Scribe on the Sands

Red deer3 Donana Dec 19

12 – 16th December 2019, Andalucía, Spain 

Doñana: art project of the mighty Guadalquivir River, a restless equation of marsh, forest and dune. Hardly an hour south of Seville’s bright streets lies a wilderness with sand that speaks, and slips under your boots, adding you to the register of living things that walked under umbrella pines.

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Rabbits, red deer and wild boar. Mongoose, Iberian fox and badger – they all came here before me, loping past rosemary shrubs, fur patted by a wind that teases winter even while cicadas pepper the nights. Something else is here, something wilder and rarer, and its insignia is etched in the sand.

Iberian lynx track Donana Dec 19

Iberian lynx. They are indivisible from rabbits – I contemplated their relationship in Andújar last year. This lynx is the rarest cat on Earth, a spotted, ear-tufted, sideburned ghost, and Doñana is its other major stronghold. Four times I see their sign on these sandy hikes, but the lynx hide themselves, as is their wont.

Rabbits keep watch, as is theirs. Their population is frail, stitched together by conservationists to keep lynx alive.

Rabbit Donana Dec 19

It is an ongoing campaign, but there is still hope; there are still lynx in Doñana. Somewhere, beyond the cork oaks and the horses wandering free.

Donana horses Dec 19

Doñana‘s other master predator takes to the marshes. For sheer grandeur, the Spanish imperial eagle tops the tree – and a kestrel hovers over it, as reckless as a crow.

Imperial eagle and kestrel2 Donana Dec 19

Imperial eagle and kestrel Donana Dec 19

There are little owls here, too, perched on the ancient stump of a eucalyptus.

Little owl Donana Dec 19

And red deer, still watching.

Red deer Donana4 Dec 19

Still leaving hoofprints on those sandy trails that tell so many stories.

Clouds build over the little whitewashed town of El Rocío.

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Clouds to wipe clean the sandy canvas, turn a fresh page if you will – but the rain is yet to fall.

Curtain on the Mountain

The drama has two acts, and a curtain is shaking between them in the wind. Down there – a long way down – are people, railways, and dreams.

Monte Rosa cross Jun 19

Above them, above me, are the kings of the Alps, the greatest mountains this side of the Caucasus. Most of the highest summits are within a few miles, splitting the clouds and cradling their glaciers.

Matterhorn from Monte Rosa Jun 19

Mattertal mtns Jun 19

And that curtain – it’s made of trees. It might be valley meadows and alpine crags that dominate Switzerland’s image, unsurprising given their wholesale assault on human senses. But between them are the trees, a forest sweet with pine sap and scurrying with life.

Forest CH Jun 19

In fact, about a third of Switzerland is forest, and when the mountains start rising it is conifers that dominate. In them, beech martens bounce and red squirrels bury pine cones.

Red squirrel2 CH Jun 19

It is quiet, footsteps on fallen needles –

A raven barks.

For a moment I’m remembering Canada, being alerted by ravens to a nearby cougar. Ravens and large carnivores are linked together as much as the mountains and the river. Cougars are not indigenous to Europe, but we do have one large cat: the Eurasian lynx, snowshoe-pawed and ears flagged with tufts. A much larger species than its North American counterpart, it preys mostly on roe deer. Lynx were reintroduced to Switzerland fifty years ago and have a small presence in the Alps. So do wolves, which returned of their own accord from Italy.

Like large carnivores almost everywhere, their relationship with rural communities is not easy, but conservationists try to find ways for people and nature to coexist. Perhaps in the future, ravens will not have far to look.

In the here and now, the forest floor is growing sapphires. Wild gentians abound.

Gentian CH Jun 19

And amethysts; I’m not sure about this one, unless it is a mountain pasqueflower.

Mountain pasque flower CH Jun 19

It is the pattern on the curtain – the complex threads of landscape and life.

