Namibia

My Journey – Namibia “Life’s an adventure – be in it”.

These words were life changing for me! A chance encounter with Rob Bickford of Mirrabac Small Group Tours and a visit to his website where I read this catchphrase, and I was hooked well and truly. I think I signed up for the trip before I really knew where Namibia was exactly. Once my deposit was paid, I was committed and so proceeded to find out as much as I could about Namibia.

The more I read, the more excited I became.

I knew I was in for the adventure of a lifetime. From the moment Rob and his driver picked up our group of travellers from Windhoek airport in the 15‐seater air‐conditioned super‐comfy bus, our next three weeks proved to be three of the most exciting, exhilarating weeks of my life.

Namibian tours

From the weirdly fascinating Quiver tree forest to the spectacular Giant’s Playground of dolomite rocks tossed as if by giants… through the Namib desert to the deserted town of Kolmanskop, filled with history and the romance of another era… where the residents lived extravagantly, and diamonds were plucked from the sands during the boom.

Another day was filled with the sights of the Fish River Canyon, second in size to the Grand Canyon. On to the rich red sand dunes of the Sossusvlei, viewed at sunrise, the sun casting deep shadows for excellent photo opportunities. This ancient land, eroded and reshaped by time is remarkable, the colours and light spectacular especially late afternoon when the colours of the landscape change from pink to lilac to lavender into deeper purple contrasting against the sky as the deep rich red of the African sunset fades into nightfall.

Rob is an excellent photographer and was always happy to help and advise those of us keen amateur photographers with getting the best angles and light for our photos. Something I really appreciated once back in New Zealand showing off my great photos!

From the desert to the Skeleton Coast … seaside Swakopmund, Namibia’s second largest town, is a rich cultural melting pot of old and new, full of elaborate Germanic architecture and a crystal museum displaying the world’s largest crystal. Further up the coast, there’s a seal colony, and a shipwreck pounded mercilessly by the furious surf. The rock engravings at Twyfelfontein, said to be 6,000 years old, were done by early bushmen. They depicted naïve images of animals and their tracks and people.

Game On!

Leaving the coast behind we headed up to Etosha National Park and then it was a case of “game on”. The adrenalin rush as you rounded a bend, never knowing what you might encounter… to suddenly find an elephant ambling across the track or several giraffes nibbling at the tallest trees, as we did, meant we always had ‘cameras at the ready’.

Namibian tours

The sight of the wild

The sight of zebra, wildebeest, springboks, kudu, impala, gemsbok, giraffe (to mention a few of the species taking their turn at the waterholes) fuelled our excitement, especially when we encountered a family of elephants complete with baby, unsteady on his legs but well‐ protected by the females, as they quenched their thirst in the middle of the afternoon.

Our final destination was Okonjima, the famous cheetah conservation lodge and home of the African Foundation, where we tracked cheetah by foot, viewed wild dogs and had close up encounters at dawn with the lions as they “posed” for us, stretching in the early morning sun. Would I return to Namibia? In a heartbeat.

I fell in love with Africa – it was everything I expected and more.

Written by Robin Daggar Namibian Explorer 2008

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Galapagos, Ecuador and Easter Island.

There are highlights every day but some stick with you. On our first full day out we ascended the Prince Phillip’s Steps on Genovesa Island. There we were greeted by a short-eared lava owl crouched in a crevice – Wow, now that was a treat and a great start to our Galapagos exploration.

Blue-footed boobies landing and taking off just metres from us, frigate birds feeding their chicks, cheeky mockingbirds, inquisitive seals, giant tortoises, swimming with the turtles – Wow!

Galapagos, Ecuador and Easter Island

On arrival at Easter Island another special moment – a familiar, friendly face welcoming us to the most isolated island on earth.

Sabrina, our affable and very knowledgeable guide, greeted each of us with an exotic frangipani lei and we were off to explore Easter Island. The moai proved as tantalizing and secretive as ever.

Galapagos, Ecuador and Easter Island

Ecuador’s mainland

Ecuador’s mainland tuned out ‘excitometer’. We arrived at Otavalo in time for the local cattle market, a very different experience to markets back home. Cows, bulls, pigs and sheep, cluttered and tethered in ramshackle ‘market’ pens. Chickens, roosters and assorted others lay around or strutted about depending on the mood. Buyers and sellers chatted, haggled and checked out deals.

Days of one ‘wow’ moment after another!

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Epic Patagonia

~ The landscape belongs to the person who looks at it~ Ralph Waldo Emerson.

