On Safari in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater

March 22, 2010 at 7:34 am | Posted in Africa, ecotourism, safaris, Tanzania | Leave a comment
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by Fyllis Hockman

Africa Tanzania Ngorongoro CraterFor people contemplating an Africa wildlife safari, the first place that comes to mind may well be Kenya. But many aficionados favor Tanzania, thanks to its vast Serengeti plains and a nearby volcanic caldera called Ngorongoro.

On my trip to this East African country not long ago, Ngorongoro was far and away the star. Occupying just 102 square miles (264 sq. km), this 2½-million-year-old collapsed volcano is a virtual microcosm of this region of the continent, home to some 30,000 examples of every conceivable species — a distinction that makes it unique in the world. And this means that unlike in some other game parks, here you can spot and snap the “Big Five” (lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, Cape buffalos) and dozens of other species without high-powered binoculars or a huge telephoto lens.

Moreover, Ngorongoro’s creatures seem surprisingly tolerant of sharing space with each other as well as with humans. Hyenas, zebras, wildebeests, ostriches, elephants, lions, warthogs, hippos, baboons, cheetahs, and leopards all exist within view of each other. These days in Africa it’s not always easy to spot cheetahs and leopards, except for here.

Of course, such a concentration of fauna does have its consequences: With the number of visitors increasing each year, conservation and sustainability issues are becoming more and more a concern. Efforts are in the offing to either restrict access or increase entrance fees.

Wildlife Up Close

From hatch-roof jeeps 11 of us gawked, ooh-ed, ah-ed, and snapped picture after picture while the critters studiously ignored us. It’s hard to describe the wonder of being ten or so paces from an elephant that’s 12 feet (almost 4 meters) high at the shoulder, its tusks practically reaching the ground. Or a black-maned lion baring its teeth, or half-a-dozen adolescent zebras cavorting around a water hole.

Then, of course, there was the highlight: spotting the black rhino, of which there are only 4,000 left in all of Africa. For such a large (second only to the elephants) and dangerous animal, I found the rhino doesn’t seem to do much. This one just stood there, neither grazing nor charging, simply looking unimpressed with its surroundings—especially us.

The loping antelope, by contrast, are much more graceful and spirited. “Antelope” is actually a generic term covering a wide range of animals, from 11-pound (four-kilogram) dik diks to 2,000-pound (907-kilo) elands. In between are the springboks, riverbucks, hardebeests, wildebeests, impalas, topis, gazelles and others, with horns from curved to straight, twisted to rippled, rounded to wavy.

Leopards & Cheetahs

We got lucky. Not only did we see two leopards virtually indistinguishable from the tree branches they were wound around, but also a family of cheetahs frolicking nearby. Four cubs romped and rolled over each other, periodically returning to mom for grooming and reassurance.

Mama, though, was eyeing several gazelles about a quarter-mile away. They played a little cat-and-gazelle game, with the leopard debating whether or not to fetch some lunch. Prey and predator eyed each other, each evaluating its position. You could feel the tension, irrevocably caught up in the life-and-death dance that forms the essence of their existence. I was both relieved and disappointed when the cheetah decided against take-out.

And sometimes success — depending upon one’s perspective — is obvious. Case in point: the lion that was so close, I could see its whiskers tremble. The creature’s stomach was distended, clearly indicating how well it had feasted the night before. Observed our guide, Joseph Ndunguru, “Thirty to forty pounds of raw meat will satiate him for four or five days.”

One of the most intriguing photo ops was of a flock of flamingoes numbering in the thousands and occupying most of Lake Magadi, at the bottom of the crater. They resembled a feathery pink blanket stretched out along the shoreline.

Ndunguru could turn anyone into a solid amateur zoologist. Before long, members of the group were identifying a previously generic starling as a Ruppells long-tailed glossy and the ubiquitous antelope as a hardebeest or Grant’s gazelle. By the sixth day, it was, “Don’t bother getting up, it’s just another elephant.”

