Skewered

27 04 2009

 puffin

A rare image of Marcel Marceau being attacked by a tropical fish  (Puffin, Vik, Iceland)

 

Plenty of people throughout history have died for their art. Whether slipping from a scaffolding while painting a fresco, inhaling too many emulsion fumes, portraying an ogre-like monarch as an ogre-like monarch or simply being a stand-up comic to a silent and unamused crowd, dying goes hand in hand with art. I’m not sure that my travel photography qualifies as art, but I almost died for it once.

 

Even in the middle of summer, the cliff tops of Iceland are often shrouded in low mist and driving rain. People trekking the tops must not only be properly equipped with raingear, but they are also warned to be especially cautious that the swirling mists don’t obscure the cliff edge – thereby leaving them intimately acquainted with the crashing waves below. However, any meteorological inconveniences or inherent risks are worthwhile as these cliff tops provide the best views of Iceland’s puffins.

 

Before trekking through the fields to reach the nesting sites, our guide called us together. With the wind howling and heads hunched, she bellowed that we had to watch out for skewers – large territorial sea birds with a penchant for attacking anything that ventures too close. She said we would walk in single file with her in the lead waving her walking stick in the air….and off we set.

 

Having had more than a few close encounters in Africa – and one in a subway car when I came between a tired office worker and an empty seat – I couldn’t imagine that a skewer could be more troubling than past scares. I did vaguely recall seeing wildlife guru Sir David Attenborough hunched on a cliff top while dive-bombed by a large sea bird, but really, it’s a bird after all. Surely Sir David’s reaction was driven by theatre and drama and not genuine fear.

 

We were halfway to the cliff edge when the bombardment began. The skewer swooped angrily from nowhere, talons extended. It soared down, wings pivoting like a tightrope walker’s balance pole, eyeing up the weakest link in our human chain. With a deft wave of our leader’s walking stick, the bird twisted and screamed past, swinging high around like a fighter jet on a strafing run and prepared for its next assault. We hunched as it wheeled towards us. The guide wielded the stick again, and once more it veered upwards and repositioned itself for another attack.

 

Reaching the far side of the danger area, we carefully peered through the mists at the puffin nests along the buffetted cliff face. Spying the plump little seabirds with their white mime-artists’ faces and multi-coloured beaks was more than reward for our efforts, and we busily snapped away with our cameras. The visit over, we turned and headed back across the killing fields to our minibus. However, just as our trek began I spotted a puffin perfectly framed by a large rock. I dropped down and crawled around to find the perfect angle before taking a photograph that I instantly knew was a winner.

 

By the time I got up, my group was miles away and under assault. I realised I was tail-end Charlie: the poor sap in the movies that gets eaten by the swamp monster, abducted by the serial killer or sucked-up by the UFO without anyone noticing. I sprinted across the grass, ducking and diving as I came under attack. The skewer, undeterred by a hiking stick, dived lower and lower. I zig-zagged across the open ground hunched like a laden busboy and eventually reached the safety of the carpark.

 

“Oh,” the guide remarked with surprise as I emerged, breathless and ashen-faced. “I didn’t realise you weren’t with us.”

 

 

Photo and post: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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A to Z of Adventure Travel: D is for Darwin

3 02 2009

katherine-gorge-1-mw1“Keep your fingers inside, they’re are crocs down there!         (Katherine Gorge, Northern Territory)

 

Anyone who has seen Baz Luhrmann’s recent epic ‘Australia’, will be familiar with the city of Darwin. The capital of the Northern Territory, Darwin is a modern and cosmopolitan city which was almost entirely re-built twice, once after the Japanese air raids during the Second World War that feature in the movie, and a second time after Cyclone Tracey in 1974.

 

Located on the Timor Sea closer to Asia than Sydney, Darwin marks the end of the line for the legendary Ghan train from Adelaide and has a friendly, small-town feel and kilometres of unspoiled beaches. Boasting a tropical climate, Australia’s most northerly major city offers a dry season from April/May to October and a wet season punctuated with tropical cyclones, monsoon rains and spectacular thunderstorms from December to March. Although sadly overlooked by many visitors, Darwin is not only a great destination but is also the gateway to some of Australia’s best natural treasures: Kakadu, National Park, Litchfield National Park and Katherine Gorge.

 

Kakadu is half the size of Switzerland, covering an area of almost 5,000,000 acres. The park’s diversity supports a huge variety of animal life and more than 280 species of birds – approximately one-third of the entire country’s bird species. It is also renowned for its quintessentially Australian billabongs and offers some outstanding examples of Aboriginal rock art in rocky outcrops that have provided shelter for thousands of years.

 

Southwest of Darwin sits Litchfield National Park, a slice of the bush home to a vast variety of bird and wildlife and some of the country’s most beautiful water falls. Not only do the falls attract thousands of visitors every year, but they are also a magnet for birds and reptiles.

 

Finally, Nitmiluk National Park – formerly known as Katherine Gorge National Park – borders Kakadu and is located southeast of Darwin. The park includes a series of gorges on the Katherine River and Edith Falls that have great ceremonial significance for the local Jawoyn people. The gorges can be explored by canoe or for the less-energetic, on cruises aboard flat bottomed boats. Katherine Gorge itself is a spectacular cataract comprised of thirteen gorges, with rapids and falls and is perhaps best appreciated by helicopter.

 

All of the parks offer a variety of accommodation from well-managed campsites for independent travellers or adventurers, to luxury permanent camps for a comfortable bush experience, and deluxe lodges.

 

Although not attracting as many visitors as Sydney or the Great Barrier Reef, the Northern Territory offers a superb Australian experience with unrivalled scenery, birdlife and Aboriginal culture….just watch out for the saltwater crocodiles!

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan