You Just Never Know! An Anxious Journey Down the Okavango

kayaking, Okavango Delta, Botswana, Africa, crocodiles
Creeping through the narrow channels of the Okavango River ©Will McDonald


Croc ahead! Our front boatman named C-Company signaled by pointing to the left riverbank – and a few of the paddlers up front noticed a long, black form slither quickly into the Okavango River. We immediately formed a single tight row of yellow kayaks behind our guide and sped past the beast’s entry site. This was not a place to chatter or piddle-paddle along, but a place to overcome in a silent and anxious group effort. You just never know. This time, we passed without any encounter.

Our group of eight Westerners had just set off on the first Natural Habitat Expeditions Trans-Okavango exploratory trip – paddling 120 kilometers across the huge Okavango Delta in Botswana. This was to be a journey from the panhandle in the northwest of the country into the lower delta, where the river finally peters out into the sands of the mighty Kalahari Desert. The Okavango Delta is called the Seventh Natural Wonder of the World due to the abundance and variety of its wildlife and pristine habitat.

kayaking, Okavango Delta, Botswana, crocodiles, danger
Gliding along in yellow kayaks on the Okavango Delta ©Will McDonald

Our local kayaking guide, John Sandenbergh, was a 52-year-old kind and soft-spoken Botswana native and Africa expedition veteran extraordinaire. He was the first leader of a small group to transect the Okavango Delta all the way to the Victoria Falls on the Zambian border – an arduous journey of almost 640 kilometers. John was certainly a fellow with plenty of African water under his keel and an innate passion for exploration.“A bit of croc hassle” John mentioned, as he was going through the pre-trip equipment talk at put-in, casually pointing to the aft of one of our kayaks. We noticed an inch-deep hole in the boat from the incisor of a crocodile that had attacked from behind.

“Just a small nibble – it leaks some, but we can fix it easily.” John also explained that he had removed the deck bungee cords and rudders – less material for any teeth to grab on to, and less of a chance to be dragged down. Well, well – good to know!

African crocodile in Lake Chamo, Ethiopia
African crocodile ©Bernard Gagnon

From the perspective of a croc kayak attack, John had definitely had his share of personal experience. In 2011, he and two friends were doing a private trans-Okavango trip. Out of the blue one morning, near the village of Xugana, a mid-sized crocodile bore down from a perpendicular angle on the two front paddlers. John’s friend succeeded in turning his boat into the line of attack and the determined reptile dove under both boats and was able to strike John from the other side with open jaws.

Instinctively, John jammed his paddle into the open mouth of the croc to avoid tipping over. Not surprisingly, the paddle snapped in two under the strain, and the kayak flipped. John’s first reaction was not to exit the boat, and in utter desperation he kicked out the front bulkhead wall and was able to slide into the protective kayak shell. He was able to breathe in the air pocket of the overturned kayak and waited in sheer terror for the final reptilian strike. Something knocked on the hull and he thought it was all over. But by pure luck a motorboat carrying a late-season honeymoon couple had just rounded a corner in the river and scared the crocodile away. John was overturned and saved by helping hands, and it was only later that same day when the shock had subsided that he discovered he had broken two ribs from the impact of the attack. John returned to kayaking the Okavango – though alas, he admitted that he started smoking again shortly after the incident.

Crocodile attacks on the Okavango are not common, but they do happen. When I asked a villager what the locals do in order avoid encounters when they journey out on the delta in their traditional dugout canoes called mokoros, he answered, “We stay in the shallows among the reeds and avoid the deeper channels!” Too bad, because our group had to stay in the channels to cover the necessary distances in a timely manner using the swift winter currents of the river.

Okavango Delta, kayaking, crocodiles, danger, channels
Okavango Delta first person kayaking ©Will McDonald

Crocs in the delta have been known to cause trouble even out of the water. A couple of years ago near the village of Shakawe, a mother and her two kids aged 6 and 14 decided to take a knee-deep dip in the water. They were warned by the villagers not to wake up the local crocodile. The mother walked out a bit farther from the bank to sit down, and the monster hit her midriff, jaws wide open. Her kids watched in shock as her body was flipped up high into the air and subsequently dragged away and twirled around violently in a vice grip. She and the Nile crocodile were never to be seen again.

So, with boats rigged for croc attacks and stories like that embedded in our consciousness, we made a plan. We assumed that at the time of our journey during the Botswana winter, the temperature of the water would be at its lowest. Hopefully it would be chilly enough to keep a cold-blooded reptile less active. And with regard to water logistics, we decided to keep a tight paddling formation between two motorboats, one in the front and one aft. In case of a crocodile or hippo sighting, the idea would be to quickly group up, increase our pace, and trust that the whine of the propellers underwater would deter the animals from getting too close.

Okavango Delta, kayaking, Botswana, crocodiles
Aluminum motorboat with kayaks ©Will McDonald

The game plan worked this time – we were never accosted at any of the many croc or hippo waypoints on John’s GPS track – or when we came across crocs sliding into the river. But on the second-to-last day we were soberly reminded of what we could have been facing. We were all back in the large aluminum motorboat, and when we rounded a bend in the river, we saw an enormous crocodile diving into the water in front of us. We passed the spot, and when we went back to try to view the crocodile again, we suddenly saw it lying motionless close to the reeds on the bottom of the left riverbank. He was a monster at least 12 feet long with a head wider than the breadth of our kayaks, and the white teeth of his closed jaws displaying an ironic smile. We nicknamed him Maximus – but we could afford to be cavalier in the safety of the larger boat. Perhaps it would be have been okay to paddle swiftly over him in our tippy plastic kayaks.

But you just never know…

In light of the threat posed by crocodiles to kayakers in the Okavango Delta, Natural Habitat Expeditions has opted not to offer this Exploratory Trip in the future. Check out our other Botswana expeditions on our African Safaris page.

The Achuars’ Amazon – Time to Pray?

Ecuador Amazon Basin
Ecuador’s Amazon Basin shot from above.

Our lanky teenage-looking pilot closed his eyes and prayed quietly before takeoff into the immense, emerald-green void of the Ecuadorian Amazon. His murmurs were indecipherable through the roar of the old rattling Cessna operated by Aerotsentsak, the airline owned by the Achuar indigenous nation.

Soon enough the purple plane pushed hard through a violent rainstorm, but finally we were flying high about the thunderheads southwestward toward the Peruvian border. My companions were Juan Carlos Garcia, a seasoned Amazon guide and founder of Trek Ecuador, Maria Belén Páez, president of Fundación Pachamama, and her 17-year-old daughter Micaela.

Maria had been here many times before. She explained that the Fundación is working with the Achuar communities, and her many years of work among the Achuar stems from her strong belief that indigenous people can provide powerful guidance and teaching for achieving a vision of a thriving, just and sustainable world – sometimes very different from ours.

Amazon pilot and plane
Our pilot in front of his plane. © Olaf Malver

I was impressed by her unwavering dedication and also excited to be exploring this most pristine part of the Amazon rainforest. Deep in the heart of the Oriente, Ecuador’s far-eastern Amazon basin near the Peruvian border, we planned to paddle into Achuar territory among prolific jungle wildlife. The territory is one of the most biodiverse forest areas on Earth and also the best preserved globally, claiming more than 10,000 plant species and 530 species of birds — a true natural gem to explore!

Far removed from modern civilization, the Achuar nation is comprised of 68 indigenous communities—about 8,000 people in all—living in an area of more than 1.75 million acres of untamed jungle. In their territory, Ecuador’s last large tract of untouched Amazon tropical rainforest, settlement and resource extraction has not yet been permitted, and the indigenous communities have legal titles to their land. As a means to preserve their land and subsistence culture, the Achuar have created a vast wildlife reserve, inviting ecotourism and fostering “green” development.

Our journey would be part of helping to preserve their lives—trail blazing and developing kayaking and hiking opportunities for future adventure tourists.  A paddling trip here could be a great future complement to Natural Habitat Expeditions’ successful kayaking adventures in the Galapagos. And it would fit perfectly with our core ideology of conservation and ecotourism.

