As I set out of my hotel onto Segovia’s sunny streets, a Roman aqueduct looms ahead of me, making the signposts to it redundant. I walk alongside it, following the arches and touching the cool stones. I was expecting something grander. After all, this structure in central Spain was built by the ancient Romans, and I had imagined that their public works were on the same scale as the Colosseum, and the many temples, baths, and amphitheatres that still stand across Europe.
I turn right towards Segovia’s historic Old Town, and suddenly, I am not disappointed any more. The Old Town and the Aqueduct together are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Standing before me in the Plaza del Azoguejo is the “monumental” stretch of the Aqueduct: 128 stone pillars topped off by two tiers of arches, all built by stacking massive blocks of granite acquired from the nearby Guadarrama Mountains. The entire structure is built without mortar; only the equilibrium of forces holds the huge granite blocks together.
Many Roman aqueducts, designed to bring water from springs and rivers to cities and towns, still survive across the erstwhile Roman Empire. However, the Segovia Aqueduct is one of the few that still stands in all its glory; at its tallest, it measures 92 feet. Segovia is a tiny town, less than a hundred kilometres from Spain’s capital Madrid. Its charming terracotta and sandstone houses provide a picturesque backdrop to several historical monuments, such as the Alcazar or royal palace, the massive Gothic cathedral, and Romanesque churches of various sizes. But the most stunning of its monuments is the remarkably preserved 17-kilometre-long Aqueduct.
Mariano, my guide for the day, tells me the Aqueduct was in use until the mid-19th century. The old quarter of Segovia which includes an 813-metre section of the Aqueduct was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. “The Aqueduct is a protected monument now, but as a child I remember seeing cars driving in and out of these arches,” Mariano laughs. The structure was likely built to tap water from the River Frio in the late 1st or early 2nd century AD., by Roman troops who were sent to conquer the area and eventually settled here. Local legend has its own version of the Aqueduct’s creation story, linked to Christianity. It talks of how a young Segovian water carrier who was tired of carrying her pitcher through the town’s steep streets, made a deal with the devil. He could take her soul if he could bring water to her home before daybreak. The devil began building the Aqueduct, but as the rooster crowed, he was just one stone short of completing the structure, and so was unable to take her soul. The holes visible on the stones are said to be the devil’s fingerprints.
Leaving the Aqueduct behind, Mariano and I walk northwest for about ten minutes to reach Plaza Mayor, the main square, dominated by the Cathedral of Segovia. This was the last Gothic cathedral to be built in Spain, in the mid-16th century. I’m awestruck by its size, and find it difficult to fit the entire structure in my camera frame. The bell tower soars to nearly 90 metres and there are numerous, intricately carved spires rising up from every conceivable corner. The relative austerity inside is surprising; I was expecting something more opulent. After a look around the cathedral’s museum, which houses a superb collection of paintings, tapestries and rare manuscripts, Mariano and I walk through the narrow alleys of Segovia to another of its crowning jewels—the Alcazar.
As we near the moat, the castle fortress comes into view, and I’m reminded of the Walt Disney logo. It turns out that the castle is said to be one of the inspirations for Cinderella’s castle at Walt Disney World, Florida. The fairytale palace stands on a rocky crag at the confluence of two rivers. It was built between the 12th and 13th centuries as a royal residence for Castilian kings. Its towers, turrets and sharp slate spires were built over different periods of time, giving the castle a part Romanesque, part Moorish feel. The fortress houses an artillery museum and opulently decorated rooms.
The Gallery Room with its ornate ceiling, shaped like an upside down ship’s hull catches my eye. So does the Monarehs’ Room, with its golden frieze depicting Spain’s kings and queens. I climb one of the towers and survey the Spanish countryside, feeling very much like Isabella I of Castile, who lived in the castle, and was one of the most influential queens in Spanish history. Later, I return to the Plaza del Azoguejo for a cup of coffee. The late afternoon sun casts a warm glow over the Aqueduct. I marvel at the skill of Roman engineers who knew exactly how to pile stones without mortar to build a magnificent structure that has withstood the ravages of time.
