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STEPPES TRAVELLER | AUTUMN 2017 | UK

AUTUMN 2017

Traveller MADAGASCAR BETWEEN TWO WORLDS

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gateway to Oman’s cultural treasures, Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara is the first luxury private pool villa resort of its kind in Salalah. Intricate Eastern design and artistic details complement the unparalleled luxury and comfort. Between a beach and freshwater lagoon, towering palms frame elegant walkways, tropical gardens and water features.

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et time stretch as you relax at the infinity pool or soak up the sea view from the private shore. Why not try a pampering spa treatment or play tennis? Children’s clubs mean that all the family can enjoy their holiday here.

COSTA RICA BIRD ON A WIRE

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xplore a UNESCO World Site of citadel, grand mosque ruins, and arouse your senses in the Museum of Frankincense. Unforgettable journeys begin here.

EXCLUSIVE OFFER: SAVE UP TO £1,000 STAYING FOR 3 NIGHTS*

EAT, PRAY & LOVE INDIA

*Based on two sharing a Royal Beach Villa. Other category rooms such as Garden View Pool Villa have 25% discount applied to the tariff. Book by 30th September 2017. Travel valid from 15th September - 26th December 2017 and 5th January

For more details and to discuss your next holiday to Oman contact Email: anantara@steppestravel.com Tel:01285 601 070 PLEASE QUOTE ANAN17 WHEN BOOKING

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM

- 31st October 2018. Subject to availability at time of booking and terms and conditions.


OUR FRAGILE WORLD & CONTENTS

EXPERT LED CULTURAL GROUP TOURS

Contents

Our Fragile World For myself and the team at Steppes, one of the joys of travel is understanding, appreciating and embracing the variety of our world. Travel breaks down barriers, it gives us invaluable experience, it changes our perspective. However, it is ultimately about people; about getting to know them better – whether your travelling partner or the people in whose country you are travelling. In my travels, I have been lucky to meet some extraordinary people, charismatic guides, generous hosts and captivating storytellers. A number of these inspirational people will be speaking at our Beyond Festival 2017. I do hope you will be able to join us at the Royal Geographical Society. They do make a difference. And you can too. Justin Wateridge Managing Director

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NB: Image above. 276 pieces of marine plastic debris recovered from the stomach of an Albatross chick.© Mandy Barker.

BEYOND FESTIVAL 30 SEPT – 1 OCT 2017 This year’s festival will be even bigger with a fantastic array of intrepid explorers, conservationists and inspiring speakers. Read more about our pledge against plastic pollution overleaf and see our speakers on pages 8 - 9. STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/BEYOND for further information & tickets.

42 - 44 - 48 - 50 - 52 -

SENDING OUT AN S.O.S GO NOW HOT PROPERTY BEYOND FESTIVAL 2017 COSTA RICA - BIRD ON A WIRE SAUDI ARABIA - BEYOND THE VEIL PRIVATE CHARTERS

4 PERU: TEXTILES OF THE SACRED VALLEY Visiting Machu Picchu, Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Lake Titicaca, allow for a deep immersion in the traditions, folklore and way of life of the Andean communities. Accompanied by John Alfredo Davis Benavides 19 - 28 October 2018 From £4,750 pp*

EAT, PRAY & LOVE INDIA MADAGASCAR BETWEEN TWO WORLDS ARCTIC - HERE BE BEARS STEVE BACKSHALL Q & A BAJA WHALE WATCHING 50 SHADES OF GREY BOTSWANA - TIME TRAVEL INDONESIA -

5 SPAIN: ISLAMIC GEOMETRIC ART IN ANDALUCIA Under the expert tutelage of Eric Broug, explore Seville, Cordoba and Granada. Three southern Spanish cities showcasing this wonderful and intricate art form. Accompanied by Eric Broug 13 - 20 May 2018 From £3,995 pp*

DRAGONS, DAMSELS & DEVILS ARGENTINA NATURE’S SUPERSTRUCTURES SCOTLAND - AT ONE WITH NATURE SOUTH AFRICA - DIGGING DEEPER INTO THE WILD - WILDLIFE TOURS EXPERT-LED CULTURAL TOURS OMAN - AL BALEED RESORT SALALAH

6 CHINA: QINGHAI FESTIVALS & TEXTILES An opportunity to get under the skin of Tibetan culture, visiting an area in northwest China on the Tibetan plateau, accompanied by textiles and embroidery expert Gina Corrigan. Accompanied by Gina Corrigan 17 July - 2 August 2018 From £3,495 pp*

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02 | STEPPES TRAVELLER Autumn 2017 // 01285 601 070

Cover image: Taken by Chris Johnston in Ranomafana, Madagascar. Editor & Designer: Rosalind Hadley rosalind@steppestravel.com

*excluding flights, flights available on request at additional cost.

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM // Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 51


The biggest threat in our oceans is not animal or mineral but the vast amount of plastic which enters our seas and chokes our marine wildlife. As a tour operator we have a responsibility to ensure that future generations have the same privilege of experiencing the natural world. Therefore, Steppes Travel are launching a worldwide campaign #REFUSETOUSE at our Steppes Beyond Festival 2017. Our aim is to have a positive impact on the world by reduction of single use plastic, using alternatives to plastic and recycling.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

AS A SCHOOL:

SUPPORT THE CAMPAIGN:

AS AN INDIVIDUAL:

- Ensure plastic recycling is implemented and part of your child’s curriculum.

Join us at the Steppes Beyond Festival for a host of actitivies in support of this campaign. These include recycled plastic artwork, ‘fight against plastic’ photo exhibition, partnerships with conservation and environmental charities and our headline speakers demonstrating their own determination to save the planet.

- Use reusable, refillable water bottles. - Take the Better Bag Challenge. Stop using disposable plastic bags. - Sign a petition to bring back plastic deposit return schemes (recently supported by Coca-Cola). - Spread the word. Share with friends and family how you are committing to use less plastic and why.

In October we launch our first Plastic Free Month in our office, which will continue until our office is plastic free

- Pledge to go plastic free, eliminate single use plastic bottles and plastic straws. - Host a screening of the film A Plastic Ocean. AS AN ORGANISATION: - Ensure plastic recycling is implemented. - Pledge to go plastic free, eliminate single use plastic bottles and plastic straws.

Any profit from Beyond Festival proceeds will be donated to our #REFUSETOUSE charity partners.

- Host a screening of the film A Plastic Ocean.

THE FACTS - PLASTIC POLLUTION MORE THAN 8 MILLION OCEANS EVERY YEAR

TONNES OF PLASTIC ARE DUMPED IN OUR

PREDICTIONS ARE THAT IF NOTHING CHANGES BY 2025 THERE WILL BE

1 TONNE OF PLASTIC FOR EVERY 3 TONNES OF FISH IN THE OCEAN WE ARE PRODUCING NEARLY 300 MILLION EVERY YEAR, HALF OF WHICH IS FOR SINGLE USE

#REFUSE TO USE #BEYOND #MAKING A DIFFERENCE

SENDING OUT AN S.O.S

TONNES OF PLASTIC

ANNUALLY APPROXIMATELY 500

BILLION PLASTIC BAGS ARE USED WORLDWIDE. MORE THAN ONE MILLION BAGS ARE USED EVERY MINUTE

OVER THE LAST 10 YEARS WE HAVE PRODUCED MORE PLASTIC THAN DURING THE WHOLE OF THE LAST CENTURY

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 03


GO NOW

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Go Now

ZAMBIA: UNTAMED

Carpeted by a diverse range of habitats, Zambia still has the feel of being untamed and, if not unexplored, at least is underexplored. Why now: New properties are popping up in Liuwa Plains and Bangweulu Wetlands, as well as increasing options in Kafue. 12 days combining Kafue, Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa from £6,295 pp including flights. ncluding flights.

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INDONESIA: TEMPLES & TERRACES

The perfect family escape. Indonesia makes a diverse and exciting destination for all ages. See orangutans in the jungles of Borneo, meet the artisans of laid-back Ubud, or sail around the numerous islands. Why now: We predict this will be the destination for 2018. Go now before the secret is out. 10 days from £2,975 pp including flights.

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COSTA RICA: BOOK EARLY

Direct flights make Costa Rica increasingly popular. Our top tip is to book now for travel in the spring and beyond. A shorter season means that the best places to stay get snapped up. Why now: Book now to secure your place at our recommended lodges. 13 days from £3,695 pp including flights.

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GEORGIA & ARMENIA: TRANS-CAUCASIAN TRAIL

Take the Trans-Caucasian Trail that traverses both Georgia and Armenia. Why now: It opens up lesser visited areas with a rich cultural heritage that is diverse yet distinct. 10 days from £2,395 pp with four days trekking the Trans-Caucasian Trail including flights.

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GO NOW

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ROMANIA: CARPATHIANS Hilltop castles, baroque palaces and isolated villages where traditional folklores and customs are maintained, plus protected wilderness providing sanctuary to deer, elk, wolf and bear. Why now: Stay at HRH Prince Charles’ restored historic property in the Zalan Valley. 10 days from £3,785 pp including private guide, activities and flights.

6 JAPAN:

BOOK AHEAD Book early for the cherry blossoms or when striking Autumnal colours carpet the country. Why now: Go now as we expect big changes with the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the summer Olympics in 2020. 6 days from £2,620 pp including flights and guiding.

7 REPUBLIC

OF CONGO: ODZALA NATIONAL PARK Home to western lowland gorillas and forest elephants. Why now: New charter flights make the park more accessible than ever before. 11 days from £6,895 pp including flights.

8 NICARAGUA

Home to colonial cities, Amazon rainforest and over 400 volcanic islands with crystalclear Caribbean seas and perfect surfing in the Pacific. Why now: Be one of the first to explore this corner of the world. 15 days from £2,895 pp including flights.

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 05


HOT PROPERTY

Hot Property ANANTARA AL JABAL AL AKHDAR: OMAN Sitting on the Saiq Plateau at 2,000m above sea level, the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort is elevated in both location and luxury. Sumptuous villas, a pampering spa and mountain walks on your doorstep, a welcome addition to any Oman journey. Why: The mesmerising view and wow factor. Special Offer: Save £600* 5 days from £1,950 pp including flights. *Book before 31 October.

GRIZZLY BAY GLAMPING LODGE: CANADA The first floating lodge in the heart of grizzly country surrounded by mountains and glaciers where bears and birds roam. Why: Located on the deepest fjord-lake in the world with only canvas walls between you, and the wildlife and night skies. Grizzly Bay Glamping Lodge offers a unique connection with nature. Special Offer: Save £1,000* 5 days from £2,395 pp* as part of a holiday to Canada including flights.

THE SILO: SOUTH AFRICA Artfully created, this new hotel is housed within a former grain silo that lies at the heart of Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. Beneath - and with private access from the hotel - is Southern Africa’s newest modern art museum, the Zeit Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. Why: Beautifully designed rooms with innovative floor-to-ceiling windows giving panoramic views of Cape Town. 7 days from £3,495 pp including flights.

CALALA ISLAND: NICARAGUA A private island retreat off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua that accommodates a maximim of 10, this is a slice of paradise for a lucky few. Why: Small, intimate and little-known. 3 night stay as part of a longer holiday from £1,625 pp excluding international flights.

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HOT PROPERTY JOHN’S CAMP, MANA POOLS: ZIMBABWE

Escape the fuss of fancier lodges and focus on the wildlife. Looking out over the meandering Zambezi, it is surrounded by floodplains that are alive with game. Why: The perfect place to get close to wildlife on foot, named after renowned walking guide John Stevens and run by his daughter, Sarah. 11 days in Zimbabwe and Zambia from £5,195 pp including flights.

SIX SENSES: BHUTAN Five new individual lodges in Thimphu, Punakha, Gangtey, Bumthang and Paro enable exploration in style. Why: Long awaited, the Six Senses Bhutan will be the finest remote lodges in Asia. Be one of the first to stay here and contact us for the introductory opening offer.

ALLADALE WILDLIFE RESERVE: SCOTLAND Situated on 23,000 sq acres of wild, highland terrain, four lodges on the reserve offer the perfect base for lovers of unspoilt wilderness. Take guided walks or 4x4 safaris and travel further afield for golden beaches, whisky distilleries or golf. Why: The homely feel and the service is warm and devoid of pretension. 3 days photographic tour led by Max Milligan from £995 pp excluding flights.

MANATEE AMAZON EXPLORER: ECUADOR

SHINTA MANI WILD: CAMBODIA

New for 2018 - Board the Manatee Amazon Explorer. See the wildlife and local communities of Yasuni National Park. Swim and kayak with the pink river dolphin in the Napo River.

Set amidst the wildlife corridor of the Cardamom mountains bordering three national parks. Flora and Fauna International have been involved in the setup of these luxury jungle tents.

Why: Floor to ceiling windows with private balconies to watch the world float by.

Why: A brand new concept for Cambodia making fantastic wilderness areas accessible.

Special Offer: Save £1,300* *Based on twin share, book and travel in 2017. 10 days with 7 nights full board cabin from £3,295 pp including flights.

5 nights as part of a longer holiday to Cambodia from £4,115 pp including flights. STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 07


BEYOND FESTIVAL 2017

STEPPES TRAVEL 2017

Beyond Festival F

ollowing the huge success of our ‘Beyond’ travel festival last year, I am delighted to say Steppes Travel will be hosting a similarly inspiring festival at the Royal Geographical Society at the end of September. Featuring some of the most intrepid, adventurous and inspiring personalities of our time in an enlightening programme of events, our aim is to (further) enthuse you about the diversity of our wonderful planet. Not only will you have the chance

to listen to and meet the speakers but also to engage in discussion with conservationists, meet and learn about conservation agencies and charities. There will also be exciting projects such as Internet for Elephants, games that make conservation fun for all. The festival is very much open to and aimed at all ages – my children will be there – so please do come along, bring a friend(s) and enjoy a great weekend.

SAVE THE DATE 30th Sept 1st Oct 2017

Justin Wateridge Managing Director

Rob Caskie Being a tiny part of your inaugural event was a special privilege. Ran’s talk was brilliant, and justifiably so.

Monty Halls Well, it was my great pleasure! A terrific event, which I’m absolutely sure will go from strength to strength. This will become THE adventure event in years to come.

Hanli Prinsloo I just love you guys, you really have done well in collecting a quality group of people. Thank you for your ongoing support of I AM WATER and your trust in us.

Benedict Allen I really enjoyed my time – there was a great buzz around the RGS. Hope to see you – or your wonderful tribe in Cirencester – before too long.

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BEYOND FESTIVAL 2017

HEADLINE SPEAKERS 2017

Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Chris Packham

Dr Sylvia Earle

Steve Backshall

‘THE WORLD’S GREATEST LIVING EXPLORER’

TV PRESENTER & CONSERVATIONIST

OCEANOGRAPHER, EXPLORER & AUTHOR

TV PRESENTER & CONSERVATIONIST

Doug Allan WILDLIFE CAMERAMAN

Saba Douglas-Hamiltion FILMMAKER, TV PRESENTER & CONSERVATIONIST

Frank Gardner OBE

Simon Reeve

JOURNALIST & BBC CORRESPONDENT

TV PRESENTER & AUTHOR

Benedict Allen

Sean Conway

Mark Hiley

Hanli Prinsloo

EXPLORER, WRITER & FILMMAKER

EXPLORER & ENDURANCE ATHLETE

FILM PRODUCER & FOUNDER OF NATIONAL PARK RESCUE

FREEDIVER & OCEAN CONSERVATIONIST

Beyond S T E P P E S T R AV E L F E S T I VA L

Natalie Fee

Sarah Outen

FOUNDER OF CITY TO SEA

AUTHOR & ADVENTURER

Robin Hanbury-Tenison WORLD RENOWNED EXPLORER

Mark Brownlow

Edurne Pasaban

Rebecca Lowe

WILDLIFE FILM & SERIES PRODUCER BLUE PLANET 2

FIRST WOMAN TO SUMMIT ALL 14 X 8,000 PEAKS

JOURNALIST & SOLO CYCLIST FROM LONDON TO IRAN

Dr Jenny Balfour-Paul

George Bullard

Jo Ruxton

Rob Caskie

Dr Amy Dickman

Crista Cullen

EXPLORER & ENDURANCE ATHLETE

FILM PRODUCER & FOUNDER OF PLASTIC OCEAN

MASTER STORYTELLER

WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST & CONSERVATIONIST

OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALLIST & CONSERVATIONIST

WRITER, ARTIST & LECTURER

BOOK TICKETS ONLINE NOW / STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/BEYOND Proceeds donated to #REFUSETOUSE charity partners. STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 09


COSTA RICA BIRD ON A WIRE

The epitome of luxury travel, a private jet journey, allows you to discover iconic sights and remote destinations on a single journey. Choose from a curated portfolio of itineraries that link unique cultures, arts and natural wonders.

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n the lower forest-clad slopes of Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica, my nerves and my carabina-draped harness are jangling. I step into the ‘departure lounge’, a steel platform hovering in the trees 200 metres above the rainforest floor. SNAP! I’m now attached to a wire that slants down into a sea of green. “Pura Vida,” screams the cabin crew as he encourages me into the void. Pura vida means pure life and is a phrase oft heard in Costa Rica. I’m here to check out the great range of thrilling outdoor activities and experiences for which the country has developed a reputation.

Costa Rica is renowned for its epic volcanic scenery and incredibly rich and varied flora and fauna. My previous visits have been happily spent gently ambling through pristine tropical rainforest and cloud forest in search of wildlife. Lush green vegetation, birds of all sizes and colours, fabulous butterflies, active volcanoes and exciting wildlife. National parks cover around a quarter of Costa Rica and both the government and the people take their responsibility of protecting the environment very seriously. The wild life I’m discovering on this trip is of a very different nature and Costa Rica is extremely

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creative at coming up with new and thrilling ways of accessing and exploring its wilderness. Within 24 hours of stepping off the new direct British Airways flight into San Jose, I’m in a raft, floating down the Pacuare River along a very well-behaved stretch of water that has just a few slightly bumpy sections. We drift through the most astonishingly beautiful river-cut valley, past galleries of intensely green tropical forest, filled with insanely colourful birds and squealing cicadas. The lodge clings to a bend in the river that is embraced by forest and welcomes us with terrific food and beautiful cabins that are lit

at night by candles and oil lamps. This is soft-adventure bliss. Things change. The following morning, we are trussed up in our harnesses and hike up a steep valley to platform 1 to embark on a series of zip-lines that zigzag their way back down to the lodge. The unique thing here is that you are zipping just metres away from trees and the forest canopy, keeping your eyes open for sloths, toucans and howler monkeys. The lines are short but thrilling and views from the platforms across the valley suck the breath out of you. By the last platform I’m converted to zipping as my preferred mode


COSTA RICA BIRD ON A WIRE

Costa Rica Bird on a Wire BY JOHN FAITHFULL

of transport. Prosecco and canapés on the last platform seal this view and make the final 30 metre rappel down from the tree eminently manageable. The next day, I discover that the ‘float’ into the lodge in no way resembles the white water that waits for us downstream and this was where our thorough rafting instruction is really tested over three hours (punctuated by a riverside picnic lunch) as we negotiate a series of grade three and four rapids.

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COSTA RICA BIRD ON A WIRE

The Pacuare River tosses and drenches us as we are sluiced through a procession of stunning gorges. Along a less ‘extreme’ section, I’m allowed to helm the raft for a while until my rafting companions scream at me to let our guide reclaim control (further encouraged by the sighting of an extremely venomous fer de lance snake swimming next to the raft). I still assert that I was deliberately trying to reverse through the rapids but our very experienced guide was less certain. He resumes control, commands the raft and in so doing tames the water and appeases my fellow passengers. White water rafting is addictive and towards the more sedate end of our journey, we are all straining to hear the next ‘rumble’ that announces our approach to a new set of rapids.

Zip-lining and rafting are two of the most iconic experiences on offer but there are a wide range of thrilling activities that will keep the adrenaline flowing and take you into Costa Rica’s pristine interior. Over the next week, I take aerial trams up volcanoes, hike to waterfalls, swim under waterfalls, take night hikes, stroll along forest canopy walkways, kayak through coastal mangrove forests, ride horses, mountain bike, do canyoning and river tubing (white water rafting but replace the raft with an over-inflated inner-tube that you sit in). I finish up at the fabulous Rio Perdido hotel in the north of Costa Rica. This is a wonderfully remote lodge that specialises in outdoor activities but also offers a series of natural hot springs that feed into thermal pools along a river that cuts through

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a magical forested gorge. You don’t have to sacrifice comfort to visit some of the more remote wilderness areas of Costa Rica and the thermal pools at Rio Perdido are a great spot to sooth the muscles after a day of action and reflect on the trip. All of the activities I experienced were remarkably well arranged and very safe. Costa Rica is a great destination for adventure addicts and active families. Nothing compares to the wildlife and outstanding scenery witnessed. The baby black howler monkey that watched me from the gorge rim that morning while I was Tarzan-swinging across the river, the laughing falcon that was sat on a post while I was horse riding, the fer de lance snake that swam by our raft, the dolphins that accompanied my boat on Golfo Dulce, the sloth

seen along the mountain bike trail, the snakes, frogs, insects and night-time smells and noises on a nocturnal forest hike. And so back to Arenal – I’m nearing the end of a zip-line that’s almost a kilometre long, having reached speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. The huge bulk of Arenal volcano looms behind me, the forest stretches out below me and Lake Arenal is the backdrop to the rapidly approaching platform. I’ve just witnessed a toucan take a baby snake and as I glide towards the landing platform, I see a coati climbing a tree. “You made it” shouts the guide. “Pura vida” I whimper.


COSTA RICA BIRD ON A WIRE

COSTA RICA: ADVENTURE

15 days from £4,575 pp, including flights and all activities.

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 13


SAUDI ARABIA BEHIND THE VEIL

SAUDI ARABIA

Behind the Veil BY JUSTIN WATERIDGE

K

halid has just created a Twitter storm, was not something that I expected to hear in Saudi Arabia. But then again there was much that I did not expect, there were many images contrary to my expectations of Saudi Arabia.

Yet only a handful of tourists visit the country. Yes, millions visit Saudi every year either on the Haj or Umrah, minor pilgrimage, but non-religious tourists are scarce, indeed we did not see any other foreign tourists. What a rare pleasure and privilege.

Saudi Arabia is a complex country. Peter Harrigan, our tour expert, described it as being “like an iceberg”. Perhaps an odd analogy for a desert nation but one that is so apposite given that there is so much more to this country than meets the eye.

Undoubtedly there are constraints to travel in Saudi Arabia but they are not as restrictive as one would assume. Men simply have to cover their legs and arms and do not, as Khalid told us, have to wear the thoob (robe) and ghotrah (headdress) as a group of Japanese tourists insisted on doing. Women have to wear the abaya (black gown) all the time but do not have to cover their heads unless entering a mosque. For their Saudi counterparts, it is considerably more limiting in that they must wear the burqah throughout and on the whole men and women are separated.

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 mountain range that separates the Arabian heartland from the coast, I saw colour and art very much as part of the tradition. In Al Ula, I remember the lighthearted birdsong under the picturesque and refreshingly cool roof of palm fronds overhead and the ribald laughter of our driver. My overriding impression is one of hospitality and smiles.

But it has not always been like this. Khalid remembers his youth and there being no separation of male and female except at weddings. With the attack of the mosque in Mecca in 1979 began a religious clampdown that Ali in Abha refers to as the ‘Square Mile’ and saw the religious police

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in the ascendancy with a much stricter observance of traditional and social norms with, for example, the closure of cinemas and the banning of birthday celebrations. But times are changing and the influence of the religious police is waning. Khalid said that seeing a man and a woman eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant with us, a group of tourists, was a first for him. Society is transforming and two things have led to this change in attitude. Firstly, the rise of al Qaeda and secondly the rise of the cult of Daish. Both, especially the latter, are a wake-up call to Saudis who are now trying to show that they do not subscribe to this madness. Times are a changing. A major driver of Saudi’s international acclaim is the King Abdullah Scholarship programme with 145,000 young Saudis studying in more than 30 countries. Over a third of those enjoying scholarships abroad are women. More than half of Saudi graduates are female and the number of women actively participating in the Saudi workplace is rising fast. Social media is a huge force for change. To dispel another label, Saudi Arabia is not all desert, nor has it been. Rock art of hippos

suggests a much wetter climate which is known as Green Arabia and disappeared in a remarkable example of climate change. That is not all the rock art reveals. It is a library of Palaeolithic civilisation to the modern day as we discovered clambering over the rocks of Jubbah. Lady Anne Blunt, the granddaughter of Byron, described Jubbah as “one of the most curious places in the world, and to my mind one of the most beautiful.” This was in no small part due to the “simple designs” that she found carved or pecked into the rock. Simple they might be but they show so much from the domestication of camel to the use of dogs in hunting. If anything, Saudi Arabia should be known for Al Ula. You have no doubt heard of Monument Valley in the USA and Wadi Rum in Jordan, hopefully of Siwa oasis in Egypt and possibly Ennedi in Chad. I am not sure you will have heard of Al Ula but you need to take note of this name and travel to one of the most spectacular desert landscapes. As a topographical feature it stands tall, timeless, captivating and enthralling. The jewel in the Arabian – more precisely Nabataean – crown is Mada’in Saleh, which literally


SAUDI ARABIA BEHIND THE VEIL

means the ruins of (the prophet) Saleh. This prosaic description belies the beauty of the site. Mada’in Saleh holds 94 tombs with decorated facades, 35 plain funerary chambers and more than 1,000 non-monumental graves and other stone-lined tombs.

What is most remarkable is that in this crowded world, we had the site all to ourselves. As the sun slipped behind the Hajez mountains the clouds were tinged with pink and the sky a range of blue from the shyness of azure to the darkness of indigo. Silence reigned.

In the late afternoon sun, Mada’in Saleh glows from golden yellow to a dusky pink to a warm orange and in the final minutes of light to burnt straw. The edges of the tombs’ carefully proportioned cornices contrast with the rough, eroded surface of the sandstone from which it was hewn.

All of these remains and sites reveal that Saudi Arabia was not a closed peninsula: it was intricately connected to the rest of the ancient world. This remains the crucial point today. Saudi’s majority young generation are shaping its future and show that Saudi is vitally connected.

SAUDIA ARABIA: BEHIND THE VEIL

18 - 28 February & 2 - 12 November 2018 11 days from £5,795 pp excluding flights.

SAUDIA ARABIA & JORDAN: ANCIENT EMPIRES OF THE NABATEAN

14 - 23 November 2018 10 days from £4,795 pp excluding flights.

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 15


PRIVATE CHARTERS

Private Charters Our connections enable us to offer you exclusive charter tours to some of the world’s most exciting destinations. Join our impressive line-up of conservationists, filmmakers, writers, academics and explorers.

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ECUADOR: AMAZON CRUISE WITH BENEDICT ALLEN

10 August 2018 10 days from £4,850 pp*

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THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS WITH JONATHAN GREEN In partnership with New Scientist

Join naturalist guide and dive master Jonathan Green onboard the aptly named Natural Paradise. Jonathan has been guiding in this archipelago for over 25 years and will give an in-depth insight as you experience the unique endemic wildlife of these islands close-up. Including exclusive access at the Charles Darwin Research Centre.

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1 April & 8 April 2018 11 days from £5,775 pp* 16 | STEPPES TRAVELLER Autumn 2017 / 01285 601 070

THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS: PHOTOGRAPHY CRUISE WITH SUE FLOOD Wildlife photographer and filmmaker Sue Flood has an impressive list of credentials including, Associate Producer on the BBC series The Blue Planet and working on Planet Earth. She is the ideal person to explore the Galapagos with as she will not only help you with all aspects of your photography but is also fantastic company.

In partnership with Telegraph Tours Join explorer Benedict Allen on board The Anakonda, a luxury five-star ship, and travel deep into the Ecuadorian Amazon on an itinerary created exclusively for Steppes Travel. Sail along the Napo and Aguarico Rivers to meet three distinct indigenous communities – the Cofan, Siona and Kichwa and explore the wildlife rich sanctuaries of Cuyabeno and Yasuni.

20 May 2018 10 days from £6,195 pp*

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INDONESIA: WITH DOUG ALLAN Discover the islands of Raja Ampat and explore the region’s coral reefs, rich with marine life. Escorted throughout by BBC cameraman, Doug Allan. The first half of the trip is on board a privately chartered sailing boat. Visit Cenderawasih Bay and swim alongside whale sharks before moving to Misool Eco Resort, from where you will dive each day and learn more about Misool’s manta ray conservation project 14 November 2018 18 days from £8,995 pp*


PRIVATE CHARTERS

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INDIA: DECCAN ODYSSEY TRAIN CHARTER WITH MIHIR BOSE In the company of award-winning journalist and author Mihir Bose, journey on board the Deccan Odyssey to see the splendours of India’s rich history and culture. Visit the historic monuments of Bijapur, seek blessings at the holy shrines of Aihole and Pattadakal, marvel at the splendour of Hampi, discover Nizami Culture in Hyderabad and visit the UNESCO World Heritage site at Ajanta.

16 February 2018 11 days from £6,195 pp*

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IRAN: LUXURY TRAIN CHARTER WITH MICHAEL PORTILLO In partnership with Telegraph Tours

Join Michael Portillo for an exceptional journey on board the Golden Eagle train through one of the world’s most beguiling countries. Traverse desert landscapes and discover the rich culture and heritage including the ancient ruins of Persepolis and the world heritage site of Isfahan.

7 April 2018 15 days from £10,999 pp*

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BAJA PENINSULA: WHALE WATCHING VOYAGE WITH ART TAYLOR AND JO RUXTON In partnership with New Scientist

Board the expedition vessel Searcher for the best whalewatching trip in the world. Art Taylor has been navigating these waters for over thirty years and is hugely passionate and knowledgeable. Marine conservationist and producer of the documentary A Plastic Ocean, Jo Ruxton will be onboard to offer insight into how we can mitigate the damage to our oceans from plastic pollution.

22 January 2018 14 days from £4,895 pp*

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ARCTIC EXPEDITION CRUISE: WITH MONTY HALLS AND SUE FLOOD In partnership with Telegraph Tours

Marine biologist, explorer and presenter Monty Halls will accompany expeditions to discover the geological wonders and native species of this region. Wildlife opportunities abound with polar bears, beluga whales and the arctic fox and professional photographer Sue Flood will help you hone your photographic skills so you can capture those precious encounters as you sail through this astonishing environment. 7 July 2018 12 days from £6,450 pp*

BOOK NOW TO SECURE YOUR PLACE *excluding flights, flights available on request at additional cost.

CHARTER@STEPPESTRAVEL.COM

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 17


INDIA EAT,PRAY & LOVE

Eat, Pray & Love India BY ROSALIND HADLEY

I

t is impossible to understand the diversity, the culture, history, politics or indeed the people in a single visit. Consider it a lifetime goal. A world within a world with 28 states to explore, each one intrinsically woven with distinct character, colour, customs and language.

THE FOOTSTEPS OF LAKSHMI

W

e visit a local village and I am ushered in as if I am a long-lost relative. I sit on an immaculately swept earth floor made of cow dung and straw. It is elaborately decorated with white

symbols and hand drawn feet at the doorway. These I am told are Lakshmi’s footprints, part of Hindu tradition to welcome Lakshmi herself into your home and bring with her richness and abundance into your life. I am enthralled as I always am when travelling in India. I have seen these footprints many times before but never really understood their significance. We sit in the open courtyard, which is festooned with golden garlands of marigolds. Tiny sparrows flit down out of curiosity and anticipation. Today is Diwali – the festival of lights which signifies the victory of light over darkness. I am deep within Central India

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and a million miles from home but feel humbled by incredible generosity. We are given homecooked food, it just keeps coming: roti, the size of dinner plates, delicious dal and subzi dishes and the most amazing tangy pickles.

what it is for. ‘Puja’ (the act of worship) and ‘prasad’ (a food religious offering) he explains. It is tradition for the ladies to make these and offer sweets in them and flowers as part of the Diwali celebration and prayer.

A few of the younger girls sit giggling nervously and glance at me but then one of them bravely steps forward and hands me a bunch of broad leaves. She then proceeds to sit down next to me and patiently creases and folds the leaves carefully joining each fold with a thorn. In a matter of minutes she proudly presents a leaf bowl which is as practical as it is pretty. I ask Rajkumar

Later that evening as the sun is going down the festival really begins. The flames flicker in the fire and all around little oil lamps glow like fireflies, their wicks dancing in tune to the faintly heard lilting songs. It seems as if the whole village has been drawn by the lights to this house of one of the respected elders. The courtyard is a riot of


INDIA EAT,PRAY & LOVE

A NATION’S CULTURE RESIDES IN THE HEARTS AND IN THE SOUL OF ITS PEOPLE - MAHATMA GANDHI.

colour as vivid saris sit side by side. Then the singing really takes hold. “These are traditional songs that their ancestors have passed down”, Rajkumar interrupts my thoughts. The songs are hypnotic and mesmerising. The singers gain strength and momentum, eyes closed, losing themselves in their musicality, swaying together. Each small group of women sing together and then another group repeats and replies. “It has always been like this” says Rajkumar, “They call to each other and listen for their echo. It is natural, they sing because they are happy.” So am I, I reply smiling, feeling blessed. STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 19


INDIA EAT,PRAY & LOVE

INDIA IS ONE OF THE MOST LIFE-AFFIRMING PLACES IN THE WORLD. HER HEART PULSES WITH A DIFFERENT BEAT - TO TRULY UNDERSTAND HER YOU NEED TO LET GO AND LISTEN . BREATHE THE BEAUTY IN

I

t was with some trepidation that I took my first foray into India. My mind buzzing with preconceptions – and yes some of them played out. Many more were quashed and I was overwhelmed with a sense of excitement and belonging in this wonderful country of contradictions. On day one in Delhi, even crossing the road demands my full attention. At the advice of my guide Mohan, who immediately puts me at ease and becomes both guru and travelling companion for the next ten days, I decide to “be more cow.”His reasoning - they trust their fate. As they are holy, it would be most inauspicious for any driver to hit one, he explains rather too casually. I stride into the traffic as the cacophony of horns deafen, tuk-tuks and cyclists weave around us. When I reach the other side (thankfully of the

road, not in the metaphysical sense) – a man dressed in a dhoti smiles and says “Yes madam, this is the way to cross in India, NO STOPPING PLEASE.” Mohan grins and I glimpse a shared moment of understanding. This is going to be a great trip. This key instruction – “No Stopping please,” stays with me throughout my time here. If ever one needed a mantra for travel in India – it should be that. You will find as I did that India, not unlike the Ganges, just keeps moving along and you just have to go with the flow. The cities have a pace of their own, almost lyrically everyone seems to know the rhythm and tune. Out of the cities I am struck by the stark difference in pace and the beauty of the countryside. Ancient traditions are still practised and mean so much to generations of families living so closely together. We pass tiny shrines at the side

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of the road and Mohan pays his respects with offerings of rupees or food or sometimes a flower. I begin to understand that this unspoken bond holds the country together. It surpasses polytheism and specific gods. It is faith in humanity, pure and simple. My new-found confidence blossoms and something shifts. I embrace the unexpected. I begin to smile almost all the time. I start conversations on trains, I become what can only be called nosy at home but here is an expected common courtesy. I make friends easily and really do feel a connection. At Agra I am overwhelmed by the sublime dream-like Taj Mahal. I have been reading up – work began on this great tomb in 1631 and it took 20,000 artisans almost 20 years to complete. I have huge expectations. We arrive early morning to see sunrise. Mohan is taking a well-deserved break in the airconditioned car. As I am heading to the entrance he beckons me back to inform me to “Breathe the

beauty in. It is built out of love, so naturally it is ‘sundar’ “(Hindi for beautiful). He tells me to observe the intricate inscriptions closely. He goes on to explain that the designs of the upper section are much larger, taking into account perspective, so that when you look up it does not distort the design. They thought of everything. The soft rosy glow of the cool marble at sunrise really is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It is both romantic and moving and a testament to the love for Mumtaz by Shah Jahan. Nothing prepares you for the sheer scale and architectural ambition. Devotees pray around me as I take time to fully reflect and bask in the early morning light. There is so much I could share here – so many moments. All I can do is urge you to travel to India. They say travelling to India changes the way you see the world. I believe it changes you. Quite simply, India has got under my skin. On the plane home I am already planning my return.


