Top Four Reasons Mara-Serengeti is the Best Place for an African Safari

African Lion Backlit

If a thought of wild Africa evokes a picture of plains, predators and prey, it’s largely thanks to the Mara-Serengeti landscape in East Africa. We explore why the Mara has become the Mecca for Wildlife.

 

1. Visibility

The Mara-Serengeti is a grassland-based ecosystem. That means you can contain in your vision an unobstructed view of the savannah until it meets the grand illusion called the horizon. There land and sky seem to kiss each other in an unusually calm passion.

 

Masai Mara landscape, Santosh Saligram
© Santosh Saligram

 

This soil knows not the confines of walls. So you’ll live the unique experience of observing wildlife, and in all that openness, happily lose your sense of direction.

 

2. The Great Migration

Calling the Mara-Serengeti the ‘Mecca of Wildlife’ is neither exaggeration nor flattery. One of the greatest natural spectacles you can witness on the planet – the Great Migration – takes place here. The presence of prey (the herbivores) and the thriving predator population offers breathtaking action and invaluable animal behaviour.

 

Wildebeest herd crossing Mara River, Jayanth Sharma
© Jayanth Sharma

 

Chief protagonists of this real-life drama are 1.3 million wildebeest and 360,000 Thomson’s gazelle. Breaking the monotony of design are the stripes of nearly 200,000 zebra. The rest of the cast is composed by eland numbering upwards of 10,000. All you need to behold this astounding sight is to be there!

 

 

3. Diversity of Wildlife

The composition of grassland, acacia and bushes nurtures a vast array of wildlife in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. One of Africa’s Endemic Bird Areas, it’s known to be home to more than 500 avian species. About 16 species of antelope, apart from the big cats and the myriad of wildebeests and zebras, also live and thrive here.

 

Black-bellied bustard, Masai Mara, Sachin Rai
© Sachin Rai

 

This part of Africa opens our eyes to the vastness of the world and to the great beauty of other forms of life. It makes us realise how important it is not to get tangled in the details of human life. And perhaps it is such realisations that in turn enrich our lives, making us more human and more open to manifold experiences we would otherwise miss living if not in Africa.

 

4. Photography Opportunities

And for all these reasons, the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem is a sublime place for wildlife photography. In the expanses of the grasslands in Masai Mara, Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania, the opportunities for making images of diverse wildlife are limitless. Adding to the lack of trees is the amazing weather. Animals aren’t any skittish either, so photographing them can be as delightful as it gets.

 

Giraffe Silhouette Masai Mara, Sachin Rai
© Sachin Rai

 

In the heavenly light that bathes the open Earth and everything on it, the act of making images can be something akin to a prayer – an informed, intuitive act of surrender to all the beauty that surrounds you.

 

Join our next Wildlife Photography Tours to Kenya to experience the Mara-Serengeti magic!
This is the first post of a brand-new series called ‘The Ultimate Guide to East African Safaris’. Read part two here.

Travel Trade Journal, March 2018

Toehold

Here’s the transcript:

India in the Making, a Top Tourist Destination of Asia: Travel Trade Journal, March 2018

The Government has identified tourism as a pillar of growth in the economy and with improved road infrastructure and regional air connectivity, we expect to unlock this sector and improve our share of the global tourism market. TTJ shares views of top players in the tourism industry to know more about the present inbound situation in the country. – Prashant Nayak 

Inbound tourism has been growing consistently in India backed by a sustained effort by the Tourism Ministry  to          market India aggressively in key in bound markets. By launching the ‘Incredible India’ campaign, country’s cultured and tourist attractions were promoted in a memorable manner which resulted in an influx of foreign tourists into India. Furthermore, the Ministry has also rolled out a number of factors such as e-visa, visa on arrival facility and better infrastructure have contributed towards the growth of inbound tourism. It is imperative that these efforts continue in order to sustain the growth and continue to attract the foreign visitor who has a number of options to choose from.

SharatDhall, COO (B2C), Yatra.com says, “For growing the inbound tourist numbers, the government needs to take critical steps in the area of infrastructure such as building more highways, allocate well  located  lands for accommodation, malls, convention centres, etc,  in order to ease the travel within the country and open up new markets for the inbound visitor. New segments such as medical and wellness tourism that have started attracting foreigners should be further improved upon. Certain niche markets such as  –  Spa  culture,   golf tourism,      adventure,      sport activities, fishing, etc. should also be explored.  Many states such as Kerala, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, are actively promoting themselves as they do understand the importance of inbound tourism bringing in foreign exchange that can help bring in more infrastructural investment and improvement.”

Continues Sharat, “In addition, a further push is required to boost the industry as it has vast potential for generating employment and earning considerable foreign exchange for the nation. One way to do is to promote eco-tourism in India to help preserve and sustain the diversity  of  the  natural and cultural environment. Another thing that is required going forward is to have more international airports, improve regional connectivity, have more structured highways and well located affordable hotels.”

 

Looking at historical data we see a good overall growth in the last decade. During the calendar year 2017, over 10 million foreign tourists arrived in India. In addition, even the current government understands the importance of the role tourism can play in the growth of the nation. Sources point that tourism in India accounts for 9.6 per cent of the GDP and is the third largest  foreign  exchange Government   of   India  has   set a target of 20 million foreign tourist arrivals (FTAs) by the year 2020.

Ashish Dhruva, Vice President – Marketing, Cleartrip tells, “The launch of initiatives like ‘Incredible India!’ and work on removing infrastructure roadblocks like introducing a fresh category of medical visa, all point in the direction  that we can expect a big growth in inbound tourism in the times to come. The focus needs to be at a comprehensive and optimal infrastructure development. While India has a lot to offer to tourists, the competition in this space is fierce, which is why the finer details need to be looked into. A sensitive service industry, like tourism, equally depends upon the efficient work of various tour functionaries such as tour guides; a careful  programme of training to facilitate effective communication can go a long way. Similarly, data connectivity in remote areas, hygiene, safety provisions,  road  and rail connectivity, etc, all need to be taken into account and optimised. Tourism is a labour­ intensive sector, which requires labour laws to be made simpler with a thrust on empowering the man power”.

Competitive tax rates at par with global norms are a much­ awaited push that this sector has GST on luxury accommodation should be reconsidered keeping in mind the importance of inbound tourism and the negative impact it has, in making India a less lucrative option for travellers. The government can look at incentivising private sector involvement in tourism infrastructure development to accelerate growth.

According to Ashish, while there are several places that are yet to get their due place on the tourist map of India, he wants to highlight – Mohenjodaro, the site of great historical significance, where  an important  chapter  of a major civilisation was written. The place needs to be made more accessible and better known.

Sudhir Patil,  Director, Veena World speaks, “We expect tremendous growth in inbound market of  India  due to flexible visa policies issued by the government. However, an effective promotional international campaign, as part of the government’s  initiative to promote tourism will help attract tourists to India. At the same time, we expect some consideration over GST rates to 4 and 5 star hotels. Also, we need to have proper local licensed guides in different foreign languages in order to cater to more and more inbound tourists. This should  be  promoted  on a  war  footing  to  create  job opportunities for youngsters as well as those who retire at an early stage. We  believe  there is a great potential to promote states such as Maharashtra, Kamataka, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. We need to have better air connectivity and pro-active measures from the respective state tourism boards that campaign overseas along with the private parties”.

Union Tourism Minister Alphons Kannanthanam had mentioned that India earned an income of US $27 billion from Foreign Tourist Arrivals in the year 2017. By 2025, FTAs in India is expected to reach 15.3 million, according to the World Tourism Organisation. These figures indicate that inbound tourism in India is growing and has a great potential. However, the country needs to work further on the flexible government policies and develop rail and road infrastructure.

Karan Anand, Head, Relationships,    Cox     and Kings also shares, “The state governments have to work together to create a  seamless and uniform ecosystem that allows tourists to experience India with ease. Packaged train travel, easy  bus  connections and safe car hire services combined with great freeways and highways are critical for an unmatched tourist experience. Also, we need  to  create  a pool of trained manpower in hospitality and tourism sector in order to serve the international tourists in a better way. The tourist  circuits  identified   by the government include  all major tourist hotspots including the upcoming inbound travel destinations such as Leh-Ladakh Q&K), Hampi (Karnataka), Manali, Spiti (HP), Dudhwa (MP), Kohima (Nagaland), Sikkim  and  Andaman  Islands.

However, creating unforgettable experiences for inbound travellers is essential rather than merely banking on the natural beauty of a place.

 

Travel

 

Jayanth Sharma, Co founder and CEO of Toehold Travel and Photography is quite optimistic as he says, “As overseas tourists look for destinations that can provide them a holistic experience, they’ll  increasingly tum to India. We have  a rich and vibrant archaeological and spiritual  history,   tied   to  the oldest civilisation on the planet, we have what is arguably  the most exciting and diverse wildlife, a breathtaking range of geographies – from the highest mountains to the biggest oceansand prettiest islands, and so much more. You could spend years in India and only begin to scratch the surface. I think a four-pronged approach is required, addressing connectivity, infrastructure, tourist-friendliness  and awareness generation. The state and punctuality of our trains still leaves a lot to be desired, and there’s certainly room for improvement there. We  need to upgrade the airports in tier II cities, improve roads to more destinations and offer essential amenities everywhere. We should also reconsider charging inbound tourists so much more than Indian nationals. Madhya Pradesh, for instance, has been exemplary in that regard, by making the entry fee into their tiger reserves the same for Indians and inbound tourists.

Continues Jayanth, “There are innumerable places of interest in India. For architecture, in Rajasthan there’s the Alwar district and also in places like Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh which are hardly explored. For nature and wildlife lovers there’s a myriad of offbeat  places in Assam, Meghalaya and Himachal in the north and northeast, to name a few. At toehold, we are proud of what India has to offer and are committed to showcasing the beauty and splendour of our country to inbound tourists. To this end, we strive to leverage all our expertise to craft the best possible itineraries based on each individual’s needs, to combine the adventure of discovery and the comfort of familiarity with consummate ease”.

According to Anish Kumar, CEO, The Travel Planners, many SouthEast Asian countries which are on the top list of tourism are facing ‘over tourism,’ a major problem not just in various high­ profile cities but also on other kinds of trips, including winter sport holidays and cruises. Nearly 1international trip in 10 was affected by overcrowding this year, the World Travel Monitor revealed.

Anish also says, “Incredible India 2 promotions are digitally focused and will gain more exposure and reach to the targeted   audiences.   There are  more  interests  for  Indian destinations  this  year  and  the growth rate of Indian  tourism may go very high in the next few years. And digital assistants and robots could change the look and sound of the travel industry in years to come. The new strategies should take advantage of the opportunities stemming from the adoption of social media platforms, mobile apps, and new dynamics in technology disruption.”

There is growing demand for the ancient Indian wisdom from  the  global  tourists. Kerala  is  becoming   the global   wellness    destination as major wellness source markets see authentic and pure ayurveda treatments in Kerala due to the availability of highly qualified doctors, therapists and herbal plants. Association of Tourism Trade Organisations India (ATTOI) in association with Ministry of AYUSH and Kerala Tourism is  bringing 100 yoga travel operators and professionals for fam trip to India in June 2018 .There is mass yoga drill planned on International yoga day with the tourism trade and international yoga delegates to promote India as a Yoga destination.

This article is featured in Travel Trade Journal

The New Indian Express, 27 March 2017

Toehold Jayanth Sharma

Here is the transcript from the Edex Live edition of The New Indian Express:

Blessy Mathew Prasad finds out why Toehold is the one-stop solution for aspiring wildlife photographers and travellers.

One look at Jayanth Sharma’s pictures and you can’t help but let out a sigh of wonder. That’s the power of each of his pictures. Be it the exotic polar bear standing on the tip of a melting iceberg in Antarctica, the monumental wild elephant in Africa walking right into the camera, the ‘just-in-time’ picture of a crocodile about to attack a wildebeest or the powerful gaze of the Asiatic lion that sends shivers down your spine — these are pictures that evoke emotions, tell stories and make you fall in love with nature, especially the animal kingdom. And of course, make you feel bad about your 9 to 5 job within four walls, while there are people out there living life on the edge and capturing the beauty around them.

 

Toehold Jayanth Sharma

 

There is hope, however, for those of you who want a taste of it. Toehold, a travel and photography company, founded by Jayanth in 2010, has a range of services for those who want to dabble in photography as a hobby and not as a full-time career. From organising workshops to renting out professional photography gear and conducting photo tours around the world, Toehold is a one-stop solution for photography enthusiasts.

Jayanth, who was born into a family where photography was a business, quit his IT job to pursue it. He had a great passion for nature and wildlife, coming from a city like Mysuru that is full of sanctuaries. In 2004, when DSLRs became popular in the country, he started investing in them. He grew as a photographer, got published and even won a few awards.

When asked how the idea for Toehold came about, he says, “In my early days of photography, I was always looking for advice on what to do, what technique to use. There were many full-time schools where one could enroll. The other option was to learn from the internet. But both had their own disadvantages, especially for someone who wants to take it up as a hobby, not as a profession. I realised that there are so many people who are embracing photography. We wanted to provide a platform where we could provide people with the knowledge of how to take pictures.”

Toehold currently has offices in Bengaluru, Pune and Mumbai where they conduct monthly workshops on photography techniques. “After we empower people with the knowledge of photography, they need the equipment to actually execute their creative thoughts. We realised that people who are interested in travelling or photography as a hobby might invest around 20 days a year. And people would not buy the gear just for those few days. So, it made sense to rent out our gear as a natural extension of the learning process,” says Jayanth, elaborating on their other services.

The meat of their business, however, is taking people out on tours and expeditions. “This is a very niche travel concept because very few people travel for photography. A few years ago, people would say, ‘Hey I need a camera because I’m going to Ladakh. Now, mindsets have changed. Now, people say ‘I want to take pictures of landscapes, where should I go?’ So, there’s a whole shift in attitude,” says Jayanth.

