Published in Robb Report
LLAY VALLEY, LADAKH –– Squinting into the telescope, I scan the craggy ridgeline for a flicker of feline movement. Not that I’m expecting to spot any predatory silhouettes. After all, I’ve travelled halfway around the world to remote Ullay Valley in Ladakh – a sparsely populated, high-altitude desert region of India’s Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir – well aware that encountering the Central Asian snow leopard here is far from guaranteed. Still, on my first afternoon in Ullay I can’t help sense that a famously elusive ‘Grey Ghost of the Himalayas’ is somewhere up on a snowy cliff just beyond my field of vision, watching me with pale green eyes.
“That’s where the shan usually hide, straddling the top of those high ridges,” explains the telescope’s owner, Tsewang Norboo, using the Ladakhi term for snow leopard. After a brief pause for me to catch my labored breath – I’m struggling to acclimatize to Ullay’s 14000-foot elevation -- we continue ascending the snow dusted slopes above his mud and brick home. An expert wildlife tracker, Norboo recently partnered with adventure outfitter &Beyond to bring Westerners to Ullay, a prime snow leopard habitat only now opening up to tourism. Here in one of wildlife watching’s final frontiers, my chances of spotting Asia’s most enigmatic animal are as good as it gets, especially considering the season.
“Winter is the best time to track snow leopards in Ullay because they descend to the sub-alpine zone to stalk prey that grazes at lower elevations during colder weather,” explained &Beyond’s South Asia operations manager, Dushyant Singh, when we met earlier in Delhi. He added that their padded paws also leave telltale tracks in the snow as they stalk wild blue sheep, ibex, marmots and hares, making them easier to spot. Even so, I try to keep my expectations in check.
A shan sighting anywhere in the Himalayas in any season is rare, as celebrated travel writer Peter Mathieson discovered in The Snow Leopard, his award-winning account of his 1973 quest in search of one. “Its uncompromising yellow eyes, wired into the depths of its unfathomable spirit, gaze out from the cover of innumerable editions,” he writes. “It is, I think, the animal I would most like to be eaten by.”
“When I was a child I feared the shan,” recalls Norboo as we trek further up the valley. Hungry cats would occasionally snatch sheep, goats and baby yaks from his father’s livestock corrals during the night. “Some farmers would shoot them with old matchlock rifles,” he says. Such retaliatory killings – along with habitat loss, poaching for the illegal trade in snow leopard pelts and bones for medicinal purposes – put this once undisputed monarch of Central Asia’s mountains and steppes onto global critically endangered lists. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that only between four and seven thousand remain.
In 2000, a Ladakhi wildlife conservationist named Rinchen Wangchuck came to the rescue. Head of the Indian chapter of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, he first taught villagers how to build predator proof fences to protect their livestock in winter. He also created a successful livestock loss compensation program. And with a grant from UNESCO, launched an award-winning Himalayan Homestays program that provided basic rural hospitality and hygiene training and supplies to villagers interested in generating income from hosting tourists.
Eventually Wangchuck was able to convince many rural Ladakhis that snow leopards could be more beneficial to them alive than dead. And although he passed away in 2011, his dream of transforming Ladakh into ‘the snow leopard capital of the world’ is slowly becoming a reality. “By taking appropriate conservation steps we can ensure the snow leopard’s long-term survival,” says Wangchuck’s successor, Tsewang Namgall, adding that preserving iconic animals like the snow leopard, ibex and Tibetan wolf is becoming a source of pride for Ladakhis. Today, snow leopard numbers and sightings are up across Ladakh, attracting more adventurous tourists. Rural Ladakhi attitudes toward wildlife conservation are also changing as more locals benefit from tourism, finding work as homestay and tour operators, nature guides and wildlife spotters.
Rural Ladakis like Norboo, who first opened a homestay in the whitewashed mud-brick house he shares with his wife, Dolma. Seeing the potential of wildlife tourism, he then built the Snow Leopard Lodge. Kerosene heaters warm its cozy guestrooms and its communal spaces decorated with colorful woolen Ladakhi kilim rugs and ornate Tibetan furniture. Bustling with activity, its spacious kitchen lined with copper pots offers an authentic taste of Ladakhi hospitality, serving hearty traditional dishes like thupka (noodle soup with chunks of yak meat), momos (Tibetan dumplings) and skyu (vegetable stew). All washed down with sweet yak butter tea.
Ullay is a half a day’s drive from Ladakh’s capital of Leh, where I spend two days acclimatizing at the Grand Dragon Hotel after my one-hour flight from Delhi – the recommended minimum to avoid potentially fatal altitude sickness. Surrounded by impressive gompas (monasteries) dating back over a millennium, this ancient town of 30,000 is a fascinating introduction to Ladakh, which only started accepting foreign tourists in 1974. Predominantly Buddhist, Leh has much more in common culturally and ethnically with
neighboring Tibet than with the rest of India. A long-abandoned royal palace said to have been the model for Lhasa’s Potala dominates its labyrinth of steep, winding streets and bustling bazaars. Its grey stone walls are a ghostly reminder of Ladakh’s former importance as a major trading center along the Silk Road that ran through the Karakoram Range.
From Leh, the road to Ullay follows the sacred Indus River (from which India derives its name) to the town of Nimmu, where it intersects with Ladakh’s other major waterway, the Zanskar River. The increasingly narrow mountain track then veers north past the village of Likir, home to one of Ladakh’s most famous gompas. Finally, it winds up a series of dizzyingly steep switchbacks bordered by precipitous cliffs and into snow leopard country.
I had planned to spend the next few days exploring Ullay and its neighboring valleys, tracking wildlife on foot and by SUV with Norboo. But the Himalayas have other ideas. Shortly after we return from our initial trek, an unseasonably harsh late season blizzard dumps the largest amount of snow seen here in half a century. During lulls in the storm I venture as far as I dare from the lodge, wading through thigh deep snow to photograph this tableau of rural Himalayan life. On one outing I spot a pair of Ibex nimbly climbing toward a summit and wonder if a hungry leopard crouches, ready to pounce. Another time, I lie in the snow staring at the amphitheater of austere peaks surrounding me, reflecting on my insignificance amid such elemental indifference.
Returning to the lodge one afternoon as the last rays of fading sunlight dapple a distant mountain range, I curl up by a kerosene heater to watch a video of a pair of snow leopards Norboo recorded using a non-invasive motion-triggered remote infrared camera. Unaware of its presence, they stare into the lens, their white-gray coats spotted with large black rosettes almost luminescent in the moonlight. Then one suddenly pounces on an ibex carcass, savagely ripping off strips of flesh. It’s a primal scene I had hoped to witness in person. But the Himalayas have another, greater lesson for me. Acceptance.
As he wistfully recounts in The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen never met the mythical creature whose ‘terrible beauty’ he envisioned as ‘the very stuff of human longing.’ But his Buddhist faith led him to accept the world for what it was rather than what he desired it to be. “No! Isn’t that wonderful?” Matthiessen replied when asked if he had seen a snow leopard. In the end, it didn’t matter because the journey mattered, not the outcome. As does mine, bolstered by the hope that by travelling to faraway lands like Ladakh in search of snow leopards we can contribute to the preservation of the Grey Ghosts of the Himalayas.
“The land looks like a fairytale,” wrote Roald Amundsen about Antarctica.
“Great God, this is an awful place!” countered Robert Falcon Scott, Amundsen’s doomed rival in their race to the South Pole.
Both explorers got it right. The world’s coldest, highest, windiest and driest continent is both starkly beautiful and beautifully stark, truly a land of extremes. One that continually reminds you of your existential insignificance in the face of such an immensity of ice and snow and rock.
As adventure writer Jon Krakauer wrote, “Antarctica has this mythic weight. It resides in the collective unconscious of so many people, and it makes this huge impact, just like outer space. It’s like going to the moon.”
All of which makes exploring the fringes of the frozen continent a dream journey for adventurous travelers. But one that for most involves a stomach-churning crossing — the notoriously tempestuous Drake Passage between the southern tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula. The Drake Shake, as this dreaded body of water is nicknamed, has turned many an otherwise intrepid adventurer into a retching wreck.
Luckily there’s an easier option that slices several days and untold high-seas misery out of an Antarctic voyage. You can soar over Cape Horn and the Drake on a two-hour flight from the southern Chile port city of Punta Arenas to King George Island off the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Offered by Antarctica XXI, the first adventure tour operator to sell an air cruise to the bottom of the world, it’s perfect for time-challenged travelers and the seasick-susceptible who still want to check Antarctica off of their bucket lists.
As I exit the Antarctic Airways jet on barren King George Island, a rush of frigid polar air fills my lungs. No customs formalities or immigration lines await on this windswept outpost shared by Chile’s Frei and Russia’s Bellingshausen scientific stations. There’s just a cluster of drab buildings and a transplanted Russian Orthodox church perched on a distant hill.
Several Zodiac boats are ready to ferry us to the 68-passenger expedition vessel M/V Ocean Nova anchored in the harbor. Built in Denmark in 1992 to navigate the ice-choked waters of Greenland, its reinforced hull is ideally suited for expedition travel in Antarctica.
The Ocean Nova makes a five-day voyage between the South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula’s finger of land, the continent’s most accessible, scenic and wildlife-rich region. It’s the migratory home to tens of thousands of seabirds, penguins, seals and whales. Its knife-edged fjords are lined by snowy mountains rising straight out of the inky ocean filled with treacherous pack ice and tabular icebergs as big as aircraft carriers.
Standing on deck beneath a midnight summer sun, I gaze toward Terra Australis Incognita, the unknown land of the South. Covered by a miles-thick ice cap roughly the size of the United States containing 90 percent of the world’s fresh water, the world’s largest desert was the only continent fully imagined millennia before it was discovered.
The ancient Greeks’ fascination with symmetry convinced them that a continent must exist at the bottom of the world massive enough to counterbalance the Northern Hemisphere’s land. They called the top of the world Arktikos, which means “near the bear,” after the constellation Ursa Major. Its polar opposite they named Antarktikos.
The highlight of my Antarctic voyage — other than a jolting polar swim one morning in 70-knot winds that gives me a new appreciation of the word frigid — is the opportunity to embark in a sea kayak twice a day to explore the coastline and calmer waters found in bays and inlets.
“People talk about the serenity and being able to experience Antarctica at your own pace,” says the Ocean Nova’s kayaking guide, New Zealander Ben Jackson. “Kayaks offer you that next level of exploration. You feel more connected with the environment around you and have a zero impact presence on that environment.”
Only a handful of Ocean Nova’s passengers sign up for kayaking and we quickly bond as a team in our yellow survival suits. With daytime summer temperatures hovering around freezing, the suits are essential, as are basic paddling skills.
“You don’t need a world of experience to kayak in Antarctica, just the right attitude, enthusiasm and a sense of adventure,” assures Jackson. Age isn’t a barrier either. One of our group, 78-year-old Jean Luce, is a retired educator from Tempe, Ariz., who only learned to kayak at age 70.
“Initially there was an element of fear,” she admits, “and I said to myself, ‘I hope I can do this.’ But life is that way. You have to take risks.”
As the Ocean Nova sails into Mikkelsen Harbor at the northern end of the Palmer Archipelago, we gear up for our first polar paddle. Once used by whalers for mooring factory ships, Mikkelsen is home to a large Gentoo penguin colony, an unoccupied hut and a scattering of whaling remains. Boarding a Zodiac, we tow our kayaks past a pod of orcas on patrol before launching them in calm but still hypothermic waters.
After a few hesitant strokes, we fall into a comfortable rhythm and are soon gliding along the shoreline, inspecting skua nests tucked into the black cliffs above. Just after Jackson warns us to avoid paddling too close to smaller icebergs in our path, a kayak-swamping chunk from one plunges into the water nearby, dramatically punctuating his point.
Soon a pair of Weddell seals appears alongside our kayaks, popping their whiskery noses and puppyish eyes out of the water to study us. Since seals haven’t been hunted off Antarctica for generations, they aren’t afraid of humans. But keeping a respectful distance is still the rule, especially with the giant elephant seals we encounter onshore one morning at Yankee Harbor. These great barking beasts may look docile flopped out in the snow like giant sausages, but venture too close and they could rise up and bear down on you surprisingly rapidly given their ungainly shape.
Reaching Mikkelsen Harbor’s landing zone, we disembark to join our fellow passengers on terra firma where a tuxedoed welcoming committee awaits: dozens of Gentoo penguins busily going about their business of collecting stones for their nests.
Here, and on later close encounters with the Antarctic’s signature ambassadors, I marvel at the penguins’ utter disinterest in us as they waddle back and forth, always in a hurry and incessantly squawking. Seldom was a movie title more accurate than March of the Penguins.
Back aboard the Ocean Nova, the expedition staff delivers fascinating scientific lectures and tales of early explorers who first charted these waters, enduring unimaginable hardships. We also learn about Antarctica’s uncertain future, including the impact of climate change in this remotest part of the planet, which is warming at a more rapid rate than anywhere else on Earth. This truly is an educational adventure at the end of the world.
“What’s so impressive is that life is so adaptable everywhere, even in this harsh environment,” reflects passenger Mark Houston after one wildlife presentation. The retired petroleum industry professional from Austin says that what gives him hope for mankind are accomplishments like the Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959, which has held up largely because of the dedication of scientists and others to preserve this environment.
“The only other example of such cooperation I can think of is the International Space Station,” he says.
Late that evening, while I watch the nearly impurity-free Antarctic light reveal astonishingly vivid shades of white and blue within passing cathedrals of ice, another space reference comes to mind. Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s famous description of the lunar surface as magnificent desolation also applies to Antarctica, our last great wilderness, and the coolest continent on Earth.
Mark Sissons is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Canada.
Antarctica XXI’s eight-day, seven-night Classic Antarctica Air Cruise departs from Punta Arenas in southern Chile from the beginning of December till mid-February. The program includes flying to and from Antarctica by air, and cruising by ship along the Antarctic Peninsula. Per-person rates start at $10,795 for a triple and $11,595 for a twin shared cabin (antarcticaxxi.com). This writer booked through Montana-based Adventure Life (1-800-344-6118. adventure-life.com).
Published in the Globe and Mail
It has been called "the Olympics of modern art." Every other year since La Biennaledi Venezia was founded in 1895, the world's oldest and still arguably most prestigious contemporary art show takes over the Floating City – mesmerizing, inspiring and often baffling audiences with its global showcase of significant new works.
On until Nov. 26, the 2017 edition features artists representing more than 80 invited countries, including Canada's official entrant, Vancouver artist Geoffrey Farmer. Each national entry features new work specifically commissioned for the Biennale, displayed in national pavilions and eclectic exhibition spaces. Numerous collateral gallery shows, galas and workshops also occur, transforming this already famously artistic city into a temporary world capital of cutting-edge creativity and artistic frisson.
With so much bold, brilliant (and sometimes just plain wacky) modern art on display and so many new artists to discover – all housed in a labyrinthine city legendary for getting you lost – La Biennale can feel overwhelming at first, especially if you're trying to fit it in between requisite tours of the Doge's Palace and Piazza San Marco, selfie-stick photo ops on the Rialto Bridge and that sunset gondola ride along the Grand Canal. Here are a few suggestions on how to tackle La Biennale in a day or two.
Stick to the park and shipyard
Most of La Biennale's artistic action conveniently occurs within the confines of IlGiardini, the tranquil gardens originally created on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte after he conquered the Republic of Venice in 1797, and in the nearby Arsenale, Venice's massive former military dockyard. Both are about a 20-minute walk along Venice's waterfront from Piazza San Marco.
And both are blissfully far from the madding crowds of cruise-ship passengers who pour into Venice by the thousands on a daily basis.
Il Giardini hosts La Biennale's Central Pavilion, along with 29 of its more than 80 national pavilions, all built by participating countries. This year, they contain new work by well-established modern-art stars such as British sculptor Phyllida Barlow, German performance artist Anne Imhof (winner of La Biennale's top prize, the Golden Lion), Australian photographer Tracey Moffatt and African-American abstractionist Mark Bradford, as well as many other established and emerging contemporary artists.
Occupying nearly 50 waterfront hectares, the Arsenale's massive complex of former shipyards and armouries was once the world's largest naval production centre. Thousands of workers toiled here to produce a warship a day during the middle part of the second millennium AD. Today, the cavernous stone interiors of its 14th-century Corderie (rope factory) serve as the austere setting for several major Biennale installations, including some that fall within 2017's main theme: Viva Art Viva.
Conceived by La Biennale's curator, Christine Macel, chief curator at the Muséed'Art Moderne in Paris, Viva Art Viva links nine interconnected "trans pavilions." The show within a show begins in Il Giardini's central pavilion (the former Padiglione Italia) and flows through the Arsenale's Corderie before ending in the gardens at the end of the complex. Promising to take spectators on "a journey from interiority to infinity," it features a multigenerational collection of artists from all over the world, their work unfolding in spaces meant to resemble chapters in a saga with names such as Arts and Books, Hopes and Fears, Traditions, Shamans, Colours and Time and Infinity.
Among Viva Art Viva's highlights are a controversial project by Danish-Icelandic artists Olafur Eliasson and Francesca von Habsburg that invites the audience to work alongside African refugees as they build lamps, a video documenting U.S. choreographer Anna Halprin's 1981 Planetary Dance hilltop gathering in Marin County and a giant tent created by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto enclosing a recreation of a Cupixawa, the ceremonial gathering place for Brazil's Indigenous Huni Kuin people living deep within the Amazon forests.
Summer in Venice can be an absolute scorcher. To beat the heat, head to IlGiardini's Canadian pavilion, wedged between perennial Biennale titans Germany and Great Britain. Currently under a $3-million renovation to be completed after the 2017 Biennale is over, our diminutive home base has been compared to, among other things, a wigwam and a Parks Canada information centre.
Geoffrey Farmer was given virtual carte blanche to rip its walls and windows up and fill the space with his intensely personal installation, intersecting diverse stories of collision and reconciliation, entitled A way out of the mirror.
Commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada and produced in partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts, Farmer's concept was initially inspired by old photographs he discovered of a 1955 collision between a train and a lumber truck driven by his paternal grandfather – 71 brass planks scattered on the floor represent the scene of the accident.
Other items include 3-D-printed sculptures cast in aluminum and bronze and a replica of the steam clock in Vancouver's Gastown.
In his poignant exhibit, Farmer intersperses stories of Italian-Canadian relations after the Second World War with intimate memories of his own familial trauma, overlaid with the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, and of Inuit teenagers residing in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. Water, in the form of a geyser intermittently spouting in the centre of the space, is a central theme meant to represent the "fountain of knowledge" that connects all of these elements.
For some midday visitors, it's also a refreshing dose of cool mist.
Why waste precious time standing in line to buy single tickets on the day when you can order a Biennale pass online in advance? Valid for 48 hours from first use, passes let you enter and exit the main Giardini and Arsenale exhibition venues as many times as you like. So when your senses get overloaded, you can flee and chill lagoon side without feeling like you need to take everything in at once. Or choose to explore more national exhibits in opulent palazzi, churches, museums, monasteries and all manner of fabulous and far-out venues throughout the city.
Also consider the day, as most La Biennale pavilions and exhibits are closed on Mondays, but those in the Arsenale stay open an extra two hours, till 8 p.m., on Friday and Saturday until the end of September. Weekends, especially long ones, can be very crowded. Every Friday and Saturday during the Biennale, Il Giardini and the Arsenale both host lunchtime events called Tavola Aperta, where the public has the opportunity to break bread and talk art, life, love and the deeper meaning of it all with a variety of Biennale artists.
Some art cognoscenti prefer 2017's other two important international contemporary art shows – Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and Art Basel in Switzerland – over La Biennale. But you can't beat Venice as a singularly beautiful backdrop. This lagoon archipelago of 118 islands intersected by about 150 canals connected by more than 400 bridges was the capital of the Serenissima Venetian Republic for more than 1,000 years.
It's tempting to lose yourself in the city's romantic maze of canals and twisting backstreets, where around nearly every corner awaits another medieval or renaissance masterpiece, or a tiny family-run trattoria, bacari or espresso bar. And why not – after a day or two spent digesting La Biennale's present-tense artistic provocations – surrender your senses to a break with a good old fashioned dose of la dolce vita in this city of timeless beauty.
A figure by Francis Upritchard.
IF YOU GO
Biennale hours and tickets
Il Giardini is open, except most Mondays, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Arsenale, also closed on most Mondays, is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, and to 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Biennale tickets, including special 48-hour multiple-entry passes, can be purchased online at labiennale.vivaticket.it.
Where to stay
Accommodation in Venice can be scarily expensive, especially during the summer high season. An affordable, more relaxed alternative to high-priced hotel rooms that can land you in off-the-beaten-path neighbourhoods is reserving an apartment through booking.com.
2015 was an annus horribilis for Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. In July the killing of photogenic park resident Cecil the lion by a trophy mad Minnesota dentist became a global media sensation. Then in early October cyanide poisoning killed around 40 elephants. Later that month, the heartbreaking news broke of the gruesome killings of 22 more elephants, including several babies, allegedly slaughtered by a syndicate of Zimbabwean police officers, Hwange park rangers and Chinese ivory smugglers.
On a continent where 100,000 elephants were killed from 2011 to 2013, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, such poaching incidents are becoming all too familiar. Tanzania alone has lost over 50% of its pachyderm population over the past five years, as has neighbouring Mozambique. The illegal wildlife trade is now a $20-billion annual industry, according to Public Radio International.
Before the Cecil saga, Zimbabwe’s oldest and largest park – a 14,600 square kilometer swath of Kalahari sandveld, Zambezi teak forests and arid savannah that is home to over 100 species of mammals and over 400 bird species – was most famous as home to some of Africa’s largest elephant herds. Numbering around 46,000, they are – along with Botswana’s vast herds – part of the world’s largest contiguous elephant population inhabiting the Kavango Zambezi Trans Frontier Conservation Area. During the dry season from June to November they congregate by the hundreds around the park’s waterholes in a daily cycle that runs from morning until well into the night.
Observing Hwange’s elephants up close from one of the semi-buried shipping containers disguised as termite hills that serve as hides or “Look Ups”, you see tangles of tusks and trunks jostling for the chance to drink the cool, clean borehole water. Dumbo-eared babies snuggling against their mothers’ legs, waving their miniature trunks in the air. Testosterone driven bulls dueling for dominance. Proud matriarchs trumpeting their arrival, clearing a path to their rightful place at the water’s edge.
Normally scenes that safari dreams are made of. But in the case of Hwange, that dream has become a nightmare. The park’s elephant herds may be one of the world's most amazing wildlife spectacles, but each dry season this giant population is pushing the park closer to a crisis point. Prolonged periods of drought, increased human encroachment and decades old reliance on artificial water supplies have created catastrophic effects in the park that threaten its elephants, along with many other species. Until a humane solution is found for Hwange’s elephant overpopulation problem, it will remain a park in peril.
Hwange National Park's elephant overpopulation crisis is reaching a crisis point.
“I’ve watched elephants die of hunger and thirst. It’s not a pretty sight,” says Mark Butcher, a former game ranger turned safari operator who has invited me to spend a week with him traversing Hwange as he delivers fuel and supplies to the diesel powered pumps that keep its elephants alive. I will also spend time with an anti-poaching squad and visit some of Mark’s camps, including a new one he has set up in a remote part of the park notorious as the site of a series of 2013 poaching incidents that left some 300 elephants dead.
Few know Hwange better than Mark Butcher. Lanky and lean, with a white David Niven moustache, this son of a fourth generation Zimbabwean farmer embarked on a wildlife career in 1979 as a ranger for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management. He then completed a BSc in Zoology and Botany at Rhodes University before working for Zimbabwe’s Forestry Commission, where he was responsible for all the wildlife within 1.8-million acres of indigenous forest. In the mid 1990s Mark started building safari lodges and camps in and around Hwange and nearby Victoria Falls. His company, Imvelo Safari Lodges, is now one of Zimbabwe’s leading operators, winning numerous industry awards for its ethical practises and community involvement.
While admitting that continuing to rely on pumping water is not a viable long-term solution, Mark says he has no intention of shutting down the pumps until one is found. “We created this water problem with the best of intentions and we’ve appointed ourselves to be the caretakers of these animals,” he says. “Now we are morally obliged to sort it out. We can’t just turn off the taps and walk away from it.”
Unlike most of Africa’s great parks, Hwange has no lakes or major rivers running through it, which made it a relatively poor location for a major game reserve when it was created in 1928. Its elephants and other wildlife tended to migrate away from the park annually in search of water, often coming into conflict with ever expanding human populations. Then Hwange’s original warden, 22-year old Ted Davidson, had the ingenious idea to build windmills to pump water during the dry season so the elephants didn't have to migrate. The park’s elephants flourished under Davidson’s legacy of protection and year round access to water within the park. Within a decade their population doubled, and continued to grow at an astonishing 5% per annum. Even as their massive daily diet of up to 600lbs of leaves, grass and shrubs began to impact the environment, particularly during the dry season, their birth rates showed no sign of decline. Hwange was on its way to becoming the elephant capital of the world.
Nearly sixty years after Ted Davison installed his first windmill, Mark Butcher established his first lodge within the communal tribal lands bordering the park. At the time, chronically understaffed and underfunded National Parks was struggling to pump the now critical water supplies. Due to financial constraints, it had been forced to shut down a number of pumps. As Hwange’s elephants and other wildlife struggled for water and their conditions deteriorated, Mark and several fellow safari operators decided to reopen and maintain the pumps that National Parks had abandoned. At one point they even tried installing solar powered pumps but thieves kept stealing the valuable panels. So diesel it was. And will be, says Mark, until a theft-proof solar solution can be devised.
Over the years solutions to Hwange’s elephant overpopulation problem have been tried and discarded. Mass contraception was considered but ultimately deemed medically unfeasible and far too expensive to implement for such an enormous population. Translocation on a large enough scale to make a real dent in elephant numbers was ruled out because of the massive logistics required. Once considered a practical solution, culling is no longer an acceptable option. And letting ‘nature take its course’ by simply shutting off the water supply, as wildlife experts like the University of Pretoria’s Rudi J van Aarde have recommended, would almost certainly lead to mass death, with thousands of elephant bodies left to rot in the bush.
The killing of a single lion was harmful enough to Hwange’s image. Imagine how scenes of such an elephant apocalypse would play across the world. Horrified tourists would stop coming to Hwange, its safari camps would eventually close, hundreds locals would lose their jobs and the park would be ultimately left even more vulnerable than it presently is to widespread poaching.
Communities bordering Hwange often lack for basic infrastructure like classrooms.
After spending my first night in Hwange at Imvelo’s flagship Camelthorn Lodge, a cluster of luxurious bungalows tucked into a woodland area on the southeastern edge of the park, I’m eager to visit my first waterhole and see for myself the state of Hwange’s elephants. But before we embark, Mark has arranged for me to ‘meet the neighbours’, as he refers to the regular visits Imvelo offers its guests to nearby villages. Today, we will spend the morning at Ngamo (pop. 400) located within the Tsholotsho communal land adjacent to Hwange’s southeastern boundary.
During the half hour drive across the meandering sandy tracks that serve as roads around here Mark tells me that his involvement with neighbouring villages like Ngamo began with a government-sponsored program that supported local community involvement in tourism and wildlife conservation called CAMPFIRE, an acronym for Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources. “We had these impoverished communities out here living next door to this very valuable natural resource called wildlife,” explains Mark. “But they had no vested interest in keeping the animals found on their ancestral lands alive because they received no benefits from them.”
First, Mark convinced ‘frontline’ villages like Ngamo in these human wildlife conflict zones to let him build safari lodges on their lands. Then he started weaning them off of their wholesale slaughter of park animals like lions and elephants that threatened to their survival by killing their livestock, raiding their crops and terrorizing their villages. This included offering communities most burdened by living next to wildlife financial incentives to not kill these animals – providing jobs in his lodges, digging village wells, building schools and supporting medical and dental care. To date, Imvelo has ploughed over US$ 1.5 million into local communities like Ngamo to ensure the local people are benefiting directly from tourism. “It’s about the concept of a cat like Cecil being more valuable in the long run alive than he is dead,” says Mark. In other words, to use a phrase I’ve often heard in Africa’s game reserves, ‘if it pays, it stays.’
Johnson Ncube, agrees. A grandfather who lives with his extended family in a tidy walled compound, he is Ngamo’s ‘headman’, or hereditary leader. “In the past I would simply assign someone in the village to deal with a problem lion,” he tells me as we sit drinking tea in his open-air kitchen, adding that all too often the resulting attempt to poison a single offender would wipe out the whole pride. Now he says he no longer approves of anyone from Ngamo killing a lion like Cecil because he understands that wildlife are more valuable to his people alive than dead. Hwange’s elephants, however, present a far greater challenge than the occasional hungry lion.
“We would love to conserve the elephants because they bring us tourists but their numbers are just too much for this park,” he says. “They come over the park fence and into our village day and night. If something is not done there won’t be any food for them or the other animals.” Johnson is quick to assure me that local poaching is now under control, although foreign poachers are still killing the elephants. “Local people have stopped poaching because they know that whatever is happening here is because of these animals,” he says. “We need them. Otherwise, no tourists will visit our country.”
“If someone helps you offer education to your people, you take advantage of it because our children can't do anything without education,” says Johnson as we tour his newly installed chicken coops. He is referring to Ngamo Primary School, our final ‘village visit’ stop. Classes for approximately 300 children are conducted either in sturdy cement school blocks or on the ground under a shady acacia tree. With donations from guests, Imvelo paid for the construction of two of these classrooms, along with furniture, electricity, water and books. The teachers are now housed in comfortable electrified cottages, also funded by Imvelo.
“I remember visiting here in the late 1980’s when the school consisted of just a few very old buildings with collapsing roofs, dirt floors, very few desks and major cracks in the walls,” Mark recalls as we drive from Johnson’s house to the school. “There was just one teacher here then. The kids used to huddle in a shadow as it moved across the classroom wall to escape the heat." Along the way we stop to give a ride to a group of children in their burgundy school uniforms. “Many of these kids walk well over ten kilometres to and from school each day,” Mark says. “Some, especially the smaller ones who don’t have enough food at home for a proper breakfast, are exhausted by the time they reach class, making it much harder for them to concentrate.”
To address this issue, Imvelo is helping to provide free school lunches. According to headmaster Moyo Mthenjwa, it is already making a huge impact. “You’ll find almost 100% class attendance now that we’re feeding these children,” he says as we observe form one students lining up for their daily bowl of beans, collard greens and sadza (cooked cornmeal that is the staple food in Zimbabwe and other parts of southern Africa). After lunch, I watch a group of little ones gather in a circle beneath an acacia tree to sing ‘He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands’ with their teacher. Some of these children are so-called AIDS orphans. “As a community we take them in,” Mthenjwa says. “And with the help of Imvelo we buy them school uniforms and make sure they get some education, clothing and food. You have no choice. You see these children and you have to help them.”
Water pumped from underground sources has long sustained Hwange's elephants.
Following our Ngamo village visit, Mark and I set out to explore some of Hwange’s most wild, remote and seldom visited areas. The southern two thirds of the park is ecologically defined by deep Kalahari sands, which support impressive forests of Zambezi teak and other hardwoods. Scattered within these woodlands are ancient fossil lakebeds and drainage lines, which are now large savannah grasslands fringed with Acacia and Leadwood trees. Northern Hwange is distinctly different from the south, drained by the Lukosi and Deka Sand Rivers, dominated by Mopane woodlands, and even hills and kopjes. A fascinating feature of this region are natural seeps with names like Nehimba and Shakwanki where elephants and other wildlife still dig for water, as did the San people who once inhabited Hwange.
“I’ve seen people watch all of these elephants standing around drinking and think it’s wonderful. What they don’t understand is that these animals are at the absolute end of their tethers,” says Mark as we watch a herd of elephants gather at a sandy waterhole beneath a huge Leadwood tree. This is the first stop on the ‘Pump Run”, a hands-on activity open to Imvelo’s more adventurous guests. Traversing the park in his land cruiser, we will deliver fuel and supplies to the network of diesel pumps that keeps the water flowing and the elephants alive.
As we watch the herd drink, I see seriously stressed bulls jostling for a place to drink, aggressively swinging their tusks at one another. Skin hangs from their alarmingly thin torsos. Their skulls are sunken with dehydration and their ribs protrude. Weary mothers search frantically for feeble calves that have fallen behind on the kilometres long march between watering holes. A skeletal old matriarch trumpets and bellows, then leans her bony head against a tree. Under a broiling midday sun the stench of decay and death is in the air. Some of these poor creatures will not live to see the coming of the rains.
Mark calls these diesel pumps the true ‘heartbeat of Hwange’ because they keep the park’s elephants and other wildlife alive for months on end. As we pull up to another waterhole a young man named Oscar dressed in a tattered Zimbabwe national football team jersey emerges from his tin shack to greet the boss, or bwana. Mark smiles, chatting fluently with him in Ndebele while instructing the two Imvelo employees he has brought along to start syphoning diesel fuel from the truck’s tanks into a ten-gallon drum. “These guys from the local villages, they’re Hwange’s true unsung heroes,” Mark tells me as we unload oil and filters for the pump, plus rations for Oscar, who is manning it alone while his partner is on leave.
Once hired, pump attendants are deployed to isolated waterholes where they live in tin huts near their pumps. They start work at the end of the rains and finish at the start of the next rains six months later, spending the day monitoring their pump and keeping a lookout for any signs of poaching activity. Just before sundown they cook their dinners of sadza, beans and kapenta (a type of sardine) over campfires and then lock themselves into their tin huts, away from prowling lions. It’s a lonely, tedious existence but a job highly prized in a country with so few of them. “A lot of these pump attendants tell me that they are ok with being far away from their villages for so long at a time because it forces them to save money,” Mark says.
Arriving at the next pump located on a parched plain called Secheche, we spot a long line of elephants slowly marching toward us across the savannah. But this pump is broken and no water will flow until it can be fixed in a day or two. Then I witness an extraordinary sight – dozens of thirsty, exhausted elephants arriving at the waterhole only to discover it bone dry and no sound of a pump running. Trumpeting in frustration, they fuss about angrily, looking our way as if to say, ‘hey, what the hell is going on with the water?’
“When we get compound problems like running out of diesel and the pumps leaking and engines breaking down at the same time, it’s just a train smash,” says Mark in frustration as we watch an emaciated calf struggle to keep up with its mother. Soon they give up and move on to the next waterhole, several kilometres distant. The heartbreaking image of an undernourished calf stumbling to keep up with the departing herd lingers with me long after this parched procession is gone. Where they are headed next will be already overcrowded with other herds. It’s a domino affect of problems.
Every dry season thirst and hunger takes an increasingly heavy toll on Hwange's wildlife.
Our final pump run stop is near a new Imvelo camp called Jozibanini in the Dzivanini wilderness area in the southwest corner of Hwange. Seldom visited, this is a truly wild land of wind blown fossil sand dunes and Zambezi teak forests where roads of any kind cease to exist. Jozibanini was once the site of a ranger station. But after Zimbabwe’s post millennium economic meltdown the funds required to maintain it dried up and this far-flung outpost was abandoned. Then, in 2013, industrial scale poaching returned to the area when up to 300 elephants were poisoned here over several months – reportedly the largest massacre of wildlife in southern Africa in the past quarter century.
In 2014, Imvelo took over an old lease in this area and built a small camp here consisting of three large canvas tents on raised teak platforms under the Acacia trees overlooking Jozibanini pan. It feels as off the grid as any camp I’ve ever visited in a decade of going on African safaris. “We wanted to reestablish a permanent presence in this neglected area after the 2013 poaching incident here, partly to help prevent another mass slaughter,” Mark explains as we sit around the camp’s fire pit after dinner. “Sure, you might get away with one or two, but then we’re going to find out and nail you.”
National Parks has since established a new ranger base not far away, and the increased eyes and ears on the ground in remote places like Jozibanini, along with increase cooperation from nearby villages, is making it harder for poachers to operate easily in secrecy. The animals, including elephants, are starting to return thanks to the resurrection of pumped water. On a mountain biking ride the next morning with Mark down the ancient elephant paths that run for miles and miles in this part of Hwange I spot lion, hyena and even spotted wild dog tracks. It’s an encouraging sign in this long forgotten quarter of the park that was left to the poachers for nearly twenty years.
Patrolling Hwange National Park with members of the Scorpions, an anti-poaching unit.
The two men Mark has brought on our pump run actually used to be poachers. Solomon Sibanda was poaching to feed his family back in 2004 when Mark and some park rangers caught him running snare lines with another local man, Japhet Mlilo. They were eventually convicted and incarcerated in Bulawayo Prison. “Jail was very, very tough,” recalls Solomon, looking into the fire’s glowing embers. “There wasn’t enough food so my family had to bring it.”
Solomon’s colleague, Melusi “Zebra” Mabhena, says he resorted to snaring animals to survive during Zimbabwe’s post 2000 era of violent land invasions, hyperinflation and economic apocalypse. Fearing arrest, he escaped and fled Zimbabwe, swimming across the Limpopo River into South Africa like so many of his desperate countrymen. He remained in exile for four years, occasionally working illegally, struggling to send money home to his wife and four children. “ It was a hard life and I eventually returned from South Africa and found a job with Mr. Butcher,” he recalls. “He kept me on even after I admitted to have once been a poacher.”
After Solo and Zebra retire to their tents for the night, Mark explains that he hired them both, along with Japhet and other ex-poachers, because he was concerned that they were going to go back to poaching. “I knew them to be smart guys and hard workers, not gangsters or thugs. Now they all have money to take care of their families without resorting to poaching.”
Like Solomon and Zebra, some of the members of an anti-poaching squad I go on patrol with a couple of days later likely also once did what they had to do to feed their families. Sponsored by an NGO and Hwange safari operators like Imvelo, the Scorpions were formed in 2009 and trained by the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) to help deliver a lethal sting to anyone snaring and killing animals in Hwange. For the past decade professional poaching syndicates have been focusing primarily on East Africa. But with dwindling numbers of elephants in that region their attention is now turning to countries like Zimbabwe , and parks like Hwange, that still have healthy elephant populations.
Two of the Scorpions I’m with were originally hunting safari trackers. The rest are local villagers from impoverished communities ringing the park who say they simply wanted to help out. Some may have even once been poachers themselves. All went through a weeklong selection process packed with grueling mental and physical tests. Out of 48 candidates, 11 were chosen. For some of these men, anti-poaching is more than a paying job in a country with few opportunities. “I love animals very much and I’m very proud of what we’re doing, protecting and preserving wildlife,” says 42-year old Collet Ndlovu as we set out just after dawn from the Scorpions’ basecamp, a cluster of tin roofed huts called Wexau.
Fanning out across the parched bush, we search for crude, noose-like wire snares placed on the pathway of park animals, as well as any other signs of illegal activity. Fittingly, Ndlovu means ‘elephant’ in Ndebele, rendering taboo the very notion of poaching one. “This was the African peoples’ way of preserving their wildlife in the time before the conservationists”, he explains. “ If my name is elephant I’m forbidden to eat elephants. Instead, I am supposed to protect them."
The Elephant Express operates along a once-abandoned railway line running through Hwange.
After walking through the bush all morning with the Scorpions, I look forward to hopping aboard one of Hwange’s highlights. Imvelo’s Elephant Express is a private rail car linking the park’s mountainous northern sector with the flat, arid Ngamo plains. It runs along the same railway line along the northeastern boundary of Hwange built just after the turn of the last century that crosses the bridge at Victoria Falls. Built from scratch with typical Zimbabwean ingenuity in a Bulawayo workshop using a Coaster bus chassis and two Toyota land cruiser engines and gearboxes, this safari on rails seats up to 24 passengers in its two open carriages. Designed to be able to travel either forwards or backwards comfortably at over 80 kilometres per hour, it runs along the arrow straight railway line forming the eastern border of the park.
Today is the Elephant Express’s hundredth run and the champagne is flowing. Passing herds of kudu, buffalo and giraffe, we roll along smoothly, stopping every few kilometres to let elephants and giraffes cross the tracks. Halfway along the route we stop at a siding beside a small cluster of huts and what appears to be a workshop half hidden in the bush just outside the park. “That’s the hunting camp where they skinned and beheaded Cecil,” says Mark. Obscured by underbrush, a man appears to be slicing up the carcass of a large animal with a machete. As I snap a photo Mark tells me that hunting on this old farm boarding the park is banned. “I’m going to call this one in,” he says, pulling out his cellphone and dialling park headquarters to report this suspicious activity.
The story of Cecil’s murder began with an unscrupulous hunting guide named Theo Bronkhorst obtaining a permit to kill a single ‘problem ‘lion that was stalking livestock in a communal area far from the park. Unable to locate that lion for his wealthy American client, Walter Palmer, Bronkhorst brought him here with the intention of luring a lion out of the park instead. After a swift kill they planned to return to the area where he had obtained the permit and claim to have killed the lion there. Bronkhorst’s bait and switch scheme might well have worked except for one inconvenient glitch – Cecil was wearing a satellite collar.
As soon as the Palmer shot Cecil with his crossbow, the NGO monitoring Cecil’s movements noticed something was amiss, notified park officials of a possible poaching incident and dispatched a search party. Palmer and Bronkhorst might still have gotten away with the poaching had they made a clean kill. But Cecil survived for at least another day, giving park rangers enough time to catch the culprits red handed beheading their prize at this camp. That Palmer will likely never be held accountable for what he should have known was an illegal act of poaching underscores Zimbabwe’s aversion to scaring off wealthy foreign trophy hunters who inject relatively huge amounts of money into its shambolic, chronically corrupt economy.
It might be too late for lions like Cecil and those poisoned elephants, but I like to think that tens of thousands more creatures that depend for their survival on Hwange’s diesel pumps may yet stand a chance as long as elephant men like Mark Butcher are around. As we exit the park en route to our final two stops at his lodges near Victoria Falls and along the Zambezi, he watches another herd heading toward water. “If we could find a few million dollars we could probably bring enough scientific minds together to come up with a solution to this problem,” he says. “One that hopefully doesn’t simply involve pumping more water for more elephants.” Perhaps Hwange National Park will eventually solve its elephant overpopulation crisis to again be the envy of Africa for its great herds of gentle giants. Until then, there seems to me only one humane course of action. The flow must go on.
One waterhole pump can keep up to 1000 elephants alive per year in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park.
South African Airways and British Airways fly from Johannesburg to both Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) and Livingstone (Zambia), while regional carrier Airlinkflies direct to Livingstone and Bulawayo. Transfers to lodges can be arranged.
Imvelo Safari Lodges has three well-appointed lodges and an adventure camp in Hwange, along with two lodges located close to nearby Victoria Falls.
Wildlife viewing is best between May and November when Hwange’s animals congregate around the park’s many waterholes.
Learn more about Imvelo’s conservation efforts and the plight of Hwange’s elephants at the
View more photos taken during my 2015 visit to Hwange National Park.
Published in the Globe and Mail.
“This ain’t no floating gin palace taken out by some millionaire twice a season for sundowners.” So says veteran English skipper Tony McBride as he pilots our ocean-racing yacht, Spirit of Juno, through Antigua’s historic Falmouth Harbour. The Farr 65 was originally designed and built to compete in the legendary Millennium Round the World Yacht Race, and Juno is still one of the fastest yachts afloat.
Admiral Nelson once moored his fleet in Antigua, launching sorties from here against marauding Caribbean pirates. Well over two centuries on, the captain and crew of Juno are sailing into another battle – the annual round-the-island race kicking off Antigua Sailing Week. The Caribbean’s longest-running and most famous ocean yacht regatta celebrates 50 years in 2017 and draws professional crews from more than 20 countries – along with a few nautical neophytes like me.
Tucked between Montserrat and St. Barts in the eastern Caribbean’s Leeward Islands, lush, languorous Antigua is blessed with 365 sand-sculpted, reef-lined beaches – famously one for every day of the year. It also offers some of the Caribbean’s finest sailing conditions, with year-round temperatures of around 27 C and steady easterly breezes blowing at close to 20 knots in high season.
Yachting has an illustrious history on Antigua, and the island’s prime winter racing season features prestigious international events such as the Caribbean 600, Superyacht Cup, Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta and Antigua Sailing Week.
“Today we’re racing against some serious crews, but don’t worry about them,” cautions skipper McBride during our prerace briefing. “Above all, stay focused on our boat and your role.“
How did I get here, cast in a real life Rolex commercial? Amazingly, I’m just two days into on-the-water basic training provided by Ondeck Antigua, which offers a five-day Royal Yachting Association-certified sailing course designed to teach beginners the minimum level of seamanship and helmsmanship required to be a useful member of a racing yacht’s crew. And they teach much of it aboard boats like Juno.
Arriving at the starting line half a mile offshore, Juno aggressively jockeys for pole position with 11 other yachts. Among them are several that have competed in the America’s Cup, the Super Bowl of ocean-yacht racing.
“I’m bullying these other boats, swinging purposefully close to them – like jousting – keeping them out of our space,” shouts our burly, wind-burned commander as Juno wildly swerves within a few metres of our foes, tacking, jibing, trying to steal their wind in a very expensive game of high-stakes, high-seas chicken.
From Vancouver’s Spanish Banks, I’ve often watched gleaming yachts – their mainsails billowing as they escaped their terrestrial tethers – and wondered what it must feel like to be aboard. Three days ago, I couldn’t tell a jibe from a juniper bush. Now, I’m crewing in an oceanic Grand Prix as Juno rounds the first race marker of this 100-kilometre long regatta. It’s the nautical equivalent of journalist George Plimpton tending goal for the Boston Bruins.
It’s a high-pressure, sink-or-swim environment aboard our floating classroom as we scramble – often with slapstick results – to execute on McBride’s terse instructions. I soon discover the key to successful ocean-yacht crewing is doing one job aboard and doing it well. Our captain has divided us into pairs assigned to haul, hoist, trim and – above all – keep one another from falling overboard as Juno slices through often-choppy waters.
It may be all hands on deck, but we’re mostly all thumbs as the race unfolds. One unfortunate landlubber, a twentysomething real estate agent from London, succumbs to seasickness and spends most of the race vomiting off the stern. Another, a middle-aged businessman from Minnesota, frantically cranks the jib sheet winch so hard that he accidentally inflates his personal flotation device, sending him reeling across the deck. Sunscreen splattered bodies scramble from port to starboard, stern to bow.
In ocean-yacht racing, as in most high-octane sports, timing is everything. Or, in Juno’s case, bad timing as we near the halfway mark of the race. Rounding another marker, skipper McBride orders the spinnaker sail dropped and the triangular jib sail fixed to the bow raised in one co-ordinated action designed to maintain our course and velocity. But disaster strikes as the half-hoisted jib becomes tangled. Then the twisting spinnaker gets away from the crew desperately trying to haul it in and snaps violently back into the water. It takes nearly the entire crew to finally heave and haul it out of the sea. Meanwhile, a rip appears in the flapping jib, rendering it useless. With only the mainsail left to power her, Juno is now virtually crippled and out of the race. “Shows you how quickly things can go wrong in ocean racing,” snarls a deflated McBride.
As Juno limps back to port, we pass an idyllic indent, Carlisle Bay, a seagull’s soar from Falmouth Harbour. Unlike some of Ondeck’s students who’ve opted to live aboard their yachts during basic training, I’ve traded an amidships berth for a beachfront villa on a palm-fringed white sand beach surrounded by dense, emerald rain forest. After all this onboard intensity, it’s a relief to retreat to tranquil Carlisle Bay, definitely an upgrade over any cramped ship’s quarters. This posh hideaway with split-level oceanside suites and genuine laid-back West Indian hospitality partners with Ondeck Antigua to offer sun and sailing getaways.
With the onboard action over, my crew meets at the Antigua Yacht Club for a few rounds of postregatta margaritas. “Bloody well done!” skipper McBride tells his disconsolate crew. “We went out and kicked ass there for a while against all those pro teams and their muscles, pushing our boat and our skills hard. We’re not yet a finely tuned racing team, but we will be.”
For this regatta rookie, the race results matter less than the thrill of an unforgettable aquatic adventure.
If you go
Air Canada and WestJet both offer non-stop flights between Toronto and Antigua.
Ondeck Antigua offers a full range of internationally recognized Royal Yachting Association (RYA) courses, from beginner to captain’s level, as well as opportunities to crew in a number of professional sailing regattas. The RYA Competent Crew Five-Day Course I took, which teaches novices how to steer a yacht, hoist sails, handle ropes and general boat etiquette, starts at $1,200. More advanced courses, such as the five-day Yachtmaster Ocean Theory course that covers astro-navigation and worldwide meteorology, cost around the same. For further pricing and course descriptions, see ondecksailing.com.
Where to stay
A charming option in the heart of the sailing action is the Admirals Inn and Gunpowder Suites, comprising four historic buildings dating back to 1788 set amid lush gardens in historic Nelson’s Dockyard at English Harbour. The round pillars on the grounds once supported a large boat house with a sail loft above. Standard double rooms with harbour view start at $220. admiralsantigua.com
Offering understated luxury on Antigua’s southern coast, Carlisle Bay Resort has dedicated sections for both families and couples. Backed by rain forest, this upscale, all-suite, beachfront resort has eight restaurants and bars, a spa, yoga pavilion, screening room and tennis courts. Garden suites start at $740 a night based on double occupancy. carlisle-bay.com
Published in Montecristo Magazine
It’s the stuff that skiers’ dreams are made of. Feathery white piles of frozen water particles blanketing mountain slopes, bowls, and chutes, waiting to reward the faithful with hours of pillowy pleasure. As surely as surfers scour the seven seas for the ultimate wave, skiers and boarders search far and wide for that holy grail of snow sports: perfect powder.
On a blustery February winter’s day, my brother and I arrive at Niseko: Japan’s largest and most famous ski destination. Located on the northern island of Hokkaido, Niseko encompasses four interconnected ski areas radiating from the same volcanic peak that together span nearly 900 hectares of mellow terrain and a decent thousand metres of vertical. It doesn’t just snow in Niseko—it never stops snowing. From the moment we check in to The Greenleaf Niseko Village hotel at the base of the mountain, until we board the shuttle bus to catch our flight home, the flakes keep falling. And falling.
Geography and orography have blessed Niseko, which averages over five metres of fresh snow during a typical January; compare that to Whistler’s average of about one metre. Dry, frigid Siberian winds mop up moisture over the comparatively warm Sea of Japan before reaching mountainous Hokkaido, where water turns not into wine, but into the finest, fluffiest flakes.
On our first morning on the mountain, our guide—a longtime British resident named James Winfield, who co-runs a boutique touring company here called Hokkaido Collective—gives us an orientation despite the near white-out conditions. Winfield has brought along backcountry beacons, probes, and shovels, enabling us to safely follow him through the gates that demarcate the resort boundaries and into Niseko’s expansive “slack country”, where we slice leisurely down through expansive glades of powder-encased birch trees the locals call juhyo (“ice monsters”). The near-zero visibility and untracked runs bring a welcome sense of serenity; we virtually have Niseko’s pitch-perfect snow all to ourselves.
It doesn’t just snow in Niseko—it never stops snowing.
“Niseko” means “a cliff jutting over a riverbank deep in the mountains” in the language of Hokkaido’s Indigenous Ainu people. In 1912, an Austrian military trainer, lieutenant colonel Theodor von Lerch Edora, is said to have been the first person to ski down Mount Yōtei, the volcano facing Niseko that has been dubbed the Mount Fuji of Hokkaido for its resemblance to Japan’s most enduring symbol. Word quickly spread of his achievement, and skiing took off for a time here. But it wasn’t until 1961 that the first lifts were installed, and not until the 1990s that Niseko began to appear on the bucket lists of serious winter sport enthusiasts.
Snow-smothered slopes aside, a visit to Niseko is also an immersion in rural Japanese culture. Sure, there are more “authentic” parts of Hokkaido, where the ratio of gaijin to locals is much lower. But even at this foreigner-friendly resort, where you’re as likely to hear an Aussie-twanged, “G’day, mate” as you are a crisp Japanese greeting of, “Ohayou gozaimasu”, opportunities for sampling the local lifestyle are still ample.
Soaking in Japan’s version of natural hot springs, called onsens, is one such pleasure. Of Japan’s more than 21,000 onsens, Hokkaido’s 1,165 rank it as having the third-most in the country. They can be found all over this volcanic island, and provide a soothing, rejuvenating means of escape for Japan’s famously overworked population. Several of Niseko’s hotels have their own natural onsens, like the one at the Greenleaf, where we “take the waters” each afternoon.
Mention must also be made of the exquisite food, an absolute highlight of any trip to Niseko. We seize the opportunity to sample some of Hokkaido’s celebrated seafood, like ika (squid), ikura (salmon roe), hotate (scallops), and kani (crab). The frigid waters surrounding Japan’s northernmost prefecture are ideal breeding grounds for fish and sea vegetation. At the Crab Shack near the Hilton Niseko Village, we are surrounded by rustic fishing memorabilia as we dig into a steaming hot pot. Also on offer: huge slabs of thinly-sliced Hokkaido wagyu beef perfectly paired with fresh seasonal vegetables in a savoury broth. After a day spent playing in Niseko’s giant snow globe, this hearty fare feels like the icing on the proverbial powder cake.
The woods surrounding the long abandoned Haida village site of Kiusta are lovely, dark and deep. Shafts of sunlight
probe this ancient rainforest’s dense emerald membrane of moss and lichens like celestial searchlights. Bald eagles,
one of the two moieties of Haida society along with ravens, surf the thermals high above.
Here, on the edge of Xhaaidlagha Gwaayaai, the ‘Islands at the Edge of the World’ in the language of this mist
shrouded archipelago's early inhabitants, indents in the soil, decayed red cedar longhouse beams and the remnants
of a chief’s mortuary totem pole stand guard over the spirits. Amid them, shore pines with bizarrely horizontal
branches sprout from the soil.
“We call them spirit trees because the only place we ever see them is in our old villages,” says Max Collison, a
Haida Watchman who has agreed to show me this remote ruin on the northwestern tip of Graham Island, across
from Langara Island. Assigned to protect important cultural sites, Watchmen like Max, a Raven Clan member, also
interpret the myriad mysteries of Haida culture to visitors. “We believe that our ancestors come through the roots in
the ground and up through these trees,” he adds, “reaching out to us from the past.”
Once home to a population of around three hundred, Kiusta - which means ‘Where the tail comes out’ in Haida, was
abandoned in the 1850s during one of the devastating smallpox epidemics that ravaged Haida Gwaii’s population
after first contact Europeans in the late 18th century. I’ve journeyed here from Vancouver by charter jet, helicopter,
fishing boat and outboard launch. Soon, you won’t have to venture further than your computer monitor or
smartphone to savour the elemental beauty of this sacred spot. That’s because Google’s Trekker visually mapping
technology has arrived in Haida Gwaii.
Following Max and me through the meandering forest trail between Kiusta and nearby Lepas Bay is a sturdy young
man with an unwieldy apparatus on his back that weighs some twenty kilos. Tyler Clarke works for Northern BC
Tourism, to which Google has lent out one of its precious Trekkers for the summer. Powered by brick-sized batteries
carried in said backpack connected by a metal arm to a soccer ball sized sphere perched above its operator’s head,
Trekker’s 15 cameras can snap 360-degree panoramic photos every 2.5 seconds. They’re saved to hard drives, then
periodically sent to Google headquarters and eventually uploaded to Google Maps. It’s basically the off-road version
of Google Street View, a Google Maps and Google Earth feature that offers panoramic views along many streets
around the world.
The oddly retro Google Trekker resembles a clumsy contraption straight out of a 1950s sci fi flick, and yet is mobile
enough to go pretty much anywhere its operator can carry it. This mobility allows its cameras to capture hiking
trails, wilderness areas and historic sites inaccessible to vehicles. To date, Trekker has traversed over 1,500
kilometers of British Columbia, including the coast of Haida Gwaii, Tumbler Ridge Global Geopark and Ancient
Forest/Chun T’oh Wudujut, part of the world’s only known inland temperate rainforest. Trekker has also
photographed Banff, Ivvavik, Wood Buffalo, Cape Breton and Tuktut Nogait National Parks, as well as Labrador’s
We emerge from the trail at a wide stretch of sandy beach on Lepas Bay, departure point for a challenging fifty
kilometre long shoreline hiking trail. . Black oystercatchers and Leach’s storm-petrels animate the nearly cloudless
afternoon skies above nearby Lepas Bay Ecological Reserve, a rocky, 3.6 square kilometre island created to preserve
the habitat of these and other nesting seabirds. For thousands of years, Haida fishermen launched their enormous
dugout canoes from this storm pummelled bay. Debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, including glass-blown fish-
net floats that are eBay collectors’ items, still occasionally washes up here. Wild and remote, this stretch of Graham
Island is the most westerly point in all of Canada.
As we walk, Max points to a Haida Rediscovery Camp across Lepas Bay, one of several built to combat the effects
of chronic substance abuse, juvenile delinquency and generational family disruption on Haida youth. With the
advice and guidance of Haida elders, Max and his fellow Watchmen help staff them during summers. The goal is to
foster in their teen and preteen participants a deeper connection to their ancestral land and heritage through
wilderness skills training, traditional activities and rich cultural immersion.
“We teach the children songs, how to prepare food, and our language,” says Max. “We also share Haida myths and
stories, and teach carving and other arts.” He clearly cherishes this opportunity to connect with Haida youth. In his
mid-fifties, this man who survived a hard, self-destructive youth is now a grandfather, a chinnie in the Haida
language. “Right now I miss all the little ones,” he tells me. “Especially my ten year old granddaughter, who lives in
Vancouver but comes up every summer. She’s my world.”
Tyler and Max will return to Lepas Bay the next afternoon to photograph more of its craggy coastline - including the
Haida Rediscovery Camp. Once online these images will join those of other world famous destinations like
Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal and the Galapagos Islands. Google Trekkers have also photographed far-
flung attractions like the Northern Lights in Finland’s Pitkäjärvi Lake, the Avenue of Baobabs in Madagascar's
Andranomena Special Reserve, the Atol das Rocas in the South Atlantic Ocean, Hövsgöl Nuur, a lake in Mongolia
near the Russian border, and Kenya’s Samburu Game Reserve. Someday, the entire world may be viewable online,
thanks to Google. Is that a good thing?
When I started backpacking in the mid-1980s, some peripatetic purists dismissed Lonely Planet and other early
guidebooks as fostering cheating, their way finding information making independent travel too easy, safe and
predictable. Then came the Internet with its ever spreading umbilical tentacles. And smartphones that let travellers
almost constantly remain connected with home, no matter where in the world they were. Now there’s the tsunami of
selfies from sexy places feeding the insatiable appetites of Instagram, Flickr, Facebook and Google.
Is there anywhere left to hide? Is Trekker snuffing out some of adventure travel’s essential magic and mystery, from
the coast of Haida Gwaii to the length of Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit? When you can fully preview virtually every
step of a route or destination in 360 degrees of digitally enhanced detail, what have you lost before you’ve even
arrived? If it’s the journey, not the destination, that really matters, are technologies like Trekker friend or foe?
For tourism organizations like Destination BC, the pros outweigh any cons. By exploiting Google’s Street View
capability in Trekker and mapping the wilderness of British Columbia, they say they are providing audiences with
an unprecedented opportunity to virtually experience our wild places.
This, argue proponents like Clint Fraser, head of Northern BC Tourism, will hopefully inspiring many more people to consider exploring. “Trekker is a very visual
tool and we know that the more we can immerse a user in our content the more likely they are to plan a visit,” Fraser
says. “People generally understand that experiencing some of these areas virtually does not compare to the
experience you have when your feet are actually on the ground. If we can provide a little virtual taste through
initiatives like this we are certain that it will go a long way in inspiring them to visit the destination for more.”
One could also argue that the more people understand about a destination, the more prepared they may be once they
reach it. And that an increase in trail traffic could lead to more awareness of the fragility of our remaining natural
places, spurring greater efforts to preserve these precious places for future generations. What about people who can’t
travel because of limited resources, poor health or physical limitations? Trekker’s images can nourish their
imaginations and help them feel more connected to the wider world.
The same goes for people living in Trekker’s path. As a Haida Watchman, charged with preventing historically
significant Haida sites like Kiusta from being vandalized and their artifacts stolen, Max Collison is a proud
custodian of a precious and fragile past. But he’s not so protective that he doesn’t welcome the arrival of
technologies like Trekker, which will expose his beloved home to potentially billions of people around the world.
“I'm very excited about this project because the more people who know about this place the more exciting our job
will be,” he assures me. “People in all parts of the world will soon be able to see this footage and feel almost like
they're here, maybe motivating them to save up to come here for real someday.”
Max also points to a major distinction between the Google Trekker team and earlier outsiders who visited Haida
Gwaii hoping to take a piece of it home. “Howard Hughes once came here to source the materials for the Spruce
Goose,” he says, referring to the eccentric aviator’s wooden behemoth, the largest aircraft ever built. “Mr. Hughes
didn’t ask permission and so a Haida curse was placed upon him,” Max continues. “Where is he now? Gone and
nowhere to be found. It’s different for you guys because you asked for permission.”
That evening, we invite Max to join the members of Team Trekker for dinner at Langara Island Lodge, the posh
fishing camp we’re using as our base of optical operations. Operating since the mid 198os, this luxury property
caters to well-heeled corporate clients, including CEOs, their families and entourages, offering them some of the
best salmon and halibut fishing in the world. Guests arrive by helicopter from Masset airport, about a half hour’s
flight south. Most depart a few days later having caught their limit, delivered cleaned, filleted, vacuum-packed and
flash-frozen fish to them upon their departure.
Over a surf and turf at Langara’s Eagle Lodge, Max shares stories about his youth, like the time his parents hid him
on a fishing boat when government officials seized many native children for relocation to residential schools
elsewhere in BC and Alberta. “When my friends came back from those schools everything had changed. They were
not the same people,” Max says. “But we just accepted them for who they now were and hoped that they would
eventually change their ways and return to our culture.”
The next morning, we’re photographing a colony of sea lions from one of the lodge’s boats. Flopping onto rocks
beneath Langara Point Lighthouse, the only manned lighthouse still operating on the northern B.C. coast, they bark
incessantly. Here, on the most northerly tip of Haida Gwaii, New World first encountered Old in the summer of
1774 when a group of Haida paddled out to greet Spanish explorer Juan José Pérez Hernández. He later named the
island he ‘discovered’ after Spanish naval commander Juan de Lángara.
Trekker strapped on his back, Tyler steadies himself at the bow while Google’s contribution to cartography records
the island’s pinniped-packed shoreline. Suddenly, we learn that a pod of humpback whales has been spotted bubble
net feeding a few miles offshore. Keen to witness this spectacular marine spectacle, we speed off in their direction.
Soon, we’re observing the pod swimming in an ever shrinking circle, blowing bubbles beneath a large school of fish
to force them upward. Then the whales rise in unison to breach the ocean’s surface, their gaping mouths devouring
thousands of fish in a single gulp.
Bubble net feeding is an epic demonstration of synchronized fishing, but we can’t get close enough for Trekker to
properly record the spectacle. These whales won’t end up on Google Maps just yet, but the geniuses in the
company’s Mountain View, California headquarters are likely already hard at work prototyping a Trekker-fitted
submarine. Hopefully, it will be one large enough to also accommodate a Haida Watchman. Such is the relentless
advance of technology, now even impacting the timeless worlds of Ravens and Eagles on these magnificent islands
at the edge of the world.
Published in Montecristo Magazine
His ragged sweatshirt has “Life is Wonderful” in bold letters across the chest. Yet life is anything but for nine-year old Jean-Claude Tafitaheriniaina. Corneal scarring he contracted from a fungal infection left untreated has rendered this boy, from a poor family in the central highlands of Madagascar, virtually blind—only able to decipher shadows and light. Clutching his grandmother’s wizened hand, Jean-Claude winces as the ophthalmologist examines his milky, sightless eyes. She has brought him to this outreach “eye camp” in the Malagasy village of Mandrosohasina hoping for a miracle.
Melline Razafiatarisoa, a nearly destitute middle-aged woman blinded as a child by congenital bilateral cataracts, also has hope. Abandoned by her husband when she gave birth to two children with the same affliction, she hopes that the eye doctors can save her two-year-old son Rodia from repeating her fate.
Every year, half a million of the world’s children go blind, according to the World Health Organization; 75 per cent of them live in developing countries such as Madagascar, an island nation off the coast of eastern Africa best known as the setting of a popular animated film. Yet almost half of all blindness in children—particularly those in the poorest communities—is avoidable if they have access to care.
Every year, half a million of the world’s children go blind, according to the World Health Organization; 75 per cent of them live in developing countries such as Madagascar.
On this day over a hundred poor rural folk—from the elderly to infants—arrive at Mandrosohasina’s community centre on a hill overlooking shimmering emerald fields of rice. They’ve come, like Melline and Jean-Claude, seeking a way out of the darkness that plagues them and their loved ones. Many have walked or ridden ox carts for days through mountainous terrain lashed by torrential rainy season downpours. Awaiting them is a medical team led by one of Madagascar’s top ophthalmologists, Dr. Richard Andriamampihantona, along with members of Vancouver-based charity Seva Canada. Seva works to prevent blindness, restore sight, and transform lives in developing countries. Seva is funding this outreach eye camp, along with other programs in Madagascar designed to overcome barriers that women, children, the very poor, and those living in rural areas face trying to access care. “Seva Canada works the same way everywhere, helping people to solve their own problems,” explains Seva’s program director Dr. Ken Bassett, a professor of medicine at UBC and director of a research program in international and epidemiologic ophthalmology. Watching the hopeful line up to be examined, Bassett explains that Seva doesn’t just come in and tell them what to do. “It’s about providing assistance, training, equipment, and lessons from other places,” he says.
