Sunday 5th February saw me struggle out of bed at 4:00 am, sweep six inches of snow from the car and drive along foggy and wintry roads to reach Manchester Airport. The driving conditions on the Wolds were poor and I was relieved when I made it to the M62. It was below freezing when I reached the airport and I was delighted that the flight to Munich was still on schedule.
Bayerischer Wald is in Bavaria, West Germany and is largely unknown here in the U.K. It is a huge area of forest that spans the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. There are two main centres on the Bavarian side: one at Lusen and the other a few kilometres away, in Falkenstein. If you are consulting a map, then Grafenau and Spiegelau are the two nearest towns. (This link gives detailed information about the area)
I met up with my three Dutch friends (and fine photographers) Michael, Michel and Gert at Munich airport and after a short stop at a shoe store, so Michael could replace his clogs, we headed for the car rental. Formalities over, we loaded the car and drove NE for a couple of hundred km. Michael’s Sat Nav took care of the route finding and we watched with wonder as the outside temperature gauge dropped from -5C to -15 C. We arrived at Altschonchau around eight, too late for dinner so we had to console ourselves with several glasses of the local Pilsner lager. The Hotel Moorhoff is in a superb location, only a couple of kilometres from the entrance of the park and looking out over a wild and wintry landscape covered with over a metre of snow.
After an 8:00 am breakfast and short stop at the local supermarket to stock up on some goodies, we headed for the Park entrance at Lusen. Our intentions were to photograph the European Wolves and Lynx that are kept in large enclosures on each of the reserves at Lusen and Falkenstein. Several species of native european animals including Brown bears, lynx, wolves, bison can be found here. It is, I suppose, a sophisticated zoo but one with plenty of photographic opportunities.
I must confess that it did trouble my conscience to be photographing captive animals. I would much rather photograph creatures in a completely natural setting but this is not always possible. So, I forgot about my personal conflict and just concentrated on obtaining the best possible photographs in the short time available. All the animals appeared to be in good condition; though I refused to photograph the Owls in their tiny aviaries.
During the week, we visited both centres. The one at Falkenstein had a wooden bridge construction that spanned over part of the very large wolf enclosure. You could take excellent photographs from the bridge but most resulting images would suffer from the dreaded ‘zoo perspective’ (looking down at the animal or bird rather than the ideal, which is shooting at their eye level). Setting up your tripod on the bridge is permitted but the adjacent foot-traffic will prevent you from achieving a perfectly sharp shot. Of the two centres, I prefer the one at Lusen.
The highlight of the week was the feeding of the wolves. Accurate feeding times were difficult to discover but at the Lusen reserve, around 2:00 pm on Wednesday, the body of a deer was unceremoniously dumped from a truck by two keepers and the following feeding frenzy was probably captured by at least a score of photographers. Not exactly natural, but what a spectacle!
Photographing the two female lynx at Lusen was a delight. The conditions were perfect. Bright, low sunshine and all that wonderful snow to throw light back into the shadow areas and reduce the contrast. The Lynx look and act like big pussy-cats and it was wonderful to see their breath condense in the cold morning air. I used my 500 f4G VR lens on a tripod for most of the week. I wish I had brought a second body for my 300 mm as well. Most of the photographers appeared to be from Germany or Holland and most were packing their expensive cameras with long lenses. I was interested to be shown a new gimbal head that was designed and manufactured by the owner, Alfred Krappel. It seemed to function very well indeed. I’m not sure that the world needs another gimbal but if it did, then the EKI model sure looked good and solid.
I found it unusual to see so many photographers using hand carts to transport their heavy photographic equipment within the two reserves. Their shiny and expensive carts probably had snow-tyres too! A good idea but not practical for those like me, who travel by plane. Maybe it could catch on at my local reserve of Tophill Low? Maybe something to explore as I get older?
I was glad that the cold temperatures had little effect on my camera’s battery capacity. We all took measures to prevent condensation forming when returning to the hotel. I just kept my bag zipped-up for a few hours until it reached the ambient temperature. It was cold, though! One day, my bottle of coke turned into a ‘slush-puppy’ and my chocolate bar, as hard as a ship’s biscuit. It may have been cold but at least it wasn’t windy.
We tried several times to get some good photographs of the European Bison. Unfortunately, when they were close enough to photograph and not obscured by trees, they stood in a depression that hid the lower half of their bodies and legs. Still, after some patient waiting I did manage a couple of decent photographs. We also tried to photograph the Brown Bears but they remained stubbornly uncooperative.
I really enjoyed my trip to Bavaria and found the whole photographic experience exciting, but artificial. It left me feeling a little guilty for playing the part of voyeur. Still, it didn’t take long for me to convince myself that you don’t get many opportunities to witness and photograph such events in the wild. Carpe diem.
I would like to thank my Dutch friends for their kindness and generosity and patiently acting as translators throughout the whole trip. We all had a great time and had the good fortune of sharing some huge portions of excellent food (except the Italian/Indian restaurant in Grafenau — please give it a very wide berth), exquisite Pilsner lager and some terrible jokes. Thanks guys—see you soon!
Notice that the only photograph showing any ‘zoo perspective’ is the one above! Deliberate?