Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

‘Out in the Big Sky Country’, as featured in Canary Wharf magazine, November 2012

February 10, 2013

The Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

There can be few better remedies for the stresses and strains of metropolitan life than an activity break in the classic landscapes and wide-open spaces of Montana’s ‘Big Sky Country’. Nick Smith goes glamping at the exclusive Ranch at Rock Creek…

It’s like something out of an old Wild West movie. The sun dips over the snow-capped Pintler Mountains, while horses are being ridden home along the trail. Tucked away in the lush rolling foothills, surrounded by miles of ranchland a fast, shallow river runs past the Granite Lodge. Inside, a fire crackles, champagne is served and all around there is memorabilia from the old days of the great railroad hotels, hard rock quarrying and the Ghost towns of the silver mining boom years. There’s a frontier spirit and a pioneering zest with a twist of luxury here at the Ranch at Rock Creek. And it’s paradise.

The Ranch at Rock Creek, Montana, by Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

The Ranch at Rock Creek, Montana, by Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

Twenty-four hours ago I was in London. But now, here in Montana I might as well be on another planet. Gone is the impersonal hurly-burley of a city bristling with commerce and bursting with traffic. Surrounding me is the huge jagged landscape of the bones of old America, where the sky is blue, the grass is green and everything else is… well, there isn’t much else. Just space. It’s no wonder that the Rock Creek’s owner Jim Manley, after a lifetime’s search for the perfect ranch, chose this utopian pocket of land near a fork in the creek which, if you exclude the small town of Philipsburg (population 914), is fifty miles away from anywhere. To try to understand how peaceful and isolated Montana is you need to savour the statistic that it is the fourth largest of the American states, and yet fewer than a million people live here.

Riding the trail at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

Riding the trail at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

Montana gets its name, with some justification, from the Spanish for ‘mountainous country.’ But it is also the ‘Big Sky Country,’ and absurd as it may sound, this is a region of the world that seems to have been blessed with a disproportionately large canvas of ever changing cloud formations. As we spend our days fishing, riding, shooting and hiking, the sky is a constant source of amazement. If you climb to the Top of the World – a vantage point on the ranch that no photographer can afford to miss – there are sweeping, uninterrupted 180-degree horizons. This is something you don’t get in the city. And this is why ‘city folk’ come to Rock Creek.

Mailboxes at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

Mailboxes at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

They also come here to experience the rustic simplicity of ranch life. It has to be said though, at Rock Creek there are a few small embellishments that seem to transform rough frontier living into something of a master-class in uncomplicated guilt-free luxury. Everything is thought of and nothing is overstated, but the first order of the day is privacy and seclusion. If you chose, you could spend your whole time here and never see anyone outside your own party. And yet, as I quickly found, evenings are a sociable occasion, when after fine dining in the Lodge, there’s 8-ball pool, karaoke and bowling in the Silver Dollar Saloon. Everyone joins in, and it was in the saloon that I met Jim Manley who tells me, as he sits on a bar stool made from a saddle, that his childhood dream was to own such a ranch.

The 'Big Sky' at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

The ‘Big Sky’ at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

But it is a dream fulfilled with a thread of luxury woven through its fabric. With the distinctive style of Americana, the accommodation works more like a village, where you can stay in rooms in the lodge or log homes dotted around the ranch. I stayed in one of the ‘tents’ down by the creek, a term that does nothing to prepare you for the experience of ‘glamping’ taken to a new level. My classic canvas cabin, named Cut-Bow after one of the six breeds of trout that live in the creek, had a fireplace, screened-in porch and was furnished in a reassuringly rustic style. Facing the river, in the early morning the only sounds you can hear are those of the creek rushing past and the breeze in the cottonwood trees.

Cottonwood trees at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

Cottonwood trees at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

For outdoor types – and by the time it comes to leave Rock Creek Ranch, that means everyone – the rhythm of your stay is dictated by the activities that are on offer. What this means is that very quickly you become familiar with the Blue Canteen and the Rod & Gun. The former is where you fill up on coffee and pastries before setting off for the day, and where you sit around the fire with a pre-dinner drink on your weary return. The latter is where to saddle-up, tackle up and otherwise prepare for any of the ranch’s dozen activities that range from archery to clay pigeon shooting, horseback riding to fly-fishing. For many, the main attraction will be to take a horse out along the trail and there is plenty of superb riding at the ranch. But for me the jewel in the crown is the creek itself.

