossing the border. One rarely encounters people. The highest plateau in the world, Tibet can be chillingly cold and oppressively hot on the same day. Sunlight is intense and scorching at this altitude, under clear skies and thin air. Add to this the dust and swirling cold winds, and the going gets difficult. As they say, when in Tibet, expect the worst and hope for the best.
Our trip began with a bus journey from Kathmandu to the Nepal-China border at Kodari. We switched to Land Cruisers for the Tibet’s leg, driving through the most breathtaking terrain, with solitude as company. The Tibetan plateau stretches to the horizon and offers amazing sights of arid land, streams, lakes, rivers, and mountains, all vying for attention. Struggling with altitude sickness, we worked our cameras overtime to capture nature at her most awe-inspiring.
The name Manasarovar derives from the Sanskrit word manas (mind) and legend has it that the lake was first created in the mind of Lord Brahma, after which it manifested on Earth. Surrounded by majestic mountains including the Gurla-Mandata range and Mount Kailash, the lake is a tranquil blue against a strikingly blue sky. We settled into tents pitched nearby.
It is believed that the Gods come down to bathe in the lake in the predawn hours. We rose early and headed for the shore in anticipation. With no visible terrestrial light, the sky blazed in all its starry glory. At some point, flashes of light appeared in the sky, slowly at first, then with increasing frequency, descending to the surface of the lake – as if a galaxy of stars had come down for a dip. It was an incredible sight!
Later in the morning, we took a dip in the sacred waters before embarking on a jeep parikrama. The lake has different hues; rich turquoise at some places, a deep peacock blue elsewhere. We then headed to Darchen, the base camp for the Kailash kora.
In the normal course, it takes three days to perform the 55-km kora. Tibetans do it anti clockwise, in the belief that you could meet the Gods, who do the kora clockwise. The first day entailed a 15-km, fairly easy trek to our campsite. To our right, the west face of Kailash loomed almost overhead, gazing down on the valley. And to the left flowed the Brahmaputra; a narrow stream at that point. The mountains stretched on either side, sometimes a little grassy, mostly brown, and slate black at times.
The second day of the kora was the toughest, when – at 19500 feet – Dolma La, had to be crossed. Negotiating the steep inclines and boulder-strewn stretches, progress was slow. Shivasthal lay on the way. Tibetans consider this place sacred and believe that if you leave behind some of your old belongings here, you actually cast off your sins. Each step was tough; however, all was forgotten on reaching the pass.
An assembly of stones adorned by colorful prayer flags, chortens are Buddhist shrines and a familiar sight in Tibet, particularly at passes. There was one at Dolma La too. As a mark of respect and to pray for a safe passage, drivers drive around them before bringing their vehicle to a halt. While crossing Dolma La, we got a view of Gauri Kund pond. It is believed that Parvati performed penance for the hand of Lord Shiva, by standing in this pond for six months.
The descent after Domla La is steep and strewn with large boulders. The harsh conditions were aggravated by a hailstorm, making progress challenging.
The third day was an even-paced walk with some strenuous climbs and descents towards the end. But there were some wonderful sights, including one of Rakshas Tal. Located west of Mansarovar but not considered sacred, pilgrims do not bathe in it, nor drink its waters. It is believed that Ravana, the king of Lanka performed penance here to please Lord Shiva.
Our pilgrimage had drawn to a close. Another four days of travel brought us back to Kathmandu. Altitude-related sickness, sleeplessness, loss of appetite and breathlessness had been but a small price for the transformation we had undergone. Tibet had changed us. For a lifetime, or more!
Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom on the Himalayas’ eastern edge, known for its monasteries, fortresses (or dzongs) and dramatic landscapes that range from subtropical plains to steep mountains and valleys. The country’s landscape ranges from lush subtropical plains in the south to the sub-alpine Himalayan mountains in the north. Bhutanese are environmental friendly and mainly focus on preserving their natural resources and rich culture. Bhutan ranks first in economic freedom, peace and is the least corrupted country in the world.
Q] Activity anyone travelling to this region should not miss?
There is so much to do when you’re in Bhutan, like archery, river rafting, hiking, but soaking yourself in a traditional Hot Stone bath is something one must experience when in Bhutan.
Q] One thing you must pack when travelling to Bhutan?
You definitely want to pack good walking shoes and warm clothes, as you will be using them a lot.
Q] Something that one must buy when they are in Bhutan?
Bhutan is known for its unique, rich hand-woven textiles and interesting painting styles. So one should definitely buy Bhutanese handicraft, gold and sliver jewellery, handmade wooden bowls, Buddhist paintings and sculptures. You can buy them at Thimphu, Paro and Phuntsheoling which are some of the major shopping centres in Bhutan.
Q] Which are the best places to capture memories when in Bhutan?
Some great picture spots are Tigers nest, Paro dzong and Punakha Suspension Bridge. Don’t forget to take amazing panoramic pictures at Buddha’s point, BBS tower, Dochula and Chelela.
Q] Any place to enjoy sunset/sunrise?
