Forget Kenya and Tanzania - what about North Norfolk Safaris?
PUBLISHED: 17:37 18 June 2019 | UPDATED: 17:37 18 June 2019
He’s seen lions and elephants and come too close to a crocodile for comfort, but there’s nothing that compares to north Norfolk for wildlife cameraman Martin Hayward Smith. Reporter DAVID BALE joined him in a vintage Land Rover on one of his North Norfolk safaris.
Well-travelled Fakenham film-maker Martin Hayward Smith only once considered permanently leaving north Norfolk, and that's when he lived for several years in Madagascar.
The draw of north Norfolk even then brought him back to his native soil and he has lived in the same cottage in East Barsham, near Fakenham, for 22 years.
And for the last four years he's been running North Norfolk Safaris, taking people along the alleys and tracks of his native region, exploring wildlife.
He started the safaris after his book My Year With Hares came out.
"People were saying they would love to go out and see the wildlife and hares around here," he said. "The plans were hatched and it's been very successful."
And while he's worked on Survival and on 47 programmes with Ray Mears, travelling in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, he has the same enthusiasm for exploring wildlife in his backyard.
Each time he goes out the countryside has subtly changed, he said, and you can never guarantee what wildlife you will see.
And for someone like me who does not know a wheat field from a barley field, it was quite an experience.
Firstly, it was great to be away from modern living. You had no chance of picking up a phone signal or wifi and that's why people love his safaris, he said.
And while you may not see herds of wildebeest, giraffes or raging rhinos, as per your archetypal safari, we did spot some animals not native to north Norfolk.
Just a few miles from his home there's a farm and a field of water buffaloes. These huge animals are native to Vietnam but they looked perfectly at home in a field in north Norfolk.
They stared at us for a few seconds and then got back to what they were doing before.
Our guide did, however, say he had met a rogue water buffalo, and that beast was not so friendly.
We were also lucky enough to see some hares with one sitting peacefully in a field of sweet corn.
There were plenty of pheasants ambling along the lanes and alleys where traffic does not normally visit.
Mr Hayward Smith has a good relationship with local farmers who allow him to drive down the off-the-beaten tracks.
And he's incredibly knowledgeable with his running commentary.
If there's a buzzard flying overhead, then he knows it immediately.
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"During a day we probably see between 25 and 30 species of bird," he said.
We did not see any barn owls, but the experience was so peaceful and tranquil that I forgot I was working.
We even managed to enjoy a picnic near a beautiful barley field. Our guide opened up his Fortnum and Mason basket and we sat down to enjoy the sounds of nature.
"You can hear bees pollinating and whitethroat birds singing and nothing apart from the occasional bird-scarer," he added.
He added: "We get people from London and Manchester and Brum and you see how they change on safari, being at one with themselves within the landscape.
"There's no planned route, as we just see where the day takes us. We sometimes go up to the north Norfolk marshes."
Mr Hayward Smith has a daughter, Megan, who is studying maritime biology at Exeter university, and is a "chip off the old block", he said.
He went to Fakenham Secondary Modern School and remembers seeing the film Born Free at a cinema in the town when he was about 11. From then on, he was hooked. Years later he worked with George Adamson from Born Free.
His garden and home is also a haven for wildlife and there's even a shepherd's hut that people can stay in. He's seen otters in the River Stiffkey at the bottom of his garden. For more information visit www.northnorfolksafaris.co.uk
What kind of wildlife can you see on a typical North Norfolk Safari?
The wildlife you can spot down the back alleys and dirt tracks of north Norfolk would probably surprise people.
There's always something happening with wildlife and some animals can best be seen at night or during a particular season.
On an average day-long tour with North Norfolk Safaris, you will see about 25 to 30 bird species.
Hares can be widely spotted, plus various species of butterfly. Barn owls are hunting at present and, heading up to the coast, you can see spoonbills.
Mr Hayward Smith said that some people wanted to see badgers on the tour, and then deer and foxes in the evenings.
The water buffaloes live in a field near his home.
From autumn to early spring before the breeding season, the tours track the great skeins of pink-footed geese, when they fly inland from their night-time roosting sites on the salt marsh.
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