After a quick induction on fly-fishing I find myself out on the creek with one of the expert resident fishermen who tells me that we’re on one of Montana’s finest stretches of ‘Blue Ribbon’ water, meaning that it is environmentally pristine with great sport to be had too. Within half and hour I’d caught two trout (and released them) and was thoroughly hooked myself. For the rest of my visit, I did little other than go fishin’ and take the photos that go with the article.

License plates at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

License plates at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

Rock Creek Ranch is one of those places where you vow to return and actually mean it. It’s a great way to get away from the buzz of the city. The people are friendly, the food is sumptuous and you can take ranch life at any pace you like. But more than anything, it’s Montana’s landscape that is so captivating. To walk and ride amongst it feels like a privilege, as if you are experiencing America at its best, having discovered one of the last great secret places on earth.

Travel notes

Carrier is offering 7 nights from £5745pp, including accommodation in the main Granite Lodge, ranch activities (one morning and one afternoon) and return flights from London Heathrow with United Airlines. The price is based on 18 August 2013 departures and excludes transfers. (Carrier: 0161 492 1356, http://www.carrier.co.uk)

 

Nick’ Smith travels ‘A Circular road to Cambodia’, Daily Telegraph, 1st October 2011

October 5, 2011

From the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh City to the awe-inspiring grandeur of Angkor Wat, Indochina is a feast for the traveller. Nick Smith tries to get his breath back…

Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Nick Smith

Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Nick Smith

Picture four million mopeds, scooters and motorcycles. Now picture all of them carrying at least two people, sometimes an entire family, sometimes even a cow. Behind the boxes, packing cases, crates, string bags, bundles of bamboo, building materials, fresh market produce and cages of chickens there are the drivers. These are the unsung heroes who thread through the congested arteries of an oriental metropolis with the precision and grace of a ballet dancer. This is Ho Chi Minh City and it’s magnificent.

The best thing about Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as you’ll end up calling it, is simply being there. You can visit the reconstructed Cu Chi tunnels where the Viet Cong held out during the war. You can visit the War Remnants Museum and marvel at the tenacity of a nation that’s brought itself back from the brink of untold horror. But the best thing is to just wander the crowded streets, or attempt to master the dangerous art of crossing the road. Or you can do as I did and stop for a dish of local noodle soup called pho and read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American in the city where it was written.

Saigon is the starting point for my escorted tour around Indochina, an anticlockwise journey that will take me through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. We’ve only got eleven days, but my guide ­– an outdoorsy Australian called Dave – tells me we can just about do it. He knows this because, having turned his back on the banking industry to do ‘something more interesting with my life,’ he does it for a living with regional specialists Travel Indochina. Dave knows this part of the world inside out, from the mind-boggling array of currencies to an equally varied, but much more interesting, range of cuisine.

Village life hasn't changed much in the Mekong Delta. Photo: Nick SMith

Village life hasn't changed much in the Mekong Delta. Photo: Nick Smith

None more interesting than one of Vietnam’s real specialities, kopi luwak, which I drank in a café in Hanoi after an evening watching the world famous Water Puppets, that enact scenes of ancient history. ‘Weasel Coffee,’ as it is sometimes known, is probably the most expensive coffee in the world, and once you’ve sampled its subtle undertones of chocolate and toasted hazelnut, you’ll never want Starbucks again. If you don’t know how it’s made, you might want to keep it that way, as the manufacturing process starts with fresh beans negotiating their way through the digestive tract of a civet. This supposedly causes a chemical reaction that breaks down the beans’ enzymes, unleashing their full flavour.

