Poland’s Mammals: In search of the Eurasian Lynx

…and search we did.

I’ve just returned from a week in the cold and snowy far south-east of Poland, looking for Europe’s great mammals and, specifically, the lynx.

For a long time I have had a great yearning to see the European wildernesses that point to the way Britain may once have been. It saddens and frustrates me that we have lost so much of our natural landscapes and wildlife; in fact, we have lost very nearly all of them. The English, Scottish and Welsh countryside that many of us cherish are at very best utterly poor pastiches of natural landscapes; often human-shaped green deserts where the wild challengers to us have been wiped away and less notable species vastly diminished due our negligence. This trip presented an opportunity to see what we have lost and, possibly, what we could regain.

The trip commenced with a Ryanair flight Stansted to Rzeszow; there I met the rest of the small group of seven guests and our two tour leaders, Jan and Detlef. On exiting the small but smart airport, we emerged into the cold and harsh Polish winter, loaded up the van and headed off deep into the countryside. There was snow on the ground, covering rooftops and clinging to trees, with huge icicles hanging from the eaves of houses, the like of which I haven’t seen in the UK since my childhood.

It was a three-hour journey to the first of our two homes for the week and we got a nice start to the trip with a good view (a first for me) of a Ural owl perched in a roadside tree. When we arrived at the hamlet of Maniow, we had a light soup lunch (we had a lot of soup during the trip!) and we were then shown to our accommodation for then next three nights. We all (singles or couples) had our own individual domkis on the side of the hill above a main house where we had our meals. These were lovely little wooden summerhouse-type buildings with a large lounge, small kitchen and shower room downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs, one with a balcony overlooking the valley. At the centre of each domki was a large woodburning stove which (apart from a small heater in the shower room) was the only heating for the building. The stoves were lit on our arrival and were kept topped up with wood when we were out, but it was a special added element to the trip for us to keep them going overnight so that the domkis were still warm when we woke each morning.

After settling in, we went out for our first look around the local area, travelling around by mini-bus and getting out for walks in amongst the snowy forested hills. As the dark began to close around us, we loaded back into the mini-bus and Jan and Detlef used a bright spot lamp to try to find wildlife as we drove along the forest roads and tracks. This achieved some significant success with foxes and roe deer seen at first and finishing with another first for me; a wildcat. This is a species I’ve wanted to see in the wild for a very long time and one I hadn’t expected to come across – a real bonus on the first day. On returning to our new home, we had a very good and large evening meal. Large meals were a common theme throughout the trip with usually soup to start, a very substantial main course (usually meat, potatoes and veg), followed by a (thankfully) small sweet.

On the first morning, having woken in the early hours and gone downstairs to feed the fire, we settled into a pattern for the next six days. Heading out early before breakfast to scan for wildlife from vantage points or by driving the along quite rural roads and tracks, and stopping for walks. We would then return to the accommodation for a large breakfast (and many pancakes!) before heading out again for day. We would either return for lunch and going out in the afternoon or stay out all day until past dusk, finishing the day with more spotlighting.

We didn’t have much luck with mammals in our first location despite visiting a number of sites and going for a long walk each day. However, the snow helped to give us an indication of the vast amount of wildlife activity in the area with so many tracks left behind. There were deer tracks everywhere, both roe and red, but we also came across plenty of wolf prints and those of a male and female lynx, coming together for a few weeks over the mating season. Birds on the other hand, while small in number, were more visible and I saw my first ever pygmy owl and nutcracker, as well as more Ural owls.

It wasn’t until the last evening before moving onto our second location that we found the first of our target big mammals. As the light was starting to fail on the way back to our evening meal, two of us spotted large dark shapes standing out against snow covered woodland – we had found bison! We didn’t have a long view; as the mini-bus came to a halt, the five animals slowly melted into the surrounding undergrowth. They lingered just within the wood for a short while giving us tantalising glimpses of their massive bodies before heading further into cover.

The day of our move onto our second base started with a long walk along snowy forest tracks looking for birds and more bison. The sun came out as we strolled along bringing a break in the freezing cloudiness we experienced throughout the trip – at that moment, there wasn’t anywhere I would rather have been – walking in a beautiful winter wonderland, with the sun shining down on the sharp white snow, looking for wildlife in a rich and complete natural environment. As we rounded a corner we came across another of the many bison feeding stations we visited. There was food put out for the animals but it was only a flock of small birds, mainly coal and marsh tits, taking advantage. However, we found more signs of bigger animals with scratch marks from brown bear claws high up on a tree trunk and the remains of a red deer taken by the wolves.

After lunch we made the one hour journey to our second centre, a hotel in the village of Ustrzyki Gorne. It was tough going on the road as we had to make our way over a high snow-filled pass and the mini-bus struggled, slipping and sliding its way up and down the hills. However, without incident we arrived at the hotel, checked in and then headed out to check a few locations around our new base. After driving up another steep hill we saw ravens fly up from beside the road; we had stumbled across a double wolf kill. We staked out the location for an hour or so but the wolves had disappeared and we had to leave as the light started to fail. Not for the first or last time on the trip, we were stopped by the Polish border guards who patrolled both areas in which we stayed. Our bases were very close to the border with Ukraine and at one point we were only 50 metres from the river that forms the dividing line between the two countries. As they always were, the guards were friendly and efficient, they often seemed surprised that we were on a holiday to see the wildlife that they see on a regular basis.

The next morning we headed back to the double wolf-kill site, to find a further deer had been killed by wolves overnight just a short distance down the road. We were given the opportunity to get out of the mini-bus and take a look at what remained of one of the earlier carcasses. After sliding and stumbling across the rough and snowy ground we found a small flock of tits feeding on the virtually bare red deer skeleton. They were mostly coal tits but as we waited they were joined by two crested tits, all feeding on the remaining frozen flesh. Jan kindly went back to the mini-bus for my camera and I took some of the most spectacular photos of my life; taking shots of ‘cresties’ is rare enough, but taking shots of them feeding from inside the remains of a wolf kill was a once a lifetime opportunity I wasn’t going to miss. The following are some of the results…

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It was on our penultimate day that we struck lucky with our mammals. In the afternoon, we drove to a couple of vantage points, high above a valley floor. At the first, we had our first good, prolonged views of bison with a mixed herd of 15 feeding in the open snowy fields. We watched them for quite a while before some of us decided to walk to the next view point. On the way I found a white-backed woodpecker but all hell was breaking loose when I eventually caught up with the rest of the group. The eagle-eyed Detlef had, somehow, spotted a lynx sat relaxing in a gap in the woodland on the opposite side of the valley about 600 metres away. We spent three and a half hours watching it, observing its every small move; at one point we thought it had wandered off only for it to return to its original position. Overlooking the river valley with a long view of forests broken by large meadows, at one stage we had a wealth of wildlife in front of us; the lynx, roe deer, red deer, a fox and eventually a herd of bison appeared from over a hill and descended down to feed on more hay left out for them. These were pretty magical three and a half hours and ones that I’ll never forget. Eventually, we had to leave as the forest tracks didn’t look great for night driving, and regrettably had to leave the lynx behind, still sitting in the same spot at which we had first spotted it.

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Our last day was spent looking for wolves and like many of the other days they always seemed to be a few minutes ahead of us. The previous day a forest worker had told us we had missed them by 30 minutes! We found plenty of prints, the largest I have ever seen, and I could almost feel their presence around us but it wasn’t to be and we went home without seeing them. In the morning we found a wolf kill in a river, Detlef flushing over fifty ravens from the location as he went down the hill to find it. That afternoon, we went back to the two viewing points of the previous day and found even more bison, more than 50 (a big herd) but, not surprisingly, the lynx had gone. We spent the last hours of daylight scanning the valley for wolves, seeing a grey-headed woodpecker, but as the snow started to come down more heavily once again, we headed back for a last night at the hotel.

This trip really did deliver a real experience of rural and wild Eastern Europe at the height of winter. It was bitterly cold at times, around -15c with windchill on one morning stood at the top high mountain pass. It showed us nature at its most raw, finding five wolf kills over course of the trip. It delivered views of the target species that I went out to find (lynx and bison, owls and woodpeckers) plus one or two bonuses (wildcat and wild boar). It gave us great vistas of snowy landscapes, of hills, mountains and valleys, of meadows, woodlands and forests. It gave me photographic opportunities I could only have dreamt of beforehand. Overall, the trip delivered on so many levels that the lack of wolves was in the end only a minor disappointment.

Well, Poland perhaps has lessons for us, and perhaps also the rest of western Europe. The places I visited over the past week show how populations can live alongside the indigenous large fauna, particularly carnivores, without the need to control their populations down to unsustainable levels. However, there was something I didn’t quite fully grasp while I was there; I understand that much of the land is not under commercial agriculture but is kept in its current form by EU subsidies to farmers who manage the land within the national parks to maintain their landscapes and wildlife.

The trip was booked through Naturetrek, their ‘Poland’s Mammals – In Search of the Eurasian Lynx’ trip, the details of which can be found here.

The two Belgian tour leaders, Jan Kelchtermans and Detlef Tibax, were excellent and they constantly tried so hard to find the wildlife we wanted to see. The best memory from the trip? Well, I’ve been on quite a few wildlife holidays now but I’ve never before seen such an enthusiastic response of a tour leader when they had spotted the key species for the trip. The sight of Jan coming to tell me that a lynx had been spotted is one I won’t forget in a very long time! I had been trailing behind the group, taking photos of a white-backed woodpecker, and he came to find me, smiling, shouting, running and skipping towards me in a mildly hysterical way, rather like he’d scored the World Cup winning goal. He was so excited but still took my camera from me for safe-keeping so that I could sprint to the sighting spot down the snowy and icy track; the touch of a brilliant guide who loves to share his passion for wildlife with others.

Poland was excellent and I was very sad to leave but I will return – perhaps to rent another domki for a week.

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Botswana – Okavango Delta: African Painted Dogs

Before I went on my recent trip to Botswana, there was one particular species I really wanted to see: African painted dog (or African hunting dog). Whilst I was really looking forward to seeing many new bird species and plenty of mammals I’ve never seen in the wild before, it was the dogs that I longed to get a sight of. I’ve had a bit of a thing about wolves for a long time now but I think it might be about dogs in general really. I’ve been to Sweden and twice to Spain to find wolves (and been successful in Spain) and the African equivalent has sparked my interest for a long time. Many people want to see the more iconic African animals but I was particularly interested in seeing these less well-known, rare and elusive canines. In my heart of hearts, I had little real hope of seeing them or if I did, I only expected a far off, fleeting glimpse; I was rewarded with something utterly unexpected and truly memorable.

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There appears to be some confusion over whether grey wolves are present in Africa with a sub-species of golden jackal having relatively recently been identified as coming from the canis lupus (grey wolf) genetic line. Painted dogs are a canid but are not not part of the lupus line and are an entirely separate species to wolves. However, they appear to me to be typical dogs and have similar social hierarchies to wolves and hunt in similar ways. There are differences though, both in biology and social structure. Painted dogs look very different to wolves and have significantly different dentistry and, opposite to wolves, it is the young females that leave the packs to form new family groups when they get close to breeding age.

As the itinerary for the holiday stated, it would take “a degree of good fortune” to find one of the dog packs in the area I visited but the light of good fortune really did shine strongly on the trip – well at least in dog watching terms. What some may have seen as bad luck had the opposite effect when it came to watching the dogs; the Okavango has had the wettest rainy season since the 1960s and many areas were flooded and impassable while I was there. This did limit the areas that could be visited but also limited the areas that the dogs could be in. Unlike elsewhere in the world where cats hate water and dogs like it, in the Okavango the roles are reversed; the swimming lions of the Okavango are famous. In contrast , the dogs don’t like to get their feet wet and the heavy rains have had a significant effect on them, limiting one of the two local packs to a very small area, made even smaller by a nearby lion pride blocking their exit. I was fortunate that the second camp site I stayed at was right in the midst of the area in which the dog pack was concentrated.

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After not seeing the dogs in the first area I stayed, Khwai, it was with amazement that I saw them within a short time after arriving in the second, Moremi. Driving around the area not long before sunset, the time we had to be back at camp (no night driving is allowed in the Moremi national park), one of the group spotted an ear in the grass. As we rounded the corner, we found a pack lounging in the long grass around the base of some small trees taking advantage of the last light of the day. They started to look like they were readying for a hunt as the light began to fail but we had to leave to ensure we were back in camp before dusk fell.

Our next sighting was the following morning when we came across part of the group. The two dogs appeared to be actively hunting and it was a relatively brief sighting as we couldn’t follow them off road. That evening as dark approached and we were returning to camp, we came across two dogs again and when we got the tents we found out that the dogs had been through the camp that day while we were away on a drive. Just before we sat down for our evening meal we could hear the dogs calling to each other and then again later in the evening as I got into bed. The following morning I woke to their calls in the dark and that evening we found the dogs twice in a large open area in the woodlands as we drove around close to camp.

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On the last evening we found the dogs in the same spot as the previous evening and spent a bit of time with them as they rested before they headed out for their nightly hunt. There seemed to be up to nine of them but it was difficult to be sure; when they fully lied down in the long grass they completely disappeared, even those only five metres from the truck. Not long after we arrived, two warthogs passed by with the smaller of the two being very wary while the larger one stood its ground. We weren’t sure that they could see the dogs but they seemed to know something was in the long grass; the dogs were relaxed and seemed indifferent to their presence. Eventually, they wandered off and left the dogs in peace but shortly afterwards a large breeding group of elephants passed through the area. They were obviously on a mission to get somewhere in a hurry as they were moving purposefully. Neither the dogs nor the elephants seemed to notice the others’ presence; if the elephants had known they were in the area, there could have been an interesting interaction – elephants don’t like predators. Again, as we returned to the camp we could hear the dogs calling to each other in the growing darkness and as I woke on my last morning in the Botswanan wilderness, I heard them for the final time.

However, we had one last magical glimpse of the dogs and it came not far into our journey to Maun Airport on the journey home. Bumping along the dirt tracks we suddenly came across three dogs busily sniffing around. They then set off as speed in the direction we were heading, so we kept up with them, despite the bumpiness of the track. They would stop every so often and sniff around an area and then set off purposefully again. Two of the dogs seemed quite oblivious to our presence but the third was much more wary and held back from us, splitting from the two in front. This enabled me to get the photo below. Despite bumping at speed along the track in the safari truck, I managed to get this shot without any camera shake. I love the light in the photo, how it picks out the dog’s eyes and the sand being kicked up as it runs along.

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Eventually, the three came back together and sniffed again around a final spot. At a junction of tracks, they finally parted company with us, heading towards the Khwai area where we had stayed earlier in the week and we went off in the direction of the airport.

Seeing painted dogs on six separate times over the course of the trip was exceptional and perhaps unprecedented. After only having fleeting and distant views of wolves, these sightings the painted dogs, so close and for so long, were a truly magical final gift that I will not forget in a very long time. The dogs, the species I really wanted to see, but had no great expectations of being able to, were truly the highlight of my trip.

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Botswana – Okavango Delta: My Trip

I’m struggling to stay awake writing this post, so I hope it doesn’t have the same effect on the reader! I’ve just got home from my first day back at work after my first visit to Africa; a nine night trip to the Okavango Delta in north -eastern Botswana. After seeing so much about the area on TV (including a Top Gear Special!), it really seemed the perfect place to start – and I wasn’t disappointed. The reason for my tiredness is that I woke around 2:00am (UK time) on Saturday morning, hearing hyena somewhere close by outside my tent, and didn’t go to bed until 11:00pm on Sunday, after going out for a few ‘quiet’ drinks.

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My trip started with a mid-evening flight from Heathrow to Johannesburg, South Africa. I was excited enough about the trip but was made even more so by my first flight in a double-decker A380 superjumbo. Went I got to the departure gate and handed in my boarding card, I was concerned with the scanner flashed red and the British Airways gate staff started typing in the computer but I was pleasantly surprised to be given a free upgrade to Premium Economy. The trip seemed to be getting off to a great start! Inside the plane, I was welcomed with a bigger, comfy seat, a glass of sparkling wine and a three course meal. I’m not a good sleeper on planes but managed a bit of shuteye, helped by how quiet the place was. However, I did spend time looking out of the window into the pitch-blackness as we passed southwards over north Africa and beyond, a few settlements appearing every-so-often.

On reaching Johannesburg early on the Saturday morning, I was welcomed by warmth not felt in the UK for some time, having moved from northern hemisphere spring to southern hemisphere autumn. The journey through immigration was slow, despite the early hour but it killed some of the four hours I had to wait at the airport for the connecting flight. I also spent a bit of time looking out of the large window near to the Air Botswana check-in desk, trying to see some of my first African wildlife. The were good numbers of swallows and swifts flying around the outside of the terminal although I struggled to identify them as my Botswana bird book was at the bottom of my luggage.

Eventually, I took off on the second flight, a late morning plane to Maun (pronounced Ma-oon), the gateway town to the Okavango. The flight was a little less comfortable than the first, the 50-seater twin propeller plane certainly had less leg room and the air was a little warmer inside, but after the 11-hour first flight, the two-hours onboard the second seemed to go very quickly. Leaving the plane at Maun, I was immediately hit by the heat coming down from the strong sun and radiating back up from the concrete beneath my feet. In the early afternoon, the temperature must have been in the 30s and it was with a little relief that I got into the terminal, only to be met by a longish wait to get through immigration. Out on the other side, I met the other members of the group and our guide for the week, Kabo or KB for short. We loaded our bags into the trailer and then climbed into the opensided Landcruiser safari truck to start our journey into the Okavango.

We were soon out of the centre of Maun, and onto wide, straight roads with even wider verges dotted with small stalls and, behind, the small breeze-block houses and homesteads became steadily less frequent as we travelled out of the town. The tarmac abruptly ran out and KB switched from two- to four-wheel drive before heading onto the dirt tracks that would take us well away from the town. The wind rushing through the open-sided truck was welcome as it took the edge away from the afternoon heat and the canvas roof kept the strong sun off our heads.

The road certainly wasn’t smooth, more like a washboard, and we often had to slow to manoeuvre around dried up mud pot-holes that looked like they could have swallowed up whole cars when wet. However, after being sat on planes or in airports for the previous twenty-four hours, it was a relief to be out in the open air and moving ever nearer to our first destination. The hours passed quite quickly as we moved on and soon we started to see wildlife (after only seeing cows, goats and donkeys for the first part of the journey). There were plenty of birds, although they were difficult to identify at speed but soon we came across something more obvious and were stopped in our tracks as elephants crossed the road in front of us – we had definitely landed in Africa!
After a few more stops to watch groups of elephant, zebra and giraffe, we neared the first of our two bases for the week; the Khwai Development Trust reserve at the north-eastern edge of the Okavango. As we approached our campsite, we came across our first water-covered track (what was to become a common sight on this trip), which the truck waded through and was still dripping as we arrived at our new home.

In a small clearing were five tents placed under the trees and a large dining table under an awning in the centre, along with a fire surrounded by camping chairs, ready for us to rest in after our long journey. On the opposite side was the kitchen and the camp staff’s own tents. We were each shown to our own tents; large abodes with porch at the front , and inside were a camp bed, with nicely firm mattress, a small table, a small LED light and a line from with to hang clothes. The tent had two large ‘flyscreen’ windows on each side and one on the front, all of which could be blacked out by zipping up a cover, as could the front door. At the back of the tent was a door into the ensuite ‘bathroom’; the roofless room formed by the back of the tent and a three-sided screen included a toilet (a hole in the ground with what looked like an upside-down bin and toilet seat placed on top) and a bucket shower (a large frame holding a metal bucket holding water and a shower head beneath which could be turned on and off). While basic, but more than adequate for me, the bathroom provided some memorable moments; such as popping out for a nighttime visit and sitting looking up at the Milky Way, and finishing my first shower only to realise that I was being observed from an overlooking tree by several keenly observant monkeys (more of them later).

As darkness fell, we sat around the camp fire, sipping our G&Ts or glasses of wine, and then came our first evening meal of our stay. Throughout the trip, I was amazed at what meals the camp staff managed to prepare on an open fire out in the middle of the wilderness. Each evening we had a main course of meat and vegetables followed by a sweet; all very tasty and of very good quality.

As well as making great food, the camp staff were just generally lovely; welcoming us each time we returned to camp and always being around if we needed something. They also had artistic flair, arranging our towels differently each day and making different napkin patterns at each meal. When we returned for lunch on our last day we were amazed that find that they had unexpectedly done our clothes washing for us and it was hanging on washing lines and almost dry. Well, at least they did this for those who had left their dirty washing scattered around the tent rather than packing it away neatly – they only touched the obviously used clothes (sometimes it pays to be untidy!).

Waking on our first morning in the Okavango, we settled into what would become a familiar pattern for the next six days. At 5:30am there was a cheery ‘good morning’ from outside the tent and a delivery of hot water to the wash basin on the porch. We weren’t allowed out of our tents before our water delivery and if there was a delay it would be because there were animals in the campsite and it was better for us to stay inside the tents until they left. Breakfast was at 6:00am (cereals and toast) and we headed out at 6:30am, as the sun was rising, on the first drive of the day. We would return to the campsite after 11:00am, welcomed by the camp staff with hot towels and a drink and at noon was lunch (a hot main course). Then it was siesta time, during the hottest part of the day, until ‘afternoon tea’ at 3:30pm and we went out for our second drive at around 4:00pm. In the Khwai area, night drives are allowed (they aren’t allowed in the Moremi – the second location we stayed in), so on the second and third evenings we stayed out after darkness had fallen, having had a sundowner by the water each time, and then using a spotlight to search for wildlife wandering around in the darkness. After the evening meal at 7:00pm or 8:00pm, we all usually drifted off to our tents for a good night’s rest after long days out in the Okavango.

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After three nights in the Khwai area, we moved on for four nights in the Moremi Game Reserve National Park further to the west. The trip occurred at the end of the rainy season in Botswana; in fact looking at the weather forecasts over the last few weeks, the season seemed to end overnight going from endless days of rain to days of constant clear skies. Over the course of the rainy season, the area has experienced rainfall not seen for several decades and the Delta had very high water levels even without all the usual water that flows in from the mountains of Angola which was still on its way. This meant that much less of the Delta was accessible to us than usual and many roads were under water, including the road to our second campsite, resulting in it being inaccessible. The camp staff therefore had to find another site and, due to closed roads, our transfer to the second site was much longer than it usually would be and took most of the day. However, we watched plenty of wildlife on the way and stopped for lunch at one of the national park gateways.

There was so much to see and so much happened that I can’t write about it all in one post, so this is the first of several. However, in this post I can point to some of the highlights of what was a great trip.

The whole experience was a feast for all the senses.

I went to bed each night and woke again each day accompanied by the sounds of nature; from the constant ticking of insects and pipping of frogs, to the calls of the mammals including lions roaring, hyenas laughing and hippos grumbling in the dark. Sometimes the calls were distant but at other times they came from within the campsite and not far from the front of the tent – certainly something to sharpen the senses! It was the cooing of turtle doves, however, that was immediately recognisable to me as the sound of wild Africa, after hearing them so often in wildlife documentaries. However, the calls of other birds were very much part of the constant cacophony we heard; from rhythmic booming of ground hornbills at dawn, to the nocturnal calls of owls and owlets, and the magpie-like chattering of the starlings.

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The sense of touch was hit by the temperature changes; the mornings could be quite cool, especially if wearing shorts when out on the open-side safari truck. By mid-morning, however, the strong sun had turned up the heat and in the mid-afternoon it was too hot to do anything energetic (we couldn’t leave the camp for a walk anyway!). By the time evening came, the temperature was pleasant to sit out and dine in and by the time we went to our tents for the night, it was comfortably cool to sleep in and I never needed the heavy blanket on top of my duvet.

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The sense of touch was also hit by riding around in the safari truck – not for those who like a nice, smooth ride – we were constantly going over bumps, down dips in the tracks and having to duck as branches thwacked past our heads; all part of the fun though and I think it might have counted as exercise!

The sense of smell was opened up by so many new aromas; from truck driving over the brush and sending up big wafts of wild sage, and the scents of the lush undergrowth in the woodlands, to smells of the muddy water we drove through and the stench of a newly dead impala and the content of its gut hitting us as we searched for its location and that of its leopard killer.

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However, it was the sights that were the most extraordinary, from the colourful birds, large and small, the mammals, both prey and their stalkers, to the varied landscapes of lush green woodland, grassland dotted by stands of fossil-like dead trees and waterlands dissected by islands and roadbeds. There were differences between the landscapes in the two areas we stayed within. Whilst they are both part of the wider Okavango Delta and include a lot of the typical water and waterside landscapes, the level of tree cover was distinctly different in areas away from the water. At Khwai, which is more on the edge of the delta, much of the area is covered by open grassland with fewer trees, and of the trees that are there, many were dead, killed by elephants either taking off the bark or pushing them over. The tree cover in the area of Moremi we stayed in was much thicker with deep woodland cover with thick, almost unpenetrable understorey, with sporadic clearings. On the transfer between the two areas there was thick scrubland and further woodland with vast areas brightened by dense patches of yellow flowers.

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On our last night we ate our final evening meal with a backdrop of huge clouds that has bubbled-up during the afternoon and giving us a display of huge electric lightning flashes and far off rolls of thunder (thankfully very little rain fell on us during the trip – only a light and short shower one morning).

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Whilst an emotion rather than a sense, there was something approaching fear, well maybe that’s a bit strong but certainly some unease. Whilst this was my first safari, it seems to me that camping is a far better way to experience the wilderness of Africa; with only canvas around you and no fences, the wildlife is with you 24 hours a day and you can never be sure what is around the next corner and hiding behind a clump of grass. We had punctures on the safari truck twice in two days and it was slightly unnerving when for the first KB had to change the wheel in the dark having just left a leopard a few hundred metres behind and knowing that lions were in area.

Over the course of the trip we saw nearly 150 species of bird, 24 species of mammal and reptile, and countless insects. My further posts will look at the birdlife and mammals we saw on the trip and also particularly focus on the painted dogs sightings we had – something very special indeed.

Overall, the trip more than met expectations in most aspects, not failing in any, and far exceeding in some. This trip wasn’t a luxury safari lodge holiday, or even African glamping, it was quite basic camping in the wildness (albeit with a nice bed) but the little extra touches made by camp staff sometimes felt like luxuries.

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The important thing to recognise about wildlife holidays is that they are unpredictable in many ways, and in Africa I suspect they are even more so. The Okavango Delta is not a zoo, safari park or fenced reserve; it is entirely wild and the wildlife is free to move in and out and the land is not managed so the natural changes in season and weather have effects uncontrolled by man. As such, the experiences can’t be guaranteed and patience is need; it’s best to start off by not expecting to see everything that could be there. Previous trips to the area may have seen more birds and different mammals, but the extreme high water levels, whilst hampering our movement quite significantly, did have a big positive impact for us, something that may have been special to this year only. It concentrated the terrestrial animals into a smaller area, giving us a possibly unprecedented number of sightings of painted dogs – six times in seven days! Knowing that these trips are so unpredictable, for me, brings more excitement and when they go just about perfectly, it’s an added bonus. Even the problems that come up often seem like bonuses to the trip, adding more interest, not detracting from the experience. The people met along the way also add to the experience, the fellow travellers, the happy staff at Maun Airport, the brilliant camp staff, and of course our skilled and knowledgeable guide, KB!

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All I can finish with, for the moment, is to say that this may have been my first trip to Africa but it certainly won’t be my last. At the very least I want to go back to the Okavango in the dry season to see how the place changes when the water has gone.

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The trip was booked through Naturetrek, with whom I’ve travelled a few times before. The trip was their ‘Botswana – Desert and Delta’ holiday, for which there are mammal or bird focussed variations. I didn’t realise this when I booked and unknowingly put myself on the bird version. As someone with a general interest in all wildlife, I would have been concerned if the trip was just birds but I need not have worried as the holiday covered both birds and mammals, and everyone seemed happy that it was so – after all, it would have been very odd to ignore the mammals when they were so spectacular.

The trip itself was operated by Letaka Safaris, a local Maun company and featured in the ‘Safari Brothers’ TV series on National Geographic (Nat Geo Wild), and for my first safari experience, I don’t think it could have been bettered. The organisation was very good, the service pretty exceptional given we were camping in the middle of the African wilderness and they delivered a brilliant safari experience.

‘Just’ Brown Bears?

I’ve just returned from a trip to Finland with Naturetrek to watch European brown bears in the wilds of the north. The title of the trip was ‘Finland – Just Brown Bears’ but I think this is entirely misleading; there was nothing ‘just’ about it!

After missing out on seeing brown bears on what was an otherwise brilliant ‘Sweden’s Mammals’ trip with Naturetrek a few years ago, I felt somewhat deprived, so I booked this short three-night to make up for it. This is the first organised wildlife trip I’ve taken in a while and it showed what I have been missing.

I had an early wake up on Thursday morning but this was made easier by a smooth transition through Heathrow Airport. Two pleasant flights later (being grilled about Brexit by a nice Finnish lady for the entire second flight), our small group of five met up for the first time with Jarno, our tour leader.  Departing Kajaani, we had our first views of Finland on the two and half hour drive to the home for the next three nights, the Martinselkosen Wilds Centre.  The Centre is just two kilometres from the Russian border and about half way up the county on the opposite side from Oulu.

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Having visited Sweden so many times over the past 15 years, the Finnish landscape was very familiar in many ways but much more wild and remote than my usual Swedish haunts. The land is a mixture of forests, lakes and bogs and there was very little else on route. On arrival at the Wilds Centre I was very pleasantly surprised by the standard of the accommodation. We all had rooms in the annexe to the main building; clearly a recent addition with seven modern, clean and airy twin ensuite rooms – all very typically Nordic!

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After a nice evening meal, we all went off to separately explore the area making use of the gravel roads and forest tracks.  The evening was so light and the sun didn’t set until 11:00pm although that didn’t seem to make much difference to the light levels and it barely seemed like dusk when I finally got my head down at around 12:00.

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I woke to a startlingly bright day with deep blue and almost cloudless skies; the weather didn’t change from this for the rest of the stay – amazing! It was time to settle into the dining patterns for the next few days; a breakfast at 8:00 (porridge with jam and then bread, cold meats and cheeses) and a two course lunch at 3:00pm followed by sandwiches and biscuits during the evenings in the bear hides.

Breakfast gave us a first sign of the local mammals with red squirrels on the bird feeders outside the dining room window accompanied by a few bullfinches. Afterwards there was time for some more local wanderings before Jarno picked us up for a guided drive around the forests surrounding the Centre and then further afield. Along the way we saw bear scat, the last furry remains of a wolf-killed reindeer and looked in an old tree stump for owls (one wasn’t home that day).  We moved on to a birdwatching tower next to a large lake where there were excellent views of wildlife including crane, cuckoo, little gull, bean geese and whooper swan. Moving on we came to another large lake and had our first views of (living) reindeer plus a distant osprey and a couple of black-throated divers.  On the way back to the Centre we had a brief view of a larger herd of reindeer, hidden away across a bog and behind trees.

It was lunch on our return and afterwards we had a quick turnaround to get ready for our overnight stay in the main forest hide; hoping to get our first views of brown bears. However, we didn’t have to wait until we got there for our first view! Walking the 1.5km out to the hide, along first trails, we were startled by a mother bear and two cubs as they ran across the path in front of us. She stopped only 20 metres from us, turning to face us and standing on her hind legs, hurrumphing at us before turning and disappearing into the forest, followed by the cubs. I have to say she looked rather big standing so close to us with nothing in between but fresh Finnish air; earlier in the day I had a real sense of being out in the wilderness, this really brought it home!

Moving on we soon came to the forest hide, where more bears were already waiting in amongst the grass, rocks and trees. We quickly settled in, not wanting to disturb the bears too much with our presence. Again I was pleasantly surprised by the accommodation – a well-constructed, spacious wooden hide with comfy chairs and bunkbeds for all. The windows were large enough to give good views but without showing us too much to the bears and there were material covered gaps for camera lenses to be put through. Even the compost toilet was ‘nicer’ than expected and the window could have given a most unusual and memorable view to accompany that normally mundane activity!

The entire 14 hours in the hide made for one of the most unforgettable wildlife experiences of my life. There were very few minutes for the whole time when there wasn’t a least one bear to be seen and at the most spectacular there 16 of the beasts out there at one time! Most of the bears were in family groups of a mother and two, three or even four cubs. There were also adolescents who had recently separated from their mothers and most cute of all, two of this years very small cubs who made a very fleeting visit.

There was always a sense of tension between the bears while feeding on the meal left out for them, usually mothers wary about others getting too close to their cubs but early on a large male made a short, passing visit which sent most of the others scattering. However, it was much later in the evening when all hell broke loose as a male visited again and walked straight through the gathering in search of a receptive female. Most of the mothers and cubs ran off in all directions whilst other cubs shinned up trees like lightning. The male only had one thing on his mind and soon wandered off to continue his search.

Eventually we all retired to bed but with light in the sky all night it was easy just to lie on the bunk and watch the bears outside. Waking after only a few hours sleep (who could sleep properly when there were bears to be seen!), there was just a little time left to watch the animals moving around in the first rays of the dawn-breaking sun before we had to set off back to the centre for breakfast.

After a good feed, we went out for a boat trip on the nearby lakes, using almost silent electric motors to power us across the mirror-like waters. After just a few minutes, we saw a mother bear and cubs on a far off bank, who immediately ran off as soon as she saw us – another wilderness view to be remembered. We pushed on around the lakes, going through some narrows where the short distance between banks presented an opportunity for bears to cross, the animal-made paths easy to see on each side. Soon a watchtower came into view, a sign of just how close we were to the Russian Border, but thoughts soon returned to wildlife with a great view of a black woodpecker at the top of a dead tree. We eventually came to a narrow ridge between two bodies of water and got out of the boat to look for more signs of bears, finding hairs caught on undergrowth and tree bark ripped by large powerful claws. Returning to the boat, we floated back to the start across the still flat calm lakes and returned to the Centre for lunch.

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It was soon time to head out for a second but shorter visit to a bear hide. We went to the evening hide, a little distance away from the previous location but in a different setting. Instead of nestling within the forest, it sat out on the swamp with grassland and scrub as a background. Whilst there weren’t as many bears, seven over the course of four hours, the setting seemed more wild and the rich evening light provided great conditions for photographs. The bears were quite obliging with close views and the sight of another very large male at eye level was quite unforgettable. However, it didn’t seem long until we had to make the trip back to the minibus after the final evening with the bears, back along the path through the forest looking out for any unexpected sightings in the still good light.

After the memorable previous couple of days, it was sad to make our way to Oulu Airport in the morning straight after breakfast. The journey made some more memories, however, with a few sightings of reindeer on the roadside as well as a couple of female capercallies. The group said goodbye to Jarno who had led us so well during our stay and made our way into the nice modern terminal and on to our flight home via Helsinki.

Overall, over the course of the trip we saw brown bears a plenty, a good few reindeer, red squirrels, a mountain hare, signs of beavers and a muskrat holt, over 50 species of bird and grand northern wilderness landscapes – this trip was anything but ‘Just Brown Bears’.