© Matt Erke/WWF-US

Matt Erke serves as an Program Officer for WWF’s Forest Program. Matt tells about how travel opened his eyes to the incredible beauty and power of nature.

1. How did you catch the travel bug?

I was first introduced to traveling outside of the U.S. when I studied abroad in Granada, Spain during my junior year in college. There was a defining moment when I sat atop a thousand-year-old Roman-style wall overlooking the city of Granada, with the iconic Alhambra constructed by the Moors nestled into the hill to my left, and the plains of Andalucía stretched out before me. It was at this time that I realized that there is so much more in this world for me to see, and I felt this compelling sense of commitment to continue to expand my personal horizons through traveling.

I had the opportunity to visit different parts of Spain as well as other countries, pursuing these adventures and creating lifelong memories sparked my interest in traveling. From Spain to Italy to Morocco, I was able to develop a knowledge and understanding of the history and culture that defines the fabric of these societies.

Hiking in Las Alpujarras through the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Andalucía, southern Spain. © Matt Erke/WWF-US

2. What’s been your top natural spot to visit?

Langtang National Park in northern Nepal, bordering Tibet, represents the majesty and rugged beauty of the Himalayas. I had the opportunity to trek in this protected area in late 2012, and was inspired by the grandeur of the mountains and the diversity of the plants and wildlife. Tramping through moss-covered forests that provide habitat and refuge for the endangered red panda, observing trickling streams with frozen waterfalls and ascending past the tree line into snow leopard territory was an exhilarating and fulfilling experience each step of the way.

On the final night of this trip, I watched the snow-capped peaks of Tibet illuminate in soft hues of red and orange with the setting sun, and I contemplated the incredible diversity of this park and the natural world. In this moment, the scale of the Himalayas seemed immense, beyond comparison, and I was humbled to find myself in the midst of their natural beauty in this special place in Nepal.

3. What are your top three dream nature destinations?

The destinations I often dream of visiting include the Patagonia region, Galapagos Islands, and Denali National Park. To me these represent some of the last truly wild, natural places on Earth. I can imagine nothing more memorable than hiking amongst the glaciers in Patagonia, scuba diving with schools of fish in the Galapagos, or traversing the mountains of Denali. These places are a stunning portrayal of the incredible beauty and power of nature.

A school of fish swimming in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. © Matt Goddard/Natural Habitat Adventures

4. Thinking back over your trips, tell us about one of your best observations of an animal.

I had the wonderful opportunity to swim with a giant manta ray in Fiji. The water was warm and clear, and adrenaline was pulsating through my body. As I swam, the manta ray came into view, gliding underneath me. This marine organism was enormous, with a slick gray back and immense pectoral fins. The manta ray appeared to be flying underwater, not swimming. I followed the manta ray, swimming as fast as I could. For how little effort the manta ray appeared to be putting into its motions, my muscles and lungs were burning with every stroke. This remains the most graceful animal I have ever seen in the wild.

The southern hemisphere’s third longest barrier reef – the Great Sea Reef – is in Fiji. © Matt Erke/WWF-US

5. What’s one item you never leave home without (or that came in handy on a particular trip)?

I would never leave home without a pair of water-proof hiking boots that are sturdy and lightweight.
The stability, support, and durability that hiking boots provide is important for every trip. Hiking boots are capable of providing comfort while traveling in the tropical rainforests of Costa Rica, traversing rugged peaks of the Himalayas, or strolling through medieval cobblestone streets in Spain. They keep the feet dry, prevent rolling of the ankles, and withstand the wear and tear of a long journey.

6. What’s your best or most frequently used eco-friendly travel tip?

If you pack it in, pack it out! By this I mean any form of non-biodegradable material that is brought to a particular location should be brought back and disposed of at the point of origin. Traveling is a really important way to connect with different cultures, people, and landscapes, but there should be little to no evidence that travelers were there apart from the memories and experiences that were created. This is especially the case in remote wilderness areas, but also holds true in rural villages and on easy day hikes.