Normally at this time of year we’ve skilfully swapped the depressing, post-Christmas, 50 shades of grey, British winter for the Southern Hemisphere, for Africa, for big cats and the 40 degree heat of the Kalahari. Our natural habitat, for the past few years at least, has been semi-desert, with a dash of parched scrub, and red sand dunes as far as the eye can see. The January ‘Toon’ dress code was shorts not thermals and our reward following a successful photo session a cold beer rather than a steaming cuppa. Last month was different. Our first photographic assignment of 2015 found us instead lens to eyeball with some of the most charming, friendly, fur-coated creatures you could hope to run into halfway up a mountain in the Cairngorms National Park when the snow’s coming in over the top of your wellies and you can no longer feel your toes. Talk about being out of your comfort zone…
For once our timing was spot on. Arriving in the Scottish Highlands to fresh accumulations of thick snow was like thumbing through a classic Christmas card catalogue. Setting out in the freezing early morning – minus 9 give or take a degree – to photograph reindeer for a ‘next-Christmas’ feature we’d been commissioned to do was less of a hardship than we’d expected with the sun twinkling on the powdery white snow and the sky clear and blue. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions.
With expert reindeer herders Andi and Hen from the Cairngorms Reindeer Centre as our trackers and guides on the mountain there was little for us to do, but follow in their footsteps and soak up the winter wonderland vistas as we tramped along unsteadily. Fortunately the herders had already tracked down a small group of reindeer earlier so the job couldn’t have been simpler. Or so we thought as we crunched along.
We shouldn’t have felt so smug. As soon as we caught up with the deer, the herd, posing perfectly, was in the worst possible spot we could we have hoped for – the cold, blue shadow of the mountain. Great! Brilliant subjects in rubbish light. Wherever we looked was stunning except for here. We surely hadn’t frozen our socks off for gloomy shots we’d reluctantly have to try to rescue in Lightroom on the computer? Even trying to entice the reindeer into the light with a sack of food wasn’t working – they either weren’t hungry or they had it in for us. The Kalahari had never seemed so far away.
Thankfully, while we were consoling ourselves getting acquainted with the herd, getting as close as possible with our wide angle lenses, the sun gradually started to peek shyly over the mountain top slowly casting its creamy glow on us all. In the end there can’t have been a more stunning winter’s day on that mountain. Thanks Andi and Hen and the reindeer for such a treat. We’re reliably told Santa has these very animals ready on the subs’ bench come Christmas just in case his team goes down!
We had another fun day on the same visit photographing at the Highland Wildlife Park (run by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland) near Kingussie. Looking for somewhere to photograph until more of the minor roads became passable we headed straight for the park’s polar bears and snow monkeys partly thinking there might be some commercial mileage in shots of them experiencing the sort of snowy conditions they’d generally find in their natural habitat in the wild. It was finger-numbingly cold work, but rewarding in the end when our series of winter wildlife was picked up by some of the national media and our playful polar bears turned up on page nine of ‘The Times’ a day or two later.
The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre was closed to the general public for pretty much the whole of January, but is scheduled to re-open today!