Phuket is Thailand's largest island and an incredibly popular tourist destination. There is so much to see and do there that often visitors get overwhelmed and miss some of the best opportunities. From sports to excursions to local cuisine, there is plenty to do beyond the beaches. Truly Phuket is one destination that does not disappoint. Here is what not to miss during your next vacation to this beautiful island.

Take A Thai Cooking Class

Thai food is one of the most well known -- and loved -- of all Asian cuisines. It can be found in countries around the world, however nothing quite beats the authentic taste that can only be found in Thailand. While in Phuket make sure to take a Thai cooking class. After a morning stop at the local market for fresh ingredients its off to the kitchen to begin learning the tricks of the trade. And the best part? At the end of the day you get to indulge in all the decadent dishes you have made.

Delicious Thai soup in Phuket, Thailand

Eat The Best Food On The Island

If cooking isn't your thing or you just want food without the wait, trust the locals. One of their favorite places -- and mine now too -- is Bentley's Soup (or as it is known in Thai, โก้เบนซ์ เกาเหลาเลือดหมู). Not only is the food to die for but the restaurant is open until 2:30am, making it a perfect destination for those midnight munchies. Deciding what you want may be a bit difficult, as the menu is only in Thai, however, if all else fails, just point to what you want then get ready to leave full and happy.

Muay Thai kickboxing match at Suwit Boxing Stadium in Phuket, Thailand

Attend A Muay Thai Kickboxing Match

Watching a Muay Thai match on television is nowhere near as exciting as seeing one in real life. Kickboxing is Thailand's preeminent sport and those guys really know how to fight. Unlike the often choreographed wrestling in the western world, Mauy Thai is known as "the art of eight limbs" and after witnessing a match firsthand you will understand why. There are matches every Friday night at Suwit Boxing Stadium, with the amateurs going first as they gradually work up to the main event.

Visit The Khao Rang Hill View Point

For the best view of Phuket Town take a drive (or taxi) up to the Khao Rang Hill View Point. This is the perfect vantage point to practice your photography. Not only is the view spectacular but there are also several restaurants serving delicious food at great prices. It is also a popular destination for watching the sunset or indulging in a romantic dinner.

Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

Get Away For A Day

Koh Phi Phi first gained international attention after the release of The Beach, most of which was filmed on the island. Nowadays this small archipelago is on every tourists' list and as such there are no shortage of travel agencies willing to take you there. The islands are perfect for a day trip and offer amazing swimming or diving experiences.

What are some of your favorite things to do in and around Phuket?

See More       How to Escape the Phuket Party Scene   Thailand Travel Guides

Published in Thailand

India is not easy to define, because this vast land is as diverse geographically and demographically as it gets and there are rituals and the traditions that vary virtually from village to village. You will be surprised to know that are over a hundred major languages in addition to nearly two-thousand other minor languages in the country. So even if you are a linguist, you need to be a magician to be able to master all these languages.

The geographical difference among its different parts is also pretty apparent, as on one side you have the magnificent Himalaya, while on the other side it is surrounded by oceans and seas. Then there are deserts and alpine forests that are scattered across the country giving the traveler a terrible choice to decide what to include and what to leave out when he visits this wonderland. For the uninitiated, India is also the land of spirituality, with yoga being its most import to the western world. Let’s check out some major destinations:

Mizoram One of the sisters of the seven sister states, Mizoram with its rolling hills, meandering valleys, gurgling rivers and sparkling lakes is no less than a paradise for the nature lover. The state is dotted with no less than 21 mountain ranges of varying heights which are home to a wide range of animals and plants. The dress worn by the local population is also strikingly different from other parts of the country, and so is their food and culture. Even in this day and age they lead a lifestyle that is symbiotic, which is why you will find pristine greenery everywhere.

Nohkalikai Falls, Cherrapunji Waterfalls with their unfettered flow tends to free us of our man-made rules and urges us to be wild and be ourselves. When you visit Nohkalikai Falls, which is located near Cherrapunji, the wettest place in the world, you will understand what I am talking about. The falls is one of the tallest in the country and you will be left awestruck by the force with which the water cascades down the high cliffs. Nohkalikai Falls in the Khasi language translates to "Jump of KaLikai," and has a popular legend associated to it. It is believed that a local woman by the name of Kai after being struck by a family tragedy took her life by jumping off the cliff next to the falls.

