Category Archives: Beyond India

The Jungfrau region: An artistic refuge

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Few know how the epic landscapes of Switzerland’s Jungfrau region inspired the literary legacy of Goethe and Tolkien, besides the spirit of adventure, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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For a country of hills and vales typified through the folkloric tales of William Tell and Heidi, it might come as a surprise to many that Switzerland is also the inspiration behind JRR Tolkein’s ‘Rivendell’. While New Zealand may have served as the shooting locale for the Lord of the Rings saga, it was the Swiss Alps in the Bernese Oberland (highlands of Bern Canton) that provided literary stimulus. In a letter written to his son in the 1950’s, Tolkien acknowledged that the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ journey to the other side of the ‘Misty Mountains’ was based on his own Swiss adventures in 1911.

As part of a group of 12, with his brother Hillary and friends, a 19-year-old Tolkien travelled on foot from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen by mountain paths to the head of the valley, eastward over the two high passes Kleine and Grosse Scheidegge to Grindelwald and eventually Merringen. They continued over the Grimsel Pass through Upper Valais to Brig, the Aletsch Glacier and finished up in Zermatt and the Matterhorn. A new walking tour ‘There and Back Again’, retraces the 290km walking route, though we were content to follow most of the journey by train.

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The Bernese Oberland was the first place of mass tourism in Switzerland. British schoolboys came here for a break in the 1830s after finishing school. Before getting the world to travel, the first trip Thomas Cook ever took was to Interlaken in 1863. German composers Wagner and Mendelssohn, Mark Twain, Ted Roosevelt and a host of climbers came here. In 1874, the Bodeli Railway carried the first travelers from across the world to the Custom House, as Interlaken Ost was then called. With the opening of the Bernese Oberland Railway in 1890 and a ship jetty in 1891, tourism boomed.

After watching Deep Purple and local hero Gola at the Snowpenair Concert at Kleine Scheidegg few years ago courtesy Jungfrau Railways, we were here for another spectacular event. Golfing sensation and Omega brand ambassador Rory McIlroy was teeing off at the 22 km long Aletsch Glacier, the longest glacier in the Alps which ran to a depth of one mile, at Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe.

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We reached Interlaken Ost and took a connecting train to our base Grindelwald where we checked into Sunstar Hotels. Cradled at the base of the jagged north face of the Eiger, it overlooked the Snowpark Grindelwald First. Gondolas transported tourists to Schreckfeld and First for the thrill of ziplining down the First Flyer and First Glider, the new Cliff Walk by Tissot and the hour’s hike to the pristine mountain lake Bachalpsee, besides other adventures like Mountain Cart and Trotti Bikes.

It was the annual festival day so Grindelwald’s main avenue had been blocked with makeshift stalls selling handicrafts, local wines, winter wear and food. We grabbed a bratwurst and some churros before boarding a train to Wilderswil, from where the Schynige Platte Bahn took us on a steep 7.2 km ride on a cogwheel-railway track climbing 1400m to the famous alpine wildflower gardens of Schynige Platte. Built in 1893, this mountain railway completed 125 years this year.

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Man and machine seemed in harmony with nature as the locomotives bore names of alpine flowers. We were riding No.19 ‘Fluhblume’. Visitors can see nearly 600 species of plants and two thirds of all the flowers in the Alps on a circuit that’s only a kilometer long. Sometimes jet-black, sometimes silver in the evening sun after a thunderstorm, the plates of slate gleam from afar, giving Schynige Platte its name.

The train halted at Breitlauenen and we admired the view at Ferdinand Hodler lookout point, where one of the best-known Swiss painters of the nineteenth century sat to paint. His piece ‘The Woodcutter’ featured on the 50 Swiss Franc note. We were lucky to get some fresh feathery snowfall on the train ride winding through tunnels and a landscape blanketed in white.

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Two huge picture frames encourage visitors to capture the trio of mountains but the clouds masked the majestic view of the Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch. At Berghotel Schynige Platte we enjoyed a typical Swiss meal of goulash, Wilderer rosti with venison and Alpler rosti or hash browns with pan fried sausage and onion sauce.

Over 200 years ago, as the first visitors travelled to the Bernese Oberland, the Schynige Platte was already a favourite among the wealthy upper class. People thronged grand hotels in Interlaken besides inns and guesthouses in villages and valleys, driven by the maxim ‘up into the mountains, to the summits’. The hike from Schynige Platte to the Faulhorn and Grosse Scheidegg was a classic, done by day or moonlight. Back then, the train ‘saved four to five hours of walk and a cost of 20 to 25 francs for beasts of burden.’

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Early travel journals noted how the Jungfrau always seemed inaccessible and untouchable, hence its name Jungfrau (the maiden or virgin). In 1811 Jungfrau was scaled and the golden age of Alpine mountaineering culminated in the ascent of Eiger’s north face in 1933. But like people, even the trains had learned to climb. Adolf Guyer-Zeller envisioned the historic Jungfrau Railways, tunneling 7.2km through the Eiger and Monch to reach Europe’s highest railway station Jungfraujoch.

In 2001, the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn region became the first area of outstanding natural beauty in Switzerland together with the Alpine region to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Today, one million visitors flock to the Top of Europe to delight in its snowy pleasures.

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From Alpine Sensation, Ice Palace, Sphinx observatory (reached by the fastest lift in Switzerland) to Swiss Chocolate Heaven by chocolatier Lindt, there’s lots to explore. Braving winds for a selfie with the Swiss flag at the Plateau, tourists shriek in delight as they go sledding or whooshing down the 250-m long zipline. The year-round accessibility only adds to the destination’s popularity.

Yet, the Jungfrau region is dotted with smaller villages that retain their rustic charm. From Kleine Scheidegg, we took the Wengernalp Bahn past the ‘pedestrian only’ village of Wengen to Lauterbrunnen, dubbed as the Valley with 72 glacial waterfalls. Well-fed Swiss cows munched on sweet-smelling Alpine grass, their tinkling bells forming a constant soundtrack. As the train took the final turn across the bridge, we got a magical view of the church and Staubbach Falls.

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The earliest travel guide to the Lauterbrunnen valley was published in 1768 by Bernese publisher Abraham Wager featuring illustrations by Swiss painter Caspar Wolf. It was a 45min walk from the train station to the base of the fall past pretty chalets and Horner ‘the best pub in town because we are the only one’. The cataract plummeted from a lofty 297 m in a misty spray – it was first measured on 28 July 1776. Like us, many painters, writers and travelers were captivated by its beauty.

Poet and composer Johann Wolfgang Goethe toured the Lauterbrunnen valley in 1779 with Duke Karl August von Weimar. The sight of Staubbach Falls delighted him so much that he called it a ‘most wonderful thing’ and wrote his poem “Song of the Spirits over the waters”. In his travel diary dated Sep 1816, Lord Byron noted how the sun made a rainbow in the waterfall. “I have never seen anything like it. It looked just like a rainbow, which came down for a visit, and was so near that one could just step into it.”

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One look at the scenery and Tolkien’s description of Rivendell came to life. Cascading waterfalls and a loud river that overlooked the three ‘Misty Mountain Peaks’ were no doubt based on Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger. The mines of Moria were inspired by the construction of the Jungfraubahn, which was being finished when Tolkien visited in 1911.

We learnt ‘Orc’ is a local name for a demon and how a picture postcard of a painting Der Berggeist (the mountain spirit) by German artist J Madlener depicting an old man with a white flowing beard wearing a wide brimmed hat and a long cloak, was the origin of Gandalf. We couldn’t agree more with Tolkien’s words – “I left the view of the Jungfrau with great regret – eternal snow etched as it seems against eternal sunshine.”

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly Swiss from Mumbai to Zürich International Airport (8 hr 55 min). Board an SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) train to Bern (1 hr 20 min) and take the connecting train to Interlaken Ost (54 min). www.swiss.com www.SwissTravelSystem.com

Getting Around
Berner Oberland Bahn (BOB) from Interlaken Ost to Grindelwald station provides the first stage of mountain railway routes. Wengernalpbahn (WAB) and Jungfraubahn (JB) to, Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Kleine Scheidegg and Europe’s highest station at Jungfraujoch. A 3-day Jungfrau VIP pass with unlimited travel costs CHF 235 (available from 1 May-26 Oct at all stations). www.jungfrau.ch

Where to Stay
Carlton Europa, Interlaken
Sunstar Hotels, Grindelwald
Berghotel Schynige Platte
Oberland, Lauterbrunnen

Things to Do
Jungfraubahn to Jungfraujoch Top of Europe
First Flyer, First Glider, Tissot Cliff Walk, Mountain Cart
Alpine Garden at Schynige Platte
Hike from First to Bachalpsee
Walk to Staubbach waterfall in Lauterbrunnen
Harderbahn Funicular from Interlaken to Harder Kulm
BLS boat cruise on Lake Thun and Lake Brienz

For more info, visit www.myswitzerland.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 30 Nov, 2018 in Indulge, the Friday lifestyle supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

 

Kigali: In the Land of a Thousand Hills

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With direct flights by RwandAir from Mumbai to Kigali, Rwanda’s vibrant capital has never seemed so attractive; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take a Go Kigali city tour to experience its local sights, markets and cuisine 

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We flew out on Rwand Air and discovered that it takes less time to get to the Rwandan capital Kigali from Mumbai than driving to Ratnagiri. With a direct connection four times a week, more travellers are discovering the wonders of this tiny yet remarkable country in East Africa.

Rwanda is one of the world’s last refuges of the mountain gorilla and the invitation to Kwita Izina 2018, a naming ceremony for baby gorillas born the previous year, was irresistible. We made the most of our time in Kigali before the official program. Jullesse, the Rwandan Development Board representative greeted us warmly at the airport and highlighted the city’s landmarks en route to our hotel.

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“That building decked up in colourful lights is the Kigali Convention Centre, often lit up in the colours of the visiting head of state.” When Indian PM Modi visited Rwanda in July this year, it wore the hues of the Indian tricolour. Modi also donated 200 cows to villagers at Rweru under President Paul Kagame’s Girinka program (literally ‘May you have a cow’ in the local Kinyarwanda dialect) where every poor family receives one cow for sustenance. In a country where cows are held in high regard, this gesture won lots of Rwandan hearts.

