By Dr. Ruth Rusby
It was 5:04 am when I woke up! I sat up in bed and realized that a) the dawn chorus had begun and b) that I hadn’t missed my alarm, set for 5:15 am, 15 mins before sunrise… I tiptoed across the cabin in my bare feet and cautiously drew back a curtain. Grey, misty, foggy grey. Not quite light and rather grey… shortly afterwards Gary joined me and, crouching below the ledge of our panoramic windows, stage-whispered hoarsely “it’s a bear, there’s a bear out there!” Peering out into the grey gloom, I studied the shapes of the bushes we’d become so familiar with the night before… and yes, one of them was new… as the light slowly lifted the grey and turned it into dawn, we woke the girls from their bunk beds, grabbed my camera, put it on max ISO and started shooting. Fearful that our new ursine friend would soon take off, we all started snapping away on our phones, taking videos, looking through the binoculars, taking snaps through the binoculars, opening up more curtains, trying desperately not to scare him (or her) away. But our friend was happy munching away among the long, sweet alpine grass fresh with dew. Occasionally he’d hear a sound in the forest, and listen attentively, myopically, but rarely did he look at us. After almost an hour of enjoying his antics we snuck back to bed until it was officially time to get up.
We’d come up to Bunea Hide the night before. We were greeted by our guides Mihai and Georgiana outside a pensiune north of Câmpulung, after driving the 2h 40m up from Bucharest. We then drove a further 1.5 hours by 4WD on gravel road to the Pecineagu Dam, and then on another half an hour on more muddy and waterlogged terrain to the start of our adventure. We’d opted to stay the first night in Bunea Hide, the more comfortable of the two, and the second in Comisu Hide, which is higher up and slightly more basic. So, for our first night, we only had to cope with a steep 15 mins climb on foot to Bunea Hide. We’d been told to bring day sacks, hiking boots and raincoats, but hadn’t quite realized we needed to carry our overnight gear as well. So here we were, slightly embarrassed, carrying our overnight bags and suitcases up a steep, slippery incline to the cabin, where a welcome glass of champagne awaited us.
We soon learned that if we wanted to see any wildlife, we were going to have to be quiet. Very much quieter… Ho hum. After a bit, we realized we’d left crucial supplies in one of the cars. So, Gary and Mihai set off back down again. Half an hour later they returned triumphantly and announced they’d seen two red deer on the slope across from us. Naomi was the first to spot them and this was our first official sighting. Sadly, none of us managed to get our cameras out before they slipped into the forest.
Next up was a black woodpecker, making a racket at the back of our hut while Mihai and Georgiana prepared our dinner. Eventually, shortly before sunset, we were treated to a delicious vegetarian/vegan-friendly (our request) meal, with organic Romanian wine and chocolates and biscuits to follow. It grew dark shortly afterwards and we retired early for the night, eager to see what the first light might bring.
So, daybreak brought us the bear, and not long afterwards we were up and breakfasted and eager to be on our way. The weather was changeable, with rain and thunderstorms forecast later, so we were happy to hit the trail while the weather was still pleasant. We had intended to walk up the spur in front of us, onto the Făgăraș ridge, and down the upper part of the spur parallel to us to the Comisu Hide. But with the clear skies giving way to rolling clouds at the top of the ridge, the decision was made to walk back down the valley and then on up the next spur from below.
En route to the Comisu Hide we were lucky enough to spot a huge Ural Owl crossing our path, as well as a female capercaillie (not as colourful as the male!). Mihai then went in search of the baby capercaillie chick, which he found perched in a nearby tree. Not wanting us to disturb it, in case it fell off its branch and couldn’t fly, he snapped away on our behalf.
As we approached the Comisu Hide, Mihai said, “now you can make more noise as we don’t want to be surprised by any bison!” And as we rounded the corner of the shepherd’s cabin above our hide, what did we see but a single lone bison. Magnificent, powerful, luckily a vegetarian beast!
In November last year (2019) eight bison had been brought into Romania (from Poland and Germany) as part of the re-wilding programme of the Foundation Carpathia Conservation (Carpathia.org). These had been quarantined in a small enclosure initially, before being allowed to roam a larger acclimatization enclosure. Finally, in May they had been allowed to roam free in the wild, and one of their number had become separated from the rest of the herd. It turns out he’d decided to take up residence in the meadow above our hide! Throughout our 24h stay there, he came and went in and out of the forest – clearly rather shy of us when we made too much noise!
After a lunch on arrival at the hide, we decided to take a hike up the spur to the Făgăraș Ridge, where amongst lifting, swirling clouds we were able to enjoy stunning views of the Iezer-Păpușa mountain range and several other ridges.
Later that evening, shortly after sunset, we spotted a lone wild boar crossing the meadow below our hide, providing a fitting end to an eventful day. The next day we climbed back down the trail to the cars, spotting red deer, wild boar and bison footprints along the way, reminding us that this was their path too.