In the Tribe: face-to-face with… Jeff Webster

In the Tribe: face-to-face with… Jeff Webster

In the Tribe: Face-to-face with… Jeff Webster

In this first of a new series meeting some of Tribes’ travellers, Suffolk-based Jeff Webster, a keen photographer who is now retired from a career in banking in London, tells of his and his wife Sue’s love of wildlife, Africa and Antarctica.

When did you first experience wildlife ‘in the wild’?

The answer may not be what you expect! In 1981 Sue and I – who had spent our lives in the suburbs until that point – moved to a rural location near Bishops Stortford. Until then my only experience of wildlife of any sort had been through the television – David Attenborough, of course, but before that (for those who are old enough to remember!) I also watched Armand and Michaela Dennis, who were earlier pioneers of wildlife broadcasting.

That first summer in our first rural home was very hot and one night, sleeping with the windows open to try to let some breeze in we heard a strange noise from the garden. We shone torches around the garden and to our great surprise and delight it was a badger! It had found a group of snails and was snacking away.

That started a love of watching wildlife that has endured ever since. Badgers became regular visitors to our garden. Sue and I would turn off the house and outside lights and sit on the terrace and they would wander into the garden and walk amongst us. We would even invite friends to join us sometimes. The badgers attracted foxes, and we would have visiting fox cubs in the spring. We joined a badger protection group, learnt how to handle injured badgers and dug sets for orphaned ones. Over the 25 years we lived in that house we were visited by badgers thousands of times. Strangely, since moving to rural Suffolk, we have only seen one live badger – and that was an injured one we found by the roadside, which died in my arms.

When did the travel bug bite you?

As a child growing up in Leeds and Manchester my holidays were restricted to family trips to Scarborough and Morecambe.  I didn’t go abroad or fly at all until I was 38 years old, when Sue and I went to Crete, which was the beginning of nearly a decade of Mediterranean holidays for us. However, in 1989 we decided to take a long-haul trip, and did so quite comprehensively, with a trip that included India, Hong Kong and China!

It was quite an eye opener for us both – when you have only travelled in Europe and then you land in Delhi…. I remember the taxi taking us from the airport to the hotel and Sue exclaiming “Good heavens, there’s a naked man walking along the street!”, and our driver explaining that it was a holy man.

On that trip we saw macaque monkeys and Asian elephants and that inspired us to take our first African safari, which we did in 1990, travelling to Kenya with a travel company that we picked because they promised us a window seat in the safari vehicle!

To say we enjoyed it is very much an English understatement – since that trip we have travelled once and sometimes twice every year and have visited every continent on earth apart from Australia.

What are your most memorable wildlife experiences from your travels with Tribes?

In 2011 Tracy arranged a trip to Western Tanzania for us, taking in Selous, Ruaha, Katavi and Mahale. Our main aim was to see chimpanzees in the wild, something we had failed to do with previous trips to Rwanda and Uganda. We very nearly saw them in Uganda – we had walked to be very close to them but then it started raining and they went quiet and that was it! Tracy understood what we wanted and she suggested Mahale because the chimps there are habituated to humans, as they have been monitored for years by, I think, Kyoto University.

The experience was memorable for many reasons – not least the flight from Katavi to Mahale. It was a small plane, of course, and Sue and I were the only passengers. As we flew over the Mahale mountains it started to rain – torrentially. Lightening was crackling around us and the fuselage was battered by the downpour. You know it’s not a good a sign when the pilot stops talking. When we finally landed the pilot said “Now that was interesting.” He followed that up with, “And what you didn’t know is that that’s only the second time I have ever flown solo with passengers”….

The next day we trekked for two hours to meet up with a group of chimpanzees, and Sue and I got our wish. It was fantastic and well worth all the effort – I was 66 at the time, and there was an American lady on the trek with us who was celebrating her 38th birthday and said it was the physically hardest thing she had ever done.

 

In 2010 we travelled with Tribes to Botswana, where we encountered meerkats on the Kalahari scrublands. We sat down and they were all around us. It was enchanting – but also surprisingly cold. We had to be there in the early morning for this and I hadn’t expected to encounter frost in Africa! On that same trip we slept under the stars on the Makgadikgadi Pans. And we were literally under the stars – no tent, just a double bed and the sky above us. Magical!

Old Mondoro Camp in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi is one of our favourite places. In fact, it’s the only one we have every visited twice, and it was there, on a night-drive, that we saw honey badgers for the first time. And last year we went to Zimbabwe where we saw Boswell, the big-tusker elephant made famous by David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds One Planet programme, in which he stands on his hind legs to eat from the higher branches of trees. He stayed on all four legs when we saw him but was still a magnificent sight.

Travel is also about the people that you meet – you must have had some fascinating encounters over the years, both with native populations and your fellow travellers?

I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the American gentleman I met in Zimbabwe last year, who asked ‘Hey man, can you explain the difference between a rhino and a hippo?”.  Sue answered for me – ‘One is endangered and the other isn’t.”

But it’s the poignant encounters that leave the most lasting impression. In 2005 we went to Rwanda, ten years after the genocide. Rwanda was just opening up to tourism at that time and the devastation caused by the genocide was still very much in evidence. I remember the holocaust museum, with its mummified bodies, and the caretaker there, who had survived being shot and bore a bullet hole scar in his forehead.  He asked me to photograph him, “So that the world can see the horrors we suffered”.

Do you prefer walking near wildlife or watching them from a safari vehicle or a boat? I imagine it rather depends on the wildlife…

I like to do it all! That’s why I find Zambia so very special – you can go on walking safaris, night safaris and also boat and jeep safaris. Walking safaris are fascinating. The bigger wildlife spots you long before you spot it, so you start to notice the smaller things instead. I remember a trapdoor spider that lurked underground…

To get closer to the larger wildlife you need to be in a boat or vehicle – though we have at times been a bit too close to hippos while in a boat!

You’re a keen photographer – is this something that you’ve always done or something that became a stronger interest the more you travelled?

It’s something that has become a greater interest the more we have travelled. I started with print film then switched to slide film, as slides take up less space. Now, of course, I shoot digitally. I still don’t have the most expensive kit but I travel with two camera bodies and include a long lens.

Your most recent trip (not a Tribes one) was to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean. Obviously a rather different experience to an African safari or the SouthWild Jaguar Flotel in Brazil! Tell us about the wildlife you saw on that icy trip.

This is something we have wanted to do for quite a while. Five or six years ago we travelled along Russia’s Kamchatka coastline and after we left the boat it was going on to Wrangel Island. We weren’t sure at that time if politically it would be an easy place to visit but this year on a ‘if we don’t do it now we may never do it’ impetus, we went there.

It is obviously very remote – it’s the last place where woolly mammoths survived – and the wildlife, and the quantity of wildlife, is astonishing. We saw over 50 polar bears, hundreds of walruses and, I’m told, some 250 humpback and grey whales. Birdlife is impressive here as well, notably the horned puffins and the lovely tufted puffins. We were looking out for snowy owls but, strangely, saw just one! Then we sailed along the Northern Siberian coast, where we spotted Arctic foxes and Russian brown bears.

We also met several of the native Inuit people, who have been restricted to one settlement since the Stalin era; I remember the distress of an elderly lady as she reminisced about the village from which everybody had been evicted in the 1950s.

What is the wildlife photograph that you’re most proud of, and why?
On that trip to Tanzania in 2011, it was the end of the season and we basically had Katavi National Park to ourselves, other than an Australian couple who shared our vehicle. Our guide suggested that, rather than driving around in search of wildlife, we park up under a tree and see what unfolded before us.

We were entertained for a while by a lion cub repeatedly jumping onto its father until the adult gave it a whack and it scampered up a tree, gazing reproachfully down on its parent. We then drove down to a riverbed, where three female lions were stretching out in the sun, with four cubs nearby. The lionesses started to walk away and a crocodile walked towards them. They all appeared to be ignoring each other and then something triggered the lionesses and they circled the crocodile then launched an attack. It was quite a tussle but ended in a stand-off, albeit with the crocodile sustaining a nasty gash on its rear leg. Then the lionesses sat down as if nothing had happened – and it’s the shot of the tussle, with the four cubs watching from a safe distance, that I’m the proudest of.

