Author Archive | Sarah Duff

Two weeks in Montenegro

After a year of studying in London (with not much adventurous travel) I was in need of a break. I wanted to go somewhere in Europe which would offer a bit of autumn sunshine,  a bit of ocean swimming, mountains, some good food, no Internet connection and a lot of hiking. Without knowing that much about Montenegro, I decided that the tiny Balkan nation (one of the newest countries in the world) was calling to me. I’d seen alluring photos of its magnificent coastline and wild mountains, and the fact that it is half the size of Wales seemed to mean that doing a road trip would entail being out of the car more than being in it.

I also felt like travelling a bit differently to my usual accommodation choices of Airbnb, guesthouses and backpackers, and decided to stay in family-run farms for the chance to meet Montenegrins and eat local food, rather than tourist fare.

Travelling with my husband, Joe, I started off the trip to Montenegro by flying to Dubrovnik in Croatia, briefly braving the cruise ship hordes in this beautiful but overpriced and overcrowded city, before picking up a rental car and driving 17km to the Montenegro border for a quick crossing and then a slow, scenic drive around the Bay of Kotor, where the views got more spectacular around every bend in the winding road as we drove through seaside villages of old stone shuttered houses and terracotta roofs and gardens full of pomegranate trees heavy with fruit. With a semicircle of steep forested mountains tumbling down to crystal clear, navy-blue sea, the bay feels a bit like a fjord or an Italian lake. I kept on thinking we were in Italy (this part of Montenegro was ruled by Venice for four centuries), but the signs in Cyrillic brought me back to the Balkans.

We ate lunch of linguine and garlicky mussels at Perast, a tiny hamlet of churches and old Venetian palazzos perched on the edge of the water, and then took a boat out to the picturesque church on Our-lady-of-the-rock Island, which was artificially created in 1452 after a stone with an image of Madonna was found. Driving on further around the bay, we stopped off at the town of Kotor, which my guidebook described as a mini-Dubrovnik. Kotor is just as photogenic as Dubrovnik, with old Venetian palaces and beautiful churches, lovely little squares and marble alleys and crumbling 9th century stone walls snaking up the steep mountainside, but it was just as tourist-packed as Dubrovnik.

The photogenic little village of Perast

Our Lady of the Rocks island, with its beautiful little church, lies just off the coast from Perast

Our Lady of the Rocks island, with its beautiful little church, lies just off the coast from Perast

The view of Kotor from its old city walls

We were glad we were staying on the rustic and (as yet) largely undeveloped Lustica Peninsula, which was far enough away from Kotor to completely escape the cruise ship tour groups. Our home for our first few days in Montenegro was the Old Mill, a family farm with the most incredible sweeping views over olive groves to the curving bay beyond. Our host, Jovan Stojkovic, who lives with his parents and grandmother, explained that the farm has been in his family for four hundred years, producing olives, wine, goat’s cheese, fruit and rakija – the Montenegrin brandy that we were soon to discover is the equivalent of tea in England.

Sitting under vines heavy with grapes and kiwi fruit, we had our first of many farm-to-table experiences in Montenegro over the next few days, as we drank homemade red wine and cherry rakija and devoured feasts of eggs from their chickens, veggies – tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, aubergines, potatoes – from their garden, goat’s cheese from their forest-foraging goats and olives and olive oil from their groves. After living in London for a year and feeling quite cut off from seasonal produce, with the year-round availability of fruits and vegetables from around the world, I felt a comforting sense of connecting to a place by eating truly homegrown food, some of which had been in the soil that day.

We spent the next few days exploring the Lustica Peninsula by car, driving on tiny quiet roads past sleepy little villages, cypresses and groves of olive trees so old and gnarled that they looked like twisted kitka bread to get to tucked away beaches, like Zanijice with its curve of pebbles and family vibe, Miriste with a lovely restaurant right over the water, and our favourite, Uvala Veslo, which didn’t have a beach (or loungers or restaurants or many people) but instead there were cliffs for jumping off into the turquoise sea. My favourite little village was Rose (pronounced like the wine), a tiny collection of slightly dilapidated old stone villas along a sunny seafront, with just one restaurant, which felt like the kind of place where you’d plan to do a writer’s retreat for a few months and then end up spending all your time swimming, napping and drinking wine.

