A map showing changes in malaria infection zones since 1900.

Malaria: A Deadly Yet Avoidable Disease

“Eating Marmite and garlic doesn’t work,” says Dr James Logan, a senior lecturer at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, busting the myth that travellers can make themselves unappealing to malarial mosquitoes by adjusting their diet prior to a trip. I’m learning about the disease that last year killed around 600,000 people during an event organised by the charity Malaria No More (UK) at Portcullis House, part of the Houses of Parliament.

The lifecycle of malaria is chillingly efficient. “Once mosquitoes are infected,” explains Dr Logan, “the parasites [Plasmodium falciparum] which carry the disease end up in the insects’ saliva glands and their sense of smell sharpens, making it easier for them to find new victims.” Recent research also shows that humans become more attractive to mosquitoes once they are infected.

I listen as a doctor gives a graphic description of how malaria affects people:

Malarial mosquitoes will bite you and inoculate parasites into your blood but you won’t feel anything for about a week, while those parasites work their way through your bloodstream to your liver, where they undergo a development process.

After about a week each of those parasites in your liver rupture and they release something like 30,000 to 50,000 parasites.

The reason malaria is so deadly is the fact those parasites then invade your red blood cells and they eat the globin – part of the haemoglobin – and that’s a pretty essential part of your body. It’s what carries oxygen around your blood. Those parasites replicate every 48 hours.

Within seven days of coming out of the liver you can have three per cent of a child’s red blood cells infected. That’s a huge burden if you think that a child only has a litre of blood.

Those parasites, to ensure their survival, stick in some of the blood vessels in the brain. This is what we know as cerebral malaria…the parasite blocks the flow of blood to the brain, which can cause fits, seizure and death.

Looking at slides under a microscope I experience how tricky it can be to spot low levels of the dot-like parasites in blood samples. The technique, known as microscopy, is used in endemic areas. Last year 120 million of the tests were carried out in India alone.

I’ve always thought of malaria as a tropical disease, possibly due to the fact that 90 per cent of annual deaths it causes occur in Africa. I hear how the negative impact of malaria on Africa’s economy is estimated to cost £8 billion ($13.4b) a year, affecting around 72 per cent of companies. Yet progress is being made. The number of child deaths from malaria was halved between 2010 and 2013.

The disease was once much more widespread across the world. According to the most recent reports malaria is transmitted in 97 of the world’s countries and 3.4 billion people are at risk of infection. Remarkably, it wasn’t until the 1950s that its transmission was eradicated in both the UK and the USA.

“This is one of the world’s largest killer diseases which is totally avoidable and totally treatable,” says Stephen O’Brian, MP for Eddisbury, addressing attendees, including members of the All-Party Group on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases (APPMG). “We have the chance of a generation to beat malarial mosquitoes,” he adds.

Travellers can minimise their risk of infection by sleeping under an insecticide treated mosquito-proof net and taking preventative medicine while travelling in endemic regions. “We also recommend people buy and use the strongest DEET repellent available and wear light, long, breathable clothing that covers their arms and legs,” says Angela Aboagye, a public health worker who provides advice on prevention and treatment at the pop-up Malaria Shop active in London’s Peckham district.

Treated mosquito nets, with an effective life span of three to five years, can cost under £5 (around $7) and are now widely used in some endemic regions of Africa. Testing a person for infection costs around 36 pence (60 cents) while effective treatments are as little as £1 ($1.50).

Yet, Jeremy Lefroy, MP for Stafford and chairman of the APPMG, points out that there’s a danger progress and apparent success in combating the disease will result in complacency.

“People tend to think it’s done, it’s finished, we’ve done enough. But actually the experience is that, in the past, we think we’ve conquered malaria. In Zanzibar in the 1960s malaria was down to an extremely low level. People thought “that’s it, we’ve sorted it out.” We took the foot off the gas and it came back with a vengeance and millions and millions of people in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s because we did not take malaria seriously enough as a global community,” says Lefroy, urging continued action.

World Malaria Day, on 25 April, aims to raise awareness of the continuing dangers and global impact of malaria.

Further Information

Malaria No More (UK) - A charity whose goal is the eradication of malaria.

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases - a group of British parliamentarians whose aim is to inform parliament of the destruction caused by malaria.

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine - A leading institute for health-related research and education.

Foreign tourists trekking in a malari region of South Asia with high rates of malaria. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Foreign tourists trekking in a region of South Asia with high rates of malaria. Photo by Stuart Forster.

The Craghoppers Nosilife Havana jacket.

Kit Review: Craghoppers Insect Repellent Havana Jacket

Craghoppers’ new Havana jacket is lightweight, with multiple pockets, and promises protection against both the sun and biting insects.

Available in drab olive, a colour that most people would describe as khaki, this jacket is geared towards wearers undertaking outdoor activities in regions prone to mosquitoes, midges and other bothersome bugs.

Thanks to its nine pockets, some zippable and other with studs, the jacket may also appeal to travellers who like to have plenty of kit to hand while out on the road. The right lower pocket holds a detachable drybag suited to sealing away electronic items in wet or moist conditions. As someone who likes to carry a notebook, pens, Dictaphone, telephone and torch pretty much all of the time, and have them readily available, this aspect of the jacket’s design appealed to me.

The jacket weighs in at 532 grams and is made from polyamide with a polyester trim. It has an adjustable waistband and cuff studs. Part of an easy care travel range, the jacket is also crease resistant and fast drying. I found the fabric rapidly regained its shape after crease testing. All it took was a quick shake and a slapping down to make the jacket look presentable after transporting it in a packed suitcase.

With World Malaria Day almost upon us, on 25 April, it’s topical to mention that the manufacturers say the Havana jacket can provide up to 90 per cent protection against biting insects including, mosquitoes. The insect repellent is permanent and does not require reimpregnating.

The material from which the Havana jacket is made has an inbuilt moisture management system, which helps move perspiration away from the wearer’s skin. At the same it provides a factor 40 protection (UPF 40+) from the sun’s ultra-violet rays.

This jacket is also stylish enough to be worn in a casual, urban environment. All told, a chic piece of kit.

Further information

The Nosilife Havana Jacket retails for £100 and is available sizes S-XXL. Find out more via the Craghoppers website (www.graghoppers.com) or by calling +44 (0) 161 749 1300.

Craghoppers NosiLife adventure travel clothing collection includes lightweight, agile and packable shirts, trousers, tops and T-shirts designed to protect and perform in hot climates.

The Havana has an internal, zippable breast pocket plus two zippable ‘secret’ compartments behind the studded waist pockets.

Waterproof pocket of the Craghoppers Nosilife Havana jacket.

The sealable drybag in the pocket of the Craghoppers Nosilife Havana Jacket.

Alpe d'Huez, France

Ski Instructing on Alpe d’Huez: A Dream Job?

Christian Jacques is an École du Ski Français (ESF) ski instructor working in the Alpe d’Huez grande domain Ski. Last week I spent time with the 57 year old, who’s in his 38th season as an instructor, exploring the 250km network of pistes in the French resort.

Impressed by Christian’s knowledge of the mountain I interviewed him to find out more about his job, which many people see as a dream occupation, and to learn what he thinks of the resort.

SF: How do people qualify as ski instructors here in France?  

CJ: It takes about four to five years if you get all the exams on the first time you go. So, if you start at 18, at 22 or 23 you are a moniteur national (qualified instructor) and can teach everywhere in France and the world too.

There’s a lot of skiing technique, then comes the teaching, the pedagogy. We also do rescue and geology. This is very important when you want to serve people; you need to know everything about the mountains.

It’s important to know the stories of the mountains too. There’s a lot and people wait for that…it’s good to know the first lift was here in 1936, before the last war. We say la montagne respirer, ‘the mountain breathes,’ and you are part of that.

A lot of exchange of knowledge goes on between the guides. When you are a young ski teacher you come out of school and normally have an older teacher so you learn things like when the conditions and snow are changing and on what side it’s good to go at what time. It is lots of little things but very important for customers when you take them on the slopes to ski in comfort. It’s very important to offer the best. We try!

SF: How often do you ski during the season?

CJ: Every day. Even when I don’t work I go for my own pleasures or to see places…it is important for you to know the conditions when out with good skiers, so you try always to inform yourself about the conditions in high altitude and off-piste, but for the pleasure too. We share those moments together because it’s a way of life and in this life that’s what we love.

SF: Do you only ski with experienced skiers?

CJ: We take beginners and very good skiers, off-piste skiers and competition training. We do a bit of everything which is good.

When you go from a beginner group to good skiers and intermediates, and change, it is perfect. You also get a lot from beginners because they learn very quickly in a week; they do a massive improvement compared to the good skiers. It’s a different pleasure. It’s good to change.

SF: How is off-piste skiing regarded here in France?

CJ: Well, it’s very popular since we had those free ride competitions. Every time you get 30cm of fresh powder we get new tracks everywhere.

In France it’s quite free. We consider that the mountains belong to anyone and you can do what you want, so long as you know what you are doing. You need a good knowledge of the conditions and the mountains; it’s very important. If you don’t, it’s not necessary to go; it’s too dangerous. Every year there’s lots of accidents like that…If you don’t know, you go with somebody who does; a guide or a ski teacher. It’s very important.

The mountain is a bit like the sea, you know no pardon. If you make a big mistake you can finish there. It is very important you know what to do at the right time of the day.

SF: What do you like about the Alpe d’Huez grand domaine Ski?

CJ: I’ve done many, many different resorts in my life and finally I decided to stay here because conditions are fantastic for teaching. If the conditions are fantastic for teaching they are good for people.

As you can see, all the green slopes are at the bottom. You get maybe 20 different slopes on the first level and then you go a bit higher and get the reds and the blues. Further up you get the blacks. People who are skiing on their own make less mistakes like that.

I think it’s a very good area for learning. You get a bit of everything. In a short moment you can go from one sector to another which is completely different.

SF: Which are your favourite pistes?

CJ: Sarenne offers a big wild area at the back of La Grande Rousse, on the east face. You get nothing there except you and nature. You get a 14km run just for the pleasure. It’s black but it’s groomed by the piste basher every night and you get excellent conditions each morning. Sure, if you do it in the afternoon that can be a bit moguly. But everyday its well prepared and it’s a kind of dream. It’s black but a very easy black. If you are a good parallel skier you can do it easily.

The Tunnel is a real black. It’s steep and can be moguly. It’s difficult but always a fantastic run for good skiers.

Alpe d’Huez grand domaine Ski Information

The 4-star Hotel Chamois d’Or offers seven night stays on a half board basis, including dinner, accommodation, breakfast and free access to the spa, which has a 5x10m indoor swimming pool, a Jacuzzi, hammam and a sauna. Find out more on www.chamoisdor-alpedhuez.com or call +33 4 76 80 31 32.

The Residence Les Bergers in Alpe d’Huez starts from £451 for a 2 person studio for 7 nights. A family-friendly one bedroom apartment sleeping five starts from £675 for 7 nights. For information on other self-catering options in Alpe d’Huez and throughout France see: www.pierreetvacances.co.uk.

6 days ski hire, with boots, starts from £82 (+£12.50 for helmet) for adults and £41 for children from Skiset.

Half day group ski lessons with ESF start from €145 (2.5 hours each day).

Private lesson starts from €95 for one to two people for 2 hours.

Children’s group lessons start from €145 for 6 lessons (2.5 hours each).

For more information on lessons in Alpe d’Huez visit: www.esf-alpedhuez.com

Lift passes start from £238.50 for six days in Alpe d’Huez grand domaine Ski area.

The Sarenne piste at Alpe d'Huez, France. Photo by Stuart Forster.

The Sarenne piste at Alpe d’Huez, France. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Mertola in the Alentejo, Portugal. Mertola's medieval castle overlooks the city. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Mértola ‘The Most Arabic Town in Portugal’

Mértola sits on a wedge of rocky land at the confluence of the Guadiana and Oeiras rivers less than 15 kilometres from the Spanish border. In Portugal’s Alentejo region, an area known for its distinctive cuisine and heavy red wines, this quiet walled town has a rich history.

The high level road bridge over the Guadiana provides you with an opportunity to see why Mértola had clout in bygone days. Its dominant strategic position meant only determined armies would have even a chance of taking the fortress at its centre.

The natural defences provided by the ravine on one side and river on the other were also barriers to Mértola’s expansion, ensuring it retains a village-like feel. The centre of the old town, the home of 3100 people, has narrow cobbled streets and white painted houses with wrought iron balconies and colourful borders of blue, yellow or green.

José Pedro Calheiros, of the walking group SAL, leads tours in this area. In his view Mértola is “the gateway to many civilizations, many cultures and insights into this part of Portugal.”

Mértola was under Islamic rule for more than 500 years and is the site of Portugal’s only surviving medieval mosque. Sancho II, the Commander of the Order of Santiago, led the reconquest of the town in 1238 and the mosque was consecrated as the Igreja Matriz, dedicated to St. Mary.

With a squat bell tower and now painted white, the exterior of the church resembles many others in this region.

Remarkably, the mosque’s mihrab, marking the direction of Mecca, has survived along with the minbar, the ornate space in which the imam’s pulpit would have been stored. The building still has doorways with rounded arches dating from the time of the Almohad dynasty, whose empire straddled the Mediterranean. The building is a national monument and one of the reasons why Mértola has been described as “the most Arabic town in Portugal”. Every two years the Mértola Islamic Festival is held. The next will be in 2015.

Under the castle walls a statue of Ibn Qasi sits on an Arabian horse. Wearing a helmet and ready for battle, Qasi looks out over the town he ruled in the mid-12th century. An inspirational leader, great warrior and influenced by Sufism, he led Mértola to independence from the Almoravids, governing as the head of an independent state.

Archaeologists have uncovered a wealth of artefacts in the town. Outlines of walls and doorways, known locally as the ‘Muslim village’ are visible on ground between the castle and the Guadiana. Pottery and other finds are displayed in the town’s Islamic Art Collection, arguably the most significant in Portugal. Exhibits include practical pottery, such as jars, and colourful al-Andalus ceramics depicting flora and fauna. Some have geometric patterns.

“The most impressive thing about Mértola, for us Portuguese, is the sheer number of remains of the Muslim settlement. Most other towns of that time developed in the following centuries and therefore remains of Muslim buildings were destroyed or built upon. That was not the case with Mértola,” says Aquiles Gomez, a walker interested in Portuguese heritage.

Older civilisations also interacted with this region; the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans left their marks. They were drawn by the region’s mineral wealth. Gold, silver, tin and later copper were all mined here.

The Romans knew the town as Myrtilis Iulia and settled the area now occupied by the castle. You can see exposed mosaics, depicting animals and hunting scenes, from raised viewing platforms. The remains of a villa are displayed in the basement of the town hall, as part of the Roman House museum. One of the most obvious signs of the later period of Roman occupation is the Torre do Rio, the riverside tower that defended the ancient port.

Geographers may take issue with the description of Mértola as “the most westerly port in the Mediterranean” because the Guadiana actually flows into the Atlantic, at the Gulf of Cadiz. Yet the town did have important connections with the great civilisations of the Mediterranean and benefitted by trading grain and minerals. During the Middle Ages the river silted up and Mértola’s significance declined.

A few decades ago, the mining industry was a major employer. Copper ore and pyrite was extracted from the São Domingos Mine until 1960. The region’s population halved over the next decade. Today, bikers and walkers tend to explore the concrete shells of the abandoned mine buildings.