Plane takeoff in Cessna
Taking off in Cessna. © Olaf Malver

We descended steeply toward the community of Chichirat, onto its 500-meter-long red dirt airstrip carved thinly from the forest.  Upon landing, we were welcomed by the reserved villagers. This included the old village shaman, our local guide Reuben, and a bunch of strong women who were hired to carry our gear down to the kayaks tied up by the river.

Blue Morpho Butterfly
Blue morpho butterfly

To paddle the Bobonaza River was amazing, following a green and winding waterway through untouched wilderness. The air was rent by the shrieks of small groups of scarlet macaws while in the distance howler monkeys called with a primordial wail.  Juan Carlos told us not to worry about the piranhas in the water and pointed out the small squirrel monkeys playing in the canopy high above.  Iridescent blue morpho butterflies glinted in the sun.  This would surely be a quiet and blissful place for paddling.

Following an afternoon of timeless kayaking, the terraces along the river’s left bank opened up to a small cluster of traditional Achuar straw-thatched houses. Under their roofs, reserved women cooked food at the open fire pit, featuring fish from the river, manioc, plantains, and homemade hot pepper sauce.  The men were drinking the popular local drink nijiamanch, made from fermented manioc and served in beautifully decorated broad clay cups.

paddling the Amazon
Paddling in the Amazon, © Olaf Malver

From this take-out we hiked a short way up to Tiinkias, a bit larger Achuar settlement where eight families currently reside. Just another 20 minutes’ walk from this village, a small jungle camp has been erected by the community as a base for tourists to truly experience both the traditional Achuar way of life and also the Amazonian flora and fauna as it exists in a pristine state. The Tiinkias Ecotourism Center is built on a forested knoll in traditional Achuar style with thatched roofs and no walls—we slept on cots on elevated platforms, under nets, and ate communally—magically immersed in the surrounding jungle!

Kayaking on the Bobonaza, Amazon
Kayaking on the Bobonaza, © Olaf Malver

The most important natural attraction near the camp is the Wankanim Preserve and the blackwater lagoon located within it, home to several representative species including giant otters, several species of monkeys, several species of caiman, many species of birds, etc. Since no hunting or fishing has taken place since 2003, the preserve offers great opportunities for observing wildlife.

Grubs for dinner in the Amazon
Grubs being prepared, © Olaf Malver

The community invited us for a feast of river fish and plantains –all served on a huge freshly cut banana leaf on the bare ground – we reneged, however, on the fresh grubs being cooked up in the fire next to us. I guess we missed a delicacy! The Achuar were naturally hospitable and openly shared their community fellowship, music, dance and laughter in abundance, in an unpolished way.

One of the highlights at Tiinkias was the visit that night of an older shaman to our camp.  He quietly prepared and drank a concoction of hallucinogenic plant extract – the “natem” — which would prepare him for a drug-induced spiritual ceremony.  Maria had asked for a healing session, and in the night under the thatched roof he was whistling and shaking leaves around her in the pitch-dark. This whistling seemed to conjure a protective field while the leaves were fanning her body and dusting energy into the air around her.  He pressed his hands on her body and the sounds of sucking, violent harking and spitting were heard — as if he was draining evil spirits from her. In the morning Maria had a rejuvenated glow about her.

Achuar face painting, Amazon
Achuar painting his face, © Olaf Malver

The next couple of days we continued paddling, boating and exploring.  We even paid an unexpected visit to a Peruvian military outpost, due a change in the river’s course! We finally ended up at the acclaimed Kapawi Ecolodge, also run by the Achuars.  The lodge is close to the Pastanza River, and from the lodge pier, we could see pods of pink Amazon freshwater dolphins playing shyly in the water. Later, we paddled close to them.

As we flew back, jerking violently through the clouds above the untouched jungle of Achuar territory, I pondered.  What would the future offer these truly naturalistic people, still hunting adroitly with blow pipes and honoring their old shamanistic rituals?  Under these natives’ ancestral lands lie some of the richest unexploited oil reserves in South America.

Achuar fluting, Amazon
Achuar fluting, © Olaf Malver

Modern Ecuador is aspiring while the Achuar shaman is quietly whistling in the dark.  Perhaps it’s time to pray?

