Images From Far Flung Lands

One of the most terrifying things that happened to me when I left Australia to live in England a year ago, apart from leaving my friends and family behind on the other side of the world of course, was the uncertainty my move cast over the future of my business as a photojournalist.  Leaving Australia meant leaving many of my Australian centric publications and clients behind.  But leave I did and I am twelve months into a new venture, exploring new markets, new clients, new avenues of business in a world that is more competitive than I ever imagined.

Some days it simply overwhelms me as I try to juggle keeping my 14 year old business alive while running one of the UK’s most established international dive travel companies.  However, I was never one to shy away from a challenge so here I am.

Recently I have been so profoundly honored that my images are making their way into some private homes.  I have about a dozen or so collectors of my work in Australia, the United States and Singapore but this is now growing and recently the following images were sold by people to hang in their homes.

My prayer candles from Swayambhunath temple in Nepal

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are on their way to a private home in Florida.

My little Elephant Seal from Macquarie Island

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is on his way to the United States also.

Finally my crazy Saddhu from Pashupatinath

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is on his way to Australia.

To me it is one of the highest honors someone can bestow on my work is the wish to have a photograph of mine hanging in their home.  I feel so truly blessed when I see these images go around the world.

So maybe that is where my business future lies?  In leading photographic expeditions to places that are too difficult to reach, then selling my images after I return.

I’m not sure, but fourteen years into this industry I am still enjoying the journey and all of its resultant highs, lows, shifts, challenges, travel and directions.  I am still here, despite my hemisphere shift and I hope to be successful here also.  Let’s see what happens next!

Penguins

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I have had a long and tumultuous relationship with penguins.  For someone who has been around seabirds since they were a small child I should be in love with them completely shouldn’t I?  That love should have no bounds.

Well that love is certainly existent now but it wasn’t always the case.

During the time I lived in Sydney from my late twenties to mid thirties, I became very used to Little Penguins.  I saw them from the ferries on Sydney harbour and would sometimes watch them darting in the surf right next to my boogie board.  For a long time I used to take delight in seeing them, that is, until I began working with them.

In my early thirties I started working alongside the longest continual study of the Wandering Albatross at sea in the world – the Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association (SOSSA).  While the principal aim of SOSSA’s work is to perpetuate a cohort study on albatrosses that has spanned more than fifty years, their work also involves seabird breeding island surveys along the coastal islands of New South Wales and I was lucky enough to be involved with these during the years of 2005 to 2007.  I loved these expeditions.  They gave me a glimpse into a world that so few people see.  Public landings on these islands are expressly forbidden and through strict management, many of them are a wonderland for a wildlife photographer like me.  Think deserted beaches, thousands of nesting seabirds, rocky outcrops, burrows everywhere, that wonderful cacophony of sound and that beautiful dank smell of seabirds – well I was just in heaven working on these islands.  It was like living in one massive documentary 24/7.

The birds that formed the corner stone of our nesting surveys included Sooty Oystercatchers and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.  We also made notes of other nesting birds including White-faced Storm Petrels, Australian Ibis, Australian Pelicans, Silver Gulls, Crested Terns and Little Penguins.

Of all the birds we worked with I found penguins to be the most feisty, attitude-filled critters imaginable.  On the main island of the Five Islands off the coast of Wollongong, our base and research hut was a solar powered, converted shipping container (glamorous stuff this wildlife research!) and on one trip there we discovered that some Little Penguins had decided that under our hut was the perfect place to take up residence.  During the breeding season, Little Penguins are very, very noisy and they are largely nocturnal!  Their calls usually start at sunset and only stop around 5am when you need to get up and go to work so, needless to say, I wasn’t a huge fan of their all-night love ins, many of which involved slapping each other around, biting each other and squabbling over burrow space.  Penguins, well Little Penguins at least, do seem to like a bit of slap and tickle.  I just wished sometimes that they had chosen to do their mating and dating somewhere else.  Not even ear plugs would have worked with that amount of noise.  I wasn’t impressed.  Our days passed in a zombie like state as we struggled to feign tiredness to put in thirteen hour days of surveys.

During the day, we had protests.  The slats of the balcony on the outside of our hut provided some much needed shade for moulting penguins who, during the time they actually do moult, require a significant amount of energy and they need to stay dry until their plumage becomes seaworthy again.  Why not hang out in the well ventilated semi-shade of the hut balcony?  This seemed to work quite well for the penguins until some ignorant humans rudely decided to turn up for morning tea and pull up their chairs to take a rest in the sun.  Suddenly we were growled at!  Obviously we were casting an unwanted shadow, some penguins didn’t like it and a series of very loud protestations ensued!!!  My affections towards them began wearing thin.

Little Penguins are burrow nesters and their burrows are not dissimilar in size to those used by Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.  Accessing Shearwater chicks means you have to lie on your stomach on the ground, reach your arm down to the end of the burrow and hopefully you will find a fat, fluffy shearwater chick to band and weigh before taking a GPS read of its burrow location, releasing it and moving on.  Down the occasional burrow your arm would feel something different to a Shearwater.  Instead of a fat fluffy brown bird, you would get a nasty, nippy female penguin at the end and trust me, they are enough to make you withdraw your arm with the speed of lightning!  In these cases I must confess that I didn’t blame the resident penguins for kicking up a fuss.  I mean, deep down in a burrow, watching a grabbing arm reach in to feel around must have been terrifying for them.  No wonder they got upset!  I would too!

On one trip, I worked with a young assistant who had never been close to a penguin at all.  Usually I would never pull a bird out of a burrow for the sake of demonstration but given the fact that Little Penguins are one of the few penguin species that are thriving, I decided to show him one.  We set off around the island on foot and just when we went past one burrow entrance, we heard this blood curdling yowl.  My assistant jumped back in shock and exclaimed that it sounded like someone was being murdered!  I said “No, that’s a penguin” and decided, stupidly, that this might be the perfect opportunity to show him one.  I reached in gently and pulled a wriggly, strong, adult male penguin out of his burrow.  An animal that certainly wasn’t impressed at all by this action.   Here he is:

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Not a happy penguin.  After my assistant got this shot of me and petted the penguin, I gently put him back because I hate stressing animals for no real reason and I really didn’t consider this to be a good reason.  Off scurried the Little Penguin back into his burrow, or so I thought.  He went back into the entrance of it and just as we stood up and turned around to leave, he came bolting out of his burrow and bit me hard on the back of my calf!  I yelped!  I am very used to handling these animals.  I certainly didn’t hurt him.  He was just being vindictive I think.  It wasn’t a great way to win friends.

This altercation only served to tarnish my idea of them further until I finally went on to the islands during the penguin breeding season.  Baby Little Penguins are an entirely different matter.  Working with them during the peak of their breeding was pure joy.  I had the privilege of holding chicks that were around a week old like this one

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To nearly fledged adult birds like these

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IMG_7177Then the tide and my attitude towards penguins began to turn.  I fell in love with Little Penguin chicks as I watched them waiting at the entrance of their burrows for mum or dad to come back and feed them with a belly full of fish.  It takes between eight and ten weeks from hatching to the time that young penguins will make their first run to the ocean.  Over the time I was lucky enough to spend working with them, I met some that really melted my heart.  Probably the most noted and unusual experience I had was finding a nearly fledged pair near the entrance of their burrow at the crown of Montague Island during the moult season.  Their parents had abandoned them in favour of moulting as it seems they had left their run too late to breed.  This is a highly unusual scenario for Little Penguins.  I saw them and was quite shocked.  When I came closer they were both emaciated from starvation.  To this day it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, walking away from those two.  You have to let nature play out its course on breeding islands.  There is a lot of mortality on them and a lot of joy through births too but with these two I felt a real compulsion to tell someone to rescue them and feed them.  You really can’t though.  They would have probably died from the stress of handling them to get them back to the mainland into proper care.  They were near death as it was.  I cried.

Fast forward a few years to my 37th year of life and I found myself on board a Russian Icebreaker cruising due south to penguin central, the Australian Antarctic Territory of Macquarie Island, an island that is home to between three and five million penguins of three key species – Kings, Royals or Macaronis and Gentoos.  There is a handful of Rockhoppers also living on Macquarie but they have a very restricted range there and they are not all that easy to see up close.  Unlike the other penguins on Macquarie, the Rockhoppers are very shy.  It was my first trip to Antarctica and I was thrilled to be going.

