There’s something about graveyards. Something I find strangely alluring. Perhaps it’s the quiet that descends the moment you push through that squeaky metal gate, or the brief green respite that a bench under a tree always offers.
But mainly, I think, it seems there are few better ways to quickly get under the skin of a place than to wander through its graveyard. Who lived here? Who died? When? How? Are there rich tombs adorned with angels, or simple headstones all covered in moss and under siege by unkempt grass?
The Old Town graveyard on St. Mary’s – the busiest island in the Isles of Scilly – is no different. Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson is buried here, and so too Augustus Smith, but more on him later. Both enjoy an eternal view to the white sands of Porthcressa Beach.
The lapping waters are calm today but, like all islands, the graveyard here is filled with souls claimed by the ocean. Derek Banfield; ‘Loved the sea, Lost at sea,’ reads one tombstone. Nearby, an imposing memorial remembers the wreck of the SS Schiller that foundered offshore after an Atlantic crossing. Only 100 bodies were ever recovered and buried in this mass grave, although 335 souls perished one foggy May morning in 1875.
On the Isles of Scilly, life has always revolved around the ocean, bringing both death and fortune. Catching a steamer to New York in the early 1900s? The lighthouse on Bishop Rock would have kept the keel clear of the Isles’ jagged rocks. In the days of Empire the oarsmen of Scilly were some of the strongest, racing out to sea in their wooden gigs to pilot merchant ships through the treacherous tidal races around the islands. The Boatshed on the St. Mary’s beachfront stores the 32-foot rowing gigs that are still raced in the bay on summer evenings. And is there anything in the tales that islanders would tie lights around cow’s necks and let them wander the shoreline, to confuse passing ships and then reap the rewards of wrecks? The truth is likely lost at sea.
Cast away off the coast of Cornwall, this rugged chain of islands is just barely part of England; a mile or two further from Britain than France is from Dover. There are 56 good-sized islands in the Isles, although only six are inhabited and most of the locals live here on St. Mary’s. From the quayside, the local Boatmen’s Association runs daily services to the various ‘off-islands’, along with sightseeing tours to uninhabited rocks further afield. Fares are only a few pounds per trip, so island hopping is a pleasant way to pass your days in Scillies.
After the capital St. Mary’s, St. Agnes and St. Martin’s are popular for their deserted beaches, wild flowers and chocolate-box scenery, while the more rugged Bryher Island is largely deserted, offering miles of rambling tracks and a dramatic shoreline pounded by the Atlantic rollers.
Why spend a holiday in smoggy overcrowded London, I wonder to myself, when you can discover these empty Isles’ mild weather and white-quartz beaches? Rolling heather-covered hills that could be Scotland, except that the sun is shining. It’s an escape that’s low on bells and short on whistles, but big on the great outdoors.
So I leave the graveyard behind and meander down to Porthcressa Beach to meet Will Flagstaff. Surrounded by an eager group of twitchers festooned with spotting scopes and bird books, he’s easy to find.
Will leads birding safaris across the globe, including South Africa, but he calls the Isles of Scilly home, offering half-day nature walks across St. Mary’s which – at £6 per person – are ridiculously good value.
“From America, these islands are the first landfall for over 3000 miles,” Will tells me as we wander along the pebbled shoreline. “We get some good old gales blowing through here… and with the wind, we get migratory birds blown off course.”
Will’s nature walks are aimed squarely at twitchers, who visit for a chance at spotting birds rarely seen on the British mainland, but throughout the walk Will rambles on knowledgeably about all facets of the islands’ intricate ecology.
And there’s certainly no shortage of subject matter on what have been nicknamed ‘the fortunate islands’. In 1976 the Isles were declared an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’; the smallest of the 35 declared Areas in England. The uninhabited ‘Off-Islands’ are an important haven for bird colonies, while the warm clear waters harbour seals, dolphins and myriad sea life. In the hills of St. Mary’s archaeologists have unearthed Stone Age burial mounds, and the narrow lanes skirt forests of pristine woodland.
With impossibly quaint lanes and hardly any cars, it’s an island made for walking and cycling. Hedgerows are filled with berries and blooms, and dedicated ‘right of way’ paths lead our small group between woodland thickets and fields of flowers.
With more sunshine than anywhere else in the UK – another good reason for visiting – flower-growing used to be the mainstay of the island’s economy, and if you were buying daffodils in London in the ‘60s chances are they would have been grown in these fields. With competition from abroad the industry has largely wilted, but “bulbs from Scilly” are still a popular souvenir for trippers.
Those blooms come in handy for paying the rent too.
“Almost all of Scilly belongs to Prince Charles, as part of the Duchy of Cornwall,” explains Will, “but the uninhabited areas are controlled and managed by the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust.”
And the rent? The heir to the throne charges one daffodil per year.
