The following summer - in July 2016, to be exact - Nicolò and I made a second trip to the Abruzzo Park. We set off one Friday afternoon. The path we now passed along had been chosen for enjoying the breathtaking spectacle of the sun breaking over the mountains, its many glittering blades of lights reflected in the surface of Lake Barrea.
We tackled the initial 300-meter incline that led us into the great valley, familiar to both of us from the previous summer. A large stag stood about 30 or 40 metres from us, and Nicolò went to take a few photos whilst I held back to catch my breath.
After some minutes passed, I noticed a sow wild boar and her young humbugs making their way up from the bottom of the valley. I closely watched their movements, feeling that the situation could become dangerous as they were coming in my direction. Only when they were within 10 or so metres from me did I finally let out a shout, which echoed around the valley, causing all the animals to dart off.
Nicolò turned to me, visibly angry at having lost his moment with the stag.
“Do you really want to be a wildlife photographer, when you scare animals away like this?”
I replied, mentioning my previous encounter with a wild boar, which I hope might help justify my odd behaviour in this instance. The previous May, I had gone on a hiking trip to the PNALM with my girlfriend Alessandra. As we walked along a trail, during a light spring rain shower, we stumbled upon a family of wild boar - a mother and her young humbugs. The sow had her back turned to us, but as soon as we appeared, it was clear that she thought we were a threat to her young. We froze, before slowly retreating. Our slow movements did nothing to reassure the boar, which then broke into a charge. Alessandra climbed up into a tree whilst I stood rooted to the spot, hoping that the sow might break off its charge at the last second. Luckily it did. Within a few feet of me, the sow stopped. With a grunt she summoned her humbugs and vanished with them into the forest.
By a hair’s breadth I had avoided a boar attack, and I did not wish to repeat the experience. This explains why I acted the way I did now, even if it angered Nicolò.
After a little while, we headed back to the car, illuminating the dark footpath ahead with our head torches. Gleaming eyes moved through the woods, giving a magical feeling to the darkness. A badger? A fox? Perhaps a roe deer watching us from afar? For a moment I felt like I was in “Alice In Wonderland”.
We stopped at a mountain hut to gaze at the stars for a long time, taking many photographs of the Milky Way before resuming our walk back to the hotel and the supper that awaited us. We were so tired that as soon as we got back to our room we fell asleep instantly.
Waking just before dawn, we resumed our journey. Our plan for the day was to head to another valley. After several hundred metres of ascent, we found ourselves in a huge valley filled with many crags that we could sit behind to watch animals unnoticed.
A golden eagle glided magisterially over our heads.
We stashed our backpacks under a bush and explored the area by foot, searching for a good place to set up hide.
We each went our own way, and after some time had passed, I noticed that Nicolò had discovered something of interest. Before setting off, we had agreed upon an unspoken code of hand gestures that we could use to communicate with each other at distance without making unnecessary noise. A nod of his head was message enough - there were wild boar below us. Yes!
Nicolò instinctively decided to approach them, whilst I waited by an advantageous viewpoint where I could survey the whole area from above. Nicolò was playing a game of hide-and-seek with the boars. I enjoyed observing the strange dynamic that was forming between my friend and the wild animals. At one point I lost sight of him, just as I also noticed the boars quickly reassemble themselves into single file and canter towards the woods, disappearing into the undergrowth.
At first I couldn’t see anything. I thought Nicolò might have somehow startled them, causing them to run off. I was curious - I needed to know what had happened, and if I could be of help somehow.
And so I decided to get closer and closer, walking metre after metre and then, quite suddenly, a huge shadow crossed my path ahead.
It’s enormous!, I thought. I’ve never seen such a big boar . . . Could it be a bear?, I asked myself in the height of excitement. Adrenaline pulsed through me and my heart beat a thousand times over. I frantically searched for a good viewpoint that would be downwind, and waited and waited for whatever might happen next.
And without even a chance to regain my breath, which had caught in my chest, the giant shadow that I had seen now reappeared, looming out from some foliage up ahead. It was, without any doubt, a Marsican Bear - and there he was, before me now.
Steadying my nerves, I took a few photos, but my attention was suddenly distracted on another figure. Nicolò. Taking my eye off the camera’s viewfinder, my mouth now dropped open. Nicolò and the Marsican Bear were just a few feet away from one another.
It was such a surreal and emotional moment. Nicolò framed the animal within his camera, documenting that close encounter in a series of images. As the bear slowly turned back towards the thickets of the woods, the events that my eyes had just witnessed began to dawn on me.
I scurried down into the valley, reaching my friend as he came to me.
“You will never believe what just happened!” He gasped.
“I don’t have to imagine anything. I saw it all.”
We embraced, that hug searing that intense scene in our minds. We knew that we were witnesses to an incredible event, now seared in our hearts and memories.
Nicolò told me how, after the wild boars had vanished, he had been wandering through the lower climes of the valley. He had heard a few strange sounds over his shoulder and, as he turned, he had found himself face to face with this beast. The bear had sniffed the air, checking over a bush and, without giving my friend a second glance, left on its own accord. If this was a fantastical encounter for me, full of adrenaline and emotion, it must have been an epiphany for my friend, surely the culmination of our journey and perhaps of every past journey he had ever made.
Back at our backpacks, we rested, still at bursting point full of the various emotions that the bear encounter had aroused in us. After an hour or so, in between exultant photos, lunch and a nap, I had a look from the larger crags for signs of life down below.
And, unbelievably, the bear was still there, in exactly the same spot as before.
We said it was like beginners’ luck. To see a humongous Marsican Bear twice in the same day was an unusually rare occurrence. What’s more, the bear did not seem bothered by us, and eventually wandered off.
We decided to position ourselves near two large pools of water, waiting patiently hidden behind some rocks and our camouflage netting. Our wait was rewarded with the appearance of 35 wild boar. They gathered at the water’s edge, a few feet from where we sat. The little humbugs played, but when they caused too much nuisance, the older boars scolded them with grunts. One or two wallowed in the muddy water. Nicolò and I watched their courtship with calm fascination: these beasts were amusing to watch as they affectionately mirrored each others’ habits.
In a flash, all the boar dispersed, breaking across the valley in different directions. A boar humbug had come to within just 10 feet of us, and the mother must have seen us from behind. I thought to myself, We’re in for it now. I knew I had to get out of there without threatening her. So, staying as calm as possible, I showed that I was indifferent to them. After all that was the truth - I was not there to hurt them but to be among them and admire them.
I was no threat and my body language must have shown that. After a few moments, the mother snorted, gathering up her humbug and sending a grunt of alarm among the members of her group, who by now were some distance away from our hide area.
Now I knew that I could handle such a potentially dangerous situation in a calm and thoughtful way without panicking. The intensity of that day’s meeting served an important lesson for me.
We stayed there until sunset, enjoying the tranquil atmosphere, watching deer and boars carry on peacefully alongside one another.
It was late when we got back to the car. We knew just how magical that encounter was with the rare and remarkable Marsican Bear. All these events in just 24 hours in the wild lands of the Abruzzo. We couldn’t ask for anything more.
@ Mattia Cialoni