Georgia on my mind

I love this country. I am still wondering why I left. There are so many incredible people I met here that I didn’t get photos of, I just didn’t carry my camera enough. No reflection on how happy they made me to meet them. 

Did you know Georgia is where the Ibero-Celts originated from? Was news to me but apparently a big section of us were pushed west by the Mongol hoards and then other Barbarian tribes, then the Romans and the bloody Saxons kept hassling and being general irritants until we were left hanging onto the western skirts of Europe. The ones that stayed in the Caucasus headed up into the mountains and fought like fuckers for the next 5000 years to keep a foothold. They even have bagpipes – and the male choral singing? Lovely! You might be Welsh but you are also Georgia boyo! Went to a stunning exhibition at their national museum of intricate gold jewellery and idols from up to 3000 B.C. It all looked Celtic. So many things you could see in a Welsh or Scottish museum.

If you get chance, go to Georgia.


Sleeping Giant

Kafue, Zambia’s oldest national park, is so vast it could swallow both the Serengeti and Ngorongoro whole. Yet the number of visitors it receives is tiny. For decades it’s suffered from under-investment and neglect but now, little by little, things seem to be changing for the better. With the opening of an impressive array of new camps and lodges, is southern Africa’s sleeping giant finally back on its feet? Huw J. Williams investigates.

On Busanga Plains, the land is ironed flat to the horizon, wilderness in all directions. A vast expanse of golden grass, waist-high and gently waving in the wind for miles around, lone trees standing guard. Drive on, and suddenly the savannah is short and green, pinned to the earth under a huge sky. Further, and the trees congregate in larger numbers, conquering the grass with copses and swathes of mixed-species woodland.

This is Busanga in the dry season, but when the rains come, it is locked away from visitors. For months the plains flood, forming a huge shallow lake dotted with tiny islands where the land rises a few feet to break the water’s surface. Busanga is a patchwork of habitats stretching for eight hundred square miles. Yet these plains are only a fragment of Kafue, Africa’s largest single national park.

Kafue is not merely big, it is bountiful. Within its boundaries lie a rich assortment of primordial habitats: teak forests, mixed miombo woodland, mpane woodland, riverine forests, hills, huge granite boulders, savannah wetlands and seasonal rivers. Three permanent rivers cut through this diverse terrain, bringing their own special scenery and species; the wide Kafue and its tributaries, the Lunga and the Lufupa. Kafue covers over 22,400 square kilometres, an area roughly the size of Wales, yet this pristine expanse of untouched Africa never hosts more than three hundred tourists at a time. Many parks lay claim to wilderness. For Kafue it is true.

Its diversity of habitats means Kafue is home to over 150 mammal species, more than any other park in Africa. Lion, leopard and cheetah, serval and caracal, hyena and jackal, wild dog, they are all here. Numerous antelope species, from eland to the tiny blue duiker. And others such as sable, roan and red lechwe, here in impressive numbers but rarely seen or absent from other parks. Its peerless biodiversity isn’t limited to game. Kafue is a paradise for birds, with over 470 species, many of which are prized sightings, such as blackcheeked lovebirds, Chaplin’s barbet and Denham’s bustard. At Nanzhila Plains Safari Camp, set deep amongst woodlands, plains, ponds and seasonal streams in the south of the park, one visitor spotted over a hundred different species in just over an hour. All whilst sitting in the grounds.

It’s not just the rare species that can offer a delightful birdwatching experience. One morning, as we stroll through the bush at Nanzhila, we spot large birds flocking in the distance. Walking towards them, we see well over two hundred circling in the sky and slowly descending behind a stand of trees. The area around Nanzhila floods during the rains. It is interlaced with seasonal streams that carve meandering depressions through the plains and woodland. Now, in the dry season, the streams are no longer flowing, but deep pools covered in lilies and pads remain. It is to one of these ponds that the birds have headed. We creep slowly forward using the trees as cover. Through the tall grass we can see a tight, vigorous mass of white bodies, flapping wings and splashing water. The birds are pelicans in a feeding frenzy; herding the fish trapped in the ponds. Spectacularly, the scene suddenly erupts as the birds become aware of our presence and hundreds of wings beat as one, pulling the whole flock skyward in a swirling mass.

Despite its natural wealth, Kafue lacks the prestige and fame of many other African national parks. For many years it was a neglected treasure, like a stately home that had been left to decay, its glory days a distant memory. Slowly, it slipped into a negative cycle; few visitors meant little investment and easy pickings for poachers; declining game populations gave tourists ever less reason to come. But now the downward spiral has been halted and Kafue has entered a new era. Recent investment from businesses and international agencies means this jewel in Africa’s crown could reclaim its rightful status as a premier park.

At the edge of a large pool where hippo break their bathing to call loudly to the setting sun, Phil Jeffery, camp manager of Wilderness Safari’s Kapinga Bush Camp, maps out Kafue’s changing fortunes for me. As we sip a beer, he explains why visitors won’t see the vast herds of game that other parks boast. A past history of heavy poaching is the cause, but for Phil that’s no reason to stay away.

“The numbers are not here,” he admits. “The game is not as prolific as the Delta or even Luangwa. But I think that even though Kafue has been hit by poaching it still has that untouched feeling. You really feel that you are in the wilderness.”

As Phil says, poaching has taken its toll, and not just on numbers. Many of the animals are skittish and wary of humans. Sightings are usually at some distance. Somehow, however, this is part of what makes Kafue seem wilder than other parks. On a evening game drive, we round a corner to see a small herd of zebra galloping away, a cloud of dust marking their flight. They stop a little distance off and turn as one to watch us. Later on the same drive, a family group of seven sable stir as we approach, wandering slowly off into the sanctuary of a nearby copse. It’s strangely rewarding to see animals like this: stolen glimpses of game a hundred metres away, alert to your presence, acting as if predators were around. It seems more of a real wilderness experience than watching game that seems blithely unconcerned by the proximity of a vehicle full of tourists.

The present low population density might deter some people, but Steve Smith, owner of Nanzhila Plains Safari Camp, believes that Kafue fills a particular niche for discerning visitors. “Maybe it’s not the right destination for the first time traveller to Africa who wants to see the Big Five. We can’t guarantee that. For the person who has been to the popular destinations and wants a slightly different experience, who wants to see more of what Africa can offer, Kafue is definitely a good option. What we have here is very good quality; animals that are scarce in other areas. And the variety is here, because of the range of habitat. It’s a connoisseur’s destination.”

Quality rather than quantity is the current reality of Kafue, yet there is strong likelihood that soon, as well as diversity, the park will once again have large populations of mammals. The World Bank has allocated a multi-million dollar budget to a five year plan to develop the infrastructure of Kafue and preserve its biodiversity. A recent influx of private investment is also playing a key role.

In the last few years, new lodges have opened, each in prime locations dispersed throughout the park. KaingU Safari Lodge has one of the most beautiful settings of any game lodge in the world. It sits on a magical stretch of the Kafue River where the water’s wide stream has been broken by wooded islands. Huge rounded granite boulders lie dotted through the river, like stepping stones hurled by a giant. Game watching is done from a boat as it weaves its way through the rocks and rapids. Guests will soon be able to cross the river to walk through the bush and spend nights sleeping under the stars.

In the north of Kafue are the luxury lodges and bush camps of Wilderness Safaris. Two of the bush camps in Busanga Plains, Shumba Camp and Kapinga Camp, were built this year, during the rainy season. All the materials had to be trucked in, transferred to 4×4 vehicles and then into mokoros and finally carried by hand. It was a very ambitious project; many people thought it too ambitious. Yet less than a year later, the camps are open. Sitting at Shumba with Phil Nicholls, Wilderness Safaris’ New Developments Manager, he explains the benefits increased tourism brings. Poaching is more prolific when there are fewer people around to prevent it. More camps mean more eyes in the bush.

“Every time a game drive goes out it is a sort of anti-poaching patrol,” he says. “There will be aircraft flying into the dirt strips and helicopter transfers to the camps, so that will be a way of monitoring. Should we come across anything we can contact the Zambian Wildlife Authority scouts and they will be here in flash. So poachers will think that there’s a better chance of being caught, and that maybe now it’s just not worth it.”

Phil is keen to point out though, that it is not simply a case of helping to reduce poaching; Wilderness also has a policy ensuring local communities find a benefit from tourism. “We’ve got a big investment here and we need to protect that investment. So whatever we can do to help conservation in the park we will do. But we will also help the local people around the park, they must not be left out. We are providing employment and we will also work with various community projects to try and distribute some of benefits that we get through being here.”

For every new visitor to Kafue there will be a step taken towards rejuvenating the park. With time, game numbers will increase and the lives of the local people will improve. Long term plans for Kafue also involve its incorporation into the Peace Parks scheme which is running throughout southern Africa. This provides links between national parks across international borders that will eventually allow free movement of animals from one area to another. At the same time it will bring income to the local communities along these migratory routes.

As Oliver Nelson, the park’s Southern Region Manager says, for the first time in decades, the future for Kafue is brighter. “I have worked in parks throughout Africa and Asia for many, many years, but for me Kafue is a true unspoilt wilderness. If you want to see the Big Five in thirty minutes then go to a zoo. If you want to enjoy the experience of being in the bush and looking for the wildlife then Kafue is the place. Game numbers are already recovering and I am very hopeful for its future. There’s a lot of support from both the government and the private sector and with the common sense and visionary management that Zambia Wildlife Authority is implementing, it will be a success.”

