Saturday, 3 April 2021

Kyrgyzstan Mountains and Lake, Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan, Land of Mountains ©Solange Hando

They call it 'little Switzerland at the heart of Asia', a land-locked country where only 10% is below 5000 feet. The land is pristine, small population, few tourists except those in the know staying in Bishkek, the pretty village-like capital, and a sprinkling of lakeside resorts.

Ala Archa Park near Bishkek ©Solange Hando

Just 20 miles from the capital, Ala Archa is a national park, just one of 83 protected areas in the country. Boasting 20 glaciers and 50 peaks, reaching up to 16,000 feet, it's an enticing place to ride or trek among forests, waterfalls and rushing streams, looking out for wild flowers and fragrant juniper.

Burana World Heritage  ©Solange Hando

Among the ancient remains that pop up here and there is the Burana minaret rising in the middle of nowhere, above the ruins of a medieval town. Stairs lead to the entrance but beware, the interior is steep, narrow and very dark. Well worth the effort as the view from the top is superb, framed by the Tien Shan mountains in the distance while horsemen far below round up their cattle.

Lake Issyk-Kul ©Solange Hando

At over 5000 feet, Issyk-Kul is one of the deepest and largest lakes in the world, 113 miles long and nearly 40 across in places, and fed by 118 rivers. Framed by snow-capped mountains, it is part of a biosphere reserve covering 20% of Kyrgyzstan. The lake never freezes and you can enjoy hot springs much of the year.

Stunning Issyk-Kul, no one around ©Solange Hando

The north shore is the easiest to access with a good road following a straight line much of the way. You'll find a few guest houses and a stylish Meridien resort alongside a scattering of quiet farms and yurts.
The east end of the lake is in Karakol, a pretty little place with traditional accommodation. It's a great base to explore the rugged southern shore and ski in winter. The mountains are always close by. 

Skazka Canyon ©Solange Hando

Among top attractions near the southern shore is this awesome canyon whose name means 'fairy tale'. It is made of red sand, all crumbly and scorching hot with just a few wild flowers, including gorse and alpine ferns. In some places the lake seems almost within arm's reach.

Yurt in Kyrgyzstan ©Solange Hando

These traditional huts are still used by farmers in their summer pastures and also for special celebrations, especially weddings. Some yurts serve meals to visitors and on occasions offer a comfortable night among colourful cushions, blankets and rugs.

Barksoon, my Favourite Valley in Kyrgyzstan ©Solange Hando



Saturday, 6 March 2021

Wild Life Encounters in Africa


Cheetah in Namibia ©Solange Hando

Did you know? Namibia was the first country to include conservation in its Constitution and in this big but sparsely populated country, wild life always has the right of way.

There are 200 mammal species on land and you will see them all over the country but top attraction is the Ethiopia National Park in the north where I came across this beautiful cheetah in the nearby AfriCat Foundation reserve.

                                                                     Elephants in Botswana ©Solange Hando

This is in the Chobe National Park by the namesake river, a wonderful place to see the wild life, especially in the dry season. 

Lions, giraffes, buffaloes, gazelles and more, it's amazing but my favourites were the elephants, such as this mother and babe who just swam across the river to spend the night on Sedudu island, the safest place for the young.

                                                             Gelada Baboons in Ethiopia ©Solange Hando

What's special about them? They're only found in the Ethiopian Highlands with the largest population in the Simien Mountains.

Notice the young one on the left clinging to his mum and to the right the father, displaying the red patch on his chest. The larger the patch, the more attractive he will be to the other sex.

                                                               Penguins in South Africa ©Solange Hando

This is Boulder Beach, not far from Cape Town and part of the Table Mountain National Park Marine Area. Stay on the trail, keep quiet and enjoy the display as they wobble across the white sand and you might even spot a baby's head popping out of a nest. 

Others venture up on the granite rocks, sharing the space with cormorants drying their wings in the hot African sun.

                                                                         Rhino in Zambia ©Solange Hando

How close is that on a walking safari? Pretty close as we trekked in single file, two of us with six armed guards to keep away poachers, not rhinos... Not far from the Victoria Falls, so if you go there, check it out.

Black rhinos are a true success story in Zambia though you do find white ones too. Both similar colour but the difference between black and white simply refers to the length of the horns and shape of the lips.

                                                                     Lemur in Madagascar ©Solange Hando

What an island this is, so rich in flora and fauna, best known of course, the incredible lemurs living undisturbed in their natural habitats.

