Travels to the Camargue with Olympus

Last year my wife, who shares the same birthday as me, arranged a surprise visit to the Camargue, an immense salt marsh that forms the Delta of the River Rhone on the southern coast of France.  Having circumnavigated the hurdles and minor irritations of Ryanair (Mr O’Leary’s winged money collecting system), we landed at Nimes and took a taxi to Arles. This delightful walled town is full of Roman interest. The ampitheatre was built in the 9th century AD and seated 21,000 spectators and there’s an imposing bathhouse to keep them clean and healthy after their questionable “entertainment”.

My wife Ann and I are Francophiles, having written about France for a quarter of a century. We love the laid-back French way of life. My French is dreadful and being deaf, I find accents almost impossible to understand, but a smile and a polite request in halting French and I usually manage very well.  The supposedly offhand manner of the French towards the English is not our experience.  We booked into La Muette, a lovely hotel within a building nearly 1,000 years old in the centre of the town. Typical French cafés abound, some with memories of Vincent Van Gogh, others serving delicious north African food.

However, we were there to see the wildlife and I also wanted to field test the remarkable Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark 2 Mirrorless flagship pro camera and the 40 x150 f2.8 Pro Zoom lens with a 1.4 teleconverter, the 12-40mm f2.8 Pro Zoom. As you can probably tell I am an Olympus fan, so I supplemented this combination with my own Olympus 6mm macro lens for close-up and insect work. It was interesting to see how the new equipment performed when measured against my existing Olympus camera, the smaller OM-D E-M5. First impressions were excellent; the sort of high-end quality that is standard with Olympus… and, despite being professional standard, the weight is reasonable and it all fits into a handy-sized camera bag,

As a working naturalist, travels to far flung places has taught me that the ultimate quality with the minimum weight is what to aim for in camera equipment and this combination from Olympus with the HLD9 battery grip gave me the weight I like and the power to not have to worry about enough electricity in the kit when that special shot comes along late in the day.

Olympus lenses are renowned for the quality of their optics. They have managed to put high-end elements into a relatively compact, but physically strong, dust and splash proof design without sacrificing superb focus, accurate stable zoom and edge-to-edge clarity. It’s one of the main reasons I am a fan… However, let’s get on with seeing the wildlife, including the flamingos, horses and fighting bulls for which the Camargue is justly renowned.

An incredibly helpful Frenchman in the tourist office in Arles booked us onto a Land rover Safari which was to take us across the marshes and through the national parc. We had planned to hire a car to explore the Camargue, but I was pleased that Ann convinced me that it might be best to have a look first with an expert guide then, perhaps find alternative transport; such as the local bus. We presented ourselves at the pickup point and met up with a cheerful English-speaking guide/driver.

The Camargue.is a huge area of marshes and wetlands with cattle ranches and rice paddies. It was formed when the sea rose after the last Ice Age, creating a delta where the River Grande Rhone drains into the Mediterranean.  The whole region has a long history of importance to humans and to wildlife. The river Rhone forms a migration flyway for birds passing to and fro the Mediterranean.  Long before the Roman legions conquered Gaul and set up an administrative capital in Arles, Celtic tribal groups fished for oysters and mussels in the fertile waters and trapped fish and some of the immense flocks of wildfowl…. I enjoy an oyster or dozen myself, but I mustn’t forget I was here for the wildlife.

As I’ve said the “Carmargue” is huge, encompassing miles of green-velvet, rice filled paddy fields, farms where the region’s fighting bulls are reared as well as sheep and the famous white Camarguais horses that are allowed to roam in free-running herds; periodically rounded up for local fiestas.  The whole area is intersected by minor roads that are not signed and all look exactly alike – and apart from a few distant dark-coloured birds away over the rice fields that I recognised as Ibis, not a white horse nor fighting bull to be seen … yet.   Birds in general were thin on the ground and when I mentioned this there was a smiling reply from our guide “we are not there yet.”  True enough, it was just about to get far more interesting.

We turned off the main road towards a small grass-roofed hut, a shade bigger than my garden shed. It had been a farm workers over-night shelter; a relic of the days when agriculture was pre-mechanisation (indeed, pre almost every creature comfort.)  20ft or so from the hut was a pole with the powerline crosspiece on which perched the largest nest I’ve seen in years. On top of this truck-load of twigs sat a pair of very affectionate white storks displaying. I was surprised to see the nest so close to the road, but storks are used to being around humans and their dwellings. My picture shows the remarkable optical quality of the 40-150 Pro lens … a good beginning. Later, when I looked at the shots I’d taken, I noticed that the storks were tenants and owners of an avian block of flats with house sparrows flitting to and fro beneath their large majestic landlord’s nursery.

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The vast scale of the Camargue is difficult to come to terms with at first because the land is as flat as a billiard table and scale is confusing; but as we drove further into the park along smaller and smaller roads and, eventually, tracks, the birds began to appear.  A small flight of avocets and a black-winged stilt looking for all the world like an elegant waiter in dinner jacket.  Quite often flocks of dark birds appear in line of sight, but just too far off, especially with heat haze, to be clearly visible through binoculars, but it wasn’t long before we were close enough to get a really good view of what turned out to be glossy ibis probing in the newly flooded paddy fields for worms

 

These tiny tracks often lead to groups of ponds where waders, particularly avocets and stilts probe the flooded fields. The horizon can be filled with immense tracts of saltmarsh where flamingos, herons and egrets occupy the shallow channels. I’ve seen flamingos in many differing habitats around the world, but still can’t get my mind around the fact that these bizarre-looing creatures are members of the same family as geese and swans.   They are, of course, beautiful and ungainly at the same time, yet perfectly adapted to take advantage of a food source in the shape of algae and the minute invertebrates that are among the smallest most abundant creatures on earth.  Flamingos not only thrive on their peculiar diet but, as a bonus, absorb red pigment from their food which, in turn, colours their feathers in varying shades of pink and vivid red.  Is it any wonder that we are overawed by nature? As we were leaving this lovely area we drove past a small muddy pool where three of the iconic white horses had decided to wallow and splash about like large children in a puddle.  Needless to say, we had to stop to take some pictures.

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