Wildlife filmmaker Martin Dohrn lists the little-known national parks he loves
Martin Dohrn has shot some of the most remarkable wildlife documentaries ever made. His quest to film some of the world's most elusive animals has taken him all over the world. Below he shares some of the places he loves, but very few others have heard of.
Next time you visit a warm, tropical ocean on a moonless night, try and find a place with no artificial lights nearby, especially a sheltered inlet. Turn off your torch. Wait. Look at the stars, let your eyes become accustomed to the dark (there are physiological changes that take about ten minutes to complete) and now look at the water. Put your hand in and swoosh it about. Do you see lights? I almost guarantee that there will be bioluminescence of some sort. Try a swim, watch as your every move is highlighted by flashing and twinkling. It's a truly magical experience.
Bio Bay on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico would be the ultimate bioluminescence experience, but almost any ocean in the world will reward a bit of patience and keeping your light off (if you're scuba diving, make sure that everyone in the group is aware of what you are planning to do. Discuss it beforehand, but you will be amazed at what you can see).
Santa Rosa National Park and the adjoining Guanacaste Conservation area in Costa Rica, where we recently made Jaguar Ambush, is one place I return to time and again. It is one of a very few fragments of Pacific dry forest still surviving, and offers a very different forest experience.
There are very few 'tours' visiting here. You'll need to get the bus, or rent a car (Thrifty at Liberia airport is surprisingly cheap. They speak English-ish). The park itself offers extremely spartan, but cheap accommodation, as well as possibly the most authentic, genuine Costa Rican food you'll find at their comedor (pretty cheap as well). Or you can camp. In January, definitely the best time to go, there won't be too many other people there at all except for a few scientists.
The two reasons I keep going back to Santa Rosa are the beaches and the forest. Playa Naranjo (a famous surfing spot – camp sites and slightly brackish drinking water) is a dramatic surf pounded Pacific beach, haunted by jaguars, coyotes and crocodiles, black vultures, frigate birds, brown pelicans and caracaras. The powerful undertow created by the huge breakers is a problem for swimmers – take care – but the majesty of the waves, the forest and the practically empty beach more than compensates.
Just over the rocky headland to the north is a narrow footpath to Nancite (you'll need permission from the park authorities to go there). This turtle nesting beach is one of the most important sites for olive ridley turtles in the whole pacific. But in January, only the Pacific black turtles and a couple a leatherbacks haul themselves out on the one kilometre beach.
Behind this beautiful beach is a small, one square mile of isolated forest, dry and spiky. Yet like all the forests of Santa Rosa, is inhabited by almost the complete range of normal rainforest animals. Tapirs, white faced capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, ant eaters, jaguars, pumas, ocelots, deer, peccaries, coatis, racoons, crocodiles are all possible sightings. Parrots, crested guans, tinamous, laughing falcons are among the bird highlights.
In January, this forest is dry as a bone, and all the trees have lost their leaves. You can actually see the animals, unlike in many rainforests, and for a filmmaker, that's important. For some reason, the animals in Nancite are a little tamer than up the hill in the main reserve, especially the monkeys. But in both places, watching wild monkeys doing their thing is one of my highlights. In Nancite, the bright red land crabs and lumbering garobo lizards add colour and comedy to the dry forest floor. But the holes they dig in the ground harbour millions of mosquitoes, which at dusk are hard to bear (go to the beach).
In the main part of Santa Rosa, mosquitoes are almost non-existent in January. There is no malaria or dengue fever in Santa Rosa at the moment. Get maps. Take local advice. Make sure you have access to drinking water.
Go through the Mont Blanc Tunnel into Vallee d'Aosta and turn right pretty much at the first opportunity. You will soon be in Gran Paradiso National Park.
It is one of the most remarkable and beautiful places I have ever seen in any season. But don't go in the spring, when the flowers are incredible, or even in summer when you can stay in the high altitude lodges and possibly even 'climb' the easy 4000-metre peak of Gran Paradiso itself.
Go in the autumn, late October. This is when the larch trees, which cloak many of the higher altitude slopes, turn a rich orange or yellow. It is also when the normally scraggy Alpine Ibex has put on weight and condition for the rut, and both males and females are sumptuously clothed for a hard winter. These are true wild goats, not feral goats, completely at ease on cliff faces in the depths of winter.
In autumn the golden eagle chicks will have enough ability to fly, but still need help from their parents. The chamois engage in their incredible rutting behaviour, up and down vertical rock faces, and it's when the paths are dry and frozen, but before they are covered in snow. This is the time of the year when the Vallee d'Aosta itself fills with mist and throws all the famous peaks of the Alps into relief, Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), Il Cervino (the Matterhorn) and the lumbering Monte Rosa all line up on the other side of the main valley. Make sure you take a camera.
Autumn is not an easy time to visit. The staff of most of the hotels generally go on holiday – ie after the summer rush, and before the winter rush. The mountain paths will be empty, partly because there's nowhere to stay. But persist – even if you have to stay in Aosta itself and drive for 40 minutes to Cogne or into Valsavarenche. It is worth the effort.
Get some good maps. Some local advice too. And read about the extraordinary history of Gran Paradiso and the last surviving Alpine Ibex before you go, just so you know what an important place you are visiting.
Martin Dohrn has made many award-winning films as a cameraman and producer all over the world. Dohrn's production company, Ammonite Films develops unique equipment for filming things no one has ever seen before.
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