The seaplane dips ever so slightly as we approach to land on the glacial waters surrounding the wild, remote islands and inlets of British Columbia's far north-west.
From my vantage point in the cockpit, the pine forests stretch endlessly into the horizon, their uniformity broken by the occasional snow-capped rocky mountain peak. Apart from the odd lone fishing boat, there are no obvious signs of human life. We begin to close in on the green-blue waters of a fjord below with a gentle bump signalling our landing. As our pilot steers the aircraft down the waterway, the green-roofed floating log cabins of Knight Inlet Lodge come into view. Against the dramatic backdrop of the mountains, they seem positively dwarfed.
``Welcome to bear country,'' our pilot says as we pull up outside the lodge.
The bears he is referring to are the grizzlies -- the admired and feared animals which dominate Canada's north-west outskirts. Knight Inlet has one of the largest concentrations in British Columbia. The guests who make the journey here come for just one purpose: to see these animals up close. Two of the lodge's staff come over to greet us before we are led to our rooms. Mine is tucked away at the back of a cosy timber cabin with a fireplace and spectacular views across the inlet. We're given just enough time to settle in before the Lodge's guides direct us to a boat for our first bear-spotting session. As we set off, we are told the rules of bear-watching: no loud-talking, perfume or camera-flashes; the idea, of course, is not to attract attention. No more than a few minutes have passed when our guide -- a Canadian local who drives huskies during the winter -- points ahead to a moving brown figure behind a bush. It moves forward so that its shape can be seen. Yep, it's a bear -- and a big one at that. We are told he is around 180kg and most likely a male. The boat's engine is turned off and we sit and watch. It is so quiet that the cracking sound of branches being broken by the bear as he feeds echo through the valley. He eventually catches our scent and briefly lifts his large round head to sniff the air. Deciding the salmonberries on his bush are far more interesting, he resumes eating. We leave him be and continue our search. The anchor is pulled up and we head to a grassland area further north where we find two smaller grizzlies on the water's edge. We are told there can be up to 40 bears sighted within a few kilometres of the lodge. As they like to feed by the water, you're likely to see at least a dozen, even on a bad day. Satisfied with our first bear sightings, we head back to the Lodge for dinner.
Knight Inlet's two resident chefs have been cooking all day and their efforts of crab, roast beef, vegetables and varied cakes and sweets are devoured by our hungry crew. By the end of the meal, I feel as if I've consumed an entire bear. Still, I somehow manage to squeeze in a glass of red by the fire where the rest of the guests have gathered. The next morning, after waking to the sounds of bird calls, we are split into groups -- some will go off on a hike while others will take out the kayaks. Our group is hiking through a forest to see where the bears sleep, eat and just hang out. After a short motorboat cruise down the inlet, we disembark before boarding a big bear-proof truck for our journey into the forest. Unlike the rules on the boat, we are instructed to talk loudly when off the truck to let the bears know we are here. The aim of this tour is to see where the bears live, but not to actually run into one. If they know we are here, they will keep their distance. We follow an old logging route into the forest. Light soon turns to darkness as the thick rainforest canopy blots out the sun. We eventually pull over to begin the first of a series of short walks into the bush. A few steps down a trail, we are stopped by our guide who crouches down near a brown mound ... bear droppings, and still warm. We look around nervously, but all is still: whatever left it behind has moved on. As we move further down the trail, we come across a large sheltered depression beneath an old-growth rainforest tree. Our guide explains it is a ``day bed'' -- a place for bears to sleep in between foraging for food. Not far away we find a tree covered in bear fur which is used as a scratching post. After a good few hours exploring, we head back to the Lodge for lunch before our afternoon bear-viewing tours. This time, more bears have come out to play. As we watch, two cubs take part in a spectacular chase along the water's edge. The pair are pursued by a cranky adult grizzly who has apparently objected to their presence. Further along the inlet, a large chocolate-coloured head of another bear appears above the grasses. We also encounter a pair of bald-headed eagles carrying sticks to a nest, and an enormous sleeping seal making use of a random log which has floated into the inlet. One of the guides offers to take us on an afternoon cruise to some of the inlet's glacial waterfalls. A thick blanket of fog descends into the cove before lifting to reveal mountain-top glaciers and sheer rock faces with waterfalls fuelled by melting snow. We also see more bald-headed eagles and seals. But it's too early in the season for whales, which also frequent the local waters. By the end of my three-day stay, I feel as if I have stepped back into a time and place before humans occupied the planet. With just four hours left before I must fly home, I decide to squeeze in a last-minute kayaking tour. Three grizzly bears are out on the shoreline. My kayak drifts towards one of them. Although I am a good few metres away, I can see all his features in great detail -- from the hump on his back, a small scar on his head to his giant front paws. I thank him for allowing me into his home.
Several major airlines fly from Sydney to Vancouver, from about $AU1300. The lodge, Knight Inlet Lodge, is 80km north-west of Campbell River, British Columbia. Guests flying from Vancouver stay overnight at Campbell River before taking a float-plane to Glendale Cove.
Package: ... Scenic Tours' four-day grizzly bear expedition can be added to any of its tours or taken alone from May to late October. Fare from $AU2345 includes return air faresfrom Vancouver, two nights at Knight Inlet Lodge, one night at Campbell River. All-weather gear and boots included. More: www.scenictours.com or 1300 723 642.
Sydney boasts a fabulously scenic zoo with animals from around the world living on grounds sitting majestically opposite the Sydney Harbour Bridge skyline.
A trip to the zoo is a definitely a great day out in Sydney. You'll walk through the entrance and see giraffes posing against this amazing skyline – a sight made infamous thanks to instagram, and because these giraffes sure know how to pose. You'll then stroll through the park observing animals in re-created living environments.
A great idea is to jump on the aerial pods on arrival, which take approx ten minutes to move over the park. You’ll get an idea of the entire zoo space, take iPhone snapshots of elephants from the air, and perhaps a selfie of yourself in the pod with that spectacular horizon in the background.
You can plan your day to the Zoo’s busy schedule of animal talks. Perhaps a seal show, or the koala encounter, and then inbetween shows visit your favourite animals. The Australian native black cockatoos with fancy yellow tips are a beautiful sight, and the gorillas are intriguing to watch with such adorable human expressions. Perhaps you'll choose to stroll past the playful seals 'barking' and splashing about in outdoor pools. The seals then dive below the surface into what is the underground viewing pool, if you wander underground to watch them swimming it is a very peaceful moment. Or maybe you'll want to visit the stylish looking zebras in the African Safari section, next to the mountain rams sunning themselves on rocky outdoor slopes.
If you’re more of a reptile person than a cuddly koala fan, head to the reptile centre. Through the safety of glass walls, see the most colourful reptiles living in their own little worlds. Some are ridiculously cute, and some are slithery and … well, snakes. If you are a snake fan you’re in for a real treat – every kind; giant sized pythons, underwater sea snakes, bright green tree snakes, and more. Watch them sleep, slither, and eat.
A trip to the zoo is a full day's activity. If you don't bring your own lunch, the cafe's and eateries are modern, moderately priced, and a nice environment to sit in. Be prepared to fall in love with a milion stuffed animals in the gift stores. There's plenty of paid parking, or nearby residency street parking. And expect to be spending the day with lots of children, the zoo is obviously a popular day trip!
The chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador is famous for its inspiration of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection. Here on the Galapagos Islands, animals have evolved and adapted to survive in ways found nowhere else on earth.
I recently had the incredible opportunity to go on a 7-day Galapagos wildlife cruise with Ecoventura, one of the most eco-friendly and sustainable tourism companies in the Ecuadorian archipelago. We set off from San Cristobal, on a path that crossed the equator six times and visited 7 islands during the week. Hiking, snorkeling and kayaking were all part of the activities to view the islands and their unique ecosystems and wildlife. One of the most unusual aspects of Galapagos wildlife is how unafraid they are, how completely unperturbed they are by people. Because they are protected and mostly have no natural predators, they really fear little and see no threat from humans in modern times. They do not flee — there is no searching and waiting to spot wildlife. It is right there in front of you, and you can walk right up to them. Our Ecoventura guides, both named Pepe, were clear about the rules not to touch or interact with the animals. But you literally can walk right up to them — iguanas, birds in their nests with babies, sea lions who will swim right up to the boat and want to play. This can also be their downfall, if not properly protected. "The Islands retain a staggering 95% of their endemic species, a feat unparalleled on any other archipelago in the world," says Santiago Dunn, owner of Ecoventura. "Keeping Galapagos biologically pristine has been and continues to be, a constant and hard-waged battle. Tourism to this remote volcanic archipelago is both part of the solution and also part of the problem." One thing I really liked about the Ecoventura line, besides the wonderful guides and staff, was their dedication to making the least footprint possible on this ecosystem. The boat we were on, The Eric, had solar panels and wind turbines to supplement the power. Ecoventura was was the first company to earn and maintain the ecological certification, SmartVoyager, and the first Galapagos cruise ship company to offset carbon emissions and to install alternative energy sources. This is so important in the Galapagos Islands. Darwin’s enchanted isles are one of our planets most precious and unique ecosystems, home to an extraordinary profusion of exotic flora and fauna. In 1959, a hundred years after the publication of The Origin of Species, Ecuador declared 97% of the Islands landmass a national park and in 2001, the marine reserve was established. In 2007, three decades after being designated the first World Heritage Site, UNESCO declared Galapagos as a World Heritage Site at risk, citing introduction of alien species, illegal fishing, unsustainable tourism, illegal migration and population growth. Galapagos was later removed from the list in 2010, but many conservationists feel this was done prematurely as the Islands still remain very much at risk. Arrivals to the Galapagos have tripled in the past 15 years due to the growth in land-based tourism operations. During this time the type of tourism available to visitors has changed with land based accommodation and activities now representing 50% of the market, according to the Galapagos Conservation Trust. Pressure to build resort style hotels and bring larger cruise ships to Galapagos is a constant reality. "The growing number of settlers migrating from the mainland of Ecuador to the islands, largely in response to the recent boom in tourism, has also put pressure on a fragile environment that imperils the entire ecosystem," Dunn adds. Visiting the islands by water, as a tourist, has by far a lower impact than land tourism. The number of highly regulated, self-contained non-diving live-aboard tour boats has not changed since 1998 after the introduction of the Special Law for Galapagos. Ecoventura is committed to providing an authentic experience in small compatible groups, lessening the impact on the wildlife, offering value, and a safe, memorable, mind-expanding voyage. The company began offering tours in the Galapagos in 1991 and started “greening” the operation and equipment in 1999, and later worked toward reducing carbon emissions and ensuring the local community benefits by tourism through educational opportunities and supporting marine conservation. So, what should a potential visitor to the Galapagos know, in terms of how to select a reputable tour operator and how to visit the Galapagos in a way that won’t harm it? “They need to do their research through guide books, Trip Advisor, etc. or through a trade organization such as IGTOA (international Galapagos Tour Operators Association),” Dunn suggests. “Unless people have limited time and budget or prefer ports to nature, we suggest they book a tour boat versus a hotel or island hopping trip for various reasons.” Liveaboards are self-contained and have less impact on the local limited resources. Convenience, all the planning and logistics are done, the itinerary is set, all meals are provided, and there is continuity, and you only have to pack and unpack once. Navigating at night means fewer daylight hours are lost while spent in transit and passengers have more time on the islands. Tour boats, also called liveaboards, visit the islands and wildlife in the early morning and late afternoon, when wildlife is more active and the sun less intense. IGTOA also provides a few other tips for visitors to the Galapagos: Do not take any food or drink other than water to the uninhabited islands. Do not touch or feed the animals. A distance of six feet between you and an animal is required. Also, do not allow them to touch you. Ask your tour operator if they have a responsible tourism policy. Only travel with operators that can demonstrate that they are doing as much as they can to support conservation efforts and ensure that local people benefit as a result of tourism. Consider your environmental impact when traveling. Fully cooperate with environmental inspection and quarantine services personnel during your visit. Introduced plants, animals, and certain foods not native to the islands are a serious threat to the delicate ecosystems here. Do not buy souvenirs or objects made of native plants or animals from the islands, especially black coral, volcanic rocks, native woods, sea lion teeth, or tortoise shells Travel with a local tour operator. Ensuring that tourism is of maximum benefit to local people is key to the sustainable development of the islands. Following these guidelines and committing to be a responsible tourist will help to ensure that Galapagos tourism is sustainable in the future.