On the last morning in Kafue, during a dawn walk, we emerge from a leafy grove, and in front of us the grass of the plains has been burnt by a bush fire. A sooty carpet of back is flecked by a dense shag pile of shoots, lush green and eager, a stark testament to the resilience of nature and an apt metaphor for the park itself. Kafue is at a turning point. The return of tourism, managed well, will mean that animal populations can recover and Kafue can reclaim its title as one of the great African game reserves.

Travel Africa magazine, Issue 36, Autumn 2006 [read it here]


Walk this way

 

 

If quality of guiding were the deciding factor, then Zambia’s Luangwa Valley would probably be voted Africa’s leading safari destination, by a comfortable margin. South Luangwa National Park has game in abundance and no shortage of unexplored, unspoilt wilderness. So far, so wonderful. But how long is it going to stay that way? Huw J. Williams set off on safari to find out.

 

Never get out of the vehicle – it’s the mantra of safari guides right across Africa. Sitting in the back of an open Land Rover, deep in the bush, this stern piece of advice sounds like one of those crystal clear instructions you really don’t need to think too hard about. Yet part of the beauty of Africa lies in its dangers and no matter how sensible the warning, it is somehow alluring to get down from the vehicle and walk. In Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park guests are encouraged to do just that.

But it’s not just the way in which visitors interact with wildlife and the environment that sets South Luangwa apart. Guests are also invited to meet the local people, without whose assistance conservation of this special part of Africa would be a far more difficult task.

South Luangwa is nine thousand and fifty square kilometres of wilderness interlaced by an intricate network of streams and tributaries that feed the Luangwa River. These waterways have created a fertile soil that supports a variety of plants and trees creating a range of wildlife habitats. The park has a hundred different species of mammals, nearly five hundred species of birds, around fifty species of reptile and an uncounted number of amphibians and invertebrates, all within an area unspoilt by mass tourism. Three quarters of the park is still largely unexplored.

Safaris in South Luangwa are a graduation from the norm. Visitors can stay in the lodges near the park entrance where the accommodation is of a high standard, although devoid of lavish pamperings. From here there are morning and evening game drives, punctuated with a bush breakfast or sun downer drinks by the river before returning to the lodge. Alternatively, and this is one of South Luangwa’s specialities, guests can choose to stay in one of the bush camps. There are several operators in the park with at least one of these remote outposts. Most bush camps comprise a small cluster of tented huts, rondavels or stilted platforms where guests sleep, and a main open deck or open-sided thatched long house with easy chairs and a dining table. The focus is is on comfort, but not luxury.

Babette Alfieri runs the Bushcamp Company’s Kuyenda Camp with her husband, Phil Berry. The guests she sees come in search of a real wildlife experience rather than a safari fantasy. “It remains like the old Africa. People don’t come here because it’s trendy or because it’s made some Condé Nast Traveller best list. They come because they are looking for unspoilt Africa. When something happens right here in camp you realise you are not interfering, you are not in the way, it’s all still happening. We’ve witnessed some wonderful things, like leopard killing a bushbuck right there and pulling into that tree. I love it when elephants come through, I love it when we hear the alarm calls of animals at night, so that even if you can’t see anything you know there’s a lot going on.”

It’s not just the adventure of staying in an unfenced camp where the wildlife wanders freely, mere feet from your room. The bush camps also make the best bases for walking safaris. Although it’s possible to take a walking safari from the main lodges, the remoteness of the bush camps heightens the experience.

Walking in the bush with a handful of other guests, single file, behind a guide and an armed scout, Africa comes alive in a way that you just can’t appreciate from a vehicle.

A walking safari gives you the chance to stand at the top of a hill with a wonderful view, stroll along dry river beds, through groves of trees or across open spaces, and visit secret springs where elephants come to drink. Guides that walk seem to know more: they have a greater feeling for and understanding of the ways of the bush. Walking in South Luangwa you get the full benefit of their knowledge.

Phil Berry has worked in South Luangwa for more than thirty years as a park ranger and guide. “You are among the animals, you are on their turf, following game trails”, he explains. “You are having a much closer interaction with the wildlife and you learn much more about it. When you are in a vehicle animals are just another feature of the landscape.”

Walking slowly through the early morning with the sun low over the horizon, there is heavy silence stirred only by the crunch of footsteps and the occasional songs of diligent birds. Phil stops regularly, not merely pointing and naming but telling us about spoor, dung, birds, insects, trees, the medicinal uses of plants, which animals eat which plants, which we can eat, and describing how everything weaves together to form one ever-changing, beautiful and dramatic whole.

We walk on through a grove, down a small bank and into a clearing with short cropped grass. The low-incidence light on the dew reveals a shimmering silvery patchwork, hundreds of funnel web spider traps woven into the ground. Gently Phil tweaks the mouth of a den and the spider pounces in anticipation. One web was deserted and a new dimension of the bush emerges as Phil explains that this patient predator could have fallen prey itself to a spider-eating wasp. Here is a predator-prey relationship on a totally different scale to big cats and herbivores.

“When you come to the bush you start out being overawed by the big game. As you get closer to the bush you look more at the smaller animals. It’s a natural progression. I enjoy guiding most when people get excited about the trees, or the birds or the insects. When people see the smaller, less obvious things, they are becoming more aware and seeing the bigger picture rather than individual animals.”

A little later in our walk something rare occurred. As we started to climb up the bank of a dry river bed, a large matriarch elephant broke from the bush and charged. The situation was handled calmly, efficiently and quickly by Phil and the scout. We were moved away but when it was clear she was trying to find a way to come down off the high bank and attack, a warning shot was fired and she ran off. That was the first warning shot that had been fired by any scout on a Bushcamp Company walk all season. On average only a handful of situations each year require warning shots to be fired and only once every few years is there a need to kill a charging animal. Given that there are hundreds of daily walks in South Luangwa during the course of a tourist season, these figures are testament to the way that the walks are organised.

Derek Solomon is another guide working for the Bushcamp company. He has settled in South Luangwa after many years taking guests around parks throughout southern Africa. “Yes, we are taking you into a potentially dangerous situation,” he says, “but the guys in front of you are highly trained. We have a very intensive guide programme. Every guide has to go through an examination with an enormous focus on safety.”

If a dangerous situation does arise there are two unknowns: what will the animal do; and what will the guests do. Both are taken care of by a professional.

“We have a qualified scout in front who is carrying a weapon and his job is to stand firm and if absolutely necessary he would kill that animal. At the same time the professional guide is looking after the guests, instructing them what to do in the safest and quickest manner. It is really important to make sure that the guests do the right thing and don’t panic because that could trigger a charge.”

This adherence to safety, and the pristine state of the environment, are what make walking in South Luangwa so special. But it’s not merely the protection of guests that preoccupies the tourism companies operating in the park. South Luangwa is close to a rapidly growing community. Just over the river lie villages that have been steadily increasing in size over recent years. These people are poor and to them the park could be a source of vital resources.

“Nyama means animal in the local language but it also means meat”, says Derek. “They see wildlife as meat, they view the park as viable for farming. They have to go and collect firewood. From our point of view, it is an easy thing to say that they are not allowed to cut trees, but from their point of view they need to stay warm, they need to cook food.”

Anke Cowan runs Kafunta Lodge and like all the tourism professionals operating in the park she recognises that unless the local people feel a vested interest in protecting the wildlife and its habitat, then their need to exploit their region’s resources could severely damage this delicate ecosystem. “It is essential the local people feel the benefit of the revenue tourism generates”, she says.

Employment is one way the prosperity is spread throughout the community as one job can support extended families of as many as twenty people. As well as work for people in the lodges and as guides, tourism generates a spinoff economy of service industries. Tribal Textiles, a local company making high quality batik fabrics for export and the tourist trade, estimates that as many as a thousand people benefit directly or indirectly from the employment it provides.

Tourist companies in the park are also contributing much needed infrastructure. Schools, conservation education programmes, bore holes and medical services have all been set up through direct donations and fund raising. The park’s clinic is the only one in Zambia to have its own doctor, provided by the camps to care for guests but mostly treating the local community. Jo Pope and her husband, co-owners of Robin Pope Safaris, are involved in a number of projects and one of their main concerns is education. They have helped fund school buildings, educational materials and teachers’ wages. “The only way this community is going to develop is through education”, says Jo.

Funding the schools has not been done in isolation. Guests of Robin Pope Safaris are invited to spend an afternoon visiting the children. Although this has led many tourists to donate, the motivation is not monetary. Jo feels that the guests and the local people should be given every opportunity to meet one another, to foster greater understanding on both sides. With this in mind, she has gone one step further than philanthropy and has advised the people of a local village, Kawaza, how to establish their own tourism product. With her advice they have built a few extra huts and tourists can now stay in the village and see how people there lead their lives. The experience is basic but authentic.

“The whole point is people are visiting the villagers in their home as if they were friends. We have about sixty bed nights a year now and last year they took seven thousand dollars, which is quite a lot of money for the village. But it’s low key, we don’t want to pump people through. We suggest that guests bring things of their own, maybe some photos. We encourage them to talk about themselves and not just question. It’s incredibly successful. All the villagers welcome it. They love the interaction.”

Constantino Muanga is one of the villagers who works as a paid guide for the guests, interpreting conversations and explaining how people live their lives. “We show guests around the villages and introduce them to the people who live here,” she says. “They talk about what they are doing, maybe preparing a meal or returning from working in the fields. The guests get to eat a meal of local food: nisma, which is maize meal and muto, a chicken and peanut soup. They can drink some local wine and at night we will sit around the fire and tell stories or sing. We like having them visit. We learn of their culture and they learn about ours.”

