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…

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.

India Trip #3: On the Imodium Trail

We got back from our North India trip last night, and it turned out to be quite a roller coaster. First a few numbers:
– Number of pictures taken: 2124 [me] 954 [my wife]
– Tiger sightings: 3
– Number of times urinated on by treetop monkey: 1
– Number of road rage incidents observed: 3
– Of which, number that turned into fist fights: 1

We covered 6 separate venues: 3 nights in a boutique style hotel in Delhi called the Manor; one night in the alarmingly misleadingly named [but still quite charming] Grand Imperial in Agra; two nights in a wildlife reserve called the Chambal Safari Lodge, near the river of the same name; two nights near the Ranthambore National Park in Khem Villas; two nights in Jaipur in the Royal Heritage Haveli; then on the home straight, 3 nights in the Samode Palace [an actual palace], and then back to Delhi for our last night in the very swanky Imperial Hotel.

A few boxes to tick before we launch. We have used the same holiday company for the last 5 years now for our long haul holidays, who put together custom itineraries. We had more things go wrong on this trip than any other. First and foremost, we had a no-show on the second day with a photographer called Vicky Roy who was supposed to take us on a walking tour. Another guy appeared at the hotel, who kicked off with a very jet lag insensitive 10 minute PowerPoint presentation [something I wasn’t expecting to deal with outside normal office hours] of his sketches. He was a nice bloke, and we had a pretty interesting walk with him but his skills lay with his drafsmanship, not photography. We had a couple of other minor activities evaporate later on either because they were never going to work [daybreak shot of the Taj? Not at this time of year, unless you are really into fog] or which the guides simply thought better of on the day.

While the later points are nitpicking, the Vicky Roy thing wasn’t: we wouldn’t have stayed the third night in Delhi otherwise. The travel company did stump up for high tea at the Imperial in Delhi on the last day though, to soften the impact.

The lesson here is to make sure that the subject matter is as infallible as possible [i.e., they don’t load the Taj onto a truck every Thursday afternoon for a quick wash and polish], and the facilitating components are fungible [a guide, not the guide]. And remember to ask about the weather…

As the name of this post suggests, while it’s an exaggeration [exaggerate? Moi???] to say that India tried to kill us, it did have a good go at making the trip hard work. I missed the third day in Delhi in its entirety due to a stomach bug. My wife felt well enough to go on her own, but fainted while having a tour of the old city. Then on our second night at the Samode Palace, I had a recurrence of the digestion related challenges. Meanwhile, my wife had some sort of allergic reaction [no idea what to], which continued right up to the last night in Delhi when we had to get the doctor out.

Final observation before breaking down the itinerary high points, and sprinkling in some of the more interesting shots: we had a few new pieces of kit in the mix for this trip. We upgraded my wife’s old Lumix [barely better than her mobile phone’s camera] to the Canon S120, which we were very pleased with. We didn’t manage to make much of a dent in the 200 page manual before we left [PDF only, much to my wife’s chagrin], but there are enough similarities with Canon’s DSLR controls that we were able to bluff it. Speaking of DSLRs, while I had my 5D mk III for the trip to Spain earlier in the year, India was its first serious outing. I also took the plunge with the 1.4 mk III extender: full manual focus when combined with my 100-400 L, but I had enough experience at the long end of that lens to be able to cope: focusing through a series of shots is the trick, with the file format set to JPEG – kinder to the storage, given the hit rate.

We had a litany of upgrades, starting with the flight out to Delhi with BA, which we got bumped up to business class from premium economy [fab!]. The Manor Hotel is renowned for its food, and it certainly warranted its reputation. It reminded me of Benares in London, in terms of the level of refinement and even some of the menu options. The chef was filming a documentary in the grounds of the hotel while we were there. The room and standard of service was fantastic. That said, the location [the Friends Colony] isn’t great for the jetlagged visitor who isn’t feeling super adventurous at the start of their trip: it’s a long way south of the city centre and anywhere interesting.

I’ve already mentioned the walking tour we had on the first full day. We took in a small mosque and a huge Sikh temple, both of which were pretty interesting. We also hit a market and some sort of colonial era government building, neither of which I expect I’ll remember by the end of this week.

At prayer

The guide explained that the person lying down may have been suffering from depression as he was beside the sarcophagus of a revered person:

Graveside

Snooze

Rickshaw snoozing

Sikh temple: bulk catering

From Delhi, we went went about 4 hours by car south east to Agra. It’s a rough, tough city, with extreme levels of poverty apparent and, without a shadow of a doubt, the hairiest traffic that we have ever encountered on any of our trips. I have blogged about the challenges of crossing the road in Hanoi during rush hour, which is quite scary to the uninitiated. At least there, there was a system with the traffic. In India in general, and Agra in extremis, the traffic is utterly chaotic. There is some engineering work going on with the replacement of one of the bridges over the river Yamuna, and the narrowing of the flow of the traffic this necessitated caused one of the worst traffic jams I’ve ever seen [bear in mind this is our third trip to the sub-continent], and was the site of our first road rage incidents. The guy in front of us must have clipped another vehicle, the driver of which decided to drag Mr 4×4 out of the car by the lapels. He was about to whack him, but thought better of it – possibly because he was compounding the traffic problem. So if you add a myriad of motorbikes weaving through the stationary or slow moving traffic, quite a few horse- and camel-drawn carts to the mix, it makes for quite a colourful recipe. It’s quite frankly a miracle that we got through the entire trip with nothing more significant than nudging the handlebar of a bike.

The star of the show in Agra is, obviously, the Taj Mahal. It is simply stunning.

Taj Mahal

We took in a couple more venues, including the Red Fort, the ‘mini Taj’ and an evening tour of a village called Kachpura. The latter is being sponsored by an NGO which is looking to develop sustainable skills for the villagers. It was very interesting: we were followed by a group of local children [a constant refrain for the holiday] who broke into paroxysms of laughter when we took / showed them their photographs. We were supposed to stop off somewhere along the way to take sunset snaps of the Taj [the other side of the river from the village]. I’m not sure why this fell off the agenda – possibly because we were running late – but to be honest, we were both still feeling pretty rotten, so were happy enough to hot tail it back to the Grand Imperial. It was an odd spot – faded charm would cover it – but we both really enjoyed it. We were the only diners in the vast restaurant, clad head to tail in green marble, so had about 6 [probably very bored] waiters flurrying round us to do vitally important tasks like repositioning cutlery after a new dish arrived. It was one of those faintly comical situations where I’d have been barely surprised if one of them had offered to cut my food for me. Final observation on the extreme staff to customer ratio: the sitar player stopped mid-tune to ask us if we liked Indian music. I have to say I enjoyed the place.

From Agra, we moved onto to one of the highlights of the holiday: the Chambal Safari Lodge. This was about an hour south-east of Agra, still in Uttar Pradesh, and it was fabulous. The food, staff and accommodation [a self contained lodge] were great, and the wildlife was astonishing. I sat down with the resident naturalist, the very knowledgeable Gajendra, and he ticked off 92 species of bird, mammal and reptile – this was at the end of the first full day. It’s my idea of heaven: pulling on my pair of ‘high performance trousers’ [a standing joke in our house: a pair of Rohan fast drying trousers that my wife hates], walking boots and long sleeve shirt, and then tramping through the undergrowth with someone who really knows what they’re doing, looking for exotic fauna. I’ll do a separate gallery of birds at the weekend, but here are a few tasters.

Here Hare Here

Indian Bush Lark

Gharial

After a couple of nights at Chambal, we got a train which took us a couple of hours south-west into Rajasthan and to our next venue: the Khem Villas, just outside the Ranthambore national park. The accommodation and service were, again, very good. The vegetarian-only grub was served in a restaurant decked out with little braziers of hot coals between the tables: pretty atmospheric, but not particularly conducive to your standard issue, flailing drunkard who might fancy a quick stagger to the loo. Obviously not talking about myself here, this is a purely hypothetical observation :).

