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 driving north of Brisbane to Bundaberg on my latest travel writing assignment when it strikes me that I am also on a personal pilgrimage. So caught up am I in the possibility of finally having the chance to experience the turtle hatchlings at Mon Repos on the Southern Great Barrier Reef, that I have temporarily forgotten my strong links to this regional Queensland town.
It’s been nine long years since I’ve been to Bundy, the birthplace and childhood home of my ex husband, and to where we would retreat each year to visit his family. And now I am returning. Alone. The ghosts of the past first hit me as I’m driving through Childers, when I glance at the façade of the old Palace Backpacker Hostel. In 2000 it burned down, killing 15 young backpackers. I remember that day well, I was the Tourism Reporter on the Courier-Mail and wrote a story about backpackers to this destination, mapping their rite-of-passage along the Queensland coast. How they used Childers as a place to stop, pick fruit, and make money before heading north to the Whitsundays. A bunch of young adults brimming with life and hope. Dead. That’s the thing about being a news reporter. Often it’s months, and in this case years, when beyond the adrenalin of a breaking news story, you finally have time to reflect on what it actually means. In my car I slow down, glance at the building, now an art space and memorial to the backpackers, and keep driving.
This is a blog about new beginnings, courage and resilience. I drive north through a series of summer storms, arriving in Bargara mid afternoon. The sun is shining and I head straight for a swim at the Basin, a tidal pool at the beach. Under the warm blue sky with fish at my feet and the ocean crashing against the rocks, I’m feeling cleansed. There are no ghosts here.
By early evening I am standing in the dark with a group of strangers at Mon Repos, wondering if I’ll have the chance to finally witness the baby turtles hatch on this, the last night of the season. Just 10 minutes after opening there’s a sighting and on this balmy beach night we wander in the dark and experience not one, but two clutches, both numbering in their hundreds. The rangers say this is the best outcome all season.
We form a human channel and the rangers shine a light from the nest to the ocean for the hatchlings to begin their life journey. You want resilience? Consider this. Just one in 1000 of these babies will make it to adulthood. And 30 years later, against all odds, the females will return to this very beach to lay their own eggs. In the dark I feel something crawl up my leg. It’s a rogue hatchling. Its beauty makes me cry. Later, back at my resort, I research the spiritual meaning of turtles: longevity, endurance, persistence and continuation of life.
The following day I snorkel with a green turtle off of Lady Musgrave Island. A 1.5 metre reef shark circles below me but I have nothing to fear. I hover over the turtle for the longest of times. Observing her feeding and resting on a reef cleaning station. I smile into my snorkel about my insatiable love of reptiles. Salty and sated, later that night I dine with Shane and Pascaline, the owners of the new Zen Beach Retreat in which I am staying. The theme of new beginnings recurs.
Shane, Australian, and Pascaline, French were living and working in Vietnam when they decided to swap their stressful, high-profile jobs for a different existence.
“We went back to Australia and went for a beach drive to try and find a block of land. I wanted to have something on the sea and it had to be hot,” Pascaline says.
“Some of the properties were stunning but there was not love there. We kept heading north. Shane stopped at Bargara Real Estate and saw this. We went walking and thought ‘what a great beach’. Both of us looked at each other and said ‘it is fantastic’.”
The couple opened the retreat in early March, after extensive renovations of this former 1970s Bargara beach motel.
“We will be offering health activities and corporate activities and finding a balance in between. In particular it’s about balancing the corporate wellness of the team,” Shane says.
“I found a lot of companies are losing their way, the way to innovate and keep their team motivated.
“What we’ve got here is a recovery treatment and corporate retreat.”
The property, which can sleep a total of 22 people including the couple’s beachfront home, boasts four themed suites – Executive, French, Asian and Oriental/Middle East. Each suite has been furnished with tasteful artifacts from the couple’s travels around the world.
“It is about creating an experience where people recover from the busy day-to-day life,” Pascaline says.
“It’s about having a guide to relax and building packages with different partners in the area such as nature, food, wellness and sports.
“We have a brand that is Zen. We want you to embody happiness.”
Happiness. I spend the next few days looking at Bundy through a different lense. I join Bundy Food Tours, a new tour which showcases the incredible innovation of the hardy farmers who have worked these fields for generations. There’s that resilience again. Even at the iconic Bundaberg Rum Distillery they’ve launched a new Blend Your Own Rum Experience. For the first time I visit Lady Elliot Island. There’s more turtles. More resilience. And I dine in new restaurants, all embracing food direct from the paddocks to their plates.
On my drive home I pause in Childers at the new Cane Fire Cheese House selling regional produce. I decide it’s time to embody the courage of the turtles and finally visit the Childers Backpacker Memorial. One of the volunteers accosts me at the door and explains the horrific events of that night. I listen, deciding against telling her I know the story all too well. She says the deliberately-lit fire, which saw Australian Robert Long jailed for murder, put Childers on the map for “all the wrong reasons”. I silently disagree. On the night of the fire, and for weeks and months afterwards, the locals opened their doors to the survivors and their families and embraced them as if they had lost their own children. And now they are immortalised in these walls. Forever part of this region’s fabric. On the drive south I think again about the turtles and their meaning: longevity, endurance, persistence and continuation of life. Bundaberg, well she has these in spades.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Bundaberg North Burnett Tourism – http://www.bundabergregion.info To stay at the Zen Beach Retreat go to http://www.zenbeachretreat.com