Posts Tagged With: animals

Spending Christmas with the Pandas in Chengdu

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by choice when researching a trip to China. There are sprawling megacities, soaring mountains, arid deserts and ancient ruins. Where does one start? Clearly, we were always going to Beijing and Hong Kong. Janey spent ten years working as an archaeologist so a visit to Xi’an to see the fabled Terracotta Warriors was also essential. Other than these three places, my attention kept getting drawn to Sichuan province. Why Sichuan? Well, the scenery looked stunning for a start. It was also reputedly home to one of the best, and spiciest, regional cuisines in China. Most of all though, it was about pandas. Sichuan is the best place in China to see one of my very favourite animals. Going to China and not seeing them would have been unthinkable, like not drinking beer in Germany or missing Macchu Pacchu in Peru. We had to go to Sichuan.

Sichuan Map
On December 23rd 2015, we boarded a domestic flight from Beijing to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province. It was one of the more traumatic flights I’ve experienced. Honestly, I’ve got no idea how the man in front of us could spend an entire three hour flight hawking up phlegm. This is exactly what happened though. As it was an evening departure from Beijing, it was gone midnight by the time we arrived in Chengdu. My rucksack did not arrive with us. After the hassle that I’d had at immigration in Beijing, I was beginning to get suspicious. Were these things happening because we were going to Tibet? We would spend the whole of December 24th in the hostel waiting for word of where the bag was. This meant that we missed out on going to see the Giant Buddha in Leshan. Here’s a picture that I didn’t take of it. It’s fair to say that we’ve had better Christmas Eves.

Leshan Giant Buddha
Christmas morning dawned and my rucksack still hadn’t appeared. However, we were both determined to make the most of the day. This was the main reason for our visit to Chengdu. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (or Chengdu Panda Base for short) was set up in 1987 to help combat the sharp decline in panda numbers in the wild. As the name implies, the base has a very successful breeding programme and can share some of the credit for the fact that panda numbers are now increasing again. As the base is located about an hour outside of the city, we organised transport through the hostel and got driven out there with two German girls. Driving out of the city, I felt my spirits plummet. The pollution was horrendous and the outskirts looked indescribably bleak. How on earth could the poor pandas survive if they had to breath this dirty air?
We pulled up at the centre just before 9:00 and made our way in. At this point, our driver spoke to us for the first time. In halting, broken English he pointed at a number on the map and said “Here. Baby. Pandas.” Janey immediately went into some sort of involuntary convulsions. We walked a little way into the park, rounded a corner and there they were! My previously low mood was cured instantaneously. There were about ten pandas prostrated on a platform, munching on vast quantities of bamboo. We stayed there for well over half an hour, mesmerised by how docile and content they were. No wonder pandas are supposedly sexually reticent, they are obviously too busy eating all the time.

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Next was the main event of the morning; the baby pandas. The highlight was seeing one little panda continually trying to climb up a tree. He didn’t quite have enough strength in his legs and kept sliding back down and landing on his backside, He would then go back and try again and achieve exactly the same result. At this point, I thought Janey would either combust or enrol on a rapid Sichuanese and zoology course in an attempt to get a job as a keeper.

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Later, we encountered the red pandas. These are much less well known than their black and white counterparts. They are also considerably smaller and considerably more aggressive. I particularly enjoyed watching one of them trying to take on a peacock who was trying to steal his food. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Red pandas presumably know this mantra and live their lives by it.
By late morning the park was getting crowded and it was time to go back to the city. Unfortunately, we then had to spend Christmas Day afternoon shopping for new clothes, as my bag still hadn’t shown up. However, it’s certainly not hyperbole or exaggeration to say that the pandas saved our Christmas that year.

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TRAVEL TIPS
For more information about the Chengdu Panda Base, this is the English version of their website http://www.panda.org.cn/english/

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Categories: China, Panda Centre, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exploring the Ecuadorian Amazon

There are few places on earth that excite the imagination quite like the Amazon basin. The largest rainforest in the world covers more than two and a half million square miles and is spread across nine different countries. It also boasts an outstanding array of flora and fauna, a lot of which, including the mighty anaconda, is unique to the region. The vast jungle is also home to indigenous tribes who remain remarkably detached from the modern world. Put all of these elements together and it’s obvious why the Amazon is so beguiling for travellers and adventurers. Tours to the rainforest can easily be organised from Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The Cuyabeno National Park is located close to the Colombian border, and tourists can take four, five or six day trips into the Amazon there. Back in 2007, I took the five day tour into the jungle. Eight years on, it still remains one of my all-time favourite travel experiences.

