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Svalbard – Of Ice and Polar Bears

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Longyearbyen 78º13′ north, the town lying farthest north in the world.

As our plane came in to land the small collection of buildings lay off on our port side set in a classic ice-cut valley, still with snow-covered peaks all around. The nursery school teacher sitting next to us on the plane pointed out where she worked, a cluster of ice-strengthened vessels lay at anchor in the calm waters of the fjord and we touched down. It was May, springtime in the Arctic and adrenaline coursed our veins as we contemplated the adventure that lay ahead.

Once our group was all settled in to our trappers-style, Basecamp Hotel we held our first briefing for the dog-sledding day in the morning!

Being on a sled, pulled by a team of six huskies across pristine snow is an adventure unto itself. Our experience however was so much more. It was all about the dogs, handling them, petting them, harnessing them up and bringing them to the snow. So keen were the dogs to pull that they could only be walked on their back two feet. The harnesses were designed to lift the dogs while walking them. They hopped. Woe betide anyone letting all four paws touch the ground or the dog would run – pulling you with it!

Before the afternoon of boarding our vessel, we explored the area, as far as the limited road network allowed, picking up on myriad seabirds, eider ducks, arctic foxes, barnacle and pink-footed geese, Svalbard reindeer and even a super rare close-encounter with a vagrant short-eared owl!

Finally, the time had come and our newly refurbished expedition vessel, the M/S Freya, was eagerly awaiting our presence. We were a baker’s dozen, plus two bear guides / expedition leaders (Jens and Vide), captain and crew. Immediately we felt at home. We headed out of the fjord to the west before turning north into the Arctic Ocean. Our very first day out, in stunning scenery we had already bagged our first polar bear, a walrus on pack ice and a pod of beluga whales! Our karma was good. With 24 hours of daylight everything was one long day and we used the light to keep looking as we travelled. The weather was sublime and on our first Zodiac tour Jens announced he had spotted another polar bear – this one closer. As we approached we realized that the ‘one’ bear lying in a snow hole was in fact two – a mother and one year old cub. Approaching further they both got up, walked down to the shoreline, now a few meters from our boats and began gnawing on an old whale jaw bone that had, according to Jens, been there several years already. We watched, incredulous as the two hungry bears tried to glean sustenance from the old bone. An outstanding sighting tinged with a large dose of sadness as we realized that if she could not catch a seal soon, made harder by the global-warming related receding ice conditions, they both may not make it.

We revisited the couple twice more throughout the day until they finally walked up from the beach and slept in a tight huddle.

Things just got better and better. The weather was excellent and the bird cliffs of Alkefiellet were stuffed to the gills with Brunnich’s guillemots and black-legged kittiwakes. Anything even resembling a perch on the dramatic, basaltic cliffs was now occupied by a bird preparing to nest. The scene was spectacular and even the bergy-bits of floating ice were crammed with guillemots looking, for all the world, like groups of penguins in the south.

Our next bear sighting was another mother but with two young cubs. We stayed with them at the edge of the fast ice where we watched at some distance as she stood, stoically, without moving a muscle, over a seal breathing hole, for eight hours, while the cubs played further away. After suckling her cubs she walked off into the distance and we continued on our journey.

Another intimate polar bear experience was with a large male, fat and healthy looking, after having eaten a seal. We stayed in his company a full 18 hours as he dug snow hole after snow hole trying to get comfortable. He sat, squirmed, yawned and came down to the shoreline to pose as we clicked away hundreds of images between us.

Soon it was time for some intimate walrus encounters and after having spied a large male on the pack ice we edged closer in the Freya. Apart from the odd glace in our direction the huge pinniped was unperturbed. After some great shots including its reflection in the still waters we decided to drop the Zodiacs for a fresh angle. The rewards were worth it and we had some stunning opportunities from virtually under the animal. Happily, the walrus population in Svalbard seems to be on the increase and we look forward to many more such encounters in the future. Another fabulous walrus experience was after we landed at one of the beach haulouts. Making our way in stages, slowly, slowly to the colony we sat unobtrusively close enough for some portrait photography and just simply to watch in awe at their comings and goings.

Another polar bear was spotted in front of a glacier – now totaling 8 individuals. We could not approach due to fast ice but loved seeing him in the majesty of his environment. To finish off, after what had been fabulous bear sightings so far, we decided to revisit the area where we had seen the mother and cub. Incredibly she was still there and gave us some more awesome viewing. From posing in front of a glacier to climbing rocks and walking the shoreline in front of us, to stalking harbor seals – nothing short of spectacular!

We eventually left them and began wending our way home to Longyearbyen. We were rewarded by a very rare sighting of a Steller’s eider duck and a mother and calf blue whale as we were almost home! This time Svalbard really delivered. We are never after quantity but always look at the quality of the sighting as the indicator of a successful trip. Add to the mix an unbeatably fun group (members of the Rare Bird Club of Bird Life International), guides and crew. This trip would be hard to top. Karma was indeed with us.

The Undiscovered Jewel – Guyana

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I have lived in Ecuador, South America for 32 years and have travelled the continent extensively. One destination that retains an inexplicable calling is Guyana.
Having published arguably the two most important coffee-table books on the country I have been privileged to have traveled its length and breadth by road, boat and helicopter. The continent’s only English-speaking country, Guyana is virtually pristine and rich in biodiversity including a ‘full house’ of the South American giants. An undiscovered jewel it is, with good reason, a firm favorite in our suite of expeditions.

Pete Oxford Expeditions is proud to jointly lead many trips with the Oceanic Society a USA based conservation NGO, the first in the states to be dedicated to ocean conservation. This was no exception and after assembling the group at Georgetown’s colonial Cara Lodge we headed out the following morning in our privately charted Cessna caravan aircraft to land at Guyana’s most iconic destination – Kaieteur Falls. This stunning waterfall, set in the wilds of a pristine forest is the world’s highest single-drop waterfall, several times higher than Niagara at 741 feet. With a choice of spectacular lookout points and no barriers whatsoever the experience transports the visitor back to an ageless time when Nature was still in charge. As if that was not enough, in the falls we absorbed ourselves in finding the endemic golden frogs at the base of the leaves of the humongous and omnipresent giant bromeliads.

Before returning to the aircraft we ducked into the forest to the well-known lek of one of the country’s most flamboyant birds. We easily spotted the gaudy, bright orange male Guyana Cock-of-the-Rock on his favorite perch. Obligingly he let each of us photograph him in his element offering various poses as we did so.

Taking off from the dirt strip at the falls the pilot offered both port and starboard sides an intimate aerial view of the Potaro River thundering over the escarpment as we turned north to Fairview and the Iwokrama forest. Checking in to the Iwokrama Lodge on the bank of the mighty Essequibo River our first call was to Sankar – a huge black caiman that has been hanging around the dock for many years. Portrait photography of this living dinosaur was spectacular as his prehistoric gaze stared down the barrel of the lens to be immortalized in an image.

Iwokrama has been well studied scientifically and is well known for its huge biodiversity. Many species are endemic to the Guyanan shield on which the lodge sits and are different from the main Amazon rainforest. This is of particular note to birdwatchers who ‘flock’ to the area for new ticks on their list.
On our boat ride on the river, using a spotlight we found many more caimen, some roosting birds including the very attractive capped heron and two tree boas hunting for food.
From Iwokrama we had elected to leave to our next destination – Atta Lodge and the Canopy walkway – via open truck at night along the ‘main road’. Although the dirt track is indeed the main artery connecting the coast to the interior and the Rupununi Savannas it travels in a virtual straight line through primary rain forest. It has become the best spot in Guyana to see jaguars. We had a good spotlight, drove slowly and had our eyes peeled. Although I’ve seen quite a few on this road before, this time we were not so lucky and the jags remained elusive.

At first light, we hiked the 500 meters from our lodge to the canopy walkway – a series of 3 platforms some 30 meters in the canopy. We spent the morning looking at the birds that came through and listened to the unmistakable, megaphonic, sounds of howler monkeys.
From Atta we were preparing to drive to a spot from where we could hike into the forest to hopefully find a harpy eagle – the most powerful eagle in the world. Camera packs were already loaded in the vehicle when, unbelievably, an adult harpy flew right into camp! A harpy in the hand, was definitely worth one in the bush so we stayed and marveled at the one that had come to us.
Our next stop was Rewa – an Amerindian owned and operated eco-lodge. Rewa is known for its healthy population of arapaima, another South American giant and one of the largest fresh water fish in the world. It was not always so, but once the community realized that the population of arapaima was dwindling they initiated a self-imposed moratorium on fishing these fish for 5 years until the population was seen to increase. Arapaima are territorial and obligate air-breathers, meaning that they periodically break the surface to gulp air. Individual fish can therefore be identified by size and sex to the trained eye. Hunting with bow and arrow the fishermen can then selectively take individual fish in a sustainable manner. Their entire project has been heralded as a conservation success and numbers are once again at a high level. We spent an afternoon at one of the well-known arapaima lakes, surrounded by giant water-lilies and waiting for the huge fish to break the surface, gulp and roll.

Boat trips on the river from Rewa also showed us several troops of monkeys, a plethora of herons, large-billed terns and black skimmers. Night walks produced many smaller animals and birds not least of which were a dozen or so pink-toed tarantulas!
Our last stop was to be the famed Karanambu lodge – home of the ‘otter lady’ the late Diane McTurk. A legend in her own lifetime Diane had dedicated the latter part of her life to rehabilitating giant otter orphans back to the wild. Steeped in tradition and the true spirit of pioneers Karanambu is a delight and worthy finale. Through a combination of walks and boat rides, we could secure great views of many bird species and of course giant otters. These, the longest otter species in the world, are highly endangered throughout most of their range with Guyana being one of the last strongholds of the species. Highly social animals they are very efficient predators and seem to be able to catch a good-sized fish any time they put their mind to it.
Perhaps the highlight of Karanambu however was our early morning sojourns by 4×4 out into the Rupununi savannas. With a local vaquero (cowboy) on horseback to guide us we always managed to get excellent views of one of the animal kingdom’s most bizarre denizens – the giant anteater. A strange animal indeed, somewhat laterally flattened the shaggy beast walks awkwardly on large claws that it uses to break open hard termite mounds whereupon it squats on its haunches to lap up the teeming insect with its long sticky tongue.

The camaraderie of a great group, lively meal time conversations and the wonder of new life-time experiences our 2018 Guyana trip lived up to expectations. I miss it already!

Bettys Bay

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Welcome to our new home in South Africa!!
We are now ‘officially’ based in Bettys Bay in the Western Cape, living 40 meters from the ocean, within a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the ocean in front of the house designated a Marine Protected Area!
Life is good!

We have a host of wildlife in the ‘garden’ which is an area of protected Fynbos vegetation, part of the smallest Floral Kingdom on earth, between us and the sea. With no fences to define our property wildlife moves freely to and fro. Angulate tortoises wander through, mongooses, striped mice, dassies and rare, endemic grysbok antelope. Even a leopard has been spotted close to the house!

Ten minutes walk away is the largest mainland colony of African penguins, while fur seals sit on the rocks at low tide just offshore. We have even seen Cape clawless otters on the coastal path not 100 meters as the crow flies!
The coastline is stunning, dominated by a series of white sandy beaches, coastal dunes and gorgeous rocks all fringed by a swath of thick kelp forest – a naturalist/marine biologist’s dream!
Just the other day we went out in our neighbor’s boat for a look around directly in front of the house. We saw 2 Bryde’s whales, fur seals, many rafts of 80+ penguins, gannets, shearwaters, skuas and gulls and were surrounded by a large pod of more than 100 common dolphins. Getting into the water in the kelp forest we saw several of the small, bottom-living puff adder sharks, tons of rock lobsters and were swimming with a beautiful 7-gill cow-nosed shark!

