Sperm whale tail by fishing boat, Norway

Whale, whale, whale: safari time!

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.

Keep travelling!
Portrait of a lynx

Face-to-face with Norway’s predators [Polar Park, Tromsø]

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.

Keep travelling!
Musk Oxen in Dovrefjell Sunndalsfjella National Park, Norway

Musk ox safari in the Norwegian mountains

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.

Keep Travelling!
Mother rhino with her calf by a waterhole at sunrise, South Africa

Rhino facts – all you need to know about rhinos [Africa’s Big 5 series]

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…

Keep travelling!
Photographer Marcella van Alphen showing a photo to EcoTracker instructor Norman Chauke in the African bush

In the tracks of wildlife in Africa

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…

***

Keep travelling!

Up close and personal with rhinos

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…

Keep travelling!
Close up on a pair of African Penguins grooming on Boulders Beach, Cape Town, South Africa

Unique: Swimming with penguins [Boulders Beach, Cape Town]

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!

Keep Travelling!
Wild leopard sleeping in a tree at sunset in South Africa

Leopards facts – how & where to spot them in the wild [Africa’s Big 5 series]

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.

Keep Spotting!
7 elephants facing the camera while drinking by a waterhole in the sun, South Africa

Elephant facts – all you need to know about the African elephant [Africa’s big 5 series]

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!

Beautiful wild male lion during a safari in the Karoo National Park, in the sunrise light

Lions facts – how & where to spot wild lions [Africa’s Big 5 series]

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!

Keep spotting!
Cape Fur Seals swimming in the Atlantic Ocean in Cape Town during a snorkeling session

Seal snorkeling in Cape Town

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!

Keep diving!

A lioness and her cub, &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa.

The Lion King: the circle of death [exploited to the bone]

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.

Keep reading…

Portrait of a wild cheetah in its natural environment of green grass in the Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa.

The ultimate ethical safari experience: &Beyond 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, Keep travelling!

People taking a photo of a teenage elephant showing off in front of a game drive vehicle in the bush.

How to select the best game park for your safari 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 high that we have put together some thoughts in order to help you select the safari that is the most adapted to you.

Keep travelling!

The best of Kosi Bay in 4 unique adventures

One of South Africa’s most remote destinations may very well be the North Eastern corner of Kwazulu Natal. Bordering Swaziland and Mozambique lies a hardly populated land with scenic yet less famous game parks and a unique ecosystem of four lakes where Tsonga fishermen have passed down their sustainable traditions for more than a thousand years. A land where world’s largest leafs can be found, with rare bird species and different types of mangrove trees. Waters with bull sharks, hippos, manta rays, and whale sharks border South Africa’s most stunning and desolated beaches, on which the only visitors are endangered sea turtles laying their eggs in season.

Join us to explore the best of Kosi Bay in 4 different adventures! Keep travelling!

Lake safari & jungle trekking in world’s oldest rainforest, Khao Sok, Thailand

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

Funny quiz: Test your knowledge about our creepy crawlers!

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!

How Panama changed the world

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!

A quest to spot the most beautiful bird: The Quetzal trail, Panama

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!

Discover Bastimentos: the secret gem of Bocas del Toro, Panama

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!

Kayaking through the jungle on the Sarapiqui River, Costa Rica

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!

Kayaking Las Isletas de Granada, Nicaragua

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!

Keep traveling!

Rock eroded by drift ice, Shiretoko Peninsula, Japan.

Road trip in the wild northern island of Japan: Hokkaido

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.

Keep travelling!

Wild salmon jumping up against a roaring waterfall, Hokkaido, Japan

Wild salmons of Hokkaido

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!