Luxury Safari

A travel story is often enhanced by the obstacles overcome, but this trip didn’t really present any, in good part thanks to the fact that I was traveling with luxury outfitter Abercrombie & Kent. The sun was brighter, the game lodges a mix of luxury and rustic décor, the flies relatively subdued, and the dust lighter than it might have been. I actually returned to my hotel with clothes still resembling the colors they’d started out with.

The roads were another story, a hardship that can’t be avoided unless you walk, which was definitely discouraged. Anyone with back problems — or allergies, for that matter — should think twice about this sort of trip.

Seated on the balcony at the Serengeti Sopa Lodge in Arusha the last morning, I listened to a concerto of birdcalls while two Thompson’s gazelles romped with a topi. A flock of guinea hens grazed within 50 yards, assiduously avoiding a passing warthog.

But what especially struck me was the presence of all the other animals, hidden in grass and shrubs, that I knew I was not seeing. Occupying those endless plains were millions of hoofed  creatures continually on the move in search of pasture, constantly watched and pursued by predators whose own survival depends upon feeding off them. For awhile, I watched for the slightest movement, as a hungry predator might do as it seeks its next meal. Then I reluctantly left for the airport, knowing (or certainly hoping) that this strange combination of imposing terrain, tenuous commingling of wildlife — and, yes,  inevitable brutal killings — will continue long after I’m gone.

For more on Africa wildlife excursions, see this blog’s Safaris 101.

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Ogling — and Surfing — Namibia’s Haunting Red Dunes

February 12, 2010 at 10:56 am | Posted in Africa, ecotourism, Namibia | 1 Comment
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by José Balido

Namibia Sossuvlei dunesSome 3 1/2 hours by road from Namibia’s tidy capital of Windhoek, out in the Namib desert of the country’s southwest, you’ll find one of the world’s more impressive natural sights and experiences: its highest (up to some 280 feet/85 meters) and oldest sand dunes. Sossusvlei, part of Africa’s biggest game park, Namib-Naukluft National Park, is punctuated by twisted camel thorn trees; you can balloon and fly over these towering reddish “star dunes,” hike them (guide recommended), and even surf down their sides (note to self: look up how to say “cowabunga!” in Nama). The best times of day to come and experience them are sunrise and sunset, when their reddish-orangy hues shift, shimmer, and glow. Don’t forget to also stop for a peek at dramatic Sesriem Canyon, some 40 miles (65 km) away. Admission to Namib-Naukluft is N$80*, and for overnighting, there are various lodges in the area to choose from. A top newish upscale choice is Sossus Dune Lodge, but if its lead rate of N$2,400** is a tad rich for your blood, other options include Desert Camp (from N$455 per person), Desert Homestead (from N$583 pp), and Betesda Lodge (from N$550, or just N$80 to camp). That’s going on your own — naturally there are also a bunch of safari operators which will bring you here on all-inclusive itineraries. More country info: Tripatini’s Namibia group, NamibiaTourism.com.na.

*approximately US$10; £6.50; €7.50; AU$11.75, NZ$15, R80
**approximately US$310; £198; €228;
AU$352, NZ$448, R2,400

Ever Heard of Stewart Island? It’s A Wild Slice of Old New Zealand

January 25, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Posted in ecotourism, New Zealand, Oceania | Leave a comment
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by Fyllis Hockman

Flashlights bobbing in the night as we gingerly picked our way through the bush, all 15 of us switched off at the command of our guide Peter, leaving his the sole illumination, hopping and skipping over the remote, seaweed-strewn beach.

Suddenly there it was, head bobbing up and down, long beak darting in and out of the sand, single-mindedly nibbling on spiders, berries, and crustaceans: the elusive New Zealand kiwi. We waddled in muted tandem behind Peter as he inched us to within 20 feet. Trying not to intrude upon her late-night supper, we were star-struck by this little brown dumpling of a bird. It’s an experience even few Kiwis of the human variety have ever had, outside of a zoo.

You see, Stewart Island, 674 isolated square miles (1,745 sq. km) an hour’s ferry ride south of the South Island, is someplace that very few New Zealanders ever get to — much less outsiders — and is one of the few spots where it’s still possible to spot this iconic native bird.

