Then there’s the ultimate level – the Rodney Russ level. Rodney Russ is a New Zealand native, who started his career at the New Zealand Wildlife Service and has since then probably seen and appreciated more of Russia than half of Russia’s population combined. But what really takes Rodney to the next level is his passion not just for Russia (especially the Far East), but his unceasing desire to infect others with this passion. For this reason, Rodney – founder of Heritage Expeditions – has been personally taking foreigners all over Russia’s Far East in one of his specially equipped vessels since 2006. The destinations offered include some of the most remote and difficult to access places, such as Chukotka and Wrangel Island, Commanders Islands and Kamchatka.
In Your Pocket sat down with Rodney to find out more about his love for Russia (particularly Russia's Far East), doing business here and the adventures that he's had over the years.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and Heritage Expeditions.
I trained with and worked for the New Zealand Wildlife Service, a government agency that was responsible for the protection and managements of New Zealand's native birds. I thoroughly enjoyed the work, but felt that we were failing to do advocacy very well.
We were investing a lot of time and money into research and management, but we weren’t good at sharing that story with the public. In my opinion conservation grows out of a community – a community has to want conservation – and our role as managers is to help them and empower/enable them to make that happen. We weren’t good at that and so in 1985 I started a small business doing conservation advocacy commercially, taking small groups of people, showing and sharing with them some of the amazing nature reserves and wildlife. Today the business - Heritage Expeditions - operates two vessels and employs over 60 people, including crew of the vessels, guides, hotel staff and office administers.
What was your first experience in Russia?
I first visited Russia in the late 1990s. We had chartered our first Russian vessel in 1993 and I thought it was about time I visited the owners of the vessel in Vladivostok. Although it was my first time in Russia, I felt I knew the place and the people because I had been working with them for a number of years. I don’t know what it is, but I felt an affinity with Russian people and their history and, of course, with my interest in wildlife and conservation I knew about their wildlife and dreamed of seeing it one day.
I have since made multiple visits to Russia, predominantly to the Russian Far East, although I have visited many other places in Russia, including driving from Moscow to Vladivostok and along the ‘Road of Bones’, I have also chartered a vessel on Lake Baikal to explore the lake. Our first expedition was through the Kuril Islands in 2006, it was an incredible experience for both us as operators and leaders of the expeditions and for our passengers - the wildlife was simply incredible. I would suggest unequalled in the world, it is a world class wildlife destination!
Where in Russia do you take tourists on expeditions these days?
We visit the Kuril Islands and other destinations in the Russian Far East on a regular basis these days, such as the Kuril Islands, the Sea of Okhotsk, Kamchatka, the Koryak Coast, the Commander Islands, Chukotka and Wrangel Island and we are soon launching and we are launching a new expedition along the Northern Sea Route from Anadyr to Murmansk. By the way, the expedition along Chukotka's coast up to Wrangel Island was voted one of the top 50 Expeditions in the world by National Geographic!
The thrill and joy of the wildlife experience has not diminished, our passengers still rave about it and get excited. It is still a world class experience – simply amazing for us as organizers. We have more paperwork to do, more forms to fill out, more regulations to be aware of, but increasing compliance, and rules and regulations is not unique to Russia, it is happening worldwide. If the rules help protect the valuable wildlife and habitats I am very supportive, but where it is rules for the sake of rules, I get rather frustrated.
Speaking of rules, how do you find doing business in Russia?
Doing business in Russia is really no different than doing business in many other countries. One of the keys to doing business in any country – and it is true of Russia – is having professional partners who understand your business and business needs. We are extremely lucky to have a series of invaluable partners; chief amongst them is Kamchatka based company Travel Pacific. Travel Pacific are professionals, they not only understand our needs and our clients' needs but they understand Russian business and tax laws and advise us and assist us. They have great partnerships with many of the nature reserves we visit, port companies and other suppliers, which has made our business so much easier. We are doing business together, and that is the way it should be, we all bring different expertise to the tasks.
How do you find the Russian people in general?
I have worked extensively and intensely with Russian people since 1993, I enjoy them, I understand the culture and the history. Sadly I don’t speak the language, it is so difficult to learn. The crew on our ship (Professor Khromov) are professionals, I am impressed by their knowledge and expertise. Likewise the rangers and researchers that we meet during the course of our works are knowledgeable and passionate about their roles, it is a common theme amongst those interested and keen about wildlife. I really enjoy the village visits that we make, the folks living and working there are the "salt of the earth", they have lived through some amazing historic events in Russia’s past – they all have their own stories – I love listening to them.
Which place in Russia is your personal favorite?
Which is my personal favorite? That is an unfair question, I honestly don’t have a favorite, I enjoy and am passionate about them all. Kamchatka, Kuril Islands and the Sea of Okhotsk all have amazing birdlife, whereas Wrangel and Chukotka have some great mega fauna like polar bears, walrus and musk ox. No I don’t have a favorite, I love them all!
What can people expect from your expeditions?
It's important to keep in mind that they are not ‘cruises’ they are expeditions, and therein lies a very important difference that people should be aware of. The ship is extremely comfortable, the meals and hospitality are outstanding, but the wildlife and the landings come first. Our expeditions are organized around the wildlife – not around the hotel department – sometimes landing can start very early in the morning or go late into the night, this depends on where we are and what we are doing. We deal with all levels of fitness but most of our passengers enjoy walking, hiking and spending time ashore. My advice to passengers coming on our expeditions is simple: “the more you put into it and the more you participate the more you will appreciate it and understand the country and the people”.
We get a lot of repeat business, once people have been to Russia it gets under their skin and they find themselves wanting to book more travel. The Russian Far East has so much to offer, for the wildlife, wilderness and adventure traveller - there is no place like it anywhere else in the world!
For more information: www.heritage-expeditions.com