Thursday, February 22, 2018

Strand Book Stall, Rhythm House & "Icons" and us.

Frankly, I am sick of the handwringing.

I am referring to the outpouring of responses to the news that the “iconic” Strand Book Stall is downing its shutters, one last time, on 27th February 2018. Cue to interviews of regret, clichés and general ‘how times have changed’ anecdotes. All anecdotes revolve around past time, very past times, when the narrator used to go to Strand and Mr. Shanbagh spoke to the narrator. I have not read a single response by a narrator of him visiting Strand in the past 6 months.

I had similar feelings when yet another “icon” Rhythm House had also downed its shutters for the last time. When that happened, a group of so called “die hard” music lovers went to Rhythm House on the last day, armed with their guitars and sang songs. I guess this was the equivalent of the lighting a candle that is now so much in vogue. As I write, it is still a few days to go, so I am as yet unaware of how the last day of Strand will be commemorated. Presumably there will be some book or poetry reading.

So easy to bandy about words like “icon”.

You may well ask why I am sick of the handwringing. I will tell you. To make things easier for you to understand, my response falls in two buckets.

Bucket 1.

I wonder if you have read the fine print that appears on very LP Record, Cassette, and CD. Permit me to reproduce that:

“All rights of the manufacturer and the owner of the recorded material reserved. Unauthorized copying, public performance, broadcasting and the sharing of the record is prohibited.”

Similarly, I ask, have you ever read what appears in every book?

“All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of the copyright owner.”

Assuming, that you do read books, or listen to music on CD’s, how many of you are in clear breach of these conditions? Are you honestly not depriving the author, musician or copyright owner of his livelihood?  Have you ever burnt a CD, or copied music onto a pen drive? Have you never Xeroxed a book?

Well, if you have, please stop handwringing. You are guilty of not buying the product and thereby killing the entire chain in the eco system.

You may be absolutely livid at my accusation. You may respond by telling me that you have a Kindle or and iPod. That these are licensed devices and you are legitimately receiving the contents whether they are books or music. Of course. You are absolutely within the law. In fact, if you read the two conditions I have reproduced, they expressly permit dissemination by Kindle or iPod. But, and this is a big but, once you consume by Kindle or iPod, you do not go to Strand Book Stall or Rhythm House. You have cut these two out of the chain – legitimately of course, but very clearly and very pointedly. If you do not give Rhythm House and Strand any revenue why should they keep themselves open? The fault, my dears, is entirely yours.

So, once again please stop handwringing.

Bucket 2

This is slightly more problematic to come to grips with. But I shall try.

Clearly, both music and book stores, around the world have been impacted by two factors. The rise and rise of ecommerce [in the traditional sense of buying goods online and being physically delivered to you], and, the rise and rise of digital distribution and consumption of books and music i.e. Kindle and iPod.

As far as ecommerce is concerned, the first serious assault was made with the start of Amazon in 1994, that is 23 years ago. In India, Flipkart started in 2007. When these started, their primary focus in both was books and music. Today, both are behemoths, and have effectively destroyed brick and mortar stores. However, you look at it, all us fancy SoBo types have had the internet, credit cards and a lot of awareness of the rise of ecommerce. We are privileged. I know that the Curmally family that owned Rhythm House as well as Mr. Shanbagh’s children are as privileged and knowledgeable, and more than anything else, young. Why could they not see the writing on the wall all those years ago and not change their business models to adapt to ecommerce. From what I could see, neither Rhythm House nor Strand even had websites!!! Could they have taken over the book and music section of say a or Flipkart? From the outside I don’t see why not. Both had extensive knowledge of the book and music retail business. To be fair, to them, I guess that there may have been other factors. So, to that extent my analysis could be wrong. By the same token, if Flipkart with two young whippersnappers with zero knowledge of the book and music business could become the behemoths they are, I can’t see why this could not have happened with Strand or Rhythm House with their deep knowledge and contacts in the industry. Money? Well, who would you have given your money to? Two inexperienced whippersnappers starting Flipkart or two well established industry respected owners?

As I wrote when I started, Bucket 2 is more problematic. I am probably oversimplifying things. Be that as it is, I still believe that the writing was on the wall years ago. To not adapt is sad and unfortunate.

But, please stop your handwringing.


Saturday, February 17, 2018

Unilever, Facebook freedom of the media

This is not about food. So, you can all heave a sigh of relief.

I am a lawyer and don’t have much knowledge about the Web, Social Media and Advertising. This places me in just the correct position to express my opinion.