Dochula Pass is a mountain pass in the snow covered Himalayas within Bhutan, this place offers a 360-degree views of the Himalayas making every sunset and sunrise a surreal experience.
Q] The best place to try authentic local food?
Some of the best places to try authentic Bhutanese cuisine are The Folk Heritage Museum restaurant, Babesa Village restaurant and The Bhutanese which are all located in Thimphu.
Q] Which are the local delicacies which one must try when in Bhutan?
Ema datshi and Ara are famous Bhutanese curries which one must try. The local wine and beer here are good too.
Q] Which is the best time to visit Bhutan?
October to December is the best time to visit Bhutan.
Q] Any local festivals that a travellers must come visit?
Thimphu Tshechu is the biggest and the most vibrant festival which every traveller must visit when in Bhutan.
Dubrovnik is a city in southern Croatia fronting the Adriatic Sea. It’s known for its distinctive Old Town, encircled with massive stone walls completed in the 16th century. Its well-preserved buildings range from baroque St. Blaise Church to Renaissance Sponza Palace and Gothic Rector’s Palace, now a history museum. Paved with limestone, the pedestrianized Stradun (or Placa) is lined with shops and restaurants. For many visitors Dubrovnik is King’s Landing, capital of Westeros (From HBO’s hit show Game of Thrones).
One little-known fact/trivia that everyone should know when travelling to Dubrovnik?
Visit Dubrovnik in winter time; Dubrovnik is mostly known as a summer destination, but Winter has a lot to offer!
What is a must buy when in Dubrovnik?
You must buy the caramelized almonds & candied orange peel.
One takeaway after a visit to this region?
Filigree silver, gold or coral jewellery
What is your advice to first-time travellers?
Don’t miss the City Walls
Things to pack when travelling to Croatia?
Sunglasses & hat are essentials to carry when travelling to Croatia.
One activity anyone travelling to this region should not miss?
You must go kayaking around city walls
The most romantic place to take a special someone to?
Visit the Porporela (pier Dubrovnik’s Old Harbour)
Where should anyone, travelling to this region, definitely get their picture taken?
One must take pictures from the top of Minceta fortress (City walls) / Banje Beach / Upper Cable Car station
The best place to have local food?
Konoba Tabak is a good place to try out authentic local food.
Your favourite local dish and drink that you would recommend our readers?
Try out Lamb prepared under the iron bell; fresh oysters, “sporki makaruli” (a dish made of meat and pasta)
The best pub and best places to catch up for a drink?
La Bodega, Belfast Irish pub, Levanat Bar are some of the local pubs and places you must visit.
One place only the locals would know?
Open air cinema Jadran
Is there any particular month you would not recommend travel to this region and what would that reason be?
July / August as the temperatures are too high and it’s overcrowded
A local festival you feel more travellers should come and see.
Dubrovnik Summer Festival (10th July – 25th August); Winter Festival (December – January), St Blasius Festivity (3rd February)
Which is the best place to get a panoramic photo?
On the top of Mount Srdj, upper Cable Car station, overlooking the Old Town of Dubrovnik
The best place to enjoy sunset/sunrise?
Buza bar, seaside of the city walls
The things guidebooks will not tell anyone about Dubrovnik
There are plenty of small villages nearby that you should visit: do the road trip in the northern part of Dubrovnik (Orasac, Gromaca, Majkovi) and sample the real Dubrovnik’s life since it’s not all about the city walls.
“I took the route from Mongolia to Moscow and every place I stayed over or ‘chugged’ along was stunning”.
A once in a lifetime experience –an understatement for one of the most spectacular rail journeys in the world and I travelled through ‘The Wanderers’ with the wonderful assistance of Farzana, who helped plan the itinerary for me and guided me with all important information.
To begin with, it is how meticulously it is planned and also how perfect the entire rail experience was for me – from the comfortable first class cabin to the clean rest rooms, the endless supply of hot water (to make chai or have cuppa noodles), the kind and caring cabin attendant of our coach – all essential to make a rail journey unforgettable for the right reasons!!
As I traversed on from country to country and city to city – it was like leaving a part of yourself there. The vast plains of Mongolia to the beautiful fall colors of Siberia and not to forget the six different time zones that one crosses in a span of 16 days !! That’s when it hits you – how massive a country Russia is. For me the most beautiful sights were the fall colors – a sight to die for and Lake Baikal. Of course, the usual sights of the Kremlin, Red Square – steeped in history, evoked many memories of Leon Uris’s books, which I had read as a child.
Last but not the least, the famous Moscow Metro – not just a place which transports people from one place to another, but also carries you back in Russian history and every station is a colorful and grand link to the past.
Even though literally that journey came to an end, it is far from over for me. When you lose your soul to such a beautiful experience, the part that stays back with you – always keeps searching for the part that’s been left behind.
” A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck
Departure was scheduled at 6:00PM, the ropes were lifted from the quayside, and our expedition ship moved off and headed out into the Beagle Channel to begin the long expected journey to Antarctica.
