Monday, 26 March 2012

Monday photo - 26th March

For this week's 'Monday photo' we are going back in time, way back to when I first purchased a digital camera, in preparation for a holiday to Turkey. After years of frustration with my old Kodak film camera, carefully rationing my shots, cursing myself when I accidentally depressed that button early or heard the faint tell-tale 'click' inside my bag, I saved up to buy myself a small brick of a digital (ironically enough, I now sometimes miss that sound and the frantic winding on of the film).

Still unused to the wonders of a memory card, I slipped back into old habits of considering the necessity of every photo before taking it, and so ended up with less than a couple of hundred pictures from the whole trip. This one at Pamukkale, home of the famous hot spring terraces, conjours memories of an extrodinarily hot July day, the sun beating down as I attempted not to slip whilst carefully working my way across and over the dazzling white terraces, taking just a few treasured photos.

Naturally, by the time I returned to this beautiful country two year later (and stopped off once again at Pamukkale), I'd fully embraced everything digital photography had to offer, and increased my collection of Turkey snaps by a good few hundred - a number I now sometimes take in one single day!

Missed last week's 'Monday photo'? Find it here:

Monday photo - 19th March

Friday, 23 March 2012

Choosing where and when to go

There are a few questions we always get asked about travelling. The most common is how we can afford it at all alongside our day-to-day life and expenses at home, but after that the conversation usually drifts towards how we choose where to go, and when, and whether we ever get tired of travelling.

Most of our decisions are based on a combination of budget, activities we are keen on doing and ensuring that we have lots of variety each year regarding the places we visit. If, like us, you do not travel full-time, then there are added constraints with when you may be able to take time off work to travel. Here's the lowdown on some of our considerations when planning a trip...

The 'When'

- Think about your priorities and reasons for visiting, and how this may affect when you visit. When planning our trip to the Philippines last year, our biggest priority was swimming with whale sharks, giving us a relatively small time frame to help increase our chances (which had the secondary result of meaning we were there during high season with everyone else who had the same idea). However, if the main attractions/activities for us are year-round, we'll usually choose low season to visit. The weather may be worse, but we'd prefer to stand alone at a site being rained on than jostling with thousands of other visitors in the sunshine!

                                                The benefits of low season visiting

- Consider costs are different times. One of the reasons we are able to travel so often is that we keep our costs relatively low. Flight prices, accommodation, entrance fees, even transport costs can vary widely throughout the year. If travelling in low season, accommodation is often better arranged once there, with huge discounts available to fill empty rooms. In high season, the opposite is true, and booking in advance might secure a slight discount. The same is true for activities. We've arrived at a few archaeological sites in the past and been let in for free as we we the only visitors that day and the guards/ticket booth workers were just happy to have some people to chat to.

                     The guard said he hadn't seen another visitor for weeks before we arrived!

The 'Where'

- Choosing where to go is always the trickiest part for us. Most travellers have a long list of dream destinations, and picking one over another is tough. Our decisions are often based on a few elements. Firstly, is there a reason we should visit soon? Will one of the places we are interested in change/become more popular/risk of instability etc. Burma/Myanmar had long been on our radar, and with the boycott lifted, interest in the region was exploding. It soon jumped to the top of our list, and we were very lucky to experience the country seeing only a few other tourists. Secondly, we try to balance out different types of holiday. Too many temples, and we stop appreciating them in the way we should. So over a year, we try to have a mix of archaeology, wildlife, cities and nature. If we can combine that with a range of environments (desert, jungle etc) too, then all the better! This helps us to approach a trip excited and without falling into making comparisons with the last trip.

                                                             A very empty Bagan

By mixing up environments, climates and activities, we never get tired of seeing the same things or experience 'travel fatigue'. Other people prefer to stick to one region, and explore it fully before moving on, so it's entirely dependent on your travel preferences and personality!

- Think about the type of activities you enjoy doing, and see what countries offer the best opportunities. I love ancient history, so archaeological sites are often top of my agenda. I also adore seeing animals in the wild, and extreme sports/adventures. So a country which can cater for that is often at the top of the list. Neither F or I are big beach lovers (unless diving), so many small islands, although beautiful, hold little interest for us.

