Killer whales ahoy!


Anyone might expect Orcas Island is named after its biggest tourist attraction, the presence of three resident pods of killer whales. Not so. Back in 1791, it was named by a passing Spanish seafaring explorer in honour of the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico), a grandee with the suitably magnificent moniker of Don Juan Vicente de Güemes Pacheco de Padilla y Horcasitas. 

Orcas is the largest and most mountainous of the San Juan Islands. These islands are part of a Pacific Northwest archipelago of more than 700 islands and reefs sprinkled across the lower end of Georgia Strait, immediately south of the US-Canadian border.

The four main San Juan islands are Lopez, Orcas, San Juan and Shaw. To reach Orcas, I take an exhilarating scenic flight north-west from Seattle in a Cessna 180 which, after about an hour in the air, dips suddenly toward the ocean, skims the choppy surface of Cascade Bay and touches down in front of Rosario, once a family mansion and now a resort hotel.

Rosario was built in the early 1900s by Robert Moran, a wealthy Seattle shipbuilder who, aged 48, was given only a year to live so he moved to Orcas to build his dream home. Moran lived to be 86 and the “Moran maxim” of a peaceful, stress-free existence still holds sway on the island.

Orcas IslandThe main San Juan attractions are unspoilt nature, relaxation and wildlife. Orcas (think Free Willy) are the largest members of the porpoise family. The three resident pods, known as J, K and L, together number about 80. And transient orca also visit these waters, which means the chances of close orca encounters are excellent between May and September.

It’s also possible you might see minke whale, Dall porpoise, harbour seals and, overhead, great blue herons and soaring bald eagles. Orcas is a staging post for migratory birds with the prime spot for serious twitching being along the lake shores in Moran State Park, where you may just be lucky enough to also glimpse a reclusive black tail deer.

The main island village Eastsound has a Saturday Farmers Market between May and September. It’s the ideal place to mingle with locals and discover what’s cooking and what’s locally grown.

Shuttle buses, taxis and hire cars are available as well as bikes for hire. A real challenge, should you wish it, is riding to the summit of Mount Constitution – at 734 metres the highest point in the islands. Less exhausting activities include “jigging” for crabs, “dipping” for shrimp, digging up clams at low tide and collecting mussels and oysters. Anglers attempt to catch salmon, trout and bass. Other sportive pursuits include sea kayaking and horse riding. Moran State Park has 60 kilometres of trails for walking and mountain biking.

Getting here: .Flying to the San Juan Islands avoids having to drive 180 kms north from Seattle to Anacortes to catch the ferry to the islands. Eastsound has an airport but floatplanes often drop off passengers wherever they are going, be it beside a boat, at the jetty of a waterside home or, in my case, right in front of my hotel. Kenmore Air

Alternatively, the Washington State Ferry stops at Orcas Island on its way to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.

Visitor information

Whale watching 


Market forces

Wherever I may roam, I always aim to spend time exploring local food markets. As well as being enticing and colourfully attractive, a market is a barometer of trends and tastes, providing an appreciation of local flavours and also some indication of the state of the local economy.

Fresh food markets allow me to sample foods I might not have seen before. And I can stock up on tasty victuals at the going price, which helps stretch my limited travel cash. But why say any more when every picture tells a story?

Borough Market London

Borough Market, London

Fes merchant, figs, dates,nuts

Fes market, Morocco

Le Var, Provence

Leeks, Montreal

Leeks, Montreal

Vienna 4

Naschmarkt, Vienna

Nougat sellers in Fes medina

Nougat sellers in Fes medina

Panzano Italy

Panzano, Italy


Papeete, Tahiti

Pickles Budapest

Pickles, Budapest

Saturday markets, Salamanca Square

Salamanca market, Hobart

tomatos Montreal

Tomato stall, Montreal

Venice, near Rialto

Market near Rialto, Venice,

Elephant breakfast

I’m woken at dawn with roiboos tea and rusks. As the pale flush of first light tints the sky we hit the road in search of wildlife, driving up hills and down into valleys with the early chill on our faces. Our headlights pick out a dozen impala performing their morning ablutions. The sky above the Eastern Cape slowly brightens as Africa awakes.

In the soft early light we come across a herd of mature female elephants with several young. They’re placidly grazing within a large cluster of acacia thorn. The tiniest jumbo lifts a wriggling trunk to sniff in our direction. We stop the vehicle and kill the engine. The adults seem unconcerned by our presence as they continue to busily strip branches with persistent, irresistible force.

longlee shamwari

Elephant encounter at Shamwari

Our guide Lucky says an elephant’s trunk is an uncontrollable muscle at birth. Baby jumbos breast-feed for months while learning how to dig out roots with a hefty kick and learning how to train their flexible trunk to tug leaves off trees. When much bigger and stronger they learn the trick of pushing over and uprooting entire trees to get at tasty young shoots on higher branches.

We watch the elephant breakfast for some time while sitting quietly in the Land Rover, enjoying the peace of the African bush at dawn. Then the radio crackles. It’s time for us to move on so other Shamwari guests may also enjoy such wonderful moments undisturbed.

Shamari Game Reserve was created in the early 1990s when entrepreneur Adrian Gardiner first began buying up farms to return to native bush. The Shamwari mission statement was to “conserve a vanishing way of life”.

The 20,000 hectare reserve is near the Eastern Cape city of Port Elizabeth in South Africa. It opened after expensive years of preparation that included restocking the land with wildlife that originally roamed free before the arrival of commercial farming,  which meant fences were erected and the shooting began. Extensive research lay behind Shamwari’s restocking, including reference to local wildlife sightings recorded by 18thC white explorers.

One of the reserve’s drawcards is being free of malaria.  It has several lodges and also offers a weekend “explorer camp”. Long Lee Manor  is a grand country house, Bushman’s River a restored Victorian homestead and Riverdene a colonial house. Eagles Crag is “for the most discerning of travellers”. Bayethe with thatch and canvas is the most African in flavour.  The former Lobengula Lodge, a converted old farmhouse, now goes by the totally naff name of  Villa Lobengula. Sarili Lodge is for families or small groups.

Our breakfast is spiced up by a ranger’s tale of being bitten by a puff adder. After breakfast, lo and behold, we see three snakes in rapid succession, the first a small grey puff adder wriggling across the path as we walk towards our vehicle. We drive out of camp to see a far bigger puff adder beside the road and then, minutes later, see a slender green mamba slither rapidly for cover.

Later in the day we find a pair of rhino busily scratching themselves on sturdy hardwood fence poles, relics from earlier farming days. The itchy pair make a fitting image for Shamwari’s ‘return to the wild’ mission statement.

Find out more about Shamwari Game Reserve