At the lunch stop I leave the twitchers behind and wander through the lanes over to Hugh Town, the hub of island life on St. Mary’s.
It’s a quaint cobbled seaside village, much as you’d find anywhere on the coast of Cornwall, and most roads lead towards the harbour. Quaint pubs overlook the waterfront, and offer the local ‘Ales of Scilly’ brews on tap. Gift shops and tour operators tout for tourist business, but it still has the feel of a living, breathing community.
I pick up a Cornish pasty at the bakery in Garrison Lane and wander up Garrison Hill for a look at the view. The road leads up past Tregarthen’s Hotel, one of the oldest on St. Mary’s with fantastic views over the island. In 1860, poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote part of his epic poem ‘Enoch Arden’ in the garden here, no doubt inspired by the view over the rooftops of the town below.
It’s a steep road that leads up through Garrison Gate, part of the old town’s fortifications. Through the gate, the historic Star Castle was built in 1593 to protect the islands from the Spanish Armada, but has since the ‘30s been used for more hospitable purposes as one of St. Mary’s finest hotels. The excellent self-guided walk around the hill leads me past Civil War bunkers and World War II arsenals before delivering me back to the quayside.
I’ve had enough history; it’s time for some horticulture.
While the Isles of Scilly draws birders, beachgoers and ramblers each summer, it’s also become a prime destination for garden-lovers. And that’s all thanks to old Augustus Smith, buried in the Old Town graveyard.
Smith was from an old-money family who’d built their fortune in London banking, and settled on the ‘Off-Island’ of Tresco. Around his house, in the ruins of the 12th century Abbey, he began planting a garden with exotic species he’d cajole off passing merchant ships. Monterey pines from California kept out the howling Atlantic winds, and the long days of sunshine nurtured everything from tropical palms to South African aloes.
Today, the Tresco Abbey Gardens are perhaps the highlight of a visit to the Isles of Scilly. Billed as ‘Kew with the roof off,’ they are as impressive as Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch Gardens, not least for the geometric designs and playful sculptures you’ll discover as you explore. In and among the 4000 species from across the globe, bronze children frolic in the shallows, Neptune guards his stone staircase and the ruins of the original Abbey still frame a quiet corner of the garden. Figureheads from ships wrecked around Scilly are restored and revered in the Gardens’ Valhalla Museum; a subtle nod to the Viking raiders that once sailed these waters.
And I think Odin would be pleased. Perhaps like his mythical Valhalla, the Isles of Scilly are also a refuge for those who’ve fallen in battle; the battle against Blackberries, deadlines, to-do lists and underground delays. Seafarers have long washed up on these shores except here in the Scillies it’s Neptune, in his Abbey Garden, who keeps a watchful eye over these ‘fortunate islands’.
WHEN TO GO The weather on Scilly is generally milder and sunnier than mainland England, and frost is rare. Summer (May to August) is best if you’re keen to spend time out on the water or walking in the hills, while Autumn (September/October) is ideal for birdwatchers looking to spot migratory birds.
EAT HERE Lunch at Juliet's Garden Restaurant (www.julietsgardenrestaurant.co.uk) is a must, with great views over the bay and imaginative menus of fresh local produce. Get there early and ask if they have fresh crab. In the evenings, The Galley (01720 422602) is your best bet for local seafood. This unassuming family-run eatery only has half-a-dozen tables and is always busy; so make sure you call ahead. On St. Mary’s and the larger Off-Islands, keep an eye out for farm stalls selling fresh strawberries, jams and home-bakes.
SLEEP HERE For an upmarket taste of life on the islands, the isolated Hell Bay Hotel on Bryher Island (www.hellbay.co.uk) is ideal. Clapboard buildings a stone’s throw from the pounding surf offer comfortable rooms, most with great sea views. Rates start at R1500 per person, dinner-bed-and-breakfast. You’ll pay similar rates at the homely Star Castle Hotel on St. Mary’s (www.star-castle.co.uk), where you’ll also find more affordable B&Bs. The tourism board website (www.simplyscilly.co.uk) has a good listing of what’s on offer.
DON’T MISS A wander through Tresco Abbey Gardens, easily accessible as a day-trip from St. Mary’s. Visit www.tresco.co.uk. Nature walks with Will Wagstaff take place on St. Mary’s and the Off-Islands, and are an affordable way to discover the history and wildlife of the Isles. www.islandwildlifetours.co.uk.
READ THIS ‘The Fortunate Islands’ by RL Bowley is an engaging look at the history, legends and lore of the Isles. A good read for the flight over. Also visit the Isles of Scilly tourism board website before you go (www.simplyscilly.co.uk).
GET THERE British Airways flies daily from South Africa to London. Plane, helicopter and ferry services connect from Cornwall to St. Mary’s.
