Category Archives: Travel

Thailand

Slow loris sits in hands of woman.jpg
“How cute am I…?!”

Bangkok

Ramada Plaza Bangkok Menam Riverside

When I was planning my trip to Bangkok, a friend of mine helpfully told me that I could get a blow job for 800 baht (or £20).

Fortunately, everyone was more interested in the floating markets and the palaces and temples. Gerlinde had only been once before – and that was when she was eight! – so she didn’t book any excursions in advance. Instead, she arranged a trip to the floating markets of Damnoen Saduak and then a sightseeing tour of the city.

Floating markets

The floating market was not quite what I thought it would be. I was expecting the ‘stalls’ to be boats on the water, constantly moving between customers. Instead, it was the other way round. It was up to us to take a boat to visit each of the stalls on the banks of the canals, plus a factory making sugar from coconuts and a Buddhist temple. However, it was very entertaining as Gerlinde pitted her finely tuned negotiating skills against the local shopkeepers, who often resorted to pleading, begging and in one case giving Bernie a massage to close the deal! We could’ve had a 60-minute or 90-minute tour, but it had taken nearly two hours to get there, so we decided to take the two-hour option. After a few delicious free samples at the sugar factory, where Gerlinde bought a couple of photo albums, we moved on to the market. Almost the first stall we came to had a couple of guys offering to sell photo opportunities with a snake and a ‘lemur’. In fact, it was a slow loris, and it was so cute and cuddly that Bernie paid to hold it while everyone else took pictures. It was only later that she found out it was the only deadly, venomous primate in the world…!

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She has no idea how dangerous this is…

The speed boat was fun, and our driver even started rocking the boat deliberately, but the women were there to shop, and that’s just what they did! I was too busy taking pictures to keep track of everything that was bought and for how much, but Gerlinde and Bernie ended up getting a bag of goodies each, including some delicately patterned teacups and saucers and a bag of banana chips.

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“Pleeeeeease…”

On the way back to Bangkok, we stopped at a Buddhist temple, where we fed the fish and took a few pictures, and then we drove to Chang Puak Camp, where Gerlinde and Kevin went on an elephant ride. The publicity photos of elephants with howdahs wading through the river in the jungle looked great, so I asked if I could take pictures.  That turned out to be a mistake because I wasn’t actually allowed to go down to the river with the elephants. Too bad…

Palaces and temples

The following day, Gerlinde booked a driver to take us to the Grand Palace, the Temple of Dawn and the Khao Mo. We started off at the Grand Palace, which is an eclectic collection of buildings put up over hundreds of years and still not complete. The palace was originally commissioned by the King of Siam to lift the spirits of the Siamese population after they’d lost a major war against Burma. It now covers an enormous area and includes dozens of buildings, the most famous of which is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (or Phra Si Rattana), which houses an 80cm carving of the Buddha made out of a single piece of jade.

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Phra Si Rattana Chedi

The Siamese liked their bling, and almost every building was either covered in gold or decorated with gold leaf. The artistic style was the opposite of minimalist, and almost every statue or building was decorated with some kind of motif or abstract pattern.

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Gold, gold and more gold…

The Temple of Dawn (or Wat Arun) was much smaller, although it spanned both sides of the road, and didn’t take us long to visit. The plan was to climb up the steps to the viewing platform at the top of the central tower, but it was closed when we got there. Instead, we quickly moved on to the Khao Mo Prayurawongsawas Temple, which was one of a series of ‘follies’ commissioned by the king to increase the ‘peace and harmony’ of the kingdom. I’m not sure how successful the project was, but it was very quiet with hardly any tourists, so it was nice to be away from the crowds. The temple had a rocky outcrop surrounded by a moat, and we almost had the place to ourselves. Gerlinde’s nickname is ‘turtle’, so it was fun to see all the baby turtles in the water, and there was even a fully grown adult on the path for us to photograph.

Shopping

After our temple tour was over, we had time for a quick dash into town using the river shuttle. I was looking for some new tennis shoes, but we didn’t find any decent shoe shops, so we went back to the hotel and then walked down to the Asiatique Riverfront for that superb meal at Baan Khanitha, where I had the best hot and sour soup I’ve ever tasted and a beef massaman curry. Afterwards, we went up on the big wheel in the rain and then walked back. I was flying home in the morning, so I turned down Kevin’s request to sing a song for everyone in the hotel bar and went to bed.

The following day, it was all a bit subdued at breakfast. The birthday celebrations had come to an end, and it was time to say goodbye. In the lobby, I got a firm handshake from Kevin and a hug (and tears) from Gerlinde. I miss them, but it’s a good thing to be missed myself.

Happy birthday again, Kevin, and I hope I’ll see you one day soon in Brisbane…

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Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City

Palace Hotel Saigon

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“Are you looking at me…?”

The problem I had with Vietnam is that I was constantly reminded of every Vietnam war film I’d ever seen.

It started badly when Bernie and I were almost refused entry to the country, and, once I was there, it was impossible to see a paddy field without imagining the fireball from a napalm strike! I know that Britain wasn’t involved in the war, but our allies were, and I can’t help feeling the ‘wrong’ side won. You might say that Vietnam won her independence from France, which had ruled the country since 1859, but what about the South Vietnamese? How did they feel about being invaded and then forced to live under a Communist régime?

Cu Chi tunnels

We had three battlefield tours while we were in Vietnam: the Cu Chi tunnels, Long Tan and ‘Monkey Island’. The tunnels at Cu Chi were a vital redoubt in the war against the Americans. From 1948-68, over 250km of tunnels were built in the area. The tunnels were generally 1.6m x 0.8m – big enough for ‘tapioca people’ but not ‘KFC people’! Kevin and I went through one of them, and it was scary stuff. It was impossible to stand up straight – I had to ‘duck walk’ with my back bent only inches from the top of the tunnel – and it was completely dark apart from the torch of the guide in front of me. I don’t think I could’ve spent 12 hours in there, let alone 12 months of the year. However, they did have great tactical benefits. The VC built triangular bomb shelters, and the clay soil was very hard, so the American bombs only made 2-3m craters, whereas the tunnels went down as far as 15m below the surface (although still above the water table, so flooding was not much of a problem).

Bomb crater
Deep, but not deep enough…

We heard all about it from an introductory video (made in 1967), which was really just a propaganda exercise. It described the 500,000 tons of ‘merciless American bombs’ that stopped the local people from ‘living peacefully’ and how, ‘like a crazy bunch of devils, they fired into women and children.’ However, despite the constant attacks, ‘the lives of the guerrillas in the circle were wonderful’. Personally, I have my doubts. We tasted some slices of the cassava seasoned with a mixture of salt and ground peanuts that the VC fighters and Thong himself used to eat as their staple food, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience. As Crocodile Dundee might say, “You can live on it, but…!”

Thong’s commentary as we walked around the site made me a little uncomfortable. Communism has accounted for 100 million deaths since Karl Marx first put pen to paper, so it was a bit hard to take when our tour guide Thong gleefully told us about all the ways in which ‘we’ used to kill the Americans. Being shown the barbaric traps used by the Viet Cong was like visiting Auschwitz and hearing a German tour guide saying, “This is what we used to do to the Jews…”

Sticking trap
A Viet Cong trap designed to catch US soldiers

Thong also told us that it was the Americans who tortured the VC and not the other way around: “When the American POWs left, it was like they’d stayed in a hotel.” I’m not sure the late John McCain would have agreed with that. He did stay in a hotel, but it was the ‘Hanoi Hilton’!

All in all, the Vietnam War was a tragedy for both north and south. Over a million North Vietnamese soldiers died in the conflict and a further 250,000 South Vietnamese. Two million civilians from both sides were killed and another two million fled the country after the war was over. However, the population has grown continuously due to the high birth rate and now stands at 93m, even though the birth rate has fallen dramatically. Thong’s parents came from a family of 10, but most women now have only one or two children. The country is still run by the Communist leadership, but at least they chose to open up the economy in 1986. Since 1990, there have been many factories built with aid of foreign direct investment, and the GDP growth rate is an impressive 6% p.a., even though GDP per capita is still only around $2,500. The war may be over, but Vietnam still spends a large amount on defence. They have a large standing army to defend against the Chinese – they’ve never been friends with them in over 2,000 years! – and they have more soldiers under arms than the United Kingdom. Everything might change one day, just as it did in Eastern Europe, but I can’t see it happening any time soon.

Long Tan

The second site we visited was Long Tan, which included a trip to the old Australian base at Nui Dat. Australia took part in the Vietnam War and sent advisers and then troops from 1966-71 when conscription was abolished. Australian forces fought five major battles, including Long Tan, and lost 521 men. The battle of Long Tan was due to the presence of the Australian base at Nui Dat, which was deliberately sited to protect Saigon from the five NVA and Viet Cong units in the surrounding area. On 18 August 1966, the North Vietnamese tried to draw out the Australians from their stronghold of 3,000 men by aiming mortar fire at the base. When the Australian commander sent out a small patrol, the guerrillas didn’t attack, hoping to lure a larger force into their trap, and the Australians duly obliged, sending out three units totalling 108 men (including one New Zealander). The force was not strong enough to weaken the defences of Nui Dat itself, but the Vietnamese forces decided to attack. In the ensuing battle, conducted in a heavy monsoon that prevented effective air support, the Australians were surrounded, outnumbered and close to running out of ammunition. However, in a Rorke’s Drift-style defence, the three patrols managed to fight off the enemy with the aid of an artillery bombardment from Nui Dat before returning safely to base. Overall 18 Australian soldiers died in the battle of Long Tan, compared to an estimated 245 Vietnamese. In a thoughtful touch, our guide gave us red roses to lay at the memorial for all those who died. Among the dead was a 19-year-old from Toowoomba where Kathy and Alan live. We were all pretty quiet on the ride home after that.

War memorialLong Tan war memorial with red roses

‘Monkey Island’

The final Vietnam War reminder came on our trip to The Sac Forest Base at Can Gio, otherwise known as ‘Monkey Island’. In fact, we were really there for the monkeys rather than the propaganda video or the odd diorama that had been put up with mannequins showing what the VC must have looked like in those days. There were hundreds of long-tailed macaques and a northern pig-tailed macaque on the path from the car park, and we were warned to look after our valuables as the monkeys could be quite cheeky in attacking unwary tourists. Gerlinde actually ended up with a scratch on her forehead when a monkey attacked her and stole her (very expensive) glasses, but one of the staff miraculously managed to find them for her. For my purposes, it was great to get back to a bit of wildlife photography, and Kevin and the others took a few pictures, too.

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“We’re so huuunnnnngggrryyy…”

Thong at least managed to make up for his rather one-eyed commentary by revealing his fruit-based rating system for women’s breasts, which apparently ranged in size from snails through lychees to limes to oranges to pomelos to melons!

I also had an amusing ‘lost in translation’ moment at the hotel when I couldn’t tell the difference between the tubes of shampoo and shower gel and decided to ring reception.

“Which one is the shower gel and which is the shampoo?”
“The blue is the shampoo.”
“There isn’t a blue one. You mean the green one?”
“Yes, the grey one is the shampoo.”
“There isn’t a grey one. You mean the green one?”
“Yes, the green one is the shower gel.”

Finally, the one thing Vietnam definitely does have going for it is cheap dental care. I had my teeth cleaned for $20 at a clinic in Ho Chi Minh City and then whitened on a later visit. It only took a couple of hours, and would only have cost me $160 – until Kevin paid the bill on my behalf as a thank you for making the trip. Very generous of him.

To be continued here

Cambodia

NAMmm, that tasted good…

Every guy has a favourite hooker. Mine is a 20-stone Australian ex-rugby league player called Kevin!

It all started when I went to my local pub for a Liverpool game in 2008. While I was watching the match, an Australian guy came over and said hello. We ended up drinking nine pints together and becoming friends. He was living in Wimbledon with his fiancée Gerlinde, and we got to know each other via a few rounds of golf and the odd pub quiz. Sadly, they went back to Brisbane a couple of years later, but we kept in touch on social media, and this year they invited me to travel round south-east Asia with them to celebrate Kevin’s 50th birthday.

There were six of us on the trip, including Kevin (or ‘Beachy’), Gerlinde (or ‘Turtle’), a couple called Kathy and Allan and a woman called Bernadette (or Bernie – or just ‘love’).

People collageKevin (centre), Gerlinde (top left), Bernie (top right), Kathy (bottom left) and Allan (bottom right)

Gerlinde arranged all the flights, accommodation and activities, so all we had to do was confirm everything she suggested! We met up in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and spent a few days there before flying to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, then Ho Chi Minh City for a few Vietnam battlefield tours and finally Bangkok for the temples and floating markets. Kathy and Allan flew back to Australia before the Bangkok leg of the trip.



Itinerary

16-17 August: Fly to Phnom Penh

18 August: Visit firing range

19 August: Visit S-21 prison, Killing Fields, Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda

20 August: Go shopping and fly to Siem Reap

21 August: Visit Angkor Wat

22 August: Attend Kevin’s 50th birthday party by the pool

23 August: Visit Angkor Wat

24 August: Take balloon ride, fly to Ho Chi Minh City and go shopping

25 August: Go to dentist for teeth cleaning, take tour of Cu Chi tunnels

26 August: Take battlefield tour of Long Tan

27 August: Go to dentist for teeth whitening, visit Can Gio ‘Monkey Island’

28 August: Fly to Bangkok

29 August: Visit Damnoen Saduak floating markets

30 August: Visit Bangkok Grand Palace and two temples and go shopping

31 August: Fly to London


It was great to see Kevin and Gerlinde again after so long, and I got on well with their other friends, too. I’d never been to any of the places we visited, so it was a good chance for me to ‘do’ south-east Asia for the first time, and there was a daily supply of beer and banter to keep our spirits up! We generally spent most of our time together as a group, but the women didn’t visit the temples, and there were a few shopping trips and one balloon ride when we split into smaller groups. Whatever time I had to myself I spent working on my photos. I’m supposed to be a wildlife photographer, so this was all a bit different from my usual trips, but I got a lot of decent shots of temples, palaces, the macaques at Can Gio and the floating markets.

We stayed in fairly nice hotels, but they were still pretty cheap. For breakfast, there was usually a buffet with a selection of Asian and international cuisines. I usually just had fruit and juice, but I did have dragon fruit in Cambodia and fried anchovies and spring rolls in Vietnam,  In Siem Reap, I tried ‘banyan pod’ juice for the first time, and I asked for it again the following morning – only to find out I’d been drinking ‘pineapple’ juice all along! The weather was hot (and occasionally very wet!), so I didn’t feel hungry most of the time. Our schedule meant we didn’t always have lunch and dinner at the ‘proper’ time, but, when we did go out to local restaurants, they were mostly pretty good. I’m not terribly adventurous when it comes to Asian food, so I ate a LOT of spring rolls, but the meal we had at Baan Khanitha on our last night in Bangkok was probably the best Asian food I’ve ever tasted, and the staff were always friendly and helpful. Gerlinde arranged the transport, and we were generally picked up from our hotel in a minibus or an SUV (after Allan and Kathy had gone home). We also took a few taxis and tuk-tuks here and there, but the cost was always minimal. Everyone was very quick to settle the bill for our meals and tours, so it was quite hard for me to ‘pull my weight’ – especially after my dollars ran out and I could only pay by card! They were a very generous group of people, and it didn’t hurt that the beer was so cheap. It was only 50 cents a can in some places in Cambodia, and that suited us all down to the ground – especially Kevin!

Phnom Penh

Le Grand Palais Boutique Hotel

Firing range

Things didn’t get off to a great start when Kathy had her wallet stolen by a thief on a moped, but we tried our best to put that behind us when we went to a local firing range near Phnom Penh. Kevin had been pestering Gerlinde for over a year to fire a bazooka, and he finally got his wish.

He actually missed the target so decided to try again with an RPG – and missed again! Oh, well…!

I fired a whole clip with an AK-47 on full auto, and Bernie had a go with something called a Bullpup, which was another automatic weapon. We did wear ear defenders, but otherwise there was a glorious lack of all the health and safety nonsense that you’d get in either Britain or Australia – there was even a cooler full of beer to make sure we didn’t get too thirsty!

S-21

The next day, we visited S-21, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (one of ‘the killing fields’) and the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng, or S-21, was a prison and interrogation centre for the Khmer Rouge régime under Pol Pot, which killed 3.3m people from 1975-79. The prison got its name from the fact that it was number 21 out of 178 different prisons built to interrogate political prisoners in order to find CIA or KGB spies. The Chinese supported the Khmer Rouge, but they only provided them with guns rather than bullets, so, to save money, the guards starved the prisoners and killed them by hitting them on the back of the neck with a bamboo cane. Serious stuff. Our guide was a Mr Dara, and he was able to talk from personal experience as he’d lost his father and been separated from his mother due to the poverty brought on by Communist rule. When he was forced to live with his grandmother as she was the only one with enough food to feed him, he cried for three days. He was only reunited with his mother about 10 years later, and he didn’t even know it was her until she showed him a photo of the two of them together. Mr Dara himself was a victim of the Communist purge of academics and intellectuals. In 1990, he was arrested for being able to speak English and was fined according to his weight. Fortunately, he was able to bribe his way to freedom, but it was obvious from the way he choked up at certain points that these events were very real to him. It’s not often you get to experience ‘living history’, but the horrors of the Pol Pot régime are recent enough to be able to hear eyewitness testimony from the survivors. In fact, Kevin had his picture taken with with one of them. Chum Mey was imprisoned in S-21 and only avoided execution as he could fix a typewriter. In 1979, when the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia, he was put on a forced march away from the camp. The soldiers shot his wife, but he was luckily able to escape while they reloaded. And now he turns up for work every day at the very camp where he was tortured and almost killed. Extraordinary. At the end of the tour, we saw a display case showing the fate of a few of those responsible for the killings. Pol Pot himself was never brought to justice and died of natural causes. A number of his henchman were also never prosecuted, and some are even now still in government positions. Some leaders were sentenced to execution, but they had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment on human rights grounds, and one of the prisoners even brought a court case to complain about the heat in his cell – and was awarded an $80,000 air con unit by the judge!

S-21Detention block at S-21

The Killing Fields

The mood didn’t lighten when we were taken to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. Prisoners from S-21 were taken to the ‘killing fields’ for burial as there was no more space in the cities. Altogether, there were 388 killing sites, and the one we went to used to be a Chinese cemetery. There used to be a three-man team responsible for the executions. One had a bamboo cane, one had a knife and one a gun. If the prisoners were very weak, they’d be beaten to death using the cane. If they survived that, they’d have their throats cut. Prisoners thought likely to survive a beating were simply shot with the AK-47. All the while, music was played over the loudspeakers to mask the sound of the beatings, so the local residents had no idea what was going on. There were some chilling sights at Choeung Ek. At the entrance to the burial grounds, we were shown a tray of teeth belonging to the victims, and we saw their clothes and bones still lying on the ground. There was even a complete skeleton with a bullet visible in the rib cage. Among the monuments was a memorial to the dead that housed hundreds of skulls. What an appalling episode in Cambodian history…

Royal Palace

Fortunately, the next activity planned for that day was a visit to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. On the way there, Mr Dara gave us a few insights into Cambodian society, including what you can and can’t do on the street: “In your country, you can kiss but not piss. In this country, you can piss but not kiss!” There are 4,500 monasteries and 2,000 temples in the country, and he told us about what it took to become a Buddhist monk. Men can join the order as young as six years old, but they have to say no to perfume, porn and underwear! Petrol is less than a dollar a litre, but it’s hard to find good coffee because every kilo of beans is mixed with two, three or four kilos of burnt corn! Finally, Mr Dara told us about weddings, which are hedged about with a thicket of obligations. Half of Cambodian marriages are arranged, and the bride and groom generally go to a fortune teller to choose an auspicious date for the wedding. The reception is paid for by the guests, who write down their donations in a book. They must then invite the bride and groom to their own weddings, where similar donations are obligatory!

Once we got to the Royal Palace, Mr Dara gave us a guided tour, and we had a chance to admire the beautiful architecture and forget the horrors of the morning.

NAPraying Buddha on gate at Royal Palace

Shopping

The next morning, we all went shopping at the Central Market. The ladies enjoyed all their shopping trips, and this time Bernie came back with a fake Rolex for $40, a D&G belt and five pairs of sunglasses for $20! Gerlinde also bought bangles and earrings, and Kathy bought a ring. Everything is so cheap in Cambodia that going there is a bit like becoming a millionaire overnight. There is probably no other country in the world where money is just not an issue. You can simply buy whatever you want – and still often get change from a $10 bill! Having said that, if prices were expressed in cans of beer rather than the local currency, it would be the most expensive country in the world…

 

Siem Reap

Popular Residence Hotel

 

Angkor Wat

In the afternoon, we took a domestic flight to Siem Reap (pronounced ‘see-em ree-up’) in order to see the temples at Angkor Wat. It was 27°C when we landed at around nine in the evening! Kevin and Gerlinde had taken a group tour there the year before, but Kevin was happy to go back to the temples with Allan and me while the ladies shopped and had a massage. There’s a choice of two tours around Angkor Wat, the ‘small’ one and the ‘big’ one. We went on the shorter one and paid $62 for a three-day pass that was valid for a total of 10 days. We saw Angkor Wat, Bayon, Baphuon and Ta Prohm, the temple that inspired the Tomb Raider video game and film franchise, and we missed out another one in the interests of time.

NATa Prohm, the inspiration behind Tomb Raider

I have to say I was a little disappointed with my first sight of Angkor Wat. I’d read somewhere that the other temples were a better bet if I wanted to take pictures – and that was certainly true – but I was a bit put off by the thousands of tourists milling around, and Angkor Wat itself wasn’t in great shape. Some of the carvings were very intricate and impressive, but the whole complex had been abandoned, forgotten about, overtaken by the jungle and allowed to go to rack and ruin before modern efforts to make it all a bit more ‘tourist-friendly’. This was more Stonehenge than Canterbury Cathedral – even though the temples were built at around the same time (from the 11th to the 16th centuries).

Pool party

The following day – the 22nd August – was Kevin’s actual birthday, so we all went down to the pool at the Popular Residence hotel to enjoy a 12-hour long birthday party that Gerlinde had organised in conjunction with half a dozen very enthusiastic staff, who helped to blow up balloons and put up a banner saying ‘Happy birthday, Kevin!’ As it was his 50th, the idea was that it was a chance for him to ‘raise his bat’ in celebration as if he were a cricketer, so we all dressed up in whites and put zinc cream on our faces. Not my finest hour…!

Nick Dale with zinc creamAs you’ve never seen me before…

There was party food, three cocktails to choose from, presents, a birthday cake, a rudimentary dance floor – and we even had a CD of Billy Birmingham doing his Richie Benaud impressions on the sound system! Bernie fell in the pool at one point, and, after a few speeches, the presentation of a miniature cricket bat signed by us all (and lots and lots and LOTS of drinking!), we finally retired at around 11 o’clock. Kevin never says no to a beer, so I think he had a pretty good day!

Kevin with cakeKevin with his birthday cake

Angkor Wat (again)

I made my next trip to the temples the following day on my own. I took the long tour and saw the following sites:

  • Srah Srang
  • Banteay Kdei
  • Pre Rup
  • East Mebon
  • Ta Som
  • Neak Pean·
  • Preah Khan

NABanteay Kdei

Banteay Kdei was my favourite – especially seen from the rear and framed by the trees – but walking around was often like visiting Harrods on Christmas Eve. Most of the tourists were dawdling slowly and constantly stopping to take pictures, and it required the patience of a saint to wait until the coast was clear to get the shots I wanted. I had an even more annoying problem when the shutter release of my Nikon D810 stopped working, which meant that I had to take the battery out for a good minute before I could take another picture! Fortunately, I only really needed my 24-70mm lens and not my 80-400mm, so I was able to switch lenses on my camera bodies and stick to the D850 from then on. Phew!

My final ‘visit’ to Angkor wat was a balloon ride I took with Bernie the next day. I wanted to book the ‘sunrise flight’, but it was full, and, in the end, it didn’t really matter as it was too cloudy to see the sun come up. Unfortunately, our aerial views were spoilt by a great green tarpaulin covering some scaffolding on one wing of the temple. I hadn’t noticed it when I’d visited in person, so it needed a little bit of creative editing in Lightroom to make the problem go away!

NAAngkor Wat from our balloon

Shopping

After that, Bernie and I met up with the others in Siem Reap. We had a late lunch, and then Gerlinde and Bernie helped me find a few sports shirts at the market. Gerlinde had proven herself the best negotiator out of all of us, so she took the lead once I’d found the Under Armour shirts I was looking for. She ruthlessly beat them down on price (with a late intervention from Bernie), and I eventually paid $20 for four XXXXL shirts in light grey, dark grey, blue and ‘Viet Cong’ green.  The Cambodians are a very small people, so I had to try everything on for size, but I still couldn’t believe I needed XXXXL – I hadn’t worn anything XXXXL since I bought my last box of condoms!

After our successful shopping trip, I agreed to have a massage with Gerlinde and Bernie – and I wish I hadn’t! They gave me a male masseur, and it was one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I couldn’t believe it, but there wasn’t much I could do short of walking out the door. Not good. That was the closest I came to losing my sense of humour on the entire trip, and it put me in a very bad mood for the rest of the day.

Anyway, that was our visit to Cambodia. For tales of the rest of the trip, from Saigon to Bangkok, just read the next couple of posts.

 

To be continued here

The ones that got away

I get nervous before I go on photography trips. Part of that is just worrying about travel arrangements, visas and packing everything I need, but another part of it is worrying that I won’t get the shots I want. Here are a few examples of ‘the ones that got away’.

Taj Mahal

Before I went to the Taj Mahal, I was determined to get the classic ‘Lady Diana’ shot of the building from the end of the reflecting pools. That was the whole point of the trip, and I was really worried about it. I couldn’t face the idea of screwing up what would probably be my only opportunity to visit the world’s most famous building.

When I arrived in India on a G Adventures trip in November 2013, we went to the Taj Mahal early one morning, around 0530. We had to queue for a while and then go through security. At that point, I was about to rush off and take the shot I’d been dreaming about, but our tour leader then introduced us all to a local guide who was about to give us a 15-minute lecture about the building. What a nightmare! I knew that the whole place would be crawling with tourists if I didn’t go and take the shot immediately, but it seemed a bit rude just to rush off without hearing the talk. In the end, I was too British about the whole thing and missed the shot of a lifetime. Too bad. On the plus side, I ended up with this image of the Taj Mahal.
Taj Mahal from Agra Fort in blue haze
‘There once lived an exotic princess in a fairy tale castle…’

It’s the very opposite of the ‘Lady Diana’ shot. One is all symmetry and clarity, the other is misty and mysterious. The higgledy-piggledy minarets and the blue haze make the building seem more like a fairy tale castle. I do like this shot, but I still regret being too polite to get the one I wanted…!

Jumping impala

The one that got awayNot quite sharp enough…

This would’ve been a great shot. It could’ve been a great shot. It should’ve been a great shot. But it wasn’t. Why? Motion blur. If you look closely, you can see that the whole body is slightly out of focus, and that was simply because I didn’t think to change my shutter speed. I was parked in a jeep in Botswana when a herd of impala came chasing across the road. They were galloping fast, but there were five or six of them, so I did have time to focus on each of them, one by one, as they crossed the road in turn. Unfortunately, I was using my default camera settings that were designed to capture animals that were standing still. I was using an 80-400mm lens, so I had my camera on 1/320 and f/8 with auto ISO. That would normally have worked, but not for a jumping impala! What I really needed was a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. I just didn’t think…

Caracal

Caracal
This is what it looks like on Wikipedia.

A few years ago, I went to a talk given by Paul Goldstein somewhere in London, and one of the slides he showed was a picture of a caracal. I’d never seen one at the time, but Paul was very proud of his shot, which showed a caracal from the side running through long grass. The image stayed in my mind, and I was very excited when I went to Tanzania in January 2018 and actually saw one for myself! It was quite a way away, but I had my 800mm lens with me, and I was just about to take a shot when the driver told me to wait. He was going to drive around and get closer. Well, funnily enough, the caracal disappeared, and I never got the shot I wanted…

Polar bear

Polar bear crossing ice floe in ArcticThe best of a bad bunch

In June 2014, I went on an Exodus trip with Paul Goldstein to Spitsbergen to see the polar bear. It was a last-minute booking, so I got a good deal on the price, and I was lucky enough to share a cabin with a nice French chap called Eric, but the real prize was getting some good shots of a polar bear. We had 13 or so sightings, but, sadly, they were all too far away for my 500mm lens. That was in the days before I got into the habit of renting the Nikon 800mm monster, and I really wish I’d had it then. Amongst other sightings, a mother and her two cubs put on a great show for us on the ice, but, when I got back to my cabin to review my shots, I found they were all too soft and too distant. Ah, well, at least I have an excuse to go again now…

The kill

I’ve been to Africa several times now, visiting Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia and Botswana, but I’ve never seen a kill. I’ve seen the chase, and I’ve seen the predator eating its prey, but I’ve never seen the crucial moment of the kill. Now, I know some people would be a little squeamish about seeing one animal kill another, but I don’t think I’d feel that way. To me, it’s the ultimate expression of ‘the survival of the fittest’, and I’d love to see a lion, leopard or cheetah kill something on the great plains of Africa.

I have many stories of ‘the one that got away’. There was the time when I climbed Mount Kenya and arrived back at the camp, only to find that everyone that morning had spent an hour watching a pride of lions kill a wildebeest 50 yards away from the gate of the national park! Or there was the time on the same trip when I booked the wrong flight home and had the chance to spend an extra day on my very own personal game drive. We saw a cheetah ‘timing’ (or hunting) an impala, and it was the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me in Africa – but no kill. In Antarctica, I watched from a Zodiac as a leopard seal ripped apart a penguin, but I didn’t quite see the initial attack. In the Brazilian Pantanal, I was watching a jaguar on the river bank from a small boat when the call came over the radio that lunch was ready. No sooner had we met up with the other boat than we had another call, this time to say that the very same jaguar had just killed a caiman! We rushed back and watched as the young jaguar made a mess of the whole thing. To begin with, he had hold of his prey by the throat rather than the back of the neck. This is fine if you’re a lion, but jaguars prefer to kill caiman (or small crocodiles) by nipping them on the back of the neck. This jaguar was in a bit of a bind: he didn’t want to kill the caiman the ‘wrong’ way, but he couldn’t change his grip in case it got away. He spent 10 minutes humming and hawing before finally killing the caiman, but that was only the start of his problems. His next job was to find a safe place to store his prey, but the banks of the river were 8-10ft high and very steep, so he spent another 25 minutes trying to find a way up into the undergrowth, desperately trying to drag the 10ft crocodile with him. By this stage, around 20 boats had gathered to see the jaguar, and, when he eventually managed to scramble up the bank with his kill, everybody gave him a big round of applause!

NAI’d rather have seen the kill than stopped for lunch! 

Conclusion

All this goes to show exactly how close I’ve come to the elusive kill, but no luck so far. However, I’m off to the Masai Mara in a couple of weeks, so maybe, just maybe I’ll be able to bring back the shot I’ve been dying to get…

Don’t poke the bear!

Twenty years ago, I was staying with my best friend Mark in Golders Green and found myself chatting with his mother. She was in her seventies, but I politely asked if she’d been anywhere nice recently. “Yes,” she said, “I’ve just come back from watching the bears catching salmon in Alaska.” That’ll teach me…!

Ever since that conversation, I’ve wanted to visit Alaska, and last week I finally made it. Now, Alaska is not an easy place to get to. It’s a long way away, and the best spot to see the salmon is at Brooks Falls, which can only be reached by floatplane! The only places to stay are a campsite and Brooks Lodge, both of which get booked up a year in advance. It’s also not cheap. The first time I tried to book a trip was a couple of years ago, but I just couldn’t afford it. This time, I was temporarily flush from remortgaging my flat in Notting Hill, so I thought, “It’s now or never…”

There are no package deals available to visit Brooks Falls, so I ended up just Googling tour operators and picking one pretty much at random. I set a lady from Audley Travel the task of finding out the best time to go and making all the necessary arrangements, including flights and accommodation. The email history was very long and lasted over two years, but she managed it in the end. When she finally sent me my joining instructions, they came in a binder two inches thick!

Packing for a trip like this is tricky. My first priority was taking pictures, so I had to take my camera bag, but that didn’t leave me much room for anything else. I thought about taking a rucksack as well, but I’d been told that there wasn’t much room on the floatplanes, and the idea of having to wait around baggage reclaim at four different airports was too much for me! I decided to take my camera bag and put everything else in my waterproof jacket. Now, this is no ordinary waterproof jacket. It’s a Callaway golf jacket that has one enormous inside pocket that stretches right the way around the back, so it was more than big enough to carry a couple of changes of clothes, my wash bag and my all-important binder!

I flew out on Friday 24 July from Heathrow, and my full itinerary took me from there to Seattle, then to Anchorage, then to King Salmon and finally to Brooks Camp. Door-to-door, it took me 37 hours! That’s the longest journey I’ve ever made – or at least it was until the flight home, which lasted a monstrous 43 hours after I got bumped to the next flight. At least the airline gave me a voucher for $600 and upgraded me to first class on the flight to Seattle. You meet the nicest people in first class, and I had a very good conversation with the director of Minnesota Zoo, but that’s another story…

The first thing I had to do when I arrived at the Brooks Camp was to go to ‘bear school’, which meant listening to a briefing by one of the park rangers and watching a short video covering pretty much the same ground. The main points were as follows:

  • Stay 50 yards away from any bear.
  • Don’t carry food or drink on the trails.
  • Make lots of noise while walking to let the bears know you’re there.
  • If you meet a bear, stand still and then back away slowly – don’t run!

I generally stuck to the rules, but the bears were everywhere, and I finally came face-to-face with one when I stayed at Brooks Lodge on my final night. I was just about to turn the corner to dump my bag in the gear store when I saw a mother and her cub not ten yards away! I immediately stopped, turned round, went back round the corner and ran for my life. That’s the first time I’ve ever run away from anything, but I’m very glad I did!

After the briefing, I was given a brass ‘bear pin’, which meant that I had been through ‘bear school’ and was now officially allowed to see the bears. It was a 20-minute hike to the falls, so I put everything except my camera bag in the gear store and set off…

There were three viewing platforms from which you could watch the bears. The first was too far downriver to see much, and the second was still a bit too far away to get the classic shot of the bear about to grab a salmon as it jumped up the waterfall. However, the platform at the waterfall itself only held 40 people, and it was so popular that you had to put your name on a waiting list before you were allowed to go there. You could only stay for an hour if it was busy, but you could put your name down again when you came off if you wanted to get back on. One day, the ranger forgot to add me to the list, and I ended up having to wait 2.5 hours in the ‘tree house’ downriver. I explained the mistake to the new ranger and thought she’d given me her permission to go back, but she had misunderstood me, and all I could do was put my name down on the list again. The next time I was called, it was raining so hard I only lasted five minutes, and the time after that it was pouring with rain, too! The following day, I was lucky enough to be allowed to stay on the platform just about all day, and I thought that might have been the rangers’ way of making up for their mistake, but it turned out that there had been a three-hour ‘bear jam’ that prevented anyone from getting to the platform! A bear jam was just a traffic jam caused by a bear. Whenever one came too close to the trail, the rangers stopped people from using it until the bear had moved more than 50 yards away, and they happened fairly regularly.

On the first afternoon, I could only stay for just over an hour, as I was given an early flight back to King Salmon, where I would be staying for the next few days. I wasn’t particularly happy about that, but I did at least get to see over a dozen bears fishing on the falls. The platform was right on the river bank, and most of the bears were no more than 20 or 30 yards away, either at the top of the falls – which lay at right angles to the platform – or waiting in the water below. I had a 150-600mm Tamron lens with me, so that was more than enough to get good close-ups of the animals. In fact, I rarely went beyond 300mm for the bears on the waterfall, so I switched to my Nikon 28-300mm lens for the last few days in order to take advantage of the better quality glass.

Brown bear beside mossy rock below waterfall

Brown bear looking down in shallow rapids

There were two levels on the platform, and it was easy enough to squeeze in at the front. There were no seats (although I’d brought a folding stool just in case), but at least I had my tripod with me, so I didn’t have to carry my camera the whole day. Unfortunately, there weren’t that many salmon jumping, so I had to make the most of every opportunity. Inevitably, I missed a few chances for various reasons, either because I was chatting to the person next to me or I was in the middle of changing my camera settings or I was trying to shoot something else. There was always something to photograph, particularly on the first day, when everything was fresh and exciting, but the biggest attraction was a mother bear and her four cubs who really put on a show for us every time they were there.

Four brown bear cubs in diagonal line

And that was the problem. I took so many pictures of the cubs and the bears in the river that I was beginning to get distracted. I had written out a shot list beforehand, but the only one that really mattered was the iconic image of a bear with its mouth open about to catch a salmon in mid-air on the waterfall. That was the one I wanted, so I stopped taking pictures of absolutely everything and started focusing on getting that one shot. It was an interesting challenge and one that raised quite a few questions:

  • What shutter speed and aperture should I use?
  • Should I use single point or continuous focus?
  • What part of the bear should I focus on?
  • Should I watch through the viewfinder or use the remote release?

The shutter speed is obviously the priority when you want to capture something that happens in the blink of an eye, so I set that to around 1/1600. I initially set the aperture as wide as I could – which was only f/6.3 at 600mm – but I eventually settled on f/8. I wanted the fish to be sharp as well as the bear’s head, and the depth of field was only going to be 20-30cm, so I needed as much as possible! The Tamron isn’t a very ‘fast’ lens, unfortunately, but I’ve learned that I can push the ISO pretty high on my D800 before I start to see too much noise, so I set it to ‘Auto’. That meant it was usually around 800-1000, although it got all the way up to 4500 for some shots!

The focusing was fairly easy, as the bears stood very still when they were at the top of the falls. However, they still turned their heads from side to side every now and then, so I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t have the right focus at the crucial moment. In the end, I used continuous focusing (in 3D mode) and focused as near as I could to the bear’s eye. Sometimes, I switched to manual, but I generally kept the remote in my hand with button half-pressed. That had the twin benefit of keeping the focus lock and also reducing the ‘travel’ and therefore the time it took me to release the shutter. Those fish were jumping pretty quickly, and I eventually realised I had to focus on the bottom of the falls rather than the bear if I was going to be able to react in time to take the shot. I set the shooting mode to ‘Continuous – High’, but I missed having a proper motor drive for the first time – although even that wouldn’t have helped my reaction time!

In the end, it was all worthwhile, as I managed to capture a couple of shots of a bear in the act of grabbing a salmon. I rate all my photographs, and I desperately wanted to come away with a few that merited five stars, so it was a great moment when I finally saw the evidence on the screen of my camera. Here are my favourites:

Bear about to catch salmon in mouth

Bear about to catch salmon on waterfall

Brown bear about to catch a salmon

The other highlights of my trip included seeing a red ptarmigan walking only a few feet in front of me on the trail to the falls first thing in the morning and seeing a proper salmon run. It took a few days, but finally the fish started jumping like crazy. Unfortunately, there were no bears fishing on top of the falls at that stage, but it was still worth it to see the extraordinary number of fish involved. The other thing I was grateful for was the hospitality and friendliness of both staff and guests. I stayed at the King Salmon Lodge and had breakfast and dinner there. One day, I went down to breakfast at 0630 and bumped into a very nice elderly American couple. We had a good chat, and I met them again that evening. They invited me to join them for dinner and ended up paying the bill! It was the same with almost everyone I met. It was very easy to start up a conversation, and I always had a good chat with the driver of the bus on the way to and from the lodge.

The only real low came after two or three days when I began to realise I was there during the wrong week. I’d tried to get figures on the number of salmon jumping, but it was very difficult, and all I was told by the travel company was that any time in July would do. It was only when I spoke to the rangers and saw the evidence with my own eyes that I realised I should have been there one or even two weeks earlier. It was the holiday of a lifetime, so to miss the peak of the salmon run was very frustrating. However, I got the shots I wanted, and it turned out that I could only stay at Brooks Lodge during the final week of July, so I didn’t feel too bad in the end, and there was nothing I could have done about it anyway.

Was it a great holiday? Not quite, but I still enjoyed it, and I came away with four or five pictures I’m very happy with. Yes, I could probably have spent the money on 66 trips to Ibiza, but it wouldn’t have been the same. It just wouldn’t have been the same…

Athens

Teaching Greek children is like watching France play rugby: you never know what you’re going to get…

The Stoa of Attalos marble colonnade and ceiling

Stoa of Attalos: the Athenian version of the local mall

 

I just spent two weeks in Greece preparing a Greek boy and his twin sisters for 10+ and 12+ entrance examinations at a school in England. Highlights included spending a long, sunny weekend at a holiday home in Lagonissi, spending another long, sunny weekend skiing near Delphi – I wonder if the oracle saw that one coming! – and seeing the Parthenon every day from my hotel balcony.

Political refugees take many forms, but, personally, I prefer shipping magnates fleeing with their adorable (if strong-willed) families from Communist governments in the Mediterranean…

Close-up of golden eagle head with catchlight

Close-up of golden eagle head with catchlight

Close-up of golden eagle head with catchlight

I’m a photographer (among other things), and this is the first of a series of posts about my favourite photographs. I’ll tell you how I took them and break down the shot into the idea, the location, the equipment, the settings, the technique and any post-processing.

The idea

When I took this shot, I was at a Battle of Hastings re-enactment at Battle Abbey in Sussex. I was there to take pictures of the battle scenes between enthusiasts dressed up as Normans and Saxons, and I had no idea there was going to be a falconry display until I bought my ticket and was given a flyer with the plan for the day.

The golden eagle is my favourite bird (isn’t it everyone’s?!), so I was very excited to be able to see one in action. The falconers from Raphael Historical Falconry put on a couple of displays with a variety of birds, including a gyrfalcon and a Harris hawk, but the golden eagle was the highlight. Afterwards, I wandered over to their tent, and I was able to get within just a few feet of all the birds. The falconer was happy to chat with the spectators with a bird on his arm (so to speak!), and later he fed and watered the birds outside. That gave me the chance to set up my tripod and get a few good close-ups, and this was the best of the lot.

The location

Battle Abbey, High Street, Hastings and Battle, East Sussex TN33 0AD, United Kingdom, around 1500 on 11 October 2014.

The equipment

  • Nikon D800 DSLR camera
  • Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM lens
  • Manfrotto 190XProB tripod with 496RC2 universal joint head
  • Hähnel HRN 280 remote release.

I was a bit worried about using my ‘Bigma’ to take this picture, as I hadn’t been very impressed with it on my trip to Spitsbergen to see the polar bears. Admittedly, the bears were usually a few hundred yards away, and no zoom lens is at its best when it’s at its longest focal length, but I was disappointed that my shots were so soft. As a result, I did a manual focus check and discovered that the calculated auto-focus fine tune setting was a whopping -12! Armed with this new improvement to the sharpest tool in my box, I was ready for anything…

PS They call it the ‘Bigma’ as it’s made by Sigma, and it’s enormous!

The settings

  • Auto ISO 110
  • f/9
  • 1/250
  • 500mm
  • Daylight white balance
  • Single-point auto-focus

I had the camera on Manual with ISO on Auto, which I thought was appropriate for a day when lots of things would be happening, and I’d be taking candid shots without much opportunity to sit down and check my settings. However, I should probably have set the ISO to its optimum value of 100 for this shot, as I had plenty of time.

The technique

I’m generally a travel and wildlife photographer, but I normally don’t use a tripod as it gets in the way and doesn’t work too well in a Land-Rover moving at 40mph! However, I learnt a new perspective from a professional photographer called Mark Carwardine. He happened to be on a cruise to Spitsbergen that I went on a few months ago, and he was always carrying around his tripod with the legs fully extended – even on the Zodiac inflatables that we used to land on the islands. I thought to myself, If he can do it, so can I! After that, I’ve tried to use a tripod wherever possible. I love really sharp wildlife shots, and a 36.3-megapixel DSLR and a tripod make a winning combination.

Another important thing about wildlife shots is to get down to the level of the animal or bird you’re shooting. You can see from this shot that I’m right at eye-level with the eagle, and that gives the sense of power and intimacy I was looking for.

Finally, I’ve learnt from a couple of portrait shoots the value of the ‘catchlight’. This is the reflection of the light source that you see in the eye of your subject. It’s just as important with wildlife as with people, and I was lucky enough to get a break in the clouds that allowed the sun to provide the perfect catchlight. Lucky me!

Post-processing

I changed from a PC to a Mac a few years ago, so I do all my post-processing in Aperture. I suppose I should upgrade to Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw or Photoshop, but iPhoto was the default image-processing software on the Mac, and Aperture was the cheapest upgrade!

I only had two changes to make to this shot:

  1. Even at 500mm, I still wasn’t quite close enough for the bird’s head to fill the frame, so I had to crop in later. I’ve found from experience that 6.3 megapixels is the minimum size that the major online photo libraries accept, so I never go below 6.4 MP (to avoid rounding errors), and that’s the new size of this file.
  2. In the end, the automatic ISO setting was close enough to the optimum of 100, but the shot was slightly overexposed due to the dark colours of the eagle’s feathers and the grassy background, so I had to reduce the exposure by 0.5EV.

Cold Turkey

Working hard as usual...

Working hard as usual…

Pool, beach or hammock? Hammock, beach or pool? Hmm…

That was the decision that faced me every day during my teaching assignment in Turkey. I was staying at Club Isil in Torba, near Bodrum, for six weeks to teach three Kazakh brothers and their cousin. They were seven, seven, 11 and 14 years old, and I was there to teach each of them English or Maths for an hour a day. I only worked a maximum of five days a week, and the cousin was only there for a month, so I had plenty of time to do my own thing. Sometimes that can be a bit difficult on a residential assignment, as you don’t know anyone apart from your clients, and there’s no guarantee of where you’ll be staying or what facilities or transport will be available. Fortunately, my Kazakh clients put me up at a five-star all-inclusive beach resort called the Isil Club, so I had the choice of pool, beach or hammock every afternoon, plus the use of wi-fi throughout the grounds and the opportunity to participate in a host of sporting activities, including tennis, volleyball and Flyboarding.

Stairway to heaven

Stairway to heaven

Every weekday morning, I would have breakfast from the buffet on the terrace and walk to the front of the hotel, where I’d get picked up at 0845 by a chap in a golf cart and dropped off at my clients’ pair of luxury houses in the grounds of the next door Vogue Hotel. The first time I walked down the steps to the villas, I thought I’d walked on to the set of Beverly Hills 90210. Each villa had an infinity pool on the terrace, with a view looking out over a sweeping sunlit Mediterranean bay dotted with the odd luxury schooner or motor yacht. Inside, the houses were both chock full of marble and gold leaf, and there was a constant stream of staff to keep the place looking immaculate and look after our every need. I’d teach for three or four hours and then hitch a lift back to my hotel with one of the staff or even one of the boys. It’s not often I get driven home by an 11-year-old pupil, but that’s what happens when he’s given a Renault Twizy for his birthday…!

I got along pretty well with the boys, although they were rather reluctant students, and their mothers generally left me to my own devices. I’m told that’s fairly typical of clients from the old Soviet Union, but it’s just a bit disconcerting when nobody comes to pick you up and you think you’ve been sacked until you get a belated text to say it’s just someone’s birthday!

I quickly settled into a routine of teaching in the morning and then reading the paper online, sunbathing and watching sport and movies on my laptop for the rest of the day. My main problem was trying to do too many things at once. It would’ve been nice to be able to sunbathe with my laptop out on the terrace or alongside the various incarnations of Bambi and Thumper on the dock, but it was too hot and bright. It was two weeks before I saw my first cloud, so I didn’t even have the excuse of bad weather to stay indoors. Everywhere I go these days, it always seems to be 35° – either in Centigrade or Fahrenheit!

The Isil Club wasn’t quite so luxurious as the Vogue – where I was greeted by a couple of beautiful girls and offered a free cocktail when I arrived from the airport – but it still offered everything I could possibly want. I had to switch rooms initially, but that was only because of a glitch in the wi-fi signal, and I ended up in the ideal spot. My front door opened on to the main bar and reception area, but I also had French windows giving access to a grassy lawn at the back (where I found the hammock!), and the restaurant and water sports centre were within easy walking distance. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all available from a buffet out on the terrace, and there was a wide selection of salads, hot dishes, deserts and anything else you might fancy. The hotel was run on an all-inclusive basis, so I never had to pay for anything, and it was very tempting to eat far too much. After a couple of weeks, though, I decided to eat what I actually liked rather than everything in sight!

All you can eat...

All you can eat…

The facilities were fabulously comprehensive, including a huge swimming pool, volleyball and tennis courts, artificial five-a-side pitches, table tennis and pool tables, a sauna and spa and a water sports centre down by the dock equipped with catamarans, Jet Skis, banana boats and Flyboards. (There was even a zoo next door, although it was even smaller than the one in Hong Kong!) I hardly ever go on beach holidays, so it should’ve come as no surprise when I swam two lengths of the pool with my iPhone in my pocket! That put me off swimming for the rest of the trip, and I didn’t even do many of the other activities – even though I used to love sailing when I was a boy. However, I’d always wanted to try Flyboarding, and I booked a lesson in the final week. I was strapped into boots attached to what looks a bit like a snowboard, except with two nozzles for the water jet on the underside. There was also a red hose or pipe hooked up to a Jet Ski, and that was what provided the power. It was pretty difficult to get the hang of it, but I did manage to hover around ten feet off the water a couple of times for a few seconds. I asked Yusuf to take some pictures, but the memory card in my camera stopped working, so I don’t have anything to show for it! Typical…

Fortunately, I did manage to take a few shots myself. I recently took up photography fairly seriously, so I’m always looking for great photo ops, and I was very excited about the idea of getting pictures of the instructors. I ended up getting to know one of the instructors quite well, and he was an expert Flyboarder. The first time I saw him, he was soaring 20 feet into the air then diving into the water, only to shoot up into the air again and dive again. It was spectacular! The only problem was trying to work out when he was due to go out. I asked Yusuf to let me know by text, but he never did, so I ended up camping out on the terrace with my laptop, checking the dock every few minutes to see whether the Flyboard had moved from its usual spot. At least it got me out of the house – and the photos were worth waiting for…

Flyboarder diving in perfect high backlit arc

(This is not me)

Dive! Dive!

Dive! Dive!

I took lots of shots of Yusuf, a couple of the other instructors and a few holidaymakers trying it for the first time. If you want to sell pictures of people online (as I do), you have to get a model release from everybody in the shot, so I did a deal with everyone: you sign the model release, and I’ll give you all the photos for free. Yusuf was particularly chuffed. “Many photographers ask to take my picture,” he told me once, “but it would not be the same as you.”

The other big chance I had to take pictures came when the American singer/songwriter Akon gave a concert at the Vogue Hotel. One of my pupils told me about it, and I went along to check it out. It turned out to be a very professional gig – just like something you’d expect to see in a big outdoor arena – and it was a great chance to take some good close-up shots. The grounds were so big that there was plenty of room, even quite near to the stage, so I was lucky to be there. The good thing about going to a private concert at a five-star hotel is that you don’t find any of the usual drawbacks of live music. You don’t have to queue up to get in, you can get as close as you like, and you don’t even need a ticket!

Akon

Akon

When I wasn’t taking pictures or staring at a laptop screen, I tried to meet a few people in the resort, but it was always difficult. I asked a couple of girls to dance and complimented another couple on their dresses, but it never got me anywhere. Eventually, I gave up and started taking my lunch and dinner plates back to my room rather than eating out on the terrace beside the buffet. However, I did go along to the regular scheduled volleyball and tennis tournaments, and that paid off during the last couple of weeks of my stay, when I met a group of Belgians who were very keen on volleyball. They played every morning and evening and invited me to join them, so I went along and got to know them pretty well. There were Goodness knows how many Belgians and other Francophone tourists in the resort, so I’m glad I could speak French. The social ostracism is the worst part of any residential assignment abroad, so it was good to be able to have a chat with a few people over the age of 14!

All in all, I had a very good trip. The clients were happy, I came back with a proper tan for the first time since I ‘retired’ at 29, and I tried out something I’ve always wanted to do. I also managed to take hundreds of pictures. What could be better? The only disappointment hit me when I got back home to the UK and found that all the sunny beaches and beautiful girls in bikinis had disappeared. My turkey was cold after all…

 

 

Tweets from Turkey

Sunbathing

Sunbathing in Bodrum is like watching French films – you end up thinking breasts aren’t special at all. I need someone to set me straight…

I saw a dolphin playing in the sea and someone having sun cream rubbed in by two beautiful Thai girls. I’m not sure which impressed me more…

When a woman spends 5 mins putting on her bikini top, should you a) ignore her, b) offer your help or c) ask the topless woman next to you?!

The area around the swimming pool here is like a walrus haul-out in the Arctic, except the creatures are 700lbs lighter (in most cases)…

They may not be as glamorous as polar bears in the Arctic, but there’s still a place for French blondes in bikinis called Aurélie…

Food

I’m the least observant person in the world. It’s taken me a week to find the muesli! Now, where’s the champagne and caviare…

One day, I’ll get bored of dining on the terrace while watching the sun set over the Mediterranean, but it won’t be this week…

This hotel is so posh they put soy sauce in a sherry glass. Impractical, but classy.

I’m going to write a book called The All-You-Can-Eat Buffet Diet. It’ll have the same hundred recipes on every page…

For dinner tonight, I was tempted by the ‘turkey chest’ with ‘potetoes’ or ‘fish from the owen’, but I chose pizza instead. Easier to spell…

The French/Belgians

We almost had a Casablanca moment today. When a hundred Germans are singing German drinking songs around the pool, it can only end badly.

It’s a sad day when a pretty French girl in a bikini asks if she can lie next to you on the sun lounger but then calls you ‘vous’. Sigh…

I just heard a French woman say, “Un, deux, trois – cheese!” to her children. Photography, the universal language…

It’s hard to be one of the lads when you’re playing volleyball with Frenchmen. I call them ‘tu’, but I’m so old they have to call me ‘vous’!

“Due to the Belgium National Feast, the 21st. of July, we would like to invite you to a cocktail at the pool, today at 19:30pm. Isil Club”

TV

I’m in the middle of a Transformers marathon, and I’m feeling more and more admiration for director Michael Bay (and Megan Fox, obviously)…

Living abroad means watching every sporting event live, so I now have three windows open for the cricket, the golf and the motor racing…

Great to see Jon Favreau’s Chef. I haven’t seen such a fine feel-good foodie film since Tampopo and Babette’s Feast!

Internet

Why don’t web pages from The Daily Telegraph load properly in Turkey? Is the paper still being punished for its Gallipoli coverage…?

When your profile is being viewed by 63-year-old women, you know you’ve reached the bottom of the online dating pool…

Sport

Middle-aged guys should be banned from water parks. I think I’ve broken my ankle…!

I just lost an air rifle competition by 14 points to 10. If we’d been using AK-47s, it would’ve been a different story…

When I won the singles and doubles matches to win the tennis today, everyone just walked off. It’s the opposite of ‘all must have prizes’…!

That’s the first time I’ve ever had to score a tennis match in French. I suppose it’s better than volleyball in Russian.

Flyboarding is just like snowboarding, except you have 20 feet further to fall! Ouch…

Photography

I went to the zoo today – if you can call it that. The Vogue Hotel is having a competition with Hong Kong for the world’s smallest zoo…

I spent last night on the beach with three cats named Hobie, shooting the stars and watching shooting stars.

I’ve just realised from my photographs which way the stars rotate in the northern hemisphere. Any guesses…?

I just offered to send someone a few photos, and he told me he didn’t have an email address! I didn’t know what to say…

Here I am, watching Lois & Clark and the US PGA on my laptop, sitting on the terrace at midnight while my camera takes photos of the stars…

Thank God that’s over. No more sunshine, no more beaches, no more pretty girls in bikinis. I’m really, really happy to be home. Really…

Other

Turkey’s the only place I know where storms don’t involve either rain or even clouds…

I just saw Akon perform last night at the Vogue. I think in future I’ll only go to private concerts at five-star hotels…

Does anyone want an iPhone? I have one that swam two lengths of the pool with me this afternoon…

I was shaken awake by an earthquake this morning…

 

And then it all went bear-shaped…

Beautiful girls are like polar bears: they’re hard to find, and you try to get as close as you possibly can before they turn their backs and walk away. We saw 13 bears on my trip to Spitsbergen, but there was only one girl for me. Sadly, she was already taken, so I’d better talk about the bears…

I’ve always had high expectations in life, and it’s cost me a fair amount of contentment. However, there is much pleasure to be gained from the unexpected. I went to Kenya to shoot the Big Five and didn’t get a single decent picture of any of them. I went to India to see the tigers and didn’t get a single decent picture of any of them. I went to Spitsbergen and – well, you know the rest, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a great trip. The highlights for me were seeing my very first polar bear (even though he had an ID number painted on him), watching two young reindeer walk up to within two feet of our tour guide and creeping up on a wild ptarmigan with my shipmate and now good friend Eric.

The only Frenchman I know called Eric

The only Frenchman I know called Eric

Eric is the first man I’ve ever met in bed – and certainly the first Frenchman. We were given a room to share in our Oslo hotel on the way to Longyearbyen, the capital of Spitsbergen, and the first time I saw him was when I went to bed and he was already half asleep. After a groggy exchange of greetings, we both fell asleep and carried on separately with the rest of our schedule. Once we were on board ship, however, we realised that we’d been asked to share a room again. That was handy for Eric, as I was one of the very few French speakers on board, but it was also a huge stroke of luck for me, as he is one of the funniest, most good humoured, entertaining and well travelled guys I’ve ever met. We got on very well from the off, and I translated whatever PA announcements he needed to hear but couldn’t understand. I also did my best to introduce him to other people, just as my friend Craig had done for me in the French Alps a few years ago. The French are generally very good at introducing themselves to the companions of the people they wish to speak to, and I tried to follow the rule myself. That usually just meant turning Eric loose with his smartphone and giving him the chance to play his joker, which was to show everyone all the pictures of himself stroking tiger sharks, cage diving with great whites and taking selfies on his heli-skiing trips with Luc Alphand. “Who is Luc Alphand?” I hear you ask. Good question. I said the same thing the first time I heard his name, and Eric wasn’t very impressed. Apparently, he’s a double world skiing champion and a winner of the Paris-Dakkar rally, but he’s obviously much better known in France than elsewhere, so it soon became a running joke…

There was a fair bit to learn about the ship when we first arrived, which involved various safety briefings, crew introductions and even a lifeboat drill.

A blonde Norwegian 'adventure concierge'

A blonde Norwegian ‘adventure concierge’

We also learned an interesting historical tidbit. The ship was apparently named after the Russian physicist Akademik Sergey Vavilov, but we were told that the hydrophones on the vessel meant that it was almost certainly a spy ship used for submarine detection during the Cold War. It was certainly a comfortable ride, and we barely had the feeling we were moving most of the time. Eric and I stuck together through all the briefings. Over the course of the trip, in fact, we were so often seen together that one of the guides called us Knoll and Tott – two brothers in a Swedish cartoon who perform all kinds of mischief and will do anything to escape a spanking! We didn’t do too much wrong, apart from leaving the approved trail a few times to try and get a better shot, but I feel much more comfortable in the company of one close friend than many acquaintances, so he was definitely one of the unexpected bonuses.

The reason we were both there was to see the polar bears. Eric’s decision was completely spontaneous – someone told him there were white bears up north somewhere and he said, “Where do I sign?” – but I was inspired by a talk given by Paul Goldstein last year in London. Paul is a wildlife photographer, and he was such a great speaker that I decided I had to try and find the money to book my place on the cruise. It wasn’t cheap, but, thankfully, a six-week tutoring job in Hong Kong came up at just the right time! What particularly appealed to me was the laser-like focus on the photographic opportunities. As Paul told us, “This is not a cruise ship. We are not bound by the unholy trinity of shuffleboard, bingo and shopping.” Sadly, there were far too many rules and regulations in practice about getting close to the bears, and we were made to feel like naughty schoolboys when we dared to get a bit closer to the wildlife, but we did get a couple of announcements in the early hours after the spotters on the bridge had seen something worthwhile. One day, we were woken up at 0649 by news of a pod of whales up ahead. By 0700, I’d missed them all!

The first three days of our two-week cruise were a little dull, as we had to go round the island of Spitsbergen to reach the sea ice, which was all on the eastern side due to the presence of the jet stream on the west coast. That was our best chance of sighting a polar bear, because they don’t actually hunt in the water – even though they can swim up to 800km using a kind of ursine doggy-paddle. In fact, they use their highly developed sense of smell to track down the breathing holes of seals and then wait for an average of 45 minutes until one pops up for air. Given all this waiting around, you can imagine that they get very frustrated when the prey gets away, and one cameraman famously discovered that for himself when he locked himself inside a cage and teased a rather hungry one. Don’t poke the bear…

However, as we sauntered along at our standard cruising speed of less than five knots, one of the eagle-eyed spotters struck gold. There on the icy shore was a male polar bear, sauntering along in time with the ship. The captain immediately backed us in as close as he dared – which was obviously just outside the range of my 500mm lens! – and we took approximately 100,000 pictures between us. It was a fantastic moment to see my very first polar bear – I’d never even seen one in a zoo – but it was somewhat ruined when we saw that he had the number 55 stencilled on his backside. I understand the need for scientific research, but there’s surely a better way of monitoring the animals than reminding everyone of man’s influence in such an ugly and unnatural fashion.

If that polar bear sighting was the most exciting, it wasn’t the best. For most people, that came when we spotted a mother and two baby cubs, who proceeded to put on a tremendously anthropomorphic show for the audience rammed like sardines in the bows of the ship. At one point, one of the cubs even stood up and waved a paw at us! Sadly, all the action was again just a bit too far away for me to get at with my equipment, and I didn’t even realise the cubs were there until I heard a burst of motor drives that was a dead giveaway that I was looking in the wrong direction! Happily, the polar bears settled into an almost predictable routine of one in the morning and one in the afternoon, so everyone had a chance to hone their camerawork and capture the shots of a lifetime.

"Just make sure you get the outside leg in front..."

“Just make sure you get the outside leg in front…”

My pictures were no better than average, but I’ve learned not to put all my eggs in one basket with these trips, and I was soon richly rewarded by a couple of close encounters. The first came when we made one of our regular excursions by Zodiac. The Zodiac is a kind of inflatable or rib designed specifically by Jacques Cousteau for his own exploration and research. It seats 10 passengers comfortably (plus the driver), and the only problem with them comes with a choppy sea, when the people near the bow have to take all the inevitable gouts of spume and spray in their faces. (When Paul said, “Any photograph is elevated by the Holy Trinity: dust, air and spume,” I’m sure that’s not what he had in mind!)

Every picture tells a story

Every picture tells a story

We did a few seaborne excursions, but this one involved a landing. I quickly gained a reputation for lying down on the beach to get the perfect shot of the anchors in the sand – Eric thought I might be dead! – but there were plenty of things to see once we walked inland. The highlight was the pair of reindeer calves that we spotted on the hillside in the distance. Reindeer don’t really have any predators – apart from a few hungry polar bears that they can easily outrun – so they have ended up being very curious animals. When Paul lay down with his camera and tripod to capture a few shots, I immediately circled around behind him to try and foreshorten the distance between him and his targets. From a spot about ten yards behind him, I watched as the reindeer got closer and closer and closer – so close, in fact, that Paul had to swap to a shorter lens. They ended up only a couple of feet away from him, and the rest of us were busy frantically trying to capture the moment.

"And they were this close!"

“And they were this close!”

We went on a few more Zodiac cruises to see ice cliffs, sea ice, a walrus haul-out and more kittiwakes and guillemots than you could shake a stick at, and I particularly enjoyed capturing the relationship between humans and animals, the watchers and the watched. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Me, that’s who.

She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named

She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named

The best moment of these excursions came when Paul spotted a pair of ptarmigan as we walked across the snowy hillside. We saw the male walking along, we saw him flying away and then we finally saw him perched on a boulder, conveniently positioned just on the ridgeline. There were about eight of us in our group, and we slowly edged closer. The bird was facing left, so I moved out that way to try to get a better shot of his face turned towards me, but Eric went the other way – you never know what to expect from the French, as every rugby fan will tell you – and was soon rewarded. Eric sometimes made a virtue of necessity when it came to his stumbling English by saying, “I don’t understand” when it was most convenient. This was such a moment, when he ignored Paul’s warnings and closed to a spot only a couple of feet behind the ptarmigan. This was extraordinary! I was one side, he was the other, and we were taking photographs of each other with the bird in the foreground! Glorious!

Eric the Frenchy with some bird

Eric the Frenchy with some bird

I should perhaps round this story out by talking about what went on when we weren’t out in the boats or stalking a bear. There were lots of these moments, as you might imagine, and they could so easily have led to a huge drop in morale – there are only so many all-you-can-eat buffets you can sit through without any animals to talk about – but we had the advantage of being in the presence of two or three key members of staff. Paul was obviously the dominant figure. He was once described as being like Marmite – “You either love him or you hate him” – but he was endlessly reliable in lifting the mood with a joke or anecdote. He has the most incredible memory for names, faces and stories, and most of his tales involved people on the boat who had been with him on safari in Africa or hunting for jaguar with him in South America. He was the reason I went on the trip in the first place, and I guess about half of the passengers had been on one of his tours before. The other ‘experts’ included JoAnne Simerson (the only Heather Locklear lookalike polar bear researcher and zookeeper I know), Dr Ian Stirling (a world expert on polar bear behaviour) and Mark Carwardine (a zoologist and wildlife photographer best known for going round the world first with Douglas Adams and then Stephen Fry to make the TV series Last Chance to See. They were all very approachable, and Mark was particularly impressive when he gave a hilarious presentation on his experiences with Stephen Fry.

Mark and Paul are old friends, but that didn’t stop them having a go at each other at every opportunity. They have very different styles of picture-taking, and the ‘slow pan’ was a regular bone of contention. Paul introduced this technique to us as a way of broadening our horizons and giving us a way to get great pictures of birds, but it’s a very tricky one to master. You have to select a slow shutter speed of 1/30 or 1/60 of a second and then follow a bird in the viewfinder, taking pictures as it flies past. The benefit of the slow shutter speed is that the wings blur to give a sense of motion, while the background blurs in interesting and attractive ways (allegedly). The problem is the hit rate. I took 1,504 photos one afternoon in a Zodiac using the slow pan, and I only kept two! As Paul admitted, “A slow pan doesn’t demand anything from your camera, but it demands an awful lot from you.”

"No, it's meant to look like that..."

“No, it’s meant to look like that…”

Mark was the chairman of the judges for the BBC World Wildlife Photographer of the Year for seven years, and he and Paul did a few sessions on photographic technique, lens and sensor-cleaning, using Lightroom and one even praising (or taking the mickey out of) each other’s photographs, but he came into his own when he and Paul judged the photo contest among the passengers. There were two categories: one a straight ‘best photo’ category, limited to five or six shots per person, and one a ‘humorous’ category with no limit on numbers. There were quite a few funny photos, most of which benefited from an even funnier introduction or commentary from Paul, and I was amused (and pleased) to see that one of Eric’s shots made the ‘funny’ shortlist. It was a photo taken of me lying down in the bow trying to get a photo through the hawse-hole while everyone else was standing up. He also had one in the main listing, which happened to be very similar to one discussed in Mark and Paul’s session, showing three birds with red feet and red mouths squabbling on the cliffs. I returned the favour by having my shot of Eric with the ptarmigan selected for the main shortlist. At that point, I largely gave up hope, as there were too many good photographers with high-quality kit on board for me to finish any higher, but I was wrong! In fourth place was my shot of a glaucous gull catching sight of the ears of an Arctic fox peeping over a snow bank.

"I can seeeeeee you..."

“I can seeeeeee you…”

Paul praised this shot to the skies, and I had tears in my eyes by the end of his commentary. Nobody’s ever praised anything I’ve done like that before!

It was a nice way to finish. Yes, I was there to see the animals, but my main goal was photography. I wanted to be proud of my images, and it seems I ended up impressing one person at least – even if it wasn’t the right one!

 

Wildlife list

Mammals

Arctic fox
Atlantic walrus
Bearded seal
Blue whale
Fin whale
Harp seal
Humpback whale
Northern minke whale
Polar bear
Ringed seal
Svalbard reindeer
White-beaked dolphin

Birds

Arctic skua
Arctic tern
Atlantic puffin
Barnacle goose
Black guillemot
Black-legged kittiwake
Brünnich’s guillemot
Common ringed plover
Glaucous gull
Great skua
Grey phalarope
Ivory gull
King eider
Little auk (dovekie)
Long-tailed duck
Northern fulmar
Pink-footed goose
Purple sandpiper
Red-throated diver
Rock ptarmigan
Sanderling
Snow bunting

Flowering plants

Drooping saxifrage
Mountain avens
Polar scurvygrass
Polar willow
Purple saxifrage
Sulphur-coloured buttercup
Svalbard poppy
Tufted saxifrage
Whitlow grass

Hong Kong? Phooey!

Angled view of Central Plaza at sunset

Central Plaza at sunset

When they built Hong Kong, they put the sun in the wrong place. It’s always either behind a building, hidden by a cloud or on the wrong side of the island to see a decent sunset. Having said that, I did arrive during the monsoon season, which didn’t help! I was there for six weeks from April to June 2014, teaching four families various subjects including English, Maths, Science and tennis. All the families were very hospitable, lending me iPhones, chauffeuring me around and inviting me regularly for lunch and dinner. They also had a few diary issues, so I ended up teaching twice as many students as I was supposed to… The tuition agent who had arranged the job had given me a handy introductory guide to Hong Kong, but it took a while to get used to the place. I felt like Alice in Wonderland in my bathroom, where everything was six inches lower than I was used to, and the bottle labelled ‘Drink me’ was replaced by a dispenser of ‘horse oil! The water also left me feeling queasy, but the worst part was finding my way around. The apartment block was right next to the Grand Hyatt and Renaissance hotels, and there were two different entrances, north and south. The client who was putting me up in her flat had kindly sorted out a SIM card, wi-fi dongle and an Octopus card for the MTR, but I felt like Captain Oates whenever I left the building. Would I ever find my way home again…?! I had two objectives in Hong Kong. First of all, I was obviously there to keep my clients happy. After that, I saw it as a great opportunity to take photographs. I deliberately limited my lessons to around four or five hours a day in an effort to maximise my chances of picture-taking. The only problem was the weather. I had one sunny day on my first day off, which I used to go up to the Peak, which has spectacular views of Victoria Harbour, but I didn’t see blue skies again until my last week. As a result, my daily routine revolved around anything I could do within the confines of my apartment block. Fortunately, one of my clients had lent me the use of a very nice one-bed flat in Wan Chai, complete with golf driving range, two tennis courts and three outdoor and indoor swimming pools, but none of that was very appealing when my iPhone predicted thunderstorms every day of the week! Instead, I generally stayed at home during the morning and early afternoon. I read the papers online (using a very handy 4G dongle a client lent me), watched British sport when I could (thank Goodness for www.vipboxasia.co!) and spent a lot of time taking and processing my photographs before taking one of the cheap and cheerful taxis in the early evening to take me to my first lesson. The main ideas I’d gleaned from the travel guide and a quick trawl on the web were: climbing up to Victoria Peak to see the panoramic views of the harbour; going on an open-top bus ride; catching the Star Ferry to Kowloon to watch the Symphony of Lights (a regular son et lumière show put on by most of the office blocks around the harbour); going to Happy Valley to see the regular Wednesday night horse races; wandering around one of the ‘wet markets’ that sell fish, meat and other goods on the street; visiting one or two of the outlying islands; and perhaps going over to the Chinese mainland. I never made it to China proper, as a meeting with another agency was cancelled, but I did do all the rest. My first photographic excursion was a trip to the Peak. I was very lucky to have sunshine on my first day off, and I ended up spending all day up there. There are two buildings at the top, which both look a bit like alien space ships: the Peak Galleria and the Peak Tower.

Victoria Harbour from the Peak

Victoria Harbour from the Peak

The views from both during the day were spectacular, but it got better and better as night fell. My only mistake was in leaving 20 minutes before the Symphony of Lights was due to start! The open-top bus ride was a great way to see all the extraordinary architecture in Hong Kong. The island is a strange mixture of Gibraltar, New York and Monaco – very hilly, full of skyscrapers and offering several switchbacks akin to Loew’s Corner for the wannabe Formula 1 driver. As I drove around with an audio guide pointing out all the landmarks in my ear, I was constantly taking pictures left, right and centre. It took hours to transfer them to my laptop and edit them all, but I was happy with one or two of the more abstract shots.

Grey skyscraper on a grey day

Grey skyscraper on a grey day

The Symphony of Lights happens every evening at around eight o’clock on both sides of Victoria Harbour. Dozens of skyscrapers switch on their lights in time to a musical soundtrack that gets piped through speakers on the shoreline, and there are even lasers fired from some of the rooftops. I caught the Star Ferry to Kowloon and watched it from the Avenue of Stars, which is just a posh name for the concrete waterfront. I chose that side of the harbour deliberately, as most of the iconic buildings are on the other side of the water on Hong Kong island, including the distinctive M Pei-designed China Bank Tower.

Hong Kong Symphony of Lights from Kowloon

Hong Kong Symphony of Lights from Kowloon

I thought getting a night off to go to Happy Valley was going to be a problem, but one of my clients helpfully cancelled a lesson one Wednesday, which allowed me to spend the whole evening there. Happy Valley must be one of the few racecourses in the world that’s located slap bang in the middle of a city, but it certainly makes for a unique backdrop. There were thousands of people in the floodlit arena, most of them dressed up in their glad rags as if they were about to quaff a bottle of champagne in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, but the fare on offer wasn’t always so classy. I took a few shots of one very attractive woman in a red dress having an Ed Miliband moment with a cheeseburger and a packet of ketchup! The racing itself was as you’d imagine, but it was still rather strange to see Chinese jockeys wearing the traditional silks.

Jockey in purple and white riding racehorse

Jockey in purple and white riding racehorse

A ‘wet market’ in Hong Kong is just a food market on the street that ends up having to be hosed down to get rid of all the detritus at the end of the day. I went to the one on Bowrington Road and benefited from the delightful insouciance of the locals when it comes to having their picture taken. There are so many cameras and iPhones being used over there that the last thing people worry about is some random bloke taking yet another picture! Some of the items on sale were certainly interesting, and the live fish flapping about on the slabs were a magnetic draw. Once food becomes waste at the end of the day, though, it undergoes an ugly transformation, and I was reminded of a Jonathan Swift poem, A Description of a City Shower, that compares the cleansing effect of the rain to the Old Testament flood:

“Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drown’d puppies, stinking sprats, all drench’d in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip-tops, come tumbling down the flood.”
Smiling Chinese fishmonger

Smiling Chinese fishmonger

I was keen to get to some of the outlying islands in Hong Kong, but the weather rather limited my options. However, I had a friend over there who lived with his family on Lantau, and we arranged to have lunch with a few of his friends. We went for dim sum, which is rather a local tradition on a Sunday, and then spent the rest of the day together. A few weeks later, his wife organised a 40th birthday party at a beach bar at Pui O, so I decided to use that as an excuse to explore the island properly.  I’d cancelled all my lessons to go to the party, and I decided to make a day of it. The big attraction – literally! – on Lantau is the Tian Tan or Big Buddha, and I reached it by taking the cable car from the MTR stop in Tung Chung. The ride up wasn’t that spectacular, but I had a personal reason for going. A girlfriend once sent me a postcard of the Big Buddha when she was in Hong Kong, and she said it reminded her of me because I close my eyes when I laugh! I wasn’t convinced when I saw it with my own eyes, but I took plenty of pictures just in case.

Big Buddha in profile

Big Buddha in profile

Lantau has changed a lot in the last few years, and it’s very difficult to find any indigenous peasant culture – everyone seems far too well off! However, I’d heard about the stilted houses in Tai O, and I wanted to see them for myself, so I took a taxi there from the Big Buddha. Tai O used to be a busy fishing village, but it’s turned into a bit of a tourist trap. When I went, it was just gearing up for a dragon boat race, and there were dozens of little stalls by the river selling seaside delicacies such as ‘super fish balls’, ‘fresh cuttlefish’ and ‘crisp fried fish skin’!

Pleasure boat passing moorings of stilted houses

Pleasure boat passing moorings of stilted houses

After wandering round the village and stopping off for a quick ‘lime and salt’ drink (when in Rome…!), I took the bus to Pui O for the party. At the bus stop, I met an American art student and had a good chat with her while we were waiting for the bus and then on the bus itself. It was nice to have a ‘normal’ conversation with someone for a change, but I had to jump off pretty quickly when I realised I was close to the resort. I had plenty of time on my hands, but it was quite a stroke of luck that I went down there early, as there were three or four kite surfers out in the bay. They were all very good, and I was happy to spend an hour and a half just taking pictures of their jumps and tricks as the sun went down over the headland.

Close-up of female kite surfer getting air

Close-up of female kite surfer getting air

Mavericks was a pretty good venue, and the party went off well enough, but that marked the end of my stay in Hong Kong. All in all, I enjoyed my six weeks over there. It was not too long and not too short. My clients were very kind and friendly, and I got along very well with them and their families. Hong Kong is to China as Goa is to India: if you can’t face the real thing, it will ease you gently into the local culture while providing all the trappings of Western civilisation to keep you sane. You may see the occasional amusing sign, such as ‘Please wrap spittle’, or see the odd Ferrari burst into flames when you’re on the bus, but it’s definitely worth a visit.

Lost in translation

Huh...??

Huh…??

My best experience in Moscow could easily have been my worst.

“Would you like to come to dinner with us at Café Pushkin and then see the Spasskaya Tower international military music festival in Red Square?”

“Yes, I’d be delighted.”

“Shall we meet you at the restaurant at six thirty?”

Oh, dear. My heart sank. It was my first time in Moscow, and I had only one hour to make sense of the Moscow Metro system all on my own. My clients had kindly given me the equivalent of an Oyster card and an iPhone with a local SIM card in it, but I had to get to the station first. The nearest one was more than 15 minutes’ walk away, so I decided to try and get the bus. The only problem was that I didn’t know whether my smart card would work. Fortunately, it did. The next problem was knowing which platform to use in the Metro. I don’t speak Russian, and all the signs and the names of the stations were in Cyrillic, so it was no easy task! Even when I got on the right train, it was very difficult to know where I was. There are so few signs on the Metro stations that it was almost impossible to see one and decipher the station name as the train flew past. Even the announcements over the PA system were no help, as I didn’t even know how to pronounce the names of the stations en route! I eventually had to make do with counting them. That worked out fine, and I got off at the right one, only to get lost again. I thought I’d be safe with Google maps, but the network was so slow that my phone wasn’t telling me where I was but where I’d been five minutes earlier! The weather was so poor that I couldn’t navigate by the sun, and there were so many major roads and sliproads that it was impossible to cross them without taking the underground subway – which was even more confusing! When I finally reached the restaurant, I was lucky enough to see my clients on the steps. Phew! Never again…

The food at Café Pushkin was delicious, and my clients Dimitri and Yana encouraged me to try the local specialities and generously paid for my meal. Before we left for the festival, their son Boris showed me round the gorgeous antique interior. He was 12 years old, and I had come to Moscow for three weeks in September 2013 to help him prepare for his entrance exams at various private schools in England. Everything had happened very quickly. From being told about the job to getting on the plane had only been seven days! During that time, the only real obstacle had been getting a visa. In return for a couple of hours online and a visit to the Embassy (involving an obligatory lie about being in full-time employment), I was given my Russian visa name. This is similar to your pornstar name, except it’s decided by the Russian Embassy. Mine was NIKOLAS UILLIAM ДЭИЛ, by the way…

Despite the travel nightmares, that evening with Dimitri, Yana and Boris turned out to be the highlight of my trip to Moscow. After dinner, we walked to Red Square from the restaurant and spent the next couple of hours watching a succession of international marching bands play music and go through their parade ground drills in front of the spectacular backdrop of a floodlit St Basil’s Cathedral.

Better Red than dead

Better Red than dead

It was my first ever visit to Red Square, and it was quite an introduction! I was keen to take as many photos and videos of the event as I could, and Boris was doing the same sitting next to me. By a freakish coincidence, he had almost exactly the same camera as I did (the Nikon D800E), so we had plenty to discuss that night and for the rest of the trip when it came to photography. This might give you some idea of the spectacle…

 

The only disappointing thing about the evening was that the family decided to leave early. I only discovered this later, but there was a firework display at the end of the show. How spectacular would that have been to see fireworks over St Basil’s?! Sadly, I missed out, and I don’t think I’ll ever have the chance again…

The bad news continued on the photography front when the weather stayed cloudy, misty, rainy and miserable for the entire trip. I had been keen to see St Petersburg and the onion-domed churches of Zagorsk and elsewhere, but there was no point in those conditions. One result of that was that I didn’t have very much to occupy my time. There were a couple of people that I’d planned to see, but it wasn’t possible in the end, so I spent a lot of time in my hotel room. I got on with Boris and his parents reasonably well, and Yana very kindly provided me with lunch most days (although I could have wished for something other than borscht and black bread almost every day!), but it was a bit lonely sometimes. I’d have been pulling my hair out if I hadn’t found a free VPN service that gave me 24/7 access to Sky Sports! My agent Andrei was also just a quick Skype call away to sort out any problems or just to pass the time. I really appreciated that, and we met up for a curry when I got home to cement our friendship.

I did take a few photographs while I was over there. I’d seen a nearby church out of my hotel window, so I walked over there on my day off and captured the onion domes for posterity.

"It's like an onion..."

“It’s like an onion…”

There was another old church just across the road in a residential gated community, but the security guards at the entrance wanted a bribe to let me in!

In the absence of any exciting landscapes or architecture to shoot, I decided to be a bit more creative. I was up on the 23rd floor of the Astrus Hotel, so I got a good view down Leninsky Prospekt. I took a few ‘miniatures’ of the tower blocks first…

Mini Moscow

Mini Moscow

…and then I went a bit ‘arty’ with my zoom!

Trabants and Mercedes as you've never seen them before...

Trabants and Mercedes as you’ve never seen them before…

The only other pictures I took were of one of the receptionists downstairs called Polina. She bizarrely felt she had to ask permission from her colleagues before she would agree, but we ended up having a good chat. We’re even friends on Facebook now, so perhaps I should’ve plucked up the courage to talk to her a bit earlier. Who knows what might’ve happened? You know what they say about Moscow girls…

I have a few other memories of my trip: the phenomenal upload speed of my hotel’s DSL connection (23.36Mbps!); the water pressure in the shower – which made me feel like a rioter being hosed down by a water cannon; seeing a picture of Boris Johnson on his bike on the bedroom wall of my student Boris; finding a Russian medal on the kitchen table that Dimitri had won for his service to the motherland; seeing an abandoned car in the middle lane of Leninsky Prospekt; getting through the Moscow traffic honk-a-thon every morning, when my driver would get so close to the other cars that the parking alarm would regularly go off; and trying to negotiate the return of my laundry in English with an old Russian woman speaking German!

All in all, I’m glad I had the opportunity to go to Moscow. The family were very kind and generous and easy to talk to, and I made a good friend in Andrei. It’s also another place I’ve been able to tick off my bucket list. Now, where next, I wonder…?!

Back in the USSR

"You don't know how lucky you are, boy"

“You don’t know how lucky you are, boy”

Before I went to Belarus, I was warned it would be like going back to the Soviet Union: brutalist architecture, statues of Karl Marx and a hankering after the Communist era. In fact, I ended up teaching English to a very nice couple called Mikhail and Natasha, who were very generous and hospitable to me and had a far from typically Russian (or Belarusian) attitude to politics and economics. She ran a chain of pharmacies, he worked in the agriculture business, and neither of them could understand their friends’ passion for Russian imperialism.

I flew out in March 2014 after a last-minute scare when the agency tried to bring forward my flight with only three days’ notice! Fortunately, that was resolved happily enough, and I was met at Warsaw airport by a driver who would take me across the border to Brest (aka Brest-Litovsk). The city didn’t have its own airport, so it was a choice between driving across the border from Poland or flying to Minsk and facing an even longer trip by car. When we arrived at the border, big men with big guns stopped the car to check our papers, and we waited to be allowed through. An hour and a half later, we were still waiting! That has to be the worst border crossing I’ve ever had in my life…

My driver took me to the Hermitage, which was the best place in town (I checked: it was €83 a night – or free if you knew the owner!), but I had a shock when I unpacked my bag and tried to boot up my laptop. LOT Polish Airlines had managed to drop it from a great height, and was so battered and bruised that the only thing it could do was beep forlornly! (In hindsight, I should perhaps have put it in my carry-on rather than my checked luggage, but I had all my photographic equipment in my camera bag, and there wasn’t really enough room…) I met Mikhail and Natasha in the hotel restaurant and told them what had happened, and Mikhail very kindly offered to ask his IT department to have a look at my laptop and see if it could be fixed. Natasha even lent me her MacBook until eventually I got mine back – minus a memory card slot that was too damaged to fix…

I was in town to teach Mikhail and Natasha, but they generously farmed me out to a couple of friends of theirs and even Natasha’s mother at one point. (Same iPhones, just different brand of luxury German saloon…) We quickly slipped into a daily rhythm. I’d start the day by having breakfast in the hotel. On the way to the restaurant, I’d always pass an old German shop till that looked rather photogenic. I planned to come down and take a few pictures of it one day, but it wasn’t until my final week that I eventually got round to it. Unfortunately, I left the ISO rating on 1600 by mistake, so I had to do the shoot all over again, but I was rewarded when the users of Pixoto voted this my best photo ever!

My best photo ever...?

My best photo ever…?

Breakfast was a struggle, not just because of the rather limited Eastern European rations but because of having to listen to Lana del Rey’s latest album on a loop every morning. I asked at reception if they had any other CDs, but I was told that there was an exhibition of paintings in the foyer, and the artist had made it a condition that Lana del Rey would be played all the time to set the right mood! One day, the barman tried to compete by playing drum ‘n’ bass at full volume to drown out the sound of Miss del Rey, but it didn’t last…

At nine o’clock, I’d leave the musical torture chamber and walk over to my clients’ apartment, where I would teach Mikhail for an hour and a half and then swap to Natasha for a similar period when she got home from work. I’d then have a couple of hours to myself before meeting them both for a (very) late lunch at Caffè Venezia, which Mikhail always paid for. They knew the owner, and it was right next door to Mikhail’s office, so it was his favourite place. There would always be someone to talk to, and the Italian owner knew enough English to be able to keep up a good conversation. After lunch, Olga would pick me up for her lesson, and I’d spend an hour and a half at her house before getting dropped off at my hotel again. In the evenings, Mikhail and Natasha would usually invite me to dinner, either at a restaurant or at their place. Mikhail explained that there were only three decent restaurants in town – Caffè Venezia, Times Café and Jules Verne – and we ate at all of them. Natasha was also an excellent cook, and Mikhail had a very well stocked wine fridge, so a typical meal would consist of smoked salmon and caviare washed down with champagne followed by salade de magret de canard and lightly grilled sea bass accompanied by a rather nice Puligny-Montrachet! We also had dinner with Olga and Sergei one evening, and I had the novel experience of helping Olga and Natasha make ‘pierogi’, a kind of semi-circular dumplings similar to tortellini, which we filled and wrapped. I also had the rather dubious honour of nibbling on black bread topped with carpaccio of pig fat! Well, nothing tastes too bad after four glasses of vodka…

Another constant part of our routine was talking about the Crimea. The annexation by Russia was on the news every day, and we inevitably ended up talking about it as part of our lessons and over lunch or dinner. Today, Crimea. Tomorrow, the Ukraine. The day after that, perhaps Belarus. You don’t quite realise the difference in your countries’ political traditions until you hear stories about living next door to the Russian bear. Natasha told me a couple about her own family. Once, when Gorbachev was briefly threatened by a palace coup in 1991, she and Mikhail had actually emigrated to Poland for the day – just in case perestroika and glasnost had come to an end and the borders had been closed. How many times do we feel we have to leave the country before a British General Election?! She also told me about her grandmother, who decided to take her family to Poland back in the 1920s, when it was briefly possible to leave the old Soviet Union. She was waiting on the station platform, ready to catch the train, when she suddenly realised her wallet had been stolen! With all her money gone, they couldn’t possibly afford to leave home – and their family history was changed beyond recognition for the next 60 years…

Mikhail and Natasha were also very sporty, and they were kind enough to include me in their regular plans. We went for a long (and very energetic!) walk around the city before dinner one night, and I even had games of volleyball and tennis with Mikhail. I hadn’t played volleyball for about 30 years, so I rather embarrassed myself on court, but at least I beat him at doubles – although that was probably because I was playing with the coach! We also spent the final Saturday cycling in the Białowieża Forest with Olga and Sergei, which is now a National Park and World Heritage site that spans the Belarusian/Polish border a few miles north of Brest. The forest is great for cycling as it has a grid of roads from which cars are banned. We drove there in an old van that was big enough to hold all the bikes. Once we’d arrived, I was given a mountain bike, and we set off into the woods. Our first stop was the zoo, which was a series of enclosures containing all the local animals to be found in the forest (and a few others). This was my chance to take a few pictures of my very first Russian bear, together with wolves, ostriches and a family of European bison.

Close-up of a wolf head in profile

Close-up of a wolf head in profile

We then cycled around the forest for a couple of hours and had a picnic lunch at the residence of Father Frost – a kind of Santa’s Grotto but without the snow! I always like a civilised picnic, but this was the first time I’d had one with pancakes, venison and samogon – or Russian moonshine…

I always try to take advantage of my foreign residential jobs to take pictures of the local landscapes, flora and fauna, so it was good to have a chance to use my camera again. There weren’t many photogenic sights to be seen in Brest, apart from a few onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches, but I found inspiration in the animals. The following day, I went walkabout and visited the Brest fortress, which is where the first battle was fought in Hitler’s 1941 invasion of Russia. To commemorate the occasion, they’ve installed an enormous block of stone with a Russian soldier’s head carved out of it called the Courage Monument. CNN once ran a story placing it first in a list of the world’s ugliest monuments, but they swiftly had to remove it when the Russians and Belarusians took offence!

Eyes of soldier on Brest fortress monument

Eyes of soldier on Brest fortress monument

That evening, I walked back into town to find St Simeon’s cathedral, which I’d first seen on my walk with Mikhail and Natasha. Russian Orthodox churches all have the distinctive ‘onion domes’, often painted gold, and they can look spectacular under floodlights.

St Simeon cathedral in Brest at night

St Simeon cathedral in Brest at night

I have to say that I really enjoyed my fortnight in Belarus. It was sometimes quite hard work spending so much time with my clients, as I had to concentrate on their English (and my own) even when we were just chatting together, but I was very lucky to be placed with a couple of similar ages with such similar interests and values. When people come home from holiday, they often say, “The people were very friendly,” but I’m never quite convinced. After my trip to Belarus, I can safely say I’ve changed my mind. Whatever the economic, political and military history of the country, I’ve never been looked after quite so well, and I have to thank Mikhail and Natasha for showing me the best of Belarus. I’m also even more thankful to have had the English Channel to protect us from invasion. Our history would have looked very different without it…!

 

A photographer’s bucket list

What am I supposed to do, kick it...?

What am I supposed to do with this? Kick it…?!

I make lists. I make lots of lists. Even when people tell me not to, I still make lists. One of them is a list of the places I want to go to take the photographs I want to take. Ever since I travelled to Kenya in January 2013, I’ve been adding (and crossing off) various destinations, and now I thought I’d share it with the world. In fact, I’ll make this my online photographic bucket list…!

Africa

  • Cape Town
  • Bloodhound land speed record attempt, Hakskeen Pan, South Africa
  • Safari in Okavango Delta/Kalahari in Botswana (Kwando Safaris or Audley Travel for Zambezi Voyager houseboat cruises to see carmine bee-eaters)
  • Pyramids, Abu Simbel in Egypt
  • Zambia – Kaingo Camp for hides (bee-eaters in October)
  • Wildebeest migration in September in Ngorongoro Crater
  • Cape Verde Islands

Asia

  • Nepal
  • Sri Lanka (whales & leopards with Exodus) and Maldives
  • China – Yangshuo peaks, Guangxi countryside, Longji rice terraces, Zhangye Danxia Geopark in Gansu
  • Jordan – Petra
  • Cambodia – Angkor temples including Ta Prahm
  • Vietnam – Ha Long Bay
  • Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery, Bhutan
  • Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), Japan
  • Socotra Island, Yemen
  • Burma
  • James Bond Island (Khao Phing Kan), Thailand

Oceania

  • New Zealand – Queenstown and either Milford or Doubtful Sound for mountain scenery
  • Easter Island for moai
  • Hull Wigmen etc in Papua New Guinea

Europe

  • City walls, Chester
  • Fireball ceremony at Stonehaven, Scotland, on New Year’s Eve
  • Giant’s Causeway, Antrim, Northern Ireland
  • Fly-fishing, stag-hunting in Scotland
  • Paris, France
  • Mont-Saint-Michel, France
  • Carcassonne, France
  • Santorini or Capri, Italy
  • Siena Palio, Italy
  • Parachuting in Madrid, Spain
  • Bullfight in Ronda (Feria Goyesca), Spain
  • Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
  • Pulpit Rock, Norway
  • Goreme National Park, Turkey
  • St Petersburg Amber Room, Russia

North America

  • Rodeo
  • The Hamptons
  • Washington DC
  • Boston
  • New Orleans Mardi Gras
  • Monument Valley
  • Zion National Park
  • Bryce Canyon
  • Arches National Park
  • Mesa Verde
  • Crater Lake, Oregon
  • Bears catching salmon and fly fishing in July/September at the Brooks River falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska
  • Whales or sharks
  • Boston and New England in the fall
  • Hopi Point for Grand Canyon sunset
  • Na Poli Coast, Kauai, Hawaii

South America

  • Rio carnival, Brazil
  • Football match at the Maracana, Brazil
  • Iguacu Falls, Brazil/Argentina
  • Galápagos Islands
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
  • Birds in Costa Rica
  • Machu Picchu, Peru

Arctic/Antarctic

  • Whales, penguins, polar bears, icebergs
  • Neko Harbour, Antarctica
  • Spitsbergen/Svalbard
  • South Georgia

Tigers and temples

When you tour India with a beautiful Dutch blonde named after a Norse fertility goddess, it’s bound to be an adventure…

My adventure took place in November 2013 and lasted for two weeks, during which time I witnessed the best and worst of Delhi, saw two tigers and photographed the world’s most photographed building.

Delhi

A Sikh motorcyclist in turban and battle fatigues carrying his daughter on the handlebars; more speed bumps, cyclists, pedestrians and car horns than in Kenya; the Hyundai, rickshaw and tuk tuk capital of the world; girlfriends riding sidesaddle on the back of motorbikes; a sign saying ‘Surgical emporium’; a 10-rupee note with the words  “I love you. Marry me!”; an eagle perched on a wall; a snake charmer with two cobras; a cow walking on the tracks at a railway station; having my wallet stolen on a packed Metro carriage; and finding out that India has 2.3 million gods – these were a few of my first impressions of Delhi.

Charmed to meet you...

Charmed to meet you…

India’s capital city is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Everyone stares at you, beggars beg from you, street sellers sell to you – it takes a strong will to ignore the constant distractions and focus on the task in hand. For me, that was taking pictures. All life was here, and I wanted to capture that in images I could show to the world. Sadly, the need for model releases meant I couldn’t profit from any candid portraits, but that didn’t stop me taking them. I usually prefer taking pictures of landscapes and animals to people, but, if you’re not inspired by the colours, faces, clothes and habits of the Indian streets, you’re in the wrong place.

Tigers

After 24 hours touring the capital, we left for the tiger sanctuary at Bandhavgarh, and most of us were happy at the prospect of a bit of peace and quiet. We were due to catch the overnight sleeper train, but we almost missed it when our ‘Chief Experience Officer’ arrived an hour late with our bags after his taxi got a flat tyre! His name was Harshvardhan Singh Rathore, but we called him Hersh. When we eventually arrived at the station, he warned us of all the dangers. It was dangerous to eat food from the snack bars, it was dangerous to leave bags unattended, it was dangerous to do pretty much anything! After a fearful wait of half an hour, as we huddled round our luggage like girls at a club dancing round their handbags, we gladly sought refuge on the train. My bunk was three doors down from the main group, so I was stranded for the evening. I couldn’t leave in case my bags were stolen, so I just edited photos on my laptop until Hersh came by and allowed me to take a toilet break. Sleep did not come easily with a baby crying next door and a man in my partition ‘snoring like a grampus’, as Chandler would say. I was reminded of the scene in Some Like It Hot when Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon end up having a midnight drinks party in the sleeping compartment with Marilyn Monroe. Sadly, no gorgeous blonde appeared with a bottle of spirits in her hand on this occasion. Sigh…

When we arrived at Katni, it was a case of ‘Hurry up and wait’ – not for the first time or the last! When the vans eventually arrived, we climbed aboard and set off. The drive to Bandhavgarh was two-and-a-half hours, and the last 25km took nearly an hour as the roads were so bad. The resort was nice enough, and I had my own room with a ready supply of hot water, which allowed me to shower for the first time in three days!

The following day, we went on our first game drive in Jeep-like vehicles called Gypsies. The title of the G Adventures trip was ‘Tigers, Temples & Wildlife’, so this was our chance to tick off the first item on the list. We had to get up at 0445, but it was worth it in the end – at least for half the party. I was sitting next to the Norse goddess when Hersh asked me to swap to the other Gypsy on the instructions of the park wardens – something about having to be in the same groups as our passports or some such nonsense. I was initially disappointed (for obvious reasons), but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise an hour later when the guide in my vehicle suddenly started shouting, “Tiger! Tiger!” The driver jammed the pedal to the metal, and we slewed off down the dirt track towards the sighting. Unfortunately, there was a 90-degree bend in the road coming up, so everyone had to hold on as we tore round the corner as fast as we could, hearts beating wildly. In another 300 yards, we reached a water hole where another couple of Gypsies had already parked up. A young tiger was drinking from the pond, and another one was lying in the grass nearby. Success!

"Tiger! Tiger!"

“Tiger! Tiger!”

We spent half an hour or so watching the two tigers, which was very exciting, but we couldn’t get hold of the other group on the mobile, so they missed out. The tigers were quite far away, though, and I struggled to zoom in close enough with my 50-500mm lens. Eventually, I fitted my 2x teleconverter and even set up my tripod to try and get a steady shot of the tigers as they lay in the grass or chased each other up the hillside. Unfortunately, I failed miserably. My camera just couldn’t seem to take well exposed, sharply focused images. Nothing to do with me, of course (!), but the shutter speed must have been too slow – only 1/125 rather than 1/500 or 1/1000 – so my pictures all came out blurred or, at best, far too soft. Too bad. I was only there for one reason – to bring home pictures of tigers – so it was very disappointing to have missed my chance. I thought we were going to get lucky again later when Hersh shouted, ‘Tiger, tiger!’, but it was only a monkey – cue much hilarity…

Hersh asked me to give a slideshow of all my photos after dinner, which went down well, but I still wasn’t happy. For the record, these were all the animals and birds we saw:

  • Tiger
  • Sambhar deer
  • Barking deer
  • Spotted deer
  • Blue bull
  • Rhesus macaque
  • Hanuman langur
  • Wild boar
  • Mongoose
  • Paddle-tailed buzzard
  • Green bee-eater
  • Indian roller
  • Kingfisher
  • Black drongo
  • Indian hawk
  • Woodpecker
  • Peacocks
  • Black-napped monarch
  • Cuckoo
  • Lesser Edgerton stork
  • Crescent serpent eagle
  • Kite
  • Red-wattled lapwing
Indian roller

Indian roller

Female wood spider

Female wood spider

We went for another game drive after lunch, but there was not much to see apart from blue bull, a few deer and a pair of mongeese (Really? Ed.). The people in the other Gypsy saw a leopard to make up for missing out on the tiger, so we all had chai on the street afterwards to celebrate. Hersh had swapped vehicles after lunch, so he was predictably and insufferably smug about being the only one to have seen both the tigers and the leopard!

The following day, we prepared to go to Ranthambore, the second tiger sanctuary on our trip. Sadly, that involved another sleeper train, so we guarded our bags on the platform again and watched cows feeding in the bins and walking on the tracks until our train arrived. Hersh eventually gave me a bed with people from our group, and we made friends with an 18-year-old Indian trainee doctor, who treated us to all his stash of home-made food. (Rhys took particular advantage, I seem to remember!) He’d just been home for Diwali, so he had a feast of dishes to share with us, including roti, various curried dishes, rice and marzipan sweets made from cashew nuts, all prepared by him and his family. He told us he lived with his mother, his father, seven male cousins and 14 female cousins, all packed in seven or eight to a house!

The transfer from the station was only 20 mins, so we were soon at the Ranthambore Safari Lodge. On our first safari, I managed to break the front seat in the big diesel-powered lorry we were using, and the door swung open by itself every now and again just to keep me on my toes! The game drive was a bust, and there was nothing to see in the area we’d been sent to. Whether you’re in London or Ranthambore, the message seems to be the same: don’t go near Zone 6!

The next morning, we had another game drive, and this time it was much better. We saw plenty of wildlife, including two sambar deer fighting, 12-15 langurs playing in the trees only a few feet away, a crocodile on an island in the lake and a sleepy owl nesting in a hole in a tree.

Sambar deer

Sambar deer

Darth Wader

"I'm not tired..."

“I’m not tired…”

"This bed's really comfortable"

“This bed’s really comfortable”

The partridge family

The partridge family

Antlers away

Antlers away

Watch the birdie

Watch the birdie

Spotted deer

Spotted deer

As well as the more familiar animals and birds we’d seen before, we also notched up a crocodile, a water snake and a turtle. The closest we came to a tiger was the treepie, nicknamed the ‘tiger bird’ because of the colours of its plumage.

When we got back to the lodge, we had breakfast and went on a trip to the market. I was looking for a cuddly tiger for my best friend’s daughter, but our driver took us to the wrong place, and we only found the right shop by accident when we were driving home. Fortunately, they had what I wanted, but that was the last tiger I saw on the trip.

Temples

If the first week of the trip was about tigers, the second was about temples. After a couple of days taking pictures of the local animals and humans in the village of Tordi Sagar, pursued by all the local kids shouting, ‘One photo! One photo!’ and capped by an impromptu Diwali fireworks display on the roof terrace and a dawn trip up to a local hill fort to see the sunrise, we left for Jaipur.

"Here comes the sun, little darlin'..."

“Here comes the sun, little darlin’…”

"You talkin' to me?"

“You talkin’ to me?”

I can see you...!

I can see you…!

Nicknamed ‘The Pink City’, Jaipur is actually more of a reddish-brown colour, particularly since it was repainted for a visit by the Prince of Wales in 1876. Grand designs, Mughal-style…

Before we could see our first temple, we were taken to the Raj Mandir cinema to watch an action movie called Krrish – India’s version of Superman meets Iron Man meets Robocop meets X-Men meets Bollywood. Despite the hootin’ and the hollerin’ whenever the hero used his super powers or got intimate with his co-star, it wasn’t half bad – at least if you don’t mind absurd plots, melodramatic overacting and all the actors speaking in Hindi!

The following day, we took a private coach to the Palace of Winds (Hawa Mahal), Amber Fort and Jal Mahal. We spent most of our time at the Amber Fort, a sprawling hilltop palace overlooking a lake. The detail in some of the mosaics and tiled walls was exceptional, and the Hall of Mirrors must have taken years to decorate.

"You're just building a wall to surround yourself..."

“You’re just building a wall to surround yourself…”

Amber Fort

Coconut shy, Amber Fort

That evening, I heard a band playing outside the hotel, and I eventually found a wedding procession outside. The groom was riding a richly decorated horse, and a group of more than 20 people were dancing and playing drums. All part of life’s rich pageant here in India…

We dined at a vegetarian restaurant – which was a bit of a shock! – but at least I had one of my favourite lassis. We were charged 20 rupees (or 20p) for a bottle of water and 130 for the thali (including the lassi). Dinner and drinks for £1.50 – can’t say fairer than that!

The next day, we moved on to the ‘Monkey Temple’ (Galwar Bagh) for some good close-ups of the rhesus macaques and people ritually bathing and lighting candles to set afloat on the water. It was a dirty and decrepit place, but cleanliness is more symbolic than practical in India. As long as the water’s in some sort of temple, it must be ‘clean’!

Our next stop-off was the bird sanctuary at Keoladeo National Park. On the way, we saw a dog eating the carcass of a cow in the middle of the road! When we arrived, Hersh made sure I had a rickshaw to myself, and we saw:

  • Rose-ringed parakeet
  • Jungle burbler
  • Yellow spotted green pigeon
  • Laughing dove
  • Painted stork
  • Spotted owlet
  • Snake bird
  • Medium egret
  • Indian moorhen
  • Collared dove
  • Water hen
  • Black-headed ibis
  • Open-billed stork
  • Spoonbill
  • Hornducks
  • White-throated kingfisher
  • Black-shouldered kite
  • Black drongo
Painted stork

Painted stork

We drove back to the Hotel Surya Bilas Palace. More arches. I’ve seen more arches in the last fortnight than a podiatrist sees in his whole career.

The following morning, I was woken by a buzzing mosquito. I flattened it against the wall and saw a bloodstain. Oops! I hoped it wasn’t my blood, or I might be coming home with malaria!

We drove to the Agra Fort and had a tour guide as we took pictures. It may be a World Heritage Site, but it’s not a beautiful place – very old and dilapidated. The only good thing about it was that we were able to see the Taj Mahal for the first time from the roof terrace.

The most photographed building in the world

The most photographed building in the world

"Play Misty for me..."

“Play Misty for me…”

Later, we drove to the ‘Baby Taj’ (Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah) and took pictures. I got in trouble with the guards three times for trying to take in a tripod and not taking off my shoes (twice). Next stop was the Moonlight Garden, from which we would be able to see the Taj Mahal across the river. We were running late, though, so we found ourselves literally running to get our pictures before the sun went down. In the end, the sun was in the wrong place, and the light wasn’t even that good. There is no ‘golden hour’ for taking pictures in India – only a grey one. All I could do was take the classic symmetrical shots across the river and experiment with framing the Taj in the barbed wire for an ‘Auschwitz shot’. Not a great success.

The following morning, we got up before dawn to queue for the Taj Mahal. This was what we were all here for! On the bus, Hersh told us the story of Shah Jahan, the man who built it. He saw a woman in a market, and it was love at first sight. Her name was Mumtaz Mahal. He asked her to marry him, but she refused. He took another wife, but he couldn’t put her out of his mind, so he went back to her and asked again. Finally, she agreed, but she asked him to make her three solemn promises. First, he should never remarry. Secondly, her son must become the heir to the kingdom. Finally, he would have to build something for her that would be remembered for ever. (And before you start checking on Wikipedia, I admit that this version of events doesn’t bear more than a passing resemblance to the truth, but it appeals to the romantic in me…!)

We took a battery-operated vehicle to the Taj, where the queue was only around 50 people, separated into four lines for men and women, split into tourists and local Indians. One woman passed out – from locking her knees like a soldier on parade, I imagine. Rhys made the mistake of bringing his Swiss Army knife for some reason, so that was confiscated!

I’d starting thinking about this day weeks earlier when reading a photographer’s guide to taking pictures of the Taj, and I was determined to get to the end of the reflecting pool as quickly as possible in order to get the ‘money shot’ that we all recognise from thousands of postcards and guidebooks. Sadly, Hersh insisted that I listen to a briefing from our guide for 25 minutes! Aaaaarrrrggghhh! That wasn’t in the plan at all. Sure enough, when I eventually escaped to take my pictures, the place was crawling with tourists. Not even Photoshop could cope with all those people. Grrrr! We spent a couple of hours walking round, and I did my best to get some unusual and interesting shots, but that’s a tall order when you’re dealing with such a familiar structure. It’s a powerful and imposing structure – much bigger than you imagine – but there is very little detail on the walls, floors or ceilings. This is no Amber Fort. As a result, it’s better seen from a distance than close-up, but it’s none the worse for that.

Seen it all before...

Seen it all before…

Finally, Hersh rounded us all up, and we left the building. In an interesting aside, he said that there never used to be any security barriers. They were only installed very recently. In the old days, anyone could just walk in on a whim. He even told stories of rickshaw drivers sleeping in the actual building itself! That all changed in 1998, sadly, when the Taj Mahal became a World Heritage Site. There’s progress for you…

That evening, we drank wine at the hotel and went out for another incredibly cheap dinner. Hersh arranged a free lift home for me afterwards from one of his taxi driver buddies, but the rest went out to a bar. It must have been a good night, because I later heard Rhys and Joe come in at 0344 in the morning. Joe said, “What a legendary trip!” and Rhys said something unintelligible in Welsh!

After a few goodbyes the following morning, Joe, Jodie, Rhys and I took a taxi to the airport. The driver spat out of the window, drove like a maniac, stopped the car to answer his mobile and actually got out of the cab at a junction! How appropriate. At least the fare was only £1.25 each!

India, India, India. What can we say about you? If you were a woman, you’d definitely be high maintenance, but I’m disappointed that you’ve lost your ability to surprise. Too many films, guidebooks and stories mean you no longer hold the mystery you once did. You’re not the veiled seducer of A Passage to India or the exotic native dancer of the Raj. Predictable, yes, but even predictable can still be dirty, sacred, noisy, colourful, crowded, dangerous, beautiful, remote and wild.

Yosemite and Yellowstone

If they ever made it into a film, they’d cast Minnie Driver as Andreanne, Steven Spielberg as Denni, Matthew Modine as Stefan, Julie Benz as Hannah, Sophie Marceau as Alyona and Matthew McConaughey as Andrew. This collection of Hollywood lookalikes kept me company on a two-week camping tour of some of the most beautiful national parks in America, courtesy of G Adventures. (There were eight girls and only four guys, so they obviously believed in providing plenty of eye candy, too…!)

It started in Kenya. Well, it didn’t really, but my safari over there in January inspired me to try and tick off as many destinations as possible on my ‘bucket list’. Since then, I’ve watched the northern lights in Sweden, lunched at Harry’s Bar in Venice and shot a bison in Yellowstone from 25 yards away, so I’m not doing too badly!

I originally wanted to combine this trip with watching bears catch salmon in Alaska, but you have to book the Brooks Falls Lodge a year in advance, so it was far too late for that. Nevertheless, my main goal was still to be able to take as many shots as possible of the landscapes and wildlife and try to sell them through photo libraries. The itinerary included trips to Glacier National Park, Yellowstone and Yosemite, so I was confident I’d have plenty of opportunities to do that.

Itinerary

Here is the official itinerary of our trip from the G Adventures website. (The letters in brackets show the number of Breakfasts, Lunches and Dinners provided.)

Day 1 Seattle

Arrive to our joining hotel at any time. Welcome meeting at 9pm.

Day 2 Seattle/Coeur D’Alene (1L,1D)

Our journey begins in Seattle, a magnificent city with a modern skyline of glass skyscrapers. Enjoy an orientation tour, including famous Pike Place Market, the waterfront park and the Pioneer Square. Idaho welcomes us with beautiful lakes, mountains, rivers, and fertile valleys that glaciers of the last great ice age left behind. In the evening light up a campfire and experience the first night out under the open sky!

Approximate Distance: 500 km
Estimated Travel Time: 7 hrs (including stops)

Day 3 Glacier NP (1B,1L,1D)

Explore rugged mountains, picturesque river valleys, high desert plains and distinctive small towns and historic districts as we enter the state of Montana. While driving, learn about the American bison that has one of the most dramatic stories regarding human impact on the environment. In the seventeenth century, an estimated 60 million bison roamed the plains of North America yet with the arrival of settlers, the bison were pushed out of their native land and ruthlessly hunted until, by 1890, less than 1,000 animals survived. Chill out and enjoy a picnic lunch at the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, Flathead Lake before we enter Glacier National Park and the day with a sunset over the mountains.

Approximate Distance: 450 km
Estimated Travel Time: 8 hrs (including stops)

Day 4 Glacier NP (1B,1L,1D)

With over 50 glaciers in the park and over 200 lakes or streams, Glacier National Park is a must see! Chose from over 730 miles of hiking trails to really enjoy this wonderful park.From July to August, take a shuttle across the Going to the Sun Road, a spectacular 50-mile highway that clings to the edge of the world as cars and bikes cross over the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. At the end of the day as you pass through the gates and leave Glacier National Park, you may also be a changed person.

Day 5 Glacier NP/Helena (1B,1L,1D)

Today we visit “The Gates of the Mountains”, one of the most widely recognized landmarks of the Lewis and Clark expedition located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains! Great towering walls of limestone still stand guard over the river as we board a comfortable open air boat to discover what nature as to offer. Keep your eyes open for Bighorn sheep and Mountain Goats, Ospreys, Golden or Bald Eagles, vultures and falcons.

Approximate Distance: 345 km
Estimated Travel Time: 7 hrs (including stops)

Day 6 Yellowstone NP (1B,1L,1D)

Discover the wonders of Yellowstone, the world’s first National Park! Yellowstone is beyond special. Geysers, waterfalls, wildlife and scenic beauty are around every corner for you to explore. In fact, Yellowstone National Park is a super volcano with the world’s largest active geyser field, boasting more than 10,000 geysers. The Park is also home to more wild animals than almost anywhere else in the U.S., including roaming bison, gray wolves, elk, black bears and of course the famous grizzly bear! Get a glimpse of these fantastic animals as you don’t leave a stone unturned in spectacular Yellowstone!

Approximate Distance: 350 km
Estimated Travel Time: 7 hrs (including stops)

Day 7 Yellowstone NP (1B,1D)

Today explore the Northern Loop in Yellowstone National Park which features beautiful scenery, exciting wildlife and spectacular hydrothermal features. Discover Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone!

Estimated travel time in park: 4 hrs

Day 8 Yellowstone NP (1B,1L,1D)

More highlights await you as the South Loop goes through some of the most famous landmarks of Yellowstone, including Old Faithful, Lake Village and Grant Village.

Estimated travel time in park: 4 hrs

Day 9 Yellowstone NP/Jackson (1B,1L)

Drive to Grand Teton National Park and view more than twelve peaks at elevation greater than 12.000 feet! Stop at beautiful Jenny Lake and take an optional boat ride across the lake to discover Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. Grand Teton National Park highlights are numerous and each offers a better understanding of this natural phenomenon. In the afternoon we reach Jackson. Jackson’s Town Square offers unique and upscale modern and western shopping opportunities and marvel at the Square’s elk antler arches. Wildlife watching is easy here; elk, deer, and many other small mammals can be found throughout the valley. In the evening step back in time and enjoy a night out with a true Wild Western atmosphere at the One Million Dollar Bar, known world wide for its western dancing and live entertainment!

Approximate Distance: 230 km
Estimated Travel Time: 6 hrs (including stops)

Day 10 Jackson/Salt Lake City (1B,1L)

Optional guided wildlife and whitewater rafting trip down the snake river in Jackson. Leave Yellowstone National Park behind as we continue to Salt Lake City. Orientation tour of Salt Lake City including a visit to Temple Square for views of the world’s largest Mormon Temple.

Approximate Distance: 440 km
Estimated Travel Time: 8 hrs (including stops)

Day 11 Tonopah (1B)

One of the best ways to to experience Nevada is to travel on the “Loneliest Road in America”, a fascinating scenic and historic area through a land seemingly untouched by man. In the evening experience Tonopah’s night sky which is considered among the best in the country for stargazing.

After the long drive to Tonopah, we give up camping today in favour of a night in a hotel.

Approximate Distance: 650 km
Estimated Travel Time: 9 hrs (including stops)

Day 12 Yosemite (1L,1D)

Marvel at the spectacular views of Yosemite National Park’s magnificent peaks and granite domes as you enjoy one of most scenic drives in California: Tioga Pass! Take short hikes to majestic waterfalls, clear lakes, beautiful meadows and walk amongst giant sequoias. With a keen eye, you may be lucky enough to spot black bears, deer or coyotes.

Approximate Distance: 385 km
Estimated Travel Time: 8 hrs (including stops)

Day 13 Yosemite NP (1B,1L,1D)

Full day to explore Yosemite National Park. Hike the many trails Yosemite has to offer and be inspired by this beautiful and amazing landscape. Option to rent bikes in Yosemite Valley.

Estimated travel time in park: 2 hrs

Day 14 San Francisco (1B,1L)

Explore one of the greatest cities in the world: San Francisco! Discover some of the most iconic attractions such as bustling Fisherman’s Wharf or the stately Golden Gate Bridge, a marvel of engineering and deco design. Go back in time and take an optional cable car ride over the steep hills or rent bikes and explore the city on wheels. In the evening optional sunset sailing.

For our final night in San Francisco, we stay close to the action in a hotel in the city centre.

Approximate Distance: 230 km
Estimated Travel Time: 6 hrs (including stops)

Day 15 San Francisco

Depart at any time.”

The trip was branded as ‘YOLO’ (‘You Only Live Once’), which is the tour operator’s way of saying that the service level was going to be fairly basic. We stayed in hotels in Seattle, San Francisco and Tonopah but otherwise camped every night (either in tents or under the stars). Apart from two or three meals out, we also cooked for ourselves. The van had a trailer, and Andrew did a shopping run every couple of days to make sure we had enough food and drink in there to be able to make breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. The usual menu was muesli, yoghurt, toasted bagels and orange juice for breakfast and a picnic lunch consisting of a variety of wraps and breads filled with ham, turkey, cheese and salad. We took it in turns to make dinner in the evening, and we had chilli, hot dogs, burgers or tilapia plus a few meals out at a Mexican restaurant in Tonopah, The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson, Wyoming, and Bistro Boudin in San Francisco. Everybody mucked in when it came to the other chores such as setting and clearing the table, washing up, drying up and putting away. We were also responsible for erecting our own tents, so that was an almost daily ritual unless we spent more than one night at a campsite. However, I was there to take pictures, so I didn’t mind not being able to sleep between Egyptian cotton sheets (unlike a recent girlfriend of mine!)…

As you can see, there was a lot of travelling involved – by the end of trip, we’d managed to drive 3,580 miles through Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California! – but the van was air-conditioned and equipped with charging points for our phones and laptops plus a 4G wi-fi dongle, which worked most of the time except when we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere. We were also able to listen to a selection of tunes from everybody’s iPhones, iPods and other music devices, and the popular favourites turned out to be One-way Ticket and It’s Raining Men! Whodathunkit…?

We stuck pretty closely to the itinerary – apart from being interrogated by the Park Rangers for hiking up a trail in a ‘bear management area’ the day before it was due to open! – but the highlights for me were:

  • Lake Coeur d’Alene
  • Shooting my first bison
  • Whitewater rafting
  • Watching Old Faithful erupt
  • Swimming at the top of Yosemite Falls
  • Sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge
  • Talking to Andrew

Lake Coeur d’Alene

After seeing Stefan’s spectacular nighttime cityscapes and shots of the 4th of July fireworks from the top of the Space Needle in Seattle, I was beginning to think I was missing out on the chance to take any decent photographs. Fortunately, all that changed when we stopped to camp beside Lake Coeur d’Alene. When the sun sets over a body of water, the possibilities are endless. While everyone else was setting up their tents and preparing dinner (sorry, guys…), I spent a good couple of hours capturing the ever-changing colours on the lake. Beautiful, just beautiful.

Mirror, mirror…

Bison

One of the lessons I learned in Kenya was that you have to get up early to make the most of your opportunities to see the wildlife, and I got my reward in Yellowstone when I woke up at 0430 and wandered down to the river to see the sunrise. After taking a few pictures of the Snake River Canyon, I noticed a large, male bison (or buffalo) walking along the path by the water. It was one of those gloriously unique moments when your heart skips a beat and you start shaking with excitement. I was carrying a daypack with my photographic equipment in it and had my camera set up on a tripod, so I initially had to carry everything with me as I followed along behind it. However, all that heavy kit was slowing me down, and the bison was getting away, so I left the tripod and my daypack on the path and set off in pursuit. I didn’t dare get as close as I wanted to, but I got a lucky break when he crossed the river. I was then able to watch from the other side as he shook himself and rolled around in the dust. After that, the bison walked up to the main road and tried to cross. Just at that moment, though, a car came round the corner, and there was a Mexican stand-off as the car and the 2,000lb bison both stopped and watched each other suspiciously. Eventually, the driver let the bison cross. Very sensible. There was only going to be one winner of that argument! When I got back to camp, I told Andrew, “I just shot my first bison!”

“Do ya feel lucky, punk?!”

(I felt rather less special when we parked later that morning within a few yards of another bison, and saw one on the road from no more than six feet away! Oh, well…)

Rafting

Another first came when we went whitewater rafting just outside Jackson. I’d never done it before, so I was keen to tick it off my list. Six of us went on the trip, and our guide was a chap called Billy. He may have looked like a typical California surfer dude, but he was a great guide, knowledgeable about the names of the rapids (Big Kahuna, Lunch Counter and Champagne), the rate of flow (6-20,000 cubic feet per second) and any wildlife we saw along the way. He told (deliberately) bad jokes to jolly us along and explained the dangers of a ‘guide flip’ when the boat folds in half over a wave and springs back, tossing the guide up to 20 feet in the air! Stefan and I had volunteered to be the lead paddlers, so we got very wet, and Joanna took the opportunity to go swimming – as she always did. The rapids were exciting at times but not particularly dangerous. In fact, the most extraordinary things we saw on the river were two bald eagles, the beautifully backlit bubbles on the surface of the river after the Champagne rapid and then a group of surfers surfing upriver in the backwash from one of the waves – there were even girls in bikinis sunbathing on the river bank! Unfortunately, we only had one waterproof camera between us, and the shots Stefan took with it didn’t meet his usual standards, but I don’t blame him for that. He and I were in the bows of the boat and whenever we went through the rapids had most of the water in the Snake River thrown at us!

Old Faithful

When it comes to music, I’m a great believer in seeing the legends. One of the best moments I ever had at a gig was when the MC announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mister James Brown!” It’s the same for the natural wonders. You’ve got to see the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, for example, and Old Faithful is another one on the list. We saw it during the day and at night, and Stefan in particular got a marvellous shot of it by moonlight using his nuclear-powered flash gun. I contented myself with a video of the eruption (together with an enthusiastic running commentary by Andreanne…).


So predictable…

Fly fishing

I like to watch, but I also like to take part. When it comes to fly fishing, I’d never had the chance to do either before, and the nearest I’d got was to come up with a vague plan to go up to Scotland for the Ryder Cup and play some golf, taste some whisky and do some fishing. All that was about to change. One of the many benefits of getting up before dawn turned out to be getting the chance to meet and watch a few fly fishermen down on the Snake River in Yellowstone. They only arrived after about 0630 – shockingly late, for my money! – but that gave me plenty of time to take a few backlit shots against the dawn.

Yet another beautiful sunrise. Yawn...

Yet another beautiful sunrise. Yawn…

One morning, I even saw a fishing coach with his pupil, but I couldn’t pluck up the courage to ask for a lesson. After that, I thought I’d missed my chance, but I told Andrew about it, and he volunteered to take me down to the river to have a look for someone who could teach me. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant at first, but the person he approached turned out to be some random guy spending a quiet afternoon on the river with his family! Encouraged by Andrew to ‘turn on the English charm’, I had a chat with him, and he was happy to give me a quick lesson. I’d heard that casting was very hard to master, and I was a bit worried I’d embarrass myself by hooking my ear or – worse – someone behind me, but it turned out to be remarkably easy. It just boiled down to pulling out a few feet of line with my left hand, flicking the rod backwards and forwards with my right from 11 to one o’clock, pausing for a second or so in the middle, and releasing the extra line as the hook snaked out into the water. At first, I couldn’t see the line or the hook, as the rod I was using didn’t have the thicker, yellow fishing line for the first few feet to help with visibility, but I soon got used to it. Job done. Next…

Swimming at the top of Yosemite Falls

“If you’re going to enjoy something, it has to be long and hard.” That’s what I told Andrew as we hiked to the top of Yosemite Falls. He said he’d only ‘lost’ five members of his group in 15 climbs, but Alyona had already turned back, and Andreanne had at one point curled up into a little ball, refusing to go on until Andrew had a word with her. History does not record his words of wisdom, but it was encouraging enough for her to summon up the courage to complete the climb. She – and everyone else – was rewarded with a delightfully refreshing dip in a couple of pools at the top of the falls (and the sight of Andrew getting his kit off…).

One of Nature’s wonders

Sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge

I lived in San Francisco for three months during my seven-year ‘retirement’ a few years ago, and, in between working on an internet start-up and falling in love with a girl called Anne, I promised myself that I would sail under the Golden Gate Bridge before I left. I failed miserably (as I did with my plan to marry Anne, by the way…), but I finally had the chance to live the dream on this trip when we went on a sunset sail around the bay. This being foggy San Francisco, there was never any chance of actually seeing the sun set, of course, but it was worth it for the moment when we passed under the most famous bridge in the world and then turned and headed for home…

Play Misty for me…

Andrew

I’ve always been the type of guy who is happiest in the company of just one other person. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy being in a group, but I need to have a special connection with someone to have a really good time and feel that somehow I belong. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few best friends and serious relationships along the way, and our ‘Chief Experience Officer’ Andrew Tipton came closest to playing the part of the ‘substitute girlfriend’ on this trip. It’s not often I meet someone who has lived in more places than I have, been successful in more careers and tells better stories than I do, but Andrew certainly fit the bill. I took the chance to sit in the front seat during the first few days of our drive and learned that, as well as being a tour guide, he was also a deep sea fisherman, Star Wars geek, sculptor, glassblower, photographer, chef, yoga coach, published author of two books on sex and education, an expert on the flora and fauna of American national parks and San Francisco architecture and a sailing and surfing instructor in Puerto Rico! He was always good company and quick to help everybody out with their individual needs. We even shared a beautiful night together under the stars (just taking pictures, you understand). Thanks for the memory, Andrew…

“Ooze, baby, ooze…!”

Verdict

While I was away, the Lions won a Test series for the first time in 16 years, Andy Murray became the first Briton to win the Wimbledon Men’s Championship since Fred Perry in 1936, Chris Froome became only the second Briton to win the Tour de France and England took a 2-0 lead in the Ashes. So, was it worth missing one of the greatest fortnights in British sport? Er, yes. Just… I didn’t get as many wildlife shots as I expected, and I sacrificed a couple of opportunities to take pictures for the sake of a good night’s sleep and because I didn’t have the right equipment, but it was great to get away. I needed a holiday, and the scenery we saw – particularly at Yosemite – was spectacular in places. I appreciated the chance to meet and get to know all my fellow travellers, especially Andrew, and, as Humphrey Bogart almost said, we’ll always have bison…

PS

If you’d like the Bridget Jones version of the trip, these are my diary entries:

6 July:

Dreadful airport, “There’s no need to be rude” so why are they? Very tender beef, flight over golf courses of Long Island, Broken City, The Factory, boat wakes stationary from 30k ft, flat landscape looks like map of north of USA with fields instead of states, ‘ovenable’ crostini with pesto, turkey and Edam and mustard, Darling Spuds (w/o weight) and a Lily O’Brien sultana and Crispins cluster, smiled when told 84 degrees, G Adventures PA announcement, water polo camp group, baseball diamonds, “L&G, welcome to Seattle”, iPhone problems – is it still Saturday? Floatplane over CBD, taking photos of Space Needle etc for an hour, intro talk with CEO, sleepwalker, bed at 0600 BST only to be woken up by belated 4th July fireworks at 0200 Zulu

7:

Reading ST on Mac from 0400 in hotel lobby, breakfast at Bacco (eggs salmon Benedict, granola, juice, espresso)

Tour of Seattle

Drive to picnic spot, lunch of sandwiches, tortilla chips, strawberries, grapes

Drive to Safeway for supermarket sweep

Campsite

Sunset photos over the lake

Pasta, tomato sauce, mozzarella, salad, no cake!

Putting up tent

Campfire stories about life-threatening situations

Night photos of lake

Four shooting stars

8:

Breakfast of OJ, yoghurt with strawbs, blueberries, drive and hippy concert

Window blow-out at 70mph

Lunch at Flathead Lake just before rainstorm

Moose Drool beer on offer

Bought Bad rock 115% proof rye whiskey

Saw Stefan’s photos at night from Space Needle with 4 July fireworks and wished I had gone as planned. A good photographer is not a lazy photographer!

Dinner: kebabs, rice, cheesecake, apple/cherry pie, whipped cream

9:

Woke at 0500 – a decent night’s sleep finally!

Packed lunches for Glacier NP, Snyder Lake

Stefan & Katerina late back due to shuttles, so 24oz Pabst beer by Lake MacDonald taking pictures and wading

Fajitas, s’mores round the campfire for the first time after Andrew failed to repair window

10:

Blew up my two mattresses for the first time, so best sleep yet from 1130-0611.

Breakfast: muesli, fruit, bagel, Nutella, strawbs, banana, OJ

Lunch: ham & cheese sandwiches, fajita, strawbs, banana

Upper Coulter Lake boat ride on Missouri River

Mann Gulch fire, 3,000 acres in 12 mins – get outta the green and into the black – 70mph – 13 smokejumpers died

Saw two bald eagles, but Stefan got the money shot, not me, and I was too slow to change my lens to get a proper close-up of the osprey

Went for a swim in Canyon Ferry Lake and helped with dinner – tilapia, yams, broccoli, cabbage

Took sunset photos and showed the girls my pictures on laptop

11:

B’fast of muesli, yoghurt, OJ, nightmares with the window, Pretzel Bacon Cheesburger at Wendy’s

Yellowstone: elk and bison beside road/river but didn’t stop

Set up camp, cooked chilli with Denni and saw Old Faithful

12:

Woke 0430, took pics from 0500 of river, fly fishermen, bison rolling in the dust – had to leave rucksack and tripod by the river

B’fast: toasted bagel with Nutella, peach yoghurt with peaches, OJ

Saw another bison 6′ away on road to Grand Canyon and one 20′ from car park!

Prismatic pools, lost a couple of people, Andrew got ill

Dinner: hot dogs and melted ice cream

Cards and bed

13:

Dawn on the river, lost my tripod bracket, met fly fishermen, one fish ate the whole fly off the line!

B’fast of bagels, peanut butter, Pepper Jack cheese, Nutella, OJ, Basic 4 – bought specially for me by AT!

Shoshone & Yellowstone lake

Hike one day too early and park rangers escorted us out of the park and fined AT

Picnic lunch at wooden Lake Lodge on rocking chairs on veranda

Walk to beach

Hike up to see the view out over Yellowstone lake

Quick visit to prismatic pools for those who missed them last time

Stopped to photo deer

Went fly fishing for the first time with AT

Dinner of burgers, salad, pasta, crisps

Never argue with a Russian about freedom…

Watched OF at night – Stefan got amazing shots with his nuclear-powered flash and moon in the background

14:

Got up 0500 and saw fly fisherman catch a small trout, promised to send him pictures and gave him my card

Breakfast of Great Grains muesli, strawbs, bagel, yoghurt – no juice!

Driving to Jackson, stopped at a waterfall, Jackson Lake and saw the Grand Tetons, rising up suddenly ‘like a grizzly bear rising out of a blueberry patch’!

Lunch: sandwiches, crisps, fruit

Six of us went white water rafting on Snake river, so called because a squiggle in the air by the Shoshone looked more like a snake than a sign for weaving! Billy was a great guide, knowledgeable about the rapids, the rate of flow (6-20,000 cubic feet per second), their names (Big Kahuna, Lunch Counter, Champagne – due to all the bubbles from 70′ of water depth, Shipwreck Rock), stories of the ‘guide flip’ when the guide gets tossed 20′ into the air. Also saw adult and juvenile bald eagles, turkey vulture, one or two seabirds. Stefan and I took the now positions so got very wet. Joanna swam – again – and Alec managed to reboard the boat on only his fourth attempt! Surfers surfing upriver and girls in bikinis beside a hole in the river.

Steak dinner at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, Americans so polite one of the diners called a waiter sir, talked to Andrew who self-published book on sex and relationships then with a friend a syllabus or approach to teaching to change the south, studied business and art, travelled to Ecuadoe, Guatemala, Argentina.

AT monopolised 5 girls in between playing pool with me.

15:

Woke up before dawn again at 0535, but nowhere to take pictures at this campsite, read the paper for a while and caught up on emails.

Usual breakfast and lunch on the way to SLC. Beverly even met cowboys at a rest stop. Tour of Salt Lake City, including walk outside Mormon Temple Square and Capitol. Return to camp, wi-fi nightmare, swimming pool.

Dinner at California Pizza Kitchen where I got asked for ID for the first time in 20 years. Pizza habanera caritas with quesadillas, Blue Moon local beer, told my Neeek story, which went down well – AA thinks I sound like Hugh Grant, and Bev promised to set me up with a friend or her sister in Turkey and a friend in Brisbane arranged for me to meet someone from Australia to show her round London, and we’re due to have lunch on 9/8, so my dance card is filling up. Missed taking photos of lit fountain.

Thunderstorm put paid to sleeping under stars, and we all had to scramble to rescue our stuff. I slept on two rollmats under the awning. Stefan climbed into Andreanne’s tent.

16:

When your towel had been soaked in a rainstorm, it’s tricky to take a shower. You have to run naked from the shower stall to the paper towel dispenser, grab a length of towel, run back to the shower stall and repeat three or four times, all the while hoping nobody walks in on you! Fortunately, that’s unlikely at 0615…

Juice and papers – now that I have the dongle!

B’fast as usual, with AT leaving to get the window fixed at 0645!

Drove across Great Salt Flats, not far from Bonneville’s measured mile, where Bluebird took world land speed record (see Jack Vettriano painting on my wall).

The Loneliest Highway (I89)

Lunch at McGill – one-horse town without the horse?

Arrived in sweltering 87F Tonopah, NV, at 1800 and checked in to motel, Jim Butler Inn & Suites, which miraculously had wi-fi. Mexican at El Marques, fajitas and a Pacifico beer.

17:

Woke up to nice message from a friend in England, entered a See Me competition with photos from trip, breakfasted in office standing up – 2 bananas, 2 Danish pastries, slice of toast with everyone’s favourite Smart Squeeze Non-fat Buttery Spread and honey, read the paper before leaving at 0930 for Yosemite via Lake Mono. Bought 12 12oz Rolling Rock for $8.49. Hiked up in the mountains for 20mins, then drove to Tonya Lake for a swim/paddle. Saw the Half Dome by chance out of the window, as if it was the Eiffel Tower at the end of a Paris street. Went to Swinging Bridge for photos, then stopped at the Village Store. AT worked out we’d driven 3,200m – only 187m to SF. Slept under stars, next to stream and home made swing. Alec hid in Aliona/Joanna’s tent & made them scream. Starting to feel sad with only 2 days left.

18:

Woke up early and read the paper online. Breakfast as usual, and we made sandwiches for a 6-hour hike up to Yosemite Falls. As I told Andrew when Aliona turned back and AA struggled, you can’t enjoy something unless it’s hard and long.

Passed scene of forest fire where defoliated trees recalled a FWW battlefield.

Swam in pools at the top, Joanna losing glasses and borrowing my goggles to find them. Lost her on the way down, Alec and Hannah waited but we all made it tithe Pizza Patio, where I had a root beer and AA wanted to pay me for her drink! Denni showed me photos of the rattlesnake he bumped into! Dinner was tortellini with steak and salad and cookies (and Rolling Rock), then AT invited me to take some night shots with him, so we drove out, climbed the hillside with my camera and tripod and took some shots of the trees, the moon and the stars. Slept under them again.

19:

Last breakfast.

One way ticket and It’s raining men are the soundtrack to this holiday. Picnic lunch in Modesto.

Checked in at The Opal hotel

Sailing:

Dinner: Bistro Boudin clam chowder in sour dough bread, Anchor Steam beer.

Speech: oldest and wisest to say a few words, but Bev wasn’t insured to do it, so I had to take over! The job of a CEO is to make sure we all have a great experience, and we’ve all had a great experience – Stefan with his photos, Joanna hand feeding the squirrels, me seeing the bison and Alyona finding something to moan about every single day! He has to be a substitute girlfriend, always there for companionship, guidance, conversation and making sure dinner’s on the table when we get home. If this trip was a film, it would’ve starred Minnie Driver, S Spielberg, M Modine, Julie Benz from Roswell/Defiance &Sophie Marceau, but that’s just the supporting cast. The true star has been deep sea fisherman, Star Wars geek, sculptor, glassblower, photographer, chef, author of two books on sex and education, sailing and surfing instructor, expert on the flora and fauna of American national parks and SF architecture, I give you M McConaughey, alias Andrew Tipton. We clubbed together to buy you a nice present, but we didn’t have enough, so here’s a card and all the change we had in our pockets…!

Drinks afterwards round the corner with Nadine, Alec, Hannah, Joanna.

Tried to download photos but not enough space.

20:

Continued importing photos and reading the paper, packing up. Super Shuttle to airport. Read the paper on AT&T 4G, but after spending my Vodafone quota of £42.50, I couldn’t use wi-fi at SFO even with an iPhone. Bottle of Tequila landed in my lap, then LHR as grey as ever – despite my trip coinciding with a heat wave in the UK.

Lost & found

Lost: cap, tripod plate

Found: lens cap

Broken: electric toothbrush head, razor head

Northern exposure

Once you start ticking off the things to do on your bucket list, it’s hard to stop, so – inspired by my trip to Kenya – I signed up to go to the Icehotel in January to see the northern lights. (It’s officially called ‘Icehotel’ rather than ‘the Icehotel’ or ‘the Ice Hotel’, but what’s a definite article between friends…)

One of the good things about both holidays was that there were always two goals to look forward to. Not only would I have the chance to go on safari for the first time, but I’d also be able to climb Mount Kenya. In Sweden, seeing the aurora borealis was not guaranteed, but I’d have the experience of staying at the Icehotel and take a few photographs for my collection…

I have to say, it was an expensive trip – I’ve never paid so much for a long weekend! – but it was worth it. After loading up on duty-free champagne and whisky at Heathrow, I suggested to Amanda, Jackie, Susannah and Jason that we start off with a champagne breakfast at the Oyster Bar, and they were easily convinced. When you’ve spent so much money already, you might as well push the boat out!

Kiruna is the most northerly airport I’ve ever flown to, and it wasn’t the only personal milestone I set. After standing on the Equator for the first time and then climbing to the highest point I’d ever reached at the summit of Mount Kenya, I went on to endure the coldest temperature I’ve ever experienced (-35ºC!) and visit the Arctic Circle for the first time.

After a coach ride by the light of the other-worldly, pink ‘Alpenglow’ you only find in the far north or at altitude, we arrived at the Icehotel. We had all booked different activities for each day, but I wanted to avoid the check-in tailback at reception, so I started off by checking out the hotel itself. To call it a hotel is not really fair. It’s more like a village, in which the bit made out of ice is only a small part, alongside dozens of wooden chalets and outbuildings. It is more like Portmeirion, the setting for the cult Sixties spy series The Prisoner – except with everyone wearing snowsuits instead of black and white blazers. Most people know it from the James Bond film Die Another Day, but the scene wasn’t actually shot there. Having said that, you still get the snow and ice and the frozen river – all that’s missing is Halle Berry and the Aston Martin with the built-in rockets and machine guns!

The hotel itself has been around since 1990, when French artist Jannot Derid held an exhibition in an igloo in Jukkasjärvi. Unfortunately, some of the guests couldn’t find rooms in the town, so they were allowed to stay overnight in the exhibition hall – and the legend was born. The first purpose-built ice hotel was built the following year on the Torne river out of ‘snice’ (a mix of snow and ice) from its crystal-clear waters, but it promptly sank! Since then, it has successfully expanded and now accommodates thousands of guests each winter before melting in the summer months and being rebuilt in October. Its most famous export is the Ice Bar, in which everything – including the glasses – is made of ice. It’s a nice idea, but be prepared to pay around £35 for a glass of Laphroaig!

Most of the rooms are of a standard design with a bed covered in a mattress and reindeer hide and a table and chairs made out of ice, but a couple of corridors off the Main Hall contain ‘luxury suites’, which are all designed by individual artists and sculptors whose names are shown on a plaque outside. As the hotel melts each spring, it has to be rebuilt each winter, and the rooms are never the same from one year to the next. My favourites were The Flower, Blue Marine and Dragon Residense [sic], which had an extraordinarily detailed sculpture of a Chinese dragon on the wall. There was also a Church, an Exhibition Hall full of photographs of the construction of the hotel embedded into the icy walls and an Aurora Balcony off the Main Hall from which you could view the northern lights – with a bit of luck…

Our first expedition to see the lights came on the first night, and it was only a partial success. It was going to be cold, so I wore every possible item of clothing I could including the snow suit, boots and leather mittens that the hotel issued to all the guests. We drove snowmobiles out into the wilderness – another first for me – and I felt as though I was further away from any sign of civilisation than I had ever been (until the streetlights came on later…!). When we stopped to look at the sky, we did see a faint, silvery glow, but we were more worried about the freezing temperatures, and I was sufficiently unimpressed that I didn’t even take any pictures. The others did, though, and they were rewarded with an ethereal green glow that showed up much better on camera than we could see with the naked eye. I was disappointed to miss out, but we were soon bundled off to a ‘lavvu’, or traditional tent made by the local Sami people, to warm up, dine on smoked reindeer and lingonberry juice and feed a herd of reindeer. Our guide also helpfully told us how to imitate the calls of the male and female moose…!

We stayed in ‘warm’ accommodation that night, and the following morning I was determined to learn from my experience in Kenya by getting up early to see the dawn. I’d been told that there would only be a couple of hours of daylight that far north, but the sun actually rose just after eight and set around four. A pink and gold sky above a frozen river gives you plenty of chance to take photos, and I stayed out as long as I could before my fingers threatened to drop off with frostbite! Unfortunately, my tripod was not designed for Arctic temperatures, and it broke when I tried to screw on the camera attachment. That was a bit of a blow, as taking pictures of the northern lights was going to be almost impossible without it. Hmm…

Breakfast at the hotel was doubly disappointing. Not only did the restaurant make a hash of the English breakfast and fail to provide either muesli or proper coffee, but I also heard from a girl I’d met on the plane that she and her mother had seen a gloriously ‘ethereal and spiritual’ display of the northern lights just coming back from the restaurant – when the rest of us were busy drinking in the bar! Grrr…

After I broke the bad news to the rest of the party, we all went snowmobiling again and had lunch with a group of other people at a little hut in the forest on the banks of the frozen Torne. Reindeer and lingonberry juice were on the menu again, and I realised we might have to get used to a less than varied diet while we were here! The good news was that the skies were clear, which boded well for our chances of seeing the lights that evening.

Sadly, the good weather didn’t last, and by the time we jumped into a rudimentary sleigh hauled by another snowmobile that night, the clouds had extinguished any hope we had of seeing what we were there for. Riding on the snowmobile, I did get briefly excited by a strange, yellow glow in the sky above the pines, but I was eventually persuaded that it was just light pollution from the local town! (It was still pretty, though…) When we stopped for dinner at another forest hut, our group got separated in the dark, and I almost ended up joining a random Swedish family who were gathering next door! Fortunately, I was rescued before I caused anyone any further embarrassment…

When we got back, we had a few drinks in the ‘warm bar’ together and then prepared ourselves for a night in the Icehotel proper. Before we went in, we were given a ‘survival briefing’ by a prototypical Swedish blonde called Anna. We were told to put all our luggage in storage, check out a four-season sleeping bag from reception and change into thermal underwear, socks, boots and a woolly hat. After that, we were free to walk across the ice to our rooms whenever we liked, swathed in our sleeping bags. My room was number 304, and the temperature inside hovered around -5ºC. The only problem was that the temperature in my sleeping bag was about 35ºC, so I was either very hot or very cold. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get a very good night’s sleep, but that wasn’t the point. It was an experience. And it was certainly worth waking up to the cup of hot lingonberry juice that was brought to my bedside before dawn the next morning – though, sadly, not by Anna…

I hadn’t booked any activities that day, so I watched as the rest of the group went off dog-sledding and ice-sculpting. Fortunately, the hotel had a wi-fi network, but, unfortunately, it didn’t work in the restaurant, so I had to have another disappointing cold breakfast and then traipse across to the ‘warm bar’ to read the papers and catch up on the news. I also collected a special ‘diploma’ from reception to commemorate my stay and record the outside and inside temperatures during the night.

That evening, we had booked a table at a very smart restaurant just down the road called The Homestead. We kicked off with champagne and nibbles in our (warm) chalet and then walked to the restaurant. I got separated again and almost got lost (!), but it was certainly worth the trip. The food was excellent, and it was nice to be able to take off our snowsuits for a change.

After dinner, we had a decision to make. We still hadn’t seen the northern lights in all their glory, so I was keen to take a coach ride north towards Abisko, which is where you apparently had the best chance of seeing them. There were only two seats remaining, and I was determined to make the most of the opportunity (just as in Kenya on the final game drive), but the rest of the group weren’t so keen. Fortunately, that meant I was able to borrow a tripod from Susannah, who was staying behind, so I was all set. I walked back to the meeting point at the Icehotel in time for the minibus ride, only to find Amanda there, too. She had apparently changed her mind, which suited me perfectly. It would be nice to have some company – and, it turned out, some technical expertise…

The minibus driver was Christopher, the same chap who had led us snowmobiling, so Amanda and I had a bit of a chat with him in the front seats as we drove north. After five or ten minutes, I looked out of the window on my side and saw what I thought must have been the northern lights, so I asked Amanda to have a look.

“No, it’s just light pollution,” she said.

After another few minutes, I still wasn’t convinced, so I asked our driver.

“Can you have a look on my side? I think it might be the lights.”

“No, it’s just the ambient light from the town,” he said.

Well, this was no good. When you see swirling patterns of light in the night sky in the Arctic Circle, it’s usually a safe bet that it’s not the glow from a bunch of streetlights! So I had one last go…

“Are you sure it’s not the lights? It looks pretty similar to what I’d expect it to look like…”

“All right,” said Christopher, slowing down and pulling over into a lay-by. “I’ll get out and have a look. Stay here until I get back, everybody, and I’ll tell you if there’s anything to see.”

He got out of the minibus and almost immediately came back to tell us the news.

“Everybody out! It’s the northern lights! It’s magnificent!”

We all piled out excitedly and started fiddling with whatever expensive digital cameras and tripods we had with us. I set my ISO rating to the most sensitive I could and took a shot of the lights. Nothing. I took another shot. Nothing but a black screen. I took a dozen more, and every time the same result. This was not good. After all this effort, not to be able to take any pictures because my camera wasn’t good enough! I was getting worried – particularly when the other photographers seemed to be having no problem at all capturing the moment.

After a few minutes, the display died down, and we drove on a few miles to another lay-by. This time, the green lights were vividly visible to the naked eye, and I set up my camera and tripod again in the hope of salvaging something at least from the trip. Amanda was next to me, and she suggested setting the ISO to 1600 or less.

“You mean 16000?” I queried.

“No, 1600.”

I thought it was a bit bizarre to use a less sensitive setting, but I thought I’d try it. It was better than nothing. And, lo and behold, the first picture I took showed a brilliant green sky above the snow!

“Amanda, come and look! Quick. Come and look. Quickly!” (I was very excited at this point.)

“Yes, I’m walking as fast as I can…Oh, wow!”

Oh, wow, indeed. We drove a few more miles and stopped a couple of times for more shots of the lights, but nothing quite matched that initial thrill. That’s what it was all about…

We met the others later on back at the hotel, and it turned out that they had seen the lights, too, from the Aurora Balcony. That was good news, and I happily went to bed and spent half an hour sorting through all the images on my camera.

The following morning, it had clouded over, so I couldn’t get any shots of the sunrise over the Torne, but we did have a chance to join a group tour of the Icehotel after breakfast. It was interesting to learn about the history of the place and how it was built, although I almost missed the coach to the airport when the tour overran! Disaster averted, I wended my way home.

I enjoyed our trip, and I’m glad I went. My photos may not have been as spectacular as I’d hoped, but that was never going to be in my control. Rather like going on safari, you never know what you’re going to get. However, the combination of staying at the Icehotel and seeing the northern lights makes a good adventure. If you can stand the cold and the food and the sleepless nights and have the odd couple of grand lying around, I’d recommend it!

Mission accomplished.

Picnic on Mount Kenya

During the Second World War, an Italian named Felice Benuzzi decided to escape from a British POW camp in Nanyuki, Kenya. Nothing unusual about that, you might think, but Benuzzi was no ordinary prisoner. He was a keen climber, and he planned to break out of the camp in January 1943, climb Mount Kenya and break back in again two weeks later – he even left a note for the guards! He spent months planning his escape, recruiting a couple of companions to help in the preparations and join him on the climb. He successfully reached Point Lenana and after the war wrote an account of it called No Picnic on Mount Kenya. The trip I booked with Hooley Time in January 2013 marked the 70th anniversary of Benuzzi’s escape, and I bought his book to read on the plane to Nairobi. I also had to invest in one or two other items. This is the kit list we were sent:

Sleeping

  • A decent sleeping bag rated at least ‘three seasons’. four seasons is better or a -5 Celsius rating.
  • Sleeping bag inner sheet made of silk or cotton.
  • Thermal underwear for sleeping.

Clothing

  • To give you more flexibility, it is better to take several lighter layers than a couple of thick, heavy ones.
  • Good quality rain jacket and pants. Make sure it is breathable.
  • Fleece or down jacket.
  • Comfortable trekking pants and shorts preferably made from a modern fabric that ‘wicks’ away the moisture and is breathable.
  • Warm head wear.
  • Gloves.
  • Good quality shock absorbing socks.
  • Sun hat.

Footwear

  • Good walking shoes or boots – mountaineering boots are not required, cross hiking shoes and boots are perfectly adequate. If purchasing new footwear for the trip please ‘break in’ your new purchase by wearing them in for a month before setting. Badly fitting or unused boots can ruin your trip.
  • Spare pair of light shoes/trainers for night time.

Personal Equipment

  • Water bottle at least 1.5 litre capacity.
  • 15+ sunscreen.”

Fully equipped with a rucksack and a borrowed day pack to hold all my gear, I flew to Nairobi on 5 January 2013 with three other Hooley Time members: Caspar, Lucy and Jo. The plan was for us to spend a few days canyoning, climbing, mountain biking and going on ‘game drives’ at Ol Pejeta, then spend a week climbing Mount Kenya and finally check in for a couple of nights at a luxurious ‘eco lodge’ called El Karama. It was an not an auspicious start. First of all, we had to take a Rail Replacement Bus service to the airport, and then I discovered that Terminal 5 didn’t have a champagne and seafood bar for me to visit as I usually do before any flight. I also found out from the others that I’d booked my flight home a day late! No matter. I was soon keenly watching out for the coast of Africa. I’d never been there before, so I couldn’t stop smiling when we finally went ‘feet dry’. Sadly, the first time it happened, it was actually Crete and the second time it was just a large cloud! Third time lucky, we finally emerged over the beautiful deserts of Egypt in the glorious orange light of dawn…

There were no problems on the flight, although we were a little confused about who would be meeting us at the airport. Caspar thought it would be Jomo Kenyatta, but I told him that was unlikely. When we finally arrived, we were whisked away to the Aero Club for the night, where we sank a couple of Tuskers, and then driven to the camp where we would be staying near Mount Kenya. The camp was run by Nick Miller of Rift Valley Adventures, an ex-pat Australian we met for lunch at Barney’s Café next to Nanyuki Airfield.

Ol Pejeta

After a brief orientation, we continued on our journey to the camp at Ol Pejeta, pausing only for the zebra crossings and sleeping policemen the Kenyans like to put on their motorways. Once there, we spent the next few days being waited on hand and foot by most of the Kenyan national mountain biking team. Ochen (pronounced ‘Ocean’), Maina (pronounced ‘Miner’) and Joyce (pronounced ‘Joyce’) were our friendly and helpful companions who taught us how to rock climb and abseil, led us around an outdoor mountain bike obstacle course and gave us a seminar on ‘bush skills’, including how to take down an impala with an assegai and a bow and arrow. Lighting a fire by rubbing two sticks together next to a pile of dried elephant dung was a bit trickier, so we had to leave that to Ochen. We also had time to visit a sign marking the equator, and I stood for the first time with one foot in both hemispheres.

By the end of the first day, we still hadn’t seen the mountain because of a bank of low cloud, so I was determined to get up early to see the sunrise and perhaps shoot an elephant. I had always wanted to be a photographer, so I was keen to take as many photographs as possible with my new ‘bridge’ camera, a Sony HX200V. The 30x optical zoom came in very handy at 0545 the next morning, when the sun rose behind the mountain and turned the whole sky salmon pink. The silhouette of Mount Kenya looks rather like the cross-section of one of the Alpine stages of the Tour de France, and it triggered plenty of nervous conversations about our chances on the climb.

Sunrise over Mount Kenya from Ol Pejeta

Sunrise over Mount Kenya from Ol Pejeta

I was also able to take a few shots of the local wildlife as a herd of impala grazed in the paddock just outside the compound, which was protected by an electrified fence. That was quite reassuring until I saw a baboon hop over it as nonchalantly as you like!

The ‘Big Five’ are the most valuable heads the old big game hunters could put up on the wall – the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo – but you have to be on your toes if you want to spot them. Later that day, Caspar saw a black rhino on his way to the shower and spent the next ten minutes eagerly taking pictures of it wearing only flip-flops and a towel! The best time to see the animals is in the early morning or late afternoon, when it’s not so hot, so we went on ‘game drives’ for three or four hours at 0630 and 1630 each day. Our driver Ndiritu (pronounced ‘William’) took us to the Ol Pejeta conservancy, and the first time we went we saw 16 different mammals including a few chimpanzees at the local sanctuary. We only saw prey animals, such as the impala, the Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, the eland and the hartebeest, and, although we learned a lot about antelope recognition, we were slightly disappointed we didn’t see any predators. We did get charged by an elephant at one point, which was a little unnerving, but Nick told us it was only a ‘fake’ charge! The closest we came to a kill was seeing a hyaena chase a herd of impala and a warthog, but, once the warthog turned his tusks on him, the hyaena lost his nerve and wandered off. The warthog is a comic creation. It holds its tail upright like the aerial on a remote-controlled car, eats with its ‘elbows’ on the table and has the memory of a goldfish. When startled, it will trot away 20 yards and then forget what it was worried about and carry on eating!

After one drive, a Kenyan member of staff asked me whether we had lions in England. No. Leopard? No. Rhinoceros? No. Elephants? No. Buffalo? No…Donkeys? Yes.

Thomson's gazelles

Thomson’s gazelles

Rift Valley Adventures is not really a safari company but an adventure training outfit, so the next day we drove to the Ngare Ndare forest to go canyoning. We had to stop twice on the way to the river, once for a cow standing in the middle of the road and again for six geese. Hours later on the way home, we had to stop for the same six geese!

Canyoning is a modern ‘sport’ that involves dressing up in a wetsuit and helmet and descending a river by ‘tombstoning’ off cliffs and abseiling down waterfalls. We started off in the equivalent of the paddling pool by jumping from three and then four metres under Nick’s guidance. Once we had managed that, we moved on to jumps from nine and then 11 and eight metres. The 11-metre jump was too much for Lucy, who sported a great big bruise on her leg after falling too far forward, so she walked the rest of the way, but we were all determined to do the abseiling. Abseiling down a waterfall is like taking a shower under Niagara Falls. I tried to look up once but just got blinded by what seemed like a fire hose gushing water in my face. Fortunately, someone had taken a few pictures down at the bottom to record my moment of glory.

Abseiling down the waterfall

Abseiling down the waterfall

Mount Kenya

After the game drives, we set off to climb Mount Kenya. Having been briefed the night before by our chief guide Bernard, who told us amongst other things about the ABCs of packing a rucksack (Access, Balance and Compactability), we drove to the gates of the park to meet our porters and begin the walk. In total, there were 18 in the party, including 10 porters, three guides, our chef Paul and the four of us. The idea was that we would carry a day pack for essential items such as water, snacks, rain gear and extra layers while the porters would take our rucksacks up with whatever we needed in the evening, including sleeping bags, roll mats and toiletries. They were also responsible for carrying up all our tents, cooking utensils and provisions, and I spotted one porter with a frying pan in his hand and another with a cardboard slab of 64 fresh eggs! Their fitness was astonishing. We would leave them to strike camp in the morning, but they would pass us on the mountain and still have time to put up our tents before we arrived in the evening. At one point on the descent, they ran down the steep scree slope from Simba Tarn (4600m) to Shipton’s Camp (4200m) in 20 minutes – each carrying a 25kg pack on his back!

We took  the ‘tourist route’ up via Timau in order to acclimatise gradually. Bernard constantly reminded us to breathe deeply, drink plenty of water and take it easy. “Pole, pole,” as he would always say, or “Slowly, slowly” in Swahili. There wasn’t much wildlife to see on the slopes, and I was slightly disappointed we didn’t spot a rhino dozing in the giant heather as Benuzzi thought he might. Having said that, the vegetation was extraordinary, with an almost Jurassic selection of giant groundsel, cabbage groundsel, giant lobelia and water-filled lobelia to keep Lucy – our resident plant expert – constantly on her toes. Everything seemed to be a variation on a British theme – usually a ‘giant’ one.

This is what the guidebook said about the mountain:

“The commanding topographic feature of the Kenya highlands east of the Rift Valley is Mount Kenya; a large central type volcano whose summit stands at 5199 metres above sea level. It was built by intermittent volcanic eruptions, mainly in the period 3.1 to 2.6 million years ago. The base of Mount Kenya is a little over 100 kilometres in diameter and originally the summit must have reached over 7000 metres. Since then, about 35% of the volume has been removed, mainly by glacial erosion on the upper part of the mountain. The highest trekking point, Point Lenana (4985m) involves passing through a dense forest belt, followed by a narrow bamboo belt, before passing into heath and moor lands and finally the alpine zone. The summits of Batian and Nelion are surrounded by glaciers and often covered in snow where the night-time temperature can drop to below -10 degrees Celsius. At any time of the year harsh, cold, wet and windy weather can come from anywhere.”

Batian is the highest peak, but it can only be scaled by experienced climbers, so the plan was to climb the neighbouring Point Lenana, 4985 metres above sea level but ‘only’ 1985 metres above our starting point, which was itself on a plateau. It’s an odd tension between altitude and latitude that produces lush, tropical vegetation where I’d usually be just getting off the cable car to go skiing!

My biggest fear was bad weather, but we were lucky enough to have sunshine every day. None of us suffered from altitude sickness, but we all had problems with diarrhoea at one stage or another, and the combination of frequent toilet breaks – “You drink, you pee,” as Bernard would say – and my snoring made for some uncomfortably sleepless nights, particularly for my tent-mate Caspar! The first night on the mountain, I thought I heard the sound of impala getting frisky with each other, but it was only the girls snoring in the next-door tent…

The other piece of luck we had came when Bernard changing the itinerary. The Sirimon route is the usual way to climb Mount Kenya. It’s shorter, but it involves a significant climb from Shipton’s Camp (4200m) up a long, slippery, scree slope to the summit and back down again. Given our general good health and fitness, he decided to lead us up to Simba Tarn (4600m), which considerably shortened the ascent we’d have to make on the final morning. Two days of climbing up and down a 40-45º scree slope was not easy by any means, and I was lucky to be able to borrow a walking pole to help prevent me slipping and falling, but the payoff was spectacular.

Dawn from the summit of Mount Kenya

Dawn from the summit of Mount Kenya

As we left camp at 0400 by the light of our head torches, I saw a shooting star, and it must have been a good omen, as we reached Point Lenana at 0615, a few minutes before sunrise. We didn’t see anyone else on the mountain until just before the summit, where we met a Swiss climber called Andreas, and it was a good job we did. First of all, he was able to take a picture of all of us, but, more importantly, we were able to tell him he didn’t need ropes and climbing gear to go up to the summit. Bizarrely, that was what his local guide had told him – obviously fresh off the boat from Nairobi…!

We reach the summit of Mount Kenya

We reach the summit of Mount Kenya

The descent was a lot easier, especially now the sun was up, although I did manage to slip and fall once, taking our guide with me! We managed to reach Shipton’s by 1000 with the whole day ahead of us. As it turned out, my stomach was tying itself in knots, and my legs had become a bit wobbly on the final approach to camp, so I took the opportunity in between meals to sleep for about 17 hours! I guess I needed it. Everyone took care of me, giving me Imodium for my diarrhoea, Paracetamol for my headache and even an extra sleeping bag to keep me warm. There were a lot of other groups there, and I pitied one guy who was planning to climb the peak from Shipton’s Camp the following morning and another girl who had done it in the afternoon, thereby missing out on the sunrise. Once she’d seen my photos, she quickly realised her mistake!

The following day, we were due to walk down to Old Moses (3300m) and stay there overnight, but, as the park gate was only a couple of hours further on, we managed to get permission from Nick to ‘walk out’ a day early. That left us with another rest day, which was no bad thing. A proper bed in my own tent was better than a sleeping bag on the ground! Caspar was also in a pretty bad way with heat rash, but a visit to the local doctor at Nanyuki Cottage Hospital and a bottle of calamine lotion sorted him out eventually. There was a conference at the camp, so we kept ourselves to ourselves. It was only later I found out that one of the groups had gone on a game drive and spotted four lions ripping apart an impala 20 metres away while we were having scones for tea!

El Karama

Guy Grant bought El Karama ranch in 1963 when Kenya gained independence, and Guy’s son Murray still runs it with his wife Sophie, who gave us a brief orientation and later invited us up to the family home so that we could use her internet connection to check in. El Karama literally means ‘the prayer’ in Arabic, but a better translation would be ‘the dream’! We had just spent a week walking up and down a mountain without being able to ‘shit, shower and shave’, and we felt ‘like Dorothy when everything just turned to colour’. The girls shared one ‘banda’, or hut, and Caspar and I the other. He even let me have the double bed – luxury! It was the first decent night’s sleep any of us had had in Kenya.

After we’d unpacked, we had an excellent lunch of meatballs, home-baked rosemary bread and fresh salads from the vegetable garden. Our waiter Lovii was training to be a guide, so he also managed to identify a few unusual birds we had seen, including the blue-eared starling, lilac-breasted roller and spotted thick-knee! We were also hoping we might see some hippos at the watering hole nearby, but the Head Man Joseph didn’t find any there, so, armed with his .548 Remington bolt-action rifle, he took us on a day/night game drive. Joseph and Ndiritu both certainly knew their wildlife and made excellent spotters, and the highlight was seeing a herd of eight elephants go down to drink at the water hole. By now, we had seen most of the animals we expected to see, but the big cats remained elusive.

When we came home, we polished off a bottle of Prosecco that Nick had given us to celebrate our successful ascent of Mount Kenya and enjoyed another gorgeous dinner of vegetable soup, chicken and fruit crumble. We rounded off the evening with a game of Chase the Lady, accompanied by a few gin and tonics and a bottle of white wine.

The next day, Lucy was the first to drop out of one of the drives as the enthusiasm of the others began to wane, but I was still keen to make the most of the opportunity. On the final drive, I had the truck to myself and took my 3,000th photo of the holiday!

On our final morning, we packed up our gear and went up to the main house to use the wi-fi connection, which I noticed was still password-protected even though the ranch was surrounded by 15,000 acres! Sophie also gave me a tour of her husband’s studio. He’s a sculptor, and she gave me the background to his bronze studies of elephants, buffalo, warthogs and other animals. Each is a recognisable individual that takes six or 12 months to create, and he goes to great lengths to make sure all the historical and physiological details are right. Local tribesmen even came to him when they found the carcass of a lion to see whether he wanted to make a sculpture out of it!

Finally, we drove back to Nanyuki, and only then were we granted the sight we’d all been waiting for: simba! He was lying under a tree beside a water hole, and we were able to spend a good 15 minutes taking photos and filming him.

Simba

Simba

Elated with our success, we met Nick for a nice coffee at Dormans and had a lazy lunch again at Barney’s Café. The plan was for me to do some rafting with my ‘extra’ day, but that fell through at the last moment. Instead, we all said our goodbyes, and I drove back to Ol Pejeta for dinner with Ochen. We shared a bottle of wine and had a relaxed meal that Paul had again rustled up for us. The food at Ol Pejeta reminded me rather too much of school dinners, but it were perfectly adequate and plentiful. We started each day with muesli, fruit, toast and an English breakfast, followed by a typical packed lunch consisting of two enormous ham and cheese rolls, a bag of Krackles Tingly Cheese & Onion Potato Crisps, a packet of dry biscuits and – if we were lucky – a bar of milk chocolate. We had ‘chai’ around 1600, and dinner consisted of soup, meat and two veg and fresh fruit for dessert. The fruit was deliciously exotic, including oranges, papaya, mango, pineapple and tree tomato. To top it all off, all our meals were served on a nice red check picnic cloth – very Glyndebourne…

Missing out on the rafting trip turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I went out for an early game drive with Ndiritu that ended up lasting seven hours with only a short break for breakfast, which we had back at camp after parking the truck and hopping over the 60,000-volt electric fence! We arrived at the gates of the conservancy just as they opened at 0600, which was early enough to see  the most magnificent sunrise over Mount Kenya. After that, we saw a constant stream of animals in glorious sunshine and two fights: one between a pair of Thomson’s gazelle and another between a warthog and a rhinoceros! You can guess who won that one. The highlight of the morning, though, came when Ndiritu spotted a cheetah ‘timing’ – or stalking – an impala. “Oh, my God!” That’s the only thing you could say…

Cheetah 'timing' an impala

Cheetah ‘timing’ an impala

The journey home was a mirror image of the one to Nairobi – even down to the Rail Replacement Bus service! All I can say is that I don’t know of a better way of losing nine pounds, giving yourself Bradley Wiggins’s thighs and coming home with thousands of images that will last a lifetime.

Asante sana, Kenya…

Here is a list of all the major species of animals (35) and birds (52) that we saw.

Animals

  • African buffalo
  • African bush elephant
  • Agama lizard
  • Beisa oryx
  • Black rhinoceros
  • Burchell’s (plains) zebra
  • Camel
  • Cape (rock) hyrax
  • Caterpillar
  • Chameleon
  • Chimpanzees
  • Common eland
  • Common warthog
  • Crickets
  • Gerenuk
  • Grant’s gazelle
  • Grevy’s zebra
  • Ground squirrel
  • Hare
  • Hippopotamus
  • Impala
  • Jackson’s hartebeest
  • Leopard tortoise
  • Maasai giraffe
  • Olive baboon
  • Reticulated giraffe
  • Salt’s dikdik
  • Silver-backed jackal
  • Spitting cobra
  • Spotted hyaena
  • Thomson’s gazelle
  • Vervet monkey
  • Waterbuck
  • White rhinoceros
  • White-tailed mongoose

Birds

  • African crowned eagle
  • African spoonbill
  • Alpine chat
  • Banded kestrel
  • Black cuckoo
  • Black-bellied bustard
  • Black-shouldered kite
  • Brown parrot
  • Buzzard
  • Common ostrich
  • Corey bustard
  • Crane
  • Crowned crane
  • Crowned plover
  • Drongo
  • Egyptian goose
  • Fish eagle
  • Franklin fowl
  • Greater blue-eared starling
  • Grey heron
  • Hadada ibis
  • Hawk eagle
  • Helmeted bush shrike
  • Helmeted guinea fowl
  • Laughing dove
  • Lilac-breasted roller
  • Malachite sunbird
  • Oxpecker
  • Pied wagtail
  • Red saddlebill
  • Red-billed hornbill
  • Red-eyed eagle
  • Ring-necked doves
  • Sacred ibis
  • Secretary bird
  • Slender-billed starling
  • Snipe
  • Speckled pigeon
  • Speke’s weaver
  • Spotted thick-knee
  • Stork
  • Superb starling
  • Swift
  • Tawny eagle
  • Von der Decken’s hornbill
  • Vulture
  • Vulturine guinea fowl
  • White pelican
  • White stork
  • White-bellied bustard
  • White-necked raven
  • Yellow wagtail
  • Yellow-necked sparrowhawk