Six seasoned explorers take us off the beaten track.
When Ernest Shackleton embarked on his third adventure in 1914 to cross Antarctica via the South Pole, the renowned explorer ended up shipwrecked and trapped on floating sheets of ice. He emerged two years later, with his crew of five intact. They had crossed 1,300km of ocean to reach South Georgia and trekked across an island to find help.
Modern technology ensures shipwrecked travellers today will not have to spend two years living on ice, but Shackleton’s adventurous spirit remains an inspiration. His name and that of another adventurer, Frederick Selous, famed for his exploits in Africa, have given rise to The Shackleton & Selous Society, a group of travel experts specialising in off-grid adventures.
The idea for the society started with a simple question posed to co- founder Howard Saunders. “Where should we go next?”, asked a family he was guiding in Tanzania, after watching the sun set from the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Realising there are travellers wanting to explore more obscure parts of the globe, but not knowing where to start, Saunders decided to form a group of expert guides specialising in remote locales like Africa, Antarctica and the Amazon. Criteria to be a Fellow include having operated one’s own business, and at least 10 years of guiding experience. The Shackleton & Selous Society now has a network of 19 Fellows, since it was established in 2013.
The Peak talks to six of them to take us off the beaten track, from diving under moving ice sheets in Antarctica to setting up camp in the middle of nowhere in Mongolia.
Howard Saunders, chairman, The Shackleton & Selous Society
REGION OF EXPERTISE: EAST AFRICA
Australian Howard Saunders set foot in Africa at the tender age of 17, while on a family safari. But it was not sightings of lions and elephants in the wild that drew him back after university; it was the vivid colours of Africa. Now based in Nairobi, the 44-year-old has spent the past 20 years leading safaris and tracking big cats in East Africa, where he met his wife. He founded Kenya Wildlife Trust, a foundation that works to protect the country’s wildlife.
Common misconception of East Africa: People often assume the countries making up East Africa – Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania – offer similar experiences and landscapes. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Rwanda is known for the Virunga volcanoes with peaks over 4,500m. Kenya has rolling savannah grasslands in the south- west and soda lakes and semi-arid bushes up north. Uganda is where the true rainforest appears.
Most exotic character in East Africa: The 21st-century Maasai warrior. The modern Maasai has mobile phones to track the weather and trade livestock, but owning this technology belies the true character of a person who is still deeply connected to the land and livestock around him. Young warriors still go after lions that have attacked their cattle, but with one (or even two) cellphones clipped to their beaded belts now. These proud individuals caught between tradition and technology remain one of the most fascinating parts of a visit.
How to react when face-to-face with a wild lion or silverback gorilla: It is always the same advice – stand still and keep calm. Watching these animals so close is enough to stir that wonderful, primaeval feeling within our souls, and humble us in the natural world. Guests love to feel that they are definitely not in any zoo, but in wild Africa.
Survival 101: I always have my Swiss army knife and a box of matches on me when I travel.
Francesco Galli Zugaro, founder, Aqua Expeditions
REGION OF EXPERTISE: AMAZON AND MEKONG RIVERS
Singapore-based Francesco Galli Zugaro, 43, thrives on adrenalin. Born in Zurich, he once took off on a solo cycling trip through Namibia’s Damaraland desert for four days, clocking 70km of rough terrain a day. In 2006, after working as an executive in Galapagos-based Ocean Adventures for five years, he set up his own cruise business with his father-in-law. Their custom-built, 12-cabin Aqua Amazon set sail in March 2008. Hoping to replicate his success, Galli Zugaro moved his operations to South-east Asia in 2012, launching the Aqua Mekong to tour the eponymous river in 2014.
Most exotic wildlife spotted: The pink river dolphins, also known as Boto. Travelling along the Amazon River is a good way to explore the untainted rainforests that have no roads leading through them, only water. The Pacaya Samiria Reserve, for instance, is a protected wildlife area (about four times the size of Bali, Indonesia) filled with pink dolphins, squirrel monkeys and snow-white egrets. It is also home to dark water lagoons. Catching a sunset there is a beautiful sight, when you see the light reflected from the black waters.
Two peas in a pod? Singapore and Peru might be miles apart, but the two share some similarities, such as their food culture. Both Singaporeans and Peruvians are very passionate about their food. I also find the bustling vibe of outdoor markets in Peru very similar to that of Singapore’s wet markets, though the produce is very different.
Must-have fashion accessory while travelling: My Persol, or “Steve McQueen”, sunglasses.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Jan Wigsten, founder, Nomadic Journeys
REGION OF EXPERTISE: MONGOLIA
Jan Wigsten began his tours in Mongolia 35 years ago, when there were no English guidebooks in the country. “I had to depend on a book I found written in Spanish, from a small store in Cuba,” says the Swede, who now divides his time between Sweden and Mongolia.
But having ventured into Mongolia in the ’80s puts Wigsten in a good spot to compare the landlocked country under Soviet rule then and now. “Until 1992, there were limited places we could take tour groups to. Culture and religion were suppressed then,” says the 61-year-old.
Mongolia today is becoming modernised, but there’s still some time before Mongolians move back to the city. “The first 10 years after Russia collapsed, there was no structure in the city and the Mongolians were left to their own devices. Many moved out to become nomads,” says Wigsten, whose expeditions provide a sustainable source of income for Mongolians.
His contribution has earned him the Nairamdal Medal (a national award) from the Mongolian president in 2012.
Fewer than three million people occupy grasslands 2,000 times the size of Singapore. This, Wigsten shares, is what makes the country “the ultimate place to escape from the modern world”.
