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

The late December snow and ice crunched almost rythymically under our feet as we approached the isolated dog kennel nestled in the backwoods of Whistler, BC. Dusk was rapidly turning into dark, but the fleet of Alaskan huskies designated to pull our sled were bouncing with energy like it was high noon.

"Don't let them lick you in the face!" shouted one of the tour guides as she approached us bearing an arm full of harness equipment. "They have a raw meat diet, so we strongly discourage them from licking people...you know because of bacteria and stuff." We continued petting the high strung canines weary of their "bacteria laced tongues" while our guide, Jen, gave us a brief history of dog sledding in the Canadian outback.

One of the first things you will notice about working sled dogs is the odor! In a species where pecking order is everything, a leader NEEDS to smell like a leader. It is a primal stench that will absolutely permeate any clothing you are wearing. The next thing you will notice is the size (or lack thereof) of your sled team. We had an 8-dog team and the largest dog was probably 90 lbs. Everybody else in the pack was more like 70 lbs. However do not mistake this lack in size with a lack in heart, endurance or determination.

I stepped on the skids jutting out of the back of the sled while Jen lifted the ice anchor out of the frozen soil. I then proceeded to use my right foot to lift the sled break out of the mounds of snow in front of it and said the one thing I had been dying to say my entire life......"mush!" One trite command and we were off wooshing and meandering through the dark, icy, evergreen tree lined trails of the Callaghan valley.

After about a quarter mile of intense mushing, "The Incident" happened. The crisp, clean, wintery breeze that was once blowing through my knit cap was now perfumed with the rankest stench that you could ever imagine. My brother Rome, who was playing camera man at the time, and our guide Jen gagged simultaneously as the awful smell circulated in their nostrils.

  Apparently, sled dogs poop WHILE they are running. Not before the run, not after when the excitement has worn off and they have some time to themselves, DURING! Now, if the lead dog poops, that means every dog behind him has to trample through the warm, moist pile AND the sled has to run over it.

This is not your ordinary poop by the way. This is the poop of champions, laid by a hound that is much more primal and feral than any of the lap dogs lazy laying around 78.2 million American living rooms. This is the kind of smell that sticks to your ribs and leaves you debating rather or not you are actually tasting it as well as smelling it.

The guide explained to us that the dogs are discouraged from relieving themselves on the trail, but how can you stop something like that? We're talking about an animal that will run until his or her heart explodes if the musher doesn’t stop them on occasion and mandate a break. I've got to tell you, I have never been happier to smell doo doo in my life.

I'm not writing this to discourage you from experiencing the joy of dog sledding yourself. I'm telling you this so that if you are ever in that position you will be prepared to enjoy the aroma of a champion. Godspeed!/p>

Published in Canada

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 buffalo, 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 the 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

  Where is Kerala?

Kerala is located in the tropical southwest of the tip of the India. It is a popular tourist destination famous for its beautiful beaches and lush green plant life, and definitely comes higlhy recommended. Because it is located far south away from the Taj Mahal and many other tourist destinations, Kerala tour packages are an easy and convenient way to make sure that you find time for Kerala in your India trip.

Traditional Kerala boat

Happened upon a boat race in the Kerala backwaters

p align="center">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
via puddlepuff

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

We decided at the last minute that we needed to take a family vacation but we were running short on time and money, so what was I to do? I had read a blog post a few months ago about yurts. This got me interested, what's a yurt?? I was asked by my friends when I first mentioned it to them. Basically a yurt is a round, heavy duty, permanent tent. It has heavy gauge vinyl for the sides and wooden supports for strength. Our short camping adventure took us to Torreya State Park, near Bristol, Florida in the United States. This was the only yurt (at least that I could find in a state park) in the entire state. We made our reservations the day before we were set to arrive, so I was excited to see that there was availability with short notice.

What's in it (or not in it)?

