Free Range, Not Poached


Controversial legislation being touted by Kenya could see this African nation introduce the death penalty for animal poachers. Under current law, poaching attracts a life sentence in prison or a $200,000 fine. But animal activists says this is not enough. The Global Goddess travelled to Kenya with G Adventures in early April, to experience its amazing wildlife, including some of its 34,000 remaining elephants.
WE are bouncing on a lumpy, bumpy road, along a highway of cellulite and scars, past colourful, chaotic markets, travelling west to Kenya’s Masai Mara. Goats, sheep, shacks and shanties of corrugated iron punctuate the scenery, while babies as black as ink hang in slings over the hooked backs of their mothers. I am on an 8-day G Adventures National Geographic Journeys Kenya Safari which takes in the Masai Mara National Reserve, best known for its wildebeest migration; Lake Nakuru National Park, renowned for its rhino; and Amboseli National Park, acclaimed for its elephants.

Shortly after Nairobi we straddle The Rift Valley – a 9600km gash which runs from Jordan to Mozambique – pausing in curious curio shops with jangles of bangles and throaty drums covered in goat skin. Big bottomed baboons cross the road which is framed by the cactus-looking Euphobia tree and Africa’s acclaimed Acacias.
Just after Narok, the last town before the Masai Mara, the blessed bitumen concedes to undying dust, sharp stone chips and cavernous pot holes.

In the Masai Mara National Reserve, they say you can hear the lions roar from five kilometres away. Outside our tents at Fig Tree Camp there’s a croc in the creek and a hungry, hungry hippo, or two.
A late afternoon safari yields gazelle, zebra, buffalo, warthog, baboons and impala. A willy willy, or “Kinbunga” in Swahili dances in the distance around the thirsty earth. We stumble upon a cool school of hippos frolicking in their dirty day spa along the Talek River, while the vultures circle like an aeronautical show and a lone lioness crouches under a bush. A pack of hyenas, suckling their young, display their soft maternal side, while a marabou stork, with the widest wing span of all of Africa’s birds, perches precariously in a tree. There’s even time to spot a leopard, with the same spring in its step as the jolly jumpy up-and-down Masai Mara people, before the flaming sun concedes to a purple marshmallow sunset.

“The Masai happen to be the last group of Africans who are still living their traditional way of life,” G Adventures Chief Experience Officer and our guide George Njuguna Mwaura says.
“They originated from the lower delta of the Nile River around the 18th century. They are pastoralists of semi-nomadic nature.
“They believe all the animals belong to them. Anytime they go raiding they don’t feel guilty. The Masais do not eat game meat.
“The Masais were pushed aside with white settlement and National Parks. Now they live right next to the National Parks because the land originally belonged to them.
“There is a lot of fear that the animals have of the Masai people. They are known as fearsome warriors, even to the lion, the king of the jungle.”

A new dawn ushers in a cool aerial safari in a hot air balloon where in the distance, a roaring lion sounds like a beating African drum. From the air, green shoots of hope are already peeking through the scorched, blackened ground from a controlled burn off, in preparation for the annual migration of wildebeest. Back on the ground, a dazzle of zebra stand top-to-tail to watch each other’s backs while a memory of elephants emerges from a mud bath.
By the time the shocking pink sunset plummets to earth, it’s a day of the jackal.

Cheetahs, known as the “terrorists” of the park, farewell our visit to the Masai Mara as we head towards Lake Nakuru National Park. Colourful churches, spurious shops and pastel pubs adorned with optimistic names line the highway. There’s God’s Victory Pub, Romance Salon and Cosmetics, and the Deliverance Church.
At Lake Nakuru National Park, there’s a sassy secretary bird with its lanky legs, hooked red nose and quills on its head. But don’t be fooled by its amusing appearance of a county court clerk, it can kill even the most venomous snake.

A wake of vultures is feeding on a dead buffalo while a hyena howls in the background. The rare Rothschild giraffe, found only in this park, stands loud and proud in the early morning orange light. Out on the lake, a flock of flamingos, coloured Barbie doll pink from the blue-green algae on which they feast, has gathered to gossip, while further along, a rhino and her calf are grazing on the grass. We head back in the direction of Nairobi, which means “the city under the sun” and past the Kibera Slum, home to 1 million people and the biggest slum in Africa. It is incomprehensible.

But we are not done yet. Before we leave, we have a date with Mount Kilimanjaro and Amboseli National Park. Standing at 5985 metres, Kili is the highest point in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. “What makes this park really popular is that you are standing in front of the postcard…Kilimanjaro, the elephant, the Acacia tree,” George says.
“Different communities believe their Gods reside on the top of Kilimanjaro. When we are performing our traditional ceremonies, we pray. Even before the colonial people came, Africans believed in God such as the God of Rain.
“Even when we pray we have to face Kilimanjaro or Mount Kenya.”

