Monday, 25 December 2017

The Okavango Delta, Botswana - one of Africa's most incredible places

Words and photos by Brett Goulston 

Even in the dry season, the Okavango Delta in Namibia’s north west is an amazing sight. It’s the world’s largest inland delta, whicsh, 
depending on the season, sprawls across some 15,000-22,000 square kilometres.  For travellers, the delta starts and ends at Maun (pronounced “Mown”), a town of a few thousand people and many accommodation options, from camping to full service hotels. Maun can be reached by road or air as it has a substantial airport.   

There are a few ways excellent to see this wonder of nature. Firstly, in a mokoro. Once a traditional wooden canoe, nowadays they are made out of fiberglass to save trees.  This is a truly magic way to catch the landscape and wildlife - you’ll feel you are in the middle of nowhere at one with nature which, of course, you are!

A mokoro usually takes two passengers and to help you there is a “poler”. This is a local person who uses a wooden pole (hence the name) to push and steer through the reeds and channels of the delta. Given much of the delta area is a metre or less deep, the poler also ensures you don’t get too close to hippos!

If sitting in a canoe for a few hours sounds a little uncomfortable, there’s no need to worry. Each mokoro is fitted with a small seat for back support which makes them surprisingly comfortable for most. Don’t forget to tip your poler as for some, this is their only form of income. About $USD10 is considered fair. 

The second way to capture the enormity of this amazing delta is by small plane.  While not cheap (about USD200), it’s well worth the money.  From the air, you’ll see an abundance of wildlife including hippos, elephants, crocs bathing on the riverbanks, giraffes and much more.  But it’s the landscape that is most impressive from this height. However ... don’t expect to take your best photos from the plane as most of the wildlife is too small to photograph from the air.

Join Blue Dot Travel’s small group tour to Botswana, Namibia, Vic Falls and Cape Town and tick this incredible destination off your bucket list ... at least once but it's certainly impressive enough to consider a return visit! Find out more here

Monday, 18 December 2017

Arctic Part 2 Wildlife wildlife and more wildlife

Words and photos by Margaret Farrell

Our trip was all about the wildlife. The best opportunity to phhotograph a bear surely had to be the site where the remains of a sperm whale had been drawing bears for at least a month. There is never more than one bear at a time, with the bear hierarchy strictly enforced. But there’s plenty to go around and they were only starting to get to the meat under the blubber.

We had been lucky to have numerous bear sightings over ten days and each time, our landing process was preceded by a scouting expedition to make sure no unnoticed bears were lurking nearby. Each member of the expedition staff accompanying us on land is armed with a rifle and a flare gun. 

There was an inordinate number of birders and botanists on our trip, and they enjoyed the rich display immensely. Apart from the puffins, eider ducks and glaucous gulls seen everywhere, we visited the dramatic Alkefjellet cliffs which play host to 60,000 breeding pairs of Brunnich’s guillemots. It’s a city of high rise apartments, with narrow ledge after ledge rising out of the sea on 100-metre-high towers of dolerite (for the geologically minded). We timed our zodiac visit for late at night because the sun would be shining on the cliffs between 9pm and midnight. Night time is a meaningless descriptor here in the land of the midnight sun.

Thousands of black and white guillemots wheeled overhead and made almost impossible landings on tiny ledges that were already overcrowded. These birds do not build nests but instead, lay only one egg and, like Emperor and King penguins, the parents hold the egg on the top of their feet and swap their stewardship over at regular intervals. 

When the guillemot chicks reach three weeks of age and are still incapable of flight, they are launched from their ledge and flap like crazy in an attempt to reach the safety of the water. Those who crash on land are easy prey for the arctic foxes that stalk the bird cliffs. Chicks reaching the water are then accompanied by their father for several weeks as they learn to dive and fish while their wings and plumage mature enough for flight. They are akin to small flying penguins.

Kittiwakes also congregate in huge numbers. These small gulls with black tips on their wings are named to reflects their cries.  Kapp Waldburg on the south-east coast of Barentsoya island holds canyons that host many thousands of these birds. 

Unlike the guillemots, the kittiwakes’ preferred habitat is back from the beach in large valleys or canyons. They build their nests on rough ledges and live a communal life. Squabbles break out occasionally and, if the fight takes the combatants to ground level, the arctic foxes win again.

The foxes were unfazed by our arrival as we labored up the track to the mouth of the canyon. In fact, one was sleeping on the track and only moved a few metres away before settling down to resume his nap. Their apparent sloth makes the kittiwakes forget they are there. A disturbance on one of the ledges saw a chick dislodged and it barely hit the dirt before the “drowsing” fox pounced. He calmly trotted down the slope in front of us, cached the dead chick around the corner, and came back to resume its nap.

The arctic foxes at this time are in their summer coats of brown and white. They are much smaller than foxes at home but share the same characteristic brush tail. 

How could I forget to mention the walrus? We’ve only seen them at a couple of sites. While the hope is to find them hauled out on land or ice I have only managed to see them in the water, just off a beach. Our presence prevented them from hauling out but despite their caution, walruses are inquisitive. They came close to the beach and inspected us diligently.

The Svalbard islands’ landscape ranges from icecap to tundra to polar desert. The tundra areas are spongy with mosses, lichens and lots of micro-flora. The plants are tiny and the botanists in our midst spent a lot of time on their knees inspecting these miniature plants. We saw more instances of polar desert than tundra. These barren, inhospitable areas of stone and gravel still play host to minute plants surviving in rocky crevices. Reindeer can be found even here, although I can’t see how they can thrive. The stags are carrying impressive racks of antler, still covered in velvet. Come rutting time, the velvet will quickly disappear as they fight for breeding rights.

Our final day still held a surprise – a pod of arbout 25 Beluga whales, their backs gleaming white as they undulated along the coastline. We rushed to the zodiacs and ventured as close as was allowed. For a while they were penned into a bay by our presence but huffed their way past us when we drew back to open a door for their escape.

A wonderful finale.

If this part of the world excites you, Blue Dot Travel would love to take you there.  Join our small group tour to Iceland and Svalbard.  Click here for more details.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Arctic Part 1 – Exploring Svalbard

Words and photos by Margaret Farrell

It’s coldish up here, ranging from daily maximum of 1 degree celsius to an incredibly warm 10 degrees. On the warm days, we shed layers like reptile skins.

Svalbard is a group of Norwegian islands that extend to just above 80 degrees north. If we went that far south in Antarctica we would be encased in ice but here, we are more likely to encounter bare earth, in what is known as a Polar Desert, with little snow to soften the starkness at this time of the year.

The most dramatic feature of this isolated group of islands in the Barents Sea is the enormous glacier front along the southern coast of Nordaustlandet (North-East Land), the second largest island in the group. It is fed by the icecap that covers most of the land mass. This monster glacier extends unbroken for 170 kms, forming a beautiful and dramatic backdrop to zodiacs and kayaks as we cruised no closer than 300 metres from its majestic heights. The 300-metre-limit is believed to make you safe from being hit or swamped by gigantic bergs breaking off from the parent.

We spent a morning admiring the fractured front of the glacier at Klerckbukta. The zodiacs crunched their way through the brash ice, dodged the bigger bergy-bits and maneuvered around the icebergs in all their blue and white beauty.

The sea was glassy calm and we reached an area where the water was like a mirror. Stunningly beautiful, and a great setting for our intrepid kayakers. They made for a colourful picture.

Later in the day we reached the Brasvelbreen section of the glacier. Whereas Klerckbuckta had been full of crevasses and great masses of fallen ice, Brasvelbreen at first sight is a 30-metre-high sheer wall of ice extending as far as you could see in both directions. 

On a closer look, this monolithic wall is full of melt water chutes. Water gushes out from the top of the glacier in some spectacular falls, and sometimes makes its way behind the scene and emerges lower down. The top of the wall looks like the parapet of a medieval fort, with notches at fairly regular intervals.

Our first experience of Svalbard glaciers was at Lilliehookbreen on Spitsbergen island where we found ourselves surrounded by a very active glacial front. There were plenty of rumblings as calving ice broke away from the glacier, sounding for all the world like a sizable thunderstorm.

As we made our way north of the 80-degree latitude we entered a vast field of sea ice. For two days, we crunched our way through, ever on the lookout for polar bears. We even drifted overnight in the hope that a curious bear would approach the Polar Pioneer.
Unfortunately, no bear appeared then but later, we watched (through binoculars) as a distant bear made three unsuccessful attempts to hunt seals. The first one he actually got his claws into the seal’s tail as it franticly turned to escape. One of our number caught that very short sequence on video.

A couple of days later, a bear was spotted in the distance and the ship made its way towards it as it swam between ice floes. Initially it swam away from us and all we could see was its head and an impressive wake as it powered through the water. The Polar Pioneer drifted for a while and the bear turned around and made its way towards the ship. Curiosity won out over caution, much to the delight of us all.

Blue Dot Travel takes small group tours to Svalbard and Iceland.  Click here for more details.

Monday, 4 December 2017

The incredible people of the Mursi Tribe

Mursi women wearing clay plates in their lips 

By Margaret Farrell

You probably know them by sight if not by name – the Mursi is one of the most fascinating tribes in Africa, widely recognised for the clay plates the women insert into their lower lips and sometimes their ear lobes. The tribe lives in the Omo Valley, one of the most isolated regions of southern Ethiopia near the border with South Sudan. According to the 2007 census, there are 7,500 Mursi who remain one of the last remaining tribes in Africa still to wear traditional dress, accessories and their renowned unique and elaborate headdresses.

Perhaps the custom of the lip plate was initially intended to discourage slavers from taking Mursi girls but nowadays, it is a status symbol and a cultural tradition to mark rites of passage. A girl’s lower lip is cut by her mother or by another woman of her settlement when she reaches the age of 15 or 16. The cut is held open by a wooden plug until the wound heals. It appears to be up to the individual girl to decide how far to stretch the lip by inserting progressively larger plugs over a period of several months. Some, but by no means all, girls persevere until their lips can take plates of 12 centimetres or more in diameter. The biggest disks are 15cms wide and must be incredibly uncomfortable to wear. Indeed they take them out to eat and to work except, of course, when tourists arrive with money to pay for photos. With no disk in place, the lower lip hangs down like a deflated inner-tube. It’s incredibly disfiguring and ensures that Mursi women cannot move out of the tribal area. I photographed an attractive 14-year-old in a blue wrap, thinking sadly that she will degenerate into an object of curiosity as she grows older.

The Mursi men, on the other hand, resort to body paint to distinguish themselves from other tribes. There is obviously no nudity taboo as they wear the briefest of hip wraps that casually expose everything at the slightest breeze. We stopped to film a group of boys who were dressed in nothing but white body paint. A popular and aggressive activity with men is the stick-fighting ceremony, the donga, which is a ritualized form of violence.

It’s a shame that tourism has made the lip plates a source of income for these people and all on our Ethiopia trip felt uneasy that we were contributing to their fate.

Regardless of my mixed feelings about the Mursi people, everyone choosing to visit Ethiopia should include the Omo Valley on their itinerary. 

Blue Dot Travel
offers Ethiopia small group tours so you can travel with us to this fascinating part of the world. Click here for details.

Map of Ethiopia
Mursi tribesman carrying kalashnikov rifle
Mursi tribesman in costume

Mursi tribes woman in costume
Mursi women, known for the plates worn in their lower lip and their elaborate headdresses