If you are on the Tour du Mont Blanc with Alpenwild this year, you will have the pleasure of meeting Simone van Velzen and exploring the richness of the Alpine environment with her. Simone is an alpine naturalist and free-lance writer. Although she was born in the Netherlands, one of the lowest and flattest countries on Earth, Simone has always been attracted to the mountains. Years of extensive travel have led her to Chamonix, in the heart of the French Alps. Through her nature articles, field trips and presentations, Simone educates the general public about the rich biodiversity of the Alps. Simone’s love of nature is contagious, and when she isn’t teaching or writing, she’s outside; birdwatching, searching for alpine plants or just wandering around exploring the mountains.
With a bachelor’s degree in wildlife management, a masters in agribusiness and years of fieldwork and writing nature articles under her belt – Simone is a fountain of knowledge. A couple of years ago I was preparing for my international mountain leader exam and so I asked Simone to tell me everything she knew about nature. After our first foray into an alpine pasture to look at edible plants, I quickly realised that would take a life time! Walking in the mountains with Simone is to be given a fresh pair of eyes and a new appreciation for the wonders of the natural world. Without Simone’s help, I would have never noticed so much that was always there below my feet.
Today, I’m catching up with Simone again for a stroll in the sunshine to find out more about how she first got inspired to become a naturalist, and why the Alps hold such a special place in her heart. I hope you enjoy our interview.
Do you remember a moment in your life when your passion for nature began?
I’ve been interested in nature all my life. It wasn’t something my parents encouraged, it was just always there since I was really little. When I would bike to school (everyone bikes to school in the Netherlands), I would sometimes be late because I’d seen some ducklings, an injured bird or frog spawn in a pond. When I’d see something like that, I would totally forget that I was on my way to school…
You’re from the Netherlands, which must be one of the flattest countries on Earth. How did you end up living in the mountains?
After I graduated from University, I moved to British Colombia for a few years and have since settled in Chamonix. My love for alpine habitats started in the Rocky Mountains and grew in the Alps.
What attracted you to alpine ecology?
The diversity in flora and fauna in the mountains is incredible. If you travel on flat land it would take you thousands of kilometres to reach a new climatic zone with different species. In the mountains, a small ride on a lift or a steep hike will take you through such zones very quickly.
What is your favourite part of the Alps?
The Mont Blanc range is one the most beautiful places on this planet. I came here six years ago and I’m learning new things every day. There’s so much nature and so many species here, it’s endless. There aren’t many places in the world with such rich biodiversity set against such a spectacular backdrop. Even after six years it still amazes me.
How do you get involved in writing nature articles?
I always wanted to write, and you write about what you love the most. I think wanting to write isn’t a choice, it’s just something I wanted to do. The same for my love for nature, it’s never been a choice, it’s just always been there.
What’s your most memorable wildlife encounter?
Last summer I bought a bivy bag, which allows me to sleep in the mountains outside underneath the stars without a tent. The amount of wildlife I’ve seen just lying in my bivy bag has been simply incredible. One evening in the Aiguilles Rouges, close to the Lacs des Cheserys, was especially rich in wildlife. While a marmot was scurrying around on a rock right next to my bivy bag, one ibex after another walked passed while the Mont Blanc range was turning pink in the Alpenglow. I wasn’t sure where to look! Those are moments you just never forget.
Why do you think it’s so important to educate people about the natural world?
I believe that the more you know about nature, the more you will appreciate how incredible it is, and the more you will love it. If you love something you will be motivated to preserve it. My focus is on teaching people how everything in nature is linked and how every part of it is important to preserve.
What worries you most about the current state of the environment?
Land use, climate change and pollution. They’re an inter-related set of problems which are hard to separate out. Land use is a big concern, I think it’s putting a lot of pressure on our mountain environment. In the Alps, land use is a particularly big pressure because it’s so densely populated and there’s a lot of tourism.
How do you think we can continue to use the Alps for recreation in a sustainable way?
For me it’s all about raising awareness and encouraging more sensitive use of the environment. For example, I think we should create more areas where animals and plants don’t get disturbed. Those areas don’t have to necessary exclude humans, but they need to be educated how to have the smallest impact possible.
Education for me is the motivation of why I do the work I do, I share my love for nature hoping that the more awareness there is for nature the more we will protect it.
How can hikers enjoy their trip to the Alps and reduce their impact?
It’s actually very simple: stay on the path and give animals space if you see one. Don’t leave your trash – even an egg shell or orange peel. Don’t leave toilet paper and don’t pick plants. Pick up trash you see on the trail, keep dogs on a leash and respect quiet zones.
What do you hope to share with Alpenwild guests on the Tour du Mont Blanc?
I want to point out how special every species is, how they are adapted to their environment and how they all work together. When we’re hiking in the Alps, the views are so grand and impressive that it’s easy to walk past the small details. It has taken me years of study to notice these details and I’m learning more all the time.
What’s your perfect Sunday?
A nature stroll Sunday. I enjoy this any time of the year and in a mountain environment there’s always something new and exciting to discover.