"Quotation 50"
TRAVEL

I know that the 'Big Five', the Mountain Gorillas and Whales are sacred cows, as it were, but encounters with the world's most charismatic creatures often leave me disappointed.

Don't get me wrong, the trips to their habitat are invariably rewarding, but it tends to be the way locals cope with their mega fauna or 'package' them to tourists, or even the way tourists react or behave when wildlife viewing, that interests me most. 

So whether it's the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, the last wild lions in India, or the Lemurs of Madagascar, I'll try to explain what it did for me...  











WILDLIFE WATCHING
   2179 views   
Caging humans to watch 'free-roaming' mega predators is daft...
posted by Richard Green on 01/09/2017
 

It wouldn't be my first thought on seeing a gigantic crocodile in a tank of water, to get my swimming trunks on and jump in. But then I haven't been to the Crocosauras park in Darwin, Australia, where the star turn is the chance of sharing a pool with a fearsome 5.5m long Saltwater crocodile. 

And this bonkers adrenaline thrill isn't the only one of its kind either; there are other caged wildlife viewing experiences too, offering the opportunity of cowering behind bars while a creature - usually large and dangerous apex predators - is kept at bay by the bars.

All of the encounters look like accidents waiting to happen to me, and with crocs having a biting force of up to 5,000psi, being dunked like a Rich Tea Biscuit into their aquarium sure isn't my idea of fun. And small scale accidents have happened - Australia's Crocosaurus Cove 'Cage of Death' had a snapped chain in 2011 that led to the cylinder containing two people falling further into the tank. Nobody was hurt, and failsafe safety systems kicked in, but even so.

We humans choose how we get our kicks, but it does seem cruel to goad animals in this way. It's like a kiddie or a kitten being teased with a sweet or a ball of wool that remains denied them; which usually ends in tantrums and tears. And in all cases except for the shark cage diving, the animals have only the illusion of being more free than the caged humans, as of course they are just trapped in a somewhat larger enclosure.

Even with sharks, It's argued that 'shark baiting' - where chum (fish poarts, bone and blood) is thrown into the water to encourage the sharks to approach the cage - can significantly change their behaviour. Usually these animals are shy of humans, but the large quantities of bait used to lure them towards the cage makes the sharks bold, excited and aggressive. 

There have been several accidents too - with sharks in such a frenzy that they have damaged the cage, and themselves. Perhaps over time sharks will fear humans less and come to view us and our boats as places to find food. It could upset the finely balanced feeding patterns too.

But wildlife watching is big business, and supports jobs and local communities. And while pretty much every park or operator offering caged wildlife experiences claim they are doing so (at least in part) to increase our knowledge and awareness of endangered species, there surely must be better ways of achieving that goal.

Where to be caged from wildlife...

Parque Safari, Chile. The park uses converted jeeps and trucks to give visitors the chance of seeing lions close up as they jump onto the roof and sniff around for food. Lions of course aren't native to Latin America, but to Africa, and these animals have been rescued from circuses. Along with most other animals at the park, they can no longer fend for themselves, and enjoy better conditions than in the circus and an element of rehabilitation - the lions have lush vegetation and a lake where they can cool off. Parque Safari has six lions in a five acre enclosure and is in Rancagua in Central Chile.

 

Crocosauras, Australia. The Cage of Death is an acrylic cylinder that holds two people at a time and is partly lowered into the Crocosaurus Cove aquarium, home to a 90-year-old, 800 kilo saltwater croc. It's the world's largest reptile, is native to Australia, and of all the sub species of croc is the one most likely to chow down on a human. Accidentally step into its territory and chances are you'll be devoured in short time. So we probably know how the animal views a couple of semi-naked thrill seekers in it's pool. The Crocosaurus park is in Darwin.

 

Lehe Ledu Wildlife Zoo, China. Here low-tech looking lorries with a green mesh cage on the back, and live chickens and chunks of meat help to encourage the animals to approach the cage. The vehicle drives through various enclosures so that the captive tourists can see lions, tigers and bears up close. Never has the oft-repeated fairground mantra 'keep your fingers and hands inside the car at all times' been so urgent. The Lehe Ledu Wildlife Zoo is in Chongqing.

 

African Croc Dive, South Africa. In the winelands region, is Le Bonheur crocodile farm, which uses a large narrow-meshed cage that can hold up to 10 divers, to view several of its 1,000 crocodiles. The farm Is 55 kilometres east of Cape Town. African Croc Dive

Orana Wildlife Park, New Zealand: the country's only open range zoo is spread over 80 acres. It offers a 'Lion Encounter' where guests trundle through a lion enclosure in a large cage on the back of a flatbed truck that holds a keeper and around 20 visitors. The lions often climb on top of the vehicle and paw at the top of the cage in order to get food. One of its selling points is that being in a cage gives guests 'the opportunity to interact with our specialised keepers who care for the animals'. The Orana Wildlife Park is on the outskirts of Christchurch.

 

 

Cango Wildlife Ranch, South Africa: this is the oldest Cheetah 'contact centre' in the world, but these days is more famous for its Croc Cage Diving. The metal-barred cylinder is lowered into the croc tank. Cango Park is 68 kilometres east north of George, in the Western Cape.

 

Crocodile Cage Diving, Zimbabwe. In the centre of the Victoria Falls town in Zimbabwe, is a cage encounter outfit that offers the chance to '...experience crocodiles in their own environment. (and to) Get a unique underwater look at their short legs, thick tails, scaly scutes along the back and impressive jaws.' The Nile Crocodile is a much feared predator along stretches of the Zambezi River and there - its thought that they kill around people a year across Africa - are three large examples here. They were born into captivity in central Zimbabwe and were rescued. Crocodile Cage Diving

 

Sharks in Mexico, Australia, the USA and South Africa. There are perhaps hundreds of outfits offering the chance to watch sharks from inside a semi-submerged cage. Expeditions last from 2 to 8 days - and the first cage diving experience for tourists was organised by the Australian filmmaker, conservationist and shark expert, Rodney Fox in 1976. Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions, Great White Shark Tours, Shark Diver, Shark Dive New Zealand, Guadalupe Island, Mexico, double decker.

One more thing...Jacques Cousteau was first to use a cage in the water for protection while filming sharks, back in 1948. Made from strong bars, the cage was lowered into the water with divers inside in order to better observe the creatures in their natural habitat.

And more recently his grandson Fabian, who carries on the family tradition of exploring the oceans and making films, has been working on a submersible from which to take footage of Great White sharks from. He says he was inspired by the Tintin comic book, 'Red Rackham's Treasure', in which Tintin and his dog Snowy journey to the bottom of the sea in a submarine that looks like a large shark.

The result is 'Troy', as the sub is known. It's 14 feet long and made from 2-inch thick steel rib 'cage' covered in an elastic material more often used in animatronics. It doesn't make bubbles either, owing to the fact that it is a closed circuit design, it's very quiet and mimmicks the tail movements of a real shark. 

The idea is that this stealthy submarine resembles a great white shark enough to fool the real sharks into a more natural form of behaviour that when confronted with regular divers and their cameras. In the case of Troy, there are three cameras hidden at the front, including one ingeniously concealed inside a fake sucker fish on the sharks head.


WILDLIFE WATCHING
   3885 views   
Seeing the funny side of a close encounter with a 32 stone mountain gorilla...
posted by Richard Green on 01/06/2017
 

The following article first appeared in the Sunday Times

A 32 stone silverback is 7ft away from me. It's majestic and magical - and, to prove it, I'm giggling uncontrollably. My shoulders are quivering, my eyes are streaming and all the lip-biting in the world can't stop it.

I'm in trouble. Big, hairy, gorilla-sized, 7ft 6in arm-span trouble. Just a few moments ago, this giant ape was gazing benignly over his family and the lush landscape of Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park, but not any more. He turns his enormous head towards me, slowly and purposefully, like the turret of a tank swivelling to select its next target. And now he's staring right at me.

The small part of my brain that's not finding him funny starts to wonder what it'll feel like when he rips my head off and my windpipe squelches in two. And all because, right here, right now, I've hit a stupid seam of mirth. I just can't stop laughing.

A Silverback's silver back is a saddle of silver hair that displays sexual maturity. Photo Volcanoes Safaris

This is not what I'd expected. In fact, the day had started seriously enough, at 5am, when a super-friendly member of the lodge staff bounded up to my bungalow and rapped on the door. With a chirpy "good morning", he handed me a Thermos and was away. After I'd taken a reviving hot shower and a slurp of some tea, I was raring to go too.

Not only was I one of the day's fortunate 56 people who would be allowed to spend an hour with Rwanda's gorillas, I was staying at the brand-new Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. It's only a mile from the park entrance, enabling trekkers to stay in real comfort for the first time.

One of the eight cottages at the lodge, with Mount Sabyinyo in the background. Photo Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

It's one thing to be cosseted by a smart new lodge, but is it really possible to relax in Rwanda? There may be gorillas in the jungle, but what about that elephant in the room: the genocide? It's just 14 years since almost 1m people were killed in 100 days of bloodletting.

You might think that the ministry of tourism has beaten a safe path through to the gorillas, but not to anywhere else. In fact, the whole country, from the stunningly beautiful Lake Kivu to the southern Nyungwe Forest full of chimpanzees, is remarkably safe. Even in Kigali, the rather appealing capital, it's fine to walk about at night.

Landing at Kigali, you'll have to swap any duty-free bags for locally produced home-woven affairs made from banana leaves, as plastic ones are banned here. And on the two-hour drive to the lodge, you'll see not a single Coke can or juice carton of litter. Just smiles and waves all the way.

The lodge itself occupies a clearing halfway up the extinct Sabyinyo volcano's 12,000ft cone. Each of the eight bungalows has a large open fire, a dressing room and a giant bathroom, but in daylight hours it's impossible to sit inside. The veranda front-rows the most magnificent slice of Africa imaginable - the fabled Mountains of the Moon, vast equatorial peaks that are the suitably peerless habitat for the world's only mountain gorillas.

Comfy cottage bedroom at the lodge. Photo Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

The low-rise reception building has a fine terrace, perfect for breakfasts and sundowners; inside, there's an attractive dining room, adjoined by an embryonic library and a cosy lounge.

This location comes at a price. You have to stay full-board, which, thanks to the miracles worked in the kitchen, is far from a hardship, and all drinks (including alcohol) are complimentary. At a rack rate of £347 a night in high season, however, they would need to be.

It's revolutionary luxury as, previously, visitors had to make do with the nearby Mountain Gorilla's Nest hotel - an unsympathetic mishmash of a place, robbed of views by a ring of eucalyptus - or the Virunga Lodge, which, though enthusiastically run and overlooking Lake Bulera, meant battling with bucket showers, long-drop loos and an hour's drive to the park.

An unusually clear view of Mount Sabyinyo, part of the Parc National des Volcans. Photo Volcanoes Safaris

After a quick briefing, we entered the thick jungle in single file, the imminence of the gorillas' appearance heightening our senses to every cracking twig and crash of the tracker's machete. Trackers stay with the animals all day to guard against poachers, while others lead the groups; at the back comes a soldier escort, which does the same, but with machineguns.

After a steep but short climb of less than 30 minutes, we sidled round a clump of greasy bamboos, and there they were - 22 gorillas, dotted about like hairy black Buddhas. Several of the animals were hugging themselves, keeping warm with the same exaggerated "My, it's chilly" gesture humans use. Wow.

Old hairy arms surveying his domain

I had David Attenborough's reverent whispers to camera firmly in mind, but as we slid right into the heart of the group, the atmosphere seemed altogether tamer than when he was filming: mesmerising and wonderful, yes, but not threatening. The trackers spoke at normal volume and even chuckled, not when the gorillas did something cute - they'd seen all that before - but at the antics of us tourists. A Belgian girl tripping over her boyfriend set them off. Then a mobile phone rang and a camera bleeped. Then, amid the sound of bamboo crunching under clumsy people, someone - possibly a gorilla, possibly an Australian - farted.

So I didn't whisper. It felt library-like naughty, but nobody told me off, and the gorillas didn't seem to mind. They didn't seem to mind anything, which made sitting with 22 of the world's last 700, well, rather odd. They appeared less fearsome and more lummox-like than I could ever have imagined, parodies of themselves, even. All I could think about was the Cadbury's drummer, and a sweaty guy I'd met at a fancy-dress party.

A group of Cadbury's drummers - I mean mountain gorillas - relaxing in a jungle clearing. Photo Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

Soon, I slid my way to within a few feet of Agashya (the silverback) and sat down to stare. He was playing with a yellowy-brown paste, concentrating on it in the way a child does when sculpting mashed potato - except that he was rubbing it into the pad of his foot. It looked to me as though he were massaging a cut.

Amazed, I turned to the nearest guide: "Is that paste a natural remedy that the gorillas find in the root of plants?" I imagined our nearest genetic neighbours fashioning a pestle and mortar from bamboo, grinding the potion from leaves and roots.

The guide leant in close to me, our raincoats colliding with a rubbery squeak. "No," he said. "He's playing with his poo."

Which is when my giggling fit began. I didn't mean to laugh, but really. Agashya soon saw, though, that my buffoonery was no threat to him or his family, so he just scratched his ear (with his poo-covered fingers) and went back to rubbing his foot.

