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USA National Parks Day

Today is the centenary of the USA National Parks Service.

To celebrate their 100th anniversary we champion the unsung heroes; national parks around the world that match the A-lister’s natural splendour but not their footfall. 

The space and wilderness of these protected places and National Parks are what inspires us all to travel. Support these areas of natural beauty by visiting them with us and share your images and experiences on facebook, instagram and twitter#nationalparkscentennial

British Airways
The British Airways Worldwide Luxury SALE is now on. Get into the great outdoors and take advantage of savings on selected fares worldwide. Contact us inspire@steppestravel.com or call on 01285 880980 to find out more.

USA

USA Lake Powell & Yellowstone

Ok so Lake Powell isn’t a national park itself but we love it as it is close to all five of Utah’s national parks – Canyonlands NP, Capitol Reef NP, Arches NP, Bryce Canyon NP and Zion NP. Get into the great outdoors and swim, fish, snorkel or canoe your way across her waters.
WHY WE LIKE IT: Mind-blowing scenery, huge horizons and solitude. 12 days from £7,350 pp | VIEW HOLIDAY

UNSUNG HEROES WORLDWIDE

 

India Dudhwa NP walking tiger

Near the Nepalese border sits Dudhwa National Park. Tigers and leopards roam here as well as the Indian rhinoceros. The park is also a stronghold for the rare Barasingha deer which makes it one of the best wildlife destinations in India.
WHY WE LIKE IT: Less visited and all the better for it – safari away from the crowds of Central India. 10 days from £2,300 pp | VIEW HOLIDAY

Special Offer: Fly to Delhi with BA and receive a complimentary upgrade to World Traveller Plus on your return journey*
Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 880980 to find out more.


*Subject to availability and terms and conditions of BA Worldwide Luxury Sale.

 

Georgia Stone faces of Kazbegi

Borjomi -Kharagauli National Park dates back to medieval times and is a protected area in the Lesser Caucasus. Join our new group walking tour departing in September 2017 and see this undiscovered gem for yourself.
WHY WE LIKE IT: Natural beauty, historical monuments and rich flora and fauna. 14 days from £2,445 pp | VIEW HOLIDAY

Tasmania Maria Island

The marbled Painted Cliffs that form the rugged coastline and pristine beaches around Maria Island National Park resemble Ayers Rock in their colours and spiritual heritage. Spot the resident wildlife from possums to penguins and Fur Seals and perhaps a Tasmanian Devil?
WHY WE LIKE IT: Small and secluded – you are more likely to bump into a kangaroo than another visitor. 16 days from £7,495 pp | VIEW HOLIDAY

Uganda male gorilla in Bwindi NP

Kidepo Valley National Park is home to the famous Karamojong warriors (Read Chris’s blog below) as well as jackals, aardwolves and cheetahs – found in no other parks in Uganda.
WHY WE LIKE IT: Like the Masai Mara, but ringed by jagged mountains and full of game, not tourists.
14 days from £8,995 pp | VIEW FLYING SAFARI

Leopard Sri Lanka

Encounter leopards in Yala National Park and whales off Sri Lanka’s east coast. 15 days from £4,745 pp

Colombia Tayrona National Parkl

Discover remote archaeological sites and take a jungle trek in Tayrona National Park. 15 days from £3,995 pp

Iceland Vatnajokull National Park

Vatnajokull National Park is both the second largest National Park in Europe and the largest glacier in Europe outside of the Arctic. Explore this photographer’s paradise on our Iceland Photography tour with Tim Mannakee.
WHY WE LIKE IT: Raw beauty.
9 days from £5,245 pp | VIEW PHOTOGRAPHY TOUR

Madagascar Andasibe Mantadia

Spot lemurs and listen to the sounds of the rainforest as you walk through the Andasibe-Mantadia Park. Followed by a relaxing time on the shores of Anjajavy Peninsula where the baobab’s meet tropical beach.
WHY WE LIKE IT: Unique indigenous wildlife.
11 days from £3,450 pp | VIEW HOLIDAY

