Journey Along Cape Point Route, South Africa

12/12/12

Cape Point DriveMonday we enjoyed a self-guided, aimless, walking tour of Cape Town.  Yesterday we embarked on a drinking tour of South Africa. Today we set out to discover the beauty of South Africa by driving along the pristine Cape Point Route. There’s been no time for jetlag – and little time for sleep – we’re intent on making the most of every moment we have here in Cape Town.

On the recommendation of a friend of a friend, we connected with a phenomenal guide named Marion Ellis.  As with all the amazing people we’ve encountered in South Africa, Marion is more than a guide – she’s a friend and a tremendous host.

Marion met us in the lobby at More Quarters and suggested we go back to our rooms to gather hats and jackets. It’s summer in South Africa and Marion wanted to ensure we had everything we needed to protect us from the scorching sun and high winds.

As Marion led us along the gorgeous coasts of Cape Town, she shared history and insights about the development of each area.  We made our way through Camps Bay, Clifton Beaches, Hout Bay, Noordhoek, the gorgeous Chapman’s Peak Drive, Scarborough, and the Cape of Good Hope, before stopping for a picnic lunch (champagne included).

beach view We absorbed Marion’s verbal history of each point along the route as we stood outside, taking in the views. This was a very impressive and impactful way to learn more about South Africa.  Marion was born and raised here. She has experienced the development of these regions first-hand and has vast knowledge and wonderful stories to share.

We learned about some of the informal settlements and how the government and people are working to provide infrastructure and public services to those communities. One of the things that struck me most was the sight of thousands of shacks adjacent to some exceptionally nice homes in well-off neighborhoods.  In many places, in other countries, the poor often reside in certain neighborhoods, generally out of sight of the extremely wealthy.  It makes it easier to ignore the issues when you can’t see them.

In parts of South Africa, however, there’s no escaping it. Day in and day out, the hilltop views of some of the country’s wealthiest, those who have running water and numerous luxuries, are obstructed by shacks that appear to be barely standing. The issues here can’t be ignored and it was extremely interesting listening to Marion’s accounts of how they’re trying to tackle these challenges.

ElandWe also learned why there are two lighthouses at the Cape of Good Hope, what the city is doing to manage the baboons, and the vast ecosystems of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans which intersect here.  As we were leaving the Cape of Good Hope, Marion pointed out two eland.  Eland, the largest antelope, are shy animals so we were quite lucky to see them.  Marion suggested we journey to see the old bushmen cave paintings of eland the next time we come to South Africa. “The bushmen revered the eland,” she noted.

During a coffee stop earlier in the day, the kind man who’d been driving us around all day shared some of his personal history with us. I’m witholding his name in case he’d like some anonymity. The man was from an area called District Six. His grandfather had worked hard and built a house in the area, where our driver and his family lived. Beginning in the late 1960’s, under the apartheid regime, the 60,000+ residents of District Six were forced to leave, their homes bulldozed.

The apartheid regime then declared District Six a “whites-only” area and relocated the former inhabitants to poor, gang ridden communities. At the age of 19, this man was uprooted from his home, separated from his family, and forced to leave behind the life he knew and loved. The home his grandfather worked so hard for had been destroyed.

He had tears in his eyes when he finished telling the story. “Did you ever consider leaving South Africa?” we asked him. “No. I love my country,” he replied with honor and grace.

Boulders Beach PenguinsAfter lunch, we headed to Boulders Beach to see the penguin colony.  The penguins settled on the beach, in a residential neighborhood, in 1982, much to the dismay of the human residents. The penguins are protected, however, and Boulders Beach is a great place to view them in  their natural habitat. We did notice some entrepreneurial  human residents who had converted their garages into mini businesses to capitalize on this relatively recent tourist destination.

Penguin ReflectionOne of the things I’ve come to appreciate about South Africa is that the animals appear to have the right of way.  There seems to be an awareness and respect that we – people – are the visitors in the animals’ habitat. I’m often upset by the removal of wild animals from “suburban” areas in Los Angeles.  Where are the animals supposed to go as we continue to build on their land and force them out of their natural habitat? It’s inspiring to witness some of the fair, respectful, wildlife policies in South Africa.

We watched the penguins for a while and I was blown away by how they communicate.  It’s one thing to watch National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.  It’s another thing to stand 5 feet from penguins and observe their behavior.  We watched penguins approach one another and cock their heads as they squawked at each other, in animated conversation.  We saw two babies hounding their mom for food and watched several penguins swim and emerge from the ocean.

Next we headed to Kalk Bay where the brown sands of the Indian Ocean were present.  We learned that from atop Table Mountain, you can tell which ocean you’re looking at based on the color of the sand.  The Atlantic’s fine white beaches are a sharp contrast to the rust-colored sands of the Indian Ocean. Marion took us to a great gallery and shop in Kalk Bay so we could see the work of some local artisans.

