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ISSUE 1/2020

S T E P P E S T R AV E L L E R MAGAZINE

A SOLITARY MAN IN SAUDI ARABIA BY PAUL CRAVEN MOVING IMAGES IN INDIA BY JUSTIN WATERIDGE IN SEARCH OF WILDERNESS BY CHRIS PACKHAM

ADVENTURE'S AFOOT IN TANZANIA BY JACKIE DEVEREUX


DIVE IN.

2021 17-DAY ANTARCTICA PRIVATE FLY-CRUISE, FROM £13,250pp

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Places on our innovative and exclusive private polar charter are filling up fast. Join us in November 2021 as we explore South Georgia before sailing south to the Antarctic Peninsula. The adventure ends with a flight from the South Shetland Islands to Chile. Our soon-tobe-announced tour leader is an expert in their field and will be with you throughout with abundant knowledge and insight. Contact us on 01285 601 070 or (USA) 844 675 1044 or email antarctica@steppestravel.com to register your interest.

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CONTENTS 06

WHAT’S NEW The latest and greatest from our world of travel

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SRI LANKA All Aboard by Jamie Wolfendale

08

ALASKA In Search of Wilderness by Chris Packham

44

JAPAN The East: in New Directions by Kate Burnell

12

NAMIBIA Dine Another Day by Rob Gardiner

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NEW ZEALAND Shift Adventures Up a Gear by Jean-Michel Jefferson

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INDIA Moving Images by Justin Wateridge

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ARCTIC The Blow of a Bowhead by Sue Grimwood

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GALAPAGOS ISLANDS Expect the Unexpected by conservationist Charles Clover

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THE STEPPES FUND FOR CHANGE Our new initiative aiming to change the world of travel

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SAUDI ARABIA A Solitary Man by Paul Craven

60

OSCAR FOUNDATION Justin Wateridge on a project that is bringing hope to Mumbai’s children

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NEPAL The Echo of Laughter by Joe Parkes

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ECUADOR An Education in the Amazon by Vanessa Humphrey

ZAMBIA Fertile Grounds by Chris Johnston

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KENYA Red in Tooth and Claw by Jarrod Kyte

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NEW WEBSITE Take the time to explore it and share your ideas


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WELCOME As with many things in life, travel is about connection. With the right partnership and friendship anything is possible. Whilst our pursuit of meaning is often interior, achievements are rarely accomplished alone. We rely on one another throughout time and place.

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CENTRAL ASIA Islam: Through Space and Time by author Justin Morozzi

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CAMBODIA A Destination on the Move by Clare Higginson

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SAO TOME & PRINCIPE The Land That Time Forgot by Bridget Cohen

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GEORGIA Traversing the Svaneti Region by Tom Frost

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INDIA RIVER CRUISE Slow Travel on the River Ganges by Arjun Sinsinwar

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TANZANIA Adventure’s Afoot by Jackie Devereux

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COLOMBIA Magical Realism by journalist Richard McColl

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OUR TRAVEL READS

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CLIENT TESTIMONIALS

This need for connection may be the root of why we write about and capture our travels. Our photographs and stories help navigate the differences and understand the unfamiliar. As you will discover in the following pages of this new Steppes Traveller, 2020 is going to be about connecting in new ways and inspiring you, our clients, to do the same.

Justin Wateridge Managing Director

Front Cover: Alaska by Chris Packham Editorial: Steppes Travel Design: Seaside Inspired Steppes Traveller is the magazine of Steppes Travel, 51 Castle Street, Cirencester, GL7 1QD, United Kingdom

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WHAT’S

NEW Everyone in the Steppes Travel team loves to see and experience those far-off and unknown lands just as much as you, our clients. That means, as we’re busy keeping our ears to the ground, we’re also carefully choosing only that which spurs on our sense of adventure to share with you. Take a look below and discover what we believe to be some of the most extraordinary new experiences on our map right now.

AN EXQUISITE NEW PRIVATE YACHT IN GREECE

NEW TRAIN ROUTE FROM SOUTH AUSTRALIA TO QUEENSLAND

Cruise the Ionian Islands on a beautiful new yacht designed to give a couple or a family of four the ultimate in privacy and choice. Alexa J has stylish interiors and plenty of space – but it’s the service that is most remarkable. Your own cruise director, divemaster, spa therapist and chef will make for an exceptional holiday.

Explore the outback interior and rugged coastline of South Australia before boarding Australia’s newest train, bound for Brisbane. Over three days, travel across south-east Australia, stop in the Grampians and Canberra, and then arrive in Brisbane. It’s the perfect base from which to explore the reef and rainforest of Queensland.

Speak to our cruise team to find the perfect private boat charter for you and your family. Quotes available on request.

SLOWLY WIND DOWN THE GANGES ON YOUR OWN PRIVATE BOAT Rivers have a strong and romantic allure. Follow their course and you are sure to discover people with a fascinating history, culture and solid sense of place. The Ganges is no exception; and with the launch of Nauka Vilas, a new, elegant one-bedroom wooden ship, you can discover the Ganges in exclusive style. The Ganges five days from £10,500pp

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Australia 14 days from £6,995pp

IMMERSE YOURSELF IN RURAL CHINA The perfect holiday if you are looking for a fascinating insight into rural Chinese life. Songtsam’s collection of lodges and rural retreats has recently been enhanced with four new properties in Tibet. A 14-night circuit of the area is now possible, which starts in Lhasa and finishes in Lijiang, using Land Rover Discovery 5s. China 15 days from £5,295pp


WHAT’S NEW

SPOT ENDANGERED LEMURS IN MADAGASCAR Madagascar’s tropical north remains relatively unvisited but hides a wealth of unique species, such as the Perrier’s sifaka – said to be one of the most endangered primates in the world. These jet-black lemurs can only be seen from the aptly-named Black Lemur Camp, a community-run enterprise protecting their last remaining habitat.

AN AIRSHIP TO THE NORTH POLE The most innovative holiday we have come across in years. Using a hybrid aircraft propelled by helium, Oceansky is offering a journey to the North Pole in the world’s largest, most-sustainable flying machine. This ambitious expedition is scheduled to take its maiden flight from Svalbard in 2023. Get in touch with the team for prices.

Madagascar 12 days from £3,650pp

URBAN ART WITH JAMES DELANEY IN JOHANNESBURG Explore the urban landscape of Johannesburg in the company of James Delaney, a Johannesburg native who guided Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, on her recent visit. An artist and sculptor, he will show you the neighbourhoods that form his canvas and serve as his inspiration. Johannesburg 11 days from £4,495pp

A BLISSFUL STAY IN PERU AND HELICOPTER TRANSFERS IN CUSCO Stay in a Peruvian escape that gives you privacy, a sense of place and a relaxed experience away from the protocol of hotels. For the ultimate airport transfer, allow us to organise a helicopter to take you from Cusco airport to the Sacred Valley while flying over some of the region’s spectacular sights. Peru 10 days from £4,995pp

STAY IN THE LOOP Sign up to our e-newsletter at steppestravel.com for all the latest travel news and ideas.

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AL ASKA IN SEA R C H OF

WILDERNESS A PHOTO-DIARY BY TV PRESENTER AND NATURALIST CHRIS PACKHAM

In August 2019, 19 Steppes Travel clients joined Chris Packham on a small-ship cruise exploring south-east Alaska’s fjords and glaciers in search of the 49th state’s iconic wildlife. On this overcrowded planet, where so few landscapes remain in any way intact, it’s common for us humans to yearn for the wilderness. Like every other corner of Earth, Alaska is under pressure. It has quiet corners and huge tracts of magnificent habitat that we will need to look after if they are to be maintained. And that ‘we’ now includes us, that band of Steppes travellers who had our lives enriched in the forest and on the seas of this remarkable place. Chris Packham – November 2019

Brown bear cubs have endless reserves of energy and rarely sit still. This mother bear takes a well-earned break while her offspring create havoc in the background.

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As the sun sets over the forested slopes of Alaska’s mountains, the different contours and shades of light make for mesmerising views.


The power of nature is manifested in the sight and sound of a glacier. As the impact of climate change bites harder though, glaciers are receding all over the world. I wonder what this beauty looked like ten, fifteen, fifty or a hundred years ago.

The quintessential Alaskan scene. The big and beautiful backdrop of mountains has the capacity to make even the largest of mammals seem small.

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NORTH AMERICA

A raft of Steller sea lions proves to be fast and agile while hunting for squid, octopus and herring. They can also be very inquisitive and came very close to our inflatable.

After the blues of the icebergs, come the pinks and reds of the sunsets. Alaska’s palette can be subtle one minute and brilliant the next – it’s a landscape photographer’s dream.


They can be big and bold, but icebergs, as we now know, are very fragile in our warming world. At first light, they have an ethereal, fairytale-like quality.

Our Alaska specialists, Roxy and Sue, have explored the area many times and can create an itinerary that’s packed with unforgettable moments. It’s what everybody wants to see when visiting Alaska – one of the world’s biggest mammals breaching in open waters. It epitomises the uncompromising nature of Alaska’s wilderness.

Alaska prices start from £3,950pp

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DINE ANOTHER DAY

NAMIBIA BY ROB GARDINER

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WRITTEN BY ROB GARDINER

“No, Mr Bond. I expect you to die.” Those are the words that I wait to hear. But, instead, I am greeted with, “Welcome to Sonop.” In front of me, a collection of impossibly large boulders sits amidst the sands of the Namib Desert. This pile of red-andblack granite rises to a jumbled peak, where a remarkable structure perches like an overgrown treehouse. Wooden walkways spread like arteries between the rocks, linking a series of green-canvaswalled buildings, each one teetering on an elevated platform. This is Sonop. It is only the smiles and the warmth of the welcome that shatter the Bondvillain’s-lair feel. And the crystal glass of iced tea that is pressed into my hand says relaxation, rather than world domination. Floyd, guide-turned-henchman, ushers

me towards a golf buggy. It sits at the start of a wooden ramp that spirals upwards, squeezing between boulders and disappearing ominously out of sight. In tow, Nadia – erstwhile colleague and now Bond girl, as my overactive imagination takes over – steps into the rear-facing seat beside me. With sudden acceleration, we wind upwards, with the wooden slats beneath us creaking. The snaking ramp takes us past enormous boulders and into Sonop. At the top, I disembark shaken but not stirred. More smiles and refreshments greet me. I step into my gilded cage, embracing my role in this fantasy – humbly self-cast – as a secret agent (or should that be secret travel agent?). With, I hope, a devil-maycare attitude, I saunter to the edge of the wooden decking and look down on a landscape as harsh as it is beautiful. >

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AFRICA

Minutes later, we are crossing the desert by 4x4. Oryx wander across the sand, the lone survivors in this desolate environment. As we drive close by one, it pauses and raises its head. Its javelinlike horns glint with menace, finishing in lethally sharp points. We leave the vehicle and walk across the soft sand, slipping as we climb a small dune. Ahead of us the sun is falling towards a cleft in the mountains. Sonop is silhouetted against the sunset, the sand painted red and gold by the fading light.

The rippling sands of the Namib Desert meet the dark rock of the Naukluft Mountains, as rugged wilderness encircles this rocky pinnacle. Ahead of me, a perfectly shaped volcanic cone erupts from the plains. If one were to brood over plans of power and purpose, this landscape – reminiscent of both Mad Max and The Martian – would be the perfect canvas for painting dystopian dreams. “Let me show you to your room,” interrupts these thoughts. Playing my part – the compliant guest in the megalomaniac’s masterpiece – I follow unquestioningly. Descending a raised wooden walkway that twists between boulders, I arrive at my tent, held above the boulders on wooden stilts, projecting impossibly into nothing. As I step inside, my imagination short circuits briefly. The 1920s stare back at me, Hemingway momentarily replacing Fleming. Polished brass, aged wood and antiques fill the canvas interior, as I step inside this explorer’s escape. Beyond the mosquito-netting windows, the outside world burns with colour. From the four-poster bed, the volcano is still visible on the horizon – a constant point of reference amidst this maze of walkways. However, eschewing rest, my spy’s instinct is to snoop around this hilltop hideout. Following one of the walkways, I stumble across an immaculate snooker table that sits beside a spirit-stocked bar. The balls are racked, ready for the break. I wonder what high-stakes wagers have been made here. Perhaps state secrets surrendered for a snooker? Before I have time to order a martini, Floyd appears, as Nadia emerges from one of the many winding walkways. “Ready to explore?” He asks us both. 14 Steppes Traveller | Issue 1/2020

Floyd joins us and with almost poetic eloquence, explains the story of these sands: their journey from the Kalahari to the coast and then back inland. On top of the lighter grains, blackened granules of magnetite sit, sparkling as they catch the light. Floyd is in his element as he unravels the mysteries of the desert for us. As the sky darkens, the conversation continues. A warmth that has nothing to do with the fading sun grows. Floyd is simply doing his job, but we chat like friends, sharing this beautiful sight together. In my mind, I see the hardened henchman image fading. Slowly, a route to freedom appears. Then, suddenly, the sun vanishes. Darkness cloaks the desert and we are summoned back to the camp. Dinner awaits. An elegant canvas-walled dining room is filled by a banquet table, set with polished silver cutlery and an impressive candelabra. Our host, Shadi, appears, dressed in a fine-white shirt and exquisite braces – completing the 1920s theme. He smiles. And I realise that I have found my Blofeld. I seat myself opposite, as he luxuriates in splendid surroundings, confident and conversational. His relaxed manner puts me at


ease, even as I expect to plummet through the floor at the flick of an ornate switch. But I soon realise that this is to be a far more refined form of torture. The chef appears and recites a menu that begins with cucumber gazpacho and culminates with pan-fried squid and Cape Malay cod. The courses soon follow, each one as delicately flavoured as it is elegantly presented. If this is to be my final meal, I can have few complaints. But if all goes to plan, I will live to dine another day. The following morning, the soft light of dawn warms the sand, as silence engulfs the landscape. No one moves as we roll down the exit ramp, the quiet electric engine producing a nerve-jangling buzz. Floyd is fulfilling his role perfectly – henchman turned hero. He leads us to three gleaming e-fatbikes, lying ready and waiting. Hesitantly, we mount our new steeds. Nadia has foregone the expected bikini or ball gown for more practical leggings. I have left the tuxedo behind, in lieu of shorts. But what we have lost in style, we have made up for in gadgetry. Q Branch would be proud of these new toys.

