Text: Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
I am seated in front of my tent, browsing through my notes from last year’s Tracks and Signs course as we have just come across a leopard track during this morning’s game walk with our EcoTraining instructor Tayla McCurdy. Suddenly the atmosphere changes and I sense a presence. I look up from my notebook when a 2.5-meter (8 feet) tall elephant appears out of the thickets a mere 4 meters (12 feet) away from me, approaching silently. I stare at the grey giant who casually grabs loads of fresh grass. “Hello beauty”, I speak in a calm voice while rapidly scanning for more of his family members. “I am seated right here… Do you see me?” The elephant looks at me, reacting to my calming tone with which I have just announced myself. He sticks his trunk up in the air to smell me. From its round skull I make out it is a young bull, maybe 15 years old. He gets a bit closer and starts to reach for the bark of the marula tree that shades me from the African sun. Feeding in a relaxed way, he shows no sign of annoyance nor aggressivity and has clearly acknowledged my presence. With his acute senses, he must have known for a while I was around and he decided to pass by our small unfenced camp deliberately. For a few precious minutes, I observe the gentle giant as much as he observes me, before he wanders off to another patch of fresh grass. Despite the seemingly peaceful moment, all my senses are on high alert and I am very aware of my surroundings. The rest of the large breeding herd feeds on further away thickets. As the magic moment has just passed, I recall Tayla lecturing us earlier on dos and don’ts with wildlife and the power of our voice: this EcoTraining Field Guide Course in the Greater Kruger, South Africa, has already come in really handy…
Text: Claire Lessiau Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
The waves are crashing on the beach. The Milky Way lights up the sky. The Moon is nowhere to be seen and darkness is surrounding us. Only the faint light of Mbuko’s torch casts a red hue on the slopes of the sand dunes to our left. To our right, the foam of the waves breaking on the beach leave a whitish hue. Mbuko is walking confidently through the soft sand analysing every track he comes across. He freezes as he shines his light on an oval shape sticking out which we follow with our gaze. A ghost crab is firmly grabbing a newly hatched loggerhead turtle. The tiny reptile, no more than 5-centimetre long (2 inches) is still alive. We silently observe how the crab runs to its hole in the sand dragging its bloody prey. We scan the surroundings in search for more loggerhead hatchlings. We spot another new-born, already trapped in a crab’s hole. This is the destiny of the vast majority of turtle hatchlings. If the spectacle of turtles laying eggs and hatchlings running to the ocean at night is magical, it is also a cruel scene, during which human intervention is uncaught for. We silently walk back to the desolated Thonga Beach Lodge where we started from, on foot, an hour earlier, the only lodge for miles along this protected beach of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in the northernmost corner of South Africa.
Text: Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Marcella van Alphen
Focussed on the horizon, that seems to keep moving uncomfortably, I scout the choppy surface of the Norwegian Sea. Our boat has just left from the small fishing village of Stø, located on the northernmost tip of the Langøya Island of the Vesterålen Archipelago just slightly north of the popular Lofoten. A chilly breeze keeps my senses sharp on this very last day of August and the upcoming winter is already palpable in the air. Dressed warmly for today’s safari, I pick up my binoculars when I spot some activity on the horizon. I cannot yet make out what is going on precisely. Thinking back about my animal tracker course I graduated from in the South African bush, I have learnt to always be on the lookout for signs of other animals, and these fishing seagulls are definitely up to something. I point out the commotion at sea to our captain who has already been adjusting the course of his small vessel… He takes his binoculars too and a large grin appears on his face: “Killer whales at 12 o’clock!”, he announces with clear excitement in his voice.
Text: Marcella van Alphen Photograhs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
She is well camouflaged. The light brown colour of her fur dotted with some darker small spots hardly shows when she runs through the forest. I catch a glimpse as she moves out of the thickets. She stops and looks at me with her fluffy fur, white throat, elegant long legs, short tail and characteristic cat ear tufts. The lynx is one of the very special animals living in the wilderness of Norway. Very shy and rarely seen, it is in the Polar Park near Tromsø that we can observe her and learn about her.
