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Wildlife Spotting At Yala National Park

After reading an article in Action Asia and missing the sight of a leopard during our South African safari, Yala National Park was a must as encounters with the agile…

After reading an article in Action Asia and missing the sight of a leopard during our South African safari, Yala National Park was a must as encounters with the agile spotted cat is almost guarantee (as safari guide claims). Descending from chilly Nuwara Eliya snaking down mountain slopes and onto wide open roads, the trip to Tissamaharama, a small town 24kms from Yala, was smooth one. The weather gradually changed from cold and dry to hot, arid and humid. Yala reflected the weather in the deserts of Dubai leaving a knot of dryness in our throats and trickles of sweat on our skin.

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At Tissamaharama, we checked into our hotel, treated ourselves to a serve of rice and curry and curd for dessert. We retired early that night to reserve energy for a pre-dawn start to our safari experience. Yala National Park covers a vast area of 97,878 hectares mostly covered with dry vegetation of short thorny shrubs with patches of secondary forest interspersed between. The park is well known for it’s wildlife. Dubbed by Action Asia magazine as the “asian safari” spot, this national park is home to Asian Elephants, sambar deer, mongoose, water buffalos, sloth bear, crocodiles, pangolins and over 120 species of birds. The park’s coastline is a beautiful sight with historical significance and blocks of half torn buildings standing as a solemn memory of the 2004 tsunami.

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We hired a safari guide who brought us into the park in his jeep at about 530am to beat the growing queue of jeeps rushing to go in. The atmosphere was tense, guides waited to purchase permits to enter while guests wait patiently in respective jeeps. This was incredibly different from the South African safari experience we had in Kruger National Park. As soon as we got the permit, our guide rushed into the driver seat and drove rapidly pass the park gates.

“What was the rush?”, I thought. Eventually I found out that every visitor who enters the park has an unspoken expectation to see the elusive leopard. Guides who manage to ‘show’ their guests the leopard will be paid a higher tip. Our guide’s handphone rang, he picks up with a few words exchanged, we were sped off to an apparent sight where a leopard has been spotted. About 5-6 jeeps parked bumper-to-bumper and intrusive camera’s snapped away. To add to my annoyance, the engines of the jeeps were still puffing away while we ‘enjoyed nature’!

Disappointed at the lack of responsibility and respect these guides had for nature, I silently wished the leopard episode will soon come to a halt. As if the leopard heard my cry, she stood up and trotted away leaving the invasive crowd of human paparazzi.

Thank goodness the rest of the safari was conducted in a more respectable way. We cruised along quiet plains, stopped at water banks and simply observed nature – as is. We managed to catch a glimpse of a family of spotted deer lapping water in a bed of crocodile infested pond.

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We watched the solo elephant gallantly stroll pass swinging his clumsy trunk right and left. And we caught a peacock parading his fan in the bushes as we munched on our roti for breakfast. Yala is a pretty sight and the local guides need to learn how to respect it for what it has to offer, less nature and wildlife take a back seat.

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Treetop Jungle Retreat At Bandhavgarh National Park

Treehouse Hideaway Images of children climbing up into tree-houses in the summer months chatting away till the yawn of the sun, blankets laid on wooden floors as they watch the…

Treehouse Hideaway

Images of children climbing up into tree-houses in the summer months chatting away till the yawn of the sun, blankets laid on wooden floors as they watch the stars and web of constellations – this was a vivid image, one I watched on television and remained etched in my memory. But this kind of childhood was far beyond reach having grown up in urban landscapes. The only trees left to climb are concrete jungles with flights of stairs.

Hence the thought of retreating to an actual tree-house was a sublime idea, a childhood dream waiting to be fulfilled. Treehouse Hideaway is an exclusive safari experience in Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, India. This jungle throve is also a prime area for spotting the maharajah of the forest – the Bengal Tiger. Sitting on 21 acres of land the hideaway has five exclusive tree houses built on the five largest trees in this area; the Mahua, Pepal, Sal, Tendu and Palash trees. Privacy is guaranteed as each tree house offers fantastic views of the forest and some even overlooking the rolling Vindhyan mountain range.

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During the construction of each unit, the owners were mindful to keep as much land untouched as possible often clearing nothing more than pathways for easy access. Recycled wood from railway tracks and fallen timber were used to construct the treehouse matching each piece into a jigsaw puzzle of natural architecture. The tree house is spacious with an open balcony that is accessible from the bedroom or bathroom, a comfortable sitting area, writing desk and a huge inviting four poster king-size bed. Interior designs are intentionally organic with splashes of earthy hues and photos of wildlife to remind you that nature is really in your backyard.

