Iguazu or Iguassu or Iguazú...?

When you have a waterfall that borders three countries, it's not surprising they can't even agree on how to spell it. Just remember that the stress is on the final syllable...

Rainbow nations

Visiting Iguazu was a very late addition to my Grand Tour. I was supposed to be making two trips, one to the Galápagos Islands and the other to Antarctica, but a travel agent suggested I link everything together, so that's what I did. My final itinerary was therefore London - Miami - Quito - Galápagos - Quito - Lima - Buenos Aires - Ushuaia - Falklands - South Georgia - Antarctica - Ushuaia - Buenos Aires - São Paulo - London. Phew...!

Iguazu is the first airport I've ever landed at without knowing which country I was in! Iguazu Falls are in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, andeach country has built a separate airport on its own side of the border. Welcome to South America...

My guide Felix picked me up from the airport and took me to the San Martin hotel, explaining how I could get to the falls along the way. 

Room service was limited to four sandwiches I could get in London, so I had dinner in the restaurant, hoping to taste one of the famous Argentine steaks that are supposed to be so tender. It would make a nice change after a week of buffets in the Galapagos! I ordered the filet mignon in puff pastry and a glass of cab sav, but the steak was disappointing. Maybe it was from Brazil rather than Argentina - after all, the hotel was at least a couple of hundred yards from the border! It became slightly less disappointing when I looked up the exchange rate and found that, even though I'd chosen the most expensive thing on the menu, it still cost less than a tenner!

The next day, I woke up early (as I always do), had breakfast and walked up the road to see the dawn sky, which was spectacular. Felix and the hotel disagreed on the park opening times, but there was no sign...obviously!

My plan was to take a helicopter ride over the falls,  then walk round and perhaps take the boat ride or go to the bird sanctuary in the afternoon, but the it was quite cloudy, so I took the shuttle bus to the falls instead. They say 'Argentina puts on the show and Brazil enjoys the view', and it was certainly exhilarating to walk down and see the falls for the very first time. After that, it was just a case of trying to take the best possible pictures I could. It was quite quiet early on, so I took my time. The only problem was my equipment. I was trying to slow down my shutter speed to make the water smooth and creamy, but I'd stupidly left my Big Stopper neutral density filter at home, and my polarising filter wasn't dark enough - even before it got soaked by the spray! I was so focused on the Galapagos and the Antarctic that I just hadn't thought about what I'd need at Iguazu. Too bad...

Anyway, I finished the prescribed route and - despite an annoying park ranger trying to move me on as it got busier - I managed to take a few good shots. 

Robert De Niro bungee-jumped off this one in The Mission...

Light and shade, yin and yang...

By this time, the sun was shining, so I took the shuttle bus back to the entrance and went to the helicopter booking office. I arrived just as a tour bus spilled out seven tourists, and I was just too late to get in before the tour guide. However, they needed a singleton to fill the very next chopper, so I didn't have to wait more than five minutes. It was $100 for a nine-minute flight over the falls. We didn't get very low, and it was so short I almost decided to go up again straight away, but it wasn't a bad place to take my very first trip in a helicopter! A staff member had told me I wasn't allowed to take pictures out of the window, but the pilot was on the other side of the cockpit, and he didn't say anything when I opened the window and started shooting. What the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve over. I was slightly disappointed in my photos, but I guess that's what you have to put up with when you have no communication with the pilot or control over the flight path. 

Afterwards, I was given the usual sales spiel to try and persuade me to buy a commemorative DVD. Normally, I'd have walked straight past, but I know some of my friends want to see pictures of me, so I shelled out the extra $100 and bought a copy. It was only when I watched it later that I realised the video only covered the passengers getting into the helicopter - there was no footage from over the falls at all! Hey ho...

It was now one o'clock, and I abandoned the plan to take the boat ride. I wasn't sure if get the chance to take many pictures with so much spray at the foot of the falls, and I didn't rate my chances of getting any decent shots with my waterproof camera, so I went across the road to a bird park I'd seen on the way in. It was quite a big place, and it took a good few hours to go round. They had the usual cages, of course, which are tricky for a photographer, but the wire mesh was wide enough for me to take pictures with my lens right up against it, and there were even a few walk-through aviaries, which were just perfect. The birds were very tame, and they were almost as happy to pose for me as the marine iguanas and sea lions in the Galapagos. I particularly liked this shot of a Chilean flamingo:

"Is it 'cos I is pink...?"

"Is it 'cos I is pink...?"

I did get attacked a couple of times by a couple of rather territorial parrots and toucans, but it was a small price to pay for such a collection of exotic birds and butterflies. The highlight was the butterfly house, where I spent a good couple of hours trying to capture hummingbirds in flight. Apart from dragonflies, they must be the hardest things to take a picture of, as they're constantly moving about. You hardly have time for the autofocus to work before the bird has zipped off somewhere else and disappeared from the viewfinder. I did manage one shot of a black jacobin hummingbird, but the beautiful iridescent green one was beyond me - except when it was perched in a tree, which is not the same at all!

It was thirsty work in the heat, so I stopped at the café half-way through for a fruit juice to quench my thirst. That was where I noticed a few amusing 'Branglish' signs, such as the one that said 'You're half way trough'! Many a true word is spoken in jest...

At around five, the sun went in and the light was too dim to use low enough ISO settings, so I walked back to the hotel and ordered a beer at the bar. Nothing like a pint of Skol and room service after a hard day's shooting!

The next day, I woke up early to work on my pictures and then went to the aviary again. I only had a couple of hours, so I rushed round in an effort to spend a bit more time with the hummingbirds. They were still too jumpy for me, so I walked back to my hotel and packed my bags. 

Felix was due to arrive at 11 o'clock to take me to the Argentine side of the falls. Sure enough, he arrived outside on time and took me to the border. He then asked for my passport and disappeared into the office for a couple of minutes to sort out my passage across the border from Brazil. All I had to do was wait in the car! It was the easiest border crossing I've ever had. We did the same on the Argentine side just down the road, and then it was only a few minutes to the national park. 

The actual falls are mostly on the Argentine side of the border, which means you rarely see the foot of any of the cataracts. However, it also means that you're a lot closer, so, when you do get to a point that has a full view of one of the waterfalls, you get a much better viewpoint. Felix was a very patient guide, and he'd been to the falls so many times that he just waited for me at the exit to each viewing platform. To be honest, it doesn't take long to take pictures of a waterfall when you've been advised that it's such a long hike that you can't take your tripod (!), so I thought we were making good time. Felix even asked if I wanted a snack and a drink at one of the cafés. While I ordered a chicken sandwich and sat down at one of the tables, he left me to go and get 'some beans'. Unfortunately, he took so long that I started to get worried. I had a flight to catch, so I checked my watch. Oh, my God! It was only 90 minutes before my flight, and we still had to walk back to the car and drive to the airport! I thought guides were supposed to manage that kind of thing. I sent him a text and tried to call him, but his phone didn't work in Argentina! When he finally came back, I asked him what time we needed to get to the airport. "Two hours before." What?! We were in trouble. All I can think is that he must have got his time zones confused when we crossed the border, although he wouldn't admit it - and he obviously refused to apologise... The speed bumps on the main road to the airport didn't help, and nor did the fact that the airline's system went down, which meant that they had to do everything manually! Fortunately, the flight was delayed by 50 minutes, so I was safe. I chatted to a couple of other passengers in the check-in queue, as the scheduled flight time ticked past, and all I could say was: welcome to South America!


Don't poke the bear!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brown bear beside mossy rock below waterfall

Brown bear beside mossy rock below waterfall

Brown bear looking down in shallow rapids

Brown bear looking down in shallow rapids

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

Four brown bear cubs in diagonal line

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

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

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

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

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

Bear about to catch salmon in mouth

Bear about to catch salmon in mouth

Bear about to catch salmon on waterfall

Bear about to catch salmon on waterfall

Brown bear about to catch a salmon

Brown bear about to catch a salmon

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

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

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


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