Out in Amboseli National Park there’s a troupe of yellow baboons, a zebra crossing, and a duo of vultures. There’s ostentatious ostriches teetering on their stilettos, spoonbill stalks and Egyptian geese.
Meanwhile Kili flitters and flirts, at times shrouded in cloud, a mystery to even the Masai who wander her valleys. And somewhere, out in the park, stands Tim, the 48-year-old elephant with the huge tusk, who was once collared by park rangers to track his behaviour.
But Tim had other plans and returned to the front gate, depositing the collar which he had somehow removed without breaking, and dropping it defiantly so it could be found. Tim has forged such a relationship with rangers that he will return to them each time he is injured, before cutting loose on the park to cause more havoc.

And in many ways, this emotional elephant captures the soul of Kenya. Playful, defiant, oozing spirit and soul. Mother Kenya bleeds red. Rusty soil, the crimson cloths of the Masai warriors, the blood of her wildlife kills and her blushing, beating heart. She is simultaneously giving and gritty. Water may be a precious commodity here, but hope, she springs eternal.

The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of G Adventures http://www.gadventures.com
To find out more about this G Adventures National Geographic Journeys Kenya Safari go to https://www.gadventures.com/trips/kenya-safari-experience/DKKNG/

Breaking Traditional Thais

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LIKE all of the best travel tales, this story begins over a glass of really great wine. In this case, five months ago, back in a Bangkok restaurant, in the middle of a coup. Yes, picture me going all white linen trousers and Somerset Maugham on you while anarchy rages outside and you’ve kind of got the gist. It was at the Rang Mahal Indian Restaurant at the Rembrandt Hotel, when I was introduced to a fine drop made by Thailand’s only female wine maker, who happened to have studied the art in Australia. Not only was the wine excellent in a country more renowned for its Singha than its shiraz, but I had the burning desire to know more about this woman.
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Fast forward to last weekend, and I had the incredible fortune of standing on a vineyard in Thailand’s Khao Yai, interviewing Nikki Lohitnavy about her impossible dream producing great Thai wine. Nikki, who is just 27, started becoming interested in viticulture when her parents started the vineyard in 1999.
“Back then I was in high school in Bangkok and every school holiday I would spend my time here helping in the vineyard and I liked it,” she says.
“I asked if I could go to Australia and finish my high school in Melbourne and then I studied oenology at the University of Adelaide. I wanted to be a botanist, I’ve loved trees since I was a kid.
“In my third year I asked if I could go to Brown Brothers and do the harvest there and in 2008 I got a scholarship from Wolf Blass for excellence in wine making and went there for three years. After that I came back to Thailand to start Granmonte.”
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Granmonte, which means “big mountain” in Italian, is named after the mountains of Khao Yai National Park which frame the pretty property. And there’s another element to this tale. Shortly after arriving, I’m told that rogue wild elephants have been known to wander through the vineyard, thus ensuring I spend the next two days imagining how I should react should I encounter a tusked beast. Should I sprint to the cellar door and launch myself into a vat of shiraz? Snatch a discarded bicycle from a vineyard worker and try to outcycle the beast? Stand still and pretend I’m a petit verdot? It’s not every day one has to consider the possibility of an elephant attack on a vineyard and I want to be prepared. For this is a story where even your wildest dreams can come true.
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You see, in her first year Nikki produced a modest amount of 20,000 bottles. Now, the vineyard has expanded to 16ha and makes between 80,000 and 90,000 bottles a year. The family has also just purchased another vineyard about 40 km east.
“We started sending our wines to competitions. We couldn’t just say our wines are getting better and are really good,” Nikki says.
“When we were confident our wines were of high quality we were more confident to sell to hotels and restaurants.”
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Not only is Nikki’s wine served in top-quality Bangkok restaurants such as the Rang Mahal and Australian-owned Nahm – recognised as one of the world’s top restaurants – but 20 percent of production is exported to Japan, The Maldives, Hong Kong, the US and even a Thai restaurant in Germany. And Nikki has this message to those skeptics who believe Thailand couldn’t possible produce good wine.
“I just say ‘try it’. We have a lot of that attitude towards Thai wine. That’s the main reason we have our cellar door her, that’s how we connect,” she says.
“I’d like to encourage people to give Thai wine another go because now we are producing much better quality wine. Please try again.”
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In fact, Khao Yai could be considered one of the more ideal places to grow wine, as there’s no frost and the vines don’t go into dormancy. The vines are pruned twice a year here so they can be harvested. There’s now 12 wines on the list, which boasts everything from a light chenin blanc to a gutsy shiraz, with a couple of experimental blocks of Italian varietals due to come to fruition in the next two years.
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The least expensive drop, the Sakuna Rose named after Nikki’s Chinese-born mother, sells for around AUD20, which is remarkable given it is so expensive to produce. There’s a 360 percent tax on wine in Thailand and all of the machinery is imported from places like Australia.
“It’s challenging here but if I was in Australia I’d be doing the same thing as everyone else. There are only a few of us making wine from grapes here,” Nikki says.
And things are bustling along in the Thai wine industry in general, with the Thai Wine Association celebrating its tenth birthday this year with eight members, of which Granmonte is recognised as the country’s best. But more importantly, those global gongs are starting to trickle in, including an award at last year’s Sydney Wine Show.
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On my final evening at Granmonte, I bump into Nikki walking through the vineyard in the late afternoon light.
“In a few minutes, go and stand at the front gate and look back over the vineyard. The light illuminates the vines and it’s really beautiful then,” she says.
I do as she says. Stand by the frangipani tree, bask in the humidity, look back over the vineyard framed by the mountains and drink in this intoxicating story of success. And there’s not an elephant in sight.
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The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. http://www.tourismthailand.org