We soon reached the swanky Kigali Marriott Hotel, which opened two years ago, one of the first international chains with a presence in Rwanda. Inside the massive executive suite, a personalized note, macaroons and a dry fruit platter awaited us. The view from the balcony was stupendous.

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A ‘no photography’ sign on the glass door was bewildering. The steward quickly explained that the hotel faced the high-security presidential quarters! On the other side were a line of embassies, leaving us chuffed to be staying in the posh diplomatic enclave of Kiyovu in the CBD (Central Business District).

Sauntering downstairs to Soko restaurant (literally ‘market’), we admired the entire wall decorated with traditional woven agasake baskets. Besides a massive spread we were intrigued to find faratas and chickpeas in their dedicated African breakfast corner! Rwanda has many Indian settlers who influenced the local cuisine. We tried the local staple kaunga (steamed corn stew) and matoke (green banana and beef stew).

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It was surprising to learn that Kigali was founded only as recently as 1907 by German explorer and administrator Richard Kandt. His house, now a museum, was just a short walk away. Strolling past the local moto taxi stand (bike taxis like Goa) and the gorilla statue opposite Kigali City Hall, we reached what was the first European-style house in the city.

In the colonial ‘Scramble for Africa’ in late 19th century, Germany established a presence in Rwanda by forming an alliance with King Yuhi V Musinga in 1897. Kandt arrived in 1899 while exploring Lake Kivu in search of the source of the river Nile. In 1907 Germany separated the administration of Rwanda-Burundi and Kandt was appointed the country’s first resident. He moved the administrative headquarters from the King’s Palace in Nyanza to a more central location. Reaching this large hilly tract, he called it Kigali, literally ‘expansive’. The name rang true as we looked at the city stretching around a chain of hills!

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Kandt built the first brick house in town at Nyarugenge, which had great weather and afforded good views. It became a Museum of Natural History but all the exhibits had been moved out except the lone baby crocodile in a pool and a collection of snakes in a small enclosure at the back.

The building presently serves as the Kandt House Museum outlining Rwanda’s colonial history and culture. It was Kandt who first allowed the entry of Indian and Swahili traders into the country in 1908. During this period, Kigali had a population of 2000 with 420 foreigners, mostly Arabs and Indians, besides 9 Germans!

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During World War I, Belgium took control of Rwanda-Burundi in 1916 and it wasn’t until 1962 that Kigali became the capital upon Rwandan independence. In April 1994, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down near Kigali Airport, triggering the Rwandan genocide, where nearly a million people, mostly Tutsi and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered in premeditated attacks by the interim government.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a moving reminder of Rwanda’s tragic past, where locals often come to be reunited with their loved ones. Rwanda celebrates the 25th anniversary of the genocide in 2019 and April 7 is observed by the United Nations as the Day of Remembrance of the victims.

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We stopped by at Kigali’s iconic hotel, Hôtel des Mille Collines, named after the Belgian appellation for Rwanda during colonial rule – ‘Pays des Mille Collines’ (Land of a Thousand Hills). It became famous after 1,268 people took refuge here during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The story of the hotel and its manager Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) was immortalized in the film Hotel Rwanda.

It was unbelievable that the country had emerged from the Dark Ages in the late-90s into what is its Golden Age of development. It is a gritty story of healing, forgiveness and coming to terms with their past to build a better future. Today, Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries in Africa and Kigali is so clean, you could literally eat off the wide pavement-lined avenues!

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The last Saturday of every month is dedicated to community service work called Umuganda when the whole society comes together to clean or rebuild. Rwanda is also the safest country in Africa for women and the ease of doing business has been streamlined by merging all nodal agencies into RDB (Rwanda Development Board). You can open a business within 24 hours of landing here!

Back at Kigali Marriott we grabbed some ‘Question Coffee’ from a women’s co-operative at the Iriba Bar & Terrace and fried sambaza (local fish) sourced from Lake Kivu and brochettes (skewered meat cubes with roasted ibirayi or Irish potatoes). Interestingly, German soldiers and Belgian missionaries brought the potato to Rwanda in early 20th century and ibirayi is derived from uburayi meaning ‘that which comes from Europe’! After a relaxing Dead Sea mud therapy at the spa we whiled away the evening happy hours at the posh Executive Lounge.

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The hotel has special Indian, Asian and African theme nights, besides wine tastings and live jazz but we savoured some gnocchi and baked captain fish at their Italian restaurant Cucina. Our friend from an earlier trip to Zambia, Davidson Mugisha of Wildlife Tours Rwanda dropped by to show us a bit of Kigali’s legendary nightlife, as we barhopped from Riders at Kigali Heights to Fuchsia Lounge.

Kigali Marriott has an outlet of Go Kigali, which organizes local city tours and we set off on a half-day excursion the next day. The small boutique also stocks lovely handmade products sourced from all over Africa. Led by our friendly guide Colombe, we headed to Mount Kigali for a panoramic view over town. The pine forests were serene except for a troupe of furtive blue-balled Vervet monkeys.

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Our next stop was the Gaddafi Mosque, home to the Islamic Centre and a place of refuge during the genocide. Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi was a popular figure here and roads, mosques and bakeries were named after him. Southwest of CBD, the suburb of Nyamirambo was the second part of the city to be settled. Belgian colonists established it in the 1920s for civil servants and Muslim Swahili traders.

Though most of the country follows Christianity, Nyamirambo is the Muslim Quarter. Masjid al-Fatah, better known as the Green Mosque, is the oldest mosque in town, dating back to the 1930s. With its busy nightlife and hip hangouts, Nyamirambo is hailed as the coolest neighbourhood in Kigali.

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We trawled local milk bars, cafes, mural walks and markets like Kimironko where Colombe taught us how to eat tree tomato and passion fruit like locals as we marveled at the rows of baskets heaped with rainbow-hued beans. We ended our tour with a traditional meal at Tamu Tamu – ugali (cassava porridge), stewed cassava leaves, goat curry, fish and aubergine curry, beef pilao, avocado and beans.

That evening we dropped by at Ikaze, a boutique for traditional Rwandan handicrafts and discovered little treasures to take home. We bought some more agasake peace baskets; symbolic of this tiny nation driven by the philosophy of ubumuntu or ‘greatness of heart’, teaching the world about the values of forgiveness, humanity and compassion.

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FACT FILE 

Getting there
The national carrier Rwand Air flies direct from Mumbai to Kigali in 7 hrs four times a week (Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat). www.rwandair.com

Where to Stay
Kigali Marriott Hotel www.marriott.com
Kigali Serena Hotel www.serenahotels.com
Hôtel des Milles Collines www.millecollines.rw/
Ubumwe Grande Hotel www.ubumwegrandehotel.com/

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Must Do
City tour with Go Kigali Tours, $60/person 9:30am-1pm, 2-6pm
Pay your respect at Kigali Genocide Memorial
Try the local ‘Question’ Coffee and Rwandan tea, besides local beers like Mutzig, Primus and Virunga
Feast on Rwandan cuisine at Tamu Tamu restaurant
Shop for agasake and souvenirs at Ikaze & Kimironko Market
Clubbing at Riders, Fuchsia, Coco Bean, Envy, K Club, Bougainvilla
Gorilla trekking with Wildlife Tours Rwanda www.wildlifetours-rwanda.com

For more info, www.visitrwanda.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared on 3 Nov, 2018 in HT City, Hindustan Times newspaper.  

Victoria Falls: The Smoke That Thunders

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From the mighty Zambezi River thundering down to form the famous Victoria Falls to heritage trains, petting lions and helicopter rides above the falls, Livingstone in Southern Zambia is a traveller’s paradise, discover ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY

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As our 30-seater Mahogany Air twin-turboprop approached Harry Nkambule International Airport at Livingstone, we could see a giant mist hanging in the air over the lush green landscape. “That’s Victoria Falls,” smiled the amiable steward, quite used to seeing passengers agape. The gush of water is so much, the rising mist can be seen from miles, hence its local name ‘Mosi-oa-tunya’ or The Smoke that Thunders. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Vic Falls as it’s popularly known, ranks among the seven natural wonders of the world – and the only one in Africa.

Incidentally, the first European to stumble upon the Zambezi river in January 1498 was Vasco da Gama, who disembarked at a point he named Rio dos Bons Sinais (River of Good Omens). Centuries later explorer David Livingstone became the first westerner to see the Mosi-oa-Tunya. He first heard of the great waterfall in 1851 and finally visited it in 1855.

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He came down the Zambezi in a canoe, camped on Kalai Island a few kilometers upstream and set off in a small dugout to approach the thunderous smoke. He landed on the biggest island on the lip of the waterfall (named Livingstone Island after him) from where he got the first view of the fall.

He later wrote, “It was the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa. It had never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” Our first glimpse of the hanging mist from the air did seem a lot like that.

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It was a short drive from the airport to Avani Victoria Falls Resort, located just a 5-minute walk from the cataract. The sprawling resort came within the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, which ensured chance encounters with wildlife like giraffes, antelopes and the odd zebra crossing!

Decked up in contemporary Zambian designs, the adobe-style rooms overlooked a lawn strewn with contemporary metal figurines of rhinos and ostriches. One could pre-book an African open-air Boma dinner with traditional dances, though we happily devoured a mixed meat Zambezi Platter by the pool.

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Hotel guests of Avani have the unique privilege of unlimited complimentary access to the waterfall and we decided to make the most of it. Following the crashing sound of water, we exited from the back gate and stopped for souvenirs at the small market right opposite the waterfall entrance.

Local artists carved exquisite sculptures from locally available verdite, better known as ‘mosi oa tunya’ stone. Some were carving soap dishes with half submerged hippos; others family of giraffes. Another popular pick-me-up, the Nyami Nyami pendant, made of soapstone, wood or bone, has a fascinating legend.

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The indigenous Tonga tribesmen believe that the Zambezi is home to a fierce river god called Nyami Nyami. The mythical creature is believed to live under a large rock near Kariba gorge, near Victoria Falls. Ever since the dam was built, he was separated from his wife and unleashed his fury through floods, thunder and rain.

The locals tried to calm the spirit through sacrifice and continue to craft the pendant as a good luck charm for visitors. “This is the face of the creature – half snake, half fish, these notches resemble the waterfall and this hole is the eye of the fall,” explained a sculptor. We picked up a few and walked through the gate along a stone pathway.

