South Africa My Way

January 19, 2003 | Tags: Africa

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 19, 2003 | Tags: Asia, Europe

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.

Remote Rapa Iti

January 19, 2003 | Tags: Oceania

Bill Tuttle, January 2003

At the far southern reaches of Polynesia, hundreds of miles from its nearest neighbor, lies the very embodiment of the romantic South Pacific -- the island of Rapa. Also called Rapa Iti to distinguish it from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Rapa is the remnant of a collapsed volcano, its submerged crater forming the island's harbor. Entering this caldera aboard a ship, travelers get a first look at the island's stunning natural beauty. Basaltic spires, projections, and steep ridges, all covered in lush, tropical vegetation, surround the crater rim.

An exploration inland presents further evidence of the splendid variety of this 14-square-mile landmass. Six dramatic peaks soar above the ocean waves, skirted by a low, dense undergrowth of ferns and raspberry bushes resembling thimbleberries. Farther along, coffee trees grown wild form a sort of arboreal tunnel. Other island flowers and plants include guava, taro, casuarina, oleander, geraniums, and Easter lilies. (The number of known plant species on Rapa continues to grow. A 2002 scientific expedition to the island catalogued 11 new plants, as well as two more unseen since the 1930s.) At the top of the ridge, the view is spectacular, affording a view of the entire caldera.

Even though the island's size precludes the presence of large indigenous mammals, a large number of goats and wild cattle, food for the human population, may be found grazing on the mountainsides. The birdlife is plentiful however, with black-winged and storm petrels wheeling in the skies and nesting in the fern forests on Rapa's western edge. White fairy terns; red-tailed tropicbirds; Rapa fruit doves; black, brown, and blue-gray noddies; and wandering tattlers also compose part of the avian display.

In centuries past, humans more densely populated Rapa. In 1791 George Vancouver, the first European to land on the island, found approximately 1,500 people living on the island. Warfare among these people may have been fairly common, as Vancouver noted the existence of 28 forts, strategically situated on the ridges at an elevation of 1,500 feet. Palisade walls, masonry, and terraces surrounded each fort, and the current theory is that Rapa's inhabitants lived on the ridges and descended to the lowlands daily to tend their crops. In case of attack, they would flee to the nearest fort, which also had stored food and a water spring, for sanctuary. The ruins of these Polynesian fortresses, or pas, continue to overlook the bay.

Today, about 500 people, mostly fishers and farmers, live in small villages on the island. Rapa's small size, lack of development, and isolation combine to ensure the villagers lead a peaceful existence far from the frenzied pace of the modern world. The people of Rapa are well known for their music and dances. The latter follows in the Polynesian grain of telling stories through dance, and the music often blends traditional songs with church songs introduced by missionaries. Recordings by an island group have introduced a worldwide audience to this genre

Vietnam Unveiled: A Conversation With Kim Saunders

October 20, 2002

Kim Saunders, one of the leaders of our Vietnam & the Ancient Kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos expedition, has been traveling throughout Southeast Asia for nearly 20 years. A lecturer and expert on contemporary Asian culture, Kim has been promoting awareness and appreciation of locally produced Southeast Asian handicrafts for the past decade. We recently asked Kim for her impressions of the region and what travelers on next year's expedition, departing 17 March, can expect.

When did you first travel to Vietnam and Cambodia?

I decided to visit Vietnam in 1997. I had been asked to join a lecture tour, and I wanted to do some hands-on research. I was also cognizant that Vietnam was becoming a must-see destination, and I wanted to experience the people, the country, and the culture. Long before my opportunity to visit the countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, those names evoked the exoticism of Indochina and the tragic media images of the political conflicts of the 1970s. Only recently opened to tourism, these destinations afforded the chance to glimpse some, as yet, unspoiled cultures and view examples of magnificent heritage.

I was so enamored with the grace and integrity of the Vietnamese people and the beauty of the country, I returned in 1998 to visit the hill tribes of the northern highlands, having first traversed Laos north to south. Since then, I have accompanied seven shipboard expeditions through Vietnam and led a program to Laos for Zegrahm last year.

Cambodia had long been on my wish list. The images of the temples in the jungle captured my imagination years ago. My first visit there, a wedding anniversary trip, was in 2000. Flying into Siem Reap on a clear, sunny afternoon, I could see the architectural ingenuity and engineering of Angkor Wat from a bird's-eye view, and the cosmology behind the layout fell into perspective. I was in awe.

What were your initial impressions of the people you met?

I was unsure how the Vietnamese would regard foreign travelers and Westerners, if they would be resentful or angry over recent conflicts. I couldn't have been proved more wrong. Everywhere there was a friendly smile and an overwhelming joie de vivre combined with a fascination with visitors. Since my first visit, I have traveled with many different nationalities, including Americans, in the region. Refreshingly and reassuringly, the Vietnamese are welcoming, gracious, and focused on the future. As a people, they have endured centuries of conflict, but the past is the past, the present is now, and what is really important is tomorrow. I find this forward-looking aspect immensely positive.