You may recall a news item a few days ago - which I may add has received surprisingly little attention – that Unilever the global FMCG giant has threatened Facebook and Google with withdrawal of its advertisements. According to the Chief Marketing Officer of Unilever Mr. Keith Weed, companies could not continue to support an online advertising industry where extremist material, fake news, child exploitation, political manipulation, racism and sexism were rife. Mr. Weed continued to state that "It is acutely clear from the groundswell of consumer voices over recent months that people are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of digital on wellbeing, on democracy - and on truth itself," In other words, Facebook and Google do contain extremist material, fake news, child exploitation, political manipulation, racism and sexism.

Further, Unilever’s have pledged to:
§   Not invest in platforms that do not protect children or create division in society
§   Only invest in platforms that make a positive contribution to society
§   Tackle gender stereotypes in advertising
§   Only partner with companies creating a responsible digital infrastructure

Bear in mind the rather wide language used. “Create division in society” and so on.

From my limited research, Facebook and Google accounted for 73% of all digital advertising in the US in 2017. During 2017, Google brought in £4.4bn in revenue from online advertising, while Facebook collected £1.8bn. These are significant numbers. Do note that these are not revenues from Unilever alone, but total revenue from all advertisers. Unilever is the world’s biggest spender on advertising. Hindustan Unilever, is similarly the biggest spender on advertising in India.

Media, whether print i.e. newspapers and magazines; TV; or internet based like Facebook and Google and countless other websites, all require advertising revenue to continue to survive and operate.    

Ipso facto, if you choke a medium of its advertising revenue, that medium will be in trouble and may ultimately shut. To put it differently, a large advertiser can exert considerable pressure on a medium.

Many people are today wary of what is known as mainstream media, i.e. TV and newspapers. It is believed that the mainstream media is owned by huge business houses – Rupert Murdoch owns several newspapers and Fox news; back home in India the Ambani’s control large swathes of business and other TV Channels – and, as a result, the belief is that news is biased or influenced. Because of this, hundreds of thousands of news sites and opinion sites as well as online publications grew in popularity as it was believed that these were independent, did not belong to conglomerates and were therefore free to publish news and opinions without fear or influence. Furthermore, these online news and opinion sites were cheap to run. This logic is correct up to a point, as, if you are a better or more visited news site you will get more eyeballs and consequently will become big with all the attendant attachments. Then you too will draw advertising revenue and will need it to survive. There is a lot of inevitability about growth and its consequences.

One of the beauties of the Internet is that it is “free” in the true sense of the word. Anyone can access any material on any website. Access is not controlled. The concept of” net neutrality” is very important and so far despite two battles, net neutrality reigns supreme. Net neutrality simply means that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking products or websites. I realise that Unilever is not an Internet service provider, but, I believe that the pledge could certainly jeopardise net neutrality. Could Unilever in furtherance of enforcing its pledge demand that an Internet service provider prevents access to an errant site? I feel why not.

The point I am making is that in an ideal world you must have a free media. Traditional media freedom was impacted by advertising. It was thought that internet-based media was not impacted, however, today with the quantum of advertising increasing even this medium is being threatened by advertisers. Advertising was a tool used to ensure that the media played ball with an advertiser. By way of example, to ensure that no adverse news was published, the advertiser used his media clout. This is but one example, there are several more instances. However, for the purposes of making my point, I shall stick to just this one example.

Now it is clear that with Unilever’s threat, media freedom especially on the internet is even more threatened. Not only is the medium going to be threatened if it wishes to publish something adverse about Unilever – say that Unilever is polluting a river – but the medium is going to be threated with advertising pull out if the medium publishes say any form of racist or gender sensitive material. To make matters worse, it is Unilever that will be the sole arbiter of whether any material published in the medium is violative of the broadly worded pledge, reproduced above.

Taking this further, in today’s highly politically correct times, once Unilever has made this pledge it will not be to far in the future that others do too. So, you will have a whole host of advertisers with swathes of people becoming censors. Net nanny will be back with a vengeance. Unilever has today adopted the mantle of being a net nanny This situation is not only a distinct possibility, in fact with Unilever’s pledge it has already happened, but this is going to lead to media being increasingly confused as to whose diktat it must comply and whose diktat it must ignore. This whole matter is indeed frightening. Will the internet remain uninfluenced and uncensored as it is today?