Text: Claire Lessiau Photographs: Marcella van Alphen
No, it is not related to the bison even though it looks an awful lot like it from where I stand in the middle of the Norwegian alpine tundra! Actually, it is more related to sheep and goats. The prehistoric-looking musk ox lives in the arctic regions of the world, and the only musk ox population in Norway roams the mountain slopes of Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park where I am hiking with my passionate guide Jo Even Kolstad on a musk ox safari.
Text: Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau All photographs taken in the wild & available in high definition upon request. All rights reserved.
I follow our trail guide in his tracks while scanning the bushes surrounding me in the Hluhluwe Imfolozi park in South Africa during an early morning bush walk. With three other wildlife enthusiasts, we are on a mission to spot some of the Big 5 and one of world’s most ancient mammals. Our safari guide seems to have picked up some tracks and signs of one of them… Under the rising sun, he snaps his fingers to signal us to stop walking, while pointing out three majestic white rhinos close to a small waterhole, only 200 metres away from our small group. For a few magical moments, the sound of the shutters of our cameras competes with the singing of the birds and the loud and ungracious honking of a couple of Nile Geese fiercely guarding their precious body of water. “Please, do not post your photos on social media with the exact location of any rhinoceros”, our field guide urges us with a solemn voice. Poachers are a very serious threat and all means are good for them to locate these prehistoric animals for their horns that sell for a fortune on the black market in order to feed the unsatiable Chinese and Vietnamese demand.
In this series of five articles, we feature the Big 5 (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalos) – Africa’s most dangerous mammals to encounter on foot in the wild. Keep reading to learn more about rhinos…
Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
The three lobes are very distinct. The leading edge of the main pad is flat. I orientate my flashlight to have a better view: the four toes are nicely rounded. There is no doubt: this footprint was left by a young male lion, only a few hours ago. I stand up, and look at my dome tent, barely two metres (6 feet) away. As the sun rises over the South African bush, the sky turns red orange, and the spoors are better lit. I switch off the torch and turn back to the soft sand: next to this track, I can identify some others, amongst which the ones of a lioness with their pointy leading edges lit by the few sun rays at dawn. The way the spoors are positioned tells me that this pride of lions was casually walking through the EcoTraining Camp in the Selati Game Reserve while I was half asleep. The alarm call of the troop of baboons, the sound of the herd of impalas running, the hardly palpable changes in the air and the scuffing in the sand that I heard during the night now all make sense. I do not know what I am amazed by the most: the proximity with these lions or the amount of practical knowledge I have gained during a week immersed in the wild living my most intense safari experience to this date…
Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
The cold water of the rain shower feels good: it has been a long drive with the very last stretch on a hilly rough dirt road in the burning sun before we eventually arrived at the lodge. As I am contemplating the view on the endless rolling hills in my favourite wilderness of South Africa from the shower, I am startled. I jump out onto the large outdoor private deck of our villa and with my hands – and everything else for that matter – still wet, I grab my binoculars: “rhinos!” I observe three of these prehistoric animals with their so coveted horns roaming the opposite green slope: a calf which I estimate no older than a few months, its mother and another white rhino that could be the calf’s older sibling. I feel extremely privileged to witness this scene as their numbers are dangerously plummeting and rhinos are on the verge of extinction, being poached to feed the insatiable Chinese market. For sure, the Isibindi Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge that sits at the edge of the Hluhluwe iMfolozi game reserve in Kwazulu Natal, is well named! If the head of Isibindi Africa Trails, Nunu Jobe, is as pertinently nicknamed, I hardly dare imagining what a walk in the African bush with the “Rhino Whisperer” holds for me…
Text: Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Sheltered from the winds by gigantic 540-million-year-old granite rocks, Boulders Beach is a local’s favourite for its low waves and slightly warmer water temperatures compared to the frigid yet popular Camps Bay and Clifton beaches in the heart of Cape Town. There is something more that attracts beach goers to this picturesque shoreline: it is the only place in the world where one can swim with South Africa’s most unexpected residents: jackass penguins!
