Sunday, May 16, 1999

Africa's top game show

Africa's top game show

Jeremy Atiyah sips gin and tonic at sundown in Botswana's swish wildlife parks but misses out on the big adventure
Jeremy Atiyah 
Sunday, 16 May 1999
Botswana, a country twice the size of Britain with fewer than a million citizens, reminds me of a very exclusive club. The Monaco of Africa perhaps. Half of the country is untamed wilderness. Flying above it you see tiny elephants and buffalo ambling through the Mopane trees. It is the ultimate game-viewing paradise.
As you would expect, tourism in Botswana means tiny, ultra-luxury camps in the middle of the Okavango Delta, where wealthy customers are flown in and out on chartered light aircraft. It means, say, eight tourists being catered for by a couple of dozen staff in a 1,000 square-mile park. It is where a semblance of adventure comes face-to-face with gin-and-tonics at sundown and a choice of wines for dinner. Unlike parts of East Africa, where the savannah resembles an off-piste driver training centre, Botswana, and to a lesser extent Zimbabwe, are determined to keep their safari holidays exclusive. And expensive.
To this end, Botswana has divided its wilderness up into gigantic concession areas. If you are a safari company and you hope to win a concession, you have to show commitment to Botswana's prized exclusivity. You want to build a high-rise hotel with a guitar-shaped swimming pool and an open- air night-club? Sorry. You need to demonstrate that you can make a living from erecting a tented camp in an area the size of Luxembourg.
I am not sure whether "tent" has a definition in Bostwanan law. The accommodations during my recent trip to Kings Pool and Little Vumbura were fondly referred to as tents, though they had more in common with luxury villas. Yes, they had canvas walls and net windows. But they also had floors of varnished wood, verandahs, electric ceiling fans, lights and fully functioning en- suite bathrooms. Meanwhile at Matusadona Lodge in Zimbabwe I stayed on a floating lodge on Lake Kariba, access to which was by private canoe. Fair enough of course. If people are paying pounds 200 a night they will expect more than a ground sheet to sleep on.
They will also expect to get their money's worth of wild animals. And this is where conservation comes in. The government of Botswana has learnt that game-viewing goes hand- in-hand with game management. No animals would mean no tourists.
Chris Greathead, who manages the Kings Pool concession by the Linyanti River on the border with Namibia, told me about battles with poachers. "Until 1993 this was a bad area for commercial poaching," he said. "There used to be a lot of black and white rhino here; now they have all been wiped out. The gangs had tricks for evading detection. One group of ivory poachers used to cover their tracks by wearing elephant-feet sandals. But now we have about 30 guys from the Botswana Defence Force patrolling our concession, and there is very little poaching."
Some of the concessions have small populations of people as well as wild animals living on them. In these community concessions, the local villagers form a trust and put the animal-viewing or -hunting rights out to tender themselves (hunting rights are very exclusive and very, very expensive. People like retired generals from the US military will come to Botswana to "Shoot An Elephant"). Preferred bids come from safari companies that provide money for building schools and clinics in the villages, and jobs for local people.
The upshot of the community concession system is that animals - formerly regarded as a danger and a nuisance - are seen by the villagers as their most valuable asset. It would be hard to expect people to care about animal conservation otherwise.
Rumours occasionally spread out of Botswana that the government wants to abandon wildlife and turn the wilderness of the Okavango Delta into a giant cattle ranch instead. The long-term, on-going project of controlling the tsetse fly is feared to be a step in this direction, as are the fences which have been erected to separate cattle from the wild buffalo.
But Chris Greathead told me that these fears were fading. "The authorities in Botswana now are genuinely passionate about wildlife conservation. Controlling the tsetse fly is not necessarily about preparing the ground for cattle. It is something we need to do anyway, to make this environment bearable for tourists. The beef-selling agreement with the EU has been a problem, but that is about to end and I think the fences are going to come down."
From what I could see, the local people would hope so too. The Okavango Delta is the ecological pride and joy of this blessed and exclusive country. Climatically, it should be a desert. But in fact it is kept miraculously watered by the annual flooding of the Okavango River, which is in turn dependent on rains in distant Angola.
The traditional means of getting around the delta has been in a makoro, or dug-out canoe. Today in camps like Little Vumbura, tourists are poled about in fibre-glass versions of the same (which do not require the cutting down of trees). When I arrived I was soon being taken through avenues of tall papyrus, looking for kingfishers, baby crocodiles, technicolour frogs and water snakes. Hacking channels through the reeds and papyrus, once the work of local fishermen, is now done by safari camp owners to provide access for tourists.
My local guide, named Pray, turned out to be involved in running the community concession in which Little Vumbura was located. He spoke near- perfect English; listening to him I felt like I was looking through a window to another age of mankind. Today he discusses putting safari-rights out to tender but until he was 10 years old he had never encountered an industrially manufactured product. For clothes he wore an animal-skin loin-cloth. When he was ill he chewed the leaves of the fever tree. His house was made from common reeds, his baskets and mats of papyrus fibres were dyed purple and orange and brown using the roots and bark of the magic gaari tree. All he knew, he told me, were things he could pick up around him.
Standing in the back of my makoro, he gestured at the vegetation around us. Anyone for lunch? Blue water lilies on the water surface hid edible pods like artichokes underneath. On dry land, the African ebony tree produced edible berries. Then there was the marula - an extremely sour citrus fruit, used to ferment into the local hooch. Even the sap of the papyrus, which contains glucose, could be eaten like an ice-cream lolly (I tried it, peeling away the green skin like a banana and chewing on the soft, bland insides which had a texture like an extremely floury apple). Afterwards Pray gave me a twig of the toothbrush tree to chew on.
With such abundance who needed anything else? Pray explained that one day a shopkeeper had come to his village and started selling items
like toothpaste and plastic sandals
and bottled oil, taking for payment not money (there was none) but woven baskets. It had been his first glimpse of the outside world. Twelve years later, he went to school in the city to learn the skills of a professional guide. His tuition fees - inevitably - were paid for by profits made from poaching.
What a fascinating story. So fascinating that I decided I would like to visit Pray's village. Forget game-drives, forget elephants, forget even gin-and-tonics at sunset. I just needed a jeep to get me to the village, three hours' drive away. Was that not possible? Sorry, said the camp manager, but no car was available. He might just as well have reminded me that Botswana was like all exclusive clubs. Tourism has its rules. Visiting the local villages is not what one does.
Jeremy Atiyah travelled as a guest of Wildlife Worldwide (tel: 0181-667 9158). A six-night package staying for two nights in each of the luxury safari camps of Matusadona, Kings Pool and Little Vumbura costs from pounds 2,295 per person, including return flights, full board and all alcoholic drinks.
The jumping off points for safari holidays in either Botswana and Zimbabwe are usually Maun or Victoria Falls, generally via Johannesburg. Return flights to Victoria Falls via Madrid on Iberia cost pounds 568 including tax. Call Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3939).

Sunday, May 9, 1999



The world-renowned flautist hates queueing, performing in South America and French bureaucracy. On the other hand, there are always New York delis and Manchester United...

When it comes to travel, I've got one important piece of advice for everyone. Just make sure you've got a book in your pocket at all times. Then you needn't waste a single minute in all those queues. You read a couple more pages while you're kicking you bag along.

I tour for about eight months of the year then have the rest of the year free to water my garden in Switzerland. When I'm touring, I just fly from one place to the next - arrive, practise, perform. That's not as boring as it sounds though, because I have a lot of old friends everywhere. Travelling with the orchestra is more fun because you get to stay a bit longer in each place.

When I get to Ireland, of course, it's like the prodigal son coming home. Everybody knows me. But in New York it's almost the same. Last time I was there I went into one of those great Jewish delis and asked for a coffee. "I'll have a kiss, Mr Galway, for that," said the woman.

There are plenty of places round the world where people recognise me but New York is the place where I've got the most mothers. Boston, by the way, has a totally different feel. There, it's much more of a university crowd.

I've never had any travel nightmares, but occasionally I've had to travel without my passport. Once I was flying to Holland from Switzerland and the Swiss police wanted to know how I planned to get through Dutch immigration without any ID. So I took out a couple of my own CDs from my suitcase to show him. "But wait a minute," the policeman objected, "anybody could get these made up." "Maybe," I replied, "but not anybody could play them." And I was all ready to get my flute out for a demonstration. They decided to let me through.

Once I got to Holland the Dutch gave me a piece of paper as a substitute passport, which I was told I would have to surrender when leaving the country. This I eventually did, in some customs shed on the border with Germany at 6am one morning. There were these four Dutch border-police playing cards in the shed. I walked in and showed them my piece of paper. They were fascinated. "Where d'you get this?" they asked. "We've never seen one of these before." I had to resort to my trick with the CDs again.
Places that I enjoy travelling to? Japan is always a good place to visit. My wife and I went to have tea with the Empress on our last trip. She speaks English extremely well. 