As happened during yesterday’s wine excursion, we were not ready for our tour to end. On our way back to More Quarters Marion called Table Mountain Park.  “Is the mountain open?” she inquired.  Due to high winds, the mountain is often closed, so it’s important to check in advance before venturing to this landmark. “It’s open.  You should seize the moment and go up Table Mountain for sunset! It  may be closed tomorrow, so go while you can,” Marion suggested.

Table Mountain SunsetWe were exhausted, but we’re in Africa and we didn’t come here to sleep.  So, we dropped off our stuff at the hotel and took the cable car up Table Mountain. It was extremely crowded as a result of discounted prices after 6pm. Rather than fight the crowds for a spot at the edge of the mountain, we purchased some Pinotage, found a quiet table, and watched the sunset peacefully.

The cable ride car back down the mountain was spectacular and something I hadn’t expected.  With the sun now below the horizon, Cape Town was lit up beautifully against the night sky.

Before heading to bed, we popped into a great bar near More Quarters, Asoka, for a nightcap. There, we were introduced to one of the most delicious drinks I’ve ever had – vanilla vodka, shaken with fresh passion fruit, passion fruit puree and vanilla sugar. They serve it straight up, with a shot of champagne on the side. Two of those and it’s time to call it a night.

Tomorrow is our last day in Cape Town.  We don’t have any scheduled activities, just time to explore and enjoy the city. I have some friends who live here I’m going to attempt to connect with. I can’t wait to share my adventures with them and to hear and learn from their perspectives as well.

If you plan to visit Cape Town, I highly recommend you connect with Marion Ellis at Cape Insights.  She will make sure you get the most out of your time in South Africa, taking you on amazing custom tours and adventures. You’ll learn a lot and have a wonderful time!

Cape Insights
+27(0)21 424 0018 (GMT+2)
info@capeinsights.com

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Drinking Our Way Through South Africa

12/11/12 

stellenboschWe woke up early this morning so we’d have time for breakfast prior to the day’s wine tasting adventures.

The package we booked through Lion World Tours included a half-day trip to Stellenbosch, one of South Africa’s famous wine regions. However, we felt that traveling nearly 10,000 miles to South Africa warranted a full day in the Stellenbosch region, so we opted to extend the tour.  South Africa is known for its wine and we wanted to ensure we had ample time to appreciate it.

Our package also includes daily breakfast at More Quarters, where we’re staying. In my previous travel experiences, “breakfast included” equals continental breakfast, which isn’t really my thing.  So I anticipated that this may simply be a snack and that we’d get a “real breakfast” somewhere else.  I am pleased to report that I was entirely wrong. Breakfast at More Quarters is outstanding!

We were escorted to the dining room upstairs by Liz, who works at the front desk, but again, treats us more like old friends than hotel guests.  The dining room is beautiful, open and spacious, with windows on all sides.  There was a wonderful spread of fresh juices, tea, pastries, meats and cheeses, fruits, and cereals.  It was the  most elaborate “continental breakfast” I’d seen.

Next we were handed menus, which included a wonderful selection of egg dishes, as well as sweet items, and create-your-own options.  Breakfast at More Quarters is among the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. I’m already looking forward to tomorrow morning’s meal.

During breakfast I reflected on our day yesterday. I tried to recall my formal education – the lectures and the textbooks.  We were taught about apartheid at some point, I remember that much.  Yet, everything I learned was a “fact” presented on a piece of paper or talked at me by someone who couldn’t lend any first-hand perspective.  I’m grateful for school and I received a wonderful education, but I don’t feel I truly learned about apartheid until I came to Africa and heard about it from people who’ve lived through it.

I snapped out of my daydream and finished breakfast just before our guide, Sharif, arrived to escort us on our wine tour. We made arrangements to go to a few wineries early in the day and then meet up with the half-day group during the latter part of the day.

Fairview Goat GreetingOur wine tasting began at Fairview, known for their wines, cheeses, and goats.  When we arrived, we noticed a male goat sitting peacefully on the top floor of a tower. Shortly thereafter a female goat greeted us.

The GoatfatherWe selected a special tasting that included cheese pairing.  “Colette! It’s 9:15 in the morning and we’re already drinking,” my friend exclaimed, reveling in the absurdity of it all. “Cheers!” I replied, raising my glass.  I had no doubt we’d be able to endure the extended day of wine tasting.

First we were asked to choose either the “traditional path” or the “adventurous path”.  I chose the adventurous path, which allowed me to taste some of the winery’s more unique wines.

With our final glass of wine we were instructed to head over to the cheese tasting area so we could pair the wine with assorted cheeses.  The honey flavored goat cheese was my favorite.  Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to bring any back to the States.

Lion SanctuaryTaking a break from wine, we set off to Cheetah Outreach so we could learn about cheetahs. However, on the way to Cheetah Outreach we noticed a lion sanctuary. Drakenstein Lion Park rescues lions that have been raised in captivity and therefore would not survive in the wild. They rescue lions from circuses and from zoos that are closing down.

Coca Cola Sponsorship of Lion SanctuaryIt appears Coca Cola is a major contributor to the sanctuary.  I was happy to see a large company contributing funds to this important project, for what truly seems to be altruistic reasons.  I don’t imagine Coca Cola gets much global recognition for this effort, but they should.

We finished up at the lion sanctuary and continued on to Cheetah Outreach. Cheetah Outreach does important work to support the well-being of these endangered animals.  During our visit we learned that farmers have been shooting cheetahs who threaten their chickens. In an effort to reduce this, Cheetah Outreach breeds Turkish Anatolian Shepherd dogs and places them on South African farms to guard livestock.

Petting Cheetah JosephCheetah Outreach raises the dogs alongside chickens so that the dogs naturally become protective of the chickens and scare away potential predators. There are fewer than 1,000 cheetahs remaining in South Africa and Cheetah Outreach’s mission is to help ensure their survival in the wild.

While learning about the program, I got to pet an adult male cheetah, named Joseph.  He began purring the moment I touched him.  While I was well aware Joseph is a cat, I hadn’t expected him to purr.  His entire body hummed as we connected peacefully.

After our amazing animal encounters it was time to get back to drinking wine. The knowledgable staff at More Quarters recommended we visit and dine at Tokara.  The view at Tokara was breathtaking and the wine was some of the best I’ve ever had.  I purchased a bottle of their scarce, award-winning 2010 Pinotage which is not available for shipping in the U.S. I also shipped a few bottles of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet home.

We wanted to stay at Tokara all day, but the time had come for us to meet up with the half-day tour.   We connected with the rest of the group at Ernie Els Wine Reserve.  We took in the beauty of the property as we embarked down another tasting adventure. Ernie Els specializes in red wines.  While tasting, we learned that the vineyards are carefully arranged according to wind patterns, to minimize damage from high winds.

Ernie Ells Private CellarJust as our group was about to leave, another group was headed down for a tour of Ernie Els’ private cellar.  We spoke with both guides, as well as the staff at Ernie Els, and arranged to stay behind for the special tour.

The group of people we connected with on this portion of the tour were quite spirited and, like us, not quite ready to call it quits.  We asked our guide if we could stop by another winery rather than head back to the hotel.  Much to everyone’s delight, he obliged. We shared a lot of laughs – as well as several bathroom and water stops – with this fun group of people, solidifying several new friendships.

Still not ready to return home, we asked our wonderful guide if he’d drop us off at Mama Africa for traditional African food and live music.  Our new wine-enthusiast friends, Les and Dana, joined us and we had an absolutely amazing time.  The place was packed and it took 2 hours for our food to arrive, which meant nothing more than we had 2 additional hours to drink. We tried some new beers, various speciality shots, and some traditional cocktails.

A really fun live band called Abakhaya performed throughout the night.  I shot some video to share with you, but upon further review it turns out 16 hours of drinking does little for my cinematography skills.  You’ll just have to travel to Cape Town to see them. . . or take my word for it.

Off to bed.  Tomorrow is another full day of adventure as we embark on the famous Cape Point drive.

Arriving in Cape Town, South Africa

12/10/12 

We arrived. By the time we checked into More Quarters, it was 2:30pm Monday. This would have been our first moment to unwind since we began the series of flights Saturday night. However, rather than relaxing, we decided to seize the moment – and the daylight – to explore Cape Town. We quickly took showers, changed clothes and walked out the door. We didn’t really have a determined destination, we simply set out to explore.

IMG_1892 Cape Town is a city with prominent and unique geographic features.  Table Mountain, recently named one of the “New Seven Wonders of Nature”, is visible from nearly every vantage point.  The warm waters of the Indian Ocean and the cool waters of the Atlantic meet in Cape Town as well. The rich marine surroundings are exquisite, further highlighted by the vast mountains.

It’s so surreal that we’ve reminded ourselves we’re here numerous times throughout the day. There have been some comical and obvious indicators that we’re in new territory: figuring out how turn the lights on. . . and off, how to fill the bathtub. . . and drain it, and how to use an old metal key to open the gates leading to our hotel room.

Those are good indicators that we’re in unfamiliar territory, but the best indicator that we’re in Africa is the people. I’ve heard this –  and chances are you’ve heard this as well – the people in Africa are kind, hospitable, positive, and full of gratitude. We are blessed to experience this first-hand. Everyone we’ve encountered exudes joy, love and passion, even in the face of challenges.