Bhopal’s Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum unfurls a rich tapestry of stories. Its vast galleries are canvases for locals and artists from the Gond, Bhil, Korku, Baiga, Sahariya, Kol, and Bhariya communities, who have crafted exhibits and installations showcasing their everyday life and folklore. The first gallery is illuminated in warm yellows and oranges, as if catching the mellow rays of the morning sun. Visitors can enter replicas of traditional mud-and-brick huts of each tribe. They are so realistic that I feel like I’ll see a matriarch bustling about in a kitchen any second.
On the walls outside I spot tiny murals of impish children frolicking on farms. Things get more interesting at the Tribal Aesthetic gallery with its exhaustive exhibits related to myth, art, and marriage rituals. A part of the gallery is lush with bamboo, and wooden figurines amid this “jungle” recreate the popular Gond folk tale of the Basin Kanya. According to the story, a strange twist of fate leads to a girl being killed by her six brothers. Thereafter, she is reborn as the bamboo plant, an invaluable natural resource for the tribe.
I spot a brass model of a bangle, at least six feet in diameter, studded with figurines of cattle and pickaxe-wielding farmers. It is an enlarged version of an ornament gifted to newly-wed Bhil women and symbolizes the harvest and productivity. Nearby are numerous drums tied to a tree. Alongside, figurines of musicians depict stories of the origins of music among some local tribal communities. It helps me see how seemingly ordinary objects are potent symbols of faith and an expression of art among communities. Stepping into the Tribal Spiritual World gallery feels like entering a magic land illuminated in deep blues and fierce reds.
A sign says the lighting attempts to help visitors imagine a mystical world inhabited by spirits of ancestors. Vivid exhibits symbolize the afterlife, for instance ladders are meant to help the deceased enter heaven. Memorial pillars are carved with touching detail, depicting a grandfather chewing tobacco or a child playing with a favourite toy. This extraordinary museum captures the unfettered imagination of the indigenous people of this area. It is a space in which life stories have been told and shared with the world in imaginative ways.
To capture the essence of master painters, Dan Bannino shot outside the lines. The Italian photographer pilgrimaged to 22 European cities and towns for his Eye of the Artist series, a collection of photos from the perspective of ten famous artists, from Pablo Picasso to Paul Cezanne. “I wanted to eat their food, smell the air, see the same colours that they had in their eyes,” says Bannino.
In Albi, France, Bannino visited the church French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was baptized in and met with the artist’s last living relative at the family castle, Chateau du Bose. He based his Toulouse-Lautrec photo on a story about how the French painter filled water glasses with fish so guests would be forced to drink wine at his parties. Other stops included Dali’s favourite restaurant and impromptu performance space in Spain’s Costa Brava region, and Renoir’s retirement home in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France, where he continued to paint despite crippling rheumatism.
Els Quatre Gats, Picasso’s Barcelona cafe hangout in the late 19th century, still uses the menu cover that the surrealist designed. This inspired the backdrop of Bannino’s Picasso-themed image, which also features another museum name—Mark Rothko; it’s also the name of Bannino’s canine travel companion. Photographer and National Geographic Traveler (U.S.) contributor Juijen Drenth travelled around France and Holland for similar projects on Vermeer, Rembrandt, and van Gogh. He recreated Van Gogh’s gritty “Potato Eaters” with a Dutch family in their kitchen.
Big motorbikes pound the streets of the city of Daytona Beach, filling the air with deep revs. Pubs are decorated with car bumpers and chequered black-and-white flags. The East Coast city has been a revered spot for American motorsports ever since 1902, when the first car races took place on its beach. When I go there for a jog early one morning during my stay, I see that the sand is nicely packed; my feet don’t sink in. The beach is wide, long, and straight. Though it’s early, people are out strolling, running, or doing yoga. Several early land speed records were set here in the 1920s and ’30s. It was also here that NASCAR, America’s premier racing organisation, was started.
In 1959, the action shifted from the beach to a new, faster racetrack, the Daytona International Speedway. This is where Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious annual race occurs. Visitors can sign up for tours of the facility where a little tram car takes us to the race track. The growl of a speeding race car fills my ears. Even though I’m not a motor racing nut, the sight of a car gaining speed and turning steeply banked corners is familiar from races I’ve seen on television. Moments later, the car draws to a halt and a tourist steps out, weak and wobbly in the knees, but grinning hugely. He’s been riding shotgun in the NASCAR stock car, experiencing the surge of speed as the car reached 250 kmph.
