Friday, 21 March 2014

Exploring Marrakech

My criteria for a pre-Christmas break was relatively simple. I only had six days, so didn't wish to spend too much time on a plane, was eager for a little winter sun (or at the very least, somewhere where it wouldn't rain day and night as it had been in the UK), and it had to be budget-friendly. Morocco ticked every box. Only a few hours from London, it was ideal for a short trip, the weather was reasonably warm in December and the cost would be minimal. Not wanting to try to squeeze too much into our visit, we decided to base ourselves in Marrakech, with a short side trip into the Western Sahara.

Marrakech was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Colourful, bustling and steeped in history, I loved the contrast between the noisy central square and souks and the quiet back alleys situated in the shadow of imposing fortified walls.

We woke every morning to calls to prayer, our beautiful and welcoming riad right next to one of the smaller mosques. Glistening pastries were washed down with fresh juice in quiet squares or perched on low walls as we navigated our way around; dinners a more frantic affair as we trialled different street stalls, jostling for a seat along long benches and mopping up the oily juices from tangine pots using thick hunks of bread. One lunch time we stumbled upon a small restaurant selling lamb sandwiches, taking our pick of meat from a hot spit hosting a whole animal before pulling off tender strips and licking the fat from our fingers. With our bellies full, we would join the crowds in the evenings wandering the central square, buying boxes of sweets and watching women tell fortunes, fellow tourists given henna tattoos and storyteller musicians entrancing crowds.

The city is often accurately described as a maze - we certainly would never have made it to our riad for the first time without being collected from a main road by the owner. But the winding streets and narrow alleys were part of the appeal for me - all paths eventually led somewhere, and by orienting ourselves with one of the larger mosques we could always find our way back to a central area. There were a few moments of frustration when seeking out an attraction or museum that seemed to melt into the many twists and turns, but we nearly always found something interesting to see along the way. One afternoon, retracing our steps for the third time after failing to find a historic house, tired and thirsty, we saw a bundle of newly-born and still blind kittens resting under a tree, overlooked by their protective yet relaxed mother, surrounded by local men who were cooing over them and leaving pieces of meat and bone. We stopped to watch for a few minutes, frustration forgotten, before realising that there was a tiny sign just behind the group pointing to our destination.

The souks were particularly enjoyable to just stroll through - there was far less hassle from stall owners then we have experienced in other countries, and with the long stretches of markets winding through the city, they never seemed too crowded. Bright fabrics hung across the ceiling, offering shade, the scent of spice wafted from tall pyramids and lanterns dangled in dense groups. Of course, just as you might have convinced yourself that you had stepped back in time, there were also many stalls devoted to designer rip-off clothing and bags to dispel the illusion...

There were some aspects of the city that were not as pleasant - I couldn't help feeling sorry for the cobras dancing on woven mats, and strongly disliked the early evening boxing, especially as there were children involved on a couple of occasions, cheered on by a thick crowd as we quickly walked past. We had been warned about not accepting directions offered by eager locals (who were equally eager to relieve tourists of payment for their services) and politely declined assistance, at times with a very firm 'No, thank you'.

As with many cities, there is a blend of older traditions and modern luxuries, but the overall atmosphere was friendly and we did not experience much hassle at all. The greatest inconvenience was the traffic - I wouldn't have believed it possible for so many motorbikes and scooters to fit down such narrow streets...


Thursday, 13 March 2014

Tanzania: Do's and Don'ts!

Tanzania is a spectacular country with so much to offer - the people are warm and welcoming, the landscape varied and the wildlife breathtaking. We primarily devoted our trip to safari, but I would love to return and spend more time in the villages and towns and visit the popular island of Zanzibar. Here are my usual tips and advice, centred around booking and making the most out of a safari holiday.


- Consider organising your own safari rather than booking through a travel agent or international company. There are many reputable, local companies who provide 4x4s and driver, who are most often experienced and passionate guides as well. You can then set your own itinerary based around any must-see parks or wildlife, knowing that there is flexibility to veer off-course if an opportunity arises. Questions to ask when emailing potential providers include: Do you use local driver guides? What experience do they have? What cars do you use? What is your policy on distance from animals? (if they offer to take you 'as close as you want', please don't travel with them!) What accommodation will my driver stay in during the trip? Will I be collected/dropped off at the airport? What is included in the total cost? If any of the answers raise alarm bells, look elsewhere. There are also numerous reviews posted online that are worth reading through before compiling a short-list of companies to email.

