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10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Travel The World

And why they are (mostly) all wrong.

Signs on Direction Island, Cocos Keeling Islands. Here’s a curious fact about Cocos Keeling – it lies 10km closer to Perth than Sri Lanka geographically and is an isolated territory of the Indian Ocean.

Over the past few years while I’ve been travelling around the world, I’ve often left countries wondering where all of the adventurous young travellers have gone. It seems like younger people who are truly exploring some remote corners of the earth have somehow disappeared. Before the end of the 1990s (or the start of the internet generation) there were many people like me who simply went to places because they were curious and when we did, we met others on different journeys in the same place.  Where are the young, adventurous people of today?

When I speak of travel, I’m not talking about countries that are well set up for backpacking like those in South East Asia, Europe and the Americas. I’m talking about the “off the beaten track” immersion experiences where you are confronted by a whole different world as soon as you hit the arrivals terminal. Places where virtually NOTHING is the same as home.

I was having a conversation about Senegal with a friend a few days ago. The first thing she asked me was “Aren’t you scared when you land in somewhere like Dakar?” and I sheepishly replied “No”. I am very used to complete culture shocks so Dakar didn’t seem to phase me much, even though I was approached by hawkers as I was collecting my bags off the conveyor belt at Leopold Sedar Senghor airport.

The fear of new things lies at the heart of why many people don’t wish to travel but there are so many other reasons and many of them are baseless.

Here are 10 excuses people use to not travel the world and why I think each is wrong.

Pink Lotus flower growing outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. Believe it or not it is still possible to have a relatively off the beaten track experience in Cambodia. Exploring the country’s indigenous cultures in the far east would be fascinating, as would tracing the lives of the Khmer people from Tonle Sap lake to the mouth of the Mekong. Cambodia is so much more than Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields.

 

I’m Scared

This is perhaps the number one reason why people don’t travel and I largely attribute this fear to three things – the media, the internet and the influences of parents or friends.

Today’s media has a lot to answer for. In a world where the only popular news is bad news, where the worst incidents are the most tweeted and the latest terrorist attacks are the first incidents to flood the front pages of newspapers, magazines or news websites. A world where the news headlines feature guns, violence, natural disasters, rape, corruption, the list goes on… To someone who hasn’t travelled, the media alone can make the world appear a terrifying place.

News flash!!! The world IS NOT the place the media paints it to be. By all means, I would encourage every person who is considering travel to watch the news. Understanding what goes on in a country is vital to your own safety and experiences of a country but rather than JUST relying on the news, I would suggest you seek out other sources of information including tourism authorities, some government websites, traveller forums and keep an open mind or a finely honed “bullshit radar” when you read about the country you are planning to visit. Take it all on board then form your own opinions where you can.

The internet is also equally to blame for painting the world as a dire place. If you Google any country in the world and attach the words “violence”, “crime”, “attacks”, “tourist/travel danger” to your search thread and you will find SOMETHING about a place that will put you off. By all means read these things but please bear in mind that attacks against many foreigners on foreign soil are often isolated and exceedingly rare. What you find in a Google search is not enough reason to stop you applying for your passport.

Some of the most powerful influencers of your plans are your friends and your family. Treat these as you would the media or the internet. Ask yourself “When have they travelled to the place you are talking about?”. If they haven’t visited that place, then ask yourself what grounds their advice might be based upon. There’s a fair chance they haven’t had either recent experience of a particular country or that they are just repeating what they’ve heard.

Remember you own your own fear. Your fear does not belong to the media, internet or your parents/friends. Only you are responsible for the fears that stop you from taking the next step into the unknown. Find ways to minimise that fear.

Pablo – the very kind man who looked after our car at the site for Honduran Emeralds, Rio Aguan, Honduras. Honduras gets a lot of bad publicity for being dangerous yet with a bit of common sense, you can travel in many parts of the country without an issue if you are careful.

I Don’t Have Enough Money to Travel

“I can’t afford to travel”.  This is a reason I have heard my entire life from different people I’ve met and oddly there is less reason to blame this now than ever before.

Travel in some parts of the world is still very inexpensive and with the ability to book cheap flights, hotels, hire cars and guides online, I would argue that it is perhaps a lot less expensive to travel today, in comparison to what people earn in the developed world, than it ever has been.

While I understand that taking twelve months to travel around the world may have a big impact upon your savings, you don’t need to do such a huge trip to completely immerse yourself in another culture on a budget. In one month you can do a trip that will blow your mind without blowing your budget in the slightest. You have a plethora of resources at your finger tips now that simply never existed when I started travelling and you can use these to work out your budget for your trip.

Henna Hands at Sambhar, Rajasthan. Sambhar is so far off the tourist trails of India that it neither has a cafe or a hotel to stay in. You need a driver to take you there but the hassle and trouble is worth it. Sambhar was one of the most beautiful small towns I’ve ever visited in India and the people are wonderful there.

Stranger Danger

I was lucky to grow up with parents who taught me to half trust people. When I say half trust, I mean that they always encouraged me to say something to people I have never met but if I didn’t like where that conversation was heading, to walk away.

