Ghent might be less renowned than its classy neighbor Bruges, but it is still bags full of history and culture. Being a university town, it is buzzier and looks less Disneyfied than Bruges. Across its canals, are endless opportunities to lose oneself in its narrow lanes, that take you to fascinating squares with splendid churches, magnificent castles, and comfortable cafes and bars. In the Middle Ages, Ghent grew both in reputation and riches on cloth and wool and was the second-biggest town in Europe, after Paris. Today the medieval heritage still lives, on an old merchants’ street that runs along the bank of the Leie River. The street is steeped with Gothic guild houses with stepped roofs and ornately carved facades. And a little east of this street, are two of Ghent’s great monuments, St. Nicholas church and St. Bavo Cathedral, a splendid display of riches, and dexterity in craftsmanship Ghent has seen.Continue reading
An ancient city and the last remaining Sultanate of Indonesia, YogyaKarta has long nurtured the Javanese connection with the outer world and has been a cradle of art and culture. Old ways of life exist in Yogyakarta, side by side with bustling modernity and the city decorates itself with the symbols of traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. From all night shadow puppetry, the age old extraordinary Buddhist temples of BoroBodur and the equally impressive Hindu ones of Prambanan, socially aware graffiti on the wall to the beautifully styled Batik designs; Yogyakarta, Indonesia’s second most visited spot, is a cultural palette on display.
The city comes as a huge relief from the urbane madness of Jakarta, narrow roads lined with trees, old buildings wearing a colonial touch, shops styled as pagodas, slow life, frequent smiles by strangers, alleys lined with themed restaurants, art cafes often buzzing with some performances, random music bands performing on streets and endless boards advertising batik designing lessons; Yogyakarta gives you a feeling of being in a different era.
A loud screech of our car wheels and the scrunching of gravel beneath it announced our arrival. The sun settled on the manor draped with ivy. With a name like ‘Giraffe Manor’ you expect a more African décor, but it looked straight out of a Scottish folk tale, and only the red dust betrayed its Scottish charm and lent it an African touch. It has nothing of an African appeal, except for the name which it lives upto. Giraffes are not hard to find, looking at you with a friendly gaze. Giraffe Manor lives in the Langata area, a bit outskirts of Nairobi, amid an area of 12 acres, bringing the African safari experience live in surreal charm of English architecture. It is a perfect stop-over after a long flight, to lull the heart and prepare the mind for coming wildlife adventures in the country.
I was greeted by the punctual warthogs, who had arrived at dot five’ O clock for their share of free snacks, scurrying past me with their tails held straight, like lightning conductors. Continue reading
In the next morning safari, I was shamelessly focused on spotting the big cats. Tom wasn’t enthused, he knew cats are elusive, but out in early morning meant more chances. We hadn’t gone much, when we came across a small herd of elephants and in Africa, you couldn’t help but stop when you come across elephants. There is nothing ‘enough of it’ for elephants. As we looked, a young male started walking towards us. He raised his trunk up in the air to familiarize itself with our scent, walked towards an acacia tree, knocked it down to show his prowess and looked at us with intense gaze. It wasn’t giving any signs of a charge, but his actions, by that time, had scared me. He walked closer and was soon within a meter of distance from us. We literally shared glances, like first time lovers on a valentine’s day. I don’t know if elephants smile, but I would still prefer calling that a smiling gesture: or rather a welcoming one. He raised its trunk again, blew a low trumpet to which Tom responded, he jerked his trunk and flapped his ears and the next moment was running his trunk on my face. No issue that my face was covered with elephant’s mucous (being an ardent hindu, I would take that as a blessing of Lord Ganesha). He moved around the car with his usual gesture, seemingly enjoying our company. It was a too close, too personal moment for me.
The knee high dry grass glistened like burnished gold as first light stretched across the hills. The sky exploded into brilliant shades of oranges and yellows and a cold tension hung in the air. I pulled over my hood and shimmered in the anticipation of heat. It can get unbearably hot in the afternoons and dead cold in the nights here. I had set off for an early morning safari to watch the big cats’ play. We paused, as we moved, to scan the forests, peering hopefully through our binoculars.
The vehicle paused. I looked around unwary of the pause but certain that it was justified. Tom, my safari guide, must have seen, heard or smelled something. And while he tried making out the source of sound or sight, I breathed in the moments; the raw appeal of a rugged mountainous landscape, the rolling meadow like savannah grassland, with acacias playfully interspersed; culminating into basalt hills, with a stunning Mt. Kenya standing as a royal guard. Ah! With every breath I took in the charm of Laikipia: central Kenya is so different from southern. Occasionally, I would ask – “Did you see something?” and then survey around to see that myself.
From our camp we could watch baby hippos splash and swill in the waters, while the adults watched us with suspicion. This was my first experience of camping in the wild, and we started with choosing the wrong place. It was only when Leena said “What if hippos come this way to graze?” that we realized, we were way too near the mighty hippos. And in Africa, you don’t mess with the hippos. So we shifted, to a safer place, near the Serena hotels, with the researchers of Hyena Research Center as our neighbors; and practically in the territory of the hyenas. We again smiled at our choice, but our experienced Masai guide James was convinced.
And then setting up of camps begun. Candidly for the first time campers it’s an experience and especially when you are not given enough tools to set up your camp and you have to manage with twigs ‘that can easily bend’ to use instead of iron rods to set your camp. Anyways you don’t learn to manage, you get infected with this art, as you are hit by safari-bug.
And once we were done with setting our camp, we were off to the thing we were there for – game drive. Continue reading
Stone town, or the old town as locals call it, with all its clichés and a heady mixture of old and modern, gets you the required good start in Zanzibar. It gives you a heritage city look, as you look out over the rusted roofs atop crumbling white buildings, with their wooden shutters and intricately carved wooden doors and windows speaking loud of the Swahili architecture. And then there are endless culinary options to indulge in or small round tables overlooking the calm, turquoise sea for a spicy, Swahili coffee.
Zanzibar is a popular tourist destination with some cool heritage hotels to immerse oneself in the luxury of history. Even the hotels (from the budget to the luxury ones) wear heritage look. I chose the Tembo Hotel; and soon after checking in I set off for an old city tour to explore the century old buildings.
Off in the distance some figures in bright green coats and crumpled safari hats were calling out names in high, shrilling tone: ‘Kitirua’, ‘Alamaya’, ‘Reo’ ‘Lasayen’ and slowly one by one, baby elephants emerge out of the bushes in a single line, trolling and trumpeting, but never forgetting to follow their keepers – a straggled procession of brown faced eager elephant orphans, flapping their ears, wearing a hypnotic grace and fiddling with their curious long trunks.