Epilogue:

On December 4, 2013, just five days after I left Ecuador, plainclothes police officers in Quito appeared at the offices of Fundación Pachamama and proceeded to shut down their facilities. The government’s action came on the heels of indigenous protests against Ecuador’s plans to open some 6.5 million acres of rainforest to new oil drilling.

The Vast Vastness of Mongolia

Natural Habitat Adventures camp in Mongolia
One of our camps on the “In Search of the Snow Leopard” expedition. © Olaf Malver

It was with a mixture of mild excitement and deep trepidation that I packed my guide bags for the Mongolia expedition this summer: Leading a trip full of strangers and a co-guide you never worked with, in area rarely visited, and looking for an elusive cat that we were pretty sure we wouldn’t see.

Snow leopard warning sign in Mongolia
© Olaf Malver

What I did know was that this would not be a routine “Walk in The Park” – it would be one of those exploratory trips doing things on the fly and where clients were forewarned to be flexible due to the unknown nature of the hiking terrain and the long drives involved. This time The Park would be Western Mongolia, one of the most thinly populated parts of one of the least populated countries on earth, 3 times the size of France and only inhabited by 2.8 million people – half of them nomad herders. Just to put the place in perspective – it took us 3 hours to fly from the middle of the country to western Mongolia and our supplies were driven from Ulan Baataar in trucks to meet us. It took them 5 days of hard driving! As one of our clients later dubbed the place, we would be deep in the “Vast Vastness of Mongolia”.

The main objective of the expedition was to join forces with Mongolian World Wildlife Fund researchers and top international snow leopard scientist to search for the rare-to-find cat in two of its known habitats: The Yamaat Valley tucked into the Altai Range close to the Russian border, and the Jargalant Hairhan (hairhan means “sacred”) Mountain area of Khar Us Nuur National Park in Central Western Mongolia.

Camels in Mongolia
The camels used to carry camp supplies throughout the trip. © Olaf Malver

We looked, looked and looked – scouring the mountains relentlessly with our scopes. We found plenty of snow leopard traces (yes – it was there!): Scratch marks on trees to mark territory, fresh paw prints, turds and urine markings – everything except the animal in flagrante. We knew it was close, and sometimes we felt that the snow leopard was watching us! Recent satellite signals from a collared female cat proved its proximity.

Were we disappointed not seeing the “star” animal? Perhaps a few of us a little bit – but it was easily ameliorated by the many other wonders this amazing place offers: The majestic snow leopard pre species, Argali sheep, and Ibex traversing the steep mountain slopes above us, the breathtaking landscapes, and the hospitable and hardy local herder family who invited us in for fermented mare milk in their yurts.

Safari vehicle fording a river in Mongolia
Our Land Cruiser fording one of the rivers – no problem! © Olaf Malver

Thinking back on all the many adventurous moments that naturally will occur on a trip like this, there were several: Crossing window-deep raging rivers in our land cruisers (yes water did seep in and wetted our boots!), encountering the traveling nomads on their Bactrian camels, and seeing the last original horses (The Taki) in the wild at dusk in Hustai National Park – were just a few among many. But the most lasting impression from our traveling across these central Asian steppes through these unexplored mountain ranges – was the unforgettable and beautiful Vast Vastness of Mongolia.

Come along….

Olaf

Want to learn more about this trip? See the full “In Search of the Snow Leopard” itinerary here, and check out the rest of our active adventures at Natural Habitat Expeditions.

NHA Mongolia group photo
The entire group, including our guides. © Olaf Malver

Why Guiding?

Natural Habitat Adventures Botswana tour guide
A Nat Hab guide on a Botswana African Safari.

You might wonder why our Natural Habitat Expeditions guides have led trips for years, breaking trails in new hiking destinations, paddling unknown shores, and scaling unclimbed peaks in crazy locations.

Polar Bear Tour | Eric Rock | Natural Habitat Adventures
Nat Hab guide on a polar bear tour in Churchill, Manitoba.

