Have you ever dreamed of taking a safari? Of spotting a distant movement through the binoculars, followed by the shuddering kickstart of a Land Rover engine as you prepare to chase an indistinguishable shadow or glimpse of fur across the grassy landscape… would you believe me if I said you could do just that? In the UK.
I’d first heard about the North Norfolk safari tours about a year and a half ago, when they featured in the Eastern Daily Press newspaper; and I instantly knew that that was how I wanted to spend my 30th birthday weekend – spotting some of Britain’s most iconic species!
Well, needless to say; with a June birthday, it’s taken a few months and some good timing between UK lockdowns to make that dream a reality, but in belated celebration; I packed my bags and headed to a shepherd’s hut by the river in East Barsham.
Bohemian Blue Hut
What a dreamy weekend! We spent 2 nights staying in the Bohemian Blue Hut on the banks of the River Stiffkey, enjoying the most beautiful time filled with love, laughter, bright colours, vibrant nature, rustling leaves, noisy rain, fireside wine, midnight snacks consumed outside by the gentle flowing (and evidently otter-occupied!) river, basking in the soft light of too many stars to count…
Martin Hayward Smith — a cameraman of thirty years, as well as an author and safari guide — also built the breathtaking Bohemian Blue Hut that you can see in the photos here.
Crafted with exquisite attention to detail; including re-purposed church pews used for the end of the Edwardian bed, authentic artefacts from far away lands and a mantle clock that stopped telling the time many moons ago: there really was nothing to do but lose ourselves in the romance of it all.
With the sounds of barn owls emanating from outside, the tantalising prospect of catching a glimpse of the resident wild otters from the window; a crackling log fire to heat the inside of the hut and hammering rain on the roof outside: I can’t think of anywhere more idyllic to spend a cosy October night.
And that was only the beginning. The following morning we stepped outside of the serene woody comforts of the riverside hut for an early (and thankfully dry!) start across the autumnal Norfolk countryside. There was promise of unknown wildlife across the land and skies and we couldn’t wait to discover what our safari had to offer.
Safari staycation in Norfolk
We were delighted to be given the chance to see a number of the hotspots mentioned in Martin’s My Year With Hares book (published by Red Hare Publishing) and as we enjoyed the authentic safari experience of bumping along dirt track roads and splashing through muddy ravines in the Land Rover; we had the pleasure of spotting pheasants, partridges, kestrel, buzzards — and before too long, hares.
We spent a truly unique morning spotting wildlife and talking about Martin’s incredible career as a wildlife cameraman; including some of the major series he’d filmed with Ray Mears.
From swapping fond memories of our separate works with Discovery Channel and Animal Planet to chewing over tales of bygone travelling days spent in Australia’s outback — we had lots of notes to compare!
Over a mid-morning cup of tea to temper the chill of the brisk October air, I was honoured to be promised the chance to look over Martin’s photographs from his time working with the legendary George Adamson, of Born Free fame.
Martin was just 24 years old when he travelled to Kenya to help at George’s camp in Kora, and his stories of the Flying Doctor, Kora the lioness and of course George himself, were fascinating.
Norfolk Safari sightings
The latter segment of the safari brought with it two separate sightings of roe deer and the unexpected view of thousands of pink feet geese gliding in overhead.
Even so, I’d be lying if I said I that by the time we were heading back to our starting point, I wasn’t lost in thoughts of George with his personal lion pride, marching along Kenya’s dusty roads.
A Born Free connection
True to his word, at the end of the tour we had the unique experience of looking through Martin’s personal and previously unpublished photographs from George’s camp. Just wow!
What an incredible opportunity, to see letters written by George and sent from Kora, notes from the Royal Geographical Society advising Martin on his planned trip (i.e. Take a case of whiskey for George!) and photographs of Tony Fitzjohn reprimanding a misbehaving leopard.
It may have been a few months late and re-planned numerous times, but this was a belated birthday weekend far beyond my expectation.
Thank you to my family for helping to make this happen; and to Martin Hayward Smith for being so generous with his time, expertise and incredible stories!