Article updated on May 3, 2021 Text: Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen Note: all photographs taken in the wild & available in high definition upon request. All rights reserved.
I am hiking in the mountains of the Cederberg, a remote area a couple of hours away from Cape Town, South Africa, known for its magnificent stargazing, and not so much for its safaris. I have just spotted some fresh tracks in the sand though. It is broad daylight and I am following them. They lead me to some dung along the track: it is rather fresh and contains some rodent bones and hair… It is what I thought: I am not alone. These grounds used to be populated by many more wild animals, but here Africa’s most feared predators have been wiped out but for one of them which has been adapting extremely well despite habitat loss: the leopard.
Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
I am steering the rental car around the bend on a curvy and hilly road in the idyllic landscape of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve at a rough 25 kilometres per hour. The ideal speed to spot some wildlife on this self-drive safari is also well adapted Keep travelling!
Text: Marcella van Alphen Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen Note: all photographs taken in the wild & available in high definition upon request – All right reserved
The big 5 get their nickname from the times of hunting. Lions, leopards, buffalos, elephants, and rhinoceroses are Africa’s 5 most dangerous mammals to come across in the African bush, and as such they were the utmost trophies to bring home. Today, thankfully, most dream of spotting them in the wild, and capturing them only on camera – even if trophy hunting is still a current practice. Walking in the bush where they still roam is not common. In many African countries, these king animals are confined to game parks (that can be as large as a country: for instance, Kruger Park in South Africa is about the size of Israel) enforcing strict rules for visitor’s safety. Still, bush walks can be organized with highly-trained rangers. Whether you are on a walk, in your own car, or in a game drive vehicle, knowing behavioural facts about lions can greatly up your chances of spotting them!
From the harbour of Hout Bay, it is a 7-minute-boat ride to arrive at Duiker Island. The harbour of the picturesque fishing village which has turned into a family-friendly suburb of Cape Town is naturally protected in the beautiful bay famous for the Chapman’s Peak drive, one of world’s most scenic roads and a UNESCO Word Heritage Site. Today we are not here for the scenery though, instead we are going to explore the playful action going on underneath the surface of the ocean!
Whether you have already been on an African safari and are missing the magical sounds of the bush or you are still dreaming of going, this article will bring you into the heart of some of the best South African game reserves from behind your laptop! Keep traveling
Article updated on May 26, 2021 Text & photos: Marcella van Alphen (except if credited differently)
“Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” African proverb
Between the release of Disney’s The Lion King 25 years ago until its new photo-realistic computer-animated version of 2021 our planet has lost half of its wild lion population. Half…! If the main reason is habitat loss, it is not the only one why lions are in an alarming state. Other causes are ego for the hunters, greed for the farming, canned lion, and bone trade industries and maybe even worse, a lack of critical sense for some of us often with the best intentions.
I have been seating on a rock in the wind overlooking a small creek along the coast of Big Sur for a good half hour by now. If the landscape is stunning with the green and rocky cliffs falling into the Pacific Ocean, it is a raft of sea otters Keep traveling!
