Sunday, January 5, 2014

OUT OF AFRICA


PROLOGUE

Africa has always been mired in mystery, a land of wonders for me. Right from my childhood, fascinating stories about the Dark Continent had kept me captivated and made it a dream destination to visit one day. So when we decided to take time out and visit Kenya for some safari time last July, we knew that the “Summer of 2013”, would be really special.

I have been lucky to transfer, over the years, some of my passion for the Animal Planet to my wife. So when we decided that we would not rush the safari experience but rather ease it out to experience the various nuances of different national parks, it was a measured decision albeit at the risk of huge holes in the pocket. Coupled with that, was the fact that we would also visit some friends in Mombasa and take the opportunity to enjoy the pristine beaches on the Kenyan north and south coasts. And so began the plans for an exotic African holiday with safaris and white sand beaches in tow!!!

As is my lazy wont, I did not even start planning the voyage till about 3 weeks before the trip and suddenly D Day was looming large at me before I could say hello. Given that I had thought of juggling in both safaris (Nairobi base) and the coastline (Mombasa base), manage leave dates for both my wife and me, and also tune it with the schedule of friends who I would visit, meant I had to do intelligent route planning a la solution to a Travelling Salesman problem. The key was of course to visit Masai Mara during the wildebeest migration from Serengeti, one of the world’s natural wonders, so we modeled the tour plan around that. The final choice of safaris was nailed down to Masai Mara, Tsavo, Nakuru, Mount Kenya and Nairobi National Parks. It was a safari too many as most travelers do 2/3 at max but my choice was dictated by differing perspectives of each of these parks and trying to nuance those. So while Masai Mara was the Holy Grail housing amongst others, the African Big 5 (Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Rhino, Buffalo), Nakuru had the park on the lake attracting thousands of flamingos and pelicans, white rhinos and Rothschild giraffes amongst others, Tsavo had the legend of the man-eaters in a much more arid setting, Mount Kenya National Park at the foothills of the mountain had a totally different ecosystem and climatic condition, and finally the Nairobi National Park right within the city of Nairobi (possibly the only one in the world inside a big city) was also significantly different. To add to the diversity in full measure, the plan also included exploring the Kenyan coastline with trips to both the North and South coasts viz. Malindi and Diani respectively. There are wonderful properties lined up on these beaches of paradisiac beauty which is the perfect haven to laze and enjoy your vacation.


MOMBASA AND The beaches on east coast

With the planning immaculately in place, we left for Mombasa one Thursday evening, all excitement laced for having the time of our lives. The Kenyan Airways flight from Mumbai flew us over a long stretch of water bodies, the Arabian Sea first and then the Indian Ocean onto Nairobi on the wee hours of Friday. By the time we immigrated into Kenya (arrival tourist visas are very easy to get), took our internal connection and landed in Mombasa, it was 10 am and the effects of jet lag were starting to show. However, the tiredness was benumbed somewhat by the viewing of the majestic Kilimanjaro on the flight to Mombasa. The snows atop Kilimanjaro reminded me of Ernest Hemingway and Gregory Peck and steeled my resolve to do the Kilimanjaro trek some day.

Friday was catching up on old times with my classmate from school who I was meeting after 23 long years, almost a part lifetime. Sandip is now settled in Mombasa and his beautiful bungalow overlooking the Indian Ocean creek greeted us. We relaxed over Tusker, a local beer, and spent the day, between sumptuous meals, over tales of yore. It was just the start we needed for our vacation and by the next morning were braced up for our first destination, Malindi on the Mombasa North Coast.

Malindi is a coastal town around 120 km northeast of Mombasa and a little Italy of sorts - exceptionally popular among Italian tourists with the likes of Berlusconi making frequent visits there. Our resort was also owned / managed by an amiable Italian couple who had made up the property extremely aesthetically. It was no surprise that the buffet spread was lavish on sea food with squids, oysters, prawns and shrimps lacing the menu. The resort was right on the seashore and we lazed the late afternoon and evening on the white sands watching the various hues of blue on water. Malindi is also a snorkeler’s paradise with the Malindi Marine Reserve, a large marine area which encompasses both the Malindi Marine National Park and the Watamu Marine National Parks. We visited the Malindi Marine National Park on Sunday morning geared up with masks, snorkels, fins, life jackets et al for a snorkeling session in the Indian Ocean waters. Our glass bottomed boat run by Somalis, took us right into the middle of the waters, which housed the corals et al. We had earlier snorkeled in the Andaman and the sight of corals and multi-colored fish swimming with and around you would leave you greedy for more. So, in spite of the fact that this was extremely deep waters and dangerous for a swimming novice like me; the lure of underwater life overrode all possible concerns. The life jacket, inflated tube and fins were good enough to keep us afloat and the comforting presence of the Somalis – great ocean swimmers and not pirates thankfully – ensured that our snorkeling session was again very fulfilling. Even though, I still feel that the Andaman experience was much better (greater diversity and colors of sea life), this too was extremely pleasing.


30 minutes in the ocean waters left us completely drained and famished, and on the way back to Mombasa we visited Moorings. The Moorings floating restaurant tucked away in the scenic Mtwapa Creek, is Kenya’s only floating restaurant. Its tranquil setting is a perfect spot to relax after a hectic day and the seafood is excellent. It can possibly score a few more points on service, but the wonderful locale makes up for that shortcoming. Post lunch, viewing the sunset while sipping your sundowner brought down the curtains to a lovely weekend.

Having visited the North Coast on the weekend, we also wanted to sample the more pristine South Coast over the next 2 days, and hence planned our destination to Diani on Day 4, Monday morning. Diani, in the south coast, is located 30 km from Mombasa but one needs to cross the Likoni Ferry to get there. The ferry ride is just about 5-7 min to cross the waters but the queue up for the same takes upto an hour. So it took us almost 2 hours to reach the Leisure Lodge in Diani in spite of the relatively smaller distance than the north coast. The first thing that strikes you about the lodge is the aptness of the name; the extremely impressive resort is the ideal haven for leisure. Built right atop the spotless (and dirtless) white sand beaches overlooking the turquoise Indian Ocean waters, it was an earthly paradise. The first thing we did after check in was to hit the restaurant right on the beach. A beautiful 4 course seafood meal ensured with huge lobsters, squids, shrimps etc on offer. The white snapper preparation was exotic and the dessert just yum. Devouring it all, while viewing the pristine beach and aquamarine was a definitive experience that I will never forget. After a luxurious lunch, we lazed in the warm waters and spotted colored fish. The next morning was a supposed visit to the coral reef, so we skipped another round of snorkeling.


The general area in the south coast beach is known for its coral reefs which in low tide (early morning till ~11 am) is so exposed that one can actually walk up to them, wading the crystal clear waters. Usually the tourism business dictates a glass bottomed boat ride to the coral areas but the adventurous actually walk through, making it a wonderful experience of “treading water”. The shallow waters are heavily laden with marine life viz. sea anemones, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, starfish, octopus, cuttlefish, squid etc. Therefore, one has to be extremely cautious to walk through lest you get your foot punctured by stepping on some sea anemone, for example. It was an amazing experience to slowly walk to the coral reef (took us around 20 min) and once there you could swim / snorkel with the multi-hued fish in yellow, red, blue and the like. This was very different from the deep waters of Malindi, so it brought out an entirely different experience of snorkeling and sea life. It was gratifying to say the least and time just flew and soon we had to check out of the wonderful resort (which also had a lovely 18-hole golf course) on our way back to Mombasa. We had spent two wonderful days in an idyllic locale, enjoying the sea and sand and gorged on seafood but the real fun was supposed to begin now. After a day’s break (we had been travelling non stop since our departure from India), we had the safaris lined up starting with the Tsavo national park.

The day off was spent in Mombasa doing curio shopping and local sight-seeing like Fort Jesus. The Old Mombasa town, by the creek waters, is extremely diverse and inhabited by a mix of local Kenyans, Arabs, Asian, Portuguese and British settlers. The roads are quaint and narrow and lend an old world feel to it. Most of the houses have huge Zanzibar doors adding on to the charm of the place. Scenes from the Bollywood movie, Company was shot here. This place also has wonderful eateries to boot and we sampled some Swahili fish in one of the well known joints.


