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Conservation Journeys

Posted by Richard Hammond at 06:22 on Tuesday 14 November 2006

Was it the swimming polar bears? Or maybe the kissing penguins? Everyone will have their favourite moment from the BBC's Planet Earth - even the producers. Richard Hammond and Jonny Keeling asked them for their natural history highs...

[Editor's note: These guys are about the most difficult people in the world to track down - either they're out in the field or they're back in Bristol buried in an editing suite. Thanks to Jonny Keeling (producer of the Great Plains series that was shown last Sunday) I managed to get hold of them to ask them for their favourite moments from the series. Most of the places they rave about are in far-flung places, not so green, but I've tried to suggest some relevant places where you can stay that will help local people and/or conservation...]

Above photo: Lion in South Africa, by Richard Hammond.

Alastair Fothergill
Executive producer of the Planet Earth series

Most memorable trip: Filming a polar bear swimming in the Arctic ...

Svalbard Island in Arctic Norway has one of the highest populations of polar bears, but it's a difficult place to get to. We had just a few clear sunny days before a nasty Arctic front moved in, but we managed to fly in the helicopter and find a lone male bear swimming out in the open ocean, paddling in clear, flat calm water between icebergs far from land. The sea was so clear you could see beneath the surface to the bear's thick white fur flowing through the water. It was a great lifetime experience for all of us.

What to see: Polar bears, belugas and walrus, as well as beautiful mountains, extraordinary frozen sea ice and spectacular glaciers. It's the scale of the wilderness that's so impressive.

When to go: In winter, there's spectacular sea ice; in summer, 24-hour daylight and some of the world's most dramatic seabird colonies, including a million little auks. There are also fantastic cliffs covered in guillemots and kittiwakes. At the end of the season, the guillemot chicks have to fly to the open ocean, running the gauntlet of Arctic foxes.

GreenTraveller's recommended place to stay in Svalbard:
The Trappers Lodge, Basecamp Spitsbergen (basecampexplorer.com, 0047 7902 4600) in central Longyearbyen. Chances are it will be freezing outside, but this small lodge, made of driftwood from the beach, is a cosy base from where you can go on wilderness trips to see seals and polar bears. Single rooms from Nkr990 B&B.

Huw Cordey
Producer, Caves, Deserts and Jungles

Most memorable trip: Filming the birds of paradise courtship display in the Tari valley, Papua New Guinea.

Birds of paradise are the holy grail for birdwatchers, and when I first saw their display, I couldn't help but exclaim in amazement. They are like two birds for the price of one. The six-plumed bird of paradise, for instance, looks like a crow, but when it displays, it turns its wings into a little tutu and stands on tiptoe shuffling back and forth in an elaborate dance.

What to see: Papua New Guinea is a unique place - it feels like a trip back in time. When you are there, you really can only be in one place in the world. In just a few days, you're likely to see up to 10 birds of paradise species, such as the king of saxony and the ribbon-tailed astrapia; you may even be lucky enough to see their courtship display.

Meeting the Huli tribe who live in the valley was the best cultural experience I had while filming. They live very traditional lives; some of the young men spend up to two years in an isolated "wig-growing" school retreat where they grow their hair long and then cut and adorn it with feathers to make elaborate wigs.

When to go: August/September is the best time to see the birds displaying, but you see them at any time of year.

GreenTraveller's recommended place to stay in the Tari valley:
Ambua Lodge. At 7,000ft, it overlooks the Tari valley in the southern highlands. Local guides can take you to the see the birds of paradise and the "wig-growing" school. A twin room costs from US$402, including airport transfers, tours, all meals and local taxes. pngtours.com, 00675 542 1438.

Vanessa Berlowitz
Producer, Mountains and Frozen Worlds

Most memorable trip: Filming the migration of 50,000 cranes in the Himalayas ...

Lots of walkers are familiar with the spectacular Annapurna range, but most aren't aware that in the skies above the deep gorges at Jomsom, north of Pokhara, there is a fantastic opportunity to see the annual migration of 50,000 demoiselle cranes on their way from their breeding grounds in the Gobi desert to where they over-winter in India. Even seasoned walkers in the area didn't know about the migration and it had never been filmed before. When we arrived, a German guy who had walked in the area many times stood telling us there was no such thing. Then, while he was talking, a huge flock of cranes flew over. I'll never forget the sight and sound of them flying in their V-shaped formations. I'd recommend it to anyone as an amazing wildlife experience.

What to see: Golden eagles and thousands of demoiselle cranes.

When to go: The crane migration takes place in the first two weeks of October, particularly during the mornings.

GreenTraveller's recommended place to stay in Jomsom:
Om's Home - a locally owned mountain lodge where you'll be given ravioli with yak meat and Tibetan tea, and local guides can take you on a two-hour hike to see the crane migration. Rooms from US$20 B&B. Nepal Nature (ktmgh.com, 00977 1 4700 800) organises an 11-night trip to see the crane migration for £700, including all meals, accommodation at Om's House, and internal flights.

Mark Linfield
Producer, Pole to Pole and Seasonal Forests

Most memorable trip: Filming wild dogs in the Okavango Delta, Botswana ...

For over a month, every morning and evening we watched hunting dogs chase impala. On the final morning, we saw they had flushed one out in the open bush and we managed to get the entire sequence of the chase from our helicopter. It was a desperate competition between the speed of the impala and the stamina of the dogs; the twisting, turning chase lasted nearly a mile, but incredibly the impala made a dramatic escape by running into a lake and swimming for freedom.

What to see: The flooded Okavango Delta is an excellent place to see wildlife, and it gives a real sense of wilderness that can be hard to find on an African safari. You see familiar African game in a very unfamiliar, watery setting. The flood is a natural barrier to overdevelopment, so you can drift through endless waterways viewing game from a dugout canoe, rarely seeing another soul. What you do get to see is incredible wildlife, up close: lions, cheetah, leopards, buffalo, lechwe antelope, and large herds of elephants.

When to go: June or July, for the flood; October for the dry season when the animals will be concentrated around waterholes.

GreenTraveller's recommended place to stay in the Okavango: There are plenty of secluded camps in the Delta, but my favourite is Little Vumbura - a small 12-bed camp, which is managed through a local community partnership with Wilderness Safaris. Expert Africa (expertafrica.com, 020-8232 9777) organises an 11-day safari, from £2,970, including return flights, three nights at Little Vumbura and three nights at Chitabe Trails - another excellent, intimate camp.

Emma Peace
Producer, Shallow Seas

Most memorable trip: Diving with thousands of squid in St FrancisBay, South Africa ...

Chokka squid are usually very shy and quick to escape, but they were so preoccupied with mating that they took little notice of us. When the breeding was at its peak, the squid surrounded us, rapidly changing colour, darting here and there, and fighting. All this attracted a host of other animals - butterfly rays, raggie tooth sharks, cat sharks and fur seals - all hoping to grab a squid. From the boat (only 10 minutes from land), we saw humpback whales breaching and tail slapping, dolphins playing by the harbour, penguins and fur seals bobbing in the waves and a flock of flamingoes flying by. It was amazing to see such a huge diversity of life in one area while thousands of squid beneath us were taking part in this mating frenzy.

What to see: Other wildlife include African black oyster catchers, bottlenose dolphins, brydes whales, southern right whales, and the Cape clawless otter.

When to go: Mid-October to end of November for squid and humpback whales.

GreenTraveller's recommended place to stay:
Storm's River Mouth Rest Camp on the seafront in Tsitsikamma national park, where you can hire local eco guides. Accommodation ranges from chalets to "oceanette" detached log cabins, from R470 a night. sanparks.org, 0027 12 428 9111. The full-on diving-with-squid experience is available from Blue Wilderness Film and Dive Expeditions (bluewilderness.co.za).

Jeff Wilson
Researcher, Jungles and Mountains

Most memorable trip: Filming flying lemurs in Sarawak, Borneo ...

People have tried to film flying lemurs (colugos) before, but they're usually too shy. In Bako national park, in the west of Borneo, they're very well habituated, and every night they would fly over a boardwalk right over our heads. As far as I know, there's nowhere else in the world where you are guaranteed to see something like that. Also, in the park the tide goes out about 300 metres and leaves a sandy mud flat where you can see crab-eating macaques. For budding wildlife photographers, it's an absolute gem. I'd love to go back there on holiday.

What to see: Proboscis monkeys, crab-eating macaques, bearded pigs, draco lizards.

When to go: Sarawak is hot and humid pretty much all year around, but probably the best time to visit is between July and October.

GreenTraveller's recommended place to stay in Bako national park:
The only place to stay is basic wooden "forest lodges", which cost from R50 a night. This is Borneo, so expect a schlep to get there - from Kuching, take the bus to Kampong Bako, then a short ferry ride and longboat trip along the Bako river to the lodges. insar.com, 0060 82 248112.

Mark Brownlow
Producer, Shallow Seas and Freshwater

Most memorable trip: Diving with piranha in the Pantanal, Brazil ...

Diving with piranha is incredibly exhilarating because you've always got the question in the back of your mind - is their bone-stripping reputation more than just hype? I had no idea how beautiful piranha are; they have a lovely golden sheen and they like to play - if you turn your back, they sneak up on you. The only thing I'd say is, don't swim under the dark mats of vegetation; it's too frightening.

What to see: The Pantanal is the world's largest wetland and a birdwatcher's paradise. There are 650 species of bird, including hyacinth macaws, the world's largest parrot. There's also a realistic chance of seeing jaguars, giant otters, spectacled caiman and anaconda.

When to go: September or October, before the rains.

GreenTraveller's recommended place to stay in the Pantanal:

Refugio Ecologico Caiman in the Mato Grosso do Sul, Pantanal (caiman.com.br, 0055 11 3706 1800). A three-night package costs from $US166pp per night, including all meals, canoe trips, trail hikes and a night photo safari.

Jonny Keeling
Producer, Great Plains

Most memorable trip: Filming herds of gazelle on the Mongolian steppes ...

As we drove across the vast and empty Mongolian wilderness, we noticed more and more wildlife - eagles and buzzards (amazingly, they nest on the ground because there are so few trees), marmots and gerbils, and eventually, in the far eastern outreaches, we came across tens of thousands of gazelle stretching out on the plains as far as we could see. They were really shy, so it wasn't easy to get close, but it was breathtaking to see a great swathe of them on the move.

The Mongolian steppes are like an enormous open field with no hedges, few roads and loads of grass. We would spend days driving under clear blue skies and see no one, but those we did meet were the most hospitable people I've ever come across. Once we were invited in to a ger [a traditional Mongolian yurt], where we were given dry, crusty sour yoghurt and stuffed sheep's intestines.

What to see: Eagles, buzzards, marmots, przewalski's horses, gazelle, wolves and foxes.

When to go: June-September.

GreenTraveller's recommended place to stay in Mongolia:
Panoramic Journeys (panoramicjourneys.com, 01608 811183) is a new Oxford-based travel company specialising in tailor-made trips to Mongolia, including a 10-day homestay tour staying in gers with local families. From £690, inc all meals but not including flights.

Planet Earth is on every Sunday at 9pm on BBC1 until December 10.

An edited version of this article, by Richard Hammond and Jonathan Keeling, was first published in the Guardian.

For other similiar holidays: Green Conservation Holidays

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