Well – I think it is all about people – not necessarily about place or task. To be a good guide you need to be a humble student of human behavior. Just imagine the daunting challenge of welcoming  a new group of eager expeditioners stepping out of a bush plane in some forsaken place. The guide must quickly rally the team to focus on a hard but safe and rewarding adventure ahead.  We try to ease this task by preparing our clients with well written itineraries, in-depth pre-departure booklets and personal phone calls if needed. But even that is not sufficient.  It is face time that counts.

Understandably there might be some discomfort initially for our clients – some of the places that Natural Habitat Expeditions goes are far beyond the routine of people’s daily lives.  One time a woman stepped out of a Twin Otter plane that had just screeched to a halt in front of a remote coastal mountain range in Greenland.  Jumping out on the pebble-stoned landing strip and planting her penny loafers carefully on the ground, she exclaimed to her husband: “ Bob – don’t you know that I hate walking on rocks?  Bob?” More than three billion rocks watched her in grounded silence.

Guide on tour of Machu Picchu, Peru | Natural Habitat Adventures
Nat Hab guide explains the history of Machu Picchu to guests.

We guides cannot just be silent – we have to act quickly and intuitively and make good things happen for all involved. So we use some tricks to alleviate any such surprises.  Whenever possible it is useful to get the group together in a circle before we take off (a well stocked beer pub works well – or a cozy camp fire on Day 1) and then ask the relaxed albeit key question to each individual:  “Why are you here??”

Southeast Alaska Glaciers | Natural Habitat Adventures
Nat Hab Expedition Leader with guests on a tour of glaciers in southeast Alaska.

The replies (and the following examples are from real guide life) tell us a lot about each participant.  Andy mutters sadly: “Well I just broke up with my girlfriend and needed to get away from everything.” (Red Flag – needs positive attention to help in refocusing outwards).  Marie says demandingly: “I came here to paddle 20 miles a day no matter what!” (Red Flag –take her aside and help her up the steep learning curve about  the group safety concept and that we are at the mercy of the elements).  Jonathan shares: “My idea of a good trip is to embrace whatever happens and together make it happen.” (Green Flag – promote this guy as a great example!). And so on….

One of the best ones was when Paul, the exasperated father  from LA, patted his sullen teenage boy on his shoulders with a “Hey I brought my kid Thomas on this expedition  so that he could get away from the wrong crowd he was hanging out with –  stealing cars and selling drugs.”  (!?) ( Green flag – what a great opportunity for us as leaders to turn this boy around by using Nature the Great Teacher to make him responsible for himself – and his father – Duh!). Good ending – he later in life became an Outward Bound Instructor.

Polar Bear Trips Guide | Natural Habitat Advenures
A happy guide on one of Nat Hab’s polar bear trips in Churchill, Manitoba.

Or what about the woman who showed up at the group meeting with  her  5 foot  ragged stuffed pink rabbit as a surprise travel companion on a her  hike across Papua New Guinea?  That one was tough – but we gave her a double tent and two bowls for dinner. His name was Snuffy and the other clients once tried to kidnap him, but that is another story…

Guide and guests on Brazil Ecotourism trip | Natural Habitat Adventures
Guide pointing out wildlife on a trip to Brazil.

So we have our hands full – occasionally.  But the fact is that most clients we lead into the wilderness are simply wonderful – and we could not do our job well if that was not the case.  So for me, the answer to the question  -why guiding adventures? – is that we like people and love to share our experiences and in fact grow together.  We will bring our tricks, interpretation, safety knowledge and enthusiasm, and our clients mix in all their rich pallets of life experiences.  It all works amazingly!

And if you check out our guide roster, just look at those  smiling guide faces who simply love what they are doing and clearly explain why they are guiding people like you.

Come along!

Olaf

A Little Volcano Grit Won’t Ruin an Adventure in Kamchatka!

Hiking in Volcano Country, Kamchatka Peninsula

It’s not unusual, when I’m off on an adventure in some far-flung corner of the world, to be eating some unfamiliar fare… But this gritty feeling inside my mouth was something else entirely. How did I get these minute lava particles between my teeth? Oh yes, it must be that huge volcano erupting some 9,000 feet above my head! Continue reading A Little Volcano Grit Won’t Ruin an Adventure in Kamchatka!

A Piece of Trash, With a Message to Treasure — Happy Holidays!

The limestone islands of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay – sheer delight for kayakers

Twenty-two years ago, I led a ragged bunch of North American kayakers into the stunning 3,000-island archipelago of Ha Long Bay on the first-ever exploratory sea kayaking expedition in these waters. In other words, it was one of those “we don’t know what the heck we are doing – but we will do it anyway” trips! And to be frank, it was also the movie Indochine, starring the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve, with the alluring seascapes in the background that provided us with easy stimuli to embark on this adventure.

We set out from California, flying our folding kayaks across the Pacific to Vietnam, where we then built them in a dingy communist backyard, tied them onto roof of a rusty bus and pointed at the driver to get us to the shore where a Chinese junk follow-boat awaited us. The captain was a former Viet Cong navy sailor – and all we had was a half-page, badly printed tourist map of the vast Ha Long Bay before us. Continue reading A Piece of Trash, With a Message to Treasure — Happy Holidays!

Arctic Adventuring In the Footsteps of Fritjof Nansen

Kayaks at the shoreline, Skjoldungen Fjords. By Olaf MalverLast August, Olaf Malver led the first-ever exploratory commercial kayaking expedition into the Skjoldungen Fjords of southeast Greenland, in pursuit of legendary Arctic explorer Fritjof Nansen’s route 125 years earlier. Here is his first-hand account!

On the starboard side of my small kayak, a huge tongue of glacier pouring down from the Greenland Ice Cap was nearly touching the Arctic Ocean. And straight aft of my rudder was the characteristic pointy profile of Kiviat Mountain – looking just like the black & white photograph in the old expedition description. But where was the cairn?

The absolute need to locate that cairn had brought a small band of explorers together at this most remote of spots on Greenland’s southeast coast. We had sailed several days south from Tasiilaq, the last human settlement that lay 200 miles northward, then ventured into Umivik Bay in search of Fritjof Nansen’s cairn. This place was the starting point from which in 1888 Nansen and five others made the first successful crossing of the second-largest ice mass on Earth after Antarctica.

Iceberg and kayaker in Skjoldungen Fjords. By Olaf MalverWe were thrilled to be the first commercial adventure travel group ever to venture into this hard-to-reach area on Greenland’s eastern shores–an achievement made possible after several days of sailing and paddling through brash ice and remote South Greenland seas, and then exploring the inner coastal areas using small sea kayaks. And we would be even more thrilled if we could spot the cairn.

I had a particular personal interest in finding this spot. Nansen’s second-in-command, Otto C. Sverdrup, was my great-great-uncle on the Norwegian side of the family, and he later became one of the most famous ice navigators and explorers in the Arctic. I wanted step in my ancestor’s footstep and feel this place, imagining how it must have been for him. I needed to understand the odds that these first explorers faced, what difficult decisions they had to make every day, and the hardships they went through to survive. In other words – what drove them and how did they succeed? Only by understanding that would I learn what great explorers like them were made of. And perhaps I could learn from something from their sufferings, courage and curiosity.

“It’s right there – up on the cliff! “ ‑- my British paddling partner Debbie erupted with excitement. Sure enough, 200 feet above us a 5-foot-high brown, slightly crumbled cairn had been erected. We had heard from local Inuit hunters who come here that it was located somewhere on the beaches of enormous Umivik Bay. We had found it by comparing it with the pictures in the exploration annals from Nansen’s trip – the characteristic Kiviat Mountain profile was the clue to our discovery.

We paddled quickly to shore, landing on the hidden beach where Nansen and his men had dragged their two row boats to land. These men had just endured a grueling 200-mile rowing struggle north from where the ice had released them from its vice grip. On this exact small pebble beach on the 11th of August 1888, the four Norwegians and two Lapps had celebrated, knowing this place could be the key entry point via which to reach the crest of the Greenland Ice Cap.

