India – Delhi, Agra and Jaipur

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At breakfast one day my mother looked up from reading her paper and eating her marmalade on toast and instead of ‘good morning’ simply said “Do you want to go to India?”

Of course!

She would invite some friends (Jo, Barbara, Terry and Peter) and then we would discuss and organise what we wanted to see and plan it allowing enough time for us all to save up for the trip, I would do as much overtime as I could in whatever job I had at the time, which usually meant working weekends as well.

There would be 6 of us going and after some research everyone had a place that they particularly wanted to get to, my chosen interest was to see Gandhi’s grave as I have always been fascinated by him and also I asked to extend the trip and go on to Nepal to trek in the Himalayas and get some views of Mount Everest. (Nepal is written up as a separate piece.)

Delhi
Delhi is a wonderfully exotic place to visit, as soon as you step off the plane the heat hits you and the aromas of mixed spices and rain infuse the air, we arrived at midnight but the heat was still intense.

The languages spoken in Delhi are Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu, Delhi is in two halves of Old Delhi which is the capital of Islamic India and New Delhi built as the Imperial capital of India by the British. New Delhi is very spacious with huge archway bridges and the straight, wide roads are lined with lamp posts, it is in complete contrast to old Delhi with its twisty back streets and narrow roads.

India Gate – a reminder of the British Raj

Interesting old sign

The six of us were given a guide called Sharma, I did not care for him much finding him to be a little leery and decided I would keep out of his way as much as possible, I preferred to see many of the sights alone anyway, so tended to slip away from everyone and do my own thing as much as I could without offending anyone.

I believe that you see more on your own, rather than being rushed with a group.

I instantly liked old Delhi with the markets and old bazaars, life is obviously very harsh though as I saw the extent of people living on the streets, it was very upsetting to witness.

Man sleeping on street

It seems that life is worth very little as we found out when the driver of bus that we were on, drove like a lunatic and hit a cyclist knocking him down, I looked back at him and saw that he did not get up, running to the driver to ask him to stop the bus, I was stopped by our guide Sharma who explained that to stop would mean a fine of 6 Rupees, the driver is better off driving on.

Tigers, Lions and Jungle cats

Puna leaping!

Although this was not a trip abroad, it was a valuable experience getting up close to large and some very rare cats from around the world and I feel it is worth telling their stories alongside some of the photos I took of these beautiful cats.

Home to over 50 rare cats of the most diverse range in the UK, the Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent was founded in 2000 and is home to some of the most endangered cat species in the World, both small and large cats, including the Amur Leopard with only approximately 45 left in the wild globally and Sumatran Tigers of which there are less than 300 left in the wild.

The BCS aims to breed endangered cats and where possible introduce them back into the wild, it differs from other organisations in that it is not open to the general public, however you can book a photographic experience (which is how I got in). Alternatively you can sign up to become a voluntary ranger for the day or have a safari experience staying in a lodge overnight in the grounds and meeting the cats with a keeper in the day, not to mention hearing the lions roar at night.

If you have any unwanted Christmas trees or bamboo please donate it to the sanctuary, as the Tigers like to walk through the bamboo as it is part of their natural habitat and all of the cats love the smell of Christmas trees.

Each cat has a story from the sanctuary, please read on to get to know these amazing characters and where they have come from.

TAMAIR – THE TIGER

Tamir the Tiger – relaxing

Tamair was born at an Irish circus along with his brothers Genghis and Rocky, and at 5 weeks old came under the care of Peter Sampson who started this cat sanctuary, I have already met Rocky as he is now at the Paradise Wildlife Park, I had a real connection with Rocky, he is a very affectionate Tiger, beautiful.

Tamair is the largest cat at The Big Cat Sanctuary and although he is now old with arthritis and dental problems, he has been very good natured to litters of other cubs born on site, he sleeps in front of a heat lamp for comfort but when he feels energised still plays with his boomer ball.

According to the BCS there are now only six sub species of Tiger left in the wild today, this is so very sad, which is why these sanctuarys where big cats are bred and released back into the wild are so important, in fact I would argue that they are now essential to saving these species.

KUSHKA – A HYBRID TIGER

Kushka – A Hybrid Tiger

Kushka – A Hybrid Tiger

Nepal: Trekking the Foothills of the Himalayas

Following on from India, I travelled from there in our group of 6 friends including my mother, on this tailor-made trip to experience Nepal which is home to eight out of the fourteen highest peaks in the world and trek in the foothills of the Himalayas with views of Mount Everest the mountain I was particularly interested in.

One of my Views flying over Everest in the small plane

Kathmandu seen as a sacred site is a chaotic hustle bustle of a place full of people and pagoda temples, the roads are dusty and bumpy but infused with the smell of ever burning joss sticks, it was originally first discovered as a small settlement during the dark ages at the end of the Licchani period.

These days Kathmandu is seen as a place of worship with its Buddhist temples and statues where incense sticks are burnt continuously and the symbolic colourful flags are hung for protection, many climbers like to visit the flags in the hope it will bring them luck on their climbs.

We went to an older part of Kathmandu which I did not like at all, it had a medieval feel about it and I split from the others as I preferred to explore the area alone, however then walked unwittingly into an area where an animal sacrifice was taking place, it shocked and upset me and I had to run away from it as not only could I not bear to see it I also could not stand hearing it.

It was beyond appalling and cruel.

Further on I came to a temple where there is a Living Goddess, a young girl chosen from the age of around 6 years old for her psychic abilities and a series of other tests, a tradition of Hindu and Buddhism which continues to this day. Once chosen the girl or Goddess as she has now become is given the name Kumari Devi and worshipped on all the religious occasions.

The selection of the Living Goddess is an ancient tantric ritual where she must pass the 32 attributes of perfection test, including the colour of her eyes, the shape of her teeth and the sound of her voice and her horoscope must also be fitting as the first part of selection.

They will then attempt to frighten girls who are being tested by making them confront a goddess in a darkened room with Buffalo heads scattered around, masked dancers made to look like Demons and terrifying noises. The real goddess is unlikely to be frightened, so the one who remains calm throughout the process is the only girl who is entitled to sit on the pedestal for worship as the Living Goddess. Other tests are performed where they are tested for any sign of psychic ability, then as a final test similar to that of the Dalai Lama, the Kumari then chooses items of clothing and decoration worn by her predecessor.

Cambodia – Temples and Sunsets

Cambodia

Following the Vietnam Cave Expedition my friend Jonas from Copenhagen in Denmark and I decided to take some time out to fly across to Cambodia, Siem Reap, which was only 1 hour away by plane and here we experienced the impressive Temples of Angkor along with cycling to Tonle Sap, getting caught in a freak storm and seeing a memorial of the Killing Fields victims.

Here is an account of that trip, including this quick film extract below of Cambodia Water life that I filmed on a hand held camcorder:

After a transit day from Vietnam to Cambodia we arrived at the airport of Siem Reap where we had the unfriendliest Visa check from two seemingly very angry, aggressive and frustrated officials, this was not quite the welcome we had expected when entering a new Country.

We then met up with our guide and headed to the Siddharta Boutique Hotel, which was just a short drive from the airport and there we had the most amazing, friendliest welcome which more than made up for the airport officials. We were both given Cambodian scarfs in a little bag and then had a tropical fruit welcome drink, after a check in we had an evening walk around the grounds and outside the perimeter of the hotel to look for tree frogs and insects, we found some interesting orange coloured toads.

Asian Painted Frog (Kaloula pulchra)

Day 1- Wednesday 25th April
Temples
We had a superb breakfast of fruits, yogurt and toast with Dragon fruit and lime marmalade, then we were collected by the guide and headed out to see our first Temple Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat
We arrived at Angkor Wat at 7am and the sky was pink with the risen sun, this Temple was extremely impressive with a huge moat surrounding it, the name Angkor Wat means City Temple and is steeped in mythology.

Angkor Wat

Outside the Temple there are many statues of ‘Naga’ the seven headed snake which protects it and is a symbolic ‘rainbow bridge’ for man to reach home of the Gods making Angkor Wat a ‘Heaven on Earth.’
What was hilarious was that a group of monks walked past in their colourful orange robes and then stopped and all took a picture of the temple entrance with their Ipads, it looked really funny.

The Monks taking photos with their ipads

Madagascar, the Aye Aye and other wildlife

Madagascar is one of the most fascinating places on the earth for nature lovers as 80% of the wildlife there is indigenous, therefore totally unique to the island and seen nowhere else on Earth. The reason for this is that millions of years ago in the Jurassic era Madagascar broke away from the main part of Africa due to a shift in the earth and drifted out to the Indian Ocean; it is twice the size of the UK and listed as the fourth largest island in the World.

20 years ago I read a book called Last chance to see by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine about travelling to places in search of critically endangered wildlife, one of the places they visited was the unique small island of Nosy Mangabe in the North of Madagascar to look for the elusive Aye Aye.

The Aye Aye is a very strange-looking lemur that has long teeth, shaggy fur, huge ears and an extended forefinger that it uses to tap tree branches for termites to eat. Due to its rather ugly appearance the Malagasy people have persecuted the Aye Aye believing that if it points the finger in your direction that you will die, whole villages have been known to move 5 miles further away should an Aye Aye wander into their village. These poor lemurs were consequently killed on sight and are now not only extremely shy, but also very rare.

Whilst living in Bristol 4 years ago I volunteered at the Bristol Zoo looking after the Aquatic section and one day while having my lunch break a tiny, odd-looking ball of fur with huge ears came into the area where I was sitting and did a forward roll. I was mesmerised by this little creature and was told it was a baby Aye Aye, known in the Zoo as ‘Ras’. It was love at first sight for me and I spent most of my breaks at the nocturnal Aye Aye enclosure.

The book of Last Chance to See was followed up in 2009 with Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry replacing the late Douglas Adams going with him in search of the wildlife once more to all the former locations. I watched this series waiting for the part on Aye Ayes in Madagascar and being caught up in the magic of it decided that I must go to Nosy Mangabe one day.

In November 2011 I flew from Heathrow airport to Paris to make a connecting flight to Madagascar where I would be joining a small group to explore the Northern regions and look for an Aye Aye and other wildlife, one of the places we would be visiting being Nosy Mangabe.

Once in Paris I met up with the group and we waited in a holding area ready to board the plane, we were just queueing up to get on it when we were told that Air France had gone on strike that all the staff apart from the Pilot had all just walked off the plane.