Komodo dragons, Bengal tigers, Western Lowland Gorillas and Binturongs….not only are they found across the furthest stretches of the verdant Indonesian islands, equatorial Africa and the depths of the everlasting stretches of Asian forest, but this array of superb species are all found in the rather non-tropical heart of the Costa Del Sol.
Situated in the busy coastal town of Fuengirola is Bioparc zoo. This spectacularly simulated zoo with over 260 species and 1600 animals, with collections from Equatorial Africa, Asia and South America was established in 1981 with the name Fuengirola Zoo. As a member of EAZA and AIZA it partakes in the Endangered Species Breeding Programme (EEP). The zoo was entirely rebuilt in 2001 and renamed Bioparc with its new ethos and free of barriers concept. There is glass of course! But the overall impression makes it feel like you are watching them in the wild. The architectural design of the enclosures attempts (and in my opinion, succeeds) to recreate the natural habitats of its fury, scaly and smooth inhabitants. The entire experience allows you to stroll through each of them in a rather immersive fashion, encapsulating the feel of the wild ecosystems and the continuity of the design is overall very pleasing to the eye.
Take this man made Baobab tree (Adansonia digitata), yep, it’s made of concrete and clay! Originally constructed from wires them plastered with cement, it accurately depicts this revered tree, which can store over 30,000 litres of water during the rainy season. It is often called the “upside down tree” for obvious reasons or “tree of life” due to its succulent fruits which ripen during the dry, scorching African and Australian summers. The seeds are incredibly nutritious and the bark is used for all sorts; including musical instruments, waterproof hats and homes. The leaves can handily treat kidney problems, bladder disease, asthma and insect bites. These ancient trees can live for over 5,000 years and have been central to local folklore in Africa as well as traditional remedies. All are deciduous and can reach impressive heights of 5-20 metres. Their rather bloated pinkish barks are easily carved/hollowed out and lived in by several African tribes, with up to a staggering 40 people residing in the cavern. Other unusual uses for the tree have included a bus shelter, storage barn, shop and prison!
On my route around the park, I first encountered a Lowland Gorilla, which was a remarkable specimen; a large adult male who’s been around for quite some time now. I do feel sorry for the poor old chap, Ernest, I can’t help but imagine him in his native forest in the Congo. The gorillas first arrived 2004 from the Royal Rotterdam Zoological Garden; Kim, Xara and Ernst. Brazza monkeys also inhabit the enclosure and are perfectly happy to share their space with their larger counterparts. The enrichment includes trees and tyres with a small artificial waterfall and stream, and visitors can see him through a large 6x6m glass frame. Photography is made a LOT easier with this architectural pleasure! Indeed this is a thought, for all of the enclosures contain this if not open air plan. Although mind, keep your ISO up to at least 800 in the shade, then switch back to 200 when back in full daylight. The Spanish sun always causes a lot of contrast in your images, whereas in my experience in the UK its doesn’t create enough, so keep checking your settings when on holiday, and make sure you shoot in RAW so you can edit them later on in Photoshop.
I also went into the lemur enclosure, where they roam free and approach you at their will. There are strict rules of not touching them, but they most certainly approach you if you happen to have fruit in your bag! I had apricots and apples in mine which caught the attention of a particular Red Ruffed lemur. The Ringtails were bursting with energy as we approaches, literally bouncing off the palm trees like fuzzy black and white pinballs as they jostled for the best position to knock each other over. Lemurs are highly social and communicative primates, and are the oldest- at the base of our phylogenetic tree. Our common ancestors once came from theirs too. Often the young males partake in “stink fights” by rubbing their tails furiously along their studded thumb projection on their hand, whilst females are often far more aggressive as the dominant, stripy- trouser wearing members of the troop.
The Black ruffed were rather inactively grooming themselves, I would recommend visiting them earlier in the morning, I went at 11am, and they were still all fairly active, but even earlier or later on in the evening when the air is still and cool, is perfect. It’s a most wonderful feeling to get so close to our little hairy cousins, their large, amber coloured eyes protrude from their head and stare at you in a rather primitive fashion- its not like the sentinel and meaningful gaze of a chimp or Gorilla, but nevertheless still a magical moment. In the wilds of Madagascar these beautiful creatures are critically endangered (Red Ruffs and Indris), primarily due to habitat destruction. Over 90% of the forests have been destroyed, GONE FOREVER. Although replantation programmes are in place, it will take many years for the ecosystems to recover, indeed, any forests that are cut also require time to recover as the mycorrhizal fungi that connects and symbiotically associates with certain trees are also destroyed- life is NOT that simple! There is hope though now, many breeding programmes across the world are now able to add to the genetic pool and many babies are born each year in captivity, ready to be released into the wild when the time is right.
Walking over a reassuringly, well-constructed bridge, Chimpanzees were frolicking and residing next to a cool pool with nothing more better to do than pick their noses and groom their companions. Their gaze is entirely different to that of the Lemur, behind those dark emblazoned eyes is something far more meaningful and intelligent, which is of course one the reason why we share 98% of our DNA with them. Some of the relaxing poses were remarkably similar to that of a human, scary in some way! Even reminding me of particular yoga move my teacher is fond of- I don’t think I will be able to get a mental image of that chimp out of my mind now during my next session! Flashes of “Rise of the Planet Apes” also come to mind, but then you are reminded of the high elevation the impossibility of one nabbing a bamboo cane to use as a vault pole to escape… but you never know.
The stunning leopards were up next through the maze of palm trees, who were also relaxing on a log. The mother, Toni and the once cub, (now a two year old, he has grown a lot since I last saw him!) Again, another small enclosure for a big cat, but nevertheless a well-constructed one. Some scientists argue that cubs, having been born in captivity have no prior knowledge to life in the wild, thus it is not unethical to keep them in enclosures. My argument is that evolutionary and instinctively these animals need VERY LARGE areas to roam as they would do in their natural habitats. It’s hard-wired in their DNA, so how on earth are you supposed to observe natural behaviour and reintroduce healthy characteristics and traits into the gene pool with this sort of restriction? It is however remarkable view, only 6 metres away from one of the rarest felines in the world. Its coat was irrefutably a thing of beauty, dappled in the light, with brown swirls and rosettes splayed along its golden back and delicate face. Its flank was cream coloured, and his large paws dangled down while he slept and rested his head on his mother’s back. He only stirred to look up at the young children tapping the glass, and then rather nonchalantly returned to his dream state. What a privilege.
Further along were the stunning Sumatran tigers, with their enormous paws and burning eyes.. However it was clear to me that they were clearly disturbed. The incessant pacing and non-meaningful stare into the unknown are classic signs of “zoochosis” as coined by Bill Travers of the Born free foundation or stereotypical behaviour. This deeply upsetting behaviour is due to extreme boredom, frustration and usually a lack of enrichment. For all the marvellous recreations of the Angkor watt temple, complete with a mini-waterfall and stream, as well as large fallen logs and a bamboo forest, the enclosure was simply not large enough for this fierce some predator. I always get a thrill to see them, but no in this condition. They did play around with each other for a short time which was lovely to see, check out my video below.
Next up were the Biturongs… now a year ago I NEVER heard of them. With a monkey-like tail, body like a bear and a face like a cat many call this 2-3ft animal a bearcat. Their short, stocky bodies and coarse shaggy hair give it its distinctive appearance. They inhabit the tropical rainforests of South-East Asia in the densest and remotest regions, and their main threats to their survival in the wild is, ye you guessed it, habitat destruction. These little quirks of evolution reveal many fascinating insights into its family, the Viverridae which includes the Civets and Gneets, under the order carnivore… thus is not related to bears or cats, but part of a very old group of medium sized mammals found in the Old World (East). They primarily eat fruit, eggs, plant shoots, fish, birds, small mammals and carrion. However they have a mutualistic relationship with the strangler fig, whose digestive enzymes are strong enough to remove the husk of the seed, and thus plays a vital role as a keystone species, spreading the seeds far and wide. The scent glands located underneath its tail, which is dragged along the foliage when it patrols its territory, and the smell is apparently similar to buttered popcorn! Can’t say the same for a leopard! Living in the tree canopy, they are superlative climbers and use their semi-retractable claws to move with agility throughout the forest trees. With its prehensile tail to aid it (only the second carnivore in the Old world to have one, other than the Kinkajou) with its climbing. I tell you what, I’m beginning to think that having a tail would be pretty useful for my own, or indeed caving! Avatars have it right after all…Nearby were the Alligators too, which you can see at very close quarters, remarkable ancient looking creatures.