We had three safaris – early starts in temperatures hovering in the low single digits. The whole process of getting into the park is overly bureaucratic, if understandable. Rather than everyone [or as many people as can fill a jeep] from the same hotel taking the same tour, different zones of the park are allocated on a per group [or in our case, per couple] basis. We figured this meant that any sightings would be distributed across people from different hotels. Given that some of the zones might be better than others, this is probably less open to bribery. The downside of the hotel not being able to operate its own tours was massively different start times, with the last safari starting an hour late.

In short, we were very lucky. We saw tigers from the public highway on the way into the park. This caused a mini traffic jam, and some of the worst let’s-make-like-we-aren’t-here conduct you could imagine. One of the tigers roared, and about half a dozen people screamed. We had guides and drivers shouting at each other at the top of their voices, and people trying to clamber between vehicles. I guess there must have been about 10 or 15 jeeps and lorries clustered around the place. It was a bit of a mess. These were from about 30 feet away or so:

Angry Cat

Tigers x 2

For what it’s worth, the tigers seemed oblivious, up to the point where a male decided to – shall we say – initiate a clinch of a romantic nature with the female. She was less enthusiastic and roared at him in a ‘clear off or I will bite your head off – literally’ sort of way. At which point, the observing humans broke into the aforementioned hysterics.

We saw tigers on both safaris on the first day [on the road into the park both times], and nothing at all on the final morning. We fluked it, and I can imagine that you could spend a week trying to spot something and come away empty handed. We actually saw not a lot of any significance within the park itself, apart from deer and a rather fine pair of pied kingfishers.

Pied Kingfisher

It may be the best chance you have of seeing a tiger in the wild in India [and it must be up there in global terms], but I’m not sure if I’d recommend Ranthambhore. The ‘naturalists’, or naturists as one of our dinner companions insisted on calling them in conversation earlier in the week, were of very broadly differing abilities [the last guy we had was clueless], and it has to be said that the ideas about appropriate conduct and personal safety leave a lot to be desired.

On that final point, I missed a shot [which I’ll come back to] on the second day of a cat that our naturalist identified as T24 – an adult male – who crossed the road about 10 feet behind our jeep. My wife managed to get a couple of shots while I was still trying to get set up:

T24 [High ISO]

While his name might sound like a module on an Open University degree course, this lad has a reputation: he has killed four people [including a park ranger a few months back] since 2010. This has been quite widely reported. Whether the cat in the picture is actually the one in question we have no idea, but it’s what we were told.

Missing the shot: the safari drives can be incredibly dusty, and common sense dictated only getting the camera out of my bag when something interesting was happening and circumstances were favourable. I heard one bloke back at the hotel complaining to his partner that he’d gotten dust in his lens. I could hear the noise it was making – like turning a salt mill – from about 8 feet away.

Anyway, on the way into the park, you are required to sign a form that excludes the forestry department from liability if you happen to get yourself into any trouble. The forestry staff [guides and drivers] are unarmed, and the jeeps are pretty open. If this sounds hysterical, google it.

After our two nights at Khem, we had a roughly 3 hour drive north west to Jaipur, where we stayed at the Royal Heritage Haveli, where we had the next of our upgrades. I’m sure we were told that the former private residence started life as a hunting lodge. It’s laid out on multiple levels and, while the buildings actually predate it, the style struck me as having Georgian overtones. We had a self-contained suite, the bathroom of which was bigger than plenty of hotel rooms that I’ve stayed in. The food was very good, although a warning for the faint of heart: the Thali tasting menu which we had on the first night was enough to feed about 4 rugby players.

We ticked the boxes for any visit to Jaipur: the observatory [the Jantar Mantar], the palace of the winds, and the city palace. I think I’ll probably remember more fondly the game of croquet that we played at the hotel – by our own nutty rules! – and haggling for a pair of camel leather slippers on the Amber road which, on closer inspection, it turns out are partly constructed from rivets. Nice.

Jantar Mantar - would it not be easier to use the thing on your wrist?

Jantar Mantar

Palace of The Winds

Does this top go with my coat?

We were starting to wind down by this stage, so our final destination [barring the necessary return to Delhi] was the Samode Palace, which is only about an hour north of Jaipur, where we had three lazy days by the pool. It’s a proper palace, albeit one that was built by a relatively minor member of the royal family in that region in the 16th century. I had the same thought as when we were trailing around the Taj Mahal: surprise that it’s open to the public, or that there aren’t any armed guards following you around to make sure you don’t touch or break anything. Echoing the inlay work in the Jaipur City Palace, there is a room with thousands of mirrors in the walls and ceilings, surrounding the original murals and masonry detailing. Our own room [our third upgrade] was fab. We had a private balcony where every evening we watched a troupe of monkeys [googling suggests common langurs] lay siege to banqueting tables, light fittings, and pretty much anything that wasn’t bolted down.

Samode Palace - HDR

I love that one of the guys working at the hotel turned on the lights on the outside of the building just for me to take picture:

Samode Palace - HDR

Our final trip, five hours north east of occasionally terrifying traffic, took us back to Delhi, and the imposing Imperial Hotel for our final night, and the last of our room upgrades. Not much to report here: we’d had a long day by the time we got there. That, combined with the fact that my wife wasn’t feeling great, meant that we didn’t really have the chance to get much of a feel for the place. We had a great curry in one of their restaurants [Daniel’s Tavern] which must have set a record for us: because we were expecting the doctor to arrive [he was on call] I think we were done and dusted in about 25 minutes.

So: given our north and south sub-continental experiences, it probably worth a quick roundup to compare. The north: drier, more camels [!], more imposing architecture, grinding poverty. The south: much friendlier, harder to get to [no direct flights], less terrifying traffic and, by nature of our coastal proclivities, more ’touristy’. While there is plenty more that to see and do in the north, I couldn’t see us doing anything other than launching directly from Delhi. It was tough work. Good fun though.

Sandy

I haven’t been in Sandy in an absolute age. The last couple of times it was very busy, and a smattering of dogs and toddlers isn’t very conducive to bird photography. We had some heavy snow overnight and I thought I’d give it a go. As it was snowing horizontally while I was there it was duly deserted. A couple of new species for me, starting with this fella, which I think is a redpoll:

Redpoll?

For a British bird, it has quite striking colouring. Having grown up in Northern Ireland I am predisposed to expect all wildlife to be brown :). Next up I think is a juvenile goldfinch. Focus is a bit soft but, given the size of the subject matter, this really is on the limit of what my camera and lens can do:

Goldfinch

Siskin

Pheasant

My final offering, a great spotted woodpecker. A *sharp* picture of a woodpecker still eludes me, and this is another one to add to the ‘almost’ collection:

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Great Spotted Woodpecker

I wonder if the bloke with the 500mm bazooka had better luck.

Second Trip to India

We are just back from our second trip to India and, once again, had a thoroughly enjoyable time. I thought it would be interesting to start with some numbers:

  • Pictures taken: 3,413
  • Separate destinations: 7
  • Approximate distance transferring between destinations: 865km
  • Leopards seen: 1
  • Elephants washed: 1

This is the fourth long haul holiday in a row that we have used a well known tailor-made holiday operator in the UK for, and we have thoroughly enjoyed the service every time. We had a different mix of venues this time, with simpler accommodation than we might normally aim for [in general], plus a number of homestays for the first time. That said, having just looked through some pictures of what is labelled ‘simple’ – we still weren’t exactly slumming it.

A quick word on the packing. I took my 100-400, 24-105, and 100mm macro lenses, so ‘subsisted’ without my ultra-wide and fast 50. I also took the tripod which served as little more than ballast, given the amount of use it got. I very seldom use it without the 10-22, so it would have been better off at home. I also took my MacBook Air, the first time I’ve ever taken a laptop on holiday, and the significant uptick in the amount of pictures that I took reflects the capacity and ongoing editing that having the machine with me afforded. I was a little bit anxious about it suffering some damage in my camera bag, mainly from getting compressed by the weight of the rest of the kit. I improvised a ‘case’ in the form of a padded envelope with the back of a hardback notebook. In the end it survived unscathed, apart from a slight scratch I managed to inflict with my watch.

