South Georgia, December 2011

King Penguins, St Andrews Bay
South Georgia has been on my mind for a long time.   I visited the Antarctic Peninsula in 2007 and the Falkland Islands 18 months later – but South Georgia was the missing bit.  I talked with lots of polar enthusiasts who had ‘done’ South Georgia, and their comments were almost always along the lines of ‘fantastic place, shame we had so few days there’.  Most of these folks had done the classic Antarctic ‘long’ itinerary from Ushuaia or Punta Arenas – spending a few days in the Falklands, a few days in South Georgia and a few days on the Peninsula and quite a lot of days at sea going between the various points.

From everything I’d heard there was a huge amount to do and see on South Georgia and a few days was never going to do it justice, particularly give the unreliability of the weather.  It was clear to me  that I wanted to find a trip that offered more than just a few days – eventually step forward Steppes Travel, who I met at Wild Photos 2010 in London, who were able to find me a trip that focussed on South Georgia and, better yet, did so starting from Stanley in the Falklands which both reduced the sea time and gave me the perfect excuse to spend time in the Falklands before-hand.

Plancius, Stanley Harbour, Falkland Islands
The trip, 14 days starting and finishing in Stanley, was run by Oceanwide Expeditions on a converted Dutch hydrographic vessel, now called Plancius, on this trip with 95 passengers on board.  The crossing from the Falklands is about 780 nautical miles and even in good weather this does take around 72 hours.  This fact is rather glossed over in the pre-trip information which talks about two days at sea – and there was certainly some restlessness amongst some of the passengers who I suspect thought they might be seeing mountains and glaciers when they drew back the curtains on the third morning.
King Haakon Bay under clouds
We did finally see South Georgia late on the third day – almost exactly 72 hours after we steamed through The Narrows at Stanley Harbour.  Our first sight of South Georgia (King Haakon Bay on the south side of the island) wasn’t quite the picture book view the guide books might have suggested – we had low cloud and a decidedly unpleasant wind which meant that only ‘essential’ zodiac work could be attempted.  In the context of this trip, the ‘essential’ zodiac work was off-loading a large group of ski-mountaineers who were planning to attempt to cross South Georgia (the Shackleton Challenge) emulating Ernest Shackleton.   The rest of us we were torn between the desire to be off the boat looking for wildlife and the relief that we would be eating hot food and sleeping in warm berths rather than fighting the elements and sleeping in wet wind-swept tents.

Orca in South Georgia
Our first exposure to South Georgia’s wildlife came very early the following morning but wasn’t the expected fur seals or king penguins – it was the call of ‘whale’ over the ships intercom.  We found a pod of orca hunting in the waters off the north coast of South Georgia – the whales were between us and the shoreline, with the sun behind us. The mountains provided a back-drop, and the cold air ensured that the whales ‘blows’ were really clear to see.  The trip organisers had certainly got all the choreography just right.

Over the next seven days we had 12 successful off-ship excursions – and probably lost four other excursions to the weather.  These excursions were all on the north side of the island – this is the more sheltered side of the islands and also where almost all the wildlife is to be found.   Sheltered is a relative term in this part of the world – some of the bays are wide open and the winds can whip across very fast indeed.  The ‘nightmare scenario’ for all the expedition boats is putting 100 people ashore in calm conditions and then being caught out by rapidly changing weather.  On a couple of occasions we needed curtail landings to ensure that we didn’t get caught, and on one other occasion the expedition staff needed to resort to pulling the zodiacs onto the beach stern first to ensure that they were going to be stable enough to allow passengers to get back on.  Over the course of the week every one got to fully appreciate the term ‘wet-landing’.

I’m going to pick out  four of the sites we visited during the trip – three involved using zodiacs to get ashore, the fourth (Drygalski Fjord) was a ship-based cruise along one of the deep fjords at the southern tip of the island.  There will be more about all the locations I visited on South Georgia in the Place Notes site that I’m currently developing.

Our first big penguin colony landing was at Salisbury Plain and it introduced us to lots of aspects of being ashore in South Georgia.  We had a wet landing, aggressive fur seals, wild changing weather and lots of king penguins.  Salisbury Plain (named because of supposed similarity to central Wiltshire – although I couldn’t see it myself) is a big wide sweeping beach with a hill behind it and fresh water running down into the bay.  This is ideal terrain for seal and penguin colonies – but very exposed to the elements.   When we landed the weather was still and calm, by the time we’d been on the ground for two hours the ship was disappearing in low cloud and the dry sunny weather had degenerated into horizontal rain.  We did get to learn about the various techniques for evading fur seal (it involves a lot of growling back), and we also got to know the king penguins and their chicks.  December is a really good time to see lots of king penguins – at this time of year (early summer) all the penguins are on the beaches.  Last year’s chicks are going through their final moults, the mature adults are either moulting or are getting into their courtship routines or are sitting on eggs.  The one things the Kings aren’t doing, is spending a lot of time out at sea – so the beaches and colonies are full to bursting.

The landing at St Andrews Bay was, for me, the highlight of the time on South Georgia.  We needed two attempts to get ashore here – the first attempt was scuppered by high winds.  No one was saying this at the time, but the aborted landing was a good thing.  If we had got ashore on that day when the visibility was poor we wouldn’t have seen the colony in its real glory.  As with the Salisbury Plain landing, we went ashore quite a long way from the main colony site, in this case at the north end of the beach.  
We were then led inland up towards an outlook point which looked down on the colony – stepping up onto the outlook point and seeing upwards of 400,000 penguins in front of me is something that I’m not going to forget anytime soon.  One of the reasons for coming all the way to South Georgia was to see huge single species colonies like this.   I’ve seen David Attenborough talking about these sites on numerous television programmes over the years, I knew I was going to be seeing a lot of penguins, but somehow really seeing it was still a shock to the system.  

The Drygalski Fjord is the biggest inlet at the south tip of South Georgia – and it’s both big enough and deep enough to allow a reasonable sized ship to cruise in, and to go right up to the end face of the Risting glacier at the end of the fjord.  So that’s what we did. 

Our final landing in South Georgia was at Grytviken and is the one place where it’s possible to wander round an old whaling station – and to send postcards and buy souvenirs.  There were at one time seven active whaling stations dotted along the north coast of South Georgia.  Some of those have been completely cleared away, others (like Stromness and Prince Olav Harbour) haven’t been cleared but have been declared out of bounds (flying debris and asbestos being the main risks).  Grytviken has been made safe, so it is possible to wander round looking at the remaining buildings and some of the old, abandoned whaling boats – the most shocking aspect is the sheer scale of the machinery.

It’s difficult, from the perspective of the 21st Century, not to see this as anything other a monstrously barbaric industry, and to be thankful that the industry became uneconomic before the whale populations had been completely wiped out.  It seemed that there was something symbolic about our first real wildlife sighting of the trip being orca, and the final landing was at a disused whaling station.  The reminder that a species can recover from incredibly intensive hunting comes from the Antarctic fur seals that now occupy every beach in South Georgia.  These animals were really heavily targeted in the early 20th Century for their amazing soft thick pelts.  I found how soft they were by stroking a sample in the museum in Grytviken, I certainly wasn’t about to try and stroke a seal on the beach.  I don’t know if these animals were any more tolerant of man before we tried to make them extinct, however these days fur seals are extremely aggressive and will have no hesitation in coming after a Goretex-clad tourist. Their bite probable wouldn’t actually kill you, but I gather that their dental hygiene leaves something to be desired and disinfecting the wound probably wouldn’t be a pleasant process.  Grytviken and its museum are fascinating places – and my only regret is that we didn’t get more time to both wander the old station and to do the museum justice.

One of the things I learnt more about – and saw the impact of – was global warming.  Like everywhere else South Georgia is getting warmer.  The most visible impact of this is that almost all the glaciers are receding, which has the potential to completely change the environment on South Georgia.  Until very recently almost all the glaciers did reach all the way to the sea, now quite lot of them stop short of the coast.  Even just comparing guide book images to what’s visible on the ground highlights how rapidly this change is happen.  This change doesn’t make a huge direct difference to a lot of the species on the island in the short term, but it does to the rats!  South Georgia has had rats since people first got there (and got ship-wrecked there) – and where there are rats they have a really major impact on the ground nesting birds, and given the lack of trees, almost all the birds are ground nesting!  At the moment the areas that the rats have been able to get to are limited by the glaciers, but if (or when) the glaciers recede from the coast the rats will have the run of the island and would almost certainly have a catastrophic impact on the bird populations.  At the moment there is a pilot rat eradication programme underway on South Georgia with the aim of completely clearing the rat population while it’s still constrained to limited areas.

Shackleton survived the Shackleton Challenge, but he
died on his next visit to South Georgia in 1922.
The other impact of the global warming is on people, specifically the group attempting the Shackleton Challenge I mentioned at the top of the article.  When Shackleton did the ‘Shackleton Challenge’ in 1916 (he probably didn’t call it that, and he almost certainly considered the 800 miles in an open boat to get from Elephant Island as the greater challenge) he had the benefit of much colder conditions that climbers get now on the challenge.  Shackleton, Worsley and Crean were able to scramble up solid (and stable) ice – and to toboggan down a huge ice slide on their way into Stromness.  Today challengers face a much tougher challenge – much of the ice has gone so there a lot more rock to contend with, and where there is ice it is very heavily crevassed and therefore much more difficult to cross.  Of the 24 challengers on the trip with me, only 5 (all with really impressive mountaineering CVs) successfully completed the challenge the other 19 came out via an escape route.  I wouldn’t go as far as saying Shackleton had it easy, but global warming has certainly made the challenge a very different one these days.

I started by talking about having had this trip in mind for a long time – did it live up to my hopes and expectations?  The answer is a pretty emphatic yes.   I think we were pretty lucky with the weather – we got 12 good excursions in our week around South Georgia, and we also got to see how bleak it can be even in the southern summer.   I’m really pleased with some of the pictures I took, although I’m still working through some of them, and I’m really delighted to have seen the big colonies that South Georgia has to offer.  The sight of so many animals on the beaches is one that is very difficult to get out of my head.  Would I have wanted more time on South Georgia, again yes.  If anyone is planning a three week trip to South Georgia coming out of Stanley, sign me up.

