Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Best Safari Destination

When I was very young, Africa burst upon my imagination with the debut of the blockbuster movies Hatari! and Born Free which brought the grandeur of the African savannah to us in larger-than-life Technicolor wide-screen, complete with stirring music and often unscripted drama from the animals. Add a good dose of Tarzan books, and I was completely enamoured with the whole adventure of an African safari.
When preparing for my first visit to Africa, my mind was racing with questions. Was the legendary savannah still unspoilt? Would it be as grand as or even greater than what I saw on the screen? Were the numerous TV documentaries reflective of the true situation? Would I actually get to see many wild animals? I soon found out that the answer to each and every question was a resounding Yes. The fabled natural habitats of Kenya remain green, clean and vast – far greater in scope and beauty than anything the silver-screen could convey. And as for wildlife, nothing could have possibly prepared me for what actually happened.

 From herbivores like the African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Warthog , Masai and Reticulated Giraffes, Burchell’s Zebra, Scrub Hare, Hippopotamus and White Rhinoceros to carnivores like the Lion, Cheetah, Hyena, Jackal, Wild Dog and Leopard, mammals could be seen at close quarters from the open-sided jeeps that cruise the vast natural habitats of Kenya.
Of the antelope or deer genus alone, we saw large numbers of Impala, Grant’s Gazelle, Thompson’s Gazelle, Topi, Wildebeest and Common Waterbuck, while also managing to spot less common species like the Hartebeest, Bushbuck, Defassa Waterbuck, Bohor  Reedbuck, the tiny Kirk’s Dik-Dik and the enormous cow-sized Eland. Omnivores like the Banded Mongoose and Baboon helped us notch up a list of about thirty magnificent mammal-species of all shapes and sizes in the four days we were on full safari in different parts of Kenya. The highlight of the trip was an accidental once-in-a-lifetime close encounter with an enormous lion!

Since then, I have travelled across various parts of Africa, and seen some amazing sights. But for the Best Safari Destination in my experience, it has to be Kenya – by far.

(All photographs by Andrew Ponnampalam)

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Best Australian Destination For Sign-Power!

When travelling around the world, it is essential to read the signs carefully. In a foreign country, directional signs, security information, place-names and even warning notices give you a sense of place, and a certain measure of comprehension; which in turn creates enough confidence to move on to the next leg of your journey. In one particular destination, however, I found that the signs around me became a major attraction of their own!

They inform, they direct, they attract, and they entertain - all by themselves. Strictly policed and stringently controlled, they still manage to exhibit exuberance and glee as they stand outside and do their daily duty in rain or shine. "They" are the signboards of Queensland - or more specifically, that part of the state from Brisbane to the Gold Coast. Ignore these signs, and you may be stuck with the stereotyped touristy trip, and miss out on the best things the region has to offer. Stop, look, and appreciate them fully - and you will transform your holiday into an enchanting experience of local passion, beauty and dedication to excellence. These signboards will lead you into a wonderful world full of local colour, humour, enterprise - and most importantly for serious shoppers - outstanding products of exquisite finesse, great value, and solid quality.

The first group of signs that caught my eye were neither stylish or colourful. In fact, they were downright grubby, rough and weather-beaten; just like the ramshackle old shop they fronted. "MICK'S NUTS", the first sign proclaimed very loudly and rudely. "Macadamia Shop", called another, in vivid red on white. The third sign in the motley crew was the clincher. Nearest the door, it pulled me in irresistibly : "NUTS SHOP. Australian Pesticide-Free Almonds". Now, if that did not tantalise the taste-buds, what would?
Entering the low-ceilinged store was to enter a magical kingdom of nuts and cousins. Almonds, brazil-nuts, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts, macadamias, peanuts, pecans, pine-nuts, pistachios, walnuts - every nut in town seemed to be there save the coconut. Roasted or toasted, salted or spiced, sliced or diced, cooked or raw - if it was edible, it was on sale. And all related foods were there as well, in Mick's Nut Shop:- raisins, sultanas, prunes, pulses, sunflower kernels, watermelon seeds, pumpkin seeds, tiny sesame seeds, and dried fruit like figs, apricots, bananas, apples - everything you'd want for a healthy, fibre-rich Mediterranean-style diet. Standing at the same location for over twenty years, this family-run shop has become something of an icon in Brisbane's West End neighbourhood, with the same warm Greek hospitality of its second-generation owners, who greet the regulars by name.

