Photographer Marcella van Alphen showing a photo to EcoTracker instructor Norman Chauke in the African bush

In the tracks of wildlife in Africa

Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

The three lobes are very distinct. The leading edge of the main pad is flat. I orientate my flashlight to have a better view: the four toes are nicely rounded. There is no doubt: this footprint was left by a young male lion, only a few hours ago. I stand up, and look at my dome tent, barely two metres (6 feet) away. As the sun rises over the South African bush, the sky turns red orange, and the spoors are better lit. I switch off the torch and turn back to the soft sand: next to this track, I can identify some others, amongst which the ones of a lioness with their pointy leading edges lit by the few sun rays at dawn. The way the spoors are positioned tells me that this pride of lions was casually walking through the EcoTraining Camp in the Selati Game Reserve while I was half asleep. The alarm call of the troop of baboons, the sound of the herd of impalas running, the hardly palpable changes in the air and the scuffing in the sand that I heard during the night now all make sense. I do not know what I am amazed by the most: the proximity with these lions or the amount of practical knowledge I have gained during a week immersed in the wild living my most intense safari experience to this date…

***

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Up close and personal with rhinos

Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

The cold water of the rain shower feels good: it has been a long drive with the very last stretch on a hilly rough dirt road in the burning sun before we eventually arrived at the lodge. As I am contemplating the view on the endless rolling hills in my favourite wilderness of South Africa from the shower, I am startled. I jump out onto the large outdoor private deck of our villa and with my hands – and everything else for that matter – still wet, I grab my binoculars: “rhinos!” I observe three of these prehistoric animals with their so coveted horns roaming the opposite green slope: a calf which I estimate no older than a few months, its mother and another white rhino that could be the calf’s older sibling. I feel extremely privileged to witness this scene as their numbers are dangerously plummeting and rhinos are on the verge of extinction, being poached to feed the insatiable Chinese market. For sure, the Isibindi Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge that sits at the edge of the Hluhluwe iMfolozi game reserve in Kwazulu Natal, is well named! If the head of Isibindi Africa Trails, Nunu Jobe, is as pertinently nicknamed, I hardly dare imagining what a walk in the African bush with the “Rhino Whisperer” holds for me…

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Hikers studying Bushmen rock art in the Drakensberg, South Africa.

In the footsteps of the rock artists of the Drakensberg [South Africa]

Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

The skinny young man dressed in animal skin is standing, with his spear high up above his head. His friends are following him striking a similar posture. They are wearing animal skins. Their tribe has been following the migrating herds, higher into the mountains. The tracking has been long and laborious, and they are tired. The tips of their spears are covered in diamphotoxin, a slow-acting poison obtained from beetle larvae. Further, a herd of elands grazes. The large more-than-half-a-ton animals are unaware of the men’s presence. Even for great hunters as the Bushmen, this is a dangerous endeavour: with a shoulder height of 1.7 meters (5 feet 8 inches), Africa’s largest antelope is much taller than them.

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Dim sum dinner in a star restaurant, Tim Ho Wan, Kowloon, Hong Kong

Hong Kong interactive map for your trip

Paradise for shopaholics, hikers, beach goers, architect lovers, history buffs, night owls, and foodies, Hong Kong has something to offer for everyone. So, start exploring this interactive map to plan your trip (click on the black pins to see the corresponding article, or the others for information) or check out our visual tour to get inspired! just take your pick amongst the following photographs and get inspired!

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A settlement hugging the cliffs in Mesa Verde National Park, Utah, USA

Your guide to Mesa Verde National Park

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

Completely off-the-beaten path, Mesa Verde National Park provides more than natural beauty: real insights into the lives of the Puebloan people, early inhabitants of America. This great cultural significance combined to the exceptionally well-preserved ruins makes Mesa Verde one of the highlights of any trip to the West.

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Rooftops and facades of Ghent

72 hours in Ghent

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Ghent, strategically located at the confluence of the Lys and Scheldt Rivers was a powerful trading city during the medieval times, boomed during the industrial revolution starting in the 18th century, and today is Belgium’s largest student town. The dynamic city of Ghent is refreshing and trendy, while being full of history as highlighted by its varied architecture encompassing over a millennium, its contrasted art from the classic Flemish Primitive masters to funky street art, picturesque canals and gardens, authentic markets, excellent restaurants and great nightlife: an ideal off the beaten path city for the perfect eclectic city trip. In this article we list our must-do’s and reveal some hidden gems for you to craft your perfect 3-day itinerary in the vibrant capital of East Flanders.

