Europe is a continent known for many things: Culture, Food, Geography, History, Architecture and so on…. But large animals aren’t even remotely on that list. The further South you get, the more people you’ll find and consequently less larger wildlife. Sighting an animal that weighs more than a human might happen frequently up in the Scandinavian countries, but down in the South, you're lucky if you encounter a rabbit!
Sure there are plenty of species that still exist within the region of Southern Europe, yet the frequency at which they are sighted is dismal compared to what it once was. In all my time spent outdoors over the years, aside from birds, the largest animals I had ever seen were a couple deers, a small group of dolphins, a few foxes and the occasional rabbit. Its a good thing the sole reason we hike isn’t for the wildlife, otherwise we would be pretty disappointed after most hikes.
It was Valentine's Day weekend and we had chosen to hike a trail just north of Amelie les Bains on the French side of the mountain range. Like always, little research went into our decision making. The night before, with the help of the Visorando App and a bottle of wine, we found a scenic area to aim for the next day. The trick here is, you pour yourself one glass of wine and you make a fucking decision before it's finished....You're not reconstructing the James Webb telescope here, it's just choosing a hike!
The next morning started as all great mornings start, you get half way there, google maps crashes, refuses to re-open and the internet connection is lost due to the surrounding mountains…..We certainly were having sever 1st world problems…. It was already bad enough that there was no Starbucks along the way there and now this! What were we to do, turn back home, try to find a mountain top McDonalds to get some free wifi?
Hahahaha…If shit like is gonna ruin your day, you probably shouldn’t be hiking in remote areas in the first place. We were in the market for an adventure in the first place, and the technology gods helped us out by revoking some of our tools. Since there aren’t too many choices in roads up in the mountains, it was easy enough to find the place based on memory. Even if ya ain’t Rain Man, remembering turn right, turn left go straight for 11 km is pretty manageable!
We parked the car where we "figured" the hike was meant to start and off we went. About half way up the mountain Faustine stops and says look, look, look….In the distance I could just make out a few silhouettes up on the top of the rocks, and they did seem to be subtly moving.
I dunno how in the hell she spotted them, but Queen Eagle Eye had spotted something truly special! We slapped on the 600mm to get a closer look and knew immediately……. IBEX
Thanks to years of watching BBC with Attenborough, straight away we knew what we were looking at. We watched them from a distance for 5 minutes or so in awe before they disappeared up the mountain. Unfortunately low light and a bit too far to photograph yet that didn’t matter at all, we were buzzing after this super unexpected encounter. Had that been all we saw that day, we’d a both been beyond satisfied with the hike.
Once we got to the top of the mountain, we got a splash of internet connection. Google would be kind enough to point out that we hadn’t even walked 1 meter on the path we planned to hike. Instead, we had taken something completely different. A stunning hike nonetheless yet this route was never gonna loop back around to where we parked.
We made a U turn and started heading back down the other side of the mountain. In search of a place for lunch, not even 5 minutes after we changed direction……. there they where again!….Not only had we found the most scenic viewpoint on the mountain to stop for lunch, but the Ibex were on the adjacent peak just relaxin all cool like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Now that we had found them and installed ourselves it becomes decision time. Do we eat lunch and hope they don’t see us and try to photograph them after? Or do I get the drone out and try to get something super special?
Neither of us have had ever seen these animals in the wild before that day, so we didn’t know if they were gonna hang out if they notice us or fuck off down the mountain. I took a few photos with the camera but didn’t have the greatest vantage point. Frustrated to not be able to get what I want, ( such a millennial! ) it was clear what needed to be done!
We took the drone out n’ readied it faster than a Michael Schumacher pit stop. At this point in under my drone piloting belt, I had at the very most only 3 hours of accumulated flight experience. I wasn’t even the nervous about crashing, I just didn’t want to do something stupid and fuck this up by scaring them. I approached them carefully and slowly, staying just far enough that they didn’t seem to give 2 shits about the little helicopter that was circling them.
This is the pictures we got :
And of course a bit of video
After we found them the first time, I had imagined how great it would be to get some shots of them with the iconic white capped peaks in the background....... Not even if I staged it with a green screen could I have asked for them to be in a better location to get these shots. Finally an encounter with large wild animals in France and there were 8 of them!
After they gat tired of the drone, they buggered off down the mountain and we continued back down towards the car.
We knew that they were rare, and were curious to know a bit more about what we had just witnessed that morning. A quick google search would reveal that.... not only were they rare, they were introduced as a replacement species over the past 20 years.
In the early 2000’s the last Pyrenees Ibex was found and the species was pronounced extinct. These majestic creatures with their ridiculously elaborate horns had become another one of those animals humans just couldn’t stop fucking with. As a plan to re-introduce Ibex to the region, the Iberian Ibex was chosen to replace it's now extinct cousin. There are estimates of only a few hundred living in the region, so to say we were lucky to see 8 is an understatement. As happy as we were to experience these animals, it does become bitter sweet when you learn about the story of how that encounter was uniquely shaped by human behaviour.
At the end of the day this was a day that could have never, ever been planned for. Our navigational tools broken, we took a completely wrong route...... and concequently had the best wildlife encounter to date while hiking in the South of France. My point is – You can scrutinize over your decision making as much as you want, real adventures only arise when you can’t foresee them.
That’s what makes them adventures!
Check out more of our adventures in France here.