Annual trip summary - 2017

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I can hardly believe that this is the third annual trip summary that I’ve written since I retired at the end of 2014. We’ve had some great adventures in that time, revisiting favourite haunts in the UK, France and Mallorca, plus more exotic destinations such as the Southern Pantanal, Ruaha in Tanzania and Bird Island, Seychelles. We’ve also explored new places including Romania, Iceland, Zambia and Galapagos and, extending the list this year, Kenya, Finland and Peru. This is what we enjoy doing and all the time we’re able we will continue to do so. Whilst there are many more places we’d like to visit, we’re generally concentrating on Africa and South America rather than looking further afield. In saying that though, there are a couple of trips that we’re looking at which will take us into completely unknown territories. But I’ll talk about those at the appropriate time when, or if, we’ve visited them. Virtually all of our trips are geared around wildlife photography and, where possible, we’ll do them privately. However, with certain destinations it’s not practical and you have to visit as a group - the smaller the better. The trick here is to do your homework and make sure that you’re going to be with like-minded people, led by a photographer who knows the habitat. Our recent trip to Peru was a case in point, but more about that later. So where have we been during the past twelve months?

The year should have started with a two-week specialist bird photography tour of the Gambia at the end of January, but due to the possibility of civil unrest at the time there was a 72 hour period when the Foreign Office were advising against travel. This was just a few days before we were due to depart and, although the situation didn’t develop, our trip had to be cancelled. It was ironic, because the Gambia is a totally safe destination that had been politically stable for many years. However, the longtime leader, Yahya Jammeh, had lost the previous month's presidential election to businessman and political newcomer Adama Barrow. The problem was that Jammeh had been holding onto power since he staged a military coup back in 1994 and, whilst initially accepting defeat, refused to leave office. Obviously it was a bit more involved that that, but that’s the gist of the situation. The bottom line for us was that the trip was cancelled or, to be more precise, deferred by a year to the same dates in 2018.

We were all but packed and ready to go so, wanting to fill the gap so to speak, we started looking at a few options. Whilst the Gambia is in West Africa rather than East Africa it did make us think safari, and that’s exactly what we found ourselves doing just a couple of weeks later. As I noted at the time, it was a bit of a strange decision, because we decided to go to the Masai Mara - a popular safari destination for many, but one that we’d been actively avoiding due to its popularity. There’s no point repeating everything I said at the time other than to say that the unfortunate and untimely situation with our Gambia trip had a silver lining. Booking a safari at such short notice was a major shock to the wallet, but it got us to Kenya and gave us one of the best African wildlife trips we’ve ever had. We now have another favourite destination. A ‘travel section’ write-up for this particular trip including a map and some information about the Greater Masai Mara region can be found here.

Malaika the famous female cheetah - Masai Mara, Kenya
Malaika the famous female cheetah - Masai Mara, Kenya
 

In March we had a completely different experience as we had a short break in Kuusamo, northern Finland. This was the furthest north we’ve ever travelled. We were close to Lapland near the border with the Russian Republic of Karelia, and only about an hour's drive from the Arctic Circle. It was cold, very cold in fact, down to around -20°C some mornings! Our main target species were black grouse lekking in the snow, and golden and white-tailed eagles. We managed to photograph those species plus a few others including a magnificent Hawk Owl, which was probably the highlight of the trip, all thanks to the local knowledge and guidance of Finnish wildlife photographer Olli Lamminsalo. The associated trip report can be found here.

Hawk Owl - Taivalkoski, Northern Ostrobothnia, Finland
Hawk Owl - Taivalkoski, Northern Ostrobothnia, Finland
 

At the end of May we spent a week in Extremadura. Although we’ve been to Spain a number of times this was a new area for us, so we decided to secure the services of well-known local naturalist Martin Kelsey. This was unusual as we like to ‘paddle our own canoe’ in situations like that, but I have to say that it was definitely the right decision because I don’t think we would have managed to have seen or photographed a fraction of what we did without his assistance. It was a nice relaxed week and one we’re looking to repeat at a different time of year.

Griffon Vulture - Torrejón El Rubio / Monfrague, Extremadura
Griffon Vulture - Torrejón El Rubio / Monfrague, Extremadura
 

To complete a trio of European destinations we then had a week in the Marais Poitevin area of France in early June staying in the same little gite that we’d been to the previous two years.

In July we were back in Africa for a two-destination safari in southern Tanzania. First stop was Selous, staying at Sand Rivers on the Rufiji River, and then onto Ruaha and the Mwagusi Safari Camp where we’ve stayed three times previously. Every safari is different and this trip was no exception. We had some great sightings - perhaps not as exciting, or indeed as many, as those we’d enjoyed earlier in the year in the Masai Mara, but different encounters that all contribute to the safari experience. Considering we only went on our first safari in 2012, I find it quite amazing that this was our sixth trip to East Africa. Each of the countries we’ve visited - Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia - have given us quite different experiences and, if we were asked now to say which was our favourite, we wouldn’t be able to answer as each is special in its own way. We certainly want to visit Kenya and Zambia again, but also are now being drawn to other African destinations such as Namibia, Uganda and Ethiopia to name three as they all offer different habitats and species. I guess we’ll run out of time and money before we run out of places to visit!

Sundowners with our guide Ernest - Rufiji River, Selous Game Reserve
Sundowners with our guide Ernest - Rufiji River, Selous Game Reserve
 

That was three trips in consecutive months so the back end of July and August were spent at home enjoying what ever bit of English summer we could get and catching up on some jobs that needed doing.

At the beginning of September we loaded up the Land Rover and drove to Scotland for a couple of days in the Cairngorms followed by a week in the Highlands near Inverness. As I noted at the time in my journal section '2017 - Q3 diary' entry, the trip didn’t quite go to plan due to problems with the car but, in the great scheme of things, it didn’t really matter that much as we were staying in a very nice cottage and had managed to get a few photos on the way up.

Red Grouse in the rain - Lochindorb Estate, Cairngorms
Red Grouse in the rain - Lochindorb Estate, Cairngorms
 

Once we were back home we started putting some serious thought to our forthcoming three-week tour of southeast Peru - a trip that would take us from the high Andes down into the Amazon basin. This trip was very special on so many levels starting with all the considerations that we had to make with regard to what to pack, to the actual experience of being in the rainforest. Upon returning home I spent quite a bit of time putting together a lengthy write-up and accompanying set of photos so that I have something to look back on in years to come. This was one of the main reasons I decided to build my own website - not just somewhere to showcase my photos, but somewhere I could put all of these travel experiences together. Apart from producing a book, I can’t think of a better way of keeping all these memories to hand. Having just mentioned a book, I do intend one day to put together a self-published coffee table type book full of special images and stories from our adventures in the Neotropics. But that’s at least another three years away as there are already three further trips to Central or South America that we have planned and, therefore, I’m going to wait to ensure I’m using the best material available. In the meantime I shall enjoy going back to my 'Peru - Andes to Amazon’ write-up that can be found here.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock - Kosñipata Valley, Peruvian Andes
Andean Cock-of-the-Rock - Kosñipata Valley, Peruvian Andes
 

At the end of my opening paragraph I mentioned the importance of planning and research, and the need to accept that sometimes you have to go on group trips. I also specifically mentioned the need to be with someone who knows the area or habitat. Without doubt we’ve had a good year, but when I look back over this summary I realise just how much of our success and enjoyment has been down to the people we’ve been with. This started in Kenya with James our Maasai guide and driver who was with us throughout our stay at both camps. He not only knew the area, but also most of the animals that lived there. We then had Olli Lamminsalo in Finland, a nature lover and bird expert who moved to Kuusamo fifteen years ago just to be closer to the wildlife he likes to photograph. Similarly in Spain with Martin Kelsey, another well-known ‘birder’ who used to work for BirdLife International and who’s now been guiding similar minded people around his local patch in Extremadura for the past ten years or so. During our time in Tanzania we were in the very capable hands of Ernest our guide, driver and boatman in Selous, and then with Jemi and Vincent in Ruaha. Whilst both Ernest and Jemi were new faces, Vincent had been our driver on all our previous trips since 2012. He knows every tree, every bush, every track and probably every pothole. You can’t buy experience like that. And finally in Peru, where we were in the expert company of wildlife photographer Nick Garbutt and macro specialist Alex Hyde - a quite formidable team when it comes to rainforest experience. So although I know that none of you will read this, I’d just like to say thank you for your time, knowledge and patience. We had some great times and a few laughs along the way.

So that concludes my summary of the year, other than to reflect on how much travelling we did compared with 2015 and 2016. This is just a bit of fun really, but I like looking back. In 2015 I recorded that we’d been away for 73 nights in eight different locations in seven countries. In 2016 it was 78 nights in eight locations, but in eight different countries. This year my ‘holiday planner’ tells me that it was again 73 nights, but in ten separate locations in seven countries. Technically it should be eight countries if I count Bolivia where we stayed just over the border on our last few nights in the Amazon but, forgetting that, we seem to have a bit of a pattern going. Long may it continue.