Bengalureans travel to icy destinations during summer: Deccan Herald, 16 May 2019

Iceland

With increasing disposable incomes and social media-fuelled peer pressure, travel has become an indispensable part of most middle and upper middle-class Indian families.

As common tourist destinations like Europe, Bali and our very own Ladakh become overpopulated, affluent Bengalureans are looking towards other less-explored places.

Prominent among these are icy destinations like Iceland, Greenland and even Antarctica.

“There are touristy icy places and there are really offbeat icy places. For examples, Iceland is now like a Singapore in the 90s. It has become a cliched international travel destination; there are tons of people from India, especially Bengaluru, going to Iceland. One of the major attractions there is the Northern Lights (aurora borealis),” says Jayanth Sharma, a wildlife photographer and writer and CEO and founder of Toehold, a travel and photography company in the city.

Northern lights, Iceland

Why is there an interest in such places?

One of the more recent fads among wealthy and adventurous millenials is wildlife photography in difficult terrains. So what better than clicking pictures of the famed polar bears or photogenic penguins of Antarctica? So there is a rise in demand for guided tours and expeditions led by experts and photographers. Young executives and retired professionals make up a major chunk of these enthusiastic travellers from Bengaluru, according to several surveys.

And Bollywood too plays a role. “After movies like Dilwale hit the screens, which showed Kajol and Shahrukh romancing on icy stretches, the North Indian market showed a steep increase in interest in such places. They want to go to such places, pose in a similar manner like the actors and take a picture. This is exactly what happened to Ladakh around ten years back when ‘3 Idiots’ hit the screen,” he explains, adding that there is also a regular influx of techies and the IT crowd to such places.

Who goes to these places?

Usually nature-loving tourists. A large number of affluent Indians travel to Bengaluru since it costs only about $2,000-$4,000 per person.

“On the other hand, Antarctica doesn’t see a huge number as the cheapest Antarctica trip would be anywhere upwards of Rs 5 lakhs. People with a very different economic background opt for these places but I still feel around 3,000-4,000 Indians travel to Antarctica in a year. There are many agents throughout the country who have regular tours to that place,” says Jayanth.

He adds, “Arctic tours are not that popular as people are still not aware of it. Toehold specialises in tours to a place called Svalbard; tourists don’t go here, only serious wildlife photographers and nature lovers undertake the journey to this place. Less than 50 people in a year go there. It costs around $10,000 for a ten-night expedition; it happens just once a year. The number of people who know this place, can afford the money and can take the time off are relatively lesser.”

This article appeared in Deccan Herald on 16 May 2019.

Toehold Outdoors: November Pench Group-Trip Report

Tiger portrait, Pench

The second ‘Toehold Outdoors’ Group Tour was indeed a special one as it was specially crafted for students. What made this Tour more special was that the students from a Pune-based school approached Toehold and requested to craft a wildlife tour (which for them was a ‘camp’) as per their preferred dates and requirements. This clearly shows that not only adults but also school children have a strong belief in our team and the quality of service, which we take great pride in providing!

Since this was a Pune-based group, all the travel arrangements began from Pune and ended at Pune. Considering the participation of youngsters in the group, we at Toehold arranged for their domestic travel insurance as well. For us, safety is more important than any other thing when it comes to planning and executing any Outdoor program.

The group was of 16 students and was led by two members from our team. The group stayed at Pench for three nights and explored the forest on five jeep safaris and a walking trail.

We started with the walking trail (around the resort in which we had stayed) and came across various signs of mammals which frequented the stream bed near the resort. Kids were surprised to see the scratch-markings of a tiger on the bark of Arjuna tree. Some non-vertebrate members, like the giant wood spider and funnel web spider were also spotted on the trail.

The next day, everyone geared up for the very first jeep safari in Pench. Some of the students were fortunate to track the legendary female tiger, Collarwali. This tigress, a true superstar and supermom, has given birth to more than 25 tigers till date! Seeing this undisputed queen of Pench was the best moment for the wide-eyed students.

The second ride became interesting as a sub-adult tiger cub blocked our safari track and refused to move away. We were thrilled to see the bold cub resting at ease right in the middle of the safari track. This continued for about 40 minutes. The cub later decided to move and join his siblings in the bush near a water-body.

Since the first two rides yielded really good tiger sightings, we decided to search for other predators and some rare birds as well. Most of the time of this safari was spent waiting at different parts of the jungle and listening to the calls of the birds. All the members were lucky to see the rare mottled wood owl on the morning as well as the evening safaris at two different locations. Some of the members could also see the ‘whistling hunters’ – dholes or Indian wild dogs.

On the first two evenings, we had different interactive sessions with the kids, including an introductory session on Pench and another on the herbivores seen in the jungle. Our team also conducted a session on tiger, during which many important things about our national animal were discussed, like the lifecycle, identification, habitat, threats etc.

Next morning was our fifth and final safari of the Tour (camp!). On this safari, again, our tracks were blocked by two sister tigers. We were fortunate to see them for more than an hour. Some members also saw one more tigress while returning to the main gate of the jungle.

The Toehold Outdoors Student Group Tour to Pench was thus a rewarding experience in the wild both for the students and our team who were able to learn different things from one another.

Kamchatka – A Life-changing Experience: Hymakar Valluri

Kamchatka brown bear

A year-long wait to visit this magical land in the Far East proved to be worth every minute of it when I set my foot on its pristine soil – a paradise graced by snow-capped mountains, lovely-hued lakes, and breathtaking endemic flora and fauna.

 

Brown bear family, Kamchatka
© Hymakar Valluri

 

Kamchatka in Russia had been my dream destination, especially so because I wanted to watch and photograph the mighty brown bear.

The dream finally came true in August, when I signed up for the Toehold Wildlife Photography Tour to Kamchatka, led by Santosh Saligram. I was able to see and make images of a lot more geographical beauty and wildlife than I had anticipated.

This journey involved almost all modes of travel, and not knowing Russian proved to be adventurous enough on the first day itself, when I arrived in Moscow. Because there was a 10-hour layover for my next flight to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (PKC), I decided to explore Moscow. Saint Basil’s Cathedral had all my heart while I was there, before leaving for my next flight to PKC.

After a nine-hour flight, we arrived in PKC, a beautiful and clean city. You cannot miss the Koryaksky Volcano as it can be seen from anywhere in the city. We were briefed about the Tour, down to every little detail, and we called it a day, looking forward eagerly to our visit to the Kurile Lake.

The next morning, at around 10:30, we were in a helicopter, taking off to Kurile Lake. I was eagerly waiting for a long time to see this paradise to photograph brown bears fishing salmons, and that’s precisely what I did, along with the group of photographers I was travelling with.

On day two at the Kurile Lake, the weather changed dramatically, for the better, and it was looking much better the previous day. We had not seen a salmon push and were hoping to see some salmons today and also get some bears in action. Bears are known to come out of hibernation after the winter and they start feeding on berries, mushrooms, flowers etc., and then get to hunting for salmons and eat them for the fat and protein, to eventually keep themselves warm and safe during hibernation in the following winter.

As the temperature keeps increasing, they shed their winter coat by brushing off against the trees. And salmons, every year during summer, swim back from the sea to the lake, upstream, to hatch their eggs. Bears wait for the Salmons to return to Kuril Lake and to catch them during their journey upstream.

We were allowed to stay in the open but with rightful strict rules about photographing the bears from a safe distance. The push was not strong and there were few salmons, but we still got some brilliant action between the bears.

 

Brown bears, Kamchatka
© Hymakar Valluri

 

On day three at the Lake, we wanted to catch the morning light as the weather was looking better and hoped that the sun would show up. We got some action shots clicked and got back to the camp and rested till noon. After lunch, we walked to a nearby watch tower and saw a salmon big push happening. There were hundreds of salmons pushing their way through in a hurry to the Lake, fighting against the stream. The whole place turned from green waters to red salmons!

We started walking towards the Tundra along the river and saw lot of bears and hundreds of salmons on the way. After spending sometime in Tundra and understanding the history of the place from the Ranger who had accompanied us, we returned to camp and relaxed for the day, and it was our last night at the camp.

On the last day at the Kurile Lake, we had a few hours to make the best of our time photographing the bears. I tried wide-angle close-ups, capturing the habitat of the bears. We headed back to PKC in the noon and it was time to go to the Bering Sea for the next two days.

 

Kamchatka brown bear
© Hymakar Valluri

 

As we set sail for our next destination, we headed towards puffin colonies. We were asked to get into the Zodiacs and we spent almost two hours making images of thousands of puffins, kittiwakes, skuas, guillemots and other seagulls.

 

Kittiwakes, Kamchatka
© Hymakar Valluri

 

We also got to see spotted seals and sea otters. I was delighted to see my dream-bird horned puffin as well.

 

Horned puffin, Kamchatka
© Hymakar Valluri

 

We headed further into the sea looking for whales, and we got to see a mother and two calves of humpback whales.

 

Whale, Kamchatka
© Hymakar Valluri

 

After photographing the whales to our hearts’ content, we headed towards the islands where we could see sea lions.

 

Sealions, Kamchatka
© Hymakar Valluri

 

By evening, we reached one where sea lions were resting and decided to anchor close by to photograph them the next day in the morning light.

As planned, we woke up at sunrise, got into our Zodiacs and headed towards the rocks on which perched the sea lions. The sea was choppy, so we got back pretty quickly to our boat and as we headed back to the town, our Captain waved to me asking me to scan the hill-top for the Steller’s sea eagles and we were lucky to see a mother and her chick atop that hill. And with that, our wildlife photography had come to a satisfying end.

 

Tufted puffin, Kamchatka
© Hymakar Valluri

 

Kamchatka is an experience I will remember and cherish for a long, long time. Its pristine beauty has only left me thirsting for more adventures into untamed wildernesses across the planet and I hope to travel and photograph more in the days to come.

 

Sea otters, Kamchatka
© Hymakar Valluri

Puma Paradise – Patagonia Wildlife Photography Tour

Puma portrait, Patagonia

There is beauty in the crimson clouds and mystery in the jagged peaks. There’s mindrest on the flaxen grass and life depth in the azure pools.

There’s a paradise in Patagonia. And pumas in it.

Join our next Photography Tour to Patagonia to experience unique beauty!

For more details, visit:
https://www.toehold.in/phototravel/patagonia-puma-paradise/

Animal of the Week: Crab-eating Macaque, Borneo

Crab-eating Macaque, Borneo

Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis)

Great place to see the crab-eating macaque: Borneo, Malaysia

Also referred to as the long-tailed macaque, the crab-eating macaque is one of the primates endemic to Southeast Asia. Its tail is longer than its body and helps for balance when it jumps distances as long as 5 metres and hence the name. It is called the cynomolgus monkey in laboratories.

This macaque often forages beaches for crabs, but it an omnivorous monkey that feeds on a variety of animals and plants. In Thailand, it is called ‘mangrove monkey’ as it lives and forages in mangrove forests. It lives in social groups which have fewer males than females. The group living is known to be maintained mainly as a safety measure against predation.

The crab-eating macaque, unlike other primates, can spit large seeds out. This ability is thought to be adaptive because it avoids filling its stomach with wasteful big seeds that cannot even be used for energy. And an interesting detail connecting this macaque with humans is that it can easily adjust to human settlements and is considered sacred at some Hindu temples.

Apart from using the incisors and canine tooth, the crab-eating macaques in Thailand and Myanmar are known to use stone tools to crack open hard nuts, snails and oysters, and to wash and rub food like potatoes, papaya leaves and cassava roots. And for this intelligence it possesses, the crab-eating macaque is our Animal of the Week!

See this macaque on our ‘Rainforest Revelation‘ Wildlife Photography Tour to Borneo!

Animal of the Week: Hyacinth macaw, Pantanal

hyacinth macaw

Hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus)

Great place to see the hyacinth macaw: Pantanal, Brazil

With its sagacious bearing, the gorgeous hyacinth macaw is bound to make you ecstatic even if you were feeling blue up until you set your eyes on it. It is one of the prettiest parrots you can see and photograph in the Pantanal of Brazil.

This macaw feeds mainly on Brazil nuts from native palms. It has a strong beak to crack hard nuts and seeds and even coconuts. Interestingly, its tongue is smooth and dry with a bone inside it like a tool to tap into fruits. Charles Darwin called it a ‘splendid bird’ with ‘enormous beak’ for this reason.

Both wild and tamed hyacinth macaws are known to have shown limited tool use. This bird is also known to be very even-tempered and calmer than other macaws, which has earned it the name ‘gentle giant’.

The hyacinth macaw is longer than any other species of parrot, is the largest macaw, and the largest flying parrot species, and for all these records it has in its name, it is our Animal of the week!

See this wonderful bird on our ‘The Phantom and the Wetlands‘ Wildlife Photography Tour to Pantanal!

Animal of the Week: Bornean orangutan, Borneo

Bornean Orangutan

Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus)

Great place to see the Bornean Orangutan: Borneo, Malaysia

One of the genetically closest cousins of human beings, the orangutan can never fail to stir your soul when you see it. When your gaze meets that of the Bornean orangutan’s in the rainforests of Borneo, your rekindled love for nature will not only reach a whole new stratosphere but is bound to become boundless.

The Bornean orangutan has long arms and a distinctive body shape. Its grey skin is covered by a hairy reddish coat. It does not have hair on its face unlike most mammals except for the beard and moustache. It is more solitary than its Sumatran counterpart. The males and females come together only to mate. It feeds on more than 400 types of food including figs, leaves, seeds, flowers, honey, bird eggs, durians and insects.

The Bornean orangutan is the third heaviest primate and the largest arboreal animal alive today. It is critically endangered according to the IUCN Red List. A range of serious threats to its existence includes deforestation (habitat destruction), bushmeat trade, hunting and palm oil plantations.

This primate, along with the Sumatran orangutan and Tapanuli orangutan, belongs to the only genus of great apes native to our continent, Asia. The Bornean orangutan, like other great apes, is highly intelligent, and is known to display cultural patterns in the wild along with tool use. It shares approximately 97% of its DNA with humans, and for these wonderful reasons, the Bornean orangutan is our Animal of the Week!

See this astonishing ape on our ‘Rainforest Revelation‘ Wildlife Photography Tour to Borneo!

Animal of the Week: Kittiwake, Svalbard

Kittiwake Svalbard

Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)

Great place to see the kittiwake: Svalbard, Norway

With its angelic white body and adorable form, the kittiwake is a bird cute as a button. In the grey-white spectacular landscape of Svalbard in Norway, see it perched on a chunk of ice or flying like a dream against a sleepy sky.

The name of this bird is derived from its call – ‘kittee-wa-aaake’. Colloquially, it is also called tickleass or tickleace. Its body and head are white, its back grey, its bill yellow, and it has grey wings tipped dark black. The sexes are known to be visually indistinguishable.

This coastal breeding bird dwells in regions ranging from North Pacific and North Atlantic to Arctic oceans. In contrast to the young ones of other gull species, this gull’s chicks are white and are covered with fine soft fur, and they take three years to reach maturity.

Kittiwake is the only gull species that is exclusively cliff-nesting, which lessens the threat of predation. And for this reason, it is our Animal of the Week!

See this beautiful bird on our ‘Pole Trance’ Wildlife Expedition to Svalbard!

Animal of the Week: Leopard

Leopard Kabini

Leopard (Panthera pardus)

Great place to see the leopard: Kabini, India

Our reverence for this spotted feline being defies reason. If spotting big cats in the wild is an addiction you never want to recover from, we resonate with your steadfast love for them. And seeing the leopard in particular in the serene green environs of Kabini – or Bandipur or Gir among other places in India – is an experience we cherish with unabashed admiration. After all, it’s the kind of love that doesn’t await acknowledgement, much less reciprocation.

 
The leopard inhabits tropical rainforests, temperate forests and dry deciduous forests. Its skin is a gorgeous yellowish brown or gold or pale yellow. The spotted and rosetted coat makes it one of the most easily recognised animals. Its honey-gaze can pierce you like unmistakable clarity through the green daze when you spot one while snaking through the sinuous paths of the forest.
 
Not only is this stately cat elusive but also solitary and nocturnal, adding to its mystical charm. It is known to produce various vocalisations like roars, grunts, snarls, purrs, growls and meows. The leopard is also known to be a powerful swimmer even as it is not disposed to swimming. An opportunistic, multi-skilled hunter, its diet is broad, including deer, wild boars, langurs, Indian hares, nilgais and peafowls.
 
Its ability to climb trees is a spectacle to watch if you’re fortunate while in the wild. And its elegance while resting on a tree branch on on ground elicits only awe.
 
This surreal being is sprightly and graceful in each of its agile movement. It can run at more than 58 kilometres per hour. With its single leap, it can cover six metres of the ground horizontally, and it is known to jump up to three metres vertically! For all these astonishing reasons, for its phantom-like existence that makes it one of the most-loved mesmerising animal, the leopard is our Animal of the Week!
 
See this splendid big cat on our ‘The Leopard’s Lair’ Wildlife Photography Tour to Kabini!