                          Occasionally we make exceptions for particularly gorgeous beaches!

- Do you have any links in that country? China was never in our immediate plans until F's brother moved there, providing us with the opportunity to visit him and save some money on accommodation whilst we were at it! Visiting friends/family can help keep the budget low, and experience a small glimpse of life as an expat in that country.

- If stretching to a big trip isn't possible within your time or budget, why not look for more local city breaks? Europe probably has the best opportunities for this, with numerous online deals for weekend getaways, especially during the winter. But even a domestic trip to a new city or part of the countryside can result in new experiences and appreciation for your home country.

                                      A new experience doesn't have to be far away...

How do you plan where and when to travel?

Monday, 19 March 2012

Monday photo - 19th March

Over the past few months, a number of blogs that I read have started a 'Friday photo' feature, showcasing a picture that evokes a great memory or they are really proud of. I love this idea, but have decided to adapt it slightly. From now on, every Monday I'll be posting a photo or series of photos that tell a story. Why Monday? My reasoning is that everyone needs a little cheering up at the beginning of a new week at work, and browsing back over photos from travels past always puts a smile on my face.

So let's kick off with this week's 'Monday photo'...

I've been fortunate to have many incredible experiences whilst travelling over the past few years. However, one of my favourite days was tracking mountain gorillas in Rwanda. The day was hot and sticky, the hiking at high altitude tough on the lungs as we scrambled through bamboo forests, ever higher, waiting for our ranger's signal. Having studied primates for so long, those first glimpses of them in the wild left me speechless and tearful. Their sheer size and strength, combined with characteristics and behaviours I found so familiar, made the time watching them whizz by. Even now, when I glance back over my album of photos from the trip, I can't believe how lucky I was to experience such an incredible sight.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Iceland: Do's and Don'ts!

Reflecting back, I'm not really sure why it took so long for me to visit Iceland. Packed with activities, gorgeous landscape and interesting history, I feel as though I've only scratched the surface of what it has to offer and look forward to a return trip soon. In the meantime, here's a few tips I picked up on the way:


- Bank on changeable weather, and pack/plan accordingly - in just one week we experienced lashing rain, blazing sunshine, snow storms, icy winds and blinding fog! Road conditions and activities can be heavily affected by the conditions, particularly during winter. However, the colours the weather brings to life, the many rainbows dotting the sky and the drama it adds to this small country make it all worthwhile, and is definitely part of the charm.

- Hire a car. Like other places we visited, Iceland is perfect for jumping in a car and exploring at your own pace. Rental fees can be high, but when we compared it to taking day trips a few times instead, we broke even. Shopping around also helps - ignore the over-priced international companies and look for a local or family run business, and prices are slashed almost in half. The freedom a car brings is worth every penny, and the island is easy to navigate.

- Plan in a reasonable budget. There's no denying that Iceland is a pricey country. The high import costs result in staggering expensive food and drink, and hiring guides/taking trips means reaching deep into the pocket. However, avoiding restaurants, visiting during low season and using guest houses helps, as can balancing expensive day trips with free exploration of the countryside.


- Have a completely rigid itinerary. Being able to move around or head to a different place at short notice helps when trying to find the Northern Lights or get a cheaper deal on an activity. Again, having the luxury of our own car really assisted with this.

- Forget to check out which activities are available at the time you plan to go. They roughly fall into seasonal categories - summer and winter. We were more interested in winter ones (ice caves, Aurora), but on the flip side the weather prevented us from doing much hiking and low-lying fog and snow restricted views of volcanoes and stopped us from spending much time on the coast. Snow fluttered all around us whilst bobbing in the blue lagoon! Other activities, such as diving at Silfra are year-round, but it's worth considering carefully your priorities.

- Forget to keep your eyes peeled at all times. Elf doors painted on large boulders at the side of the road, small chocolate-box churches in the absolute middle of no-where, waterfalls crashing down everywhere we looked, rainbows popping up, colours bursting into life before fading away...there's always something to see and experience.