TSAVO

I had heard and read the stories of the Tsavo man eaters in school and it was possibly the first trigger, years later, when I started to appreciate African safaris much more. So it was a given that Tsavo would be a must do and its proximity to Mombasa made it the first park that we would visit. So early on Day 7, Thursday we began our safari journey to spend a day and a half at the Tsavo national park. Tsavo National Park is the largest national park in Kenya with an area of more than 22,000 sq km. It is separated by a highway into eastern and western parts to form 2 separate parks. The eastern part is the larger of the two with an arid, flat surface covered with low, dry vegetation. The western part of the park is, however, more popular and the busiest part of the Tsavo National Park. It is more green compared to the Eastern Park and has beautiful surroundings and a series of natural springs that attract wildlife. Added to that, the Sarova SaltLick, a luxury game lodge, in the Taita Hills Sanctuary made Tsavo West our preferred destination. We reached the game park after a 4 hour drive from Mombasa and after checking in still had an hour for lunch. Our driver cum guide suggested a pre-lunch drive to survey the place before our first game drive in late afternoon. And so the binoculars, still and movie cameras got readied as we started our very first game drive. The entrance to the park has an array of skeletal heads from buffalo to waterbuck to impala to bushbuck and creates a haunting feel in the land of the wild cats. We had hardly moved 50 m when a sighting of the first impala got us super animated. The safari experience had finally started, and though we were to see more than 10,000 impalas in the next 10 days, it felt that we had finally viewed an endangered species, so excited were we. The cameras went overdrive as we passed a female impala gang. Just a little ahead in a slightly swampy area were the bushbucks, another type of antelope, in numbers aplenty and gazing at the safari van as it drove by. Interestingly for both impalas and bushbucks, only the males of the species have horns. The male’s horns can take many years to reach full length, which is why young animals are unlikely to establish a dominant position and breeding territory. As we roamed around, we also saw some herds of zebras and a few warthogs and ostriches as well. Well, we thought, this was a pretty decent start to have viewed so many animals within the first hour of our visit and that too in mid day. However, the real fun would begin post lunch when we were about to enter our game lodge, SaltLick. The concept of salt lick is a natural deposit of exposed salt / minerals that animals lick. As an extension of this concept, most game lodges have huge watering holes in very close proximity where animals come to drink water. They are well lit in the nights for viewing pleasure and sometimes even have a dug out which also takes you underground at a level close to the animals. As we were approaching SaltLick, we saw the most fascinating thing which was one of the highlights of our trip. A herd of elephants were heading to the watering hole of our lodge. It was perfect timing and as if the herd was welcoming us into the lodge. The herd was guided by a leader and in the rear had a security, both huge bulls. In between them, in perfect unison walked all other members of the herd viz. females, babies and other bulls. They walked in a smooth rhythm and came down to the water hole, barely a foot away from us and nonchalantly started their drink. The babies drank little and were playfully pushed around by the elders. This whole exercise continued for 15/20 min and when it was time to go, the leader produced a loud trumpet whereby each member of the pack turned around and almost got into another preordained path into the deep woods. The discipline displayed by these pachyderms was astounding, something that humans could take a leaf out of. Over the course of our time in the animal planet, discipline was one aspect we repeatedly observed, and it felt that there was much to learn from the wild animals too.


The open expanse of the park and the strategic watering hole also brought in many other animals soon after the elephants left, including zebras, bushbucks, impalas and a solitary buffalo who took a long dip. It was time for our late afternoon game drive and given that the start of our safari had been fine, we were looking forward to meet the lord of the jungles, the man eaters of Tsavo. The landscape was littered with acacia and baobab trees, the two most famous flora of the region. The giant baobab tree is reputed to live a thousand years and is unique for the size. The acacia (colloquially known as the umbrella tree) on the other hand lies aplenty across the park and is a favorite feed of the giraffe.


The pre-evening drive started with the wonderful sight of a bunch of guinea fowls nonchalantly crossing the roads. Their polka-dot hued bodies contrasted with the bluish neck made for great viewing. Nearby we saw a pack of starlings being fed bread crumbs by the safari vehicles. Starlings are of the same family of “mynas” in India and were very friendly while being fed. We soon left them to look for the big game and viewed lots of impalas, ostriches, bushbucks, warthogs on the way. A few kilometers away we saw another pack of elephants. The pachyderms of Tsavo are "red elephants", ascribing their color to the red soil, in which they roll in for dirt baths. The guide took us very close to the elephant group and we saw the mamas and babies along with the bulls herding and grazing in the open savanna. The elephant herd then crossed the dirt road just ahead of us, with the guide keeping his engine started, in the unfortunate event that we got charged. Safari guides are extremely seasoned and our man had 15 long safari years behind him and was very experienced. We then saw some diverse birds including an eagle on a treetop as if surveying the park. Driving ahead, we saw the first herd of Cape Buffalo, a pack of more than 100 buffalos, presenting a quite frightful sight. Cape Buffalo, is also known as “Black Death” due to its unpredictable nature, which makes it highly dangerous to humans. The numbers talk of buffalos goring and killing over 200 people every year.

As we were fully focused and concentrating on the buffalo gang to our right, I suddenly felt a ruffle in the grass on the left side of the road where our safari van was parked. As we turned our gazes from the buffalo pack, little did we know that we were going to encounter one of the best sightings of our Kenyan adventure!!! A huge lion had just come out of the jungle / bushes behind and was slowly walking through the grass. It was a moment frozen in time, when our African experience met its proverbial zenith, with our first sighting of majestic Simba walking into the Savanna grass. It was as if we had met “Ghost”, a descendant of the original man-eater from the late 1800s. As if to add the proverbial icing on the cake, we soon saw another lion follow suit, out into the bush. “Darkness” had just joined “Ghost” and it was a sight to behold two huge male lions, flaunting regal attitude and come out in the open. They came out and almost stopped seeing our van and sat down as if to relax. Their gaze was affixed at us and it was quite eerie to be honest. It was, however, only a couple of minutes later that we realized that the gaze was actually on the pack of buffalos behind us on the right, and we were in the line of vision of the lions. The buffalo pack actually drew the lions out from the bushes to scan them and we just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Meanwhile, our guide cum driver, had let the news be known on his walkie-talkie and soon we had some 6/7 other safari vans come from various directions to huddle at this lion-point.


The lions, however, seemed oblivious of the growing presence of “visitors” and got up after sometime to stretch their bones and emit some serious roars and growls. They then thought of doing a better and closer scan of the buffalos and very indifferently crossed our vehicles, totally ignoring us in the process, to cross the dirt road and get closer to the buffalos. The buffalos, meanwhile, had also spotted the lions and thereby started to move away from that spot. The lions crossed the road and got on top of a small hillock for a better survey, but by then the buffalos had moved on. It was getting dark and after a very eventful day, we headed back to our lodge.

The next day was an early morning program and we left before sunrise to catch the morning game. It is said that wild animals are more active in the morning, preying on the night kill or even doing kills, and we hoped to get some live action of the same. The nip was in the air and we had a perfect view of the rising sun on the horizon behind the acacia trees. The sightings were extremely low unfortunately; however we again encountered the lion pair from the previous evening. We watched elephants and buffalos all over and even some hyenas and foxes besides the numerous impalas and zebras. After about 2 hours, we encountered the tallest living mammals on the planet, a group of 5/6 giraffes in the dense part of the national park feeding on the trees. It was exciting, like all the other animals, to also see the giraffes in the open.


We were reaching the check out time by then, so we returned for a late breakfast, and finally left SaltLick by 10 30 am. There was time for a final short safari still before we wound up Tsavo and headed back to Mombasa. The safari experience had kicked off tremendously well and we were very happy to have visited Tsavo to start it all off. On the way back we saw the famous East African railway lines that stretched from Mombasa through Nairobi to Uganda and passing through Tsavo, where the menace of the man-eaters was paramount. The evening at Mombasa was a big party of cocktails from Tequila to Margarita to Mojitos and then we headed to an exotic Japanese restaurant named Misono for some Outstanding Teppanyaki, Sushi and Sashimi. The food was indeed yummy and it was a nice way to bid goodbye to Mombasa.