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Spotting tigers is the major highlight for most visiting into this area. The Bandhavgarh National Park authorities recently put a restriction to the number of jeeps entering the park and pre-determined the routes for each vehicle. Although an inconvenience for naturalists and guides to guarantee tiger sightings, this ban has greatly helped lessen the level of human activity and impact in the park. Jeeps no longer crowd in huge numbers just to catch glimpse of a tiger, instead jeeps are evenly assigned to various routes avoiding congestion.

The Ghost Forest

In the summer when the sun is sweltering hot, the morning safaris are a pleasant welcome. Departing at 5.45am in the crack of dawn, our jeep enters the forest through pathways of eerie dry spindly bamboo branches. The feeling was as if entering a ghost forest keeping us at the edge of our seats. The cool dawn breeze swivels in the hair. But within 500m the sight changes as bright green leaves of Sal trees emerged in the background of brown hues. Young shoots just beginning to form giving life to the jungle, otherwise quite bare. I was told that after the monsoon between October to December, the forest transforms into a blanket of lush green foliage.

We soon caught sight of some jungle ‘commoners’ – the spotted deer, barking deer, sambar deer, wild boar, langur and macaque. These animals have grown accustomed to jeeps and gawking visitors as they go about their daily activity. At watering holes, birds are abundant with a mix of endemic and migratory birds. The eye catching ones include the Indian long billed vulture, Grey hornbill, the beautiful Green Bee Eater, the grand Indian roller and the stern looking Lesser Adjutant Stork. Bandhavgarh National Park is home to more than 22 species of mammals and 250 species of birds.

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Along the dirt roads, we noticed a gigantic silhouette, unlike any other mammal found in this area. As we approached the silhouette emerged into a grey bodied Asian Elephant with a man on it. A mahout, that’s what they call it. Obviously not belonging to this forest, elephants are used by park guides to spot tigers travelling at a very slow speed with little noise and interference. Once the mahout spots the tiger, he alerts the gate post and reports are churned out every morning and evening in preparation for the next safari ride.

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Wildlife has its way of protecting itself; Vinod our naturalist tells us that in spotting tigers his sense of sight, smell and sound are completely focused on picking up different signals from nature. Barking deers would make short alarm barks whilst monkeys with screech and deer huddle together at the sight of the terrifying predator. Langurs and deer have a symbiotic relationship, the langur also called the ‘eye of the forest’ spots for predators from high and lofty trees whilst the deer with their keen sense of smell sniff their way out of danger. It is a common sight to see langurs and deer lounging together – for obvious reason, safety and survival.

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Tree House Comforts

Returning to the treehouse after more than three hours of wildlife spotting, the staffs at tree house really looks into the needs of the guests, providing fresh cool towels to freshen up and refreshing lime juice for the dry throat. A generous spread of cereal, toasts, eggs, potato cakes and juices are served. Meals at the Tree House Hideaway are always generous but never too heavy, with a great mix of Indian flavours and organic greens bought from the local markets and a small portion from the resident veggie patch.
In the summer, pretty much the entire afternoon is spent relaxing at the tree house. The temperature rises to uncomfortable levels and the air is dry and arid. But the tree house remains a welcoming treat. Walking up the dainty stairs of my tree house, a family of langurs greet me as I watched them play among my great and grand Mahua tree house. A childhood dream fulfilled.

[info] How to get to Bandhavgarh National Park

  • By Air: Fly from Delhi, Agra or Varanasi to Khajuraho and drive (7-8 hours) to Tala park entrance at Bandhavgarh. Nearest airport from the park is Khajuraho. From the airport to the park, you will need road transfer.
  • By Rail: Nearest railway station is Umaria after Katni railway station, from there it is about 2 hours to the park. Alternatively, take the overnight train from Delhi to Umaria and drive (30 minutes) to the park.
  • Best time to visit: The peak season for Kanha National Park visits is the winter season, from October to February. During the summer months from March to June, tiger sightings are at its best as the grasslands dries up making it easier to spot wild animals. The park is closed from July to September during the monsoon season.

For more information on Treehouse Hideaway, visit http://www.treehousehideaway.com
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My Indian “Jungle Book” Experience (Final Part 3)

Shergarh Tented Camp Not far from Singinawa is another remarkable story of change makers who have steered away from mass tourism to create a unique kind of travel with a…

Shergarh Tented Camp

Not far from Singinawa is another remarkable story of change makers who have steered away from mass tourism to create a unique kind of travel with a focus on nature and people.

The making of Shergarh Tented Camp is a story that tugs at heartstrings. It is a story of love and passion resulting in a concoction of wildlife hospitality. Jehan Bhujwala grew up in the metropolitan city of Bombay having only the concrete jungle as his playground. He furthered his studies in geology and mastered in it but soon realized an insatiable longing to live life in the wild. He purchased a 21-acre land on the fringe of the buffer zone adjacent to Kanha National Park in 2001 whilst working at Kipling Camp, the first camp built near Mukki gate. In 2002 Katie, a British girl from a village close to Bath in the United Kingdom was so drawn to India after an extended backpacking trip that she decided to find a job at the same camp, and love struck.

At that time, Jehan was living in a tiny mud house on his property and had already started conceptualizing the idea of a tented camp. With extra hands and a like-minded partner, ideas soon evolved into reality and Jehan and Katie began building the camp. “This was not going to be any ordinary camp. With Jehan’s experience as a naturalist and my insight on travels after much destination hopping during my backpacking years, we both decide that this camp will honour and respect the environment and people living around,” explained Katie.

They adopted villages around the vicinity, hired local communities to help build the camp and fostered impeccable relationships with the villagers. “For many villagers, tourism was a foreign and new concept to them, especially when Shergarh Tented Camp was one first few properties established near Mukki gate. Today, they are like family.” said Katie. “We have incorporated local skills and techniques into the lodge as much as possible, such as their dry-stone masonry and mud-plasterwork, and have used local carpenters, masons, plumbers and electricians.”

Due to poor knowledge of sustainable agriculture practices, the 21 acre land was completely degraded and overused. Katie explained that the entire land space was filled with invasive and chocking eucalyptus trees, biodiversity was close to barrenness and the land was starved. The pair spent many months and years regenerating the land, chopping down eucalyptus for construction and firewood in the winters. Indigenous trees were reintroduced to the land and the beautiful waterbed that sits in the middle of the land continued to feed the trees.

We walked past the waterbed to reach our tents, and much to our delight, we saw egrets, commorants, kingfishers and bee- eaters basking in the water. Katie tells us that jackals and wild boars frequently roam the area and just at the entrance amongst the patch of tall green meadows, a jungle cat has made that his home. Katie recollects an incident when the name Shergarh meaning “Home of the Tiger” resonated. “In November 2008, a 5-year old male tiger strayed from the core forest and took refuge from (in?) the surrounding paddy fields”.
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Camp in Comfort

As we ambled into the vicinity of Shergarh Tented camp in Kanha, we were expecting high A-framed tents, foldable camp beds, make shift toilets and simple skinny mattresses, but what we found at Shergargh was a haven of comfort and simplicity. The rugged looking canvas tent is tied securely on concrete A-frame structure with a sturdy roof made of handmade clay roof tiles. The tents are incredibly roomy inside with a large king sized bed, bedside tables and a spacious permanent toilet, shower and open closet area. Just outside the tent, a few plush cushion mattresses and deck chairs are cleverly positioned to great views of the lake and the open skies as we watch the stars emerge at night.
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The tents take on names of indigenous trees in India such as Tulsi (Indian basil), Aam (mango), Jamun (blackberry), Imli (tamarind), Mahua and Neem. Many of these trees were re-planted around the property in their effort to revive the degraded land.

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Moving away from a tiger-centric approach

While it’s easy to take on a tiger-centric approach as tiger sightings are almost a daily affair, the couple knew that that would not do justice to the rich diversity in Kanha. Instead they have expanded their list of activities to include village visits, walking hikes and bike tours.

