Although it is the ultimate bucket list destination, traveling to Antarctica is not as straightforward as traveling other mainstream areas.
Before you make your travel plans, take a few moments to listen to Wildfoot Travel’s Dave Cheetham explain which time of year you should choose in order to make sure you get the most of your cruise to Antarctica.
Professional wildlife and travel writer, photographer, birdwatcher and long-term friend of Wildfoot Travel, Mike Unwin has always had a passion for eagles. Here he explains how it all started and how it lead to the creation of his latest book The Empire of the Eagle .
My first ever eagle was a golden: I was seven years old, on holiday in the Scottish Highlands, and my father spotted the bird cresting a ridge high above our picnic site. A mobbing buzzard, just half its size, provided instant scale. Unfazed by its tormentor, the huge bird continued its long, gliding trajectory, as though on an invisible zip-line to the horizon, leaving the buzzard circling aimlessly over our heads.
I was hooked. As a fledgling birdwatcher, a ‘goldie’ was as glamorous as a Siberian tiger. And since that day, I’ve been lucky enough to see eagles in many parts of the world. Deep in a Panama rainforest, I have watched a mighty harpy eagle visit its nest in a towering almendro tree. On the Zambezi river, I have canoed past snorting hippos while African fish eagles yodelled overhead.
In Mongolia’s Altai mountains, I have felt the power of a golden eagle’s talons when a traditional Berkutchy eagle hunter placed his bird on my leather-gloved wrist. And two years ago, on a Wildfoot cruise to the Russian Far East, I watched Steller’s sea eagles, the largest species of all, soaring against the smoking backdrop of Kamchatka’s volcano skyline.
There’s something irresistibly alluring about eagles: the predatory power, the imperious glare, the easy magnificence in flight. Indeed, few wild creatures have made more of an impression on the human imagination. Eagles are, in a way, the avian equivalent of big cats, elevated to emblems of pride, power and freedom worldwide – from the Roman legions to the US air force.
For the traveller, meanwhile, eagles mean exciting places. These birds’ basic needs – unspoilt wilderness, with plentiful prey and few human threats – mean that if you’re watching one, you’re generally somewhere pretty impressive. And each new sighting brings the same thrill: that sense of being in the presence of a top predator; a bird that holds life and death in its unflinching gaze and can exit our world with just a beat of its wings. The birds seem the very embodiment of the wilds they inhabit.
Such thoughts and inspirations lie behind my new book, the Empire of the Eagle, which I put together with top wildlife photographer David Tipling. A photographic celebration of the world’s 68 species of eagle, it aims to illustrate their sheer variety – from desert-dweller to mountain-rider, and snake-eater to fish-catcher – and to open a window onto the lives of these fascinating birds.
The book also spells out the many conservation threats that eagles face. Sadly, despite their iconic status, these birds don’t inspire everybody. Like predators of all kinds, many still find themselves heavily persecuted for their alleged attacks on livestock – or running out of space as their hunting grounds are developed and their forests disappear. Today many of the world’s 68 species are under threat.
So, all the more reason, then, to visit eagle country. With luck, your presence there may help convince its custodians of just why these birds are so important. Either way, I wish you the same stirring memories of fabulous places that these wonderful birds have given me.
Yale Books is pleased to offer Wildfoot Travel subscribers the opportunity to buy The Empire of the Eagle by Mike Unwin and David Tipling at £24 (rrp £30) with free p&p within the UK. Please find the book at www.yalebooks.co.uk and use your exclusive Wildfoot offer code EAGLE at checkout. Offer is valid from 14/12/2018 to 28/2/19 and is for UK orders only.
Here is a small selection of images from the book.
A huge welcome to professional wildlife and landscape photographer, Dave Wilson of Northwinds Photography (www.northwindsphotos.com). Dave specialises in US National Parks, Botswana, and the polar regions. Here are some of Dave’s fascinating images and thoughts about NorthEast Greenland after a recent trip to the area.
Northeast Greenland National Park, covering almost one million square kilometres is the world’s largest National Park. Due to the relative inaccessibility and vast size, however, this is not a National Park in the normally accepted sense. Travelling there involves either significant advance planning or, more normally, joining one of the ship-based expeditions that visit the more accessible areas at the southern end of the Park: Kejser Franz Joseph and Kong Oscar Fjords, along with the neighbouring Scoresby Sund.
What awaits the visitor, however, is an area of amazing beauty: enormous icebergs; other-worldly geological features; and an overall sense of the wonders of natural wilderness with little to no signs of human intervention.
When To Go
The northerly location (between 71ºN and 75ºN) restricts most trips to the summer months, with the majority of vessels reaching the park between July and early September. This does mean extremely long days. The sun doesn’t set until the end of July / early August (depending on how far north you are) and you can still expect 16 hours of daylight at the end of August in the southern end of the region. Even then, don’t expect warm weather – highs in the single digit Celsius are about as good as it gets – so pack with plenty of layers, not forgetting head and hand coverings. When the wind picks up (especially when on deck of a ship), the effective temperature can get to well below freezing.
Your itinerary will be determined by the guides on the ship and impacted by sea-ice and weather conditions, so planning on visiting specific areas is something you should expect to be flexible about. The more time your ship has put aside for the area, the better, as there are amazing sights around every corner. The sheer scale of the three fjords is difficult to appreciate until it is experienced. Relocating from one landing site to another can often mean 30-40 km of cruising. Here are eight highlight areas you may encounter.
Walterhausen Glacier, Kejser Franz Joseph Fjord
If you want to get a quick object lesson in the size of the landscape and its features in this part of the world, Walterhausen Glacier is a good place to start. The calving glacier has a 10km wide front with the face often reaching up to 50m high. A cruise along the front of the glacier brings home its vast size that can still be appreciated from a distance of some 6 nautical miles.
Blomsterbugt / Ymer Island / Teufelschloss
Spectacular scenery abounds in this area, dominated by the sheer polychromatic cliffs of the Teufelschloss (the Devil’s Castle) which rises 1370m above sea level.
It is also a good place to see some of the local wildlife, being a frequent hang-out area for Musk Oxen.
Kjerulf Fjord & Nordenskjold Glacier
Rarely visited, Kjerulf Fjord offers a refuge for icebergs that have calved from the Nordenskjold Glacier. Being quite sheltered, this provides an excellent opportunity for a Zodiac cruise among the icebergs, giving a magnificent close-up perspective of these beautiful structures.
The contrast between the icebergs and the metamorphic rocks of the surrounding cliffs is particularly striking.
Maria & Ella Islands
These islands form a small archipelago at the intersection of the Antarctic Sound, Kempe Fjord and Kong Oscar Fjord. Visible on Maria Island are the remains of German fuel drums from WWII as well as building materials from the various geological camps that have been situated in the area.
Ella Island is home base to the Danish Army’s Sirius Patrol whose responsibility it is to patrol the east coast of Greenland throughout the year. Despite the remoteness of the location, this is an extremely prestigious and sought-after assignment. The area is ideal for hiking and is particularly noteworthy for its striking geological formations.
The fjord is so-named because it forms the western boundary of the Stauning Alps, a 40x40km cluster of some of the highest mountains in East Greenland. It is home to the combined fronts of the Gully and Selfstrom glaciers.
Also in the fjord is the Dammen, a lake that had risen 60m above sea level caused by the glaciers running into the opposing cliffs. In the last few hundred years, this glacial dam was breached leaving a gap between the glacial tongue and the cliffs. Beyond this gap (which allows ships to pass along the entire front of the combined glaciers) lies further glaciers, icebergs, brash ice, and stunning cliffs.
The spectacular mountains in the fjord provide good examples of folded and faulted sedimentary rock layers amongst the Eleonore Bay formations. The landing site provides miniature versions of those layers that look like striped candy. This is a truly unbelievable landing site that will pique your interest in geology like nowhere else, and certainly provide the photographers a plethora of subject matter.
Vikingebugt / Bredegletscher Glacier
Even compared to the last location, Vikingebugt won’t disappoint your new-found interest in geology. An intrusion of volcanic material 60 million years ago left an pile of basalt up to 10km thick. As it cooled and contracted, the basalt formed into almost perfect hexagonal structures.
The neighbouring glacier is particularly proficient at producing massive icebergs that slowly drift out of the fjord into Scoresby Sund. By the time they reach the relatively open water they have been moulded into the most spectacular shapes.
Ø Fjord / Milne Land
This fjord provides the ship-bound visitor a splendid opportunity to appreciate the multitude of shapes and the range of colour that icebergs can exhibit as they make their way down the channel into the main body of Scorebsy Sund.
A series of Arctic images and reflections with thanks from Dave Wilson. Photographer. You can see more of David’s work at North Winds Photography
Every month Wildfoot Travel’s marketing expert Dave Cheetham offers some practical photography tips. Aimed at beginners and the everyday photographer, these tips are carefully compiled to help you get better travel and wildlife shots.
By a ‘nifty fifty’, I mean a 50mm prime lens. My nifty fifty is the most used piece of gear in my camera bag. By a million miles! And that applies to both photography and video work. So even though it seems half photography tip and half review, my tip this month is that every photographer should pack a 50mm lens.
And here’s why.
It is alleged to be the closest lens to the normal eye. Giving you very ‘real’ feeling images. Perhaps that’s why this is such a popular choice for street photographers.
A 50mm lens is compact so easy to carry and pack
It is very durable.
The nifty fifty is highly versatile. They can take all sorts of shots, from amazing portraits to glorious landscapes.
The wide aperture settings usually available (1.8, 1.4 without spending a fortune) allows really shallow depth of field for lovely portraits.
The same wide aperture allows more light in, so you can shoot more effectively in low-light situations.
Without the option to zoom, you often have to think a little harder to get the shot you want and often work a little harder to get it. This can lead to more interesting shots.
Did you see the Lion episode of the ‘Dynasty’ series narrated by David Attenborough which was shown on BBC1 on Sunday the 25th November ? If so were you moved by what you saw? If you missed it then why not watch it on catch up! Those heart wrenching pictures of ‘Charm’ having to leave her poisoned cub behind….all so sad and actually with understanding and a support unnecessary…. In Namibia, like in Kenya, AfriCat is working with the local farming communities to reduce the incidents of poisoning, trapping and shooting of lions for their perceived and real threat of killing the farmer’s livestock. Farming successfully alongside predators takes courage; understanding and a support programme like AfriCat’s Protect our Pride. Working with local people does produce positive results with a reduction in the numbers of livestock and lions being killed.
The Protect our Pride programme includes: an education and livestock management programme; research; building strong kraals; an alert system from collared lions within local prides that can let farmers know when the pride is in their vicinity and a support team (AfriCat Lion Guards) on hand to help farmers defend their livestock and to ‘chase’ the lions back to safe areas. The AfriCat Lion Guards community members and farmers themselves offer advice/support to help other farmers.
With the drastic fall in lion numbers as mentioned in the Lion Dynasty program helping a single lion to survive can make a big difference, as was evident in the programme. To find out more about AfriCat’s support programme and to make a donation go to Protect our Pride and look at the AfriCat Uk website www.africat.co.uk.
Wildfoot Travel’s Debbie Granger hopped on a plane to Uganda recently, in search of Mountain Gorillas. Here, she tells us about her experience on a Gorilla Trek.
If you have already done a safari, you have probably ticked off “The Big 5”, zebra, giraffe and hippos from your “Must See” list. But how about the Mountain Gorillas?
They may not be the easiest animals to find; the gorilla permit is pretty expensive (currently US$600 per person); and it will require a bit of an effort on your behalf to go and seek them out, but WOW! Once you find them, your allotted hour, will evaporate so quickly.
To quote Sir David Attenborough – “There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know. Their sight, their hearing, their sense of smell are so similar to ours that they see the world in much the same way as we do. We live in the same sort of social groups with largely permanent family relationships. They walk around on the ground as we do, though they are immensely more powerful than we are. So if there were ever a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature’s world, it must be with the gorilla.”
What can I expect from my Gorilla Trek?
Remember that just 80 people are allowed to see the gorillas in their natural habitat each day. Because their habitat is very fragile, every time you walk in this forest you leave a footprint.
On arrival at the Gorilla Centre, you will have a briefing and you are allocated to your gorilla family, in groups of up to 8 people plus your official park ranger and porter if you choose to have one. Some treks can take up to 4 hours in each direction, so it’s a really good idea to let them know what your fitness level is, on arrival. The hikes can be quite challenging due to the terrain and undergrowth. Humidity can be high and it can be muddy. If you decide to hire a porter, the cost is about $15 to $20, they will carry your bag for you, and assist you up and down any difficult hills. By hiring the porter you are also providing a valuable source of employment for locals.
So, once you come across your gorilla family, it is time for you to stand and watch in awe. Anticipation runs high, hearts beat faster, the group goes silent whilst waiting for the group to appear. The park ranger makes little grunting noises to communicate with the gorillas, and then you hear the rustle in the trees as the gorillas finish off the last bits of their breakfast.
One by one, they make their way down to the ground – a female adult, followed by a stunning Silverback, an adolescent male, followed by another female with a baby clutching to her body. This is the moment that you’ve been waiting for. Trying to half guess where they are going to settle; hands shaking as your camera points in their direction, focusing on the group, and then taking single shots. The Silverback invariably takes up his position sprawling out on the floor, keeping an eye on the youngsters who are play-fighting, and then finally with a grunt lies back and goes to sleep. The mother starts to groom her baby, planting kisses on its head. Meanwhile, the adolescent male and it’s much younger sibling start up a game of chase and fight. The little one is so brave; beating his chest and shouting at his older brother, who in turn chases him back around the trees tumbling and rolling amongst the vines. And then all too soon, your hour is up. You start making your way back towards the centre – unable to speak, smiling like a Cheshire cat, processing everything that has just taken place right in front of your feet. Memories that you will never forget; an hour that you will treasure forever; the knowledge that your visit has helped these magnificent beasts to survive.
How should you prepare for this trip?
Wearing the right clothes and having the right equipment is paramount. Long sleeved shirt, preferably lightweight and moisture-controlled; Long trousers; Comfortable, Sturdy walking boots that you have broken-in; Gaitors; A light, waterproof raincoat or poncho is essential; Gardening gloves to protect your hands when grabbing trees, vines and branches etc.
A good camera and the knowledge of how to use it! How disappointed would you be if your photos were just a blur! Or your smart phone to capture video footage. But don’t spend your whole hour looking through the lens – you need to experience the action too.
Small denominations of cash – you will need to pay your porter (US Dollars or Ugandan Shillings are fine. Expect to tip around $20 for the porter and $10 for the park ranger)
A waterproof rucksack with a bottle of water and some snacks if you intend to do the longer trek. Be honest about your physical fitness. There is no point in taking the long hike if you are not used to hiking/walking. The mountains are pretty high, and you may experience shortness of breath along the way.
What do we know about todays’ Gorillas?
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), gorillas have gone from critically endangered to endangered – Despite this good news, this is still only 2 classifications away from being completely extinct.Thanks to “collaborative conservation efforts across country boundaries and positive engagement from communities living around the mountain gorilla habitat”, numbers have increased. Back in 2008, there were just 680 gorillas according to an assessment by the IUCN. This year has seen those numbers increase to over 1000, which is the highest number ever recorded. This is due to conservation efforts such as snare removals and anti-poaching patrols, community support projects and regulated tourism.
Mountain gorillas cannot survive in zoos as they cannot survive in detention. They can only be found and seen in Africa – Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
What do Mountain Gorillas look like?
The males can grow to 6 ft tall and can weigh between 350 -500 pounds. They are strong, muscular and have long arms – they can stretch to 7 feet!. As they mature, the hair on their back turns silver, which is where the name Silverback comes from. Adult males also have a prominent sagittal crest – this is a ridge of bone running lengthwise along the midline of the top of the skull.
The female adults usually weigh about half as much as adult males at 150-250 pounds. They are also shorter than the males – 4 ft 1 in to 4 ft 11 in, with a smaller arm span. The females mature around 10-12 years of age, and this is when they will have their first-born. The gestation period is 8.5 months and have four-year interbirth intervals. This is one of the reasons that makes it difficult for gorillas to recover from population declines.
How do Mountain Gorillas Feed?
A gorilla’s day is divided between rest periods and travel or feeding periods. They mostly eat foliage, such as leaves, stems, pith, and shoots, while fruit makes up a very small part of their diets. Mountain gorilla food is widely distributed and neither individuals nor groups have to compete with one another. Despite eating a few species in each habitat, mountain gorillas have flexible diets and can live in a variety of habitats.
Uganda isn’t just about the Gorillas, but it may well be a once in a lifetime experience. As you browse through your photos in years to come, I dare you not to smile as you remember the antics of these magnificent animals, or to reminisce at the total love you could sense between mother and baby. Memories, photos and video footage to cherish