Hospitable was not the adjective that came to mind when I saw another sign in the lush green environs of another intriguing destination. "ENTRY RULES" it stated ominously. "Coach or Tour Groups Not Permitted. No Pedestrians. Small Vehicle Groups Only." The white-bearded gnome-like owner was unapologetic. "Coach Tours? Bah! Humbugs, the lot of them! If it was legal to shoot 'em, I would, the bludgers! Driving in here, posing for photographs, knocking off free samples, and then turning tail and leaving without spending a single penny!"
This was my introduction to the 'legendary' Michael Ward of Mount Tamborine:- raconteur, orchard farmer, avid environmentalist and co-owner of the award-winning Tamborine Mountain Distillery, widely-known as "Australia's Most-Awarded Distillery & Liquor Brand In the New Millennium", as its website modestly proclaims. Whatever the case, discerning connoisseurs from all over the world clamour for the award-winning fruit liqueurs, schnapps, vodka, absinthe and other fine spirits produced by this small family of dedicated distillers.

Elsewhere on Mount Tamborine is what could be the world's fastest signboard - the gaudy-liveried Lotus racing-car that is usually parked in a strategic spot to advertise two special businesses owned by a glamorous young couple : Mount Tamborine Brewery and Witches Chase Cheese Company. The first combines traditional brewing methods with ultra-modern equipment to produce award-winning beer while the second is an artisan boutique cheese factory that hand-creates internationally-acclaimed cheeses using old-fashioned recipes, the finest french cultures, pure vegetarian rennet, and fresh local milk. Together, these two companies make a fascinating stopover for visitors.

Rather more sedate is the amphibious vehicle that is a mobile advertisement for the exciting Aquaduck Tours. One moment, you are trundling along the traffic-clogged main thoroughfares of the Gold Coast - and the next moment you are chugging across the sea, dodging buzzing speedboats and elegant yachts while enjoying a panoramic view of the nation's most expensive and exclusive waterfront properties. Families with small children will enjoy this unique experience as the young ones get invited up to the captain's cabin to 'steer' the vessel across the waves before it transforms back into a street vehicle on dry land.

Leaving the cartoon Aquaduck mascots behind, visitors to Queensland are invited to 'Get Closer' to real birds and animals at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, the region's leading native wildlife experience in a coastal rainforest setting. The clever graphics and wry local humour on the signboards all over this interactive zoo really help visitors enjoy the full benefits of the exhibits in the extensive natural surroundings. With hundreds of native Australian birds, reptiles and animal, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary has been awarded Ecotourism Australia's Advanced Ecotourism Accreditation.

If furry or feathered creatures aren't enough for you, what about bees? Bee-watching is a legitimate pastime, according to the signboard at Mount Nathan Winery. A labour of love for three generations of the Gibson family, the panoramic property consists of vineyards, apiaries and a plantation of Paulownia trees. The winery produces lovingly-created red and white wines, while the bee-hives among the Paulownia trees provide the finest honey. Paul Gibson also produces superb mead, honey-based liqueurs, muscat and fortified wines. A visit to the scenic estate would not be complete without a walking-tour and purchase of these excellent products, which will then be specially bubble-wrapped for you to take home safely on your return flight.

Honey-based products can also be found along the vibrant and fascinating Gallery Walk in Mount Tamborine, with its colourful and eye-catching signboards advertising everything from Granny Mac's sinfully-delicious home-made fudge and the rustic German Cuckoo-Clock House, to the intriguing Totally Different handicraft house and the enchanting Fairies On The Wall. Now, to find out what that last sign is all about,
you will have to follow the signs in Queensland,
and discover the best things in life for yourself!

(All photographs by Andrew Ponnampalam) 

Saturday, 9 January 2016

The Best African Kingdom For Craft

In an age when tourist-destinations from America to Africa hawk souvenirs stamped "Made In China", the small kingdom of Swaziland impressed me with its remarkably authentic range of traditional arts and crafts. I was intrigued by the various Crafts Markets in various parts of the country.  Best of all, many are socially-responsible enterprises which provide both income and empowerment for their craftspeople from poor rural communities. This is something very exciting and exemplary, and it places Swaziland high on the list of "authentic experiences".

Bhembe Art
We had the opportunity to visit a little Craft Workshop run by a local sculptor who is well-known in the local communities for his art and social-work. The guide informed us that this man trains young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to earn a living through wood-carving and art. Their works of art and sculpture encompass both the traditional and modern whimsical, and are distributed through the established craft-markets around Swaziland.      
This is an excellent community-empowerment project that produces authentic home-grown local products from the grassroots.

Swazi Candles Craft Market
Located about 7km off the main highway in the Malkerns Valley, this intriguing spot is a must-see for visitors, who can watch the actual craftsmen being engrossed in their work. Everything here is authentically Swazi and quite enchanting. There is actually a sizable collection of internationally-admired outlets showcasing the best of what the local communities have to offer, as well as a café, rest-rooms and other amenities for the travelling visitor.

The main attraction here is Swazi Candles, where the highly decorative candles are hand-made using an ancient Italian glass-making technique called "millefiore", specially adapted for the local hard wax. With this skill, it is possible to produce a brilliant kaleidoscope of vibrant colours that infuse the wide range of Swazi-themed candles that come in all shapes and sizes. Swazi Candles are now world-famous, renowned for their quality, creativity and sheer artistry.
Rosecraft Weaving's fashion and home décor accessories, Baobab Batik Handicraft that includes wall-hangings, cushion covers, bright kiddies’ products, and scarves, KwasiSwazi books, music, souvenirs, jewelry and T-shirts from Swaziland; Amarasti 's beautiful bags in various designs and sizes, painstakingly hand-embroidered and beaded by the Amarasti women who take great pride in their work, Sambane authentic Swazi souvenirs, Umgololo African artifacts, masks, sculptures, cloth and gifts; Swazi Sense handmade pure soaps, and Yebo Art & Design sells paintings, prints & sculptures by top local artists as well as Swazi textiles, quirky home decor, silver jewellery, ceramic crafts and a series of contemporary art postcards; these are just some of the attractions here.                                 
At the edge of the market is a solitary silver old Airstream caravan with a chalk-lettered sign saying Black Mamba –  this is a unusual shop selling a delicious, fiery selection of food-products including piquantly tasty sauces, pestos and pickles under the startling brand-name of Chilli Venoms®. All the sizzling goodies are made with organically-grown ingredients with no artificial additives.  There are also ‘hot’ and trendy t-shirts & accessories for sale here. A great place!
House On Fire
Also in the scenic Malkerns Valley is the whimsical House On Fire art-complex, described by one European enthusiast as being ”One of the most eclectic art-and-entertainment venues in the world! House on Fire is a fantastical playground of imagination which captivates and inspires.” Another visitor says that “House on Fire is a surreal experience of childlike naïve art, proud traditional culture, funky contemporary music, and delicious wholesome home-cooking.” There is an indoor art gallery, an outdoor sculpture showcase, a souvenir shop, a cafeteria, a well-stocked bar, an amphitheatre and stage for world-renowned musical performances, and – quite quixotically - a children’s playground. When we visited on a hot afternoon, the place was rather quiet, but we are told it can get very crowded and exciting at night or during major art or music events.
Ezulwini Crafts Market
After hearing a lot about the Ezulwini Craft Market and the investment pumped in by a foreign country, I was a little taken aback to see long rows of ramshackle sheds with rusty zinc roofs lining a small muddy field. Brightly-coloured traditional fabrics and gaudy art-prints brightened up the otherwise dilapidated stalls. Sadly, they seemed to all sell similar products, and hardly a seller was in sight – they were all probably sheltering from the sun or taking a nap due to the slow business.  It seemed a great place for bargains and really authentic local products, many of them handmade with love and care.
SWAZILAND is a great destination for many reasons, but the arts and crafts are certainly one of them!

(All photographs by Andrew Ponnampalam)