Jun 292012

We returned back to Quito from Napo Wildlife Centre early on Friday afternoon and met up with the other nine guests who were joining us for the Galapagos cruise. That afternoon we caught up with laundry and sleep! In the evening we all headed to La Ronda in Quito; a lively street that is closed to traffic and full of music, entertainment and a great variety of restaurants.

The food market in Otavalo

When booking a tour to the Galapagos Islands I strongly recommend having a spare day in Quito or Guayaquil the day before your cruise. If you are delayed and miss the departure of your cruise, then it may be several days before you can join your group.

On Saturday’s there is a colourful market in Otavalo, a town about two hours drive North of Quito. I hired Tierra de Fuego to take us to by coach and again Felix was our excellent guide.

 

For the first time, we went for a walk through the food market before heading to the more famous artisan’s market. As always, it was a wonderfully colourful experience and a great opportunity to shop for gifts at very attractive prices.

Instead of using my Nikon D3x, I used my new Panasonic GX1. Due to the camera’s great image quality and small size it is an excellent camera for travel photography. Read more about the GX1 in my blog post here.

Group photo in Cotacachi

After lunch we drove to Cotacachi, a town famous for it’s leather goods. It’s a great place to buy wallets, handbags, belts etc. At one point I thought we would be leaving with a beautiful leather saddle for Teresa’s horse but it was not to be.

We drove back to Quito in the rain and got ourselves ready for the early departure to Galapagos the next day.

 

Getting 19 people checked in for our Galapagos flight is always challenging. In addition to the usual challenges of air travel we also had to get our bags pre-screened for Galapagos and also ensure that each bag was tagged correctly so that it would end up in the correct cabin and on the right boat.

Sunset behind Kicker Rock, Galapagos

 

Jim was a great help and looked after the pre-screening whilst I handled the check-in. It didn’t seem long before we cleared security, boarded the plane and we were on our way.

 

The Galapagos archipelago is 1,000km West off the coast of Ecuador. If you are departing Quito, then it is highly probable that your flight will stop at Guayaquil before continuing to either Baltra or San Cristobal airports. At Guayaquil our naturalist Orlando Romero boarded. Orlando has been the senior naturalist on my previous two Galapagos photography tours, he is very understanding of the needs of photographers and is always willing to discuss the daily programme with me so that we can optimize it for photography. Orlando retired shortly after our 2010 photography tour, so I was very grateful that he had agreed to join us again.

 

Our second naturalist was Ivan Lopez. Ivan was with us in 2008 and is a very entertaining naturalist who lives in San Cristobal and runs a dive shop when he’s not working as a naturalist.

 

It wasn’t long before we left the harbour and started the cruise. Our first stop was the beach at Playa Ochoa. This was an opportunity to snorkel and relax before we set off to watch the sunset at Kicker Rock.

A beautiful, tranquil beach at Cerro Brujo, San Cristobal

 

The next day was also spent at San Cristobal. Our first stop was the beautiful beach at Cerro Brujo. We saw sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs, a few marine iguanas and watched pelicans fishing. We had a relaxing walk down a perfect white beach, listening to the waves softly splashing on the shore. I could have sat there for hours!

 

 

We returned to the Flamingo and after lunch we sailed North East to Punta Pitt. This year we were on a new itinerary and Punta Pitt was a replacement for Genovesa. The latter is a popular spot for birds, particularly red footed boobies and Magnificent Frigates. Before we went onshore we went snorkelling with sea lions. It was a blast and I’ve never snorkelled with so many sea lions at once.

Curious sea lion and friends at Punta Pitt

In the afternoon we went for a “panga” (Zodiac) ride to an islet to see all three types of boobies (red footed, blue footed and Nazca) and Frigate birds we then went for a walk at Punta Pitt. Although we saw the birds, the panga ride and the subsequent walk at Punta Pitt are absolutely no match to a visit at Genovesa. If you are looking for a cruise to Galapagos then I strongly recommend finding one that visits both Genovesa and Espanola, which I will describe in my next blog post.

Jun 112012

A "stinky turkey" sits on a branch as we paddle down a creek near Napo Wildlife Centre

Napo Wildlife Centre (NWC) is located inside the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador’s Amazon basin. The national park has an area of 9820 km2 and is situated to the South of the Napo river. There is a lot of oil production in the area and the Napo river is an important artery for the oil industry, tourism and local communities.

 

The easiest way to access the Napo river is to fly to the busy city of Coca. On clear days it is possible to see several volcanoes on the short 35 minute flight from Quito. Surprisingly, three airlines offer daily flights to Coca using Airbus aircraft.

 

Curious capuchin monkey

It’s a short bus ride to the river and then a two hour ride by a FAST motorized canoe to the head of the Ananugu creek. From here we transfer to smaller canoes for a scenic paddle down the narrow creek to the lodge.

 

The lodge itself is beside a beautiful lake and we were accommodated in spacious thatched bungalows. Since my last visit, four larger bungalows have been added for families. The guides just keep getting better and this year we had two wonderful guides who were not only knowledgeable and spoke excellent English but regularly consulted me in order to ensure we gave the group the best photographic opportunities.

Trying to photograph a Blue Morpho butterfly in flight is very challenging but I managed to achieve it this year.

As most of the wildlife activity takes place early in the morning and in the evening, then these are the times that we do our activities. The daily routine was essentially; 5:30am wake up, breakfast, morning activity, lunch, siesta, afternoon or evening activity, dinner, sleep.

The main activities are; jungle hikes, canoe rides along the narrow creeks, a day trip to parrot clay licks and the community’s cultural centre, a hike and climb up the observation tower which offers views above the canopy.

The most exciting activity for me are the canoe rides. You never know what you’ll see around the next corner; it could be a troop of monkeys jumping across the creek, a kingfisher sitting by the waters edge or the elusive giant otter. The variety of wildlife along the creeks is amazing.

A group of bats sleep under a branch just above the Napo River

During our stay this year we saw nine different types of monkey, 3 toed sloth, a variety of frogs, bats, caiman, turtles, giant river otters, spiders, butterflys and of course a huge variety of birds.

We visited two clay licks but only one had any parrots this year. However, clay lick day is also our chance to visit the community’s cultural centre. Since my last visit in 2010, the ladies of the community have made a new cultural centre and in a new location. The new one is a great improvement and we were treated to displays of dancing and singing and we were also shown a traditional house and demonstrations of various household tools.

Despite some rain, we had an excellent four nights at NWC and I saw lots of animals that I’ve never seen before. Although I have few photographs this year, I have lots of video footage that needs to be edited.

After four exciting nights at Napo Wildlife Centre we headed back up the Napo river to Coca and flew back to Quito. In Quito we met the rest of the group that were joining us for the Galapagos Islands but before heading to Galapagos we had due to visit Otavalo and Cotacachi the next day.

FInd out more in part three….

 

 

Jun 022012

Presidential guard outside the Ecuadorian Presidents palace in Quito

Ecuador is a very diverse country which offers lots of photographic opportunities. The country has four distinctly different geographic regions.

1. Galapagos Islands

2. La Costa (the coast)

3. La Sierra (the highlands)

4. El Oriente (the East or Amazon basin)

In previous visits to Ecuador I have been fortunate to explore much of the highlands and after four visits to Galapagos I have now seen the majority of the areas around the islands that are open to visitors.

Since 2008, I have been visiting Napo Wildlife Centre (NWC) in the Amazon basin. NWC is entirely owned and operated by the Añangu community and is the only lodge inside the Yasuni National Park.

In previous Galapagos tours I offered an optional tour to NWC after we returned from Galapagos. In 2012, Jim Slobodian and I decided to try something new; have the optional tour to Napo before going to Galapagos.

To make this work, I needed a buffer day before NWC in case anyone’s flight was delayed. Therefore, the first day of the workshop was a tour of Mitad del Mundo (the equatorial monument) and a tour of Quito. I organized this with Tierra de Fuego in Quito. Our guide was Felix, who proved to be an excellent guide.

Richard, Jim and the group visit the equator.

Instead of visiting the regular equatorial monument, Felix took us to the Inti-Nan Museum. This museum had a variety of interesting exhibits but best of all were the interactive experiments. The most popular was the demonstration of the Coriolis effect, check out my video on my Youtube channel….