Text & photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen All photographs taken in the wild at Phinda Private Game Reserve
It is getting dark fast now the sun has set. A jackal scurries on the African soil that is still warm after a hot summer day. Crickets tune in forming a loud orchestra while bright stars start decorating the sky, one by one. Agile nightjars catch moths and other insects in the faint headlights of the open Toyota Land Cruiser 4×4 safari truck in which we are seated. A woollen blanket keeps my legs warm while I tuck away my Canon camera after capturing some of Africa’s most emblematic animals. I am keeping an eye out for leopards, bush-babies, genets, and other nocturnal animals which eyes would lit up in the respectful infrared light that our tracker moves up and down the trees. Suddenly, my heart skips a beat: I see fire. Horrified and with all the disastrous wildfires of the Western Cape in mind I yelp: “The bush is burning!” Zandri our ranger answers calmly while steering the Land Cruiser towards the fire: “We will have to check it out then.” As we get closer, I am puzzled when I realize the fire is a clear path of flaming torches. We get out of the 4×4, and following the path, we are lead to a set table with candles on tablecloth surrounded by torches and bonfires. We are greeted by our smiling lodge manager who hands us a delicate refreshment and warm humid towels: “Welcome to your African bush dinner,” he says in a soft voice, clearly satisfied by his surprise effect. Around him, his friendly staff is manning a barbecue and bar area where locally sourced organic products are waiting to be savoured. It has been a day full of surprises since this morning when I opened my eyes before sunrise…
Article updated on February 11, 2022 Text and photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen All photographs taken in the wild in South Africa
For many, a safari is a dream trip, often a once in a lifetime experience. This is why it is important to select the type of safari and game park carefully to avoid any disappointment. South Africa is one of the best countries in the world to observe wildlife in beautiful and varied landscapes showcased in its two main types of parks: government-run parks and private game reserves. The offer is so vast and prices so varied that we have put together some thoughts in order to help you select the safari that is the most adapted to you.
Article updated on March 10, 2022 Text & photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
The north eastern corner of KwaZulu-Natal is one of South Africa’s most remote destinations. Bordering Eswatini and Mozambique lies a hardly populated land with scenic yet less famous game parks and a unique ecosystem of four lakes flowing into the Indian Ocean where the Tsonga people have passed down their sustainable fishing traditions for over a thousand years. A land where world’s largest leaves can be found, with rare bird species and different types of mangrove trees. An ocean with bull and whale sharks, rock salmons, hippos and manta rays, wetting South Africa’s most stunning and desolated beaches, on which endangered sea turtles lay their eggs in season and turtle hatchlings run for their lives into the ocean. Join us to explore the best of Kosi Bay in five different adventures!
In South Africa Aliwal Shoal is famous for its shark dives amongst tiger, bull, ragged-tooth or oceanic blacktip sharks, often described as the experience of a lifetime. Sadly, cage diving is a bad practice that is heavily advertised for in all but a very few dive centres…
Lime stone karst formations are gradually revealing themselves as the morning mist on the Cheow Lan Lake slowly rises. The sun bathes the rocks in warm colours and highlights the jungle growing on their steep flanks. I slowly crawl out of my bed to take a morning swim in the surprisingly warm lake. While climbing back up to the pontoon of my floating bungalow, I notice a familiar rising and falling of shrills that gives me goose bumps: a family of gibbons starts to sing, Keep reading
Cambodia is not as famous as Thailand when it comes to islands, paradisiac beaches, coral reefs and scuba diving. And this is all for the best, I am telling myself as I am writing this article from the fishing village M’Pai on the small island of Koh Rong Samloem in Southern Cambodia. Feet in the sand, Keep traveling!
I am running down a gentle slope before I am flying through a tunnel of green leafs and vines opening on the canopy. I am now gliding over treetops with a bird’s eye view on the rainforest that covers the surrounding mountains. Right in front of me appears my everlasting childhood dream: Keep traveling!
The weight my backpack suddenly becomes a lot heavier and I struggle to keep my balance. I turn my head and my eyes meet the one of a macaque who grabs my shoulder and checks my backpack in search for food. As soon as Keep reading
Costa Rica was the first country to realize the value of its biodiversity for the planet, and its economy has been converted into a green economy, promoting eco-tourism. As such, the butterfly garden of Monteverde aims at educating the public about the fascinating world of insects before admiring butterflies in four different gardens representing different climates.
Try to take this short quiz and discover some fascinating fact about creepy crawlers! Keep guessing!
The colourful roof of Panama’s Biomuseo designed by the world-famous architect Frank Gehry rises above the horizon of the Amador Causeway. Located along the entrance of the Panama Canal, the causeway used to be owned by the USA and was left barren after Panama regained its territory on 31 December 1999. Frank Gehry’s Panamanian wife took part in the discussions about what to do with the land, and soon crucial decisions were made to build the extravagant Biomuseo. Keep traveling!
Seated with a drink and taking in the scenery on the Barú volcano from the terrace at the Lost and Found Hostel, set in the mountains of Panama, I contemplate the beauty of nature, when I get distracted by something approaching through the treetops…
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute displays the impressive biodiversity of Panama’s coastal ecosystems at Punta Culebra in Panama City. Knowledgable and multilingual guides led us through bunkers built during the First World War, now hosting exhibitions about Panama’s nature. Keep traveling!
Millions of years ago, when the isthmus of Panama was formed, it connected South and North America together. This lead to animal migrations and a fantastic mix of species that adapted to new environments and fought for survival in the new food chain: the giant ground sloth, which could grow up to 6 meters and weigh 3 tons faced deadly saber tooth tigers. Keep traveling!
The small town of Santa Elena has expanded massively since the Monteverde Cloud Forest gained popularity, and Costa Rica became the destination for biodiversity. Hesitating between exploring the very touristy Monteverde Cloud Forest, or the off the beaten path Keep traveling!
One of Central America’s most picturesque hikes runs between the mountain town of Boquete and the lesser known Cerro Punta in Pamana. Both lay in different valleys putting them a good three-hour bus ride away from each other. They are also linked by the famous 9-kilometre Quetzal trail, squeezed between two dead end roads, for a total of about 23 kilometres. Given the elevation gain, Keep traveling!
Since the archipelago of Bocas del Toro was discovered in 1502 by Christopher Columbus, the island of Bastimentos has served as a base for vessels; hence its name that literally translates as “supplies”. Its fertile soil and tropical climate are ideal for a wide variety of plants to grow plentifully as we are about to discover, setting off for a jungle and beach hike with our specialized guides. Keep traveling!
The Sarapiqui River is powerful and brownish, as it has been raining non-stop for the past 24 hours. Seated in a kayak, resting on the river bank, I observe how David flips himself over with his kayak in the current. The short red embarkation is now floating downstream, upside down. Within a few seconds though, David appears from underneath the water, with a huge smile. “So this is how we do the underwater exit”, he says. “Your turn now!” Keep traveling!
The delicate brown little bird with its bright yellow beak dances elegantly on its high grey legs on a large waterlily leaf. It is a challenge to capture it from my unstable 1-person kayak that rolls violently on the waves caused by a lancha (a small passenger motor boat) passing by. I am kayaking around Las Isletas de Granada, (the islets of Granada), in Nicaragua. According to the legend, there would be 365 islands scattered around the peninsula, one for each day of the year… Quite a lot to explore!
It must be a tyrannosaur-rex, I think, while I turn on my side in another useless attempt to fall back sleep as the sun is almost rising. The roar from the Guatemalan jungle is so loud that I fear the size of the animal making this much noise, especially while spending the night in a small tent… Keep traveling!
I wake up in the middle of the night, a loud growl breaks the orchestra of crickets that has become a familiar sound. The roar, followed by a scary howl now turns into something that sounds like a huge dog barking. Eyes wide open I wonder if I ended up in Jurassic Parc… Keep travelling
If Belize if famous for the Blue Hole and its tropical islands, the inner Belize is quite interesting to explore from great caving adventures to jungle discoveries. Paddling on rivers is ideal to observe wildlife.
Article updated on May 25, 2020 Text & photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
While the Japanese train system is excellent and allows to traverse most of the country, driving is essential to explore the more remote areas of Japan, where public transportation is less practical.
Hokkaido is the second largest island of Japan, accounting for about 22% of the territory. The northernmost island is a lot less connected by public transport than Honshu, the Japanese mainland, and renting a car is a great way to explore its wilderness.
Article updated on May 20, 2020 Text & photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Only a curtain of fog separates the Russian Kuril Islands from Japan along the narrow Nemuro Strait bordering the sea of Okhotsk. The Ainu people, an indigenous ethnic group of people who have inhabited Hokkaido (Japan’s second largest and northernmost island) and the Kuril and Sakhalin Islands belonging to Russia since the 13th century, call it sir-etok, literally meaning end of the Earth. Keep travelling!