Nature’s Ultimate Playground

The Sub-Antarctic region holds incredibly unchartered abundance and diversity

While most of us are very familiar (and some even luckier to have been) to the Antarctic, the Sub-Antarctic is a little less familiar and far less touristed. Located in the southern hemisphere, immediately north of the Antarctic region, the Sub-Antarctic includes many islands in the very southern parts of the Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.

The Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand and Australia are the ultimate in eco-tourism and have UNESCO World Heritage status, with some of the best-preserved and protected nature reserves in the world! These islands are so pristine and remote, and enjoy some of the most abundant and often endemic wildlife, with rare plants, birds and other animals. Fortunately, the isolation and harsh weather of the region are partially responsible for having kept tourists at bay and the New Zealand Government strictly controls shore visits.

Visitors are treated so sightings of fur, leopard and elephant seals, along with giant petrels, Auckland shags and Campbell Island teals, one of the rarest flightless birds in the world. 10 of the world’s 24 species of albatross breed in these islands, with five being endemic to the region. Campbell Island has six species, including the largest breeding population of southern royal albatrosses, the largest albatross in the world.

10 species of penguins inhabit the islands, two of them endemic (the Snares crested and erect-crested penguins), as well as king, royal and yellow-eyed penguins. Not uncommon are sightings of southern right, humpback and sperm whales, particularly around and in the harbours of Campbell Island.

The history of this region is fascinating and disturbing. Over the centuries, particularly in the 1800s, mankind wreaked havoc on the region, destroying much in its wake including a great deal of seal and whale slaughtering, even sea lions were hunted to extinction on the mainland (they are still critically endangered and confined mostly to the Sub-Antarctic).  

Not surprisingly, there were a significant amount of shipwrecks in the area in the 1800s. What seemed like a good idea at the time, was to provide provisions for survivors, so ‘castaway’ depots were created on land including Campbell Island. As technological advances in shipping meant the different trade routes by steam were embraced, these depots were abandoned. Unbelievably, these abandoned pigs, rabbits, goats, and rats annihilated vegetation, feral cats wiped out many native birds and sheep even developed self-dropping fleeces!

 

The introduction of invasive species including rats, rabbits, feral cats and farm animals was also catastrophic. While it is an ongoing issue for many of the islands, there is slow progress and in some areas, painstaking eradication programs have been successful, enabling many islands to flourish again.

Fortunately, a great deal of work has been done in preservation and conservation for many decades and for those preferring to travel to an uncrowded, immersive and unique destination, the Sub-Antarctic is the ultimate destination. 

To find out more about how you can visit this remarkable destination click here.

Land of Ancient Wonders

Weathered by eons of rain, wind and sea spray, Australia’s untouched Kimberley is almost as old as the Earth itself

 

The walls of the cave are emblazoned with graffiti so old that no-one can really date these creations with certainty. Some researchers believe the exquisite rock art depictions we’re looking at in The Kimberley could be at least 50,000 years old. Staring at them, we try to imagine the ancient people who came here and painted these intricate murals.

Prehistoric animals, ornately attired hunter figures and mysterious deities of unknown origin all adorn the bare rock face; standing testimony to the tribes who once lived among these rough canyons.

“The Kimberley is one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the world,” says former Chief Scientist of Western Australia, Professor Lyn Beazley AO. “Its biodiversity and marine ecosystem are among the world’s most pristine. The tropical savannahs of the region are the only near-untouched such landscapes left on the planet.”

Travel companies often use the term ‘pristine wilderness’ to describe somewhere away from the souvenir sellers and taxi touts of the world’s overcrowded tourist traps. But in the remote Kimberley region of Australia’s North West, you can be assured that its pristine wilderness is exactly that.

The Kimberley has been voted the top adventure cruise destination for Australians and is quickly establishing itself as a ‘must-do’. A secret well-kept by fishers, prospectors and cattle ranchers for decades, it’s a relatively new region for adventure cruising, explored only by more intrepid travellers over the past 30 years.

While overland travel is also popular, it can be a rough and uncomfortable experience and it’s not without its dangers. This is where the new breed of luxurious small ships come to the fore, offering comfort and sanctuary in a harsh environment. No other cruise line exemplifies this genre of modern, responsible travel better than Ponant.

Away from the crowded, commercialised ports, Ponant vessels are designed to reach remote, otherwise inaccessible locations with ease. They’re large enough to provide space and privacy for those onboard yet, each state-of-the-art vessel is also small enough to venture where mega-ships can never sail.

Excursions take place aboard sturdy Zodiac runabouts, with just a handful of passengers in each boat and an expert interpreter to guide your experience. With 30 years of maritime experience, Ponant is at the forefront of small ship cruising – it’s gleaming, futuristic vessels are equipped with the most advanced technological and environmentally sensitive tools. Guests can expect to receive a supremely comfortable voyage in luxurious surroundings akin to a 5-star hotel.

In 2018, Ponant responded to the urging of its many repeat guests and launched the first of its new Explorer-class ships, which are designed for adventurous voyages to remote or challenging destinations – including the sought-after Polar regions. These new vessels, of which a total of six are planned, are slightly smaller and more agile than the current fleet and have a raft of adventure-specific features such as an innovative underwater viewing lounge (the ‘Blue Eye’), as well as kayaks and paddleboards.

Ponant is also well known for its gastronomy, with menus devised by world-renowned chef Alain Ducasse. There’s also a comprehensive wine cellar aboard every ship, overseen by a knowledgeable sommelier. To bolster the luxury, indulgent spa treatments can be enjoyed after a conscience-cleansing workout in the gym. 

Another clever feature of these new Explorer-class vessels is the hydraulically retractable marina at the stern, where Zodiac tenders are embarked and disembarked. Climbing in and out of tenders can be a nerve-wracking process for less mobile guests, even in the relatively calm waters of the Kimberley.

But this versatile accessory simplifies the procedure considerably, making the overall experience more stress-free and enjoyable. Another thing worth noting is that the vessel dedicated by Ponant to cruising the Kimberley, Le Lapérouse, has a reasonable-sized swimming pool on board. This is much appreciated when you’re craving a relaxing dip in the sun because swimming in the waters off the Kimberley coast is not possible due to the abundance of saltwater crocodiles (a fact that will soon become clear as your expedition guide points out the big reptiles populating the riverbanks).

Ponant’s Iconic Kimberley itinerary is one of the most comprehensive offered by any major cruise operator. In 2020, 11 back-to-back 11-day voyages will take place between May and September, with a different set of excursions every day. The Hunter River, for example, is one of the most picturesque landscapes in the Kimberley, where wild mangrove forests are home to abundant bird species.

“The high point of this voyage,” says veteran expedition leader Mick Fogg, “will undoubtedly be our exploration of the King George River and its majestic twin falls, the highest in Western Australia. “We also visit Collier Bay, the site of the mysterious Montgomery Reef, where the entire marine ecosystem appears to rise from the sea with the falling tide like a reappearing Atlantis.”

Throughout each journey, Le Lapérouse will traverse one of Australia’s most ancient and awe-inspiring coastlines. The Kimberley’s spectacular waterfalls, stark gorges, vast savannah and desolate mountain ranges are all waiting to be explored by one of the world’s most modern, luxurious expedition cruise ships. A visit to the Kimberley is, in every sense, a giant step back in time to a land almost unchanged since dinosaurs roamed these parts. In fact, with a keen eye, you might just spot one.

Click here to find out more about our life-changing journey in 2020 with Ponant and National Geographic.

WORDS: RODERICK EIME

Magnificent Birds of the Kimberley

An extremely geographically diverse region, twice as large as Victoria, many bird-watching enthusiasts would regard the Kimberley as an absolute bird paradise. Almost one-third of Australia’s 900 or so species of birds can be seen at some time of the year in The Kimberley. The area boasts a remarkable diversity of habitats, from coastal and inland salt-pans to wetlands, from inter-tidal mangroves to rugged sandstone escarpments, and from eucalypt woodland to seabird islands. 

The convoluted coastline with a tidal range approaching 10m in places provides feeding and roosting areas for migratory shorebirds that breed in Siberia and spend the Spring and Summer in the region, such as Common Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Far Eastern Curlew. The diverse habitats in combination with the annual wet and dry seasons allow a rich bird fauna present in a relatively small area throughout the year. 

Even in the dry season, there is plenty of food for birds throughout the Kimberley. The seabird islands support nationally and internationally, significant breeding populations of Brown Booby, Roseate and Bridled Tern, Lesser Frigatebird and Common Noddy. Resident shorebird species such as Pied and Sooty Oystercatchers nest above the tide line, with Crested and Caspian Terns nesting close by.

The mangroves and river systems provide rich feeding areas for fish-eating birds such as Osprey, Brahminy Kite and White-bellied Sea-eagle, Striated Heron and Eastern Reef Egret. Azure and Collared Kingfishers are readily seen in mangroves throughout the region. Comb-crested Jacanas can be seen walking on river plants whilst feeding. Black-necked Storks and Australian Pelicans, Intermediate and Little Egrets are frequently seen around river edges.

Woodland areas support populations of Little Corella, Black Kite, Brown and White-throated Honeyeaters, Red-winged Parrot, Yellow Oriole, Figbird, Rainbow Bee-eater and Silver-crowned Friarbird.  White-quilled Rock-pigeon and Spinifex Pigeon are seen in the drier areas, as are Zebra, Double-barred and Gouldian Finches.

While some are unique to certain areas, many species can be found throughout the Kimberley. One of these is the spectacular Eastern Osprey, the ultimate predator along the Kimberley Coast skyline. When you visit we also suggest you keep an eye and an ear out for the Sacred Kingfisher with their distinctive calls. This region is also home to the Eastern Reef Egret and if you are lucky you may spot a dancing Brolga!

Ashmore Reef

Located on Australia’s North West Shelf, 610 kilometres north of Broome is Ashmore Reef. This incredible life-sustaining reef provides several marine habitats and species in and out of the ocean.

It is here you will find around 50,000 breeding pairs of various kinds of seabirds, including colonies of Bridled Terns, Common Noddies, Brown, Red-footed and Masked Boobies, Eastern Reef Egrets, Frigate birds, Tropicbirds, Roseate, Crested and Lesser Crested Terns.

The Rowley Shoals

Another stunning destination to observe birds is The Rowley Shoals, about 260 km northwest of Broome. The Rowley Shoals is a group of three atoll-like coral reefs on the edge of one of the widest continental shelves in the world. It is home to many ocean bids as well as a nesting site for the Red-Tailed Tropicbird, home to one of only two of Western Australia’s colonies, and the rare, newly discovered White-tailed Tropicbirds.

Other beautiful species found at Rowley Shoals include the Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Brown Booby, Eastern Reef-egret, White-breasted Sea Eagle, Ruddy Turnstone, Large Sand Plover, Crested And Sooty Terns And The White-throated Needletail.

Browse Island

Browse Island also is a spectacular destination to observe breeding seabirds and migratory shorebirds including the Brown Booby, Frigate Bird And Eastern Reef Egret.

As the Kimberley is so extensive, it’s important to keep in mind that many species migrate or are nomadic and move with the seasons, so if you are really keen on spotting a particular species you may need to do a lot more in-depth research.

If you have extra time and are feathered friend keen then we recommend you take a look at the Broome Bird Observatory in Roebuck Bay, a super passionate organisation dedicated to educating visitors about the birds that live and visit the area. 

Click here to find out more about our life-changing journey in 2020 with Ponant and National Geographic.

Thank you to Dr Eric Woehler for his insight and incredible knowledge.

The Kimberley – Your Guide on What to Expect, When and Why

With its grand yet unforgiving landscape, The Kimberley is often referred to as Australia’s last great wilderness frontier, boasting some of the largest intact natural areas left on the planet and certainly one of the most unspoiled destinations in the world.  

Formed billions of years ago, the 2,000km Kimberley coastline is famous for its awe-inspiring rugged beauty and stunning diversity. The abundance of wildlife and waterfalls, indigenous rock art, gorges, volcanic remnants, mangroves, rainforests and islands, and can often only be accessed by smaller ships and zodiacs.

The region’s remoteness and tropical climate can make exploring this part of the world difficult. Cruising, especially small expedition ships, will allow you to discover this vast and expansive coastline with ease, taking you to destinations that aren’t accessible by land.

With so much diversity we often get asked when is the best time to cruise The Kimberley and what will you see during the different seasons?  Generally, the optimal time is from April through to September. Although you can travel from October through to March, it is extremely hot and humid with substantial rainfall and thunderstorms, often flooding and closing main roads – so perhaps not such an appealing time for most!

Remember, that Mother Nature still determines everything, so please take this as a guide not as gospel!

Waterfalls – April to May

This coast is known for its iconic waterfalls,  including Mitchell, King George and Horizontal Falls and early in the dry season these falls are at full force. The falls are fed by the regions wet season so the earlier in the season you go the more vibrant and spectacular the falls are going to be. The region will also be very green during this time due to the rain. The weather during this period can still be a little grey with quite high humidity and there can be the occasional rainy day, so it is still a little bit of a gamble, particularly in April. However, seeing the falls at their fullest will surely make up for the changing weather.    

Peak Season – June to July

This is definitely the most popular time of year to visit The Kimberley. Primarily because it is cooler, the weather is dry, the skies are blue and generally speaking the temperatures are comfortable. The falls will still be flowing although they will most likely not be at their fullest.

The roads are pretty much in good condition by now and the waterfall swimming pools are full and clean. Remember that the nights in certain areas like the Bungle Bungles can be cool.

Whales – August to September

By August most waterfalls have dried up to a trickle, and most rockpools, although starting to get low, are still clear and great for swimming. This late in the season it is unlikely that Mitchell Falls and King George Falls will still be flowing.  

However, this is the season for wildlife encounters. Being a world-class whale watching region, The Kimberley is home to the world’s largest population of Humpback whales. Up to 30,000 Humpback whales swim from the Antarctic feeding grounds to the warm waters of The Kimberley to breed and give birth.

In addition to Humpback, Southern Right and Blue whales make their way along the coast, sometimes coming close to shore with their calves. The best time to observe these gentle giants tail-slapping and breaching is around noon, when the sun is directly overhead, although it can happen at any time!

An expedition cruise during these months brings you up close a personal with these majestic mammals, watch on as they often put on playful displays around the ship.

But wait – there’s more…

This spectacularly vast region is also one of the last remaining healthy refuges for many threatened and endangered marine species, including six of the seven species of marine turtles, dugong, and countless varieties of sharks, dolphins and fish.

The coastal areas of The Kimberley also offer sanctuary for many species of native mammals and marsupials, reptiles, amphibians, insects and other invertebrates, some that no longer exist in other parts of Australia. It is also home to many species of birds, rare plants, freshwater crocodiles and fish, including catfish and barramundi.

Cruise Express offers luxury expedition cruises to this region with Ponant. These do sell out quickly so enquire today to secure the sailing date and cabin you want. For details on our 2020 options see here.

 

 

Ultimate Antarctica

Why We Love Expedition Cruising in Antarctica

 

Antarctic cruiseIt wasn’t that long ago that Antarctica was accessible only to explorers, researchers and scientists. Fortunately this mostly untouched southernmost frozen continent with its rich wildlife is now accessible to almost everyone.

There are a number of ways to reach this inhospitable and remote destination depending on your needs. The options vary to suit either intrepid explorers, luxury cruisers with more time, or those who have limited time and prefer to fly directly, or even just fly over for a day.

Despite all the options, our absolute favourite way to see Antarctica will always be on smaller expedition style ships. While we appreciate this may not be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, we’ve outlined below just a few reasons why it is so incredibly awesome. 

Absolute and intimate

antarctic cruiseWithout all the bells and whistles of big ship shows, discos, casinos and shopping, expedition cruising is all about the immersion and education.

Expedition ships, taking between 50 and 200 passengers, offer a more personal style of service. They are able to travel through smaller waterways, and the Zodiacs (rigid inflatable boats) take small groups of passengers right onto the shores. Tourist guidelines limit landings to 100 people at a time so with fewer passengers onboard an expedition ship everyone will ultimately have more visits and more time on shore. Immersing yourself in the pristine beauty of Antarctica on smaller expedition ships, allows you to get up close and personal with a parade of wildlife, including seals, penguins, pods of whales, and so much more.

Depending on the size of a larger cruise ship, they may not be able to send passengers ashore at all, or you may only have a few hours on your allocated day to ensure everyone onboard ‘gets a go’.

The luxurious PONANT line of ships including Le Lyrial and L’Austral, have onboard experts for each destination. They are available to you throughout your journey and can include naturalists, botanists, marine biologists, historians and geologists.

Why expedition cruising?

antarctic cruiseMany expedition cruise ships suit travellers who are there to immerse themselves in education and the experience, preferring to do whatever it takes to really get out amongst it all. This can be challenging but at the end of the day you are able to come back to luxury and comfort.

While expedition ships upfront seem more expensive, the benefit is that almost everything is included. There are no hidden surprise charges such as shore excursions and activities, with drinks (excluding top shelf) and gratuities usually also included (check with your Travel Specialist).

Research, research

antarctic cruise

Whichever way you decide to visit Antarctica, it is important to do your research, particularly when choosing the right time to visit. The tourist season lasts only about five months – typically from November to March.

During each of these months, something unique happens ranging from pack ice starting to break up, mating, breeding and hatching seasons for penguins and other birds, to when it’s the best time to spot whales.

antarctic cruiseOften mistaken for Emperor Penguins, the slightly smaller but almost identical King Penguin colonies can be found in vast numbers in South Georgia and Crozet Islands, as well as the Falkland Islands and have even been spotted in Patagonia. 

It is very rare to see Emperor Penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula.  If it was your main goal to see Emperor Penguins, we recommend a voyage to Commonwealth Bay, known as ‘Deep Antarctica’.  It is a lot further south and a whole different kettle of fish to the Antarctic Peninsula.

For lovers of nature and all things wildlife including penguins, please click here to look at our Ponant L’Austral 2020 journey.

 

Going one step further

For the super-fit and ultra-adventurous, some cruises also offer kayaking, scuba diving, cross-country skiing, hiking, helicopter rides or camping… just ask your Travel Specialist at Cruise Express and they’ll find a perfect trip to suit you.

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For more information on booking the trip that dreams are made of, contact us at Cruise Express on 1300 766 537,

 

Agency Manager & Expedition Cruising Specialist, Joanna Schuetz

Cruise Express Agency Manager, Joanna Schuetz has over 15 years experience in expedition cruising. Having travelled across all continents on many forms of cruise ships, Jo has a particular passion for and specialises in polar expeditions having been to the Arctic and Antarctica on numerous occasions.

Email Jo today on jo@cruiseexpress.com.au.