December 26, 2005

Shackleton's Forgotton Men

Shackleton’s Forgotten Men

Sir Ernest Shackleton, despite the loss of Endurance, is revered as one of the most capable and heroic of all polar explorers. It’s true, the men under his direct command returned to England without loss. But what of the patient, dedicated men who waited in vain for his arrival on the other side of the Antarctic continent?

December 20, 2005

Kakadu or Kakadon't?

The glittering jewel of Australia's Top End is suffering an identity crisis. After starring in box office hits, top-rating TV shows and glitzy commercials, Kakadu has fallen on hard times. Visitor numbers (especially internationals) began to decline between 1999 and 2000, even before the tourism trauma caused by 9/11. The graph looks like a ski-jump now that some recovery from airborne terror is occurring globally, but the scars remain. Kakadu and the NT generally continue to lag.

December 19, 2005

In Search of Sir Hubert

Australia’s “other” polar hero still remains something of a mystery to his hero-worshipping countrymen.

While his Australian contemporaries, Sir Douglas Mawson and Captain Frank Hurley enjoy the modern notoriety of their achievements during the “heroic age” of polar exploration, the equally breath-taking exploits of the adventurous boy from Adelaide, Sir Hubert Wilkins, are often overlooked.

Read More:

World Adventurer December 2005 In Search of Sir Hubert

Galapagos Islands in Peril

International tourism association issues warning about the survival of the Galapagos Islands.

ITHACA, New York -- The fight to preserve the Galapagos Islands is being lost, according to the nonprofit International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA).

In a report issued Jan. 21, The State of the Galapagos, IGTOA warns, “Slowly but surely, we’re losing the fight to preserve the Galapagos Islands. Yes, tourism is doing fine, and travelers are arriving in record numbers. But look a little deeper; the news is not good. At the peak of their popularity, the Galapagos are in trouble.”
The report states that even under the best of circumstances, protecting the Galapagos is an enormous task. Invasive species of plants and animals require millions of dollars for scientific studies and eradication programs. The surrounding marine reserve, which supports all terrestrial life, is under attack from over fishing.

“The Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador, which has historically been supportive of conservation, but that has changed,” says Dave Blanton, Executive Director of IGTOA. “Without that support, the task of conservation is insurmountable. “

He adds that narrow interests seek to exploit the islands’ rich marine reserve. At the same time, elements within the Ecuadorian government have weakened the role of the Galapagos National Park, which has had responsibility for monitoring and controlling the archipelago.

“Eight park directors have come and gone in the last two years,” Blanton says. “A strike last September by park staff over political meddling and mismanagement
turned violent when fishermen attacked park headquarters. The staff that participated in the strike now finds themselves on the outside.”

According to the report, contracts for 150 of the 226 park rangers have not been renewed, leaving the Galapagos National Park critically understaffed. Former employees report that the activities of the park have been paralyzed, especially the monitoring and control of the Marine Reserve.

The report also states that technical studies and regulatory mechanisms are being ignored. The government has stopped education for National Park Guides, (A guides’ course has not been held for the past eight years.) Only one patrol boat is currently operating, and in a new development, the government of Ecuador proposes that the patrol of the Galapagos Marine Reserve, carried out under statute by the Galapagos National Park, be turned over to the Ecuadorian Navy.

“Equally threatening is the practice of long-line fishing, which may soon be introduced,” says Blanton. “Long-line fishing was recently denounced by world scientists for its destructive “by-catch,” resulting in the death of sea birds, sharks, turtles, and other species.”

A recent article in Science magazine reports that long-lining kills 300,000 albatross each year. Nineteen of the 21 world species of albatross are in danger of extinction.

In a recent letter to the director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, IGTOA requested an investigation that may ultimately place the Galapagos on the list of World Heritage Sites in danger.

The Galapagos Islands, which Charles Darwin visited on a voyage as a young man, were declared a World Heritage Site in 1978. The Marine Reserve was added in 2001. The islands are home to plants and animals found nowhere else on earth, including giant tortoises, from which the islands get their name. They lie about 600 miles off the Ecuadorian coast in the Pacific Ocean. Tourism contributes $150 million to the Ecuadorian economy. Fishing in the Galapagos accounts for roughly $6 million.

IGTOA is a nonprofit association of travel companies, conservation organizations, and other groups that are dedicated to the complete and lasting protection of the Galapagos Islands and the surrounding Marine Reserve. It has thirty-five members worldwide in the US, Canada, UK, France, and Ecuador.

Its mission is to preserve the Galapagos Islands as a unique and priceless world heritage that will provide enjoyment, education, adventure and inspiration to present and future generations of travelers. Membership is open to commercial and nonprofit organizations.

For a list of IGTOA members click here:

October 08, 2005

A Princess in the Wild

Our Princess Makes Her International Debut

A true-blue Aussie Princess hitches up her breeches and heads north to the seldom explored waters of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Sea.

Words and Pictures by Roderick Eime

A sea so blue and clear lay beneath the bow that the ripples in the sand, metres below, were plain to see. Small bands of bright tropical fish played tag around the anchor line, oblivious to the 2,000 tonne vessel moored in their front yard. We had just dropped anchor some 500 metres from little Dobu Island, a former missionary station within the D’Entrecasteaux Group, east of PNG, and adjacent the much larger Normanby Island. A dormant volcanic cone loomed above the disused church and derelict minister’s home as a reminder of its violent birth and constant tectonic volatility.

I’ve been aboard Oceanic Princess, the sparkling new, purpose-built expedition yacht for just two days and already we’re into waters seldom visited by any sort of western-style tourism. This is the Princess’ first international voyage, something of an exploratory one, and is populated largely by committed repeat travellers, company guests and some office staff, including doting owners, Tony and Vicki Briggs.

“We are aboard the only Australian built, flagged, owned and crewed passenger vessel currently operating international voyages,” Tony reminds us with obvious pride, “I can’t even remember the last one. I think I saw it on a commemorative stamp.”

True. Australia’s cruising market is dominated, overwhelmed even, by foreign flagged and registered vessels crewed largely by ‘international’ staff. Tony and Vicki’s company, Cairns-based Coral Princess Cruises, has been a benchmark expedition cruise operator for nearly thirty years, beginning with overnight Great Barrier Reef cruises and expanding into more elaborate operations in Cape York, the Top End and Kimberley where their product is a runaway success.

Back on Dobu a few small outrigger canoes bear villagers toward the gleaming white vessel. Although they have optimistically brought a few coconuts, yams and shells along to trade, the paddlers instead gaze up in awe at her immaculate superstructure, responding occasionally to waves from the upper decks.

“Gona gona boboana!” yells Nancy Sullivan, our ebullient resident anthropologist, and broad grins and animated waves are readily returned. Formalities out of the way, our light load of passengers is seated in Xplorer, a purpose-built tender designed to carry the entire guest compliment of 76 plus a crew of four. Instead of precariously depositing us into pitching zodiacs, Xplorer sits comfortably on a raised aft platform waiting to be lowered into the water. She is then driven easily away to her shore destination with barely a splash. It’s a dignified process for the ladies and a relief for the crew who only need to smile and show you a seat.

As Xplorer approaches the beach, throngs of villagers gather along the shore. Delightful children squeal and yelp as they dash back and forth along the sand, occasionally stopping to jump in the air, arms outstretched. We’ve rehearsed a few words of local dialect and stilted renditions of ‘Gona gona Boboana’ (Good morning) are delivered much to the delight of our hosts.

The friendly Dobu Islanders are not completely unfamiliar with ‘white’ (dimdim) customs, but clearly a visit such as this is a novelty. Nancy, her long blond hair shielding her shoulders from the intense tropical sun, is quickly swapping jokes with the ladies and a secret women’s club is immediately formed. Based in mainland Madang for nearly twenty years, Dr Nancy Sullivan is the current expert on PNG anthropology. Equipped with a quirky and disarming chuckle, she clearly displays a deep fondness for these attractive, responsive people and immediately gains their confidence with fluent tok pisin (pigeon English).

This form of shore excursion is the most genuine expedition ‘product’. After a splendid recital from angelic primary school children, a presentation of school material is made by Jamie, our expedition leader, and a tour of the village undertaken. Local folk pause from their daily routine to chat with the visiting dimdims, explaining local boat building, gardening, home decorating and cookery. A true cultural exchange is taking place and we depart amidst great fanfare, but not before three hundred excited kids are whizzed around the bay in Xplorer by Tony, who exhibits great control under very trying conditions!

On this itinerary and the next, Oceanic Princess expects to make around twenty such visits, so the storeroom is full of coloured pencils, books and sundry stationery. As we progress into ‘uncharted territory’, we learn that some of the more remote villages like Egum Islet in the Marshall Bennett Group may not see a white face for years and their welcome is a simple chit chat and basic village tour. We learn about centuries old cassava planting, the complex and enigmatic ‘kula’ trade as well as hunting and food preparation.

Then on islands like Kiriwina in the Trobriands, we get the full treatment! Exotic, eye-popping dancers, a mayoral welcome with bull-horn, refreshments and a craft market are installed for our shopping pleasure. This excursion falls into the crossover category, where villagers are more commercially savvy and spirited haggling accompanies each purchase. Notwithstanding the Trobrianders’ relative sophistication, we are treated to a cultural display that reinforces their proud reputation of sensuality and beauty and we rejoice in the obvious failure of the missionaries!

Back aboard Oceanic Princess, we all hit our respective private showers at once, which, despite our best efforts continue to dispense hot water unabated. Suitably refreshed, pre-dinner drinks in the Bridge Deck Bar are de rigour prior to our main meal in the bistro-style dining room on the lower main deck. Although no claims are made about five-star dining, meals are certainly of better restaurant standard and are complimented by a handpicked wine list. The semi-formal, almost casual, dining atmosphere is not out of place. Some passengers display a hint of sequin, others are in t-shirts, yet a dash of decorum is always reserved for dinner.

The menu varies everyday and I can attest the chefs were probably the busiest crew on the ship, despite our lighter passenger load. One menu chosen at random reads;

Red Lentil Soup or Sauteeed calamari on mango mesclun salad
with sweet soy dressing
Pan seared chicken breast with warm pawpaw salsa
or scotch fillet steak with a massaman curry sauce
(on this occasion) selection of Australian cheeses

I would argue that expedition cruising is more about the destinations, whereas conventional (big ship) cruising is at least as much about the vessel. Hence, I will choose the destination over the vessel in making my cruise decision. To travel on a luxury ship with cabins as big as motel rooms is simply a welcome bonus. Yet Coral Princess Cruises find themselves in something of a quandary. The company is justifiably proud of their magnificent new vessel, purpose-built for the established itineraries and ready for new challenges, yet their marketing almost plays down the highly inspirational locations their vessels explore. So what do you do? Play the luxury cruise card like some of the close competitors or extol the brilliant destinations on offer? True, it is a difficult balance yet to find equilibrium.

Rationalise it this way; conventional “cruisers” are exploring expedition products in search of a more enriching experience, whereas the reverse transition is not so evident. Recent studies indicate that travellers are seeking more “transformational” experiences as part of their travel package. Thus it follows that “expedition cruising” is undergoing something of a boom. However, beware! Some operators may brand their product “expedition” but fall short on the “transformational” delivery.

Oceanic Princess is the product of decades of knowledge gained by Tony and Vicki Briggs and their long-serving skippers and ideally suited to the task. Despite her 63m length, she is highly manoeuvrable. On one occasion, (ex-RAN) Captain John Lynch deftly brought her 2000 tons within twenty metres of a sandy beach and later guided her up a beautiful channel just twelve metres deep. That level of seamanship delivers extraordinary results, and Tony was clearly proud of her and her crew’s capabilities.

Amid a hearty, back-slapping send off, I disembark in Rabaul where new expeditioners come aboard against an awesome backdrop of mighty Mt Tavurvur bellowing clouds of volcanic ash. After many years of ‘borrowing’ foreign expertise and ‘adapting’ vessels, Australia now has a truly national ship, crewed almost exclusively by Australians, ready to capitalise on the wonderful destinations so close at hand.

What is ‘Expedition Cruising’?

The term ‘expedition’ has been more frequently attached to cruise products in an attempt to give them a romantic, out-of-the-way appeal. The danger is that the original expedition cruise concept is being diluted and misconstrued.

A true expedition cruise consists of a voyage plan and itinerary that has inbuilt flexibility and redundancy. In the capricious Antarctic waters, all activities and sight-seeing is weather and ice dependent. Passengers are reminded of this time and time again and it is quite common for completely unscheduled landings to take place in fallback planning. The same exists in tropical waters.

As weather, currents and tides play out in the dense South Sea archipelagos, an expedition leader and his/her captain must ‘massage’ the itinerary constantly to capitalise on emerging opportunities and avoid those closing out.

A proper expedition vessel is more than just a smaller ship with zodiacs piled up on deck. A true expedition vessel is designed for the intended conditions and equipped to deliver the experience upon arrival, whether it be weaving through disintegrating pack ice or creeping past vivid coral atolls.

Passengers aboard expedition vessels have come to expect expert guides and lecturers to help them interpret the rich cultural and natural histories these exotic destinations deliver. Academics, researchers and authors are common both as lecturers and passengers, adding to healthy discussions and enrapturing dinner conversation.

Fact File:

Vessel: Oceanic Princess

Cruise Line: Coral Princess Cruises

Star Rating: not rated

Tonnage: 1838 GRT

Max Passenger Capacity: 76

Entered Service: 2005

Itineraries range from 10 to 13 nights and are priced from A$6950 twin-share.

Built by NQEA in Cairns, Oceanic Princess is equipped with zodiacs, a glass-bottomed boat and a specially designed, high-powered aluminium excursion vessel with awning and toilet.

  • 38 staterooms, each with private facilities, sofa, desk, wardrobe, luggage space and individual air conditioning controls. Serviced daily.
  • Australian registered with full SOLAS (international) compliance.
  • Large sundeck and Spa Pool
  • Internet booth and Comprehensive reference library
  • Phone and fax facilities
  • Lecture lounge with large plasma screen
  • Limited laundry facilities
  • Two fully stocked cocktail bars
  • Boutique and dive shop
  • Air-conditioned public areas


Further information:

September 29, 2005

Arctic Cruising: All Aboard for Svalbard

Trivia Question: Where is the world’s most northerly permanent settlement? Answer: Ny Ålesund in the North West of the island of Spitbergen - 78.9°N

Just 600 miles from the North Pole lies the island group of Svalbard, of which Spitsbergen is the largest. Variously occupied and exploited by the Dutch, Russians and Norwegians, in 1920 it was decided by treaty that the Norwegians should administer it and the capitol, Longyearbyen, flies the Norwegian tricolour.


The archipelago, named and first mapped by the famous Dutch explorer, Willem Barents, in 1596 became a whaling station, a coal-mining centre, a launching point for famous arctic expeditions and more recently, a mecca for naturalists, polar researchers and eco-tourists.

September 28, 2005

Icebreakers - Pushing the Limits of Endurance

When the first Arctic explorers started venturing north, some five hundred years ago, in search of the supposed riches beyond the ice, they encountered numerous problems. Not the least of them was that their flimsy wooden ships kept sinking when they ran into the inevitable ice pack.

The 43-metre Jeannette, built in Pembroke Dockyard in Wales, was crushed by ice on 12 June 1881. Picture: James. G. Tyler

The pursuit of the fabled North West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific brought numerous sailors undone as they pushed deeper into the frozen wilderness above what is now Canada. In fact, the most celebrated failure, that of Sir John Franklin in 1845, saw two ships and the entire complement of 129 men disappear.

September 17, 2005

Brisbane comes of age

Brisbane, the adolescent city, is no more. In its place is a dynamic, sophisticated city, now actively competing with its southern sisters Melbourne and Sydney to pull in tourists. Jacqui Lang explores.

Just a 90-minute flight from Sydney, it’s then less than half an hour to drive to the heart of Brisbane.

July 26, 2005

Up the Wild Stikine

Beyond the well-trafficked sea lanes and cruise ship haunts of the Inside Passage lies the true Alaska. Still a wild frontier where, if you stroll in the woods, you take a .303 and a cut lunch.

April 26, 2005

Tasmanian UNESCO World Heritage: Cruise Gordon River

It’s 1982 and the idyllic little seaside village of Strahan in South Western Tasmania is the front line in a vigorous campaign to blockade the construction of the Franklin River dam. This ‘peaceful protest’ is turning decidedly hostile.

Tasmanian UNESCO World Heritage: Cruise Gordon River

February 16, 2005

U Rite There?

I simply detest bad service and I make no apologies for it.

I’m just back from a couple of weeks in New Zealand where I toured the countryside sampling a variety of businesses, small and large, from Wellington to Christchurch. The experience drove home to me why our Kiwi cousins are sky-rocketing in the world tourism stakes. As far as down-home, friendly service, New Zealanders leave us for dead.

