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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Silence Isn’t Golden

23 01 2009

 

iceland-10-mwYou have only attained true silence when your ears buzz from the strain of trying to detect any sound in the aural void. It is a very rare state that is so unusually encountered that it’s instantly noticed. Houses creak. Pipes rattle. Refrigerators turn off and on. Neighbours bang. Bed springs squeak. Dogs bark. Cities endure endless traffic but even the wilds are rarely quiet. Whether the buzz of insects, the rustle of wind, the ripple of water on the shore, the roll of distant thunder, the eerie song of nocturnal birds or the ceaseless shrill of frogs, true silence is extremely elusive.

 

One of the few times I can recall pure and genuine silence was in Iceland. We were camping in the interior near Mýrdalsjökull glacier. Although there had been a veritable swarm of midges and annoying insects during the day they had all disappeared by evening and taken their buzzing with them. There was no other wildlife to disturb the peace and the air was perfectly still. We were far enough from the glacier not to hear any of its cracking or groaning, not near any glacial streams or babbling brooks, and our campsite had no electricity of generators to hum the night away. The campfire had been properly doused and once everyone had finished their night-time ablutions, unzipped and zipped their tents and nestled into their sleeping bags, silence descended like a heavy fog.

 

Being the middle of an Icelandic summer, darkness was as elusive as sound. Although soft and muted, the light was ever-present and no one required flashlights. It was even possible to read a book in the tent without assistance. After a long day of trekking in the fresh mountain air, I instantly fell asleep.

 

I awoke in the night and assumed it was dawn. The light was softer but still bright enough to make out everything in the tent. I lay on my back staring at the canvas above and instantly noticed the silence. An all-consuming complete and utter silence. Not so much as a mere rustle or breath. It was as if the entire world had stopped or everyone and everything had left the planet without telling me. My ears buzzed and rang with the effort to detect any sound, any proof of life, but none was to be had. The harder I concentrated, the louder the buzzing became.

 

Glancing at my watch, I saw that it was 2am and as bright as an early morning. I closed my eyes and rolled over but sleep wouldn’t come. The lack of noise was keeping me awake. It was utterly deafening. I tossed and turned with nothing ringing loudly in my ears. I longed for traffic, for a crying baby…for a snoring neighbour. I reached into my bag and pulled out my ear plugs in an effort to shut out the ceaseless and unrelenting silence. With the torture over, I finally slipped into sleep. In future, I would travel with a metronome.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Travel Photography 101 10.5/18

21 11 2008

Confessions, tips and musings from a snap-happy wanderer.

“Bartender, the ice in my drink is stale.”    (Close-up of Vatnajokul glacier, Iceland) 

 

The Big Picture isn’t always the best picture

 

One of the most difficult animals to photograph in Africa is the elephant. It is so big that it’s very difficult to photograph it and capture any sense of perspective. Too often elephants end up being a solid mass devoid of contour, colour or size. The same can be true of anything else that’s particularly large be it a building, a mountain, a canyon or any natural feature. When this happens, in addition to snapping the ‘Big Picture’, also look for an interesting detail of a smaller aspect that helps paint the whole picture. With a building, it could be a particular angle, corner or finishing touch. Focus on that which others may overlook.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Travel Photography 101 3.5/18

14 11 2008

Confessions, tips and musings from a snap-happy wanderer.

“It’s not overcast…it’s atmospheric!”                        (Iceland)

 Never mind the weather.

 

Although we all long for great weather on our travels, unless we always choose parched deserts or sun-soaked equatorial islands, we are likely to encounter at least a few days of inclement conditions. As a photographer, don’t lock your camera away and let the weather get the better of you, instead be creative and use these days to your advantage.

 

Firstly, make sure that you are prepared for all conditions. Most photography stores sell special cases or heavy-duty clear plastic covers that can protect your camera from anything shy of a hurricane and still take great photos. However, if unprepared for Mother Nature, make your own using a zip-lock bag or even a plastic shopping bag. Failing that, shoot from beneath awnings or even from inside through an open window. Use the dark skies or teaming rain to paint a picture. Play around with your camera settings to make the conditions even more dramatic than they perhaps are. Use the reflections in puddles or on rain-soaked windows. Heavy rain will likely drive many visitors inside leaving streets and sights merrily-free and eager to pose for your camera.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Live And Let Fly

13 11 2008

“Blogger, Adventure Blogger.”                   (Jökulsárlón, Iceland)

 

I will confess that James Bond films leave me shaken and stirred like a slightly imperfect vodka martini. I’m not really a huge movie buff, but I do look forward to new Bonds with much the same anticipation as a bloodthirsty villain cradling a luxurious Persian cat looks forward to the suave agent’s elaborate demise. I love the gadgets, Bond’s sinister opponents, the cars and luxury lifestyle, the touch of humour, the chases and spectacular action…and the Bond girls haven’t gone unnoticed either.  I also love the exotic locations.

 

The latest episode, “Quantum of Solace” debuts in North America tomorrow – not that I’m counting down the minutes like an Omega Seamaster clocking the countdown to nuclear annihilation at the hands of a disfigured evil genius or anything – and was filmed in Chile’s Atacama Desert, California’s Baja, London and Siena amongst other destinations. And while I doubt I would go out of my way to visit a Bond location, I do get a kick when I find myself in a spot memorable from one of my favourites.

 

I would first like to stress that I am not now and never have been a candidate to play James Bond. It’s an understandable mistake given my proclivity to rappel down the sides of buildings, jump out of aircraft, fly in helicopters without doors, sip champagne in first class and hob-nob with world leaders, but alas I also sleep in youth hostels, get the bulk of my culture from yogurt, cry over paper-cuts and the closest I have ever come to a tuxedo was dressing as a penguin in a school play. But it doesn’t stop me from quietly humming that famous Bond tune when I find myself somewhere Bondly familiar.

 

During it’s more than 40 year history, celluloid Bond has popped up in such exotic locales as India, Thailand, Azerbaijan, Japan, Brazil and Iceland.

 

Jökulsárlón is a glacial lagoon several hours east of Reykjavik, Iceland. It’s an impressive waterway filled with giant floating icebergs in virginal whites and sumptuous blues surrounded by icy clear waters. While an impressive sight from the shore, it’s best explored from one of the sightseeing boats that weave among the towering bergs. If you screw up your eyes or pick your views carefully it’s easy to believe you’re in the Antarctic, especially when the fog rolls in from the sea and obscures the surrounding countryside. Jökulsárlón was the backdrop for one of Bond’s megalomaniacal nemeses and played its part well, but in reality it is a place of serene beauty like much of Iceland. Seals rest on the rocks beneath the bridge that separates the lagoon from the ocean while seagulls wheel and soar overhead. The salt air is fresh and crisp even at the height of summer and bracing ocean breezes invigorate. 

 

Not far away, the magnificent Vatnajökul Glacier sweeps down from the island’s centre carrying millions of years worth of ice and geologic history with it. Guides will kit you out with ice-axe and crampons and lead you – Bond-like – up the glacier’s sheer ice walls and into hidden cathedrals of blue and crystal that drip and crackle with life. At the glacier’s edge where the mighty ice transforms into pristine water, wild flowers explode in a riot of reds and yellows like the inevitable movie-ending destruction of the Bond villain’s imaginative lair.

 

Iceland is arguably one of the most photogenic of countries and has lent itself countless times to productions seeking untouched wilderness, sci-fi beauty, stark nature or raw agelessness. Although you might not want to hike its volcanic quicksands, black lava fields, verdant hills or rocky cliffs in your finest Turnbull and Asser dinner jacket and Church’s shoes with Honey Trip-a-lot on your arm and a bottle of Bolinger and Lalique flutes in your hand, even the most un-Bondable desk-jockey can feel ruggedly free in such magnificent desolation.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

 





Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 27

21 08 2008

“Now that’s what I call an isolated shower!”   (Seljalandsfoss, Iceland)

Always test water-resistance before starting your travels.

