The forests and rivers of South America have long enthralled the human imagination, luring explorers and settlers, stirring writers and artists, and inspiring naturalists and conservationists. And, for the adventure traveler, any shortlist of essential destinations must include the Amazon. Even repeated visits cannot lessen this pull; I've made any number of journeys down the Amazon over the past 25 years, and am still greatly excited to return in March aboard Jungle Rivers of South America.
Much of this anticipation stems from the region's renowned biodiversity. The Amazon basin contains nearly one-fifth of the world's bird species, roughly 30 monkey species, 1,800 types of butterflies, and more species of fish than the entire Atlantic Ocean.
At best, these sorts of numbers can only hint at the extravagance of life that will surround us, not just on the Amazon, but also on the other three, very distinct, rivers on our itinerary. Where some travel firms might offer trips to the Amazon, our exploration of that river marks only the beginning of our expedition. From there we proceed to the Suriname, Essequibo, and Orinoco.
As we negotiate the narrow waterways aboard ship or on Zodiac excursions, the only sounds we'll hear will be howls, chirps, hoots, and calls of the wildlife flying through the trees, lurking in the shallows, or nesting in the undergrowth. One moment, a bright blue-yellow flash will signal the arrival of a flock of macaws; in the next instant, movement in the rain forest canopy will draw your attention to a troop of howler monkeys crashing through the treetops. Perhaps you'll spy a half-submerged caiman regarding you as you drift among five-foot-wide Victoria lilies or see a silky anteater or agouti moving through the tangled fauna.
Jungle Rivers also presents an opportunity to experience one of the world's premier scenic marvels, the Essequibo's Kaieteur Falls. Over the years, I've seen every notable waterfall on the planet, and for me, Kaieteur beats them all. A few falls are wider, a very few taller, but none is more spectacular. Kaieteur truly commands the landscape as it drops 741 feet down granite cliffs in a brilliant cascade.
Also, I have never worked with a better or more qualified team of naturalists than the one we've assembled for the March departure. Among them is Jonathan Rossouw. Highly experienced, Jonathan has worked as a resident guide and conducted ornithological surveys in the South American rain forest. Clive Byers, one of Britain's celebrated bird artists and an authority on Neotropical birds, will also be with us. Like Jonathan, Clive is an all-around expert. I doubt there's a species that flies, climbs, crawls, or slithers that they can't instantly identify and expound upon.
We designed this expedition to speak to the explorer in you. Join us as we discover the compendium of wildlife scattered through one of the world's most incredible ecosystems.
Mike Messick, April 2004
Tahiti, Bora Bora, Fiji, and the Marquesas have come to symbolize romantic Polynesia; a simple mention of their names conveys images of tropical paradises familiar to Western travelers through Gauguin's paintings, Melville's and Michener's writings, a Broadway musical, and numerous Hollywood films.
Certainly they are an essential part of any South Pacific expedition, but travelers who limit themselves to those shores catch only a narrow glimpse of Polynesia's wide spectrum. For a full appreciation, one must explore the variety of archipelagoes and islands that lies along the region's southern and western limits. These destinations -- the Cook Islands, Niue, Tonga, and Wallis and Futuna -- are perhaps only specks when set against the whole of the South Pacific, but each is distinct and varied in its culture, history, and natural abundance.
The twin pleasures of leading expeditions are discovering a region's unique qualities, the hidden anchorages, little-known islands, and pristine underwater sites, that give a voyage its identity, and then sharing these with travelers. In October I look forward to taking you to some of Polynesia's lesser-known wonders:
The Cook Islands
The Cook Islands are in many ways a microcosm of the entire region, replete with fertile islands, atolls, isolated peoples, and stunning bird and marine life.
On last year's expedition we experienced the quintessence of the South Pacific during our first landfall in this archipelago. As we rode Zodiacs through the turquoise waters surrounding Atiu Island, the morning light revealed native women arrayed on either side of our landing site, blowing conch shells to herald our arrival, young men accompanying them on slit-drums. You could not ask for a more perfect Polynesian moment.
At roughly 100 square miles, Niue is both one of the world's largest raised coral islands and one of its smallest self-governing states. It is also one of the South Pacific's best-kept secrets. In a region of omnipresent physical beauty, Niue stands out. A coral reef nearly encircles the island, which has an unusual, tiered shape, having twice uplifted from the sea. Limestone cliffs form the coastline; above them another set of cliffs rises to a central plateau. The resulting chasms and caves offer hours of exploration for the adventurous visitor. Stunning primary and secondary-growth forests drape much of the island, and orchids, frangipani, and bougainvillea provide a backdrop for Niue's birdlife. Offshore, snorkelers and divers have the opportunity to spot katuali, the rare black-and-gray-striped sea snakes that ply the clear waters surrounding the island.
From the uplifted limestone Vava'u Archipelago to volcanic Niuatoputapu and Niuafo'ou, the islands of Tonga offer a greater geological diversity than any other Pacific nation. Niuafo'ou is so remote and inaccessible, it is largely unknown even to Tongans. We'll land on its black-lava beach and hike inland to a sulfur-rich crater lake, hoping to spy the rare endemic megapode, a bird that incubates its eggs in the warm volcanic ash. How rare is this species? Peter Harrison, in a lifetime traveling the globe studying birds, finally saw his first mega-pode on last year's voyage.
Wallis and Futuna
Although they are collectively an overseas territory of France, the islands of Wallis and Futuna are more different from each other than they are similar. Volcanic eruptions formed Wallis, a barrier reef island, whereas Futuna was uplifted from the sea. Wallis possesses excellent archeological sites, but a population that reflects a more Western influence in its buildings and customs. Futunans tend to follow more traditional ways, still observing the nightly kava ritual. Our time here will reveal how disparate societies can arise even in proximity to each other.
Ian Tattersall, April 2004
Paleoanthropologist and primatologist Ian Tattersall, who conducted extensive fieldwork in Madagascar, will be a member of the lecture team on our inaugural Indian Ocean Safari expedition, which begins 12 February 2005, on board Le Ponant. Here he explains why this itinerary holds special meaning for him.
I was delighted to be asked to accompany this voyage, not only because it begins and ends in places (the islands of Reunion and Zanzibar) for which I have long nourished a special affection, but most of all because it will give us a very unusual taste of what is for me the most fascinating place on earth: the vast mini-continent of Madagascar, the world's largest oceanic island. It is by now well over 30 years since I began my love affair with Madagascar, but I still discover something new on every visit there.
One hundred and sixty-five million years ago, Madagascar was part of the vast southern continent of Gondwana, with which it shared an ancient flora and fauna. But at that point Gondwana began to fragment into what we know today as South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia, as its components began to drift apart. By about 120 million years ago Madagascar was as far away from Africa as it is today, and as a result of the island's isolation its living inhabitants were launched along an independent evolutionary trajectory. It has been said that, in Madagascar it is as if the river of evolution burst its banks and flowed to the present down an entirely different course.
My particular fascination in Madagascar is with the lemurs: distant primate cousins of humans and a window into our own remote past of about 60 million years ago. These creatures exist only in Madagascar, but are there in amazing variety, including several creatures that are my particular candidates for the title of "world's most beautiful animal." Our ports of call along the island's east coast will give us a fascinating glimpse of the teeming life of the eastern rain forests, as well as of a little-visited coastline whose colorful history has involved seafarers from Indonesia, Arab traders, Betsimisaraka princesses, and assorted pirates, explorers, and adventurers.
Most of Madagascar's coastal rain forest is now gone, since humans began the ongoing process of clearing the island about two thousand years ago. But one tiny forest remnant hangs on, miraculously preserved as a sacred place to the local Malagasy people. This is Tampolo, a magical place that recently became twinned with the Lemur Conservation Foundation's (LCF) reserve at Myakka City in Florida. The LCF is solely devoted to the conservation and understanding of the lemurs of Madagascar, and recently financed the building of a site museum at Tampolo. This resource is designed to help the local people appreciate and thus protect the unique nature that surrounds them. We will visit this forest from the sea, arriving exactly as did the early explorers who first discovered Madagascar's wealth of natural history.
Another highlight for me along the island's eastern coast will be our call at Vohemar, which is the jumping-off place for Daraina, a site where I discovered a new kind of lemur back in 1974. A decade after I saw it and first reported its presence here, this immensely attractive animal, the golden-crowned sifaka, received the scientific name Propithecus tattersalli. It is highly unusual nowadays to discover, anywhere in the world, a new kind of large-bodied and day-active primate. But Madagascar is just that kind of place: a spot where the new, bizarre, and unexpected lurk around almost every corner.
This itinerary on Le Ponant thus promises an incessant round of discoveries and new delights to all its participants, whether or not they have previously explored this part of the world. I look forward very much to sharing these experiences with you.
The Lemur Conservation Foundation
The lemurs of Madagascar are the world's oldest surviving primates. These prosimians, protected by isolation and the lack of predators, thrived on the island and today number 32 different species. With the arrival of humans roughly two millennia ago, the existence of the lemurs became more precarious. Seventeen species have gone extinct in that span from habitat loss and hunting, with many others considered endangered or critically endangered.
Founded in 1996, the Lemur Conservation Foundation (LCF) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and conservation of lemurs through captive breeding, nonharmful scientific research, education, and reintroduction of lemurs to the wild. To these ends, the LCF operates the Myakka City Lemur Reserve in Florida, home to a small colony of lemurs. The LCF concentrates its efforts on so-called orphan species, lemurs that other conservation programs choose not to propagate. The foundation also works with a multinational effort in Madagascar and is officially allied with Tampolo Forest Station, one of the last remaining areas of coastal forest on Madagascar's eastern shore.
For more information on the LCF and their mission, visit their Web site at www.lemurreserve.org, call them at (941) 322-8494, or write them at P.O. Box 249, Myakka City, FL 34251.
Mason Florence, January 2004
When I arrived to live in Kyoto 12 years ago, I had my mind set on discovering the "real Japan." The first thing I did was invest in a good set of regional maps and begin charting my excursions. Ever since, as a travel writer, photographer, and expedition leader, I've been canvassing the country from top to bottom, from tracing the poet Basho's footprints through the "deep north" right down to the steps of Buddhist monk Kukai around Shikoku's ancient 88 Temple Pilgrimage.
Whether by train, bike, bus, plane, or on foot, Japan is, for me, the ultimate travelers' paradise. Not only steeped in rich history, art, culture, and customs, it's safe, fascinating, a culinary heaven, and is home to perhaps the most gracious hosts on the planet.
But what better way to explore the Japanese archipelago than by sea and on board a vessel such as the Clipper Odyssey, with its fleet of portable Zodiacs and expert crew. Aboard the Odyssey, this year's Treasures of Japan expedition follows a remarkable sea route leading to several of the country's most important historical temples, castles, parks, and shrines, as well as to a carefully chosen selection of striking natural preservation areas.
Our journey begins in Naha, tropical capital of Okinawa and once the political and cultural center of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Today Okinawa is just about as "Japanese" as Hawaii is "American" -- the landscape, culture, and customs here are utterly unique, as is the island music, food, and spirit of the indigenous people. Like Hawaiians, Okinawans share both a rich and a stirring past, and Naha is a perfect springboard from which to explore the historical sights. Those joining the pre-extension will discover a chance to investigate further several of Okinawa's secluded southern islands.
Once on board the ship, we'll navigate the crystal clear waters north to the lovely and seldom-visited island of Amami-Oshima en route to mountainous Yaku-shima, hands-down my favorite travel destination in all of Japan! Much of this incredible, rain-drenched island is now a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site; Yaku-shima is a nature-lover's delight boasting gigantic ancient cedar trees, myriad flora and fauna, and excellent local seafood.
After sailing to a medley of important sites in the Inland Sea we'll thread the narrow Kanmon-kaikyo straits heading for the remote Tsushima Islands. Positioned like steppingstones between Japan and Korea, Tsushima was a key historic stopping point along the famed Silk Road. After a short but fascinating stopover in Korea we'll crisscross back to the Japanese mainland via the Sea of Japan to the celebrated castle town of Kanazawa and finally on to Sado Island, once an island of exile and today home of the internationally renowned Kodo drummers.
Last April I had the exciting opportunity to accompany Zegrahm cofounders Susan and Werner Zehnder on the scouting trip to the Okinawan islands for the Treasures of Japan, and between the must-sees and the wild, off-the-beaten-track spots, I am looking forward to being back on board this spring with my fellow staff and passengers.
Jonathan Rossouw and Holly Faithfull, January 2004
"Borneo: Land of the Orangutan," factual statement and bold promise. As we watched the sun setting over the bustling Sarawak River waterfront in Kuching on our first evening of the expedition, the two of us were filled with a mixture of excitement and nervous anticipation. Would we manage to locate orangutansin the wild? Would Borneo be everything dreamed it would be?
We need never have worried. Indeed, our orangutan sightings were almost embarrassingly rich. Starting with a sub-adult male feeding relaxedly, at close quarters, on our first morning in Danum Valley, we moved on to a fruiting ebony tree seemingly festooned with red fur a female with her boisterous, two-year-old infant alongside a magnificent adult male. We were blessed with yet another male waltzing along the edge of the lodge clearing, eventually building his nocturnal nest directly above our bungalows. Incredible! Our ridiculous luck continued with further encounters along the Kinabatangan River and even above the boardwalk to Gomantong Caves. The final tally of nine photograph-range individuals surely set a benchmark for all future Borneo trips.
But this strange and exotic island offers so much more than the great red apes. An afternoon exploring the communal quarters of a longhouse offered a rare insight into the lifestyle of an authentic Iban clan. With handmade fishing nets and bags of ancient human skulls hanging on the inside, and television aerials on the outside, this is truly a community bridging the gap between the ages.
The next leg of our adventure brought us to the forested limestone mountains of Mulu National Park. We were rewarded with the sculpted beauty of Lang's Cave, the enormous magnitude of Deer Cave, and the spectacle of multitudes of wrinkle-lipped bats heading out in "conga lines" for their night's foraging. We completed our speleological explorations the following morning with visits to Wind and Clearwater Caves, although a profusion of butterflies, including the magnificent Rajah Brooke's birdwing, stole the show.
A late arrival at Mt. Kinabalu gave little indication of the presence of the mountain, but the following morning we awoke to the glistening granite of the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea. The moss-encrusted forest boasts an incredible array of endemic plants, not least a variety of Nepenthes pitcher plants and a host of rare and valuable orchids. We came across a Rafflesia blooming in a roadside forest patch, in perfect condition and only two days into its brief, weeklong blossoming.
A short flight across the island brought us to the east coast town of Lahad Datu, near the heart of the legendary Danum Valley Conservation Area. It seemed the rain forest was smiling on our cause: orangutans aplenty, fiery-haired maroon leaf-monkeys posing for portraits at the edge of the clearing, and the ululations of the Bornean gibbon troops were the highlights of our diurnal activities. Nocturnal spotlighting sessions are an exciting part of any wildlife expedition, and our drives at Danum were no exception, with a host of scarce and elusive creatures encountered: a diminutive leopard cat skulking at the roadside, palm civets clambering about the treetops, and the thrill of that first (decidedly speedy!) slow loris climbing down a canopy vine.
Motorized canoe was our very comfortable mode of transportation on the Kinabatangan River, providing easy access both day and night to the quiet backwaters and oxbow lakes of the floodplain. Gangs of noisy proboscis monkeys launched themselves recklessly from branch to branch as they moved through the trees or settled down for the night. This endemic primate is surely one of the world's most peculiar mammals, with its portly frame, striking pelage, and almost grotesque nose.
The sightings continued to the last day spectacular plunges across the Menanggul backwater by long-tailed macaques, riverside fig trees supporting an impressive array of hornbills, most notably the rare helmeted and wondrous rhinoceros. Night cruises produced close-up views of roosting blue-eared and stork-billed kingfishers, buffy fish-owls, and two fine reticulated pythons, as well as glimpses of a Malay stink-badger and the rarely seen flat-headed cat. Our exploration of the world's third-largest island truly yielded a rich kaleidoscope of memories.
Jonathan and Holly will be leading two Borneo expeditions in 2004, the first departing 04 June, the second 18 June. Call or e-mail our office for more details.