Naturally New Zealand

Naturally New Zealand

In the higher reaches of New Zealand’s South Island, you’ll discover a thrilling range of wildlife experiences, culinary delicacies and cultural insights, all wrapped in the stunning natural environment for which the country is so renowned.

The ferry journey from Wellington at the foot of the North Island takes you across the Cook Strait and into the spectacular Marlborough Sounds. Steep, native bush-clad hills plunge all the way down to the waterline along 1500 kilometres of winding coastline. As you gently cruise through the sounds, you become acutely aware of the tranquillity of these waterways. There is no more sublime way to arrive at what the locals call ‘the mainland’.

You’ll notice a number of attractive holiday homes dotting the hillsides, which are perfectly accessible despite being half-hidden by verdant New Zealand bush so that a stay in the sounds is as convenient as it is idyllic. Looking further afield, there is a superb selection of accommodation options available throughout the Marlborough region to cater for all budgets and desires.

This area is a haven for marine and birdlife. On Motuara Island in the Queen Charlotte Sound, little penguin and many other rare native species of bird, including the iconic Kiwi, thrive in a predator-free bird sanctuary. You can also walk the scenic Queen Charlotte Track, one of the South Island’s most renowned walks, or a short stretch of it.

The charming town of Picton is the heart of the Marlborough Sounds, and this is where the Cook Strait ferry arrives. From here it’s only a short drive to Blenheim, gateway to the world-renowned Marlborough vineyards. Marlborough put New Zealand on the international wine stage in the 1980s with its Sauvignon Blanc and today the region boasts around two thirds of New Zealand’s total vineyards. With over 30 cellar doors available for tastings, finding out what’s so special about Marlborough wine is a wonderful experience. Guided tours are available, and if you fancy a little exercise you can also cycle around at your own pace, sampling as you go.

Famous wines of the Marlborough region, as well as multi-award-winning New Zealand craft beers, can be paired with local produce and gourmet cuisine. The Marlborough Sounds are well-known for the quality of their salmon and green shell mussels, while fresh crayfish is readily available from the East Coast. Many visitors remark that this area is something of a culinary paradise, and they’re not wrong.

The drive south from Marlborough along the east coast is one of the most picturesque routes in a country that’s hardly short of them. Snoozing seals can often be seen stretched out on the rocky outcrops along the wild Pacific coastline. Eventually, you’ll reach Kaikoura, New Zealand’s marine Serengeti. This quaint little seaside town is an absolute must-visit on any South Island itinerary, for its blend of world-class wildlife experiences and rustic charm.

A deep undersea trench off the Kaikoura coast provides a rich feeding ground for abundant sea life, including dolphin and several species of whale. Companies such as Whale Watch Kaikoura and Encounter Kaikoura offer whale and dolphin-watching trips with a sustainable ethos, while you can also see many forms of birdlife including albatross, and of course seals. Don’t forget to stop at the roadside caravans for a delicious fresh seafood takeaway, where you can have a chat with the friendly vendors while taking in the incredible views.  

Naturally, Kaikoura also offers an excellent selection of accommodation options, from hosted bed-and-breakfasts to motels and many luxury properties. This is one very special New Zealand town, with distinctive Maori and marine cultures, and a raft of unmissable wildlife activities to be enjoyed.

 

Australia – north to south by any means necessary

Airboating, Mary River Floodplains, Bamurru Plains

With Australia being over 31 times the size of the UK, careful itinerary planning is an essential part of building the perfect holiday to Australia to avoid wasting time.  Certain distances have to be covered to make the most out of any visit so why not think about incorporating the travel into part of the experience…

Starting the journey in Australia’s wild north, take a three day tour from Darwin with Lords Safaris. Travel into Kakadu wetlands area, a World Heritage Listed National Park, on an iconic Yellow Water Cruise. As you glide across the pristine billabong keep your eyes peeled for a jumping saltwater crocodile, a spectacular sea eagle or the impressive sight of a Jacana walking on water. This is certainly a bird enthusiast’s dream come true with more than 280 different bird species inhabiting this region alone, many of which can also be spotted from airboat when you traverse the floodplains of the Mary River catchments. Stay at Bamurru Plains, a high comfort lodge in the middle of the Australian Bush. The nine chic and spacious bungalows are built on stilts and overlook the floodplains. The ingenious mesh screens down three sides of the bungalow provide a unique chance to feel connected with the wildlife that passes by.

Move away from the water and into the outback by boarding the Ghan Expedition with Great Southern Rail. This epic 2,979 km north-south journey leaves Darwin and four days later arrives in Adelaide. Named after the cameleers who came to Australia from Afghanistan, this deluxe train is run by a 50 strong crew who provide impressive food and drink choices and service to match top-end hotels. Cabins are well-designed and immaculately presented and the lounge and dining areas offer opportunities to socialise and share the endlessness of the extraordinary outback views.

After stopping to explore Katherine Gorge, Alice Springs appears with the next sunrise. From here depart the train and head into the sky on a 90 minute scenic flight on a fixed-wing plane over Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Each passenger is guaranteed a window seat to access the wonders of Central Australia and whilst the striking rock formation of Ayers Rocks viewed from above against a backdrop of classic outback scenery will amaze even the seasoned traveller, it may be Gosse’s Bluff that astonishes the most as the five kilometre diameter meteor crater can be viewed clearly, even from space.

