The main focus of my last trip was to photograph tigers in two of India's national parks: Ranthambhore & Bandhavgarh. Easier said than done. Most of the wildlife I've tracked has been in Africa, and although there were a lot of similarities, there was one major difference - tigers seemed to be a bit harder to find than African cats. Out of the 14 game drives we did, we had 4 tiger sightings. Others saw more, some saw less. What we saw was terrific, but you tend to forget that these are really dangerous animals, and you get used to being near them. We were unfortunately reminded of that one day when we got word that one of the park rangers was killed close by by a large male tiger. It was a very sad day, and it made the news all over the country. Managing the wildlife and visitors in parks is a hot topic in many places, but this brought a lot of issues up for the Indian government.
I went to India in the summer season ( you may have heard of their recent heat wave). In summer the brush is less dense, so the tigers have fewer places to hide and the heat will often drive them out to cool off in the shrinking amount of watering holes. That's where we found them. In the morning as it got hot and in the late afternoon they would come out to drink and cool off. One family of a mother and her cubs in Bandhavgarh was a particular favorite - we saw them twice- once by a lake and another time finishing off a meal of spotted deer. It was a great and interesting trip with a couple of amazing encounters. Here are a few highlights:
Yes, I've been to a lot of places, and seen a lot of stuff. Buildings and architecture are great, but not a major thing for me. This was different. Seeing the Taj Mahal was really something. I wasn't prepared for what an impact it made on me. It's hard to explain - it may be that you see pictures and hear about it your whole life. It may actually be that it's just an incredible building. Probably both, I don't know. But I do know that seeing it in person was amazing. It's hard to try to find a way to photograph the thing in a way that maybe hasn't been done before, and that was my challenge - that and trying to stop saying to myself "You're at the Taj Mahal".
We went at night on a full moon ( no tripods allowed, and only 20 minutes or so to shoot from behind a barrier, which made life interesting ), and we went back the next morning at first light before the crowds came, which was great. Most people know the story of the Indian emperor building the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his wife in the mid 1600's. What I didn't know was that that emperor's son and successor put his father in prison in Agra Fort in his later years. The emperor's only request was that his prison cell face the Taj so he could see it every day. (about a mile and half away from Agra Fort) He stayed imprisoned there until he died. The other thing I didn't realize is the amount of detail there is on the building. There is a lot of fairly elaborate hand chiseled stone inlay in the marble entrances and on various walls. The amount of work that went into it is ridiculous. The inside is even more elaborate, but no photography is allowed there. It was an impressive place. Here are a few shots that I hope give you an idea of what it was like:
I have a lot of posts ahead of me here after returning from India and Myanmar. Two extraordinary countries, and two extraordinarily different countries. I was only in Myanmar for short time, with a couple of days each in a few places that interested me. Actually other places interested me more, but even though things have opened up there in the last few years, the government still decides where it's permissible to go. In other words, they don't want you to go where they're still doing horrible things. It made for some interesting discussions with my guides. One of the spots I made it to was Inle Lake - a beautiful lake located roughly in the middle of the country. I went there primarily to check out the fishermen who have some interesting methods of getting their work done. It's really interesting to see what happens when relatively isolated people pass down their idiosyncratic ways of working. These fishermen use very small hand made canoes, and need both hands free to work their nets, so they've learned to row with one of their legs wrapped around an oar. They row with one of their legs while unfurling their nets. Once the nets are down, they slap the water with bamboo poles to scare the fish into the nets, then row again to pick up the nets and grab their fish. They repeat this until the sun goes down or they have enough fish. These guys worked really hard for a very small return. There weren't a lot of fish, nor were they very big. They get a few cents per fish back in their villages. Here's a few photos of these fellas at work:
I know, I know, it's completely unique to do a "year in review" post, right? Well, indulge me for a couple of minutes as I give this a try. This was a big travel year for me. I was fortunate enough to fit in an amazing trip to Africa, a week in Mexico, and a trip to Indonesia. Not too shabby.
On the way to Africa, I stopped for a a little time in Dubai, which always seems to me to be like a giant Rodeo Drive crossed with Las Vegas. A nutty and ostentatious place, with lots of over-the-top architecture to photograph.
The trip to Africa included my first visit to Namibia and I can't wait to get back there. I was there for 10 days, and it was hardly an introduction. I hit a few of the highlights: the dunes of Sossusvlei, rhino tracking in the Ongava Reserve, and the deserts of Kaokoland along the border with Angola. I think you could spend months in Namibia and still feel like you haven't started to get a handle on the place. It's beautiful, with amazing landscapes, wildlife, and people. Meeting the primitive Himba tribes in Kaokoland was definitely one of the more amazing experiences. After days of working on landscape photos, it was great to visit with these tribes. We found mostly groups of women and children living in the desert, while the men of the "villages" were out grazing their cattle for months at a time. Not an easy life, but they were really happy people.
The second part of the trip was to Olare Orok Conservancy in Kenya. It's a great private reserve adjacent to the Masai Mara. I was there once before, and it was just as amazing this time, with lots of big cats, big herds of impala, buffalo and wildebeest.
Here's a short aerial video I did while in Namibia & Kenya.
In August, I dived with whale sharks off the coast of Isla Mujeres in Mexico. This is a great little island not far from Cancun. It's a relatively quite resort island, which just happens to have one of the largest congregations of whale sharks in world showing up in the summer.
The last trip of the year was to Indonesia to dive in West Papua and Raja Ampat, combined with stops in Singapore and Bali. I love Singapore, another nutty place with crazy architecture and great food. The food may be my main reason for making sure I spend a couple of days there while on my way through Asia.
It was my third time diving in Raja Ampat, and there's a reason divers endure the long trip to get there. (once you get to either Jakarta or Bali, it's at least an extra day's worth of domestic flights on fairly questionable airlines to even more questionable airports.) But it's simply the best diving on the planet with the healthiest, most colorful, most plentiful reefs anywhere. The variety of life is astounding. And there are some of the fishiest dive sites I've ever been on - and I've seen some fish. Diving there is a real treat, and for a photographer - a great opportunity.
Sometimes it's the simple things that can keep you happy. I will admit right off that I like shiny objects and pretty colors. That puts these fish, called "golden sweepers" right up there at the top of my list. I look for them every time I find myself in the waters of Indonesia (well I don't just find myself there, I go there deliberately). During the day they're usually hanging out under corals or rocks, trying to stay safe and alive. But it's really the way they school and move that I like. They stay in pretty tight formations for protection and they often move really quickly in unison. When the schools are big enough like some pictured here it can be like little golden trains swooping through the reefs. These are few moments from my recent trip.
I've been to Bali more than most other places I've visited. Sometimes only for a couple of days on the way to remote dive spots in Indonesia, sometimes for longer stays. I've been going there every couple of years for over two decades, and aside from the growth and changes you would expect anywhere, I always find something new and different. Not new like a new building or something, more like a new old thing that I missed before. For a relatively small island, there's a lot to experience. Ancient culture mixed with modern civilization and a lot of tourists. You can be in the middle of nowhere watching rice farmers working the paddies, and walk into a tiny store with the fastest wifi you've ever had. You can also be in the more urban areas and have to stop for a religious procession walking through the middle of heavy traffic. It's a weird mix, but always fascinating. I'd really like to stay a few weeks sometime to really get a handle on the place. I was there again recently and stayed a few extra days to visit a couple of new/old spots and look around. Here are a few photos from my most recent trip.
As far as tropical islands go, Mexico’s Isla Mujeres is a pretty sleepy one. The primary mode of transportation? Golf carts & bicycles. It has nice beaches and some good restaurants, but maybe because it’s small and close to bigger or more exciting places like Cancun or Cozumel, it seems to have avoided a lot of the craziness and big development those places are known for. The real action is in the water. In January it’s Atlantic sailfish, and in August it’s whale sharks. Different fish. Same water. Same sleepy island. In the winter months the sailfish show up to chase schools of sardines that come into the area. It’s high energy stuff, with sometimes dozens of sailfish attacking a bait ball. At one point, we counted 48 sailfish around us. They move fast, and it’s a workout to keep up with them. We were prepared to dive, but most of the action happens at the surface, so all we needed were snorkels. Same thing in August with the whale sharks. The whale sharks come in for big fish spawning events in the summer. The water gets thick with fish eggs and plankton, and the whale sharks come in to scoop them up. They’re slower moving than the sailfish, but the excitement of getting in the water with them is the same. Their size makes up for their lack of speed. It’s plenty of excitement. And besides, you can sleep back on the island.
While on my trip in Namibia, I visited the Ongava Game Reserve, near Etosha National Park. It's a place well known for rhinos. We were doing our usual game drives - one in the morning, one in the afternoon. On the first day, only an hour or so after I had arrived, we had some good white rhino sightings. I had seen rhinos before in other countries, but they were pretty far away and pretty skittish. These were close and seemed reasonably comfortable with our vehicle being nearby. The next afternoon we found more rhinos, except this group was a bit too far away for decent photos. But today was going to be different. My guide Abram decided we should follow them on foot - something I had hoped for, but hadn't mentioned to him yet. Abram carried a rifle in case of emergency, I carried 2 cameras and a couple of lenses. This was very cool. The difference from being in the safety of a vehicle is kind of startling and refreshing. The ability to get a different perspective for photos was great. Abram told me that the group would pretty much do whatever the youngest rhino would do. If she got spooked, they would all bolt with her. If she got agitated and charged us, the group would help out. So we were ummm.... careful... especially with one of them sporting a nearly 3 foot long horn. We tracked them for over an hour and a half, at times getting as close as a few feet. Eventually they went into some deep brush that was impossible for us to get through. We never seemed to be in any real immediate danger, although we had a few tense moments where we had to back up and act like we were leaving. Getting face to face with these rhinos was a nice change of pace and a great adventure.
Ok, so the first thing you need to know about the Namibian desert is that it's huge. It goes up the entire coast of Namibia - longer than California by about 300 miles - and stretches inland up to 100 miles. It's not just big that way, it also has the tallest dunes in the world. So... it's huge. It's also old. It's considered the oldest desert in the world. I don't know how they figure that out, but who am I to argue? But, before I get all Wikipedia on you, what you really need to know it that it's absolutely amazing to be there. In Sossusvlei the sand is pink/red/orange, in the north it is golden. The shear volume of sand is mind boggling, and for a photographer it's the kind of place you can stay in for days and never run out of stuff to shoot. Here's a few images to give you an idea.
It's always good to visit with the locals, especially when the locals are as interesting as the Himba. The Himba are nomadic tribes found in northern Namibia. They set up semi-permanent settlements and then graze cattle on what little grass the desert provides. Where are the men you ask? They are out with the cattle for weeks or months at a time. They follow the rain and go as far away as needed to keep the cows fed. The women and children stay in the "village". I visited with a couple of groups who were living near the camp where I stayed along the Namibia/Angola border. A beauty tip if you want to be a fashionable Himba woman: use ochre on your skin and in your hair. The women put a fresh coat on their skin every morning and use the clay in their hair and jewelry. It's a cool look.
I knew I was going to Africa at the tail end of the rainy season. Previous trips had been mostly in the winter months and I wanted a different look to my photos. What I guess I didn't count on was the actual rain part. I mean I knew it would be raining at some point, but aside from bringing a poncho, it didn't really register what that meant. And while I always hoped for beautiful late afternoon sun to light up something for me to shoot, I more often got storms. Dramatic, lightning filled storms. A couple in Namibia and every day in Kenya. So that's what I would take photos of in the afternoons - big dramatic storms. "And if you can't be with the one you love...." I think it was Stephen Stills who taught me that.