Still shaking, he strikes a pose next to a cardboard cut-out of Richard Petty, seven-time winner of the Daytona 500, after whom the ride-along experience is named. Speed seekers can even sign up to drive the car themselves. Back at the Visitor Center, trophies and photographs of exciting moments from the history of Daytona 500 are on display. The highlight is the winning car from the most recent Daytona 500 race, displayed for one year, until the next win. Watching people pose for selfies and chatter about climactic final laps, it’s easy for even anon-motor sport fan to get caught up in the excitement of being in a space that’s a landmark for the sport.
Travellers trek to China to see some of the world’s wonders: the Great Wall, the terracotta warriors, and the iconic giant panda. Habitat destruction from industrialization and natural disasters has rendered this species endangered, with less than 2,000 left in the wild. Still, there is hope for these furry friends; a feature in National Geographic Magazine’s August 2016 issue documents ongoing efforts by scientists at the Wolong Nature Reserve as they breed and release this legendary animal back into its natural environment. Managed by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, the Wolong Nature Reserve encompasses several outposts where tourists can visit and support these two-toned creatures and the teams devoted to saving them.
DUJIANGYAN PANDA BASE – The Dujiangyan Panda Base is 90 minutes outside Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, making it a prime spot for panda encounters since it’s easily accessible. This centre boasts an interactive experience not offered at other branches of the Wolong Nature Reserve’s network: the Panda Keeper Program, also known as the best babysitting gig in the world. Travellers can assist caretakers in their work, which involves waking the pandas up, cleaning the enclosures, and preparing a feast of bamboo for meals, and snacks of steamed buns and apples. During your visit, make sure to peer into the base’s panda playground, particularly in the morning when China’s animal ambassadors are at their most active.
GENGDA GIANT PANDA CENTER – Gengda, Wolong Nature Reserve’s newest facility, has replaced a former research centre devastated by the 2008 earthquake. The operations here, currently in the process of opening up to the public, include education, research, captive breeding, and teaching the animals how to reintegrate into their natural habitat.
BIFENGXIA GIANT PANDA BASE – If Sichuan Province is considered Panda Nation, then the Bifengxia Giant Panda Base (or BFX) is its soul. BFX is located about 145 kilometres outside of Chengdu, set inside a valley laced with waterfalls. The largest outpost of the Wolong Nature Reserve, BFX became home to several giant pandas needing refuge after the Wolong panda breeding centre was destroyed by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The sanctuary also houses a panda kindergarten, where visitors can observe caretakers at work as they tend, feed, and weigh the not-so-giant panda cubs, who are usually born sometime between July and September.
Even though she’s never watched Shark Week, marine conservationist Jessica Cramp cares a lot about the enigmatic, misunderstood predators. Based in the Cook Islands archipelago in the South Pacific, this National Geographic explorer helped create one of the world’s largest shark sanctuaries, fights illegal fishing, and tries to turn the tide of sharks’ Jaws-influenced reputation.
SHARKS GET A BAD RAP. WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT SAVING THEM?
I don’t want to suggest that all species are harmless, because they aren’t, but that doesn’t mean they should be wiped out either. Sharks’ reproductive characteristics—late to mature, slow-growing, few offspring—make them especially vulnerable to exploitation and overfishing. The problem is that much of the public thinks “good riddance” if shark numbers decrease. What people don’t understand is that we need to be very cautious of the balance of our oceans.
WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE MOST ABOUT SHARKS?
If you jump in the water with them under normal circumstances, meaning no fish in your wet suit, you aren’t necessarily going to be attacked. In the Galapagos, I jumped off a boat into a group often large silky sharks. They swam in slow, curious circles around me and then, uninterested, continued what they were doing before I got in. I wanted more interaction, but they were bored with me.
HOW CAN SOMEONE AID IN SHARK CONSERVATION?
If you like to eat fish, you can start by learning about whether or not that fish is threatened in the wild. Then you should inquire how your fish gets caught. What method of fishing was used—longliner, trawler, pole and line, a purse seine? What are the side effects of those methods? Does the restaurant make a point to buy sustainable fish? Are your fish-and-chips actually shark meat? It’s a good start to understanding the challenge.
Going on a ten-day silent retreat in Bad Antogast, a small hamlet on the edge of the Black Forest in Germany punctuated by a handful of farmers’ houses and terraced fields, was my wife’s idea of a fun vacation, not mine. Left to my own devices, I would have preferred to trace the Alps, hiking a well-known trail and marking it off on my list of accomplishments. I get a kick out of tangible outcomes. My wife suggested I learn to quieten my mind. I was unconvinced. She booked me in anyway.
Located in Germany’s deep south, close to the Swiss and French borders, Bad Antogast is encircled by mountains and forests, making it difficult to reach from any German city. That’s not necessarily a bad trade, for all the clockwork German precision also melts away as one leaves the hustle of the cities behind. Appearing unannounced in a valley, it’s a village custom-built for experiments with reclusiveness. There are no markets to be seen, no traffic. A mineral water spring is the only tourist attraction.
The Silence Retreat is located on a slope. My room was a minimalistic rectangle, the windows of which opened onto the forest. Wooden flooring, thick woollen blankets, and a warm bed turned it into a comforting nest Cellular network didn’t penetrate its walls. Everything about the retreat suggested silent enquiry, mostly within. The trouble with wandering minds like mine is that even silent pauses are pregnant with planning. In my free hours, I conspired to mountain bike to the neighbouring villages of Maisach or Griesbach or go looking for the hidden spot, somewhere up in the mountains, from which a sole parasailer sometimes appeared out of thin air and remained hanging in the blue vastness for long hours.
Conversations were difficult to strike up though. Walking past the cowshed next door, I’d spot men separating hay into small heaps for their animals, and women working on the slopes, growing potatoes and cabbage. In this part of the world, they still dress the old German way in Iederhosen, the leather pants that last a lifetime. The farmers smiled at me, and treating this as an invitation, I walked up to them to learn more about their lives. They didn’t know English though, and I had never really taken my German lessons seriously. Silence was less of a choice, more a necessity.
To fill the hours of my ten-day stay, I took to walking with the feverishness of a dervish. The trails here gain a gradient as they slant upward, with temperate mixed forest of pine and oak taking over the fir that lines the lower hills. There are no beginnings or ends to the paths. They all seem to merge into one another, before circuiting to the tarmac in the valley below. From the gaping slits in the curtain of trees, thatched huts in pastel hues of red and yellow are visible far out in the valley. After a day of walking, once the sun lost its shape, I would walk back towards one of these huts and curl up next to a fireplace.
The next morning, the cycle would begin again, and I would follow another forest trail. So often was I spotted on the dust-laden tracks zigzagging across the forests that the village folks would wave at me from a distance. For once, in these narrow settings, I became a recognizable figure. The Black Forest is a neat absorbent It ingests everything: the sound of my footsteps crushing dry leaves, the vaporous puffing from the efforts of a solitary climb, an orphan grunt from slipping on a wet stone. It transforms these noises into a gentle nothingness, returning not even the slightest rustle. Somewhere on the trail, I stopped to listen. My breath was still heavy from the strain of the climb, and despite the chill, sweat droplets tracked my brow. No birds chirped, even the gurgling of the streams was out of earshot. Stillness dominated.
I noticed that my urge to speak had diluted, and then disappeared. With silence, my perception also sharpened, and I began to notice things that previously would have gone unnoticed. I reflected that people here didn’t blab mindlessly. They spoke in monosyllables and only when needed, as if words were potent vehicles to provide clarity, and should be used sparingly. I stood soaking in the silence. For once, thoughts failed to bubble up, and the indecisiveness I had carried with me faded away. All I could notice was the several shades of green that prevailed on the thick cover of the trees around. Never before, outside a box of crayons, had I perceived such variety of a single colour. I stayed there looking at the valley till the sun disappeared. And thought of nothing. All the travels I had taken so far, all the flights I had negotiated, had brought me to this one suspended moment I closed my eyes. The timelessness was comforting.
