Sunday, 22 July 2018

On a road most travelled - S100 in Kruger National Park

Let's first get the minor details done with. What? A self driving safari. Where? Kruger National Park, South Africa. How? A cute little VW Golf - manual transmission. When? In the early summer days of December. I don't think why is a question that needs to be answered. This article is all about the who. On the eve of our last day of self driving in the Kruger there is only one animal of the Big 5 that we are yet to see, the leopard - the who.

It is hard to escape the obsession with the Big Five - elephant, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros, lion and leopard - in an African safari. They feature on all the guidebook covers, maps, post cards etc. The Big Five were the hardest to hunt back in the days but they aren't necessarily the rarest to spot. We spotted elephants in each of our drives inside the park. Our second day in the park was unseasonably hot and on this day the lions seemed to prefer the shades near the main driving routes. For someone who has yet to sight a tiger in the wild, seeing multiple lion prides up close over the course of a two hour drive should leave no room for complaints.  But no. I had not seen a leopard yet and that feeling of incompleteness was gnawing inside. I will be the first to admit that the Big Five obsession is wholly inconsiderate to such wonders like the graceful splendour of a foraging giraffe or the dazzle of zebras playing in the summer sun. Even the majestic sight of a male tusker in musth walking towards us in the moonlight does not satiate my leopard needs.

We still have one morning drive left and fortunately our rest camp for the last night is Satara. The name Satara comes from the Hindi word for seventeen. A leftover from the days of the Raj when an Indian surveyor numbered plots in Kruger.

The area around Satara is famous for being cat country and arguably the most famous road in Kruger National Park - the S100 - starts 2 kms to the south of Satara gates. The twenty kilometre long S100 road accompanies the Nwanedzi river (more a stream) and winds along providing great vantage points to spot Kruger's thirsty inhabitants taking a drinks break. Water bodies are also the best spots for lions and leopards to find prey and all the guidebooks, maps and park rangers identify S100 as the best road to spot cats. Fingers crossed.

The Satara gates open at 4.30 AM and there is a line of vehicles queuing up to burst forth into the morning calm. Perhaps they also, like me, hope to catch the final moments of a nocturnal hunt. The vehicles form a procession to S100. We are in formation but as soon as we turn into the S100, our speed drops to 20 kmph and we lose the other vehicles. The longer the time spent on the road alone the better our chances of spotting a leopard we conclude. An irrational conclusion given that our successful strategy so far had been to rush towards a congregation of stationary vehicles and ask them what they are looking at.

The morning is thankfully overcast and brings out the green of the trees better than the blazing hot sun of previous days. Impalas, wildebeests, zebras and chacma baboons are playing on either side of the road. Not a good sign. Preys play when hunters are far. The sight of a Southern ground hornbills group stealthily marching along is nice (nice being the appropriate word for the lukewarm excitement associated with this sight that morning) but a leopard still eludes us.

All is not lost, I console myself after two hours of inching along. Why must the Big Five be the metric of safari success anyway? I saw hippopotamuses fighting in the pond. I saw a male lion yawning 10 feet away from me. Spent a magical ten minutes observing giraffes and elephants assembling at a small water body to quench their thirst. Saw a rhino from afar and Cape buffaloes up close. Got great photos of baby elephants and baby hippos.

So I didn't see a leopard. So what? Four is a better number than five and... hold on. What is that over there? Look look look. And then, just like that, right in front of us a leopard crosses the road. It's almost as if she (could be a he) had been waiting for us to meander along in order to make an appearance. For a full two minutes we were alone with this beautiful cat. Her coat a masterwork of nature. The spots almost seem deliberately spaced out to make random pattern sound moronic. When she walks through the grass, she almost disappears. Highly unlikely we would have spotted her if she hadn't decided to walk in front of our VW. Does her meek expression show fear or hunger? She doesn't run away, stares at us briefly and then turns her back to us. There is no fear there. This is her territory and we are the transient intruders. For a change we get to point out the sighting to cars that have appeared behind us. We contentedly make way feeling unadulterated joy at having shared a couple of minutes of our life alone with a leopard.

Every once in a while in life, if you are lucky, you get these moments when your mind and body are fully in the present. No thoughts about work and other obligations that come bundled up with life. You don't notice the back pain that has been troubling you the last few days. Your hunger, your thirst and other sensory needs vanish, albeit briefly. In that magical moment on the S100 it didn't matter why the leopard crossed the road. All that mattered was who crossed the road.

