To be honest, Galapagos had never been on my bucket list before, as I quickly judged it as being too touristy, too “my not-very-adventurey parents would love to take a big cruise trip here” kind of place. But one of the great parts of travel is when I get to be proven completely wrong about a place I approached with preconceived notions. I explored the islands recently with my 12-year-old son Noah and Lindblad Expeditions and fell in love with the area. I got to see Noah completely engaged, whether he was swimming with penguins, kayaking alongside hammerhead sharks, learning about volcanoes, getting schooled about Darwin, seeing shipwrecks and whale bones, learning to grow coffee, or making friends with all sorts of exotic animals. Galapagos is the epitome of real-deal adventure, and I feel grateful for having been proven so wrong.
When hiking, we learned quickly that these iguanas have the right of way. We had to move for them, because they were not going anywhere for us. It was beautiful to interact with animals who held no fear of humans.
Once we came back from snorkeling to find that this guy was holding down the fort.
We both felt like we’d been transported back into Jurassic Park times. The moment we crossed paths with this tortoise in the forest was downright surreal.
Every day, Noah told me: “This one, this is my new favorite beach in the world!”
This was the remains of a shipwreck from back in Darwin’s time.
Noah waited alongside the captain of the ship for this moment, when we officially crossed the equator.
With Lindblad Expeditions, the entire trip was guided by National Geographic scientists. Each one fielded my son’s eight million questions a day with grace, generosity, a sense of humor and intelligent, age-appropriate answers.
We got to visit a coffee and sugar cane farm where Noah got to see how much work goes into grinding things manually
We live in the mountains, so simply getting to have the ocean as our playground was as much of an adventure as anything else on the trip.
This was a rock that sailors carved their name in when they docked into various coves. I think it was the first time that history felt real for Noah.
Previously Noah had never seen whale bones outside of a Natural History museum – he decided that in the wild is much better.
This was Noah’s first time using a GoPro. I think he nailed it, and it made his snorkeling experience that much more exciting for him, knowing that he cowld share what he saw with his friends and family later.
We had the good fortune to be able to see hammerhead sharks alongside our kayak on this excursion. a
Noah is not usually about selfies, but selfie with a penguin? Of course.
Noah is high energy and has never been able to just lounge on the beach. So having to actively get out of the way for these monsters made the beach much more interesting for him.
We were able to snorkel with penguins, sea turtles, and sharks. Every snorkel trip we’ve taken in other parts of the world after has been a complete disappointment for Noah.
While the giant tortoises are the stars of the show on the islands, it’s hard to not have a lot of love for these massive iguanas also.
It was impossible to get all in one photo, but from this vantage point, we could see three volcanoes.
Photo competitions. They’re not necessarily a good thing for an organisation like us to run, because there can only ever be one winner, and we leave hundreds of other people disappointed. But we can’t help ourselves, can we? That’s because it’s just too damn hard to take bad photos on our trips and we’re naturally compelled to share them with everyone. And what’s life without friendly competition amongst family and peers?!
But rather than showcase just the one winner, here’s the top 10, in no particular order, all taken by you guys on our trips in 2015. What a year it was!
We’ll tell you who the winner is also – don’t worry.
1. Aoraki Mt Cook & Lake Pukaki, ‘Rimu’ – Allen Cameron
This is a scene our guides never tire of seeing, no matter how many times they visit the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. There’s always the butterflies that flutter in your stomach as this landscape greets you. As you get closer, the waters of Lake Pukaki become more radiant and the slopes of Aoraki Mount Cook and the surrounding hills become more dramatic. After passing Lake Pukaki you’ll delve deeper into the National Park and get the chance to hike onto Mueller Ridge, where you’ll experience the most mind blowing mountain views in New Zealand.
2. Hiking Siberia Valley, ‘Tui’ – Bob Secor
You step out of the aircraft that has just dropped you into arguably New Zealand’s most isolated and dramatic wilderness area, and there’s just one way out from there; on foot. The plane takes off again and you realise it’s just you, your fellow hikers and the native birds accompanying you through this area of untouched beauty. Not a bad way to spend a couple of days. Well… technically you’ll get to take a jet boat ride down the Wilkin River as well, so it’s not just hiking!
3. Sand Boarding Te Pouahi Reserve, ‘Kauri’ – Bonnie Mullin
Sometimes it’s important to just be a kid again. And what better way than taking an old body board (not intended for anything other than use on the water, but hey – it’s fun!) and sliding down a huge sand dune and getting completely covered in sand? It can’t all be too civilised can it?
