T R AV E L L E R STEPPES TRAVEL MAGAZINE
FEATURING CHILE ERITREA SRI LANKA NEW ZEALAND TRAVEL READS 30 YEARS OF STEPPES COOK WITH CHEF YUKI
WHAT’S HOT Our recommendations on the destinations to travel to this year
JUST BACK FROM... Our favourite travel moments from the last few months
KENYA Safari hangout by Rob Gardiner
NEW ZEALAND Kayaking with sea gods by Charles Jewitt
EXPERT INSIGHT | MALDIVES Which Maldives island is perfect for you?
RUSSIA The Witches of St Petersburg trip by Imogen Edwards-Jones CHILE A passage from the land of salt and stars to the ‘End of the World’ by Vanessa Humphrey
ERITREA Uncovering Eritrea by Illona Cross
EXPERT INSIGHT | GALAPAGOS ISLANDS Can tourism in the Galapagos be sustainable? by Jarrod Kyte
DYNASTIES | WHERE TO EXPERIENCE THEM IN THE WILD
STEPPES 30TH ANNIVERSARY Thirty years of travel by Justin Wateridge
#MYSTEPPES | ON LOCATION IMAGES
STEPPES 30TH ANNIVERSARY | TRAVELLING WITH GOLDEN EAGLE
ARGENTINA Space travel by Jarrod Kyte
RECIPE | COOKING WITH CHEF YUKI
INDIA The Spirit of the Indian jungle by Nadia Shahanaz Hussain
SRI LANKA The cat that crossed my path by Amy Hastie
VIETNAM Hanoi by vintage Minsk motorbike by Harriet Fisher
MADAGASCAR A tale of two runs by Rob Gardiner
“Why do you do the job you do?” I was asked by one particularly prescient pupil at a recent careers evening that I was asked to attend. “Because of people,” I replied without thinking. “Because of the people that I am lucky enough to meet on my travels. Because of the kindness of strangers. Because of the guides that I am lucky enough to have travelled with. Because of the wonderful friends and suppliers that we work with. Because of the people that are my team.” “That is a lot of becauses,” she replied matter-of-factly. I am not sure if she was a student of English but she was right. Yet, I would not have said it differently because – there I go again - all of the above are so true. Especially the latter. I am inordinately proud of my team. For their expertise, for their service, for their time, for who they are as individuals and as a collective team.
I am inspired by their travels, the tales they tell on their return and how they write about them. None more so than Ness’s beautifully written article on her travels throughout Chile. As I said to her, “It conjures up for me memories of Saint-Exupery and I yearn to follow in your footsteps.” I hope that you are similarly touched by Ness’s words and by others in this, our bi-annual magazine.
MALAYSIAN BORNEO By Phoebe Agar
EXPERT INSIGHT | MAYAN SITES OF BELIZE
ALBANIA Unearthing Albania by Justin Wateridge
EXPERT-LED GROUPS 2019
RWANDA For Africans, by Africans by Rob Gardiner
EXPERT INSIGHT | OUR FAVOURITE ALILA PROPERTIES
AMAZON Howlers in the morning by Sue Grimwood
EXPERT INSIGHT | CRUISE WITH STEPPES
EXPERT INSIGHT | OUR FAVOURITE EXPERIENCES WITH SANCTUARY RETREATS
INDIA Unchanging Udaipur by Rosalind Hadley
OUR TRAVEL READS
Here’s to my team. I hope you feel likewise.
Justin Wateridge Managing Director
Front Cover: Leopard in Sri Lanka Editorial: Steppes Team Design: Seaside Inspired Steppes Traveller is the magazine of Steppes Travel, 51 Castle Street, Cirencester, GL7 1QD, United Kingdom
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Two new groups of mountain gorillas have been habituated in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, meaning there are now 3,000 extra permits per year available in Uganda. The wildlife authority have stated that the price of permits will remain the same - starting at $600.
Not just a rock to the indigenous Anangu people, Uluru is a living part of their Dreamtime beliefs. As such, we welcome the news of a ban on climbing the rock from October 2019. Explore the spirituality and magic of this landscape by circumnavigating the base, gaining a meaningful insight from your aboriginal guide. Take to the skies for an incredible aerial view or just watch in silence as the sun sets and the rock changes from orange to sizzling red.
CHINA & HONG KONG A new high-speed bullet train now links the spectacular scenery of Guilin with the dynamic metropolis of Hong Kong, in just three hours. A cheaper and more convenient option to flying; combine skylines, from karst peaks to soaring skyscrapers.
SVALBARD Join BBC cameraman and polar photographer, Doug Allan on the Polar Quest on a cruise around the Svalbard archipelago in 2019. The ship has a maximum capacity of 53 passengers and so space is limited and likely to fill fast. The voyage sets sail from Longyearbyen on 24th August and prices start at £7,525 per person.
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EGYPT As Egypt continues to regain popularity, the new Grand Egyptian Museum is scheduled for opening in 2020. Located in Giza, overlooking the pyramids, the $1 billion new state-of-the-art building will become the world’s largest museum devoted to a single civilization. Steppes is able to arrange behind the scenes access to the new museum in 2019, with a visit to the conservation laboratories where ancient artefacts are restored.
TURKEY The World Nomadic Games is a biennial celebration of Central Asian culture and has been staged in Kyrgyzstan for the last three tournaments. In 2020, Turkey will be the host and you can expect to witness eccentric sports such as Kok-Boru (dead goat polo), horseback wrestling and eagle hunting.
CHILE The demand for luxury mobile camps in the world’s most remote and wild places can now be satisfied in Chile. One of our partners in Chile have set up off-the-grid pop-up camps in Patagonia and Maule Valley. There will also be a new camp set up in Elqui Valley in preparation for the total eclipse on 2nd July, 2019.
INDIA Ranthambore – The tiger population has increased to such an extent that it has almost outgrown the national park and plans are afoot to extend the core tiger area, doubling the overall size of the park. Unlike most reserves in India, full day permits are still available allowing access across all the park zones and giving permission to enter the park earlier than any other visitors.
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TRAVEL TEAM 22
JUST BACK FROM OUR
Some of our travel highlights from the last six months.
KATIE BENDEN ITALY
ILLONA CROSS ERITREA
Cycling through ancient olive groves and poppy fields in rural Puglia.
An island in the Dahlak Archipelago, no other person there, sleeping on the beach, spearfishing for dinner washed down with Asmara beer.
JARROD KYTE MONGOLIA Miles and miles of open space on the steppes of western Mongolia. 6
KATE BURNELL JAPAN
CHRIS JOHNSTON RWANDA
HOLLY TAMLYN NEW ZEALAND
An evening with a trainee Geisha and third generation okiya owner, learning about the intricate traditions and secrets of this ancient culture.
Crossing Lake Kivu at night during a lightning storm as Nyiragongo Volcano glowed in the distance, trying to avoid Congolese army.
Galloping next to the beautiful Humboldt Mountains to meet the edge of the bright turquoise waters of Lake Wakatipu.
AMY WATERS MALAYSIAN BORNEO Watching thousands of fireflies light up the night sky in the mangrove trees on the Kinabatangan River. 10
HARRIET FISHER PHILIPPINES
CAROLE WILLIAMS CROATIA
After a leg-burning hike, the stomach lurching moment when perched atop the breathtaking amphitheatre of rice terraces at Bangaan.
Being surrounded by leaping dolphins on a water taxi from Mlini to Dubrovnik.
CLARE HIGGINSON INDONESIAN BORNEO Hearing then seeing orangutans making their way through the forest, often with babies attached to their mums. 6 Steppes Traveller | Issue 1/2019
LUCY HAYWARD BRAZIL
SALLY WALTERS BALI, INDONESIA
Playing a very competitive game of dominoes with people from the local communities in the remote Mamiraua Reserve in the Amazon.
Watching the most almighty Asian rainstorm from the comfort of my sublime tent at Capella Ubud.
4 & 15
8 2 24
TOM FROST RUSSIA
AMY HASTIE SRI LANKA
LARA PAXTON JAPAN
Watching time stand still in the beautiful Russian town of Suzdal with snow falling all around me.
Watching the most beautiful sunset on top of Sigiriya, the climb was exhausting but completely worth it.
Listening to a lecture on robotics and AI from scientists at Tokyo University. The future of AI is scary.
SUE GRIMWOOD ECUADOR
JOHN FAITHFULL CUBA
JENN EVANS GUATEMALA
Morning still, mist hanging heavy in the tops of giant kapok trees, silence shattered by the squawk of an overflying macaw.
Zipping along Havana’s famous seafront Malecon on an electric bike at sunset with beer in hand.
Spending a night under the stars in the remote, ancient Mayan site of Uaxactun surrounded by Petén jungle north of Tikal.
CHARLOTTE BUTLER SOUTH AFRICA Our first ever sighting of leopards, elegantly striding down the pathway, shoulder blades rhythmically moving up and down. 22
KATE WHARTON COSTA RICA
LAUREN WEST JAMAICA
Being woken by the roar of howler monkeys and discovering a family troop in the canopy above my outdoor bathroom.
Exploring Negril’s villages and beaches with our guide ‘Captain Bob’, where we finished the day eating the most delicious jerk chicken.
ROXY DUKES ALASKA
JAMES ARMITAGE BOLIVIA
At daybreak, meandering through a glacial carved inlet cloaked by mist, surrounded by ancient rainforest - only a distant eagle breaking the silence.
The Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia, at 3,650 metres, offering stunning snow-capped volcanoes, shimmering salt flats, pink flamingos and exploding geysers.
NADIA SHAHANAZ HUSSAIN KENYA Sleeping under a blanket of stars at El Karama, Laikipia in our suspended tent as hyenas cackled in the distance.
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SAFARI HANGOUT BY ROB GARDINER
I wriggle my body onto stretched canvas and inelegantly flop forwards. The whole structure vibrates and I roll over. Above me, the Milky Way is bright and visible, even through my mosquito netting. The air is cold and fresh, filled with the scents of grasses, acacias and lingering wood smoke.
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After some fortifying sips of coffee, we set off on foot. Leaving the camp behind, the quiet stillness of the bush is broken only by the rustling of our shoes on dew-dampened grass. Robinson strides ahead, alert for movement, big or small.
I’m lying in a Tentsile Tent, just a metre and a half off the ground, suspended between three trees. Surrounding me is the El Karama Conservancy – a privately owned reserve and former ranch in Kenya’s Laikipia region. I have just eaten a three-course meal, served beside a campfire. Now, I’m preparing to spend a night sleeping out under the stars.
An hour ahead of us is the main lodge. And that means hot showers and a warming breakfast. But these creature comforts can wait. Nearby, a hippo’s head emerges, snorting from a large pool. Giraffes stretch their necks, browsing on acacias. A raptor soars above, riding the first thermals of the day. The wilderness around me is beginning to awake and I want to be nowhere else.
In the trees, I know an askari sentry keeps an eye out for animals, but the darkness is enveloping. The noises of the night – bats, insects and frogs – seem deafening now the crackling of the fire has died away. As I roll onto my mattress and pull a duvet over me, I hear hyenas calling close by. Their cries cut through the cacophony of smaller sounds. I’ve been warned not to leave my shoes on the ground, in case a curious hyena decides to run off with them. Sleep does not come easily with the moon now bright overhead and the sounds of the night filling my ears. But I’m not here to make sure I get my eight hours. The dark wilderness around me is intoxicating. The bush never feels closer and more untamed than at night. Eventually, sleep takes me, as my mind remembers the lions and leopards of earlier in the day. Hours later, the smell of woodsmoke wakes me. The soft light of an African dawn has broken the horizon. The air is cold and still, despite the equator being nearby - a reminder that I’m at 2,000 metres. I unzip the tent and look out. Smoke curls from a rekindled fire. Around me, the noises of the insects and frogs have gone, replaced by the first choruses of birdsong - still just a whisper but soon to rise to a cacophony of chirps as the sun’s first warming rays awaken the bush. I lower myself from the tent, more elegantly this time. A smiling Robinson, my guide, greets me by the warmth of the fire. Handing me a cup of coffee, he asks, “How did you sleep?” “Not that well,” I reply, stretching my stiff back, “But that doesn’t really matter when you wake to this, does it?” We look out over the beautiful conservancy landscape. The sky is brightening now, illuminating the grasslands and forests. Birds are silhouetted on branches, their song reaching us over the still air.
Kenya - 6 days from £2,695pp, excluding flights.
