The Bavarian Alps by Harold Wonham

alpsThe Bavarian Alps 

I’m sure you have all met one: not the keen botanist, nor the enthusiastic birder, nor the experienced butterfly and moth-man, nor even the photographer who poses a single shot for what seems like hours. I don’t even mean the superb naturalists and other experts that one meets on every Naturetrek trip, wherever in the world that may be. No, the person I am referring to is the Partner.

He (or she, but it’s more likely to be a man) is in the group because his girlfriend, partner or wife is the really keen one, but doesn’t have anybody else to go with and doesn’t want to go alone. So the Partner goes along as well, hoping that he will not stick out like a sore thumb, and that his ignorance will not be exposed on the first day, that his charlatan status will not disgrace the loved one he is accompanying.  There are, of course fake Partners: people who purport to know nothing but then turn out to be an expert on spiders or able to recognise 50 birds just from their song. But I am thinking of those, like me, who are pleased to accompany their loves ones and enjoy being in interesting and perhaps wild places, but are often ignorant, and consequently hesitant and uncertain.

I’ve been on several Naturetrek tours and know one leader really well, but the three leaders on this trip to the Bavarian Alps were all totally new to me. So I tried as always to be pleasant, and interested, but to disclaim any prior knowledge. I need not have feared, for truly great and knowledgeable people always wear their learning lightly, and are keen simply to share that learning, whoever the companion is. And Dawn Nelson, Andy and Ingrid Patmore are all, obviously, great and experienced leaders.

So, what’s in this trip for the non-specialist? First, the scenery is magnificent. The Alps are always splendid, and those within the Berchtesgaden National Park are no exception. They contain the Watzmann: at 2,713 metres, Germany’s second-highest mountain; and from our balcony we could see the Kehlstein (see below) and behind it the peak of Hoher Göll. There are crags and caves where Golden Eagles nest and are mobbed by kestrels, and patches of winter snow where Chamois frolic, all visible to everyone thanks to the tripod telescope that Andy lugged everywhere. Lower down there are alps (or alms), which are awash with flowers, and the open fields are tinted with yellow Auricula and other colours. On one of them (on the slopes of the Jenner, still within Germany but actually where they filmed the opening scenes of The Sound of Music), we saw marmots, cautiously observing us. Then, lower down the mountains, are trees, originally mixed but in the last couple of centuries, predominantly Norwegian Spruce.

Another great feature of this holiday is that none of the destinations required a great distance to travel. Thirty to 40 minutes in the minibuses was normal. Our base for the week, the Alpenhotel Hundsreitlehen, is set on the valley side above the settlement of Bischofswesen, and has a family feel about it. The staff were all very welcoming; the food and drink were excellent; the atmosphere was friendly; and they coped with all our queries, whether expressed in English or halting German. And in the grounds was a sunken pool fed by a spring, designed for ‘Wassertreten’. This is a health treatment for weary legs devised by Fr Sebastian Kneipp, and many of us found solace and relief in stepping slowly round the pool after a hot day’s trekking. For the weather was also excellent this year (I know it isn’t always). Two afternoons reached 33 degrees C, and the only rain came in two night-time storms.

Another big plus for this trip is that there was plenty of variety. Some flowers and birds kept reappearing, but there was always something new to delight and challenge recognition. We also used a variety of transport to access the mountains:  an electric boat on the Königssee, a 2-seater cable car up the Jenner and bus up to the Eagle’s Nest on Kehlstein, the 50th birthday present for Hitler that was organised by Bohrmann. This reflects another aspect of the variety during the week, for there was a large cultural element too. On various days we visited the Eagle’s Nest and reflected on the building of this tremendous project and access road in a very short time; we visited the historic city of Salzburg, with optional free time; and explored the market town of Berchtesgaden, admiring the cake shops and the pictures painted on the outside walls (who found the monkey house without asking?). And there was even variety (getting back to the purpose of the whole trip) on the walks, for often the birders went ahead faster with Andy, while those mainly interested in flowers followed Ingrid and Dawn at a more leisurely pace. The leaders were always alert to how long, steep or difficult the track might be, and whether everybody was happy taking a cable car or scrambling up steps beside the Obersee.