 

The Ghan then rolls into the green fields of the wine-producing valleys on its way into Adelaide and the end of this luxurious rail journey. Take some time in Adelaide to feel the ground under your feet before hopping on a 34 seat Saab 340 turboprop plane to Kangaroo Island. Representatives from Exceptional Kangaroo Island will meet you on arrival and whisk you away in a four-wheel drive for a two day tour. True to its name, kangaroos are found in abundance, but the island is also the home to various pinnipeds, koalas and wallabies. The guides grant you special access to some of these endemic animals without disturbing their natural behaviours, giving you an intimate and unforgettable experience.

The vehicle transports you easily around the island stopping for scenic lunches and time to discover the incredible natural wind-carved sculptures along the coastline as well as driving through the distinctive redgum forests. Overnight in the opulent Southern Ocean Lodge with spectacular views from the secluded cliff-top location as you relax into the beauty of the retreat with some gastronomic delights.

Finish your holiday by heading back to Adelaide satisfied that you have taken full advantage of every chance to explore by any means necessary.

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Ray Mears explores the Australian wilderness this autumn on ITV

Aboriginal man, Arnhemland

Ray Mears will be back on our screens this autumn meeting the wildlife and people of the Australian wilderness. Over seven episodes he will spend time with tribes, learning ancient Aboriginal survival skills and travel from the outback to the coast, through ancient forests, mangroves and mountains.

In South Australia’s Flinders Ranges he will take to the skies to observe Australia’s largest bird of prey, the wedge-tailed eagle. Named due to its long diamond-shaped tail this magnificent bird is capable of hunting prey that is several times its own weight.  South of the Flinders, off the coast of Adelaide, is Kangaroo Island. This rugged, untouched isle is home to mobs of kangaroo, sea lions and the echidna, an egg-laying mammal with a beak like a bird which Ray sights here for the first time.

On the west coast of Australia, he will swim with whale sharks on the Ningaloo Reef, meet the charming quokka and search for fossilised teeth of the biggest shark ever to have lived, the megalodon. On the Dampier Peninsula, huge tidal currents have shaped a magical coastline.

In the Northern Territories, he spends time with tribespeople from the Murrumburrah clan, learning how they live in partnership and harmony with the land rather than exploiting it. Aboriginal culture in this part of Australia is strong and in the National Parks of Kakadu and Nitmiluk, he encounters one of the world’s fiercest predators, the saltwater crocodile and a colony of flying fox bats.

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Steppes Big 5: Australian Swagging Experiences

Join Professor Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain on BBC2’s Stargazing Live, to marvel at the star-studded southern skies of Australia. One of the most magical ways to experience Australia’s wilderness is to spend a night sleeping in the open, under a twinkling starry sky, in a luxury swag (a deluxe reinvention of a bushman’s bedroll!). Swagging literally means to Travel with one’s personal belongings in a bundle. There are a number of places where it is possible to experience luxury swag camping and with such a lot of sky and relatively few people Australia has some of the most stunning star studded heavens.

Bamurru Plains, Kakadu

Stay at this wonderful remote bush lodge on the edge of Kakadu National Park and after your chef prepared three course evening meal head out to The Hide, a six metre high platform with 360 degree views of the surrounding landscapes. Spend the night snuggled up in a deluxe swag listening to the nocturnal sounds of the nearby floodplains.

Longitude 131˚, Uluru

Facing the iconic monolith of Uluru, Longitude 131 is a magical retreat hidden amidst the vast outback of central Australia. Having recently added a balcony to each of the fifteen luxury guest tents, it is now possible to spend the night beneath the stars. Port, cognac and other digestifs are served by firelight before settled down in your bespoke luxury swag for two for the night.

Sal Salis, Ningaloo Reef

When shown a photo of Sal Salis the general response is a sharp intake of breath followed by an “oooooooohhh, where is that??” A remote safari camp nestled in the sand dunes just feet from the sandy beaches and turquoise, coral filled waters of the Ningaloo Reef on the west coast of Australia. This is the place to come to spend your days swinging in a hammock, snorkelling with turtles or swimming with Whale Sharks! Abandon your tent for the night and instead sleep on the beach under the stars.

Pepperbush Adventures, Tasmania

Not something offered as standard but we can arrange for a night under the stars with Craig ‘Bushie’ Williams – owner of Pepper Bush Adventures, a real life Tasmanian bushman and one of the countries most respected wildlife guides. Indulge in a bush tucker meal cooked over the fire in the middle of nowhere while spotting the local wildlife as the sunsets, before settled down for the night in your swag.

Arkaba Walk, Flinders Ranges

Experience outback walking in style on a 4 day walk through the ancient and ever changing landscapes of the Flinders Ranges and camp out under the stars. Camps are set up in spectacular locations so this is an amazing chance to experience the true scale and beauty of the outback but with a few creature comforts to make it an extra special experience. Covering 45 km’s over four days a support vehicle takes luggage between camps and a guide and all meals and drinks are included.

Start planning your Australian adventure now. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Travels in a magimiks – a journey by helicopter over Papua New Guinea

There is an archipelago off the east cost of Papua New Guinea where the women have a reputation for sexual assertiveness and the local people play a game of cricket to resolve their differences. Welcome to the Trobriand Islands, where the notion of free love is held sacrosanct and the virtues of a straight-batted cover drive are acknowledged by both men and women alike.