If you have time venture into the Guadiana Valley Natural Park. Covering 70,000 hectares the park has a variety of habitats, including scrubland, rolling woodland and quartzite uplands. One of the most popular spots is the waterfall at the narrow, swift flowing area of river known locally as Pulo do Lobo (Wolf’s Leap).

In summer the temperatures here rise into the high 30s, sometimes beyond. The long hours of sunshine helped make the area a major exporter of grain to Portuguese settlements in North Africa in the 1600s. Windmills still stand in Mértola’s hinterland, their sails once turned to grind the flour used to produce Pão Alentejano, the popular off-white bread that’s often served in a basket when people sit down in restaurants.

Nearby Serpa produces one of mainland Portugal’s most distinctive cheeses, a blend of sheep’s and goat’s milk that’s famed for its flavour and creamy texture. It’s common to snack on cheese, bread and olives while choosing the main course.

From October to February locally hunted game appears on menus. In addition to the succulent prime cuts, often served grilled, game stew is a popular dish. Migas—a filling but inexpensive staple created from bread, garlic and olive oil—is at its most delicious when served with local lamb, soaking in the juices of the meat while on the plate. If you enjoy strong flavours try açorda a alentejana, a traditional garlic-coriander soup.

Exploring Mértola’s heritage is best done at a leisurely pace, yet understanding the Alentejo means ending the day with a hearty meal.

Statue of Ibn Qasi, in Mertola, Portugal.

Statue of Ibn Qasi, in Mertola, Portugal.

A Bedouin guide in traditional costume stands in the Coloured Canyon in the Sinai Desert, Egypt. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Egypt: The Coloured Canyon & Red Sea Activities

Don’t believe everything you hear about deserts being wastelands devoid of beauty. Take a trip into Egypt’s Sinai Desert, for a walk along the Coloured Canyon, and you’ll see they can be sublime places.

I’ve joined a small group of tourists on a day trip from my Red Sea resort and have a local Bedouin, Hamid Selmi, as my guide. Dressed in a neatly pressed, ankle-length white galabeya robe, covering all but his hands, and wearing a shamagh on his head, leaving only the top part of his face on show, Hamid is traditionally dressed and prepared for a walk under the Sinai’s belting winter sunshine. He speaks only a few faltering words of English so beckons me to follow him as he walks across the dust-like golden sand and onto the bedrock marking the beginning of the short trek along Egypt’s Coloured Canyon.

If it hadn’t been for Hamid I’m not sure whether we would even have reached this remote, unmarked spot. As soon as our four wheel drive vehicle turned off the highway and onto the dunes, he came into his own, providing instructions as to the route we had to follow as we bumped and snaked across desert without so much as track marks from other vehicles.

You don’t need to be a geologist to appreciate the beauty and structure of the Coloured Canyon, which has been formed by centuries of erosion. Nature’s sculptors – water, wind and sand – have slowly carved a spectacular channel through exposed layers of limestone and sandstone that long ago lay at the bottom of the Red Sea’s pre-historic ancestor.  The reddish stone has been worn smooth in places, elsewhere swathes of purple or orange rock are exposed. The imagination of whoever named this place clearly wasn’t overworked.

With a length of 800 metres, roughly half-a-mile, the Coloured Canyon is short but spectacular. Yet walking it takes well over an hour, because we keep pausing to enjoy scenic details and snap photos. Hamid points out variations in the rich hues and curious rock formations, some of which look like grotesque sculptures. At one spot the erosion has created shapes that fancifully remind me of a herd of elephants. During the course of our brief walk we drop from a height of 770 metres to 570 metres above today’s sea level.

I’m glad that I’m carrying only a camera because in places we have to walk in single file then squeeze through gaps in the ravine’s steep walls, which can rise to a height of 40 metres. Now and again we scramble down a drop in the rocks. Every time we need to do so Hamid patiently shows the easiest way to clamber down. Anyone with basic fitness can enjoy this route. At the same time I’m impressed because his galabeya remains spotless while my trousers are speckled filthy with dust.

At the end of the canyon the landscape flattens out and a gnarled tree twists out of the sand, exhibiting remarkable hardiness to survive in this harsh but beautiful landscape.

You can also experience a number of other activities while staying at a Red Sea resort.

Some people love the rhythmic rocking and elevated view from the back of a camel as they plod across the rock, grit and sand of the Sinai Desert. Others find just mounting and getting comfortable on the ship of the desert’s padded saddle to be an adventure.

Whether or not you take the hump may well depend on the temperament of the dromedary you’re allocated. Each camel is an individual, with its own character, known by name to the Bedouin drivers, who stay close by throughout rides.

Be prepared to hang on to the saddle when your guide orders the camel to sit or stand as the movement feels prodigious. If you enjoy camel riding it’s possible to join a safari lasting several days, camping in the desert.

It’s a good idea to head to one of the region’s bazaars, in order to pick up a shamagh (the cloth used as headdresses in Arabian countries) before hiring a quad bike. Unless you’re out at the front of your group, you may well be grateful for the protection from dust and sand provided by the traditional headgear, which can also be worn around the neck and over the nose and mouth.