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Two people walking through the colourful graffiti street in Ghen, Belgium

Brief history of Ghent, the rebellious city of Flanders

Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

For years, Ghent has remained Belgium’s best kept secret. In the shade of fairytale Bruges, only half-an-hour away, Ghent used to be overlooked. Big mistake! If Bruges seems frozen in time back during the Middle Ages, Ghent is a vibrant city with a rich medieval past and architecture, but also an industrial heritage. Today, the lively student town is a destination you don’t want to miss… To fully appreciate this lovely city, take this brief travel through time and be amazed!

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Canal with the medieval Butcher's Hall, Ghent, Belgium

Food & drinks to try in Ghent

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau and Marcella van Alphen

Belgian gastronomy is too often summed up to beer, chocolate and waffles. There is a lot more to it, and Ghent is the perfect city to explore the wide range of yummy foods and innovative drinks! On top of this, its vibrant student life makes Ghent’s nightlife lively and a forerunner for vegetarian and even vegan fares in Belgium.

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Taking in The Death Cleopatra by Giovan Francesco Barnieri in the Palazzo Bianco, Genoa

72 hours in Genoa [your guide to experience the city]

Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

With about 1.5 million inhabitants, the capital of Liguria, squeezed between the Gulf of Genoa and the mountains, is the 5th city of Italy and the busiest of the Mediterranean Sea extending for 15 kilometres along the coast. Off the beaten path destination more known today for its industrial and logistic sides than for its tourist attractions, Genoa was nicknamed La Superba when it used to rule as one world’s most powerful Maritime Republics. Known since the Middle-Ages for its ability to navigate the seas, to build alliances and to develop trade networks, Genoa had greatly developed as Europe’s main port and financial centres. Today, its past wealth emanates from its no less than 140 palaces built by its ruling families, its many richly adorned churches and its art collections. From the palaces, narrow and dark medieval streets, called caruggi, lead to the Ligurian Sea, composing the largest medieval historical centre in Europe after Venice. Genoa is an authentic city that fascinates by its many layers and contrasts and that is definitely worth spending time discovering.

Keep reading for the perfect and authentic itinerary to discover Genoa over three days, from must-dos to hidden gems!

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Woman on a green Vespa enjoying the view on rolling hills in Tuscany, Italy

Your 2-day Vespa loop from Siena through Tuscany [Brunello & Montepulciano wine area]

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Leaving the walled city of Siena behind, a world of golden rolling hills soon opens up. Farmers have just harvested their crops and round or rectangle wheat straw bales are drying in the sun, providing some shades to a few birds picking up whatever is left in the golden grass. Cypress trees line the long driveways leading to large terra-cotta farms. The scent of hay mixes with the sweet odour of fig trees and the golden wheat fields contrasts with the perfectly blue Tuscan summer sky. It is time for a 2-day adventure, riding a Vespa to explore the South of Siena, and more specifically the most renown wine regions of Tuscany: Brunello, Montepulciano and Orcia. Hop on!

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Renzo Piano's Biosphere contrasting with the medieval towers in Genoa, Italy

5 fun facts about Genoa you did not know about

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

1. And you thought blue jeans came from the States?

By mid-16th century more than half of the population of Genova worked in the silk industry. The craftmanship in the city-state was so renown that exclusive royal garments were often made in Genoa. Collaborating with the city of Lucca where silk was produced, Genoa functioned as trading post and benefited hugely from this trade. However, these precious clothes were unaffordable for common people, let alone sailors.