All in all, it was a thoroughly good holiday, even for Partners! My wife and I can thoroughly recommend it. And who knows – you might even come across us there again next year!


Please click here for further information about our 8-day Bavarian Alps holiday.

Spitsbergen: My Holiday of a Lifetime by Tony Hale

Ripples of excitement, joy and anticipation were running though the group of wildlife enthusiasts, as our cases were loaded on to Zodiacs, before heading out to the Ortelius anchored near the harbour, which was to be our home for the next 10 days. It had been worth the wait; our time in Longyearbyen, had not been wasted. We had been dive-bombed by Arctic Terns, seen Common Eider ducks and Barnacle Geese nesting near the road, many small alpine flowers, and even a few Reindeer. However, that was now behind us as we gathered on the quay, with our lifejackets secured, waiting our turn to board a Zodiac, for the first of many trips on what was to be the ‘holiday’ of a lifetime.

After the obligatory safety briefing, followed by an ‘abandon ship’ exercise, we gathered to meet the Captain, crew and leaders, to toast the success of the trip. Then our first meal – which set a very high standard, and which was consistently followed all the time we were on board. And so to bed, to dream about tomorrow and yet more excitement.

A talk on the Arctic environment and how to care for it was followed by our first trip ashore. A pair of Long-tailed Skuas and Red-throated Divers were nesting nearby. We also saw Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese, and also the ubiquitous Snow Bunting, the only small passerine regularly seen in Spitsbergen. After lunch, the adrenalin started again as a report of a Blue Whale circulated through the ship. Unfortunately it was quite a long way away, but it showed itself well enough to satisfy most of those present, and enabled the photographers to get some decent pictures. Then we had another walk ashore where we watched an Arctic Skua driving off a Reindeer that was getting too close to its nest. The wind had risen and the sea was getting choppy; however, we all embarked safely without anybody falling in, though there were some near misses! The trip back to the ship was ‘interesting’ and most people, especially those sitting near the front, got a bit wet. Thanks to the skill of those in charge of the boats, we all arrived safely, more than ready for another excellent dinner. That evening we saw our first glacier, an amazing sight confirming that we were definitely in the Arctic.

Another Zodiac trip took us to an area where we were shown some very smart King Eiders among the more usual Common Eiders, but the highlight were some Grey Phalaropes, the females showing off in their dazzling summer plumage with the more sombrely dressed males in close attendance – wonderful!

The ship was now in an area of broken sea ice and everybody was on the lookout for Polar Bears. We had seen a few Ringed Seals and also a Bearded Seal quite close to the ship, when news started to filter through that two Polar Bears had been seen a long way away, apparently feeding on a dead seal. The ship turned and slowly got closer until we could easily see the scene. Another Polar Bear appeared and gradually made its way towards the kill; we were all expecting a fight, but they gave up their kill quite calmly and walked away. We were told later that fighting used up valuable energy which was better used in just keeping alive.

After giving support to a ship under charter to the BBC which required assistance, we continued on our way, eventually meeting solid pack ice which barred our way. The Captain was hoping to take us right round the island, but the ice was so thick that our attempt had to be abandoned.

On another occasion, we were near a colony of about 60,000 Brünnich’s Guillemots, and the calm sea was literally covered with them. Many were on a small, beautifully sculptured iceberg which was an amazing spectacle. As a bonus, someone spotted an Arctic Fox, still changing from its winter coat, feeding on what looked like a dead guillemot. The Zodiacs managed to get close enough so that we all got a good view.

A visit to a Little Auk colony enabled close up views of these super birds to be had, while a group of about 20 Walrus on a sandy beach amused us, as newcomers clambered over them, trying without success to find a place in the centre.

The end of our holiday was approaching. The farewell gathering was tinged with sadness as we recalled our adventures, and thanked the Captain, his crew and our leaders, before disembarking and starting our journey home.


Click here for further information about our 11-day Spitsbergen Cruise.