This morning, there was yet another aspect to media control that I read. Jeep placed an advertisement during Super Bowl [which is believed to be the most expensive advertising time slot in the world] showing the SUV splashing down a stream. You have seen countless variations of such advertisement. Cars careening down pristine beaches, cars splashing across streams, plowing thru forests and so on. On cue, Mr. Chris Wood the CEO of Trout Unlimited a fish conservation group claiming a membership of 300,000 attacked the advertisement stating that it “glorified the destruction of aquatic habitat in an apparent attempt to appeal to off-road thrill-seekers.”

Mr. Wood went on to say, “Fish are tough and resilient critters, but they don’t do well with several-thousand-pound vehicles driving over their spawning grounds, tearing up the gravel where they lay eggs,” he said. “Why someone would want to put out the idea that you should buy a Jeep so you could drive it up a creek is incomprehensible to me.        

Frankly, Mr. Wood has a point. If advertisements that offend, rightfully or otherwise, should the advertiser withdraw those “offending” advertisements? Will all car and motorcycle advertisements now have to change? We all know that cigarette and liquor advertisements are banned in most places. In India we have also banned, or if not banned, seriously frown at advertisements for skin whitening products. Will this latest charge by Mr. Wood affect the volume of advertisement placed in various media? Would this situation of having squeaky clean, totally correct bland inoffensive advertisements, catering to every pressure or protest group become a contagion? In my view, the jury is out on this question.

As I have progressed writing this post, my opinions have changed. At this point I am more confused than ever.

We know that print advertising is on a very steady decline. Consequently, many publications are suffering. The very venerable Washington Post – the subject of the recent thought provoking film “The Post” – has been bought by Jeff Bezos. Many publications are shutting down, In India in the TV or electronic media we have a separate set of problems. There are hundreds of TV Channels all scrambling for a share of advertising. In order to survive, the TV channels are borrowing from cash rich industrial houses and on being unable to repay the loans, are being subsumed by the corporates. As far as the internet is concerned, the dominant share of revenue flows to Facebook and Google, even in India, leaving a miniscule amount to be shared by thousands of smaller players. The continued survival of the smaller players is in serious doubt. The point being that purely business reasons are resulting in a shift of advertisement spends which obviously affects media.

To compound the problem stated in the preceding paragraph, you have the older threat of a large advertiser boycotting your medium. This has been the case for years, nothing new. However, now we have the added problem of an assault on media by advertisers wanting to control the media’s basic material. This is the Unilever Facebook Google imbroglio. This brings another facet to using advertising spends to control media.

The third front that now seems to be opening is pressure groups or special interest groups threatening advertisers. With the changing times traditional advertising themes are now being questioned in an increasing number of products. This has happened in the case of tobacco and alcohol, though one can understand the need to regulate such advertising. Encouraging consumption of tobacco and alcohol has health risks. But this left of field attack by Trout Unlimited is to my mind a dangerous development. Here the argument is not that cars are unhealthy, but, that the cliched depiction of SUV glorifies a lifestyle that results in destruction or damage to the environment.

It is only a matter of time before there is a fourth, fifth and more attacks on advertising.

If advertising is going to die it will take down media and an essential pillar of democracy. The free press – as free as it could be – will no longer exist. Where would that take our own consumption of products? Where would that leave manufacturers and advertisers like Unilever? What would happen to the advertising agencies?

Will the ever-creative advertising mind create a fresh set of advertisements with different and innovative ideas to get over this?

I have no answers. I do not know if I am being too alarmist.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Seven Park Place * - London

Seven Park Place is described, aptly, I may add, as a jewel box of a restaurant. This is in the St James Hotel located in Park Place - a lane leading off St James’s. The Royal Overseas League Club, so beloved by Indians in the 1970’s and 1980’s is down the road. The hotel is part of a mini German Hotel chain, which I discovered had hotels in Cologne and Stuttgart where we had stayed in the past.

Seven Park Place has William Drabble as the Executive Chef. This man has logged up a serious reputation. He got is first star in Michelin at the age of 26. Then he took over from Gordon Ramsay at Aubergine and headed it till 2009 after which he has been in charge of Seven Park Place. The food is described as “influenced by classic French cuisine, using the best British ingredients and taking inspiration from the seasons.” The restaurant has a single star in Michelin.

The actual restaurant in an alcove is very small, with just 3 tables seating probably 11 diners. The area around the bar has got some tables added so as to increase the seating. The whole place is decorated extensively and heavily. Carpets, wallpaper padded walls chandeliers and the works. The atmosphere is sophisticated, rich and quiet. Reminded me of Le Gavroche. We were seated at a large table with banquettes on three sides. Lots of space, a luxury in todays times where restaurants are crammed to an inch of their lives with tables.

I had read a lot of good things about the restaurant. It seemed to me that it was also off the normal Social Media feeds i.e. Twitter and Instagram. Doctor Businesswoman who is our frequent dining companion was travelling, her sister in law S joined us. As we entered our coats and scarves were whisked away and we were seated in the empty dining room. Good chance to take a few photographs. 

Menus were handed out, just 3 mercifully, the A La Carte, the Gourmand or Tasting Menu formed one, the substantial Wine List the second and to follow the Pudding Menu. All of us chose the A La Carte, and all of us chose different starters and mains. A usual question of are we allergic or intolerant to any ingredient was asked and answered in the negative. Gin and Tonics were ordered – Tanqueray Rangpur was offered. The wine list perused and a Saint Emilion ordered. All the ordering done we settled down.

First up came butter, salted which was a round puck, unsalted which was the square puck and chilly infused which was the pyramid. Bread turned up, warm. The Raisin and Walnut was our choice. Excellent. A second slice was taken.

An Amuse Bouche of Crab Veloute turned up. This was exceptional. Deep flavor and served really hot. We all devoured it and commented that if an Amuse Bouche was so good, hopefully the food would be as good.

Amuse Bouche of Crab Veloute  

Soon the first courses turned up. Each and every one of them a knockout.  Our friend S ordered the signature dish of Lobster with Roast Cauliflower, Cauliflower Puree and Lobster Truffle Sauce. We all had a slice of the Lobster tail, and, honestly, it was cooked perfectly far more accurately than the Lobster that HRH the Queen of Kutch had a few nights ago at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester.  HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered Scallop Ceviche with Jerusalem Artichoke and Truffle Vinaigrette which you can see in the photograph as the dots on the plate. This was once again brilliant. I ordered a Seared Foie Gras with Gingerbread Crumble, Poached Rhubarb and Confit Ginger. Tremendous dish. The Rhubarb as pureed as well as served poached. The two dots you see on the plate were the Confit Ginger which turned out to be a sort of Ginger Jelly.

Lobster with Roast Cauliflower, Cauliflower Puree and Lobster Truffle Sauce

Scallop Ceviche with Jerusalem Artichoke and Truffle Vinaigrette  

Seared Foie Gras with Gingerbread Crumble, Poached Rhubarb and Confit Ginger 

These dishes were seriously good cooking. We were all most impressed.

The Main Courses soon came. S ordered the Duck Breast with Sauce Bigarade which is a classic dish. Sauce Bigarade is an Orange Sauce which pairs excellently with Duck. If you look at the photograph you will realise how well cooked the Duck Breast is.

HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered a very manly dish, Veal Cheeks slow cooked with a Madeira Sauce and a Bone Marrow Mash. A wintery dish. The Cheeks were cooked perfectly, just a moment away from totally breaking down. Being Veal Cheeks they had a lot of collagen which made them even more unctuous when cooked. The Bone Marrow Mash was a work of art. A very smooth potato puree with brown butter, possibly Demi-Glace and Marrow.  

I had ordered Turbot with Leeks and a Vichyssoise Sauce. This was a most ladylike dish. Thinking about the dish, I realise how clever William Drabble is. The garnish on the plate was Potato and Leek. This was sauced with Vichyssoise which is quite simply a puree of Leek and Potato.  

Like the first courses, this was consistently good cooking. The dishes all were attractive and came out hot. The proteins were all accurately cooked. The presentation was old style with no tweezers being used. No molecular malarkey here either, thankfully.

Then, we were served a pre-dessert. A heavy cast iron soup bowl with cold Rice Pudding, Candied Walnuts and other ingredients which I cannot for the life of me remember. OK, this dish was “free” if I could use that term, so it had cheap ingredients – rice. But, this was so carefully cooked with so many additional ingredients that it was far greater a dish than the sum of its parts.

After all that food we decided that one dessert among the three of us would be more than enough. The most attractive on the menu, a Pineapple Upside Down Cake was ordered. This was decent; however, the pre-dessert was far better. Desserts is obviously a weak suit here.

Overall, this was a fine meal and excellent overall experience. Everything about the restaurant was correct. This place is seriously recommended and is something we are definitely going to visit again.

Quality Chop House - London

Eating a good steak is one of life’s pleasures, and, we invariably plan to have steak in London. At times we buy a top-quality steak and cook it ourselves. At other times we eat at the better steak houses, Hawksmoor and Goodman being two of our choices. On this occasion we thought we should go off-piste and visit some other place.

