Sunday, November 19, 2017
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Globetrotting Animal Magic!

JOHN TREW recalls close encounters with wildlife on his travels…

DID YOU KNOW that Belfast is home to more than 100 wildlife species and that close encounters with them are on offer in a super-comfortable location within a five minute drive from the City Hall?

No, I’m not talking about our own venerable zoo – which is one of Europe’s best, believe me - but the latest addition to our growing list of world-class tourist attractions, WOW.

That means WINDOW ON WILDLIFE, which is the new zingy re-branding title of the long established RSPB Belfast Harbour Reserve birdwatching centre along the loughside Airport Road between Victoria Park and the big shops of Holywood Exchange.

I mentioned this delightful stopover in Trew’s Travels a few years ago when I described as ‘Belfast’s finest hidden gem’; it remains a bit hard to find but new signage should help. As I regularly drive from Belfast to Bangor, we often dodge the Sydenham By-pass traffic by turning off at Dee St to Airport Road and then visit the Reserve to watch the flocks of birds through the panoramic windows overlooking the lagoon which is a tidal inlet of Belfast Lough.

This visitor centre has been radically refurbished as the most family-friendly place I know from which to observe thousands of birds all year round. After months of costly upgrading, it’s now complete with indoor toilets, comfy seating, lots of telescopes and a coffee machine plus a new £3 entrance fee for non-RSPB members… and a herd of prehistoric ponies.

What? Yes, many endangered Konik ponies have been bred in Poland with all the hardiness of their Ice Age ancestors. Over recent years they have become ‘globe-trotters’, herding in RSPB sites across Britain and beyond, The WOW animals have been re-located from the RSPB’s other wonderful reserve in the Greater Belfast area, Portmore Lough near Aghalee Viewers of the recent BBC1 Countryfile programme featuring Portmore will have seen the small herd of Koniks which have been introduced to keep the grass down and the edges of lakes clear for the benefit of ground-breeders like lapwings and waterfowl. A few of these beautiful – if somewhat primitive-looking -- ponies are now at WOW to do the same. They are not the only wild mammals there: I regularly see the resident fox which is blamed as being responsible for swimming to the reserve’s floating nesting island in 2013 to eat all the breeding terns’ eggs! I was there the next day when this hideous crime was discovered; I shared the sorrow of RSPB staff and volunteers including two tearful students whose long-running Artic Tern Census was ruined overnight.

All of this has inspired me to recall some of my other close encounters with wildlife on global assignments for TREW’S TRAVELS.

Fishy tails along the Great Barrier Reef

I START WITH a story that has been sparked by a long-remembered day spent with my wife Karen enjoying the warm waters of the GREAT BARRIER REEF off Queensland.

We had just disembarked from the high-powered cruiser which takes tourists from Port Douglas miles out to a diving destination based on a series of huge pontoons. These are floating a few metres above what is just a tiny section of the world-famous coral reef – one of Planet Earth’s few natural wonders which can be seen from the Moon, I’m told.

While I busied myself adjusting the snorkelling gear that is part of the cruiser deal , I suddenly saw a shoal of rainbow-coloured little fishes nibbling away at Karen’s toes while she sat on the pontoon with legs dangling in the water, giggling like a schoolgirl at the weird sensation. Yes, I know -- such such a sight became commonplace in malls and airport lounges a few years later when entrepreneurs opened Fishy Foot Spas to relieve their customers of dead skin plus a few quid at the same time.

I snorkelled among the shark-free waters of the Reef’s astonishing variety of fishes and shellfish for two hours; that day stands out as our happiest maritime memory and I recommend that no visit to Australia is complete until you savour a trip to Northern Queensland’s rain forest and its unique underwater world offshore.

(For snorkellers, I have also recently recommended DOLPHIN REEF near Israel’s Red Sea resort of Eilat, the only place in the world where you are guaranteed to go ‘dancing’ with wild – but friendly – dolphins).

I met up with wildlife of a much scarier type when were on a walking tour of the dingo sanctuary of FRASER ISLAND, just off Australia’s eastern coast not too far from Bundaberg (where I first tasted the town’s delicious ginger beer that I still drink every Christmas). As usual, I was not keeping up with the guide and slipped away to have what the Aussies call a ‘slash’. As there were no ‘dunnies’ around, I ‘pointed percy at the palmtree’ and was going about my business when I suddenly became aware of somebody or something running up behind me…

I turned around—and looked straight into the unblinking eye of a giant Monitor Lizard! I was suddenly transported to that scene in Jurassic Park when Jeff Goldblum is attacked by a dinosaur. However, instead of going for my throat, the Monitor calmly put his long neck between my legs and started to lick up the stream of liquid on the ground.

I ran ‘scared witless’ back to the group - only to be ticked off by the guide for not using an official dunny (probably infested by deadly Funnel Spiders). He explained that the island was experiencing a long drought, so when the Monitor heard what it interpreted to be a shower of rain, it ran to the scene to quench its thirst. “You’re lucky it didn’t kill you,” he admonished.

Ever since, I’ve been imagining the headstone: John Trew R.I.Pee…

Warning: Tourists Beware of these Dangerous Americans

ON THE subject of dangerous animals, the USA may not noted for its maneaters - except, perhaps, its California Cougars (!) but it was there where I have had more Encounters of the Scary Kind than anywhere else in the world.

We were touring the Appalachian piedmont States where many Ulster-Scots settled, and came upon one of the world’s most scenic itineraries, SKYLINE DRIVE along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia (as Laurel and Hardy used to sing). Rounding a bend in a heavily-forested section of the route, we encountered a VW Camper stopped in the middle of the road up ahead. The two passengers were packing up their video camera and creeping back into the vehicle when one of them quietly indicated that there was something interesting to be seen in the forest clearing on the right.

I got out of our rented Chevvy with my heavy old Canon SLR camera and crept up the road while Karen parked. As I drew level with the clearing I caught sight of a baby Black Bear, seemingly on its own. Wrong! Up the tree, above the cub, was Mummy Bear harvesting nuts or whatever. In the split-second she caught sight of Yours Trewly, she began to clamber down the trunk backwards and go for me. That’s when I took off and broke the Ulster Senior Record for the 100 metres by 10.73 seconds -- with a bear behind (if you will excuse the phrase).

I was still quivering with fear a half-hour later when we caught up with the Camper Van in the parking lot behind Desiree’s Diner. The two Germans (as they turned out to be) had taken lots of footage of the cub but had not even seen the mother up the tree. Glückliche Germans, Unlucky Ulsterman!

My worst experience was the one I still talk about 10 times a year (and write about fairly often, too, so regular readers can skip this). We were staying at the magnificent DORAL COUNTRY CLUB on the outskirts of MIAMI, enjoying the free golf that was part of an Easter Weekend $99 Special. Because we were not into Ryder Cup championship golf for which the Doral is famed , every day Karen and I would play the deserted Par 3 Course for recreational (ie rubbish) golfers.

On our last day, I hit my ball into the water hazard near the 6th Tee. I could see it from the bank so I proceeded to roll up the sleeve of my Pringle shirt to retrieve it when I was suddenly aware of the ‘log’ in the middle of the pond starting to move rapidly towards me.

Just as I snatched the ball, the jaws of a mighty alligator opened and shut so close to me that I was splashed with pond-water. I was terrified and ran to the Starter’s Hut to report that a deadly creature had taken up residence in the pond at the Sixth. “Yup”, said the elderly Starter in a native Florida accent, “That shure sounds like Big Daddy, biggest ‘gator in South Florida”.

When I complained that there were no warning notices he said: “How’s about this: Warning: Do not get your arm eaten off for a golf-ball when you can buy three for five bucks from the Starter.” I went back to fetch my camera so as I could take a selfie with this 12ft monster, but it was submerged among the waterlilies in the middle of the lake so I have no proof of the ‘gator that nearly ate me.

Neither was I able to get a photo with the two skunks I met in the USA; the first was at Cade’s Cove, an old Ulster community in GREAT SMOKY NATIONAL PARK, Tennessee. I saw what I thought was a badger and went to get a close-up when the Park Ranger screamed at me:”If you get sprayed by that damn thing, you’re on your own, forever!” I would have had to take a two-hour hot shower with special soap and bury all my clothing, he explained later.

My other skunk crossed my path on the North Rim of the GRAND CANYON as we were going back to our cabin by torchlight after a seafood dinner (a thousand miles from the sea). It scurried into hiding while I scrambled for my camera. What a stinker!

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