Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Mother's Love (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

See Mothers' Boundless Love for a story about the Mothers of the Disappeared.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Life as a Penguin (Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica)

Life is busy. Chicks have to be fed, guarded and kept warm even in these short summer months. Nests have to be maintained. Suitable stones and rocks are in short supply and there has been a lot of thieving going on this year. It is difficult with so many of us living in such a confined space.

And we have our human guests to keep entertained as well. They look so silly with their bright orange and yellow heavy plastic outfits and unwieldly gum boots. They slither and slide on the slippery rocks and ice. Yet, nearly every day another ship disgorges a small army of them ferrying them to shore in the rubber zodiacs.

What is that sound? Is that him? Oh, the unbridled joy. I am starving and I badly need a wash and finally my husband has returned. I’m so happy to see him. He looks very contented with a belly so full that he can barely waddle those last few metres from the foreshore to our nest.

The chicks are overjoyed too as they screech in anticipation of another nutritious feed of krill, squid and small fish. They have grown particularly well and if they stay safe, should be ready to leave the nest as summer finishes. The skuas continue to patrol overhead, looking for any chance to grab a chick, but vigilance should ensure our chicks safety.

I hardly have the energy to struggle to the sea but I’ll soon be feeding. The waddle over the rough rocky terrain is hard work though belly-surfing on the snow is much easier.

Oops, brief pause. Is that a leopard seal on an iceberg? Is he in ambush or is he sleeping? We’ve lost a couple from our village in the last few days but I can’t wait much longer to set sail. And they are so nasty too. If they catch one of us, they’ll toss us around in the air like a play toy, entertaining themselves for hours.

I’ll have to dive in and aquaplane out to sea as quickly as possible. I’m so hungry and I only have so much time before I have to get back and taker my shift again on the nest.

The cycle seems so constant, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Life is pretty good as a penguin.


The wildlife of the Antarctic Peninsula is truly one of the great travel wonders of the world. It rates third on my Top Ten list. Easiest access is from Ushuaia at the bottom of South America (Tierra del Fuego) via an expedition Russian ice-breaker. It is starting to get very touristy so go sooner rather than later if you possibly can. Timing on when you leave dictates what state the chicks are in (eggs, chicks, creche stage where both parents feed at the same time). You should see at least three species of penguins (Adelie as photoed, Gentoo and Chinstrap).

Personal Space (Halstatt, Austria)

Though invaded by tourists in summer but with a permanent population of less than a thousand, Hallstatt is an idyllic and picturesque Austrian village sandwiched on a small wedge of land between towering mountains and a chilly, peaceful lake – a typical Austrian travel wonder. The nearby salt mines have bought people to this area for over 4,500 years including Iron Age folks and the Romans.

Only one narrow through road and a handful of steep pedestrian paths give access to the limited space of the village. From the elegant mountain lake, the wooden houses appear to cling grimly to the foreshore leaning back into the steep lush cliffs so as to not topple over. Vivid red flowers blossom from the window boxes decorating the wooden houses and celebrating the warm summer months.

The houses are built like sideways pyramids with multiple stories facing the lake but only a single floor at the back, such is the steepness of the surrounding mountains. Boat garages litter the edge of the lake, there is more parking for boats than cars in this village.

Space is so valuable in Hallstatt that until the recent introduction of cremation, grave sites could only be occupied for around ten years. After this, the remains were exhumed, dried in the sun and moved to the somewhat eerie ossuary or Beinhaus (bone house).

Today several hundred painted skulls rest in the Hallstatt ossuary along with stacks of arm and leg bones.

The skulls were ornately decorated with the skills of a calligrapher with the name, birth and death dates, profession and floral symbol – typically leaves for men and floral garlands for women – and stacked neatly in family groups.

Being able to view these relics in the vivid natural beauty of Hallstatt reminds you of the transience of life.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Spiritual Medicine Lake (Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada)

Jasper National Park consists of the top half of the spine of the Canadian Rockies. It is considerably more peaceful than its better known cousin of the south – Banff National Park. It is replete with stunning natural sites from glaciers and wildlife to deeply gorged canyons and lakes. You are much more likely to see wildlife in Jasper NAtional Park than you are in Banff National Park.

One of the lesser known but most interesting sites is so-called Medicine Lake. In summer, when most people visit – Jasper's summer population is apparently quadruple its winter population – the lake looks like any other. It is set among snow-capped mountains, has a range of wildlife around and is very striking but nevertheless, appears to be a typical glacial lake. Bears, elk and deer abound. Particularly busy are the frantic rabbit-like pika who use every waking minute to prepare food for the long northenr winter.

Wander through here in fall (autumn) and the lake will have disappeared. Remarkably, Medicine Lake is not a lake at all. Thought to be spiritual by the native Indians, the area has only a small drainage ability. With the intense water flows of late spring and early summer from the melting glaciers and mountain snow, the water pours into Medicine Lake much faster than it can drain, filling it until it appears to be a lake.

This is no different to turning a tap on fully into a basin, where the basin will keep filling as more water is going into the basin, than can escape through its drainage hole.

Eventually the water flow slows as the snows complete their melting and the cooler autumn weather starts the long winter cycle again. The water finally drains from Medicine Lake and it is no longer a lake.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

A Monument to Love (Agra, India)

Is this the most extravagant monument to love? Built by the heartbroken Emperor Shan Jahan when his favourite wife (Mumtaz) died bearing her fourteenth child, this white marble Moslem mausoleum is one of the most iconic and reknown travel wonders in the world. Built by an estimated 20,000 workers over 20 years (400, 000 man hours of construction), this is a masterpiece in architectural symmetry.

Ironically, the only non-symmetric aspect of the Taj Mahal is the tomb of Shah Jahan himself – buried next to his wife, whose tomb is exactly centered. The story goes that Shah Jahan planned to be buried in an identical monument in black marble on the opposite side of the river, a space which still lays vacant in this seething crowded city of over a million people. It makes for a great afternoon viewing area for the Taj itself as the sun sinks over the river, and the taxi ride alone through the center of town and over the river bridge gives a new meaning to peak hour. And the competition is not just the cars and rickshaws but also cows and elephants clog up the narrow thoroughfares.

To me, the most remarkable characteristic of the Taj Mahal is that it changes hues, the huge onion dome, Taj walls and minarets moving from pinks to yellows to the most glistening whites as the day changes. These subtle changes in color are reflected in the long narrow central pool and in the river below.

The Taj Mahal is inlayed with a wide variety of exquisite semi-precious stones in the form of flowers, plants and vines. This is complemented with verses from the Qu’ran in exotic stylised Arabic script made from inlayed jasper. The writing actually is larger the higher up the Taj Mahal that you get to try to help defeat the issue of perspective.

Around the Taj itself is a mosque to the west and a “false mosque” to the east, both in birght red sandstone, to preserve the perfect symmetry. The false mosque cannot be a mosque as it points in the wrong direction.

The saddest tale is that Shah Jahan had spent so much he was sending his treasury broke. The cruelest son of four won the day, killing his three brothers and any other potential hiers and locking his father away in nearby Agra Fort. He spent his last seven years with a distant view of his most beloved wife’s mausoleum from his restricted quarters in Agra Fort.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Top Ten Wildlife Experiences

There is an ever-increasing number of wildlife viewing opportunities available all over the world. For me and for many others, viewing wildlife in their natural environment is among the most rewarding experiences around. Sadly, many of the animals in the list below are endangered. Often, the money from travellers helps fund their protection and well-being, especially in countries which are much poorer than those of us who live in the first world countries.

Here is my top ten list.

1. Mountain Gorillas of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo

The most exceptional single hour of many people’s lives who have seen the mountain gorillas. Trek in Central Africa for some hours to spend an hour with an habituated group of mountain gorillas (group is typically between 8 and 20) including the alpha male – the silverback, characterised by a silver blanket of hair on his back. Only 700 of these remarkable primates (98% matching DNA with humans) exist across two areas in Central Africa.

2. Wildlife Safari in East Africa

Whether visiting Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa or another nearby African country, viewing the great wildlife of Africa’s rift valley is an experience to savor. Maybe see a large lion, cheetah or leopard hunt down its prey. Try to see the Big Five – the elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros, along with the familiar giraffes, zebras, baboons, flamingos, wildebeest and antelope. The single greatest experience is the great wildebeest migration between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara. Give yourself time in these national parks as viewing wildlife is a game of patience.

3. Polar Wildlife in the Antarctic Peninsula

View several varieties of whales, seals (including Leopard, Fur, Elephant, Crabeater), penguins (Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo) and other birdlife (albatrosses and many more) in the least accessible and emptiest of the seven continents. The best location is the Antarctic Peninsula, which is a two day journey from Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of South America via an expedition ship. Smaller ships are better to help manage the number of travellers on board.

4. Bears and the Salmon Run in Canada and Alaska

See brown and black bears put on weight before your eyes as they gorge on the salmon swimming upstream to spawn. See large male bears, mothers and cubs all standing in the water only feet apart (typically near cascading water to slow the salmon down) using a variety of methods (head in the water, catching them in mid-air, catching them with their sharp claws) to satisfy their hunger. Great locations include Pack Creek and Anan Creek, though there are a number of others.

5. Galapagos Islands

View evolution in nature’s laboratory made famous by Charles Darwin. See the famous giant tortoises, extensive birdlife and the various animals that have adapted to the Galapagos Islands. Most popular journey are seven and ten day trips around the islands staying on board a boat. There is no accommodation on the islands themselves to protect the wildlife.

6. Whale Sharks in Western Australia

The largest fish species on our planet – these majestic sharks which measure ten metres and longer eat krill, algae and plankton, sifting them from the water through their mouth (over a metre wide) and out their gills trapping their feed. They can be seen in a few places around the world but you can snorkel with them off Ningaloo Reef north of Perth on the west coast of Australia, in the Seychelles, Belize and around Philippines.

7. Polar Bears in the Arctic

Around October and November each year, polar bears congregate in the small town of Churchill in northern Canada to await the freezing of the sea ice to help them catch seals. They are viewed from large purpose built vehicles called tundra buggies. Endangered with the change in climate, our largest land carnivore is fighting a battle for survival as the ice freezes are occurring later every year. Polar bears are also sighted in Greenland, Svalbard in Norway and parts of Russia and Alaska.

8. Tigers in India

The largest of the cat family is also seriously endangered and is most easily sighted in the wild in the Bengal Tiger reserves in India, though they are more elusive than most other wildlife on this top ten list.

9. Orang-Utans of Borneo

Generally viewed as the most intelligent creature on Earth outside of humans, these highly endangered primates provide a great wildlife experience as they clamber through the trees. Easiest place to see them wild is Sepilok in Borneo.

10. Lemurs of Madagascar

Endangered, these fun creatures so adept at climbing trees are only native to the large African island of Madagascar. Along with the chameleons, this island provides some most unusual wildlife.

I am sure my list will vary from other people’s views and there are certainly other great wildlife experiences around in this world of travel wonders. Please suggest some other great accessible wildlife experiences.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Misty Fjords - Bears, Crabs and Eagles on the African Queen (Alaska, USA)

I slurp the last vestiges of meat from a fresh (and I mean fresh) crab claw, feet up and reclining back as the last energies of the sun expire into the mist of this Alaskan wonderland. The silence is only broken by the gentle lapping of water into the towering granite walls and against the boats sides. A lone brown bear continues grazing on the nutritious sedges and grasses of the foreshore. Bald eagles soar overhead, eyes scanning for an evening snack and for their voracious chicks. Harbor seals maintain a cautious watch over the whole scene.

The mist settles lower over the fjord like a protective and warming blanket, dimming any remaining light from the near-full moon and the setting sun. Even the brightest stars would not twinkle tonight.

Earlier, sea planes galore buzzed and darted around like demented crickets, dwarfed against the immense sea cliffs which rear some 3000 feet straight out of the ocean. Speedy boats rushed in and out with no time to spare from the nearby Alaskan townships to give travelers but a fleeting glimpse of this spectacular fjordland. Waterfalls tumbled carelessly down the enveloping sea walls weaving a well worn path through the mosaic rock patterns twisted and contorted over the geological ages, splashing into the oceans below. It was the wilderness equivalent of downtown bargain shopping on the opening day of specials.

But the noise and hum-drum of the day had now passed, everyone had returned home and the lone African Queen sat majestically in a protected cove. Steve and K.A. tended to the last chores of the day, the boat was a grand dame and needed a little tending as she settled in for the evening. The three of us looked on in silent respect, overwhelmed by the scale of Misty Fjords National Monument, before settling into our bunks for the night.

Morning arose but lifting the misty blanket unveiled no change. Our trusty brown bear contentedly grazed on mouthfuls of foreshore greenery, mixing this with the occasional berry from a nearby bush. He could pluck these single berries with the aplomb of the finest florist. Eagles flew overhead ever alert for a potential feed. The harbor seal maintained his guard duty with only a devilish eye appearing above the waterline.

From afar, a dull drone slowly increases in volume – the first of the tourists had arrived for the day and the wonderful peace of this true wonderland had broken for the day. Soon after, our African Queen herself groaned into action so we too could search for another serene cove hidden in the mist and fog in the wide expanses of Misty Fjords National Monument.

About the Trip

We took the MS Hyak, a wonderful old style 52 foot boat from Ketchikan, in the southern end of South-East Alaska on a ten day journey around the 3,500 square miles of Misty Fjords National Monument and north to Petersburg. The coves of Rudyerd Bay and Walker Cove are especially beautiful.

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