Quality Chop House, as the name suggests, serves chops and steaks among other food. This is located in Farringdon which is in the City. Going to the City by Taxi is an expensive proposition as your meter rapidly jumps with the traffic en route. So, it was the Underground for us followed by a 15 minute walk. This is not a problem at all, unless it is raining. Luckily, rain was not forecast.

Quality Chop House is an old restaurant – Progressive Working Class Caterer – as it is described on the facade, having started operation in 1869, the year Mahatma Gandhi was born. Seriously. The building is classified Grade II with Victorian décor. This means that not only is the exterior façade protected and cannot be altered but, since it is also listed with Victorian décor, the inside too is protected. The consequence is that the original flooring and wall exist and the seating is the original wooden benches and tables. The tables could not have been wider than 15 inches. The benches were narrow, no more than 10 inches, and had backs that were at 90 degrees to the benches. Obviously, in 1869 they had no idea of comfort and the working class were not expected to linger after eating. To slightly reduce the discomfort of the benches, removeable cushions were placed with strapping. Removable so as to be compliant with the Listing regulations. Frankly, the seats were perfectly alright and not really uncomfortable.

Will Lander is the owner of restaurant. In November 2015 we had eaten at Portland which is Lander’s other restaurant. A common theme runs thru both restaurants, spartan décor [at Quality Chop House he has no choice, the Listing requirements stipulate no alterations] a small affordable wine list with a separate page of more expensive wines, and, simple, less fussy, non tweezered food plainly described in a daily menu. Somewhat like St John the deeply influential English restaurant owned by Fergus Henderson.

On reaching, despite having made reservation, we were offered a choice of two tables. Both were small, one was at the toilet entrance, the other was 3 feet away from the toilet entrance. HRH the Queen of Kutch was understandably upset and requested a change. The request was granted and we were shifted to the benches. Much better.

The meal started with a couple of Negronis and a plate of very large olives. One snack that had caught my eye was Crozier Blue Custard, Beetroot & Walnut. This was an absolute knockout dish. Two small exquisite delicate pastry cases or tartlets filled with a creamy Blue Cheese Custard. One delicious bite each. At once creamy, crumbly, savory, sweet and sour. These Tarts epitomized the word “Moreish”. You really wanted to eat more. A smashing start to the meal. We were looking forward to the rest of the food.

HRH the Queen of Kutch did not want to have a first course. The soup looked very interesting, and, since it is winter, I thought a good hot soup would hit the spot. The soup was Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Truffle and Apple Brown Butter. Jerusalem Artichoke is a very close relation of what we in India call `Alkool’. The soup was wonderful, hot and satisfying. The Truffle added flavor and the Apple Brown Butter was the magic ingredient, adding richness with the butter and the Apple adding a sweet-sour note. Excellent.

For our main course we had ordered a Tamworth Pork Chop [Tamworth being a breed of pig] and a Blue Grey Sirloin [Blue Grey being a Scottish beef cattle breed]. As sides we ordered a portion of the Confit Potato that Quality Chop House is famous for, and some Hispi Cabbage garnished with crisp deep-fried beef fat. I think this a good place to write, Bharat Mata Ki Jai, just to get over the trauma of eating the Steak and the Beef Fat. Bhagwan muje maaf karo. The Steak was excellent, cooked medium rare with a soft core. The Pork Chop was a little disappointing. It was single dimensional, somewhat boring. Both cuts of meat had the fat left on which in today’s health conscious days, is a treat. Both the meats came with just pan juices; no fancy sauces or other additions to distract from the meat. The Confit Potato was a piece of art. I have a recipe for this dish in a book by Daniel Boulud and have often thought of making it but never done so. Potato is thinly sliced and layered and cooked. Then the potato cake is cut into blocks and fried. You get a block of Potato, crisp on the outside, soft inside and in several layers. You require skill, practice and the correct potato. This was really good. This Hispi Cabbage was nice too.

The Tamworth Pork Chop 

Blue Grey Sirloin Steak

Confit Potato

Hispi Cabbage with Beef Fat 

One pudding leapt out, and Orange and Pistachio Tart. This was ordered with a glass of Armagnac made by Helene Daroze’s brother. The Tart was quite something. The use of nuts and bitter orange was I thought quite Middle Eastern. This was a dessert we both like, texture and not coilingly sweet. A fine end to a good dinner.

At the end of the day, I do recommend this restaurant. Good food, decent service and an interesting menu. I agree it is a bit of a trek to the restaurant especially if you stay in the normal central London tourist hotel areas. Do make an effort. As an indication of the popularity, when walking to the restaurant on this Monday evening we passed several restaurants that were empty or near empty. This place was full and all tables fully occupied when we left at 9 pm.