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Day 1

The overnight bus from Quito arrived in Lago Agrio at 7:30am. This gave us two and a half hours until our transport arrived, which was about two hours and fifteen minutes too long to spend in Lago Agrio. This is not a city you’d want to hang around in. When we departed, we endured a bone shaking three hour journey to El Puente, the starting point for the tour. These were some of the worst roads I experienced in all of South America. Finally though, we arrived and were herded straight onto a canoe. A two hour journey down the river took us to the Samona jungle lodge. This journey was rather more pleasurable. Chirpy and colourful macaws sang in the trees and we also spotted three different species of monkeys. That evening, after settling into the lodge, we were taken out to the Laguna Cuyabeno where we swam and watched the sunset. At first I was sceptical. Aren’t there piranhas in the Amazon?! Don’t they like eating people?! Not according to our guide Jairo. He told us that piranhas are like sharks and will only bite you if you’re already bleeding. Good enough for me! In we jumped and swam in a lagoon in the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Truly amazing.

Day 2

The second day commenced in a rather challenging manner. After breakfast, we were taken out on the motor boat and deposited a considerable distance down the river. We were then placed in traditional dugout canoes and told that we were going to paddle back to the lodge. This was difficult, especially because of the fierce sun, but also massively rewarding. Along the way, we caught fleeting glimpses of pink freshwater dolphins and the rarely seen South American Coati. The giant anaconda remained elusive though. In the evening we watched a mesmerising lightning display over the lagoon before embarking on a night hike through the forest, which was teeming with tarantulas and scorpions. Quite how our immensely knowledgeable guide, Jairo, could navigate his way through the dense dark forest so easily continues to be a source of wonder.

Day 3

Day three was the highlight of the expedition. In the morning we travelled upriver and met a local tribe, called the Sione. There we were shown how they farmed and made a living for themselves in an incredibly unforgiving environment. From the Sione, we moved onto the Cofan tribe, where we were hugely privileged to meet a Shamen. Wearing his traditional dress he talked to us about the training that he had done to become a Shamen, and the hallucinogenic drinks that the Shamen use to induce a higher state of consciousness. This was followed by a demonstration of how he heals people on the cook from our lodge. It’s debatable whether or not he cured the cook’s bad back, but it was certainly intriguing to watch. In the evening we returned to the lagoon where we went piranha fishing! They may not have attacked me whilst I was swimming, but they certainly went for the bait. I was lucky enough to catch a massive one, but certainly not brave enough to hold it! Its razor sharp teeth looked like they could cut through human bone very easily. This was no problem for Jairo who held it with ease.  He was a proper man of the jungle!

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Day 4

Our final full day began with an exhilarating three hour trek into the jungle. It was hard work but immense fun. The route took us through creeks and swamps and on a number of occasions Jairo had to hack at the foliage with his machete to find us a path. I got to fulfil an ambition by swinging from a vine, and then later in the trek we also ate ants from the bark of a tree. Not for the faint hearted! The trek did also have educational value as well, as Jairo explained to us which plants had medicinal qualities and what they could be used for. For example, many of the indigenous people believe that the milk that can be obtained from the bark of the Quinina tree can cure malaria. That evening we paddled the dugout canoes in another sadly futile attempt to find an anaconda. Our efforts to see the great snake were not rewarded. However, we did see a Toucan, the symbol of the Amazon region. Most impressively of all we were treated to the magnificent sight of a solitary vulture circling low looking for carrion. Another unforgettable moment.

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Day 5

All great adventures have to come to an end, and so unfortunately did my mini adventure. I wasn’t even looking forward to getting back to Quito, let alone having to kill a few hours in Lago Agrio. In what seemed like a consolation prize, we were taken out on a final hike through the forest, before the boat journey back to El Puente. Sitting on the boat I mused on the memories of a wonderful five days. In that time I had met indigenous tribespeople, felt like an adventurer and seen an array of wildlife that, in Ecuador, could only be bettered in the Galapagos. The Amazon didn’t just meet my expectations, it exceeded them.

TRAVEL TIPS

This article was originally written eight years ago for a sadly now defunct newspaper called The Ecuador Reporter. Whilst I have made every effort to ensure that the information is still correct, I haven’t been able to find current prices. I’m happy to recommend Gulliver’s travels (http://www.gulliver.com.ec/) and Trans Esmeraldas, the bus company that I travelled from Quito to Lago Agrio with. (http://www.transportesesmeraldas.com/portal/) However, if you want specific prices you’ll have to find them for yourselves!

Categories: Ecuador, Exploring the Amazon, South America | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Operation Snow Monkey

Japan; the land of the rising sun. Home to sushi, sumo and samurai. It’s one of the most evocative and distinct destinations on earth. Prior to last December, I’d wanted to go there for years. Our three week Christmas holiday gave me the perfect opportunity. Janey, my better half, was somewhat sceptical though. Understandably, she was concerned about the financial impact of three weeks in one of Asia’s most expensive countries. I had to do something to persuade her. Thus, Operation Snow Monkey was born.

During my research about Japan, I’d found out about a group of Japanese long-tailed monkeys who live near Kambayashi onsen in Nagano prefecture. Their claim to fame is that they escape the bitter winter cold by bathing in the onsen, a natural volcanic hot spring. They’re also exceptionally cute. And Janey has a big weakness for cute fluffy things. Part one of Operation Snow Monkey involved “accidentally” leaving my phone lying around or my laptop screen open, with pictures of cute snow monkeys on them. “Who are they?” Janey asked. “They’re called snow monkeys, they live in Japan” I casually declared. The seed was planted. After a few days of this, the build up was over and I went for the winning shot. “You know if we went to Japan at Christmas, you could see the snow monkeys…………..” SUCCESS!! We were going to Japan!

The day after our flight arrived in Nagoya, we stepped off a train in Nagano, right into some of the foulest winter weather imaginable. It was cold, wet sleet. By the time we had walked the short distance to our hostel we were freezing, miserable and soaked to the skin. Had it all been a big mistake coming to Japan in the winter? The next day assuaged our doubts spectacularly.

After a morning spent visiting Nagano’s stunning Zenko-ji temple, we boarded a bus to take us to the monkey park. Throughout the journey the snow was coming down really hard and the bus even had to stop to put snow chains on the wheels. Then, all of a sudden, we were deposited by the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. From the road, a track meandered up through snow covered pine forest towards the monkey park. Our guidebook understated the length of the walk (it took us forty minutes rather than twenty) but overstated the difficulty level. It’s actually an easy stroll, as long as you have strong footwear.

During the walk a full scale blizzard started. At one point it was blowing horizontally into our faces. We were going to have to work to see these monkeys. It was well worth it in the end though. The onsen, despite being a bit of a tourist trap, was a truly unique place. Some of the mother monkeys clutched their tiny offspring to their bosoms for warmth, while others sat in the water, enjoying the searing heat. Occasionally, a fight would break out but for the most part, the monkeys seemed gloriously content in their little oasis from the cold. All the while the blizzard raged around us, making the visit even more memorable.

On our walk back to the road, night was beginning to fall, giving the forest an almost ethereal nature. At times it felt like we were walking through Narnia! A cup of hot sake, in the café at the bottom, warmed our bones and put the seal on a truly unforgettable experience.

Over the next three weeks, Japan completely exceeded our expectations. The visit to the monkey park remained one of the very best days though. Operation Snow Monkey was a complete success!

TRAVEL TIPS

We took a bus from Nagano station to the monkey park. It took us about one hour and cost 1300 Yen. These leave pretty frequently throughout the day. Be careful not to miss the last bus back from the monkey park though! This departed at 5:30pm.

Categories: Asia, Japan, Snow Monkeys | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre

Reasons why orangutans are amazing

  • They’re ginger monkeys
  • They share 96.4% of their DNA with humans, the highest percentage of any animal species
  • They’re the only one of the great apes to live outside of Africa
  • They are the wild men of Borneo
  • Baby orangutans look like this….Baby orangutan
  • Big daddy alpha male orangutans look like this…..

For all these reasons, and ginger solidarity, orangutans have always been one of my favourite animals. On our recent trip to Sabah, one of the two states that comprise the Malaysian part of Borneo, I had the opportunity to see these magnificent beasts for the first time.

As it’s getting more and more difficult to see orangutans in the wild, the best bet for primate enthusiasts in Sabah is to visit the Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre, one of only three such facilities in the world. Situated just 45 minutes away from Sabah’s second largest city, Sandakan, the sanctuary welcomes thousands of visitors every year. The highlights of the day are the two feeding sessions, held at 10am and 2:30pm. On the morning of our visit, we arrived just in time for the 10am session, as the first orangutans were making their entrance. The orangutans swing along the ropes to the platform where they are fed bananas. The diet is deliberately monotonous, so as to encourage natural foraging behaviour, which is essential if they are ever to return to the wild. The feeding lasts for approximately twenty minutes before the orangutans decide they’ve had their fill and swing back into the forest. Watching it was a fantastic experience.

After feeding time there are a couple of options. There is a jungle trail, about 5 kilometres in length, which leads to a waterfall. As there was a high prospect of being leeched we decided to pass and visit the neighbouring Borneo Sun bear conservation centre instead. Sun bears are the world’s smallest bear species. Similarly to orangutans, they are endangered due to habitat destruction and Chinese traditional medicine. At the BSCC you can view the tiny bears from an elevated platform. These beautiful bears were so playful and docile that I was seriously worried that Janey might ask if she could take one home.