Demonstration of the Coriolis Effect at the Equator

Nancy MacNab climbing the stairs to the top of the basilica's Northern tower

Following our visit to the equator we drove to the old part of Quito and went to the impressive Basilica del Voto Nacional. The basilica was started in 1892, it was consecrated and inaugurated over 90 years later in 1988. Officially the basilica is unfinished but they have something to do with the legend that the world will end when construction is completed!

 

The basilica does not have the history of other Quito churches but it does offer tremendous views from it’s towers.  An interesting feature of the basilica is that gargoyles have been replaced by sculptures of the animals found across Ecuador.

 

After visiting the basilica, Felix led us on a walking tour of the old city. It was a great walk, especially as it was Sunday and the streets were closed to traffic. Unfortunately the majority of churches were closed to visitors but we did visit the Jesuit church “La Compania” which is probably my favourite church in Quito.

"Gargoyles" depicting Ecuadorian animals around the Basilica

The only downside of our walk is that Ottmar had a trouser pocket slashed but fortunately he did not lose his money. In Quito, be very vigilant, keep your backpack in front of you. Take small amounts of money in your pockets.

The day ended at the viewpoint “El Panecillo” which is to the South of the old city. The following morning we flew to the Amazon basin but that’s another story…

Jun 292011

Cheetah relaxes at sunset

Now that I’m home, it is time to share some thoughts on the equipment that I used in Africa.

I always find it interesting to write down what worked, what didn’t and what I’d do next time.

In the first instalment I will look at the big stuff; cameras and lenses. Next week I’ll discuss the smaller accessories which can often make a big difference.

Video

The photo tour to Africa was the first time that I planned to do a serious amount of videography. Unfortunately, my Panasonic TM700 camcorder was stolen at Johannesburg. I was left with my Panasonic TS3 compact camera and Nikon D3S to record video. I primarily used the D3S and despite lacking the autofocus sophistication of the TM700, it was a great tool. When combined with the 70-200mm f2.8 lens that I borrowed from Nikon, I was able to get some great pan and zoom videos of the wildlife. For distant subjects I even used my 600mm lens for video! Once I edit the video I should be able to produce some exciting multimedia presentations about the trip. Sound is still something of an issue and I haven’t yet discovered the perfect solution for recording high quality sound in the field. As soon as I do, I will share it with you!

Lens Choice

Lens choice was obviously important for this trip. The two lenses that I used the most were my 300mm f2.8 VR (1005 photos) and the 600mm f4 VR2 (792). It should be noted that I use two full frame cameras, Nikon D3x and D3s. If you have a DSLR with a smaller sensor (e.g. D7000 or D300s) then probably the best option would be Nikon’s 200-400mm f4 lens. Using the 200-400mm zoom would allow a photographer to create some stunning video footage and save a lot of weight but the advantage of having two big telephoto lenses was that I was able to take stills with one and shoot video with the other.

I am a big fan of prime lenses and do not own a 70-200mm lens. However, Nikon Professional Services (NPS) in Canada kindly loaned me a 70-200mm f2.8 VR2 lens for the trip. It was very versatile and ideal for using from a vehicle or canoe, I used it for video and produced some great pan and zoom video segments with it. No matter which camera system you use (Canon, Nikon, Sony etc) if you are serious about wildlife photography then a 70-200mm f2.8 lens is an incredible tool that will last you years. If you couple a 70-200mm with a tele-convertor such as Nikon’s TC17EII, then you can end up with a 120mm-340mm f4.8 lens.

We didn’t really use wide angle lenses. Next time I’ll take a 28mm f2.8 instead of my heavy 17-35mm f2.8 lens.

 

The high speed Nikon D3s is ideal for capturing fast action such as this impala

Camera Choice

I took five cameras on this trip; Nikons D3x and D3s (full frame DSLRs), Panasonic’s TS3 (waterproof compact) and TM700 (camcorder) and my Fuji GX617 panoramic camera.

I primarily used the D3x and used the D3s when I expected the action to be fast and furious, or the light was getting low or when I wanted to shoot video. Both are full frame but the D3x’s 24 mega-pixels can give you a 1.5x crop and you’ll end up with a high quality 10 mega-pixel photo.

The slim nature of the TS3 made it great for grabbing documentary shots, especially as it has a built in GPS to log the location.