Arriving at Macquarie, we dropped anchor near the research station for the Australian Antarctic Division at Hasselborough Bay and we were instantly greeted by a welcoming party

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Kings, Gentoos and Royals all came out to meet the boat, wondering what was new in their world.  They swam around us endlessly.  Each time I peered out of my porthole I saw them.  I was mesmerised by their curiosity.

I think we may have dropped some scientists off at the research station during our stop but I was that distracted I don’t remember.

Later that day we steamed south along the coast to a place that has now become one of my most favourite in the entire world, Sandy Bay.  Landing on Sandy is a bit tricky.  While it sits in the lee of Macquarie and enjoys some relative calm from the relentless westerly winds and gigantic ocean swells, landing there presents you with a dilemma.  The wildlife is so abundant on the beach that you have to approach slowly in an inflatable dinghy and a guide has to run the gauntlet of assembled penguins and elephant seal pups that have all gathered on the beach to investigate the newcomers.  Thousands of penguins call Sandy Bay home and their main populations are dominated by Kings and Royals.  I was in heaven.

For a while I wandered around with my then partner enjoying the sheer spectacle of it all.  We wandered off to the main colony of King Penguins, many of whom had fluffy brown chicks.

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which, to me anyway, were every bit as pretty in their own way as their parents

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I quite liked the King Penguins that I first met.  They were gently curious and would approach you to see what was happening, you’d turn around, they’d walk away and then they couldn’t resist the urge to turn around and look at you again.  I was discovering the base rule that the bigger the penguin, the more gentle they become.

After prying myself away from the Kings, I decided to head down to the colony of Royals that take up a large proportion of the real estate on Sandy Bay’s pebble filled beach.  I dumped my bag and tripod down close to their colony and realised that I’d dropped a lens cloth back at the King Penguin area.  I wandered back up the beach to retrieve it, only to find a rather unusual scene unfolding with my gear when I got back.

_MG_1565Vandals had moved in!

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They looked innocent enough

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but never let those looks fool you.  These were investigative tearaways who proceeded to inspect ALL of my gear.  They pulled the elasticated clips on my bag back as far as they could and got shocked when they sprung back upon release.  Pockets of bags were checked for goodies.  The legs of my tripod were lifted

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and were stared at when gravity didn’t do it’s normal thing and drop the leg down.  The leg stayed in the air!

Amused by all of these antics, I sat and watched for a bit _MG_1568

but then I realised I need to swap lenses so I interrupted their play and went to sit beside them.  This scattered them for a little bit until a couple of the bolder, younger birds determined I wasn’t a threat and they sidled over.  Next minute the soles of my shoes were being sniffed, the pockets of my jackets were being inspected, one of them looked longingly at my lap trying to decide if it was going to be still and warm for long enough to grab a nap.

I wondered what to do to keep them amused.  I was that beguiled by them I became frightened they would grow bored by me and leave so I picked up a pebble and gently held it out.  I knew from prior research that some penguin species like pebbles and they give them as gifts.  I even read about a great study on the Antarctic Peninsula where the scientists had painted pebbles many different colours to see if the penguins preferred one colour over another.  What they found out was that many pebbles were both traded and stolen by individuals on their nesting grounds.  It was a fantastic study.

As I held the pebble out, one young Royal approached

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and very gently took the pebble out of my fingers.  It then went away, dropped it, picked up another and brought it back to me.

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I opened my hand out and a gift was dropped in to my palm.  It was one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me in the field.  I was in love.

Although the rules surrounding the removal of items from Macquarie are strict, I collected the pebble and said “Thank you” and put it in the pocket of my backpack.

When I got back to mainland Australia, I had it mounted into a necklace

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These days when people ask me about the pebble I usually just tell them it was a gift.  In my eyes anyway, it was.

With that gentle exchange, my love affair with penguins began and since then I have been blessed to work with many different species of them around the world including Yellow-eyed Penguins in New Zealand and on the Auckland Islands.

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Rockhopper Penguins on Heard Island

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Gentoos on Macquarie Island

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King Penguins underwater on Macquarie

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and in the snow on Heard Island

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Snares Crested Penguins on the Snares Islands

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and most recently with African Penguins on Robben Island, Boulders Beach and Simon’s Town in South Africa.

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I have never had any “Happy Feet” ideas about these animals but what started off with ambivalence and even disdain with me, has evolved into unbridled respect.  Common to all penguins is a phenomenal physical strength.  I’ve watched rafts of little penguins battling huge swells in the open ocean to feed and seen them take high dives off rocky islets in Tasmania.  I’ve worried as I’ve seen them try to launch onto rocks in humongous swell, thinking they were going to get injured, only to see them pick themselves up and waddle off after being smashed against rocks.  No doubt I will meet other species of penguins during my lifetime but I am constantly delighted by penguins now – even those little yapping ones that run after you and bite you!

Steve McCurry – Afghanistan

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Afghanistan:  It is at once pastoral and chaotic, peaceful and violent, destroyed and resilient, wonderfully welcoming yet deeply inhospitable – Steve McCurry

How could anyone ever forget those eyes?

For someone who tried desperately to get location work in Afghanistan for years and now feels that my chance has passed, I was always tremendously inspired by Steve McCurry’s photo of the Afghan girl and his quest to relocate her after he shot this image in a refugee camp during 1984.

In 2002 Sharbat Gula, the Afghan Girl who became an icon of the refugee situation during Afghanistan’s conflict with Russia in the 1980s, was found again by Steve McCurry who sought her out after his image became one of the most recognised photographs in the world.

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I’ve always felt a huge level of empathy with Steve McCurry in his search for Sharbat Gula.  As a photographer with a passion for Central Asia, I have met so many incredible people and photographed them on my own journeys there.  Although my images are unlikely to gain the same notoriety as the Afghan girl, mine are often widely published to audiences in excess of a million people.

During my expedition to western Tibet last year, some of my most memorable experiences came out of my encounters with nomadic Tibetan tribespeople.  Due to the very nature of their existence, if I ever tried to locate one of these people again, it would be extremely difficult.  I would first have to wrangle with Chinese authorities to gain permission to where they roam (just a few days ago I found out that the entire area my expedition traversed in western Tibet has now been completely shut down by China indefinitely this year) and then commence a physical journey with my printed photographs in hand across one of the world’s harshest landscapes, stopping at nomad tents and asking around to see if I could find these people again.  Finding people who have no fixed address, no name or who have been forcibly removed from their homes through ethnic conflict is almost impossible in some of the places that I have been fortunate to call my offices.

The story of Steve McCurry’s rediscovery of Sharbat Gula was compelling to me and in the end, iris recognition technology, a good network of contacts and one man’s obsessive search finally led him to find her again 18 years after he took her photo.

Although The Afghan Girl was probably the most famous of his images from Afghanistan, Steve McCurry has had a thirty year relationship with the country.  During his visits there he has shot many wonderful images.  From disturbing images of war, to real life portraits, to images depicting the rich tapestry of cultures that make Afghanistan what it is today, the exhibition is a journey through one of the most beautiful yet disturbed countries in the world. A collection of these shots is currently being exhibited at the London gallery of Beetles and Huxley and is simply titled  “Afghanistan”.

I found the entire portfolio both compelling and elegantly shot.  The images were exquisitely framed and it was a good cross section of photographs taken during both the violent periods of Afghanistan’s recent history and the few times where the country has enjoyed a relative peace.

Here are some of my favourite images from the exhibition.

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Respect.

The exhibition runs in London until 7 June and I would encourage anyone with an interest in or connection to Afghanistan to go along and see it.  Whether you have a close personal connection to this part of the world like I have or even if you have enjoyed books like “The Kite Runner”, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” or Khaled Hosseini’s most recent book “And The Mountains Echoed” you would be moved by this body of work.

I certainly enjoyed my vicarious journey through Afghanistan looking at these images.

London Street Art Immersion 2 – The Naturalists

 

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GRAFFITI WITH A MESSAGE

What really struck me about yesterday’s street art cruise in London’s East End was the propensity of some artists to use their medium to portray an environmental message.  It was fantastic to see them use graffiti creatively to show the natural world to the people of cities, many of whom may never get to see a wild whale, paper nautilus or Black-crested Coquette Hummingbird.

A few of these artists really stood out for me.

LOUIS MASAI MICHEL

Website: http://www.louismasai.com/

Masai first started to paint birds all over building to highlight the plight of our vanishing avian species so I was pleasantly surprised to see a large Black-crested Coquette on a building yesterday.  Mark and I had actually seen these hummingbirds in the wilds of Honduras in January!

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His work with birds didn’t just end with murals either.  He also chose to construct some really elaborate nesting boxes to attach to buildings to highlight the habitat destruction that many birds face in the wild.

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His current campaign highlights the global issues that bees are facing and his message is clear – if we lose our pollinators, we will die.

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These are very important messages because many people living in cities probably don’t see bees on a daily basis so I hope they stop and think when they see his art!

ATM

ATM is another one using graffiti as a way of highlighting the ominous future of some endangered species.

Website: http://atmstreetart.tumblr.com/

Video of ATM’s work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WE3XrNQOrfs

I loved the work in the video above of the Bittern.

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What I really enjoy about ATM’s work is the fact he uses the environment to his best advantage when he decides on a location to paint.  I thought the image of toadstools below was excellent because it looks like they are growing out of the plants who decided to take up residence next to the wall anyway.

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ROA

Website: http://roaweb.tumblr.com/

We came across a giant Hedgehog in Shoreditch yesterday!

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LILY MIXE

Words cannot adequately describe the work of French graphic artist Lily Mixe who has taken to doing large street installations of sea creatures and other wildlife.  Of everything we looked at in London yesterday, it was her work that had me the most mesmerised.

I’ve just been sucked into the vortex of her website: http://lilymixe.wordpress.com/

Needless to say that her work doesn’t get painted over much!

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OTHER STREET ARTISTS USING NATURE AS THEIR INSPIRATION

Many of whom I don’t know the names of so I’m sorry I couldn’t credit their work properly.

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I’m still reeling from the visual overload of Shoreditch yesterday.  I need to head back there soon!

 

London Street Art Immersion 1 – Graffiti Gone Wild!

LONDON

Yesterday I took a long overdue trip to London to catch up with some friends that I hadn’t seen since September 2012.  I met Sanjeev (a fabulous and talented poet), Phil (awesome photographer) and his girlfriend El (assistant editor of a major women’s magazine in the UK) to spend a day touring some of London’s photography and street art venues.  It was a day of laughter, friendship, inspiration and exploration on foot around the east end mainly.

THE EAST END

The east end of London in my twenties was still a great place but probably not as Bohemian as it has now become.  I used to love visiting there to eat at the famous Jewish delicatessen cafe called Blooms which closed in 2010.  It was an icon of Jewish food in London and I used to love sitting there eating gefillte fish and watching Rabbis come and go.  I will never forget watching an old Rabbi sitting in the corner of Blooms once. He was nodding off to sleep, his whiskers falling into the soup in front of him. What I love about the east end of today is the fantastic mix of cultures there including many middle eastern people, africans and asians.  You can walk down the street past African dreadlock salons, Indian sari sellers, Arabic fruit stalls and a variety of curry houses.  The sights and smells of the area were wonderful and so reminiscent of many places I’ve travelled.  I do love a multicultural, ethnic society!

TRANSIENT ART

The highlight of this part of London now, to me anyway, is the incredible street art!  Phil explained to me that London has  allowed some of its suburbs to be opened up to street artists who are given a free run to simply create.  We saw so many inspirational murals, window features, posters and tiny paintings yesterday, I shot almost four hundred images and it has taken me a night to digest it all! Phil explained to me that these murals provide him with endless inspiration because you might see something wonderful one week and the next time you visit that wall will be covered with something completely different!  Although some pieces stay for longer than others, the streets of Shoreditch are like a giant metamorphic process, like caterpillar to butterfly, bud to flower.  It is probably one of the best displays of transient art I’ve seen in my life! I have decided to divide these up into two blog posts because I liked different art for different reasons.  Firstly there is the graffiti art that revolves around graffiti in its purest form, portraits, thought provoking and clever images of humans and wall work that is similar to what I’ve seen in other parts of the world. The second post is for the Naturalist inspired artists that we saw. Where possible I have tried to credit the artists for the work I am about to post below.  Sadly I either didn’t know the names of some of them or they hadn’t signed their work off but if a reader of this post can either name the artist or correct me if I have misidentified a piece, I’d love that! Here are some of my favourites.

ALO

Website:  http://www.alostreetart.blogspot.co.uk/ Alo.001

BEN MURPHY

The incredible work of a man and his roll of electrical tape! Website: http://www.benjaminmurphy.info/ 0J0A5067 0J0A5068

BEN SLOW

Website: http://slowbenart.com/?page_id=2 0J0A5202

BORONDO

The Spanish street artist of Borondo white-washes windows then etches portraits into them! Website: http://borondo.blogspot.co.uk/ 0J0A5147

GOMEZ

Website:  Unknown Phil said this painting had just appeared beside a pile of rubbish recently. 0J0A5230

JIM ROCKWELL AKA JIM ‘VISION’

I loved Jim Vision’s work.  In the murals we saw yesterday there was a whimsical mix of surf, galleons and fire.  He has ventured into other subjects but these were my favourites. Website: http://www.rockwellhouse.co/jim-and-matilda/ 0J0A5063 0J0A5057

OTTO SCHADE

Definitely a highlight to see this Chilean artist’s work. Website: http://www.ottoschade.com/ 0J0A5086

PHLEGM

Website: http://www.phlegmcomicnews.blogspot.co.uk/ 0J0A5106

RUN

Website: http://globalstreetart.com/run RUN.001

SAKI & BITCHES

Website: http://sakiandbitches.tumblr.com/ 0J0A5190

SNIK

The wizard of spray cans and stencils! Website: http://www.snikarts.com/ Interview with Snik: https://vimeo.com/30197033 Untitled 2.001

THIERRY NOIR

I first saw Noir’s work on the East Side Gallery in Berlin in 1998.  It was great to see his work in London too. Website:  http://www.galerie-noir.de/index.html Untitled 3.001

VHILS

This is probably the most incredible piece we looked at.  Set up with a series of small explosives, this portrait is by the Portuguese artist Alexadndre Farto aka ‘Vhils”.  He sets this up, explodes it all then what is left is an incredible relief of someone’s face! Website: http://www.alexandrefarto.com/ 0J0A5140

Tizer

Website:  http://tizerone.blogspot.co.uk/ 0J0A5059

Shepard Fairey

Website:  http://www.obeygiant.com/ 0J0A5073

616

Website:  http://globalstreetart.com/616

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L to R: Unknown, Rice, Him

Website for Rice:  http://www.fatcap.com/artist/rice.html Website for Him: unknown Unknown 1.001

Essegee.frA

Website – Not known but FB profile is https://www.facebook.com/sgfra 0J0A5154 0J0A5235

Icon

Website:  http://blackappleart.com/portfolio-item/trust-icon-uk/ 0J0A5243

L to R below:  Unknown, Fin Dac, Church of Best Ever

Website for Fin Dac:  http://findac.tumblr.com/ Website for Church of Best Ever:  http://cargocollective.com/churchofbestever Unidentified 2.001

Jimmy C

Website:  http://www.akajimmyc.com/ Fellow Aussie Jimmy C had some of my favourites from the day too!  Believe it or not the two below are by him and yet they are both really different! 0J0A5168 0J0A5166

AMARA POR DIOS

Website:  http://amarapordios.tumblr.com/ 0J0A5226

 Pang

Website:  http://floatingtheplanet.wordpress.com/ 0J0A5181

THE LOST SOULS CREW – CaptainKris, Squirl, SPZero

CaptainKris website:  http://www.kristiandouglas.com/ Squirl website: http://globalstreetart.com/artists/3aklv7g-squirl SPZero website: http://spzero76.com/ 0J0A5188

Cosmo Sarson

Website:  http://www.cosmosarson.com/ 0J0A5198

DSCREET

Website:  http://theothersideshow.bigcartel.com/ 0J0A5197

ANNA LAURINI

Website:  www.annalaurini.tumblr.com

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AND SOME UNKNOWN WORKS

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0J0A5102 0J0A5242 It’s all pretty amazing!  According to Phil we only scratched the surface yesterday.  I couldn’t believe it. I have to admit that it was great to see some serious kudos being offered to these artists.  Some of them are breathtakingly talented.  I was even thrilled to see a gallery had been opened to sell the work of street artist called Pure Evil. 0J0A5136 When Mark and I were in Venice, Italy, in February this year, we saw stacks of graffiti but it was all horrible.  We both lamented that Venice should take  hold of this situation, clear the crap off its facades and encourage spaces to be created for true graffiti artists.  Some of the works we saw would be outstanding in a Venetian setting!

Searching For The Ghost

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Everyone knows I have the dream job don’t I?  To many people I seem to be constantly on holiday and believe it or not, I hear that remark often. “Oh can you take me?” people said when I announced I was flying off to Leh to look for Snow Leopards.  “You are so lucky!” I was told.  More on that comment later. Luck is something that plays a pivotal role in searching for one of the world’s rarest wild cats.  Snow Leopards are so incredibly enigmatic and elusive.  They are quite possibly one of the hardest animals I’ve ever had to try and find. I guess I wanted to write this to dispel a few of the “lucky” comments I’ve had and outline exactly what it is like to search for the Ghost, an animal that saw the BBC Natural History Unit camped out in Ladakh for forty one days and they only had encounters with them over nine days during that time.

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SNOW LEOPARDS ARE HARD

As someone who is used to sitting for hours, hiking for miles or standing on the back of a boat in nine metre swell looking for rare animals, I thought that Snow Leopards would be a breeze.  I am used to spotting spoor, scat, sensing the weather and watching behaviour of other animals in order to find a critically endangered creature.  I literally look at everything when I am in the field. What I didn’t realise before I arrived in Ladakh is that none of that matters when you search for Snow Leopards.  They occur so infrequently and give so few biological indicators of their presence, every day is a test of stamina, endurance, eye-strain and patience. In our search for “shan” the Ladakhi term for Snow Leopards, we started before dawn each day.  Being cats Snow Leopards are most active during the crepuscule hours and from our base in the tiny hamlet of Ullay we set off in darkness on our first morning six kilometre hike to a nearby valley.  Accompanying us was our wonderful guide and local community leader, Norboo, who led us down to Spango, an “L” shaped valley surrounded by jagged peaks just a short backtrack down the only road into Ullay.  Ullay has nine snow leopards living in its general area so we rugged up to face the freezing climes and trekked off to find one.  Less than a kilometre along the road, we spotted our first spoor…..

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and we also found a few scent markers on the side of the road.  Norboo said they all looked reasonably fresh.  Snow Leopards, like any other cats, will nearly always seek out easier areas to walk and if someone builds a road that usually suits them perfectly.  Many encounters with Snow Leopards are either on roads or on walking trails in this part of the world. We spent the morning searching Spango with no success.  We only went into the centre of the valley on this trip and we did have some wonderful encounters with Tibetan wolves and some great birds.  I saw my first Chukars and we were serenaded by Himalayan Snow Cock’s doing courtship displays in the high mountain passes around us.  As the sun rose higher in the sky, we headed back to our homestay in Ullay.  Our home for the week was a fantastic room in Norboo and Dolma’s homestay.  Snow Leopards will rest during the day so we decided to wait until later in the day to head out again.  This was the pattern of our days. During these searches, the temperature did rise above zero in the middle of the day but mostly on our dawn and dusk forays, we were sitting in temperatures from -5 to -20 celsius for hours, searching, scanning, watching, waiting.  We looked for everything.  We thought that an abundance of Siberian Ibex in the Ladakh range might indicate that a Snow Leopard is around.  No Snow Leopards.  We looked for birds of prey flying overhead as Snow Leopards sometimes stay near their kill for a few days if it takes them a while to eat it.  No Snow Leopards.  We watched the behaviour of Blue Sheep in the Zanskar.  Apparently they will stamp their two front hooves on the ground and issue a high pitched warning whistle if they sense danger.  No Snow Leopards.  We searched for fresh kills, spoor, scat, territorial markers and patches of fur where they might rub against a rocky cliff.  We found all of those things but no Snow Leopards.  We hiked up steep, scree filled mountains, through snow, across frozen waterfalls and skidaddled our way over ice in our searches.  No Snow Leopards.

In short, looking for Snow Leopards probably isn’t going to be your thing if:

  • You hate heights,
  • You hate early morning starts and late finishes,
  • You suffer from altitude issues
  • You have bad circulation, feel the cold or worse, if you have Reynaud’s Syndrome
  • You don’t have any patience
  • You cannot handle a lack of showers, pit toilets, lack of cleanliness, camping, no mirrors, no makeup, no heating, sleeping on rocks
  • You lack stamina

You might think I am kidding.  I am not.  Mark and I joked about the number of people who said they’d love to do this and most likely the conditions would deter around 90% of them.  Sometimes during our search “lucky” was really the last thing we felt.

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WHY ARE THEY SO HARD TO FIND?

Across their range, Snow Leopards face a multitude of threats including persecution and death at the hands of humans and habitat destruction.  They are so incredibly shy.  Very few things will keep a Snow Leopard around if you see one.  Usually the only reason why they will stay is if they have still got food to eat and no, you are not generally a part of their food chain!  Attacks of Snow Leopards on humans are very rare, if they occur at all.  Attacks by Snow Leopards on livestock, on the other hand, are remarkably common and it’s attacks on sheep, goats, ponies and yaks that cause the most grief for everyone.  If a Snow Leopard destroys a villager’s livestock, then more often than not that leopard is either shot or rounded up and stoned to death.  When you have a relatively poor population who eek out a subsistence lifestyle in one of the world’s harshest climates, if a family loses all of their stock at the whim of a Snow Leopard (and yes, a leopard can break into an enclosure, kill up to twenty animals and eat only one), then this is a very big matter.  It can ruin their entire livelihood and take them years to recover from an event like that financially. Sadly Snow Leopards are still hunted for their pelts and also for use in Chinese medicine where their bones are substituted for Tiger bones.  Orphaned cubs are often sold at a very high price to zoos and in some of their Himalayan homes, Snow Leopards are suffering from broad scale habitat destruction through grazing and mining. The outlook for Snow Leopards in many places is bleak.

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REASONS FOR HOPE

While we were in Ladakh we were blessed to meet Jigmet Dadul from the Indian Snow Leopard Conservancy who, over a number of dinners and searching sessions, gave us both a clearer picture of the complex mass of issues he faces trying to protect Snow Leopards in Ladakh.  Jigmet has formulated an overarching strategy to conserve Snow Leopards with an end goal to changing people’s perception of “shan” from relentless killers that should all be exterminated, to a tourist attraction where local people can actually make money by showing foreign guests like us a wild “shan”.  He has launched a myriad of summer and winter activities including:

1) Population Estimation Program
2) Other predator studies
3) Community Homestay Development
4) Community Livestock Insurance Program
5) Depredation Surveys
6) Livestock Enclosures
7) Re-development of Interpretation centre
8) New community based project developments in Chanthang & Zanskar Valley
9) Ladakh International Film Festival
10) Poster development for awareness programs and other outreach activities
11) Map development
12) Photo and video documentation

While he faces a multitude of challenges Jigmet takes all of it with a healthy dose of patience, consideration and quiet strength.

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One afternoon as we were looking for Snow Leopards on the hill behind Ullay, Norboo’s son, Rinchen walked up the hill and announced that a Snow Leopard had killed a sheep in the neighbouring village of Saspoche.

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Norboo mentioned that if a “shan” had killed a sheep, there was nearly an eighty per cent chance that it would be presiding over its kill, waiting for the safest moment to eat it.  We decided to jump in Norboo’s truck and drive around for a look.  Arriving in Saspoche Mark and I were a curiosity.  Why were we there?  Rinchen took us to the farmer’s house and there we saw it, the body of a tiny sheep perched high on the scree slope behind the village.

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Sure enough, after a brief scan of the deceased sheep’s surroundings, there it was.

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What surprised us both the most was that this animal just sat there, silently, watching what was going to happen to its prey.  Just a few years ago, confronted by two westerners and an increasing number of villagers, it probably would have disappeared into the mountains.  After all, humans are still their greatest threat.  As Mark and I found a relatively secluded spot to watch the “shan”, villagers gathered near us, offered us tea and they even brought their domestic cat to meet us.  Local children were fascinated by our travel to see this animal.  Within half an hour we had nearly thirty Saspoche residents watching the “shan” with us.  After I grabbed a few shots, I shared my binoculars so everyone could take a look.

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It was remarkable to think that this village looked at the wary “shan” with new eyes now.  This Snow Leopard had brought these two tall western tourists to their village.  They were fascinated by us and this change in mentality can almost be entirely attributed to Jigmet’s work on the ground with so many villages in Ladakh where  he has made massive headway in altering the perceptions of Snow Leopards throughout these tiny communities.  It was an extraordinary thing to witness and, not surprisingly, Jigmet recently won an international award for his outstanding achievements conserving Snow Leopards in Ladakh.

We were so overcome by our entire encounter with a Snow Leopard in Saspoche that we gave the farmer who owned the sheep some very generous compensation for his lost animal.  For us it wasn’t much but for the farmer it made such a huge difference.  No amount of money could have bought our experience in Saspoche that afternoon.  It was the highlight of our entire visit.

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Mark with Norboo on the left and the farmer who owned the sheep on the right.

HEMIS

During the second half of our visit to Ladakh we relocated to Hemis National Park in Rumbak, just outside of Leh.  Hemis is a nature reserve that offers the best chance of any to see a Snow Leopard in the wild.   After entering the ‘gates’ of Rumbak and traversing an icy river where you could feel the water pumping under your feet as you stood on a thick layer of ice, we hiked into Hemis and set up camp.  Thankfully we were the only people there.  In the peak of the season up to ninety tents can accommodate tourists in this site and they, along with their Ladakhi staff, up to 300 people are camped out there at any one time in mid-winter.  The more people you have looking for Snow Leopards in the wild, the more chance you have to see them and peak season is actually February when the Snow Leopards are searching for a mate and breeding.  During this time they are more brazen and they are likely to be seen as they traverse valleys looking for a partner.  I have to admit to a touch of selfishness here.  I really didn’t fancy sharing such a beautiful place with 300 eager onlookers.  It was wonderful to be there alone.

In February the weather is also bitterly cold.  I don’t mind the cold.  Unlike a lot of women, I don’t feel it so much but even I struggled with being there a few weeks later than the peak, sitting on a mountainside feeling my metabolism slow and the cold creep into my bones.  Looking for Snow Leopards usually means you have to sit still and be quiet for hours on end.  Moving around to warm up could create a disturbance which could frighten a Snow Leopard.  When it is cold, it can feel very miserable.  Snacks help and so does warm tea but really the searches in Rumbak are a feat of endurance simply because the best thing to do is stay still and try to dodge hypothermia while you relentlessly scan the mountainsides looking for a thick-set cat with a long furry tail that some people believe acts as a counterweight for Snow Leopards when they jump from rock to rock.

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Perhaps the hardest thing to fathom about Hemis is the sheer magnitude of the place.  The valley looks quite narrow and small from the outset.  A Snow Leopard measures around six feet from nose to long, bushy tail.  You’d think this would be quite a big animal that would be easy to spot in this landscape wouldn’t you?  After all, the rocks in Hemis are reddish in colour and Snow Leopards are grey.  Not so. They camouflage themselves surprisingly well in their landscape and just when you think you have your skills honed enough to find one anywhere, you will be swooped on by a Golden Eagle.  A brief flash of raptor with a six foot wingspan, hunting for prey like Pikas on the slopes.

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Two six foot long animals in one valley.  I watched Golden Eagles cruise the thermals every morning in Rumbak.  Against this landscape they looked tiny.

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And so do Snow Leopards in Rumbak.  Needle in a haystack” doesn’t even begin to describe the search.

Although we had no sightings of a Snow Leopard that were easily photographed, early one morning while it was still dark, Mark had the most extraordinary encounter with one on the trail through the gorge.  Illuminating his path with a head torch on a pre-dawn hike, he was suddenly confronted with a glowing pair of eyes!  A “shan” was right in front of him as he rounded a corner.  He was speechless!  After a brief ‘face off’ with it, the animal skulked up to a hillside behind Mark and watched him pass from the relative safety of a rocky promontory.

We also had the privilege of listening to a Snow Leopard calling one night.  Expecting a roar like the lions of Africa, I was surprised to hear a high pitched yowling that sounded like an oversized house cat.  It was haunting and very beautiful.

Rumbak was probably even more difficult than Ullay in terms of a lack of creature comforts.  We were camped out by an icy stream for a week, albeit a stunningly beautiful one.

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I bathed each day in a pool between two frozen sections of the Rumbak River.  Every morning anything that hadn’t lived in our sleeping bags through the night was frozen including our hand towels, drinking water and even our toothpaste!  The pit toilet was smelly from the hoardes of tourists visiting the site just a couple of weeks before us and each day before we departed on another search, we had to “yak proof” our campsite to stop the local yak bull from eating anything that was biodegradable outside.

Searching for Snow Leopards is tough.  The only real consolation is the stunning scenery you are working in and the things you see on the journey including the Blue Sheep that we hoped would be indicators of the presence of Snow Leopards.

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We learned that even the presence of copious amounts of Blue Sheep were no real sign that a Snow Leopard would be nearby.  Instead we were consoled by fabulous scenery, friendly villagers and morning views of Rumbak’s highest mountain, Stok Kangri.

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GIVING BACK

During our trip to Ladakh, Mark and I were so impressed by the conservation efforts led by the Indian Snow Leopard Conservancy that we not only compensated the farmer in Saspoche for the loss of his sheep, we also decided to sponsor an entire animal enclosure to be built in a village that doesn’t have the luxury of tourism income to support its people if a Snow Leopard kills all their stock.

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Constructed of stone walls with a wooden door and a wooden roof frame covered in very heavy duty wire, the enclosures give villagers a place to herd their livestock into safety so that their animals are completely protected at night when most of the predation by Snow Leopards occurs.

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We decided to do this because we felt so passionate about the work of Jigmet and his team.  Given all of the adversity they face, the Indian Snow Leopard Conservancy continue to make broad scale changes to communities across Ladakh and they have created a situation where Snow Leopards can now have a future in the face of all of their own unique challenges.

If you would like to follow the work of Jigmet, please visit the Conservancy’s Facebook page and “Like” it.  Their website outlines their activities and ways you can give to their project.

Lastly if you’d like to buy a children’s book that tells the story of one village’s change of perception after a Snow Leopard wiped out its fifteen goats, “The Ghost of the Mountains” is a lovely story.  Told by a writer who rescued an orphaned Snow Leopard cub in his youth, it might be a little hard to get hold of but it I found it delightful and the book is well worth the effort to find.

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Have Crayons, Will Travel

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I love children.  Although I’ve never had my own, I’ve been fortunate enough to have four amazing step kids in my life, all of whom have brought me growth, maturity, insight and inspiration over the last decade that I’ve been instrumental in raising them.

For a reason that pre-dates even my stepmother role, I’ve always gravitated towards kids and on our recent trip to Ladakh, I was blessed with some great encounters with the children we met on our travels.

As a photographer I’ve always had a good giggle around kids, particularly those in the Himalaya.  If I’m not showing them their world through the eyes of my binoculars, they are always crowded around me as I’ve showed their picture to them on the LCD screen of my camera.

In Ladakh we lived with a family at a Himalayan Homestay in the tiny hamlet of Ullay, a collection of half a dozen houses, scattered across a remote hillside in the Zanskar.  There are three small children in the families at Ullay right now.  With only yaks, goats and sheep to keep them company, they learn to be creative and inventive with play.  Visiting foreigners like Mark and I are a curiosity.  Our white skins are a novelty in their world.  Of all the children I am blessed enough to hang around with, the children of the Himalaya touch my heart more than most because they are quintessentially, materially poor.  The facilities and lives of children living in Australia, the UK or USA, are beyond the wildest dreams of many kids in Nepal, Tibet and India.

Before I started my expedition in western Tibet last September, I was walking down a Kathmandu street after dinner with my fellow expedition friends and I intervened in a fight that was transpiring amongst a group of urchin street children on our way back to our hotel.  The blamed perpetrator had a horrific burn scar on his face, most likely the consequence of an accident with the flammable liquids through a lack of education.  I hoped it was nothing more sinister than that.  When things got physical, with one child sitting crying on the street, I intervened with a “Hey! Cut that out!” and I dragged the biggest kid out of the start of a brawl.  A broken english conversation ensued. The usual blame game.  I said “I don’t care who cast the first stone, you can all quit that rubbish” and one of my friends pulled me aside to continue our evening.  I love even the street children of Kathmandu. It isn’t their fault that they’ve ended up in that position.

Relaying this story to Mark after I returned he said “I really wish you wouldn’t do that.  What if he pulled out a knife?”.  I guess I would always give kids the benefit of the doubt.

I always try to think of ways to give to children in places like the Himalayas.  I don’t personally believe in giving children money for photographs because I think it fosters a bad culture.  Similarly I would NEVER give a child sweets when their families have no dentist to send them to.  When I lead expeditions, I always try to ask my guests to be mindful of the greater consequences of their actions when they travel with me.  It is very easy to say yes to a sweet little face that is asking for something that may ruin them either directly or indirectly, intentionally or innocently.

So I’m left with a perpetual dilemma.  How can I repay the kindness of these children and their families without completely corrupting their existence with my western ways?

Prior to our trip to Ladakh, I asked Mark how many children were in Ullay.  He said he’d have to check but he thought that three or four were living there.  To be on the safe side, I packed a few small toys, a dozen notepad sized sketchbooks and some mini packs of wax crayons in primary colours.  All of these gifts were a hit.

One afternoon we visited a village close to Ullay called Saspoche.  It is where I shot the image above of an unnamed little boy and his little friend Rinchen (the one pulling the face).  Both of them had decided to visit the two tall westerners with the binoculars.  Rinchen was actually a relative of the family we were staying with in Ullay but I didn’t realise it when I saw him approach.  Prior to that day, my only encounter with Rinchen was inside while we were having breakfast with his family in another visit to Saspoche.

On this visit a little boy approached us with cheeks ruddy from the cold.  When he saw me he instantly pulled faces.  He knew I was the photographer that was in the area.

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Mark said “It’s Rinchen” and with a certain level of embarrassment I recognised him.  All those pulled faces had me confused until I saw this

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that beaming little smile and weathered cheeks I’d encountered a couple of days earlier.

This time Rinchen bought his little friend to meet us.  They started to play in our midst.  I guess looking for “Shan” (snow leopards) is a pretty boring exercise for the average kid.  While they played in the dust, I extricated some crayons and sketchpads from my camera bag and beckoned them over.

When I gave them their gifts, they looked at me with some apprehension until one of the Saspoche villagers told them to say “Thank you” in Ladakhi.  I asked them if they would draw a picture for me which produced a quizzical look on their faces.  Mark then intervened and grabbed one of my spare drawing pads with a crayon and drew an Ibex for them.

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Mark and I both share a genetic trait – a “Tongue of concentration”.  Whenever either of us are engrossed in thought or concentration, we stick our tongue out.  My brother does it too.  It is something that we inherited from our father, who I’m sure has his tongue out as he draws up plans for the amazing houses he designs for his many appreciative clients.

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There’s the “Beaman tongue of concentration” in full swing!

Mark’s artistry was a source of great curiosity with the kids of Saspoche.

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Mark then asked Rinchen if he would draw a picture for me.

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You have to concentrate when drawing a picture for someone as a gift!

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Well maybe not too much!

Here is my picture from Rinchen!

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and it now has its own special place in my physical journal from our trip.

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a treasure that sits alongside my entrance ticket to Thiksay, a remnant of a prayer flag that I found in Ladakh’s only surviving juniper forest and the goatee beard from a Siberian Ibex that I found on our trek to the end of the Spango Valley in the Zanskar.

So many wonderful memories of our time in Ladakh.

 

Tribal People and Western Monoculture

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The complex dot paintings of the Pitjantjatjara people of central Australia.  August 2012.

On our recent trip to Ladakh we spent an amazing week camped out beside a frozen stretch of the Rumbak River, a river that had carved out a narrow gorge which had been traversed by people on foot and on horseback for centuries.  At the start of our first day in Rumbak, just as we neared the entrance of the gorge, we saw a truck load of road workers on their way to begin another day forcing a road through the gorge to Rumbak village and other tiny hamlets that sit in the shadow of one of the area’s highest mountains, Stok Kangri.

Only a week earlier we stayed with a family at a tiny village in the Ladakh Range opposite of Rumbak called Ullay.  On our drive into Ullay we saw the poles and cells going up that would eventually provide Ullay with a much needed source of power.  I asked Norboo, the head of the family and now a lovely friend, when they might expect to get power and he said “Next year, hopefully”.  In neighbouring Saspoche the power was already on, a school had been set up and the community had a co-operative greenhouse.  We both embraced the modernisation of these tiny towns, but the miracle behind this progress lay squarely in the fact that the Ladakhi people had still managed to retain their culture in the midst of it.

Ladakh was one of the few places in the world that I’ve visited that gave me hope that some cultures might survive despite the irresistible allure of western culture introduced to it by the media, NGOs and christian missionaries.  Although I do fully understand the good aspects that have come from the intervention of those entities, what I find really disdainful is when the influx of  a mass group of well meaning foreign groups succeed in annihilating the culture of the countries they set out to help and I’m left questioning the real consequences of that help.  Functioning assistance should benefit everyone.  At best these groups are responsible for installing vital infrastructure, delivering aid and medical attention in times of crisis, better health care, dietary and financial assistance. At worst they are small, ineffective, poorly run and can have a devastating effect on the culture of some of the people they believe they are either ‘saving’ or assisting.

Increasingly I’ve been to more and more countries where this has been truly evident.  I had a very large break from international travel in my thirties and I have only really recommenced exploring the world six years ago.  I’ve loved every journey of my travels through the 64 countries that I’ve been lucky enough to see.  I travel to learn and it is my boundless enthusiasm and curiosity that invariably propels me along to explore new places and learn things from cultures that I had only an academic connection with prior to my arrival.

One could argue an evolutionary aspect to what I am about to say and I’ll repeat it again – I am NOT against the great work of NGOs operating in some countries.  I have not only supported some of these organisations financially, I have sponsored a child for 15 years and generously given my time to them.

My first real experience with mass foreign intervention was in Cambodia.  At least, despite the myriad of different orphanage organisations, medical assistance and schools, you can still walk down the street in Siem Reap and feel like you are in Cambodia but the sheer number of different foreign groups operating there were overwhelming.  Thankfully, despite all of it I could still eat with Cambodian people in their markets, most of the street signage was in Cambodian, many people didn’t speak english and of course the wonders of Angkor stand as a true testimony to a magnificent, yet tortured culture that has occupied this wonderland in south-east Asia for many years.

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Traditional Apsara dancer at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.  November 2011.

Fast forward two years and I found myself in Maun, Botswana.  The contrast between Maun and Cambodia or other places I visited in Africa was completely disturbing.  The town was almost completely devoid of the African culture that may have existed there once. Over the last fifty or so years Botswana has enjoyed a relative peace in comparison to its neighbour country Zimbabwe but if you ever want to see the true culture of Botswana, you certainly won’t find it in Maun.  The whole city is peppered with a variety of NGOs and odd Christian church sects, many of whom I’d never even heard of.  Where had all of these come from?  Were these sects offshoots of the larger Christian churches that had failed to attract followers in other countries so they tried to grow their following in a naïve population like Maun?  In the short time I was there I didn’t see one iota of African art, people dressed traditionally or any kind of physical culture that I couldn’t have found in the American mid-west.  It saddened me.

Many places further east in Africa are like this.  The people have adopted western culture and clothing to the point where their true traditions are only being upheld by a small number of elders.  Call me selfish, but if I want to see and experience western culture, I don’t need to travel.  I can get all of that at home without viewing transplanted versions creating a mono-cultures of it elsewhere.

Two years later on again, in January this year, I travelled through Honduras and was hit with the same sensation.  I had to really dig and scrape through our travels in Honduras to find real Honduran culture.  We finally found it in the sensational Hacienda San Lucas out near the ruins of Copan.  Upholding a fabulous tradition of horseback riding and the wonderfully rich culture of the Maya, staying at the Hacienda San Lucas, I felt like we had struck gold.  Finally, finally, after visiting whole towns filled with the Amish, Mennonite, gospel singing christian communities that have all sprung up in the country in the last thirty or so years, we found a  place that was both modern and functioning, yet still retained the charm and charisma of Honduran culture.  It was an oasis of colour, smells of tortillas baking in a wood fired oven, hand woven rugs and leather saddles.  A small haven that contrasted greatly from the plastic, charisma-less expanses of Honduras’ countryside.

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Leather saddles are stored over the railings at Hacienda San Lucas.  Ready for use.  January 2014.

During my trip to Africa when I visited Maun, I got so tired of scratching the surface of western culture to find the true Africa.  After we crossed the border into Zambia I decided to take off in a cab to downtown Livingstone and find a real community.  Despite all the forewarnings that it was dangerous, I pulled a cab up and asked if I could be taken to a market?  The driver responded with “OK there are two great souvenir markets in Livingstone, one in the main street….” And before he finished his sentence I cut him off “No, I want to go to your market, where everyday Zambians go to shop”.  He looked at me quizzically.  I suddenly remembered that I had no local money with me so I apprehensively asked if he could take me to a bank en-route.  While I stood in the queue for the ATM I could see him making phone calls.  After withdrawing a small amount of cash, I approached his car and from the outside asked “What’s going on?”.  The warnings I’d been given made me unsure of this guy’s intentions.  Who had he been phoning?  Was he going to take me down a dark alley and mug me for my newly withdrawn cash?  He replied “I’ve just called the manager of the market to let him know you are coming.  White people don’t go there often and no one speaks english.  He will guide you”.  Finding his response more comforting I climbed back in the car  and we went to Dambwa Central Market.  As promised the market manager met me and we wandered the aisles of stalls separated by dirt paths strewn with chicken heads, overflowing black eyed peas and litter.  It was earthy, real and fascinating.  I found women selling clay for pregnant women to chew on in case they were anaemic.  Another seller was vending dried caterpillars.  She offered some to me.  Being the only white person in the market and, shock horror, a female journalist, a crowd had assembled around me to see if I would actually be brave enough to try a caterpillar.  I tried one and oddly, it tasted quite nice.  Then I explained to the market manager that in Australia I’ve eaten live caterpillars (witchetty grubs) and everyone fell about laughing!  On another stall I tried bubblegum fruit which quite literally tastes like bubblegum.  On yet another I saw many pots of brightly coloured pigments and queried what they were used for.  I learned that the local people mix the pigment with wax to colour the floors of their houses.  The whole afternoon was a true highlight of my entire African trip.  Finally I found somewhere I could learn something new.

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An elderly woman takes a break from her stall.  Dambwa Central Market, Livingstone, Zambia.  September 2012.

I had also experienced some brief moments of joy in another African country, Namibia, where I did the most incredible trip with a gentleman called Boesman to learn about the ways of the San.  In brief stops we also met people of both the Herero and Himba cultures of Namibia.  From those experiences I learned that San children first learn how to recognise the footsteps of their mother in the sand so if they are ever lost, they can find their mother this way if they see her foot prints.  I also learned that the Himba give birth to their children by hanging from a tree.  The women of the village will tie an expectant mother by her wrists to a tree, surround her and assist the birth alongside the gravity of her position.  It seems to work for them.  These are desert people who have done things this way for centuries.  Despite the horror that this act might induce in our western minds there is quite a number of healthy Himba children running around the Namibian countryside who were most likely born this way.

One of the many questions that people ask me about tribes like the Himba is “Don’t they smell?  They live in the desert and never bathe”.  My response is usually something along the lines of “Yes they have a leathery smell.  Tourists smell worse”.   My first encounter with the Himba was in Swakopmund and a few women had covered themselves up to come into town.  Later on in Namibia we encountered a true Himba woman all statuesque and proud. Her beautiful coloured skin was painted in ochre, her hair was dreadlocked and covered in animal skins and mud.  She wore shell jewellery and her feet were protected by leather sandals. Her ankles were covered in the numerous leather bands that would protect them and her legs from snake bites.  I was mesmerized by her.  She was so incredibly beautiful that I felt like her ugly white sister.  I found myself hoping that she would never try to emulate the way I look, wear clothes like mine, choose my costume jewellery to replace her shells, replace those beautiful sandals with trashy western shoes.  No, she was proud and she was Himba.  I was awe struck.

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A Himba woman covers herself for her trip to Swakopmund.  September 2012.

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Shells form part of the complex traditional dress of women.  September 2012.

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Statuesque and proud.  A beautiful Himba woman contemplates the location of her son who has gone off to play with other children.  September 2012.

Earlier in my career I was lucky enough to work with some relatively true aboriginal cultures in the western part of Cape York, northern Australia.  I have since worked with the Pitjantjatjara people in the red centre and the people of Arnhem Land.  Australia has a long and ugly history of suppressing the culture of its indigenous people.  Finding aboriginal people that are still perpetuating their traditions is extremely difficult.  When I met the Wik people near Aurukun I mainly communicated with them via an interpreter but I learned how to find the hives of native bees, find mudshells, hunt for stingrays and harvest paperbark and ti-tree for cooking.  I laughed many times with them as they tried to teach me to wrap my tongue around the pronunciation of words in their language “NO!!! It’s Wik Munghnh” they used to say to me!  I still can’t pronounce that word! Two of the highlights of my trip into the western Cape included eating freshly caught seafood straight from an open fire on the banks of the Archer River and learning how to cut pandanus, treat it, then make traditional carrying baskets out of it.

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Holding a mudshell.  Aurukun, western Cape, August 2005.

I feel blessed to have learned so many things through these people and feel so humbled by the fact they have wanted to teach me.  This is probably the reason that I travel.  There is literally nothing that I won’t try in terms of food and I find that cultures hold an endless allure.  I am captivated by them.

Someone asked me recently why I love visiting places like Tibet, Nepal and India and I struggled to pinpoint an answer to their question.  After all my mother visited Sri Lanka in the 1960s and really didn’t like it there.  I think the main appeal these countries have for me is the fact that  Western culture has taken a smaller foothold in them.  The people have embraced some of it but you don’t have to go too far to completely escape it and feel like you are travelling in another world.  In a confrontational place like Pashupatinath, the largest and most sacred Hindu ghat in Nepal, a place that sees so much death, I feel, oddly, so at peace.  You can sit quietly on the steps at Pashupatinath and watch the sombre ceremonies of Hindu devotees as they prepare the bodies of their deceased relatives for a riverside cremation.  They then carry their relative or friend to a large fire where they are cremated in full view of the public before their ashes are spread into the Bagmati River and carried away by its currents.  Nothing is shameful about this ceremony.  Life isn’t hidden by these people.  This is the way it has happened for centuries.  Turning away from that spectacle you can walk up staircases pitted from the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims over hundreds of years and commune with brightly coloured and eccentric Saddhus, the Hindu holy men that call Pashupatinath home.  Further around the complex there is an old people’s home that is manned by volunteer medical staff and other carers, for people who are too poor to receive geriatric care elsewhere.  It feels like a great cycle of openness and caring being in Pashupatinath.  It is a rich, colourful, traditional place perfumed by the aroma of smoke and incense.  Each time I visit I usually stay way longer than I plan to.  I get sucked up by the sheer spectacle of it.  If I am not messing around taking photos of local kids swimming in the river (yes the same river where the cremation ashes are spread), I am having a laugh with one of the elders in the care home warning me about the Macaques choosing to shit on people carrying cameras so I should always look above my head!!!  Children fly kites and feed pigeons.  The temple complex is a sanctuary of peace away from the bustling street life of Kathmandu.

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Children swim in the Bagmati River at Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, September 2013.

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An elderly woman at Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, September 2013.

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Ghat.  Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal, September 2013.

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Dyed powders are sold as offerings on the entrance to Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal, September 2013.

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One of the Saddhus, or Hindu holy men, at Pashupatinath, Nepal, September 2013.

Even with the devastation of Tibetan culture, you can still see so much of it when you travel there.  It isn’t gone.  The very fact that Tibetan culture has survived  and exists in the face of such massive opposition is a testimony to its strength.

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A tribal nomad girl in western Tibet, October 2013.

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Often its a small handful of elders who uphold the traditions of their communities in the face of nearly everything.  Tibetan elder, Lake Manasarovar, western Tibet, October 2013.

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Nomad woman.  Lake Manasarovar, western Tibet, October 2013.

Most recently in Ladakh, I learned about a wonderful program called Himalayan Homestays which has dedicated its cause to preserving an authentic experience for travelers visiting rural villages across the world’s tallest mountain range by teaching a small business model for families to support themselves if other sources of income fail.  Tourists can stay at a homestay, eat with families, participate in their lives and learn many other things during their stay.  It is one way of maintaining the integrity of the cultures in which the homestays operate and travelers can go away with that knowledge while the family also receives the financial benefit of their stay.

Driving around Leh I was pleased to see that the city had adopted a ‘no slum’ policy and was looking at ways to safely accommodate its people through affordable housing.

In Saspoche, despite the fact they have electricity, water, a vegetable garden and schools, I was still invited by a traditionally dressed local lady to have tea in her best tea cups. I sat on the floor while she cooked it on an open fire with wood grown specifically for that purpose in a village plantation.

In Ullay we saw that Norboo had a satellite phone and solar electricity but we still ate our meals while we sat on the floor of the kitchen, our food was cooked on an open fire, the nearby field was used for spinning wool that is made into rugs and clothing and we slept on woven mats on the floor in a room of the house that had been in Norboo’s family for eight generations.  It was magnificent.

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Norboo’s wife, the ever smiling Dolma, in Ullay, Ladakh, April 2014.

Walking along the side of the Rumbak river  later on in our trip, I heard a series of yells accompanied by the tinkle of more than thirty bells.  Next minute a herd of colourfully adorned, fat little ponies rounded the corner carrying all manner of supplies to the mountain villages upstream.  They were both led and followed by herdsmen trying to keep them all together.  The weekly freight trip was underway to Rumbak.

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I was saddened to think that all of this could one day stop but I found out later that it won’t.  The road into Rumbak isn’t going to be a free-for-all for anyone to use.  It is going to be gated and will only allow emergency vehicles to help the elderly or sick get ambulance access or larger loads of equipment that can’t be carried on horseback.  The decision to gate this road has ensured the continuity of the horseback trade that has operated on those mountain trails for centuries.

I felt comforted that Rumbak Gorge will continue to echo with the tinkle of bells for many years to come due to the sensitivity of the people in Ladakh to maintain this transport as a part of their cultural heritage.

A middle path between progress and tradition can be found.  I just hope that some of the minority cultures I’ve worked with are strong enough to find it.

A Brief Tribute To Peter Matthiessen

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The great travel writer and author, Peter Matthiessen, died while I was in Ladakh.  I found out the news during a brief moment of internet access  during one night in Leh, between two strenuous weeks in the mountains on our search for one of the most spectacular and enigmatic wild cats in the world, the Snow Leopard.

Last year, during my expedition to far western Tibet, I bought a copy of  Matthiessen’s best known book “The Snow Leopard” in Kathmandu, with the intention that I I’d read it on my trip.  After all, Mark was on a pre-planned expedition in search of Snow Leopards at the exact same time that I had mine planned in Tibet.  In fact, at one point of our trips we were less than 100km from each other.  Mark was in Ladakh and I was just over the border in such a remote part of western China, few western tourists even know about it, much less travel there.  Only the heavily militarised border between India and China separated us and stopped me from the temptation to jump in a raft and flow with the Indus towards Mark.  After all he was just down stream on his first Snow Leopard search.

Due to the strenuous nature of my expedition in Tibet, I never got a chance to read “The Snow Leopard”.  When I returned,  Mark told me he had  became so enthralled with the mini-Tibet that is Ladakh that he asked me if I would join him on another trip there.  I accepted and in March we returned.  I took my copy of Matthiessen’s book with me.

Matthiessen went to Dolpo in search of Snow Leopards.  He accompanied the naturalist George Schaller on expedition for two months, principally to study the Caprivi species of the Tibetan Plateau but also, if they were lucky, they hoped to see a wild Snow Leopard.

Reading “The Snow Leopard” while I accompanied Mark in our search for them, I found so much resonated with our journey that I took notes.  As I pondered Matthiessen’s musings of his trip with a great naturalist, I physically journeyed through Ladakh with my partner, a recognised world expert in Palaearctic birds.  The similarities of the pairings were striking.

Foremost in those similarities is an acute awareness and endless curiosity for everything pertaining to the natural world.  Mark and I are both quiet walkers and we notice.  We look for varieties of plants we’ve never encountered, try to identify found feathers, enjoy the questions that certain animal behaviours evoke and other joys that crop up between two people who have a strong connection to their surroundings through a passionate interest of our natural world and the people in it.    I don’t think Mark or I will ever have our curiosity satisfied.  Materially this manifests itself in our combined bowerbird tendency of collecting things. Between us we have enough items from our respective expeditions to fill our own natural history museum and charge an entrance fee!

Matthiessen was also tempted to take something from his journey as a souvenir yet whether or not he actually took something home from his journey in Dolpo is not certain.  I imagine he would have returned home with at least a silk kata, the sheer and beautiful Tibetan scarves that are given to guests during their journeys in Tibet.

During his journey in Dolpo, Matthiessen assisted Schaller in his observations of wild Blue Sheep, a species we encountered in large numbers during our trip in Ladakh.

In another strange coincidence, our visit to the Snow Leopard Conservancy of India took place directly after the visit of Panthera, an organisation dedicated to conserving the world’s great wild cats where Schaller is the vice president.

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Like Matthiessen, I also spent a great deal of my twenties engrossed in Buddhism. Although I never ventured into as many Zen learnings as he, I read many books on Tibetan Buddhism with an aim to emulate as much of those lessons in my day to day life.  Reading “The Snow Leopard” the main highlights for me appeared when Matthiessen combined his love and observations of the natural world with his buddhist musings.  In that vein I’d like to share with you some of his thoughts that remained with me long after I read them in a remote and frozen valley of the western Himalaya.

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“The mountains have no meaning.  They are meaning.  The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist as I do myself, yet the mountains exist simply, which I do not”

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“There is so much that enchants me in this spare, silent space that I move softly so as not to break a spell”

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“I have the universe all to myself.  The universe has me all to itself”

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“Prayer flags and bells confide spiritual longings to the winds”

Matthiessen wrote many other books that I now feel compelled to explore.  After reading “The Snow Leopard” during our search for them I was tremendously saddened by the news of his passing.  So I’d like to devote some of my sightings to his memory.  I hope his words and spirit will echo through the Himalaya with the call of the Shadow, one of the world’s most elusive wild cats, for many years to come.

Puffin Love!!!!

Since I moved to rural England almost a year ago, I have been somewhat surprised to find seabirds living in the fields close to my home.  Living in a rural environment, I bet you never could imagine that, along with the smell of manure and farms, I can watch great flocks of gulls playing around in the thermals over the meadows.

Despite this, I have found myself oddly missing the perfume of salt air and guano, the cacophony of sounds and activity of seabird colonies since I moved here.  I don’t miss it quite as much as I miss my family and friends but there has always been something very familiar to me with seabirds.  That comforting smell of oily seabird plumage, fish oil, guano and the sea.

At Easter, a few days after we returned home from Ladakh, Mark forced me to take the entire weekend off.  It was the first Easter I’d had off in my adult memory.  It felt surreal to just potter around home in our garden and enjoy the sudden onset of spring blossoms in the trees.

In a moment of spontaneity, Mark suggested that we go to Bempton, a seabird colony on cliffs that are very similar in appearance to the White Cliffs of Dover.  It’s about 2.5 hours drive from our place but well worth the effort.  We drove out to Bempton and stopped at a wonderful British pub called “The Seabirds” for true fish and chips – a delicious piece of battered Haddock and proper chips, both drenched in salt and vinegar which we washed down with a nice glass of red.

After lunch we headed out to the RSPB reserve at Bempton.  The RSPB does birding in a very organised and professional way here in Britain.  Every time I visit one of their reserves it makes me sad that Australia doesn’t have the same well-organised system of conserving important bird areas – a system of proper people management, public education, established footpaths, considered viewing platforms, manned by volunteers and all done with the spirit of fostering an interest in birds within the general public with a special focus on future birders.  Australia has a far greater diversity of avifauna than the UK.  It could really benefit from a more proactive organisation operating a network of reserves that serve the public in a better way.

When we arrived the volunteer in the carpark said “The Puffins are showing well today”.  I was exhilarated.  Until that day I had always longed to, but never seen a wild Puffin.  They are my mother’s favourite seabird and even she has never seen one.

Well the volunteers certainly hit the nail on the head with their comment.  Not only did we see many Puffins, some of them were close enough to get reasonably good shots of!

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I fell in love!  Puffins are like little clown-like parrots of the sea!  I was completely mesmerised by them!

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Visiting seabird colonies in the UK nearly always allows me a chance to see new birds for my seabird list.  My first taste of a UK seabird colony was at another RSPB Reserve called St Bees Head, on the other side of the country and the largest colony in north west England.  On the day we went last June, however, the weather was so horrid that I didn’t even both to take my camera out to get shots.  It was just too wet.  I still loved our walk there though and during it Mark acquainted me with some lovely birds including Razorbills, Guillemots and Northern Fulmars.

Fast forward to Easter and on better weather nearly all of these birds were present, coloured up and getting ready for nesting and breeding.  We saw paired Razorbills

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Northern Fulmars doing courtship displays

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Very smart looking Guillemots

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Loads of Gannets flying around, displaying, collecting nesting material and scrambling to secure the best nesting real estate

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Tiny, dainty Kittiwakes also hovered parallel to the cliffs searching for their own spot to breed

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The whole experience had me reeling to the point where Mark nearly had to crowbar me away from those cliffs.  I could have stayed up there for hours!  Apparently it is better to visit these or the Farne Islands in June and July when the Puffins are bringing Sand Eels in to feed their chicks.  I think if I was presented with that situation I would die of a cuteness overload!

Some other highlights of the day included seeing a Great Skua (rare visitor to Bempton) and watching the resident pair of Peregrine Falcons hunting for Rock Pigeons on the wing.

It was a wonderful experience to be up there in the throng and smell of Bempton.  I have a feeling that it may become one of our more regular haunts in the future!