There are over 100 species of lemurs -and probably more yet to be discovered-, though my favourites were the playful ring-tailed, the black and white indri, the largest we know, and this lovely silky sifaka and babe, often called the dancing lemur, hopping along with the grace of a ballerina.

                                                                Sunset with the Wild Life, Namibia ©Solange Hando


Saturday, 6 February 2021

Travel Photos? So much to Remember

India ©Solange Hando

This is Khardung La in Ladakh, which claims to be the highest road pass in the world. Set on an old trade route, it is the gateway to the Nubra Valley but closed in winter.
You need a special permit to drive up the steep meandering road with precipitous drops, especially dramatic on single lane sections. Not much traffic up there but the odd overloaded bus or local authorities who always have the right of way. 

Namibia ©Solange Hando

South of Namibia's capital, Windhoek, that was an easy stop but truly exciting as you step out on the southernmost latitude where you can see the sun directly overhead. It wasn't quite the summer solstice just yet but knowing that the Capricorn stretches 36788 kms around the earth was impressive.

Eswatini ©Solange Hando

This is in Eswatini, the former Swaziland, one of Africa's smallest countries, bordered by Mozambique and South Africa. This was the final day of the annual Reeds Festival where after renewing the royal enclosure, women from across the country perform for the king.
'They all dance for the king,' said my friend, 'then by the end of the day he will choose his next wife.'
'Would you like to join?'

                                                               Canada ©Solange Hando

This is the amazing Athabasca glacier spreading out from the Columbia, the largest icefield in the Rockies. You can drive up there from Jasper or Lake Louise then enjoy a dizzying skywalk above the gorge, followed by a ride on the giant Ice Explorer. Then you can walk a few steps on the glacier, listening to rumbling avalanches and creaking crevasses as snowy peaks tower above you, at over 3000 metres.

                                                                     Reunion Island ©Solange Hando

Set in the Indian Ocean, this is a French Island between Madagascar and Mauritius, just 63 by 45 kms but one of the most active hotspots on earth.
This was my first trip in a microlight, circling and dipping around craters, ravines and the mighty Furnace Peak which erupts several times a year.  I was terrified but I loved it. Awesome...

                                                                       Madagascar ©Solange Hando

Four hours from Antananarivo, the capital, this is Lemur Island, on the edge of the Andasibe National Park. It's a refuge for wounded or endangered lemurs, including the ring-tailed above who decided to perch on my head. Approach the grasslands in a canoe and they venture right to the edge, exploring any stranger with their soft padded feet. 

                                                                     Himalayas ©Solange Hando

I love the Himalayas and this is taken on the fabulous flight from Kathmandu to Paro in Bhutan, the closest international airport to the kingdom's capital, Thimphu.
See the pyramid summit of Everest, 8849 metres, at the back, rising above the Nuptse wall to the left and the Lothse Peak to the right.
If you ever fly this route, make sure you get a seat on the left-hand site on the way to Paro.


Saturday, 9 January 2021

2008? Most Amazing and still Dreaming...

Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, King of Bhutan ©Solange Hando

If anyone had ever told me  I'd shake hands with a King on his Coronation day, I would never have believed it. But on 6th November 2008, there I was, in Bhutan, joining in the celebrations for five incredible days of local colour and traditions.
The son received the 'raven's crown' from his retiring father (52) before meeting the special guests who offered good wishes and auspicious white scarves.

Bhutanese Pageantry on Coronation Day ©Solange Hando

Following a religious ceremony in Punakha, the fomer capital, a few days earlier, the main event was held in Thimphu, the modern capital, in Tashichho Dzong, a fortified Buddhist monastery rebuilt in modern times but loyal to ancient traditions.
Dancers, drummers, horn blowers, flag bearers, the courtyard was a blaze of colours as groups from far and wide attended, wearing bright costumes and traditional boots.

Gifts for the King ©Solange Hando

Gifts were brought to the King from across the country, a bag of rice, a sack of grain, fruit, flowers, as thousands of locals sat in the stadium to watch it all. Most exciting were the elephants from down south which very few people in the capital had ever seen.
No diamonds, no jewels, but His Majesty stood through it all, blessing every single gift before it was returned to its owner by royal request.

His Majesty Meeting the People ©Solange Hando

In the afternoon, people gathered to meet their King, offering more traditional scarves and receiving a special coronation medal. So many people wanted to pay their respects, an extra day had to be added at the end of the week.
Everyone wore their best national dress while the King's yellow cape is the royalty symbol. See how the King bends down to get close to the people he promised to serve. The gathering lasted a full afternoon and His Majesty had to request his family's help to get around all present.

Mingling with the Locals ©Solange Hando

I could have stayed with the press but I loved to meet the locals, their English was amazing, even my little friends the boy monks.
I met families who had walked across the mountains for over a week to see their King and Buddhist nuns who had hitched a lift on an already overloaded truck, after their names were picked out from a bowl. They promised to report everything to the nunnery on their return.

Traditional Dancing ©Solange Hando

Religious dancers in robes and masks performed to ensure auspicious times but this was also a celebration for the people and by the people, as schoolchildren and others awaited their turn to dance for His Majesty.
They had been training for months right across the country and designed their own costumes with local materials.
It had been agreed that the week's celebrations should come at minimum cost for the country and even for special guests (only a handful of them). 

Archery National Sport ©Solange Hando

But there was plenty of fun, including a strong man contest, a tug of war, a pillow fight when the loser would end up in a bowl of water. The King even left his seat to have a closer look and roar with laughter...
Then before the farewell dance, there was an archery contest when royal members took part . See the King above, raising his bow in the middle, ready for the traditional victory dance when his team scored top points.

Still Dreaming ©Solange Hando




Saturday, 28 November 2020

Latin America, My Favourite Spots

Iguazu Falls, Brazil ©Solange Hando

My top favourite, on the border between Argentina (80% of the falls) and Brazil (best views of them all.) Notice the walkway (top right) where you can get amazingly close beyond the rainbow and get soaking wet, plastic gear provided.
The falls (over 200 of them) stretch 2.7km and drop 82 metres in places. Tourists carefully monitored so you really feel at the heart of it all, overwhelmed by sound and sight. 

La Boca, Buenos Aires ©Solange Hando

Just one of 48 'barrio' in the Argentinian capital, this neighbourhood is all traditional buildings and cobbled lanes close to the old harbour and 21st century tower blocks.

Enjoy Italian tavernas and Spanish Tango on the streets  -join in if you dare- and see artists, markets and humble dwellings, bright cheerful colours, all along the way.

Lake District, Chile ©Solange Hando

South of the capital Santiago, a spectacular flight takes you over the snow-capped mountains to the Andes Lake District shared between Chile and Argentina. Above is the lovely Peulla in Chile, so quiet and pristine.
On the Argentinian side, I enjoyed the attractive resort of Bariloche with its luminous lake, volcanoes, forests and spectacular views, hike in summer, ski in winter.

Costa Rica, Making Friends ©Solange Hando

Well, I'd need a whole album to show you Costa Rica -wild life and volcanoes included- but here's just one happy friend, helping me to celebrate my birthday.
Let's jus say that that this is an amazing country, top rated for Human Development and Conservation, between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Back in 1949, it abolished its army to spend money on health care, education and preserving the natural world. A lesson for us all?

Peru, Lake Titicaca ©Solange Hando

So much to see in Peru, I especially loved Cusco and Machu Picchu, but meeting the Uros Indians on Lake Titicaca is my most endearing memory.
Long ago, they set up home on the lake, harvesting reeds to build floating islands where enemies could not reach them. It's a continuous process even today but the Uros are doing well with fishing, local crafts and even technology. Shared with Bolivia, Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, 3810 metres.

Mexico, Chichen Itza ©Solange Hando

In the Yucatan peninsula, this was the largest city built by the Mayas and Kukulcan (above) is the most spectacular monument. The 30 metre high stepped pyramid takes its name from a snake god, said to cast its 'shadow' across the steps during the spring and autumn equinox.
It's a top attraction, accessible from coastal resorts, but go early and you can have it all to yourself as you ponder on this powerful yet cruel civilisation.

Guatemala, Sunset on Lake Atitlan ©Solange Hando

Up in the highlands of Sierra Madre, Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America (max. 340 metres). Set in a vast caldera in the National Park, it is 18 km long and fringed by three 'new' volcanoes, at least one of them still active.
There are traditional Maya villages in the neighbourhood but no road around the lake so it is often considered one of the most beautiful in the world

Cuba ©Solange Hando

The largest island in the Caribbean
Dancing, music, tradition, colour
What more could you want?
A cigar?
Rolled on a lady's thigh, of course




Saturday, 31 October 2020

Southern Africa my Favourite Spots


South Africa Drakensberg ©Solange Hando

The Zulus call it 'Barrier of Spears' and this is the highest mountain range in the country. A place for stunning views, rare species and spectacular sunsets.

