Category: On travel


An interview with Roger Thompson, author of NO WORD FOR WILDERNESS

By Midge Raymond,

Roger Thompson is an award-winning nonfiction writer and director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. A former wilderness canoe guide for a Minnesota camp and the founder and director of an environmental program in Banff, AB, he currently lives in New York with his wife and son. No Word for Wilderness is now available; visit Roger’s website and Facebook page for tour dates and events.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and how long did it take you to write it? Did you have a special routine or place in which you wrote?

A: The initial idea for the book came after I first visited Abruzzo to find out about the bears. After being in Italy and hearing their story from people there, I felt the story needed to be told. The book, though, has changed during the process of researching and writing it. It has been a project that has shifted and changed over a six-year period, but the actual first draft I wrote in six months. I’ve done most of the writing at home, but I did do a fair bit in Italy as well as in Minnesota at a cabin where my family has vacationed since I was a child.

Q: Why should we care about these particular bears?

A: We should care because unlike most grizzlies, these particular brown bears have evolved alongside people, growing with communities over a millennia, and thus have adapted to life with man — and locals in Italy have adapted to the bears as well. The result is a remarkably symbiotic and peaceful relationship — a thousand years and no attacks.

Q: How many are there, and why are you concerned about them?

A: The best estimate is between 40 and 50. Some say it may be down to 30. Others say it may be higher. One former park director insists that until recently, there were at least 100, but there is no credible evidence of that. It’s clear that these bears are at a pivotal juncture because of new pressure on their habitat.

Q: What kind of pressure?

A: It’s mixed, but at the heart of it is organized criminal activity — some believe (and I think it likely) that it is mob activity. The bears live in a region that is highly valued for its agricultural potential — specifically, it’s valued because it presents great opportunity for cattle grazing. While that may not seem important, cattle grazing in Italy enjoys significant subsidies from the EU. Those subsidies are what organized crime is interested in. The bears, though, are in the way.

Q: How are they in the way?

A: The bear population lives primarily in Italy’s national parks in Abruzzo. Those parks have prime grazing lands. They also have almost no resources for enforcement of park rules and regulations. So, mafia can essentially underwrite people to come in and graze cattle on the parkland. As they do so, they come into contact with the bears.

Q: What happens with that contact? Is it dangerous?

A: No. Hardly, anyway. There are few, if any credible, reports of bears attacking cattle. There are no attacks on humans. These bears have an almost 100 percent vegetarian diet. And yet, the new land grazing interests have a habit of poaching and poisoning the bears.

Q: How is this being combatted?

A: Well, the key thing right now is that scientists are amassing huge volumes of data to demonstrate definitively how special these bears are and why they should be protected more aggressively. That data is the foundation of activism by a group of conservationists and scientists. It is, however, a race against time. Without international pressure, these peaceful bears and their local advocates have little chance in preserving the animals.

Learn more about No Word for Wilderness here

Meet the rockhopper penguin

By Midge Raymond,

After meeting the Fiordland-crested penguin last year in New Zealand, we couldn’t wait to meet more of these crested birds, who are so different from the “classic-looking” Antarctic penguins we first fell in love with and who populate the pages of My Last Continent and The Tourist Trail.

The southern rockhoppers can be found in many places, among them the Falkland Islands, which is where we met them a few weeks ago. And we feel very fortunate to have been able to see them, as their populations have declined more than 30 percent over the past four decades, particularly in the Falklands.

You can see in the photo below how they get their name — these rockhoppers share a colony with the black-browed albatross (whose fluffy chicks you can see in the foreground), and as you can see this colony is very (very) high up from the water where penguins spend most of their time.

Yet the rockhoppers have little trouble navigating this terrain — as you’ll see in the video below, they are actually pretty good at climbing.

Rockhopper penguins nest amid the tussock grass, and their albatross friends offer a lot of help when it comes to shooing away the predatory skuas. Unfortunately, these gorgeous creatures are categorized with the IUCN as “threatened,” with the major threats being global warming and the fishing industry. If you’re a fan of penguins, do what you can to combat climate change, and skip the fish at mealtimes … the more of us who help, the better the chance they’ll have to survive.

Vegan dining in Sydney: Golden Lotus

By Midge Raymond,

We discovered Golden Lotus in the Newtown neighborhood of Sydney, aptly called Vegantown. If you stroll along King Street, you’ll find a number of vegan options, and this all-vegan Vietnamese restaurant is well worth checking out.

The restaurant has a lovely casual atmosphere, and as always, it’s fantastic to be in an all-vegan place where you can order anything from the menu without having to ask a lot of questions.

We began with “chicken” satay skewers, which were perfectly cooked — crispy on the outside and tender on the inside — and smothered with peanut sauce.

There were so many good things on the menu, it was hard to decide. Ultimately we went for the lemongrass “chicken,” accompanied by brown rice, which was a little crispy on the outside and bursting with lemongrass.

We also sampled assorted veggies with “chicken” on a hot plate, which had a lovely garlicky sauce.

Golden Lotus is one of many fantastic restaurants in Vegantown — and we recommend it highly when you’re in Sydney. Learn more here.

  Category: On travel, Vegan
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Meet the yellow-eyed penguin

By Midge Raymond,

When John and I went to the southern tip of New Zealand hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare, endangered yellow-eyed penguin (the Maori name is hoiho), we would’ve been happy for even a brief glimpse. These penguins are not only among the rarest on earth — there are only an estimated 4,000 left in the world — they are also very shy.

Yet our willingness to sit quietly for hours in the cold — and, often, rain — paid off when we were able to witness these gorgeous birds coming ashore to feed their chicks.

Very unfortunately, the penguins are endangered in part because humans ignore the signs around their nesting sites and walk across the paths that the penguins take to reach their nests. If a penguin comes ashore and finds humans in its way, it will return to sea, leaving its chicks hungry.

We spoke at length to a wonderful naturalist who was there on behalf of the Department of Conservation, volunteering his time for hours every night to help ensure the penguins have a safe path to get to their chicks. Nevertheless, we witnessed several occasions on which he asked visitors not to cross the paths, explaining that to do so would endanger the lives of these very rare birds … and then watched as these people went right ahead anyway, disregarding the naturalist’s pleas to help protect the birds. It was astonishing, and more than a little depressing; it would take so little so help save these birds, but many of the tourists couldn’t be bothered.

Upon returning home, we got in touch with the Southland District Council and the South Catlins Charitable Trust to voice our concerns, and we received a warm response back, both sharing our concerns and outlining new initiatives that are being planned to help protect these penguins. Of course, the birds have other threats — among them, fishing, climate change, and ocean pollution — but the good news is that these are things we can all do something about, wherever we may live.

As you can see from these photos, all taken by John, the yellow-eyed penguins are uniquely beautiful, with their yellow eyes and the glowing yellow feathers around them, and they make their homes in the rainforesty scrubs and grasses off the shore, usually walking across tide pools and up steep rock embankments to get to their nests. We do hope to return to this area one day, and we hope to find many more yellow-eyed penguins, instead of fewer.

Vegan dining in New Zealand: BurgerFuel

By Midge Raymond,

Most of our time on New Zealand’s South Island was spent on (the left side of) the road … and so we were glad to discover BurgerFuel, a fast-food restaurant with several delicious vegan options. We stopped here on our way through both Invercargill and Timaru as we ventured to the distant places where we would be doing our wildlife watching.

Among the vegan options we sampled at BurgerFuel were the Combustion Tofu Burger, made with organic tofu, teriyaki and peanut satay sauces, smashed avocado, salad, relish, and vegan aioli (be sure to request that the aioli is vegan).

We also tried the V-Twin Vege patty, made with mushroom, kumara, chickpeas, and basil with melted vegan cheese, plum sauce, and relish — it was a very different mix of flavors compared to the simpler tofu burger, but it was very good, especially if you’re up for something different. We naturally got fries to accompany our burgers, and the fries are amazing.

Best of all, though, are the milkshakes, made with soy milk — they are thick, creamy, and flavorful. It’s such a treat to go to a fast-food place that not only has vegan meal options but vegan milkshake options. We highly recommend chocolate.

BurgerFuel has locations not only in New Zealand but Australia, Egypt, and Iraq, among others — and even the U.S., in Indiana…and here’s hoping they expand much further. Even better, here’s hoping they go the way of Australia’s Lord of the Fries, which recently became all vegan.

  Category: On travel, Vegan
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