Surveying the glaciers above, it certainly looked like there were a few major crevasse fields that could have hindered their dogged ambition to cross the Ice Cap. I imagined that when they stood here, they were elated yet their minds were focused on what lay ahead. It was late in the season, and they had only scant supplies left. There was only one way to go – onward – across the unknown mass of ice. They could not return northward by sea to Tasiilaq due to the risk of being caught in the sea ice for weeks, and there were no hunting possibilities once they got onto the ice. Nobody knew at that time the extent of the crevasses that might lie ahead — what they did know was that their only chance for survival was to ski quickly west over 220 miles of unknown ice fields to Godthaab on the west coast of Greenland.

So our group of kayakers – 10 in all — stepped ashore the same place Nansen had landed and tied our boats together. We even had a celebratory bite of chocolate – well occasioned, given that we were in the true footsteps of great explorers! Our group then eagerly scrambled up vertical rocks and a small snowfield to finally reach the small cairn. I was the first to arrive at the spot and stood there in awe and silence. The importance of this place in the context of polar history is simply amazing, and I felt so Group of travelers in Skjoldungen Fjords. By Olaf Malverexcited to be part of it! The rest of the group caught up, and we took a group photo by the cairn as I shared the saga and feats of Nansen and his men with my clients.

The original explorers did manage to reach Greenland’s west coast alive after six weeks of skiing over the expanse of ice through blinding whiteout conditions. Once they arrived, Nansen and Sverdrup built a leaky make-shift dinghy out of canvas and Arctic alder branches, just in time for them to row to all the way to Godthaab and send for a rescue party to retrieve the other four who were waiting back at western rim of the Ice Cap. But it was too late to take the last ship home to Europe– King Winter had just arrived as the hardy crew all returned to civilization.

Their feat was amazing – but very few have heard about it. Perhaps because there was no death or drama involved – just simple hard, professional expedition work, courage and determination. And perhaps because these men were not driven by fame and self promotion – they just wanted to know what lay within the Ice Cap and whether they could achieve the feat they set out in pursuit of. They had that “need-to-know-attitude” – the exact same reason we were there.

Nansen, who was the driver and instigator of the expedition, was deeply curious, a successful scientist at heart, and always driven by a desire for deeper understandings. He has always been one of my explorer heroes. Later he even achieved acclaim on a large humanitarian scale, supporting the League of Nations rescue efforts of Armenian survivors from the Armenian Holocaust in Turkey (for which he later received the Nobel Peace Prize).

So, at this little brown cairn, the greatest of explorers and humanists in modern history had passed, along with his co-explorers, including my great-great Uncle. Their memory was framed by one of the wildest tracts of wilderness on the planet – East Greenland, where the many huge glaciers dwarfed us and hundreds of magnificent unnamed peaks witnessed these great unheralded explorers, and now silently and majestically observed us—125 years later.

We let out a”Hip-Hip-Hurrah!” three times, as we realized we were in a small but amazing way also a part of history.

Explorers’ Corner is now Natural Habitat Expeditions!

For several years, Explorers’ Corner has partnered with Natural Habitat Adventures, the award-winning operator of a worldwide slate of immersive nature and wildlife trips. And now we have some BIG NEWS:  Explorers’ Corner is merging with NHA to create Natural Habitat Expeditions—an exciting collection of kayaking, hiking, sailing and snorkeling adventures for nature lovers! Read more about this exciting development from Explorers’ Corner founder, renowned global explorer Olaf Malver, now NHEX’s new CEO – Chief Exploratory Officer!

Dear Adventurer,

Always ready for the next great adventure, I’ve just moved to the Republic of Georgia with my family. (Yes, the country, not the state next door to Alabama). My wife, Eka, is Georgian, and we are thrilled to be able to raise our two young children in her homeland.

It’s a big move, to be sure. But as most of you well know, if you don’t dare to try something new, you don’t learn nearly as much. And isn’t that journey of discovery what life — and in particular, adventure travel — is all about?

I’ve spent much of my life exploring the farthest corners of the planet with avid travelers. After a previous career in science and engineering and working with the UN while running adventure trips “on the side,” I started Explorers’ Corner at the age of 49. Never one to believe that aging means slowing down, it was my dream to fill a niche for true adventure travel — to provide expeditions for travelers whose thirst for authenticity and exhilaration surpassed standard group tour offerings.