There are two quotes floating around in the back of my head that relate to the trip.  One of the Frozen Planet team assured me that I’d really like South Georgia, “It’s like the Peninsula with the volume turned up”.  He was right.  The other quote was from of the expedition staff.   “If I had two weeks to live, I’d spend one of them on South Georgia, and the other one getting there”.  I think he was probably right too. 

UPDATED 18/01/2012: More pictures are now online on Picasa and on Flickr

Falkland Islands, November 2011

I don't have a good track record on going back to places - at the end of lots of trips I can be heard saying "I must go back there".  The reality is that the attraction of things and places I haven't seen often, even usually, over-rides the lure of the familiar.  The other problem is that if a holiday is really good, there is the risk (perhaps more percieved rather than real) that the repeat visit won't be as good and the memories of the first perfect trip will some how be sullied.

In early 2009 I spent an excellent two weeks in the Falklands, and this month I've just spent another fantastic two weeks island hopping in the Falkland Islands. In some ways this was a repeat of the 2009 trip, the key differences being that I opted to come south via Chile rather than using the MoD air-bridge from Brize Norton, and I've come much earlier in the southern hemisphere summer.  The birds are either sitting on eggs or are tending to small chicks rather than contempating their autumn migrations.

As with the last trip I opted to spend longer periods on a few islands, rather than trying to visit lots of islands for small periods of time.  I've spent time at Darwin and Stanley, both on the East Falkland mainland at the start and end of the trip respectively.  It is possible to fly out to the islands immediately on arrival off the international flights, but it does require significant faith in the punctuality of the incoming flight (and in 2009 I was over six hours late).  Most people spend a night or two within driving range of the main airport at Mount Pleasant at both beginning and end of the trip. Both Darwin and Stanley have some attractions and interest for both wildlife and history tourists, but for me the real Falklands is out in the islands amongst the wildlife.  I had long blocks of time on two similar but very different islands.  Sea Lion and Carcass Islands are similar in that they are small (i.e. walkable) islands with very good accommodation (including excellent cooking).  They are different in that they are at opposite corners of the of the islands (one in the south east, the other in the north west), and in that Sea Lion is flat while Carcass is mostly rocky and hilly (with just enough flat space to land a FIGAS plane - although the owner of Carcass assures me that the RAF have checked out the ground around the airstrip to confirm that it would be possible, in emergency, to land a Hercules).

On Sea Lion, the stars of the show this time really had to be the orcas, who regularly put in appearances spectacularly close to shore, with a close second being the ridiculously cute gentoo penguin chicks.  This, of course, in addition to the kelp and dolphin gulls, the rock and imperial cormorants and the huge number of snipe which lurk deep in the undergrowth where you can only see them if they move or decide to start announcing their presence.

On Carcass there were a lot of the same birds as on Sea Lion, however the Johnny Rooks were very evident, around the settlement at least partly because of Roldan's - the chef - habit of feeding them on a regular basis. I watched over 30 Johnny Rooks follow him down to the beach one afternoon - looking very much like the Falkland Islands answer to the Pied Piper.  It was particularly good to see a pair of magnificant Crested Caracaras roughing it alongside their distinctly more rogue-ish cousins the Johnny Rooks (Striated Caracaras).  However, my favourite birds on Carcass were probably the long-tailed meadowlarks and the Cobb's wrens, both very visible, and with a litle bit of patience ready to be photographed.

From Stanley, I now join the Plancius for a two week trip to see South Georgia. The boat is sitting in bright sushine in Stanley Harbour as I type, busily off-loading the current passengers to connect with the regular weekly LAN Chile flight.

Even as I sit contemplating South Georgia, I can't help thinking about when I'll be able to get back to the Falklands and what I'd want to do on that trip.  Maybe February?

Logistics and thanks.  I flew into the Falklands with LAN Chile via Santiago, and my local arrangements were sorted by Arlette Bloomfield at Falkland Island Holdays.  In Darwin I stayed with Graham and Fiona Didlick at Darwin House.  On Sea Lion Island I stayed at the Sea Lion Lodge with Jenny Luxton, on Carcass stayed with Lorraine and Rob McGill, and finally I stayed with Arlette Betts at Lafone House in Stanley.  The UK end of the arrangements were made via Sue Grimwood at Steppes Travel.  Thanks to every one who's looked after me over the last couple of weeks, without exception the accommodation and hospitality has been wonderful - and the food, in terms of both quality and quantity just amazing.

(Pictures eventually added in mid-January...)

UPDATED 18/01/2012: More pictures are now online on Picasa and Flickr

Shetland Autumn 2011

Over the last few weeks I’ve managed my longest continuous block of time on Shetland – this has let me get into some sort of routine rather than needing to think about the ferry or flight south as soon as I arrived, and I did (as per my earlier post) just book a single fare to get to Shetland.

I had just about got into a pattern (mostly writing in the mornings, then a walk somewhere in the afternoon), when the clocks changed from British Summer Time to GMT, and it was suddenly getting dark at four in the afternoon. Despite not having to face the tyranny of commuting, I was surprised to find that this did change how I approached the day.  The actual number of daylight hours hadn’t dramatically changed, but it now seemed to be wrong not to be up and about by the time it got light, and if I didn’t start my afternoon walk until maybe 2:30, there was a real risk that I might be finishing the walk in the dark. Of course the real bonus is that you can go out and take sunset pictures, and still be home in time for afternoon tea and cake.