"Do you mind if I call you Jeannie?" she asked my wife. They were having a whale of time together. Later we played together, the empress on the piano and me on the flute.
Believe it or not, Manchester is the other place I like, and that's not just because my brother lives there. I recently did a charity concert there with my old friend, the composer Phil Coulter. I've sometimes done work for a few badly run Irish charities but this was great: we raised pounds 35,000 in a single night, to build an annex for a home dedicated to caring for terminally ill children. Phil has never got paid for any concert he's done with me, though I did take him to a Manchester United match afterwards.

There are some places I don't like going to. I don't go to South America anymore for example, where they have a nasty habit of cancelling concerts at the last minute which you had agreed to take part in two years before. When that happens it ruins your schedule. Basically, I won't tour south of the Suez Canal unless I get paid fully in advance!

I don't like travelling to France either. This is the country that murdered two Greenpeace activists and got away with it. And anyway you can't plan a holiday in France without having to take the possibility of strikes into account. I was once flying out of Paris and found a mile-long queue at customs. There was a single guy on duty reading every page of every person's passport.

I finally got through to find that the late Lord Menuhin was down there, too. He had switched flights because his first flight was delayed, but then ended up watching the original flight leave earlier anyway. Another time, I had a fully paid-up ticket for a Concorde flight out of Paris and still missed the flight because the airport computer systems weren't working. You may think that these things are all part of the charm of France, but I don't.

I've been living in a little village outside Lucerne in Switzerland for the past 23 years. We live in Switzerland because my wife is Swiss, but wherever you live, you pay for what you get. In Switzerland everything works and nobody goes on strike.
Ours is a lovely village. I've got three professional fishermen and one professional farmer living in my street, and then there's the Russian pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy just round the corner. It takes me two hours to water my garden. What more could I ask for?

James Galway is starting a 60th-birthday nationwide tour of the UK on 12 May. He is also performing on 30 June at the City of London Festival with the London Mozart Players at the Guildhall (tel: 0171-638 8891).

Sunday, May 2, 1999

Calling all tomb-sweepers

Calling all tomb-sweepers, Maronites and subjects of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV: go on, spoil yourselves, take the day off

Sunday, 2 May 1999
You are working tomorrow on the May Day bank holiday? Oh sorry. You must be an ambulance driver. So you will have to take another day in lieu to remember the toils of the working man.
Well why not. I know someone who makes Christmas lunches and sets up a tree with presents under it every August. It fits in better with her schedules. And we all know how inconvenient it is to arrive in, say, Tonga only to find out that it is the birthday of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV and that all the shops are closed and there's nobody to fix your washing-machine. Why not let individuals choose their own holidays?
Once freed from collective holidays, the only remaining question will be how many each country should allow us. The UK currently has eight, which seemed reasonable to me until I once had the pleasure of working for a few months in Beirut. There the rule was to take as many holidays as possible in order to avoid the risk of giving affront to any rival sect, which, as the Lebanese know, can sometimes be a dangerous business.
During my brief stay I enjoyed two Easters (Roman and Orthodox), two major Islamic holidays (Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, both lasting several days) and the Shi'ite holiday of Ashura. Then there were holidays for the Druze, the Maronites,the Jacobites, the Syrian Orthodox, the Protestants, the Armenian Catholics, not to mention the really minor minorities. On the very few days where there was no holiday the country used to close down for a general strike instead. All in all I found it an excellent place to work on a short-term contract.
China is another place where a lack of consensus leads to a healthy double helping of holidays. The government in 1949 decided to replace traditional Chinese holidays with new secular ones like the Birthday of the People's Liberation Army or The Birthday of the Chinese Communist Party. Any excuse for a holiday I suppose. But in recent years the Chinese people have unilaterally reverted to celebrating all their ancient holidays as well. Woe betide you if you expect to get a plumber round in Peking on Tomb-Sweeping Day. As for Chinese New Year - never do so many couplets on so many red posters avert so many malevolent spirits. In other words, steer well clear of the Chinese world when a billion people are taking the entire week off work (next February for example).
The rest of the Far East, on paper, is equally well-endowed with holidays. The Japanese for example have fifteen official holidays per year, and the South Koreans have no fewer than seventeen. The only snag is that people in that part of the world prefer to carry on working during their holidays.
Another difficulty about collective holidays arises in those countries where everybody knows a holiday is coming, but nobody can tell you exactly when. In places like Bhutan astrologers have the power to shove in extra holidays at the last minute (these remarkable people can also authorise things like the skipping of inauspicious months).
By the way, the other end of the scale is that country not best known for holiday fun, Saudi Arabia, where there are only two official holidays per year and where you certainly don't worry about everything closing down if you happen to be visiting over Christmas.