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White marble kitche counter with fresh ingredients from Italy

A day with an Italian chef in a 17th-century palace [Lucca]

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Strolling the streets of the picturesque city of Lucca in the heart of Tuscany, we follow the passionate chef Giuseppe Mazzocchi while he leads the way through a maze of narrow alleys bustling with liveliness. A few tourists take in the richly-adorned façades of some of its 100 churches, as it is nicknamed. Others look up at one of Lucca’s characteristic towers contrasting with the deep blue Tuscan sky. Some opera lovers seem to walk towards the birth house of the world-famous composer Giacomo Puccini. Some locals enjoy window-shopping: the city of Lucca flourished thanks to the high-end production of silk textiles, closely collaborating with Genoa, and still today quality shops line its streets. However, the shopping that we are about to do with Giuseppe will have us explore Lucca from another perspective: the palate…

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View on rooftops and a brick tower with trees on top of it and hills in the background

Lucca: your ultimate guide [2 to 5 days]

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Lucca is this kind of city. The more time you spend here, the longer you want to stay. Yes, the picturesque walled Tuscan city at the foot of the Apennine Mountains and along the Serchio River is touristy. Still it remains an authentic city with a very nice atmosphere, different from a slightly arrogant museum-Florence (don’t get me wrong, Florence can be wonderful, but it has also been the victim of its success and mass tourism seems to have taken the best of it) or quick-cruise-stop Pisa. How long to plan for Lucca? Two days is the absolute minimum, spending at least a night within the city walls. Here are many ideas sorted out by themes to spend a good 4 to 5 days in the city, including climbing its towers, visiting excellent museums, tasting and cooking delicious Tuscan specialties, listening to some Puccini, and experiencing unexpected outdoor activities.

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Uncooked ravioli, pici and tagliatelle on a wooden table

The secrets of pasta making & everything you need to know to enjoy your pastas [Siena, Italy]

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Tagliatelle, spaghetti, pappardelle, ravioli, tortellini, trofie, pici… who has ever travelled to Italy knows there are many different varieties of pastas which almost all have their traditional accompanying sauces. It is in Siena that we are about to uncover the secrets of pasta-making, with the passionate chef Marta Ciappi, owner of Marta’s Cooking Classes.

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The crafts of Florence: making a leather shoe.

The crafts behind the masterpieces of Florence

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Florence is the artistic capital of the Renaissance. The Italian city is world famous for its museums and masterpieces by some of the most revered artists of all times. However, the unspoken stories of its craftsmen need to be told. Without them, most of these masterpieces would not have existed as it is thanks to their technical skills that Florence became a powerful trading place for high quality products. Moreover, Renaissance masterpieces would not have been executed with such maestro nor restored the way they are to this day if it were not for the talent of these workers of the shadows.

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Reflection of Siena in the mirror of a scooter, Italy

Your 1-day Vespa loop from Siena itinerary [Chianti, San Gimignano, Certaldo…]

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen

While Siena slowly wakes up, we exit passing its medieval Porta Romana and leave the walled city for a day in the Tuscan countryside, each proudly riding a Vespa scooter. In Siena, do as the Sienese do… It is easy to understand why Italians love these scooters so much. They give a great freedom, allowing to take any kind of roads, from city centres to dirt tracks and to park easily (when it is becoming a challenge to drive a car, let alone park in and around Italian cities and even villages).

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Exploring the white waters of the Apuan Alps [Bagni di Lucca, Tuscany]

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Known for its hot springs since the Roman times, Bagni di Lucca used to be a hotspot for intellectuals of the romantic period such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley in the early 19th century. This is also when Princess Elisa Bonaparte, the sister of Napoleon, who reigned on Lucca between 1805 and 1824 used to come regularly, renovating the baths and turning Bagni di Lucca in the summer meeting point of an international and influential community, enjoying the first casino in Italy, the cooler climate and its healing waters. Today, if the quiet Tuscan village has lost its world prominence, it has become a gate to many white water and outdoor adventures, just a stone’s throw away from the historical towns of Lucca, Florence and Pisa.

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An active day [or not] along the Italian Riviera

Text & photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

For the most active ones, this article describes a day packed with activities from biking, to hiking and swimming. All the villages described can also be reached by train and boat from Genoa to enjoy their charms, cultural sites and delicious food without getting sweaty (nor desperately trying to find a parking spot)!

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Young shepherd in traditional clothes herding his angora sheep in Eastern Lesotho

Exploring Eastern Lesotho

Text & photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

“Hold on tight! It is going to be very bumpy,” the seriousness resonates in Christeen Grant’s voice, experienced mountain guide passionate about the Drakensberg. The engine of the iconic Land Rover Defender roars while the suspensions of the sturdy 4×4 are motioning like an accordion. If we found Christeen’s words “It is going to be a little bit bumpy!” quite entertaining two years ago Keep exploring!

Interactive map Athens

Interactive map: Athens, Greece

If for many years, far from its glorious past, Athens has only been a short stopover on the way to the Greek islands, it deserves a more in-depth exploration. From one of the best Mediterranean gastronomies that can be uncovered on its lively markets, friendly restaurants or excellent cooking classes, to multi millennium-old ruins that have seen the Western Civilization get born, its vibrant neighborhoods and its true urban culture, the Greek capital should get way more attention!

To make it easy for you to explore Athens, here is our interactive map, showing places to eat, drink, run and visit, from must-see cultural visits to low-key and off the beaten path spots. Zoom in on the area of interest, and check out the black pins. Each of them corresponds to an article. Keep traveling!

Man and woman having dinner outside on a wooden deck on stilts, Tai O fishing village, Lantau Island, Hong Kong

The best of Lantau Island in a day!

Bird songs fill the cabin of the gondola taking us to the Big Buddha. Through the glass bottom we observe the South Chinese Sea which we smoothly pass over towards the mountains of Lantau Island. Behind us Hong Kong airport, world’s largest cargo airport, where we have just landed gets smaller as we fly over the jungle. Sometimes we notice hikers in bright coloured T-shirts which like small dots move through the greenery on various trails beneath our feet. Keep exploring!

The best way up Victoria Peak [not the tram!]

The unbeatable views on Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories from Victoria Peak prompts every visitor to make it up the highest mountain of Hong Kong Island. The most common mean to reach the 554-meter high summit is by taking the tram, but there is a much more rewarding way up the ancient volcano that will make you experience a lot more of Hong Kong from the Mid-Levels lifestyle, to its protected forest, and of course unmatched views.

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Two women laughing while reading coffee on a terrace in Greece.

Offbeat Athens, exploring the city with a local

One of the oldest cities on Earth and the birthplace of western civilization, Athens could easily rely on its glorious past and multi millennium-old ruins and fall into grogginess. For years it has been only a sneak peak into Ancient Greece or a gateway to the islands with many tourists making it to the famous Acropolis before heading to the Piraeus to catch a boat. However, the Greek capital has a lot more to offer with vibrant neighborhoods and a true urban culture.

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Flying legends [San Francisco]

There are plenty of ways to take in the world famous landmark of San Francisco. From the land at one of the many viewing points or biking or walking the bridge, from the sea by boat or kayak, or… from the air! Flying over the Golden Gate Bridge in open WWII biplane aircraft is definitely a unique and unforgettable experience and the best way to see it in style!

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A multiday hiker looking at a view on the city of Cilaos on the exclusive hike through the 3 cirques, Reunion Island.

A 7-day exclusive trek for the best of Réunion!

Reunion Island is a true hiker’s paradise. With hundreds of kilometers of well-maintained and well-marked trails crisscrossing the island’s mountains (listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site), indigenous forests full of endemic species, rivers, striking viewpoints and isolated settlements, it might be hard to choose which hiking paths to take. To hit the most beautiful natural wonders of Reunion Island while experiencing the three very different amphitheaters (called “Cirques”) and meeting its inhabitants walking the most scenic trails, we have created an exclusive 7-day circular hike for you! Keep traveling!

Taming the dragon [3 Salazes]

Even though our alarm clock is set at a shockingly early 3:30 a.m., I am so excited that I wake up five minutes before it goes off. Today is a big day! After dressing fast in my technical outdoor gear and warm jacket, I grab my headlight and toss my backpack over my shoulder. I gulp down a coffee before heading out: after last night’s gargantuan dinner in a traditional Réunion fashion with home-grown lentils of Cilaos, a chicken cari and a few delicious rhums arrangés (infused rums) this is the most I can ingest for the moment! Keep traveling!

Mountain biking the Maïdo [Reunion Island]

Most tourists visiting the Reunion Island drive up the Maïdo road to take in the stunning vistas on the Mafate Cirque from its viewpoint. However, there are more fun and adventurous ways to take in the scale of the ramparts and explore the various ecosystems along the volcanic slopes of the mountain, like rock climbing the Maïdo Peak or mountain biking back down to the coast.

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Réunion Island: a canyoning paradise

“Stand up, lean backwards, rope between your legs, and put both of your hands on the rope. Good. Smile for the camera! And off you go!” I force a little smile towards Olivier’s GoPro before I look down upon one of the many magnificent natural pools of the Reunion Island 35 meters below. Around me bright green and lush vegetation covering the 80-meter high volcanic cliffs contrasts greatly with the deep blue sky. Swallows are flying low below me as they hunt for mosquitos in their acrobatic flights just above the water basin. The only sound I hear is the roaring waterfall to my left of which I feel the splashes on my wetsuit. It is just loud enough to cover up for the sounds of my heartbeat in this adrenalin-packed adventure on which Olivier is taking us in order to uncover the rugged beauty of this lost island in the Indian Ocean. Keep exploring!

Rock climbing the Maïdo Peak [Reunion Island]

Most tourists visiting the Reunion Island drive up the Maïdo road to take in the stunning vistas on the Mafate Cirque from its viewpoint. However, there are more fun and adventurous ways to take in the scale of the ramparts of this massive natural amphitheater and explore the various ecosystems along the volcanic slopes of the mountain, like rock climbing the Maïdo Peak or mountain biking back down to the coast.

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Snaking through Oman’s wadis

The early morning sun slowly colours the steep rocky slopes of Oman’s wildest peaks as our Toyota Land Cruiser makes its way along one of the country’s most stunning 4×4 tracks via the village of Hatt. Patches of lush vegetation break the dry mineral landscape here and there. Large birds of prey hover in the sky. Chris puts the car to a halt. He switches the gear over to 4×4 as things are getting serious. The Toyota peeps and cracks on the bumpy and steep downhill track along the deep and scenic canyon. While being rocked in the car, slowly a massive dark crack in the rock-strewn slopes, far below us, becomes visible: a crevice so deep that we cannot see the bottom. Or not yet as it is the goal of our canyoning expedition! Keep exploring

48 hours in Muscat

Dating back to the 1st century, Muscat gained prominence in the 14th century when traders used it as a maritime hub on their way to or from India, the far East, Zanzibar and Europe. Indeed, the capital of Oman is located in a natural harbour ideally suited for the safe mooring of vessels that has made the Sultanate a nation of seafarers. Today, Muscat is a vibrant city open on the world that is worth spending a few days exploring. Keep travelling!

Johannesburg – would you give it a shot?

Most simply avoid Downtown Johannesburg with its no-go zone reputation. However, the city has changed and bits by bits local initiatives pop up and travellers explore the vibrancy, art scene and culture of South Africa’s biggest city!

It is still early morning when we park our car at 1 Fox Street and meet the passionate Jo Buitendach. With a degree in archaeology and history and with a true love for Johannesburg and its people, she takes us through its vibrant heart where not too many tourists dare passing by.  Keep walking…

Top 8 Must Do Adventures in South Africa

89 days and 9,722 kilometres across South Africa, including a good amount on dirt roads, through 4×4-only mountain passes, along wild coast trails, across the last bit of sand forest left on the planet, side by side with elephants and lions to bring you the best adventures of South Africa!

Beyond the Big 5, South Africa is a fantastic playground for the outdoor enthusiasts, and here are the Top Keep exploring!

A night at the opera in Oslo

Inaugurated only in 2008, the Oslo Opera House has already become the landmark of the Norwegian capital. Its architecture intrigues. Like an iceberg floating in the Oslo fjord, locals and tourists alike climb it to reach its roof via soft inclines or explore its warm and modern foyer. Far from the elite image of most opera houses, the Oslo Opera House is an open space decisively. It has revolutionized its area, a former shipyard cut off from the rest of the city by an ugly highway that was forced underground, and made it a favourite promenade attracting recommendable neighbours like the new Munch Museum or the bar code urbanization project. The building fascinates, and the temptation of exploring its ins and outs only grows bigger as one approaches it.

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