‘He’s so beautiful!’ I gasped, and the cameras around me clicked away excitedly. We had boarded the boats at 6.00am, just as dawn broke, and had left for our first trip along the winding river. As we rounded a bend we saw him up above us on the bank, majestically surveying us and his territory - our first sighting of a Brazilian Jaguar in the Pantanal. This was Three Spot, so called because of a distinctive pattern of spots on his coat, and we were in his territory. He showed no fear of us and continued to pose for the cameras until he decided he’d graciously given us enough of his time, then slowly rose to his feet and strolled away into the forest.

I knew we were looking for Jaguars - after all, the tour was called ‘Just Jaguars!’, but I’d never expected to be so overwhelmed by my first sighting of the third largest of the big cats, after the Tiger and the Lion. And the Pantanal Jaguars seemed to be a healthy population, because the following evening we went out on to the river at dusk, and in the beam of a strong torch we watched another Jaguar climbing through the vegetation on the edge of the bank. From her markings we were told this was Pacman, the female from a territory adjacent to Three Spot’s, and she was soon to give birth to his cubs. Recent wildlife programmes on TV have featured other large predators - Polar Bears, Cheetahs - looking gaunt as they struggle to find enough prey to keep them and their young well fed, perhaps as a result of climate change or human interference. The same could not have been said about Three Spot and Pacman - they were the picture of health.

It was winter time in the Pantanal - the dry season. We travelled the length of the Transpantaneira, 145 km of well-maintained dirt road which was wide enough to allow two vehicles to pass each other comfortably - except at the 125 single-track bridges. All along the way we kept alert, on the watch for wildlife, and there was plenty. We became accustomed to seeing families of Capybara around and in the waterholes, and initially ignored the piles of logs nearby until we realised that these were caiman crowded together, sometimes on top of each other because of a shortage of space. These two contrasting species seemed to co-exist peacefully - perhaps the Capybaras could judge when a caiman was hungry and so beat a hasty retreat!

Our first stop along the highway was at a ranch in the drier part of the region, which was home to 14 Hyacinth Macaws. These, the largest of the macaws, are a brilliant blue colour and were one of the birds I’d been looking forward to seeing. We awoke to their noisy chatter as they greeted one another at sunrise. It was at the ranch, too, that one evening we were invited through the kitchen to the back yard, where a young tapir was scrumping fruit. We were told that his mother had introduced him to the tree and its delights, and he nonchalantly tested each windfall with his strange extended top lip, only eating the ones that were just right. On the last afternoon in that area, we had been punted gently along a shallow lake through patches of floating water plants, whilst ahead of us birds called warnings of our approach. As dusk fell we made our return, nightjars fluttering all around us, their wing beats more like that of butterflies rather than birds - magical.

The highway ended at the river, where we stayed for the second half of our tour at a holiday complex with bungalows overlooking the water. We had noticed the vegetation becoming greener and denser as we approached the area, and looked forward to searching out the wildlife of this new environment from the boats.

Family parties of Giant River Otters would swim along under the overhanging vegetation of the riverbank, rippling sinuously through the water, diving under and then reappearing with a fish which was noisily scrunched with enjoyment. And one day we slowly passed a caiman in the water alongside the bank - she was using her body as a protective barrier as she watched her newly hatched young struggling, scrambling and sliding down the bank into the river for their first swim kept from harm by their mother.

This was an exciting tour of contrasts, relived through our photos. And do we often remind ourselves of that first sight of a Jaguar? Well, it has to be just in our mind’s eye - my husband was so overawed by such a beautiful creature that he completely forgot to take any photos!

For further information about our 12-day 'Brazil - Just Jaguars!' holiday please visit the tour webpage.

 

Leopard (Andy Smith)

My eyes constantly interrogated the thick scrub as our jeep negotiated the rough track. We were running out of time and the light seemed to be fading. Light drizzle began to fall and the realisation that our goal might be missed was now becoming a distinct possibility. I contemplated the evening spent in quiet anguish with only a final morning game drive left.

But this was Yala National park in southern Sri Lanka. A place reputed to have one of the world’s highest concentrations of this big cat that was so high on my wish list. The park is dissected by tracks, between which are dense areas of of forest and scrub, the domain of Panthera pardus kotiya. The Leopards in Yala have large undisturbed areas in which to hunt and tall, large limbed trees in which to doze away the heat of the midday sun. Jeeps keep to the tracks and there is no doubt which mammal struts his stuff here.