INDIA EAT,PRAY & LOVE

New to India? FIRST TIME TO INDIA Dare to venture. Clear your mind (no we are not talking about a yoga or meditation session), travel with an open mind. Welcome the Steppes difference. Our India specialists refresh their knowledge each year, going in search of what’s new to help plan and refine your time away with meticulous detail. Our well-established local connections ensure your experience in India is beyond the ordinary.

GOLDEN TRIANGLE WITH TIGERS SPECIAL INTRODUCTORY OFFER SAVING £2,000

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India Guru? REPEAT VISITOR For the India-obsessed amongst you, who have racked up an impressive amount of time in this country - you will know India still has the ability to surprise. There is always something thrilling around the next corner; a festival, a new area or a different take. That’s where our own India gurus can really excel. Why not give them a call? .

CENTRAL INDIA - PALACES, TEMPLES & TIGERS AN IN-DEPTH INSIGHT

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STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 21


MADAGASCAR BETWEEN TWO WORLDS

BETWEEN TWO WORLDS

Madagascar BY CHRIS JOHNSTON

F

or luck, says my guide Justin, as he bends down to pick up a pinch of dust by the side of the road. He places it carefully in his pocket. I find out later that such is the Malagasy love of home that whenever they leave, they take a small handful of soil with them to ensure their safe return. I’m at the start of my journey towards Andringitra National Park in south-eastern Madagascar – beginning with a four-hour drive through a wild, highland countryside. I share the ride with four: Justin, my guide, Patrick, the driver, Charles, a porter, and Grace, a cook. They talk incessantly and laugh easily as we cross crumbling wooden bridges that are more gaps than planks. “Don’t worry,”

Grace smiles, “today is maraina tsara - a good day for travelling.” It transpires that some days are more auspicious than others. “The ancestors will look after us.” The ancestors are indeed watching. In between rice paddies and simple thatched villages, the hills through which we drive are dotted with dozens of tombs. Resembling family vaults, they vary in style from simple stone cairns to ornately decorated concrete buildings. The larger ones are brightly painted with images from the life of the deceased, both real and imagined. There are military scenes next to mermaids and truck drivers next to unicorns. These resting places are what

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binds people to the land, the ancestors inside lie waiting for the time when they are exhumed, taking the lead role in a joyful celebration known as Farmadihana, ‘the turning of the bones’. Grace continues as we rattle across appalling roads.“In Madagascar, it is rude to say someone is dead. We say ‘marary mafy’ meaning they are ill.” This obsession with the spiritual world seems at odds with the Malagasy love of life. They are enigmatic, resilient and fun. They have to be. When the head of the family dies, bar a small gift to the wives, all possessions and cattle are sold to pay for elaborate funerals and these tombs. There is no inheritance here. All children must learn to

stand on their own two feet. Life is tough enough here, but I am painfully aware of the present-day challenges on both the people and the natural resources. Rampant deforestation is well documented and I feel I am exploring a country where new species are being discovered as fast as others become extinct. Bad politics and military coups means poverty is rife, but people need shelter and food. It is a tragedy without villains. Whilst many Malagasy live a life of hardships I will never know, the most frequently heard greeting on my trip is mamy ny aina, ‘life is sweet’. We arrive at camp and settle in. A hearty meal and good night’s


MADAGASCAR BETWEEN TWO WORLDS

sleep precede three of the most spectacular days of walking I have ever done. Ever-changing scenery, surreal flora and even a rare sighting of an endemic ringtailed lemur keep me entranced as my legs ache and my lungs are stretched. Watching the sun rise over the lunar landscape of Andringitra is a moment I’m instantly aware that I will never forget. Standing in the shadow of

the towering granite cliffs behind me, dragonflies hover in the still air. In the distance, the land rises to jagged blue mountains, the peaks aglow in the morning light. The valley below is carpeted with giant ferns and plants found nowhere else on the planet. A haunting, unfamiliar call echoes around the valley. In a land of dancing primates and three-eyed lizards, it could be anything. I half expect a dinosaur

to appear. Then the porters begin to sing in the distance and I am reminded of my conversation with them in camp last night. “There are strange things out there.” My guide Justin whispered to me as we shared rum and rice around our campfire. I looked through the small doorway of our hut, to the imposing Andringitra Massif beyond, bright under a full moon.

“Such as?” I asked. He leaned in and uttered, “Spirits.” With this, the other porters fell silent as he stood and poured a small amount of rum into the corner. He muttered a short prayer. “To keep them happy”, he said. Spirits appeased, the singing began in earnest and the rum was once more passed around among the living.

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MADAGASCAR BETWEEN TWO WORLDS

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MADAGASCAR BETWEEN TWO WORLDS

Whilst wildlife grabs the headlines, Malagasy culture, barely two millennia old, is the beating heart of the country. The French historian Jean Pierre Domenichini once called Madagascar, “the most beautiful enigma.” To spend time here is to see a different world. All too soon however, it is my last morning in the park and I head to the Tsaranoro Valley, the end of my trek. Like the rest of Madagascar, it is unexpected and full of surprises. Bridging the crest of the mountain, I look down

into a valley of exquisite beauty. Silvery baobabs stand in dazzling green rice paddies. Herds of zebu cattle wander past, watched over by sinewy warriors dressed in bright lamba cloth. I walk slowly into the village. Women thrash rice for the harvest, children chase chickens and young girls smile from inside colourful wooden doorways. Family tombs and small shrines lie among the grass. Time itself seems suspended between the past and the present, this life and the next.

“Do you want to see Madagascar’s largest chameleon?” asks Justin, breaking my reverie. “Of course,” I reply, keen to photograph this iconic and much feared animal. “Watch out though. It is very strong. And 30-foot long.” He says with a grin. This I must see. Justin points to the far side of the valley. Sure enough, at the top of the aptly named Pic Chameleon, lies a rock formation shaped exactly like a chameleon’s head.

“Don’t tell me, he calls out at night,” I joke. “No,” says Justin,“sometimes at sunrise.” Such is the magic and mystery here, I secretly hope he is right, that the call I heard echo across the valley a few days before was this same stone chameleon. In this bizarre and beautiful country, where people never really die, you can imagine anything is possible.

MADAGASCAR: PIC BOBY TREK IN ANDRINGITRA NATIONAL PARK

14 days from £3,795 pp including flights

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 25


ARCTIC SPITSBERGEN

ARCTIC - SPITSBERGEN

Here be Bears

BY SUE GRIMWOOD

L

eaving Oslo in the dark, we flew north, unsure what to expect. When the pilot announced we had crossed the Arctic Circle, I already felt like an intrepid explorer. I awoke to the most spectacular view of fluffy white clouds, a splattering of islands and ice, and a feeling that we have entered the land of Philip Pulman’s ‘Northern Lights’. I spent the last hour of the flight with my nose pressed firmly against the window not wanting to miss a second of the staggering landscape below, and

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hoping to see my first glimpse of our destination, Spitsbergen. Landing at Longyearbyen, we were greeted with the ethereal light of the midnight sun. Longyearbyen is a strange but likeable place where all roads come to an abrupt end. The road signs here don’t warn against anything as tame as sprinting deer; no, they depict the unmistakable silhouette of a polar bear – a reminder of who rules the roost in Svalbard.


ARCTIC SPITSBERGEN

BY JUSTIN WATERIDGE

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 27


ARCTIC SPITSBERGEN

This is a place where the endearing but fearsome predators outnumber the 2,500 residents, and while they occasionally wander close by, sightings are actually rare. But that doesn’t stop most locals from slinging a gun over their shoulder whenever they venture beyond the town. Embarkation was very exciting, we all gathered on the jetty and put on our lifejackets for the first time, a routine we would all become well practised at throughout the week. Group by group we lined up to learn the sailor’s grip and the routine of step, sit, shuffle, shuffle which we would use each time we got into the zodiacs. One unlucky passenger managed to set off their life jacket much to their shock and the group’s amusement, they weren’t to be the last. Onboard the ship was warm and welcoming, our bags were already in our cabins and we had time to explore the ship and settle in.

At dinner-time everyone headed to sample the culinary delights of the fantastic chefs and the chatter of introductions filled the air. What a fascinating group - people from all walks of life, photographers, birders, those who had been to all corners of the world and those who were starting a journey of a lifetime. The ship’s guides and resident experts sat amongst us and everyone was happy to share stories and advice. And so began our adventure. Each day the boat took us to a new destination while we ate or slept and then we explored the Arctic wilderness by zodiac or on foot. On one of our first mornings, we were surrounded by hundreds of pearly white beluga whales in our zodiacs. Sitting in silence watching these curious animals rubbing their stomachs on the rocks and listening to the sound of them expelling air from their blow holes has to be one of the most privileged moments of my life.

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A visit to a glacier provided a very different experience, the sheer scale of it was difficult to comprehend, the intense blue ice running through the glacier created striking shapes on its snout, while birds circled above us. There was so much to see, and there was a wonderful snap and crackle sound created by air escaping from the ice. We even tasted some ice plucked from the sea, salty on the outside and cool and so fresh on the inside. The next morning, we were told at our briefing after breakfast that there were walruses on the beach. We all got into our thermal and waterproof gear, made our way down the gangway and into the zodiacs and were off towards the shore. We landed a way away from them so we could approach them slowly so as not to scare them away. We trudged through the gravelly sand for a few minutes, getting closer and closer until the very

distinctive smell of the walrus hit us. As we got closer one of the massive humps lifted an enormous tusked head and sleepily gazed at us for a few seconds. We all froze in our tracks, but he seemed to decide we weren’t worth bothering with and put his head back down. The walruses moved around continuously, grunting and pushing their way into the warmth of the middle of the pile up. More approached by sea, ducking under the kayakers in playful curiosity and then dragging themselves up the beach with surprising ease. I sat down on a gravelly ridge about 30 feet away from them and just watched. They were so huge close up, bigger than you’d expect and so incredible to watch, even while sleeping. I loved being immersed in that moment of watching and observing and wanting to be nowhere else on the planet at that particular moment. As we sat watching, the ship’s naturalist said that there were


ARCTIC SPITSBERGEN

Minke whales in view from the beach back towards the ship. Everyone scanned the water until we saw a back rise and fall back down into the depths. Back to the boat for lunch and an afternoon nap in the warmth before setting off again for a walk across the boggy tundra. We were quickly rewarded for our efforts by the sight of two gorgeous little Arctic foxes, one white and one grey. They’re so small with big bushy tails and one ran right past about three feet in front of us. We also saw a couple of herds of reindeer, much smaller than I had envisaged. Our first polar bear was spotted just as the group were disembarking at an old whaling site. Everyone got back into the zodiacs and we

floated alongside the bear as he swam from one island to another. I had not realised just how huge and powerful these beautiful creatures are as his body rose from the water. We watched the male bear as he covered ground at a staggering pace. We left him to continue his journey as our guides were careful that our presence should not alter his behaviour. We were lucky enough to see polar bears on a couple of other days. One sighting was of a mother and her two cubs. We followed them, watching the mother searching for bird eggs as she was divebombed by protective skuas. We continued with her as she set off across the water and were delighted as the two cubs hesitated before

throwing themselves into the icy water. What a fantastic day. The boat was electric with the thrill of our sightings and supper that night was filled with stories and the sharing of photographs.

