Insider's Choice: Burma and Laos

October 19, 2004 | Tags: Asia

Our expedition to Burma and Laos via the Golden Triangle of Thailand is always a big hit among our well-traveled clients. They love the people first of all, but also the rich cultural history, as well as the amazing scenery and unique natural surprises all along the way. I have been traveling regularly to Burma since 1977, and have led every Zegrahm or Eco Expeditions exploration of that country, the first almost ten years ago. It is always an exciting journey for me.

Like their Tibetan cousins, against all odds, the Burmese refuse to give up their spirit, and they grace all visitors with their warmth and charm. Their religious and cultural sites are a great source of pride to them and instill wonder to every traveler who visits. My favorite place is Inle Lake with its unique floating gardens and an intriguing feeling like no other place on earth.

Mandalay conjures up the romantic mystery of Burma. The thousands of temple sites of Pagan leave everyone in genuine awe, and the Shwedagon Pagoda of Rangoon is, for many, one of the greatest wonders of the entire Indochina Peninsula.

When democracy finally rises on Burma, travelers will swamp the country. They are already increasing steadily. But another reason to get there now is to send a signal to the charming common people of this lovely land that they are not forgotten.

We depart Burma via a remote overland route into the famed Golden Triangle region of Thailand. The contrast as we enter "the Land of the Free" is most impressive. Here, at a luxurious five-star resort on the Thai side, we take time to digest our adventure in Burma and recharge our batteries for our explorations in Laos. Our resort hotel at the Golden Triangle deserves special mention, as it doubles as a private nature reserve with hiking and optional elephant rides.

From our Thai respite, we cross into Laos for a full two-day cruise on the Mekong River and into "Inner Laos." Here the Mekong is intimate and alive with incredible thick jungle vegetation gracing its shores. We see no power lines for two days as we stop each day to visit remote tribal villages whose only access to the outside world is the river itself.

We spend a night at a tranquil river lodge, and although it is the only somewhat-rustic accommodation of the whole journey, it often ends up being the favorite out of all our other, more luxurious, hotels due to its beauty, charm, and singular location along the banks of this enchanting river.

Farther downriver along the Mekong, we explore famous Buddhist caves and finally end our cruise in the old royal capital of Luang Prabang. This peaceful town is so friendly that some visitors fall in love and never leave. The word is out about this special place and the gentleness of the Lao people. Be prepared to find it difficult to say goodbye. Our last stop is the current capital of Vientiane--a fitting place to round out our rewarding journey into Southeast Asia's most alluring of destinations.

Realm of the Russian Bear

October 19, 2004 | Tags: Arctic, Europe

My first voyage to the Russian Far East, in 1998 aboard an expedition vessel, was a revelatory experience. I knew we would see North Pacific wildlife, but I was absolutely unprepared for the variety and multitude. During our first landing we spotted 40 species of birds, including Steller's sea eagles, Far Eastern curlews, yellow-breasted buntings, and other Kamchatkan specialties. At other sites thousands of seabirds wheeled through the air in such numbers as to nearly obscure the soaring volcanoes that dominated the horizon.

Every day brought its share of jaw-dropping sightings--pods of orcas hunting fish, brown bears foraging near the shore, thousands of fur seals and Steller's sea lions hauled out on beaches, otters gliding through kelp, Arctic foxes skulking through long grass. Each new sighting further proclaimed the region's eminence among the wildlife capitals of the world.

The encounters with the peoples of the region proved just as illuminating. Though very sparsely populated, Kamchatka is home to indigenous cultures such as the Koryak. These nomadic reindeer herders, far from the support systems of urban centers and unassimilated into mainstream Russian life, follow the ways of their forbears, unchanged for thousands of years.

Political realities do sometimes impinge upon the native tribes, however. Only three miles separate Big Diomede and Little Diomede Islands, and their inhabitants share cultural and familial ties. Yet, as the larger island lies in Russian waters and the smaller is part of the U.S., the countries' border keeps the islands' inhabitants apart, a poignant reminder that the intangible barriers erected by political differences can prove more insurmountable than easily crossed distance.

This border and the Russian military base on Big Diomede are vestiges of the Cold War. Closed to travelers during that period, the Russian Far East served a strategic purpose, its bases the first line of defense against their Alaskan counterparts. This onceforbidden status grants a region a certain mystique; during my initial exploration of Kamchatka, I continually felt the sense of discovery, of penetrating a long-held secret.

Along with this sensation I felt an incredible optimism--the most unexpected realization I experienced. If the Diomedes are a sobering reminder of political barriers, then the mere act of traveling to Kamchatka is a hopeful reminder of how quickly those barriers can fall. Such a journey was impossible only a few years ago. The rapidity with which Russians and Americans, for so long implacable foes, entered a new era of cooperation and friendship was both amazing and heartening.

