• Panna

    Burning bright again

    Tigers are back in Panna, and how! (Published in the special Wildlife issue of Outlook Traveller in October. Click on the image to read the story in pdf form. Photographs

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  • Brick Lane

    The East Enders

    “Now this is the site where the body of Jack the Ripper’s fifth victim was found,” declares Emily, my guide at the Eating London food tour. That gets our complete

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  • Poppies

    Remains of the day

    Among the stories at the ‘Voices of the First World War’ exhibition at the Brighton Museum, is that of Subedar Manta Singh, who served with the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs. Manta,

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  • Temple

    Ringing in the new

    On any given Friday evening, Mylapore is at its festive best. Men dressed in white dhotis (unstitched cotton garments knotted at the waist and allowed to fall free), with thick

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  • Hanging on

    Losing the fear of flying

    I had never thought I would find myself 65 metres above the ground, hanging on for dear life. And doing this of my own volition. I am not the particularly

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  • Remarkable Rocks

    Roos of the game

    I so want the life Tim Williams has. He drives people around Kangaroo Island, showing them the local colour that comes in the shape of kangaroos and koalas, seals and

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  • The Lunchbox1

    Food for thought

    “Food is music to the body; music is food to the heart,” Gregory David Roberts wrote in Shantaram, his 2003 novel commended by many for its vivid portrayal of life

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  • Yodelers

    The Swiss Sound of Music

    Matthias Ammann puts his hands into his pockets, smiles at us, and yodels effortlessly. Of course he would. He has been yodeling since the age other children learn to gurgle

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  • Tiramisu

    Roman banquet

    My food walk in Rome begins with a near death-by-dessert experience. It is a balmy summer morning and our small group has met in front of a bar in Testaccio.

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  • Ghent3

    Footloose in Flanders

    If Eat, Pray, Love was a town, it would be Bruges. So pretty, so picture postcard that some guidebooks have described it as touristy and a tad fake. Our guide

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Autumn in New Zealand

It was early autumn in New Zealand when we went there – the first week of this April and we were excited about seeing the foliage colours. Since we landed in Auckland and spent the first few days in the north island, we didn’t get much of a chance to spot autumn colours but once we flew to Queenstown, we were in for a treat.

On our first afternoon in Queenstown, we drove to neighbouring Arrowtown, where the Autumn Festival was on. Arrowtown is a postcard pretty, small town, fully decked up that day for the festival, with kids and their parents out, enjoying the mellow sunshine.

Arrowtown has one main street, with buildings that look straight out of the 1800s (probably are), with little lanes branching off from it, a few shops and cafes thrown about here and there, the green hills in the distance. All, oh, so charming.

Arrowtown

And the trees were ablaze in yellows and oranges and reds – my first time ever seeing such colours. And my husband and I were thrilled to bits.

Arrowtown2

Arrowtown1

orange

yellow

Later on, driving elsewhere from Lake Wanaka, we found these trees on the sides of the road – more signs of autumn. Overall, we experienced autumn bounty in New Zealand. And now I am all set for fall colours in New England in the set coast on the USA, the only thing is, I don’t know when that will happen…

drive

My Spafari experience in South Africa

This is how it works at the Karkloof Safari Spa. They stop you at the main gate to verify your credentials and then phone the reception to expect you. You drive on further on the mud track and reach the reception area. After those last fifteen bumpy minutes on a gravel path, those cold towels feel just perfect.

No complicated check in process: just one signature here please. Someone then smiles broadly and tells you all about the facilities at the safari spa, named after the Karkloof valley it is located in. You smile back at them, only half listening, and get on to the jeeps waiting to transfer you to your villas.

And then you almost fall off your seats. Just outside the reception area, a couple of white rhinoceros are lounging in the shade of a tree (no, not acacia, even if we are in Africa).

Rhino
(image courtesy: Karkloof)

When I enter the Karkloof Safari Spa, I know I am not going to spot any of the big cats. You see, I have gone through their website with increasing wonder and anticipation for days before I finally get there. But I certainly don’t expect a welcoming committee of the other wildlife that this safari lodge meets spa heaven promises.

For a minute, I cynically wonder if the call from the main gate is some sort of code for “visitors ahead, let the rhinos out” but another look at these behemoths kills that thought. So I sit back and take a few hundred photographs. Imagine the abundance of wildlife here when I say that by the time I leave I am blasé about these big guys. Oh ok, one more rhino.

The drive to the villas, through the green and golden bush, is a taste of what is to come. And the dozens of pools, that seemed to be the preferred rendezvous for the local birdlife. By the time we reach the accommodation area, we have spotted zebras, warthogs and the native antelope, nyala (what a fascinating sound; I cannot stop saying the word aloud. Go on, try it yourself.)

nyala

It is a lovely walk from the main lodge to the villas, linked to each other by stone walkways and wooden bridges, with streams gurgling underneath. Esther shows me to my villa, where I make a quick mental note of the espresso machine and the small selection of South African wines.

The villa is a spacious affair with a bedroom, a sitting area and a bathroom that opens out to a cozy rear garden. Up front is a verandah that tempts me to put my feet up and wait for a nyala – there, I use the word again for its sheer melody (it could just as easily be a wildebeest) – to stop by my doorstep. With the bush all around and the expanse of the valley far ahead, it is no wonder they call it a viewing deck.

Villa

View
(images courtesy: karkloof)

The game reserve itself is spread over 8600 acres of land where the animals roam free. And to allow that, it is deliberately devoid of big game, the predators. But I have no time for Karkloof’s fauna to find the time to pay a house call. The spa awaits. In a land strewn with hundreds of national parks and game reserves, a safari lodge that is also a destination spa is a rare delight.

So, the spa. This paean to pampering is set in a space that is as large as the lodge itself. Karkloof takes great pride in the fact that the spa has been built to blend seamlessly into the environment. The nifty buggy gets me straight to the spa and within minutes, I am officially open for a whole day of spadom. One of the best things about this spa is, not having to go through the agony of making hard decisions based on time and money. I have eleven hours of spa treatments to indulge in, breaking off only for a bite of organic food at the spa café or a leisurely game drive to wave at a few giraffe.

All this is part of Karkloof’s concept of “timeless stay”: flexible check in and check out schedules, meal times of your making, game drives at your convenience and the luxury of staying at the spa all day. Uplifting facials? Detoxifying scrubs? Aroma Thai massages? Bring them on.

Spa
(image courtesy: Karkloof)

The star attraction of the spa is the hydrotherapy treatments – a floatation pool, the open area Jacuzzi and the Kniepp pools, among other things. The last is a system devised to boost your blood circulation by making you alternate between hot and cold pools. If you survive the shock to the system, that is. Obviously, I skip it.

In keeping with the eco-friendly theme, the hydrotherapy area boasts of “living roofs” of thatch and grass, where animals wander in to graze. The treatment rooms, also reached through wooden walkways, are spread around the core zone and overlook the wild bush. I almost expect curious zebras to peep in through the large picture windows and suffer mild trauma upon seeing humans with gooey face packs on.

My therapist is a petite Thai lady who silently works magic with her fingers. Towards the end, she tries to give me a few health tips to keep my skin glowing. I wonder sleepily if I can’t take her back home with me instead.

After being spa’d so much, I can barely keep my eyes open at the dinner table. Much of the food choices here are of the raw, healthy variety; I had a choice of falling asleep on the bowl of roasted vine tomato soup (cooked) or the pear, melon and rocket soup (raw).

That bit about game drives being at my own convenience? I had fully intended to make use of it to not wake up at an ungodly hour to go wildlife viewing. But fate has other plans. Our safari guides Kenny and Lovemore hint gently that early mornings are ideal for drives inside the reserve but of course, I could sleep in if I choose to.

ostrich

And so we go on a safari at the crack of dawn. The Karkloof birds – over 300 species within the property – are just coming to life. A couple of hippos are raising their heads hesitantly from inside a large pond. A group of ostriches is going on a disciplined march, even as wild buffalos engage in mock fights nearby. And just about everywhere, zebras and giraffe stay close to each other, grazing, content. The long and short of it, I think, looking at them.

Giraffe
(image courtesy: Karkloof)

zebra

Despite my rhino sighting of the previous day, I am excited at the thought of seeing more of them. Thanks to a white rhino-breeding programme, there are nearly twenty of them in the reserve and a solitary, endangered black rhino. The rhino we spot is right by the side of the road. He ignores us with a steadfast dedication to his breakfast. Seeing him framed against the golden glow of that morning sunlight, there is a moment of affectionate silence in the jeep. Then he looks up and the spell is broken.

Kenny and Lovemore, Zimbabweans both, are remarkably informed and passionate about the reserve and the birds and animals within. They drive us to a “special place” for breakfast. And like everything else I have experienced at Karkloof so far, breakfast too is special, in the bush, on top of a cliff, overlooking the valley.

breakfast

breakfast1

All too soon, it is time to leave. I wonder if I have the time to sneak in one more spa treatment; this kind of thing is rather addictive. But the call of the real world outside these gates is getting sharper.

The Karkloof Safari Spa calls itself Africa’s best kept secret. I come away believing it.

THE INFORMATION

How to get there

Fly Jet Airways (Rs. 51,000) or South African Airways (Rs. 53,000) from Mumbai to Durban via Johannesburg. From Durban’s King Shaka International Airport, the Karkloof Safari Spa is less than a two-hour drive. The nearest big town is Pietermaritzburg, 24 km away.

Visa

Apply for a short-term visitor visa (no fee for Indian nationals) at the VFS in Mumbai or Delhi and allow for a minimum processing time of five working days. A service charge of Rs. 1350 is to be paid in cash at the time of submission of the visa application.

Stay

There are 16 private villas at the Karkloof Safari Spa, with tariff 9900 ZAR per person, per night. The rate is inclusive of all meals, beverages, game drives, outdoor activities and spa treatments. Check in is allowed from 8 am and check out the next evening at 8 pm, which means that for one night, you get two days at the property.

Since the spa has 17 treatment rooms, there is no need to book in advance. And the stay policy also means that you can potentially get up to 22 hours of spa treatments.

Activities

Apart from the wildlife and the spa, the property is home to the Karkloof river and the 340-feet high Karkloof waterfall, reached by a mild hike. And for those so inclined, activities like fishing, birding, mountain biking and yoga sessions are offered.

Copenhagen’s street food heaven

outside

When we headed to Papiroen one afternoon to what is known as Copenhagen’s street food heaven, I didn’t have high expectations. really, what could I expect from such a place in Copenhagen?

welcome But when we went there, it was bustling with locals, out to enjoy their day in the summer sunshine. This mat welcomed us and this suspended cow greeted us as we entered the large street food enclosure.

It was a cheery, informal space – lots of benches scattered around, to be shared by people. You can also move from bench to bench, if you wanted to sit close to your vendor.

cow

Till as recently as end 2012, Papiroen – literally ‘Paper Island’ – used to be a newspaper warehouse, a part of the industrial spaces along the harbour. It was then transformed into an open, vibrant space, with a whole corner set aside for street food from all over the world. This opened in early 2014, first initiated on an experimental basis, but increasingly looks like this will stay on for a long time.

The place was made of a mix of stalls and food trucks, all neatly lined up to form narrow lanes. It was particularly interesting to see the way the trucks were parked inside a closed space like that. In all, there are 35 such stalls and trucks, and all the food was reasonably priced (especially by Scandinavian standards) around 40 – 70 Krone. you buy coupons at the beginning and use them at the individual stalls – any remaining coupons can be traded back for cash.

truck

Below, a glimpse of the wide variety on offer there – from gourmet burgers to Moroccan and Turkish food to Korean and Japanese to specialty Danish sausages, there was something for everyone.

burger

rolls

olives

sausage

Of course, as can be expected, Italian was one of the most popular cuisines there; tantalising pizza, fresh handmade pasta in a stall run by two Neapolitans and an antipasti place (see the truck above).

pizza

There was no dearth of vegetarian food here, with options ranging from wraps to pasta to more “exotic” choices – I opted for the latter and got myself this delicious stew and rice, accompanied by plantain fry, from the Colombian place. A bit like rajma chawal, this totally satiated my craving for somewhat familiar, somewhat spiced food.

colombian

And in true Copenhagen fashion – after all, it is the home of Carlsberg – visitors are expected to wash it all down with a tall mug of beer, any kind of beer you may be in the mood for. For those non- drinkers or seeking healthier options, there are also plenty of juices on offer.

beer

cake Of course, we had to end it all with a sweet extravaganza, an Oreo cheesecakes and a lemon cheesecake.

Street food heaven, it certainly was. Apart from the consistent good taste across stalls, one of the best things about the place is that all produce is sourced locally.

If you ever find yourself in Copenhagen, make sure to drop in for a bite – or three.

Friday photo: Dive

It’s wonderfully cool in Bangalore right now, what with a steady breeze and intermittent rains. But much of the country still has an extended summer going on – I know, because this time last year, I was living in Gurgaon and wilting under the harsh sun.

If we in India have a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with the sun, Europe longs for it and welcomes it with open arms. When I was in Copenhagen early this month, it was their first day of summer, and everybody, just everybody, was out on the roads soaking in the sunshine. I even met a couple of colleagues of my contact from the tourism board who had decided to have a meeting walking on the cobblestone roads, because “with weather like this, who wants to sit inside?”

And pretty much all of Copenhagen turns into a swimming pool – this scene, then, from a quiet corner on the canal, kids cooling off, with the mother watching, probably about to dive in herself.

summer
***
Also see: Friday photo series

A fascinating catwalk in Bandipur

tiger1

I had a great weekend at Bandipur, a quick break with my family. I was not sure about going to a forest in the monsoon season but then I figured that if these national parks stayed open, then it must be ok to go there in July. Luckily, the rain kept away and we had two clear, sunny days with a gentle breeze.

The Saturday evening gave us good sightings of tuskers, one of whom kept playing hide and seek with us till we moved away. And when we got out of the forest at the end of the safari, we found this family by the side of the road – two adults and one small tusker. It was lovely seeing the male tusker having fun with the young one. Other than that, we saw several herds of chital, a couple of mongoose and few birds, of which I could identify only the green bee-eater and the magpie robin. Otherwise, the forest stayed quiet all afternoon, with not even birdsong to be heard.

It was equally silent when we drove in on Sunday morning – I love morning safaris because it is great to be in the forest when everything is just coming to life after the cold night. It is usually a loud, busy time, but not in Bandipur. Just ten minutes after we entered the forest, our driver got a call on his mobile phone and off we went, zooming over the bumpy mud tracks, holding on for dear life. A few hundred metres on, he stopped behind another jeep and waved his hand to the right, with a flourish, as if to say, “here is the treat I promised you.”

And what a treat it was! A dominant adult male was walking parallel to our path – and he gave us a show for over an hour. In fact, we spent the entire morning tracking him and watching his activities at various places in the forest. The drivers and guides knew exactly where he would emerge from, when he entered into the thickets.

We were the only two jeeps for the first many minutes and so, the sighting was extremely peaceful, without any of the annoying noise and excited chatter that we find in our national parks. Nor was there any crazy pushing and shoving among jeeps for the vantage position.

Up close

We drove alongside him for several minutes; he was so close that it felt like we could reach out and touch him (yeah, right).
He then seemed to get bored and went off into the lantana – this grows in such abundance that it is difficult to spot anything hiding inside. While driving through our national parks in search of the tiger, I have often thought that there would be many tigers that remained invisible – to us – amidst the thickets, laughing at our keenness and desperation.

At this point, we wondered for a minute if the show was over (it had lasted for many minutes, so we were not complaining), but our driver went ahead to the exact place from where came out in a few minutes and walked through the grass towards the other jeeps which had come in by then.

hiding

walking

Now, the gait of the tiger can only be called a catwalk – graceful, elegant and haughty. As if everyone watching the show is not worthy of his attention. he walked close to our jeep again, crisscrossing on this path many times – but he knew exactly where he was headed. At one point, I spotted him yawning and then sticking his tongue out to lick his lips – that is the instant when the power of this magnificent beast becomes visible. Till then, he seems like a benign cat, which we almost expect to start purring.

crossing

tongue

In all this, the area still stayed pretty silent; no alarm calls from sambar (not sure if there were any around) or langurs (of which there were plenty). We held our breath when he started walking towards a herd of chital grazing nearby. Was it going to be the end for one of those? And were going to get to watch a kill?

The chital got on to super attentive mode, ears up and eyes keenly following his trail – this next image is my favourite from this trip. It shows the delicate and exact balance of the jungle ecosystem. The tiger was not hungry and therefore did not even look at the deer. They, in turn, did not feel threatened and therefor, just stood on alert mode.

ecosystem

From there, we drove on to a small water body, which the driver guides were sure he would approach. He did come, walking close to the water, but did not stop to drink there.

thirsty

Back on the mud track, he walked ahead of our jeep (we were lucky enough to be the first in that long line of vehicles) – walked on and on, with us following in fascination.

What a merry dance he led us on – walking on the path, crossing here and there, marking territory everywhere, disappearing now just to reappear soon and so on. At one point, he stopped to look back, almost as if to ask us, “are you getting this?” before heading towards the jeeps waiting on the other end of that path (to bless them with darshan).

collage

In my forays into our national parks, I have had many tiger sightings, some good and some all too brief. But this has to be one of my best experiences – the show that lasted for over an hour, and the proximity to this graceful cat. My fears about heading to Bandipur in the rainy season proved unfounded. I guess this was a really lucky sighting and I can’t wait for more and more of these to come.

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