Once onboard, we settled into our cabins, and then gathered in the bar for a Welcome Cocktail. This gave us all a first chance to interact with our fellow passengers and to know the Expedition Staff, as well as some members of the crew. Before inviting us for a welcoming toast, our Expedition Leader also presented our biologist and Assistant Expedition Leader, the naturalist, the guide, and the geographer. They would help us understand the wonders we were about to explore and give lectures during the trip. Expedition Leader also introduced the doctor on board, and our hotel manager, who would be in charge of our well-being with a little help from his kitchen, dining room and cabin staff.
In the meantime, the Expedition Ship was starting to leave the pier in Ushuaia. We were sailing through the scenic Beagle Channel, heading for the open South Atlantic Ocean. After a short while, Our Expedition Leader called us again for an important briefing on safety on board and the abandon ship drill. Shortly after, the ship´s alarm gave us the signal to execute this emergency drill. Moving to our cabins, we donned ourselves with the warmest clothes we could find, picked up our life jackets, and then headed to the muster station, which was at the back of the bar. After a roll call, we knew that everybody was acknowledged for and were led to the orange egg-shaped lifeboats. We felt quite safe but at the same time, we were hoping never have to use them at all.
A nice dinner awaited us shortly after the lifeboat drill giving a chance for everybody to get a bit more acquainted. The evening allowed some of us to be on the decks to enjoy the great scenery of the Beagle Channel, where some of the first birds were spotted. Later, after dinner, we were offered to watch the documentary “Trapped in the end of the World”, about Nordensjolk epic adventure, and we went to bed.
DRAKE PASSAGE, EN ROUTE TO ANTARCTICA
WIND (AM): 8kn SSE– TEMP. (AM): 4ºC (cloudy)
WIND (PM): 15kn W – TEMP. (PM): 4ºC (cloudy)
Once we left Tierra del Fuego behind the night before, we were in open waters heading South on our way to Antarctica. It was a little windy, the swell was of up to 5m and the ship moved a bit. Bird watching on the outer decks was fairly good, leading afterwards our way into the bar, where the Assistant Expedition Leader was waiting for us to share his knowledge about ‘Penguins’
After a lunch that not everyone attended, early in the afternoon at the bar, Pablo showed us how different nations could put differences away, and create the ‘Antarctic treaty’. Short after tea time, The Expedition Leader was in charge of making a general approach to several Antarctic outstanding facts through his lecture “Antarctica, Land of records”. We slowly started to perceive the adventure that we were about to live.
Our movie time after a Drake proven dinner was the documentary Frozen Planet. Many of us went to bed quite early, and no one stayed up late.
A little ship rolling, and a gray, windy sky strayed most of us to the bar or our cabins. Weather inspired us to attend Juan’s lecture, about Antarctic geology. And briefly afterwards the Expedition Leader gave us a mandatory IAATO talk about the required behaviour and equipment for a successful landing to Antarctica. Then we were also introduced to safe “Zodiac” operations, concerning the use of the pneumatic boats for landings and short scenic navigations. A quick introduction on how to dress for the outdoor activities was given too. So, we only needed to check our cameras, load batteries and, generally speaking, be ready for the big adventure, which awaited us.
Soon, in the afternoon, the South Shetland Islands were sighted and we entered them between Greenwich and Livingstone islands through Mac Farlane Strait. Once in the channel, we landed at Half Moon Island where Camara station (Argentina) is located. Finally stepping on Antarctic soil! In the area we could finally stretch our legs in a cold late afternoon, surrounded by Gentoo penguins with their grown chicks and a number of fur seals, and some skuas. After we had enjoyed this landing the boats were ready to return us onboard the Expedition Ship.
In the calmer waters of the South Shetlands we had dinner, a short briefing with the activities for the coming day, and finally went to rest thinking about our first sight of Antarctic penguins.
Starting our day with a cloudy and cold morning, it got just better and better. After having breakfast sooner than yesterday, we prepared for our next landing, at Trinity Island in the Mikkelsen Harbour. Between diving penguins, we landed in an impressive historical remaining of the whale hunt industry were shown and wore off as soon as we step on the beach. Ribs of boats and ribs of whales, a strange metaphor for a forgotten way of living. Some Gentoo penguins and a couple of Southern Fur Seals invited us to walk the Island, as the staff members proposed a secure trail. From seemingly nowhere, an Argentine refuge hut, which was being restored, but we didn´t get the chance to go into it. A very interesting and intriguing landscape, indeed. We boarded the Expedition Ship anxious for the hot meal that was waiting for us. We sailed a little further, to the Cierva Cove, near the Argentine base “Primavera”, which means, in Spanish, “Spring”. We took two turns to sail on the Zodiacs, for more than one hour each. Nothing prepared us for what we were going to experience. At the very beginning, we could just be wondered over the fishing activities of a couple of Humpback Whales groups. These whales have two different hunting behaviours over krill or fishes. They can just widen up the mouth and engulf lots of krill, pushing afterwards the water through their baleens using their tong. Or they can “Bubble Net”: expelling air bubbles in a kind of circular net.
This air rises to the surface and increasing its volume, the victims get trapped in those and latter eaten the same way than before, engulfing and filtering. They even showed us their tails, laterals fins, blows, and even a little cub was showing off. As we continued our sailing, we could take a real close look at a leopard seal that was resting on an iceberg, just like in a couch. They are not usually aggressive, and she let us take many pictures. Hey predate over fishes and, in some occasions, over penguin’s chick, unexperinced in this cold and dangerous waters. The same kind of sighting for several crabeaters seals we encountered some icebergs further. They get their name from what they eat, not crabs, but krill, which is also a crustacean. A group of gentoo penguins were rehearsing the sea diving skills, near the entrance to the base. The big BIG surprise was just after the second group arrived to the ship. Some humpback whales got curious, very curious, and approached the ship´s stern… We were left wordless, feeling like blessed for the presence of this majestic animals, like ambassadors from another world. Some of us got lucky enough to watch the visit on their zodiacs, and the rest of us contemplated from the stern. A while after, everybody onboard, the guide prepared a recap, just a little info about Antarctic bases and just right after the briefing we had dinner. Today´s bar special: Martini Night!
When Lonely Planet places Colombia second on its list of Best in Travel Top countries & 10 destinations.
You cannot afford to miss, one tends to sit up and notice that tiny country hedged between the Andes, the Amazon, the Pacific and the Caribbean “somewhere in Latin America”. When I visited Colombia on a 2-week trip a couple of years ago, I knew the place was something special. Whether it was drifting down the Amazon & camping on a hammock in the mosquito-infested jungle or walking through the narrow cobbled streets of charming Cartagena de Indias or wandering through the coffee triangle of Manizales, Pereira and Quindio and the famed Valle del Cocora or the colourful old town of Salento, or visiting a local pub in Bogota, the sense of stumbling upon a hidden gem was palpable throughout.
During my brief stay in Bogota (where I went to attend a travel fair), I met up with many travel partners from all over Colombia who spoke to me about places I was not fortunate enough to visit on this trip. Like the archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina which was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000 and the legendary “sea of seven colours.” I came to know of Santa Marta, the first city in Colombia and the oldest in South America & a port of entry for those looking to conquer the “New world” in the 16th Century. I heard of the Gorgona National Park on the Pacific Coast, considered as one of the most bio-diverse & rainy areas on Earth and a paradise for nature lovers and adventurers. A place where the hump back whales arrive from the North in search of warmer waters. And in the midst of it is Nuqui, the Pacific Coast’s Eden, approachable only by air & a paradise for bird lovers, water sports enthusiasts, fishing and unspoiled nature; inspiring artists and poets with its incredible views of lush forest, beaches, waterfalls, stones and boulders of many colours. Then there’s the town of Villa de Leyva, just 200kms from Bogota, declared a national monument in 1954 and best explored on foot. Some spoke of the remote and hidden town of Santa Cruz de Mompox, situated on an island of the same name on the western bank of the Magdalena river, 200kms from Cartagena, that inspires tales of romance and nostalgia. A place that Colombia’s most famous son, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, described in his novel “The General in his labyrinth” as follows: Mompox does not exist, sometimes we dream of her, but she does not exist. In 1995, UNESCO declared this place a World Heritage Site.
Other names flashed by. San Augustin (a UNESCO World heritage site) & Tierradentro, the salt desert of Guajira, Santander, Bucaramanga, Barranquilla (the golden gate of Colombia), Ciudad Perdida & of course Cali (the capital of Salsa) and Medellin.
There was more. Much more. I was convinced I had to return to this place to soak in its magical realism.
6 things you need to know about Colombia:
It is not the country that you see in Narcos. That man died in 1995. If thats the reason for going (or not going) to Colombia, think again.
It will be the most sought after destination in Latin America. Soon. Go there before Starbucks opens a store in Leticia.
It is one of the safest places in the Americas. (Despite “Narcos”)
It is a bird watchers paradise. Colombia leads the world in avian biodiversity; it is home to 1889 species, or 20 % of all bird species on Earth. 197 species of migratory birds are also temporary residents. 71 species of birds found here are unique to Colombia.
Barranquilla Carnival, February: This 4-day festival has been awarded the status of a “Masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity” by UN cultural body UNESCO. The event features various days of parades, music, drinking and dancing in a city already famous in Colombia for its active party scene. It is arguably the second biggest and best annual celebration in Latin America’s carnival calendar, falling only slightly below the levels of hedonism witnessed at the street parties of Rio de Janeiro.
The people are honest and helpful. Don’t corrupt them.
On a quest for sighting the snow leopard in the wild
By Abhik Dutta
Jigmet, our guide, peered into the scope and began diligently scanning the hill opposite the plateau on which we stood. We peered through our binoculars checking every spur, ridgeline and saddle where the supposed ‘movement’ had been spotted by the villagers earlier in the afternoon. The excitement was palpable. We had braved the severe temperatures of a wintry February in the high altitude of Ladakh on a quest to sight the snow leopard in the wild. It looked like we were close to seeing the elusive ghost of the Himalayas in its natural habitat. “Jigmet, kuch dikha?” we kept murmuring to him. He just shook his head without looking up from his scope. Through our sights, every brown rock in the distance held promise. Against a background of white, dotted with various shades of brown rocks, gazing at a mountain a good 1.5kms away, and searching for a 50kg animal that doesn’t want to be found was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. What were our chances of seeing this creature when, recently, a Nat Geo team spent the first 5 weeks in the region without spotting it?
On its final approach, the aircraft flew high above the airstrip, perilously close to a hill on the left and then banked sharply to the left, circling around the ridge and aligning itself to the runway. Down below, the expanse of Leh opened up, snow draped with shades of brown and grey breaking the monotony. As the flight taxied towards the airport building, from my seat 10 A, I saw a red fox scampering along the airport fence and disappearing behind a mound. Aditya Singh, seated behind me, saw it too. It was a good omen, we thought.
The idea of the trip first occurred to me during an earlier trip to Ladakh in summer a few years ago. My wife and I were driving from Tsomoriri to Tsokar, two high altitude lakes in the region, when we offered a lift to an elderly Changpa herder (the nomadic migratory shepherds who stay in the Changthang plateau). He wanted to return to his family members who were camping in the plains somewhere to the East of the dusty highway we were traveling on and he kept looking at the hillside to our right. He spoke animatedly to our driver and when I quizzed the latter, he said the elder was talking about a snow leopard which he had seen a few days ago. He was anxious as it had attacked his sheep the previous year and he believed that these ridges on our right is where the leopard roamed. We got talking through our interpreter, the driver. He said that the best time to spot the same would be the winter months, when these leopards came down from the higher reaches following their natural prey, the bharal (blue sheep), ibex and Ladakhi urial which too came down searching of grass, shrubs and other plants at lower altitudes. But sometimes they chose easier prey..the sheep that these herders and locals kept in the corrals. But to come to the Changthang region in winter would literally be an uphill task as the region would be inhospitable, the roads snowed out and the passes shut. Maybe we should concentrate on villages closer to Leh or even the Hemis National Park, where sighting was said to be occasional. And so the seed, of catching a glimpse of the snow leopard in the wild, the Holy Grail of wildlife photography, was planted in my head.
Joining me early on in this adventure were my friends Ajay and Sharon, two avid trekkers who didn’t need coaxing as they wanted to visit Ladakh in winter, having been there a few times before including on the Chadar trek. Aditya Singh, a wildlife buff and passionate photographer, jumped at the idea as soon as I suggested it to him. We planned a 11 day trip, from 9th to 19th Feb 2017, with 3 days in Leh for acclimatization, followed by 7 days at the Hemis National Park (HNP) where we would camp. But as the date approached, we got news that there had been sighting near the Village of Ulley, 20 kms away and 2000 ft above Likir.
So we adjusted our fluid plans accordingly, and decided on spending the first 3 nights in Ulley at a home stay and the other 3 nights in HNP, camping at Rumbak. We had to watch out for 2 things in particular. Acclimatizing to the altitude and embracing the severe cold that we would have to endure, ranging from minus 22 to minus 8 deg C. It was something that I was really looking forward to!
The snow leopard, is one of the most elusive cats and very little is known of its behavior in the wild. In India, their main habitat are the upper reaches of the Himalayas where they stay at altitudes ranging from 3000 m to 4500 m. Their estimated population in India is about 200-600 (so elusive is the animal and so inaccessible its habitat that a more accurate figure is not available) and Ladakh alone is said to have more than half of that. During the winter months, with heavy snowfall in the upper reaches, its natural prey climb to lower altitudes in search of food and the leopard follows them, sometimes to grave consequences as it enters villages and attacks the domesticated sheep and goats.
Earlier, the villagers retaliated pushing the cat further away from human settlements. But over the last few years, due to some excellent work by a local conservancy unit, the man-animal conflict has sharply declined and now the villagers take active part in the conservation efforts as it supplements their winter income with wildlife photographers and nature lovers keen to stay with them on their quest to see the animal.
On 12th Feb, our motley group of 10 consisting of the 4 of us plus Jigmet our guide, Namgyal our local travel partner & his 10 year old son and the support staff of 3 left for Ulley. The drive in winter is quite different from a summer trip when Ladakh sees 95% of its tourist traffic from May to September. Winter tourism consists of the now very popular Chadar trek and the snow leopard quest which is still in its infancy. The landscape was surreal, the mountains bathed in white, the occasional brown patches of land peering through the snow. We stopped at the confluence of Zanskar and Indus river, a sight so spectacular that its nothing like what it is in summer. The Zanskar was frozen solid and the Indus was a narrow streak, the rest of it frozen almost to the center of the river.
We soon turned right to Likir and began the treacherous 2o km uphill drive to Ulley. Our vehicle put on the chains as the road was covered in snow. It was a narrow track, with space only for one vehicle to pass by, with sheer drops on one side and like most Himalayan roads, no safety rails on the curbs. En route we stopped to see a herd of 15 Ladakhi Urials, an endangered animal with an estimated population of only a 1000 in the wild.
A lone lammergeier circled high above the blue skies. Near a stream, we spotted the White winged redstart (Guldenstadt’s Redstart), a winter visitor in Ladakh. By 2pm, we reached our destination, the sparsely inhabited village of Ulley (approx 20 persons staying in 6 houses spread over a 4 km radius) surrounded by high mountains. We settled into our rooms with our bed & sleeping bags on the floor, the bukhari in the main room lit up for much needed warmth to our numbed bones. A simple meal of rice, dal & sabzi had been cooked for us by the owner of the house and after lunch we settled for a short rest.
At 4.15 pm, we headed out through a snow covered track to a vantage point above the village from where we began scouring the surrounding hills for signs of life. We spotted 3 ibex sitting on a snowy patch on the hill opposite the village. Another solitary ibex grazed on another ridge. At 6.30 pm, the sun having vanished behind the faraway mountains, we decided to pack up and return to the lodge. The temperatures had dipped sharply and staying on that exposed plateau would serve no further purpose in fading light. We settled around the warmth of the Bukhari and chatted for a while. At 8 pm, dinner was served and soon after we crept into our sleeping bags.
13th Feb: 6 am: Jigmet woke us up. I had slept in fits and starts at night. While my down sleeping bag had kept me warm, the room temperature had dipped drastically once the genset died at 11 pm and the heater was turned off. We changed quickly into our outdoor gear (I was wearing 5 layers with a down jacket, I had bought from the local market in Leh, serving as the 6th layer) and after a hot cup of tea, we headed out with Jigmet to the same vantage point of the previous day. The air outside was icy cold, the sun rays had just begun to fall on the upper reaches and the valley was still cast in shadow. The warm rays were still an hour away.
Jigmet set up the scope & we organised our binoculars and cameras, Aditya his “Bazooka,” a 500 mm zoom that he was carrying with him. We soon spotted a red fox dancing up the village road that disappeared quickly in the undergrowth before we could take a photo. An hour later, the sun hit the sweet spot & gave us much needed warmth. The temperature was around 20 deg C below zero and in spite of the protection we had, our toes and finger tips were becoming numb in the vicious cold.
Hot tea/coffee arrived soon. At 9.30 am, we decided to return to the lodge for breakfast. Except for the 3 Ibex of the previous evening and the red fox that we sighted, we drew a blank when it came to any sign of the leopard. At 11.30 am, we left again, this time walking down the village road where we had seen the red fox. We soon spotted a herd of over 15 Asiatic Ibex, grazing quietly, digging through the snow with their hoofs, bending down on their knees to search for roots of plants hidden beneath the snow. We set up our scope here again following the Ibex herd as it slowly moved Northwards towards a parallel ridge, hoping to see signs of predators as well. Characterized by their stout bodies and short legs, the Ibex’s long horns curve backwards gently unlike the Urial and Argali whose horns curve backwards sharply.
We decided to go further up the hill, beyond our original vantage point and trudged through shin-deep snow to reach the spot. Every upward step was a task for me and my shortness of breath coupled with the cold made the simple task of climbing 300 ft a laborious affair. Once again, except for the same herd of Ibex, which had now settled down on the slope above our guest house, we had no luck with any predator sighting. Lunch was served at the spot by our ever smiling kitchen staff who had brought it all the way up. It consisted of rice, dal, sabzi, tuna, boiled eggs. It was welcomed by all of us.
Post lunch, we went further up the trail to another spot above some chortens. The scope was set up again and the place offered a 360 deg view of the surrounding ridges. We scanned the horizon continuously but detected no further animal movement. At 4.30 pm, the sun dipped behind the ridge and an icy cold descended on us. We trudged back to the comfort of our lodge.
14th Feb: We woke up late. We slept better during the night as we had all settled into a routine. Today we would be exploring a parallel valley. Our vehicle took us to the road head and then we trudged up the snow draped valley, up the left flank. Shortly, Jigmet showed us the pug marks of the snow leopard, about 3 days old, its scat below a jutting ledge. This was our first sign of leopard movement in the valley. We walked on for another 20 minutes and pitched our scope there scanning the valley for movement. High above us, a Golden Eagle soared, dipping in and out of sight as it circled a sharp ridge to our right. After 30 mins Jigmet decided to climb higher to a better vantage point, approx 200 ft higher. I followed him.
We stayed there for an hour but we drew a blank. In the distance, at the head of the valley, I saw our camp staff approaching with our lunch packs. That was our cue to climb down. After a hearty lunch of tuna pasta, we decided to walk back following a trail on the other side of the narrow valley. The path climbed up steeply, curving 300 ft above the valley floor. Here again we saw fresh pug marks of the snow leopard, a day old, and this gave us renewed hope of seeing the elusive cat.
We reached the road-head and boarded our vehicle and returned to the village. There was considerable excitement at the lodge. The landlady and her family members were gesticulating wildly at the opposite ridge and speaking to Namgyal and Jigmet. Earlier in the afternoon, while we were away, they had spotted some “tell-tale movement” pointing to the presence of a snow leopard in the opposite mountain. This steep ridge was at least 1.5 kms away and 1000-1500 ft higher than where we were. We needed a better vantage point. We quickly boarded the vehicle & drove above the village to a spot 500mtrs up the road. From there Jigmet and Ajay scurried up the mountain while Aditya, Sharon and I brought up the rear, plodding through knee deep snow and panting up the slope.