This party has the honour of calling itself the longest festival in Nicaragua. The celebrations kick off when townspeople carry an enormously heavy effigy of Saint Jerome from the church through the streets of the village.
It wouldn’t really be much of a party if that was the end of things. Following the street parade for Saint Jerome, the people of Masaya recreate the Torovenado parade that honours the Nicaraguan Saint Silvester – this other-worldly street march has participants dressed in all manner of weird and wonderful costumes – from unusual animals and folkloric demons to caricatures of famous Nicaraguans. There is music, dancing and food, and at night the whole thing turns into one huge party.
This village is known as the folklore capital of Nicaragua, which is why the party goes on and on for weeks and weeks after the initial parade. In fact, there’s a party every weekend for three months following the last day in September.
The Sand Bar in Langebaan – the local after-work hangout – is a few streets from the beach. Inside, I find a row of men hunched over their beers. One man looks up when I enter, nods and goes back to staring into his glass. On the dance floor, a woman dances to Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”. On her own. Yes, a weeknight in winter is probably not the best time to sample Langebaan’s nightlife, but a travel journalist can’t always choose when a trip should take place.
The town curves around the Langebaan Lagoon, with Club Mykonos at the northernmost end and the West Coast National Park to the south. Across the lagoon, I can see the flickering lights of Langebaan’s neighbouring town, Saldanha Bay. It’s late, but Saldanha is still hard at work. Cargo ships load iron ore under orange floodlights; ore that has been transported to the sea by rail from mines in the Northern Cape. Red-brown dust covers everything in the area. Here in Langebaan, however, it’s the opposite. No heavy industry is allowed and everything is quiet.
The lagoon is an offshoot of the bay and the town is protected from the stormy Atlantic by a long peninsula. It’s a holiday town and it bursts at the seams during summer when visitors fill the beaches and restaurants. Don’t worry – there’s still a pulse in winter. Most places are open year-round and you won’t have to wait in a queue for anything. In spring, the landscape around town explodes with flowers. So when is the best time to visit? Any time!
Kigoma and the lake – A lake calms me down, and calm is what I need today. Yesterday, my girlfriend Alice Inggs and I drove 440km: from close to the Rusumo border post between Rwanda and Tanzania, to Jakobsen Beach and Guesthouse just outside Kigoma on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The drive took all day, mostly along decent gravel roads with a short stretch of tar leading into busy Kigoma. It was a nervous drive, even if I tried to hide it. This western part of Tanzania is off the major tourist routes.
In September 2016, we left Cape Town in a Toyota Fortuner and drove to Tanzania via Zambia. We went to Dar es Salaam first, then explored the parks in the north of the country before entering Rwanda in early November. Rwanda is where we turned around, heading back south, with a few scheduled stops along the way. I had heard that there was a time, not too long ago, when tourists had to be escorted in armoured convoys through this part of Tanzania. The region had become unstable after refugees had fled from neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi.
The situation had improved by the time we arrived, although I still saw a big refugee camp from the road. We didn’t stop often, just to fill the Fortuner with diesel and ourselves with cold Coke and slap chips. When you drive a nervy stretch of road, a prayer or two is always close at hand. All day I kept my fingers crossed. No flat tyres, please. Fuel when needed. May the summer rain stay away so the road remains dry. And – most importantly – may the destination typed into the GPS actually exist. Jakobsen Beach exists, and now we’re here. Ten seconds after taking a dip in the clear water of Lake Tanganyika, Alice and I decide to stay for two nights, not just one as originally planned.
I mean, it’s paradise! It even looks like paradise: calm, warm water perfect for swimming; a palm tree; a fisherman fixing his net; big boulders like the ones you see in pictures of Llandudno… I’m glad I’m here with Alice. She’s a good co-pilot. She reads to me when the road gets long. She passes me snacks. She makes me laugh so I stay awake when the afternoon sun hits me in the face. But most of all I like her being here because, like me, she marvels at the world. Marvelling at the world is what Lake Tanganyika makes you do. It stops you in your tracks. You want to pick up each moment like a pebble and slip it into your pocket.
