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
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)
FACT: Canadians are the most polite people on the planet. How do I know this? Having spent three weeks in this beautiful land recently, I can honestly say I have never encountered a more genuine, friendly bunch of humans anywhere in my world travels. Sure, Australians are reasonably happy-go-lucky, but Canadians take it to a whole new level, apologising to YOU if you are clumsy enough to bump into them, which I did both literally and metaphorically on many occasions. Here’s a great bunch I bumped into during October.
Erika Vader (just like Darth Vader, she told me) is a lovely, young Shishalh Nation woman, who took me on a Talking Trees Tour of Vancouver’s iconic Stanley Park. Erika is one of a number of First Nations Canadians who are passionate about preserving their culture and on this tour she explains the Indigenous significance of animals and trees.
From Vancouver I travelled to Toronto, where I stayed in The Thompson Hotel. Attached to the hotel was a diner, where I met Dana. Dana in the diner was a delight. Dana and I had an enlightening conversation talking about the advantages and disadvantages of travelling the world from the perspective of a black woman, and that of a white woman. Before I left, I told Dana I was flying to Winnipeg that day. She packed me a BLT to have for lunch on the plane. Yes, Canadians really do this sort of thing.
I spent a brief night in Winnipeg getting kitted out in polar gear, before I flew to Churchill and onwards to Seal River Lodge to walk with the polar bears. Meet my Churchill Wild guides Derek and Josh, who are better known as the “polar bear whisperers”. Derek and Josh were a bit like Superman. At night, by the fire sipping wine and talking about bears and life, they were just mild-mannered Clark Kent types. But put on that polar gear and strap on a rifle, and boom, Superman. Or, in this case, Batman and Robin. If you’ve never seen two men negotiate with a 400kg male bear who is getting a bit too close to tourists, then this is the trip for you. (Is it getting hot in here?)
Just when I thought I was going to explode from the testosterone out on the Arctic tundra, I flew to Quebec, where I met Eric. Staying in a monastery is not where you’d expect to bump into “the most handsome man in Quebec” but as we know, the good Lord works in mysterious ways. Eric works as a therapist at La Monastere des Augustines, and before I met him, was told by staff that he was a good-looking cat. I’ll be the judge of that, I thought. But yep, it appears the sacred sisters of the monastery and I share the same tastes. Not only is Eric impossibly handsome, he’s also got a good heart. When he’s not at the monastery giving reflexology treatments to tired travellers such as myself (yes, he touched my feet!), he works with dying patients in the adjacent hospital for whom morphine no longer relieves their pain. Yes, I think I met the world’s most perfect man. And it’s no surprise, as Canada is that kind of place. Kinda like Australia, but with a whole lot more snow. And polar bears. And polar bear whisperers. Did I mention the whisperers?
The Global Goddess travelled to Canada as a guest of Destination Canada (www.keepexploring.com.au)
To check out more of my Canada pics, including loads of incredible street art in Toronto, head to my Instagram @aglobalgoddess