We're on safari. But there's not a lion in sight

Swapping the African bush for the Isle of Mull, Peter Conchie goes on the trail of otter, mink and eagle
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The Independent Travel

The last time I went on safari was in South Africa. It was a luxurious experience requiring me to blow a substantial amount of my holiday budget on two nights at a lodge in a private game reserve. Frankly, the atmosphere of extravagance went to my head. So a safari tour on the Isle of Mull had much to live up to. Yet in many respects it was a better experience: my hosts were friendlier, the landscape was as beautiful and, of course, the price was much, much cheaper.

Safari may have originated in Africa, but a similar journey undertaken on Mull is not as odd a notion as it might first appear. For a start, there is a huge variety of wildlife. Mull owes some of its natural diversity to the Gulf Stream and provides a favourable habitat for impressive birds of prey such as golden eagles as well as other take-no-prisoners predators including polecats, stoats and mink. And, as you might expect, these creatures take some tracking down, often in remote locations.

I booked a tour with "safari" operator, Discover Mull, based at Dervaig on the north of the island, a few miles south-west of Tobermory. It is owned and run by the affable Pam and Arthur Brown, former farmers from Cheshire who moved to Mull five years ago. Like the wild creatures that live there, the company has marked out its own territory to avoid competition. Happily for me, the Browns' patch includes the west coast of the island, an especially beautiful area where Scotland's only island munro, Ben More, can be found.

With the Land-Rover ready to roll, packed with telescopes, binoculars and baskets of food, we set off for an eight-hour feast of wildlife-spotting. Our first prey was mink as we left the safe haven of tarmac for a remote headland of scrubby grassland that ran into bare white rocks and pools. Aside from disgruntled crofters, these shy but deadly creatures have no natural predators and have run wild on Mull since a mink farm ceased operation in the area in the 1950s. We were lucky to catch a fleeting glimpse of sleek black fur through the binoculars as a pair raised their curious heads before slinking away for cover.

Resuming our journey, the Browns revealed an impressive local knowledge and their childlike enthusiasm for the wildlife was infectious. It didn't take lions for them to ooze genuine excitement. "Look, over there, it's an otter!"

What else would I see on the tour? Arthur recalled how some lucky punters on one tour witnessed a spectacular performance by two white-tailed sea eagles, the largest bird in Britain and the fourth largest eagle in the world. They witnessed these magnificent beasts "pair-bonding", that is, "embracing" in mid-air over water, locking talons, then tumbling downwards in a crazed whirl of beak and feather before releasing their grip just 20 feet above the drink. This frankly lunatic ritual brings them closer together, said Arthur, a bit like surviving a car crash.

We stopped for coffee overlooking the Treshnish Isles, Fladda, Lunga and Bac Mor, the latter known coloquially as Dutchman's Cap on account of its shape which resembles an elongated bowler hat. Ulva blocks the view of Staffa, best known for Fingal's Cave, introduced to a wider audience by Mendelssohn; both names, like so many here, speak of Mull's Viking past.

Just two sips into elevenses, Pam pointed skywards and we were off again, this time on foot. A suspected golden eagle had dipped behind a rounded hillside and we yomped a few hundred yards over fibrous tussocks of grass and pebble-dashed mud to secure a better view from the summit. While the eagle itself was too far off to inspire genuine awe, the same could not be said of the landscape. Laid out before us were dark green inclines dotted with rocky outcrops sloping down to Mull's many lochs and inlets.

Refreshed and not a little exhilarated, we jumped back into the Land-Rover and continued on to Loch na Kael where we scouted for the peeping snouts of otters on this serene stretch of water. During the First World War the deep, glacial channel was used to conceal warships until the military base at Scapa Flow in Orkneys was completed. At the end of the Loch is Inch Kenneth, an island owned between 1938 and 1966 by the Mitford family. Then, high above Ben More, Pam spotted something. Arthur snapped open the tripod for his telescope and locked on to another golden eagle, soaring above the Ben about a mile away.

Like the London buses I had happily left behind, just as I had one of nature's most elusive creatures in my sights, so an urgent whisper from Pam announced the arrival of another. And this one, an otter, was almost under our noses. We tracked it as it snaked east along the coast and set off in pursuit. No bumping through the bush, rather a very low-speed chase. We inched along the coastline following an occasional sight of whiskers and nostril, and a faint trail of ripples. Arthur whispered that each female has a mile of shore and the male, discernibly bigger than the female, will visit around four females within his area and will try to kill any cubs not produced by this favoured quartet. We purred our way along the coast, the Land-Rover idling so as not to disturb nocturnal creatures for whom this was the middle of the night.

As cars passed by, we tried to look nonchalant so that our fellow enthusiasts might not realise we had spotted something; nothing makes an otter disappear quicker than a traffic jam. When the coast was clear - of man rather than beast - I did something else that wasn't on offer in Africa. Whereas getting out of a Land-Rover in the bush might well be the last thing you ever did, on Mull it enables you to engage with the countryside on a deeper level. Gently clicking the door closed and following the progress of the otter's rising and submerging snout from a grassy bank, all felt peaceful in the world. Not to mention safe. I could enjoy a privileged gaze at one of nature's most beautiful and elusive creatures without worrying that, as I did, one of his companions was sizing me up for supper.


How to get there

The writer travelled as a guest of easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) from Stansted to Glasgow. Return flights start from around £30.

Where to stay

Discover Mull (01688 400415; www.discovermull.co.uk) is run by Pam and Arthur Brown out of Ardrioch Farm, Dervaig, Isle of Mull. They run daily tours from March to October, costing £30 for adults and £25 for under-14s, including lunch and refreshments. Self-catering is available at Ardrioch Farm: Inch Hame, which has two bedrooms, starts from £320 per week; a studio, The Sheiling, sleeps two and costs from £195 per week. A cot can be provided.

Further information

Visit Scotland (0845-2255 121; www.visitscotland.com) and www.holidaymull.org.