The wonderful thing about travel is the more you do of it, the more street smart you become with people. You learn to avoid people who are just that little bit too friendly when you first meet them, you learn to avoid street protests, late night walks alone down narrow streets, getting drunk to the point of not being aware of your circumstances or places that are ‘dodgy’.

The reality is that 95% of the world’s people are walking around with the exact same desires as you – to have a safe night out, meet new people, see more of the land they are living in and just want to enjoy a normal life.  Often your communications with them come without an expectation of anything in return.

It’s the 5% (and perhaps in a very small number of countries that percentage is higher) that make it hard for everyone. Learn to avoid the wrong people and mostly you will stay out of trouble.

Don’t get me wrong – even with the best intentions it is still possible that you will meet horrible people. I try to keep an open mind when I am in a new place and take people on a case by case basis. For example, in the car park of Dakar airport, I was approached by all manner of people wanting to carry my bags (for a tip), begging for money, wanting to sell me things, give me directions and I was there quite late in the evening. A polite “No Thank You” was enough to send most of them away. Having to use physical violence to scare someone away is rare. If all else fails and you meet a dodgy person in a crowded area, start yelling or screaming. Trust me, in nearly every instance, someone nearby will want to help you. The general goodwill of strangers should never be underestimated in a lot of places.

Poverty versus Dangerous.  Poverty doesn’t always mean crime.  I have read countless blogs from people who have travelled in impoverished countries saying how frightened they were.  During my travels some of the warmest, most generous people I have ever met are those who have lived in a mud hut without electricity or running water.  Don’t equate poverty with danger.  With few exceptions, the two are very different issues.

Chaos versus Dangerous.  In the developed world many countries and the people that live in them have a good sense of order.  They know how to queue.  Some countries in the developing world are the complete opposite.  If you arrive in Dakar on a night flight, the airport is chaos.  It isn’t unsafe.  It’s just a mess.  Boarding the plane in Livingstone, Zambia, I was swamped by people to the point I had to carry my day pack on my head!  You do have to be careful of pickpockets in some chaotic areas so keep an eye on your belongings but disorder doesn’t necessarily mean danger.  Think about what might happen to you – is someone going to attack you in a room full of people?  Probably not.  Keep an eye on your stuff and just wade through the melee.

A Fulani tribal elder near Tambacounda in Senegal. The Fulani are so very friendly. I felt like I was talking to my dad when I met this man. He had a smile that lit up the entire street.

I Don’t Speak the Language

Not speaking a language is also not a reason to avoid travel. It’s surprising how much you can get around with so little linguistic skills. Based on the fact that, thankfully, a lot of countries in the world still have English as their second language, learning a bit of Spanish, French, Bahasa, Chinese or Arabic can get you through a lot of situations like understanding simple directions, ordering food, getting a taxi or reserving a room for the night. Grab a phrase book and go. Practice every time you get a chance. Remember a lot of people may want to practice their skills or knowledge of your language with you too. In the case of English when I’ve often tried to speak Tibetan to someone I don’t know, that person has automatically answered in English, not because they think your Tibetan is rubbish, quite often they want to help and also practice their English with you.

I’ve also managed to communicate my need for a room by sign language with my hands pretending I want to eat or by placing my flat hands together and to the side of my face when I’ve wanted to sleep.  You can get your message across if you have to.  Some things are universal to all people.

Juana – Havana’s most famous Santera woman. Want to practice your Spanish? Juana hangs around the main square in old Havana and in between puffs of her oversized cigars, is usually happy to chat with you for a bit, particularly if you are interested in what the fishing industry is doing in Cuba. Of course she would like you to pay her a small fee for her photo to be taken but she is worth talking to also. You will get so much more than a photo for that fee if you do. She is a real character of Havana.

I Would Miss My Family and Friends

My poor parents. When I first started travelling I used to give them a blanket rule – they had to assume that everything was alright with me until I let them know otherwise. Back in the early 1990s when I first started to travel, I could only communicate by physical mail, telegrams or expensive phone calls. If I got stuck in an emergency, they would worry more about receiving a reverse charge phone call from me than not hearing from me at all.

These days it is amazing how connected the world is. A wifi hotspot will allow you to email, text or skype anyone, anytime and for very little cost. In some places where wifi is abundant you could reach out to home every day if you wish. Missing your family and friends is not a reason to stay at home. If anything you will probably appreciate them more when you come back and you are finally surrounded by those who love you.

The Chorten at Tsada, Western Tibet. Very few people from the west have ever seen this remote part of Tibet. It is very difficult to access and requires special permission from the government.

I Can’t Survive Without the Internet

In late 2015 we were travelling in Patagonia, Argentina, and we stayed at the most incredibly remote estancia, or sheep station/ranch, which was only connected to the outside world by a single cord telephone. There was only solar electricity with a back up generator and water was pumped from a nearby marsh. The family who ran this estancia were incredible and they lived a remarkably comfortable life for having so little in terms of modern conveniences. There was absolutely no wifi and not enough phone signal to provide any service. It was wonderful.

The owner told us about a 28 year old Swiss girl who had hoped to visit for a month to learn about life on a remote estancia, how to handle horses and cattle, herding, husbandry, agriculture and about their way of life on the land. She stayed for three nights. After that she had to leave. The disconnection from wifi was the reason behind her departure.