If South Luangwa is to remain a park where the African bush not only survives but thrives, the involvement of the local community in tourism and conservation is essential, and responsible safaris are already providing the framework. By giving guests an experience beyond the norm, and bringing Zambians and visitors closer together, all can benefit from the beauty and value of such a wild and priceless place.

Travel Africa Magazine, Issue 33, Winter 2005-6
[read it here]


Cashing in on appetite for adventure

Holidaymakers want more than two weeks on the beach and a tan, says Huw J. Williams

Sun, sand and sea are losing their allure for British holidaymakers. A traditional beach holiday is still the favourite, but a rapidly growing number of Britons are choosing activity holidays.

These range from sports holidays such as skiing, sailing or diving to yoga retreats, cookery courses, needlepoint lessons, painting in Provence, trekking in the Himalayas and birdwatching in Belize. This broad market is diversifying all the time. If you have an interest, hobby or merely something you are inquisitive to try, there’s a good chance someone will be a running a holiday that lets you experience it at leisure.

The British take more than 150 million holidays a year, and a 2003 Mintel report showed that active breaks amounted to more than 10 per cent of the market. Operators say there has been a continued increase in passenger numbers over the past two years.

Simon Larkham, of investment bank ABN Amro, says: ‘Consumers want to take more holidays, sample different experiences and above all else want choice, whether it be destination, activity or even how they book it. The growth in activity holidays is just one component of this change.

‘First Choice is the best example of a traditional tour operator that has been alive to this. Specialist and activity holidays now represent more than 50 per cent of group profit. The operators best placed are those who can change as fast as consumer demands are evolving.’

Operating profits for First Choice’s activity holidays division were up by 27 per cent in the last financial year and interim results published last June showed an 8 per cent increase in sales over the same period last year.

Active holiday specialist Neilson, part of Thomas Cook, carries more than 100,000 passengers each year on watersports, mountain biking and winter sports holidays. It has recorded a 14 per cent rise in overall sales for the year ending last April and its Beach Plus active brand is up 43 per cent year on year. Managing director Pete Tyler believes such holidays can eat even further into the traditional beach market: ‘The Benidorm fly-and-flop thing is dying away. People want to improve themselves when they go on holiday now, whether it be cooking or painting, learning to mountain bike or sail.’

Although the major operators are all offering some form of active holiday, the sector is dominated by small specialists – which are also growing. Andreas Elia, director of Regaldive Worldwide, says sales are already up 12 per cent on last year, and the type of client is changing.

The Observer, Sunday 28 August 2005 [read it here]


Highway to powder paradise

A new charter flight starting next month puts the big snows of Colorado within easy reach. Huw J. Williams reports

Colorado snow is among the world’s best: deep, luxuriant and effervescent stuff that has been dried as it travelled across North America in the jet stream before falling on this mountainous arena.

Last week resorts across Colorado opened and reported the best first weekend snow conditions for a decade – and getting to it is becoming easier than ever. A twice-weekly charter flight launches on 21 December from Gatwick to Denver, starting at £315 return including taxes. Weekly packages for Christmas, including flights and transfers, are from £449.

From Denver, Interstate 70 heads west and starts to rise; prairie becomes hills that build into the Rockies. An hour-and-a-half from the airport, you reach Winter Park, Keystone and Copper, then Arapahoe Basin and Breckenridge are another 20 minutes. Vail, Beaver Creek, Steamboat Springs and Aspen are all along or off Interstate 70 as it snakes across the mountains. Even though the drive to the furthest of these is five or six hours, depending on conditions, the scenery is often spectacular, as I-70 meets the Colorado river and winds through red rock canyons dusted with snow.

Some resorts are small, and most people on the slopes are locals, but others are large, attracting visitors from around the world. All possess a uniquely Colorado ambience.

Winter Park: momentous moguls

The first resort off I-70 covers five mountains suitable for everyone from beginners to hardcore experts. The main draw is Mary Jane, famed for moguls. Although the bumps may not appeal to many snowboarders, its tree runs will. Like most local resorts, Winter Park is placing increasing emphasis on building world-class terrain parks for skiers and boarders with a selection of rails and jumps designed not to frighten beginners and others big enough to please aspirant pros. The town is a couple of miles down valley from the base area. Its not particularly big but is friendly and a real community. There are several good restaurants and a handful of bars as well as a cafes and shops. www.winterparkresort.com

Arapahoe Basin: atmosphere at altitude

A-Basin, as it is known, is small and relaxed but also claims to have the highest skiable terrain of any resort in North America. The base is unpretentious, with only a small ski patrol hut and large A-frame building that houses a cafeteria, bar, restrooms and the mountain offices. Its chilled-out atmosphere and range of trail difficulty means it is strong favourite for many Colorado mountain people. www.arapahoebasin.com

Breckenridge: high-level heritage

‘Breck’ is a picturesque old gold mining town with pastel-painted clapboard buildings dating back to the 18th century. Streets are lit all winter by white fairy lights, giving it a mystical, welcoming atmosphere. Breckenridge might look quaint, but, like most Colorado resorts, sits at surprisingly high altitude. Care needs to be taken to stay hydrated and not push too hard early until you are acclimatised. There are four mountains, rather unimaginatively called 10, 9, 8 and 7. Boarders particularly rate the terrain park and pipe, considered to be one of the best in the state. Hardcore skiers and borders brave the thin air and hike above the lifts to the open bowls and chutes at the top of peaks 7, 8 and 9. www.breckenridge.com

Copper: best for mixed groups

Purpose-built resort villages tend to have a somewhat contrived community feel, with everything you need apart from character. Copper is no different, though an investment programme has given the village many new amenities. If staying in a real town appeals more, Frisco, a small, easygoing place, is only 15-minutes’ drive away. Copper’s slopes are the real draw. There are 125 groomed trails, yet the mountain is incredibly easy to navigate, with runs becoming progressively more difficult as you move from right to left on the piste map. Beginners have plenty to keep them happy on the western slopes and won’t have to mix it with more advanced traffic, which tends to stay to the east. www.coppercolorado.com

Vail: brash but beautiful

Vail tends to attract two groups of people: those who like to display their wealth; and those who come for the ‘Back Bowls’. It is expensive and can be ostentatious and brash, but it also has a wealth of high-class trails. The front side of the mountain is essentially limited to intermediate riding and is sometimes crowded by North American standards, but once you get to the top of Vail any bad points disappear. The back of the hill really is some of the best terrain in the world, with peerless off-piste powder riding. It’s not just for experts – there are plenty of runs in the Back Bowls for first timers in deep powder to learn the technique. Once mastered, this is a perfect playground for even the very best. Vail Resorts also owns Breckenridge, Beaver Creek and Keystone and there are lift tickets that can give you access to all four. www.vail.com

Aspen: A-list in every way

One of the world’s most famous resorts, this quaint former mining town has a reputation as a playground for the fabulously rich. It is chi-chi and can be expensive, but that is only one side to a town with a split personality. Aspen can also be affordable and has a liberal, welcoming, culturally diverse community. There are more than 200 places to eat, nightclubs, numerous bars, boutiques shops and galleries. There are four mountains on the Aspen lift ticket – Ajax, Buttermilk, Highlands and Snowmass – and a free bus service runs between all the base areas. Each mountain has its own special draw, and between them they encompass nearly 5,000 acres of hugely varied terrain, from wide, easy groomers to high alpine bowls, tree runs, moguls and double blacks. www.aspensnowmass.com

Factfile

Crystal (0870 160 6040  ; www.crystalski.co.uk charter flights from Gatwick to Denver run every Wednesday and Saturday from 21 December to 15 April. Packages start from £449 for a week in Winter Park, and £469 in Vail, departing 24 December, room only but including flights and transfers.

The Observer, Sunday 27 November 2005 [read it here]


What to do when a playground in white turns into a killer zone

This year’s avalanche toll is set to be a record, but still most skiers ignore the risk. Huw J. Williams signs up for the course every off-pister should take

Massive snowfalls across the Alps last weekend have helped make this one of the best ski seasons for years. It’s also been the most deadly. Avalanches have killed at least 44 people so far this winter in France alone, up from 26 for the whole of last season. Around the world at least 224 winter sports enthusiasts have perished.

The big snows are only part of the problem. New ‘fat’ skis are making off-piste skiing far easier and encouraging people with little mountain experience to hike out to the big white playground. What they should do is leave the powder alone for a few days and take a course in minimising the risk of becoming an avalanche statistic.

In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a resort famous for its off-piste, I knuckled down to take my lesson. Our instructor, Eric Henderson, has spent 11 seasons guiding at Jackson, has worked in British Columbia and Alaska and led expeditions to China and Tibet.

For four days we leave the resort behind. We hike and climb, we ride, we listen, we practise. We learn to use our avalanche transceivers, our lifeline if we were to be buried by a slide. In ‘transmit’ mode, they constantly emit a radio signal. If someone is buried, the rest of the group switch their transceivers to ‘receive’ mode, which searches out the signal from the victim. A buried skier only has a few minutes before he or she stops breathing.

The next step is using the probes – long, collapsible poles – in a methodical pattern to hit the body. Under Eric’s guiding eye we see that the snow pack is a delicate series of layers. He shows us a crystalline layer called surface hoar, the dusting of frozen dew you often see. Buried, it creates a highly unstable layer, just waiting to slide. We learn to recognise signals of lurking danger. We see snow in detail, rather than a white mass.

