I just returned from the most incredible research trip cruising the Northwest Passage in the High Arctic. I was sailing on One Ocean Expedition‘s Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a Finnish-built, Russian-flagged by Canadian chartered expedition ship that is ice-strengthened for wild polar trips. It felt great to return to the Vavilov, which I sailed on in Antarctica last December researching my Great Global Bucket List book. Flying from Ottawa to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, I’d be joining 88 other passengers from around the world. We boarded the ship and headed up the ragged coastline (80% of Greenland, the world’s largest island) is covered by a thick ice sheet), arriving in the town of Sisimiut. It was like stepping into Iceland, or Norway, or northern Sweden. From there we spent two days crossing the Baffin Strait to the Inuit community of Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. Quite a contrast between the communities of Nunavut and Greenland! In Pond Inlet I went to the cultural centre to see some demonstrations of throat singing, one-footed high kicks, drumming, dancing and other Inuit games. You can’t believe you’re in Canada, but the local Co-op takes Canadian dollars (of course) and remarkably, you can get fresh veggies every day. Everything fresh is flown in, and the prices reflect this accordingly.
From Pond Inlet Captain Beluga (yes, that’s his real name) steered the ship north into the Lancaster Sound, and the start of the Northwest Passage. Now we were firmly on the trial of the doomed Franklin Expedition. With the discovery last year of the Erebus, the flagship of the 1845 expedition that vanished, there’s been a lot of news and interest into the fate of Franklin and his men. Forensic scientists recently confirmed signs of cannibalism on recovered human remains found scattered along the coast of King William Island. The Erebus and sister ship Terror didn’t get very far before sea-ice boxed them in for two years in a bleak, desolate place called Beechey Island. We visited the grave markers of three of Franklin’s men, lucky enough to have died of natural causes and not starvation. John Torrington, a 20-year-old sailor, was exhumed in the 1980′s and he’s been basically mummified by the permafrost. It was a bone chilling place, all the layers I was wearing didn’t stop the chill running down my spine. The stark landscape of the islands was contrasted by the lively crew and passengers, delicious hot meals, stocked Scotch bar and hot tub on board the Vavilov.
Hiking the tundra at Dundas Harbour on Devon Island, life in the Arctic was distinctly more colourful. Arctic cotton, poppies, willow and lichen practically glows under a bright sun. The colours on a clear day are unusually pure, as you can see in the images above. It took a while to find the famously scarce Arctic wildlife, but it was worth it when we did. Two large polar bears feasting on belugas on the shore of Conningham Bay. Hundreds of thousands of sea birds nesting on the dramatic cliffs of Prince Leopold Island. Some of the kayakers managed to spot some narwhals. I was more swept up in the history of the Franklin Expedition. How early explorers into the Northwest Passage suffered is beyond comprehension. In solidarity, I fell down a flight of stairs on my way from the hot tub to the sauna. How we suffer for our quests!
I’ll be writing more about this trip in the coming months, and it’s a terrific chapter in my upcoming book, The Great Northern Canada Bucket List (on shelves in February) as well as being featured in The Great Global Bucket List (on shelves in Fall 2016). Check out some of these incredible images taken by my talented photographer, shipmate and buddy Jeff Topham. Thanks to all my fellow passengers, One Ocean Expeditions, and the fabulous crew of the Akademik Sergey Vavilov!
Oh the Amazon
My Great Global Bucket List summer kicked off with a truly remarkable sailing down the Amazon river. I've skirted the Amazon a couple times, but I wanted a deep jungle experience, and I wanted it in style. That's how I found Aqua Expeditions, and their Aria luxury riverboat. It's like a floating five star hotel in one of the world's most hostile environments.
King size beds, rainshowers, air conditioning, stocked bar, a Jacuzzi, sundeck, viewing lounge, dining room and all with floor to ceiling windows. There are 16 luxury suites catering for up to 32 guests, with 24 crew catering to your every need. The whole time I'm thinking: This is the Amazon?
Before I get to the jungle I have to get to the food. The menu was created by one of Peru's rock star chefs, and executed to perfection. All local Amazonian fare like catfish and plantain and chili marshmallows and fruits you've never heard of. Every meal is a tasty adventure, served with complimentary (and well selected) wines from Chile.
There are two to three excursions a day, the passengers split into one of four skiffs, heading into the tributaries in search of wildlife. We saw sloth, monkeys, unbelievable varieties of birdlife, river dolphins, and also the many communities of people that call this part of the world their home.
Below was taken from a short walk on terra firma (land that does not flood) where I had a poison dart frog crawl up my leg, watched a local hold a huge hairy tarantula, dodged bullet ants, and felt the intense jungle heat and humidity. Although Brazil gets most of the attention (it holds 60% of the Amazon basin) the Peruvian Amazon is the size of Spain.
A boa constrictor doing it's thing during the jungle walk. Life is abundant and everywhere but you could walk right past it.
Mimosas at sunset, shortly before a night excursion to look for (and successfully grab hold of) caimans. There were 24 guests on my sailing from the USA, UK, Australia, Austria and Japan. Everyone got a long splendidly.
My wife joined me for this trip (we left our two year old with her grandparents) which made it an extra special assignment. This is the view of the Amazon from our cabin. At night, we watched the stars, during siestas, we watched the world float by.
You'll be able to read all about my adventures on the Aria and in the Amazon in my opus, The Great Global Bucket List, which will be on bookshelves in fall 2016. Special thanks to Aqua Expeditions and LAN Airlines for helping me tick this one off the list!
Next up: The Galapagos and the Arctic!
Credit: Flickr CC: Richard Rydge
Rio de Janeiro / Sydney / Cape Town
Come December, these are the world’s three most beautiful cities, the cool kids at the back of Planet Earth’s bus. They all have pristine beaches basking in the glow of a gorgeous summer, fuelled by an urban population all shook up and ready to pop, not to mention thousands of foreign invaders with no other purpose than to party their tans off. In Rio, it is traditional to wear all white on the Copacabana, where around two million people gather to watch the fireworks. Cape Town has its own smaller carnival, as thousands flock to the streets and beaches for outdoor parties, raves, and live music. I’ve witnessed the fireworks spectacle in Sydney on New Years Eve, duplicated at various points along the inlet, observing how locals excitedly judge the annual theme and pyro performance. Hold on to your purse and wallets, take a deep breath, and dive right in.
Stone Town, Zanzibar
It’s New Years Eve, and I find myself at a traditional ceremony, in which I become the subject of a tribal mating dance. It’s awkward enough for me being at a club and watching girls do the bump and grind, but tonight, the intensity and eroticism of the ritual gives me the clear impression that if I react in the wrong manner, I might wake up with a wife, a chicken, and three goats. It was approaching midnight by the time I left the compound, shaken but not stirred, and I found myself walking alongside a thick iron gate. Making sure the coast was clear, my friends and I climbed over it, and walked quietly amongst the giant marble columns of this former Sultan’s palace. Coconut trees ushered in the warm sea breeze, the clock struck 12, and we toasted to health, peace and safe travel, on the stairway of the House of Wonders.
Credit: Flickr CC: Bill Larkin
Times Square (New York) / Trafalgar Square (London)
Millions will gather on this frigid, bone chilling night, celebrating the end of yet another year in which humanity somehow avoided destroying itself. It all looks very fun on television at home, where you can gather with your friends in comfort, refuel your eggnog from the kitchen, and use a bathroom without strategies and maps. My own memories of Trafalgar Square on New Years Eve recall extreme cold, overwhelming crowds, belligerent Scandinavians, and tons of garbage. Sure, it’s great to be in the world’s most hip and happening cities on New Years Eve, but as with all the suggestions on this list, your immediate company makes all the difference when the ball drops. Unlike the summer beach cities, it’s a more tense in the northern hemisphere, so dress warm, smile lots, and be sure to empty your bladder whenever you get the chance.
All the amenities and attractions that make cruise ships such a luscious holiday option double on New Years Eve. Together with the guests (and crew), it’s a massive floating house party, where every detail has been thought of, and every whim catered to. The food buffet, enough to feed a mid-sized town in Botswana, is stocked with festive treats, as are the various bars around the ship. For the crew in charge of entertainment, they’ve no doubt planned something special – confetti, balloons, bad 80’s music. Everyone’s dressed up, couples in their love bubble, singles relaxed by the fact they can always blame their behaviour on New Years shenanigans. Tropical skies and strobe-light stars are just a few feet away, and the best part of the whole lot: you don’t have to drive anywhere. In fact, in stark contrast to navigating the immense crowds and traffic of a major city, when it comes to a cruise ship on New Years Eve, you don’t have to worry about much at all.