4. Swimming with a Turtle, ‘Tortuga’ – Charlotte Sherman
If you don’t swim or at least see a turtle when you join us on our ‘Tortuga’ trip in the Galapagos Islands, then there will certainly be something wrong with the space/time continuum and we’ll have to look into getting into another business. Here’s the reason why we called the trip the ‘Tortuga’ – they’re everywhere and you never get sick of seeing them, especially in crystal clear water!
5. House on the Svelte, Patagonia, ‘Condor’ – Dennis Wilson
Patagonia has many faces, yes there’s the enormous granite peaks and glaciers of Torres Del Paine and Glaciares National Park, fiords and picture perfect lakes. There’s also the windswept plains dotted with grazing cattle and traditional “Gaucho” farm houses (now with solar power!). You find yourself wondering if you’ve stepped into a time machine.
6. Immaculate Forest Walk, Nelson Lakes National Park, ‘Rimu’ – Donal Rafferty
Can you see the hobbit in the trees in this shot? Well, there is no hobbit but you’ll be forgiven for expecting some sort of ancient creature to walk across the trail as you’re hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park. So no hobbits here, but you’ll probably be greeted by a South Island Robin – one of our most inquisitive native birds. They often peck at the ground you’ve walked on as they know your hiking boots may have opened up some soil for worms!
7. Machu Picchu Selfie, ‘Jaguar’ – Jen Risser
Check out how happy Jen Risser is, after hiking for 3 days on the Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu. We arrive at Machu Picchu super early in the morning before the sun comes up and get ahead of the numerous people who visit the site every day, but when the sun does come out, it shines directly down on the site all day – it’s an incredibly refreshing place to be. The other thing we’ve noticed about this photo is that it’s a reminder of how much of a big job it’d be to mow those lawns, just look at em!
8. Milford Sound Kayaking, ‘Rimu’ – Jim Lane
Believe it or not, photos like this are EXTREMELY rare. Not because it has captured a truly perfect moment in time for Jim and his son Ben Lane, in the world’s most spectacular fiord, but because it’s captured a person in a double sea kayak who isn’t engaged in an argument with their fellow paddler… For that reason, this photo is our winner! Who needs flat horizons anyway…
9. Blue Duck in Repose, ‘Manuka’ – Joyce Barbour
Our native Whio (Blue Duck) are known here in New Zealand as the “whitewater duck”, as when they’re spotted, they are often seen riding the rapids in our streams and rivers. They are also extremely rare. Contrary to how it appears in this photo, they do actually have heads, and two legs.
10. Hiking Amongst Giants, ‘AST’ – Marjorie Pilli
Almost there! In this shot, you’re only about 30 minutes from arriving at the Annapurna Sanctuary – a spectacular alpine amphitheatre that has to be seen to be believed. That’s our guide DK in the picture, pointing out the surrounding peaks but clearly not holding the attention of the other guy in the photo. It’s OK – we’re working on his presentation skills…
It probably doesn’t come as a great surprise that around 30% of New Zealand is public land, and a lot of it covered by 18 incredible National Parks. What you may not know, though, is that there are over 950 back country huts throughout the country (accessible to the public). They come in all shapes and sizes with varying levels of ‘luxury’ and charm.
Some of these – the most charming of the lot – date back to the 1800s and are the foundation for our Kiwi love affair with the ‘back country hut’.
There’s so many memories tied up in these huts. So many friendships forged, heroes born and, probably, people conceived! There is a certain routine that happens – it’s a totally enjoyable routine that to a kiwi usually ‘just happens’ without thought – like foraging for dry wood. And in between this routine there’s time to kill and fun to be had.
So we came up with an idea. Let’s break down the routine and also give you a few ideas for how to create uncontrollable laughter and grins from ear to ear, in a backcountry hut (you could supplement that for tea house, tent, refugio and so on!)
Here’s the routine…
Tired legs turn the last bend along the trail, only to discover that it is in fact not the last bend and the trail continues to meander along the valley floor. This goes on for a while until the ‘real’ last bend rewards you with the welcoming site of shelter.
Spirits lift and energy comes seemingly from nowhere. Enough even, to scrounge for dry firewood on the approach to the hut.
You ease your pack off tired shoulders, a pack heavier than it needs to be, with a bladder of red wine. You hang up your hiking poles and examine your toes out of your boots.
Damp boots and socks now lay resting next to the sizzling wood fire. No one cares about the odor. It’s worth it.