The view over the groves of fig and olive trees at the Old Mill

Our favourite swimming spot on the Lustica Peninsula: the rugged cliffs of Uvala Veslo

The lovely but busy Zanijice Beach

Leaving the Lustica Peninsula behind (and having one last cherry rakija with Jovan as we left), we drove south down the coast, passing through flashy Budva, with its high-rise holiday apartments and casinos and packed beaches, feeling glad that we’d had our Montenegrin coastal stay on the low-key peninsula instead. We stopped for a swim at the lovely Sveti Stefan beach, and had lunch up the hill at Pastrovica Dvori, where we picked grapes off the vines hanging above us, and ate grilled fish and olives and vegetables from their terraced garden. A bit further down the coast we turned inland followed a winding road (Montenegro is all about winding roads – and nerves of steel to battle the drivers who take the corners at considerable speed) up a mountain and down the other side, where it felt like we were miles away from the developed coast, to get to Lake Skadar, the largest lake in the Balkans.

A short way away from the lake and from the surprisingly busy village of Virpazar was our next farmstay, Skadar Lake Đurišić Family Estate. Our host Marko Đurišić welcomed us to his family home, telling us how they’d owned it and grown wine there for the past 500 years. His parents were smoking fish that they’d caught in the lake while Marko showed us around the garden, with its 30-year-old vranac vines (Marko makes his own wine in a vat in the garage), fruit trees and veggie patch – watched over by the sweet honey-coloured dogs Fluffy and Hector.

We had just one day to explore the area. Following a breakfast of priganice (fried fritters) with cheese, cucumber, tomato, ajvar (a piquant red pepper paste), honey and jam, we found a perfect lake beach on Marko’s suggestion, and wandered around the atmospheric hamlet of Lekovici, which was partly abandoned during the 1979 earthquake: crumbling buildings overgrown with fig trees, and a few houses left exactly as they were inhabited as the earthquake struck, with crockery still on the table, like a scene from Chernobyl. Marko took us out on an afternoon boat cruise on the vast mountain-fringed lake, navigating us through channels of water lilies and pointing out monasteries (there are over 300 around the lake, one of which is inhabited by just one grumpy monk who hates tourists and only lets you visit if he likes the look of you) and black cormorants. Marko studied politics and was a fount of knowledge about Montenegrin and Balkan history and politics. As we cruised around the lake, he told us about the break up of Yugoslavia, the complexities of determining national identity in the Balkans and the warrior culture of Montenegro, tying history in with stories of his own family. By the time we’d eaten a dinner feast prepared by Marko’s mother of smoked trout and marinated carp from the lake, potatoes, grilled aubergine and pepper, ajvar, feta and stewed aubergine and onion and pepper washed down with homemade wine, we felt completely at home and wished we’d planned to stay longer.

Lake Skadar, Montenegro

Lake Skadar, Montenegro

Super host (and boatman) Marko Durisic

Super host (and boatman) Marko Durisic

Hanging out in the hammock under the vranac vines at Marko’s house

Breakfast of priganice (fried fritters), tomatoes, cucumber, ajvar, cheese, honey, hazelnut spread and jam

The road beckoned on: our next drive took us through the dramatic Moraca Canyon, with steep cliffs plunging into the river far below, past the Morača Monastery, where the church frescoes were intricate and fascinating, and the smell of honey lingered in the air from the monks’ buzzing beehives, and through the capital of Podgorica, which had some startlingly unusual sci-fi like architecture. We stopped off in the alpine-ish town of Kolasin (where I felt tempted to pick the pink apples having heavy on all the trees) to stock up on snacks for our hiking days ahead, and then took a rather white knucklely narrow road that switchbacked its way up and down a mountain – amazing views and beautiful villages where everyone seemed to be chopping wood for the fast approaching winter but some stressful driving trying to get past timber trucks – as we headed northeast towards the Prokletije Mountains, which border Albania and Kosovo.

The Prokletije (“accursed”) Mountains are among the least explored mountains in all of Europe, and we certainly felt like we were way off the beaten track after we paid a euro at the national park entrance and then bounced our way up a rocky road through a dense and dark conifer forest to reach our mountain hut – with not another car or tourist in sight. The forest suddenly opened up to a clearing with a two wooden bungalows and two A-frame cabins looking out over a deep valley view. Ermina Redzemetovic was our host at Bungalows in Prokletije, and she greeted us with tea made with fresh herbs and a bowl of Turkish delight. Ermina didn’t speak any English and our Montenegrin was non-existent, so over the next three days, with the help of the phrase translation at the back of my guidebook, we found out that Ermina had taken over this disused katun (traditional shepherd’s mountain hut) from her husband’s family and had turned it into tourist accommodation. While her husband worked in Plav – the village at the foot of the mountain – Ermina stayed up in the 1700-metre-high katun with her two cows and a couple of chickens, making cheese and hosting guests. She told us that many katuns have been abandoned as families have emigrated to places like the US, and this was her project to revive this one, placed in such a scenic spot.

