A to Z of Adventure Travel: I is for India

12 03 2009



No other country has so successfully integrated into western arts in recent years as India. Ever since Vikram Seth’s titanic “A Suitable Boy” became hotter than a Goan vindaloo 15 years ago, it seems as though there’s barely been a week when the work of an Indian author hasn’t appeared in the fiction bestseller lists. As if that literary presence wasn’t enough, it was a film set in India that dominated this year’s Oscars. Even though “Slum Dog Millionaire” may not technically be an Indian movie, there’s no doubt that it continued to increase interest in one of the world’s most populated countries.


India has long been a popular destination for intrepid travellers. Although the very wealthy packed their chests, monocles and house staff and voyaged there more than a century ago, it has really only been in the past few decades that it has featured prominently in the travel plans of the more average and less-wealthy wanderer.


For many people, India is the ultimate dream destination, just as an African safari or an Australian walkabout might be for others. Meticulously researched and carefully planned, their trip will fulfill a lifetime’s fascination and desire. For others, it is simply another spectacular adventure. But for everyone who visits the sub-continent, it is a life-changing experience that is never forgotten.


Most people returning from India first comment on the people: quite simply, the crush of humanity that overwhelms all but the most veteran or inured of traveller. Whether in one of its big cities or exploring a small village, it can be difficult for a visitor to find a quiet moment to themselves. However, most travellers become accustomed to the constant crowds and inevitable attention and admit that it did not detract from the wonders that the country has to offer.


India is renowned for its architectural treasures like the Taj Mahal, its temples, forts and royal palaces  – many of the latter of which have been turned into magnificent hotels. But there is so much more. Topping the list of events not to miss is the annual Pushkar Camel Fair which rises from Rajasthan like a scene from ancient times. No one who has ever witnessed the spectacle forgets it as thousands flock to trade livestock, race camels and engage in age-old entertainment and traditions. Be warned however, there’s very limited accommodation in Pushkar and arrangements should be booked well in advance to prevent a long commute to and from the Fair each day or the disappointment of missing it entirely.


If wildlife is more your thing, India is of course the best place to try and spy a tiger. Threatened by poaching, the continual growth of the population and encroachment of communities, anyone who wants to see this magnificent cat should travel now before it is too late. Tiger safaris are offered in open-backed vehicles, or for the more intrepid – from elephant back. While tigers may be synonymous with India, the country’s forests and jungles are also home to the handful of remaining Asiatic lions as well as leopard and rhino. Although nowhere near as plentiful or easy to see as in Africa, the thrill of catching a glimpse of any of these truly endangered species more than makes up for the effort and the likelihood that you certainly won’t see them all!


India boasts fantastic hiking in the foothills of the Himalayas, or exploring the desert by camel train and sleeping under the stars. Further south, there are superb beaches, often undeveloped commercially and reminiscent of palm-fringed desert islands – except with the scent of fantastic food drifting through the air.


Whatever excites you on your adventurous wanderings, India has it in abundance regardless of budget or choice of style.



Post by: Simon Vaughan

Photo by: Incredible India


Back In The Saddle Again…Part II

8 01 2009


“I think it needs a jump-start.”                   (Near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)


Our parade of elephants ambled into the bush in a loose line. Despite his earlier misbehaviour, my elephant was now behaving impeccably…apart from the occasional ticklish exploration of my bare leg with the snout of his trunk. I would like to think he was just being inquisitive or affectionate, but I had noticed that he only ever did this when the mahout was looking the other way and I began to suspect that it was actually a form of intimidation.


Apart from our little convoy of elephants we had one other companion: a man with a gun. As if sitting on top of an elephant wasn’t security enough, the armed guide who walked alongside us acted as a reminder of just what lurked in those long grasses and prickly bushes.


“Is he here for lions?” I asked my mahout, gesturing at our escort.


“No, no” he replied dismissively. “Lions aren’t much of a threat.”


Buffalo?” I asked, attempting to recover some semblance of respect.


“No. Not buffalo” he answered. “He’s here in case we encounter any wild elephants. They could charge us and attack. Or they could try and mate with one of our elephants. You wouldn’t want to be caught between two mating elephants” he explained.


The thought of being crushed between an amorous bull elephant and his love interest didn’t really merit much contemplation and I looked nervously behind us. In keeping with my perfect record when it came to eventing in dangerous neighbourhoods, we were of course the last elephant in the group. I just hoped romantically-inclined elephants could differentiate between males and females long before they came forward for a dance.zim-elephant-1-mw


From our lofty swaying perches, we spied antelope and warthog who regarded us with only passing interest. We ducked beneath branches and if the coarse hide wasn’t tenderising the insides of my legs enough, thorns were doing a mighty fine job on the outsides leaving my appendages like two sausages chewed by a pack of Rottweilers. I smiled with tears in my ears when the mahout asked if I was having a good time.


