Gemma and James Shooter, with their two young children Brodie and Isla, and their rescue pup Ty, have embarked on an adventure of a lifetime. They’ve sold their home, and are campervanning around Europe in search of what ‘wild’ really looks like!
Clear blue skies welcomed us to the shores of Dieppe. We were here. We’d finally reached mainland Europe and we could not wait to start exploring. Once we were comfortable driving a large vehicle on the other side of the road, we began to take note of our surroundings. Rolling green fields, scattered with herons and egrets, were only punctuated by patches of deciduous woodland and beautifully ornate French villages. Not quite the wilderness we were looking for, but truly lovely, nonetheless.
So, where to first? It was late afternoon when we stumbled upon an ancient forest, which we’d call home for the night. Redwood pines stood proudly either side of our van, and the orange rays of sunset broke through the towering canopy. It felt like nature was warmly embracing us as we settled into our new life. Surrounded by crested tits and curious firecrests, we sat down to our first family meal overseas.
Prior to setting off, Jim had organised a podcast series, ‘The Rewild Podcast’, in collaboration with Rewilding Europe. Each episode would celebrate the rewilding efforts of a different initiative.
Our route would be shaped around these locations. First, the Camargue – fascinating wetlands on the southern French coast. France is an enormous country, so it’d take us a week to drive our slow vehicle down there. Thankfully, we had lots of “wild” stops planned along the way.
After a very settled first night, we made tracks. Our first full day involved the Seine River, followed by the Cotentin and Bessin marshes. We added countless new bird species to our ‘big year’ list. With our Leica binoculars firmly glued to our eyes, we recorded spoonbills, marsh harriers, and a merlin, to name but a few. The weather was glorious too, it was hard to believe it was only mid-February. Everything was going so well. Too well, perhaps? Both children and the dog had taken to vanlife as if we had always lived on wheels, and we were feeling quite smug. It was therefore unsurprising that on the third day, things went a wee bit awry.
Jim stepped out of the van into the brisk morning air, coffee in hand. As he watched waders forage the silty sediment of the estuary in front of us, he noticed one of the tyres was completely flat. We were in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully, we had an electric pump and some tyre foam with us. Not the most elegant of solutions, but enough to get us to a garage. Well, four actually – before we finally found someone to help us. During the repair, we were obviously without a home and stuck wandering around a grey industrial estate in the rain. A rather different “adventure” than we’d anticipated. Despite the lighter wallet, we were very grateful to get back on the road that evening.
The trip down south was filled with mountains, forests and wildlife-laden rivers. We stopped often, recording dozens more birds with minimal effort, despite many of the species being considered rare treats back home.
Kingfishers, green woodpeckers, golden eagles and a graceful hen harrier, soaring alongside the van. We were also delighted to see evidence of beavers and boar on multiple dog walks. A real highlight was a spectacular view of a black woodpecker. Although considered fairly common across Europe, these sneaky woodcarvers had somehow evaded Jim on his many trips as a wildlife guide and he considered them to be his ‘bogey bird’. Yet, there we were – enjoying this red-capped, black beauty clinging onto a nearby tree. Even the children were able to experience the bird using the Leica Trinovid binoculars. We listened intently as it’s distinct call echoed across the valley.
Soon, the mountains of the Cevennes National Park disappeared from view and the towering reeds of coastal wetlands enveloped us once more. We had arrived at the Camargue. Greeted with rare, slender-billed gulls, and the shrill song of Cetti’s warblers, this habitat was undoubtedly a birder’s paradise.
My favourite species was a spotted redshank, which elegantly tip-toed through a roadside pool. As the crimson hues of the setting sun cascaded off the backs of roosting greater flamingos, we sipped white wine and counted our blessings.