At this time of year, you can also expect to see every variant of weather on Shetland (although Shetland is capable to offering any or all of the four seasons on one day at any time of year).  Over the last few weeks I’ve seen shirt-sleeves warm through to horizontal hail.  From still air though to a howling gale.  From bright sunshine to steady pouring rain.  From crisp clear air to thick fog.  This has provided lots of different photographic opportunities – as my daily blips and Saturday posts have shown.

One objective on this stay that I’ve hoped to achieve was visiting more of the islands.  Since we bought the house the visits have been very focussed on the southern mainland – but I’m afraid that on this stay I only ventured past Lerwick on two occasions, once to get up to Northmavine to photograph the lighthouse at Eshaness, and once to go over to Bressay to see the lighthouse there.  Must make sure that Muckle Flugga features next time – at least that way I’ll see a bit of Yell and Unst.

Several themes have emerged in my pictures; wind- and wave-swept beaches, boats and lighthouses were probably pretty safe bets – they are part of every Shetland photo journal.  The other theme was ‘neglected stuff’.  I found that I’d taken a series of images of old boats, old building, and even an old phone box – all of which looked as if they’d seen better days.  There are more images from the last few weeks on Flickr

Next time I'm back up it really will be winter - hopefully with the Northern Lights and Up Helly Aa to add some illumination.

It's not just Lighthouses...

I little while ago I realised that there were going to be 27 Saturdays during my temporary escape from daily routine - and since I know that I'll be doing quite a lot of travelling on Saturdays (at least up to Christmas) I thought I'd set up an extra blog site for my six months away to report what I'm doing on each of the Saturdays.

So far I've done 6 Saturdays - one in Oxford, two in Sri Lanka and three on Shetland - and lighthouses seem to have been the recurring theme.  I'm not sure I can keep the lighthouse theme going for much longer.

The new blog is

I'll be writing each entry on or just after the day and trying to post as promptly as I can - but that might be a bit of a struggle in the next few weeks.

My Frozen Planet

The BBC Frozen Planet series has already shown lots of amazing images on our TV screens (in the UK at least) – and I’m sure there are many more to come over the next few weeks.  Never one to ignore a passing band-wagon – I thought I’d fall in step with David Attenborough and Co. and talk a bit about my version of the Frozen Planet.  I’ve picked four places that represent My Frozen Planet – two from the far North and two from the far South.

Port Lockroy, Goudier Island, Antarctic Peninsula (64.8S,63.5W)

I visited Port Lockroy as part of a short trip to the Antarctic Peninsula crossing the Drake Passage from Ushuaia.  We visited a number of stations and camps as we stopped off at various places around the peninsula, but only one was flying the Union Jack.  Port Lockroy (named for a French politician!) was initially a whaling station, then a military base and finally a research base for about 50 years up until 1962, when it was abandoned.  It was restored in 1996 by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and is now a small museum plus post office and shop.  It’s one of the few places on the Antarctica Peninsula were tourists can do tourist things like send postcards, buy souvenir T-shirts and get their passport stamped. 
As well as a small group of summer residents looking after the base, there are lots of gentoo penguins on Goudier Island.  The penguins have been taking part in a long running experiment into the impact of tourists on penguin life. The island is divided into two parts; one open to tourists and the other not.  It appears that any negative impact that tourists might have on the penguins is countered by the fact that the presence of people deters the scavenging skuas. Original blog entry.

Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands (52.4S, 59.1W)

This might not strictly meet the BBC definitions to be included in Frozen Planet – but it makes my list.  Sea Lion Island is the southern-most inhabited island in the Falkland Islands.  It makes my list because it was where I was first able to get up close and personal with gentoo penguins.  Gentoos are creatures of habit – they follow regular paths from their roosts down to the sea and they do this at pretty regular times morning and evening.   These regular patterns mean that they get to know their bit of the beach pretty well so they can spot changes.  If you just stop on one of their ‘highways’ they will look pretty disgruntled and either stop and wait for you to get out of their way (and they can be very patient) or they’ll head off elsewhere.  In either case you are disturbing their routine behaviour and you probably shouldn’t be doing it. 
Much better is to find a quiet area on the beach, at first light, and just sit down as low as you get (ideally to penguin height) and wait and watch. If you get lucky and sit still enough the penguins will come and investigate the strange new rock on their beach. Original blog entry.

Ikateq, Eastern Greenland (65.6N, 37.9W)

Eastern Greenland is usually described in the guide books as being the ‘traditional’ or ‘undeveloped’ side of Greenland and by Greenlanders as ‘Tunu’ (the Back Side).  I think this is to make the distinction between the more modern parts of Greenland around Nuuk on the west coast.  The main town on the east coast is Tasiilaq – you can tell it’s a town by the fact that there are roads.  All the roads stop at the edge of town, but there are roads in the town, and a few very rundown cars that are only really of use in the summer.  This part of Greenland would be pretty much unreachable by visitors (other than by summer supply boats) were it not for the Americans and the Cold War.  There is an airport in Kulusuk with a full size runway, built by the US military to supply their one-time radar station on the island.  This is just a short, but spectacular, helicopter hop from Tasiilaq.  The other means of transport that comes into its own in summer are boats. 
The boats get frozen in during the winter, but in the long summer days they provide ways to reach some of the other smaller settlements around the coast.  I was able to take a small boat from Tasiilaq round the southern coast of Ammassalik Island to the almost abandoned settlement at Ikateq.  This gave the chance to see some of the coastline, and to get dramatically close to some of the icebergs that drift slowly south down the Greenland coast each summer.  Original blog entry.

Holmiabukta, Svalbard (79.8N, 11.4E)

My final frozen rendezvous is the highest latitude stop – this is a largely unremarkable little inlet near the northern edge of Svalbard. However, in summer 2010 it was a magnet for both polar bears and tourists.  The bears were there to pick scraps from a whale carcass that had been washed ashore, and the tourists were there to watch the bears.  Both sorts of visitors were drawn from a big area – the bears by scent, and the tourists by expedition boat rumour mill.  I wrote (and enthused endlessly) about this trip at the time, but I still look at the photographs to remind myself how good the experience was. 
We were able to spend many hours sitting in Zodiacs watching bears haul scraps from the submerged carcass which completely disappeared at high tide and was revealed as row of huge still-connected vertebrae when the tide went out.  Original blog entry.

And next

I’m just about to head back to the Falkland Islands, including Sea Lion Island again, and to South Georgia (described recently by one of the Frozen Planet team as ‘Antarctica with the volume turned up’).  I can feel my passport and camera twitching. More blog entries to come as and when internet access allows.

A Taste of Sri Lanka

To complement my earlier blog post about Sri Lanka, I've now selected a few more pictures from the large number I took last month.

These are now available in several places.
And as an experiment

Sri Lanka October 2011

I can’t explain why it’s taken quite so long to get round to visiting Sri Lanka.  We first visited India over 20 years ago – and I’ve been back there several times for both work and vacation over the years.  I added Pakistan to my sub-continent collection a long time ago too, and more recently we added both Nepal and Bhutan to the list.  But, somehow we managed to keep leaving out Sri Lanka.

It’s not that we were deliberately ignoring the country – we’ve been to England Sri Lanka Test matches, and just after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami we talked about visiting in response to the pleas for tourists to come back to the country.  Somehow other plans and destinations kept getting in the way.

We didn’t even plan to go to Sri Lanka this year – we were on the point of booking a trip to Japan, when the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck – but after a bit of thrashing around we decided that Sri Lanka was going give us some decent wildlife watching with a bit of culture thrown in.

We based our itinerary on a 10 day trip that WildlifeWorldwide offer, but decided that we were just going to stretch it a bit – so we added in an extra night in the Cultural Triangle (more culture), an extra night in the Hill Country (more cool), an extra night in the national parks (more wildlife) and an extra night on the coast (more luxury).

The Culture Bit
Rock Temple, Dambulla
Sri Lanka has an impressive inventory of UNESCO World Heritage sites – we clocked up six of these on our trip (Anuradhupura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, in the Cultural Triangle) in the middle of the island, plus Galle down on the south coast).  The first three, although impressive in some ways, didn’t really provide either much sense of inspiration or excitement.  I think this is partly because there were very few other visitors, either from Sri Lanka or overseas, around at these sites – and they really felt a bit unused and unloved.  This changed as we got to the sites in the southern part of the Cultural Triangle.  There was a definite buzz to Dambulla, and a short but hot climb past the new Japanese-funded Golden Temple took us up and into the old Rock Temple complex.  This was the first site in Sri Lanka that both intrigued and impressed.  A huge temple complex with hundreds of made-to-fit statues tucked into an over-hanging cleft in a cliff is a bit mind-blowing when you read about it – and still more mind-blowing when you get to wander round.  The final cultural episode was to visit the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.  Our guide recommended that rather than visit this late in the day (as our itinerary suggested) we would have a much better visit early in the day.  I can’t comment on what we would have seen in the afternoon, but we managed (by good co-ordination I’m sure) to get into the Temple just in time for the morning puja, and were expertly navigated, by a local guide, around the various parts of Temple despite the huge number of locals visiting on a Saturday morning.  Huge crowds of people, in a confined space, can be a bit daunting – these crowds were so cheerful and good spirited that the experience was thoroughly uplifting.

The Hill Country Bit
Gregory Lake, Nuwara Eliya
After the heat and the culture we headed a little bit south and up into the Hill Country in the middle of Sri Lanka.  This is the area where you turn off the air-conditioning in the van, where the hotel rooms have extra blankets and electric fires, where the locals wear woolly hats and where your guide asks if you have warm clothes with you.   Our thick high-latitude blood didn’t really register the climate as being cold, but it was nice to be able to wander round in shirt sleeves without dripping sweat, and to get a decent night’s sleep without the background roar of an air-conditioning unit.  We were based in at The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya for a couple of nights, and had a completely untimetabled day.  This gave us the space to wander in the local parks, to talk with the locals and generally just relax.  I think this is the first time we’ve decided to add in a ‘do-nothing’ day on a trip like this, and we’ll certainly do it again.

