Romania: Viscri – Land of Lost Trailcams

June – August 2016

The peace is superficial. From Viscri’s high ridges, you can see the land folding higher and ever higher into the Carpathians – but something is in the foreground. It has hooves.

Carpathians from Viscri

Livestock explains a lot about Viscri. Modernisation has boosted sheep, perhaps for the wool to knit those socks for tourists. Not only is the sheep / cow ratio skewed, but the actual sheep flocks are also much bigger.

Sheep flock Viscri

More hooves to trample the meadows, and more mouths to eat it. The grass is cropped low with sharply reduced biodiversity. The only exception is within a rusty barbed wire fence: a tiny but gorgeous meadow saved by the local beekeeper for his bees.

Beekeeper meadow

With so few mammals, reptiles take over my surveys. Sand lizards are abundant.

Sand lizard3

Something doesn’t feel right. Wild boar bones litter the wood – someone has been poaching. I’ve got a bad feeling about leaving the trail cameras here.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Viscri has a signpost to Brasov, arguably the most famous flashpoint of human-wildlife conflict in Europe.

Signpost to Brasov

Because we’re about to land fair and square in conflict of our own…

Asking directions

July 15th

The cows are coming home. I can hear them mooing from my room. A less common event in town is the decorating of a gate with conifer branches and balloons. Men were playing eastern-sounding music as they worked. There will be a wedding tomorrow.

July 19th

Dogs. Sheep. East Transect.

The skies are grey with fluctuating patches of blue, painting random lighted patches on the green landscape.

Fluffy cotton wool – or rather, dirty cotton wool. Sheep are dotted on the overgrazed grass in a flock both coherent and borderless.

The track rises swiftly over what might be an esker. What is this? Heads pop up. Heads, heads, heads. Giant dogs burst forth, barking. But the numbers! There are eleven, at least, although I don’t remember counting, and each is the size of an English mastiff or bigger. They flow towards us like an army out of Narnia: white and brown, or grey, or white, with massive St Bernard heads and torn ears. Some are like Spanish mastiffs, but with longer, unkempt coats.

We have no stick. We have no pepper spray.

I don’t make eye contact with the dogs and feel nothing. Time blends into a swirl. So much barking. Occasionally I notice a passing dog with angry eyes and barking jowls – the pack has encircled us. No elk ever brought to bay by wolves was so trapped, but then, elk that stand still are those that survive.

Some while later, the shepherd ambles over. He displays no concern whatsoever. He is perhaps in his forties, with a brimless black hat, an overcoat loose over his shoulders, and a large plastic bottle of something that looks like Pepsi but is probably beer. His dogs release us. We’re out of here.

Trailcams 1, 2, 3 – we ascend the ridge, and grab them. The good news is that one caught a fleeting glimpse of a forest wildcat carrying reptilian prey. We also have a rather cute fox.

Snapshot_0

The bad news is Trailcam 4. A chain dangles sadly from where the camera used to be. It’s now in a poacher’s pocket.

With the surviving cameras and low spirits, we walk on through the wood, trying to find a route home away from the dog pack. With the utmost difficulty, we crawl through dense prickling hawthorn, only to find ourselves dangerously close to the notorious farm with the red roofed barns.

Red roof farm

New problem: cows litter the landscape. Even at four hundred metres, another pack of giant dogs spot us, and come charging, bounding into hedgerows, closer, ever closer. Baskerville would be proud. One – something like a long-haired Anatolian – closes the gap to perhaps 60 metres, barking, barking, barking…

Scratched, exhausted and overheated, we stumble back into camp. Our local friends are horrified to hear that Trailcam 4 has been taken and with an energy that would leave the CID in the dust, they vow to track down the culprit. But there’s nothing more I can do.

Roll on Malancrav. That will be all. :/

Romania: Viscri – Changing Paces

June – August 2016

Something is different; the price to enter the latest fortified church, for starters. Viscri is still very ‘out there’ for a British traveller, but there is a change of tone after three weeks in the remote lanes of Richis and Mesendorf. Viscri has tourists, German mostly, come to celebrate the land of their ancestors, or buy traditional Viscri socks, or pull up on the roadside and ask me directions to Prince Charles’ house.

Yes, he keeps a property here. Somewhere. I am never quite sure which one it is, but the church itself is grand and timeless.

Viscri church

Tourism has not ruined Viscri by any standards, but it has some subtle impact. My routine post-survey survival kit of chocolate and melon-favoured icecream is more expensive here. More seriously, the local farms are sliding towards modernisation, which is already showing signs of throttling Viscri’s biodiversity. I’m expecting to find far less on the transects than in the first three villages.

First, though, I need to explore the village itself. Here puppies greet horses.

The Watching Puppy

And tourists or no, milk is still gathered in the traditional way.

Milk run

Every evening the cows bring themselves home, right home, each turning into her own gate. Swallows swoop over the water provided for livestock right in the centre of town.

Viscri drinking trough

Home for the week is a room, not a tent. I’m staying in one of the many guesthouses, a short walk from the heart of all things: Gerda’s lovely farm. A small army of ducks, geese and guinea fowl wander noisily out of her gate every morning, and back again every night.

Morning at Gerda's

Guarding them is the smallest of watchdogs, and he seems far more interested in playing with the nets used by the butterfly survey team.

Blackie and the butterfly nets

As for wild mammals – one is very close at hand. Livestock and puppy are joined in this farmyard by a wild hedgehog!

Hedgehog

It is a very peaceful hoggie, but causes a taxonomic debate. Officially, there are only eastern hedgehogs Erinaceus concolor here, but this individual, and all others that we’ve glimpsed, are clearly the western species Erinaceus europaeus. The mammal information book has erred.

It remains to be seen what surprises Viscri’s transects will bring.

Romania: Mesendorf – Trailcam Feast

July – August 2016

At the risk of understatement, seeing a bear and a wildcat on the same evening was a treat. But Mesendorf’s wildlife had another star turn, this time courtesy of the trail camera army. Here are just a few of the highlights from those beautiful old woods:

Ural owl

This huge owl posed nicely in front of a camera while it was hunting for toads in the pond.

Ural owl

Roe deer

Roe deer2

Roe deer1

Badger

Badger1

Forest wildcat

Another one! A big adult this time, showing off his splendid striped tail.

Wildcat

I should say that I set the cameras to film in movie mode; these are screenshots from the clips because I don’t have the right WordPress package for uploading the videos.

The cameras also caught a red squirrel and a red fox – and a bear, albeit so close to the camera that there’s little point in posting the image.

Next stop: Viscri, the village of royalty…and half-feral guard dogs.

Romania: Nou Săsesc – Wildside

June – August 2016

After a week of sliding up and down impossibly sheer slopes, I am not surprised that so much of Nou Săsesc’s wildlife is winged. Amongst them are middle-spotted woodpeckers – I crossed paths with the bird team one morning, just as they were studying this elegant chiseller of Romania’s trees.

Middle spotted woodpecker

And red-backed shrikes – they’re everywhere, watching for prey. They are songbirds with the heart of hawks.

Red backed shrike RI

The rooftops host special guests. A family of little owls roosts on the farm next to our camp, watching our work between their snoozing.

Little owl NS

And then, of course, there are the hawkmoths.

Hawkmoth NS

Down at ground level, the trail cameras caught a beech marten carrying off a frog.

Marten with frog

Overall, mammal records are low here compared to Richis; and yet, the sense of being away from the over-developed world is still strong. An excerpt from my diary dated July 2nd:

…in the evening, I tag onto the wildlife spotting group, going for a long drive up the same road which we clattered down in the morning. It seems even further in the car. After winding through wonderful hilly scenery, passing livestock and many trees, we stop at a meadow. There are signs of bear diggings on ant hills, and for a brief moment I wonder; but the charm of the evening is the utter absence of human noise. Sitting in the long grass, the world is very alive. Moths fly and bugs buzz, and a bee is being eaten by some species of false widow spider. You could forget the human voice altogether if you spent too long in a valley like this; instead there are roe deer, barking in a hoarse retch. One steps through the new growth of dense trees on the hillside above. Another barks at close range but cannot be detected with the thermal imaging camera. One student sees a fox, and we all observe two red deer bounding away. I spy a glow worm on the way back.

But mostly it is the silence, the sense that nature continues even when humanity forgets it.

This is Romania, land of contrasts.

One night you may be taught by the silence of nature, and the next giddy with rich human culture. The week ends with Romanian dancers and musicians performing in our camp. A video is here.

Next stop: Mesendorf. The land is gentler…but it is also much richer in bears.

Romania: Nou Săsesc – The Land of Up

June – August 2016

My colleague: “And how was your day?”

Me: “Steep.”

The hills look innocent; there are worse cliffs in the North Downs. And yet…

I’m glad – immeasurably glad – that my red hiking pole was rescued. Nou Săsesc, like all Saxon villages in Transylvania, is firmly embedded in the very lowest part of a valley. It is a lean network of dusty streets straddling a river flush with knotweed. From afar, it exists only as a smattering of red rooftops.

Nou Sasesc arrival

We’re now almost exactly in the geographical centre of Romania. Horses ferried us half the journey from Richis, pulling open wooden carts – their drivers shouting cheerfully as they overtake each other, tethered horses on the roadside calling to their brethren as wheels rattled by.

horse taxi

The horses stopped at an ancient fortified church, giving us a moment to ponder deeper mysteries.

Church statue

Then the journey continued on foot, high into meadows abloom with colour.

NS flower

Several hours later, we approach Nou Săsesc, our base for the next week. There are more vehicles here than Richis; a young girl speeds past on a bicycle with no hands on the bars. One house even has tennis courts, and a helicopter regularly buzzes overhead. There is a village shop which sells Lays crisps and chocolate, but it opens at a different time every day.

Our two survey transects loop outwards, east and west. And outwards, in Nou Săsesc language, means Up.

They start so gently…

NS transect

But those hills are far grimmer than they look.

It is, sometimes literally, a case of one step up and three back. Gravity argues with anyone trying to look for mammal sign on these transects. I stab my hiking pole into mud, edge upwards, scanning the forest floor for bear tracks while posed on what feels like a vertical path. The hills tumble into improbable ravines and sheer-sided gullies. Scrambling, we win the ridge – and see the high Carpathians lining the further horizon like the jawbone of a monstrous beast.

Carpathians from NS

Up here there are bear and badger tracks; there are also dazzling longhorn beetles that would fit well in the tropics.

Longhorn beetle

I have a datasheet with fieldsign of bears recorded on it; today’s survey is completed. We contemplate getting down.

Walkable land simply ends, tumbling into a dusty waterfall of beech leaves. We sit down and slide off it, down, down, down…into a maize field.

That, at least, is flat.

Romania: Timewarp

June 2016

I know a meadow where every step makes the air sweet with crushed thyme.

Meadows at Daia2

This is not Surrey, although it greatly resembles it. We do have some precious fragments of untarnished wildflower meadows in the North Downs, and I’m fighting to protect them. One of the things that gives me energy in that battle is the memory of another, wilder meadow, one where I was privileged to spend eight weeks last year, tracking wildcats and bears through fields that have never known a tractor’s fumes.

This is Romania – to be exact, Transylvania, the horseshoe of farmland ringed by the snow-capped Carpathian Mountains. It is almost the last place in Europe where farming is still genuinely environmentally sustainable. Tiny, family-owned farms grow a few vegetables, and there’s still time to take cattle for a walk.

Walking the cow

Harvest needs a horse.

Bringing the hay home

At Transylvania’s heart are the 12th century Saxon villages, built by the kings of Hungary with fortified churches to hold back the Ottomans and Tatar invaders. During the project, I stayed in seven of them, learning the landscape while collecting data on carnivores who leave fieldsign as blatant as this:

Bear scratch marks 270616

The scratches are the handiwork of a brown bear, Europe’s largest carnivoran south of the Arctic. Transylvania has a widespread bear population, and although I don’t trust Romania’s official figures for wildlife, bears are certainly doing far better in these orchid-rich meadows than in the rest of lowland Europe combined.

So, I’ll recount my stories from all seven of the Saxon villages over the next few days. Travel back in time to a world where horses outnumber cars and wildcats drink from unnamed streams…

Meadows Mesendorf

Semenggoh: Royalty of the Forest

March 2017

The trees are hardly big enough to hold them.

Orang utan5 26 Mar 2017

Orangutans, people-of-the-forest.

Borneo hosts one of the world’s orang species; the other is restricted to Sumatra. These incomparably impressive and sobering creatures travel through the canopy on an armspan of up to seven feet. They are in fact the largest tree-dwelling animal.

Semenggoh is a sanctuary for orangs which have come to harm through the erosion of Borneo’s wilderness by humanity. Some have been rescued from the pet trade, and others from the palm oil plantations that are blighting so much of south-east Asia.

They are not tame. They live wild in 700 hectares of their native forest, and if they do not wish to be seen, you will not find them. Food is provided on large platforms, but whether they come to collect it depends upon their success in foraging for fruit and vines in the trees.

A warden asks the crowd to remain quiet and respectful. He emphasises that this is the orangutans’ forest, a refreshing sentiment after what I’ve witnessed in certain other places over the years.

We don’t have to wait long.

Orang utan1 26 Mar 2017

The orangutans have started families of their own, raising young that are, for all intents and purposes, wild. The bond between mother and baby is beyond and above anything else in the mammal world – she may suckle her infant for seven years, and they are utterly inseparable.

Orang utan4 26 Mar 2017

It’s hard to look at this tiny bundle of orange fur and accept that three decades later it may look like this:

Orang utan6 26 Mar 2017

King of all wild things – at least in Borneo. This huge male orang is 35 years old and the undisputed ruler of Semenggoh. He does not visit the feeding platforms that often so we were very privileged to glimpse him. The other male orangs seemed less pleased; they kept a respectful distance.

It is unforgettable to see them in their native forest.

Orang utan3 26 Mar 2017

Long may Borneo retain enough wilderness to support them – and the bay cats and clouded leopards and proboscis monkeys that also roam the hills that sweat mist and grow durian trees.

As for me, I’ve got a flight to catch to Singapore. This was the briefest of safaris in Borneo yet it has fired my imagination…and I need to return.

Sarawak: Journey to Semenggoh

March 2017

Sunrise is as sudden as night. We have time for one final hike before the boat takes us away from Bako.

Path to the beach Bako Mar 2017

The bearded pigs watch us leave.

Bearded pig on beach1

Bearded pig1

Fishing huts and mangrove forests flash by as the boat speeds towards its jetty.

Fishermen huts Bako Mar 2017

Away from the river, the road runs southwards to Semenggoh, the first reserve I’ve ever visited where the authorities have apparently found it necessary to specifically ban gambling…perhaps there is a story behind that, but it’s unknown to me.

Do not gamble

Semenggoh has orang-utans. They are orphans or rescues, restored to a semi-wild existence by the patience and respect of Semenggoh’s wardens. They roam freely through the forests here, but often return to feeding platforms, especially in seasons when fewer wild trees are fruiting.

Needless to say, everyone gathered under a small shelter listening to one of Semenggoh’s wardens give a safety briefing is hoping to glimpse an orang-utan. But they come at times of their own choosing, and there many smaller treasures here to observe too.

Longhorn spiders dazzle in the bushes.

Longhorn spider Mar 2017

And this – hopefully the novelty value can excuse the photo quality, for the little grey-brown animal on the left is a treeshrew, the first one I’ve ever glimpsed. They have a higher brain-to-body ratio than any other mammal. It is accompanied by a cream-coloured giant squirrel.

Tree shrew and giant squirrel

It may not have much cream in its fur, but ‘giant’ does fit; it is about 80cm long, including its tail.

Giant squirrel 26 Mar 2017

They might be considered a supporting cast by some, but the shaking of the trees suggests that the stars are not far behind.

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

Sarawak: Out of the Sea

March 2017

We’ve found the end of the road, or rather the beginning of the real world. Bako National Park can only be reached by boat and is consequently spared one environmental headache familiar to most North American and European reserves.

So you see it first from the water, mountains hazy under the remorseless brilliance of the sun. Monitor lizards and kingfishers guard shorelines where a tangle of trees totter uneasily between cliff and sand. Then, land soars out of the sea itself – fantastic sandstone stacks, crumbling bones of a mountainous peninsula jutting northwards from the world’s third largest island into the South China Sea.

Sea stack2 Bako Mar 2017

Some people see faces in them; others, perhaps, are more astonished by the raw power of sea chewing stone.

Sea stack Bako Mar 2017

Thirty metres from the beach, the boat grinds to a halt. We wade through the warm water and tread on Bako sand. The tropical sun burns our clothes dry in minutes.

Bako coastline

It is so hot, and bright, all wrapped up in the equatorial humidity blanket.

Wildlife strolls into view almost immediately. Bornean bearded pigs are distant relations of the wild boar.

Bornean bearded pig1 Bako Mar 2017

They are not aggressive, but encouraging wildlife to approach tourists with food seldom ends well, and it appears what happens in Yellowstone also happens in Bako – despite the best efforts of local staff.

Feeding the pigs

Away from the day-trippers at the park headquarters, the forest resumes a natural air: quieter, yet more intense.

Bako coastline2

Within that forest dwell one of the world’s rarest and strangest creatures. Proboscis monkeys have a more relaxed nature than much of the primate family, which may just as well considering their hefty bulk. They are called ‘Dutch monkeys’ in Indonesia because they allegedly resembled early Dutch colonists.

Proboscis monkey1 Bako Mar 2017

They are endangered, and only found in Borneo. They thrive in Bako’s tangled forests, eating leaves and unripe fruit. They generally live in family groups although some males rove together in bands.

Proboscis monkey4 Bako Mar 2017

Theirs is this forest, which is best explored on foot. Park Headquarters includes a small restaurant where we restock our water supplies and park unnecessary equipment. Time to hit the trail…