Tag Archives: wildlife
December 13, 2016

A weekend of stargazing and winter joy in Exmoor

A weekend of stargazing and winter joy in Exmoor
Exmoor Blagdon_Cross_Startrails - image darkskytelescopehire.co.uk

Star Trails; Exmoor – image darkskytelescopehire.co.uk

“Starry, starry night …” Don McLean and Vincent Van Gogh would love Exmoor at night. I have NEVER seen such a star-studded sky in the UK, as the one I saw whilst staying at West Withy Farm Holiday Cottages. On arrival on the edge of Exmoor, the night sky took my breath away. Ablaze with a myriad of sparkling lights, it looked as if a child had thrown a huge bag of glitter up into the darkness.  It was almost impossible to make out familiar constellations such as The Plough and Orion because they were embedded within so many others. The Milky Way arched overhead in a whirling mass. With virtually 360° visibility in this area and very little human habitation, it’s not surprising that Exmoor was named Europe’s first Dark Sky Reserve.

Stargazing in Exmoor

Telescope in Upton Cottage - West Withy Farm Exmoor

Telescope in Upton Cottage

Ian, owner of West Withy Farm, showed me round Upton Cottage, a converted haybarn, which sleeps 5 in homely comfort. In the lounge a large telescope sat waiting to be used; you can hire it by the day here and the garden has a plinth on which to use it. On the second night, astronomer Seb Jay of Dark Sky Telescope Hire came over to give a talk on astronomy and the skies overhead. It was cloudy so we didn’t use the telescope, but he had a ‘live-sky’ programme on his laptop to show the constellations, asteroids and planets that had been so clear the night before. It was a fascinating evening and I learnt a great deal about our amazing universe …

Exmoor star gazing with Seb Jay

Astronomer Seb Jay

Over the weekend I visited a number of interesting places in Exmoor: here are a few highlights.

Dulverton, Exford and Simonsbath

Exmoor signpost in Exford - image zoedawes

Signpost in Exford

The pretty village of Dulverton has got a number of independent retailers, including boutiques and antique shops, plus a good variety of pubs, cafes and restaurants. I had dinner at Woods Bar and Restaurant; a warm ,welcoming place, combining a pub atmosphere with quality dining. Owner Paddy is passionate about seasonal local food, sourcing much of it off his own farm, and wine; he has over 400 to choose from. (It’s been National Wine Pub of the Year for 5 years running.) I can highly recommend the confit of lamb shoulder; meltingly delicious.

Dinner at Woods Dulverton Exmoor

Confit Shoulder of Northcombe Lamb

The next day I set off to explore more of Exmoor, going through a number of quaint villages with thatched roofs and attractive pubs. At the White Horse Inn by the bridge in Exford a horse and rider trotted by as Christmas decorations were being put up.

Exford and river Exe Exmoor

Exford

In Simonsbath, a tiny hamlet, the smell of sawdust filled the air as a young man cut up logs beside the River Barle. The moor spread out all around as I headed towards the coast and two of Exmoor’s most well-known towns.

Lynton and Lynmouth

Lynmouth Exmoor - photo zoedawes

Lynmouth and Cliff Railway

I remember visiting Lynmouth with family on a hot, sunny day a few years ago. It was really busy and delightful. In winter the museum, chippie and souvenir shops may be closed but you can wander along the jetty overlooking  the river mouth and get a real feel for its historic and literary past. In the early 19th C the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley stayed here briefly with his young wife, Harriet. The Rising Sun Hotel is a picturesque sight with its thatched roof and excellent position overlooking the boat-bobbing harbour. Above the excellent Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre is the Pavilion Dining Room with great views over the Bristol Channel.

Lyton Town Hall Exmoor

Lynton Town Hall

The Cliff Railway, open between February and mid-November, connects Lynmouth to Lynton. It fits the ‘eco-traveller’ remit as its two carriages use the weight of water to pull them up and down. Lynton has a genteel Victorian air with some decent touristy shops and a splendid Town Hall, somewhat larger and fancier than you’d expect in such a small town. Not far away is the Valley of Rocks, a fairy-tale collection of rocky towers and hillocks with a splendid cliff-walk. It’s exhilarating and uncrowded in the winter months.

Porlock

Porlock Exmoor

Porlock

Apparently Coleridge was interrupted in the composition of his epic opium-induced poem Kubla Khan, by a ‘person from Porlock‘. On the day I visited, the people of Porlock were more intent on getting ready for Christmas, than visiting poets. It’s the heart of Lorna Doone country, as the local hotel indicates, and Porlock Bay Oysters are in great demand. They are the first Pacific Oyster site in England & Wales to achieve the top A classification. Sadly none were available when I was there; a good reason to go back.

Dunster

Dunster by Candlelight Exmoor - image zoedawes

Dunster by Candlelight

Possibly the most famous festival in Exmoor, Dunster by Candlelight is a glorious event held over two evenings in the run-up to Christmas. The medieval town opens its doors to visitors from around the world. The shops are brightly-lit, candles decorate the streets, performers entertain the crowds and a procession of costumed revellers carries a stag shoulder-high, accompanied by musicians and enthusiastic participants. I got the Park and Ride from nearby Minehead and spent a magical few hours watching the fun, wandering round the shops and enjoying carol-singing in Dunster Castle.

Read more about Dunster by Candlelight here

Exmoor Ponies

Exmoor ponies at Foreland Point - image zoedawes

Exmoor ponies

No visit to Exmoor would be complete without seeing the hardy Exmoor Ponies. Living all over Exmoor National Park, there are particular places you’re more likely to find them. I saw them on Haddon Hill, overlooking Wimbleball Lake and also at National Trust Foreland Point, on the rolling moorland road between Lynmouth and Porlock. They roam freely across the moors, but are not truly wild, being owned and looked after by various people. You can get fairly close but don’t try to touch them. In winter their thick coats give them extra protection against all weathers. Exmoor also has herds of wild red deer and plenty more interesting wildlife.

Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre

Exmoor National Park

Many thanks to Visit Exmoor for hosting my weekend, and to Ian and Lorena of West Withy Farm for their warm welcome, hospitality and invaluable advice on what to see in this beautiful area in south west England. Check out their website for details of stargazing weekends – a whole new world could open up for you …

Quirky Travel Guide to West Withy Farm 

November 4, 2016

To Western Australia in search of the quirky quokka

To Western Australia in search of the quirky quokka
In search of the quokka - Rottnest Express - Fremantle - image zoedawes

The Rottnest Express in Fremantle

What on earth is a quokka?

Aye, that is the question. I get an email outlining the itinerary for our blog trip to Western Australia and there, on Day 1, it says we’ll be visiting Rottnest Island, with its ‘casual atmosphere, picturesque scenery and some of the world’s finest beaches.‘ Sounds lovely but I’ve never heard of Rottnest Island. As soon as I type Rottnest Island into Google, the words ‘quokka‘ and ‘animals‘ come up. I am intrigued. I need to know more …

Parker Point Rottnest Island Western Australia - photo zoedawes

Parker Point on Rottnest Island

Western Australia website says, ‘… you’ll meet the cutest mini marsupial, found only in Western Australia, the world famous quokka, as well as many unique plant and animal species. Apparently, Rottnest Island Golf Course is being ‘plagued by an explosion of quokkas.’  It’s described as the ‘happiest animal in the world’ and the internet is alive with photos of grinning quokkas.  Good heavens. What on earth is a quokka?

The quokka - happiest animal in the world.

The quokka – ‘happiest animal in the world’. Photos from internet

The Quokka

The quokka is small macropod about the size of a domestic cat. Like other marsupials in the macropod family (such as kangaroos and wallabies), the quokka is herbivorous and mainly nocturnal. It has a stocky build, rounded ears, and a short, broad head. Although looking rather like a very small kangaroo, it can climb small trees and shrubs. Its coarse fur is a grizzled brown colour, fading to buff underneath. Wikipedia

Even more intrigued, I am now really looking forward to seeing one of these quirky creatures.

Quokka eating a leaf - Rottnest Island in Western Australia - photo zoedawes

Quokka eating a leaf

Rottnest Island

We board the Rottnest Express in Fremantle on the west coast of Australia and in less than half an hour we’ve arrived in another world, where life moves at a more leisurely pace, bicycles replace cars and the elusive quokka has taken over the golf course …

Thomson Bay on Rottnest Island Western Australia - photo zoedawes

Thomson Bay

We get on our hired bikes and pedal off towards the Visitor Information Centre. Whilst a helfpful guide shows us where to go on a map, all I want to know is where the quokkas are. Will I get to see one easily? Are they shy? Where’s the best place to see them? ‘Oh they’re all over the place. You’ll see plenty in and around town and they’re not at all shy. You can take photos but please don’t touch them or feed them.’ I’m starting to feel quietly excited …

Rottnest Settlement and quokka - collage zoedawes

Rottnest Settlement and quokka

Downtown Rottnest (the Settlement) is a short tree-lined walk of shops, cafes and a bakery. We leave our bikes and there, next to the bike stand, is a chubby quokka fast asleep under a tree. I stoop down to take a photo and the quokka wakes up. It gives me a quick stare then starts grooming its tummy. Looks cute but definitely more rat than cat-like! Outside the bakery a quokka is on the table eating crumbs, surrounded by ooohing and aaahing admirers. In front of the supermarket, one is hopping along looking vaguely shifty; there’s a big sign saying No Quokkas.

No quokkas here - Rottnest Island

No quokkas here

I set off with the other bloggers on a bike ride round the island, but it starts to rain so I decide to go to the little Museum, housed in one of the Victorian buildings left from the days when Rottnest was a prison island for Aboriginal People. There is an excellent exhibition telling the sad story of these prisoners, as well artefacts from the days when the island became a holiday resort. In the middle of the room is a cabinet with a stuffed quokka, bearing the title, The controversial Quokka. 

Stuffed quokka in Rottnest museum

Stuffed quokka in museum

Rottnest Island (known as Wadjemup to the local Noongar people and Rotto by many), was named Rotte Nest (Rat’s Nest) by a Dutch explorer in 1696. The island was overrun with quokkas but the introduction of foxes and destruction of their natural habitat meant their numbers dwindled almost to extinction. The island is now a designated protected area and there are about 12,000 quokkas living on Rottnest.

Quokka on the town - Rottnest Island - photo zoedawes

Quokka on the town

When the rain stops, I get the Hop-on, Hop-off Explorer Bus which goes round the coast. The island is ringed with gorgeous, sandy beaches and enticing bays. I get off at Parker Point and go for a paddle in the shallow, translucent waters of the Indian Ocean. It’s a bit chilly but the sun’s out and I can imagine how refreshing it must be in the height of summer.

Rottnest Island Beaches Western Australia - collage zoedawes

Rottnest Island Beaches

Walking on round the coast, people pass on bikes, waving hello as they glide by. I flag down another bus at Salmon Point and we head off past Wadjemup Lighthouse towards Cape Vlamingh at the western end of the island. At the bus-stop a group of tourists are gathered round a quokka on its hind legs, begging for food. Cameras and videos capture the moment; these little creatures are real super-stars of Western Australia.

Quokka near Cape Vlamingh Rottnest Island - photo zoedawes

Quokka near Cape Vlamingh

The bus winds its way past the Salt Lakes and holiday homes before arriving back at Thomson Bay. I get off and have a look at the historic buildings. As well as the old prison Quod, there’s a chapel and a quaint little Picture House, showing Roald Dahl’s ‘The BFG’. Quokkas are everywhere, particularly under the Island Tea Tree and Rottnest Island Pines, where they find their favourite food. I see a group of them in a wooded area near the Picture House and sit down to watch them. One wanders over to have a look at my rucksack, which has some fruit inside. This curious chap clambers all over my bag and camera trying to get at them. He’s very close and the temptation to reach out and stroke his furry back is almost overwhelming. I grab my iPhone and video him (or maybe it’s a her?). I take a photo; my hand is shaking at being so near, not wanting to scare him away …

Up close with a quokka - Rottnest Island - photo zoedawes

Up close with a quokka

Eventually he gives up and potters off. It’s time to meet up with the others at Hotel Rottnest for a bite to eat before we leave the island to return to Fremantle. I’ve not managed to get the famous ‘quokka selfie’ but I have got VERY close to one of the world’s rarest and cutest wild animals. It’s our first day here and already I’m a bit in love with this part of Australia, but even more, I’m totally besotted with the quirky quokka.

The Quirky Quokka of Rottnest Island Western Australia - photo zoedawes

The Quirky Quokka of Rottnest Island

You can see more of beautiful Rottnest Island in this Quirky Travel Guide video, which also features the quokka clambering over my rucksack!


I travelled to Perth, Fremantle, Rottnest Island and Margaret River courtesy of Tourism Western Australia #justanotherdayinWA and would like to thank everyone, including a great bunch of fellow bloggers, involved in making this such a memorable trip.

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In search of the quirky quokka - zoedawes

 

May 31, 2016

Horse-riding on the Cami de Cavalls, Menorca

Horse-riding on the Cami de Cavalls, Menorca

As we neared the sandy hillock, a flash of water flittered across the skyline. A little breeze riffled across the grass and a seagull cried out as it wheeled away towards the distant town. The sea slowly spread out in shades of turquoise, jade green, deep purple and bright blue. My horse’s ears pricked as she snorted the sea-salt scented air and did a little jig of anticipation.

Cami de Cavalls Son Bou Menorca - zoedawes

Son Bou Beach

“Tana thinks she’s going for a canter along the beach, but we can’t ride there between May and October,” explained Gemma, my riding instructor and owner of Son Bou Rutas a Cavall. We walked nearer to the sea and stopped to admire the stunning view. To our left stretched a long sandy beach and the popular resort of Son Bou. To our right, rocky cliffs edged the ocean and a clearly marked path wound its way along the northern coast of Menorca.

Son Bou horse riding Cami de Cavalls Menorca

Gemma on Estelle at Son Bou

We were on the Cami de Cavalls, a historic route that circles the coast of Menorca (Minorca), an island off the coast of mainland Spain. Restored and fully opened in 2011, this ancient path may have been used by the Knights of James II in the 14th c. During the 1730s Governor Richard Kane had it cleared for use by the occupying British troops and it was marked on the first map of Menorca, drawn up by French cartographer in 1780.

The Cami de Cavalls

Cami de Cavalls at Son Bou Menorca

Cami de Cavalls route

Totalling 185 km, the Cami de Cavalls is divided up into 20 stages, and ” … crosses gullies, rocky zones, valleys, wetland and farming areas; it connects ancient watchtowers, lighthouses and trenches and it leads to a great deal of coves and spots of the island. (Cami de Cavalls 360) Menorca is a MAB (Man and Biosphere) UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, which recognises its significance balancing socio-economic development and the preservation of the environment. Menorca has a unique combination of dune systems, gorges, marshlands and other geological attractions, with pre-historic archaeological remains and a traditional agricultural system. The Cami de Cavalls passes by all these areas, ensuring a fascinatingly diverse route, including Mahon, the capital and Ciutadella, the old capital. Popular with walkers, cyclists, mountain bikers and runners, without doubt the most enjoyable way to travel this route is on horseback.

Rider and walker Cami de Cavalls Menorca - zoedawes

Gemma talks to walker on the Cami de Cavalls

On arrival at the Rutas a Cavall Riding School, I met Gemma who has over 30 horses as well as a few donekeys and chickens. “I love horses and have rescued many since the recession hit our country. You’ll be riding Tana, a Menorcan Horse; she has a lovely temperament and is very gentle. She was winner of ‘Most Beautiful Mare’ in the fiestas a few years ago.” I was absolutely delighted to be riding a Menorcan Horse. This breed is renowned for its grace and agility during the famous Menorca Fiestas, where they rear up on their hind legs in the midst of enthusiastic revellers. I’ve been on many family holidays to Menorca but never had the chance to ride one of these majestic horses before.

Tana the Menorcan Horse

Tana the Menorcan Horse

Mounting Tana seemed a bit daunting (I hadn’t been riding for many years and wasn’t very fit!) but Gemma provided a stool to step up onto. She takes people of all levels and ages, going from gentle walk to hearty gallop, depending on ability. Having checked stirrups and tightened Tana’s girth, Gemma mounted her horse, Estelle, a magnificent black stallion with lots of fiesta experience. The Cami de Cavalls goes past the stables and we were soon ambling along a narrow, tree-shaded path, with spring flowers on either side and early butterflies drifting about.

Tana and Zoe on Cami de Cavalls Menorca

On the Cami de Cavalls

The path opened out into a wide valley. Gemma told me, “This gorge has one of only two working water wheels left on the island. There are turtles breeding again in the river and we occasionally see eagles here. A nature reserve ensures all the wildlife is protected.” It was really peaceful riding along this track, occasionally passed by walkers and once, a group of cyclists who were half way round the island on a cycling club holiday.

Riding through a valley near Son Bou Cami de Cavalls Menorca - zoedawes

Riding through the valley

Lying under a tree, a huge bull gazed placidly over his harem as they grazed on lush spring grass. A family of holiday-makers hurried by on their way to the beach. Two women with sturdy walking sticks said a cheery good morning and a group of Spanish runners jogged by, waving water bottles as they passed. Every so often Gemma dismounted to open a gate. She has an ingenious way to keep it open whilst other riders go through; she places a stone in the angle between the gate post and gate. I eventually got the knack of dislodging it as I rode through, enabling it to swing shut. Menorcan gates as things of beauty; carved by master-carpenters, they’re made from olive wood and have a graceful curve.

Opening a Menorcan gate with horse on Cami de Cavalls

Menorcan gate on the Cami de Cavalls

Eventually we came out to Son Bou beach, the longest on Menorca. In the distance wind-surfers were zipping over the waves and a tiny yacht sailed off towards Majorca. We walked up the sandhills to the top, from where we got a splendid view of the north coastline. The sea glittered enticingly beneath us and the sun enveloped us in a warm embrace. Tana stood very patiently whilst Gemma took lots of photos to capture the moment, whilst passing walkers admired our beautiful horses.

Zoe on Menorca horse Cami de Cavalls

On the sandhills at Son Bou

Being early in the season (May) there were not too many people about, so we posed to our heart’s content …

Tana and Zoe horse riding Menorca

Tana and Zoe at Son Bou

Tana and Zoe on sand hills at Son Bou Menorca

Good girl Tana

Admiring the view on horse at Son Bou Cami de Cavalls Menorca

Admiring the view

Eventually we had to return, though I would have been happy to ride on for much longer. As we went past a herd of horses, a young mare came galloping down the hill. Gemma shooed her away – apparently she was especially interested in our very fine stallion, Estelle. On the horizon a young foal raised its head and gazed across the meadow at us, whilst its mother and other horses grazed nearby.

Foal and other horses Menorca - zoedawes

Foal and other horses

Clouds were starting to roll in … Spring in Menorca is a lovely time to visit but the weather is quite changeable and rain looked imminent. “Shall we trot?” asked Gemma. “OK, I’ll give it a go.” With a gentle nudge, Tana set off at a brisk trot and I managed to keep my balance. Fortunately it wasn’t far to go and as pretty wild flowers flew by, I got into a bit of a rhythm as we came up the lane back to the riding school. Dismounting rather shakily I gave Tana a piece of carrot and a big hug; she really had made a dream come true …

Tana and Zoe Rutas a Cavall Riding School Menorca

Thank you Tana!

Video: Horse Riding along the Cami de Cavalls


You can find out more about Son Bou Rutas a Cavall – Horse Riding in Son Bou here

Son Bou Rutes a Cavall Menorca

Many thanks to Menorca Tourism for hosting my Travelator Media stay in Menorca, in partnership with Spain Tourism.

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Horse-riding on the Cami de Cavalls Menorca

February 12, 2016

Up close with mountain gorillas in Rwanda

Up close with mountain gorillas in Rwanda

He gazed down with resignation and a dash of superciliousness, as if to say, “Oh no, not you again. I thought I’d avoided you lot up here. Can’t a guy have his lunch without forever being interrupted and photographed?”

Male mountain gorilla rwanda - zoedawes

Male mountain gorilla

He had a point. A group of us had been watching a family of mountain gorillas in Rwanda eating and playing a little further down the forest but when they dozed off, a couple of us had followed one of the guides higher up the volcano to see this fine fellow. He clearly thought he’d escaped the hoi poloi, so was not very pleased to see us …

Male mountain gorilla in bamboo rwanda with zoedawes

Gorilla he say, ‘I want to be alone …

As soon as we started clicking away with our cameras, this massive gorilla turned his back on us and shifted higher up in his tree.  When we stopped taking pictures, he peered back round to see if we’d gone, realized we hadn’t and turned his back again. No body language could be clearer. But, oh, what a privilege to be this close, to see such a splendid creature in his own habitat, understandably not as thrilled as we were, but totally at ease and behaving as naturally as possible, given that we humans were in the middle of his territory.

Baby mountain gorilla rwanda - zoedawes

Baby gorilla in the mist

“There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know. Their sight, their hearing, their sense of smell are so similar to ours that they see the world in much the same way as we do. We live in the same sort of social groups with largely permanent family relationships. They walk around on the ground as we do, though they are immensely more powerful than we are.”

David Attenborough ‘Life on Earth’ BBC TV

David Attenborough mountain gorillas rwanda

No-one who has seen the moving TV footage of Sir David Attenborough can forget the sight of the world’s most respected wildlife specialist grinning with delight in the midst of a family of lively gorillas. I certainly couldn’t, so when Uber Luxe Safaris invited me to see the magnificent mountain gorillas in Rwanda, East Africa, I leapt at the chance.

Young mountain gorilla feeding rwanda - zoedawes

Young gorilla feeding

Rwanda leads the way in mountain gorilla conservation; there are less than 900 left in the world. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, founded by Dian Fossey in 1978, is, “… dedicated to the conservation and protection of gorillas and their habitats in Africa. We are committed to promoting continued research on the gorillas and their threatened ecosystems and to providing education about their relevance to the world in which we live.”  Eight mountain gorilla families have been ‘habituated to humans’ in Rwanda (other families have been left to their own devices) and each family has no more than 8 visitors plus 2 guides for a maximum of one hour a day. Everybody needs a permit ($750 in 2016), ensuring a significant amount of money is raised each year to help fund conservation.

Guides for Agashya Group gorillas rwanda - zoedawes

Patience and Mr D

Trekking mountain gorillas in Rwanda

Our group was led by guides Patience and Mr D. My porter was a lovely man called Jean de Dieu, who helped me to clamber up Mount Sabyinyo in Volcanoes National Park, much needed as the path was often muddy and steep. Altitude made the trek harder; we all needed regular stops to catch our breath and get our energy back. Trackers had gone on ahead to find the Agashya Group (originally called Group Thirteen) which are supposedly one of the easier groups to trek to. Well, no-one had told them; on the day we went they had decided to hike much higher up the volcano and it took us over 2 hours of fairly tough climbing through bamboo forests to reach them. We were joined by an armed guard, a member of the Volcanoes National Park Security team. (His gun was to protect us against wild buffalo, NOT to shoot gorillas!)

Porter Jean and guard Rwanda gorillas - zoedawes

Porter Jean and guard

When we got close to the gorillas (at about 9,000′), we had to leave all our belongings, walking sticks, food and drink with our porters and just take our cameras, following the guides up the final trek. Getting closer we could hear them breaking branches. I glanced around and saw a shadowy shape hidden in a bamboo bush. “Oh there’s one,” I whispered. Mr D just smiled and said, “Wait and see – there are plenty more ahead.” We entered a densely overgrown clearing and there, right in front of us, was a huge silverback, two youngsters and a female. They glanced up as we oooohd and aaaahd, but quickly went back to munching their bamboo sticks.  Mr D made a grunting noise and the silverback grunted back, apparently telling him we were welcome to join his family …

Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda - zoedawes

Mountain Gorilla family

We sat down on the ground and got our cameras ready to take pictures. Almost immediately, the young ones, no more than two years old, started a mock fight. Their father, the huge silverback Agashya, ignored them completely as they crashed about, beating their little chests and every so often checking to see if we were looking at them. The only problem was, from where I was sitting, the bamboo kept getting in the way of the scene, so I gave up trying to get a photo and just enjoyed the show. After about 10 minutes they stopped and one of them flopped on the ground, put his arms behind his head, waved his legs in the air and gazed at us, seeming to say, “There you go. That what you came for?”

Young gorilla lying down Rwanda - zoedawes

Chillaxing gorilla

Above us, there was a great deal of noise as another gorilla swung about in a tree, which swayed precariously over my head. I was concerned that it might break and I’d get a rather closer encounter with gorillas in Rwanda than I had bargained for, but Patience assured me I was safe. Suddenly there was a rustling in the bushes to our left and a female gorilla emerged. Mr D ‘spoke’ to her and then said we were fine, to just keep back as she went past. As you can see from this photo, she came VERY close, stepping over my feet as she walked by. Her thick black coat was just inches away; the temptation to stroke her as she passed was almost overwhelming …

Female gorilla going past Zoe rwanda - photo davidcraig

Female gorilla – photo David Craig

Eventually the family seemed to have had their fill of bamboo and one by one they settled down to have a little rest. Gorillas sleep in trees, making ‘nests’ to curl up in during the night, but in the daytime they take regular naps in between eating huge amounts of tree stems, bamboo shoots, fruit and the occasional ant, caterpillar or termite to vary their diet. Adult male gorillas consume up to 40lbs (80kgs) of food a day and can weigh up to 440 pounds, reaching a height of six feet when standing on two legs. Mature male gorillas are known as “silverbacks” for the white hair that develops on their back at about 14 years of age. They share over 98% of their DNA with humans.  Females have a gestation period of 8.5 months and nurture their young for several years. Generally, females give birth to one baby every four to six years. Only a few days before we arrived in Rwanda, TWINS had been born to one of habituated groups; really good news for the survival of the species.

Mountain gorillas in Rwanda - David Craig

Silverback and young mountain gorilla – photo David Craig

When I came back from seeing the big male gorilla described above, we heard that one of the youngsters had put on a funny performance, swinging about on a bamboo pole, until his father had clearly had enough of the little show-off and walked away, closely followed by the rest of the family. Our hour was up and it was time to head back down the mountain and leave Agashya and his family in peace once more …

Porter Jean and Zoe Dawes Rwanda

Thank you Jean

Saying goodbye to our guides and Jean was very emotional. They had enabled me to get really close to mountain gorillas in Rwanda, a wildlife experience unlike any other, and one I will cherish for the rest of my days …

I stayed at the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge in Volcanoes National Park, north Rwanda. Thanks to all the staff for their hospitality and for the hot water bottles and fire in the hut each night; most welcome! Grateful thanks to Uber Luxe Safaris and our guides Patrick and Brian for the trip of a lifetime. If you’d like see mountain gorillas in Rwanda and explore this beautiful country, find out more with Uber Luxe Safaris here. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Young gorilla eating bamboo shoots rwanda - zoedawes

Eats shoots and leaves …

Many thanks to fellow traveller David Craig for his photos from our time with the gorillas and to photographer Clare Malley for help editing my photos. You can read her invaluable Travel Photography Tips here.

There are plenty more things to see and do in Rwanda here.

October 20, 2015

A Digital Detox with the bears of British Columbia

A Digital Detox with the bears of British Columbia

Flying into Knight Inlet Lodge by sea-plane on a May morning is like entering another world, where time stands still and bears rule the wilderness …

Grizzly bear cubs Knight Inlet BC Canada - photo zoedawes

Grizzly bear cubs at Knight Inlet

 

On our ever-noisier digital planet, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hear nature’s voice, to tune in to the subtle nuances the seasons bring, to smell, not the aroma of man-made coffee, but damp grass during a rain-storm. Yet we all need to be around nature or we start to internally combust. We are animals, not machines and spending hours a day ‘relating’ to a computer screen or mobile phone does us no good in the long term. Every so often we need a digital detox to remind ourselves what life is REALLY all about and put things into perspective. That’s what a few days with the bears of British Columbia provides. Here’s how …

ear Watching Knight Inlet BC Knight Inlet

Bear Viewing at Knight Inlet

Digital Detox with Bears in BC

There’s only one way visitors can get to the bear lodge and that’s by float plane (seaplane) from Campbell River. Watch the BC float plane video (Some people go into Knight Inlet by boat but that’s for day tours or personal trips.) You have a relatively small luggage allowance as the planes only seat 8-10 people in a tight space, so you’re forced to ditch the party frocks, suit jackets and unnecessary fripperies, to be left securely locked up at the airport until you return. You’re also asked not to bring perfumed toiletries that might attract the bears. The Lodge provides unscented shampoo and soap, waterproofs, safety gear, footwear and even binoculars so you can just take the ‘bear necessities’ …

View from seaplane of BC - photo zoedawes

View from plane

As you fly over the rugged, tree-clad landscape you realise you truly are getting away from it all as signs of human habitation are few and far between. The aerial view of Knight Inlet Lodge, nestled on the shore of Glendale Cove highlights its isolation amidst the magnificent forests, snow-capped mountain and fathoms-deep fjords of the Pacific Northwest region of Canada.

Aerial view Knight Inlet Lodge BC Canada - photo zoedawes

Aerial view Knight Inlet Lodge BC

With just 18 guest bedrooms, the Lodge is never over-crowded. The rooms have queen-size beds, en-suite bathrooms and views out across Glendale Cove or craggy rocks. However, there is NO TV in the rooms and NO internet, so you have SWITCH OFF! Yes, it may sound a bit like going ‘cold turkey, but believe me, it’s not difficult to do and you very quickly adapt to a different pace of life. With excellent food (meals and wine included), interesting talks every evening and like-minded guests from around the world to chat to, it’s easy to keep occupied – or just relax and watch the ever-changing scenery outside.

Daily Itinerary Knight Inlet Lodge BC Canada - photo zoedawes

Daily Itinerary Knight Inlet Lodge

The daily itineraries are well-organised into small groups which mean you get to know others but in a low-key way. Each day there are grizzly-bear viewing tours, up until August by boat and during the salmon season from Viewing Platforms over the river. These are the highlight of the stay and why most people come.

Bear watching boat Glendale Cove BC - photo zoedawes

Boat in the rain

Puttering out into Glendale Cove in the rain in a little boat in search of bears is one of the most memorable things you will ever do. The mist swirls around the shoreline, shrouding all like a scene from a Japanese woodcut. Sea gulls and herons perch atop barnacle-encrusted jetty posts or on half-sumberged rocks. Little ducks called marbled murrelets, described by our guide as ‘floating potatoes’, dive below the rain-pocked water and overhead a bald eagle swoops down onto its giant nest.

Glendale Cove in the rain BC Canada - photo zoedawes

Glendale Cove in the rain

Once the engine is switched off it’s the silence that enchants. Gradually the natural sounds of the Inlet come to the fore. The swooshing of waves as a pod of dolphins comes alongside for a quick play. Raindrops pattering on the roof of the boat and onto the surface of the water all around. The swirl of water as a curious sea-lion pops its head up to see what’s going on.

Sea lion in the rain Knight Inlet BC Canada - photo zoedawes

Sea lion in the rain

Then, on seeing a bear, you hear the crunch of its jaws as it munches its way through mussels and tiny shrimps on its endless quest to fill its stomach after months of hibernation. Of course, camera shutters click and videos whirr but you get so long to look, that eventually you know you’ve got enough photos and stop so you can enjoy this life-enhancing scene. The bears, used to humans watching them all day long, take little notice and go about their daily business oblivious to the pleasure they bring.

Grizzly Bear Cub looking for food on Knight Inlet shore BC Canada - photo zoedawes

Young Grizzly Bear on Knight Inlet shore

Yes, I’d have liked one more day to be able to enjoy the simple pleasure of sitting on the deck of the Lodge and watch the natural world go by for a few hours. We stayed for two nights and, though almost every minute was busy, including going ‘bear-tracking’ and on a fast boat cruise of Knight Inlet (find out more on my Bear Watching trip to British Columbia), I found the whole experience both absorbing and de-stressing. Being totally immersed in this ruggedly beautiful environment, far from the world of technology, sharing it with diverse wildlife, was a potent reminder of what really matters.

Henry David Thoreau quote - image zoedawes

Many thanks to everyone at Explore Canada and Destination British Columbia for an uplifting experience. Inspired to find out more? Discover more about Knight Inlet here and the delights of British Columbia.

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A Digital Detox with bears Bc Canada - Pinterest Pin zoedawes

September 29, 2015

Escape to Jersey for a weekend break

Escape to Jersey for a weekend break
Rozel Bay Jersey

Rozel Bay

Whenever I’m asked what my favourite travel book is, I always give the same answer; ‘My Family and Other Animals’ by Gerald Durrell. I first read it as child, having been introduced to Durrell via his fascinating TV series including ‘Two in the Bush’ and ‘Catch me a Colobus’. A passionate animal-lover, he collected many engandgered species from around the world and opened the ground-breaking Jersey Zoological Park in 1958. He established the ‘The Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust’ now called ‘The Durrrell Wildlife Conservation Trust’ to help deal with the increasingly difficult challenges of zoo, wildlife and habitat management, “saving species from extinction”.

Western Lowland Gorilla - Jersey Zoo Durrell

Western Lowland Gorilla at Jersey Zoo5

I went to Jersey over 20 years ago, staying with friends in the capital St Helier and spending most of our time in and around the city. I’d love to return, not only to visit Jersey Zoo and see the legacy left by Gerald Durrell, but to find out more of Jersey’s history and try some of its local food. On a recent trip to Guernsey and Herm I was really impressed with the French-influenced cuisine and the Channel Islands’ unique heritage.

Beauport-Bay Jersey

Beauport Bay

Jersey has so much to see and do that a weekend would only scratch the surface, but after the Zoo I’d make a bee-line for Le Hougue Bie, one of Europe’s finest Neolithic tombs, dating back to 3,500BC. There’s also a German bunker in the grounds, a reminder of the island’s more recent history. I’m into ‘Castle-Bagging’ (like Monro-Bagging but less tiring) so Mont Orgueil, Jersey’s oldest castle above Gorey Harbour would certainly be in my Top 10 Things to Do in Jersey.

Mont Orgueil Castle Jersey

Mont Orgueil Castle

Hamptonne Country Life apparently captures the spirit of rural Jersey, from medieval to Victorian times and the Channel Islands Military Museum has a rare Enigma decoding machine which helped to defeat the Germans in WWII.  I’d certainly visit 16 New St, a Georgian house now open to the public, showcasing architectural style and fashion of 18th century Jersey. I love islands and the sea so the Maritime Museum in St Helier would definitely be high on my list, as would the Jersey Museum and Art Gallery for a dash of culture.

Jersey Museum and Art Gallery

Jersey Museum and Art Gallery

I gather there are a number of wineries on Jersey so a wine tour would be in order. La Mere Wine Estate should fit the bill; it produces apple brandy, cider and perserves as well as local wine. There are food festivals throughout the year and the annual ‘Tennerfest’, where you can get an all-inclusive meal from £10 in over 100 Jersey restaurants, is a great idea. With so many top-class restaurants (including 4 Michelin starred), trendy bars, cosy cafes and friendly pubs I’d have no excuse not to find excellent food and drink all over the island.  Jersey is famous for its potatoes, milk and butter and if the crab sandwiches are as good as Guernsey’s then I’ll be VERY happy.

Eating out at St Brelades Jersey

Eating out at St Brelades

With a benign climate, scenic coastline and undulating countryside, Jersey would be perfect for a walk on the wild side. Grosnez Point has spectacular views of other Channel Islands from the cliff top and a trip around the island’s bays and beaches would satisfy my desire to be beside the seaside.

Bonne-Nuit beach jersey

Bonne Nuit beach

The Jersey Lavender Farm and the Eric Young Orchid Foundation, with Europe’s ‘most comprehensive orchid collection open to the public’, should provide a focus for my flower fetish, and if I am not there for the summer Battle of the Flowers, I could always visit the museum dedicated to this famous festival.

The Battle of the Flowers Jersey

The Battle of the Flowers

Of course, no dream holiday is complete without somewhere special to stay. For a very special and yes, quirky place to stay, the Durrell Wildlife Camp offers cosy camping pods next to the animals! However, I do like some luxury when I am on holiday as well as a view of the sea so L’Horizon Hotel and Spa ticks all the boxes. I remember a very relaxing drink in the bar here overlooking St Brelade Bay – very nice! Finally, for the ultimate in comfort with a truly historic twist, Longueville Manor looks stunning. Set within acres of woodland, part of the manor house dates from the 14th c, it’s got a ‘bijou’ spa and swimming pool, plus a croquet lawn. With a great reputation for food this hotel gets my top vote.

Longueville Manor Hotel Jersey

Longueville Manor

Find out more things to see and do in Jersey here.

September 22, 2015

Grizzly Bear Watching at Knight Inlet, British Columbia

Grizzly Bear Watching at Knight Inlet, British Columbia
Bear Watching from boat Knight Inlet - BC Canada - Zoe Dawes

Bear Watching from boat Knight Inlet

Do you have any food on you? Chocolate, chewing gum, sweets? Please make sure you don’t have anything edible; bears have a very strong sense of smell.” We looked at each other in slight trepidation and patted our pockets to make sure we weren’t carrying something that might attract a hungry bear. The canopied, flat-bottomed boat inched slowly away from Knight Inlet Lodge and out across the narrow inlet. The guide scanned the opposite shoreline. Suddenly he whispered, “There’s one over there to our left. I’m going to take the boat a bit nearer. Keep very quiet and try not to make any sudden moves.” He then silently slipped over the back of the boat and gently pushed it closer to land. With mounting excitement, we peered along the shore, unable to distinguish between moss-covered rocks and what might be a bear. Then we saw it against the fir trees …

Grizzly bear Kinight Inlet - photo zoedawes

Grizzly bear

… a young male, maybe 3 years old, quite thin, with capucchino-coloured fur, making his way slowly through the sedge, seemingly unbothered by the boat only 50 metres away. He looked up as we started taking photos but was clearly used to curious humans and carried on eating. With a big furry paw, he turned over a heavy rock covered in moss and seaweed, searching for tasty morsels hidden underneath.

Grizzly bear cub turning over stones Knight Inlet - Zoe Dawes

Grizzly bear cub turning over stones

Crunch-crunch went his strong jaws as he munched on fresh mussels.  Water slooped against the side of the boat and the occasional cry of duck echoed through the valley, but otherwise the only sounds were the bear eating and shutters clicking as we tried to capture this moving sight.

Half an hour passed by quickly; it was almost hypnotic to watch this totally wild animal in its natural habitat going about its vital task of building up body mass after its winter hibernation, totally unbothered by the nearby watchers. His powerful shoulders rippled everytime he moved a stone or stood up on a log to get a good look around. Round ears twitched at any noise and his shiny black nose sniffed the air regularly but he was clearly unafraid. It was such a treat to be so close to one of this planet’s mightiest animals. Eventually the guide pushed our boat away, got back in and we went further round the cove to see if any other bears were about. They weren’t, but for a first day this sighting was more than enough.

Grizzly bear cub Knight Inlet Canada - photo zoedawes

Grizzly bear cub

My bear watching adventure had started earlier that morning in Campbell River, a small town on Victoria Island in British Columbia. We had left from a tiny airport aboard a seaplane, or ‘floatplane; as they are called in Canada. It set off at a sedate pace, sailing past shiny yachts and old boats, scattering swans with gay abandon. Trundling along the water, the plane had slowly gathered speed until it inched its way up into the sky. It soared above tree-clad mountains, over finger-like fjords and sun-reflected water, its engine rumbling loudly. The mountains got higher and a narrow river snaked its way though a grassy meadow.

Short video of our flight to Knight Inlet here

Our destination appeared below; a collection of blue-roofed buildings perched on the edge of dark green water. The little plane circled slowly down and came to a gentle landing on the calm water.

Knight Inlet BC from seaplane - photo zoedawes

Knight Inlet from the flight plane

We had arrived at Knight Inlet Bear Lodge, our floating home for the next three days.

Knight Inlet Bear Lodge BC Canada - photo zoedawes

Knight Inlet Bear Lodge

Eager hands helped us off the plane and the Lodge Manager Brian Collen explained how the timetable worked. We had to make careful note of a giant whiteboard which showed what activities we would take part in and with whom we’d be adventuring. After off-loading luggage in my cosy wooden cabin, we were shown the Changing Room with its vast array of bright red waterproof suits, wellies, binoculars and other equipment vital for an intrepid bear watcher. We had great fun helping each other into our Michelin-man suits, taking photos to capture our sartorial elegance.

Gary Bembridge and Zoe Dawes in waterproofs at Knight Inlet Lodge Canada

Gary Bembridge and me in our waterproofs

Our first activity was a scenic cruise in a high-speed boat ride from Glendale Cove out into Knight Inlet. Waterfalls thundered down craggy rocks, bald eagles kept watch from enormous nests, ancient glaciers loomed above deep turquoise waters. A lone whale came close and was gone in the blink of an eye. Myriad ducks dipped and dove in the wake of the boat and the sun glimmered through steely clouds, sending flashes of brilliance all around. So many shades of green and silver …

Knight Inlet waterfall British Columbia - photo zoedawes

Knight Inlet waterfall

Back at Knight Inlet Lodge, we sat down to a much-needed lunch from the buffet selection of fresh seafood, pasta, salads, fruit, chocolate desserts and a whole lot more. And then the moment I had been looking forward to so very, very much; my first grizzly bear watching boat trip. Donning different waterproofs we had boarded the little boat and sailed to the opposite side of Glendale Cove.

Knight Inlet Lodge, set amidst the Great Bear Rainforest, is surrounded by one of the biggest concentrations of grizzly bears in Canada. In the spring, when I visited, the grizzlies, along with some black bears, come out of hibernation and the females bring their cubs down the Glendale River. Here the bears, lean from months without eating, feed on the nutrient-rich sedge, grasses and crustaceans along the shoreline.

Grizzly bears Knight Inlet BC Canada - photo zoedawes

Young grizzly bears

From August onwards, many bears come to the Glendale river to feast on the salmon that spawn near the Lodge. But we were here on a Spring Watch visit, where, ‘ … you get remarkably close to some of these wonderful animals. Seeing them at eye level without disturbing them is a powerful experience. The spring season offers some of the year’s best photographic opportunities, with the grizzly bears moving about in a lush green environment with spectacular backdrops.’ Knight Inlet Bear Tours

Grizzly bear on log Knight Inlet BC Canada - photo zoedawes

Grizzly bear on log

After that first successful bear watching excursion, we enjoyed a delicious dinner. The food is excellent here; guests from around North America, Europe and especially the UK praise it highly. That evening we had a fascinating talk on the sex life of bears from one of the resident guides. Apparently female brown bears only come into season every  2-3 years; they don’t mate whilst their cubs are still with them, which can sometimes be for over 2 years. A long wait for the males, who may try to kill the cubs to get at the female. This is why the female bears around Knight Inlet are content to be nearer humans as they provide a shield for their young cubs from the predatory males.

Grizzly bear slide show Knight Inlet

Grizzly bear slide show

Over the next couple of days we went bear watching many times, in the early morning, the best time to see the bears, and later in the day. We saw at least 10 different bears including females and their cubs, a huge grizzly male standing up on its hind legs and a big black bear just feet from the Lodge. We had a close encounter with a pod of dolphins playing around our boat as they took a little detour on their way out to sea.

Dolphins at Knight Inlet BC - photo zoedawes

Dolphins at Knight Inlet

Pretty little hummingbirds flittered and whirred around sugar feeders on the Lodge jetty and swallows swooped over the water at the sun set. Curious seals and sea lions popped up to see what was going on. We watched as one of the guides pulled up a haul of crabs to be served up for dinner. We occasionally saw the two cubs who starred in ‘DisneyNature’s Bears’ movie; they are now 3 years old and foraging on their own.

DisneyNature Bears

By the time our flight plane arrived to take us back to civilisation, I really didn’t want to leave. I’d experienced something very special. Getting up close with the grizzly bears in the wilderness has left a lasting impression. Learning more about these much-misunderstood creatures from people who are passionate about their well-being and doing everything about their conservation was a valuable life-lesson. However, it’s the sound of a grizzly bear munching on fresh mussels that stays with me as a reminder of those precious few days in the Great Bear Rainforest …

Two young bears Knight Inlet BC Canada - photo zoedawes

Two young bears

‘In 2005, Knight Inlet Lodge, in partnership with Dr. Owen Nevin and the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, began a long term population study of the grizzly bears of Knight Inlet. We have successfully satellite collared a number of bears, allowing us the ability to track denning and range characteristics on their sub-population. We have gathered data that will help policy makers in making sound land-use and wildlife management planning decisions for the region that take into account the importance of the grizzly bear to the area. We are working unequivocally to ban the currently legal trophy hunting of grizzly bears in British Columbia. In the meantime, we have adopted innovative strategies of working with the hunting community to restrict trophy hunting in critical grizzly bear viewing habitat in coastal British Columbia. 

Knight Inlet Environmental Stewardship

Bear watching boat Knight Inlet BC - zoedawes

Looking for bears

More information about bear watching tours to Knight Inlet Lodge here. Many thanks to all the guides and staff for an exceptionally wonderful stay and also to Explore Canada for hosting our visit to British Columbia.

Knight Inlet Lodge and grizzly bear - photo zoedawes

Knight Inlet Bear Lodge

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