This is a true story. It’s New Years Eve, I’m backpacking alone, with a horrific case of flu. Woe is the traveller who feels sorry for himself, so I haul my sorry butt over to Temple Bar, Dublin’s rocking entertainment district. Like many other bars, Eamonn Dorans has an incredible Irish band burning the roof, raising my spirits, confirming that it’s no accident U2 come from these parts. At midnight, a cute girl approaches and tells me that it is tradition for girls to ask guys to kiss them on New Years Eve. Then another. Then another. This is why Dublin has found its place on my list, even if I did wake up in a strange bed with a stranger woman, hours outside of Dublin, a demolition crew wrecking havoc in my skull, and no recollection of how I ended up there. Bless me leprechauns!
Your Friend’s Place / In the Lounge with Your Family
Much like our other commoditized joys for celebration, the spirit of New Years Eve has been waning in recent years. It is a time to come together with friends, reflect on the joys, sorrows, triumphs and highlights of the previous year, and make blessings for the year to come. You can find an excuse to go clubbing (or party to excess) on any night of the year, but tonight, as the 08 rolls into the 09, we have a closet to hang all we that have to be grateful for. We have an opportunity to share our thoughts and dreams with those who matter most. Take it from me: If you are with the people you love, you are not missing anything, anywhere on New Years Eve. Wherever you are is exactly where you’re meant to be.
Here's to another inspiring, fun and safe year of travel.
That time legendary polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and I escaped certain death on the pack ice. Man, that was hilarious.
The story of how continents became continents is quite a fascinating one, and I'll let one of my favourite Youtubers CGP Grey explain it, because he explains things better than just about anybody else out there.
But the fact remains that I've never been to Antarctica, and to miss a country is one thing, but to miss a whole continent, well really, that's just annoying. I mean, what did that continent ever do to you? Besides being the most hostile, desolate, unforgiving, unwelcome and dangerous place on Earth?
To be fair, Antarctica isn't like that anymore, at least not for the vast majority of the people who visit each summer. Instead of fabric tents been torn to shreds, pack ice crushing ships and everyone eating the sled dogs, modern expedition vessels bring thousands of tourists into the peninsular each summer season - in safety and comfort.
I've wanted to go to Antarctica since forever, and now that I'm researching my new book, The Great Global Bucket List, I could not dare leave it out. This is why I'm packing for a 10-night journey on One Ocean Expedition's Russian-flagged Akademik Sergey Vavilov. I'll be flying to Buenos Aires, and onwards to Ushuaia, the most southern tip of South America, catching the boat there. British Columbia-based One Ocean Expeditions are the cream of the crop when it comes to Antarctic adventures. Their 117m boat has a bar, library, sauna, plunge pool, and presentation room for talks about penguins, and the great age of polar exploration. When men didn't complain even if frostbite had bitten off half their face.
Last week, I read Alfred Lansing's classic book about the story of Shackleton's incredible adventure on the ice in 1916. I couldn't put it down...what these men went through over 18 months stranded on the ice is a testament to survival, instinct and endurance. Refreshingly, nobody had to be eaten. But you're probably wondering why visiting Antarctica belongs on the Global Bucket List? Me too. I know the wildlife encounters are supposed to be incredible. There are icebergs the likes I've never seen before, and coastlines that defy description. Sailing the world's roughest crossing - The Drake Passage - is going to be an adventure in itself. However, the activity I can't stop thinking about is that, weather permitting, we will be spending a night sleeping on the pack itself. It's approaching summer solstice down there so stars are not the draw, nor the southern lights. It's the fact that I'll be spending a night on the elusive seventh continent, the one very few people get to see. With little access to the internet, my next post will be post-trip. If you don't hear from me in a month, send a rescue party. And I mean party...with hats and booze and confetti and cups to play beer pong with. I'll invite the penguins.
Gluttony on the High Seas
Ever wondered just how much food gets consumed in one week on a cruise ship? I got these stats from the Carnival Freedom, a behemoth that holds over 4000 people, and hosted my first cruise experience.
That's replenished every week, for just one of the many dozens of cruise ships feasting their way around the world. Here's an article about food supply on a cruise ship. What to make of all of this, in a world where people go hungry?
I defer to the Roman poet Horace, who wrote:
"Clogged with excess, the body drags the mind down with it."
Then he drank some more wine and fondled some grapes.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.