Into the wild

Spend a thrilling weekend on safari in Europe and help to conserve ancient ecosystems and endangered animals

Travel 15 Feb 2019

The Carpathian mountains
A Eurasian brown bear

The word ‘safari’ most commonly conjures up images of pursuing lions and zebras across African desert plains. Europe, on the other hand, is not so frequently associated with the notion of truly off-the-beaten-track wildlife adventures, but The European Nature Trust (TENT) is on a mission to change that misconception with its awe-inspiring travel experiences to remote pockets of the continent begging to be explored.

So where are these secret swathes of European wilds? The opportunity for a genuine adventure actually exists quite close to home – in Spain, Italy, Romania and Scotland – within vast landscapes that rarely appear on the traditional European tourist trails. TENT was founded in 2001 with the aim to protect and restore precious areas of wilderness, partnering with local organisations and charities to help raise funds and awareness for their initiatives.

The Scottish Highlands is home to endangered red squirrels
The Scottish Highlands is home to endangered red squirrels

‘What’s really important is getting more people out into the wild to experience it for themselves,’ explains TENT founder Paul Lister. ‘If you get into nature you tend to want to protect it. We believe the best way to get people excited about our initiatives is through nature tourism that puts people in a comfortable place to enjoy and experience the environments first-hand.’ TENT’s trips offer a tempting alternative to a city break, following a four-day itinerary with transfers, accommodation, food and drink all taken care of, so you can focus on relaxing and soaking up the unique beauty of the surroundings. Its Romanian adventure takes travellers into the Carpathian Mountains, and the heart of Europe’s largest area of original virgin forest.

A third of Europe’s large carnivores, including brown bears, wolves and lynx, live here within one of the world’s rare untouched ecosystems. The trip offers an introduction to Romania’s rich wildlife and traditional cultures, encompassing forest hikes; wildlife-watching; a helicopter ride; horse riding; and mountain lodge accommodation with spectacular views. This experience is hosted in collaboration with Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC), which is working to create a ‘European Yellowstone’ in Romania’s Fagaras Mountains – a protected area of more than 200,000 hectares – and has already succeeded in buying over 21,000 hectares towards its goal. ‘In times of human overpopulation, climate change, and a biodiversity crisis, these natural assets become a treasure, which most other countries in Europe have lost,’ explains Christoph Promberger, co-founder of FCC. ‘While natural resources are being destroyed at an alarming rate, Romania still harbours important conservation areas and has enormous potential for a green economic development.’

The unique appeal of TENT’s adventures is further enhanced by leisurely meal times with knowledgeable people such as Christoph and his wife Barbara, who give greater insight into the ecosystem and the conservation work taking place.

Mountain guide, hiking instructor and environmental educator Umberto Esposito is leading a new TENT adventure in southern Italy’s Abruzzo National Park this spring. ‘The mountains of the Central Apennines and the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park represent the wild heart of Italy, where high peaks merge into woodland, lakes and pasture,’ says Esposito. ‘We lead hikes that allow you to see beautiful views, often from unusual angles, and to discover the nature and history of a region that is full of surprises.’

The itinerary includes hiking through ancient forests, home to 500-year-old beech trees, and watching for Appenine wolves, Abruzzo chamoix and some of the largest red deer in Europe, as well as a small population of rare Marsican brown bears, which are endemic to the region. ‘They have survived in isolation for thousands of years,’ Esposito tells me.During the trip, Esposito will explain the biology and characteristics of these endangered creatures, which are genetically different to other Alpine brown bears.

The Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain are also home to brown bears, and TENT offers a trip in collaboration with Fundación Oso Pardo – an organisation that has spent the past 25 years contributing to the study and conservation of the creatures and their natural habitat. Closer to home at Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the Scottish Highlands, an extensive 23,000-acre rewilding initiative aims to restore the native forest, plants and animal species. Guests are free to explore the vast reserve and can see ancient Scots pine trees, red squirrels and red deer. They can also visit the Scottish wildcat breeding programme and enjoy hiking, clay pigeon shooting and mountain biking.

With energy levels kept buoyant by magical views, fascinating stories, delicious local food and drink, and comfortable accommodation, every element of each trip is designed to connect you to the local environment, so you return imbued with knowledge and invigorated with the resolve to spend more time enjoying and protecting these natural reserves. A rejuvenating escape from modern life sounds like a lot to ask of a European mini-break, but that’s what TENT’s trips deliver.

TENT’s trips are based on a four-day itinerary, but bespoke experiences for individuals, groups or team-building excursions can be arranged on request. theeuropeannaturetrust.com/experiences

Images courtesy of Alamy, Sam Sutaria