Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Resorts Making a Difference

One blog is not enough space to highlight all of the resorts and tour operators who are taking great strides in leading the movement towards environmental and social responsibility. Great Expeditions focuses on such product on a global scale, and we are proud to highlight the the following resorts among those elevating the standards of social and environmental stewardship.

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve - South Africa

 id=Responsible Tourism Award 2007 - Best for Conservation of an Endangered Species

Along the South African coastline west of Cape Town lies a five star luxury resort that is spectacularly situated along the fynbos and forest-clad hills overlooking the whale-watching haven of Walker Bay. Grootbos has combined three passions that have proven winning combinations: a passion for conservation of the Cape Floral Kingdom and adjacent marine ecosystems, a passion for education and empowerment of the local community, and a passion to provide world-class luxury to their guests.

 id=In 2003, Grootbos established the Green Futures Horticultural and Life Skills College, providing annual practical based training for the unemployed in local communities while instilling a philosophy of environmental stewardship within their graduates. By staying at Grootbos, guests are directly contributing to the conservation of the reserve and surrounding areas as well as the development of sustainable livelihoods within the local community. Guests visit to ride horses, explore wine country, whale watch, dive with Great White Sharks, beach-comb, and savor the luxurious accommodations and beautiful grounds but they leave knowing that their choice has created opportunities for those yearning for the skills to make a difference.

Matava Resort - Fiji

 id=AAA Green Star Accreditation for its policies on environmental sustainability

On the beautiful island of Kadavu in Fiji, a boat ride over clear waters that are home to the elegant Manta Ray and many other spectacular creatures delivers visitors to the shores of Matava Resort. This eco resort is nestled in lush tropical forest where endemic barking pigeons might be seen perching near the traditional thatched Fijian bures designed to blend in with the natural environment. A walk through mangrove forest unites this secluded resort with a traditional local village as the path winds through and ends at a hidden waterfall.

 id=The owners of Matava Resort are aware of the magic of this place, and have taken efforts to minimize their impact on the environment while promoting conservation measures within the community. The resort is 100% solar powered, and the water is solar heated as well. They have gone to great lengths to keep things local by utilizing an organic farm, providing seeds to local farmers to purchase fruit and vegetables from, planting trees to use for lumber, recycling, composting, and hiring local staff. Education is a major factor as well in the community as well as the guests. Matava has established a marine reserve that prevents fishing, shell-collecting, and reef walking. With every activity that Matava provides, environmental education is encouraged and respect for the environment is enforced.

Expect to see more blogs featuring select resorts and tour operators worldwide, from Africa to Argentina and everywhere in between. Visit our website or contact us today if you would like more information on these or any other eco-travel packages.

An African Adventure

This epic tale is from one of our clients who felt compelled to share their adventures:

"Our trip to Africa in May 2008 was more than we could have hoped for. All the details were perfectly worked out and we had the adventure of a lifetime! The trip started with a flight from San Francisco to Johannesburg, South Africa, via Washington DC. Having wanted to travel to Africa since I was a little kid, I was at a loss for words when we finally arrived. We stayed our first night on the African continent at the Airport Grand Hotel, in Jo’burg – we affectionately named it the “Flight Path Hotel” and enjoyed watching all the planes come in for a landing, right above our heads! From Jo’burg, we flew to Maputo, Mozambique to visit a child we sponsor with Save the Children; we spent three nights in Mozambique and we were thrilled to finally meet Mario, whom we’ve been sponsoring and communicating with for five years. At Mario’s village, we were greeted by his entire family, who sang and danced for us. We realized how important our sponsorship is when one of the village elders thanked us profusely for our monthly donations to Save the Children because Save the Children has installed water pumps in their village and now their children don’t have to risk getting eaten by crocodiles because they don’t have to go to the river for water. We were totally blown away – that is a concern that never crossed our minds. We also got to tour all the schools that Save the Children has built for the children. We were greeted by happy, smiling students who sang for us and asked us to build them more school rooms. It was refreshing to see how excited the children were for education…something you don’t see too often in the United States! Our trip to Mozambique was a definite eye-opener and made us realize that just a small amount of money each month makes a world of difference to those really in need.

The next part of our journey is when our trip to Africa really began! We were so excited to be heading to Botswana for our much long-awaited safari! We flew from Jo’burg to Maun, Botswana and were greeted at the airport by a representative from Kwando Safaris. We, along with three other travelers, were whisked out to the tarmac to our very small, four-passenger + one copilot, airplane! The flight to our first camp, Kwara, was absolutely breathtaking! Luckily, we didn’t fly at a very high altitude, so it was possible to search the ground for whatever wildlife we could spot. After about a 50 minute flight, we landed at the “Kwara International Airstrip” and were picked up by one of the guides for a ten minute ride to the camp. We arrived during the “afternoon siesta”, so we had several hours to kill before our first game drive. We were shown our tent, by Gert, the camp manager, and briefed on the rules of the camp – mainly no walking alone at night, due to potential animals cruising camp. Our tent was like no tent we had ever seen before – we had a deck that overlooked a big open area, two beds (they told us that they would move the beds together, if we’d like), two sinks, and a very lovely outdoor shower. We would spend some of our siesta time, sitting on the deck, hoping to see a giraffe or two walk by – no luck!

The game drives at Kwara were absolutely amazing! Before we started each drive, there was always the thrill of wondering what we were going to see. On our very first game drive, an afternoon/night drive, we saw two giraffe, a herd of impala and three cheetah boys, within the first twenty minutes of the drive! We saw the cheetahs hunting impala, two were successful and we also got to see five lions at a kill – all on our very first night! We spent three days at Kwara and always thoroughly enjoyed the drives. On some drives, we would travel a couple of hours before seeing any wildlife, but the scenery was always breathtaking. On other drives, we would see wildlife immediately and would be entertained by herds of impala, giraffe and zebra, all in the same area. We also were lucky enough to see the lion pride on practically every drive, whether it was the morning drives or afternoon/night drives. We would especially enjoy the spots the guide would choose for our morning stop or afternoon stop – they would always pick a spot with an incredible view of large herds of wildlife. At one stop, I counted about 25 giraffe; they just kept coming out of the forest! I’m not big into birding, but I must say that we saw many, many interesting and beautiful birds. We had a fantastic guide, Donald, who was charming, very good at finding the animals and was very thorough (and patient!) at answering all our questions. And our tracker, JD, was excellent at his job and always provided us humor along the way!

After our three nights at Kwara, we boarded a 12-passenger plane for our flight to Lagoon camp. From the air, we saw many elephant and even several ostrich. Lagoon camp was beautiful, right on the Kwando River. Our tent was fantastic! You could lie on the huge bed and look beyond the river at huge herds of elephants cruising by in Namibia! Once again, we had two sinks and an incredible outdoor shower. The nighttime showers were especially wonderful – the night sky was always clear and you could see the Southern Cross constellation, something you can’t see in the U.S.

Our first “game drive” was on a double-decker boat, cruising down the Kwando River. From the boat, we saw many elephants, some that had just finished swimming across the river; we sat under a tree of baboons during our sundowner drinks and also had a hippo bite our boat! After the boat ride, we finished our night drive in the vehicle. We were incredibly lucky when one vehicle radioed that they had found a leopard! We spent at least an hour with the amazing cat. All the game drives from Lagoon camp were extraordinary and afforded us the pleasure of seeing some animals we hadn’t seen at the Kwara camp. We saw many, many elephants and many different bird species; we spent two hours with a pack of seven wild dogs, saw herds of wildebeest and buffalo, several genets and African wild cats, a couple of ostrich and many humorous warthogs! We were totally entertained by the wild dogs – they are very social creatures and were very curious of our vehicles. They would come within a couple of feet of the vehicle to check us out! They had just killed a baby kudu, so they had fun playing tug-of-war with the skin and bones! As with the Kwara guide, our Lagoon guide would also stop for our morning tea or afternoon drinks, in areas with lots of wildlife (herd of zebra, buffalo and wildebeest) and gorgeous scenery to look at. On our last evening, we stopped right on the river and got to see the most gorgeous sunset and were entertained by our tracker calling hippos! Our guide at Lagoon, General, was good at finding animals but didn’t quite have the charming personality that our guide at Kwara had. He was nice enough and answered our questions; he was just not as charming as Donald. We really enjoyed our Lagoon tracker, BD – he had eyes like I have never seen on a person! He could see animals at a distance, that I had a hard time seeing with binoculars!