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After leaving the sun bears we headed to the café for lunch. This was made extremely entertaining when one bold orang-utan, named Sisi attempted a daring, but ultimately unsuccessful, smash and grab raid on the kitchen supplies. Natural foraging behaviour I guess. Finally, it was time for the afternoon feeding session. Although we saw less orangutans this time, it was more amusing as a squad of macaques attempted their own smash and grab raid on the platform. Unfortunately, the afternoon session showed some negative aspects of the sanctuary. Many tourists seem unable to resist acting like complete imbeciles around the animals. When two inquisitive orangutans came down into our midst, they were surrounded by throngs of people flashing away and no doubt causing immense distress for the poor animals. Not cool at all.

Despite the unfortunate reasons for its formation and the stupid behaviour of some visitors, a trip to Sepilok is a superb experience and one that I’d highly recommend. After all, how many chances do you get to see the great apes in their natural habitat?

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TRAVEL TIPS

  • Entrance to the sanctuary costs 30 ringgit and covers you for both feeding sessions.
  • There are many lodges near the sanctuary. I’d recommend staying in one of these, rather than central Sandakan.
Categories: Asia, Malaysia, Orangutan centre, Sabah | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai

Janey, my better half, loves elephants. She tells me this on a pretty much daily basis. Thus, when I was planning our three week December trip around Laos and Thailand, the constant refrain that I heard was “I don’t care where we go as long as we see some elephants.” Laos, our first port of call, has the wonderfully evocative, but also extremely inaccurate, nickname of the land of a million elephants. In our entire eight days there we didn’t manage to see a single one. Therefore, by the time we crossed the Thai border and arrived in Chiang Mai, Janey was starting to get a little nervous that our trip might be depressingly free of pachyderms. She needn’t have worried. Chiang Mai has a plethora of options available for tourists to meet and interact with elephants. The challenge is choosing the right one.
Most companies offer a choice between working elephant shows and elephant riding. Watching elephants move logs around that would then be put back in the same place the next day never seemed that attractive, and after careful research Janey concluded that she didn’t want to ride the elephants either. The reason for this is that in some cases the elephants are grotesquely mistreated by the mahouts to ensure their acquiescence. As we didn’t want to endorse any potential mistreatment this left one other option. The Elephant Nature Park, which is situated about 60km north of Chiang Mai, is a sanctuary for elephants that have been rescued from a variety of dire situations. It’s a lot more expensive than other options at 2500 Baht and normally requires an advanced reservation, but luckily we were able to book at short notice, due to a cancellation.

On the journey to the park, we watched a short film that told the story of the park’s formation by a Thai lady named Lek Chailert. She set up the park in 1994, as a refuge for elephants that had fallen into misfortune due to Thailand’s ban on working elephants in 1989. When it opened the park had just three elephants. Now it is home to over seventy, which makes feeding and caring for them an extremely expensive operation. It was for this reason that the park first opened its doors to tourists. Upon arrival, we were taken to an elevated platform where buckets of watermelon and pumpkin had been placed in preparation for feeding time. We didn’t have to wait too long until the first batch of elephants arrived and we were allowed the wonderful experience of feeding these great beasts. I don’t think it would actually be humanly possible to not enjoy this. Be prepared for your arms to be liberally covered in slobber though!

After feeding time, our excellent guide Andy, took our group for a walk around the park and regaled us with background information about some of the elephants. Sadly, many of these stories were quite depressing. One had been blinded by a vicious mahouts, another had lost half a paw to a landmine. This added a touch of sobriety to what was an otherwise uplifting experience. After an excellent buffet lunch, we enjoyed what is the highlight for the majority of visitors; elephant bath time. For a few short minutes we were allowed to go in the river and douse the appreciative elephants with water. As it was winter, this was quite a brief activity as the elephants didn’t need much cooling down. Janey didn’t partake but instead appeared to be deep in conversation with an elderly female elephant, who had obviously decided that the water was a bit too cold for her that day.

The final activity of the day was the most interactive. A mass feeding time, this time not from a platform, but down on the ground amongst the elephants. It also featured the arrival of the park’s star attraction; a four month old baby that was born in the park. This resulted in a bit of a scrum for photos but looking at these, can you really blame us?! All too soon, the day was over and we had to return to Chiang Mai. All the people on our minibus agreed that it had been worth every single Baht. I’ll leave the final word to Janey though. When I asked her if it had lived up to her expectations her response was “Yes, I loved every minute, I really love them and I think they like me too.” Quite so.

TRAVEL TIPS

As well as day visits the Elephant Nature Park also has volunteer opportunities. You can find out more  at http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/.

Categories: Asia, Elephant Nature Park, Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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