A Travellerspoint blog

India

Butter chicken, 100 pashminas and holy cows!!

sunny 32 °C

I have to admit that on leaving London for India, I took with me much trepidation. Glenn had left two days earlier for Switzerland to mountain bike which meant I'd had two days to fret about my decision to go to India by myself. Leaving London for Delhi was also the first leg of my trip home after almost two years in London. Mum drove me to the tube station in their 300 quid BMW and I cried all the way from Finchley Central station to Heathrow.

The flight to New Delhi was long enough for me to get myself together and focus on India. I was secretly petrified of meeting the other two (2!!) people on my tour. Worst case scenario was that they'd be grey nomads or honeymooners ( no offence to either, obviously). Nuala and Rob turned out to be an awesome young Irish couple (had been married for quite a few years at the time) and were brilliant travel companions, although it took me about three days to interpret their accents and work out what Nuala's name actually was!!

We did a day of sightseeing in Old Delhi which included the very impressive Red Fort, Jama Masjid (the largest mosque in India), and the Raj Ghat where a memorial to Mahatma Ghandi was erected after his assassination.

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Mahatma Ghandi memorial, Delhi

We then moved on to the New Delhi where we walked along the Raj Path (site of the Republic Day Parade) to the India Gate which was built in memory of the soldiers who dies in the first world war. Dinner that night was the first in a succession of butter chicken and paneer pakora pig-outs. The key to avoiding Delhi belly is to have two alcoholic drinks a day. If alcohol on the skin kills surface bacteria, shouldn't alcohol in the stomach kill internal bacteria? Worked for me.

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Delhi architecture

We travelled on to Jaipur, the Pink City, in Rajasthan where we admired the architecture of the Palace of the Winds before visiting Jantar Mantar, the biggest observatory of astronomy in the world where we immediatly ran to the big sun-dial to synchronise our watches.

The next day was one of my favourite days. We got up early and rode elephants to the very impressive Amber Fort. The Fort itself was beautiful and lavishly decorated with painted tiles and marble and the grounds were immaculately kept.

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Elephant ride to Amber Fort

We headed then to Bharatpur to visit the Keoladeo National Park, one of the biggest bird sanctuaries in India. The rickshaw ride around the park was a welcome reprieve from the craziness or the Indian traffic as we tried to find rare birds in the trees. We made a donation to the 'gods of the park' which may or may not have been retrieved by our rickshaw driver when he thought we weren't looking. We stayed in an authentic haveli (villa-style mansion) and drank beer cleverly disguised in a tea pot out of tea cups.

Driving in India is rather fraught with danger. The roads are cluttered with cyclists, families piled on motorbikes, trucks and cows. Cows are sacred in India and are free to roam as they please. You cannot eat cow in India, and if someone elses cow wanders into your yard you are to feed that cow as if it were your own. Our Indian driver , Supah Singh, was brilliant and we only hit one dog, one goat and one small child (no harm done to any of them. The child fell off the back of a motorbike that had five kids on it).

We travelled on to Agra where we wandered and wondered around Agra Fort where we caught our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal. The following day we rode in rickshaws to the Taj Mahal. The Taj is actually part of a complex and before we could see it we had to pass through a number of markets and have our bags checked. My first glimpse of the Taj was literally breathtaking. It'd been a while since I'd seen something that had actually made my heart beat faster but the Taj Mahal was just stunning.

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The Taj Mahal

Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj in 1653 in memory of his second wife Mumtaz Mahal and is widely reputed to be the greatest monument to love ever. It was built with such precision that the four big columns at each corner were constructed at a 5 degree outward angle so that if an earthquake occurs the four columns would fall outwards, rather than falling inwards and destroying the Taj itself. We spent hours walking in and around the Taj Mahal. We actually became a bit of a novelty ourselves when a group of Indian girls wanted to be photographed with us and we spent half an hour posing with them.

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Tacky at the Taj (at Jasmine's suggestion!!)

Back in the carpark as we waited for a rickshaw to take us back to our hotel we were confronted with possibly the most abject poverty I have ever seen. There were an inordinate numer of disfugured children begging in the car park. When I asked our rickshaw driver about it he said that it is possible to make more money out of begging from tourists than it is to do a days work and that the mothers of these begging children had purposely disfigured their children so that they could bring in more money for their impoverished families.