Since we were so close to the Kwando River at the Lagoon camp, it was not unusual to have wildlife visiting our camp. We regularly saw baboons cruising the pathways and squirrels liked to scurry around on top of our tent. We saw signs of hippo every day and even saw a hippo walking by one evening when we were at the campfire! On our first morning at Lagoon, we were told by our neighbors that an elephant was right next to our tent at around midnight the night before – we slept through it and didn’t hear a thing!

The schedule at the two Kwando camps we visited was the same - we were woken up at 630am, made our way to the campfire for a light breakfast (muffins, porridge, coffee and tea) at 700am and then we would leave on our first game drive between 730am and 800am. In the middle of the morning game drive, we would stop somewhere in the bush, and the guide and tracker would serve us coffee or tea and biscuits or cookies. We would then make it back to camp for a full, cooked breakfast at 1100am. Whenever you finished breakfast until about 330pm was “siesta” time – time for napping, reading, relaxing, looking at guide books, etc. At 330pm, we would make our way to the dining room for another “light” meal; at 400pm, we left for our afternoon/night game drive. In the middle of the afternoon/night game drive, the guide would stop and we would be served sundowner drinks and appetizers. Depending upon what sort of game you were cavorting with at night, we would arrive back at camp around 8-830pm for dinner. We were eating all the time! The food was always great and wine was always flowing!

The temperatures were quite chilly in the mornings and evenings at both camps. We would hurry up and get dressed and run to the campfire first thing in the morning! Since we were riding around in open air vehicles, the beginning of the morning drive and the end of the night drives were fairly chilly, but there were plenty of wool blankets to go around. The afternoon temperatures would get quite warm, but not uncomfortable at all.

After spending three nights at Lagoon, it was time to say goodbye to Botswana. We had the fortunate pleasure to see every kind of wildlife that we had wanted to see (and then some!), with the exception of the rhino. Our safari was amazing and it could not have been any better. The sights, sounds and smells are something that will remain in my mind forever. The two Kwando camps we stayed at were top notch; the accommodations were very comfortable, the food was plentiful and tasty, the game drives were fantastic, and all the staff members were phenomenal. We were made to feel like family, the minute we arrived at each camp.

On our last morning at Lagoon camp, our guide and tracker took us to the “Lagoon International Airstrip” for our flight to Kasane. As the plane was landing to pick us up, our vehicle chased impala off the runway! We boarded a 12 passenger plane for our flight to Kasane; Kasane is near the border with Zambia - the final stop in our amazing adventure. We decided on visiting Zambia to learn more about the African culture and see Victoria Falls. We were driven to the Zambezi River for a boat ride across the border. During the boat ride, the driver stopped at the four corners of Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, in the middle of the river – pretty cool! Once we got our Zambian visas, we had about an hour drive to Livingstone, where representatives from Songwe Village picked us up. From the town, it took about 30 minutes, on a very bumpy dirt road, to Songwe Village. The village is built just like the original Songwe Village, which you pass along the way. All the huts face inwards, right on the Zambezi River gorge; all the chalets have awesome views of the gorge and the Zambezi River! As with the two previous Kwando camps, the shower was semi-outdoors – it was incredible watching the Zambezi River as we showered!

Our “guide” for our three days at Songwe Village was Dorothy – she and her husband, Emmanuel, manage the property. I can’t say enough good things about these two amazing people. They went out of their way to make sure every detail was perfect and were both very accommodating. We were instantly part of the Songwe family, the minute we arrived! On our first night, we enjoyed a traditional Zambian dinner and were entertained with dancing by the staff – amazing!