First published in Horizons magazine, September 2010
Lake Pichola is waiting for the monsoons. Each day in the dry tail end of spring the water level drops further down the stone ghats where local washerwomen still pummel their soapy saris against the steps, much as they have done for centuries. Not yet ruffled by the monsoon showers, the Lake is still this evening; a watery mirror interrupted only by the wake of boats ferrying tourists towards the jetty below me. To the west, the dust is thick in the Aravalli Hills that enclose Udaipur, turning the setting sun into a perfect saffron orb.
“Did you know, the emperor Shah Jahan was exiled on this island in 1623? The legend goes that much of his inspiration for the Taj Mahal came from the domes and gardens he discovered here.”
The tour leader I've been eavesdropping on eventually wanders off, umbrella held high, and my wife and I keep wandering along the waterside promenade of Jagmandir Island. Once a pleasure palace built for the ruling maharajahs, it’s easy to see how Jahan was inspired here to build his famous monument to love that has graced the skyline of Agra since 1653. The marble domes and formal gardens on Jagmandir are stunning in their simplicity, mirrored in reflecting ponds much as they are in the rectangular pools at Agra.
This warm spring evening though, it’s the reflection of the Taj Lake Palace hotel that catches our eye. A white marble edifice shimmering across the lake, it seems like an apparition that might disappear in the blink of an eye. Thankfully that’s not the case, as it’s where we’ve laid our bags for the night; a dose of five-star comfort that’s a welcome respite from the past week of tiring travelling.
No sooner has our boat pulled up to the hotel quay, than the handsome Rajasthani doorman – his smile as broad as his bushy handlebar moustache – whisks us up the stairs. His deep red coat matches the carpet that lines our path to the lobby, where rose petals rain from above as we step inside. Yes, I could definitely get used to this.
The dry days of spring morph into mild evenings and Bhairo, the Lake Palace’s rooftop restaurant, has the best seats in town to gaze across at the city. While Bhairo – which offers a modern European-influenced menu – has the vistas, it’s the spices of Neel Kamal that catch my attention.
Overlooking the formal courtyard gardens below, the hotel’s flagship restaurant is reminiscent of a maharajah’s private banquet hall, and serves up royal Rajasthani fare and Indian favourites with fine dining flair.
Indian thalis – a tasting platter of two or three curries, served with rice and naan – became my standard order in India, and the ‘Menu Exceptional’ at Neel Kamal is a thali with style. Rajasthani favourites like Laal maas (lamb curry cooked with whole spices), Bail Gatta curry (fenugreek seasoned dumplings in aromatic gravy) and Thikri Ki Dal (yellow lentils spiced with ginger and chili) were three favourites from a feast that stretched to a dozen courses.
Neel Kamal adds a touch of style to each dish, but they are all Rajasthani standards that you’ll find in most decent restaurants across the state. And as my wife was happy to discover, vegetarians are extremely well catered for on Indian menus, where carnivorous dishes are often the exception.
After a traditional North Indian breakfast of stuffed paratha (flat breads rolled with cheese and vegetables) and a pot of spicy masala chai we’re eager to get out and explore the city. The doorman hails a boat that delivers us to the doorstep of the towering City Palace.
Once known as Mewar, the city of Udaipur was founded in 1559 when the Hindu Maharajah Udai Singh II fled the sacking of Chittor by the Mughal emperor Akbar. Vowing not to be defeated by the Muslims again, he built his imposing palace on the shores of the Lake. Generation after generation added successive layers, and today 17 individual palaces make up the labyrinth of royal rooms that tower over the Lake and the city beyond.
Leaving the serene gardens of the palace complex, the frenetic city is a shock to the system. Auto-rickshaws screech to a halt to heckle us for business; shopkeepers exhort us to step inside for “just looking” while dogs, cattle and camels create chaos amongst the traffic. I reckon John Kenneth Galbraith, a US diplomat based in Delhi, was right when he described India as “a functioning anarchy.”
We leave the crowds behind though and take a breather at the intricately carved Jagdish Temple. Built by Maharaja Jagat Singh in 1651, it enshrines a black stone image of Vishnu as Jagannath – Lord of the Universe – while a brass image of the eagle-god Garuda loyally waits.
Jagdish is the most accessible temple in Udaipur, but it’s certainly not the most impressive. Udaipur makes an excellent base for exploring some of the most magnificent holy sites in Rajasthan.
Not to be missed are the 108 stone temples at Eklingji, 30 kilometres to the north of the city. First built in 971AD, Eklingji is one of the holiest religious sites in India, and draws Hindu pilgrims from across the country. Nearby, the delicate stone carvings at Nagda –telling the story of the epic Ramayana – are also worth a look in.
There are other, more elaborate, temples to explore further afield, but most tourists to Udaipur stay within the city. Brochures brag about this city of Rajput kings being the ‘Venice of the East’, and in the old town all roads – winding though they may be – eventually lead towards the lake.
We wander towards the nearby Gangaur ghat where freshly washed saris are laid out to dry on the ancient stone steps. Nearby, cattle quietly chew the cud as a busker screeches away on a traditional ravanhasta fiddle, hoping for a few rupees. Local children, still wet from an after-school swim in the lake, chat to us to practise their English. Across the creek that feeds Lake Pichola, brightly painted elephants enjoy a mud bath in between amusing tourists with rides through the narrow streets.
Lining the waterfront, the lakeside havelis near the ghat are a good option if the Taj Lake Palace is a bit rich for your wallet. Once home to the town’s aristocracy, many of these palatial waterfront homes have been restored and converted into small hotels, with personal service and richly decorated rooms. Most also have excellent rooftop restaurants, allowing you to drink in the views of the lake while devouring a portion of dal bati churma, a popular Rajasthani lentil dish.
From the haveli rooftops, the famous façade of Udaipur opens up before you. The sandy hues of the City Palace transform as the sun dips behind distant hills, children splash about happily at the ghats and the lake waits, patiently, for the monsoon.
The wake from a boat loaded with tourists slashes open the mirrored surface of Lake Pichola, as a necklace of lights flickers to life around Jagmandir Island. Shah Jahan may have grabbed the headlines with the Taj Mahal, but it’s hard not to think that the magic of Udaipur played its part.
Get me there…
- To start planning your visit, go to www.incredibleindia.org. You can also contact Incredible India in Johannesburg on 011 325 0880 or
- South African passport-holders require a visa to visit India. Visit the High Commission website at www.indiainsouthafrica.com for details.
- Food & Home flew to India with Qatar Airways, which flies into both Johannesburg and Cape Town. Visit www.qatarairways.com or call 0861 861 868.
- For more information on the Taj Lake Palace, visit www.tajhotels.com.
First published in Food&Home Entertaining, August 2010
A flash of iridescent blue disappears into the undergrowth, the wild peacock’s luxuriant coat of green providing perfect camouflage even in the dry days of winter. An indignant squawk lets us know that the disturbed fowl with his harem of hens still considers himself in charge here in Bandhavgarh National Park.
Beautiful he may be, but certainly not the king of this jungle. That honour goes to the reason that I and five other guests are jolting along the potholed roads of this park in India’s central Madhya Pradesh province. Panthera tigris tigris. The Bengal Tiger.
South Africa can justifiably lay claim to some of the best wildlife experiences on the planet, but despite being home to the Big Five the striped coat of the Bengal Tiger is something you won’t see in the wild in Africa. With most of the other big cats ticked off my ‘to-see’ list it was time to add one of the world’s rarest animals to the tally.
And when it comes to tiger sightings there are few better places to head for than Bandhavgarh. Situated almost slap-bang in the middle of the sub-continent, the national park is said to have the highest density of Bengal tigers in the world. Once a hunting reserve of the maharajahs, this 105km² reserve traverses a stunning landscape of thick jungle where deer, sambar, sloth bear, leopard and dozens of other species hide in the shadows.
But the word ‘jungle’ is perhaps misleading, suggesting damp and impenetrable Amazonian forests. The hills and valleys of Bandhavgarh are thick and lush, but it is glades of leafy sal trees that blanket the hillsides, while in the north of the park vast grasslands and bamboo forests offer a welcome change of scenery.
In January the monsoons have yet to arrive, and only small streams trickle through the forest to the swampy meadows. Kingfishers and egrets hunt in these boheras, but they are also prime stomping grounds for tigers hoping to catch a Spotted Deer unawares.
But it’s the warning bark of a sambar – a large antelope similar to a waterbuck – that sets our hearts racing one sunset. With the dying rays of the sun turning the boheras auburn, the sentry alerts us to a predator in the grass: the park’s dominant male is on the move. In the boughs above, acrobatic langurs chatter in excitement as they swing from tree to tree to get a better view of the action.
And likewise with the jeeps filled with eager tourists. Where tigers are involved, the national parks of India tend to be over-subscribed, and there are nearly two-dozen vehicles jostling for a view this evening.
The revving engines and chatter of tourists takes away some of the magic of the moment, but the tiger seems entirely unconcerned with either the tourists or the sambar. He wanders slowly along the riverbank, scent-marking his territory
Perhaps he was hoping that feigning disinterest might lull the deer into a false sense of security.
But this evening they’re on full alert, and so the male wanders up a hillside and disappears into the sunset. Which also marks our time to leave. Unlike most reserves in Africa, no visitors are allowed to stay overnight within the tiger reserves of Madhya Pradesh. Permits are issued for morning and afternoon game drives, and all vehicles must exit the park before sunset.
We’ve been lucky this evening, with a lengthy sighting of the park’s most impressive tiger, but I still smile at the billboard that greets visitors as they exit. Alongside a hand-painted image of a tiger, the cheeky apology: “Even if you haven’t seen me, be sure that I’ve seen you.”
On the outskirts of the park, dozens of lodges have sprung up to cater for the tourists that visit Bandhavgarh each day. There are lodges to cater for every pocket, but after a week of travelling rough through India we (well, my wife) decide that it’s time for a few home comforts. Having enjoyed their high quality safaris in Africa, we opt for the &Beyond lodge Mahua Kothi, happily just 10 minutes’ drive from the reserve.
Taking its name from the mahua, or Butter Tree, and the word kothi, for homestead, the lodge certainly feels like a home from home. Just 12 rooms dot the forests surrounding the main lodge, each decorated with the deft touch and down-to-earth luxury typical of &Beyond. Serene courtyards offer day beds for lazy afternoons, while hand-woven textiles and antique brass statues add a sensual touch of exotic India.
Evening meals are shared communally, with guests swopping tales over a fireside drink or a thali of Indian curries. Local chefs may temper the chilli to suit a Western palate, but take pride in preparing dishes from across India. Staff are largely drawn from the local villages, and – despite broken English – delight in sharing their stories. Ask for a slightly spicy masala chai and you’ll be rewarded with a broad smile and their mother’s recipe to take home with you.
A spicy chai is the perfect warming wake-up call for an early-morning game drive in the chill dawn of winter. We have no luck with tigers that morning, but we discover another highlight of Bandhavgarh; its namesake.
The park is named for the mountain that towers above the reserve, a mountain that – according to legend – was given by the Hindu Lord Rama to his brother Lakshmana to keep a watch on Lanka, the island of Ceylon. For time immemorial it has been known simply as Bandhavgarh; Sanskrit for ‘Brother's Fort’.
Primitive caves and rock paintings in the park show that people have lived here for over 2000 years, but it is the impressive ruins on the summit of the peak that delight us on our last day in the reserve.
Few people agree when the fort was built, but the best guess is that it was at least 1000 years ago. A succession of dynasties ruled from this hilltop eyrie until the mid-1600s, but today just echoes of these peoples remain, with incredible architecture to be seen in the hilltop reservoirs and the intricate Treasury building. The Bandhavdheesh Temple is still a place of worship, with devotees making the long journey (although walking is no longer allowed) to perform puja at this ancient site.
Tiger tracks dot the dusty paths on the summit, and vultures soar on the zephyrs rising from the plains below. Is that a tiger I see stalking in the distant grassland, or just some deer finding safety in numbers? From the rocky summit of Bandhavgarh the plains of Madhya Pradesh stretch out in all directions. I might not be able to see Lanka from up here, but for travellers wary and weary of the crazy, colourful streets of India, this tiger’s eyrie is the perfect escape.
- South African passport holders require a visa to visit India on holiday. Visit www.indiainsouthafrica.com for more info.
- Qatar Airways flies daily from South Africa to New Delhi (via Doha), with frequent connections to Khajuraho or Jabalpur, a few hours’ drive from the central tiger reserves. Visit www.qatarairways.com or call 011 523 2928.
- For more information on accommodation, tours and tiger spotting in India, contact &Beyond India on www.andbeyond.com, or email
First published in Garden&Home magazine, July 2010
I hate India.
Before we’ve even packed our bags I hate the fawning from fellow travellers. It seems obligatory to shout your love for India from the rooftops. Obscure villages are praised for their lack of tourists (are they missing the irony?), travel advice arrives unbidden and brave is the traveller who’ll admit they really just couldn’t be bothered by gawking at a billion people and their assorted detritus. Enough already please.
I hate the taxis in Delhi; touts straight-faced lying to secure our fare. I hate the stinking train stations, where bare-footed men sweep piles of human shit off the rails, so that the next train can trundle in and replace it. I hate the mangy monkeys, the filthy platforms, the unrelenting lecherous stares and the sham sadhus waving their begging bowls.
But I love the vibrancy of this chaotic, crowded country. Always bustling, scheming, watching, conniving… always something on the go. I love the life lived on the street, where pots spill onto pavements and dead grandmothers travel home by train. I love the lunacy of the cities, where a brightly painted elephant brings rush-hour traffic to a halt and cars flow like water around cattle contentedly chewing the cud in the middle of the road.
I love the trains, ferrying millions – literally, millions – of people each and every day from distant corners. Jaisalmer, Rishikesh, Pondicherry, Varanasi… exotic names from far-off places. I love the chai-wallahs who advertise their small steaming cups of tea in a singsong lullaby late at night, as we rattle our way from Udaipur to Katni. I love the clean white sheets of the Gwalior Super Express, starched and left neatly for us in an envelope; a bedtime story from the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation.
