LetsBeWild.com http://www.letsbewild.com Fri, 29 Aug 2014 19:06:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 True Ground Beneath my Feet: Backpacking in the Florida Everglades http://www.letsbewild.com/adventure/backpacking-florida-everglades/ http://www.letsbewild.com/adventure/backpacking-florida-everglades/#comments Fri, 29 Aug 2014 01:58:52 +0000 http://www.letsbewild.com/?p=12987 y 11 year old Dodge Neon starts to vibrate as I hit 80 mph driving through the appropriately named “Alligator Alley,” keeping an eye out for both gators and Highway Patrol. The 86 mile long highway cuts clear across the state of Florida, nearly touching both coasts, and slices right through the heart of the […]

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My 11 year old Dodge Neon starts to vibrate as I hit 80 mph driving through the appropriately named “Alligator Alley,” keeping an eye out for both gators and Highway Patrol. The 86 mile long highway cuts clear across the state of Florida, nearly touching both coasts, and slices right through the heart of the Everglades. So far, I’ve spotted exactly 23 alligators and three speed traps.

I turned 25 yesterday. Several of my female coworkers talk about doing a “spa day” or going to Disney World for their birthdays, so I received a few raised eyebrows when I told them about my weekend plans to go backpacking with my boyfriend, Nicholas, through Collier Seminole State Park, a 7000 acre section of the Everglades with flooded Cypress forests, muddy mangrove swamps, and bushy pine flatland.

Concepts like “winter” don’t really register with most locals, so even though it’s a clear, calm January morning, I’m not too surprised to feel sunshine burning my arm through the open car window. Regardless, I take a moment to appreciate the fact that my birthday doesn’t fall during the summer months. July humidity has a way of enveloping me in a nearly tangible blanket, lingering on my skin and dulling all my senses, then lulling me into a relaxed state of lethargy. Summer is also the rainy season, which translates to swarms of mosquitoes and waist-deep swamp water flooding entire portions of the trails. While mosquitoes are a crucial component of the Everglades ecosystem, providing tasty fare for native fish and, in turn, a variety of birds such as heron, osprey, and spoonbills, we’re not necessarily interested in nourishing the bottom rung of the food chain. Today, the sky radiates a brilliant shade of blue, and the day looks promising.

I exit the highway and take a heading south when, after a while, the road is completely empty. Living on South Florida’s densely populated east coast, it’s hard to believe that just an hour away from the more than five and a half million people going about their lives in the Miami metropolitan area, there are places where you can still be totally alone, even if only briefly.

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While the park offers “full-facility” campsites, complete with with showers, electricity, and a “screened-in activity building,” we pull away from the ranger station in search of something a bit more rustic and isolated. Our trail of choice is a 6.5 mile loop with a primitive campsite nestled halfway through. In hindsight, we were lucky to be issued a permit. The site is only big enough to accommodate one small group and, fortunately for us, we were the first to arrive at the station that day. I backtrack to a dusty, unpaved side road that leads us to the trailhead. Nicholas and I scarf down left over pot roast sandwiches, then spend 15 minutes trying to attach his ancient, ten pound tripod to the bottom of his Jansport backpack. My external frame saves the day, and he agrees to carry an extra gallon of drinking water so that I can add his bulky, awkward equipment to my load. Although one-third of Floridians rely on the Everglades as a water source, the swamp itself doesn’t look too appetizing. Since we’re only doing an overnight, we’ll get by without filtering our water directly from the marshland, and instead opt to carry in everything we need.

Taking one last glance at the car before embarking for the trailhead, I can feel my body decompressing as it leaves behind the 9-5 shuffle of my sedentary office job with its fluorescent lighting, daily meetings, and rush hour traffic. I turn away from the hours lost to social networking, TV shows, and other simple distractions, and I’m overwhelmed with the feeling of imminent escape. A recognizable soreness starts to circulate through my shoulders and legs, as my muscles strain to warm up and acclimate to the weight of my bag. Sunshine pours out of the sky onto every surface, making the grasses sharp and brittle. On shadier sections of the trail, the path is flooded with ankle-deep water, and I feel my boots sink into the muddy earth as we create make-shift bridges with fallen branches and palm fronds, attempting to navigate our way across. I’m encompassed with a sense of purpose as I work through the trail, stumbling to find true ground beneath my feet, re-centering myself and my thoughts. Along the way, we find evidence of some of other visitors passing through the park: eagle nests, black bear droppings, and raccoon tracks. The Everglades is the largest sub-tropical wetland ecosystem in North America, and with over 350 kinds of birds and 27 different species of snakes, for instance, there are thousands of animals call this place home. Nicholas is not one to fill spaces with meaningless words, so we hike much of the trail in comfortable silence. Eventually, we find our way to the campsite.

backcountry-moonriseThings start to slow down, and I’m filled with a familiar sense of comfort in the routine of setting up camp. Nicholas and I automatically fall into our respective roles. He gathers fallen branches and logs for an evening fire, while I search for the smoothest ground and assemble our tiny Eureka Solitaire tent which, as the name suggests, is meant to sleep one person. Tonight will be cooler, and the close sleeping arrangement will keep us warm.

There are certain moments on every trail that resonate within me, but the spaces that inevitably weave their way deepest into my psyche and echo loudest in my thoughts, even months later, are the ones like right now. The heat of the afternoon wanes. Pale blue skies fade into the soft hues of dusk, and create a two-dimensional silhouette of pine trees in the distance. Fireflies, in search of a mate, create tiny bursts of light as they dance around our campsite. We brew steaming cups of tea and, with a quiet sense of fulfillment, letting the warmth radiate through my body, I turn my attention to Nicholas, who has decided to start the fire.

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I allow myself to become immersed in the process, watching him fret over the fire as if it were a mercurial child. With deliberate, focused movements, he instills the first embers with life and nurses them with the smallest sticks and twigs. I watch him build the flames up, rewarding them with more fuel and energy as they get stronger. He guides and shapes their growth, redirects them when they stray too far from home, and works to ensure they remain well-fed. This dance will last from the earliest signs of dusk until, exhausted and ready for sleep, he allows the white hot glow to flicker erratically and eventually expire. The remaining logs, gray with ash and decay, he smothers with dirt and water.

The magic has passed, and my sunburned shoulders, sore legs, and heavy eyelids collectively sigh with relief as I awkwardly clamber into the tiny tent and collapse on top of a sleeping bag. Nicholas crawls in after and, in the darkness, we’re surrounded by the music of crickets, frogs, and mosquitoes. I fall asleep almost immediately, my brain halfheartedly recalling the events of the day, with images of the Everglades’ unpretentious and subtle beauty.

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White Wilderness: Exploring the Frozen World of Nunavut http://www.letsbewild.com/adventure/pond-inlet-arctic-floe-edge-trip/ http://www.letsbewild.com/adventure/pond-inlet-arctic-floe-edge-trip/#comments Tue, 22 Jul 2014 10:27:05 +0000 http://www.letsbewild.com/?p=13025 A life-changing adventure on the ice, high in the Canadian Arctic in Nunavut.

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My wakeup call at the Hilton Garden Inn near the Ottawa Airport is scheduled for 5AM and the glowing red eyes of the alarm clock seem to taunt me as they blink the current time — 3AM. After nine agonizingly uncomfortable hours spent sitting in airport concourses and strapped into airplane seats, I’m finally in bed. Though it’s a king size bed, I find myself on top of the covers and courting the edge, afraid to get too comfortable, lest I oversleep and somehow miss waking up for what has been shaping up to be one of the most memorable trips of my lifetime.

I needn’t have worried. At 4:30AM I roll out of bed and blink my bloodshot eyes, knowing that more sleep just isn’t in the cards. I open the curtains and watch from my fifth floor window as the first colors of a vibrant dawn begin to creep over the horizon, illuminating a layer of fog clinging to the trees with a golden glow. As I head downstairs to the hotel lobby, I realize that this is the last sunrise I will see for nearly a week. Just one month after returning to Florida from the lush tropical rainforest of Costa Rica, I’m in Canada along with nine other journalists and photographers on a trip organized by Canada Goose to venture into a world of midnight sun at the top of the Earth. Our destination is Pond Inlet on the northern end of Baffin Island, north of the Arctic Circle, north of the tree line, north of any roads connecting to the outside world, north of everything familiar.

With an even split of men and women, half of us travel writers and the other half fashion writers, we make for a peculiar blend, but the laughs come easily and the group is strangely cohesive. With one journalist from Korea, two from England, one from Germany, one from Denmark, one from France, two from Canada, and two – including myself – from the US, we’re certainly a diverse collection, and though we’re headed to an area technically within the borders of Canada, it’s a place so physically distant and with a culture so unique that it seems thoroughly foreign.

Coffees are hastily poured and consumed in the hotel lobby and we’re soon piling into shuttles to the airport. Early morning in Ottawa’s airport means that the lines are short and our bags are quickly checked in at the First Air counter and we’re through security in a flash. As we walk out onto the tarmac to meet our plane, we’re given the first evidence that we’ll soon be in a very different place. Though this leg of our trip is on a Boeing 737, we’re ushered up the passenger stairs and into the rear of the plane. The front half of the plane is reserved for cargo, a necessity in the far north with its absence of roads, where planes serve as the best – and often only – method of transportation for food and supplies. Though the seating is limited, the service is not, and for the next three hours I find myself being continually shocked as the flight attendants bring forth steaming hand towels, a delicious breakfast, and warm cookies. If First Air, an airline completely owned by the Inuit of Northern Quebec, were to take up operations in the US they would make a killing with this service – the last decent meal I got on a US based airline that I didn’t have to produce a credit card to get happened nearly 15 years ago.

As we fly northeast, over Quebec and Le Fleuve Saint-Laurent, I watch as the roads criss-crossing the land become fewer and fewer until all traces of human-existence beyond the shadow cast by our plane on the clouds disappear behind us. Thick forests dotted with hundreds of lakes give way to bare rock and tundra as we leave the treeline behind. As I sip a cup of hot tea, I watch from the window as the grey rock far beneath us begins to slowly turn white as we fly onwards, painted by the icy brush of the North. Soon the entire landscape has vanished beneath the ice and snow and it’s difficult to tell the ground from the clouds.

We begin our descent into Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital and most populous city with just under 7,000 residents. Though Iqaluit lies to the south of the Arctic Circle near the southern end of Baffin Island, the climate is decidedly Arctic, and a chilly wind bites into my face and numbs my fingers as I step out of the warm plane into a light, misting rain that undoubtedly began its journey from the sky as snow. Our time in Iqaluit is brief, but I have enough time to wander the cold streets near the airport, taking in the sights and watching as my breath forms clouds that linger in the air and drift slowly away in the icy wind that gusts between buildings. Sled dogs tethered along a stream just a few hundred meters from the airport yelp and bark and howl and I beat a hasty retreat as I see an especially large dog headed my way, broken chain in tow.

We’re soon boarding a plane again, this time a much smaller one – an ATR 42 turboprop, the sort of plane you’d expect to be on when you’re headed into the wild…and for those with a fear of flying, the sort of plane that makes knuckles go white. Luckily, I love to fly and the chance to spend time in a plane like this is a rare treat enjoyed only when flying to remote destinations. Yet again, the aircraft is divided in half, with the forward section of the cabin filled with cargo. Our group of 12 fills much of the passenger seating and we’re able to sit where we’d like. I quickly lay claim to a window seat, where I know I’ll spend much of the flight peering out at whatever scenery manages to appear through the clouds.

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I feel the engines gain power and we’re quickly airborne, rumbling into the sky as we fly over startlingly green rivers that snake their way through the rock. After a little over an hour in the air and we’re scheduled to land in Clyde River, a tiny dot on the map halfway to our final destination with a gravel airstrip that links it to the outside world. The plane shudders as the landing gear descends and I struggle to see anything from the window as a dense fog seems to grip the plane tightly with its grey hands. The runway is barely visible below, and the movements of the aircraft provide a link to the pilot’s mind as he banks the plane in a slow circle around the airstrip, considering his options, before deciding that a landing would be ill advised and climbing back into the sky.

“No Clyde River today,” our solitary flight attendant Alfredo informs the handful of passengers who were headed there. He tells us that they might get to Clyde River tomorrow….or maybe next week. In this land where weather is the timekeeper, schedules are merely hopeful suggestions, and the impatient traveler is quickly reminded that mother nature calls the shots here.

For our group that’s headed to Pond Inlet, this deviation means we’ll arrive even sooner, a fact that none of us is complaining about, but we keep our excitement in check, just in case the Arctic fates decide to put us in our place as well. Hundreds of blindingly white miles vanish behind us in a blur as we race above the clouds gripping Baffin Island. As we near Pond Inlet, a town north of the most northerly point in Alaska, towering mountain peaks rise into the firmament and the clouds begin to part as if they had anticipated our arrival. We glide through the sunlight and crystal-clear air and, with the slightest of bumps we’re on the ground, rolling down a dusty, unpaved airstrip and taxiing toward the airport – a one-room building with a small waiting area, posters on the wall, and a case of Inuit handicrafts.

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We pile out of the airport like jubilant puppies, baggage in hand and eager to explore our new surroundings. Although the sun is high in the sky, it’s Monday evening, and our twelve-strong group is here in the Arctic until Thursday morning. In a few hours, we’ll be heading to an event where Canada Goose, in collaboration with First Air, has coordinated a shipment of sewing materials like fabric, zippers, buttons, and other supplies that will be given to members of the community at no cost. Since 2010, these resource center events held in isolated towns across the North have been held periodically to help give something back to the communities and to assist in keeping local culture and sewing traditions alive. The next morning, we’ll be headed out onto the ice for some Arctic exploration with Black Feather, a legendary wilderness tour company that will be taking us far out onto the ice where we’ll make camp along the floe edge, keeping watch for some of the incredible animals that call the ice home.

Outside the airport we meet Steve and Conor, our Black Feather guides who help everyone toss their luggage into the back of a truck. We hop aboard as well, straddling suitcases and gear for a short, bumpy ride to our hotel. The Sauniq Hotel reminds me of the “portables” from my childhood, those prefabricated mobile buildings converted into classrooms to deal with growing school populations. With no roads connecting towns on the massive landmass of Baffin Island, everything in sight has been either flown in or brought on ships, which are able to reach Pond Inlet during a brief window of time each year when the thick armor of ice which covers the sea and fills Eclipse Sound melts. Raised on metal stilts that shade a layer of ice fighting against the warming summer air, the hotel is modest in its looks, but with a knowledge of what goes into getting a building constructed in this harsh environment, it’s impressive that this town of nearly 1500 is as large as it is.

With our boots removed at the door, we’re soon checked in by Rita, the Sauniq’s manager. In this part of the world that sees fewer than 1,500 visitors a year (many of them in town for only a few hours when ships visit the harbor), our group of 12 is a big one and many of us find ourselves placed into the overflow hotel behind the dining room. I’ll be sharing a room with Kevin, Canada Goose’s Senior VP of Marketing, a former photojournalist whose love of the North is infectious. With our bags hastily deposited in the room and my camera battery charger topping off one of my 4 backup batteries (can you ever be too prepared?), we beat a quick path back into the daylight outside for a few minutes of exploration before the resource center event gets underway.

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It’s soon time for the resource center event and while I’m expecting to see a good turnout, it seems that half of Pond Inlet has turned up and is waiting patiently to be let inside. We slip in ahead of the crowd and Kevin and Carrie, Canada Goose’s VP of Corporate Communications survey the room, making sure everything is set up properly. Tables piled high with colorful fabric, zippers, buttons, and velcro form a large U shape that would surely tempt me if I lived in the Arctic and wanted — or knew how — to make a winter coat. With the cost of everything here in the north multiplied by often more than four times a typical southern price, this initiative by Canada Goose and First Air clearly resonates with the community. The doors are opened and hundreds of Pond Inlet residents stream in. As the crowd swirls around me, eagerly collecting the ingredients for their perfect winter-wear, I’m struck by the warmth and depth of personality of everyone I meet.

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The fabric is quickly dispensed and after a surprisingly hearty meal cooked by Rita back at the Sauniq Hotel, we venture yet again into the sunlight. As our group walks in the crisp Arctic air through the streets of Pond Inlet heading downhill toward the ice of Eclipse Sound, it’s tough to come to terms with the staggering beauty of my surroundings. To the west of town, an iceberg looms above the ice, its vast mass trapped by the frozen sea. To the north lies Bylot Island, part of the remote wilderness of Sirmilik National Park — its mountains and glaciers rising above the sound. To the west and south, the mountains and hills of Baffin Island tower in all directions. It’s like no place on Earth that I’ve ever been and I’m lost in thought as I walk down to the ice. With hesitation, I place my feet into the footfalls of the person in front of me – as a Floridian with no Godlike powers, my experience with oceans is limited to floating on them and diving beneath them. Walking on them is a new experience, but I quickly gain my ice legs with some reassurance that I’m at least a meter above the frigid water.

Cracks and crevasses line the ice like the sticky tendrils of an orb spider’s silken web, beautiful – but deadly. Like a V, the cracks widen as they near the surface, a dark onyx softening to a rich tannic brown. A wide, insurmountable crack marks the end-point of our short exploration, extending as far as I’m able to see into the distance, perhaps all the way to Bylot Island. More than two meters in width, its icy walls vanish into the obsidian depths while the evening sun sparkles playfully on the languid surface.

Camera in hand, I snap frame after frame of this mesmerizing scene, and I’m the last to leave the ice. I clamber up the rocky slope, and pause to talk with a young Inuk man that I meet while crossing over oil pipelines which snake their way around the town. Daniel tells me that he’s lived in Pond Inlet for his entire 17 year life and that he’s looking forward to going out onto the ice the following day on a hunting trip. I ask him what he hopes to get, and in the most soft-spoken of voices that I soon learn is the way nearly all Inuit speak, he tells me simply, “Whale.”

Though most teenagers the world-over are eager to leave their home town, Daniel tells me that he never wants to move away. While the town is small and the cost of living incredibly high, as I stand next to him gazing out over the glimmering Arctic sea ice, it’s easy to understand his deep love of this land.

Returning to the hotel, we meet up with our Black Feather guides Steve and Conor for a briefing on what we should know for our trip to the floe edge. Conor points to a spot on the map that’s far out at sea – our final destination right at the edge of the ice. Hats and gloves and large, waterproof boots are dispersed and we’re told what the plan is if we encounter a polar bear or fall through the ice.

Meeting adjourned, I venture out on my own into the night, illuminated not by a sliver of moon dangling from an inky sky, but by the sun — a fact that as a southerner, I simply can’t get used to.

Whirling round a sleepless sky, the sun is a welcome friend to the photographer, and I make my way to the river which flows through the center of town, shooting some long exposures before my fingers grow numb in the chilly air. Though I began my walk alone, I’m soon joined by Ken, a Black Feather guide who flew in from Iqaluit with us and will be guiding a trip departing the day after ours returns. An avalanche professional and expedition guide, Ken makes for a great walking partner – like most outdoorsman that I know, he’s comfortable exploring without loud chatter, a fact that suits me just fine and melds here in the North among a culture where silence is something of a virtue. We walk to the outskirts of town and scramble down a rocky slope to the beach and out onto the ice, closer to the massive iceberg.

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Though it won’t set until August, the sun ventures toward the mountaintops, casting a golden glow on everything and giving even the cold, blue ice a warm blush of color. We photographers call this the golden hour, but unlike in the south where the sun retreats as swiftly as it arrives, the magical light never ceases. The silence out here is pristine, broken only by the occasional yelp of a sled dog tethered on the ice and by the distant whine of ski-doos motoring off on hunting trips. It’s nearly 1AM when we make it back to the hotel, and although I want to spend all night under the midnight sun, sleep is an unfortunate necessity that can only be put off for so long. Daylight streams through cracks in the curtains, but a deep slumber greets me in moments.

I add nearly 5 hours to my reservoir of sleep, hoping that will be enough to sustain me for the next day and night. Under a bright sun the following morning, I’m clad in a heavy assortment of clothing that makes my movements duck-like as I waddle across the slippery ice and climb aboard the qamutik I’ll be riding in along with Martin, a journalist from the Times in London and Guillaume, his photographer for the trip. Made entirely of wood, I’m trusting myself to the ancient knowledge of the Inuit, who have been constructing sleds without the use of nails or screws for centuries. With that in mind I realize that I’m in good hands, and with a rumble the Ski-Doos fire up and the tow rope grows taught and then, with a lurch we’re off, accelerating to the northeast over the ice. Racing across the white expanse of Eclipse Sound, the wind lashes out at our cheeks and I bury my face deeper into my scarf and snuggle into the bulk of my Resolute Parka as I struggle to keep my camera steady as the qamutik lurches and sways over the bumps and cracks in the ice. We go airborne for a moment, jolting back down and then back up again as the sled jumps over snow-piles.

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While the ice beneath us is frozen solid, the snow that accumulates during the winter has begun to melt, forming pools of aquamarine that we glide through, throwing up a wake behind us. As we fly over these enchanting puddles, the thin layer of ice that forms on the surface of the meltwater crackles and pops under our weight. Snow-draped mountains draw nearer and the scenery is so heart-achingly beautiful that I blink away tears, driven as much by the biting Arctic wind as by the stark beauty of such otherworldly intensity that I’m surrounded by.

The dark bodies of seals vanish beneath ice as our qamutiks draw near, and for 65 kilometers we continue onward through this overwhelming landscape. We zig-zag along, hugging the edge of wide cracks filled with dark, eerily still water until our guides find a spot they somehow know to be suitable and we miraculously cross over to the solid ice on the other side.

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Our camp grows on the horizon as we draw nearer, finally coming to a rest next to a row of orange and yellow tents, set up before our arrival. The floe edge is a hundred meters from camp, and we hurry to the edge, looking out over the placid sea in the direction of Greenland, invisible behind the horizon. Steve lowers a hydrophone over the edge and into the gelid gloom and we listen with fascination at the sounds of the deep. Though the water is still and the air silent as lines of white pack ice drift slowly across the surface like apparitions, the chorus beneath us could easily be a recording from the rainforest. Whistles, clicks, and chirps drift up from the depths and I feel incredibly lucky and so at peace.

Seabirds fly low over the water, following the line of the floe edge. Thick-billed Murres, peculiar birds which resemble penguins in flight, race back and forth in vast numbers. King and common eider ducks seem to be in less of a rush and they glide by at a more leisurely pace. Soon dark shapes breach the surface – narwhal! It begins with one, drifting lazily along like a log caught in a gentle current, but soon we’re seeing dozens of them, the ultimate reward after hours spent in the qamutik.

An animal about which relatively little is known about its life and behavior, these two ton mammals dwell in a world far beyond our reach, diving to depths of sometimes more than a mile in search of halibut, cod, shrimp, and squid. To see single narwhal in the distance would have been an exhilarating experience, but this….this is something else entirely.

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The afternoon is spent in a state of wonder, and in the early evening we’re setting off again toward distant icebergs, where we’ll chip away enough ice to melt into water for drinking, cooking, and hand-washing during the rest of our time on the ice. We make it perhaps a kilometer before we come to an abrupt halt in our qamutiks near the floe edge. More narwhal, dozens and dozens of them scattered across the ocean’s surface as far as I can see, their long tusks rising from the water as they surface from their journey into the crushing blackness to the ocean floor. For nearly an hour we linger with these narwhal as they swim within a dozen meters of where we’re standing.

All of my senses are enveloped by this land of unsurpassed beauty as I stand beneath the glistening walls of a ten-thousand year old iceberg. I chew an icicle and savor this ancient water and back in camp I relax in the lounge tent as Conor and Steve prepare a gourmet meal for us.

In this Hyperborean realm of perpetual sunlight, I marvel at the sheer wonder that our group of ten guests, two of whom have never even camped before, is able to enjoy what amounts to nothing short of luxury. Thousands of miles from home, even for the native Canadians among us, we’re camped hours from the nearest town but so close to the floe edge that we can hear the narwhal breathing as they rest before plunging into the stygian depths beneath the ice that we stand on – ice that will have vanished under the relentless light of the sun by July. At this moment, far beyond the reach of cell phone signals and in a place where technology is all but useless, I find myself in heaven.

 

 


FirstAirFlights to Pond Inlet (YIA) on First Air depart Ottawa (YOW) once daily at 9:15AM, Monday through Saturday. There are two stops along the way, and the final arrival time is 5:40PM.

 

 

 

SauniqThe Sauniq Hotel has 20 double occupancy rooms available for $250 per person with private bathrooms, hot water, and cable TV. The airport is a five minute walk from the hotel and complimentary airport shuttle service is available. Wireless internet is accessible in the hotel, but connections speeds in the North are limited. Excellent food including made-to-order breakfasts and buffet style dinners with dessert, fresh fruit and an assortment of juices is available in the dining room for an additional cost.

 

BlackFeatherBlack Feather offers several scheduled trips into the icy wilderness around Pond Inlet from May through August. Skiing expeditions, kayaking trips, and adventures to the floe edge by qamutik offer a great opportunity for exploration and a chance to see rare the rare wildlife found around Baffin Island and along the line of life. For groups of four or more, custom itineraries can be created to suit your interests.

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Madagascar: A Coast to Coast Expedition http://www.letsbewild.com/coast-to-coast-madagascar-expedition/ http://www.letsbewild.com/coast-to-coast-madagascar-expedition/#comments Fri, 18 Jul 2014 15:44:54 +0000 http://www.letsbewild.com/?p=2319 adagascar. The word itself is tinged with excitement. It stirs half formed childhood memories of adventure – jungles, snakes, vast baobabs and curious lemurs. But there is more to the island than a cartoon-like vision of tropical wilderness; it is also becoming a paradise lost. With estimates suggesting that over ninety per cent of the […]

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Madagascar. The word itself is tinged with excitement. It stirs half formed childhood memories of adventure – jungles, snakes, vast baobabs and curious lemurs. But there is more to the island than a cartoon-like vision of tropical wilderness; it is also becoming a paradise lost.
With estimates suggesting that over ninety per cent of the original rainforests having been chopped down by decades of unsustainable slash and burn farming, Madagascar is an island in peril of becoming little more than a desolate reminder of human interference in the natural world.

Endless brown and red hills poke out above the low-lying mist as we fly into Antananarivo after a crossing from the African mainland. Snake-like rivers- also brown- weave in between the treeless landscape. Only the rising smoke of village fires and dusty roads break the mesmerizing undulation.

Flying over the barren hillsides of the central highlands certainly gives an impression that all may already be lost – that it is too late – and I am a little disappointed before even beginning my journey.

I had been planning to visit Madagascar for the best part of a year, poring over ancient French army maps dating back to 1962 – the only ones available for the expedition of a lifetime.

Adventure Travel: Madagascar - A Coast to Coast Expedition by Levison Wood
The plan is simple – to be a part of the world’s first group to walk across the northern part of the island from east to west, entirely on foot, a distance of almost 400 km, in the seemingly impossible timeframe of three weeks. It seems a daunting task. And all this in the company of strangers. The team is introduced in the lush surroundings of the Au Bois Vert Hotel, a luxury oasis of green amid the hustle of chaotic, dusty Antananarivo, the only capital city I have seen with a swamp in the town centre.

Adventure Travel: Madagascar - A Coast to Coast Expedition by Levison Wood“This is actually my first time trekking,” says Mohamed with a nervous smile. The group looks at the 36 year old Egyptian with some surprise.

Amar, an Australian of Indian descent, shakes his head and chuckles. “You do know this will be the hardest thing you will ever do, don’t you?” I later learn that he is a seasoned adventurer, who, armed with every kind of GPS gadget available to the modern explorer, has conquered mountains on almost every continent.

Each of the other eleven team members have their own stories to tell. Ranging from Helen, the English veterinary surgeon and Kate, a major in the British Army with active service in Iraq under her belt, both formidable women it appeared, to Xavier, a French Canadian financier-cum-carpenter who, although a great skier had certainly never been to the jungle before, and Julia, a businesswoman from Silicon Valley with a taste for Africa. So it is a truly international affair, but accents and experience aside, one thing binds the group of perfect strangers together – a desire to see Madagascar before it changes forever.
Sambava is a small provincial town on the north east coast of the island. Smiling stall vendors sell coconuts and the honking horns of the capital are but a distant memory. Swaying palms line the white-sand beach where a turquoise sea washes giant shells onto the idyllic shore.
Our team, high on adrenaline at the prospect of the upcoming adventure set off along a rough track away from the town. It was beautiful and serene, surrounded by paddy fields, a cultural inheritance of South East Asia, where the Malagasy originally came from 2000 years ago. The wide Bemarivo river meandered from a valley to the west, and beyond the sunburnt hills was what we had come for – the receding rainforest.

Adventure Travel: Madagascar - A Coast to Coast Expedition by Levison Wood Adventure Travel: Madagascar - A Coast to Coast Expedition by Levison Wood Adventure Travel: Madagascar - A Coast to Coast Expedition by Levison Wood

Days pass by as we trek west. We camp in rural villages – usually on patchy football fields where, night after night, hundreds of curious children and adults alike surround us, amazed at the presence of a ‘Vaza’, a white ghost – the Malagasy term for westerners. They haven’t seen many before. In fact, in this part of Madagascar, away from the tourist trail in the south, the last foreigners that have entered the foothills of the Tsaratanana were the French army in the late 1940s and occasional mineral prospectors in the 1970s. Testament to this lies in the fact that in one such stilted encampment, a wooden shack is adorned with a hand painted mural of images of white men with Elvis-like haircuts and leather jackets propositioning local women. On another house nearby is a picture of Rambo, aggressively donning a bandolier of ammunition, copied meticulously from a magazine that has somehow made its way from the coast.

Adventure Travel: Madagascar - A Coast to Coast Expedition by Levison WoodAs the settlements grow less and less, the Jungle grows closer. A high wall of black vegetation looms ever closer in the shape of an impenetrable mountain range. “It looks like bloody Mordor” says Jim, our cameraman, here to document the expedition for a conservation project. It does indeed. With five AM starts and twelve hour slogs, up and down grassy hillocks, crossing several rivers a day and the only prospect of rest, a forty five minute lunch break where we are fed rice and locally caught eel by our team of hard-as-nails barefoot porters, the trip is beginning to resemble a Tolkien-esque odyssey rather than a walking holiday. And the hardest part is yet to come.

Adventure Travel: Madagascar - A Coast to Coast Expedition by Levison Wood Adventure Travel: Madagascar - A Coast to Coast Expedition by Levison Wood Adventure Travel: Madagascar - A Coast to Coast Expedition by Levison Wood Adventure Travel: Madagascar - A Coast to Coast Expedition by Levison Wood

On the seventh day of the trek the rainforest finally surrounds us. It has receded a full twenty kilometers since 1962 – the last time the region was properly mapped, before Google Earth of course. Despite its foreboding appearance it comes as a relief to be amongst the trees. This is what we had come to see, the Madagascar of our childhood – of cartoons and dreamy adventures. There are no people here. The tracks disappear and off we go, hacking and traipsing our way through primary vegetation in this, one of the last remaining pieces of true forest on the island. For the next week the group is entirely encased in green vines, hairy bamboo and wet ferns. Leeches dangle from branches and stand erect on rocks waiting in ambush. We button up and roll down our sleeves in a vain bid to fend off the parasites but they somehow still manage to burrow their way into our armpits and groins. The porters, wearing only Y-fronts clearly have a better idea. Let the leeches come and pull them off as soon as they make their assault.

Adventure Travel: Madagascar - A Coast to Coast Expedition by Levison Wood
At exactly the half way point of the journey, after almost two hundred kilometers of uphill slogging, we reach the summit of Maromokotro, Madagascar’s highest mountain. It isn’t technical or even that high by international standards at only 2,876 meters, but its position on a barren plateau, reminiscent of the Scottish highlands, is a world away from the claustrophobic confines of the jungle. At the top, a strange ceremony unfolds before our eyes.

Our Malagasy guides, suspicious of the mountain and bound by local tradition, are armed with a beady-eyed white cockerel, apparently to ward off evil spirits. As Amar proudly displays his GPS coordinates, Xavier hands around a hipflask of whisky, Jim films the momentous occasion and I dish out the celebratory cigars. Noah, our smiling interpreter suddenly breaks out into song – the Madagascar national anthem. At the end of the solemn performance he hands me the alarmed chicken and insists I throw it into the air as a sacrifice to the divinities of the hill. The poor cock, unused to such freedom, flaps around in the air for a brief second, before landing softly on someone’s rucksack and then scuttling off into the mist.
“The hawks will have him,” grins Noah, happy that his spiritual duty is fulfilled.

Adventure Travel: Madagascar - A Coast to Coast Expedition by Levison Wood Adventure Travel: Madagascar - A Coast to Coast Expedition by Levison Wood

We set off ever westward. “It’s all downhill from here” says Noah wickedly. We shake our heads knowing full well that for every downhill there is an up, and another jungle to hack through before we hit the home run. Another week of trekking is in store; we finally see elusive Lemurs staring curiously down from their canopy hideaways and screeching to each other that intruders are in town. At least Jim has some wildlife footage for his conservation film. Marshes require superhuman leg strength and there are more fast-flowing rivers to swim across, let alone the constant irritation from blood sucking leeches and fist sized spiders.


As the coast comes into view and villages spring out of the cultivated valleys the jungle is at once a hazy memory. All eyes are set on our goal- to reach the port of Ankify and make history. The final day is a true test of endurance: ninety-three kilometres along a dirt track in eighteen hours. The team is pushed harder than we have ever been pushed before, yet despite the agony of swollen feet and immense blisters we reach the west coast at nine pm, eighteen days after we set off. It is already dark and all we can think about is the promise of a bed in a comfy hotel in the beach resort of Nosy Be.

But somewhere behind us lies the jungle, not much of it, but what is left remains in our memory as a dark and wonderful place. I feel an incredible sense of privilege at having been there- the last of the island’s wilderness. I feel a sadness that it is disappearing so quickly, but at the same time there is hope. Noah sums it up well, “Maybe if we can encourage tourism in this magical place there will be less need to destroy what cannot be replaced.”

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Scottish Winter Climbing: Dorsal Arete, Stob Coire nan Lochan, Glen Coe http://www.letsbewild.com/wild-world/scotland-winter-climbing-dorsal-arete-glen-coe/ http://www.letsbewild.com/wild-world/scotland-winter-climbing-dorsal-arete-glen-coe/#comments Tue, 08 Jul 2014 18:14:26 +0000 http://www.letsbewild.com/?p=4394 ollectively, the highest hills in Scotland are called Munros (named after the man who first catalogued them, Sir Hugh Munro). To be classified as a Munro, a hill must have an independent summit over 3,000ft high. Naturally, this doesn’t cover all Scotland’s hills and there are 227 additional ‘tops’ (hills over 3,000ft that are attached […]

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Collectively, the highest hills in Scotland are called Munros (named after the man who first catalogued them, Sir Hugh Munro). To be classified as a Munro, a hill must have an independent summit over 3,000ft high. Naturally, this doesn’t cover all Scotland’s hills and there are 227 additional ‘tops’ (hills over 3,000ft that are attached to Munros but share the same summit), 221 Corbetts (hills between 2,500ft and 2,999ft), 224 Grahams (hills between 2,000ft and 2,499ft) and hundreds of others.

To walk to the summit of all of Scotland’s hills would take most folks a lifetime. Some people choose to climb them instead, seeking out routes that require technical skills and ironmongery to ascend. Dorsal Arete is one such route. A 120m grade II winter climb in Glen Coe on the west coast of Scotland, it ascends a ridge that separates two large buttresses on Stob Coire nan Lochan, a crag usually passed with little interest from hillwalkers on their way to the Munro, Bidean nam Bian. Coire nan Lochan is home to a variety of easy and difficult climbs. Dorsal Arete is at the easy end of the scale and is a popular route for novice Scottish winter climbers. It is good fun in a great setting.

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Danger Approaches http://www.letsbewild.com/potd/south-dakota-lightning/ http://www.letsbewild.com/potd/south-dakota-lightning/#comments Thu, 19 Jun 2014 10:00:51 +0000 http://www.letsbewild.com/?p=12745 Photograph by Jason Heritage After leaving Badlands National Park on July 23, 2012, we headed west to explore Mount Rushmore National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. Little did we know we were heading into a forest fire that was raging out of control. Wind Cave was shut down and we had no place to […]

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Photograph by Jason Heritage
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After leaving Badlands National Park on July 23, 2012, we headed west to explore Mount Rushmore National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. Little did we know we were heading into a forest fire that was raging out of control. Wind Cave was shut down and we had no place to stay for the night. We were forced to divert to our back up plan — KOA — and fortunately for us, Hot Springs KOA was only a short ride away. Shortly after arriving we heard the early signs of a storm brewing just to our south. Having decent cell service, we checked for approaching weather and saw that this was a particularly strong and fast moving storm. Despite the rapidly approaching danger, we fool-heartedly decided to get a better vantage point of our peril.

What we witnessed was absolutely amazing! The setting sun’s rays were shooting over the mountain ridge to our west and striking just beneath the clouds, illuminating the sheets of rain as they fell. The orange glow of the rain was complimented with intense white lightning strikes that pulsated repeatedly. “This is awesome,” I thought. The storms electric intensity increased my chances of landing a shot of lighting!

As I was lining up for a shot, it dawned on me that I didn’t have my tripod. “Rookie mistake,” I thought. I had to improvise quickly before the storm hit. By slowing down my shutter speed to 1/40th sec and holding my breath, I was able to acquire the photo of lightning you see above. I was so enthralled with my shot that I barely made it to safety before the storm struck and nearly ripped our tents out of the ground.

Camera: Nikon D7000

Lens: NIKKOR AF-S 18-105mm 3.5-5.6G ED

Settings: ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/40th

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Sagarmatha http://www.letsbewild.com/potd/mount-everest-viewed-from-tibet/ http://www.letsbewild.com/potd/mount-everest-viewed-from-tibet/#comments Wed, 18 Jun 2014 10:00:00 +0000 http://www.letsbewild.com/?p=12715 Photograph by Alex Sharp I had flown into Tibet from Nepal, as I had been told that the view of Mt Everest in Tibet was far superior to the Nepalese view. I organised the travel visa, which is a must now due to the Chinese situation, and traveled into Everest National Park and trekked the last section. The […]

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Photograph by Alex Sharp
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I had flown into Tibet from Nepal, as I had been told that the view of Mt Everest in Tibet was far superior to the Nepalese view.

I organised the travel visa, which is a must now due to the Chinese situation, and traveled into Everest National Park and trekked the last section. The altitude sickness got to me and I felt drunk or drugged; it was a very unpleasant feeling and one that I didn’t experience on my previous trip on the Nepalese side.

When you get your first glimpse it really is amazing — the clouds below you as you look across the landscape at the view of Everest – head and shoulders above its neighbours…nothing can prepare you for the beauty that lies ahead.

Camera: Canon 20D

Settings: ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/500th

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Atlantic Light Show http://www.letsbewild.com/potd/south-florida-lightning/ http://www.letsbewild.com/potd/south-florida-lightning/#comments Tue, 17 Jun 2014 10:00:25 +0000 http://www.letsbewild.com/?p=12710 Photograph by Nick Zantop While the day was sunny and spectacular, evening brought torrential rain and thunderstorms to South Florida. By 9PM, the storms had mostly moved offshore, so I grabbed an umbrella and my camera and tripod and headed down to the shore. The lightning streaked across the sky every few seconds, so I […]

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Photograph by Nick Zantop

While the day was sunny and spectacular, evening brought torrential rain and thunderstorms to South Florida. By 9PM, the storms had mostly moved offshore, so I grabbed an umbrella and my camera and tripod and headed down to the shore. The lightning streaked across the sky every few seconds, so I experimented with exposure lengths and settings to get the best lightning shot I could. I had just tripped the shutter a few seconds before lightning filled the sky and I knew I’d gotten the best shot of the night.


Camera: Canon T3i

Lens: Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L ultra-wide angle lens

Exposure: ISO 400, f/11, and a shutter speed of 30 seconds

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Exploring the Costa Rican Rainforest on Cerro Chato http://www.letsbewild.com/rainforest-hiking-cerro-chato-costa-rica/ http://www.letsbewild.com/rainforest-hiking-cerro-chato-costa-rica/#comments Wed, 11 Jun 2014 19:39:38 +0000 http://www.letsbewild.com/?p=12946 It seemed as if we’d been climbing for hours, though the clock on my camera told us otherwise — less than an hour into our hike up Cerro Chato and we were already muddy, covered in sweat, and ready for a break. My girlfriend Ashley and I had entered the trail from the Green Lagoon Lodge, […]

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Costa Rica Rainforest Hiking on Cerro ChatoIt seemed as if we’d been climbing for hours, though the clock on my camera told us otherwise — less than an hour into our hike up Cerro Chato and we were already muddy, covered in sweat, and ready for a break. My girlfriend Ashley and I had entered the trail from the Green Lagoon Lodge, located about a 5.6km taxi ride away from La Fortuna. The trail begins next to the lodge and a gentle downward slope lulls hikers into a false belief that this hike is going to be an easy one. The first one and a half kilometers wind through the Cerro Chato ANC Park & Gardens, filled with 400 acres of tropical plants and green rolling hills, before reaching the boundary with Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, marked by a dense wall of rainforest.

To set the scene, at 1,140 m (3,740 ft), Cerro Chato lies in the shadow of its neighboring volcanic cousin, the 1,670m (5,479 ft) active volcano Arenal which looms over the town of La Fortuna in northwestern Costa Rica. While Arenal is still active, Cerro Chato last erupted about 3,500 years ago and its crater has formed a large, 500m wide lagoon at the summit that hikers can swim in after a long trek.

Costa Rica Rainforest Hiking on Cerro Chato Costa Rica Rainforest Hiking on Cerro Chato Costa Rica Rainforest Hiking on Cerro Chato

Like most adventure destinations, Costa Rica offers something for everyone — pricy luxury resorts and guided tours along paved trails fit the needs of affluent vacationers accustomed to air conditioning, while rustic hostels and self guided tours through the rainforest are more in-line with what most adventure-travelers seek. Everything in Costa Rica seems to be perpetually damp, thanks to the rainstorms that seem to be only a dance away at any time, and this trail was about as far from the paved variety as a trail can get. In the winter, when rainstorms are less frequent the hike may be easier, but at the very end of April at the start of the Green Season, what may have once been hard packed clay had been transformed into soupy, slippery mud up a treacherously steep slope.

Costa Rica Rainforest Hiking on Cerro Chato

Once in the national park the daylight is cut in half, as the dense rainforest canopy forms a dark filter that light struggles to breach. Though the air is cool, the humidity is like a thick cloak and even before the rain began to fall, I found my skin and clothing drenched. Every tree is like a miniature jungle and each piece of natural real-estate, no matter how small, is filled with something alive. Bromeliads, orchids, ferns, moss, and vines lay claim to everything in sight, and the trail cuts through a landscape that is overwhelmingly green. Logs and tree roots form rustic stairs up the steep incline and my camera made for the perfect excuse to pause every 50 meters to capture the natural beauty and bring my heart rate back to normal.

As the trail wound up the mountain, raindrops began to trickle through the leaves and the sound of thunder echoed through the mountains. Even covered in mud, drenched with sweat and rain, and sore from dragging myself and a backpack of camera gear uphill, no temporary discomfort could take away from the sheer magic of the experience. Travel experiences sometimes fail to live up to expectations…but this was precisely as I’d imagined it. While we paused beneath a monumental tree growing from the middle of the trail, we watched as low hanging clouds blew through the trees, rustling the leaves and carrying the intoxicatingly rich scents of distant flowers and decaying leaves.

The higher we climbed, the more it rained. What began as a light mist was soon a torrential downpour, and as the rain increased our pace decreased. Finally, after what seemed like hours, we reached the summit of Cerro Chato. Instead of the picturesque turquoise waters of the lagoon, we found an impenetrable wall of mist that thwarted what is apparently a spectacular view on a clear day. With nothing to see, we decided to head back down the mountain — an easy task when compared to the ascent, even with a trail that was quickly becoming a cascading stream as the rainfall continued.

In the days that followed our hike up Cerro Chato, we found ourselves in many beautiful areas of Costa Rica. Though rainforest abounds in this country, our adventure on Cerro Chato easily remains the highlight of our trip.

 

Things to Know

 

There are two ways to reach the summit of Cerro Chato: From the east near the entrance to La Fortuna Waterfall is the Green Lagoon Lodge. Entrance to the Cerro Chato ANC Park & Gardens trail which connects with the trail to the summit of Cerro Chato is $10. Plan for 2-4 hours for a round-trip journey to the summit.

 

From the west is the Arenal Observatory Lodge; this route takes longer to reach the summit and the entrance fee is also $10. Plan for 4-5 hours for a round trip hike to the summit.

 

Trails open at 7am and close to new arrivals at 1pm since the sun sets quite early in Costa Rica. Rainstorms tend to arrive in the afternoon, so an early start is important. Bring plenty of water and snacks; you’ll find a few benches along the trail to stop and rest periodically. Bring sunscreen for the open-air portion of the hike; a poncho and bug repellent will likely come in handy on most treks.

 

Planning to do lots of photography in the rainforest? Be sure to check out my in-depth Rainforest Photography Tutorial on ItsJustLight.com

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Denali: A Meditation on Clouds http://www.letsbewild.com/videos/denali-a-meditation-on-clouds/ http://www.letsbewild.com/videos/denali-a-meditation-on-clouds/#comments Wed, 11 Jun 2014 15:37:10 +0000 http://www.letsbewild.com/?p=12937 Just when we think we’ve watched every breathtaking time lapse film in existence, someone has to come along and make another one to keep our wanderlust burning. This time, it’s Luke Humphrey behind the camera, blowing us away with his stunning two minute long film shot from the 11k and 14k camps on Denali’s West Buttress route.

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Just when we think we’ve watched every breathtaking time lapse film in existence, someone has to come along and make another one to keep our wanderlust burning. This time, it’s Luke Humphrey behind the camera, blowing us away with his stunning two minute long film shot from the 11k and 14k camps on Denali’s West Buttress route.

North America’s highest peak, Denali rises into the Alaskan sky, and with a summit elevation of 20,237 feet it dominates the surrounding landscape. For climbers attempting Denali’s summit, the West Buttress route is the most commonly used with most expeditions taking place from early May through early July. With 13,500 feet of altitude gain over 15.5 miles of climbing, it can take more than two weeks to summit the mountain — and despite being a popular route many still fail, driven back by inclement weather, altitude sickness, and injury.

In Luke Humphrey‘s video, the freezing winds sweeping around Denali push the clouds in a mesmerizing dance over and around the snow-blanketed topography. Cold as it may be, this looks like heaven to adventure lovers!

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A Journey to the Edge of the World http://www.letsbewild.com/a-journey-to-the-edge-of-the-world-etambura-camp-namibia-africa/ http://www.letsbewild.com/a-journey-to-the-edge-of-the-world-etambura-camp-namibia-africa/#comments Thu, 28 Nov 2013 03:07:06 +0000 http://www.letsbewild.com/?p=2315 o I’ve lived, breathed, and loved Africa for many, many years. I’ve driven from Nairobi to Johannesburg taking a very wiggly line and my time. I had a cottage on the banks of the Zambezi with elephant and hippo as regular garden guests and I’ve ridden on horseback alongside buffalo and zebra. When I lived […]

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So I’ve lived, breathed, and loved Africa for many, many years. I’ve driven from Nairobi to Johannesburg taking a very wiggly line and my time. I had a cottage on the banks of the Zambezi with elephant and hippo as regular garden guests and I’ve ridden on horseback alongside buffalo and zebra. When I lived in Zambia I used to cross the Katima border into Namibia to take advantage of ‘1st world shopping’ & smuggle cheese & other delights back to Livingstone under the seats of my battered Land Rover. I’d ventured along the Caprivi Strip before, a lovely, straight, tarred, smooth road splitting Angola and Botswana and claimed by Namibia, a little paradise where things seemed like Africa, but they worked. There was electricity, road signs, and a distinct lack of potholes. I thought I knew Namibia based on this little spit of land, based on well-priced fuel, car parts & the availability of Philadelphia Cheese and Heinz Tomato Ketchup…I was very, very, wrong and could not have been more happy to be so gloriously proved so!

LetsBeWild.com - A Journey to the Edge of the World by Becx Whitefield LetsBeWild.com - A Journey to the Edge of the World by Becx Whitefield LetsBeWild.com - A Journey to the Edge of the World by Becx Whitefield
Arriving in Namibia by plane proved to be a very typical African affair with my luggage making its own way, without me and in its own good time. Upon checking with the lost luggage staff it become apparent that my bags would either arrive later today, or tomorrow, or the day after, or possibly the day after that and maybe not at all. ‘The bags, they might just be gone,’ I was told. Right. ‘Welcome home,’ I thought and allowed a wry smile to broach my exhausted face as I set off to snooze for an hour or so in a city hotel. Returning later that afternoon proved to be a success and I retrieved my luggage and started my journey proper, driving through the clean, easily navigable streets of Windhoek and heading North out towards Damaraland. As soon as you clear the city boundaries it becomes clear that Namibia is vast, huge, enormous and is bisected North to South by a lonely old tar road… The very same road that drives its way right up to through the Caprivi Strip to the Katima border. But it is not this road I am following on this journey and so soon enough I head off the bitumen and onto gravel wending my way through the stunning Damaraland scenery to the very aptly named Wereldsend (world’s end) campsite. Wereldsend is HQ to IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation) and has a fantastic ‘Loo with a view’. It is here, in the middle of nowhere that I’ll spend my first night before continuing on tomorrow further into nowhere and right to the edge of the world…

LetsBeWild.com - A Journey to the Edge of the World by Becx Whitefield

Waking up to simply stunning red and orange skies and a childlike ‘Christmas morning’ excitement it’s time to head off again. From here on in the roads become less and less road-like and were it not for the leftover golden grasses from the late rains I’m not sure I’d actually be able to tell which direction I was going in, where I was or where to go…Good gravel highways give way to treacherous tracks with so much loose gravel that I feel as though my Land Rover is aquaplaning its way through the desert with little say from me about how we progress. Traffic starts to fall away too, not that there was much in the first place, (Namibia is vast and its population relatively miniscule) but now I am noticing that I am not noticing vehicles. I feel somewhere stuck between the Twilight Zone, Thelma & Louise, and Jurassic Park and I think I love it.

Stopping at the last vaguely reliable fuel station before heading further on into the wilderness proves eventful. They are almost out of fuel and expect more in a day or so. It’s between me and a huge Afrikaans man with an even huger beard, but in the end chivalry pays off and I fill my tank leaving Johan to ‘make another plan’. It’s Africa. I am sure he will. Other than me, him and the pump guy there is just a lone cockerel for company at this last ‘town’ for some miles. I have to admit that the cockerel is the handsomest and healthiest looking ‘village chicken’ I’ve seen for a while.

I push onwards and here the road becomes a dry riverbed as I follow first the Hoanib and then the Ganumub Rivers where, somewhere near Giribes Plains, camp is set up for the night. I’m lucky – it’s the lunar eclipse and I am a million miles from anywhere or anyone with not a dot of light pollution to be seen. It’s magical, scary, beautiful, and emotional all at once and I feel strangely primeval as I watch the moon being eaten and slowly spat out again before my eyes…

LetsBeWild.com - A Journey to the Edge of the World by Becx WhitefieldIn the morning I awake to the most stunning sunrise, nobody for miles, nothing around, just me, the Land Rover and miles and miles of heart achingly dramatic scenery. I’m heading to the sprawling metropolis of Puros, a Himba village about 80kms from here… it should only take four or five hours and I’ve heard the hot water from the donkey boiler showers in the campsite is unbeatable… considering that I don’t look dissimilar to a dried out mud bathed hippo, I’m looking forward to finding out! The day is spent traversing more dry riverbeds, crunching the folded mud skins under barefeet, following desert adapted elephant spoor (new and old) and generally being entirely over-awed by this huge Jurassic landscape. I’m half expecting a diplodocus around every corner… but I am instead rewarded with an entirely private sighting of a small female unit of elephant. This is not The Chobe in Botswana or Kruger in South Africa and I keep my distance accordingly. Elephant here eek out an existence under tough circumstances, they live in smaller herd units that the limited local resources can better cope with and travel vast, vast distances in search of an age old memory of water buried somewhere deep in the recess of the matriarch’s mind. They are tough, stoical, and truly splendid and have my utmost respect.

I arrive into Puros as the last tendrils of the days sun retreat across the Etendeka Mountains in the distance…. Here I cross another dry river bed to access the campsite, which is in some kind of furore. There has been lion I’m told. ‘When?’ I ask, ‘Now’ I’m told – ‘Just now or now now?’, ‘Now now’. Right, they could be anywhere and I’m about to set up camp for the night. I’ve been in this situation before and I still can’t decide if the adrenalin is brought about by fear or excitement or both. Either way I think I’ll have that shower in the morning by daylight. I am disappointed that while in Africa my insomnia is, as always, temporarily cured and I don’t manage to even try and listen out for lion roars or feet padding by my car before I am well and truly unconscious. I sleep so well that I cannot even manage to conjure up Aslan in my dreams.

After the most incredible, hot, slightly smoky flavoured bucket shower I set out to find out what all yesterday evenings fuss is about and while I do not, thankfully, come face to face with a big cat I do find her spoor. She’s left a trail of paw prints all through the campsite and my my she has big feet.

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Nobody seems to know where she is now, but the village seems to be relieved that she’s passed through. The Himba here tread a fine line with the lion. There are several hard working conservationists whose unceasing commitment to working holistically with the local communities, static & more traditionally nomadic, have allowed these northern conservancies to become success stories for both conservation and community based tourism amongst other enterprises. Lion are occasionally speared or poisoned when too many cattle are lost or it is felt that they have become a threat to human populations, but it is less and less so and where communities are made to realise the value of their environment and wildlife and where they are allowed to feel the benefit from it, there is where you will find successful community managed conservation. Generally speaking there is here, in the Kunene. Today I’m continuing onwards to Orupembe where there is a new community owned lodge built into the mountains…. I’m looking forward to being static again for a few nights as once I’m there I plan to explore locally and chill a little. It’s only another 100 or so kms, but I know this to be a full day on these roads, what I don’t expect is to be wowed once more by even more dramatic, stunning and tear inducing landscapes, vast plains, huge mountains, golden grasses and feeling that I could just keep driving forever, until I fell off the edge of the world…. And then I arrive at Orupembe itself…

It’s a one stop shop that is for sure in that it is one shop only, or so it seems. Nearby there are a collection of Himba villages, these tend to move a little from time to time but generally the population is static enough that a small school has been built nearby. The teacher, a Himba tribesman, left the area to train in Windhoek and returned to enlighten & educate his people. He’s charming, funny & kind and I am convinced he’s the best man for the job. He points me in the direction of my new home for the next few nights, Etambura Camp another 25 kms onwards and overlooking the Onjuva or Holy Plains.
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The ‘road’ up the hillside is interesting to say the least, but the view I am greeted with at the top is simply celestial – it stretches beyond my comprehension and once again I am convinced that this is where the Earth was born; I am looking out over the grandfather of the world, of time itself. It is simply incredible. This is not the Namibia that I thought I knew and never have I been more pleased to be so wrong…. Etambura is the only camp in Namibia to be 100% Himba owned and managed, power is intermittent, and the water is brought by bowser from several kilometres away up to the top of the hill. If the car towing the bowser breaks down or is utilised for something else then there is no water. The kitchen is an open fire outside the main dining or lapa area and here’s the thing – I have been unbelievably spoiled. I have travelled all over Eastern and Southern Africa and because of my work, I’ve stayed in some of the most exclusive safari lodges and private villas. I’ve had butler service hot chocolate brought to my veranda at night and massages under cool blowing muslin shade cloths in the heat of the afternoon, I’ve been guided by private vehicle and dined on floating pontoons adrift on the Zambezi surrounded only by snoozing hippo and candle light. Yet this rustic camp, here in the middle of nowhere, with an ever changing crew of nomadic skeleton staff, this is probably one of my favourite places in all Africa.
I don’t choose a camp or lodge for the gold taps and marble baths, but for the location, the build, the guiding and as I rise after my first blissful nights sleep at Etambura I am newly excited by the day… today I am going rhino tracking with the local conservancy rangers. I’ve seen rhino before, in fact I was woken one morning by a ZAWA (Zambian Wildlife Authority) scout outside my bedroom door – ‘knocky knocky’, ‘Hallo?’, ‘Madam, the lino has escape the park fence, we chase from your garden?’ – but that is another story entirely. Today is different as there are no fences, there is no 24hr close protection here, there is mile after mile after mile of everywhere and nowhere and a small but healthy population of free-ranging black rhino somewhere in the midst. I’ve not seen black rhino before. I’m impossibly excited, but need to keep a lid on it – our chances are slim to none.

We start by driving a little way, to near where the rhino was last seen, a few days ago, and follow an old dry river bed until the rocks become bigger, the sides narrower and the trees & bushes impassable.

Time to foot. Its easily over 30c already and there is zero shade, I have reasonable walking boots, my trackers – second hand slip on loafers and despite being a million years old and as tall as the hills they skip over the ground like klipspringers, almost trotting over the impossible thistles & grit. I keep up, but only just and we continue like this for hours, climbing small ravines, dipping into mini valleys and traversing miles of what looks to me like exactly the same ground. Same rock, same grass tuft, same stick. I am convinced we are just going in circles. How the hell does one navigate out here? It’s like being on the moon. Every now and then we pause, binoculars raised to scan the endless horizon, I try not to let the excitement get the better of me and search too through my camera lens, trying not to be too distracted by my lightening pulse reverberating through my ears. It can’t be a heart attack, I quite smoking years ago… what about all that cheese & pizza… and we are off again, gambolling like dizzy, sweaty, ungainly lambs over the volcanic rock. And then we stop. No binoculars raised. No camera lens. Just a single pointing finger and there she is. She’s far away, but visible with the naked eye and she is quite possibly the most beautiful rhino that I have ever seen. I’m pretty sure that I am not breathing as I can’t hear my lungs, in fact I’m not convinced that I even have a pulse as that is gone too, no ringing in my ears. Just the scorching sun, total silence and an audience with a free-ranging black rhino cow. She is a survivor and I am humbled and then before I know it she is trotting off, snorting like a startled mare and with tail comically raised rather ‘Pumba the warthog’-esque. And now the endorphins kick in, I am a marathon runner, I am a weightlifter, I am superwoman as we bounce our way back to the abandoned car in the dry river bed. I’d probably cry, but I think I’m too dehydrated to try.

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The next day I rise early full of the joys of spring, I have to admit to be pleasantly surprised that I don’t feel as though I’ve been hit by a truck. It’s been a very long time since I spent the whole day hiking at speed. Today is to be a little more downbeat, I’m off to explore the local area visiting a campsite an abandoned marble mine (the Chinese began mining but then came across the issue of getting the produce out of here to anywhere useful – they stopped mining) and approaching the awkward and sometimes contentious issue of visiting a local village or two. I always feel slightly uncomfortable in this kind of situation. I do want to see how the Himba live, I do want to feel as though I have experienced their culture, that I have learned something… but I do not want to feel as though I am contributing to creating a human zoo, or a contrived false reality born purely by an ugly fascination from the West. I don’t want to visit a fake ‘tourism’ village, but to enter somebody’s real home is just downright rude and I do not want to facilitate the hand-out mentality seen too eagerly in parts of East Africa where a white man is a wallet on two legs. Fortunately here, none of this is a problem. Etambura Camp is entirely owned & managed by Himba people, there are only Himba in the area, nobody else even tries to live here. In the evenings at the lodge, somebody – whomever is around and voted suitable by the community (and whose English will suffice) – will come and dine with you. Combative, interactive, thoughtful conversation is encouraged and it would seem that both cultures feel equally questioned & challenged in a very positive way. The Himba here are learning more about European & Western culture & traditions than any school class and I find it refreshing to have the boot on the other foot and be the object of interest. During these dinners I establish who is ‘home’ in the nearby villages and who is receptive to visitors in the coming days, so I don’t feel at like an intruder when I drive off to meet some Himba women at all.

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But I do feel dowdy. I am wearing just my shorts & t-shirt, no make-up, jewellery or shoes and I come face to face with some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, made up at almost all times with the foundation of shiny red ochre mixed with ghee and hair elaborately fashioned with cow dung. I feel a bit like the fat friend with braces standing next to the cheerleaders. These women are stunning and their skin luminescent. Bugger Garnier & Loréal, I’m heading to the nearest farm when I get home. I spend the afternoon chatting (gesticulating mainly) showing & taking photos and trying to learn & glean more about this fascinating, unchanged culture. It’s difficult, there is little English spoken here and the women are busy with their chores, so I mostly just hang around and try to help where I can. I’m pretty good with livestock so I’m not entirely useless. I meet young girls with pre-coming of age hairdos, an old lady who’s been away travelling, though I don’t understand where or why and a gaggle of beautiful, giggling girls whose laughter & shrieks at my eyebrow piercing are dwarfed only by those on seeing my belly button ring. Though that could have been the hilarity of seeing a non-flat stomach! I compare bras with the only lady there wearing one (I still don’t know why) and we sit around the fire drawing pictures in the sand with toddlers that seem to appear and disappear again on and off throughout the day.

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On my way back to camp I meet some more Himba women who are on their way back from somewhere. We briefly greet each other and compare Land Rover vs Donkey transport before they head onwards again to somewhere else.

 

I crash onto my bed with a view as soon as I return. I am exhausted & have a long couple of days driving ahead of me to get back to Windhoek. I will rest there a day or so before beginning another journey, driving around Southern Namibia but for now my head is filled with dancing rhino and beautiful, funny, red girls. I certainly don’t think I understand much of Himba culture, but I do feel accepted by it. Welcomed into a different existence, one rooted deeply in the earth, one intrinsically linked with the surrounding environment, one eked out with other desert adapted animals such as elephant, rhino and giraffe. An existence lived in a land where animals and humans alike have adapted to live on the very edge of the world. In the Kunene, Namibia.

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