The Wildlife Bit
Leopard, Yala National Park
After getting de-stressed in the Hills (after all, several days of full-on culture do need a bit of recovery time) we dropped down into the low-lying southern coastal plains to spend four days in three of Sri Lanka’s showcase National Parks – Yala, Bundala and Udawalawe.  These parks were everything we’d hoped for.  They were relatively quiet (particularly Bundala and Udawalawe) and the wildlife did its stuff.  We got positively blasé about the number of kingfishers and bee-eaters that were on display everywhere, and got wonderful opportunities to watch lots of waders particularly in Bundala.   The highlight of the first day in Yala was the large number of elephants around – the elephants are of course always there but we got lucky in being in the right places at the right time.  The star turn that didn’t show up on the first day were the leopards.  Our guides were clearly making leopard spotting the top priority on the second day – and we spent a lot of time touring the areas that the leopards frequent.  We had one fleeting glimpse of a leopard in mid-morning as it headed into the deep undergrowth beside one of the huge tanks (reservoirs) that are at the heart of the public bit of Yala – I was fortunate to swing my binoculars into exactly the right place as the guide shouted ‘leopard’ and got an amazing view of a leopards back beautifully lit by the sun.  Our next view of a leopard was many hours later. One of our guides got a tip-off that a leopard had been seen close to where we had seen the one in the morning, the down-side was that at this point we were about as far from this tank as it was possible to be in Yala.  As we hurtled at breakneck (not literally) speed across the rutted park tracks we spotted other land-rovers heading in the same direction – news of a leopard spreads fast!  We were rewarded by seeing not just one leopard gradually tracking his way round the tank, but encountering another leopard in the faded evening light.  This is what wildlife watching is about.

Days three and four were in Bundala and Udawalawe.  Bundala is a coastal park – which is Wader Central – and a really important wintering place for migrants.  The migrants were just starting to appear in small numbers – our guide kept saying that we should here a little bit later in the year.  For me the highlights were the terns (particularly the Caspian tern, which is huge) and the “tickny”, which our guide got very excited about.  It took us ages to realise he was saying ‘thick-knee’ – the other name for the stone curlew!

Udawalawe is back inland, and was created about 40 years around a new reservoir to ensure that reservoir water feeds couldn’t be disrupted by development activity.  It is often described as being Sri Lanka's answer to the African savannah - it offers lots of elephants plus huge numbers of birds. Early October is the end of the dry season and the birds and animal are all concentrated around the waterholes and the hugely shrunken main lakes. Once the rains get started the water levels in the lake rise by several meters. It’s more than slightly tempting to go back later in the winter to see the transformation.

The Luxury Bit
Closenburg Hotel, Galle
To end our trip we decided to spend a couple of days in Galle (at the Closenberg Hotel) and Colombo (at the Galle Face Hotel).  These were contrasting luxury experiences.  The Closenberg oozes colonial style (and still has four-poster beds and colonial era electrics), and has the feel of a country house hotel overlooking the sea.  The only downside there was that we were the only guests apart from a 50-strong French coach party (watching the end of the Wales-France World Cup semi-final was a slightly tense moment!).  The Galle Face Hotel  (modern 5-star luxury in a fantastic location) was our pick to end the trip – our alternative to the airport hotel originally proposed – this gave is the chance for a late evening walk along the Indian Ocean waterfront on Galle Face Green – amongst hundred (maybe thousands) of locals and a few tourists.  I’d strongly recommend either starting or finishing (or both) a Sri Lankan trip by a day or two looking out over the Indian Ocean.

In some ways Sri Lanka did exactly what it promised to do – there was a really rich mix of culture and wildlife.   On this trip the wildlife did undoubtedly leave the enduring mark. We saw a fantastic collection of bird life (well over 100 species) plus many mammals and reptiles in the parks – particularly the elephants and, of course, the leopards.  The people of Sri Lanka were incredibly welcoming, particularly when we spent time away from the main tourist sites, and were clearly pleased that we were visiting their country.  The biggest revelation on this trip, however, was the food.  I’d somewhat naively assumed that the food was just going to be ‘sort of like south India’.  The Sri Lanka version of ‘rice and curry’ is a fantastic cuisine all of its own, and we also found (to our surprise) that the ‘international’ cuisine offered up everywhere from major hotels right through to little lunchtime restaurant stops was also of an amazingly high standard.  I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the stage of hiring my own cook, but if I do, I’ll start my recruitment in Sri Lanka.

Next time
At the end of every trip I wondered about what we might have done differently.  In some ways a first trip to Sri Lanka needs to include at least some of the cultural places, but if I was re-doing the trip now I’d cut out the few days at the top of the Cultural Triangle, and start around Kandy.  An extra day in Yala would always be good, and on a return visit I’d want to add in the National Park at Sinharaja and I’d try and time things so that whale watching off the south coast was an option!

Wildlife Worldwide put together the itinerary and handed us over to Baurs (a Sri Lankan/Swiss company) to do all the ground handling.  Our local guide was Sunil de Alwis – who did a wonderful job in driving us over 2000 kms and in sharing his knowledge and expertise about the wildlife of the island.  We flew with Sri Lankan Airlines – who have both direct flights, from London to Colombo, and slightly-longer indirect flights that go via the Maldives.  Don’t get too excited if you get on a flight with a Maldivian stop-over – they don’t let you get off the plane, unless you’re actually due to spend time in the Maldives.  Maybe next time.

Stop thinking like a tourist

With the start of my temporary escape (henceforth just TE) from timetabled routine approaching, I'm still struggling to stop thinking like a tourist.

Over the last 30 years travels have tended to be largely planned around two, or in a few cases three, week blocks of time away from the lab or office. These blocks have had to be planned far in advance to allow things to be fitted around work projects and domestic plans and commitments (and in a few cases trip availability).   I'm still thinking like this. Over the next few months I've got three 'slots' booked each of which could have been done in normal annual leave - although I certainly couldn't have done all three in a three month period. Part of the challenge is booking trips through the usual tour companies. Their bread and butter is mostly based around planning and selling trips to folks taking normal time off from work and returning on a fixed timetable, so a lot of their trips fit that pattern. And to be honest using these companies is generally the easy way to arrange to go places.

I hope that realising that this is how I'm still thinking will give me the chance to do something different later in my TE. My short term action has been to tear up all the ideas that would fit tidily into routine life, there will be chances to do these things in future years. Next step is to figure out something that I wouldn't find easy to fit into the timetables. That probably involves buying one way tickets rather than return ones, and being more relaxed about what comes next. The last time I can remember buying a one-way ticket ticket was when I came back to the UK from the US almost 25 years ago - it's high time I bought another one.

10 More Days

After a couple of years of contemplation and a lot of time talking to people and following the blogs and tweets of various career-breakers, I’m about to join their ranks.
At the end of September I’ll be packing up my desk at the Open University, handing over the Learning and Teaching Systems reins to my colleague Paul ( - I hope he’s going to start tweeting soon so I can keep track of what’s happening), and leaving Moodle and e-learning behind for six months.
The first three months are planned – Sri Lanka, Shetland and the South Atlantic - but although I’ve got lots of ideas for the second three months (including some places not starting with S), I have for the first time in a very long time got no firm plans.
One of my frustrations, over the last five years particularly, has been the lack of time to think about the trips I’ve been fitting in around work commitments.  I’ve rushed off somewhat manically to the airport as soon as I could, and spent as much time away as possible – and then plunged back into work again.  One consequence has been not enough time to go through the photographs I’ve taken or to put together the blog postings, or any longer pieces of writing, from the trips.
My hope during the six months way from the office is to have time to make the trips a bit slower than they might otherwise have had to be, to reflect on and to write about my travelling, to spend some longer chunks of time in our house in Shetland, and maybe get re-enthused about e-learning.
I'm not planning to update my work blog again until next Easter – I will be posting here, and I’ll be tweeting ( when connectivity allows.
Sitting in my study in Oxford on a Sunday morning, I have lots of conflicting thoughts about the time away.  Part of me can’t picture being away from the OU for such a long time (I first joined the University in late 1995 – and the commute to Milton Keynes is just part of what I do most days).
Part of me can’t picture doing anything other than returning to the OU in April. And yet another part of me can’t picture getting back into the formality of the daily commute again.
I'm certainly looking forward to the opportunities this winter will present - and I will give the occasional thought to the roll-out of Moodle 2 at the OU.

Back in the Wild North - Shetland September 2011

Decided it was time for a quick gardening trip up to Shetland.

My work colleagues main pre-occupation ahead of the trip, aside from the observation that it was a long way to go to cut the grass, was that the weather was going to be bad ‘up there’.  The stories of Hurricane Katia crossing the Atlantic to wreak havoc on Britain were all over the media – and that led to the assumption that if it was going to be bad in England, it would inevitably be worse in Scotland and, therefore, near apocalyptic on Shetland.

I’m pleased to report that Shetland came through the battering unscathed – indeed the weather was better (and certainly warmer) than when I came up for the Tall Ships in July.   When I arrived the airport windsock was hanging limp at the end of the runway, and despite some rain over the weekend – the sun did shine, otters got seen, beaches got walked, boats in the harbour got photographed and the grass did get cut.

And when I turned up late back in Milton Keynes everyone just assumed I’d been delayed by the weather and had to spend an extra night on Shetland.  No such luck. Flybe managed to strand me (and lots of other folks) in Aberdeen overnight by encountering “technical  problems” with the plane coming up from Birmingham.

These and other photographs are on Picasa and Flickr

So where is Iceland?

I’m reading Simon Winchester’s biography of the Atlantic at the moment ("Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories"), and thoroughly enjoying it.   His enthusiasm for some of the undersea place-names has made me think back to a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago in praise of the inflight information system on Air Canada.

One of Winchester’s throw away lines at the start of the book alludes to the fact that he ‘must have transversed this particular body of water five hundred times’.  Aside from the fact that this is just bragging, and I’m going to forgive him that he has also crossed ‘this particular body of water’ by boat, a journey that is still on my must-do-sometime list, this did start me thinking about how many times I’ve crossed the Atlantic.

I started by digging back through old passports.  We Brits don’t get stamps when we come into the UK, but I’ve got a fairly substantial collection of US entry stamps – 21 that I can see, plus three for Canada and one for Chile – that 25 trips – 50 crossings.   Easy so far.

