Caught by the River

Hill Country Part 1

Mat Bingham | 6th March 2017

Words & pictures: Mat Bingham

We were cruising along Interstate 377 south of a small town called Junction. Before us was a scene of carnage, a group of vultures were feeding on a wild boar (or hog as they are called in Texas). This was the first time I had seen wild vultures since arriving in America. The wild boar looked like it had been run over recently, the feeding carrion birds, a mixture of turkey and black vultures, didn’t seem concerned by our approaching car. We slowed to a halt and watched the feeding frenzy through the insect splattered windscreen. The glass blemished from the inevitable collisions with butterflies that were surfing the warm breeze in their thousands. As we sat and watched, the bigger vultures were gorging themselves on the carcass whilst the smaller ones looked on, waiting their turn, sat in nearby trees.

Texas is much greener than I expected. I thought it would be a dry arid place with saguaro cactus sprouting out of the sand, their branches thick, like the arms of Texas cowboys. But we were in hill country, the landscape was one of fenced ranches, a terrain of scrub covered rolling hills as far as the eye could see.

Mesquite devil trees (so called because of the long thorns) were everywhere. Grazing amongst the spiny trees were Texas Longhorn cows and deer. An observation, Texans seem obsessed with hunting and breed deer on their ranches for shooting. The local supermarkets sell hides (or blinds) and any other items the weekend hunter might desire. Camouflage underwear, camouflage plasters; even camouflage party plates (in disposable packs of eight) could be bought with the weekly grocery shop. The Real Tree™ products (other camouflage patterns are widely available) were stacked on shelves in amongst the root beer and potato chips. The deer we had encountered were quite approachable, so I couldn’t imagine why all the camouflage gear was necessary. Shooting animals doesn’t seem like sport to me, but then I am not a Texan exercising my right to bear arms under the second amendment. I prefer to do my shooting with a Canon.

We arrived at Lost Maples State Park just before dusk. Off the beaten track, off grid, but known to my friend Simeon who was our guide. As the sun disappeared below the horizon, the ceaseless drone of cicadas increased in volume to the backdrop of the rising Milky Way. We spent the night in tents, full on Texas barbeque pork and beer.

Rising early the following day, we set off on a hike in the half light. The warming sun failed to reach us in the deep canyon until late morning, but by then, we had completed half the circular route around the wonderfully named Mystic Canyon. Dragonflies and damselflies with names like American Ruby Spot basked in the sun vibrating their iridescent wings, trying to generate enough heat in their muscles to take flight. Once airborne, they flew with purpose, protecting their territory or looking for food or a mate.

Climbing up out of the canyon, we paused on the trail to give right of way to a red rump tarantula that was seeking shelter from the midday sun.

When we finally reached the tents, we packed, paid the park fees to an armed ranger (all officials in Texas seem to be armed), and drove south.

The next stop on our journey was a small town called Utopia. The main street had an authentic look about it, with wooden porches and hitching rails for cowboys to tie their horses to. We pulled up alongside a twin rear axle oversized pickup truck outside a café called Lost Maple. The sign on the door read “a hill country paradise”. The walls inside the café were adorned with an eclectic mix of trophy deer heads, black and white photographs of frontiersman, farming tools from an age gone by, old bottles, tin cans and cooking pots. The authentic look of the café’s main eating area contrasted with the sixties dining booths in the wriggly tin extension where we were seated. It was a relief to be out of the afternoon sun. We drank a mixture of warm coffee and ice cold water whilst waiting for our food to be brought over by the polite waitress. The day’s special was chicken dumplings, corn bread and banana puree dessert – all for fifteen bucks! Once our hunger had been satisfied we studied the road map. All we had was one day before it was time to leave for home. We agreed to travel to Colorado Bend National Park to do some more hiking and then visit a ghost town called The Grove.

See more of Mat’s stunning wildlife photography on his website.

Mat Bingham on Caught by the River