“Jigmet, kuch dikha?” we kept murmuring to him. He just shook his head without looking up from his scope. Through our sights, every brown rock in the distance held promise. Against a background of white, dotted with various shades of brown rocks, gazing at a mountain a good 1.5 kms away, and searching for a 50 kg animal that doesn’t want to be found was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
And then, he shouted the magic words, “Snow Leopard!”
Sharon spotted it through the scope but by the time our turn came, it had vanished from sight. The scanning began in right earnest with 3 binocs and a spotting scope. There were just 2 colors on the faraway ridge. The white of the snow and the brown of the rocks & boulders. Only a trained eye could spot something that far away. Jigmet’s scanning continued and once again he shouted “Snow leopard” and this time Namgyal and Ajay saw it in the distance before it vanished from sight again. Our binoculars were just not picking up any movement. I peered through the scope. Nothing.
And then, suddenly it appeared in my line of sight. A ghost that was moving to our left high up on the ridge. Graceful and unhurried. And then it moved behind another boulder, out of sight. Excitement in our group was sky high. The sun was behind us and the light was perfect. But it was still too far away for a clear shot through the cameras. It was impossible to see it with the naked eye. We couldn’t even figure out which exact point in the ridge it was traversing. Once again Jigmet picked up the leopards movement through the scope.
This time it was wading gracefully through the snow. I saw the lithe creature moving up the slope, the long tail swishing in the snow. And so, on it went, a cat and mouse game as it moved in and out of sight. Each of us got to see the cat in the wild, in its natural habitat. A poignant moment in our lives. We had braved the altitude, the severe temperatures and stay in basic facilities to come to Ladakh when most travelers shy away from visiting the region in winter. But our effort was worth it.
Meanwhile, I was photographing blind on my Nikon P-900, and even with its massive 2000 mm zoom, I couldn’t figure out where it was, so well camouflaged it was in the mountains. Later, much later, when I studied the photographs in detail, I saw the leopard, framed on the edge of the photographs, trudging through snow. The last of the photos had it silhouetted against the sky, standing atop the ridge, the king of the Himalayas in its snowy lair.
Postscript: On our way to Hozing Nallah in Hemis National Park the next day, I called home and found out about a family emergency and had to rush back to Leh to catch the flight to Mumbai the next day. Aditya, Ajay and Sharon carried on and were extremely fortunate to sight the snow leopard from a much closer distance, 500 mtrs away. They watched it for almost 6 hrs that day standing atop a narrow ledge.
Essential viewing: National Geographic’s outstanding documentary of the snow leopard in Ladakh with veteran wildlife film maker Hugh Miles here.
Checkout our Snow Leopard Trail In Ladakh Package here
One little known fact/trivia that everyone should know about when travelling to Greece?
Greece is a unique destination for travelers holding a population of 10,815,197. Apart from an incomparable combination of mountain and sea destination spots, more importantly Greece offers remarkable history, monuments, attractions and amazing night life giving every traveler a reason to visit and hold Greece in their hearts!
What is a must buy when in Greece?
Greek Olives and Extra Virgin Olive oil.
One take-away after a visit to Greece?
Small or big ancient Greek civilization statuettes and fridge magnets which are sold as souvenirs.
What is your advice to first time travelers?
To taste the rich Mediterranean cuisine and live the myth of Greece.
One thing to definitely pack when travelling to Greece?
One activity anyone travelling to GREECE should not miss.
To swim in the crystal blue Greek Mediterranean Sea and to experience a traditional Greek night with “plate smashing”
Where should anyone, travelling to GREECE, definitely get their picture taken?
The most spectacular Archaeological site in Greece “Acropolis”; to visit the most scenic area “Delphi“ – the naval of the earth; and to walk on the still active Volcano of Santorini!
Which is the best place to get a panoramic photo?
The magical Caldera views captured only in Santorini.
Best place to enjoy sunset/sunrise?
The world famous sunset in Oia of Santorini.
Most romantic place to take a special someone to?
One of the most popular honeymooner’s destination in Greece, Santorini.
Best place to have local food?
Monastiraki and Plaka areas in the heart of Athens most famous for traditional Greek cuisine.
Your favorite local dish and drink that you would recommend?
Greek chicken souvlaki accompanied with traditional Greek beer or fresh seafood meze accompanied with local Greek ouzo.
One place only the locals would know?
Litochoro village, located at the foot of mount Olympus, the home of our ancient Gods!
The best pub and best place to catch up for a drink?
We wouldn’t suggest just one pub as there are too many good ones, but the best three areas in the downtown area of Athens are Psiri, Kolonaki and Gazi for a fun evening/night out!
A local festival you feel more travelers should come and see?
The famous Greek carnival of Patras town which lasts for 2 whole days and includes mascaraed parades with singing, dancing and lots of drinking!
The things guide books will not tell anyone about Greece?
Religious and local cultural traditions that can only be found out on the spot whilst exploring!
