The ones that got away

I get nervous before I go on photography trips. Part of that is just worrying about travel arrangements, visas and packing everything I need, but another part of it is worrying that I won't get the shots I want. Here are a few examples of 'the ones that got away'.

Taj Mahal

Before I went to the Taj Mahal, I was determined to get the classic 'Lady Diana' shot of the building from the end of the reflecting pools. That was the whole point of the trip, and I was really worried about it. I couldn't face the idea of screwing up what would probably be my only opportunity to visit the world's most famous building.

When I arrived in India on a G Adventures trip in November 2013, we went to the Taj Mahal early one morning, around 0530. We had to queue for a while and then go through security. At that point, I was about to rush off and take the shot I'd been dreaming about, but our tour leader then introduced us all to a local guide who was about to give us a 15-minute lecture about the building. What a nightmare! I knew that the whole place would be crawling with tourists if I didn't go and take the shot immediately, but it seemed a bit rude just to rush off without hearing the talk. In the end, I was too British about the whole thing and missed the shot of a lifetime. Too bad. On the plus side, I ended up with this image of the Taj Mahal.

'There once lived an exotic princess in a fairy tale castle...'

It's the very opposite of the 'Lady Diana' shot. One is all symmetry and clarity, the other is misty and mysterious. The higgledy-piggledy minarets and the blue haze make the building seem more like a fairy tale castle. I do like this shot, but I still regret being too polite to get the one I wanted...!

Jumping impala

Not quite sharp enough...

This would've been a great shot. It could've been a great shot. It should've been a great shot. But it wasn't. Why? Motion blur. If you look closely, you can see that the whole body is slightly out of focus, and that was simply because I didn't think to change my shutter speed. I was parked in a jeep in Botswana when a herd of impala came chasing across the road. They were galloping fast, but there were five or six of them, so I did have time to focus on each of them, one by one, as they crossed the road in turn. Unfortunately, I was using my default camera settings that were designed to capture animals that were standing still. I was using an 80-400mm lens, so I had my camera on 1/320 and f/8 with auto ISO. That would normally have worked, but not for a jumping impala! What I really needed was a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. I just didn't think...

Caracal

This is what it looks like on Wikipedia.

A few years ago, I went to a talk given by Paul Goldstein somewhere in London, and one of the slides he showed was a picture of a caracal. I'd never seen one at the time, but Paul was very proud of his shot, which showed a caracal from the side running through long grass. The image stayed in my mind, and I was very excited when I went to Tanzania in January 2018 and actually saw one for myself! It was quite a way away, but I had my 800mm lens with me, and I was just about to take a shot when the driver told me to wait. He was going to drive around and get closer. Well, funnily enough, the caracal disappeared, and I never got the shot I wanted...

Polar bear

The best of a bad bunch

In June 2014, I went on an Exodus trip with Paul Goldstein to Spitsbergen to see the polar bear. It was a last-minute booking, so I got a good deal on the price, and I was lucky enough to share a cabin with a nice French chap called Eric, but the real prize was getting some good shots of a polar bear. We had 13 or so sightings, but, sadly, they were all too far away for my 500mm lens. That was in the days before I got into the habit of renting the Nikon 800mm monster, and I really wish I'd had it then. Amongst other sightings, a mother and her two cubs put on a great show for us on the ice, but, when I got back to my cabin to review my shots, I found they were all too soft and too distant. Ah, well, at least I have an excuse to go again now...

The kill

I've been to Africa several times now, visiting Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia and Botswana, but I've never seen a kill. I've seen the chase, and I've seen the predator eating its prey, but I've never seen the crucial moment of the kill. Now, I know some people would be a little squeamish about seeing one animal kill another, but I don't think I'd feel that way. To me, it's the ultimate expression of 'the survival of the fittest', and I'd love to see a lion, leopard or cheetah kill something on the great plains of Africa.

I have many stories of 'the one that got away'. There was the time when I climbed Mount Kenya and arrived back at the camp, only to find that everyone that morning had spent an hour watching a pride of lions kill a wildebeest 50 yards away from the gate of the national park! Or there was the time on the same trip when I booked the wrong flight home and had the chance to spend an extra day on my very own personal game drive. We saw a cheetah 'timing' (or hunting) an impala, and it was the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me in Africa - but no kill. In Antarctica, I watched from a Zodiac as a leopard seal ripped apart a penguin, but I didn't quite see the initial attack. In the Brazilian Pantanal, I was watching a jaguar on the river bank from a small boat when the call came over the radio that lunch was ready. No sooner had we met up with the other boat than we had another call, this time to say that the very same jaguar had just killed a caiman! We rushed back and watched as the young jaguar made a mess of the whole thing. To begin with, he had hold of his prey by the throat rather than the back of the neck. This is fine if you're a lion, but jaguars prefer to kill caiman (or small crocodiles) by nipping them on the back of the neck. This jaguar was in a bit of a bind: he didn't want to kill the caiman the 'wrong' way, but he couldn't change his grip in case it got away. He spent 10 minutes humming and hawing before finally killing the caiman, but that was only the start of his problems. His next job was to find a safe place to store his prey, but the banks of the river were 8-10ft high and very steep, so he spent another 25 minutes trying to find a way up into the undergrowth, desperately trying to drag the 10ft crocodile with him. By this stage, around 20 boats had gathered to see the jaguar, and, when he eventually managed to scramble up the bank with his kill, everybody gave him a big round of applause!

I'd rather have seen the kill than stopped for lunch!

 

Conclusion

All this goes to show exactly how close I've come to the elusive kill, but no luck so far. However, I'm off to the Masai Mara in a couple of weeks, so maybe, just maybe I'll be able to bring back the shot I've been dying to get...

Just jaguars

Jaguars, ocelots, capybaras, giant river otters, the great potoo, hyacinth macaws, anteaters...If you can do without hot water and decent food for a couple of weeks, the Pantanal is for you!

This is not a leopard

This is not a leopard

I've just come back from a two-week photographic safari to the Pantanla in Brazil with Naturetrek. I love taking pictures of predators, but I was running out. I'd seen lions, leopards, cheetahs, tigers, grizzly bears and polar bears, and the only major one left was the jaguar. Until this trip, the closest I'd come to one was driving around in my E-type, but that was a long time ago...

The trip was geared to the needs of photographers, and there were five guests led by a tour leader and local guide. The leader was a professional wildlife photographer called Andy Skillen, and he was an excellent choice. He was very patient and helpful in giving advice to all of us and was generally very good company with a great sense of humour. The guide was a local man called Paulo Ribeiro, and his knowledge of the local bird life in particular was exceptional...although he did have a guidebook in his back pocket for most of the trip!

We flew to Cuiabá via São Paulo and then drove in a minibus followed by a rickety old truck with open sides to our first port of call: the SouthWild Pantanal Lodge in Pocone. On the way, I stopped to buy a very important present. I have a tradition of buying cuddly toys for the young daughter of a friend of mine, and there weren't going to be any tourist shops in the middle of the wetlands, so I got her a hyacinth macaw while I had the chance! We spent a couple of nights at the lodge, followed by six nights at a 'flotel' - or floating hotel - and finally two nights at Pouso Alegre.

SouthWild Pantanal Lodge

Getting to the Pantanal takes a long, long, long time, so this particular stop was mostly there to break up the journey. However, we did get the chance to go up a rickety metal tower to see three juvenile jabiru in their nest, and we took a trip later on in something that was more Formula One car than boat. If Ayrton Senna had been a photographer, this would have been his vehicle of choice. It was a long, flat-bottomed shallow metal craft containing six individual swivel seats with built-in tripods that spun around with you, so I felt like Luke Skywalker shooting down TIE fighters from the Millennium Falcon. I'd also hired an 800mm lens for the trip that weighed 10lbs, so this was a godsend...

The boat trip was mostly noteworthy for the three toilet breaks I had to take - I think the local food and water had begun to have an effect on me! However, Paulo did throw fish into the water for us to take pictures of birds grabbing the bait. Andy had given us a talk on how to do it and what kind of shots we could get, but I was utterly useless. Every bird was blurred - even at 1/1000 of a second! We also saw a few giant river otters fishing in the river, but I thought they were just noisier and uglier cousins of Midge in Ring of Bright Water, so I wasn't too excited. 

At one point, we made a landing to see one of the most extraordinary birds on the planet. The great potoo is almost impossible to spot, because it hardly ever moves during daylight hours, and it looks just like a twig! When it was pointed out to me, I couldn't believe it was a bird, but a gust of wind ruffled a couple of feathers, and I was converted. If I had to come up with a list of the top three most stationary animals, it would be:

  1. Great potoo
  2. Marine iguana
  3. Caiman

When I'm under pressure to get a shot, I sometimes panic and forget everything I know about photography, so taking pictures of animals that never seem to move is a real luxury!

A great potoo or just a bit of a tree...?

After the boat ride, we walked a few yards from the lodge to see a great horned owl perched high up in a tree - and I used my 800mm for the first time! It's brutally heavy and impossible to handhold, so I used it with a monopod, and I was very impressed. The extra range is hugely important for bird photography, and the images were tack-sharp. I normally fine-tune the auto-focus on all my lenses, but this one only arrived from Lenses For Hire the day before my trip, so I was glad that the default settings were correct. My other lens was only an 80-400mm, so I relied on it more and more during the trip. And it cost £750 to hire it for two weeks, so I was determined to get my money's worth!

Before sunset, we went on a game drive in the truck. We saw a marsh deer and a few capybara, but that was about it. Brazil isn't a very good place to see the 'megafauna'. In Africa, you'll never go more than a few minutes without seeing a zebra, an impala or a giraffe, but the Pantanal is only a paradise for birdwatchers. Paulo called out the species we saw throughout the trip, but his enthusiasm was sometimes confusing. At one point, he got particularly excited about a bird in the trees...

Me: What was that, Andy? 

Andy: A black-fronted nun bird.

Me: And why are we so excited?

Andy (mouthing the words): I don't know...

Having said all that, one of my favourite sightings on the trip was of a bird. I'd never seen a tiger heron before, and it's a beautiful bird. At one point, it was putting on the most extraordinary display, which provided me with one of my favourite pictures.

Juvenile rufescent tiger heron...but you knew that, right?

Juvenile rufescent tiger heron...but you knew that, right?

Later on at the lodge, Paulo gave away the 'surprise' activity he had planned, which was to go and watch an ocelot in the dark from a hide. I'd never been in a hide before or seen an ocelot. (In fact, I wasn't absolutely sure what an ocelot was. I knew what an avocet was, but that wasn't very helpful!) When we arrived at the hide, there were a couple of people sitting in our seats, and it was raining. Never mind. We coped with the double booking, took our seats and waited for the show to start. The other photographers had already set up their flash guns on long poles, but I hadn't been told I'd need one, so I had to guess my settings. It was very dark, and even the light from the single lamp above the dead log wasn't enough for my poor Nikon. First of all, a man came along to bait the trap, as it were, by putting food on a shelf nailed on to the far side of the log. Nobody talked. We just waited. After about ten minutes playing Scrabble on my iPhone (!) and a false alarm when a caracara showed up, an ocelot actually appeared at the edge of the trees. It was a small cat with markings a bit like a leopard, and it was very skittish. Before I had chance to focus my lens or compose the shot, it dashed up the tree, grabbed the bait and ran off!

It was very exciting, but it did present a few - ahem! - problems to the photographer. If I'd used my normal daylight settings, I would've used f/5.6 and 1/400 with automatic ISO, but there was so little light that the ISO was already up to 12,800 before I'd even started! I could either slow down the shutter speed or treat the ocelot like a firework display, leaving it on 'bulb' mode and hoping that someone's flash would go off at just the right time. I experimented with all kinds of settings during the next couple of hours and came away with a couple of half-decent shots, just more by luck than judgment. When a flash gun happens to coincide with a 1/13 exposure, you know the Almighty is watching...

Ocelot or avocet...?

Flotel

The main problem with our days in Pocone was the weather. It's not often that you fly to Brazil and end up colder than you were in London! The dining room didn't help, either, as it had 'windows' made of mesh rather than glass, so it wasn't much more than a wind tunnel. After we drove to Porto Jofre and took the boat to the Flotel, the dining room felt like a sauna by comparison. Andy laughed when I said, "I must say, it's nice to be eating indoors for a change."

Our stay in the Flotel was our one and only chance to see the jaguar, so we went on boat trips every day, once for nearly 12 hours non-stop! On the first boat ride, we didn't see any jaguars, but the next day our luck changed. I lost track of the number of jaguars we saw, but Paulo made a note of everything and sent me the file. Overall, we had 16 sightings and saw seven individual jaguars: Geoff, Estela, Peter Schmidt, Marley, Mick Jaguar and Ruth.

Our daily routine for that middle week consisted of a buffet breakfast, one or two boat trips, a round of caipirinhas and then a buffet dinner, followed sometimes by a slideshow given by one of the guests. I did my turn on the second evening, and Andy was complimentary about my shots. Or just diplomatic. Or both.

Jaguar hunt up and down the banks of the Cuiabá and Piquiri rivers in the Pantanal, so you get great views from the water. I must admit the first sighting was not quite as much of a rush as I thought it would be, but that was mostly because I had too much to think about in terms of my settings and the rather rickety tripod. The guides let all the other boats know when they have a sighting, so it's not uncommon for a dozen boats to raft up 25 yards off the bank. They try to keep track of individual jaguars, too, so the prize for spotting the new jaguar in town is the right to give it a name. That's why we saw animals called 'Peter Schmidt', Marley and even - inevitably - 'Mick Jaguar'. I suppose there must be a jaguar called Kevin somewhere, too...

Kevin the Jaguar

Kevin the Jaguar

it was very frustrating a couple of times when our driver positioned the boat a long way away from the bank. On one occasion, a jaguar was diving into the water after a series of caiman, but we were 70 yards away! If I'd missed my first kill because of that, I would've been apoplectic! Instead, I talked to Andy and Paulo to try and understand the rules. They said we had to be at least 25 metres away from the jaguar and that it was first come-first served when it came to positioning the boats, but I wasn't convinced. Fortunately, my little rant had its effect, and we ended up much closer after that. Thank you, Paulo.

The first highlight of the jaguar-watching was when we heard over the radio that one of the jaguars (Marley) had caught a caiman. We'd just been watching him, and we might've seen the actual catch if we hadn't left to find a shady spot to have lunch, but the next 30 minutes were great. Jaguars generally kill caiman by biting them on the back of the head, but Marley was only two years old and din't really know what he was doing. He'd grabbed the caiman by the throat, but it was still alive. A lion would have suffocated it, but Marley was a jaguar, so he somehow had to change his grip to kill it, and that took him about 10 minutes. Jaguars also don't eat all their prey immediately, so we watched as Marley desperately tried to drag an eight-foot caiman up a steep river bank through a tangle of undergrowth. What would his mother have said?! When he finally succeeded, after two exhausting attempts, everyone on the boats have him a round of applause!

The other highlight came when we couldn't see anything at all. We spent a couple of hours one day just driving around the waterways making a futile search for jaguar, but I was happier than I'd ever been...at least since Stevie G scored the third goal against Olympiakos to put Liverpool through to the 2005 Champions League final. I just had a moment. That's all I can say. I was sitting in the bows of the boat with a camera in my hand as we motored along at 25 knots, listening to In Between Days by the Cure at full volume on my iPhone, and I was laughing with joy!

One other 'sighting' I should mention was Paul Goldstein. I went on a Svalbard trip with him last year to see the polar bears, and we bumped into him on one of the boats on the river. He came across and had a quick chat with me and another couple who knew him.

When we finally left the Flotel, it was a slight anti-climax, as we wouldn't any jaguars in Pouso Alegre, but I have happy memories of those boat rides. There were a few times when we didn't see anything, the scenery was rather flat and uninspiring and the cold weather over the first couple of days made me feel like I was back in the Arctic, but we had a lot of great sightings, and there was good cameraderie on board, particularly with Andy. I was chatting to him at one point, and the flapping of my camera cover in the wind sounded like a Huey chopper. I felt like we were in the Mekong delta filming Good Morning Vietnam, so I couldn't resist playing him Nowhere to Run by Martha and the Vandellas...

Pouso Alegre

To get to Pouso Alegre, we took a boat to Porto Jofre and then had to drive for a couple of hours in old truck to the lodge where we would spend our last two nights. The journey wasn't a complete loss, though, as we saw our first hyacinth macaw and a toco toucan in great early morning light.

Hyacinth Bucket...sorry, macaw

We arrived at midday, had lunch and then went out on a drive to try and find an anteater. Jaguars are the iconic animals in this part of the world, but the 'real-life Womble' (in Andy's words) is much rarer, so everyone was thrilled when we drove up to a hide and saw a giant anteater loping along towards the water hole. Unfortunately, the noise made by lowering the steps on the truck drove him away, but he came back an hour later and gave us quite a show. Paulo also gave us a few fun facts about anteaters. Did you know anteaters can eat up to 30,000 ants a day? Or that the anteater's tail is as long as its body? I hope not.

On the drive back to the lodge, we heard that a giant anteater with a baby on her back had turned up in one of the fields, so we hurried home and ran out the back. It was very dark by now, but someone had a torch, and the animal was coming straight for us. Anteaters are fortunately as blind as bats, so it got as close as six feet before eventually wandering off. Andy showed me a great close-up of the baby on its mother's back, but I had my usual panic attack and forgot to unlock the zoom on my lens! One of the other guests made an even worse mistake, though: he forgot he'd put a sock over his lens to protect it from dust and didn't manage to take a single shot!

Up the apples and pears...

The anteater sightings continued when we went for a walk the next day and saw a baby lesser anteater in the middle of a palm tree. It was very tricky to see with all the palm fronds, but cute sells, so I did my best...

Cute sells

On our final afternoon, we went on another game drive and experienced a miracle. Paulo had somehow lost his phone and couldn't find it wherever he (and we) looked. It was switched off, so he couldn't call it, and he was all for giving up until Russell persuaded him to give it one more go. We stopped to watch a snowy egret and - miracle of miracles! - Paulo heard his alarm going off and managed to find his phone not ten yards away! He later turned water into wine, etc, etc...

Andy provided a suitable send-off for us all by reading us a funny poem he'd been composing during the trip. If it ever sees the light of day again, I'll publish it here - even though nobody who wasn't on the trip would get the jokes! 

There were two final 'experimental' exercises for us to do as photographers. That night, Andy took us out to take abstract photos of caiman eye trails lit by torchlight. It wasn't a success. The next morning, we got up early to take pictures at sunrise. It wasn't a success. I tried taking slow pan shots of the skimmers dipping their beaks in the water to catch fish. That wasn't a success either. The last pictures I took were of a flock of toucans at feeding time after breakfast. And that actually was a success.

Pure genius

Pure genius

Home, James...

When we made it to the airport, there was one final surprise waiting for us: some bright spark had managed to book the wrong flights, so we had to faff about for a couple of hours and buy new tickets ourselves! Not a great ending to the trip, and Rob swears he'll never book anything with Naturetrek again, but, for me, it didn't spoil what was a great experience overall. We had an outstanding tour leader, a good bunch of people and some great sightings of the last great predator on my list. What's not to like?

 

Species list

Mammals

Giant anteater
Lesser anteater
Greater fishing bat
Giant river otter
South American coati
Crab-eating fox
Black howler monkey
Black-capped Capuchin monkey
Azara's agouti
Capybara
Marsh deer
Jaguar
Ocelot
Feral pig
Lesser fishing bat

Reptiles

Yacare caiman
Common (green) iguana
Common Tegu lizard

Birds

Greater rhea
Neotropic cormorant
Anhinga
Whistling heron
Little blue heron
Snowy egret
White-necked (cocoi) heron
Great egret
Cattle egret
Striated heron
Black-crowned night heron
Boat-billed heron
Rufescent tiger heron
Capped heron
Bare-faced (whispering) ibis
Plumbeous ibis
Buff-necked ibis
Roseate spoonbill
Wood stork
Jabiru
Southern screamer
Muscovy duck
Black vulture
Turkey vulture
Lesser yellow-headed vulture
Snail kite
Great black hawk
Savanna hawk
Black-collared hawk
Roadside hawk
Crane hawk
White-tailed hawk
Southern crested caracara
Aplomado falcon
Osprey
Chaco chachalaca
Chestnut-bellied guan
Blue-throated piping guan
Grey-necked wood rail
Limpkin
Sunbittern
Pied lapwing
Southern lapwing
Wattled jacana
Collared plover
Black skimmer
Yellow-billed tern
Large-billed tern
Picazuro pigeon
Eared dove
Scaled dove
Ruddy ground dove
Picui ground dove
Long-tailed ground-dove
White-tipped dove
Hyacinth macaw
Peach-fronted parakeet
Monk parakeet
Yellow-chevroned parakeet
Blue-fronted parrot
Squirrel cuckoo
Little cuckoo
Smooth-billed ani
Guira cuckoo
Great horned owl
Burrowing owl
Great potoo
Band-tailed nighthawk
Pauraque
Glittering-bellied emerald
Blue-crowned trogon
Ringed kingfisher
Amazon kingfisher
Green kingfisher
Rufous-tailed jacamar
Black-fronted nunbird
Chestnut-eared araçari
Toco toucan
White woodpecker
Little woodpecker
Green-barred woodpecker
Lineated woodpecker
Straight-billed woodcreeper
Narrow-billed woodcreeper
Pale-legged hornero
Rufous hornero
Greater thornbird
Grey-crested cachalote
Great antshrike
Large elaenia
Common tody-flycatcher
Fuscous flycatcher
Vermilion flycatcher
Black-backed water-tyrant
White-headed marsh-tyrant
Cattle tyrant
Tropical kingbird
Fork-tailed flycatcher
Boat-billed flycatcher
Streaked flycatcher
Rusty-margined flycatcher
Lesser kiskadee
Great kiskadee
White-winged swallow
Brown-chested martin
Purple martin
Grey-breasted martin
Southern rough-winged swallow
Purplish jay
Black-capped donacobius
 

Botswana and Victoria Falls

If you fancy watching a herd of 30 elephants crossing a river, photographing a malachite kingfisher perched three feet away or seeing an elephant chase off a pride of lions, try Botswana!

Water. You don't realise how important it is until you've been on safari in Botswana. I'd been to Kenya three times, but I'd never been to the Okavango Delta or the Chobe River, and it made all the difference. You don't have the iconic silhouette of Mount Kenya or the wildebeest migration across the Mara, but the landscape is utterly transformed. If Nigella were writing the recipe for Botswana, it would be something like this:

1. Take a country like Kenya or Tanzania
2. Smooth off any surface imperfections (like Mount Kenya or Kilimanjaro)
3. Sprinkle with dead trees
4. Add water
5. Serve hot

The water makes the landscape itself beautiful - especially when your guide cuts the engine, and you're watching the sun set over the Delta! - and it acts as a great backdrop for wildlife photography. Which is why I was there in the first place...

Itinerary

The reason I wanted to go to Botswana was to take pictures in a different environment; the reason I was able to was that I had a wad of cash burning a hole in my pocket when a property deal fell through! Whatever the reason, it worked out well enough, as an Indian couple wanted me to teach their two young children in Nairobi from 11-17 April. I did the same thing last year, and it's been a pleasure both times. It also gave me a head start in getting to Botswana. I found a useful site called Safari Bookings that allowed me to enter the location, duration and cost of the trip, and I searched through all the possible options. A friend of mine Jason was thinking about coming, too, but he eventually couldn't get the time off, so I decided to go for broke. I was a once-in-a-lifetime trip - although I seem to do one of those every few weeks nowadays! - so I didn't want to compromise on the itinerary. A group tour would've been cheaper, but that would've meant spending more time in a big truck on the road, going to places I didn't really want to go to and having to put up with other people (eeeuuugghhh!). In the end, I found an American company called WorldwideXplorer that was willing to tailor their 14-day safari for me and me alone. Marisa looked after my booking, and she was always very helpful. It wasn't cheap, but I was guaranteed to see the highlights I wanted, starting off on Chief's Island in the Okavango Delta and then moving north through the Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park before finishing with a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls. It was going to be a 'mobile safari', which meant I'd be travelling in a customised Toyota Land Cruiser with a local guide and two other staff, camping every night and making the most of all the travel time by spending every day on game drives from sunrise to sunset.

My route from Maun to Victoria Falls

The only downside to tacking the safari on to the end of my trip to Nairobi was that I had to go during the 'shoulder season'. That meant it was harder to see the animals due to a combination of denser undergrowth and altered migration patterns following heavy late rains caused by El Niño. It didn't look too promising during the first few days, and I had to have a couple of 'chats' with my guide Makabu about the itinerary, particularly when we didn't see a single thing on a two-hour boat ride! When a group of Germans arrived, we almost ended up starting our game drive at 0800 rather than 0600 until I let him know in no uncertain terms that wasting two hours was 'unacceptable'! Anyway, I persuaded him to get permission to junk the boat rides in favour of game drives, and we soon settled into a routine of waking up at 0530, leaving at 0600 on a game drive, eating a packed lunch, getting back at 1800 for a quick 'bush shower' and then dinner and bed. Once we'd left Chief's Island, we changed campsites every couple of days, which meant picking up our cook and handyman, hitching the trailer and then driving north. Our overall itinerary was as follows:

Night of 18 April: Flight from Nairobi to Maun via Johannesburg

19 April: Sedia Hotel, Maun

20-22 April: Chief's Island, Okavango Delta

23 April: Third Bridge, Okavango Delta

24-25 April: Moremi Game Reserve

26-27 April: Savuti, Chobe National Park

28-29 April: Ihaha, Chobe National Park

30 April-1 May: Waterfront Lodge, Livingstone, Zambia (near the Victoria Falls)

2 May: Flight from Livingstone to London via Johannesburg

Wildlife

The density of wildlife might not have been as high as in peak season, but we more than made up for it by the sheer number of hours we spent driving through the bush. I can only remember one day when we had more than a few minutes for lunch, and we must've spent over 100 hours on game drives and/or boat rides during our 10 days on safari. Apart from the rhinoceros, we saw all of the Big Five - lion, leopard, elephant and Cape buffalo - and we saw a total of 29 mammals and reptiles and 81 different types of birds, including my two favourites: the African fish eagle and the lilac-breasted roller (see list below).

African fish eagle on a dead tree. Thank God for DDT.

African fish eagle on a dead tree. Thank God for DDT.

Lilac-breasted rollers should be seen and not heard

Lilac-breasted rollers should be seen and not heard

My only disappointment was hearing the roller's call for the first time. For such a beautiful bird, why does it have to sound like an angry crow with a sore throat! Makabu's species knowledge was excellent, and there were only a couple he didn't know or got slightly wrong. Having said that, there was always a bit of a language barrier between us. We usually had to ask each other to repeat what had been said, and bird names are not the easiest words to pick up - you can imagine how many times Makabu had to repeat 'Swainson's francolin' to me!

As I say, I was in Botswana to take pictures, so the highlights for me were inevitably coloured by the ones that turned out well.

Birds

I'm very fond of the lilac-breasted roller and the African fish eagle, but my favourite bird encounter came when I was on a boat ride on the Chobe River. I spotted a malachite kingfisher in the distance and asked my driver to get a bit closer. He did as I asked and then cut the engine, letting the boat drift closer and closer. I immediately started taking pictures, and the bird got bigger and bigger in my viewfinder until it almost didn't fit in the frame. I was using a 400mm lens, but the malachite kingfisher is only a tiny bird, so I had no idea how close I had come until it eventually flew off. I put my camera down and realised I had only been three feet away from it! I'd seen one before in Kenya last year - again on a boat ride - but this shot was the mother of all close-ups!

It's called the malachite kingfisher because malachite is, er, green...

It's called the malachite kingfisher because malachite is, er, green...

Lions

We saw a lot of lions during the trip, but we were particularly lucky in Moremi, when we saw the same two lions at sunset and then early the following morning. We were able to get incredibly close - no more than five yards away - and the light during the 'golden hour' was fantastic.

I love the smell of impala in the morning. Smells like breakfast!

I love the smell of impala in the morning. Smells like breakfast!

Elephants

Chobe is famous for its herds of elephants, and I certainly enjoyed my boat ride on the Chobe River when I suddenly found myself in the middle of a herd of 30 elephants crossing from one side to the other! However, the most exciting moment I had came when we spotted a couple of young male elephants in the Delta and drove to within ten yards of them. They were happily eating the fruit that was being dropped by vervet monkeys in a tree when one of them decided to step forward and challenge us by trumpeting in full-on Tarzan fashion! I have to admit, that sent my heart racing! Makabu later told me elephants attack silently - so I needn't have worried - but I defy anyone to be calm when an elephant is trumpeting at you from five yards away - even Makabu started the engine at one point!

"Mud, mud, glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood..."

"Mud, mud, glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood..."

Lions & elephants

As if lions and elephants separately were not enough, they actually joined forces at Ihaha. We were driving along a track on the shore of the Chobe River at dusk when we saw a pride of eight lions lying in the shade of a tree. I could see an elephant heading their way, but I had no idea what was going to happen next. Out of nowhere, the elephant suddenly started trumpeting at the lions and then chased them all away! I've never seen lions move so fast...

Elephant 1 Lions 0

Leopard

The first time 'we' saw a leopard was in Moremi, although I didn't actually see anything at all. I was busy watching an impala when Makabu suddenly shouted, "Nkwe," which I later found out meant 'leopard' in Setswana. He had just seen a leopard cross the track right in front of us, and he immediately drove after it. After a few yards, he jumped on the roof to work out where it was, then unhooked the trailer and followed it off-road. You're not supposed to do either of those things, but I like the fact that Africans believe rules are meant to be broken! The leopard escaped, sadly, but we did see one three days later in Savuti. We had started our game drive at 0630, and almost immediately we saw a leopard sitting in the middle of the dirt track. It trotted towards us in the golden light, and I got some great shots - although I was worried my favourite was a bit blurred. You be the judge...

The cat who walked by himself...

The cat who walked by himself...

Victoria Falls

The other highlight, of course, was seeing the Victoria Falls for the very first time. The walking tour was useless - there was so much spray we couldn't see a thing! - but the helicopter ride was sensational, much better than the one I did over Iguazu a few weeks earlier. I'd managed to book a private tour, so I sat in the front seat and took pictures while the pilot flew over the falls and then went down into the gorges downriver.

It's a very dramatic landscape, so cresting a ridge and dropping down to a Grade 6 rapid is really quite exciting - especially as we were no more than 20 feet above the waves! I did have a few problems with reflections in the glass when shooting into the sun, but there was no window to open, so I just had to put up with it. It was only when we landed and I told the pilot I was a professional photographer that he told me that, if he'd known beforehand, he would've taken the rear door off and let me shoot from there! Grrrr...

Dr Livingstone discovered them, I presume...

Verdict

I'm very glad I decided to visit Botswana for the first time. I still have a sentimental attachment to Kenya, as it was the first country I ever visited in Africa and provided me with lots of happy memories of climbing Mount Kenya as well as seeing the Big Five on various game drives, but Botswana has the big advantage of water. It makes such a difference and turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. I just hope my pictures have somehow managed to capture that.

List of species

Animals

  • Banded mongoose
  • Black mamba
  • Black-backed jackal
  • Blue wildebeest
  • Burchell's zebra
  • Cape buffalo
  • Chacma baboon
  • Cheetah
  • Common warthog
  • Eland
  • Elephant
  • Ground squirrel
  • Hippopotamus
  • Impala
  • Kudu
  • Leopard
  • Leopard tortoise
  • Lion
  • Nile crocodile
  • Red lechwe
  • Sable antelope
  • South African giraffe
  • Steenbok
  • Tsessebe
  • Vervet monkey
  • Water monitor
  • Waterbuck
  • Wild dog
  • Yellow mongoose

Birds

  • African darter
  • African fish eagle
  • African green pigeon
  • African harrier-hawk/harrier hawk/gymnogene
  • African hoopoe
  • African jacana
  • African marsh harrier
  • African skimmer
  • Bateleur
  • Black crake
  • Black egret
  • Black-collared barbet
  • Black-winged stilt
  • Blacksmith plover
  • Brown-headed snake eagle
  • Burchell's sand grouse
  • Burchell's starling
  • Cape turtle dove
  • Cape wagtail
  • Cattle egret
  • Coppery-tailed coucal
  • Crowned eagle
  • Double-banded sand grouse
  • Egyptian goose
  • Fork-tailed drongo
  • Gabor goshawk
  • Glossy ibis
  • Great white egret
  • Great white pelican
  • Green-backed heron
  • Grey heron
  • Grey hornbill
  • Ground plover
  • Hadeda ibis
  • Hammerkop
  • Helmeted guineafowl
  • Hooded vulture
  • Kori bustard
  • Lappet-faced vulture
  • Lilac-breasted roller
  • Little bee-eater
  • Little egret
  • Long-tailed pied shrike
  • Malachite kingfisher
  • Marabou stork
  • Martial eagle
  • Meyer's parrot
  • Monotonous lark
  • Ostrich
  • Pied kingfisher
  • Pygmy goose
  • Red cormorant
  • Red-billed francolin
  • Red-billed hornbill
  • Red-billed oxpecker
  • Red-billed teal
  • Red-breasted korhaan
  • Red-eyed dove
  • Sacred ibis
  • Saddle-billed stork
  • Secretary bird/snake eagle
  • Slatey egret
  • Southern ground hornbill
  • Southern pied babbler
  • Southern red bishop
  • Spoon-billed stork
  • Spotted eagle owl
  • Spur-winged goose
  • Swainson's francolin
  • Swallow-tailed bee-eater
  • Three-banded plover
  • Water dikkop
  • Wattled crane
  • White-backed vulture
  • White-browed robin chat
  • White-crowned plover
  • White-faced whistling duck
  • Yellow oxpecker
  • Yellow-billed egret
  • Yellow-billed hornbill
  • Yellow-billed stork

The Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica

How to waste a lot of money on birds...

How juvenile

How juvenile

I put on a photography exhibition last year, and I had 15 shots I took in Kenya, Spitsbergen and India. I’d gone to Kenya to see the Big Five, to Spitsbergen to see the polar bears and to India to see the tigers, and I had plenty of good pictures, but they didn’t have any of those animals in them! It was a bit like that on my Antarctic trip. The one photograph on my shot list that I didn’t want to miss was of thousands of king penguins on Salisbury Plain in South Georgia. However, we were weathered out and then didn’t get there until the light was fading fast, so I didn’t get the shot. However, I did end up with five shots I was very happy with and nearly 400 that I can sell.

When people ask me how I got a particular shot or what my settings were, I usually make the old photographer’s joke: “It's f/11 and be there…!” Just ‘being there’ is a big part of wildlife photography, and the Antarctic is certainly the place to be for seals, birds and penguins. Lots of penguins!

Day 1

The trip was a cruise on the Sea Explorer 1 laid on by Polar Latitudes, and I booked it through Audley Travel. The itinerary started in Ushuaia, at the foot of Argentina, where we spent one night in a hotel and woke up to the most glorious sunrise. What a great way to start the day! 

"Now that was a pretty good day..."

"Now that was a pretty good day..."

The itinerary lasted from 31 January to 18 February 2016 and took in the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic peninsula. I had booked it only a few weeks earlier, and I was lucky enough to have the very last cabin all to myself. (History does not record how many people turned down the chance to be my roommate!) I was told it was going to be a ‘luxury’ cruise, and the quality of accommodation, food and service was certainly excellent throughout. There was one particular duck salad that melted in the mouth! Our regular routine involved an early morning wake-up call from our Expedition Leader Hayley, then a buffet breakfast in the dining room on Deck 2, followed by a Zodiac cruise or ‘wet landing’ in the morning, a buffet lunch, another excursion and then a recap and briefing in the main lounge before dinner in the evening. However, that was only on days when we were within sight of land. On the other days, we had to make do with lectures from the expedition team. They were all very knowledgeable, but there were only so many times I wanted to hear about Shackleton’s adventures or learn about Antarctic rock formations! After a safety briefing and lifeboat drill, our first port of call was the Falklands - two days’ sail away! When the ‘detailed itinerary’ for the trip just says ‘a day at sea’, you know you not going to take too many pictures. I had to make do with trying to perfect the ‘slow pan’, taking hundreds of shots of the albatrosses and petrels following the ship with very little to show for it…

Day 2

A day at sea…!

Day 3

When we finally arrived in West Falkland, it was a gorgeous sunny day with no wind. A promising start, but I had first night nerves. I always feel nervous about taking pictures for the first time in a new place. It was the same before going to the Taj Mahal - it was the trip of a lifetime, and I didn't want to screw it up!

For our first Zodiac landing, we were split up into different groups named after penguins: blue, king, gentoo and macaroni. I put my name down for ‘king’ to join up with Phil and Judy, a nice couple I’d briefly met at the airport and then chatted to over various meals. Phil had a similar background to me and wanted to learn about photography, so I was happy to chat away about that. He was also a Watford fan, but the less said about that the better…!

We had a great morning on Saunders Island (apart from one of the staff being a little bit too officious), and we saw two penguin rookeries and an albatross nesting site on a rather steep slope leading to a cliff. One of the naturalists ‘Snowy’ took me down, but I had to crawl back on my hands and knees - it was a bit scary! The highlight was seeing a couple of king penguins looking after their chicks. Once we were all back, we had a buffet lunch, and I quickly went back to my cabin to import my photos. That was my regular routine after that. I always try to keep up-to-date when it comes to rating and editing the pictures I take, and there was usually plenty of time in the early hours before breakfast.

After lunch, we landed on West Point Island, where we saw a spectacular colony of black-browed albatrosses and their chicks interspersed with rockhopper penguins. All the birds were so close. At one point, the ‘voyage photographer’ Adam tapped me on the shoulder and I turned round to find an albatross perched less than a foot away! 

After the usual recap, I had dinner and then drinks with Phil and Judy and showed them a slideshow of my favourite photos and some I’d taken in the Galapagos. 

Day 4

I went to bed with the cruel sea outside my window; I woke up with two red telephone boxes instead! As someone once almost said, "Stanley, I presume…”

We went on a worthless expedition to Gypsy Bay, where the wind was blowing at 50 knots and we weren't even allowed on to the beach because of possible mines left by the Argies! I did see two Magellanic penguins in a burrow, but I went back to the ship as quickly as I could. I wanted to walk around Stanley, see the governor’s mansion and maybe have a pint in The Globe, but the weather was so miserable I worked on my photos instead. 

I was only interrupted when someone started cleaning my window from the outside...!

I had lunch on board - along with the only other 14 sensible people! - and then 'grazed' al afternoon. Food and drink is far too easy to get hold of when you have nothing else to do...

After the usual briefing (when Hayley confirmed that there would be a photography competition), I had dinner with Phil and Judy, a talkative and well travelled American called Tracy and an English teacher. Phil educated Tracy on our political system before the teacher and I almost got into an argument about the role of government. That's why you should never discuss politics at the dinner table!

Day 5

I had set my alarm for 0530, but even that was too late to capture any colour in the sky before dawn, so I worked on my photos - knocking out a couple that didn't quite make the grade - and read The Numbers Game, a book about sporting analytics. I then went to the 'Club' on Deck 4 for an early breakfast and then a Lord of the Rings-style 'second breakfast' of yoghurt and a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel in the dining room straight afterwards!

Hayley did her usual wake-up call at 0630 and announced that we had done 150 nautical miles overnight, with 1.5-2.5m swells and a 20kt following wind - perfect conditions, especially as it was a 'tropical' 14° outside!

We were being followed by another cruise ship, the Academic Joffe, and seeing it astern reminded me of the film of Patrick O'Brian's Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World. 

We were going to be at sea for the following two days, so they scheduled several lectures to entertain us: a guide to knowing your camera by Adam; a talk about why Antarctica is so cold, dark and windy by Jim; an analysis of Southern Ocean population dynamics by Elke; and a comic talk about sailors' superstitions by Rickard.

I had drinks and dinner with Phil and Judy again at the Club and then in the restaurant. It was mostly memorable for the rather large swell that resulted in the ship rolling so violently that the starboard portholes on deck two were underwater and had to be closed after the meal. I then looked through a few slow pan shots if taken earlier. It's always a hit and miss affair - I once took 1,504 slow pan shots in the Arctic and kept only four! - and this time I even accidentally deleted the only half-decent one!

We all had to put the clocks forward that night prior to landing on South Georgia. 

Day 6

I think the weather forecast must have been wrong. That was definitely more than 2.5m of swell! Try 10m! Sleeping is very difficult when you don't know if the ship is going to right itself every time it rolls? I had an early breakfast and went on deck to try and take some slow pan shots of the birds, but I only lasted two minutes as the deck was rolling so much! They closed Deck 3 while I was out there...

I had breakfast with Phil and Judy then sat with them at Snowy's talk on the birds of South Georgia and Pablo's talk on a whaler's story. 

After lunch, I lent Phil my Mac to work on his photos, and then we all had to watch a briefing video on South Georgia and go through 'biosecurity', which meant getting all our outer layers checked for organic matter and vacuumed by the staff. 

After the usual recap and briefing, I had dinner and then went up to Phil and Judy's room for a glass of wine once the staff had retired. 

Day 7

As I feared, our landing at Salisbury Plain was called off in 50-knot winds. We tried to go to another landing place, but we eventually had to settle for a talk by Jim on weather forecasting. Too bad. It was supposed to be the highlight of the entire trip, and I didn’t know if we’d have a chance to go back.

After lunch, Hayley announced the Prion Island trip was going ahead as planned. We saw lots of cute fur seals and a few wandering albatrosses, the bird with the largest wingspan in the world at 3.6m. 

We then had an early dinner so that we could squeeze in a late visit to Salisbury Plain. It was great to be able to go, but our group was drawn last, so the light was fading by the time we got there. There were tons of fur seals and king penguins, but it was too dark to take many good photos. Disappointing. 

I worked on the day's photos back in my room, closing the curtains to prevent any bird strikes....!

Day 8

Hayley started off with a very downbeat message this morning. We were supposed to be having a wet landing in Fortuna Bay, but the wind was 50kts, gusting up to 70kts, so that wasn’t possible. Instead, we had a talk from Peter on Sir Ernest Shackleton, although even he didn't know how the party on the James Caird had ended up on the wrong side of South Georgia and why they hadn't just sailed round to the other side! We then saw a film called South with Shackleton. Elke told us over the PA that we'd passed a minke whale and then a humpback, but I couldn't see them. I know about minke whales, but ‘Elke whales’ are the ones too far away to photograph…

I lent Phil my laptop, so I just read Britain Today - a digest of UK news available on board - and The Numbers Game on my iPhone. 

Later on, we went for an impromptu Zodiac cruise for a couple of hours. We saw a glacier, a fur seal, a few elephant seals on the beach and a few snow petrels. Otherwise, it was just a sunny cruise on a nice calm bit of water. 

Day 9

After breakfast, we had a wet landing in St Andrew's Bay, which has the largest concentration of king penguins in the world. Unfortunately, we landed in the wrong spot, so I couldn't get a picture of the 150,000 pairs in the main rookery. Grrr...

"What's this? Am I supposed to stand on it or step over it?"

"What's this? Am I supposed to stand on it or step over it?"

After a quick lunch on my own, I joined the photographers on a trip to Grytviken led by Adam, the Voyage Photographer. We made a toast to Shackleton at his graveside and threw the dregs of our Jameson's whiskey over it, after Peter had given a kind of toast. He also told the story of a rather flamboyant Spanish woman who had read the inscription out loud to the group but had mistaken ‘explorer’ for 'exploded’: "So that's how he died, then..."

I then set out to take pictures. Unfortunately, Adam's pace was rather slow, so I broke off to look at an old boat, which turned out to be guarded by some very territorial fur seals! There were a couple of old whalers at the whaling station, plus all the old equipment, so I broke out my 18-35mm lens and went to town. It was a gorgeous day, clear and calm, and the late afternoon sunlight was fantastic. 

I took the last Zodiac back to the boat and then had a barbecue with the usual crew on Deck 5. Our ship entertainer Randy started to play some toe-curlingly bad covers, so I made my excuses and escaped to work on my photos. 

Day 10

After a quick breakfast with the gang, I returned to finish rating my photos. I did it just in time for the first outing to Gold Harbour. There were lots of penguins and elephant and fur seals - so many, in fact, that we couldn't really move around much. The penguins were particularly curious, as usual, and they would walk up to within a couple of feet of me as I was taking pictures. 

After a quick lunch on my own, our Cooper Bay landing was cancelled due to high winds (37-40kts), but we went to the beautiful Drygalski Fjord instead and some people had a Zodiac cruise. I bowed out, as there wasn't much chance of wildlife, but Tracy and Phil showed me their pictures of a leopard seal! Not good...

After I'd been through a few of Tracy's photos, we all had dinner together and then a few glasses of wine in Phil and Judy's cabin. 

Day 11

I woke early to work on my photos, had a quick breakfast and then carried on. I took a break to hear Jim talk about ice as if it were a rock - bizarrely! - and then went back to my laptop, skipping the chance of a tour of the bridge. I then went to Snowy's talk on penguins before having lunch. I calledPhil, but he had food poisoning or something. 

The ship doctor’s daughter Livia played some songs on the guitar at around 1430, and I lent my laptop to Phil and Tracy. 

It was an unusually amusing recap and briefing. Rickard told us about the lives of the whalers, who spent most of their lives at sea away from their wives and families. One captain of a whaler worked for 37 years and only spent 4 years 8 months under his own roof. The only means of communication was letters, but the post system was very unreliable. He told the story of a couple from Nantucket called Anna and Lucas through their letters to each other:

Anna: Dear Lucas, where did you put the axe?

Lucas (14 months later): Dear Anna, why do you need the axe?

Anna (6 months later): Dear Lucas, I've found the axe. Where's the hammer?

I had dinner with the usual crew and then put the clocks back an hour. 

Day 12

I woke up at 0130 with the ship pitching violently. Some of the waves were apparently 10 metres! It's all very well to smile as you look out and see the bow wave, but this was very disturbing!

I was coming down with a cold, and I'd used up all my Sudafed, so I asked Dr Tom for some drugs. 

Phil and Judy finally brought down my laptop, and we had lunch together. Afterwards, I went up to their room. We had a pub quiz using an iPhone app, and then Tracy came in, and we chose Phil's photo competition entries. We then went down to see Jim's talk on Antarctic geoscience - until I fell asleep and had to go to my cabin!

Daniel then went through the difference between swell (waves caused by distant winds), seas (waves caused by local wind) and fetch (the uninterrupted length of sea where the waves develop), Peter talked about Elephant Island and Elke about phytoplankton. Hmm…

Day 13

I had a decent night's sleep for a change, due to the calmer conditions. I added vignettes to most of my wildlife shots and then had breakfast. I took a risk then by cleaning my D810 sensor with a wipe I'd already used, but it seemed to work. On the one hand, don't want to scratch it; on the other, I don't want to have to clone out a sensor spot on every single shot I take!

We had another biosecurity check and then had a very successful Zodiac cruise. We went to Point Wild on Elephant Island, where the Shackleton party had camped for four months, and saw a leopard seal catch and eat a penguin! It also spent a few minutes coming very close to our boat, and it was amazing to see it at such close quarters. On our way back, we saw a glacier calve with one of our Zodiacs in the foreground. Too bad I was on the wrong side of the boat to get the shot…!

After a quick lunch with Tracy, I managed to screw up by leaving marks on the mirror while ‘cleaning’ the inside my camera with a brush not designed for the job. That'll teach me for leaving my dust blower behind!

I worked on my photos then read my book for a while before the usual recap and briefing, then dinner with the gang. Disturbingly, my cabin door was open when I came back. I must've tried to slam it, I suppose. I was a bit worried, but my cameras and all my equipment were still there, so that was a relief. 

Day 14

Seven out of seven! After breakfast, I set foot onAntarctica for the very first time, completing my set of continents. Hurrah! All the staff were having a go at me for getting too close to the adélie penguins, and one of the guests was even a bit snotty with me when I accidentally walked in front of her while she was taking a picture. I had a chat with Phil and Judy, and that made me feel better again...!

I somehow lost my lens hood on my wide-angle lens, but it turned up at reception under Lost Property. Phew...!

I worked on today's photos until lunchtime, when I ate with Tracy and a nice American couple called David and Mardi. 

Our afternoon excursion was cancelled at the last minute due to all the brash ice surrounding the ship, so Tracy forced me to look at a ‘cute’ penguin book called Antarctic Antics, by Judy Sierra:

"To keep myself up off the ice, 

I find my father's feet are nice. 

I snuggle in his belly fluff,

And that's how I stay warm enough."

I had dinner with the usual crew, and then we had a staff quiz. We were given a list of crazy facts about all 14 of them, and we had to guess who had done what. I retired early…

Day 15

Phil and Judy filled me in over breakfast, which was chiefly remarkable for the customer service. I ordered French toast and fruit sauce, but my waiter knows I always make myself a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel. As there was no smoked salmon on the table, he brought me a plate with a bagel, smoked salmon, cream cheese and even half a lemon - as they usually only have thin slices at the buffet. Very impressive! I spoke to Adam in the corridor about doing a talk together on photography. He liked the idea of choosing five of each other's pictures and taking about them, so we'll get half an hour to do that on the voyage home to Ushuaia. 

We had a wet landing in Neko Harbour this morning. I walked straight past all the penguins and up to a rocky bluff with a view of a glacier. It looked like it would calve at any moment, but it never did. However, I got a few shots of Phil and other hikers on the ridge line. 

I was on the first Zodiac back, so I had a hot chocolate and imported my photos. 

We had a barbecue again on Deck 5 for lunch, and I sat with Phil and Judy again. Afterwards, I worked in my photos and read my Spenser novel until we hit an iceberg. Fortunately, it was only a small one...!

We were having the world's most boring Zodiac ride in the afternoon when an enormous chunk of ice calves from one of the glaciers. Too bad it looked nowhere near as spectacular as a photograph. 

I had dinner with my friends and then spent an hour whale watching with Phil. We did actually see a few flukes, but they were a long way away. 

I ended up in the bar, where I talked to Tracy about her career crisis until she changed the subject and tried to set me up with one of the Dutch girls!

Day 16

Hayley woke us up at 0609 today for an early Zodiac ride to Cierva Cove. I had the choice of 90 minutes, 45 minutes or a cup of coffee in the Club. Phil was keen to see whales, but I didn't think that was likely. However, it was our last cruise, so I decided to do the long one with him and Judy. We didn't see any whales, funnily enough, but I did get a good shot of a penguin jumping into the water. I know I'm lazy about getting out there sometimes, so I think I made the right decision in the end. 

After lunch with the gang, we were supposed to have a wet landing, but it was cancelled due to the swell, so we all had a team photo on Deck 5 instead. When all the Dutch group knelt down in the front row, someone said: "Finally, we've got them on their knees!" 

As we started our crossing of the Drake Passage (or Cape Horn to you and me), the four of us went up to Phil and Judy's room to pick my competition entries. I only got one of my original choices! Phil and I went down to upload them and look at the other entries, but there was nothing there, so we went to the Club and had a gin and tonic with some of the black ice Heather had found this afternoon. It’s spent 30,000 years at the bottom of a glacier, so it’s had all the air squeezed out of it, which makes it incredibly clear. It also lasts a long time, so I time it with astopwatch: after 36 minutes, it was still going strong! 

After dinner with the usual crew, Adam gave a funny bar talk about his career highlights and sang a humorous song about how to 'woo a lady'. I gave him my pictures for our talk, but he didn't have anything for me, and our talk wasn't on the schedule for tomorrow, so I went to bed...

Day 17

This was supposed to be the morning when we all had a lie in, but I woke up at 0530 as usual. After tossing and turning in bed and then doing the crossword for a bit, I went to the 'early bird' breakfast in the Club, where I had a nice chat with Sally. We then had proper breakfast together in the dining room with her husband Giuseppe, who kindly allowed me to call him Pepe!

I didn't fancy listening to Peter or Pablo talk, so I sat amidships to avoid the swell and read my Spenser novel. Adam gave me 15 of his photos, but Tracy was still using my laptop, so I couldn’t choose the best ones yet. 

After lunch with the gang, I spoke to Adam, and we arranged our talk for 1430. It went pretty well, and it was nice to be able to show off my work - even though everyone seems to have a different idea of what my best pictures are!

I showed Henry and his wife a slideshow after the talk and then had a chat with Phil before the usual recap. These things are getting pretty dull and incomprehensible, so I just read my book and listened with half an ear. 

We had dinner with a British couple, and then I went to my cabin to copy Phil and Tracy's pictures on to a memory stick. 

Day 18

I thought it was going to be a long night going across a bumpy Drake Passage, but I finally managed to get to sleep and woke up at 0700. I had breakfast with the gang, and then Hayley announced we were passing Cape Horn, so we took a look. It wasn't particularly exciting, but it was nice to tick the box. Phil later told me I’d been looking at the ‘wrong’ Cape Horn, but it all looks the same…!

After lunch with the gang, where we were joined by Gayle and her husband, there was an announcement of whales and then even orcas on the starboard beam. (They were a long way away and probably sei whales.)

We went up to Phil and Judy's room to drink wine, and we even saw a few dolphins. The recap was led by Hayley, who revealed that we'd driven 3,536Nm on our trip, drunk 491 cans of beer, 739 bottles of wine, 10 bottles of gin and 9 of whisky. 

In the photo competition, I won a Helly Hansen beanie for the best landscape shot of an iceberg at sunrise! I made the top five in every category apart from 'funny and creative', and Phil made three. We then went up to the bar for a gin and tonic, although there was no more black ice. Shame…

I met Irina on the way to dinner, so I bought a bottle of Dom Perignon for our table. There was a receiving line consisting of all the staff, so it took a while to sit down. Phil and Judy and Tracy were at our table, and we were fortunately joined by Giuseppe and Sally. After dinner, we all trooped into the lounge to watch Adam's video of the whole trip. It was pretty good and made me think I should learn how to do something similar for my friends back home. I asked him which software he'd used and then completely forgot what he'd told me! Something Pro...

Day 19

We were all woken by Hayley on the PA at 0630 in time for breakfast at 0700. I ate with Phil, Judy and Tracy, and then we were called for our busto the airport. Tracy was on the next bus, so we said a quick goodbye. We might be having dinner tonight in Buenos Aires. Phil and Judy were on the early flight, so we said goodbye at the gate. 

When I arrived at the Hotel Pulitzer - the same place as if stayed last month - I went through my email backlog and then went out to dinner at Don Julio's. I didn't hear from Tracy, so I had to eat alone, but I didn't mind that. I had a chorizo, melted provolone and sun-dried tomato starter followed by the fillet steak with grilled vegetables and something called a suspiro porteño, which was a mish-mash of dulce de leche cream, brownie and coconut and hazel meringue. The butter was a little hard, they didn't immediately give me a clean plate for my starter, there was no sauce with the steak and the double espresso was dreadful, but the main problem with eating outside on a balmy night was the cyclists cutting right through the restaurant! By the way, BA is a small town. I know this because one of the guys at the next door table was the same guy I'd sat next to on the plane!

Day 20

I did some electronic chores, published a couple of blog posts on Iguazu and Buenos Aires, upload my favourite shots to my website. The weather had changed overnight from blue skies and boiling sunshine to thunder, lightning and rain! I took a taxi and met Tracy for lunch at a place called Halina Café in Palermo. I had to get some cash out on the way, having so sensibly got rid of my last pesos at the restaurant last night, and I left my card in the machine! And I was doing so well…Anyway, we had a nice lunch, swapping stories about the cruise and Tracy’s current digs, and then we shared a cab back to the hotel. Tracy went off to get her phone fixed, and I packed for the flight home. My car picked me up at 1430 and took me to the airport, where I caught my flight to London via São Paulo - or San Pablo if ever you find yourself in an Argentine airport searching desperately for your flight! 

My Antarctic expedition was over, and I enjoyed it. I was lucky with the weather, the people I met and the chance to get up close and personal with a leopard seal! The staff were knowledgeable, the food and accommodation were perfectly good, and, most importantly, I managed to take a few good pictures! It’s an expensive voyage, and the only reason I was able to afford it was that a property deal fell through and the money for the deposit was burning a hole in my pocket (!), but that’s the very definition of the trip of a lifetime, isn’t it? It’s a journey we take only once, and probably against our better judgment, but I’d much rather regret the things I’ve done than the things I haven’t...

 

Wildlife sightings

Mammals   
Antarctic Fur Seal, Arctocephalus gazella
Antarctic Minke Whale, Balaenoptera bonaerensis
Blue Whale, Balaenoptera musculus
Commerson's Dolphin, Cephalorhynchus commersonii
Crabeater Seal, Lobodon carcinophaga
Fin Whale, Balaenoptera physalus
Hourglass Dolphin, Lagenorrhynchus cruciger
Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Leopard Seal, Hydrurga leptonyx
Peale's Dolphin, Lagenorrhynchus australis
Sei Whale, Balaenoptera borealis
South American Fur Seal, Arctocephalus australis
South American Sea Lion, Otaria flavescens
Southern Elephant Seal, Mirounga leonina
Southern Right Whale, Eubalaena australis
Weddell Seal, Leptonychotes weddellii

Birds 
Adelie Penguin, Pygoscelis adeliae
Antarctic Petrel, Thalassoica antarctica
Antarctic Prion, Pachyptila desolata
Antarctic Shag, Phalacrocroax bransfieldensis
Antarctic Tern, Sterna vittata
Arctic Tern, Sterna paradisea
Atlantic Petrel, Pterodroma incerta
Black-bellied Storm-petrel, Fregetta tropica
Black-browed Albatross, Thalassarche melanophris
Black-chinned Siskin, Carduelis barbata
Black-throated Finch, Melanodera melanodera
Blackish Cinclodes, Cinclodes antarcticus
Blackish Oystercatcher, Haematopus ater
Blue Petrel, Halobaena caerulea
Brown Skua, Catharacta lonnbergi
Cape Petrel, Daption capense
Chilean Skua, Catharacta chilensis
Chinstrap Penguin, Pygoscelis antarctica
Common Diving-petrel, Pelecanoides urinatrix
Crested Duck, Lophonetta specularioides
Dark-faced Ground Tyrant, Muscisaxicola maclovianus
Dolphin Gull, Larus scoresbii
Falkland Pipit, Anthus correndera
Falkland Skua, Catharacta antarctica
Falkland Steamer Duck, Tachyeres brachypterus
Falkland Thrush, Turdus falcklandii
Gentoo Penguin, Pygoscelis papua
Grey-headed Albatross, Thalassarche chrysostoma
House Sparrow, Passer domesticus
Imperial Shag, Phalacrocorax atriceps
Kelp Goose, Chloephaga hybrida
Kelp Gull, Larus dominicanus
King Penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Phoebetria palpebrata
Long-tailed Meadowlark, Sturnella loyca
Macaroni Penguin, Eudyptes chrysolophus
Magellanic Oystercatcher, Haematopus leucopodus
Magellanic Penguin, Spheniscus magellanicus
Magellanic Snipe, Gallinago paraguaiae
Northern Giant Petrel, Macronectes halli
Rock Shag, Phalacrocorax magellanicus
Rockhopper Penguin, Eudyptes chrysochrome
Royal Albatross, Diomedea epomorphora
Ruddy-headed Goose, Chloephaga rubidiceps
Slender-billed Prion, Pachyptila belcheri
Snow Petrel, Pagodroma nivea
Snowy Sheathbill, Chionis alba
Soft-plumaged Petrel, Pterodroma mollis
Sooty Shearwater, Puffinis griseus
South American Tern, Sterna hirundinacea
South Georgia Pintail, Anas georgica
South Georgia Pipit, Anthus antarcticus
South Georgia Shag, Phalacrocorax georgianus
South Georgian Diving-petrel, Pelecanoides georgicus
South Polar Skua, Catharacta maccormicki
Southern Fulmar, Fulmarus glacialoides
Southern Giant Petrel, Macronectes giganteus
Striated Caracara, Phalcoboenus australis
Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
Upland Goose, Chloephaga picta
Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans
White-chinned Petrel, Procellaria aequinoctialis
White-rumped Sandpiper, Calidris fuscicollis
Wilson's Storm-petrel, Oceanites oceanicus
Yellow-billed Teal, Anas flavirostris

Don't cry for me, Natalia...

I spent 48 hours in Buenos Aires as part of my Grand Tour of South America, which also took in the Galápagos Islands, Iguazu Falls, the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. 

FKL 982

After flying in from Iguazu, I was picked up by Natalia, who looked a lot better than what I expected a South American tour guide to look like! She gave me a briefing as we took the car to my hotel. I was due to go to a 'raunchy' tango show that evening, and then Natalia was going to give me a half-day walking tour of the city the following day. Unfortunately, she forgot to give me my vouchers and had to call me at the hotel later to fix the booking for the tango show...

The show itself in the Faena hotel was fantastic - although not particularly raunchy. I used to do a lot of ballroom and Latin dancing competitions at Oxford, so I was very happy to be there. It reminded me of the good old days of Day-Glo nylon shirts, flared trousers, sequins and fake tan! The choreography was spectacular, and the dancers were excellent - I had fallen in love with at least two of the women by the end of the show! The only problem came when I was waiting for my driver to pick me up. I waited outside for an hour, but he never showed up! Eventually, I asked one of the staff, only to learn that my driver had already left. Apparently, he 'couldn't find me', even though I was standing right outside the door from before he'd arrived until after he'd left. Almost unbelievable...and very frustrating. I tried the Audley 'emergency' contact number, but I had to leave a message asking someone to call me back. As it happened, my phone was on silent, so I didn't hear it ring, but I did get a text. By then, the hotel staff member had already booked a replacement car for me, but I was still rather annoyed that the duty manager didn't even say sorry!

The next day, I had breakfast in the hotel and then went on my walking tour with Natalia. I needed to get cash out to pay for a couple of taxis, and I had a terrifying moment when an out-of-service cash machine looked like it was going to eat my card. That would've been a very bad start! Fortunately, it eventually spat it out, and then we were off. We started in Recoleta with the cemetery where Eva Peron is buried. I didn't know anything about her life and career - other than the fact that she inspired the musical Evita - but Natalia gave me a potted biography and showed me the grave bearing her immortal words: Don't cry for me, Argentina. (In fact, it was slightly different in Spanish, but you get the gist...) 

If you're rich and going to die, this is the place to be...

It helps, of course, if you're a general

We then walked towards San Telmo and took in a couple of gorgeous churches and the Dorrego coffee shop, which was where news of Argentine independence was first received in 1816. I didn't know anything about it, so Natalia tried to fill in the yawning gaps in my knowledge of Argentine history. That included a couple of British invasions of Buenos Aires in 1805 and 1807 that have somehow been airbrushed out of our national curriculum! History is written by the victors...

At lunchtime, the tour came to an end, and Natalia hailed a taxi to take me back to my hotel. My overall impression of Buenos Aires is that it's not a particularly attractive city, and there are far fewer old colonial Spanish houses than I expected, but there were certainly some spectacular churches. I would probably have appreciated it more if I'd had more of any interest in Latin American politics, military history and Argentina's rebellion against the Spanish to gain their independence. 

By this time, it was raining, so I bought some replacement sunglasses and a Coke and some crisps and retired to my room to the place where I'm always happiest: in front of my computer! 

I did a few electronic chores, including publishing a few of my favourite pics and posted about the Galapagos on my blog. Later in the evening, I went out to dinner at a restaurant called The New Brighton. My first choice of restaurant was closed on Fridays (whut?), but the other place looked suitably English and old school. It was surprisingly well lit and nearly empty - even at 2030 - but the food was good and plentiful. I took pictures of every course - just in case any of my stock agency's clients ever want to know what I had to eat on my trip!

The following morning, I woke up quite late - it was after 0500! - and worked on my photos. Identifying tropical butterflies and birds is hard, even with Google. Eventually, I packed my bag and left to catch my flight to Ushuaia for the next leg of my journey. Antarctica, here we come...!

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...

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.