NAIROBI, NAKURU AND the legend of ELSA

The next morning’s agenda was an early flight to Nairobi and then drive down straight to Nakuru national park. Nairobi was home of another good friend of mine, Subhodeep, at whose place we would camp before heading out to the different national parks. I was also meeting him after almost 2 decades and had planned to travel together to Nakuru and Masai Mara, so as soon as we hit Nairobi and got fresh, we got set for a 2 hour drive to Nakuru National Park. The A104 Nairobi-Nakuru road is the starting route for many safaris, and one gets the first sight of the Kenyan landscape from here. This is also when one first glimpses the huge Rift Valley and its emptiness from the viewpoints just past Limuru, at the top of the escarpments of the valley. Below, the acacia-scattered Kedong Valley bed conveys a neat and archetypal snapshot of the African landscape. As you traverse further down, you get a glimpse of Mount Longonot, Hell's Gate National Park and Lake Naivasha, while the plains seem to sweep on forever to the south. There are 3 large lakes on the way viz. Lake Naivasha, Lake Elementaita and Lake Nakuru. We were headed to Nakuru but planned to visit the others on the way back to Nairobi the next day.

As we approached closer to Nakuru, the landscape changed to a much greener hue with both sides of the road lined with trees and huge stretches of grass. Animals in numbers were seen grazing on these open stretches, from cows and goats to zebras and even impalas. It was surreal to see a cow and a zebra grazing together but that was what the magic of Africa was precisely all about. We reached Lake Nakuru and were surprised to see the water come much closer to land. Hence the authorities had to create alternate routes making dirt roads to pave way to the hotels and lodges. By the time we reached Sarova Lion Hill, it was well past 2 pm and we geared up for the late afternoon safari. Lake Nakuru is a famous soda lake which has been a national park since 1968. The USP of the lake is the vast quantity of flamingos (sometimes in millions) that famously line the shore owing to the alkaline lake’s abundance of algae. Unfortunately, in recent years, due to ecological changes, rising water levels and possibly even water contamination, these beautiful birds are moving over to newer and lesser populated / polluted lakes and their numbers have dwindled considerably. Unbelievably, the lake used to host millions of these flamingos, a sight to behold, which today owing to migration has resulted in only a few thousands. Still, to behold these elegant birds with the pink hue was a pretty sight that exceeded expectations.

Other attractions of Lake Nakuru include large number of pelicans, white rhinos and Rothschild giraffes besides the usual suspects viz. lions, buffalos, antelopes. White rhinos consist of two subspecies, the more numerous southern white rhinoceros, and the much rarer northern white rhinoceros (less than 10 in the world today). Even the southern subspecies were at the edge of extinction in the early 20th century but have made a tremendous comeback in the last century.

Driving around Lake Nakuru National Park, we could easily nuance the difference from arid Tsavo. The fact that the park lies contiguous to a large soda lake made the landscape and openness unique. As we approached the grassy patches near the lake, we saw in the distance two large bodies running synchronously into the bushes with a few more safari vans following them. It was our first sight of white rhinos which we quickly followed. It was wonderful to see these behemoths running smoothly into the bushes as we sped up to come closer. Their path criss-crossed into an open expanse, where we could view the rhinos “up close and personal”. As if taking a cue to aid us, the animals came to a halt and started grazing, providing us ample opportunity to take pictures and video. Slowly, again as if by design, they approached the vehicles and walked passed us at hand-shaking distance. These 2 horned creatures looked beautiful and made us wonder why they would be a poaching delight like all other animals in the wild.

We made our way to the lakeside and encountered a pride of lions (around 20 of them), males, females and kids alike all in playful mood. It was evening time and some of them seemed to be also surveying the buffalos and impalas grazing nearby, may be for a night kill. It was surreal to see so many lions, antelopes, buffalos, zebras, rhinos all grazing and peacefully co-existing with one another in an area of less than 5 sq km. The beauty of the animal planet is that predators attack and kill only when hungry and rest of the time they leave each other alone. No monkey business, frayed tempers and egos, otherwise!!! Added to these animals were also thousands of flamingos, pelicans and Egyptian geese, lending the whole place almost like an animal paradise!!! In the distance we saw the tallest living land mammals, the lanky and majestic giraffes but they were not in proximity of the other animals near the lake. Lake Nakuru is one of the few places in the wild to host the endangered giraffe subspecies, the Rothschild's giraffe. Soon it was reaching sunset and it was time to head back to our hotel, where we would be greeted with some Rift Valley song and dance. We thoroughly enjoyed and even participated in the same, to wind down a thoroughly enjoyable but tiring day.


Next morning we left for an early safari, as it was a packed day with visits to Lake Naivasha and Elsamere lined up. We passed by a gang of giraffes who crossed the road where we had parked. The close proximity of these animals made us appreciate their height, with even the giraffe kids, towering over our vehicles. We also viewed most of the other animals from the last evening including a baboon gang who obstructed the road for a while.

We left Nakuru for Lake Naivasha - a 90 min drive away - late morning and arrived at Elsamere post noon. Elsamere is the former home of Joy and George Adamson on the shores of Lake Naivasha. It is a nature lovers' paradise with a great variety of bird life, wildlife and splendid flora. As the name suggests, the place gets it name from the lioness Elsa of ‘Born Free' fame who was raised by the Adamsons. The Adamsons devoted their lives to wildlife conservation and Elsamere carries on their work. Many of Joy's paintings adorn the walls of the main house and the small museum displays a range of interesting memorabilia. Elsamere has four cottages to accommodate visitors, to enjoy a truly serene environment. Elsamere prides itself on its resident black and white colobus monkeys, hippos, zebras, and elands which frequent the centre.

Having experienced the legend of Elsa, albeit vicariously, we left for one of the local resorts to do a round of boating on Lake Naivasha. Now, this boating experience was one of a kind as we would be cruising on the lake littered with a sizeable population of hippos. Besides, the lake is home to hundreds of of birds from pelicans to Verreaux's Giant Eagle Owl. We were more excited than scared, even after being told that sometimes an errant hippo would topple the boat. The good thing was that the boat drivers were experienced professionals employed by local authorities, so we knew we were in good hands. The boat ride is spectacular, one passes between trees crested with cormorant nests, the flash of the beautiful birds drying out their plumage, flapping wings in the breeze. We saw white pelicans swoop down to catch fish, truly a feast to the eyes. We were told that sometimes the fish eagles would do the same. And then we saw the hippos, many tens of them in the small area that we circled by boat. The gigantic creatures were flapping their ears, flicking back and forth, and snorting their nostrils sending bubbles up in the water. We could also view one or two go up in the air and yawn out, a photographer’s delight. By the time we had done enough avian view in the lake and had our share of hippos for the day, it was around 3 pm. We were famished and had a sumptuous lunch before heading back to Nairobi. It was hectic but two wondrous days at the soda lakes in the Rift Valley and the accompanying safaris made us really contented.
                                                                                                             

Having done two of the most famous African safaris already, the next day we were slated for another unique one, the Nairobi National Park located right within the city of Nairobi and possibly the only one in the world inside a big city. But before we headed there, we had a few more items listed on our “Nairobi Day”. Our first stop was the Giraffe Centre located at Langata, approximately 5 km from Nairobi city centre. It was established in order to protect the endangered Rothschild giraffe which we had viewed just previously at Lake Nakuru. The main attraction for visitors is feeding giraffes from a raised observation platform with the more adventurous feeding them mouth to mouth a la “The Giraffe Kiss”. The centre is also home to several warthogs which freely roam the area along with the giraffes.

We next headed to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, near Nairobi National Park. The Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage was founded and managed by Daphne Sheldrick, the widow of one of Kenya's best known Game Wardens David Sheldrick. A visit here is a must if only to experience what a colossal job the orphanage is doing to raise these orphaned pachyderms. The baby ellies are brought into an enclosure area for public viewing. It is here that they are introduced to the public and their stories of adoption told by the orphanage keepers. They are then fed milk from huge feeding bottles post which the babies take mud baths in mud pools and brush up against the rope very close to the spectators. The babies are as young as 3 / 4 months old and as old as 3 years max, so it’s a wonderful medley of cute little baby elephants in display.


Both these places were so well managed with the additional humane angle, that it was a morning well spent. Post a visit to the Kazuri Beads Factory, who produces brightly-coloured, handmade ceramic jewellery sold all over the world and a quick lunch it was time for an afternoon safari at the Nairobi National Park (NNP). Despite its proximity to a big city and relative small size for an African national park, NNP boasts a large and varied wildlife population. We headed into the park at afternoon dreading the fact that most animals would shy away due to the heat. However, the number of zebras, giraffes, Coke's hartebeest, Grant's and Thomson's gazelle, eland, impala, waterbuck, ostrich put to rest such concerns. We also viewed a few black rhinos in the open and hippos lazing in water. However, what strangely eluded us was sighting of lions as the NNP has a good density of lions which are usually visible. It was possibly an average safari day after the two fantastic earlier ones, but we were not disappointed at all. The view of the giraffes silhouetted against Nairobi's skyline and the concrete jungle easily visible during the safari, made it a diverse experience anyhow. Overall, a day well spent with varying park and orphanage experiences. The next day was a leisure day with shopping at the Masai markets and sampling local cuisine. We headed to Fogo Gaucho, Nairobi’s most famous Brazilian steakhouse, for dinner. It was a veritable manna from heaven for a meat lover like me, sampling exotic meat from crocodile to antelope besides the normal beef and pork, all washed down with Kenya’s favorite Tusker beer.


MOUNT KENYA

We were fast approaching our tour’s crescendo and possibly its business end, with Masai Mara lined up in a couple of days, but before that we had another national park in the itinerary. Mount Kenya National Park at the foothills of the Mt. Kenya was next. After experiencing typical national parks, this was going to be a totally different ecosystem and climatic condition. Being in close proximity of the mountains, the nip was in the air even post noon when we reached the mountain lodge inside the national park. After a few hectic days of travel, our plan for this park was just to relax in the cold ambience and see the game in the nearby watering hole, from the balcony of our room. We had also planned a walking tour in the bush, which was unfortunately cancelled due to inclement weather as it had gone very cold and foggy. The locale and property, Serena Mountain Lodge right below Mt. Kenya was excellent. It had a huge watering hole and it was ideal relaxation from its balcony, watching the animals come to drink water. The area is populated with Colobus and Sykes’ monkeys which sometimes get “friendly” and cross the balcony into the rooms looking for food. We got a sample of such friendliness when a Sykes' “attacked” us in the balcony. It was almost raising the proverbial “storm in a teacup” when the simian jumped into the cookies that was placed beside my cup of tea as we were relaxing in the balcony. It was more shock then fear at this close “encounter” and we were later informed that it was strict no-no to flaunt food in open spaces to avoid such simian attacks.

The languid expectation at Mountain Lodge was slowly turning out to be fascinating as we saw some genet cats that had come out to feed on meat left for them atop a high-rise tower. We saw a flurry of waterbucks, impalas and even some elephants. The simians continued to prowl all over the property. Night had descended and we were about to witness something dramatic. Around 11 pm when a group of waterbucks were grazing in the waterhole, we heard loud giggles as we watched a group of 7/8 hyenas come from various directions to converge on the waterbucks. Sensing imminent danger, the antelopes dashed into the woods leaving the hyenas stranded. The hyenas waited patiently for the waterbucks to come out and then, themselves went trudging in their unique way, into the bushes. After a 20 min wait, when the coast was clear, the antelopes again got back to the waterhole and started meandering. The group seemed nonchalant to the danger of the hyenas and started grazing. After another 30 minutes, the hyenas assembled again and attacked the waterbucks from various directions, leaving the latter baffled and startled before they could dart away into the bushes just in time, leaving the hyenas giggling and frustrated again. This cat and mouse game between the waterbucks and hyenas continued till 3 am in the morning before we snoozed off. The waterbucks had fought back to live another day as if almost to emphasize the spirit of the jungle.

The next day we left back for Nairobi but while going back stopped at the Equator to take pictures and observe what we had read in Physics eons back in school viz. Coriolis Effect. This law of Physics states that the Coriolis force causes moving objects on the surface of the Earth to be deflected in a clockwise direction in the Northern Hemisphere and in a counter-clockwise sense in the Southern Hemisphere and at the exact Equator, the same goes stagnant. It was quite interesting to be shown this experiment by locals.


MAsai Mara

By the time we reached Nairobi, it was late afternoon and we prepared for the zenith of our Kenyan trip. We were to visit Masai Mara, the magnum opus of safaris, for the next 3 days before we wound up our Kenyan adventure. Masai Mara, one of the most famous national parks globally, is a large game reserve contiguous with the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. It is named in honor of the Masai people, the ancestral inhabitants of the area and their description of the area when looked at from afar viz. "Mara," for "spotted," an apt description for the circles of trees, scrub, savanna, and cloud shadows that mark the area. Besides, the name of a river which flows in the area is also Mara. So on early morning Day 15, we started on a 5+ hour drive from Nairobi to the Mara. The first half of the journey through the Rift valley was picturesque and smooth till Narok. But once we had breakfast and refreshments midway, we were warned by our guide about the road ahead. The final stretch would be over broken roads with a lot of dirt, gravel and pot holes. The experience turned out to be even worse than expected as the majority of the stretch was also bumpy. However, besides that tricky part, it was fun to experience the fantastic scenery of the terrain, see locals, villages and even the Maasai tribes on the way. To add to the charm, we saw plentiful of animals on the way from thousands of migrating wildebeest to zebras to impalas and even giraffes, and we were not even in the outskirts of the Greater Mara Ecosystem. It was enough to get us super excited as we approached the Mara and our resort, Mara Siria, a luxury bush camp right in the middle of the African Savannah. The camp was located on the Siria Escarpment on the western border of Masai Mara and fitted nicely into the natural environment of the Escarpment. Due to the high elevation of the camp at ~1,850 meters above sea level, there is a pleasant climate with warm days and cool nights. On approaching the camp, we were greeted by Lechon, the resident Masai, who surprised us by speaking impeccable English. He was well mannered and abreast of the ways of the modern world, yet stuck on to his Masai tradition and hosted us really well during our entire duration of the stay. He explained that the camp was right in the middle of the African bushes and we would see lots of zebras, giraffes and impalas near our tents. However owing to its location on the escarpment, the area was devoid of lions though the occasional leopard had been spotted in the camp. There was a Plunge Pool in the camp embedded into rocks, so located, to give one the most stunning and spectacular view of the Mara River and the vast Mara plains down below. It seemed by then, that we had entered paradise which was accentuated by the fact that we soon saw a pack of zebras and giraffes in the bushes, some 20 metres away from us, as we walked to the reception area for lunch.


