Madagascar: Walking Flowers. Who Knew?

I guess when The Beeb and Attenborough have made a series about a country, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s going to be a humdinger of a place to visit. We got back from Madagascar on Friday afternoon, our tenth outing with the same company we’ve been using for all our long haul travel. I’ll cut to the chase: it was fabulous.

By the numbers:

  • Photos taken 1466 [me] and 683 [my wife]
  • Of which, keepers: lots. Seriously, if you can’t manage to get memorable pictures in Madagascar, it’s time to give up.
  • Kilometres covered by car: 1500.
  • Species of lemurs seen: 14.
  • Weight lost through illness: about 2kg.

I’ll start with that last point. Clearly, I upset some pagan poo gods by judging the phantom shitter on our Belize trip so harshly. I had the most sustained period of travel sickness that I’ve experienced to date. I only missed a day, but was under the weather from the third day and for about a week. My wife came down with it as well, but didn’t have it for quite as long as me. I jokingly put her stronger constitution down to her less literal enforcement of food best-before dates than me.

There were a couple of options for getting to Antananarivo [which, sympathetic to the world shortage in letter Ns, everyone calls Tana] but we ended up going via Paris. We had an overnight stay in a hotel about 10 minutes drive from the airport. The airport itself is pretty hectic: be prepared for enterprising ‘porters’ to descend on you and try to grab your luggage out of your hands – probably before you have any cash. While I think of it: there isn’t a great selection in duty free if you’re looking to get something last minute on the way back. It’s a similar sort of fare that you see in hotel shops. Oh, and if you’re transiting, be prepared to pay extra for a plastic bag that they staple shut for you – something I’d never come across before. As the 1 Euro represented 12% of the cost of the bottle of rum I was thinking about getting, I decided to skip.
Back to the itinerary. The next day we had two consecutive flights on the same plane – another first for us. First stop was Taolagnaro, and then we went straight on to Tulear, which is in the far south west corner of the country. We’d been warned by the travel company that there was a reasonable chance that our bags wouldn’t make the trip with us into Tana, and then that the internal flights might be rescheduled at short notice. Everything went really smoothly – in fact, the same could be said for the entire holiday. Every long haul trip we’ve had something has gone wrong. This was the first that the entire itinerary worked as planned.
We met our driver and guide for the rest of the holiday at Tulear [Yves and La La] who drove us to our next accommodation, called the Hotel Bakuba. It was a lovely place, something of an ongoing art project for the guy who runs it. That said, some of the features had practicality a little lower down the running order. Our room had a sunken seating area with a glass table in it, which I don’t think was really catering for the guest who might decide that a dozen postprandial Jager bombs are a good idea. It immediately made me think of this.

Mantrap

There was also a table with wildly splayed legs that we both stubbed our toes on every time we walked past it.

Fancy bed

It was undeniably top drawer accommodation but I couldn’t quite shake the sort of vibe you get in a bed and breakfast, because the couple who run it live there: you half-feel like you’re intruding when they are having dinner.
During our two night stay there we had a couple of outings, first to a spot called the Antsokay Arboretum, which was right next to the hotel, and then the Reniala forest. The Arboretum was an interesting enough hour but is really more for the gardening geek. Reniala gets you up close and personal to baobabs, which are fascinating.

baobab

From Tulear, we transferred to Isalo, and our next hotel, the Relais de la Reine, where we stayed for 3 nights. This, again, was pretty fancy: just the way the itinerary played out we had a gradual decrease in snazziness of accommodation.
It was in the Isalo national park that we had our first encounter with lemurs, specifically this little fella:

Hubbard’s  sportive lemur

Isalo is also one of your best chances to see sifakas doing their hoppity run along the ground – which brings me to another point. Travelling as we did at the start of July meant that we were right at the start of ‘shoulder season’ [which I’d never heard of before this trip]. It’s mid winter, so the animals are less active than pretty much any other time of the year. However, it also meant that the numbers of tourists around were very low. Probably the busiest of the parks that we went to was Ranomafana, where sightings are co-ordinated among the spotters and guides and so groups of people will coalesce when something interesting happens. I guess at one point we were up to about 15. Our guide said that during the high season, people are tripping over one another. We were told that the sifakas are most likely to hit the ground running in September to October but, given the propensity for the same ground to be covered with people, you’re extremely unlikely to see it.

Sifaka

The little bundle under this mum’s elbow is an infant:

Sifaka with infant

And another common brown lemur. I can’t help but anthropomorphise about this picture, that this guy is thinking ‘oh for God’s sake, get on with it, will you?’:

Grumpy common brown lemur

And so we get on to the title of this post: the ‘walking flowers’. I’d been ill for a couple of days by this stage and wasn’t feeling like the sharpest tool in the box. Our guide pointed a plant covered in white flowers and said, ‘have a look at these’. We’d never seen anything like them before and it took a while for me to notice that they were moving:

Flower bug

I’m not entirely sure which end is which. Needless to say, you don’t get them anywhere else except Madagascar.

Ring-tailed lemur

On our last full day we did a fairly long walk in the Namazaha Valley. It was supposed to be a 10km hike but my world was still being metered out in distances between toilets so we foreshortened it to about 6km in the end. Interesting spot, and a classic example of the arid environment in this part of the country.
The stones [centre left] in this picture are covering the entrance to a grave.

Isalo

On our last evening in Isalo, I was sitting outside the room when I noticed these weird shaped motes floating in the air. Given the recent experience with the flower bugs, I assumed that they were some sort of whacky insect, until one of them landed on me and I touched it with my finger:

Slash and burn

It’s hardly the most fascinating picture but it was quite a poignant one for me: it’s a piece of ash. ‘Slash and burn’ is a common agricultural technique in the country. We were told a fire got out of control a few years ago: it affected 60% of the Isalo park and killed all but two of the sifakas. You see a lot of fires as you are driving through the countryside.

We visited one other smaller reserve before we moved on, called Zombitse. It was ok: plenty of ring-tailed lemurs and chameleons in the mix but by this stage, unless the lemurs were species we hadn’t seen before or were doing handstands, it was time to move on. Despite the name, there were no zombies.

We had a long drive to our next venue, which was the Ranomafana national park and the Setam Lodge. We passed this along the way. I love this shot, which is pretty much straight out of the camera:

The sky from the start of the Simpsons

The change in the weather over the course of the day reflected our move out of the arid region and into rainforest. We had a very interesting night walk on the first evening with the highlight being a mouse lemur:

Mouse lemur

The guide got a banana and smeared it over the branch [which is the brown slimy stuff you can see in the shot]. You then hope that the smell attracts a lemur. It took a couple of goes as the first fishing expedition attracted a rat. Being Madagascar, you half expect the rats to have, I don’t know, wings and a handlebar moustache at the very least. Nope: they have plain old rats, just like everywhere else.

Anyway, the mouse lemurs are lightning fast: they run along the branch hoovering up the banana as they go. They are ridiculously cute. These and the bamboo lemurs look like the result of a conversation between a toddler and a cartoonist.

“Bigger eyes.”

“No problem.”

This is a baby long-nosed chameleon. It’s not a great shot but the conditions were pretty difficult: macro depth of field, at night, with the 2 inch long subject on a branch that was moving…

Baby long-nosed chameleon

The next day we had our physically toughest hike, which was about 8km over very hilly ground. Just on that point, in our experience I’d say it’s second only to Borneo, in terms of the physical demands of getting around in rainforest. That said, the temperature we had last week was low- to mid 20s. If you were covering the ground that we did in Ranomafana at the height of the summer, you’d have a real slog on your hands.

Ring-tailed mongoose

Golden bamboo lemur

Flat-tailed gecko

From Ranomafana we had another long drive to our final venue, which was the Eulophiella Lodge, next to the Andasibe national park. We broke the journey with an overnight stay in a guesthouse called the Maison Tanimanga in Antsirabe. That was notable for what I rated as the best meal of the holiday.

A quick aside about the grub before I get on to Andasibe. It’s French influenced, with every place we stayed in serving baguettes and croissants for breakfast.

  • Tulear had pretty decent food, but with the odd ‘miss’: like a zebu carpaccio starter which was frozen.
  • Relais de la Reine: very rich food, with lots of creamy sauces.
  • Setam Lodge: I’ve no idea. I was in full-on emergency mode and had boiled rice and vegetables for the entirety.
  • Maison Tanimanga: fabulous home-cooked French food.
  • Eulophiella: slightly simpler fare but still very nice.

Andasibe was the coldest of the places that we stayed, with the temperature down to 11C at night. I enjoyed this park the best, I think: it was slightly easier going and there was a fantastic variety of wildlife.

Velvet amity [I think]

Indri

Diademed sifaka

Nightjar [breeding pair – sleeping]

The last place we visited of note, which was on our way back to Tana was ‘Lemur Island’. It’s basically a mini-zoo built into the grounds of one of the fancier lodges in Antsirabe. Our guide was pretty diplomatic about it: it’s a for-profit affair, and the lemurs that are kept there don’t get rotated back into the wild. That said, where else in the world are you going to have a lemur jump on your head? They have 4 species: black and white ruffed, ring-tailed, common brown and bamboo. The ruffed and common brown like to get up close and personal, and the ruffed have particularly luxuriant fur. Once again, being out of season, we had the place to ourselves.

Golden bamboo lemur

Black and white ruffed lemur, and me. I’m on the right.

So that was our fortnight in Madagascar, and it really is an extraordinary place. You’ve got to hand it to that Attenborough fella: he really knows his onions.

Belize

We got back from a fortnight in Belize on Sunday afternoon. It was, by my reckoning, the 38th country we’ve visited, on a trip we worked on with a well known UK long haul travel specialist. I say ‘we’: my wife did all the organising. I had almost no idea where I was going – this was a matter of choice, I hasten to add.

By the numbers:
– Photos taken: 580.
– Of which, keepers: 4.
– Wildlife encounters of the “you’ve got to be kidding” variety: 1.
– Arrests: 1.

A warning in advance: we had a scene play out on the way to the famous ATM Cave which was rather unsavoury, and which I can neither window dress [for reasons that will become very clear] nor skip, by virtue of being a significant talking point for a day or two for us. You might want to come back to this if you are having your lunch.

The default offering from the travel company is to fly in via Miami, which an overnight stay. That felt like a waste of time, so we asked if we could fly in via Mexico instead, as we’d be able to stay ‘air-side’ when we were transiting. This isn’t actually right, and made for a pretty tense return leg [which I’ll come back to]. Our agent also screwed up the booking and couldn’t get us on to the Cancun flight to Belize City, so we ended up having to stay in a Marriot just outside the airport anyway. This meant we’d have a pretty long drive to the Belize border on the first full day. In short, travelling via Mexico gained us nothing: if you’re thinking of travelling from the UK, just take the simple option and come in via Miami. Cancun airport is massive, and we had a chaotic 90 minute wait to get our bags. The refried beans we had at breakfast were fantastic but hardly enough to swing it.

We were dropped at the border and walked across the timezone [a first] and through passport control into Belize, sharing the queue with people who seemed to be taking little apart from vast quantities of toilet roll into the country. A short drive and boat journey later and we were at our first destination and highlight of the holiday, the Lamanai Outpost Lodge. Great food, lots of interesting things to do, great wildlife guides, and a really nice atmosphere: we couldn’t rate it highly enough. We were there for 3 nights, and had a nice mix of activities: a couple of wildlife spotting walks, a ‘village life’ tour [which involved making corn tortillas by hand. It’s pretty tough] and a standout ‘flashlight boat trip’.

As well as spotting a pretty interesting array of wildlife [including 3 metre crocodiles which, honest gov, don’t attack humans so feel free to take a dip in the river. Yeah right!], the guide used a laser pointer to talk us through various constellations. I’ve only ever seen the Milky Way as prominently once before and it was stunning: the guys turned the engine off, and left us floating in the middle of the estuary, with absolutely no visible sources of light to spoil the effect.

This little fella worked his / her way into our room, early in the morning of the second night, an encounter which had us carefully knocking out the contents of our walking boots for the rest of the trip.

Early morning visitor

We had a really nice morning looking round the Mayan temples at Lamanai. The lodge had timed it that, apart from one other couple and their guide, we had the place to ourselves.

Lamanai Mayan Ruins

If I had one minor criticism, it would be of this:

Lamanai Mayan Ruins – Big Head

…which has been plastered over to protect the original stonework from the elements. My gripe is that it wasn’t done very sympathetically.

This is the best shot of howler monkeys that I managed to get. They are tricky – by virtue of both altitude and contrast. They also sound… odd. Think Jurassic Park. I took this at the long end of my 100-400mm L, with the 1.4x extender, which meant manual focus…

Howler monkeys

…something I gave up on later in the holiday.

We woke a few times to find that it had poured overnight. This leaf, just in the garden of the Lodge, was so succulent looking I was tempted to take a bite out of it:

Yum

From Lamanai, we had a long trip [via the airport for some reason] to Black Rock Lodge. While this place has stunning reviews, and we enjoyed our 6 nights there, it didn’t quite have the same atmosphere as Lamanai: it had more of a hotel vibe. Then there were the seating arrangements: enforced nightly rotation of the cabin occupants at mixed tables. We aren’t unfriendly, and we met some interesting people but the daily procession of the same questions started to get a bit wearing. By the end of our time there, I was itching to find another IT type to speculate on why no-one was able to send emails [untested hypothesis: blocks on both the TLS and non TLS SMTP ports due to people sending bandwidth unfriendly photo attachments].

Anything but the dreaded ‘…and what do you do…?’ Me, I like to judge people from a distance, without the whole palaver of having to find out what job they do first :).

It was in a fantastic location – again on a river. There was a bird feeder that you could spend hours at:

My goodness, my Guinness!

OK, I don’t want to get too technical, but this is a green bird…

A bird. With another bird.

…which I’ve completely failed to identify. We saw a few of these over the course of the stay:

Agouti

This fella also put in an appearance on our second day:

Arizona unicorn mantis

What a fantastic name for a beastie!

We’d pre-booked a couple of trips and had the option for more, but I fell into my standard long haul holiday pattern of starting to feel off colour at the end of the first week, and had a couple of lazy days, including one where my wife went to the market at San Ignacio, which she enjoyed [possibly because she was on her own :)]. Our first big trip based out of Black Rock was to the ATM caves. It was a physically challenging, but fantastic day out. Right up until I saw the camera shaped hole in the skull of one of skeletons, I was grumbling under my breath about not being able to take my little sports camera [a GoPro wannabe, which I’ve got a waterproof enclosure for].

We had an interesting trip to the cave. We were travelling with the guide in a group of 6: a father and daughter, two women and ourselves. I was talking to one of the women who I thought was possibly drunk. Given that she was about 60, it was about 10 in the morning and we were about to ford a river, I thought she was pretty keen, but who knew, a little bit of Dutch courage might have been what she needed. We’d been walking for about 20 minutes, maybe half an hour, and were somewhere between the second and third river crossing when we noticed quite a distinctive smell. I, in my naivety, immediately thought that we might be passing near by some pecaris: our guide at Lamanai a few days before had pointed out that they have a pretty distinctive musky sort of smell. Looking back at this, I can just imagine my wife rolling her eyes at me; at the time I thought my jungle tracker super-skills had just landed. Anyway, about a minute later, we realised that the woman I thought had been drunk had suffered a spectacular sphincteral failure, and had pooed herself. Wearing shorts. In a group of people. Passing another group that happened to be heading to cave at the same time. And we’re not talking a little whoops-a-daisy squeak: there was poo running down the back of both of her legs to her feet.

It’s funny the way these scenes play out. Rather than sympathy, the group immediately regressed to the rules of the school playground. The only goal, and the one thing that was trying to jostle the smell from my brain, was the thought that we needed to cross the next river in front of her. The rest of the group was coming independently to the same conclusion and there was a not-quite-running foot race developing. Cue the Benny Hill music.

The woman cleaned herself up – probably launching an epidemic of dysentery in the otherwise crystal clear water of the river – and subsequently made it about 2/3 of the way through the cave – with no-one standing behind her at any point in time, I hasten to add.

So, as you might have guessed, my sympathy levels were pretty low. Yes, rather than drunk, she was probably medicating. But, what was she thinking? ‘I don’t feel well, but damn it, I’ve come all this way so I’m going to have a bash at this physically demanding day out.’ Or later: ‘OK, the gates have opened. Oops. I’m just going to try and brazen this bad boy out. Maybe no-one noticed’.

Really?!? I’m sorry, but either you don’t go – to the cave! – or, if it’s a super emergency, sprint off the path, drop your trollies and drop the kids. Fair enough, eye contact might be as light on the ground as waterproof toilet roll but people will understand: everyone has close shaves with the holiday trots. I remember one particularly tricky moment on my one and only diving holiday, struggling like mad to get out of a wet suit with the clock ticking down. But, back to the cave woman: to just try and walk it off? Or, if you are that ill in the first place?

Stay indoors. You know, next to the toilet.

The cave itself was, despite thoughts of poo-gate lingering over us like a green cloud, fantastic: just an absolute sensory overload of sights, swimming, sauna-like humidity and climbing. It’s not for the faint of heart.

We had another full day out to visit the ruins at Caracol. It was really good fun: a walk around the forest with the remains of houses and temples looming out of the undergrowth. We stopped off at a cave, called the Rio Frio, which was actually the highlight of the day for me.

This is an HDR exposure comprising 3 shots, bracketed around an exposure of f8, and 0.6 seconds:

Rio Frio

That was followed by the weird moment of the day: the guide set up lunch and then just switched off: not even an attempt at I-work-in-the-people-busines-so-need-to-try conversation, he just stared glassy eyed into the middle distance. Fair enough, I guess: after a few years in the job there’s probably little to distinguish one set of sweaty Europeans from another…

 

At least he didn’t shit himself.

 

This was one of the last shots I took at Caracol. It’s a bit of a daft composition but I quite like it. The ceiba trees, central to Mayan culture, are everywhere, and they are fascinating:

Ceiba tree

From Black Rock, we had another long drive down to our last destination, Placencia. It’s a quirky little town which, for me, didn’t quite add up. While we ate well and enjoyed our few days there winding down, I couldn’t quite see the draw to the location itself – bearing in mind that there was a huge amount of development work going on and our hotel was pretty swanky [the Chabel Mar]. The beach was… well, to be kind, just ok. It was a little too steep to be kid friendly, and there was a strong breeze for almost the entire time we were there, so the water was very choppy. Hardly surprisingly, we saw all of 3 people swimming in the time we were there. Thinking about the location of the town more generally, while there were plenty of day trips to be had, but they were all a long way from Placencia itself.

Brown pelican

We had a couple of stand out meals in town: Dawn’s Grill did a shrimp curry, which was my best meal of the holiday. Also worth an honourable mention was Rhum Fish where we went for my wife’s birthday. That turned out to be memorable for the wrong reasons. She hadn’t been feeling great earlier in the day – a combination of a dodgy tummy, the weather and a bad reaction to a couple of sandfly bites – but felt well enough to go out. She ended up fainting in the loo, and not being able to open the door to get out of it because her hands were sweating so badly. I was just about to go into panic mode – bearing in mind that the starters were sitting on the table – and met her coming back from the loo looking grey. She almost fainted again. The staff were fantastic: a cold, sweet drink, cold towels, cab called, food boxed up. My wife was feeling fine, and ravenous, about 30 minutes later.

We had one last mini-adventure to unfurl on the trip home. We’d arranged a pickup with the ground agent to get us to the airport a couple of hours before they had suggested, which turned out to be a good job. Our driver was stopped at a police check-point and told that his insurance had expired, which was an arrestable offence. His car would have to be impounded, he’d have a night in jail and could arrange bail for a release the next day. We were sat in the back of the car, thinking, yeah, shame, but we need to get to the airport pretty soon. The driver called his son and, after a testing 45 minutes wondering how reliable this arrangement was going to be, he appeared in a very fancy 4 wheel drive and took us to the airport at breakneck speed.

The airport at Belize City appears a little chaotic to the uninitiated: e.g., a mismatch on flight departure times between the main board and the gate, and a very strange seat allocation mechanism that seemed to involve a lot of shouting. Our flight was duly called and, when I realised there were only going to be 3 passengers, my hopes of a nice 737 started to evaporate. We were in a single engined plane for the 90 minute flight. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the air pressure differential on the wing combined with thrust that was keeping the plane in level – and admittedly fairly smooth – flight, but an act of intense willpower on my behalf. I was a nervous wreck by the time we landed. My wife loved it. We landed at a small, separate terminal and, because our pilot and co-pilot accounted for exactly 40% of the people going through the place, cleared customs and immigration control in about 5 minutes. At Belize City airport, we’d arranged for a private taxi to take us to the main terminal for international flights – vastly overpriced [$35] but worth it to make sure we were in plenty of time for final leg of the journey home.

So, all in all, a very enjoyable trip. It has to be said, it was a quite expensive one. While some of that is down to currency exchange rates, it was principally because the accommodation was pretty dear. Bottom line, it was still one of the best holidays we’ve had. The people were really friendly, and the country itself has a great mixture of history, wildlife and beaches to offer.

Thoroughly recommended.

Photography Footnotes

I took my tripod but not my 16-35mm lens, which was a mistake. There are plenty of opportunities for taking shots of the Milky Way [something I’d never tried before], and missing a wide shot of the Rio Frio cave was a bit of a shame.

It’s also worth taking a shutter remote. I had a half-pissed brainwave to improvise by putting the camera on the B setting, and using the off/on to trigger the shutter by holding the shutter release button down by using a Neurofen and about 10 Band Aids [cue my wife rolling her eyes again.] It nearly worked, but I got a bit of movement in the camera body when I turned it on and off – a combination of a beer-induced unsteady hand, and setting the tripod up on less than solid ground.

Best of a bad lot, this was a 111 second exposure [I had a Band Aid failure which closed the shutter] at f4 and ISO 800. I also bounced the flash around the foreground. Going to f2.8 and wide on the 16-35mm would have just made the difference:

Stars – don’t look too closely…

The Land of Fire, Ice and Very Expensive Soup

We’re just back from 4 nights in Reykjavik, which was an absolute blast. We did the usual suspects with trips to the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon. We weren’t so lucky with the Northern Lights, although we did get to see a murmuring on our second last night. The long exposure below [15 seconds, F4, ISO 800] picks out a lot more detail than was visible with the naked eye:

Northern Lights

Northern Lights

We knew from the weather forecast that there wasn’t really much point in booking an organised tour [and we really only had two nights to play with]. This was actually on a night when the tours had been cancelled. The composition is dire, but it was the darkest spot that we could find around the Old Harbour, and it was blowing a gale.

A few other obligatory waterfall / geyser type shots included below. Oh, and just to explain the title: on the Golden Circle, we called in for lunch at the facilities by Geysir, where you suffer the consequences of being a captive audience. The fish soup we had for lunch was delicious, but £28 for two bowls was almost as memorable as the scenery!

Gullfoss

Gullfoss

A Geyser; not the Geysir

A Geyser; not the Geysir

Where gloves go to die

Where gloves go to die

Grand Central Station

Just a quick post on a picture that I took last Saturday at Grand Central Station in New York:

Grand Central

Grand Central

This is an HDR image based on 3 exposures, bracketed around F7.1. So the shortest exposure was 0.6 seconds and the longest 10 seconds. I applied for a photo pass, but didn’t get one [not sure why: possibly because I only did it a week in advance]. As you’re not allowed to use a tripod without one, I propped my camera up on my hat and gloves on the ledge of the balcony – surprisingly effective. This was the day of the Snowstorm Jonas, so the outside light coming through the windows was pretty muted. There’s still a little bit of chromatic aberration though, possibly because I took this at 16 mm [on my 16-35mm F2.8].

I did take some pictures during the snow, but it wasn’t the sort of weather to be messing around with tripods. This is what a Prius looks like under a couple of feet of snow [taken on my phone]:

Snowy Prius

Snowy Prius

 

Cambodia Trip: From Crickets to Kettlegate

So: our most recent long haul trip was split across 4 venues: Siem Reap [4 nights]; Phnom Penh [2 nights]; Koh Kong [3 nights]; Kep [2 nights], and then finally back to Phnom Penh for the duration.

This is the first of what I promise to keep to two geeky departures, starting with camera gear. I radically over-packed, and took every lens I have – you know, just in case you miss something. This brainwave was partly inspired by the fact that my old Crumpler bag, a veteran of 8 years, finally gave up the ghost and my replacement Lowe Pro [Flipside 400 AW] had the extra capacity. I’d assumed that when we were in a riverside resort in Koh Kong, there would be wildlife to see. Wrong: we were told by one local person that the reason there is a dearth of wildlife – and occasionally eerily so – is that people were so desperate for food after the Khmer Rouge regime that they trapped wild animals to the point of picking the land clean of them. I used my walkabout lens [24-105] a lot, my wide lens [16-35] a little, and my macro once on a point of principle. Everything else was ballast. My wife also had some new kit to try out: her Olympus OMD EM-II. A great camera, but I find it puzzling that manufacturers think it’s a sane piece of economics to ship a complicated piece of kit with a soft copy of the 400 page manual.

We flew into Siem Reap from Singapore. The preceding long haul schlep with Singapore Airlines was pretty comfortable as 13 hour flights go, although memorable principally for our ordering a glass of wine 10 minutes before breakfast was served. To be fair, we didn’t know, and given the way events were to unfurl it’s a shame we didn’t fill our boots with booze on the first three days anyway [more on that soon]. Rather bizarrely, we also saw Richard and Judy, former doyennes of daytime TV, at Changi when we were transiting.

Siem Reap itself is unremarkable. Its rapid recent expansion to accommodate the Angkor complex tourism is reflected in the slightly wild west feel to the place. There is a pretty decent covered market, which we spent quite a while pottering around until the mix of jet lag and intense humidity forced us out of the place, and backpackers are well catered for in an area called Pub Street. We stayed in a hotel called the Hanuman Alaya Boutique. The room was great and the staff were really friendly, although it has to be said that the sound proofing between the rooms was non existent. They also plonked us in a room right across from reception which we considered changing for about 5 seconds: we were exhausted for the first few days and could have slept propped up in the corner of a train station.

We started our temple-fest on the second day with visits to the Angkors brothers, Thom and Wat. Even with a reasonably early start, they were both very busy, so much so that it was pretty impactful on the experience. No-one has a god-given right to visit these places, but if you’re expecting a tranquil sunrise experience, think again.

Angkor Wat

Whose leg?

Whose leg?

Big heads

Big heads

Early the next morning, we hit one of the highlights of our trip: ironically, this was a tranquil sunrise experience: the almost-deserted Ta Prohm,  of Tomb Raider fame. I’ve limited myself to two geek outs, and here’s the second. I really couldn’t get over this place. Anyone who has ‘invested’ as much time in computer games as I have is going to have the same, completely inverted reaction: it looks just like a scene from a whole genre of platformers. Take your pick: Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia, Drake’s Fortune. Someone from those design teams went to Ta Prohm, and you see it, in essence, again and again. Despite the lack of levers to open doors and raise water levels, it is an utterly fabulous place, and worth the journey to Cambodia in its own right.

Ta Prohm

...again

…again

That afternoon, we went on a boat trip through a canal system and out to the edge of Tonle Sap lake. This was a bit of a misfire, which continued for the rest of the day. While the scenery was interesting, once we got out onto to the lake, we did an about face and went straight back to the car. Stopping off at the floating village we chugged past would have been good.

Dignity just about maintained

Dignity just about maintained

It turns out we were supposed to do precisely that, but our guide who, with the benefit of hindsight, was  occasionally a bit pants, didn’t want to waste our time with all of that nonsense. Equally, we were supposed to go an a foodie tour of a street market, which seemed to surprise our guide. In the end, he sort of cobbled it together and, while I think my wife was a little disappointed, I quite enjoyed it. Recounting this does sound as if we were a little bit spineless, but we were still badly jet lagged and struggling with the heat. Also, you tend to find with these gigs you’re halfway through them before you realise it’s not what you expected.

We managed to squeeze in a couple of culinary treats at Street 60 market. I tried a variety of deep fried bugs. Here’s the role call:

  • Grubs: disgusting.
  • Grasshoppers: plausible but they were pretty big [about 3 inches], which is quite off-putting. I distinctly recall not wanting to bite the thing in two, in case there was any trailing gubbins. The main downside of trying to munch it down in one go was that I unwittingly started the process with a hind leg hanging out of my mouth.
  • What were described as water beetles, which were a little over an inch long. These looked like diving beetles to me. The procedure was to break the carapace off before eating. Disgusting.
  • Crickets. These were actually quite tasty. Slightly sweet, very crunchy and with a sort of nutty / meaty favour. They go well with beer, which is drunk over ice, apparently.
mmm

mmm

We finished the day with a Cambodian barbecue. It’s cooked on a very distinctive dome shaped metal cooking implement [dome facing up the ways, so convex], encircled in what could best be described as a soup moat. This sits directly on a burner. You place a broth in the moat to boil seafood [prawns and squid] and mushrooms. At the top of the dome, you put a lump of pork fat on to melt, which – well, in theory, stops the strips of very lean beef and fatty bacon from sticking to the surface. Very tasty indeed.

Shock, horror: I woke up the next morning feeling like death warmed up, and had to skip the main activity for the day which was a cooking class. My wife went, while I remained bed bound – or more precisely, within striking distance of the loo – pretty much for the rest of the day.

That set a precedent for about the next 5 days, with either one of both of us not feeling well enough to hit all the points on the itinerary. I’m going to skip forward a few days to the Friday of the first week, by which time we’d finished up site-seeing in Siem Reap and had flown back to Phnom Penh. That flight, on the Thursday, was awful: I talked fairly seriously with my wife about seeing if we could drive it, but the prospect of 5 hours in the car as opposed to 35 minutes in the air was a hard sell. We were getting ready to head out site-seeing on the Friday morning, and my wife felt really unwell, and nearly fainted on the way back up to the room for something [probably an emergency loo break]. Our guide turned up a few minutes later, took one look at us, and took us to a medical facility where we ended up spending the day doing various tests.

The conclusion was that we were both diagnosed with amoebic dysentery. When the doctor told us, the first thing that popped into my mind was Spike Milligan’s epitaph: ‘I told you I was ill!’ While we were plumbed in to various drips and waiting test results, we thought about pulling the plug and heading home on the spot. When things go wrong you suddenly realise you are a very, very long way from home. Then the doctor came in, told us that we weren’t that sick and [implicitly] that we should put up and shut up :).

Because I succumbed a day earlier than my wife, I missed about 2 1/2 days of sight seeing. That included everything we’d originally planned on doing in Phnom Penh, including the S-21 prison, and the Killing Fields.

We were just about to drive to our next destination at this point in Koh Kong, which is a floating ‘glamping’ hotel on the side of a river called the Preat. Before I get on to that I’ll just gloss over some of the sites we saw around Siem Reap on our last day [the Wednesday of the first week]. We had a look at Banteay Srei and Banteay Samre. Well, I think we did. We actually went to 3 temple ruins that day, but I was feeling awful and had to sit out one in the car, so I’m pretty hazy on the details.

Banteay

Banteay

Banteay

A couple of final points to tick off. The first is what caused us to get ill. While on the Monday night I did eat half a bag of bugs sold by some geezer at the side of a road, who was shooing still-flying varieties off his wares before flogging them, the timing is probably wrong. The incubation period is 2-4 days, apparently, which moves the unwashed amoebic finger of suspicion back a day or two [I ate the bugs about 8 hours before I started getting sick]. Our most likely candidate was a cheap and cheerful restaurant that we ate in on the Saturday in downtown Siem Reap, where we shared a starter of fresh spring rolls filled with salad and prawns. They were pretty good at the time.

And while we were still in rude health, we had a fantastic meal on the Saturday night in Siem Reap at a spot called The Chanrey Tree.

We transferred over to the 4 Rivers Floating Lodge in Koh Kong, after about a 4 hour drive from Phnom Penh and 20 minute boat transfer. The setting is stunning, and they have done a really good job with the setup. Although you have your own platform to lower yourself into the water for a swim, my wife was at the peak of her symptoms, and the thoughts of what the repercussions might be from glugging down a few mouthfuls of Eau de Mekong Tributary left us both erring on the side of caution. I did as much kayaking as my wife’s frayed nerves could cope with. Just to explain, I have a profoundly bad sense of direction – so what could possibly go wrong on a river that opens into the Gulf of Thailand?

4 Rivers Lodge

The food at the place was occasionally awful. They had one day where there seemed to be a complete meltdown in the kitchen: very long delays for food which really wasn’t great when it did arrive . I know this sounds like a very first-world moan, but the Lodge comes with a 5 star price tag, which sets expectations accordingly. That said, it was typical of an experience that we repeated in 2 or 3 of the places we stayed: there were aspects of the service which weren’t great, but the people working there were so friendly and trying so hard to be helpful, actually breaking the fourth wall to complain about something felt like we’d be walking up to Bambi and saying ‘Well fella, shame about your Ma!’, and kicking him in the head.

We had plenty of opportunity for excursions at the Lodge, but as my wife was feeling awful, we skipped on everything except a firefly spotting river trip after sunset on the first evening. Oh. My. God. I never fail to be gobsmacked at how lacking in basic common sense people can be, and yet still survive into adulthood. Case in point: a guy acting as spotter pointed at a tree with lots of fireflies. So 4 people of the be-beaded / new age / let’s-wear-something-wispy type [or, more simply, ‘idiots’] all immediately transferred to the other side of the boat, nearly capsizing it, to take pictures with flashes that weren’t going to come out anyway. They might as well have been using the flash to take pictures of frigging Jupiter.

Next pitstop was Kep, described as a sleepy seaside town, with little beyond a market and the deserted remains of houses used by senior officers of the Khmer Rouge as holiday boltholes. Sleepy it may well be for 51 and a half weeks of the year, but our visit coincided with the annual Water Festival, a national holiday when a sizeable chunk of the population cuts and runs for the coast for 3 days. It was mobbed. We stayed at a place called the Veranda Natural Resort. The room was bizarre: it was a hangar fitted out in a weird 1970s decor. It must have been the guts of 25 feet square, too much space to make use of. The bed had these shin-high shelves either side [beyond bruising, God knows what they were for], the safe was on the floor, there was no veranda [despite the name], and no kettle. We were so non-plussed by the tour of the room that we actually thought that they were trying to pull a fast one and queried it – and asked about the kettle [note the pattern]. The staff insisted it was the right room [correct] and admitted that there were more rooms than kettles and that they’d try to do something for us, although they were fully booked.

The next day, when we came back to the room to find it made up, a door which we’d thought was locked and assumed was adjoining, was lying open to reveal a small, well equipped kitchen. We were briefly sheepish, shuffled our feet and, uhm, didn’t talk about kettles again.

After a couple of days of downtime, we were starting to feel better and getting antsy to do something. We emailed our guide [the splendid Thea] and arranged to leave Kep a day early and head back to Phnom Penh. The adapted [post-illness] itinerary had us doing the transfer from Kep and site seeing all during the morning before our flight. Taking the extra day meant we could do it at our leisure.

A few of final thoughts on Kep: the market was actually pretty interesting, processing lots of crab that people were buying straight out of the water. They formed the main ingredient in a fantastic meal we had on our last night in a spot called the Democrat [anachronistically decorated with pictures of various US Democratic politicians]. I also spent an afternoon walking around the ‘Kep National Park’, right next to the hotel. I only got a couple of fleeting glances at some birds but I think there would definitely be stuff to see there, given a bit more time than I could throw at it.

[we were wearing shorts] IMG_7756

If this shot, which I took in the park, had a name it would be ‘I’ve dragged my macro lens 6000 bloody miles so I’m going to find something to take a picture of with it’:

Have Macro, will travel...

And so our final day in Phnom Penh. While it’s not super developed, we both really enjoyed it: we had a nice walk through the wide boulevards around the palace. We had a drink [soft, due to meds unfortunately!] in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, had a walk around one fairly boutique-ey little Street 240, and went for a pretty fancy meal on our last evening at a spot called Malis.

Water Festival Traffic

We booked back into the same hotel that we’d stayed in earlier in the holiday: La Rose Suites. It was stunning: art deco styling, beautifully appointed rooms and the staff were fantastic. As my wife remarked, could you imagine leaving a hotel in London and being handed a business card on the way out with the comment, ‘don’t worry, if you get lost, give us a call and we’ll come and find you’.

The last morning, before we went to the airport, we went to the prison in Phnom Penh [S-21], and then finally on to the Killing Fields. I was talking about this at work today and surprised myself by  getting quite upset about it. The prison is full of pretty grizzly images. The Killing Fields [actually one of an estimated 250 or so where people were killed. I hadn’t realised] is just strange, poignant, and very moving. There are a myriad of large bones poking through the ground on the path you follow: what I did at the start, and what I think is a natural reaction, is to disassociate what you’re seeing from the remains of someone who was murdered, and simply try to identify what bones they are. What pulled me up short was finding – ‘finding’ is the wrong word. You don’t have to seek them out – teeth. I’m far from an expert but they looked like a child’s pre-molars to me, based on the size, shape and absence of root. Whoever it was they were young.

The only thing I felt like taking a picture of...

That was it. Reading this back, the holiday sounds like a series of disasters interspersed by car and plane journeys, but we actually had a really fun time. I’m the last person to make sweeping generalisations, but what the hell, it’s nearly Christmas, so I’m going to treat myself to one. I enjoyed Vietnam, but there were aspects of it that pushed my buttons. It’s impossible not to make comparisons with its neighbour, and I’d sooner go back to Cambodia.

Borneo Trip: Tuck Your Shirt in!

Some numbers to start with:

  • Pictures taken: 1699 [me:1191, my wife: 508]
  • Flights: 7
  • Leech bites: 4 [all on me].
  • Leeches discovered still attached while in the shower: 1.
  • Hardware failures: 1.
  • Highest temperature: 36 degrees; humidity: 95%. [Accuweather ‘real feel’ suggestion: 48 degrees].

Child friendly; fabulous weather; relaxing walks; bug free. Unsurprisingly, the rain forests in Borneo are none of these. If you are thinking of taking your kids, don’t!

We got back via a 22 hour jaunt on Saturday morning, and it was fabulous, fascinating and frankly exhausting in equal measure. Our time there was split into 4 sections: Kota Kinabalu, the Kinabatangan river, the Danum valley, and the lazy bit at the end – Gaya Island.

We kicked off with a couple of nights in a massive suite in the quite nicely appointed but atmosphere free Jesselton Hotel in KK. One highlight: my wife caused a disturbance in the force by having the temerity to ask for a second cup of coffee at breakfast. The waitress looked at us both blankly, conferred with her manager at some length and returned saying, no, that they didn’t go in for that sort of thing. All down to experience, I guess.

We deliberately left this part of the trip free, so we could give ourselves a chance to acclimatise to the time difference, and try to get used to the weather. We had a walk around a market on the Sunday morning, which was set up in the street right outside the hotel, and it was scalding. We both looked like radishes after about 5 minutes.

We left KK with a short flight to Sandakan, followed by an equally snappy transfer to the Sepilok Nature Resort, which we had one night at.

It wasn’t a bad venue. The a la carte food was very good, and the air conditioned room was spotless. They were doing a fair amount of renovation work while we were there: some sort of platform out onto the small lake that the place is built around. One minor annoyance: our itinerary had left us some free time the afternoon we arrived, and when I asked at reception if there was anywhere in walking distance that was interesting, the receptionist said no, and tried to flog me an orchid garden walking tour. She neglected to tell me that we were about 100 metres from the entrance to the Sepilok reserve. Our fault though: our travel company had given us a detailed document which explained this, but we were both dead on our feet.

We had our first taste of the rain forest with a night walk. Our guide was emphatic about a simple piece of advice: don’t touch anything. We saw a lot of interesting wildlife but beyond the realms of all but image intensifying technology. For the record, the list included flying squirrels, some sort of otter variant, a mouse deer [cute!], and a selection of pit vipers. Oh, and our first ever tarantula and scorpion. Separately, as opposed to some sort of I’m-creepier-than-you bake-off.

This isn’t the tarantula, just a bloody big spider:

Move that leaf for me, would you?

And one of the things filed under “don’t touch”: the guide said the filaments on the caterpillar’s back were like pieces of glass, and even brushing against it was extremely painful:

Hairy boy

An awful picture of the scorpion. All of these were taken with the macro lens which I was really struggling to focus by torchlight:

I'm shy!

We had been advised by our travel company to get some head torches. While generally pretty useful over the course of the trip, using one on that first night walk in the forest was a mistake: every weird flying insect (however weird you are thinking, double it) for miles came over to check it out and then seek consolation by butting themselves to death against my forehead. This was quite unpleasant.

The morning after we went into the Sepilok reserve to see a feeding session for the orang utans. Part of the entertainment was watching the resident macaque [universally seen as a pest] raiding party, stealing the food faster than the orang utans could gather it up. It has to be said that the orang utans were a bit laissez faire about the whole thing. The image of one ape hanging languidly from a rope by his hands and feet, having a poo, sticking his finger up his arse and then sniffing said finger will stay with me for some time. it reinforced the fact that, fascinating as the orang utans are, you wouldn’t want to come home and find an adult one installed in the living room.

Unfortunately, the nursery was off the tour due to someone – staff or visitor, I can’t remember which – having fallen and broken an arm, and that part of the facility was having to be hastily renovated. So our consolation was having a mooch around a very newly established sun bear reserve.

Porridge for breakfast. Seriously

Worth the visit. Despite the fact that they look like cuddly toys, one of the staff there was saying that they will go through you for a shortcut.

From Sepilok, we had one of many Bond-villain style speedboat transfers, taking us from the coast up into the mouth Kinabatangan River. We had a total of three nights in two venues, starting with the Abai Jungle Lodge, and then the Kinabatangan River Lodge. It’s hard to be concise here, because we packed so much in. The lodges themselves were really good fun: great buffet food, simple but spotless accommodation, great guides and just stacks of wildlife. Again, this was a litany of the rare, the weird and the dangerous. Three highlights: pigmy elephants, a 3.5 metre salt water crocodile, and a sleeping blue-eared kingfisher which I got close enough to touch, when our guide spotted it [how?!?] on a low hanging branch on the riverbank. Unfortunately, I had only packed my long lens so had no way of getting a shot of the fella.

We got stuck in the heaviest tropical storm either of us had ever experienced when we were boating it back from seeing the elephants on the second night. It started to get a little tense at one point, as the guide was having to bail water, while we had hugely dramatic thunder overhead. Luckily, we were issued with bin liners to put our bags in. While my Crumpler claims to be waterproof, 50 minutes in an unrelenting torrent would have been too much for it.

It was at the first lodge that my hardware failure manifest: I’d taken my MacBook Air to process images as we went along. Unfortunately it failed to register either my or my wife’s cameras. The console chirpily reported that ‘Port 1 of hub reported error 0x0002c7 while doing clearing port failure’. Fabulous! The network at the lodges was pretty much what you’d expect in a rainforest [although one of my wife’s FaceBook contacts joked that it was probably still better than he was getting in Norfolk]: something akin to a damp piece of string. Despite a cry for help to home [via an email which took about 20 minutes to send. Thanks for trying James!!], I couldn’t find a fix, so had a steadily increasing number of eggs loaded on an 8Gb Compact Flash card / basket. This is why my image count was pretty low, by my own standards. I subsequently bought a card reader in KK and haven’t bothered to try and fix the problem since we got back.

From the river lodge, we had a 5 hour transfer to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the Danum Valley, where we spent 3 nights. This place was astonishing: the room [which included an outdoor bath on the balcony], the food, the staff and service were all right out of the top drawer, and about as good as we’ve had on any holiday.

On the first trip into the rainforest, I have to admit that I thought the leech socks we were advised to wear were a little on the theatrical side. Right up to point when my wife said about an hour in, “what’s that pink stuff on your shirt?” I had unthinkingly gone for the rakish, casual explorer look, and hadn’t tucked my shirt in. The leech bites themselves are, of course, completely painless. It’s more of a nuisance that they continue to bleed for the rest of the day.

This was the most physically demanding few days of the holiday and, for that matter, what either of us had experienced for a very long time. The temperature was routinely over 35 degrees. Combined with the very high humidity, when we were slogging it up some very steep terrain, we had to occasionally remind ourselves that we were supposed to be having fun.

A sighting of an orang utan eluded us right until the last gasp: 20 minutes before the end of the last walk on the morning that we were checking out. Our guide had warned us that the nightly storms we were having were going to suppress movement, and with it the chances of a sighting.

This is pretty typical of the challenges that you have trying to get decent shots in a densely wooded area, and just after dawn: it’s basically a high altitude ginger blob:

At last...

But we saw her in the wild, and all but one of the guests we spoke to during our stay were less fortunate than we were. I recorded the event with my little tracking app. The screenshot shows the exact latitude and longitude of the tree that we saw her in. All very academic, but I doubt she’s still there:

Lat & Long

Lat & Long

From The Danum Valley, we had a 3ish hour transfer in a serious four wheel drive jeep to the airport at Lahad Datu for the flight to KK. “Airport” is an evocative word, all bustle and industrial amounts of people. For Lahud Datu, think “canteen furnished with a security corner”. bargain of the holiday: the coffees were 40p each there.

The flight itself was pretty eventful. We were circling fairly close to KK which was having some very heavy rain, and it was getting pretty lumpy and bumpy. The pilot held us there for about 15 minutes before giving up and diverting us to Labuan island. We both misheard the message from the pilot and thought we were heading to Java, which would have been fun. But after about 45 minutes in another anodyne waiting room we were on our way again.

The final stint of the holiday was a very lazy 4 nights at the Bunga Raya Resort on Gaya island. It was very nice indeed, it has to be said, being ferried around the place in golf buggies – quite a contrast to the preceding days’ forced marches in the rainforest. The food was merely good, in comparison to some of our earlier hostelries, and pretty expensive. The staff were great though, and we had a couple of nice evenings sitting in the bar watching re-runs of world cup games and chewing the fat.

We did nip back over to KK one evening to eat at a place called the Emperor’s Delight: cheap fab Chinese food, while you watch the chefs expertly wrestling dough into noodles by hand.

We had hung juries with some of the other kit that we got for the trip. Opinions were polarised over travel pillows called ‘travelrests’: these were bought after a good 30 seconds research by me, when  I stumbled on a very good article in the WSJ reviewing some of the better offerings. I thought mine was great but my wife couldn’t get on with hers at all. We also picked up a small pair of folding binoculars for my wife: Nikon Sportstars. Conversely she thought they were great; I thought they had the worst chromatic aberration I’d ever seen. But they were relatively cheap and ticked a box for portability.

I got great value out of one of my Christmas presents, a Sony Action Camera (basically a Go Pro wannabe: much better value). The waterproof housing got a fair workout when I did a bit of snorkelling in the last few days.

Final point on the hardware: my camera kit. It was a pretty uncompromising environment, and I continue to be massively impressed by the 5D Mark III’s ability to perform under duress. It was certainly a lot more challenging than my camera’s last outing, which was a wedding on the outskirts of Swansea. Jokes about hairy primates at both events carefully navigated I think.

Oh, and after my considered analysis of lens usage, and whether or not to take my 16-35 F2.8, I carried it around rainforests and boat excursions and used it precisely zero times. Never mind.

Aperture: Analysing Lens Usage

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, we are heading to South East Asia for a holiday soon and, as ever, the lens dilemma presents itself: I am fortunate enough to have more lenses than I can fit in my carry-on bag, and I need to decide which l’m going to leave behind.

I didn’t see a huge amount of resources on this  when I searched for it – a plugin for Aperture that you need to pay for, and a command line tool called exiftool for analysing your library seemed to be the primary options. While the latter is feature rich, it wasn’t immediately apparent how to combine EXIF characteristics, such as bounding the usage of a lens by date.

Adding an EXIF based smart album seemed like an easy alternative. This is my usage of my latest lens, the 16-35mm, and my prime candidate for the bench:

EXIF Based Smart Album

EXIF Based Smart Album

Just a few points to note: in the top left, be sure to change the default ‘any’ rule to ‘all’. Also, dates are obviously US format. I haven’t tidied up the default rules on colour, text and keywords, which are all blank and don’t make any difference. Finally, I have my library organised by year. If you do too, all the simpler: just control click on the folder, select smart album from the pop-up, and you’re off to the races.

As I say, this worked for me. Unchecking the the EXIF rule gives me the denominator to calculate the percentage and the result: I took 41% of my pictures with the lens.

Conclusion: I’m taking it…