Food is a priority. Everyone chips in – or maybe it’s someone’s turn and you’re lucky enough to put your legs up. At any rate, snacks arrive quick smart.
Dinner happens. It’s epic. You look around the room in the aftermath to flushed faces, enjoying the warmth from their hearty meal, their home-made mulled wine and the glow from the fire – your new best friend.
You lie snug in your sleeping bag listening to the old guard wax lyrical with hero stories. In this particular story the old guard was a NYC fireman sharing riveting, ‘real’ stories, better than any Hollywood movie. Rain tipper-tapers on the roof lulling you away to the best sleep you’ve had in ages.
OK, so all that happens. That stuff needs to happen. That’s basic survival stuff really. Shelter, food, rest. But what about the other stuff. The fun that happens spontaneously. Well, there’s no harm in having a few tricks up your sleeve. Here’s our favourites:
This really is a classic, and we’d like to think it’s an Active speciality. And the best part is, you’re guaranteed to have spoons with you (if you don’t, something has gone terribly wrong!). The game is simple really – place a number of spoons on a table (1 less than the amount of people playing) and make sure they’re evenly spaced so everyone sitting around the table can reach one. Grab a full pack of shuffled cards and deal 4 cards to each player. Nominate someone to draw a card off the top of the face down deck so they have 5 cards in their hand – they need to discard one and they’re trying to get 4 of a kind. They’ll discard a card and then pick another – the quicker they do this, the faster-paced the game and the more exciting it becomes. The first person to get 4 of a kind grabs a spoon and then everyone has to grab one. The person who misses out on a spoon is OUT. If you go for a spoon before you’ve got 4 of a kind you’re out. Faking is allowed though, most definitely, as long as you don’t touch the spoon! Here’s a short video of a recent spoons game on an Active trip, in this case not a backcountry hut, but you get the idea!
So you’re going to need a nice, clear night for this. If you’re really lucky you might be on our ‘Winter Rimu‘ trip, relaxing in the natural hot springs at Welcome Flat, on the Copland Track. It’s a dreamy experience to lay under the stars and listen to the natural sounds of the forest, whilst you rest your tired legs. It’s also a pretty special way to bond together as a group.
More colourful than your average card game, essentially it’s all about getting rid of your cards. Each suit has a colour (red, yellow, blue or green) and a number. Like a normal game of cards, you’ll follow the circle around and place a card from the 7 in your hand, onto the pile (so long as it’s the same number OR colour as the previously laid card). The tactics begin when you change the colour to suit yourself (by laying the same number in a different colour) or by throwing down a ‘wild card’… Sprinkled through the pack are ‘specialty cards’ which could either mean your neighbour has to pick up another 2, 4 or even 8 new cards to add to their hand, skip their go or switch the direction of play – which may or may not make you some new friends and enemies! Once you’re down to a single card in your hand, you have to shout ‘UNO!’ and the first person to lay down their final card wins. Pick up the pace, add a few more rules to the game and you’ve got yourself an evening of fun as well as a great way to make some new hut-friends (unless you screw them over…!).
Meet the wildlife
Many of our backcountry huts are situated in beautiful alpine environments, so when you visit one of these huts you’ll be sharing your home with the Kea, an endemic South Island parrot. The kea is thought to have developed its own special characteristics during the last great ice age, by using its powers of curiosity in its search for food in a harsh landscape. It’s a highlight for many, to sit and watch as inquisitive Kea fly around the hut. Just make sure your belongings are inside and please don’t feed them!
Build a dam
Assuming you have some energy left. There’s nothing more satisfying than diverting a stream’s river flow. Even if it’s only for half an hour. Unleash the engineer within and get to work! A dam, with 100% no end goal, is a beautiful thing.
It’s the “anagram game that will drive you bananas!” If you’re OK about calling out ‘Peel’, ‘Split’ and ‘Bunch’ in a public hut, and judged accordingly, this game is for you.
Look for glow worms
You’ll need a local guide for this. Coerce them into an evening tour and go to find some glow worms. It’s like star gazing but you don’t need to crane your neck!
Whittle a walking stick
So you’ve built a dam and you’ve still got some energy. It must be the middle of summer and the days are long, allowing for extra MacGyver time. You’ll need a good bush knife for this and remember to whittle away from you, not towards your body! Don’t cut down our native tress either, please find a tree that’s already fallen down naturally. A Lancewood would do the trick. Oh, and be careful about trying to take your new walking stick through customs on your homeward journey…
You’ll need at least two packs of cards for this game and any number of players. It would take a whole post to explain the rules of bush rummy, so you’re going to need a resident expert within your group. Essentially though, it’s based off gin rummy, but once you go past the first round you can place cards down at any time – you don’t have to wait your turn. So like many of the games listed here, it can get pretty crazy!
Country-themed sing along
One of the brilliant surprise elements of a backcountry hut experience is the mix of people you’ll be sharing your evening with. It’s like the fun part of flatting, without the hassle of having to do it day in/day out. You’ll always find some banter, whether it be around sport, politics or pop culture. And if you’ve got a merry crowd you might just get into a good old fashioned sing-along – so bring along a ukulele if you have one (and can carry it)!
We had to include this game – it’s from New Zealand! Tantrix is “the world’s most twisted puzzle game!” So what is it exactly? It’s a hexagonal tile-based abstract game. Huh? There are 56 tiles in a set, each containing 3 lines going from one edge of the tile to the other. The aim is to use the tiles to create the longest line or loop. It’s probably best if you invite Miriam along on your next backcountry hut adventure – she’s our resident Tantrix expert.
Cards against humanity
If we need to explain this game, you’ve been hiding under a rock.
You mean you haven’t already done it yet? That’s OK. Don’t panic! It’s certainly not too late. Luckily there are a few very good arguments in favour of leaving it until you’ve turned 40. If you’re anything like me, you have no idea how the world actually works until you’re 30. Then for many, this decade is taken up with starting a family, establishing a career & discovering humility. When 40 comes along you’re a little more immune to the pressures the world puts on you – who you should be, what you should look like… It’s experiences that become more important than anything else, and you become acutely aware of time. So our view is to not squander life’s most valuable commodity once the 4-zero hits. Here’s the top 5 arguments to get that 40 year old self booking a trip somewhere amazing…
You make better choices
You’re older, probably need to exercise more, and have some grey poking through, but you sure do make sounder decisions now. Gone are the days when you’ll book a boozy trip to Thailand, lie on a beach and go home with nothing really to show for it. Your adventure travel choices are still based on an element of escape, but because your time is valuable, that hiking trip in Nepal or the overnight stay in a New Zealand mountain hut is likely to have come from a more considered position, and be more fulfilling than a trip to Cancun that you can hardly remember apart from the neon lights.
Because life is short
The clock is ticking. It’s that simple really. You only get one shot at this whole life thing so you might as well make it count. Experiences are what you’ll take to your final days, and they do shape you. Given that you now make better choices, you’ll also know that you’re still mobile (and will be for quite some time if you stay in shape!) and more than capable of hiking to Machu Picchu or snorkeling with seals in the Galapagos Islands. So think about what experiences are likely to stay with you until your dying days. And do it. Tick tock, tick tock…
You’re a better social animal
Communication and socialisation in general come easier when you’re older. You’re not out to prove a point any more. Hell – it’s even amusing poking a little fun at yourself from time to time. Your travel experiences are enhanced by the people you travel with, and those you meet along the way. Your better able to go with the flow, and willingness to meet like-minded people makes your adventures a shared experience, which is ultimately what we all want. What good is keeping that up-close encounter with a dolphin in Milford Sound all to yourself?
No more slumming it
When I was 20, I felt obliged to stay in crowded, cold (or sometimes unbearably hot) hostels with simply awful facilities, eat cheap horrible food, and travel in a bus where there wasn’t room to scratch yourself. Part of that obligation was financial, but if I’m honest it was mostly because it was just what I thought was expected of me. But I’m not sure I actually enjoyed it that much – people snore, arrive late, chose to play drunken card games at 2am, get sick from eating terrible food, miss buses…. When you’re 40, there’s simply no pressure to slum it anymore, and you’re happy to say you want somewhere comfortable and memorable to stay, and you enjoy it. You’ve just hiked through virgin rain forest to see a spectacular glacier on the west coast of the South Island, why wouldn’t you want to kick your feet up in a comfortable lodge room with a glass of wine and some local cheese?
It’s the small things that matter
I used to think it was only the grandiose experiences that mattered to me. Kayaking class V rivers, surfing in the Mentawai Islands – the sort of thing I took away from my adventure travels. It’s now the brief encounters, momentary observations and flashes of uniqueness of a place that etch themselves in my memory. That’s down to a more discerning travel palate. A chance encounter with school children while on the trail to the Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal, waiting for the sheep on the road to part while we drive through to Mt Cook National Park in New Zealand, an ice cream in the sun in El Calafate, Argentina – these things will never leave me, and add so much to my travel memories.