Nubra Valley, Ladakh One of the most amazing valleys in India, Nubra lies to the northeast of Ladakh valley. The high altitude and the unique weather of the region are the cause of rare precipitation and scare vegetation seen here. But despite being a cold desert, the villages are irrigated and one will find heat, barley, peas, and mustard besides a good number of fruits and nuts, including blood apples.The unsurpassed beauty of the region and availability of a number of adventure sports are a few of the many reasons why visitors keep trickling into the valley.

StokKangri, Ladakh For the adventure fanatics who love mountains, StokKangri is just tailor made for you. With an elevation of 6,153m (20,182ft) it is the highest mountain in the Stok Range and is a prime attraction among the visitors who trickle in from across the world, not only to enjoy adventure sports, but just to take in the majestic view of the snow-draped mountains; however, if you come around late July and August, the summit peak may not be covered with snow, but the rest of the year it is.

The Tea Gardens of Munnar This hill station-cum-town is perched 1,600 metres above sea level and is famous for its rolling tea gardens which look incredibly beautiful; visitors should take a stroll through the tea gardens and feel the ambiance of the place. Believe you me; the moments will stay with for a long, long time. The flora and fauna of the region is thriving and you will get many subjects of interest to keep yourself busy!

Key Monastery This Tibetan Buddhist monastery is a prime example of Indian plurality and the celebration of the human spirit. Perched atop a hill at an altitude of 4,166 metres (13,668 ft) above sea level, the gompa is close to the famous Spiti River. Being the largest monastery in the Spiti Valley, it is an important center for religious training of the Lamas. The origin of the monastery dates back to circa 1008-1064 CE, when Dromtönis said to have founded it.

Andamans If you love water and water sports, Andaman’s should make your bucket list. This group of islands is positioned at the meeting point of the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea and is famous among travels across all ages. The vegetation is mainly dominated by tropical trees, with rainforest canopy being a common occurrence, and is composed of mixed flora. Among the popular animals, the saltwater crocodile takes the cake.

See More       India Unexplored: 24 Incredible Offbeat Destinations   India Travel Guides

Published in India

The cool highlands of Sri Lanka occupy the only part of the rainforests that is remaining in the entire country. It is the natural home of the highly threatened fauna and flora species, endemic Sri Lankanleopard, and the purple-faced languor. This region consists of three protected areas: Horton Plains National Park, Knuckles Range, and Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, which include Adam’s Peak. The highest point of the range is the Adam’s peak at 2243 metres above sea level. The peak is a Buddhist pilgrim’s center as they believe there is footprint of Lord Buddha.

10 things you don't know about Sri Lanka

Peak Wilderness Sanctuary

Peak Wilderness Sanctuary is territory exclusively found on Characteristic criteria however the significant reason most traveler will visit it is to experience it when climbing Adam's Top which is spotted inside the engraved region. It is not Sri Lanka's most noteworthy mountain however is a principle site of journey due to the petrosomatoglyph that is as a foot shaped impression differently allocated to Buddha, Shiva or Adam. The primary course to the summit begins at Maskeliya and is vigorously "built" with steps. In the journey season the whole way is lined with restaurants. Generally the trip is finished at evening time to touch base in time for the day break which throws a huge shadow of the mountain over the fields underneath. This was our explanation behind going there and, given the colossal throngs of individuals additionally doing the trip, we didn't assemble much feeling for the characteristic benefits of the region we passed through!! Interestingly the journey course itself, including numerous different areas from different parts of the island, is on Sri Lanka's T List in its own particular perfectly fine social site.

Horton Fields

In any case, Sri Lanka is not all that vast unless you are especially intrigued by spotting Sri Lankan endemic winged creatures, Horton Fields won't reimburse an incredible arrangement as far as "sights". You may well appreciate getting away from the high temperature of lower elevations and the perspectives are charming enough, however not "tremendous" on a World equivalence scale – even the celebrated internationally "Planets End". Around these backwoods territories lie Sri Lanka's principle tea-creating areas and mountain resorts, for example, Nuwara Eliya. In reality, whilst the English chop down the woodland regions which today deliver tea, they likewise sanctioned a strategy which kept the chopping down of any backwoods over 5000ft. In the event that you are "doing" Sri Lanka you have to see this region and you should take in Horton Fields whilst you are there on the off chance that you have the vehicle.

Published in Sri Lanka

Of everything I've wanted to do in New Zealand, walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (TAC) has been at the top. Considered one of the best day walks in the country - if not the world - the hike is a steady climb between the peaks of one of New Zealand's most spectacular, unique environments: the volcanic slopes and craters of Mount Tongariro, and it's young, infantile and more volatile vent, Ngaurahoe (pronounced nara-ho-ee).

Mount Tongariro's head lost in the clouds on the left, while Ngaurahoe stands proud to the right
Mount Tongariro's head lost in the clouds on the left, while Ngaurahoe stands proud to the right

The recent weeks have been blighted with heavy rain and overcast skies, atypical of the summers this country is used to, so when my day off correlated with Amy's, and the promise of clear and fine conditions, we had little hesitation in deciding what we were going to do with ourselves.

Everyone I'd spoken to about the TAC recommended starting as early as possible, so we booked our campsite and shuttle, and made the three hour drive down to Tongariro National Park the evening before, past rolling fairytale hills and the vast blue waters of Lake Taupo. We spent the night at the Discovery Lodge, a site with an uninterrupted view of the massif, and further south to the grand peaks and ski fields of Mount Ruapehu.

Ngaurahoe's ethereal silhouette looming from the mist as the sun rises
Ngaurahoe's ethereal silhouette looming from the mist as the sun rises

Discovery lodge offered the earliest shuttle service available at 5:45am, though we decided the 6:15am start sounded a little less painful. The staff at the lodge made sure everyone was heading up with the necessary kit, gave helpful advice on pacing ourselves, before dropping us off at the beginning of the track for 6:30am in the morning mist. Within a few kilometres, the landscape began to change from the familiar heath and bracken moorland of the lower slopes, to strange, flat expanses of dark rock - old lava flows that had oozed during Mount Ngaurahoe's creation. Approaching the Mangateopopo Hut at the base of the ascent of the Devil's Staircase, the sun began to illuminate and clear the mist around us, and the imposing grand silhouette of Ngaurahoe began to emerge from the haze.

Mount Taranaki's summit on the horizon, a undred miles away
Mount Taranaki's summit on the horizon, a undred miles away

Before long, the sun had burned through the mist, giving us a completely clear conditions to start the ascent to the crossing itself. The climb up the Devil's Staircase itself was relatively easy, with steps built into the face of the scree, and we made it to the Mangateopopo Saddle before 9am. The Saddle sits between the rugged ridges and craters of Mount Tongariro and the perfectly conical textbook volcano of Ngaurahoe. A small sign advised walkers that the most recent major eruption of Ngaurahoe was just forty years ago, and what to do in the hopeless case of an eruption - run, basically, in the opposite direction to flying rocks. Far off in the distance, the snow-capped peak of Taranaki (Mount Egmont) poked out from above the clouds almost a hundred miles away, crystal clear against the blue of the sky.

The magnificent landscape from the summit of Tongariro: Ngaurahoe in the foreground, with Ruapehu behind.
The magnificent landscape from the summit of Tongariro: Ngaurahoe in the foreground, with Ruapehu behind.

As we'd made such good time, we decided to make the traverse to the craggy summit of Mount Tongariro. The temptation to ascend Ngaurahoe was definitely there, but the scree climb to the summit is infamously loose and dangerous during summer, so it is something I decided I would leave for next time and a winter ascent! The poled route over to the summit of Mount Tongariro was quite easy going and we managed to make it well short of the advised time, despite a biting wind picking up along the ridge of South Crater. The additional climb proved well worth the effort though, as Ruapehu became visible in the south, providing an unforgettable, majestic vista across the North Island's volcanic heart.

As we made our way back to the TAC track, the encouragement for an early start became justified: the pathway along the South Crater looked like a column of ants marching across the moonscape. Moving fast to beat the throngs of tourists, we clambered back down to the edge of the Red Crater, an ominous, somehow fearsome feature of deep red rock and dust, with fumeroles steaming from its surface. The landscape looked martian as we made our way around its edge, and down the scree to the equally surreal Emerald Lakes.

Amy making her way around the Emerald Lakes
Amy making her way around the Emerald Lakes

If the Red Crater is the dark, formidable side of this volcano, then the Emerald lakes are at the other end of the spectrum. The three pools of mineral-rich water glow with incandescent colours creating a beautiful other-worldly effect. The rock around them steams with geothermal activity, a reminder that this volcano is very much alive, breathing sulphurous breath from lungs deep within the rock.

By 11:30, we had begun the descent; a long, winding path of countless steps through fragile alpine scrub with beautiful views across to lake Rotoaira and the mighty Lake Taupo. The sacred Maori site of Ketetahi hot springs blasted clouds of steam to our left as we worked our way down to the valley floor, and after a few long hours of trudging through scrub and bush, we made it back to the car park and our shuttle bus tired and happy, completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in a respectable 7 and a quarter hours!

Tongariro Alpine Crossing panoramic

The day was a truly incredible one, and Tongariro is a very special place. Be warned though, we saw it in the best conditions possible but they can soon turn. We saw far too many people up there in trainers, shorts and t-shirt, some without even food or water with them. At almost 2000m high, the crossing is definitely alpine and should not be taken lightly, as weather conditions can change at a moment's notice. Make sure you're prepared for anything!

We ended the day with a well-earned meal beside Lake Taupo: an amazing rack of lamb complemented by the stunning view of our day's conquests at the far shore.

Perfect.

Published in New Zealand

Most of the residents of New Zealand live in Auckland and not without reason. Auckland is amazing! You never get bored. Not even when you're on a budget and staying in Auckland. So here the five things you should do for free in Auckland:

The Gallery of Modern Art / Auckland Museum

For culture you have to be in Auckland. Enough museums to visit and the Auckland Museum and The Gallery of Modern Art are even for free. The Auckland Musuem teaches you about the Maoris and the history of New Zealand, plus even has a section about the amazing flora and fauna and information about volcanoes with a real simulation room; how would it feel to experience a real earthquake. Pretty cool!

Auckland Museum

The Gallery of Modern Art is the opposite of the Auckland Museum and focuses more on experimental art. So if you like art with a sharp edge? Than you should certaintly go to the Gallery of Modern Art.

Visit one of the many volcanoes that Auckland has to offer

Yes, Auckland has enough volcanoes to satisfy everyone -- approximately 50! So search for a volcano near you and enjoy the view. Some top volcanoes in Auckland are Mount Eden and One Tree Hill (U2 even wrote a song about this one). You have a beautiful view over the city and even at night it's a nice sight to see with all the lights. And who doesn't like lights, right!

Dive in the nature

Also the big city Auckland has a lot to offer when it comes to nature. Nature here in New Zealand is never far away. Go to Mission Bay to enjoy the sun and the ocean off to Waikere Ranges where you can enjoy a nice walk or a nice "barbie" (barbecue) with your friends. Lot of hiking trails to keep you busy all year long

Discover the harbour

The harbor has a lot to offer and there's a lot to see. Enjoy the beautful blue waters or visit the information center of head for the Wynyard Quarter where you can see amazing, big, luxurious yachts.

Auckland Harbor

There is always something going on over there, or just enjoy the New Zealand cafe culture. Or just relax in the grass. Everything is possible in the harbor.

Visit one of the different markets that Auckland has to offer

The French Market, the Fish Market, Victoria Market... Auckland has a lot of markets and all are within easy reach. What better way to spend a saturday? Especially the French Market in Parnell is worth to pay a visit. Try all the different free french foods. What more do you want?

Have any additional suggestions?

Which is your favorite?

Published in New Zealand

A wildlife tourism trip is always exciting and adventurous. I have covered various Tiger resevres in my previous journeys and an encounter with tiger has always been thrilling but this time I had planned a different jungle safari and intended to cover the Asiatic Lions at Gir Gujarat, the only place in the world to see the Asiatic lions in the wild.

Gir is located in the southwest portion of Gujarat and can be reached by road or air. (The nearest airport is Jamnagar / Ahmedabad.) The nearest city is Veraval in south and Junagarh in North. But in all cases to reach the wildlife you have to take the car route and SH (state highway) is the only available option.

  Gir forest is spread over 1000 sq km and has various animals in it. Mainly it is the home of Asiatic lions a breed different from the African lions. You can also spot deers, wild buffallows, peacock, barrasingha, monkeys etc.

The Asiatic Lion at Gir Forest, Gujarat, India
The Asiatic Lion at Gir Forest, Gujarat

The forest department allows two daily safaris, one in the morning and other in the evening. It is difficult to spot the lion and for that reason you should always keep a margin for your second or third round. In our case we were quite lucky to spot the wild cats entire family at two different locations. The encounter with the wild cats were amazing when the cats were moving with their cubs.

The Asiatic Lioness at Gir Forest, Gujarat, India
The Asiatic Lioness

The Asiatic Lions are really amazing creatures, sometimes I doubt why they are called the king. Then a second thought and realize why they are King of the Jungle. Humorously they have lot many servants working for them. Actually they live in a family where the major work is done by the lioness and the lion does not like to work. To be frank I was amazed when I saw the forest Guard moving with the lion family like they are their pet cats and was so near to them pushing them with sticks. It was amazing, it seem that he was the shepherd and the wild cats were it sheep.

Forest Guard with Lions Family at Gir Gujarat
Forest Guard with Lions Family at Gir Gujarat

Well overall an amazing experience in the Gir Forest and an equally amazing experience was the Tribal dance which we had attended later in the night at our hotel. They are the tribe people who perform there dances and customs to promote tourism. Well done by the tribe, I shall happily say.