Some slopes hold more dangers than others; the worst have angles of between 30 and 40 degrees, and leeward slopes are less stable than windward. We discuss the best way to climb or slide down, which slopes should be avoided, where the islands of safety are if an avalanche started above us. Where would the debris go? Gullies or depressions are more dangerous to be caught in, as a victim will be buried deeper.

We treat each slope as if it posed a risk; single file, stopping behind a rock or out of the path of a potential slide, watching the others as they move so if they are taken we could find them quickly.

The course instills respect. No matter how strong the siren call of pristine snow, the backcountry dangers are very real.

A survivor’s story

‘I’m an avalanche forecaster. That involves going out and testing the snow pack to try and assess the risk. There were three of us on this particular day and we were about 10 miles into the backcountry. There were some aspects we were concerned by but conditions had stabilised. We were doing everything right. We always carry rescue gear, we chose what we thought was the safest way to descend and we skied one at a time. I was the last one down.

All at once the snow shattered into a hard slab avalanche. One of my colleagues described it as like someone throwing a rock at a windowpane. It took me off my feet like someone pulling a rug out from underneath me. I slid about 150 feet. I was on the surface for most of the way but then the snow above me started to ride over me and I was buried. I tried to get one hand up to my face to create an air pocket but it solidified so quickly the only thing I could move was the very tip of my fingers. I was very panicked. I was out of breath from the fall and there was very little air. I knew my ski partners knew what they were doing yet it was still utterly horrifying – I can’t imagine what it would be like to be lying there buried and not knowing someone was coming to get you out.

My colleagues were able to watch me till the very last moment. As soon as it was safe they came over. When I heard them starting to dig it was an immense relief. I was consciously trying to slow down my breathing so I could last as long as possible; I was pretty close to blacking out. I felt a shovel hit my pack. I knew then they would get me out.’

— Janet Kellam, Director of the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Centre, Idaho, USA

Essentials

Backcountry courses at Jackson Hole cost from £265 for four days. Contact            00 1 307 739 2663      ; www.jacksonhole.com. Ski Independence (            0845 310 3030      ;www.ski-independence.co.uk) offers seven nights Jackson Hole from £849 per person including flights, transfers and accommodation.

 

The Observer, Sunday 12 March 2006 [read it here]


Monkey around in the land of the rising steam

 

Japan is the hot new destination for skiers and boarders with Crystal and Inghams, Britain’s biggest ski companies, launching trips there. Huw J. Williams checks it out…

The snow has been falling steadily for two days. Huge flakes have piled up into thick slabs on the gently sloping roofs, adding an entire storey to the height of the houses. As I step through the door of an ornately carved wooden building, the temperature suddenly rises. Billows of steam slowly climb to the vaulted roof, where a skylight filters a glow from outside. There are about 15 men inside, most naked, sitting in or gingerly lowering themselves into two square baths, their waters lapping up to the edge of the dark flagstone floors. This is an onsen, a communal spa-bath; apres-ski Japanese style.

Strange as it seems, it’s something more and more British skiers are about to experience. Japan is this year’s new must-visit ski destination, with the two biggest tour operators starting packages from December.

True, there’s the 12-hour flight; yes, there are the rumours of epic prices for food and drink; and, yes, there’s the language barrier and lack of cutlery; so it must have something seriously good going for it to compensate. It does.

Japan has more winter resorts than any country; there are more than 700, while the US has around 470. It has one of the highest average snowfalls in the world and 75 per cent of its land mass is mountainous; Japan is a winter sports paradise.

The mountains are lower than Europe or North America, typically topping out below 2,000m, so altitude sickness is not a problem. Neither is a lack of snow. Each winter, strong winds sweep tonnes of the stuff from Siberia, across the Sea of Japan and deposit it over the Japanese Alps on the main island, Honshu, and the extinct volcanoes of the northern island, Hokkaido.

Many of the Japanese resorts were built or upgraded during the economic boom of the Eighties and Nineties and the lift infrastructure is mainly of a high standard. Yet despite the number and quality of resorts, the runs are often deserted. The Japanese generally get less holiday leave than us and work hours are long. During the week, the only Japanese people you see are young Japanese ‘freetas’, renegades that refuse to buy into the workaholic lifestyle and have embraced the Western ski-bum philosophy; working to ride. The rest of the skiing and boarding population grab their chance at the weekend.

I’ve come to Nozawa Onsen, a spa town and ski resort an hour and a half’s journey by Shinkansen – the bullet train – from Tokyo. As the train moves from the tight streets and skyscrapers of the city it passes through paddy fields and up into the mountains. The resort is a nest of steep narrow streets, each fringed with a gully of fast-flowing, steaming, spring water. It’s as if the entire town has been built around a network of mountain streams.

