I discovered Oasis Variconi one winter Saturday, late in the day. I’d been writing up walks in the morning and the rest of the family wanted to get outside. I’d also been mulling how I could offer speciality walks for people interested in wildlife. My husband teased me saying I didn’t know many people in Italy, never mind experts in these subjects – but that he would be the first on a ‘fun-gi’ mushroom walk! Great.
There wasn’t time for a long hike so I scanned the map and saw this green area about 15 mins from our home, right at the mouth of the Volturno River. We headed up there and came to a dead-end surrounded by huge bags of rubbish and what looked like swampland. A group of men were standing around a beat up car, shouting at a stray dog which was covered in blisters. My heart broke. It didn’t bode well. As usual, the men stared at us intently – we are such obvious strangers. It was cold, windy and a little eerie but there were clear signs for the Oasis so we set off through big green gates.
Three whiskered fishermen were up ahead, arms stuffed with nets and buckets, laughing raucously. A large flock of birds circled above us while a herd of buffalo grazed in the reeds beside the track. We hastily moved to the side as a man clattered past on a beautiful grey horse. When we came to a fork in the way, we saw a large bird hut in the middle of a lake. It was fenced off. Curious, I climbed over a chain and walked down to a long wooden tunnel on stilts above the marsh. There was a mountain bike propped to one side. In truth, I was scared; it’s an isolated place in a run-down area. But instead of finding at best rubbish or at worst (given my healthy imagination) a crime scene, I was welcomed with surprise and amusement by Dr Alessio Usai and his team of volunteers. They’d been up since 3am, tagging birds.
Oasis Variconi is one of the most important fresh-water stopping places for migratory birds coming from Africa to Europe. Time it right and you’ll be able to see everything from swifts and swallows to owls, many types of ducks and rare sea birds. In September the horizon turns pink as the lake fills with flamingos. It also turns out that Alessio is also in charge of the Foce Volturno-Costa Licola-Lago Falciano Nature Reserve – three sites which cover 16,000 ha in western Campania.
I had so many questions I wanted to ask – about the Oasis, the birds, the environmental efforts and the real stories about this region.* After 12 hours of work the team was happy to sit and chat and a PhD student, Laura Alessio, translated. Unwittingly I’d come across a group of experts in all the subjects I’d been thinking about that morning and they were passionate about changing the status quo.
The local populus, too busy trying to get by, does not care about Variconi Oasis. It is often abused and things like illegal dumping, fires, prostitution and killing wild birds are not uncommon. I told them I’d been to another site in the reserve, Lago Falciano, that I’d seen herons and fish jumping and how beautiful it could be, but that it wasn’t – there was rubbish everywhere. I said I couldn’t understand why Lago Patria (a lake 10kms down the coast and also part of the Costa Licola reserve) wasn’t a sporting site with a walk and leisure activities. I asked why.
Alessio only has one staff member. Sometimes they are not even paid and there is almost no money to improve the reserves. They rely on volunteers for every tiny step in the right direction. He has decided that because of the birds, Variconi is the most important oasis and the team needs to work there first. After that he will try and fix the rest of the land under his care. The mood changed and the group talked of corruption and fear, of the immense task they have, of needing to change the thinking of a generation. And then a tiny bird flew in through the window and the room erupted in a comedy flurry of activity as we all tried to catch it or shoo it out. They collapsed in giggles and we laughed at the irony that they’d come to catch birds and now they had a visitor they couldn’t catch even the smallest!
I had been so long that by now my husband and kids, who had been playing on the beach, came to find me. I vowed to keep in touch with the volunteers and wrote down their details. One lady who’d been particularly helpful came over to spell out her name, “Immacolata Catalano”. I looked up and asked what she did or studied, and she said, “I am an expert on mushrooms and lichens”. I looked at my husband. An expert in mushrooms you say? Serendipity indeed.
We carried on exploring the reserve and though there is a nice loop, the track and the beach are covered with driftwood and rubbish that’s been washed in. The fishermen were undeterred, however and we caught up with them standing at the river mouth using huge nets to catch eels.
* Some context for readers. The Costa Licola reserves and their surroundings are in a long, run-down stretch of coast above Naples, from Pozzuoli in the south to Formia in the North. Money is in short supply and there are numerous social challenges – rubbish, crime and environmental neglect – from years of corruption and poor education about the importance of the natural environment. Exciting stories of the ‘Comorra’ (mafia) abound but for an outsider, it’s difficult to pick truth from fiction. Tiny pockets like the Oasis Variconi survive and while not perfect, they are still are fascinating to see and the bird watching is amazing.