And what was the most memorable photograph to take? It may not be one that you consider your best, but the experience itself makes it particularly satisfying.

There are two. The first was when we were gorilla trekking in Rwanda. We left at 7am and trekked to a family of 46 gorillas. However, the male silverback wasn’t well and, rather as with human ‘man flu’ he involved everybody as he decided to head up the mountain to cooler climbs. It took us six hours trekking up the steep sides of an extinct volcano to find them…

The second photo was taken when we travelled to Borneo and the Malay peninsula one year with the aim of seeing wild orangutans. We saw them in the reserve at Sepilok but hadn’t seen them in the wild, and we had arrived at our last camp and our guide was becoming anxious! Then he announced “The good news is that a male orangutan has built a nest just outside the camp. The bad news is that we’ll have to get up before sunrise to see him.” So, the next morning we all got up and got dressed in the dark and travelled to beneath the tree where he was nesting. Dawn came and there was no sign of him. Then one hour passed. And another hour. People started to give up and head back to camp for breakfast, but we stayed put. Finally, at 9.10am a hand appeared on the edge of the nest and there he was! His name was Abu and it was definitely an experience and picture worth waiting for.

Clearly Africa is a great love – why do you and your wife love it so much?
The wildlife! There are still some elusive creatures that we have yet to see there. On our recent trip to Zimbabwe our guide asked us what we wanted to see. “A caracal would be nice” I replied. He was quiet for a while and then said “Anything else?”

We also love the colour and wildlife of India.

Where else in the world that you have travelled to (not necessarily with Tribes) do you consider to be particularly special?

The Antarctic – it is so special and, with global warming, it is changing all the time.

Finally, if you could only travel to one place – either one you’ve been to before or have yet to visit – where would it be, and why?

Well, Africa is always front of mind of course but I think if it really was a case of ‘this is the last place you are allowed to travel to’ it would have to be the Antarctic.

 

All photos © Jeff Webster

Sunrise in Selous

Sunrise in Selous

Sunrise in Selous

Tribes’ client Patricia McKay experienced a glorious sunrise while travelling in Tanzania with us. And she describes it – and some of the other highlights of her trip – in the most beautiful way!

© Shutterstock – Ondrej Prosicky

“The dawn creeps up upon you stealthily and almost imperceptibly at first.”

Sunrise in Selous

The dawn creeps up upon you stealthily and almost imperceptibly at first. Around 5:30am there is a just perceivable lightening which enables you to make out the shapes of the trees around the camp. The hippos are grunting to each other, some from the lake in front of the tent and others from the land behind it. The more musical grunting calls of the Southern ground hornbills can also be heard.

As the sky above Selous lightens other birds join in until there is a true dawn chorus of trills, twitters and cheeps, none of which I can identify. By 6 o’clock it is light enough to see a bit, and from the comfort of my bed I can observe two small birds in silhouette as they sit together side by side on a nearby palm frond. A couple of hornbills fly over, their shapes dark against the brightening sky.

By 6:30am it is daylight, though the sun is not yet up. I can stand it no longer in bed, so I creep out and sit on our verandah. The first openbill stork of the day flies past, its perpetually open bill showing clearly against the sky. An African fish eagle flaps slowly past on its enormous dark wings, its dazzling white head and tail gleaming in the sun like beacons. In the sedges and rushes in front of the tent a cattle egret stalks past, looking for frogs or insects, or some other such tasty bite. The fish eagle flaps back again, this time carrying a large branch, which it takes to its nest in a palm tree, closely followed by its mate, who bears a similar burden. Out in the lake the hippos are just visible with their pink ears and noses glowing in the first rays of the sun. Every so often a smooth dark back appears above the surface of the water for a moment, only to sink back underwater a few seconds later. The grunting continues together with the odd snort and splash.

By now it is 7 o’clock, and my personal alarm clock goes off in the shape of a Masai warrior wrapped in the traditional red chequered blanket, complete with a wooden staff in one hand and a cell phone in the other, who strolls down the path to our tent to deliver my requested morning wake-up call.

