Tag Archives: nature

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

Advertisements

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…

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.