Annual trip summary - 2015

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So, here we are at the end of 2015 - hopefully the first of a few busy years.

This was always going to be a significant year for us following my retirement in October 2014. It was the start of a new phase of our lives where we will have more time to relax and indulge in our passion for travel and wildlife photography. I’d always planned to retire a couple of years early if I could to give us the opportunity of enjoying a few good years travelling before age, or any health issues, starts to restrict us. You don’t know what cards you’re going to be dealt or how your life is going to pan out, so it’s important to enjoy yourself when you can. Overseas travelling, particularly to long-haul destinations like South America or Africa, can be both expensive and to a degree physically demanding, so there’s always going to be a balance between finance and health. Do you retire early with less money when health is good, or at least reasonable, or carry on working to the end, that’s the question. I’d made my decision and fortunately had the opportunity to exit my business at a time that suited me. It’s now been just over a year and, on reflection, I have to say that it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Our first trip was a post-retirement extravagance of a specially organised nature photography cruise around the Galapagos Islands - a dream destination for anyone who’s interested in wildlife. We departed the UK on Saturday 24th January flying American Airlines, via Miami, down to Quito in Ecuador. It was a good flight, apart from the ridiculously long and frustrating procedure in getting through American border control in Miami. In theory we had plenty of time but, despite jumping queues, we only just caught the connecting flight by the skin of our teeth. We were literally the last people to board. So, perhaps not surprisingly, we arrived in Ecuador to find that one of the group’s bags was still in Miami. Yes, my bag! Fortunately it was tracked down quickly and sent out on the first plane the next morning. It was an annoying start to the trip, but thankfully we were spending a few days in Ecuador before flying out to Galapagos, so I was reunited with it at our hotel later in the day. We left Quito the following morning to head up the Tandayapa Valley into the mountains, where we stayed at the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve Lodge for a few nights for the primary purpose of hummingbird photography. We then travelled back to Quito for another night in the hotel before meeting the rest of our small group and taking the relatively short flight over to Baltra. The Galapagos experience was really good with many wonderful and memorable moments. I won’t dwell on any of it here as this is purely an annual summary, and there’s a full Galapagos trip report within the ‘travel’ section. After ten very enjoyable days on the yacht we flew back to the Ecuador mainland for another two nights in Quito. The flight back home via Miami was a doddle compared with the trip out and, on time, we arrived back at Heathrow on the morning of Thursday 12th February. In total, 19 days away, the longest ‘holiday’ we’ve ever had and a great way of starting the year.

Marine Iguana - Punta Moreno, Isabela Island, Galapagos
Marine Iguana - Punta Moreno, Isabela Island, Galapagos
 

We knew it would take a fair amount of time to sort and develop the photos from Galapagos, so the next trip was at the end of April when we took a leisurely drive up to Scotland. We rented a cottage at Treshnish on the Isle of Mull for a week, prior to which we stayed a couple of nights in Newton Stewart so that we could explore the Galloway Kite Trail, and then staying a further two nights at a lovely B&B on the way home at Kilmartin in Argyll. It was an enjoyable and very relaxed 12 day trip.

We were back home for little more than three weeks before we were off again, this time further north on a Greentours ’through the lens’ photographic tour of South West Iceland. Although the emphasis for this trip was going to be on bird photography we were a bit apprehensive as landscapes and flowers would also feature. We’d experienced the problems this can throw up the year before on a similar trip to Morocco when a couple of members of the group were only interested in plants! When this happens the guide has the unenviable job of trying to satisfy everyone’s requirements. Our trip was led by Tony Beck, a Canadian wildlife and nature photographer, who’s also a Nikon Ambassador and representative. Despite pretty awful weather we had a good week, particularly as the already small group was down to just the two of us, a lady from Wales and our leader/driver, as two other participants unfortunately (for them) had to drop out. So there was just the four of us in a small SUV. I don’t know when Greentours were aware, or whether they were still trying to make up numbers, but I’m obviously pleased that they let the trip go ahead as it’s not unusual in situations like this for tours to be cancelled if the minimum number of participants isn’t achieved. I think we got lucky as the trip would have been quite different if there had been more of us as, presumably, we would have used a small mini-bus, which would not have given us the same opportunities we had when photographing from the SUV. The original plan was to drive to a site and then walk but, with the rain and bitterly cold winds that we were experiencing, we spent a fair amount of time on off-road tracks where we could take photos from the comfort of the vehicle. That’s not to say that we didn’t get out and get wet, because we did! All I can say is that we made the best of the situation and for that I thank Tony for his knowledge, good humour and patience. We certainly liked the country and can see ourselves going back there, when we will probably make our own self-drive arrangements. A write-up about the trip can be found here.