An edited version of this post can be found here.

Monday, 21 March 2016

A day in the life of Mexico's Anthropology Museum

The tree lined, four-lane Paseo de la Reforma Avenue is a pretty picture in the light of the winter sun.  Gentle rays cajole its way past branches and kisses the sidewalk as we walk past black and white photographs.  Photos of moustachioed men - Emil Zapata, Pancho Villa et al - adorning bullet belts and striking determined poses are put up on the fence to commemorate the centenary of the Mexican revolution.

 Images from Zapata's revolution on Avenida Reforma

The verdant Reforma Avenue and the temperate clime take me back to pleasant memories of pointless walks in Bangalore’s Cubbon Park. This morning though, there is a destination we are walking to – Museo Nacional de Antropologia, the National Museum of Anthropology.  Our purposeful walk is halted by the sight of a familiar name on the street sign. A huge grin appears on my face as the museum resides on Calzada Gandhi – Gandhi Road. The appearance in the heart of Mexico City of this most common road sign in India is a brief moment of joy and an obvious photo op.

  Gandhi Road - Road Sign, Mexico City

The most visited museum in this city with over 150 museums is an impressive building. A large umbrella like structure greets you once you make past the turnstiles. The umbrella stands at the top of a large courtyard and the rooms containing the exhibits surrounds the courtyard. The ground floor of the museum has exhibits from the glory days of Mexico’s famed civilizations – Aztec, Mayan, Olmec, Toltec etc. The prescient accuracy of the Mayan calendar, the intricate works on stone, the numerous rituals - the ground floor exhibits are illuminating history lessons. My ignorance of the greatness of these civilizations aids my imagination take trips back in history. But these flights of imagination crash land in the first floor. 

The first floor exhibits are a present day mirror of the past. Photos, handicrafts, wardrobe and other artefacts showcase the stark present day existence of these Native American civilizations. The white man brought with them a new language, a new religion and a near complete destruction of written records of the past and death to the native way of life. 

 The Umbrella structure - National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

PA speakers announce that it’s nearing closing time and we exit with the multitude.  A familiar figure of a ‘half naked’ bespectacled old man with a walking stick stands at one end of the road. Ironical that on a road named in tribute to the idea of non-violence stands a monument showcasing the violent end of civilizations. Peace.


Mexico City, Mexico, December 2014

Monday, 17 August 2015

Museum of the 3 Louises

Why Alexander Brun would marry three different women named Louise is not quite the sort of contemplation one wants to grapple with before visiting a museum.  But that was all I could think of during the 40 minute train ride from Copenhagen to Humlebæk. That and what could have possibly possessed the third Louise to marry a man who had already had two wives named Louise. My thoughts on Mr. Brun's marital fetish was brought to an end by a rather apt Henry Moore statue at the entrance. A statue of a woman sitting with her legs crossed but one could easily argue it was wide open.

Humlebæk, a town on the banks of the Øresund Strait, is the location of Denmark's most famous museum - Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and I was standing at its entrance. In 1958 an idea possessed Knud W. Jensen, the museum's founder, which resulted in him taking over the Brun country house and converting it into a museum. He did retain its name though in honour of the Mrs. Brun Trinity. 

The first piece of 'art' is what could be best described as a giant Harry Potteresque spider. One descends into a subterranean collection of sculpture, paintings, photographs and other indescribable items. Artifacts that make me yearn for a couple of swigs of whatever concoction the artist must have been drinking when conceptualising it. Needless to say, my puerile mind could not fathom most of the art. The Picassos,Warhols and Moores on display sometimes evoked bemusement but mostly incomprehension and seldom awe. This is not to say that I did not appreciate any of the art. A few did inspire enough emotion to find residence in the crypts of my memory - Tara Donovan sculptures made out of pins and needles and a few works in the Yoko Ono showcase. One of Yoko's pieces was a glass slab called 'Painting to let the evening light go through' and that this is one of the few works that I remember goes a long way in explaining my eye for modern art.

In spite of my vacuum in comprehension, three and a half hours later I am filled with a familiar sense of wonder. A wonder that I had never before experienced in a museum but often experienced while travelling. The feeling of unison with this new place far from home, when no other thought enters to break the silent conversation you are having with the place and its elements.The architecture and layout of the museum blend seamlessly with its location on the banks of the Øresund. Every once in a while I end up exiting on to a lawn with weird sculptures or a balcony with a view of the calm shore.  Enter a room which is all but empty barring a diving board sticking out into the sea beckoning you to run down it and take a dive. On a couple of occasions I stand rooted in open-mouthed admiration, unable to discern where the work of man ends and nature's handiwork begins.

I watch Copenhagen speeding up to me in my train window and I have a grateful admiration for Knud Jensen's vision and endeavour. The third Louise's matrimonial decision did not perplex me any longer. It had to be the location of Alexander Brun's country home. It just had to be!

Monday, 10 August 2015

A Svaneke Moment

 "Why would you want to go to Denmark for your honeymoon?" 

For a couple of weeks I had grown accustomed to answering that question from friends and family. The answer began with my insistence on a 'first-visit destination' for the both of us and continued to explain my soon to be wife's previous European vacation disguised as a student exchange program and ended with justifiable meteorological reasons for visiting Denmark in July. But when the question comes from a rather puzzled officer at the Denmark Consulate, I start doubting the 'brilliance' of my decision to book cheaper non-refundable flights.

Fast forward a couple of months and I find myself sitting on the ledge that serves as the wall of Svaneke Kirken. A rather small building that would be lost in many other settings but stands tall in the small town of Svaneke in the Danish island of Bornholm. Svaneke had just been voted as the most beautiful market town in Denmark and from what little I had seen so far, it certainly had my vote

The church on its own is not much of a building. The red color of the church reminds me of the Writer's Building in Kolkata or Chennai Central station. I take a step back and I see the grey Baltic sea in the near distance blending with the brilliant blue sky at the far distant horizon. The red Kirken makes for a pretty picture against the azure blue sky. The church, the sky and I sit in rapt admiration of the rhythmic movement of the green stalks of barley, in the adjacent field, dancing to the tunes of the gentle breeze. The gravel paths neatly demarcate those resting peacefully and adds to the beauty of the meditative wholeness of the moment. 

The marriage between the Svaneke church and its natural consorts is most harmonious during the Svaneke summer but just like any union it does have its periods of gloom and sadness during the long, cold and dark winter.  The winter has passed this year like any other but unlike any other year the summer sees me sitting on this ledge contemplating my newly married moment. A hand adorned with ritual decoration gently taps me on the shoulder and a voice accompanies the hand asking if a camera can do justice to the moment.

Fast forward two years and I find myself sitting on a sofa typing this post and wondering how I can get hold of that officer from the Danish consulate in New Delhi and tell her that her country is not such a bad place for a honeymoon after all.

Image courtesy: Photo by aconcagua (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Seatbelts fastened, tongues loosened.

The mime routine that airline attendants go through before take-off is the same in English and Spanish. That would have been the only observation I would have had from the 2 hour flight from Mexico City to Cancun if it weren't for Isidore. Every time I travel, be it to a new place or a familiar old place I always hope that a conversation is struck with a fellow traveler. I confess of multiple evenings spent in a coffee shop or bakery hoping that some one comes and shares the table and strikes up a conversation. Shy wouldn't be the first adjective that would be used to describe me by people in the know, but in this romantic yearning for twirling, spirited conversations I usually wish someone else takes the lead.

Isidore did. Isidore isn't even his name. In this most opportune moment, his actual name seems to  escape me. Where you from? leads to him mentioning that he had lived in India for 6 months. In Beer. My brain goes through the states and capitals and towns of India. I am thinking this must be some place in Rajasthan or Himachal. Luckily he mentions Buddhism and Bodh Gaya and Beer transforms to Bihar and my panic attack is nipped in the bud. I tell him I have never been there and I am from the south of India. 

He spent most of his time in "Beer" but did travel to Delhi and Agra. He found India very safe he says. I said that's nice to know as many find Delhi unsafe and the media loves to talk about the rapes and other forms of violence that women and tourists and citizens face in that part of the country. Isidore shrugs and says that's nonsense. He says his entire perspective of India and safety changed when he became aware that no one carries guns in India. "I can run away from a knife or a stick. I always have a chance when someone comes to me and threatens. I like 50:50 odds. In Mexico or the States, if someone comes up to me asking for money I have no choice but to hand over everything. They are most likely carrying a gun and they are either on drugs or alcohol and may even shoot you after you hand over everything. One can't run away from a bullet. Threaten me with a knife any day!"

29 years of living in India and that thought had never come to my mind.