And there are plenty of other reasons to visit Stewart, too (also sometimes known by its Maori name, Rakiura). Isolated, insular, practically undeveloped, natural, wild — it’s a destination that beckons in a way few these days still do. And yet, there’s a very lived-on, lived-in feel here, of everyday life — though probably not your kind of everyday life. Most locals get by on fishing, a spot of farming — and these days, a modest dollop of tourism. No banks, no doctors (there’s a nurse-staffed clinic, though), and, as a waitress at the Just Café told me, “no stress.” Ask how many live here, and you might hear something like: “Well, 400 at last count – no, wait – Annie just gave birth to the twins and Rupert died last week, so guess that makes 401.”

Tourism infrastructure, meanwhile, has been coming along. Start by checking in at one of a handful digs in tiny Oban town and beyond, from backpacker baracks to upscale B&B’s and rental homes. Take a peek in the Rakiura Museum. Take a glass-bottom boat ride in Half Moon Bay. Have a paddle in a sea kayak.

But Stewart’s main draw is still its primordial nature — 85 percent is covered by NZ’s newest national park, and it’s a magical place to have a tramp and go wildlife (particularly bird) spotting. There are only some 18 miles of road, but 174 miles of walking trails, ranging from 15-minute strolls to three-hour hikes to ten-day treks.

I especially loved the “Maori beach track,” a 15-minute water-taxi ride from Oban. Slogging through practically impenetrable bush or hugging the craggy seaside cliff, we were bombarded in surround sound by  the crashing of waves below and the cries of birds overhead.  Another favorite was wee Ulva Island, also reachable by water taxi — like the “forest primeval” à la Walt Whitman’s famous poem Evangeline. Virtually untouched, predator-free, and primitive, by comparison it makes Stewart feel practically like Manhattan. Sixth-generation Stewart Islander Ulva Amos conducts marvelous tours here, able to distinguish between every caw, chirp, click, creak, twill or whistle from the treetops.

On Stewart Island you’ll find birds, trees and plants otherwise practically extinct, and its hardwood podacorp forest, literally of pre-historic vintage, harbors plant species 350 million years old. Besides the kiwi, other rare birds such as the fernbird, saddleback, rifleman and yellowhead roam the woods like in the old days.

At night, we’d hang out at the South Seas’ bar with stocking-cap-wearing men just off their fishing boats, with long beards and high boots, trying to best each other at billiards and darts. Folks drank with gusto, chortling over town gossip or bemoaning the latest catch. This is not a place that serves a lot of lite beer.

Nearby, have a peek in Glowing Sky, the T-shirt shop owned by Dil Belworthy, a former fisherman who several years ago “saw the writing on the wall, how the fishing industry was going downhill, and how we saw tourism on the horizon.” And so for the last few years, Dil’s’s been turning out gorgeous tees handprinted with native Maori symbols and traditional images.

For sure, I detected a whiff of mixed emotions about this new industry of inviting the outside to their little island sanctuary. But I also got the feeling that it’s unlikely that this relic of a simpler time will lose its charm any time soon. Thank goodness.

More information: StewartIsland.co.nz, Stewart-Island-News.com, StewartIslandExperience.com.

Stalking The Great Bengal Tiger in India’s Sunderban Delta

October 19, 2009 at 11:09 am | Posted in ecotourism | Leave a comment

by Binoy Gupta

The magnificent, elusive Royal Bengal Tiger of India's Sunderban Delta.

The magnificent, elusive Royal Bengal Tiger of India's Sunderban Delta.

Having lived in India my entire life, in all those years, often had I heard tales of the Sunderbans. Stretching across more than 10,000 square kilometers (almost 4,000 square miles) in the state of West Bengal and into Bangladesh, this delta is the world’s largest — and also its largest mangrove forest — an ecosystem so special that it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. But even more than all that, we’d always heard tell of the mysterious realm of the endangered — and occasionally man-eating — Royal Bengal Tiger, which reaches lengths of up to ten feet and more than 400 pounds.

So it was that during this past dry season (September through April — much recommended!), my wife Anila and I flew to Kolkata (Calcutta) and rented a car for the 3 1/2-hour drive to the town of Sonakhali, past the lush, picturesque wetlands, farm fields, and fish hatcheries of rural Bengal. From there it was a 2 1/2-hour boat cruise upriver to Sajnekhali in the Sunderbans National Park.

We’d booked ourselves into the 30-room, tourism-office-run Sajnekhali Tourist Lodge (1,500 rupees/US$30) per night, including meals, tours, and transfers). Built on stilts, it’s the only place where humans are allowed to overnight inside the forest itself. It’s attractive and comfortable enough, and the Bengali fare is certainly tasty, but the lodge is still simple and rustic, with generator-run fans and lights but no electricity or A/C. If you’d like a touch more luxury, stay at Sunderban Tiger Camp just across the river (huts from Rs. 4,850/US$105 for two days and one night, also all-inclusive) or Bali Island’s six-cottage Sunderban Bali Jungle Camp (from Rs. 3,800/US$76) run by an aid organization. You can even opt to sleep aboard the launch that brought you upriver.

So what makes this aquatic forest so special? For starters, it’s formed where the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers meet the sea, and the waters in its numerous rivers, creeks and canals rise and fall with the tides. That and the salinity make it one of the world’s more hostile terrains; most of the living things here — animals and plants, land and aquatic — have had to develop unusual adaptations to survive. That includes the tigers themselves, who have become strong swimmers, learned to fish, and even survive on salty and brackish water.

There are 83 species of mangrove trees, and their snakelike roots and the surrounding waters harbor wildlife galore, including blood-red fiddler crabs and other crustaceans, the strange mud skippers (fish that walk on land and even climb trees); and various species of dolphins, porpoises, turtles, estuarine crocodile (the largest in the world — up to 10 meters/33 feet), monitor lizards, snakes, frogs, and toads. Not to mention the birds — the Sajnekhali Bird Sanctuary is a birders’ paradise where we spotted plenty of marvelous exemplars including a number of the 15 species of raptors like the peregrine falcon, white-bellied sea eagle, and brahmini kite.

In our four days in the Sunderbans, Anila and I got around quite a bit. We climbed the lodge’s watch tower and saw some spotted deer. We walked among the ponds and hatcheries where eggs of crocodiles and giant Olive Ridley turtles are hatched and babies released into the wild. We boated through the intricate maze of rivers, streams, channels, estuaries and creeks created by the mighty Ganges and Brahmaputra river systems.

We also got to explore village life and ancient temples. In Netidhopani we felt like a bit like Indiana Jones exploring the ruins of its 400-year-old Hindu temple, about which not even the villagers could tell us much. But they did regale us with tales of tigers and gods (a few can speak and understand English; guides also interpret for visitors). They worship the forest goddess Bonbibi, they said, who protects them from tigers and other calamities, and when venturing into the mangrove forests, a common protection technique is wearing backwards-facing masks resembling human faces (tigers prefer to sneak up on prey that’s unsuspecting, not alert). Attacks do occur, rarely — invariably when humans trespass or blunder onto tiger turf.

But…sigh… At night we did hear occasional tiger roars, and we spotted fresh spoor on muddy banks. But even though this reserve harbors more of these magificent creatures than any in the world (274 at last count), I was disappointed that we never managed to sight a single one ourselves. “The area is very large, the terrain difficult, and these animals wide-ranging, you must understand,” said one of our guides apologetically.

I quickly got over it, though, because the Sunderbans still possess a mysterious, otherworldly charm that honestly had both of us mesmerized and reluctant to leave. If you come to India, you’ll find it’s well worth devoting several days to an eco-adventure you’ll remember for years.

Making Arrangements: Traveling to the Sunderbans is easy and not necessarily expensive; you can book through a number of tour operators, or online through the West Bengal Tourist Office (www.WestBengalTourism.gov.in), which arranges visitors’ permits, tour packages, and customized itineraries.

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