Do make an effort and eat here.

Friday, February 2, 2018

All you want to know about a Safari in Africa, and more.

It was in December 2016, at HRH the Queen of Kutch’s birthday party, that 8 of our closest friends met. A plan was plotted. All of us old friends, some from as way back at 1969, would go to Africa for a Safari. The time decided was December 2017. Discussions ensued and two or three in the group in a mixture of assumption and thrust, took up the mantle of putting the whole thing together. There was much enthusiasm. Many phone calls were made and emails exchanged and opinions expressed. I was reluctant. A safari was not my cup of tea, for reasons that I shall explain subsequently. Anyway, I was told I was being foolish as since I had not been on a safari earlier I should give up my preconceived notions, experience one and then decide. I was also told that it would be great fun to go on a trip with 10 of your closest friends. I could not counter these very sensible arguments, so I went along.

Finally, it was all done. We were to fly to Nairobi, book charter a small aircraft and reach a moving camp called Olakira in Tanzania. After 4 nights at Olakira we would catch another charter to the Grumeti Reserve and spend 4 nights at the Singita Sabora Camp. From there we would fly by yet another charter back to Nairobi and home to Mumbai. 8 Nights in the “bush” as they say.

A few bits of information for you dear readers.

That is the 10 of us getting ready to board the charter.

How a safari works

I am using generalizations here. Safari “hotels” in the “bush” are called camps. Most camps are all inclusive meaning that you pay a fixed price per day per person. You get two drives or safaris a day in a jeep with a guide, lodging, all meals, unlimited booze from a selection and laundry. Laundry included? Yes folks, the reason is that you are permitted to carry only 15kgs of luggage per person as the charter aircraft are small. So laundry is included.

The day starts early, 6 am. You have a warm beverage and head out for the morning safari drive. Return by 10 am have breakfast, lunch possibly a snooze and you are out for an evening safari drive from about 4 pm till sunset. Then its sitting round a campfire, cocktails, dinner and lights out. Repeat till booking is over.

Going off road

This is apparently a big thing. You must understand that in the “bush” there are no roads as we know them, i.e. no tarred roads, just paths used over and over again thereby forming an apology of a road. In many reserves you are not permitted to take your vehicle off these roads. If there is a Lion pride lolling about 300 meters away from the road, well, too bad. You cannot drive up to them, neither can you walk up to them, nor for that matter can you call them like you would a friendly dog or cat. You simply squint or use a pair of binoculars. So not being able to go off road is bad. Consequently, having off-roading capability is good.

What happens on a safari drive

The camps have their own vehicles which are normally Toyota Land Cruisers heavily modified. The vehicles have no bodies, just some very robust bars over which a tarpaulin in fixed. So the sides are totally open and the windshield can be dropped. They have three rows of seating behind the driver with each level being elevated, much like in a movie theatre. This gives all passengers excellent visibility. The vehicles have cow catchers, shovels, racks to pull out of mud, storage for food and drink and all are equipped with radios.

Please do note that the vehicle used is a Toyota Land Cruiser. This is something that I have seen at every off road, jungle, desert place. It is almost always a Toyota Land Cruiser that is used. Not the Land Rover or its more upmarket sibling the Range Rover. Those vehicles have too many electronics, are too expensive and are difficult to maintain in these very challenging conditions. The Toyota Land Cruiser is the vehicle of choice.

What you do is clamber into the vehicle and drive for hours, many hours, sometimes over 8 to 10 hours a day. Remember there are no roads. It is fucking bumpy. Worse than Mumbai roads. Devendra Fa(t)dnavis, take a bow. Roads are better in Mumbai than in the Serengeti and the African Savanah! Bharat Mata Ki Jai and all that! Of course there is no traffic. The object of the game is that the guide is trying to show you as much “game” as he can. The drivers have radios or walkie talkie’s so they are constantly in touch. A feeling of brotherhood and sharing exists between drivers, so if any one spots a “Cat” immediately it on the blower and all vehicles converge at the spot.

Repeat till booking is over.

The Chitty Chitty Bang Bang photo. See what I mean about the open vehicle.

Permanent v/s moving camps

A permanent camp as the name suggests is, well, fixed. The tents are constructed on a wooden platform raised about 1 meter from the ground.