From Hanoi it’s a short drive east to one of Vietnam’s most iconic landscapes. Halong Bay is where immense monolithic limestone karsts rise out of the mist like gravestones in a gothic churchyard. As you sail among them in a traditional junk there’s a couple of essential stop-offs, including the Lau Dai caves, followed by a sharp mountain hike for what’s possibly the best view on earth. It’s an ethereal experience and one to be lingered over. But all too quickly the time comes for us to enter the altogether different world of Luang Prabang in Laos.

Monks of the Mekong

Perched on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, encircled by vertiginous mountains, Luang Prabang has a quiet, undiscovered charm. Traditional wooden Lao houses and boutique guesthouses blend in with sumptuous ancient Buddhist temples. The air is rich with fragrances of oleander, jasmine and bougainvillea.

Monks in saffron-dyed robes in Luang Prabang walk along the street collecting alms. Photo: Nick SMith

Monks in saffron-dyed robes in Luang Prabang walk along the street collecting alms. Photo: Nick Smith

Laos is a tiny speck of a forgotten land, often overlooked by today’s busy box-ticking tourist. It’s not an obvious destination in its own right, and so it’s a real bonus to find it playing such a spellbinding cameo on an escorted tour. Once there you soon realise that this is one of the most picturesque places imaginable. It’s also incredibly informal and stress-free. Tempered by the cooling effect of the Mekong and the fresh breezes that come down from the forests, this is the ultimate antidote to bustling Vietnam. Roadside restaurants and cafés serve exquisite steamed fish in banana leaves, sticky rice or spicy pan-fried noodles.

One of Luang Prabang’s most striking temples is the dramatic and serene Wat Mai. Its beauty is such that when the Chinese invaded Laos a century ago, they refused to destroy it. At Wat Mai a young monk tells us about the daily routine and rituals of his life in Buddhism. As we leave him to his meditations, we’re invited to play a quick game of petanque, the local sport, before heading for Wat Pha Bhat Tai. Here, to the sound of monks chanting, we watch the sun set over the sandbanks of the Mekong, fishermen casting their nets.

But the real highlight of any stay in Luang Prabang is a pilgrimage to watch the monks collecting alms. In the early morning light they walk along the street gathering offerings of rice, sweets and coins from locals, whose duty it is to feed them. After the monk ritual, and with a whole day still ahead of us, we return to the river to take a traditional barge upstream to the mysterious ‘cave of a thousand Buddhas’. At Pak Ou we disembark and climb a steep staircase cut through the rock to reach grottos high in a cliff-face. We are rewarded with the stunning sight of thousands of effigies festooned with garlands of flowers and dusted with the ash of thousands of incense burners.

Luang Prabang is paradise for travel photographers who will find the monks in their saffron-dyed robes, the ceramic and gilt ornamentation of the temples and brightly coloured tuk-tuks irresistible. But Laos is as much about its arts and crafts as it is its culture, and the seemingly endless night market that lines the main street is as good as any in the world. Superb juniper paper goods, silver work and silk scarves provide all the retail therapy you could ever need.

Sunrise over the temples

It was with bags groaning that we flew south to Cambodia, where at Siem Reap we tumbled out of the plane into a flat landscape punctuated by rice paddies and coconut palms. Of course, everyone who goes to Cambodia will visit the legendary temple complex of Angkor Wat and you will too. This was where Dave really showed off his local knowledge by smuggling his group in through the lesser-used eastern gate, which meant we were able to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat’s famous quincunx of sandstone towers far away from the crowds.

Sunset over Angkor Wat during on the vernal equinox. Photo: Nick Smith

Sunset over Angkor Wat during on the vernal equinox. Photo: Nick Smith

Provided you’re prepared to step off the beaten path, you could spend weeks wandering among the lonely, deserted ruins and hardly see another person. But most, constrained by time, will stick to the well-trodden tourist circuit, which is spectacular in its own right. There is a bewildering array of carvings, friezes, and bas-reliefs set among the silk-cotton trees whose buttresses weave their way in and out of the tumbled masonry. Sadly there are times when much of the mystique is lost, the spell broken by the continual reminder that we’re on the ‘Tomb Raider’ movie set. But it’s part of the fun, and watching crowds of Japanese and German tourists pose for their hero shots in front of the iconic architecture is a welcome break from the occasional ‘temple fatigue’ that can afflict even the most dedicated amateur archaeologist.

Although it is the beating heart of Cambodia, there’s more to this country than Angkor Wat. But to find out what really makes the country tick, you’ll need to visit the artisanal silk producers, where hand-spun and dyed textiles make wonderful souvenirs. There’s also a fascinating local ballet performed in traditional costume, which is a far cry from Saddlers Wells. At the end of the performance less reserved members of the audience jump up on stage to have their photo taken with the dancers. It’s about as surreal as you can get, as is the Dr Fish foot massage in the night market, where for a few thousand Riel (about two dollars American) you can have the dead skin chewed off your feet by hundreds of ravenous flesh-eating gouramis.

Limestone caves in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo: Nick Smith

Limestone caves in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo: Nick Smith

The length of time you can keep your feet in the communal pool is something of a badge of honour, as the sensation of being eaten alive is not a pleasant one. I managed to last for half and hour, before the hungry shoal moved on to a new punter with (presumably) tastier feet. I left with a definite sense of regret that this unorthodox massage has reached its end. As I dawdled back to my hotel drenched by a tropical rainstorm I discovered a new spring in my step.

With refreshed feet, the following day we set off for a day’s sailing on Tonlé Sap – the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia – where we encountered the famous floating villages. The dramatic rise and fall of the shoreline with the seasons means that many of the local fishermen live in houses on stilts. But some go one better and build floating homes that cluster together in drifting communities. We sailed out to Chong Kneas where life is identical to any other fishing village, only it’s all on water. The children paddle themselves to floating school in buckets and are called ‘bucket kids’. There’s a floating pig farm, a bar, a bookshop and even a souvenir stall where we cram to bursting point the last spaces in our luggage.

Floating village on Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Photo: Nick Smith

Floating village on Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Photo: Nick Smith

It’s impossible to visit Indochina without feeling the ever-present shadow of imperialism and invasion. History has been more unkind to this region than most and yet hope and regeneration seems to radiate from all corners, nowhere more so than Ho Chi Minh City. You could spend a year in Indochina and still feel that you’d only scratched the surface. But a whistle-stop adventure in this part of the world will leave you with a feeling that seems to be so rare in travel today. That you will simply have to come back again and start all over again.

Quick sketch of a recent trip to Mozambique

February 8, 2011

Mozambique: a destination with a difference

From the wild untamed bush of the interior to the pristine coral sands of the Indian Ocean, Mozambique is Africa’s next ‘go to’ destination

Sunset in Mozambique by Nick Smith

Sunset over Guludo in Mozambique. Photo: Nick Smith

As the sun sets over Africa’s interior, through my binoculars I can see a small herd of elephant making their stately way to a water hole amongst the acacias. Here at Guludo the sky is aflame with rich apricot orange and salmon pink. Below me, the endless expanse of untamed African bush is abuzz with impending nocturnal activity. Sitting on the crest of this huge escarpment it’s hard to believe that only hours ago I was lounging on a coral island watching a pod of humpback whales, listening to the cry of swift terns circling in the tropical breeze.

Forget Botswana. Forget Zambia. For the intrepid adventurer in search of ‘barefoot luxury’ today’s African destination of choice is Mozambique. For nearly half a century this breathtakingly beautiful country has been a closed book due to its turbulent politics. But today it’s safe to travel here and for the modern pioneer, eager to see a land that’s been in the shadows for so long, now’s the time to get to know the country at its best, before it becomes the next fashionable destination. In so many ways Mozambique is ‘real Africa’, where the thrilling sights and sounds of the bush are waiting for the truly discerning traveller.

With its national parks teeming with wildlife, Portuguese colonial architecture and far-flung luxury beach resorts, this quiet and isolated country is one of the continent’s best-kept secrets. And Guludo – a multi-award winning eco-lodge – is an example of top-end eco-tourism at its best. Here you can chill on the white coral sands, go for a scuba dive or a game drive, play a game of beach volley-ball of take a cultural visit to one of the local villages.