The idea of using my GX617 was to photograph wildlife at sunset or sunrise, especially if they were moving through a scene. Something which would be very difficult by stitching. I was also able to use it from the canoe on bright days. Unfortunately, my TM700 was stolen in Johannesburg which was a big loss as it’s autofocus makes it incredibly useful and easy to use.

In future I would contemplate taking a Nikon APS-C camera such as the D7000 or D300S and use the Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens but I’m not sure that they can replace my D3x or D3s. If Nikon comes out with a new professional quality APS-C camera then that would probably be the camera to use with the 200-400mm lens.

Next week….

In my blog next week I will look at the accessories that made an important difference to the Africa photo tour

Jun 242011

Nick paddles whilst Steve looks for wildlife on the Zambezi river

Our photo tour to Zimbabwe was not just about canoeing and getting up close and personal with hippos.

In the mornings we went on game drives and if Nick found any interesting tracks, then we would go on a walk so that we could get some great photographs.

On the last two days we had two very exciting walks. Nick noticed that a group of impala were very agitated, we stopped driving and searched the landscape with our binoculars. Nick’s trained eye noticed a pride of ten lions moving in the grass. They didn’t seem to be hunting and the impala were fully aware of them so we decided to follow the lions.

Nick was obviously armed and we set off with our cameras across a plain and in to the  grass.

Part of a pride of lions that we were following on foot.

The lions seemed to be strolling casually but they were hard to keep up with. They headed in to some thick brush and we continued to follow.

At this point, Nick told us to keep close together and reminded us what to do if a lion charged – DON’T RUN!

Following lions in thick brush with limited visibility is very exciting, at least I think so but unfortunately we never caught up with them. They probably lay down, watched us, rolled their eyes and thought “more tourists!”.

African wild dog alpha female outside her den

The following morning was even more exciting. Nick knew of an African wild dog den that was near our camp, after breakfast we headed there by landrover and walked the last kilometre.

It is unusual for African wild dogs to reuse old den sites, the exception is when a new pack is formed and the inexperienced alpha female will use a den she is familiar with for her first litter.

Nick was delighted to find that this was the case at this old den. About nine dogs were lying in the open in front of the hidden den site. They were a long way off and difficult to photograph. After they became used to our presence we slowly shuffled forward on our bums, with our cameras on our laps.

Slowly but surely we got closer and the dogs seemed comfortable with us. We took some great photographs and just enjoyed being these magnificent but now, very rare predators.

It's hard to get away from hippos on the Zambezi river

After my capsize on the previous day, we were a little apprehensive when the hippos seemed to be too close. Fortunately, they behaved themselves and we had no more incidents.

The last couple of hours of the last day were particularly good because the terrain wasn’t suitable for hippos. In the warm glow of the afternoon light we drifted alongside a vertical sandy bank and saw African fish eagles, a python, monitor lizards and birds that nested in the sandy bank.

It was a great end to four days on the Zambezi.

Monitor lizard poses as we drift past

Will I go back to Africa? Definitely, especially to Botswana. In fact, on the way home we were throwing ideas around for another trip.

Whether I organize another photo tour to Botswana is not certain. This year’s tour took a huge amount of planning but had very low attendance and I tempted to return with family and a few friends on a private trip.

However, if you are interested in Africa then use my website contact form and drop me an email as I can always be persuaded to change my mind!

In the end the four of us had incredible experiences and have many breathtaking photos, that I’ve not yet shared on my blog.

Jun 222011

A hippo did this!

For the second year running I had an exciting few days on the Zambezi river, canoeing through the beautiful Mana Pools National Park.

For those of you that have been following the blog, you’ll remember that last year a hippo decided to bite the canoe that was ahead of me.

This year it was my turn to be hit!

Before I tell you the story, let me give you some background…..

A bee-eater, one of the many birds that we saw on the Zambezi river

Mana Pools National Park is a World Heritage Site and has excellent populations of elephant and hippopotamus, there are also around four denning sites of the elusive African wild dog.

Our goal was to canoe through the national park for four days. In the mornings we went on game drives and also headed in to the bush with Nick, our guide (who was armed). In the afternoons we travelled around 25km down the Zambezi. For the first two nights we stayed at the Vundu Camp lodge and for the second two nights we camped at two different campsites.

Canoeing is a great way to see birds, crocs, monitor lizards, elephants and of course hippos.

Two bull hippos deciding which one is the most dominant.

Each canoe has a guide who paddles and we sat at the front enjoying the scenery and taking photos. There are times when we followed narrow channels and sometimes these channels would have pods of hippos that had to be negotiated. Hippos are nervous of people and their instinct is to enter the water, dive and hide. Personally, I would be happier if they stayed on the land where we could see them! Hippos also sleep in the water and many hippo accidents have happened when a hippo rises from the bottom underneath an unsuspecting canoe. To prevent this, our guides bang their paddles loudly on the side of the canoe so that the hippos know where we are.

On our third day we where paddling down the main river and we were about 100 metres from the shore. My guide for the day was Danni, a 22 year old who was spending her first year as a guide. It was a holiday weekend and her parents were visiting the camp from Harare. They were driving along the river and witnessed the hippo capsize us.

A close up of the damage by the hippo

As we floated down the river in the last canoe we discussing how tame the Zambezi would be if it wasn’t for the excitement of dodging hippos. Suddenly, the canoe was capsized by a bull hippo that had deliberately swum the 100m from it’s pod! In an instant I was under the water. I had been holding my Nikon D3S with 70-200mm lens on my lap. My instinctive  reaction was to thrust the camera up and hope for the best.

I swam to the surface where I saw Danni calmly hanging on to our overturned canoe and she told me to hang on to it and stay still (because of the crocs) whilst the others paddled back to us. I looked at my D3S and it still worked! A few minutes later I was in another canoe and we rafted ours to the shore. I was obviously shocked but after a cup of tea and changing in to my fleece I was happy to carry on.

The hippo had put a hole in it so we had to call the base and get another sent to us. The rest of my group couldn’t believe what had happened and for the next 2 days everyone was on edge whenever we came to close to hippos.

Nick, the main guide simply could not believe that I had kept my camera dry and shook my hand. I’m sure I couldn’t repeat that feat again!

Jun 152011

A male Cheetah on the lookout for his next meal

Without a doubt, Botswana has completely surpassed my expectations.

On the drive from the airstrip to our camp we saw; lion, cheetah, elephants, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and a huge number of birds.

It very quickly became apparent that our guide, Brian had a great deal of skill in getting us very close to the animals and I was soon wondering if I was going to need my 600mm lens!

An Impala jumping through the grass at Moremi.

On the first evening we rescued another vehicle at a river crossing and photographed two male cheetah at sunset. It was an incredible birthday and the week just got better.

Throughout our stay in Botswana, Brian was superb. He has guided several photography safaris for Andy Biggs and Theo Allofs, so he knew exactly what our needs and expectations were and always had us on the correct side of the animals.

During our 3 days at Moremi we saw wild dogs (the rarest predator in Africa), cheetah on several locations, ostrich, eagle owls, crocodiles, a huge variety of birds, a python, a variety of antelopes and probably a bunch of things that I’ve already forgotten!

A very upset Vervet monkey makes an alarm as one of his buddies is stalked by a leopard.

We had the camp and Brian exclusively to ourselves and as I promised, we had plenty of room in the vehicle as we had a complete row to ourselves and we could quickly move from one side to the other depending on where the action was and action was plentiful!

Following our fabulous 3 nights in Moremi, we moved to the Khwai Concession. During the move we came incredibly close to a leopard. We heard and saw a vervet monkey making alarm calls and he kept looking at a nearby tree so we went to investigate. We searched the trees but could not see the leopard.

We then concentrated on photographing the upset vervet monkeys when suddenly a vervet monkey fell about 3 metres behind us. It had obviously just been slain by the leopard! We looked and looked but still we couldn’t see the leopard.

We backed away and kept watching but to no avail. Brian was really frustrated as he loves leopards and really wanted us to get some close up photos but this one got away.

We continued on our way to Khwai and stopped at Khwai village and were shown some of the houses that have walls built from empty beer and pop cans. We then headed in to the Khwai concession and the first thing that Brian showed us was a hyena den and outside were two very young hyenas playing!

Two young hyenas playing in front of their den.

