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23

May 2018

Cat or Dog?

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, South America, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales / No comments yet

Recently snapped by a stealth-cam in the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle: but is it a cat or dog?

Meet Atelocynus Microtis – or ‘Short-eared Bush Dog’ to his friends and a lot easier to say. These chaps were caught on film in Ecuador last week. They are surely one of the most mysterious, shy and rare canine species in the world and feature on the Red List of species. Although a canine, it stands just 30 cm at the withers and weighs in at 10 pounds, so is really cat-sized. To add to its cat credentials, its primary prey is rodents, and it sports a rather stylish reddish brown fur coat.

 

Napo Wildlife Centre

Short-eared bush dog, Napo Wildlife Centre

Bush Dog inhabits a wide variety of lowland rainforest habitats including the zone around Napo Wildlife Centre and the Swamp Forests. Notably bush dog favours swimming in Amazonian rivers and creeks and this is where most sightings happen. However, likely due to habitat loss, they have adapted to other eco-zones such as foothill forests up to 2,000 m. Their previous known range was easternmost in Brazil, westernmost to Peru, southernmost in Bolivia, and northernmost in Colombia. However, this has recently been expanded as sightings have now been recorded as far away as Central America.

 

Short-eared bush dog, Napo Wildlife Centre

Short-eared bush dog, Napo Wildlife Centre

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01

Mar 2018

Calving Season, Serengeti

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

For many people, the thought of the Great Wildebeest Migration brings to mind images of thunderous river crossings with crocodiles snatching at the heels of wildebeest as they make their way across East Africa’s rivers.

Wildebeest migration, Serengeti safari

Wildebeest, Serengeti

Others may picture the seemingly never-ending line of millions of wildebeest on their great trek. However, the amazingness of the calving season is something that people tend to overlook. Calving takes place between January and February: in Jan/Feb the herds begin making their way to the south of the Serengeti after the rains start falling, and fresh grass begins to grow. The question of how the herds know when, precisely, the rains begin is something many people have pondered and the answer is that we actually do not know! Some say that they can smell the rain, others believe they can sense when the pressure in the air changes; the only thing we know for sure is that where it rains, the herds follow. Within a two to three week time period over half a million wildebeest are born with as many as 8,000 wildebeest being born on a single day!

Emerald season safari Serengeti Tanzania

Herd of Burchell’s Zebra Serengeti

The herds spend the majority of Jan, Feb and March in the Ndutu and Ngorongoro Conservation areas, although not within the crater itself. The soil in this area is rich in nutrients meaning the grass is perfect for young wildebeest to munch on and build up their strength in the first few weeks of their lives.

With the promise of rains from March to May, the young wildebeest are virtually guaranteed fresh grass during their migration all the way up into the central parts of the Serengeti. And it’ll come as no surprise that with all these baby zebra, gazelle and wildebeest stumbling around on wobbly legs, the number of predators in the area reaches a high. However, an easy meal is no guarantee! These mothers have been following this route for thousands of years and know most of the tricks that predators pull. Wildebeest mothers instinctively know to give birth on the shorter grass plains where approaching predators are easier to spot. Other mothers join them and actually form protective barricades around the young and most vulnerable new additions to the herd. Predators have to deal with extremely protective mothers who will do everything in their power to protect their young. If you’re travelling to the Serengeti during this time you’re guaranteed to see action unfolding between mothers, their calves and prowling predators.

Serengeti safari in the emerald season Tanzania

Lioness and cubs, Serengeti, Tanzania

It is not only the herbivores you’ll have the chance to see though, the predators too have co-ordinated their birthing times to coincide with the birth of their prey so their young have the highest chance of survival too. With thousands of baby wildebeest running around it is much easier for a mother lion, cheetah or leopard to find a meal for their hungry cubs as well as give them the opportunity to learn how to hunt for themselves.

All of these factors go to show that the timing and location of the calving season was purposefully selected in order to increase the chances of survival, both for prey and predator. The calving season is truly a remarkable time in East Africa and has so much to offer any safari-goer looking to see something other than the usual river crossing.

