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.

this story currently offline

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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