In October 2011, Shergarh will be offering bespoke bike tours from half day tours to 3-day tours. These cycle ‘tolla’ tours (tolla meaning village) will take guests off the beaten track from Kanha through villages and obscure towns to Pench National Park (approximately 200km) or Bandhavgargh National Park (approximately 250km). Exploring the Madhya Pradesh region on two wheels opens a new spectrum of experience for guests giving them a chance to interact with locals, savour chai at roadside stalls, weave through tall paddy fields and stay with local communities. For a more rustic camping experience, guests have the option of camping out in the open and cooking meals over fire and charcoal.
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Whether it is a lodge or a tented camp, conscious travellers are now looking for more than just a comfortable place to stay. I found myself searching for operators who are committed to preserving the destination and operators that can offer authentic experiences crafted through their commitment and understanding of the destination and the surrounding people. At Kanha, I found two champion operators who are investing time and resources to preserve the very thing that tourists come to Kanha for, a genuine ‘Jungle Book’ experience.

[info] How to get to Kanha National Park

  • By Air: Nagpur is the nearest airport to Kanha National Park. Other airports include Raipur and Jabalpur. These airports are all connected to major cities in India.
  • By Train: Jabalpur is a convenient rail route to head towards Kanha National Park.
  • By Road: Kanha National Park is well connected with major roads from Jabalpur (175kms), Nagpur (266kms) and Raipur (219kms). Kanha also has a good network of roads connecting to surrounding national parks such as Bandhavgarh, Pench, Panna, Achanakmar and Phen National Park.
  • Best time to visit: The peak season for Kanha National Park visits is the winter season, from October to February. During the summer months from March to June, tiger sightings are at its best as the grasslands dries up making it easier to spot wild animals. The park is closed from mid-June to October during the monsoon season.
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… read Part 1 and Part 2 of My Indian “Jungle Book” Experience

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My Indian “Jungle Book” Experience (Part 2)

Singinawa Jungle Lodge (Protector of the Sacred Forest) My visit to Singinawa Jungle Lodge fuelled my passion to discover this unique relationship between tourism and conservation. I met with Dr….

Singinawa Jungle Lodge (Protector of the Sacred Forest)

My visit to Singinawa Jungle Lodge fuelled my passion to discover this unique relationship between tourism and conservation. I met with Dr. Latika Nath Rana, a petite lady with captivating big brown eyes and her husband, Nanda SJB Rana, a friendly man with an imposing build. Both wildlife enthusiasts heeded their passion for the wild and eventually led them to cross paths. Latika is a wildlife biologist and the first woman to be awarded a doctorate on tiger conservation and management from the University of Oxford. She is also fondly dubbed as the “Tiger Princess” being married to Nanda who hails from the Royal Rana family of Nepal. Nanda is a tiger photography expert and film producer having worked for notable organizations such as National Geographic, BBC and Discovery Channel.

Both knew that they had a strong role in the fight to save tigers. With their wealth of knowledge on tigers and Nanda’s love for hospitality, they bought an initial piece of land just outside of the buffer zone bordering a local town named Bayar. It was evident that the main reason tourists visited Kanha is for the wildlife, more specifically for the tiger. The pair knew all too well that the fight to save tigers is not a single minded quest; instead it required tourists to be educated, locals to sense pride, government to buck up and private enterprises to take on the role as catalysts. Hence the inception of ‘Singinawa’, which takes its meaning from a Sherpa term, the “Protector of the Sacred Forest”.

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Nanda understands the need and importance of embracing the local community, “if we start something, it needs to make a difference to the people around it”. They hired over 350 local people for the construction of Singinawa. For 10 months, a small community was formed as local men shared craftsmen skills, exchange stories of wildlife encounters, and shared life together. Many of them stayed on to be part of the Singinawa family.

The construction of Singinawa Lodge was no easy feat with many minute considerations to take into account in order to lessen the impact on the environment. Details such as land use, building material, waste management, energy source and water management and wildlife management were part of the equation. A sustainable property was the only kind of property that Latika was willing to build, stating, “If I as a conservationist and wildlife biologist set a place and don’t think about conserving it, who will? It is a responsibility I owe”.

The Lodge

Today, Singinawa provides affordable and comfortable living with a grand main house and 12 individual cottages dotted around the 55 acre land. The once degraded land choked by lantana has now been restored and it is home to two resident leopards, chital, wild dog and wild boar.

Every structure is designed and built around existing trees and a great evidence of that is upon entering the main house with a lofty tree at our welcome. The interiors of the main house are decorated with heavy wooden furniture and leather bound chairs giving the impression of castle, perhaps influenced by Nanda’s upbringing of living in palaces most of this childhood. The grandeur of this building is further enhanced by the magnificent photos of tigers set in bold frames, all taken by Nanda who is notably the only photographer who has documented six generations of tigers in Bandhavgarh National Park just six hours away.

