The Original Garden Visitor's Guide

Garden Themed Holidays

Tony Russell leads garden-themed cruises for Victoria Travel and other companies. This article, originally published in the Daily Telegraph, gives a flavour of a cruise.

Back in 2006 I received a telephone call from Victoria Travel, a company offering garden-themed cruises for people interested in having a cruise-based holiday whilst enjoying plants and gardens at the same time. “How do you fancy leading one of our tours to the Amazon Rainforest?” I had already led Victoria Travel tours to various regions from the Arctic Circle to North Africa, but the Amazon Rainforest was a different ball game altogether. “I didn’t know you went there”, I said, buying myself a bit of time while I thought this one through. “We don’t that often, but there is a growing interest from many people to experience the area before it disappears and by using Fred’s ships we can get 1,000 miles up-river and to places that some of the bigger ships cannot get into.”

Victoria Travel already had a long standing relationship with Fred Olsen Cruise Line; they said their cliental ‘enjoyed the more intimate nature of the smaller ships to some of the bigger lines’. Certainly my own experience leading tours on their ships seemed to bear this out; they had a faithful (and growing) following and the level of repeat business was high. Passengers regularly told me they equated a cruise on Braemar, Black Watch, Boudicca and Balmoral to, ‘staying in a village as opposed to a skyscraper city – where you get lost all the time and never see the same person twice.’

“When do you want me to go”, I asked. “Next February” came the reply … “OK I’ll do it”.

Six months later I was on a plane from Gatwick to Barbados, (where we picked up the ship) leaving a cold wet UK behind and replacing it with a hot wet Brazil – or so I assumed – after all, the Amazon straddles the Equator and it is a RAIN forest.

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Looking back now, I can see I made a lot of assumptions prior to that first visit, some turned out to be true, others were wildly inaccurate. No amount of books, videos, websites, or dull winter afternoons making notes in the Tropical House at Kew Gardens, can prepare you for the real thing. It turned out to be one of the most astonishing trips I had ever undertaken and the reason why, just a short while ago, I was once more on a plane bound for Barbados and looking forward to my fourth visit to the amazing Amazon.

Once on board Braemar, which had been waiting patiently for us to arrive in the port at Bridgetown, I gathered my group of thirty-odd fellow travellers together and after introductions, began to tell them of the delights that lay ahead.

Since my first Amazon tour in February 2007, I have been fascinated by who comes on these trips and why. I was there because I have spent over twenty-five years working with and studying trees, woodlands and forests and wanted to pass on some of my passion and knowledge of the arboreal world to others; but what about Mr & Mrs Smith from Croydon and others like them? Well, over the years the reasons have ranged from a rather imperious, ‘Because I’ve been everywhere else’, to, ‘I’ve been a life-long supporter of Friends of the Earth and I want to see at first hand the damage that humans have inflicted on the world’. Between these poles, the cluster sits broadly around, an interest in the natural world, a thirst for new experiences and knowledge and a wish to do something rather more extreme than another beach holiday, or cruise around the Baltic – as enjoyable as these undoubtedly are.

Age? Well, early retiree in the main, but given reasonable health, age is fairly irrelevant. I’ve had within my groups just about everyone from young honeymooners to a wonderful Manchurian lady of 93, who was the first in the dug-out canoes and left those forty years younger in her metaphorical wake.

There is however one common theme. A wish to experience the real Amazon, be able to get in amongst the vegetation, flora and fauna during the day time, but in the knowledge that as the equatorial sun hits the horizon and darkness descends within minutes, not for you an insect infested tent pitched on the rainforest floor, but a floating four/five star hotel complete with hot showers, crisp white sheets on comfortable beds and high class cuisine. The adage ‘best of both worlds’ could have been invented for this cruise.

It takes three days cruising from Barbados to reach the Macapa Pilot Station at the mouth of the River Amazon. (Time for the UK chill to leave the bones and a duskiness to mask any winter pallor.) I say mouth, but to describe the entrance to this mighty river in such a way belies its scale, given that the entrance width is longer than the entire length of the River Thames! Everything about the Amazon is mind-numbingly large. First indication of your approach is when the sea turns from Caribbean blue to coffee-coloured, the result of the river’s silty freshwater spilling into the ocean – and you are still 100 miles out to sea! Such is the volume of freshwater that even the seas salinity is markedly reduced at this point. Over 40% of all the freshwater in South America drains out through this one river and in one day the volume of water entering the ocean is the equivalent to what flows from the Thames in a year. The annual outflow from the Amazon accounts for 20% of all the freshwater draining into all the world’s oceans.

As I pass these facts on to my group, I see their growing realisation that this is not going to be a punt up the Isis and that’s before I even mention the rainforest. Bigger than the whole of the Indian Sub-continent, contains on average between 180 and 300 different species of tree to each forest hectare (in the UK we are lucky to muster more than ten). 155,000 different plant species (out of 225,000 known in the whole world), 3,000 different species of orchids, 25% of all known insects, 20% of all known birds – the list goes on.

Once Braemar enters the River, our group, festooned with long lens cameras and binoculars, hug the deck rails, eager to catch their first glimpse of the forest. The delight of this cruise from now on is that you are never far away from it. Luxuriant verdant growth extending right to the river bank, interspersed with the occasional native village clearing, is pretty much our constant companion until we reach Manaus, the largest city in Amazonia, 1,000 miles upstream. Cecropia trees, tide marks half way up their silver-white trunks indicating the river’s height in the rainy season, slide past each cabin porthole and restaurant window, whilst overhead, back vultures circle on humid thermals radiating upwards from the forest’s undulating canopy, crowned by giant emergent species such as Bertholletia excelsa the Brazil nut tree and Kapok Ceiba pentandra. Where the vegetation lessens, scores of parakeets line their stomachs with clay pecked from the riverbank, enabling them to digest leaves that would otherwise be poisonous to them. After dark the forest comes to Braemar, the ship’s lights attracting giant hawk moths and flying water beetles to investigate the decks.

Each night, as our group sleeps, Braemar cruises slowly upstream, so as each day dawns a new location welcomes them. Santarem, where sights of deforestation remind of the increasing environmental threat to the region. A trek through primary rainforest to the Bosque Santa Lucia reserve, squeezing the seeds of Bixa orellana to release its bright red dye used in lipstick and to colour Red Leicester cheese. Parintins, where members of our group watch pink freshwater dolphins, just metres from the riverbank and macaws greedily feast in the surrounding mango trees, lazily watched by a brown three-toed sloth.

Boca do Valeria an Indian village with 75 inhabitants, all of whom it appears have turned out to greet us. Those in possession of wooden canoes ferry our group to a nearby freshwater lagoon, the surface of which is covered with giant pads of the Amazonian water-lily Victoria amazonica – some of them in flower. “I’ve dreamed of seeing these for years”, says Geraldine from Cheshire. Alter do Chao, where the tannin-rich waters of the Rio Tapajos lap around Peach Palms growing directly from the river’s pure white sandy beach, and finally to Manaus, a bustling place with its astonishingly beautiful Opera House. The city was built by the Portuguese, on the back of the rubber boom of the 19th century, at the point where the coffee-coloured waters of the Rio Solimoes descending from Peru, meet the black watered Rio Negro which has travelled through both Columbia and Venezuela to reach this point. Like strangers first meeting, the two rivers remain cautious of each other for several miles before merging, creating a surreal meandering line across the surface, broken only by Braemar as we turn eastwards on the first leg of our return journey downstream; on route, more opportunities to enjoy the incredible flora and fauna of this remarkable region.

Victoria Travel

Victoria Travel offer a wide range of cruises and have won many awards for their service. The website is www.cruise.co.uk.

Garden Tours with Brightwater Holidays

Brightwater Holidays is the UK’s leading specialist Garden Tour Operator. Their fully inclusive itineraries combine famous and grand properties with small and private gardens, most also visit specialist nurseries. We travel by coach, rail and air to exotic overseas destinations, throughout continental Europe and the length and breadth of the British Isles, usually in the company of an expert horticulturalist.

For further information please click here.

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