Drive all the way up to the Sani pass if you dare, 2784 metres, enjoy a meal in the pub and if time allows, spend the night in a traditional rondavel or pop over the border into Lesotho.

                                                               Namib Desert ©Solange Hando

This is the 'sea of sand' spreading all along the coast of Namibia, across the borders and inland for up to 120 km. They say it is the oldest desert in the world and claims some of the highest dunes.

This is an amazing place with dried up oases and skeleton trees but at times some unexpected greenery benefitting from moisture from the nearby Atlantic. Look out for wild life, including the oryx gazelle, Namibia's national animal.

                                                            Victoria Falls in Zambia ©Solange Hando

Plunging down to 108 metres, the Victoria Falls spread 17 km across Zambia and Zimbabwe- the quieter side-, protected by Unesco and national parks on both sides.

On the Zambian side, you can walk along the 'knife's edge' bridge but only the brave should bathe in the Devil's Pool on Livingstone Island. 

                                                     Chobe National Park in Botswana ©Solange Hando

Easily accessed from neighbouring Zambia, this is a great wilderness of wetlands and riverine forest meandering along the blue Chobe river.

It's a haven for wild life on land and water, elephants, giraffes, hippos, crocs, buffaloes and more, and 460 species of birds. One of the best safaris in Africa.

                                                       Madagascar Land of Lemurs ©Solange Hando

Off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, this is a big island but two national parks are relatively close to Antananarivo, the capital, most popular Andasibe, a four hour drive or so.

Andasibe's easy trails give you to chance to see a range of lemurs in the wild, including the indri, the largest- and the beautiful 'dancing lemur', as seen on the picture. 

                                                                  Reunion Island ©Solange Hando

Just east of Madagascar, Reunion is a volcanic hotspot, all ravines, gorges and peaks, very green except for the Furnace Peak which erupts every few months.

But in this far away French department, there's plenty to do and see from forlorn villages and mountain treks to tropical beaches and seaside resorts with few crowds.

                                                                 Mauritius ©Solange Hando

          Then if you need to relax, just check out the paradise island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Herne Bay Seaside Resort on the North Kent Coast

                                        Herne Bay Traditional Bandstand ©Solange Hando

Designed in 1924, later extended with an art deco frontage, it was almost abandoned but beautifully refurbished in the 1990s.

Today it's a great place to meet family and friends with cafe restaurant and ice cream parlour, sit indoors or in the spacious courtyard with garden and sea views and traditional concerts in summer.

                                                  Herne Bay Seafront ©Solange Hando

See the clock tower?  This is the other landmark in Herne Bay, built in 1836-37 by a rich widow who enjoyed holidays in the resort. It is one the earliest free-standing towers of its kind in the country.

A Grade II listed building and 82 feet high including the weathervane, it looks across the sandy part of the beach and the small inner harbour.

Central Parade on Herne Bay Seafront ©Solange Hando

Herne Bay enjoyed its first golden age in the Victorian era as one of the nearest seaside resorts to London. With its Victorian and Edwardian architecture, the Parade is a conservation area, enhanced by flower gardens and palm trees leading to the promenade along the shore.

Look out for the Ship Inn, a historic seafront pub, also Grade II, once a smugglers' haunt, now popular with cyclists and walkers on the Saxonshore Way.

                                                            View from the Shore ©Solange Hando

Grass on the beach? That's conservation... and on the right you see the end of Neptune's Arm, with viewing platform, built in the 1990s to prevent flooding.

On the left is the end of the pier, once the second longest in England, but severely damaged by the storm in 1978. It has been partially rebuilt, leaving its former 'head' out at sea. 

                                                                     On the Pier ©Solange Hando

But Herne Bay pier enjoys a new lease of life, with free entrance to the 'pier village' lined with colourful beach-hut like venues for casual eating, in or outdoors, and local craft shops.

There are fabulous views back to the shore or out to sea and entertainment for the children, most popular the merry-go round and helter-skelter.

                                                                  Reculver Towers ©Solange Hando

Just three miles east of Herne Bay central parade, you can stroll around this lovely country park topped by the twin towers of the old St Mary's church and Roman remains on the clifftop. Superb sea views, traditional pub and children's playground.

You can drive there from town or walk along the sea wall to the start of the wide grassy cliffs, a 'Special Protection Area' for birds and insects. There you can join the Oyster Trail laced in cycle and walking paths.

                                                Sunset and Herne Bay Pier Head out to Sea ©Solange Hando