 

I was to spend two weeks hiking, trekking and camping in Iceland in the middle of summer. Although I wasn’t exactly anticipating tropical conditions, I did think the last week of July and first week of August would be mild and probably sunny despite the island’s northerly location.  Still, taking every precaution I packed a hooded rain jacket, rain trousers, Gore-Tex gloves and boots, thick socks, a woolly-hat, fleeces and long underwear…as well as shorts, sandals, t-shirts and swimsuit. In other words, I was prepared for every eventuality. Or so I thought!

 

Iceland is a magnificent land of rugged starkness. Its coastline jagged from the timeless assault of the North Atlantic. Its interior chalked grey, brown and black from its volcanic centre. Its lakes and rivers brilliant blue from its pure glacial lifeline and its greens the verdant pulse of a land more geologically alive than any other on earth.

 

The coast road loops around the entire country, pressed between the sharply-hewn cliffs, the black sand beaches and the crashing waves of the sea. As I gazed up at the cloud-shrouded peaks one morning through the rain-lashed windows of the mini-bus, I mused that it must be a magnificent spot in summer…only to quickly remember that July was as good as it got! By afternoon, strong winds had pushed the clouds away and a flawless blue sky served as a perfect backdrop to the waterfalls, wildflowers and magnificent desolation beneath.

 

Alas, quicker than you can say Hafnarfjordur, the rains returned with a vengeance soaking the long grasses, pooling in the low-lying areas and driving a drenching fog across the land. I donned my best raingear, pulled the hood’s drawstring tight around my face, zipped up the jacket and tightened my hiking boots before setting off for more spectacular scenery.

 

The rain belted down but in no way detracted from the pristine views. I have always enjoyed being exposed to the elements when warm, dry and properly protected and Iceland was no exception…until my toes felt their first hint of moisture. I glanced down and the boots were still properly laced with the rain pants over the tops. There were no obvious holes, but there was obviously water around my little digits.

 

My socks were soon saturated and my toes became chilly and uncomfortable. Like a pin-prick in a balloon, there was no stopping the leak now. My feet began to squelch in the growing wetness. I could feel the warmth flooding from my body as quickly as the water flooded into my boots. The discomfort continued for several more hours and by the time I reached the glorious warmth and dryness of the bus, my toes were white, wrinkled and hell-bent on revenge. I could envisage waking up in the night to wracking bouts of foot cramp for months to come as they got even for their torment.

 

There was no apparent vent in the seams, no obvious rip in the lining and no holes anywhere. Clearly, my boots had finally expired. The Gore-Tex had died and sucked in the water like a sponge….and it was only the third day of my trip. For the rest of the time I uncomfortably slipped my feet into plastic bags before putting on my boots but the perspiration this quickly generated was almost as wet as the rain it tried to prevent. On the warm, sunny days, I left my boots outside to dry and each night hoped for fine weather the following morning.

 

The discomfort and inconvenience barely registered compared to the wonders of Iceland, but even now, in the middle of the night when I am fast asleep and dreaming wonderful thoughts of Salma Hayek and sun-drenched desert islands, my toes wrench me back to consciousness with agonising and gut-wrenching cramps. As I hobble to my feet and attempt to end the torture, I can still hear them cackle and taunt as they exact their bitter Icelandic revenge.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 15

20 08 2008

“What do you mean you can’t remember where you put the gold?”   (Iceland)

“We may run, walk, stumble, drive, or fly, but let us never lose sight of the reason for the journey, or miss a chance to see a rainbow on the way.”

 

Gloria Gaither

 

 

Photo and post:  Simon Vaughan