Then we come the more difficult trips – how far across the Atlantic do you need to go to have really crossed it?  The Falkland Islands are pretty close to South America (at least so certain Argentine lobby groups would have you believe).  For the sake of this argument we’ll include flying from the Falkland Islands via Ascension as a valid transatlantic crossing (and coming back again).  That gets me to 52 crossings.  

Greenland might technically be part of Denmark (and therefore of Europe) but it’s awfully close to Ellesmere Island (definitely Canada), and only separated from Baffin Island (also Canada) by Baffin Bay and the Davis Strait.  So I think I need to class my trip to Greenland in 2007 as having included another couple of transatlantic crossings. We’ve got to 54 now.
However, if we’re classing Greenland as having included a transatlantic crossing, what about Iceland?  When I went to Greenland I went via Reykjavik, so when did I cross the Atlantic?  My map of the Atlantic clearly shows the water between Iceland and Greenland as the Denmark Strait, and the water between Scotland and Iceland as ‘Atlantic Ocean’, so do I get to count my trip to Iceland in 2006 as an transatlantic crossing?  Seems too easy. That’s 56. 

But it doesn’t seem quite right.  The Faroe Islands are on my wish list too – are they far enough away to count as a transatlantic crossing?  Confusing business this travel lark. 

The Photo-a-Day Habit

I got a little bit of local fame (or infamy) last week. 

Junior Photographer, c.1971
Completing a year of sharing my daily photo habit on Blipfoto got me a little item in the Oxford Journal.  I did a short telephone interview with someone from the paper and an article based on the interview appeared plus a photo from my occasional 'Cafés of Headington' series and a self-portrait I took in Greenland trip a few years ago.  The article was mostly right - although I think I might have over-estimated how early I got my first camera.  The earliest picture I've been able to find where I have a camera round my neck was taken in the Alps in summer 1971, when I was 10.  There's no point lying about my age any more, having been outed in the Oxford Journal as a '50-year old Open University IT manager'.  I decided not to complicate things by getting into explaining what an educational technologist was during the interview.

Cafes of Headington. April 2011: Picture # 2298

The newspaper hook was the fact that I'd taken a picture every day for a year, although for me this was just a continuation of a much longer standing habit.  I've been taking pictures regularly since the late 1990's, and I've documented holidays and trips with a camera for a lot longer than this.  The move to digital in 2004 made me start to think a bit more about my photography, and the ability to experiment more and see the results immediately encouraged me to resolve to take a picture each day during 2005.  Having made that resolution just before Christmas in 2004 there didn't seem to be any good reason to wait until the first of January to get started, so my photo-a-day sequence actually started on 24th December 2004, with a picture of an art installation taken from my office window at the Open University.  I also set up this blog to share the images - in reality I don't think anyone else was watching, but the purpose was to provide an incentive for me not to break the sequence.  

Modern Art - Open University: Picture #1
Once I got to the end of 2005, a year which had turned out to include a number of interesting trips both in the UK and further afield, the process of looking for a picture to say something about the day had become a habit, and I just kept going.

Persepolis, Iran, November 2005: Picture # 338
Although I was still taking pictures every day I stopped posting a daily image and this blog changed into my place for reporting on the many trips I was making and a place where I provided links to my Flickr and Picasa accounts.  This was my routine until late July last year when I was encouraged to post my daily picture onto Blipfoto.  28th July 2010 was my first day on blip, and also my 2043rd photo-of-the-day.

Riverside, Milton Keynes, July 2010 : Picture # 2043

Reaping & Sowing, Oxford, August 2011: Picture # 2424
Two of the questions that the Oxford Journal asked were essentially “What do you look for in the daily photograph?” and “Will you stop?” 

I don’t think I’ve got an answer to the second question – I certainly can’t see a reason for stopping, although I’m sure something will happen one day to break my continuous run.  The first question is more challenging.  If I’m travelling or doing something unusual, I’ll always have a camera with me – on these occasions my problem is usually deciding which of the many images to post. On a more routine day, I might well need to go hunting for a blip.  Sometimes I’ll have an idea that I want to seek out, on other days serendity will offer me something to blip.  The urge to photograph boats one work-day lunchtime, resulted in my discovering that there was actually a marina (on the canal) just a few minutes from office.  If I’m in Oxford (which was the angle that the Oxford Journal wanted) I’ll try to find a blip that says something about Oxford, perhaps people punting on the river or the gate to an Oxford college. Inevitably, the images say something about me and what I’m thinking as well as where I am.  I’ve taken ‘pictures-of-the-day’ on every continent except Africa (an oversight that I must rectify).  I’ve taken pictures when I’ve been happy and miserable – and even when I was laid up with pneumonia.

Oxford, August 2005: Picture # 248
Falkland Islands, February 2009: Picture # 1515
Greenland, August 2007: Picture # 956
My photo-a-day habit is a well entrenched one – over the next few weeks I’ll keep the Oxford, Milton Keynes and Shetland images coming, and after that there should be a few months of rather further afield images to add to the blip collection.
Shetland, October 2010: Picture # 2112
Update: The article in the Oxford Journal managed to find its way to the attention of the OU Communications team - and they (with a little input from me) produced this item on the Open University Platform.

Another Update: 28th October 2011. Picture # 2500

Quendale Beach, Shetland, October 2011: Picture # 2500