Posted in Photography

Walking from Anstruther to Crail

This past weekend, I walked from Anstruther to Crail, on the southern coast of Fife. From the Tay Bridge to the Forth Bridge(s), it is actually possible to walk the whole of Fife’s pleasant coastline thanks to the Fife Coastal Path – a well-signed and well-maintained route along the beaches and cliffs. Of course, you’d need to be incredibly fit to do it in one day… and I expected it would probably take you just about 24 hours, but you can easily park in or near any of the little towns and villages, and do it section by section. In the past, I have walked from Elie to St. Monans, as well as countless other stretches closer to home.

Here are some photos of the landscape and wildlife one finds between Anstruther and Crail:

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Posted in Photography

Walking and Birding in Fife

After my month-long travels around Europe, I returned to Scotland 10 days ago. In that time, I have been out walking and shooting photos in the area near my parents’ home in Fife.

Culross

Shortly after returning from Italy, I joined my family on a long walk around Culross (pronounced “koo-riss”), on the north side of the Forth. We set off on a lovely hike along the river, then up through the fields, past a “plague grave” and a war cemetery, to Culross Abbey, before ending the day with dinner at the Red Lion Pub in the middle of Culross.

As you can see, we were lucky to have mostly blue skies. It was a pleasant day, and very nice area of Fife that I hadn’t previously explored.

Loch Leven

I always think of Loch Leven as part of Fife, but in fact it is not. It’s over in Perth and Kinross, although still very close to Fife.

Last week I went with my parents to the RSPB at Loch Leven. That’s the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the area of land they look after on the south of the loch. Here, you’ll find a number of hiking trails (and even one that is wheelchair-friendly) set back into the hills. There is an astonishing variety of birds, and even some red squirrels. Most of these can actually be seen best right near the cafe and shop at the entrance, where the RSPB has set up a little garden with bird-feeders.

After visiting, I realized it may be time to invest in a better long-lens. And maybe a book about the different kinds of birds. I am pretty much clueless.

St. Andrews’ West Sands

Being so close to St. Andrews, I often find myself walking around the town or the nearby beaches. St. Andrews draws a lot of tourists each year, and it’s not hard to see why – it really is a beautiful place with a lot of history. (And that’s ignoring the golf.)

One day last week I visited the harbour and walked along to the castle:

St. Andrews Harbour

Later, I set out along the West Sands, a frequent place for walking in my family. We went from the town to the very end of the beach, at the Eden Estuary, and then doubled back. We stopped for lunch at the cafe above the Golf Museum and watched a man from Rentokil using his hawks and eagles to scare off the seagulls, which apparently attack people near the golf course.

 

Posted in Photography, travel

Naples – the Greatest City on Earth

Everyone says not to visit Naples. Even my Italian friends told me, “Don’t go there.” It is a city riddled by crime, apparently, where anyone foolish enough to walk the streets will be robbed by passing gangs. Yet something drew me there. It was the part of Italy I most wanted to visit, and after exploring Venice, Florence, and Rome, I headed south on a bus towards this apparently infamous city on the coast.

Arriving in Naples, I wasn’t immediately impressed, but bus stations usually aren’t the most charming places. I walked quickly towards my hostel, keeping my head down and trying to act as though I were a local in spite of my bags. I soon arrived at the Hostel of the Sun, and my opinion of Naples began to rise. The place was charming, and the staff incredibly friendly. A man called Luca spent 25 minutes explaining everything there was to do in Naples and the surrounding areas, passionately telling me where to eat and how to get to the best viewpoints.

That first night, I ventured out and tried my first genuinely Neapolitan pizza… it was magnificent, and cheap, too. Walking to the restaurant and back, I didn’t feel the streets were any more dangerous than any city back home in Scotland. After a night’s sleep, I headed out the next day to explore the city. Along with a friend from the hostel, I walked nearly 20km around Naples, taking in the sights and sounds. We were both utterly overwhelmed. There were a few obvious attractions, like the castles and panoramic views, but what really got us were the narrow, winding backstreets filled with colorful people. Laundry hung from windows and tiny old Italian cars and Vespas whizzed by, screeching on cobblestones. Marketplaces appeared in random corners of the city, where people sold vast wheels of cheese and all sorts of fish, even moray eels, which I did not know could be eaten.

The next day, we hopped a series of buses and trains for Amalfi, a tiny town south of Naples. The Amalfi Coast is famous, and for good reason. The road was much like Route 101 down the Californian coastline, and in particular quite like Big Sur. Except, unlike the US, the roads were tiny, and it was genuinely frightening when two buses had to scrape by each other, hundreds of feet up above the ocean. We were glued to the window, incredulous at the scenery.

Amalfi itself had little to see. It is more a village than a town, and there wasn’t much there except a handful of restaurants. We instead sat by the sea for a few hours, and then walked some of the dangerous twisting clifftop roads, before heading back to Naples on yet another series of buses and trains. We got back in time for dinner – which, in Italy, means we got back by 11pm. Dinner comprised of an incredible pizza, a bowl of mussels and other assorted seafood, and a bottle of white wine than cost just THREE EUROS. Seriously. Three Euros for a bottle of wine in a restaurant.

Naples is the greatest.

For our final day in Naples, we talked the city streets again, with no real destination in mind. By the third day (which was in fact my eleventh day in Italy) we were exhausted from walking so much, and again found a rock by the sea to sit on for a few hours. We stopped in a few places for gelato and paninis, and then said goodbye. She was off to Bologna, up north, and I to Bari, in the east.

*

Naples (or Napoli, as it is really called) is my favourite place in Italy by a long stretch. It is a stunning city filled with genuinely nice people – helpful, friendly, warm, interesting folk with odd habits and a curious passion for life. The food here is beyond description, and quite cheap compared to elsewhere. Though some parts seemed rather sketchy after dark, it certainly appeared no more dangerous than most cities, and a lot safer than Rome… as long as you can avoid being hit by a tiny speeding car on a blind backstreet alley.

Yes, Napoli is the very best of cities, in my humble opinion – not just in Italy, but in the world. Travelling here has been a pleasure.

Posted in travel

Walking Around Bratislava

Bratislava is perhaps the most beautiful city I have ever had the pleasure to visit, yet in terms of things to see, there’s actually not that much. It’s a small place – at least the historic centre is – and a day is pretty much enough time to get around everything a tourist would want to see. There are probably a number of guided tours you can do (certainly there are some free walking tours) but everything is in such a condensed area that it’s actually incredibly easy to find it all yourself. The only thing you miss is hearing the stories behind the sights.

A Day Exploring Bratislava’s Old Town

I set out on my first full morning from my hostel by walking over one of the bridges that crosses the Danube River so that I could shoot some photos of the castle and city skyline. On the other side, I found a pleasant little park full of odd statues, and a number of good locations on the bank of the river to take photos. Really, Bratislava Castle stands so clearly above everything else in town that it’s quite easy to see, so this was hardly a challenge. I returned the next day when the skies were clear blue, but actually the dark clouds ended up looking better over the castle.

Next, I crossed the New Bridge under a large UFO observation deck and restaurant, and then explored the Old Town. This historic area is comprised of beautiful old buildings with intricate facades, scenic squares filled with fountains and statues, and quaint little alleys. In the streets, dozens of cafes have been set up selling beer, ice cream, and coffee.

I moved on to the castle, which sits on a hill to the west of the Old Town. The climb up was fairly easy, and from the top one is presented with impressive views of the surrounding area, including some of Austria, which is just across the Danube. I wasn’t sure whether or not to go into the castle, as I was more interested in photos of and from it, but as entrance was only €8 I decided to take a look. I spent a few hours looking at the historical artifacts and paintings, which were somewhat interesting. Altogether, the castle is more impressive from the outside.

After walking around the gardens, I headed back down into town for a late lunch of sheep’s cheese, radish, and some sort of a Slovak “biscuit.” It was delicious and came with a big mug of cold beer. Thankfully, in Slovakia beer is both pleasant and cheap. Whereas in Amsterdam I could expect to pay about €5 for a decent beer, in Slovakia the average is just €2.

The next day, when waiting for my early afternoon bus to Budapest, I took another walk across the river and around the Old Town, as well as exploring a small park in the east of the city. My time in Bratislava had been short, but even after just one full day I was already covering the same ground. Although stunning, it is a town that only really requires a day to see in full, and could probably be done as a day trip from nearby Vienna.

Patio Hostel

While visiting Bratislava, I stayed at Patio Hostel, which is just to the east of the Old Town. The location is pretty convenient. It’s a few minutes from the bars and cafes in the Old Town, and about twenty minutes’ walk from the Most SNP bus stop, where you can catch the Flixbus. The hostel is really big and has a bar and other facilities, but it’s unfortunately a bit of a party hostel and gets really noisy at night. Unusually for a hostel, they have completely free laundry facilities, which was fantastic for me because, after more than a week of endless walking, my clothes were starting to stink. However, the staff were mostly not helpful and the wifi was poor. The bar was cheap but lacking in any atmosphere.

Posted in travel

Two Days in Antwerp

After a short, pleasant ride on the Flixbus from Amsterdam to Antwerp, I hopped off in the main square by the train station, and made my way towards Kabas – my new hostel. As I walked through the city, it felt as though I’d travelled more than two hours. Here, things were completely different. For a start, everyone was Jewish! All the men wore long black cloaks and wide-brimmed hats, and even the little boys had huge curls of hair at the sides of their faces.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Antwerp. It was a city I knew little about, except for a small amount of time spent on Wikitravel. My first instinct was to walk about and simply take in the new city, but hopefully to look at some museums or art galleries. I’d also heard that it had the highest concentration of bars and pubs anywhere on the planet… But first, to check in at my new hostel.

Kabas Hostel

I found Kabas by using my maps.me app, which guided me along the two kilometer journey from the train station. Kabas is a relatively new hostel, and it’s located in a quiet residential neighbourhood. In fact, the hostel itself used to be just a normal house, but with a few minor renovations it became a place for backpackers to stop off in Antwerp.

Inside, there are a few different rooms on three floors, with a garden out back that’s full of chickens. A friendly young man checked me in and showed me to the third floor, where I got a bed under a skylight. The house is very simple, but comfortable. The floors are wooden and creeky, with narrow hallways, which all gives it character, and there’s a pretty good free breakfast each morning. There are towels, decent showers, lockers in the room, and wifi. The wifi, unfortunately, is atrocious, but the rest of it is pretty good.

Exploring Antwerp on Foot

I rested up the first night as, after walking some 50km in Amsterdam, my feet were blistered and I thought it best to give them a break. The next morning, however, I set out to explore the whole of the city by foot, armed with my GPS and a tourist map I got at reception. After less than thirty minutes wandering through the old residential area of town to the south of the city center, the skies erupted into an almighty downpour, and I was forced to take cover in a bus shelter for the next hour. The weather forecast had said there was no chance of rain, but the hostel owner warned me, “In Belgium, it can rain at any time with no warning.” Not unlike Scotland, I thought.

When the rain let up a little, I set out in my raincoat to explore further, walking up the bank of the River Scheldt to Het Steen (a small and very old castle), and further to a harbor, at which point I turned back towards town and began meandering aimlessly along the winding, narrow streets. There seemed little point in consulting a map of any kind now; Antwerp’s streets are notoriously disorienting. Unless you can see one of the big church or cathedral spires, you are not able to navigate.

The old town of Antwerp is really quite beautiful, even under dark skies and a fine rain. The old cobbled streets and tall, narrow buildings have a unique charm, and every so often there are really incredible old brick buildings of various sorts. The most imposing, of course, are the churches and cathedrals. The city has just grown around them, so you stumbled upon them and they seem sort of out of place, despite having been there so long. There are also hundreds of bars, restaurants, and cafes with little tables and chairs out on the streets. It all feels very… European. I’m tempted, actually, to say that it feels “French” because that’s what one thinks of when sitting at a café in the sun (yes, it eventually came out), sipping a beer and listening to an old man on an accordion. But this is Flemish Belgium. They very definitely don’t speak French here, nor do they want to speak anything but Dutch. Asking for anything in English gets a derisive snort. Which again seems rather French to me…

One of the highlights of my aimless rambling was stumbling upon yet another red light district. Everyone knows of Amsterdam’s famous streets with girls behind windows with red light pouring out into the evening sky. However, lesser known is that Antwerp also has a small zone where prostitution is tolerated… and evidently it’s open all hours. When I walked through it was ten o’clock in the morning and things were very different from Amsterdam’s red light district on a busy summer’s evening. In Amsterdam, beautiful young women tapped gently to get the attention of men passing by; in Antwerp, gigantic fat old women pounded on the glass and pointed at big red signs saying, “ANAL 50% DISCOUNT.” I suppose there’s no call for subtlety in the cut-throat world of mid-morning discount prostitution.

After yet more walking around and admiring the old buildings and exploring some beautiful parks, I settled at table outside a café on the edge of a bustling little square and nursed a few beers as the world passed by. Belgium is one of the world’s beer capitals and even the cheapest thing on the menu – a De Koninck – made for an excellent afternoon beverage… or two. The menus can be overwhelming, but it’s comforting to realize that you’re unlikely to go too far wrong. These people have been making beer for millennia and they’re pretty much perfected it.

I staggered home in the early evening not from drunkenness but from pain in my feet. I’d racked up about twenty kilometers in my wanderings, and my feet were suffering badly.

Antwerp’s Museums

During my only full day in Antwerp, I mostly walked about and drank in the scenery (and the beers, of course). However, the next day my bus out of Antwerp didn’t leave until nine in the evening, and so I essentially had another full day to explore. The thought of walking much more made my poor feet ache, so I planned a day of museums and beers.

First off, I hefted my giant rucksack to the train station and stored it in a locker under the main stairs for €4.5, which seemed an exorbitant fee, yet one I was more than happy to pay give the choice between that and dragging a 15kg bag around for the next nine hours. Then I set out for the Rubenshuis – a house that once belonged to the great artist, Peter Paul Rubens. I’d anticipated paying an entrance fee of some kind, but apparently on the final Wednesday of each month, entrance is free!

The Rubenshuis was designed by Rubens himself, and today is set up as a museum of sorts. There aren’t actually that many of Rubens’ own paintings there, but rather a collection of paintings he owned by other artists. There was an abundance of information in English and the house itself was fantastically preserved, making for a wonderful excursion. Afterwards, I sat out in the garden for a while as people came and went, and admired the beautiful old building that hardly seemed it was in the middle of a big city.

Next, I found what was billed in certain travel guides as a “Brueghel Museum,” but which was actually another old house filled with art – this time the collection once owned by Mayer van den Bergh. There were several Brueghels there, which I suppose is why it was listed as a Brueghel museum, even though it clearly wasn’t. Still, it was another interesting old building with different styles of paintings hanging on its walls. Yet again it was free, although this time I was glad I didn’t have to pay as I left pretty quickly. There wasn’t much information in English and the paintings weren’t particularly interesting.

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Flixbus to Bratislava

After my museum visits, my feet were once again in agony and I sought out a pub near the Cathedral of Our Lady, where I sampled the local beers and listened to an old man play on an accordion. After all the walking and museums, this was the highlight of my Antwerp trip. Sitting there and watching people stop by to sing with the accordionist, under the imposing figure of that giant spire, was exactly what I wanted from my Belgian trip, even if I hadn’t known it until then.

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(Here’s a video, shot on my iPhone:)

Eventually, it was time to go. I hobbled across the city to the train station to retrieve my bag, and then waited for the Flixbus.

Then I waited some more.

And some more.

And longer.

The Flixbus showed up 35 minutes late, which wouldn’t be a big deal at all if there were any way to let its customers know. However, at a random bus stop, you have no idea whether the bus will show or not, or – what’s worse – that perhaps you are in the wrong place and the bus already arrived somewhere else.

Eventually, I got on board and tried to make myself comfortable. It was, however, to be a difficult journey. I travelled through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Austria, and into Slovakia, where my final destination was Bratislava. It was cheap, yes, but not the pleasant trip I’d hoped for. The wifi didn’t work, the seat was uncomfortable, and the bus only stopped for passengers to rest three times. I would highly recommend Flixbus for short trips of up to five hours, but for a twenty-two hour journey it’s a really, really bad choice.

Oh well… travel is nothing if not an adventure, and I did get to watch the green fields and even the stunning slopes of the Alps go by as we made our slow way towards the next destination, Bratislava.

Posted in travel

A Weekend in Amsterdam

I recently spent two days exploring Amsterdam on foot, clocking up nearly fifty kilometers as I wandered the ancient cobbled streets that line the canals which make up this odd and beautiful city. Staying at the ClinkNOORD Hostel, I circumambulated much of the city (a good test for my new Brasher hiking boots, purchased just before leaving Scotland) taking in the atmosphere, architecture, and artwork – or as much as I could fit in.

 

Amsterdam on Foot

Although Amsterdam is a massive city, most of what you want to see as a tourist is, technically speaking, in walking distance. Granted, most people probably wouldn’t want to walk twenty kilometers in a day, but you still don’t have to do as much as that to get around if you plan carefully. The narrow streets can be disorienting, though, and it’s easy to tread more ground than anticipated.

When I first arrived, I went out for a walk just as darkness was beginning to fall. Amsterdam is, of course, famous for its nightlife. I walked around rather aimlessly, not having a map at this point, and found in equal measure quiet streets, sophisticated restaurants and cafes, lively bars full of drunk Brits, and, of course, the city’s famed (or infamous) red light district.

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A crowded red light district.

In Amsterdam, prostitution is perfectly legal, and here you will find women in their underwear standing behind windows, attempting to get the attention of the men who pass by. This is all staggeringly out in the open. Evidently, the red light district is not some seedy out-of-the-way location that creepy guys look for, but rather it’s right in the heart of the city, among the bars and restaurants and tourist sights. Sometimes it’s just one single window in the middle of an otherwise “normal” street.

In addition, Amsterdam is also known for its legal marijuana, dispensed at “coffeeshops” (I don’t imagine they sell much coffee) around the city. However, although the tourist books say it’s only to be smoked in these designated areas, in fact people smoke pot everywhere. On every street, the pungent odor drifts in the breeze, and the police walk around without any interest in it.

The following morning, I set out for a much longer walk and attempted to see Amsterdam by daylight. It certainly did have a different character with the red lights turned off, although people still walked happily about the streets smoking joints and the coffeeshops appeared to be among the first businesses open. In the soft morning light, the canals looked much more beautiful, and I was able to appreciate the ornate old buildings that lined the cobbled streets. People flew about on bicycles, making walking sometimes treacherous. A few times it would rain suddenly for five minutes and then just stop, making the cobbled streets slippery.

Over the next two days I continued my more or less aimless walking, zig-zagging back and forth between the little streets, stopping in bookstores and museums, exploring parks and admiring statues, and people-watching from outside a few beers when I got tired and stopped for beers. A particular highlight was Vondelpark, a huge sprawling area of greenery where people engaged in a vast array of sports and a few fascinating birds flew around the trees.

Rijksmuseum

My main objective in visiting Amsterdam was to take in some art. Back in China, I’d been working on a book about the travels of Allen Ginsberg, and during his trips through Europe he obsessively visited museums and art galleries, taking in the great works of art. Naturally, he visited Amsterdam and saw works by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. Reading his vivid descriptions and seeing how inspirational these works were on him as a person and an artist, I felt eager to do some museum-hopping.

I’d read online about a few passes one can buy before visiting Amsterdam to get discounts and possibly skip queues, but when I actually looked into it, it didn’t seem worthwhile. The two museums I really wanted to visit were €17 each and a pass was about €60-80. I didn’t think I’d realistically have time to see enough to make it worthwhile. (I had wanted to see the Banksy/Dali exhibit at the Moco gallery, but the queue was too long.)

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Rijksmuseum.

So on the Saturday (my first full day), I bought a ticket for the Rijksmuseum and ventured inside to explore. The museum is housed in a beautiful building in the “museum quarter” of Amsterdam, and is very well presented, although somewhat complex in its layout. It is divided into countless rooms covering different artists or movements over the history of Dutch art. The centerpiece, of sorts, is Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.” This giant painting by arguably the country’s greatest artist even has its own special hall, allowing for adequate views of the immense masterpiece.

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Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”

The volume of art in the Rijksmuseum is overwhelming and after nearly five hours I left, exhausted. I hadn’t seen everything – or if I had, I hadn’t given it all the time it deserved – but I felt satisfied that I had engaged with a thousand years of Dutch history through its staggering artwork.

Van Gogh Museum

The next day I returned to the museum quarter to visit the Van Gogh Museum. At the Rijksmuseum I had seen at least one Van Gogh, but there was a whole museum next door devoted perhaps the world’s most famous painter.

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Ok, actually this was in the Rijksmuseum…

Much smaller than the Rijksmuseum, it only took me two hours to walk around the Van Gogh Museum and appreciate what there was to see. It was amazing to visit the original works of which I’d seen so many prints during my life, and to learn about his tragic life. However, I was far more taken with the paintings I saw during the previous day.

Perhaps the problem was here that the museum was also just too crowded. While a huge queue awaiting staggered entrance times kept it under control, it was just too hard to appreciate the art with so many people standing around. The Rijksmuseum had been big enough to accommodate its visitors, but the Van Gogh Museum got claustrophobic quickly, and after I’d seen everything, I didn’t feel like going back to take a second look.

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ClinkNOORD Hostel

During my short visit in Amsterdam, I stayed at the ClinkNOORD Hostel. On the surface, its location appears quite unfortunate, as one has to take a ferry from Amsterdam Centraal to get there. However, the ferry runs 24/7 and is completely free, so it was not a problem. Besides, being away from the chaos of the town center is no bad thing.

I’ve been staying in hostels for many years, but this was the biggest I’ve ever seen. It’s set in a giant laboratory once owned by the Shell company, but turned over and renovated into a surprisingly classy hostel experience with what seems like a million rooms.

The place was immaculately clean, with a decent bar, 24/7 reception, super-fast WiFi all over the place, and several USB chargers in the dorms in case you forgot your adaptor. How handy is that? It can get a bit noisy at night, of course, being a big and lively hostel, but they have free ear plugs at reception.

Flixbus

On Monday morning, when it came time to leave Amsterdam, I headed for Amsterdam Sloterdijk, from where I took a Flixbus to my next destination, Antwerpt, in Belgium.

Flixbus is a relatively new transportation company offering cheap bus rides around Europe. I’d stumbled upon them by chance online last week while planning out my trip and was seriously impressed by the prices. My journey from Amsterdam was just €8, and a trip I’ll take in a few days to Bratislava – a 20+ hour bus ride – only cost me €50. What a deal!

I was not sure what to expect, but when I got to the bus depot – thoroughly soaked after a long walk in the rain – I found a line of very new green buses with friendly drivers, comfortable seats, USB chargers, reasonable WiFi, and air conditioning. Travelling Europe just got a lot more affordable.

Posted in Photography

Another Wildlife Spotting

I love shooting wildlife. And by that, of course, I mean shooting them with a camera. Wherever I go, my camera is slung over my shoulder, waiting to be pointed at whatever animal comes my way. It’s been with me around Africa as I tracked lions, rhino, crocodiles, and hippos. It’s been with me in South and Southeast Asia as I went in search of leopards, komodo dragons, and elephants. And while in Scotland, it’s also served me well as last week I was incredibly fortunate in spotting a red fox chasing a rabbit through a field.

Around Scotland, you’ll often find deer in the forests and on the hills, but they’re sometimes difficult to see. At best, you can expect them to appear virtually on the horizon, and if you get any closer, they’ll bound off out of sight in a heartbeat. They are beautiful but very shy animals. I see a lot of them in my walks when back home in Scotland, but even the 42x optical zoom on my camera struggles to capture them adequately. However, yesterday I managed to get a closer experience.

I was out walking on my own over Lucklaw Hill when suddenly a small roe deer appeared in front of me. It was perhaps about fifty feet ahead. It clearly hadn’t noticed me, and when it turned away I stalked closer. I was able to shoot a few dozens photos, but as the light was poor, not many of them turned out well.

This was one of the best:

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The next photo I took was a bit better, and captured the animal as I finally noticed me:

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When finally it realized that I was a person and that it had better not hang about, it turned and ran up a steep hill, making an odd barking noise just once, and then disappeared into the trees.

