Wildlife Holiday News

Results: 2017 Writing Competition

Our 2017 Writing Competition closed on Saturday 31st December and the winning entry was published in our (hardcopy) Spring Newsletter in February. If you wish to read all three of the winning articles, please read on.

First prize (a Naturetrek holiday or a £1,000 Naturetrek Voucher): Epipogium by Gareth Williams.

Second prize (a £500 Naturetrek Voucher): The Enchanted Rainforest by Emma Greenwood

Third Prize (a £250 Naturetrek Voucher): Mongolia’s Snow Leopards by Julie Dore

(As some of you will be aware, we have been experiencing problems with our blog. Please note that our 2017 Writing Competition entries have not been published on our blog.)

Enter our 2018 Writing Competition:

To enter our 2018 Writing Competition, and have a chance to win a Naturetrek holiday in Europe, just write about your experiences on one of our holidays and send it to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.! Entries will be published on our blog (when it is up and running again!), and the competition closes on 31st December 2018.

Our 2017 Writing Competition Winners:

1. First prize: Epipogium by Gareth Williams

Gareth Williams travelled on our 'France — The Vercors' holiday in July 2017 and wrote his evocative winning entry, entitled ‘Epipogium’, about finding the rare and elusive Ghost Orchid in a secret location in the Vercors, the rugged limestone plateau that rises above Grenoble!

I’ve always been fascinated by wild orchids, with their quirky sex lives, bold shapes and colours too exotic to belong in a European flora. I’m not one of those who religiously ticks off each new species, but I usually remember when and where I first met them. Bee Orchid: 10 years old, family picnic on a clifftop overlooking a never-ending beach in County Down. A quarter of a century later, above Plakias on the south coast of Crete, a field full of Serapias. Another quarter-century slipped by, and I found myself balancing with one foot on a rock in the middle of a black mountain stream in Abruzzo, wishing that the Lady’s Slipper had found somewhere more sensible to grow.

And now I’m up on the Vercors, the rugged limestone plateau above Grenoble that is a stepping stone to the Alps, hoping to register another virtual lifetime tick. It’s an extreme rarity, and it’s also bizarre enough to have caught the imagination of a poet. The poet is Michael Longley, who taught English at my school in Belfast en route to greater things. Longley's poetry is lyrical, powerful and drawn from both nature and the classical mythologies. The poem in question is short — only five lines — but has a fabulously evocative title, which I found all the more mystical because the species he chose did not figure in any of the flower books that I pored over as a child. Longley’s poem is entitled ‘The Ghost Orchid’.

This locality is a well-guarded secret, camouflaged in ordinariness — like a treasure-house hidden away behind a nondescript front door. Sixty yards up the slope and in hot sunshine, cars pass quite often and have no reason to stop. Down here, under the heavy canopy of beech trees, it is eerily cold and dark, even after your eyes have adjusted to the gloom. Occasional shafts of sunshine penetrate to the ground, spotlighting the felted brown carpet of last year’s beech leaves. The leaves yield underfoot like heavy sponge and release a faint scent of decay. I think I know what I’m looking for, but find nothing. Several minutes go by before someone calls, ‘There’s one here.’ We all converge on the spot, and there it is.

So far on this trip, whenever something new was discovered, everyone gathered around and excitement hung in the air. This time, people speak quietly, if at all; perhaps it’s the darkness and the cold. There is already a queue to photograph it, so I scan the slope for others. It’s as frustrating as trying to pick out snipe against reeds, or agates on a pebbly beach, but finally I get my eye in and a few more emerge from the copper-brown leaf litter. One is lit up by a tiny beam of sunlight, as if on stage, and I climb up to it. The flower is so small that I need the macro lens to see it clearly. Close up, it’s dramatic but nobody would describe it as beautiful.

In Longley’s poem, the Ghost Orchid has leaves like ‘flakes of skin’ and ‘a colour dithering between pink and yellow’. His description can’t be faulted but the thing that strikes me most is how strange and alien it looks, with yellowish ribbons dangling below a waxy, pink-streaked bonnet. It could almost have been beamed in from a distant planet — a hypothetical place where this odd little flower could be an object of exquisite beauty.