Non-permanent camps or moving camps have tents constructed at ground level with plastic sheeting on the floor. These camps are dismantled and moved to different locations. The choice of locations is based on animal movements. These camps don’t move at the drop of the hat but have a sort of schedule. 4 months in one place then dismantle, move, set up and 4 months at the next location. Temporary camps tend to be a bit more basic, for example no running hot water, less luxurious and so on.


Camps come in various price points, much like hotels. For example, in Goa you can get a lodge, a shack, a 3 star and a 5-star deluxe. The same with camps.

Generally speaking, camp rooms or tents have no TV, no room service and other things you find usual in a 5-star hotel. There is very limited mobile phone network and even less internet. This is simply because the camps are so remote. Except going on safari, there is really nothing to keep you occupied at the camp.

Since camps are so remote, or, to put it differently, located so deep within the “bush” that wild animals are literally at your doorstep. A giraffe and zebra, while they will not kill you, are as wild as a lion. On a couple of nights, we had lions, probably 20 meters away from our tents, roaring like there was no tomorrow, or at least that is how we felt in out tents. We did not know if we would have a tomorrow. We were woken up with their roars, that is how loud, and, obviously how close the lions were. Other nights, it was the insane “hee haw” of the Zebra that woke us. Naturally, there is curfew from 6.30 pm to 6.30 am. You cannot leave your tent unattended. You have to call the radio room to send you an armed [with a gun] guard called “Ashkari” to escort you.

Game & Gujju’s

Ginger and Garlic, Game & Gujju’s. Both are magical combinations.

Let me give you some deeply opinionated, though wholly correct insights. The rich vegetarians – Jains, Gujju’s, Khandelwals are the most bloodthirsty people I have seen. Among them the Gujju’s are the worst. If you take a straw poll among your friends, please count, out of those that have been for a safari, how many are Gujju’s. Honestly. When they speak about their safari experience, the first thing they narrate, with pride, is how many kills they saw. Nothing thrills them more than seeing a “cat” eating the entrails of a Topi or a Thompson Gazelle or a Wildebeest. Nothing gives them more jollies than hearing the sound of bones being crushed and broken by the jaws of a lion or cheetah.

For Gujju’s seeing birds, of which there are hundreds, the graceful Giraffe, the frisky Gazelle, the daft Wildebeest herds or flocks of Zebra is no thrill. They want to see “cats” and kills. What is it that makes these vegetarian folks have such bloodlust?

What we saw

Since I had not been on a safari earlier, I had nothing to compare to. However, my friends assured me that what we saw during the 8 days spent in the “bush” was more than what they had seen before, ever. As they say we had excellent “sightings”. So, I guess, I must consider myself lucky. On the very first day we saw not one but two separate instances of cheetah hunting, stalking, chasing down and making a kill. Then we then saw them eating the kill. This is very rare I am told. Subsequently, to make things even more exciting, we saw 4 cheetah cubs being trained by their mother to hunt. This was extraordinary. The way they crouched, surveyed, crept along and very very slowly and patiently got near to the prey was as the youngest member of our group JB said, ‘better than watching a suspense film.’ It was. Even cynical me was enthralled. Needless to say, this was not a movie. The inexperienced cheetah missed and the prey got away.

Lions must have a special section. We saw so many prides. Handsome males, females and cuddly cubs. Cubs who are teething are just like children or dogs. They chew on everything.

We saw an elephant in `Must’. This was quite something. He walked along very purposefully, and when faced by a tree, well, he just proceeded to knock it down. When the tree was knocked down the other elephants in the herd who were keeping a safe distance, gleefully went to the now fallen tree and got around to eating the leaves.

We saw literally thousands of Wildebeest and Zebra, who sort of live together, graze together and migrate together. Giraffes by the Tower, deer of all kinds from the large Elan, Topi, Gazelle and the tiny Dik-Dik. Warthogs, land Turtles, Ostrich running in their surreal manner, Lions, Lionesses, Lion Cubs, Lions mating, Cheetah, Leopard on trees and on the ground, birds of all kinds, Wild Buffalo, Guinea Fowl, Hippos. No Rhinos.

You also see changing landscape and understand how animals change with that. At times the vastness of the plains in the Serengeti, the Savana Grasslands are imposing and humbling. The topography is flat in all directions for miles around as far as the eye can see. It is huge and beautiful, and make you want to burst into clichés and superlatives.