***

One more thing...Paradoxically, when you think of Rwanda's recent history, is that after a few days in the country's capital, backroads and jungles, the calm, friendly and safe atmsphere there lead me to drop my guard. The country never once felt threatening - silverback encounter aside - and I grew relaxed enough to allow myself to be robbed of my camera when changing planes in Nairobi. So alas the many hundreds of photos that I took of the gorillas, and more importantly of the scenery, villages and people, are lost. 

puzzle

Fitting the Volcanoes National Park into a holiday: Most visitors to Rwanda head straight to see the gorillas, and then head home. But a great loop is to include a wild chimpansee safari in the Nyungwe National Park and a a day or two at Gisenyi on the tranquil shores of Lake Kivu. Plus the Akagera National Park (just 110 kilometres from Kigali) has great game viewing,

31

Getting there: Kigali International Airport handled around 600,000 passengers in 2015, and is just five kilometres from the city. Rwandair destinations include Accra, Brussels, Dubai, London Gatwick, Johannesburg, Kilimanjaro, Mombassa, Mumbai and Nairobi. Other useful flights include Brussels with Brussels Airlines, Kenya Airways to Nairobi, KLM to Amsterdam, Qatar Airways to Doha, and Turkish Airlines to Itanbul.   

weather

When to visit: slightly south of the Equator and at altitude, Rwanda has a very pleasant climate. The long dry season is from June to September, with a short dry season from December-February. The long rainy season is March-May, when rain can be torrential and prolonged, and then there is a less deluged short rainy season October-November. Although the jungle and mountains ensure mists and the chance of showers at any times of the year, gorilla trekking is best during the dry seasons, when the steep dirt paths are easier to negotiate and there is a better chance of sunshine. However the best time to see the chimps in Nyungwe is in the rainy seasons when the apes are easier to see owing to their abundance of food.

35

More info: see Volcanoes National Park and Rwanda Tourism. I travelled as a guest of Audley Travel, which can tailor-make trips to Rwanda. Other UK based tour operators include Tribes Travel and Rainbow Tours, with Volcanoes Safaris being a good local tour operator. The Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is still the closest lodge to the park, which is just three kilometres away, but there has been a big improvement in accommodation option - like the Virunga Lodge, and due to open in June 2017, the Bisate Lodge.  

30

Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.


WILDLIFE WATCHING
   3706 views   
Madagascar is marvellous, but its timid and ragtag looking lemurs weren't quite the star turn I'd expected...
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

Kicking back at the Irhana Bush Camp. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I saw my first lemurs in the Amber Mountain National Park. There were maybe ten in the troop, swaying on branches right in front of me. But it wasn't the thrill I'd expected after travelling 9,000km to the impossibly exotic-sounding island of Madagascar.

They looked like toys made from leftovers and they're as timid as squirrels. Yes they can peel fruit quickly, but they're not as entertaining as Orangutans, as exciting as Chimpanzees, or as humbling as Mountain Gorillas.

Madagascar's star turn is its lemurs, but as with Disney's now-famous animation, perhaps both have obscured an island that has drifted from our consciousness like it drifted from the African continent some 165 million years ago.

Its sprawling capital is Antananarivo - an edgy crumbling city of two million people. Few locals looked African, and my guide Laliana explained that most Malagasys are descended from Indonesians who sailed across the Indian Ocean hundreds of years ago, and so the Malagasy language is in the Malayo-Polynesian group.

Madagascar got its independence from France, but in the north it was the Portuguese who arrived first, way back in 1543. I took a two-hour turboprop flight to Antsiranana, which is still known locally as Diego Suarez after the explorer (or more commonly, just 'Diego'). It's a ramshackle town with stout colonial buildings, a lighthouse, a tuna-canning factory, tremendous energy and more than a little charm.

Most tourists stay along the giant bay for the kite surfing, but I was driven 25 kilometers south to Joffreville; a colonial era outpost of houses on a hillside by the Amber Mountains National Park.

Strolling the cobbled main street - actually the only street - I heard sweet singing floating from a church, and was greeted with "Bonjour Monsieur" by lads returning from the fields. In a shack selling eggs, tomatoes and beer, I was asked to dance by an elderly lady. I fear my efforts not to offend made the royal tour gyrations of Prince Charles look hip.

The homely Lichi Lodge. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The five-room Lichi Tree Hotel tops the town and is owned and run by a pony-tailed Frenchman called Herve. A former NGO worker, he told me over home-cooked beef stew that it was built in 1902 as a summer residence for the colonial governor, Marshall Joffre. Herve lives on site and opened his dream project in 2008, with lush gardens, lots of local carvings in the rooms and a Moroccan themed lounge/bar area off the dining room.