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There were several trails branching out and we took the rightmost one for a walk upstream, which led to the top of the waterfall. The river flowed gently, nonchalantly disappearing from view over the cliff offering no clue about the drama below. We retraced our steps and paid tribute at the War Memorial in memory of Northern Rhodesians who lost their lives during the First World War.

Nearby stood a large statue of Dr David Livingstone, erected in 2005 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first European sighting of Victoria Falls on 16 November 1855 and to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the town of Livingstone. On his 1852-56 exploration of the African hinterland, Dr Livingstone mapped out almost the entire course of the river.

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We walked down the stone path and with each step the crash grew louder. And then through a clearing we saw it for the first time – the mighty Zambezi river thundering 360ft down the 1,708 m wide gorge. The volume of water was so much that the famous Devil’s Pool on the edge of the waterfall was out of bounds. Yet, there were other trails to Boiling Pot (615m) and the scenic Photographic Trail (788m) that were accessible.

As we approached the Knife Edge Bridge, the gentle spray turned into a full downpour. Our rain jackets were modest protection from the torrential splash. Built in 1968 by PWD, the 40m long 1.3m wide bridge connects the mainland to the headland. We continued to Danger Point for a view of Victoria Falls Bridge. The bridge was a crucial link in the route of the railway, as envisioned by Cecil John Rhodes. The bridge was assembled in sections at the Cleveland Bridge Company factory yard in Darlington before being shipped to Africa.

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The steam engine ‘Princess of Mulobezi’ originally hauled timber for Zambezi Sawmills nearly a century ago. Today, it chugged along the scenic tracks with passengers. We had a brief peek into the plush Royal Livingstone Express in town and continued to the Victoria Falls Bridge. Rhodes had wished “I should like to have the spray of the water of the Victoria Falls over the carriages,” and boy did his dream come true.

We felt the spray as soon we got off the tour bus and walked towards the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The waterfalls were a shared legacy between the two countries and we watched the Zambezi river down below flow towards Zimbabwe. Bang in the middle of the bridge adventure seekers could try the bungee jump over the Zambezi gorge.

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Livingstone has no dearth of adventure. Batoka Sky offer helicopter and microlight rides above the falls. At Mukuni Big 5 you can experience elephant feeding, a walk with cheetahs and lion petting. At the Cultural Centre, there’s vigorous Zambian dances in traditional costumes. The Livingstone Museum, the oldest and largest museum in Zambia, showcases the history of early man, the country and its traditions besides a gallery dedicated to explorer Dr David Livingstone.

Back at our hotel, we dropped by at the adjacent Royal Livingstone Hotel By Anantara. A heady mix of Victorian elegance and old world colonial ambience, the classy resort was filled with paintings and antiques. Wooden decks amid sprawling gardens and towering trees offered sweeping views of the Zambezi, with signature therapies like Zambezi Massage in riverside gazebos.

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It was evening and we headed to Aha The David Livingstone Safari Lodge & Spa, a plush resort made of stone, thatch and wood. The high-roofed foyer was decorated with granaries, drums, cane lamps and African portraits on adobe walls with luxurious spa treatments and Afro-Arabian fusion cuisine at Kalai restaurant. At the pier, we boarded the Lady Livingstone for a magical 2-hr sundowner cruise on the Zambezi river.

A band playing on the silimba (Zambian xylophone using resonating gourds) and we sipped sundowners while training our binocs to the riverbank to spot crocs, hippos and other wildlife. The steward presented us a chilled pint of the local Mosi lager. The label called it ‘thunderous refreshment as mighty as the Mosi-oa-Tunya’. The rising mist from Vic Falls danced like a fairy and we watched the sun slowly sink into the Zambezi, as if it was swallowed whole by Nyami Nyami…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly to Lusaka on Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa, Kenyan Airlines via Nairobi, Oman Air via Muscat or Emirates via Dubai. Mahogany Air (Ph +26 097 786 5838 www.mahoganyair.com) flies from Lusaka to Harry Nkambule International Airport at Livingstone.

What to Do

Royal Livingtone Express
Shearwater Victoria Falls Bungee
Mukuni Big 5 Ph +260 213 322286 mukunibig5.co.zm
Livingstone Museum (Mon-Sun 9am-4:30pm Entry $5)
Batoka Sky Microlight & Helicopter Flights

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Where to Stay

Avani Victoria Falls Resort
Ph +260 978 777044
www.minorhotels.com

Royal Livingstone Hotel by Anantara
Ph +260 21 332 1122
https://www.anantara.com/en/royal-livingstone
Tariff $414 upwards

Aha The David Livingstone Safari Lodge & Spa
Ph +260 21 332 4601
https://aha.co.za/david-livingstone/
Tariff $370

For more info, visit http://www.zambia.travel

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 20 Oct 2018 in the HT City supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper.

Lusaka: The heart of Zambia

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Known as Africa’s City of Peace, Lusaka is fast emerging as a tourism hub. Interesting cultural experiences, wild encounters and a vibrant nightlife can be found in the Zambian capital, write ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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Sitting around a stone table in a dim-lit grotto with the soft gurgle of an indoor waterfall, we sipped white wine and nibbled on an assorted cheese platter. We were at Kaposhi Dairy in the 10,000-acre Chaminuka Farm on the outskirts of Zambia’s capital Lusaka, where an hour earlier we had petted cheetahs and admired the Chaminuka art collection.

Another night we moved from live jazz at Misty’s to bar-hopping at Chicago and Kegs & Lions, ending at Kalahari where a local band and dancers rocked late into the night and random strangers got on stage to bump and grind for dangerously close face-offs.

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Lusaka is one of the fastest developing cities in southern Africa and one can see why. Named after the headman of an erstwhile Lenje village on Manda Hill (manda means graveyard), Lusaka is perched atop a 4,198 feet high limestone plateau that blesses it with great weather.

Its strategic location at the junction of the Great North Road to Tanzania and the Great East Road to Malawi made it the natural choice as capital of the British colony of Northern Rhodesia. A section of the Great North Road was named Cairo Road in memory of British mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes’ vision of a road from Cape to Cairo through British colonies in Africa.

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In 1950, Ralph Sanders, a colonial civil servant working for the department of Game and Tsetse Control founded a Botanical Garden. He called it Munda Wanga or ‘My Garden’ in the local Nyanja dialect. As a botanist he was responsible for the establishment of many parks, gardens and the beautiful tree-lined avenues in Lusaka. Yet, wherever we drove around, we spotted painted signs of boring and drilling companies from China and India.

For years, European powers vied for control over the mineral-rich Copper Belt to the north. Dubbed as ‘red gold’, copper shaped the country’s infrastructural development, spurred trade unions and birthed Zambian nationalism. They say Zambia was born with a ‘copper spoon in its mouth’. Thanks to the freedom struggle spearheaded by Dr Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia gained independence on 24 December 1964. The international airport named after the first President Kaunda is currently undergoing a major expansion with Chinese collaboration.

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We visited Chilenje House No. 394 where Dr Kenneth Kaunda lived between January 1960 and December 1962. From this humble house, he directed Zambia’s freedom struggle, triggering independence movements in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (Malawi). House No. 395 contains simple relics and chronicles the history and growth of Lusaka and Zambia’s political development. For more on the country’s history, the National Museum is the perfect resource. As the venue for several historic conventions, Lusaka is often hailed as Africa’s ‘City of Peace’.

The next stop Embassy Park Presidential Memorial is a mausoleum where late Zambian presidents Levy Patrick Mwanawasa (1948–2008), Frederick Chiluba (1943–2011) and Michael Sata (1937–2014) are buried. The US$15 entry fee is steep but includes a guided tour that describes its architectural highlights. Photography of the building across the main road, a former parliament building and now used by the Ministry of Defence, is prohibited. Interestingly, while these gentlemen had died in office, Zambia’s first President is still alive and well.

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Lusaka has a vibrant nightlife with several places to wine and dine. The historic Lusaka Golf Club serves excellent steak. Musuku restaurant at Southern Sun Ridgeway dishes out terrific Zambian fare including wild game meat like kudu, croc and impala, as does Chuma Grill at Radisson Blu.

Rembrandt at the Great Best Western offers the local staple nshima (finely ground maize flour porridge) and Zambezi bream, fresh from the river. Taj Pamodzi, where the Indian President Shri Ramnath Kovind had stayed during his recent visit, has a lovely bar called Marula and a rustic open-air restaurant Steaks and Grills rustling up Indian and Zambian grills.

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For shopping, head straight to Kabwata Cultural Village, an amorphous open-air market of thatch-roofed huts and makeshift stalls where you can buy stone and wood carvings, baskets, antique masks, drums, colorful clothes and more, directly from the artisans. Also worth a look is the Sunday Craft Market, a weekly affair in the car park of Arcades Shopping Centre on Great East Road.

It’s a great place to strike a bargain with a wide range of colourful handicrafts, wooden bowls, malachite figurines, African prints and masks. For a shopping mall experience, try the massive Manda Hill, East Park or Levy Junction.

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Yet, many of Lusaka’s top tourist hotspots are located not within the city but on the outskirts. Set in Lilayi Lodge’s 650-hectare game farm, the Lilayi Elephant Nursery is where orphaned elephants and abandoned calves are nursed before being rehabilitated to a Release Facility at Kafue National Park, 4 hours away. The project manager gave us an overview and showed us the backroom facility where formula milk was prepared for the young pachyderms.

Many calves like Nkala, Rufunsa, Maramba, Zambezi, Mosi-oa-Tunya and Kavalamanja were named after their place of discovery and had been released at Kafue. Each one had a heart-rending story. Musolele was named after the wildlife police officer who died defending his mother from poachers.

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Mulisani, literally ‘shepherd’, was named in honour of wildlife conservationist and artist David Shepherd. Njanji means ‘train tracks’ as this elephant was found on the railway line after being darted. In what’s a daily ritual, at 11.30am, we were ushered to a high viewing deck to watch them feed and play.

Soon, it was time for us to forage as well and Lilayi Lodge gave us our best meal in Lusaka – char-grilled rump steak, grilled Zambian crayfish and East African seafood curry. We shuffled heavily back to our vehicle for the hour’s ride to Lusaka. Bent over our padded waistlines, we laboriously packed our souvenirs, noticing how it wasn’t the only excess baggage we carried…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly to Lusaka’s Kenneth Kaunda International Airport on Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa, Kenyan Airlines via Nairobi, Oman Air via Muscat or Emirates via Dubai. Lilayi and Chaminuka are on the outskirts of Lusaka, 45 min drive away.