The water that runs from the volcanic springs is channelled away to heat homes and the 30 public onsens, from which the town gets its name. The water is even used for communal cooking pools. I sit opposite them one morning, sipping green tea, watching through the window as a woman hunches against the swirling snow flurries and lowers a wicker basket stuffed with whole eggs and vegetables into the cloud-capped ponds. I can’t resist and wander over to buy a hard-boiled egg, its flesh gently flavoured with volcanic minerals. A snowboarding or ski holiday to Japan is not just about sliding around on snow, it is an immersion in a completely different culture.

One night I walk the streets of Yuzawa, a town in the heart of the Japanese Alps. The streets are wet from melted snow and the tar is lacquered with the reflection of vivid neon from shops, restaurants and hotels. I am mesmerised by the colours of the lights, oblivious to their messages, sheltered from the hard sell of their commercial catcalls.

There’s something childlike about being surrounded by bright billboards which have no meaning apart from their aesthetics; interesting shapes, funny graphics or pretty lights. Then there is the resilience of the ancient amid a frenzy of modernity. The chic boutiques and computer games shop that stand sentinel, either side of an ancient sacred shrine, the kimono-clad host at the traditional tearoom I sit in, politely serving a group of young tattooed snowboarders.

As we ride up the chairlifts, even the mountains seem quintessentially oriental. The peaks are pyramidal and populated with wispy-branched birch trees. From the lift it is possible to catch a glimpse of Japanese macaque – snow monkeys – but if you miss a sighting, Jigokudani Yaenkoen, near Shiga Kogen, is a small park where thermal pools attract families of them; the monkeys can be seen playing or sitting preening themselves and relaxing in the steaming water.

As well as the near-deserted slopes, deep untouched powder and proliferation of resorts, another surprising attraction of a winter sports holiday in Japan is the cost; it is not as expensive as you might think. A day-lift pass at most resorts is less than £20.

Food is also reasonable; one lunchtime I sat in a little local noodle bar that looked as if it was part of the set from Blade Runner, a profusion of neon and steaming vats. The noodle soup was fresh and filling and the bill was about £3, plus £2.50 for my Kirin beer. Even at a mountain restaurant, you can eat your fill of freshly cooked Japanese food for around £6.

There are more Westerners in Hokkaido, the island to which Inghams and Crystal are taking trips, and an invasion of Australasian entrepreneurs over recent years has given the island a more international feel. But a far greater number of resorts are in the Japanese Alps, on the mainland.

Some, such as Hakkaisan, are small and intimate with only a handful of runs. A cable car runs from base to crest and here we ran circuits, finding new routes through the waist-deep powder and trees back to the bottom and up again. Others, such as the interconnected Naeba-Mitsumata-Kagura-Tashiro area, are extensive, with runs to suit all abilities, a terrain park and 26 lifts, including the longest gondola in the world, at 5.5km. The terrain is varied enough to give days of play. If you want bigger still, Shiga Kogen is vast by any standards; 21 different resorts have been linked to form an area that rivals the biggest in the world.

On a two-week tour around the mainland resorts I saw few Western faces. A smattering of expats will grab a ski break from the office at the weekend, but, apart from them, nearly everyone you meet will be Japanese. That is one of the real joys of coming here: you feel a pioneer in a very foreign land.

Such isolation could lead to a fear that making yourself understood is a daily grind: it isn’t. Stepping into a mountain restaurant, hungry from a hard morning boarding, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a large vending machine. The format in these places is you insert your money, choose your meal and out pops a ticket. Take the ticket to the serving counter and they exchange it for food.

The trouble with this particular machine was that all the choices were written only in Japanese. The secret at times like this is to rely on the ubiquitous Japanese gentility. Even if the first person you stop does not speak English, they will often find you someone who does. Smile and help soon arrives.

By the end of the trip something of the oriental lifestyle was definitely rubbing off. After a hard day in the powder, instead of hard-core apres, we yearned for the warm soft waters of the onsen, bringing a profound peace that seeps through tired muscles.

The monkeys have definitely got the right idea.

Huw Williams travelled with KLM (            0870 507 4074      ; www.klm.com) which flies from Heathrow to Tokyo twice a day from £566. For information on Japanese resorts seewww.snowjapan.com. We Love Snow (            00 81 25 784 3117      ; www.welovesnow.com) is a Japanese operator offering weekly packages in the Alps, with five-day lift pass, accommodation and train from Tokyo from £510 pp. Apres Ski Snodeck (            00 81 25 780 9190      ;www.snodeck.net) is a British-owned bar and restaurant at the base of the Asagai park in Naeba which can also arrange accommodation.

The Observer,
Sunday 8 October 2006
[read it here]