That special time of day, where the world is almost as it was made, little alien noise, few people, pristine… It has its own smell, unique to where you experience it. I have been fortunate over so many years to have been in some special places and, winter or summer, if one gets up early enough there are some sights, noises and smells that will stick in your memory for the rest of your life. Let me give you a few of mine.
In South Africa, by the warm ocean at Umslanga, a little east from Durban, countless cicadas click in unison, with the background of relentless surf, piling up and dragging back on the steep beaches of the Indian Ocean. All mingling with the faint smell of African spices and bougainvillea.
The frogs’ constant croaking in the Kruger Park, with the scent of big game almost within touching distance. Elephants outside the veranda, hoovering up fallen amarula fruit on the lawns, with the hippos in the Sand River some hundred yards beyond, numerous exotic species of kingfisher, diving into the shallow waters. The excitement of the early morning game drive through the bush to see the big five as they really live, and kill, for their survival. Lions lying stretched out on their backs, replete from fresh-killed meat of impala or zebra.
Rolling surf, breaking onto an otherwise deserted coral reef around Roratonga, Cook Islands, in that far off Pacific paradise. The ‘smell’ of the heat about to burst on the waking world, again with the constant noise of the cicadas accompanying the rising sun.
The waking calls of long tailed tropic birds and still ever present breakers, rolling in across the Indian Ocean on tiny Bird Island, near the northern extent of the Seychelles, 1000 miles off the East African coast. The smell of bougainvillea on the walls, huge 100 year-old tortoises lumbering along the shoreline. Countless fish of all sizes in the sparkling, clear, warm sea, nibbling toes as you move between them. Pure white fairy terns nesting in the palm-thatched chalet, their single egg balanced on top of the wall.
Secluded Palliser Bay, on the southern tip of North Island, NZ, with the exotic New Zealand magpies noisily exuding their ‘other worldly’ flute-like calls as the early sun burns off the misty heat over a drought-stricken landscape.
Another early morning, different season; The high alpine air in Murren, Switzerland, as the sun rises behind the three huge peaks of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau alongside the Ebnaflu glacier. Ice crystals drifting like an endless cloud in the almost windless air. The crunch of early boots on packed snow or summer paths; the occasional golden eagle, ravens and countless trachis (alpine choughs) joyfully wheeling to welcome another day. A dozen nervous chamois slipping away from feasting on village flowers after a night’s marauding.
Herring gulls and the chattering skeins of pinkfooted geese passing over the rich, almost black, alluvial farmlands on a quiet October sunrise, inland from Carnoustie, Angus, on their way to feeding grounds. The early morning arrival of farm workers opening barns, preparing their machines for another day’s potato lifting. A quick word with farmer Tom Hay to sort the days, plans before departing for their long day’s toil. Maybe still in Scotland, up in the hills just south of, and looking down on, Loch Lomond to the north and the Clyde flowing out into the Irish Sea to the southwest, on an autumn’s morning, probably raining, as we visit the rapidly growing spruce forest we planted for future generations, and indeed are still planting today.
Sussex, on any fine early spring morning. Rooks waking up the old settlement before sunrise as they search for, and strip, twigs for their nest repairs and (now a memory) the sound of cattle greeting their stockman’s early arrival. Swallows and martins twittering overhead, with the scent of early moisture and the myriad small songbirds feasting on the birdseed on the garden bird tables as Reynard slips quietly away from his night kill of rabbit or chicken.
Each location is unique; in its view, smell and sounds. Each brings back its own special memories, which last a lifetime. My top four favourites? Well it’s a close call.
I think the exotic call of the New Zealand magpies will live with me for ever. Listening to it in the early morning, knowing we were some 12,000 miles from home, in a country which I never expected to see but which, with its old world charm then drew us back again. Friendly people, wonderful scenery and a bit like rural Scotland; some 50 years behind life here in England?
Then I think I have to pick the sheer awesome splendour of the Swiss Alps; perhaps equally for the many years of wonderful skiing with some special friends, most gone now, and being treated by the mountain villagers and hoteliers almost as members of their own family, perhaps not surprising as we have grown older with some of them for over 60 years.
The next? A close call, but probably little Bird Island. Mainly because it is just so far from anywhere, a tiny blob, 1,000 miles off Africa, with the only regular link to civilisation being a small twin engined Britton Norman Islander which makes its daily flight from the main island, Mahe, landing on a tiny grass strip cut through the trees in the centre of the little island and following along behind the ‘safety tender’, one man, his old Ferguson 35 tractor and baggage trailer.
And now my favourite, which you may have guessed. My little home farm, within earshot of the English Channel on quiet mornings, before traffic builds. My family’s home for almost 200 years, mentioned in the Domesday Book, now becoming increasingly squeezed by encroaching development. Nevertheless, the heart of the farm remains, as generations of my family fashioned it, deep ditches, ponds, mixed tree species, thick hedgerows, changed beyond recall now from its past as a dairy and youngstock farm. But home. And that, to a farmer, means an awful lot.