The best safari destination you've never heard of!
Photography is a lonely business, so I was delighted when a friend called Tammy from my old camera club asked me to go on a wildlife workshop in northern Spain. "Spain?" I hear you ask. "What on earth is there to shoot in Spain?" Well, there's a little gem that nobody's ever heard of called Cabárceno. (In case you were wondering, it's pronounced kuh-BAR-thuh-noh). It's official title is the Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabárceno (or Cabárceno Wildlife Park), and it's a Longleat-style safari park that has hundreds of animals from all over the world in large enclosures perfect for taking pictures. You can't actually enter the areas reserved for the animals, but all you have to do is look at the map of the park, drive to the animal you want to see, get out of the car and start taking pictures. There's no waiting around for hours or driving aimlessly in the hope of spotting something - the animals are all where they're supposed to be, and that means the photographic opportunities are endless. I took nearly 4,000 pictures on the first day, which is more than I've taken anywhere else in the world!
The course ran for two days (17-18 June 2017), and it was run by a wildlife photographer called Marina Cano. Tammy told me she was very famous in the industry, and I was certainly impressed by the shots I saw on her website, so I had no problems signing up. I wasn't sure I'd get much from any tuition that was on offer - and that turned out to be the case - but I decided it was worth it just to be able to see so many animals so cheaply without all the hassle of long-haul flights to Africa, India or South America.
Tammy and I flew in on Friday evening, stayed the night at a couple of local guesthouses just outside the park and then met up with everyone at the entrance at 0900 the next day. There were 12 guests, plus Marina, her partner Michael and a couple of assistants called Paco and Luis. Most of the guests were Spanish and spoke little to no English, but we were lucky that a lovely northern couple called Barry and Christine changed their plans and made a last-minute decision to join us. That meant that the four of us from England could drive around in the same van, and we had a lot of fun together.
After spending an hour waiting for everyone to arrive and filling in forms and finding our passports to get tickets for the park, Marina gave us a briefing over coffee at one of the local cafés, telling us what the plan was and asking if we had any questions. The general idea was that she would take us to the best viewing spots, and we would get out and take pictures. Simple as that. She also gave us a bit of 'homework', which was to choose our five best shots for her to review the following day.
On day one, we ended up going to see the gorillas, then the bears, then the lynxes, zebras, cheetahs, lions, lynxes (again!) and finally the ostriches, with the odd giraffe, elephant and Bengal tiger cub thrown in. On the second day, we saw pretty much the same animals but with the addition of a couple of white rhinoceros, a herd of fallow deer and a glorious encounter with a hippo, which opened its mouth incredibly wide almost as soon as we arrived - and then did it again! We also went to see the birds of prey, and that was a good chance to take close-up 'portraits' of red kites, bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, vultures and - my personal favourite - the black-chested buzzard-eagle.
The general format was to spend three or four hours taking pictures in the morning, then stop for a long lunch at a restaurant at a little village just outside the park and then go back to take more pictures until around eight o'clock in the evening. The days were pretty long, and we had to cope with a rather unusual heatwave that meant temperatures rose to 33°C at times, so were were pretty tired when we finally got back to the various 'posadas' where we were staying. That made it quite hard to do our homework on the first night, as most of us just wanted to go straight to bed! However, we all managed to produce our five images for the review after lunch the next day, and that was the most educational part of the whole course.
Marina gave some sensible feedback, and I was very impressed with most of the pictures people had taken. Even though we'd all seen exactly the same animals from exactly the same spots at exactly the same time, the quality and variety of the images was amazing! It just goes to show what's possible with a little imagination, and Tammy in particular produced a very creative picture of the two lynx side-by-side that looked just like a pen-and-ink police mug shot! That inspired me to try over-exposing (and under-exposing) my shots that afternoon rather than just taking the same old, same old sunny 'record shots' that didn't have an ounce of emotion in them.
It was a shame we didn't review all the images a bit earlier, as we only had a few hours to practise what we'd learned, but the trip wasn't quite over. We had a free morning on the Monday before our flight in the afternoon, and Barry and Christine kindly offered to drive us round the park in their motor home! That was a real bonus, and we got some great shots of a barnful of Ankole-Watusi cattle and the two white rhino lying side-by-side under a tree.
All in all, it was a great trip, and I thoroughly recommend Cabárceno if you're looking for a cheap and cheerful way to take great pictures of animals you'd never usually see without spending thousands on a long-haul safari. We were lucky with the people we met, and there wasn't much actual 'teaching' from Marina and her team, but that's only a minor quibble. Yes, the workshop cost €295, but the Ryanair flights from Stansted to Santander were only a hundred quid, the Posada Venero and Cabárceno only charged €50-60 a night, and an annual season ticket for the park was only €55, so what better place for a do-it-yourself safari! Can't say fairer than that.
European griffon vulture
1 x lens hood (it fell off into the bears' compound, and they ended up eating most of it!)