Chile Northern Patagonia Park

Patagonia Park covers 200,000 acres in a remote part of Aysen, Chile. Once overgrazed land it is now becoming one of the best places to see rare and threatened species such as the Andean condors, huemul deer and puma.
WHY WE LIKE IT: Join Hilary Bradt, founder of Bradt guides.
14 days from £5,495 pp | VIEW GROUP TOUR

ON LOCATION 

The Karamojong of Kidepo Uganda

“Our tiny plane flew over the rugged mountains bordering Kidepo Valley National Park. In the foothills of these mountains, patches of red earth scratched out from the surrounding greenery showed small manyatta’s and villages, isolated by distance and home to the Karamajong people…”  READ BLOG

Get in touch to learn more about our wildlife holidays. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 880980.

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What to make of Madagascar

Indri Lemur, Andasibe National Park, Alaotra-Mangoro, Madagascar, Africa (chris)

What to make of Madagascar? A country that is a fascinating mix of Asia and Africa – dazzling green rice paddies, against a backdrop of ancient Baobabs. A language as fascinating and diverse as the people – a mixture of Bantu, Arabic, French and Polynesian. 18 different tribes each with its own strict set of Fady – taboos – by which they must live their lives. These vary from region to region, but sometimes also from village to village, as do the dialects, so you are sure to be kept on your toes!

It is a country where each day of the week is given a colour and the preferred drink is – rhum arrange, local rum infused with everything from ginger, vanilla or coffee.

The natural world is as magical as the people. There are octopus trees, animals that change colour in front of your eyes, over 50 different species of primates found no-where else on the planet. There are wild deserts, mountain rain forests, rocky lunar landscapes and sacred spiny forests full of ghosts and hidden tombs.

There are luxury tropical resorts and beautiful islands, where you can fly in by helicopter and watch whales calve before snorkelling in turquoise waters. In the remote south, there are wild parks and villages untouched by the modern world, only accessible on bone jarring drives of 4 hours over treacherous roads, where you can stay in fantastic bush camps and explore on foot.

It is a country of crumbling 18th century, French town houses and mud huts, a country of fine dining and subsistence living, from delicious steaks and the freshest seafood to cassava and zebu blood.

This is also country where over 80 % of families annual income is spent on the afterlife, elaborate tombs and ceremonies held whenever the dead appear to families in dreams. Others simply burn down the home of the deceased, sell their cattle and dare not mention their name after dark. There are thousands of churches throughout the country, but Ombiashi (traditional sorcerers) are still consulted on all aspects of family life – weddings, funerals, new projects – where sacrifices are made of wild honey, rum and animals (the chickens must always be white).

It is a country that also doesn’t have enough planes to go round, so flights can be delayed and cancelled at a moment’s notice, but you will get to know the handful of cabin crew who do the rounds. It is a country in which I was threatened with death (a traditional greeting I was aware of only after the event) and perhaps most bizarrely a country where I was mistaken for a priest.

It is a confusing, fascinating and sometimes frustrating country but it is also heartfelt and incredibly genuine. You will be charmed by the people and amazed by its natural beauty. It will be quite unlike anywhere you have ever been before.

I cannot wait to go back.

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Andasibe Forest Walk, Madagascar

It was strange hearing whale song in the middle of the rainforest.

Or at least that’s what the haunting call of the Indri – Madagascar’s largest lemur – sounded like as I stood in the early morning mists in Andasibe, Madagascar’s busiest and most accessible rainforest. As my guide John and I left the park office, this strange call became the soundtrack to our time here – a constant reminder of the parks most popular and elusive residents calling to each other in the distance.

No sooner had we entered the park than John was peering into pitcher plants and looking under leaves with great enthusiasm (although I warned him about my desire NOT to see anything with 8 legs up close) and it wasn’t long before we had found our first tiny frog. A vibrant orange golden mandella – sitting on a bright green leaf minding his own business. “These frogs can gather in their hundreds sometimes” said John and the noise I heard from my lodge last night was testament to that as they were calling to each other and potential mates from the pond outside my window.

We then saw the first of our lemurs – a troop of common brown lemurs warming themselves in the sun – a pair of tiny eyes peering at me from the protective embrace of the mother and the quiet squeaks and coughs of reassurance between the group. We then saw the diademed sifakas, their orange legs dangling from the branch and later, tiny mouse lemurs peering at us from the hollow of trees.

We carried on through the well defined paths of the park, thick with vegetation all around whilst butterflies flew in and out of the shards of light coming through the canopy way above. We stopped at a pretty plain looking tree – my guide grinning from ear to ear. I love wildlife, but find it hard to get excited about trees and was preparing myself for a boring monologue about this particular species and how many individual plants are in Andasibe, when John asked – “where is its’ head?” Not sure how to answer this, I stood there looking at the tree with my mouth open until the tiniest movement on the trunk caught my eye and I realised I was looking at a leaf tailed gecko.

As we moved on, the more I looked, the more I saw – a tiny nose-horned chameleon hanging on to a leaf (who fell off when we walked passed so my guide picked him up and put him back), a bright yellow comet moth asleep in the shade and the endemic blue coua calling from the trees.

Just as we were about to leave, John darted off the path into the undergrowth – “quick, but be quiet” – so I waded in, rucksack and me getting tangled in the bushes, whilst he seemed to glide through the forest. “There” he said, pointing up and after extracting myself from the vegetation, I checked around for webs and stepped into the clearing next to him.

Looking up I instantly heard the Indri calling – from some distance away at first – before the one sitting about 10 feet above me replied. This close, the call of the Indri is less haunting, more harrowing, loud enough to be heard from over 3km away but to hear it is to be amazed and I have never heard a sound like it. After enjoying this conversation in the trees, we made our way back to the main path and I left the park as I had begun, with the Indri’s calls ringing in my ears.

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Sacred Tombs in Spiny Forest

Night falls quickly in Southern Madagascar so Andreas, my excellent guide from nearby Mandrare River Camp made it clear that we were to be out of the sacred forest before dark.

“Night is the time for spirits” he said emphatically, which explained why so many villages in this region were eerily quiet as early as 7pm with everyone safely tucked up inside. After a short walk across the shallow river from which the camp takes its name, we walked up the sandbank and entered the forest itself. A dramatic spiny forest of cactus like trees some over 30 foot high. Walking through them has been described as walking on the ocean floor looking up at coral moving in the current and with the bright green tendrils seemingly floating against the cloudless blue sky – I could see why.

It was what was hidden amongst this that we had come to see, the forest is a traditional burial ground, considered sacred by the local Antandroy tribe. Elaborately decorated family tombs both ancient and recent can be found here, hidden among the tangle of vines and bushes that seem threaded with silvery webs. The first tomb we saw was a large set of plain stones, some 20 ft square and about 4 ft high, with a few freshly culled zebu horns laid in each corner.”Not a rich man” Andreas said, “it is a plain tomb. Also quite recent, maybe a few weeks, the body is wrapped in white silk inside.”

Moving deeper into the forest, we then came across a similar sized tomb, but with brightly painted murals along the walls showing scenes from everyday life of the deceased, his hobbies and passions, decorated with garlands of flowers. On the tomb walls there were simple drawings of zebu carts and crop planting as well as guns and helicopters. I couldn’t work out if the deceased was a farmer who wanted to be in the army, or a soldier who dream of a quiet life in the country. On seeing a mermaid and a dolphin in there as well I gave up trying to figure it out.

We carried on walking for some time past more tombs and simple structures, weaving our way in and out of the shadows as the sun sank. We reached our final destination and last family tomb, it was neither the largest, nor the most colourful but it was certainly the oldest and easily the most fascinating. Much of the brickwork had cracked over the years, the tomb held together more or less by the surrounding vegetation, much of the writing long faded by the harsh, dry climate.