This arid wilderness is the perfect playground for quad bikers, as with only a handful of Bedouin and their camels tramping across the landscape very few people are present to be disturbed by the throbbing rev of engines. The bikes are stable and easy to ride, even without prior experience, and their range makes them good for exploring the rugged terrain, which rises into steep granite mountains.

Quad bike safaris from Sharm El Sheikh often include a break at a Bedouin settlement and the chance to sip a glass of tea, take photos and buy souvenirs.

Red Sea dive sites are rightly renowned for their quality and a number are also ideal for snorkelling. Visibility is usually excellent and the deep blue water is relatively warm, meaning you may need only a light 3mm neoprene wetsuit while scuba diving here. The vivid corals and colourful shoals of fish reward bringing an underwater camera to capture scenes showing marine wildlife; it’s so abundant in places such as the incongruously named Sharks Bay that you can start your dive by wading our from the shore.

The region has several PADI-registered scuba diving centres catering to a broad range of abilities, from newcomers looking to learn while on holiday to advanced divers keen to experience the highly regarded sites around Ras Mohammed National Park, in the Straits of Tiran and around wrecks such as the SS Thistlegorm.

Further Information

Learn more about the region on the Egypt Travel website.

Stuart stayed at the Royal Savoy resort hotel in Sharm El Sheikh.

Quad bikers in the Sinai Desert, close to the Egyptian holiday resort of Sharm el Sheikh. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Quad bikers in the Sinai Desert, close to the Egyptian holiday resort of Sharm el Sheikh. 

Kambala Racing in India. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Kambala: Southern India’s Sport of Kings

Cricket famously engages sporting passions throughout India but in the palm-rich south, where Karnataka and Kerala meet, kambala is by far the most popular sport.

Kambala, in which two pairs of buffaloes are raced head-to-head along specially prepared twin tracks, is the sport of the people in the rural districts around Mangalore. Crowds of up to 20,000 people gather on race days. People cheer while men sprint with their buffaloes along the jodukere kambalas, deliberately waterlogged, 450 feet (137 metres) long tracks prepared in river beds or the sodden mud of paddy fields.

The sport has a long history. The earliest kambala races are thought to have been held by neighbouring farmers as recreation. The events also fulfilled a practical agricultural purpose; the buffaloes’ beating hooves helped soften ground between the harvesting of the first crops and the sewing of the second season. The region’s Alupa kings, who reigned between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, are credited with patronising kambala and encouraging its evolution into a regulated sport. You could say, then, that kambala is the sport of kings in this area.

Even today—in the Tulu speaking regions of Dakshina Kannada, in Karnataka, and Kasaragod, in Kerala—kambala champions are treated as celebrities. The top racers are accomplished athletes. Known as yeru gidapanaye, meaning “buffalo riders”, their lean, muscular bodies are wrapped only in lungis, a form of loin cloth, as they sprint along the track on race days. Riders also wrap their heads with material bearing their team colours.

Teams are sponsored by wealthy landlords, men who can afford to spend money on a full-time trainer and a nutrient- and protein- rich diet for their racing buffaloes. “Many years ago farmers would race, but nowadays we have people who train buffaloes only for kambala. The buffaloes were used for farming and in the off season; they would be raced. These days they are trained only to run,” says Ronald Fernandes, a Mangalore-based journalist.

The buffaloes selected for kambala racing are given warm baths and regular massages, using groundnut oil, to help keep their muscles supple and help maximise their performance. The animals are rubbed down and washed in the nearest river or stream before and after each race. Then a fresh application of oil is worked into their shining slate-grey hides.

Despite the apparent good treatment of the kambala buffaloes, animal rights groups express concern over their welfare. Riders whip the buffaloes as they race; some more vehemently than others. Some onlookers believe that the whipping is excessive, and argue that the sport, or at the very least the whipping, should be outlawed. But in an area where farming is the mainstay of people’s lives, the average kambala fan does not complain about the treatment of the animals; many think that buffaloes that never have to work in fields have it good.

About 45 kambala meetings take place during the course of a season, which runs from November until April. Roads into the villages choke with traffic on race days. Muscular bulls and their handlers are transported on the backs of trucks. Farmers and rural labourers cram into open-backed vehicles or arrive at venues in tractor-drawn trailers. As they get out of their vehicles, the spectators and members of the racing teams exchange jokes and banter; kambala is a very much a community sport.

The kambala provides a framework for other traditional sports. An oiled coconut is used as the “ball” in thappangayi, a team game which has been compared to rugby. Played in muddy fields, the aim of thappangayi is to place the ball in the rival team’s goal area. Tug-of-war is also popular. And while kambala attracts the attentions of gamblers, the serious money is wagered on cock fights held nearby on race days.

The kambala teams take their presence seriously, preparing their animals and ensuring that the yokes and headdresses are well presented. Appearances are important in kambala. Speed is paramount but judges also award prizes for presentation and points for style while running. The judging can be a lengthy process, because as many as 150 pairs are entered at some meetings, meaning racing goes on through the night and, occasionally, into a second day.

Members of the judging committee inspect the animals’ teeth, to gauge maturity and classify the pairs according to size. The winners of top categories will take home prize money of about 20,000 rupees (£200 or US$330) and a gold medal. “But more than the prize is the prestige,” says Fernandes. “The owners are rich men, so rupees 20,000 is not much money to them. More important is the honour of winning.”