Want to read more about our time in Iceland? Check out these posts:

Driving through Iceland: A photo-blog
Ice cave exploring and glacier walking - Iceland's incredible south coast
What I learnt from chasing the Northern Lights
The hunt for the Northern Lights
Waterfalls, volcanoes and horses
Becoming a human bridge between continental plates at Silfra

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Driving through Iceland: A photo-blog

Although we had some incredible, unique experiences whilst in Iceland, one of the elements that made our trip so memorable was driving through this beautiful country. Never dull, each turn in the road or crest over a hill revealed waterfalls dropping gracefully from huge heights, lava fields covered with almost luminous green moss, and dramatic coastlines. It was familiar, yet at the same time alien. And I loved every second of it. Here's some photos I took on the road...

An iced-over extinct volcanic crater spotted whilst returning to Reykjavik from Gulfoss

Mountains streaked with snow framing gushing rivers on the Snaefellnes Peninsula

Crashing waves hit a 'black' sand beach on the Peninsula

Rusted ship parts remind of the treachery of the sea

Icelandic horses graze at the edge of most roads

Roads sweep through huge mountain and volcano ranges

So many waterfalls - each more beautiful than the last

Lava fields eventually support life in the form of moss stretching for miles, creating a distinctly alien landscape

I would highly recommend hiring a car to explore Iceland - the freedom of leaving the main roads and stumbling upon something unexpected is fantastic, and made every second of our time there magical.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Ice cave exploring and glacier walking - Iceland's incredible south coast

After we'd booked our flights to Iceland, I spent hours trawling the web and travel magazines, looking for unique experiences to get the most out of our time. One site I hit up was Pinterest - my new obsession for gorgeous images and travel inspiration, and whilst browsing, one image stuck in my mind. It showed a cave with a crystal-clear ceiling of ice, light reflecting off and through its many facets, colours deepening before melting into the pools of water below. It was incredibly beautiful and unlike anything I'd seen before. A bit of searching later, and I'd discovered that it was indeed an ice cave - a result of glacial movement in the Snaefellsjokull national park. One final google search, and I'd found a small family business who organised private tours to visit those wonders. Every year our guide searches for new caves as the old are swallowed back up, and assesses them for safety before guiding groups. The temporary life of these fragile structures made them even more intriguing.

After driving through the night, we arrived both tired and excited at our guide's house, close to the national park entrance. A quick swap into his much studier car, and we began a bumpy journey across dirt paths, up rock mounds (and the crashing down that followed), before parking up, the glacier stretching wide in front of us. A scrambling kilometre later, and we were standing where the ice met the rocks, bathed in sunlight as the last of the clouds dispersed.

The rock walls around us swept high in a burst of ochres and reds, framing the ice below. The glacier itself was a creamy blue, the very edge mottled with black from the ash of volcanic eruptions past. Nestled at the bottom, hidden from view until you were literally standing next to it, was an entrance leading inside.

The cave was even more beautiful than I'd imagined. Light danced off the crystal-like entrance and ceiling, highlighting the many shades of turquoise and blue the ice contained. The colours were incredible - vivid and bright, almost glass-like, and structurally it resembled a honeycomb, some edges sharp, others rounded as the water melted away. The unusually warm winter had resulted in earlier melting this year - a gentle waterfall seeped through a hole in the cave, splashing off the rocks below and drenching us as we clambered past. At the end of the cave, we emerged to find a vast hole, and stood inside the glacier looking out at the now very bright blue sky. Photos could never do it justice, but I tried my best regardless, reaching into hidden nooks and aiming from every angle in an attempt to convey some of the range of colours.

Eventually we went back out, and as we'd made better time than expected, our guide asked if we wanted to try a little glacial walking. Never the types to say no, we quickly agreed and after a short lesson using crampons (which basically consisted of 'strap them on, walk like a cowboy, lean backward when going downhill'), we were a little nervously climbing up the side of the glacier, accompanied by the 'crunch' of every step. Walking over to the hole in the ice cave, we found ourselves looking down on where we had stood earlier. We wandered a little further before carefully making our way back down again (lean back, cowboy crunch...).

