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Our Team Editor-in-Chief May Lynn Writer Konrad Clapp Creative Director Lynn Ooi
It’s almost the end of 2016, and what a year it is. As it’s the end of the year, there’s no better time to get away from it all on a wildlife-watching trip away from the madding crowd. Even if you’re a regular visitor to Taiwan, it’s easy to miss all the little things. Now’s a great time to look out for migratory creatures big and small. If you’re heading to Maolin for its waterfalls, check out the Purple Crow butterflies. Heading to the west coast? Look out for rare black-faced spoonbills that come to winter here. As Sarawak’s rainforest is an important habitat for orangutans and other primates, it has a comprehensive orangutan conservation program which rescues individuals from deforested areas, and helps them reintegrate into the wild. Another conservation success story is Rwanda, world famous for its gorilla program. You can trek to see them up close (we mean really close), making for an incredible once-in-a-lifetime journey. On Christmas Island, less is known about its bird conservation than its red crabs. Even if you don’t get to spot the very rare Abbott’s booby, you’ll definitely be able to spot other booby species – the red-footed and the brown. In addition, the island’s underwater topography make for exciting dives filled with caves, corals and whale sightings. If you’re into Arctic destinations, we’ve got Alaska, Churchill and North Norway. In Alaska, wildlife is everywhere – moose, deer and caribou may be spotted from the main roads, while bears (both grizzly and brown) can be found in parks like Denali and Katmai. If it’s polar bears you seek, then Churchill is probably your best bet. You’ll find plenty of polar bear tours here – and if you time your visit right, you may also be able to see beluga whales and the northern lights. In Northern Norway, puffins can be spotted in colonies of up to 1 million individuals, and it’s a sight to catch them land on water. Many other species of migratory birds also stop over in this northernmost region of Europe, where you can spot them from stylish bird hides.
General Manager Aaron Stewart
Media Rep Lennox & Ooi Media Pte Ltd 19A Lorong 41 Geylang Singapore 387830 Tel 6732 0325 www.sportsandtravelonline.com email@example.com Sports and Travel Limited Rm. 1104 Crawford House 70 Queen’s Road Central Hong Kong Tel +852 2861 8746 firstname.lastname@example.org
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Contributors Daniella Lupi Balan, Jillian Recksiedler, Lisa Preston, Simon Mallender
Special Thanks Christmas Island Tourism North Norway Tourist Board Sarawak Tourism Board Tourism Alaska Travel Manitoba TVA and many, many others!
More wonderful birds can be spotted in the Seychelles, which thanks to its isolation, is also home to the endemic giant tortoise. Croatia may not be known for its wildlife, but its stunning natural landscape alone will more than entice any visitor. Visit our website for our blogs, or drop us a line if you want to give us some feedback or contribute a travel story! Until then, happy trails!
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SHORT BREAK: INDONESIA & THAILAND
Bali has always been one of the region’s favourite destinations, with its iconic beaches, culture, and architecture. While many visitors know of Ubud and Seminyak for their beaches and party life, its remote north and central mountain region are slowly enticing visitors away from the usual tourist hubs in the south.
Krabi is situated among the region’s famous angular limestone karsts that jut out from the flat rice paddies. It is also popular for its white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, coral reefs, caves and waterfalls. The nearby coastal town of Ao Nang is a transport hub for the Andaman Islands, where getting around requires a ride on colourful longtail boats.
TO DO: Climbing Gunung Agung (3,142m) > Bali’s highest and most sacred summit is home to both the Pura Pasar Agung and Pura Besakih temples. There are 2 main routes: the easier is 6 hours from Pasar Agung, and the harder is 7-8 hours from Besakih. Starting before midnight, treks ascend through pine forests and lava fields and summit through a sea of pre-dawn clouds, with views of neighbouring peaks as well as Lombok island. It’s best climbed in the dry season (April-October) although climbable year-round; it’s advisable to climb with a guide.
TO DO: Rock Climbing > Famous worldwide for its rock climbing, the peninsula of Railay is isolated by soaring limestone cliffs, making it only accessible via a longtail boat ride from either Krabi town or Ao Nang. The distinctive limestone karst formations offer over 700 climbing routes, with famous walls including the Pinnacle (beginners), Escher World Wall (beginner-advanced, 5-7a), or the 4-pitch Candlestick Wall (intermediate-advanced, 6b-8).
TO SEE: North Bali > Singaraja, the main town in the north, was once a colonial capital and home to the magnificent Royal Palace of Singaraja. Nearby is Lovina beach which is famous for its dolphins that appear every sunrise. Another picturesque site is the 17th century Ulun Danu Bratan temple in Bedugul, which seems to float on Lake Bratan. The big draw here is the incredible diving and snorkelling at Pulau Menjangan, a marine reserve with hectares of beautiful coral gardens. Menjangan is also called Deer Island, as it is the habitat of the Barking Deer (Muntjac) which can regularly be spotted bathing on the beaches.
Bouldering can also be done here, mostly at the base of the cliffs. In addition to sandy beaches on both its east and west coasts, the Phra Nang Cave (nicknamed Diamond Cave) is also popular with visitors for its glittery formations.
>GETTING THERE Tigerair flies two times daily to Bali, with a flight time of 2 hours 45 minutes. All-in one-way fares start from S$88. For booking, visit www.tigerair.com.
TO SEE: Koh Lanta > Away from the younger crowds, the island of Koh Lanta is known for its quiet beaches and dive sites. While there are no dive sites on the island, it’s the closest to the famous Hin Daeng and Hin Muang dive sites which are home to hard corals and reef fish; in addition, they’re also one of the best places in the world to spot whale sharks. Koh Lanta is also popular for sea kayaking trips among its rich mangroves. >GETTING THERE Tigerair flies 7 times weekly to Krabi, with a flight time of 1 hour 45 minutes. All-in oneway fares start from S$56. For booking, visit www.tigerair.com.
BLAZING THE TRAIL
LOWE ALPINE Airzone Trek
The Lowe Alpine AirZone Trek backpack features an adjustable pack system and tough ripstop fabric that makes it an ideal companion for lightweight backpacking. The twin compartment design with a lower entry and zipout divider system offers ease of packing with the option of expanding, giving you an extra 10L of space – so a 35L expands into 45L – with an extra stretchy mesh pocket in the front for easy access to items like jackets. The pack has a tensioned mesh and a design that lifts the pack away from your back to allow ventilation; other features include a hipbelt, walking pole holders and hydration pack compatibility. The pack is available in 2 sizes – the 34:45 (S$349) and the 55:65 (S$399), with a female size (shorter torso) available in 33:40 (S$349) from Gearaholic.
Mammut’s Advanced Runbold hat is an effective protection against the harsh elements of the sun, offering UV30+ protection. It features an airy mesh lining that ensures highlevel climate comfort for when you’re on hikes or in hot weather; in addition, it has an adjustable neck protector (which can be folded up) for extra protection. The hat is adjustable via a removable chin cord and cordlock, and the hat shield can also be folded up and fastened by snap buttons on the side. This lightweight hat packs down to a small volume, and is available at Adventure 21, retailing at S$79.
GOING THE DISTANCE
Vasque’s St Elias GTX Style 7162 is a backpacking boot with advanced midsole technology that’s suitable for most technical trails while focusing on step-in comfort and minimal break-in time. Its 2.3mm waterproof oiled nubuck with stitch-in molded rubber toe cap and GORE-TEX membrane keep the foot dry and comfortable. The Vibram sole is designed to minimise rubber without sacrificing traction for an exceptionally light sole. Conformable EVA pods in the heel and forefoot allow the outsole to conform around irregularities on the trail while maximising the efficiency of a walking gait. Recommended for lightweight backpacking, it retails at S$309.
The Urban Assault from Montana-based Mystery Ranch is inspired by military assault rucksacks, and built with 500D Cordura for long-haul durability. This versatile daypack focuses on clean, functional design that has a unique 3-zip closure to make accessing the pack super easy by either unzipping the top zippers, or opening the entire pack via the central zip. Built for both outdoor and urban travel, the pack has built-in laptop (up to 15”) and tablet sleeves that hug closely to the back panel for comfort and protection. A zippered, mesh-lined pocket and internal pockets allow you to organise small items. The 21L Urban Assault is now available at Outdoor Life, retailing at S$270.
VASQUE St Elias GTX Style 7162
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Leeden Classic Store 277 Orchard Road, #04-17 orchardgateway, S238858 (Tel: +65 6337 0088) Sports Affinity 1 Queensway, #02-08, #02-43F, #01-32, Queensway S.C., S149053 (Tel: +65 6475 3708) Adventure 21 6 Eu Tong Sen St, #03-55 The Central, S059817 (Tel: +65 6535 0232) X-Boundaries 238 Thomson Road, Velocity @ Novena Square #03-59/60 S307683 (Tel: +65 6356 7280) Vasque Singapore
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Even though Taiwan is a small island, it has a diverse range of environments where wildlife thrives. From coastal wetlands to bamboo forests and mountainous valleys, wildlife can be found almost everywhere you look. Depending on the season, it’s not difficult to spot an abundance of migratory wildlife – from birds to butterflies – based on when you visit.
GAOMEI WETLANDS Located along the west coast near Taichung, Gaomei Wetlands is one of the most well-known and best-preserved wetland habitats in Taiwan. Spreading over 1,000 hectares, this huge tidal flat is home to unique sedge grass, as well as a diverse mix of wildlife, including birds, fish, crustaceans and other invertebrates.
to pack out, the wetlands is an excellent location for bird-watching, as flocks of migratory birds can be seen throughout the fall and winter seasons. At least 120 avian species call the wetland home – you can spot egrets and wild geese, in addition to the very rare black-faced spoonbill.
Originally during the Qing Dynasty, it was known as ‘Gaomi’ before its name changed into Gaomei during the Japanese colonial period when it was a seaside resort in the 1930s.
Apart from being a popular spot for amazing sunsets when the boardwalk tends
Lined along the beachfront are plenty of snack stalls that open from late afternoon until dusk, where you can get freshly-grilled squid and drinks. To get away from the crowds, stroll along the top of the seawall to the north – there is a pebbly ridge that points to the open sea, a remnant of a pipeline that was built by the Americans during the Vietnam War. The pipeline once carried fuel for the B52 bombers from ships offshore to the current location of Taichung Airport.
EXPLORING THE WILDLIFE
To protect the sedge grassland, a unique curved 800m-long boardwalk has been constructed over the water, allowing visitors to explore the environment without damaging it. There are two very different landscapes that you can see on a trip to Gaomei Wetlands depending on the tide. At high tide, the boardwalk literally allows you to walk on water, while the low tide reveals the rich marine life on the tidal flat.
romantic in Taiwan) and a picturesque lighthouse, built in 1967 before Taichung Port was established.
At low tide, the waters recede to reveal a very lively tidal flat where you can see plenty of crustaceans (like fiddler crabs) and mudskippers. At the end of the boardwalk, a set of steps lead to the flats where you can walk on the mud and check out sea critters up close. Avoid weekend evenings if you don’t like crowds.
Nearby are a set of windmills (considered
There is also a biking route along the wetland, connecting to the port and biking trails in Houli which feature verdant rice farms and local houses.
The Gaomei Wetlands are accessible by bus from Taichung’s railway stations. You can also hire a taxi from the HSR station, or from Qingshui Railway Station. For more, visit travel.taichung.gov.tw.
XITOU FOREST Situated high in a valley surrounded by mountains on three sides, the Xitou Nature Education Area is a densely forested area that was used during the Japanese colonial era as a training ground for Tokyo University students for their summer research. Today, this 2,500 hectare forest is part of an experimental forest belonging to the National Taiwan University, where they grow trees like cedars and spruce. Thanks to its topography and altitude (1,150m), it rains often in Xitou, leaving it moist and cool year round (averaging 17ºC), making it perfect for a summer retreat. Once a small village, Xitou boasts plenty of preserved broadleaf forests, although most of this vast area has been cultivated purposely with clearly-divided zones of trees.
Upon entry, you are greeted with a forest of giant cypress trees which gives the area a prehistoric feel. Myriad hiking trails radiate from this point, each leading to a very different landscape – some along steep mountains, others through serene bamboo groves and towering forests. There’s even a trail dedicated to “forest bathing”. The best way to explore the giant cypress forest is from the Sky Walk, a 180m-long elevated walkway suspended 22m
above ground, from where you can spot tree-dwelling animals, insects and birds. Many interesting sites dot the area, including an astronomical observatory, the University Pond, and the Giant Tree – a 2,800year old red cypress tree which survived 3 lightning strikes. There is also a forest of Gingko trees – nicknamed ‘grandfather trees’ due to their slow growth – which are considered living fossils. A big draw here is the large bamboo grove which is crisscrossed with several walking paths, and home to the Bamboo Cottage.
As most of these birds are endemic, you can find them year-round. In addition to common residents like the Bush Warbler, White-eared Sibia, and Taiwan Yuhina, you may also be able to spot rarer birds like the colourful Taiwan Barbet, Taiwan Barwing, and Swinhoe’s Pheasant. While they can be spotted in the thick forested areas, there is also a dedicated Birdwatching Trail which takes you into the mountainous forest and features 2 suspension bridges. The trail takes approximately an hour to complete.
Over 70 varieties of birds can be found in Xitou, making it a good place for birdwatching. Most of the birds are representatives of low and mid-elevation species in Taiwan, including thrushes, warblers, bulbuls and babblers. Most birds are active at dawn and dusk, when you can hear their calls.
Depending on the season, you can see cherry blossoms, frog breeding at the University Pond or fireflies at night (summer).
Located near Lugu township in the central mountains, Xitou Nature Education Area is accessible by car or bus from Taichung.
MAOLIN VALLEY Located some 45km east of Kaohsiung in the foothills of the Central Mountain Range, the Maolin National Scenic Area is the southernmost section of Taiwan’s thick mountain spine. This remote Taiwanese hinterland is home to a combination of mountains, vertiginous suspension bridges, waterfalls, and aboriginal heritage. This area can be divided into 3 sections. If travelling from north to south, you’ll hit Bulao in the north, followed by Maolin and Duona, and ending with Sandimen and Wutai in the south. The only road through the area – County Road 132 – connects Maolin to Duona.
The main drawcard in this mountainous region is the Purple Butterfly Valley, one of only 2 overwintering butterfly valleys in the world (the other being Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Valley). The butterflies are not found in one location, but at a number of sites dotted around the valley.
Taiwan’s Purple Crow Butterfly are normally found throughout the island, but when winter arrives, they migrate en masse to the southern mountain valleys which are their winter nesting grounds. Here, you can find four sub-species: Dwarf Crows (75% of Maolin’s butterfly population), Double-branded Black Crows, Striped Blue Crows and Blue-banded King Crows.
Another reason for visiting this region is the local people – mainly Rukai, who are known for their beautiful slate houses. To explore their aboriginal culture, you can visit the traditional village of Wutai with its preserved houses, or head to the Taiwan Indigenous Peoples Cultural Park.
No larger than 8cm across, the brown butterflies – with white spots – are referred to as Purple Crows due to the purple iridescence of their wings in sunlight. Winter is the best time to catch the butterflies from November to March (best between December and January) especially between 9am and 11am. On cooler or rainy days, the butterflies remain motionless in the trees. You can book a butterfly tour from the nearby DeenGorge Guest House, run by a Rukai tribesperson.
NATURE AND CULTURE
Maolin is famous for its waterfalls, with 3 very close to Maolin village: Lover’s Gorge, Maolin Waterfall, and Dajin Waterfall. Across the river from Maolin village is Lover’s Gorge with its multi-tiered waterfall and pretty pools. The first and second tiers are easily accessible; getting to the third and fourth tier requires some scrambling. Not far away is Maolin Waterfall, accessible via a hiking trail that goes through serene stands of bamboo and across two impressive suspension bridges. Another impressive waterfall is Dajin Waterfall which is the closest to Kaohsiung, and therefore more crowded over the weekends. The falls are accessible via a short uphill and downhill trudge (800 steps) from a nearby temple. A small hiking trail leads you to a smaller waterfall with a perfect pool for swimming.
Maolin is also dotted with suspension bridges, and one of the most iconic is the 103m-tall Duona Suspension Bridge, perched high in the mountains stretching across a deep chasm. It’s the tallest bridge in Taiwan, with the posts decorated in Rukai designs.
Maoilin is accessible via County Road 132, which offers panoramic vistas.There are also buses (www.ptbus.com.tw) from Pingtung City to Sandimen, Wutai, Maolin and Duona. Visit the Maolin NSA website (www.maolin-nsa.gov.tw) for more.
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Orangutan (or Orang Utan) literally translates as “person of the forest” in the Malay language; and it isn’t too far off the mark, with it being the species sharing 97% of their DNA with humans, making them mankind’s cousin, of sorts.
TEXT BY Daniella Lupi Balan IMAGES BY
Sarawak Forestry Corporation
The Bornean Orangutan has officially been declared as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
There are two species of orangutans, namely the Bornean and the Sumatran Orangutan. The Bornean Orangutans are further divided into three sub-species, which are the Southwest Bornean Orangutan (pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) native to Western and Central Kalimantan and the Northeast Bornean Orangutan (pongo pygmaeus morio) native to the state of Sabah, Malaysia, and East Kalimantan. And then there’s the Northwest Bornean Orangutan or pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus, native to the state of Sarawak in Malaysia and the province of West Kalimantan in Indonesia. The orangutans are exceedingly dependent animals: dependent on tall prime rainforest as their habitat and dependent on their mothers for six or seven years during infant development. Couple this dependence with an average birth rate of one birth per eight years for every female orangutan and human nature, and you have the inevitable.
With an estimated number of 54,000 Northwest Bornean Orangutans spread across the Sarawak and West Kalimantan rainforests, the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) as the custodians of Sarawak’s forests, has been fighting a losing battle for half a century, with the orangutan numbers declining steadily due to illegal poaching as well as habitat loss from excessive timber logging and oil palm plantation planting. But there has been a shift in the battlefield of orangutan conservation.
LESS LOGGING, MORE PROTECTING
Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, has been guilty of aggressively opening oil palm plantations, with a growth rate of 7.7% over the past five years alone, until the state’s Chief Minister, Tan Sri Adenan Satem, announced that no more state land would be awarded or sold for the planting of oil palm, for the foreseeable future. With this announcement came a rallying cry to snuff out illegal logging, with nearly
50% of logging permits being cancelled outright. While orangutans are currently restricted to remote or less accessible areas, oftentimes to their detriment as it becomes a game of cat and mouse between the growing efficiency of poachers and the determination of the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC), the horizon is looking bright. The Ulu Menyang region is being gazetted as a National Park after the presence of some 200 wild orangutans were discovered, adding it to the growing ranks of other Totally Protected Areas instrumental in orangutan conservation. Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary, Gunong Lesong National Park, Ulu Sebuyau National Park, Sedilu National Park and Batang Ai National Park are totally protected areas in which wild orangutans can live free, while Semenggoh Nature Reserve and Matang Wildlife Centre are determined to rehabilitate orangutans affected by human interference. Factor in two unexpected births among the 14 female orangutans in Semenggoh Nature Reserve’s Orangutan rehabilitation program, and you have what looks like an uptick in conservation results.
FUTURE OF ORANGUTANS
The establishment of 1.2 million hectares of Totally Protected Areas for the orangutans has taken priority for the Sarawak Forestry Corporation and has begun to bear fruit. Now, the SFC aims to rehabilitate orphaned, surrendered or confiscated orangutans while encouraging public engagement, to the highest possible degree.
amount of time from one day to two weeks at the Nature Reserve, or the Matang Wildlife Center. The work includes the care of semi-wild orphaned orangutans, or in more extreme cases, the complete care of those that are unfit for release. For more in depth involvement in the conservation of wild orangutans, one can volunteer under the Honorary Wildlife Rangers. The Honorary Wildlife Rangers are tasked with having a deep understanding of wildlife and the responsibility of disseminating the meaning of protection and conservation of wildlife to the public, usually going deep into the interior of Sarawak and educating the local communities who are often approached and persuaded into hunting illegally for a quick profit by poachers and outside buyers. While becoming an Honorary Wildlife Ranger is exceedingly difficult as one must undergo training in biodiversity and wildlife conservation, volunteering to assist Honorary Wildlife Rangers is by far one of the more rewarding volunteer programs, as one gets to the nitty gritty of it and participates in wildlife protection and conservation, and success is measured by creating a sense of environmental stewardship in the daily lives of local communities.
The Semenggoh Nature Reserveâ€™s rehabilitation program has various volunteer programs available for the local and international public, the first being the Heart 2 Heart with Orangutans program, where the public can volunteer for any
The Orangutan Adoption Program was also created to raise funds for the rehabilitation of the displaced orangutans by extending ownership of the program to anyone and everyone in the world. It allows public involvement with the rehabilitation program, where
you can adopt and sponsor an orangutan through its rehabilitation. Ultimately, one of the best way to help with the orangutan conservation is to frequent the National Parks, proving that a civilisation doesnâ€™t need to destroy its land to sustain its economy. While the fight for the orangutans is ongoing, the end goal is clearer than ever before; that one day one can trek through the national parks of Sarawak and spot a group of these orange-haired primates nesting peacefully in the treetops, unthreatened and thriving.
© Justin Gilligan
© Kirsty Faulkner
seek with divers as they pass.
The marine inhabitants of any scuba diving destination are defined by its terrain and location. Christmas Island scores high on both counts: being the top of an extinct, steep sided volcano that rises 6,000m from the sea floor below and located 300km south of Java in the Indian Ocean. At 10° south of the equator with abundant sunshine and nutrient-rich up-wellings, the steep-sided walls are covered in pristine coral reefs down to 20 or 30m where great gorgonian sea fans take over. Conditions like this are perfect for all kinds of fish – from the smallest to the largest (which is the whale shark) and Christmas Island boasts about 650 identified species all up. The coral reefs are home to great shoals of herbivores, and parrotfish, surgeons and unicornfish can be seen working their way along the corals on every dive. On the near-vertical walls, the fusiliers stream up and down in search of plankton, and in the pocillopora coral heads, humbug damselfish and hawkfish play hide and
There are dive sites all the way around the island and not all are steep walls. Some of the bays have shallow reefs sloping down to the dropoff. In the sheltered areas feather stars congregate creating a small and colourful meadow, and it’s here that turtles are often found resting. Giant morays hiding amongst the corals and rocks keep watch, as wrasse, rabbitfish and titan triggers cruise by. Christmas Island has its share of caves, and some of these weave through the volcanic rock coming out into the ocean below the waterline. They are easily explored by divers who can surface inside the caverns to see great stalactites hanging above them. There is no urban pollution from the island and being 300km from any neighbour means that the waters are exceptionally clear. It is often possible to see the reef sharks and eagle rays patrolling the reef wall 20m below. Being steep-sided allows deep water pelagics to come in close to the island’s shoreline and divers are usually treated to some exceptional, though often brief, encounters with ocean going manta rays,
scalloped Hammerhead sharks and whale sharks – particularly towards the end of the annual red crab migration, when the abundance of crab larvae in the water attracts them to the island. Another treat are the spinner dolphins who seem to recognise the sound of the dive boat’s engine and come over to play for a while in its bow wave, usually hanging around long enough for divers to grab a mask and snorkel and join them in the water.
There is no shortage of species of marine life and they are all present in great abundance. Even snorkelling from the beach in Flying Fish Cove it’s easily possible to count 60 species of marine life in 60 minutes. Christmas Island can be dived anytime of the year as the waters are warm (around 26-29°C), there’s very little current, and being an island there’s always a lee shore somewhere, if the wind is blowing. Two full service dive centres offer double boat dives and shore dives daily, and the full gamut of training courses and gear hire.
© Kirsty Faulkner
© Kirsty Faulkner
© Kirsty Faulkner
Simon Mallender & Lisa Preston
Christmas Island Tourism
While Christmas Island is best known for the annual red crab migration, its avian inhabitants are also a huge draw. The oceanic island, cut off from other land masses, is home to several endemic species of birds. A relatively limited number of tree and plant species has, over time, influenced the resident birds. These include 7 species of Northern Australia and Southeast Asia forest birds, who have distinctly evolved into endemic species, including the hawk-owl, goshawk, and emerald dove, all smaller than their distant cousins, are evidence that smaller bodied birds were better suited to survive on the limited food resources the island’s vegetation had to offer, and today birds are all over the island. The booming low ‘woo’ of the Imperial pigeon follows you through the forests of the island’s National Park, which covers 63% of the island. And thanks to millennia of adaptation, even seabirds can be found in the forest, including the showiest of them all, the Golden bosun. Nine seabirds call Christmas Island home. Three types of boobies, 3 frigatebirds (including the endemic Christmas Island frigatebird), 2 tropicbirds and the common noddy are easily viewed on the coast, fishing at sea and nesting in the trees of
the island’s ancient volcanic terraces. Vantage points for birding are everywhere on the island. Depending on the species, beaches and rocky cliffs provide a range of locations for viewing, for example the aerial acrobatics of the frigatebirds, pirating meals from other unsuspecting avians.
Currently the easiest way to get to Christmas Island is via Garuda Charter, which operates weekly flights from Jakarta to Christmas Island. Visit www.christmas.net.au for more. Island has a species that sports an iridescent golden form. Found wheeling in the skies around Settlement area during the middle of the day. Christmas Island Goshawk (Accipiter fasciatusnatalis) A predatory species, this bird generally hides in the forest, swooping down on its unsuspecting prey of smaller birds, rodents and reptiles. Sightings are rare and often challenging.
TOP BIRDWATCHING LOCATIONS:
Golf Course Lookout A goat track delivers you to one of the most stunning outcrops on the island, getting you eye-level views with many of the seabird species. A great location for photographers.
BIRDS TO LOOK OUT FOR:
Abbotts Booby (Papasula abbotti) Known only to nest on Christmas Island, it’s distinguishable in flight by its black wings and tail. Active mornings and late afternoons at higher elevations, its chicks make a guttural call when the adult is near the nest for feeding. Golden Bosun (Phaethon lepturus fulvus) Whilst the white-tailed tropicbird is found throughout the Indian Ocean, Christmas
Territory Day Park Lookout Located in Drumsite, this lookout is easy to access, with a stunning view down to Flying Fish cove and the Settlement area. Visiting at midday will afford you stunning views of the Golden Bosun. Rocky Point, Settlement The resident Silver Bosuns, or Red-tailed tropicbirds, can be found wheeling, cackling and flirting along the coastline in the township – wait for the ‘seabird super highway’ to pass you by between 11am -2pm daily.
It’s the Wildlife Issue, and while most people tend to think about the big-ticket types of animal encounters, like going on safari, diving with whale sharks, or spotting primates on forest treks, these scripted encounters aren’t always the case. Often the most memorable animal encounters, for better or worse, are the unscripted ones, whether it’s meeting an unexpected herbivore at a watering hole, or finding an 8-legged friend camping out in your boots. Either way, it’s always best to be prepared, and have some basic first aid skills.
SCORPIONS AND SPIDERS
Stings can be extremely painful, but most species’ venom is low in toxicity, and not life-threatening; only a few species of spider pose a real risk to healthy, adult humans, like the funnelweb, brown back and black widow. A bite from a black widow is often immediately painful and can be distinguished from other spider and insect bites by the two puncture marks it makes on the skin. The wound then starts to turn red, become inflamed and form a nodule. Tenderness at the bite site tends to increase and spread out within an hour. Most venom have histamines, which can cause rashes, breathing problems, numbness, etc., for a few hours, meaning you’ll feel worse than you actually are. Pay attention to more serious side effects such as severe muscle cramping (especially in the abdomen), excessive sweating around the bite mark, nausea, headache, delirium, chills and high blood pressure. These are all reactions to the spider’s neurotoxic venom. Anti-venom for scorpions exists, but isn’t wide-spread, while anti-venom for deadly spiders is usually readily available in endemic areas. As both inject relatively little venom, symptoms usually subside before medical attention is needed. If stung/bitten, remain calm. Don’t apply a tourniquet as the amount of venom is too small to stop it from circulating. The main treatment is symptomatic for pain, swelling, etc. Scorpions are active at night and tend to hide in dark spots during the day, while spiders are active day and night, so being careful where
you put your hands or feet is the best protection. Treating bites with antiseptic gel, ice and over-the-counter medications is typically all that’s needed.
Snakes are a mixed bag, and specific bite treatment (ie anti-venom) depends on the species and where you are – snake bites kill thousands every year in Africa and South Asia, but virtually no one in Australia.
Bears are native to North America, parts of Asia (Japan, Korea, Russia), continental northern Europe, and scattered pockets elsewhere. There’s several species, and while you wouldn’t want to be attacked by any of them, most attacks statistically are by the relatively smaller black bear on hikers in wooded parts of the US and Canada. Except for polar bears, other ursus don’t view humans as food, so attacks aren’t predatory; you’ve either startled them, they were foraging for food in your camp, or you’ve come between a mother and her cubs, meaning they’re not necessarily trying to kill you. If attacked, curl up and play dead. Precautions include: wearing bear bells that ring as you walk, insuring you don’t surprise a bear, never storing food in your campsite, and getting local advice about bear watering holes, favourite fishing spots, etc. The last line of defense is bear spray, or tripwire flares/alarms for your camp (a necessity against polar bears).
Only 600 of the 3,000 known species are venomous – the most deadly being sea snakes – who thankfully have very small fangs, making biting a human in a wetsuit difficult. While a non-venomous python looks menacing, the main danger from a non-venomous bite is merely infection. Conversely, the only realistic treatment for a venomous bite is anti-venom, without which you can die. If bitten, you should immediately get out of the snake’s range to a safe spot a fair distance away where the snake doesn’t have any hiding places. Immobilise and support the bite area; do not apply a tourniquet but do restrict movement in the bitten area. Keep the area at or below the level of your heart to slow the spread of the venom to the heart, which would then pump the venom throughout your body. If you can, fashion a splint to keep the area surrounding the bite from moving, and remove clothing, jewellery, or constricting items. Clean the wound as best as you can, but don’t flush it with water. If you’re in a region that’s known for venomous species (Australia, North America, South America, parts of ASEAN), try to know what species to look for as anti-venom is specific to species. Often simple precautions are all it takes to virtually eliminate risks. For example, bites from the Fer-de-lance – the most deadly snake in South America – can be simply be thwarted by wearing a pair of wellies.
SOUTH AMERICA South America has long captivated travellers with its plethora of cultural and natural wonders. It is not just massive â€“ itâ€™s a continent of extreme weather systems, ranging from wet rainforests to the dry high deserts and freezing tundra. While it broke away from Africa and Antarctica 120 million years ago and joined to North America via the Isthmus of Panama 3 million years ago, it now contains an unparalleled diversity of wildlife, both native and introduced over the years. Today, wildlife excursions are included on a typical visit to South America, mostly to spot iconic fauna like big cats, big birds, and big rodents. Your best bet for spotting wildlife is in the northern regions, home to the Pantanal and the rich Amazon rainforest.
JAGUARS Found throughout much of South America except in the coldest regions in Chile and Argentina, jaguars normally live in dense rainforest and swamp (it enjoys swimming), but can also be found in scrublands and deserts. Jaguars are the largest cats of the Americas, and they vary in size in the different regions. A formidable predator, it kills its prey with one bound, typically by biting directly through the skull thanks to its strong bite force. Jaguars mostly have the appearance of a larger leopard, although sometimes its characteristic spots give way to an all-black appearance due to colour morphology that occurs within the species. These black jaguars are sometimes known as black panthers.
GOLIATH BIRDEATER Also known as the Goliath Bird-eating spider, it is the largest species of spider in the world, but despite its name it rarely feeds on adult birds, preferring instead to dine on earthworms and toads (although the spider is ironically part of the local cuisine in the region). This tarantula species can have a leg span of up to 28cm and can weigh up to 175g; it is mostly found in the Amazon rainforest regions of northern South America: Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. The nocturnal spider is terrestrial, living in deep burrows in marshy or swampy areas. When threatened, they rub their abdomen with their hind legs to release hairs that are harmful to humans.
Jaguar Bald Uakari Sloth Andean Condor Capybara Goliath Birdeater
Map by Free Vector Maps
Wildlife Spotting SLOTHS These tropical rainforest tree-dwellers are known for their usual idleness, which is due to metabolic adaptations for conserving energy. This is because their diet of buds, shoots and leaves take a sloth’s digestive process a month or more to complete, they only urinate and defecate about once a week. There are two different types of sloths (two-toed and threetoed) with six species in total, including the endangered pygmy three-toed sloth and the maned sloth. Two-toed sloths can be found in Ecuador and Brazil, while three-toed sloths are more widespread, extending to Argentina. While arboreal, sloths make competent swimmers, and their tongues can protrude up to 30cm from their mouths when feeding.
ANDEAN CONDOR The Andean Condor is an absolute stunning sight when spotted, as it is the largest flying bird on earth, with a wingspan of up to 310 cm. The national bird of Bolivia, Colombia, Chile and Peru, condors play important roles in folklore and mythology in South America. This large black vulture – it is a carrion feeder – is identified by its ruff of white features surrounding the base of the neck and large white patches on the wings, its head and neck are nearly featherless and of a dull red colour. The best place to view these majestic birds is in the morning from the Mirador Cruz del Condor at the 1,200m-deep Colca Canyon in Southern Peru, where you are almost guaranteed to see several circling condors.
CAPYBARA The largest of living rodents (weighing up to 65kg), the capybara is a semi-aquatic herbivorous animal native to most of the tropical and temperate parts of South America except Chile. Found in densely forested areas near bodies of water (like lakes, rivers and ponds), they live in big herds of 10-20 individuals and spend most of their time on the banks of rivers, feeding in the mornings and evenings. Capybaras also wallow in shallow water and mud to keep cool during a hot day. With their slightly webbed feet, they are excellent swimmers and can remain submerged up to 5 minutes (they can also sleep in water with their noses out of the water); they are also quite agile on land, capable of running as fast as a horse.
One of the oddest species of monkeys in this continent, bald uakari monkeys can be found in the Amazon rainforest, preferring permanently or seasonally flooded rainforests, and near water sources in Peru and parts of Brazil. These are active monkeys, pouncing in the treetops all day feasting on seeds, fruit and caterpillar, venturing down from the canopy in the dry season. Living in large social groups of nearly 100 individuals, their red faces (the red face indicates their health, as pale-faced ones aren’t immune to malaria) are accompanied by a body of long, shaggy coat that varies from red-brown to orange. Unlike most monkeys, uakaris have very short tails but are nimble without them – they sleep aloft at night high in the rainforest canopy.
Large animals like moose and bears, caribou and wolves, whales and sea lions are a big part of the allure of Alaska. You can see creatures great and small any time of year and anywhere in the state. Wildlife viewing is often best in more remote areas of the state where there is less human foot traffic. Fortunately, there are areas near the population centres and along the road system that offer plenty of potential for animal watching. Lesson one in your wildlife quest is to carry binoculars. Occasionally you’ll get a chance to see animals at close quarters, but unless you’re on a guided tour or inside a vehicle, getting close isn’t often possible or recommended.
In Southeast Alaska and in other coastal areas you’ve got an excellent chance to see marine mammals – especially at Glacier Bay National Park. Look for the spouts of whales and porpoises, clouds of mist formed when the animals exhale upon surfacing. They’re best seen when wind and waves are calm. Scan the water with the naked eye, looking for a whitish streak just above the water’s surface. Once you see spouts, train your binoculars on the area and wait; the animals will generally surface again in the same vicinity. The most commonly sighted whales are humpbacks and orcas (killer whales), as well as porpoises. Sea lions and harbour seals can often be seen basking on rocky islands near the water’s edge. Also look for sea otters frolicking and bobbing in the waves, lying on their backs and grooming their fur. Along the shore in Southeast, look for Sitka blacktail deer grazing near the water’s edge, and scan the high peaks for mountain goats, often seen as white dots near the craggy ridgeline. Also along the beaches, watch for brown and black bears prowling near the tide line in their constant search for anything edible. Whenever you’re near water, bald eagles are nearby. They’re most commonly seen perched in the tops of spruce trees near shore, scanning the area for their next meal. Look for their prominent white
heads; they often look like golf balls stuck in the green treetops.
In Southcentral Alaska, including the Kenai Peninsula and the areas near Anchorage, coastal areas harbour the marine mammals that are found in Southeast, with the added attraction of white beluga whales. They follow the salmon up the inlet and can be seen from the Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm near Anchorage and along the Cook Inlet coast of the Kenai Peninsula. Occasionally they can even be seen from downtown Anchorage. If the tide is high and the water is flat, keep your eyes peeled for white flashes as they surface. Coastal communities from Southeast to Prince William Sound to Southcentral offer boat excursions for fishing and for wildlife watching with knowledgeable skippers. Wildlife viewing is also excellent from the decks of the ferryboats of the Alaska Marine Highway System that ply the coastal waters. Also along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage, watch for Dall sheep along the cliffs next to the road. There’s a spot called Windy Corner near milepost 107 of the highway where sheep often come down off the mountainsides and graze next to the road, making for some interesting traffic situations.
© State of Alaska/Chris McLennan
© State of Alaska/Reinhard Pantke
© State of Alaska/Reinhard Pantke
Birder Spectacle One of Alaska’s most noteworthy wildlife spectacles is the annual autumn convergence of thousands of eagles on the Chilkat River flats near Haines. From October through February, up to 3,000 eagles gather at a given time to feed on a late salmon run. This is the greatest concentration of eagles in the world. For a truly “far out” birding and wildlife experience, visit St. Paul Island in the Pribilof Islands. Visitors can view northern fur seals at their rookeries, and some exotic bird species – observe them from behind observation blinds, or go on naturalist-guided tours. Bears Perhaps the most charismatic of the megafauna is the bear, and everyone who comes to Alaska wants to see one. Of course, implicit in this desire is the ability to view bears under controlled and safe conditions. Your best bet is to take a shuttle into Denali National Park where grizzly bear sightings are a common occurrence. Katmai National Park on the Alaska Peninsula near the town of King Salmon and the Pack Creek bear viewing area on Admiralty Island in Southeast offer excellent brown bear viewing as well. It’s also common to see bears along the
Denali Highway between Paxson and Cantwell and the Dalton highway north of Fairbanks. Stop and scan the open tundra frequently. Moose Country The most commonly seen big game animal in Alaska is the moose. These large, ungainly-looking beasts are often seen in Anchorage and nearly everywhere along the road system. The Kenai Peninsula has some of the best moose habitat in the world, and the observant traveller can usually spot them in the mornings and evenings when they are most active. Good moose-watching areas near Fairbanks are along Chena Hot Springs Road, just outside of town, and Donnelly Dome, just south of town. Caribou One of the most enduring images of Alaska wildlife featured by nature photographers is huge herds of barren ground caribou streaming over the tundra. These herds of animals, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, migrate over areas far removed from the road system. Even if your travels are confined to less remote areas, you can still spot caribou if you’re observant and lucky. The best chance for seeing them is at Denali National Park. Large herds are rare, but there’s always an excellent chance of a close-up view from a park shuttle. Other good places include the Dalton and Denali highways. Pull off the road whenever you’ve got an unobstructed view of a large parcel of open ground – look for shapes and colours that don’t exactly match the local vegetation, and zero in on any moving objects. Bears and wolves, caribou and moose, foxes and golden eagles and many species of birds all make their homes on the tundra, and the patient and the observant traveller will be rewarded with glimpses into their lives.
Croatia lies at the geographic crossroads of the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Set amidst the pastel backdrop of the Adriatic Sea, Croatia is a culmination of ancient cities and dramatic landscapes.
Numerous airlines service either Dubrovnik or Zagreb from Singapore, with a single stop en route, including Etihad, Lufthansa, Qatar, Swiss and Turkish.
Croatia is perhaps most known for its historic city of Dubrovnik (listed as a World Heritage site), with its warren of cobblestoned streets lined with centuries-old buildings. Beyond historic cities, its natural attractions – from the sun-drenched Makarska Riviera to the cascading lakes of Plitvice – offers myriad opportunities for hiking and trekking.
MAKARSKA RIVIERA & BIOKOVO
The Makarska Riviera – a port of call for beach and hiking enthusiasts – lies a mere 4-hour drive away from the capital of Zagreb. Snaking along the coastline, the soothingly sedate pace of the Makarska Riviera is overshadowed by the towering presence of Biokovo Mountain, which is situated close to the shores of the riviera.
For those who prefer the exhilaration of a hike, a trip up to Biokovo Mountain reveals a mishmash of scenic trekking paths that wind through a diverse ecosystem. The designated hiking areas of Biokovo Nature Park are open from the beginning of April till mid-November each year. For visitors unsure of terrain conditions, professionally guided hiking tours cater
to a variety of crowds, from novices to experienced trekkers. Trekkers embark from the centre of Makarska city and make their way up 3kms of varied terrain to get to Vosac Peak (1,422m). A picturesque 2-hour hike from there will eventually lead to the highest peak in the area, Sveti Jure (1,762m), boasting a vantage point of unmatched views of the Croatian coastline.
PLITVICE LAKES NATIONAL PARK
503m, providing visitors with an intimate experience of the waterfalls and the wildlife amidst its thick woodlands. A walk from one end of the park to the other normally takes around 4 hours (longer during peak season due to crowds).
The lakes are situated on the eponymous Plitvice plateau, between the mountains of Lika Pljeaevica (Gornja Pljeaevica peak, 1,640m), Mala Kapela (Seliaki Vrh peak, 1,280m) and Medveak (884m).
The park is heavily forested, and sightings of deers, bears, wolves and rare bird species are not uncommon.
One of the world s most iconic natural sights, the Plitvice Lakes is a convergence of 16 lakes dramatically connected by a series of waterfalls set against a backdrop of magnificent verdant hills, covering an area of about 2 sq.kms., with the lowest lake feeding the Korana River.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed Plitvice Lake National Park opens its doors all year round, with extended opening hours during the summer months from mid July till late August. The Plitvice Lakes â€“ which are segregated into a collection of upper and lower lakes â€“ lie in a basin of karstic rock, giving rise to their most distinctive feature. The 16 lakes are separated by natural dams of travertine (which grow at the rate of about 1cm annually), deposited by the action of moss, algae and bacteria. There are 8 pathways and wooden walking trails intertwining within Plitvice Lake National Park, descending from 636m to
Other attractions include the Veliki Splat waterfall surrounded by boulders, and a large waterfall complex that can be accessed via a cave in the surrounding rock face. The colours of the lake change constantly from azure blue to green and grey, depending on the quantity of minerals or organisms in the water and the angle of sunlight. The lakes also take on a different personality depending on the season, and unlike most national parks which remain shut during winter, Plitvice Lake National Park sees a steady flow of visitors who enjoy the snow-drenched grandeur of the park. The lakes are a 2-hour drive from Zagreb, and buses ply the route.
Wild in the Indian Ocean | 23 The many islands that dot the vast Indian Ocean are as varied in their landscape as they are in the wildlife that inhabit them. Each island’s personality is also as diverse as the islanders, spice merchants and explorers that have shaped them.
For a comparatively small island, Sri Lanka boasts of one of the highest rates of biological endemism in the world, and is beginning to market its own ‘Big Four’ as a contender to Africa’s ‘Big Five’: elephant, leopard, sloth bear and blue whale. The most abundant of the four is the Sri Lankan elephant, with a population of about 5,000 scattered in pocketed herds across the country’s wildlife parks. Udawalawa National Park has the largest concentration of elephants, and it’s not unusual to see herds of adults and young feeding or bathing and playing in the water. From July to August, Minneriya National Park becomes home to ‘the gathering’ of elephants who come to feed during the dry season.
The ocean around Sri Lanka is home to 26 species of cetaceans, including mighty blue whales, sperm whales and dolphins; the best time to snorkel with blue whales is from February to April. You can go whale watching off the Mirissa coast (southern Sri Lanka) and then head inland to see elephants – not many destinations boast both the largest land and sea mammals in one destination. Without a doubt, leopard safaris are the most popular wildlife excursions in Sri Lanka. The leopards (a subspecies native to Sri Lanka) can be found in all types of forests, from thorn scrub to lowland rain forests, with the highest density in the world found in Yala National Park located in the south of the island. December to March is the best time to try spotting leopards, due to the dry weather that draws them out to watering holes. The Sri Lankan Sloth Bear is a distinct subspecies to the island, with a wild population numbering 1,000 in isolated areas, and is perhaps the most elusive of the ‘Big Four’. They are distributed in Yala and Wasgomuwa National Park, as well as Wilpattu National Park.
Rarer still in Sri Lanka are the red slender loris, toque macaque, and purple-faced langur; all are classified by IUCN as endangered. On the other end of the scale, Sri Lanka is home to rich bird life – at least 433 bird species – and one of the highest densities of amphibian species in the world (currently 106). With numerous national parks dotted throughout the island, it’s not difficult to book a safari trip to spot any of the ‘Big Four’. Despite its relatively modest size, Sri Lanka’s distinct weather patterns affect the climate dramatically from coast to coast, dictating the type of wildlife experience depending on when you go.
Tortoises & Birds Unlike its neighbours, Seychelles is an archipelago of 115 islands scattered throughout the Indian Ocean. While its isolation limits the number of species of animals, its actual islands are the world’s oldest geologically, meaning a high level of endemism, huge seabird colonies, and a remarkably high number of migrant species (making up almost three-quarters of the birds in Seychelles).
Consisting of the granitic Inner Islands (where the main islands of Mahe, Praslin and La Digue are) and the coralline Outer Islands (like Bird Island and the Aldabra Atoll), the Seychelles has one of the highest endemism rates anywhere in the world for amphibians, birds and reptiles. It is also one of only two homes in the world for the Giant tortoise (the other is the Galapagos), and contains the world’s largest population on the Aldabra Atoll (home to some 150,000 tortoises). These tortoises are related to their continental cousins and have experienced a growth phenomenon known as ‘island gigantism’ over the centuries; the giant tortoise has an average lifespan of 100 years or more. The tortoises have also been re-intro-
age. On Cousin Island Special Reserve, you can spot songbirds like the Seychelles Magpie Robin, Seychelles Warbler and Seychelles Fody – all of which have been brought back from the brink of extinction.
duced to other islands more accessible to visitors, including Cousin Island Special Reserve and a variety of private islands where these lumbering gentle giants are easily approachable. The Seychelles is a haven for birdwatchers – there are 12 endemics in the granitic islands, seven of which can be seen on Mahé (including Seychelles White-eye and the only opportunity to see Seychelles Scops Owl). Neighbouring Praslin is home to the rare Seychelles Black Parrot (it has a melodic bird whistle) which only breeds in the Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve where the iconic coco de mere tree (with the largest nuts in the world) are found, and La Digue is the only place to find the beautiful Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher with its long tail and glossy blue-and-black plum-
Serious birders can opt to stay at Bird Island, named after the enormous migratory Sooty Tern colony (April-September); it’s also a great location to catch rare Eurasian migrants from October to December. Even if you’re not a birder, it’s not difficult to be impressed by the variety of birds no matter where you are in the Seychelles – you may be able to spot large frigate birds with their signature red pouches, or various species of boobies with their colourful feet. Scan the skies for tropicbirds with their long tail feathers. Listen out for birdsong in the forest, and you may spot elusive songbirds. Birds are present year round, although October-December is the best time to see migrants. For serious enthusiasts, the best time is mid-October to end-November which combines the end of the southeast seabird season with the beginning of the northwest, when the height of the migration season coincides with calm seas and settled weather.
Wild in the Indian Ocean | 25
Madagascar is home to 5% of global biodiversity and 75% of species found here live nowhere else on earth. These include the predatory fossa (related to the mongoose) and the most famous of Madagascar’s wildlife, the lemur, with 105 species and counting.
mals in the world, according to the IUCN, with lemurs considered the most threatened mammal group on earth. These primates have suffered over the past 7 years during the country’s political crisis which began in 2009, resulting in a wave of habitat loss.
Even so, lemurs are just one small segment of Madagascar’s endemic biological oddities – the island nation is also home to giant geckos that blend in perfectly with tree bark, as well as Brookesia micra chameleons that are so small they fit on your fingernail. Then there are giant Comet Moths with their beautiful yellow wings and long red ‘tails’, as well as bright red Giraffe Weevils with their impossibly long black necks. Add to that the hedgehog-like tenrec, which can give birth to over 30 babies in a single litter.
However, there has been some conservation successes over the past decade, with seven new reserves spanning over 74,000 acres declared in Madagascar’s highly-threatened eastern rainforest – critical habitats for endangered lemurs, chameleons, and frogs. Ecotourism – which faded to nothing 7 years ago due to the unrest – is being re-established to help fund conservation efforts.
Madagascar is also home to the second highest number of threatened mam-
If you’re here for lemurs, they can be found throughout the country. One species, the incredibly elusive northern sportive lemur, is down to its last 50 or so individuals. These agile primates have enlarged, fleshy pads on their hands and feet, and are believed to be ‘caecotrophic’ (they eat their faeces). The Silky Sifaka, nicknamed ‘angel of the forest’ due to its creamy white fur, is another critically endangered lemur numbering less than 250 adults. Both lemurs reside in the country’s northeastern region.
If you’re in the east, look out for the ayeaye with its witch-like yellow eyes and bony middle finger, as well as the Indri (the largest lemur species) which can be identified by its loud howl. In the western and southern dry forests, you’ll find the famous ring-tailed lemur and its cousin the Verreaux’s sifaka, both of which seem to ‘dance’ on the ground. Other lemur species to look out for include the ruffed lemur with its mane-like facial hair, and Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur – at 6cm, it’s the smallest primate in the world (its brain is just 0.2g, and during breeding seasons, the testicles of males increase to 130% of their normal size). When it comes to wildlife spotting, Madagascar is one of those countries where you may encounter a weird and wonderful creature at every turn. Even the most jaded visitors of national parks would find Madagascar’s forests enchanting – where part of the charm is in the jeep voyage on muddy, bumpy roads and river crossings made on makeshift bridges constructed plank-by-plank when cars turn up.
Northern Norway may not come to mind as a birding destination, but thanks to its barren, treeless coastline that is largely free from human habitation, the capes and cliffs around Norway’s Arctic regions are home to some of the biggest concentrations of migratory birds in Europe. During the spring and autumn migrations, ornithologists study the flocks of waders on the shore and geese inland, while in summer, the breeding season is the time for songbirds, birds of prey and nesting seabirds. For birders, this is an excellent location to stake out millions of birds during the migration seasons, with the best locations to catch these feathered creatures being Varanger, Gjesværstappan and Lovund.
© Jarle Wæhler / Statens vegvesen
© Jarle Wæhler / Statens vegvesen
© Helge Stikbakke / Statens vegvesen
Varanger is an important crossroad in the bird world thank to its rich waters, marshes and wetlands, birch forests, river deltas and rock slopes that ensure food is available for migration, breeding and overwintering. As distances between the continents are shorter here at the top of the planet, it is visited by eastern, High Arctic and occasionally North American species, making it the most easily accessible site for Arctic birding. Water Birds One of the largest groups of migratory birds are ducks, geese, swans and loons. Of interest are the beautiful Steller’s eider which breeds in Eastern Siberia and Alaska but with thousands wintering in Varanger fjord; it has a black-and-white marking on an orange-white body. Colourful visitors like the harlequin duck, spectacled eider and king eider, with a round orange
protrusion above its beak, can be found in the waters around Vardø and Vadsø. Various geese species, including the striking black-and-white barnacle goose and the endangered lesser white-fronted goose are common during migration season. Rarer visitors like loons, Eurasian dotterel, red-throated diver and whooper swan can be found inland. Along river mouths and next to still waters, you can find waders like plovers, sandpipers, and rare cattle egrets, as well as ruffs, which feature an attractive feathery neck ruffle to woo females. Ruffs are possibly the only bird species to have males pose as females to dupe rivals to get ahead in the mating game. Seabirds dominate the spectacular cliffs, where large colonies of kittiwakes, puffins, razorbills, guillemots, cormorants, gulls, shearwaters and petrel can be spotted.
Songbirds Amidst the forest vegetation inland, small colourful songbirds such as the bluethroat, Arctic redpoll, pied flycatcher, red-throated pipit, shore lark and reed bunting can be spotted flitting about the trees. Birds of Prey Varanger’s large lemming population is a good source of food for birds of prey like the snowy owl, northern hawk owl, buzzards, gyrfalcons and the Pomerine skua. Numerous sea eagles, like the rare greater spotted eagle, tend to hunt out on the bird cliffs. While inland, the rare Egyptian vulture and little bustard can be found. Birdwatching Huts There are special hides for birdwatchers beside the Varanger Sami Museum, at Barvikmyra outside Vardø, and on Hornøya. These have been carefully designed to provide the best views without disturbing the birds, and to blend into the landscape.
One of the cutest bird species and a favourite of photographers is the puffin, which breed in large colonies on coastal cliffs and offshore islands. They are famous for their monotone plumage and iconic colourful beak which are shed after the breeding season to reveal a smaller, duller beak. These loveable clowns are fun to observe – while they’re adept at swimming and diving, their take-off and landing are a sight to behold. Puffins use their feet to run clumsily across the surface of the water before take-off, and when it comes to landing, they typically end in a belly-flop or a comedic tumble across the water’s surface. When puffins return from a fishing trip in the thousands, they look like swarms of not very aerodynamically-shaped birds frantically flapping their wings. There are 2 sites where one can observe puffins en masse: Gjesværstappan (near Varanger) and Lovund in the Helgeland archipelago. Both offer different birding experiences: birding safaris in Gjesværstappan are typically on boats, while at Lovund, there is a settlement at Lundeura with traditional Nordic houses. Gjesværstappan One of the biggest bird cliffs in Norway is Gjesværstappan, a group of high, steep-sided islands (known as Stappan) a 10-minute boat trip from the fishing village of Gjesvær.
The colony of puffins on Gjesværstappan numbers around 1 million birds – one of the largest populations in Northern Europe – which generally keep to the grassy hills on the island where they dig small holes to lay their eggs. In addition to puffins, you can also spot other seabirds like the northern gannet, kittiwakes, common guillemots and skuas. The storm petrels – so named as the tend to appear during rough weather at sea – nest there in the autumn and winter, while white-tailed eagles circle the skies constantly. There are several boat departures from Gjesvær every day in the nesting season. Look out over the waters, as seals, porpoises and dolphins can also be spotted on a trip out to the cliffs. Lovund Lovund is a beautiful coastal community of thousands of small, low islands in Helgeland, towered over by the 625m-high Lovundfjellet.
A path leads from Lundeura to the settlement – with its traditional Nordland-style houses – in about 15 minutes. The puffins in Lovund number around 30,000-40,000 individuals, and the sight of them returning to their breeding grounds is an incredible wildlife experience that attracts many spectators. The puffins return to the cliffs every 14th of April – the first day of summer – after having spent an entire winter in the Atlantic Ocean. Puffin breeding generally takes place in mid-April each year and they depart for another winter at sea by the end of August.
On the western side of Lovundfjellet is Lundeura, a gigantic slope known as “The Puffin scree” where puffins are safe from predators and breed in holes between the rocks.
Varager is accessible via one of the most famous scenic drives in Norway: the 160km-long National Tourist Route Varanger, following the coast towards the ice-cold Barents Sea between Varangerbotn and Hamningberg. Lovund is easily accessible by local high-speed ferry from Sandnessjøen, where there is an airport. The remote fishing village of Gjesvær is accessible via a stunning drive from Honningsvåg (34km) and is 21km off the Honningsvåg– Nordkapp road. For more on Northern Norway, visit www.nordnorge.com.
When it comes to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, it’s hard to beat walking into a gorilla den, and spending an hour in the presence of these magnificent creatures. Thanks to the effort and research by the late Dian Fossey, the plight of mountain gorillas has reached the world stage. These gentle, lumbering giants are now the poster children for tourism to Rwanda, home of some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas.
With a population of about 800 members scattered across Volcanoes National Park which extends into neighbouring Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – the DR Congo portion has sadly seen a lot human violence from which the gorillas have not escaped unscathed – visiting these gorillas requires an extensive trek through thick volcanic forest. Volcanoes National Park lies in the north of Rwanda, about 2 hours’ drive from the capital, Kigali. Most visitors spend the night at Kinigi, where a number of lodges – including luxury options with rates from US$700 per person – cater specifically to gorilla trekkers. Located at an altitude of over 1,500m, nighttime temperatures can dip pretty low, so most of these lodges feature rustic fireplaces. The briefing Briefing starts at 7am, along with tea/ coffee and a performance of traditional Rwandan dance, the Intore. Tracking
gorillas may take anything from 3 hours to a whole day depending on where they forage, and each hiking group is allowed to remain with the gorillas for up to 1 hour. Here, trekkers of all ages and abilities are segregated into groups of 8 hikers per guide, each assigned to one of 10 gorilla families which they are guaranteed to see. Sturdy wooden hiking poles are loaned to every hiker – these are beautifully carved with individual gorilla figurines. Each family of gorillas is unique; the Susa group has the most members at 33, while the Sabyinyo group – the easiest to find – is led by the park’s largest silverback, Guhonda who weighs 220kg. Then there’s the Amahoro group, which has 6 silverback males led by a gentle giant called Ubumwe.
THE AMAHORO TREK
Groups are then driven to their respective trailheads (each gorilla group inhabits a different mountain area) and the beginning
of the Amahoro trek traverses some farmland before entering National Park territory, where you’ll be accompanied by 2 armed guards to protect you from wild elephants and buffaloes (encounters are rare). The terrain consists of thick jungle, open grassland, shady bamboo groves, and just enough stinging nettle bushes that wearing long sleeves and pants do nothing for you. There are no real trails – most of the time, rangers would hack a jungle path with machetes. Sliding down hills of soft volcanic soil is also part of the fun. Porters can be hired at the trailhead (US$10) – in addition to pack-carrying, they help identify stinging plants which you’ll want to avoid. The meeting Each gorilla group has a team of dedicated trackers who spend much of their time in the presence of their charges, protecting them from potential poachers, and informing guides of their locations.
As gorillas love eating bamboos, it’s no surprise that they can be found in thick groves. The park guides will lead groups right into the heart of a gorilla den where you can spot gorillas of all ages everywhere you look. They may be grooming, sleeping, feeding, or simply playing around. All the gorilla groups in the park are semi-habituated to human company, making it safe for visitors to gawk at them as they rip and pick apart tough bamboo the way we eat chicken wings. While you can get close (the rule mandates a 7m distance, but it doesn’t mean that gorillas adhere to those rules), touching them is strictly prohibited. As you watch these gorillas closely, you’ll realise that we have a lot in common with
them; their facial expressions are animated, they even sulk when unhappy. Young males boast their strength by snapping tough bamboo stalks as easily as you’d snap a toothpick. Nothing quite prepares you for the sight of a drunk young male gorilla charging towards you from the bushes as he thumps his chest. When gorillas eat bamboo, they get into a drunken state. This is where the experienced trackers come in handy – informing hikers of the proper protocol and maintaining the safety of both hiker and beast. Gorillas are sometimes pranksters; there have been instances where gorillas have curiously touched human visitors, or let rip a huge bamboo-induced fart (they eat 30kg of food a day).
The term ‘silverback’ only applies to male gorillas by the time they reach the age of 13 when the hair on their backs turn white, hence the term. When you have a number of silverback males in a group, it’s inevitable that there would be a fight to be the top, or a fight to take a handful of females to form a separate group. This is how many of the gorilla groups have formed – with males separating from their former packs to form their own group of 10 or so apes. As each group is heavily monitored, newborn gorillas are celebrated annually at the park, during a ceremony called Kwita Izina (held in September) when they are given official names.
At times, you may find huge silverbacks charging at each other to assert dominance – it’s adrenaline-charged moments like these that make the encounter so special. No visitor has ever been harmed by gorillas in the 20+ years they’ve run this gorilla trekking programme. You won’t realise how much time goes by as you gawk at these gentle giants, until your guide informs you that the time limit is up.
You can trek with gorillas year round, although during the wet season the terrain becomes a series of muddy trails. A gorilla trekking permit (US$750per person) requires booking in advance, as only 80 hikers are allowed per day. At the end of your gorilla tracking experience, you’ll be given a certificate of completion indicating the gorilla group you visited. Gorilla trekking permits can be arranged via tour operators or directly with Rwanda Development Board. The fee goes towards building the infrastructure around the area, improving the livelihoods of locals and providing them with a more sustainable form of employment (many of the porters and rangers are ex-poachers).
Churchill, an isolated town on Manitoba’s northern Hudson Bay coastline, is a magnet for outdoor adventurers and nature lovers. Experiencing Churchill’s natural wonder triumvirate – swimming with belugas, shooting the Northern Lights and seeing polar bears spar – is also possible on the same trip, depending on the season (this place has a distinct winter, spring, summer and fall). No paved roads lead directly into the tiny, isolated town of Churchill, so you’ll have to arrive by train (2 days) or plane (2 hours) from Winnipeg, the nearest major city.
Best time to go: July-November Locking eyes with a polar bear in the wild will transform you, and Churchill is the most accessible place in the world to view them. Churchill is known as the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’ and the type of backdrop you wish to see polar bears against will dictate the time of year you go. If you dream of seeing polar bears in a snowy environ, head north in October to November. This is when Hudson Bay begins to freeze over and the polar bear party heats up. Dozens and dozens of bears congregate along the coastline, just outside of town limits, eager to socialise, spar with other bears, and get out on the ice to dine on seals. Wildlife enthusiasts view bears from the safety of massive tundra vehicles, while thrill-seekers can walk with bears at isolated tundra lodges.
If you shun cold weather, viewing polar bears in the summer will be more your comfort level. July and August is becoming more popular among travellers to see polar bears, but typically you have to head way far out of town if you want to see polar bears in great numbers. In summer, there are fewer opportunities to do so than in the fall. Operators like Lazy Bear Lodge’s Ultimate Summer Safari offer full-day jet boat tours up the Hudson Bay coast to infamous Hubbard Point, where multiple polar bears dip in the water to cool off or roll in the pink fireweed onshore. Churchill Wild offers summer polar bear viewings at two of their wilderness eco lodges. Around town, summer bears are often solitary and low-key—you may spot them snoozing in the rocks along the coast and living off the fat reserves they accumulated in winter from hunting seals on the ice.
TEXT BY Jillian Recksiedler PHOTOS Travel Manitoba
Best time to go: July-August Summer in Churchill welcomes droves of a white mammal. The western Hudson Bay population of beluga whales is estimated at 58,000, and thousands of those enter nearby the Churchill and Seal estuaries for feeding and breeding. Don a snorkel and wetsuit or drysuit, and float face down in cool sub-arctic waters. Soon, distant squeaks and whistles are heard, and then out of the depths a ghostly beluga whale brushes past or slows to check you out. Or jump in a kayak to paddle out towards Hudson Bay where pods of belugas may join your excursion. If it looks like a beluga whale is turning to look up at you from the water, you’re probably right – not only are belugas among the most vocal cetaceans, they are the only whales with a flexible neck. A number of outfitters offer beluga viewing day tours as well as snorkelling, kayaking or paddleboarding with the whales.
Best time to go: February-March Churchill is one of the best places on earth for viewing Aurora Borealis because of its location directly under the aurora oval. Mother Nature can perform any night of the year, but midwinter has the clearest skies to maximise your chances. It’ll be as if someone switched on fluorescent lights to illuminate the night sky with sheets of emerald green. You have many options for aurora viewing: get a 360-degree view under an aurora dome at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre; recline a chair in the customdesigned Aurora Pod; view from the observation deck of a warm Tundra Buggy on the frozen Churchill River; or visit a remote Churchill Wild eco lodge far from civilisation.
Best time to go: May-June Pack your binoculars and field guide. More than 250 species of Arctic birds and ducks nest or pass over the Churchill River estuary on the coast of Hudson Bay on their annual spring migration. Guided land tours from outfitters take birders to local haunts to catch glimpses of red-throated loons, arctic terns, eiders, sanderlings, plovers, long-tailed jaegers, snow geese and gulls – the most elusive on the list is the rare Ross’s gull. Depending on conditions, a boat tour on the water is a more adventurous way to look for birds, while dodging artful ice floes.