Your specialty is Southeast Asian handicrafts, especially textiles. Can you talk a bit about their historical and cultural significance?

Textile traditions in Southeast Asia epitomize a fusion of trading links between the two historical markets of China and India together with the indigenous traditions of ethnic minorities. One can see from the friezes how textiles were used and worn and what part they played in culture. The Hindu influence is clearly visible in the Khmer sculptures at Angkor Wat and My Son. In contrast, Vietnamese national costume and traditions in embroidery show a clear Chinese influence. Ethnic groups such as the Hmong have their own distinctive costumes. Traditional techniques of production shared by some of these groups testify to historical movement and migration in the region.

The mix of cultures pervades the region's belief systems, religions, art, architecture, crafts, languages, and cuisines. Everywhere, there is a fusion of Chinese, Indian, and Arab traditions and influences brought via trade and migration over centuries.

You will also be leading the Vietnam Highlands post-extension. What can travelers expect?

The relative remoteness of the highlands makes it one of the few areas in the region that have only recently begun to step into the 21st century; it is still a frontier in time and space between ancient cultural traditions and modernity. Stunning scenery; rural winding roads; vibrant, colorful costumes; and the last vestiges of a traditional way of life await the visitor. Of Vietnam's 54 ethnic minorities, the most prominent in the highlands around Sapa and Bac Ha are the Hmong and the Dao. Their colorful costumes represent ethnic identity and regional ties. The Red Dao women are easily distinguishable by their vibrant red scarves, covering shaved heads. The women of Hmong groups such as the Flower Hmong, the Red Hmong, and the Blue Hmong wear very full pleated skirts, decorated with batik, embroidery, and applique. The swing of the skirt is designed to draw the eye to the wearer when she ventures to market. Amidst a remote and mountainous terrain, the colors and variety of the local costumes speak volumes about the wearer's identity and origin.

What are your goals for next year's expedition?

My goals are for positive cultural experiences for both "hosts" and "guests." I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge of the area and, in turn, learning even more. There is always something new to explore. Cambodia offers the splendors of an ancient civilization, and it is still possible to walk amid the ruins. Vietnam offers diversity from north to south, the ancient capital of My Son, Hue, Hoi An, and Halong Bay - each a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a chance to experience some of the remaining ethnic groups. The charm of Luang Prabang, another World Heritage Site, overlooking the Mekong, and the awesome Plain of Jars in Laos (on the post-extension) are not to be missed. The entire expedition is one highlight after another. There is truly something for everyone, be it cultural, historical, spiritual, ethnographical, or environmental.

Saving the Albatross

October 20, 2002

The albatross is one of nature's true wonders. These seabirds can soar for hours, riding on the wind, ranging for thousands of miles over open ocean. The wandering albatross, the largest seabird in the world, remains at sea for years before returning to land to nest. For centuries, sailors considered these birds sacrosanct; to kill an albatross was to court disaster.

A cruel irony, then, that oceangoing fishermen are now responsible for drastic declines in 17 different albatross species, driving some to the brink of extinction. The cause of the birds' plight and the efforts to save them are a microcosm of the processes of species extinction and their possible salvation.

In order to harvest large numbers of fish, ships extend longlines for up to 80 miles behind their vessels. To these, they attach thousands of baited hooks. Longline fleets set an estimated one billion of these hooks annually. Albatross and other seabirds, attracted by the bait, swallow the hooks and are dragged beneath the waves to drown. The toll is 300,000 seabirds a year. In the early '90s, ornithologist Nigel Brothers, seeking to find the cause of the decline in the Australian albatross population, signed aboard a longline fishing boat and documented firsthand the birds becoming caught on the hooks.

The problem is growing. In 1994, one third of all albatross species were threatened. A scant six years later, the number had grown to two thirds. On South Georgia I see roughly half the number of albatross that I saw there 30 years ago.

Alerted to this situation, a number of conservation groups, including the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, formed BirdLife International, an organization dedicated to raising public awareness of the problem and implementing solutions, which include changing longlining methods and working with the UN to eliminate pirate fleets (ships that use current loopholes in international law to circumvent fishing regulations).

Such efforts require funding. Passengers on our Antarctica and South Georgia expeditions have greatly contributed to this cause. Every day during an expedition, I paint a watercolor depicting something of our travels, wildlife or landscapes, and post these for sale as mementos of our journey. For each voyage I also create a chart showing our route, illustrated with seabirds and other wildlife of the region. On our last night aboard ship, these charts go to the highest bidder in spirited auctions. The money raised goes to the Royal Society as well as Falkland Islands and South Georgia conservation efforts. To date, a total of $99,485 has been raised for these projects, of which $59,100 has been forwarded to the "Save the Albatross Campaign."

I am happy to report that BirdLife has met with some success in its campaign. The decline in albatross populations has slowed, and I'm very hopeful that concerted efforts will halt the decline altogether. Of course, as with all such environmental struggles, a good beginning is still only a beginning. We have a tremendous amount of work yet to do.

For more information on BirdLife International and the Save the Albatross campaign, visit their Web site: www.birdlife.net.