Down the Trail

Poppy unopened CH Jun 19

The poppies still in bud will have a surprise: they won’t flower alone. Every plant here has its attendants – winged, busy and bold.

Swiss butterflies1 Jun 19

Butterflies are abundant, and so are smaller creatures.

Bug on herb-robert Jun 19

The red and black stripes of the minstrel bug warn predators that they taste foul.

Bug on flowers CH Jun 19

And of course, the colouration of bees signals their ability to defend themselves.

Bee on round-headed rampion Jun 19

But despite subtle warnings, the path is peaceful, winding over gentle slopes of meadow and coniferous forest, the shockingly tranquil toes of the Alps’ mightiest giants. Not that the mountains let you forget them; there is still a snowpack flanking some streams, and all the water ferries glacial dust into the Vispa.

Vispa River Jun 19

That milky hue – the colour of a snow leopard’s eyes – is mountain blood and bone. Glaciers scratch the peaks as they move, scouring rock to powder and sending it to the river via by their outflow streams. It is a familiar story from mountain ranges everywhere, but I’ve not seen many that do it with such haste. Water here is hasty; it has to be, with valley rims on both sides soaring over three kilometres above the river. Streams leap from the glaciers in waterfalls so numerous, I suppose that no one has ever thought to give them a name.

Yet this is a valley of humanity, as well as wildlife. The village of Täsch is at least seven hundred years old. Today it largely survives on tourism rather than agriculture, but relics of former times are in the streets – a drinking trough for livestock lives on.

Tasch water trough Jun 19

Flowers, insects, water, people – none are alone. They are all part of the fabric of the Mattertal.

Walking in a Paintbox

So many colours! All shining between snow and sun.

Alpine meadow Jun 19

Hurried breakfast, out on the trail. It is a switchback – what could be more Swiss? – and it is fragrant, pine sap perfume leaking from a thousand trees. Red squirrels flit between them, much darker here than their lowland kin.

Red squirrel CH Jun 19

The Matterhorn is veiled – clouds encircle it, as if entranced. Somewhere to my right are the misshapen summits of the Monte Rosa massif, western Europe’s highest mountains after mighty Mont Blanc. It is always winter up there, and even ten thousand feet beneath the Rosa, the snow is yet to die.

Trail 50 waterfall and snow Jun 19

Waterfalls infuse the Vispa River with glacial glow. But the meadows sparkle on with every colour in the paintbox.

Mountain houseleek

Mountain houseleek CH

Globeflower

Globeflower CH

Yellow alpine pasqueflower

Yellow alpine pasque flower CH

Alpine aster

Mountain aster CH

Every forgotten bank and unnamed corner is as rich as England’s best SSSIs. Up to eighty species of plant per 100 square metres – this is a garden of wild things, stretching onwards for mile upon mile.

Zermatt meadows1

The trail has not ended. Many hours have passed. Time to pause and reflect.

Sarawak: Jungle Nights

March 2017

Twilight does not exist in the tropics. In Scotland or Canada, the sun falls gently out of the sky and the land shines in golden half-light for an hour or more. But on the equator, there is no such patience. One moment there is light:

Mangroves Bako Mar 2017

And then it collapses.

We’re headed out into the jungle by torchlight. It is the only way to glimpse Bako’s most mysterious creatures. You tread softly, on boardwalks overshadowed by darkening trees, and illuminated by beings of magical beauty.

Bornean keeled pit viper1 Bako Mar 2017

Keeled pit vipers hunt birds and rodents high in the trees.

Bornean keeled pit viper2 Bako Mar 2017

Other predators try their luck on the ground. There are fewer spiders here than I remember from the dry tropical forests of Mexico, but they still make for an impressive sight.

Large spider Bako Mar 2017

Some spiders surprise you with their girth. Others, with their colours – this is a long-jawed orb weaver.

Blue and red spider Bako Mar 2017

Not everything is fully awake. Swiftlets rest on the rock face.

Swallows Borneo

A stick insect of implausible proportions watch us pass.