During our three days at Songwe Village, we visited Victoria Falls (luckily, raincoats were provided because we were “one” with the falls!), we took a helicopter flight over the falls (a bit expensive at $100 for 15 minutes, but very much worth it and definitely recommended!), went to the Livingstone Museum (incredibly fascinating), took a leisurely boat cruise on the Zambezi River and did an elephant-back safari for our 13th wedding anniversary!! Since we were at Songwe for our anniversary, Dorothy and the staff went out of their way to make our special day one to never forget. After we got back from our elephant ride, we found our bed covered in flower petals with a lovely card from Dorothy and the staff. Dorothy directed us to immediately put on our robes (provided for each person in the chalets) and head to one of the glorious bath tubs overlooking the Zambezi gorge. Since it was dark, we couldn’t enjoy the sunset, but the bath hut was awash in light from lanterns, flower petals were everywhere, there was a bottle of champagne chilling and an incredible bath was drawn for us! I can honestly say this was the best anniversary we have ever had! No detail was overlooked and the staff went way out of their way to make our evening incredibly special!

During discussions with Dorothy during our stay at Songwe Village, we learned that she helps about ten orphans in the village, by making them school uniforms, providing them money (when she can), providing them warm clothing, and providing school supplies. We decided that we would like to contribute to her efforts and help as much as we can also. We are looking into starting a foundation or something similar to be able to help provide for the orphans in the original Songwe Village. As soon as we got home, I gathered up sweatshirts and sweaters, socks, and school supplies and shipped our first package to Zambia. Dorothy was absolutely thrilled!

After our wonderful three-night stay at Songwe Village, it was time to head home, back to the U.S. I know we were only with Dorothy for three days, but we really made a connection and it was really difficult leaving. She and Emmanuel are amazing people and we really respect what they do for the village. We look forward with working with them to help the orphan children!

After being on the plane for 20 hours from Johannesburg, South Africa to Washington D.C., we were once again on U.S. soil. While it’s always nice to be home, we were sad to leave Africa. Our trip to Africa was more than words can describe and one of the best experiences we have ever had. It was a very full, trip of a lifetime and we really believe Africa became a part of our souls. It is not a question of IF we will ever return to Africa, but a question of WHEN we will return to Africa."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Screening the Reefs

We've all heard of Coral Bleaching, most of us know what it is ("pigment loss associated with the dissociation of the symbiosis between coral and their dinoflagellates"), and some of us even know the causes. Anyone who has witnessed coral bleaching first-hand understands the true devastation. Like pouring turpentine on a Pollock, a Monet, or the Mona Lisa, coral bleaching is not only the destruction of Nature's vibrant creativity, it is also the death of the present and future corals.

With 60% of the world's reef systems threatened by climate change, industrial pollution, and excess UV radiation, the solution is certainly complex especially when you add into the mix the new study findings commissioned by the European Commission. The study finds that "cream-based ultraviolet filters" aka. sunscreen can cause bleaching of coral even in small quantities. Traveling in Australia Magazine states that:

"Researchers at the Polytechnic University of Marche, Ancona, Italy added controlled amounts of three brands of sunscreen to seawater surrounding the coral in Mexico, Indonesia, Thailand, and Egypt. Sadly, within 18 to 48 hours, even small doses provoked large discharges of coral mucous; a clear sign of environmental stress. Worse still, within 96 hours, complete bleaching--meaning the death of the corals--had occurred. "

The study, published in US journal Environmental Health Perspectives, has added sunscreen to the list of damaging agents. It estimates that 10% of the world's reefs may be at risk of sunscreen-induced bleaching.

So how do we savor the beauty of destinations like the Great Barrier Reef without destroying it by protecting ourselves from Australia's ozone-strengthened sun? Fortunately, you can bring along on your next vacation down under or to any other diving/snorkeling/beach combing vacation coral-friendly non-toxic sunscreen. You might foot a higher priced product but, who knows, perhaps it'll be better for you too.

Wondering where to get the products? See below for a few leads:
Mexitan - scroll down, they actually do sell spf 30
Burt's Bees
Pristine Planet