The packed days all too soon come to an end and we disembarked back into Longyearbyen for the flights home. What a privilege that I have had the chance to experience this beautiful frozen landscape… next stop Antarctica!

SPITSBERGEN SPECIAL OFFER: EXPLORER POLAR BEAR CRUISE 12 days from £5,650 pp including flights. SPITSBERGEN EXPEDITION CHARTER: WITH SUE FLOOD & MONTY HALLS 7 - 18 July 2018 from £6,450 pp excluding flights.

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 29


Q & A - STEVE BACKSHALL

WILDLIFE NATURALIST, TV PRESENTER & AUTHOR

Steve Backshall Q&A

WHICH ENCOUNTER OR PLACE WAS THE MOST CHALLENGING TO FILM?

 1 WHAT WAS YOUR EARLIEST MEMORY?

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“My earliest memories were all golden tinted visions of nature, plus mum and dad. I was lucky enough to grow up on a small farm, surrounded by the Surrey Heaths; adders and lizards, owls and sparrow hawks, grass snakes laying their eggs in the compost heap and deer in the woodlands out of the back of the house.”

“The rainforest is both the most rewarding, and most frustrating environment to film in. Rewarding for me, as if I don’t find the jaguar or harpy eagle I’ve set out to see, I will unquestionably find something else, even if it is only an obscure invertebrate Frustrating because what cameras hate more than anything is humidity. They just fall apart and die in humid conditions, and the number of times I’ve sat with something phenomenal happening in front of me, and had no camera working to film it!”

WHO OR WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME 2 A WILDLIFE NATURALIST? “I had decided I wanted to work in a safari park in Africa, and wanted to be every bit as omnipotent about animals as the guides always seemed to be. I worked at it like stink, but somehow instead ended up as a writer. It was on a travel writing job to a farflung place that I came up with the idea to make my own wildlife adventure series, which I did, and sold to National Geographic.”

IF YOUR 20 YEAR OLD SELF COULD SEE YOU 3 NOW, WHAT WOULD HE THINK? “I think he’d laugh out loud and think it was some kind of crazy joke. Working on big expeditions with wildlife, mostly with the prestigious BBC natural history unit, and most importantly married to the woman of my dreams (double Gold medal winning rower Helen Glover). I pinch myself every single day.”

YOUR MOST MEMORABLE ENCOUNTER 4 AND WHY? “Tricky, but I’d probably go for sperm whales in Dominica. I was diving alongside them, when one female clearly decided she was going to give her young calf its first experience of a human being, bringing it right over to my side. She then proceeded to spend the next half hour or so dancing a sublime duet with me, twisting and turning, copying my movements and she may well have weighed twenty tons!”

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IF YOU COULD DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN, IS 6 THERE ANYTHING YOU WOULD CHANGE? “I’d study biology from the start. I had to go back to studying science after finishing my first degree, and it has been handsdown the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I’m now writing a masters in zoology, and hoping to finish sometime soon.”

YOUR MOST EMBARRASSING TRAVEL 7 EXPERIENCE? “Probably filming gorillas in Uganda, and whilst attempting a heartfelt piece to camera having one of the young blackback gorillas let rip with a fart that rattled all our heads against the trees and seemed to last about ten minutes.”

SOMETHING YOU HAVE LEARNT ABOUT 8 YOURSELF BY STUDYING WILDLIFE? “I guess a sensation that we as humans are not as special as we think we are. We share physiology with everything from a rat to blue whale, and behaviourally have so much in common with chimps that it’s scary. There is no grand plan for us, so it’s vital that we don’t waste our precious days on this beautiful planet, and don’t look at the planet’s problems as something that will just sort themselves out.”


Q & A - STEVE BACKSHALL

9 IN WHICH PLACE ARE YOU HAPPIEST?  “I would say in the mountains. I love the grandeur of the landscapes, the light, the way that changing weather can make you feel so small and vulnerable.”

 YOU CONSIDER YOUR CARBON 10 DO FOOTPRINT? “All the time. My wife and I have just done an endurance kayak race in order to raise funds to purchase a threatened piece of rainforest in Borneo. The proceeds have topped £300,000, which buys an awful lot of carbon offsetting.”

 11 IS IT THE JOURNEY OR THE DESTINATION? “A bit of both! In total literal terms I’ve been travelling for a living for over twenty years, and am sick to death of flights and airports. In a more poetic sense, the journey always has to have importance - no mountain worth climbing is only worthwhile for its summit photo.”

 12 ONE ESSENTIAL YOU ALWAYS TRAVEL WITH? “Superglue! Essential for fixing kit and sealing up wounds and blisters.”

13 IF YOU COULD ENCOURAGE INDIVIDUALS TO DO ONE KEY THING TO AID THE PRESERVATION OF THE PLANET WHAT WOULD IT BE?

“Take on a cause that you can do something tangible to change. Doesn’t matter if it’s something huge, or the cause of Dartford warblers on your local heath. Get out, do your bit, and don’t just leave it to someone else to solve. It’s your problem, and you CAN make a difference.”

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WHERE’S LEFT TO EXPLORE AND WHY?

“The deep sea is often considered our most ripe ecosystem for exploration. For me though, it’s caves. I’ve spent many months of my life in cave systems of startling grandeur, knowing my headlight is the first illumination that has ever fallen there. There are not many places left on the planet that you can say that.”

DO YOU FEEL IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE 15 WHAT FACING CONSERVATIONISTS TODAY? “I would say apathy. Unfortunately, too many people feel the issues of conservation are too big for them to handle, so simply ignore them and turn to other things. Our challenge as conservationists is to present these issues as solvable, and to encourage people to become empowered by taking them on.”

JOIN STEVE AT THE STEPPES BEYOND FESTIVAL:

1st October 2017 at the Royal Geographical Society, London www.steppestravel.com/beyond Steve’s talk will be supported by Swarovski Optik.

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 31


50 SHADES OF GREY BAJA WHALE WATCHING

‘50 Shades of Grey’ Baja Whale Watching BY JOHN FAITHFULL

L

ove is the drug that compels eastern North Pacific grey whales to make a recordbreaking 10,000-mile journey from their summer feeding grounds within the Arctic Circle to the balmy coast of Baja California. The promise of sex and reproduction propels these 40 ton cetaceans to undertake the longest known migration of any mammal on Earth. Each year between January and March, the Pacific coastal waters of Mexico and the Bay of California become abundant with cavorting

greys, making Baja the best place on the planet to whale watch. I arrive into San Ignacio Lagoon a few days after departing San Diego on board a small 25 passenger boat. Pacific swells were replaced by an eerie dead calm as we navigated between sand bars at night and then weighed anchor in this UNESCO World Heritage Site that is part of Mexico’s El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve – the largest wildlife reserve in Latin America. The notion that anticipation is

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the most enjoyable part of travel was completely disproved over the following two days in this remarkable and isolated corner of Mexico. I simply was not expecting what happened next. We boarded pangas (small skiffs with outboard motors) and headed into the lagoon, which acts as a grey whale nursery and refuge for mothers and their calves. I was about to ask the question, “How do you find an animal, even a creature as large as a grey whale, when it is underwater?” However, within

minutes of being in our panga, whale spouts and disturbed water were spotted. The simple answer is that in Baja, the whales find you. Our panga skipper positions us at a suitable (required) distance away and we wait. A 40-foot female approaches. She swims slowly, deliberately and directly towards us, at the last minute dipping under our small launch and is clearly visible. Her speckled barnacled and blotchy body is truly 50 shades of grey and she surfaces with a ‘fragrant’ blow that coats us with a


50 SHADES OF GREY BAJA WHALE WATCHING spray of eau de pescado. She then dives and resurfaces with her calf. What happens next is extraordinary – she proceeds to lift her baby (bearing in mind that baby is up to 17 feet long and weighs a ton) on her head and pushes it towards our small boat. Her calf takes its cue, lifts its head out of the water and drifts past the side of our panga as my shipmates scratch its barnacled head and even lean over and kiss its grey rubbery skin.

unique close encounter with some of nature’s marine giants that San Ignacio offers. It’s so very easy to anthropomorphise animals. Let’s not forget that out of the lagoon, grey whales are a favoured snack of orcas and large sharks but in San Ignacio’s sheltered and relatively safe environment, a gentle and inquisitive meeting of species occurs that affords a wildlife encounter that is like no other.

This is a behaviour that I see repeated over the next couple of days and it concerns me. This closeness of contact, especially between such a large wild creature and man does not sit comfortably with me. Yet the more I see it, the more I become convinced that it is completely on the whale’s terms and triggered chiefly by curiosity. Lengthy late-night conversations with our expert naturalist guides suggest that this behaviour is potentially repeating what the mother experienced as a calf.

San Ignacio Lagoon was a small but hugely important part of my wildlife expeditionary cruise that took me to the Southern tip of the Baja Peninsula and into the Gulf of California. The encounters with grey whales were just one highlight in a trip that included sightings of eight whale species (grey, blue, fin, sei, bryde’s, minke, humpback and dwarf sperm) six dolphin species, four species of pinnipeds and an incredible range of bird and other marine life over the course of 11 nights of snorkelling, hiking and wildlife viewing.

It took a while for me to come to terms with what a special and

BAJA WHALE WATCHING: CRUISE

Join our Steppes charter onboard The Searcher 23 January - 3 February 2018 from £4,895 pp excluding flights.

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 33


BOTSWANA TIME TRAVEL

© Craig Brady

Botswana Time Travel BY ILLONA CROSS

I

believe in time travel. At home, in your everyday life you have routine, going to work, getting the children to school and are always looking at your watch (or phone) to see when your next appointment or deadline is. In the bush, on safari, time seems to stand still. You become immersed in the moment, watching an elephant feeding from a marula tree or a meercat surveying the landscape as it emerges from its burrow. Whilst travelling in Botswana recently, this became ever more apparent to me. I had the good

fortune to meet people who have transcended the divide between these parallel worlds. Those who have taken their dreams and built new lives and homes in Africa around safari. I spent time with Ralph Bousfield, a tousled Botswanan from Francistown and super guide best known for being the custodian of a piece of land in the Makgadikgadi Pans, in central Botswana. His father, Jack, created Jack’s Camp in the 1960s, in what was then and is still one of the world’s most hostile environments.

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He had a dream that at some stage this would be the place that people would travel to. And he was right because today people make Jack’s Camp a focus of their holidays. Jack was eccentric (something Ralph has inherited) and Ralph is curious, so to this day the camp is littered with interesting things picked up in the deserts of Africa. The Bousfield family tree is wide and it seems everyone in the family likes to collect things. Ralph is hoping to create a museum at Jack’s Camp: not only to reflect the past, but also help contribute to conservation in the present, with

resident researchers continually collecting and cataloguing using the latest technology. When you travel to one of Ralph’s camps, be it the quirky Jack’s, uber cool San or funky Camp Kalahari, you will have a personal insight into an interesting family. There is also some great wildlife to be seen, from helicopters, horseback, fat-bikes, foot and vehicles. I particularly enjoyed watching the endemic brown hyena emerge from their burrows at dusk, perform the greeting ritual and then make their solitary ways into the night.


BOTSWANA TIME TRAVEL At home, I would have been making my way to the gym, maybe walking the dog – a world away.

lack of flexibility. He decided to realise his vision of what constituted the perfect lodge.

Knowing how demanding it can be, the passion of the person who builds a home in Africa fascinates me. Marjan and Raphael did just this in Botswana’s western Kalahari - an area so remote and vast that you wonder how they ever got the idea. Here, they built Feline Fields Lodge.

Therefore, Raphael and Marjan started to look for the perfect location, in which to build the perfect lodge. They were directed to the site of Feline Fields, a concession in the western Kalahari, where they loved the fact that it was a fresh canvas. There was no competition and no comparison, so they embellished it with all their passions

Raphael travelled to Africa and found that nothing was as he wanted it to be. When he visited his first safari lodge, he was appalled that he should be expected to share his safari experience with another guest, making compromises on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He didn’t like the scheduling and

Neither are builders, but they have a sense of style and – importantly – know exactly what they don’t want. Raphael was tired of the postage-size plunge pool at most lodges. He wanted to swim, so the main pool

is a full-size lap pool, tended to thrice daily so it is immaculate. My favourite part of this lodge (and I had many) was the tennis court. Set away from the lodge and made from the mud of abandoned termite mounds, it is a unique clay surface. I could have almost been in southern Spain, had it not been for the gigantic cricket making its way slowly across the court. It was midday; lunchtime in the office, now in a parallel world. I loved the single-mindedness of both the glint in their eyes when they spoke of their lodge and the way it benefits the community and conservation. Throughout Africa I can pinpoint lodges which accurately reflect the people who created them.

Many truly mirror the owners, the managers and the architects. Each has a story and a sense of place because they were imagined and built with great care, love and passion. Nicky and Steve’s Angama Mara, Alex Walker’s Serian, Clive Stockil’s Chilo Gorge, Dave Varty’s Londolozi and Mark Butcher’s Imvelo to name but a few. At all these lodges, you will have the chance to hear a story and your experience will be heightened by the additions to the day, the nuances of that place. And when you get home you will be loading the dishwasher, thinking about what they are doing at that same time in your favourite lodge in Africa. You will still be thinking about that parallel world.

BOTSWANA: SAFARIS

9 days with time at Feline Fields from £6,595 pp inc flights. 9 days with time at San Camp from £6,895 pp inc flights.

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 35


INDONESIA TIGER BLUE

INDONESIA - TIGER BLUE

Dragons, Damsels & Devils BY JUSTIN WATERIDGE

A

fter a week in Indonesia and the huge success of spending time with the orangutans of Borneo and the joys of cycling through the countryside of Ubud in Bali – we didn’t feel our time could be bettered. Two families, four adults and six children take some entertaining. However within seconds of boarding Tiger Blue we realised this was going to be the pinnacle of our time in these islands. Full of unbridled joy, the children scampered around the boat in a whirlwind of excited discovery. Checking cabins, unearthing the nooks and crannies of the ship and testing the rigging before over-conscious western parents bring them back to deck. I have rarely seen my eleven-year-old daughter so animated and with such a huge smile on her

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face. We had flown in from Bali transfixed by the islands strung out beneath us and the impressive conical volcano of Mt Sangeang emerging from the clouds. We had landed at the nondescript airport of Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores and were whisked quickly away to Tiger Blue, a thirty-four metre wooden schooner that was to be our home for the next five nights. A twomasted Indonesian phinisi with burgundy sails, Tiger Blue had a swashbuckling feel to it that was reinforced by the ten-man and one-woman crew and in particular the strutting swagger of Escobar, who was so much more than our snorkelling guide.


INDONESIA TIGER BLUE

TWO FAMILIES, FOUR ADULTS AND SIX CHILDREN TAKE SOME ENTERTAINING. HOWEVER WITHIN SECONDS OF BOARDING ‘TIGER BLUE’ WE REALISE THIS IS THE PINNACLE OF OUR TIME ON THESE ISLANDS

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 37


INDONESIA TIGER BLUE

The next morning, we wake early, have a quick but hearty breakfast of freshly-cooked pancakes that are declared the yummiest ever by the children and then are into the water in search of manta rays. Sadly, to no avail. But that does not deter us, there is no time for regret, we are in the moment and move quickly onto the next activity, waterskiing and being bounced around in a doughnut. The latter eliciting contradictory advice from parents – mother yelling “Hold on” but Dad, less than helpful, “No hands.” Appetite earned, a delicious lunch is served on a small sand island under a blue canopy whilst we are seated on bean bags. It is a luxury that is perhaps lost on the children who have no time to lose and run off to scavenge their private beach, find corals and

shells, try their hand at kayaking and paddle boarding as well as bury annoying siblings in the sand. Downtime over, the Dads and older girls head out for another snorkel. The Mums and boys choose to stay behind and savour the pleasures of their idyll a little longer. I am thrilled to see the girls diving down, holding their noses to equalise. A new-found confidence and sense of liberation. The next morning a short journey of an hour takes us to Siaba Besar and an opportunity to dive. We submerge to just below the water level, kneeling on the sand, where we rehearse a couple of drills – taking your regulator out of your mask and expunging water from your mask. Drills successfully completed we

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head into deeper water, never more so than nine metres. We are only down for some twenty minutes but nevertheless the experience is exhilarating and the first thing that my daughter Anna says on getting our heads above water is, “Can we do that again?” There can be no better endorsement. There is little time to reflect on our new-found skill as we board the dinghy for a snorkelling trip. We drop into the water and a strong current – a conveyor belt that is a mesmerising kaleidoscope of colour – drags us along at a rate of knots. Benedict, my eightyear-old son, dives down to meet a turtle rising for air. A wonderful stand-off between the two.

Tiger Blue relocates and we are at another dive site, Tatawa Besar. The light overhead streaming through the water is glorious. I float with huge pride seeing my girls diving alongside me. The circle of index finger to thumb is signalled again and again in the sheer joy of the bubble of diving and also the huge and diverse number of fish all around us. A turtle comes right up to Anna. They stare face to face. She might be a little apprehensive and overwhelmed by the experience but that is not what shows on her face. Beneath her mask, I can see that she is smiling from ear to ear. Dolvi makes the shooting sign for fusiliers, for a clown fish. Quite frankly he could have been signing all the time such was the proliferation of fish.


INDONESIA TIGER BLUE We have pushed the children to the limits of their comfort zone, yet they have not withdrawn. In the jungle, they were a little more reticent but here, underwater, they embrace the experience with enthusiasm and zeal. Each afternoon we leaf through the various marine books identifying what we have seen that day – evidence that they are engaged and engrossed, even more so than when on safari. I fear that any money spent on their education will be wasted in that all they want to be is a dive instructor or at least, albeit five years prematurely, they have mapped out what they want to do on their year-off. One of the girls enthuses, “It is like swimming in an aquarium.” But it’s more than that. It is not just a place for study and wonderful exhibits, the seas that Tiger Blue gain us access to are a fun park. In the late afternoon, we are all in the doughnuts – even the Dads unable to escape the ignominy of being upended in front of their children. At yet another mouth-watering dinner, the eight-year-old boys fade. Unsurprisingly – it has been an action-packed day for them and a lot of exercise in the snorkelling. Throughout I have been impressed by their stamina, their lack of fear in swimming in the open water and their snorkelling proficiency. In spite of all the activity, time passes slowly on board. When sailing we play chess, teach the children backgammon, read books, fall asleep in the sun and delight in dolphins riding the bow-wave. On one voyage, we were treated to the hoisting of the sails. One of the crew (of course, it had to be Escobar) scaled the rigging like an orangutan and balancing on a single rope worked quickly and with his typical shouts of joy to unfurl the sails. After more snorkelling and watersports, we arrive on a small strip of beach with an impressive pyramid of firewood, ten blue bean bags laid out with a bar behind – typical hallmarks of the attention to

detail of the Tiger Blue crew. But this is for later. We head out for a small trek to the highest point to look out over the cove in the late afternoon sun. In the golden beauty of the soft late-afternoon light, we marvel at the dramatic volcanic geography and thrive on the lack of human presence. Back down for a drink – mocktail for the kids – to find that Escobar has dug a huge wavy trench in the sand into which he has placed small hermit crabs that race along the maze. It holds the attention of the children momentarily before they begin digging similar trenches in the sand, adding to the complex. The children play in the sand, frolic in the sea to shrieks of joy, laughter and smiles. As the sun fades, the bonfire is lit and we recline on bean bags sipping a cold vodka and tonic transfixed by the mesmerising fire and the fact that there is no one else in the vicinity. We wake up the next morning to smile at dolphins gliding serenely past us. We breakfast on a euphoric high as we then head out to see dragons. The legend of the Komodo dragon and its bacterial bite had long fascinated the boys but the reality of seeing them was more prosaic – there were a couple of adolescents loitering expectantly around the rangers’ kitchen but we did not see the fully-grown beasts of documentary films. We learned lots from our naturalist guide – how the female makes a nest, the number of eggs she lays, how long it takes for them to hatch, the percentage that survive and that the young dragons spend the first few years of their lives in the trees to avoid becoming appetisers for the larger dragons. We also coveted his t-shirt which had the words ‘Komodo ranger’ emblazoned above an image of a dragon sniffing the air with its tongue. For me it serves to emphasise the entrancing diversity of the sea. Multi-coloured tunicates that appear to have been spray painted with graffiti. The striking colouration of clams whose wavy mouths shut up shop as we float past. Not just starfish but

feather stars and brittle stars. The cornucopia of corals beguiling and bewitching, a visual smorgasbord of colour, texture and size. Vibrant blues, verdant greens, bright reds, garish yellows, gaudy purples. Soft, delicate and hard corals, all with a bewildering array of names: spiky, fan, plate boulder, branching, fleshy, bubble, daisy, hammer, organ-pipe, whip. The boys were absorbed and fascinated by some of our more unusual underwater sightings – an octopus, crocodile flathead, nurse shark, white-tipped reef shark, moray eel, scorpion fish – the more dangerous the association, the better. But what surprised me is how spellbound they were by everything we saw, and we did see a lot. The myriad of different types of butterflyfish, angelfish, unicornfish, Moorish idol, anemonefish, damsels and devils, snappers, fusiliers, trevally and triggerfish. The boys were equally enthralled by the curious such as needlefish, the weird and wonderful such as sharksucker, porcupinefish, pufferfish, and the stunningly beautiful such as the blue-ringed angel fish.

the young. To end with a slightly piratical note, we are the Lost Boys (generation) and we need our children to right our wrongs. The last supper is a volcanic – in structure – feast of rice and prawns that is greedily consumed by all. Replete and ready for bed the crew emerge to play and sing for and with us. I won’t spoil the surprise but suffice to say that to see three young eight to ten-year-old boys strut their unfettered funky stuff to the Tiger Blue band was a tribute to their dance-style, the makeshift crew band and our days on Tiger Blue. The setting, the activities might be superlative but, as ever in travel, it is the people that make it.

We snorkel again in the attempt to see manta rays – that would be the icing on an already heavilylayered cake. It was not to be. It did not detract from the experience – the children have no possible way of appreciating the magnitude of such a marine experience. Rarely have I heard my children be so grateful and sincere. The bar has been raised high for any future holidays. That is the one possible downside – are we spoiling our children for the future? For me, it is important that they see and understand the beauty of the seas. Firstly, to dispel cinematic myths about sharks and secondly and far more importantly that I am not sure how much longer such beauty will be around. I hope that they will not only remember this but that it will be a formative experience that will lead them to appreciate the magnificence of the oceans and become ambassadors and guardians of it. We need to inspire

INDONESIA: BORNEO, UBUD & TIGER BLUE 15 days from £4,850* pp including flights and charter. *based on a full charter of Tiger Blue.

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 39


ARGENTINA NATURE’S SUPERSTRUCTURES

Nature’s Superstructures Argentina BY PAUL BIRD

T

he air was silent and still except for the oddest occasional creak, like an aging galleon at sea. “It’s falling,” someone shouted excitedly, as I spun to see a sizeable chunk of glacier breaking and crumbling into the water below. Huge calving chunks of ice fell suddenly creating a mini tsunami which echoed and

rippled across the lake. A three-hour flight south of Buenos Aires takes you to the small town of El Calafate. This southerly point, home to around 20,000 people, is the gateway to the glaciers and unspoilt scenery at its very best. There are few towns in the world further south and upon arrival

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you feel a rewarding sense of discovery of a landscape far away. Appreciation of the scale of the area and a few facts are key to understanding what a unique place you are in. Remarkably for a lake fed by such massive glaciers, Lake Argentina sits at only 187 metres above sea level. On my visit to the most famous of glaciers, Perito Moreno, the answer

is offered as to how at this altitude it is possible for such impressive glaciers to form. It’s the Andes, plain and simple, the geographical wall that straddles virtually the entire Chilean – Argentine border that are fully responsible. As warm air currents flow east across the Pacific, the humidity is dramatically absorbed by the mountain range. Only the coldest air is able to


ARGENTINA NATURE’S SUPERSTRUCTURES filter across, where it meets the arid Patagonian steppe on the Argentine side, is where snow regularly falls. Over thousands of years this snowfall has formed massive glaciers that totally dominate the landscape. At over three miles in width and boasting heights over 70 metres, as well as an impressive 170 metres below the waterline, the Perito Moreno glacier is a spectacle to behold. The surface area of 96 square miles makes it larger than the city of Buenos Aires and it holds the third largest mass of freshwater in the world. I feel my account or photographs just cannot do this area and the glaciers justice. Such vast mountainous spaces unfold around you, but it is not until you get really close that you realise just how impressive they are and just how humbling an experience this is. At the western base of the glacier I equipped myself with crampons ready to walk across a tiny section of this vast icy mass. From here it looked like a smooth innocent wall of ice, the edges meeting the water with a completely vertical face. On top of the glacier jagged peaks erupted out of bottomless crevices with an astonishing mesmerising shade of deep sapphire blue.

Walking on the snow with just the sound of the crampons crunching underfoot was strangely satisfying, however the creaks and groans of the slowly advancing glacier were not so. I had to put my trust in the expert knowledge of the guides and thickness of the ice. Not always easy given the groaning of the glaciers and what can only be described as a cannon salute which occasionally would reverberate all around. A stark reminder that this glacier is constantly in motion. As the trek came to an end, an incongruous table, clearly a permanent fixture, came into view towards the edge of the glacier. I was rewarded by my guide handing me an amber liquid served over chunks of glacial ice, thousands of years old. Without doubt the most memorable whiskey I have enjoyed. Later that afternoon as I sailed away I looked back and saw tiny dots on the glacier. People still trekking. It was a perfect illustration of my time here. Specks so small and diminutive dwarfed against one of nature’s superstructures. I was, and still am, in awe of the stark beauty and the impressive scale of this place – where invisible pirate ships creak in frozen seas, at the world’s end.

ARGENTINA: HIGHLIGHTS INCLUDING PERITO MORENO GLACIER

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STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 41


SCOTLAND BEING IN THE MOMENT

SCOTLAND

At one with Nature BY FERGUS BEELEY

natural history was growing all the time as I experienced for myself special sightings of pine marten, eagle and deer. My career, whatever that would be, would have to include being part of this magical world of nature.

M

y poor mother. She was so patient with me. I had found a spider’s nest, a tiny ball of cream coloured silk. I was thrilled. If I placed the nest in a matchbox at the top of my bedroom wardrobe, then they would one day hatch. No one would find them there and I could watch them grow.

on the interest I had in nature. By the way, the eggs did hatch and all the gorgeous spiderlings would tip-toe out at night and return to the matchbox for the day. Irritatingly, my mother found both the spiders and the snails in the end, but she was gentle in her reproach, knowing my fondness and passion for wildlife.

I soon forgot about them and instead attended to my snail collection which was growing by the day, stored in jars in a Victorian brick bread oven in the scullery.

School holidays were often spent in the wild North West Highlands of Scotland. Left to my own devices, I would explore the hill alone, climbing to great heights and glancing out to see the magnificent glens and lochs. My interest in

I was nine years old. It was 1971 and clearly there was no going back

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And so it was to be. By the age of 27 I was a producer with BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol, and often camping in some of the remotest corners of the planet. I was totally at home in wilderness areas and was lucky enough to be chosen to produce two of the films for the Life of Birds with Sir David Attenborough. These films were followed by many single documentaries for the BBC’s long-running strand ‘Natural World’, including films on white wolves in Northern Canada, on Harpy eagles in the rainforests of Venezuela and Andean bears in the high paramo of Peru and Ecuador. But where would I most wish to make a film on next? There was a yearning in me to return to

the North West Highlands of Scotland and make a film about the secretive wildlife that I had been lucky enough to see as a child. I didn’t think that anyone had fully captured on film the magic of the Highlands. I wanted to try. The place I knew well was Loch Maree and the surrounding hills: the haunting call of the black-throated divers, the vast gliding wings of the white-tailed sea eagle. It happened. It took two years to make, but gave me the chance to really reacquaint myself with this beautiful place. The film was broadcast in 2010 as BBC Natural World ‘A Highland Haven’. The secret locations and wildlife we filmed for ‘Highland Haven’ are now part of a tour for Steppes Travel, the next one running in May 2018. It’s a chance for me to share with others not just the places and the wildlife, but the way to watch wildlife. So much can be missed unless certain basic rules are followed.


SCOTLAND BEING IN THE MOMENT

It’s not just about keeping quiet. It’s about noticing things. Listening to what the birds are telling you, like if there’s a hawk around, or a mustelid. It is about being immersed in the moment - keeping still for a few minutes to see what might happen next. To me, this is what travel is all about. It’s less about where you are and more your perception of the natural world. Our preconceptions and perceptions can be altered quite quickly and we can become much more connected with our environment. These are skills which I first learned as a child in the Highlands and hope to share with you on a Steppes tour somewhere one day soon.

Fergus Beeley has spent the last 25 years making wildlife films with Sir David Attenborough, including the famous titles for the BBC such as the ‘Life of Birds’, ‘Planet Earth - the future’ and ‘The Natural World’. JOIN FERGUS IN SCOTLAND NEXT SUMMER

3 - 10 May 2018 from £3,995 pp excluding flights.

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SOUTH AFRICA DIGGING DEEPER IN THE CEDERBERG

DIGGING DEEPER IN THE CEDERBERG

South Africa BY ROB GARDINER

M

y guide, Christiaan, stops and gets out of the vehicle. The smell of roiboos leaves, dampened by the recent rain, dances through the air as he strides a few metres to our right. “Look, here.” He says, pointing to the still damp ground. “Do you see this change in the soil?” Peering down, I squint at the earth

– unusual on a safari. But this is not quite like any other safari. Christiaan is not carrying a gun, and no elephant droppings or lion pawprints mark the ground. I am in the Bushmans Kloof Reserve, in the Cederberg Mountains, just inland from South Africa’s Atlantic Coast. Here, wilderness, rock art and rare endemic species provide the thrills, rather than the big game of elsewhere.

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Looking closely, I struggle to see it. But as I allow my eyes to take in the wider area, I notice what Christiaan means. There is a subtle change – the landscape suddenly, but softly shifts from one form to another, darkening slightly. The fynbos vegetation also subtly melts way, to be replaced by something that reminds me more of the Kalahari, “This is where the sandstone of the Cederberg turns to shale. In

essence, here, the Cape Floral Kingdom ends and the Great Karoo begins. You can see how the colour of the rock changes, but also how this affects the vegetation. The plant species present change due to the geology. This, in turn, determines the animal species that thrive.” Christiaan grins, looking up. “Basically, rocks dictate everything.”


SOUTH AFRICA DIGGING DEEPER IN THE CEDERBERG

TO UNDERSTAND THE ECOLOGY OF A PLACE, YOU MUST FIRST UNDERSTAND THE ROCKS .

Indeed, the wildlife here is quite unlike anywhere else. Beyond Christiaan, there is movement in the bush and I see three heads turn in my direction, startled by my presence. Against the bare branches of the low fynbos, the zebras’ camouflage makes perfect sense – they are near invisible in the dusk light. “Cape mountain zebras”, mutters Christiaan. “They

are the smallest of all zebra species and only found in this region. They are one of the unusual endemic species that we find in the reserve. I think they are the most attractive of the zebra species, personally.” Looking pensive, he stares at the immobile zebras. “There used to be far more wildlife here, but humans drove most of it away or to extinction. The Cederberg was

once home to three now-extinct species – the black-maned Cape lion, the quagga and the bluebuck.” “It is not just the animal species here that are unique,” says Christiaan, interrupting my thoughts. “This area is part of the Cape Floral Kingdom and, as such, is home to more than 700 plant species. The ground is carpeted with countless different varieties,

with each season bringing a fresh cast of regulars. The crazy thing is that some of these plants are only visible for one month of the year. As a guide, it makes our jobs almost impossible.” The following morning, rain has yet again poured down on this arid landscape, announcing the changing of the seasons.

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SOUTH AFRICA DIGGING DEEPER IN THE CEDERBERG

But Christiaan’s enthusiasm for this fascinating environment remains undampened. We drive out as dawn breaks, heading for the very fringes of the reserve. We stop for fresh coffee and traditional rusks as the cloud begins to lift from the hilltops. Shuffling to the edge of a deep-sided river canyon, we position ourselves on an overhanging rock, suspended in the air, savouring our bush breakfast. His gaze shifts up. “The sandstone that forms these mountains is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, it contains rounded quartz pebbles trapped inside – very unusual. Secondly, it is totally absent of fossils, showing quite how old it is.” Waving an arm nonchalantly at our surroundings, he continues, “Tectonic activity has tossed these ancient stones around, leaving behind a puzzle that we now struggle to piece back together.” It is not just the rocks that are puzzling. I comment on the lack of cedar trees – surprising given

the name of these mountains. Christiaan nods, agreeing with my bemusement. “You’re right. The upper slopes of the Cederberg were once carpeted with cedars. But when colonists arrived, they soon realised that these trees were a wonderful source of straight timber for building. Now, there is hardly a tree left. People have tried to reintroduce them, but despite once flourishing here, they now have just a 25% survival rate when planted.” We leave this topic behind and with it our dramatic breakfast spot and continue beside the deep ravine, coming to a stop on an area of bare rock, high above the river below. Christiaan looks at me and says, “The Imax is not suitable for everyone but you’re pretty fit and you said you’re up for a bit of a scramble.” We are not, unsurprisingly, about to enter a cinema. Instead it is a rock-art site that has been given this very unscientific nickname. We descend slightly, following a

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gap in the rock – about a metre wide. Grabbing hold of a small tree that emerges from below, Christiaan scrambles down and I follow him. It is only a few metres down, but the atmosphere changes as we leave the direct sunlight behind and scramble down between the cool rock walls. Now, we are surrounded by solid rock, with only our torches for light. Christiaan ushers me forward and we enter a narrow rock passage that takes us away from the light. The smell of still air and bats intensifies, as the two sides begin to close in. This is not for the claustrophobic. Squeezing through a section so narrow that I’m almost touching both sides, I see light filling the passage ahead. Only a few steps later, fresh, warm air engulfs me and I feel the sunlight on my skin again. Rounding a large boulder, we find ourselves beneath a magnificent sandstone overhang, which curves outwards, dwarfing


SOUTH AFRICA DIGGING DEEPER IN THE CEDERBERG

us. “Welcome to the Imax.” Christiaan announces, smiling. I pause for a minute to take it in. The scale of the place is impressive. The rock above me extends up at least 10 metres, until it curves to a point straight above my head. At my feet are a jumble of loose stones, mixed with a yellow-grey sand. But it is the blotches of colour on the smooth stone in between that catch my eye. We walk closer to one of these clusters of burnt-red smudges and Christiaan points to what are clearly human shapes. They are elongated and barely more than stick figures, but undeniably human. “These paintings depict people and animals engaged in everyday activities. Look closely and you will see that the painter has made a determined effort to be very clear about each person’s gender – this is a key element in the rock art found here.” I lean closer and see that some of the figures a have thick smudge of paint extending horizontally

forwards from their groin. Others have pronounced semicircles attached to their chests and at the top of their legs, at the rear. The symbolism could not be plainer, even if anatomical accuracy clearly wasn’t a priority. It is a mesmerising place. Looking down, I see white, powdery droppings that remind me of hyenas. But Christiaan notices them too and says, “Those are from a cape leopard.” These rare cats are almost impossible to see. Smaller than normal leopards and even more elusive, they are so rare that even signs of them are unusual. I’m already in awe with this remarkable place, but news of this new resident adds another layer of magic to the already surreal feel.

SOUTH AFRICA: WEST CAPE EXPLORER

14 days from £2,795 pp including flights.

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 47


WILDLIFE GROUP TOURS

INTO THE WILD

Wildlife Tours S

eeing wildlife in its natural habitat is an inspiring and uplifting experience. Our Wildlife Group tours have three key goals: To give a privileged insight, to give something back and to give you an exceptional experience.

Seeing wildlife in a remote location – most of which are far more accessible than in my youth due to air access – is invigorating. There is nothing quite like the beauty of the natural world. I hope you will join us on one of our wildlife tours and, in so doing, support wildlife conservation.

Having grown up in Africa, I remember vividly my first wildlife encounter of hearing a large herd of elephant crossing the Zambezi River in darkness. It was a magical moment that made a huge impression on me. I fell in love with wildlife and since then I have been lucky enough to have seen snow leopard in Ladakh, tracked gorillas with the Ba’aka pygmies in Central Africa and swum with whale sharks in Djibouti and orcas in Norway.

Please note hightlighted here are just a small number, do visit our website or better still call us to chat about our full expanse of worldwide tours.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA

Justin Wateridge Managing Director

INDIA: LADAKH

MALAYSIAN BORNEO

BIRDS OF PARADISE

SNOW LEOPARDS

MALIAU BASIN EXPEDITION

In one of the most unique places on Earth, search for the flamboyant bird of paradise and other species. Guided by Australia’s leading authority on birds, Phil Gregory.

Explore Ladakh in search of snow leopards and indigenous wildlife with our expert guides and trackers. Sightings to date have been excellent, in large part due to the expert team that lead this tour.

Trek into the Maliau Basin with Robin Hanbury-Tenison and meet the founders of Orangutan Appeal UK and leading scientists from the Sabah Foundation and Danum Valley Research Centre.

Accompanied by David Sonam. 4 - 15 February 2018 From £4,495 pp*

Accompanied by Robin Hanbury-Tenison 7 - 18 October 2018 From £4,995 pp*

Accompanied by Phil Gregory. 7 - 18 October 2018 From £7,875 pp*

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WILDLIFE GROUP TOURS

NAMIBIA

CANADA

BRAZIL

PREDATOR CONSERVATION

GRIZZLY BEARS

Behind the scenes access to AfriCat’s work at two of its locations - the Okonjima Reserve and the Hobatere Concession. Gain insight into both cheetah and lion conservation. Followed by time in Etosha National Park.

Photograph grizzly bears in peak salmon run season under the guidance of wildlife photographer Sue Flood. Staying at Tweedsmuir Lodge with bear viewing from private floating platforms and river boats.

Accompanied by Tammy Hoth-Hanssen and Donna Hanssen. 22 June - 4 July 2018 From £5,295 pp*

Accompanied by Sue Flood. 7 - 14 September 2018 13 - 20 September 2018 From £8,995 pp*

JAGUAR & ARMADILLO CONSERVATION Accompany leading conservationists including the Onçafari Jaguar Project. Track Jaguars in the southern Pantanal, and assist researchers as they study giant armadillo, anteater and tapir. Accompanied by Dr Arnaud Desbiez & Mario Haberfeld 3- 11 October 2018 From £4,175 pp*

TONGA HUMPBACK WHALES Swim with humpback whales, accompanied by Sir David Attenborough’s favourite cameraman, Doug Allan. Immerse yourself in Tonga’s compelling mix of spectacular landscapes, pristine rainforests and azure waters. Accompanied by Doug Allan. 15 - 26 September 2018 From £5,395 pp*

SEE ALL OF OUR NEW WILDLIFE TOURS FOR 2018 : STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/WILDLIFE-GROUP-TOURS PRE-ORDER YOUR WILDLIFE 2018 BROCHURE: GROUPS@STEPPESTRAVEL.COM

*excluding flights, flights available on request at additional cost.

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/ Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 49


EXPERT LED GROUP TOURS

EXPERT-LED

Cultural Tours 1 UZBEKISTAN: BEYOND THE OXUS Discover the art,architecture and culture of the fabled Silk Road cities. Visit Samarkand’s Registan Square, the bustling bazaars of Bukhara and explore the streets of Khiva’s citadel. Accompanied by Siddiq Wahid 28 April - 8 May 2018 From £2,715 pp*

2 OMAN: FROM ANCIENT MAGAN TO THE FRANKINCENSE LANDS Unveil Oman’s history and culture with archaeologist Carl Philips. Meet communities in the Hajar Mountains, spend a night under the stars at Wahiba Sands and experience the garden city of Salalah. Accompanied by Carl Philips 11 - 22 November 2018 From £5,295 pp*

3 NEPAL: MUSTANG VALLEY WALKING & JEEP SAFARI Travel by jeep and on foot through Mustang’s fascinating villages, visiting Buddhist shrines and temples in the shadow of the Himalaya’s most iconic mountains. Accompanied by Nima Lama 29 April - 13 May 2018 From £3,975 pp*

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OUR FRAGILE WORLD & CONTENTS

EXPERT LED CULTURAL GROUP TOURS

Contents

Our Fragile World For myself and the team at Steppes, one of the joys of travel is understanding, appreciating and embracing the variety of our world. Travel breaks down barriers, it gives us invaluable experience, it changes our perspective. However, it is ultimately about people; about getting to know them better – whether your travelling partner or the people in whose country you are travelling. In my travels, I have been lucky to meet some extraordinary people, charismatic guides, generous hosts and captivating storytellers. A number of these inspirational people will be speaking at our Beyond Festival 2017. I do hope you will be able to join us at the Royal Geographical Society. They do make a difference. And you can too. Justin Wateridge Managing Director

03 - 04 - 06 - 08 - 10 - 14 - 16 - 18 - 22 -

26 - 30 - 32 -

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NB: Image above. 276 pieces of marine plastic debris recovered from the stomach of an Albatross chick.© Mandy Barker.

BEYOND FESTIVAL 30 SEPT – 1 OCT 2017 This year’s festival will be even bigger with a fantastic array of intrepid explorers, conservationists and inspiring speakers. Read more about our pledge against plastic pollution overleaf and see our speakers on pages 8 - 9. STEPPESTRAVEL.COM/BEYOND for further information & tickets.

42 - 44 - 48 - 50 - 52 -

SENDING OUT AN S.O.S GO NOW HOT PROPERTY BEYOND FESTIVAL 2017 COSTA RICA - BIRD ON A WIRE SAUDI ARABIA - BEYOND THE VEIL PRIVATE CHARTERS

4 PERU: TEXTILES OF THE SACRED VALLEY Visiting Machu Picchu, Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Lake Titicaca, allow for a deep immersion in the traditions, folklore and way of life of the Andean communities. Accompanied by John Alfredo Davis Benavides 19 - 28 October 2018 From £4,750 pp*

EAT, PRAY & LOVE INDIA MADAGASCAR BETWEEN TWO WORLDS ARCTIC - HERE BE BEARS STEVE BACKSHALL Q & A BAJA WHALE WATCHING 50 SHADES OF GREY BOTSWANA - TIME TRAVEL INDONESIA -

5 SPAIN: ISLAMIC GEOMETRIC ART IN ANDALUCIA Under the expert tutelage of Eric Broug, explore Seville, Cordoba and Granada. Three southern Spanish cities showcasing this wonderful and intricate art form. Accompanied by Eric Broug 13 - 20 May 2018 From £3,995 pp*

DRAGONS, DAMSELS & DEVILS ARGENTINA NATURE’S SUPERSTRUCTURES SCOTLAND - AT ONE WITH NATURE SOUTH AFRICA - DIGGING DEEPER INTO THE WILD - WILDLIFE TOURS EXPERT-LED CULTURAL TOURS OMAN - AL BALEED RESORT SALALAH

6 CHINA: QINGHAI FESTIVALS & TEXTILES An opportunity to get under the skin of Tibetan culture, visiting an area in northwest China on the Tibetan plateau, accompanied by textiles and embroidery expert Gina Corrigan. Accompanied by Gina Corrigan 17 July - 2 August 2018 From £3,495 pp*

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02 | STEPPES TRAVELLER Autumn 2017 // 01285 601 070

Cover image: Taken by Chris Johnston in Ranomafana, Madagascar. Editor & Designer: Rosalind Hadley rosalind@steppestravel.com

*excluding flights, flights available on request at additional cost.

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM // Autumn 2017 STEPPES TRAVELLER | 51


STEPPES TRAVELLER | AUTUMN 2017 | UK

AUTUMN 2017

Traveller MADAGASCAR BETWEEN TWO WORLDS

A

gateway to Oman’s cultural treasures, Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara is the first luxury private pool villa resort of its kind in Salalah. Intricate Eastern design and artistic details complement the unparalleled luxury and comfort. Between a beach and freshwater lagoon, towering palms frame elegant walkways, tropical gardens and water features.

L

et time stretch as you relax at the infinity pool or soak up the sea view from the private shore. Why not try a pampering spa treatment or play tennis? Children’s clubs mean that all the family can enjoy their holiday here.

COSTA RICA BIRD ON A WIRE

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xplore a UNESCO World Site of citadel, grand mosque ruins, and arouse your senses in the Museum of Frankincense. Unforgettable journeys begin here.

EXCLUSIVE OFFER: SAVE UP TO £1,000 STAYING FOR 3 NIGHTS*

EAT, PRAY & LOVE INDIA

*Based on two sharing a Royal Beach Villa. Other category rooms such as Garden View Pool Villa have 25% discount applied to the tariff. Book by 30th September 2017. Travel valid from 15th September - 26th December 2017 and 5th January

For more details and to discuss your next holiday to Oman contact Email: anantara@steppestravel.com Tel:01285 601 070 PLEASE QUOTE ANAN17 WHEN BOOKING

STEPPESTRAVEL.COM

- 31st October 2018. Subject to availability at time of booking and terms and conditions.

Profile for Steppes Travel

Steppes Traveller Autumn Magazine UK Edition  

Read our latest travel features and see our hot destinations for 2018.

Steppes Traveller Autumn Magazine UK Edition  

Read our latest travel features and see our hot destinations for 2018.