There was a storm that came through 3 days ago and, never having found a nautilus shell, decided that it might be a good time to look for one. We found 4!! One broken, but three of these extremely delicate cephalopod shells in perfect condition. Like I said, life is good!

A gift from Rocket

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Cassidy, the 9 year old on our recent Galapagos trip, named this sealion Rocket. She stayed with us in the water for almost an hour, shooting past each of us in turn and showing off her acrobatic prowess. She was obviously having a lot of fun with us.

In this case I was the last out of the water and she still would not leave me alone. It was as if she was worried that I might get out too, leaving her without a playmate. Apparently, according to her, the only way to keep me there was to offer me a present.

She grabbed a puffer fish, shook it up enough so that it inflated in self-defense, making it much more of a fun play thing and then dropped it in front of me.

Bespoke Ecuador

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We recently had family visit from the UK. Starting with the amazing churches of downtown Quito, said to be the best-preserved colonial center in the whole of South America. Even for non-religious folks the ostentatious splendor of a multitude of Spanish churches and cathedrals, dripping with Inca gold and Catholic artifacts is always a sensory overload coupled with a deep sense of history and subjugation.

The aim, in part, was to open the eyes of young Katie to a different world where travel and immersion in new cultures goes a long way in educating intelligent young minds – or as Mark Twain once said: Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness …

Day two and our sojourn began in earnest. We headed south to one of Ecuador’s highest snow-capped peaks, Cotopaxi (the world’s highest active volcano). With a jeep full of mountain bikes we then headed down the impressive slope of the volcano, from 4560 meters, to the flatter paramo below. A classic cone, Cotopaxi rarely disappoints. Our destination for overnight was to be on the high slopes of Chimborazo Volcano, the peak of which is the farthest point from the center of the planet (due to the bulge in the earth).


On our previous visit, at Christmas with friend from New York, we had stopped at Calpi animal market. With no stalls for the livestock and little or no discernable order we pushed hordes of tethered cattle out of our path to make headway through the throng. The local Indians, dressed in ponchos, felt hats and sandals, joked with us, offering the best price if we would just buy one of their cows. Then we arrived at the pigs. Ten or so piglets per merchant radiated on taught ropes like spokes of a wheel from the stakes in the ground. In a squealing cachophany they were doing what pigs do – all but one – a little chap with a particularly squashed looking face. After some haggling Owen and Ana bought him. Stopping for a few snacks, declining the roasted chicken feet, we bought some fruit, including a few things that the piglet might enjoy. He quickly settled in, as any other passenger might and was quite at home as we continued in the minibus towards Chimborazo. Our quarters were simple and set within a small indigenous community of pastoralists who mostly tended a herd of alpacas. Rosa was our host, a lovely woman whom Renee and I had come to know fairly well over fifteen years of visits. She owned a cow, five sheep, several dogs and now, after a somewhat sad exchange, she owned a pig too. A promise was made that the pig, now named in my honour as Peter, would enjoy a long and happy life and the business of building him a nice place to live was attended to. Many of the human dwellings meanwhile were merely tiny sod huts with a thatched roof, low doorway and a fire set in the middle of the floor, for warmth, cooking and boiling water. The entire insides were blackened with soot.

Arriving back to see Rosa I cautiously asked how was Peter the Pig. “Petercito is wonderful”, she said “And so friendly!”. We were delighted and as soon as we saw him, how he had grown and Rosa’s relationship with him we could not have been more pleased. The following morning Petercito was standing up and leaning over his door. He is keen to go to work she told me. “What work?” I said. He has to go out fertilizing and turning the soil she told me!

We left with a vision of a happy pig in our minds as we followed Rosa, with the communal herd of alpacas in her charge as she led them to the slopes of Chimborazo to spend the day grazing.

Back on our mountain bikes we finished the first part of our tour by riding 35km, all downhill, on a beautiful country back road to Ambato.

You too could join Pete and Renee on a tailor-made trip to Ecuador. Having lived in Ecuador for more than 3 decades they certainly know their way around.