Libya Opens Its Doors; Zegrahm Steps In

July 19, 2004 | Tags: Africa

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 19, 2004 | Tags: Americas

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.

The Dalmatian Coast

April 20, 2004

The unparalleled number of civilizations that rose in the Mediterranean resulted in a melding of cultures greater than anywhere else on earth. Today the region draws travelers interested in art, culture, and history. Yet, while many travelers revel in the better-known glories of the Mediterranean -- Venice, Crete, Athens -- few avail themselves of an exploration of the Dalmatian Coast, an area that, along with possessing treasures to match any others found in the Mediterranean, perfectly displays how settlement, conquest, and trade inform a society.

Comprising the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea from Rijeka in the north to Dubrovnik in the south, the Dalmatian Coast is one of the most visually striking areas in Europe. Rugged limestone cliffs rise abruptly from the sea; medieval towns, built from the rock of their surroundings, blend into the landscape in a way not seen elsewhere on the continent.

Approaching from the Adriatic, a traveler can easily comprehend why so many peoples coveted and fought over these protected sites. Around the sixth century B.C., Illyrian tribal groups, famed as warriors and closely related to Alexander and his Macedonians, lived throughout Dalmatia. With the rise of the Roman Empire, the region became the source of many of the famed Praetorian Guards and leaders of the army. As a result, Roman ruins dot the coast, and in the city of Split one finds the remnants of the palace erected by the tyrannical emperor Diocletian -- one of the best examples of Roman palaces in Europe.

One can also understand the role geography played in shaping Dalmatian society. The coast lay directly between the Byzantine Empire, with its distinct art, architecture, and culture, and the Western Roman Empire. The divide between the empires, and also the eastern (Orthodox) and western (Catholic) churches, is roughly today's border of Dalmatia and Montenegro. In medieval times Dalmatian cities thrived through trade with North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt, Byzantium and its Ottoman successor state, as well as various Italian states. Most important of these was the wealthy and powerful city-state of Venice, which left an indelible mark on many towns and villages, making the coast one of the gems of Venetian culture. Indeed, today if you wish to see the finest examples of a medieval Venetian town, you need to go to Dalmatia.

None of the various powers that held sway over Dalmatia ever truly eradicated those that came before it. Rather, a fusion form of art, architecture, and costume evolved as each culture added to previous cultures' contributions. Travelers can see a unique form of art that mixed icons style, with its gold-tile backgrounds, with Renaissance styles of painting. In Split we see how later rulers created a major Christian cultural center amid structures erected by the Romans.

The Ottomans introduced intricate forms of silver jewelry and weaving patterns, spurred by the Dalmatians' fascination with the splendor of Istanbul. Sephardic Jews, invited by the Ottomans to settle in the Balkans, contributed the famous scroll embroidery seen in clothing worn in the region. Traditional garments may be the single best visible example of Dalmatia's cultural mix. You can see Croatian, Venetian, North African, Ottoman Turkish, and Sephardic Jewish influences in a single costume.

Finally, in Dalmatia, history isn't something we see only in museums and preserved sites; it's a vital force, one whose influence is manifest in everyday lives. Walks through old town centers are delights in themselves. These old towns are still the homes of ordinary local people. The streets and alleys are more suited for donkeys than for cars, and in many, cars are banned. As one walks these streets, one encounters old inns, shops, wells, fountains, churches, and, of course, local people. The past and the present continue to meld; in the squares and narrow streets one frequently encounters elderly citizens, dressed in black, watching their grandchildren, in modern colorful dress, play.

The Dalmatian Coast is part of our September Mediterranean Under Sail: Crete to Venice expedition, which you can combine with our Istanbul to Crete departure. Call or e-mail our office for more information.

Insider's Choice: Jungle Rivers of South America

April 20, 2004

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.

Where in the World Is Niuatoputapu?

April 20, 2004

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.

Niue

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.

Tonga

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.