Breath of fresh air: Mongolia is a country with vast grasslands, river canyons and mountainous regions. One way to take it all in is to set up 360-degree camps in the middle of the landscape. A good spot would be the southern edge of the Khan Khentii, a protected area of the Taiga forest and mountains. This is where there is a transition from steppe to forest, and the landscape is a beautiful mix of wildflower meadows and birch woodlands.
Leading the nomadic lifestyle: Nomads have a very strong horse culture, and will have motorcycles soon. They had access to motor bikes before, but could not afford fuel after Soviet rule collapsed. Nomads might live in the wilderness, but they are not ignorant of money. On the contrary, they have to know how to manage and keep expenses very low to survive.
Survival 101: Plan your meals and ration supplies properly. Topping up is possible – there’s the option to fly in food – but very costly.
Jonathan Green, co-founder, Galapagos Whale Shark Project
REGION OF EXPERTISE: GALAPAGOS, ANTARCTICA, CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA
On a diving expedition in Galapagos a few years back, Briton Jonathan Green found himself carried off by a current and miles away from the dive site. Green, now based in Ecuador, spent seven hours floating out in the open ocean. It was nearly 30 years of being a professional diver and wildlife filmmaker that taught him to stay calm and drift towards an island he could spot close to 32km away.
The 53-year-old co-founded the Galapagos Whale Shark Project in 1999, concentrating his efforts on tracking the migration patterns of whale sharks in the area. His research has contributed to major film documentaries like English broadcaster David Attenborough’s award-winning Galapagos 3D series.
“Modern technology has made it relatively easier to navigate Antarctica today, but the environment has not changed. It’s still dangerous,” says Green, who has led 50 polar expeditions.
“There’s immense beauty and such rich life forms to be found here, if you know where to start looking.”
Daredevil moment: Diving inside the blue ice caves of Antarctica with a friend. We heard a loud booming noise, and immediately worried that the structure was collapsing – it would have been like a 40-storey building collapsing on us. Our first instinct was to reach out and touch the ice to see if we could detect movements. Luckily, it was stationary and we quickly swam out of there. If there had been movements, we would never have made it out in time.
Take a risk for this: The Weddell Sea (located at the south-eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula) is one of the most remote places in Antarctica, where you’ll need courage to survive. It is known for powerful winds and fast-moving ice blocks that could trap the boats you take out there, and all you can see for miles is ice, sea and sky. But it’s here where you’ll see diverse wildlife like penguins, seals and humpback whales. On a sunny day, the pieces of ice on the sea catch the sunlight and reflect it like a prism, so it’s like looking up and being covered by a rainbow when you dive underwater.
What he can’t do without: A VHF (Very High Frequency) radio to communicate, and an emergency first-aid kit.
Search “Galapagos Whale Shark Project” on Facebook.
TREADING ON FORBIDDEN GROUND
Denis Page, founder, Si Fang Luxury Travel
REGION OF EXPERTISE: CHINA AND SOUTH-EAST ASIA
A former marine archaeologist, Denis Page spent 14 years excavating shipwrecks for the Canadian Parks Service until he switched to exploring lands in 1992, or designing tour routes in China and Indonesia, to be specific. Now in his late 50s, the French- Canadian relies on an impressive little black book of contacts – a decorated Vietnamese general and a celebrity cooking-show host are examples – that lead him to discovering China in a different light.
On putting together his little black book: We are talking years of guiding, doing research, establishing contacts through friends, knowing local operators, and the odd serendipitous meeting at a bar or a restaurant. For instance, a few years ago, I guided a group of Chinese travellers in New Zealand and Australia, and one of them was the deputy director of the China Archaeological Research Institute who oversees sites like the terracotta museum and the Forbidden City. We shared meals together, exchanged ideas and knowledge about each other’s countries, and formed a close bond. Two months later, I was able to have the Forbidden City open outside public hours for two of my guests.
Away from the public eye: To see the Forbidden City without throngs of visitors is already an amazing sight. Nearly half the areas in the Forbidden City are kept private due to conservation requirements and budgetary reasons, such as the Qianlong Garden. Only a small part of Qianlong Garden is open to public because it is being restored, but the entire area is made up of 27 buildings and courtyards.
LAND OF THE PEOPLE
Aydin Kudu, co-founder, Turkish Moon
REGION OF EXPERTISE: TURKEY
As a university student, Aydin Kudu cycled around the country, visiting small villages, with less than 10 Turkish liras in his pocket. He relied on the generosity and warmth of his fellow countrymen, but to know more about them, he posed as an English speaking foreigner.
“Travelling as a foreigner meant I was not subjected to certain ethics and behaviour, and people would open up to me,” says Kudu. He discovered many locals were quick to offer him food or drink and even lodging.
“I would sit with the family to have dinner, and the men would usually take me out to the village cafe afterwards for games like backgammon,” says the 52-year-old.
An experience you can’t plan through Google: Turkish people are very hospitable, and when a family opens up their home to you, it’s not because they want to cheat you. They are genuinely interested to know you. You get to eat, cook and share their daily life. Food on the table is simple fare – expect traditional dishes like leek soup with lentils, kuymak (a Turkish-style cheese fondue) and rice pudding.
Not all Turkish food will be the same: Olive-oil varieties dominate the Aegean (west coast) and Mediterranean (south), while Istanbul, having been the capital to past empires, relies on sophisticated court culture that goes lighter on the spices in vegetable stews and fish. Up north is where you get a lot of fish, kale and corn, while the central and the east favour heavier food like rice and meats.
Riding off the beaten track: I’ll recommend the Belgrade forest in northern Istanbul for cyclists. The woods is difficult to navigate with hundreds of miles of paths, some rockier than others, but it is beautiful, surrounded by just oak and chestnut trees, with occasional water reservoirs that are refreshing.