Monday, 25 March 2013

Monday photo - 25th March

A dizzying slog up steep, winding steps, to be greeted at the top by a blast of icy wind and damp air. Clouds hung low in the sky, threatening to break at any moment. But no matter what elemental forces batter and surround them, the proud gargoyles at the top of Note Dame Cathedral continue to watch over the city of Paris, and, for a short period of time, I joined them.  

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Finnish Lapland: Do's and Don'ts!

If you are seeking a true winter break in a landscape that could have been transported straight from a Narnia book, then I would highly recommend Finnish Lapland. A never-ending blanket of glittering white set against faded blue skies, it's no wonder that some of the visitors we met during our stay return year after year. Here's my tips for visiting this spectacular region...


- Arrange an Aurora hunting session with an experienced guide if possible. As you may have realised from previous posts on this site, F and I are usually in favour of 'going it alone' and are dubious about paying for a tour in an area that can be easily explored solo. However, when it comes to the unpredictable, notoriously tricksy Northern Lights, I'd definitely advise getting all the assistance you can. Having someone by your side who knows the region well, is willing to drive for hours through all conditions to find a clear patch of sky and studies forecasting maps daily is a luxury that will almost certainly pay for itself multiple times over in incredible memories.

- Sample some of the hearty and delicious Lappish cuisine. Reindeer is a popular choice and has the novelty value, but fresh salmon broths, creamy mashed potatoes, tangy berry sauces and dense breads are also staples of local diets. My personal favourite was the combination of tart, juicy berries against rich gamey meat common throughout Scandinavia. Yum!

- Visit the wonderful Sami museum in Inari to learn about the history and culture of native peoples in Lapland. With interactive exhibitions and beautiful photography, it provides an informative context to the landscape, wildlife and way of life all around you.


- Visit on a tight budget. Northern Europe is extremely pricey compared to the rest of the continent, and Lapland is no exception. If you are eager to experience a husky ride, snowmobiling or reindeer experience, plus a couple of nice meals, then expect to pay as much in a week as in two or three elsewhere.

- Miss out on a sleigh ride. The quintessential winter activity, watching the world slip by as you are pulled along by powerful dogs is an incredible experience. Just remember to wrap up warmly, and be prepared to eat and mouthful or two of snow if you end up with a feisty pack of huskies.

- Forget to choose your season carefully. If seeking the Aurora, then October/November and February/March are considered peak times with less cloud coverage. The temperatures are extremely low in January, but so are the visitor numbers. December will be full of families visiting Santa on day or weekend trips, with flights booking up quickly. And if you'd rather avoid the cold altogether, I heard great things about hiking during the summer months (just watch out for mosquitoes during July!)

Missed any posts on Finnish Lapland? Find them all here:

Arriving in Lapland
Dancing colours in the sky: The beautiful Northern Lights in Lapland
How to photograph the Northern Lights
A huskie sleigh ride through a winter wonderland
A day with the Reindeer
Winter in Lapland: A photo-blog

Monday, 18 March 2013

Monday photo - 18th March

Hot, fiery and full of flavour - when visiting the Sichuan province of China this delicious hotpot dish is a must. After the boiling broth is delivered to the table, kept bubbling by the table-top stoves, you choose skewers packed with meat, fish and vegetables to cook inside. Without English labels, it was often a mystery selection - you never knew what you were going to get until it had already passed your lips.  

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Winter in Lapland: A photo-blog

Finnish Lapland is an incredibly beautiful place to visit during winter. Frozen lakes stretch across the landscape, fringed by trees, the ice a metre thick in parts. Reindeer stroll wherever they please (which unfortunately can lead to disaster when their wandering brings them in front of a car), and huskies carry visitors across the frozen plains. If you're particularly lucky, you might glimpse the elusive Aurora Borealis on a clear night. Here's some photos from our week in the far north...

The sun sets, draped in thick cloud
Eerie green light streaks across the sky as the Aurora explodes into life
I particularly enjoyed our huskie ride as the dogs swept us past pine forest
The interactive and engaging Sami museum in Inari is well worth a visit
Lakes covered with thick ice and a dusting of snow
Small wooden houses and saunas dot the landscape
Gentle reindeer munch tasty lichen
As the sun rose on our final day, we were reluctant to leave

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

A day with the Reindeer

Think of Lapland, and once you've got the image of a fat, jolly man with a bright red suit out of your head, you'll probably turn to Reindeer. With their distinctive antlers and evolution to cope with the extreme cold, Reindeer far outnumber humans across the snowy north and can be found wandering along roads (causing huge numbers of traffic accidents every year) and through the forests.

What I hadn't realised before our trip was that there are no truly wild Reindeer in the whole of Lapland. Although set free for the majority of the year, each animal is owned, with distinctive ear markings identifying a herd. Some Sami families continue to rely on Reindeer as a primary measure of wealth, and asking how many someone owns is considered a great insult (in line with asking a stranger how much money they earn). Whilst some families still own hundreds of the beautiful beasts, others have smaller farms with tamer animals.

What hasn't changed over time is the importance of Reindeer meat to Sami (and Finnish Lapland in general) culture, with the rich, gamey taste absolutely delicious and tender. Whilst in Inari, we made sure to order a Reindeer-based meal one evening, and also paid a visit to a local Sami women to learn about her family connection to the animals and how she balanced tradition with her modern life.

It was an interesting afternoon - her family still keep around twenty Reindeer, a much reduced number from just a couple of generations ago, who split their time between wandering the surrounding forest and staying in the extensive back garden space. Every year, one is chosen for slaughter to provide meat for the family, although they no longer rely solely on Reindeer for the meat aspect of their diets.

We helped feed the animals tasty lichen (they mostly forage for their own food, but it is topped up during the winter months), hopping backwards as they all rushed forward at once for dinner. Gentle, with soft warm eyes, it was very hard not to fall for them as they gently munched on handfuls of the mossy treat. Despite the bulky antlers, they were very agile, weaving in and out of each other's way as the sun set behind them. It was sad to hear that so many are killed every year on the roads, although having seen two jump out in front of the car one evening, I'm not surprised.

After visiting the Reindeer, I was keen to learn more about the history of the region, and paid a visit to the excellent Sami museum in Inari. With interactive displays, large purpose-built spaces and a well-laid out route, it was a superb and very informative place. We saw the huge variety of ear markings used over time, and well as witnessing (through the wonders of time lapse), the effect of the changing seasons on Lapland's landscape. I'd highly recommend a few hours put aside for a visit there.


Monday, 11 March 2013

Monday photo - 11th March

This week's 'Monday photo' comes from Vietnam, and the beautiful Halong Bay. Despite the almost constant rain during our couple of days on a boat there, I was amazed by the thousands of small islands - jutting rocks covered with rich green moss and plants.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

A huskie sleigh ride through a winter wonderland

Although we were incredibly grateful for our wonderful experience with the Northern Lights, they were not the only excursion we participated in during our time in Lapland. On the second morning, bundled up in multiple layers as the temperature began to drop, we made our way to a nearby farm where we would have the opportunity to take part in a quintessential winter activity - a huskie sleigh ride.

Upon arrival at the farm, we were greeted by two adorable puppies before being taken to choose our already-harnessed dogs from a selection of teams. We opted for the group who immediately arched forward to greet us, and were soon hopelessly besotted, smothering them with cuddles. Smaller than I had imagined, the huskies were nevertheless keen to get going, and I settled into the sleigh as F volunteered to drive first.

We set off at speed, the dogs eager to run. Racing through the first few minutes, they then slowed to a more comfortable pace, allowing us to soak up the atmosphere and look around us as the landscape opened up. The perfect winter wonderland, we drove through pine forests and over lakes, powdery snow flicking up around us. Sitting inside the sleigh felt safe and relaxing, although the lack of movement allowed the cold to slowly creep up my body. F relished the driving, and we watched, amazed, as our dog team remembered every turn and bend, even when we'd lost sight of the few other sleighs accompanying us. Although our team were not the fastest, what they lacked in speed they certainly made up for in spirit, grabbing mouthfuls of snow and rolling around playfully every time we stopped.

Just as my fingers began to lose all feeling, we paused for lunch. Leaving the dogs resting outside, we bundled into a tepee as our guide cooked the most delicious salmon soup over a much-appreciated open fire. I thawed through watching tender lumps of fresh fish plop into fragrant stock, and thoroughly enjoyed every spoonful.

After lunch we had the opportunity to swap drivers, so F wrapped up in the reindeer furs whilst I jumped on the back and took control of the brake. Initially I was a anxious - the huskies were incredibly strong and I was concerned that little 'ol me wouldn't have the power to slow them down. But I needn't have worried - the sharp brake cut into the ice with ease and the dogs were used to responding quickly. Plus, it was a great feeling - the icy wind brushed against me as we glided along the soft snow, swerving to avoid trees. Every now and then we hit a small hill, and I jumped off the skis, pushing the sleigh to assist the dogs before leaping back on as we picked up speed bumping down again.

By the time we neared the end of the ride, I was feeling confident. Everything had gone smoothly, the dogs seemed happy and I was much more relaxed, and dare I say it, even a little cocky. I was clearly a natural at this huskie driving lark. Well, they do say that pride comes before a fall...

We were rounding the corner back at base when a young boy (one of the children living on the farm) jumped onto our sleigh from the side. losing his balance, he toppled off, but not before pulling the sleigh to the left. The dogs, completely confused, continued on their path, picking up speed as the sleigh tipped further and further. The only thing I could do to right it was yank to the opposite side, although I got a little carried away and ended up throwing myself off the back. Luckily one of the guides was nearby and managed to catch the escaping sleigh before the dogs made off too far with poor F, who could do absolutely nothing from inside!

I, meanwhile, picked myself up and sheepishly jumped back on. Note for the future: never think that you are have any control whatsoever over a hoard of strong dogs and an extremely heavy sleigh. Lesson learnt...

Despite the rocky finish, I had an absolute blast on the huskie sleigh ride. Borne along over frozen lakes and through thick forests by the sheer strength of these gorgeous animals, it was a unique and memorable day.

Catch up on the rest of our adventures in Finnish Lapland here:

Arriving in Lapland...
Dancing colours in the sky: The beautiful Northern Lights in Lapland
How to photograph the Northern Lights

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

How to photograph the Northern Lights

Let me preface this post by saying that I am in no way a professional photographer. I'm a photography enthusiast with a pretty good camera that I can (mostly!) find my way around. But when it came to taking shots of the Aurora, I was a true amateur. Last year in Iceland, through a lot of fiddling and trial and error, I'd manage to capture some of the colour, but my shutter speed would be a little off. I'd adjust the speed, and the colour wouldn't be quite as vivid. And so on.

This time around, I was determined not to make the same mistakes. Our time with Andy included some Aurora-specific tuition, and I intended to get the most out of it. His advice proved to be priceless, and coupled with the multiple sightings we were fortunate to have, I had the time to play around and tweak elements until I was happy.

I'd love everyone who sees the lights to capture a shot that they are truly proud of, so here are some of the tips I picked up...

Don't compare...

Dominant greens fill the oxygen-rich Lappish sky
We are flooded on the internet with images of the Aurora that can easily trick us into believing that every display is a sky filled with rainbow colours, instantly recognisable. The truth is often very different. The first clue that you may be lucky is a translucent or grey-ish flash overhead, which then fades out of existence. Once you've spied it, set up the camera and wait, as more is sure to follow. Some Aurora displays never actually contain any colour that the naked eye can see, whilst others build up in intensity to those vivid recognisable greens.

Similarly, colour is entirely dependent on location. In Lapland, where the air is heavily oxidised, green dominates, with occasional tinges of red. Andy sighed about photos supposedly taken in the same area with strong blues, purples and violet. This heavy-handed photoshopping was his nemesis, giving visitors unrealistic expectations of what they could expect to see.

Take test shots

A test shot - to my eye, both the cloud and the Aurora were the same shade of grey, but the camera knew otherwise...
Test shots are the key tool of an Aurora seeker. Long before the human eye is able to perceive the lights, a far more sensitive camera can pick out colour, and help determine whether that grey line in the sky is solar activity or just a drifting cloud. On our second evening, we stopped by the side of the road after spotting some extremely pale streaks, and snapped a test photo. There, very clearly on the LCD display, was the tell-tale colour that confirmed that we were looking at the start of an Aurora display. It was difficult to reconcile this with the grey that was actually visible, and I would have completely missed it if not for the camera.

Tweak settings according to your camera and lens

Shoot the stars to check if the focus is set accurately

If using a SLR camera, then the lens is the vital piece of equipment here. Whenever I looked online for advice about photographing the Aurora, they were a few setting 'requirements' given. This is great, if your camera and lens supports those requirements. If they don't, then some playing around will be necessary. Experts advise that the aperture of the lens should be set at f2.8, with the shutter speed varying between 10 and 15 seconds (depending on the light conditions). ISO can usually sit on auto. However, not all lenses have this capability. My wide angle lens has a maximum aperture of f4.0, which drastically alters the amount of light it can let in. As a result, I needed to increase the exposure time.

Fiddling around is the only sure way to tweak the settings for maximum effect. As the moon was very bright during our sightings, I could afford to hover around a 10 - 15 second exposure on f4.0. My ISO spent most of the time on auto, although once I was confident that the other settings were correct, I changed it slightly to bring out more of the blues in the sky.

Another great tip is to set the focus to infinity initially, check it is correct (using stars is ideal - if they are pin sharp then you're spot on), then tape it down with insulation tape so there's no chance of the lens being knocked out of position.

Finally, a sturdy tripod and self timer are essential for preventing shake - if you set the camera up ready to go in the car then you won't have to worry about fitting it to the tripod as the lights dance above you.

Think about the foreground

The dark, snow-hung trees add interest to the shot
Once your settings are sorted out, and you've finished excitedly telling everyone around you that you've captured the Aurora in all its glory, you can think about framing your images. Composure makes a huge difference to the overall effect of your photos, and choosing an interesting foreground brings context and scale. Lapland is ideal for this - the tall, sharply defined pine trees were the perfect accompaniment to the soft, dancing lights, and there's no lack of vast, frozen landscapes. But man-made structures can be just as effective, as we discovered when a band arched over a nearby house on the third night.

Play with light

Becoming more confident with my exposure balance
For me, the real coup de grace was having myself and F as the foreground in one of our photos of the lights. In order to appear as more than a vague silhouette, Andy taught us how to paint with light to immortalise ourselves on the screen. Much simpler than I'd thought, the process involves beginning the exposure, then gently using a torch or headlight to pass over the person (or object) for a second or two, before removing the light and allowing the exposure to finish (continuing to stand absolutely still). The short brush of white captured us in colour without washing out the Northern Lights behind.

Come prepared

You'd rather be watching this then spending your time bouncing up and down to keep warm!
I've already mentioned this in greater detail in last year's post about chasing the lights, but personal preparation really is key to ensure that your encounter is an enjoyable one. Eating a hearty meal before setting out and wearing layers of warm clothes and good boots means you won't spend hours frantically jumping up and down on the spot, and also bring a head torch for adjusting camera settings. Be aware of your surroundings - dashing onto a frozen lake, eyes fixed overhead, isn't the most sensible idea unless you are sure it is safe. Finally, it probably goes without saying, but patience is everything...

Don't forget to enjoy the spectacle!

It's easy to get wrapped up in taking photos - I was certainly guilty of that at times! But don't forget where you are, and what is taking place before your very eyes. Take some shots, then stand back and just admire the other-worldly beauty of the Aurora Borealis. It never failed to set my heart racing, and is definitely one of the most magical sights I've ever had the privilege to witness.

Missed reading about our encounters with the Northern Lights? Check out this post:

Dancing colours in the sky: The beautiful Northern Lights in Lapland

Monday, 4 March 2013

Monday photo - 4th March

During our whole time in Costa Rica last year, we were continuously on the look out for sloths. Asleep for much of the day, we would occasionally spot these elusive creatures resting high up in trees, but could only pick out their features by pulling out the binoculars. Until, that was, we turned a corner and there was a baby sloth crossing the road in front of us. An incredible encounter, we had just enough time to take a few photos before our guide helped the little cutie back into the trees where he belonged.