Deep in the forest surrounding the Pozharevo wetlands, I’m watching three wobbly, pale, naked men’s bottoms squeeze into tight rubber suits. The rising sun is just starting to reach our little clearing, providing slithers of gentle relief on this crisp, cold, Bulgarian morning. Nightingale whistles and the chirp of a million frogs envelop us, and then, abruptly, without warning; silence. A disturbing, unsettling rhythm.
Growing up willying around in comprehensive school changing rooms and municipal swimming baths has given me an ease with nakedness around other men. A flash-back to an innocent, uncomplicated childhood. The two retired GPs with me are also oh too familiar with the crevices, wrinkles and, increasingly at first hand, failures of the human body.
Our daily routine isn’t yet set, so our movements are still nervy and tentative. Check and double check. I’m closely watching everyone without wanting to make eye contact, without wanting to seem ill at ease. Specialist equipment, specialist clothing, stepping into the unknown, a new experience. Have I forgotten anything? Will it all work? Why didn’t I read the instructions?
A mud-spattered bin bag on the floor for protection, rubber suit turned inside out, rubber booties close by and a friend on hand to help with the trickier manoeuvres. Ok, deep breath. Strip off. Good grief it’s cold, every bone is chattering. Wriggle into suit. Hopping on bin bag. One soggy boot on and then the other.
I bought my wet suit a few weeks ago in the forlorn hope that it would encourage me to ‘slim into’ it. It hasn’t worked. Holding my breath, I force shut the zipper, and I’m ready.
Pushing off, we’re starting five days photographing birds from a floating hide on the wetlands of the Danube on the Bulgaria-Romania border. Too much water and the birds aren’t able to reach the bottom to feed, too little means lots of vegetation for us to wade through and no clear shots, too much change means the birds aren’t settled before mating and nesting, so move around, and are therefore harder to find. Life is a delicate, vulnerable balance, which can tip unpredictably at any point.
Uneasy, fragile, my two GPs have elected to stay close together for our first session, staying in the shallower vegetation-infested areas.
Still, calm water. Tranquil and peaceful. I’m alone, following the light of early morning spring as it slowly spreads across a tree-lined channel of deep water.
Eye-to-eye with red-knecked grebes, garganey, and black and whiskered terns, I’m looking for the perfect reflection of a bird bathed in golden light with a catch-light in its eye. An intimate connection with the natural world.
After two hours of quiet suspension in deep, cold water, only broken by a short-lived glow as warm pee spreads throughout my wet suit, I’m forced to stand rigid, on my tip toes for 10 minutes, a shooting pain up my calves. Dressed head to toe in my restrictive rubber suit, I’m now breathing heavily. And then release. A strange sort of euphoria seeping, spreading throughout my aching body.
My first ever shot of a little grebe.
I have a list. My ideal shots. My must-try experiences. Number one is ticked off, red-necked grebes next.
I’m on a roll. Next frogs.
Over the next few days my list provides focused intent. Surety and direction.
Day four. I’ve been bobbing up and down in cold, murky water all morning. Time is passing too quickly. An increasing urgency to complete my list. To not leave things untried.
I’ve just turned 50. A short five years from now, at age 55, my dad’s heart, lungs and liver collapsed, restricting his remaining life. I reflect on a closure never achieved, things left unsaid. I also reflect on the children I may well never have.
I’m jolted into the present, a piercing pain in my left wrist. Three blades making a Y-shaped incision as the leech starts to feast. I’m panicking, trying to shake it off. It’s tail connects to my hand providing two anchor points.
Shaking furiously, I’m afraid to yank it free as I fear that would release a torrent of blood. Breathing deeply, slowing down, gaining self-control, I resolve to wait. To let it feed on me. It’s growing before my eyes. A piercing pain through my hand. Within 30 minutes it’s doubled in size.
I watch in horror. In disgust. In fascination. An hour. A sharp pain and slow pulsating from my wrist. I’m overcome with panic again and try to shake it off. This time the leech drops into the water. Rich red blood flows from my wrist. Smears onto the side of the hide and drips into the waist-deep surrounding water.
And then I see them. Seven leeches rushing towards me. Attracted by the heady mix in the water of my blood and body heat in the water. Climbing up my wet suit, desperate for the one and only meal of the year. The meal that will sate them. I’m flailing in the water, pushing away, forcing through the reeds. After 15 minutes I stop. Shudder. I think I’ll call it a day.
Day five. Thunder and lightning has kept me awake all night. There’s been too much rain. The water channels are too high. This, combined with my curtailed session yesterday means I’ve run out of time. I can’t complete my list. Frustrated, I need to step back, reprioritise and consider what is possible.
Inevitably, we pass the morning sharing wonderful stories of past exploits, and shots from the last few days.
I then elect to spend the next three hours under a tree waiting for the storm to pass, while also photographing a penduline tit bringing food back to its nest. The tree and nest, swinging in the storm, makes an erratic, difficult photographic target, whilst the tit effortlessly readjusts it’s flight path each time to compensate for its changing environment.
Cold, I’m also mildly disappointed at not being able to warm up by peeing. A chuckle from my GP, “you should think yourself lucky that you’re still able to remember not to just pee”. The weather easing I’m finally able to walk back to the car from my tree. Wearing a massive pair of borrowed wellies, I splosh in pools of water and mud. Quiet, slow, contemplative. My camera and tripod over my shoulder. Enjoying the walk. Enjoying the release. Enjoying the freedom.
Perfect. Today wasn’t on my list.
Our joint fetish with birds and cameras is coming to a close. I’m learning to let go, accept, and make the most of what’s left (ok, to be fair, this might still be ‘work in progress’). To be open to shared, ludicrous, unexpected experiences surrounded by people at peace.
Driving away from the hotel I realise I’ve left my too tight wetsuit hanging in the bathroom. The rubber, fetid, musty smell; a discarded skin. I decide to stay quiet and leave it.