Post lunch as we headed for the late afternoon safari, we got a “gift” from the camp in the form of a game viewer, a 4*4 game drive vehicle designed to offer an unobstructed view of the environment and aiding photography. As we entered the park from the Oloololo Gate, we were really excited at being in the Mara to see not only the Big 5 up close (though we had already seen all /most animals except the leopard by then) but also the Great Migration, one my nature’s greatest wonders. This was the annual crossover of Wildebeests, Zebras and Thomson's gazelles to and from the Serengeti every year from July to October. It is said that almost 5 million animals migrate through the Serengeti into the Mara every year, many of which cross the crocodile infested Mara River. This was the very reason in the first place why our safari was modeled around this time of the year and so far most things had fallen in place. We entered the Mara and what struck us right away was the concentration of game within this reserve. While we had viewed most animals in the 4 other parks previously, the amount of animals in the Mara was palpably more. The zebras, elands, impalas, gazelles, wildebeest, buffalos, elephants, giraffes and even topis were in large numbers. We witnessed almost every crossing of these animals, and the highlights were the wildebeests running haywire in front of our vehicles, a mother elephant pushing its tiny baby across the road to the other side, a gang of giraffes running across the road their gangly legs moving in slow-mo, the buffalos giving us those scary stares while crossing etc. We passed by the Mara river where we viewed hippos and the huge Nile crocodiles in large numbers. It was approaching evening and we while we were happy to see the huge numbers of game, the cats had so far eluded us. It was about to change as my wife suddenly spotted a dead wildebeest in the bushes with gore all over, very close by our 4*4. The freshness of the blood meant that a kill had just happened and the predator had to be nearby. We soon spotted a lioness lying down in the bushes and panting meaning that we had just about missed a live kill. Damn, a near miss!!! Soon the big cat got up and in open view started to chew on a piece of blood-laden meat that was taken from the dead ‘beest. Aided by the proximity of our 4*4 to the scene of action, we could hear the cracking of the bones as Ms. Simba gorged on her supper. Soon we felt some ruffling in the grass and saw a figure approaching us in the distance. As it approached us, we saw a young male joining the lioness in quest for meat. It stood alone for some time as if not to disturb the female busy in her meal and trying to slowly break the ice. Our guide told us that these were all members of a single pride of lions and that the other members would slowly pour in once it got dark. Lionesses are the main working members of a pride and they do most of the hard work, while the males just laze around and of course protect the pride - an analogy often true in the human world too J On the trees nearby the teeming number of vultures meant that the scavengers were also waiting anxiously for their share once the lions had left. It was getting dark and we had to return to the camp after an eventful start.



THE MIGRATION

The next day was Mission Migration and we left early in the morning with packed lunches as we were slated for a long day in the African Savannah. The very first animals we spotted were a group of serval cats, supposed to be a very rare sighting. Our guide was extremely gung-ho and seemed to be almost justifying the adage, “Morning shows the day”, hinting that we were slated for equally good things throughout the day. As we passed by, we came across a pack of elephants and then astonishingly another pride of lions. The concentration and number of lions in the Mara is overwhelming. So it was scant surprise that we had already watched a lion kill (almost!!) and then come across a pride of lions in less than 3 hours of safari time. This pride seemed to have had some nocturnal activity and the pack of lions (some 7 in number) were all sleeping / resting under the tree shades at 9 in the morning. They seemed totally nonchalant about the presence of the vehicles around them, though one or two were eyeing us almost with contempt. The shutter happy crowd was having a field day shooting these beautiful animals from 10 metres away but the cats kept on lazing. Once in a while they would raise their heads and look at us, or give a yawn and raise their torsos, prompting the cars to quickly move out in anticipation of the animals getting up, but all these turned out to be false alarms. Satiated by our sighting, we left sometime later to view other game.


The savannah in the Mara was a veritable melting pot of African game especially in the migration season with innumerable Wildebeest, Zebras and Thomson Gazelles joining hordes of elands, impalas, topis, buffalos and giraffes making it look like a huge animal senate. As we readied and drove through hordes of wildebeest and zebras, it looked like a shot right out of a Nat Geo special, so surreal was the ambience. Suddenly our guide changed tracks and swerved in the other direction shouting he had seen something move. And lo and behold, a few hundred metres away, were the Mara’s own “Ghost and Darkness”, 2 huge males with flowing manes lazing under a huge acacia tree. The heat of the day at noon was not exactly conducive for the cats to roam around and hence the lazy sleep under the trees. A couple of times, the larger fella did get up and a did a few stretches, eliciting hope that we could watch some feline pyrotechnics, but unfortunately that proved to be a damp squib as they again went to laze. We were, however, happy with what we saw and now could not wait any more to see the migration. So we headed to the Mara River, infested with the deadly Nile crocodiles and huge hippos. There are some specific points across the river, where the migration happens but before heading there, our guide took us for a closer viewing of hippos. At a designated spot across the river, we took a walk and were astounded to view the hippo colony, which had hundreds of hippos of various shape and size, some lazing in the sand, some bellowing in the water, some mothering the babies. It was incredible to see so many of these massive animals congregated at one place.

Having had enough sighting of hippos for a single day, we left to finally reach our destination point for the migration. Historically, animals have been crossing the river from specific points and our guides were aware of these spots. So we headed to one such place along the river. The view of the Mara River was haunting and we were shocked to see the carcass of many animals floating on the river. Some were being devoured by scores of vultures some other just flowing with the river currents. It almost seemed that the vicious circle of life and death was being enacted on the Mara. Our guide explained that every year during the crossing thousands of wildebeest and zebra are attacked and killed by the dangerous crocodiles and sometimes even crushed / killed by the hippos. Many others die during the crossing being trampled in the crowd of animals till they drown. And these after many of the migration animals are preyed by the larger land predators like lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas etc.

The excitement of the build up to the crossover seemed to have caught a dampener on seeing these dead carcasses and all of us were left a little sad at death in the Mara. However, we cheered up soon on seeing the “Building” which is when the wildebeest herds gather before a crossing. We could see on the other side of the river, thousands of wildebeests amassing. And behind the initial lines of these horned critters, were thousands more almost lining up take the proverbial plunge in the river. Many zebras were also herding on the banks waiting for the moment of truth when all these migratory animals would plunge in. These migratory animals, arrive at the Mara River in tens of thousands, and gather waiting to cross. For days, their numbers start building up and anticipation grows but many times, for no apparent reason, they turn and wander away from the water’s edge. Eventually the wildebeest will choose a crossing point, something that can vary from year to year and cannot be predicted with any accuracy.


And that is precisely what happened!!! While we were excitedly watching the wildebeest form the building, little did we realize that hundreds from that spot had slowly moved along to another spot on the riverbank, where apparently the crossing also happens. The walkie-talkies started to buzz that that the game was about to crossover at this new spot. We sped to that point as did the fifty other safari vans and 4*4s, the vehicles kicking up a dust storm on the way as they tried to take a vantage point of the bank. On reaching the bank, our guide positioned our car at a cozy little place by the bank, but seemed a wee bit fidgety about the location. On queried, he bluntly said that something was not right and he was not sure that the animals would crossover from here but thought that the earlier spot was the preferable one. On asked how he felt that, he replied that, years of experience as a guide in the Mara convinced him about the same. We were unsure what to make of his reply and simply waited for the event to happen and watch for ourselves. The patient wait was excruciating and our working lunches did little to douse the excitement. The guide was continuously on his walkie talking with his other driver friends on the possibility and position of the crossover. He mentioned that often times the whole day would go by just waiting for the crossover but nothing would happen, something which increased our apprehension tremendously. It had been more than 2 hours already and we had switched positions twice and yet there was no sign of any animal wanting to crossover. Many times we could see the wildebeest trudging on the periphery of water, almost planting both feet in the water, but the final plunge was not happening. The carcasses of fellow wildebeest in the water flowing by seemed to be the proverbial impediment for these bearded creatures. Sometimes the zebras, in a separate group from the wildebeest, would go near the water and raise the prospects, but ultimately nothing seemed to be happening. After almost 3 painstaking hours, when we were slowly resigning to the fact that it could be a damp squib, the guide got animated on the walkie, and with a huge smile swerved the car to take it back to the original spot where we had been at the start of the day. Almost like his premonition, the crossover had just about started at the original point. A lone zebra had just taken a plunge in the water prompting the zebra gang and a few wildebeest to engage in the same. The beauty of the crossover was that in spite of the hours of wait, all it needed was one animal - the conceptual leader - to finally take the plunge and then all hell would break loose. We reached the spot, with other vehicles following, and took a vantage position just by the bank to watch this natural wonder unfurl in front of us. And what a spectacle it was!!! Wildebeest, zebras and gazelles by the hundreds were crossing the Mara River. In the background, thousands more were running at breakneck speed, kicking up dust and dirt, as they approached the crossing point. It seemed almost that an imaginary Pied Piper was attracting all the animals to crossover point to engage in this blissful act of nature. The photo and video cameras went overdrive to capture these awe-inspiring moments and everyone momentarily transformed into kids, animated and shouting at the exhibition in front.



