I’VE been incredibly fortunate in the past few years, in the course of my travel writing adventures, to indulge in some of the most amazing experiences that exist between humans and animals. Here’s 8 I’ve done that I’ll reckon you’ll love.
1. Walk with the Polar Bears
To be utterly honest, I was more frightened of how cold I expected it to be up in arctic Canada, than being eaten by a polar bear, and I was right. This trip-of-a-lifetime sees you fly into Winnipeg, where you will overnight and be fitted with your polar gear (which assists greatly with minus 14 degree Celsius temperatures). The next day you’ll fly to Churchill, and then board a tiny plane out to Seal River Heritage Lodge. Here, Churchill Wild runs “walk with the polar bear” safaris out on the arctic tundra framing wild and remote Hudson Bay. So unthreatened are these beautiful animals by this tour, one 400kg male came within 10 metres of our group. Sublime.
2. Snorkel with Salmon
In this instance, I WAS frightened of bears, but I had no real reason. On this adventure, you fly out of Vancouver over to Vancouver Island and Campbell River. Here, you can join an eclectic journey with Destiny River Adventures where you will board a raft and paddle down Campbell River, before plunging into 14 degree waters. Yes, chilly, but worth it, as you plummet down the rapids, dodging rocks and snorkelling with salmon. There’s three pools to experience here (in pool two you are advised to fly like a super hero to avoid being shredded to bits by the rocks). And no, there are no grizzly bears waiting by the shoreline to feast on salmon, or you, as it’s the wrong season. What you will experience is a thrill of a lifetime, and come face-to-face with some friendly seals as well.
3. Sail to see the Komodo Dragons
I LOVE lizards and any reptile for that matter, and had always longed to see the komodo dragons. But arriving at Komodo National Park is not as simple as it seems. However, there exists an incredible adventure which makes the journey a dream. Head out with Indonesian Island Sail on its traditional timber boat, and you can spend 14 glorious days sailing from Bali to Komodo and back. Along the way you’ll feast on fabulous food, snorkel some of the clearest waters in the region, swim with manta rays and turtles, and arrive at Komodo National Park where you can snatch a selfie with those gorgeous giants.
4. Float with the Manta Rays
Did someone mention manta rays? A few years ago, while staying on Hawaii’s Big Island, I had the fabulous fortune of a night float with the manta rays. Courtesy of Manta Ray Advocates, at Kona, after dark you are taken out into the bay on an outrigger canoe. Then, when the conditions are just right, you are invited to slip into the ocean. Holding on to a surf board with handles, and sporting a snorkel and mask, you are invited to plunge your face into the ocean and watch as the magnificent mantas swim right up to you. If you are lucky, they will eye-ball you before they perform a tumble turn.
5. Drive a Reindeer or Husky Sleigh
They are hard-core up in Finnish Lapland and it’s easy to see why. When you have months of darkness during winter, and the temperature plummets to minus 40 degrees Celsius, you tend to be made of serious stuff. Up at Beana Laponia Wilderness Boutique Hotel, a working husky farm, you are invited to not only join a husky safari, but are taught how to drive the team. Yes, you can become a musher. And it is seriously great fun as you fly through snowy trails in a pure-white winter wonderland. For those looking for something a little more sedate, the hotel can also arrange for you to do a reindeer safari. Not as fast or as fun as the huskies, but if Santa is your thing, this might be right up your alley.
6. Meditate with a Horse
If only the horse could talk. One of my craziest animal experiences to date, this one occurred in the Gold Coast Hinterland at Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat. Sure, you can do yoga, tai-chi or go bushwalking, or, if you’re like me, you can indulge in a one-hour meditation session with a horse. At first I was dubious, but it became very obvious during this session that Jack knew far more than I realised. Horses are used for therapy as it is believed they can pick up on human emotions (without any of the bullshit) and from my experience, Jack was spot on. When I was nervous, Jack was skittish. When I lost confidence leading him around the ring, so, too, did Jack. By the end of this session I was able to command Jack to gallop, and stop, purely by using my breath.
7. Witness hatching Turtles
There’s few nicer things in nature than watching an animal begin its life journey and at Bundaberg, on Queensland’s Southern Great Barrier Reef, you can do just that. Between November and January, head to Mon Repos Beach and watch the lady loggerhead turtles lay their eggs, and then, between January and March, you can encounter the hatchlings as they erupt from the nests. Carefully managed by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, join a ranger on a guided tour at night on the beach and your life will never quite be the same again. https://www.bundabergregion.org/turtles/mon-repos-turtle-encounter
8. Hang out with some cool Cats
If you’ve ever wanted to witness Africa’s Big Five, this is your chance. And at Sabi Sabi Luxury Safari Lodges, you can do this in style. Plonked within South Africa’s Kruger National Park, each day you’ll head out on two safaris, one before dawn and the other before dusk, for your best chances of seeing animals in their wild habitat. Again, I was initially worried about being mauled by a lion, but you are in a four-wheel drive with a ranger and a spotter who are fastidious about safety. And, by the end of my trip, I was even going on walking safaris, out in the open, with the exceptional guides who will explain animal tracks and the stories behind them.