  • Ours was equipped with both a queen and bunk beds. There were no linens on the bed, just a vinyl covered mattress. I think this is fairly universal, so bring those with you. We brought a sleeping bag for the wife and myself, as well as Jr, so we were covered there.
  • There was also a table, 2 rocking chairs, 2 others chairs and a chest of drawers. Guess if you were staying for a while this would be good, but we were only in it for a couple days.
  • Here's where the wife was sold on the idea.... Air Conditioning! We were in Florida, so 80 degree nights is not out of the ordinary. Needless to say, we were comfortable! Also, hanging from the middle of the yurt was a fan with light... Much better than the battery powered lantern we usually take with us. Also, there was wired power within the yurt so we didn't need the extension cord that we brought.
  • On three of the side of the yurt, there were screen roll down windows. We kept ours up most of the time for lighting purposes.
  • We did not have running water (or restroom) inside of the yurt. The policy for pets was that they weren't allowed in the yurt, and there was also no smoking or stoves allowed in the yurt. All things that weren't a big deal to us, but I'm sure could be a little cumbersome if you wanted to bring the family pooch along for the camping trip.

What's the downside to yurt camping?

There is one down side to the yurt. All future "camping" trips will be compared to it, and I have a feeling they won't fare well. The yurt camping concept is nothing short of ingenious. You are only a step away from the wilderness, yet you have a roof that will withstand the heaviest rain, and AC for those hot summer days. You really do have the best of all worlds.

So, whether you are new to camping, or just new to yurts (like I was), if you get the chance to try a yurt, DO IT! It is surprising how much it was like a tent, but with all the comforts of home. We will definitely take advantage of one next time they are available at the campground that we are looking to stay at. They are usually a little more than a regular campsite (ours was $40/night) and sites were around $15-$20.

Published in United States

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

The Jungle Book tour in Goa, India, truly is one of a kind. With so many new activities and experiences that the average tourist would never normally encounter this is, for many, a one off opportunity! I will tell you about it now. We were collected from our hotel in the resort in the morning and after picking up all of the other tourists we drove for around 2 hours to the spice plantation.

The spice plantation was just as expected -- an area where they grew lots of spices! They gave us a talk about how each spice grows and we got to smell/taste them. They showed us a particularly small and innocent looking chilli that in reality turned out to be aggressively hot! When offered, a bulshy, over-confident middle aged British man (as much as I hate to admit it these types of tourists always seem to be British!) said he would taste this exotic chilli, and much to my, and others’ amusement was rather taken back from the strong spice! ‘Serves you right’ I thought! We all laughed as he jumped around screaming from the spice!

Climbing a tree to harvest the spices

While at the spice plantation they demonstrated how many of the spices are collected. As some of the are very high up in the trees an Indian local showed us how they would climb to the top, collect what they needed and then encourage the tree to sway from side to side until it reached close enough to the next tree for the man to climb over. It all seemed very skilled, but also very unsafe! This is something you would never see in England!

After all the excitement of seeing the spices we were given some lunch where we were able to sample some of them. Lunch was mushed up combination of soggy rice, salad (which I was a bit dubious about eating in India) and some sort of fish in breadcrumbs, or perhaps it was chicken? I wasn’t quite sure! All of this was served on a banana leaf, and we were expected to eat in the traditional style-with our hands!! Well, with the lack of soap and mushy food-I went on a search for a fork, and was very glad when I found one!

Indian lunch

After a somewhat interesting meal, we continued on our journey towards the jungle. We drove for around another hour before we arrived. We were staying in the thick of the jungle. There were huts made from elephant dung that were arranged in a circle around the outside of the clearing. In the middle was a camp-fire and a bar/eating area (OK so the bar is not very authentic but clearly going to be a money earner with the tourists!).

Elephant dung huts
Elephant dung huts

Wandering around the clearing were elephants. It was incredible to have them freely roaming around you in such a way. And they were beautiful! There was also various other nature as expected in the jungle-HUGE spiders, leeches, cockroaches and a very large amount of mosquitos included!