The Great Wildebeest Migration was now in full swing with thousands of wildebeest and hundreds of zebras and gazelles having plunged into the river in a matter of seconds. Initially the building formation was followed diligently and the animals almost queued up one after the other, but with the passing moments with more animals darting in to take a plunge, the symmetry was broken and everyone seemed to be pushing each other in the urge to get into the waters first. It apparently seemed that their tails were on fire, wanting to get to the other side in a hurry. It was total mayhem and the chaos was adding in perspectives in the crossover. Along with that, the water current was certainly not helping and a few weak ones were being swept away from the crowd. They were definite targets for the huge Nile crocodiles that had surreptitiously swam close to these hapless ones. Crocodiles infest the Mara River and wait for the right moment to attack. They are very fast over short distances and wait for their targets strategically, waiting for the hapless isolated ones without spending much effort. However, there were some impatient crocs, too. One such got over enthusiastic and slowly attacked the main group. It got close to the wildebeests, took strategic positions, tried to bite a few times exhibiting its open jaws, but then unfortunately got trampled by the numerous feet "treading" water. In fact some of the more enthusiastic wildebeest used its body to step on and jump over, almost like a horse crossing a barrier. The unintelligent crocodile had to beat a hasty retreat and scampered / swam away to safety. It was nature at its very best as if to prove that predators also need to be really smart and thinking to make a successful kill. The hippos on the other hand, were really nonchalant about the whole event and did not even bat an eyelid, with these teeming numbers crossing over. Unless their reveries were interrupted, they would not participate in any manner in the migration and crossover and preferred their sloth ways.


It was almost an hour since the Mara crossover started, that the last wildebeest and zebra had crossed over. We were indeed blessed to have watched one of nature’s greatest wonders up, close and personal and were feeling satiated. Masai Mara had already whetted our appetites but we still had more excitement lined up. It was late afternoon, when we finally left the Mara River for our search of the elusive leopard which had eluded us thus far in our 2 week African sojourn. Our affable guide almost took it as a special assignment to ensure we could “spot the spots”. And spot we surely did, but of a different pattern. As we frantically searched the bushes, our guide got a call that a cheetah with cubs had been spotted miles away, near the Serengeti border. We rushed there to see other vehicles lined up. A mother cheetah was giving hunting lessons to her cubs and was stalking impalas and gazelles from afar. We could see the baby cheetahs, excitedly following mama’s every step and making strange chirping sounds. The mother and children passed our 4*4 at handshaking distance, absolute disdain of our presence, something we had got used to by now from the animal world. They went around stalking the antelopes from a distance and roamed the area in detail. The mother cheetah was communicating with the cubs using the queer chirping sound and the kids were excited playing along, jumping on mom and tugging at her, getting the mom to snarl back at times. It was vintage mother and child playtime and not much different from humans. The main objective was, however, being met with the cubs seemingly picking up some of the tricks from mama, and also giving us a sprint sample while chasing some of the antelopes. However, we did not get to see a kill and figured that it needed more time and patience especially when a cheetah kid was learning the ropes.


It was nearing sunset when we decided to end a very eventful day and meander back to our camp. As we approached the Oloololo Gate, we saw a buffalo gang chasing a pack of lions. It was apparent that tables had turned and a group of lions who had initially attacked the big bulls were now being charged back. The hunter was now being the hunted, and we could see the lions running helter skelter with the buffalos charging at them in numbers. One of the lions had been gored and was scurrying away with the entire pack. The lions, some 6 of them, almost ran away in front of our vehicles, crossing the road and leaving the fuming buffalos behind. It was again a gentle reminder from the animal planet that all predators needed strategic thinking and right execution exploiting their strengths to make successful kills. It was a very apt way to end the most fulfilling day of our Kenyan expedition, though we had the 3rd morning left before checking out from Masai Mara back to Nairobi the next day.

The next day was almost a hangover of the previous day’s experience (in more ways than one). While we had seen the largest antelope, eland, previously, we now had the fortune to view one of the smallest ones as well, viz. the dik-dik. We also passed by a group of buffalos where a baby buff charged at us. It was quite hilarious but gave us the message of how dangerous the Cape Buffalo is, right from its childhood. We also saw a young zebra with huge wounds on its side, possibly attacked by hyenas else a more deadly predator would have killed it. The local rangers would also possibly have saved it in time and now it was on its path to recovery. Further away, we saw hyena kids devouring remnants from an earlier kill as an adult seemed to be supervising. Safari time was coming to a close and as we finally departed Oloololo Gate, the last viewing left an indelible impression, that of a group of some 15 giraffes walking lazily into the morning sun.


EPILOGUE

Masai Mara, the magnum opus of safaris, had lived up to its reputation……the annual migration and the mesmerizing cross over of the wildebeests and zebras across the Mara River with huge Nile Crocs attacking them, the lion and hyena kills, cheetah teaching its kid how to stalk, buffalo gang attacking the lions, the endless sighting of other animals (some 100 of them on last count) were truly from a different planet.

The trip back to Nairobi, as we passed the Masai villages, was discussing about the last 2 weeks in Kenya and what a godly experience we were lucky to have witnessed. From white sand Mombasa beaches, to the intriguing safaris culminating with the surreal animal migration, to gorging exotic meat and quality time with friends, the Kenyan memories will be ever-lasting. Agni, my partner in crime, is already planning for a return back to sample Africa again, may be to Tanzania or Botswana, hopefully in the not-so-distant future. We were extremely satisfied that most of the planning had been executed to a T. Our appreciation goes out to our friends, the Mukherjees and Brahmacharys who were perfect hosts and made our adventure smoother. I would strongly recommend the African safari experience to one and all.


Till next time, Viva Africa!!! Asante Sana!!!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Calcio Debate: If Kaka moves to Manchester City, is Soccer Dead?

A passionate Rossonero friend of mine, Carlo started this debate on the Internet and led me to pen my thoughts. Such “enticing” situations always pose dual perspectives with both schools of thought weighing pros and cons and vehemently theorizing why they are correct. However, without going into the intricacies of those, let us try to look at things in perspective.

First off, Man City has no perceptible soccer history of its own which, of course, does not mean it cannot have one in the years or decades to come. It has no European silverware save one, European Cup Winners Cup in 1970. Does it give it right to acquire superstars - of course it does!!! Let’s go back in history, 20 some years back. A certain Italian club (also azure hued) named Napoli acquired the then greatest (and arguably one of the game’s all time greats), a certain Argentine named Diego Armando Maradona who was plying his trade in another world class club Barcelona. Diego’s move to Barca and Napoli were both at world record prices. Napoli, who had no history till then (except a few runner up places in Serie A) would make this investment which would go a long way in giving them superlative returns with Italian and European success and firmly putting them in the world soccer map. To that extent, Man C’s acquisition of Kaka seems to be on similar lines and should not raise an eyebrow. However, that is pretty much where the similarities end.

Analyzing deeper down, one would see that Diego had a flurry of good players @ Napoli including the Italians Ferrara, Bagni, De Napoli, Zola and Latin Americans Alemao, Careca, Foncesa which led him to establish success there. Kaka, on the other hand does not have any world class player except the maverick Juninho and a host of over the hill Europeans like Hamann, Vassell, Mills etc. and though the sheikh can put in the petro dollars to bring in De Jong, Given, Terry et al to the faded blues, it will surely be an year or two before City even think of Europe. Forget Europe, heck City is not even sure of saving relegation this year. And that is where the basic difference lies. Also Diego, though entrusted with a star studded team @ Nou Camp including the likes of Bernd Schuster had a relatively unsuccessful career there leading him to change his colors. Napoli also relatively had a more successful history and with the teammates given to Diego, was a good choice for a move-over not to mention the world record transfer fee. Ricardo, on the other hand has been like Diego, a FIFA World player of the year, an important cog in the Milan wheel and someone around which the offensive Milan game revolves. He has been successful in the club for 6 odd years and prophesized that he wants to grow old at Milan. Moreover, playing in City would mean that Kaka has to shun playing @ Europe and sometimes @ the world level (FIFA World Club Cup) and be stuck in the anonymity of Manchester. For a soccer star of any ilk, not plying trade at the highest level would be the biggest bane and Kaka would be foolish to make a move like that. To me in a nutshell, trading the star-studded success at Milan to relative obscurity of Man City is plain stupid.