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NEW ZEALAND K AYA K I N G W I T H S E A G O D S BY CHARLES JEWITT
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The water trembles, turning opaque and a mushroom cloud rises, as if a wand, finishing a sequence of twists and turns has fired its spell onto the seabed below. As the cloud of disturbed sand melts away a stingray emerges, wriggling itself free from its hiding place it glides into the sandbanks, hugging the surf’s edge. Hungry orca loom further out in the bay. He’d do well to stay in the shallows. I’m in Abel Tasman, New Zealand. The sunniest part of the country, on one of the sunniest days of the year. A perfect day for some sea kayaking. A perfect day to be on honeymoon. The sun has already danced her way high into the sky and is busy beaming down onto the golden sands of the outstretched beach. We head off along the coast enthused by our early wildlife find. Our guide for the day, Amy, points towards shore and a pile of boulders. “That’s a common sunbathing spot for seals. Keep your eyes peeled.” I pause my dolphin search and scan the rocks, but there doesn’t seem to be anything there. “There’s one.” I scan the rocks again and this time find her, lazily snoozing on a granite outcrop. She opens an eye, musters a half-hearted phlegmatic ‘wafture’ of a flipper and immediately flops back to sleep. It’s clearly much too hot to take interest in us, so we leave her snoozing and paddle on. We arrive in Tower’s Bay, home of Split Apple Rock, the area’s iconic postcard shot, a giant granite boulder cleanly sliced down the middle. We pause for the obligatory camera snaps and Amy shares the story of the rock, or at least the Maori version. Maori tell of a sea serpent, known as a taniwha, who, having laid her egg on some rocks in the bay, leaves it to hatch. Tane Mahuta, lord of the forest claims the egg, as it has been laid on land. But by high tide the egg lies in the water and the sea god Tangaroa therefore refutes Tane’s claim. >
Before us a spit of perfect eburnean sand juts out across the bay trapping sun warmed waters in the lagoon, an ideal place to discard our kayaks and dive in for a swim. As we wade in, a small shoal of fish darts into deeper water. It’s tranquil. Gentle. A chance to relax. It’s also short lived. I didn’t notice them slip into the bay, but another group of paddlers had joined us, pulling their kayaks onto the sand further down the spit.
Unable to come to agreement an acrimonious tussle ensues. Tane heading off to create a spear and Tangaroa diving to the ocean floor and crafting an axe from greenstone. As Tangaroa dives, Tane attempts to take the egg but is spotted. Bringing his axe down, Tangaroa misses, cracking open the egg. The magic seeping out into the sea, turns the water the characteristic green the area is known for. Magic gone, the egg is abandoned and slowly it turns to rock. Today there are no gods, just a lone cormorant, who quickly disappears as we pass and make our way to Frenchman’s Bay. High tide offers a fleeting window to explore the lagoon beyond by kayak. Surrounded by thick forest, branches from the lush, virid vegetation hang over the aquamarine lagoon’s edge, tickling the water’s surface, sending giggly ripples out and into the smiles of the kayakers. It’s magical. A skin tingling secluded paradise hidden from the outside world by the beech, ferns and the winding arms of the Rata trees. Paddling stops. A moment to soak up this surreal corner of New Zealand. A landscape for fairy-tales, the sort of place Peter Jackson might go hunting for elvish talent amongst the surrounding canopy. Shaking arms back into action we press on winding around the bay and towards our landing place for a lunch. The ominously named Sand Fly Bay. As we edge round the headland, Amy is clearly pleased her plan has come together and we can have the place to ourselves. Having heard horror stories of the biting critters, I’m relieved not to see clouds of sand flies. Then relief turns to delight.
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Clearly mostly reluctant swimmers, they were content to settle down for some sunbathing. But a lone figure had split from the group. Bounding bombastically across the hot sand in Amy’s direction and heroically launching herself skyward. She hit the water like a handful of Mentos thrown into a glass of Coke. An explosive stream of water shooting into the air and showering down in all directions. We wince. She emerges. Beaming with pride at her belly flopping prowess. A clear announcement, it was time for some fun. Not to be outdone Amy follows her colleague’s lead and soon there are bodies flying in all directions. An escalating crescendo of insane leaps, dives and seismic belly flops. The childish frivolities continue until we collapse on the beach exhausted. It’s time to head home. We jump back into our kayaks.
New Zealand - 21 days from £4,895pp, excluding flights.
OUR TRIP HIGHLIGHTS
Jet Ski at the Bay of Islands
Search for Bryde’s whales in the Hauraki Gulf
Head up the Sky Tower in Auckland
Explore Waiheke Island’s beautiful vineyards
Go bathing at the Coromandel Peninsula’s, Hot Water Beach
Discover Middle Earth in Hobbiton
Explore Maori culture and geothermal mud pools in Rotorua
Float through the glow worm lit Waitomo Caves
Experience the power of Huka Falls
Walk the Tongariro Crossing
Visit Te Papa museum in Wellington
Soak up the beautiful Marlborough Sounds on the Interislander ferry
Taste the world-famous Sauvignon Blanc wines of Marlborough
Kayak Abel Tasman
Explore the greenstone craft shops in Hokitika
Take the TranzAlpine train from Greymouth to Christchurch
Heli-hike on Franz Josef Glacier
Cruise Lake Wakatipu on board TSS Earnslaw in Queenstown
Jet boat the Dart River at Glenorchy
Cruise up Doubtful Sound
Search for sea lions on the remote Catlin’s beaches
Find Penguins in Oamaru
Tramp Hooker Valley at Mt. Cook
Stargaze at Lake Tekapo
Swim with dolphins at Kaikoura
Choosing where to stay in the Maldives is a bit of a minefield. One expects as standard the crystal clear blue, lagoon like waters, the white sand beaches and food and service at the highest level, so what is it that sets one island resort apart from the rest? How do you choose the one that is going to suit you? Travel Expert Katie Benden has chosen four of her absolute favourites.
VAKKARU MALDIVES Vakkaru Maldives is a brand new, lush, green tropical island resort in the Baa Atoll. Itâ€™s only a short 25-minute seaplane flight from Male and offers a fresh holistic approach to unassuming luxury with superb eco credentials. Famous for its manta rays, the diving here is exceptional, and the beach and water villas offer incredible space and ocean views. This resort would appeal to not only couples but to larger groups of friends and families due to their exceptional four bedroom over water pool residence which is able to accommodate four adults and four children, or eight adults. This makes for a lovely alternative to a private beach villa holiday.
7-night stay at Vakkaru in a Beach Bungalow with daily breakfast and return seaplane transfers from ÂŁ3,950pp. Get in touch to take advantage of year-round offers.
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ATMOSPHERE KANIFUSHI MALDIVES For those of you who do not want to think about paying a bill at the end of the holiday, Kanifushi offers a premium all-inclusive holiday experience. Platinum Plus elevates the regular all-inclusive to a completely new level – offering sumptuous buffet and fine dining, an array of excursions and activities and premium wines and spirits. Fun-filled and hassle-free. Situated in the sparsely populated Lhaviyani Atoll, a 30-minute seaplane transfer from Male Airport, this all-beach-villa resort would appeal to families of all ages. The entry level villas are some of the largest you’ll find in the Maldives. Particularly attractive are the sunset family villas which are interconnecting with larger outdoor spaces and garden areas. These are located close to the kids club and main restaurant.
7-night stay at Kanifushi in a Sunset Beach Villa with all-inclusive platinum plus and return seaplane transfers from £2,595pp.
NIYAMA PRIVATE ISLANDS If you want total peace and quiet and island paradise but are concerned you might be too cut off then Niyama offers the choice of two Maldivian Island experiences, ‘Play’ and ‘Chill’. A seaplane journey of 45 minutes takes you from Male to Niyama’s twin islands in the south-western atoll of Dhaalu. Discover your island niche and settle in or jump back and forth between high-energy indulgences and cool serenity. There are a collection of 134 studios, suites and pavilions, dotting both islands, beach based or extending out over the lagoon. The Crescent is of particular note for overwater seclusion for up to 14 adults and eight children.
BAROS For Maldives aficionados, Baros Resort has been around for many years and carries with it an excellent reputation. Located 20 minutes by speedboat from Male Airport, this is a great option for those who don’t like seaplanes and is convenient for arrivals and departures 24/7. Lush mature palm trees and brilliant tropical vegetation surround peaceful beach or water villas. This small coral island ringed by golden sand and a thriving house reef is set in a shimmering blue lagoon and offers the first eco dive centre which enables guests to conduct reef check surveys. Baros appeals to couples or small groups of friends. Children over the age of eight are permitted.
7-night stay at Baros in a Deluxe Villa with daily breakfast and return speedboat transfers from £2,135pp.
7-night stay at Niyama Private Islands in a Beach Villa with daily breakfast and return seaplane transfers from £3,445pp.
THE WITCHES OF
ST PETERSBURG TRIP
BRITISH JOURNALIST, AUTHOR AND WRITER IMOGEN EDWARDS-JONES RECOUNTS HER RECENT TRIP TO ST PETERSBURG WITH US.
Personally, I blame Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It was back in the summer of 1986, when apples were still fruits and Gorbachev’s red wine stain was still very much being airbrushed from Soviet history and my future was very much Spanish. I was going to read Spanish at university, a life of Lorca and Rioja beckoned, but then along came Dostoyevsky and his great works and I fell in love in an instant with Russia, the Russian language and all things Russian. And since then, it’s been a passionate love affair.
Hermitage Museum, the Russian State Museum, The Fabergé Museum, The Church of the Spilled Blood, The Peter and Paul Fortress, the Catherine Palace and the Vladimir Palace into our four day trip. We dined at the Fortnum and Mason of St Petersburg, Yeliseev Cafe on Nevsky Prospekt, we drank home-made kvass in the cosy basement of Yat, some of us went to the Mariinsky ballet, some of us went to the extraordinary circus, all of us went to the delicious Cafe Rubinstein for dinner and then out dancing.
I studied there under perestroika, I wrote a book, The Taming of Eagles, about the first 100 days of the collapse of communism, I have travelled extensively in the old Soviet Union, all the way across to Sakhalin, I’ve rounded up wild horses on the steppes of Kirghizia, drunk vodka in a women’s prison in Kazakhstan, been whipped with birch by the Mayor of Mayma, been made an honorary Cossack in Rostov, but I have never, ever, taken a trip to St Petersburg with ten of my closest friends.
We’d got together to celebrate the publication of my latest novel, The Witches of St Petersburg, a tale of black magic in the court of the last tsar, Nicholas II, so for me the highlight of the trip was going to the basement of the Yusupov Palace, where Grigory Rasputin met his end at the hands of Prince Felix Yusupov and his murderous assistants. Poisoned with cakes laced with arsenic, shot in the ribs and then chased across a snow-covered courtyard, hounded like a dog, and finally executed through the forehead, before being thrown through the ice into the Maly Neva to drown.
AND WHAT A TRIP! Cosmopolitan, cultured and the heart of the Russian Court, christened by many as the ‘Venice of the North’, St Petersburg is the perfect long weekend destination with possibly more beauty per square metre, and, certainly, more gold per square centimetre than any other city on earth. Romantic, hedonistic and totally bohemian, it has changed little since the first time I went there in the late 80s and still has much more of the old Russian feel than its brasher, brassier and significantly bigger brother, Moscow. Staying at the glorious Hotel Astoria with views of the golden domes of St Isaac’s Cathedral and a short walk from the magnificent Bronze Horsemen, we managed to pack The
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It was the sort of death not even my old friend Dostoyevsky could have come up with.
THE WITCHES OF ST PETERSBURG IMOGEN’S BOOK Inspired by real characters, this transporting historical fiction debut spins the fascinating story of two princesses in the Romanov court who practiced black magic, befriended the Tsarina, and invited Rasputin into their lives.
Russia - 5 days from £1,595pp, excluding flights.
CHILE A PASSAGE FROM THE L AND OF SALT AND STARS TO THE “END OF THE WORLD” BY VANESSA HUMPHREY
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â€œYou will know if a puma is near. Your horse will tell youâ€?, Negra calmly discloses as we navigate through a Sub-Antarctic Andean-Patagonian forest of crooked, whitishgrey tree trunks. These forests, which originated over 45 million years ago on the supercontinent of Gondwana, are amongst the southern-most in the world. Negra is my guide, tasked with translating the quiet and infrequent utterances of Hernando, the gaucho, native to Chilean Patagonia, who is leading our horseback quest to reach the 1,332-metre summit of Mount Donoso. >
Nomadic horsemen, celebrated for their wildness of spirit and heralded as custodians of the land, the gauchos cut a magnificent figure against the precipitous backdrop of Chilean Patagonia. Steadfast, capable of withstanding the notorious elements and claiming thousands of miles of earth as their home, they are the human embodiment of the very mountains amongst which they have forged their livelihoods. Hernando is a contemporary gaucho, pairing his traditional soot-black merino wool beret with a down jacket. The ominous facón - a heavy-bladed fighting and meat carving knife - that is suspended from his belt is offset by the discreet thermos of warm porontas granados, a Chilean bean stew. A slightly less inconspicuous bottle of Cabernet peeks from his saddlebag. These humble delicacies would later be shared amongst our grateful trio while our horses rested on the banks of the Serrano River. Three folk and three steeds, we are a party of minuscule figures cutting an inconsequential track through this gargantuan and spectacular scene. I am riding Ajiaco, a formidable and sure-footed mahogany bay gelding, who tugs petulantly at the reins in eagerness to escape from the tangled, root-strewn forest. As the woodland thickets begin to diffuse, revealing the exposed expanse of the grassy pampas beyond, no translation is required for Hernando’s next proposition, “¿Gallope?” As we move in an unfettered band at breakneck speed across the gale-battered prairies and wildflower-covered grasslands, the dull leaden-blue of the Paine Massif is the one staggering constant on the blustery horizon. The glacial Patagonian winds whistle past, drowning out all but the heavy thundering of a dozen galloping hooves and the rhythmic squeak of our Chilean leather and sheepskin saddles. Overhead, three-metre-wingspan Andean condors glide in search of puma-kill guanaco and the perpetual battle between piercing blue skies and incoming blockades of dense sombre thunderclouds ensues. Just 24 hours earlier I had been trotting over the scorched red earth of the Atacama Desert, its tint a similar shade to that of the light chestnut mare named Constantina who I was riding. The altitude is high, the sun higher. Our short, nomadic shadows create transient pockets of shade over the thirsty rocks below, a fleeting and rare luxury of which there are no beneficiaries – the few cacti, succulents and algae that prosper in this region do so without want of protection from either the glaring sun or the sub-zero nighttime climes.
