South Africa safari property reopens

South Africa safari property reopens

Earth Lodge Amber Presidential Suite

In 2017 our Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge guestrooms had private plunge pools.

Ordinarily our articles are based exclusively on the experiences and photography of our contributors at a destination and property. The near complete Covid-19 pandemic travel pause made it necessary to offer alternatives for those adventurous souls ready to seek new horizons or return to ones visited previously before we do. To that end we are reaching out to properties our contributors have visited (often more than once) and asking about their status and updates.

Our first Sabi Sabi profiles, of Earth Lodge and Selati Camp in South Africa, date to 2007. In 2017 our contributors returned to the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve within the Sabi Sand Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Reserve, an area world famous for its quality game viewing. While there they spent one night at Bush Lodge and revisited Earth Lodge. Earth Lodge, Bush Lodge and Selati Camp are three of four Sabi Sabi properties. Little Bush Lodge is the fourth.

By July 1, 2021 three of the Sabi Sabi safari properties are due to be open and by August 1, 2021 all four are scheduled to be open, according to a Sabi Sabi spokesperson who replied by email to our questions. The properties can be reached via nearby airports (as far as we know there is commercial service to Mpumalanga, Skukuza and Hoedspruit) and road transfers, by road transfer from Johannesburg and via Federal Airlines from Johannesburg to the reserve, in the past our favorite option.

“There is wifi at all lodges, however it is important to note that due to the environment we are in, interruptions may happen due to wildlife or weather interference,” she said when asked about high speed internet access at the reserve. When asked about exclusive use accommodations, private vehicles and extended stays she replied that they are subject to availability and on request.

The Amber Presidential Suite had the amenities of regular guestrooms as well as extra space, seclusion, privacy and a bush and pool facing master bedroom.

According to an undated property brochure she provided Sabi Sabi has adjusted to the pandemic as follows: “Our daily routines and activities have been adjusted to ensure the highest safety standards are met. However, you will still experience the Sabi Sabi quality guiding and safari experience that we have crafted since 1979.” The brochure indicates the availability of round the clock medical response, quarantine facilities in the form of fully equipped suites, a doctor on call from a remote location, sanitizers and hygiene packs onsite; “dining areas have been increased to allow for safe social-distancing,” and a maximum occupancy of six guests per game viewing vehicle (eight for groups traveling together and requesting such conditions).

See details of our experiences and original photos at the three Sabi Sabi properties in 2007 at Selati Camp (we understand the property has undergone a renovation) and in 2017 Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge and Earth Lodge (At Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge excellent game viewing).  Earth Lodge was our favorite for its boutique features, outstanding meals, excellent game viewing and warm and attentive service. The Amber Presidential Suite had the amenities of regular guestrooms as well as extra space, seclusion and privacy. It also had a bush and pool facing master bedroom, extra large en suite bathroom and oversize walk-in closet. There was also a second full bathroom, library, living room, dining room and kitchenette. The attentive property managers, air conditioned workout room with glass wall facing a water feature (see photo in Earth Lodge profile) is one of the amenities we recall along with the many wildlife sightings from the main area of the lodge in between the twice daily game drives.

After year of closure luxury South Africa property reopening

After year of closure luxury South Africa property reopening

Ordinarily our articles are based exclusively on the experiences and photography of our contributors at a destination and property. The near complete Covid-19 pandemic travel pause made it necessary to offer alternatives for those adventurous souls ready to seek new horizons or return to ones visited previously before we do. So… we are reaching out to properties our contributors have visited (often more than once) and asking about their status and updates.

Leopard on a tree at Rattray's

Leopard on a tree at Rattray’s in 2016

Because they have consistently impressed us with their reliability and high standards in past stays over the years, and thanks to their representative’s speedy responses and willingness to answer questions MalaMala is first. Of the reserve’s three properties we have profiled two: MalaMala Rattray’s Camp (previously known as Rattray’s on MalaMala) several times and MalaMala Camp (previously known as MalaMala Main Camp) in South Africa’s well known Sabi Sand Reserve adjacent to the famous Kruger National Park. MalaMala Rattray’s Camp is reopening this month after a one year closure.

Once in Johannesburg, South Africa the MalaMala camps can be reached via direct flight from that city’s international airport on Federal Air (we are awaiting a reply from the airline with details) into the reserve’s airstrip a few minutes drive from the camps. Another option is on Airlink into Skukuza Airport. From there a road transfer is necessary.

“All our camps will be open from 01 June 2021 including MalaMala Rattray’s Camp,” said Alison Morphet, managing director, MalaMala by email about the reserve’s camps. “We are offering a pay 3 / stay 4 for travellers and yes there is high speed internet access in all the rooms. It is not available in the public area’s out of consideration to other guests enjoying their safari experience. A limited number of private vehicles are available and of course all our suites and rooms are stand alone. Guests may opt to have room service for their meals but with the relevant social distancing between tables, the outdoor nature of a safari experience and all our staff wearing masks, most guests choose to have their meals on the deck (and boma dinners when available).

The game viewing is better than ever and I am delighted to report that Covid has had some silver linings. We have had time to re think our product offerings and refine these over the long lock down. We have also relied on feedback from the South African market who travel extensively to Southern African bush destinations and their feedback has been invaluable.”

Minibars and in-room dining amenities are a godsend on days when travel or the excitement of the game drives leaves us spent, seeking comfort food and indoor relaxation. One of the MalaMala updates we like is the buffets were replaced with plated meals and a la carte dining. Having said that during past stays our contributors found Rattray’s willing to provide room service with no fuss.

At Rattray’s we fondly recall the intimate setting, spacious rooms with double bathrooms and private plunge pool, workout facilities, full size swimming pool, and service oriented staff. From the game viewing perspective MalaMala rangers drew attention to the creatures large and small in the bush while focusing on the Big Five, and one of our favorite features anywhere, Rattray’s four guest maximum per safari vehicle. That is as good as it gets shy of a private game viewing vehicle.

For details of our experiences and original photos at the two MalaMala camps see our profile of MalaMala Camp from 2006 and our most recent profile of MalaMala Rattray’s Camp from 2016 at Rattray’s on Malamala.

Snorkeling, diving enthusiasts release Palm Beach guide

Snorkeling, diving enthusiasts release Palm Beach guide

Scuba Dive Palm Beach
Palm Beach Florida Scuba Dive, Snorkel, Surf (Mango Publishing Group, $34.99) features detailed descriptions, photos and crisp 3D images of waterscapes, including underwater maps and even a ghost ship recreation for a wreck dive description. The 287-page softcover color book by Peter McDougall, Ian Popple and Otto Wagner, part of the Reef Smart Guides series, was published in 2019. The authors are part of the Reef Smart Guides management team.

Why Palm Beach county? “We’re looking for hidden gems and Palm Beach was one of those areas,” Popple, credited in the book for series concept and writing, said by phone from Canada. “Most of the diving you do in Palm Beach County is drift diving.”

The marine biologist explained that the conditions in Palm Beach County required the team to change their techniques. The three men rely on global positioning systems and photogrammetry (using photos to make maps and surveys) to create 3D images. Those images are converted into 2D images in the book. They took a series of photos from which they created a 360 degree view of each underwater area highlighted.

Print books are popular because electronic devices can’t get wet and are easily stolen, he explained. Having a clear idea of snorkel and dive sites ahead of time is helpful because planning is an important element in diving, he added.

Following an introduction to Palm Beach County the book is divided into two main sections Surf breaks and Diving and snorkeling. It also has information on area sea turtles and dozens of fish profiles. The diving and snorkeling section is much longer than the surfing section. The book features detailed information of individual surf, dive and snorkel sites. Each dive site description includes computer generated images, access, reef and wreck details and a rating from one to three for difficulty, current and depth as well as one to three star ratings for reef and fauna.

The Palm beach guidebook contains 46 photos, 15 illustrations, 92 species profiles and 71 3D maps featuring 31 dive and snorkel sites, some of which are sites with multiple wrecks. The Blue Heron Bridge snorkel and dive site featured in the book is “One of the best shore dives in the world,” Popple said.

Reef Smart offers marine and shipwreck guides for divers, surfers and snorkelers. The first Reef Guide book was about Bonaire, “the shore diving capital of the world,” according to Popple. The company also offers services and training to resorts. The authors received support (flights and accommodations) from Discover the Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism promotion entity, and some dive operators.

At our request Popple shared his thoughts on the top three surf, snorkel and dive sites in Palm Beach. For surfing, “Reef Road is the spot that most people both inside and outside of Palm Beach will have heard of,” he said. “It’s by far the best spot in county. It’s a location better suited to more experienced surfers though, especially the adjacent site across the inlet called Pump House, which may only peak on a couple of day of the year, but when it does it’s the place to be.” He also mentioned Lake worth Pier for its consistency and Juno Pier (and the stretch up to Jupiter inlet) for decent breaks when the conditions are right.

For snorkeling: Blue Heron Bridge, Ocean Reef Park and The Lofthus wreck were his picks. About the Blue Heron Bridge he said, “You never know what you’re going to find at this site, anything from seahorses to eagle rays and it’s all located within a protected swimming area.”

“Just off the public beach is a several small patch reefs that support a surprising amount of marine life, including stingrays, small morays and schooling of grunts and snapper,” he said about Ocean Reef Park, adding that there is plenty of parking, a life guard tower, and showers.

About the Lofthus wreck he said, “It’s a hike up the beach, but it’s a fun site to explore and there’s an interesting history to the site (it’s one of Florida’s archaeological preserves) and there’s always the chance of running into something large (e.g. barracuda, nurse shark, sting ray). The downside is that shifting sand bars mean that sometimes large parts of the wreck can be obscured by sediment.”

His top diving picks are: Blue Heron Bridge, The Mitzpah corridor and MV Castor. About the Blue Heron Bridge he said, “This shore dive has to be one of the best in the world and you might be surprised to find it in Palm Beach. It’s a protected area with tons of cryptic species like frogfish, seahorses, and batfish. Because it’s so shallow you can spend a long time underwater exploring the site.”

The Mitzpah corridor is “the mother of all wreck treks,” he said. “Starting at the Ana Ceceilia you can drift for the whole dive from one wreck to the next, a total of five, ranging in size; the largest being the massive Amaryllis, which is 440 feet in length.”

MV Castor “is the wreck that most people want to visit when they dive Palm Beach,” he said. “The ship was a freighter sunk in 2001. The ship has broke into separate bow and stern sections with a debris field of hull plates between. The wreck is famous for it’s giant goliath grouper and during spawning season there can be over 50 present there. You literally never know what you might find when you enter the water here.”

When asked how much influence the tourism authority, hotels and dive operators his team worked with had on the editorial content of the book he replied, “They didn’t. The tourism authority helped facilitate our mapping trip, by organizing flights and places to stay locally, but had no say on the content of the book and neither did the hotels where we stayed. The dive centers advised us on which sites we should map, but again, had no editorial input.”

Palm beach is the team’s fourth guidebook. Next are Grand Cayman in the spring, and the Florida panhandle in the fall; followed by guide books on the sister islands Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, Florida keys, Grenada, and Curaçao.

The Reef Smart team

The Reef Smart team

Born and raised in Canada, McDougall received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from McGill University. His focus on behavioral ecology and coral reef ecology led him to two field seasons at Bellairs Research Institute in Barbados, in 1999 and 2002. After graduating in 2003, he moved to the United States and began a career in science communication and writing, publishing in peer-reviewed academic journals and the popular press. He has written on a variety of coastal ecosystem issues, including extensive work surrounding the science of ocean acidification. He is a PADI Rescue Diver with over 300 dives in 19 years of experience.

Popple was born and raised in the United Kingdom, where he earned his undergraduate degree in oceanography from the University of Plymouth in 1994. He worked for five years at Bellairs Research Institute in Barbados, supporting research projects across the region, before completing his master’s in marine biology at McGill University in 2004. He co-founded a marine biology education company, Beautiful Oceans, before founding Reef Smart in 2015 to raise awareness and encourage people to explore the underwater world. He has published in the scientific and mainstream media, including National Geographic, Scuba Diver Magazine and The Globe and Mail. He is a PADI Dive Master with over 3,000 dives in 25 years of diving experience.

Wagner was born and raised in Romania. He graduated from the University of Art and Design in Cluj, Romania in 1991. In 1999, he moved to Canada, where he studied Film Animation at Concordia University in Montreal. In 2006, he turned to underwater cartography and pioneered new techniques in 3D visual mapping. He co-founded Art to Media and began mapping underwater habitats around the world. He received the Prize of Excellence in Design from the Salon International du Design de Montréal. He has also illustrated seven books. Wagner is a PADI Advanced Diver with over 500 dives in 15 years of diving experience.

Photos courtesy Reef Smart


Scuba Dive Palm Beach

Click to buy Reef Smart Guides Florida: Palm Beach: Scuba Dive. Snorkel. Surf.


Book showcases Florida wildflowers

Book showcases Florida wildflowers

Complete Guide to Florida Wildflowers

Complete Guide to Florida Wildflowers*

Visitors to Florida have a new tool to identify wildflowers. In the Complete Guide to Florida Wildflowers Over 600 Wildflowers of the Sunshine State including National Parks, Forests, Preserves, and More than 160 State Parks (Falcon Guides, $29.95) Roger L. Hammer, a career naturalist based in Homestead, shared color photos of 686 Florida native wildflowers.

“I chose to omit naturalized exotic species and native woody shrubs and trees, concentrating mostly on herbaceous wildflowers,” Hammer said by email about the photos in the 378-page softcover book published in 2018. “The book took 12 months to complete, but I had a head start by already having published guides that covered central and southern Florida, so I only needed to concentrate on northern Florida and the Panhandle.”

Hammer took all of the photos using a Nikon D810 digital camera with a Nikkor 105 millimeter macro lens. The book is divided into an introduction and six sections. The sections feature flowers by color: blue and purple, pink, red and orange, yellow, brown and green, and white. Each page is dedicated to two flowers. A color photo of the flower occupies the top half followed by the name, description, season when it blooms, where it can be found, and comments.

“The greatest challenge was driving up to the Florida Panhandle about a dozen times from Homestead and back, which takes between 10 and 14 hours one-way, then spending a week up there, driving back home, and then heading back the following month,” Hammer said. “Locating some of the rare wildflowers up there was also challenging, but I relied on botanist friends who live in the Panhandle, and also rangers in some of the state parks.

Roger L. Hammer, author, Complete Guide to Florida Wildflowers

Roger L. Hammer, author, Complete Guide to Florida Wildflowers

My first love affair with Florida wildflowers was with native orchids, so it was a thrill to photograph species of orchids that I had not seen before. Of the 110 native orchids in Florida, I have now photographed 96 of them. Also, I was able to include all 21 native milkweeds (Asclepias), all 10 native mints in the genus Dicerandra, all 5 milkvines (Matelea), and all 4 species of wakerobins (Trillium). There are many other wildflowers included in this guide that have never appeared in field guides before.”

How can beginners who want to identify a wildflower begin? “Readers should become familiar with botanical names, which they can then use to search the University of South Florida’s Florida Plant Atlas,” he said. “There they will find a range map, common names, botanical synonyms, and a photo gallery. It is one of the more useful websites for Florida’s native and naturalized flora, .florida.plantatlas.usf.edu”

Encycliatampensis

The Butterfly orchid

For orchid lovers the following common species can be seen without too much effort, according to the author. The Tuberous grass-pink orchid (Calopogon tuberosus) can be found in spring in wet, grassy prairies and pine flatwoods throughout mainland Florida. The Butterfly orchid (Encyclia tampensis) flowers in summer and is frequent on trees in upland forests and coastal buttonwood-mangrove forests from north-central Florida south into the Florida Keys. The Spring ladies’-tresses (Spiranthes vernalis) is common along roadsides and in grassy prairies throughout mainland Florida and flowers in spring.

Hammer is a survivalist instructor for the Discovery Channel’s reality TV show Naked and Afraid. He was the manager of the 120-acre Castellow Hammock Nature Center for the Miami-Dade County Parks Department for 30 years. In addition to the new book he is the author of Everglades Wildflowers, Florida Keys Wildflowers, Central Florida WildflowersAttracting Hummingbirds and Butterflies in Tropical Florida, Exploring Everglades National Park, and Paddling Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. He lives in Homestead with his wife, Michelle.

*Photos courtesy of Falcon Guides, Paul Marcellini, Roger Hammer

Why we enjoyed Santa Barbara garden

Why we enjoyed Santa Barbara garden

Article and photos by Scott S. Smith

The 37-acres of Lotusland were divided into two dozen areas with a total of more than 30,000 plants.

Although my wife, Sandra Wells and I had no plans to visit Lotusland (695 Ashley Road, Santa Barbara, California 93108, +1 805 969-9990, www.lotusland.org) while we were in Santa Barbara, California we were glad we did. We had more than enough already crammed into the two days we expected to be in the area, located 90 miles north of Los Angeles and known as the Central Coast Wine Country. Perhaps because the city had been featured in the 2004 movie Sideways or because of its pleasant weather and lively arts scene many celebrities have homes there. Let’s just say we were very skeptical when we started and came away converts to the idea that gardens can be fascinating, educational, and fun.

Although the address is on Ashley Road the visitor entrance was at Cold Springs Road and Sycamore Canyon Road. Its long-in-the-making Japanese Garden had just opened two weeks prior to our visit and demand for tickets was backed up. I believe the heavy demand was due to the attraction’s location in a residential neighborhood that capped the number of visitors.

The 37-acres of Lotusland were divided into two dozen areas with a total of more than 30,000 plants, including 3,000 different types of plants, starting with the Australian Gardens at the entrance, which featured, among others, the tea trees from which the well-known healing oil is extracted. Just beyond the gate was the Japanese section (started in 1968, with a final budget of $6 million). It was being finished when we arrived, including the addition of a pagoda as well as the placement of koi and catfish in the pond.

Part of Madame Ganna Walska’s home where the Lotusland offices are now located

Our guide was the well-informed Craig Morgan, whose passion for the beauty and benefits of plants in general and enthusiasm, especially for the garden, sparked our interest. When we later read The Healing Power of Gardens by Oliver Sacks, M.D., in his collected essays, Everything In Its Place, in which the famed observer of the human condition spoke about his experiences using gardens as healing centers we thought of Lotusland.

Then there is the colorful back story. Ralph Stevens bought the property in 1882 for his commercial nursery and home. His widow operated it as a guest ranch, and put it to other uses for 17 years. President Herbert Hoover visited for a garden fundraiser in 1937.

Future owner Ganna Walska was born Hanna Puacz in Brest-Liovsk, Poland, in 1887. At 25, she eloped with a Russian count and seven years later was studying singing in Paris and working under her new stage name. The following year the Russian Orthodox Church dissolved their marriage and Walska moved to New York City to escape World War I. While singing at a theater, she developed a throat ailment that took her to Joseph Fraenkel, M.D. They married 10 days later. In 1918, she made her concert debut on the same bill as legendary tenor Enrico Caruso. At her operatic debut in Havana, Cuba, at the end of the year she met Harold McCormick of International Harvester, a sponsor of the Chicago Opera.

After Fraenkel died, Walska was devastated. When she met rich heir Alexander Cochran on a voyage to Paris they married. Back in New York, she pursued her budding interest in mysticism and seances, as well as a friendship with McCormick, who arranged her debut with the Chicago Opera. A jealous Cochran forced her to cancel her performance. She divorced him in 1922 and married McCormick. He planned a 23-city United States concert tour, but she cancelled the first half when he underwent an appendectomy. He bought her a theater in Paris, which she managed for 10 years and ended up owning for nearly half a century. She made concert tours of America in 1923, 1925, and 1928, the only times during their marriage she visited the United States, despite McCormick’s residence in Chicago. He divorced her in 1931 on the grounds of desertion, but they remained friends. She lived half the year in France, half in New York, where she continued to explore Indian philosophy and her fascination with hypnotism. In 1940, she escaped France on the last commercial passenger ship before the Nazi occupation.

In New York, she studied yoga with Theos Bernard, known as the White Lama. After Walska’s next husband, a physician, died in 1940, Bernard proposed and they decided to buy what was then known as Cuesta Linda, renaming it Tibetanland, with a plan to turn it into a monastery for Tibetan monks. They began planting a variety of gardens and Walska published her autobiography, Always Room at the Top, in 1943. Three years later, they divorced and she never remarried, dedicating her life to collecting rare plants from around the world and creating a unique landscape. She renamed the garden Lotusland because the lotus, which grows in mud but produces a beautiful flower and could be a metaphor for human aspiration, is regarded by many cultures as a symbol of enlightenment and rebirth. She died in 1984. The Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation spent the next nine years preparing the property for public tours.

There was art amidst the plants at Lotusland

Lotusland was full of sculptures, such as in the Theatre Garden, which featured a collection of grotesques, 17th century stone figures of an Italian entertainment troupe of dwarves. They were so valued that Walska had them buried with her jewelry when she fled the German occupation. Around some of the pools, like the one in the Aloe Garden (with its 140 species), were giant open clam shells, colorful abalone shells, and turquoise glass (retrieved from the slag at the factory making Sparkletts water bottles). Colored tiles, stones, and sand were used to create pictures and designs by the sides of the paths. There was a Topiary Garden featuring plants growing over wire frames that represented a menagerie, as well as an enormous working clock of flowers. According to Lotusland promotional materials Walska was one of the first garden designers to plant groups en masse to create a dramatic impression.

Cactus flowers provided unexpected color

The Cactus Garden contained more than 300 species (one-sixth of the total known), grouped by their country of origin (native to the Americas, they spread to the rest of the world). All have adapted to conserve water, such as thickened parts for storage and the spines, which are its leaves that curb water loss by reducing air flow close to the stem and providing some shade (as well as defense against critters). Unlike other plants, their photosynthesis process, in which carbon dioxide enters the plant and water escapes, cacti delay the latter until night, reducing water loss. A mature saguaro can absorb as much as 200 gallons of water in a single rainstorm. We were amazed at how cacti differed in their shapes, colors, flowers, and the way they twisted to adapt to their neighbors.

It was surprising to come across other species in the Tropical Garden, such as the epiphyllum native to the Brazilian rainforest. We had never thought of cactus being a tropical plant.

Broad-leafed begonias among the ferns and a mature Dragon Tree, with its umbrella-like branches.

Although we thought of Lotusland as an oasis for desert flora and there were sections for dry-climate trees like palm and olive, it was also lush with a wide variety of plants of other climes.

We thought of Lotusland as an oasis for desert flora and there were sections for dry-climate trees like palm and olive, but it was also lush with a wide variety of plants of other climes. Lotuses and lilies covered a pond in the Water Garden and the Insectary Garden attracted butterflies and insects that have helped gardeners avoid using pesticides. Ferns shared shade with broad-leafed begonias (whose asymmetrical leaves are unique to the plant world in not matching), while other sections were devoted to cypress trees and roses. Mature dragon trees, whose branches reached almost vertically toward the sky, were striking and emitted a red resin known as dragon’s blood, used in folk medicine and favored by Roman gladiators to give them a fierce appearance. Lotusland had one of the most significant collections of bromeliads in the United States, a diverse family whose members trap moisture. They were clustered in several of the gardens, ranging from Spanish moss to pineapple.

One area in transition was the Blue Garden, which Walska had stocked with blue and silver-gray foliage. Tall trees had blocked the sun and the area was being replanted.


Three of the rarest plants on the planet, giant cycads

The most important section was devoted to the cycads, plants found in the fossil records going back 300 years, whose enormous cone-like reproductive structures called strobili (some weighing 30 pounds) were eaten by dinosaurs. Individual plants are either entirely male or female and may live as long as 1,000 years. They have stout, woody trunks that are often under the ground, while the foliage emerges from the top and grows in a rosette form, so they can look somewhat like ferns or palms. There were 900 specimens in the Cycad Garden.

In 1977, Walska auctioned her jewelry to pay $980,000 for two of the rarest plants in the world, two encyphalartos woodii cycads. Another was added later at an undisclosed price. Five were left in the world, all in private hands and all of one gender. It was believed that there were none left in the wild.

The horticultural wonderland of Lotusland impressed us. We were constantly surprised by the garden’s rare species, the exotic appearance of so many plants, and their beauty (not to mention the interesting story of Madame Walska). We now understand what she meant when she said in her autobiography that she was “the enemy of the average.” We look forward to exploring other gardens across the world.

Private river safari on New Zealand Waiatoto River

Private river safari on New Zealand Waiatoto River

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

Wayne Allanson aboard our 10-seat KeelowCraft on the 52 kilometer Waiatoto River in New Zealand

I didn’t know quite what to expect during the off the beaten track Waiatoto River Safari in the 355,000 hectare Aspiring National Park, part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (U.N.E.S.C.O.) Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Park in the South Island of New Zealand. My first clue was Ruth Allanson’s smile when we stopped to check in and sign release forms. It lit up her face and put me at ease. She and Wayne, her husband, owned the company.

Ruth Allanson of Waiatoto River Safari

During the tour Wayne stopped in a sheltered corner of the river to tell us about the park.

Our departure point

The simple indoor stand housed a desk, promotional brochures and a few local stonework souvenirs. From there a two minute drive led to our departure point, where moments later we met  Wayne on the bank of the 52 kilometer Waiatoto River. We were 23 kilometers from Haast and about 200 kilometers from Queenstown.

The Waiatoto River, 23 kilometers from Haast and about 200 kilometers from Queenstown

Although it was a clear summer day when we arrived (by the time we returned clouds had descended) there was a chill in the air that promised it would be cooler still on the boat. After applying liberal amounts of insect repellent against the sandflies and donning a loaner coat and   I was ready. Veronika Vermeulen, owner of Aroha New Zealand Tours and my guide on an Intrepid tour of the South Island, and I followed Wayne onto a 10-seat KeelowCraft for our two and a half hour private tour. Our boat was 5.7 meters long, 2.2 meters wide, required 125 milliliters of water to operate, and could accommodate up 11 passengers plus driver. It had a Chev 350 V8 petrol engine with a Hamilton 212 jet pump.

The Waiatoto River, part of the U.N.E.S.C.O. Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Park – click to enlarge

The setting was beautiful. The tour was one of the highlights of my trip to the South Island. The river and lush green vegetation were all around us. After the many crowded attractions we had passed on previous days it was wonderful to be alone on the river. This was in part because the tour was the only way to visit the unspoiled area by land and water. Later Ruth explained by email that the scenery and nature are unique to New Zealand.

One of my favorite aspects of the tour was that we were the only people visible on the river.

One of few boats we saw although during the whitebait season hundreds of locals descended on the river for their share of the popular fish

The loud engine sounds ensured we focused on the scenery rather than conversation. Wayne slowed down or stopped to show us points of interest, share information and indulge my photo needs. On one of the stops he offered us whitebait snacks. During the whitebait season, hundreds of locals descended on the river for their share of the tiny fish. Although it was past whitebait season Ruth and Wayne had a frozen supply from which they made the snacks.

White water on the Waiatoto River

We covered 23 kilometers until the rapids became impossible to navigate. There Wayne tied the boat to the shore. It was easy to step onto land through the front of the boat. Veronika and I gazed at the rushing water, while Wayne secured the boat. Once he joined us we walked 500 meters into the quiet landscape before heading back down the river to the Hindley Stream. By the time we returned to our departure point we had covered 50 kilometers during the tour.

When the river became unmanageable we stopped for a short stroll.

It was nice to know the boats operated with Qualmark Environ motors specially imported for their low fuel use and clean running. I saw no pollution in the water or on land. The Allansons encouraged their clients to “take photos and leave footprints only.”

We encountered lush greenery on our short walk.

With advance notice they were able to accommodate some travelers with disabilities. Babies from about 5 months old (provided the life jacket fit) could join their tours and there was no upper age restriction. Life jackets were available up to XXXXL.

At our first stop – click to Enlarge

Once we glided over the river I was glad for the extra loaner layer and the safety of the life vest. Although at one point there were sandflies, perhaps because of the copious quantities of natural repellent I lathered on, they didn’t bother me at all. Waiatoto River Safaris Limited (975 Haast-Jackson Bay road, Hannahs Clearing, Haast, 7844, New Zealand, +64 3 7500 780, www.riversafaris.co.nz, info@riversafaris.co.nz) was owned and operated by a local family since 1997. Theirs was the only company with permission to offer boat tours on Waiatoto River (helicopter companies were allowed enter the park). Ruth and Wayne held Martime New Zealand commercial jet boat licenses, first aid and commercial pilot licenses as well as airplane instructor ratings. They had 12 years of jet boating experience.

According to the U.N.E.S.C.O. website, Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Park covers 10 percent of the landmass of New Zealand. It has fjords, rocky coasts, towering cliffs, lakes and waterfalls. It was worthy of a detour. I especially enjoyed seeing it by boat.