Posted in Photography

Walking from Elie to St. Monans

Yesterday, on a windy but warm summer day, I walked from the little harbour town of Elie to another little harbour town called St. Monans with my mum. The coast of Fife – and indeed much of Scotland – is dotted with these little picturesque fishing towns comprised of old stone houses that are often painted in bright colours, narrow winding roads, and flower pots dotted around. In the harbour itself there are invariably boats either bobbing in the water or resting on the sand.

We arrived to a busy car park and headed out into the cold, but soon after starting out the coast cut off the worst of the wind, and in the sunshine it was actually quite warm. The walk along the beach was pleasant, and soon we moved up onto the little path, passing by many others who’d spotted a good opportunity for a Sunday walk.

The pleasant scenery made for a good day taking photos:

 

My favourite, however, was a shot I took of St. Monans harbour:

St. Monans Harbour

Posted in Photography, travel

Into the Okavango

In Maun I was staying at the Old Bridge Backpackers largely because I’d read online that they operated community-run mokoro trips into the Okavango. As a child, I grew up watching BBC documentaries about African wildlife and, it seemed, half the time those documentaries were shot in the Okavango. It was a place I couldn’t have pointed out on a map, but whose name was etched into my brain; a place synonymous with beauty and wilderness.

I got up early one morning and was driven by jeep way out to a small village right on the edge of the Okavango Delta. I met my guide, a lifelong mokoro poler, who pushed us out onto the waterways. He was very quite, almost alarmingly so. But then, so was the world around us. We were miles from the nearest road, miles from the nearest town, and heading further into the wild.

From the offset, we were surrounded by wildlife – namely birds. I don’t know much about birds but they were stunning, as they had been all through my African trip. Some of them were like pterodactyls – impossibly large creatures beating the air violently with their massive wings.

I lay on the mokoro – a small, dugout canoe, as he stood, pushing us through the water. We spent about two hours travelling through the shallow channels of this bizarre inland delta, birds all around us. Occasionally the guide would tell me to stand up and we would see zebra or wildebeest beyond the reeds.

Eventually we arrive at what would be our camp for the night. It was only late morning by this stage, but we were to spend the afternoon hiking. First, though, the guide wanted to take a nap. Fair enough – it must have been tiring pushing the mokoro in heat approaching 45 degrees.

While he slept, I walked out into the wild to explore. I didn’t go far, but far enough to find myself walking across plains, surrounded by zebra, wildebeest, and one elephant. It was thrilling. There is no better word. Everywhere I looked there was wildlife that until recently I’d only seen on TV or, sadly, in zoos. The long grass was lion-coloured and I couldn’t help but imagine I was being watched.

A huge storm came in quickly and I soon found myself sheltering from thunder and lightning and torrential rain, which the parched lands badly needed. I went back to my tent and sat watching the lightning all around, and listened to the rain on the tent.

After a few hours my guide awoke and we set out on a 15 km hike through the surrounding area. We tracked animals on foot, coming upon a few lion kills (and even a dead lion), and getting close to a few elephants, dozens of giraffe, and some smaller game. The feeling of walking through that incredible landscape was humbling. This is how humans felt thousands of years earlier, walking through the landscape as a vulnerable speck, hoping a lion doesn’t come running from the treeline.

At night we made a fire and watched the stars. They were so bright and innumerable, and shooting stars shot across and over the horizons.  I walked around in the dark, flashing my torch to see if eyes would shine back in the night. Giant catfish flopped about in the shallow water.

In the morning, I awoke at 5am and watched the sunrise over the baobab trees and mist hang in the long grass over the waterways. We set out walking again – 20+km this time. My boots soon filled with water from the dew. On this walk we saw much of the same as the day before, but got altogether far too close to a large elephant, which charged at us and sent us running. Thankfully, it was a warning charge and it chose not to pursue us further into the trees.

I wish I could have had more time to spend walking through the Okavango. There really is no place I know of which is like it. It is the wildest place on earth and, I think, the experience of simply walking there – even over a hundred or so meters – puts so much into perspective. You feel so small and insignificant on that great landscape, so much at the mercy of the world around you, yet entirely filled with awe at its power and beauty. And that is how life should be lived.