Circumnavigation of Newfoundland

April 19, 2003 | Tags: Americas

Tim Soper, April 2003

The island of Newfoundland lies only a short distance off the North American mainland; this proximity notwithstanding, it remains something of an enigma to travelers. Last May, I was aboard Le Levant for Zegrahm's inaugural Circumnavigation of Newfoundland expedition, and after completing the voyage, I can say that, despite its relative anonymity, Newfoundland shines as an adventure travel destination. In August 2003 I'll be leading another circuit of the island.

Roughly the size of Louisiana, Newfoundland has a landscape both striking and diverse. Her scenic coastline covers more than ten thousand miles, replete with coves, harbors, rugged escarpments, and fjords. Our landing at Gros Morne National Park, one of three World Heritage Sites on our itinerary, allows us to take in Newfoundland's geological array -- alpine plateaus, tundra, landlocked fjords, coastal lowlands, glacier-carved valleys. Our expedition also gives us a glimpse into the earth's past. Gros Morne, 20 times as old as the Rocky Mountains, is home to the Tablelands, an almost alien landscape resulting from the collision of tectonic plates, and Mistaken Point, on the Avalon Peninsula, contains well-preserved fossil impressions of early forms of multi-cellular life.

Newfoundland is situated where the arctic Labrador Current and the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream meet, resulting in a profusion of marine life. In the late spring, enormous numbers of capelin, tiny fish, congregate off the island. These capelin, as well as krill and squid, attract pods of whales for a feeding season that lasts through the summer. Twenty-two species of whale have been spotted here, including a population of humpback approximately five thousand strong. Other species you can expect to see include minke, orca, and possibly even blue whales. On last year's voyage we also spotted sea otters and harp seals.

The birds more than match the cetaceans. Newfoundland is often called the "seabird capital of the world," and it certainly earns that appellation. Our itinerary includes some of the largest seabird colonies on the continent; in total, more than 35 million birds flourish here. The high barrens of Cape St. Mary's feature the southernmost colony of northern gannets in the world, as well as murres and kittiwakes. Baccalieu Island's protected reserve holds more than 3.3 million pairs of Leach's storm-petrels (more than half the world's population), and at night the forest resounds with their song. On local boats we will skirt the coasts of Gull and Green Islands, known for their respective concentrations of Atlantic puffins and common murres.

Newfoundland is also the easternmost point of land in North America, and its location ensured it a prominent role in the human history of the continent. The earliest signs of habitation date back 7,500 years, and the island is usually regarded as the Vinland depicted in Viking epics. It was here, probably at Pistolet Bay, that Leif Ericsson made landfall, 500 years before Columbus. Near the bay, L'Anse aux Meadows, another World Heritage Site, is the only documented Viking settlement in the Americas. Discovered in 1960, the excavated ruins, along with adjacent museum and reconstructed buildings, afford a look at Norse life circa a.d. 1000.

The large number of whales brought Basque whalers to the region in the 1500s, and we land on the Labrador mainland to explore the remants of an old whaling base. A raised boardwalk threads among the buildings, and you can imagine what it must have been like during its heyday. You can almost smell the reek of the living tryworks and hear the tapping of the coopers and the shouts and grunts as the men strained to heave full barrels of rendered fat, or "trane," into boats.

Also on Labrador, we investigate Battle Harbour, a now-abandoned fishing village whose restored structures bear mute witness to the lonely existence of its inhabitants. By contrast, we also meet modern-day Newfoundlanders, some in towns so isolated, they can only be reached from the sea. These are some of the most hospitable people you could hope to meet. Last year, they greeted our Zodiacs on the beach, showed us about, and invited us into their homes for homebrewed beer and wine.

Fantastic vistas, profuse wildlife, a journey into history, and encounters with a vibrant contemporary culture. For these reasons, and many more, I look forward to returning to Newfoundland's shores in August. I hope you will join me.

Rain Forests & Reefs

April 19, 2003 | Tags: Americas

Bill Tuttle, April 2003

Our Rain Forests & Reefs expedition, which departs 04 November 2003, includes six countries and the Panama Canal. Realm of the Macaw, beginning 15 November 2003, further explores Costa Rica and Panama. The two voyages, combined with our pre-extension to the Mayan cities of Tikal and Copan, provide an in-depth look at the history, nature, and culture of Central America. Bill Tuttle was aboard last year's expedition, and these excerpts from his journal give a taste of what participants can expect.

Sunday -- Belize City, Belize

...we took the day to venture deep into the Belizean forest to explore Lamanai, the mysterious Mayan ceremonial site on the banks of the New River Lagoon. Small boats whisked us down canals lined by dense vegetation harboring crocodiles, turtles, and an array of birdlife. The ruins of Lamanai boast several large pre-classical temples in a sprawling complex. We shared the site with a band of howler monkeys...

Monday -- Lighthouse Reef, Belize

...Lighthouse Reef is home to a nesting colony of roughly 4,000 red-footed boobies, and we spotted a great number of these pelagic birds from the vantage of an observation platform. The boobies nest right next to magnificent frigatebirds, and the latter had an almost saurian aspect as they wheeled through the sky.

Scuba divers reported great success, sighting moray eels, sergeant majors, and a manta ray, while some of the snorkelers inspected the famous Blue Hole.

Saturday -- Corn Islands, Nicaragua

We came ashore in Zodiacs to meet the mayor and a delegation from town, including a dance troupe comprising the children of the village. The Zegrahm office reports snow in Seattle, but here it's bright sun, dazzling sand, and inviting waters.

Sunday -- Tortuguero Canals, Costa Rica

We negotiated the series of lagoons, spying among the banks several sloths, howler monkeys, iguanas, and two crocodiles. The area is home to over 400 bird species, and we saw a sampling of these inhabitants, including great egrets, spotted sandpipers, and roseate spoonbills.

Tuesday -- Panama Canal

Our day long passage gave us a firsthand look at the workings of the canal, as well as ample time to reflect on the level of audacity and industry responsible for its construction.

Thursday -- Isla Coiba, Panama

The Pacific waters, while slightly colder than those of the Caribbean, are richer in nutrients... Snorkelers reported moray eels, octopus, sea snakes, and parrotfish, among others. Dolphins provided an impromptu escort for the final dive of the expedition. Divers also spotted a white-tip reef shark and numerous pufferfish.

Friday -- San Josecito, Costa Rica

Passengers opting for a more rugged hike disembarked early to explore Corcovado National Park....the hikers reported two species of monkey, coatimundi, and a number of birds, including a black-cheeked ant tanager, endemic to Corcovado. The rest of us took a shorter river hike through heliconia, orchids, and strangler fig to the R'o Claro....enjoyed great views of howler monkeys, mangrove hawks, and a chesnut-mandibled toucan. Upstream, "Jesus Christ lizards" raced across the river surface. Both groups spotted scarlet macaws, which had become something of a goal during our voyage.

Saturday -- Quepos, Costa Rica

Our wildlife-viewing proved fruitful -- a juvenile crocodile, two- and three-toed sloths, agoutis, a silky anteater, iguanas, green herons... The real standouts, however, were the white-faced capuchin monkeys. These were very active, swinging through trees, scampering down boughs to water level, chattering at us from their perches...

Haciendas of the Ecuadorian Highlands

January 20, 2003

Passengers on our Galapagos My Way expeditions may precede their adventures in the Enchanted Isles with a new eight-day exploration of the Ecuadorian Highlands. Lia Oprea, who makes Ecuador her home for part of the year, will lead the pre-voyage extension.

During our weeklong foray into Ecuador's Sierras, we'll have a chance to visit its haciendas, once-private estates, as my friend Juan and I did when we recently visited Hacienda La Cienega, a luxuriously restored 17th-century manor set along the Andean cordillera.

The history of the haciendas is well told by looking at their origins, architecture, and the line of visitors that graced the floors of these intriguing homes. Spaniards settling Ecuador were given vast land grants in return for their services to the Crown. The new landowners chose the altiplano, or Andean highlands, for its fertile soil and year-round springlike climate on which to build their grand estates. These haciendas reflected the elegant European architecture of the period. A magnificent main house enclosed fountain gardens, and each estate possessed its own, often ornate, family chapel on the grounds. In the past few decades, many of these haciendas have been restored to their original splendor and have opened their doors to guests.

Juan and I experienced this firsthand after a day of hiking in Cotopaxi National Park. After a delicious meal of local trout, we enjoyed a glass of wine in the drawing room of Hacienda La Cienega and speculated that the great explorer Alexander von Humboldt had likely sat in front of this same fire during his visit to La Cienega in 1802. Humboldt had come to study Cotopaxi's volcanic activity, and he was enthralled with the unique alpine flora of the paramo, the high plains that stretch from north of Quito down past Cuenca.

On our hike earlier in the day we came to understand why so many others have revered the valleys of these mountains. Fifty years before Humboldt's visit, Charles-Marie de La Condamine, leader of the French Geodesic Mission, first entered the fertile Quito valley via the Pichincha Volcano alpine pass. He noted with amazement the mild climate, budding flowers, and fruit-laden orchards, and compared the area to the most beautiful provinces of his native France.

Throughout history the verdant vistas and unique geology of Ecuador have also inspired artists. The 19th-century painter Frederic Church was a guest of the Chiriboga family at their Hacienda Cusin, nestled in a small valley outside of Otavalo at the base of the Mojanda and Imbabura Volcanoes. The area fascinated Church, and he captured the magical light and lush flora of the dramatic landscape in his painting The Heart of the Andes.

Today, Hacienda Cusin's lovingly restored 40-acre estate includes a country-manor-style main house with an excellent gourmet restaurant, flowered courtyards, and guest cottages, as well as a monastery and cloisters complete with a tower and parapets.

I hope you'll join me as I lead the Zegrahm Expeditions exploration Haciendas of the Ecuadorian Highlands. We'll discover Ecuador's altiplano, from the sweeping paramo of Cotopaxi National Park to the colorful indigenous villages and markets of the Otavalo region, and stay in style at these luxurious estates with their rich cultural history and fine art, just as adventurers did centuries ago. Please contact Patrick Kirby in our office for more information.

