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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Madagascar: The Lost Island

From endemic wildlife to bizarre stone forests and unexplored beaches, remote Madagascar may just be one of Africa’s last great unknowns.

By: Nellie Huang | Originally published in WildJunket Magazine April/May 2012

It was a tail. A very long, white and bushy tail. It swung back and forth in our direction, combing the breeze for our presence as we slowly approached. Bending our backs and straining our eyes against the sunlight, we watched as the ape-like animal leapt from tree to tree towards us. 30 feet, 15 feet, five feet.

It was in full view now – all of its white furry body, long monkey limbs, webbed feet and olive green eyes. Just inches before us the creature curiously sniffed us out, with not the least bit of apprehension.
A lemur. To be precise, a Verreaux’s sifaka, which is also known as a dancing lemur for its comical locomotion on the ground. This primate is one of the most popular lemurs and definitely the weirdest.
Just 15 minutes into the Kirindy Forest Reserve and we’d seen our first lemur. Here on the island of Madagascar, lemurs are the stars of the jungle – and also the main draw for the few intrepid travelers who make their way to this remote isle each year.

Most people come to Madagascar to get a first-hand look at its unique wildlife, with the lemur as the headline act. But as my photographer husband and I traversed through Madagascar – from lemur-stalked Kirindy to the stone pinnacles Tsingy de Bemaraha, and then on to the laid back beach town of Morondava – it was quickly apparent there’s far more to see in this largely unexplored part of Africa.

"Only in Madagascar can you find the world’s biggest chameleons, over 70 species of lemurs, and 6,000 different kinds of endemic plants, including the bizarre spiny ocotillo tree and the bottle-shaped baobab."

Biodiversity Hotspot
Marooned in the vast Indian Ocean, la Grand Île is home to an uncommon group of animals and plants found nowhere else in the world. Most of these have evolved after the island’s separation from the African continent 165 million years ago. Only in Madagascar can you find the world’s biggest chameleons, over 70 species of lemurs, and 6,000 different kinds of endemic plants, including the bizarre spiny ocotillo tree and the bottle-shaped baobab.

Slightly bigger than California, Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world. Stretching out over 3,100 miles (5,000 km) of untouched coastline, it features extremely diverse terrains and habitats: from the dramatic mountains of the north to pristine spearmint-blue beaches in the south; from green humid rainforests in the east to the spiny forests of the west.

Sadly, Madagascar’s age of innocence might be short-lived. With problems like civil unrest, corruption and over-exploitation of resources plaguing the country, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has declared Madagascar’s ecosystem one of the most threatened in the world. Lemurs are facing extinction as some tribes in Madagascar continue to hunt them for bush meat while patches of wild forests on the island are slowly disappearing due to illegal logging.

On the bright side, all is not lost – several wildlife conservation groups such as World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) are working with Madagascar’s ANGAP (National Association for the Management of Protected Areas) to promote awareness and implement measures. Locals are gradually coming to grips with the reality that their wealth is in their wildlife and natural environment. Tourism is an integral part to rebuilding the country.

Now that the island is slowly regaining political stability, there is no better time to return to the Great Red Island.

This is just a preview of the 10-page feature on WildJunket Magazine. If you enjoyed this preview, you can read the full article in WildJunket Magazine April/May 2012.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Kenia: Partytjie wat jóú pas (Afrikaans)

 Toe die uitnoding na die loods van 1time se direkte vlugte na Mombasa, Kenia, vroeër vanjaar in my e-posmandjie beland, het ek allermins vermoed dit voorspel een groot, plesierige partytjie ... Mariette Snyman kyk terug

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Coming To Kenya

A new direct flight from Jo’burg to Mombasa is making a gorgeous beach playground more easily accessible to South Africans – and gorgeous it certainly is, writes MA Farquharson

DHOW TOWN: After lunch, tourists are ferried from Wasini Island to their dhow for the return to the mainland

 A WEEKEND in Kenya and my heart has succumbed to darkness: suddenly, blue-light convoys aren’t such a blot on the fabric of society. When 1time’s inaugural flight touched down at the Moi International Airport, to mark this historic occasion, two fire engines sprayed the plane as it taxied towards the terminal; a group of traditional dancers sang welcoming songs; PR and tourism types formed a gift-laden honour guard for us on the tarmac; and we were given drinks served in hollowed-out coconuts, which had been decorated with flowers and little umbrellas. Not to mention that Kenya’s press was on hand, the minister of tourism gave a speech of welcome. The tourist police preceded the convoy of buses taking us to our resorts. The police car howled and flashed its way through Mombasa, onto the ferry from the island, and along the 40km south to our destination in Diani Beach, on Kenya’s southern coast. According to our guide, the tourist police are called whenever batches of holiday-makers arrive, but he was reticent about whether they got quite the blue-light treatment we did. Although trucks, cars, tuk-tuks, minibuses, pedestrians, handcarts, motorbikes and bicycles were squeezed off the road as we sailed by, there was some moral comfort to be gained from the fact that we were travelling at the speed limit, or maybe even a bit below it. Then I saw my room at the hotel — and the archetypal white beach and breath-taking turquoise sea. It was time to down some water, lather on the sunblock, prepare to swim and, on the way out, close the window (to prevent the vervet monkeys from breaking in). Our group was scattered among three adjoining hotels operated by the PlanhotelGroup, which will offer holiday packages in partnership with 1time — an arrangement that is already working well in Zanzibar, the airline’s other EastAfrican destination. The hotels consist of units set amid well-tended lawns and gardens — spot the staff picking the flowers that will later end up on your bed — and boast things like bars and pools and dining halls.

Sandies Neptune Paradise Village
It’s perfect for holiday-makers who simply want to blob, or maybe move a step or 20 to swim and snorkel, or take part in the activities organised by the hotel, such as water aerobics or archery. If that’s too physical, relax in the shade and people-watch: the painful-looking brick-red sunburn; the snug Speedo worn by many of the overweight male holidaymakers from Europe; and the one behaviour I’d heard of but never seen: the wraps or towels sent into action at dawn, or maybe earlier, to mark out a specific lounger for the day. On the first morning after our arrival, our party was treated to a marathon day of sailing in a dhow around Wasini Island, which is only a few kilometres north of the Tanzanian border. But first we had to board a bus and drive for about an hour to the jetty: although the Kenyan government says it plans to invest a fortune in infrastructure, the roads are too narrow at the moment for the traffic they carry, and the potholes don’t help. Once on the jetty, we were parcelled out on dhows, which look us to a marine reserve where we could snorkel or scuba dive along a reef. It was a long, long, trip, but beautiful, and most of us descended into a hypnotic trance as the day wore on and we sleepily consumed lovely little sesame-seed balls, fruit, water and cool drinks, and chatted and gazed out over the ocean while the engine putted along. Sadly, conditions weren’t right for sailing. According to the tour operator, we should have spent at least 90 minutes diving, but because we’d started late, we only managed 50, but they were well worth it. The salty water makes diving down a bit of an effort, but the colours, the fish and the coral — which burst into life whenever the sun came out — were astonishing. Unfortunately it was overcast and the water was a bit turbulent, so visibility wasn’t of the excellence which Kenya hands assured me was the norm.
Diamonds Neptune Palm Beach
Once the schools of bottoms, preceded by yellow snorkel tubes, were back on board the dhows, it was off to Wasini Island for a relaxed lunch at a restaurant called Charlie Claw’s, which offers freshly caught fish, giant crabs and local delicacies, such as cooked slices of fresh coconut. I would have loved to stay longer on the island: the tiny bit we saw seemed peaceful and cool, and drowsing on one of the cots under the trees would have been bliss. But, again, our tardiness cut short the trip: instead of dozing, visiting the nearby village, or exploring a coral garden which is only covered by spring tides, it was back to the mainland and then onto the bus to the hotel. We took a long time travelling to our various destinations — a total of about seven hours, excluding the snorkelling and lunch. But as long as you don’t get seasick or stung by jellyfish, as happened to several members of our group, you’ll probably love the trip. One woman apparently dislocated her shoulder while being transferred from a skiff to the dhow, but she got to try out the speedy, excellent and relatively cheap medical attention on offer at a clinic near the resort, where she was diagnosed with only a torn muscle. There are a number of outings you can either organise through the hotel or by yourself — and there are internet connections available if you want to do some research. But a shamefaced word of warning: get the hotel concierge to negotiate the price if you hire a taxi. My skills were so bad we paid about double the price to go to Mombasa and back that a group of more experienced travellers got the hotel to arrange. In Mombasa, one Chrispus Amrono, who said he was a trainee tourist guide, offered to show us around Fort Jesus — for free, as part of his apprenticeship.

LOOMING LARGE: The entrance to Fort Jesus on the island of Mombasa

The fort is the city’s main tourist attraction; a gigantic stronghold built by the Portuguese in the16th century and declared a Unesco World Heritage Site last year. Depending on which guidebook you read, the Portuguese were besieged there for anywhere between 12 and 33 months by Omani Arabs. When the 15 or so survivors finally surrendered they were executed and the Portuguese presence in this part of the world faded away. Photographs can’t convey how monumental the fort is. And only if I were Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the romantic poet, would I be able to transmit the charm of the slowly decaying walls and the romantic impressions created by the Ming pottery on display from the days when the Chinese traded with East Africa. Across from the fort is what remains of the “old town” which, though small, is reminiscent of Arab souks. A walk into the narrow streets immediately washes away the stresses of the Western-style city only a few steps away. So, would I go again? The four hour direct flight is a good re on to consider holidaying on Kenya’s coast. You need time to properly laze around the pool, enjoy the loungers under the coconut trees, or snorkel for hours in the sea. But what make the country special are the ordinary Kenyans, those who clean rooms, drive taxis, man dhows or stand behind hotel reception desks for hours and never lose their tempers.
Sandies Neptune Paradise Village
Resort owners can “package” beaches and food and luxury rooms, but this wouldn’t mean much without the Kenyans. You can’t “design” such a great sense of humour, or “conceptualise” the politeness and helpfulness displayed by the many locals we came in contact with. I can’t comment on those trying to scratch a living outside the bubble of the tourist resorts, the people we saw from the windows of our air-conditioned buses. Presumably, as one does in South Africa, tourists should simply close their eyes to the poverty and hope their money will eventually help improve the lives of ordinary people.  

MA Farquharson was hosted by 1time and the Planhotel Diamonds Neptune Palm Beach hotel in Diani.

Text & some pictures by MA FARQUHARSON
Taken from the Sunday Times Travel, Sunday Times, March 11 2012. Page 16 & 17
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Monday, March 12, 2012

Breakaways for Less

If you missed out on our web letter that went out last week Friday (9 March 2012), below is a copy. If you want to subscribe to our web letter or are interested in any of the specials please e-mail us on info@africanencounters.com

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Hills are alive! Trail Review: Maliba Lodge 4X4 trail, Lesotho

Words & Pictures by Patrick Cruywagen

A common Lesotho travel complaint is that people don’t know where to go to find those 4x4 tracks that no-one else knows about. Maliba Lodge has made things easy for you by formally mapping all those lesser-known and hard-to-find tracks in the area surrounding the Tsehlanyane National Park.

The young lad perched on the stone wall looks a perfect picture as our 4x4 purrs past. He doesn’t move, so we stop. I hop out and take a snap, and within minutes I’m surrounded by dozens of the blighters. An elderly lady approaches me to have a chat. “You see, these kids are all orphans; they don’t have parents and we look after them,” she explains. The kids laugh with joy when I show them their images on my camera’s LCD display. 

Not many tourists or vehicles come along this track. The atmosphere is relaxed and happy; everyone is friendly and all they want is a chat. “Where do you come from?” “Why are you here?” No-one asks for sweets or money. This is rural Lesotho – untouched and unspoilt. We’ve spent the best part of the afternoon driving one of Maliba Lodge’s 4x4 trails and have seen no other vehicles or tourists, just friendly locals and some pretty tough tracks.

Maliba Lodge lies within the Tsehlanyane National Park, one of the two national parks in Lesotho. The park’s located in the front range of the Maluti Mountains and at the foot of the Holomo Pass. Getting there took less than an hour from the Caledonspoort border post. Once you turn off the main A1 road, it’s good tar road all the way to the park’s gates. They’ve put several speed bumps on this access road as it snakes its way through several villages on the way to the park. While the lodge lies within the park, the five 4x4 trails they’ve mapped lie outside of it. The various trails all start somewhere along the park’s access road. To make life easy for you, each of the five trails has been mapped, complete with GPS co-ordinates. There’s also a good, detailed description of what to expect. The starting point of the closest trail is only a couple of kilometres from the lodge’s boom gates, while the furthest trail is about 23 km away. We’ve chosen Route B, which is some 10 clicks from the lodge. It has a blue, red and green section and we decided to do all three of them, which should take about four hours. The route goes through several villages and schools.Some sections of the trail have been severely affected by the rain and we have to take great care to ensure we don’t fall into any of the holes the rain has created.

The only traffic we encounter are the many donkey carts, filled to the brim with mielies as it’s harvest time. Our map shows the location of a traditional hut so we stop to take a look. It’s supposed to be occupied by a traditional leader but he has taken off for the day. A local farmer carrying a large bunch of wood on his head stops for a chat. He complains that his mielie harvest is smaller than last year’s.
We drive still deeper and deeper into the mountains. Soon there’s no sign of human habitation besides the occasional passing herd boy. We engage diff-locks as we make our way down a tricky descent, which is followed by a shallow water crossing. The track gets worse and worse but our G-Wagon seems to like it rough. I climb out to guide the driver through a very rocky patch. Just as he’s about to attempt it a herd of donkeys and some locals come whizzing by. They laugh at us as they pass and one stops to ask us the where, what and why.

