Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Roaming in Romania - Days 1 and 2: Long Journey to the Delta

Following my trip to Hungary last year, I was so impressed with the abundance and diversity of bird life, that I decided to make a return visit to Eastern Europe for my main overseas trip this year. This year I decided I would head a bit further east into Romania with the main attraction being the Danube Delta, known as the last true wilderness of Europe and noted for its amazing diversity and abundance of bird life.

There will not be many bird photographs for this post which mainly recounts my long journey to Delta but I did manage to get a couple of photographs en route including a new species.

The trip had been booked for many months so it was with excitement that I departed from the house on Friday lunch time for the 50 minute drive across to Manchester Airport. For this trip I decided to fly with British Airways which proved to be a much more enjoyable experience and removed any worries in terms of heavy camera hand luggage due to their allowance. All my kit was safely packed in to the Gura Gear  Bataflae bag and for those interested the basic camera kit for the trip was a Canon 1DX and 1Dmk4 combined with a 300mm F2.8 and 600mm F4 lens and the two teleconvertors.

My first flight was a short 'hop' down to Heathrow and then the hassle of having to swap from Terminal 5 to 3. By the time I had reached Terminal 3, dragging my heavy hand luggage, I had felt like I had walked half-way to Romania! In Terminal 3 I met up with Rene who was one of the other three photographers on the trip that had been organised by Saker Tours.

My trip last year to Hungary was also booked through Saker Tours. However, this trip was to be quite different. The Hungary visit was based around a number of established fixed hides and you could also predict what images you would home with, even down to the settings. The Romania trip was based on a much more mobile approach and birds encountered which would result in different images on each tour. This really appealed to me together with the fact the most of the photography would not be through glass as it was in Hungary.

We boarded the 3.5 hour flight to Budapest and lost a further 2 hours to time difference and so arrived around 11:15pm. We were not due to be collected until the following afternoon and so had booked a night in the accommodation in the Mogosoaia Palace. We managed to get ripped off by the taxi from the airport and getting into the Palace at midnight seemed a bit like trying to gain entry to a secure facility as we had to negotiate our way around several sets of security. We had chosen this accommodation as it is surrounded by parkland that may offer some opportunities for photography the following morning while we were waiting for collection.  It was a nice looking hotel but I was starting to have doubts!

I did not sleep well mainly due to the fact that huge spotlights, lighting the historic building, lit up the room as if it was daylight and this was accompanied by a constant howling and barking or packs of feral dogs that seemed to be roaming the grounds. After a couple of hours restless sleep I woke around 5:30am to an unfamilar dawn chorus of nightingales and cuckoos. Further sleep seemed pointless so I thought I would head out with the camera for a couple of hours as the sun was rising to see what could be found.

I wandered down the edge of a large reed fringed lake and immediately heard the loud song of the Great Reed Warbler. This is a bird I have always wanted to photograph and after a short wait this giant warbler was in front of me singing. A good start.

Bursting into its very loud song in the early morning light.

I spent the rest of the time trying to photograph some cuckoos that were constantly flying around calling and managed to get a couple of photos before the light became to harsh and it was time to retreat back to the hotel for breakfast.
At breakfast I met another of the members of the trip Hans from Holland. There was nothing left to do now except wait for our collection in the afternoon to start our journey into the Delta. We slowly basted in the sun sitting outside the hotel which seemed to be in chaos. We watched the comings and goings of a couple of weddings, a christening and a large meeting of Masons. After some difficulty and much confusion I eventually managed to pay for my room.

Zoltan, our host for the week, eventually arrived around 3:30pm with the fourth photographer, Michael from Austria. We loaded all the luggage and camera bags into the minibus and set out on a 4 hour drive across Romania to Tulcea, the gateway to the Danube Delta. It was interesting to note on this journey that the was a marked absence of bird life compared to Hungary which no doubt was partially a result of different farming practices. Huge swathes of the country are covered in enormous prairie like mono-cultures of wheat and sunflowers which are no doubt a remnant of the large state farms from the communist era. A very different situation compared to Hungary. Our journey to Tulcea did not pass without incident as we had a rear wheel blow-out which fortunately occurred about 100m from a tyre repair garage and so did not delay our journey much.

At Tulcea we transferred on to the boat for a 2 hour journey to our final destination, Mila 23, in the heart of the Danube Delta.

Mila 23 means 'Mile 23' and refers to the distance of the location within the Delta from the Black Sea into which the Danube finally discharges. At this point I will quickly mention the boat which has been specially constructed by Saker Tours for photography and was to be our 'home' for the next few days. The boat comfortably accommodates 4 photographers and has been well thought out as a floating hide and allows birds to be photographed at near water level.

As we headed in to the Delta, darkness began to quickly descend and as we approached our destination of the Paradise Delta House Hotel we were sailing at speed through reed lined channels in the pitch dark. Our boat driver obviously knew the waters very well and must have very good night vision!

It must have been around 10 pm when we eventually arrived at the hotel which was very good and on an island opposite Mila 23. After a quick meal of fried carp, which I can't really recommend, we all headed to bed for the 5am start. I drifted off to sleep quickly while outside was the sound of thousands of 'singing' frogs under a million stars in a clear sky above. After a long journey it felt we had finally arrived. Anticipation was high for our first day out photographing birds in the Delta which will be the topic for my next post.

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