Over many hours, Dr. Richard (as his staff affectionately calls him) prescribes corrective eyeglasses, eye drops, and other remedial solutions, distributed on the spot. Those who can pay a little subsidize those who cannot. It’s a sustainable model Seva has employed effectively in many countries where it operates, including Tibet, Nepal, and Cambodia. More serious cases that Dr. Richard marks for sight-restoring surgery often take convincing. “Half of the people I screen are still afraid of the operation,” he explains, while examining a teary-eyed girl of seven named Lalaina for signs of glaucoma. “They are afraid that they will become blind if you touch their eyes.” So sometimes he has to tell older people who have never benefited from hospitals or doctors that it is just like washing out their eyes. Extreme poverty is also a major obstacle to obtaining eye care in developing countries, where the harsh realities of rural life often render a helpless blind person little more than “a mouth with no hands”. “Even if the operation is offered for free, the transportation costs can be too much for these people,” says Dr. Richard. “Even five dollars can be too much.”
With Seva’s help, Dr. Richard arranges to transport Lalaina, Jean-Claude, and Rodia, along with their families, to his hospital in Antsirabe, where he will operate on them early the next morning. It’s a journey into the unknown for these children, who’ve never been to the city, let alone in a hospital. First up is Lalaina, the girl he diagnosed with glaucoma, who waves bravely as she enters the operating room, trembling to hold back her tears. After examining her, Dr. Richard elects to postpone the delicate procedure needed to relieve pressure destroying her optic nerve. He won’t risk surgery unless her condition deteriorates, because going under general anesthesia is much more traumatic for children. “Now this girl has to accept that she has a chronic vision-threatening condition that will demand a lifetime of special care,” explains Ken Bassett as Lalaina is carried out of the operating room. “It will take a lot of time and ongoing education to help her and her family understand that and agree to the follow-up treatments.” Basset adds that preventing avoidable childhood blindness also involves identifying and managing congenital or developmental cataracts—along with vision- or life-threatening problems such as ophthalmia neonatorum, congenital glaucoma, and retinoblastoma—as early as possible. For Jean-Claude, the boy with severe corneal scarring, life will not turn out wonderfully, despite what his sweatshirt declares. After putting him under and probing his eyes, Dr. Richard halts the surgery. “Unfortunately I can do nothing for him,” the ophthalmologist says, his voice nearly drowned out by the wails of children emerging from anesthetic in the recovery room down the hall. “His only chance now is a corneal transplant, which isn’t yet possible in Madagascar.” Bassett explains that had this boy been examined only a few months earlier, and simple antibiotic and anti-fungal drops given to him before the infection spread, he almost certainly would not have developed the binding scars on his corneas, and his sight likely would have been preserved. It’s a tragedy repeated all too often in countries where the poor have little access to care, or won’t seek proper medical help due to superstitions and reliance on traditional healers.
Extreme poverty is also a major obstacle to obtaining eye care in developing countries, where the harsh realities of rural life often render a helpless blind person little more than “a mouth with no hands”.
Told that he will likely face a lifetime of blindness, Jean-Claude reacts not with more tears, as one might expect. Instead, this boy who has already had so much taken from him—including his mother, struck and killed by lightning while toiling in the fields—silently absorbs the bad news, then begins to serenely recite the Lord’s Prayer in Malagasy, his soft voice rising, drawing courage from some power beyond rational understanding. It may be too late for Jean-Claude, but somewhere in Madagascar the prayers of other children afflicted with preventable blindness will be answered because of the efforts of dedicated ophthalmologists like Dr. Richard, supported by Seva.
Thankfully, Rodia’s cataract operation is a success. His vision will continue to improve as his eyes and brain start to communicate together better. The next morning, after his bandages are removed, he is able to see his mother and sister for the first time. Learning of this medical miracle, Melline rejoices and bursts into song—a Malagasy hymn of praise that Rodia also starts to hum. There’s not a dry eye in the room. Now Melline’s only son, and her family’s hope, will have a chance to avoid her fate. It’s said that the eyes not only allow you to function in the world, they also show you the light of the world. Nowhere is that light shining more brightly than in the restored eyes of this Malagasy child who once was blind, and now can see.
Published in the Toronto Star
MASHATU RESERVE, BOTSWANA—It’s growing dark and you’re lost in the African bush with a Land Cruiser full of nervous guests. The nocturnal predator shift is starting. What do you do?
If you’re Alden Trollip, you must not panic or you risk failing your mid-term exam. Just moments earlier, the 20-year-old from Johannesburg was tracking a black-backed jackal and confidently fielding questions from fellow students playing the part of safari clients.
But his practice game drive in eastern Botswana’s Mashatu Reserve, 33,000 hectares of pristine wilderness bordering South Africa and Zimbabwe, has gone seriously off course.
Desperately scanning the dusty terrain with a hand-held spotlight for the faint tire tracks that lead back to base camp, Trollip inadvertently drives us into the middle of a herd of grazing elephants that materialize in the dusk like a thicket of giants. One adult female trumpets her extreme displeasure as we inadvertently come between her and her panicky offspring.
“Chantelle? Chantelle? What do I do now?” whispers Trollip nervously as one mad mama ellie makes to charge us.
“Just keep driving forward, slow and steady, and we’ll be fine,” calmly replies instructor Chantelle Venter, a 20-year safari industry veteran from South Africa. Along with her partner, Brian Rode, a former South African Defense Forces wilderness survival specialist, Venter has mentored top guides in camps all over Southern Africa — and encountered this scenario plenty of times.
During the next few months, Venter and Rode hope to instill enough knowledge into a dozen twenty-something bush babies like Trollip to secure them internships at reputable game lodges in Southern and East Africa.
Trollip and his fellow students, hailing from Africa, Europe and North America, have signed on to undergo a year of professional safari guide training conducted by EcoTraining, Africa’s pioneer and leader of professional safari guide and nature training programs.
Established in 1993 with a mission to raise the standard of guiding in Africa, EcoTraining has access to nearly 140,000 hectares of true African wilderness areas in South Africa, Botswana and Kenya.
Field training ranges from seven-day wilderness survival, tracking and birding courses to the one-year professional field guide certification course I’m sampling. A 14-day EcoQuest course gives participants a taste of a safari guide’s daily experience. A 28-day Trails Guide course focuses on exploring the wilderness on foot and learning how to lead walks in dangerous game country. And a new 60-day field guide course offers adventurous travellers the opportunity to get a real taste of bush craft basic training without making a long-term commitment.
All courses are structured to maximize practical experience in the bush. Taught from modest, bare-bones unfenced tented camps that bear no relation to the five-star safari destinations that many tourists envision, the focus is entirely on authentic working bush experiences rather than champagne sundowners and designer thread counts.
Each day allows for hours spent in the field gaining in-depth knowledge about nature, ecology, conservation and wildlife on driving and walking safaris. Lectures and self-study round out the curriculum, which heavily emphasizes respectful interaction with the surrounding environment, an environmentally conscious approach that is at the core of EcoTraining’s teaching philosophy.
Students are also expected to help with daily running of the unfenced camp, equipment and vehicles, just as a safari guide would in a commercial operation.
“If you want a career in the safari industry, or even just a unique adventure break, this is an incredible opportunity,” says EcoTraining’s Corne Schalkwyk as we sit around the campfire decompressing from our nocturnal elephant encounter.
“Our shorter courses give you practical experience in the bush, while our year-long courses allow you to become a safari guide, get into lodge management, or into different kinds of conservation efforts throughout Africa,” he says.
According to Schalkwyk, EcoTraining’s courses don’t just appeal to people hoping to become professional safari guides. Wildlife photographers, conservationists, students looking for a gap year or summer adventure, executives taking a career break, and travellers seeking a truly authentic and educational African bush experience also sign up.
Applicants range anywhere from 18 to 60, and include everyone from bartenders to bankers. For some, like 18-year-old Kane Tison, this is their first visit to Africa.
“I’m learning so much. But because there’s so much to absorb it can be hard,” Tison says as we climb out of ‘Betsy,’ Camp Mashatu’s battered old Land Cruiser. “It’s also a bit scary because you’re in the middle of nowhere in the wilderness among huge animals with nothing but your tent and a suitcase full of clothes.”
Lying in my tent at 3 a.m. listening to the nocturnal cacophony of the African bush — the guttural rumble of lions, hyenas breaking into diabolical laughter, baboons shrieking their warning cries — I have time to reflect on how scary and yet exhilarating it can feel living in an unfenced camp like Mashatu.
Especially when the spectral shape of a leopard passes by my tent. Heart racing, I dare not breathe as the big cat pauses a few feet from the thin strip of mesh separating us.
As far as careers go, it doesn’t get much wilder than being African safari guide, living on a big game reserve and taking complete strangers’ lives in your hands everyday. The basic requirement for entry into this growing industry, where well qualified guides are in high demand as more and more African nations expand their tourism infrastructures, is an adventurous spirit.
You also need enough mental and physical toughness to spend years learning to master ecology and zoology, track game, handle a rifle, routinely put in 18-hour days working in safari camps, stay cool under pressure, and be okay with spending your working life in a part of the planet where you fall somewhere in the middle of the food chain. Looking feverishly sexy in crisp khaki shorts is a bonus.
“It’s the best job in the world. You get to meet people from all over. You’re seeing amazing things. And you’re working in a pristine environment, says Brian Rode, who once tried his hand at commercial law before taking up his true calling.
“Ultimately, being a successful safari guide comes down to attitude. And the willingness to get down to it and do the job,” explains Rode as we head down to the riverbank one evening for an impromptu astronomy lesson.
“But if your passion is nature, it’s all here,” he says.
Domenic de Sousa’s passion is snakes — the 22-year-old student is a veritable David Attenborough when it comes to slippery serpents. A former life insurance salesman from Johannesburg with no previous experience living raw in the bush, de Sousa plans to use the safari industry-recognized certification he hopes to receive as a stepping stone toward a career in the safari industry.
“Most of us came here not knowing much about how our planet works,” says de Sousa as he pores over flora and fauna textbooks by the flickering of a kerosene lamp in the mess tent. “Now we have this new understanding of these incredible animals all around us. Conserving their interconnected ecosystem has become a lot more important because they are now in our hearts.”
Across the table, Leigh Becker, 20, a former medical student from Pretoria and the only woman in the class, pauses from preparing her presentation on giraffes to chime in.
“When I was in Grade 5 we had to do those ‘what I want to do when I grow up’ speeches,” she recalls. “I found mine recently and it was about wanting to be a safari guide. Reading it again made me decide that I really have to do this. It’s my dream come true.”
What better place to realize that dream than Mashatu Reserve, nicknamed “Land of the Giants” — it vast territory provides sanctuary to the largest population of elephants (currently about 700) on private land in Africa. Mashatu is also home to the eland (the world’s largest antelope), the ostrich (the largest bird) and the kori bustard (the largest bird capable of flight).
Toss in leopard, cheetah, lion, hyena and more obscure species like aardwolf, bat-eared fox, African wild cat, honey badger and black-backed jackal, and you have a predator-packed classroom.
Class begins the next morning at dawn as everyone gathers at the camp entrance. Half the students join Venter for game drive assessments. The rest set out on a walking safari led by Rode. The hunting rifle casually slung over his shoulder could mean the difference between life and death.
“What is the gestation period of a spotted hyena?” Rode asks quietly as we walk single file toward a distant sandstone outcrop from where we can survey the surrounding countryside for signs of wildlife. “How much does an adult male lion weigh?”
Over the next three hours, Rode expertly leads us on a circuitous route through scrub savannah and mopane forests toward the dry riverbank that borders camp. At every turn, he shares his San bushmen-like knowledge of this ecologically diverse environment, also an ornithological paradise with more than 350 bird species.
“They still have a lot to learn,” admits Rode over dinner that evening. “At this point, if I was running a lodge and any of them came looking for a job, I wouldn’t employ them.”
Indeed, the students at Camp Mashatu still have a very long way to go before graduating. Eleven months from now, some will embark upon their dream careers as junior guides at the safari lodges and camps where they’ve been interning. A few will have dropped out and returned home, realizing that they’re unsuited to life in the wild.
Others, armed with the extraordinary breadth of skills and knowledge they have acquired — along with the bonding they have undergone with their peers and instructors — will return to their former lives indelibly changed from their experience living in the bush. And knowing firsthand that somewhere out there in the eternal wilderness of Africa exists a life less ordinary.
JUST THE FACTS
ARRIVING South African Airways ( www.flysaa.com) has daily non-stop flights to Johannesburg from New York and Washington. From Johannesburg it is a six-hour drive north to the Pont Drift Border Crossing between South Africa and Botswana. Crossing is possible in four-wheel drive vehicles across the Limpopo riverbed during the dry months, or via two-person cable car when the Limpopo is flowing. From there it is a two-hour drive to Mashatu Camp.
SLEEPING Mashatu Camp consists of 10 simple dome tents, each with two mattresses with pillows (two students per tent). There are shared bathroom facilities and a central communal area overlooking the dry riverbed. Students bring their own bedding. There are no mosquito nets at Mashatu and no electricity. Paraffin lamps are used for all lighting.
EcoTraining’s African camps
Selati Camp is situated on the banks of the Selati River in the 33,000-hectare Selati Game Reserve to the west of the Kruger National Park. Karongwe Camp is situated on the banks of the Karongwe River in the 9,000-hectare Karongwe Game Reserve to the southwest of the Kruger National Park. Kruger Park Makuleke Camp is situated in the 24-000 hectare Makuleke concession in the far northern part of the Kruger National Park and the Limpopo Transfrontier Park.
Mashatu Camp is located in the Land of Giants in the Tuli reserve of Botswana bordering South Africa. Tuli, which spans over 25,000 hectares of wilderness, forms a key part of the proposed Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty with majestic rocks, diverse vegetation, abundant wildlife, a profusion of birds and a rich archeological heritage.
Lewa Camp is located in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a private reserve in northeast Kenya near Mount Kenya National Park, Samburu and the Aberdares.
Camp Tsavo is situated in the centre of Rukinga Sanctuary, an 34,000-hectare area next to Tsavo East and West National Parks, which are managed by Wildlife Works for the benefit of wildlife, which includes a large variety of predators, including lions and one of the largest populations of elephants on private land in Kenya.
WEB SURFING www.ecotraining.co.za.
Published in Elle Canada
Marlon Brando has always been my favourite actor. From Kowalski to Corleone to Colonel Kurtz, the brooding, mumbling, raging characters he portrayed are unforgettable. Brando the actor became Brando the myth – the “Wild One” whom so many men like me still idolize more than a decade after his death.
That Brando purchased his own private sanctuary, a French Polynesian atoll, in the 1960s to escape the press and his bad-boy mystique makes him all the more appealing. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote poet John Donne. No man except Marlon Brando.
Brando discovered the island while scouting locations for his Tahiti-set movie Mutiny on the Bounty. (He also fell in love with his Polynesian co-star Tarita Teriipaia, who became his third wife.) It was called Tetiaroa, a Polynesian word meaning “stands apart,” and Brando considered it his “unpretentious paradise,” where he felt “most at peace.”
He retreated here over the decades and dreamed of building a self-sustaining resort and a research station focused on protecting sea life. Although Brando didn’t realize his vision during his lifetime, his Tahitian family eventually did, partnering with InterContinental Hotels to develop a luxe 35-villa all-inclusive eco resort on Onetahi, one of Tetiaroa’s larger motus (or islets). So when I was invited to spend a long weekend at the Brando, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I catch my first glimpse of Tetiaroa during my 20-minute flight from Tahiti. The atoll is strung like pieces of a delicate emerald necklace and set around a crystal-clear lagoon filled with countless shades of blue. It’s breathtaking.
So, too, is landing on the Brando’s tiny airstrip, where I’m met and whisked through a palm forest to my oceanfront villa. Camouflaged by thick clusters of pandanus, mikimiki and coconut trees and set well back from a gently curving stretch of white coral-sand beach, the one-bedroom retreat is 93 square metres of serenity. Floor to ceiling sliding glass doors open onto my own private deck and infinity plunge pool. Inside, light-wood interiors blend a classic Polynesian vibe with contemporary furnishings. If this be my last tango in Tahiti, at least I’ll go out a contender.
The resort is virtually its own self-sustaining carbon-neutral ecosystem cooled by deep-sea-water air conditioning and powered by solar panels and coconut oil. It would have made Brando, an early proponent of renewable energy, very proud. So, too, would the science now being conducted on Tetiaroa – not the sort that created the ghoulish mutants that ran rampant on that other island on which he ruled in the cheesy 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau but the sort supported by the non-profit Tetiaroa Society, which hosts international scientists who conduct biodiversity research at its eco-station.
Oddly, though, nowhere on the island – not at the Varua Polynesian Spa or the two restaurants that feature Polynesian-inspired dishes and classic French cuisine – do I encounter any trace of Brando; there are no portraits, old movie posters, kitschy bits or Hollywood memorabilia. My inner paparazzo is initially disappointed.
But after paddling an outrigger canoe around the Onetahi motu and walking the same beaches Brando once walked, I appreciate that his wishes that Tetiaroa avoid becoming a tacky shrine to his stardom have been respected. He was determined that it remain pure and unsullied – the antithesis of Hollywood – especially after his death, lest it become another macabre celebrity shrine. Another Graceland.
I did, however, encounter one visceral connection: Brando’s granddaughter, Tumi, who shows me around the atoll one morning. She is sweet and gentle and unaffected – at ease with her world, unlike her famously tortured grandfather. Yet they share the same dark, smouldering eyes. Together, we snorkel in the lagoon, floating through gardens of living coral on the edge of the reef, and then search for coconut crabs hidden away amid the palm trees.
When we encounter an orphaned red-footed booby chick that has fallen from its nest, Tumi bundles it up in my T-shirt and we carry it back to the resort, where she’ll feed it and raise it, safe from deadly coconut-crab claws. I like to think that her simple act of kindness would have touched her grandfather, a lifelong defender of the vulnerable in real life even as he often portrayed monsters onscreen.
On my last night at the Brando, I sip a Marlon’s Mojito at Bob’s Bar, the resort’s watering hole on the waterfront named after Brando’s long-time assistant on film sets. As I watch a blood-orange sunset, I imagine the two of them kicking back, discussing Brando’s endless plans to one day transform his beloved Tetiaroa into a meeting place where locals, scientists and travellers could converge and educate and inspire one another. That day has arrived, Mr. Brando. Thanks for sharing your Polynesian paradise with the world – and for being such a visionary Wild One when you weren’t busy being a lifelong mutineer.
Published in the Globe and Mail
Squinting in the cavernous darkness – through a cross-shaped slit chiselled into the foot-thick stone wall – I can see nothing but dazzling Indian Ocean azure. Nearly 500 years ago, a Portuguese priest likely stood in this exact spot within the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, yearning for the arrival of a caravel from Lisbon – dreading the sight of a Dutch warship or Arab pirate dhow.
Perched on the eastern edge of Ilha de Mocambique (Mozambique Island), this masterwork of Manueline vaulted architecture is considered to be the Southern hemisphere’s oldest still-intact European building.
Behind it looms impregnable Fortaleza de Sao Sebastiao, where thousands of colonial troops once manned one of the largest fortresses ever built south of the Sahara. Together, these remnants of colonialism tell part of the fascinating story of this crescent-shaped speck of coral barely four kilometres long just off Mozambique’s northern coast.
Seized shortly after Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama came ashore in 1498, the island that gave Mozambique its name was for centuries the capital of Portugal’s African empire. But after the colonial government relocated in 1898, Ilha de Mocambique slid into obscurity, forsaken by the 20th century.
It wasn’t until 1991, when UNESCO awarded it World Heritage Site status for its remarkable architectural uniformity, that Ilha de Mocambique began to emerge from isolation. Today, it still welcomes relatively few travellers, but those who do venture here have an historic island as exotic as Zanzibar virtually to themselves. They discover a living museum, where the centuries melt away and where wooden dhows set sail every morning before dawn – as they have for 1,000 years – their crews of Muslim fishermen chanting timeless tribal songs.
Most visitors to Africa come for a safari, but a trip to Mozambique is not about ticking the Big Five off your list. It’s about exploring a rich culture and country re-emerging after decades of post-colonial struggle and civil war. One boasting a 2,500-kilometre-long coastline sprinkled with pristine, empty beaches, abundant marine life, superb diving and islands such as Ilha de Mocambique that time forgot.
Last year, increased violence between Mozambique’s ruling party and the opposition prompted the Canadian government to advise against non-essential travel to some of the country’s provinces. But cooler heads are prevailing and both sides pledge a peaceful run-up to the presidential vote in October, easing fears of continued unrest.
My introduction to Ilha de Mocambique was Stone Town, site of the original European settlement, now connected to the mainland by a narrow single-lane causeway. Today a sleepy fishing village, this maze of silent, slave-built cobblestone alleys that converge on palm-lined town squares feels like a surreal, shuttered movie set. Decaying yellow, blue, terracotta and pink colonial-era limestone mansions, their wooden handcrafted entrances carved with Arab, Indian and Oriental motifs, broil beneath the African sun.
On Stone Town’s languid waterfront, fishermen loiter beneath the peeling façades of former Portuguese trading houses, waiting for the high tide to take them back out to sea. In the shallow bay, grandmothers and children scour the seabed for shells. Other women, draped in brilliantly coloured capulanas, the traditional cloth that Muslim Mozambicans wrap around skirts, scrub laundry along the shore near the wharf. Some have painted their faces with musiro, a natural wood-based lotion and sunscreen.
Most of Stone Town’s inhabitants are descendants of Mozambique’s original African Muslim population, driven off the island by the Portuguese in the 16th century. They only began to return in significant numbers after the country gained independence in 1975. With the outbreak of civil war in 1977, thousands more flooded in, desperate to flee the inland fighting.