I was amazed by this story. At 28 years old there is NO REASON WHATSOEVER for not being able to handle the lack of wifi. Posting to social media is not essential to any travel. My partner and I run four businesses between us successfully and even we can go without wifi or being connected to the outside world for a month. If this girl had been my daughter, I would have had a good, long talk with her about her life priorities. She passed up 30 days of opportunity to learn, grow and simply be herself due to lack of not being able to post about it all on Facebook. What on earth will she reminisce about when she is older? The crap online that she missed for thirty days? Or the lost opportunity to do something extraordinary in a beautiful region of the world, with a family who would have treated her like their daughter?

Takeaway Bicycle in Dambwa Central Market, Livingstone, Zambia. Dambwa was one of those places I was warned about as a solo female traveller. I was told that it could be dangerous for a white woman wielding a camera and that I shouldn’t go. Despite this I went anyway. I found someone who could translate and guide me there (the market manager) and I had the most incredible afternoon of my entire African trip in Dambwa. It was a fantastic experience.

I Have No Friends To Travel With

I could write an entire book about the merits and rewards of travelling solo but since I am limited to this blog post, I will say that travelling solo is one of the best ways to fully learn and understand yourself. By doing this you will be a better person for those you love, for those who employ you, for your family and for your life. Understanding your own strengths and weaknesses is core to understanding how you shape your future.

If you are a woman reading this post, then the bar may be slightly higher for you than solo guys travelling. When I was younger, in my early twenties in particular, much of my travel to remote places was solo but I made a few rules for myself and they included:

  • Not sleeping with the local guys (no matter how tempting their offer)
  • Not getting drunk with them either
  • Going out early in the morning, being back before dark
  • Eating your main meal at lunch to avoid doing the above
  • Travel with other women – not just women travellers, local women too

It is quite a different playing field if you are a woman going it alone as opposed to a man. Stake your own moral high ground and stick to it but don’t be scared.  There are some excellent websites like Lipstick and Wanderlust which are a fantastic resource for solo women travellers and will provide you with all sorts of help.

Regardless of your solo status as a male or female traveller, I’ve always found that I’m rarely alone.  I’ve teamed up with other travellers to hitch hike through remote Bolivia, to sail a Felucca down the Nile, to trek the Annapurnas in Nepal, or cross the Atacama desert in trucks.  I never started my trips off with any of these people, I simply met them when I got there and I’ve been lucky enough to have some of them remain as my friends for life.  We are united by the memory of our journeys and we’ve even met up in other parts of the world and travelled together again!

In 1997, at the age of 27, I hitch-hiked my way through South America from Peru to Chile. During that trip I crossed the Atacama in a 4WD with a bunch of people I met at the start point in Uyuni.

The People are Muslim / Black / Asian / Not Like Me

Addressing cultural differences is probably the single greatest thing you will learn from travelling the world. There is something incredibly special about meeting people in foreign countries. They can truly make or break your travelling experience.

Remember that someone who looks vastly different to you, probably is more like you in their personality than you think. Talk to people. Ask them questions. Most people feel very honoured that you are taking an interest in their lives and they are happy to tell you. Give them that chance and the time to reply. I’ve met some of the kindest and most generous people in the world in places where I’ve least expected it. You generally get back what you give out and travelling helps you to develop a tremendous sense of equanimity with people. Instead of seeing their culture or religion as alien to yours, you see both in a different light and quite often what you learn on the street will differ tremendously from any pre-conceived idea you had of them or anything you’ve heard about them in the news at home or online.

At the time of writing, the heightened levels of terrorism attacks perpetrated by the followers of Islam on the west are stopping many, many people from travelling to Muslim countries and for good reason. I am the first person to warn against going to places where Daesh or cells of extremists are operating. Do some homework first before you visit countries where Islam is the major religion and you will realise that there are still many, including Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Brunei, Senegal (at the time of writing) or Oman, for example, that are quite safe to visit and the people practicing Islam in these countries don’t want to harm you or allow extremist problems to take over in their home countries either.

Remember that you can find trouble anywhere on the planet if you look for it, even at home. Just because someone looks different or practices a different set of beliefs to you, it doesn’t mean they are out to kill you. Learning from them will make you a much better person and now, with the internet, you may end up staying friends with them too.  Social media has allowed me to stay in touch with my tracker who showed me how to determine the age of Snow Leopard prints in the snow, the man who translated for me while I visited a street market for photography in Zambia, the porters I had in Nepal, the incredible Nepalese guides who have worked with me in Tibet, our birding guides in Senegal and Honduras, my cab driver in Siem Reap in Cambodia.  Not only do I get a thrill from staying in touch with these people, I have also supported their families or communities financially, shared many incredible experiences, given them family portraits, played with their cats and watched their children grow.  I feel like I am the sum total of a group of incredible people who, for a short time, were so generous of their culture and lives with me.  I feel blessed to know them and consider them my friends.

Me and Mohammadou in St Louis, Senegal. Mohammadou and I were united by the belief that we shouldn’t give money to begging children so we were often stopping at roadside stalls to buy fruit, nuts, boiled eggs, juice and local desert berries called Sedem to share with kids we met on our trip. Mohammadou was one of the kindest people I’ve met in my travels recently. I was there with my partner and his selflessness impressed both of us.

What If Something Goes Wrong?

You will never, ever understand what you are capable of until something goes wrong and you are forced to fix it while you are travelling overseas. Travelling is one of the biggest educators of resourcefulness. I’ve had to find help when my car has broken down in the middle of nowhere, go to the police when I was mugged at knife point in Greece, find a room at 3am in Cairo when the hotel I had booked had no rooms available for me when I arrived, navigate my way around the Moscow tube stations when I accidentally jumped off at the wrong stop. I’ve had my bag stolen in Bolivia, ridden on the roofs of trains in North Africa when the tourist class cabins were full, and on and on….

In Cairo once I was involved in a hit and run with a taxi when I crossed the street in the Islamic Quarter. A fully veiled woman instantly ran over to me and started speaking to me in French. I replied in English. So did she (I learned later that she had been to university in the United States) and between us we filed a police report against the driver.

Providing the incident isn’t life threatening, these events are not to be feared, they are to be learned from. The more you learn the less they occur as you travel to more places.

Ait Ben Haddou at Sunrise. As one of most famous Kasbahs of Africa, Ait Ben Haddou is worth the trip over the Atlas from Marrakech to visit. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it has featured in many films and television series including Lawrence of Arabia and Game of Thrones.

I Don’t Know Where to Start

Sources of Advice

When I first started travelling I generally sought information from guide books and the news. The British Foreign Office used to have and still does have, some of the most unbiased and up to date information about troubled places in particular countries. En-route I used to have a short wave radio with me and I listened to the BBC World Service when I could.

These days, except for the Foreign Office Advice which I still seek, there are so many resources around to help you plan your travels. Remember what I said in Point 1. Don’t believe everything you hear or read. People can publish all manner of rubbish online about anything. Wade through it all and choose your sources carefully. Lonely Planet has a good forum where you can get good local information called the Thorn Tree. Joining the Thorn Tree will allow you to ask questions of other travellers and even find someone to travel with if you really can’t face going to a new place alone. Don’t be afraid to ask but also keep a balanced viewpoint of the replies you might get.

Hire a Local Agent

Hiring a local agent is also a good idea and can often cost you less than you think. Instead of Googling “Senegal” with “Crime” “Trouble” or “Dangers for Travellers”, try Googling “Senegal” with “local travel agent” instead. The wonders of the internet have allowed many small travel agent businesses to open in countries and they can be a wonderful source of advice. I did this recently before I went to Senegal. I wanted to know if it was possible to do aerial photography over the spectacular Lake Retba, a pink coastal lake north of Dakar. Google searching turned up nothing so I found a local agent in Dakar who replied to me within an hour saying he wasn’t sure if this was possible but he’d need a few days to find out. In a few days I got a reply from him letting me know that it wasn’t possible but his service and follow up was so good that I am thinking of using him for future travel in the country.

Go on Tour

If you are really too frightened to go it alone or take a local agent but you have a particular country that you want to see, then I would suggest you book a trip with a western tour company first and see a new country with them. After you’ve been there once on a tour and you have a feel for what it is like, you may feel more comfortable going to that country alone next time.

Get GOOD Travel Insurance

Buy good travel insurance and read the fine print to make sure you are aware of what you are covered for in case of an emergency.  Ideally you want one with good medical cover to cover you for a medical emergency evacuation and one that covers you for theft.  You can even buy policies now that cover you for evacuation if you are caught up in an act of terrorism!  I would always try to find one with a variety of contact methods to try when you are overseas 24 hours a day.   Knowing that you have that cover can give you a lot of peace of mind when you are travelling.

Visas and Inoculations

Make sure you have the right visas and jabs for diseases that are present in the countries you are visiting.  Search online for visa information.  If you are not sure about what inoculations you need before you travel, see your doctor.

Save Your Money

Skipping that daily coffee and throwing the money in a jar instead can help you with your trip.  Shop around for the products you buy.  If you get an unexpected discount, put that money towards your trip.  Even putting a small amount aside out of each pay goes a long way towards your savings.  Count it out at the end of a year and you may be pleasantly surprised how much you already have towards that dream trip.

Planning Tip

Although people have different ideas for how they would like to plan their travel, I suggest a good starting point would be to book your flights, first two nights and last two nights of accommodation in the country you’ve chosen. I would spend a little more on your hotels at the start and end point of your trip, then use whatever money you have remaining to budget for your daily spend on the days in between allowing for transport, accommodation, meals, drinks, tips, shopping and entrance fees. Somewhere nice at the start will allow you a full day to plan where you are going next, book a bus, spend some time on the street getting a feel for the culture, food and what it’s like before you head inland, up country or simply to a different city.  Having a nice place to stay at the end will give you something to look forward to on those nights in between where the hot water might not work, you miss a shower, or you have to sleep on a bus.

These are just my experiences from over 25 years of travel through 65 countries and counting. Please feel free to join the conversation in the comments below. I’d like to learn from you too.

The Himba People of remote Kaokoland in north western Namibia are both beautiful and very generous of their culture. Find a translator and visit them. They live lives that are so vastly different to the way people live in the developed world, yet they are masters of their environment and know how to survive well in the desert.

Ribble Valley Arts – Celebrating a rich tapestry of art in Lancashire

It’s been some time since I exhibited work to the public.  This hasn’t been intentional.  It’s just that I don’t generally have the time.  I have been lucky in that the commercial exhibitions I have held during my career have all been commercially successful and they are always a great source of publicity.

In the spirit of showing my work in my local patch, I have become the headline photographer for the new Ribble Valley Arts website here in Lancashire and the opening to the council and the media was this evening.

It was a great opportunity to meet other artists in our area and to learn more about their work.

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I even got to meet Mayor Bridget Hilton!

Here is a screen shot of the new website that I hope will grow with time and more photographers join.  I am the spearheading photographer of this area and my own portfolio on this site will grow as I shoot more work locally.

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I’m thinking of starting day workshops two or three times a year for local photographers hoping to learn more about photography and the industry.  After all, with a backyard that looks like this, why wouldn’t I want this as my office?

Autumn Leaves at Goit Stock2-2

2015 – A Year in Review

As I sit in Newark airport, on my way home from my final trip of 2015 to the USA, Antarctica and Argentina, I am enjoying some snippets of real contact with wifi in over a month of travel.  In the course of my catch up, Facebook seems to have sent me my 2015 in review which I found mildly amusing.  It did send up some highlights but as I sit here in the 17th country I’ve visited over the last twelve months I thought I would round up my year in a blog post that truly highlighted some of the wondrous places we visited and worked in since February.  It seems fitting to avoid January as that month is usually my busiest time in the office and it is almost impossible for me to get away so from month to month, here was my year:

FEBRUARY – MOROCCO

While visiting Marrakech we also search for endangered Moufflon in the Atlas, went trekking in the High Atlas and visited the incredible kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou.

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Ait Ben Haddou has rightly been used on numerous film sets including Lawrence of Arabia and Game of Thrones. It is so spectacular it is a treasure of the Sahara.

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Moroccan people often decline if you ask to take their photograph so I caught this sneaky shot in Ait Ben Haddou of a man enjoying the morning sun, with his cat.

MARCH – INDIA (LADAKH AND RAJASTHAN)

I never thought twelve months ago that my next trip to Ladakh would send my work with snow leopards catapulting around the globe to 80 countries.  We were incredibly fortunate to experience the wildest and most unimaginable trip with snow leopards you could ever wish for.  It started with finding a cat in a village that had killed six sheep, followed by relentless treks in high altitude and biting cold to locate others and finally ended up in a remote valley where we were privileged to share the lives of three wild snow leopards over a week at close range.

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My “Spot the Snow Leopard” photo was catapulted to millions of people around the world via print and social media.

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I actually really missed this cat after we left Ladakh. I had developed a soft spot for his gnarly appearance that he managed to get through too much wild sex with the female we’d seen him mating with. I hope I meet him again sometime.

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The main photo of my snow leopard hunt sequence.

To thaw out from our epic snow leopard trip, Mark spoiled me with a week in Rajasthan, staying at a converted Rajput palace called Samode, about an hour out of Jaipur.  Samode was our base for exploring Rajasthan’s more famous attractions including the Amur Fort in Jaipur and the Palace of the Winds (both touristy and not really our thing).  The highlight for us on this part of our India trip was the spontaneous decision to visit Sambhar, a salt lake town in Rajasthan that must have enjoyed great wealth from the salt trade before the Brits decided to tax it heavily.  Sambhar had no tourists or facilities to support tourism at all.  There was no wifi (thank god), no cafes and no guest houses – just incredible architecture, friendly people and long walks through beautiful streets where we not only got lost but lost ourselves in the beauty of rural India.

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A little girl with a pensive smile in Sambhar, India

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The beautiful art of Mehndi is still practiced widely in Rajasthan.

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Mesmerising rural India.

APRIL/MAY – AUSTRALIA (VIA ZURICH AND SINGAPORE)

Towards the end of April I was blessed to fly back to Australia to visit my family.  It is one of the hardest things in the world about my job – my time away from my family and friends in Australia.

JUNE – GREECE AND TURKEY

Finally a holiday!  Mark and I took off on a diving holiday in Greece and Turkey to celebrate my birthday at the end of June.  We had initially planned to visit Turkey only but the island of Kastellorizo lured us across the Mediterranean for a night and we were enthralled.  Aside from the isolated seclusion of Kastellorizo, highlights for us both included diving on ancient wrecks and amphorae off the coast of Turkey, visiting a traditional Yaila in the Taurus mountains of Turkey (above the treelike and in the snow) and also exploring Istanbul on foot.

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Istanbul at sunrise is a sensory experience of sound and light!

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Scuba diving with ancient amphorae off the coast of Turkey was a first for me.

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The beautiful, deep-water port of Kastellorizo in Greece will be the centre point of a feature story I am publishing in Australia during 2016.

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Kastellorizo is adorned with doorways lined by Bougainvillea.

JULY/AUGUST – CUBA (VIA PARIS AND AMSTERDAM)

For Mark’s birthday and for work, we visited Cuba which was a long desired destination for both of us.  It certainly didn’t disappoint.  Havana was like wandering around one gargantuan sized film set and it gave me the opportunity to explore the home of Ernest Hemingway on the outskirts of the city.  We then went diving in the spectacular Jardines de la Reina for a week which put us in the water with large schools of Silky and Caribbean Reef Sharks, then also a brief swim with the American crocodiles of the swamps nearby.  The diving in Cuba left us reeling and wishing we could both grow gills to stay down there longer.  It was literally like the Caribbean must have been before it was overfished and over-touristed.

Swimming with American Crocodiles in Cuba was a first for me and this image was actually published by National Geographic online this year!

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I fell in love with Cuba’s Jutias this year!

After this we explored some of Cuba’s key nature reserves including Camaguey, Cayo Coco, Cueva de las Portales and finally the incredible swamps of Cienaga de Zapata where we surveyed some incredible avifauna and also met some of the most passionate guides working to conserve some of Cuba’s biodiversity hotspots.

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER – SOUTH AFRICA, NAMIBIA, BOTSWANA AND ANGOLA

After three years of planning I set off in early September to lead my own expedition through Africa by 4WD.  Alongside talented leader Sean Braine (who co-drove with me) and a support vehicle driven by incredible Himba leader Rodney (Mbembazu) with a Damaran assistant, Dion, we traversed southern Africa over nearly a month and enjoyed the most incredible wildlife encounters in the Kalahari, Etosha, Damaraland and in the Okavango Delta.  For a brief time we even dipped our toes into Angola from the Kavango region of northern Namibia.

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Deadvlei has been photographed so much that it’s difficult to find an unusual angle to shoot it from. With my group we experimented with bursts created by the sunrise on our morning trip there.

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The beautiful Himba women of Namibia.

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Three of five Cheetah litter cubs we encountered in the Kalahari

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Another alternative view of Deadvlei

Africa beguiled our entire team with its incredible landscapes and friendly people.  I don’t think any of us could ever forget the encounters we enjoyed with five Cheetah litter cubs in the Kalahari, the pride of 19 truly wild, desert-adapted lions in Damaraland, being charged by a rhino in Damaraland also, the warm smiles of the Himba, the stunning red dunes of Etosha, getting lost in Kolmanskop or exploring the Okavango by mokoro canoe.  It was a tremendous journey that culminated in a lunar eclipse on our last night in Windhoek.  None of us ever wanted to go home.

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Squacco Heron in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

NOVEMBER – THE NETHERLANDS AND USA

In early November I popped across to the Netherlands to meet three women I had only known by social media before but who I had long admired.  It was a fantastic weekend of meeting people in real life that I had enjoyed so much contact with online before.  These girls were so inspirational in their own right and I now feel honoured to call them real friends.

Later that month I was lucky enough to plan and lead a week-long photography workshop in the incredible Bosque del Apache and White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, USA.  With a small group of three clients we enjoyed some incredible skies and wildlife over 6 days of shooting in one of the premier wildlife refuges of the States and also one of the most ethereally beautiful monuments in the country, White Sands.  Although the weather gods frowned upon us in White Sands, they shone brightly for us at Bosque and left us all reeling.  It was a great week with a brilliant group!

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Motion blur of Snow Geese ‘blasting off’ behind a flock of Sandhill Cranes in Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

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A flock of Snow Geese in flight at sunrise.

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A group of Sandhill cranes fly in to roost at sunset, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

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Even in bad weather, White Sands National Monument is incredibly photogenic!

DECEMBER – ANTARCTICA AND ARGENTINA

After leaving New Mexico I flew to Ushuaia via Houston and Buenos Aires to co-lead a group of six guests on a 19 day trip to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica.  Again, another group of fantastic people (I am really blessed with good clients!), travelling to an incredible corner of the world!  We visited a large Black-browed Albatross breeding colony on West Island in the Falklands, several wildlife and historical sites on spectacular South Georgia and eventually made two landings on the Antarctic continent before we returned to Ushuaia.

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Even Chinstrap penguins get itchy scratchy moments!

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Gentoo Penguins are very frightened of Brown Skuas on their breeding colonies – for good reason! Here is a Brown Skua with its stolen Gentoo Egg for dinner!

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Small, broken off pieces of icebergs are called “growlers” in Antarctica and the Gerlache Strait is filled with them – to the point where the noise of the ship hitting them can keep you awake at night.

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Weddell Seals have a tough life with long siestas.

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This is my favourite shot from Antarctica – a Southern Fulmar flying near the ‘throat’ of a large iceberg as we left the Gerlache Strait.

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Giant Petrels, as the scavengers of Antartica, often get a bad wrap but I am one of their few fans (for reasons I will explain in a FB/Blog Post in the new year)

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Giant Petrels truly are the ‘boofheads’ of Antarctica!

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In contrast the gentle courtship between Black-browed Albatrosses in the Falklands enthralled all of us.

For a few days we explored Tierra Del Fuego and we hiked the steep climb up the Garibaldi Pass to search for White-bellied Seed Snipes in the cushion plants.

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Magellanic Woodpeckers really are the clowns of Tierra Del Fuego

We then flew north in Argentina to the resort town of El Calafate to explore Patagonia over Christmas.

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While common, Southern Lapwings are very striking birds. This one posed shyly behind bushes in El Calafate.

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An Argentine Red Fox senses the air around it for danger.

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The incredible hand stencil petroglyphs at Cueva de los Manos, Argentina.

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Young Guanacos often practice play fighting in the wild.

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Andean Condor flying over the Fitzroy Massif in Argentina.

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A portion of the Perito Moreno glacier calves off.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

March – Snow Leopards

On my return from India, with great thanks to Adrian Fowler at Diimex, my images from that trip were published in over 40 countries around the globe as I became the first woman in existence to photograph a wild snow leopard hunt in sequence and the first Australian to ever do so.  It was definitely worth the 17 days without a shower, camped out in -25C each night and the long waits in the ice scanning hillsides for the world’s most elusive and charismatic wild cat.

My snow leopard photos were not only widely represented in print, television and online, I am still working with them in Australia and abroad and will likely be doing so until the end of 2016.

Through social media my “Spot the Snow Leopard” image was shared more than 40,000 times on different pages and generated nearly 250,000 comments.  The likes on Facebook alone exceeded 2 million.  I never truly expected my work to reach such a vast audience.  I knew that what I shot that day was special (I actually cried after we watched that snow leopard hunt and I realised the images I got were in focus and properly shot) but it took a dedicated team of PR people to make my photos realise their full potential.

September – Royal Geographical Society

When I arrived in Windhoek in early September to lead my expedition in southern Africa, I had a copy of Geographical (the journal of the Royal Geographical Society) in my hand to give to friends who had travelled with me in Tibet.  My story on my expedition in far western Tibet had been published and since they had joined me on that trip, I wanted to hand them a copy.

As I was more or less doing so, I learned that I had been granted fellowship to the Royal Geographical Society for my extensive experience in leading and participating in expeditions.  The acceptance of my nomination as a fellow was described by one of my supporters as “one of the fastest admissions to the society in recent times”.

November – WWF

In November I became one of the campaign photographers on the WWF Snow Leopard Conservation campaign internationally.

IN SUMMARY

I am truly blessed to do what I love for a job and this year has been one of the highlight years of my life.  I not only have experienced some of the most incredible wildlife encounters in the world, I have shared them with my amazing partner, Mark and some inspiring and wonderful guests who may have started off as clients but have ended up as friends going forward.  We have also worked with some tremendous teams of people including our staff who keep our offices going while we travel and the dedication of field teams.  Without their help I couldn’t do what I do for a job.

I wish all of my family, guests, friends and colleagues a successful and prosperous time in 2016!

Thank you so much for your support of my work!

Waterlogue

This week I decided to take a little time exploring digital rendering of photographs using my iphone.  A lovely artist friend of mine whose work I truly admire, Tracy Verdugo (http://tracyverdugo.com/) alerted me recently to an iphone app that renders digital photographs into watercolour.  It is called Waterlogue.  I was instantly intrigued.  Since I was very young I have often painted and sketched as a hobby but these days I find myself with so little time to do anything like that so when I found out about Waterlogue, I thought I would try it out.

As with many photo manipulation apps you need to experiment.  Not all of mine have worked well with Waterlogue but I recently returned from leading an expedition in Africa where I was shooting photographs of the incredible Himba tribespeople in north western Namibia.  I have found two photos from the many that I shot there that work well with Waterlogue.  Here are some before and after images.

Young Himba Girl – the light on the original photo was bad here.  Sadly by the time this shot was taken the sun was nearly at noon point and was creating havoc in the form of shadows.  Initially I wasn’t happy with these shots:

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And this is a digitally rendered version that I have removed all colour saturation from:

Preset Style = Bold Format = 10" (Giant) Format Margin = Small Format Border = Sm. Rounded Drawing = #2 Pencil Drawing Weight = Heavy Drawing Detail = Medium Paint = High Contrast Paint Lightness = Normal Paint Intensity = More Water = Tap Water Water Edges = Blurry Water Bleed = Average Brush = Fine Detail Brush Focus = Everything Brush Spacing = Medium Paper = Watercolor Paper Texture = Medium Paper Shading = Medium Options Faces = Enhance Faces

Perhaps my favourite of the two photos is actually this one.  Again this photo was shot in horrible light:

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But this is what it looks like in Waterlogue:

Preset Style = Bold Format = 10" (Giant) Format Margin = Small Format Border = Sm. Rounded Drawing = #2 Pencil Drawing Weight = Heavy Drawing Detail = Medium Paint = High Contrast Paint Lightness = Normal Paint Intensity = More Water = Tap Water Water Edges = Blurry Water Bleed = Average Brush = Fine Detail Brush Focus = Everything Brush Spacing = Medium Paper = Watercolor Paper Texture = Medium Paper Shading = Medium Options Faces = Enhance Faces

The most incredible thing about this app is that it has turned photographs that I wasn’t happy with at all into pieces of art that I am thrilled with.  Under normal circumstances these are photographs that I would never publish publicly so this app has actually make me take a second look at my work with a view to creating works of art out of images that would be left backed up on hard drives and never used.

The original jpegs of these images were around 14MB each.  The app renders down the full size images to around 3MB in size.  While you can’t blow this up to billboard size, I could still print them well on paper around the size of A3 and frame them.  Naturally I would remove the border that the app has created.

A link to this lovely app’s web page is here http://www.waterlogueapp.com/ so why not download it and start creating your own work?

If you are interested in a print of these images, please email me at inger@ingervandyke.com .

The cost for an A3 – USD$120, AUD$175

 

International Campaign Photographer – WWF Snow Leopard Conservation Program

So it happened…. today I officially became one of the international campaign photographers for the WWF on their Snow Leopard Conservation Program!

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Trip Report – Southern Africa Expedition

It’s live!  Here is my trip report from my recent expedition in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana (we also touched Angola!).

Looking back on this journey we really saw so many different things and were extraordinarily lucky to have the most incredible encounters with some very endangered wildlife in Namibia including desert adapted lions, rhinos and elephants.

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I am planning to return to this incredible part of the world in 2017 to lead another trip.  If my report above has whetted your appetite to join me, please email me at inger@ingervandyke.com to find out more.  I hope to travel with you soon!

Coffee and Snow Leopards in Bed!

It’s not often that I wake up on a Sunday to news that some of my work has been published across my home country but that is what happened to me today.

The crisp white linen of our bed is a far cry from the four layers of bedding I slept under for 17 days in -25C in Ladakh, but I found myself longing for those camped out nights, listening to the calls of snow leopards echoing around the hills above us.  Thanks to Adrian Fowler and his team at Diimex in Sydney and the wonderful journalism work of Tim Barlass, the images I shot of a wild snow leopard hunt during our trip with Wild Images in March were syndicated across this weekend’s Australian newspapers.  Starting with the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, the story even spread as far as Mandurah!

As someone who would rather be behind the lens than in front of it and who would prefer their work to speak for them rather than their looks, the sudden burst of publicity surrounding these images has been revelatory and a little overwhelming.  So many people seem beguiled by my old male cat, the cat we tracked for three full days in Ladakh, the cat who stole my heart with his love rebuttals, failed hunts, scenting and stalking.  Of all the Snow Leopards we met on our trip, he was far and away my most favourite cat, his gnarly, scarred appearance casting a permanent look of disappointment across his face.

I wonder what he is doing now.  Where he might be?  I hope he is hiding out in a high den somewhere, helping to rear the next generation of Snow Leopards alongside the female we saw him mating with.  Although she was courting two males during our trip, she also appeared to have a soft spot for this old boy.  It was the old boy she spent the most time with, the old boy she always sought out first.

Mark bought me coffee as I sifted through the many emails, comments, shares, likes and texts that I received in the wake of these photos going live across Australia.  I felt humbled.

When I left Ladakh in March, my boot clad feet may have departed from the world of these leopards, but a part of my heart never did.

Thank you for sharing my journey with these incredible wild cats.

– Inger

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Fisheyes for iPhones – A Review of Klinger Studios Fisheye Lens App

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As a seasoned iphone user and a strong advocate for their use as a supplementary camera in the field, I have always enjoyed having my phone nearby to get shots of nature that I encounter on walks, rides and drives.

In the last eight or so months, I thought I would ratchet my skills up a bit and I bought an Ollo clip series of lenses for my iphone 5S to make use of a wide-angle, two different magnified macro lenses and a fish-eye.  While I was initially pleased with the Olloclip, the Fisheye lens on it is disappointing as it doesn’t extend out to 8mm and provide the full fish-eye effect.  Instead, you get a cropped fish-eye shot which looks rather odd.

Frustrated, I started to look around.  I tried other clip on lenses but I found them difficult to focus on the subject and wieldy when they were clipped on to the camera.

Then I discovered “Fisheye Lens”, an amazing app that not only has an 8mm full fisheye lens for your phone but it also has options for use including:

– 12mm fisheye

– 15mm fisheye

– 8mm inverse

– 15mm invers

– square

You can also stretch, squeeze and warp your images within the app to create some funky effects.

I found this to be one of the most powerful apps I have used for a number of reasons.

Its PROs include:

– Tack sharp precision focussing.  I’m not sure how this app gets this so right but if you use the standard camera in your phone, sometimes it is really slow to focus and you can get blurred shots really easily.  This app waits until the object you are shooting is really, really in focus before it fires off so the resulting clarity is amazing.

– Full fisheye effect without cropping

– You can choose the level of vignetting you get and whether or not you want a white or black background, a soft or sharp edge to your photos

Its only CON is:

– It would be nice to vary the exposure with it.  During the normal use of your iphone you can tap on the screen when you have a shot in view and lighten or darken the image before you press the shutter button.  This wasn’t that easy to do with this app but trust me, this is its ONLY downside.

Yesterday I had the joy of wandering around the famous Kew Gardens in London with this app.  Here are some shots that I managed to get using it that I was really happy with.  For more information about the apps that Klinger produce please click here.

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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.

September 30

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!