There is something I find very comforting and mesmerising about chanting monks.  From a recording or the distance they sound almost like a drone but up close, their prayers, chants and murmurs can reverberate through your body leaving you feel almost completely at peace.

On our recent trip to Ladakh, we were very kindly invited to breakfast and the morning prayer session at Thikse, one of the larger functioning monasteries of Leh.  It isn’t something that is a well known tourist activity.  We felt honoured.

Arriving under the blush of a new day, we parked our car and meandered our way up the hill.  A few monks were milling around, the early risers.  We graciously greeted a senior monk walking towards the prayer hall with a young boy who was one of the youngest monks I’d seen in this part of the world.  I’m not sure what the story was behind this little boy but there was something about him that I immediately fell in love with.


As he was the smallest, he was always racing to keep up, stay with the older boys and jump ahead of his time.  During prayers he was the first to get clipped around the ears for doing the wrong thing like hiding his Tsampa under his prayer carpet or saying the wrong thing just at the wrong moment.  I found myself silently laughing on the inside watching his antics during our trip to Thikse and needless to say, apart from the photograph above, his image is  sprinkled through some of my favourite pictures from Thikse.

We finally climbed the stairs to the prayer hall at the top of the monastery.  When we arrived, we found several young monks donning their yellow hats and trumpeting ornate horns to call the other resident monks to pray.


They then joined their little friends in actually heralding the start of prayer.  This was the first time I’d ever heard monks singing instead of chanting in a monastery.  Mesmerised I shot the video below with my phone.

The singing ended just as Mark and I were unlacing our hiking boots to enter the hall.  Our friend Nawang ushered us quietly into the main prayer hall richly decorated with carpets and brocade.


And we sat.  Occasionally we joined in the prayers but mostly our quiet spot on the guest carpets allowed us to simply and unobtrusively watch.  Mornings are a time of reflection for monks and the early sun shining through the windows of Thikse made for wonderful photographs including the image below which is one of my favourites from the entire trip.


There were monks of all ages at Thikse but it was the younger ones like this boy below


who were charged with making Tsampa and tea for breakfast.


in between prayer sessions


Here is a brief clip of the monks chanting in morning prayer.

Thikse reminded me in so many ways of Tibet, except here the Dalai Lama is freely worshipped


under the watchful eyes of Ladakh’s largest Buddha, the 15m high statue of Maitreyi which was given to Ladakh as a gift to celebrate the visit of the Dalai Lama in the year I was born.


Thikse is a functioning monastery that is one of the largest of its kind in Ladakh.  The foundations of the monastery were built in the mid 15th century and much of the mural artwork resembles the style in the monasteries we saw in far western Tibet during October 2013.  There is a significant Ladakhi influence in the Buddhist symbols that we saw represented at Thikse.

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Unlike true Tibetan art, the faces in these images are slightly more pointed and the language slightly different.   As I visually scoured the walls trying to digest all of the transcriptions and imagery, I was trying to see if some of the rituals shown in Tibetan murals, the sky burials in particular, were present and I couldn’t find anything depicting that ceremony.  When I asked Nawang, he didn’t know much about the concept of sky burials and said that he didn’t know if they had ever occurred in Ladakh.  I plan to do some reading about the differences between Tibetan and Ladakhi Buddhist cultures.  While so much of what we saw was very similar to Tibet, there were very subtle and uniquely Ladakhi differences in both the monasteries and in the villages.  Both places share a wonderful tradition of art and colour in their buildings, costumery and arts – a fantastic response to their somewhat stark and monotone landscapes.  The intricacy and colour of the artistry and buildings of Thikse was only rivalled by the exterior of the monastery with its stunning mountain views from its summit position.  Climbing the steep stairs (with even steeper risers!) made me feel thankful that we are both tall and took each one in a stride.  Reaching the roof of Thikse we were rewarded with this view.

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When we finished in the prayer hall and doing our own independent exploration of the monastery taking pics, the monks had adjourned to the kitchen where they offered us warm yak butter tea after we descended from the roof.  Based on previous experiences in Tibet, Mark politely declined the tea due to its taste but I tried some.  Out of curiosity I wanted to see if it tasted any different from Tibet and it did.  I was surprised to find it actually OK to drink!  It seemed fresher and less rancid tasting than some yak butter tea that I’ve had in the past.  It was lightly salted and creamy.  As the vapour from our cups whispered into the cool mountain air, we watched life transpire from our tea drinking vantage point.  A monk had already started to clean the morning’s dishes


and another had begun to sweep the public areas of the monastery.


When travelling Mark and I both relish our early morning starts.  Perhaps it is because we are both plagued with a worry that we will miss the best time of the day.  Before we met we were both the same.  Many times in Africa, I would rise just before the sun just to walk and hear the early chorus of birds.  So when the invitation came to venture up to Thikse, Mark and I both jumped in and accepted.  We were the only tourists there and we communicated with the monks via Nawang, who acted as our interpreter.  Luckily the monks blessed us with a virtually free run of  Thikse to take photographs, a gesture which I hope to thank them with by sending them printed images that I shot there.

Thikse is a quiet, serene place that I honestly could have stayed in for hours but our day was progressing and as the sun rose higher in the sky, we drove slowly down the hill stopping to take shots of Thikse from various viewpoints on the road back to Leh.

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I decided to write my first post on Ladakh about Thikse as I spent quite some time during my twenties reading about Buddhism and its teachings.  While I don’t have a religion of my own, I have always been profoundly fascinated by the way that religion shapes cultures.  If I ever chose to adhere to any religion I would probably choose Buddhism due to its nature of compassion towards all sentient beings.  Visiting Thikse left us both imbued with that sense as we explored both Ladakh and the relationship of its people with their jagged, dramatic mountains.  During our trip we were both interviewed by the BBC Natural History unit about how our experiences in Tibet with the conservation of its wildlife compared with our experiences in Ladakh.  We both remain hopeful due to our inherent trust of the Buddhist philosophy to nurture all living things, feeding them with kindness and the idea that all beings are equal.

In his Nobel Prize speech in 1989, the Dalai Lama expressed the following wish for the Tibetan Plateau.

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While the true wish of the Dalai Lama may never be realised, I encourage anyone visiting Ladakh to take a side trip to Thikse.  It is a tiny bastion of peacefulness sequestered on a hillside outside the bustle of Leh.  A place to take a moment, absorb life and be at one with some of the most warm, kind, hospitable and spiritual people in the Indus Valley.


Preparing for Antarctica….

There is something quite surreal about sitting in a plane crossing the southern Indian Ocean, one of the roughest stretches of sea on our planet and knowing that in less than two weeks you are going to be boarding a Russian Ice Breaker to cross the exact same sea.  From the air it looks placid, almost tame.   The altitude softening its surface intensity to a point where it lulls you in to a false sense of security.  Surely it can’t be that bad down there?

Well in a week from now that surreal feeling will morph into a harsh reality when I depart from Fremantle on the Professor Khromov, sometimes known as “The Spirit of Enderby” to sail down to Heard Island, one of the most remote islands in the world and one of the two active volcanoes in the Sub-Antarctic.

It’ll be quite a change from the tropical heat and humidity I have just left in Africa last week.

So in the short time I have been home from Africa, I have been running around trying to tie up loose ends from that trip, wash my tropics clothes, edit photos, answer emails, update my blog and dig up my cold weather gear in preparation for the journey.  There hasn’t been a lot of time to turnaround between trips.

Heard and McDonald Islands were last visited by a commercial expedition in 2002.  The Australian Antarctic Division originally had planned to bi-annual or tri-annual research expeditions to the islands but costs and travel perils to Heard and McDonald have made this aim impossible.  They are some of the most remote and infrequently visited islands on earth.

The trip comes at a time when news has hit that Big Ben, the volcano on Heard, could be erupting.  There haven’t been any confirmed reports as yet and the initial news was only released four days ago.  If this news is true and it is still active when we visit, we could be among some of the most privileged people in the world to see it erupt and photograph it.  Those photographs may be the only shots of Big Ben erupting in existence.  If it is, we’ll have a front row seat to see a phenomenon that nobody has ever experienced first hand.

Clad by glacial edges, there has been a recession in the size of Heard’s glaciers.  Due to the infrequency of visits, it is not known whether global warming or geothermal activity is the catalyst behind the decline.  The photographic evidence we’ll procure on this journey should provide some indication.

As a photojournalist aboard the expedition I am both excited and nervous at the thought of crossing one of the roughest oceans on the planet.  I’ve been to Antarctica on the same ship before and worked in 9 metre seas.  What will this trip bring?  We will be cruising headlong into the conditions between Fremantle and Heard.  The return journey will afford us a little more respite as we ‘go with it’ but the trip down?

So next week I will trade the Elephants and Leopards I communed with in Africa to Elephants and Leopards of an entirely different kind – seals.  Heard is home to the largest colony of Leopard Seals on the planet.  We will also be visiting at a time when the island’s Elephant Seals have had their pups.  So I’m preparing my gear to Elephant Seal proof it.

Penguin proof it…

and join the Russian crew who I not only loved meeting on my last journey…

but who I have complete trust in to facilitate a safe passage for all of us in these relatively uncharted waters.  Their seamanship skills are virtually unrivalled and once again, I will probably spend time poring over their charts, complete with their Russian nomenclature, to track our journey south.

I’ll be donning my waterproof and warm boots…

and trying to stay as warm and dry as I possibly can in the next month.

I am looking forward to being back in my beloved Southern Ocean, a place of freezing temperatures and amazing diversity of life.  A place where I’ll be visited by seal pups and over curious Skuas.  A place where I’ll meet new friends like Heard Island Sheathbills and Leopard Seals.

I only hope that you will share my journey with me via my blog.  If I could wrap up all of my friends to take with me, I would.

Until then….