I expected the accommodation to be basic-but this was actually beyond basic! Inside the hut was a double bed with a mosquito net. There was also a basic wooden open wardrobe. Inside the bathroom was a western toilet, a shower and a bath. The shower was cold and only a dribble of water, with ants and various other small creatures crawling all over the surrounding floor area and walls. The bath was a concrete box that you actually couldn’t have paid me to bathe in. But hey, were not here for luxuries-were here for the experience!

Elephant dung bathroom
Elephant dung bathroom

Soon after checking into our huts we were taken on a walk to an ‘authentic’ local village. We walked through the village to see the traditional houses the jungle people lived in and the people. We got to walk through the chief’s house to see how the most important person in the village lived. We then got to meet the children. We were told to teach the children some nursery rhymes. We tried things such as twinkle twinkle little star, Jack and Jill and many other, but the kids knew them all word for word-not bad for people that don’t speak a word of English!?

I knew then that this was not as authentic as they made out! I guess the children will see tourists coming through their village every day like this. And the flat screen TV I saw through the window of one of the huts gave me the impression they weren’t quite as poor as they made out too! Having been studying sustainability in tourism at the time as well, I was rather sceptical and not fooled-like the rest of the naive tourists! But this is not a discussion of authenticity.

Indian-style BMW
Indian-style BMW

After our walk to the village we were taken for a ride in the local means of transport -- the BMW! This was basically just a cart pulled by a cow/bull type animal. Were taken for a 5 minute ride which was a little bit of a disappointment as it was literally to the end of the road and back, but again it was an interesting and amusing experience!

Elephant trekking in the jungle of India was like a scene from The Jungle Book
Elephant trekking in the jungle

Next we went for a trek on an elephant! This was by far one of the highlights of the tour. We had to climb up some stairs and onto a platform to get onto the elephant because it was so high. Then we sat on the top and were taken for a trek through the thick of the jungle. It was great fun! Our elephant was 40 years old and was the oldest elephant they had there. It seemed so happy and healthy looking which was lovely. And it was great to think they had the freedom to wander around the area most of the time, which is sadly not the reality for many elephants used in tourism in India. The ride was great fun and a great experience!

Nightfall

The evening in the camp was an interesting one. We had some curry dinner and then all sat around the campfire watching the traditional Indian dancing and drum playing. I even treated myself to a well-deserved couple of G & T’s! They also put on a show with the elephants where the dressed them up and we got to feed them-it was very cute!

Traditional dancers around a bonfire in Goa, India
Traditional Goan dance

I retired to bed relatively early as it was quite cold round the campfire and I had had enough traditional dancing for one night! Unfortunately it was not a comfortable nights sleep! Before getting into bed I spotted a huge leech on the floor next to the bed! I was too scared to attempt to move it so left it there-although I was worried about it all night! I was also worried about what ever other bugs there were around me! The mosquito net had bugs on the top of it that freaked me out too! Eventually though I did manage to get to sleep, and was glad to wake up and find that I hadn’t been attacked by giant leeches or any other jungle bugs in the night!

It was nice in the night though to lay there listening to the sounds of the jungle. You could hear the elephants outside and the owls and various other animals making their own noises. It was very calming and peaceful, like one of those CD’s you play to help you to get back to sleep!

So we rose at 5am ready for the trek through the jungle to the waterfall. When we set off it was pitch black. It was adventure to trek through the thick jungle with only a torch light to lead the way, and it was beautiful to watch the sun slowly rise. It was quite a challaging up hill walk-but I was ready for it! The only problem was my lack of sensible footwear- jellies didn’t suffice very well at all!!

The trek took us through thick bush to the top of a hill, it was very steep at times and a I was very tired and out of breath by the time I reached the top. However the view from the top made it all more than worth it. We all sat down to admire the beautiful clearly in the jungle, whereby in the middle was a lovely waterfall. I always have been a bit of a sucker for waterfalls too.

Waterfall in Goa, India

After a few minutes rest we began the decent back down, this was even more tricky than the climb! We had to walk along a very picturesque pebbled stream at the bottom of the waterfall, it was lovely but I wasn’t getting on too well with the jelly shoes keep slipping off! But nevertheless I reached the end and completed the trek.

Trekking in Goa, India

By this time it was about 10am and we greeted with a little clearing housing a small temple. Here we had a go at doing some Indian yoga. It was the perfect setting for yoga; a clearing in the Indian jungle, at the bottom of a waterfall, in the morning when the heat was just right, in front of a temple. It was incredibly tranquil. India is the birthplace of yoga too; making it even more perfect.

Yoga while trekking in Goa, India

The only thing that wasn’t perfect, was actually me! I wasn’t terribly enthused at the time as I hadn’t yet developed my passion for yoga. And me and my friend did giggle quite a lot. However, how many people can say their first attempt at yoga was in such a location? Not many!

The last part of the tour was by far the highlight! We were taken in the bus down to a local waterhole where we spent half an hour or so chilling in the water and sunbathing. Then the fun began! We were met by a stampede of over excited elephants running into the water, playing and splashing around! It was absolutely amazing to watch. The elephants looked like they were having so much fun!

Elephants playing in a river in Goa, India

After watching them play for around half an hour, one cam walking towards me. When it got towards the water’s edge I got up and stepped back cautiously. Then to my surprise, the elephant pointed its trunk straight at me and squirted me with water!! Everybody there was watching and they were all laughing in hysterics at me. It was absolutely hilarious and I didn’t stop laughing for ages! I don’t know what drew that elephant to me that day-but it certainly was funny!

Once the elephants had calmed down and were a bit less playful we had the chance to wash them. We got to get into the water with them and scrub them-and you could see that they clearly loved this! It was an amazing experience that I shouldn’t think I will get the opportunity to do too many times in my life! You also had the opportunity to sit on the elephants back in the water and have the squirt you, which most people did and it looked like so much fun! However I was all ‘squirted out’ so decided just to watch this part.

Elephants washing in a river in Goa, India

So this was then the end of the tour and the begin of the journey back to the coast. What a fantastic couple of days!! We got to see and do so much-its was incredible! But one of the nicest things for me, was to see how healthy and well treated the elephants were. Many wild elephants in Asia are killed as they are a nuisance to farmers etc and many are abused through tourism and badly treated. Knowing this, it was such a pleasure to see how well looked after these elephants clearly were. So although it was a tour, and it was a little inauthentic in places, this trip enabled me to have some incredible experiences- and I would certainly recommend it!

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Published in India

According to Catholicism, Santiago de Compostela is the place where the remains of the Apostle Saint James are buried. According to legend, the burial place was found by a shepherd in the 9th Century and since then Santiago became, together with Rome and Jerusalem, a popular destination for pilgrims. The building of the Cathedral, where the remains were eventually re-buried, began in 1075 but was not wholly completed until 1211.

Nowadays, people make the pilgrimage to Santiago for different reasons. There are those that do it out of faith, and why not say it, maybe a bit of self-interest, since if they walk a minimum of 100 kilometres they receive full or partial remission of the punishment for their sins. Others make the pilgrimage as a challenge, to get away from it all or as a cultural trip. The different routes are known as The Way of Saint James, which pilgrims, or at least those that wish to obtain indulgence, have to do on foot. Along the way, you can stay at special hostels reserved for pilgrims for which there is a nominal charge of 5 Euros per night.

When you arrive to Santiago it may well be raining, but this is to be expected and many people would be disappointed if it were not. The Plaza del Obradoiro is the heart of the city and in this square you will find the Cathedral and the office that attends the pilgrims arriving to the city. Here you can also find the Parador of Santiago, housed in what used to be a hospital for pilgrims founded in 1499.

Santiago and the whole region of Galicia have a well earned reputation for good food. Amongst the local specialties, there is a wide variety of seafood, including the typical pulpo a la gallega (octopus), empanada (a large filled pastry) or caldo gallego (stew). All of which taste much better if accompanied by the local wines, Albariño or Ribeiro. For dessert, the tarta de Santiago (almond cake) and filloas (pancakes). At the end of the meal you may be offered an orujo, but careful this is liquor with high alcohol content.

Published in Spain
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