AND ONE I CAN’T WAIT TO DO
9. Swim with the Whales
Last year, I was all set to slip into the Pacific Ocean off of the Sunshine Coast and swim with the whales, but wild weather prevented that adventure. But each year, between July and October, when the humpback whales are migrating from Antarctica to breed and play in Queensland’s warm waters, visitors have the opportunity to go out with Sunreef Mooloolaba to get wet with the whales. You hold onto a floating line attached to the boat, and then it’s up to these mammoth mammals as to how close they wish to get to you. Watch this space…
What animal experiences have you done that you’ve loved or want to do? My list doesn’t end. At number 10, I want to swim with the whale sharks and do a shark cage dive
I AM sitting in my hot Brisbane office dressed in a leopard-print summer dress, reflecting on my life as a travel writer in 2016. Let’s not beat around the boiling bush, it was always going to be a quirky one after I kicked off the year in January at Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat on the Gold Coast where I spent an hour in a one-on-one mediation session with a horse, of course.
Yes, Jack, the 22-year-old horse, was quite the listener and as it turned out, I was a good learner, discovering more about myself in that paddock than years of therapists have been to unravel. Working with my breath, and the fact horses are instinctive creatures, I was able to go from having Jack walk away from me (apparently I hate rejection) to have Jack trotting around the ring by the end of the session, based purely on my inner calm and emotions. He even stopped on cue when I exhaled. In that one crowded hour I learned I am prone to being a bit of a bull at a gate, and expecting others to join me on my crazy schemes, without first checking that they’re on board. Jack, you taught me a lot.
In February, and in the name of another story, I plunged into the warm waters off Lord Howe Island for Ocean Swim Week with World Ironman Champion Ali Day and Pinetrees Lodge. I’d never swum out in the open ocean before and learned that it was far more different and difficult to the university pool in which I try to carve up a daily 1km. Swimming among reef sharks and over fantastic coral, I also learned I could overcome sea sickness in rough swells and complete an impressive 2-3km a day. I also learned I’m incredibly stubborn once I push through an initial lack of confidence. Salty and stubborn. And I wonder why I’m single.
March saw me in Fiji, working with the fine folk at the Outrigger Fiji Resort and writing stories about some innovative and compassionate community projects in which they are involved, building new kindergartens and maternity wards. That kindy opened last week and it was heartening to know I was there at that pivotal point in history with people who have so little, but find so much reason for joy. Want perspective on your life? Head to the South Pacific. Sit under a coconut tree and pull your head out of your proverbial. It will change you, I promise.
In April, I was in Germany on a beer tour, also in the name of research, and if you think I had to train for Ocean Swim Week, it’s like I was born for Beer Week. And to think successive maths teachers over the years said I would never amount to anything. Add to that a dash of Mother Nature where I summited Germany’s highest mountain…and by summit I mean taking a gondola to the top and promptly order a beer and goulash. Because I’m hard-core. I explored my animal instinct here by taking to Bavarian Tinder and I was quite the hit in Germany. Not that I had time to actually meet any of my Bavarian boyfriends, but I got the distinct impression they were different to Brisbane boys and not once did anyone send me a photo of their penis. #winning
May turned out to be a journey of a different kind where I had some long-awaited tests and surgery for health symptoms that killed a fellow travel writer last year. While my tests turned out fine, the surgery laid me up for four weeks in incredible pain, and it was a time to reflect and go inwards, something I’m not particularly good at. But when Mother Nature speaks, sometimes you have to listen and it was a good life lesson. I did have a moment of truth while awaiting those test results, questioning myself on whether I was living the life I wanted. And the answer was yes. By June, when I was back on the road in Vienna and Monaco, exploring Royal and Imperial Luxury Europe, I was thrilled. I may have even danced around the house just prior to leaving to Willie Nelson’s On The Road Again. Because I have an excellent taste in music.
In July, I braved a chilly Toowoomba trip to explore the city’s sensational street art. And it blew my socks off. Not literally, as that would have been unpleasant in the cold, but metaphorically. I also took my first trip to Darwin and again, was thrilled by the Northern Territory capital with its outdoor cinemas, national parks, and great dining and accommodation offerings. This is a city which celebrates its sunsets, with hundreds of residents and tourists flocking to the beach to watch the sun plunge into the ocean and that, in itself, was a magical moment. A destination which sells tickets to its annual festival out of an original caravan used to house homeless people after 1974’s Cyclone Tracy? You’ve gotta love that.
