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.
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…!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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).
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…”
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.
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.
Long Tan war memorial with red roses
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.
“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.
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’).
Kevin (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.
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!
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!
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!
Detention 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…
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.
Praying Buddha on gate at Royal Palace
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…
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.
Ta 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).
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…!
As 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 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:
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!
Angkor Wat from our balloon
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.
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’.
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.
‘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…!
Not 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…
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…
The 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…
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!
I’d rather have seen the kill than stopped for lunch!
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…
Teaching Greek children is like watching France play rugby: you never know what you’re going to get…
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…
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
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…
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…
(This is not me)
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!
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 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…
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…
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”
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!
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…
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…
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…
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…
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
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’
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…”
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
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!”
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.
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
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…”
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…”
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!
Northern minke whale
Common ringed plover
Little auk (dovekie)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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…”
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…
…and then I went a bit ‘arty’ with my zoom!
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…?!
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…?
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
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
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
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…!
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…!
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
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
James Bond Island (Khao Phing Kan), Thailand
New Zealand – Queenstown and either Milford or Doubtful Sound for mountain scenery
Easter Island for moai
Hull Wigmen etc in Papua New Guinea
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
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
New Orleans Mardi Gras
Zion National Park
Arches National Park
Crater Lake, Oregon
Bears catching salmon and fly fishing in July/September at the Brooks River falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska
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.
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…
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.
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!
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:
Lesser Edgerton stork
Crescent serpent eagle
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.
“I’m not tired…”
“This bed’s really comfortable”
The partridge family
Watch the birdie
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.
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’…”
“You talkin’ to me?”
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…”
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:
Yellow spotted green pigeon
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
“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…
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.
Since the film with Walter Matthau and Jack Nicholson, any number of people have produced a ‘bucket list’ of things to do or places to see before they ‘kick the bucket’. For my part, I’m a great fan of the civilised picnic, so I’ve called mine a ‘hamper list’ instead. So far, I’ve managed picnics at Christ Church, Lord’s, Wimbledon, Glyndebourne, Noosa, Mount Kenya, the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls (among others), but there are plenty more to go. On the other hand, I’m not going to do any of these things on my own, so I can’t cross any more off the list until I find my own Jack (or Jaclyn) Nicholson to come with me!
The northern lights
I’ve come close to seeing them while flying across the Atlantic, but I was on the wrong side of the plane! Next time, I’ll make sure I’m sitting comfortably on dry, Scandinavian land, nibbling on pickled herring washed down with Swedish vodka.
The Taj Mahal
Two thirds of tourists suffer from Delhi belly in India – and I even managed to catch it from eating food on a Bollywood film set! – so I might not visit go there for a while, but where better to share a chicken tikka marsala, Peshwari naan and a bottle of Tiger beer with your own loved one than in the tomb of another?!
Venice I’ve read too many Donna Leon novels not to want to visit Venice and share a few tramezzini and a bottle of Brunello in a gondola at sunset on the Grand Canal, preferably with someone called Chiara…
Australia I can at least cross off spending New Year on a beach doing what comes naturally with my girlfriend at midnight, but I still have a hankering to visit the kind of remote and deserted swimming hole Paul Hogan and Linda Kozlowski found in Crocodile Dundee. I’d suggest a little barbecued barramundi with a fruity shiraz.
Over the course of five seasons and any number of holidays, I’ve skied in most major resorts in Europe and North America, but I still haven’t had the pleasure of Rocky Mountain powder, preferably in Utah or Colorado. The fare might have to be quite simple, though. Burger and Coke anyone?
Vallée Blanche This has to be the ultimate off-piste challenge. I just wonder where I’d put the champagne and caviare. I so hate skiing with rucksacks…
The pyramids Romance, yes, but not necessarily in a romantic way – even if I could get hold of enough asses’ milk. The second Transformers movie was all about the pyramids, not Megan Fox…
Bears catching salmon in Alaska Bear claw, anyone? I politely asked my best friend’s parents a few years ago where they’d been on holiday, and they told me they’d been to Alaska to watch brown bears catch spawning salmon, strip out their innards in the hunt for caviar and throw away the males. I was speechless…
Parachuting Eating and drinking may not be possible during the flight itself – I’m no James Bond (or Patrick Swayze in Point Break), but this is one of those ultimate experiences that get the adrenal glands working overtime. The closest I’ve ever got was indoor parachute jumping in Las Vegas. That has to change…
The ‘boys only’ category would usually be empty, for obvious reasons, but golf is probably the exception. Sharing a haggis and a nip of Lagavulin from a hip flask with the boys within sight of the hotel on the 18th would be spectacular.
Fly-fishing Another Scottish trip would have to be made to learn the art of fly-fishing, probably on the Dee. It might cost a fin and a gill, but to catch, fillet, cook and eat a salmon would be glorious…
Stag hunting Yet more Scotch mist, but this time in a very good cause. What’s the point of learning how to use a weapon if you can’t use it to bring down such a noble beast?
Bullfighting I blame Hemingway for this one. I read The Sun Also Rises at a formative age, and I’ve wanted to see a bullfight ever since, preferably in Ronda but anywhere the sun shines.