Nature Travel Specialists

nature tours & travel, wildlife tours, adventure travel and general travel to Australia, Southeast Asia, South America and Alaska


andrew haffenden at Pia glacier, Tierra del Fuego


Andrew Haffenden



I started off in the tourist industry in 1968, when a hopeful phone call landed me a job on Dunk Island, then owned by Australia's Avis Air Charter, but really a personal fiefdom of the Australian Avis franchise owner, Eric McIlree. My first job was yardman, and over time, and a second stint in the early sevenites, I covered most island jobs, including dining room and bar. In those days you might be managing the room one night, then mucking in to clean the bar two mornings later. But it was great training, and I still can't leave a dirty pot in a sink without filling it with water.

After living in Darwin when Kakadu was still just wilderness home mostly to water buffalo and hunting camps, I began in Melbourne Zoo's reptile department, where I stayed for some years. In deference to Zookeepers everywhere I won't describe myself thus; as anyone who has worked in a zoo knows, there are zookeepers, who work with bird and mammals, eat with and talk to other keepers of all stripes, and seem pretty normal. Then there are the reptile keepers, more often described as those antisocial and strange people that enter their reptile house in the morning not to be seen again until closing. While not actually having humps on their backs and wearing dark cloaks, that's how they appear in the eyes of actual zookeepers. In some ways it's hard to protest this, considering one of my good reptile keeper friends named his first born daughter Carlia, not a feminized form of some favorite uncle, but the genus of a group of small skinks. And thinking on not emerging, he did go off to Kakadu at its beginning, into the wilderness, and has not yet left, so some things don't change. Greg, you know who you are.

After Melbourne Zoo and a sojourn in England & Scandinavia I moved to North Queensland, again, where I worked for the Queensland National Parks & Wildlife Service. The service had a small collection of research wildlife, and this expanded as new research came on line. In addition to the collection I did field work, supported by captive studies, on Brolgas, Sarus Cranes, Magpie Geese, Herbert River Ringtail Possums, Longtailed Pygmy Possums a few others. Captive studies including several macropod species including tree kangaroos, antechinuses, and leatherback turtles. Along the way I met the Ngallametta family up at Aurukun, after many visits, stories and discussions I was honored to be taken in as a brother; young Joel came to live with me for a while on my tropical fruit farm in Tully. Sadly his father, keeper of the Brolga Dance and clan Elder, has taken his wisdom and knowledge back to his Dreaming place.

After leaving the Service in 1986 I started a small ecotour company in North Queensland, which grew into a nature and adventure company; we introduced the first hot air balloon and mountain bike tours in the north. This early and active involvement in Australia's non-city tourism, especially tropical nature and outdoor based tourism, has given our company a particular insight into Australia's tourist industry today; many of the current companies in Queensland had not started back then, and I have watched them grow since, sometimes helping along the way (such as training the early Raft & Rainforest river guides in rainforest biology that they could share with their guests). I also did consulting work for zoos and museums, then took over the refurbishment and reorganization of Kuranda's Nocturnal House private zoo. This was the first zoo in Australia (or elsewhere for that matter) to successfully maintain any of Australia's tropical ringtail possums or Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo. A local technical college wanted to give some basis to small start-up ecotour companies, and I set up, and lectured for, a course aimed at giving both a biological and business basis for both individuals and small guiding companies. When Tjapukai were first setting up (in a converted basement holding about 80 seats in Kuranda) I did some stage work for them, turning their plain rock background into a stage semblance of a rainforest.

Eventually I moved to the US, where I worked for one of the premier nature tour companies, with responsibility for its Pacific, Southeast Asian, Chile and Alaska programs. In 2003 I started Nature Travel Specialists, dedicated to responsible nature travel that helps the areas we visit. Both positions have necessitated considerable international travel in search of wildlife opportunities, a thankless task, but someone has to do it. At Nature Travel Sepcialists we take pride in the fact that if we haven't personally been there, we don't include it in our travel offerings.

But that is really the work stuff. As a young boy I was interested in lizards and other reptiles, and to curb my enthusiasm for bringing home snakes (virtually all of which are poisonous in Victoria, where I grew up) my parents shifted my focus to beetles, courtesy of a cousin's friend who was interested. So beetles were it, although my covert herpetological interests never faded. With age, and when a shed down the back of the yard became free, I managed to reassert the reptile urge. However, by now I was sucked into the larger biological world of Field Naturalists, and then my beetle friend turned his attention to mammals, dragging me along. This led to membership of, and eventually a executive position on, Victoria's Mammal Survey Group, which spent weekends trapping, spotlight and mistnetting for Victoria's relatively little known mammal fauna. Naturally some members were also interested in a wider range of wildlife, so almost by osmosis birds, spiders, and even plants were absorbed. After moving to Queensland (initially to what was known as Australia's most snake-infested area, Tully), and then later on Townsville, I joined the local Wildlife Preservation Society, also becoming part of its executive. At the time we were fighting to protect the Great Barrier Reef from mining, and the rainforests from logging. Fortunately both areas are now World Heritage listed National Parks. Both my work and these wildlife and conservation interests led to long hours and days (and nights) in the rainforest, learning of its structure, dynamics, plants and wildlife, and their interdependency. The RAOU (now BirdLife Australia) decided to begin a 5 year project to atlas Australia's birds, and as part of that effort my birding knowledge increased, although I never considered myself a birder. That didn't occur until the US, when I discovered that grabbing a spotlight and wandering through forests at night was frowned upon, especially given the amount of privately owned land. Birding was easier, and certainly safer. However, despite not being a "real" birder for most of my time in Australia, I've managed to see about two-thirds of Australia's birds in the field, and about one third of its mammals. So there's still a way to go, and I look forward to the task. Until then, I've got another few hundred US ones left to see. And then there's those thousands in the rest of the world.