At one point, a lone cape buffalo emerged from the bushes to survey us menacingly. He stood a few hundred feet away, his fine curved horns and solid boss framing his glaring face. Not generally comfortable in the company of one of Africa’s most feared beasts, I must admit to a certain cockiness this time around and had to fight the urge to poke my tongue and make rude faces at his ugly countenance. Our armed guide tucked closer to our entourage and we ambled past with little worry.


We eventually arrived in a small clearing in which a table had been set for breakfast. Our elephants knelt down, and we clambered free although I was convinced that it would be several weeks before I walked properly again. I used to mock John Wayne and other cowboys for always walking as though they were riding horses, but I now looked as though I’d been straddling an elephant for several hours…which I had.


The elephants were freed of their saddles and allowed to wander around the clearing, while the rest of us were seated at the table and treated to a cooked breakfast. It was a surreal experience to sit at such a civilised table surrounded by a small herd of elephant, made even more surreal when one of our former steeds persistently attempted to steal our sausages and had to be chased away by a mahout.


On the drive back we spotted a group of circling vultures. Our guide stopped the vehicle, collected his rifle and led us through the bush to the source of the scavengers’ attention. There, not far from the road was the carcass of a young dead elephant. She had died during the night, the guide explained, likely of the cold or natural causes. He added that she had probably become separated from her mother and the herd. The sadness in his voice and the pained expression on his face were quite evident.


“If only we’d known she was out here” he continued, “we could have brought her to the ranch and looked after her.”


We returned to the vehicle and continued in silence. What had a few minutes earlier been a fun excursion and great experience without much thought of conservation, had suddenly become something a bit more meaningful. Whether or not domesticating elephants for tourist rides was a worthy cause was debatable, but with the alternative still burned into our memory, we were all very glad that our jaunt had played some part in saving a few orphans from a very sad end.




Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Back In The Saddle Again…Part I

6 01 2009




“Taxi!”                                            (near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)


My success with riding horses in far-flung corners of the world is negligible at best. At Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, my steed was torn between feeding me to the crocodiles that lurked in the Zambezi, feeding me to the lions that lurked behind every bush…and playing the role of a barrel and simply taking me right over the Falls itself. In Iceland, my delicate little 5-gait Icelandic horse with the enormous eyes, sweeping eyelashes and affectionate demeanour decided that it would do me good to be thrown onto my head as he belted down the black sand beach. While in the bear-infested wilds of Northern Ontario, my hardy mount was quite happy to lead me into the bush…but reared-up the moment we left the corral and let it be clearly known that if the battle of wits that followed was to continue, he could do a lot more damage to me than I could to him…and so we headed back to the stable.


Given that prestigious equine record, why did I volunteer to ride an elephant in Zimbabwe?  African elephants are considerably larger than horses, considerably more obstreperous than horses, considerably more dangerous than horses, have much larger tusks than horses…and according to one book I had read, were impossible to tame. Then again, when did commonsense ever interfere with the Adventure Blogger’s thirst for fun?


After several minutes drive down dusty tracks away from the main road, we arrived at a small ranch just after dawn. The elephants were brought out from their accommodation and put through their paces in the central corral. All of the elephants had been orphaned either through natural causes or poaching and adopted by the ranch. There they had been hand-reared and, where suitable, domesticated for riding with a view to eventually returning them to the wild. Unlike in India or Thailand where elephant rides were quite common, this was one of only a handful of such operations in all of Africa. For hundreds of years people had attempted to domesticate African elephants in the same way they had in Asia including Hannibal and Belgium’s King Leopold, but few met with success. In most cases, the efforts resulted in human death or maiming and the project abandoned. Attempting to tame an animal that weighs more than most cars and kills more people each year than lions and leopards combined is not an easy prospect.zim-elephant-5-mw


One elephant was clearly not in the mood for cooperation this morning despite the efforts of the mahout – or elephant handler. Even once he had settled down sufficiently to allow a loose saddle to be placed on his back, he still wasn’t especially amiable as he trumpeted, stomped and swung his head wildly. As he was led away, I assumed his tantrum had earned him a morning of leisure…until I was beckoned towards him, that is.


“This one is yours” the mahout said. “He’s a bit naughty today so I give him to you, not to the ladies.” With that, he gave me a leg-up and over the mighty beast, and then clambered up after me, taking the ‘driver’s seat’ just behind the mammoth ears.


The saddle was little more than a padded blanket and although the elephant was quite young in elephant years, he already had a not inconsiderable girth. As I struggled to get comfortable, I knew I was fighting a losing battle. In fact, this was clearly the pachyderm equivalent of the medieval rack and my legs felt as though they were being popped from their sockets. As we waited for the others to mount-up however, I had to admit that there was simply no disputing the view and there was something so ‘right’ about exploring the African wilderness from an elephant’s perspective. It was only as we started to slowly and elegantly sway from side to side and head into the bush that I made another discovery: never wear shorts when riding an elephant….unless you want a free inner-thigh exfoliation from its sandpaper-like hide on each and every step.


At least this time however, I wasn’t steering!



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan