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THE LAUGAVEGUR TRAIL – A Glimpse of Prehistoric Earth

Humans are an unpredictable species. Occasionally we forsake the creature comforts of our modern society and community – the luxuries of warmth, electricity and social media – and simply don a backpack and a pair of boots and climb things, the taller the better.

I found myself in Reykjavik, Iceland at the end of August 2016. I had heard stories of spectacular out-of-this-world mountain ranges and hills that are unlike any other environment on Earth. I had to climb it.

A journey of 37 hours flying and transiting from Adelaide to Dubai, to London, to Dusseldorf and finally Reykjavik – my first impression was wow, the airport of Keflavik – 40km outside of the capital city of Reykjavik was quite funky and hip, and free wifi! Which led me to my first duty-free purchase in over 3 years – an assorted bag of 25 mini chocolate bars such as Mars, Snickers, Bounty etc. This ‘strategic’ purchase was not to satisfy my sweet tooth but simply for glucose and carbohydrates for the impending trek – energy for when we are on the move.

As with 99% of travellers and tourists arriving in Iceland – I caught the bus into the capital city, which I then transferred onto a van with a few sleep-deprived Europeans to be dropped off at our hotels and hostels individually. This is a fantastic service that runs through most of the night and reminiscent of the tourist-centric transportation network that covers Iceland.

PHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT

As a working photographer, I decided on bringing the Sony A7RII for landscape photos, and the smaller Sony A6000 for general purpose photos. It turned out, by the end of the trek, the A7RII did not leave the comfort of the camera bag at all along with the tripod, and all the photos you will see below were taken with the Sony A6000. My reasons for not using the bigger camera was due to the constantly changing weather conditions we encountered, and the speed of which we were walking every day, which would have made setting up the camera and tripod tedious and time consuming. I carried an extra 3kg for nothing.

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02470*Waiting for the 4WD bus at the BSI Station to take us to Landmannalaugar campsite and jump-off point for the trek*

The next morning, after linking up with my friends –Cristian and Linh, who are joining the trek –it was time to buy last minute food supplies and snacks for the planned 3-day trek. For all potential Iceland travellers , I recommend shopping for grocery and supplies at the grocery chain called ‘BONUS’ – it is noticeably cheaper than other grocery stores in the city centre and surrounding suburbs. Spending around $50USD, our rations and supplementary food included:

-Over 1kg of pasta such as penne and macaroni

-2x jars of pesto to add flavour

-3x bags of assorted dried fruits consisting of apricots, dates etc

-4x tins of tuna to mix with the pasta

-my awesome bag of 25x mini chocolate bars

-large bag of garlic flat bread + peanut butter jar

This supplemented our 12 packs of military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) – which I had arranged for Linh to purchase in New York City before flying over. I had found 12x new 24 hour ration packs of the US Military on Ebay for around $40USD – which is a huge bargain when it comes to camping food. Each pack consists of a main meal + fruit snack pack + high energy cookie + cheese and crackers. The main meal is self heating via an ingenious heat pack which reacts to a sachet of sodium water being poured in and will reach boiling point for around half an hour – you simply place your meal pack inside and let it heat for 10-15 mins. If you are planning to buy similar MREs for trekking, take note that each pack is over 2000 calories – designed to sustain a soldier in the field for medium to heavy physical activities over 24 hours. If you plan to eat them at base camps and not engage in many activities, you will inevitably gain weight. Also take note that MREs usually lead to constipation due to the highly processed food content inside. If you have a sensitive stomach I strongly suggest trying a few first before carrying them on any hike.

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02506*Early morning preparations with Cristian before breaking camp and leaving Landmannalaugar for the walk*

The advantages of trekking in a group are many – one of them is the ability to divide up the weight load, Linh and I carried around 16kg of food while Cristian carried the the large Denali Vortex 3-men tent. The tent itself can accommodate more than just 3 grown men but also had sufficient room for our 3 packs as well as room to move and miscellaneous items. I cannot stress the importance of a good, expensive tent. The Denali was fast to set up – less than 5 mins between 2 people – and very sturdy in the windy conditions of the Icelandic highlands; never cheap out on a tent when you are trekking, especially in unpredictable environments.