The Tribal Dance
The Tribal Dance

Creating fear among visitors to make the performance interesting
Creating fear among visitors to make the performance interesting

Broken Coconut shell with mere Head
Broken Coconut shell with mere Head

My son Savi with one of the performer
My son Savi with one of the performer

The dance was really very amazing and interesting, there performance was terrific specially the breaking of the coconut shell by there head. It will always be a memorable performance for me to remember. Not to be missed while at Gir Gujarat. If your hotel is not arranging one, you can ask local guide for organizing such event for you.

It made my trip really memorable. Will rate Gir 4 out of 5. Must Go Place.

  Of Gujarat and Its Wonders!     India Archives

Published in India

Gujarat is one of the most aggressively marketed states in India from the tourism point of view. So when I got a wedding invite from a friend (with Ahmedabad as venue) I seized the opportunity with both hands. And Gujarat hasn't let me down. The trip itself was short but quite memorable.

We spent a day in Ahmedabad and got a taste of the famed Gujarati Thali. The meal was sumptuous and I ate more than my fill. Ahmedabad is like any another bustling Indian city. A mix of the new and the old, of the organized and the chaotic. Chaos on the roads makes me feel right at home and Ahmedabad sure felt like home!

Deer sighting on the side of the road in Gujarat, India
Deer sighting from the highway

From Ahmedabad We left for Diu via cab and after spending the entire day on the road arrived at Diu in the night. The roads were good for the most part. A portion of the road passes through the Gir National Park and we were able to spot some deer on the roadside! This stretch of the road presents some of the most beautiful scenery you will see in Gujarat. The arid landscape was bathed in a golden hue with a pure blue sky as the backdrop. I had never imagined that a thorn and scrub forest could be a thing of such beauty!

Diu Beach in Gujarat, India
Diu Beach

After checking into the resort, we headed straight for the beach. The beach wore a deserted look. There were only a handful of people on the beach. The sea appeared to be calm and there were no roaring waves splashing ashore. However sunrise was beautiful! Light in a thousand hues of red and orange bounced off the glimmering waters of the Arabian sea. A sunrise had never felt more captivating.

Sunrise over Diu Beach in Gujarat, India
Mesmerizing sunrise view from Diu Beach

After a leisurely stroll on the beach and a quick breakfast we left for our next destination: Somnath.

Somnath is a temple town close to Veraval and is famed for the Shiva temple situated there. This temple has been looted 11 times by Afghan invaders but it has bounced back each time. Somnath is a 90 minute drive from Diu and the road isn't particularly good. Somanth is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas and is a highly regarded pilgrimage spot for Hindus. The temple itself is majestic but what struck me most was the efficiency with which it is managed. Unlike some other temples there are no VIP darshans. Everyone gets to do the darshans and it was all very well managed. The highlight of the darshan was the 'Aarti' and we were lucky enough to witness it. The Arabian sea forms the southern boundary of the temple and the view of the ocean from the temple is something that will always remain with me. Unfortunately photography wasn't allowed within the temple premises.We left for our next destination, Gir National Park, soon after collecting 'Prasad' from the temple.

Gujarat
Somnath Temple

The drive to Gir was the same scenic drive that we had experienced earlier. The unforgiving sun at Somnath Temple was tempered by the cool breeze from the forest. We quickly checked into our resort and then queued up for the most exciting event of the trip -- a Jungle Safari through the forests of the Girnar hills. After about an hour of queuing up we got our permits for a safari on Track #3 of the park. With high spirits and soaring expectations we entered the jungle.

Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat, India

Fifteen minutes into the safari my senses were totally over powered by the sights and sounds of the jungle that surrounded us. I went quiet and started absorbing the beauty of the landscape that was unfolding before us minute after minute. The diversity in the landscape was unbelievable. One minute we were passing through a lush green jungle and the next moment we would be in an arid landscape adorned by thorny scrub and bereft of greenery. We spotted a few specimens of the deer and antelope family but the big cat did not oblige us with an appearance. The disappointment of not able to spot lions notwithstanding, the jungle left us mesmerized with the sheet beauty it possesses. I will definitely be back for another shot at the lions.

Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat, India
Beautiful desolation at Gir Forest National Park

Gujarat has impressed me and left a longing to return and resume my explorations from where I am leaving off.

Panoramic view of Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat, India
Panoramic view of Gir Forest National Park

Want to see more from Gir National Park?

  Gir Forest in Gujarat, Home of the Asiatic Lion     India Archives

  Written by Abhigya Verma

Published in India

Kerala is literally a paradise set in green! And Kerala backwaters is one of its unique attractions. National Geographic Traveler has tagged the Kerala backwaters as one of the top 50 Must-Visit Tourist Destinations in the World.

What Are The Kerala Backwaters?

The Kerala backwaters consist of a chain of brackish (a mix of saltwater and fresh) lagoons and lakes lying almost parallel to the western coast of the state. These backwaters stretch from one end of Kerala to the other. You can enjoy the vivid yet varied glimpses of Kerala culture while experiencing its pristine backwaters. Come with me as I take you on a photo journey exploring the Kerala backwaters:

Look how green the Kerala backwaters are

Taking a relaxing boat ride through the Kerala backwaters

Houseboats in the Kerala backwaters of India

Traditional Kerala boat

Happened upon a boat race in the Kerala backwaters

Children on a boat in the Kerala backwaters

At the end of the day, this is the sunset you have to look forward to in the Kerala backwaters

The beautiful sunset from Kerala Backwaters lures you back. Each one is different..and you can never get enough. Hope you enjoyed my photo tour exploring Kerala Backwaters. And please do share your experience if you had taken a trip through these backwaters...Love to hear from you.

Published in India

“Quick, stand still and get ready – they are coming towards us”. This was the moment I had been waiting for.

3 hours earlier. I was standing under a tree outside the headquarters of Parc National des Volcanos, having just been introduced to our local guide for the day, a handful of specially trained gorilla trackers and seven other travellers. Nearby, seven other groups were being formed as we all prepared for what we hoped would be the experience of a lifetime.

We were about to trek towards mountain gorillas.

I felt a growing feeling of excitement as our guide talked about the gorilla family we were heading towards, gave us some information about the area we were trekking in and shared some interesting facts about the endangered mountain gorillas that lived there. This excitement was slightly offset by my nervousness of starting what I had heard could be a simple two hour hike or an eight hour intense trek, depending on where the gorillas were currently located. I was hoping that my comfortable North Face hiking shoes, waterproof jacket, cargo trousers, bandanna and small backpack disguised my poor fitness levels and presented me as a confident and experienced trekker.

We jumped into a small mini-van and drove the short distance to our starting point, the edge of the 160km² national park that protects Rwanda’s section of the Virunga Mountains which is a range of six extinct and three active volcanos crossing the intersection of the Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo border and home to the endangered mountain gorilla.

There are less than 800 mountain gorillas left in the world and half of them live in the Virunga Mountains, a region famous for the studies of Dian Fossey and infamous for the on-going human conflicts and poaching that have contributed to the gorilla population decline. There are currently eight gorilla families living in the region and each group was trekking towards a different one.

A few months earlier I had paid $500 for my trekking permit in what seemed an expensive fee. But already I realised it was money well spent as I learned more about the conservation efforts employed by the Park as they not only worked to avoid a further decline in the mountain gorilla population but aimed for future growth and sustainability.

As we started our trek I forgot the gorillas for a moment as I was mesmerised by the stunning Rwandan landscape. Endless green, lush mountains surrounded me with the occasional splash of colour from the clothing of local farmers brightening the landscape. The bright sun warmed my face as my jacket protected me from the bitter wind and after twenty minutes of a steady but comfortable walk across the relatively flat ground, I took my first step into the tree-filled forest and began to climb up towards an impending meeting with a mountain gorilla.

The guide and trackers kept my mind off my aching knees as they shared facts and antidotes about the gorillas and the local farmers. Information about the alpha-male role of a silverback in a gorilla family was amusingly followed by a tale of farm bosses placing a bottle of vodka at the end of a field as incentive for their staff to work harder and faster. The trackers often ran ahead or communicated with their colleagues on their radios to ensure we were heading in the right direction and as we grew closer they reminded us of the ‘rules’ of gorilla trekking, designed to protect the great animals:

Viewing time is limited to one hour
Always keep a distance of at least 7 metres between yourself and the gorilla
Keep your voice low
Do not make any rapid movements
If you are charged by a silverback stand still, look away and make no eye contact
And the one rule above all others: follow the direction of your guide. After all, they carry the rifle!

A couple of hours into the trek, I was enjoying a chat with the local guide as I learned about his lifestyle, listened to the passionate description of his job and reflected on his interesting view that poachers should be given jobs in the Park rather than sent to jail “to teach them to love, respect and protect the mountain gorillas”. It was an interesting conversation but one that ended abruptly as we looked ahead to see one of the trackers calling out to us.

“Quick, stand still and get ready – they are coming towards us”. This was the moment I had been waiting for.

We were no longer heading towards the mountain gorillas – they were heading towards us! We followed our guide’s instructions and placed our backpacks on the ground, got our cameras out and stood waiting for the majestic animals. Within a few minutes I heard the rustling of leaves and thought I was prepared for my first sighting of the gorilla family.

Mountain gorilla in Rwanda
via langille

I was wrong. Nothing can prepare you for your first encounter with a mountain gorilla and words cannot adequately describe it.

Within seconds of seeing our first mountain gorilla many of us broke one of the gorilla trekking rules (keep your voice low) as we unintentionally called out variations of “oh wow”!

Our first viewing was of a mother and her small child and as magical as it was, it didn’t compare to the surreal arrival of the alpha male of the group, the silverback. His arrival caused the second rule break of the day but this time it was the silverback breaking the rule instead of us. We all understood that keeping a distance of seven metres was for the protection of the gorilla as human germs do not always mix well with gorilla DNA, but when a large silverback walks towards you and other gorillas in the family are behind you, you aren’t going anywhere!

I had heard stories of a silverback charging trekkers to stamp his authority on his territory but this one seemed indifferent to our existence. He sat down with his back to us for a few minutes giving us all an opportunity for the obligatory ‘near a mountain gorilla’ moment before climbing a tree to rest. The sight of a large silverback climbing a tree with speed and ease is one I will not forget and when the mother and child we had first seen followed him I was a bit alarmed that our one hour viewing would be reduced to ten minutes.

But it didn’t take long for the rest of the family to arrive and we were treated to an incredible hour of being up close and personal with these mountain gorillas. Like the silverback, they seemed indifferent to our presence and lazily chewed leaves, wandered around, scratched their backs and used their bush toilets! The similarity of their behaviour to that of human beings is both extraordinary and entertaining.

The hour seemed to fly by and we reluctantly started to make our way back, leaving the mountain gorillas behind. In just a few hours I had experienced one of the most memorable and uplifting experiences of my life and felt like I was skipping back to the park’s headquarters, such was my excitement at what I had just seen.

There have been moments in my life when I have had a sudden awareness of both the insignificance of the human race in the bigger scheme of things and the importance of the human race playing our part in the bigger scheme things. This was one of those moments.

It had truly been a great experience!

Mother mountain gorilla with baby gorilla in Rwanda
via duplisea

  How To Make It Your Experience

First you need to get yourself to Rwanda!

Rwanda is accessible to all types of travellers but when visiting any developing country I encourage you to do your research so that you are supporting local businesses and people as much as you can.

Those who are short of time, not suited to long and sometimes bumpy overland rides or not interested in long queues at overland border crossings will be relieved to learn there is an international airport 10km east of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. There are direct flights from Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Bujumbura (Burundi), Entebbe (Uganda), Nairobi (Kenya), Johannesburg (South Africa) and Brussels (Belgium).

There are land border crossings into Rwanda from Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Uganda for the more adventurous traveller but you should always check the security situation first, especially in the often volatile regions near Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo. The Foreign Offices in both Australia and UK have great websites with updated information that I always check before I visit a country.

One of the most common ways to visit Rwanda is on an overland tour and these are designed for those ‘in between’ travellers (or those I refer to as All Rounders in my What is Your Travel Personality article) who want to travel independently without the bureaucratic red tape and security concerns that sometimes accompany travel in Africa. I spent three incredible months in East and Southern Africa in 2009 and visited Rwanda as part of an overland tour with Intrepid Travel.

Mountain gorilla in Rwanda
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Then you need to get yourself to Parc National des Volcanos (Volcanoes Park)

The most common base for visitors is the town of Ruhengeri. As there is no public transport from the town to the Park’s headquarters the most common way to organise your trek is through a pre-booked tour. This may be part of a longer overland tour, a tour specific to Rwanda or a pre-booked day for gorilla trekking. This is the easiest way to organise your trek as the tour company will organise the permit that must be obtained before you arrive and your transport to/from the Park. When I visited the Park, permit fees were $500 but these have recently been increased to $750.

In an effort to protect the already endangered gorillas trekking groups are limited to eight people and there are only eight treks a day. Don’t arrive at the Park expecting to purchase a permit and book yourself on a trek that day – it simply will not happen.

You are then ready to start trekking

You may experience both sunshine and rain in the same day so it’s best to dress in layers with a long-sleeved t-shirt and thin waterproof jacket. You will be trekking through trees and bush so long sleeved shirts and trousers are ideal and of course you will need comfortable hiking shoes (my North Face Hedgehog GTX XCR shoes were my best friend during my round-the-world trip).

  Remember that your guides know best and the ‘rules’ exist for a reason. We are a visitor in the mountain gorilla’s home and their survival relies on us learning to co-exist with each other. If you have a contagious illness or even the flu or a cold, you won’t be allowed to join the trek.

Also remember that the National Park is not a zoo and the gorillas are not waiting in cages for us to come and look at them. You need to trek to reach them and you cannot predict the length or level of difficulty of the trek. I was quite luck in that my trek was only a couple of hours and relatively easy but to be honest I would have felt a little short-changed if it was anything less than that. Reaching the gorillas felt so much more satisfying knowing I had made the effort and worked up a sweat to get there. Of course some people do have limitations and letting the guides know this at the start will make it a more enjoyable day for you.

  The Final Word

I have never come across anyone who has trekked to mountain gorillas in Rwanda and regretted it. It is an incredible experience that you will never forget and you can enhance this experience by visiting some other areas of Rwanda. Don’t let Rwanda’s traumatic history deter you – this is a country in recovery, a country that is relatively safe for tourists and a country full of beautiful people. Almost all Rwandans I met begged me to ‘spread the word’ about how beautiful their country is and to encourage my friends to visit. They recognise the value of tourism to their country and they are proud of their landscape, culture and wildlife.

  The genocide and historical civil unrest in Rwanda is like a cloud in an otherwise blue sky and Rwandans believe a clear blue sky awaits them – they need the rest of the world to believe the same.

Want more Rwanda?     5 "Must-Have" Experiences in Rwanda

Published in Rwanda

Even though I live in a country that is known for diverse culture and natural resources including wildlife, my greatest challenge to go out on advetures is having enough time and money to travel. My mid-year resolution is therefore to organize weekend getaways to nearby destinations. Last weekend I set off for Karatu, Tanzania. I have never been to the region, had no idea where to sleep or what I will find there. The only thing I knew was that it is the land of the Iraqi people who are close to the Maasai, both being nilots. Armed with the internet on my laptop and mobile phone, I further found out the location, the time it would take to go there and names of a few hotels that were slightly above my budget. Asking around from collegues, I found out the price it would cost and how to get there.

Small hut on the countryside of Karatu, Tanzania
Small hut on the Karatu countryside

With a budget of $80USD (128,000 Tanzanian shillings), my nine year old nephew for company and without a host, I set for Karatu. The road trip was a great idea, I enjoyed watching the landscape taking different forms from plains to hills and valleys; it was a wonderful feeling to see streams and rivers flowing in places that were dry a few months ago. With a stop-over at Arusha, it took about 4hrs or so to reach Karatu town. I spent less than 100,000 Tshs for the entire trip to Karatu and back home; the cost includes meals and snacks, a tour, transport and accomodation.

If you are planning to go to Karatu it is a good idea to get in touch with a freelance tour guide and let them know your budget. The only difference in costs for foreigners will be the amount paid to the tour guides which ranges between 10-30 USD depending on the tour type. Transport, food and accomodation costs are the same for both local and foreign tourists. There are direct buses from Moshi to Karatu which leave at around 6:00 am, alternatively you can take a bus to Arusha then Karatu, the price is the same at 7,500Tshs. The benefit of stopping-over is that you can enjoy a meal in Arusha, take a stretch and get on with the journey. Several buses leave Karatu to Arusha up to evening hours (around 5 pm) so you can actually get back on the same day if you wish to, direct buses to Moshi are from 6:00 am up to around 7:30 am.

Locals gathering wood in Karatu, Tanzania
Locals gathering wood in Karatu

The weather in Karatu reminded me of Dodoma, dry heat or dry cold. It is a small town that is slowly embracing the wave of development. The municipality has 3 banks with ATM services, a bureua de change, mobile money services, a hospital and a range of accomodation and food joints that would fit any budget.

Even though it is an important connection to Ngorongoro and Serengeti national parks, it is a destination of it's own. It offers an oppotunity to enjoy a work-out through treking or biking safari and learning a new culture through the hospitality of the local people who are generous enough to invite travellers to their homes through culture tourism programmes.

Swamp in Karatu, Tanzania

I whole heartedly and witout any conflict of interest recommend, Richard, a freelance tour guide who made our experience in Karatu memorable at short notice, keeping in mind our lack of time and traveling with a budget.

Have you been to Karatu? What was your experience?

  You can reach Richard at the following contacts~ web: http://www.gnakoculturaltourism.webs.com mobile: +255767612980 or Facebook: Richardnjuga

Published in Tanzania
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