After saying goodbye to our wonderful guide, we hopped back into the car and drove the short distance to another famous Icelandic sight - Jokulsarlon, an iceberg lake. After falling for the beauty of these floating monuments to nature in Antarctica, I was keen to see some more. Although on a much smaller scale, the 'bergs were still lovely, glittering in the sunlight whilst being pulled gently along by the strong winds. A peaceful location, and perfect to re-visit later in the evening for the sensational Northern Lights display.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

What I learnt from chasing the Northern Lights

Although we knew there was no guarantee of a sighting, we did our research on increasing our chances of viewing the Aurora Borealis. With a wealth of advice already available, we found tips that were common amongst all sources, and some that slightly contradicted each other. In the end, there were definitely some snippets of information that aided us, and some which didn't. Each experience is unique, and the conditions can be so vastly different that they really are uncontrollable; the lights will either show up or they won't. However, I learnt some things that were really useful, and we discovered some tips of our own.

I'd love everyone searching for the lights to have the same magical experience that we did, so here is a consolidation of advice we received and our own experience.

- There's lots written about the timing of the lights - most indicating that sightings are more common between 10pm and 2am. Whilst this may be true as a general rule, for us the show started before darkness had even settled, at 7pm, and continued until 10.30. If we'd have set off to arrive at 10pm, it would have been over. I think the trick here is to stay flexible and set out early, even if it means a longer wait. We reasoned that as we would be waiting anyway, we might as well do so in the car.

- On the other hand, the oft-heard suggestion of leaving artificial lights as far behind as possible is absolutely true. Within the cocoon of darkness, the aurora shone bright and vivid, reaching out across the sky in every direction with only the stars twinkling gently in the background.

- Our guide for the ice caves recommended finding a spot with a picturesque background. We took our chances at the famous iceberg lake, and it was perfect. Photographically, it provided a context in which to frame the lights, the ice glowing with the various colours and revealing the true scale of the spectacle. It was also peaceful and quiet, the water gently lapping against the shore as the wind rushed by.

- Take plenty of layers and some snacks! Having no idea about timings, we were prepared for upwards of 6 hours sitting in the car, in February. Warm clothing, a duvet for draping over, gloves, hat and scarf accompanied us, and even then we were cold after hours outside at a time. Snacks served as dinner and added fuel. It's also useful to bring a head torch to actually identify all these items in the dark!

- In terms of photography, I was worried about capturing anything on camera. Certainly not an expert in night photos at the best of time, I would have been happy with just a glimmer on screen. However, after trawling website after website in the weeks leading up the trip, I found a combination that worked quite well - if no-where near the standard of some of the photos I've seen! Setting the focus to infinity initially worked well, altering it slightly as time went on to try to sharpen the icebergs in the foreground, although it was a difficult balance and I certainly didn't always succeed. High aperture was also essential, and I fiddled with the exposure time a lot until I was happy. A tripod goes without saying, and even with the strong winds, it held up well. When the gusts were particularly bad I anchored the tripod behind the car, moving it further away only when confident that there was little risk of damage. Having an object in the foreground provided context and scale, the reflections of the aurora in the water dramatic and beautiful.

- The tools I found most useful for determining our 'hunting' plan were the aurora forecast, which can be found here: , and the local weather forecast. The aurora forecast shows a band of potential sightings, and a number indicating the strength, ranging from 0-9. On the night we saw the lights, the prediction was a 2 - classed as 'low', although in reality the display was incredible, so don't be dis-heartened if the band appears weak.

- Finally, my advice is to just sit and enjoy this magnificent spectacle. Yes, having a photo or two is great, but unless you live in an aurora band and have multiple opportunities to see them, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime event, so take the time to experience it fully!

* 2013 UPDATE* - We were fortunate recently to have a second encounter with the Northern Lights in Finnish Lapland in February 2013. This time, I attended a specialised Aurora photography class before embarking on our first night searching, and have written a more detailed post about photographing and preparing for seeing the lights here:

How to photograph the Northern Lights

Please check it out!


Friday, 2 March 2012

The hunt for the Northern Lights

Although fully aware that it is a game of chance, I can't deny that choosing to visit Iceland in winter was partially motivated by the reports/adverts/announcements popping up absolutely everywhere claiming that 2012 is the year of the Aurora Borealis, more commonly know as the Northern Lights.

This incredible phenomenon, caused by the collision of charged particles with atoms in high latitude, resulting in ghostly displays of colour in the dark sky, has long been on my bucket list. Even though we only had a week in Iceland, and were prepared for the definite possibility that they wouldn't show up, we were still determined to give it our best shot.

After a couple of days and the overcast sky in the west refusing to budge, we had to drastically change our plans. Huddled over my computer in the kitchen of our guesthouse whilst the rain lashed at the window outside, we checked weather forecasts across Iceland. The thick, heavy cloud seemed to consume the entire country... except one small part. A ray of hope gleamed in the south-east, a small patch promising clearer skies. We cross-checked the location with the aurora forecast online, and although the possibility of a sighting was still classed as 'low', the band just covered the southern coast. It was a slim chance, but a chance all the same.

Working out the distance and our experience of the roads so far, we estimated a journey time of over 6 hours driving. Not wanting to spend a whole day of our holiday stuck in the car, it was time for a bit of creative thinking. I emailed the guide we'd booked to visit the ice caves, and managed to re-arrange our trip for the following day. We packed up the car, trying to stop everything getting utterly drenched as we did so, and went to bed, the alarm set for 3am.

After reluctantly leaving the warmth, we were in the car and ready to leave at 3.30am. The wind was howling as we set off, driving extremely slowly over the bridges, trying not to get swept off the roads whenever we hit an exposed area. Tired after barely an hour from concentration, we were beginning to regret our enthusiasm. If we'd have taken the weather as a sign, we would have abandoned the journey multiple times. Whenever the wind ceased for a while, the rain began in earnest. The rain lifted, and the fog descended. The fog was swept the wind. And so on. When we finally reached our destination, nearly 7 hours later, we were exhausted.

But the skies were blue.

We spent the day touring the ice caves and iceberg lake (which I'll talk about in a future post) before finding ourselves an amazing guesthouse for the night. After a few hours much needed nap, we were ready and willing the skies to remain clear. I couldn't believe how nervous I was - although we'd reminded ourselves and each other for months that our chances were slim, the glimmer of hope remained. Surely the aurora would recognise the lengths we'd gone to?!?! By 7pm we'd decided that we'd rather make a start than sit around in our room waiting, and on advice from our guide from earlier in the day, set off for the iceberg lake 10 minutes away from our accommodation.

Idly staring out of the window on the drive, a wispy trail of bright white suddenly appeared in the sky. It forked down for a few minutes, then gradually faded away. It's a wonder F didn't crash the car when I started squealing - it was definitely no cloud. The white streaks continued as we reached the lake, the daylight hardly fading yet. We set up the camera and tripod, willing the wind to die down a little, and sat waiting in the car. The darkness slowly crept in, and with it more distinct trails of brilliant green, flowing gently into existence and staying for half an hour or more before disappearing. By now it was still only around 8.30pm, and as the brightest lights faded, we were thrilled at what we'd seen. But the show wasn't over yet - in fact, it had barely begun. Over the next couple of hours, bands of light covered the sky, arching out from behind the nearby glacier and right over our heads, like a rainbow. Long rays coated the icebergs with eerie colours, creating moving spirals in the sky.

Some bands seemed to appear out of no-where, whilst others crept gradually up, changing shape before our eyes like food colouring moving through milk. We were speechless. I desperately tried to capture as much as I could on camera, whilst also just admiring the show (advice on photographing the lights coming in the next post...), and feeling so incredibly lucky. Finally, by around 10.30pm the lights were fading, retreating bit by bit before leaving the sky dark and star-filled once more. Tired, cold, but utterly exhilarated, we dragged ourselves into the car and back to our guesthouse.

I slept like a log that night.