On wintry nights, the cosy fireplace in the library makes for a perfect seating for stories. The double walls provide adequate insulation in the winter and perfect cooling in the summer. A natural air cooling system channels hot air out and cool air in eliminating the need for air conditioning in the main hall. And where possible, without the disturbance of langurs and macaques, solar panels have been fitted to provide energy for external lighting.

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Creative conservation

As conservationists at heart, it wasn’t enough just to set up a lodge for wildlife enthusiasts or holiday makers. Latika and Nanda thought up innovative ways to raise money for conservation and community development projects. Last year, Latika rallied a group of well-known artists from all over the world for a 10-day retreat the lodge. Surrounded by incredible wildlife, great food and organic inspiration, the artists produced passion-laden paintings that were later auctioned to raise funds for tiger conservation projects such as the building of watering holes for tigers in Kanha.

In 2008, the Singinawa Foundation was established with a steady flow of funds coming from the Spa at Singinawa. Guests who pay to be pampered at the Spa are contributing to the wellbeing of the villagers around the lodge. Through monies raised, medical camps are organized and critically ill villagers are being sent to hospitals that they could never afford to pay.

The need never stops and as long as operators like Singinawa continues to thrive, protected areas are a little safer, wildlife can continue to flourish and local communities will grow in their sense of pride and belonging that they too are “Protectors of the Sacred Forest”.

… continue reading to Part 3 (final) or go back to Part 1

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My Indian “Jungle Book” Experience (Part 1)

In search of the Bengal tiger The heat of summer penetrated our light clothing and although the air was dry and arid, the scent of the forest laced through the…

In search of the Bengal tiger

The heat of summer penetrated our light clothing and although the air was dry and arid, the scent of the forest laced through the air, hinting evidence that we are indeed in the heart of Central India, the Madhya Pradesh region where Kanha National Park sits. Famed for its lush sal and bamboo forests, tall grassy meadows and deep ravines, Kanha was the hub of inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s famous novel, “The Jungle Book”.

There are only a handful of lodges on the quiet south side of Kanha, near the Mukki gate, one of three gates into the national park. Our choice proved to be a great advantage as fewer jeeps are allowed into the park via this gate providing guests a more secluded wildlife experience. Kanha is one of the best managed and monitored parks in India with dedicated park rangers guarding the forests and guiding guests through this magical natural labyrinth.

Morning safaris start at 5am just before the break of dawn. Open deck jeeps form a neat queue in front of the Mukki gate as vehicles register. There is a swell of excitement despite the groggy daze of a premature morning. I was armed with a pair of binoculars and a notebook to pen my sightings while my husband meddled with his digital DSLR camera ready to capture a ‘National Geographic’ moment, in case nature decided to surprise us.

A park ranger leapt into our jeep , introduced himself, muttered a few words to our naturalist from the lodge where we stayed at, and our engines sputtered to life. The light mist parted as we caught the first glimpse of the magnificent sal trees stretching for miles with banyans dotted around providing shade and cover for the endemic swamp deer or better known as barasingha, spotted deer also known as chital, wild boars and gaurs. A symphony of morning chirps weaved through the air as we caught birds in flight and land birds crossing our path.

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The day had just begun as the first few rays of light broke from the horizon. The mahout was already at work. A great big silhouette teased my eyes as I saw huge ears flapping and four giant feet taking gentle strides towards our jeep. Could it be? Yes it was! An elephant with a man riding him atop. The mahout smiled and exchanged a few words with our park ranger. He told our park ranger that the search was still on; the elusive tiger was yet to be found. He waved goodbye and disappeared behind our jeep, eyes peeled for the animal most tourists have come here to see.

Meantime, we savoured in the rich diversity Kanha had to offer with fantastic sightings of jackal, leopard, jungle cat, barking deer, peacock, langur and gaur. With over 350 species of birds, introduction upon introduction were made with every sighting and bird call. From green bee-eaters to Indian rollers to grey hornbills, this was a treat for bird enthusiasts and nature lovers alike. As mid morning approached, a picnic was laid out for us with the forest as a backdrop. Tea, coffee, sandwiches and fruit were passed around and while we savoured our breakfast, our park ranger scrambled to the office to check if the mahout had recorded sightings of tigers. He rushed back with great excitement and urged us to hurry along.