Namibia seven-day holiday from £4,500pp

The spell is broken. There are no rocket-firing paragliders chasing us and these bikes don’t come with ejector seats or snorkels. And, whilst an ATOL licence has many benefits, it doesn’t endow me with double-O status. I have blended truth and fiction. But that is what Sonop does so well. It weaves a world so rich in beauty, detail and invention that it barely seems believable. It is the physical realisation of a vivid imagination; a place where fantasy thrives and reality wanders lost amongst the dunes.

Slowly, we push off. The wide tyres roll surprisingly easily over the sand. Floyd follows from behind, calling out, “Just head straight.” As we become used to the unusual feeling, we gain momentum. The bikes fly over the desert with increasing speed. Behind, Sonop and its cluster of boulders grow steadily smaller. The lair sleeps, whilst we race away towards freedom. And then Nadia steers straight into a ridge of sand. She hits it and my imagination derails as swiftly as she does. Falling off the bike with distinct inelegance, she lands in a cloud of dust with a soft whump. Brushing sand off her nose, she is sitting in the dirt and smiling – suddenly more tomboy than Bond Girl. No hysterical wails of “Save me, James!” cut the still desert air.

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MOVING IMAGES IN

INDIA BY JUSTIN WATERIDGE

Tears welled up in my eyes. I swallowed hard. I bit my lip. A deep intake of breath. A slow exhale. Still, the tears were there... >


INDIAN SUBCONTINENT

Hidden in a horseshoe-shaped canyon in the Deccan Plateau, the caves of Ajanta were lost for hundreds of years, until accidentally discovered and brought to Western attention in 1819 by British colonial officer Captain John Smith. Walking down the 700 steps through teak forest, I felt a sense of what John Smith must have experienced when he chanced upon the caves whilst on a tiger hunt. The path was overgrown – very few of today’s 300,000 visitors to Ajanta take this route – parakeets squawked overhead and the roar of the waterfall drew me on. Emerging from the forest, I was confronted with a spectacular view of the waterfall and Waghur River – fittingly, Waghur means ‘tiger’. What nature engineered over millennia, humans achieved in decades – namely, chiselling into the hard basalt rock. On the bare northern wall of the U-shaped gorge of the Waghur River were a series of gap-toothed mouths with straight, thin and yellowed teeth. Each mouth is an entrance to a cave; although to call them caves is an insult to the industry of the stonemasons who painstakingly carved these 30 rock-cut Buddhist temples, from the second century BC to about 480 CE. It is not just the excavation that

is so astounding but the intricate carvings, the statues and the ornate pillars. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Ajanta's unique selling point is the extraordinarily-detailed wall paintings. While vivid colours and murals were abundant in Indian history, Caves 1, 2, 16 and 17 form the largest corpus of surviving ancient Indian wall painting. These masterpieces give a sense of threedimensional life – a sense of perspective 1,000 years before the Renaissance – and influenced Indian art that followed. The discovery of Ajanta changed the thinking of painting in the world. “How did they make the paints? How has the paint lasted so long?” “Not with leaves and flowers,” replied Amud, my brilliant guide. “That would have faded. To create such longevity, they used minerals. Red ochre, yellow ochre, lapis lazuli, kohl and gypsum for red, yellow, blue, black and white respectively.”


The paint in the deepest caves at Ajanta is still vibrant and exquisite. “How did they paint given that the caves are so dark?” “Scholars have many theories. Burning torches, water to create a reflection – but it is my belief that they used mirrors to direct sunlight inside.” Words tell you how it was, pictures show you. The paintings of Ajanta are arguably the greatest picture gallery to survive from the ancient world and give great insight into life two thousand years ago. But more than that, they are particularly expressive paintings that present emotion through gesture, pose and form. I feel the expression; I sense the sadness of parents grieving in the first century BCE in Cave 10. The initial gloom of Cave 1 dispelled to reveal a square colonnade supported by 12 sturdy, rounded columns and, at the back, a carved shrine with an impressive statue of the seated Buddha. On the capital of one column was the illusion of four deer sharing one head.

of one story cannot be sustained, a moment of light relief is needed and so, in the ensuing chaos, a sari is lost and a naked backside revealed – cinema eat your heart out.

WHY GO NOW? The recent addition of flights to Aurangabad from both Mumbai and Hyderabad have made these masterpieces more accessible. Stay in the comfortable Taj Aurangabad and, as well as Ajanta, visit the Baby Taj Mahal and the stunning temple complex of Ellora – also a UNESCO World Heritage site. A must-see is the Kailasha Temple, the largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world and, deservedly, the best-known of Ellora’s rock-cut temples.

As Amud’s torchlight tantalisingly revealed, it was the paintings that were a sheer delight. Their observation of human behaviour and the brushstrokes that enabled the artist to focus on the micro. A pearl necklace with a sapphire in the middle. Detail of the crown's pearls illustrated in individual dots. Hair crinkled to show water and that it is in the act of being washed. Greek key designs show that the world was not isolated. Another pattern gives the illusion of letters. Perhaps most enigmatic was how the facial expression of Buddha changed depending where Amud shone his torch. Each temple is sensual and emotive, often touching; but, Cave 17 – which is the best preserved – was the most moving. I gasped on entering the main hall of the temple, awed by its 20 pillars flanking the walls. Walls and pillars were coloured with paintings that excelled the richness of the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. The sophistication of light and dark to create perspective was delectable. So too the portrayal of a fine pearl necklace that shone when light hit it. People were beautifully observed whether by their facial expressions or hand gestures. A queen looked coquettish, as if drunk. An elephant watched us from wherever we were in the hall – eat your heart out Mona Lisa. The drama

India 11-day trip, which includes Ajanta and Ellora, from £2,995pp

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GREAT AND SMALL. EXPERT-LED WILDLIFE AND CULTURAL GROUP TOURS Our group tours always sing from a different hymn sheet. Our wise and wonderful leaders are all the very finest minds in their fields; while our group sizes are carefully considered to ensure that you experience everything bright and beautiful on your journey. Visit steppestravel.com/group-tours to explore our collection of over 60 upcoming expert-led trips.

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WRITTEN BY CHARLES CLOVER

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED Travelling to the Galapagos Islands with his wife Pamela, Executive Director of the Blue Marine Foundation, Charles Clover finds a fresh appreciation for little nations making a big impact on conservation.

It is the small things you probably should have noticed before about life on Earth that strike you in the Galapagos. Take marine iguanas, for example – I found myself swimming above one off the sharp volcanic reefs of Fernandina Island. It was gliding lithely a couple of feet away from my mask to graze on a patch of bright-green algae between the fronds of seaweed. I noticed, for the first time, that reptiles swim by moving their tails from side to side, whereas mammals, such as otters – which this iguana closely resembled – swim by moving their tails up and down. Such blinding flashes of comprehension about how life has evolved are available to the layman 183 years after Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos. Animals on these young volcanic islands take up niches you might not expect - iguanas, where elsewhere you might see otters; tortoises, where you might see domesticated browsers, such as goats or pigs. It is wonderful to see huge tortoises hauling themselves through a forest and wallowing in mud baths like 100-year-old porkers. It is my belief that you have to go to the Galapagos at least once in your life if you are to have a proper appreciation of the natural world. My wife Pamela, whose forebears come from the Scottish island of Mull, kept pointing out the similarities in rock formation, volcanic activity and the behaviour of seabirds - such as the blue-footed booby, to their home equivalent, the gannet. However, the giant Mull volcano spat jets of stone as far as Yorkshire between 60 and 50 million years ago – the volcanoes on the islands of Isabela and Fernandina are still erupting today.

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These still-forming islands are a revelation. From the point of view of a professional marine conservationist, it's amazing to see the small, heavily-indebted country of Ecuador getting on with safeguarding its marine assets around the Galapagos; while bigger countries, like the UK, are only now getting down to the business of creating marine reserves. As recently as 2017, Galapagos National Park rangers and the Ecuadorean military managed to arrest a Chinese refrigerator vessel – a reefer, as it is called – traversing the reserve and not responding to requests for identification. The vessel was found to contain 6,600 sharks – including some 300 tonnes of endangered species, such as the


scalloped hammerhead. The vessel was being supplied by shadowy fishing vessels hunting off the southern end of the national park. On this occasion, thanks to lobbying of the courts and politicians by outraged Ecuadoreans, 20 Chinese fishermen were jailed, including the captain for four years. This must have taken skilled diplomacy, as China is Ecuador’s major creditor. The Galapagos Islands are vulnerable and there is a sense of threat from outside which sharpens the wonder of what is within. Parties of visitors to the largely-uninhabited islands are all regulated in size and closely coordinated. A lasting thought from several of us on board, and not necessarily the most well-heeled: is the park itself charging us enough to protect assets as precious as these?

Join our 11-day Galapagos Islands group tour with Jonathan Green from ÂŁ6,995pp


SAUDI ARABIA

A S O L I TA R Y M A N BY PAUL CRAVEN

Aside from Khalid, my driver and my guide, I am travelling alone in Saudi Arabia. We had dinner in one of the best known fast-food establishments yesterday evening. There was an entrance and dining area for women, an entrance and dining area for families – no men are allowed access unless accompanied by a woman or girl older than about 12 years old – and an entrance for men. This is where I had to go, being the solitary man.

The stereotype of Saudi Arabia is of an arid sand desert in a cultural wilderness. Socially, one of the many stereotypes endured by Saudis is that they are austere and lacking in humour. In the mountains of the Abha, a range that separates the Arabian heartland from the coast, I saw colour and art that very much goes against these ideas. In Al Ula, I remember the light-hearted birdsong under the picturesque and refreshingly-cool roof of palm fronds. But above all, my overriding impression is one of hospitality and smiles. I visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Madain Saleh in Al Ula. I walked

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the site investigating the old mud-brick farm buildings with their deep stone-lined wells, looked inside the carved-fronted caves – many with tombs cut into the floors or walls – and climbed the huge rock mountains. Al Ula means the ‘uprising’ and describes the gigantic sandstone towers and monoliths that turn the eye in every direction. Worn and weathered, and punctuated with pockmarks, they are a myriad of shapes and sizes. The earliest tombs we explored here were at Al Khuraiba (which means the Lion Tomb) and dated from the fourth to the second


MIDDLE EAST

century BC. They were the last remnants of a once-bustling society. All around me there would have been markets, there would have been signs of life. These are now most certainly buried under the palm groves, which no doubt hide remarkable treasures. It is believed that only 1% of Saudi archaeology is known or has been examined. For the majority, the highlight of a visit here is Al Fareed, or ‘The Unique’. It is a towering carved-rock facade that cuts right through a gigantic, isolated chunk of ballshaped sandstone. I had the place to myself. The only sound was the ringing in my own ears. A solitary place for a solitary man. >

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MIDDLE EAST

“...the age of the solitary man is about to come to an end, at least in the major centres where most visitors are likely to venture.”

It was time to move onto my next stop: the bazaar in Tabuk. Not your usual shopping experience. There were many shops selling ground Arabic coffee beans and the spices that accompany it, mainly cardamom. Others selling everything that a local Bedouin or a casual desert jaunt out of town would require. How about a feather lure to catch a falcon? And, for when you have caught one, a hood to cover its head? There were curved sticks, rather like Western walking sticks, for cajoling camels or just to carry and look smart. A satellite TV in a box is a snip at 2,200 rials (around £440) and perfect for keeping up to speed with the latest soap opera. A glorified picnic basket with cutting knives, a large metal plate, a gas stove, coffee pot, plastic jars and metal dishes. Water containers of all shapes and sizes. There was even a pannier that fits over the ridge between the two front passenger seats with a hole for the gear stick. There’s a two-holed option, for if you have another stick in your 4x4. All essential items, it appears. Until recently, to travel in Saudi Arabia for anything other than a business trip has been a rarity. I saw no other Western tourists at any of the sites I went to. Yes, it was Ramadan; but even then, outside of this period, figures were in single numbers. Perfect for a pioneering man walking a solo path. However, the age of the solitary man is about to come to an end, at least in the major centres where most visitors are likely to venture. But, the country is so vast that in a few hours you can be completely on your own again.

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It is now possible to visit the Kingdom on a tourist visa and explore. For the truly intrepid, it is also possible to do it on your own, however, because it is such a new tourist destination, the local support infrastructure is likely to be a challenge for most. Contrary to popular belief, single women can travel without an escort and do not have to cover their heads. And, unmarried couples are now permitted to share a hotel room. Above all, the hotels are of high quality, the cuisine is delicious and the people are truly welcoming. Whether alone, like I was, with a partner or in a group, Steppes Travel has the contacts and knowledge to make a trip to the Kingdom a memorable experience.


Saudia Arabia 12-day expert-led group tour from ÂŁ6,395pp


NEPAL THE ECHO OF LAUGHTER BY JOE PARKES A gentle knock at the door announced the arrival of a steaming hot cup of coffee and the dawn of a new day. After a quick yawn and rub of my eyes, I left the blissful warmth of my bed and put my down jacket and slippers on. As the door opened, the light flooded in and, as my eyes adjusted, they focused on the most jaw dropping of views. Towering above me, and as far as I could see, were the magnificent, startling snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. I settled into the wicker chair on my balcony and cradled the cup of coffee. The air was crisp and fresh and smelled of woodsmoke. The light breeze carried the gentle, distant sound of Sherpa; the language of the legendary mountain people who tirelessly aid trekkers and climbers visiting Nepal. >

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ASIA

“As we walked around the corner, the mountain views gave way to soft greens and a path that snakes through farmland.”

