Friday, November 21, 2008

The hippo equivalent of an elephant's flapping ears...

is a big, wide open mouth showing lots of teeth. Which is just what this guy is doing here. I was on the edge of a pool in the Serengeti National Park.

The Seregengeti was one of those places from my childhood. I'd spent most of my formative years watching David Attenborough and others traipse across the plains filled with wildebeest and zebra.

When I finally got there I was very excited and almost forgot myself in my attempt to get a photo of a hippo. I knew that the wide opening of a mouth was a threatening pose but I just assumed it was made towards other hippos. So I kept on photographing.

I later found out that hippos are the most dangerous animals in Africa and kill more people annually than any other beastie. Probably a good thing I didn't know this at the time or else I wouldn't have tried to get so close for a photo.

This was taken with a 300mm lens so I'm still quite a way away but close enough that this guy felt threatened. Moments after snapping the shutter he started moving towards me and my friend Richard (who had a 500mm so got quite a bit of a closer shot the bugger) so we hurriedly made an exit.

Often when we would camp out we would wake up to find hippo footprints all around the campsite where they had been wandering around foraging at night. Reminds me of another morning when we woke up to find elephant footprints all around us...but that's a story for another day. :)

It's the little things that get you

21This picture doesn't look particularly dangerous does it? Only the front of the pirogue there (the canoe). Where that big hole has been bitten out. That was done by a hippo! Lucky for my friend Andreus he wasn't in it at the time.

He's out in the middle of the river there trying to make sure he doesn't get sick. A few friends and I were on a day walk through the jungle in the heart of the Democratic Rebublic of Congo. The boy at the front there is the son of the chief of a village we were staying in. Chief Panga Panga his name was. What a great name!

Anyway we reached this river and Andreus had run out of water on a blisteringly hot day. We had purified water back at camp but hadn't brought any purifying tablets with us on this day walk. So he's out in the middle of the river filling his water bottle because that's where the water flows the fastest and is less likely to contain bugs!

Little things can often be the biggest cause for concern when you're travelling. In fact we were held up in Panga Panga's village for a few days because of one of the smallest of bugs - a mosquito. It had given our buddy Paddy a nasty case of malaria and he was lying on a camp bed under a net with a drip in his arm.

He made a full recovery but it goes to show you just how a little thing can turn your trip into a nightmare. Which doesn't have much to do with photography but has a hell of a lot to do with being a travel photographer. Anything that makes you ill take away your ability to take photos so it's best to prevent things as much as you can. Before I spent 9 months in Africa I felt like a pin cushion with all the jabs I had to get, and to this day I can't stand the taste of malaria medicine or Iodine tablets in water. But you do what you do to make sure you can get the pictures.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The mining boom - or is that kaboom?

Now don't berate me about the wonky horizon! I know I'm terrible with horizons. I even have a little doodad that fits into my flash hot shoe to let me know when my horizon's crooked. Doesn't seem to work unless I look at it first. :)

But that's not the topic of today's post. We're still talking about dodgy situations and this is one of the dodgiest.

You see that little track that all those people and that truck are on? That goat track leads from the Moroccan town of Dakhla down through the disputed territory of the Western Sahara to Mauritania.

Nothing particularly remarkable about the road except you can only travel along it one day a week, and even then you have to have a military escort.

The reason is that there's a war going on over this little corner of desert and either side of this little track is heavily mined. Now I'm not talking about looking for gold here, I'm talking real exploding landmines! Nobody wander to far to go to the toilet.

It's a two day trip and on the night of the first day we camped in the middle of the minefield, outside an old abandoned fort. We sat very close to the fire when out of nowhere a Moroccan army guard took a seat, machine gun and all. He looked at all of us and said with a very stern face, "Any of you have hash?". No, no we replied. Nothing like that. "Well I do!", he cheered and brought out a huge hunk of decidedly illegal substance and started rolling his own.

The next day we reached the border of Mauritania. At least it was supposed to be the border but it was like no crossing I'd ever seen. There was no guards, border post shack or any sort of security to be seen. Weren't we in a DMZ?

Then all of a sudden black-clad men with machine guns started crawling out of the ground. Literally popping up left, right and centre out of trapdoors in the sand dunes. This was our border crossing. We made it through no worries but on the truck behind us there was a lady with a t-shirt of a cartoon character with spinning eyes that said 'Stoned in Africa' or something like that. Our Moroccan army friend from the night before probably thought it was great but they got searched from top to tail and were there for hours!

Stay tuned for more dodgy photography adventures!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Nice elephant, don't wave your ears at me!

In keeping with the theme of yesterday's post on safety while photographing I thought I'd post a couple of pics taken in decidedly dodgy situations.

This is the Okavango Delta in Botswana and I went on a walking safari with some friends. Our campsite was a place called Oddballs. This place is elephant city. They're kind of like the cockroaches of Cairns - only a lot bigger!

A friend and I would have competitions to see how close we could get to them before they started flapping their ears. The intent was to get them to charge us which was really stupid but we never got close enough to get them that angry anyway!

This shot was taken on one of our walking safaris. I was with a small group of friends and we were standing there photographing this giant bull elephant knock fruit out of a tall palm tree. I had a 75-300mm zoom on and was happily snapping away.

After a few minutes I noticed that I was continually having to zoom back to get him all in until I got to the 75mm end of the zoom and he was only just squeezing in the frame! Somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking this is pretty close but if it was dangerous the guide would have said something.

So I turned around to ask the guide and, to my utter horror, discovered that the rest of the group were hiding behind an ant hill 500 metres behind me, frantically trying to motion me to join them. Here I was, so intent on getting the shot that I hadn't even noticed that everybody else had buggered off. Suddenly I was very,very close to a very, very big elephant who had just noticed me and was flapping his ears.

For those of you who don't speak elephant, ear flapping means that they're not very happy to see you and are about to charge. Well I had to get a shot of that as all my efforts to get ear flapping around camp had failed. Click, click. Oops, he doesn't seem to like that. And then I just about jumped the 500 metres to that ant hill.

I thought elephants never forget but dumbo seemed to forget about me pretty quick because as soon as I was gone he went back to happily munching away.

Another photographic adventure brought to you by dodgy brothers travel photography!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Playing it safe

A package showed up on my door yesterday. Well it didn't just show up - I knew it was coming. I just didn't realise it was going to be that big. I bought a brand new camera backpack. It's called the Photo Trekker AW II and it's made by Lowepro.

I needed something that fit all my gear without me having to put half of it in a photo vest. I also wanted something that I can attach my tripod to and this was the smallest bag that was still airline regulation.

So last night I put all my gear in it and put it on and man it's heavy! 13 kilograms to be exact. But it will fit all my stuff in it plus lunch and whatever I need when hiking out somewhere to get some photos. Which got me thinking about the safety aspect of what we do. Photography is very often a solo pursuit. We head out to the middle of nowhere looking for the perfect light, and for us travel photographers that means that we're often doing it in a foreign country to boot.

Take this image here. It was taken in the high Himalayas of Nepal. We were staying in a little lodge which was on the spot where a whole group of Japanese trekkers had been killed in an avalanche a few years beforehand. My wife and I photographed the memorial and then decided to climb the hill above the lodge for a better view of the mountains.

And this is what we found. Spectacular scenery with a crystal clear view of the surrounding mountains and the valley below. All until the afternoon clouds started rolling up that same valley. And suddenly our lodge was hidden in the middle of all that cloud! Which meant we had to pick our way down without being able to see two feet in front of our faces.

When you travel in foreign countries you obviously don't have much of an idea of local conditions. So it's a really good idea to find out as much as possible in advance. The internet is a great tool to find stuff out (guidebooks are often out of date by the time they're published so try on-line forums such as Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree) but you can't beat local information on the ground. Speak to your hotel concierge, the taxi driver, locals you photograph.

Find out where it is and isn't safe to photograph. Whether you can get your camera out comfortably without having to worry about being mugged. What environmental conditions might make photographing unpleasant or downright dangerous. And let people know when you're heading off into the wilds by yourself. Let somebody know when you expect to be back and exactly where you're going.

I've had my fair share of dodgy situations but thankfully (touch wood) have never been mugged or threatened or anything like that. In my younger days I certainly did some silly things and went some places I shouldn't have, and I'm certainly not saying don't do it, but take precautions. Even the best photograph isn't worth getting hurt, lost or killed for!

Oh and we eventually found our way back to the lodge for dinner!