It’s almost the end of 2017 and this year just seems to have flown by in a blur. People are making New Year resolutions and I’m looking back to those that I made one year ago. I said I wanted to see some more new countries, and I certainly managed that! I also wanted to get some serious work done on a book I’m writing, and two weeks ago I finished the first draft. But one other resolution I had was to get better at photography. It’s a hard one to measure objectively, and honestly I’ve not spent nearly as much time as I should studying or practicing, but I think I have taken some decent photos this year.
Here are a few of my favourites:
First up is a photo I took almost a year ago, shortly after arriving in beautiful Sri Lanka. At Yala National Park, I was incredibly fortunate to see this leopard. It stepped out right in front of my car and stayed in full view for almost a minute.
I really like the challenge of shooting birds. I especially liked this one, of these really colourful little bee-eaters. Again, this was at Yala in Sri Lanka.
This year I have taken many photos underwater but honestly most of them haven’t turned out that well. In 2016 I had much better luck as I swam with mantas and through untouched reefs in Indonesia. This year I saw dozens of sharks and turtles but usually the photos turned out quite poor quality. I really liked this photo, though, of a school of fish in Sri Lanka.
My girlfriend and I went to visit Mt Fuji at the beginning of the year and we were lucky enough to have one day when it wasn’t completely cloaked in cloud. Just after the sun disappeared behind the mountain, I took a photo of her standing in front of it. The sun cast amazing colours on the few clouds that passed by.
I was playing around with black and white photos last winter and shot a few that I liked, including this one outside my school. The sky didn’t turn out well but I really like the harsh contrasts and the loneliness of the tree.
Look at this smile! Back in February, my girlfriend and I moved into a new house and found it had some occupants: a group of lizards lived there. They help us by keeping the mosquitoes under control and generally look quite cute if you can get up close enough.
Back in Scotland for a few weeks, I went out walking around Fife with my family. On one such walk, with my younger brother, we spotted this fox. In all my years, I had never before seen a fox in the daylight, but this one was out chasing rabbits. Thankfully my camera was able to zoom in far enough to get a picture. It did come close but was cautious and hidden in longer grass.
I really enjoy taking photos of wildlife (obviously) and near my parents’ house in Scotland I went out walking and saw this little fawn. I managed to get close enough to shoot a couple of photos before it barked and bounded off into the trees.
This statue of Rubens in Antwerp made for a great photo set against the dark sky and the jagged tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady.
There’s something about ominous skies this I just love, like this one in Bratislava.
This is perhaps my favourite photo of the year. Budapest was an unbelievable city to photograph because everywhere you turn there are beautiful buildings. However, I spent many hours up on this hill trying to catch the perfect light for getting the whole city in one shot. Although I had a few cameras with me, amazingly it was my old iPhone 5 that I used to snap this stunning panorama.
It’s cliched but I do like shooting the sunset over the sea. This one was taken somewhere in Koh Tao, Thailand.
I took dozens of photos around the little town of Shangri-La, high in the mountains of Yunnan. I wanted to capture the big sky and the incredible animals that you just don’t see back in the east of the country.
This photo was taken in Shangri-La a few months ago. I liked the sense of movement in the picture. It’s almost like looking at a video.
Although perhaps not a technically very good photo, I really liked this one from Yubeng, near Meilixueshan, on the Tibetan border of China’s Yunnan province. I took it around midnight with a GoPro.
In Ella, a local man had warned me not to visit Yala National Park, as he claimed it was too hard to see any animals. He recommended, instead, that I go to Udawalawe, where he said I’d be more likely to see elephants. I told him that I’d heard Yala was famous for leopards and he practically laughed in my face. “Nobody ever sees leopards,” he said.
I didn’t have any internet access during my time in Ella, so I couldn’t verify his claims, and had to make the difficult decision on instinct. I sat on the veranda at the wonderful Isuru Homestay, pondering my decision in the cold light of morning. One of the strange things about inland Sri Lanka is the startling difference in temperature between day and night. In the daytime it can be swelteringly hot, yet at night it genuinely quite cold. Come morning, I found myself grateful for the few winter clothes I’d worn on my way out of China. However, as the sun rose in the sky, it seemed as though my feet were in the tropics and my head was thousands of miles away. By ten o’clock, though, it gets truly tropical, and my wooly hat was back in the backpack.
I sat eating another massive, delicious breakfast while I pondered my conundrum, and even threw in a few extra notions – to visit Horton? Adam’s Peak? to head north or even over to the comparatively quiet eastern coast? With little information to go on, I decided to stick with my initial plan and see Yala National Park. In Africa the previous year, my luck in seeing animals was strong, and I felt that it might hold over. Despite the warning, I felt an irrational confidence that I would see a leopard once again.
From Ella to Katharagama
I bid farewell to my delightful hosts at Isuru and set off on a long, hot walk down the road to Ella, regretting that I’d spent so long thinking about where to go, instead of leaving early before the sun had risen so high. Then I stood and waited for long time at a ramshackle bus stop with a mix of foreigners and locals as various buses passed by on their way south. Everyone, it seemed, was heading to the coast except for me. Bus after bus passed by and told me that there weren’t going my way, ‘til eventually one headed for Matara picked me up and told me I could get off at Weerawila, and from there transfer to Katharagama, near the entrance to Yala.
The journey down through Ella Pass (or Ella Gap) was frightening, as the bus took corners at a ridiculous speed. People were thrown about inside the overcrowded vehicle, and I tried to hold on to my bag as well as the seat in front of me. People were tossed about like ragdolls and music blared from the speakers of the old, brightly painted bus, dulling the sound of the engine and brakes.
After a wild ride down the mountain, I got off at Weerawila and took a tuk-tuk to Katharagama instead of waiting for the much cheaper local bus. It cost 1,100, which is about ten times the price of the bus, but of course was faster and more convenient. It was also a lot more comfortable than being jammed in an overcrowded vehicle with my bags on my lap. We meandered through scenic countryside to the small town of Katharagama, which seemed a haphazard collection of little houses and temples and restaurants. My driver had no idea where to go, nor any sense of direction, but together we found our way to my next accommodation: Katharagama Homestay.
I was pleased to see that this little house was exactly like the other houses on the street – an authentic slice of Sri Lankan life. An old woman directed me to sit in a low-slung leather chair outside a concrete building as she finished sweeping indoors and brought me a pot of ginger tea. Later, a handsome young man who spoke impeccable English introduced himself and showed me around the small property. As we spoke, a huge monitor lizard sidled up to us. It seemed unaware of our presence, instead engaged in its hunt for grubs among the plants. In the trees above, some strange half-monkey, half-squirrel animals played noisily, and colourful birds flitted about between the branches.
I spent the late afternoon walking around the nearby area as the sun fell. The dusty streets filled with children playing cricket soon gave way to open expanses of rice paddies, and to the south there was a small lake filled with cranes and, according to the signs, crocodiles. I didn’t see any crocs, but you seldom do until they’re grabbing hold of your leg and pulling you into the water. Everywhere I went there were huge peacocks showing off their tail-feathers and crying loudly. I shot some photos of the sunset and then walked through the town until I found a friendly little restaurant to have dinner. Again, it was curry and rice – the local staple. There seemed to be very few foreigners around, and I felt this was a closer view of real Sri Lanka than Kandy or Ella.
At 05:30 I was met by two young men in a big open-sided jeep. They said very little as we set of through the cold, dark morning towards Yala National Park. I was a little apprehensive as we arrived and they had said nothing to me. The tour was rather expensive compared to those I’d taken in South Africa, and yet the guides didn’t even seem to speak English. Instead, they spoke to each other in the cab as I sat in the back, anxious that this may prove to be a massive waste of time.
The sun edged over the horizon as we entered the park and began to slowly drive around, looking for animals. There weren’t many other vehicles and I had mine to myself, having paid for a private tour. At first we saw a few interesting birds – bee-eaters, kingfishers, Brahminy kites, and serpent eagles – as well as some deer and wild boar. However, the guides didn’t seem to notice everything we passed, nor did they know the names of every animal. They certainly didn’t tell me much about the animals they did spot, as had been the case anywhere in Africa.
Still, there was plenty to see. Soon we passed a whole family of elephants, lots of crocodiles lazing in or by the water, dozens of mongooses (mongeese?), and more. The park itself was quite beautiful to see, and with so few vehicles on the roads it was very peaceful.
At 09:00 we stopped for breakfast by a long beach and once again I was presented with a veritable feast. Sri Lankan breakfasts were really impressing me. There were rotis, hoppers, and fruits. As we ate, I spoke to the one guide who spoke some English, and he told me he was training for the job but that he was embarrassed by his poor language skills. He seemed a nice guy, and he was obviously doing his best to improve his abilities, so I decided to put a bit more faith in him as the day went on.
We continued onwards, seeing elephants and other animals quite close, and stopped for lunch at 14:30, beside a little river. After eating, I climbed a tree and sat on a thick, white-barked branch hanging over the river. As I sat, I watched three macaques climb down from another tree and enter the jeep. I’d left my bag sitting open, with my camera charging on top of it. It was also filled with other somewhat valuable items. Thankfully, the monkeys delicately placed my camera and charger on a seat, reached into the bag passed all the valuables, and extracted only my iPhone charger. They then shot up the tree to the very highest branches and wrapped the cable around the top. Talk about cheeky monkeys…
It took ten minutes of throwing rocks and sticks to knock the charger down, but soon we were off again for the last section of the tour. By now we had seen everything except a leopard, and although I knew the late afternoon was a good time for leopard spotting (pun intended), I was no longer hopeful. I felt that the early morning had been our best chance. We continued to see more elephants and crocodiles, including a very close encounter with a young female elephant who decided she was unimpressed with our proximity to her family group.
Finally, as we headed towards the exit in the dying light, a very large leopard strolled casually in front of the jeep. It stopped for a moment and stared at us, then moved to the side of the road, where it stalked closer. It marked its territory, watched us again for a few seconds, and then disappeared into the bushes. It was an incredibly fortunate sighting – a completely clear viewing of an adult leopard. The guides phoned in the sighting and soon a half dozen jeeps sat around, with long lens pointing everywhere, but no one managed to catch a glimpse of the usually elusive animal.
Later, as we again headed for the exit, another car found another leopard, and my guides took off at alarmingly high speed towards the location. Here, we could see another leopard hiding in the buses. It was impossible to get a good photo, but the piercing green eyes in the darkness left a deep impression upon me. Moreover, this typical sighting – of a well-camouflaged animal hunkered down behind the vegetation – reinforced just how lucky I’d been. It was now six o’clock and the guides were eager to go. Yet as darkness fell, animals kept presenting themselves, and the drive home was filled with closer encounters with elephants.
Back at the homestay, the old lady cooked me a delicious dinner, and I sat and reflected upon my luck. My early anxiety about the quality of the tour had proven ill-founded. Instead, I was presented with another amazing safari experience, getting close to some of the most incredible animals on the planet. Regardless of what came next during my time in Sri Lanka, this day had made it all worthwhile.
After leaving St. Lucia, I took a mini-bus to Durban in the hopes of doing some cage diving with the sharks at nearby Aliwal Shoal. While there I stayed at Banana Backpackers, which is hands-down the worst hostel I’ve ever encountered. If you’re a fan of rats and cockroaches, by all means check it out. Otherwise, stay clear. Unfortunately for me, the currents were strong and visibility was down to nil, so the diving was cancelled.
I was not wildly impressed by Durban, mostly because I’m not a city person, so, after only one night I took a Greyhound bus to Johannesburg, and on to Zimbabwe. Mercifully I was only in Jo’burg for a few hours as I waited for a bus transfer. It seemed like hell on earth. In the short journey through the city on the bus, I saw numerous people being arrested, and countless others should should’ve been arrested. At the station I was constantly being approached by scam-artists – many of them who actually worked for bus companies.
Needless to say, I was glad to be on my way to Zimbabwe. However, at the border we encountered a delay. We arrived at 5am and it took until 7am for me to get my passport stamped. What was the cause of the delay? Oh, nothing. There’s just no rush in Zimbabwe… I was furious and thought that I’d miss my bus, but when I returned it was still waiting. “That’s lucky,” I thought.
I took my seat and waited… and waited… and waited.
When eventually we took off from the border and headed towards Bulawayo it was almost three o’clock! That’s more than nine hours waiting at the border!
Although the scenery on the way to Bulawayo was quite pleasing, I was too annoyed to enjoy it. Yet as we pulled into Bulawayo I couldn’t help but feel my heart lighten a little. It really is a charming little town. Bizarrely, it is reminiscent of both old Britain and old America. Trees everywhere, wide boulevards, old manor houses… It is an odd place, but very pleasant.
When we stopped, I got out and followed my iPhone’s directions to the nearest hostel. It was about two kilometers. A few taxi drivers tried to get me to ride with them but I said no. Amazingly, they politely accepted my refusal. What a nice change.
I walked to the hostel and got a reasonably priced bed for the night. The hostel had obviously fallen on hard times, and had a sign outside reassuring me that it was, in fact, open. I went in and the nice lady in charge seemed desperate, offering me a rate that was much cheaper than advertised, as well as an instant room upgrade. I went outside to find food and got a steak in an American steakhouse for $18. Given that my daily food budget had been about $3 until this point, it was quite a splurge.
The next day I book a daytrip to Matopo National Park, famous for its balancing boulders. Whereas in South Africa the parks had all been surprisingly cheap, here it seemed things would be much more expensive. My daytrip ended up costing $100 and didn’t even include a guide – just a driver.
My driver soon showed up and took me to Matopo. On the way, we were repeatedly stopped by police. It seemed that they were stopping everyone, hoping for some excuse to impose a fine. In his case, the driver was simply unlicensed to be taking people to the park. He managed to talk his way through each stop, though.
At the park, we drove around, seeing the main attractions. My driver spoke good English and obviously remembered much of what the guide had said, so he acted as a guide for me. However, he had no idea what any of the animals were, and so when it came to wildlife, I was the guide. He was also super-Christian (like most Zimbabweans seemed to be) and didn’t really understand much about world history. So he’d ask me things like, “Why did God make those rocks like that?” and I’d have to gently explain the finer points of our planet’s history.
We first visited the grave of Cecil John Rhodes, who is now a very controversial figure, with his statues being removed in the West due to rejection of our colonial past. In Zimbabwe, however, he seems more fondly remembered. Politics aside, his gravesite was well-chosen. While there, my guide and I saw a leopard fighting a pack of baboons down below.
After that we continued to a number of caves, where we saw ancient cave paintings. These really impressed me. I’ve attached some photos below, but due to Chinese internet problems I can’t attach as many as I’d like.
After the park, my driver took me to the train station and I got the train back north to Victoria Falls. I shared a cabin with some railway staff who were travelling for free on their work pass. One of them told me that they hadn’t been paid since December, 2014! He cursed the Mugabe government for its corruption and failure to lead the country. They continue to go to work each day, hoping to get paid, while receiving food from their families to keep them alive.
After leaving Tofo I travelled south to the capital of Mozambique, Maputo, via a small combi bus. This was the first of many combi trips on my African journeys, and a gentle introduction to the concept of “African Time” – the slow paced life that is common throughout the continent, where nothing leaves on time and no one likes to be rushed.
In Maputo I had some big problems as I couldn’t access any of my bank accounts, and there seemed to be no internet connection. Up north I’d had no internet whatsoever, and just trusted that I could get online in the capital. Alas, I was mistaken.
I managed to get a combi to the South African border for $1 and walked across on foot, following the Maps.ME app on my iPhone to a guesthouse in Komatipoort, just a couple of kilometers from the Ressano Garcia border crossing. The place was called Kruger View Backpackers, and true to its name I could see Kruger National Park from the decking on the second floor. In fact, in the day I could see kudu and impala, and at night I could hear hippos in the Crocodile River.
I stayed a few days and during that time they helped me book a day tour of Kruger. Luckily for me, no one else booked the trip and so I got a personal tour of the park. The above photos were taken by me during that day. You can see that it was raining, which was very rare during this especially dry season. The rain seemed to bring out the animals, and I saw four of the Big Five – everything except a lion. I was lucky enough to see a leopard, although it was hard to get a photo of him.
Kruger is one of the best protected and most impressive parks on Earth, yet even they are losing rhinos to poaching at an alarming rate. According to my guide, we have about six years before they’re all gone. The night before I arrived, on a full moon, poachers shot dead two rhino near the Crocodile Bridge camp before anti-poaching teams could be dispatched. Fortunately, the poachers were all killed or arrested, except for one. However, for as long as rich people want rhino horn, there will be poor people highly paid to do this despicable act. I felt privileged to see these beautiful animals up close in the wild. If I ever have children, they won’t be so lucky.