South Africa My Way

January 20, 2003

Nadia Eckhardt, January 2003

Selecting South Africa My Way as my Insider's Choice can hardly be surprising. After all, I designed the itinerary and will lead this expedition through my native land. My national pride notwithstanding, I have a number of reasons for touting South Africa's virtues as an adventure travel destination.

South Africa has been called a "world in one country," and during our travels I shall show you why it deserves that appellation. We begin in my home city, Cape Town. In addition to striking architecture and a cosmopolitan flair, the Cape is home to wondrous scenic beauty and an array of wildlife. We plan to stop at Boulders Beach to meet inquisitive jackass penguins; the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve and its baboons, ostriches, and cormorants; and Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, where a resident horticulturist guides us among unique African flora. Visits to Robben Island and the District Six Museum illustrate the apartheid era, while a tour of the South Africa Museum offers a wide view of the nation's history.

We depart Cape Town for ten days exploring the coast and interior of the country. Our expedition coincides with the annual southern right whale migration near Hermanus, on the south coast, and on the west coast, wildflowers will be in bloom. Mid to late September is also the optimum game-viewing time. We've exclusively reserved the Lion Sands River Lodge located in Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve. We have excellent chances to see zebra, elephants, lion, leopards, as well as Cape fox, gemsbok, and aardwolf.

Venturing into Swaziland, Africa's smallest country, we shall learn about Swazi life in a traditional village and have the opportunity to spy endangered black and white rhinos. The 10,000-year-old rock paintings at Bushman's Kloof are another cultural highlight. These remarkable paintings record the lives and exploits of the San tribe and compose the world's largest open-air art gallery.

First-time visitors to southern Africa should begin their explorations with our optional Namibia fly-in safari pre-extension. Aboard privately chartered light aircraft, we'll experience the dune fields at Soussusvlei, the Skeleton Coast, and Etosha National Park - one of the region's greatest wildlife reserves.

Christopher Hines will be joining us as naturalist and guide. Born in Zimbabwe, educated in South Africa, and a longtime resident of Namibia, Chris is well versed in wildlife, botany, and regional culture and history. His knowledge and interests make him the ideal person to help me present my homeland to you.

From historic Zululand to multicultural Durban; from surf-pounded coasts to the Cederberg Mountains; from whales to Cape buffalo - South Africa is a nearly inexhaustible treasure-trove; come with me next September to see for yourself why it's my favorite place on earth.

Pitcairn and Bering: A Tale of Two Islands

January 20, 2003

Bill Tuttle, January 2003

The sea captains and sailors, naturalists, and cartographers who explored the Pacific Ocean left their indelible marks in the annals of world discovery. Motivated by a thirst for knowledge, dreams of conquest, or desire for wealth, they greatly enlarged our knowledge of nature and the physical world, and their exploits, triumphs, and tragedies resonate even today.

Two remote islands - Pitcairn in the south and Bering in the north - occupy unique places in the chronicle of the Pacific, one for its role in a world-famous insurrection, the other because it laid the foundation for studying the geography and wildlife of the North Pacific. Zegrahm passengers will relive the adventures when they land on each island during separate voyages this year.

Tiny Pitcairn Island is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. The story of Pitcairn's founders has fired the imagination of the world for more than two hundred years, resulting in novels and films. While the name Pitcairn may evoke only incomprehension, the mutiny on the Bounty is instantly recognized.

On 28 April 1789 a group of sailors led by Fletcher Christian seized control of HMS Bounty. Seeking to escape the inevitable British punishment, Christian and eight mutineers, along with 12 women (whom they took as wives) and six men from Tahiti, settled Pitcairn, a volcanic island first sighted in 1767. Every Eden has its serpents, however, and all the Tahitian men and nearly all the mutineers died when the Tahitians revolted. Other mutineers died from alcohol, internecine violence, and disease until only John Adams remained. Under his stewardship, peace returned, and the surviving 10 women and 23 children persevered. Today, Pitcairn remains isolated and rarely visited, inhabited by roughly 60 direct descendants of the Bounty mutineers. (To read more on the South Pacific, click here.)

More than 60 years earlier, and thousands of miles north of Pitcairn, Danish sea captain Vitus Bering undertook two voyages of geopolitical and scientific significance. Tsar Peter the Great commissioned Bering to explore the Siberian Far East and Alaska, to determine if Asia and America were separate continents, and to map the American west coast. During his explorations Bering discovered the southern route around Kamchatka; founded the town of Petropavlosk; built two ships, the St. Peter and St. Paul; and sighted the Alaskan mainland.

Returning to Russia, the St. Peter wrecked on an uninhabited island Bering. He, along with almost half the crew, died of scurvy and was interred on the island. Although Bering perished, his explorations had a lasting and profound impact on the exploration and settlement of the Russian Far East and the west coast of North America - the sea, strait, and island named for him reflecting his importance.