A Vietnam Caving Expedition

I wanted to create a cave expedition to look for areas that are little known and explore in the hope of finding a ‘Lost World’, somewhere on our constantly changing planet that was still relatively untouched, I filmed as much footage as I could with a small hand-held video camera and created a self-made documentary of the experience, here is a very brief extract from that documentary:

The caves and surrounding areas were stunning and had a surreal feel about it, below is a short film extract from one of the caves….

What led to this expedition was that a friend of mine (Vorsila) sent me some images of a Cave in Vietnam located at in the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park called Hang Son Doon meaning Mountain River Cave. This has taken over Phong Nha as the largest cave in the World, however it was not the cave that drew me it was what was inside it….

The cave was discovered in 1991 by a local ‘jungle’ man called Ho Khan, other locals were suspicious of the echoes from the fast river running through it and so would not go near it.

It was not until 2009 when a team of British Cave Researchers went to explore it further and breaking through a huge calcite wall discovered chamber after chamber of natural wonders including a rainforest growing in an area where the roof had collapsed producing light and it was this that drew me, I wanted to explore what I felt was a true ‘Lost World’ and document what type of insects, amphibians and birds were living there.

I invited a friend of mine Jonas from Copenhagen in Denmark to come in on this, as he is a superb photographer and would be a valued companion to have along.

I then set about contacting 11 different companies to try to get us there, but we were turned down by 10 of them, then one company, Haivenu Tours Ltd, said they could get us there, however we would need a letter of endorsement to apply to the Vietnamese authorities to get to the cave.

So I wrote to a few people, but heard nothing, then wrote a letter to Sir David Attenborough who sent me a lovely warm and encouraging reply wishing us luck, however he could not endorse it and so I eventually got my letter from a company called Care for the Wild and sent it off with a back up letter from my local Mayor as a character reference.

I also wanted to try to get Ho Khan the local jungle man to take us to the cave, this was looking very possible if we got that letter approved, however, 4 weeks prior to going (flights, etc already paid for and booked) the Vietnamese Authorities said that we would not be permitted to get to Hang Son Doon, as it is too dangerous.

Sardinia – Dragonflies and other wildlife

Having enjoyed the trip to The Camargue so much in 2009 looking for Dragonflies, I decided to follow on searching for Odonata in another part of Europe, this time for a week in Sardinia leaving in June 2010. 

Hibiscus flower

Sardinia is often referred to as the ‘Jewell of the Mediterranean’ and is the second largest island of this area with diverse habitats of forests, mountains and white, sandy beaches with sharp rocky coves. The clear blue waters are pristine and full of colourful fish and this unspoilt island provides a habitat for wild horses, white albino donkeys, reptiles such as tortoises, tree frogs,lizards and gecko, some impressive raptors including gryphin vultures and over 30 species of dragonflies. My interest was primarily Dragonflies and other insects and as it is so close to Africa Sardinia has some brightly coloured species to search for including the Violet Dropwing and the much sought after Green Hook-tail and Blade-tail species.

This trip was led once again by Dragonfly expert Andy McGeeny who is an excellent field guide, there to ask questions if needed, yet generally you are left alone to do your own thing; which suited me well. Andy spotted me at Heathrow airport so I sat with him on the plane journey over and talked to him about his books and what we might see in Sardinia.

Also on the plane were three other members from the trip to the Camargue, two of which I was delighted to see, Jan and Harvey, as we had got on so well in the Camargue, there only being 8 in the group for this week that meant that 50% of it had already met.

We arrived at Alghero and while waiting at the airport for the hire vehicles I photographed some House Martins flying in and out of their nests on the ceiling of the airport where they had nested in each light all the way along the building. The female birds faithfully flew in to feed their demanding young, which we could hear squawking for feed constantly.

Housemartin leaving its nest

Once the vehicles arrived we headed off to check in at a hotel in the town of Porto Torres, which is an industrial port, I was glad that the single supplement was within my budget this time so that I did not have to share within anyone; it is pot luck who you get and can often make or break a trip.

The grounds were surrounded by stone walls covered in bright red Hibiscus flowers which I photographed, these showy flowers are edible and are often used in salads or added to syrup and drinks. Hibiscus flowers have a range of colours, but the red ones really stand out and are so striking to the eye, some of the flowers are scented, yet just as many are unscented. There was an underground car park which had baby spotted flycatchers in a nest, I decided to watch them as much as I could in the short time at this hotel.

Dragonflies and Wildlife of the Camargue

I have always had a fascination with Dragonflies and Damselflies known as the Odonata order of insects.

Damselflies can be differentiated from Dragonflies by their much slimmer bodies, with their wings folded back when resting and by being weak flyers.

Willow Spreadwing (Lestes viridis) Camargue 2009 by A.K.

Dragonflies in comparison are much more robust, very strong flyers keeping their wings extended outwards at rest, they are also by nature extremely predatory and territorial. To me they are the perfect aerial predator acting as miniature flying machines

It is important to help keep some wild water areas for Dragonflies as they are threatened by loss of habitat, pesticides and of course predators such as blackbirds, ants and collectors. These days as digital photography is so widely used there should be no need to collect these insects, as a few photographs at different angles is generally enough to identify them.

Dragonflies have compound eyes which allows them almost 360° field of vision, there is no central lens or retina which gives poor resolution, however they can detect movement and light change very efficiently. Therefore if you see one resting, you will need to approach very slowly; it also helps to crouch down to their level and avoid casting any shadows over them otherwise they will fly away.

I have watched Dragonflies for a few years in the UK as soon as the season begins from Spring when they begin to emerge through to as late as October where a few hardy Hawkers can still be spotted.

After building up a gallery of images for Dragonflies of the UK (please see www.amanda-king-akimages.com) I decided it was necessary to start gathering images from further afield, so booked a trip to the Camargue in the South of France in August 2009.

The Camargue in Provence, South of Arles an historic Roman town, boasts one of the most impressive Wetlands of Europe and these areas are prime spots for Dragonflies providing the sought after habitats that they need.

I was itching to get out there and photograph some Dragonflies so I packed my bags and finished work early setting off for my journey to Oxford>Luton>Nimes/Camargue France.

Once in Oxford I headed for the Old School House pub opposite the bus station and had a large glass of wine in the sunshine and a polite German waiter brought me out some Quavers, it was a good start to the trip.

Back at the Oxford Coach station, I had been waiting for ages then was told that the coach destined for Luton airport had broken down!!! It was to be a very long wait.

After 2 hours standing in a queue I went to the ticket office and asked to have my ticket changed and then was re-directed to Heathrow Airport to then change on to Luton, I set off at 2pm and arrived just after 9pm so it took 7 hours, which is crazy.

Madagascar, the Aye Aye and other wildlife

Madagascar is one of the most fascinating places on the earth for nature lovers as 80% of the wildlife there is indigenous, therefore totally unique to the island and seen nowhere else on Earth. The reason for this is that millions of years ago in the Jurassic era Madagascar broke away from the main part of Africa due to a shift in the earth and drifted out to the Indian Ocean; it is twice the size of the UK and listed as the fourth largest island in the World.

20 years ago I read a book called Last chance to see by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine about travelling to places in search of critically endangered wildlife, one of the places they visited was the unique small island of Nosy Mangabe in the North of Madagascar to look for the elusive Aye Aye.

The Aye Aye is a very strange-looking lemur that has long teeth, shaggy fur, huge ears and an extended forefinger that it uses to tap tree branches for termites to eat. Due to its rather ugly appearance the Malagasy people have persecuted the Aye Aye believing that if it points the finger in your direction that you will die, whole villages have been known to move 5 miles further away should an Aye Aye wander into their village. These poor lemurs were consequently killed on sight and are now not only extremely shy, but also very rare.

Whilst living in Bristol 4 years ago I volunteered at the Bristol Zoo looking after the Aquatic section and one day while having my lunch break a tiny, odd-looking ball of fur with huge ears came into the area where I was sitting and did a forward roll. I was mesmerised by this little creature and was told it was a baby Aye Aye, known in the Zoo as ‘Ras’. It was love at first sight for me and I spent most of my breaks at the nocturnal Aye Aye enclosure.

The book of Last Chance to See was followed up in 2009 with Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry replacing the late Douglas Adams going with him in search of the wildlife once more to all the former locations. I watched this series waiting for the part on Aye Ayes in Madagascar and being caught up in the magic of it decided that I must go to Nosy Mangabe one day.

In November 2011 I flew from Heathrow airport to Paris to make a connecting flight to Madagascar where I would be joining a small group to explore the Northern regions and look for an Aye Aye and other wildlife, one of the places we would be visiting being Nosy Mangabe.

Once in Paris I met up with the group and we waited in a holding area ready to board the plane, we were just queueing up to get on it when we were told that Air France had gone on strike that all the staff apart from the Pilot had all just walked off the plane.

Kenya – Elsemere and the Masai Mara

 Kenya – Elsemere and the Masai Mara

I have always had a love for Lions not only are they my favourite mammal but the story of Joy and George Adamson adopting Elsa the lion cub, raising her and releasing her back into the wild captivated me long ago and that fascination never really left.

In the 1950’s George Adamson was a game warden in Kenya and one day a lioness charged at him and his fellow warden and sadly he had little choice but to shoot and kill her.

It was only afterwards that he realised that she had been protecting her three cubs and as they were so vulnerable and rather than leaving them there, he took the cubs back to camp where he and his wife Joy named them and looked after them.

The cubs were named Big One, Lustica and Elsa and over several months were cared for and raised by the Adamsons, though over time the three cubs became difficult to manage and so Big One and Lustica were eventually sent to a Zoo in Rotterdam, Elsa though they decided to continue raising as an experiment in order to see if it was possible to ‘set her free’ back into the wild.

After months of training Elsa to hunt and survive they finally set her free and although at first she kept returning to them, she eventually settled and had three cubs of her own. Elsa became famous in her own right, as did the Adamsons and their story ‘Born Free’ later became a book and a film.

Sadly Elsa died in 1961 from a disease associated by a tick bite and the Adamsons also came to a tragic end as in 1980 Joy Adamson was stabbed and murdered by a disgruntled labourer who she had sacked. Then 9 years later George Adamson was shot while trying to protect a tourist who was being attacked by poachers, he got in their line of fire and was killed.

It was an awful end for all three characters, however their legend lives on and I really wanted to go to their old home, now known as Elsemere and also to get out to the Masai Mara itself and photograph the wildlife on a safari and in particular lions.

I had always steered clear of safaris before as they seemed a little too staged and touristy in just driving to where the animals are and photographing them, however in wanting to get to Elsemere and look round, it seemed madness to go all that way and not experience a safari.

I booked it up for November 2009, here is a little bit about that trip with some images:

The British Airways flight out to Kenya was 7 hours and 45 minutes and I passed the time chatting to a Pakistani woman and a Kenyan gentleman, both of whom delighted in recommending places for me to travel to; Mombasa, Pakistan, New Zealand and Alaska. I will try my best to visit at least one of those places.