I can understand what a large influence Africa has on people. It is mystical and awe inspiring at the same time. Since I like and have listened to a fair share of music, the impact that Africa has had on composers is quite something. The song Africa by the group Toto for example, is written by two Los Angeles based white musicians. Their influences and inspirations for Africa are second or third hand as you shall see. This is how powerful the myth and aura of Arfica is. Recently, when interviewed, the writer and singer David Paich said

“One of the reasons I was in a rock band was to see the world. As a kid, I’d always been fascinated by Africa. I loved movies about Dr Livingstone and missionaries. I went to an all-boys Catholic school and a lot of the teachers had done missionary work in Africa. They told me how they would bless the villagers, their Bibles, their books, their crops and, when it rained, they’d bless the rain. That’s where the hook line – “I bless the rains down in Africa” – came from.

They said loneliness and celibacy were the hardest things about life out there. Some of them never made it into the priesthood because they needed companionship. So I wrote about a person flying in to meet a lonely missionary. It’s a romanticised love story about Africa, based on how I’d always imagined it. The descriptions of its beautiful landscape came from what I’d read in National Geographic.”

What was good

On the whole, for me the trip was good. I enjoyed myself, primarily because of the company. 8 old friends, common experiences, the jokes, the hilarity, the ribbing, the kindling of memories. The camps we went to were barring in issue with alkaline water at Olakira were top notch. Seeing the locations and the remoteness, what they put out for us was stupendous. It is difficult to describe here.

The food in the camps was beyond good. The way “bush” brunch and lunch were organized was a lesson. Here we were, miles from anywhere, hungry after spending hours bouncing in a car turning up at a predetermined location to a fabulous setting and being served a first-class hot meal. Chefs on hand, service staff, eggs to order, sausage, bread pasta salad and dessert. This was really well done. They are experts.

The guides were experts too. They answered all kinds of questions, kept us entertained and engaged and did their job diligently. No lack of enthusiasm and flagging off.

The “sightings” as I said were really good too, in number, quality and frequency.

The way the charter flights operated and flew us in and out was again a marvel.

Listening to my much more travelled friends, safari in India is rather poor by comparison. The level of red tape ruins the experience. Just by way of example, no radios, walkie talkies or even mobile phones are allowed. Therefore, if a driver spots something good luck to him, no one else will know.

And, to top it all, we saw no Indians either on safari or at the two camps.

What was my problem.

I have never quite understood the charm or thrill of safari. Yes, I do like my dogs and cats. I do watch videos of charming animals, cute pups, cuter Labrador pups and National Geographic shows.

Fine, I did see a cheetah stalking, that was nice. Seeing a lion up close, nice. Cheetah having lunch, nice. But again, and again and again? You would be correct in asking how is seeing a kill again and again different from, for example, eating at the same restaurant repeatedly, which is what many of us do. My response is very simple. Safari is not my cup of tea, eating good food is. Hence, I am willing to repeat the restaurant experience but find the repeat viewing of cats and kills boring. Simple! Safari is not bad, it is simply not my cup of tea.

Sitting in a car, for hours, on dirt tracks is not my idea of fun. In those pristine areas, careening about in a polluting diesel SUV is foolish. However, that is the nature of the beast [no pun intended]. You simply cannot go on a safari by walking. You will be attacked and killed by a lion.

At the end of the day, I remain unconvinced. I am pretty certain I will not be going on safari again, not my cup of tea at all. We should have done 4 days of safari and 4 days in Zanzibar at a beach resort. That would have been nice.

Anyway, live and learn. If there was a way for me to ditch the whole thing and head back, I would have done it without thinking. This was a very expensive way to know that your instincts are correct. I did not like safari, I went on an expensive one, and I still do not understand it at all.

Lessons and advise for you

Lesson number 1. Keeping money out of the equation, if you do not like something just don’t do it. Stick by your convictions. If you are ambivalent, go.

Learn the essential words to keep up with the Jones’s –

·       Off Roading is not/is allowed.

·       Kills

·       Camp

·       Sightings

·       Cats

·       Game

If you have to go, spend the maximum you can, don’t go to a cut price one. The more you pay the better everything gets. Unless of course you are in India where only the hotel gets better the rest by and large remains the same.

Doing more than 4 to 5 days of safari is too much. Balance your holiday with something different.

Do not shuttle between too many camps. Travel is a drag and a time waste. Stick to two camps if possible.

Remember, if you are in the camp and do not go on safari that day, you will have nothing to do, except draw or read a book. Camps are not built to entertain you, so, there is no TV no internet and no mobile network. Swimming pool? Perish the thought. Some camps have a spa for you to blow money. You could stay back and spend a day in the spa and have a pedicure.

Some other comments are downright racist. I cannot make them here. Call me, I will tell you.