At Khwai we saw a lot more lions than we had at Moremi and these included two very young cubs that were still nursing. On one evening we had the pleasure of watching them being moved by their mom.

At Khwai we also saw a large number of elephants plus honey badgers, a variety of eagles and vultures, different antelopes, two types of mongoose but still no leopards!

I paid for my own spot on this photo tour but despite the expense it has been very worthwhile and we still have five days to go!

Tonight we watched the total eclipse of the moon and tomorrow we’ll be exploring Victoria Falls town before heading to Mana Pools National Park on Friday. The next blog update will be on June 23rd, so stay tuned. In the meantime, here are a few more photos.

A young male lion watches us through the grass

A lioness moves one of her cubs to a new hiding spot.

A giraffe, just after sunset at Moremi.

Jun 072011

Downtown Johannesburg

After two overnight flights (Calgary – London and London – Johannesburg) I’m finally in Africa at the start of our photo safari. The flight arrived very early but fortunately the hotel had our rooms ready and we were relaxing by 8am.

As we had the whole day here we decided to catch up with some sleep and in the afternoon and had a fascinating tour of Soweto with Modeno who was a fun and informative guide.

Our first stop was downtown Jo’burg and we visited a traditional medicine shop. Dried roots filled shelves; drums, spears and other ceremonial regalia were around the walls and lots of animal products such as hooves hung from the ceilings.

Modeno told us how many of the products were used, including a rather graphic description as to how to use a spear; I’ll save you the details!

A sign of the times. An old apartheid sign in downtown Johannesburg.

Before arriving in Soweto we drove past the ‘Kalabash’ soccer stadium that was used for the main events in the 2010 soccer world cup and then went to the cooling towers at the old Orlando power station in Soweto.

The cooling towers have incredible art painted all around them which was done by scaffold, as you can imagine the middle was difficult due to the concave shape of the towers. The towers are connected by cables with a bungy jumping platform in between them.

One of the two painted Soweto cooling towers

A family lives here. No electricity, running water or sanitation.

I was expecting Soweto to be full of depressing shanty houses. It certainly has many of those but some areas are surprisingly affluent. Winnie Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other prominent South Africans still live in Soweto. There are still a lot of shanty areas that have incredibly small houses made of corrugated steel with no electricity, running water or sanitation. The government is slowly rebuilding Soweto but it is taking a very long time, which must be frustrating for the inhabitants when they see the infrastructure improvements that were made for the soccer world cup.

Our final stop was to the Hector Pieterson museum in Soweto. Hector was killed when black children protested against being educated in the Afrikaans language on June 16th, 1976. It was the police’s reaction to this protest that drew condemnation from around the world. Although Hector was not the only child killed, he became an icon of the struggle against apartheid due to a photograph of him being carried from the scene. It shows the power that photography has as a medium.

Tomorrow we head to Botswana and start our safari in the Okavango delta. Look out for the next blog post on June 16th which will be from Victoria Falls.

Nov 012010

In May 2012 I will be returning to the Galapagos Islands for another photo tour.

The dates are May 4th to May 14th (Galapagos and Otavalo) or May 4th to May 20th for Galapagos, Otavalo and Napo Lodge (Amazon Basin).

The itinerary is new and our luxury yacht will be going to some exciting new locations!

The price for the trip will be announced early in 2011 but for now pencil the dates in your 2012 calendar!

In the meantime I will be doing a talk at the Canmore Library at 7:30pm on Monday, November 8th. Some of the photos and stories will be from my 2010 photo tour to the Galapagos Islands.

Aug 032010

Brown bear looking for fish

Our first few days in Alaska have been incredible with excellent bear and whale photography.

We saw a few bears at Kadoshan on our first day and photographed them chasing fish, resting and eating sedge grass.

For our second day went went whale watching. After a slow start we saw a humpback whale that was breaching, we headed to where it was performing and enjoyed the spectacular display and enjoyed listening to it’s calls.

Later, more humpbacks arrived and on the cruise back to Tenakee we saw a large pod of orcas which we photographed before heading back for dinner.

Humpback breaching

Today, we are exploring Tenakee and hope to see some bears in the river near the cabin.

More updates on Saturday!

"Chocolate" eating sedge grass