Nevertheless, the prize money has increased considerably over recent years. In bygone times, prizes would often be awards of fruit, rice or betel nuts rather than money. But in 1969 the sport started to undergo a revolution when two brothers, Gunapal and Dharamaraj Jain, prepared a twin track and invited farmers to race on it. Prize money has continued to increase but the track sides are still free from advertising hoardings.

The first runs of the day warm ups, allowing the judges to categorise the animals. Then the racing begins in earnest. There are three styles of kambala; one in which the “rider” runs with the buffaloes holding a rope, another in which the rider holds one of the buffaloes’ tails and a third where the rider stands on a wooden plank harnessed between the animals.

This third style is kana halage. The wooden board upon which the rider stands ploughs through the liquid on the track, throwing up a spectacular spray. Banners, known as toranas, hang 21 feet (6.5 metres) and 24 feet (7.5 metres) above the track. Splashing them brings bonus points and spectators roar with approval when riders succeed.

“What football is for Europeans, kambala is for the people of this place,” says Fernandes, explaining the shouts of appreciation. The cheers accompany the racing long into the night.

 

Kambala Racing in India. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Kambala Racing in India. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Kingswear Castle, near Dartmouth. Photo courtesy of the Landmark Trust.

The Landmark Trust: Staying in Historic Buildings

Looking for a memorable place to spend a few days with your friends or family? Last week I met with Ed Percival, the Landmark Trust’s Head of Marketing and Communications, to learn what his organisation has to offer travellers.

“The Landmark Trust is a buildings preservation charity, which sounds a bit dry until you realise the clever bit, that anyone can spend a few days living in exceptional, beautifully restored buildings and, by doing so, guarantee their future,” explains Ed.

“Many of our buildings are in outstanding locations. Often the buildings have fallen out of use or there isn’t an obvious use for them. They are rich, interesting and comfortable…and offer great places to explore. Initially our founder, Sir John Smith, would buy buildings. We still own the vast majority of them. We also have a mixture of very long leases and manage a handful on behalf of the owners. Increasingly we are being bequeathed buildings,” he says, estimating that the nation has 10,000 ‘at risk’ historic buildings.

“We’ve got everything from cottages to castles, follies and forts, and an island…there’s even one in the shape of a pineapple,” he answers, when I ask about the 194 property portfolio. Most are on the United Kingdom’s mainland but some, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor former weekend retreat, are in France and six in Italy.

So how do people find out more about the properties? “The website is a good starting point, with lots of thoroughly researched material written by our in-house historian,” suggests Ed. “When you stay in a landmark, each one has a detailed history album and a library of books related to the building, its area and its previous residents. There’s an iPad app and a sumptuous 300 page handbook which you can order via our website.”

Ed explains that you don’t need to be a member of the organisation to make a booking and that some people return again and again: “We’ve got people who have stayed in 150 or more. As they get to love the buildings they often choose to support us through becoming regular donors. We also have a friends’ scheme which enables single people and couples to join larger house parties, in some of the biggest buildings, which might otherwise be outside their reach.”

Bookings are currently open until the end of 2015 and the biggest buildings tend to be booked quite far in advance. Ed suggests booking now for Christmas and the turn of the year: “You can secure a booking with a 10 per cent deposit. Some buildings are already booked solidly until the end of 2015, such as Astley Castle which won the RIBA Stirling Prize for Architecture in 2013. However, it’s always worth checking our late availability, as there’s always something.”

So what are Ed’s personal favourites? “I’ve visited 70 of our buildings so far and haven’t found one I wouldn’t want to spend time in. It’s special to have the key, to lock out the outside world, and sit by the fire. It’s so restorative to disconnect from the digital world. Don’t expect TVs and Wi-Fi but every one has a well-equipped kitchen, comfortable beds and sofas. I’ve had a great time with friends at the Grange in Ramsgate and snuggled up with my partner in the doll’s house like Chateau in Lincolnshire,” he responds enthusiastically.

So are any of the buildings are thought to be haunted? “I don’t believe in ghosts, but great buildings have great atmospheres. For those that like to seek out such things, then I’m sure they’ll find what they are looking for. I did buy a nightlight when we stayed at Laughton Place, but then I’m a townie so complete darkness is a novelty. On Lundy Island, the generators are switched off overnight and I laid on the ground and stared at the Milky Way surrounded by the ghostly sounds of Manx shearwaters,” answers Ed.

“The Landmark Trust is a very special organisation, for a long time it has been a well-kept secret, but I’m keen that more people find out about the very special places we look after,” he says as the interview draws to a close. “But not too many,” he adds jokingly, as an afterthought.

Further Information

Visit the Landmark Trust website or Facebook page to learn more about the organisation and its properties.

Accommodation prices vary according to the season. It’s possible to stay in one of the trust’s 16 castles for less than £13 per person per night. A dedicated team work to answer booking related enquiries.

Photos: Courtesy of the Landmark Trust.

The Chateau in Lincolnshire. Photo courtesy of the Landmark Trust.

The Chateau in Lincolnshire. Photo courtesy of the Landmark Trust.

Playfully presented food at the Michelin-starred Küchenwerkstatt restaurant in Hamburg, Germany. The plate bears a starfish and seafood.