And the real winner? This is low season because there will be rain, so lodge prices are half the rack-rates; and air fares are reasonable. This is also known as the ‘emerald season’ because everything is green and fresh; the air is free from dust so the quality of photos is better, particularly panlow lodge prices make this an excellent time to be on safari.oramic shots. The drama of birthing, the interaction of predator and prey and the

Serengeti safari, emerald season Tanzania

Serengeti Elephants

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28

Feb 2018

THe longest cable car in the world

Posted by / in Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, South America, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

It’s officially a record

The cable car system that crosses La Paz has been acknowledged as the world’s longest by Guinness World Records. The 30km long cable car system, clean and efficient, consists of 17 stations along five lines, and connects La Paz to El Alto metropolitan area. The electrically powered gondolas have built-in Wi-Fi and unmatched bird’s-eye views of fascinating La Paz below and the Andes Mountains all around. Now’s a great time to cross from Peru and Machu Picchu, across Lake Titicaca and explore La Paz, the highest capital in the world!

Explore La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz: probably not the world’s most beautiful city – but it has an amazing Voodoo Market!!

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28

Feb 2018

The State of Tigers in India

Posted by / in Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

There is good news coming from Ranthambore National Park at the beginning of 2018.

Ranthambore has the highest number of tigers in its history with a population is 67, comprising 21 males, 20 females and a total of 26 cubs. Such a high population means you’re virtually guaranteed to spot one on a safari.

The tiger-carrying capacity of the park is being tested with this number of residents and there’s an increasing incidence of tigers straying out of the national park into adjoining areas. The solution is that The Forest Department has relocated three tigers to

other, near-by parks:-

* Mukundara National Park which is near Kota, 100 Km due south of Jaipur in Rajasthan, will receive two tigers.
* Sariska National Park, 60 Km NE of Jaipur, Rajasthan, lost all their tigers in 2005 to poaching. Ranthambore translocated tigresses ST-9 and 10 in 2013. Gradually the reserve population increased and today the tiger population is 13, with 7 females, 2 males and 4 cubs. A new tigresses was translocated in 2018.

Tiger safari India

Tiger B3 (rubbish name!) relaxing in Sal Forest

The habitat in Ranthambore and the other two reserves is similar; semi-arid tracts in the Aravali Hills. To maintain the uniqueness of genetic tiger stock in semi-arid areas the Ranthambore tigers will be a perfect match for the two neighbouring parks.

Magnificent tiger Ranthambore National Park. Tiger safari India

Magnificent tiger Ranthambore National Park

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28

Feb 2018

Mule Tales

Posted by / in Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Horse Riding Holidays, South America, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

The most amazing mule I ever saw was last year in Colombia, high up in the Andes. It was used for carrying four full milk churns from the pasture down to the dairy. It was immense; huge! 16 hh and built like a tank. It was a Percheron cross criollo and like most big dogs/horse/ or even people, gentle as they come.

The mighty Mule, Colombia

The mighty Mule, Colombia

The tale of mule tails goes back to the US cavalry, who used mules more than horses during the 19th C. Mules have a particular way of thinking and if you cross the line, expect an instant reaction! Think of ‘Stubborn as a mule’; ‘Kick like a mule’; ‘Work like a mule’. Mules do things their way and that’s that. And they won’t meet you half way … maybe 25% of the way, if you ask nicely. So the US cavalry developed a system to identify what you’re up against and cut a mule’s tail in the shape of bells as a signal to all and sundry.

A green (or young/inexperienced) mule had its tail shaved. By the time the mule was broken in to carry a pack, a ‘bell’ was trimmed into its tail. Once broken in to draw a cart a second bell was added. And the pinnacle of success, once broken as a saddle mule, a third tassel or bell was added. Get the picture?

When a new mule-skinner arrived in the yard he knew which mules to approach for a particular job. You could look at a corral full of unknown mules and find your perfect partner, avoiding any loss of blood.

1 bell = pack
2 bells = pack and drive
3 bells = pack, drive and ride

 

These days we use mules on several rides, but perhaps the most spectacular is the Machu Picchu to Choquequirao ride, where we ride mules and use them to carry camp. In Peru you’ll see mule-skinners all wear colourful sashes around their wastes. This is because they blindfold mules before loading them; once you finish roping the load and remove the sash from their eyes they’re fine, it’s just the process of being loaded they can’t abide.

The bell-end of a mule

The bell-end of a mule

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28

Feb 2018

Cotopaxi Re-opens

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, South America, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

After a two year closure due to increased volcanic activity, Ecuadorian authorities have reopened the summit of the Cotopaxi volcano to walkers. Cotopaxi National Park is Ecuador’s most visited natural attraction and offers activities including horse riding, mountain biking and hiking; reaching the volcano’s summit is a major yomp, but great achievement.

Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador

Cotopaxi (5,897 m) Ecuador

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11

Dec 2017

Step forward Uganda

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

Poised at the crossroads between the East Africa’s savannah and Central Africa’s rainforest Uganda has gone from being the ‘Pearl of Africa’ (so said a certain Winston Churchill) to something of a diamond in the rough (so said… us). The politics in the 1990’s was ‘turbulent’ (take a bow, Idi Amin) but after a period of stability and some serious investment, Uganda is on the up and quickly proving its pearly credentials once more.

Here are five reasons why Uganda should be your next holiday destination.

Mountain Gorillas
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest sounds (and looks) very Lord of the Rings, but it is in fact home to half the planet’s mountain gorillas. Gorilla trek permits are less than half the price of neighbouring Rwanda, so you get more silverback for your greenback. The trek is not for the fainthearted but the feeling of awe more than compensates.

Silverback pondering life

Vibrant Culture
The highlight of any trip to Uganda is in fact the Ugandans themselves. Modern Ugandan culture stems from dozens of regional tribal kingdoms each with traditional dress, arts and crafts, and tribal dance. The communities are alive and thriving.

Big Game
Uganda is technically a Big Five safari destination but doesn’t quite compare to Kenya or Tanzania – yet. Rhino, for example, went extinct just after the Idi-era, and have been reintroduced successfully, but are not yet widespread throughout all the national parks. Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls are already amazing parks to explore.

Uganda big game

Lions in Kidepo N.P.

Scenery
To the west is the glacier-capped Rwenzori mountain range, romantically labelled the ‘Mountains of the Moon’. To the south is Lake Victoria and at 26,500 square miles is the main reservoir of the Nile. The central grasslands are home to huge grazing herds, and dense forest, verdant wetlands and mountain slopes create diverse habitats.

Chimps
The primate inventory is impressive: 15 species in all and Uganda is one of the few places where you can see chimpanzees in the wild. The chimp treks are outstanding; so well are the chimps habituated and relaxed with people that you can join a full day ‘nest-to-nest’ programme, spending all day in their company.

Uganda wildlife: Bufaloe & lion

Mexican standoff in Uganda

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05

Dec 2017

Colombia’s Horses

Posted by / in Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Horse Riding Holidays, South America, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

Over the years I’ve horsed about in most of the countries in South America and no-where is the horse culture so all-pervasive; even in the cities everyone seems to ride, or used to ride, or has an uncle with horses. The two dominant breeds are the Colombian Criollo and the Paso Fino.

Colombia criollo

Criollo mare; 15hh. Note the breast plate and crupper – the land is seriously steep. Hooded stirrups and seat-saver and unusual reins. Lovely to ride and a real hard-worker.

Colombian Criollo.
What has happened here? The Argentine Criollo and the Chilean Criollo are robust working horses 15hh to 16hh. The Colombian variant is a poor cousin; same heart and soul, but narrow in the withers, shorter and with less bone all round – more pony than horse. I am generalising, and I did see some lovely criollos, but the majority are disappointing compared to their relatives further south on the continent. The thinking locally is that breeding has gone astray and no blood from Europe or North America has been added to the soup that is the Colombian Criollo.

Colombia Paso Fino mare

7 yr old Paso Fino mare. Delightful to ride; delicate, soft and gentle, but utterly hyper!

Paso Fino.
Now here’s a thing! The clue’s in the name and the Colombian Paso Fino is very fino. Delicate things with small feet and ballerina’s legs. But can they ever go! You ride them long, with a very shot rein and ease your weight back in the saddle, and they go nineteen-to-the-dozen, practically running on the spot! It’s an amazing feeling. They wind themselves into a muck sweat and prance along like sewing machines. In fact they have four paces, all similar, all frenetic and all examples of the triumph of style over practicality; burnt out within an hour. They turn on a sixpence, listen to your slightest weight change and carry you along like you’re king of the world. But why do you want a horse to do this? It’s all about the show, and that isn’t my cup of coffee at all. I wouldn’t have missed riding one for the world, a generous opportunity from a gallant and generous host, but box ticked and I won’t be bringing one home.

Colombia Paso Fino stallion

Stunning Paso Fino stallion. 15 yrs old and won just about everything going. Hugely powerful and a gentleman to ride, like sitting on the bonnet of a F1 car!

Maybe there’s a clue in the stud book name of the two 2016 breed champions, “Tormento de la Virginia” and “Seductor de la Virginia”. There’s no doubt dogs get like their owners; I wonder if horses are really reflections of frustrated aspirations?