- Plan your travels around your budget and priorities. There are many options on safari that can be tailored to your individual requirements, so do not be afraid to ask for a range of choices when emailing companies. Having already experienced a group safari in East Africa in the past, we chose a private trip this time, which is more expensive but allowed for greater flexibility. There is a range of accommodation at each of the major national parks, from basic camping to five star luxury lodges, and the distances you choose to travel will also affect the overall cost. Again, the key here is to shop around and do some research so you can make informed decisions that will result in the perfect trip for you.

- Pack for a range of weather conditions. The days in Tanzania can become very, very hot, and even with shade from the car you'll want to dress in light, loose layers. The nights, on the other hand, are crisp and cold once the sun dips below the horizon. Occasional bursts of rain are not uncommon if travelling during the shoulder seasons, so a light waterproof will protect against the elements without taking up too much room. Finally, whilst on the topic of packing, bring a number of SD cards for your camera - you'll need them!


- Arrive with expectations of seeing particular animals. If you travel to Tanzania for the explicit purpose of seeing a leopard, for example, then you risk missing out on the beauty surrounding you whilst you squint up at trees or hurry your driver through a park. A safari is such an experience in itself - the soft colours of the dusty plains, bright specks of tiny birds peeking on the ground, curious zebra following the progress of the cars, warthogs dashing between bushes - that the atmosphere is just as important as any individual animal. It's natural to hope for a particular experience, but don't let it dominate your time on safari - these are wild animals, after all.

- Rush around. Take time to savour the atmosphere of each park, or choose an animal and follow its progress over the course of a few hours. A few days into our trip, we'd seen so many zebra that I'd almost stopped noticing them. One afternoon, we spotted a huge herd making their way cautiously down to a river to drink - with good reason, for a pride of lions slept nearby. Our driver stopped, hoping perhaps that the lions might make a move. Instead, we were treated to an incredible display of playfulness - the zebra (continuing to eye the lions) splashed each other with water, slipped and fell in the mud, formed a protective ring around the young as they drank and pretend fought and finally all ran as one when the animal bringing up the rear became spooked. It was a wonderful way to spend an hour.

- Forget to bring along any vaccination certificates, especially yellow fever. Although I always pack ours out of habit, I wasn't expecting to need them. We weren't travelling from any at-risk countries, nor had we visited any during the last six months. But as we left the plane in Arusha and headed towards arrivals, every passenger was stopped at the door and asked for proof of vaccinations. No exceptions. I doubt this is the norm - we've never been asked for them in the past, even when they were an official requirement, but it's worth ensuring that you have copies to hand just in case.

Want to discover more about our Tanzanian safari? Check our these posts:

The beginning of a safari in Tanzania
On safari in the Serengeti
A lion-packed end to a Tanzanian safari
Big cats in Tanzania: A photo-blog
The wildlife of Tanzania: A photo-blog

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The wildlife of Tanzania: A photo-blog

The big cats were certainly magnificent, but every single animal or bird we saw, from the largest to the tiniest beetle had their own charm. Here's just a small selection of what you might expect to see during a Tanzanian safari...

Lizards lounged on rocks, soaking up the hot sun

Hippos, on the other hand, were far more interested in staying cool

A hyena rests at the side of the path during the long afternoon hours

Vultures were always on the alert, keenly watching from the tops of trees

Then joining a group to protect their scavenged meal

There were so many gazelle and deer that we soon lost count

A baby giraffe hurries after its mother

Beautifully coloured birds stood out against the neutral colours of the plain

Warthogs were a common feature of our days

Zebras sensibly moved around in groups and were always on the alert

The ostriches were particularly gorgeous, if bizarre

Cheeky monkeys popped up everywhere

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Big cats in Tanzania: A photo-blog

More than anything, I'd hoped for lions.

I was looking forward to seeing all the wildlife possible in Tanzania, but after always distant, fleeting glimpses of these big cats during our travels through Kenya and Uganda, I was most excited about the potential prospect of watching them up close, hopefully observing their behaviour and perhaps spotting a cub if we were really lucky. I'd hardly even dared remind myself that there were also cheetahs and leopards in the area - no point in setting myself up for disappointment.

Tanzania mostly definitely did not disappoint. We saw lions, so many lions - resting in the shadow of our car, crossing the path in front of us, mating, eating, cubs playing - everything I could have asked for. But there were also curious cheetahs and leopards lazing in the branches of tall trees, graceful and strong. I couldn't possibly have wished for more.

This cheetah seemed entirely unconcerned when we stumbled upon her on the path

Another cheetah gazes after her potential prey

This lion alternated between sleeping and using the high viewpoint to keep an eye on the plains

Some lions were less bothered about their surroundings, however...

And others were quite happy to wile away the day...

A leopard peers down at us from its lofty heights...

Before sliding into a more comfortable position

Thursday, 6 March 2014

A lion-packed end to a Tanzanian safari

The final stop on our Tanzanian safari was the stunning Ngorongoro Crater. We approached from high on the rim, sweeping down a narrow track as occasional gaps between the line of trees revealed dramatic views. This was a place I had longed to visit for many years and it was even more spectacular than I could have imagined.

We entered the crater bowl, the smaller area resulting in a higher concentration of vehicles than we'd been used to and forcing us to weave past cars to watch hippos lounging in a lake. It was a shock to see so many people, making wildlife spotting more difficult than in the other parks as 4x4s competed for the best positions. The increase in noise and human presence didn't deter the lions, however - every turn or crest of a hill seemed to reveal lone males on rocks, pairs mating and family groups resting in the shadows of low bushes.

Dead carcases littered the landscape, the last remaining scraps of flesh picked clean by circling vultures who protected their finds in large, intimidating groups. As we drove around, we kept our eyes peeled in the hope of glimpsing a black rhino, the main draw of this particular park. We had actually already had the pleasure of seeing one in Kenya in the past, but this time around our search was in vain - it seemed the rhinos were disinterested in company and kept themselves hidden within the thick forested area of the crater.

We spent the maximum six hours allowed in the park driving around, making the most of the last of our time on safari. Our time in Tanzania had been full of extraordinary luck and we'd seen everything we could possibly have hoped for and much, much more.


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

On safari in the Serengeti

Throughout the previous few days, I had been amazed at the range and sheer numbers of wildlife we had seen driving through Tarangire and Lake Manyara national parks. Both parks were relatively quiet in terms of other tourists and the animals were relaxed around our vehicle, offering great observation and photography opportunities.

The Serengeti, however, blew them both clean out of the water.

We'd barely passed the boundaries of the park, the only car for miles around, when we spotted a gentle movement at the base of a tall tree. There, just a couple of metres away and almost camouflaged into the dusty yellow ground, were a pair of cheetahs resting beneath the hot sun. My heart jumped into my mouth - I'd desperately hoped to catch sight of either a cheetah or leopard, although knowing that my chances were much slimmer than other wildlife. Yet here they were, incredibly beautiful and so, so close.

They seemed completely undisturbed by our presence, glancing over with mouths stretched wide into a yawn before settling back down. Every now and then the female rose and circled the tree once or twice, arching her long, lean body and scouting for movement. We were reluctant to leave, soaking up every second of the experience, but were eventually forced to head towards our tented camp as the sun began to set.

We needn't have worried though; early the following morning we had just set off on our game drive when our driver was forced to stop the car for another cheetah sleeping in the middle of the track. Paying very little attention to us, we waited for half an hour until she slowly moved off to find shade in the bushes. Over the next few days, the Serengeti proved to be thick with those gorgeous cats - one evening we spent three hours observing a lone female on the hunt, tracking zebras as she hugged the ground closely, hidden from their sight. We hung back, keen not to disturb her concentration (or scare the zebra) until she finally pounced, speeding across a bare plain and just missing her target.

Not all the prey we saw were safe, however. One afternoon, our driver spotted a flurry of movement close to where we were parked. He sped over, stopping just as another car, clearly with the same intentions, arrived. F and I jumped up to look over the roof, exchanging adrenalin-filled glances with the two men in the 4x4 parked next to us. Directly in front, blood already staining the ground, a huge pack of lions were ripping apart a large, freshly-caught warthog. The sounds and smells were incredible. Dominant males tore chunks of meat from the unfortunate hog, dragging the best pickings off and settling down in the dust to eat. Small cubs, clambering over the bodies of their older relatives, were snapped at and forced back until the adults had taken their fill. One strong youngster managed to grab a discarded lump of meat and gorged himself, fur and face swiftly turning red as the previously cute cub revealed his predatory side. The faint breeze sent occasional scents of metallic blood towards us and the volume of shouts and fighting increased over the last scraps.

As the pack eventually moved away, only the pink grass betrayed any evidence of the carnage. It had been incredible to watch, although seeing the warthog torn limb from limb made me reflect upon my own excitement at realising that we had stumbled upon a kill, and the precedent we give to certain animals - would I have felt that same adrenalin rush had it been an elephant I'd seen on the ground? A kill and its aftermath is a natural event, part of a cyclical process on the African plains, yet often selectively glorified by humans (evidently including myself!).

