Talk about planes, trains and automobiles! John and I took 5 different modes of transport in one day on our trip to the Isle of Wight last weekend and we must have seen 5 different kinds of weather too. The day started at 6am when I hopped on to John’s chest to wake him up but the gentle back and forth of his warm hand on my head and rhythmic rise and fall of his diaphragm sent me drifting back into a sumptuous slumber. My eyes opened a while later and I jumped off the bed to find John in the kitchen making a packed lunch and the camera equipment in the hallway ready to go. It was pitch-black outside and a damp 3ºc when we got into the car for the drive to Portsmouth but John knew exactly how to make the trip go quickly by supplying me with my favourite shrimp snack balls in the car and ensuring that my ears were not subjected to any Christmas songs on the radio. I know, bah humbug!
Gradually the dark turned to gloomy grey and then burnt orange as the sun struggled to peek through the thick layer of cloud above us and we transferred from the car to our next form of transport – my first ride on a double-decker bus. We climbed the narrow winding steps to the upper deck and sat at the front where the view through the floor to ceiling glass was fascinating. The hard plastic seat was cold under my bottom and the window kept steaming up but we were higher than the top of the traffic lights and it felt like we were going to crash every time we turned a corner. I imagined I was piloting a space craft through a mysterious shadowy nebula and the shimmering red light ahead became the glow of a prototype artificial intelligence seeking information about life on earth to complete its mission. But before I could make first contact with this high-tech lifeform the bus came to a halt and we bundled out and headed towards our next style of carriage, the Wight Ryder 1.
The Portsmouth to Ryde catamaran hummed steadily across the steely sea of the Solent and by the time we arrived on the island the sun had smouldered its way through the cloud to give us sunny skies and a temperature of 5ºc. We strolled along Ryde pier past a flock of brown Brent geese bobbing up and down on the water and saw four elegant white swans flying in a perfect row along the coastline. Our bellies told us it was time for a decent breakfast so we stopped in a small local café for sustenance before the next leg of our expedition. As John finished his last mouthful of black coffee, we wrapped up warm and stepped back outside for the brisk walk to Ryde Esplanade station and a ride on the Island Line. The red Island Line coaches are old London Underground tube trains from the 1930s and were a fitting way to transport us back in time as we chugged slowly towards Havenstreet.
Havenstreet Station was originally opened in 1875 and is the focal point of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway incorporating a signal box constructed in 1926 and a water tower alongside one of the platforms that supplies the locomotives before they depart. We boarded our train and watched clouds of steam puff their way over the glossy paintwork on the meticulously restored engines as the pistons urged the machine forward and I waved to Charles Dickens who happened to be wandering up and down the platform. After a lovely ride through the Island’s unspoilt countryside I got the chance to meet Belle and Busby, two rescued donkeys who were visiting that day. A beautiful golden eagle watched us from afar and I heard a rumour that Father Christmas had just landed in his grotto and was busy handing out gifts. Eventually everyone had red noses as the freezing temperatures got through our scarves and beanies and into our bones and dark clouds wafted across the sky giving us our cue to head home. We waited frozen on the platform sheltering from the drops of rain that threatened to turn to snow until the little red train pulled up to the station for our ride back to Ryde. John spotted his opportunity for another coffee as we warmed up in the coffee shop at the end of the pier awaiting the fast-cat ferry back to the Portsmouth. The hovercraft rose effortlessly on its air cushion and glided across the sand to the open water propelled by those huge blowers and that was the last thing I remember until I saw the twinkling street lights of home.
When I look at the face of this beautiful lioness named Frosty, I see a long proud snout, focused curious eyes and a tufty beard (although I wouldn’t say that bit in front of her!). She lives at the Isle of Wight Zoo which regular readers will know is a sanctuary for rescued big cats overlooking the scenic beaches of Sandown. See how her rounded ears are facing forward probably listening to sounds in that direction, fully alert and concentrating on her surroundings, a perfect portrayal of the skill and patience required to capture prey so that herself and her family can survive. Her broad nose is designed for superior scent detection although her whiskers are a little lack-luster compared to mine (I wouldn’t mention that to her either!).
