Category Archives: Wildlife

Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City

Palace Hotel Saigon

NA
“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.

NA
“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

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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…

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.