I was one such trekker, and had just two days before I set out from Pokhara on my own trek through the Annapurna Range. My time in Pokhara was fabulous. The newly-opened Pavilions Lake View hosted me superbly. The hotel rooms had floor-toceiling windows with terrific views across Phewa Tal, Pokhara’s iconic lake. The restaurant there fuelled me with some of the most lip-smacking Nepali cooking imaginable. I had a vegetable thali for dinner – each of the small dishes divine – and washed it down with an ice cold Gorkha lager.   Anyway, back to the trek. I chose to trek with Ker and Downey who have an excellent reputation and operate seven simple but comfortable lodges in the Annapurna region. After a day spent walking you can expect friendly service, excellent food, a hot shower and a comfortable bed. Bliss.   My favourite Ker and Downey lodge was Basanta Lodge, located in a village called Dhampus. Just a short walk from the lodge and you are among traditional Gurung houses and phenomenal mountain views.   As hard as it was, I decided to turn my back on the brooding peaks and instead stared out across the valley. Far below me four eagles glided on thermals. The path I had walked to reach this viewpoint was lined with flame-red poinsettias and brilliant orange marigolds. Millet and chillies lay drying in the sun. A young boy hesitantly came forward from his home and greeted with me a soft namaste (or, “hello”). I replied as his mother watched on proudly. The warmth of the people in Nepal is one of the reasons so many people return time after time.  I continued walking and, as I glanced up at the mountains, the clouds drift away revealing the iconic ‘Fishtail’ or Macchhapuchre, an unclimbed and sacred peak. At 6,993 metres above sea level, Macchhapuchre is a minnow in these parts, but its fabulous razor sharp peak juts out proudly to catch the eye.    As we walked around the corner, the mountain views gave way to soft greens and a path that snakes through farmland.

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Above us came the echoing sound of laughter – and, as we climbed the path, we almost bumped into two women who were sitting on the ground spinning a length of wool and chuckling as they worked. The light was perfect; so I asked them if I could take their photographs. This set them off into fits of giggles as they pretended to preen and beautify themselves for the shot. Their laughter and easy manner made for some great photos, but beyond that, it was just tremendous fun despite our language barrier. I continued on the trail smiling inside and out. “Don’t look down,” came the cry from Deepak, my trek guide. The suspension bridge bounced and swayed, while foaming white water roared hundreds of feet beneath me. My fear of heights kicking in, I decided to look at the


horizon and walk slowly and steadily. Once over, I allowed a quick glance back at the bridge before walking up the stone steps leading to the village of Landruk. Perched on a hillside in a deep gash between the mountains, Landruk’s skyline was dominated by Annapurna South. As the sun set on a terrific day of walking, the clouds and snow on the mountain glowed pink, then red. It was a moving and touching visual.  With nowhere better to be, I sat on a stone wall warmed by the sun and allowed the mountains to capture my imagination. I start thinking about the Everest region and the possibility of a trek there. Just maybe...

Nepal 13-day holiday with trekking from ÂŁ3,295pp


ZAMBIA FERTILE GROUNDS BY CHRIS JOHNSTON

I walk across the cracked tarmac at Mfuwe Airport, in eastern Zambia, with just a handful of people. Yellow-billed kites balance on the thermals above me, but everything else is still in the hot, thick air. As we wait for my bags, My guide Stephen points to a game of football taking place on a patch of grass opposite the entrance. “A big match.” He says, “The local derby.” I mention it does seem odd that both sides are wearing the same kit. It’s the bright green of the national side, nicknamed Chipolopolo, or 'The Copper Bullets'. “How does that work?” I ask. >

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WRITTEN BY CHRIS JOHNSTON

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AFRICA

“Every house has its own mango tree. Before a family build a home here, they plant a mango tree.”

conservationists, Norman Carr, as well as renowned guide Robin Pope. Stephen is not one of the khaki-coloured chauffeurs found elsewhere. He brings the place alive, in a way only possible if you have lived here all your life. “Here it’s easy. Everyone knows each other,” replies Stephen. After loading the luggage into our Land Rover, we begin our drive through Mfuwe – an unassuming town which borders Zambia’s most famous park, South Luangwa. Stephen tells me he has lived in the area, known locally as ‘The Valley’, his whole life. His own family and his children are all close by. I ask what he likes most about working here, an area that’s famous for its pioneering walking safaris and spectacular wildlife. “The mangos,” he says in a heartbeat and gestures through the open window at the huge trees lining the road – the branches weighed down by plump fruit. “Every house has its own mango tree. Before a family builds a home here, they plant a mango tree.” We drive past piles of neatly-arranged fruit, all watched over by grinning children. “If everyone in the village has a mango tree, who buys them?” I ask. “The mangos here are special,” he says. “People come from afar to buy them. People think they know what mangos taste like… until they come here. Not all mangos are the same.” The conversation flows easily and he says he has been guiding here “a while”, which soon turns out to mean over 30 years. He has worked alongside one of Zambia’s leading

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Like the guides, the park boundaries are deceptively modest. In one area during my trip, I drive past a small cluster of buildings made of elephant grass with clothes drying on the thatch roof. “The northern border,” I am told. Elsewhere, a small hand-painted sign, nailed to a tree, simply reads: ‘The Park’. Therein lies South Luangwa’s charm. Subtle and unassuming, this most natural of settings is home to an astonishing abundance of game. This is down to one thing, the Luangwa River. It is the soul of the park and you feel its presence as soon as you enter. Unusually for an African river of this size, it remains untouched by people. No dams, no irrigation; it flows freely in its natural state. Each season, this vast, wild river carves through the valley’s fertile soil to create ever-evolving landscapes waiting to be explored. Much like the flow of the river, my time on safari here turns out to be full of subtle twists and turns. I venture to the south of the park; where the guiding is good, but the accompanying stories and myths are spellbinding. I hear of birds that act like dogs, trees that rain and four-metre-high, blue-tongued insomniacs. I learn about bushes that scare off ghosts, invisible reptiles and horned beasts that navigate by the stars. Away from these phantoms, the famous walking safaris don’t disappoint. One morning, we head out from camp


and follow a trail of claws, paws and hooves in the damp sand. These lead us to a pride of lions. The game drives are no less impressive - dusty wild dogs, bullish elephants and countless leopards. So many, in fact, that we breezily dismiss a mother and cub in broad daylight to follow the call of a Pel’s fishing owl and her young. Before I know it, it is my final evening and I drink a bottle of Mosi (‘The Beer that Thunders’) overlooking the Luangwa River. The water shines like copper in the evening sun and hippos’ bellowing grunts ring out below me. Crocodiles lie ominously in the shallows, as a colony of dazzling carmine bee-eaters take flight on the opposite bank. As we drive back to camp, Stephen slows down in the fading light and stops, pointing to a branch about 20 metres ahead. “Can you see the leopard?” he asks. Which, of course, I can’t. We slowly drive forward, and then I see it – a big male with a fresh kill. Then I see the female. Then the cub. It’s just us, and the cats having dinner. “That’s incredible,” Stephen says. And he means it. There is a warmth and authenticity to the safaris here that I have not found elsewhere. Indeed, the wildlife here is spectacular, the lack of tourists is refreshing and the small bush camps are full of charm. It is, however, the Zambian people who give these safaris their unique flavour. Not all mangos are the same.

Zambia eight-day holiday from £5,495pp


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30 YEARS

ONE GOAL Creating a path for you to discover the extraordinary on is nestled deep at the heart of every itinerary that we create. It’s why we’ve spent the last thirty years honing our service; ensuring, through the great benefits below, that each moment of your trip is even more memorable than the last.

ALL OF THIS... DEDICATED TRAVEL CONSULTANT Our knowledgeable region expert will be with you at every step.

FOR BOOK LOVERS Choose your complimentary book from our bookshop every time you travel with us.

EXTRAORDINARY EXPERTS Our partners on the ground will show you destinations in a unique way.

NO NEED TO PANIC Our dedicated helpline means we’re always on hand in case of a hiccup.

AND MORE... MORE FLIGHT OPTIONS We’ll hold airline seats for you while you’re crafting your trip. GET THE APP Everything you need to know about your itinerary will be in your pocket. BIG FUN FOR LITTLE ONES Families travelling get an Explorer Pack – with a polaroid camera, book and a pair of binoculars. GLIDE THROUGH THE AIRPORT We can arrange lounge passes and fast-track access through UK check-in and security.


OUR NEW

STEPPES TRAVEL

WEBSITE. Steppes Travel is always trying to make it easier for you to find destinations and ideas from right across the world. The brand new Steppes Travel website has just launched and brings plenty of time-saving features, including a seamless design, enhanced search function, and the chance to create Wishlists of experiences and destinations to share with our team and your friends. Take a moment to explore the beautiful new site and you will find a helpful collection of destinations, expert-led wildlife and cultural group tours, information on when to travel and inspiration in one easy-to-reach destination. That family tiger safari in India or expert-led cruise with Richard Dawkins can now be found in just a few clicks. The Wishlist feature is your chance to collate and curate the perfect tailor-made holidays in up to eight personalised boards. These can be quickly shared with your friends to inspire them, or sent onto one of our team to get your extraordinary tailor-made adventure started. Start exploring today at steppestravel.com.

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TELL US WHAT YOU THINK We always love to hear your feedback. Send us your thoughts and ideas on the new website to feedback@steppestravel.com.

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SRI LANKA ALL ABOARD BY JAMIE WOLFENDALE

I sit patiently on the platform at Nuwara train station. Elegantlycarved stone, crafted wooden beams and lush, overflowing hanging baskets remind me of some sleepy Cotswold backwater spot. There is a serene air which leaves me feeling blissful.

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I’m heading for Demodara; and along the way, I will enjoy what is often dubbed as ‘the world’s most beautiful train ride’. I’m certainly not sure what to expect, as the jovial groups of locals and raggedlooking backpackers all seem completely at ease with what is coming. On the horizon, eventually, a blue mass that is our train begins to worm around the corner. By my watch, the train is 20 minutes late and yet no one seems bothered; but those in the know, like my guide, assure me that this is the Sri Lankan way. Everything happens in its own time. Stepping on board, I’m introduced to something completely different. It isn’t as rustic and characterful as the exterior of the train and the station’s situation would suggest. Instead, the seats are comfortable and spacious, and windows fully open to allow passengers the freedom to consume everything that is on offer along the way. The driver’s flag cuts down through the air several times to signal that we are now on our way. I sit down, we set off. I can feel the excitement rising as the train drags itself forward. I spend the first 30 or 40 minutes with my neck craning in every angle to take it all in. Elderly tea workers swarm slowly through neat estates which slant down hillsides, houses painted in vivid colours burst out from thick undergrowth and long sweeps of low-lying cloud hang thickly between trees. My window acts like the frame for a kind of live-action epic of colours and culture. My guide Anjith shuffles to the seat across from me and begins to explain a little more about Sri Lankan life. It’s a deep pot of cultures and history. >

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INDIAN SUBCONTINENT

World War One and the fresh demand for steel. A group of locals, led by chief engineer P.K. Appuhami, decided to offer their services to complete the bridge using only solid stone and cement. As a show of confidence in their skills, Appuhami and his men claimed that they would sleep underneath it. I stand with my toes hanging over the edge of the exit door. Just below me, young children unperturbed by the train’s presence flit along dirt tracks on their way home from school. Suddenly, the thick forest falls away and the curving chunk that is the Nine Arches can be fully appreciated.

Over the centuries, Sri Lanka has been home to numerous rulers and kingdoms from near and afar. The Sinhalese, Tamils, Portuguese, Dutch and even British have laid a claim to parts or all of the country from around 540 BCE. The European influences are particularly evident in places like Galle Fort, which is found along the south coast. The broad white buildings and elaborate hybrid of Portuguese colonial and Dutch architecture is like nothing else in the country. Anjith’s dialogue begins to tail off and I can see him peering down the track through the window. He ushers me to my feet and chirps excitedly about how the highlight of the line is fast approaching: the Nine Arches Bridge – also known as ‘The Bridge in the Sky’, due to its immense height. We walk together through the carriage and Anjith points me towards an open exit door. The scenery is still streaking past at full speed and the whole train lurches awkwardly on a corner. We both shuffle forward and snatch for a rail each to support ourselves as we lean out. Moving myself forward, I am gifted with a sprawling view of the countryside. Through the sounds of rushing wind and clunking metal, I learn more about the fable of the Nine Arches.

The long blocks of grey rock seem to disappear into the distance below. And as we cross the bridge from our perch, it feels as though we are almost floating high above a large blotch of trees and houses in the shadow of the structure. I even forget, for a brief moment, that I am relying on a single, awkward grip to stop myself from taking a very, very close look at the beautiful world below. It’s both a relief and a disappointment when it is time to step back properly into the carriage.

There is a story that the British set about building the bridge but were forced to halt progress with the commencement of

As we step off the train at Demodara and a local greets me with ayubowan (a go-to greeting and a wish of prosperity),

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I realise what makes Sri Lanka so unique. At every corner, the people are so forthcoming about sharing their positivity and happiness with you that it is almost impossible to just dip your toe into a visit. They embrace everyone around them and, as a traveller, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect accompaniment to all of the beauty and vibrancy that is waiting on the small island.

Sri Lanka 14-day holiday from £4,795pp

GET YOUR CLAWS INTO SRI LANKA’S WILDLIFE Immerse yourself in the true spirit of safari. Leopard Trails offers bespoke tented excursions right among the alluring wildlife of Sri Lanka’s two iconic national parks, Yala and Wilpattu. This isn’t just a classic camping experience with a luxury twist, but a chance to experience leopards, Asian elephants, mugger crocodiles and an endless list of fascinating creatures.

The beauty and wild nature of Sri Lanka can be yours – speak to the Steppes Travel team to create your tailor-made Leopard Trails itinerary or visit www.steppestravel.com


JAPAN T H E E A S T: IN NEW DIRECTIONS WRITTEN BY KATE BURNELL Japan is one of the jewels in a glittering crown of destinations that the East offers. And, while the exploits of the recent Rugby World Cup gave us a fascinating perspective on life in the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’, there is certainly far more on offer than that which made its way onto our screens. Below, I’ve served up a snack-sized guide of the highlights spread across the diverse archipelago – think: steaming open-air baths and dazzling flower displays – that are just waiting for you to feast on.

LITTLE-KNOWN GEMS

SHIKOKU, HOKKAIDO AND OGASAWARA ISLANDS

Set off to uncover the secrets of the island of Shikoku, one of the few parts of Japan where we recommend self-driving. Mountain roads wind through hillsides covered with dense woodland and traditional villages to take you to your stay in a small onsen (or, hot spring) hotel. Hokkaido, in particular, is famous for its seafood, hot springs, rugged landscapes, national parks and even powder skiing. Once outside the main city Sapporo, any human presence dissipates from the beautiful and sprawling landscape to offer a deeplypeaceful sense of serenity. The Ogasawara Islands offer real adventure across a thrilling 25-hour boat journey. Little-visited, due to its remote location, this chain of 30 tropical and volcanic islands has been designated a World Natural Heritage area.

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FAR EAST ASIA

ON THE MOVE

WALK HIDDEN TRAILS AND CATCH LIGHTNING-FAST TRAINS Travel in Japan is unlike any other country. Fast or slow, new or old, there is plenty on offer – and, plenty to see along the way. Follow in the footsteps of samurais as you hike a section of the Nakasendo trail. Once one of the most important highways in Japan, this 530-kilometre route originally linked Nara and Kyoto with the then-capital city of Edo – now known as Tokyo. The walk between Tsumago and Magome is a picturesque trail that passes through countryside and alongside traditional housing. A journey on board the Shinkansen train, otherwise known as ‘the bullet train’, is a fun and speedy zip through some of Japan’s most elegant landscapes, whilst hitting speeds of up to 360 kilometres per hour.

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FAR EAST ASIA

IN BLOOM

FLOWER-FILLED VISTAS OF CHERRY BLOSSOM, HYDRANGEAS AND TRADITIONAL GARDENS Cherry blossom season arrives in Japan with a candyfloss bang. Tokyo and Kyoto are popular spots to witness this beautiful spectacle, with both cities boasting a wealth of parks, gardens and green spaces. It’s equally magical when the blooms fall to create a pink and white carpet. Book early to avoid disappointment, as availability can be tricky during this period. Gardens are extremely symbolic and have always played an important role in Japanese culture. In Kanazawa, visit one of Japan’s top gardens, Kenroku-en. This beautiful garden was created several hundred years ago and combines six important characteristics: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, watercourses and panoramas. Flower fields can be found across Hokkaido between April and October, with Furano being well known for its lavender fields. May showcases the lupines and tulips, and in June, blue salvia and poppies bloom. Late June brings lavender with sunflowers, while cosmos blossom in August. From September, yellow mustard and dahlias decorate the refreshing autumn season.

CULTURES OF JAPAN

GEISHAS, SUMO, MANGA AND PET CAFES Kyoto is the home of the geisha – or geiko, as they are known in the city. After a walk through the streets of Gion, enter a tea house and dine in the company of an apprentice geisha, known as a maiko. A guide will be on hand to interpret and give guidance on the often-subtle customs of this secretive world. Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands and is home to most of the country’s volcanoes and, thus, the hot springs which are a key symbol of Japanese culture. Take a dip in the thermal waters at Noboribetsu. Moving on to the quirky side of Japan – let a local expert introduce the weird and wonderful of Japanese culture in Tokyo. Visit a sumo stable, stop for a drink in a pet cafe, try your hand at manga cartoon art and drive a Mario cart around the city.

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SOAK AND SLEEP

PLACES TO STAY ACROSS THE COUNTRY Hoshinoya Fuji offers luxury glamping on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi with views towards Mt Fuji. Rather than head onto the mountain itself for a sometimes rather touristy experience, admire it from afar. A night or two in a traditional inn, known as a Ryokan, is an unmissable stop that offers traditional accommodation with rice paper screens, futon beds, Japanese robes and slippers. Relax in your private onsen bath before dinner is served - a traditional affair, with a colourful multi-course kaiseki meal.

Japan 11-day holiday from £4,250pp

WILDLIFE

SNOW MONKEYS AND EAGLES Japan’s snow monkeys, or Japanese macaques, live in large social groups and can be observed up close. Jigokudani – which translates as ‘hell’s valley’, due to the steam and boiling water bubbling out of small crevices in the frozen ground – is where the resident Japanese Macaques like to soak. Whilst the monkeys are most numerous during the colder months, they can be observed all year round. Elsewhere, on the island of Hokkaido, wildlife ranges from the red-crowned crane, Steller’s sea eagle, red fox, sika deer and brown bear.


SHIFT ADVENTURES UP A GEAR 4X4 DRIVING IN

NEW ZEALAND WRITTEN BY JEAN-MICHEL JEFFERSON Imagine packing up your Landie and heading off to explore a wild and inaccessible part of New Zealand. Behind the wheel, the landscape stretches open and the possibilities are endless in this magnificent country.

Several years ago, we were approached by a group of clients who enjoyed annual 4WD expeditions to places like Namibia and Mongolia. The task was to do the same in New Zealand – and the accommodation brief was either the best in the country or a tent. Thus, experience was king. We sourced vehicles, negotiated agreements with landowners, and put together six days of top-grade off-road driving. Mountain tracks with enormous drop-offs, multiple river crossings and technical switchbacks, and epic scenery that is unreachable by most. They liked it so much they decided to return this year. This time, with a much better understanding of the client, we were able to put together a trip with gear for high-quality expedition camping. A three-man tent per person with enough room to stand, comfortable mattresses on raised beds, showers and electrics powered by several solar generators, a composting throne of a toilet with a view, a Maori wild-food chef with a specially designed menu throughout and local characters to join us by the fireside – regaling us with stories of Maori folklore and the odd bit of acoustic guitar or a wild West Coast Bluegrass outfit. By day, they swam with dolphins and seals, embarked on a private rally driving day, were thrilled by a simulated formation divebombing mission on 1930s Harvards, learnt to spearfish and gather crayfish while diving, spent a day racing off-road on rugged terrain and experienced some of the finest helicopter flying in the world with two legendary pilots. The special dining menu was designed daily with ingredients foraged from local 48 Steppes Traveller | Issue 1/2020

surroundings, supplemented by a couple of cases of 18-yearold Macallan. The trip culminated with a party at a secluded villa in its own cove on Waiheke Island – just a short 15 minutes by helicopter from Auckland Airport, for an effortless departure. We were accompanied by a videographer with a drone to ensure the remarkable memories were not lost; an experience that has never been done before in New Zealand.


New Zealand’s geography and topography lends itself to such trips. About the same size as Great Britain and Northern Ireland (although long, like Italy), but with a population of only 4.5 million, places are relatively easy to access and there are large areas of remote wilderness, much like the Scottish Highlands. Like in the UK, the terrain varies markedly every three hours or so of driving. The exceptional environment here means that focus can be given to a number of outdoor themes while still giving more than a glimpse of the iconic New Zealand experiences. The two consistent favourites are a Maori welcome on a sacred mountain and a day flying over Fiordland by heli. This

is some of the finest scenic flying in the world and again can be further tailored to cater to interests, such as an understanding of the greenstone (jade), meeting local hermits and whitebaiters, or finding wildlife. And, in terms of themes: hiking; fishing; cycling; cultural immersion; and sailing, to name a few.

New Zealand six-day 4x4 self-drive adventure from £6,795pp, based on five couples travelling together


ARCTIC THE BLOW OF A BOWHEAD BY SUE GRIMWOOD There are many negative stories coming from the Arctic; global warming is having a dramatic effect on the wildlife and the peoples of the Arctic, with the ever-diminishing ice making survival difficult. This was my third cruise around Svalbard, and I could immediately see how drastically some of the glaciers had receded in the last 20 years.

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ARCTIC

“As we drew closer, I could see a very distinct V-shaped blow, which was higher than I would expect from the humpback.”

Ocean pollution is a worldwide problem and one that we are constantly working to tackle at Steppes Travel. Polar Quest, who I was travelling with, was also keen to get us involved. In fact, we collected waste on most of our landings; and by the end of the trip, we had three huge bags full of plastic that included everything, from simple bottle tops to huge pieces of fishing net. No place can be called pristine anymore. There are, however, some good news stories too. The whales and walruses in the region around the Svalbard Archipelago were hunted almost to the point of extinction; but, with walrus hunting banned in 1952, and the international whaling commission ban in place since 1982, the numbers are steadily increasing. On a recent 11-day voyage around Svalbard, I encountered hundreds of walruses in a number of places. Some were just small groups of males basking on beaches, while others had hauled themselves out onto larger ice sheets. On land, they are a little vulnerable, and you have to approach slowly and cautiously. In the water – very much their own element – it is a completely different experience. 52 Steppes Traveller | Issue 1/2020

This time, we had a very special encounter with a large herd at Freemandsund. There were mainly mothers and calves – but, there were also some large males in the water that were far more active and curious. They would swim towards our zodiacs in groups and pop their heads up to get a better look. Then, with a snort and a splash, they would disappear under the water and eventually reappear a little closer. Some got to within a metre or so of the zodiacs. Their curious faces with thick, bristly whiskers and tusks of all sizes. When I first started selling voyages to Svalbard, I rarely mentioned whales to clients, and only really humpbacks or belugas were likely to be seen. However, in the last five years, this has been changing and I am regularly getting reports of blue whales. Being surprisingly quick for a beast of up to 30 metres in length and weighing up to 150 tonnes, they are not always so easy to spot. They have very distinctive high blows as they surface and a long, curving grey- and blue-mottled back with a small dorsal fin. It always seems to take an age to appear out of the water. Under normal circumstances, this cetacean would have been a highlight

for our trip; however, it was about to be outdone by a very special sighting. I was out on the deck and had seen a few distant blows and a streak of white; I had assumed it was an active humpback waving its flipper. The boat then slowed down and turned towards the whale. Our guide Hannah had announced the sighting over the ship’s tannoy, and the excitement in her voice was evident. As we drew closer, I could see a very distinct V-shaped blow, which was higher than I would expect from the humpback. Hannah explained the characteristics of a bowhead – they have a large and distinctive lump at the back of their head and no dorsal fin. The bowhead whale, sometimes called the Greenland whale, has the largest mouth of any whale - with huge baleen plates, up to three metres in length, hanging from its massive bow-shaped

“A sighting of a lifetime. And a memory that I will never forget."


seen before; and as it surfaced, with its mouth agape, it forced out a vast amount of water and then licked the baleen off with its huge tongue. A successful hunt and time to plunge back into the deep-blue water. The excitement eventually settled. The deck of the ship and the water’s surface both calmed. A sighting of a lifetime. And a memory that I will never forget.

jaws. They have up to 50 centimetres of blubber under their skin, the thickest of any species. They are slow-moving, like northern right whales, and were a favourite for whalers. Their numbers were decimated, and an estimate of only 100 remaining in the SvalbardBarents sea region has meant that they are now listed as ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN. These remarkable whales can live up to two hundred years; so this individual could easily have been around in the time of whaling. The captain slowed the ship to a crawl and we carefully edged closer to this leviathan. We were all very aware of how wonderful this was, as all of the ship’s crew were out on the deck with us. The white markings under its chin were the streaks I had

Arctic 11-day cruise from £5,450pp

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LEAD THE WAY. As travellers, we find ideas in the images we see, books we read and the stories we hear. Inspire someone to create their own exploration with us for the first time through your tailor-made story, and you’ll both get up to £200* in travel vouchers. Let your passion for exploration be the inspiration for something extraordinary. Contact our team on 01285 601 070 or (USA) 844 675 1044 to discover more about our referral service. *Terms and conditions apply


THE STEPPES FUND FOR CHANGE Our commitment to nurturing people, cultures and places doesn’t rest. In fact, it follows us to every corner of the globe and back through this new project.

The Steppes Fund for Change is a collection of initiatives to promote sustainable travel, and a call-to-arms to the industry to take immediate action. Every trip that you book with us contributes to change: we pledge £50 per person, per booking and add it to The Steppes Fund for Change – which is managed by our Steppes Travel team. Half of the money goes to supporting 20 carefullychosen programmes around the world that help women’s empowerment, girls’ education and wildlife conservation. The other half is spent on expanding our woodland in the north east of England and supporting the search for clean and safe future energy solutions.

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Championing COMMUNITIES Women’s education and empowerment facilitates an uplifting and enduring support structure for the communities and environments in developing countries around the world visited by Steppes Travel. We’re supporting African Parks’ mobile women’s health clinic in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Congo; and helping at-risk women across the world. Through Birdlife International, we are sending out ‘educators’ on commercial fishing trawlers in the South Atlantic to reduce the bycatch of albatross; helping Durrell’s community-led patrolling and reforestation in MenabeAntimena Protected Area in Madagascar; and supporting ‘Wild Shaale’, a mobile environmental-conservation education programme for schools in Karnataka which nurtures tolerance toward wildlife and wild places.

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Rooting FOR CHANGE Planting trees is an unambiguous and irrefutable way of mitigating the damaging results of carbon emissions from flights. We wanted to realise our project and targeted Scunthorpe, Britain’s most polluted city. The Steppes Fund for Change has created an innovative concessionary model for landowners around Scunthorpe and, as we write, 16 hectares of land has been released from agriculture for woodland creation. Tree planting started before Christmas. In January 2020, Steppes Travel is launching a campaign with Woodland Trust to lead the private sector in the concessionary model for the release of over 3,640 hectares of land for over ten million trees around Scunthorpe. The Woodland Trust supports our vision as “…a significant contribution to the wider aim of a new Northern Forest and will help to facilitate its delivery”.


THE STEPPES FUND FOR CHANGE COLLECTION

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Supporting THE ENERGY OF TOMORROW Climate change is perhaps the overriding threat not just facing the travel industry, but the world as a whole. Therefore, we believe that as well as taking the immediate action of planting trees, we also need to seek clean and safe future energy solutions. We are doing this by funding Nicolas Cristen, a doctorate student in the famous Plasma Group at the University of Oxford, through this current academic year. Nuclear fusion harnesses the sun’s power – but, unlike fission, it joins atoms rather than splits them, and does so without creating dangerous radiation. The difficult bit is managing to control a little bit of the Sun on Earth, and this is where the Plasma Group comes in.

Search for ‘The Steppes Fund for Change’ to find out more. Or, turn the page to discover a full list of the projects that we’re supporting.


THE STEPPES FUND FOR CHANGE AROUND THE WORLD The who, where and how – explore the 20 small projects that we’re supporting as they make a big impact in their local communities. It’s a privilege to know that every tailormade holiday or expert-led group tour that we create is making a difference around the world.

AFRICAN PARKS

ECOAN: ECOSISTEMAS ANDINOS

African Parks runs a mobile clinic in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, in the Congo, which provides quality education and healthcare to women.

ECOAN is working to preserve the fragile Andean ecosystems, through the development of three sustainable women’s textiles associations in the Vilcanta Mountains, Peru.

BALI WISE PROGRAM The objective of Bali WISE is to empower poor, marginalised and at-risk young women by increasing their access to skilled employment.

BIRDLIFE INTERNATIONAL The Albatross Task Force aims to reduce the bycatch of albatross and petrels through the education of fishermen, to ultimately improve the conservation status of threatened seabirds.

CONSERVATION THROUGH PUBLIC HEALTH Conservation Through Public Health aims to protect gorillas in Bwindi, Uganda by providing household-level health services to community members.

DURRELL Durrell is working with local communities in Madagascar’s Menabe-Antimena Protected Area to preserve and restore forest habitat through community-led patrolling and reforestation efforts. 58 Steppes Traveller | Issue 1/2020

FALLEN RANGERS The rangers of Virunga National Park, in the Congo, sacrificed their lives to protect the wildlife of the park; consequently, the park has a duty to take care of those left behind via the Widows Workshop.

GALAPAGOS CONSERVATION TRUST In the Galapagos, less than 40% of women have completed secondary education. Therefore, the Galapagos Conservation Trust works with young girls to build their self-confidence and skills for a brighter future.

KOALA CLANCY FOUNDATION Koala Clancy Foundation is based in Victoria, Australia and aims to create and protect koala habitat through the planting of thousands of trees to restore lost habitats.

MISOOL FOUNDATION The Misool team is on a mission to safeguard the most biodiverse reefs on Earth, through the empowerment and education of local communities.


THE STEPPES FUND FOR CHANGE COLLECTION

NAPO WILDLIFE CENTRE - KICHWA ANANGU COMMUNITY

UTHANDO

The Steppes Fund for Change will enable the Kichwa Anangu Community in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador to receive classroom resources to better early childhood education.

The Steppes Fund for Change supports the Masizakhe Youth Art Project (MYAP) in Gugulethu, Cape Town, which provides educational support and development through dance, singing and drama.

OSCAR FOUNDATION

CHHANV FOUNDATION

The Steppes Fund for Change will support the OSCAR Foundation’s #kicklikeagirl programme as it works to empower young girls living in Mumbai to stay in education.

Chhanv Foundation focuses mainly on the prevention of acid attacks and welfare of acid attack survivors through free medical treatments and post-attack support in finding employment.

PONHEARY LY FOUNDATION The Ponheary Ly Foundation works to provide meaningful education and a safe place to learn for some of the brightest, and yet most disenfranchised, young women in northern Cambodia.

RAINBOW CENTRE - SRI LANKA The Rainbow Centre provides daily education, food, welfare, medical treatment and loving support to children living in extreme poverty in southwestern Sri Lanka.

WA ALE ISLAND RESORT The Steppes Fund for Change will help the Lampi Foundation run various conservation projects, and offer mainland education for the children of Wa Ale Island.

CENTRE FOR WILDLIFE STUDIES The Steppes Fund for Change will support the Wild Shaale environmental-conservation education programme, which aims to increase the tolerance and awareness of precious wildlife in India.

RAINCOAST CONSERVATION FOUNDATION This foundation works to protect the wildlife of the Great Bear Rainforest, by acquiring the commercial trophy hunting rights to the Kitlope tenure to stop such activities occurring.

SAMBHALI TRUST Sambhali Trust empowers marginalised women and children from poor communities in Jodhpur, India by providing a broad education and vocational training in sewing.

Search for ‘The Steppes Fund for Change’ to find out more. Turn the page to read about two of our projects in more detail - OSCAR Foundation in India and Kichwa Anangu Community in Ecuador.


THE STEPPES FUND FOR CHANGE COLLECTION

OSCAR F O U N D AT I O N BY JUSTIN WATERIDGE


“The moment that I kicked a football I forgot everything.” The quote sounds as if it had been said by a multi-millionaire Premier League football player. In fact, they are the words of an inspiring young man who grew up with nothing in the fishing community of Mumbai, India. His name is Ashok Rathod and the name of his charity, which spawned from his enthusiasm, is the OSCAR Foundation – a project which uses football to inspire change. I was walking through the fishing community with Ashok. He was very quick to use the word 'community', as opposed to the more derogatory word of 'slum'. For him, it is about individuals and neighbourhoods, and he does not believe people should be labelled by where they come from.

He opens a door to a room of about seven feet by seven feet, the walls lined neatly with pots and pans. A gas plate for cooking in the top left-hand corner and place for washing in the right. In the bottom corner are some wooden steps which lead to another level where his parents and nephews sleep at night. We emerge from the fishing community and further down the road enter the laundry community. The walls of the houses are painted in bright colours, the roofs are crammed full of drying clothes, sheets and towels. I am disbelieving that in this melee of laundry, items are not lost. But as throughout India, there is a system that navigates the chaos. Next, we head to the Maidan, a communal field near to Mumbai University where cricket, as it does with the rest of India, dominates. The OSCAR Foundation team occupies a dusty corner. “Why did you not focus on cricket?” I ask Ashok. “Because I had nothing, much like the boys and girls we work with. You need bat and a ball for cricket and then, later on, pads and the rest. With football, all I needed was a football – even if it was homemade.”

As witnessed at the bustling fish market at Sassoon Docks earlier that morning, work in the fishing industry is hard. The fishermen spend days out at sea in unseaworthy vessels and return with an ever-decreasing catch. Back in the fishing community, children run riot on the narrow, dirty spaces between the houses. Their parents are out at sea or still at the market. These children have nothing to occupy themselves. Except that is for the OSCAR Foundation. Ashok turns a corner and we are in a dark alley. My eyes adjust to the dimness as Ashok knocks on a door, announcing, “This is my parents’ house. They will not be here, but maybe my brother’s children.”

Ashok inspects the worksheet of the young man taking the practice. The template is impressive – asking for details on warm up, skills, timings and all with diagrams – as is all of the OSCAR Foundation. It is the attention to detail and structure that enables the OSCAR Foundation to encourage leaders to mobilise communities. It is about empowering others at grass-roots to spread the word rather than relying on the foundation to do so. It stimulates selfreliance and independence.

Search for ‘The Steppes Fund for Change’ at steppestravel.com to find out more.

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WRITTEN BY VANESSA HUMPHREY

AN EDUCATION IN THE

AMAZON Over the vibrating whoop of howler monkeys and the metallic 'tonk-tonk-tonk' of bare-throated bellbirds, my ears tune to a hollow drumbeat carried on the fried cacao-scented breeze.

I notice my fingertips are stained scarlet, evidence of thoughtful efforts to extract the medicinal blood-coloured pulp from a ripe achiote fruit capsule. This natural ink, I am told, is a blessed substance to the indigenous Kichwa Anangu community. Concurrently, melodic chants of “alli shamushka mashikuna”, meaning “welcome friends”, fumble their way through brightly coloured bromeliads and beneath stilted bamboo dwellings to the dusty riverside clearing where I stand. The mamakuna (the women of the community) are serenading our arrival. We had drifted in a dugout canoe atop the coffee-coloured waters of some negligible meandering tributary of the Amazon River, been trailed by a meddlesome troop of chattering squirrel monkeys and dodged woody vine bridges of soil-rooted liana. All this before breakfast. Through this excusably unruly, seemingly impenetrable tunnel of oppressive pocketed air that turned our fingers webbed, we had arrived at the Amazonian home of the Kichwa. Humming with auditory pins and needles, the place was abuzz with a bewildering hoi polloi of insect soliloquys. Just two days earlier, I had witnessed this colossal broccoli-floret-like forest from above while flying to my remote jungle starting point. Now, I was blissfully clutched in its tousled undergrowth and intertwined canopy. Like the squeaky balls my dog routinely loses in bramble bushes, I am entirely obscured and quite impossible to find. >

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THE STEPPES FUND FOR CHANGE COLLECTION

We have been staying half an hour upstream in a bambooraised bungalow atop a caiman-filled lagoon in the Napo Wildlife Centre, a congregation of lodgings within the Yasuni National Park that are owned and run by the community. In addition to housing out-of-towners like me, the eco-lodge doubles as a boarding school for the nippers of faraway communities, like Pompeya and Tiputuni. On what is arguably one of the world’s most unique school runs, children are canoed between Napo and the Kichwa township. Before the school was built, I am told, infants were either left in the care of city-dwelling relatives or obliged to forego education altogether. At ease in their ancestral home, cloak-and-dagger hideyholes are revealed to us by grinning Amazonians who know the labyrinth of waterways like some humble Snakes and Ladders board. Only here, shushing gestures and pointed fingers are intended to reveal tangible black anacondas that coil up like six-metre-long liquorice wheels in river-lulled swamps. A game this is not. As an outsider, my invitation into the nooks of the forest is exchanged for profits that are fairly divided between the community. It is an honest and authentic trade, and one that ensures the protection of both the indigenous people and their valuable territory. Without eco-tourism, these native lands would likely fall into the hands of forest-guzzling oil moguls. Back at the township, a time-wizened elder with black hair that falls to her middle back passes me a tiny wooden chalice – its porous, carved surface worn smooth by years of handling. From it, I take a sip of sour yanamba, a fermented potion made from roasted cassava, while a translator explains how this readied native root is toxic and hallucinogenic in its raw state. My attempts to communicate with the mamakuna - to thank them for both the merry greeting and my distinct lack of cassava poisoning - are limited to happy eyes, head bows and grateful “yupaychanis”. Following clumsy flush-cheeked participation in a ritual dance, I tear away from the knot of bare feet and drumbeats to reach the school and its classroom of younglings. They are a toppling-chortling-wall-climbing-story-ponderingstand-up-fall-down assemblance of littles, much like any other I had seen elsewhere in the world. Only here, wooden walls give way to windows of panelled wire mesh that are designed not to keep students in, but opportunist jaguars out. The room is as stiflingly humid and peppery-hot as the mature woodland that swaddles it. From colouring pencils

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“Only here, wooden walls give way to windows of panelled wire mesh that are designed not to keep students in, but opportunist jaguars out.” to maps of the continents, the list of absent resources is extensive and noticeable. The Steppes Fund for Change has since gifted £2,000 for the purchase of essential supplies and two computers, allowing for the development of invaluable tech-literacy. I am greeted by Oneyla, who aspires to be a teacher and live across the river in her native New Providencia community. Her favourite things are play dough and puzzles, and she loves to write. Also Yulitza, who never stops grinning, and Grefa, who cannot keep his feet on the ground. Then there is Yasuni. I observe this child, the namesake of the sacred reserve, as she roots herself like a giant kapok tree to a time-worn desk and voluntarily starts about completing pages in a workbook. Her sincere attempts at concentration are foiled by a raucous cyclone of wall-scaling peers, and she develops an exasperated pout. When she grows up, she wants to be a doctor, but the community simply does not have the resources to cover further education. Until the children of the Amazon are awarded university scholarships, Yasuni’s commendable aspirations will remain an impossible pipe dream. As I leave, cutting a tentative path towards an awaiting canoe, my procession of new-found friends in their gold-embroidered garments stir up fleeting dustnadoes as they scuttle between the school and the waiting arms of their beaming mothers.


Speaking the common language of the Inca empire, Yasuni calls out, “Kanta yuyarishami, Ban-eysa”. The former means “I’ll miss you”. The latter, a charming endeavour to pronounce my name. I feel an unexpected stirring that is something like hiraeth – the untranslatable Welsh word that expresses the feeling of homesickness for a home to which you might not return, or which maybe never was your home at all. Cocooned in unforeseen friendships that hurdled the obstacle of language, I had adored colourful lines drawn on crumpled pages, hoorayed safe desk-to-wall traverses and motioned along with unfamiliar renditions of Incy Wincy Spider. I spoke in English, they replied in Kichwa - but somehow, we understood each other. As it turns out, relationships trump semantics. In that wild and unassuming latibule, it was I who received an education in the Amazon.

Ecuador Amazon 12-day holiday from £3,050pp


KENYA R E D I N TO OT H A N D C L AW

BY JARROD KYTE

“I hope we see a kill, Dad,” says George. It takes the honesty of a 13-year-old boy to articulate what most of us want from a safari. I’m with family and friends staying at Kicheche Mara Camp and I am here to see Africa at its most visceral and raw.

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AFRICA

We don’t have to wait long. We have been in the Mara less than 20 minutes and we come across a martial eagle, stood in the open, with a monitor lizard clenched in her enormous talons. “Dad, is the lizard dead?” asks George. “The martial eagle has a special, razor-sharp talon that it uses to puncture its prey by driving it into the animal’s body at lightning speed. There is no chance the lizard will have survived.” George looks impressed with my knowledge, but this is shortlived as the monitor wriggles its tail and opens its mouth to exhale its final breath. David, our guide, gives me a look that says, ‘leave the guiding to me’. Meanwhile, the eagle uses her giant beak to penetrate an area of thin skin in the lizard’s armpit to deliver a lethal blow. The lizard’s mouth closes, and the eagle effortlessly tears strips of skin and flesh from the arm of the lizard. The dark-red blood at the end of the eagle’s monstrous

beak is in stark contrast to the brilliant yellow of her eyes. George looks captivated and appalled in equal measure. The next morning, George declares a desire to see jackals. Jackals spend their lives in a permanent state of curiosity and before long, we spot a pair sniffing, scratching, running and jumping across the plains. Their already-heightened senses are piqued by the sight of a topi with a very young fawn – breakfast. Our guide David, an amiable and understated Maasai, explains to us how the hunt will likely unfurl. “They will keep the fawn running until she can barely move from exhaustion,” he explains. “One of the jackals will distract the mother while the other jackal will target the fawn.” >

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AFRICA

“The jackals’ collective guile and stamina are proving more than a match for the maternal instinct of the topi.”

A deadly game of chase plays out in front of us, just as David explained it would. George is fascinated but there is a growing look of concern on his face. I sense his desire to witness a kill is beginning to wane. “How will the jackals kill the fawn?” he asks. David’s kind face takes on the look of a worried parent, torn between a desire to tell the truth and wanting to protect innocence. “They eat the poor thing alive,” he says quietly. The jackals’ collective guile and stamina are proving more than a match for the maternal instinct of the topi. No sooner has the frantic mother chased off one jackal, then the other jackal takes on the role of aggressor and needs to be repelled. It is cruel, compelling and lethally effective. Or at least it would have been, if it were not for another topi from a nearby herd that, in an act of selflessness and nerve, charges into the fray. With numbers now even, the jackals’ threat is immediately neutered and the superior size of the topis comes into effect. The chasers become the chased, and to my surprise, George is high-fiving David as the jackals are chased off and the topi fawn lives to fight another day. “The jackals are bullies, they deserved to lose,” says George. “But don’t they also deserve to have food in their bellies?” I reply. Africa is a full of paradoxes and contradictions. Peel off the top layer and underneath there are many more that give depth and complexity, beyond the immediate comprehension of a 13-year-old boy and his dad. Later that morning, we encounter a mother cheetah who, remarkably,

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is accompanied by six hungry cubs. It is clear she needs to hunt with six ravenous mouths to feed but makes several unsuccessful attempts. The consequences of her failure are stark – her cubs will starve if they do not eat. George is right behind every attempt the cheetah makes to kill the gazelles she is hunting and scolds her whenever she fails. A safari is a window into a brutal world where all that matters is survival. It is also a window into our own distant past, when we were also food for the predators. We roamed the open plains, as vulnerable as any topi fawn and lived in fear of the night when big cats and other carnivores came looking for prey. So fast-forward thousands of years to a point in time when we are sat in the safety of a safari vehicle, watching an unfortunate zebra fall prey to a pride of lions, the experience invokes a vestigial feeling of relief that we are not the animal that has ended up as lion-food today. The survival instinct is still strong in us all, but in George, his desire to see a kill and to feel the relief at not being the one chased by hungry jackals, is superseded by the very human emotions of


compassion and empathy. The same emotions, that paradoxically lead him to cheer on the cheetah when she is hunting gazelle for her hungry family. The mother cheetah gives up on the hunt and settles down with her cubs to take refuge from the sun under an acacia tree. “Are you ready for breakfast, George?” asks David. “Only as long as we don’t have to kill it first,” he replies with a grin.

Kenya nine-day family safari from £2,670pp


ISLAM THROUGH TIME AND SPACE BY JOURNALIST, HISTORIAN AND TRAVEL WRITER - JUSTIN MOROZZI Am I allowed to say that my new book, Islamic Empires, is as much a completely mouth-watering travel itinerary to some of the most spectacular cities on earth as it is an epic history of the Muslim world? By telling this story through 15 cities over 15 centuries, one city and one century at a time, I deliberately thrust these great urban centres onto centre stage and into the heart of my story.


MIDDLE EAST

Islamic civilization – from the Latin civis, a citizen, which in turn is related to civitas, a city – was once the envy of the world. From a succession of glittering, cosmopolitan capitals, Islamic empires lorded it over the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and swathes of the Indian subcontinent, while Europe cowered feebly at the margins. For centuries the caliphate was both ascendant on the battlefield and triumphant in the battle of ideas, its cities unrivalled powerhouses of artistic grandeur, commercial power, spiritual sanctity and forward-thinking ideas, in which nothing was off limits.  Where to begin? No question but to kick off in seventh-century Mecca with the story of the Prophet Mohammed and the birth of Islam. To this day it remains steadfastly closed to non-Muslims while attracting two million Muslims a year on their hajj, or pilgrimage. From Mecca, the headquarters of the Islamic Empire, or caliphate, shifted over several centuries under successive dynasties, to more outward-looking cities. First it went to Damascus, one of the most illustrious capitals of antiquity, where the Umayyad dynasty presided over one of the most extraordinary series of military campaigns in history, spreading the faith from the mountains of Afghanistan in the east to the shores of the Atlantic in the East. Then, from 766, the caliph Al Mansur “The Victorious” held sway in Baghdad, a brand new imperial city that became the glorious headquarters of the expanding empire under the long-lived Abbasid dynasty. >


Mehmet finally stormed it on 29th May, after a brilliant and meticulous campaign, it was on its way to becoming Muslim Istanbul, one of the world’s most dazzling cities to this day. For my sixteenth century I headed into the Hindu Kush mountains of Central Asia to Kabul; not so much because it was one of the most important Muslim capitals at this time, but because its new leader Babur, great-greatgreat-grandson of Tamerlane, was one of the stand-out figures of his age. A hashish-smoking, wine-drinking poet, memoirist and gardener, he was also the founder of the Mughal Empire, which would last until 1857.

For a European Islamic interlude, we head to the enchanting city of Cordoba (Al Qurtuba, to medieval Muslims), which in the tenth century was one of the continent’s largest and richest, so magnificent that it was dubbed decus orbis, the ‘ornament of the world’, by the German nun Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim. Jerusalem is my eleventh-century city, above all for the apocalyptic scenes at the climax of the First Crusade in 1099, when Christian knights entered the sacred Al Aqsa mosque on horseback, hacked down everyone in their way and, in their own words, “rode in blood up to their bridles”. It was a decisive moment in the troubled history between Christendom and Islam. Twelfth-century Cairo, which remains one of the most exhilarating cities in the world, exacted its revenge. Its new master, Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, retook the Holy City in 1187 and by the time of his death in 1193, the Crusader kingdoms in the Middle East were teetering on the brink of destruction. Two thousand miles to the west, meanwhile, the labyrinthine city of Fez, also known as the ‘Mecca of the West’ and the ‘Athens of Africa’ – and one of my favourite cities anywhere – was about to enter its greatest golden age under the mighty Merinid dynasty. There was no competition for my fourteenth-century city. It could only ever be Samarkand, resplendent capital of the world-conquering Tamerlane, whose rampages across Asia, supposedly against the infidels, instead saw untold numbers of Muslims slaughtered in the name of jihad. In 1453, all eyes turned to Constantinople, which for 800 years Muslim armies had tried unsuccessfully to capture. When Sultan

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Isfahan, which I suspect has been a Steppes Travel classic for years, was so splendid in the seventeenth century under Shah Abbas I that it gave birth to the Iranian proverb, 'Esfahan nesf-e jahan', or ‘Isfahan is half the world’. It is rightly considered one of Iran’s greatest treasures. I chose the Libyan capital of Tripoli to be my eighteenth century, partly because I have always loved it ever since first visiting as a teenager, partly because I am fascinated by the pugnacious, upstart Karamanli dynasty, which seized power here from the Ottomans and somehow managed to maintain it from 1711–1835 through a combination of piracy, slave-trading and ruthlessly playing the Great Powers off against each other. And the nineteenth century? Again, no competition. Time


MIDDLE EAST

to travel east to the wonderful city of Beirut, where my father was born in 1938. The ‘Paris of the East’ and playground of the Levant was also the scene of frantic Ottoman and European urbanisation as Muslim East vied for influence with Christian West. The darker side of this mixed, cosmopolitan population came to the fore in 1860 when the Druze and Maronites slaughtered each other in their thousands. Dubai was a completely insignificant pearling and fishing village until very recently. Then the twentieth century brought a whirlwind of change when the irrepressible Maktoum dynasty, ignoring the starchy advice of cautious British advisors, bet big, dredged the Creek and reaped the rewards. “Build it and they will come,” was the approach. The Maktoums built it and the world came. And continues to come in its millions. Our story – and Steppes Travel itinerary – ends in Doha; which may not be everyone’s cup of chai, but which is, surely, one of the most fascinating examples of urban development on earth. The Qatari capital is an urban experiment writ large, ongoing at breakneck pace, bankrolled by some of the deepest pockets in the world and attracting some of the most pre-eminent architects on earth, from the late I. M. Pei and Zaha Hadid to Jean Nouvel. It is, in fact, the ultimate ragsto-riches-in-decades story – the city triumphant. Justin Marozzi’s Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization, is published by Allen Lane.

Speak to Paul Craven, Conde Nast Traveller’s chosen Central Asia specialist, about a tailor-made itinerary through the region.


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SOUTHEAST ASIA

CAMBODIA A DESTINATION ON THE MOVE BY CLARE HIGGINSON After years of sitting quietly in the shadow of its neighbours, Cambodia has now found its feet as a standalone destination. With a flurry of new hotels, and the unveiling of hidden regions and beaches to explore, it’s time to chase down everything this reborn destination has to offer. >

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SOUTHEAST ASIA

Sitting on the deck of my luxurious tent, a place idyllically positioned to take in the river view while the interior showcased memorabilia from an era gone-by, I watched the boisterous flow of the river cut through the nature around me. Amongst the wilderness, the butterflies seemed to busily chase nothing and kingfishers blitzed from bush to tree, and back again. The beauty was astounding, and the atmosphere truly relaxing. Time to bid farewell to Shinta Mani Wild. The coast is now calling. After a short, bumpy ride to Sihanoukville, a speedboat awaits. The short journey across the water takes me to the island paradise of Song Saa. I step off the vessel and I immediately relish the feeling of having sand between my toes.

My first stop was Phnom Penh, which I was about to explore by cyclo (a cycle rickshaw). As I discovered the hidden backstreets with my ‘driver’ Kanya, an architect student, I started to see the city with new eyes. Kanya’s keen and welltrained gaze picked out the old hotels, temples and churches which exist as a reminder of life long before the dictatorship that reigned here. Phnom Penh’s buildings are a reminder of a past overshadowed by a bitter history – and yet, were utterly beautiful in the evening light. Trundling along, I was told a story of a local boy who travelled to Switzerland to become a chocolatier, and who now works in a luxury jungle camp a few hours from the capital, all down to the work of the Shinta Mani Foundation. So, with this delicious thought I travelled west to Shinta Mani Wild, a jungle camp in the heart of the Cardamom Mountains. My arrival at camp was not as you would expect. I found myself hitched up to a zip line, hurtling over dense jungle greenery and then skimming towards a finishing line surrounded by a thunderous waterfall. A group of welcoming faces and a tequila-based cocktail were eagerly awaiting my arrival. As I stopped for the first time to take in my surroundings, it felt like I had stepped back in time; the lodge's design encapsulating the time when Jackie O visited the Cambodian jungle back in 1967. There was a certain chicness and glamour mixed with the wildness of the jungle.

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On my first morning, I wake up early for yoga by the pool. Fortunately, for everyone looking to get the most from their day, the team overlooking Song Saa has cleverly set the clocks one hour earlier from the mainland to maximise the hours of daylight. And, the creative thinking doesn’t end there. For years now, they have also been running a community initiatives programme and forged strong links with the village on the opposite island. The village’s temple and school get much-needed support, and the Song Saa team helps to protect the unique culture in the area. Two more luxury brands have stuck their flag into the sand in this part of Cambodia – Alila Koh Russey and Six Senses Kabey Island. While both fuse modern facilities with the highest levels of luxury, they are also deeply inspired by the surrounding nature and vibrant heritage in the area. A rich sense of place permeates that is perfect for the considered traveller. So far, my journey through Cambodia had been a whirlwind of city gems, forest luxury and ocean calm – but now, the iconic temples of Angkor await. Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor and home to a vibrant hotel and restaurant scene. By far the biggest draw here is the temple. And it is so easy to see why. The way the forest and temples have become so intertwined here is fascinating and beautiful. The roots are forced to grow in strange formations along walls and stone paths; while the mosscovered rocks shimmer with running water. I set off early, just as a tickle of rain carefully dots the ground. I achieve what I set out to do and beat the biggest crowds. All but a few fellow early-risers are present to keep me company. I enter the temple and have a moment of realisation – we are one of the very first to enter the space


today. Calm hangs delicately through the air. It is a rare and special treat albeit only for a few minutes, but still something worth savouring. I’m back outside, and for the first time, everything on my trip seems to stop moving for a split second. Then, out of nowhere, a great, unrelenting hulk of rain claps the ground all at once. The area and the people come alive under the cleansing water; children burst into celebration, darting from puddle to puddle and embracing every moment. Cambodia is truly in vogue. And the smiles of these children show just why; it’s a country born from optimism and perseverance. But, above all, it’s a place where mesmerising moments come and go as quickly as the rain.

Found just a stone’s throw off the Cambodian coast, the forest-covered island of Koh Russey is home to the sublime Alila Villas Koh Russey. Coppercoloured beaches, gentle aquamarine seas and native jungle frame this stylish and sensitively-constructed resort. With regular boats to the mainland, venture to Kep and sample some of Cambodia’s best crab dishes, explore the mountainous Bokor National Parks and head to Kompot for a taste of the famous pepper at lunch along the faded colonial promenade.

Cambodia 14-day holiday from £3,500pp

Five-day stay at Alila Villas - Koh Russey from £795pp.


SAO TOME AND PR I NCIPE

T H E L A N D T H AT T I M E F O R G OT BY BRIDGET COHEN

“Moli, moli,” says Ofreu, with one of the biggest smiles I have seen. I gave him a grateful smile back, and had to remind myself that I need to take a breath, relax, slow down – really slow down – and enjoy where I am, and enjoy the ‘moli, moli’ way of life. Relaxed, slow paced, no stress and no time.

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AFRICA

As I slowed down, I took a moment to take in where I was and absorb the forest around me. Suddenly, I understood why the ‘moli, moli’ way of life is important – without stopping, you miss the sights and sounds of the forest. It’s a time when everything stands still. We had just made our way down from a two-hour roundtrip trek to the O Que Pipi Waterfall on the lush, green and tropical island of Principe - the smaller and less-visited island of Africa’s second-smallest country of Sao Tome and Principe. Located in the Gulf of Guinea and 250 kilometres off the coast of Gabon, Sao Tome and Principe is one of Africa’s bestkept secrets. With great beaches, tropical rainforests and a population made up just over 200,000, it is a place to explore and detach yourself from the rest of the world – and for a small moment, to live the ‘moli, moli’ way of life.

Sao Tome and Principe was once a leading producer of some of the world’s finest cocoa. When the country gained independence in 1975 from Portugal, the cocoa plantation houses – or rocas, as they are known locally – stopped production. The Portuguese left and so time seemed to have left with them. The islands were almost forgotten by the outside world, while the population continued to live a simple and sustainable life off the land and sea. In 2002, South African entrepreneur and philanthropist, Mark Shuttlesworth, became Africa’s first astronaut – or afronaut, if you will. It was on the International Space Station that he first laid eyes the lush forest canopies of the islands of Sao Tome and Principe, and decided that when he was back on Earth that he would visit this small country. From his first visit, he fell for this beautiful and unique little country; and felt that, despite the extreme poverty on the island, there was huge dignity amongst the people. This thought went on to inspire Mark to pour investment into the island of Principe. And, in 2011, he bought the resort of Bom Bom Island, and his involvement in the re-development of Principe has since grown hugely from there. >

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AFRICA

“Sao Tome and Principe was once a leading producer of some of the world’s finest cocoa.”

Now eight years on, he has added another two lodges to Principe and, more importantly, brought employment. Between the three lodges and various projects on the island, he employs around 640 people and provides muchneeded income to them and their families. Considering that the island’s population stands at 7,000, this is rather an impressive achievement, and the start of a perfect blueprint for what Mark is trying to achieve. Together with the Principe Foundation, they have worked alongside the government to create economic and social development on the island, whilst keeping the key vision in place of protecting the island’s many endemic plant and bird species. From beekeeping to sea turtle protection, many

projects have been set up to give islanders a source of income whilst preserving the natural world around them. It just seems everywhere you turn on the island, the trust is involved in some way by helping, guiding and educating for a better future – all while promoting conservation and retaining a feeling of unity across the island. Walking through the forests, villages and the world’s smallest city of Santo Antonio on Principe, you can feel the hope and change happening on this magical island. The communities are grateful for the work being done by the Principe Foundation, and understand that there is a fine balance between gaining financial independence and making a mark on the world through tourism and conservation.


As I make my way back home, I start to wonder what my highlight has been while visiting Sao Tao and Principe, and what had made me fall deeply for this little African haven. Was it being woken early to the sounds of African Greys squawking at one another outside my tent? Or walking through tropical rainforest past trees that have been there for millennia and eventually breaking through the foliage to discover the most beautiful ocean views? Was it stopping at Roca Sao Joao dos Angolares on Sao Tome and stumbling across an art exhibition which would not be out of place in New York or London? Or was it simply the ‘moli, moli’ way of life on Principe that caught my heart? Perhaps I will never know; perhaps I need to return to find out.

Sao Tome and Principe eight-day holiday from £4,478pp

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82 Steppes Traveller | Issue 1/2020


EUROPE

GEORGIA

TRAVERSING THE SVANETI REGION BY TOM FROST

As we duck and weave through the lush foliage of the mountain road, I can feel the excitement and trepidation rising in me for what’s to come. A cascade of rainwater falls around as we continue driving, with each drop matching my heartbeat. Georgia has already been so eye-opening.

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EUROPE

“Everything felt natural and completely relaxed; there were no screens, few people and unrivalled beauty.”

The small town of Ushguli is only a few hundred metres away as the mountains begin to slowly creep into view. The anticipation is building frantically; then, all of a sudden, the picturesque town of Ushguli reveals itself. Encompassed by the mystical Mt Shkhara, the setting here is simply breath-taking: snow-capped peaks, lush green fields and a beautiful medieval Georgian church nestled between it all. After we picked our jaws up from the floor, our guide then explained that, at a staggering 5,193 metres high, this was the highest peak in the country. We ventured into the church, known locally as ‘Lamaria’. Whilst relatively small, the hall inside offered a beautiful array of frescos. Their deteriorated condition in no way concealed the beauty that was so clearly on display. The church itself is shrouded in mystery. It doesn’t appear in any historical records and only whispered

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rumours exist from those that live in the area to suggest that it originates from around the ninth century. Once we had taken a moment to reflect on the peaceful ambience, we headed out for a short walk towards the base of the mountain. As with most of Georgia, there is an abundance of feral dogs in the area. It may seem unsettling but, in reality, they are well fed and of a loving nature. Funnily enough, as we approached the base of the mountain, I turned around to find that there were five canines which had decided to join our group and walk with us. This only furthered my love for this region. Everything felt natural and relaxed; there were no screens, few people and unrivalled beauty. We made it as far as the small river before deciding not to continue further due to our schedule. Our guide was telling us how he had climbed the mountain in the past, which was unbelievable to imagine. If he wasn’t pulling my leg, then it was certainly an admirable feat.

Shortly after we parted ways with our canine companions, we wandered through the town admiring the architecture and way of life. Agriculture is at the centre of everything here and there is little space for promoting to tourists in this genuine and oldfashioned approach to living. Our guide explained that the majority of the locals are made up of local Svaneti families that have a different dialect to the rest of Georgia. And, because of it, that communication between the two groups was difficult but intriguing to watch. As we explored more, we learnt that the population sits at around 200 in total, and is made up from a tightly-knit group of around 70 families that work together to maintain the community. We sat down to enjoy some local food in one of their traditional taverns. Georgian food can only be described as sumptuous, with a large variety of cheese bread, beef stews and much more. In the Svaneti region, there were fewer choices; I wanted to try


something local and decided on a spicy beef pie, which was both delicious and huge. It’s clear that the Georgians don’t do small portions. It is also worth noting that the local Svanetian salt should be an essential purchase for anyone visiting the region. It has a fantastic flavour and goes well with so many meals back home. Shortly after lunch, we delved into the history of Ushguli. Fascinatingly, this remote town is the highest permanent settlement in Europe, at 2,200 metres above sea level. Considering the village is completely inaccessible for six months of the year due to road conditions and weather, it is remarkable the people survive the harsh winters and maintain such a unique way of life. Ushguli is an integral part of making the Upper Svaneti a UNESCO World Heritage site; not only for its scintillating scenery but also its collection of old Svan Towers. For centuries, the locals had to repel invasions and, as such, built the structures to combat these attacks. Despite suffering a significant earthquake and a variety of attacks, these towers are still very present and serve as a stark reminder of this region’s rich history.

As we began driving back to Mestia, I was met with sadness and immense satisfaction in knowing that I was leaving this wonderful little location. More so, because I managed to see it before a flood of visitors undoubtedly makes its way to the ever-popular region. Georgia is quickly becoming a hot favourite with travellers looking to explore the enthralling cultures, stories and communities that are tucked away deep in mainland Europe. I can’t wait until the next time I step foot into the Svaneti region.

Georgia 12-day holiday from £2,800pp


SLOW TRAVEL

ON THE RIVER GANGES ARJUN SINSINWAR, EXOTIC HERITAGE GROUP

Taking to the open water on one of India’s most iconic waterways is special no matter where in the world you are from. Arjun from Exotic Heritage, a Steppes Travel partner, talks about why sailing here is more than just a journey of geographical proportions.

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On the surface, life on the River Ganges is a mixture of serene calm and bustling movement; each stretch brings a different kind of energy. But dip more than just a toe into this area, and you will discover that the water, the people and the culture here are intrinsically linked. Bengal, in eastern India, is the point where the mighty River Ganges meets the sea; the brute force of the water spreads out into the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh. This vast Gangetic plain soaks up all of the benefits from the fine silt that is carried through by the holy river. And with it, a great abundance of spiritual wealth that is revered by the locals. The Ganges is the cradle of Indian civilisation to many; it is the start and end of all life to Hindus. To bathe in the waters of the Holy Ganga is a form of purification – and to be cremated at the Ghats of Varanasi is the ambition of every living Hindu.

For a more intimate experience, a private, fully-crewed riverboat with just one cabin will be available in 2020. Perfect for taking in everything at your own pace.

India eight-day Ganges Voyager cruise from £3,500pp

In the early times, the rich and fertile soil that finds itself deposited along the banks was perfect for growing opium and tea, as well as indigo and natural dyes used to produce some of the finest handmade textiles and silks – very much still sought after today by the best fashion houses. The incredible creative output by artisans and revolutionaries was described to be the avant-garde of both Indian and global cultural advancement. Over time, villages of silversmiths, weavers, potters and brass-makers sprung up along the river. From the thirteenth century, Turkic rulers brought different fashion trends and West-Asian wisdom. Baghdadi Jews established bakeries and synagogues; while exiled noble families from Lucknow and Mysore added their own style to local cuisines. The wealth of Bengal caught the attention of the global stage, drawing traders and European companies all seeking opportunities. The Danes, Dutch, Portuguese, French and the British all settled here to establish trading outposts and tussle for power. The river was used for navigation in British colonial times, with steamer services between Kolkata (then called Calcutta), Patna and even further upriver. With the construction of railways and, later, roads with low bridges and massive irrigation schemes, river transportation became obsolete and the navigation channels silted up. In recent years, much has been done to reopen historical waterways; some now consider the river the only sensible way to travel in India. Especially so, when you are on a journey to discover the incredible stories of the past. The Bengal Ganga, the Ganges Voyager and the Ganga Vilas river cruisers all offer four- to twelve-night itineraries cruising the Lower and Upper Ganges. The colonial-style boats offer a luxurious base from which to experience the region, its extraordinary culture and once-forgotten past.

BEAUTIFUL BURMA BY RIVER Enjoy a voyage of discovery on the mysterious rivers of Myanmar aboard Sanctuary’s luxurious ship. Explore temples, pagodas, palaces and monasteries along the serene Irrawaddy River with a choice of cruises from Mandalay and Bagan to Bhamo and Yangon. A journey along its great tributary, the Chindwin, will take you to places visitors rarely see, from the jungles of the north to forgotten villages and towns along the Indian border.

With no increase in rates over the past two years, these cruises offer exceptional value for money. Speak to one of the Steppes Travel team and start your Burmese cruising experience.


TANZANIA

ADVENTURE’S AFOOT AN INTERVIEW WITH JACKIE DEVEREUX

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AFRICA

In October 2019, Jackie Devereux, Steppes Travel Africa expert, set off to explore northern Tanzania. But rather than sticking to the well-trodden 'Northern Circuit' that many safaris focus on, she headed off-piste, leaving the vehicle behind and – as a consequence – the crowds. She trekked through montane forest in Arusha National Park, crossed a canopy walkway in Lake Manyara National Park, spent a full day hiking along the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, camped in the grass plains of the Serengeti and walked through a wilderness area inaccessible to vehicles. Here, we catch up with her to talk about the experience.

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AFRICA

How was this trip different to your previous safaris in Tanzania? It was far more adventurous and outdoorsy. Instead of being stuck in a vehicle for hours, I was out there in the wilderness walking. On foot, you become part of the bush. It’s a more sensory experience. You can feel and touch everything you encounter. On my last safari, I saw so much wildlife, but this time I felt that I really saw the wilderness. There were times when I was walking that I felt I could have gone for miles without seeing another person. And somewhere like the Serengeti has remarkable resident game, so you don’t have to go around chasing the migration with all the other tourists to see animals; I still had fantastic sightings.

How did this change of pace affect your experience? I felt energised. Having grown up in Zimbabwe, I sensed a connection to my ancestors – I grew up hearing stories of my grandfather walking 30 kilometres through the bush to see his uncle. So, for me, I was at home exploring on foot.

There was also a sense of a deeper respect for the wildlife than when in a vehicle. We walked in single file, only spoke in whispers and kept our senses alert. When we saw animals, we stopped and respected their space, observing from a distance. Waiting, breath held, we followed the guide’s instructions, as he considered the wind direction to prevent our scent reaching the animals.

Why is exploring on foot so special? It is the smells that really bring it to life. On foot, you can use all your senses. But on a game drive, you only get to use your sight. And, on this trip, I benefited from being able to explore where vehicles couldn’t. We headed into unspoilt wilderness areas in the Serengeti that were closed to 4x4s, walking over vast plains and between rolling hills. In fact, just 30% of the Serengeti is accessible to vehicles. I was lucky enough to explore a fraction of the remaining 70%,


heading out into a wilderness area dedicated to conserving the park’s dwindling population of rhinos.

Exploring on foot, it seems like you experienced a lot. What did you learn on this trip? Walking on foot, you feel incredibly exposed. Even though you don’t get as close to the animals, there is a sense of fear because you don’t have the protection of the vehicle. But I learnt that, as long as you respect their space, you’re okay. And, of course, never run! The open landscape of northern Tanzania also helps you to feel more aware of the wildlife. On the first day, I felt nervous. But by the second day, I no longer felt like an intruder in this environment – I felt like I belonged. It’s amazing how quickly you learn to adapt.

I’ve done walking safaris in Botswana and Zambia – both renowned as walking destinations – but I found the Serengeti blew them away. The openness of the landscape means it is just made for walking.

Which area surprised you the most and dispelled any preconceptions? Definitely Arusha National Park. It’s located close to Kilimanjaro Airport and I had always thought it wouldn’t be worth visiting. However, I discovered a beautiful park that is filled with lush forest, crashing waterfalls and shimmering lakes. It can also only be explored on foot, by canoe or by mountain bike.

Did you feel you missed out not having a vehicle? Access to each area was by vehicle, which was enough for me. I was lucky enough to see plenty of wildlife, including big cats, on my drives into the wilderness areas. However, I admit that if it’s your first safari that may not be enough. But if you’re a seasoned safarigoer, you will discover a completely fresh perspective. I also felt far less tired after ten days of walking than a ten-day driving trip. Being in the fresh air every day was revitalising. The walks were a reasonable length, but the terrain was never challenging.

Did you still see plenty of wildlife? Although I went offseason, I saw plenty of wildlife. Encountering elephants, buffalos, wildebeest, zebras and giraffes on foot was a real privilege. But it was far more of a wilderness than wildlife experience. It was not all about the big animals; it was also about the variety of landscapes and environments

What was your favourite experience? Why? The Serengeti was the highlight for me. Being in an open space, with clear blue skies, expansive plains and beautiful rock kopjes was absolutely magical. The kopjes were beautiful places to just sit and watch the ecosystem move around me. This was a real safari.

Tanzania ten-day holiday from £6,045pp

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WRITTEN BY RICHARD MCCOLL

COLOMBIA

MAGICAL

REALISM

There is, as difficult as it may be to believe, a town somewhere on the Caribbean coast of Colombia where a family have taken to stringing their beloved grandfather up a tree.

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The whole image of the grandfather being trussed to his favourite rocking chair and hoisted into the boughs of a Ceiba – to protect him from the rising waters of the Magdalena River – smacks deliciously of tales that are Macondiano in style. Almost as if the story was pulled from the opuses of Colombian Nobel Prizewinning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was partly due to this, my quest for Garciamarquian myth and legend as a freelance journalist on assignment, and a desire to sink my teeth into the meatier project and new challenge of setting up a guesthouse, that led me to purchase a dilapidated colonial house in the UNESCO World Heritage backwater town of Mompos. That was back then – now, 11 years later, my wife and I have restored three colonial houses. What can I say about Mompos? It is hard to pin down – but the town is evocative of a time past and more authentic Colombia. Here, donkeys graze unbothered in city squares, moto-taxi (carmotorcycle hybrid creations) drivers tout for business and juice vendors bustle on street corners. I was not involved in the negotiations for my property La Casa Amarilla in Mompos – that was left to the kind efforts of Senora Esther, my Colombian mother in law and a Momposina by birth. Had I shown my face, the price would have doubled. As it was, Senora Esther encountered a great number of hindering elements, that, of course, explain the relative cheapness of the property. Late one weekday evening – stuck at my desk in the damp and drizzle of Bogota – I received a phone call from Senora Esther to say that she had finally secured all of the necessary signatures from the inheritors of old Leonor Flores, who had died leaving the house to her kin. I imagined that Senora Esther would have had to deal with four, or at best five, of Leonor’s offspring. How wrong I was – there were 34 of them, and most of whom lived in other towns and cities. Known well to Colombians but visited by precious few due to its location, Mompos is home to austere Semana Santa celebrations, a Masonic past and is the heartland for many

“...as if the story was pulled from the opuses of Colombian Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. ”

of the tales and campaigns that led to the liberation of northern South America from the Spanish. Simon Bolivar, a revered freedom fighter, once publicly declared: “If to Caracas I owe my life, to Mompos I owe my glory.” Getting here can be challenging, yet things are changing since the government has declared it a priority to connect Mompos with the outer world with paved roads, bridges and, hopefully, a plane service to Cartagena. For Bolivar, ironically, his journey here would have also been somewhat more straightforward. The Magdalena River was his watery highway running all the way from Cartagena, the first Spanish city on the South American main, to Honda – a town but a few hours from Bogota. Gushing, unstoppable and intrinsically linked to the creation of this country, the Magdalena River, Colombia’s most famous river, essentially divides the country in half and makes for a varied itinerary along a course cut through its Andean spine. Richard McColl is a freelance writer, academic and political analyst. His weekly podcast, Colombia Calling, was awarded “Best English Language Podcast 2019” at the Latin Podcast Awards.

Colombia 12-day holiday from £4,495pp

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O U R 2 0 2 0 E X P E R T-L E D

GROUP TOURS CALENDAR Over the years, we've learnt that quality always trumps quantity. Take a look below to find a selection of our finest expert-led group tours – head to our website or request a free brochure to see the complete range.

JANUARY Gabon - Wildlife and Culture of Africa’s Eden Accompanied by Guillermo Casasnovas Departing on 11th January 2020

FEBRUARY Antarctica - Ross Sea with The Friends of The Scott Polar Research Institute Accompanied by Julian and Evelyn Dowdeswell Departing on 16th February 2020

Uzbekistan - Carpet Ride to Khiva Accompanied by Chris Aslan Alexander Departing on 25th April 2020

MAY Albania - Origins of Illyria Accompanied by Carolyn Perry Departing on 15th May 2020

JUNE

Japan - Winter Wildlife Photography

Kyrgyzstan & China - Journey Along the Silk Road

Russia - Jewels of St Petersburg

Indonesia - Orangutan Conservation

MARCH

Kenya - Masai Mara Safari

Accompanied by Sue Flood Departing on 24th February 2020 Accompanied by Katya Galitzine Departing on 26th February 2020

Eritrea - Inside Africa’s Forgotten Kingdom Accompanied by a local expert Departing on 4th March 2020

Accompanied by Diana Driscoll Departing on 2nd June 2020

Accompanied by Ashley Leiman Departing 7th June 2020 Accompanied by Brian Jackman Departing 15th June 2020

Mongolia - The Western Altai

APRIL

Accompanied by Jonathan Stacey Departing 22nd June 2020

Galapagos Islands - Wildlife Cruise

Angola - Desert Tribes and Hidden Landscapes

Accompanied by Jonathan Green Departing on 12th April 2020

Accompanied by Joan Riera Departing on 22nd June 2020

Turkey - Ancient Civilisations of Eastern Turkey Accompanied by Ian Colvin Departing on 27th June 2020

JULY Galapagos Islands - Photography Cruise Accompanied by Sue Flood Departing 5th July 2020

China & Tibet - Tibetan Festivals & Litang Horse Fair Accompanied by Gina Corrigan Departing on 23rd July 2020


AUGUST Central Asia - Five Stans

Accompanied by Mehreen Chida-Razvi Departing 26th August 2020

Brazil - Jaguar and Maned Wolf Conservation Safari Accompanied by a local expert Departing 13th August 2020

India - Tribes and Wildlife of Gujarat

Turkey - Ancient Civilisations of Eastern Turkey Accompanied by Ian Colvin Departing on 24th August 2020

Madagascar - Endemic Wildlife and Limestone Landscape with New Scientist Accompanied by Charles Randrianantenaina Departing 1st September 2020

Greece - Exploring Ancient Epirus Accompanied by Carolyn Perry Departing 3rd September 2020

Uzbekistan - Carpet Ride to Khiva Accompanied by Chris Aslan Alexander Departing on 5th September 2020

Canada - Grizzly Bear Wildlife Photography Accompanied by Sue Flood Departing 15th September 2020

Romania - Beyond the Carpathian Mountains Accompanied by a local expert Departing 19th September 2020

Malaysia - Borneo Wildlife Photography in the Danum Valley Accompanied by George Chan Departing 29th September 2020

OCTOBER Japan - Nature, Science and Culture with New Scientist

USA - Hawaii Cruise

Accompanied by Richard Dawkins Departing 22nd October 2020

Accompanied by Amelia Dalton Departing 1st November 2020

India - Tribes of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh

SEPTEMBER

Accompanied by Rowan Hooper Departing 18th October 2020

NOVEMBER

Accompanied by Joe Parkes Departing 16th November 2020

Australia - Tasmanian Wildlife Photography

Accompanied by Sue Flood Departing 17th November 2020

Uganda - Wildlife Photography Accompanied by Harry Skeggs Departing 30th November 2020

DECEMBER Cameroon - Nguon Festival and Baka Communities Accompanied by Joan Riera Departing 2nd December 2020

Togo & Benin - Voodoo Traditions and West African Culture Accompanied by a local expert Departing 4th December 2020

GET YOUR FREE COPY OF OUR EXPERT-LED GROUP TOURS BROCHURE Get in touch with the team at groups@steppestravel.com or 03300 372 813 and we'll send one to you free of charge.

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OUR RECOMMENDED

TRAVEL READS BY JUSTIN WATERIDGE

Books and travel share many similarities. They let us step out of our comfort zone for a space of time, often do not go on long enough and leave us wanting more, and offer something different to each person. While my team has been busy exploring the world to find you, our clients, brand new destinations and experiences which few travel operators even know exist, they have also been thumbing the pages of some truly magnificent reads. Here you will find their picks from over the last few months.

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OUR RECOMMENDED TRAVEL READS

THE ARCHITECTURE OF ISLAMIC DYNASTIES: A PERSONAL JOURNEY AUSAF ABBAS A personal photobook from one of our clients that looks at the Islamic dynasties from Syria to Israel, from Iran to Uzbekistan. A journey that looks at the different ways that Islam has been practised over the centuries and how it has embraced uncertainty, knowledge and change.

LANDS OF LOST BORDERS: A JOURNEY ON THE SILK ROAD KATE HARRIS An enthralling travelogue of a journey along the Silk Road by bicycle, Lands of Lost Borders explores the importance of breaking boundaries, whether physical borders or the ones that we place upon ourselves. There are some real nuggets - as the author celebrates our connection to the natural world and to each other, and how the latter transcends any barriers that divide us.

ROUGH MAGIC LARA PRIOR-PALMER A memoir of beating the odds in a race of perseverance. Rough Magic is a journal of an author driven by her own restlessness, stubbornness and a desire to seek the great unknown.

WILDING ISABELLA TREE Personal and inspirational, Wilding is an astonishing account of rewilding in West Sussex. More particularly, the beauty and strength of nature, when it is given freedom.

THE SALT PATH RAYNOR WINN An inspirational memoir that is a life-affirming story of coming to terms with grief and the healing power of the natural world. Ultimately, it is a portrayal of home, and how it can be lost, rebuilt, and rediscovered in the most unexpected ways.

DON’T FORGET...

Browse our online bookshop to choose a complimentary book for your next holiday with us.


CLIENT TESTIMONIALS. Every year, we send intrepid travellers off around the world on madeto-measure holidays. Part of the satisfaction of what we do is hearing back from them about their experiences and adventures. Here’s to making many more memories together in the years to come.

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Our Client Feedback

It is always a pleasure to 'plan' adventures with Steppes and to travel in the knowledge that everything has been carefully thought through in advance by experts who know exactly what they are talking about and go out of their way to tailor-make each trip. Having all the 'bits in-between' planned for in advance with Katie means that we can travel worryfree, which adds to the overall pleasure of the trip.

Sally Peedom, Ecuador & Galapagos Islands

“ “

Excellent in all respects. What really separated Steppes and Tom from the rest of the pack was the willingness to work so patiently and with such an open mind with my rather specific desires. Literally every other company I tried to engage with would deny certain activities were possible (when I had already found other companies that would do them) or simply claim that the things I wanted weren't things they ‘did’.

Thank you so much, John, for arranging another wonderful holiday for us. This was our fifth Steppes Travel holiday (Belize, Costa Rica, Arctic, Iceland, and now the Caribbean) and, although it sounds a little bit cheesy, they really have enriched our lives.

Louise Holland, Italy

After searching on the internet for holiday ideas, the travel itineraries on the Steppes website were unique, exciting and caught my eye. James Armitage was incredibly helpful, honest and knew our destination so well that I booked within a few days. So user friendly that they are now our go-to agent for South America.

Judith Casey, Grenada, Saint Lucia

Kari Cordis, Egypt

SHARE YOUR STEPPES TRAVEL STORIES We’d love to hear how your holiday with us went at feedback@steppestravel.com.

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DISCOVER EXTRAORDINARY UK: 01285 601070 USA: 844 675 1044 inspireme@steppestravel.com www.steppestravel.com

Profile for Steppes Travel

Steppes Traveller Magazine - Edition 1 | 2020  

Be inspired by our travel features, where's hot for 2020 and our recommended travel reads, written by our own experts.

Steppes Traveller Magazine - Edition 1 | 2020  

Be inspired by our travel features, where's hot for 2020 and our recommended travel reads, written by our own experts.