One of the things I respect about lions is that they are the only social members of the feline family, choosing to live in large groups called ‘prides’ and engaging in a variety of peaceful tactile behaviours such as head-rubbing with other lions in greeting and licking each other. So it is with great sadness I have to tell you that the noble big-hearted Charlie Brown passed away just a few days ago. I met Charlie Brown at the beginning of the year on a previous trip to the Isle of Wight Zoo and you can see a photo of him just below. He was a much loved character who arrived at the Zoo more than 10 years ago with his litter-mate Snoopy. Snoopy was a dominant male who used to lead the lions in their evening roaring sessions but he sadly died in 2012 when it was discovered that he had an inoperable tumour. Charlie relied on Snoopy for his sense of security so you can imagine how much Charlie must have missed his bro, but the keepers watched him carefully and after a while his neighbour Nahla moved in as his companion. Poor Charlie became unwell this year and had been undergoing chemotherapy when he suffered an aneurysm and was put to sleep. As I watched Nahla alone in the enclosure, I thought she looked lost and I wondered if she roared her goodbye when she realised Charlie would never come back. It’s a sad business and Charlotte (the Zoo Director) is broken-hearted but I have no doubt she will continue to pour lots of love on to the remaining residents and welcome any new arrivals in need of help.
I gave Nahla a soft trill and walked slowly away from her enclosure with my tail low in respect and headed towards the tiger enclosures whilst pondering the circle of life. Life does indeed go on and the gorgeous Ayesha lounging by her pool is a fine example, luxuriating in the winter sun and generally making the place look classy. There is something regal about these magnificent creatures, whether it’s the aristocratic gaze or the eye-catching stripes I can’t tell. Just across the way is my old buddy Xena the one-eyed white tiger I’ve told you about before. Unfortunately Xena’s rock where she sleeps fell-in the other day so her enclosure is in need of repairs. It seems they’re having a tough time at the moment at the Isle of Wight Zoo and my admiration goes to the keepers who were working hard on this freezing cold day while John, John’s daughter Natasha and myself sauntered around chatting to Charlotte and admiring the view (of the animals obviously)! On our way home while we were waiting for the ferry to take us back across The Solent, we watched the hovercraft leaving Ryde Pier and as the powerful engines fired up, the blast-off really took me by surprise and a mighty wind shot through my fur and made John’s curly hair stand on end. We all laughed!
Regular readers will know that John and I have visited the Isle of Wight Zoo before and enjoyed taking some fab pictures of the big cats that live there. Remember Casper the white lion and Zena the one-eyed white tiger? Don’t get me started about the unethical practice that surrounds the breeding of white tigers! Anyway, the Zoo on Sandown’s chalky coast is well known for its lemurs and rescued big cats, some of which come from circus and entertainment backgrounds, having been rejected by the industry once they served their purpose.
This trip was a Really Wild Photography Workshop that is offered by the Zoo and hosted by professional wildlife photographer Karen-Jane Dudley. Karen-Jane was excited to see a domestic cat like me in the group and said the big cats would be very curious to see me. We exchanged tips on the art of wildlife photography and she told me some stories from her experiences in South Africa where she travels every year to capture beautiful images of the animals, like the zebras, leopards and birds of prey.
The workshop included lunch (I had fish pie, one of my favourites) and ‘behind the scenes’ access to a number of specially designed photography stations so that we could view the cats close-up. As I peered through one of the lens ports, my feline senses tingled as the stunningly striped Aysha came trotting through the water towards me. She was very inquisitive when she picked up my scent and looked enquiringly at me with her bold black and orange eyes before deciding that the water was far more interesting and splashing off in another direction. Aysha is a playful 16 year old currently enjoying her retirement at the Zoo along with her brother Diamond, a laid-back boy like me.
Lions are one of the most iconic animals in the world and they are quite sociable in comparison to many of the other big cats that roam the plains of Africa. I tried to get a few shots of Casper but he was being quite standoffish that day so I turned my attention to Charlie Brown, a tawny lion with a gentle spirit who gazed idly towards me before turning his attention to a noise coming from across the way. It was Aysha huffing and chuffing with joy as she scampered towards a jet of water flowing from a hosepipe. The keepers were in the enclosure playing with the tigers who seemed to love the sound and feel of the water being splattered around. Then it was feeding time and the keepers placed whole pieces of meat tied to various items such as a barrel or a log into the enclosure, making mealtime a bit more of a challenge for these hungry hunters and helping to keep them stimulated.
We also had a special treat when we got the opportunity to actually go inside one of the enclosures. Not with the tigers though! Probably not a good idea! But with the ring-tailed lemurs, a good-natured bunch of primates that come from Southern Madagascar and spend most of their time in trees. It was quite funny being in the pen and looking out at the on-lookers looking in! One of the visitors was overheard saying that the lemurs must be a type of monkey and Michelle (one of the alpha females of the group) was not amused. Apparently lemurs are prosimians, a sub-group of primates that include tarsiers and bushbabies. They lack the dexterity of monkeys and apes but they do have specially adapted eyes that enhance their night vision. They certainly considered themselves to be more evolved, but I’m not so sure. Don’t tell Michelle!