Now, I’m excited to share some news that will not only allow me to spend more time with my family here in Georgia’s “Mountains of Poetry,” where we’ve recently begun growing wine grapes and hazelnuts, but which will also get me out of the office and back to exploring more of the world with you!

I’m merging Explorers’ Corner with our longtime partner, Natural Habitat Adventures, to create Natural Habitat Expeditions — a cooperative collection of nature-based journeys to some of the world’s most pristine and thrilling destinations. We’ve carried over our most successful trips and plan to add new ones in the future — the spirit of Explorers’ Corner continues, just under a new banner and with some of the best resources in the adventure travel industry.

Bearing the Explorers’ Corner hallmark, Natural Habitat Expeditions offers unique encounters with nature and culture you just won’t find anywhere else: Camp on the edge of the ice cap on the Greenland coast; cruise the Antarctic Peninsula aboard our private sailboat; paddle Portugal’s romantic River of Wine by day and stay at historic vineyard estates each night. We go to exceptional lengths to craft experiences that will shape your life forever.

I’ll still be reachable for questions and consultation, though I’ll now spend most of my days arranging and guiding some of the world’s most innovative frontier travel adventures…Oh, and keeping my kids out of the vineyard!

So, please welcome this new phase — Natural Habitat Expeditions — and join us for more extraordinary journeys of discovery.

Never Stop Exploring!

Olaf

P.S. Check out the full, varied slate of Natural Habitat Expeditions on our website, and start planning your next grand adventure!

Adventures Alone: First Solo, Unassisted Ski Across Antarctica

Antarctica glacier
Felicity Aston’s biggest challenge during her adventure was dealing with the solitude. ©Colin McNulty

In January of this year, a British woman, Felicity Aston, accomplished an incredible feat for adventure annals: She skied solo and unassisted across Antarctica. She is the first woman — and first human — to do so. Dragging two sleds carrying 187 pounds of supplies for 1,084 miles, she completed the trip in 59 days powered only by her own strength. There were no sled dogs, parasails, or snowmobiles to help her. Although in 2010 an Antarctica expedition team consisting of a Norwegian woman and an American man had skied across Antarctica without kites or machines, Aston is the first to do this alone.

Formerly a meteorologist stationed in Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, the thirty-four-year-old Aston is no stranger to subzero treks. She reported, however, that her biggest challenge during her record-setting exploit was dealing with the solitude. Polar adventurers have typically traveled in teams, taking care to watch companions for signs of hypothermia, which is easier to diagnose in others than in oneself. And alone in such an extreme environment, the smallest mistake can prove treacherous, and the mind can play tricks.

But a big part of Aston’s sense of accomplishment came from succeeding all by herself. Luckily, this time, things turned out well. There are plenty of other solo adventures, however, where they don’t.

So, you might ask yourself, do adventures that are undertaken alone prove to be more meaningful, and when are they worth the risks? Continue reading Adventures Alone: First Solo, Unassisted Ski Across Antarctica

Ten Reasons Why Adventure Travel Is Good for You

ice walker
One of my favorite scientific findings: Take a hike, get a bigger brain. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

For the past two-and-a-half years, I have been writing about adventure topics for The Adventure Corner travel blog, on everything from the merits of bumpy roads to tracking devices on narwhals. From my own thoughts on adventure to the latest scientific research, we’ve covered a lot of ground together.

Looking over all of these articles since my first appeared here on February 9, 2010, I realize that one theme keeps showing up: Adventure travel is simply good for you. So I’ve compiled a Top Ten list of the reasons why.

While there are several physical health benefits to adventure travel (see Nos. 1, 2, and 3, below), the advantages for your mental wellness are just as impressive (Nos. 4, 5, and 6). Too, adventure travel can enlighten your soul (Nos. 7 and 8 ) and even help save the world (Nos. 9 and 10).

Can you think of anything else that can do all that? Continue reading Ten Reasons Why Adventure Travel Is Good for You