On a recent trip to Papua New Guinea, escorting Steppes Travel’s exclusive charter aboard the True North, I was given the opportunity to take a helicopter excursion over the Trobriand archipelago and to land on the largest island, Kiriwina. We took off after breakfast at about nine o’clock. The air was still, the sky cloudless and the sea as flat as a giant blue blanket. As we climbed high above the watery expanse of the Solomon Sea, our pilot, Rob, confirmed what we were already thinking.

“These conditions couldn’t be any better for flying. It is the perfect day.”

Psychologists have long extolled the soothing properties of the colour blue. On that morning, the six of us flying high above the Solomon Sea were becalmed by a deep and vibrant blue, so pervasive that where the sky finished and the ocean began was at times, indistinguishable. The feeling of serenity was at odds with the frenetic activity of the rotor blades above our heads but overwhelmed by the magnitude and simple beauty of the ocean, this paradox was easy to ignore. The blue beneath us gave way to white coral ribbons that unravelled beneath the sea and in places, large coral spires broke the surface of the water, providing a landing spot for pelagic birds.

The island of Kiriwina emerged beneath us and within a minute of flying along its coastline a small village came into view. As the noise of the helicopter disturbed the peace, curious villagers left their houses and children ran around in circles, waving frantically in our direction. Rob circled the village and gently lowered the helicopter above a large clearing, landing it as smoothly as he had taken off.

In the common language of Papua New Guinea, Tok Pisin (or pidgin, as it is more often referred), a helicopter is known as magimiks bilong Jesus. As we dropped out of the sky and touched down in Kiriwina, the reaction of the villagers was as if something otherworldly had imposed itself on their uncomplicated lives. That is not to say that we were greeted with suspicion or uncertainty; far from it. The excitement and wonder displayed by the children bordered on hysteria as groups of toddlers with wild, tousled hair held each other up as they laughed uncontrollably, while the smiling faces of their parents conveyed an unequivocally warm welcome.

I tried to imagine how I would feel in their situation and felt a hot flush of shame. I could only think I would feel apprehension or even mistrust. I know I would not have welcomed these strangers, dropping uninvited out of the sky, with anything like the unaffected hospitality we were being shown. The experience was humbling and edifying.

Our pilot, Rob introduced me to the village’s school teacher. He was immaculately dressed, wearing a pressed, white shirt, untucked and very loose around his tall, slender frame. His heavy brow and well-kept goatee beard gave him the look of a serious man but his smile belied this appearance and exuded a generous spirit so typical of Papuans. He shook my hand and spoke softly.

“The children are practising for a dance competition against the other schools on the island – would you like to see them dance?”

The children were aged between five and ten years old, a mixture of boys and girls and dressed in traditional costumes of short, red grass skirts or loin cloths with matching head bands. Some wore hand-made necklaces and arm bands made from an assortment of shells, coloured seeds and flowers; others were sprinkled with glitter-like gold flecks that flickered in the sun while others had been adorned with Adam Ant-like white, face paint stripes.

They formed straight lines and danced with serious faces and like any young children in the limelight, there was an air of self-consciousness about their first dance. It was only when the teacher stood up and the tempo of the music increased, that the children began to relax. Their looks of earnest intent melted into spontaneous smiles as they watched with glee, as their teacher gambolled in front of them, throwing rambunctious moves on the grassy dance floor. All good parties have a moment when inhibitions are discarded and the real fun begins. This was their moment and the children followed their teacher’s lead with gusto and danced up a storm.

It was a wrench to leave the celebration. As we climbed into the helicopter to leave, our own smiling faces mirrored the hundreds of smiles that had gathered to wave us goodbye. We were silent as we lifted from the ground and each one of us craned our necks to maintain eye contact with the villagers for as long as we could. Before long though, the village was out of sight and once more, we were hostage to the big blue — a tiny, whirring speck in space, the magimiks returned to Jesus.

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Steppes Big 5: Reasons to Travel to Western Australia

Kangaroo, Australia

The west coast of Australia is often overlooked for the more famous east coast but why not choose Perth instead of Sydney or the Ningaloo Reef instead of the Great Barrier Reef. Far less visited and no less spectacular here are our top five reasons why Western Australia gets our vote:

1. Perth

Following a recent mining boom, Perth and the surrounding areas are enjoying investment and restoration leading to the tagline ‘the re-birth of Perth’. International hotels are taking up residence in the city and historical buildings getting a new lease of life in the form of boutique hotels like COMO The Treasury. Elizabeth Quay will re-connect the city from the Swan River to the harbour and become home to gourmet restaurants and a buzzing atmosphere akin to that of Sydney Harbour. Annual festivals, huge city parks and the trendy port of Fremantle all combine to make Perth a destination in its own right.

2. Whale Sharks & Humpbacks

Far less visited than the Great Barrier reef and located just metres off the shore, this pristine reef stretches for 260km and is home to Manta ray, Green & Loggerhead turtles, dugongs and dolphin as well as being on the migratory route for Whale Sharks and Humpback Whales.

When to visit the Ningaloo Reef: To swim with Whale sharks visit from April to July and Humpbacks from August until October.

3. World-Class Food, Wine & Beaches

Located south of Perth, Margaret River is a hidden corner of Australia, home to world-class vineyards and wonderful beaches, equally great for surfing on as well as sunning oneself. A gastronomic destination the region is renowned for its artisan food produce. Hunt for rare black truffles with highly trained truffle dogs before sampling your treasure.

When to visit Margaret River: October through to March is a great time to visit Margaret River and the surrounding beaches.