There were also headstones nearby, long thin pinnacles of rock, with wooden totems of old zebu horns. I noticed numerous animal bones half buried in the earth, these remains of zebu sacrificed long ago were laid next to old rags tied with string – lucky charms used by Ombiashi (local sorcerers) at ancestral ceremonies. I was so deeply fascinated that I hadn’t noticed my guide heading back along the path – at a pretty brisk pace – it was already dusk .

As if on cue I heard the call of an owl and caught up with Andreas to ask what the malagasy name for the creature was, but without breaking his stride he said flatly in English ‘ghost bird’ and seemed to pick up his pace even more. His anxiety had started to affect me too and the forest suddenly seemed that much darker, the path ahead less clear and the vegetation more imposing, much of it now seeming to snag against our clothes and scratch our skin. I turned on my torch, but this then created bizarre shadows and I was sure I could make out faces in the gnarly bark of the baobab trunk we passed on finally leaving the forest.

An hour later, enjoying drinks at camp, Andreas telling (rather tall) ancestral tales, I decided I’d better make my next drink a large vodka tonic to steady the nerves as after all, night is indeed the time for spirits. I presume this was what he meant.

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Malagasy markets

My first visit to a local Malagasy market was not initially as I’d imagined. “These are no good, they are Chinese and too small, you need something bigger.”

Not sure how to take this, my long suffering guide and I continued our search for some new underwear for me, having been short on time and common sense when packing in the UK. Markets are always great fun to explore and the one I found myself in at Morondava, a sleepy laid back beach town in western Madagascar, set in a huge colonial wooden building. After tracking down my own essential items, we headed deeper into the market to see what else was on offer.

Passed the clothes and colourful lamba cloths, were large sacks of rice (essential to any Malagasy meal) and bags of dried beans and sitting in the middle was the brightly dressed stall owner, weighing and measuring out orders with spoons and cups as if she were mixing cocktails. Then came the fresh fruit and vegetables, beautifully arranged and a mouth-watering mix of custard apples, vanilla and mango along with sweet potato and cassava leaves plus the fiery sakay chillies that are mixed with ginger and garlic to make a delicious but eye-watering hot sauce.

Equally as fascinating, but somewhat less aromatic were the fresh fish and meat stalls, where small rays, huge eels and octopus lay next to mountains of dried fish giving way to hanging cuts of meats of all description – it seems every part of the zebu is edible. After this, came the fresh snacks – samosas, grilled meat kebabs (masikita) and sweet kobas-a mixture of ground peanuts, pistachios and sugar water wrapped in banana leaves and baked. This is of course all washed down with a shot of toaka gasy – moonshine – also bottled up and ready to go on the stall beside.

As we left the market and drifted back to the street, we passed an older man who had clearly fallen on hard times (since the coup in 2009 jobs are harder to come by) and approaching me, he quietly asked for Mbaa (money). This was the only time it happened on my entire trip, but conscious not to encourage begging, I shrugged my shoulders apologetically and showed him the only thing I had on me – 3 pairs of fake Calvin Klein boxer shorts.

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Avenue of Baobabs

On my way to the famous Avenue of Baobabs, I was chatting to my guide about the numerous taxi-brousse that were buzzing around the town of Morondava on the west coast of Madagascar, ferrying people around all hours of the day and night and a lifeline for many.

Always one for an adventure, I asked my guide if I could try one for a short tour. “Not so good idea” he said and then told me how his last journey ended up with the taxi-brousse he was in smashing into a mango tree. I asked what happened and he just said “the brakes were not so good.”

I decided against this and carried on with my excellent driver called Man (a shortened version of his full name Herman which amused my guide no end as he declared loudly “he’s the Man!” every time the driver performed a nifty manoeuvre avoiding chickens in the road.)