Stylish Seasonal Dining at Küchenwerkstatt in Hamburg, Germany

It’s a chilly night in the north German city of Hamburg. On entering the Küchenwerkstatt restaurant I’m greeted with a warm smile by Angela Gnade, my hostess for the evening. Angela, I learn, is the partner of chef Gerald Zogbaum, and shows me through to the back room, where an open wood fire hisses and crackles.

This is a Michelin-starred restaurant. In the ten years since first opening Küchenwerkstatt (which translates into English as ‘kitchen workshop’) has built a reputation for serving innovative, beautifully presented, gourmet cuisine. The Michelin star was awarded back in 2009.

I’m offered one of the 40 seats within the stripped-floor Kaminzimmer, which, in case you’re wondering, translates as ‘the fireplace room.’ The walls bear three-quarter height dark wood panelling and Delft tiles. It’s a remnant of pre-war Hamburg; it was previously a ferry house and, at one point, a popular place for seamen to dine while enjoying a beer or two.

I sip a crisp Riesling from the Rhein-Hessen region and bite into warm, freshly baked bread with sea salt and curd butter. The dishes that follow live up to Küchenwerkstatt’s reputation. They include a delicately flavoured starter with a wafer thin slice of cauliflower, presented like a miniature tree at the centre of the plate. Oysters follow, served with a lime sorbet, placed on a net with sea salt resembling ice. Next come scallops served with a starfish-shaped grilled artichoke and lemon pearls.

The intensity of the elderflower ice cream that follows impresses me. It’s served with a cream of goose liver and a tartare of veal. Poached Norwegian cod forms the centrepiece of next course, served with buttery beans and a white puree of lemon.

When a duck pastille is served I order a glass of La Vieille Ferme red wine from the south of the Rhône Valley. The course of crispy pancake roll is impressive but I have no appetite for more.

The presentation of the dessert – a brioche ice cream with jellies of rum, beetroot and raspberry plus liquorice – convinces me to give it a go. The jelly has been cut into letters and laid out on a slate platter to spell ‘LOVE’. Just when I thought the meal is complete ‘aftertisers’ of iced macchiato, mandarin foam and sesame and mango are served along with Japanese tea with soda.

Impressed by the food, I now have an opportunity to learn about the ideas behind it from the chef.

“Our philosophy is to be true to the product and not make too much with the food,” explains Zogbaum. He is, I suspect, playing down the significant amount of hard work that went into preparing and presenting the meal that I just ate. I learn that a team of eight work in the kitchen. “It sounds a little crazy, but I want to be true to the season and get the taste out of the products we have available,” adds the powerfully built chef.

“We work with the season and the region,” explains Zogbaum, who sources his ingredients from within a radius of 50 kilometres of Küchenwerkstatt. This might mean selecting one or two vegetables from a particular supplier for just two to three months at a time. “We’re trying to change farmers thinking, so they produce quality rather than quantity,” he adds.

On chatting further Zogbaum, who hails from Tübingen in Baden-Württemberg, reveals that he has an interest in Zen Buddhism and Japan. He’s travelled there several times and talks about enjoying the deep flavours of cuisine in the Kanto region and how traditional dashi stock can be interesting to use in modern cuisine.

“Cooking is technical. It’s more about good products and good ideas,” says Zogbaum in his relaxed, matter-of-fact style about what he does at Küchenwerkstatt. He uses traditional French cooking techniques – he trained under the careful eye of Alain Ducasse in Argenteuil and Paris – yet his influences are international.

“The Japanese reduce while the French add to get the essence of food,” he comments, on the essence of the contrast between Oriental and Occidental styles of preparing food. “It’s the first duty of the cook to look at the area and what is has available,” he adds.

So how does he come up with new ideas? Zogbaum shrugs and says it can be difficult. Yet clearly not that tricky for the man I’m talking to; after all, he develops a new menu every six weeks or so. “The key idea is very important but so is working on it. Trying and trying it again.”

In contrast to many restaurants – due to Zogbaum’s constant culinary innovation – Küchenwerkstatt doesn’t have a signature dish. That, I reflect, is as good a reason as any to visit again at some point.

Further Information

Küchenwerkstatt is at Hans-Henny-Jahnn-Weg 1,  22085 Hamburg, tel. +49 (0) 40 2292 7588.

The restaurant opens for dinner from Tuesday to Saturday and lunch on Saturdays. Booking a table one to two weeks in advance is recommended.

Dessert at the Michelin-starred Küchenwerkstatt restaurant in Hamburg, Germany. The slate plate bears letters spelling out the word "LOVE".

Dessert at the Michelin-starred Küchenwerkstatt restaurant in Hamburg, Germany. The slate platter has edible letters spelling out the word “LOVE”.

Spomenka Saraga

Travel Films and the Zagreb Tourfilm Festival 2014

The third Zagreb Tourfilm Festival will be held in the Croatian capital from 4 to 6 June 2014. If you’re a film or television documentary maker and produce travel related work, you still have time to enter your productions into this year’s festival; the closing date for entries is 15 March.

To learn more about the kind of films and audiovisual productions that are entered, I spoke with Spomenka Saraga, the festival’s director.

“We have several thematic categories,” she explained “these include tourist destinations, such as cities, regions and countries, extreme sports, adventure tourism, water-based travel, hotels and resorts, rural tourism, fairs and congresses and work relating to people, events, plus culture and traditions. You can find out more by clicking onto the categories section of the festival’s website.”

“We’re looking for professionally recorded films, videos and television reportage; productions that meet professional standards of technical quality. Applications will be accepted if they fit within one of the categories, meet the stated conditions and are within one of the durations. These vary in length. We’re calling for commercial films and videos of up two minutes, and promotional films, TV reportage plus documentaries of up to an hour in length.”

“Our wish is to educate people and also motivate employees within the tourism industry into promoting destinations in the right way. This also means focusing on target groups as well as inspiring interested parties to search for the new trends,” she said, when asked about the festival’s aims.

“We would also like to induce young people to enter the world of tourism, either as its promoters or as tourism professionals. The Zagreb Tourfilm Festival rewards films and audiovisual productions that promote tourism,” she added.

“Last year we received more than 300 films from 56 countries around the world; anyone can enter so long as the production quality is professional. You can use a range of techniques, including computer animation, plus film or video cameras, or even SLRs capable of filming.”

For newcomers it might be tricky to identify the most important components of travel related films, so I asked Spomenka for tips.

“A few things are important. When I approach a film, I first think of words and phrases that relate to the message. I try to filter out the main concepts and think of ways to express these ideas on the screen. I want to create a film that makes an emotional impact on the identified target audience, with good information and attractive pictures. When you see the movie, you wish to go and visit that country and see it with your own eyes. A movie can be just as good as photos; if you feel and smell the place when you see it then it’s a good film,” she says with enthusiasm.

The ideal length of the films entered in the festival varies according to the format. However, Spomenka believes that videos and commercial films have to be short and informative, so people take them in while travelling or at places such as trade fairs. “But at home, when sitting in the comfort of our armchairs, the length of the broadcast is not so important, so TV reportage, documentaries and films can easily be from between 25 and 60 minutes.”

“I suggest that people try to create short, powerful films,” she answers when I ask what key tips she can offer to new filmmakers.

Further Information and Links to Films

See the Zagreb Tourfilm Festival website for more information and to enter films.

The 2007 film, Unique Dubrovnik, for which Spomenka was Executive Producer.

Winners from the 2013 Zagreb Tourfilm Festival, Definitely Dubai (directed by Babak Amini) and Mexico en tus sentidos.

Zagreb Tourfilm Festival

The Zagreb Tourfilm Festival logo

The Serralves Contemporary Art Museum in Porto, Portugal.

Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, Portugal

People from the Portuguese city of Porto are proud of their city’s industrial heritage and reputation for labouring long hours. After a hard week’s work you’ll see many strolling or sitting in the park of the Serralves Foundation, an institution with a broad range of cultural offerings, 4km west of the city centre.

The Serralves Foundation was established as recently as 1989. Within a relatively short space of time it has become recognised as one of Portugal’s leading bodies in matters relating to culture and contemporary art.

The Serralves Museu de Arte Contemporânea, the ‘Museum of Contemporary Art’ when translated into English, hosts frequently changing temporary exhibitions. If you are going to visit Porto and want to find out what will be shown while you are in the city then check the listings on the Serralves Foundation’s website.

If you happen to be visiting while the exhibitions are being changed you can still pop into the park, museum shop and cafe. The gardens, which were landscaped by Joao Gomes da Silva, are a good place to appreciate the sleek white facade of the museum. It was built between 1997 and 1999 to a design by the architect Alvaro Siza Vieira.

Further on, past Claes Oldenburg’s huge red trowel sculpture, you’ll see the Casa de Serralves, the House of Serralves, a pink Art Deco style villa set within a formal garden, complete with water features and fountains reminiscent of those seen in Iberia during the Moorish era.

If you drop down the path towards the pond it’s like stepping through an invisible portal and being teleported out of the city and into the countryside. You can wander by pastoral farmland on which you’ll see cows chewing the cud. It’s a serene environment as traffic noise fails to penetrate the rolling landscape and woodland.

It’s easy to explore on your own but, if you’d prefer, guided tours of the Serralves museum and park are offered in English on Sundays at 4.00pm. They last approximately an hour. English language tours of the museum’s exhibits take place on Saturdays, also at 4.00pm. If you have a ticket to the museum you won’t have to pay anything extra to join a tour.

The Serralves Foundation also organises cultural events, including musical concerts, dancing and film screenings. Again, it’s worth taking a look at the foundation’s website for listings. During summer months jazz concerts are hosted in the park. If that’s your thing, look out for posters and flyers mentioning Jazz no Parque, meaning ‘Jazz in the Park’.

The museum itself is a joy to visit. The design is spacious and attractive in its own right. It has 14 exhibition rooms over three storeys. Works by Portuguese as well as international artists are shown in the Serralves Museum.

For anyone who doesn’t know the city, and the location of bus stops for lines 201, 203, 502 or 504, arriving at the Serralves Foundation by public transport can prove tricky. Unfortunately none of the city’s Metro lines run here. Taking a taxi to the museum is a viable option, if you a pressed for time.

Further Information

The opening times of the museum and park vary between the summer and winter seasons, so it is worthwhile checking the Serralves website for details. Entry fees are also listed on the museum’s website.

Find out more about Porto on the city’s visitor information website.

GED Porto Serralves