Natural-born explorer still wandering | The West Australian | Ralph Lauren

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For anyone with a soft spot for travel and nature, the hushed, dulcet tones of Sir David Attenborough have been a soothing constant in our lives.

His multi-award-winning documentaries have transported us to wondrous, far-flung parts of the planet, showcasing some truly remarkable wildlife and ravishing landscapes and inspiring many a safari, aquatic and polar adventure.

Possibly the hardest-working nonagenarian on Earth — he turns 95 today — Attenborough’s most recent programs have also carried impassioned warnings about the future, and how humans must tackle the crises we have helped create: among them, climate change, overpopulation, environmental degradation and animal extinctions.

It’s a bitter irony that someone who has, perhaps unwittingly, helped send travel into the mainstream is now urging people to watch their carbon (and plastic) footprint and demand greater protections and conservation for our natural world.

How much and how far we travel — and what mode of transport we use to get from A to B — is a personal decision, of course (or at least it will be once the pandemic eases and our borders reopen).

But if you do wish to retrace some of the journeys that Attenborough has made — perhaps while donning a light blue shirt and khaki trousers favoured by the man himself — the world is still more or less your oyster.

Sir David Attenborough with an Asian great Mormon butterfly on his nose.
Camera IconSir David Attenborough with an Asian great Mormon butterfly on his nose. Credit: John Stillwell/PA Images via Getty Images

AUSTRALIA

This includes our own country, not least the Great Barrier Reef, which Attenborough thought was “the most magical place on Earth” while filming his first batch of TV series, Zoo Quest, in the 1950s. He returned to Queensland to shoot a three-part documentary on the reef in 2014, and although he warned it was in grave danger due to rising sea temperatures and acidity levels, it still has the power to take the breath away. The world’s largest living organism (it slithers 2300km, comprising almost 3000 individual reefs and 900 islands), the reef attracts a mind-boggling array of marine life, from Nemo-like fish to sharks, whales and turtles.

Many tourists use Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands as springboards for seeing the reef, but a new wave of eco-conscious resorts and tour operators also arrange luxury stays and dive and snorkel trips to the comparatively little-visited central and southern portions of the reef.

Getaway options include Lady Elliot island — a 25-minute flight from Bundaberg — and Heron Island and Lady Musgrave Island, accessible by boat from Gladstone.

GALAPAGOS

If it’s exotic marine life you’re after, and you’d like to venture further afield, the Galapagos Islands are another alluring possibility for Attenborough fans. Anchored off the coast of Ecuador, this volcanic South American archipelago has featured in some of his groundbreaking documentaries, notablyLife on Earth (1979) and The Blue Planet (2001). You might be tempted by a small-group expedition cruise, which will get you up close and fairly personal with the local fauna that so beguiled Attenborough and his hero Charles Darwin, who stopped by and gathered material to support his evolutionary theories, in 1835.

Look out especially for marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises, although you won’t be able to do as Attenborough did and meet Lonesome George. This huge Pinta Island tortoise died in 2012, with scientists estimating that he was about 100 years old. Efforts to get George to reproduce with females had failed over the decades, but there are still about 20,000 giant tortoises of other subspecies living across 10 Galapagos islands.

David Attenborough in 1956.
Camera IconDavid Attenborough in 1956. Credit: Popperfoto/Popperfoto via Getty Images

POLAR REGIONS

Also ripe for expedition voyages are the polar regions, which received the Attenborough treatment in The Blue Planet and also Frozen Planet (2011). Pack your layers and binoculars and head to the Arctic — say from Norway or Alaska — on a voyage to track polar bears and Arctic foxes or take a cruise from Ushuaia in southern Argentina and be dazzled by Antarctica. Imagine seeing albatrosses and petrels crisscrossing the sky as blue whales or orcas breach the frigid ocean waters and thousands of Emperor penguins shuffle around to a backdrop of spectacular icebergs.

The most exclusive Antarctic cruises boast environmentally sustainable practices, icebreakers powered by a hybrid of electric battery and LNG (liquefied natural gas) and experts on board unfurling fascinating tales about the regions’ awe-inspiring scenery and wildlife.

AFRICA

If you’d prefer to stay on dry land and raise the temperature a notch, consider Africa — the setting of so many iconic Attenborough moments, from the time he met a group of mountain gorillas in Rwanda to the clips of him beside adorable baby meerkats, basking in the South African sun. These experiences can be replicated today (do note, though, that the price to see the gorillas has rocketed since Attenborough’s first visit; in Rwanda, expect to fork out about $2000 for a gorilla trekking permit alone). No African holiday is complete without a safari, say in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya or the Okavango Delta in Botswana. As you stalk the savannas in search of lions, elephants, giraffes, hippos, zebras and the like, it’s almost impossible not to have Attenborough’s reverential, whispering commentary floating in your head.

You could say the same while seeking out the lemurs, chameleons and quirky frogs of Madagascar, another of Attenborough’s beloved African destinations. The “Island of Marvels”, as it’s been called, teems with biodiversity, with its strange and unique wildlife having evolved in isolation from the African mainland for almost 90 million years (more than 80 per cent of Madagascar’s plants and animals exist nowhere else on earth).

The naming ceremony for the polar research ship RSS Sir David Attenborough at Birkenhead in England on September 26, 2019.
Camera IconThe naming ceremony for the polar research ship RSS Sir David Attenborough at Birkenhead in England on September 26, 2019. Credit: WPA Pool/Getty Images

INDONESIA

In 1955, Attenborough and his crew became the first to film the Komodo dragon. These ancient lizards, which can grow up to 3m in length, flourish on Komodo and its neighbouring islands, part of the same Indonesian archipelago as Bali (food for thought, perhaps, if you have a few extra days on holiday to consider a side-trip).

Borneo was another tropical wonder that wowed Attenborough. He revisited Asia’s largest island for his 2019 documentary, Seven Worlds, One Planet, and noticed it had changed quite dramatically from his first trip 50 years earlier. Vast tracts of virgin rainforest had been deforested to make way for palm oil plantations, threatening the habitats of indigenous communities and endangered wildlife such as pygmy elephants and orangutans. It’s still possible, however, to see these endearing animals at sanctuaries run by volunteers and conservation projects, including the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in the Sabah state of Malaysian Borneo.

You may even spot orangutans in the wild, perhaps swinging in the trees clustered by the Kinabatangan River or within the forested slopes of Mt Kinabalu — a 4095m peak, the highest point of Borneo, which pokes through the clouds and was once scaled by Attenborough.

Reflecting on his life during a recent filmed discussion with fellow explorer Michael Palin, Attenborough told a story that provided an insight into his enduring appeal and the affection with which he’s held across generations. While descending Kinabalu, he encountered two young women, one of whom told Attenborough she had something to show him. Drawing his attention down to her upper thigh, she revealed a tattoo of his face.



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