Stay
Southern Sun Ridgeway
Ph +260 211 251 666
www.tsogosun.com

Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel
Ph +260 21 1239666
www.lusakagrand.co.zm

Protea Hotels by Marriott
Ph +260 21 1254664
https://www.marriott.com

Radisson Blu Hotel
Ph +260 960 280900
www.radissonblu.com

Taj Pamodzi
Ph +260 21 1254455
https://vivanta.tajhotels.com

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Nature/Wildlife
Chaminuka
Ph +260 211 254146, 840884
www.chaminuka.com

Lilayi Elephant Nursery & Lodge
Ph +260 211 840435/6, 971 00 2010 http://www.lilayi.com
http://gamerangersinternational.org/

Must Eat
Steaks at Lusaka Golf Club
Zambian cuisine at Musuku, Chuma Grill & Steaks and Grills
Nshima & Zambezi bream at Rembrandt
Fried Chicken at Hungry Lion
Pizza at Debonnairs
Indian food at Bombay Lounge

Buy
Masks, wood & stone carvings Kabwata Cultural Centre
Local crafts at Sunday Market, Arcades car park
Malls like Manda Hill, East Park, Arcades & Levy Junction

Nightspots
Live jazz at Misty
Local Zambian music at Kalahari
Bars like Chicago’s, Keg & Lion and Alpha
Late night at Kabwata

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 20 Oct 2018 in the Travel supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

A date with Oman

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ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY savour a platter of experiences – from Portuguese forts and dolphin cruises, ancient petroglyphs and secret wadis – served with trademark Omani hospitality.

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Oman is a country that will astonish you with its riches. The Queen of Sheba’s palace near Salalah was the epicentre of the 6000-year-old frankincense trade and it is likely that the frankincense carried by one of the Three Magi during the birth of Jesus originated here. Sinbad the Sailor is not merely a legend, but a man of flesh and blood who was born in the ancient Omani capital of Sohar.

In the 8th century, Cheraman Perumal, the Chera king of Kerala, adopted Islam (purportedly the first Indian to do so), divided his kingdom among various feudatories and sailed to Mecca; he died while returning and his tomb lies in the Omani port of Zafar. In a country where the tallest structure in any town is not a shiny skyscraper but usually the local mosque, the understated Omani hospitality is disarming.

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Straddling the crossroads of three continents and four seas, Oman’s rich history was shaped by the waters that lap against its rugged shores. Hemmed by the Sea of Oman and the Arabian Sea and guarded by the Al Hajar mountains and the Rub’ al Khali desert (literally ‘Empty Quarter’), it strategically overlooks the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The Persians and Ottomans vied for control over the lucrative maritime trade of the Indian Ocean.

Yet, the country’s geography was its security and even the powerful Portuguese could only occupy a few coastal areas. Expelled in 1650 AD, they left behind a slew of seaside forts. Today, Muscat’s twin forts Al Jalali and Al Mirani, besides the Muttrah souq stand proof of the short-lived Portuguese presence in the Gulf.

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But Oman has a lot more to offer than Muscat. We flew to Khasab, an hour’s flight from the capital in the northern-most governorate of Musandam. One look at the Prussian blue fjords surrounded by mauve mountains from our Oman Air flight and we knew why it was called the ‘Norway of Arabia’.

Checking into the luxurious Atana Khasab Hotel, we enjoyed a lovely Arabian spread of fried hamour (fish), Zatar bread, hummus, falafel, moutabel (seasoned eggplant with olive oil) and salads perked up with zesty sumac (lemony spice). We washed it all down with laban (salty buttermilk) and date milk, before setting off on our local explorations.

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Khasab Fort, built by the Portuguese on the site of an earlier fortification, has been renovated into a museum and serves as the perfect curtain raiser to the maritime nation and its well-preserved Arabian culture. Various types of traditional boats graced the courtyard as if they had magically washed ashore.

Around it were specimens of a coffee-making room, arish (summer house) and granary with thematic rooms on the upper floors – a ladies’ majlis, study room, wedding chamber, an apothecary of traditional medicine and a dazzling showcase of costumes, jewellery and ornate khanjars (Omani daggers). We drove along the scenic Coastal Road from Khasab to the fort of Bukha, set against a stunning backdrop of jagged cliffs.

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Oman’s 1600km long coastline brims with adventures – from kite surfing and sportfishing to diving at The Aquarium at Damaniyat Islands, whale watching at Mirbat, bird spotting at the wetlands of Masirah Island and turtle hatching at Ras al Jinz. Back in Khasab, a traditional Omani dhow waited for us with friendly staff at our service with fruits and cool drinks as we lounged on plush carpets. The crags were studded with large flocks of nesting cormorants feeding their young while others dived and emerged to dry their wings on the rocky perches. Dolphins cleaved through clear blue waters, outpacing our dhow with graceful leaps.

We soon docked near Telegraph Island, named after the undersea telegraph system set up by the British in 1854 to send messages from Karachi to London along the Persian Gulf submarine cable. Today, its rich marine life and stunning tropical fish was a magnet for snorkelers and divers seeking hammerheads, leopard whale sharks, mink whales, mantas, eagle rays and turtles. Donning our masks and fins, we plunged into the clear waters for a sublime experience.

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Oman is also home to the loftiest peak in the Arabian Peninsula – Jebel Shams, often compared to the Grand Canyon for its rugged untamed beauty. But we were headed on a winding offroad drive to the 2,087 m high Jebel Harim, or the ‘Mountain of Women’. According to legend, local women often flocked to this lofty hill to escape pirates when their husbands were away fishing, hence its name.

En route we stopped at a lookout over the stunning fjord Khor Najd, besides Bedouin cave dwellings that were inhabited till the 1940s. At Qida, intriguing petroglyphs (stone carvings) of human, animal and abstract figures indicated the presence of early man. Yet, nothing prepared us for the sight of marine fossils high up in the mountain, imprinted on rocks when the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates of a restless earth collided around 90 million years ago!

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We flew back to glitzy Muscat, which seemed a world apart from remote Musandam. The imprint of Sultan Qaboos was everywhere with roads, grand mosques and portraits paying tribute to the dynamic sultan who had literally pulled the sultanate from the dark ages, transforming it into a modern state.

After luxuriating at the opulent Shangri-La Hotel, we drove to A’Sharqiyah or Wahiba Sands for some glamping at Desert Nights Camp. Our plush tent with stunning rugs and carpets was indeed fit for a sultan. It was a short offroad drive to catch the sunset over the dunes, which changed colour with every passing moment.

Desert Nights Camp glamping 1

The 12,500 sq km desert tract stretched 180 km by 80 km in the Ash Sharqiyah province (literally, Eastern Region) and was earlier called Ramlat al-Wahiba, named after the predominant al-Wahiba tribe inhabiting the region. Choosing to trudge down the sandy slopes to the camp, we were greeted by the sweet strains of the oud (traditional stringed instrument) and darbouka (goblet drum) while the smoky aroma of barbecues wafted as we dined under a starlit sky. It was a lavish Arabian spread of shuwa (meats), rice, Zatar bread, labneh, date milk and camel milk.

In the morning, we enjoyed a complimentary camel ride around the resort and tried quad biking and sandboarding, before our guide Mohammad from Khimji Travels took us dune bashing. It was a quick pitstop at Al Wasil to fill air into the tyres, which had been deflated to reduce the air pressure for the desert.

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Our next destination was Wadi Bani Khalid, the best-known wadi (freshwater pool) in the region, part of the eastern chain of the Al Hajar mountains that soared up to 2000 m. Till the 1970s there was no road access and people could get here only on donkeys or on foot. We trudged along the falaj or irrigation canal lined by date palms to the oasis. Serving coffee with a platter of dates is the hallmark of Omani hospitality. In the old days, the birth of a son was marked by planting a date palm! Enterprising kids deftly maneuvered wheelbarrows to ferry visitors’ luggage on the narrow cemented walkway that lined the irrigation channels.

On reaching an amphitheatre of sandstone ridges and burnished mountains shimmering with copper deposits, we spotted locals enjoying themselves at aquamarine pools. With depths ranging up to 10 meters, the pools were safe for swimming. The scent of char-grilled meats emanated from barbecues in shaded groves of palm trees; someone else burned frankincense in a majmar (charcoal brazier). It was the heady aroma of Oman.

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HOW TO EXPERIENCE OMAN

One of the safest countries in the Middle East to immerse yourself in authentic Arabian culture, Oman is the perfect blend of tradition and modernity. Its long coastline, soaring dunes and rugged mountains bejeweled with idyllic wadis (fresh water pools) are filled with many adventures.

Getting there & Around
The national carrier Oman Air flies direct to Muscat International Airport, Seeb from Mumbai (2h 50m), besides Delhi, Bengaluru, Kochi and Trivandrum (3h 30m). Khasab is a 50-min domestic flight from Muscat while Sharqiya Sands is 203 km via M23 (Muscat-Sur highway) towards Bidbid, Ibra and Al Wasil. www.omanair.com

When to go
Oman is pleasant from October to April barring the scorching summer months from June to August, except Salalah in the south which is washed by the khareef (rainy) season. The annual nesting of green turtles at Ras al Jinz is between July to October.

Visa
1-month e-Visa for Oman is available for 20 OMR (Omani Rial). Those holding a valid visa for US, Canada, Australia, UK, Japan or Schengen countries can get a short-term 10-day visa for just 5 OMR. https://evisa.rop.gov.om/en/visa-eligibility

BUY
Oman’s souks brim with stalls selling frankincense, attars, oils, ornamental khanjars (daggers), antiques, besides Turkish plates and lamps. Pick up a bottle of the best perfume Amouage or choose from hundreds of varieties of dates – Khasab, Farah or Khalas (the most premium variety), besides the glutinous Omani halwa. The medwak or Arabian smoking pipe made of wood, bone, metal, marble, gold, silver or glass is a great souvenir.

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Where to Stay

MUSCAT
Shangri-La Barr al Jissah Resort & Spa

Accessible through a tunnel, the complex of two hotels Al Waha (literally Oasis) and Al Bandar (The Town) has traditional Dhofari architecture with Chi spa offering a 4-hr Serenity Ritual with a frankincense scrub www.shangri-la.com

The Chedi
Luxurious 158-room hotel with Omani style rooms and villas, six restaurants, three pools and a Balinese spa. www.ghmhotels.com/en/muscat/

Al Bustan Palace
Opulent Arab-Art Deco resort with luxurious rooms, majestic 38m domed atrium lobby, five pools and 1km private beach, the longest in Oman. www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/oman/al-bustan

KHASAB

Atana Khasab/Musandam
Atana Khasab is a 4-star resort offering panoramic views of the spectacular Musandam shoreline or the mountains and authentic Omani cuisine while Atana Musandam is inspired by an Omani village with 8 clusters of lowrise buildings that come with private balconies. www.atanahotels.com

SHARQIYA SANDS

Desert Nights Camp
The only luxury desert camp in Oman set in 10-acres with 39 uber-luxury Bedouin style tents and adventure activities in the desert.
Ph +968 92818388, 99477266 www.desertnightscamp.com www.omanhotels.com

1000 Nights Camp
Set amidst golden dunes and Cineraria trees, stay in a choice of luxury tents fitted with reflective glass in the east and west for the perfect view of sunrise and sunset.
Ph +968 99448158, 22060243 http://thousandnightsoman.com

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TOUR OPERATORS

Khimji Travels
Hotel bookings, local transport and tours
www.khimjistravel.com www.touroman.om

Khasab Tours
Dhow cruises, offroad safaris & local excursions in Musandam
www.khasabtours.com

TIP
Women and bedouins are sensitive to being photographed (some believe it captures their soul), so always ask before clicking.

For more info, visit www.omantourism.gov.om

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the October 2018 issue Travel + Leisure India magazine.

 

Mount Buller: Into the White

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Victoria’s premier ski resort holds many adventures like skiing, tobogganing, snow walks, snowboarding, sled dog tours and a ‘Gnome Roam’, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

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For a town with a population of just 242 mountain folks, it sure felt crowded at Mount Buller. We are used to seeing more people at a traffic signal in India. Yet, between July and September, while the rest of the world sweats in summer or drowns in rain, it is winter in this part of Australia. In this Red Earth country with soaring temperatures and the wild outback, it’s hard to imagine a realm of snow!

Like thousands of adventure enthusiasts, we drove up via the charming towns of Mansfield and Yea (yea there’s a place called that; it also has a funky public convenience sprayed with ‘ToilArt’). At base camp Mirimbah, travellers pick up wheel chains to drive through the snow (mandatory for overnight visitors) and hire ski and snowboard equipment. Flecks of white on the eucalyptus trees soon gave way to a blanket of snow that draped the alpine vegetation. Switching to the free shuttle service at the parking lot, we proceeded to the festive Village Square Plaza.

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Shuffling up the frozen steps past the Clocktower, large crowds in colourful ski jackets thronged the plaza with restaurants, shops and free wi-fi. It was a short walk to Mt Buller Chalet Hotel near the Bourke Street ski run; one could literally ski-in and ski-out. A stuffed bear and moose graced the lobby, alongside ski memorabilia and a chair made of skis. The friendly manager Harry, a local legend of sorts, welcomed us warmly. We feasted on rib eye steak and Tasmanian seafood at the plush Black Cockatoo restaurant and set off to conquer Buller.

A quick change into hired snow gear and we found ourselves on a ski lift for a ‘Discover’ lesson at the Ski & Snowboard School at the Northside Discovery Centre. The only thing we managed to discover was how bad we were at skiing as we grudgingly eyed the rest of humanity zip down the slopes with consummate ease and screech to a halt in a spray of snow, meters away from us. It was the moment from the old Bullworker ads when the macho guy kicks sand in the face of the wimp. Our dreadful attempt at building a snowman made things worse, so we shamelessly posed with someone else’s hard work!

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We weren’t the first rookies on the mountain. Mt Buller’s spectacular scenery and abundant flora and fauna had first attracted aboriginal tribes eons ago. They brought young men to the peaks as part of initiation rituals and rites of passage. In traditional ceremonies, they roamed the mountain ranges they called Marnong (literally ‘hand’ in the Taungurong language) and told them stories about creation and Dreamtime tracks across the land.

Explorers Hamilton Hume and Captain William Hovell were the first Europeans to record a sighting of the peak on a 16-week adventure in 1824. Two years later, surveyor Thomas Livingstone Mitchell identified and named it after Charles Buller, an official in the Colonial Office in London.

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Soon, gold miners, timber merchants and bushrangers headed up the mountain while cattle traders used them as grazing grounds. In 1913, Frank Klingsporn widened the track for the movement of cattle, which opened the way for summer tourism, horse riders and hikers. The old bridle track is still used for mountain biking. After early forays by the SCV (Ski Club of Victoria) and the introduction of the towrope in 1949, tourism in Australia’s first Alpine village snowballed. Today, it gets more than 300,000 visitors in winter and 130,000 in summer.

The Summit Road loop took us to the Arlberg Hotel as we walked across to the Shakey Knees ski run, past the historic Hotel Pension Grimus to Northside Express Chairlift for a scenic chairlift ride. Around us nearly 300 hectares of skiing terrain spread out as the 1805 m high peak towered above. After endless rounds of tobogganing at the Horse Hill Snowplay Park, we donned our outsized snowshoes and clomped around the countryside on a Snow Walk.

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Mt Buller is simply a mountain of activities. Take a ‘Snowplay in a Day’ tour or go on a ‘Gnome Roam’, a family-friendly walk in search of Mt Buller gnomes strewn across the village. In between, catch a movie at Australia’s highest cinema Alpine Central, drop by at the National Alpine Museum on the evolution of skiing in the region, take a scenic helicopter flight over Mt Buller and Mt Stirling nearby and pamper yourself at Breathtaker Spa Retreat, the only spa in town. The region is also an excellent mountain biking destination with the 40 km cross-country Australian Alpine Epic trail, the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

However, we were off to Cornhill Road for the ultimate thrill of a 16-dog sled ride with Siberian huskies. Brett and Neisha of the Australian Sleddog Company briefed us on how to guide, brake and turn the sled. After our Mountain View Run Tour, we got to pet our team and play with the pups! Of all the things, the words of Frank Zappa’s song kept ringing in my head “Watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow.”

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly Singapore Airlines to Melbourne and drive 248 km (3 hrs) to Mount Buller, 90 km from the nearest town Mansfield, from where MMBL (Mansfield-Mount Buller Bus Lines) has a regular bus service. www.mmbl.com.au

When to go
July-August is peak winter season though spring from September has great deals, less people on the slopes, shorter lift queues and warmer weather. In summer, go on hikes and cycling trails.

What to Do
Skiing, Snowboarding & Snow Walks
www.mtbuller.co.au

Australian Sled Dog Tours
www.sleddogtours.com.au

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Where to Stay
Mt Buller Chalet Hotel
www.mtbullerchalet.com.au

Breathtaker All Suite Hotel & Spa
www.breathtaker.com.au

Hotel Pension Grimus
www.pensiongrimus.com.au

Tip: Pick up a B-TAG top-up card for easy access to lifts, lessons, rentals, facilities and Snow Dough (for retail therapy) www.bullerstore.com.au

For more info, www.visitvictoria.com

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 22 Sep 2018 in the HT Cafe supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper.

 

Much ado about Kathmandu

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The charm of Nepal’s ancient temples and squares, lively streets and mountain magic cannot be smothered by any calamity discovers PRIYA GANAPATHY

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‘We are in the year 2074,’ my guide Bir intoned solemnly in what sounded like the opening line of a futuristic sci-fi saga. Given its seamless blend of tradition and modernity, one does feel like a time-traveller in Nepal, but I discovered that the country has its own calendar – the Bikram Sambat Nepali Patro – and an unhurried sense of time!

Nepal has attracted mountaineers and hippies since the 60s, but a lot had happened since my last visit 12 years ago in the middle of bird flu and a palace coup! The month-long trip was a screaming rollercoaster of landslides, bungee jumps, canyoning, rafting and paragliding besides sedate explorations of Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini. This time, I had a more enriching purpose.

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In 2015, I had helplessly watched Nepal receive a body blow from a devastating earthquake. So when Marriott Hotels decided to celebrate their 30th Anniversary by inviting guests from across the world to participate in a home build project, I jumped in. Partnering with Habitat For Humanity, we were to build one of 12 homes for needy families around the globe. Kavre, a region near Kathmandu badly affected by the earthquake would be our worksite for a Nepalese family that had lost their home.

The 40km bus ride to Kavre passed through scenic Nagarkot and the 143ft tall copper statue of Kailashnath Mahadev, built by a Jain businessman from India on the Sanga Hills that divide Bhaktapur and Kavre. This was the traditional village of oil-producers – sang is Newari for mustard oil and ga means village. We drove past rice terraces and the quaint town of Banepa, an old trading outpost between Tibet and Nepal. Everywhere mud and stone homes bore scars of the quake.

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At Kavre, we grabbed gloves, donned hard hats and picked our tools to dig foundation trenches and clear boulders. After completing our ‘Rally to Serve’ project, we visited Habitat for Humanity’s model town in Pipaltar village, where volunteers had helped rebuild 87 houses. Three years on, as the country hobbles back to its feet with rebuilding and restoration projects, tourists are streaming in again, smitten by its irresistible charm.

On our return we stopped at the plush Dwarika’s Resort in Dhulikel for a traditional Newari meal. Tasteful decorated with Nepali artifacts, the emphasis is on holistic living and healthy food using ingredients sourced from their organic farm. Their Himalayan Salt Room ensconces you in a pink cocoon of healing salt while the Chakra sound therapy chamber stimulates the body’s seven chakras. We sipped local beer and dined outdoors, savouring the view of majestic Himalayan peaks.

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Thamel Trail & Durbar Squares
On the surface, Kathmandu seemed the same – crowded and dusty with the familiar charm of brick houses, smiling faces and walls splashed with colourful graffiti. After champagne and high tea marking the launch of Fairfield by Marriott – the first Marriott hotel in Nepal – we took an evening rickshaw ride around the tourist-friendly hub of Thamel. We rolled down Tridevi Marg towards the winding maze of festooned alleys selling an assortment of exotic art and crafts. The streets were lined with bars, pubs, tour agencies and adventure equipment stores.

We learnt that Dharma Kirti Vihar, located behind Swayambhunath stupa was the school where Myanmar’s icon of democracy Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi studied Buddhism and taught English four decades ago. Sambhu, our charioteer stopped by an unusual tree stump covered with coins at a street corner. “That’s Vaisha Dev, the ‘dentist god’. Nepalese people hammer a coin into the idol to solve their dental problems!”

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Hopping off at Basantapur Durbar Square, we set off on a twilight heritage walk with Bir, our guide. The carved spires of temples were silhouetted against an indigo sky. The brackets depicted gods and goddesses as locals believed only they had the power to hold the weight of the massive conical roofs. Swinging between memories and the moment, I tried to fix the missing pieces. One of the oldest structures, Kasthamandap, the wooden architectural wonder that gave Kathmandu its name was completely razed.

Further away, the beautiful carved stone Garuda stared at the vacant space where the multi-tiered 1680 Trailokya Mohan temple should have stood. The Krishna Temple was another gaping spot. The ornate beauty was marred by dense scaffolding, which enveloped the monuments in a skeletal hug. One wasn’t sure how or where to begin healing the city.

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The tall fierce image of Kala Bhairava glowered in lamplight as people bowed their heads in reverence to the God of Time, offering flowers, incense and butter lamps. The temple of Thulja Bhavani, closed throughout the year, is opened to public only on the eighth day of Vijayadashami. We noticed that the structures showed British influences. Bir pointed out a stone inscription in various languages including French; apparently King Pratap Malla who ruled in the 1700s was a polyglot!

The Jaganath temple, famous for its erotic art had been sadly defaced. With Buddhism emerging as the main religion in the 17th century, several people had adopted a monastic life of celibacy and the population in Nepal had dropped drastically. These amorous carvings were created to encourage people to marry and have children! It is also believed that it would prevent Kumari, the incarnation of the Virgin Goddess considered to be a form of Thunder and Lightning, from striking the temple.

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We saw the magnificent 9-storeyed palace built by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the architect of modern Nepal who conquered the three Malla kingdoms of Nepal and unified it with the Gorkha kingdom. In Indra Chowk, the Akash Bhairav temple honored the unusual terrifying form of Shiva regarded as the Master of the Sky.

His giant form is artistically ‘caged’ to prevent him from flying off and the temple is opened only once a year during Kali Jumma. After wandering around the famous Freak Street (now Jochne) we guzzled local beer at New Orleans, a popular restaurant with retro architecture and a great vibe.

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Stupefying stupas & Himalayan views

The next morning, we headed for our Everest flight. The destination board at the airport counter simply stated “Mountain”! Buckled into a small seat on the tiny Buddha Air 19-seater Beechcraft 1900, with propellers spinning, we were off for a close encounter with Sagarmatha. The scene of high altitude lakes, marbled mountains and glaciers ringed by the world’s best-known peaks seared my mindscape. It was a dreamy tour as we flew just 20 miles short of the world’s highest peak. You even get a chance to sneak into the cockpit for an uninterrupted view and click a few pictures for posterity.

Back on terra firma, I was still dreaming as I walked down Tridevi Marg to the Garden of Dreams (Swapna Bagaicha), famous as the Garden of Six Seasons. The serene Edwardian botanical garden inside Kaiser Mahal, former home of the late Field Marshall Kaiser Shumsher Rana begs you to linger despite the damage to its stunning pavilions, statues, fountains and ponds.

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A leisurely lunch awaited us at Mulchowk Restaurant, a gourmet dining space inside a leafy courtyard of Baber Mahal. Named after Patan’s Mul Chowk or Main Square, the restaurant is set in the erstwhile palace residence of Baber Shumsher. Now renovated by his descendants into a complex of restaurants and multiple courtyards enveloped by a maze of boutiques, art galleries and swanky stores, the luxe hangout is a delightful tribute to Rana architecture.

We headed to the famous Patan Durbar Square, a market cum temple plaza – its atmospheric appeal heightened by the golden glow of sunset. A local band regaled the crowds in one corner as elderly folks and couples chattered around the temple pati (resting plinths) and steps.

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Tourists followed their babbling guides or haggled with hawkers along the cobbled pathways. King Yog Narendra Malla’s golden statue on a stone pillar loomed above as we explored the historic heritage site. We could cover only three of the ten odd temples in this vast complex and the trio of courtyards in the old palace – Mul Chowk, Sundari Chowk and Keshav Narayan Chowk.

The Mulchowk Palace Museum had a collection of statues, paintings and images of Hindu and Buddhist divinities. We saw the Thulja Bhavani shrine where the Malla kings performed sacred rituals and the stunning Sundari Chowk with its unique lace-like wood and ivory carved window, a masterpiece of Newari architecture. The exquisite sunken royal stone bath Tusha Hiti was suffused with intricate carvings.

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The Krishna Mandir, built from a single stone, flaunted its 21 pinnacles and scenes from Hindu epics. The 3-storeyed Golden Temple or Hiranyavarna Mahavihar monastery displayed outstanding metal sculptures. There was so much to Kathmandu our appetite couldn’t be quelled! After a late dinner, we hit the swanky rooftop lounge Prive at Labim Mall to catch the sparkle of the city’s nightlife.

Before heading to the airport next day, as I grabbed some traditional sel rotis to accompany my potato mash, Bir nodded approvingly. According to tradition, visitors and family members are offered this unusual ringed deep-fried bread made with rice flour, bananas and cinnamon before they travel. Since the sel roti’s ends meet and overlap like a bracelet, Nepalis consider it a symbol of reunion – a circle of life. “You may go around the world my friend but like the sel roti, you will return to Nepal someday.” he affirmed.

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FACT FILE 

Getting there
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport is just a 1hr 45 min flight from Delhi.

Where to stay
Fairfield by Marriott, Thamel
Tariff $100-$150
www.marriott.com

Dwarika’s Hotel Kathmandu
Dwarika’s Resort Dhulikel
Tariff Rs.25,000 + taxes onwards
www.dwarikas.com

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Where to Eat
Garden of Dreams Café
Mulchowk
Prive, Labim Mall
Thamel House

For more info, visit www.welcomenepal.com

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 24 August 2018 in Indulge, the supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

Zambia: On the wild side

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From escaping ravenous lion prides to being charged by African elephants and encountering packs of wild dogs, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY live on the wild side in Zambia

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We were barely meters away from a pair of mating lions in an open safari vehicle, the tyres were horribly stuck in mud and daylight was fading faster than our false bravado. The more our Zambian driver-and-guide Powell Nchimunya revved the jeep, the deeper it sank. The cloud of grey fumes we blew towards the lions wasn’t exactly the post-coital smoke they would have enjoyed, so we begged Powell to ease off.

“During mating, lions prefer to stay in one area and they’re at it 60-70 times in the space of 2-3 days”, we were informed. “Just once makes people so ravenous,” we chuckled. And here was a lovely international spread for the lions’ delight if they so chose. “English, Swiss, French, Indian, what would you like to have tonight dear?”, we joked. (Nervous laughter)

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It was a strange predicament, thanks to unseasonal heavy rains, which had made the loop roads and tracks of Kafue National Park slushy. There was nothing we could do but radio for help and wait for the second safari vehicle from Mukambi Safari Lodge trailing behind to pull us out. “Shall we have the sundowners now?” Powell tried to sound cheerful. Considering our situation, it wasn’t a bad idea.

Out came sausage rolls and white wine. He carefully kept one spotlight trained on the tawny mane in the bush. “Ummm…. Can’t spot the lioness,” we observed warily. “Actually there were two lionesses…’ Powell corrected. “I don’t see the other one either!” We nearly choked on our wine, imagining two hungry lionesses slowly stalking us in darkness.

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This wild tract was once inhabited by the ferocious Ila tribe, who wore elaborate tasseled headdresses with kudu bone woven into their hair to follow each other in the tall grass. Finding plenty of fish in the river, they were always well fed. It was a cruel twist of irony that ‘Kafue’ literally meant ‘belly full’. Just when we thought we’d be part of the ‘lion’s share,’ we spotted a pair of headlights in the distance. Our joy was shortlived. The second vehicle that swooped to our rescue was stranded deeper in the slush! The leonine buffet spread was getting larger.

The spotlight was frozen on a pair of eyes shining like stars in the bush, in anticipation for any move. Minutes felt like hours as we radioed for help. Finally, a tractor from Ila Safari Lodge nearby towed us out. “Ah don’t worry, it’s quite common to get stuck when it rains.” Getting back on the gravel path, we hazarded a closer look at the mating lions, before returning to the safety of our lodge. Or so we thought…

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In the wilds of Kafue, it is not uncommon for stray wildlife to walk through resorts. Mukambi Safari Lodge, located on the banks of the Kafue river and named after the mukambi (water buck) has a clear policy on guests being accompanied to their rooms at night with a minder. “Once after dropping a guest, I saw an entire pride of lions walk by,” said my night guide.

Robyn van der Heide, who runs the place with husband Edjan and her daughters, fondly remembers Basil the semi-resident hippo who used the resort as his hangout for 14 years, often plopping himself at the reception. We locked our rondavels (traditional circular African dwelling with conical thatched roof); thankfully the night was uneventful.

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The next day, we took a boat across the river and set off on our safari. Kafue is the biggest and oldest national park in Zambia and the second largest in all of Africa. At 22,480 sq km, it is roughly the size of Wales. We were mock charged twice by African elephants and sneakily drove past some male Cape buffalos, called ‘widow makers,’ due to their aggressive nature. These lone stragglers inhabit slushy mud pools and cake themselves with mud, hence the nickname ‘dagga boys’ – after construction workers who have dried cement on them due to mixing dagga or sand, cement and water.

Kafue boasts the highest population of wild dogs in Africa and the greatest diversity of antelope in the world – semi-endemic puku, the endemic Kafue lechwe, sable, kudu, waterbuck, impala and many more. Guides jokingly call impala ‘McDonald’s’ after the M-shaped mark on their rump – “it’s fast food for predators”. Statistics reveal that it takes an average of 18 game drives to spot wild dogs; we were indeed lucky to see a pack of over a dozen Cape Wild Dogs on our second safari. First, tearing into a carcass and later crossing the main road.