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As a native Atacamanean matter-of-factly tells me, this extensive altiplanic region, “Is more like Mars than Earth”. The vastness of these hostile desert flats is staggering - but for the pastel-coloured, volcanic projections that punctuate the horizon, the landscape seems otherwise boundless and totally devoid of life. Yet, as we slowly navigate the dry riverbed under the watchful eye of the active Licancabur stratovolcano and sunset turns the landscape into a concoction of milky pinks and blues, I observe a trio of dazzling green mountain parakeets flitting between the rock faces of the ravines. Moments later, a reckless viscacha weaves amongst the steep, baking rocks. Against the odds, fauna thrives in this deceptively uninhabitable territory. I had journeyed from the world’s driest non‑polar landscape, the arid and otherworldly Atacama Desert, to Patagonia, where the colossal granite spires of the Andes puncture the hovering fog, flanked by miles of verdant pampas. In traversing the length of Chile from its north‑eastern boundary to the southernmost tip of South America, descending a total of 4,000 metres in elevation, I had witnessed first-hand the major climatic and visual variety for which the country is renowned.
Despite their wildly different climates and proportionately opposing panoramas, these two regions do possess one unifying quality, both are host to unique properties that I was encouraged to call ‘home’ during my time in each remote wilderness. Purposely positioned in the wild peripheries of this extensive filament of a country, Explora Atacama and Explora Patagonia are bases for further explorations of their respective surroundings before they are luxury hotels. Patrons of the Explora properties forgo luxurious amenities in favour of gathering around metre-wide maps, cramming their pockets with trail mix and standing in discussion with expert guides, eager to embark on the day’s adventures. In an episode of pathetic fallacy, during my last night in Patagonia I am awoken by forceful, roaring winds. Owing to the mammoth and mostly vacant nature of the plateau, the unyielding Patagonian gales are infamously capable of extreme speeds of up to 100mph. They serve as a potent reminder of my being at the ‘End of the World’, a colloquialism that well-describes this land mass. Fortuitously, my adjusting eyes are drawn to the bewildering vista beyond the sweeping window. There, cloaked in nightfall but still piercing through the blur of charcoal sky like some monumental iceberg is the jet-black silhouette of the Paine Massif, its snowand-ice-capped peaks glowing like beacons, illuminated by the pale moon. I throw open the window, determined to fill my lungs with the same bitter air that had passed through the three pinnacles of the massif just moments before. As oodles of distant stars glint like fireflies, approving of my midnight escapade, I recount Hernando’s earlier testimony: “Nowhere else can you be so alone”. The stars, the mountains and I, I think, are company enough tonight.
Chile - 7 days from £4,395pp, including 3 nights at Explora Atacama and 3 nights at Explora Patagonia, excluding flights.
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SPIRIT OF THE INDIAN JUNGLE
BY NADIA SHAHANAZ HUSSAIN
“There, can you see it?” I scan the horizon. Nothing. “The ear, can you see it twitch.” Still nothing. “Okay, let me drive closer.” Namrata, our naturalist in Pench National Park, moves the vehicle forward, turning the engine off and rolling to a stop. Reaching for her binoculars, a smile creeps across her face. She stands up in the vehicle, head craning forward and with breathless childlike awe she whispers, ‘’Wow.’’ Notwithstanding that she has been a naturalist for four years with the worldrenowned Taj Safaris, spotting India’s mightiest and most majestic creature hasn’t lost its charm. Namrata settled in Mumbai and began working as a graphic designer but soon found the jungle calling to her. Her love of discovery and wildlife had been ignited whilst travelling the world in her teens as a result of her father’s work. I ask what her best experience on safari has been. She pauses, ‘’There are so many.’’ A pivotal moment, however was at Kanha National Park. Aged 24 she experienced her first night on safari. From the safety of her lodge she had heard the roar of tigers in the middle of the night. “I had no idea what the sound was, but I knew I wanted to hear it again and again. I knew I wanted to make this my home.’’ >
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Taj Safaris have been pivotal in championing female naturalists, currently employing four across their different properties in India, including the two lodges that I have been privileged to stay at – Baghvan in Pench and Banjaar Tola in Kanha. The word is getting out – Taj are getting applications from people from all walks of life. Whilst staying at Baghvan I meet other naturalists who have left high flying jobs in the city. One, a former consultant at Ernst & Young, speaks to me about his decision to leave the city for a more fulfilling calling. Yes, his parents might have been shocked at this unconventional career choice but as he recounts his experience of the last tiger census at Pench I see that, much like Namrata, he has made the right decision. You have to do what you enjoy.
Golden hour is upon us. The ominous teak trees are tinged with a saffron shade of yellow sun. Taking its name from the meandering Pench River, we drive through the park’s different landscapes of forests and valleys. You may be there for the tiger, but you’ll be listening for the warning calls of the langur, looking for the photogenic so-called ghost tree that has shed all its bark to the always unexpected feeling of droplets from the cicada filled trees in the forest. The park is alive and your senses constantly alert. We spot gaur, sambar deer, jackals, rhesus macaques and peahens with ease. Indian rollers, greater racket-tailed drongo and night jars fly overhead. On one occasion what we think is a tiger turns out to be a leopard sprawled across a log. Another phenomenal spot by Namrata.
Namrata is certainly no token gesture as the only female naturalist in Pench. Calm, collected, yet still irrefutably excitable at the sight of wildlife, game drives with her seem to end much too soon. Sight aside, her knowledge of the wildlife is incredible. We are treated to stories of Collar Walli, the Princess of Pench – one of four tiger cubs intimately filmed by elephants wearing hidden cameras on “Tiger- Spy in the Jungle” – and Langari, a tigress born with a twisted paw but a defiant attitude to change her fate. The tigers here in Pench are all assigned numbers. For the naturalists however, they are on a first name basis.
“Do you see it now?” Namrata asks.
Elusive, surprisingly well camouflaged, and fiercely independent, tigers are not a guaranteed spot. We are on our third game drive at Pench and thus far we have only seen a tiger from afar, striding beyond the teak trees before disappearing into the undergrowth. What is even more galling is that we shared this fleeting glimpse with seven other safari vehicles all queued up on a single lane track. We yearn for our own private close up and, with at least 53 tigers in the park, we think our luck should be in. But this is unlike safari experiences in Africa. There is no sense of instant gratification. No guaranteed sightings of game on each drive. Patience is key. The right naturalist has a sense for where the tigers may be, which direction they’ll be heading in. The best naturalists, however, will ensure that your game drives uncover all that the park has to offer.
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She leans forward and asks for my camera so that she can focus on it for me. “Yes, yes I do,” I stutter excitedly. A smile creeps onto my face as I watch the tigress peer up out of the long grass to scan the horizon. We sit, silenced by the view of her. The sunset is beginning to highlight her head, the glow making her appear ever more like the spirit of the Indian jungle.
© Namrata - Taj Safari guide
India - 11 days from £3,995pp, excluding flights.
V I E T NA M
B Y V I N TA G E M I N S K M O T O R B I K E BY HARRIET FISHER
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SOUTH EAST ASIA
It is with a sense of trepidation that I scramble onto the back of a vintage Russian Minsk motorbike. “Relax… there are no crashes in Vietnam”, my guide assures me. I can’t help but be a little circumspect at his bravado. There are three and a half million people in Hanoi and judging by the traffic there seems to be at least double this number on motorbikes – or at least so it seems to my untrained eye. I hold my breath and grip tighter onto my unsuspecting guide as we head out to explore Hanoi, the country’s spectacular capital famed for its mix of classical colonial architecture with Russian and Chinese style buildings, pretty tree-lined streets, stunning lakes and a chaotic old quarter.
It is also good sport spotting the most wonderful and ingenious ways of packing as much onto your moped as possible. The Vietnamese people are resourceful and inventive in transporting goods from place to place. Whether stacks of eggs, extremely long bamboo poles, or in fact their whole families including week old children. Again, their balance and bravery you cannot fail to admire. Vietnam is special in that everywhere you go the people greet you with a smile and a wave. Yes, they are probably laughing at the novice blonde rider gripping desperately to her guide, however, everything has a sense of fun and joy. This real Vietnamese experience is something I would never have dared on my own, but safely steered by my excellent guide, I was able to step off the tourist track, I was able to see that which others do not and have brilliant fun to boot. This is a real must for any holiday to Vietnam.
Needless to say, my worries are unfounded. The city is consumed day and night by the ebb and flow of motorbikes, mopeds and scooters that swim in schools, in unison, alongside islands of corporate Land Cruisers and crammed buses, darting into some unseen corner at the slightest fright. The traffic in Vietnam is incredible, it is as though the fluid movement, meanderings and near misses come down to either telepathy or some seriously impressive reaction speeds. The traffic is buzzing, it does not stall and choke but surges and pulsates. Acceptance, giving way is the creed, none of the obstinacy, aggression and foul language that pollute our roads. Suddenly, I realise that I am grinning from ear to ear, this isn’t scary, this is fun, this is exhilarating. I start to take in my surroundings and I honestly now believe such a tour is the only way to gain a true insight into the life of a local in Vietnam. As we zip up narrow side alleys lined with children playing and washing hanging between buildings, we see the hustle and the bustle, the beating heart of the city. We see local industry at work, drink local coffee, try mouth-watering local street food from an emerging food scene. We visit markets which must sell every part you would ever possibly need in order to fix a moped. I do not see another tourist. This is a different side to Hanoi.
Vietnam - 15 days from £2,995pp, excluding flights.
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BY ILLONA CROSS
On a crisp early morning, old men tend the locomotive, oiling and stoking. We roll out of the yard and onto the plateau, through the prickly pears to the edge of the escarpment. Then, like a rollercoaster of old, we are launched off the edge, between hills, over narrow bridges and through black, soot-lined tunnels. Such is my introduction to the bizarre and beautiful nature of Eritrea. >
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“The grand past has almost vanished, so too many of the inhabitants.”
In 1939, Mussolini wanted to reach Kassala, in Sudan, by rail but was distracted by the war with Ethiopia and only managed to construct a short section of track. This stretched from Massawa, on the Red Sea coast, to Bishia, in the Eritrean highlands. Surprisingly, a portion of this track survives, as well as the original steam train that ran along it. In Asmara, the giant palisades of Italian architecture tower over the wellmaintained streets and boulevards. I pass iconic buildings - the Fiat showroom, the Roma cinema (now a trendy cafe showing Premier League football), the Italian war cemetery and the lido. The beauty of this Art Deco architecture stands in stark contrast to the world around it. But I prefer the downtown market. Here, I walk amongst the people as they go about their daily chores. I visit a milling co-operative run and staffed by women. They are dressed in pink, carrying floral baskets that would make Cath Kidston feel at home. They walk the streets in modern dresses or
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beautiful traditional hebesha kemis, with pride and purpose. The women I meet throughout the country are fearless and forward-thinking. They always initiate conversation. Murals portray shocking images of the war in which women fought alongside the men and were equally honoured as martyrs. Twenty years of war came to an end in June 2018 when Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace agreement. Posters of this historic day adorn the walls of many buildings. There is a sense of a new dawn. Life is improving: the borders have opened, there is an influx of imports, the price of food is dropping daily – the price of potatoes halved during my stay. In the quiet town of Keren, I visit the market. For a day a week, the town is thrown into a riot of chaos and colour. The female-dominated merchant market is a melee, as a tide of people surges between the stall and every commodity from toothpaste to cabbages is exchanged with noisy chatter. The camel market is more sedate as the Tigrinya haggle in a quiet hum.
The camels are composed as they look haughtily on. Nearby, teams of oxen plough straight furrows to show their worth to prospective owners. In the port town of Massawa, once called Mitsiwa’e, meaning ‘to call’ as the residents had to call the boats from the mainland to cross before the causeway was built, the heat is stifling and the pace of life slow. I walk into the Old Town, once renowned for its beautiful architecture but now desolate - in 1990 Eritrean forces destroyed the Ethiopian garrison by bombing Massawa for days. The grand past has almost vanished, so too many of the inhabitants. Eritrea feels empty. It has lost so many of its people. I hear stories of sons drowning in the Mediterranean and of fathers dragging their families on foot to Sudan. Every family has a story. From Massawa I head out by boat to the Dahlak Archipelago. An hour later, a flat, sandy island appears in the azure sea, topped by a large flock of sea birds. Here, in the sweltering heat, the crew set up large dome
opened road, not so much for the stunning landscapes but simply to stare into Ethiopia. Adi Keyh is not much of a town. However, the ancient ruins of nearby Qohaito take me by surprise. Situated midway between Adulis and Axum, this sprawling site was once an ancient trading town dating back to 5,000 BC. A pre-Christian temple and the unassuming Sahira Dam have stood there all this time. The stairs into the water of the damâ€™s reservoir are worn smooth with age and use.
tents and comfortable camp beds. An idyllic base from which to enjoy my surroundings or explore other islands. After a lunch of grilled fish, I spend the afternoon fishing, snorkelling and spearfishing. The day ends perfectly when Asmara gin and tonic is served as the sun sets and the moon rises. The best is kept for last as I snake along the high escarpment road from Asmara to Adi Keyh, through the most beautiful scenery. Many Eritreans travel this newly
Nearby the highlands drop away into the most remarkable canyon, which sits at the tip of the Rift Valley. I make my way gingerly to the edge to view the rock art of giraffes, elephants and lions in the Adi Alauti Cave, which provides shelter for young goat herders. A bateleur eagle hovers at eyelevel. The vista takes my breath away. Black storm clouds roll into the distance, the sun highlighting a mosque in the foreground. An apt metaphor.
Eritrea - 14 days from ÂŁ3,995pp, excluding flights.
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CAN TOURISM IN THE
GALAPAGOS ISLANDS BE SUSTAINABLE? BY JARROD KYTE
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On my recent visit to the Galapagos I sought answers to this critical question, canvassing the opinions of people working in tourism, tourists and drawing my own conclusions. Where tourism has a critical role to play, is in the creation of vocal ambassadors for conservation in the world’s most fragile environments. Just as we can’t protect what we don’t know, equally we can’t expect people to speak out for causes they don’t understand and therefore do not care about. Travel can be a catalyst for action as it provides the process through which people can begin to understand. From understanding comes the capacity to care which can ultimately lead to action. As a Steppes client travelling to the Galapagos, you are automatically signed up to six months membership of the Galapagos Conservation Trust. >
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“Without tourism, the Galapagos Islands wouldn’t exist.”
Following my recent trip to Galapagos, I have seen first-hand how the future of the islands and tourism are inextricably linked. But this dependency does not give the tourism industry the right to exploit the Galapagos Islands. There needs to be a balance whereby tourism is carefully managed, and the numbers closely monitored to ensure that the islands benefit just as much, if not more than the tourists.
Sir David Attenborough
Tourism allows local communities to realise the economic potential of the wildlife they live alongside, and thus provides a compelling reason to protect it. I was listening to a Galapagos guide speak of how the smell of rotting shark fins on the island of Isabela was unbearable. This changed when the shark fishermen realised they could make a more reliable income from tourism. Now the shark is worth more alive than the money received for its fin. It’s not a question of whether you should visit the Galapagos but how you should visit the Galapagos. At Steppes Travel, we believe a cruise is the better option. Not only does it offer a varied and exciting experience it is also more manageable and therefore more sustainable. The visitor experience is well managed in the Galapagos. There are strict codes of conduct that visitors must adhere to and ships’ schedules are carefully organised to avoid overrunning key sites. But over 200,000 visitors came to the Galapagos in 2016 and if this number continues to grow then at what point does the tourist experience and its impact become unmanageable? We may only know this when it is too late to undo some of the harm caused so I am in favour of an immediate freeze on tourist numbers. In addition to this cap on numbers I suggest that the authorities immediately revise the National Park Fee which currently sits at a paltry $100. To spend one hour with mountain gorillas in Rwanda requires a permit that costs $1,500. At $100 for an unlimited stay in the Galapagos, the authorities are massively undervaluing their prime tourist asset and in doing so, missing an opportunity to raise funds for key conservation projects. Sir David Attenborough famously wrote: “Without tourism, the Galapagos Islands wouldn’t exist.”
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TRAVELLING RESPONSIBLY IN THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS There are many boats operating in the Galapagos Islands today, knowing which one to choose can be difficult for many reasons. At Steppes we visit the islands every year to check on the standard of services, what new boats are operating and to make sure we are offering our clients the best experiences and value for money. We only work with boats that have a maximum capacity of 48 passengers as we feel this offers a better experience and creates a smaller environmental impact. We ensure the operators we are working with not only follow the strict Galapagos National Park rules but are also committed to supporting local charities and projects to protect and preserve these precious islands. Roxy, John and Vanessa were all in the Galapagos in December 2018, so check our blog pages to read about their experiences.
We are delighted to announce that Steppes Travel have given Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) £5,000 to help fund a new Discovering Galapagos citizen science web portal. This will enable people from around the world to get involved in their Galapagos Plastic Pollution Free Programme, through analysing data and images of plastic rubbish found on beaches. This scientific evidence will be used as part of their work with the Galapagos National Park and partners to identify sources of plastic arriving at the Archipelago and to help stop it. All Steppes clients will receive six months membership to GCT.
Galapagos Islands - 10 days from £6,695pp, excluding flights on our exclusive charter with marine conservationist and producer of the film ‘A Plastic Ocean’, Jo Ruxton.
DYNASTIES “The family is one of the most powerful forces in nature.’’ Sir David Attenborough
After four years in the making, Dynasties graced our TV screens, bringing us five family groups of lions, painted dogs, chimpanzees, tigers and emperor penguins. Each episode followed one of these species during the most critical period of their lives portraying the daily struggle for existence as they hold on to their territory and protect their respective dynasties. It was intense and gripping. Experience the dynasties with Steppes Travel.
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PAINTED DOG Episode 4: The leader of a great painted dog family is growing old. Her power to keep the peace is waning. A feud with an ambitious daughter threatens to bring the dynasty down.
CHIMPANZEE Episode 1: A chimpanzee leader is surrounded by rivals who are prepared to kill him for his crown. A story of power, politics and the fight for survival. Seeing chimpanzees in the wild is truly exhilarating and one of the best places in the world to track chimpanzees is in Kibale Forest, Uganda. The region is accessible and you have a far greater chance of good sightings than elsewhere. Through our conservation contacts, we can request special all-day chimpanzee tracking permits and troops up to 100 strong are often seen here.
EMPEROR PENGUIN Episode 2: Emperor penguins battle for survival against the
worst winter in the world. Working together they protect and feed their chicks till they reach adulthood.
A cacophony of distinctive yelps and whines is often the first clue that painted dogs are in the vicinity. The flash of a tail or the twitch of an oversized ear may be the first glimpse one gets, but what follows can be the most exciting encounter you’ll have in Africa. While big cats sleep, painted dogs are active and so sightings of them are usually dynamic. The Okavango Delta in Botswana is a great place to see painted dogs and so too Laikipia Wilderness Camp, Kenya.
TIGER Episode 5: A tigress, Raj Bhera, has four new cubs. She must protect them while battling rivals who want to steal her lands and overthrow her. Will she hold on and raise her cubs to adulthood? Seeing a tiger in the wild, roaming through its natural habitat, is one of the most thrilling wildlife experiences. Good news is that tiger numbers are on the up in India, our clients are having regular sightings of mothers and cubs in Ranthambore, Bandhavgarh and Kanha National Parks. See a tiger in all its glory now on one of our tailor-made tiger safaris.
Explore the Weddell Sea as part of an Antarctic cruise. First discovered in 1823 by James Weddell, this area is home to some of Antarctica’s best emperor penguin colonies including Snow Hill, the world’s most northern rookery. Head to South Georgia and the Falkland Islands on our exclusive Antarctic charter to experience vast colonies of king penguins, timed for great sightings when the penguins have returned from feeding in the Southern Ocean and their chicks are active.
LION Episode 3: The leader of a once mighty lion pride must now battle for their very survival.
A sighting of a lion was once a given on an African safari but lions are now listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List. The lion is the ultimate symbol of the African plains, which makes its recent decline all the more poignant. Dynasties followed a pride based in the Masai Mara, probably one of the best places in sub-Saharan Africa to see the king of the big cats. Experience a safari with Steppes in one of the privately owned conservancies in the Mara or Laikipia or travel to Tanzania where the lions rule the plains of the Serengeti.
Chimps - 7 days from £4,295pp, excluding flights. Tigers - 11 days from £3,995pp, excluding flights. Penguins - 16 days from £10,550pp, excluding flights. Lions - 8 days from £5,495pp, excluding flights. Painted dogs -7 days from £5,450pp, excluding flights.
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STEPPES THIRT Y YEARS OF TRAVEL
BY JUSTIN WATERIDGE
There have been some advantages of the advances in the way that we communicate. Not least for us tour operators. The hassles of faxes and smudged photocopies are thankfully a thing of the past. We can now respond instantly to the needs of you, our clients. Whether this has been at the expense of a traveller’s patience and tolerance of things not quite going to plan is a whole different matter.
Justin in Hindu Kush - 1996
Thirty years ago, one of the joys of travelling – other than joy of travel itself – was going to a poste restante to receive mail, not of the electronic variety. It was a real frisson. The thrill of receiving news from home. The dilemma of whether to open letters there and then or go and find a corner in a cafe in which to fully engross yourself in the world that you had left behind. Communication has undoubtedly been a huge change in the way in which we travel. All too sadly it means that we rarely totally switch off and immerse ourselves in the now of travel, discovering, understanding and appreciating the country, culture or landscape in which we are in. I am as guilty of this as the next person and now always travel with my mobile phone. In doing so, I now don’t travel with a camera. A phone is far less intrusive than a lens and allows for some more intimate and relaxed portraiture. It is also far less hassle – can you remember the uncertainty of film, not knowing whether the image you had so carefully strived to capture was quite right, the fear of airport security X-ray machines ruining your precious images and having to travel with rolls and rolls of film? I have always admired Wilfred Thesiger, not just for his travels and writings but the fact that he took one just one roll of film with him on his epic passage across the Empty Quarter and did so to great photographic effect.
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But improved communication has not been all plain sailing for us tour operators. Anyone can now be a selfproclaimed expert on a destination. Disintermediation is now a fact of life. Although in our defence, whilst the internet might have increased our access to information it has not improved our knowledge. Our expertise as a tour operator still remains key. Communication has fuelled globalisation that, in turn, has undoubtedly made the world smaller, more homogenised. Yet that is not to say that it is all the same, that everywhere in the world has been ‘discovered’. Again, the importance of expertise. Having said all of the above, arguably the biggest change has been in flying. Not in the experience of flights themselves – sadly much of the romance of flying has been lost to commercialisation and the need to maximise profits at the expense of customer service.
Yunnan, China - 1996
30 YEARS OF TRAVEL
Giza, Egypt - 1995
Yunnan, China - 1996
Rather, the change has been in the access that flights have given us to even the most remote corners of the globe. Last year, I flew straight into the very north-east of India and was able to spend time with the headhunting Konyak tribe in Nagaland. A trip that years ago would have taken me weeks, time well beyond the threshold of my ever-understanding wife. Whilst the romantic in me wants to bring back the airmail letter, I would not want to wind back the clock. Now is a golden era in the world of travel. Now, more than ever, is the time to sate your curiosity and travel.
Egypt - 1995
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IMAGES FROM AROUND THE WORLD
ON LO C AT I O N Our client and team images from around the world. Share your favourite travel memories with us on Facebook and Instagram using #mysteppes Mountain gorilla named Christmas in Uganda, by Charles Jewitt (Steppes Travel)
Orangutan in Indonesia, by Clare Higginson (Steppes Travel)
Chameleon in Zambia by Louise Davies
Nile monitor lizard in Zambia by Louise Davies
Tree frog in Madagascar, by Rob Gardiner (Steppes Travel)
Leopard in Tanzania, by Clare Beavis
Spitsbergen, by Lara Paxton (Steppes Travel)
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Russia, by Tom Frost (Steppes Travel)
Gannets in New Zealand, by John and Jan Barnes
From January 2019 you will be able to use our Steppes credit vouchers on the TOUCHNOTE APP so that you can send postcards to your friends and family each time you travel.
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30 YEARS OF TRAVEL
JOIN OUR LUXURY
TRANS SIBERIAN TRAIN JOURNEY “In 2005 I rode a motorbike from London to Vladivostok, a journey of some 8,000 miles which, for the vast majority of time, crisscrossed the tracks of the Trans-Siberian. We sped past idyllic wooden villages nestled in glades of silver birch. Lake Baikal was still frozen as we rode around the southern shore and, when I eventually arrived in Vladivostok, I made a promise to myself to return and visit all those places I had missed. Kazan with its imposing Kremlin and mosque, the 19th century wooden quarter of Irkutsk, the magic of a banya on the shores of Baikal, the colourful villages of the Old Believers in Ulan Ude and of course, on this trip, a glimpse of Mongolia. It will be fun, exciting and you will visit an area that only a few foreigners have penetrated. Come with us. A trip of a lifetime.” Nick Laing, Chairman, Steppes Travel
Join Steppes founder Nick Laing and his wife Princess Katya Galitzine on one of the most iconic train journeys across eight-time zones aboard the magnificent Golden Eagle train. Fittingly this epic journey takes Steppes Travel back to its roots, on the year of the company’s 30th anniversary. Nick started Steppes Travel in 1989, while on an exploratory trip to the Altai region of Russia and having visited over 80 times, his love and knowledge of the region is unsurpassed. His wife, Katya Galitzine, is a member of one of the oldest noble families in Russian history; a fluent Russian speaker she has written numerous articles and books on the subject. Katya’s grandfather, Prince Vladimir Galitzine fled his Russian homeland in 1919 after the Bolshevik Revolution and settled in London. On her maternal grandmother’s side, Katya is also a direct descendant of Catherine the Great. The luxurious Golden Eagle train ensures elegant and comfortable accommodation with first class service. Travelling largely at night and stopping each day for excursions, this adventure allows access to remote parts of Russia that few foreigners have penetrated.
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Trans-Siberian Express Departing 2nd June 2019 for 15 days from £12,895pp, excluding flights.