Back in Agra,we set out on a serious shopping mission. There was no shortage of locals wanting to take us to their carpet/jewellery/pashmina store and Rob wasted no time in securing a deal for 100 pashminas.

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Spice markets

Cricket is huge in India. Often I was asked where I was from:
Indian: Hey lady!! Where you from?
Me: Australia
Indian: Ahh, Reekee Ponteeng. You like cricket?
Me: Yes, and my dad works at Lord's Cricket ground in England
Indian: Ahh!! Your dad get me free ticket to Lord's!
At which point I beat a hasty retreat, unable to fathom how my dad would acquire free tickets for my new friend and about 57 of his closest relatives.

We travelled on to Orcha, an ancient and almost deserted (except for the vultures) village on an island on the Betwa River. The vultures gave the place a very spooky feel and the architecture of the place is very similar to that of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Arriving next in Khajuraho we spent a day visiting the temples of Khajuraho. Into the outer walls of the temples are carved beautifully detailed scenes of Indian life, including scenes from the infamous Kamasutra. The following day was spent trawling through markets and jewellery stores where all three of us made some jewellery purchases.

From Khajuraho we flew to Varanasi, the holiest of Hindu pilgrimmage destinations in India. The Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi and to be committed to the waters of the Ganges is to be released from the cycle of rebirths and to go directly to heaven. The banks of the Ganges are lined with ghats where people wash away their sins and cleanse their souls. We got up before dawn one morning and took a boat ride up the Ganges to witness the activity of the morning. There were many people bathing, praying, washing their clothes, doing yoga, playing cricket, selling flowers on the ghats along the rivers edge and it was a really peaceful morning.

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Dawn on the Ganges

There are also a number of funeral ghats where people are cremated. The body is placed upon the ghat which is stacked with firewood and then the fire is lit and burns until all that is left are ashed which are then blown into the Ganges.

We also spent a day in Varanasi in the markets buying silks. The streets of Varanasi are incredibly narrow and it's not uncommon to turn a corner and run into a cow and then have to turn around and go the other way because the cow is blocking the narrow alley. Nuala and Rob and I had a last dinner together as they were headed on to Nepal the following day and I was returning to Delhi. I thanked them profusely again for not being grey nomads or honeymooners.

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Last night with Rob and Nuala

The next morning I took a train for 16 hours from Varanasi to Delhi where I spent the night in a hotel (having one last authentic butter chicken with paneer pakora on the side) before flying to Bangkok to meet Glenn.

India has since become my reference point for difficult travel. If I can survive (alone) the noise, the smell, the foods, the pace, the bribery, the sights, the constant ogling and lurid comments and the cows with an unharmed digestive tract and a sense of humour then I can survive anywhere.

Posted by TDL 23:23 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

South Africa

Whales, wine and what the ?!?!?

sunny 25 °C

A days drive south saw us at Fish River Canyon, Africa's answer to the Grand Canyon. The local guides will tell you that it's the biggest canyon in the world, but I distinctly remember being told the same thing at the Colca Canyon in Peru. Either way, it's pretty impressive and we spent quite a few hours there polishing off a few previously-acquired beers.

The next day we crossed the border into South Africa at Orange River and headed for Stellenbosch in the South African wine region. And seeing as no trip to a wine region would be complete without a wine tour (and because it would be a dreadful waste of a shuttle bus with complimentary designated driver), we took a wine tasting tour around a few vineyards in the Stellenbosch region. The heat and the superfluity of wine had us appropriately sozzled by one o'clock in the afternoon and the below picture proves that there really were goats up a tower!!

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Goats up a tower!!

That night we watched the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics on a bigscreen TV at a local pub. I missed the entrance of the Aussies and had to settle for cheering for the Poms. Another one for the note-to-self files: It's not a good idea to fill your camelback with wine, no matter how convenient it might be at the time.

After a spot of whale-watching in Hermanus, we finally drove into Cape Town where Table Mountain truly is the most dominant part of the landscape. We took a cable-car to the top of the mountain and overlooked Cape Town and over to Robben Island.

