Don't poke the bear!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brown bear beside mossy rock below waterfall

Brown bear beside mossy rock below waterfall

Brown bear looking down in shallow rapids

Brown bear looking down in shallow rapids

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

Four brown bear cubs in diagonal line

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

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

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

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

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

Bear about to catch salmon in mouth

Bear about to catch salmon in mouth

Bear about to catch salmon on waterfall

Bear about to catch salmon on waterfall

Brown bear about to catch a salmon

Brown bear about to catch a salmon

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

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

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

 

For more pictures, please go to the Brooks Falls album on Facebook.

Athens

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

Stoa of Attalos: the Athenian version of the local mall

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

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

Close-up of golden eagle head with catchlight

So sharp, I cut my finger...

So sharp, I cut my finger...

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

The idea

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

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

The location

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

The equipment

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

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

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

The settings

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

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

The technique

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

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

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

The post-processing

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

I only had two changes to make to this shot:

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

And then it all went bear-shaped…

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

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

The only Frenchman I know called Eric

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

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

A blonde Norwegian ‘adventure concierge’

A blonde Norwegian ‘adventure concierge’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every picture tells a story

Every picture tells a story

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

“And they were this close!"

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

She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named

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

Eric the Frenchy with some bird

Eric the Frenchy with some bird

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

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

“No, it’s meant to look like that…”

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!

 

Wildlife list

Mammals

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

Birds

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

Flowering plants

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

Tigers and temples

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

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

Delhi

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

Charmed to meet you…

Charmed to meet you…

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

Tigers

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

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

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

“Tiger! Tiger!”

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

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

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

Indian roller

Female wood spider

Female wood spider

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

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

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

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

Sambar deer

Sambar deer

Darth Wader

Darth Wader

“I’m not tired…”

“I’m not tired…”

“This bed’s really comfortable”

“This bed’s really comfortable”

The partridge family

The partridge family

Antlers away

Antlers away

Watch the birdie

Watch the birdie

Spotted deer

Spotted deer

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

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

Temples

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

“Here comes the sun, little darlin’…”

“Here comes the sun, little darlin’…”

“You talkin’ to me?”

“You talkin’ to me?”

I can see you…!

I can see you…!

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

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

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

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

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

Coconut shy, Amber Fort

Coconut shy, Amber Fort

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

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

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

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

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

Painted stork

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

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

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

The most photographed building in the world

The most photographed building in the world

“Play Misty for me…”

“Play Misty for me…”

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

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

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

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

Seen it all before…

Seen it all before…

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

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

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

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