And, in that vein, when you’re surveying the epic landscapes of Patagonia, it’s easy to feel like a very wealthy landowner indeed. The many faces of the Patagonian landscape have drawn explorers and adventurers since Portuguese mariner Fernando de Magallanes arrived in the region in 1520. Mountain peaks soaring from ragged pedestals to pierce churning clouds; extravagant glaciers carving corridors through extreme terrain to arrive at deeply crevassed facades; ethereal icebergs casting adrift from glaciers to ghost across dramatic lakes; golden pampas wafting in the breeze and offering refuge to wildlife. Last November it was time to see it all for ourselves.

Punta Arenas in Southernmost Chile is our hopping-off point, and the journey northward introduces us to the vast remoteness that characterizes the region. Windswept and lonely sheep estancias (ranches) stretch far to the left and right – the domain of resilient gauchos and opportunistic wandering guanaco and rhea.

Epic Patagonia

We call in at ‘Cueva del Milodón’ (Cave of the Mylodon) Natural Monument to marvel at the replica of the giant ground sloth found here (so glad we’re not meeting the real deal today!) then it’s on to ‘Los Torres’.

The National Park boasts mountains, glaciers, lakes and rivers. Centrepiece, Cordillera Paine, is a small mountain group including Paine Grande (largest); Los Torres (the towers); and, Los Cuernos (the horns).On our wildlife walk, we are rewarded with great wildlife sightings – grey fox, a hairy armadillo, guanacos and a number of puma. These sightings are all a special buzz!

Epic Patagonia

Patagonia’s gems

In our quest to see more of Patagonia’s gems we cross the border to El Calafate (Argentina). This charming town, gateway to Los Glaciares National Park, has a modern Glaciarium. We get a great introduction to the natural phenomena of ice and glaciers and to the Southern Patagonia Icefield, third largest reserve of fresh water in the world. Still, nothing adequately prepares us for the power of Perito Moreno Glacier. Unusual in that this glacier is actually advancing, this incredible beauty has a 5km-wide terminus and averages 74 metres above the water surface

Up next is the small mountain village of El Chalten. Stunning backdrop to this frontier post are the peaks of Cerro Torre and Mt Fitzroy. At 3,405m the latter is considered one of the world’s most technically challenging mountains to climb. We‘re not keen to test that theory, but you have the opportunity to trek to an iconic panoramic viewpoint of the Cerro Torres – yes, as spectacular as promised! The leisurely Condor Trail takes us to the vultures’ launching site and a vista of the peak-rimmed valley.

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Following in Darwin’s Footsteps

From the time the first islands in this remarkable archipelago thrust through the ocean floor some 3-5 million years ago, Galapagos has remained the youngest island in the group, Isabela and Fernandina, are still forming. Isolation has enabled the birds, mammals and reptiles of Galapagos to evolve in unique, even bizarre ways: ‘So silly they do not know how to flee’, according to the first written account of the islands in 1535.

touring galapagos

Even now, the wildlife remains largely unfazed by humans, so a visit to Galapagos means plenty of thrilling close-up encounters.

touring galapagos

Easter Island

The tiny isolated island lying some 3,800km west of Chile is known by many names: its original name Te Pito o Te Henua (‘The Centre of the World’); Rapa Nui (bestowed by Tahitian sailors in the 1860s); Easter Island (given by the first European visitor who arrived Easter Sunday 1722); and, Isla de Pascua, conferred by its Spanish-speaking owner, Chile. Often referred to as an open-air museum, it is one of the most remote places on earth. Although this triangular isle jutting from the Pacific Ocean is merely 160 km² in area, it is actually just the tip of a giant extinct volcano that rises ten thousand feet from the ocean floor. The island’s magnificent, enigmatic moai (stone statues) and cliff-top petroglyphs (rock carvings) pose as many questions as they answer about the fascinating but lost culture that once flourished here. Add in volcanic craters, lava formations, archaeological sites and brilliant blue-ocean views from every point, and visitors find Easter Island a surprisingly captivating destination.

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Costa Rica Ramble

It lies between two oceans, is world renown for its biodiversity and its locals have quirky names –like Mountain Spiny Pocket, Blue Jeans and Strawberry Poison Dart, to mention just a few. We’re talking one mouse and two frogs here but vibrant Costa Rica is ‘packed to the rafters’ with extravagant birds and intriguing wildlife, many with unusual monikers.

On the bird front, there are trogons, motmots, manakins and potoos; jacamars, limpkins, gnateaters and thick-knees. Throw in hundreds of species of exquisite hummingbirds and the country was spoilt for choice when it came to choosing a national bird. It settled on the beautifully ornate Resplendent Quetzal with its lime green, spiked hairstyle and very long, shimmery emerald tail, right? No, in fact, Costa Rica opted for the common Clay-coloured thrush! To make up for its lack of star appeal the national one has a more glamorous local name – Yigüirro.