As befits its name, the Wet Zone of the south-west quarter of Sri Lanka more than lived up to this title. The same cyclone that gave Chennai and the Coromandel coast a hard time at the end of October and beginning of November provided a new meaning to the word ‘rain’ over the three days we were staying at the Blue Magpie Lodge, situated at the edge of this incredible Biosphere Reserve. To be fair, the whole of Sri Lanka was subjected to a deluge of rain, in many places leading to flooding, but in Sinharaja we had more than 40cm in this short time. Undeterred, we and our excellent, unfazed leader fought through the heavenly stair rods with robust umbrellas and anti-leech socks and were rewarded with unbelievable scenery, biodiversity and endemism. The montane landscape, thickly cloaked in forest, much of it primary, contained a magnificent tree structure, 65% of which are endemic species (especially of the Dipterocarpaceae family), some in excess of 40m in height. Below this canopy there were smaller trees, a wonderful shrub layer both on the ground and growing epiphytically, a plethora of Pteridophytes, ranging from tree ferns to diaphanous filmy ferns, the latter growing on the boles of large trees.

On our first day we were greeted at 6am by the whistling call of the changeable hawk eagle only 20m from the dining area of our lodge. It seemed immune to the torrential rain, and its piercing cry penetrated the early morning gloom, before we actually saw the bird. On arrival at the Research Centre of the forest, we soon saw a pair of the exceptionally rare scaly thrushes only 4m away, who gave us a full 15 minutes of their time, demonstrating their forest floor foraging behaviour. Their evolved large eyes, for coping with the poor light in this habitat, were striking. Soon the powerful silence of the rainforest was punctured by a mixed feeding party of red-faced malkohas, Malabar trogons, black bulbuls, dark-fronted, orange-billed and Indian scimitar babblers and ashy-headed laughing thrushes, all orchestrated by crested drongos. This strategy of collective feeding is presumably biologically advantageous. Occasionally we would hear the low-pitched notes of purple leaf monkeys. The rain continued, at times intensifying and in places rendering the paths awash. To avoid the larger puddles, our downwards directed eyes revealed two interesting invertebrates. First a huge earthworm nearly 0.5m long, blue-grey and hoovering up forest floor detritus. The second creature was a freshwater crab crossing the path; it appeared somewhat incongruous at 1000m above sea level!

Thankfully the rain did ease at times allowing stunning butterflies to emerge such as the tree nymph and the rare red-spot duke. During the evening meal the rain exceeded its earlier vigour and within 10 minutes, clouds of winged termites appeared, attracted to the lights of the dining area. This kept the house geckos and several bats happy for half an hour.

Next day we saw five blue-winged magpies with their surrealistic bright blue and chestnut plumage and equally vivid scarlet bill and legs. These amazing birds alone made the trip worthwhile, although the botanical rivals for me were the 15cm deep pitchers of Nepenthes distillatoria. Large (6cm) snails were sometimes seen in groups attached to small trees, occasionally grazing on lichens.

After another excellent lunch at the lodge, we had a local very wet walk at the edge of the reserve and were rewarded with good views of a green-billed coucal and a spot-winged thrush. A splendid 16cm black and white millipede was most impressive.

A final walk gave four more endemic birds – Sri Lankan hanging parrot, Layard’s parakeet, yellow-fronted barbet and Legge’s flowerpecker. As we were returning to the lodge, a pair of black-rumped woodpeckers afforded us superb views by flying into a tree 15m in front of us.

The biological wealth of Sinharaja is almost overpowering and we felt both enriched and humbled by nature - including the rain and leeches!

 

For further information about our 10-day Sri Lanka - Elephants & Other Wildlife holiday please visit the tour webpage: http://www.naturetrek.co.uk/tour.aspx?id=283

Great Bustard

Early morning. London shrouded in dense, wet cold fog. Would the plane be able to take off? It did, only half an hour late, and in less than two hours we were landing at Valladolid in brilliant warm sunshine. Soon we were driving past a forest of wind turbines and fields of solar panels and out across the wide vistas of the steppe under a vast dome of blue sky. Before very long we pulled up on the side of the road and there towards the horizon was a flock of turkey-sized Great Bustard. A little further on we pulled off the road and watched more Great Bustard feeding on the stubble and a large flock flying. A magnificent sight! There were warblers and other birds flitting in the bushes but we had seen the first of the two main targets of the trip, and we had hardly arrived! We hoped we would be as fortunate with the Wolves.

Having settled into our comfortable accommodation in the Hostal Romeros in the the grey village of Villarrecieros (Village of the Red Deer) we set out again for an evening Wolf search. We saw a magnificent Red Deer stag with impressive antlers, Roe Deer and a few saw a Wild Boar and piglet crossing a ride ... but no Wolves.

Next morning, just as dawn was breaking, we were off again, this time parking at the side of a quiet road. We scanned the surrounding heathland, backed by pine forest, from the vans for a little while before getting out in silence armed with telescopes and binoculars to continue scanning. Suddenly Julian saw movement in the heather on the edge of the forest. WOLVES! They came out onto the road about 500m from us, five of them, a female and four youngsters probably one or two years old. As the female stood watching one youngster stayed in the heather while the others rolled and played on the road, probably enjoying the warmth remaining in the tarmac from the previous day's sun. For perhaps 15 minutes we watched them, almost breathless with excitement, until a van came down the road. Unhurriedly the family slipped away into the heather and the spell was broken. Words like ‘fantastic’, ‘incredible’ and ‘magic’ were bandied about the group but no superlatives were really adequate to describe the experience we had just been privileged to enjoy. We could hardly believe how fortunate we had been to have had such a wonderful view of Wolves in the wild.

The rest of the trip was a bonus. Birds were numerous. Red Kites were common as were Northern Lapwings, and after a number of warblers and other small birds the highlights were probably a superb view of a Southern Grey Shrike, a captivating Little Owl, storks feeding with Common Cranes and, perhaps best of all, a Kingfisher feeding close to the bridge over the Rio Esla.

We did not see Wolves again, or Otters or Wild Boar, but the memories of the Wolves will remain with all of us for ever. Thank you Byron and Julian.

For further information about our 5-day Wolf watching holiday in Spain please please visit the tour webpage.

 

 

Lion

The red ball, as Shadrach our driver called it, had just disappeared below the horizon and we took a few more turns along the sandy track. Suddenly we saw a light come into view and then a final twist and the camp site opened out in front of us. The tents were set out around a waterhole with the dining area behind. As we climbed down we were greeted with big smiles from the camp staff and a much needed welcome drink. We had arrived at Xakanaxa in the Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana - our home for the next four nights. And so we had begun what turned out to be a truly memorable safari.

After dinner it was off to bed as the next challenge was to get up at 5am the following morning. Sleep was interrupted by the occasional snort from a hippo, the call of hyena as they passed through the camp and the roar of lion in the distance. It was still dark when hot water was brought to the tent. We quickly dressed and, after toast and coffee, we were off on our first game drive.

As we drove out of camp in the afternoon Shadrach stopped the vehicle. He said he had heard reports of cheetah in another part of the reserve. ‘Shall we try and find them?’, he enquired. Silly question, ‘What you waiting for?’, came the immediate response. He put the vehicle through its paces as the scenery changed from mopane forest to much more open straw-coloured grassland. The soft sand in places slowed our progress, not to mention some rather interesting wooden bridges with some of the deck below the water level. The large flat open areas beyond the Bridge Three Gate were perfect areas for cheetah and everyone was on the edge of their seat scanning both sides of the vehicle. And then suddenly Shadrach with his incredible eyesight picked up the movement in the grass. Before long we had found three cheetahs that took advantage of a nearby termite mound and sat down to survey the surrounding countryside. We sat there marvelling at these magnificent creatures before they eventually wandered off and left us realising how lucky we had been to see this endangered species.

And so this trip went on with some amazing sights: herds of 1,000 Cape buffalo and 70 elephant; a pack of wild dogs and a pair of male lions all seen from the first camp. All too quickly we moved camp to the Khwai Community Area. Here we experienced the excitement of night drives. Without doubt the highlight came with the wild dogs. A pack was seen relaxing during the day. However, we had the good fortune to see the dogs on a kill that night and to observe the interaction between the members of the pack.

Our friend Rita, with whom we have been to Africa several times before, always says to the guide, ‘Find me a leopard up a tree.’ She has always returned home with this ambition unfulfilled. Not this time. Our last full day began quietly taking the track alongside the Khwai River. As we turned away from the river we came across a hyena on its way home. Not long after we saw a stationary jeep close to a tree. Investigating further we arrived just in time to see a leopard at the base of the tree walking off to a nearby bush. Looking up into the tree we discovered a pair of legs and a head which had once belonged to a common duiker. We moved on but returned, at the end of the morning drive, to find her up the tree finishing off the kill. Yellow-billed kites circled the tree in expectation of a morsel. During the meal the head of carcass fell to the ground. After the excitement of seeing the leopard come head-first down the tree, she circled the tree, picked up the head and disappeared into the undergrowth. Rita was grinning from ear to ear and said, ‘What shall I ask for next time?’

All good things have to come to an end, or so we thought. Having said our fond farewells to the camp staff we started on our way back to the airport at Maun, but incorporating a short game drive first. As we tracked along the river again, Shadrach’s eagle eyes picked up a pride of lions on the other side of the river. The trailer with our entire luggage was quickly unhitched from the jeep, left on river bank, and we took to the river with a bow wave coming well up the front grill. The pride had obviously just quenched their thirst at the river before making their way back to their resting spot for the day. The seven lions, two mothers and their offspring, slowly made their towards a tree stump where they collapsed in a heap and allowed the rising sun to warm their bodies. It was then a quick dash back across the river, hitch up the trailer and head straight for the airport. What a way to finish!

For further details about our 10-day mammal watching holiday 'Botswana's Desert & Delta' please visit the tour webpage.