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A tigress had been spotted and in order to see her, we went off the beaten track atop an elephant with a mahout. The ride was bumpy and quite an adventure trying to avoid spindly dry bamboo branches from stabbing us. And then we caught sight of her, majestically seated on a bed of earthy-amber leaves, she stared into the open, in her element completely unperturbed by our noisy rustle. Her orange and black coat camouflaged perfectly into the surroundings. She was not only sharing her space with us but also with a large meandering python. She eyed occasionally at the reptile with no intent of making a kill, just like Shere Khan and Kaa from the Jungle Book.

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Most of us when asked to conjure up an image of a tiger imagine a man-eating predator skulking through the steamy jungles of southern Asia, particularly in the subcontinent of India. Here in Kanha, tigers are friendly, welcoming and accustom to the scene of jeeps and clicking cameras. There is a strong unspoken bond between tiger and human. As a result of tourism, conservation efforts such as ‘Tour Operators for Tigers’ (TOFT) have emerged forming alliances among Indian operators in order to promote best practices in wildlife viewing. Over the years, the Indian government have also realized the need for stricter monitoring and census in order to keep the tiger population at a healthy state.

… continue reading to Part 2

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Home With The Wild

The spirit of safari comes alive at Ngala Private Game Reserve, the first private game reserve to be incorporated into the well known Kruger National Park in 1992. Spanning 14,700…

The spirit of safari comes alive at Ngala Private Game Reserve, the first private game reserve to be incorporated into the well known Kruger National Park in 1992. Spanning 14,700 hectares (36,300 acres) of game-rich wilderness, respect for nature overtakes human activity and development. From the minute we entered the Timbavati control gates into the national park, we were given strict instructions to travel not more than 40km per hour as animals roam free. My travel partner and I mused in delight as we spotted our first pair of giraffes munching on leaves and then a herd of impalas staring intently at our vehicle.

Ngala Private Game Reserve shares an unfenced boundary with the world renowned Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest wildlife sanctuary allowing the free movement of wildlife along natural corridors. The private game reserve is formed by a three way partnership between the private sector, the state and a non-governmental organization (&Beyond, South African National Parks and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in hopes of controlling poaching and protecting the diminished number of animals in the park.

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“Reinstating nature to make it valuable, that is the approach we (&Beyond) took. It’s all about educating the locals about the value of their backyard,” Les Carlisle, group conservation manager explained. Poaching has since stopped within the private game reserve. Whilst demands for ivory, horns and sorts still continue in Asia, the locals have learned to respect and protect nature for what it is.

On arrival at Ngala, we were greeted with a friendly welcome of homemade lemonade and chilled towels by a host of friendly staff and then ushered to our cottage. Tucked away under large tamboti and mopane trees, 20 classic thatched cottages are well spread out within the vicinity. Tastefully designed, each cottage has its own private verandah. Cobbled stone pathways lead you from the cottages to the expansive dining area with rugged chandeliers and an elegant buffet table with fresh flowers.

The familiar hectic city life is long gone as you step into the spacious sitting decks decorated with plush Victorian sofas overlooking thick riverine woodlands and a watering hole. Jameson who greeted us at the reception told us to keep a lookout on the watering hole as elephants, cape buffaloes and impalas would frequent the natural pool for a gulp.

Home with the Wild at Ngala Lodge Sprint! Elephant reaching out

Ngala prides itself in the intimate and personalized service the staff extends to each guests. From arrival to departure, our needs and wants were taken care of regardless of how much effort or time it took. Our butler Patrick was always on his toes with a big smile on his face. The lodge manager willingly helped with clearing the dishes and rangers go beyond game drive conversations as they spend evening dinners with guests, getting to know them better.

Patrick chimed, “We are a community at the staff quarters. We play soccer and get along like family. We have a great chef and excellent food too. Sometimes I have to skip meals because I eat too much!” After much conversation with the staff, I soon realized that the sincerity and warmth that exudes from each staff member stems from the fact that their needs are well taken care of by the management.

Up to ninety percent of the staff at Ngala comes from the nearby village call Welverdiend where the local Shangaan tribe lives. Ngala has provided vast employment opportunities for the community at the Welverdiend, developed computer centers in several schools, and empowered individuals to set up small businesses to improve income levels.

Les Carlisle explained, “Our strategy is to work with communities, not for communities. That way partnerships between us are stronger and we work hand in hand, not one ahead of the other.” Building long lasting and trusting relationships with people of the land has proven testament to their success in sustaining community partnerships.

Visiting communities living in Kruger National Park

Safari Experience

Our ultimate wish was to spot the famous African Big 5; lion, buffalo, elephant, rhino and leopard. At 4pm, guests gathered around the spacious open deck for afternoon tea and bite-sized pastries and fruits. Our ranger, Mike Robertson introduced himself and briefly explained the history of the game reserve and what we would expect from the game drives.

Within the reserve, only a limited numbers of vehicles are allowed at a sighting and rangers are well aware of their boundaries between the animal and the vehicle. We were given prudent instructions not to make animal calls while on game drives and to respect the privacy of the animals in their natural surroundings.

Baby Hyenas at their hideout

We hopped onto our open 4×4 safari vehicle where our tracker, Elvis greeted us. Elvis spent most of his life in the bush. The national park was his backyard and as a child he would follow his father hunting for rhinos and buffaloes. Today, hunting is not his game, instead he finds pride and satisfaction in showing guests around his backyard.

Mike turned the engine on and turned around to ask us, “What would you like to see today?” Instantaneously we replied, “Lion.” He nodded and we were off on our first game drive. It was soon learned that ‘Ngala’ means lion in Shangaan and the reserve lives up to its name, as we spotted several prides of these majestic cats in wide open plains and on the dirt road catching a few winks before the sun sets. The spectacular diversity of wildlife that moves through this immense wilderness was truly awe-inspiring. During our three hour morning and evening game drives we spotted elephants, spotted hyenas, buffaloes, hippos, white rhinos, giraffes, impalas, zebras, kudus, warthogs and wild cats.

Ngala_Kruger NP (68)Tracks Sharing space with the Kings In his element - King of the Jungle Giraffes

Our game drives were always punctuated with a break at a chosen stopover; either a watering hole or in the wide open grasslands. Safety is always a priority as the ranger and tracker kept a close eye on the surroundings. We savoured the sights and sounds of the wild whilst sipping on wine, juice or a hot cup of coffee. Being on foot in the wild offered a different experience as we watched the elephants and buffaloes waddle in water just a few feet away. Our senses became more sensitive to the slightest of sounds; birds chirping, cicadas whistling and the scent from the tiny aniseed plant.

Most of our evening game drives lasted through sunset and into the night. This was when nocturnal animals like the bush babies, owls and termites come out to play. As the skies transformed into a black velvet blanket filled with glittering stars, Mike, our knowledgeable ranger stopped the vehicle and unraveled a dozen stories about the constellations, Greek legends and astronomical wonders.

Tea at Kruger National Park

African Culture through a Gastronomical Affair

At Ngala, it is all about guest experience. Having stayed three nights at the lodge, not one of its dinners were at the same location. From the elegant candlelit dining hall to the romantic glow of the courtyard around the blazing bonfire and the lamp-lighted open deck with a choir of dancing Shangaan women, dinner was an anticipated affair.

Meals are created to give a wholesome and traditional flavour with choice ingredients, fresh produce and locally sourced meats bought from the local village or the nearby White River town.

Food at Ngala Lodge

Lettuce Mokoena, head chef of Ngala Lodge greeted me at the lunch buffet table as he explained his quite recent passion in cooking. Before he became the head chef, Lettuce started as a security guard at &Beyond lodge. He applied for a position as a waiter and soon found joy in serving guests. He soon tried his hand as a kitchen staff and found that his skills in cooking blossomed quickly. Now 8 years after, Lettuce is one of the most respected and well-loved chefs among the &Beyond family, of which Ngala Lodge is a part of.

“I love my job and it gives me great satisfaction serving guests an unforgettable meal,” says Lettuce. Attention to detail is the key to this mouthwatering experience. Lettuce and his team give extra attention in picking only quality ingredients and sticking to precise cooking methods.

One of the ways to ensure this is by growing and harvesting vegetables from their own ‘shambar’ or garden. Vegetables such as carrots, beetroot, onions, spinach and pumpkin are homegrown and tended with care.

Hearty breakfasts and healthy lunches feature traditional Pan African flavours such as slow roast pork, ‘Bobotie’ -a curried mince meat dish covered with an egg based topping, ‘Pap’ – a traditional porridge made from ground maize, ‘Boerewors’ – homemade sausages, butternut pumpkin soup and ‘Melktert Pudding’ – a custard based tart topped with cinnamon.

