It had been a long time coming but at precisely 3.00am UK time May 14th the plan swung in to action. My good friend Mike arrived at my house spot on time to head for Manchester airport and this year's photo tour.
We had decided on a return to Bulgaria. There were lots of things going for it, not least cost. We also decided that following our previous two years package deals with photo tour specialists we would try to go D.I.Y. to give us a bit more flexibility.
First move was to book flights and we chose to fly to Sofia with Easyjet. The big advantage of Easyjet is they fly from Manchester and they have a generous hand baggage allowance which allows for more equipment to be taken in the relative safety of the cabin. Flights were booked well in advance and cost £106 each and included seats in the first few rows that allow a bigger hand baggage size. We later decided that we would share a third hold bag specifically for birding equipment taking hides etc. That added another £60 each but that still brought the tickets in at a very reasonable cost. I had also noticed that by flying on a Thursday and returning on a Saturday not only were the flights cheaper but it maximised time in Bulgaria because of the flight times which were a bit anti-social!
Our wives were quick to point out our annual trip had grown from a week to 10 days!
Next a car was ordered through a comparable market web site. We needed something half decent so initially we booked a VW Passat estate at £203 but it was later changed to a Peugeot Partner "or similar". We got the similar, something I'd never heard of but Mike had. Made in Romania it's called a Dacia and apparently is owned by Renault. Anyway, instead of having to transfer terminals we now had a meet and greet service and it cost less at £189 for the 10 days.
With hindsight the car wasn't the best choice. It is built on the style of a van with rear sliding doors which we had anticipated using as a hide however the reality was there wasn't a suitable place to park and to use it as such we had to use it on the move so to speak. The catch was that the rear windows don't open so to photograph you need to move along with the door open. A sudden break movement when you spot a potential subject can result in the sliding door slamming shut and at best sending the bird in to flight, at worst damaging protruding passenger or equipment. You live and learn !
Anyway, we arrived in Sofia and by 1.00pm we were heading down the motorway towards Burgas on the Black Sea coast.
Bulgaria's roads are varied. Extremely varied. Outside of Sofia the motorway was undergoing serious roadworks but once that was cleared it was a joy to drive on a near empty motorway.
Our plan was to find accommodation for one night on arrival, maybe having enough time for a short photo session, before heading further north along the coast to our pre booked stay at Branta Birding Lodge in Durankulak, a mere 6 kilometres from the Roumanian border.
One past Burgas the roads deteriorate and , having left home at 3.00am it was folly to attempt the whole drive. The journey to Burgas alone was nearly 400km and besides we wanted to investigate the lakes around there as they came with a reputation for good birding. Had it not been for luggage restrictions we may well have chosen a charter flight direct to Burgas and cutting out a long journey but we also had planned to spend our last night on the way back at Trigrad, home of the Wallcreepers and to us a special place worth a return visit after last year.
Burgas lakes appeared to have little to offer but in fairness we didn't have time to explore too much as we were keen to find suitable accommodation before dark and we didn't have a clue what time that was. Still we found a bush with a small flock of Spanish Sparrows offering the best photo opportunities I have ever had and possibly Mike too.
We decided to make for the coast proper and ended up in Pomorie, an emerging seaside resort. Right now it's pretty awful. Big brash (in my opinion ugly) hotels surrounded by building chaos of unmade dirt roads, road closures , rubbish etc etc. Best avoided !
We headed to the beach.
Not exactly idyllic by any means but it did offer some flight shot practice on House Martins and a single Crested Lark.
As the sun started to go down we called it a day, checked in to a simple family run hotel which was clean , simple and inexpensive, had a nice meal , a few beers and an early bed.
We told the owners we would not require breakfast and we were on the road the next morning around about 6.00am. That's 4.00am UK time, the previous day's early start did have advantages at helping reset the body clock !