Interestingly the Pasos in Peru are much heavier and I see there’s even a Hotel in Cusco that offers mountain riding on Paso Fino, which was never what they were intended for. They were for the owners of plantations (sea level, not high in the mountains) to ride around their estates looking ‘the part’ glass of claret in hand, and never spilling a drop.

Now that Colombia is returned to the international fold, Colombian Paso Finos are wiping the board in international competitions held in the Americas, which is a huge source of national pride.

Colombia disco

Dog day at the disco!!

What to ride then?
Having dissed the two main national breeds …. meet the AngloArabs. That’s a bit of a catch-all name for a breed, and seldom is it a straight forward TB/Arab cross. The ones I found in Colombia are Shagya / Arab / Criollo (primarily) but there’s TB and Quarter hose in there as well. The result is pretty damn good! Decent size (15.2 to 16 hh) and just lovely to ride. Easy on the aids, responsive and really fit. The story of this herd and its trials and tribulations through the Colombian troubles, is a tale in itself, and too long to tell here. What you have now is a horse superbly adapted to its environment, which is precisely what you need. Colombia has massive valleys, ferocious ascents, rain, wet ground and stunning views. It also has long, long trails of a sandy-clay mix, perfect for making progress, and a network of secret mule trails, brilliant for exploring with a horse. These Colombian Anglo Arabs don’t blink at anything, be it steep, or soggy ground, or a rocky section of mule track, they just get on and do it. To illustrate their no-nonsense attitude, we inadvertently rode through a pasture with a mature Criollo stallion in residence. There were 3 of us on 5 horses (we needed a spare and some supplies) so we had our hands full. It could have got quite nasty with a prancing stallion bucking and farting, hooves everywhere and determined to mount something. Anything. We came through without a scratch and everyone stayed cool. But I can name a lot of horses at home where that little tale wouldn’t have had such a Disney ending!

Colombia: anglo-arab

Coffee break: the car park.

 

So where to ride?
I have about ten trails in mind! Only 3 have made it to paper so far, and will be on the website imminently. The others still need feasibility work carrying out. For example, the Orinoco plain has real potential: miles and miles of grassland, amazing wildlife such as anteaters, armadillos and pink dolphins in the rivers. But they also have an endemic bat that nocturnally sucks horses’ blood and causes viral anaemia; a disease that is also carried by local mosquitos. Yes, the gauchos have horses, but an estimated 80% are anaemic and couldn’t handle a multi-day trail (they change horses daily and are, shall we say, ‘forthright’ with their aids). A solution can be found, but not sure what just yet. There’s another juicy trail opportunity that goes from lowland river to coffee farm heights, but it hasn’t been ridden …. yet. And yet another that goes into a national park, explores the “Paramo” (high altitude wetland that is strictly protected) and is currently a trek on foot – Shanks’s Pony! All have amazing potential but that’s the thing about Colombia at the moment, after decades in the naughty corner, the country’s emerging, it’s all here, but the dots aren’t joined up. And that’s the attraction; Colombia is raw, eager to welcome visitors and decidedly unsophisticated (excluding the very cosmopolitan Bogotá). Brilliant! Now’s the time to come and explore, either mounted, or by self-drive, or fly from destination to destination (as I did) using the remarkably cheap and efficient internal network.

Colombia mules & donkeys

Mule train: heading home unloaded

Summing it all up
I never felt threatened, anywhere in the country, even for a second. Colombians possess a natural warmth and welcoming spirit of hospitality. Colombian fruit has to be tasted to be believed! I tried a dozen, literally, that I can’t name and didn’t recognise. I haven’t actually left the country yet, but can’t wait to come back! Besides, I learnt two new knots from the gauchos, and that says it all!

 

Colombia knot

Colombian gaucho quick-release knot.

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05

Dec 2017

Probably the best pub game in the world: Tejo

Posted by / in Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Horse Riding Holidays, South America, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

 

 

 

Colombia: teja

The thunderbox: innocent little triangles of gunpowder awaiting the mechas.

Tejo is a wonderful Colombian pub game: little triangular sachets of gunpowder called “mechas” are placed on a heavy iron ring that is held in situ on a slab of damp clay about 18” square. Competitors stand about 10 m away and lob cast iron weights (680 g) from a heavy-duty set of scales at the mecha. When you get it exactly right the mecha is crushed between static ring and descending weight and goes off like a firecracker. Simple! Brilliant little game and surprisingly tricky! Works better with beer.

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