destinations

North to Adventure!

Longyearbyen

I’m leaving today for a very exciting trip to Svalbard, Norway — north of the Arctic circle, to travel around the islands and hopefully, hopefully see a polar bear in the wild. Bonus points for walrus, beluga and NARWAL! As you can see in the image above, I will not be seeing any night.

When I land in Longyearbyen, I will be north of the Arctic circle in the same year that I’ve traveled south of the Antarctic circle. I’d be crowing about my achievement, except now I know (at least) three others doing the same! Two are working on the expedition ships, and another is a passenger like me who’s traveling to the North Pole this summer.

North and South

I will definitely be posting as much as I can to instagram so please keep an eye out for that.

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Top ten surprises about visiting Iceland

So this is what happens to me. Early on a Saturday morning, I’m messing around on the internet, and see a tweet about good deals on IcelandAir. Next thing I know, I’ve booked a week long trip. Just like that. It just happens.

In my few months of planning I booked some hotels, I made note of a few waterfalls to visit, I had a general plan in mind. I’d done my homework, but when the plane landed at Keflavik, I was in for some surprises.

  • The roads are empty. I mean really empty. I grew up in the Western US, so I know a few things about open spaces, but Iceland really amazed me: the big open vistas, driving for miles without seeing another car. It could have felt lonely and scary, but instead it felt exhilarating and exciting.

Iceland. Eyjafjallajokull.

  • Driving was really easy. I think what makes driving in new places so hard is dealing with the traffic and not knowing when you need to make a turn or what lane you need to be in, but I never had that problem there. Driving along as the waterfall comes into view, it’s pretty easy to tell when you need to turn off.
  • The horses are incredibly friendly. Every chance I got I stopped by the side of the road and went over to make friends and take their picture. No one ever came out of a farmhouse yelling at me for bothering their horses, so I’m guessing this kind of thing happens pretty regularly.

Iceland.

  • The biggest hazard on the road is actually the landscape surrounding it. Most of the time the roads have only a small shoulder, and the road is often raised above the level of the land by about 2-3 feet, so there isn’t a lot of room for mistake. And I almost ran off the road a few times cause I was gawking at the landscape. It’s very distracting. You’ve been warned.

Iceland.

  • The hot water smells very much like sulphur. Most (all?) of the hot water in Iceland comes straight from the ground and into your taps. And some of that water has a high sulphur content. Maybe I’m just really sensitive to it, but at one hotel I went down to the front desk to ask if something was wrong; the girl at the desk gave me a quizzical look: It’s obvious that you get used to it and Icelanders just don’t smell it anymore.
  • Everyone, everyone speaks English. And I never felt bad about making them speak it, like I do when I visit some places. I think the rule is: the smaller the country, the happier people are to speak English. They know getting people to learn their language is gonna be an uphill battle.
Image 8: Lupines

Gorgeous pastoral scene, or the verge next to the restaurant on the beach at Vik?

  • The grocery store sold peanut butter. This I really did not expect. Most cultures find peanut butter absolutely disgusting. so it can be really hard to find outside the US and Canada. I knew that Iceland was expensive, so I’d planned on buying bread and jam at a store and pairing that with brought-from-home peanut butter to make simple on-the-go picnic lunches, but in the end it wasn’t necessary. I could have bought everything right there.
  • The desire to buy a thick Icelandic wool sweater was SO STRONG I almost couldn’t resist it. I even posted a picture to Instagram and begged people at home to talk me out of it. I live in California you see, and never ever wear the wool pullovers I have now so I definitely did not need a new one thicker than all the others. Instead I bought a wool throw from Álafoss, and that turns out to be one of my best souvenir purchases ever. The cat is in love with its vaguely horsey smell for starters, and it’s heavy enough to keep you warm on the sofa on a chilly night.

icelandic sweater

  • The one thing about Reykjavik that surprised me (aside from the shop that only sold thermal underwear) was the amount of (really quite good) street art around the city. Just off the main shopping street there is a little skate park surrounded by huge murals, and other things tucked in here and there. Someone must do a street art walking tour, it’s be a great way to see the city.

Iceland.

My final surprise? At the end of the week I was back in Reykjavik, going to the airport and thought…. “I wanna do it again! Let’s go round the other way!”. I really did not want to leave. Lots of places, by the end of a week or two you’re ready for home and your own bed but that was definitely not how I felt. I can’t wait to go back and explore the western side of the island.

“The List”: how are you going to remember to do it if you don’t write it down?

I refuse to use the term “bucket list”, which I’ve mentioned previously. Life List sounds more positive, and somehow more open-ended than a grim death-march of accomplishments. The whole idea of this is not a prosaic to-do list, but a reminder you can use to help shape your priorities as you flap around in the day to day minutiae of your life. Therefore the word “bucket” should have no part in it. Also, you can feel free to edit, amend and add to it at will. Your feelings change, and this should reflect that.

Writing them down is a way of committing to them. I tend to think of my list strictly in terms of places I want to go, though that is usually just shorthand for the things I expect to experience there. “Antarctica and South Georgia” is a location, but it’s also a package of experiences: crossing the Drake passage, hearing what a colony of thousands of king penguins sounds like, seeing six different species of penguins, getting close to a leopard seal, hearing a ship crack through ice floes, seeing innumerable glaciers, watching icebergs silently float by, crossing the Antarctic Circle. That is all pretty wordy, so “Antarctica and South Georgia” it is.

Iceland.

My list has remained pretty steady over the past few years, but it’s only recently that I’ve decided that I really need to attack it. I plan on being around for a long time, but honestly you just never know. There is really no sense putting things off.  So without further ado, and in no particular order, the list:

  • Machu Picchu , Peru – April 2000
  • Croatia – May 2005
  • Burma – Nov 2005
  • Angkor Thom, Cambodia – Nov 2007
  • Antarctica and South Georgia– Feb 2014
  • Iceland – July 2013
  • Rajasthan, India – Nov 2012
  • (Back to) Burma – scheduled, November 2014
  • Polar Bears – scheduled, June 2014
  • Safari in Africa (Tanzania? South Africa?) – planning on 2015
  • North Korea
  • Bhutan
  • Namibia
  • Morocco
  • Fuck yeah Madagascar!
  • The insane landscape of the Faeroe Islands
  • Seeing TIGERS in the wild (India)
  • Daintree National Park in Queensland, Australia
  • Peruvian Amazon
  • Guilin, China
  • Sri Lanka
  • Northern India- Ladakh, Kashmir

Of course, the list of places I want to go is much longer, but these are really the top of that list, the “must do” locations.

Do you have a list? What’s on it? Do you need some peer pressure to help you get started? I haven’t used this, but I’m interested in the idea behind Go Mighty. It’s probably worth checking out if you’ve never done this before and need a bit more inspiration. There’s some great tips in there too. Just stop putting it off and get to work.

Finding an African Safari

“What do you mean you haven’t been to Africa?!” For some reason, people are always surprised to find out that I have not been to Africa yet. I sort of see their point — for most people Antarctica is the last continent for them to visit. While I was on my way down to Ushuaia to the jumping off point  for that trip an important fact occurred to me: Antarctica is closer. Well, Ushuaia is. From where I am on the West Coast of the US, going to Eastern or Southern Africa requires flying to Europe (10+ hrs), then another 8-12 to get to Africa. Ushuaia was only 2/3rds that distance. That’s my excuse anyway.

Going on a safari in southern or eastern Africa has been on “The List” for quite a while. I decided that 2015 will be the year. A friend I met while traveling is interested in going as well, so I’ve started doing some research.

 

travel brochures

At this point I’m fairly open about where to go: Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania, South Africa — any of them could work, though each place offers pluses and minuses. I’ve been reading a bit about safaris online, and there are a few things that have come to the forefront:

If you’re into photography there are really two crucial pieces of information:

  • How many people will be in each vehicle
  • Do you get an extra luggage allowance

You may have noticed that neither of those things has anything to do with the parks you visit, the accommodation, the outfitter, the food. But they are probably the two things that could potentially frustrate the beejesus out of you if you don’t think a lot about them before booking. Special “Photo” safaris will only have 3 people per vehicle. You get a whole bench seat row all to yourself. Why does it matter? You can slide to either side of the land rover to get a picture of whatever animal is there outside the window. You don’t have to worry about craning past someone or even completely missing something cause you can’t see past their big fat head. You will also likely head out earlier in the morning and then stay out later in the evening, which is when the animals are most active anyway. As a photographer, it just kills me to miss photo opportunities because of silly things like dinner.

And the extra luggage allowance? Pretty much any safari that flies from one location to another does so on very small planes. Small planes have very strict weight limits. Hence,  you only get a 25 lb. luggage allowance. This includes all your camera gear. Coming back from Antarctica the ticket desk at Lan weighed my carry-on (full of camera stuff), and that alone came in at 28 lbs. Whoops. Most photo safari outfitters understand this problem, and arrange for their travelers to get another ~15lbs of luggage –enough for a few pieces of clothing and a pair of lightweight hiking boots. Or they actually drive it to the next location by car, and it arrives a few hours after you do. Any lodges you stay at often have same-day laundry so you can really get by with 3 outfits.

Things to know:

  • Where you go should determine when you go (and vice versa): do you want to see the great migration in the Masai Mara? Do you want to see animals clustered around dry season watering holes in Botswana? Can you only go in midsummer school break? Each option triggers different choices. The seasons in that part of Africa are not analogous to the ones you find in most parts of the US, so you cannot really compare them. You have to research what it’s like at that place that time of year.
  • What’s the goal? Do you wan to see the big 5 and tick a few birds off your list? Is there one specific animal — like a leopard– you’re just dying to see? Different areas offer different concentrations of the main megafauna on offer, so this too can affect where you choose to go. Is it all about the photography? Oh boy, is there a lot to think of.
  • Then, we can’t not talk about cost. Safaris are expensive. Really expensive. For that money, what are you getting? You’re getting your own row of seats in a land rover (or at most, 6 people per vehicle, so everyone gets a window seat). Comfortable accommodation with an ensuite bathroom and electricity. Guides that are naturalists as well as trackers, who understand how to place the vehicle in the right spot for taking pictures and can tell you all about the life cycle of a lion. You’re getting safety, logistics that actually work and the ability to move between locations quickly and easily (by plane and not via a 12 hour ride on a bumpy road).

As I go about collecting information and learning about each of these things I’ll be posting my findings here.

To get you started, here are a few links:

Nathan Myhrvold used to be the CTO of Microsoft. I met him once because he had Galen Rowell do a private photo workshop for him – he’s obviously a very smart guy, and it’s interesting the way he’s gotten into all sorts of things from molecular gastronomy to photography since he’s left Microsoft. He wrote an article for The Luminous Landscape about the photo equipment considerations for safaris, and even if that’s not why you want to go, there is still a lot of other really good info in this article about different vehicles and ways to support your camera, and what it’s like to be on safari.

There are a few well-known photo safari outfitters, and a range of smaller players. Here are some of the most well known:

Joseph van Os

Thompson Safaris

Andy Biggs

I will continue to post follow-on articles about other safari operators and things I find out in my research.

 

 

Top Ten Things I Did Not Expect On A Trip To Antarctica and South Georgia

Come for the penguins, stay for the fur seals!

I had done a lot of research before this trip, so I knew quite a bit about what to expect and what would await me there. Years ago I worked for a photographer who visited South Georgia and Antarctica several times, so I had seen tons of  pictures from these places, and could recognize many of them. But even with all that, there were definitely some surprises. Here’s my top ten:

1. This is the best whale watching cruise you’ve never heard of. I’ve seen my share of whales. I’ve gone whale watching on the California coast, on Vancouver Island in Canada, even in Iceland. But even I was shocked at the number of whales we saw. Not only the variety of different species, but the sheer number of whales we saw was incredible.

Line of fin whales in the Scotia Sea

2. Antarctic fur seals are incredibly territorial and downright aggressive creatures. Before our first landing in South Georgia we got a detailed briefing on how to deal with them (basically: stand your ground), but I was shocked to see tiny pups going after us as if they were great big bulls. It was cute when it wasn’t sort of terrifying. Those teeth are sharp.

Fur seal
3. We were really busy. Between the daily landings and the lectures on history and wildlife and geology, meals and being exhausted from being out in the fresh air all day, I had basically no time to read or properly edit my images while on the ship.

4. Just how close to the wildlife you get. The rule is that you need to stay 15 feet away from the animals, keeping in mind that they are free to come as close to you as they’d like… and that is often pretty darn close.

Penguin

4. Doing photography every day for 3 weeks really hones your skills. I’m not sure why this had not occurred to me, but in the course of one of these longer journeys, if you’re using your camera every day and taking at least a quick peek at the results, you’re going to get better. Not only will using your camera become more automatic, but you will be better at evaluating the unique light conditions that occur down there.

Iceberg

5. My shipmates were younger than I expected. When I was in Dallas waiting for my flight to Buenos Aires, I saw the typical cruise crowd all heading down to their South American cruises. Most of them were well over 70, their tickets and IDs hanging on those pockets you wear around your neck. But not on our ship. The group seemed to be about half over 60 and half under, which gave us a good mix. We also had ~ 30% Australians, which of course made the whole thing more fun.

6. The wind is pretty much incessant. If your eyes are sensitive to wind and tear up a lot, make sure to bring wrap-around style sunglasses to help protect them. It will make a big difference. Or be like me and just keep your camera in front of your face all the time.

Wind
7. Getting in and out of zodiacs is easier than I expected… and after learning how to do it in the swells of South Georgia, the landings on the Antarctic peninsula were downright easy, as the water is so much more protected. By the end of it we were all experts, sliding towards the front and swinging our legs over the edge and landing in the water in one smooth motion, like we’d been doing it all our lives.

Zodiac
9. Running up and down the stairs to get to and from your lower-deck cabin is pretty good exercise. My apartment is on the third floor, so running up and down stairs is not new to me, but I was surprised at how by the end of the trip, I was able to race up all 5 flights from my cabin to the deck above the bridge without missing a beat.

10. The weather was fascinating. Between the come-out-of-nowhere katabatic winds (and attendant lenticular clouds) and the thick cumulus clouds that seemed to hover just feet above the water, I was constantly amazed by it. There were thick fogs that dissipated in minutes, mist, snow, sleet, rain — we saw pretty much every kind of weather at some point. I loved it.


Clouds

One thing that doesn’t surprise me? People ask if I want to go back. The answer is simple: In a heartbeat.