People in Africa look up to America. We’re the Americans in town and they’re happy to see us. America is a place many say they aspire to live. “If I work hard, I can go there someday,” a wonderful man named Gilbert said, with a smile and the look of a dream-come-true in his eyes. “But I have to work really hard,” he added.

“Stay hopeful!” two young men we met today cheered. Obama’s words have traveresed continents. There are people in Africa, up against insurmountable odds, who have hope as a result of our President’s words and leadership.

People here are extremely interested in, informed, and invested in our politics. They depend on our policies, our foreign relations, our leadership, to pave the way for their future.

We walked down Kloof and Long streets to take it all in. The staff at More Quarters, who treat us as friends, told us about a place called Green Market Square where people sell African arts and crafts. However, we didn’t remember how to get there. As we walked aimlessly, we met a nice young South African couple who’d just returned from a hike. We asked them about Green Market Square and they kindly offered to lead us there.

As we were walking, they shared some of the history of South Africa with us. They told us that Green Market Square is initially where ships’ crews would come to stock up on freh produce before returning to sea. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was merely our first history lesson. Everywhere we went today, people shared history. It’s almost as if understanding its history is a prerequisite to truly experience and appreciate South Africa.

As we continued our walk, it became apparent why people are so adamant about sharing their country’s history. The history of Cape Town is exceptionally rich. To experience Cape Town, you must understand how it came to be. The couple continued to explain how Cape Town was discovered, developed, the origins of the classifications whites, colored, and black. The physical boundaries that came with the classifications went away with Apartheid, but their identities did not.

They talked to us about how things have changed since Apartheid was abolished. It was only very recently, from a historical perspective, that these three groups of people were allowed to integrate, share neighborhoods, schools, restaurants. As a result, there has been a tremendous amount of rapid change. The positive abolishment of Apartheid brought with it its own set of new challenges. It’s the beginning of a new era and everyone we meet is invested and active in positive change.

As I processed this information, sleep deprived, and disoriented, I heard “Here we are!” I looked at the couple, the brightest smiles shining on their faces. They take pride in sharing their country with us, in sharing each moment.

Our new friends left us with hugs and well wishes as we entered Green Market Square to begin purchasing gifts for friends and family back home. We were a bit overwhelmed by the quantity of art and goods before us.  Each time I picked something up, I asked who made it, where it originated.  Many of the pieces I inquired about came from Zimbabwe, a country we’ll be visiting at the end of our journey here.

We purchased a few items, vowing to return once we’d gotten some sleep, and found a nearby bar, The Slug & Lettuce, to unwind. Again, we were greeted as if we were family or long-lost friends, as opposed to visitors.  We enjoyed a few drinks, had inspiring conversations with locals, and walked away with a recommendation for dinner.

View of Table Mountain From The Waterfront

View of Table Mountain From The Waterfront

We enjoyed our first meal outside of an airplane or airport in 36 hours at a restaurant at The Waterfront, called Baia. A martini, a bottle of wine, and a delicious seafood platter were welcome comforts before enjoying our first night of sleep in a proper bed.

Our wake-up call tomorrow morning is set for 6:00am.  Our adventure: touring some of the wineries of Stellenbosch. A good night’s sleep is in order.

The Journey To Africa

December 9

IMG_2752I’m sitting awake on the second of three flights to South Africa. I should be sleeping now to get my body adjusted to the new time zone, but alas the Tylenol PM has worn off. Back-up plan activated: melatonin, red wine, and writing until the next wave of sleep kicks in. We’ve got 15 hours on this flight, so there’s time for it all.

It’s worth mentioning that my soundtrack at the moment is Tom McRae‘s album, Lowlands. It goes well with the red wine and dimmed lights of the aircraft cabin.

There’s something else: a Twix candy bar has never tasted so good as it did 5 minutes ago. We’ve been traveling since Saturday night. The journey began following 2 weeks of prep and packing. The task was made all that more challenging by the luggage weight restrictions. Due to the fact that we’ll be traveling to safari on smaller aircraft, there are strict baggage considerations. “44 pounds” has never been so meaningful. With the taxi waiting outside, I left a pair of pants and a raincoat behind. It seems trivial – how much could that really weigh? 1.2 pounds to be exact. So, some clothing gets sacrificed on behalf of my camera equipment, which I’m not sacrificing, despite its 17 pounds.

In all the packing and getting things set up at work, time was compressed leading up to this journey. There were some friends I just didn’t have time to see before I left town. I’m looking forward to sharing stories when we reunite.