August saw me at Sabi Sabi Private Game Lodge in South Africa on a luxury safari and yes, I was lucky to experience the Big 5, plus all the rest. Mother Africa and her beautiful people stole a piece of my heart and I came home reeling from Jo’Burg’s street art to Robben Island where the mighty Mandela spent 18 years of his 27 year jail term. There’s usually about one month of the year where I try to stop, pause, reflect and recharge and it was September this year, which also turned out to be my birthday month, and what a delight it was to be a normal person again, catching up with friends, going to yoga classes, and just “sitting with myself” as we say in meditation.
In October, I was out on the road again, on my longest trip of the year to Canada where I started in Vancouver, sitting in a traditional indigenous sweat lodge with an elder, talking to our ancestors. But the absolute highlight of that three-week journey was the opportunity to go on a walking safari with the polar bears with Churchill Wild. I discovered that the Lord of the Arctic was to be respected, not feared, and that if we don’t manage the way we treat the planet, polar bears may be relegated to the history books.
The conservation theme continued into last month, November, when I jumped on a plane to the Maldives Outrigger Konotta Resort and spent a fascinating few days talking with a marine biologist who is trying to resurrect the reef with innovative coral planting strategies. On a monsoonal Monday I sat on the edge of a jetty weaving coral necklaces from coconut rope that would later be implanted on the reef, in a moment I will always remember when my fingers are no longer nimble and I’m too old to travel. From the Arctic, where the ice is melting, to the Indian Ocean, which is becoming too warm, I had the immense privilege of experiencing the impacts of Climate Change first hand.
Which brings me to December. In two days I’ll be boarding a plane for my last travel writing assignment of the year. And yes, this trip has another animal theme. I’ll be boarding a sailing boat and exploring beyond Bali to the islands around Indonesia, before we arrive at the land of the komodo dragons. Along the way we’ll be snorkelling with manta rays and sharks. And I cannot wait. Yes, it’s been a big year, and moments of great challenge, times when you are so jetlagged you want to weep, a deep-seated loneliness from long weeks out on the road, and a disconnect from normal life. I didn’t find the love of my life, but I know he’s out there. And when I’m out in the world, doing what I love best, hunting and gathering stories, there’s no better feeling on the planet. I wish you a Happy Christmas and may 2017 be everything you dreamed of and more.
The Global Goddess would like to thank all of the tourism and travel operators, local communities, kind random strangers, PR people, publishers, editors and fellow writers, who joined her on the incredible journey that was 2016. See you out there in 2017.
BRISK, crisp days out on the remote Arctic tundra can lead to some funny conversations and so it came to be one afternoon that we were watching the polar bears and pontificating about their defining features. While it’s hard to identify polar bears from each other in general (they are all white with few markings), males tend to be bigger with square heads, while females have softer, more refined features. One thing turned into another and before long we were talking about dating, and I coined the phrase Tundra Tinder. Kind of like real-life Tinder, but far more interesting. For your viewing pleasure, I present the following candidates…
BIG OLD BEAR
Big Old Bear weighs about 400kg and is 9 years old. He likes to hang around Seal River Lodge and flop about in the tundra grass, fully aware you are checking him out. But Big Old Bear is also a bit of a show off, and one day, putting himself between the lodge and our group, he decided to come for a wander our way. In fact, Big Old Bear got within 10 metres of our group, and it was only when Churchill Wild guides Derek and Josh started to negotiate with him that he decided to keep walking. He then made a new day bed for himself and promptly plonked his considerable bulk down into it. The only difference between Big Old Bear and a Brisbane boy on Tinder is that you can actually negotiate with Big Old Bear.
Arctic Hare is a bit of stalker, he liked to hang outside my lodge bedroom window at night, looking a little like the Easter Bunny. By day, he’s a bit elusive, hiding behind rocks, cocking his ears for a brief photo, before hopping off into the distance. A bit of a shady character who would probably agree to going out with you to dinner, but disappear when the bill arrived.
Beautiful Girl sported all of the traits of a pretty female bear. And she was far less showy than Big Old Bear. We found her on the other side of the lodge, peacefully stretching and flopping. It’s here I started to think about polar bear yoga poses that I can deploy back home. Beautiful Girl was happy for us to stare at her for hours, which is precisely what we did, and it was one of the most peaceful moments of my life. A low-maintenance date if ever I saw one.
Baby Girl was possibly my favourite of the bears we saw during our stay. She was also the cutest. Only about 4 years old, Baby Girl liked to walk straight down the gravel driveway leading to the lodge, and right up to the fence which kept us humans in. Yes, she adored her human zoo and had a habit of trying to sniff each of us individually, stare right down the camera lens, and then happily walk off. If you ever felt like you could hug a polar bear (not recommended) this was that moment. So beautiful was Baby Girl, that several of us just stood at the fence and cried in her presence. Saving herself for a male bear who deserves her.
Ok. So not all of the Tundra Tinder action revolved around animals. Josh, 19, from Alberta, was one of our guides. And the photos don’t quite show it here, but Josh had the most awesome head of hair I’ve ever seen on a man, coupled with a great personality. Think Brad Pitt’s sandy, foppish hair meets Hugh Jackman’s soul. As a reformed cougar, it was quite the challenge not to leap onto Josh’s head, the situation being somewhat similar to placing a 1969 Grange in front of a recovering alcoholic. But this trip was not about felines, it was about polar bears, and I desisted. I can tell you, young women of Australia, that Josh is a fine specimen indeed, and either you get yourselves up to Seal River Lodge or you invite him to our fair land. The good news is I did manage to pluck a few hairs from his head as I hugged him goodbye, and I am currently cloning him in my downstairs laundry. And yes, I am taking Christmas orders.
The Global Goddess travelled to Canada as a guest of Destination Canada (www.keepexploring.com.au) and stayed at Seal River Lodge with Churchill Wild Safaris (www.churchillwild.com)
A TROOP of bombastic baboons is bellowing at each other across this African afternoon, punctuating the sunset with screams. Were I back in Brisbane, I’d guess the sound was a bunch of hapless drunks staggering home from the pub. But out here, where the trees communicate with each other through the wind, it means there’s other wildlife around.
A short-tailed eagle soars through the picture-perfect blue winter sky and a thin layer of dust coats the roof of my mouth. Our safari truck drives past Acacia trees and bush willows and over dry river beds. I’m on safari at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, perched on 6500ha within Sabi Sands where the landscape ranges from bush veld to savannah and is nestled adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
We pass bushbuck, wildebeest, waterbuck and a giraffe craning its impossibly long neck to feast on some bushes. There’s hungry, hungry hippos, an elegant eagle and a measly mongoose. That throaty sound in the distance turns out to be a community of impala. We pause for a zebra crossing, before stumbling across a pride of lions with a cub sleeping nearby. The languid lions are full and tired after feeding on last night’s buffalo kill, the remnants of which lay nearby. One lion cub practices its stalking skills on another in the same manner a domesticated cat would toy with its siblings. It’s a day of the jackals.
Day two and we observe rhino and buffalo. Guinea fowl flap about like pantomime characters on London’s West End and a woodpecker hammers in the distance like a Gold Coast tradie. We discover that animals have three modes – flight, fright or fight. And best of all, for this writer at least, we learn the collective nouns of the sights and sounds of safari.
We encounter a trumpet of elephants; a dazzle of zebra; a journey of giraffe; and a crash of rhino. Those garrulous guinea fowl are aptly called a “confusion”; one late afternoon we stumble across a leap of leopards with a baby cat waiting in the fork of a tree; and the impala are as consistent as their “consistency” suggests.
The parched African soil crunches underfoot on a walking safari with Sabi Sabi Ranger Lazarus, a member of the local Shangaan people. Lazarus, whose grandfather was a tracker, reminds us that we are “exposed” as the animals out here are accustomed to vehicles.
“We have to remain silent but we can talk very low and walk in single file. Don’t go ahead of me because I have the rifle. We are here to respect the animals,” he says.
“Being on foot is to learn about the small things that when we are on a drive we don’t talk about, like tracks and grass.”
We see kudu and warthog on the horizon. There’s a millipede blackened by the sun and a spider’s web which belongs to one of the six deadly spiders out here in the African bush. We learn that the lesser baboon spider is more hairy than a baboon itself and that all the deadly spiders are colourful. We pass hippo, rhino and impala tracks. There’s a tortoise shell which has been eaten by a red hornbill and a magic quarry bush used to divine water.
Back in the jeep on our last morning, we stumble across a clan of hyena and a venue of vultures feasting on a hippo believed to have died from natural causes the night before. Call me paranoid but I’m pretty sure there’s a conspiracy of ravens out there somewhere too. But there’s no evidence of a murder of crows.
It’s my first trip to Mother Africa and I am overwhelmed by both her beauty and contradictions. By her vast nothingness, and everything, all rolled into one. From the plane window it looks like the Australian outback but nothing like it, all in the same dusty breath. It’s corn-row braids, black shiny faces and deep, kind eyes. Dutch descendants with piercing blue eyes and fair hair and accents which sound like they’ve been clipped in a barber shop. It’s the cold kisses of a mid-winter morning, and a harsh African sun. As for those collective nouns, my favourite turns out to be the implausibility of wildebeest. For it’s entirely plausible that anything is possible out on safari in Africa. Little wonder the baboons are so excited.
The Global Goddess travelled a guest of 318 Africa – http://www.318africa.com.au and stayed in Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve Bush and Earth Lodges. http://www.sabisabi.com