It was mid-September – the end of the season – and a week after we left Ermina would move herself and her animals down the mountain to Plav before the heavy snows started in October. The weather was already turning, and we were a bit underprepared clothing wise for subzero nights and days where the temperature didn’t rise much above 5 degrees. In our beanies and jackets, we felt a million miles away from the coast, which was only a few hours’ drive, where we’d swum in the sea. The benefit of being in an area that hasn’t been developed much for tourism yet – and at the end of the season – was that there was no one else around at all. We were Ermina’s only guests for the four days, and on our day hike from the bungalow up to Lake Hrid and beyond, we didn’t even hear a distant human sound, let alone see another hiker. It felt like a special treat to be in such a beautiful place, in eerily quiet forests and at the mist-wreathed lake, all on our own, despite having frozen fingers from picking wild blueberries as we hiked.

Our best day was spent on the other side of Prokletije National Park (about an hour’s drive away) in the Grebaje Valley. We parked the car just beyond the park entrance and embarked on a two-hour relentlessly uphill hike through a still, silent beech forest and then over a grassy cirque with the old ruins of a katun, up to the peak of Volusnica, where we had a truly staggering view of the Karanfili massif: dramatic jagged peaks still dotted with patches of snow from the previous winter. We couldn’t have asked for a better lunch spot to tuck into the pancakes with homemade strawberry jam and cheese that Ermina had made us as a packed lunch. We hiked on, over a narrow ridge covered in wild blueberry bushes, till the top of Taljanka (at 2057m), where we could put one foot in Albania and the other in Montenegro. On this whole day-long hike we only passed two other hikers and three wild horses.

After days of hiking in the cold and misty drizzle, it was a treat to get back to Ermina’s delicious hearty cooking: huge hunks of homemade bread, potato stew, bean soup, cheese and squash pita (pie), savoury polenta cake and roasted peppers – all made in her wood-fired oven. We consumed dairy in all its forms, all milked by hand by her and fermented in her bungalow – warm glasses of milk, kaymak (salty clotted cream), kiselo mljeko (a sour milk drink on the verge of becoming yoghurt) and, of course, slabs of her moreish salty white cheese. We quickly learnt the Montenegrin word for “eat up” (uzmi), as Ermina, like a very temporary surrogate mother, seemed to want us to eat enormous quantities of food, probably to fatten us up for the coming winter.

Moraca Monastery, Montenegro

Morača Monastery

Bungalows Prokletjie National Park, Montenegro

Bungalows Prokletjie National Park, Montenegro

Lake Hrid, Prokletjie National Park

A hike to Lake Hrid (and confusing map situation)

Hiking Grebaje valley, Prokletjie National Park

The start of the hike up Volusnica

View of Karanfili Massif, Prokletjie

The staggering view of the Karanfili massif from the top of Volusnica

Hiking Prokletjie National Park

Hiking Prokletjie National Park

Montenegro food

A packed hiking lunch of Ermina’s delicious cheese and squash pie with roasted peppers and more homemade cheese

We said our goodbyes to Ermina on a sunny but crisp day, when ground was dusted with frost, and drove down the mountain and northwest to Biogradska Gora National Park, for a short ramble in the forest. Biogradska is one of the last three remaining large virgin forests in Europe (that fact alone is hard for me to get my head around) and many of its trees are over 500 years old. I wished we’d had longer to do some multi-day hikes in this beautiful forest, but that’s for the next trip.   

We thought Ermina’s place was going to be the most scenic of our farmstays, but the next one was serious competition. Not too far from the national park, we turned off the main road onto a tiny road that led us through the very pretty Lipovo village, whose inhabitants on a Saturday afternoon were all raking, picking and chopping wood. On the edge of the village we found Dulovic Farm, where the whole family was hard at work in their field of vegetables when we arrived. The farm – a large old stone house, a small wooden hut as the kitchen and a barn of cows and pigs – was in an idyllic spot in a green valley surrounded on three sides by soaring forested mountains. Gordana, the family matriarch, after spending the day tending to the farm, managed to whip up a lavish feast for us of home baked bread, bean and vegetable stew, spinach and cheese burek (a dense pie), pickles and a big plate of lisnati cheese, the special cheese made only in that area. Gordana explained via her daughter, who spoke fluent English, that absolutely everything was from their farm, including the pickles. By this point in the trip, after eating so much farm-to-table (or sometimes garden-to-table) food, I was still so impressed with the quality of Montenegrin produce, which by default was organic and seasonal.

Lake at Biogradska Gora National Park

Biogradska Gora National Park

Forest at Biogradska Gora National Park

Lake at Biogradska Gora National Park

Dulovic Farm

Dulovic Farm

Montenegro breakfast

After a breakfast of fried fish, eggs (from the truly free-range chickens running around the farm), bread, beetroot pickles, cabbage salad and lisnati, we were on our way again, this time to our last destination of Durmitor National Park, close to the Bosnian border, which nearly completed our circular journey around Montenegro. Our farmstay home, Above the Mountains Katun, was right inside the national park, in a tiny hamlet surrounded by conifer forests against a backdrop of dramatic mountains. Host Zoran Obradovic welcomed us with sweet fig rakija and coconut cakes made by his octogenarian mother, and with our now growing repertoire of Montenegrin phrases, we were able to talk about life in this beautiful spot.  

We spent a sunny, warm afternoon exploring Crna Jezero (Black Lake), which looked turquoise from some angles, and navy blue-black from other, along with dozens of other tourists, many of whom visit Durmitor on a day trip in a coach from the coast. It felt a bit overwhelming to be surrounded by selfie-snapping tourists after several days of quiet hiking and we were glad to head out on a proper hike the next day, even though the ominous clouds promised rain. We started from the car park for the Black Lake and headed up the mountain, passing glimpses of the lake’s jewel-like blue through the trees as we huffed up the incline through a conifer forest. The dramatic views came past the tree line, when we walked through a gully to reach a valley with a lonely hiking hut surrounded by soaring mountains on all sides. It wasn’t an easy hike up to the ledena pecina (ice cave), tucked away after a mountain scramble, but things were made a lot worse by the rain which suddenly started and then didn’t stop for the rest of our three-hour return hike. Sodden and frozen we returned home, to Zoran and his mother fussing over us to make us tea and cake and then warm us up with fried trout caught in the nearby Tara Canyon, cheese pita, vegetable soup, stewed potatoes, and cabbage salad – all from the garden – all washed down with several glasses of rakija.

After dinner, sitting in the warm kitchen with Zoran and his mother and watching the local news, getting political commentary from Zoran (which involved a lot of charades-like explanations), I realised how special our Montenegro trip had been because of the incredibly welcoming and generous families we’d stayed with. We’d eaten the most delicious food wherever we’d been (and been inspired to grow our food one day when we live somewhere a bit more spacious than London), slept in cosy wooden cabins and old farmhouses in off-the-beaten-track places where you’d never find hotels and felt like we’d had more of a cultural immersion than in many places we’ve travelled to around the world. Instead of just learning the words for please and thank you, we’d learned Montenegrin phrases and untouristy vocabulary, and from English-speaking hosts like Marko, we’d got an education in Montenegrin history and politics. For half of our trip, we’d also had no Internet connectivity, giving us a rare chance to properly disconnect from the world (and work) and focus on exactly where we were, in the rugged mountains and valleys of beautiful Montenegro.

Joe enjoying rakija outside our wooden cabin at Zoran’s home

Black Lake, Crna Jezero, Durmitor National Park

Crna Jezero (Black Lake)

Hiking in Durmitor National Park

Hiking in Durmitor National Park

Finding farmstays in Montenegro

We booked our trip entirely through Meanderbug, a website that offers a range of farmstays across Montenegro, from eco-camping to mountain cabins, all at really affordable prices. All of the farmstays we stayed at offered meals (including packed lunches for hiking days) as part of the price or as an extra, and we’re glad we opted for meals with the families, because the food we ate was a big highlight of the trip. While half the hosts that we stayed with didn’t speak English, we didn’t have any communication problems as all of our meals were pre-booked and already paid for, and when we booked we left a note for hosts to tell them that we don’t eat meat (and we ended up being very well catered for with vegetarian and fish options). I loved the fact that by staying on farms, our tourist money went towards helping to support families’ incomes rather than going to big hotel companies (which there are a lot of along the Montenegrin coast). 

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Green season in Hwange

Elephants Eye Hwange Zimbabwe-10

Travelling to the bush at the tail end of rainy season means you really have to get into birds if you aren’t already. In the dry season in Hwange National Park, many thousands of elephants in huge herds – just part of a population of 75 000 – can be seen, along with herds of buffalo, prides of lions, cheetah leopards and wild dogs. The park has no natural water source and so when it’s dry, the animals are forced to congregate around the man-made waterholes fed by boreholes.

Rainy season is a different story. The bush is thick, green and lush, water is plentiful, and the tens of thousands of elephants and other animals tend to stick in the middle of the park, where there are no roads and they don’t have to contend with being gawped at by camera-wielding safari tourists. This beautiful emerald green time of year is, however, amazing for bird life – especially for migratory birds who’ve flown down from Europe for the summer like Germans who have beach houses on the Atlantic Seaboard in Cape Town. Appreciating the beauty and abundance of the rainy season is all about being a twitcher.

My Hwange green season stay was at Elephant’s Eye, a small intimate lodge in a private concession that borders, unfenced, on the massive national park. Elephant’s Eye has just eight spacious rooms built on stilts overlooking a waterhole (populated by a pair of grey crowned cranes down for a migratory visit from Central Africa when we arrived) – wooden plank floors, thatch roofs and khaki canvas walls which open floor-to-ceiling with wraparound decks, outdoor showers, big bathtubs and even bigger beds, from where you can lie and gaze out on a sea of green. The intimage lodge is all understated, low-key luxury with a communal lounge with comfy big sofas, a sweet little bar and dining area with tables facing towards the outdoor fire that’s lit every night, and utterly charming staff who make you feel part of a big family.

The first question our affable guide, Shepherd, asked was “What kind of birds are you into?” The answer was all of them, and off we set on long game drives into Hwange, where we did spot singular or small clusters of zebra, steenbok, wildebeest, impala and a big leopard tortoise but most of our attention was focused on the avian creatures. I had my Hwange bird list, and like a true bird nerd, ticked off species as we saw them – in one game drive alone we saw over 30 species. We watched a rufous-naped lark sing then flap its wings and turn its head 180 degrees just to check if anyone was encroaching on his territory, shaft-tailed wydahs flit around with their elongated black tails and golden plumage, and marveled at the bright ruby red crimson-breasted shrikes.

Back on Elephant’s Eye’s concession, we did short walks in the bush with walking guide Joshua, who was a fount of knowledge on all things nature. Walking a few hundred metres took us about two hours, as we stopped to examine the amazing world inside a disintegrating elephant poo, learned to read kudu, buffalo, warthog and impala tracks, picked wild basil and found out the medicinal (and aphrodisiac) uses of plants and trees.

In between game (bird) drives and walks, we ate tomato pasta, savoury veggie-filled pancakes and homemade Amarula ice cream back at the lodge, relaxed at the natural water swimming pool (which the elephants and buffalos drink till empty during the dry season), took unplanned for siestas in bed, lulled to sleep by the whirr of crickets, did some bird watching from the couches in the lounge with a bowl of salted peanuts and cold Zambezi beers and visited the Painted Dog Conservation Centre to see the resident pair of beautiful (and highly endangered) creatures.

My favourite time of day was going to bed or waking up. In the room only mosquito nets and canvas walls separate you from the outside world, and the sounds of nature are like an orchestra as you fall asleep: from champagne frogs, their croaks like the sound of dozens of champagne corks popping at once to the whoop of hyenas. In the mornings, bird song starts with a few tweets and works up to a crescendo of song, waking you up for another day in the wilderness.

I was a guest of Elephant’s Eye Lodge during my trip to Hwange. Click here for more about this luxury lodge, which offers eight tented rooms on a private concession 13 km away from Hwange National Park.

Elephants Eye Hwange Zimbabwe-4Elephants Eye Hwange Zimbabwe-5Elephants Eye Hwange Zimbabwe-1Elephants Eye Hwange Zimbabwe-3Elephants Eye Hwange Zimbabwe-6Elephants Eye Hwange Zimbabwe-11Elephants Eye Hwange Zimbabwe-7Elephants Eye Hwange Zimbabwe-2Elephants Eye Hwange Zimbabwe-8Elephants Eye Hwange Zimbabwe-9

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On looking out of the plane window

Looking out of plane window

In the space of just over a hundred years, we’ve gone from the world’s first commercial flight (with just one paying passenger on a 40-kilometre route in Florida which took 23 minutes) to the dawn of space tourism. On average, eight million people fly somewhere every day. Today, the longest non-stop flight in the world – between Dallas and Sydney – is 13 730 kilometres and takes 17 hours and the biggest passenger plane – the Airbus A380 – can carry 853 people.

Somewhere between that first commercial flight in Florida and the launch of the A380, we airline passengers have become blasé about flying. Instead of marvelling at the remarkable technology that allows us and our 20 kilogram suitcases to fly across the globe in a matter of hours, we complain about the annoying airport security checks, the delays due to storms, the lack of leg room, the bland meals and extra charges for heavy baggage. We also roll down our little window blinds and forget to look through the glass at the ever changing landscape below us unfurling by the second.

Have a look at your fellow passengers right now. Can you see anyone staring out of the window? Probably not. When people first took to the skies they were utterly mesmerised by the view below them, but once the jumbo jet came along and the cost of air travel dropped significantly, the view from the plane window lost its appeal. We will pay a lot extra for a hotel room with a view of the sea, or book in advance for the table in the restaurant with the best vista but instead of marvelling at the kind of views once reserved for the birds most of us fill our hours of flying with work, movies, music, books and sleep.

To bring back some of that sense of wonder that that fliers in the early 20th century felt, all you need to do is look out of that oval-shaped glass. Out there are 50 different types of clouds, some filled with more than 500 tonnes of water. You may be flying over ocean, where you can spot tiny white horses and the occasional cargo ship. Or maybe you’re cruising over the arid, sparsely habited Karoo: rusk-coloured mountains and plains scarred with carless roads and dry rivers.There could be a vast patchwork of farmed fields below you, or neat suburbia, with swimming pools like tiny blue jewels and roads like gridlined maths paper. Maybe you glimpse a dusting of snow on top of the Drakensberg or see an above-the-clouds sunrise so beautiful it looks like a dream.

It’s a sad thought to think that the future of flying could be a viewless one. A UK-based development company is working on building windowless planes which could be flying within the next decade, replacing heavy aircraft windows with light smartscreen panels to cut fuel consumption. Instead of windows, screens covering the interior walls of the plane will project the sky outside – but would also allow you to browse the web and check your email. While cutting down on fuel would mean that airfares could be slashed, replacing windows with the equivalent of your laptop screen will take something irreplacable away about the magic of flying.

Whether you fly infrequently or travel by plane several times a month, take a moment (or spend the whole flight) appreciating being 11 kilometres above the Earth, like Richard Branson, who said “There isn’t a flight that goes by when I don’t stare out of the window and thank my stars for what I’m seeing and feeling.” For two hundred thousand years we were constrained to the ground, and just a century ago we found a way to break free and take to the skies. Enjoy those spectacular window views while they last.

This was originally published in the February issue of Mango Juice magazine

 

 

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A Botswana safari in photos

Okavango Delta from the air

A trip through national parks and wilderness areas of northern Botswana in rainy season: gliding through a channel of the Okavango Delta in a mokoro; flying above the Delta in a small helicopter above rivers and islets, water lily-studded lagoons and marshes full of birds; falling asleep in a canvas tent while lions roared outside; fuschia dawn skies; going on game drives for hours and not seeing another car; the sound of elephants wading through a stream in the dark; getting our Land Cruiser stuck in the muddy roads of Moremi and having to dig it out; giraffes, elephants, foxes, jackals, buffaloes, mongoose, hippos, red lechwe, zebra, wildebeest, hyena; Rex, our guide and driver, spotting a leopard tortoise the size of a palm in the middle of the road, stopping in time to help it cross; spectacular afternoon thunderstorms; baobabs full of leaves; flocks of yellow and white butterflies; the cry of fish eagles; a baby baboon doing a handstand on a picnic bench; one pink and purple sunset over the Chobe River that seemed to last forever; seeing two leopard lazing in a tree in the last moments of our last game drive in Chobe National Park; monkeys throwing seed pods at us from the roof of the Zimbabwean border post; standing under the mist of the Smoke that Thunders (Victoria Falls) and looking into a white roaring abyss.

To read more about my safari to Botswana, read my blog here.

My 9-day Botswana safari was hosted by Jenman Safaris. Find out more about this overland trip and other African safari trips Jenman offers here.

Okavango Delta mokoro ride BotswanaPoling in fibreglass mokoros through a channel of the Okavango Delta

Okavango Delta mokoroFlying above the Okavango Delta in a four-seater helicopter, going up and down from 100 metres down to two metres above the groundOkavango Delta from the airOkavango Delta helicopter flightOkavango Delta from the airExploring the community-owned Khwai concession, which borders on Chobe National Park

Khwai River area BotswanaBotswana safari KhwaiKhwai concession BotswanaSafari in Botswana Chobe National ParkKhwai concession BotswanaExploring Moremi Game Reserve, seeing elephants, buffalo, hippos and red lechwe, and getting stuck three times on muddy roads with deep puddles filled with rain water from a huge thunderstorm the night beforeMoremi BotswanaMoremi Game Reserve BotswanaElephants Botswana safariDriving for nine hours under a huge sky of puffy white clouds through Chobe National Park to get from the southern end to the northern end, game viewing and rock art spotting along the way

Chobe National ParkWe reached northern Chobe National Park, which borders on Zambia, Nambia and Zimbabwe, exploring the park by land and by water, seeing two leopards lazing in a tree in the last moments of our last game drive and watching the best sunset of the trip on our river cruise
Chobe National ParkChobe National ParkChobe National ParkChobe National ParkMosi-oa-Tunya: the Smoke that Thunders

Victoria Falls

 

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On safari in Botswana

Okavango Delta mokoro ride Botswana

Everything seemed to be in slow motion as we glided through the channel in a fibreglass mokoro like a knife through runny honey. The water lily-dotted water was as silvery, calm and flat as a mirror, reflecting a big sky full of rain clouds. Serenity reigned, and the stillness was punctuated by the cooing of doves and the occasional distant cry of a fish eagle, the sound of the breeze in the reeds and the chirruping of insects, the thwop of the pole going in the water and the piggy grunts from a pod of hippos.

This was just a tiny slice of the massive Okavango Delta, Africa’s last wetland wilderness, which stretches across 8000 square kilometres of north western Botswana. After the mokoro ride I had more of a glimpse of just how wild and vast the Delta is by flying above it in a small four-seater helicopter with Helicopter Horizons, taking off from a small village near the mokoro launching point. Pilot Andrew Baker took us up 400 feet to get a planet-curving view over a part of the Delta that can’t be accessed by road – channels, lagoons, ilala palms and marshes full of animals and birds. We skimmed down to a giraffe’s view point – just 2.5 metres above the ground and flew past treetop fish eagles, startled warthogs, nonchalant giraffes, zebras and wildebeest.

The Okavango Delta was a spectacular introduction to a nine-day trip through northern Botswana with Jenman Safaris. From this southern finger of the Delta, which was near the town of Maun, we headed north in our open-sided Land Cruiser up to a lodge in the bush in Mababe, a community-owned concession bordering on the southern end of Chobe National Park, where we stayed for three nights in canvas tents, falling asleep to a soundtrack of thunderstorms, grunting hippos and roaring lions.

It was my first time in the bush during the rainy season – I’d only ever gone on safari in southern Africa in the winter months when the vegetation is dry and sparse, and thirsty animals congregate around watering holes, making them easy to spot. The rainy season is an entirely different story. I travelled in March, which is right at the end of months of rain, when vegetation is at its most lush. The grass is thick, trees are full of leaves and water is plentiful, meaning animal spotting is far more challenging. On our three days that we stayed in the area, exploring the community-owned concessions and national parks – Khwai, Mababe, Chobe and Moremi – nearby on long drives on muddy and puddle-filled roads, we had to hunt for game, and when we found it there was much more of a thrill than in the dry season, when you don’t have to try at all.

Safari in Botswana Chobe National Park

We tracked a male lion’s paw prints and followed his sporadic grunts in the early pink-dusted morning, off roading through the concession to try and find him – to no avail, but we did spot a pair of bat-eared foxes instead. In the course of our drives, we also saw elephants, waterbuck, giraffe, lots of zebra and hippos, wildebeest, buffalo, a pair of red lechwe with horns locked, seemingly fighting to the death, a jackal, bands of mongooses, a tongue-flicking monitor lizard and lots and lots of birds. Green season is the best time for birding, and I’ve never seen as many species in one go as I did in those three days: tawny, bateleur, fish and brown snake eagles, African darters, cormorants, long-toed lapwings, eagle owls, kingfishers, coppery-tailed coucals African jacanas, open billed storks, herons, sacred ibis, egrets, and my favourite – lilac breasted rollers.

Other than prolific bird life, the rainy months do come with a lot of advantages – spectacular thunderstorms (which bring lovely cool temperatures and intense herby, earthy smells), beautiful landscapes (shooting animals against green is so much more photogenic than against a backdrop of the browns and greys of dry season) and low tourist numbers: on one seven-hour game drive we only saw three other safari vehicles.

From Mababe we made an epically long journey to Kasane and the northern end of Chobe National Park, travelling on sandy, muddy and wet tracks through the Savuti area of Chobe National Park and Chobe Forest Reserve, taking nine hours to travel 265 kilometres, spotting game all along the way and stopping off to see bushman rock paintings of an elephant, eland and an antelope, estimated to be 20 000 years old at Gobabis in Savuti – a reminder of just how long people have lived alongside the animals we now confine to the limits of parks and reserves.

Arriving at a lodge on the banks of the of the Chobe River just outside of the town of Kasane felt like re-entering civilisation again after days of wilderness. Our last day of game viewing was on land in Chobe National Park in the morning, where we had the lucky sighting of two lazy leopards up in a tree, sleeping in the early morning sunshine with their legs trailing over the branches, and on water in the afternoon, where we cruised slowly on the river, spotting kingfishers and fish eagles, crocs, munching hippos, giraffes drinking awkwardly on their spindly legs and a herd of elephant taking an afternoon mud bath.

It was a quick drive over the border to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, where we got a thorough rainy season soaking by Mosi-oa-Tunya – the Smoke that Thunders. The largest curtain of water in the world – and one of Africa’s greatest sights – was the perfect ending to a trip packed full of wildlife, wilderness and non-stop natural highs.

Here’s my photo blog with more images from my Botswana safari.

My 9-day Botswana safari was hosted by Jenman Safaris. Find out more about this overland trip and other African safari trips Jenman offers here.

Botswana safari Moremi

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Now and Zen: travels in Japan

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Behind an inconspicuous wooden door marked only with a tiny sign on a side street of Tokyo’s Azabu-Juban district lies Gen Yamamoto bar. With just eight seats around a counter of Japanese oak, no music, no food and bare walls, this tiny bar is an spartan temple to cocktails. Here, the white jacketed Gen Yamamoto, who with his clean shaven head and soft spoken voice has the air of a monk, brings science and art together in his six-course tasting menus, which change depending on the fresh produce he can source from all over Japan. The drinks are sophisticated creations that have layered flavours and textures – such as a 12-year old Yamazaki single malt with mashed pumpkin from Hokkaido, milk and sesame seeds which tastes like the epitome of autumn – and the overall experience demands the kind of quiet reverence you’d usually reserve for fine art.

In Japan, almost anything of worth – like cocktails – is elevated to the level of an art form, whether it’s flower arranging, the design of manhole covers or even the wrapping of packages in a shop, and in no place is this more evident than in Tokyo, one of the most culturally attuned cities in the world. In a metropolitan population of 38 million, Gen Yamamoto is just one of many artisans taking their craft seriously.

With more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else in the world, Tokyo is the ultimate culinary capital. Chefs take decades to perfect the art of making just one thing, like Jiro Ono, the 90-year old sushi master who was the subject of a 2011 documentary film. At his eponymous 10-seater restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, located in the basement of a nondescript office building in Ginza, each 20 sushi course is presented by Jiro. The precision and artistry that Jiro applies to each piece of moulded fish and rice makes you realise that in Japan food can be so much more more than just something you eat.

The more I see (and consume) of Tokyo – the bonsai gardens, the coffee shop with perfect iced cappuccinos inside a tiny wooden cube, the faultlessly curated design shops, the confectioners with sweets almost too beautiful to put in your mouth – the more I start wonder what it is about Japan that its culture is one of such craftsmanship and attention to detail. It’s only when I go to Kyoto – Japan’s spiritual centre of Zen Buddhism – that I start to make a connection between Japanese artistry and Zen.

During my week in Kyoto, I immerse myself in Zen, visiting some of the more than a thousand Buddhist temples scattered across the city and its surrounding mountains. I experience a “rebirth” in the pitch dark cave womb of a Bodhisattva at Kiyomizu-dera Temple, sit in contemplative silence in front of a 15th-century rock garden at Ryōan-ji, shoot photos of the Golden Pavilion reflecting yellow brilliance off a still pond and wander the treed pathways of Ginkaku-ji where a massive cone of sand has been meticulously constructed to reflect moonlight back onto the garden. Each temple is an aesthetic paragon of minimalism, beauty and simplicity – all conspiring to facilitate the kind of meditation that I try to practice towards the end of the week.

I spend a night on a futon mattress at Shunkoin Temple and awake at dawn to the ringing of bells for morning practice: zazen (seated meditation) takes place on the floor of the four-century-old temple with a view of the carefully manicured garden and its raked gravel patterns. Vice Abbot Taka Kawakami talks through meditation in a nutshell – how it is about conditioning the mind, so you can maintain inner peace and live in the moment, which is the essence of Zen.

While one morning of meditation doesn’t have any effect on my caffeine-fast mental chatter, it’s in the zazen session that I realise that Japanese craftsmanship reflects the inner stillness that comes with Zen practice. Zen breeds a focused mind, a preference for minimalism, and a quest for the perfection of form together with a distilling of things down to their most core essence. It seems clear that it’s these qualities that shape the approach people in Japan bring to their craft. And to consume something done expertly in Japan – drinking cocktails, admiring bonsai, slurping a bowl of ramen noodles – is to have an experience so immersive and so anchored in the here and now that it’s not far off from the presence of mind that you aim to reach in zazen. There’s a lot to love about Japan, but for me this is where its true magic lies.

This was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Wanted magazine

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