On safari with my mentor

February 4, 2013

Hato La Aurora nature reserve, Colombia

By Jose Miguel Gomez

I’ve been a photographer for over 20 years, but this was to be my first bird-watching safari so I took along a 70-300mm lens, thinking it would be enough. We also expected to do lots of hiking in heat, and it’s the lightest of my long lenses.

I traveled with my son and 18 other explorers of whom some were amateur photographers. We had four guides plus a well-known ecologist, but the real treat for me was master photographer-adventurer Andres Hurtado, who organized the trip. Andres was leading us to the Hato La Aurora nature reserve, in Casanare province.

It was one day decades earlier, in high school, when I first met Andres. He arrived to give a class titled “general culture” right after tumbling down the Naranjo de Bulnes mountain peak in Spain and losing all feeling on his left side. It was a miracle he had survived, and there he was giving classes to us.

A group of us began physical training with him, jogging daily around a mountain near Bogota, until one day he invited me to climb Tolima Mountain. That day he showed me my first camera, and my life was changed.

Now, years later, we began the visit to Hato La Aurora with a 9-km (5 miles) hike across the savanna in a temperature of 38C (100F). We began to see birds that were new to us, flying out of and back into nearby forests, but when we approached they became frightened. They were too fast for our cameras, but left us with the constant hope of finding one of their kind again.

Capybaras, the world’s largest rodent but with a tender look, appeared in the swamp areas. There were hundreds, or thousands, of them, in and out of the water of the natural lakes left behind at the end of winter, and we could see alligators near them, partially hidden in the water.

As the sun went down other exotic animals emerged from their hiding places. We saw the jabiru stork, the scarlet ibis, the horned screamer, and the ivory-billed woodpecker, among many others. From the vehicle we could take beautiful pictures in the orange light, but that’s when my frustration began at not having a longer lens, at least a 500mm. The days passed and I was more amazed at the number of species that emerged from the park.

One day we were invited to visit the region’s main ranch, where we met cowboys returning from the bush with some cattle they had rounded up. Their faces were deeply tanned from long days in the sun, but their lifestyle is in danger as oil companies try to buy up their land. “It will be the end of this reserve,” said ranch owner Nelson Barragan.

At the end of the afternoon a few cows were sold to cattlemen who rounded them up in a technique called the “encierro,” or enclosure. A group of mounted cowboys surrounded the cattle to stop any of them from escaping, and avoid hours of chasing.

During the nights, Andres told us stories of his trips around the world and his millions of photos taken while climbing mountains and hiking through jungles. His life is focused on adventure and in documenting each moment in photos, to then show them to audiences around the world.

“Brother Andres”, as we affectionately called him, had been my teacher when I began to study photography, and he continues to be my reference. It was he who taught me to photograph, and to see the world differently. To be guided by him once more, this time with my son Nicolas, was marvellous. The opportunity to live a safari experience with birds and animals so different and so fragile, filled me with joy, like in those years when Andres passed me that Pentax and showed me how to frame the world. Since then I never stopped photographing.


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