4. Pristine Wilderness

The Kimberley’s are a vast wilderness of mangroves, rivers, ancient aboriginal rock art and tumbling waterfalls. This should definitely be on the radar for anyone who dreams of escaping the rat race and truly getting off the beaten track.

When to visit The Kimberley: It is hot and humid with monsoon rains from January to March so the best time of year to visit is from June to September.

5. Open spaces, aboriginal culture & wild flowers

Covering 2.5 million square kilometres with 12,500km of coastline and encompassing one third of Australia’s land mass, there is no shortage of wide open spaces and far reaching scenery in Western Australia. Rich in Aboriginal history, the Bradshaw cave paintings can be found here, dating back some 60,000 years they are believed to be among the earliest figurative paintings ever made. Glorious wildflowers carpet the parts of the region from June through until November.

Get in touch to learn more about our holidays to Western Australia. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Experiencing the Australian Outback

The long roads continue from Adelaide into the outback in South Australia and we barely pass any cars. Short, twig like bushes cling to the ground and dead kangaroos line the roads…blimey this definitely feels like the outback. We slow down as a small flock of Emus run across the road –fantastic! Slowly the landscape is changing, along this journey departing Adelaide some hours ago it has changed so much. Now steep ranges are appearing in the distance, they look like they have been squeezed out of the earth and are amazing in the evening sun.

Old chicken wire fences follow the road for miles and as we approach a white spray painted barrel the indicator flashes on. As we pull off the road I see the words ‘Arkaba’ imprinted on the barrel. We must be here. Kicking up clouds of dust and bouncing over boulders we arrive at this wonderful looking homestead. Our host Brendan is waiting to meet us and show us to our rooms. We have barely dropped our bags when he asks us if we fancy heading up the range in time for sunset. Jumping in the open backed jeep we trundle past the original homestead as kangaroos bounce by. We reach the point just in time, the sun warmly glowing on the back of the chase range some miles behind. A chilled bag is brought out from the boot and a white linen table promptly set up – emu pate canapés and a cool bottle of Riesling make this sunset even more blissful.

The days spent in the Flinders are all about the experience. I am up early…I think it’s 05:00 and I am back in the jeep again. It’s strange to think how bitterly cold it is when it was so hot yesterday. I am wearing layer upon layer, down jackets and blankets as we drive out into the bush. The morning light is misty blue and this time we are driving up onto the shoulder ridge of the Elder range. In the distance, the bluffs of the Flinders silhouette like daggers. We stop and explore dried up creeks and learn about the flora and fauna that lives in this harsh land, the leaves of the rose gums smell so fresh. Off we go as the sun starts creeping above the horizon, it’s warm rays are so welcome as fresh coffee is poured. A hot air balloon floats up from the valley bottom and rises with the sun. Back at Arkaba we have more time to explore, walking the creeks, passing the swag stations designed for starlight sleepers. I quite fancy that.

Our chef cooks up the most delicious meal that evening, delicious lamb shank, local herded of course, and crème brulee. Off we go to the library, the fire lit and glowing, a glass of port from the nearby Barossa Valley….I think I will sleep well tonight.

To hear more about Charles’ trip to Australia, or for further advice about planning your own holiday to South Australia please contact our specialistson 01285 651 010.

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Skin Deep – Papua New Guinea

“He is a great cutter.”

I stare at him. Is it my imagination or are his features crocodilian?
“What makes a good cutter?”
“He has twenty-five years’ experience. He can cut quickly.”

Looking at the number of vivid welts across the bodies of the young men in the tambaran it was obvious that speed was a key factor in being a good cutter. So too skill and dexterity. Emulating the ridges of the crocodile which they worship, the patterns were intricate. They had a tactile beauty that made me want to reach out and touch the weals tattooed into their skin.

I was in the Middle Sepik, which thanks to its diversity, arts, rituals and ceremonies, is the cultural heart of Papua New Guinea. No mean accolade in a country famed for its tribalism. More than 800 mutually unintelligible languages are spoken in PNG – the highest concentration of languages in the world. They attest to the extraordinary isolation of individual tribes over centuries and the country’s formidable geography – even today there are no roads out of Port Moresby, the capital.

There is little that binds the country together. No real sense of national identity. No road networks. Pidgin, a kind of creole, is the lingua franca that just about enables communication from tribe to tribe via its playful lyricism. Bilum is the word used for the ubiquitous string bag, meri for woman (derived from Mary) but it is the composite phrases for introduced words where pidgin shows its real ingenuity: a helicopter is mix master bilong Jesus Christ and Prince Charles is nambawan pikinini bilong Mises Kwin. For me, such phrases hint at an endearing sense of humour that unites the country.

Our journey, after a brief transit through Port Moresby and internal flight during which the safety briefing asked us not to chew betel, began at Wewak on the north-east coast. From here we were driven inland passing wooden huts on stilts in well-manicured plots – the grass is cut to keep out snakes, reduce mosquitos
and to keep the encroaching fecundity of the forest at bay. The villages were poor but there was not poverty. There was none of the squalor that blights the shanty towns of the cities.

Wherever we stopped people came forward to shake hands. They smiled. There was a warmth, openness and welcome. It is a friendliness that challenges the aggressive stereotypes that prejudice preconceptions of the peoples of Papua. Above all they spoke English, allowing for engagement, a reciprocity that is all too rare in travel today. There was a mutual interest.

We arrived at Pagwi, a frontier trading port where one doesn’t ask too many questions, and headed downstream in a motorised dugout. Sprouting hills, walls of vegetation, banks of papyrus, villages on wooden stilts, palm thatched roofs, children swimming in the water’s edge gave a sense of journey. A feeling of going beyond the ordinary which was confirmed by the simplicity of the rudimentary guesthouse in which we overnighted.

“You are up early this morning,” an old gentleman commented with a smile as we poled through a narrow channel.

“To beat the rush hour.”

Good for you,” he replied with a smile and a laugh. Laughter is a universal and inescapable feature of PNG.

We arrived at Palimbe, a village surrounded by banana and palm trees, a village of 400 people who speak the Yatmul Language and worship the crocodile. The early morning sun bathed the Spirit House, a long thatched building on stilts, in a gentle light. Blood stones, where the heads of enemies were smashed, spoke of a darker, more violent past. The rhythmic visceral drumming of a hollowed-out rain tree announced our arrival. I felt transported back in time. As if an explorer stumbling upon an isolated idyll for the first time.

But I was not. The Japanese were here in 1943 – in the museum in Goroka I was shocked to read that 300,000 Japanese had been in the country during WWII and that 170,000 of them had lost their lives. Missionaries, a pervasive part of PNG, had been here. So too tourists.

None of the above detracted from the charm of Palimbe. Mobile phones and murderous mosquitos, however did. That was until I shook myself out of my naivety and remembered that not only are mobile phones a fact of modern life but that they are bizarrely preserving many local languages in PNG which are now being written for the first time. The mosquitos were less easy to deal with but were only a temporary irritant and certainly no deterrent to what was a most magical visit.

We met Richard who spoke flawless English, having been educated in the Eastern Province. He was born in 1973 and was married in 1997. Two of his children have died.

“What of?”

“My enemies.” An educated man who believes in superstition, a ubiquitous idiosyncrasy of Papua New Guinea.

In the tambaran, spirit house, smoke wafts. Young bearded men – they are not allowed to shave whilst initiates – sit in grey mud and silence, swatting themselves with palm fans. They wear only short skirts of palm leaves – lap lap or more derogatively arse grass – that give them a modicum of modesty and leave their buttocks bared. Their pectorals are hardened from years of chopping wood and paddling the waters of the Sepik. Their bodies are articulated by the lines of welts across their bodies, the scarification for which the village is famed.

The cuts are made with a blade, which has replaced the bamboo needle, and then rubbed with the oil of a guat tree to make them blister. Older men – fathers, uncles, relatives – sit on wooden platforms, swinging their legs and observing their charges to ensure that rituals are upheld. This seems odd given that female tourists are allowed into the spirit house, a sign of change and that the tourist dollar is keeping the tradition alive. I have an issue with cultural voyeurism but it does provide a source of much needed income to the villagers. Whatever my doubts, my time in the spirit house with the initiates is both intriguing and compelling.

Further upstream in Wagu we saw the Lesser Bird of Paradise – PNG has 38 of the world’s 41 birds of paradise. Lesser in name but not spectacle. A beautiful bird of maroon-brown with a yellow crown and brownish-yellow back. It is easy to see how their feathers were desired by the women of Europe to decorate their hats in the nineteenth century and that, at its height, this trade in the plumes of birds of paradise reached 100,000 skins a year. A magical sight made all the more special by John’s reaction. John was a young man from Ambunti, a couple of hours downstream by motorised dugout. It was touching to see his smile and wide-eyed, open-mouthed wonder at seeing this bird for the first time. It speaks volumes of the innocence of the people but more importantly the regionalisation of the country as a whole.

We walk through the village which has a laidback charm and sense of civic pride. Here children do as they are told; none of the interminable negotiation that so blights the lives of western parents. We entered a men-only hut on the lakeside, a place for men to come and share stories. It seems at odds with the school on the hill which is teaching gender equality. James, an old man of the dog tribe with a pierced nose and septum, was tending to his net. It no longer happens, piercing that is.

A few hours further upriver in Sawgup we meet another James. This James belongs to the insect tribe and worships the praying mantis, a symbol of strength. He remembers human skulls being kept in the spirit house when he was young. He sees ghosts as lightning. He has travelled to Abergavenny, Wales, as part of a television production on remote tribes.

Both dog James and insect James personify the dichotomy and changing nature of PNG. Whilst remote and little visited, stereotypes of primitive, un-contacted tribes are outmoded. Already by the late 1960s the lowland peoples were no longer wearing traditional dress. Although the peoples of the highlands where, they would only do so for another thirty years, traditional dress having faded out by the turn of the millennia.

On the one hand this makes the action of getting dressed up for tourists as inauthentic. On the other hand the fact that they have the costumes is a different situation. Seeing tribes is the same as seeing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace – both are a tradition that is performed for tourism. Indeed some traditions, whether dance or dress, have only survived in areas where there have been tourists.

We travel to the highlands to see the Asaro mudmen, specifically to a village called Geremiake. The plots are fertile, a veritable garden of Eden. Ginger, yam, banana, sweet potato, sugar cane are all grown. For a short time they down the tools of the gardener and put on the attire of performers.

The men cover their bodies in a light grey clay. They shiver with cold. They stand around a fire to warm up and also to dry the clay. Banter and home-rolled cigarettes are shared. They don their masks of mud, homemade and ghoulish. They perform a silent ghostly dance. Afterwards there is laughter, the camaraderie of a shared moment. Inside a hut, I catch a glimpse of two of the dancers taking photos of each other on their mobile phones. It might be staged but it is not contrived.

The dress might have been dropped but many of the traditional beliefs remain. Clothing might change but inwardly nothing has changed – not even the missionaries are able to do this. Superstition is engrained in the national psyche.

The coast off Tufi’s peninsula, or Cape Nelson as it was named by the British, is a place where sea and mountains meet. A paradise accessed only by boat or air. Gnarled green fingers stretch out into the sea creating fjords of hidden surprises – technically they are rais as they were created by volcano as opposed to ice. These rais give the region a very particular fingerprint of turquoise coral bays, surrounded by steep ridges covered in rainforest and kunai grasslands.

In one we swim up to and under a twenty metre waterfall. The water is cold. Refreshingly so. In another we climb up a hillside bursting with bromeliads and vines with the enchanting Molly and meet her elderly mother Wilma who, whilst uncertain of her age, knows that she had her face tattooed when she was fifteen. She knows too that it took a month to tattoo. She remembers how painful it was. Whilst her face bears the scars of the past, her heart does not: she welcomed us with the biggest smile and hug I have had in years. Saying goodbye was not easy.

In a third, I listen to the crash of the surf, the rustling of palm leaves, the whistling of a honey eater and the fluttering of a butterfly. There is much beauty in such simplicity. This is best illustrated by six year old Gary, who, when asked to draw the things that matter most to him, sketches a fish, a tree and a house.

We pass palm trees silhouetted against sunlit clouds and rickety outriggers, the only mode of transport in the region. Vines, as opposed to nails and screws, bind the outriggers together. The only concession to the twenty-first century are the patchwork of materials used in their sails. They are paddled slowly, deliberately, in even strokes. Nothing is rushed. Such is Tufi. It is easy to see why there is only one policeman. So too that he is underemployed.

Unemployment is a problem in PNG, a country whose population has tripled in the last forty years to nine million. It is a country with little employment. Young men head to towns in search of riches but end up being branded as raskols and embroiled in a world of violence.  There is an edge to parts of PNG but having been made to feel so welcome and laughed so much you see beyond the bad press – most security issues are largely misplaced and based on the interests of Australian journalists. I could not say the same about the problems of gender inequality.

In short it is not a straightforward country but its complexity is part of its charm. It is a country that I have fallen in love with but not for the reasons I had expected. Maybe the trite tourist board strapline is true after all – the land of the unexpected – and I had only just scratched the surface.

Faces of Papua New Guinea

”Wherever we stopped people came forward to shake hands. They smiled. There was a warmth, openness and welcome. It is a friendliness that challenges the aggressive stereotypes that prejudice preconceptions of the peoples of Papua. Above all they spoke English, allowing for engagement, a reciprocity that is all too rare in travel today. There was a mutual interest.”

Here are just some of the faces of Papua New Guinea, across ages, across tribes; the people that I had the pleasure of meeting on my last trip.

Tribes of Papua New Guinea

33 hours of travel and 11 time zones later I had finally reached one of the most culturally diverse, little known and remote countries in the world.

And ‘remote’ is a very apt word when describing PNG; along with ‘raw’, ‘untamed’, ‘complex’ and ‘charming’.

Papua New Guinea is a country that certainly ticks to a different beat; it’s an explosion of colour and culture, confounding pigeonholing.

“It’s all about land, pigs or women…in that order” my guide casually explained by way of introduction to the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. I was lucky enough to meet the different tribes; learning more about them, their traditions and interestingly the encroachment of modern life.

In a densely populated area where pigs equate to mobile wealth and status, and travelling armed is still de rigeur if you’re a Huli Wigman, it’s always going to be a dynamic situation as I very much discovered for myself.

Despite modern life encroaching fast, you can get a very privileged insight into the traditions of the tribes of Papua New Guinea, seeing them in their traditional attire or watching them at a ‘sing sing’, the biggest of which is the Goroka Show in September every year featuring more than 100 tribes.

Below are just some of my favourite pictures from my trip.

Cannibalism and cargo cults, skull caves and spirit houses

“12 months for sorcery” ran the front page article of PNG’s main rag on the day I arrived, hardly an auspicious start. Welcome to PNG, Land of the Unexpected.

Squirreled away on the remote periphery of both Asia and Australia yet ticking to a very different beat, PNG confounds pigeonholing. A vast tropical island of torturous topography, tree-dwelling kangaroos, 850 different languages and a population with a penchant for personal decoration, pigs and rugby league.

Cannibalism and cargo cults, skull caves and spirit houses, wigmen and Asaro mudmen – for those with a taste for the exotic it really doesn’t get much better. Modernism came late to PNG and few cultures still offer such a rich and fascinating culture. Yet the modern world is encroaching; PNG is making the extraordinary quantum leap from Stone age to the Internet age in little over a generation. Billboards in the Highlands town of Mount Hagen exhort passing tribesmen to join the +3G mobile generation, while villagers in remote villages ask how they can join Facebook. Worrying harbingers of irrevocable change.

The Melpa witchdoctor stretched out his bony hand, took mine and placed something in it. “For luck” he said simply and smiled. Lying in the palm of my hand was a small, black, well rounded pebble with the pleasing feel to it of a well-thumbed book; one of his precious magical stones. And in that one altruistic gesture I realised that PNG’s spirit world was still very much alive.

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Breathtaking scenery and island quirks on Lord Howe

It’s been a fun flight, my second propeller plane in as many weeks. The flight attendant mans the small plane single handily, the poor lady announces ‘Be kind, as it’s my first proper flight having just finished training’ but does a sterling job, taking great care of keeping our wine glasses topped up. Ham and cheese toasties are also being handed out like presents at Christmas…first class work in my opinion!

The peak of Balls pyramid emerges like a chard of glass, thrusting towards the heavens out of the crashing waves. Clouds of gulls circle the escapement as I crane my neck down out of the window to get a clearer look. A wave of excitement fills the cabin, we must be almost there. All I can see is the pacific. As our plane banks to the left, the two impending towers of Mt Gower and Mt Lisgard announce the arrival of Lord Howe, guarding the island from its eastern flank. We fly right over it, I catch a glimpse of a lovely looking beach; a pencil line wave being surfed by ants.
Out to sea we go again, bank once more and glide down to the airstrip.

I love it already, this is so different to the Australia I am used too. A white picket line fence is the only security on this airstrip. ‘I remember Heathrow being like this when I was a boy says the British traveller next to me. The latch on the gate opens, I am holding my passport ready for it to be checked but there’s no passport control. 10 or so plastic chairs, posters on the wall displaying cartoon pictures of pearly white smiles of people on the beach are all there is.

I am quickly intercepted by our host, bags are put in the boot and I take my seat. Off we go….at snail’s speed. We crawl out of the airport and turn onto the main road. We stop. Two cars pass by. ‘Whoa, it’s busy today! Usually we don’t see any vehicles on this part of the road.’ Off we go again…at snail’s speed. I am not quite sure what’s going on, but it’s lovely with the window down and looking up towards the mountains. ‘Oh sorry, I forgot to mention. With only 6 miles of road and around about 11 owned vehicles on the island we have a blanket speed limit – 15mph! COOL don’t ya’ think? Creeping up the slope a pristine golf course is off to the left. ‘If you’re interested in golf please help yourself. It’s unmanned but we take it in turns to mow the lawn. An honesty box sits up on the desk in the pavilion, if you need clubs you can help yourself too. $10 or so which I think is pretty good.’

Pulling into the car park at the end of the road I have arrived – Capella Lodge – is partially hidden behind the trees. Checking into my nautically theme ‘Lagoon Loft’ my balcony looks straight up to the giant peaks in front of me. There is no time to waste, with such little time I need to explore. Mountain bikes and golf buggies are included in my stay and sit waiting in the lay by opposite. I pick the bike as after weeks of fine dining (and I’m not complaining) I really could do with the exercise.

Following the road I can’t go wrong, I pass the cricket pitch and the museum – it’s got to be worth a look. Inside glass cabinets showcase eggs and crumbling skeletons, old leaves and bits and pieces that the original settlers left behind. On the wall ‘Wolf Rock’ catches my eye, telling stories of the ships that have met their fate – with it the original whaling ship ‘The Wolf’ running a ground and sinking, taking with it a valuable cargo of sperm whale oil.

After dipping my toes into the history of the island it’s time to catch that sinking sun before it disappears, back on the bike and along the road. A car passes by. ‘Haha, look at that!’ I think to myself. I have only been here a couple of hours but already the quirkiness of this place is rubbing off….

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Now that is what you call a view!

There is only one thing you’ll be doing as you walk through the entrance to Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island off the south coast of Australia; your feet continue ahead of you, eyes wide and staring straight ahead out of the sweeping floor to ceiling windows onto the turquoise waters of the Southern Ocean. ‘LOOK AT THAT VIEW’ I say loudly to my companions, ‘I mean just look at it! Now that is what you call a view! Is that not one of the best views you have seen?’

I take control again a few seconds later and turn to take in the rest of the lobby; a tear dropped fire place revolves from the ceiling, its gentle glow seems so welcoming. It’s not even cold outside. Waiters and waitresses come and go with wonderfully fresh looking fish serving diners with their heads, you guessed it, looking out to sea. A hot tub bubbles on the balcony, glasses of drinks are being poured by the open bar and in the distance I see a trickle of guests walking down to the beach.

As I am shown to my room, I look left at the endless scrubland that sweeps to the horizon. There are no roads, no buildings, telegraph wires or shops, that’s when you realise just how perfectly the lodge has been designed to blend into the environment. We reach my room – Kona – so named along with the other suites after ship wrecks that had crashed off the treacherous reefs of Kangaroo Island, I spend time taking in my new space, a sunken lounge and open plan bathroom. No need to draw blinds or curtains, undisturbed panoramas continue for that perfect view.

While I am here I take in different parts of Kangaroo Island. Headland walks along the cliffs, the water so so blue and Osprey nests dotted as you go. Walks along the beach, cycle rides and excursions to Seals Bay with its resident seals, Admirals Arch and Remarkable Rocks. Back at the Lodge there is more time to relax. Early evening Kangaroo watching with Canapés are on the agenda, this time a wildlife tour spotting Echidnas and fields brim-full with Kangaroos.

Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island provides more than a lodge experience. Captivating coastal views, exceptional food and service make it one of the best places I have ever stayed. A sanctuary of comfort, as the candles flicker and the distant rumble of the ocean – I could stay here for some time!

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Driving into the Flinders Ranges

It’s almost a job to know where to start, I’m one week into the most fabulous trip of Australia I could possibly imagine.

This isn’t my first time to the country, in fact I was here 10 years ago travelling along the coast in a beat up old camper van eating peanut butter sandwiches and tinned hot dogs. After all these years it’s not just me who’s changed but Australia has too.

Adelaide is not the sleepy town I was expecting as I arrive after my 28 hour flight; it is littered with colonial buildings and low rise sky scrapers. When the sun sets the streets came alive, much like a carnival and restaurants serving food from all over the world. Delicious barbecue smoke wafting along the alleys, wok fried prawns and cured cheeses plus cold beers being poured from a recently refurbished pub which happens to be the oldest building in the entire city – 1876!

Light sleep often comes with that first night away in a different country but I’d be tempted to put it down to excitement. An early breakfast and I’ve picked up the hire car. Today’s destination is the Flinders ranges in South Australia, 5 hours from Adelaide. Not a scratch on a map, this is Australia after all. The journey has been cleverly strung together to give me time to explore the Clare Valley and its fabulous vineyards. Grilled snapper and homemade bread, washed down with a glass of Reisling really has to be recommended. The view is fabulous, rolling green hills dotted with palm trees and grape vines.

The drive continues as the landscape changes with the miles. I didn’t realise just how close the outback really is to the city and soon the soil has turned a darker red and hardy looking bushes replace the green. Onwards to our outback accommodation for the night – Arkaba Station.

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Stanley in The Marquesas Islands

At the end of last year Stanley Johnson, journalist and writer departed the UK and headed for the South Pacific, courtesy of the Steppes Voyages team. The article he wrote whilst he was travelling featured in The Times earlier this year and highlights of it are featured below.

French Polynesia and the South Pacific conjures up images of pristine, untouched palm fringed beaches and it doesn’t disappoint! “My wife and I have just spent two weeks on board a cargo ship called the Aranui. In a life-time of travel, this has been one of my most unforgettable experiences.”

Aranui is Maori for ‘The Great Highway’; a small cargo ship crewed mainly by Marquesans, many descendents of some of the most adventurous Pacific explorers. Travelling to the little visited group of islands called the Marquesas, six of which are inhabited and so remote that the *Aranui* is their lifeline to the outside world, bringing supplies and picking up copra, dried coconut and noni fruit.

“The ship also carries passengers on its two-week voyage, but this is not your typical cruise. The service on board is exceptional, and the level of comfort in terms of the accommodation provided is excellent. The food is superb – a combination of French and Tahitian cuisine.”

The islands themselves are untouched and have few roads or cars. Visitors are rare and as such are very much welcomed by the friendly Polynesians. There are mysterious jungle ruins, with the largest tiki gods outside Easter Island, along with sacred ritual sites and enigmatic petroglyphs of birds, fish and sacred turtles carved on boulders.

“These delightful Marquesans have managed to retain – or at least to have reinvented – a strong cultural presence. With the possible exception of Easter Island, this must be one of the finest examples of Polynesian culture in the whole of the South Pacific. Though only a fraction of the site has been cleared, you are able to gain a clear impression of what must have been an immense archaeological complex.”

Travelling at the relaxed Polynesian pace of life, the ship sails from island to island allowing time to explore not only on land, but the chance to snorkel in the beautiful, marine rich waters.

Upon reaching land, there is always a welcome party. Stanley expains, “Because the monthly visit of the Aranui is the high point of their calendar, the islanders most often came down en masse to the dock as we moved from island to island. While half of them helped with the unloading, the other half entertained us with dance and song… but what struck me more than anything was the sheer niceness, the overwhelming friendliness of the Marquesans.”

A real insight into island life can be gained by joining the locals in their daily routines. Stanley describes one morning when, “along with several other passengers, and virtually the whole population of the village, he attended mass in the tiny village of Vaitahu. The church itself was built a few years ago with funds provided by the Vatican. Brilliantly designed, it is a light airy structure. If your attention wanders, you can indeed lift up your eyes to the surrounding tree-covered hills. High above the altar there is a stained glass window of surpassing beauty depicting a Polynesian Madonna and Child.

There was a wonderful cheerfulness about the service that morning. The men wore their best pareos; the women all had flowers in their hair. Several of the Marquesans had brought drums and ukuleles. The congregation broke into song, or so it seemed, on every possible occasion.”

This truely special cruise to the Marquesas Islands offers the chance to travel at a leisurely pace to a tropical destination that is beyond the ordinary, but also provides one of the warmest welcomes you will find anywhere in the world. To discuss travelling to the Marquesas Islands please contact Sue on 01285 880981.

Find out more about Stanley Johnson, who will be launching his latest book, ‘Where the Wild Things Were; Travels of a Conservationist‘ in July 2012.

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Ben Fogle swims with Crocodiles – 2012

Not that I would recommend this to my clients, but I am very much looking forward to watching Ben Fogle attempt a swim with Australia’s most aggressive of all reptiles, the saltwater crocodile.

I believe he will be travelling through beautiful Kakadu National Park, accessed from Darwin and in addition to the entertainment factor a serious side will also be addressed. Ben and a pioneering science team are in Australia’s Northern Territory in an attempt to find, swim with and study a Saltwater crocodile. Unfortunately as time goes by, humans and crocodiles are sharing more and more territory and the work is more important than ever before as increased conflict is inevitable. Also during the programme, Ben uncovers the complicated relationship between crocodile and man when he meets a grief-stricken aboriginal elder whose favourite giant ‘boss’ crocodile has been shot dead.

The team find it almost impossible to find the right conditions to dive with a ‘saltie’ and, when they do, they have no idea how it will react. This is a rare opportunity to see this incredible creature up close.

Tune in on Sunday 26th February at 9pm on BBC2.

For more information about Australia or planning your own adventure to Australia, please contact our specialists on 01285 651 010.