“When I was a child this was a very broken place,” says James, a slight man in his mid-30s who offers to show me around. “The local Makua people still call this place Omuhipiti, or ‘refuge,’ because so many of them hid here.”
After the civil war ended in 1992, many refugees returned to their ancestral mainland homes. Others migrated to Macuti Town on the south end of the island, and Stone Town once again became a ghost town.
From Stone Town, I board a dhow and sail to a peninsular headland across the bay. Awaiting me is a swath of white sand beach that Mozambican author Mia Couto described as a place “where the Earth undresses and where the gods come to pray.”
My destination is a cluster of airy bungalows on the dunes overlooking the sea. Coral Lodge 15.41 – a reference to its cartographic co-ordinates – is operated by Alexandra and Bart Otto, an enterprising Dutch couple who quit their management jobs six years ago to move here. It is the only luxury lodge in one of Southern Africa’s last remaining unspoilt coastal regions.
“We fell in love with the location, which is still largely unexplored, as well as the rich history and culture of the area,” says Alexandra over freshly caught lobster with siri siri, nhewe (local spinach), coconut rice and baobab ice cream on a shady deck overlooking the lagoon.
Using traditional African and modern design elements, the lodge was built entirely of endemic wood and other natural materials by local artisans. The Ottos employ more than 40 residents from the adjacent village of Cabaceira Pequena as lodge staff and guides. “From the start, our mission was to hire as many local people as possible to ensure that this area would develop,” Alexandra says, explaining that many of the townsfolk have little access to secondary education or training.
To that end, the Ottos have financed a primary school and orphanage in Cabaceira Pequena, and stand by their staff whenever they can. “Everyone has my cell number and they call me for help when they need it. I’ve had calls from hospital emergency wards, sprung people out of prison and even helped deliver babies in the middle of the night,” Alexandra says. “We’re more than just an employer. We are family.”
Alexandra and I cross barefoot through a lush mangrove forest from the resort to Cabaceira Pequena and visit a group of women drawing water from the same well that Vasco de Gama’s sailors once frequented. They greet Alexandra as one of their own.
Later, local boys tag along as we explore the nearby ruins of one of Southern Africa’s oldest mosques. Peering through a jagged hole in the mosque’s crumbling wall I can see the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte across the bay, perfectly framed like a holy relic, where so many prayers were once uttered.
Now, thanks to renewed interest from the outside world and the promise of newfound political stability, prayers for a better life in this remote, largely untouched stretch of Southern African coastline – with its ethereal island outpost at the end of the world – are finally being heard.
IF YOU GO
Most connections to Mozambique require an overnight stay in South Africa’s capital city. Airlink (flyairlink.com) offers daily direct flights from Johannesburg to Nampula. From there, road transport can be easily arranged for the three-hour ride to Ilha de Mocambique. Canadian citizens require visitor visas prior to entering Mozambique. They can be obtained by contacting the embassy of Mozambique in Washington, or with the assistance of the outfitters mentioned here. There is no nationwide travel advisory for the country, however the Canadian government urges a high degree of caution due to violent crime, including a recent significant increase in cases of kidnappings.
What to do
The spirits of doomed mariners are said to inhabit Stone Town’s Marine Museum, which houses the remains of shipwrecks – everything from navigational instruments to precious Ming porcelain. Maxim guns, rusted cannons and other artifacts of warfare still litter the courtyard of the nearby Palace and Chapel of Sao Paulo, built as a Jesuit College in 1610. (whc.unesco.org/en/list/599)
Where to Stay
Coral Lodge 15.41 is a secluded luxury beach resort and a great base for exploring nearby Ilha de Mocambique. Guests can also go snorkelling, shipwreck diving or fishing, as well as visit the nearby fishing village of Cabaceira Pequena. Bungalows from $700 (U.S.) a night, all inclusive, based on double occupancy. (newmarkhotels.com)
The Vancouver-based Heritage Safari Company (1-888-301-1713, heritagesafaris.com) and Toronto’s Kensington Tours (1-888-903-2001, kensingtontours.com) can arrange customized Mozambique itineraries, including visits to Ilha de Mocambique.
For those with a taste for adventure, this unique Canadian heli-skiing concept offers a true wilderness experience.
Published in The CEO Magazine
As our sleek AStar AS350 helicopter swoops down like a bird of prey into the twisting river valley, I half expect to hear Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ blasting from its onboard speakers and the pilot shouting maniacally about loving the smell of napalm in the morning.
Thankfully this isn’t Apocalypse Now and Robert Duvall’s infamous character, Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, isn’t at the controls. I’m heli-skiing, Canadian style, in one of the largest tenures that North America has to offer — over 7,800 square metres of wild and pristine backcountry deep in the Skeena Mountains east of the historic northern British Columbian town of Smithers. Snowfall is reliably heavy up here and the dry powder plentiful due to a fortuitous confluence of coastal precipitation, interior dryness and a cooler northern climate. Best of all, the variety of terrain is massive: steep and deep vertical slopes with intimidating names like Eye of the Tiger, powder bowls feeding into pillows and chutes, and tight trees alternating with acres of open, sweeping glades. All surrounded by some of the most spectacular alpine scenery the cradle of heli-skiing has to offer.
My companions — eight middle-aged Australians and a peripatetic young Italian advertising executive on a round-the-world ski sabbatical — are clearly having the time of their lives judging from their whoops, wide-eyed grins and triumphant high fives at the end of every breathtaking run. Most are first time heli-skiers bedazzled by the grandeur of these mountains and thrilled to be realising many a resort-bound skier’s ultimate fantasy. As one of their number, a hulking construction contractor named Pete Roberts, shouts to me after one particularly breathtakingly long run, “Mate, this is as bloody good as it gets. I can’t believe we’re actually here.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve boarded a whirly-bird for a multi-day dose of backcountry bliss. A veteran of several heli-skiing adventures in the province where the sport was born over half a century ago, I’m nonetheless intrigued by Skeena Heliskiing’s uniquely immersive fly-in fly-out concept called Base Camp. Entering its third season of operation, Canadian heli-skiing’s first foray into glamping is erected at the start of each ski season and accepts guests for just a brief six-week window before being struck when the snow melts come April.
Located in the Kuldo Valley, Base Camp comprises one spacious communal geodesic dining tent nicknamed the ‘Freedome’, a hot shower tent and five two-person sleeping tents equipped with thermostat-controlled heaters and rustic log beds covered in cosy sheep-wool duvets. Waste products are flown out and compostable toilets are used to minimise environmental impact. Designed as a ‘no-frills’ option to pricier packages, Base Camp appeals to heli-skiers more excited about close proximity to the best runs than Jacuzzis, wine cellars and après ski in-room massages.
“It was our goal to provide something new to heli skiing, an all-inclusive package that is truly a wilderness experience,” says lead Skeena guide and company co-owner Giacum ‘Jake’ Frei. A former professional ski racer and guide in Europe with over a decade of experience heli-ski guiding in British Columbia (BC), Jake is as experienced as they come.
Base Camp may be a more authentic wilderness experience than most heli-skiing accommodation, but it still offers amenities like gourmet food, hot showers, ski boot dryers and all the beer and wine we can consume after a hard day in the steeps. Best of all, our very own helicopter is parked just yards away, waiting to sweep us up into our private powder playground each morning. And what it may lack in luxe creature comforts, our remote retreat more than makes up for in authentic BC backcountry ambience. Irradiant under gentle snowfall on evenings when you can faintly hear wolves calling to each other across the valley, its constellation of white tents resembles a cross between frontier outpost and a moon base.
At Base Camp everything slows down, except the skiing and socialising. Designed as an intimate environment where everyone can feel a part of a memorable adventure skiing experience, its setup fosters authentic backcountry bonding and is perfect for groups.
I make fast friends with the Aussies, mostly blue-collar types who grew up together in the same small town near Sydney. They’re here to celebrate one of them reaching the mid-century mark, saying that Base Camp’s more rugged appeal was exactly what they were seeking. Back for a second tour of downhill duty, Nico the Italian assures me that he wouldn’t trade Base Camp’s spontaneous camaraderie for the more posh creature comforts of nearby Bear Claw Lodge, a palatial five-star fishing chalet located in the nearby Kispiox Valley only twelve minutes away from us by helicopter. Skeena Heliskiing leases Bear Claw for the entire winter season to accommodate guests who would rather be pampered after hours than trek through the snow for midnight bathroom breaks.
During our week at Base Camp, we experience the full gamut of northern BC weather. On sundrenched blue sky days we effortlessly slice our signatures into glistening glaciers. On snow-squall punctuated low visibility days the woods beckon, lovely dark and deep. On the occasional morning or afternoon when inclement weather prohibits flying, Jake’s hyper energetic brother, Schimun, the camp handyman and self-appointed entertainment director, organises impromptu axe-throwing and Mölkky (Finnish bowling) competitions in the snow.
Schimun is also in charge of stoking nocturnal riverbank bonfires where we gather after hearty dinners to swap ski and war stories. On our final night together gathered under a full forest moon I step away from the flames for a moment to take it all in. Miles from nowhere a small group of like-minded adventurers have bonded over our love of the great outdoors, our healthy addiction to backcountry adventure, and this once in a lifetime heli-skiing experience made even more memorable by the knowledge that we’re camping — ok, call it glamping — in the heart of the some of the most mind-blowing heli-skiing country on Earth. That notion doesn’t smell like victory. It smells like snow.
How to get there:
The nearest airport (Smithers) is located only 1.5 hours from Vancouver and 4 hours from Calgary. Flights are available daily from Vancouver International Airport directly to Smithers. The Skeena van shuttle will take guests on the 1.5-hour drive from Smithers to the Bear Claw Lodge, where the helicopter is waiting to transport them to Base Camp, an 8-minute ride away.
Where to stay:
The Skeena Base Camp Heliskiing package is a fly-in, fly-out 6-day option for those seeking an adventurous wilderness experience catered to a maximum of 10 guests per week. Skiers should be strong intermediate, advanced or expert. The all-inclusive per person price is CA$8,900, which includes the industry-standard 100,000 feet of guaranteed vertical. All packages start on a Friday morning (7:30am pick up) and end the following Thursday morning (9:45am departure from Base Camp).
Story photos curtesy of Skeena Heliskiing
Published in the Globe and Mail
Travel is often a search for the unique on journeys to far-flung destinations: The more different from our own world a place is, the more alluring it becomes.
Few destinations match this profile more than Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, which lies 400 kilometres off Africa’s southeast coast. It is considered by some scientists to be the eighth continent because of its ecology, and travellers willing to journey far off the beaten path to reach it will discover flora and fauna – much of it now endangered – found nowhere else on earth.
Take lemurs, for example. Serious contenders for the title of world’s cutest critter, they are as synonymous with Madagascar as beavers are with Canada. Equal parts dog, cat, monkey and comedian, they range in size from some of the world’s smallest primates – the Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur that fits in the palm of your hand – to black-faced sifaka lemurs weighing up to 10 kilograms.
After flying 12 hours south from Paris to the Malagasy capital of Antananarivo, then driving about 150 kilometres east to reach Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, I’m thrilled to encounter my charmingly adorable welcome committee. Curious as George, a group of habituated bamboo, brown and sifaka lemurs nimbly scamper up and down my body, investigating my hair, nose and cap. Then they leap off into the forest on Lemur Island, a tiny reserve set aside for them in this park deep in Madagascar’s highlands.
Among the 14 species of lemurs that call it home, Andasibe-Mantadia is best known for the highly endangered indri lemur. Called babakoto or “man of the forest” in Malagasy, indris are considered to be Madagascar’s most sacred animal. Growing up to a metre tall and covered in a dense coat of black and white fur, they are famous for their whooping territorial mating and alarm call that sounds eerily similar to a whale’s song and can be heard from more than a mile away. It is Madagascar’s signature sound, but it may be silenced forever. Illegal tree harvesting and graphite mining inside the park threaten the indri’s survival. Only around 60 family groups remain, living high up in the treetops.
One morning, a local tracker leads me deep into the park in search of a platoon of indris. Tramping through dense eucalyptus forest covered with moss, ferns, bamboo, tambourissa and more than a hundred species of orchids, we listen intently for their telltale sonic serenade coming from the sun-splintered emerald canopy high above. Soon, we hear a spine-tingling wail and follow it until we locate an indri family urgently alerting one another to our presence.
Slinking through the undergrowth, I crouch to snap photos as a pair observe me intently with their saucer-like eyes. It’s easy to see why these creatures have been described as resembling a four-year-old child in a panda suit. They are natural acrobats and are most active just after daybreak. I watch them effortlessly flinging themselves up to 10 metres from branch to branch. As the rising sun begins to pierce the forest, the indri family puts on a show worthy of Cirque du Soleil.
Such shows may become increasingly rare. Lemurs are among Madagascar’s endemic creatures facing possible extinction from habitat loss according to international conservation organizations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
Encroaching human settlement, traditional slash-and-burn agriculture and the ongoing exploitation of tropical hardwoods have destroyed nearly 90 per cent of the forests that once covered this island. An island that naturalist David Attenborough described as “a place where antique, outmoded forms of life that have long since disappeared from the rest of the world still survive in isolation.”
Human-wrought devastation is starkly evident from the window of my two-hour Air Madagascar flight from Antananarivo across this island’s once-forested-now-barren central core to the dusty southwestern port town of Toliara. I am on my way to explore another of Madagascar’s natural treasures, Isalo National Park. It’s a long, four-hour drive from Toliara through semi-arid desert scrubland, a landscape punctuated with thorny Didiera trees, cactus and enormous engorged baobabs.
Isalo’s protected zone has been called a surreal cross between New Mexico’s high desert and Jurassic Park: It rises from a grassy plain to cover more than 800 square kilometres of sandstone massif eroded by wind and water into fantastic ridges known as runiformes, steep gorges, canyons and tiny stalagmite spires. Travel writer Dervla Murphy described this region’s bizarre mix of exotic flora and fauna in her book, Muddling Through in Madagascar, as “nature’s botanical lunatic asylum.”
Setting off the next morning with a park guide, I follow a stream that meanders through Isalo’s spectacular Canyon Namaza. High above us on the surrounding cliffs, sacred Bara tribal burial sites remain off limits to vazaha, the Malagasy word for foreigner. This is prime lemur-spotting terrain, and we occasionally catch fleeting glimpses of elusive ring-tailed and white sifakas playing in the dense foliage lining our route.
Reaching our destination – a pristine waterfall called Cascade des Nymphes – I strip down and dive into its crystal clear collection pool. Luxuriant vegetation and overhanging pandanus trees provide welcome shade from the midday heat. Standing on its sandy bottom, surrounded by riparian forest and the scent of wild orchids, I feel like Adam before the fall.
Although my sense of primordial solitude here is palpable, I am far from alone.
Endemic birds with exotic names such as Benson’s rock-thrush, knob-billed duck and Madagascar crested ibis fly overhead. A stump-tailed chameleon darts across a nearby rock. A green-blue swallow-tail butterfly flutters past my outstretched hand. And just out of sight, nocturnal red-fronted brown lemurs doze high up in the branches of these deep, dark woods.
Floating on my back in this tranquil, palm-lined oasis, I imagine how Madagascar must have appeared to its first settlers two millennia ago – thought to have been Austronesians from Borneo who paddled dugout canoes across thousands of miles of open ocean.
Twenty centuries is a tiny spec of geological time for this land mass that broke off from the supercontinent Gondwana between 120- and 165-million years ago. But sadly, it’s long enough for humankind to have threatened the survival of so many of this vanishing Eden’s inhabitants, including Madagascar’s irresistible, irreplaceable, lovable lemurs.
IF YOU GO
Madagascar is best visited during the dry season between April and December. During the cyclone season from January to March, overland transport can be difficult due to poor road conditions and some accommodation and attractions are closed. July and August are especially busy. French is widely spoken in the larger cities and towns. Air France offers several flights a week from Charles de Gaulle airport to Antananarivo. Another, albeit notoriously unreliable, option is Air Madagascar, which services the country’s main towns from Antananarivo.
Berkeley, Calif.-based Wilderness Travel offers ecoadventures that cover Madagascar’s natural highlights, including Andasibe-Mantadia, Isalo, Zombitse-Vohibasia and Ranomafana National Parks. wildernesstravel.com
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel du Louvre is conveniently located in the centre of Antananarivo. It offers comfortable accommodations, plus an excellent restaurant and spa. hotel-du-louvre.com
On the edge of Isalo National Park, Le Jardin du Roy is a collection of spacious granite bungalows set amid sandstone kopjes with spectacular park views. lejardinduroy.com
The tranquil Les Dunes Ifaty has beachfront villas set within a park an hour up the coast from Tuléar. Coral reef excursions and visits to a nearby baobab forest can be arranged. lesdunesdifaty.com
Surrounding a gorgeous lagoon on the edge of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, Vakona Forest Lodge’s Malagasy-style bungalows are set within lush gardens of palm trees and bougainvilleas. hotelvakona.com
Published in Canadian Traveller Magazine
“I got very close to a polar bear today,” says Paul Jenkins, a family physician from Queensland, Australia, recounting how the Arctic’s most iconic predator had reared up on its hind legs against the side of his tundra buggy while he was photographing it from an open window. ”I was so near its face I could feel its breath.”
Nothing can prepare you to go nose to nose with mighty Ursus maritimus, or Nanuq, as the Inuit call the great white ice bear, now thought to number fewer than 25,000 in the wild. For millennia the hero of Aboriginal myths, the polar bear has over the past two decades become a powerful symbol of global warming, threatened by reduced access to its primary prey due to melting Arctic sea ice. If you want to safely get up close and personal with polar bears before they vanish there is no better place on earth to be than Churchill, nestled between the shore of Hudson Bay and the Churchill River in Northern Manitoba 110 kilometres south of Nunavut.
Canada is home to roughly 60% of the world’s remaining polar bears, and as the Arctic’s sea ice advances and retreats each season, individual bears may travel thousands of miles per year to find food. Each fall thousands of them congregate near Churchill, a former fur trading post, waiting for the water of Hudson Bay ice to freeze solid enough for them to break their long summer fast and venture out onto it to hunt for ring seals.
“The complex relationship of the bears with sea ice is sometimes hard for visitors to understand,” explains biologist Doug Ross, an interpretive guide for Frontiers North’s Tundra Buggy Lodge Adventure. “The bears need the sea ice to get their main source of food, which are seals, and if the period of ice on Hudson Bay is reduced, then they will have less to eat,” he adds. For wildlife lovers as well as Canadian frontier history buffs, visiting Churchill at this time of year is a once in a lifetime opportunity to view these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat as they amble along the Bay’s coastal marshes and salt bogs.
Journey to Churchill
No roads reach Manitoba’s northern outpost, located along the 58th parallel. To reach Churchill you either have to ride the VIA rails for two days from Winnipeg or fly in. During fall polar bear viewing season Frontiers North charters flights, making it an easy two-hour hop. Upon arrival, I board a bus tour of local and historical points of interest, including the Port of Churchill and Cape Merry, site of the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Churchill, which for nearly 200 years was the fur trading empire’s most northerly outpost.
I also stop at Manitoba Conservation’s polar bear holding facility, which holds ‘problem’ bears that wander too close to town and are captured during fall bear alert season. While I’m there one accidental ursine intruder is being transferred to make room for more. I watch from a safe distance as conservation officers load the enormous tranquilized bear into nylon net attached to a helicopter that will transport it about 50 kilometres out of town. Applause from the crowd of onlookers breaks out as the world’s largest flying fur ball soars overhead, bound for a rude awakening far out on the tundra.
Another Churchill highlight is the world-renowned Eskimo Museum, containing hundreds of intricate Inuit carvings that are among the world’s oldest examples of indigenous craftsmanship, huge skin kayaks, a stuffed polar bear and muskox and other fascinating artifacts. For anyone interested in history, art and archaeology, this museum is a must-see. So too is the National Parks Visitors Centre’s interactive exhibit about the history of the fur trade and park sites in the area, including Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site, York Factory National Historic Site and Wapusk National Park of Canada. I emerge from both amazed by the fortitude and ingenuity of the North’s original and early European inhabitants.
Into the wild
Churchill’s museums and historic sites offer an engrossing preparation for three days and nights in the heart of bear country far from the lights of town. My base of exploration is Frontier North’s mobile Tundra Buggy Lodge located in the 850,000 hectare Churchill Wildlife Management Area that protects the polar bear’s summer resting areas and maternity denning grounds. To reach it I board a tundra buggy along with fellow polar bear lovers from Europe, Australia, the US and Canada for the two hour bumpy ride over muskeg. Invented and built from spare parts by Churchill resident Leonard D. Smith in 1979, this Macgyvered all-terrain vehicle has been used ever since to view, photograph and study polar bears and other northern wildlife like Arctic hare, Arctic fox, Willow Ptarmigan, Snowy Owl and Snow Geese out on the tundra in their natural environments. Resembling an extra-wide school bus welded onto the chassis of a monster truck, our tundra buggy rumbles and lurches its way into the twilight of a late sub-Arctic afternoon like an ungainly lunar exploration vehicle, bound for one of the most unusual hotels I’ve ever seen.
Imagine a zoo where you are in the enclosure and the animals roam free. That’s what it feels like at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, where I fall asleep and wake up with polar bears right outside my window. Consisting of several trailers on giant tires connected by outdoor walkways perfect for round the clock wildlife viewing, this ingenious inn features two accommodation units that sleep up to 40 guests on comfortable bunks under iconic wool Hudson’s Bay Company multi-stripe point blankets, a lounge area, a dining car and staff quarters. Exterior field lights enable guests to continue watching bears after the sun sets.
“What makes this lodge experience so unique is being so remote on the actual shore of Hudson Bay and being "caged", so to speak, while the polar bears and other animals are free to wander at will,” says Doug Ross, my group’s interpretive guide. Trained as a biologist, this former Parks Canada employee was recently in charge of the popular Journey to Churchill exhibit at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Zoo. A wealth of northern wildlife information, Ross adds that he often hears from lodge guests how surprised they are to be able to get so close to the bears without disturbing them. “Most of the bears have no fear of the guests and the buggies,” he says. “Many guests are also surprised at how curious some bears are of us.”
Where the bears are
The next morning we set off in our roving photographic base station in search of the magnificent carnivore that Inuit hunters considered to be wise, powerful, and almost human. In some parts of the Arctic indigenous people still follow long held traditions by hunting polar bears, consuming their meat and making traditional clothing like kamiks (soft boots) from the fur. The only part of the bear that is traditionally discarded is the liver due to its toxic levels of Vitamin A. Banned in Manitoba, sport hunting is now regulated in other parts of the Canadian arctic by a strict quota system designed to keep the kill within the bounds that bear populations can support.
It doesn’t take long to spot our first polar bears wandering across the tundra or curled up in the snow, conserving their energy for the impending seal hunting season. As curious about us as we are awed by them, individual bears occasionally approach our buggy, sniffing the air and in some cases rising up to lean against the buggy’s side. “To actually see that huge bear and learn how it sustains itself for a period of time, marvels Bonnie Jean Fenton, a retired nurse from Highgate, Ontario. “You think you’re prepared and you know what’s coming but you don’t.”
Many in our group say they have come here at considerable expense to realize a lifelong dream; the chance to see polar bears in the wild before this vulnerable species vanishes. “It’s an emotional experience, connecting with these animals,” says Paul Jenkins’ wife, Sandra. “ I’m gaining a real understanding of what their lives are like and what they’re facing. And I’m hopeful that they will carry on. That there will be enough interest and good will to really try to ensure that they are sustained.” Polar bears were listed as a threatened species in the US under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008 due to ongoing loss of their sea ice habitat resulting from climate change. Canada's Western Hudson Bay bear population has suffered over a 20% decline since the early 1980s. According to Polar Bears International, the conservation organization that works closely with Frontiers North, the survival and protection of the polar bear habitat are urgent issues.
The next morning we pull the Tundra Buggy over to watch a pair of young male bears half-heartedly shadow boxing, too weakened by their summer long fast to make the fur really fly. Later, we track a mother and her cub gingerly traverse a dangerously thin expanse of early season ice. When we come across a bear feeding on the skeletal remains of an unlucky ring seal I’m relieved despite the ghastly spectacle that the seal’s sacrifice might provide this bear with enough strength to hang on until that sea ice finally freezes.
Snuggly tucked under my Hudson’s Bay blanket in my bunk that night, I spot a ghostly white form in the distance hunched motionless in the moonlight. It’s another male polar bear staring out over the still unstable ice flow, a solitary hunter contemplating his odds of surviving what we’ve done to his once predictable and pristine world. Inuit hunters worshipped, Nanuk because they believed that he decided if their hunt would be successful. Now it is up to us to decide if the titan of the tundra will successfully navigate global warming’s dangerous waters.
IF YOU GO
Frontiers North’s Tundra Buggy Lodge is located in the Churchill Wildlife Management area, home to the largest concentration of polar bears in Churchill. Daily Tundra Buggy excursions, led by a knowledgeable Interpretive Guide*, allow guests to explore the area beyond the Lodge and give plenty of photography opportunities. Select Tundra Buggy Lodge departures are available with both rail and air transportation. Packages include 2 nights in Winnipeg, 1 night in Churchill and 3 nights at the Tundra Buggy Lodge. For more information and to book, visit www.frontiersnorth.com/content/tundra-buggy-lodge.
How you can help
Polar Bears International (PBI) is the only international organization solely dedicated to conserving polar bears and the sea ice they depend on. Through media, science, and advocacy, it works to inspire people to care about the Arctic, the threats to its future, and the connection between this remote region and our global climate. Donations support critical polar bear conservation research and fund ongoing education and outreach efforts, including PBI’s work to address climate change.
Published in the Dallas Morning News
HOEDSPRUIT, South Africa — Circling me cautiously, the four young male cheetahs sniff the air. They sense my nervousness as I crouch in the grass a few feet away, half fearful, half mesmerized by those gorgeous almond brown eyes, set atop signature black tear marks.
Suddenly, the cheetahs are upon me. But instead of tearing me to shreds, these elegant predators snuggle up to me, rubbing the coarse fur of their spotted torsos against my side and trying to nuzzle their cold noses under my arms.
Then I hear the sound of purring. Just like house cats, only louder. Soon, I’m scratching one cheetah under the chin and offering my palm to the others to lick with their sandpapery tongues.
“Just don’t rub those boys’ bellies and you’ll be fine,” cautions my guide, who works at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre near South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
“You definitely don’t want a cheetah’s nonretractable claws wrapped around you, even in play.”
The HESC is one of several research, conservation and rehabilitation facilities in southern Africa working to preserve and renew the continent’s dwindling numbers of big cats. It focuses on the release of captive-bred cheetahs to the wild; the breeding of endangered, vulnerable or rare animal species; and the treatment and rehabilitation of orphaned or injured animals.
In addition to hope, the HESC offers an opportunity to experience intimate, educational and inspirational wildlife encounters. The group hopes visitors leave with a greater appreciation of the plight of Africa’s big cats — cheetahs, lions and leopards — that are now among the continent’s most endangered species.
“The HESC is living proof that people can make a difference to the long-term survival of the planet and its animal inhabitants,” says Adine Roode, whose late mother, Lente, founded the facility in 1990. Eventually, Lente Roode opened the center’s doors to injured, orphaned and endangered animals of all species.
“Getting so close to such an incredible animal is a unique experience, but you still have to respect the fact that these creatures are wild,” Roode says.
Aside from intimate photo ops with its resident “ambassador cheetahs” — cats that cannot ever be reintroduced into the wild and are used to educate visitors — the HESC also offers the opportunity for guests to view rare wild dogs, lions, African wildcats, ground hornbills and sable antelope.
Visitors can also take elephant-back safaris at nearby Camp Jabulani, a luxury safari lodge also owned by the Roode family. It is in the Kapama Game Reserve, about a 30-minute drive away.
Camp Jabulani’s trained herd of elephants was also rescued by the HESC, and its members are renowned for their gentle temperaments. The camp’s first elephant, 16-year old Jabulani, was orphaned at 4 months and hand-reared by Lente Roode and her HESC team.
Now Jabulani leads members of the herd on daily walkabouts, their handlers and camp guests riding just behind their huge flapping ears. Several elephant tots tag along during my hourlong ride through the tranquil Kapama Reserve, playfully weaving in and out of the procession as their mothers keep a watchful eye.
Back at the HESC, I hop into a cruiser for a tour of the center’s spacious cheetah enclosures. One contains an incredibly rare and beautiful king cheetah, with its distinctive coat pattern, which paces the perimeter of its spacious enclosure. Soon, we pull up beside a large cement pad nicknamed the “Vulture Restaurant,” where I’m treated to a decidedly unappetizing display of dozens of squabbling raptors feeding on fresh cattle carcasses.
My final stop is the center’s animal hospital, where veterinary staff and volunteers care for injured or abandoned animals. Eventually, if the staff thinks they’ll be able to survive in the wild, some are released.
“People say you can’t release hand-raised cheetahs back into the wild, but each animal has a natural instinct, and if you give them the opportunity they can survive,” says Adine Roode. She explains that releasing the cats, estimated to number less than 1,000 in the wild in South Africa, isn’t where it ends: “Of course, you can’t just send them out there. You have to monitor them, especially in the beginning, to see how they are doing, until they are good on their own.”
As I depart the HESC, I encounter one resident clearly not ready to be on its own. Standing near the entrance gate is a young zebra flanked by two goats.
“Those goats have taken to being surrogate mothers for several of the injured or orphaned animals brought to the center,” my guide says.
“They love to mother and protect the newcomers,” he adds, warning me that if I venture too close to the zebra, I might find myself fending off a goat attack.
Doctor Dolittle would feel right at home here.
When you go
The Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre is a nonprofit organization dependent on funds from sponsorships, donations and the proceeds from eco-tourism. It offers people between 18 and 35 years old an intensive, 21-day program to see the center’s operations and its cheetah programs. Participants are involved with the everyday care of the cheetahs. For information, visit hesc.co.za.
Getting there: The center is in the Limpopo Province in Hoedspruit, South Africa, approximately 41/2 hours from Johannesburg. South African Express runs daily scheduled flights between Eastgate Airport at Hoedspruit and Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport. To book, visit www.saexpress.co.za.
Accommodations: Located in the nearby Kapama Game Reserve, about a 30-minute drive away, Camp Jabulani is an accredited Relais & Chateaux property owned and operated by the Roode family. It consists of a lounge, dining room, spa and six luxury suites, all flanking a dry riverbed. A private villa is also available. Only Camp Jabulani guests can physically interact with the HESC’s resident cheetahs. For more information, visit campjabulani.com.
Recommended outfitters: Denver-based Africa Adventure Consultants (adventuresinafrica.com; 1-866-778-1089) and Seattle-based African Safari Co. (africansafarico.com; 1-800-414-3090) both offer a range of customizable luxury, adventure and family-oriented South African safaris that can include stays at Camp Jabulani as well as visits to the HESC.
Published in the Dallas News
Medieval monasteries. Charming clifftop villages. Renaissance palaces. Terraced vineyards. Homestyle Italian cuisine. Perhaps not the first images that come to mind when you consider a sea kayaking expedition. Yet all that and more awaited me on an amazing paddling adventure last fall along the Italian Riviera, the spectacularly photogenic region nestled between the French Riviera, Monaco and Tuscany on the Ligurian coast.
The trip — my first multiday kayaking adventure — also included two days of hiking in Cinque Terre (Five Lands), which refers to the five villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mar on the northwest coast of Italy.
Only paths, trains and boats connect the villages; cars cannot reach them from the outside. Although they collectively attract 850,000 tourists each year, these timeless enclaves remain largely unspoiled, continuing a lifestyle that goes back many generations.
The entire Cinque Terre coastline, its five villages and the surrounding hillsides make up part of the Cinque Terre National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Exploring this section of the Italian Riviera by kayak and on foot is an unusual way to experience the picturesque jumble of colorful fishing villages, vine-terraced cliffs and stunning sea vistas often not accessible by vehicle. Our leisurely, self-directed pace left sufficient time to truly appreciate la dolce vita at a relatively quiet time of year when the summer tourist hordes had mostly departed.
Preparation pays off
Our group of 11 kayakers set off — or put in, in kayaking terminology — on a beach south of Genoa, famous as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and regarded as a dominant sea power in its Renaissance heyday.
Relatively rough seas meant launching into heavy surf, something I had never done before. With the encouragement of my companions, most of whom were seasoned ocean kayakers, I was able to avoid capsizing on my first plunge into the Ligurian Sea.
Prior to signing on for this adventure — the first paddling trip along the Italian Riviera offered by global sea kayaking outfitter Southern Sea Ventures — I had signed up for a two-day introduction to sea kayaking offered at home in Vancouver. It covered the basics, such as proper paddling strokes, stable upper body positioning, assisted- and self-rescue procedures and more — just enough to make me feel confident that if I did run into trouble on the high seas I wouldn’t be completely lost.
This preparation turned out to be a wise decision, and I would recommend anyone contemplating a sea kayaking adventure to do likewise.
Not just a vacation
Once everyone was safely afloat and stable in our kayaks on that first morning, we set off on a meandering journey along the Italian Riviera from the vantage point of the sea. Paddling an average of 10 miles per day, we took time out to explore this majestic coastline, stopping to enjoy leisurely picnic lunches of local foccacia.
Each evening we stayed in small family-run hotels or country villas, enjoying hearty dinners in local restaurants, sampling regional wines, reliving each day’s aquatic adventures and soaking up the local flavor of rural Italian life.
“This isn’t just a vacation. It’s also an opportunity to challenge yourself and improve your kayaking technique,” said our guide, Enrico Carrossino, as we came ashore on our first morning at the Abbey of San Fruttuoso, a medieval monastery, built by the Benedictines of Monte Cassino, that overlooks a tiny fishing village.
Enrico was right. Each day on the water I felt myself growing stronger and more confident. True, mastering the strokes and navigational techniques required to rise above the level of novice sea kayaker would take many more trips. But even during our roughest passage — a stomach-knotting paddle around Punta Mesco Cape from Levanto to the Cinque Terre village of Vernazza in 5-foot-high swells — the knowledge that if I capsized help would rapidly arrive was immensely reassuring. We quickly jelled as a team, each member looking out for the others.
A typical day on the water began with a hearty breakfast at our hotel and a route briefing. We then loaded our luggage into the support vans and headed down to whatever Cinque Terre village harbor we had stowed our kayaks at to launch them again into the warm Mediterranean waters. A couple of hours paddling before lunch and a couple in the afternoon were the norm — a relaxed pace that set aside plenty of time for enjoying the breathtaking coastal vistas, exploring the shorelines, enjoying that daily highlight, our picnic lunch, and savoring a beer or gelato as the sun began to dip toward the azure Mediterranean.
On days when rough seas precluded paddling, we hiked the Cinque Terre’s famous network of trails, many of which have been restored after devastating flooding that ravaged much of this coastline in 2011. Long trails of steep steps snaked up mountainsides that rose almost vertically above each pastel-hued village toward lush olive groves and vineyards.
Hundreds of terraces run along the route, supported by 1,250 miles of dry stone walls, built without cement by artisans over many centuries. This remarkable feat of stonework — longer than China’s Great Wall — is why Cinque Terre was awarded UNESCO status in 1997.
The hiking was a perfect complement to the paddling, offering us two dramatically different perspectives on these labyrinthine villages, with their sinuous cobblestone streets, crumbling castles and tiny harbors where flat-capped fishermen ply the waters much like they have since medieval times.
Rounding the cape on our final day at sea, we could spot San Pietro Church, perched at the edge of the rocky promontory at the entrance to the harbor of Porto Venere. Over the past nine days our group had come together as a team, some of us, like me, pushing past our initial fears and seizing the challenge of sea kayaking for the first time in this most magical of settings.
I would return the next day on my own to posh Portofino, which we had visited on our first afternoon, to spend the night at the fabulous Hotel Splendido, perched like a pink jewel above its glittering bay.
Then it was on to Lake Como for a couple of days of cycling in the verdant hills overlooking its gorgeous shores before reaching Milan and my homeward flight. I’m already contemplating where to paddle next, thrilled to have discovered a glorious new mode of travel on the paddle of a lifetime through the ancient waters of the Ligurian Sea.
When you go
Getting there: Regular flights from London, European capitals and Italian cities serve Genoa, a hub for trains serving the Italian Riviera.
Recommended outfitters: Southern Sea Ventures offers multiday sea kayaking adventures everywhere — from the Mediterranean, the South Pacific and Asia to the arctic and Antarctica. This trip is intended for people with some previous paddling experience and an interest in hiking. For latest destinations and itineraries, visit southernseaventures.com.
Red Savannah organized this writer’s private four-day extension, with stays at the Hotel Splendido in Portofino and at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo on the shores of Lake Como, along with cycling and hiking excursions. redsavannah.com.
Published in the Vancouver Sun
DAMARALAND, Namibia - Churning through the bone-dry Huab River bed, our clay-caked Land Cruiser chases the setting sun and some of Africa’s most elusive inhabitants.
“We’re extremely lucky to run into such a large herd of desert-adapted elephants,” shouts guide Tristan Cowley over the roaring engine of what is likely the only safari vehicle within fifty kilometres in this remote northwestern region of Namibia called Damaraland. After mounting a huge dune, we drop down to join Namibia’s legendary desert survival specialists on their long march to water.
Desert-adapted elephants are so behaviourally attuned to the hyper arid conditions of the Namib Desert that they routinely travel more than 200 kilometres without drinking en route to watering holes near ancient, ephemeral riverbeds. They are also far gentler on the fauna they ingest than most elephants, perhaps innately understanding that knocking over the precious few trees and bushes that sustain them will be their ecological undoing.
One would think that having more than 20 of these mythical behemoths virtually to ourselves would be a rare treat. Only about 500 desert-adapted elephants remain in Namibia, the only place besides the fringes of the Sahara in Mali where they are found.
But in this safe and serene country with more wildlife than people — along with spectacular desert landscapes, a ghostly coastline of sand, fog and shipwrecks, ancient artistic treasures, authentic tribes and some of the best safari camps and lodges in Africa — the exceptional is the norm. Which can mean refreshingly uncharted adventures for even the most seasoned of safari connoisseurs.
Space is Namibia’s ace. Twice the size of California, this former South African protectorate that finally attained independence in 1990 after a protracted guerrilla war contains only 2.3 million people.
Only Greenland and Mongolia have fewer inhabitants per square kilometre. And with around 200,000 square kilometres (a remarkable 25 per cent of its total land area) constitutionally set aside for nature reserves, Namibia feels like one giant super safari park.
In a continent where nature is demarcated by fences and reserves, often turning locals into trespassers and in some cases, poachers on their own ancestral lands, Namibia’s conservancy program is a rare conservation success story. In one of the few places in Southern Africa that is completely unfenced, desert-adapted animals can move and migrate unhindered and in relative safety because the local people are no longer their relentless adversaries.
The happy result? In stark contrast to the rest of Africa, poaching has decreased to nearly negligible levels in Namibia.
It’s currently the only country where free-roaming lion populations are actually increasing. It has the world’s largest population of black rhino, many of which are being transferred out of National Parks and into communally held conservancies. And it is home to more than 50 per cent of the world’s remaining cheetahs, making Namibia the cat’s meow for carnivore lovers.
“Namibia is unique due to the fact that we have more predators and more prey outside our national parks than any other country,” says Africat Foundation director Donna Hanssen as she feeds resident orphaned cheetahs their morning pound of bovine flesh.
One of Africa’s most progressive large predator research and rehabilitation centres, Africat is located in Okonjima Nature Reserve, three hours drive north of Namibia’s compact, laid-back capital of Windhoek. Since opening in 1993, the foundation has rescued more than 1,000 cheetahs and leopards on Namibian farmland, successfully reintroducing more than 85 per cent of them back into the wild.
Tall, blond and packing a pistol, Hanssen shows me around 22,000-hectare Okonjima, carved from land her family once farmed. On these open plains, occasionally broken by the remnants of ancient sandstone outcrops, rehabilitated big cats hone their hunting skills before they’re reintroduced into the wild. Volunteers from around the world help the Hanssens restore habitats and care for dozens of cheetahs and other rescued wildlife. And Okonjima guests can opt to stay in spacious traditional thatched chalets a short stroll from the original Hanssen-family farmhouse. Or splurge on the Grand African Villa, the ultra-luxurious bush hideaway overlooking a watering hole deep within the reserve where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stayed during the birth of their daughter Shiloh.
Space (as in seen from space) certainly applies to the massive burnt orange dunes near Sossusvlei (pronounced SOSS-oo-vlay), a day’s drive west of Windhoek. Rising out of the Namib Desert like silent, star-shaped sentinels, they tower as high as a 60-storey skyscraper over Namib Naukluft Park, Africa’s largest conservation area.
I reach the summit of one dune just in time to catch the rising sun casting shadows on rows of silicon pyramids that mark the entrance to an ocean of sand flowing all the way to Namibia’s notorious Skeleton Coast, graveyard of countless ill-fated ships throughout the centuries. Surreal as it is serene, this vast alien landscape feels like the enormous backdrop of a sci-fi movie, which it has portrayed in numerous Hollywood and Bollywood blockbusters.
Later that day I feel like the star of my own sci-fi epic, cruising through vegetated dune belts and endless stretches of golden grassy savannah on a quad bike in NamibRand Nature Reserve as ostrich and gemsbok race alongside in the distance. Probably the largest private nature reserve in Southern Africa at more than 170,000 hectares, NamibRand was created to help protect and conserve the unique ecology and wildlife of the southwest Namib Desert, one of the world’s driest ecosystems.
Out here amid some of the planet’s most beguilingly unspoiled desert vistas, visitors can enjoy utter tranquillity and pampering at five-star retreats like Sossusvlei Desert Lodge and Wolwedans, a selection of small and elegant safari camps, proceeds from which go toward maintaining the reserve. Retiring after a gourmet “bush dinner” to the veranda of my spacious wooden Wolwedans suite elevated above the dunes, I contemplate the darkest, most starlit sky I’ve ever seen and strain to hear the lonesome call of a lone jackal serenading me from across the otherwise silent surface of this magical moonscape.
If Sossusvlei and NamibRand feel like restorative desert isolation chambers, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Twyfelfontein is ancient art therapy. Located in the barren Kunene Region of northwestern Namibia, it contains possibly Africa’s largest and finest collection of petroglyphs, etched in stone thousands of years ago by resident Bushmen (San), the original inhabitants of southern Africa.
Hidden amid craggy sandstone mountains, their multicoloured rock strata and minerals exposed to the elements in fantastical shapes and colours, Twyfelfontein’s 2,500 prehistoric engravings depict handprints and abstract circular motifs, along with elephant, giraffe, kudu, lion, rhinoceros, zebra and ostrich.
Admiring these alfresco galleries painted in blood, clays, ochre and plant extracts on boulders and slabs of red sandstone scattered about the hillside, I picture the ancient artists who created them — perhaps during shamanistic rituals while their wild models followed age-old migration routes across the surrounding countryside — a tableau that has changed little in the thousands of years since.
Today, thanks in large part to Namibia’s pioneering program of land conservancies that have handed back control over wildlife management and tourism to the local indigenous communities, the descendants of those prehistoric animals immortalized at Twyfelfontein remain very much in the picture.
Their freedom still largely unhindered, desert-adapted black rhinos, lions, elephants and cheetah continue to roam across the breathtakingly beautiful open spaces of this African anomaly — a desert rose by any other name.
IF YOU GO
When to go:
Late winter until the beginning of summer (June till November) is the best time to go to Namibia. Winter (May to September) temperatures in the interior range from 18 C to 25 C during the day. Summer (October to April) average interior temperatures range from 20 C to 34 C during the day.