OTHER JOURNEYS FROM
Golden Eagle Luxury Trains’ exclusive rail journeys through Russia, Central Asia, Iran and India, combine first-class customer service with a romantic exploration of the world’s most remarkable sites and a room with a view that constantly changes. To celebrate 30 years in business, the company have released two new and exclusive rail adventures in India and Iran for 2019.
LUXURY TRAINS MADRAS MAIL | 5TH-19TH DECEMBER, 2019 PERSIA AND THE SILK ROAD | 2 -17 OCTOBER, 2019 ND
Combine one of the most important trading routes of ancient civilisation with the remarkable treasures of Persia, experiencing destinations that are rarely experienced by the Western visitor.
The best of Southern India, hosted by Golden Eagle Luxury Trains’ founder, Tim Littler. MUMBAI (BOMBAY) – GOA – OOTY – KOCHI (COCHIN) – TRIVANDRUM – KANYAKUMARI – MADURAI – PONDICHERRY – CHENNAI (MADRAS) - HYDERABAD
ALMATY - TASHKENT - SAMARKAND - BUKHARA KHIVA - DARVAZA GAS CRATER - ASHGABAT - SARAKHS - MASHHAD - YAZD - RAYEN - MAHAN - SHAHDAD DESERT - ISFAHAN - PERSEPOLIS - SHIRAZ – TEHRAN Highlights • Explore the historic, UNESCO honoured, cities of Khiva, Merv, Bukhara and Samarkand • See the Darvaza Gas Crater light up the night sky in the Karakum Desert • Discover the world’s largest religious shrine complex in Iran’s holiest city, Mashhad • Take in the breath-taking beauty of Isfahan’s Islamic architecture including the remarkable Masjed-e Imam Mosque
16 days from £16,695pp, excluding flights.
There is no better way to explore India’s innumerable ancient monuments and spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Sites than by train. This new 15-day rail adventure on the Deccan Odyssey train explores a land of contrasts, from vibrant cities to peaceful backwaters, and immaculate beaches to rolling foothills. Highlights • Enjoy a trip on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, India’s only rack and pinion railway • See a traditional Kathakali dance performance in Cochin • Experience an Aarti ceremony in the MeenakshiSundareswarar Temple at Maduri • Enjoy an unforgettable gala dinner at the magnificent 101 Dining Hall of the Taj Falaknuma Palace Hotel
15 days from £12,295pp, excluding flights.
ARGENTINA BY JARROD KYTE
For many of us used to the clutter of consumerism, space is a commodity worth travelling for. The emptiness of a desert or a savannah reawakens a part of the brain. I am travelling across the Puna in north-west Argentina in the region of Salta. The skies are big and blue and the horizons untouched by human intervention. The landscape is unlike anything I have ever seen. >
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settlers who choose to make the puna their home. People like Dona Carina, a septuagenarian who lives alone on her simple estancia at Oasis Antofallita, 4,200 metres above sea level.
Lava cones as black as stout float like mirages on vast oceans of salt; sedimentary ribbons of sandstone and quartz stretch out like giant rashers of bacon across the never-ending horizon; sand glistens on top of gigantic stacks of granite like freshly fallen alpine snow and ebony rocks of basalt sit like giant burnt croutons dropped onto the puna floor. Pachamama has found her muse in the puna and has gone to work to produce a masterpiece of breathtaking beauty. I try to convey my sense of wonderment to my guide Fabrizio but become tongue-tied. He laughs and says, “You’re not the first to be lost for words and you won’t be the last – just wait until you see the pumice stone fields.” As we approach Campo de Piedra Pomez the vehicle falls silent as if in collective reverence to the sight that greets us. Ivory-coloured pumice stones stand like giant pavlovas, whipped into elaborate shapes by the wind and toasted on top by an unrelenting sun. I climb on top of the highest rock I can see and look beyond the heat haze for signs of life. The panorama is as remarkable for what isn’t visible as what is. It is confounding that such a seemingly malevolent land can provide enough sustenance for living things to survive but underground springs, vegas, give life to grasses and other vegetation, which in turn feed the hardy vicunas and guanacos. Bonsai-like bushes known locally as tola, bleached virgin white by the sun, provide fuel for the hardy human
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Remote takes on a whole new meaning in this part of the world but choosing to make the salt flats of Antofalla and Aricaro her only neighbours is by no means a sign of misanthropy. Far from it - when we turn up unannounced she chats, holds court and noticeably flirts with Fabrizio. They laugh together without inhibition and with tangible affection he tells me the story of this remarkable woman. How she loves the land of her ancestors and takes strength from the solitude; how her brother built a small house on the oasis, next door to her but she chose not to speak to him; how she has a younger man drop into her help her with the small-holding. “He is her helper 360 degrees” he laughs, with a glint in his eye. The landscape is harsh and the environment is hostile. The air is devoid of moisture and thin on oxygen while the dust stings and the wind bites hard. Yet in spite of this, the puna is soul-touchingly beautiful and it would take a heart of granite not to feel moved by its simple splendour.
Argentina - 12 days from ÂŁ3,595pp, excluding flights.
Japan is home to many things: ancient history, strong traditions, cutting edge technology, Manga cartoons and, this year, the Rugby World Cup. However, one thing that always comes to mind when thinking of Japan is the food. Fresh, healthy, vibrant and elegant, Japanese food ranges from the well-known sushi and sashimi to warming udon noodles and vibrant salads. Having been brought up living in the shadow of Mount Fuji with fresh air and home-grown vegetables on her doorstep, Yuki Gomi grew up with a love of good food. A Japanese chef, food writer and cookery teacher, now based in London, Yuki has kindly shared a simple recipe and some culinary tips with us - feeding our love of all things Japanese, and all things foodie. We are also delighted to be working with Yuki on a group tour to Japan, covering home-style food to the steamy street stalls of Tokyo and going behind the scenes of traditional Japanese family life. If youâ€™re interested in joining Steppes and Yuki on this privileged access tour, please register your interest: email@example.com.
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Please register your interest for this group tour at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, explore Japan on a tailor-made holiday - 10 days from £3,795pp, excluding flights.
YUKI’S GUIDE TO THE ESSENCE OF JAPANESE FOOD
GREEN BEANS WITH BLACK SESAME SAUCE 黒胡麻和え
Ingredients (4 people) 200g 1 tbsp
Sauce 1 tbsp 1 tbsp 1 tbsp ½ tbsp 2 tbsp 3 tbsp
Green beans Sea salt Brown sugar Miso Mirin Soy sauce Water Black sesame seeds
Cool under running water. Drain and let them dry. To make the sauce, crush sesame in a suribachi and surikogi (Japanese pestle and mortar) and grind into a paste. Gradually add the mirin, soy sauce and miso, then keep mixing. Add the sugar and water. Toss the green beans with the sauce and serve.
Cut the ends off the green beans and halve. Wash and place in water with a little salt for two minutes or until tender. Do not overcook keep them crunchy.
Use broccoli, asparagus, snow peas, sugar snaps or cauliflower instead of green beans. Try with white sesame seeds.
Seasonal ingredients: Japanese food is based on the season’s freshest vegetables, but also the best seafood and fish for the specific time of year.
A balanced diet in every meal: ichiju sansal
means one soup, three dishes (normally one protein main dish and two plant based dishes) and every Japanese meal is served on this basis. Of course, rice is always on the table too.
Freshness: The Japanese style of cooking is based
on simple techniques using the freshest ingredients. Simplicity is reliant on freshness.
Colour: In Japan we say that you eat with the eyes
first, and colour is essential in that initial pleasure in enjoying a dish.
Flavour: The fifth flavour, umami, is an essential part of Japanese cooking and gives a dish depth.
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SRI LANKA THE CAT THAT CROSSED MY PATH BY AMY HASTIE
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To say that I was excited when I was told that I was going to Sri Lanka was an understatement - since I was a young girl, I have always been fascinated by Sri Lanka and its leopards. Even the gentle teasing of the office could not diminish my anticipation. My excitement reached fever pitch on arrival in Colombo and continued to soar off the scale when we arrived at Yala National Park, famed for its leopards, in the late afternoon. All that pent-up enthusiasm came crashing to the ground when Hari, my guide, briefed us on timings for tomorrow. He wanted us to leave at 06:30. Like any self-proclaimed leopard expert, I know that leopards are crepuscular and that the best chances of seeing them are very early morning or late afternoon. I was crushed. The next morning – at Hari’s time, not mine – my mood only worsened as we headed off in a different direction to the other jeeps and proceeded to drive around for over an hour without sight of a single animal. That was until Hari’s aforementioned cry of leopard. I held that leopard’s gaze for a full magical minute before the silence was broken by the sound of another jeep arriving. The leopard, being a solitary animal and not one for crowds, became startled and darted into the bushes. I had had my moment. The other jeep took the left fork in the road, the one that best followed the direction in which the leopard was headed. Hari, being Hari, drove the opposite way then stopped and turned off the engine. “The leopard will cross over our path in a few minutes,” he said confidently. I had no idea how he knew this, but this time I trusted his judgement.
“Leopard!” The jeep stopped abruptly. Hands clammy with excitement, I looked quickly around in anticipation. Sure enough, over to our left, a leopard had stopped in the middle of the path. I gasped, it was only a few metres away. The leopard, chest rising and falling slowly, looked right at us with insouciance. My heart racing, I stared back with wide-eyed disbelief. It had all started so differently.
We sat in silence waiting, ears straining, eyes scanning the undergrowth. Of course, Hari was right: every now and then we were treated to thrilling glimpses of the leopard prowling through the bushes. Then, best of all, it emerged into full view. Hari explained that it was a two-year-old male and we were incredibly lucky to see it so close, especially on the open path. Reappraised of Hari, I knew it wasn’t all down to luck. It was my first visit to Sri Lanka and I can say with confidence, it is my favourite country to visit. The leopard remains my favourite animal. And Hari is my favourite guide.
Sri Lanka - 14 days from £3,595pp, excluding flights.
OUR FEATURED PROPERTIES IN
GAL OYA LODGE GAL OYA NATIONAL PARK
A unique safari lodge positioned on the edge of the relatively untouched and least explored national park in the heart of Sri Lanka. Gal Oya lodge specialises in high-end, environmentally responsible tourism.
GAL OYA SPECIAL OFFER Stay three nights at Gal Oya on a full board basis and enjoy the infamous swimming elephants by boat safari. Take an early morning walk to see the forest through the eyes of the Chief Veddha and venture by jeep into the Gal Oya forest reserve for a leisurely day with picnic lunch. Special activity package available through Steppes Travel at Â£850pp.
LEOPARD TRAILS WILPATTU NATIONAL PARK
Redefining safari style, Leopard Trails tented camp brings modern convenience and a natural elegance to the wilds of Sri Lanka, all the while staying true to the romanticism of colonial adventure.
LEOPARD TRAILS WILPATTU SPECIAL OFFER SAVE £500: Stay three nights at Leopard Trails on a full board basis, including complimentary upgrade to a Luxury Tent (subject to availability), morning and afternoon game drives on a private basis with a personal guide. Starting from £850pp, this stay compliments a longer touring itinerary in Sri Lanka.
UGA ESCAPES ALL OVER SRI LANKA
Uga Escapes comprises five luxury boutique hotels located in diverse locations across Sri Lanka. These include the 150-year-old Ulagalla in the cultural triangle, Jungle Beach and Uga Bay on the East coast – famed for its wonderful beaches, The Residence – a unique retreat in the heart of Colombo and Chena Huts, offering safari experiences on the edge of Yala National Park.
UGA ESCAPES SPECIAL OFFER Spend 11 days sightseeing, accompanied by a private guide and driver from £3,495pp including 5 nights staying at Uga properties. Complimentary activities, such as archery and kayaking at Chena Huts included, get in touch for more details.
MADAGASCAR A TALE OF TWO RUNS A week of travel sits heavy in my legs. As I break into a jog, I feel the blood begin to pump. For once, I’m in Africa and able to run or walk wherever I want. This is Madagascar, where the threat of lions, buffaloes or elephants cannot curtail my Forrest Gump-esque approach to exploration. I’m in Andasibe, in the east of the country, and have seized my moment. Fresh from having lemurs climb all over me on the unimaginatively named Lemur Island, I run past rice paddies. I follow a raised embankment as it arrows towards the hills, wondering if it will continue farther than a few metres. Then, the first sign of a railway greets me – a rickety wooden bridge over a wide river, surprisingly still crossable.
Before long, rails appear either side of my feet. Soon, I’m skipping over crumbling sleepers. I’m amazed that it is still here, surprised that the rails and sleepers have not been ripped up for scrap. As I head farther along the apparently abandoned railway, more and more people appear. Huts pop up and I soon find myself jogging through a small village. Young children stare at me in amazement and amusement.
“This is Madagascar, where the threat of lions, buffaloes or elephants cannot curtail my Forrest Gump-esque approach to exploration.”
Beside the rails, bags of hay and charcoal are neatly stacked. On one corner, the soil has slid away, but the rails have been supported from below with wooden struts. On the grassy sections, the occasional tussock next to the rails is blackened with grease. Clearly, this is not as abandoned as I had assumed. I round a corner and come face to face with a small cart, sitting on the rails. It is piled high with bags. Knowing that these villages are miles from the nearest road, I realise I have stumbled across an ingenious Malagasy transport network. Whilst a conventional train has not plied these rails for decades, they have clearly been maintained by the local community as a way of transporting goods to the road and beyond. It is a curious discovery. And one that doesn’t make the guidebooks. A few days later, in the country’s remote south, fresh from tripping over iconic ring-tailed lemurs, the running bug strikes again. This time, I set out into low-lying dry forest. I head north from Mandrare River Camp, itself a four-hour drive from the nearest tarred road.
