Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015 - dreams came true!

2015 was a year where I visited a huge number of new places and, many more of my dreams were realised. In the 4 countries I travelled to during the year, Chile became my 48th - not much to some but to me, 48 countries with countless stories and experiences!

I've selected some of my favourite shots from each month of 2015 but this was quite difficult as the most memorable moments don't always have a photo. Anyway, I hope you enjoy sharing these with me and may it inspire somebody to also follow their dreams - it's not always easy but damn! It's certainly worth it!

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Tulcán - not just a border town

Parque Central
 Border towns have a notorious reputation in many countries I’ve travelled through. At times they appear to be nothing more than unsafe trading posts with dubious characters trading in virtually any commodity you can think of. The reputation is surely deserved in many cases, although Tulcán in the north of Ecuador, near the border of Colombia, has surprised me in being very different.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Introducing North Peru and its Birds (1)

If you decide to drive to the north from Lima,
these are the scenes that will greet you
North Peru is rapidly gaining recognition in the birding fraternity as a "must go" region. With habitats ranging from coastal desert to dry savanna, lowland forest and cloud forest, the diversity of bird species that occur in this region can be a bit mind-boggling. Travelling along this route, it's impossible to ignore the jaw-dropping panoramas spotted with historic and archaeological sites. In other words, you're in for a rather full all-round experience of the region and probably will quickly realise that visiting the area once just isn't enough.

Following the route more or less in a clock-wise direction, I’ll start with the areas around Trujillo and Chiclayo along the north coast of Peru where you’ll be arriving via a flight from Lima.   

Heading north-east from Trujillo a dirt road that winds through some villages, the road eventually reaches some dry scrub and rock. Some great views are to be head from here but the main reason you’re here is to look for the Elegant Crescentchest, a lovely bird when it shows itself.

Culture-wise there’s some incredible archaeological sites worth visiting; the one is Huaca do Sol y Luna and the other is Chan Chan. These civilisations predate the Incas and boast grand structures including pyramid-like temples. Admittedly it’s quite hard to envisage life in the desert but then again, Trujillo is built in the desert and humans will always be adapting. At Huaca Sol y Luna keep a lookout for the Coastal Miner, your 1st Peruvian endemic for the trip.
A map depicting a historical layout of the Moche civilization.

North to Chiclayo is about 3 hours by road where there’s a few birding spots to look for some special bird species. The first is a site (Rafan) off to the west of a village where you can find the Peruvian Plantcutter, another Peruvian endemic. Here you’ll also find a huge number of Black and Turkey Vultures, Mountain Caracaras, Cinereous and Saffron Finches, and Superciliated Wren. Along the road, check the swallows as there might be some Tumbes Swallows between the Blue-and-white Swallows

Just south of Chiclayo, turn off to Monsefu beach and head to the beach parking spot. Peruvian Tern
Neotropical Cormorant
will be the main attraction here but along the way it’s possible to find Yellowish Pipit, Peruvian Thick-knee, Striated Heron, Common Gallinule, and Least Seedsnipe as well. There’s also a likelihood of Peruvian Pelicans, Neotropic and Guanay Cormorants, Black-necked Stilt, Belcher’s-, Kelp and Grey Gulls, and Peruvian Booby

Closer to the south of Chiclayo, (if you manage to get there late afternoon or early morning) as you cross the cross the river via a large bridge, keep an eye out for the Lesser Nighthawks flying around. A few minutes is all you’ll need and there’ll be good views of them.

East of Chiclayo is the Santuario Histórico Bosque de Pómac (Pómac Forest Historical Sanctuary) where you have a good mix of history with archaeological sites and some good birding. Near the entrance (opposite side of the main road from Chiclayo) there’s a huge breeding colony of Cattle Egrets - a quick count revealed at least 100 occupied nests! Along the main in the sanctuary towards the mirador (viewpoint), there’s some good birding to be had with Rufous Flycatcher being quite obliging. 

At the the mirador (also a great place, albeit possibly a bit hot, for lunch) Variable Hawk invariably makes an appearance, although Black-chested Buzzard Eagle also hangs out from time to time. Then there’s some fun to be had sorting out seedeaters with amongst others, Parrot-billed & Drab Seedeaters, and the swallows - you’ll be looking for the Tumbes Swallow between the more common Blue-and-white Swallows. The trees along and on the dunes may have Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Pale-legged Hornero and Fasciated Wren

Next up, I’ll be looking at what the well-known Chapparí private reserve, and the area north of Chiclayo around Olmos can produce. 

(keep in mind this is not an account of all birds that can possibly be seen at these sites, but only what I saw and what clients have seen while at the site with me)


Saturday, 19 September 2015

That One photo!!

How can you ever forget this face -  Visiting the mountain gorillas in Rwanda,
still one of the most humbling experiences
Looking at a whole page of photo thumbnails on the screen in front of you, and suddenly click on one  - leaning back, you let your mind relive that moment and the days around the time you took that photo.

What is your ""That One Photo!"? Why not tell me about your special photo in the comments?

Through our daily lives, especially now in the digital age and social media, we are constantly taking photos. It doesn't matter whether it's with the phone camera, a little point and shoot or the bigger SLR's...these photos inevitably end up in some album on our computers and/or online. But, through all the 100's and 1,000's of photos we take, there will only be a handful that will remain special because they are "That One Photo!" that just defines that whole time period, visit or trip.

Even though I've been travelling a very long time (15-16 years) and undoubtedly have had an incredible amount of different experiences, ranging from simply happy and mind-boggling to the adrenaline rush of fear in a war zone to just simply sad moments, there are still only a handful of photos that will always stand out between the other because they have become "That One Photo!" Here I've picked out a few that will in themselves represent a whole host of memories - hope you enjoy them.

Probably of the more epic trips I've done was the solo expedition from Zimbabwe to Mali in 2011 (See my book that chronicles this expedition - "10(k)m to Mali. This photo in Batibo, Cameroon has come to represent the rainy season for me in West Africa.
Stuck along the road from Batibo in Cameroon to Nigeria

The Congo River through central and west Africa has become the focus of many of my dreams of expeditions and explorations. Reaching this river in 2011 on my solo expedition to Mali, was a moment where I stared only, lost for words. Driving the truck onto this little ferry at Luozi in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), served to burn this day even more into my memory.
Loading continues after I've driven the truck into the river and onto the ferry.
Luozi in the DR Congo.

Further up into West Africa, many 'stories' from travel tales and books become reality as you visit a variety of places and markets. The Fetish Market is Lomé (Togo) is one of those places that you can never really be prepared to visit, and will leave you with vivid memories of sounds, sights and smells.
Fetish market in Lomé will leave you shocked or amazed or simply disgusted; whichever emotion it's unforgettable.

Jumping across the water to an island that still has many close ties to Africa, Cuba. The capital Havana is a city of colours, music and people that will very likely put it high on the list of favourite places.
HDR of the malecón in Havana that just encapsulates all my great memories of Cuba.

Since a very young age I was always reading about expeditions and explorers and especially when reading about Mt Everest, the European climbers would've passed by the Eiger North Face - seeing this face to face in Kleine Scheidegg in Switzerland was like all my reading coming to life.
Hotel Desalpes in front of the Eiger Nordwand (North Face) in Switzerland

Back to West Africa and Mali this time. A country with an extremely rich cultural history which is (amongst many places) very evident in Segou.  This girl in Segou that allowed me to photograph her personifies this area for me.
While I was taking photos, somebody called her and I got this totally unguarded moment.

Colombia has always been on very high on my list of countries to visit, so my expectations were high. When I reached Chachagüí, a village north west of Pasto in Nariño Departemento, my love affair with Colombia peaked and became my adopted country...and a cherry on the cake was falling in love here as well!
Everyday the panoramas were just more spectacular than the day before.
Sitting down enjoying this view over the Rio Pasto canyon, just cemented how I felt about Colombia.

When it comes to defining moments in one's life, I think they vary a bit in how much they stand out in one's memory. Some will always tower above the others - this is one of those days that totally redefined what I thought were my physical, mental and emotional limits...I had just skydived right out of my comfort zone! Read about it here at "Water was my omnipresent ghost"
In the north of Congo-Brazzaville (People's Republic of Congo) where I did 25km in 10 hours, the section from the tree
to this position...5 hours! I only had just over a litre of water left and had no idea how long I would be here.

Especially as travellers, our human subjects don't always get to see the final photo we took of them. With digital cameras this has become a bit more easier albeit with a small screen where the person/s can see their image. A printed photo though will most times still be the ultimate thank you and gift.
This old Uburozi (traditional healer) in the Kinigi area, near the Parc Nationale des Volcans in Rwanda openly had tears running down his cheeks when I gave him this printed photo - he had never seen a photo of himself. The photo became a defining moment for the subject!
Old Uburozi (traditional healer) in the Kinigi area, near the Parc Nationale des Volcans in Rwanda

Sometimes photos in themselves become a defining moment for the photographer. The portrait of this girl was my last portrait I did for many years; to me this photo is extremely powerful but then I got requests for this photo to be used for the UNHCR to show 'poor' and 'destitute' children. I refused on the grounds of me knowing this girl and her family and that, although poor (by Western standards) was a family that was not going hungry, and this girl was not destitute for sure. took a very long time and many discussions with various artists and photographers to accept that once a photo/art piece is released into a public domain, the artist's/photographer's interpretation is no longer relevant.
I took the photo of this girl in Kinigi in NW Rwanda. During the traditional dances going on,
she would dance with other children but keep coming back to stand by me -
sometimes just hugging her arms around my legs.

What has been your defining photos that became "That One Shot"? Feel free to share them (or links) in the comments.


Sunday, 30 August 2015

Stop a moment...!

Yes, time for to stop a moment and reflect a bit - probably a reality check although there's no shortage of those on a fairly, albeit irritatingly at time, regular basis. I was reading a blogpost from one of the top bloggers, Wandering Earl about him finding people just painting a rosy-tinted picture of travel and living on the road. Having lived an almost constant nomadic life for 16 years now, I think I can comment on a few things that has brought me to where I'm sitting now although I will concentrate on my time in South America so far.

Now it's not something I've done although people do comment I seem to always be having fun. Fun? Yes, I love the work I do and obviously the travelling part of it but those of you that have read some of the extracts from my expedition through West Africa will know it's not always easy - in fact, damn difficult at times and other times, downright nerve-wracking. Would I have it any other way? Nope, I doubt it as I believe memories are made more umm... "memorable" when it involves moments burnt into the memory through stress or strain and/or adrenaline (brought on by whatever situation we're in).
Travelling in the Cordillera Blanca between Huascaran National Park and Vaquería

So, to the present - I'm in Peru again, where I arrived the first time in June 2014. That makes it 15 months in South America! I flew to Brazil from South Africa on a $600 one-way ticket and further to Peru on $47 (bought with airmiles) ticket; I had $500 in my pocket, nothing more. The only thing that was important to me was that I was following my dream of travelling to South America and travelling the continent. So far I've not even come close to travelling the whole continent but I have a 10 ton load of experiences and 1,000's of photos. I've met an incredible amount of people, the lovely (one of whom I fell in love with - more about that later), the ugly, the rich, the poor, the supposedly important/famous and other normal salt-of-the-earth individuals.  Inevitably, I also met the minority of persons whom I wouldn't care to meet again in this life.

Money/work - yes, the things that make travel a bit more possible albeit not necessarily easier. I've been fortunate to get myself into positive and interesting work, at times it was only in return for food and lodging and other times, I managed to earn a little bit more. There were too many days to count where I had absolutely no money...well, I was down to $0.20! Somehow though it always worked out with finding somebody who will pay for photos or some work or a friend/family sends a few dollars online. The latter saved my butt many times and you out there, know who you are - those friends and family ...Thanks! (not sure they always realised how much difference even $2 made!)

The work also had its moments that became super frustrating where you have to decide whether you are simply being exploited or whether you might just be serving a greater cause - a difficult call to make at the best of times, especially when you don't have the means to move on.  Would I have it any different than I've had it so far in South America? Again - Nope! The learning curve has been steep, including the language one, but has been really rewarding and I've built up some local experiences which not many people are privileged to have.

What work have I done? hahaha quite an array - ranging from trekking guide, driver for tours, publishing a magazine and designing brochures, to freelance photographer (festival, sport, nature and surfing) and to help cleaning at a hostel.

So back to living on the road, albeit living your dream and being in places you've dreamt of as a kid - it isn't always moonshine and roses. The roses are there but sometimes it's winter and you'll only encounter the thorns, some scratching and others ripping your skin but remember, no season is permanent and the roses will be blooming again!

Visiting Colombia was that time the roses started blooming again, and did they bloom. Somewhere since childhood this amazing country has been in my dreams for so very long and when I got to the border I was rather nervous of what I'd find - turns out it was miles better than my best expectations! This is a dream that was realised in spectacular fashion as I also fell in love with a lovely Colombiana, Isabel Cristiana, and consequently, not only has the country captured my heart but heart is now completely and totally there. The tourism promotion logo "Colombia es Pasión" is true - I can vouch for that...the people, their music and their love of dancing is just some of the more obvious examples.

So, when the travels suddenly seem very difficult or, you're planning to travel and think it will be easy - just remember, everything comes in seasons of some description - some easier and more pleasant than others!!

Just remember - Live That Dream!


Monday, 27 April 2015

Mysteries, Challenges and Sugar!

These are just some of the ingredients of a hike with a local guide on the outskirts of Chachagüí village in an area known as La Joya, and that’s excluding some steep inclines and jaw-dropping scapes. Exploring is something I can never resist and this was one of those trips; not far but the chance of getting inside some old caves and getting to know more about the local history and culture. 

Love Hiking and Trekking? Read this!

The type of panoramas you can expect on trails in the area.
Exploring the area around Chachagüí via the many trails that exist, is a rewarding experience - even for the most cynical out there. Although the walking trails require more development and collaboration (of utmost importance!!) with local communities, they will almost certainly be very popular with visitors from abroad as well Colombians who visit the area. Varying degrees of difficulty and length also ensure that they will be able to cater for the family with children keen for a walk, right through to the more hard/tough trekkers. Multi-day wilderness treks with visits to local farmers and villages along the way, is another exciting possibility.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Promoting tourism with a magazine

On Saturday, 25 April 2015, we launched a new magazine and directory to promote tourism around the village of Chachagüí and in the Nariño Department (province). Based on a similar and successful model in Uganda, it's distributed free of charge with businesses getting the opportunity to buy advertising space. This is complimented by articles and photos from the area.

Go to my "Books" section where you can read and download a copy of the "Veraneo" magazine!

Here is an extract from my speech as editor, at the launch ceremony;

"When I arrived in Colombia, I had huge expectations, but what I encountered exceeded them all by far!  Every view was sensory overload! I was constantly lost for words to describe my experiences and views; breathtaking landscapes, fantastic people with a rich and proud culture.

From all this I was expecting to find tourists everywhere but no - travellers were passing through and telling that I had to go to Popayan and further north and see all the amazing places there. Really?
After my first week I realised that this is because nobody knows about this hidden gem that is Nariño. Arriving in Chachagüí, I knew that I could not leave this place without sharing it with the world.

The potential I see around me here, and the little bit I've travelled in Nariño, is incredible. The restaurants and accommodation, businesses that can support tourism and transport infrastructure are there - now we just need to get the tourists here, from near and far.
Busy with my speech at the launch of "Veraneo"

Let's not forget local tourism! These are the people that support you in low season or when world events result in low foreign tourist numbers. We need to promote our tourism to the Colombians! Many of them don't know much about Nariño and what it has to offer - some places and things I've photographed are not even known to the Chachagueños!

What we want to achieve with Veraneo; the promotion and discovery of a stunning Nariño and also Chachagüí as a base for exploration and adventure. Each edition will have a theme, for example "conservation" with articles on culture, history and activities relating to the theme. With further expansion, the directory will have sections for each place - for example; a directory for Chachagüí, a directory for Pasto and one for La Cocha.

To achieve all of this, we need everybody's participation, suggestions and ideas. Buying advertising space and/or sponsoring pages, ensures the magazine continues to be distributed free and more widely. We look forward to the promotion of tourism and the development of more tourism products."


Thursday, 16 April 2015

Craving views at Forbidden heights?

One of the views from the viewing area at the top of the one tower
Ever seen those postcards with the grand panoramas of a city and thought "Wow, I want to get at least one photo like that!"? I'm sure you have as have many other people - problem is that some people will unfortunately never to get to see those views for themselves. Fear of heights and vertigo can be terrible, especially if you're travelling.

Personally (and happily so) I don't have a crippling fear of heights or ascending buildings or whatever to get that photo off the edge; but I have huge sympathy for people who's fear is that crippling that they just simply can't get up/out there. Similarly, huge respect and hats off to the ones who face their fears, grit their teeth and with only glimpses through narrowed eyes, take those much sought after photos.


Monday, 13 April 2015

5 Reasons to avoid Chachagüí in southern Colombia

View eastwards of Chachagüí
Chachagüí is a village about 25km north of Pasto, the capital of the department of Nariño in southern Colombia. At the edge of the village is also Antonio Nariño Airport so you could force yourself to even fly in if didn’t like road journeys. 

The Galeras volcano at Pasto, the Rio Pasto (Pasto River) and Rio Juanambú (Juanambú River) all have been part in the creation of jaw-dropping deep and long canyons, waterfalls and forest-covered mountains and hills - but of course that would hurt your eyes having to look at all of that and you’d not be able to tell other people other than show them photos, because you’ll be speechless!

Here’s some more reasons you’ll want to avoid this little village of Chachagüí:

1. You’ll want to fly high over the valleys and hills and enjoy the spectacular views from the air - again and again!
Preparing for a tandem flight from Cundur near Chachagüí

Paragliding off the high hill of Cundur
with a view north of Antonio Nariño Airport

2. You’ll just have to take a walk on one of the trails in forest that harbours a host of animals, birds and butterflies - once again, being confronted with those landscapes that leave you grasping for your camera.
One of the trails around Chachagüí

3. Just when you think you’ve escaped it all, there’s a steaming world-class coffee - grown in the hills around you, waiting in front of you.

Coffee grown, prepared and roasted in Chachagüí

4. What if you enjoy cycling?! There’ll be a mountain bike right there beckoning you onto the trails and backroads around the mountains and smaller villages (pueblitos). Oh damn, there’s those landscapes again too. 
The area is absolutely naturally "designed" for mountain biking

5. If you still haven’t escaped by now, you’re stuffed! The friendliness and hospitality of the people will have won you over and you’d have realised you cannot and don’t want to leave!!
Weekend market for your fresh produce and some socialising
At this stage - send me a message and I'll come and meet you in town!


Enticement in Colombia

Rio Pasto canyon seen from a trail in Chachagüí, Nariño
Many years ago when I was still a young boy, mention of Colombia conjured up images of jungles, forests and mountains for me. The chances of it not being very safe obviously played to my adventurous cravings as a teenager who was already involved in a fair amount of adventure. In my dreams I would stare at the canopy of the forest, sky-high above me, listening to the birds and animals far from civilisation. The media was also appealing to the adventurous side of me even as later Colombia became even more known (through the media) as the land of drug barons and their wars.

Starting my travels and work in the tourism industry, I was to encounter and meet many Colombians,
Nariño (inlcuding Chachagüí) is also home
to some world-renowned coffees
all seemingly more friendly and pleasant than the ones I met before. Once again my dreams of Colombia were being strengthened plus word was out it was going to be the happening country for everything ranging from its natural wonders to adventure activities.

Landing in South America in 2014, my eyes were always looking north and wondering when (and if) I’ll be getting to Colombia. January 2015, saw me entering Colombia at Rumichaca in the south from Ecuador. The people were as friendly and pleasant, and more, as the Colombians I’d met abroad. In fact, people I was chatting to on the bus from Quito ended up being Colombian! The landscapes of mountains, canyons and forests were just simply breathtaking. Even now I find myself at a loss of words many times when confronted by yet another panorama - and that’s a few times a week!

Cathedral at Las Lajas near Ipiales, Nariño
Through the first week of incredible sights like the Las Lajas cathedral constructed over a canyon near Ipiales and countless churches, temples and cathedrals in Pasto, I started moving north and stopped in Chachagüí about 25km north of Pasto.

Squirrel: The forests around Chachagüí harbour a host of wildlife species
The first morning at Hostel Kundur dawned and I was surrounded by the song of birds I had yet to learn the names of, scenery that would leave the most hardened cynic searching for words and most of all, friendly and hospitable people. 

Village of Chachagüí
25km from Pasto en-route to the Antonio Nariño Airport
This dawn was also the dawn (again) of the realisation that I’m smack-bang in the middle of a childhood dream and living it! Chachagüí and Nariño Department (province) doesn’t have much tourists as foreign advice from North American and European governments stated that it was dangerous - I could feel the danger! The danger of not being able to leave!

Follow me as I explore this amazing region through photos. 
To see more of my photos from Colombia, visit my Flickr page 

Mountain biking is one of many activities to enjoy in Chachagüí


Friday, 6 February 2015

Paralysis in the Undergrowth

During my stay in Colombia so far, everyday has produced something incredible, great or just simply an amazing moment. Chachagüí, in Nariño departement, an area of mountains and forest is just perfect - my passion and love of forests and mountains are in top gear here.
Blue-black and gold wasp

Yesterday evening at dusk, Humberto (of the Paredes family where I'm staying at the moment) called me to bring my camera. I saw this massive blue-black wasp digging  a hole - I saw one of these wasps the other day for the first time and was gagging to photograph it. Seeing it dig a hole though, I knew there must a large paralysed creature, probably a spider, nearby. Humberto, Gracias por llamarme a fotografiar este! (thanks to Humberto for calling me to photograph this!)

Paralysed tarantula
Looking around, I found it - a tarantula and not small either! This was just amazing!! I was grinning from ear to ear and my camera was clicking away.

This blue-black wasp at 7-9cm long and about 2-3cm high, had paralysed a tarantula which had a body length (excluding legs) of about 7cm - with legs, probably a good spread of around 15cm! The wasp had returned into the undergrowth to the spider and whilst trying to get some shots, I could not really see what it was doing. Only when I was processing the photos did I realise that the wasp had been "cutting" the spider's legs so that it could fit into the hole easier - the hole was big enough for the wasp but it was going to be a squeeze getting the spider in. It was also then that I realised what had seemed like just a yellow colour was in fact a gold colour! The camera flash had just lightened it 
more for these little stunning details.
Wasp cutting the spider's legs

A bit later the wasp didn't seem very happy with the hole as it started exploring other spots nearby (this was after the first hour of watching it and taking photos). After dinner I returned and the hole was still open but the wasp and the tarantula had gone so unfortunately I was able to watch the whole process as I had done in Africa before. 
Zoomed in photo showing how clean the cuts are.
The wasp's mouthparts have some powerful jaws.

There it had been an mind-boggling experience of a moment in the life of these wasps that capture and paralyse spiders, bury them in the hole after laying an egg inside the spider. Once the larva hatches it will survive by eating the spider from the inside out before emerging from the soil. 
This was just on another scale though, with a massive wasp and a tarantula which added another dimension to this "Discovery Channel" moment as one of the other people watching referred to it.

Para mis amigos/amigas de habla español - si el traductor no funciona bien aquí , voy a dar una explicación en español.
Un momento increíble en mi día!