Toehold also helps people plan vacations.Since they have the first-hand experience of the place, they are able to bring field expertise into travel planning and give tourists remote guidance. So far, Toehold has been operating in six of the seven continents, including Antarctica. “Africa is about 30% of our business. We go to countries like Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Botswana. We have some exotic destinations in the Americas to spot jaguars; we go to Chile to find mountain lions. We also go to Antarctica to find penguins and polar bears. High up in the Arctic, there’s a Norwegian territory called Svalbard, one of the best places to spot whales, walruses and polar bears. There are a few other places in Asia, including India and Russia, that we visit,” he says.

To help us imagine what they do, Jayanth tells us how they spot polar bears. Usually, on a cruise, there are about 12 clients. There’s a 24-hour watch from the bridge next to the captain, where people scan for polar bears. Once they are spotted from afar, the clients are notified and sent in smaller boats to get a closer look.

In an African safari, there is a photographer-client ratio of 1:7. “Let’s say there is a lion and people are taking pictures, one of my colleagues will stand behind them and give instructions for taking better pictures. This sort of on-field instruction is what people need,” says Jayanth, and we’re sure that his clients agree. What better way to learn the art of wildlife photography.

Deccan Herald, 2 March 2018

Svalbard

Here is the transcript:

The Icy Appeal of Svalbard: Deccan Herald, 2 March 2018

I have always been fascinated by the polar bear as it is the largest living carnivores on the planet. The fact that is even more fascinating is that it is a marine mammal. My first encounter with the polar bear has always been a fond recollection for me. In 2011, I travelled to Churchill, a small town by the Hudson Bay in Canada, and ever since I saw this majestic bear, I have been in love with it.

But it was only when I first visited Svalbard in Norway that I experience viscerally and so realised what an amazing habitat and landscape it is for the polar bear. And since then, I have been travelling to this edge of the earth year after year.

Svalbard

80 degrees north in the icy Arctic world lies sprawled its most luminous pearl called Svalbard. Being in the northernmost part of Norway, it is an immense archipelago in the Arctic Circle, not far away from the North Pole. And it is one of the few places on the earth where man is even today subordinate to the laws of nature, the wild remains untamed and the idea of infinity suddenly seems as real as it can get.

Snow-capped mountains stand tall with glaciers in their laps, picturesque fjords bearing azure icebergs and drift ice cut prettily through the land; and wildlife thrives everywhere – under water, on the surface and in the air to remind you that this is not a desolate wilderness after all, but a living, throbbing wonderland. And in my opinion, the most extraordinary place on the earth to see and photograph the polar bear is Svalbard.

In winter, the sea is frozen, but in summer, the ice cracks and makes way for sailing. The place basks in light for all of the 24 hours and the midnight sun is quite a dramatic thing to see. And photography becomes that much more remarkable than usual, too. Without an ounce of exaggeration, seeing and making images of the polar bear in blue ice is a surreal experience that is one of its kind.

Every year, as co-founder and CEO of Toehold Travel and Photography, I take a bunch of wildlife photography enthusiasts along with me to Svalbard on an expedition to photograph the polar bear and the other mammalian and avian creature. We use a small ship for the expedition. While photography is done from the deck of the ship, we also use two inflatable boats called ‘Zodiacs’ that ferry us ably, also allowing us to photograph from lower angle and offer closeness to wildlife.

Svalbard

While on the ship, we have our own chef who is skilful at international cuisine to meet individual requirement. So even when you consider all the minute but necessary daily details, being in Svalbard is a scalable adventure for a nature lover.

Although the polar bear happens to be the main attraction in Svalbard, a wildlife enthusiast is bound to experience sensory overload because the place is also home to exotic animals such as the walrus, the seal, the rein deer and the arctic fox. Different species of giant aquatic mammals like the humpback whale, the fin whale, the beluga whale, the mink whale and the monumental blue whale are also some of my favourite animals in this wonderland.

Among birds, I have taken enormous joy in watching and photographing the incredible charm of the arctic tern, the puffin, the gull, the skua and the guillemot.

Svalbard

One of the best parts of exploring Svalbard is that there is never a fixed itinerary. Every evening, we have to refer to satellite imagery of ice maps and then decide where to head next. It is only years of experience and an intimate knowledge of the place that help me live viscerally the dream-like place that Svalbard is.

In my experience of travelling across the globe – from the Arctic to Antarctica – Svalbard has remained one of the places I wish to revisit again and again with an increasing love and reverence it duly demands.

It’s the kind of sensory overload that I willfully treat myself to, to rich experiences that know how to only commence at only this edge of the world.

— Jayanth Sharma

This article is featured in the Metrolife – On the Move edition of Deccan Herald