Air Namibia (www.airnamibia.com.na) flies to Windhoek from Frankfurt, as well as offering frequent daily connections for passengers arriving in Johannesburg aboard daily South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) flights from New York and Washington. Air Namibia also operates a limited internal service.
Navigating Namibia is remarkably easy for all levels of travellers. Roads are generally good for self-driving and routes well marked.
Namibia is a reasonably safe, peaceful country and is not involved in any wars.
If you are alert and take some common sense precautions, you should have no problems.
Should you require medical assistance, Namibia’s hospitals are modern and capable of attending to whatever needs you may have.
Where to stay:
The Olive Guesthouse is an intimate luxury boutique hotel in a tranquil corner of Windhoek. It features seven deluxe suites, each individually decorated to reflect a different region of Namibia. (www.theolive-namibia.com)
Home to the Africat Foundation (www.africat.org), Okonjima (www.okonjima.com) offers four different styles of luxury accommodation ranging from a sumptuous private villa and traditional thatched roof suites to an exclusive self-catering campsite.
The Wolwedans Collection features a selection of small and elegant safari camps, each set against a backdrop of exquisite desert scenery in the heart of the NamibRand Nature Reserve. (www.wolwedans.com)
Also set in the heart of the NamibRand Nature Reserve, Sossusvlei Desert Lodge offers spacious and serene five-star suites complete with dramatic skylights for late night stargazing, as well as a selection of experiences ranging from quad biking to ballooning. (www.andbeyondafrica.com)
Vancouver-based Heritage Safari Company (www.heritagesafaris.com / 1-888-301-1713) and Seattle based African Safari Company (www.africansafarico.com / 1.800.414.3090) can both arrange complete luxury Namibia itineraries, including the locations and accommodation featured in this story.
For more on Namibia, visit www.namibiatourism.com.na.
Luxury eco-lodge offers all-inclusive adventure on the edge of the world
Published in Canadian Traveller Magazine
Standing at the base of the three glacier carved slate grey granite spires looming above me like solemn sentinels at the gateway to some impenetrable Valhalla, I feel like a pilgrim who has finally reached his journey’s end at the very edge of the world. These two thousand metre high towers from which Chile’s magnificent Torres del Paine National Park derives its name are among the most iconic images in South America, dominating the landscape of this 600,000 acre nature reserve internationally renowned for its incredible trekking and hiking that was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 1978.
It has taken me ten years, several flights and a strenuous ten hour hike to finally reach Torres del Paine, justifiably famous for its jagged, horn-shaped peaks, turquoise glacial lakes, electric-blue icebergs, rolling pampas and signature wildlife, including condors, flamingos, llama-like guanacos and the elusive puma, I initially planned to reach the Towers while on a month-long solo backpacking trip through Patagonia in 2005. But a major fire, allegedly accidentally started by a Czech backpacker, broke out before I could reach it. Lasting for ten days, the conflagration destroyed over 150 square kilometres of grasslands and old growth forest. It also indefinitely postponed my journey to this pristine patch of the planet.
Now, I’m finally back. This time not as a hostel hopping backpacker, but as a guest of Explora Patagonia, Torres del Paine’s original all-inclusive luxe eco-lodge. First conceived as a unique way of travelling to remote areas of South America based on in-depth exploration of nature and the ‘luxury of the essential’, the lodge first opened in 1993 in the wild heart of the park, soon cementing its reputation as the go-to all-inclusive destination for more affluent travellers searching for the perfect blend of creature comforts and aspirational adventure in a truly magical setting. Needless to say, I’m eager to experience whatever challenges Explora Patagonia can throw at me.
More independent minded and adventurous travellers often tend to associate the term all-inclusive with over indulgence at cookie-cutter beach resorts and aboard cruises. At Explora Patagonia, the concept has been interpreted very differently right from conception. Here, as I soon delightfully discover, it’s all about disconnecting from civilization and reconnecting with nature through rugged, physically challenging adventures while still enjoying the creature comforts that come with staying at a high end lodge.
I arrive at Explora after a five-hour complimentary shuttle van ride from Punta Arenas airport, a three-hour flight south from Santiago and the gateway to Chilean Patagonia. Perched like a white yacht sailing on those notorious Patagonian winds that sweep down over a bluff that rises up alongside a waterfall, it commands a spectacular location facing the Cuernos del Paine from across glittering Lake Pehoé, the most famous of the park’s many glacial lakes.
Each of the lodge’s 49 furnished yet luxurious TV-free guest rooms and suites welcomes the weary traveller with a sleek, cheerful, eco-conscious design featuring native lenga wood details, blond wicker furniture and almond wood floors. Each room consists a small living area, hydro massage bath and incredibly comfortable beds, designed for a deep, relaxing sleep after a day's excursion. Best of all are the panoramic lake views, especially lovely since I’m here at beginning of the austral summer and my room is bathed in brilliant sunlight for nearly twenty hours per day.
I soon discover that Explora Patagonia’s tasteful simplicity also extends to its most popular amenity, Spa Ona, located in a large bathhouse located 100 meters away from the main building via a sloped wood path running down to the lake. Spa Ona features a heated lap pool, four open-air Jacuzzis and massage rooms. There’s also a dock where seriously intrepid (read: crazy) guests can take a cardiac inducing post hike or ride dip in the lake, the ice-cold water said to be an excellent tonic for sore muscles.
A la carte explorations
Explora offers over 50 different half and full day treks and horseback rides to choose, each led by well-qualified members of their on-sight team of bilingual guides. The maximum group size is 8 guests led by one or two guides. Over pre-dinner cocktails my first evening I gather with fellow lodge guests to listen as these guides explain the range of daily excursions available designed to suit every ability, fitness level and interest. Guests can cruise on the lodge’s private catamaran across the turquoise waters of postcard perfect Lake Pehoé towards the Grey Glacier or horseback ride to the Laguna Verde. The can stroll beside stunning Laguna Azul or take a seriously strenuous trek through the towering Cuernos del Paine deep into the magical Valle del Francés. Or explore the southern shore of Lago Sarmiento with its bizarre lime formations. And of course, make the famous pilgrimage to the base of those beloved Torres. There’s no shortage of options, each exploration an a la carte adventure.
The only lodge in the area with its own horses bred and trained especially for its guests, Explora Patagonia maintains a stable over 20 horses, all raised and trained in Colunquén, a ranch in Central Chile that belongs to the Ibáñez family, Explora’s owners. Led by a group of Chilean gauchos clad in traditional cowboy outfits, they are well prepared to safely transport riders of different levels of expertise on incredibly photogenic routes running high up onto the park’s plateaus or across its flat, grassy plains, sometimes even fording streams. As with the guided hikes, ride duration and difficulty is tailored to each guest’s preferences. On my first outing, a meandering two-hour ride up to a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the pampas, I quickly realize that experiencing Torres del Paine by horseback is an absolute highlight of the Explora experience, even if you’re a novice rider like me.
my five-day stay at Explora I seize the opportunity to partake in a wide range of explorations, both on foot and by horseback. The most challenging trek is a ten hour, twenty-five kilometre round trip marathon through the lenga forests of the French Valley to the British Camp, arguably the park’s most scenic location, set in a natural amphitheatre surrounded by panoramic views of Paine Grande on the west and spectacular Torres del Paine and Los Cuernos to the east. Enroute we stop at a breathtaking viewpoint to to watch avalanches tumbling down from the crevasses of the hanging French Glacier. The most relaxing excursion is a half-day ride across rivers, forests and pampas to reach the Laguna Negra lookout, an ideal location for spotting bird species such as southern lapwings and upland geese. And my most satisfying challenge is completing that long postponed eight-hour climb through the Ascencio Valley and up the final steep shale slope to the base of the fabled Torres del Paine themselves. As I arrive the clouds shrouding them are briefly driven apart by the famously fierce and incessant Patagonian winds to reveal their austere grandeur. Journey’s end, at last.
Arriving back at Explora each evening I head straight for the spa. The rumours are true, I discover, as I plunge into Lake Pehoé’s frigid waters before indulge in a well-deserved soak in one of the outdoor Jacuzzis: Dipping yourself into ice cold water does recuperative wonders, although taking a near polar plunge is by any definition tough bodily self love. I also enjoy rejuvenating massages followed by delicious and nutritious gourmet meals in the lodge’s elegant yet understated dining room, never tiring of the breathtaking views of Lake Pehoé and the Macizo del Paine peaks from its wall-to-wall windows.
Explora claims that its dishes have been designed to enable guests to perform various explorations and still feel light, agile, and healthy. With a choice of succulent dishes like Magellanic lamb, southern king crab and delicious fresh local fish and vegetables, always accompanied by a superb Chilean wines, my recovery is most definitely assured. So too is the promise of awakening each morning to another exhilarating day spent exploring this uniquely scenic wilderness. It may have taken a decade to finally reach South America’s – and arguably the world’s – most mesmerizing national parks – but the wait has been well worth it. Torres del Paine, we will meet again.
Air Canada offers daily non-stop flights from Toronto to Santiago. Flying time is approximately 11 hours. From Santiago, several daily flights on LAN or Sky Airline reach Punta Arenas. Explora arranges airport transport to the lodge, a drive of approximately 5 hours with a lunch break in picturesque Puerto Natales.
When to go
The weather in Torres del Paine can be unpredictable at any time of year (expect all seasons in a single day) but early austral summer (November) and late summer and autumn (March) are generally the best times to visit when the park is less crowded and the skies clear. In autumn the colours are especially stunning. Winter (June-Sept) can be an especially beautiful time to visit, although visitors should be prepared for variable weather conditions and limited hiking and riding opportunities due to snowy conditions at higher altitudes. From mid November to early March Explora operate set packages with fixed entry and departure dates. During the remainder of the year flexible arrival or departure dates are available.
For more, including how to best prepare for your adventure, visit Explora Patagonia’s website.
Rugged and remote El Cocuy National Park offers spectacular hiking -- and history lessons.
Published in the Globe and Mail
"Not that long ago the guerrillas controlled these mountains," says Berthilda, wiping her brow with a sweat-soaked black leather sombrero.
Leaning on her walking stick, clad in only a thin sweater, tattered pants and rubber boots, this 54-year-old mountain lioness seems oblivious to the biting Andean winds, as my numb fingers fumble to zip up my Gore-Tex jacket.
We're approaching the summit of a 4,500-metre peak in eastern Colombia's El Cocuy National Park near the Venezuelan border. In the distance, a giant granite cube called El Pulpito del Diablo (the Devil's Pulpit) sits like an alien monolith atop the snowy ridge of an even loftier mountain called Pan de Azucar.
"Then el Presidente's soldiers came and defeated them," Berthilda says, referring to hardline Colombian president Alvaro Uribe's decision a decade ago to dispatch an elite army battalion to drive the Marxist Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional guerrillas out of the western half of the park. "Only then did we feel safe."
Today, soldiers continue to patrol these trails, thwarting kidnappings and other guerrilla terror tactics. It's comforting news for a gringo on a long overdue journey of rediscovery.
I first came to Colombia as an exchange student in 1985, when the country was engulfed in a maelstrom of violence. Drug lord Pablo Escobar was waging a campaign of mass murder and mayhem. Backed by his funds, M-19 guerrillas stormed the Palace of Justice in downtown Bogota, unleashing an army counter-assault, and the ensuing bloodbath shocked the world.
Then, shortly after I arrived to live with campesinos in the mountains close to Manizales, the nearby El Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted. The resulting mudslide buried the town of Armero, killing tens of thousands of its inhabitants and turning countless more into refugees. I barely escaped with my life, and spent the next few months volunteering in refugee camps tending to orphaned children. Times change. Nations recover. Much of Colombia is now considered relatively safe to visit and is increasingly popular among adventurous travellers. Awaiting them are impeccably preserved colonial cities, the sensual embrace of unspoilt Caribbean beaches, the exotic lure of the Amazon, a hugely welcoming Latino culture and the austere beauty of the high Andes.
I had originally planned to return to Ruiz, trek to the crater's rim, and reflect upon that terrible time. But the volcano became active again shortly before I arrived – perhaps still angry that I had escaped its molten wrath – and the surrounding park was declared off-limits.
So instead I headed east toward El Cocuy's magnificent string of glaciers and snow-capped peaks interlaced with rolling grasslands and sparkling clear waterfalls and lakes.
"El Cocuy truly is the lost corner of Colombia," says head park ranger Roberto Ariano, who oversees this remote, seldom visited region of thick Andean forest, high alpine grasslands (called paramos) and perpetual snows.
"This is the largest glacier mass in the world's equatorial zone, as well as the last refuge of the indigenous U'wa people, who control half of the park," he adds, explaining that 300,000-hectare El Cocuy's ecosystems also protect many rare and endangered animal species.
Among them are pumas, howling monkeys, tapirs, red-footed tortoises and spectacled bears, the only surviving species of bear endemic to South America. High above it all, the iconic condor soars between white summits.
Reaching El Cocuy is not easy. The 400-kilometre journey from Bogota over twisting, often treacherous unpaved mountain roads passes through the heart of the province of Boyaca, known as "the Land of Freedom" because of a series of battles here that secured Colombia's independence from Spain. You can make the bone-rattling trip in 14 hours. Or stop, as I did, overnight in Villa de Leyva, a beautiful, well-preserved colonial town.
Executions once took place in Villa de Leyva's immense Plaza Mayor, still the country's largest town square. (Florentino Ariza, the chronically romantic protagonist in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera, lived here.) An early morning stroll through its cobblestone streets lined with whitewashed colonial era houses, their balconies overflowing with bougainvilleas, feels like stepping onto the sets of the Spanish-language period soap operas that often shoot here. It was in towns such as Villa de Leyva, and in the fertile hills and mountains of Boyaca, that so much blood and sweat and gold poured from the "open veins of Latin America," as Uruguayan journalist and author Eduardo Galeano called his seminal account of five centuries of European dominance over the South American continent. From the conquistadors' pillage to Colombia's notorious La Violencia, the decade-long (1948-58) civil war between Conservatives and Liberals, the people of this beautiful but haunted region have endured countless struggles.
Reaching Posada del Molino, a 220-year-old renovated colonial mansion in the town of El Cocuy, I come face to face with one of La Violencia's ghosts. The woman who once owned this house controlled a Catholic paramilitary group that rounded up protestants, burned their bibles and then detained them in a tiny, windowless room off the courtyard. (Among the persecuted was a group of Canadian missionaries imprisoned here for several days.) The woman's sinister portrait now glares from the wall of a bedroom and haunts the hacienda still, according to Posada del Molino's current proprietor.
Ghosts of crises past also burn in the eyes of 27-year-old Guillermo Nalderrama, my affable host at the final acclimatization stop before I enter the park. His family's ancestral ranch, the rustic Hacienda La Esperanza (House of Hope), occupies the edge of El Cocuy.
"During La Violencia my grandparents often hid here together," says Guillermo as we dine on bruschetta, ragu of lamb and torta de cuajada (cheesecake) in the courtyard under a twinkling canopy of constellations.
"My grandfather was a Liberal, my grandmother a Conservative, and getting caught together could have gotten them killed," he adds, showing me a faded photo of these long dead lovers from a dangerous time.
Guillermo himself fled with most of his family to Bogota during the guerrilla occupation of El Cocuy. There, he studied to become a chef at a prestigious cooking school. He never dreamed he would return to La Esperanza, but as the guerrillas fled and tourism gradually began to take hold, he saw opportunity.
"I'm really happy to be back home now, meeting people from all over the world who come to this remote part of Colombia and sharing their amazing experiences," Guillermo says, pouring us each a shot of aguardiente. One sip of Colombia's infamous firewater takes me back nearly 30 years to rowdy nights spent drinking, carousing and dancing the cumbia with campesinos.
The next morning I climb high into the emerald hills with two of Guillermo's ranch hands. They have agreed to take me to the Cueva de Cuchumba, a large cave with a waterfall cascading through it. It was here in the 17th century that a Spanish priest discovered an image on a piece of cloth said to be an apparition of the Virgin Mary with the dark skin and indigenous features of the U'wa.
According to legend, the Virgin appeared to the U'wa well before Spanish conquistadores arrived to convert them to Christianity. Their astonished European proselytizers promptly had the miraculous textile relocated to the church in the nearby town of Guican, where it remains today.
Trekking on from Cueva de Cuchumba, we enter an eerie, otherworldly landscape called Valle de los Frailejones. These giant daisy-like plants, so named for their resemblance to hooded monks, flourish in the high altitude grasslands of northwestern South America. Towering over the valley's surreal, Dr. Seussean forest of giant spiky trunks sprouting huge yellow flowers and hairy leaves are the snowcapped peaks and glaciers of one of the world's best kept hiking secrets, which Berthilda is waiting to show me.
Not that long ago, my journey into this lost corner would have been virtually impossible. I am astonished and inspired thinking about how far this country has come since I was last here. Aye Colombia! It's great to be back.
Arid highlands said to hold ancient Ark of the Covenant
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle
The mind tends to wander when you're trying to catch a glimpse of the only man on Earth who's allowed to see the Ark of the Covenant, the shiny gold box said to hold the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
How do you get that job? Is there a security clearance? Does it come with medical and dental, or is your well-being pretty much overseen by the Almighty?
I couldn't help but think: Indiana Jones would have loved Axum.
Capital of sub-Saharan Africa's oldest empire, Axum is the epicenter of this mystical country's pious and austere brand of Orthodox Christianity; ground zero for the true believers who make pilgrimages to this ancient city set amid the soaring hills and deep chasms of Ethiopia's arid northern highlands. It also marks the final stop on the "historical route," a circuit through ancient and mysterious Christian kingdoms that have thrived here in what has been called Africa's Holy Land for more than 1,500 years.
Most intriguing, Axum might be the resting place of the not-so-lost Ark of the Covenant, one of the holiest relics of Christianity (and Hollywood). During my time in Ethiopia, it seemed like a moral imperative - a commandment, even - to seek out the mysterious Keeper of the Ark, the sole soul permitted to see it.
The hand, or rather, chisel of God seems to have been at work in the magnificent rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia's second holiest city, about 200 miles south of Axum.
Thought to have been built during the 12th and 13th centuries, these 11 monolithic masterpieces, casually and collectively referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World, have been a source of speculation and intrigue for centuries. Cut out of solid red volcanic rock - in a style similar to the carved buildings in Petra, Jordan - they are said by the faithful to have been etched by stonemasons by day, and by angels by night.
There was a profoundly spiritual aura in the chilly dawn as I explored Bete Medhane Alem, believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, and Bete Maryam, the oldest of Lalibela's churches.
Sanctity veritably seeped from the stone walls lined with elderly worshipers in white hand-woven cotton prayer shawls. As they prayed quietly, the feverish spark in their eyes testified to the ability to transcend through their unshakable faith unimaginable hardship and endurance in this war-ravaged land.
Inside, only the faint glow of candles penetrated the inky blackness, illuminating intricate religious murals hung on the walls. In the shadows, monks and worshipers softly chanted while a stern bishop presided, wearing a beard that would have made Moses proud.
As I absorbed this intensely devout scene that has not significantly changed in a thousand years, I suddenly felt acutely profane - a state that didn't bode well for my chances of coming face to face with the Keeper of the Ark upon reaching Axum.
While travelers cannot gaze upon the Ark itself, there are plenty of inspirational sites along Ethiopia's historical route. I visited the medieval city of Gondar - Africa's Camelot - to wander among its fairy-tale castles built by the great Emperor Fasilidas in the 17th century.
Along the way, I journeyed into the spectacular Simien Mountains to savor astonishing vistas punctuated by gorges, chasms, precipices and pinnacles. I explored the islands on Lake Tana, Ethiopia's immense inland sea and source of the Blue Nile. Centuries-old, straw-roofed monasteries on the islands guard the remains of ancient Ethiopian emperors and some of the Ethiopian Church's greatest treasures, including replicas of the Tablets of Law, called Tabots, onto which the biblical Ten Commandments reputedly were inscribed.
The more I saw, the more I wanted to ask the Keeper of the Ark if it's all true. Whether the existence of this most holy of relics isn't just the ultimate example of religious wishful thinking. What about Prester John, the mythic Christian ruler of Ethiopia said to have descended directly from the Magi, who benevolently presided over a realm full of unimaginable riches and magical marvels like the Fountain of Youth? (His fantastical legend, which sprang from a mysterious letter that surfaced in medieval Europe, is said to have influenced the Portuguese to first set sail for Africa in search of its treasures.)
Once in Axum, in the Park of the Stelae, it was easy to attribute extraordinary feats to a higher power. The largest of the giant, elaborately carved obelisks stood an astounding 110 feet tall, making it the largest single piece of quarried stone erected in the ancient world. It collapsed upon completion more than a thousand years ago.
The only obelisk still upright, a granite needle soaring past 70 feet high, remains as a singular monument to Axum's glorious past - and, perhaps, divine architectural intervention or inspiration.
It seems unlikely that the film "Raiders of the Lost Ark" would have been seen by the holy men at Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.
The truth, however, might be stranger than the fiction.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the only one in the world that still claims to possess the Ark. The church holds that the Ark was stolen by traveling companions of Prince Menelik, the illegitimate son of the Queen of Sheba and Israel's King Solomon, when the founder of Ethiopia was returning home to Axum from visiting his father. (An archaeological site purporting to be the Queen of Sheba's palace lies on the outskirts of Axum.)
Many scholars dismiss the story as fiction, but as I waited for the Ark's illusive Keeper to appear, I wondered if there isn't some historical truth to it.
Clusters of white shrouded figures stood motionless and eerily silent under the trees in the church's compound like sepulchral sentinels, awaiting the procession of deacons and bishops to emerge from the church and encircle its sacred ground three times, as they have done every day for centuries.
As I approached the Ark's reputed resting place, I half expected the heavens to open and a lightning bolt to strike me down. At the very least, I might have been attacked, beaten and evicted by guardian deacons allegedly trained to kill all intruders.