The other angle is the vision and road map of the club. While, Sheikh Mansoor might be on a momentary high and is all out to acquire one and sundry, he possibly is not a great soccer lover (we surely would have heard of him much earlier otherwise). Man City is one of his business ventures and he wants to rake in some money while at it. He is surely not here for the love of football and is not here to keep City in the top tier of English football for many decades to come (though I would be happy to be proven wrong). Even a club of Napoli’s stature went on a downward spiral after Diego’s departure only to come back to the mainstream after 15 long years, so it is not too hard to fathom a City future without vision. Add to that the clear chasm that would be created in the City dressing room with the multi-millionaire haves and the not to lucky have-nots and it will be a nightmare for Mark Hughes and the coaching and admin staff.

Therefore coming back to my friend Carlo’s topic, I do not think Kaka would or should move in the first place. However, Berlusconi and company might eventually coerce him to leave based on non-soccer reasons even if Rica pledges his unflinching loyalty to Milan, so much is the power of money in the 3rd millennium. Having stayed in Milan and followed the club for a long time, I can vouch for a fact that the Rossoneri are a passionate breed and the highs Rica would get playing and scoring at the San Siro would be light years ahead of the passion that the “Faded Blues” could even think of generating and that too in the remote eventuality of City grabbing some silverware. Literally soccer would not die as the coming years would surely see such mega deals but on a figurative note, soccer would die a nasty death in my book where the power of money would pulverize old age emotions like passion, dedication, pride and honour, love and allegiance to a club etc.

In the end folks Ricardo Kaka might move and if so, it would be the way the soccer cookie would crumble from now on.

Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 - The Year in Retrospect

As 2007 draws to a close, I thought of spotlighting some incidents happening across the world which I thought were Highs and Lows of the year. These are incidents that touched me in more ways than one in my continual education on the ways of life. Here goes…..


THE HIGHS

Special Olympics at Shanghai: “The Children of a Lesser God” - people with all kinds of physical disabilities and IQ lesser than 70, participated in an Olympics like Games. Even a small footage of the event would melt the hardest person of steel, so touching is it to see the unadulterated joy of these disabled people. Moments such as these make you view life in an entirely different perspective, telling us healthy ones how lucky we are to live life normally and well. It is also a victory of the indomitable spirit of human beings to live life amidst all possible adversity.

Iraq crowned champions of the Asian Cup Soccer Championship: Against all odds, Iraq’s victory was stuff of fairytales. A team assembled disjointedly by Shias, Sunnis and Kurds under a Brazilian coach who was just 2 months in the job stunned the whole world by capping a dream win. No one, not even the die hard Iraqi gave them a whiff of victory but the team defeated firm favourites Australia, Saudi Arabia et al to win the championship. For sportspersons of a country ravaged by war, who often do not return and seek sports asylum when they manage to leave the Iraqi shores for an international sports event, this was monumental.

Dadagiri of the Royal Bengal Tiger: “Attitude determines Altitude” is NOT a Platitude. This is something that I strongly believe in. It is that human trait that overrides talent, ability, aptitude and everything else. It is all about mind games that makes a person strong in life and override all obstacles. Sourav Ganguly epitomised it better than anyone that I can think of in the last year. Dumped, chided, jested on, written off (wrongly or otherwise), there was nothing worse that an individual can countenance in his profession sphere and it surely rubs off slowly in one’s personal life too. It can completely break brittle people but then people like Sourav epitomise mental strength through their attitude. Twice dropped from the team in a long international career spanning 15 years and running, he showed that when the chips are truly down, you need attitude, determination, spunk and self belief to prove all your critics wrong and take back the position that you rightly deserve in your sphere of life.

Narendra Modi is also lucky third time: Amidst the Congress party’s political gaffe of positioning him as the “Maut ka Saudagar”, Modi turned out to be the “Vote ka Saudagar” when he was elected the CM of Gujarat for the 3rd time in succession, possibly exorcising and burying the ghosts of Godhra eternally. Well that is something that billions of Indians will get to know over time, but right now for the much maligned (and much adored at the same time) Modi, it is crowning glory.

The Song remains the Same: Led Zeppelin, one if not THE most celebrated and worshipped acts of rock music history made a glorious comeback on the 10th of December at the O2 arena in London. The 3 surviving members Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones teamed with the son of late drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham, Jason to recreate magic and take audiences back in time. It was a phenomenal musical success leading to speculation that the band might stage a world tour shortly. Whether that happens in reality is something that music enthusiasts can only hope and cross fingers on, but the song will always remain the same as far as Led Zepp goes even if it’s been a Long and Lonely time without them.

Pablo Fajardo: The lawyer whose passion for his native Ecuador was borne by his historic lawsuit against Chevron Texaco’s toxic legacy in the Northern Ecuadorian region of the Amazon rainforest was recently awarded as a CNN Hero. The lawsuit for this case has turned into the largest environmental class action lawsuit in history not only for Pablo’s lifelong effort to force one of the world's largest oil corporations to pay more than $6 billion to clean up toxic waste in the Amazon rain forest but also like Alfred Gore his unflinching pursuit for something that was noble and came from his heart. That he only became a lawyer in 2004, after first working as a manual laborer in the oil fields of his hometown of Lago Agrio, while completing a correspondence law degree only adds mystic to his wonderful journey. Ecuador has amazing natural entities like the Rain forest, the Andes and the Gal├ípagos islands and these are all feared to go extinct reeling under the dual effects of toxic waste and global warming.

Green Revolutionary Al Gore: A few months back, I had written in my column that Al Gore was out to green the world with a vengeance and even if it had political undertones, it was an effort truly superhuman in nature. With the malaise of global warming looming large on the world and human race if you will, it is the drive and zeal of such people that will restore sanity on us humans who ourselves are the progeny of all sorts of reasons the world is heating up (pun intended). That the Nobel Peace Prize was bestowed on him vindicates his genuine passion for the cause. Al Gore shared the noble with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose Indian top honcho, Rajendra K. Pachauri, said that science had won out over skepticism. In a fantastic 2007, besides the Noble, Gore also won an Oscar, an Emmy and championed the Live Earth movement, again a series of worldwide concerts held on 7 July 2007 that initiated a three-year campaign to combat climate change.

Ricardo Kaka: The baby face is not a baby anymore. He has quite deservedly taken the mantle of the best player in the world from the likes of the Ronaldinhos, Ronaldos and Messis. The ballplayer and scorer rolled into one has lit up a dismal season for Milan by spurring them to the UEFA Champions League and the World Club championship victories. While at it he continuously professed his love for God and proudly flaunted that he was a virgin when he got married sweetheart Caroline at the age of 23.

Sexual Equity: The All England Club announced equal prize money for both the men and women’s winners at the 2007 Wimbledon ending a long period of cries for the WTA on the matter. Thus men’s champ Fedex and the women’s champ Venus pocketed equal cheques of a whopping 700,000 British Pounds. Significantly, it so figured, that half of Britain’s millionaires were female. Did someone say “women’s lib”?

Sunita Williams: The PIO who is a United States Naval officer and a NASA astronaut was the 2nd woman of Indian heritage after Kalpana Chawla to be selected by NASA for a space mission. She holds three records for female space travellers: longest spaceflight (195 days), number of space walks (4), and total time spent on spacewalks (29 hrs 17 min). She became the first person to run a marathon in orbit, when she ran the Boston Marathon from the space station on April 16, 2007. Interestingly Williams' sister, Dina Pandya ran the marathon on Earth, and Sunita received updates on their progress from Mission Control. Not only did she complete Chawla’s unfinished dream but became a huge inspiration and a role model for women all Indian women.



MAN OF THE YEAR: Without a shadow of doubt, Alfred Gore was my man of the year for his passionate drive to rid the earth of global warming and making it greener and a better place for the generations to come.

WOMAN OF THE YEAR: Sunita Williams was my woman of the year for not only creating world records for female astronauts but showing India and the supposed 3rd world that all it takes is inspiration, doggedness and spunk to reach the summit.



THE LOWS

Terrorism & its many architects: The term that runs shivers down the spine of mankind, Terrorism unfortunately simply cannot be curbed. Whether in the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Europe or US, terrorism continues to show its ugly head and the head is getting uglier and bigger every passing year. And while absolute world peace and total terror eradication is an utopia and can possibly never be achieved, due to ulterior motives of powers to be not to mention the abuse of religion as a critical factor for such terrorism, it is high time that sanity prevailed across global leaders & community crusaders so that this evil can be mitigated and millions of harmless civilians do not lose their lives in war savaged terrains, not to mention dynamic leaders like Benazir Bhutto.

The Taming of the Shrewd: It pains me to term Marion Jones such, for I was one of the billions fascinated by her grace and talent on the sporting field, but like many others, I feel that implicating her albeit belatedly, for using drugs to cheat in sport, is justice of sorts and in a funny sort of way can help her become clean in the larger perspective of becoming a better individual in life.

Formula1 Espionage: If the 2007 F1 season was the best in recent years, it was not only due the scintillating win of Kimi Raikkonen in the very last circuit at Interlagos, Brazil but also due to the “Spygate”. Team Mclaren Mercedes was fined a whopping 100 million USD for an espionage imbroglio when they spied on technical information from rivals Ferrari. Later on Renault were also charged with the same offence, but strangely and luckily escaped any fine, monetary or otherwise.

The Holy Trinity that was immortalized: Luciano Pavarotti, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni all died natural deaths to leave the world of art bereft of their irrefutable genius.

Pavarotti, the Italian tenor in opera music, who crossed into popular music and became one of the most beloved vocal performers, died from cancer in September at his hometown in Modena. Popular stardom came amongst others at the 1990 World Cup in Italy. The 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin saw him performing for the last time. Pavarotti sang Nessun dorma, with the crowd as its Chorus, and got a thunderous standing ovation. Pavarotti was also noted for his charity work benefiting refugees, the Red Cross and other causes.

Bergman was a Swedish film, stage, and opera director recognized as one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers of modern cinema. Some of his works like The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, Fanny and Alexander, Persona, Summer Interlude are some of the genius’ masterpieces which have not only stood the test of time but shows the man in an entirely different light – arcane, abstruse and iconoclastic. His death is a huge loss to world cinema.

Michelangelo Antonioni was an Italian modernist film director whose films are widely considered as some of the most influential in film aesthetics. His films mostly Italian are aesthetically complex - critically stimulating though elusive in meaning. They are ambiguous works that pose difficult questions and resist simple conclusions. Classical narrative causalities are dissolved in favour of expressive abstraction. He also made 3 English films, one of which Zabriskie Point (1970), was Antonioni's first set in America. It was not successful even though its soundtrack incorporated popular artists such as Pink Floyd (who wrote new music specifically for the film), the Grateful Dead, and the Rolling Stones. It depicted the counterculture movement, but was heavily criticized for the blank performances of its stars, neither of whom had acted before.

Nature hits again: Over 3,000 people were believed to have died and many thousands injured after Cyclone Cider hits Bangladesh in November. It demolished everything near the seashore affecting thousands of houses, buildings, structures, trees and whatever was standing. Almost reminiscent of the Asian Tsunami that hid South Asia in late 2004, the cyclone left thousands of people with nothing in hand. No house, no food, no clothes and nothing at all. Nature is venting its ire on human kind like never before and we hope for better times in the years to come.

Mockery in the Beautiful Game: David Beckham, one of the sporting icons of our times has long traded his soccer boots for endorsements and moolah. Dropped by both club and country, a half fit Becks made a lucrative contract of 250 million USD in the guise of evangelising soccer in the US of A. He hardly played a game or three and could not further his new club, LA Galaxy to the next rounds in the MLS. On the other hand, artist extraordinaire, Juan Roman Riquelme, deemed by many as the best player on the planet, does not find a soccer club as he is deemed to centric to the game for his club Villareal who recently loaned him to Boca Juniors. Ironically, one of the best national teams, Argentina cannot think of a building a team without him and models their soccer strategy around Juan. Strange are the ways of the world.

Nandigram & Singur: CPM messed up big time in these 2 separate incidents as hundreds of acres of farmland they wanted to acquire under the guise of industrialisation, backfired on them like never before. Not only were innocent lives massacred, total chaos reigned, as the ruling party often had their feet in their mouths with conflicting statements issued. Political parties like the Trinamool tried to leverage the scenario to their benefit but all it could muster was some “bandhs” that threw the state into total disarray. They did not show any genuine inclination to sort out their misgivings through discussions with the State Government. Overall it was a terrible black spot on the state already reeling under pressure from all quarters on the issue of corporate investments.

Bob Woolmer: The original laptop coach was “killed” / died in mysterious circumstances in Jamaica during the cricket World Cup. This was the night after Pakistan, a cricketing powerhouse were dumped out of the WC by minnows Ireland in a shock encounter. Woolmer’s autopsy, which had to be done twice, was mired in utter confusion and conspiracy theorists were having a field day. The most plausible explanation was that Bob had got abreast of the betting syndicate which was huge in the sub-continent running into billions of dollars and was about to publish it in his forthcoming book. With Pakistan so meekly bowing out, it was reasoned that many Paki stars had thrown away the game for money and this had supposedly enraged Bob. Though his team-mates including the vitriolic Shoaib Akhtar, with whom Bob had had an open spat, all sided by his passion for the game and love & betterment of Pakistan cricket, the case has not been proven yet and the guilty are yet to be booked. Whatever the case may be, though, this surely was one of the darkest days of cricket and world sport at large.

Taslima Nasreen: The controversial authoress was attacked by fundamentalists in Hyderabad. WB Govt perforce asked Taslima to leave Kolkata after Muslim fanatics protested her presence in the state leading to chaos and clashes in Kolkata. Ironically, as it to project a new fa├žade, Narendra Modi offered her asylum in Gujrat.


The Unholy Trinity: Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears are a trio who rake up airtime for all the wrong reasons. While it is lewd videos, knickerless postures or bingeing sprees, these celebrities who are spending jail time today were ironically once lauded for special talent like singing or acting. It goes to show that success, if it goes to the head and not nurtured well, can make devils out of normal and even good people.


VILLAIN OF THE YEAR: Marion Jones for deceitfully charting a path for fame and glory and then finally falling flat on her face in shame when exposed 6 long years after she shot into stardom.

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For me, the year 2007 was special too and can be termed as the “Year of Travel”. I travelled to seven different countries and haunted exotic locales from Monte Carlo to Venice. Professionally, it was a great year of success and personally I made many friends both nationally and internationally, some as eclectic as budding artists from the Lee Strasberg Film Institute in New York to co-workers in Greece.

I played serious soccer after many years and that too in the home of the world champions. It has now become a part of my weekly routine as I “ply trades” with other soccer enthusiasts (Italians, Spanish, Latinos alike) in the green turf of Italy and self-actualise a personal passion. Being fondly dubbed by my soccer mates as the first Indian to score a goal in Italy was the icing on that delicious cake.

I also met a wonderful person who showed me life and love in an entirely different hue. Unfortunately, the person “passed away” but hopefully will come back to me in another form and shape in future. But C (as I would fondly call the person) made a large part of 2007 very special to me, filling me with hope, unbridled joy and positive energy. Thanks C for being with me even if for a short period in my life.

My mother got a new lease of life and legs as she had a successful total knee replacement surgery and will now able to walk painlessly and normally again after many years. Medical science does not cease to amaze me, the way medicine and technology are leveraged to restore normalcy in people.

Incidents like these and many others will egg me on positively for a better and more successful 2008, I believe. Hope it is a great year for all of you too and may you realise all your ambitions and dreams and even some fantasies. Cheers and Good Luck!!!