These feelings have not faded, even after many subsequent journeys to the Russian Far East. Next June I will have the great pleasure of sharing the wildlife, scenery, humanity--and possible epiphanies--of the region with a new group of Zegrahm travelers on Realm of the Russian Bear.

Over the past few years, we've been leading shipboard explorations of Madagascar and the Seychelles. As travelers on those expeditions can attest, those Indian Ocean islands are superlative natural history destinations replete with fascinating, often highly rare, flora and fauna.

For 2005 we've expanded the scope of our explorations to include landings in the East African countries of Mozambique and Tanzania. We're presenting our Indian Ocean Safari in two parts: Reunion to Zanzibar and Zanzibar to the Seychelles, both aboard Le Ponant.

Insider's Choice: Namibia My Way

July 20, 2004

Nadia Eckhardt, July 2004

I first visited Namibia in the early 1980s when I was working aboard a ship that called at Walvis Bay. The dramatic coastline, the bordering sand dunes, and an enormous, seabird-packed lagoon immediately signaled Namibia's potential as an adventure-travel destination.

My interest only grew during the intervening years as I explored the country further. Namibia, I became convinced, is one of southern Africa's best-kept secrets. Since 2000 we've included Namibia as an extension to South Africa My Way, but a nation of Namibia's size and natural and cultural variety called for a more-extensive program. Thus, in 2005 I'll be leading Zegrahm's first Namibia My Way departure.

Namibia covers an area roughly as large as that of the U.S. West Coast, but is one of Africa's most sparsely populated countries. The result is an overwhelming sense of vastness, of epic vistas and surrounds largely unmarked by civilization. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Namib Desert. There, dunes of slowly shifting red sands extend to the horizon, embraced by the sky's canopy and bounded by distant mountains. For sheer grandeur, it's a setting matched by only a handful of regions. We'll witness the beauty of sunrise and sunset in the desert, and we can sleep outdoors, beneath the stars.

If you think that Namibia is only a great desert, this itinerary will surprise you. Mountains, rivers, seacoast, bushveld, and plains also compose the country. To experience all of these, and to cover necessary distances, we've exclusively chartered an airplane for our expedition. This also allows us access to remote areas and avoids the headaches of using scheduled flights.

If you're going to southern Africa, then spotting wildlife is one of your goals. Namibia has the world's largest population of my favorite animal, the cheetah. At the Palmwag Rhino Camp, we'll go in search of endangered desert-adapted black rhinos, and at Serra Cafema we'll seek out Nile crocodiles and rare endemic birds. During our days at Ongava, a private lodge on the southern side of Etosha National Park, game drives will bring us into proximity to the large herds of plains animals and lions and other predators. At night, spotlighting excursions will reveal the region's nocturnal denizens.

Although Namibia has a small population, human habitation dates back thousands of years. Today the country is home to more than ten ethnic groups, including the Himba, a nomadic, cattle-herding people who exist on the edges of the habitable world.

We'll celebrate expedition's end in neighboring Zambia, site of Victoria Falls, and our post-voyage extension focuses on the Zambezi River's remarkable collection of wildlife.

As with South Africa My Way, I've personally scouted and crafted this expedition. Namibia My Way will present unparalleled insights into the landscapes, wildlife, and peoples of a little-traveled, magical corner of Africa.

Libya Opens Its Doors; Zegrahm Steps In

July 20, 2004

For the past 23 years, a U.S. government edict forbade Americans from traveling to Libya, placing the country's impressive Greek and Roman archeological sites out of reach. At Zegrahm, when we discussed which countries to explore next, Libya often came up. Wouldn't Libya, with its cultural heritage stretching back thousands of years and largely deserted ruins, make a perfect destination? Of course, we were unable to do anything more than sketch out rough plans and toss around ideas.

A few months ago, that all changed. The U.S. lifted its ban, and we immediately began developing our ideas into actual itineraries. We needed to quickly dispatch someone to scout locations, meet the people, and get a read on this relatively unknown country. Fortunately, that duty fell to me.

So it was that I found myself the only American on a flight into Tripoli, Libya's capital city. My days here and in the surrounding countryside were an incredible experience. Given the recent relations between the U.S. and Libya, some might feel unsure about the reception Americans will receive. I felt very safe and very much welcomed during my travels. The people I met were friendly, genuine, and very curious about Americans. Tripoli is an energetic city, and its medina, souks, and Italianate architecture well display the country's synthesis of Mediterranean, African, and Arab influences.

Thousands of years ago, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans founded Libya's coastal cities. These metropolises thrived as centers of trade and learning before gradually declining during periods of Vandal and Byzantine control. Part of my scouting was to investigate the remnants of two of these: Sabratha and Leptis Magna. I had heard stories that these were the most dazzling Roman ruins outside Italy.

The stories are true. Sabratha is a magnificent collection of sandstone and marble structures -- columns, houses, temples, baths. Its theater once held 5,000 spectators, and its stone mosaics remain almost impossibly vivid, given the march of time. Leptis Magna was a revelation, its ruins on a scale I'd not seen before. I can only compare it to Turkey's Ephesus, but Leptis Magna covers a much larger area. Enormous pieces of marble are strewn everywhere, and wide boulevards connect the site's destinations: the entry arch, Hadrian baths, Byzantine church, old forum, and more. Not only are Sabratha and Leptis Magna impressive in scale, they are remarkably well preserved; the dearth of travelers has helped keep the ruins in excellent condition.

Farther east, in the Green Mountain region of Benghazi, lie Cyrene and Appollonia, which we'll scout later this year. Together, these locations compose the centerpiece of a series of first-ever voyages that (depending on itinerary) also includes Malta, Tunisia, Crete, and Egypt. As most of Libya's treasures are found along its coast, we'll be exploring aboard two ships, Le Levant and Le Ponant, optimum-size vessels for our destinations. Libya is still developing its tourism infrastructure, so these ships will also serve as hotels-at-sea, allowing us to travel in great comfort.

Apparently, we are not the only ones with a strong desire to explore Libya. We originally planned two departures, both aboard Le Ponant; in response to overwhelming interest from our travelers, however, we quickly altered our plans, adding two voyages aboard Le Levant. Each ship imparts a different flavor. The smaller, more intimate Le Ponant lets you travel under sail, and will focus primarily on Libya. The slightly larger Le Levant, with its greater speed, allows us to expand the scope of our adventure, adding stops at Tunis, Carthage, and Sousse in Tunisia, and Alexandria, Egypt.

Circumnavigation of North America

July 20, 2004

Werner Zehnder, July 2004

Next year will see the work of two decades finally bear fruit when we launch part one of our unprecedented Circumnavigation of North America departure. The seeds of this air expedition were planted in 1985 when I was leading the first west-to-east crossing of the Northwest Passage. I envisioned a shipboard voyage encompassing the entire coastline, from above the Arctic Circle to Central America.

Such a voyage appealed to me for a number of reasons. First, passengers would be able to fully appreciate the continent's array of ecosystems and wildlife. Second, through cultural encounters and archeological explorations, they would see how the peoples who crossed the Bering Strait from Asia approximately 20,000 years ago dispersed throughout the continent. A comparison of the different ways of life would also show how environment shapes civilization. Finally, no one had ever attempted this expedition before. To be the first to mount such an ambitious undertaking would be a singular achievement.

When I began planning the actual itinerary, I quickly saw that a shipboard expedition was out of the question. To cover the vast distances and negotiate the ice of the north would take months and require at least two different vessels. Also, the seasons dictated that we split the journey into two parts, traveling across the Arctic in the summer and the southern route in early spring. Aircraft proved to be the logical transportation. They could quickly link the far-flung destinations, and we would tailor the type of planes used to the requirements of each region.

Now, years after my original conception, the planes selected, the itineraries carefully plotted, we are ready to embark on our history-making circumnavigation.

The Northern Route: Seattle to Washington D.C.

On 26 June 2005, expedition members will gather in Seattle to begin the northern half of our journey. Boarding a privately chartered Convair 580 custom-configured for our travels, our contingent will fly north to explore Alaska. The Inside Passage and Glacier Bay present a landscape of dense conifer forests, soaring peaks, mazelike waterways, and crystalline glaciers calving luminescent icebergs. It is also here that travelers begin searching for the wildlife of the north.

We've chartered a Dash 7 for the Canadian portion of our journey. These planes were designed for the shorter runways and rugged conditions of the frontier, enabling explorations of otherwise inaccessible destinations in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

During the journey, travelers will search for the animals of the far north: humpback, minke, and beluga whales; walrus; bearded, spotted, and ringed seals; guillemots, fulmars, and red-throated loons; brown bears and, with luck, the elusive polar bear.

The remote lands on our route are home to Haida and Inuit tribes, as well as others who, through the centuries, have carved out an existence at the ends of the earth. Through welcoming dances, crafts, and face-to-face encounters, native tribes impart a feeling of their traditional cultures. Burial mounds in Barrow, north of the Arctic Circle, date back to a.d. 500, and the Viking ruins at L'Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland are the earliest evidence of Europeans in the New World. The streets of Nome still echo with the bawdy energy of the gold rush, and the camp of the Franklin Expedition on Beechey Island is all that remains of the ill-fortuned band.

We've taken great care to keep our flights as short as possible, in order to allow more time to explore. The result is an action-packed itinerary with 19 expedition stops. Join us for the first stage of the air voyage of a lifetime.

An article on the southern portion will appear in a future issue of Zegrahm News.