PERSONAL CLOTHING SET UP:

During the actual trek I wore –

  1. Columbia Dri-Fit shirt
  2. Helly Hansen lightweight fleece jacket (only at higher altitude)
  3. Marmot Precip waterproof/windproof jacket
  4. North Face convertible pants
  5. Salomon 3D Comet boots
  6. Sea To Summit knee high gaiters

I also carried waterproof pants in the backpack, in case of heavy rain. Fortunately we did not encounter any adverse weather conditions, save for light snow near the glaciers at around 1000m in altitude. At nights I wore lightweight thermal long sleeve top and bottoms at around 160gsm thickness, with a lightweight sleeping bag rated to only 0 degrees. I had a warm and comfortable sleep on top of the Sea To Summit Ultra Light Insulated inflatable sleeping mat, with an R-value of 3.3, which is a good level of warmth even in sub-zero temperature.

From the main BSI bus terminal in Reykjavik (which is operated by Reykjavik Excursions) I decided for the group to head for the trail-head and main campsite at Landmannalaugar a night early.This was so we could depart for the trek in the morning.–. It was a 4-hour bus journey and encompassing a variety of stops by the tour guide to show us the diverse nature of the Icelandic countryside, with tales of their mythical mountain trolls of yore and history of this beautifully rugged land.

It was after 9PM when we arrived at Landmannalaugar – and it was tent city. Some were overnight trekkers who came to explore the surrounding colourful hills and mountains and to enjoy the amazing natural hot springs, while most were starting out or at the end point of the Laugavegur trek. Being so close to the North Pole meant that we had sunlight till nearly 11PM and had sufficient light to erect the tent and settled in for the night. The main drawcard of the Landmannalaugar campsite is the large natural hot spring bubbling right next to the tents. We joined the throngs of trekkers stripping down to our bathers in the dark outdoors in single digit temperature – and plunging into steaming hot water heated by volcanic vents. Stray too close to the steam and you could feel the painful rush of scolding water occasionally flashing past you on top of the already hot water. It was an incredible experience to lie there in the mountains in the dark and soothed by the healing power of nature.

The next morning was a hustle and bustle of tents being collapsed, meals being cooked, a surprisingly modern unisex bathroom and showers building bursting with trekkers in their morning routines before departing. Just like that, we set off after 8AM, with early risers already seen walking in the distant hills.

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02510*Last photo before the start of the trek, with the trail head behind us*

DAY 1 – Landmannalaugar to Alftavatn

We knew this day would be a tough one, as we planned to reach all the way to Alftavatn before nightfall – involving a 25KM leg with a lot of hills to ascend and descend ahead.

I won’t lie, it was a hard day; I consider myself to be of a good fitness and strength level, but a 25KM day up and down hills with a 20kg backpack is tiring for anyone. But the landscape –wow what a view that was throughout the whole day. Probably the best distraction from our muscle fatigue is evident every time we gaze around this ancient yet diverse landscape.

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02536*The struggles of hill ascents and descents begin, but what a beautiful struggle it turned out to be*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02518*We occasionally paused, to simply admire the spectacle around us. This was a valley of moss and lava rocks not far from departing Landmmanlaugar and is popular with day walkers and casual visitors*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02534*As we climbed higher, we start encountering patches of snow mixed with moss covered hills and occasional volcanic vents gushing out hot, steaming air and creating warm pockets along the trail*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02551*I had been looking forward to hitting the snowfields all morning, and it did not disappoint at all. The wind chill factor rose sharply and it was very cold. As we trudged on the visibility became lower and lower and we encountered light rain and snow at certain parts*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02585*I took this at one of the more dangerous parts of the snowfields, as the trail became less visible to see and follow. Linh wore shorts here and we were fortunate to not have any sudden extreme changes in weather*
iceland-trek-aug-2016-02580*This is why the area is dangerous. A young Israeli trekker died during a blizzard in the snowfields*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02598*Beyond these snowy slopes are the glaciers, they can be reached and walked upon but only recommended to experienced and prepared mountaineers*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02608*This photo of myself could not represent how strong the wind chill factor is at around 1000m altitude*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02562*There are many volcanic vents steaming into streams on the first day of the trek. These places make for a good emergency stop, as its significantly warmer and provides a source of fresh water too*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02568*One of the best and most helpful features of the Laugavegur trail is that you do not need to carry much water at all. As there are many freshwater streams criss-crossing the whole trail and one is never far from any water source. It was one of the best freshwater I had ever tasted as well.

