Iberian Lynx (Duncan Woodhead)

Writing Competition 2018 – Results!

Many thanks to everyone who entered our 2018 Writing Competition. The writing was of an extremely high standard and we thoroughly enjoyed reading your articles about experiences on Naturetrek holidays; some were very recent, and some were taken a long time ago but remained perfectly fresh in your memories!

We are delighted to announce the winners of our 2018 competition as follows, and all three entries can be read below:

First prize: ‘Searching for the Iberian Lynx’ by Dan Tuson. Dan wins a Naturetrek holiday in Europe up to the value of £1,500 OR a £1,000 Naturetrek Voucher.

Our thoughts: Dan’s clever piece of writing builds in crescendo and took us on an emotional journey, sharing the anticipation, hope, mistaken identity, disappointment, perseverance, excitement and ultimate delight of his quest to see the endangered Iberian Lynx.

Second prize: ‘Wolf Song’ by Rosemary Hill. Rosemary wins a £500 Naturetrek Voucher.

Our thoughts: Rosemary’s moving piece skilfully brings to life her spine-chilling encounter with a Wolf pack, thriving against the odds in their spectacular icy homeland.

Third prize: ‘The Equator Party’ by Anne Balfour. Anne wins a £250 Naturetrek Voucher.

Our thoughts: Anne’s article paints an incredibly vivid picture of crossing the equator surrounded by a huge mixed pod of acrobatic dolphins. The sheer joy of this amazing experience shone through and we found ourselves smiling as we were transported to the scene!

Congratulations to all our prize winners and many thanks to everyone who entered. For details of our 2019 Writing Competition please see here.

N.B. The judges consisted of our Newsletter editor, Debbie Ward, and our Operations team.

Winning entry: Searching for the Iberian Lynx in Andalucía

by Dan Tuson

Dan travelled on our ‘Spain – Realm of the Iberian Lynx’ holiday in January 2018 and wrote this winning entry describing the heart-stopping anticipation and excitement of searching for the world’s rarest cat. 

In the dim pre-dawn light of an early January morning our van slowly drifted its way into the scrublands of Coto Doñana National Park. Sixteen pairs of bleary eyes scanned the clearings and glades ahead as Simon, our guide, handed out paper tissues. Never before, for me at least, had window mopping been such a diligently performed exercise – it’s not every day, after all, that screen condensation has the potential to threaten the chances of seeing one of the rarest cats in the world. Our quest was the Iberian Lynx, and all our hopes were pinned on the possibility that one, from somewhere in this blurred shadowy tree-scape, would obligingly emerge. Long-drawn silences of anticipation were teasingly pricked by heart-jumping moments of mistaken views and half cries of excitement; branches, bushes and logs all took on deceptive ‘lynx-shape’ dimensions. Between the sixteen of us we had 360-degree coverage and with seat head-rests now removed for better vision, our loitering van had all the qualities of a slow-speed police surveillance operation. We had travelled all this way – surely one would have the courtesy to grace us with its presence! As the van crept forward a shape resembling a feline head amongst the tall grasses caught the corner of my eye and then quickly disappeared as the van moved on. “Stop!” I shouted, “Back, back!” A Lynx sitting upright just thirty metres from us! And then, incredibly, as if on cue, a second one jumped down from a nearby tree. Two Lynx and now they’re playing! Sixteen pairs of binoculars focused in unison. Simon confirmed we had a male and female together. Against a backdrop of low golden sunlit grasses a magical hour followed as we all trained our scopes, cameras and binoculars, giving us a unique viewing of a pair going through their daily routines and natural behaviour – playing, preening, ever alert and, to the nauseating delight of all, an undignified farewell gesture of a more intimate nature and carefully ‘dropped’ as they sauntered off into the shade of thicker vegetation.

With the winter sun climbing higher, the groves of Stone Pine, Cork Oak and wild olives gave way to open heathy plains and marshlands, setting the scene for a stunning array of birdlife. Crested Lark, Corn Bunting, Sardinian Warbler, Southern Grey Shrike and Hoopoe provided wonderful ‘trackside’ distraction while the roving forays of Common Buzzard, Kestrel, Short-eared Owl, Red Kite, Hen Harrier and Griffon Vulture showcased the vast surrounding expanse of wilderness.

Any fears of ‘beginner’s luck’ were soon dispelled, for the coming days brought us another five jaw-dropping views of this striking feline, fittingly accompanied by an ever growing tally of new wildlife, and culminating in what was to be perhaps our most unanticipated and breathtaking encounter. Amongst the rugged and burnished tree-clad hills of the Sierra Morena, our tracking required a more patient ‘stakeout’ approach as our scopes and binoculars combed the myriad of folds and crests of the mountain-scape before us. Whilst our quarry remained elusive, our efforts were rewarded with views of Spanish Imperial Eagle, Golden Eagle, Griffon and Cinereous Vultures and, closer by, the theatricals of roving troupes of Azure-winged Magpie. Fellow Lynx spotters had set up for the day on the single-track road with canvas chairs unfolded, lonely ringside panoramic seats in a play that had yet to start. With all eyes scouring the sweeping miles of terrain before us, the track behind remained unchecked until a chance return to the van from one of our group brought forth a hushed but excited call. A wonderful male Lynx was crossing the track just a few metres behind our viewing point, as cool as a cucumber. Eyes turned, scopes and cameras were hastily repositioned and within a few seconds the Lynx had melted back into the cover of scrub and trees. As we all drew our breath in disbelief and took back in the perfect mountain vista around us, we were left with the enduring memory and humbling reminder of the reason why we were there – that ever constant power of the natural world to surprise, astound and delight.

Realm of the Iberian Lynx

A 6-day holiday to a remote corner of Spain that is the last refuge of the critically endangered Iberian Lynx.

Wolf Song

by Rosemary Hill

Rosemary travelled on our ‘Wolves of Yellowstone National Park’ tour in January 2018.  

I have so many wonderful memories from our winter Yellowstone adventure: magnificent snow-covered mountains and forests, freezing dawns when the sun shone pink on the snow and created enchanted frost landscapes in the low-lying mist, and diamond dust, tiny glittering particles of frozen water-vapour dancing in the air.

Bison were everywhere, lumbering along the roads, using their massive heads as snow-ploughs to reach buried vegetation, and resting peacefully in the thermal areas, oblivious of the danger. Foxes hunted nearby, unconcerned at our presence. They have much thicker, redder coats than British foxes and fluffier tails, perfect blankets for small animals on bitter nights. Bighorn rams grazed on a bank, sizing each other up before clashing their huge horns together with an explosive sound.

We all agreed though, that the climax was hearing the Wolves sing. Our Wolves were the Wapiti Lake pack, a flourishing group of about 20 animals, and we spent most of one day watching them. Since their reintroduction to Yellowstone, starting in 1995, Wolves have been doing well there, and as they are now protected they have lost some of their terror of humans so, by staying in or near our vehicle, we were able to watch them going about their business undisturbed.

The main pack was hidden among the pines above the road, and below us on the river flats was a fresh Bison kill so, throughout the day, Wolves were coming down from their hideout, crossing the road, and feeding in ones and twos, accompanied by Golden and Bald Eagles, buzzards and the ubiquitous ravens. Most of the animals were the usual brownish grey but a few were black, and there was one beautiful white one, the alpha female.

After taking their turn, they rejoined the pack on the hillside just above us. Then towards evening we saw them moving silently behind the trees. Suddenly the singing started. The sound is extraordinary, blood-chilling for a family on a remote homestead but for us, safely cocooned in our thermal layers, it brought different emotions: a wild magic, a folk memory of a time when we too were hunter-gatherers, something that few in our modern world have had the privilege of experiencing.

The singing went on for several minutes, and being so close we could pick out the individual voices, some gruff, some lighter, blending as the sound rose and fell. Then it finished as suddenly as it had begun; a breathtaking and moving experience, an intimate glimpse of much-maligned and persecuted animals, strengthening their pack bond by making music together, and sending out the message “We are the Wapiti Lake pack and this is our valley, don’t mess with us.”

Wolves have been driven to the wildest fringes of our world but are clinging on there through intelligence and teamwork; a glimpse of our deep past; maybe even a glimmer of hope for the future.


Wolves of Yellowstone

An 11-day holiday to the snow-covered mountains of Yellowstone National Park in search of Wolves, North American Bison and other winter wildlife.

The Equator Party

by Anne Balfour  

Anne travelled on our ‘Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands’ tour in January 2018.

I flew up from my seat. The seat in front of the bridge, overlooking the sea ahead of us, which I had dutifully occupied for the last three days during every crossing we’d made up the west coast of Isla Isabela. Juan, our guide, had told us that this was the best place in the Galapagos to see cetaceans. And with his 30 years of guiding experience and celebrity-like status in these islands I had no reason to doubt him. However, up until this moment I had seen nothing more than the distant splash of a Manta Ray re-entering the water with a crash, having leaped high into the air in an attempt to dislodge unwanted passengers. But here, now, on the horizon in front of us, I could see something. Something different. These weren’t splashes. They were blows. There were lots of them. And we were heading straight towards them.

I shouted. Then more shouts went out around the boat until our whole group was up on deck, laughing, gasping, whooping, pointing cameras, pointing binoculars. Just pointing. It didn’t take long for our boat to catch up with them. And I realised that this was a massive pod. A super pod. Pod upon pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins, Common Dolphins and Short-Finned Pilot Whales. They were stretched out along the whole length of the coastline. Hundreds of animals. Incredible.

Then something utterly amazing happened. Something which I will never forget. The dolphins started to jump. I ran to the stern to get a better view and was met by Juan coming up the stairs. He had his guitar with him. The Captain had already slowed the boat as we were about to cross the equator and the plan was to have a party to celebrate. It seemed that the invitations had been extended far beyond our humble boat to the entire marine population of the Galapagos. And they were not just keen to join us. But to party hard.

Juan burst into song, Francisco handed out cocktails and the dolphins leaped for all they were worth. They jumped solo. They jumped in unison. They jumped forwards. They jumped backwards. They jumped low. They jumped high. They jumped higher and further than I ever thought possible. And I desperately wanted to join them. To be torpedoing through the water, accelerating towards the surface, breaking free and feeling the wind against my skin as I leaped high into the air, observing all around me, before descending and being enveloped by the sea once more. Scientists would argue that the dolphins are using this behaviour to communicate, get a better view of prey, demonstrate their strength and agility, clean their skin like the Mantas I’d seen previously. But maybe, just maybe we were watching nothing more than pure, unadulterated, shameless fun. My 4-year-old niece certainly thought so when I showed her my video a few days later. She ‘wheeeeed’ along with every leap. Her inner dolphin being released just as mine had been. Fun is infectious no matter what animal you are! 


Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands

A 20-day holiday incorporating a 2-week cruise around the 'Enchanted Isles' in our First Class motor boat 'Cachalote Explorer' plus a visit to Antisana or Otavalo.