On arrival at the Avenue of Baobabs itself, I was suitably impressed with the towering, alien plants looming above us and was lucky enough to get some great shots at sunset. Despite the popularity of the place, seeing those iconic trees for the first time is fantastic and makes you realise how exotic Madagascar really is. Combine this with the endless, bright green rice paddies in the surrounding fields and you have an intoxicating mix of Asia and Africa that makes the country so unique.

As the sun set and the cluster of tourists thinned, I had the place pretty much to myself so my guide and I slowly walked the length of the avenue, watching the small village nearby settle down for the night. Fires were lit; straggling goats were herded back home and people returned from the fields for food. Dusk changed to night and as the stars came out, the baobabs looked even more impressive against the night sky. I heard an approaching taxi-brousse, and with my guide’s story still fresh in my mind, I stepped gingerly out of the way before the baobabs disappeared in a cloud of dust and we headed back to the car.

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Wise words from Madagascar

“This is the sacred courtyard where they slaughter the animal and then spray the blood around for good luck.” My guide Jocelyne explained “but it can also be used for family picnics.”

And so I find myself on my first day in Madagascar at Ambohimanga, a UNESCO heritage site on the outskirts of the capital, Antananarivo, considered central to the cultural identity of the dominant Merina tribe. Home to the former king and now a popular tourist site with both vazaha (non Malagasy) and locals alike, the latter who gather here to pay respect to the deceased. Looking out across the beautiful gardens and the spectacular views of rice paddies and small villages to the capital I can see why the royals chose this spot.

So important was it to the Malagasy that it was off limits to Europeans until recently and is still revered as a site where offerings are made. The minister of culture comes here each New Year to slaughter a zebu bull and a smaller area of stones at the back of the palace show signs of more personal offerings – candle wax, honey and rum.

Conscious that there are numerous fadys – local taboos – associated with visiting such places I asked what I should avoid doing at the site so as not to cause offence to the ancestors. “There are 3 important things” Jocelyne said, “Firstly, never point directly at something, use a crooked finger. Secondly always enter a room here with your right foot forward.” “And the third?” I asked innocently. “Definitely no pissing on the offerings.”

Seemed like sound advice, so with that we headed back to the car, passing groups of people enjoying time with their family, both alive and long gone and leaving me slightly bewildered as to what surprises Madagascar has in store for me.

Watch this space for more blogs about Chris’ travels to Madagascar or for our Madagascar experts advice on planning your own tailor made holiday to Madagascar please call the team on 01285 880 980.

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William Burrard-Lucas and BeetleCam

Will Burrard-Lucas is a professional wildlife photographer from the UK, renowned for his fresh and innovative approach to wildlife photography. Below is a blog directly from Will regarding his latest BeetleCam adventures – a project that has given Will worldwide recognition and acclaim.

“In 2009 I embarked on a project to get unique close-up, ground level photographs of African wildlife. To achieve this I built BeetleCam; a remote controlled buggy with a DSLR camera mounted on top. My brother and I travelled to Tanzania and used the buggy to get some incredible photographs of elephants and buffalo. However, we lost a camera and BeetleCam was almost destroyed in its only encounter with a lion.

We returned home and published “The Adventures of BeetleCam”. The photos were very well received, appearing all over the web, in print and on television networks around the world. However, I wasn’t entirely satisfied… just imagine what I could get with a lion-proof BeetleCam!

Well, in 2011 I set to work creating two new BeetleCams; one with more advanced capabilities and one with an armoured shell. We returned to Africa with the aim of photographing the lions of the Masai Mara.

Two weeks later, our armoured BeetleCam was scarred and battered; the screws that held it together were losing their thread and the carapace was covered in scratches and bite marks. However, we could breathe a sigh of relief because we had reached the end of our trip and we hadn’t lost a camera this time! We returned home with a set of images that exceeded all our expectations and plenty of ideas for BeetleCam’s next adventure!

To read more about the project and view additional photographs, have a look at this blog post “BeetleCam vs the Lions of the Masai Mara”, or watch the below video for a preview of whats to come.