Back on the road and in the sunshine, conversation picks up again and we head back to the hotel. On the way, we stop beside a neat, well-tended cemetery enclosed by a white wall. The orchids are in good company, because the Vercors has many ghosts of its own; this was a stronghold for the French Resistance, and a place of horrific retribution.

The Ghost Orchid has been described as ‘the Holy Grail for many orchidophiles’. Unfortunately, that tribute has not rescued the species from its inexorable slide towards oblivion. From being ‘the rarest wild plant in Britain’, it has probably moved on into the afterlife on our side of the Channel. Michael Longley’s poem, published in 1990, referred to its ‘few remaining sites’, but that’s poetic license. In 2005, Orchids of the British Isles reported a statistic that may turn out to be an epitaph: there had been no documented sightings in England for almost twenty years.

For now at least, the Ghost Orchid still clings to life in the Vercors. Go to see it while you can; pay your respects and treasure the memory.

For further information about our tours to France, and our botanical holidays please call Andy Tucker on 01962 733051 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

2. Second prize: The Enchanted Rainforest by Emma Greenwood

Emma travelled on our ‘Canada – The West’ holiday in September 2017.

Standing on the dock the mood of the group was low. The bags were packed and ready to be loaded into the plane. The morning in the hide had yielded yet more amazing views of Grizzly Bears chasing down salmon, including our favourite mum and cubs making a welcome final appearance. We had filled up on yet another delicious meal courtesy of the amazing team. But now we were contemplating having to leave paradise. And it didn’t feel good … 
The Great Bear Rainforest is truly one of the most magical places on Earth. Part of the largest coastal rainforest in the world, located on the Pacific Coast of British Columbia, even reaching it is a once in a lifetime experience. As the Grumman Goose plane glides into the inlet that is home to Great Bear Lodge you can feel every care from modern life drift away. As you disembark onto your floating home for the next few days you are met by friendly and attentive staff, and the smell of freshly baked cookies. There is no internet, no phone reception, and the only thing on the horizon are the snow-capped mountains of British Columbia. There is an instant sense of relaxation, and after three brilliant days you simply don’t want to leave. 
Before our flight back to Vancouver Island there was one final trip out in the boats, to see a different part of the inlet, in the opposite direction from where we had been viewing the bears. The weather was starting to change, with threatening rain clouds hanging in the sky. The previous few days had seen consistent sunshine — it was as if the rainforest knew we were going and was also unhappy about it. There were four of us in our boat, with Marg — the host at Great Bear Lodge — at the helm of the small motor. There were four boats in total, each one picking out its own route as we set off. Our boat headed down a wide channel, one of the biggest expanses of water we had been on in our time at the lodge. The rocky walls of a gorge towered either side, with the odd tree hanging on where it could. There was not much in the way of wildlife to be seen, other than a cheeky harbour seal that kept poking his head out as we chugged along. It was cold, the water was choppy, and it was starting to rain. 
As we reached the end of the wide inlet we opted for one of the narrow tributaries. We cut the motor and took up the oars. It was a relief to be out of the wind, the rain was easing off, and we were closer to the banks and forest so there was more wildlife to be seen. Belted Kingfishers could be heard making their piercing rattling cries, and every so often a salmon would break the surface of the water making a soft splash. We were chatting away, trying to identify some gulls on a tumbled tree branch, laughing because it was a running joke with the tour leader about how disinterested the group had been in those particular birds. We were content, making the most of our last hour in the rainforest. And then we saw her. 
On the bank, to our right, stood a Grizzly Bear. She was watching us. Silence engulfed the small boat. Nobody moved. It must have been a minute, perhaps two at most, that the world stopped turning. It felt like much longer. She sniffed the air, and then, nonchalantly, turned and melted into the forest. They do that. These huge animals appear from nowhere and then disappear into the depths of the trees. In unspoken agreement we allowed the boat to gently drift forward, the oars slightly steering us. The inlet was narrowing all the time until it was finally blocked, by a fallen tree. We could go no further. 
So we sat. In silence. Except of course there is nothing silent about the Great Bear Rainforest. An eagle swooped through, every wingbeat moving the still air. The forest crackled with life. And then a different noise, the noise of something large moving through the bushes until — there she was again: looking at us, before continuing her walk along the shore of the river. But then she stopped, waiting for something … a bundle of fluffy, almost grey fur, appeared in the shape of her cub! You could feel everyone in the boat gasp with surprise, and then nobody breathed as we watched them, the cub jumping over obstacles, occasionally falling behind, and then running to catch up. And then they were gone. The most perfect goodbye.    
We all looked at each other in awe, tears of joy in our eyes. Just magical.

For further information about our Canada – The West holiday please call Paul Stanbury on 01962 733051 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

3. Third prize: Mongolia’s Snow Leopards by Julie Dore

Julie travelled on our ‘Mongolia’s Snow Leopards’ holiday in August 2017.

We were sitting on a precipitous slope with a clear blue sky populated by Golden Eagles flying acrobatics above. We had already spent nearly five hours in the company of a beautiful and majestic cat, the elusive Snow Leopard, watching it from across the valley, and things were about to get very exciting. 
It was our first full day in the Jargalant Mountains on what was also Naturetrek’s first ever Snow Leopard trip to Mongolia. We had been woken at 5.30am to be told our reason for coming to Mongolia had been sighted in the first light of the morning by the keen-eyed local horsemen scouring the steep hillsides on our behalf. Scrambling out of pjs into clothes (more or less successfully), grabbing bags of cameras, binoculars and snacks thoughtfully prepared the night before, we squeezed into our 4x4s to begin the long and, at times, slightly unnerving journey up into the valley, not even stopping for the herd of lumbering yaks, a scurrying stoat or the timid Tolai Hare. There beside the goat it had killed the night before was our quarry, not visible with the naked eye but clear and perfect through our scopes. And so we watched it hour after hour doing what cats with full bellies do best — sleeping, shifting position slightly to stay in the ever-changing shade, flicking its oh-so-very-long tail, the occasional lick of its paws and, of course, did I mention sleeping? Our drivers built a cairn and lit an offering to the mountain spirits and a cheeky pika entertained us by popping up from its close-by burrow at regular intervals like a cuckoo in a clock.
We left the cat for a while — to follow the equally vertiginous route back to our ger camp situated high above the desert plain on the alluvial fan of the valley — as we had missed breakfast. We returned early afternoon. He (for our guides said it was male), was still there, undisturbed, still sleeping. We ventured to get a little closer and traversed the slope along a path one footprint wide, a 100-metre drop at a 60 degree slope below. But it was worth it. Just those few extra hundred metres meant we could see every spot on his face and the incredible detail of his magnificent tail marked like a giant python. Still he showed no sign of being disturbed by our presence, even though our excited but hushed voices must have carried across the valley. When suddenly he stood up, I feared we had finally disturbed him as he trotted purposely across the slope. Some 200 metres or so above him a marmot cried out its squealing alarm call. Normally Snow Leopards attack their prey from above, the height unbalancing their prey, but ours was below the marmot so surely a lost opportunity. But no! This was either the stupidest marmot not long to be alive, or a very foolhardy one as it ran down the slope straight into the waiting jaws of death!
Our cat, marmot in mouth, trotted back to whence he came, the scale of him with the  unfortunate dangling rodent reminding me of my own large hairy boy when he has caught a big mouse. Half way back to his sleeping place he stopped and disappeared behind a rock, emerging sans marmot. Having already caught a large goat to feast on, we decided he had stashed it for later. As any self-respecting cat would, he then had a quick lick and brush up. Quick as a flash he disappeared again to emerge with the marmot, throwing the limp creature down a steep gully before chasing it and batting it like a ball. The adrenalin rush not yet sated, he caught it and threw it up again, reminding me again of my boy proudly playing with his kills on the front lawn. Finally the leopard did stash his kill and returned to his stony bed close to the goat. Within a few minutes he was curled up and sleeping, the mountainside quiet once more, leaving us awed and speechless. We all realised we had been witness to a rare and spectacular performance: a few minutes of big cat action we would never ever forget!

For further information about our Mongolia’s Snow Leopards holiday please call Kerrie Porteous on 01962 733051 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.