The tip of the icing came towards the end of our time in the Serengeti, when we spotted a few leopards stretched lithely along branches high in trees. Although mostly cocooned within shadows or surrounded by leaves, it was still a joy to glimpse the last of the great African cats. We were thrilled.

Although the cats were undoubtedly the highlight, the Serengeti also saw us encounter multiple groups of elephants, including some very small calves, a family of ostriches and more zebra than we thought possible, travelling in huge numbers for safety. I also finally managed to get not one, but multiple photos of hippos yawning... It was an indescribably magical place that we were reluctant to leave, but time was running away with us and we still had one last park to visit.


Saturday, 1 March 2014

The beginning of a safari in Tanzania

It always starts so innocently.

Reminiscing over travels past, flicking through photos on the computer. Stopping at a giraffe in Kenya, delicate neck arching down to tear leaves from low branches. Remembering how much I like giraffes. A few clicks later; a hippo gazes back at me from shallow waters. I can't believe I missed getting a picture of one yawning. I've always wanted a yawning hippo picture.

"What do you think about going on another safari...?"

I looked at a few options, priced out some itineraries and worked out how many days we could spare. South Africa was a serious contender, but there were just too many places I wanted to squeeze into a ten day trip - we'd be unable to do justice to each aspect. To devote the time we wanted to animal watching, it would need to be safari only. After some further deliberation, we settled on Tanzania - it was a country we were both keen to visit, had an amazing reputation for safari and the distances enabled us to experience several national parks without rushing. We listed up the parks we were most interested in and began contacting companies.

Last time we visited East Africa, we booked with an overland provider for a month, camping within parks in the company of twelve other travellers. The experience was amazing and we made some firm friends, but there were drawbacks. Catering for the needs of fourteen people, each with different priorities, meant that compromises were central to the trip. If enough of the group wanted to move on or not stop at another zebra, the majority vote was respected. This wasn't a huge problem - it was a first safari for many of us so we were all eager to squeeze in as much as possible. However, as I'd already seen many of the classic safari animals (with a couple of key exceptions), I was keen to slow down and observe the animals over longer periods of time.

Assuming that a private safari would likely be out of our budget, I tentatively sent out emails nonetheless. To my surprise, the prices quoted were not as bad as I'd anticipated and we could have total flexibility over our itinerary and accommodation choices. I narrowed down the options until we found the perfect company for us (locally run, a small and independent enterprise, all costs included, good reviews online, prompt and informative replies to emails) and booked.

Arriving in Tanzania, we had a day in Arusha before setting off with our driver to our first national park, Tarangire. We'd barely driven through the gates when we spotted our first giraffes and zebra, munching grass and leaves next to the path. A little further and a herd of elephants appeared in the distance, half hidden by trees, the first of well over a hundred we saw during our trip. Warthogs scurried between bushes, miniature versions of the adults desperately trying to keep up the pace. We watched mongoose peering curiously out of their holes, several incredibly beautiful birds flocking overhead and eagles stoically staring across the landscape from the tops of trees. It was an amazing introduction to the wildlife Tanzania had to offer.

Driving until the sun set, we spent the night in a lodge deep in the park before rising early and spending the day continuing our game drive. We then moved onto Lake Manyara, an elephant-packed day where we watched for hours as babies were taught how to drink in shallow waters using their trunks and cool themselves down with splashes of mud. One adolescent was obviously feeling particularly mischievous, spraying the herd with muddy water and dancing away as he was bellowed at in response.

Being late October, every animal we saw seemed to have a tiny shadow, but the lion cubs were especially gorgeous - tufts of fluffy fur surrounding their small bodies as they crept closer to the stationary car before darting back to the safety of their parents who lounged in the sun. At the beginning of our trip, we'd mentioned to our driver how excited we were at the prospect of lions - we had seen some in Kenya and Uganda but they had been too far away to observe properly. He laughed and warned us that by the end of this holiday we'd likely be sick of them as they frequently sought shade in the shadow of cars and generally took no notice of passing safari vehicles. I had thought he was joking, until a large male flopped down in front of us to escape the hot midday sun during our third day.

Barely a few days into our trip, we'd already seen a multitude of different animals, but were keeping our fingers tightly crossed for cheetahs or leopards - the only two we'd missed in the past. It was time to head into the Serengeti...