Harlequin Duck - Kirkjufell, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, West Iceland
Harlequin Duck - Kirkjufell, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, West Iceland
 

We arrived back from Iceland at the end of May, and just over three weeks later set off again, but this time south to warmer climes. This was a return visit to the Southern Pantanal in Brazil, an area that we’d visited before in 2013. We started at Baia das Pedras where we’d stayed previously and then moved down to the River Negro to stay at Fazenda Barranco Alto. It was another really good trip - great weather, good accommodation, lovely food, plus plentiful and varied wildlife sightings. Whilst these factors are key to a good trip it’s also important that in places like this you have a good knowledgable local guide. We had such a guide for part of our first trip and, because we connected and got on so well, we made sure that she would be available to accompany us throughout this visit. Thank you Manuela - we had a great time and hope to meet up again soon. Some general information about the area can be found here.

Hyacinth Macaws - Barranco Alto, Southern Pantanal, Brazil
Hyacinth Macaws - Barranco Alto, Southern Pantanal, Brazil
 

The remainder of July and all of August was spent at home in the UK.

In early September we had a part-family holiday in France as we went with Jo, one of our daughters. We took the ferry from Portsmouth and had a leisurely drive down to a small gite we’d booked that was right on the bank of a canal at the edge of a nature reserve within the Marais Poitevin National Park. It was an idyllic location and one we will return to. Given that Jo was with us we only went out one morning to explore the local area from a photography point of view, so almost all the photos we took were either from the gite terrace or along the canal. There were quite a few birds in the vicinity, but photographing them was challenging to say the least as they were far more difficult to approach than in the UK. The problem is, that despite the National Park status and the fact that the area is effectively a nature reserve, the French make it a hobby to shoot anything that has fur or feathers! A somewhat general statement I know, but one that’s not far from the truth. At present the canal is home to a population of coypu so I spent a fair bit of time during the late afternoons watching their antics and trying to capture a variety of behavioural shots. Unfortunately the owner of the gite said that they were causing damage to the canal banks and that the local council were going to come and set-up traps in order to reduce the numbers. There’s a Coypu special photo set with a short write-up under ‘collections'. I’m not sure how many we'll see when we return in 2016.

Cattle Egrets - Canal des Trois Fosses, Marais Poitevin, France
Cattle Egrets - Canal des Trois Fosses, Marais Poitevin, France
 

We arrived home from our week in France on Saturday 12th September and set off again on Monday 21st for a few days in Suffolk where we stayed at 'The Ship at Dunwich’, which is a small village pub in close proximity to the well-known RSPB reserve at Minsmere. This was a short-break retirement present from my fellow directors. Whilst we found Minsmere to be an interesting, well cared for and reasonably thought-out reserve, it was the same as most RSPB sites in that there was very little to see unless you were in a hide. It was also, not surprisingly, rather popular and quite busy on the days we were there. But, the disappointing thing was that due to the time of year there was actually very little to see and photograph. We managed a couple of quick grab shots of bearded tits, which was nice, and few shots of hobbys, but little else.

October was another month that we kept clear so that we could catch up with things at home and have the opportunity of visiting some of our local sites.

And, then to round off the year, we departed the UK on Tuesday 3rd November for our annual trip to Bird Island, Seychelles, a favourite destination that we’ve been fortunate enough to have visited for the past 14 or so years. We stayed a full two weeks returning home on Thursday 19th November.

Hawksbill Turtle - Bird Island, Seychelles
Hawksbill Turtle - Bird Island, Seychelles
 

In total, around 73 nights away, visiting eight different locations in seven countries.