The far north of the far south

Brian has always been obsessed with visiting geographic extremities. We’ve been to several “northernmost points.” In 2006, we hired a guy with a Humvee to drive us down a gravel spit outside Barrow, Alaska while we hunted with a GPS for the northernmost point in the US. Icebergs bobbed in the surf on that freezing August afternoon. In 2002, we rented a little fishing boat and floated over the northernmost point in the contiguous 48 states, which is technically in Minnesota but only accessible from Canada because of an 18th century surveying error. Later in 2002, we tromped across a farmer’s field to visit the northernmost point in Washington State, its extremity also the result of an old surveying error that placed one border marker just a little further north than the others along the supposedly straight border. The border between the US and Canada was invisible except for the difference in crops planted in each side.

None of these extreme points were different in any way from the areas that surrounded them. No plaque marked the importance of the spot, nor did a ticker-tape parade await us upon our return home. But all of these pointless expeditions to extreme points are etched in our memory because they brought us somewhere we wouldn’t have seen otherwise and forced us step out of our normal travel routine to get there. So it was natural that we would look forward to a visit to the northernmost point in Australia when we were in the neighborhood in February. Though one might argue that the concept of the northernmost point of the southernmost inhabited continent is a bit of an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp.”

Laurel standing beneath a jumbo shrimp in northwestern Australia in 2005. There is a controversy in Australia about which town actually has the biggest shrimp statue and we wouldn’t want to get in the middle of that. Let’s just say this was the biggest shrimp statue we’ve personally seen.

If you look on a world map, you will see that Australia comes to a point on its northeast coast. That is Cape York and you can hike to the very tip. Unlike the neglected extreme points in the US, there is even a metal sign letting you now you really did find the right spot.

Standing on the northern tip of Australia, which would have been a little farther north at low tide.

“But wait a minute,” you say accusingly, “if you are standing on the northernmost point, why is there more land right behind you?” Well, we were on the northernmost point of the Australian continent, not the country of Australia. To the north, in the gap between Australia and New Guinea, are the Torres Strait Islands. The Torres Strait Islanders are an ethnic group distinct from the indigenous people of the Australian mainland, culturally more similar to the inhabitants of New Guinea. We visited Thursday Island, the most populous of the Torres Strait Islands and its commercial and governmental hub.

Thursday Island is a lush tropical island but surprisingly unremarkable. The overall impression was of a tidy suburbia with the calls of the tropical birds often drowned out by the roar of lawn mowers. Our exploration was cut short by the unrelenting heat, which also stalked us when we visited the three biggest towns in northern Australia: Darwin, Port Douglas and Cairns. The high temperature was often over 100 degrees and the weather forecast would say “feels like 117” because of the humidity. We like to go-go-go when exploring a destination but we always wilted after just a couple hours. It is no wonder that the folks in Cairns held their Zumba classes in a pool (video).


All three cities market themselves as “the gateway to” beautiful national parks and outdoor recreation, smartly avoiding mention of their fairly meager in-city attractions. The highlight for us was a visit to Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas, an interactive zoo a few miles outside town. Many of the animals freely roamed around us visitors and feeding the kangaroos was encouraged.

Laurel is taken aback by the pelican’s salty language

And if you liked that pelican, here is a mesmerizing video of it vibrating the pouch on its throat, presumably to cool off. Many more photos of our new-found animal friends are below, followed by the other northern Australia destinations mentioned above.

Swimming with a million jellyfish in Palau

First a bit of history, to explain why such a weird and wonderful activity is possible. Limestone is formed on the ocean floor and becomes dry land when geological forces push it up or sea level goes down. Once exposed, rain carves the limestone into caves and hills. That is how the humps of the Chocolate Hills formed. Now imagine that the base of the Chocolate Hills was flooded by a rising sea, leaving each hill a little round island. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it because that is what happened in the Rock Islands, part of the nation of Palau, 500 miles east of the Philippines.