The homestays provide a different perspective on the country, and made for a couple of real highlights of the trip. They do throw you into the company of strangers though, which can be something of a mixed blessing. As well as some genuinely interesting people, we did have the pleasure of Mr and Mrs Casually Racist for one stay. Charming…

We flew into Bangalore via Dubai, and jumped straight into the car to Mysore. This made for a long slog: we stayed overnight in a hotel by Heathrow, so door to door, the outbound trip took us something like 22 hours. We stayed in a hotel called the Metropole. It was quite a nice room: a lot of period furniture and high ceilings. To be perfectly honest, it could have been a slum for all that we would have noticed. The first couple of days are a bit of a blur. The buffet food was pretty good for breakfast and lunch once we figured out what we were supposed to do. The evening meals were a la carte, and again very agreeable, but the second night the hotel was noticeably busier, and the service was abysmal. I think we waited for the guts of an hour for our first course to arrive.

We had 3 little excursions in Mysore. We took a run out to a bird sanctuary called Ranganithittu, which is on a lake. We had a boat trip that took about an hour and a half, and it was rich pickings. Spoonbills, various types of eagles, and quite large crocodiles basking in the heat.

Crocodile at Ranganathittu Sanctuary

Crocodile at Ranganathittu Sanctuary

This fish eagle was very patient with us. We rowed to within a few feet of him before he decided he’d had enough:

Fish eagle at Ranganathittu Sanctuary

Fish eagle at Ranganathittu Sanctuary

And one more shot from the sanctuary, this one slightly tongue in cheek. There were a lot of fruit bats hanging in one of the trees and, once again, the boat gave us quite good access allowing for the shot below. When I had a look at it on the laptop that evening I was somewhat impressed by this chap’s – how to put this delicately… Shall we say reproductive capabilities commensurate with a larger mammal. So, for the sake of modesty, I’ve photoshopped in some Speedos for him:

Batman

Batman

The wildlife at the sanctuary was very accessible – I’d definitely recommend this for photography. That said, being there in the last week in November means that we caught all of the venues right at the end of the rainy season, and so numbers of visitors were correspondingly low.

We took in a couple of temples, which were pretty interesting. The City Palace is outstanding. Unfortunately, there were restrictions on photography inside the building, but it’s a fascinating tour and well worth a look. I’ve included one picture which I took with my phone [which was allowed]:

The City Palace, Mysore

The City Palace, Mysore

From Mysore, we drove to the first of our homestays, which was called Tranquil in Sultan’s Battery. This was fabulous: the house is set in 400 acres, and has walks of varying lengths and elevation mapped out. The food was excellent, and the hosts, Victor and his family, were charming and full of interesting stories.

We did have an interesting little vignette play out on the first afternoon we stayed. We were enjoying tea, when a couple arrived after a very long drive. In the interests of avoiding caricature, I’ll leave out their nationality, but the gentleman had quite a brusque manner. On being greeted by the lady of the house and offered tea, he said ‘I’d like two coffees, one for me and one for my wife. Two. Do you have coffee?’. The rather droll response was ‘this is a coffee plantation’. I nearly bit my tongue off.

Victor happened to ask if we would be interested in washing an elephant, which belonged to one of his friends in a neighbouring plantation. As it has been absolutely weeks since we’d last done it [!] we jumped at the chance. Enter Kiran, who is 55, and works as a crane for a living, with occasional moonlighting for festivals and ceremonies.

Kiran the elephant

Kiran the elephant

And after his bath:

Kiran, post bath

Kiran, post bath

Our next stop was the Nagarhole national park, where we spent a couple of nights at a hotel called the Serai. The rooms were nicely equipped semi-detached bungalows. Food was buffet style and pretty tasty. One thing that we found a little puzzling was that, regardless of whether you ordered rothi, paratha or a naan bread, it always appeared to be the same. We couldn’t quite figure this one out. Anyway, it was good fare.

We had 3 safaris: 2 by jeep, and one by boat. This isn’t for the faint hearted on a number of levels. Some of the jeeps [actually small lorries with open backs for seating] were a little old and had leaf spring suspension. This, combined with a road that would be good for motocross and a 5.45am start, was a bit of a workout! My wife found the boat safari on our second afternoon quite stressful. There were probably about 25 people aboard. The guide made a somewhat half hearted to balance the boat, but as soon as we set off, a few people in family groups swapped places so were canted over at quite an angle. There were some very young children on the boat as well who were quite excitable. It didn’t particularly matter to me but if a tiger had happened to amble down to the water’s edge it might have been a different story.

We were pretty lucky over the course of the 3 trips, and saw a couple of animals that the guide said were very unusual to see [I got the feeling they ‘big up’ rarity though], the highlight of which was a leopard. Unfortunately, he decided to put in an appearance at about 7am, and in a shaded area, which meant that my camera was up in ISO 2000 to 3200 territory. I won’t be printing any of the shots out as A2 posters, but it still made for a very exciting morning. On the basis of some very mixed results [due to lighting conditions] during a jungle walk in Cuba, I decided to set the camera in shutter priority mode with the ISO on auto. There is no point in having a low noise but unusably blurred shot. I’ve also found that I get best results with the 100-400mm at full reach using manual focus, but obviously circumstances will dictate what to start with. So I default to auto, and then if subject looks like it is going to hang around for a while I flick over to manual.

ISO2000, 400mm at f5.6, 1/160 sec

ISO2000, 400mm at f5.6, 1/160 sec

ISO2000, 400mm at f5.6, 1/160 sec

ISO2000, 400mm at f5.6, 1/160 sec

ISO2000, 400mm at f5.6, 1/160 sec

ISO2000, 400mm at f5.6, 1/160 sec

I asked the guide how often he had seen leopards and got an amazingly precise response: 536 times over a 6 year period. The guides are government employees, and I guess they probably record sightings as a way of tracking the population. There are something like 80-90 leopards over the 4,500 square kilometre national park.

Boy from tribal village feeding elephant

Boy from tribal village feeding elephant

We enjoyed seeing these guys – what appears to be a family of pups with a parent – galloping down to the water. The parent caught a fish very quickly, with the pups looking on with varying degrees of interest. It’s not a great composition [otters can be so difficult to work with :)], but I still quite like the shot.

ISO100, 400mm at f6.3, 1/200 sec

ISO100, 400mm at f6.3, 1/200 sec

It’s quite a tight crop, and at full resolution, it’s telling that the shutter speed is a little too low.

There was the usual selection of exotic waterfowl, but this chap was a new one on me, a painted stork:

ISO640, 400mm at f6.3, 1/640 sec

ISO640, 400mm at f6.3, 1/640 sec

I like this silhouetted shot: the boat they are using is a coracle:

ISO100, 180mm at f14, 1/400 sec

ISO100, 180mm at f14, 1/400 sec

Our next stop was a homestay in Tellicherry. We got  the feeling that there weren’t too many European visitors to the city, and I’ve never been to a place where people were so keen to have their photos taken. The homestay itself, called Ayesha Manzil, was in a lovely house – high ceilings, lots of period furniture, and very big rooms. This shot, one of the few outings for my tripod, is a HDR capture of our bedroom:

Ayesha Manzil

Ayesha Manzil

We had another few outings here, but I’ll start with a cooking lesson we had from the lady of the house. We’ve done three of these now, and it’s interesting to see how the organisers pitch it. One we did in Thailand a few years back was aimed at experienced cooks: I remember beads of sweat breaking when we were asked to do something akin to julienning vegetables. This one was more of a case of watching than doing, but still pretty good fun. Part of the reason that the supervision was rather intense was because some of the dishes that were being prepared were being eaten by everyone who was staying that night [9 people], so there wasn’t room for the type of error that you eat yourself. We’d been to the markets earlier in the day to pick up some of the ingredients.

ISO100, 24mm at f8, 1/40 sec + flash

ISO100, 24mm at f8, 1/40 sec + flash

ISO100, 93mm at f8, 1/40 sec + flash

ISO100, 93mm at f8, 1/40 sec + flash

The fish prominent in both of the shots above is kingfish.

Our next outing was to a cigarette factory. The cigarettes, called beedis, are hand rolled, and comprised entirely from tobacco. The local price was 7 rupees for a pack of 12.

Cutting the tobacco

Cutting the tobacco

The rolled beedis

The rolled beedis

Wrapping the beedis

Wrapping the beedis

We also took in a textile factory. Both it and the beedi factory were run as co-ops, with the employees sharing profits [the details of which weren’t disclosed]. We actually had to try to keep a low profile in the beedi factory as there was a downing of tools for a discussion over possible strike action, over the supply of poor quality tobacco.

Lady operating loom

Lady operating loom

Loom operator

Loom operator

Spinning fibre into thread

Spinning fibre into thread

Operating foot pedals of the loom

Operating foot pedals of the loom

I’m always quite conscious of being intrusive with the camera, which is one of the reasons that I don’t do very much street photography. With the factories, people were asking us to take their picture.

We took in a Theyyam ceremony on the way home:

Theyyam ritual

Theyyam ritual

Theyyam ritual

Theyyam ritual

The next leg of the trip took us to the outskirts of Kochin by train. We’d been interested in doing a train journey for quite a while, but with the benefit of hindsight, we’d probably skip doing a trip like the one we did this time. It was an early kickoff to get to the station for 7am. The journey took around six hours to cover something like 245km. The problem was that the carriage wasn’t so much air conditioned as refrigerated, and the windows were so heavily tinted [and quite small] that there wasn’t really that much to see. We were also a bit embarrassed to find that our driver was taking our cases by car to the other end. It was interesting enough, just not really worth going out of our way to do.

The train took us to the last of our 3 homestays at Olavipe. If we had one regret about the holiday it was that we only had one night here. It was fantastic: the house [from its Italian tiles, to the barn owls shuffling around above our room], the charming hosts [from a fabulously successful family], and the beautiful grounds it was set in. Similar to Tranquil, there was a working farm with walks set out, which allowed you to follow the banks of the backwaters. I wish we’d had more time to explore, though I did come across this rather grizzly little number, and the second fruit bat picture of this posting. Don’t enlarge if you are squeamish:

This is an ex parrot!

This is an ex parrot!

Unlike the chap above, these are tricky little fellas to get a picture of, very flighty indeed. I’m pretty sure it’s a blue tailed bee eater, and we saw quite a few of them:

Blue-tailed bee eater

Blue-tailed bee eater

By this stage we were in the home straight of the holiday with a couple of venues coming up that we did last year. First up was a trip on the backwaters on a rice barge. I’m pretty sure that it was identical, down to every course of the meal. But we weren’t complaining, it was really good fun and thoroughly relaxing. The run out in the canoe, about an hour and a half on the canals, was a good opportunity for wildlife.

White throated kingfisher

White throated kingfisher

Our last pitstop was at the Marari Beach Resort which is a really lovely hotel. If it had been our first stay, or at the front end of the holiday, we would probably have asked for another room as the vistas out over the drainage ditch didn’t exactly set the world on fire. We stayed in a smarter room on the beach front last year and realised that, lovely as it was, it wasn’t really worth it as we spent no time in the room other than to sleep.

So that was it, another fab holiday in India. Before we left we were talking about our next holiday. I’m keen on India again, my wife is interested in either Cambodia or Laos [or possibly both]. Olavipe creates an interesting problem. If we go back, I want to spend time there. Given that we would probably want to go further north, that would probably take us into the realms of internal flights to fit everything in. We shall see…

Blink

I thought this was quite interesting: it’s a couple of consecutive shots of a bald eagle, with not-quite fully adult plumage, which I took at the weekend at the Raptor Foundation. In the first shot you can see the nictitating membrane. By complete coincidence, when I’d decided to post these and checked for the spelling of the word, one of the example shots shown on the Wikipedia entry is of a bald eagle as well.

ISO100, F5.6 at 310mm, 1/500th second

ISO100, F5.6 at 310mm, 1/500th second

ISO100, F5.6 at 310mm, 1/500th second

ISO100, F5.6 at 310mm, 1/500th second

These are cropped by hand, so the proportions may not be identical. I have a few more in my Birds set on Flickr.