“Hello, jambo – good morning” he calls out until I answer back with a smile and “Hello, good morning – assante!” “Karibou – you’re welcome,” he responds, and strolls off, his job done. It’s time for breakfast!

 

© Shutterstock – Grober du Preez

“…wonderful close looks at golden impala, gleaming in the sunshine.”

My first giraffe

We flew from Dar es Salaam to Ruaha on a small plane which only had seats for 12 passengers, however on this particular flight we were only six in total – four passengers, and two pilots, who welcomed us personally as we boarded. The flight was short and soon we were landing on a dirt runway.

We met our guide Maulidi, and driver Godson,  and were soon on our way for our first game drive as we travelled to Mdonya Old River Camp. We had not even got out of the airstrip parking area before we saw our first animals – wonderful close looks at golden impala, gleaming in the sunshine. I had already told Maulidi that I was particularly interested in birds, and he immediately showed me some Fischer’s sparrow-larks, and the spectacular lilac-breasted roller, both of which were life birds for me.

For the next hour I was held spellbound, as we looked at more and more birds and animals, until we rounded a corner, and suddenly, there he was! My first-ever wild giraffe, placidly grazing on an acacia tree.

We looked at each other for a minute or two, and then, having decided that we were harmless, he casually strolled away to the next bush with the curious stately gait that all giraffes have. It was a truly magic moment….

 

©Karen Coe

Breakfast with the baboons

One of my most memorable events was the bush breakfast that we had on our last morning in Ruaha.  The driver, Godson, pulled the jeep into a small clearing next to a very small pond.  The area was populated by many impalas as well as baboons.  The impalas immediately fled to the far side of the pond while the baboons examined us and then decided we were of no interest.  The very young baboons however carried on with their swinging from branch to branch, for which they were then reprimanded in no uncertain terms!  We enjoyed our breakfast watching all the animals interact.  And to our surprise and delight there was a hippopotamus relaxing in the water of the pond.  He/she graced us with a giant yawn and some grunting for having disturbed his/her early morning nap.  It was a lovely way to start the day and end our stay in Ruaha National Park.  

Except where all stated, all images are © Patricia McKay

Amazing Antarctica

Amazing Antarctica

Amazing Antarctica

Image ©Shutterstock – Pole2PoleImages

For a once-in-a-lifetime experience why not consider a true ‘holiday on ice’? Antarctica is simply glorious – the largest wilderness on earth is untouched, awe-inspiring and about as far as you can get from a ‘run of the mill’ holiday destination.

“The stark landscapes of this polar desert have their own distinctive beauty.”

© Shutterstock – Foto-4440

The world’s highest continent also boasts one of the most severe climates, strong winds and extreme dryness, but the stark, unique landscapes of this polar desert have their own distinctive beauty.

Some 98% of Antarctica is covered in ice which can be as much as 2km thick. But it also has rivers, mountains – and six months of darkness. The main tourist season is the austral summer (November to March), when there is daylight for almost 24 hours a day!

It is impossible to visit Antarctica without feeling as if you were on one of those famous expeditions we all learnt about at school. Today the resident population is primarily made up of scientists, based in several dozen research stations, and travellers can visit both present-day and historic research stations and can also visit the old whaling station on Deception Island.

Exploring the White Continent on board a purpose-built expedition vessel is a fabulous way to experience this unique place. You can relax in warmth and comfort as the boat navigates the icebergs and fjords, then take an excursion on an inflatable zodiac boat to visit Elephant Island, Anvers or Wiencke islands or the South Shetlands, hiking through the snow to get closer to the glaciers and wildlife and visit historic buildings. You can even go sea kayaking and showshoeing, while each evening presentations from expert guides help you learn even more about this glorious place.

Happily, advances in cold-weather clothing mean you can be toasty warm and comfortable as you venture out onboard a zodiac or stand out on deck to watch the Southern Lights put on a spectacular show. The Aurora Australis are not as frequently seen as their northern counterpart the Aurora Borealis, but when they do appear they are astonishingly beautiful, adding purple, orange, pink and gold to the blue and green of the Northern Lights.