Explore Costa Rica

While birds may claim centre stage in the Costa Rica Reality Revue, there are plenty of other unique celebrities in the show: various frogs – who knew they could be so colourful and cute?; reptiles – like the ‘Jesus Christ’ lizard (walks on water!); mammals – wildcats (mostly elusive), sloth, tapir and monkeys. There are cloud-forests rainforests, volcanoes and beaches. In fact, ‘Rich Coast’ has 5% of the world’s biodiversity but takes up just .25% of its landmass. Our Costa Rican ‘recce’ started in the capital, San José, where a brief stay in the busy city gave us a taste of the ‘Pura Vida’ that the sunny-natured Ticos live by. Then it was off to the countryside.

Costa Rica Ramble tour

First stop

First stop, remote Laguna de Lagato Ecolodge, at the end of a long, bumpy road. Countless colourful birds entertainment and background music by day, at night the profound silence of the rainforest was broken only by an occasional nocturnal hooter or croaker. Next up, Selva Verde Lodge tucked into the rainforest alongside the Sarapiqui River. A network of wooden walkways, hammocks waiting to be occupied, forest trails to be explored – Selva was another oasis of peace just like the many other lodges we put down at. From east to west, up and down, through small villages, big town centres and lush valleys we discovered the heart of Costa Rica. We were thrilled to spot an elusive jaguar deep in the forest; haunted by the howler monkeys; often out-manoeuvred by darting hummingbirds; seldom ready to move on. It was all too appealing so we’ll be heading back for more of nature at its best.

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Falkland Islands

Recent history rises in stark relief below as we descended over the bunkers bounding Mt Pleasant Airport. The Falkland Island’s international airport is a Royal Airforce Station, home to the 1,500 military personnel positioned here to protect Britain’s Overseas Territory.

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With our host for the first few days we set off on an interesting cross-country drive. While evidence of the 1982 war with Argentina litters the landscape, Derek tells us the locals prefer not to dwell on that traumatic period. Instead, they’re eager to share the islands’ treasured wildlife with the adventurers who have made it to this far-flung, self-governing outpost.

Arriving at Volunteer Point we are introduced to the islands’ Kings – penguins that is. It’s a stunning scene: 1,500 or so breeding pairs clustered in favoured sites across the low-lying hillside. With their golden yellow neck feathers the dignified and handsome birds are the the brightest among penguin species. At the nesting site the chicks are beginning to molt but they’re not yet ready to leave home or cease the ‘toddler tantrums’. Busy parents respond patiently to every demand. Down on the beach the regular committee meetings of adults deliberating on when and where to enter the waves are endlessly entertaining. The Kings share the Point with colonies of busy Gentoos and shy Magellanics so we’re happy photographers.

The Falklands

But the Falklands comprise almost 800 islands and we’ve got more to see. On Sealion Island we find the ungainly elephant seal. Whether lurking in the tussock or hauling from the surf, the hulking beast is grumpiness personified. Nearby, baby fur seals add the cuteness factor, while sea lions spat and spar. Bright-eyed Rock cormorants share the island’s southern tip with Rock Hopper penguins – oh, and one confused Macaroni penguin nesting with them. Capital Stanley adds the spice to the story. So much to see, so much to learn. Why not join us for the fascinating tale of the Falklands?

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Namibia – Deserts, Diamonds and Abandoned Dreams

“I closed my eyes, drew back the curtain…To see for certain, what I thought I knew…”

…so sang Joseph of the technicolour dreams. Like us, he may well have been dreaming of Namibia and the multi-hued visions we know for certain will thrill us every time we visit.

Travelling around Namibia is like turning the pages of Earth’s colourful history. Relentless erosion over many millennia has gnawed at ancient mountain chains leaving spectacular escarpments standing like sentinels above flattened plains where nomadic herds of zebra, oryx and springbok now roam.

Wherever you go you’re not far from the desert-like landscape. As the sun spills down on hot winter days (the best time to visit), it’s hard to imagine this was once a land of lakes and glaciers. But it was. The ancient San rock art in arid Twyfelfontein valley includes depictions of seabirds and marine mammals – we encounter desert elephants in the area today.

Explore Namibia

Evidence of the phenomenal metamorphosis from ice zone to desert over 100 million years throws drama and illusion across Namibia’s richly-tinted countryside. Seldom are things what they seem.

On a calm day, the landscape exudes a gentle timelessness but its unforgiving nature has tried locals, past and present; maybe none more so than the dreamers who flocked to a southern colonial outpost where diamonds were found lying in the sand in the early 1900s. A town, Kolmanskop, sprang up in the sand dunes becoming a mecca where many a miner’s dreams came true. All you’ll find there now are abandoned buildings with the ghosts of those dreams whistling and whining out stories of fortunes made and lost.

 Discover Namibia

The Sossusvlei sand dunes

The Sossusvlei sand dunes, transforming from grey to purple to pink to apricot at the whim of the wind, are but a mantle for the 30 million-year-old sandstone terraces that lie beneath them

Taking another cue from Joseph: “May we return… to the beginning…?” Yes, our inaugural destination is back on the schedule next year!

So if Namibia is on your ‘still waiting’ dream list maybe it’s time to wake up and go there!

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My memories of our Mirrabac Galapagos Explorer trip

Easter Island, Ecuador & The Galapagos Islands 2008.

Memories Of Easter Island.

Easter Island, Ecuador & The Galapagos Islands 2008.

Memories Of Easter Island.

Easter Island, Ecuador & The Galapagos Islands 2008.

Jane and I joined another Mirrabac tour, this time to Easter Island, Ecuador, & Galapagos Islands. Sixteen of us, included Rob and Maureen (tour leaders) along with Noel and Paul from previous tours. Good to have familiar faces, but we soon got to know the rest of the group and all got along well.

First stop, Easter Island.

Looking from the plane I saw a tiny triangular dot in the Pacific Ocean, 4025km from Tahiti, and 3,720km from Chile with only sea between. The island’s outline was etched in white from the huge waves breaking on the rocks and cliffs along the coast. Anakena Beach is the only sandy beach and there’s no sheltered harbour, just at Hanga Roa (the only settlement), a bay with a breakwater to provide some shelter for the fishing boats. The history of Easter Island was absolutely fascinating, if a bit scary. By deforesting the island they had almost became extinct – no trees meant little or no water, so no food, no timber etc. I was fascinated by the local Rapa Nui people and wondered at the similarities between them and the Maori people of New Zealand; similar features and similarities in the language. How did they, in a double‐hulled canoe, find this tiny island so far removed from any other Polynesian island, sometime between the 4th and 8th century A.D? And then there is the question of the relationship between the Rapa Nui and the Incas, posed by the similarities in characteristics evidenced in their construction of the Moai and stone walls. It was a haunting spiritual place in which we had absolute freedom to wander and explore. And of course the most famous of all, the Moai, apparently built to pay homage to the Rapa Nui’s ancestors. They are massive, ranging from 1 – 20 metres high, mostly placed in groups at various spots around the coastline, but many abandoned on the slopes of the volcano Ranu Raraku where the quarry was situated. How were they transported? Is this why the island became deforested? Why were the Moai subsequently flattened?

Epic Patagonia tour

Ecuador

Loved our few days in Ecuador and would love to spend more time there. Ecuador is a country of contrasts: the Spanish people and the native Indian people; the high mountainous country and the flat river delta at the coast. We visited Quito and Guayaquil, one on steep rocky hillsides the other on the flat river delta. We were not expecting to do any shopping on this trip, but we were taken to two market towns: Otavalo Indian market and the nearby Cotacachi leather market. Very soon we had “done” the Xmas shopping: scarves, belts and bags for the ladies, leather wallets and belts for the men, and for us lovely soft leather handbags! And you should see the beautiful soft leather, bright red jacket that Jane bought for herself!!!

The Cruise

Next, an 8‐day cruise on a 16‐berth launch around the Galapagos Islands. What a marvellous and friendly crew, there to ensure we were well looked after, extremely well‐fed and that we really enjoyed our trip. Wonderful wildlife: love the Blue‐footed Boobies, Albatross, Frigate birds, land and marine iguanas, sea lions; walking in around and right up close to them all. It was interesting to learn about ‘Lonesome George’ the last remaining tortoise from one of the islands. Attempts have been made to breed from him to endeavour to preserve the species but to no avail. However, recently I have heard that ‘Lonesome George’ may become a father. He has been successfully mated with a female who is of a closely related species. Whilst returning to the beach after snorkelling around the reef, I became surrounded by young, cavorting sea lions, an amazing experience! The tickle of whiskers on my cheek as one swam past from behind and then acted as though it was inviting me to go with it. Snorkelled with the beautiful reef fish, saw only two sea turtles.

Epic Patagonia tour

Story and photos by Barbara Pratt Galapagos Explorer 2008 Other Mirrabac tours taken:

  • 2005 – Turkey
  • 2007  – Namibian Explorer

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