We had a wonderful experience in South Africa’s famous wildlife sanctuary and hope many others can enjoy it too. We have full confidence that it will continue to thrive for the simple reason that sustainability takes precedence over profitability. &Beyond’s model ‘Care of the Land, Care of the Wildlife and Care of the People’ is a wholesome cycle that protects, respects and sustains the ecosystem.

As light fell over the safari, we caught the glare of a lion before it flicked its tail, turned and walked into the horizon. I realized without a doubt that the reality of this experience is not only in the viewing of big game, but the simple magic of building unforgettable connections with those who have served you and our mutual love and respect for nature and wildlife.

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Game Drives At Kruger National Park

A sense of respect and admiration dawned on us as we surveyed the large expanse Kruger National Park, home to the largest density of animals in South Africa. We are…

A sense of respect and admiration dawned on us as we surveyed the large expanse Kruger National Park, home to the largest density of animals in South Africa. We are now in their territory with a different set of rules we had to follow. From the level of noise to the distance our vehicles should be – in respect of their privacy – this was nature’s playground – and we are but humbled visitors.

We enjoyed the privilege of going on 6 game drives with a very knowledgeable ranger, Mike, a local Durbanian and our tracker Elvis who spent his childhood and growing up years in the bush hunting for elephants, rhinos and buffaloes as his father and grandfather did for generations past. Thankfully conservation awareness has proven testament to its efforts as Elvis and the communities around have ceased poaching as a source of income. Instead they work as skilled labourers and well respected people within the safari community.

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Every game drive lasted about 3 hours as Mike and Elvis mutually decided on the route we should take. A frequent question always preceded each game drive, “What would you like to see today?” On the first day we answered bright eyed, “Lions!” On the same game drive we saw zebra, impala, buffalo, giraffe, kudu, hippo, elephant and of course lion!

Cuddled up on the bed of sand on the dirt road, a ‘coalition’ of lions was found snoozing under the setting sun as temperatures started to cool. ‘Coalition’ meaning a pride of all male lions. Our 4×4 pulled up a few feet away and we watched in quiet splendor. Their eyes would twitch as flies buzzed by, occasionally they will smother their paws over their faces as they let out enormous yawns bearing fierce teeth. The earth came to a standstill, we even held our ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’.

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The Big 5 was our ultimate aim – we had already spotted the lion, buffalo, elephant and rhino but the leopard was still out of sight. Our search continued as Elvis our tracker kept his eyes steady on the road to spot leopard tracks. His tracker seat allowed him full visibility as his chair was right in front of the 4×4. At the instance Elvis spotted leopard tracks, he would signal Mike to slow down. Elvis would carry a walky-talky and leave the vehicle by foot to trail the tracks. He would snake into lowbush shrubs, sandy river beds and grass laden expanse – wherever the tracks brought him. All this time we would continue in our pursuit for other big game.

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On every game drive, we would stopover for a ‘drinks break’ where a make shift table would be set up and covered with a checked table cloth. Goodies were pulled out from green picnic bag and laid on the table. For morning game drives we would enjoy a steaming hot cuppa whilst on evening drives we quench our thirst with some wine, beer or juice. Our munchies ranged from roasted nuts to jerky to dried fruits. The best treat was of course the view, overlooking watering holes where buffalo, elephant and hippo splash and drive or peering into the dry Timbavati river bed where buffalo rest in the morning heat.

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Still the most rewarding experience was with the beast of the bush – our personal favourite, lion. We spotted the same coalition with one lioness one morning just about to wake from slumber in the rise of the morning sun. Absolutely unperturbed by our presence they continued to snooze, tossing around every once in awhile. After about 20 minutes of watching, the lioness slowly awoke, gave a big mighty yawn and a relaxing cat stretch before standing up and making its way around our vehicle. We watched in silence. Within the next few minutes, the entire coalition stood up one at a time and took turns walking pass our vehicle before sitting down for another cat nap. Each came within few inches to our vehicle, surveyed our vehicle, regarded our presence and moved on. The few minutes was heart stopping and teeth clenching. There was absolute silence except for the ear shattering shutter clicks from Terence’s camera. Each time the shutter went off, my knuckles clenched harder on the metal bar. We sat awe-struck by their presence and broke out into quiet but hearty smiles after the last lion passed our vehicle. Our eyes met Mike and Elvis and we just knew that this was another breath-taking moment where mankind respects beasts and vice versa.

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