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Nearly 500 of Zambia’s 750 odd bird species can be spotted at Kafue. The metallic glossy blue of the Greater Blue-eared Starling, the brilliance of the Malachite kingfisher, Namaqua doves flying off from their perch as we approached, gigantic Ground Hornbills preening furiously, Red-naped spurfowls calling out in warning on spotting the Western Banded Snake Eagle, the Grey Crowned Crane bobbing its head in the reeds like a powder puff flower; every moment in the bush was a head turner.

Zambia’s national bird the African fish eagle surveyed the stream. Hadada Ibis, named after their distinct ‘hadada’ call while in flight, were silhouetted on a tree. The Grey Go-away Bird, with its peculiar call that sounds like ‘go away,’ infamously featured in the film ‘Gods Must Be Crazy’. Technically a species of turaco, royalty and chiefs all over Africa have treasured its crimson flight feathers as status symbols. The hammerkopf with its hammer-shaped head kept flitting about ahead like an usher.

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Spotting a herd of Boehm’s zebra in the distance, we decided to stop for a coffee break. Only when we stood still did we notice the smaller creatures, like the pesky tsetse flies. “We burn elephant dung in a can at the back of the vehicle to ward them off,” said Powell. Though prevalent in Kafue, tsetse flies provided a natural barrier against encroachment in the park.

A train of Matabele ants scurried about busily. Named after the fierce Matabele tribe in Zimbabwe who raided other tribes in the 1800s, the ants raid termite mounds to grab eggs and hatchlings. Worker ants set out as scouts and leave a scented trail of pheromones for the whole colony to follow.

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Kafue does not have many lodges, which means you don’t encounter too many vehicles while on safari. The landing strip at Chunga is open for chartered flights all year round. Between our game drives, we dropped by at Ila Safari Lodge, run by Jacques and Linda van Heerden. They are the proud owners of Zambia’s first eLandy or Electronic Landrover.

The eco-friendly resort has absolutely no limitations while staying in the bush – a solar panel electric boat, luxury tents with a wooden deck and outdoor showers equipped with solar geysers. Their 3-day packages include pick up/drop from Lusaka, full day game drives with lunch in the bush, dining on the boat, fishing trips and seamless inter camp transfers.

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Undoubtedly, the best place to spot large herds of herbivores and their predators are the Zambezian flooded grasslands in the north – the Busanga Swamp and plains. A 6 hr drive away, this absolutely prime tract is the undoubted Jewel of Zambia. “It’s like Masai Mara without all the people. So wild, you are on your own,” said Linda.

We took the Great West Road straight as an arrow back to Lusaka. At Southern Sun Ridgeway, it was with a twinge of guilt we tried Zambian game meat like kudu, croc and impala. Musuku restaurant overlooked a pond-courtyard where resident weavers nested in the reeds and baby crocodiles sunned themselves on the central islet.

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For a closer brush with wildlife, opportunities are immense. Set in Lilayi Lodge’s 650-hectare game farm on the outskirts of Lusaka is Lilayi Elephant Nursery, an elephant orphanage where abandoned calves are nursed before being rehabilitated to Kafue Release Facility. At 11.30am every day, project staff give a brief talk about the project, explaining elephant behaviour and usher visitors to the viewing deck which provides the perfect vantage point to watch baby elephants feed and play.

Chaminuka, literally ‘village on a hill’ is 10,000 acres of pristine Miombo woodland and savanna overlooking Lake Chitoka, beyond Lusaka Airport. The home of Andrew and Danae Sardanis since 1978, it houses a huge private collection of contemporary African paintings, sculpture, masks and traditional artefacts – over a thousand pieces acquired from all around Africa over 50 years! Besides a tour of the Chaminuka Art Collection and game drives, you can pet cheetahs and enjoy wine and cheese tastings.

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The Kafue and the Luangwa are the two largest left-hand tributaries of the Zambezi, the fourth-longest river in Africa. South Luangwa National Park stretches around the Luangwa River and its oxbow lagoons possess excellent concentration of animals with great leopard sightings. The famous ‘walking safari’ originated here. The Lower Zambezi National Park promises canoeing trips down the Zambezi river – though you must watch out for hippos that sometimes topple boats! At Kenneth Kaunda airport in Lusaka, we marveled at Coert Steynberg’s bronze antelope sculpture ‘Lechwe of the Kafue Flats’, before boarding our Mahogany Air flight to Livingstone.

One place where the roar of the lion is drowned out by the roar of nature’s spectacle is Victoria Falls. Counted among the seven natural wonders of the world and the only one in Africa, it’s a dramatic 1,708 m wide and 108 m drop of the Zambezi river. If Vasco da Gama was the first European to come across the Zambezi river in January 1498 (at a point he called ‘Rio dos Bons Sinais’ or River of Good Omens), centuries later explorer David Livingstone was the first European to see the Mosi-oa-Tunya (literally, the smoke that thunders) waterfall in 1855. He called it Victoria Falls after the Queen. On his 1852-56 exploration of the African interior he mapped out almost the entire course of the river.

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Mosi-oa-Tunya is also a National Park with a decent population of antelope, elephants, giraffe and rhino, but thankfully no predators. Our resort Avani Victoria Falls Resort was a mere 5-minute walk from the cataract whose deafening roar hummed through the forest. Located within a nature reserve, Avani allows unlimited access to the waterfall and chance encounters with wildlife. We saw zebras grazing in the lawns and giraffes nibbling leaves off the trees! After devouring a mixed meat Zambezi Platter, we were off to Mukuni Big 5 to experience elephant feeding, a walk with cheetahs and petting lions.

From the plush David Livingstone Safari Lodge we embarked on a magical river cruise on the Zambezi aboard the Lady Livingstone. Sipping sundowners with a band playing on the silimba (Zambian xylophone using resonating gourds), we trained our binocs to the riverbank to spot wildlife. In the distance, the misty spray of the gushing waterfall rose like a wraith… David Livingstone’s words rang true, “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly to Lusaka on Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa, Kenyan Airlines via Nairobi, Oman Air via Muscat or Emirates via Dubai. Lilayi and Chaminuka are on the outskirts of Lusaka, 45 min drive away. From Lusaka, Lower Zambezi National Park is 153km/2 hr 45 min drive while Kafue is 260km/4 hr drive via the M9. Mahagony Air flies to Harry Nkambule International Airport at Livingstone and Proflight to Mfuwe, the nearest airport to South Luangwa.
Mahogany Air Ph +26 097 786 5838 www.mahoganyair.com
Proflight Zambia Ph +260 (0) 211 252452/476 https://proflight-zambia.com

When to Go
The low season is from December to April, the wet months, when the grass is high and visibility is less. The dry season lasts from May to October when animals congregate around the river. Peak season rates apply from from July to Oct. Walking safaris start in August when the grass is short.

Tip
Tsetse flies are attracted to dark objects so wear light colours and avoid blue and black while in the jungle.

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Where to Stay

KAFUE
Mukambi Safari Lodge
Ph +260 (0)97 44 24 013
www.mukambi.com
Tariff $395/person, all-inclusive
(Peak season July-Oct $480)

Ila Safari Lodge
Ph +260 978 294 956, 976 366 054
https://greensafaris.com
Tariff $375/person low season
High season July-Nov$675

LIVINGSTONE
Avani Victoria Falls Resort
Ph +260 978 777044
www.minorhotels.com

Royal Livingstone Hotel by Anantara
Ph +260 21 332 1122
https://www.anantara.com/en/royal-livingstone
Tariff $414 upwards

Aha The David Livingstone Safari Lodge & Spa
Ph +260 21 332 4601
https://aha.co.za/david-livingstone/
Tariff $370

LUSAKA
Southern Sun Ridgeway
Ph +260 211 251 666
www.tsogosun.com/southern-sun-ridgeway-lusaka
Tariff $184

The Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel
Ph +260 21 1239666
www.bestwestern.com
Tariff $135

Protea Hotels by Marriott
Ph +260 21 1254664
https://www.marriott.com
Tariff $124

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Wildlife Experiences
Chaminuka, Lusaka
Ph +260 211 254146, 840884
www.chaminuka.com

Lilayi Elephant Nursery & Lodge, Lusaka
Ph +260 211 840435/6, 971 00 2010 www.lilayi.com
http://gamerangersinternational.org/

Mukuni Big 5, Livingstone
Ph +260 213 322286
mukunibig5.co.zm

For more info, visit http://www.zambia.travel

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared in the August 2018 issue of Travel + Leisure India magazine. 

Jaffa: Peeling the Big Orange

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Tel Aviv’s twin city Jaffa or Yafo is not just its oldest part dotted with historic relics; it is also its hippest quarter with cool cafes, boutiques and vibrant nightlife, discovers ANURAG MALLICK on a trip to Israel

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Listening to English cricket commentary on TV, I always wondered about the origin of the phrase “He has bowled a Jaffa”. It was a trip to Israel that finally cleared the mystery! But what in the world does an unplayable delivery have to do with a port town in a country that’s not a cricket-playing nation? The answer, is oranges…

Like the historic city it comes from, Jaffa’s famed fruit is a culmination of cultures – developed by Palestinian farmers from a Chinese strain brought by the Portuguese! Locally known as Shamouti, it evolved in mid-19th century from the sweet orange, introduced from China to the Mediterranean by Vasco da Gama in 1498. Unlike ordinary oranges, the Jaffa orange is sweet, practically seedless, with a thick skin that made it perfect for export. As crates of the fruit were shipped to Europe, Jaffa became synonymous with oranges. But what’s the cricket connection?

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After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the British were stationed in Ottoman Syria to administer undivided Palestine. During the Mandate that lasted till 1948, the cricket-crazy British were based in Jaffa where they picked up the orange reference. Theory goes, if the line and length of a delivery was good, then even if the bowler had bowled a Jaffa (orange) it would have beaten the batsman. By the 1960s, Jaffa oranges became Israel’s emblem. If New York is the Big Apple, Old Jaffa is nicknamed Big Orange.

Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew) is not just the oldest part of Tel Aviv; it is older than history itself. Supposedly named after Noah’s son Japheth who founded the settlement after the Great Flood, Jaffa is linked with the biblical stories of Jonah, Solomon and Saint Peter. Long before the Bible was written, a fishing village existed at this spot.

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Straddling the crossroads of religion, culture, commerce and politics, it is the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity. In Greek mythology, Andromeda was chained to a rocky outcrop near Jaffa’s harbour as a sacrifice to appease the sea god Poseidon before being rescued by Perseus. It is called Andromeda Rocks in her memory.

Jaffa’s history is like a flipbook through the greatest empires of the world and legendary conquerors, from Ramses, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Herod and Saladin to Napoleon. Every civilization worth its sea salt colonized the region’s sole port – ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantine, Ottomans and the Arabs. Jaffa survived everything from the Crusades, two World Wars and British intervention!

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Savouring spectacular coastal views from Hapisga Garden, we walked up Jaffa Hill, which has yielded archeological finds dating back to 3500 years. One of the monumental gates discovered here dates to 13th century BC when Jaffa was an Egyptian garrison under Ramses II. An older gate found underneath was destroyed during the conquest of Jaffa; an event retold at the Visitor Centre in Qedumim Square. The cast iron cannons were imported in early 18th century by the Ottomans to protect Jaffa from Bedouin raids by land and pirate attacks by sea.

Parts of the Old City have been renovated and the suburb is crammed with restored stone buildings, art galleries, souvenir shops, hip restaurants and sidewalk cafes. The Zodiac alleys are a maze of lanes leading to the harbour where the British-built Jaffa Lighthouse stands defunct. Overlooking the seafront, the minaret of Al-Bahr (Sea) Mosque, depicted in a 1675 painting by Dutch painter Lebrun, is Jaffa’s oldest existing mosque. According to folklore, the wives of local sailors and fishermen prayed here for their safe return.

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Located on the collision course of history, Jaffa has seen monuments built by one pulled down by the other and rebuilt or repurposed by yet another. St. Peter’s Church, a Franciscan Roman-Catholic basilica and hospice built in 1654 on the remains of a Crusader fortress, commemorates St Peter, who brought the disciple Tabitha back from the dead. On his 1799 military campaign of the Middle East, Napoleon Bonaparte stayed here during the siege of Jaffa.

The Jaffa Museum of Antiquities is located in an 18th century Ottoman building constructed on the remains of another Crusader fortress. Beit Zunana, an old mansion named after an 18th century Jewish landlord, was revamped into a hotel and later converted into a Libyan Synagogue. Famed Israeli artist Ilana Goor restored a 270-year-old building into a unique museum brimming with artefacts and antique vessels; its sculpture garden on the terrace offers terrific sea views. The Market House Hotel’s glass-floored lobby reveals the fascinating archeological ruins of a Byzantine Chapel below.

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Thanks to 400 years of Ottoman rule (1515-1917), several monuments are of Turkish origin. The majestic clock tower built in 1906 to honor Sultan Abdul Hamid II marks the city’s northern entrance. Mahmoudiya Mosque, the largest in Jaffa, was built by Abu Nabbut, Governor of Jaffa (1810-1820) and has a charming sabil (water fountain) for pilgrims. The Saraya (Turkish Governor’s Palace) built for Mohammed Agha in the 1890s was used as a post office and jail before becoming a soap factory. The New Saraya inaugurated in 1897 was bombed and only the facade and Romanesque columns survive.

Yet, for all the histories that Jaffa holds, it lies on the cutting edge of art and design. Walls are awash with street art while charming nooks have quirky boutiques and cafés. The best place to experience Jaffa’s bohemian flair is Shuk HaPishpeshim or Jaffa Flea Market. By evening, tables and chairs dot the pavements, transforming the whole area into a vibrant outdoor dining space. The stylish Puaa restaurant has furniture sourced from the flea market and every item is for sale!

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Despite the clash of civilizations, one thing that unifies everybody is food. Locals throng Abu Hassan for creamy hummus and msabbaha (hummus with chickpeas). Legendary sweet shop Abouelafia dishes out bourekas (stuffed pastries) proudly sporting ‘Abouelafia’s Co-existence Association’ t-shirts ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies’.

Strolling down Jaffa’s cobbled pathways, I came across Ran Morin’s enigmatic sculpture ‘Oranger Suspendu’ where an orange tree grew out of an artificial stone suspended by steel wires. The Hovering Orange Tree is seen not just a metaphor for Israel’s prosperity, but the fate of its people, hanging between heaven and earth.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
The national carrier El Al flies direct from Mumbai to Tel Aviv-Yafo in 8 hrs while Air India takes 7hr 15 min from Delhi. Turkish Airlines flies via Istanbul and Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa.

Stay
Market House Hotel www.atlas.co.il
Margosa Hotel www.margosa-hotel.com
Old Jaffa Hostel www.telaviv-hostel.com

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Eat
Café Puaa
Bourekas and sweets at Abouelafia Bakery
Hummus at Abu Hassan/Ali Karawan
The Old Man and the Sea
Aladin Restaurant

Local guide
Ofer Moghadam Tours
Ph +972 587833799
www.ofermog.com

For more info, visit http://www.goisrael.in/

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 14 July 2018 in HT City Cafe, the supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper.  

Germany’s Christmas Markets

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the Christmas markets of Germany, counted amonthe oldest in the world 

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Christmas is the most awaited season for millions around the globe but Germany turns into a winter wonderland with its ancient Advent traditions and Christmas Markets dating back to 1393. Each city and town reinterprets the traditional Advent Calendar, opening up surprises and treats each day. The unique calendar created in 1851, is symbolic of the 24 days prior to Christmas, with each date or window highlighting a stunning artwork or special treat as a countdown to Christmas. Homes, shops and restaurants come alive with 3-D designs.

“Christmas markets are a lovely ancient tradition,” said our guide Jens Becker in Wernigerode, a quaint medieval town high up in the Harz region, 2½ hours from Hannover. With painted half-timbered houses and the spectacular 15th century RatHaus (Town Hall) in the cobbled Marktplaz, it’s at its loveliest in the festive weeks running up to Christmas with a 10m tall Christmas tree. One of the most spectacular Christmas Markets in the region, the Mayor cuts the gigantic stollen (cake) and declares the market open. Wernigerode is known for a special kartoffelklösse (potato dumpling).

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Local craftsmen and artists set up stalls around the Townhall and Nicolaiplatz to showcase their splendid offerings in wood, glass, wool and ceramic, besides incense burners, nutcrackers, painted sun-catchers, knitwear, stone sculptures, nativity scenes, stars and bells in every shape and size. The stunning 12th Century castle forms the perfect backdrop to the weeklong Castle Wernigerode Winter Market. There’s fairy visits, Nikolaus distributing gifts in the inner courtyard, a children’s train and a special Christmas train that chugs through the snow-covered landscape to Brocken.

Dresden is a beautiful city famous for its 600-year-old Christmas markets,” Becker continued excitedly. “I was there for the 579th market. They make amazing pastries and pies like Dresdner handbrot and have bakeries where children make their own confections. They also have the best mulled wine.” Dresden has a dozen Christmas Markets, each with a different theme or tradition. Striezelmarkt dates back to 1434 and is counted among the oldest in Germany. Its name derives from hefestriezel, a sweet delicacy better known as “Dresden Christstollen” (German Christmas Cake). The highlight is the world’s tallest Christmas pyramid and biggest nutcracker.

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The Christmas market at Leipzig dates back to 1767 and is among the largest and most beautiful in Germany, with a fairytale forest, a medieval market and the world’s largest freestanding Advent calendar. The traditional St Nicholas Christmas market surrounding the Old City Hall in Cologne offers travellers a taste of hot gluhwein or traditional mulled wine and reibekuchen (fried potato pancake with apple sauce) near Cologne Cathedral. At the Elves Christmas market, zip around in the specially created ice-skating rink, enjoy German beer or bite into a hearty bratwurst (sausage). At Rudolfplatz, step into a magical world at the Fairytale Market.

Bustling Berlin turns into a dreamland, ushering in the festive spirit with its sixty odd Christmas markets, besides concerts, performances and shopping bonanzas. With the tunning Gendarmenmarkt Square amplifying the beauty of the WeihnachtsZauber market, Berlin is one of the biggest Christmas party destinations in East Germany. In Hamburg, the Christmas market at the Rathaus sees days and nights of endless merrymaking with food ranging from hearty meats to crepes, seafood and cinnamon rolls. Every Saturday Christmas-themed parades and circus performers enliven the main market during season.

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Munich sparkles with its 14th century Nicholaus market at Marienplatz with Nativity scenes showcased at the Kripperlmarkt. Every day at 5.30 pm at Christkindlmarkt, traditional Christmas music from the balcony of the Town Hall greets revelers while in Frankfurt, trumpets blaring from the St Nicholas Church balcony herald the festivities. Stuttgart’s Weihnachtsmarkt is counted among the oldest and largest in Europe and each of the 300 decorated stalls vie for the coveted ‘most beautiful stall’ award. Another beautiful Christmas market is Heidelberg, an old city snuggled amidst hills and forests with a gorgeous view of the River Neckar from its castle.

Between the North Sea and the Harz mountains, experience a range of Christmas themes and settings. Emden has the only floating Christmas market in the freezing north while Wilhelmshaven turns into a romantic beach setting with splendid views of the winter sea. Osnabruck woos visitors to see its massive 6m high Nutcracker figure while the Oldenburg Lambertimarkt transforms into a gigantic Advent Calendar. In Stade near Hamburg, Santa’s helper Lucia, the Swedish Queen of Light wears a wreath of candles. In Bremen, Weinachtsmarkt whips up wonderful white mulled wine while newer Christmas markets showcase pirate ships, music concerts and niche artisan products by the River Weser with wellness and vegan fare at Findorffer’s Winterdorf.

Essen/Ruhr area: Christmas market

Nuremberg’s famous Christkindlesmarkt entertains over two million visitors in December alone. These Bavarian markets lined with neat stalls dressed with signature red-and-white awnings, sell handicrafts, candles, whiskered smoker dolls, handmade muppets and soft toys, music boxes and porcelain. Dig into delicious gingerbread, juicy Nuremberger sausages, iced lebkuchen and the yummy zwetcshgenmännle or ‘Nuremberg Plum People’– doll-shaped treats made of plums.

On the streets, you cannot escape the warm scent of roasting almonds and chestnuts. With carols in the air and shimmering streams of light raining down old timbered homes, with towns dusted with snow and silvery tinsel, soaring Christmas trees gleaming like towers of light, elves and angels gracing the streets and shop windows, you almost see Nicholaus and his reindeer dancing through the skies to drop gifts down every chimney hole, as you are wrapped in the magical realm of Germany’s Christmas markets.

Authors: This article appeared on 24 December 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.