Spanish Predators –  Fur & Feather by Peter Cunnington

Lynx, Coto Donana (Peter Dunn)Spain’s Coto Doñana & Extremadura

May 7th proved memorable for our small Naturetrek group in Spain. Venturing into the ‘core area’ of Coto Doñana National Park in the company of ranger Sergio, our target was a nesting site of the Spanish Imperial Eagle, which might offer better viewings than a single bird seen previously at great distance. However, despite searching carefully for a considerable time without any sightings, we had to be content with good views of several other raptors, vultures and storks.

Returning towards our hotel in early evening, feeling drowsy from a hot afternoon in the field, the shade offered by a Stone Pine forest was most welcome. This habitat was typical Wild Boar and lynx territory, as we had already seen boar and been teased by the presence of feline paw prints in the sand, that very morning.

Driving slowly along a dusty track, we were suddenly wide awake and staring forwards as a female Iberian Lynx crossed the track some 30 yards ahead. Sergio stopped the vehicle and we watched enthralled as she ambled slowly into the undergrowth and disappeared. From my back seat, I was unable to capture the moment on camera but still have the image in mind.

Unlike a Leopard sighting last year (in Pench NP, India) there was no cacophony of alarm calls from monkeys overhead nor commotion in the undergrowth as terrified prey species dashed to escape; simply an enveloping silence broken only, within the vehicle, by our own breathing and excited whispers. Like the Leopard, however, was the lynx’s strikingly similar relaxed manner as it sauntered along, apparently unconcerned by our presence.

After some time peering intently ahead, Sergio inched forward to the crossing point where, to our surprise and delight, she had not continued away into the forest but was sitting under a nearby tree looking around, her head clearly visible above the grass. We watched spellbound as the head turned slowly from side to side and long tufted ears constantly twitched. Finally, she stood up again and moved into longer grass becoming lost to view. Nearly half an hour had passed when we eventually left the forest feeling extremely fortunate to have witnessed this graceful feline at such close range.

Returning to our hotel in El Rocio – the regional equestrian centre – we encountered a cavalcade of revellers in horse-drawn carriages on an evening drive. An atmosphere of mutual high spirits prevailed amongst passengers – although perhaps not our driver. The sure-footed horses coped well with the sandy terrain, but our 4×4 minibus struggled for traction and slewed about, its wheels making deep tyre tracks in the sand. Later on, we enjoyed celebratory drinks in town, while local riders drank at a high-level bar complete with hitching rail, without dismounting: a small taste of the wild-west, European style!

Disappointment at not obtaining good views of the Spanish Imperial Eagle was dispelled two days later when we visited Monfragüe National Park in Extremadura. In the morning at Pena Falcon cliffs we were treated to the amazing sight of dozens of vultures, of several species, soaring over spectacular mountainous scenery. This was a photographer’s paradise, but for those with only modest optical equipment it was sufficient to simply watch in awe as these enormous birds wheeled around us, circled above on thermals, and landed on rocky ledges.

Moving further into the park we reached Potilla del Tietar and parked at a convenient location directly opposite a wooded hillside where eagles nested. Unsurprisingly this was already frequented by several other birders and photographers. As Simon accurately trained his telescope on a tree containing a nest, one bystander remarked ‘They fed about 10 minutes ago, so you won’t see anything for a couple of hours’. This, however, was destined to be another lucky day for us, as within minutes a great bird arrived at the nest, offering excellent, detailed, views of Spanish Imperial Eagle in flight and perching. Better still, the other parent and a chick soon became visible, and the second adult subsequently took off. Feeling privileged to have witnessed three of these majestic birds all together, we once again returned to our hotel in excellent spirits, ready to celebrate over dinner.

Where better than the Vina las Torres guesthouse to do just that? At this lovely villa perched on a hillside with views across to the ancient walled town of Trujillo, we were treated to gourmet food, excellent quality wines, and entertained with live classical music by younger members of the Belen family. A wonderful ending to another memorable day in a week so full of highlights that it was hard to choose the best.


Click here for further information about our 9-day Spain’s Coto Doñana & Extremadura holiday.