Travel Special: October to December

Australia, Guyana and Seychelles
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The Independent Travel

October: Australia

By Kathy Marks

Until I visited the Northern Territory, I wasn't aware that crocodiles can jump. Well, they can - clean out of the water, jaws agape - particularly when a large chunk of meat is dangled over their heads by a woman called Kylie.

Kylie persuades the salties to perform for passengers pressed up against the railings of the Adelaide River Queen. Slim and petite with a blonde ponytail, she has a store of pig's heads, chopped into bite-sized chunks and chilled. Susan, the skipper, provides a running commentary as a succession of crocs leap spectacularly into the air. "Look at that one - he's so close, you can almost brush his teeth!"

The mangrove-lined waters of the Adelaide River house one of the world's densest concentrations of estuarine crocodiles. Susan points out Aggro, a large male sunning himself on a mudflat, and - a few miles on - his former girlfriend, Anne-Marie. Apparently the pair used to lie side by side on the riverbank. Then they had a row and he bit off one of her back legs.

Adelaide River can be visited en route to Kakadu, Australia's largest national park, a vast World Heritage-listed area that lies a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Darwin. The park, an immense network of rivers, lakes, estuaries, flood plains and swamps, is home to a wide array of wildlife and flora as well as Australia's finest Aboriginal rock art. The pristine wetlands, flooded by seasonal monsoons, support millions of birds that crowd into lagoons when the waters recede in the dry season.

A quiet place to birdwatch is Mamukala, a lagoon that forms part of the floodplain of the South Alligator River. From the observation deck, you might see white-bellied sea eagles, rainbow bee-eaters and brolgas, a wading bird with a red stripe on its head. There are dollarbirds and jacanas, also known as Jesus birds because of their apparent ability to walk on water (in reality, they use Kakadu's famous water-lilies as stepping-stones). Egrets strut in the shallows and jabiru stalk the banks. The wetlands play a crucial role in the survival of the magpie goose.

The park is owned by the Gagudju people, who lease it to the government and jointly manage it with the national parks agency, Parks Australia. Aborigines have lived in the area for at least 20,000 years, and some of the paintings found at Kakadu's 5,000 or so rock art sites are thought to date from that era. Kakadu is one of only 22 places to be World Heritage-listed for both cultural and ecological reasons.

The artworks, a symbol of Aborigines' enduring bond with the land and its creatures, can be viewed at two places: Ubirr and Nourlangie. A walk around the base of Nourlangie Rock, an enormous sandstone outcrop looming up out of the scrubland, brings you to a natural shelter where Aboriginal people sought refuge from the heat. Here, between two huge slabs of overhanging rock, they lit cooking fires, repaired their hunting tools and painted their history in ochre on the walls. They had no written language, so the paintings were their archives, a source of traditional knowledge and law.

Anbangbang Shelter is a wonderfully cool and serene spot; nearby are other rock galleries depicting events from everyday life as well as mythological figures such as Namarrgon, or Lightning Man, and Nabulwinjbulwinj, a dangerous spirit reputed to eat women after striking them with a yam. Newer paintings are layered over older ones in a practice that has been common for millennia; more recent works can be identified from their subject matter, such as men with guns.

There is more art at Ubirr, where a brisk walk takes you to an elevated spot overlooking the sandstone escarpment of Arnhem Land - a neighbouring expanse of Aboriginal-owned land. At sunset, the views of the escarpment are sensational. It was here that Paul Hogan declared in Crocodile Dundee: "This is the land of the never-never."

The paintings include some of the oldest works created by man; not museum pieces but steps in a cultural continuum extending to the present day. Aborigines still live in Kakadu, some leading traditional lives, albeit with the help of 4x4 vehicles and guns. Kakadu is not for instant gratification. The park is huge and the "sights" are scattered across it, separated by hundreds of kilometres of monotonous scrub. The two waterfalls that are a principal drawcard - Jim Jim and Twin Falls - are reached via a 4x4 track that is closed in the wet season, when they are at their most spectacular. If you don't like birds and are bored of crocodiles, you might find the wildlife in Kakadu underwhelming.

Crocodiles are everywhere in Kakadu - sunbathing on river banks, lying half-submerged in the shallows, gliding silently through the water. They are an awesome sight: armour-plated body, powerful tail, unblinking eyes, enormous jaws that look as if they could swallow a car. Locals treat them with respect, and tourists should do likewise. On my last day in Kakadu, I took a boat trip along the East Alligator River with Guluyambi, an Aboriginal tour company. Our guides, Justin and Veronica, described the uses of plants and some aspects of Aboriginal law. On the way back, as we slid through the peaceful green waters, Justin picked up a didgeridoo and gave a haunting virtuoso performance - a memorable end to an unforgettable trip.

The Adelaide River Queen tour ( www.jumpingcrocodilecruises.com.au, 00 61 8 8988 8144). Darwin Central Hotel, 21 Knuckey Street, 00 61 8 8944 9000. Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn, Kakadu (00 61 8 8979 2800)

November: Guyana

By Sarah Barrell

It was looking good. Just six hours into the Guyanese interior we had an impressive transport tally. So far we had climbed aboard a 4x4 Jeep, an ancient tractor, a dug-out canoe, plus a few pieces of wood roped together, fitted with an outboard motor and called a "car ferry". Yes, for those who really wanted to get away from it all, it was perfect. Those who didn't were looking more than a bit apprehensive.

Perhaps that's a reasonable reaction faced with 17 million hectares of Amazon rainforest to penetrate and nothing but one dirt track and some vicious beasty-filled bodies of water on which to travel. We entered the wilderness at Iwokrama reserve, a protected pristine rainforest located in Guyana's heartland. The Jeeps are loaded on to the flat-bottomed "Balahoo" river ferry to cross a high-flowing Amazon tributary where at low tide rocks painted with ancient Indian petroglyphs can be seen poking out of the water. Today only the watchful faces of children from one of the reserve's settlements rise above the surface. They trail us up on to the bank as we follow our guide, Waldyke Prince (aka Wally), on foot into the reserve. This Pied Piper procession is probably the most traffic the muddy bank has seen in months.

Most visitors to the reserve are biologists but a slowly growing number of tourists stay overnight at the lodge, complete with dorm huts fitted with bathrooms, beds, mosquito screens and terraces strung with shady hammocks. The brave or sweatier members of our group are taken back into the water by the children for a dusk swim before Wally guides us out for an after-dark wildlife expedition. It's a gothic scene as the reserve's vast range of bat species swoop down over our heads and tent-like spider webs obstruct our path through the rainforest. Along the river, between the gnarled buttress roots of towering mora trees the glinting eyes of black caiman jewel the banks.

The following morning we leave as the rising sun is warming the road on which our group is hoping to be among the one in three who are lucky enough to spot a jaguar sunning itself. We aren't, but the jungle's dawn chorus is more than distracting: the lascivious wolf-whistle call of the screaming piha bird, accompanied by the clattering squawk of scarlet macaws and the ominous rising, rolling roar of the red howler monkey. By road and river we are to follow the route colonial cattle herders would have made to export their livestock, only in reverse from Guyana's capital, Georgetown, south through the Amazon, deep into the southern savannah of the Rupunini.

As usual in Guyana we find that at our next stop we are VIP guests (read: sole guests) of one Sydney Allicock, Amerindian village touchau (chief). In a country where tourists are sighted less frequently than the native giant anteater, tourism projects are minimal and this one - a clutch of simple guest huts managed by the local community - is unique. A pioneering campaigner for eco-tourism and Amerindian rights, Sydney is clearly proud of his village, Surama, whose school, chapel and medical unit have benefited from tourism dollars.

At the school a couple of hundred children wait to greet us, each standing up to introduce themselves individually before singing a collective welcome song that makes several of our travel-hardened group go a bit misty-eyed. Inside, old British colonial exercise books entitled How to Play Cricket lie beside picture dictionaries of macushi words and Caribbean public information posters depicting loving fathers and sons and the words "children need daddies too."

More cultural confusion can be found further south at Karanambo lodge, home to Diane McTurk and her Giant River Otter rehabilitation centre. Beyond her name there is nothing of Scotland about McTurk; instead her wiry six-foot frame looks crafted from the rainforest itself. She wades out to greet our canoe surrounded by a screeching gang of otters and before we've set soggy boot on land she is regaling us with their various life stories and health reports. By sundown the otters have taken a backseat to the vicious bite of the kaboura fly but this doesn't stop us from venturing out on to the water again.

It's worth the trip. As dusk settles the kaboura wind down and the Victoria amazonica water lily, Guyana's national emblem, winds up for its nightly unfurling act. We nose the boats through a lake thick with the giant white flowers behaving as if on high-speed playback from a time-lapse camera. We return at dawn to see them retreat back in on themselves before we follow some local vacqueros riding barefoot through the savannah to locate a breakfasting six-foot long giant anteater. The scene gets more surreal as here, in the middle of nowhere, we are guided to a landing strip where we take our last form of transport - a tiny 18-seat propeller plane - and fly over the Amazon, putting down on a vast table top mountain.

Here the Potaro River takes a sudden 741-foot plunge to create Kaieteur, the largest single drop waterfall in the world. And as ever in Guyana, besides the resident thousand-strong flock of starlings taking a near suicidal swoop through the thundering spray, we are Kaieteur's sole audience.

Last Frontiers (01296 653000; lastfrontiers.com) offers an 11-night tour visiting the destinations in the story for £2,660 based on two travelling and includes all flights, transfers and accommodation.

December: Seychelles

By Christina Patterson

I have never been known for my interest in wildlife - but then I'd never been to the Seychelles. The collection of islands known largely as a honeymoon haunt for people with more money than imagination is, in fact, a teeming paradise of flora, fauna and creatures, great and small. For once the word "paradise" is about right.

My trip started with frangipani garlands at Malé airport and continued with breathtaking views from the helicopter to Cousine Island. Within moments of landing on this tiny private nature reserve, we were greeted not just by our human hosts, but by a giant tortoise. Weighing in at 278kg, Albert was the largest non-human inhabitant we encountered on the way to our villas, but he was not the loudest. That prize had to go to the extensive range of birdlife warbling around us in the trees. And here in this eco-Eden, there was nothing to drown out the noise. No loud music, no cars, no children screaming. For Cousine, a private island owned by a South African millionaire, hosts a maximum of 12 guests. Not quite Adam and Eve and the serpent, but close.

The guests are there to pay for the conservation, but this is a good deed you can undertake in full five-star luxury. The villas, French colonial style, like the main building, are extremely comfortable and chic. Fresh flowers are laid out daily on the pillows of your massive bed and fresh candles placed by the huge, sunken bath. The sitting area is so comfortable that you could happily settle down for a cosy evening in with a book.

But you don't, because the lure of the beach, the bar and yes, even the animals, is just too great. The beach is beautiful beyond all imagining. A wild, white stretch, where the only company, apart from the birds circling overhead, is the crabs scuttling towards you and where the only footprints are your own. The bar, next to the dining area and pool, offers mesmerising views of sparkling sea, verdant islands and dramatic cloud formations. And the food is, almost literally, out of this world. The chef Adriaan van Niekerk wrought miracles with limited supplies - all helicoptered in - which included mouthwatering slabs of beef and fabulous fresh fish. The grilled lobster we ate on the beach, as we watched the sun wash the sky in brilliant pink and orange, was the best I've tasted.

And the animals - even the live ones - were indeed amazing. My urban heart didn't exactly leap as we settled down to a series of long talks on the whale shark, the turtle and the magpie robin. It did leap, however, when, moments after our session on the whale shark, and following an alert of one nearby, we leapt into a boat and then into the water around him. Yes, I have swum with a whale shark. I have also swum with turtles. Ungainly on land, they're surprisingly balletic in the water.

It was hard to leave Cousine, but the Constance Lemuria resort, on Praslin, the second largest island in the Seychelles, offered considerable compensations. If you were a golf fan, you could play on what is apparently the best course in the Indian Ocean. I preferred to stick to less arduous pursuits: sunning myself on Anse Kerlan, the beach where turtles still lay their eggs, trying out the treatments in the spa and, of course, eating.

Shamed into a single stab at exercise, I opted for yoga with the resident guru, Dr Ashaf Ali. It was, I was a little alarmed to discover, just the two of us. Sitting in something like a lotus position, and gazing deep into his eyes, I was told to breathe deep and relax. Really, after nearly a week in Eden, it wasn't that hard.

For details, contact Elite Vacations (01707 371000; www.seychelleselite.co.uk): 3 nights full board in a villa on Cousine Island and 4 nights b&b in a junior suite at Constance Lemuria Resort of Praslin from £4,220 per person, inc all flights and transfers. Air Seychelles is the only airline offering non-stop flights, from £635 return, inc tax.

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