But I hate the rickshaw drivers who pounce on us the second we step off the train, shouting at us in Hindi (do I look like a local?) and tugging at my shirtsleeve. I hate the con man that meets us as we arrive back at the station, high on the sights of India. “Your train is cancelled,” he assures us. “All trains delayed by seven hours,” he promises. “Your carriage abducted by aliens,” he swears. “Come with me, I will help you”. I hate the lies that make me mistrust the helpful. I hate the cynical traveller I see in the mirror.
I love the sights and scents of India: parathas sizzling in garlic and oil on a sidewalk, steaming naans straight from the tandoor. A handful of pakoras, spicy and oily, held happily in a handful of newspaper. I love the temples that seem from a different world than the filthy rubbish-strewn streets, and the glimpse of an iridescent sari as an elegant woman picks her way through the traffic. I love the peacocks that run wild in the countryside, like our own guinea fowl all dressed up for the ball. I love the ancient science of the Jaipur observatory, the regal Amber Fort, the ethereal Taj Lake Hotel, the sensual carvings at Khajuraho, and the romantic Taj Mahal. Oh god, the Taj Mahal. Words cannot describe it. Just go. Go and see it. But beware.
I hate the man without uniform who ushers us onto the train at Agra, hassling and hustling us, shifting sheets and setting up seats. Setting the scene. His instructions a rattle like the wheels on the tracks. I hate my polite southern suburbs manners that make me turn from my bag to make space in the aisle. I hate the void that appears where he and my bag once were. Forsaking material goods may help me reach moksha and break the Hindu cycle of rebirth, but getting back to Delhi to catch my flight will be tricky with no passport, no money.
I hate the man who left us like this on the platform. I hate him for bringing my wife’s anxious tears. But perhaps Shiva, the Destroyer, will help, sending him back to earth as one of the rats that forage in the fetid railway tracks below us.
But all is not lost. As love would have it, the Indians are kind, I find. I love the locals who see just a person in need, not a traveller to be fleeced: the stationmaster who opens his wallet for our fare to Delhi, his deputy who offers a phone to call home. I love the working-class men in sleeper class. Ah yes, crowded sleeper class, I knew it well.
I love the Sikh who hands over his mobile and refuses my rupees. The men who can’t afford our taxi fare, but beg us to have dinner with them. I love them, and the taxi driver who hears our sorry tale of thievery and is angered enough to share it with any rickshaw driver that will listen. I love the Hotel Swisston Palace, buried in the backstreets of Karol Bagh, where we find clean sheets and masala chai at 2am.
I hate the traffic of Delhi that keeps us from the South African High Commission. A hateful herd of honking, spluttering asthmatic traffic that goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing.
But we’re saved by a smile… the sweet smile of Ntombi Moyo; God’s gift to the Department of Home Affairs. In a World Cup of efficiency she’d be banned from entering, lest it skew the competition. I love the South African accent we find in the lobby; the warm smiles and local twang. How do I love thee, let me count the phrases.
I hate the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office at 2.58pm on a Friday. The paper-pusher at counter #5 who picks her nose and throws our papers back at us. I hate the glint of tears I see forming in my wife’s eyes… useful though they may be. Our plane leaves in 7 hours; a passport with no visa means another four days in Delhi.
I love that gent whose name I never caught; a gentle, moustachioed man who slips us in to use the government photocopier and eases our run through the red tape. A bureaucrat with compassion? Who’d have thought? I love the taxi that collects us from the hotel, bags packed and passports stamped. I love the sound of flight QR584 touching down on South African tarmac.
I’d love to go back to India; holy rivers and high mountains still wait to be seen, but – I hate to say – I’m not yet sure I will, at least not with a backpack on my back. Perhaps in the next life? We’ll see what the gods – all 330 million of them – have in store.
First published in Go! magazine, July 2010
Top BIlling magazine asked a selection of writers, experts and commentators on their tips for living 'in good taste'... here are my few cents for travelling in good taste.
Travel with purpose: Don't just go on holiday, travel with an objective in mind. See your favourite band perform live. Dine at elBulli. Catch a glimpse of an endangered species. Gaze at a landscape under threat.
Take the train: The jury's still out on carbon offsetting, but you can keep your eco-footprint light by travelling by train when in Europe. You'll save some carbon, see the countryside and avoid wasting time in airports.
Croatia: It's the hottest destination in the Mediterranean right now. Get there before the Brits turn it into another Provence.
Be a locavore: Don't bother with mass-produced anonymous food while travelling. Seek out local markets and neighbourhood bistros for an authentic experience. Ask your hotelier where they would go for dinner.
All aboard: Cruising offers some of the best value-for-money in luxury travel. Small ships like Crystal Serenity, or the intimate Yachts of Seabourn, offer a five-star experience you won't forget in a hurry.
Go nowhere: Without your Moleskine, the famous notebook used by Hemingway and Picasso. They're indispensable for jotting ideas, directions and 'must-sees'. The new City Notebooks include travel guide info along with space for your scribbles.
Praat die taal: Learning a few words of the local language should be step #2 after booking your ticket. Shouting in English won't get you as far as a friendly bonjour or bom dia.
Czech it out: Moravia offers some of the best wine touring on the continent. Enjoy all the romance of a European wine experience at a fraction of the cost. Stay at the chic Noem Arch Hotel.
The white stuff: Colombia may have had a bad rep as a dodgy destination, but the capital Bogota is tipped to become the new Buenos Aires, with its flourishing culinary scene and buzzing nightlife.
Stay at home. We're too quick to book a ticket to somewhere exotic. Set your sights closer to home and explore what millions of foreigners fly here to discover. Splash out on a five-star Kruger escape, hire a Harley and tour the Route 62 winelands or book a short-break to Cape Town/Jozi/Durban and hit the streets as a local tourist.
Appeared in Top Billing magazine, May 2010
The sun is setting steadily beyond the heavily forested hills, sending a sword of saffron light across the ocean. Sailing boats out in the bay make the most of the warm breezes before heading home for the evening. There are only a handful of swimmers left in the water, but sculpted young lifeguards still patrol the beach.
I debate a last-minute swim, but decide that the warm beach is a better bet, so I scrunch my toes deep into the coarse honey-coloured sands and think to myself: could this really be Hong Kong?
The sands of Repulse Bay are the perfect spot to revive feet trail-sore after a day of walking in Hong Kong. And no, I don’t mean pounding the pavements in search of the next great bargain. I’ve done that already on my four-day foray to this Special Administrative Region of China, but a day spent exploring the far reaches of Hong Kong Island proves that there is so much more to the city than retail therapy.
Chances are, when you think of Hong Kong you are picturing the view from atop Victoria Peak, gazing down at the city. In the foreground is glitzy Central, home to the financial powerhouses of the city. Tucked amongst the neon is Lan Kwai Fong where you’ll find the city’s best nightlife and some great restaurants to boot.
Victoria Harbour is cluttered with ferries, sampans and tourist boats; while beyond the water the cheek-by-jowl skyscrapers of Kowloon stretch northwards to the border with the ‘real’ China. Nathan Road, night markets, restaurants in Tsim Tsha Tsui and the waterfront Avenue of Stars walkway all wait to be explored.
But if you turn away from that view you’re faced with another Hong Kong entirely. Look behind you and you’ll discover a Hong Kong of crescent bays, wide beaches and calm seas. A Hong Kong of rolling hills and jagged peaks, pushed up 150-million years ago by volcanic forces, and now covered with thick forest. This is the Hong Kong few people tell you about.
“This path is named Lugard’s Walk,” says Marco Foehn over his shoulder as we wander high above the city. “It was named for Sir Frederick Lugard, the 14th Governor of Hong Kong.”
A retired banker, Marco left the spreadsheets and speculation behind to start ‘Walk Hong Kong’ tours that show visitors a greener side to his adopted home. “Although we do offer tours through the city and the markets, so few people realise that there are many places in Hong Kong where you can completely escape the city,” said Marco.
And after a day or three in the throng of the city I was only too happy to spend some time exploring the hills of Hong Kong Island. One of Marco’s most popular walks is through the Pok Fu Lam Country Park, meandering seven kilometres from the tram station on Victoria Peak down to Aberdeen in the south.
Gliding up the impossibly steep rails of the Peak Tram it’s staggering to think that labourers would carry rich colonists up to their hilltop mansions in sedan chairs. Luckily for today’s walkers, it’s all downhill from here and the path leads gently through thick forest on wide trails. Joggers and cyclists speed past us as we take it easy and stop regularly to admire the views over the city.
“Did you know Hong Kong is home to over 460 species of birds?” asks Marco, just as one of the many Black Kites that have been playing on the thermals swoops below us. White-Bellied Sea Eagles, closely related to our own African Fish Eagle, are also common in the area. “In these forests and on the Mainland you’ll also find more than 230 types of butterfly.”
The path wanders on, a tunnel through the forest with the occasional glimpse of skyscraper to remind us that we’re actually in the midst of one of the world’s most densely populated cities. Yet despite the iconic skyscrapers and towering apartment blocks, less than a quarter of Hong Kong is built-up, and a surprising 43 percent is dedicated as Natural Park.
In the far northeast of the territory are the jungle-covered hills and deserted beaches of the East Sai Kung Country Park. Just 20-kilometres from frenetic Kowloon are beaches and forests where the only way in or out is by foot or boat, and the day is spent walking on paths between villages of the Hakka clan.
We leave the shady cool of the forest and take a short break at High West; today a tranquil picnic spot overlooking the Pearl River Delta, but during World War II it was vital to the defence of Hong Kong and the armoured pillboxes still remain. The path continues next to a deep water-channel heading towards Aberdeen Reservoir – we’re lucky to spot a rare wild terrapin diving for the depths – and it’s not long before we are gazing down at the fishing harbour of Aberdeen, a daunting 900 steps below us.
It’s the centre of the city’s fishing industry, and a popular spot for sampan rides and seafood dinners. The floating Jumbo Restaurant has become a Hong Kong icon, and offers decent food at reasonable prices, although the glittering double story restaurant verges on a theme park for tourists.
Which is perhaps fitting, as Aberdeen is also home to Ocean Park; Hong Kong’s most beloved theme park. Attracting over five million visitors a year it’s ideal for tourists with family in tow and you can easily spend a day exploring the animal exhibits and whooping on the rides.
I’m here to avoid the crowds though, so I hop on one of the frequent buses cruising along the southern edge of Hong Kong Island. A single ride only costs a few Hong Kong dollars, so it’s an affordable way to get around. The fare system is automated though, and only accepts coins, so make sure you have some loose change before you board.
This southern coast of the island is home to some of the city’s best beaches. Dozens of yachts lie moored in Deep Water Bay while neighbouring Repulse Bay is the Clifton of Hong Kong. Multi-million dollar apartments gaze down over the calm waters and clean beaches where tourists in the know come to suntan and swim. It’s hard to imagine a better place to escape the crowds of Kowloon.
A few stops further on is the village of Stanley, a popular spot with tourists and their shopping bags thanks to its excellent covered market. It’s also here that you’ll find the worthwhile Hong Kong Maritime Museum. It’s housed on the ground floor of Murray House; a colonnaded, nineteenth-century building on the waterfront that was moved here from Central and rebuilt brick by brick! Stanley is also a popular spot for water sports, and the main beach is likely to be packed on hot summer days.
The autumn weather is mild though, so I’ll wait until the steamy summer months to hit the water. I’m running out of time and there are no buses coming along, so I hop in one of the ubiquitous red taxis. I’m running late, and I have a date with The Dragon’s Back.
Voted one of the best urban trails in Asia by Time Magazine, the 8.5-kilometre path climbs steeply through bamboo and banana thickets from the trailhead at To Tei Wan. The short, sharp climb is worth it though, as you’re soon rewarded with some of the best views in Hong Kong.
From the summit the undulating ridge of the Dragon’s Back stretches out before you, with views up and across to the peaks of Hong Kong Island and deserted islands out in the South China Sea. In the right conditions, paragliders launch here to play in the thermals and surfers hit the typhoon-driven swells at Dai Long Wan (Big Wave Bay) down below.
The trail eventually meanders off the ridge and down through thick forest to a road junction that leads you to the laid-back village of Shek O. Hit one of the two relaxed beaches, or pull up a chair at a restaurant serving cold Tsing Tao beer and fresh seafood. Tough choice.
I catch the bus back to Repulse Bay just as the sun is setting fire to the South China Sea. I’ve run out of time, but tomorrow I’ll be back up above the city on Bowen’s Walk.
A short taxi ride from Wan Chai, this shady promenade is a popular spot for morning joggers and is one of the city’s most delightful – and unexplored – spots. The highlight of the Walk is an outcrop known as Lover’s Rock by the locals, and couples come from as far afield as Japan to pray at the rock’s small temple for a happy marriage. Perhaps I’ll offer a few words to appease the long-suffering spouse of a travel writer.
But for now, there’s just enough light to jot these last words down into my Moleskine and soak up the warmth from the sands of Repulse Bay. I wonder if it really is too late for a swim. Perhaps tomorrow…
First published in Shape Magazine, May 2010
- Cathay Pacific flies directly from Johannesburg to Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport. From here it’s just 20-minutes into the city on the fast and efficient Airport Express train. Visit www.cathaypacfific.com or call 011 700 8900.
- Public transport is fast, efficient and safe. If you’re in the city for more than a few days it’s worth buying an Octopus debit card (available at any MTR station) to pay for your public transport.
- Stay at The Luxe Manor in Tsim Tsha Tsui, a delightfully over-the-top boutique hotel in the heart of Kowloon’s shopping and entertainment district. Find out more at www.theluxemanor.com
- For help in planning your visit, go to the excellent Hong Kong Tourism Board website at www.discoverhongkong.com.
- To explore the great outdoors, book a trail or two with Walk Hong Kong. Visit www.walkhongkong.com.