Stick insect

High above, a whistle sounds – the branches shake, and a palm civet leaps from tree to tree with the agility of a lemur, far too fast to photograph.

The night continues, and the snakes continue their hunt.

Viper2

Sarawak: Hiking in Bako

March 2017

Humanity is a puppet danced by a tyrant called Weather. We have moments when we delude ourselves that we are free – we sit under roofs, delight in air conditioning, and warm ourselves with fires – but we all secretly know that respite from Weather’s commands is temporary. Walking in the tropics brings this home: temperature and humidity are with you at every step.

Northern Bako awaits!

Bako map

Plants are living things. We underestimate them because they are less mobile than animals, but they have a presence, a purpose, and sometimes even a menace. Bako is a rainforest and the trees are its soul, its master, and they are not abashed to remind paths of their supremacy.

Path of roots Bako Mar 2017

Within the tangle of leaves and roots, many animals thrive. Borneo giant ants are an impressive sight.

Bornean giant ant Bako Mar 2017

The top of the ridge is pock-mocked with erosion from rain. Limestone always remembers any bruises from water.

Top of the rock Bako Mar 2017

Far more than the jungle below, this is a harsh place for a plant to make a living. And if they cannot take nutrition from the ground, there is always another, more proactive way to make a living.

Pitcher plants are carnivores. They lure insects with nectar but they are a one-way trap. Hairs on their flanks prevent the prey from climbing back down, and if the animal falls inside, it is consumed by the plant’s enzymes. Most of their prey are invertebrates, but they occasionally catch frogs and have even been known to ‘eat’ rats.

Pitcher plant Bako Mar 2017

Dozens of pitcher plant species exploit the animals of Borneo. Some rest like pitfall traps on the ground, and others dangle from trees.

Pitcher plant2

And they raise an interesting point. We think of clouded leopards and crocodiles as Borneo’s top predators, but perhaps that is just the human whimsy of wanting nature neatly organised into tables. Ecological food chains are much better described as ‘food webs’. Pitcher plants are kings of their own part of the forest, feasting on species that will never catch the leopard’s eye.

High above the sea in this thin forest, the sun burns hot, and then hotter. We hear stories of tourists who died here; never, ever, underestimate the power of dehydration.

Our path continues down rickety stairs.

Staircase

The South China Sea lies ahead.

Bako scenery Mar 2017

A little boat drives us around the headland back to our starting place. Bearded pigs watch the sun falling into the sea.

Pig on the beach Bako Mar 2017

Bako at sundown Mar 2017

The Amethyst

There are two observation challenges while walking in nature: the first to find the hidden species, and the second to see the beauty and importance of common, obvious things that seldom capture much of our time.

There is a national trail in Surrey that reveals plenty of both. The North Downs Way is south-east England’s most absorbing footpath, threading through over 150 miles (250km) of chalky hills, ancient beechwoods and rolling farmland. I live on it, or very nearly; it runs through my parish on its pilgrimage to Canterbury and the sea.

It is big enough to feel uncrowded, human-wise, but the wild is there to offer its company.

Amethyst deceiver 3 Oct 2017

Amethyst deceivers bring royal purple to the forest. The name reflects their variable shape which can outfox identification. These clustered on a fallen beech, joining moss in a living shroud.

The beech that still stand are catching the light as though it were a cricket ball flying towards them in the season’s last match.

Beech leaves in light 3 Oct 2017

Flowers, too, are still shining. Poppies redden the edges of arable land.

Poppy 3 Oct 2017

Scarlet pimpernels peep through the grass.

Scarlet pimpernel 3 Oct 2017

And here – the harbinger of spring, resting on a grass stem coloured by autumn:

Brimstone buttery 3 Oct 2017

It is a brimstone, and although at rest it mimics a leaf, on the wing the male is brilliant yellow. One of our longest-lived butterflies, it hibernates through the winter.

Whatever wild dramas autumn and winter bring, it will be oblivious.