I’ve never met friendlier people in any of my previous Lesotho visits. I suppose this has to do with the fact that tourists don’t normally drive these routes. The sun starts to slip away behind the mountains and we decide to turn around. We’ve taken longer than the trail guide said we would but maybe that’s because we stopped so often.

It took us the best part of the day to do just one of the five trails, but we did take time to interact with the locals. When you take the main roads that connect the well-known lodges or stopovers in Lesotho you tend to miss what travel is really about. The next time I’m in the area I’m definitely going to try another of the Maliba 4x4 trails. Having driven many more formal trails on private property, this one was a breath of fresh air. Yes, it was on public roads, but these roads are so bad that the public does not use them. They’re perfect for the guy with a 4x4 that wants to get a feel for the real Lesotho, which you don’t get to experience from the main roads.

Words & Pictures by Patrick Cruywagen

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Kite-surfing Heaven – Paje, Zanzibar

by Juan Nel

Not a lot of people know but Zanzibar is one of the best kite-surfing areas for beginner kite-surfers as well as awesome opportunity for professionals to try out new tricks. But a lot of people do not even know what kite-surfing is, because it’s such a new sport. So let’s start at the definition before we go into how Zanzibar is the best venue for kite-surfing. Kite-surfing is an adventure surface water sport that has been described as combining wakeboarding, windsurfing, surfing, paragliding, and gymnastics into one extreme sport. Kite-surfing harnesses the power of the wind to propel a rider across the water on a small surfboard or a kite-board (similar to a wakeboard). If this definition doesn’t help, I hope the pictures in this post will.

One of the best companies on the island with the best kite-surfing spot is Paje by Kite, situated on the Southeast coast of Zanzibar in the Paje village area. Paje by Kite is very conveniently located within an incredibly beautiful tropical kite-surfing heaven, with its waist deep turquoise sandy bottom lagoons and conditions that cater for kite-surfers of all levels.
The lagoons on low and neap tides offer butter flat free style pools that keep even the hungriest of pros satisfied and on the other hand offer the perfect place for beginners to do their first metres on the board. There is plenty of space so the two don’t interfere with each other. Paje is also one of the easiest places for intermediate riders who have done a kite course and now just need the time on the water to become more confident and practise the water start. For more confident riders paje by Kite have professional lessons in wave riding and freestyle, which will make it that much easier for you to reach that level you dreamt off.

If the wind is on, paje by Kite offer and organise kite trips and down-winders around the island from the majestic sand islands in the west to the pristine endless coastline of the east. Paje By Kite is the only kite station with a 17ft 125hp kite boat brought in to satisfy all adventurous kite-surfers that want to find the perfect spot.

If there is no wind, there are many activities to keep you entertained and make sure that you will return home with many good memories of Zanzibar. To mention just some:
•    wakeboarding
•    tubing
•    boat cruises
•    snorkelling trips
•    diving
•    motorbike tours and local tours around the island
African Encounters can also offer you good and very affordable accommodation for your stay in Paje. One of these places is Paje by Night. With its funky and vibrant atmosphere, Paje is the place to go to have fun in a relaxed setting close to a beautiful beach. If you're allergic to fancy resorts and want something more in touch with its surroundings, Paje by Night is the place to be. This vibrant, budget hotel, situated near the magnificent Paje beach on the eastern coast of Zanzibar, simply oozes character and charm. Paje by Night has one of the best atmospheres on the island, thanks to the brilliant team of fun-loving managers and staff. A friendly Italian named Marco, whose lively character is infectious, runs it. You're bound to love him and feel instantly relaxed. The barmen and waiters are equally vibey and great to be around, making Paje's bar the social hub of the area (hence the name Paje by Night). The restaurant serves excellent meals at a reasonable price and is well-regarded in the area.

Call it what you will, Paje by Night is somewhere in-between a funky backpackers, a beach guesthouse and a small, budget hotel. It doesn't look like much on arrival, but don't let that faze you. The management has done its utmost to spruce up the place. As you walk around you'll see ethnic paintings and colourful patterns decorating the walls, hammocks calling out to be lazed on, a craft centre full of gorgeous things to buy and gardens flourishing in-between the coral pathways. The rooms are simple, but very comfortable, clean and tidy.

African Encounters will have affordable kite-surfing & accommodation combination packages coming soon...

Pictures by Shayne Thomas Photography

Kite-surfing 101 @ Paje by Kite: