The only way is up for the best views
Highland Safaris promise to take you closer to some of the region's top wildlife. Ben West tracks the red deer stags
Sunday 12 December 2010
Tommy Young, my guide, slams the gearstick into four-wheel drive as our Land Rover slowly climbs the twisting rocky mountain track.
We are near Aberfeldy in Perthshire, in the Scottish Highlands. It is October and we are on safari in search of wild red deer, Britain's largest land mammal, but I'm not convinced that we will find any. All I can see is mile after mile of heather, a couple of birds encircling, and acres of densely planted spruce and larch plantations. It is a rugged, beautiful landscape, topped by the snowy peaks of Farragon and Schiehallion.
Autumn is the best time to look for red deer. We are at the height of the brief, annual rutting season, when the stags attempt to herd in their harems of hinds. To attract mates and stake their territories, they demonstrate their physical prowess by bellowing and strutting, rubbing their antlers against trees and fighting with other stags.
I am travelling with Highland Safaris, which started 20 years ago. Co-founder Donald Riddell had been taking friends on wildlife tours and then realised that many more people would enjoy the experience. It has since expanded into forest and mountain safaris, 4x4 off-road driving sessions, and walking and cycling safaris, where you are driven up a hill and left to make your own way down.
The journeys relate to the seasons. In winter, you can take a night tour to see the nocturnal world of grouse, owls and deer, as well as trips to discover how the snow buntings, white ptarmigan and mountain hares survive in sub-Arctic conditions.
The temperature has dropped dramatically in the 45 minutes or so since we left the mild conditions in the valley below. It's quite a thrill now that we are so high up and, as we turn a corner, the lush, green landscape suddenly changes to bright white snow.
We are a giddying 2,500ft above sea level, having used the access track to the UK's highest mine, which is busy extracting the mineral barite from a maze of blasted tunnels. There is no one else to be seen, but, as we stop by a mine shaft, we can hear the drone of the water pumps used in the mining process going on below us.
As I survey this pocket of industry tucked away in one of Europe's last great wildernesses, I begin to wonder whether we will spot anything larger than a red squirrel. Suddenly, two hinds dart past the vehicle, and a stag's dramatic roar can be heard. Tommy swiftly starts the engine and we head out in its general direction.
We set up shop, a little further down the track, with our telescope and binoculars. Tommy's trained eyes spot around 30 hinds galloping across the heather, with their stag following close behind. They all stop to graze, with the stag standing above them, displaying magnificent antlers. His roar bounces across the hills.
A few moments later, another herd runs past us from the other side, around 20 hinds and their stag. This time they are so close that we have no need to use binoculars. Tommy says that it is rare to see so many red deer at the same time. We retire to a mountain bothy to warm up next to a gas fire: never have hot chocolate, shortbread and a dram tasted so good.
The next day, I am joined by my family – my wife Bryony, 11-year-old son Jethro, and my 17-year-old daughter Jerusha – for a "drop at the top" cycle safari. We travel by Land Rover again to the summit of a hill overlooking Aberfeldy before hopping on our bikes. After a few minutes, we stumble across Loch Glassie, and stop to take in views which are populated by wildlife including whooper swans on migration from Siberia and Greenland, mallard and widgeon – the wildlife show here is ever changing.
We ride on across empty mountain tracks, country lanes and forest roads, and we get lost a couple of times – the map and description aren't detailed enough for someone used to navigating the London A-Z – finding ourselves on barely traversible, rutted muddy tracks. Then again, being assailed by the harsh elements found here is all part of the experience.
As we near the bottom of the hill, we cycle along a track in the middle of a forest of larch trees. They are so tall and tightly packed it is almost pitch black, a spooky contrast to the blazing sunlight beyond their branches.
Back on the valley floor, it is a relief to find ourselves on the side of the valley nearest to the Highland Safaris headquarters. We are muddy and tired, but delighted to have completed the course.
These safaris may not be the most comfortable way to see the extraordinary landscape of the Scottish Highlands, but they are the most exhilarating choice.
How to get there
Highland Safaris (01887 820071; highlandsafaris.net) offers a calendar of tours to suit all the seasons. The Wests stayed at Gushat Cottage courtesy of Rural Retreats (01386 701177; ruralretreats.co.uk), which offers two-night breaks from £377.
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