For many though it’s the colonial ruins that give Mozambique its special atmosphere of faded grandeur. Not far from Guludo there’s the exquisite Ilha do Ibo, a remote and tiny speck of a coral island in the Indian Ocean, a former regional capital of the colonial era. Visit the restored fortresses and churches built by the Portuguese, but by far the most intriguing is the ghost town of Ibo itself. Once a bustling centre of colonial administration, the centuries old deserted civic buildings are a photographer’s paradise, as well as home to countless wild flowers, butterflies and geckos.

But Ibo isn’t just about its cultural heritage. Take a boat out onto the ocean and spend a morning on your own desert island, snorkelling in the turquoise lagoons or enjoying an al fresco barbecue breakfast of freshly caught fish from the ocean. But whatever you want from Mozambique – the extraordinary green-barked fever tree, the majestic royal blue goliath heron or the sound of lions roaring in the night – this is a land of real adventure.

For specialist small group travel to Mozambique visit www.steppestravel.co.uk

Nick Smith’s latest book ‘Travels in the World of Books’ was published last May.

 

‘Travels in the World of Books’ by Nick Smith – publication date announced, 11th May, 2010

April 8, 2010

‘Travels in the World of Books’ by Nick Smith, publication date 11th May 2010

‘I find it difficult to recall anything I’ve read over the past few years that is as amusing and interesting as this lovely book. A triumph.’ Alexander McCall Smith

For the past three years Nick Smith has written a column for Bookdealer magazine that – despite his remit to cover the inner workings of the book trade – often drifted from the beaten track as he recorded his own travels as a photojournalist on far flung assignments. The result was the immensely popular monthly ‘Travels in the World of Books’, collected here in their entirety.

Bored with wasting time in airports, planes and hotels, he decided to catch up on his reading, only to find that travel and literature go together like gin and tonic. The more geographically wide-ranging his travel became, the more he rediscovered the works of great travel writers, classic novelists and immortal poets.

Part travelogue, part literary criticism and sometimes simply gossip, Nick Smith’s Travels in the World of Books offers an insight into some of the remotest regions of the world through the eyes of the writers who went there before him.

‘I cannot imagine a better companion than Nick Smith for a wander through the world of books. Amusing, interesting, and always perceptive, he takes us into the parts of the publishing industry that the public rarely reaches. Quite wonderful.’ Alexander McCall Smith

‘Nick Smith writes with fluency and insight, equally happy musing on ancient world history as tackling swashbuckling epics of adventure and exploration. Entertaining, thoughtful and unmissable’ Justin Marozzi, author of Travels with Herodotus

‘A fascinating voyage into the world of books. Nick Smith, like an experienced captain, steers the boat of his narrative – past the hidden rocks of publishing and sales – to the coveted Eldorado of high literature. An insightful, educational and highly entertaining journey.’ Vitali Vitaliev, author of Life as a Literary Device

Travels in the World of Books, by Nick Smith

Published by Rare Books and Berry, 264pp inc 8pp colour photos, Hardback, Price: £14-99, ISBN: 978-0-9563867-0-0

www.rarebooksandberry.co.uk

Available from all good bookshops or direct  from the publisher (£14.99 plus £1-63 post in UK)

or from Amazon Click here

Nick Smith’s feature on travelling in northern Kenya – ‘A New Take on Africa’ – as published in the Daily Telegraph 27th February 2010

March 8, 2010

A new take on Africa

Beloved by honeymooners in the Seventies, Kenya is back and it’s better than ever. But if you want to beat the crowds it’s best to head north, says Nick Smith

A herd of 36 elephants cross a river in the Samburu reserve

A herd of 36 elephants cross a river in the Samburu reserve. Photo: Nick Smith

It’s easy to get a bit blasé about Kenya. But for many of us it will have been our first brush with Big Africa, an unforgettable leap into the glamorous, romantic world of the safari. Ask anyone about Kenya and they’ve either ‘been there, done that’ or don’t intend to, because it’s no longer fashionable, having tailed off in popularity since its heyday as a honeymoon destination in the 1970s.

Back then it was all about the wildlife, chasing around the bush in safari minivans ticking off the ‘Big Five’. Then it was watching the sunset silhouetted through an acacia tree, with an unopened copy of ‘Out of Africa’ to hand, sloshing down G&Ts. But Kenya’s back with a bang and has reinvented itself, providing so much more than lions, leopards and white-gloved colonial ambience.

Today’s Kenyan safari lodge is much more of an all-round experience, with many supporting their local indigenous communities with craft and health projects. This so-called ethical approach aims to redistribute income from your visit to the people who need it most. As the droughts become more frequent and prolonged, responsible tourism of this kind has never been needed more.

My trip to Northern Kenya was arranged for me by Imagine Africa, a London-based independent specialising in off-the-beaten-track trips to less well-known parts. Managing Director Ben Morison knows Kenya well. He says that for those who’ve been there before, or think they know what it’s like, there are big surprises on offer. ‘Up North you’ll meet the Samburu tribe – if you’re lucky they might even take you for to see where they live.’ The message is, go up-country.

By ‘north’ Morison means north of the Equator, where the landscape is more rugged, with fewer humans and isolated lodges brimming with character. My adventure started with a short hop in a ‘Caravan’ light aircraft past Mount Kenya to the evocative Saruni lodge on the fringe of the Samburu Park. ‘Nowhere gives you a better sense of space than Saruni, arguably the best view in Kenya,’ says Morison.

As we drive from the bumpy earthen airstrip to Saruni lodge we pass through sweeping grassland that’s littered with giant igneous outcrops that form the dramatic skyline. With its diaphanous blue and red plumage, the aptly named superb starling is a constant companion as we spot impala, oryx and gerenuk on the plains. Late in the afternoon we encounter a herd of thirty-six elephants silently ambling up to the waterhole at the base of the kopje on which Saruni sits. In the Samburu language ‘Saruni’ means sanctuary.

When the dirt track runs out my guide selects the low-ratio gearbox and we head straight up a steep rock face and climb steadily. With its tubular steel and sailcloth construction, Saruni seems a touch modernistic for such a landscape, and yet it blends in so well it’s almost invisible. After dark we descend to the foot of the outcrop for a bush dinner where the Samburu people gather to entertain us, singing and dancing in the light of the stars and some old hurricane lanterns.

Leaving Saruni, I’m met at the airstrip by Andrew Francombe of Ol Malo lodge in his 6-seater Cessna. As we fly west along a brown muddy river he tells me that Ol Malo is about as remote as it gets. The nearest lodge is more than 20km away. ‘Down South,’ he says, ‘you can see the animals. But up north you see Africa.’

In Ol Malo – ‘the place of the greater Kudu’ in Samburu – I spend less time in a Land Rover and more walking through the bush. This is a better way to learn about the landscape, with my guides explaining the whistling thorns and baboon spiders, and pointing out tawny eagles building nests. When the sun gets too hot to go on foot you can trek by camel. But not until you’ve sampled a ‘Bush Cappuccino’ – hot, frothy milk straight from the camel, mixed with a spoonful of coffee granules.

As the sun reaches its zenith I dismount, and while my guides sit in the shade of a flat-top acacia I walk slowly up to a herd of reticulated giraffe, a rare specimen that’s not seen in the wild down south. Often thought of as the most handsome of all giraffes, its patches are rich red in colour, interspersed with a mesh of white lines from which it gets its name. Then it’s lunch by the river, and a quick dip while elegant citrus swallowtail butterflies flit in the hot breeze.

But it’s not all about the animals. While at Ol Malo I visit a local manyatta or village where the semi-nomadic Samburu people set up camp. Here I see young warriors dancing in their traditional red and white costumes, hair braided and dripping with beaded necklaces, bracelets and anklets. As the sun sets, the men continue dancing and are still to be heard way into the night.

I say goodbye to my hosts at the airstrip and head back to Nairobi on the caravan, where I can’t resist visiting the farm where Karen Blixen lived almost a century ago. Here the old colonial ‘Out of Africa’ Kenya will always be a popular literary fossil. But the magic of Kenya remains, waiting to be rediscovered.

Way to go

Imagine Africa has 7-day tailor-made safaris to Northern Kenya from £2,695 per person. Includes flights, transfers, accommodation, meals and drinks and safari activities. Call 0207 622 5114, or visit www.ImagineAfrica.co.uk

Arctic adventurer Tom Avery discusses his controversial 2005 North Pole expedition with Nick Smith in the Explorers Journal

July 9, 2009

Following in Peary’s frozen footsteps

One of the greatest controversies in polar exploration is that surrounding Robert Peary’s disputed attainment of the North Pole on 6th April 1909. On this centenary, Explorers Journal contributing editor Nick Smith talked to British explorer Tom Avery, who in 2005 set off to prove that the Commander just might have done it…

One of a new generation of young British explorers, Tom Avery is a high achiever in the field of polar adventure. He was the youngest Briton to walk to both the south and north geographic poles – a feat that has only ever been achieved by 41 people. The Guinness Book of Records recognises the second leg of this achievement as ‘the fastest surface journey to the North Pole’. But this was no ordinary sprint. Avery’s 2005 Barclays Capital Ultimate North Expedition set out to retrace Robert Peary’s polar epic of 1909 in an attempt to ground-truth the American’s often disputed claim to have reached the pole in 37 days. In beating the US Naval Commander with merely hours to spare, it was a trip that was to propel Avery – then in his twenties – into the media limelight as one of an exciting new breed of ice adventurer.

But his achievements were met with a frosty reception from the British exploration ‘establishment’, who in a storm of controversy closed ranks around Sir Wally Herbert, the man usually recognised as the first to (undisputedly) walk to the North Pole. Herbert, whose British Trans-Arctic Expedition reached the North Pole on 6th April 1969 (sixty years to the day after Peary) wrote letters criticising Avery’s expedition, accusing Avery of being a ‘glory-seeker’, claiming that the ‘inexperienced’ young Briton had proved nothing. Herbert was understandably defending his widely accepted claim to the Pole as he had done in 1989. This was when he published The Noose of Laurels, in which he analysed Peary’s expedition before concluding that it had no validity. In the absence of any other plausible claim, Avery says, ‘he was effectively crowning himself as the conqueror of the North Pole by default… he acted as both judge and jury.’

Tom Avery’s To the End of the Earth is his account of his controversial expedition as well as an analysis of the historical record that means the names Peary, Herbert and now Avery will always be linked to the place veteran UK polar explorer Pen Hadow called a ‘pinprick of nothingness in the middle of nowhere’. Its publication coincides with the centenary of Robert Peary’s ‘discovery’ of the North Pole on 6th April 1909.

Explorers Journal: What were the objectives of your Ultimate North expedition?

Tom Avery: The plan was to recreate Peary’s journey as closely as possible. You can never do it exactly – that’s impossible. But we said: ‘let’s do it – let’s go from Cape Columbia to the Pole in 37 days.’ It seemed to me that the controversy over whether Peary had got to the pole centered around his travel speeds. There were questions about his navigation and omissions in his journal, but the main crux of the argument was his speed. He’d started off at a fairly moderate pace and rapidly increased towards the end. In his book The Noose of Laurels Wally Herbert said that these daily distances were physically impossible on the polar pack. That was something I was very keen to test.

EJ: How is that possible, with the ice conditions as they are today?

TA: The Arctic Ocean of 2005 and of 1909 are two completely different playing fields. There is far more open water now and the ice pack is thinner, so when pressure ridges form they are actually smaller than in Peary’s day. But they are more numerous and less stable. So in some respects it’s harder to make the journey today. We said that if we could do this then we would demonstrate to Peary’s detractors that his speeds were in fact reasonable.

EJ: You weren’t trying to prove the Peary had got to the pole?

TA: No. It is impossible to prove whether Peary and Henson and the Inuit men reached the pole. When Amundsen reached the South Pole and left his tent there, so when Scott arrived 35 days later, it was all too obvious he’d been beaten. But if you look at Amundsen’s travel speed, had Scott not seen the evidence of Amundsen’s success, it wouldn’t surprise me if some would now doubt the Norwegian’s claim. Even if you could find the glass bottle that Peary left at the Pole you could always argue that it had been left a hundred miles away and it had simply drifted there on the ice.

EJ: Do you think Peary got to the North Pole on 6th April 1909?

TA: All you can do is look at the available evidence and make your own decision. But I believe, having travelled in the same style in slightly faster time, that he got there. Without GPS you can only be certain to a point, of course. When Wally Herbert got to the Pole in 1969 he got to within a mile using the instrumentation he had, set up camp and then boxed it. If Peary got within a couple of miles, then that’s good enough for me.

EJ: What about the trip itself? What’s it like travelling with dogs?

TA: It’s the most exciting, bonding experience I’ve ever experienced on an expedition – we got so close to those animals. We started off a team of 5 people and 16 dogs, but we very quickly became a unit of 21. I probably talked to the dogs far more than my fellow teammates. What they are capable of is awesome. Those animals are at their happiest when they are pulling a 50 stone sled across ice and snow. You wake up in the mornings and they are jumping and barking and wagging their tails and that is all they want to do. Sure towards the end of the day they get pretty grouchy when they’ve had enough. I formed a very close bond with one dog called Ootah named after one of Peary’s Inuit, who was the strongest dog on the team, but for some reason wasn’t very popular with the other dogs.

EJ: What happened to Ootah?

TA: He fell ill and couldn’t pull his weight along with the others. This actually caused the biggest disagreement we had as a team. Some of us were saying ‘he’s not going to make it, let’s replace him’, but I felt very strongly that we should finish the expedition with the same dogs we started off with if possible, and I wanted to nurse him through it if we could. Peary didn’t have the benefit of being able to fly in extra dogs and so why should we? Anyway, Ootah pulled through and he made it to the pole.

EJ: When you returned from the Pole you walked into a media controversy…

TA: The storm blew up pretty quickly and it came about through Wally Herbert –probably the UK’s greatest ice traveller since the days of Scott and Shackleton – who tried to pour cold water on our expedition. I said that based on what we’d achieved Peary’s travel speeds seemed reasonable to me, and that I though that Peary had reached the pole. You’ll never be able to prove it, and some people may disagree, but this is what I think. Sir Wally took this very personally and launched a campaign within the exploration community in the UK to discredit my team’s expedition.

EJ: Do you think Herbert was simply mistaken in claiming he was the first there?

TA: In The Noose of Laurels Sir Wally says some nice things about Peary and how much admiration he has for him. He then analyses Peary’s expedition in minute detail and completely discredits him. He doesn’t actually say the words ‘Peary cheated’, but that is the conclusion the reader draws. We were a bit hurt and insulted about some of the allegations Sir Wally came up with – for example he said that because we’d only spent 37 days on the ice compared with his 400-plus, we were in no position to comment on Peary’s expedition, which is nonsense.

EJ: What do you think Sir Wally would have made of your new book?

TA: I think it’s incredibly sad that Sir Wally is no longer with us, but if he were I think he’d go through this book with a fine-toothed comb and come up with all sorts of arguments about what we had and hadn’t done on the 2005 expedition. That would have been not bad thing because it would have been nice to have an argument about the facts as opposed to my motives, as was the case three years ago.

EJ: What next for Tom Avery?

TA: For me, 2009 is all about telling the world about Peary and Henson’s remarkable journey a century ago. I’m going to be spending a lot of the time in the US, lecturing around the country, including at the Explorers Club. The highlight of the North Pole centenary celebrations takes place on the morning of April 6th at Arlington National Cemetery where I have been working closely with the US Navy to organise a big military ceremony in Peary and Henson’s honour at their gravesites. The presidents of both the Explorers Club and the National Geographic Society will be there, along with members of Peary and Henson’s families, my North Pole team, plus a host of other dignitaries. It’s going to be a very special, emotional, goose-bumper of an occasion.

Published in the Explorers Journal, Nick Smith, Spring 2009]