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Table Mountain

There are some incredibly new and shiny parts of Cape Town, but there are also some historically dark and dirty parts. We took a day trip out to Robben Island, the ex-prison island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, and it was really humbling to be able to go into the cell where Mandela spent so many years of his life.

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Robben Island Prison

Overall, Africa was a brilliant country to visit with enough variety to keep things interesting. I was worried initially that I might be bored or overloaded by looking at so much scenery, but there was certainly enough culture and adventure to make me want to go back.

Posted by TDL 21:12 Archived in South Africa Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Namibia

Raving in Rundu for Bec's Birthday and Hillary's house!!

sunny 25 °C

After leaving Botswana by (dodgy) ferry again, we entered Namibia and arrived in the town of Rundu late in the afternoon. After stocking up on new blankets for the still-to-come cold part of our trip, we headed into town to find a pub to celebrate my 26th birthday and the settlement of Hillary's first home. About 20 of us went to town and met another ten locals and had a cracking night, despite the DJs inability to play 'It's yo Birthday' by Fifty Cent and despite the theft of a lot of our belongings by some opportunistic locals. Another one for the note-to-self file: always tie your jacket around your waste, daggy as it may be!!

Many of us (Ok, all of us) woke up pretty rough the next morning and blaming the Jagerbombs (Jagermeister and Red Bull) and attempts at African breakdance for our aches and pains. We took a farily unenthused game drive through Etosha National Park and put ourselves to bed rather early the next night.

Game drives in the following days proved more exciting with the spotting of some roaring lions and a few good small-game sightings at the floodlit water holes at night time. A personal favourite of mine is the mongoose. Friendly little critters!!

We took a trip to a cheetah conservation park where the animals are bred and then released into the wild when they are old enough to fend for themselves. We rode around on the back of a truck throwing game-meat at the cheetahs that followed us and got the chance to get up close and personal with one of the parks older cheetahs.

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Bec and a cheetah

On then towards the Skeleton Coast along the Atlantic Highway where the coastline is dotted with shipwrecks and old oil rigs.

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The Skeleton Coast National Park entrance

The Cape Cross Seal colony was an interesting side trip, albeit very smelly and noisy. One seal by itself is all very cute, but put a couple of thousand of them together and it's a whole nother story.

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Cute.....but smelly

We spent a night at Spitzkoppe, an amazing rock formation in the middle of the desert. Probably one of the best and coldest campsites so far. Amazing sunset colors.

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Spitzkoppe

On arriving in Swakopmond, we were extremely excited to check into a hotel room for three nights. Ah, the luxury!!! Swakopmond is a pretty modern town or German origin and is the adventure centre of Namibia. We had a blast dune-buggying over the Namibian sand dunes. Couldn't get the Presidents Little Blue Dune Buggy out of my head the whole time.

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Little blue dune buggy!!

Some of us also took a township tour to one of the shanty towns outside of Swakopmond. We met some school kids outside of their school and visited a few family homes and tried to learn some of the 'clicking' language.

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School kids in Swakopmond

Living is very basic. We also met a lady who looks after people with HIV and AIDS. Apparently one in three people in the town have HIV/AIDS and they're trying to tackle this with education. It's not uncommon to see huge billboards on the side of the highway with sexual health messages on them. Condoms are given away at border crossings. We finished the township tour with a traditionally cooked meal and some African song and dance.

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African song and dance

I did a lot of shopping in Swakopmond and bought a lot of soapstone carvings and wooden aftifacts. Bargaining was hard work but I was a master at it by the end of it. I really would have liked to have had a six foot wooden giraffe but couldn't fit it in the truck!!

We left Swakopmond and drove on to Sossussvlei, home of the biggest sand dunes in the world. We got up at 4:15am to watch the sunrise over the dunes, but after getting the truck bogged in the sand it was almost 7:30am before we got there. The sand dunes were a brilliant color and we climbed all over them and got very, very sandy.

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Sand dunes at Sossussvlei

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Sossussvlei desert

We slowly then made our way to the South African border with a stop at Fish River Canyon on Orange River, Africa's equivalent to the Grand Canyon.

Posted by TDL 19:14 Archived in Namibia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Botswana

Feral dogs and elephant bogs!!

sunny 27 °C

After putting our truck, 21 people and a twelve-seater bus onto a very, VERY dodgy ferry, we completed a mountain of paperwork and finally made it into Botswana and headed straight for Chobe National Park.

We took a couple of game drives and spotted our first lions, as well as a pack of vultures mauling a bufallo carcass and an elephant which appeared to have five legs until closer examination proved him to be just very well endowed.

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Lions

We later took a sunset cruise which was just brilliant. We watched for hours as the elephants crossed the river and the other animals came out to feed in the sunset. We saw lions and hippos and birds and snakes. Nature at its best.

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Hippo

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Lioness on the banks of the Chobe River

On then to the Okavango delta for a few days floating about the inlet in mokoros which are shallow, wooden canoes which are poled by men through the shallow delta waters. The mokoros were pretty unstable and the water was full of hippos and crocs gliding through the reeds. Pretty unnerving really.

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Mokoros on the Okavango Delta

I was glad to reach the safety of an island in the middle of the Delta where we were to camp for two nights UNTIL the first thing we saw when we got out of the boat was the mauled carcass of a zebra!! Apparently hyenas are rife on the islands in the Delta and we went to bed the first night listening two them howling in the (not far enough for my liking) distance. The second morning we woke to find the most enormous, knee-high (I kid you not) pile of poo out the front of our tent, quite literally half a metre from our front door.
Cath to Becca: Did you do that?
Becca to Cath: Nope, is it yours?
Cath: Not mine
Becca and Cath: OK, good thing this tent has a back door.

I cannot remember once being drunk while camping in Southern Africa on the basis of my self-imposed fluid amnesty. By not drinking anything after 6:30 at night I figured I was decreasing my chances of being mauled by an animal if I didn't have to get out of my tent to pee in the night!!

Posted by TDL 18:20 Archived in Botswana Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Zambia

White rhinos, white water

sunny 28 °C

Arrived at Livingstone International Airport ( translation: tin shed in desert) from London via Cape Town and an overnighter in Johannesburg and took an uneventful taxi ride to the Victoria Falls campsite where I checked into my tent-with-walls. The whole place was swarming with monkeys and baboons known to steal anything that's not tied down. An early night followed dinner and a beer while watching the sunset over the Zambezi River.

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Baboon

I met an Aussie fellow called Shaun and his wife Ruth and Shaun and I decided to take a taxi to Victoria Falls with our cameras while Ruth went white water rafting. We drove through some rather Australian-looking bushland to the entrance of the Vic Falls National Park. The mist from the Falls is visible from Livingstone Airport and the campsite and the noise is a constant dull roar in the background. Arriving at the Falls, the sound of millions of litres of water dumping into the river is positively deafening. Note to self: if someone offers you a raincoat for $2, BUY IT!!!! I was saturated within 2 minutes of being there and my camera rarely made it out of my bag. We wandered around to the bridge that separates Zambia from Zimbabwe and watched the crazies bungee over the Zambezi River. Dinner with Shaun and Ruth, a random Italian guy and a weird assortment of monkeys, mozzies and scrub turkeys.

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Victoria Falls

Cath arrived late the following day and we went into the township of Livingstone where we bought a few groceries. Everything seems to run on 'African' time, where African time = normal time + (1/2 an hour).

We took our first foray into the African animal kingdom the following day by means of a walking tour through the Mosi-Oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders) National Park in search of one of only three white rhinos in Zambia. These rhinos are extremely rare because they're poached for their tusks which make big money in tribal voodoo. They're guarded (from a distance so that they don't become domesticated) 24 hours a day by our rangers who were carrying very conspicuous rifles. If a rhino attacked me, I'm pretty sure I'd be the one who was shot.

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Rhino

I only felt mildly unsafe when we were surprised from behind by George the white rhino while our guides were distracted looking after a woman in our tour group who had fainted (no hat, no sunscreen, no water bottle in the middle of the African desert. C'mon, it's not rocket science). From then on, it was animals galore!! Zebras, giraffes, elephants, impalas, monkeys. Cath and I were like two little kids in a toy store!!

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Elephant

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Zebras

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Giraffe

Posted by TDL 15:46 Archived in Zambia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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