Tuesday, May 31, 2011

An Eagle’s Flight

These lines came to me this morning, just as I woke up and I dedicate them to the free spirit that every human being has or should have; and in particular this is for my dear friend Simon Thomsett:-

As the sun gets up so bright
I look up to follow the eagle’s flight

Where does it go and how far will it alight
How I wish I could follow its flight

When it nests into the darkness night
I wonder if I too might

For an eagle’s spirit is free and sprite
So much joy and full of delight

But when they dive and do fight
Filling up the air with magnificent sight

How I wish I could follow its flight
And fly high even if for slight

For my heart soars with the eagle’s roar
Then I fling open my wooden door
Cast my boat from the ocean’s shore

I follow the eagle’s stunning flight
Oh how I wish I could be as light
And follow the eagle on its flight

Sunday, May 29, 2011

My Top 10 (+1) Whale Watching Sites in the World – Part 2

... continued from the previous post....

6. Húsavík, Iceland: A nation with the word ‘ice’ embedded in its name has to be among my top favourites just for that reason alone, and Iceland has countless other reasons as well. The proverbial land of ‘fire and ice’, blue lagoon, hot water springs, active volcanoes, some of the world’s largest ice caps, rare flora and fauna, clean crisp air, ice covered mountains, lakes, mysterious coves and bays, and some of the world’s friendliest people; I can go on and on about Iceland but I must pause for the sake of this post. Iceland is among my most repeated European destinations and by now I have almost seen the entire country in a manner that most tourists simply can’t, all thanks to my numerous friends there who have gone out of their ways to take me around and to make me feel completely at home. In my next trip there I plan to cycle around the entire country following the national highway ring road. In my estimate I would take around 40 days to complete the tour at a leisurely pace. Another fact that makes Iceland particularly special to me is the fact that the President of the country is a personal friend. And I can’t boast this of any other country in the world.

Iceland has many whale watching locations but I would mention only Húsavík (northeast Iceland) else this post would become far too long; moreover this is the only location where I went whale watching in Iceland. May – September is the feeding season and also the prime whale watching time in Húsavík. The quaint harbour offers regular ferry rides into the Greenland Sea just shy of the Arctic Circle where humpbacks, blue, minke, pilot, orcas and fin whales feed throughout these months before swimming off into warmer areas to breed. The red and blue coloured ferries dance on the placid water like toys. Either before or after the whale watching ride, a trip to the whale museum is a must as it is one of its kind. And as you are already in this out of the world place, you must also visit the museum, the cross-shaped church (only of its kind in Iceland) and hike up to the highest point of Húsavíkurfjall from where on a clear day you will have a beatific glimpse of the icecaps. You must also take a boat ride to the Lundey Island that has a large breeding population of mesmerising puffins (hence also named Puffin Island) and fulmars and other seabirds. For staying don’t even think of anything but camping in the beautifully lush camping ground, where they have a fully functional kitchen, heated toilet and bathroom and laundry. Though it is a paid campsite, no one asked me for anything so I camped there for two nights complimentary.

7. Hermanus, Cape Town, South Africa: Sheer location wise I think Hermanus doesn’t have a rival in the world since from here one can watch whales frolicking from land itself. It is the home of Southern Right Whales from June to November being the high season and if you really dig whales then you just cannot miss the Hermanus Whale Festival. White endless beach with silky soft sand, rising mountain backdrop and a complete indulgence to leisure this place was created only for holidays. Don’t even bother to check into a hotel for you won’t be able to move away from the beach even after the stars have sprouted in the sky. Besides the whales, one can be indulged with hiking, boating, scuba, fishing, horse riding and for the intrepid few a caged dive right within the midst of the great white sharks is highly recommended. There are plenty of dolphins and seals too on the sides. Being located along the garden route originating at Cape Town, both entry and exit from Hermanus is paved in magnificent landscapes that are a sheer joy to your senses. A trip to SA must include Hermanus in the itinerary.

8. Baja California, Mexico: A misnomer alright since it is in Mexico, though neighbouring California. Mexico is a hot, populated, humid and Spanish country with little regard to laws or law abiding citizens. And the only reason for me to be at Baja California one noon was that of my companion who at that point of my life had seemed irreplaceable and irreparable for reasons I now forget. Though that is not to say that Baja California disappointed me in the least. Opening into the North Pacific and among the longest peninsulas in the world, Baja has a distinct culture and atmosphere than Mexico and is sparsely populated for most of the parts. Rarely have I seen such dramatic combination of sea and landscapes simultaneously as in Baja. The beaches are gentle, seemingly infinite with surf, sand and the sea to gladden the heart of even one on death penalty. The eastern sea beaches are more popular than the west and the southern part is totally taken over by deserts, dunes, volcanoes and landscapes out of an alien planet.

Baja has often been ranked as the world’s richest area for whale and dolphin diversity though I am no one to certify that. You will see Blue, Fin, Bryde’s, humpbacks, orca, sperm and several other species and the prized population of the migrating Gray Whales that swim all the way from the Arctic Ocean to breed in the lagoons on the western shores of Baja. Other popular activities you may indulge in include diving, snorkelling, free diving, sand surfing, shark diving (great white and hammerhead sharks) and fishing; tuna, yellowtail, roosterfish, Dorado, marlin and sailfish being the popular catches.

9. Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia: Most beach lovers and whale watchers would perhaps censure me for placing Hervey Bay so lowly in my list but my only defence is that in general Australia is not one of my top destinations as the entire continent does not have a single patch of ice in natural surroundings. Otherwise purely from the point of view of the beach world and marine life, it is right at the top. Located in the South Pacific forming the gateway to Fraser Island and South Great Barrier Reef there’s little that this bay doesn’t offer to a sea lover. As a side note, I must admit that I did enjoy my trip there as also to Fraser Island that is the world’s largest sand island and has an astounding array of lakes and plant life. Being in the shadows of Fraser, Hervey Bay beach is as placid as a landlocked lake in a calm day. It’s well connected to Brisbane by air and land and the best way to see Hervey is on foot or cycle. Plenty of camping places you can simply laze around and no one will bother you at all. It goes well with the general fun loving and laid back Australian image. Between August and October you will find huge colonies of humpbacks residing within the bay and they literally hold an exhibition or circus for the human onlookers. The belly-up display to me was the funniest of all whale antics, where one whale would float like a dead fish with its white belly protruding out of the water for long. Many water birds also populate the bay making it a complete beach experience.

10. Azores, Portugal: Located around 1300 km from Portugal the Azores group of islands, hanging like a tiny droplet within the vast North Atlantic, are an autonomous region of Portugal. It has nine volcanic islands replete with quaint harbours, inlets, dreamy fishing villages, sandy green beaches, misty rolling pastures, ancient windmills and a culture rich in diversity. It is well connected to Europe and US by air. Best way around is by boats or cycle and walk if you don’t mind the steep hills and undulations. Besides whale watching, which you can do from any of the nine islands, you must hike up the hills and see some of the limpid caldera (volcanic) lakes. Though whales are abundant, mostly humpbacks and orcas, there’s little bird life or any other land based animals.

11. Vava’u,Tonga: This Polynesian Island group in South Pacific is one of the most exotic and remote sea destinations in the world and perhaps the only place on earth where even a non-swimmer like me can swim underwater along with the humpbacks. Yes, you read that right, you can actually swim with the whales at touching distance. I cannot think of any other experience of my life that can rival that of swimming alongside the humpbacks and to follow their trail as they fed, or surfaced to breathe or rolled and played with each other.

With the top ten plus one bonus places under the belt, there are smattering of few more that I have seen but couldn’t include in the above for reasons of diversity. Therefore Honourable mention must be made of Cape Cod (Massachusetts, US), Bay of Biscay (Spain), Isle of Skye (Scotland, UK) and Chilean Peninsula (Antarctica, also called Antarctic Peninsula).

That sums it up I guess! And if it hasn’t then please let me know the ones I have missed out. This is the holiday season, at least in India and many of you are outward bound with kids in tow, so if you love the sea and all things that live in the oceans then do visit one of the above and you will not regret your decision.

The oceans and the whales form a major ecosystem of our planet and along with beauty they teach us about life and harmony. Things that we humans have begun to forget in the recent years and that we must inculcate within our children for a better world and for their tomorrow.

My Top 10 (+1) Whale Watching Sites in the World – Part 1

During my Naval career, I was fortunate enough to have had several foreign postings, many deputations and occasional circumnavigation and ocean sailing expeditions thrown in for good measure, besides of course climbing all over the world, for which my bosses always allowed me to go; even at the cost of operational commitments. And now when I sit back and gaze at that wonderful period of my life I am often led to believe that perhaps my Commanding Officers were actually glad to get me out of their systems, else how can one explain that never once were my leave applications turned down or my request to go climbing or sailing while on deputation. Perhaps more bizarre, absurd and dangerous my expeditions were, more they were merry as they could have hoped that I won’t return and they had seen the last of me and what a benign and legal way of getting rid of a real pain in the butt; for I was that for sure. But jokes apart I am primarily thankful to the Indian Navy and to all my superiors and colleagues for giving me such incredible opportunities to do the things that I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

During my ocean voyages I got the opportunity to visit some of the furthest flung and inaccessible regions on our planet, places where one can only go if you have a seaworthy boat, plenty of time and resources. Besides exotic islands, lagoons and shipwrecks, corals and sea life, I also visited some of the finest whale watching sites and this post is to share that experience with you all. As I only believe in experiential learning and assimilation of facts, I will name the top ten whale watching sites that I have personally been to and not necessarily that they are so rated otherwise.

So before I wrote this post, I did a bit of research and realized that out of the top ten sites recommended by Nat Geo and other very reputable travel portals I had been to most and was equally surprised that some of the places I have been and would mention in this post, do not feature in those official top ten whale watching sites. Now this is a certain faux pas as how can these ‘official’ sites on whale watching overlook Greenland, Tonga, the Chilean Peninsula, Norway, Iceland or Scotland to name a few. But then it is indeed tough to come up with top ten whale sites in the world since there are so many each equally enchanting. Never mind, this is my personal top ten whale watching site list, so here goes. Perhaps some of you would go to these locations one day and I am sure many of you must have already been to these places, so if you have then please share your experience too with your comments. So like the good old Capt Nemo would have said, ‘Take your seats, tighten your seatbelts, put on your life jackets and let’s go on the ride of your life’.

So, what on earth is ‘whale watching’? If you thought it means watching whales wearing watches or watching whales that are watching us (humans) then you aren’t that far from the truth. There are many leisure activities devised by man that does not entail you to undergo any sort of physical exertion or discomfort yet can be labelled at the borderline of ‘adventure’ for example wildlife safaris in South Africa, sailing on a flat-bottomed gig down the Nile, Camel ride through Jordan, tandem para-jumping in New Zealand, summer hike to the top of Mt Fuji, sipping wine atop a pagoda in Cambodia, boating in Lake Titicaca, the ridiculously puerile trail to Machu Picchu or taking the cable car to the roof of Europe in Chamonix and then empty your glass of celebratory champagne under the shadows of Mt Blanc.

These activities fills you up with bliss, gives you a feel of living on the edge, bloats your heart with the milk of human kindness and suspends you at the brink of an abyss where you know that you are safe yet in a moment you could be in grave danger. And in all such ‘leisure’ activities, one that stands out and apart is whale watching. Since while watching whales from a kissing distance out of an open boat or a covered one (depending on your paying capacity) you are witnessing nature in its grandest. The sheer smooth body that emerges out of the oceans, then leaping out in the air like a champion acrobat, blowing air like geysers and then suddenly disappearing in a blink... is sheer magic. No words or amount of ululation can capture what whales do to your eyes and imagination. The only thing certain is that even if you are the most reticent and non-verbal person on earth, a whale watching experience even if it is only for 20 minutes, will leave you hoarse and dehydrated since by then you would have blown your vocal chords with shrieks of excitement and inexplicable joy.

Now before we literally jump in, let me first tell you the names of the top ten whale watching destinations that is the official list by general consensus and then would I take you to mine. With no order of priority, they are: Azores, Baja California, Cape Cod, Dominica, Glacier Bay, Hermanus, Hervey Bay, Kaikoura, Monterey Bay and Peninsula Valdes. Of these I haven’t been to Dominica and Monterey Bay. So these two would stay out of my list while few additional ones would be featured. The following list is my own list, hence I am giving it in the order of my priority; the ones that I would recommend and love to go, in a descending order hence my first choice features at no 1.

1. Kaikoura, New Zealand: The location itself says why this is my top whale watching destination; New Zealand is the only country besides Norway to which I am willing to migrate if ever I do. Kaikoura in Mori tongue means a place to eat crayfish. It’s a tiny town on the Pacific Coast of the South Island in New Zealand and obviously far really far from anywhere. Sandwiched by the magnificent and insanely steep flanks of the eponymous mountain range, Kaikoura is a paradise that you can visit while alive. For any hiker or climber, a walk to the top of Tapuaenuku (highest point of the mountain range) is not only recommended but obligatory. While the sea is best enjoyed from the shore, if your are valiant enough then do climb on top of the cliffs and park yourself right at the edge, splaying your body upper half into air and look straight down into the emerald sea and you would be able to see not only the continental shelf that plunges straight into infinite depths but the active marine life.

You can reach Kaikoura by road from Christchurch but I would recommend the train as that by itself is unforgettable. Among whales you will see Sperm, Humpback, Blue, Southern Right, Orca and the rarest and smallest Hector’s Dolphin. The cliffs and shores of Kaikoura would also offer you several species of Albatross, Petrels, Shearwater and seals. While there you must go whale watching, kayaking, dolphin and seal swimming (yes, you can actually swim with them), and if you are a dam good surfer or willing to drink copious amount of the Pacific like me, then surfing. Plenty of places to stay depending on budget but I will recommend the camping ground which has its own resident seals who often visit your tent to wake you up in the morning... how adorably cute!

2. Valdés Peninsula, Argentina: Located on the shores of South Atlantic and stone’s throw distance from the Patagonia Range of mountains, Valdés is any adventurer’s dream come true. The Peninsula is sparsely populated with only one town and village; Puerto Madryn and Puerto Pirámides respectively. Most people just come here for a day trip and then return to mainland but I will recommend at least two days sojourn. The climate is dry and the topography flat, the top whale watching season being from June to December. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and hence there are restrictions to movements and what you can do on your own. Besides Orcas and right whales you will see elephant seals, Magellanic Penguins, sea lions, guanacos, armadillos and gray foxes (this one is not in the sea by the way). It is said that if you could pool in all the lucks of your ancestors then here you may see an Orca snatching a sunning seal from the shores. Well I couldn’t since I didn’t. It is also a great place to dive and snorkel and the sea is always pleasantly warm or cool as you may view it. To me Valdés gives me a chance to combine Patagonia along with the whales and penguins and for that reason alone it remains my whale destination no 2.

3. Lofoten Island, Norway: Among the hundreds of reasons I can name for making Norway as one of my top destinations, not to mention some of my dearest friends who live there, the fjords, rocky cliffs and island outcrops that Norway abounds and sends out like million fingers into the Norwegian Sea and the Arctic Ocean figure pretty much at the top. In winters when all these islands and cliffs are entirely shrouded in white ice and snow and the sparkling blue ocean waves lash relentless on to the cliffs roaring like thunder you just have to be there to realize what primordial forces of nature is all about.

Nat Geo in a global survey has rated Lofoten as the world’s third best island destination, with Faroe Islands as the top (I would cover the island aspects in my future post on world’s top islands). To me Lofoten is the ideal combination of the three loves of my life, the mountains, the oceans and the Arctic Circle. The air is fresh as up in the Himalaya, the sheer granite spires carved by glaciers and the placid fjords along with a distinct cultural heritage of the local fishing villages makes this an ultimate tourist destination even if you don’t like whales. If you can manage to stay in a rorbu (traditional fishermen’s hut) then that’s a bonus. A collision of the warm Gulf currents with the cold Norwegian Sea makes this place abundant in marine life that is palatable to the toothed whales. Hence Orcas are abundant as are other marine lives like the cod (world’s largest Cods are found in Lofoten), mackerel, herrings, and seals.

Besides whale watching and fishing, you must indulge in hiking, golfing (optional), nature walks, rafting (this can be an unusually freezing experience) and of course kayaking, which is synonymous to Lofoten, it being one of the world’s top ten kayaking destinations. Lofoten is a perfect example, like almost everywhere in Norway, how a flourishing tourism industry need not mar or obliterate the local traditions and culture. One word of caution; it is an expensive destination by any standards.

4. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, USA: Well what can I or anyone else say, the name Alaska says it all. This is one place that is a must for anyone with a US Visa on their passport. This is another UNESCO world heritage site and as the name suggests the park is full of glaciers, snow covered mountains, deep fjords, beaches, and freshwater lakes. Despite the abundant glaciers the park is never too frigid even in winters and it has a temperate climate year round. Ideal activities are cruising or kayaking, hiking and climbing, or just hanging out in the park doing nothing at all. The forests have a large population of black and brown bear so one needs to be careful if walking alone or in small groups. It is connected to Seattle by flight to the town of Gustavus and onwards by ferry or smaller plane.

Migratory humpbacks arrive during the summers from Hawaii and feasts on sand lance, Pollack and other fishes and there are abundance of minke and orca whales too and porpoises. Sea lions and seals are found on float ice often breeding and nurturing their cute pups, which are best observed from a kayak. The mischievous sea otters are a delight to watch as they jostle and fight for food or simply hang out into the bay. On land, besides the bears, the park has moose, coyotes, mountain goats, wolves, marmots, lynx, hare and beavers. Avian population is spectacular as they house in the abundant sea cliffs and the rocky shores. Arctic terns, jaegers, waterfowl, songbirds, bald eagles, geese and sea ducks are common. The ideal way, and if you can afford it, to see the marine side of the park is by a private charter boat.

Alaska is a world into itself and when I go there, I don’t feel that I am in the US anymore and there are so many places to go in Alaska that one lifetime is not enough yet Glacier Bay is one that I would strongly recommend to those who don’t necessarily love the mountains or cold places like I do. I went there because I could courtesy some well meaning and rich friends, and I didn’t regret it even for a moment that I spent those priceless hours watching marine life while so many peaks lay unclimbed in the neighbouring mountain ranges.

5. Greenland: It’s hard to pinpoint one whale watching location in Greenland as you see them on both east and west coasts out of several places like Nuuk, Qeqertarsuaq and Aasiaat, or Tinitasiluaq. Greenland as you know is not green and it’s waters comprising of Atlantic, Arctic Oceans and Greenland, Labrador Seas with Baffin Bay and Denmark Straits and proximity to Iceland create a water body that is simply stunning in its offering of sea lives and marine creatures. I love everything about Greenland, including the stuffed Polar Bear that greets the visitors from every entry port into Greenland. The country itself is among my world’s top destinations for myriads of reasons and there are quite a few things I still wish to do there if time and finances permit.

The Innuits are warm and hospitable people and the best way to experience the place is from inside the fishing boat of one of the locals. I agree language could be a problem but their smiles and gestures would more than suffice. As you zip in and out of fjords, having to shove off or hack your way through gargantuan icebergs, you are likely to see humpbacks, minkes, fin, beluga and narwhals (these are found only in the north). Even as you cruise on the sea the mighty cliffs and ice caps on the shore would beckon you and compel you to get on shore and give legs to your imagination. Greenland cemeteries must also be a part of your itinerary for a reason that you got to see to believe it. The easiest ways to reach Greenland is by direct flights from Iceland or UK or Norway. I liked the ones from Iceland since the airhostesses sport such shapely and figure hugging jeans that you are already transported into a heady land even before you have landed.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Whale of a Time

I joined the Navy to fulfil my childhood dream of becoming a submariner hence I opted for the submarines as soon as I could once I got my commission. As a submariner I had dreamt of a life full of adventure, exotic locations, untold mysteries and uncharted vistas, all of which did come true but I hadn’t bargained for the amount of studies we had to do regularly and continuously, even appearing for qualifying exams every six months, failing which one would be expelled from the arm.

During my 22 years of submarining I had to learn and absorb massive amount of knowledge regarding weapons, sensors, hydro-dynamics, physics, tele-communication, navigation and also copious amount of information about the ocean life. A submarine literally is like a metallic fish, the largest fish actually, which can easily dwarf the largest blue whales both in size, volume, weight and speed. A submarine is ‘an essence in the water a part of the ocean world’ since that’s where we live and operate. So it is imperative for us to understand our element, the oceans and all beings that reside within this vast and magnificent medium.

To read the full post please click on the title

The only way a submerged submarine can detect any movement or presence in water is due to the sound waves emitted by others. We need to master the field of underwater sound propagation, a subject that is not only hugely complex but also dynamic enough to have kept me on my toes all through my career. Sonar is the only sensor that works underwater and we all were trained thousands of hours with earphones plugged around our head, listening to noises (Hydrophone Effect) of all sorts of platforms that we would encounter, be it a ship, submarine, a low flying aircraft, torpedo, depth charge, oil rig, fishing boat, rubber dinghy, sea plane, etc. We had to reach the level of expertise where just by listening to the noise of another vessel we would be able to tell the type of propulsion, the speed, no of propellers and shafts, direction of movement, etc. We called this the acoustic signature of the platform. Unbelievable as it may sound, but each vessel in the world, even if they are identical in design, load and crew, have a unique acoustic signature just like a fingerprint hence it can literally be pin-pointed out of thousands of seafaring vessels. Of course to achieve this we also use data banks and super computers along with manual sonar operators.

Besides the vessels, what we also had to master were the various sea and ocean noises we were likely to pick up; like school of fishes, crabs, geysers, ambient ocean noise, cyclone or tsunami, bottom bounce, sea bed acoustics, etc. Among the fishes and mammals, our particular interest were of those that were massive in size, were migratory and were found worldwide since often we would dive or surface within these groups of creatures or follow their path allowing their noise to mask ours in order to evade detection. In fact these creatures are our allies in the ocean depths. Needless to say, whale noise was on the top of our list.

I have always been fond of nature in its most magnificent form and all its creation. Therefore mountains, rivers, forests and oceans and the creatures you find in them were my friends from childhood. ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Old Man and the Sea’ were a part of my growing up and they still are. Oceans were the means by which I could travel unrestricted around the world and that’s a dream I always nurtured. And upon the oceans I always dreamt of befriending and riding whales, dolphins, sharks, seals, sea lions and walrus if they would let me.

Only after I joined the submarines did I realize that my childhood dream was finally becoming a reality. When we used to sit in our sonic library, I would always grab the whale and dolphin tapes first and shutting my eyes listen to the voices of my friends for hours, on day’s end. Eventually I reached a level where I could distinguish between a humpback and an orca just by their hoots or could predict with fair amount of certainty when they were feeding or mating. I loved to hear the sound of hooting and blowing as at that point I felt the whales were really having a whale of a time. As I specialized in underwater navigation and submarine tactics, I found myself away from the sonar and the ocean sounds that I loved so much. Even then whenever possible I would stay glued to the sonar, relieving the much happy sonar operator, and shutting my eyes listen to the whales, dolphins and other marine creatures frolicking away.

As I travelled submerged and over water around the globe I started to chart and record the noises and sightings of whales and read up on their lives and their migratory patterns, mysteries about their breeding, mating, feeding and cycle of life and death. I also befriended many marine biologists and whale experts who enhanced my experience about these majestic creatures. My submarine mates found my interest in whales and marine life odd since a submarine’s primary purpose is to hunt and destroy hostile platforms. So many times I had to plead with my Commanding Officers to surface when I heard whales blowing on the surface or hooting or feeding on krill. When my pleading would not be granted then I would conspire with the engineering / medical officer to come up to periscope depths (tactical situation permitting) to take in fresh air so that I may enjoy the visuals through the periscope since as the navigating officer, the periscope was my undisputed territory.

And what fun that always was. Whale watching from the surface is common and so many people do that, but to actually swim at the same depth as the whales, staying right within their midst and to see the entire circus in three dimension through the magnified vision of a periscope; well only submarines have this rare privilege. So while fresh air was rushing in expelling the stale, I would steer a course parallel to that of the whales and enjoy their antics happening all around me. During those hours I would completely forget about food and hunger and would hang on to the whales as long as they did not dive. I have often wondered what they made of us since it is impossible they wouldn’t notice us. Even though we often surfaced or dived right within these giants we never collided into each other. Only on one occasion do I recall when we were about to bottom on the sea bed did we feel the gentle nudge of a whale on our pressure hull. The nudge did cause us some alarm but no damage at all and I hope the whale did not suffer any injuries either.

If I continue with my whale and dolphin experiences then it could fill up an entire book so I would cut short here and get on with the story. The reason of this post is something different. After all I am no expert on marine life and least of all on whales and this is my first post on these creatures. A genuine love and care for these gentle giants does not make me an authority about them. What I know about whales can be written on a piece of rice leaving room for more. Yet I am writing this post since after many years I met and befriended someone who was and is as crazy about the oceans and marine lives, whales in particular, as I am about everything in general except hot places.

Though I am yet to find anyone who is not fascinated by whales and who does not wish to go whale watching but this friend’s fascination is beyond normal. She simply forgets the world around when she sees a whale; she even wears whale-shaped jewelleries and she literally sleeps, drinks, eats and lives dolphins and whales. Though she has seen whales a bit I would happily trade my place and submarine life with her so that she would or could see and experience the whales and marine lives the way I did and still do. I know that’s not likely to happen now. So this post is to fill her up with my stories and to share with her some of the little known but intriguing facts about the whales to welcome her back home since she is returning right now from one of the longest voyages of her life. And this post is also for each one of you especially for those who like me and my friend are crazy about oceans and marine life.

So strap on your seatbelts and let’s go diving with the whales and literally have a whale of a time...

All whales and dolphins are collectively called cetaceans and one of the best ways to identify whales is by the shape of their flukes (tails) as each type has different fluke shapes. Interestingly, whales being mammals are warm blooded and they can’t breathe underwater though they can hold breath underwater for long and their tails never goes sideways like that of a fish, instead they go up and down hence they are superb divers and have high degree of manoeuvrability and this along with their flippers (forelimbs) makes them high jumpers as well when they simply leap out of the water in great display of excitement. I guess easiest to identify would be a narwhal, orca, beluga, humpback and sperm due to their unique shapes, patterns and colour.

Basically all whales are classified as Baleen or Toothed. Baleens like right, pygmy right, grey, blue, fin, humpback whales don’t have tooth instead they have baleen plates in their gum along the upper jaw. Baleen is made of keratin the substance of our nails and hair. They only feed on tiny animals like planktons, krill, etc since they can’t chew and just swallow their food. For feeding baleen whales either swallow large amount of water or swim with mouth open to take in water and then they shut the mouth allowing the water to filter out through the baleen leaving the food inside that they then swallow. Baleen whales also have two blow holes.

Toothed whales are the ones with tooth and include all dolphins, porpoise besides sperm, white, beaked, killer whales and nearly 65 other species. They have one blow hole and are smaller than the baleens. They hunt on larger fishes, squids, crabs; starfish etc and locate their prey by echolocation just like active sonar. They transmit ultrasound that bounces on the prey telling the whale about their distance, size, shape and location.

Some Interesting Facts

Largest / smallest: Blue whales are not only the largest whales but also the largest, heaviest and longest animal ever to have lived on Earth. They can grow up to 110 ft weighing around 120 tonnes. Fin whale is the second largest whale. Hector’s Dolphin is the smallest growing around 4 ft weighing around 40 kg.

Blue Whale: They are champions in several fields like blowing, appetite, and noise. Blue whales can blow cloud of water droplets while blowing out to a height of 10 – 12 meters. They have the largest appetite and eat around 4 tonnes of krill each day that is equivalent of eating an adult African bull elephant every day. A call may reach up to 188 decibels, which can be heard over thousands of miles away; compare that to a jet plane’s 140 db and human scream of 70 db.

Deepest: Sperm whales dive the deepest to a maximum recorded depth of over 3000 m. At this depth the pressure is 300 times of atmosphere and no submarine can dive to that depth without getting crushed like paper. Sperms normally dive to 1000 m and hunt on giant squids that live in those depths.

Orca: Orca or Killer whales emerge as clear winners in two aspects. They are the fastest cetaceans with a top speed of 50 km/h that is as fast as the fastest ship and they are also the deadliest predator in the oceans, hence called Killer. They also hunt in pods when attacking a large shoal of fish or marine mammals. They are also the largest member of the dolphin family.

Narwhals have the longest tooth that protrudes out like a unicorn’s sword and therefore it is easiest to identify. The tooth grows longer than a champion basketball player at 7 – 10 ft.

Longest migrations are done by the Gray whales. During the winters they swim from the Arctic Ocean, northwest of Alaska of Chukchi Sea / Bering Sea to the Mexican Baja Peninsula (this is one of the world’s best whale watching spots for this reason) and return in the summers. Annually they average a distance of 12,000 – 20,000 km. For an average lifespan of 40 years of a Gray, it does a return trip to the moon in distance.

Whale Songs: male Humpbacks are the Pavarotti of the marine world. Their tenor, pitch and frequencies cannot be rivalled by any other. I have listened to hundreds of their songs during my submerged ocean passages and they are beautiful when they call out to their mates. The songs can at times last nearly for an hour and consists of sequences of squeaks, grunts and other sounds. Only males sing and they do so only in warm waters believed to be done for calling out to prospective mates and keeping other males away. Not so different from human I daresay. In cold waters their songs are rougher and less melodious as it is done to locate food and krill.

Of all the whales’ only pilot whales beach occasionally, coming out of water and sunbathing like human on the beach. The reason for doing so is yet not known with certainty.

Whales and dolphins don’t sleep like human or other animals. They just catnap momentarily while swimming with each half of the brain taking its turn to ‘sleep’ while the other half continues to control all motor and voluntary actions including breathing. When they open their eyes in water a special greasy tear screen protects their eyes from the salt.

Though there are thousands of other facts about whales I would pause here today as the above would suffice for this post.

The picture accompanying shows the flipper of a whale recently sighted in north Atlantic. If you can identify the whale, please leave a comment with its name with this post and the first one to get it correct would find an honourable mention in my next post that too would have something to do with whales. The only person not allowed to take part in this is the one who took this picture, so no cheating.

Welcome to the world of whales. I hope you had a whale of a time!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Demystifying a Swiss Knife

If one object can be named as an extension of my limbs then that would be a Swiss Knife (SK). To me it is not a lowly knife but a life saving device, exactly what the manufacturers Victorinox claim it to be. Over the years I have used many models and varieties of SK and currently I have 6 different models at home including the ubiquitous Swiss Champ with which you can literally dismantle a space shuttle or disarm a nuclear ballistic missile. Any one or two of these SK would always accompany me in all my travels, adventurous or not, and they have literally saved my life on numerous occasions.

I am often asked by people to recommend a SK for their use and that is the key to buying a SK; what are you going to use it for; some use it as a keychain, some to impress, some to cut vegetables at home, some to climb Everest and then some to just hang it on the wall of their sitting room. If you visit the Victorinox website or a showroom you would be completely baffled and boggled by the range they have. And it is often a puzzle for most as to what all the functions are for and how they can use it to the optimum. Attractive colours, prices and salespersons (both male and female) often leads one to buy a SK which they don’t need or one that they would never use to the fullest. So this post is about demystifying this amazing device called SK and to share with you more common features that can be used in our daily lives and also high up in the mountains or the wild outdoors.

To Read more please click on the title

It all began in 1884 in the Swiss Alpine meadows by Charles and Victoria Elsener who started making multi tools and cutlery. In 1891 they got the first contract to supply soldier’s knives to the Swiss Army and shortly thereafter Charles Elsener patented the ‘Officer’s knife’ that made the house of Victorinox what it is today.

Every SK comes with a life time guarantee on material and workmanship that is covered worldwide. And in most cases a SK does exceed the lifetime of the user. If you own a genuine SK and if it goes bad due to the material or any workmanship failure, even if it is few decades old, you can take it to the nearest Victorinox service centre and get it repaired or replaced free of cost anywhere in the world; no questions asked. You don’t need to produce any receipt or billing vouchers etc. Every SK product has a genuine and unique number etched inside the handle that the service centre verifies and once that is done he would replace your product or repair it if possible. I don’t think there’s any other brand or product in the world that comes with such a guarantee. It’s no wonder that SK and Victorinox is one of the most recognized and sold brands in the world.

Please refer to the accompanying picture, as I have explained the name and function of the parts according to the corresponding numbers. The model in the photograph is called ‘Huntsman’ and the product code is 1.3713. The popularity of ‘Huntsman’ can be gauged by the fact that Victorinox product catalogue 2011 features this model on its cover page. Ideally I should have shown the model ‘Mountaineer’ with product code 1.3743 but then I have a reason for not doing so, moreover there’s just one difference between these two models and I think ‘Huntsman’ is more applicable to general life. Now let’s get on with our demystification:-

1 – Tweezers: function: excellent for taking out thorns embedded into skin, picking up tiny pieces of paper or leaves or anything too small for fingers, eyelash pruning for ladies and some men

2 – Toothpick: function: picking tooth, extracting objects from tiny fissures. It’s made of tensile plastic so handle carefully

3 – Large blade: function: cutting or peeling or chopping vegetables and fruits, murder / assault or self defence, carving wood, digging earth, using for leverage into tiny rock cracks

4 – Wood Saw: function: sawing wood (I have had to cut woods several times to span wild raging mountain rivers), sawing through cloth, etc

5 – Cap lifter with screwdriver and wire stripper: this particular part has three devices, the wire stripper being the tiny notch at the bottom: functions: cap lifting from misc bottles, screwdriver, stripping the outer insulated sheath of metal or electric wires, it can also be used to bend thick metal wires in case you don’t have pliers

6 – Scissors: function: cutting papers, cloth, trimming moustache, making holes into paper or cloth or tent repair fabric

7 – Small Blade: function: same as large blade with lesser lethal power, anti eve teasing device too

8 – Key Ring: function: to put a safety line through the SK, hanging it from your trousers belt loop, hanging it on the wall, for any kind of hanging purpose

9 – Reamer and Punch: function: as you will notice this device has a sharp edge and a hole like a needle in the centre. It looks like a flattened needle. It is primarily used to make holes or enlarging an existing hole through fabric, leather, etc and the hole is used to put thread through and sew up big objects like hiking boots or canvas tents. I have also used it to extract juice out of citrus fruits like oranges and lemons.