One of my favorite things about life is how we can feel the presence of those we love, even when we’re 35,000 feet above ground, half a world away. My current sipping of red wine straight from the bottle brought laughter at the memory of the wine shortage on a recent train ride to visit the polar bears in Churchill. My friends Jeremy and Heather conspired to get off the train during the next “stop” and find wine. This was a two day journey and stops were infrequent, in the middle of nowhere, and brief. It’s up to the passengers to get themselves back on board before the train leaves. The train won’t wait for you and the crew won’t turn back. So, unless you’d like to be left behind in sub-zero degree weather, you may step off the train for some fresh air, but that’s about all you have time for.

Jeremy and Heather set their minds to acquiring wine. They were gone far too long, but much to everyone’s surprise, the train didn’t budge in their absence. Resourceful as ever, these two encouraged a couple of the crew to help facilitate their mission. Turns out, the crew was stopping at a market to pick up some supplies, so Jeremy and Heather hitched a ride with them. The smiles on their faces and the sigh of relief when they returned to the train is as funny as a memory now as it was at the time it occurred.

So yes, I’m drinking red wine from a bottle on a 15 hour flight from JFK to Johannesburg, sandwiched between a red eye flight from Los Angeles to New York and a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town. This, in combination with a hefty dose of melatonin, is a concoction worthy of inducing sleep.

Going to Africa has long been a dream of mine. Earlier this year I had a talk with myself. “What are you waiting for??” More time? More money? The “right” person to travel with? Yes, those seem like logical considerations… But upon further analysis, it turns out those are merely perceived obstacles I was allowing to stop me from fulfilling a dream.

If I had more time, it’s possible I’d be working less and not have the money to do a trip like this. If I had more money, I’d probably be working so much, I wouldn’t have time to embark on his journey. Such factors are unknown and can always stop us if we allow them to. I’m alive now – that’s truth. The only way to realize our dreams is to take steps to do so. So, in June, I made a commitment to myself to travel to Africa before year’s end.

A funny thing happens when you commit to something – it begins to come to fruition. The following day one of my close girlfriends called me, “I just filed for divorce, want to go on a big trip?” she asked. Then came an irresistable deal from Lion World Tours, advertised at Travelzoo. Within 48 hours, our trip to Africa was booked.

I don’t know what’s going to happen while we’re there. We have a loose itinerary and amazing things “to do”, but we’re both looking forward to the expanded perspective and unforeseen adventures that ensue.

In other news, this is my first time on South African Airlines and I’m exceptionally impressed. The service in Coach is equivalent to that which I’ve previously experienced in Business Class on other airlines. They should win an award, if they haven’t already.  Thankfully, no wine shortage here. One of the things South Africa is known for is its wine.

Well, the magical cocktail of melatonin, red wine and sleep deprivation is taking effect. Soundtrack: The Alternative Best Of Radiohead.

More soon. Or later.

Who’s Protecting The Polar Bears?

November 11, 2010

Bears and tracks in the snow

We woke up this morning to snow! Considering we’re in the Arctic, that shouldn’t be surprising nor cause for celebration, but the weather has been unseasonably warm for this time of year and that’s not ideal for the bears, so dropping temperatures and snow are a welcome relief.

The longer it takes for the ice to freeze, the longer the bears must wait to get the nourishment they need for the coming year. Earlier today, I was told that a beluga whale washed ashore this summer and that several bears fed off the whale, so they are in better shape than usual for this time of year. That said, others are not faring well.

Cub resting on mom

Depending on the length of time until the ice freezes, some bears won’t survive long enough to go out and hunt once the ice does freeze – the last time these bears ate was sometime early in the summer. This delayed freeze also necessitates that smaller bears, moms and cubs stay a safe distance away from large male bears whom pose a threat of potential cannibalism.

Hiding, trying to stay safe until the ice freezes

I’ve learned a lot during the past 2 days. Some of it fascinating, some of it disturbing, and much of it leaves me feeling conflicted.

 

 

 

Look at this picture (click thumbnail to enlarge):

Polar bears have become the icon for climate change issues and I understand why. If you think they’re “cute” or otherwise spectacular in pictures, that’s nothing compared to how exquisite they are in person.

Playful bears

Polar bears are strong, powerful, playful, tender, clever, and brave. At the same time, polar bears are exceptionally vulnerable. One “bad year” for polar bears can decrease their population significantly. As it stands, the polar bear population is on a steady decline, even during “good years.”  Some biologists estimate that, if things continue the way they’re going, we could have an ice-free Arctic within 40 years. In some Arctic regions, this could occur within the next 20 years.

Some effects of climate change that I’ve witnessed during my 3 visits to Churchill are:
• The ice is freezing later and later each season. This year, it’s already approximately 1 month later than the historical average for the ice to freeze, and it hasn’t frozen yet
• “Warm” temperatures and minimal snow on the ground in early November 2010
• An obvious decline in 2010 population of Arctic Fox due to lack of food source (lemmings) this year. We haven’t seen any Arctic Fox this year. People who have been here all season say they’ve seen very few Arctic Fox.
• Not as many bear sightings as previous years
• Bears with a lesser average weight than normal. Low body weight leads to population decline. i.e. Sows can’t get pregnant if they don’t weigh enough.

Being here in Churchill with the bears leaves me with the nagging question: Now that we’ve used polar bears to get people’s attention, who is protecting the bears?

More playful bears

The gift Churchill provides is that it offers an opportunity for people to witness polar bears in their natural habitat. This is important because when people observe the polar bears of Churchill, they have a tendency to talk about it. The messages and photos that reinforce the iconic use of the polar bear as a mascot for climate change are spread to mass consciousness as more and more people experience Churchill for themselves.

The power of these conversations and the sharing of information and experiences among friends, colleagues, families, and media is undeniable. I began this blog 3 years ago precisely so I could document these experiences and I’ve already been interviewed by journalists and by an author of a forthcoming book about polar bears.

There are also serious downfalls as a result of the success of polar bear tourism in Churchill. The main downfall is the impact the exploitation of this industry is having on the bears. During the course of this week alone I have witnessed:

• Photographers in vehicles chasing bears to various locations to obtain a desired photo. This is highly stressful to the bears and causes them to burn calories they need to be conserving until they can go out on the ice and hunt (photo by: Alan Watson)

• Private tour providers in vehicles physically “bumping” bears with cars

• Bears running toward staff vehicles of specific tour operators, signaling they’ve experienced some form of impact from people in these specific vehicles. They’re running up to the vehicles, not from them, which likely indicates they’ve received some reward (i.e. food) from people in these automobiles

•Photographers getting out of their cars and approaching bears within a few feet to get photos. You may think to yourself, “Well, if that idiot gets killed by a bear, that’s his own fault.” Yes, but if that idiot gets killed by a bear, then the bear also gets killed. So in the end, the bear still loses. (photo by: Alan Watson)

• Bears surrounded by cars, therefore unable to continue on their path (photo by: Alan Watson)

• Tundra buggy tracks leading off course, including one that appeared as if someone had done donuts in a buggy, on the tundra
• Tour operators with open food in close proximity of bears, so that the smell will lure the bears even closer to the vehicle/customers
• Tourists clapping and yelling at bears to “get their attention” or try to get them to come closer. This is happening on guided tours, with guides who should educate rather than tolerate this.
• Human food conditioning of bears (bears learning they can get food from people or as a result of people). i.e. enabling bears to eat “dog food” at a residence that also allows private tours on their property for published fees ranging from $500-$1,000 per person, per day
• Last year, we saw a photographer in a truck chase a bear into the water so that he could capture a picture of the bear swimming

The bear viewing industry in Churchill is having an obvious impact on the bears.

McNeil River Bears

Is it possible for people to be in close proximity of bears, without impact? There are definitely examples, such as the managed wildlife program at McNeil River, where if there is an impact, it’s absolutely imperceptible. I was fortunate enough to win the McNeil lottery this year and was able to visit the park that has the highest concentration of brown bears in the world.

Mom and Cubs at McNeil River

The program at McNeil River is highly managed, educates people thoroughly to ensure the bears do not experience any impact – positive/reward or negative/fear from visitors. You can only get into the program by winning a random lottery. 10 people are allowed into the park at a time, in 4-day sessions. In my opinion, McNeil River is the epitomizing example of peaceful co-existence between different species. I believe the keys to the success of this program are restricted access, education, consistency, and respect. I will write a separate story about McNeil River soon.

Unfortunately, in Churchill, it’s likely too late for a program like the one at McNeil to be effective. Churchill bears are already conditioned to the impact visitors have had on them over time. They associate people with food and fear – reward and punishment. The program at McNeil was established more than 30 years ago and has been in affect since the first day visitors were allowed in the park.

There are several things that should be done on a global level, as well as numerous things that can be done in Churchill to help protect the bears. There is certainly some legislation that could be instituted and enforced on a local level. However, Churchill is a very small town and there are a lot of politics involved within the community that make this a challenge. Tour operations should be better regulated, tour operators better informed. But, again – even the “best” tour groups in Churchill have illustrated some intentional negative impact on the bears. Plus, “polar bear tourism” is one of only 3 primary sources of revenue in the small town. Therefore, implementing anything that is perceived as a threat to the viability of the business, likely won’t pass. As a result, these operations are creating an additional threat to the viability of polar bears.

There are plenty of people focusing on the “problems” and what we “can’t do.” So what can we do?

I do not claim to be an expert on this – these are merely my recommendations based on what I’ve learned and my experiences in Churchill for the past 3 years.

If you have plans to or would like to visit Churchill:

  1. Consider traveling with either The Great Bear Foundation with Chuck Jonkel or Ursus International with Rupert Pilkington. A lot of people come to Churchill on their own and arrange tours within Churchill themselves. From the math I’ve done, there doesn’t seem to be a financial benefit to this. More important, if you travel with one of these 2 organized groups, you are participating in an actual field course that includes education and experiential learning. What does this mean? Well, instead of counting how many bears you saw, you’ll be learning about the behaviors of the bears you’ve witnessed, Arctic ecology, Inuit culture, and what you can do to help preserve Arctic ecology.
  2. Seek out a holistic education about the Arctic including: Arctic ecology, the people and communities, history, the Northwest Passage, sources of income, and of course, polar bears
  3. Integrate the knowledge you’ve acquired through your experiences in Churchill
  4. When in Churchill, support the following businesses:
    1. The Eskimo Museum – a wonderful Inuit museum with great gift shop. The money from sales here goes directly back into the community
    2. The Northern Store – the one and only (grocery/convenience) store in Churchill open year-round. They also provide a lot of jobs for locals
    3. Northern Images – retail arm of Canadian co-ops limited. Revenue from sales here goes back to co-op. Everyone in the community is a member of co-op and they receive their dividends just in time for Christmas
    4. Wapusk – owned by Churchill locals who are in town year-round. They also run a dog sled tour business
  5. Do not feed the bears nor try to lure them over with any kind of food
  6. Do not approach bears
  7. If you see behavior that is harmful to the animals (i.e. baiting bears with food, harassing bears with vehicles, speeding up or taking “short cuts” to see a bear by chasing after it on a tundra buggy, etc) or Arctic ecology (i.e. destroying the tundra by driving tundra buggies off established paths), DOCUMENT IT. Take pictures or video. You should try to report it to local authorities in Churchill, but don’t stop there. Take the story outside of Churchill. Global attention and support will likely be more effective in facilitating a positive change than keeping it local.
  8. Do NOT visit Brian Ladoon’s “sled dog” property
  9. If you do decide to go on a tundra buggy, please request JP as your guide on Frontiers North Tundra Buggy Adventures. I rode with JP 2 years in a row – he stays on the path, he’s a great interpreter (you’ll learn more about the bears), he doesn’t put the buggy in the way of the path a bear is walking, he ensures passengers are respectful and quiet around the bears, he stays away from bears that seem distressed. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for other guides I’ve had. It’s worth waiting for JP’s availability or not going out on a tundra buggy at all

Tour operators want you to have a good time; they want you to see a lot of bears. You will pay a considerable amount of money for this experience and it’s important that it doesn’t happen at the expense of the well-being of polar bears. Come to Churchill to support them, not to participate in their demise.

The amount of negative impact this experience can have on the bears is up to you. If a tour operator is doing any of the following things, it is NOT ok:

  • Baiting bears to a location or vehicle with food or food smells (opening food containers near bears)
  • Allowing passengers to clap at and yell to the bears to try to “get their attention” or get them to come closer
  • Obstructing or intersecting the path/course a polar bear is walking
  • Chasing after polar bears
  • Getting out of the vehicle in close proximity to the bears
  • Tundra buggy drivers driving off the designated course and established paths

Not everyone will be able to see polar bears in Churchill, so here are some things you can do to help, no matter where you live:

  • Here are some simple, easy, things you can do to minimize your carbon footprint from Polar Bears International and Stop Global Warming
  • If you’re looking to support an organization that provides year-round education and implementation of programs that support and protect wildlife, I highly recommend Greatbear.org.
  • Learn as much as you can about current and pending legislation re: climate change, oil drilling, wildlife protection. Know who your state and local representatives are so you can reach out to them about these issues
  • Help me take this story global — we need international support to protect the bears.  I can be reached at: colette@mytraveltales.com

These guys are counting on US:


Churchill Day 2: Fox, Polar Bears, Alarm Clocks

November 10, 2010

Polar bear chat

“Was that beeping noise meant to let us know it’s time to get ready?” Mickey, one of my Churchill roommates inquired at 7:08am.

“That beeping noise was my alarm, which means it’s the last possible time we can wake up to get ready,” I responded.

“Oh good. So all I need to focus on right now is getting dressed!” Mickey said, relieved.

Mickey is one of my favorite people on this trip. She’s a kind, funny 77-year old woman, who lives in Montana, loves to go dancing, and plays along with our silly games. She’s known about this trip for a long time and felt this was the year she had to do it, “because I’m not getting any younger and neither is Chuck,” she explained the day we first met.

We got dressed quickly and made our way to the kitchen (kitchen by day; “bar” by night) for breakfast and coffee. There’s a strategy to the morning coffee consumption in Churchill: you want to drink enough coffee to wake you up and keep you going for several hours, but not so much that you need to go to the restroom every 20 minutes after we head out to look for bears. It’s a delicate balance and after 3 years, I still don’t quite have it mastered.

Black phase red fox

Black phase red fox

After ample nourishment and caffeine, we bundled up and headed out for some bear viewing. It was very overcast today, with weather reports threatening rain. “The problem with rain, “Chuck explained, ”is that then it gets cold and the ground could freeze. A layer of ice forms above the ground and foxes and other Arctic animals can’t get to their food source – voles, lemmings, and other little critters.”

Fox sense of humor

Thankfully, we didn’t have rain today and we were lucky enough to see a red fox and a black-phase red fox. Fox are fun to observe because they appear playful, curious, and somewhat mischievous. The black-phase red fox approached us rapidly. Then, he eliminated in front of us, causing everyone to change their coos from “Awww, how cute! He’s coming over to see us!” to “Oh wow – he’s taking a. . .”

Bear on land without snow

Bear on land without snow

We also saw several beautiful bears today. You may have noticed in yesterday’s blog, there were a couple instances when I said I’d “fill you in later.” I’m going to do this again today and here’s why: I’ve been blogging about my adventures in Churchill for 3 years now and it has come to my attention that a hunting blog is republishing information about where the bears are, on what dates, and using these details to inform their polar bear hunting plans. So, I will give you as much information as I can now, without giving away so many details that I somehow help people whose intention is to kill the bears.

Two things I can tell you now:

  • We’re seeing a lot fewer bears than we saw last year and
  • We’re quite late in the season and there’s hardly any snow on the ground.

As we got back on the bus to head “home” for dinner, Mickey pulled me aside. “The people in the back of the bus always seem to be having a lot more fun than the rest of us,” she said. “You guys are always laughing and having a great time.”

I wholeheartedly encouraged Mickey to join us in the back of the bus. “Well, I would love to, but I don’t want to breathe in those fumes and the carbon monoxide.” Yes, it’s true – the bus has its challenges, but as Jeremy likes to say, “I guess it makes it more adventurous having this bus. . . you never know if you’re going to make it.”

“When I go out dancing,” Mickey continued, “there’s always one table of people who are laughing harder and more than most – that’s always my table!”

“I hope I ‘grow up’ like you,” I said. The laughter and adventures should never end.

Here are some pictures I took during our adventures today (click thumbnails for larger pics):

Polar Bear

The first bear I saw today

Walking in the willows along the horizon

Fox

Meeting of the minds

Nose to nose

Wanna dance?

Did you step in something?

I'm gonna getcha

Gotcha!

Pinned

Hug It Out

Until tomorrow. . .

Churchill, When Everyone Else Goes To Sleep

November 9, 2010 – November 10, 2010

I have some work to do tonight, but I will never get away with sitting in “the lab.” The late-night kitchen crew – there are a few regulars year to year, along with some newbies – is in the kitchen/dining room, drinking. This helps explain why several people insisted on calling the “Dining Car” on the train, “the Bar.”

The late night kitchen gathering has been an annual tradition since long before I joined this trip. Every night, after the evening lecture, 99% of the group goes to sleep to rest up for the adventures of the next day. The other 1% head into the kitchen to share stories and. . . drink.

I’m not drinking currently, nor was I drinking last year, but this does not excuse my absence from the kitchen pow wows each evening. If I am found anywhere other than the kitchen after 9pm, somebody comes to coerce me to join them. Coercion may be an understatement since compliance is mandatory. One of the reasons I love this tradition is that another biologist, Rupert Pilkington, leads a course here during the same time we’re in town and I always enjoy hearing his perspectives. Rupert works and travels around the world and is an exceptional storyteller. He’ll tell you about walking from the couch to the refrigerator: the story will take 40-minutes, and at least 8 fascinating encounters or experiences will take place between the couch and the refrigerator. You don’t want to miss Rupert’s stories. He’s also very knowledgeable about bears and world issues in general, and has the real-world experience to validate it.

Topics covered so far (it’s just after 1:00am) include:

• The health benefits of Blue M&Ms (this was Beth, not Rupert)
• Variances in the health systems of America, the UK, and Canada
• American politics (this was a very short conversation)
• Testing math skills by calculating how many bottles of wine are remaining among the group after the first night in Churchill
• Stories about traveling around the world
• Exploitation of polar bears
• Spirit Bears (White black bear)
• Sneaking alcohol on the train
• The many ways Rupert Pilkington earned his title as Shannon’s “Second Most-Useless Friend”
• Solutions re: Polar bear hunting

As you can see, everything from the serious to the silly is covered, often in great detail, until people can no longer keep their eyes open. . . or, until it’s time for the next day of polar bear observation to officially begin.