“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” –Mark Jenkins

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Testing the Wide Angle on Llangollen Canal, Wales

f14, 35mm, 1/200s, ISO 400
First time out with a wide angle zoom lens - loved it and tried all sorts of weird and wacky ideas - some worked and some didn't. It took some getting used to, having such a different angle of vision, but I enjoyed the challenge I set myself and came away with a new found respect for landscape photographers that perhaps I was lacking before.
I had been to a talk by Guy Edwardes some time before the trip and he is a fan of capturing star-bursts using a wide angle and a high f-stop (typically anything over f16), then shooting directly at the sun, and so I thought I would give it a go.... not easy in a moving boat, but thankfully the low Autumn sun gave me lots of opportunity to practise. This image of a sunburst through the tunnel was more of a trial-and-error accident than anything considered - but I love it all the same.

I had wanted to try my hand at "creative-blurring" too whilst away and had an image in my head of swans on the water, similar to one of Guy's he had shown of a pelican in flight, but sadly it was much trickier than I ever imagined and so more practise is definitely needed. I did however get some nice motion effects by mounting the camera on the tripod at the front on a fairly slow shutter speed and focusing on a fixed point in the boat which of course does not move in relation to the camera. This gave the illusion of a boat travelling at seriously high speed along the canal, and of course tunnels, bridges and reflection add some good interest and colour.

f22, 16mm,0.4s, ISO 640
We had quite a punishing route this trip and so there were very occasions to be in position for sunrise or sunset as we had hours of cruising time to cram in, but that said, there were some fantastic autumn colours in the trees at dusk - Llangollen truly is beauty.
Now I'm not a huge fan of tunnels, particularly wet ones with next to no space inside and zero lighting, so again I set the camera up to amuse myself and take my mind off the journey through it. Given the severe lack of light in the lengthy Chirk tunnel I had to bump the ISO right up to 12800, but I was again impressed with the D4's ability to still produce a decent shot.
f8, 17mm, 0.4s, ISO 12800!

I also spent some time interval shooting our journey using the in-camera time-lapse function - quite impressive results in a moving boat... I set the camera up on the tripod again on the front of the boat and used a 1 second interval since the boat does not travel too fast - took a few trial and error attempts, but I'm pleased with the results, particularly the sections negotiating the locks.

Looking forward to the next boat trip where I have set myself the challenge of starlight and torch photography - how hard can it be!?

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Heading for the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct ("The Bridge that Connects")

Llangollen Canal RouteSo we are off again - this time to our soggy, but outstandingly beautiful, neighbour: Wales. North Wales to be precise. It's an early start Saturday, heading up to the Anderson boatyard, where 6 of us board the Fjord Emperor for a 7 night cruise along the Llangollen canal. The highlight, and the greatest challenge of the trip will be the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct - the oldest aqueduct in Britain. I say "challenge", not only because it will be a tricky one to photograph, but at 210 years old there are some slightly unnerving facts to get your head round;

  • To keep the aqueduct as light as possible, the skinny masonry piers that hold it up are partly hollow and taper at the top.
  • The mortar in those piers was made of oxen blood, lime and water. Kind of like treacle toffee!
  • It has 18 piers, each 126ft high, and 19 arches each with a 45ft span
  • The aqueduct holds 1.5 million litres of water and takes two hours to drain.
  • The structure is 1,007ft long, with the River Dee running beneath it.
I will be taking my new wide angle lens of course (16-35mm) still not quite sure of the plan for the shot, having not been there before, but with any luck the autumn leaves will still be clinging on in sufficient numbers and the sun will be providing enough of a glow to add some colour to them. The weather does not look great for the week ahead - so it's waterproofs all the way - including a set for my Nikon. 

Monday, 5 October 2015

Bawdsey Hall in Suffolk

Not sure what I thought before when someone mentioned Suffolk.... Sizewell B perhaps? farmers and flat fields? Minsmere and Springwatch? Now however, whenever anyone says Suffolk I will think immediately of Bawdsey Hall. What a truly amazing find - it certainly is "Suffolk's Secret Hideaway" and I intend to be hiding away there for as many years as David, the owner, allows me to.
We discovered it completely by accident (met some fellow amateur photographers on Skomer Island back in July) and decided to go stay and see whether what we had heard from these two guys was really as good as it sounded.... that they had badgers visiting the grounds every night (we were visited 7 times on one night), that they had wildlife camera feeds direct into your bedroom (true - 8 in fact, all fed into 2 channels on the in-room TVs!), and Tawny Owls visited the feeders almost on demand (true again - they are fed day-old chicks on an old tree stump in the grounds which can be viewed from the bedroom windows!). 
There are hares living in the car park, Little Owls living on the barn roof and a range of deer wandering about, including the strange looking, fanged, Chinese Water Deer, but we saw (and heard) only Muntjac. One of which decided to start barking right next to us whilst we silently waited for Badgers - much to the amusement of the owners who were sat yards away at the house listening and giggling (although they did also ferry out cups of tea to us throughout the evening which was a very welcome and appreciated touch).
We were only staying one night, but what a night. After spending some time wandering the grounds and getting acquainted with the various hides and set up, we returned to the Hall for a cuppa and chat with the owners about what to expect. The Badgers did not disappoint - we settled in to some chairs on the lawn around 830pm half obscured by low-hanging branches from a magnificent and very old Tulip tree. We were set up on borrowed tripods with a relatively low ISO and somewhat slow shutter speed ready on cable release - we were coached into waiting for the moment when a badger hears something and raises its head to listen, pausing motionless for a few seconds. With the first visitor around 9pm this happened quite a lot, but with a new lens and some focussing issues I completely failed to get anything half decent. It took a fair amount of practise but luckily I had plenty of opportunities to try again.... we were visited 7 times! at one point two badgers were feeding together which was nice to watch. One of them came across the lawn right in front of us - literally within a few metres - quite remarkable considering we weren't even in a hide! We stayed out until almost 1am when the last badger left and cold toes forced us to call it a night. 
Moth trap at dawn
Cannot wait to book again for the spring time - or even winter snow - I will definitely be looking round for more potential customers in the area to visit from now on. This is definitely a place to break up the monotony of a lonely salespersons typical hotel stays. 

With only a few hours sleep we still managed to get up for 7am Sunday morning and meet "The Moth Man" who was doing his rounds checking for anything spectacular caught in the dozen or so traps around the grounds. We weren't early enough to go with him, but we did manage an hour in the lane hide where we spotted a large dark bird with a white head and fingered wing-tips fly over - no shots, but neither myself nor Gail could place what it might have been. We later discovered it to be a female Marsh Harrier-  my first in fact.
We returned at 8am for our pre-booked full English which was to die for and more than makes up for the lack of restaurant on site - to be fair there is not the time to eat an evening meal anyway - Gail and I had bought sausage rolls and picnic food instead which was perfectly adequate.

Around breakfast time we met with the bird ringer who had set his nets and was returning with his first catch - two tiny Goldcrests. I have never seen one up close before and was completely shocked at just how small they are. His wings were measured and checked, details recorded in a log book and a numbered ring attached to his leg before being let loose again on the bird feeders. After breakfast we set off with him to check the nets again - I was fascinated to see how they untangled them from the fine meshing, but sadly on the round we chose to accompany him on, there was not a single bird caught. Another reason to return (like I really need an excuse!). Bawdsey you are fantastic and I, and probably Gail, will most certainly be back. Thank you.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Last day in Marrakech

Woke early - hot, tired and grumpy. Had enough of shopping but decided to go into souks anyway and ended up getting the most shopping of the whole trip including gifts for Ant and the usual home-made, obscure musical instrument for the house. This time it was a 3-stringed "Gunibri" made from a tortoise shell.
Back to the Riad for our last yummy tagine lunch before checking out and relaxing in the spa with a bit of reflexology and a pedicure. I'm not one for prodding and poking, massage or creams and potions, so I was a little apprehensive. My last few attempts at this form of relaxation have not gone well - but we had time to kill and it was stupidly cheap so I agreed to have another go. I had booked reflexology which I had understood to mean a fancy foot massage so you can imagine my face when she told me I had to take my trousers off and lay face down on the bed with my face in the hole.... here we go again I thought. It would not have been so bad except the room was directly off the courtyard where reception was and she kept going in and out of the room to fetch things, leaving the door wide open each time. One kid came in and asked where the toilet was at one point! Not my definition of relaxing at all, but I have to say the pummelling my calves got eased a fair bit of the walking pain, but sadly the reflexology did nothing for the arthritic pain across the toe joints. Let's hope the miracle Moroccan Argan oil sorts that out instead.
After a sweaty taxi trip and a wave goodbye to the singing mosques, we arrived at the airport to a delayed plane and no real restaurants. Tried to sleep on the way home, but was stupidly uncomfortable. A shame for the trip to end this way, but couldn’t be helped.  I crawled silently into bed at 2am (well my mattress on the floor in our empty house)  – I needed to be back at work 7 hours later.
Full moon over the Medina in Marrakech
All in all, Marrakech was a fantastic weekend break – although I’m not sure I would go back – it’s a real assault on the senses.  I’m very glad I experienced it for myself. Mum and I had a cracking time as always, I'm just not a great lover of shopping and whilst there was an abundance of subjects to take photos of, every single one demanded payment - and not just payment for taking pictures... payment for every picture and again if you used a different camera. Too many people, and the constant haggling, hustle and bustle was too much for my comfort levels I think.
The ancient mystery of the desert snake charmers was also somewhat marred by the wearing of premier league football shirts and tracksuit bottoms.
As someone who was fortunate enough to be born in the UK, I feel somewhat ashamed that I am complaining about the signs Morocco is showing of making progress and morphing into something akin to Western Europe.  But the trip was a harsh reminder that time is running out to see the old world, and all those places I read about as a kid. Soon there will be no ancient places left that are untouched by the laws of the EU or the inappropriate and irreversible actions of the western world. A very saddening thought indeed.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Majorelle Gardens and the Magical Muezzin

There is an enormous mosque in the centre of Marrakech called Koutoubia, which we tried as best we could to photograph, but to be honest it's not particularly attractive, so we wandered the adjacent rose gardens in the morning which sadly weren't much better. We had however switched to taxis to get into town as blisters were already bulging from flip flopping it for 6 hours yesterday - so the walk round was really quite pleasant in the sun.

In the afternoon we took a beautiful horse and cart ride ("Caleshe") to the Majorelle gardens for lunch also known as the "The Yves Saint Laurent gardens" and they were a complete contrast. Absolutely stunning. Cool and shady and with the most perfect specimens I think I have ever seen in a garden. Believe it or not the photo on the right that looks like an elephants foot is a huge tree that was growing in a raised bed and towering over us.

We took a taxi back into town to the Riad for cold showers, olives, wine and champagne before heading back to the main square in time for sunset and dinner which I timelapsed - I had been told about the square and how it comes alive from about 7pm onwards, so I set up the camera on my tripod hoping it would make a good subject.

It felt cooler in the evening as we sat eating; we were quite high up and had the breeze in our faces which was lovely and very welcome. We had lovely staff looking after us, as well as friendly neighbours on the table next door who didn't mind the noise of my camera clicking away as it time-lapsed the busy crowd below backed by the setting sun.
There was a magical moment on that roof terrace which made you hold your breath to listen... It started when the first Muezzin went off far far away in the distance to my left – seemingly on the edge of the Sahara – a few seconds passed and another rang out from a mosque in the opposite direction – it was like the buildings were calling to each other across the desert – eerie, spiritual and somewhat beautiful at the same time. It has to be said though that the other 4 times of the day the minarets blasted out the call to prayer it was just loud and irritating!
We took a tuk-tuk back through the busy square to the Riad for the full moon rising again on the roof terrace (and alcohol allowance of course!). An absolutely amazing day today.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The "Hubbly Jubbly" man

Got up for sunrise only to discover it obscured by the only tree for miles around!! We nicknamed it "The Dodo" on account of its silhouette at night.

Everyone who goes to Marrakech is warned about the illegal guides who happily take you all round the medina for hours, then demand payment for their guiding services before letting you go. So we were clued up on the situation and determined to go it alone. However, when we left the Riad we hadn't got more than a hundred yards when we got accosted by the "Hubbly Jubbly" man who "was not a guide" - telling us that there was a Berber market in town - the last day before the Berbers retreated back to the Atlas mountains and 5,000 people would be haggling for leather at a local auction which is not really for tourists and therefore much better for photographers. Of course it sounded too good to miss and so we confirmed he was not a guide, we confirmed he did not want payment and set off in the direction of the tanneries. Of course he turned out to be a "guide" and although he did take us to visit the tanneries of both Berber and Arab owners, (one does smaller animals - sheep and goats, and the others process the larger animals, camels and cows), he followed this with the obligatory tour of artisan shops owned by various members of his family, a herbal pharmacist run by his sister and finally an antique pot shop that we simply walked out of!  It was at this point we ended up duping him as we refused to pay him a penny and reminded him that he had earlier told us he was "not a guide" and we "don't need to pay me". He clearly wasn't happy, but maybe next time he will think twice about telling lies to tourists.

With aching feet and rumbling tummies, we stopped (or hid) in a cafe in the "Place des Epices" for food and a spot of aerial market photography.
As a predominantly muslim country, there is no alcohol served in restaurants or cafes. So during the heat of the day when westerners are gagging for an ice cold pint, the locals drink mint tea  (nicknamed "Moroccan Whiskey"). For us, it simply meant we had to get ourselves back to the Riad where they sold wine and it was permitted to drink our stash of champagne in the room.

We stayed at the Riad for dinner too, so we could watch the full moon rising around 930pm from the roof terrace, whilst drinking and chatting. so hot - thankful for the gentle breeze that flows across the roof at night.

Friday, 31 July 2015

My 40th Birthday Trip to Marrakesh, Morrocco - Friday 31st July

BA2666 from Gatwick North to Marrakech - traded some Avios points for an upgrade to club class - so made the most of the free champagne in the BA lounge to kick start the trip!

Mum had booked us into the gorgeous Riad dar El Aila spa Hotel in the northern quarter of the Medina. Nearest parking is "Sidi Ben Slimane" for taxis to drop you off then it's a short walk through dark, but not disturbing, alleyways to the Riad.
The ceiling in our room!!
We had a beautifully detailed, and huge, suite with 2 bedrooms, a lounge and bathroom all complete with ancient traditional carving and ironwork. Simply stunning. Unfortunately air-con was only properly installed in one of the bedrooms and the other had only a water-filled floor-fan which was struggling in a room with such high ceilings and no windows at all - so it was pretty much a human size "tagine" I was sleeping in! but a very traditionally Moroccan one and very clean and comfortable.

I had no idea what to expect of a Riad (means "garden") but they are truly awesome - from outside they look nothing more than a dingy door in the wall, but as soon as you get inside, they open up into spacious multi-tiered dwellings with spiral stone staircases and full height trees growing up from the courtyards taller than the buildings around them. A seriously peaceful atmosphere and stunning views from the rooftop restaurant and sun loungers.

After having eaten on the plane and it getting late, we decided not to bother eating again but ventured up onto the roof for a taste of the "Grey" Morroccan wine before bed – the stifling heat and crippling CTS pains in my arms meant sleep was difficult unfortunately - but we were glad to have arrived safe and found a welcoming group of people to be staying with.
The alleyway outside our Riad

Basic language picked up so far...
Thank you sounds like "sho-kran"
Goodbye sounds like "mar-salama" and Merhaba means "you're welcome" (whereas in Turkish it means hello).

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Thursday 2nd July 2015

Heading down to the jetty, tired and slightly hungover but happy
The day started with some frantic packing, a bit of breakfast and quite a few coffees. I walked out one last time to see the Little Owls hoping they had moved along their wall closer to the path (and my waiting lens), but sadly they hadn't and were still happily perched watching me some distance out of reach.  Still no sign of the short-eared owls at all though. Other residents had seen them quartering a few times, but I had only had the briefest glimpse on day one.... a reason to return I guess.

Leaving the Island is pretty much like arriving except in reverse... the residents form a chain down the 87 steps to the jetty and all luggage is passed down before the boat carrying all the new arrivals moors up and we chain-gang their luggage back up the steps to the waiting tractor. Thankfully this time it wasn't raining and of course we had a swirling mass of birds to wonder at whilst working. Sadly for me I was not heading in the direction of home, but straight to Devon for a work meeting in the morning, so I spent the short boat trip, and the subsequent 4 hour drive, dreaming of the hotel menu and deciding which food I would order when I got there... you can imagine my disappointment to realise that the hotel I was staying in had no restaurant at all (or bar for that matter!). I was too shattered to go out so demolished the in-room biscuits and crashed. Next time I visit Skomer I will definitely be a little more prepared!
Leaving the island - David returned
again the following week for group 2

Puffin with Sand-eels in the rain - my favourite shot from the trip

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Last Day on the Island

setting up to timelapse the mist rolling in
The weather started pretty awful - chilly, damp and misty so it seemed as good a time as any to try again with the in-camera timelapse (or interval shooting) so I climbed up onto the trig and set up to shoot the mist rolling in over "The Neck" of the island. The mist was rolling quite quickly and so I probably should have gone for a 2 second interval instead of 3. The wind and rain up on the trig also didn't bode well, but a well-placed pair of waterproofs and a solid tripod, extended as low as it would go, gave me a good starting point to get set up. Then came the checklist of things to remember to turn off... instant playback, auto focus, vibration reduction....and the things to switch.... from RAW to JPG, ISO down to 100 (to force some lag on the shutter speed and create a smoothing effect on the resultant footage) and shut off the viewfinder to avoid any light pollution (probably more applicable at night than during the day, but I figured it's a good habit to get into). I let it run for 20 minutes or so during which time the fog/mist filled the frame so the island completely disappeared before clearing again to reveal the land once more. It wasn't anything amazing, but a good subject to practise on.

The afternoon lesson was one of composition and controlling the background - a lesson Gail and I had attended more than once on previous tours with David, so since the weather had cleared, we spent the time chatting outside to two guys from Bawdsey Hall in Suffolk, not far from where Gail lives. They were clothed head to toe in camo gear and carrying the largest lenses I think I have ever seen... they were on the island for one night, hoping to shoot short-eared owls, but were having a bit of a disastrous trip. However, we did find out all about the B&B they run from Bawdsey Hall - sounds incredible and Gail and I have now booked a night's stay there next month to go check it out - wildlife camera feeds come direct to your bedroom and badgers feed just outside. All set up for photographers and fairly friendly Little Owls too apparently - very much looking forward to it already.
The group at The Wick
After the daily dose of Puffin portraits at The Wick, I wandered back for a second stint in the hide with Kurt. Sadly, on the way out I noticed a Manx Shearwater's head poking up through the boardwalk.... there are a lot of bird carcasses littered all over the island so it wasn't unusual to see dead birds on the ground, but on closer inspection, I realised this one was still alive and had got its head stuck in between the walkway planks - not much we could do except report it to the researchers and let them go and inspect it. I was surprised the Gulls had not already found it and put it out of its misery.

Spent our last night up on “The Trig” (Triangulation Pillar) watching the almost-full moon rising and drinking the remains of everyone’s red wine then up chatting til the early hours... smart move Hedger .... only one morning left to get the shots you want!

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Tuesday 30th June 2015

Catherine swimming with Puffins
One of the ladies on the trip, Catherine, was training for a charity triathlon in aid of Parkinsons disease and she had been regularly running around the island in the mornings to maintain her fitness levels. Monday morning she decided was the perfect morning to follow up her 45 minute run with a 30 minute swim (mad woman) so I headed out at 7am to capture the event for her.... sure enough I found her at the beach near the jetty around 730am stripping down to her costume ready for the second stage of her training - when she got in she gave no indication how cold the water was and bravely headed off round the island in a cloud of Puffins until she was again out of sight. I hung around for a while shooting the wealth of wild flowers clinging to the rocks and the masses of tangled Honeysuckle cascading down the cliffs. It really is a beautiful coastline.
Catherine on the return swim
After Monday's lesson on birds in flight I was lucky enough to have a family of five Oyster Catchers posing for me to practice on during my walk back to the block for breakfast. I tried again after breakfast on Puffins flying in over the jetty, but balancing the ISO with a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the birds rapid flapping I found tricky - particularly with the adverse weather conditions causing constant changes in light levels. ISO AUTO is of course an option, but this feature will select the lowest ISO to match the lens reciprocal - it does assume hand-holding but it really doesn't care about shutter speed - so I came out of AUTO and re-programmed the conveniently-placed video record button to be an ISO control which made life a little easier.
A few tips and tricks from David also helped.... pre-focusing on something the right distance away to minimise the distance the lens has to move when the bird enters the zone, massively improved my ratio of in-focus to blurry - as did limiting the focusing range of the lens, switching to D9 focusing area mode and waiting that fraction of a section longer before engaging the auto-focus in the first place. AF-C is awesome on the D4, but it's a tricky task for any camera and anything you can do to help will hugely reduce the frustration levels.

I left the evening Wick session early to head back and attempt a sunset time lapse (had the sun ever appeared) but on the way back I stopped off at the hide only to discover Kurt already in there snapping away at backlit gulls in flight - the reflection off the water was harsh and made life difficult for the camera, but it was an exciting and slightly frantic 10 minutes after the tedium of The Wick.
Spent the evening time-lapsing the sky and watching the almost full moon rise over the Trig, sipping red wine - such an eerie yet peaceful place. Solitary and yet surrounded. The island was definitely growing on me.
Dusk at The Wick

Monday, 29 June 2015

Monday 29th June 2015 - First in-camera timelapse

First full day on the island started early with breakfast and a walk out to see what was about - then as soon as the day trippers started to arrive, we retreated back into the common room for our first theory session ... Time lapse. There was a lot more to it than I had anticipated and my notes were rapidly filling the single sheet of A4 I had managed to steal (planning failure number 4).
The video here is my very first attempt outside the common room during the lesson. I love the random materialisation of clouds in the middle of the shot, but recognise that having plants in the shot on a windy day really makes a poor and very jerky timelapse.
Thankfully we had some free time available after lunch so we all set off with our new found knowledge and I attempted to time-lapse the waves crashing around beneath me from my lovely spot at the Garland Stone. It turned out complete rubbish and David was right - he predicted it would be rubbish, but said the best way to learn is indeed to try it on all sorts of subjects... clouds racing across the sky, shadows moving over the ground as the sun journeys etc., - just not waves crashing against the rocks as it turns out.
However I do love the process because it goes something a bit like this....

Step 1 : Set up camera on a tripod, fixed nice and low to the ground, so it is stable in the gusty winds.
Step 2 : Dial in all required settings for the environment and finished lapse that you want (admittedly this takes a bit of calculating and good memory/notes)
Step 3 : Take a test shot and if all good... set the interval-shooting going
Step 4 : Sit back and enjoy the view (preferably with a nice glass of something fruity) for anything from 20 to 50 minutes. Lovely.
A surprising addition to the "my kind of photography" list, but quite addictive and makes a welcome change from crawling around in the mud sneaking up on skittish mammals. I've just got to get the subject and settings right before the results are anything to be proud of.
Weather was lovely all day - fresh and windy, but the wind made it very cold in the evening at the Wick - so cold in fact that my fingers went numb and set themselves onto the camera in a fixed frozen grip - very painful. Packing list now contains winter gloves should I ever feel like returning to the Island.
The evening at The Wick was mainly about capturing hundreds more shots like this one.... things can only get better (I believe that was a song by D-Ream?) I didn't stay up for the Manxies, but chose to try and get to sleep ahead of the other snorers in our dorm in readiness for another early start.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Sunday 28th June 2015 - The journey to the island

After an immense breakfast, I left the car at The Clock House, (on account of completely forgetting to book a spot at the farm nearer the jetty in St Martins Haven, which was actually a bit of a result as it meant I didn’t have to pay.. perhaps I should be more disorganised in future?), and Tim dropped me and our luggage down at the beach. He then drove the mile or so back up the hill to park the car securely at the farm for the next four days. All the other members of the group did the same thing leaving me alone with a pile of rucksacks, camera gear, tripods and coolboxes which had to be ferried from the beach, to the end of the jetty where the boat would soon be arriving. Time for the desk-worker to get some exercise... thankfully it was typical English summer weather and a gentle misty rain kept me nice and cool as I trudged like a donkey back and forth along the steps and down the ramp loaded up with very heavy gear.

The boat crossing was as bad as I had feared – the skipper was a happy chap though and made it slightly more bearable. The boat was lurching in all directions for a full fifteen minutes before we rounded the headland into the quieter bay of the island where we moored up to a waiting chain of people snaking up the steps on the face of the cliff, ready to offload our gear. The skies were filled with birds circling the boat and whizzing past it with the wind. The skipper got me off first and I steadied myself before climbing to the top of the cliff to join the end of the chain and start ferrying luggage once more on to the top of the island where a tiny tractor and trailer had backed down the path to meet us.

By lunchtime we (and all our gear) had made it to the residents block and unpacked our belongings, which for me consisted of simply rolling out my sleeping bag on the bottom bunk and sliding my rucksack underneath. Tim was in the bed next to me and David on the bunk above, then Kurt next to Tim and Gail at the other end of the room by the window. It was clean and basic, but on an island covered in Manx Shearwaters that can only be seen at night, I had not expected to be getting much sleep anyway to be honest. The other 3 ladies shared another room down the hall.

Once all the day trippers had left the island (about 430pm) it belonged to the 12 residents (of which our group were 7), 3 researchers, 2 wardens and a few volunteers. Bliss.
The first place people head to see the Puffins is "The Wick" on the southern side of the island, where they fly in towards you (at a ridiculous speed) with beaks full of Sand-eels for their young and crash-land on the soft daisies sometimes inches from your feet. Amazing experience - you cannot help but smile at the antics of these small comical birds.

Every night at 9pm (very awkward time of day for photographers) there is a "bird log" session which is not actually restricted to birds, but has been going since the 40s when researchers log all bird sightings, behaviour and numbers. Anything significant is written on the chalk board in the common room along with the time and location and all residents are welcome to attend and contribute anything they have seen during the day/night, be it bird, butterfly or paupoise etc.

Following sundown and bird log, there is a fair wait before you start to hear the "Manxies" come back around midnight.... flying back from the ocean down into their burrows with food for their young.... in their thousands... making one hell of a racket! but an awesome one at that.
No flash photography at night and our torches were all wrapped in red electrical tape so as not to blind the birds and ultimately make them prey for the Gulls and Peregrines.  On the walk out in the pitch black to see the birds, it was a surprise to be tiptoeing around hundreds of toads too... not something I expected on a coastal island for some reason but the place is overrun with them at night - probably a good thing for me as they gobble up biting insects too... not that I saw, heard or got bitten by anything the entire trip. Result.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Skomer Island, Wales

So it might be a little late coming since I have been back over a month, but moving house to something requiring a little more than simple TLC is playing havoc with my time availability these days - particularly for blogging - apologies. However, I need to get some things written up before my short term memory replaces the trip with other things!

I had only vaguely heard of Skomer island before I went there. I knew it was out at sea somewhere around Britain’s coastline, but I had mentally stuck it somewhere high up north and pictured it as a windswept, desolate place composed mainly of rock and bird crap and covered in Puffins. I booked the tour anyway, since I knew if David was teaching there, it would be worth it.
After some frantic googling (and FlickR-nosing) a few days before the trip, I quickly discovered it is actually an incredibly green and verdant Welsh island with enough soil that hundreds of thousands of pairs of burrowing birds can make their homes there every season to breed. It turns out the island is also made of mainly volcanic rock and so is of massive interest to scientists and conservationists alike. Stuck out in the sea a short distance from the mainland of south Wales, I was becoming more optimistic about the whole trip – despite the best efforts of work colleagues to convince me otherwise.

Saturday 27th June 2015
Having been to see The Who in Hyde Park the night before at a festival with friends, the trip was not destined to start well. I was thankfully not hungover, just really really tired – never a good condition for one of David’s tours. I had to do all food shopping and packing in the morning too as I had been away for work all week – laying out meals on the floor and then adding spares as instructed in case bad weather caused us to get stuck on the island. We were told there are two cookers and ample shared fridge space as well as all cooking utensils, pans and crockery on the island in the residents block and that all we need take is food and drink for 5 days, some bedding, clothes and of course camera gear. I took only my new Nikon with both lenses (the 80-400mm cheapie and the VRII 70-200mm beast). I later came to realise I had not packed anywhere near enough clothing and way too much food!
I set off on the 6 hour drive after lunch - aiming to arrive in time for a shower before meeting the group for dinner at 7pm in the local pub – “The Lobster Pot”. Once I had got past the boring motorway sections (M25>M4) the trip actually allowed me one of the nicest drives through western Britain I think I have ever had, with a night in the timeless village of Marloes, to kick it all off with. Although in stereotypical Welsh fashion, the rain started just as I crossed the Severn Bridge.
I’m sure the journey would not have taken me so long had I not found myself following David Plummer and deciding it would be impolite to overtake... I crawled along behind him for miles and miles and just as I was about to arrive in the village of Marloes, he turned off into the supermarket… probably to get supplies I thought…. however it turns out it wasn’t him at all – what on earth the driver in that jeep thought of the mad woman in a fairly nippy car, refusing to overtake and waving at him periodically, I don’t know.
Anyway, I finally arrived at The Clock House (B&B in Marloes) run by John and his wife with time for a quick shower and change. Met a fellow “student”, Tim, in the hallway who was also on his way to meet David for dinner – Tim is an ex Director of Britvic (one of my old customers – small world).  Already in the pub, were the two ladies who had volunteered on the island last year, (Leslie and Sally) as well as another two ladies, Catherine and Gail (Both had been on at least one of David’s tours before) and one other guy called Kurt; lovely guy, from Switzerland I believe, who had spent the last week with David on his residential course at Knepp Safaris in West Sussex.
As we ate, the rain continued and the wind picked up, it was looking dubious for a crossing in the morning… or were they simply winding me up? (I don’t do open water very well). There aren’t many things in this world that frighten me, but open water, submerged seaweed and chavs are probably my top three. I knew I had get a good night’s sleep if I was to survive the next 4 days.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Day 8 - Sadly our last day in Kenya

We woke at 545am and left at 615am alone in the truck with Charles. The New Yorkers have moved on to their next African camp (lucky sods) and this is our last game drive of the trip.
Whilst watching a bunch of lion cubs mucking about around a kill before dawn, we heard alarm calls close by coming from 3 black-backed jackals and decided to investigate. As we neared Charles worked out that one of the jackals (they always move in pairs) had been taken and he suspected a Leopard. The Jackals were surrounding a lugga and so we assumed the Leopard was still inside the bushes hiding somewhere within. Some clever maneuvering from Charles and we had a perfect view of what appeared to be Fig's sister staring out from the bushes at us; no sooner had I fired off a couple of shots when she bolted out of the greenery and across open space to the next group of shrubs. She was fast and without a kill - the Jackals continued barking and calling in a strange high-pitched yelp - but she was gone - and we suspect her kill well hidden for her return later. Getting hungry we moved off to a lovely spot for breakfast with frogs calling and spent some time taking background scenic shots which often get forgotten on these trips. I took lots of the various patterns that can be seen in the bark, the rocks, the mud and the grasses - but the temperature was rising fast and a seat in shade eating fresh fruit was much more preferable.
 After breakfast we ventured back to Fig's territory for last time and saw no sign of her kill, so either hyenas stole it, or she has brought it down and hidden it again. Bye bye beautiful Fig, wherever you are - and we hope after last week's events you are indeed pregnant!
Passing some truly stunning scenery we saw Africa's tiniest Kingfisher, The African Pygmy, which was another lifer for me. (I can't quite believe I am actually keeping a record of the bird's I've seen - how did that happen?).
The next creature we passed was even more obliging and wandered right up to the truck to Caro's waiting lens - A male leopard tortoise. Charles reckons it was about 50 years old! - certainly seemed friendly enough. Soon after we found Mohican (the male Lion) lounging under a tree with a young, but very dead, untouched buffalo at his feet. But the stench of his continual farting put us off hanging around and we headed back to camp. Sad to be leaving, but hopeful for the future of the animals in the Mara. They have some great protection and despite the two dead cheetahs, everything seems to be going ok for them right now.

Our last lunch was superb and we were joined by the new arrivals into camp - how jealous of them are we!?  they have it all to come - one couple were from Tunbridge Wells (or thereabouts), and so not far from us - one set go home and another arrive. We arranged with Darren for our driver in Nairobi to take us to the Ole Sereni for dinner (which overlooks Nairobi National Park), before going on to the airport as our flight was not until almost midnight. The same BA night flight as Richard and his student, Dave, in fact.
Thank fully we were pretty shattered by the time the plane took off and managed to sleep/doze most of the way home - but arriving in the UK was a definite slap in the face - we arrived at 6am in the dark and cold, and I was back at my desk in the office by 9am! Definitely time to book the next trip - Puma's in Patagonia maybe?

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Day 7 - Narashas evening meal

Finally.... a stunning African sunrise, spent with "teenage" lions play fighting and taking turns eating their way through a dead buffalo. Charles excelled himself again by predicting the behaviour of the adolescents and getting us into the perfect position for this shot of the brothers sharing a morning slurp.
We left them as the sun started to heat up and the lions activity slowed down. We wanted to find more cheetahs as we didn't really have any action shots of these high speed cats - which are one of my favourites - they have so much going against them and with two males recently found dead through viral disease, their future in the Mara doesn't look bright. We set off in search and came across all manner of things... Vultures and Maribou stock fighting over a stripped carcass, (just a ribcage really), a Kestrel performing acrobatics and Egyptian Geese mating (which looked more like drowning) but we eventually found "Amani", a female cheetah - Imani's mother in fact. We sat with her a while, until a really noisy truck from another camp announced it arrival with squealing brakes and serious engine roar - it's a wonder the p
assengers have seen any wildlife at all!
Today's lesson from our American friends, (prompted by the mating geese), was that of a "Rapid Roy" - which equates to a British "quickie", something the African wildlife seem to favour - although the Lions apparently practise the "Rapid Roy" every 15 minutes for 3 days!!!!
We passed a 2 week old Thompsons gazelle with Mum, and another dead Thompsons that Amani had not eaten. We, however, ate very well, with Eagles flying overhead - this mornings 4 course picnic breakfast consisted of a fantastic mushroom and potato frittata with chilli sauce and sausages, yoghurt and cereal, fresh papaya, pineapple and melon, fruit juices, Earl grey tea, pastries and banana muffins - totally spoilt and totally stuffed!

Charles' Swahili Lesson for today
Imani - Faith
Amani - Peace
If you call someone a....
Leopard, it means you are secretive
Cheetah means you are fast
Hippo means you are fat
Fisi (Hyena) means you are greedy
Warthog means you have a crap memory
"ooh-ka-joo" (no idea of the spelling) - means you're smart!

Charles' Wildlife Lessons for today
1) Hyena hierarchy dictates that the lower ranking females get left with the bones. The females are more dominant than the males as well as physically larger, yet still the entire family greet each other by licking each others bits!!!
2) Leopard and baboons live in the same habitat and have the same lifestyle which is why there are often disputes between them.

Tiredness is beginning to take its' toll now - seriously falling asleep behind the lens today.  I don't suppose the G&T at lunchtime helped - but hey ho - am on holiday this time instead of a purely photographic tour which is kinda nice. Incidentally there was nothing on the camera trap last night so Darren kindly reset it for us for tonight.
Noticed during our down time that both feet are now missing a fair amount of skin through scratching and sweaty socks, but the talc is helping - shame the anti-histamine isn't. Managed a 1h20m nap after lunch too which was much needed - and thankfully put me back on track.
All the Masai staff here have taken to calling Caroline, "Caro" which takes a bit of getting used to, since it is a new one she hasn't been called before - but I quite like it. So as we left on our sundown game drive, Caro joked with our amazing driver, and requested 3 things... As it was our last evening drive, she wanted a perfect buffalo skull with dark horns, a cheetah kill, and the perfect African sunset - she got them all within a couple of hours! Charles you are simply outstanding.
We were still within site of camp when we snapped away at a perfect buffalo skull, before spotting a massive herd of gazelles legging it across the horizon.... the chase was on.... moments later we were watching "Narasha", a lone female cheetah, looking very hungry and thin, hunting for a baby gazelle.
We learnt that gazelles hide their offspring in the depressions on the plains when danger approaches and they apparently remember exactly the spot they left them and the babies instinctively know to lay low and keep still and quiet. It was fascinating to watch all the mother gazelles trying desperately to distract the cheetah from where they left their young... drawing her away. Unfortunately for one mother though, Narasha stumbled in the wrong direction and came upon a very young Grants baby - which she quickly grabbed by the neck and started feeding. Surprisingly she didn't kill it first -
the baby remained alive a lot longer than I ever imagined it would - it was quite alarming as the mother was only 100m away looking on, clearly distressed. Jennifer was also slightly distressed - but equally fascinated. The mother continued calling her young - the baby continued replying. In fact, the baby was still moving and calling, even after its innards had been eaten! The stomach was still full of nutritional mothers milk, so Narasha ate it, before moving to systematically skin the foal over a period of 45 minutes, whilst vultures circled overhead. At one point, we realised the mother still wasn't sure, when she saw off a couple of approaching black-backed jackals in the hope that it wasn't her baby that Narasha was munching on. Narasha didn't seem nervous at all, she ate, scanned the horizon occasionally and then ate some more. Typically Cheetahs have to eat very quickly as scavengers will often steal the kill. But on this occasion she was able to continue till there was nothing but hooves and skin left - she even ate the skull and brain which would have still been soft because the foal was only a matter of days old.
The adrenaline and rapidly diminishing light caused some frustration with camera controls, particularly for Caro, but admirably she persevered and we both got some great shots. Amazing experience. We then raced to capture our last dramatic sunset, lying face down on the plains whilst our American companions took dodgey photos of us and drank wine - our last drive together as a group was rapidly coming to an end and we giggled our way back to camp with the wind in our hair. So going to miss this place. It's simply magical.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Day 6 - Fig Friday

Last night I had spent the evening chatting to 70 year old egg farmer, Ken Staverley, about Moba machinery and his factory in Lancashire. An interesting conversation with a charming, if a little tipsy, gentleman. So today, of course, the girls took the mick. Which made for a very giggly and lighthearted safari truck - right from the word go at 615am.
Charles excelled himself today, also from the word go.... even before dawn, he managed to get us into the best position, a foot deep in water, half way across the river, in perfect time for a pride of lions who were about to cross with their cubs. The ISO was bumped right up and both cameras had to be used as the cubs came a little too close for my borrowed Nikon lens, but I absolutely adore this shot of one of the cubs, growling at the water, as he tentatively padded from stone to stone right in front of us. Such a memorable moment.
After dawn, we found Fig guarding last nights kill (baby wildebeest), which was up a tree. Charles thinks the reason she stashed it instead of eating it last night is because she already killed and ate a baby impala right after we left her, so the wildebeest must have been a second opportune kill. Charles knew she would have to get the kill down at some point to hide it during the day, so we had breakfast in the van and waited to see what she would do. Trucks came and went - we stayed, and thankfully
our patience was well rewarded with three glorious hours of exhilarating "Fig" action. First she came from the bushes in front and trotted over to climb the tree and retrieve the baby wildebeest with immense jaw strength and grace - blink and you would have missed her get up that tree trunk - she took a little longer getting back down with the kill - tugging and pulling to free it from it's wedged position of safety 3 metres up. Then she caught her breath at the foot of the tree occasionally licking the kill before removing the innards and burying them in the dirt.

Next, just as we finished re-positioning the truck she dragged the kill right out into the open in front of us and into another bush 20 or so yards away from the first, but 2 metres from our truck! Charles is definitely worthy of his reputation as the best guide/driver - all other trucks had a blocked view behind us and no space left to re-position - we felt very privileged - and Fig did not seem to mind at all - casually going about her daily routine - she left the kill hidden from scavengers and went to a hippo pool for a crap before settling down in the shade under Richard Costin's van for a well earned rest - how funny that she chose the only professional photographers vehicle to hide herself under - totally out of reach of his lens.

Back at camp for lunch and the conversation was flowing much more freely from the shared Leopard experience - to the point where straight-laced New Yorker, Jennifer decided it was a good time to test out her use of the British word "w**ker!!!!" hilarious. Pretty sure she had no idea how rude a word it is in Britain!
Cleared and transferred my cards and Darren set up his camera trap outside our tent for us ready for the night watch. A 30 minute nap and I felt right as rain and ready for the afternoon drive. Caroline however cannot have felt as good as she mistook these two giraffes for elephants at one point! We saw quite a few elephants today, in a herd, young and old, scratching the ground with their feet to get at the minerals underneath, drinking seriously muddy water and splashing themselves to cool off and cake themselves in it like sunscreen. We also saw a massive troop of baboons, more lions with cubs, and during another non-existent sun at the sunset hour, we decided to stay with a large male lion called "Mohican". No sooner had we sipped our first and got the nibbles out when Charles suggested there might actually be a sunset after-all and so we grabbed hold of everything and sped off towards the open plains with moments to spare. We were going so fast racing across the grasses that Charles ordered Sam and Jennifer who were right in the back ~(the bumpiest seats) to ditch their wine out the side of the van in order to properly hang on - the look of horror on mine and Caroline's faces as Sam's full glass of white went sloshing to the ground told Jennifer all she needed to know about us two - we laughed and laughed but eventually we got our first sunset of the trip under dramatic African skies whilst the ladies polished off the rest of two bottles of wine. The perfect end to another incredible day.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Day 5 - Thursday, Malika and her cubs

Finally clear sky! when we left at 615am we could definitely see stars! not many, but they were definitely visible... our 1st sunrise of the trip!! closely followed by more lions and some hippos in the water. We spent a bit of time with one of the known female cheetahs, called Malika, and her four cubs - but they were pretty lazy and lying flat out on the plains for most of the time - worn out, so we left them and went for a picnic breakfast by a river under the trees which was just gorgeous. The rains had caused a few problems across the area as crossing points became a little more exciting than usual - this particular one we didn't bother with - Charles' gut instinct told him to cross further up - you didn't hear any complaints from us ladies in the back - we've already seen a massive Nile Crocodile disappear into the water as we plunged across in the truck a few just metres away.
There's been excitement in camp over learning (and subsequently managing to recall) the various names of collective creatures, such as a troop of baboons or my personal favourite, a dazzle of zebra... today we saw a journey of 12 Giraffes (when moving they are known as a journey and when stationary they become known as a tower). Camp guests have become so obsessed that Emma has printed out pages of lists for everyone - I can barely get the animal names right, let alone the collectives as well.

Kiki (Greek wildlife photographer) arrived today, but sadly, his luggage did not. We also have Richard Costin in camp at the moment, another impressive British wildlife photographer, here with his student, Dave, and his Nikon gear to try out - the same lens I have - 80-400mm f4.5. Excited to see what he makes of it.

Abraham, our Masai waiter, serving our table again today and since I am of course the piggiest of all the camp guests, I am always the first to the alfresco dining table with my plate of food -which also means I get to spend some time chatting to him about his life in the Mara and his family - truly fascinating. Depsite the leftovers being made available to these tribesmen, they prefer to eat only their typical diet of Ugali and Matooke with various relishes. Not the choice I would make given the delicious alternatives on offer here.
After a bit of a rest and the usual clearing down of cards and transferring to remote hard drive for safe storage we were off again at 4pm.... this time chasing Vervet monkeys, Olive baboons and Imani, an 18 month old Cheetah alone on the plains. Then by sheer accident we spent time with tiny lion cubs 2-3 months old... it seemed every place we chose for a pee stop, kept popping up lions!

We also had our first sighting of Fig the Leopard towards the end of the afternoon, and she didn't disappoint - bounding down the rocks in front of us, and pausing a few feet from the front of the truck before moving off on her way to hunt a baby Impala in the approaching darkness. Astounded how well the D4 performs in low light conditions - simply magic.
Whilst Kiki was shooting giraffe silhouetted against a lightning storm on the horizon (for his new book about light), we drank sundowners 200 yards away from Fig. What more could anyone want.