The Hangover – Part Two

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LIKE the second installment of The Hangover movie I have awoken, this time, in Thailand. But it’s not bustling Bangkok in which I find myself, but Phuket. And while the four key characters remain kinda the same, the game has changed somewhat. Jon, a late-night radio presenter from Perth, is cast as Alan, possessing a dearth of resort wear (this bloke doesn’t even own thongs), a bright red ukulele, and a large but empty suitcase. Katie, an online editor for a family and kid’s magazine, is small and simply adorable and decides she wants to be the baby; in turn Rebecca, another children’s magazine editor and delightful to boot, elects to be the tiger; and apparently, and if this is an indicator of this trip, I am voted as Bradley Cooper because “you’re the reliable one”. Now, you know when The Global Goddess is voted the reliable one on a trip, things are very, very wrong.
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You see, I have found myself somewhat surprisingly, on a trip to research Phuket’s Laguna Family Festival. Say Phuket and The Global Goddess thinks cool swims, cold beer, hot days and even hotter men, preferably in that order. I do not generally use the words family, and holiday, in the same sentence. It’s a bit like the concept of a “joy flight” or a “fun run”. Wrong, people. Just wrong. But Phuket is also trying to cast itself in a different light, away from the madness of Patong and thus stages an annual event to show visitors that there’s plenty of family fun to be had. And if it’s fun I must have, no matter what form it takes, then fun it must be. So here’s The Global Goddess’ guide to Phuket fun, for little kids, and the big kids in us all…
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A maverick Malaysian, we are told, has set the record for the fastest ride down one of Phuket’s longest waterslides at the Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort pool. Apparently, his journey took him 40 seconds. All I can say is there is something dodgy about these statistics, as me and my mates manage the same trip in all of 15 seconds of absolutely howling, screaming fun. I reckon I could do it even faster if I borrowed the green Burqini of one of the resort guests in the pool. Ask yourself, how long has it been since you’ve been on a waterslide and then go and get yourself on one. It’s one of the most fantastic things you’ll have done in a very long time.
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If you want Candy then look no further than the Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort. For here, every morning, this gorgeous two-year-old elephant who is named after a hard lolly, meets resort guests and allows the little ones to ride on her. For the bigger kids, get yourself over to either the Banyan Tree or Angsana Laguna Phuket, to meet Lucky. The Global Goddess got lucky all right, when this larger elephant planted a whopping great kiss by placing her trunk right over The Goddess’ nose and mouth. While the other guests got a polite peck on the cheek, I got the full vacuum treatment. I found out later that Lucky is a female elephant. One person’s violated is another person’s perfect day, that’s all I’m saying.
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At the Banyan Tree, Phuket, while little kids are enjoying such things as their own Sunday brunch, board and video games, arts and craft, big kids like me are free to ride their bikes around this enormous resort. A highlight of this property is the whirlpool in the centre of the property’s main pool near the spa sanctuary, where you can float on your back and be dragged through the water’s current, ending up under giant taps. Big kids will also enjoy their own luxury private spa villa, where it is practically criminal not to skinny dip…in my opinion.
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At Angsana Phuket little kids will love the Tree House Kids Club, while both little and big kids can indulge in the family spa treatments where mothers and daughters and fathers and sons can bond during double spa sessions. The Global Goddess is unsure how much relaxing little kids need, but there seems to be a market for this, and who am I to argue with anyone providing pleasure and making money at the same time?
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But probably the nicest kid story of this entire journey takes place on the nearby floating Muslim community island of Koh Panyee. Here, the kids wanted to play football which proved to be somewhat difficult without any actual land on which to build a field. Much to the initial amusement of the island’s adults, the kids tied together bits and pieces of wood like a raft to design a makeshift field and became so good at the game they gained third place in Thailand’s national competition. The adults ate their words, so to speak, and built a proper floating football stadium for these kids.
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And that’s the whole point of this story, really. It doesn’t matter if you’re a little kid or a big kid. Life is about daring to dream, creating and most of all, having fun. It’s about screaming your guts out on your first waterslide ride in 30 years, swimming naked under the stars, laughing with a bunch of new mates and realising we all pretty much want the same thing: health and happiness. Head to Laguna Phuket, you’ll find fun there in spades. Just look out for amorous elephants.
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The Global Goddess travelled to Thailand as a guest of Laguna Phuket. To find out more about the precinct, or the Laguna Family Festival which runs until October 31, go to http://www.lagunaphuket.com
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