I pass impressive tombs – a common sight in Madagascar – as my feet slip in the deepening sand. This is a country where animism and ancestor worship are still widely practiced. In many areas, remains are uncovered every five years, so that a famidihana, or ‘turning of the bones’ can be performed. >
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As I run through a small settlement, a child screams with excitement, waving madly. To him, the idea of running for enjoyment probably seems far more bizarre than breaking into a tomb every five years. A few minutes later, a group of women walk past me. Out of politeness, I butcher “Salama!” They smile. But just as I’ve passed them, one turns back towards me. She simply says, “Why?” It’s a good question and one I ask frequently in Madagascar. But I can only shrug and grin apologetically as I run off. Slowly the vegetation changes and euphorbia trees begin to dominate. These unwelcoming plants stand tall and are covered with thousands of small spikes. Their leafless limbs are stark against the burning blue sky. I recognise the image. This is southern Madagascar’s famous spiny forest. I know that sifakas and various other lemur species survive in this inhospitable ecosystem. My eyes scan the vegetation for movement, but I see nothing. As an ankle-height plant catches my leg, drawing blood, I remember to concentrate on where I’m going. Everywhere I’ve been in Madagascar there have been people. It’s one of the joys of travelling this complicated country. But, here, there is no one. The spiny forest is deserted. Even the animals seem to have shrunk away. This an alien wilderness, appearing devoid of life. All I can hear is the wind whistling through the leafless trees and the soft crunch of sand under my feet. As I wind my way between unfriendly bushes, the path narrows and the sand gains a terracotta tinge. The spiny forest begins to thin, but not before it leaves its mark on my reddening shins. A foot-long chameleon dashes out of the way and disappears into the bush, dispelling the seemingly lifeless nature of the landscape. Before long, rows of sisal appear ahead of me. Cultivation of this Agave plant has ruined this ecosystem, but demand for
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it is growing. Bags made from sisal are seen as an eco-friendly alternative to plastic. The irony isn’t lost on me, as I look across the sea of sisal. As my legs begin to tire and the sun begins to take its toll, I hear a shout behind me. A group of Malagasy boys are running to join me. Excited and full of energy, they jog beside me, running barefoot. Practising their English, they ask, “How are you?” Laughing, they keep up for a bit before eventually falling back. I have heard the eerie indri call, climbed razor-sharp tsingy and swum with giant turtles on this trip. But, even as my shins sting from fresh scratches, I know that it is these two unplanned runs that best represent the spontaneity and freedom of Madagascar. I have met people, explored landscapes and stumbled across wildlife. And all this required was a pair of trainers and sense of adventure.
Madagascar - 10 days from £4,595pp, excluding flights.
â€œExcited and full of energy, they jog beside me, running barefoot.â€?
M A L AY S I A N
BORNEO BY PHOEBE AGAR, AGED 15
We embarked on an unforgettable journey across Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi and Sabah. Eight flights, six guides and five enthusiastic Brits totalled two weeks of memories that will last a lifetime. Landing in Kota Kinabalu after three days of sunbathing on the picturesque island of Langkawi, was a shock to the system. However, the hustle and bustle of a new Asian city soon engulfed us, and we welcomed the new experience with eager arms. Our guide, Francis, was utterly delightful and was so keen to share with us his extensive knowledge of every plant in the jungle. Bob, our legendary guide took us to Manukan Island in Tunku Abdul Marine Park where we undertook a 3.4-kilometre kayak to Sapi Island. The water was unbelievably clear, if a little choppy at times and after a traditional Asian lunch on the island, we
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used the water to our full advantage through snorkelling. After much excitement at seeing a nemo fish and blue spotted ray we learned about the past destruction of the reef through fishermen firing small chemical bombs into the sea to kill fish, which also destroys the reef. We threw ourselves (literally!) into an exhilarating inter-island zipline tour from Gaya Island to Sapi with much screaming and encounters with flip flops almost entering the South China Sea. The next day at Kota Kinabalu National Park we went on an evening walk and saw the world’s smallest orchid as well as many rare flora. That night was spent in a lodge with breath-taking views of Mt Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest peak. After a day of travelling to Sandakan, we visited the Sepilok orangutan, in the world’s largest orangutan rehabilitation centre, where we fell in love with adorable baby orangutans!
SOUTH EAST ASIA
The following day we headed for Sukau rainforest lodge, a two-hour boat journey from Sandakan down the Kinabatangan River. An hour into the journey, we were treated to the sight of a parade of Pygmy elephants on the river bank. After much amusement of one calf getting stuck and his mother having to pull him out, we powered on deeper into the jungle. We were informed that many tourists come for a whole month just to see these elephants and never get the chance, and we saw them on our first day! We glided down the river on an evening river cruise to be greeted with the howls of a troop of Proboscis monkeys who were fighting in the treetops. Their cries combined with the beautiful flyby of numerous hornbills was extremely special and an experience that will never be forgotten. We kept quiet in the hope of seeing an orangutan in the wild and sure enough we found three in the trees who hid and watched us from a distance. Seeing them in their natural habitat, away from captivity was remarkable. Miles away from home, we sat gobsmacked in a boat surrounded by nature at her finest while the sun shrank away behind the murky river.
Malaysian Borneo - 14 days from ÂŁ2,995pp, excluding flights.
M AYA N T R E A S U R E S O F
Belize is a small piece in the modern jigsaw puzzle of Central American nations that once made up the formidable Mayan Empire. This Caribbean coastal country existed in the shadow of towering Maya metropolises such as Chichen Itza to the north (Mexico), Tikal to the west (Guatemala) and Copan to the south (Honduras). Powerful cities traded and fought against each other with equal gusto.
can see clear evidence of three quite different civilisations and cultures: the Maya, the Spanish and the British. The chatter of troupes of boisterous howler monkeys fills the air. Owing to the surrounding wetlands, broadleaf forests, pine savannas, scrubs and riverine systems; Lamanai is a remarkable hub for wildlife, including the local agouti and a rich spectrum of birds.
However, Belize boasts hundreds of highly impressive and very individual archaeological sites of its own, including around twelve major cities. Steppes Travel’s Mayaphiles, Jenn and John, have both recently returned from visits to this tropical English-speaking country and reflect on their favourites.
Ancient Maya structures climb out of the forest. It’s the huge (and for me very moving) royal facial reliefs on the front of the Mask temple that are impressive both as works of art and as an unflinching challenge across the centuries to any and all newcomers.
For Jenn, the remote remains of Caracol, on the border with Guatemala, stand out: “Only a fraction of this immense urban centre has been excavated and restored but the impressive temples surely hint at a city of power and stature that rivalled neighbouring Tikal in importance. You have to put some effort into getting to Caracol – it’s in a remote area near Belize’s Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and only accessed by rough, unpaved tracks. During my visit, I was the only person there and it’s likely that you too will have the entire city to yourself - apart from the toucans and monkeys – making it one of the most atmospheric of ruins. Massive and deep-set in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, Caracol is the highest Maya monument in Belize. Its false summits make the climb hard work but it is so worthwhile once on top. Not only will you find original wood beams and dark tombs accessible by precarious steps but endless views of the surrounding jungle.” For John, the Maya site of Lamanai holds a special appeal: “I love that in an idyllic and atmospheric natural setting, you
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Such as the crumbling shells of colonial Spanish churches, an old British sugar mill and the rusting remains of
machinery that tell the story of rum production and slavery. These rapidly degrading remains are imperiously watched over by the eternally youthful Maya stone faces. The Maya were such prolific builders that ancient sites and structures are still being discovered in Belize on a remarkably regular basis. What has been left behind offers a fascinating insight to a complex culture that occupied the region for thousands of years and reached its peak of building prowess between AD250 and 900. And boy, did they know how to build.”
Belize - 13 days from £3,450pp, excluding flights.
“I love that in an idyllic and atmospheric natural setting, you can see clear evidence of three quite different civilisations and cultures: the Maya, the Spanish and the British.”
BY JUSTIN WATERIDGE
When Shakespeare chose Illyria as the setting for Twelfth Night, he is said to have done so partly because his audience would have considered it to be a mysterious land, about which they would not have much knowledge. Little has changed in what now is Albania.
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The name derives from alba, the Latin word for white, which describes the skin and hair of the Illyrians, a people who have since been superseded by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Venetians, the Ottomans and briefly by the Italians in the 1930s who built wide boulevards for fascist parades. In spite of these invasions, Albanians are warm people who are welcoming to foreigners. After my initial shock flying into Tirana – I was struck by the rugged beauty of the surrounding mountains – I was met throughout by smiles and warmth. Immigration was hassle-free, arrival easy – as everything was throughout my stay in Albania – and soon I was driving into the city. No recognisable brand names adorn the billboards or shopfronts. Coca Cola was the first international brand in the mid-1990s but not many since, although all the cars are well-known European and Japanese brands, all new and shiny. There were only 15,000 cars in 1992 when the communist regime was overthrown. Now there are over 700,000 which makes for interesting roundabouts, not least as neither drivers nor pedestrians respect the rules. Not only were private cars once the preserve of the politburo but so too were the expansive villas in an area known as The Block. In communist time the area was out of bounds for all, but now bars, neon and glitz draw the crowds so much so that the streets were overflowing with young people – impressively so for a Tuesday night. The next day, I discovered the neon bars of the night cover up and conceal the cracks in the façade of the concrete monotony of Tirana in daylight. Albania is a tenth of the size of the UK, with an even smaller population – one million in the capital Tirana and three million in Albania. The double-headed eagle adorns the flag. It was the symbol of Byzantium, its two heads representing the fact that Byzantium looked east and west, the combination of church and state. Albanians have a penchant for poetic licence, evidenced by myriad legends and the number of stories surrounding place names. My guide explained to me that the double-headed eagle signifies the continued resistance and survival. Something that the Albanian people have certainly shown over the course of history. Most recently under communism. “What was it like (living under the communist regime which ruled from 1945 – 1992)?” I asked cautiously of my guide. “We were all equally poor, although some were more equal than others,” he said with a wry smile. “But the real hardship was fear, suspicion and control.” >
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“What is to be done in a transforming society where modern Mercedes share the country roads with horse and carts?”
“We were brainwashed. I was so in awe of our dictator Enver Hoxha that in my young mind, I thought the world would end when he died. I asked my father, “What will happen when Enver Hoxha dies?” “He will never die,” was my father’s response. My father knew full well of the failings of Hoxha but did not want me to talk of Hoxha dying. He was saying that to protect me.” The craziness of the communist times is illustrated by some of the plants en route along the Albanian Riviera. Cacti planted as a deterrent to invading paratroopers and olive trees to spell out the dictator’s first name: Enver. My guide’s children don’t understand why their father and their grandfather did not speak up against the repression under the communist era. It is a time they cannot comprehend. Their generation has different issues to face such as applying for EU membership. Albania is having problems with its application; its lack of a skillful workforce, a feeble judiciary and unresolved issues over land ownership rank as just some of the obstructive
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factors. What is to be done in a transforming society where modern Mercedes share the country roads with horse and carts? The history of Albania dates further back than scenes of bucolic bliss. The incongruous new entrance gates of Apollonia are a flashy sign of expectant optimism for the future of tourism in Albania. At its height in the third century BC, Apollonia would have had a population of 35,000. It was an important trading and military port but also a seat of learning – the young Octavius studied here. However, a series of earthquakes shifted the course of the Vjosa River, leaving Apollonia both high and dry, literally and metaphorically. The ruined ancient city sits isolated on a hill-top with great views of the surrounding plains. The Bouleuterion is what draws the eye and crowds but there is also a little theatre, the Odeon, and the remains of a monumental arch. The busts and vases that once would have adorned Apollonia are now housed in the museum, itself housed
in what was a monastery. The stone, bricks and columns of the monastery and thirteenth century church are all repurposed from the ancient city of Apollonia. The faded frescoes have an intriguing beauty about them although sadly many of the faces have been scratched out. The communists achieving in fifty years what the Muslim Ottomans did not in nearly five hundred years. The beauty of the site is not just its remains but its setting and surrounds. Birds chirp gaily, there are rosemary and sage bushes: it is very peaceful and tranquil – perhaps that is why there are so many tortoises. We headed further south along the Albania Riviera where limestone mountains tumble into crystal-clear waters. It is not just the sea that is clear – so too are the villages and beaches en route. This, however, is changing fast as evidenced by the glittering lights and thumping bass of Saranda, the once quiet and attractive port, which is just a few miles from the Greek island of Corfu.
Understanding the history of Albania is all about geography as became clear as we arrived at Antigone. The site is very picturesque — on a deserted hillside in the middle of nowhere. Once the home of King Pyrrhus and some 150,000 inhabitants, the site was ransacked and destroyed by the Romans reducing it to knee-high archaeology. The foundations that remain were brought to life by the expertise and explanations of my tour leader Carolyn Perry. As she explained, because Antigone was not built upon by subsequent civilisations, it is a snapshot in time. Further archaeology could possibly provide the answer to finding out just who the Illyrians were.
Half an hour south of Saranda is Butrint, the most visited site in Albania. Butrint sees several hundred thousand visitors a year; in comparison, the Acropolis, the most visited site in neighbouring Greece, sees one million visitors. An idyllic island surrounded by a lake, it is easy to see why the site was so popular over the centuries from the early 6th century BC settler to the Romans, from the Venetians to Ali Pasha in the nineteenth century. Indeed, Cicero wrote of it, “Let me tell you that Butrint is to Corfu what Antium is to Rome – the quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world.”
Nearby is Gjirokastra, an attractive old town of cobbled streets and traditional and beautiful nineteenth century houses characterised by their heavy slate tile roofs. Perched above the old town is a castle that was rebuilt in the nineteenth century by Ali Pasha. The castle with its commanding views is imposing and brooding. Completely at odds with the relaxed friendly charm of the streets below and the humour of the signs. One sign on a grassy verge housing several cannons at the castle in Gjirokastra reads, “Please don’t stand on the grass – it is protected by cannons.” Another, outside a restaurant, reads, “Skinny people get kidnapped. Come in and enjoy a good meal.” Equally, Albania’s reputation is at odds with the reality.
Albania - 10 days from £1,895pp, excluding flights.
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GROUP TOURS We are recognised as one of the UK’s leading specialists in cultural, and wildlife small group tours. We have developed an enviable pool of tour experts, whom we carefully select based on their knowledge, companionship and personality. Below are just a selection of our portfolio, more can be viewed on our website. Where and who would you like to travel with next? Let us know email@example.com.
INDIA - ON THE TRAIL OF SNOW LEOPARDS WITH DAVID SONAM 15th – 27th March 2019 | £5,195pp Explore this less frequented corner of Ladakh, looking for snow leopards, blue sheep, ibex and Ladakhi urial by vehicle and on foot and then return to the warmth of a traditional homestay. • Track snow leopards, blue sheep, ibex and Ladakhi urial • Home-cooked meals and a comfortable bed in a Ladakhi homestay • Join David Sonam, an exceptional leader from the Snow Leopard Conservancy
CUBA - HEMINGWAY AND HIGHLIGHTS WITH LYDIA BELL 4th – 15th April 2019 | £5,295pp Carefully crafted to include many behind-the-scenes visits, private dining experiences and musical performances, including meeting Valerie Hemingway (last assistant to Ernest) with rare access inside his house. • Meet Valerie Hemingway for exclusive access to Ernest’s house • Discover the history, architecture, culture and wildlife of Cuba • Join journalist and Cuba resident Lydia Bell
ARMENIA AND GEORGIA - ANCIENT LANDS OF TRANSCAUCASIA WITH IAN COLVIN 2nd – 14th May 2019 | £3,495pp Showcasing a perfect introduction of the cultural and natural highlights of the Caucasus Region. A diverse and a historically rich region to travel through, seeing both Armenia and Georgia in one tour is absorbing. • Explore hill-top monasteries and fortresses • Enjoy the dramatic landscapes of the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains • Sample the region’s delicious food and innumerable wines
OUR SPECIALIST GROUP TOURS
GREECE – CLASSICAL PELOPONNESE WITH CAROLYN PERRY 17th – 25th May 2019 | £3,595pp Discover the Peloponnesian peninsula in the southernmost part of Greece, home to many of the most famous cities of ancient Hellas, including Mycenae, Corinth and Olympia. This tour visits the crucial sites of the Peloponnese and travels across millennia, from Mycenaean times through to the Classical and Roman periods and into the Medieval age. • Explore the famous sites at Delphi • See the “Treasury of Atreus” at Mycenae • Visit the fortress city of Mystras
SOUTH AFRICA - RHINO CONSERVATION PROJECT WITH PETER ROGERS 21st – 27th July 2019 | £2,495pp Perfect for wildlife lovers, offering a hands-on wildlife opportunity which contributes to the conservation efforts being made to protect South Africa’s white rhino population in Greater Kruger National Park. • Exclusive hands-on experience of a rhino darting project • Guided game drives and walks in the Greater Kruger • Visit a wildlife rehabilitation centre and a reptile conservation project
KYRGYZSTAN AND CHINA A JOURNEY ALONG THE SILK ROAD WITH DIANA DRISCOLL 11th - 26th June 2019 | £4,495pp Journeying eastwards by road, rail and air, explore key sites along the Silk Road, one of the world’s oldest and most legendary trade routes. From Bishkek in the heart of Central Asia, this tour traverses the spectacular Tien Shan Mountains to Kashgar, before culminating in Xian, the eastern terminus of this once great trading network. • Witness Kyrgyzstan’s dramatic landscapes • Discover an incredible wealth of Buddhist cave art • Visit Xian’s extraordinary Terracotta Warriors
SPAIN - PREHISTORIC CAVE ART OF NORTHERN SPAIN WITH CHARLES SCHWALBE 24th June – 1st July 2019 | £3,225pp Explore and learn about the most significant Palaeolithic art caves of northern Spain, all of them UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Understand the archaeology of each site, gaining insight into this fascinating period of the human story, which marks the dawn of art and symbolic communication. • Visit UNESCO World Heritage Palaeolithic cave art sites • A maximum group size of six people • Gain exclusive insight from Charles Schwalbe, an expert in the caves of the region
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RWANDA FOR AFRICANS, BY AFRICANS BY ROB GARDINER
“How much did he say?” Paula whispers into my ear. “$600 million. He said $600 million has been pledged towards conservation.” I reply, looking around me to try to spot the billionaires in the room. But the audience is only 150 strong, with no signs of ostentatious wealth. This is the final afternoon of the Business of Conservation conference, hosted by the African Leadership University (ALU). In front of me, standing on the small stage, is the ALU’s charismatic Ghanaian founder, Fred Swaniker. Deceptively diminutive, he has – to the shock of much of the audience – just announced that this three-day conference has generated more than half a billion dollars in funds for conservation. Yet, I am not sitting in New York, London or even Cape Town. This auditorium forms a glowing multicoloured pear on the outside, lighting up the skyline of Kigali – the capital city of Rwanda. Best known for the genocide that tore this country apart during 1994, Rwanda has reinvented itself. Kigali is one of Africa’s most modern and developed cities, looking to become a pan-African hub for trade, politics and now conservation. >
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“Hippos splash in the water, crocodiles bask on sandy banks and, in the distance, mountains rise dramatically.”
with this technology, more traditional approaches still have their place; a vast map of Akagera covers one wall, dotted with annotations.
Kigali is funky, as well as functional. Celebrating the conference’s success, we descend upon a hillside restaurant, where disco lights illuminate a decorative zebra statue, a DJ plays African beats and the Botswanan Minister for Investment teaches dance moves to a gaggle of tipsy Westerners. The next morning, we drive east for a hands-on taste of conservation. Leaving behind the urban energy of the conference, we descend on Akagera National Park. Strung along the Tanzanian border, this landscape of lakes, hills, woodlands and flood plains is a far cry from cosmopolitan Kigali. Just a decade ago, there were more snares in this park than there were animals. Large mammals were all but wiped out. In the early 2000s, Akagera was a park in name only. Now, it is East Africa’s newest Big Five park. African Parks agreed to take over management of the park in 2010. And since then, with the wholehearted support of the Rwandan government, the park’s fortunes have drastically changed. Borders have been secured, poaching has been eradicated, tourism has been established and key species have been reintroduced. At the park headquarters, Sarah, the tourism manager, greets us and gives us a short tour of the operations centre. Born in Malawi, Sarah has been at Akagera since the beginning. She has seen the park reinvented. Inside this unassuming building is a high-tech command centre for monitoring the park’s wildlife. Sarah demonstrates the resources at their disposal, which include an alarm system, low-frequency triangulated tracking of key species and a visual representation of recent incidents in the park. Contrasting
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Sarah is enthusiastic about the technology but emphasises the importance of the highly trained rangers that protect this park. Without them, the successful reintroduction of lions and particularly rhinos would not have been possible. It is these reintroductions that have become the standard bearers for Akagera’s success. Yet, in many ways, this is old news. The resurrection of Akagera is now in the past, but what lies in the future? Sarah is clear: the answer is tourism. The park is 75% self-funding, having made huge strides in driving both national and international tourism. But capacity is limited. Currently, there are just two camps in the park, both of which are in the south. Therefore, if Akagera is going to sustain itself, it needs to expand its tourism infrastructure. The next day, we drive north to see Akagera’s future – the next step in supporting conservation through tourism. We meet Chris Roche, from Wilderness Safaris, and leave the main track and drive onto a low-lying patch of land, flanked by lakes on either side. Hippos splash in the water, crocodiles bask on sandy banks and, in the distance, mountains rise dramatically. This is the Magashi Peninsula and will soon be home to Wilderness Safaris’ new Magashi Camp, Chris tells us. As we stop for a picnic beside the lake, I have time to appreciate the beautiful location. This will be the only camp in Akagera’s wild northern sector, guaranteeing exclusivity. The lakes are also home to a small population of breeding shoebill storks. Chris tells us that locating and monitoring these is high on Wilderness’s initial priorities. After lunch, we set off in search of another local resident, a lioness who has been radio collared. This area is popular
with the park’s lions and the open floodplains make them easier to spot than in the wooded south. Unfortunately for us, this lioness has chosen a particularly dense thicket to hide within, perhaps – we start hypothesising – to look after her new-born cubs. Disappointed but not disheartened, we drive further north through the park, through a landscape that seems increasingly rich with antelopes, buffaloes and giraffes. As we cross an open area of short grassland, our eyes are glued to a 300-strong herd of mud-splattered buffaloes on our right. Not a bovine fan, I turn away first and look to the left. I freeze as my eyes rest on three tawny shapes under a dead tree. “Lions!” I exclaim, struggling not to shout. Three magnificent young males are lying in full view. Posing for us are the poster boys of the park’s remarkable story – creatures synonymous with conservation success. What makes this success all the more important is that, much like these lions, it is born and bred in Africa. Often, conservation is funded and formulated in the West, then imposed on Africa. But African Parks, just like Fred and the ALU, have realised that this does not work. Africa needs to be protected and conserved for Africans, by Africans. Not too long ago, many would have called this a pipedream. But, now, it is becoming a reality. Sarah, despite being born on African soil, sums up this commitment perfectly: “We won’t be here forever. We need to give this park back to the Rwandan people.”
Rwanda - 7 days from £5,395pp, excluding flights.
In 2019, Rob is attempting to break a cycling world record and raise £20,000 for African Parks. Find out more info: rob-gardiner.com/record
ALILA HAS SOME OF OUR FAVOURITE
PROPERTIES Prepared to push the boundaries in their commitment to sustainability and innovative design in magnificent settings, the Alila hotels offer unprecedented levels of private space, personalised hospitality and thoughtful service.
ALILA FORT BISHANGARH JAIPUR, INDIA
ALILA JABAL AKHDAR OMAN
Located at Bishangarh, a one-hour drive outside Jaipur, this grand stately hotel offers a peaceful retreat in the Rajasthani countryside. Converted from a warrior fortress, this luxury heritage hotel provides spacious contemporary design in ancient surroundings. Each suite is individually created to capture the exceptional views. Its spacious interiors are elegantly furnished with large bay windows, day-beds and expansive bathrooms. Down the hill, the Haveli comprises the arrival courtyard and pool area with adjoining restaurant. There is plenty of space to find a peaceful corner and it’s brilliant for families with Play Alila club for kids and suites that comfortably accommodate families.
Perched 2,000 metres above sea level, Alila Jabal Akhdar overlooks a dramatic gorge, surrounded by awe-inspiring views of the Al Hajar Mountains. The resort is the perfect base for exploring the region’s magnificent landscape while experiencing a high level of comfort and one of the coolest swimming pools you’ve ever seen. The resort’s 86 suites and villas are located within the main building or arranged in individual clusters of four to six suites, generously spaced out around the clifftop to maximise privacy and uninterrupted views over the mountains and down into the gorges.
4 days at Alila Fort Bishangarh from £480pp, excluding flights.
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4 days at Alila Jabal Akhdar from £485pp, excluding flights.
ALILA VILLAS KOH RUSSEY CAMBODIA Found just a stone’s throw off the Cambodian coast, the bamboo-covered island of Koh Russey is now home to the sublime Alila Villas Koh Russey. Copper sand beaches, gentle aquamarine seas and native jungle frame this stylish and sensitively constructed resort. With regular boats to the mainland, venture to Kep, home to some of Cambodia’s best crab dishes, explore the mountainous Bokor National Park, home to a former French hill station and explore Kampot town for a taste of the famous pepper, and lunch along the faded colonial promenade. Blending with the landscape Alila Villas Koh Russey has fused traditional Khmer touches with ultra-modern design, offering a remarkable addition to the Koh Rong Archipelago.
5 days at Alila Villas Koh Russey from £625pp, excluding flights.
ALILA VILLAS ULUWATU BALI Alila Villas Uluwatu is perched high above the peaceful coast at the very southern tip of Bali, overlooking the Indian Ocean. With award winning architecture showcasing touches of design featuring Balinese influences, a stunning sunset cabana, which seems to hang over the cliff and sublime dining options to suit all tastes, Alila Uluwatu is perfect for those who enjoy a more contemporary property yet one still offering a sense of place. Time is best spent relaxing on the beach, using the spa and exploring the neighbouring temples, markets and nearby islands. Alila Villas Uluwatu is an eclectic fusion of design, peace and beachfront cool.
5 days at Alila Villas Uluwatu from £1,075pp, excluding flights.