At this point, I hoped - no, needed - to catch a rare glimpse of the Keeper of the Ark, the only mortal allowed to lay eyes upon it (not even the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is granted that privilege). Keepers are virgin monks chosen to protect this holiest of Christian relics for their entire lives. They remain confined to the sanctuary (some say with a chain), never setting foot outside the chapel grounds until they die.
As the afternoon light began to fade and the Keeper had not yet made an appearance, I reluctantly prepared to leave the compound. What naive presumption drove me to think that the one man on Earth entrusted with protecting the word of God would condescend to make an appearance just for me?
Just then, a bearded, almost spectral figure swathed in black glanced furtively from behind a chapel doorway protected from intruders by a spiked fence. It was the Keeper. We locked eyes - the virgin monk and the spiritual voyeur. I wondered if I should pursue him, risking life, limb (and perhaps even eternal damnation) to discover what lies behind that door? There must be something inside important enough for the Keeper and countless Keepers before him to sacrifice their freedom, and even their lives.
Before I could act, the Keeper retreated behind the chapel's heavy wooden door, closing it - as well as my fleeting opportunity to solve 3,000-year-old mysteries - behind him.
Ethiopian Airlines offers direct flights from Washington, D.C., to Addis Ababa several times a week. British Airways and KLM also offer direct flights from their European hubs.
Because of the long distances and the generally poor road conditions in northern Ethiopia, flying between the main historical route sites of Axum, Gondar, Bahir Dar (Lake Tana) and Lalibela is advised. Ethiopian Airlines has frequent daily connections.
The capital of Addis Ababa offers a range of accommodations from simple guesthouses to the posh Sheraton and Hilton. In the northern highlands, options are fewer. The Ghion chain of midrange government-run hotels are dated but comfortable.
Because of the relative lack of tourist infrastructure, an organized tour is a hassle-free and cost effective option on the historical route. Dinknesh Ethiopia Tours offers multi-day itineraries, including the historical route by air and by land. U.S.-based adventure tour operators offering Ethiopia itineraries include Africa Adventure Consultants and Wildland Adventures.
Published in the Huffington Post
Like a Pablo Neruda love poem come to life, the melancholic notes of an old Chilean folk ballad float down from an open window overlooking one of Valparaíso’s steep cobblestone streets.
Hearing this music, my companion — exquisite in her sun-kissed summer dress and cream fedora — dances past candy-store colored clapboard and corrugated tin houses, their ramshackle facades covered with elaborate murals and bold graffiti. Midway up Cerro Alegre — one of the nearly 50 cerros (hills) that form the natural amphitheater facing the sea that is arguably Latin America’s most colorful city — love is in the air. And on nearly every wall.
“To me, street art is free art for the people. It’s like walking into a free open art gallery where you just keep your eyes open and embrace it,” says Elias Huito, a business student and graffiti artist who is leading us on a street art walking tour of Valparaíso. Pointing out stunning work by icons of the Latin American underground street art world like INTI, Sharkey, Saile and LRM, Huito explains that Valparaíso’s street art has nothing to do with violence or gang related activities, unlike in New York or Los Angeles. Rather, it began as a form of protest against the Pinochet regime by artists resisting the fascism they saw devouring their country with the only weapons they had — their creativity. Before long, the walls, doorways and staircases in Valparaíso’s hillside barrios were covered in satirical, whimsical expressions of beauty and outrage.
After democracy was restored in Chile, Valparaíso’s civic leaders opted to embrace street art rather than try to cover it up as so many North American metropolises have done. Street artists were embraced, not prosecuted. The authorities even began to commission work from them, sometimes providing pastel paint cans and scaffolds.
Today, these prismatic artistic statements — some covering entire sides of large office buildings — are a major attraction in this shambling port of last call wedged between the Andes and the Pacific, a hundred kilometers west of Santiago. They are also vivid reminders that Valpo, as locals affectionately call it, remains a hopeful place despite enduring so many political, economic and natural disasters, including the massive fire this spring that destroyed large swathes of the city.
Accessible by twisting staircases and century-old wooden ascensores (funiculars) — this magnificent street art also occupies the vivid heart of Valparaíso’s Historic Quarter, recognized internationally when it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2003.
Showing us a new mural by a Colombian artist who goes by the inelegant name of Stinkfish, Huito explains how its creator used spray paints to produce a series of stunning portraits that emerge from his signature abstractions. Further on, we encounter the image of Vincent Van Gogh himself audaciously painted on the wall of a popular hostel. The creation of Chilean street artist Teo Doro, this mural features signature images from three of the Dutch master’s most famous paintings — the Sunflowers, Cypresses, and Starry Night.
“Valpo has always been the artistic capital of Chile,” says Huito, explaining that artists have thrived amid the city’s bohemian ambience since it rose to great wealth and prominence in the 19th century as a major seaport for ships sailing between the Atlantic and Pacific via the Strait of Magellan. Incredibly cosmopolitan for its time, Valparaíso was nicknamed ‘Little San Francisco,’ partly for its many sailors’ bars, brothels and general air of free spirited decadence, catnip for radicals, intellectuals, anarchists and artists from across Latin America and Europe.
After the Panama Canal opened the port and city fell on hard times, eventually becoming a forgotten backwater. Yet the definitely exuberant spirit that sometime resident Pablo Neruda captured in his famous poem, Ode to Valparaíso, remained, boosted in 1939 by an influx of anti-Franco artists, writers and musicians fleeing the Spanish Civil War aboard the French steamer, SS Winnipeg.
It was Neruda himself, then acting as Chilean consul to Spain, who facilitated this mass artistic exodus. Some who he saved ended up as the great poet’s houseguests at La Sebastiana, Neruda’s multi-story hilltop home in the district of Bellavista that boasts panoramic views of the city and harbor.
Today a popular museum, La Sebastiana is the final stop on our uphill tour of Valparaíso’s colorful cerros. It contains within its whimsical walls a surreal jumble of bizarre artifacts, eccentric art and kitchy1950s furniture that Neruda collected during his extensive travels. Among them are a wooden horse from Paris, decorative dinner plates featuring hot air balloons, a huge cow-shaped Italian punch bowl, ship figureheads, a stuffed bird; even an ornately decorated pink bar strictly reserved for Don Pablo. It’s as if Neruda was determined to personally curate the soul this ‘crazy, insane port’, as he playfully called his beloved city by the sea.
Savoring the stunning view from La Sebastiana’s turret-like top-floor study, I think back to our impromptu musical interlude beneath the open window on the way up here. In another era my tangoing companion could have easily been one of Neruda’s beautiful muses, flooding the portly Nobel laureate’s mind with erotic imagery. Just as Valparaíso, this most colorful of cities, has provided an inspirational canvas for talented street artists who continue to their paint love letters to her on nearly every building.
If You Go
LAN offers regular non-stop flights to Santiago from New York, Miami and Los Angeles, with convenient connections to Valparaíso, 90 minutes’ drive from the capital.
Where to stay
Set in a charming, recently renovated art deco era building with panoramic bay views in the heart of the Historic District, the boutique Hotel Palacio Astoreca is walking distance from Museo de Bellas Artes de Valparaiso.
Valpo Street Art Tours offers daily street art walking tours led by members of the street art community.
American owned and operated Santiago Adventures offers customizable, multi-sport luxury tours that combine Valparaíso and Santiago with other Chilean highlights like the Atacama Desert and the Lake District.
An iconic Canadian Arctic adventure made affordable and accessible
Published in Canadian Traveller Magazine
As our Twin Otter touches down on the rock-strewn tundra strip marked by old fuel drums everyone aboard braces for a bumpy landing. We’ve flown from Inuvik in the Northwest Territories over the labyrinthine Mackenzie River delta and through the heart of the British Mountains to reach Parks Canada’s Imniarvik Fly-in Base Camp in the heart of Ivvavik National Park. An iconic Arctic adventure awaits.
Comprising over 10,000 square kilometres of pristine wilderness tucked up in the northwest corner of Yukon bordering the Beaufort Sea and adjacent to Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Ivvavik, which means ‘a place for giving birth' in the language of the Inuvialuktun First Nation, protects the traditional calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. Each June over 150,000 caribou migrate here from their Alaskan wintering grounds. The Inuvialuktun and Gwich’in people of northern Yukon, who have called this land home for centuries, depend on these caribou for food and other traditional uses.
The largest of North Yukon’s five wilderness parks and the first Canadian national park to be created as a result of an aboriginal land claim agreement, Ivvavik receives fewer than a hundred visitors a year. Accessible only by air, it was until recently a prohibitively costly destination because groups had to book their own charter flights and handle all trip logistics. Then, in 2012, Parks Canada began offering package trips to Imniarvik Base Camp, which made visiting Ivvavik substantially more affordable and accessible. Today, you can book a single Twin Otter seat for a 5-day fully catered excursion and have a Parks guide you on day hikes. An Inuvialuktun cultural host also comes along to share stories and traditions of their people’s generations old connection to this ancient land.
culture is very important to us and people wanted to know more about that culture and have it as part of the experience,” explains Parks Canada’s Helena Katz, who helped create Ivvavik’s Base Camp experience. “Each trip now has a cultural host who brings something unique about their culture. For example, one host may be a traditional drummer. Another might have traditional needlepoint experience they can share.”
Stepping out of the plane and onto the taiga, where Canada's most northern tongue of boreal forest meets the tundra, I’m stunned by the gorgeous mid-summer Arctic palette of green, brown and copper shaded v-shaped river valleys blanketed by stunted trees, moss, lichen, wildflowers and cranberry, blueberry and cloudberry bushes. Ivvavik is part of the Beringia Refugium, an unglaciated area that extended between North America and Siberia where plant and animal life were able to flourish. The British Mountains covering over 90 % of the park comprise the only non-glaciated mountain range in Canada and are home to the country's most northern populations of moose and Dall's sheep. This is an untamed land of epic proportions, virtually untouched by humanity.
From the airstrip we hike down a winding trail to Imniarvik, formerly called Sheep Creek Station. Built in the 1970s as a gold mining camp, it now includes a spacious tented zone, a deck equipped with screen tents and picnic tables, secure food storage , a fully equipped cookhouse and a screened indoor common area. The best part – which edges Imniarvik toward a ‘glamping’ experience -- is the recently installed flush toilets and hot showers that make roughing it in the bush considerably more comfortable.
We’ve brought along a veteran backcountry camp cook, a 50 year old Inuvialuktun woman from Aklavik named Judy Selamio who whips up hearty multi-course meals and endless nutritious snacks throughout our stay, including daily packed lunches that keep us well fueled during several long hours of strenuous hiking. Her friend and our cultural host, Cynthea Gordon, is also along to share tales of life in nearby Aklavik and teach us the intricate art of Inuit beadwork.
Judy, Cynthea and our Parks Canada guides are here to ensure that we have a most memorable Arctic experience. Clearly, one of our group of five already has. Toronto visual artist Patrice Carmichael decided to stay on after spending the previous week exploring Ivvavik. “You're extremely remote, and it takes some work getting here, but once you're here it's incredibly accessible,” she says, adding that she wanted to continue exploring for another few days. “And travelling alone, I could take it all in and still feel safe in this environment,” she adds.
Safety, of course, is a real concern up here in the heart of Grizzly country and we need maintain constant vigilance because hungry bears occasionally wander into camp. Trained in the use of firearms, our Parks Canada guides carry bear spray, horns and bear bangers at all times. At our initial safety briefing they inform us that an electric fence ringing the tents was installed just a couple of weeks ago to thwart bears from trashing camp in search of food. It’s comforting to know that my sleep won’t be disturbed by any ursine incursions.
Bear facts in mind, we set out from Imniarvik on our first hike that afternoon. As the frothing Firth River roars below, we advance along a ridgeline toward an alpine meadow called Sheep Slot situated high above rapids where the canyon walls narrow. Scattered remains of gold miners’ camps from the 1930s can still be found here where gold prospecting began in 1898, and a minor gold rush occurred in 1947.
Since the sun never entirely sets in mid-summer at this latitude we could potentially keep hiking all night. But thoughts of Judy’s hearty dinner trump any notion of turning our initial excursion into a midnight sun stroll like the one Patrice says she did to celebrate the summer solstice. We return to homemade pizza and fresh arctic char, followed by Judy’s specialty – thick, doughy and decadent eskimo donuts. Stuffed and serene, I lay in my tent after dinner struggling to fall asleep -- a challenge here in the Arctic’s midsummer when it’s nearly as bright at 3AM as it is at midday. At least none of us will get lost in the dark taking a nocturnal bathroom break.
Luckily, we are blessed with mostly sunny, mild weather for our entire trip, making the hiking over the next three days simply spectacular in this pristine Arctic park with no marked trails. Armed with industrial strength bug spray to ward off the hordes of ravenous mosquitos, blackflies and bulldogs (horseflies) that offer our tender southern flesh no quarter, we first strike out for aptly named Inspiration Point. Crossing Sheep Creek, we tramp through thick bush and across sloping tundra to reach this lofty ridge with its stunning views of the Firth River Valley. Ahead lies a final uphill push to a majestic cluster of rocky pinnacles called Wolf Tors, but gathering afternoon thunder storm clouds prevent us from venturing further.
Back at camp we hungrily tuck into a feast worthy of Christmas dinner, including turkey, stuffing and all the fixings. Clearly Judy already understands that our group, like an army, travels on its stomach. She’s also full of stories, like the one she shares about her close encounter with a Grizzly she caught trashing her camp. “I shot the bugger and burned him,” she says bluntly. Then there’s her excuse for nearly missing our flight into camp – she was butchering a whale she had caught that morning and lost track of time. When she’s not cooking, our intrepid wilderness chef slips out into the nearby woods to collect spruce sap that she keeps boiling in a large iron pot. This homemade ‘spruce juice’, Judy assures us, can cure all sorts of ailments, including cancer. At first taste it’s incredibly bitter, but becomes more palatable the more I drink, although not nearly enough so to temp me to smuggle a tumbler of it back home.
Even more memorable journeys await over the next two days as we explore high ridgelines while Golden Eagles soar overhead and traverse grassy tundra meadows, an important foraging habitat for Dall Sheep. Saving the best for last, we devote our last day to a challenging eleven kilometer round trip signature hike called Halfway to Heaven. Ascending a steep path behind camp, we eventually reach an exposed plateau surrounded by unglaciated hills and multicoloured peaks. After scaling a steep, spiky outcropping called Dragon’s Tor that rises dramatically out of the purple shale, I stop to rest and admire the incredible view. If, as my guide says, we’re just about halfway to heaven, it certainly feels on this perfect day in incredible Ivvavik National Park like the better half.
IF YOU GO
The Parks Canada Ivvavik Base Camp Experience includes a seat on a chartered Twin Otter flight from Inuvik, which lies about 200 km north of the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories. Canadian North and First Air fly here from Edmonton and Yellowknife. Air North offers departures from Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Whitehorse. Or you can drive the iconic Dempster Highway up to Inuvik.
The optimal hiking season is from the floral bloom of mid-June into the latter half of August when autumn colours are at their peak. Hikers in July should be prepared for biting insects. Hikers planning to travel later in the season should be prepared for the possibility of cold snowy conditions and delays in charter flights due to weather.
Transportation between the Parks Canada office in Inuvik and the airport
Charter flights from Inuvik, NT to Ivvavik National Park, YT and return
Use of Imniarvik base camp facilities including washrooms and bear-safe storage
Use of camping mattress
Accommodation in prospector or mountaineering tents
Inuvialuit cultural host
Northern backcountry use fee
Three meals a day, snacks and beverages prepared by the cook and served buffet style
Visitors are welcome to bring personal food and beverages, as long as they fall within luggage weight limits and are kept in the bear-safe storage
Visitors can bring up to 35 lbs/16 kg of luggage per person
How difficult are the hikes?
Parks Canada staff will lead day hikes of varying lengths and difficulty. There are no marked trails and the terrain varies from fairly flat to hummocky, with some steep sections. Good hiking boots with strong ankle support are recommended for your comfort and safety. Hike an easy 3 km round trip to Sheep Slot. Inspiration Point is a moderate 5 km route while Halfway to Heaven is a strenuous 11 km return trek. There are no marked trails and the terrain varies from fairly flat to hummocky, with some steep and very steep sections. Good waterproof hiking boots with strong ankle support are required for your comfort and safety. It is recommended that you have the ability to hike over uneven terrain for a half to a full day.
Costs and how to book
5-Day catered Imniarvik Fly-in Base Camp trips start at $3,375.00 per person. To book, call 867-777-8800 or email Inuvik.firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit Parks Canada.
Published in the Vancouver Sun
Perched on a gale-swept sandstone cliff high above the roaring waves, I stare into the oceanic abyss, trying to comprehend the audacity of courage it took for a small group of men to venture into these uncharted waters off the storm-ravaged southwest coast of Ireland nearly 1,500 years ago.
They were a brotherhood of Catholic monks — no more than a dozen — driven to search for a remote haven safe from persecution during Europe’s Dark Ages where they could practise their religion in solitude and isolation. What they discovered was a pair of massive, uninhabited rocks, their sheer, jagged, pyramidal walls towering over 200 metres above the savage sea.
On the larger of the two islands — these monks called it Skellig Michael — they built their monastery. Its remains still stand, an awe-inspiring testament to the power of faith to overcome almost insurmountable human hardship.
“At the time this was considered the end of the world,” explains a local skipper who has agreed to take me out to Skellig Michael and its smaller sister island, Skellig Beag, which lie 12 kilometres off the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry.
“They believed that if you ventured any further you fell off the earth. This monastery was built to keep the evil spirits out of the rest of the unknown world. Since there were no written records we can only imagine how they survived out here,” he says.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Incredibly — or perhaps miraculously — generations of monks survived by carving a precarious existence with their bare hands out of this desolate rock that offered virtually no soil to grow food.
Instead, they looked to the Skelligs’ wild bird and sea life for hard-caught sustenance. Skellig Beag, home today to the world’s second-largest gannet colony — numbering over 50,000 — became their hunting ground. So did the surrounding waters, where they harvested shellfish and occasionally seals, then considered to be the spirits of the sea.
Today, the monastic complex these intrepid monks built on Skellig Michael is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized as an outstandingly well preserved remnant of early Christian monastic architecture. It seems fitting that the latest Star Wars film was partly filmed here, the furthest off the edge of the known medieval world I dare venture while on the Emerald Isle.
Setting out down the west coast of Connemara from the charming town of Westport in County Mayo, I explore part of Ireland’s so-called Wild Atlantic Way — a 2,500-kilometre meander through nine counties and three provinces, making it the longest defined coastal touring route in the world. Awaiting me is a rich tapestry of social and cultural influences that have contributed to shaping this bewitching coastline, as ruggedly picturesque as it is steeped in history and Celtic myth.
Inhaling the salty Atlantic air, I feel the proverbial wind at my back while cycling from Westport to Achill along the Great Western Greenway, the longest off-road walking and cycling trail in Ireland. With its bucolic setting overlooking Clew Bay, this staged route offers plentiful points of interest along its 42-kilometre length.
A fascinating detour is Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s sacred peak, which dominates the landscape of West Mayo. Climbing what’s known as The Reek is an ancient tradition, with pilgrims still flocking here from all over Ireland to make their way up its conical slopes all night to reach the summit at dawn.
Near the foot of this mythic mountain is Ireland’s Famine Memorial, dominated by an eerie sculpture depicting a ship overflowing with skeletal souls. It’s a stark testament to the horrors of that dark period of 1845-49, when over a third of Ireland’s population perished from starvation, and many more died fleeing their homeland’s calamity in overcrowded ships bound for salvation in North America.
Further along lies the Renvyle Peninsula, where the likes of William Butler Yeats and Oscar Wilde mined much literary inspiration. Its castles, ancient forts, crumbling monasteries and long stretches of serene sandy beaches recall a romantic era that still feels largely unchanged since their time.
At Curradh Castle, I’m told the stirring story of Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s infamous 16th century Pirate Queen of the West who regularly raided and sacked these parts. The subject of countless traditional songs and poems, O’Malley famously once sailed to England to petition Elizabeth I but refused to bow before the monarch because Liz didn’t recognize her as the Queen of Ireland. Given her homeland’s centuries-long animosity toward its domineering neighbour it’s little wonder the O’Malley legend is so enthusiastically recounted to this day.
Land of the White Cow
“Blueberry is too posh for a scone,” a seasoned scone-baking contest judge declares at the Bia Bo Finne, a food festival that serves as an annual fall cornucopia of all things local and edible on Inishbofin Island, a popular holiday retreat 30 minutes by ferry off the coast of Connemara. “They only belong in muffins and pancakes,” she sternly adds.
Derived from the Irish name Inis Bo Finne — Island of the White Cow — Inishbofin is home to just 160 hardy souls during its long, windy and wet off-season. In summer it swells with cottagers and day-trippers, eager for a taste of traditional rural life in a setting reminiscent of the Richard Harris film The Field (filmed in nearby County Galway).
After attending shoreline foraging, fish-filleting, butchery and cooking demonstrations by chefs from all over Ireland, I step out into Inishbofin’s auric late afternoon light for a meditative stroll. A shower has just passed, leaving shafts of light and a glistening rainbow in its wake.
One of the most westerly points off the Irish coastline, Inishbofin is tailor-made for long, leisurely tramps along its kilometres of rolling pasture lands, dotted with sheep and secluded coves. Reaching the island’s western edge as twilight descends, I watch the ominous Atlantic stretching toward the darkening horizon like a rippling blanket of blue-grey. Perhaps those ancient mariner monks once stood here too, dreaming of attaining solitude and serenity somewhere out there between the devil and the Wild Atlantic Way.
WestJet offers seasonal service from Vancouver to Dublin via Toronto from May to late October. Irish Rail has convenient connections from Dublin to Western Ireland. Visit irishrail.ie for information.
Connemara Wild Escapes offers multi-day walking, cycling and adventure tours of the Wild Atlantic Way. Visit connemarawildescapes.ie.
Killarney-based Mor Active Tours offers day trips to the Skelligs, as well as regional itineraries. Visit moractivetours.com.
For more on the Wild Atlantic Way, check out ireland.com/wildatlanticway.