The very exciting a new Komodo dragon enclosure was really interesting, it was my second encounter with one of these prehistoric looking reptiles. The enclosure resembled another one ancient temples at Angkor Watt, complete with its little stream and sandy court yard. It wasn’t very active initially, but then it picked up a scent as it flicked its tongue, tasting the air as it retracted it into its mouth, from which it can use the molecules of air to taste what its surroundings are giving off. It has relatively similar vision to humans, so it’s a useful sense to have. He then waddled towards a pile of small pebbles, which initially I thought were eggs, and started digging them up. Although they seem rather lazy and cumbersome in terms of their gait, they can move pretty fast as monitor lizards, at 20kmph. Of course they are known for their powerful bite which inflicts much damage to its prey in that the repulsive bacteria congregating in its mouth with almost certainly cause its victim to die of septicaemia or blood poisoning.
Later on I went to a “Jungle event/animal exhibition” whereby trained animals are on show, including kookaburras, Asian Otters, Sitatunga, Wild Peccaries and several other birds of prey. I always enjoy a good show, which is in both English and Spanish, wand lasts for around 20 minutes. By then my camera battery had run out and I was a spectator without a camera, which I actually enjoyed! Although I occasionally used my mobile. The last animals I went to visit were the flying foxes, VERY CUTE Old World bats which were busily scoffing down an assortment of succulent fruits such as mangoes and banana which seemed to be their particular favourite.
Bioparc Fuengirola is a fantastic day out, one which I would highly recommend; it only costs you £13 with the discount card you can pick up at the Miramar centre. They even have African dance night, which I went to last year and was great, the atmosphere is electric and the buzz you get from dancing is positively euphoric! Its also a very good time to see the animals out and about. If you need any tips on getting there, or would like to know about any of the animals there, get it touch!
The cool, still quietness of a cave really makes you reflect upon how our how our ancestors pace of life was likely to have been.
I went to see the infamous Nerja caves today with my Dad, and what an incredible experience, one that every one of all ages should have the pleasure of experiencing. Recent dating tests on the superlative paintings in the Upper Gallery of the Caves of Nerja, in Málaga, Spain, have confirmed that they are indeed the OLDEST PAINTINGS in the world made by humans.
Moreover, these remarkable relics of the past , dated between 42,000-45,000 years old are the first to have been painted by Neanderthals, our closely related cousins. We drove there ourselves via the main A7 road towards Malaga and Almeria, google can pretty much give you a direct route to the village there and having recently built a new section of the motorway, it’s a smoother drive than ever and the coaches aren’t that cheap, at 23€ without a tour and 29€ with one. If you can rent out a car then it would be worth it, but if you wish to have a tour then the best package is with “Viajes maxy excursions and sightseeing.”
The sights to the quaint little town of Nerja are about 1 hour 20 from Mijas. What a joy to see the Spanish scrubland and agricultural scenes on the way. I happened to catch a ride early in the morning at 8:40am by the Galp petrol station with my Dad, as I had stayed with a friend at Los Alamos.
We set off early to avoid the searing Spanish sun and heat wave which was forecasted prior to our journey. The journey itself was a very easy and relaxing one, (apart from the fact I wasn’t driving!) and the scenery was rather pleasant to look at. I must admit, the fog cover and arid scenery made an impression on me, and since a young child I have been use to the rather dry-looking Mediterranean scrub; a very stark contrast to the UK which is primarily green and seemingly enveloped in a shroud of mist that makes everything look like it has been painted with watercolours. Petrol to Nerja from Mijas or Fuengirola would roughly cost you around 17€.
The souvenirs are relatively cheaper in Nerja and Maro than at the cave itself, with postcards (cheapest 0.25€), decorative plates (3.00€), pieces of polished crystal (2.00€), fake dinosaur eggs (don’t ask me why), and much more.
The shops in Nerja were actually really beautiful, with many artisan and hand-crafted jewellery with exquisite designs. Many organic and natural looking shaped pieces. Cool and in-style cotton clothing also adorned the shops as well as the in-fashion Bermuda loose trousers with quirky patterning, I have recently acquired such a pair from the Fuengirola market.
I happened to come across a beautiful Native American Indian shop, with stunning pieces of jewellery, small carved animal necklaces of turquoise, bone and silver. The Native Americans, to the utter disbelief of the Europeans, never used gold in their designs, but silver was prominently crafted into all sorts. Dream catchers dangled from the ceiling and traditional Native American Indian music emanated from the speaker, I remember recalling that I had that very same CD! In the end I bought a dream catcher necklace and a lovely horse key ring for my Mum. Such clean streets and brightly coloured doors and flowerpots, this town clearly take pride as a top Spanish tourist destination. The Plaza there had spectacular views of the Nerja beaches below, with beautiful arches and palm lined walking areas. There’s even a life size statue of the old king Filipe, couldn’t resist a photo!
If beaches is your thing and not delving into the depths of a dark and damp cave, then the Nerja beaches wont disappoint. This is the El Playazo beach that lies to the West, with superlative aquamarine waters and white sandy stretches of sand; it has been awarded the Blue Flag by the European Union who have recognised its pristine condition, unlike the more popular Costa Del Sol.
We then had lunch in the rather un-scenic and dusty car park, and headed off towards the caves, located only 3km from the Nerja town. We parked for free just outside the main car park which is to walk through the Sierra de Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama nature reserve, so if you want to avoid costly parking charges its best to park here. Saw a really quirky van that had been vandalized with “Can’t park here…this is bat country!”
You see what bat people do to your cars at night!
We headed over to the ticket office and purchased our tickets for a 9€, then descended into the dark, musty entrance of the cave.
Guides to the area (above) and (below) the car park you have to pay for!
Although the air almost instantaneously changed to a heavy, dank quality, the coolness and quiet of this natural wonder was very welcoming, also having escaped the 36 degree heat. We entered the various different chambers that crossed under the National Park, vast ceilings were adorned with varying sized stalactites which had taken hundreds of thousands of years to form.
Just a small section of one of the stunning stalactites protruding fro the ceiling. Please note, when planning to take photos here, if you have an SLR or compact, PLEASE bring a tripod, I shot everything with ISO 3200+, you are not allowed to use flash rather annoyingly and so the stability brought by your trusty tripod will allow you to capture the colossal columns and cave formations.
The stalagmites pointed towards the ceiling towards their creators, forming unusual shapes and with several different shades of green and beige. The series of colossal caverns stretch for almost FIVE kilometres and are home to the world’s largest stalagmite, a gigantic 32 metre high column measuring 13 metres by 7 metres at its base seen below.
The Cuevas de Nerja have been open to the public since 1960, having been discovered by five local Maro boys who happened across this “Cueva de marvillas”. It was declared as Project of Cultural and its geological, biological and archaeological importance continues to fascinate and enthral thousands of visitors annually. Every year in July, the International Music and Dance Festival takes place in the Caves which is apparently a truly amazing experience, we happened to have visited on that very day! But unfortunately it was late in the evening and only really accessible to visitors who happened to live nearby or have a hotel to return to.
The tour itself takes around 45 minutes and apart from escaping the mid-day heat, is a truly remarkable experience, more so if you’re into caving and speleology. They even have a speleo activity/adventure for the more keen visitors where they get access to the restricted pats of the cave, called Galerías Altas y Nuevas (High and New Galleries). The Rooms of Columnas de Hércules (Hercules´Pillars), Inmensidad (Inmensity), La Galería de los Niveles (Levels Gallery) and La Sala de la Lanza (Lance Room) are ventured into and an extra booking and registration are required for visiting. I didn’t have time myself, but looks really worth it if you’re planning on spending the whole day there, and you’re with a fit group of willing friends.
Just when my eyes had accustomed to the everlasting darkness of the caverns, and its welcoming coolness, no sooner we had then left the cave and the light came flooding into my retina. Back into the sun and heat. The gift shop was funky, with some rather cute canvas bag with bats printed on.
We then drove up to Frijilliana. This quaint little village in Southern Spain, is seemingly perched precariously on the edge of the Parque Natural Sierras de Tejeda mountains. Rather similar to Mijas, the stunning backdrop provides breath-taking views, with reminiscing remnants of its rich history. The Moors once ruled here, as well as across the region on Andalucía. The Arab population played a prominent part in history, and have left behind reminders of their fascinating and rich culture in the form of food and architecture, to be seen everywhere you look. The hill pictures above, overlooking Frigiliana was the scene for the final battle for the Moors of Axarquia. Many moors who didn’t want to suffer defeat threw themselves to their deaths from the summit rather unremittingly, so peace is only recent in these parts. Indeed in terms of geological formation, its history has been quite active, with the African plate colliding into the European.
The Sephardic Jews were in large number until their expulsion by the Christians in the 15th century, they refer to the Iberian peninsula Jews who descended from the Near East i.e. those from western Asia, the Ottoman Empire. The Christians, of course, which reside here still to this day.
After a good sightseeing of the village, we drove back home, exhausted but exhilarated after and exciting day of caving.
“The cool, still quietness of a cave really makes you reflect upon how our how our ancestors pace of life was likely to have been”
Stepped foot on my first boat today! Finally decided to go on the boat trip with Costasol Cruceros, Fuengirola, to go and see wild dolphins, as well as sandfish, turtles and other cetaceans. I was feeling lucky that day and the weather forecast was pretty good (24-33 degrees), with calmish winds of less than 20km/hr. Got my tickets by the port and went with my sister and little niece towards the port, located near the Fuengirola markets (see map), feeling rather exited! Fuengirola is a large Spanish town located within the Costa Del sol, and stretches 8km along the densely populated coastline, hugging its well visited beaches.
Many come for the shopping, sun and Sangria (pardon the personification!) and there are market days on Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday where you can get all sorts, from fake Luis Viton an Gucci bags, to boohoo leggings, crystals, Beats headphones and Nike shorts. The boat itself was rather small, in total I it would fit around 60 people. I sat at the front of the hull, to be sure of getting the best photo! Met a really fascinating woman from London, who was immediately friendly and welcoming.
Apparently, she had been the previous week with no success, and had got her second ticket half price and wanted to try her luck again. She had also swam with wild dolphins in Egypt, with the permission of the locals who only permitted her to allow the dolphins to approach her. The Skipper was busy getting the anchor whilst the captain communicated on his radio, to what I presume were local fishermen, and the engine roared to life- we were off! The harbour itself was remarkably calm, but as we got further out, it was slightly choppy…
But it was great fun!
It really was interesting talking to the kind elderly lady, really well travelled and smart. I took some panoramic shots of the vast Mijas mountain ranges and the busy coast line as we sailed further out. Tiny dotted beach towels added a splash of colour to the otherwise arid time landscape. The sun was beginning to arch hiGHEr into the sky, and reflected brilliantly off the surface of the Mediterranean sea. Polarized sun glasses are definitely a good option, helps to cut out the reflections and see what lies beneath the waves.
I noticed some other passengers had Canon cameras (naturally, the best!) On our way out I spotted a sand fish! I think I was the only one to spot it right beneath the boat, initially I thought it was a shark, but the guide asked me to describe it and corrected me. It had a dorsal fin and was grey-yellowish colour with a creamy underbelly, and roughly 1 metre long. *Just adding this in: apparently within this week, Spanish news reporters have documented sightings of a shark near Fuengirola, so perhaps I was not mistaken by the sighting! Feeling lucky, I kept scanning the waves for a small dorsal fin, everything to me, after a fishy encounter, seemed to be dolphin-like! I remembered how confident I became after about 40 minutes into the trip, then I had to open my big mouth and then I genuinely felt a little sea sick….
The woman was very reassuring though and kept me occupied by re-counting fascinating stories. I decided to try out my amazon.co.uk sea sick bands, which really worked! Try them yourself if you get a little queasy. They’re basically like arm bands but have pressure balls for the acupuncture points on your wrists. We eventually approached another boat with rather a lot of seagulls, eager to snatch up any discards. This, I was assured by the Captain, would bring in the Bottle-nosed dolphins who peered at the sea with his rather large “bins”. Then, to our astonishment after a reported sighting through the binoculars, a streamline shape rippled through the azure waters, revealing that notorious dolphin dorsal fin! We all gasped with excitement as the beautiful animal breeched once more, and we all furiously clicked away with our cameras. I did too but did not look through the lens (as you can probably make out from the photo below!) and wanted to watch this stunning creature with my own eyes.
I am often torn between marvelling at the wonders of that natural world with just my eyes or from behind a camera. I think it’s something all photographers face and sometime, I feel it’s best to let your eyes to the focusing and your emotions be the sensor and memory card- you can capture moments in your in and heart forever by just observing the natural world. But nevertheless, I still snapped away! It breeched about 3 times, then another larger individual came up alongside the boat (6 metres away), and came out the water a little more. It was really breath-taking, seeing such a wild animal coming close to us. I remember going to Selwo Marina last summer to look at the captive dolphins, and it saddened me deeply to see how distressed they can get as well as develop stereotypical behaviour. However I did actually see two of them mate, so they did show some relatively normal behaviour at least. But nothing compares to seeing them in the wild, free of human intervention in terms of training them to do meaningless tricks for tourists to glee at. It is much more incredible to view them in their natural environment with less intervention from human activities. Then it just melted away into the waves, and disappeared as if it had never been there. It was a brief but nonetheless exciting encounter with a Bottlenose, however our time at sea was up and the boat turned back and speedily darted across the dark Prussian blue sea.
What a trip! On the way back I took some shots of the coast, spectacular views. It really was worth it for €15, roughly £13.30 for 1 hour 30 minutes (conversion rate at the present moment: 1.25). The name of the company is Costa Cruceros and the service was excellent. I admit, if you really want to get good sightings, Gibraltar is probably your best bet, you can even get sightings of Orca! But for first timers like me, it’s a brilliant, I would highly recommend this trip! Please leave any comments below if you want any tips on how to get there from the airport via train or coach, I would be happy to help!
Took the camera down to get some river shots to add to the doc which was rather refreshing. On my way down the road I also thought I could include the bones that the eagles incessantly drop and eat the marrow from the scattered remnants of old and sick goats that died on their last “paseo” across the vast Mijas mountain ranges.
I have never found out which are the ones that do such a thing, what a shot that would make! Many raptors do this: gaining access to the nutritious marrow which is often the only scraps left from an otherwise arid landscape. Also some scenes of a rather impressive algarroba tree.
By the time I got the river, it was still rather stifling hot at 6pm, so I rapped up with a couple of river scenes and did a piece to camera on solitary bees. Originally I was going to one on ants, but seeing that they moved around at an impossible speed, I decided an over-worked bee would be slightly easier but no less interesting. The poor insect clearly had seen better days, it had literally worked itself into this state, as a solitary worker bee.
Most people have the perception that these ancient insects are primarily social, however, over 90% are solitary bees! The females will find crevices and cracks to construct underground nests, where they will lay their eggs. The food provided to the offspring in the form of pollen and nectar (the only diet of the bee’s having evolved down a different dietary route from their carnivorous ancestors, wasps). This food is gathered, but after no care is given after laying the eggs- unlike in the social colonies. The three social groups include bumble bees, honey bees and the stingless bees. They all exhibit eusocial behaviour, that is, they show the highest level of organization of animal sociality, defined by cooperative brood care (including brood care of offspring from other individuals), overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labour into reproductive and non-reproductive groups. The division of labour creates specialized behavioural groups within an animal society which are sometimes called castes . Eusociality is distinguished from all other social systems because individuals of at least one caste usually lose the ability to perform at least one behaviour characteristic of individuals in another caste.
I noticed that the goat farmer had marked out all of his land with a pathetic little fence, and in doing so, taking a bit of our own land in the process. He was growing some rather withered looking melons and other unidentifiable crops. What a waste of land!
He had entirely destroyed the back of the river, along with it all the vital berry bushes and habitat for nesting birds such as the stunning Nightingale and ground nesting birds such as they grey partridge. I actually heard a partridge on my way back up, no luck in seeing it though. All in all, quite a fun experience and got some good footage to edit, it’s a wrap!