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AMAZON HOWLERS IN THE MORNING BY SUE GRIMWOOD
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When at home I hit the snooze button and crawl out of bed reluctantly, thinking of every excuse to stay in bed for an extra minute or two. Yet, when on my travels, a switch seems to flick, and I am up at the crack of dawn with a spring in my step. I chose not to use the black-out blinds provided in my cabin on the Anakonda which would prevent the stream of sunlight at 6am. The adage ‘the early bird catches the worm’ is true. Overnight the captain would tie up alongside the bank, so each early morning rise was rewarded with a wonderful view of the waking jungle. Upon sliding-back the panoramic window, I was struck by the unbelievable noise of chirping, warbling and croaking of thousands of insects and frogs all calling to each other. This constant hum was frequently broken by the raucous screeching of parrots and macaws. The damp earth and wet leaves gave off a distinct, but not unpleasant, smell and the perfume of the forest flowers and fruits filled the air. As I crept out on deck, the sun was beginning to burn through the heavy mist that hung in the trees, turning the sky awash with red, pink and orange streaks before it finally broke above the canopy bathing the river bank in warm light. With first light, the bird life all seemed to take flight. Chestnut-fronted macaws announced their presence in pairs with a rasping screech. The parrots and parakeets were a little quieter as they flew erratically by in groups. There was a flash of yellow as an oropendola flew back to its intricately woven
pendulum nest. The list of birds was seemingly endless from tiny swifts that swooped along the water surface to huge yellow vultures sitting on the sandbanks, wings outstretched, warming up in the sun. Yet the greatest reward of all, were the mornings where I would slide my window back to the strange and haunting sound of the red howler monkey. The howlers would make their way to the river’s edge and a shrilling chorus would begin scaling notes so loud, cries can carry up to five kilometres. I know which morning alarm I prefer and there is no snooze button.
Amazon - 13 days from £4,545pp, excluding flights.
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STEPPES CRUISE COLLECTION
WELCOME TO THE STEPPES TRAVEL
CRUISE COLLECTION We’ve taken our favourite cruises and combined them with our favourite land-based excursions. The result is an exciting collection of innovative holidays that give you the opportunity to explore the most wild, remote and fascinating regions of a country. We have chosen cruise as a means of exploration because in most cases, this is the only option for accessing the remote areas we are offering or the best option for encountering the wildlife. Top and tailing the cruise with time spent on land means you’ll get a rounded impression of the country you are visiting and will have the opportunity to personalise the beginning or end of your holiday. The pre and post cruise excursions we have included are not set in stone, so should you wish to consider something different, please speak to one of our team who can tailor-make the experiences to suit your brief.
Indonesia: Wallace Line Cruise - 13 days from £9,775pp, excluding flights.
Galapagos Islands Cruise - 10 days from £4,285pp, excluding flights.
We have carefully chosen the ships and the cruise companies with whom we work, applying the following criteria: • The ship must provide a comfortable, and in some cases, luxury platform from which to explore • The emphasis is on getting off the ship to ensure maximum time spent exploring • The ships must be small to medium in size with a high ‘guide to passenger’ ratio • A high importance is placed on insightful and intelligent guiding • Ship operators must fully embrace our ethos of sustainability – both at sea and when conducting land excursions • Ships must have impeccable environmental credentials, that not only meet with industry standards but go beyond • We will only work with ship operators that go beyond the ordinary in the service and experiences they offer
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HERE - ARTICLE NAME OR SECTION IT BELONGS TO?
We have negotiated special rates and value-adds from our cruise partners, exclusively for you, our Steppes clients, so make sure you take advantage of the cabin upgrades, spa treatments, private transfers and free drinks on offer. Cruising has come in for criticism of late. In certain cities it has become synonymous with over-tourism and the negative impact this issue can have. Residents of Dubrovnik, Barcelona and Venice have been outspoken regarding the intolerable footprint created by thousands of cruise passengers running ashore in their cities for a very brief, albeit disruptive period.
This selfish style of cruising is the exact antithesis of what Steppes Travel advocates. So, don’t be put off by the negative connotations of cruising but put your trust in Steppes to show you a more enlightened way of travelling on the oceans and rivers of the world. You’ll get to see parts of the world you simply would not encounter by any other means of travel. Happy sailing.
Egypt: Nile Cruise - 11 days from £2,495pp, excluding flights.
Antarctica Fly-Cruise - 10 days from £8,895pp, excluding flights.
Sanctuary Retreats is an award-winning collection of luxury lodges, camps and cruise ships. Each property is completely individual in its design and operated around the philosophy of ‘Luxury, naturally’. All have the same aim: to allow guests to have a real experience and enjoy a more natural kind of luxury in properties that have a strong commitment to conservation and responsible tourism. Their portfolio includes safari camps and lodges in Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, as well as river cruise ships on the Nile. Below we highlight their river cruising offerings in China and Myanmar following a recent increase in interest from our clients.
SANCTUARY ANANDA MYANMAR While there are plenty of boats to choose from on the Irrawaddy River there are few to rival the Sanctuary Ananda. Custom-built with just 21 suites, Sanctuary Ananda combines Burmese design and contemporary chic, with all cabins offering floor-to-ceiling windows plus full balconies; perfect for watching life on the Irrawaddy float by. Discover the beauty of Myanmar, on one of seven enchanting itineraries, varying in duration from three to seven nights and all led by expert guides. Cruise the majestic Irrawaddy from the Yunnan-influenced northern city of Bhamo down to colonial Yangon in the south, visiting bell-shaped temples, Chinese pagodas and Buddhist monasteries. For the chance to experience some of Southeast Asia’s least-seen places consider a fascinating cruise on the Chindwin. Explore orchid-rich jungles, forgotten villages and ancient towns almost as far as the Indian border. Return to Sanctuary Ananda to take part in a cooking demonstration or relax on the sundeck.
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An eight-day holiday to Myanmar including a three-night Irrawaddy Cruise on Sanctuary Ananda costs from £1,945pp. This includes a saving of £150pp, valid for all 2019 departures.
Reader offer - Save 30% on
all Sanctuary Ananda cruise departures in 2019. Save up to £1,650pp per cruise dependent on cruise itinerary, departure date and cabin type.
river’s middle reaches; take a whirl on a wooden sampan along the Shennong Stream as Tujia boatmen spill local secrets. Learn about each beguiling destination from small-group excursions and English-speaking experts. And wake up somewhere different every day, without changing bedroom. New exclusive experiences on the Yangzi Explorer include a visit to a rural trackers village on one of the river’s most beautiful tributaries, plus the chance to explore Fuling 816 Nuclear Military Bunker; a vast underground cavern, formally a top-secret Chinese nuclear base. Alternatively visit the White Crane Ridge Museum, an iconic preserved reef 148 feet under water that for more than a millennium has been carved with intricate fish.
SANCTUARY YANGZI EXPLORER CHINA The Yangzi Explorer offers a level of comfort that was hitherto unavailable on Yangtze River cruises and is Steppes’ preferred boat on the river. With the highest ‘staff to passenger’ ratio on the Yangtze River, service is exemplary and very personalised, and the on-shore excursions are based on small groups ensuring visits to fascinating but less crowded sites including some exclusive experiences. The stylish cabins and suites are the largest on the river and all have private balconies. Immersive on-board experiences include calligraphy masterclasses, dumpling making classes and tea ceremonies, plus the chance to relax on board with Tai Chi, Chinese medicine, spa treatments and use of the fitness centre. The carefully curated three or four-night itineraries combine fascinating history-steeped cities with soul uplifting rural stories along Asia’s longest river. The port of Chongqing in the Sichuan Province is the gateway to the 3,915-mile Yangtze. Meander through the Three Gorges, which extend 120 miles into the
A 14-day holiday to China including a Yangtze River Cruise costs from £3,975pp, excluding international flights.
Reader offer - save up to £450pp per cruise when booking at least 90 days before sailing plus a complimentary upgrade (subject to availability).
UNCHANGING UDAIPUR BY ROSALIND HADLEY
20 years ago I made my way around India with a backpack, a healthy optimism and little else. My healthy optimism sustained me in a country of rich dichotomy. There is no denying that India can excite, surprise, irritate and make you laugh out loud. Of many memories that I will cherish, my time spent in Udaipur was singularly wonderful. The tranquillity here surpassed other Indian cities. This was the India of my dreams – epic tales of warrior princes, vast vistas worthy of a Bollywood film. Colourful saris against towering palaces. A walled city of lakes with the Aravalli hills stretching to expansive starry skies. Unashamedly romantic, overflowing with history and charm. The people of Udaipur were friendly, affable and laidback. I was met with broad smiles and asked about my family and what had brought me so far from home. My days were spent exploring the lanes and passageways of Udaipur on foot, sketching the fluid day to day activity that living by water brings. I made friends, visited the sights and occasionally took a rickshaw to the outskirts. I learnt how to wear a sari – a local lady showed me how, fussing like a mother hen. It made me feel like I was part of the family. 20 years later I find myself back in the City of Lakes. Having returned to India many times in the intervening years, I have seen huge change. I have returned to Udaipur and defiantly this city remains untouched. Maybe her stoic nature stems from the fact that centuries of marauders have not conquered her. We head off for a tour of City Palace, the royal seat. Udaipur was founded by Udai Singh II as the new capital of the Mewar kingdom. To protect Udaipur from external attacks Udai Singh built a six-kilometre city wall. It was to prove a great vantage point in a mountainous region unsuitable for heavily armoured Mughal horses and elephants.
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There is something so tangible here - history hangs in the air like words unspoken. It permeates everywhere. Our guide Ajit excitedly recounts a tale of the famous battle fought by Rana Pratap (Udai Singh’s son) against the Mughal emperor Akbar. You can still see his armour, sword, shield and javelin at the City Palace. The short battle was testament to Rana’s leadership. Although the Mughal army was superior in size, Rana had the advantage of his creative strategy. With remarkable foresight he disguised his horses with false trunks to look like baby elephants so that the Mughal’s elephants would be confused and not attack them. Ajit becomes animated as he shows us an incredibly detailed miniature painting which illustrates the battle, “See Chetak, carrying the king complete with armour, galloping on the battlefield.” I trace the small figure of horse and king pictured numerous times – like a storyboard for a Hollywood movie and just as epic.
Later that day, as the City Palace lights are shimmering in the distance, reflected in Lake Pichola’s waters, tales of battle are far from my mind. The pace is slow and the mood light as we board the little launch for our boat trip. We gently float past ghats where people have congregated to see in the end of the day. Children are jumping into the lake, swimming, giggling. It has a communal air – like a lido. The splashing breaks the silence and as the light fades, the sky darkens to an intense hypnotic ultramarine. The boat moves effortlessly through the water. The movement of the boat adds to my calm and contemplative mood. I smile inwardly and reflect that all of us who travel are merely custodians, nodding to the serendipity of travel that has beckoned me home. As if to mirror my thoughts, by the light of the moon, birds swoop, swirling in formation overhead, coming home to roost.
India - 14 days from £4,995pp, excluding flights.
TRAVEL READS BY JUSTIN WATERIDGE
I received so many comments about my last recommendations, in particular ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’, that I have been asked to try again. Let’s be clear, ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ is one of those books that only comes around every now and again – it is a book you never want to put down yet leaves you feeling so empty when you have finished it.
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OUR TRAVEL READS NEW IN JANUARY 2019
GOLDEN HILL FRANCIS SPUFFORD Another such fictional period novel is Francis Spufford’s ‘Golden Hill’. Such is the epistemological structure of this splendidly entertaining and ingenious book that it is a page-turner. Set in eighteenth-century Manhattan, ‘Golden Hill’ is pure entertainment, until at length it becomes something more serious. The comedy gives way to darker tones, and the protagonist’s secret is at last revealed – but the novel, most pleasingly, still has one more trick up its sleeve.
Browse our new online client bookshop to choose a complimentary book for your holiday.
STEP BY STEP SIMON REEVE In terms of travel writing, a genre that is now dominated by the comedic and thus a shadow of its former self, only Simon Reeve’s ‘Step by Step’ stands out of late. It is, as you would expect of him, searingly honest. An autobiography that is full of humanity, it traces his own personal journey from school to his travels, full of fascinating anecdotes.
THE KONYAKS PHEJIN KONYAK ‘The Konyaks: The Last of the tattooed headhunters’ by Phejin Konyak is the first time such intensive research and documentation on Konyak tattoo art has been undertaken. It is beautifully photographed and illustrated, making for a fascinating insight into the Konyak people, their society and way of life.
THE SILK ROADS PETER FRANKOPAN Peter Frankopan’s ‘The Silk Roads’. I’m not referring to his excellent book of 2016 but a beautifully illustrated children’s version. It is sumptuous.
THIS IS CONGO ‘This is Congo’ is an immersive and unfiltered look into the world’s longest running conflict. This powerful documentary follows the lives of four characters – two very different soldiers, a gem smuggler and a tailor – as they go about their different lives. A difficult but necessary watch.
INTO THE OKAVANGO ‘Into the Okavango’ is a National Geographic documentary that chronicles an expedition from the headwaters of Angola’s Cuito River into the Okavango Delta. It is a deeply moving journey, an of adventure of a lifetime, that draws our attention not only to the Okavango River Basin, one of the most important areas for biodiversity conservation, but to the little-known and vulnerable wilderness area in the Angolan highlands on which it depends.
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