 

 

© Shutterstock – Vladsilver

 Along with the vast, spectacular landscapes and seascapes, you also get vast, spectacular mammals in the form of the many whale species found in the waters of Antarctica. Blue whales, orcas, minke, humpback and sperm whales all thrive here in the summer months when they gather to feed in the Southern Ocean.

 

 

© shutterstock – reisegraf.ch

© shutterstock – reisegraf.ch

© shutterstock – Jared Cohn

“The creatures that can survive in this white wilderness are enchanting.”

While you don’t get the wealth of wildlife that you’ll see on a safari, for example, what you do see is very special. The creatures that can survive in this white wilderness are enchanting – who doesn’t love a penguin?  And Antarctica has six different species of this wonderfully charismatic, flightless bird – adelie, southern rockhopper, king, chinstrap, gentoo and emperor.

The ocean is the source of nourishment for most of the wildlife. In order to survive here they need to be warm-blooded and they also need to quite large – those layers of fat are essential. Southern fur seals, Weddell and Crabeater seals, the intimidating leopard seals and huge elephant seals make their home in the icy water and on the surrounding ice and rocks.

In a continent where your spine will be tingling nearly all the time (and no, not because you’ll be cold!) the sight of the highly endangered wandering albatross, that iconic and legendary protector of seafarers, soaring above you is something you are unlikely ever to forget. The snow petrel, with its pure white plumage, is quite lovely, as is the agile Arctic tern. The feisty South Polar skua boasts a wingspan of up to 140cm, while the distinctive, blue-eyed shag, can dive to a depth of more than 100m.

Enjoy an Antarctic Adventure with Tribes

For a luxurious take on an Antarctic adventure, our Antarctic Peninsula Adventure 2021 is hard to beat. You’ll stay on board the splendid RCGS Resolute, with its gorgeous dining room with 270-degree views, heated salt-water swimming pool and sheltered Jacuzzi. Spending time on the 360-degree observation deck is a must, while the on-board laboratory is a fascinating place to learn from the researchers and naturalists. Guests are always welcome on the bridge, so if you want to learn about navigation, this is your chance! 

Our Classic Antarctica Fly and Cruise holiday flies you from Punta Arenas in Chile to King George Island where you board one of the small but very comfortable expedition vessels operated by Antarctica21 and travel through the South Shetland Islands and the western cost of the Antarctic Peninsula.

 

How to avoid crowds in the Ngorongoro Crater

How to avoid crowds in the Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro without the crowds…

 

Its wealth of natural attractions make the Ngorongoro Crater a particularly sought-after spot for wildlife enthusiasts coming on safari in northern Tanzania. As a consequence it can get very busy – but there are ways to avoid the crowds!

“Its wealth of natural attractions…”

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a Unesco world heritage site in northern Tanzania. The focus is the outstanding Ngorongoro Crater which, at 16kms diameter, is the world’s largest caldera (the remains of an extinct volcano).

As well as savannah grasslands and acacia forest there is a freshwater lake and a soda lake. The ancient landscape is dramatic and very photogenic, and within the walls of the crater live a diverse range of species including hippos, elephants, zebras, antelopes, hyenas, lions, cheetahs and even black rhinos. The birdlife here is also excellent.

In my opinion the Crater is still worth visiting even with the large number of visitors that you’ll be sharing the sights with.

However much you pay for your safari you should always expect people and other vehicles to be around, but there are ways to give yourself the best chance of keeping away from the crowds.

 

 

Consider travelling in the low season

Low generally means rainy, so that’s from about mid-March to the end of May when the long rains are due. Certainly the rain puts a lot of travellers off coming, and of course game viewing is never quite as wonderful in the rain, but it doesn’t always rain and the hotels and lodges that stay open at this time also tend to offer some very good deals on prices. Grab yourself a bargain and hope for the best.

Stay overnight close to the Crater

There are two entrance roads to get into the crater. More people use the one in the west, and it tends to take longer to get down from that side. If you stay in a lodge on the east side, you can use what is generally known as the Sopa road and you’ll be one of the first into the Crater if you set off early. This might give you at least an hour (or more) before the main crowds arrive as many come from much further away.

Choose a guide/driver who is not lazy! 

Some drivers simply look out for other vehicles stopping and then head towards them assuming that they’ve seen something good (or they radio to them to ask). This way of game driving inevitably leads to bunches of vehicles around sightings – not good for the animal and not good for most true wildlife enthusiasts. Whilst you won’t be able to avoid some of this, and will have to share viewing experiences, we tend to advise our drivers not to head for masses of vehicles, but rather head away from them. There is always something else to see, and you might see it by yourself if you allow for that chance to happen.

Book a private picnic

The Crater has a few (very few) private picnic spots. These are a really wonderful way to enjoy the Crater without other people around. They can only be booked in advance and all drivers know that they are not allowed there if they have not reserved the spot. How perfect to sit in a beautiful area of the Crater enjoying a gorgeous brunch or lunch with just you, your party/family and your guides. Certainly this is added expense, but we highly recommend this as a special treat!

CAN WE HELP YOU AVOID THE CROWDS?

We’d love to help you take in the Ngorongoro Crater but leave out the crowds.

Our Tanzania experts can tailor-make a holiday for you or you might like to consider one of these itineraries:

A Taste of Tanzania

On this eight-day holiday you’ll have your own driver/guide, stay in good quality camps and lodges and visit three key areas for wildlife – Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Manyara or Tarangire.

Tanzania Family Safari and Beach

 This 11-day holiday is a real family-pleaser, combining safaris in Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire with five nights on the spice island of Zanzibar. 

Argentina – away from the city

Argentina – away from the city

 

Argentina – away from the city

 

After eight years sailing the seven seas, there are only a few coastal regions of the world I haven’t visited, although escaping into the interiors of countries has eluded me. But not in Argentina!

The stage show Evita has a lot to answer for…

There are a few places in the world that have always fascinated me. The Egypt of the Pharaohs, the China of the Dynasties – and Argentina. I must admit that the stage show Evita has a lot to answer for in that respect. From her humble beginnings as an illegitimate child in Los Toldos, to her rise as the First Lady of Argentina, the story of María Eva Duarte de Perón fascinated me. So it was no surprise that I made it my mission to get there!

Of course, I had to see the Casa Rosada, the pink palace in the centre of Buenos Aires from where Evita held court, and the cemetery at Recoleta where she was buried, in October 1976. This was 24 years after she died and her body was removed from its resting place, travelled around Argentina, to Milan, Madrid and finally back to Los Olivos where it was restored before going on public view beside that of her recently deceased husband. In Recoleta (pictured above) it was finally placed in her family’s mausoleum, where she lies five metres underground, in a crypt fortified like a nuclear bunker, so that no one should ever again be able to disturb the remains of Argentina’s most controversial First Lady.

Although Buenos Aires is home to many a fascinating story based around the Peronistas and the coup that deposed Evita’s husband, President Juan Peron, there is more than just the city.

 

San Antonio de Areco is an 18th century town just under two hours outside of Buenos Aires, a pretty town in the Pampas, on the Areco River. Famous for its links to the Gaucho and Criollo traditions, it still provides a valuable insight into their lives, with museums and artisans who still provide fine silverwork and saddlery for the horsemen and women. And if you’re there in November you can catch the at the “Día de la Tradición” when they ride through the town in all their finery, with their horses adorned by the local crafts.

I started my day in San Antonio de Areco at the home of Paula Mendez Carreras, a local chef who runs cookery courses. The space was light and open, and I was with a group of seven others some who liked to cook and some, like the guys, who never cooked. On our lesson plan for the day, we had empanadas, alfajores, and chipas.

Traditionally, alfajores, which are a huge part of Argentine culture dating back to the 19th century, are two crumbly biscuits filled with of dulce de leche but you also see them rolled in coconut or covered with chocolate or glazed sugar. The alfajor is the most common snack for schoolchildren and adults alike. There is no ‘right’ time to eat alfajores… any time is the right time to indulge!

Empanadas are a small version of a pasty really, but filled typically with a variety meat, cheese or vegetables. To be honest any combination would work, if you love it, the sky is the limit! Traditionally oven baked or fried, they can be prepared in advance and served as an appetizer, snack or as a meal in their own right.

And chipas… I ate these little cheese buns constantly, usually while sitting in one of their many sunny parks thinking of the rain in London, so it was great to learn how to make them. Especially as they were also gluten free which, unfortunately, is a must for me.

 

As the dough needed to prove for the empanadas we had a chance to wander, which is how I came upon the Draghi Museum, a unique, fascinating view into the family history of one of the world’s most prolific silversmiths.

Señor Juan José Draghi was on hand to show me around the museum, which features all types of silver inlaid Gaucho implements from belts to spurs, whips, knives, mates, bombillas, horse bridles and stirrup work. He also showed us the traditional processes, how the silver is worked and some of the original designs of pieces that were made for heads of state, such as a belt buckle design for President George W Bush while he was in office.

Then it was back to Paula to see how the dough was! Within the hour, we were sat around the table enjoying the delights of our lesson.

I could have spent longer in this beautiful historic setting, an ideal stepping stone to the Pampas and perhaps riding with the Gauchos, or for further travels across to the wine regions of Mendoza’s high altitude Luján de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. I’ll save that for my next visit here!

If you’d like to embark on your own Argentinian adventure, take a look at our Highlights of Argentina and Patagonia Deluxe holidays – or talk to us about tailor-made.

Whale tales

Whale tales

Whale tales

When we planned our family trip to Costa Rica, one key question was ‘where will we have the best chance of seeing whales?’ Tribes’ Alex Neaves recommended the Osa Peninsula, a spectacular region in the south west of the country, combining rainforest with coast – which turned out to be a great suggestion!

We chose to spend five nights towards the end of our holiday at Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge on the Osa Peninsula. This lovely, welcoming place is perched on the hillside overlooking its own beach and is adjacent to the glorious Corcovado National Park. When I say ‘adjacent’ I mean it literally – the private path through the lodge’s beautiful grounds borders the park and you simply step off the path onto a trail in the park.

The lodge is reached by a boat trip past palm trees, beaches, hill-side houses and colourful landscapes on one side and nearly turquoise water on the other.

We kept our eyes peeled for whales, though in truth I didn’t really know what I was looking out for. Would the ocean be full of whales leaping out of the water, twisting and turning in front of us? Or would we only spot a tiny figure in the distance?

On that particular journey we saw nothing at all…

However, arriving at the lodge more than made up for the lack of cetaceans on the journey there. 

It’s a lovely place, set in gorgeous gardens and surrounded by jungle on three sides and the coast on the other. Howler monkeys whooped and grunted in the trees and a pair of long-married scarlet macaws flew low overhead before settling in a tree for a rather noisy quarrel.

That first evening at Casa Corcovado we began what became our daily tradition – the 4.30pm cocktail hour at the lodge’s Margarita Sunset Point.

This beautifully manicured piece of land has a jaw-dropping view down to the ocean and across to Cano Island and has its own little bar that is open for just an hour each evening, so that guests can enjoy a drink and nibbles as they watch the sun go down.

 

 

I sat, margarita and camera equally to hand, and marvelled at the natural show of colour and light we were being treated to.

Then the barman said ‘Look! Can you see the whale?’

We all gazed down to the water close to the shoreline and I felt frustrated as guest after guest said ‘Yes! There it is!’ while my eyes darted back and forwards across the water. Eventually I made out a dark shape for just a fraction of a second, then it was gone. I think that’s what everybody was exclaiming over… If this was to be my sole experience of seeing a whale it was hardly the jaw-dropping, spine-tingling experience I’d hoped for. But I had seen it. Well, briefly… I think. Then the sunset arrived with full, glorious force, and all thoughts of whales were temporarily forgotten.

 

 

The following day we took the Cano Island snorkelling trip. This is a 45-minute boat ride from the lodge, and we had been told that the guests who did this the day before had seen whales, and plenty of them.

35 minutes into the journey we suddenly veered off course, towards where two other boats were sitting still in the water.

“We took another detour when my son yelled ‘dolphins!”

Then it happened. About 30m away, a black, curved shape, slick with water, slid out of the water then back under the surface, looking like a giant, smooth-treaded tyre being rolled along.  A few seconds later came the tell-tale spurt of water – noisier and higher than I’d imagined, and the ‘tyre’ appeared again. This time with a smaller one alongside!

We were in the presence of a mother and baby humpback whale and it was beautiful. No dramatic breaches, no great thrashes, just gentle movements. Cue slightly red eyes and a few sniffs and gulps all round…

We took another detour when my son yelled ‘dolphins!’.  A large flock of seabirds was circling round in the distance. A group of dolphins were on the hunt, creating a ball of fish – those birds knew where to find a good meal! We were treated to the sight of dolphins leaping out of the water and the birds’ impressive diving ability as, wings tucked by their sides, they hit the water with a precision that would put Tom Daley to shame.

Snorkelling in the clear, warm waters off Cano Island was great fun, with a lovely assortment of colourful fish weaving their way amongst the coral. The lodge’s manager Stephen said that he was going to see if he could hear whale song beneath the water. He dove down about 4m then raised both his thumbs; he could hear it. Unfortunately diving while snorkelling is not a skill I’ve yet mastered. I wasn’t alone in this, but my 20-year-old son was one of those who took the plunge (literally!) and enjoyed the most magical experience, as beautifully eerie sounds echoed all around him. On the way back to Casa Corcovado Stephen pointed out jets of water in the distance as he spotted other whales, and we had another mother and baby encounter.

Two days later, my husband and I took a private boat trip with just guide Cynthia and the boat captain back towards the waters around Cano Island. We had no specific timetable, just two to three hours to hang about on the boat, following any whale sightings that might come up. It was possible that we wouldn’t see any, of course…

 

We stopped en-route to drop some cold drinks off to fishermen in exchange for some of their catch.

A magnificent frigate bird had chosen to make the air above their tiny boat his temporary home, continually circling us and them at a low altitude in search of a free meal.

That day turned out to be one of the most special experiences of our lives.

It was a beautifully still, calm day, bathed in sunshine, the water almost mirror-like at times.

We saw several mother humpbacks and their calves and then, drawn by tremendous splashes in the distance, we honed in on a large male.

For at least 15 minutes we sat, probably only about 20m from him, as he thrashed his huge tail repeatedly, then he rolled onto his side and started bashing enormous flippers from side to side, great plumes of water streaming from them, our boat juddering with each ‘smack’. The noise was incredible, a mighty, thunderous crash that you could hear long before you got close to him.

We were so near that we could make out the barnacles and sandy creatures on his tail. It was immensely powerful, stunningly beautiful and also a tiny bit intimidating.

 

Then, between us and this magnificent creature, appeared another mother and her baby. Our guide stiffened and said ‘sometimes the males can hurt the babies’ but, as if riding to the rescue, five dolphins shot in from the side, swimming around the mother and calf, leaping out of the water in a joyous fashion.

They were so near, I could have leant out of the boat and touched them. The mother whale got so close to us that when her back breached the water the only thing filling my camera lens was her skin. Then, as this incredible spectacle continued in front of us, I looked behind and to the side. Four more whales were there, some breaching, some sending out fountains of water… For the next 15 or 20 minutes, wherever we looked there were whales.

All four of us were silent on the way back to the lodge. There were really no words. We had shared an experience we would never forget. I had been moved to tears several times and even writing about it now makes me emotional.

 

Having started our time at Casa Corcovado barely able to spot a whale directly beneath our vantage point by the sunset bar, I ended it a veritable Captain Ahab; albeit definitely not with whale hunting in mind!  My eyes became accustomed to scanning far out to sea, filtering out waves crashing against rocks from the spray from a blowhole and picking out whales several miles away. My ‘margarita’ sunsets now had a new purpose – whale spotting! Each time I saw one, even if it was at a vast distance, it was a thrill. And the knowledge that for every one I spotted there were infinitely more out there, was just incredible.

We’d return to Costa Rica – and Casa Corcovado – like a shot. An amazing country with wonderful people and with unforgettable landscapes and wildlife. And who knows, maybe I’ll get my courage together and learn how to dive down while snorkelling. I really, really want to hear that whale song…

 

 

If you’d like your own Osa Peninsula adventure, Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge is included in our 15-day Costa Rica Wildlife Holiday. Or we can tailor-make a holiday in Costa Rica just for you…

All images © Karen Coe