Ujiji and the old man – By 1914, the Germans had built a railway line between the coast and the lake – Dar es Salaam to Kigoma, a distance of 1250 km. The railway is still operational today and delivers you right to the harbour. From there, you can board a variety of watercraft to take you north to Burundi, west to the Congo or south to Zambia. Before the railway, however, the centre of strategic importance was the town of Ujiji, about 6 km south of Kigoma. Ujiji was a hub in the era of ivory and slaves, when Arab trade routes infiltrated some of the most remote places in Africa.
Scottish-born missionary and explorer David Livingstone was one of the major anti-slavery campaigners of his time. In November 1871, no one really knew where Livingstone was. The New York Herald sent Henry Morton Stanley to Africa to “find” him, and on 10 November 1871 he found Livingstone at Ujiji, sitting under a mango tree.
“Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” said Stanley. (Although whether Stanley actually said these famous words is in doubt; Livingstone couldn’t remember him saying it. You know, journalists…) Now Alice and I are standing in front of the closed gate of the Livingstone Museum in Ujiji. On the other side of the fence, a herd of cattle are grazing with horns bigger than most elephants’ tusks. A security guard opens up and we meet the museum guide, an old man called Kassim Govola Mbingo. “Aha,” Mr Mbingo exclaims when he hears we’re from South Africa. “You must know my friend Kingsley Holgate?”
He met Holgate years ago, during one of the bearded explorer’s African journeys. We stroll to the memorial near two mango trees. The original mango tree is long gone, but these two were grown from its cuttings. We sit down on a bench while Mr Mbingo talks us through Livingstone’s many travels. I’ve been to several notable Livingstone sites in Africa: a tree in the Northern Cape where he preached once; the ruins of his first mission church in Bechuanaland; the lonely place where he died in Zambia; and now here. A block-mounted poster inside the museum is captioned: “Dr Livingstone sitting under the mango tree thinking about slavery at Ujiji.” I do the same. So much of our continent’s hardships have their roots in the savagery of the slave trade. It’s humbling to think that 146 years ago, almost to the day, another man sat right here thinking about how to stop the madness.
Ujiji is sleepier than Kigoma. In the old part of town, hints of Arab architecture prevail in the low, weather-beaten houses. Along one street women sit embroidering bedspreads and other things. We stop to buy one such bedspread, fabric the colour of blue vitriol, with an embroidered peacock fanned out in black, white, red and yellow. It’s a unique keepsake, and I know it will transport me back to Ujiji every time I unfurl it back home. Down at the lakeshore, fishing boats are dragged out onto the narrow beach. Boat builders are hard at work with hammers, chisels and saws; wood chips fly from the stern or bow of the vessel they’re building. Huge baskets woven from grass and filled with ripe tomatoes stand ready to be carried to a boat moored offshore. A few crates of Kilimanjaro beer too, and some boxes of London Dry Gin.
We buy a short wooden paddle from a fisherman – a gift for Alice’s mom back in Cape Town – and some boat builders invite us to join them for lunch. We sit in the shade of a half-built boat, rolling balls of pap between our fingers and dipping them into little bowls filled with fish and chicken gravy. One of the bigger boats nearby says “Kwa Neema Ya Mungu” on its side – a Kiswahili phrase that means “By the grace of God”. Lake Tanganyika’s best-known ship is much bigger than any of these boats. The MV Liemba was built in Germany in 1913 and originally named the SMS Goetzen. After it had been built, it was dismantled and shipped to Dar es Salaam in thousands of crates. The railway to Kigoma had barely been finished when these crates made their way to the lake, where the 71-metre-long ship was reassembled. Although it was destined to be a passenger and cargo ship, it was almost immediately called into military action at the outbreak of World War I, to give Germany dominance over Lake Tanganyika.
By 1916, however, the tide of war had turned against the Germans and they decided to scuttle the Goetzen – carefully, with plans to salvage the ship later. But they lost the war – and their East African colony – and it was British engineers who eventually salvaged the ship in 1924. Despite having been underwater for nearly a decade, the ship was still in remarkably good shape. It was repaired, refitted and by 1927, resumed service as the MV Liemba. During our visit, the Liemba was in the Kigoma harbour for repairs. Someone told us a group of tourists had rented it for a day trip, just to say that they had been aboard.