Taking my two primary school-age kids for a meal at a popular hamburger restaurant reminded me of the depths of our service ineptitude. Gone are the smiles, the cheery greetings and the genuine effort to give the customer a positive experience. Instead I got a surly glaze, a convincing rendition of that most hair-raising greeting; “U Rite?” - and a free long wait.

And it’s not just poorly trained teenage drop-outs in tacky takeaways that goad my ire. Dining at a half-decent seafood restaurant recently, I drew the manager’s attention to a crab with an unhealthy aroma of toilet cleaner. “I’ve checked with the cook sir, and he says it’s fine,” was the condescending response. Since when does a cook season crustaceans with Harpic?

Now I’m the first to admit not all customers are deserving of one’s best service effort. But I contend that when faced with a difficult and unyielding client, your skills in customer service are quickly exposed.

Contempt for the customer’s money is a sure-fire recipe for financial failure, yet some Aussies clearly resent the intrusion of cash-wielding customers eating into their leisure time behind the counter.

So what am I really complaining about? The key is training: training for managers and training for staff. There simply is no excuse for poor service in a climate of high business failure, troubling unemployment and increased competitiveness. Staff can’t answer phones properly, can’t greet customers, can’t spell and sometimes can’t even talk. Who hires these people?!

I call upon customers – and that’s all of us – to revolt against shoddy service. Commend that waiter or staff-member for good service and remind others that their standards do not meet your expectations!

So when next challenged with, “You right there?” respond in a loud, confident tone;

“Of course I’m right, I’m the customer!”

February 14, 2005

In Search of Exiled Emperors, Exquisite Pelagics and Forgotten Outposts.

Adventure Associates announces a rare and remarkable ocean voyage to places even we had to look up!

Longwood House St Helena (Donna Hull)

Named for the fabled lost civilisation of Atlantis, the huge expanse of water separating the giant continents of the Americas and Africa and Europe is the embodiment of conquest, adventure and exploration. A path to discovery, riches and often tragedy, the mighty Atlantic has lured dreamers for millenia.

The ancient Greeks, the Vikings and the vast armadas of the great European sea-faring nations have all plied these historic waters. The Concorde used to jet across "the pond" between Paris and New York in around three and a half hours at 1500 km/h. Columbus took one month and rowers do it in two or three. Such are the extremes we go to to subdue its mythos.

Now an extremely rare opportunity exists for the intrepid adventure-seeker who wants to emulate the early Atlantic wayfarers or just embark on a true, modern-day voyage of discovery.

"Here at Adventure Associates, we are renown for unusual shipboard adventures and regularly send passengers to the furthest extremes of navigation imaginable," says Dennis Collaton, chairman and Managing Director of Adventure Associates who will be aboard for this most infrequent voyage,

Following this pioneering tradition established over more than 30 years, we are excited to announce another truly landmark voyage for the adventure hungry traveller - The Atlantic Odyssey.

"This very unusual expedition will attract naturalists, modern-day adventurers, bird-watchers, scientists and regular travellers on the lookout for something different. It's a rare chance to see some extremely remote and seldom-visited locations," continues Dennis, "but the limited spaces are already filling fast, so please do not delay."

To call it a cruise would not do it justice. For 36 leisurely days, our vessel, the oceanographic ice-class research vessel, Professor Molchanov, sails between Ushuaia (at the very tip of South America) and the Cape Verde Islands (off the west coast of sub-Saharan Africa) stopping at some of the most isolated and inaccessible locations on the planet.

From embarkation we set a course due south to the Antarctic Peninsula for a truly remote experience amongst the icebergs, penguins and pelagic birds of The Great Southern Land. Then slowly, we make our way northward via the enigmatic and wildly beautiful islands of South Georgia where landings will be made to explore and observe this historic and wildlife rich location.

From these southerly extremes, we approach warmer climes and sail around the incredibly remote Gough Island, home to a fantastic variety of seabirds. Beyond Gough is the tiny settlement of Tristan da Cunha, whose reclusive British inhabitants see 'outsiders' only a few times a year - if that! What they do see plenty of is magnificent seabirds in abundance - like Yellow-nosed Albatrosses and Brown Noddies.

Beyond Tristan da Cunha lies another remote settlement - St Helena - legendary as he home of the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte from 1815 to 1821. Steeped in history, passengers disembark for a rare, yet comprehensive excursion in this tiny, 500 year old community.

This remarkable voyage continues to the volcanic island of Ascension, where the RAF operates a mid-Atlantic airfield. It's possible to leave the cruise at this point as the Molchanov sails on to its final destination of Sal, amongst the Cape Verde group where a final exploration will take place before the journey's official end.

Prices start at US$6260 (twin-share to Ascension, 29 days), while the full 36-day voyage (to Sal) is just US$6990.00. Places are STRICTLY LIMITED, so please call today to reserve your space.

Diamonds, Sand Castles and Curious Blooms

A new exciting expedition to Namibia, Namaqualand and South Africa’s Cape Province

The vast continent of Africa has spawned some of the greatest adventure and exploration stories of all time. Here at Adventure Associates, we embrace lands and regions that don't always appear on the cover of glossy travel magazines. Thirty-two years ago we pioneered group travel to South America for Australians, then Antarctica and the Arctic, laying a trail now followed by almost every major travel company here.

When the opportunity to create a new adventure possibility in the vast, sand-swept former German colony of South West Africa arose, we were immediately interested. When combined with the seldom visited, luxuriant Atlantic coast of South Africa, we knew we had a winner.

Adventure Associates' chairman, Dennis Collaton, has painstakingly researched this exclusive exploration and will lead it into the mysterious realms of the diamond-rich, sand kingdom of Namibia and then onto the springtime splendour of South Africa, Namaqualand and the lush Cape Province.

"Our tour will be a combination of desert, dunes, veldt, vlei, mountains, green valleys, gentle lagoons, wild coastal scenery, country villages, townships and vibrant cities," says Dennis, "all in relaxed comfort and carefully selected accommodation."

About the time Columbus was seeking out new lands in the Americas, the vanguard of European explorers, the Portuguese, were sailing up and down the west coast of Africa en route to their new conquests in the East Indies.

As their little vessels groped at the desolate shores looking for a way around the horn of Africa, they stopped to leave navigational markers, usually huge stone crosses, on the rocky promontories jutting out from the world's oldest desert, the Namib. So totally inhospitable and forlorn was this region, that the Portuguese almost completely ignored it.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the Germans annexed the region as part of an unseemly European colony snatch and stuck it out until they lost the lot after WW1. One hundred years ago, a lowly rail worker delighted the Kaiser when he stumbled on a few loose diamonds in the sand and unwittingly uncovered one of the richest diamond fields in the world.

Today Namibia is a modern independent republic, finally free of colonial influences. With a delightfully anachronistic German hangover, the vast, sparse country is home to a dozen varied ethnic groups with such evocative and colourful names as the Kavango, Herero, Himba, Damara, Nama and Basters.

The natural environment of Namibia is so stark and foreboding it is the ideal location for a "Creatures That Time Forgot" remake, yet naturalists and ecologists find a great deal to get excited about. The enormous dunes of the Namib, the world's highest and oldest, date back 80 million years and strike the visitor with their sublime, sculpted shapes and majestic, apparently endless ranges. Dig amongst the sand and rocks and strange flora emerges. The giant Welwitschia, a living fossil, plus lichens, lithops, acacias, camelthorns, the bizarre succulent Hoodia and extraordinary Kokerboom are just part of Namibia's unique floral catalogue rooted in Africa's most diverse natural habitat.

As one travels south towards the tantalisingly named, Namaqualand, the landscape melts seemlessly from the apparent rocky desolation of the great Namib to the lush and bountiful Cape Province, where vineyards and blossoming gardens herald a whole new Africa to explore.

Southern Africa's cosmopolitan gem and so-called, Mother City, is Cape Town. Founded in 1647 as a refreshment, relaxation and replenishment port by the Dutch East India Company, the city is blessed with dramatic scenery and a mild climate that makes it one of the most beautiful in the world. Kaapstad (as the Afrikaners call it) and the seaside town of Port Elizabeth some 700 kilometres hence, enclose one of the most scenic and botanically abundant regions of Africa, known to tourists as The Garden Route.

Favoured by holiday-makers and drive-trippers, the Garden Route begins in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Cape Floral Region Protected Areas and winds through one panoramic ocean vista after another, then into and across cavernous ravines, interspersed with idyllic villages like Mossel Bay and Kynsna. Here the sun-scorched plains of Namibia seem another world away, yet are an inescapable element of the wonderful tapestry of Southern Africa.

February 05, 2005

Tracking History to Oodnadatta

The vast Australian landscape is strewn with four-wheel-drive adventure opportunities. The majority offer truly wilderness experiences where you and your modern motor can vanish into the scenery and leave the metropolitan crush behind.

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South Georgia, South Atlantic, Antarctica, whaling

Travel about 2000 kilometres east from Tierra del Fuego, at the very tip of South America, and you might stumble on its precipitous and windswept shores. At 54 degrees S and 37 degrees W, South Georgia is about as remote as any place on earth could possibly be.

World’s Largest Iceberg No Obstacle

Passengers aboard Adventure Associates’ “Wonders of the Ross Sea” expedition can add another first to their list when they landed atop the world’s largest iceberg, B15a.

The world record-holding* icebreaker, Kapitan Khlebnikov, forced a passage inside McMurdo Sound last week despite the dense pack ice corralled by the now-grounded B15a.

The huge iceberg, the size of Jamaica, was predicted to collide with the Drygalski Ice Tongue, but grounded just kilometres short, trapping the winter pack ice inside of McMurdo Sound.

“The Expedition Leader reported they’d landed by helicopter on top of B15a for a look around, “ said Adventure Associates CEO, Stewart Campbell, himself a veteran of numerous voyages to the Ross Sea region, ‘Of course the going is tougher than normal, but the Khlebnikov is a very powerful vessel.”

“Impromptu sightseeing is a feature of cruising in the deep south, “ continued Campbell, “ the weather and ice can be unpredictable, so you take advantage of whatever presents itself.”

The expedition continued on schedule to visit other highlights of the Ross Sea, including the historic huts of Shackleton and Scott as well as the penguin colonies at Cape Evans and Cape Royds.

* The Kapitan Khlebnikov holds the record of furthest south by any vessel, reaching 78 degrees 37 minutes in the Ross Sea in 2001.

Fata Morgana and the Legend of Ultima Thule

Giant ice castles floating in mid-air, vast forests in the midst of ice floes and grotesque hairy dwarfs are among the many wonders to be found in the land of Ultima Thule – that is if you ask any of the 15th-century explorers who returned with these fantastic tales.

Ultima Thule is, of course, a mythical land but the stories are real. Thule is located in the northernmost region of Greenland and the sailors who witnessed these incredible sights were under the spell of another very real phenomenon, the Fata Morgana, named after the fabled medieval enchantress.

“Ancient mariners were literally spellbound by the landscapes they witnessed when searching for the allusive North-West Passage, hundreds of kilometres beyond the Arctic Circle,” says Stewart Campbell, Operations Manager with Sydney-based polar cruise operator, Adventure Associates, “what they didn’t realise was that these visions were actually complex optical illusions created by the unique qualities of the chilled arctic air.”

Even today, the mind- and light-bending effects of the Fata Morgana perplex the most experienced navigators and captains.

“The Fata Morgana mirage only occurs where alternating warm and cold layers of air exist near the ground or water surface, “ explains T. Neil Davis, a seismologist with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, “Instead of travelling straight through these layers, light is bent towards the colder, hence denser, air. The resultant light path can produce a confusing image of a distant object.”

The exploration of Greenland is, as it was then, a wonderful, bewitching experience. Only today this once hazardous adventure can now be undertaken in the comfort of modern ice-strengthened cruise vessels with state-of-the-art navigation and safety equipment.

Easter Island: Let Sleeping Moai Lie

Some mysteries are better left unsolved.

Galapagos Au Go Go

Get amongst it on some of the wildest islands you can imagine.

Wrangel Island: Isolation, Desolation and Tragedy

- the latest 'must-see' polar travel destination.

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Grab Facts:

Location: N71 o W180o - approximately 500 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle above Siberia.

Sovereignty: Russia

Area: 4,507 km2 - about twice the size of the ACT

Nominal Capital: Ushakovskoye

Permanent Population: about 100

Major Wildlife: Polar bears, Pacific Walrus, Arctic Fox, Snow Geese, seals, lemmings.

Highest Point: Mt. Sovetskaya (1096m)

Outta The Way – It’s B15a!

Sounding more like a World War Two bomber than an age-old natural phenomenon, Iceberg B15a is nonetheless set on a course of destruction deep in the Antarctic.

Unlike their more creative meteorological colleagues, the (US) National Ice Center name bergs based on their geographical origin rather than use popular Christian names like, say, Gloria or Tracy. Anyway, what do you call an iceberg big enough to attract territorial claims? Goliath? Otto? Ymir? Or just Mr Big?

B15a’s story begins on the Ross Ice Shelf, a perpetually frozen sea the size of France that barricades a vast body of water all the way to within 600 kilometres of the South Pole. Favoured by polar explorers because of its pool-table flat terrain, the shelf allows even heavy vehicles to traverse its sturdy, ancient crust, which scientists know to be hundreds of metres thick.

In the Antarctic summer, between November and February, chunks of the shelf often “calve” off into the Southern Ocean thanks to the combined forces of melting when it reaches the marginally warmer waters and the numerous irrepressible glaciers shoving it brutally north. These chunks become icebergs that can float around the ocean for years along with the slabs of non-permanent ice that regularly bob about the Ross Sea during summer before melting away. Normally this icy debris is small, say the size of an apartment block or small suburb, but B15a sets a new benchmark; at 6,000 sq. km, it’s the size of Jamaica!

As a further mind-boggling twist, B15a gets its ‘a’ tag by virtue of the fact it was once part of an even larger floating mass; you guessed it, B15. At nearly 300 km long and ‘born’ in March 2000, B15 was probably the largest iceberg ever recorded, but has since disintegrated, leaving B15a as its largest remaining offspring.

Doomsayers are quick to jump on the global-warming issue as a cause for these floating behemoths, but in truth, the boffins are still scratching their heads.

“We don’t know why icebergs like B15 calve when they do. We don’t know whether there’s an environmental trigger,” said Doug MacAyeal, an iceberg researcher at the University of Chicago. “In the middle of the night something happens and you wake up the next morning and one of the cracks has connected through to make the piece come off.” Thanks Doug.

Viewed from space, B15a appears like a giant aircraft carrier making an awkward berth alongside an irregular dock. Part of this ‘dockside’ is the massive Drygalski Ice Tongue, a floating glacier jutting out almost 50 km into the Ross Sea. B15a’s clumsy manoeuvring had scientists literally on the edges of their lab stools, as it appeared certain the invisible skipper had set a course ‘dead ahead’ to collide with the giant ice tongue. Imminent impact was scheduled for about January 15.

As if lifted from a Hollywood action film script, the mega-berg came to a screeching halt just kilometres from the frozen mass. Apparently, the berg is now aground and stuck almost motionless within clear view of Drygalski’s giant ice pontoon. The world’s scientific community, no doubt, had trouble drawing breath again after such an astonishingly close call. So what now?

"This berg has wedged itself between two shallow areas. ... It really hasn't gotten any closer for a week now," said Antarctica New Zealand's science strategy manager, Dean Peterson, with a sigh "It's kind of shimmying back and forth now ... so I don't know whether it's ever going to get to the Drygalski or not." Thanks Dean.

Even though one significant geographic feature has been spared (for now), the stalled iceberg is not good news for the ecology or the self-exiled humans. McMurdo Sound is a tiny pocket on the hip of the Ross Ice Shelf, with the 3800m Mt Erebus looming large in the immediate scenery. The bottom end is sewn shut by the shelf and the US and NZ each keep a permanent base supplied with summer access by ship from the other. McMurdo Base (US), in turn, supplies by air the much more precariously located Amundsen-Scott Base over 1,000 km away at the South Pole itself. Problem is with an iceberg the size of a republic blockading the entrance, winter (non-permanent) ice can’t get out and ships can’t get in.

Forget for now the silly scientists cloistered away in their frozen bases and consider the plight of the two penguin species trying to raise their young in the midst of this upheaval. The world’s largest penguin, the Emperor, must navigate a hundred or more kilometres across the ice to reach their feeding grounds and then return with dinner for the young. That’s normal, but since B15a parked itself across the driveway, the trapped ice is doubling that distance. The smaller Adelie Penguins have a similar task, and the marathon distances are taking a toll.

Australian biologist, Jane Wilson, has just returned from the region aboard Adventure Associates' icebreaker, Kapitan Khlebnikov, and she reports vastly reduced numbers of Adelies and nests at Cape Royds due to the inaccessibility of the foraging grounds. It follows that the Emperors will be doing it tough too.

Global warming and ozone holes aside, the consensus amongst glaciologists (folks who study ice) is that the occasional whopper of an iceberg is normal for that part of the world. What would be of concern is if the permanent ice pack were actually receding, but for now, there appears no sign of that. Flippers crossed.

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