10 – Corkscrew: function: lifting any cork from any bottle, mostly used to open champagne or wine bottles at the end of a successful expedition where no one died. Make sure you are with a French or Russian team.

11 – Multipurpose hook (parcel carrier): function: this hook has to be used by taking it out at a right angle to the SK red body and then curling your fist around the body with the hook sticking out between the index and middle fingers. Best used for lifting or pulling of heavy weights like sacks, parcels, gunny bags, etc. I have used it to hang my hammock too

12 – Can opener with small screwdriver: function: this part has two devices together: function: opening any tin can of tuna, meat or vegetables, screwdriver for small cuts

For nearly 15 years I held perhaps the best model of SK ever made in terms of functionality and compactness. It was a gift from a dear friend who died in an avalanche the year after he gave this precious SK to me, which by then he had used for over a decade. This particular model, which Victorinox doesn’t make now (currently product code 1.3405 comes closest to it or product code 1.3705.AVT which has additional features like barometer, thermometer, etc; and how I wish someone would present these ones to me now), had in addition to the above: pressurised ball point pen, mini screwdriver, and a stainless steel pin, making it the most versatile SK I have ever used or known. Amazingly even after 25 years of rigorous use the ball point pen ink hadn’t dried. Unfortunately I lost it due to my own carelessness in Kenya earlier this year.

Now to wind up, if you wish to know which is the ultimate Swiss Knife model one can have; then I would be diplomatic enough to say that it depends on the individual and what you wish to do with it. Going by the functions offered, then of course the hands down winners are product codes 1.6795 (Swiss Champ), 1.6795.XLT (Swiss Champ XLT) and the mind boggling model with 80 features 1.6795.XAVT (Swiss Champ XAVT). I already have the original legendary Swiss Champ and I don’t really need any of the other two versions since they have functions I rarely or never would use in the wilderness. But yes, given a choice I would certainly like to own one day the model that comes loaded with 41 features including a sharpening stone 1.8741.AVT (Expedition Kit). In terms of extreme expeditions be it anywhere in the world from the Poles to the top of Everest or from Alaska to Antarctica, be it inside the deepest caves or deepest oceans, this is one Swiss Knife that would get you there and bring you back in one piece.

Seriously a Swiss Knife cannot be improved, it is perfect but even then I would like to wrap up with one wishful thinking. If ever Victorinox is going to add a feature to its products, then I would want them to add a nail cutter. Since its inception and well over few hundred products there is not a single SK ever made that came with a nail cutter. When we go to outdoors, for months on end, our nails do grow in the most unruly fashion, which is not only unhygienic and unpalatable to view, especially when in women’s company but for climbing we absolutely must cut our nails regularly. Since Swiss Knives don’t have one, I always have to carry this additional gear, a nail cutter and over the years have lost scores of them on various mountain ranges across the world. I hope Victorinox is listening and will soon add a nail cutter.

I guess that covers it all as for this post. But now I can see some more questions in some of you reader’s eyes, as to the purpose of the smiling red lady bug that sits at the top corner of the picture accompanying this post. What’s she doing here!

Hmmm even I am not sure and for now let’s keep that a mystery to be demystified later, if ever at all. But then it is said that lady bugs are harbinger of extraordinary luck and so does a SK and for the life I lead, I need both or rather all the three: lady bug, SK and extraordinary luck. In that way, the lady bug certainly has a connection and place in this post as much in my life.

Now my friends go out and grab your Swiss Knives from the nearest store, wherever you may be in the world. I am going to get another one for sure, of course would surreptitiously ask one of my friends to present it to me, since till date I did not buy any of the SK’s that I have owned or presently use. I believe that if I buy one then it won’t bring me luck. A Swiss Knife to me can only come as a precious friend’s precious gift and only then would it be my life saviour. Amen!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Minimizing Risk

Every time I shoulder my rucksack, laden with climbing gear and my survival pack, my body automatically transforms into ‘climbing’ mode. From countless occasions before, it knows what it’s going to be in for, once that heavy rucksack gets on my shoulders. Each time I cling to a rock face from my fingers, once again my mind and body and my limbs know instinctively what could happen. Every time I leave the safety of horizontal ground and slither up into my vertical world, my body again knows what’s going to happen and it is also acutely aware that at some point I may peel off or gravity may take hold of me once again. Flying off faces is not new to me, I have been falling forever. Thousands of ice axe placements later, even today when I plunge my ice tools into a vertical and often fragile frozen face there’s no guarantee that it will hold my weight or that the face would not shatter and break away taking me along to certain death. For me climbing is as instinctive as breathing. Most often I am not even aware of what I am doing during a climb. My body and my limbs just do what they have always been doing in an arena that they are synonymous with. Yet there are risks and unaccounted dangers that I may have never encountered or catered for.

In my world, risk and failure could and often does mean death or severe damage to the body. How do I minimize it, since it is impossible to delete the risk factor completely. I have some compounding risk factors as well, which has come to me over the years and also due to my sustained climbing. I have osteoarthritis in both knees and partial torn ACL in my right. My right shoulder ligaments have a tear too and my body aches even at rest. There are cracks, bruises, cuts and stitches on my back, head, and legs. I can’t climb or suspend at the same level as I could a decade ago. I need to rest more, carry lighter loads and climb at a slower pace now, though I enjoy the activity even more, since at 47 I am more matured to understand and enjoy what I do. I am no more competitive as I was in my twenties; I have nothing to prove to anyone and least to myself. I need not rush headlong into any climbs now; I can often just sit back on a grassy meadow below my beloved glaciers and just look up at the towering peaks and converse with them. They are my friends and family and the ones I am truly attached to, they have been with me all through my life and will always be, even when I am gone. And if destiny so ordains then I would wish to lie down my final breathe amidst them and never return.

Even then, when I strap my crampons and gaze at a wall looming above where I would soon be struggling to stay alive, I know with complete certainty that I do run the obvious risks of injury and death. This is the charm of mountaineering, and at higher altitude it just becomes so much more intense, focussed and downright fun. Ruling out risk completely is not possible, so I do what I or anyone else ever can. I do my homework, train as hard as I can, revise my moves, knots and rope work till I can do them in my sleep, get my physical fitness nearly to the breaking point, study the mountain well and then go. I could also add adequate gear and equipment to the list but then often I try to accomplish my objective with minimalistic attitude. Minimum food and equipment; improvising as I go along. This only adds to the enjoyment and purity of the climb though it does add to the risk.

But what I do most sincerely to minimize risk happens within my mind and my heart, it’s more surreal and supernal. I talk to the mountains, to the elements, befriend them, pay them my respect and then meekly and humbly succumb myself to their whims and will. I am nothing in front of them so I surrender myself unconditionally for them to do with me as they please. The fact that I am still alive proves that this works and they indeed take care of me.

And the final step to minimize risk is of course one that I often forego, and that is to have a climbing partner who is equally good or perhaps better than self. I have had some wonderful climbing partners through the years and it is to them that I owe my life. For not only many of them saved me from certain death or nurtured me when I was ill, but they gave me some of my finest moments of this life, shared my tears and smiles, joys and sorrows and we bonded for life through the mountains. They were and continue to be my risk insurance.

Now to sum up, here are the things I do to minimize risk: -

Train as hard as I can
Make myself as physically and mentally fit I can be
Take adequate equipment, food, and gear necessary
Go with a partner I can trust with my life
Take all precaution
Go slow and steady
Pay respect to the elements and surrender myself to them unconditionally

I do this in my vertical world. Perhaps you can apply the above in your personal and professional life and minimize the risks involved. For risks can only be minimized but not discarded completely.

After all what would life be without inherent risks and challenges!

Kenya Calling – Brewing Baringo

At first sight, seeing from the upper escarpment, shrouded within the afternoon hot haze, Lake Baringo does not appear exciting or in any way unique; except that the water body is dotted with several tiny islands and has good amount of forest cover all around. It is the end of our Turkana trip and after the long, dry, dusty spell from Maralal I am only too glad to spread my legs just about anywhere. Lake Baringo seems to be better than ‘anywhere.’ By then I was back in the beer guzzling couple’s dusty SUV hence slightly better off than my truck-bound companions, whose posterior flesh had taken severe beating till now.

The road winds down towards the lake and I am delighted to see the never ending row of volcanic and metamorphic rock to my right, ideal though hazardous rock climbing site. We finally reach Marigat (the main settlement in the area) and take to the broad tarmac road. We cross the entry gate, where we pay the fee and then proceed towards Robert’s Camp where we would be putting up for the night. Those who could afford would stay in the luxurious lake view cottages and those who couldn’t (includes self and the four cherubic Charlie’s Angels) would camp in the camping ground by the lake shore. The only hitch, as one of the cottage-bound friends cautioned, that the hippos and their families often stroll up during the night on the camping ground to chomp on juicy grass and therefore I shouldn’t be pitching my tent near the water or anywhere in the vicinity of delicious grass. I wondered how I would know if the grass upon which my tent stands is delicious to hippo palate. Crocs come up too, he further elaborated. If his intention was to dissuade me from camping then he completely failed. Since the prospect of either being chomped up by a hippo family along with grass or finding a croc inside my tent at night for company seemed so delightful that I decided then and there to pitch my tent right on the water and find out what happens. Now here is the story.

When I enquire about where I can camp, the fat Camp keeper directs vaguely towards the lake shore where there are other tents and several 4X4 are parked. I plunge through the tents (of all shapes and colors, amusing me to no end as I am used to super alpine extreme altitude tents) and camping tables and chairs and finally emerge into a considerable amount of clearance where there are no tents or human presence at all. I am in the middle of hippo grazing ground and it is right at the edge of the water. I look around and realize that all other campers are well outside this invisible periphery, as if there’s an unseen boundary wall, ahead of which no one camps. My eyes glint in anticipation.

There’s nothing that says I can’t camp close to the water, though there’s a notice board right in front of me, declaring, ‘Caution, Hippos and Crocodiles are dangerous.’ As if I didn’t know, I mutter to no one and proceed to pitch my tent in a way that the front vestibule literally opens into the water, exactly in the middle of the grazing ground. I want to ensure that when the hippos and crocs do stroll up and out of water there’s no way they can avoid my tent. A moth-eaten safari guide book had already told me that to escape hippos one must be silent and let them get on with their job, whatever it was. One must never startle a hippo, no matter what, even if it was about to sit on your head. And I did have ‘close encounters of the hippo kind’ experience from before, so I feel confident as I whistle into the wind and get the poles out.

The lake water lapping in front of me is beautiful and stretches out like a silvery carpet merging and disappearing into the blue hills yonder. The breeze is unusually pleasant and harmonious to my vagabond spirit. I feel like spreading my wings into the wind and simply fly away into the hills. Suddenly the air is redolent with a great flapping noise and I look up to see a fish eagle poised for its catch, flapping its wing upon a skeleton tree branch. I drop everything and grab my camera just in time. The eagle sweeps down like a dead stone and in a flash pounces upon the water, emerging the next moment with a shimmering jerking fish clutched in its claw. I let out a burst and capture some great action shot. And then I begin to see the other birds.

Lake Baringo is a fresh water lake located at around 1000 m elevation. With an area of around 130 sqkm it has nearly 470 recorded species of birds and many animals including hippos and crocs. It is a major source of freshwater fish for the industry and has few endemic ones as well. The lake is fed by three rivers and also from the escarpments of Tugen Hill and Mau Hills. It has several inhabited islands, the largest being Ol Kokwe and few of these islands has resorts as well. It is a major tourist attraction and is considered a paradise for birdwatchers.

I observe the fish eagle as it devours the fresh catch perched precariously atop the naked branch of a skeleton tree. Then comes a pied kingfisher, followed by a heron and an assortment of weavers and starlings. A group of Hammerkops shiny up and down the thick branch of a tree like a group of truant kids, falling atop each other. With my tent pitched I look for the hippos, but they don’t show up. I shoulder my camera and go for a bit of exploration.

I walk along the water, dipping my feet intermittently, as fishes fly out and jump up eyed by eagles and egrets from above. I find a grass filled bog where one of the campers is fishing with a thin line. He points out to me a pair of log woods floating at a touching distance. They are crocs with spiny backs I realize much to my satisfaction. The place is full of skeleton trees, sprouting out of the water at random like silent sentinels and they contrast beautifully against the deep blue sky. I love such trees and so does a friend, so I click the skeleton trees by the dozen. Few tourist boats, with people encased in orange life jackets pass me by and I observe sadly the amount of cacophony they generate in the name of fun. Soon the dusk rolls in painting the sky even deeper hue of blue and green.

The evening is far too pleasant and even as it gives way to night, I don’t feel like turning in. I cook up a simple meal and park myself on a chair at the water’s edge in complete darkness, watching the starry sky and listening to the nocturnal animals pass by. I join the angels for a while at ‘Thirsty Goat’ (the bar) along with our truck driver Michael where he regales us with his traveling stories that are larger than life. I return to continue my solitary vigil by the lake. At some point I retire and drift off to sleep inside the tent. The wind is nearly cyclonic and the tent flaps keep battering into my dreams.

Now before I had pitched my tent, our driver Michael, had briefed me thoroughly how a chomping hippo sounds and also double cautioned me that I must not even breathe if they were around. Since a hippo is otherwise harmless but they are very curious and excitable. They are herbivorous but they bite into anything that upsets them, including humans and their bite is worse than that of any predator. When hippos graze and eat, and they really eat, they make a grunting kind of noise, which can also be confused with a snort.

Suddenly, even as I am dreaming a faceless dream, my tent is filled with hippos grunt. I wake up with a start into the pitch black tent and immediately smell the wild hippo scent. My first instinct is to switch on my headlamp and step out but then I decide to stay quiet and get a grip on the situation. A little while later with my head clear of sleep, I glance down to my watch and realize it is around 4.30 am. I can hear grunts from at least five different animals. Perhaps a hippo family with two adults and three kids, I muse. They sound alarmingly close and suspiciously joyous. Perhaps they can smell me and plan to mix me up with the grass. And then suddenly I feel my tent move physically. I know it is impossible as I am inside. But it feels like that. And then something brushes against my face. I recoil alarmingly brushing my face hastily. I still dare not switch on the lamp, so I grope around my face and realize that the tent fabric, which earlier was at least 12 inches away, is now pushing into my face. This is weird I wonder in the darkness. How can the tent become tinier during the night? While to my other side the tent wall is as far as it was. I again feel blindly with my hand and as I realize what it is, a cold chill runs down my spine. The ample back of a hippo is pressing into my tent fabric from the outside and it is his posterior that is making the tent wall cave in. I am sure the animal has no idea that the tent is there or that it has an occupant. It could either soon decide to sit on it totally or just tear the flimsy fabric with its teeth thus exposing me to the herd. And then I actually stop breathing.

I have no idea how long do I sit transfixed in this manner, not daring to move or breathe or even blink. I have no idea what the situation is outside, I don’t hear any human voice, there could be more hippos all around my tent and I decide that I am far safer inside than outside as long as I stay silent and play dead. Light slowly begins to filter through the tent as dawn begins to spread her wings. The hippos are still around and I stay silent as snow on a mountain top. Though I feel that I might be in some sort of danger I don’t really see the danger I am in. Silence is my ally and I pray for the hippo gods (if they have any) to direct his disciples to another patch of grass since I feel the alarming rise of my desire to answer nature’s call. And just at that moment, my mobile rings.

Instantly I pick it up lest it angers the hippo outside and whisper to my friend on the other end and quickly cut the line. I switch off the mobile and wait. Within the next few minutes that seem to drag forever, I sense the hippos moving away as the grunting noise fades and then stop altogether. I allow few more precious minutes to pass before I unzip my tent flap and peek outside. What I see stuns my eyes and dazzles my mind in a manner that I completely forget nature’s call and straight away jump outside like a paraplegic armadillo with my camera dangling behind.

The sky is awash with the orange-crimson of pre-dawn while two giant hippos watch me through slit eyes from beneath a skeleton tree growing out of the water. The hippos, though close, seem harmless and I step close to take few pictures. They remain submerged in the cool water and just keep me in their sight. I turn towards the hill at the horizon where sun is about to break surface.

An egret perches on a branch nearby as if worshipping the sun and prunes her feathers like a vain woman (that’s the reason why I am certain it was a female).
Then walks by a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl looking dreamy and drowsy as only owls can followed by a pair of storks and hornbills. The sun begins to rise and suddenly the forest around comes alive with hundreds of birds chirping, ducks wading, sunbirds hopping and people waking up. I point out the hippos to others and soon enough there is a sizeable crowd ogling the couple in water. Around 7 am, arrives our boatman with whom we had struck a boat-ride deal the previous evening.

He pushes the boat into the water, and we all hop in, passing close to the hippo couple who don’t even give us a second look. The boatman is a young boy and ready to give us the ride of our lives. He rattles out information about the lake, the fishes and the birds. We soon enter a grass covered channel and sight bee-eater, kingfishers, eagles, crocs, heron, more hippos and egrets, cormorants, storks, and numerous other birds I can’t identify. At a place we sight three pied kingfishers engaged in a morning conference, chattering and chirping away to glory. And then we speed off towards a distant island. The boat cuts across the blue water, causing ripples in our wake and I ride in the front to take on the lovely lilting breeze and the glow of the morning sun. We reach the island and go around it, finding a pair of young boys fishing at one point. They wave at us and we wave back. Then it is time for us to return. We hop off the boat and I proceed to pack my tent as my other camping friends had already gone for breakfast.

The place is incredibly beautiful and I find it hard to go away so soon. I slowly gather my tent and my meager belongings into my sack and then dump them in the car. I decide to skip breakfast and take one last walk besides the lake. I walk towards the further edge where I hadn’t gone before. And there I come upon a delightful family of Egyptian goose. The parents are leading a bunch of half a dozen young chicks, few really young with barely any feather on their baby skin. I follow them from a distance unobtrusively.

The chicks are cordoned and guarded by the parents from either end as they hop and skip making high pitched squeaking sounds all along. A young one suddenly wobbles and crashes to ground head first and immediately stands up by itself dusting the sands from its skin like a terrier. Another opens its rosy beaks and cries for food till the mother drops something in it. Then they go into the water. Two chicks are hesitant as the strong wind ruffles their wings and tiny hair. They arch their backs and stand up on their legs like human, braving the wind and shaking their tiny heads as if in a daze. The entire show is utterly comical and totally adorable. The young chicks finally gather enough courage to follow the parents and their siblings into the water. They frolic and splatter, swim and smatter like human. Then they drink the water and return to the sandy shore. Once again they form a long line and walk away.

As time is nigh, I tear myself from the lake shore and meet up with my friends who are basking around the pool with pina-coladas (complimentary farewell drinks I suppose). Even as we are leaving the place I spot a group of superb starling, lilac breasted roller and a rare species of hornbill. I follow the hornbill with my camera as it hops and skips through the grass denying me a clear shot, though it doesn’t fly away. I am sure it is used to seeing people around. Few glossy ibis hang around as do a group of chirping doves. Finally it is time for us to leave and I board the car with a heavy heart. Suddenly I remember something and dash off into ‘Thirsty Goat’ to grab a bottle of soda. It’s not possible, as the manager had told me the previous night that one comes to Robert’s Camp and doesn’t guzzle at ‘Thirsty Goat’. It’s almost a ritual. That accomplished I soothe my troubled heart and hop into the guzzling couple's car.

The guzzling couple put on a loud raucous music, loud and belligerent enough to silence the savannah and we dash off towards the city of Nairobi into the new year of 2011.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Kenya Calling - Pensive at Porini Part 2

Mara Porini Camp – Ol Kinyei Conservancy

My next destination with Gamewatchers was their Mara Porini Camp in Ol Kinyei Conservancy. This happened during the latter half of January and by this time I had gained adequate experience for wildlife and all things wild to consider myself a little above ignorant in such matters. So I start off with some sense of efficacy as I ride with Mr. Pappu, the rotund good natured Indian origin Gamewatchers overall manager cum all-purpose man. Pappu loves driving, eating and music and is a Formula race fan; thankfully he drives like a normal person. In few hours and with our vehicle full of supplies and provisions for the camp, we arrive at Narok, the staging town for Mara. A brief halt to pop few samosas inside our growling stomachs and we speed off on the un-metaled road towards the conservancy. The sky is grey, air is breezy and Pappu is full of funny stories. At a point we leave the road and drive into a dip, through a stream and up on the other side. A wooden post claims the name Ol Kinyei.

Ol Kinyei is a 8500 acre conservancy and is located in one of the most spectacular wilderness areas in the Serengeti-Mara-eco-system. As we drive through and wildlife begins to spring out like fresh flowers in bloom, I gaze wondrously at the savannah plains, the thick lush riverine forest, gushing springs, streams and the delightful rolling hills. Giraffes, impalas, zebras trot alongside our vehicle as if they form a part of the welcoming party. Soon we reach the Porini Camp. The manager (whose name I have forgotten; perhaps it was David), came out with a smile broad and wide enough to fill up the entire conservancy. For the first time someone called me ‘bwana’ in Kenya. He led me into the dining tent and we completed the formalities to the accompaniment of excellent tea, cookies and more of ‘Porini’ hospitality. This camp has six tents all spread around the bending and gushing waters of Laetoli spring that even has a resident hippo. The spring is a favored site for animals and it is not unusual to see cheetahs and leopards and elephants come strolling for their morning and evening drinks. I learn that there’s only another British couple currently in the camp. Pappu gets down to work while I am shown into my tent. This accommodation is certainly more luxurious than the one at Amboseli.

Very soon Pappu and I leave on the evening game drive. Surprisingly, as Pappu reveals, he had never done a game drive before. The obvious bag of goodies for sundowner is conspicuous between the seats. We cross the stream and then over some savannah then towards a hill where a pride of resident lions reside. Suddenly to my left I see a curious bird, rather large, with massive wings and a white body. It hops in an odd manner on ground. We go close and it is my first ‘secretary’ bird in view. As we come near, it flies off the ground and perches like a helicopter on top of a tree. We stalk the bird for a while but he remains fixed and perched on one leg atop the tree. So we move on.

Abruptly I hear noises as if clashes of two wooden swords. And the noise is very high in frequency and force. What is going on, I seek my able guide. He quickly turns the vehicle and we go behind a clump of trees to reveal a pair of mail impalas rolling and pushing on ground against each other. A virtual impala wrestling is on. Two males fighting for the dominance of the females and the tribe. I look around and find nearly 30 odd females watching the spectacle from a distance. I am curious to find out who would win and what would happen thereafter. But even after fifteen minutes no clear cut winner emerges, they both seem to be panting but not giving in; even the females had lost interest and were busy grazing. Sun doesn’t stop so we leave the arena and go to the lion hill.

Lion hill proves deserted, no lions anywhere and my guide opines that the lions must still be inside somewhere and would come out later so we speed off in the opposite direction, towards a sizeable hill. We drive around through groups of grazing zebras, gazelles, waterbucks, impalas, kongonis and tiny Thomson’s scattering a few while others remain oblivious to our presence. The hill top gives us an all around panoramic view of the conservancy. A patch of grey cloud to our west shields the sun and the diffused light paints the trees and savannah below with a pale yellow-green brush. My guide trains his binoculars to the distant lion hill in search of lions as he is certain the predators would emerge soon from their resting places. The driver lays out sundowner goodies. Pappu has just bitten into a luscious piece of chicken leg and I have just sipped the glass of excellent wine, when our guide gestures excitedly, the lions are emerging, females and cubs. I borrow his binoculars but see nothing in the direction. It is too distant for my untrained eyes. Pappu too confirms that the lions are out, so we pack up everything post haste, and rush down and retrace our path back.

Lion hill is basically a wide mound of low height full of dry acacia trees and tall grass with dry mud patches in between. As we near the place, a low growl fills up the air. I see a lioness and two cubs walking away from us. The light is terribly low and I have to be careful shooting with high iso and slow shutter as my 300 mm lens is manual. The ground is bumpy and I jump up and down as if riding a frenzied buck. We drive parallel to a lioness who walks all by herself; regal and poised, sovereign of all she surveys. Then from behind another tree walks in three cubs, who roll on ground and paw at each other. We stop as now we are surrounded by lionesses and cubs. They are unbelievably close. The guide tells me not to make any move and certainly not to step out of the vehicle. I stop taking pictures and simply gaze at the wonder of nature. When it gets darker we return. The full moon by then has taken her place in the night sky. It sits on top of a tiny dark cloud and smiles down upon us.

When night falls the forest is both silent and at its most redolent. All human movements stop, birds sleep and then the true night sounds emerge out of the hush. After dinner I draw out a chair and sit in the darkness outside my tent; a distant camp guard saunters at his post and a low fire crackles somewhere. I look up at my lifelong companion in lonely nights where she is playing through the overhead canopies, spilling her laughter and mirth on me and I wave back at my old friend.

Next morning I wake up with the larks to discover the forest under siege of a pall of thick swirling mist. The place truly seems like the ‘lost world’. Shapes emerge out and then dissolve back into the mist. A cup of steaming hot tea and few cookies down and we are off for the early morning game drive. Once again I find myself in the illuminated company of Pappu. The morning is beautiful, mysterious and full of promise. Soon enough we chance upon a pair of lionesses and a dozen of the cutest and tiniest cubs. We could have watched them forever when our radio set crackles to tell us that in another part of the conservancy a stray mother cheetah has been sighted with two male cubs. We head for the direction. On reaching the sighting place we find nothing. My guide looks intently at the ground and tells the driver where to head for. I can see nothing but the guide knows where the cheetahs had walked and where did they go. I have no idea what signs he is reading on the moist dew laden dry grass. Around ten minutes later we sight them; two cubs on their haunches looking at their mother who is stalking a group of gazelles.

The cubs are nearly a year old and now it is time for them to head out on their own. My guide explains, these have come from other parts of the area and the mother has brought them here so that she can leave them and the cubs wouldn’t be able to trace her back or return to her. That’s how nature works. And before she leaves them, she is ensuring that they have learnt how to hunt and survive in the wild. Statistically half the cubs will not survive complete adulthood and will die for one reason or the other. We watch the drama from a distance, the entire gamut of the mother pushing her now grown up cubs to hunt, to hide, to chase, to look for water. Compared to the animals, we human cushion our young ones far too much. We stay with the trio for around 40 minutes and then it is time for us to return. On the way back we visit the stream to pay our respect to the resident hippo Simon (I think that’s his name), but Simon has gone for his morning jog and we don’t find him home. Breakfast is a merry affair and with a box of packed lunch I board the vehicle again and am off for my next stop in the Mara.

Porini Lion Camp – Olare Orok Conservancy

Cutting across the Mara ecosystem heading due west it will take us nearly two hours to reach the Porini Lion Camp. This is a 20,000 acre conservancy bordering the Masai Mara Game Reserve. Though out of the main reserve this place is full of wildlife and abundance of lions, the hallmark of Mara. I remember reading in the Gamewatchers brochure that Porini Lion Camp is the highest revenue earner of all their camps and I soon discover the reason. The lovely winding drive through the savannah and low hills ends up suddenly across a river and we stop in front of the camp. Undoubtedly this is the most spectacularly located of all Porini camps I have visited so far. It has ten guest tents, all placed strategically along and around the bank of Ntiakatiak River that has permanent hippo pools nearby. Beyond the river a grassy dune—dotted with grazing wild life--rises like a giant tidal wave forming a startling backdrop to the camp while another hill stops its slopes barely few hundred feet away from the camp at the front and the river stream gurgles and winds around like a vagrant string of floating balloon. The tents are more modern in design, color and interiors. Simple elegance with clean cut furniture, both of wood and wrought metal, wide openings and awnings, ample room to spread around – I like the place immensely. The manager (I think he was called William) welcomed us with Porini signature hospitality, smile and briefing. William is different from the other camp managers I have met so far as he is a Gold Rated guide and has no hospitality background. I am shown into my personal tent that is again rather different from the other Porini Camps; reflects the layout and theme of the main dining tent. I am right next to the river where I am told elephants come to frolic in the early hours. Here too, I have only one couple for company.

While lunch is getting ready I find the outside too tempting to stay in. The manager had told us not to stray out of the camp area at night, but nothing specifically about the day; or so I had presumed. Dressed in my bright, eye-dazzling yellow T-shirt, I stroll down and out, cross the stream and a pair of mother and baby elephant at a distance, all the while whistling through my heart with the lovely breeze. As I come up across the stream, few of the grazers take to their heels while a pair of black-backed jackals slink away with an angry twitch to their eyes; I perhaps had disturbed their siesta. I stick to the dirt road and stand beneath a giant acacia. I can see the camp clearly and I don’t feel that I am in any kind of danger or conversely any danger to the animals.

I look around and feel the peace seeping through my pores when suddenly I hear the noise of an approaching vehicle. I turn around to find a vehicle right on top of me, with Pappu besides the driver asking me to get in urgently. I assure them I am not tired or suffering sun stroke and perfectly capable of walking back to the camp that is barely a km away. They insist I get inside the vehicle immediately as there’s danger lurking around. I spiral on my toe and come up with absolutely nothing. I have lived my life in wild places and I am trained in jungle warfare and have substantial experience in jungle survival, if there is danger I should be able to smell it out but I see and sense nothing at all. Still, I hop in, as the camp staff has final say on such matters and only then realization dawns as Pappu explains. The mother and baby elephants that I had crossed had now gone across my path and with the down-wind were getting my smell (human) that is alarming to elephants and the mother could any moment charge at me. I nod my head in comprehension but when we pass the elephants they seem totally harmless and peaceful.

With the afternoon game drive ahead of me I take a light lunch, fighting my palate all the way, which only wanted to hog and stuff all that is offered. I have no idea where Porini gets the chef and kitchen staff but their food is among the most delicious I ate anywhere in whole of Kenya. By now I have earned a reputation within the staff so the game drive begins with a stern caution to me for not alighting at any moment without prior approval of the guide. The drive begins along the edge of the river where fish eagles are fishing and warthogs are drinking, gazelles and impalas are grazing. The conservancy is beautiful beyond words. By now I am well versed about the animals, birds and need no commentary from the guide. We drive in silence as I watch a couple of hippos playing by the water, silent in the distance. A pack of spotted hyenas cross our path nonchalantly, with lazy and characteristic lop-sided scuffle. Everything seems peaceful and plentiful in Lord’s world and then I had to do something stupid.

The sky has been darkening for a while now and it would rain soon. The cool breeze ruffles the savannahs in alluring manner and I need to answer nature’s little call. I ask my guide to stop and let me out. They know that I am a veteran, so they stop by a mound and I get off sans my camera. I can already feel the scent of moist earth coming from the distant hills where rain fall has started. For some inexplicable reason, even when there’s plenty of room around me to accommodate an entire stadium of raving ranting football fans, I decide to walk into the grass to fulfill my intent. I am shielded by the back of the vehicle hence my movement goes unnoticed. The driver and the guide are deep in their own conversation. The amazing weather perhaps makes me a little less cautious than I usually am. I look up at the sky, fill my lungs with the fresh sweet rain drenched air and walk few steps into the knee high grass. Suddenly something totally uncanny tells me to look down.

My right feet is poised in mid-air, barely six inches off ground and right where it is supposed to land in the next micro second, lies a thick tail. I don’t need to be a gold star guide to know that I am staring down at the thick tail of a full grown lion / lioness. If the tail is right beneath my feet then the rest of it cannot be far away. My feet freezes, my breathing stops, I turn into stone. Africa is full of stories of straying tourists being mauled and killed by lions. I am about to join the legend. A light rustle through the dried grass makes me look to my left and I see 4 cubs playing within touching distance and right beside them lies, their mother, softly snoring. It seems impossible that she and her cubs are unaware of my presence. Strangely I feel no fear, only the urge to do what needs to be done and my instincts tell me, since I have not been briefed about such a situation by anyone, to stay deathly quiet and retreat from the area as quickly as I can.

Adrenalin courses through my veins and my body wants to sprint. I use my mind to take control of my body and I take my still airborne right feet back and follow it with my left and thus, never turning my back to the lioness and cubs, emerge back on the dirt road from where I had entered. I count till fifty to get all the chemicals in my blood back to normal and then accomplish my original objective and then return to the vehicle and we drive away. I do not have the heart to tell my companions what had happened or could have happened only moments before. After a distance we come across a lioness with four cubs meaning to cross the river. They look identical to the ones who ideally should have had me for lunch. We stop and watch the near human behavior of the mother and the cubs. She first wades and determines the shallowest point of the river to cross and then goes to the other side. She turns back and urges her cubs to follow her path. Two cubs follow her obediently but the next one is the playful one and he tries to jump across the gap and falls plonk right in the middle of the stream. The mother pulls him out by his neck. He shivers a little and dries himself by shaking his entire body like a roller. The last cub is scared and hesitates next to the water. The mother returns and carries him across holding him in her mouth and puts him down on the other side. And then the sky opens up and lashes us with severe thunder storm. We roll down our shades and head off in another direction.

At a distance we come across another pride of lion, complete with parents and two cubs. They seem to be stalking some gazelles. We sit and watch. The rain becomes to wane and we roll up our shades at the front. I have my laptop with me and the USB data card and for some reason want to do something that perhaps no one has ever done on a game drive in Mara. I switch it on and skype to video-chat with a friend from a faraway land. She is a total wild life and nature lover like me and has never been to Africa and she is thrilled to see the lions as my companions find the whole thing utterly comical as I make them talk to my friend.

This is followed by sighting of two more prides and my guide tells me that now I had seen all of them found in the conservancy. Masaai Mara has the reputation of some of the best wild life sightings in the world as well as of crowding tourists and vehicles that swarm around any kills or animals. It’s nearly impossible to find an animal all by yourself in the Game Reserve due to the presence of so many tourists, camp sites and vehicles. While here, right at the edge of the Reserve, I feel I am in a domain of my own and the sightings are equally spectacular and abundant. Sunset is too wet so we abandon sundowner and return to camp with our vehicle thoroughly blotched up in mud.

The morning shakes me up early with a loud growl right outside my tent. I wake up with a bolt and grabbing my camera exit the tent to capture the lions in action and realize how little indeed I know about bush life. Hoping to find lions I am faced with a large elephant bull and his younger brother perhaps. I freeze instantly as they seem in a real foul mood, though I can’t be blamed for that. I am well within the trunk-sweeping range of the hulking bull that towers almost till the surrounding tree tops. I never knew that elephants can growl like lions. And now it seems that this knowledge comes too late to come to my rescue. I can see they are upset and readying to charge, the bull is already pawing at his feet on ground and swaying his head and trunk wildly. Again I am in a situation within the span of few hours of which I have never been briefed. The day seems my day of ignorance, and if I judge it correctly then it won’t lead to bliss. Sprinting back inside my tent didn’t seem wise, since the elephants could easily squash and take it down and it didn’t have any emergency exit besides the one through which I had emerged. Running was out of question since I could only run in the direction of the animals, in any other direction lay the river and in any way if they want, they could cut or stamp me down within seconds.

The only direction I should ideally move is Superman’s domain and just as I am thinking of calling his personal mobile number, I hear patter of human feet behind my tent and materializes the camp manager with couple of rangers, armed to the teeth. Either they chanted voodoo magic or know the elephants well, since at their sight, the elephants lower trunks and leave quietly as if nothing untowardly had ever been intended.

My bags and breakfast box has been packed and we drive off into the growing dawn streaked with clouds from last night’s thunder across the rising sun. My guide takes me on a roundabout route; he wishes to show me one last glimpse of their version of the famous Mara lions. We stop at a place to sight one of the lions just waking up but I look to my left where a bee-eater is perched on a bush that is almost touching my elbow. It’s a sweet little colored bird, common, but striking nevertheless. This morning I am being bundled off for Kechwa Temba where I would be hosted by Anne Kent Taylor, the fierce conservationist. I would be dropped off at one of the border gates of the Reserve where another vehicle would pick me for the latter half of the journey.

Meanwhile, we head for a rising hill and get stuck in a ditch. It takes all the driver’s skills, guide’s guidance and my prayers to extract us from the grave. We lurch forward like a bull released for the fight and climb up the hill where only one solitary acacia tree stands like a forlorn warrior in the middle of nowhere. It couldn’t have been deforestation or deliberate planting, yet it seems odd that within that vast area there would only be one acacia tree and nothing else except grass. Two tables, three chairs and breakfast is laid out with a conjurer’s flourish.

The food is delicious, the fruits in particular. Sitting within the middle of Mara surrounded by gentle grazing animals and no predators or hippos or elephants, in the company of two brave Maasai warriors, eating papaya and mangoes beneath a literally outstanding acacia tree is indeed a dream come true and I am living it with my eyes open wide. Some people are born lucky, I feel I am born-again lucky in addition. Post breakfast I get myself photographed beneath the tree wearing the T-shirt gifted by a friend who had specially drawn on it an acacia tree sprouting out of a jumping dolphin. We start off soon, sooner than it really was, as time simply flees in such places and no amount of gazing and pondering seems adequate.

My two friends drop me at the gate. We shake hands and hug warmly; they ask me to return one day, to which I nod my accord. With a final wave they turn around as my other car arrives, and with a trailing cloud of dust the Porini Camp vehicle merges into the horizon. With concludes my camp experience with Gamewatchers Porini Camps.

It has been an unforgettable experience to say the least. At each camp I have been treated like royalty, with hospitality and courtesy that one extends to ones nearest and dearest ones. Not once did I feel away from home or any less cared for. The staffs were exemplary, thoroughly professional and not the least inhibited to accept their ignorance if in the rarest of rare cases they didn’t have ready answer to the query, to which they would respond within minimum time possible. The food was as best as one can get and in as much quantity as one can handle. My weight gain in Kenya can be largely contributed to the Porini Camps.

I interviewed the staff at every camp and learned that both Jakes and Mohanjeet are hugely respected and no one ever thinks of quitting Gamewatchers or shifting to a competitive company. They earn much more than average Kenyans and the lease money that flows into the local communities are way much more than what they were making before. Overall health, school, water, etc projects that Gamewatchers have funded from the earnings of the camp has significantly improved the communities lifestyle and many of them have returned to their roots. The land, environment, and wild life have rejuvenated and sprung back to life through the model on which Gamewatchers work. It may not be the only model viable for such a complete synergy and solution to the problems but it certainly is one of the best.

Kenya Calling - Pensive at Porini Part 1

Porini Camps – Model of Wildlife Conservation & Sustainable Tourism

One of the primary areas I wished to experience and understand in Kenya was the various models of wildlife conservation efforts that were being done privately across the country. Since, according to various reliable sources, the government wasn’t doing anything significant in this field at all. This is ironic as to the outside world most African countries, Kenya in particular, are marketed as the haven for wild life, unique flora-fauna and spectacular landscape.

Normal tourists flock to these nations, jump out of the planes, board safari vehicles and are whisked away into the national parks (at exorbitant costs) for a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience where they dine while watching elephants, big cats, rhinos, etc grazing in the vicinity. These are beautiful sights indeed but with only few days stopover, while rushing from one park to another and flying over the Savannah, most of us miss the point that what lies beneath and around and what seems to make the entire country and continent a virtual paradise, is due to the efforts of only a handful and in most cases with the help of international foreign aids.

For the government and ruling parties this doesn’t seem to be of any priority at all. It is common knowledge that African wild life has been suffering apathy at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and help them proliferate. This might seem an inauspicious and negative beginning to a post from me and I don’t like to dwell upon negative things. Good and evil exist hand in hand and I prefer to focus on the good, rather than highlight evil.

In Kenya many private and community owned conservancies have sprung up in the last two decades or so, mostly within and around the vicinity of national parks where outside players have joined hands with local communities using different models of conservation and ecotourism. Where both the players (operators) and the local communities benefit out of the wildlife and strive to conserve and grow the same as they have a direct link to their revenues, earnings and betterment of livelihood in general.

Holistically it is a win-win situation for everyone involved – the local communities, the wildlife (forests and land included) and the ones who invest into (bringing in foreign funding as well) and bring in the tourists and manages the cash inflow. Before these private players or safari tour operators came in, the wildlife was mostly considered contradictory to their welfare and livelihood by the local tribal communities. There were constant conflict between the wildlife and human beings and the latter always won eventually, thereby depleting the wildlife population and resulting in massive deforestation. This is severely compounded by poaching for bush meat, ivory, rhino horns, skin trade, exotic animal merchandise, etc.

Deforestation happens primarily due to the need of land for cattle and other domestic animal grazing, need of pasture lands, building houses, agricultural needs to feed the ever growing population, etc. When studied in totality it almost seems that the African wildlife and forests have no chance to survive the need for human greed and ignorance. It’s a losing battle but not a ‘lost’ battle yet. But for these conservancies and efforts from genuinely concerned people and the willingness from the local tribal landowners to join hands, the battle would have been lost long time back.

While doing research for my Kenya trip I gleaned the above from various sources and wanted to visit some of these conservancies and study their conservation cum ecotourism models in person. One name that kept coming up time and again was that of the Porini Camps and its managing company Gamewatchers Safaris. Based out of Nairobi, Gamewatchers Safaris is jointly owned and managed by two very respectable names; Jake Grieves-Cook(then head of Kenya Tourism Board) and Dr Mohanjeet Brar. When my friend Sandy, who then lived and worked in Nairobi, contacted Mohanjeet about my trip and my interest to study the kind of work they were doing, Mohanjeet offered to host me at three (they have four such camps altogether) of their Porini Camps across two major wild life areas (Amboseli and Mara).

My first meeting with Mohanjeet bonded us like friends and his instant smile and bonhomie was contagious to say the least. He was open to any ideas I had and offered to help me in my research and experiential learning in any manner that he could. I was free to visit the camps and had carte-blanche to ask anything to anyone regarding the working model and to take pictures as I fancied. I was much impressed with his willingness for knowledge and experience sharing without seeking anything in return.

Amboseli Porini Camp – Selenkay Conservancy

Located well outside the Amboseli National Park, within the sight of the majestic Kilimanjaro (on a clear day), Selenkay Conservancy covers an area of roughly 15000 acres and the entire land is owned by the Kisonko Clan of the Maasai people. This is where Jakes started the first Porini Camp in 1997. The entire Conservancy is on lease to Gamewatchers for a period of 15 years renewable thereafter. The model is simple, the landowning Maasai people agreed to vacate this area and also that they won’t graze or encroach within this area in future and they allowed Gamewatchers to run and manage the conservancy.

While Gamewatchers agreed to set up their Porini Camp, run tourism, safari drives, etc within the conservancy, provide employments to local community people through their camp and conservation operations. Revenue generated out of tourism would be shared between Gamewatchers and the Community. The revenues would be used to run the camps, pay the staff, and to train and hire and operate conservation efforts like anti poaching rangers, roving patrols, etc. While the share that goes to the community would be used for community development and welfare projects like housing, schools, boreholes, irrigation and water projects, road developments, medical healthcare, etc.

Gamewatchers would also get outside aids and donations towards housing and other development projects like books, furniture, solar panels, etc for the communities. What earlier was considered barren and arid land consisting conflicting wildlife (elephants, lions, etc) by the locals suddenly became a source of income to them. Where earlier they had very meager resources of earnings, even when they had these massive tracts of unproductive land, now they had a steady source of income, no matter what. Gamewatchers was committed legally to pay the land lease irrespective of tourism or inflow of visitors. With the local communities as guardians, the land and wildlife, and the forests all flourished slowly and steadily and so did the tourist inflow and with that the cash revenue.

On the appointed hour the Gamewatchers’ vehicle picks me up from my Nairobi residence (that incidentally is at a short distance from their office) and we zip off to pick up two more guests who were headed for Amboseli. My companions turned out to be a pair of young British girls, delightful and charming in their youthful exuberance and excitement. It took us few hours to reach the pickup point where we changed vehicles and boarded a modified Toyota Landcruiser safari version with high chassis and super cool suspensions. Emmanuelle is our new driver cum guide.

Towering well above 6 ft, he is a proud Maasai, dressed in his traditional regalia and a certified guide. We are now well inside the conservancy and we head forward through dirt track, which can be tackled only with 4 wheel drives. Emmanuelle briefs us briefly about the area, about what we may or may not see and our codes of conduct while we are in the conservancy. I like the point of not getting out of the vehicle under any pretext without the expressed permission of the guide.

The ride feels like my old jolly boat rides in open oceans as we roll and pitch and then roll on our way. Soon enough a giraffe pokes its head atop some lofty bushes and eyes us eagerly. A female Maasai giraffe, our guides rattles out, and follows it with a detailed overview of giraffe anatomy and internal systems and other such details that escape me now. Severely shaken and stirred we reach the camp in one piece and I hop out wobbly to be greeted in a jumbo handshake from the Camp Manager, Tony Musembi.

I take instant liking to Tony, in fact all the staff gathered around us; who have such warmth and smiles exuding all around. With barely two nights and the promise of a third dawn, time is certainly not on my side to have a complete experience and same is the case with my companions. It seems most guests come here for two nights and within this Porini packs in nature walks, safari drives, Maasai village trip, Amboseli National Park visit, sundowners (guzzling beverages and delectable snacks while watching the sun go down), night drives and as much food and beverages (including some exotic wines and alcohol) as you can possibly consume (never mind if you can’t digest). Besides the normal guest itinerary I also had to interview the staff and visit the community development area and schools and meet the current Community Chairman. So my plates were not only full but already overflowing when Tony suggested that we be shown to our tents and after a quick makeover and settling of our internal gyros, we reassemble at the dining tent (that would be our common area for the stay) in 20 minutes for group briefing and registration etc.

One of the lanky camp guards show me to my tent, entering which I wonder if I am still in the middle of African bush world or in some exotic undisclosed location. Though Porini claims its tents are basic with no-frills to my rustic sensory organs it seems the epitome of luxury and materialistic comfort. I like the predominant shades of ochre, rust and beige and the clutter free occupants of the tent large enough to cater to a family of four.

One double bed along with a single bed and flaps rolled up in three directions make up the interior. Two tables, solar lamps, a whistle, anti mosquito spray, a manually winding torch, and an open cupboard with hangars and a wicker basket for keeping dirty laundry take up the rest. There’s a list of birds / animals one is likely to see, few glossy wild life magazines that instantly give you the complex since you would never capture wildlife in the manner displayed in their glossy and photo-shopped pages, and few bottles of bottled mineral water complete the picture.

The en-suite bathroom has hot and cold water safari shower, flush toilet, a well-appointed mirror mounted basin and all other amenities of soap, gel, etc that one may use after a hard day in the bush. The shower is a mechanical concoction of a 20 ltr canvas bag hung outside high up, which can be lowered and raised with a pulley. A pipe from the bottom of the bag leads into the bathroom and joins up with an overhead shower. So when you wish to shower, you must inform one of the staff who would fill up the bag with hot / cold (as you wish) water and then raise it and leave it locked in that position. Thereafter everything happens by gravity. Water is scant therefore precious and limited. You are advised to shower only with as much water you need to wash and rinse. No wastage is allowed. Being a mountaineer and submariner all my adulthood I am not known for my showers so I eye the contraption and feel the softness of the towels that are spotlessly white.

We gather at the dining tent. While I have been able to do absolutely nothing, the other two guests, who would be my companions for some of the camp activities, had already showered (unbelievable), changed, applied some amount of color to their demeanors and seemed ready and willing to take on the world. Women and youth; heady combination that it is, I stay silent and let Tony, the manager to take center stage. Tony smiles and he is more a man of action than words but within his words he uses ‘plan’ a lot. He always has a plan and since most of his guests have no idea what they are in for, Tony’s plans are always the best and one followed unquestioned.

While we fill up the forms and guest register he quickly briefs us about the camp program insisting all the time that though there’s too much to be done and experienced we are free to do absolutely nothing and that food and drinks are in inexhaustible supply and that our wish is his command. Tony is a nice man, a perfect example of Porini Staff: effusive, charming, loyal, ever smiling and thoroughly professional. It’s already nearing 4 pm and ahead of us lay a game drive, visit to Maasai village, night drive and night campfire barbeque not to mention the tea and late lunch that is already being laid out under an umbrella.

After such a lunch siesta is mandatory, hence everyone retires to do what humans do best, which is to do nothing. I am on mission impossible and not permitted such luxury so I drag myself back and catch Tony over cups of tea and home baked ginger cookies while the coast is clear. As I grill him I also wonder why I don’t see a single overgrown or obese staff which strikes me as grossly inexplicable with such food and gastronomic delights that the camp has. Tony is the head of the tourism side of Amboseli Porini Camp and has a hospitality background. This is what I glean from him.

With nine tents to take care of, he has around 30 staff that includes drivers for the landcruisers, kitchen staff, stewards, camp guards, maintenance staff and two bronze and two silver rated guides. Most of these people are from the local Maasai land owning communities and clans. Whenever a new staff is to be recruited the group ranch elders are informed and they pick up someone suitable for the job. The new recruit is then trained in-house and allotted his duties. Besides their salaries the staff is entitled to transport allowances, medical benefits, accommodation and meal at the camp, 30 days paid leave, sick leave and annual bonus. No wants to leave or defect to another similar tour company.

If I hadn’t met Mohanjeet in Nairobi and seen the Gamewatchers set up there, I would have claimed that Porini Camps are truly by, for and off the local communities. The emoluments earned by Porini staff is way much higher than an average Kenyan and obviously they are a happy lot and fiercely loyal to Gamewatchers. Happy staff makes happy guests seem to be the unspoken ethos of Porini. Supplies come from Nairobi every fortnight and in between if anything is needed urgently. All camp garbage of any kind is taken back to Nairobi for proper disposal or recycle and the camp and the conservancy is kept absolutely free of any garbage.

By the time other guests gather for our evening game drive the sky clouds over ominously. Unexpected shower, Tony claims, but good for the animals as the land is arid otherwise. I pack in my writing material and join the merry making crowd. Besides the two Brit teenagers, we are now joined by a British honeymooning couple. Two vehicles cruise out of the camp area and land right in the middle of a pack of frolicking impalas. Impalas are standing high jump champions and they scatter and jump around but do not stray too far from our path. Cameras flash, people sigh and we push on.

Next to greet us is a solitary giraffe, this time I know, it’s a male, who runs alongside for a while before realizing he would never outrun us so veers off into the wild. Then comes our prize catch of the day; a pair of cheetah springs out of the bush to our left. Our guide and driver both freeze and so does the vehicle and the occupants. Seven pair of human eyes confront two pairs of feline counterparts and it seems for a while the perfect standoff. No one backs off, no one moves, no one seems frightened either. I bring up my tele lens in slow motion and take a burst, which seems to break the spell. The cheetahs run into a bush.

Our guide is adamant; he claims the cats are stalking the impalas we have seen before and we should stick around. We drive around the bush and get a much better view of the cats in action. The light is very low, the sun has already set, the sky is totally overcast, so I zoom up my iso and keep the camera cradled like a bazooka launcher. One cheetah suddenly leaps and disappears, apparently in pursuit of his prey, while the other one walked right in front of us majestically, slowly, swishing its tail as if to sweep the dust off the ground. I was wishing it would charge at us with teeth and claws bared, but no such luck. With the departure of the cats we started off for the Maasai village and the shower started.

Droplets the size of hand grenades fall from above drumming the vehicle roof and sides like Ringo Starr. We soon arrive at a deep ditch through which a river flows with crocs for company. The vehicles cross the river with some mild protestations and as we come up on the other side, a line of colorfully clothed Maasai warriors approach us from the yonder. Reception party, our guide Wilson confide.

The vehicles stop and we spill out to meet them half-way. Among the warriors there’s a young boy with freshly ochre pasted hair who is the latest warrior initiate. His seniors pull harmless pun at his expense that he fends off good-naturedly. We pose for some pictures and then our caravan resumes its journey. I prefer to walk with the warriors. They are singing their ululating song in which I join. Words don’t matter, the tune and the spirit does. Soon we reach the village where a large group of elder and young ladies are belting out their songs for our benefit. Tony had told me that this is the only village permitted within the conservancy for the tourists to visit. It was absolutely authentic and the villagers lived a true pastoral life. Whatever they displayed and shared with the guests were actually the way they lived and survived. Nothing was make-believe or put up for the show. They allowed guests to come into their homes and in exchange Porini paid them some amount of fee per guest. We had been strictly told not to offer any money or anything else to the villagers.

The women come forward and share their ritual greeting with hands and nodding of heads and bouncing of shoulders. The warriors begin their jumping dance cum competition in which we are encouraged to join. The village elder speaks English and introduces us to his people. The kids are curious with the bazooka launcher in my hand while I am enamored by a particular Maasai woman who seems to send smiles in my direction. We are taken inside the village periphery (a cordon of thorn bushes to keep predators out and cattle in). The villagers are engaged in their daily normal activities of milking the cows, driving home the goats, kids loitering around, someone producing smoke from wood, etc.

Several kids follow me as I lead them like the Pied Piper as my camera is the center of attraction. An hour later we leave as the sky becomes completely dark and we drive back under heavy shower. This makes the ground totally slushy and traction-less. The wheels turn and twist and skid and skate. Our driver battles and grapples, revs and accelerates to keep us on the road and out of muddy ditches. Finally, within the site of the camp, our vehicle finally gets stuck in the mud while the other vehicle zips by. We are instructed to deplane and foot it to the camp. We do so and reach the camp totally wet and caked with mud spatters and grass of all shades and sizes. By the time we wash, change and ready for evening supper, the rain has stalled but the air is redolent with flying insects of all kinds.

Supper stays uneventful except countless occasions when ladies and gents (not me) shriek out of delight or fright when giant gnats and sundry hoppers dive into their food or inside their clothes for whatever reasons. A blue colored flying missile the size of my palm dives perfectly inside the wine glass of my neighbor and the poor girl screams so loud that I am sure that the poor insect must be dead of heart seizure if not already of wine drowning. That brings our jolly supper and night to a jolly end. As I wriggle into bed handling my overloaded tummy rather delicately I wonder what the next day has in store for me.

Early morning while I am doing a bit of yoga and digestive breathing, other guests depart for Amboseli National Park from where they would return only in the evening that leaves me alone in the camp. I wake up, eat a lazy breakfast, visit the kitchen, staff quarters, etc and also see the ‘mobile’ tree (mobile signal is available only beneath the tree within a radius of 1 meter). Today I have the exclusive privilege of being guided by Wilson who is Silver rated and is an authority on avian population in the area. Two of us set out for a nature walk.

The ground is soft and we sink at places. Wilson teaches me to recognize different trails and places to look for birds and other animals. He mimics several animal calls and shows me what one can learn from animal droppings. Wilson is thorough and a delightful teacher. We chat, we laugh and we enjoy the cool morning. Amboseli is known for its elephant population, yet I don’t see any though the droppings are all around. We follow a silver backed jackal for a while and I learn to recognize jackal trail, which doesn’t mean that I can still do it. The nature walk concludes with the sight of a curious but amorous (as Wilson claimed) encounter between two fluorescent dung beetles. The ball they have rolled up is enormous and much bigger than the two put together.

Post lunch we set off for a game drive. Soon the antelopes and gazelles and other grazers and creepers trapeze across our path. These are usual sights and I have already seen them before aplenty. Unlike any other tourist I am Kenya bound for nearly three months and I would see much more of these animals in the days to come so I ask Wilson to show me something different, to which he suggests instead of down and around we should look into the trees and bushes and at the sky – in short do bird-watching of the flying kind. African wildlife normally doesn’t conjure up images of flying animals so I think that’s a very good idea and Wilson’s specialty. Within the next two hours or so, Wilson shows me nearly 100 different species, few migratory and two very rare ones as well.

I am spellbound. A forest that I thought is devoid of novelty suddenly fills up with myriads of colors, feathers and enchanting calls. Armed with my 600 mm lens and Wilson’s ability to pick up invisible birds, the hours went off in a puff. For those hours all other wildlife that the forest abounds disappears like magic. My triumphant moment arrives when I spot a Diederik cuckoo to my left, very well camouflaged within the thick green foliage, much before Wilson does. Wilson is happy and gives me a high five while I am ecstatic. We then leave the conservancy and meet up with the group ranch Chairman and visit the school and one solar installation as well. By the time we drive back the sun has set and we meet up with others for a sundowner at a desolate spot surrounded by dry skeleton trees. The sky is still overcast and more showers seem in the offing.

Supper is another extravaganza of gastronomic delights and we are joined by a Finnish couple who are so far away during the Christmas month. I tell them of my trips to the Lapland and my climbs along the Russian border where elves live and also my Santa encounters. The honeymooning couple moon about their jet lag, journey and close encounters of the creepy crawly kind. In short the night ends well. Showers rain down later and I have a well deserved slumber full of dreams and animal conversation.

Morning breakfast concluded we indulge in Maasai spear throwing competition where I challenge Emmanuelle the reigning champion. Needless to say I end up an amazing loser much to everyone’s merriment. The return journey is uneventful so I would conclude my Porini Amboseli experience with what Wilson had told me in his way, here reproduced in the way I had interpreted, ‘In the jungle don’t look to find, let the jungle find what is right for you.’ I am yet not sure what he had meant by that but I would forever remember Wilson and Tony and the cook and the staff and all the people I met at Porini Amboseli. Tony, as always, your plan was perfect to the capital T.