It's only four kilometers to the national park's entrance, but the dirt road is in a shocking state. I saw one cattle cart being helped by villagers to escape the worst crater, and even our Land Cruiser was strained.

On the humid rainforest walk, leaves drip-drip-dropped with moisture and the air smelt of wet soil. My naturalist guide Philippe showed me an adult Stump-tailed chameleon the size of a kidney bean, the astonishingly effective camouflage of a leaf-tailed gecko, and a downy Madagascar Scops Owl asleep in a tree.

He told me that locals threaten their misbehaving children with nighttime kidnapping by lemurs, and that the ones I had seen were Sanford Browns. He also explained that Lemurs lived across Africa; then monkeys evolved with bigger brains and powerful bodies and wiped them out - except on Madagascar, which sailed (slowly) into the safety of the Indian Ocean to preserve many unique species.

"Eighty percent of Madagascar's flora and fauna are endemic," said Philippe, who then told me all about his wildlife documentary filming with Martin Clunes, ("a very good man, very kind, very generous").

A Renault negotiating the N6 'highway'. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The National Road N6 sounds reassuringly M1-like, but it's not. It took three hours to cover 120 kilometers to the Ankarana Special Reserve, as the road hasn't been repaired since it was first laid in 1999, except for villagers who fix the worst potholes with loose stones and beg passing drivers. The going rate is 500 Ariary - about a penny. 

Closer to the reserve the scenery grew dryer; with sweeping plains and brooding hills that resemble South Africa's Highveld grasslands. We turned off onto a dirt track and passed palm-thatched villages where everyone waved enthusiastically and children yelled "Bonjour Vazaâ" (hello white).

Arriving at the delightfully chilled Iharana Bush Camp was a treat. It's a rambling wood-built lodge beneath a fat thatch, scattered with carvings and large cushions. It looks across a lake to 200-meter high cliffs, rock walls that blaze in fiery oranges and reds at sunset. Best enjoyed with an icy bottle of THB beer.

Next morning we drove to the 'tsingy cliffs' a high ridge of stone pinnacles that were once coral formations on a prehistoric seabed. Guide Arthur took me into a gash in at the base of the rock.

He was perfectly insouciant; wearing a T-shirt with FBI on the front, translated as 'Fabulous Bachelor Inside' on the back, and a flimsy head torch - frankly I was nervous. No garishly illuminated stalactites, no classical music or gift shop. In fact there was no lighting or pathway at all, and nobody else. Just me, Arthur, two pathetically underpowered torches and eight kilometres of interconnected darkness.

I wound my torch frantically and babbled, following along the sandy floor, gingerly squeezing through clefts, inching along ledges and clambering over boulders. We found stalagmites and stalactites, rock ceilings 35 meters above us, and cooking pot shards from tribes that hid here during times of fighting 200 years ago.

When Arthur said it was too difficult to go back the way we'd come, I stopped babbling and tensed further.

Thirty exhilarating minutes later we emerged into a canyon where orange-whiskered Crowned Lemurs were performing arboreal acrobatics. Seeing them unexpectedly, they seemed more suited to their otherworldly home.

Hell I even liked them for a moment.

The whole lemur themed adventure was real and raw, like everything in Madagascar. There are decent small hotels enough for touring, but out in the countryside it's visceral and at times difficult, but it makes for cracking frontier-feeling experiences.

***

04 Despite the grinding poverty in much of the country, Madagascar feels a safe place to travel through, providing you keep your wits about you. Travelling with a tour operator will ensure a level of quality in your local guide and accommodation.
24 If you chose wisely there are some super places to stay in the country, but I can't overemphasise the shockingly poor infrastructure. It pays to be patient and flexible in Madagascar, and not to cram too much into one trip. Road journeys are long and bone-crunching, with the exception of the more heavily touristed routes closer to the capital. 
35

I travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours and Kenya Airways. Other UK-based tour operators to try include Cox & Kings, Cazenove+Loyd Wild Frontiers, and Intrepid Travel.

31

The main gateway airport to the country is the Ivato International Airport in Antananarivo. Air Madagascar flies to Guanzhou, Johannesburg, Marseille and Paris. Other options include Air France to Paris, Air Seychelles to Mahe, Air Mauritius to Mauritius, Comores Aviation to Moroni and Anjouan, Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa, Corsair to Paris and Saint-Denis de la Reunion, Kenya Airways to Nairobi, and Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. Air Madagascar also flies domestically to 10 destinations, including Nosy Be.

30 Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and check that your travel insurance is valid in this country. See here for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice.

 
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