As the sea level goes up and down relative to the hills, sometimes a bit of ocean is enclosed by a ring of hills and becomes a salt-water lake, complete with its original marine wildlife. Most of the wildlife has a hard time adapting to the new environment but the species that can adapt have the new lake all to themselves. In Ongeim’l Tketau lake in Palau, a trapped species of jellyfish adapted by becoming home to an orange algae that produces food for the jellyfish from the sun. The jellyfish no longer needed to hunt so they lost their ability to sting. That brings us to the present where we find ourselves swimming with a million orange jellyfish.


The steep rock walls around the lake mean that the sun only shines in patches on the lake. The jellyfish migrate during the day to follow the sun. The sun was on the opposite side of the lake from where we got in so we swam toward the sunny side for a while before seeing our first jellyfish. Then another, then a few, then more and more until finally there were so many that it was hard to move without bumping into one. The jellyfish swim in every direction and every orientation, making a kaleidoscopic effect that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1970’s movie depiction of an LSD trip. The adult jellyfish are about the size of a grapefruit and feel firm but soft like raw meat. When one unexpectedly swims into your leg, you can’t help but turn around to say “excuse me” since they feel like you are bumping into a person’s leg or arm (and there are usually several other snorkelers in the lake distracted by the jellyfish, so that happens too). Here is a video of what it is like to float among them. And if you want even more, try this one.

Jellyfish Lake is one of the coolest things we’ve seen. Even though we swam there in 2002, we were eager to do it again (and we generally hate repeating ourselves with so much new and exciting stuff to see in the world). We were glad to see that the lake was healthy, as were the beautiful conventional snorkeling sites around the islands such as “Clam City” and “Shark City.”

No zoom lens!
Those blue streaks are all fish

Here is a video showing how dense the sea life can be…with a surprise guest star at the end.

If you look at the images that Google displays when you search for “Palau” you would never know that there is any Human City in the country. Palau is one of the smallest countries in the world with only 20,000 inhabitants but the capital of Koror (where most people live) is a nicely functional town in a beautiful setting. It has several restaurants, a couple department stores (more than downtown Seattle now) and supermarkets overflowing with all the Spam you could ever want.

Spam became a staple all across the Pacific islands during World War II, along with other canned meat products that have largely passed into history back in the US.

Recipe for Bohol: add one pint of tarsiers to 1,776 Chocolate Hills

The allure of alliteration tempts many to talk about the tiny tarsier as a “pint-sized primate” but witty wordplay shouldn’t obscure the more fascinating fact that four or five of them could be packed into a pint. Weighing 3 to 5 ounces, only the mouse lemur tops the tarsier for the coveted crown of “Most Petite Primate.”

We happened to see about a pint of tarsiers at the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary on the island of Bohol. Tarsiers live on several islands in the Philippines/Indonesia/Malaysia area but are hard to spot in the wild because they are tiny, nocturnal and endangered. Tarsiers spend the night flitting from tree to tree hunting for insects and other meaty morsels (they are the only purely carnivorous primate) and bed down at daybreak, clinging to a branch. In this sanctuary, rangers scour the forest every morning and mark the locations of the sleeping tarsiers so primate fanciers like ourselves can find them easily.

No way we would have found him on our own

Whenever you observe wildlife, it is best to keep as quiet and still as possible. We were doubly cautious when watching the tarsiers because guides told us that tarsiers will commit suicide in various gruesome ways if they are disturbed or kept in captivity. The concept was simultaneously horrific and darkly comical to us, as we imagined additional ways they could do the act (fashioning their long tails into nooses, etc). This behavior is widely reported on the internet but we couldn’t find any scientific source backing it up. One of the reported suicide methods, holding their breath until suffocated, is likely a physiological impossibility and perhaps evidence that a suicide legend was invented to preserve them in the wild. And it worked — no tarsier in our luggage.

Oh, no! Someone in our group woke him up!

The Chocolate Hills are the other main attraction on Bohol. They are 1,776 pleasingly mammiform limestone mounds rising several hundred feet above the otherwise flat tropical forest. During the dry season, the hills turn brown when the grasses that cover them die (the solid rock doesn’t support the growth of trees). We visited during a semi-dry period so the hills were more mint-chocolate chip than dark chocolate. We viewed them from a hill-top observation platform where we jockeyed for prime selfie position with other tourists and from a beautiful farm nestled among the hills.

Despite the tease of a food-related headline, this posting is not food-focused like our last two. We had a decent meal on a dinner river cruise but it was nothing to write home about (oops, just did). The forest on either side of the river was lit with colorful spotlights; an overall effect somewhere between magical and garish. The joyously un-self-conscious display, and its accompaniment on the dinner-boat by a lounge singer crooning 70’s disco classics, were perfect embodiments of a Filipino ideal of fun, immune to our party-pooping ideas of aesthetics and irony.

We were charmed by Bohol. The island is lush and unhurried, probably like Hawaii 100 years ago. We were also told that it has great beaches. If you ever want to spend a few relaxing days in the Philippines, Bohol would be a perfectly pleasant place.

Bearly touching Ellesmere Island

Coming in at number 10 on the Top 10 Biggest Islands in the World list is Ellesmere Island. Not only is its size superlative, but it also is the most northly island in the world after Greenland and a few specks off its northern coast. As you might expect this far north, the land is mostly barren of vegetation but who needs veggies when you are a carnivore?

We visited Makinson Inlet on the southeast corner of Ellesmere and saw more polar bears there than anywhere else on our trip. They patrolled the beaches, looking for washed-up carrion or the chance to leap on one of the many beluga whales we also saw swimming tantalizingly close to shore (video).

One bear tore at the remaining fragments of a whale carcass on the beach (video), while bears lower-down the pecking order watched from a distance for their turn, including a mother and cub.

The only drawback of all that bear activity was that we couldn’t find a safe place to land on the island, lest we become the next dish on the bear buffet. In the end, we were able to hop ashore for about 30 seconds while our guide scanned the hills for bears. It felt like a special privilege to set foot at all on a place where humans weren’t in charge.

Wild Baffin Island

Imagine that the great geological monuments of the American West such as Yosemite and Zion National Parks were rising from emerald-green water and you will have some idea of what the east coast of Baffin Island looks like. Baffin Island is about 300 miles east of Greenland, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. It looks small on a map next to its World’s Biggest Island award-winning neighbor, but is still a very respectable thousand miles long. And while we thought we had seen the pinnacle of dramatic landscapes in The Faroes and then Greenland, Baffin gives them both a run for their money in the Best Dramatic Scenery category.

We visited two uninhabited fjords on the east coast of Baffin Island, Buchan Gulf and Sam Ford Fjord (try saying that three times fast). Steep cliffs rose thousands of feet on either side. The rocks are three billion years old, some of the oldest on earth, and have been contorted over the ages with interesting shapes, textures and colors. Glaciers provided the icing on the cake, feeding giant waterfalls that looked like trickles from a distance. It was almost impossible to judge the scale of the unfamiliar landscape. On the few patches of land free of glaciers and flat enough to support plant life, there were miniature forests of colorful arctic plants. With the short growing season and scouring winter winds, plants adapt by sticking together and close to the ground. Willow trees can be hundreds of years old but only a few inches tall. Their leaves were just starting to turn color as autumn approached in late August.

The fjords of Baffin are also swimming with wildlife. The narwhal with its unicorn-like tusk is often described as “legendary” or maybe “elusive” but they were our frequent companions. Narwhals normally keep their horns underwater even when surfacing so they didn’t look much different than other kinds of marine mammals, but they were still thrilling to see, like a celebrity.

Swimming polar bears are a fixture of tear-jerking stories about global warming but bears who live near Baffin are used to ice-free summers. It is normal to see them cruising the fjords looking for a snack of washed-up whale or whatever else they can find. Their paddle-like paws are well adapted to swimming. Since they still have enough ice in the winter for their annual seal feast, the polar bears in the area are doing well. At least for now.

And here is a video of waterfalls tumbling down from a melting glacier, hopefully giving a little sense of the giant scale of the place.

A hot spot in the Atlantic: The Westman Islands

There are pluses and minuses to living in one of the most volcanically active places in the world, the Westman Islands just off the southern coast of Iceland. On the plus side, the locals had a front row seat to the eruption of the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010. Luckily the wind was blowing away from town so the only inconvenience was that it shutdown air travel over much of Europe for several weeks. They also were able to watch Surtsey, one of the most significant new islands formed in recorded history, rise from the sea in 1963. On the down side, in 1973 a volcanic crack unexpectedly opened up just outside of town that forced the sudden evacuation of the entire population of 5,000 and the loss of 400 homes to the flowing lava and rain of pumice stones. But even that had a plus: a square mile of new waterfront property!

Where the town and lava flow meet

The people returned after two years of exile and we arrived for our visit on a beautiful sunny day 44 years later. A new museum sits where the town meets the lava flow. It was built around a house that was covered in pumice during the eruption and recently excavated, its preserved contents from 1973 still in place, like a modern Pompeii.

Some of the recent lava is still barren of life but most of 5-square-mile Heimaey island (the largest island among the group) is lush, green and sheepy, with dramatic cliffs reminiscent of the Faroes. Our mission on Heimaey was to see the puffin colony, the largest in the Atlantic. Puffins nest in deep burrows dug into the grassy cliffs on the opposite side of the island from the town. The island tour we were on had 30 minutes scheduled for the puffins but we decided to let the tour leave without us and we spent a couple extra hours there. The puffins did not disappoint, even though we couldn’t get too close to their steep nesting sites. They buzzed around like frantic giant hummingbirds, heading out to sea and coming back with mouthfuls of eels to feed their babies hidden in the burrows. It was lovely to sit quietly on top of the cliff after our tour group left, watching their comings and goings.

For those of you who can’t get enuff of the puffs, we have many more photos below and a few videos:

We planned to take a taxi back to town but the three taxis on the island were all booked so we decided to walk. Not making much visible progress across the windswept grasslands in 20 minutes, Laurel shook a thumb at a passing car and we hitched a ride. We happened to get a very good driver, in fact he’s the island’s driving instructor! He was also the high school Sociology and Psychology teacher, which shows quite a diverse curriculum for a remote school with only a couple hundred students. His perfect English was honed as a high school exchange student in Manhattan…Kansas.

The town itself is tidy but fairly spartan, as you might expect from an out of the way fishing port that was largely rebuilt in the 1970’s. We enjoyed popping into a few small shops and a cafe run by a jaded French expat but we didn’t spend much time in town. More exciting city life hopefully awaits at our next stop, Reykjavik.

P.S. About the name, the Westman Islands (or Vestmannaeyjar as they say in Icelandic). “West-men” is what the Vikings called people from Ireland, which is west of the Vikings’ home base in Scandinavia. The Vikings had some settlements in Ireland but also enjoyed plundering and taking slaves from there. During the early settlement of Iceland in the 800’s, a group of Irish slaves in Iceland revolted and fled to these islands… where they were later found and all slaughtered. So the name basically means “the place where we killed a bunch of Irish people.” If you’ve ever read any of the ancient Icelandic Viking sagas, they pretty much all end with a bloodbath. And begin with one. And have a few in the middle.

Mauritius: unexceptional, in a good way

On our first visit to the island country of Mauritius in 2011, we just hung out at a beach resort while we recovered from the epic jetlag of flying to pretty much the exact opposite spot on the globe from Seattle. Mauritius “is known for its beaches” as Google says, so that was a fine first date but this time we wanted to get to know the country better, exploring its capital and countryside.

Like its closest neighbors Reunion and the Seychelles, Mauritius is a melting pot of cultures but with the strongest influence from the descendants of Indians who came to work the sugar cane fields 100-200 years ago. Colorful Hindu temples dot the island. One we visited was popular with a troop of photogenic monkeys who made-off with the offerings of fruit that worshipers left on the altars.

The sugar fields are still active and we spent a few hours at an interesting museum dedicated to sugar production and its big role in the history of the country. But Mauritius is now branching out economically well beyond sugar and the sugar-white beaches. It has a history of good governance that has made it a financial, logistical and corporate hub for Africa and the Indian Ocean counties. Modern (or in some cases ultra-modern) highrise bank headquarters have sprung up around the capital of Port Louis, mixing with the old colonial-era buildings and modest lowrise shops. Though there is a glitzy new shopping area on the waterfront (where the store clerks outnumber the sparse customers 4-to-1), Port Louis mostly has the feel of a true middle-ground between a rich western country and a poor country in Africa or South Asia. It is a little grimy and rundown, but also bustling and seems like the rising tide is helping the many, not just the few. It even has safe drinking water! Or so we heard, though Laurel might have gotten a mild stomach bug from eating the local street-food delicacy Dholl Puri, which was OK but definitely not tasty enough to be worth the trouble. Click here of a video of a busy street scene near the farmers market, in one of the less modern parts of downtown.

We visited a few art galleries around the island and enjoyed the work, especially the bold tropical visions of a successful local painter named Vaco who had a pet giant Aldabra tortoise named George. The most common motif seen in Mauritian art, culture and commerce is the flightless dodo bird, adopted as a symbol of the island despite it’s sad claim to fame as one of the most visible man-made extinctions.

One of the headline attractions on the interior of the island is a place called The Seven Colored Earth. In guide book photos, you see rolling hills of various shades of brown, purple, red and orange. When we arrived, the whole thing was much smaller than our expectations, a patch of bare eroded mud that you can circumnavigate on foot in two minutes. Charitably, it was maybe four shades of reddish brown. Without the build-up (and the hour long drive) we probably would have come away thinking “that was kind of interesting and pretty.” Instead it was a bit of a letdown but you can definitely take some nice photos of it from the right angle. Hopefully no one sees a pretty picture like the one below and decides they have to visit Mauritius to see this eighth wonder of the world.

Overall we enjoyed our explorations and found Mauritius a pleasant place. Easy to get around, safe, no hassles, decent infrastructure (except for the traffic jams), and pretty scenery. Maybe it didn’t have the WOW views of Reunion or the more unique cultural and wildlife experiences we had on Madagascar and Aldabra, but overall it was a perfectly serviceable tropical paradise. :-)

150,000 giant tortoises

Aldabra Atoll is inhabited by a dozen researchers and about 150,000 giant tortoises that each weigh several hundred pounds and live for well over 100 years (the tortoises, that is, the researchers were all young and slim). If you’re not familiar with an atoll, it is a ring of reef and low-lying islands surrounding a central lagoon, formed after a long extinct volcano in the center eroded to nothing over millions of years.

Nearby Cosmoledo Atoll, showing the typical ring of low lying islands. Aldabra is too big to fit in one picture like this.

Giant tortoises used to live in warm areas around the globe but were hunted to extinction by humans everywhere but in the extremely isolated islands of the Galapagos and Aldabra. Even there, the tortoises were at risk after their discovery by Europeans because they can stay alive for months without food or water and were thus a useful source of fresh meat on long voyages. Aldabra is now a protected World Heritage Site and the tortoises are secure and doing well.

I’m doing well, thanks for asking.

Aldabra is governed by the Seychelles but far from the main inhabited islands that make up the rest of the country. It can only be reached by boat. Due to its remote location and permitting process required to visit it, only 20 or so tourist boats will come this year, up from zero a few years ago when the island was in a no-go area because of Somali pirates. But the staff on the island was very receptive to tourists, perhaps because the foundation that protects the island is funded in part by private donors so they like the good PR. They even had a little gift shop, where Laurel bought an official Aldabra t-shirt and coffee mug. We landed at the research station and were greeted right away by a giant tortoise. Then another, and another. We are used to long searches to get fleeting glimpses of the exciting rare wildlife of a particular location, but Aldabra is teaming with the giants. They are roaming around the cottages in the station, parked along the path into the forest, pretty much everywhere you look, chomping grass like cows.

Aldabra is also known for its sea life, being a marine protected area as well. Regrettably, the wind and waves were rough during our visit, so we were unable to snorkel. Aldabra Atoll itself is the largest of a group of four islands, collectively the Aldabra Group. We were able to snorkel at two of the other islands in the group, Assumption and Cosmoledo, but the continuing rough seas limited what we could see.

The Aldabra Group is coincidentally a hot-bed of activity for another giant shelled reptile, sea turtles. In a brief land visit to Assumption Island, we found fresh tracks from nesting sea turtles every several paces down the beach. Notice our footprints for scale next to the tracks below.

Finally, a few videos from the Aldabra Group:

  • The tortoises spend 99% of their time munching grass. Perhaps it isn’t very exciting in the usual sense but it is hypnotic and relaxing to watch these prehistoric creatures go about their business.
  • Here is a tortoise in action, racing past.
  • Cruising the lagoon of Adlabra at sunset, while the birds come home to roost.
  • We had a chance to snorkel with a couple flapping stingrays, all of us being pulled along by a strong current.

A lemur on your arm and a chameleon on your head

There are many highfalutin reasons why we love to travel, including experiencing nature and cultures that haven’t (yet) been wiped out or turned into a zoo-like setting for gawking tourists. Who’d want to see that? Well…sometimes us :-) The small island of Nosy Komba is a popular day trip from the resorts on Nosy Be. You get there on a small motor boat, landing at a cute beach town that seems to still have a small fishing industry but is mostly geared to tourists. Local guides lead you into the jungle to see the “wild” life (more on that in a minute) but not before passing dozens of gift shops along the way. Much of the offerings were good quality local handicrafts like embroideries, carvings, paintings and baskets.

Once you run the gauntlet of beckoning shopkeepers, you have your first wildlife sighting – a group of guys with a selfie-ready chameleon. Ethically dubious but it is fun see a chameleon so close up and get an opportunity to touch one. Turns out their stubby little fingers have sharp claws! Tip from Laurel to any chameleon fanciers: don’t put them on your bare skin. Tip from Brian: they don’t hurt at all when you put them on your hat, but they do get antsy after a few seconds and leap off.

Then the guide pulls out a boa constrictor you can wrap around your neck and a shy baby turtle. Luckily not at the same time. We briefly played with both and then moved on to see the promised headline act – lemurs. Our guide reaches into his bag and pulls out…bananas! Thankfully, the lemurs are not in the bag and are roaming free in the forest. But they know that if they hang around the trail, some nice people will show up with bananas. The guide smears banana in your hand and you wait while the lemurs hop from tree to tree, edging closer to your outstretched hand. These lemurs were not as tame as the rescued pet lemurs that we met on Lemur Island in 2011, still being a little leery of these banana-handed tourists. Eventually they take the bait and jump on your arm to eat the banana, the guide all the while trying to smear on more banana to keep them interested. The whole thing was definitely unseemly but a lot of fun.

After our lemur-high wore off, we walked back down the trail and checked out the shops. We bought a colorful straw beach bag and filled it with tropical fruit, conveniently using the last pennies of our Madagascar currency. So long Madagascar!

Nosying around the islands of Madagascar

First, an embarrassing admission. We noticed when planning our 2011 trip to Madagascar that some place names started with the word “Nosy” such as a beach resort popular with Europeans called Nosy Be. We had no idea what the word meant but found it endlessly amusing to say. On this trip, it wasn’t until after we visited a few places that were all named Nosy This or Nosy That that we finally learned that nosy means “island” in Malagasy. All those Nosy places were islands, a pattern that it probably wouldn’t have taken Sherlock Holmes eight years to deduce.

Madagascar itself is an island, but it doesn’t feel that way when you are on it. It is bigger than California and Washington combined. When you are inland, you can drive for hours in any direction without seeing the ocean. Heck, it look us over a week to drive half the length of island in 2011, though we were slowed by bad roads and distracted by lemurs. So the locals don’t think of the “mainland” of Madagascar as a island. But the northern part of Madagascar is surrounded by many little Nosys, most with beautiful white sand beaches, impressive rocky cliffs and rich coral reefs.

One of the many islands in Nosy Hara National Park

And don’t forget the land-based wildlife. On Nosy Tanikely, we found our first chameleons of the trip. Playing a bit second-fiddle to lemurs, chameleons are the other signature animal of Madagascar. When most people think of chameleons, they think of a lizard that uses its powers of color changing to blend in with its background. But in Madagascar, many of the chameleons are brightly colored and change hues to communicate their emotions. (Yes, chameleons have feelings too…) This guy below was gorgeous perhaps due to his excitement of having his picture taken.

A Panther Chameleon on Nosy Tanikely

The day after visiting Nosy Tanikely, we went to Nosy Hara National Park. We had a great snorkel there and combed the remote beaches. Here are some pictures from both areas: