Solo Traveler Interview with The Wildlife Diaries (Margarita Steinhardt)

This month our solo travel interview is with a wildlife blogger who has a passion for observing and photographing wild cats around the world. I am thrilled to introduce Margarita Steinhardt of The Wildlife Diaries. A talented photographer and writer, Margarita has travelled to some amazing locations specifically to see wild cats in their natural environment. She has a goal to see every species of wild cat in its natural habitat. So far, she has seen 17 species during her travels in search of wildlife around the world. Margarita’s travel blog is full of amazing wildlife photos.

Let’s find out more about the amazing woman behind The Wildlife Diaries.

 

Solo Traveler Interview with The Wildlife Diaries

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SM  How did you come about your love of wild cats and what sparked your desire to see every species of wild cats in their natural environment?

Margarita:  My obsession with wild cats started with tigers. I must’ve always been a ‘cat person’ and one day, I picked up a copy of BBC Wildlife magazine that ran a feature story on a tigress raising a litter of cubs in Kanha National Park in India. The story drew me in and the images were so evocative, that I immediately fell in love with these cats.

I learned professional photography and travelled to India to spend a couple of weeks watching and photographing tigers. And when I returned, I enrolled in the university to study wildlife conservation. So, my love for tigers determined the course of my life for over a decade.

Yet over the years, I came to work with other wild cats and I adored every single one of them. Every expression of felineness, every way of being a cat. To me they were all different kinds of tigers – so similar, yet so different, so specialized for the environments they live in and the prey they hunt. It seemed natural that I would want to see them all in their element. I just never though it was possible. I am still not sure if it is, but it is the search itself that drives me.

SM: That’s incredible! I find it so interesting how one little moment in your life can shape your future so profoundly. Enjoy searching for more wild cats during your travels!

 

Bengal Tiger in Kanha National Park in India's Madhya Pradesh state

Bengal Tiger in Kanha National Park in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh

 

SM:  You’ve seen 17 of 40 species so far, please tell us about a couple of these encounters: the most memorable and the most difficult one so far.

Margarita:  The most memorable one was one of my first encounters with tigers in India. Back then, the way tiger safaris were conducted in Kanha was for mahouts (elephant riders) to track down the tigers and then take the tourists off road on elephant back to see the cat inside the thick forest.

That day, the mahouts tracked down the resident male and he was in a cranky mood. When our elephant, urged by the mahout, started following him, he turned around and threw himself into a mock charge – his giant paws swinging at the air, his muscles rippling under his beautiful coat and his thunderous roar reverberating through every cell in my body.

He had no intention of attacking the elephant and was basically just saying: “Back off, I’m not in the mood”. But the fear that gripped me was so primal, so deep-rooted, I’ve never felt anything like it. For something so beautiful to be so deadly, how can you resist its pull?

The hardest cat to track down, so far, was the Sunda clouded leopard in Borneo. These stunning cats are so rarely seen, that even most of the researchers studying them never see one in the wild. Yet there is one spot in Borneo, the Deramakot Forest Reserve, where they are seen occasionally on night drives.

In wildlife watching, so much depends on luck. It has taken me two trips and a total of four weeks of 10 to 13-hour night drives each night to see a clouded leopard. And the irony of it was that while we spent all this time hoping to come across a male clouded leopard on his nightly patrol of his territory, we spotted a female in the middle of the day when we weren’t even looking. It crossed the road in front of our truck and walked out of sight into the thick jungle. If it wasn’t for our guide’s alertness, we would have never known it was there.

SM:  You are dedicated! That’s a big investment of your time but if you never seek you shall never find these incredible wild cats. Best luck to you on your future trips.

 

Angry tiger bares its fangs at Kahha National Park in India

Angry tiger bares its fangs at Kahha National Park in India

 

SM:  How do you plan your wildlife travels? Are you generally on guided tours when you go out in search of these animals in the wild?

Margarita:  The planning process is one of my favourite parts. It is like looking at a delicious menu when you are hungry. Wild cats occur on all continents apart from Australia and Antarctica. So first, I dream up the kind of environment I want to visit – a desert, a mountain range or a tropical island. Then I consider which cats inhabit such environments and what are the chances of spotting them.

Some of the cats can be reliably seen in certain locations, like jaguars in the Brazilian Pantanal, snow leopards in Hemis National Park in the Himalayas, or cheetahs in Kenya and Tanzania. Others are much harder to track, and for some, there are no known sites at all.

 

Jaguar in the Brazilian Pantanal region

Jaguar in the Brazilian Pantanal region

 

Most of the trips into the wilderness require a guide and a fair bit of logistical support. So, most of the time I book a custom tour that includes a guide and transport. Occasionally, you can spot some of the cats on group tours, like an African safari, or a tiger safari in India. But mostly, these are rather specialized trips which makes them quite pricey and appealing only to a limited audience.

SM:  You are definitely in a highly specialized area of the travel sector. For most people one of these tours would be the trip of a lifetime but you’re doing them on a more regular basis. So thank you for exploring and letting us travel along vicariously through your blog.

 

Ocelot in the Pantanal region - Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul

Ocelot in the Pantanal region – Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul

 

SM:  Do you feel nervous sometimes when you are out looking for these wild animals, or do you find it more meditative somehow, like you are meant to have this experience, and everything will be okay?

Margarita:  I actually feel the best out in the wild. I feel like I re-connect with something real and essential. And I enjoy a little bit of fear, ‘little’ being the key word. The kind of tension that makes you feel awake, rather than paralysed. Say, when a 40-ton Humpback whale breaches right next to your boat and you think the boat is going to capsize. But the philosophy of wildlife watching is to always keep your impact on wildlife to a minimum, so you never really get into dangerous situations.

A lot of wild cat watching is done at night, since most of the cats are nocturnal hunters. The nights are usually quiet in the wilderness, the sky is lit up with billions of stars, so, it really is quite meditative.

SM:  Interesting, now I have a desire to go on one of these night tours to look for some wild cats. And I get what you mean about reconnecting and having that ‘little’ bit of fear, when all your senses are heightened. I have a healthy fear and respect for all wildlife and enjoy watching from a safe distance. I notice sometimes tour operators get too close to the wildlife because they want to keep the customers happy. I think we should all invest in some good binoculars before we go out wildlife viewing and give the animals some space.

 

Night sky shows thousands of stars in Argentina

Night sky in Argentina

 

Do you have a plan in place, a sort of schedule for the places your will travel in order to find all the cats in the wild?

Margarita:  I have a mental map of the cats I would like to see and the places they live in. But I like to keep an element of spontaneity in my travel, so I try not to plan the destinations past the next trip. Though I do daydream about them a lot.

SM:  I have a similar approach to my travels, lots of places I know I want to visit but I love to plan spontaneously.

 

Solo Travel Interview with The Wildlife Diaries travel blog

 

SM:  How old were you when you went on your first solo trip? Where did you go and how did it turn out?

Margarita:  I actually started travelling independently quite late. I was about 25. I spent my late teens and early 20-s living in different parts of the world, mainly through circumstance. So, I had enough travel-related excitement to not yearn for the unknown. It was when I developed my crush on wild cats that I started travelling on my own.

My first trip was a backpacking adventure to India to look for tigers in the wild. And I went through such an intense culture shock in my first two days in Delhi, that I seriously considered packing up and going back home. But once I got to the jungle, I was in my element. All it took was one wildlife safari and I knew that I would go to great lengths to have more experiences like that in my life.

SM:  I’ve heard about the chaos of Delhi but haven’t been yet, I can imagine the experience would be overwhelming. I was late to start solo traveling too, I turned 30 when I was in Singapore on my first solo trip to Southeast Asia.

 

Sunda Leopard Cat in Borneo Southeast Asia

Sunda Leopard cat in Borneo Southeast Asia

 

SM:  I must ask; do you have any cats at home? If so, tell us about them please.

Margarita:  I always did when I was going up in Russia. But now that I live in Sydney, I don’t. Cats are problematic in Australia – they decimate our native wildlife. And as a wildlife conservationist, I have conflicting feelings about pet cats. Plus, there are unfortunate logistical issues with keeping cats in rental properties. So, for now, I enjoy cuddling my friends’ cats. I am also completely incapable of walking past someone’s cat on the street without at least trying to give it a pat.

SM:  Oh I didn’t realize cats are a problem in Australia. When I was around 10 yrs old I used to feed stray cats and when they kept coming back to the house I’d innocently ask my mom “can I feed him please?” as if it were a coincidence that the cat kept meowing at our door. Nowadays I am allergic to domestic cats so I keep a distance from them.

 

SM:  What is your favorite solo travel destination so far? Why?

Margarita:  The Tibetan Plateau. I went there to look for two rare species of wild cats and spent five days and nights driving around Ruoergai grassland with a local guide. And apart from the rare cats, this vast high-altitude region is home to the last remaining pockets of the traditional Tibetan nomadic culture. Lying at 3,500 meters above the sea level and inhabited primarily by the Tibetan nomads, it has the feeling of the final frontier. It is too remote to be affected by globalization and it is one of the last places in the world where you can witness the disappearing traditional Tibetan nomadic culture. It is also completely off the tourist radar, which makes it feel almost like a different planet.

The Ruoergai Grassland is so remote, you won’t even find it on Google Maps. Although this is primarily because to Google, it is known under its Tibetan name of Zoige. In the week that I spent on the grassland, I did not see another westerner, apart from my Welsh expat guide. But what I did see were the Chinese mosques!

The grassland is inhabited by the most unusual mix of cultures and ethnicities: Amdo Tibetans, Hui Muslims and Han Chinese. And the combination of the harsh beauty of the landscape and the unexpected cultural mix give Ruoergai an almost surreal ambiance. Like a final frontier at the edge of the world.

 

SM:  I love it! That sounds amazing. The more remote a place and the more difficult it is to travel to the place; I think add to the mystique. You go there with a fresh slate, and few preconceived ideas about what to expect.

 

Langmusi Monastery located in the Tibetan Plateau region

Langmusi Monastery located in the Tibetan Plateau region

 

SM:  What is your current favorite travel gadget, gear or app?

Margarita:  As a keen wildlife photographer, I travel with a fair amount of camera gear. I carry a DSLR, a telephoto lens, a wide angle lens, a flash and a collection of various accessories. So, a good daypack to fit it all in is essential. About a year ago, I discovered a camera backpack by National Geographic and it immediately become my favorite. It fits all my gear and has enough room to fit other essentials, like another layer of clothing, a water bottle, and the bits and pieces you’d usually pack in your carry-on.

SM:  Right, I should have guessed photography equipment! I avoid buying more lenses for my Sony A6000 because I don’t want to lug them around, but I know I need a good telephoto lens for wildlife shots, and a decent wide angle lens for landscape shots. I will look into the NatGeo camera backpack.

 

Margarita of Wildlife Diaries travel blog visiting a parrot in Southern Pantanal Brazil

Margarita of Wildlife Diaries travel blog visiting a parrot in Southern Pantanal Brazil

 

SM:  What is one of your biggest travel mistakes and how did you handle it?

Margarita:  Usually, I am big on researching and planning my trips. But with my solo trip to Ruoergai, I decided to keep the mystery alive, and since I couldn’t find it on Google maps, I decided to read nothing about it and let myself be completely surprised by it. The city I was flying to was Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province and the weather forecast for Chengdu was a balmy 30 degrees. So, I packed accordingly.

The day my guide picked me up in Chengdu, we spent 9 hours driving to our destination and when I finally got out of the car, I realized the mistake I made. It was 6 degrees, according to the car thermometer and the temperature was dropping as the sun sunk below the horizon.

So, the following morning, I went straight to the local market and bought myself every warm piece of clothing they had. It wasn’t the best stuff, but I guess it helped me to blend in a little, once I wrapped a traditional woolen scarf around my head and half my face :)

SM:  I love the idea of not researching in advance so that you keep the surprise and wow factor upon arrival. But you bring up a great point about how important it is to be prepared for the climate. You made the best of the situation, and at least you could purchase some local goods, and maybe you have a cool souvenir to bring back memories of your wonderful adventure in Tibet.

 

SM:  What is your preference for accommodation while traveling alone?

Margarita:  When I am alone, I prefer to either stay away from the big cities or stay in the midst of the tourist district. Staying away from the tourist hubs, you usually avoid all the typical scams targeted at tourists. Also, i find people to be much more genuine and generous away from the economy of quick tourist dollars. But if staying away is not an option, I tend to look for safety in numbers and stay in places where most of the other travelers are.

SM:  Interesting, I have similar preferences. The more I travel the more I appreciate the smaller and least touristic places for more interesting and genuine interactions with locals. I also opt for the middle of the tourist areas when I’m traveling alone and want to feel safer, more likely to meet others to go out at night, etc.

 

SMWhat are a few of the destinations topping your bucket list right now?

Margarita:  There are always so many, but the top two would be the Western Sahara and the Valley of the Cats in Tibet. I’d also love to spend a few months in South America.

SM:  I will have to Google Valley of the Cats in Tibet; you have piqued my interest. Western Sahara interests me too, because of Mariam Hassan, a singer, songwriter, and activist from Western Sahara. I look forward to following your next adventures on your blog and social media.

 

Marbled cat sleeping on a tree branch in Borneo Southeast Asia

Marbled cat sleeping on a tree branch in Borneo Southeast Asia

 

Many thanks to Wildlife Diaries for taking time out to do this interview with Solo Trips and Tips travel blog.

Check out the previous solo traveler interviews

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Solo Travel Interview with The Wildlife Diaries travel blog

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About the Author

Susan Moore spent 7 months traveling around Southeast Asia back in the 90's. Returning to Canada she found a job working on rotation in Siberia Russia. She later moved to Austin Texas where she started a bookkeeping business, allowing her to work remotely. Currently Susan is in year 4 of living a nomadic life, roadtripping around the USA and Canada and writing about her experiences with a focus on hiking and cultural encounters. Read all about Susan » You can reach Susan Moore at Facebook or Twitter or Instagram

5 Replies

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  1. Jen says:

    Great interview! I have to look for that Nat Geo bag, and I always plan my trips ahead of time! So essential when you’re alone, that way you don’t second guess yourself and are prepared.

    • Thank you, Jen! I think I am going to buy the NatGeo camera bag as a gift to me – and then I’m going to buy a new camera lens to put in the bag LOL….nobody else is going to buy it for me so I may as well treat myself!

  2. Kay says:

    Loved this interview! I loved that her personality really shown through! I love big cats as well!

    • Kay – thank you! I love Margarita’s informative answers to the questions, and she has mad photography skills! The photos make me want to book a big cat tour right NOW!

  3. Jo Harmon says:

    What a great interview. Her pictures are just gorgeous

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