Friday, 3 November 2017

In Patagonia: Three days at the end of the world

I might have dreamed this. I'd wanted to go to Patagonia for so long, imagined those granite spires, watched docos about the wild southern tip of South America.

Morning light, Torres del Paine
Then: a chance came up a few weeks ago, to stay in Chilean Patagonia for three nights at the end of a media trip.

Not nearly long enough, but it's such a remote and unearthly place it bends time and twists space so you feel as if you've been there longer.

I won't pretend to know all about this massive region after such a short time in one tiny bit of it, but it is the kind of place that affects you no matter how long you're there.

So here are a few random thoughts from my three days in Patagonia:

Brooding mountains
everywhere you look
1. It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here. Actually, Patagonia feels like the end of the known world, particularly way down in the Chilean part where I was (90 per cent of Patagonia lies in Argentina). Down there, you're closer to Antarctica than to Santiago.

2. Getting there is a big part of being there. First, the good news: getting to South America from Australia is easier now that LATAM Airlines flies non-stop from Melbourne to Santiago (Qantas also flies Sydney-Santiago non-stop).

Driving in Patagonia
From Santiago we then had a three-hour flight to Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in Chile, then a FIVE-HOUR drive to our lodge, explora Patagonia, through some of the most desolately beautiful landscapes I've seen on my travels. There's a real sense of arrival travelling this way; it reminds you how far from the rest of humankind you really are.

The Paine massif in all it glory
3. The Torres del Paine are magnificent. Patagonia's most recognisable landform, the Blue Towers (in the language of the indigenous Aonikenk people) are mesmerising. You can't take your eyes off them, even when you can barely see them - because at any moment the clouds might drift away and reveal what we saw when we woke up on our last morning.

The boardwalk outside my room was icy when I stepped out, rugged up in down jacket and beanie, and even after looking at and photographing the mountains and the changing light for more than an hour I still couldn't take my eyes off them when I went inside for breakfast. One of the most spectacular sights I've seen, anywhere.

Dawn view, right outside my room
 4. It's exhilaratingly cold. Cold enough for us to need thermals, beanies, gloves and down jackets every time we went outside - in October - not to mention waterproof jackets and pants because rain (or sleet, or snow) is always imminent.

The vegetation is stunted, alpine-style. There's year-round snow on the highest peaks. We might have been at the same latitude as London, 51 degrees, but in the southern hemisphere the Southern Ocean makes this a bleak part of the world - you're basically on a finger of land jutting out into it.

Grey Glacier coming down the valley
5. There's no shortage of ice. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field, from which flow dozens of major glaciers, is the third largest ice mass in the world, after those in Antarctica and Greenland.

We did a boat trip one day to see Grey glacier and the wind screamed off it so violently we could barely stand on deck to take photos. But the crevasse-blues and jumbled terminal face were amazing to see up close.

6. Patagonia is named after a race of giants. Patagones (meaning "tall person") was the name Portuguese explorer Magellan gave to the Aonikenk people he encountered while exploring the South American coast in the 1520s, said to be twice as tall as they were.

A forest walk near Lake Grey
7. It's green. Besides icebergs and glaciers, Chilean Patagonia has incredible forests of Nothofagus, southern beech trees also found in Australia. In autumn (March-May) this part of Patagonia blazes with reds, oranges and yellows - a great time to come, particularly for photography.

8. Bruce Chatwin's epic turns 40 this year. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin sparked countless explorations and daydreams when it was published in 1977, partly because it's as much a meditation on nomadic life as it is an account of the six months Chatwin spent there (people knew how to travel then). It certainly inspired me when I was starting out as a writer, along with Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard.

A lone guanaco, native to Sth America
9. There's wildlife galore. Before we'd even arrived at the lodge on our first afternoon we saw an armadillo (an armadillo!) crossing the road like an armoured echidna. We also saw guanaco (like orange and white llamas) and condors, which have the second-largest wingspan after the wandering albatross. But no pumas, sadly, though there are lots in Torres del Paine National Park.

10. You can buy Patagonia-brand clothes there. It's disheartening that an outdoor brand is the first thing to come up now when you Google "Patagonia", but it's comforting to know that founder Yvon Chouinard named the company after climbing and surfing in Patagonia in 1968 (see my post 180 degrees of inspiration) and that Patagonia Inc has always been ahead of its time in terms of caring for the environment. And it's kind of cool that all the staff at explora Patagonia wear Patagonia gear.

Room with a stunning view
11. The best-ever view from a hotel. Looking like a ship that's run aground on the shore of a turquoise lake surrounded by mountains, explora Patagonia lodge is ideally situated for making the most of those views. For all its luxury, it's the kind of place where you can simply sit in an armchair pretending to read a book (while really looking at the view) or lie in bed, or a hot bath, listening to the rain pelting against the windows.

12. Hiking and horseriding. Every night before dinner an explora guide with a map would come over to chat with us and explain the next day's options, usually hikes and horserides with beret-wearing huasos (Chilean gauchos).

Horse and huaso (gaucho)
We'd be outside from 8am to 5pm, sometimes returning briefly to the lodge for lunch, taking in the landscape from different angles. Alas, there was no underwater angle this time: the lodge was perched on the edge of a gorgeous lake, but this is one place I didn't swim - it was just too cold.

I'll say one thing about short trips: they focus the mind so you make the most of every last second. Even as we drove away, I had my nose pressed to the window of the van trying to burn into my memory the vision of those mountains and how they looked for real, not in photos. It was also a preview trip, I decided, a way to know for sure that I'll do a multi-day hike there one day, soon I hope, or find some other way to stay in Patagonia for more than three magical days.

*

Big thanks to LATAM Airlines and Adventure World, which arranges tailored experiences all over the world, for this incredible experience. LATAM now flies non-stop from Melbourne to Santiago three times a week, on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, see latam.com

Saturday, 21 October 2017

How to see Iceland without the crowds

My latest travel story for Traveller in The Sydney Morning Herald was so well received I thought I'd share it here in case you (a) don't live in Australia or (b) didn't see last weekend's Herald.

Our ship was a time-capsule
back to pre-tourism Iceland
It's about the Lindblad Expeditions circumnavigation of Iceland I did in July (read my previous post about it here: 10 reasons to love Iceland) and the tourism boom that has seen 2.3 million visitors flocking to this island nation in the North Atlantic - why it happened, how Icelanders feel about it, how the country is changing and what's ahead.

It turns out that expedition cruising is a great way to sidestep the crowds at popular waterfalls, volcanoes and glaciers.

Here's an excerpt, and you can read the full story here: How to see Iceland without the crowds.

Iceland cometh
It's an overcast morning when our ship, the National Geographic Explorer, drops anchor in a quiet fjord in northwest Iceland. Those of us at the breakfast buffet peer out the windows at a world of stillness. 


One of the 10 milion North
Atlantic puffins in Iceland
While the crew readies a dozen inflatable kayaks, my shipmates and I dash to our cabins, throw on thermals, fleeces, waterproofs and lifejackets and head downstairs to the "mud room" where we're given EPIRB-like necklaces that remind us where we are: in a faraway corner of one of the world's wildest countries.

This is no follow-the-leader paddle. Instead we pair up, lower ourselves into two-person kayaks and push off into the view, free to go where we like.

At first my paddling partner and I drift, wowed my our surroundings: a U-shaped glacial valley, green walls curving upwards from sea level into a ceiling of low cloud, a speck of a farmhouse on the far shore. Behind us is the Greenland Sea, the water polished steel.

Then, movement: a North Atlantic puffin, a few silvery sand eels clamped in its harlequin beak, takes flight, red feet running on water, until, in a frenzy of flapping, it's airborne.

Watching it fly off into the empty landscape, I start to wonder: where are all the other tourists? 

Read on...

*

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

More than "fire and ice": 10 reasons to love Iceland

The more I travel, the bigger the world gets. Even after travelling professionally for more than 20 years, there are plenty of places I haven't been and Iceland was one of them, until a few weeks ago.

A brooding Icelandic landscape
I was embarrassingly ill-informed about Iceland before my trip. I knew about Bjork of course, and their pre-GFC banking crisis in 2008. I'd heard about the 2010 eruption of that volcano whose name few newsreaders could pronounce.

Last year I even read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, a brilliant novel about Iceland in the 1800s (written by an Australian, go figure), and saw a short film about the trials of being Iceland's only pro surfer: called The Accord it's a 40-minute blast of creativity and wild weather (you can watch the trailer here).

So THAT'S how you say it...
I also knew it's in the middle of a massive tourism boom, expecting 2.3 million visitors this year (mostly from the US). That's huge for a country with only 330,000 people.

A few weeks ago I found out why it's so hot right now, when I spent 10 days circumnavigating this island nation on a Lindblad Expeditions ship (a minnow by cruise standards with only 148 passengers) and hanging out in Reykjavik for a few days. In short: Iceland is amazing.

I love trips like this: by the end of them, you feel as if you understand the world a little better, or at least another jigsaw piece of it.

To be honest, Iceland is so spectacular, quirky, wild and curious I'm still getting my head around it.

So for now, 10 of the things I loved about Iceland:

Gudafoss, Iceland's Niagara
1. The water. I love anywhere that has great drinking water and Iceland's is possibly the best water I've tasted, coming as it does from glaciers that locked up precipitation long before the Industrial Revolution - so it's free of invisible, untastable nasties, not to mention chlorine and fluoride. 

2. Icelanders love swimming. These are my kind of people. Sure, the weather there doesn't always (or ever) make you feel like stripping down to your "togs" (that's Aussie, not Icelandic); I was there in mid-summer and the mercury rarely raised itself above 10C. But the good news is that swimming pools in Iceland - and there are a lot of them - are geothermally heated to about 28C.

It's not everyday you get to swim
watched by men in storm gear
I did a few laps in an outdoor Olympic-sized pool in Reykjavik then soaked in one of the smaller outdoor hot tubs alongside it - some of them filled with water heated to 44C, mmm. (Blue Lagoon is the most famous, and crowded, pool in the entire country, and worth visiting, but it's a turquoise mega-bath for soaking rather than actual swimming.)

One of the highlights of my expedition cruise was getting a chance to take a (brief) dip in the North Atlantic. The water was a chilly 9 degrees, but it was great to make contact with the water we'd been cruising on for more than a week.

The herring town of Siglufjordur,
on Iceland's north coast
3. Nature is king. For a small country, Iceland is pretty big, which puts humans back in their rightful place - not lording over everything as we like to do, but puny in the face of powerful natural forces such as volcanoes, glaciers, ice caps, steam vents and massive waterfalls. Wherever we went, we saw tiny colourful houses cradled by gigantic U-shaped glacial valleys, and heard about how it is to live with avalanches, eruptions, icebergs and long, dark winters. Respect.

4. Reykjavik. The northernmost capital in the world is a great city: small, walkable, full of cafes and outdoor shops (one brand's tagline is "Keeping Iceland warm since 1923"). And it's not as expensive as you think. Actually it is, but there are ways to cut costs: great hostels (I stayed at this one), free walking tours, Happy "Hours" that last all day and the Reykjavik City Card that gives you discounts on museums and public transport. 

5. Icelandic cinema. Going to the movies is another thing I love to do when I travel. Bio Paradis in downtown Reykjavik is a funky independent cinema just up the road from a vegan cafe and record shop (Kaffi Vinyl; Reykjavik is hipster heaven). It screens Icelandic movies with English subtitles (a win-win for locals and tourists) including one of the most beautiful and powerful films I've seen for a long time: Heartstone, a sort of Icelandic Stand By Me. 

Silver casts of the members (ahem)
of the Icelandic handball team
6. It's quirky. Iceland is odd, in delightful ways. It has the world's only penis museum (surprisingly impressive, see pic at left), beard beanies, wallets made of fish skin, a widespread belief in "hidden people" such as elves, trolls and changelings (roads and houses are even built around them).

Then there are the Yule Lads (Icelandic Santas), 13 wicked mountain trolls with names such as Spoon Licker and a cat that eats children who don't receive new clothes for Christmas. See what I mean?

7. It's clean and green. Almost all Iceland's electricity comes from two renewable sources: hydro and geothermal areas. And Reykjavik is aiming to be the world's first carbon neutral city by 2040. (Ironically, tourism is bumping up Iceland's carbon emissions because of the increasing number of cars and campervans on its roads.)

Viking humour
8. Vikings. I'm sorry to say I'm not a Game of Thrones fan, but Iceland makes you want to be - if you squint a little you can see men and women living brutal lives in big landscapes. And there are references to Vikings everywhere.

8. It's safe. Forget Nordic Noir dramas such as Trapped, which is set in Iceland (and is on SBS Ondemand). This is one of the safest countries in the world. Low unemployment helps, and high literacy, a small gene pool (everyone is related to everyone else), close-knit towns that keep people honest and almost-constant daylight in summer. So Iceland's police force keep busy by posting to Instagram (and have 162,000 followers! The population of Iceland is only 330,000).

It's impossible not to love puffins
9. Puffins. I first saw these harlequin-beaked birds in Norway, but they're synonymous with Iceland, which has an estimated 10 million North Atlantic puffins. Souvenir shops are even called "puffin shops".

10. Gender equality. Iceland had the first female president, in 1980, and the first lesbian prime minister, in 2009, and regularly tops the World Economic Forum's gender gap index. In fact it's the best place in the world to be a woman (according to an article in The Guardian last year). It didn't happen accidentally - Iceland's women have fought for equality (exhibit A: a protest in 1975 when almost all of Iceland's women went on strike for a day). But it's a start, and an inspiration to the rest of the world.

And I haven't even mentioned the friendliness of the people or the fact that they all speak English (as well as several other languages) and are welcoming to tourists (which is surprising when we have so swamped their country). There's just so much more to Iceland than "fire and ice".


Big thanks to Lindblad Expeditions for getting me to Iceland for their incredible 10-day Circumnavigation of Iceland voyage that has given me more to write about than any other recent trip. Iceland is that fascinating. To plan your trip there check out Inspired by Iceland (Iceland Tourism's website where you can sign the Icelandic Pledge to travel responsibly - if only more countries were like this).

Friday, 7 July 2017

10 things you didn't know about Jane Goodall

A couple of Fridays ago I almost got to meet one of my heroes when I heard Jane Goodall speak at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney. I was supposed to interview her, but Jane (no one calls her Dr Goodall) had to cancel - she was worn out by her week of Sydney engagements and, well, she is 83.

Pic: Jane Goodall Institute
Still, the three-hour "Evening with Dr Jane Goodall" event* was fascinating. She spoke for about 40 minutes about her life then did a Q&A with National Geographic presenter Hayden Turner.

What struck me was how real Jane is - no makeup, hair tied back in the trademark ponytail, dressed for comfort in a pale blue fleece and black slacks.

Then there's her calm, steady voice - halfway between the kindest schoolteacher you ever knew and the wise professor you always wished you'd had.

Jane in the field
Pic: Jane Goodall Institute
The world's most famous animal-lover is most famous for "redefining man" through her chimpanzee research in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, when she observed that primates use and make tools, a skill previously thought to be unique to humans. She also found that chimps have emotional lives, personalities and a dark side - just like us.

Even without meeting her, I learned a few things about her that night, things maybe you didn't know either. Here's my top 10:

Pic: Jane Goodall Institute
1. She is something of a guru, albeit a reluctant one. As soon as she walked onto the stage at the Hordern, before she'd even uttered a word, she received a standing ovation from the 3000 people there. She has that kind of presence, without being charismatic in the traditional sense.

2. She has loved animals since birth. "I popped out of the womb loving animals," she said. One of her earliest memories is of taking a handful of earthworms to bed with her, earth and all.

And she did her first fieldwork at the age of four, staking out the henhouse at a friend's farm to find out how (and where) eggs come out of chickens. "Isn't that the making of a little scientist?" she said after telling that story. "Curiosity, asking questions, not getting the right answer, deciding to find out for yourself, making a mistake, not giving up, learning patience - it was all there."

A young Goodall at Gombe
Pic: Jane Goodall Institute
3. She loves reading, too. In fact although her father gave her a toy chimpanzee when she was a year old, it was a book that sparked her dream of going to Africa: Tarzan of the Apes. As a romantic 10-year-old she "fell passionately in love with this glorious lord of the jungle". Of course she knew Tarzan wasn't real, but reading about him made her want to "grow up, go to Africa, live with wild animals and write books about them."

4. Her "amazing mother" was an important force in Jane's life. Vanne Morris-Goodall, a novelist, never crushed Jane's childhood love of animals, encouraged her to follow her dream (when others laughed and told her to "forget this nonsense about Africa") and spent three months in a tent with Jane at Gombe Stream National Park in 1960 when government authorities (Tanzania was the British Protectorate of Tanganyika then) didn't want a young woman living alone in the bush. They even caught malaria together - and survived, without the aid of anti-malarials.

Jane & David Greybeard
Pic: Hugo van Lawick
5. Everyone calls her Jane. She was born Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall on 3 April 1934 and later became Baroness Jane van Lawick-Goodall when she married National Geographic photographer Hugo van Lawick in 1964. She's now a Dame, a PhD and a UN Messenger of Peace. But everyone still refers to her and addresses her as simply "Jane".

Chimpanzees at Gombe
Pic: Jane Goodall Institute
6. She learned that animals have emotions and personalities not from chimpanzees but from her dog, she said. But spending time with chimpanzees in the wild did teach her how much like us they are. "With their gestures and postures and it's so clear when you look into the eyes of a chimpanzee... that you're looking into the eyes of a thinking, feeling, sentient being. It's not science, it's just how it is."

7. She believes in magic and often talks about the world's troubles stemming from "a disconnect between this clever brain and the human heart". When asked to describe a magical moment, she said, "Sometimes if I'm on my own in the rainforest, I get this feeling... the magic is when you as a person are no longer there, you're part of nature. You're part of it. That's magic."

Jane & Flint. Pic: Hugo van Lawick
for National Geographic
8. She travels constantly - she hasn't spent more than three weeks in one place since the mid-1980s - but not by choice. In 1986, after living at Gombe Stream for 15 years, she went to a conference of chimpanzee researchers and was shocked to learn that all over Africa chimpanzee numbers were decreasing, forests were disappearing, wild animals were being hunted commercially and exploited for entertainment and medical research. "I went to that conference as a scientist... and I left as an activist," she said.

9. She's a private person, despite being always in the public eye. "I can't go through an airport without somebody coming up to me saying, 'Are you Jane?' I always have to be on show, in a way. And I'm not that kind of person. That's a problem, it's a big problem for me."

But, ever the pragmatist, she uses her fame, the "National Geographic Jane", to spread the message that "each one of us makes a difference and that this planet is our only home and we have to save it."

Jane on "Jane's Peak"
Pic: National Geographic
10. She's still most at home in nature. When asked what her ideal day would be like, if she didn't have to do any talks or raise money for Gombe Research Station and her sanctuaries for orphaned chimps or promote her Roots & Shoots youth program, she doesn't even have to think about it:

"I'd be in a rainforest by myself. And if I couldn't be in a rainforest, I'd be at home in England, in the house that I grew up in, with a dog and a nice cosy fire, walking the dog and having time to read and write and just be, not do." Sounds pretty good to me.

~

*Big thanks to G Adventures for inviting me to "An Evening with Dr Jane Goodall" to celebrate their new Jane Goodall Collection of 20 wildlife-focused trips around the world and their updated Animal Welfare Policy, both of which have been endorsed by Jane. And to the Jane Goodall Institute of Australia for the images used here.