Is there any particular month you would not recommend travel to Greece and what would that reason be?
Throughout the year, during all seasons, Greece has many places a traveler can visit which means there is no particular month Greece is not ideal for all!
In one sentence, GREECE is a country of history, culture, beauty and hospitality….. and you don’t have to be Greek to love Greece…
Everything the guide books or tourism websites won’t tell you about the place.
One little known fact/trivia that everyone should know about when travelling to WELLINGTON?
Wellington has lots of quirky features to look out for including the private cable cars that take people up to their houses. And for Indian travelers, I have to mention the Basin Reserve Cricket Ground which forms one of the world’s largest traffic roundabouts!
What is a must buy when in WELLINGTON?
Tough question! Wellington’s boutique fashion stores are great and if you’re visiting in spring or autumn, Icebreaker merino clothing will be perfect for layering. Whittakers chocolate is made locally and available everywhere.
One take-away after a visit to WELLINGTON?
The most common feedback I hear is ‘I wish I’d known – we would have stayed longer’. So now you know – book a minimum two-night stay before sailing away on the ferry to the South Island.
What is your advice to first time travellers?
Because Wellington is so compact, you can see and do a lot in a day. I like to call Te Papa the museum for people who don’t like museums. It’s all about hands-on interactivity, using lots of technology and the best thing is … it’s free! Then take a short walk through downtown takes you to the historic Wellington Cable Car. This will whisk you up the hill in just five minutes to the Botanic Gardens. If you’re travelling with children, stop in at Carter Observatory. And if you want to learn why your country got elephants, tigers and snakes and New Zealand got no mammals at all, take the free shuttle from the top of the Cable Car to Zealandia, one of the world’s most ambitious conservation projects. If you’re short on time, this is my perfect Wellington day.
One thing to definitely pack when travelling to WELLINGTON
Gollum at the Wellington Airport
Pack comfortable shoes – you can walk from Parliament Buildings at one end of town, to the Courtenay Place entertainment district at the other, in under half an hour.
One activity anyone travelling to WELLINGTON should not miss.
For the adventure-seeking, a half day quad-biking trip is a must do. Start off down on the beach and power up into the mountains for views back to the city, harbour and as far as the South Island. Adventure and 100% Pure New Zealand scenery wrapped up together!
Where should anyone, travelling to WELLINGTON, definitely get their picture taken?
You’ll get great shots from the top of the Cable Car. (This is how I go home at night!)
Which is the best place to get a panoramic photo?
Mount Victoria gives you great views over the city and harbor.
Best place to enjoy sunset/sunrise?
Oriental Bay beach for sunrise, and the beanbags outside Shed 5 Bar and Restaurant with a cocktail in hand at sunset.
Most romantic place to take a special someone to.
Solace in the Wind is a beautiful bronze sculpture on the waterfront near Te Papa. The location had been somewhere for the artist to reflect upon life during difficult times – a place of solace. It’s Wellingtonians’ favourite sculpture.
Best place to have local food?
I’m a big fan of the seafood from Ortega’s Fish Shack, the eight-hour roasted lamb at Duke Carvall’s and whatever’s in season at Floriditas.
Your favorite local dish and drink that you would recommend.
New Zealand’s ‘culinary capital’ is said to have more bars, cafes and restaurants per capita than New York. Start like the locals with a ‘flat white’ coffee in the morning.
One place only the locals would know.
There’s a lot of tucked away bars and clubs – Library Bar in Courtenay Place (up the stairs next to Burger King) is a long time favourite. HashigoZake and Goldings Free Dive Beer Bars are fun too – ask a local for directions!
The best pub and best place to catch up for a drink
How about a palate cleansing beer from one of the dozen or so craft brewers around the city? A tasting tray from the Fork & Brewer means sampling four small glasses from local brewers like Tuatara, Garage Project and Parrot Dog.
A local festival you feel more travellers should come and see
You won’t see anything like the World of Wearable Art Awards anywhere else in the world. It’s a mix of design, theatre – think John Paul Gualtier meets Cirque de Soleil. Hard to describe, but a must see if you’re in Wellington during the three week show in late September.
The things guide books will not tell anyone about WELLINGTON?
Lots of people know about New Zealand and The Hobbit, but lots of other movies get made in Wellington too, including TinTin, King Kong and Avatar 2&3. There’s a new 45 minute Weta Cave Workshop Tour. Your guide will be one of the talented artists working at the home of special effects powerhouse, Weta Workshop.
Is there any particular month you would not recommend travel to WELLINGTON and what would that reason be?
Wellington’s climate doesn’t get very hot in summer or very cool in summer, so it’s always a good time to visit.
In one sentence, WELLINGTON is “the coolest little capital in the world”. Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel said so, and of course we think they’re right!
Jo Heaton is the Trade Marketing Manager for Positively Wellington Tourism and she travels extensively for work and pleasure. Favourite destinations include Etosha NP in Namibia for wildlife,The Loire in France for cycling and anywhere in Italy for food. She thinks Wellington is the perfect city and could only be improved by the addition of elephants.