The most spectacular view and the hardest part of DAY 1 was the steep and long descent to Alftavatn Lake from the mountainside. It was an hour or so of steep, knee-jarring descent. For anyone with weak knees, it is advisable to carry walking poles to assist you on the way down to take the strain of the knees and reduce the danger of falling over.

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02626*I have seen a lot of incredible landscapes around the world over the years, but this had to be one of the most memorable of all. It reminded me of the cartoon ‘A Land Before Time’. We stopped here for a while to simply take in the natural beauty.

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02634*Alftavatn Lake to the left, with the campsite on its shores around 4KM away from where I took this photo. A small gap in the dark, low hanging clouds revealed a beautiful spot of sunshine on the winding river*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02621*Some last minute map check, and a quick energizing stop*

PERSONAL ADVICE: One of the reasons we walked 25KM instead of the usual 12KM on the first day, was that we wanted to skip the main checkpoint and cabin at Hrafntinnusker – the halfway point between Landmannalaugar and Alftavatn. From reading trekking diaries of those that had accomplished the trek and my own research, I believe it was the correct and excellent choice to skip spending the night here. The main cabin and campsite lies at an elevation around 1000m in altitude, and was extremely foggy with a very high wind chill factor. Its close proximity to the snowfields and glacier made for a very cold lunch stop. I personally think this is not a great place to set up camp for the night and would recommend anyone to keep pushing the extra 12KM to Alftavatn Lake at an elevation of 565m and much calmer weather.

DAY 2 – Alftavatn to Botnar (Emstrur)

Today was a much easier day, albeit with some sore limbs and shoulders. The landscape had shifted dramatically with the majority of the 15KM leg of the second day spent walking through black sands and huge calderas of ancient volcanoes from prehistoric times. We regretted not staying in Alftavatn for another night as it was a very picturesque campsite by the lake and surrounded by moss covered hills and volcanic craters.

Near the end of the day we encountered the second river crossing and most significant one yet. With a strong current and knee-deep water level on that day, the melted glacial water was one of the most painful experiences I had encountered. I highly recommend using walking poles for support, or have a buddy system to hold onto each other for support whilst crossing.

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02653*It is highly recommended to bring along a pair of flip-flops, sandals or old shoes for these river crossings, the frigid water is piercingly painful and the riverbeds are very rocky*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02657*There are 2 river crossings on the second day. With the second crossing, we experienced a much stronger current and a wider river. This is where walking poles or a buddy system to hold onto can stop you from falling into the water*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02669*After the second and last river crossing of the day, we were more than happy to see flat terrain as far as the eyes could see, with some very desolate but scenic views of ancient hills and volcanoes surrounding us*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02672*From here on, it was simply following a rough 4WD road most of the way to Botnar campsite for the next few hours*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02678*Lunch stop, and more MREs to consume. The self heating meal packets were excellent in allowing us to have more free time and not set up any gas cookers*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02688*Resting on a slope with Botnar campsite below us. We made excellent time on the second day and had arrived at the site before many other trekking groups and individuals, thus allowing us to find a more ideal area to pitch the tent*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02692*An afternoon nap later, we awoke to find other trekkers who had just arrived, hurriedly setting up tents as low clouds appeared with flickers of rain. But luckily the weather once again held out*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02695*Cooking the ubiquitous pasta meal, a classic meal for trekkers around the world – as it allows for a high amount of energy and carbohydrates, very easy to carry and cook, and can be mixed with a variety of condiments*

DAY 3 – Botnar (Emstrur) to Thorsmork

The last day of the trek, our main focus was to reach Thorsmork campsite to catch the large 4WD bus back to Reyjavik at 1530.Another day, another shift in landscape and weather – right after leaving the campsite, we encountered a steep descent down a hillside covered in loose volcanic ash, proceeded by a beautiful crossing of a deep gorge with fixed rope to aid the descent.

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02700*A view of Botnar campsite as we departed early in the morning, with many groups traversing the opposite direction or simply sleeping in for a while longer. But we had a bus to catch that afternoon*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02704*The descent from Botnar to the river and gorge was quite slippery and steep on the volcanic sands. I would hate to be doing the opposite traverse and climbing this slope to the campsite after a day of walking*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02716*A beautiful gorge crossing and a raging river below, a few kilometres out of Botnar*

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02717*Cristian on a ledge, looking down onto the gorge and river. This are is a great place for landscape photos *

One could really feel the temperature warming up, as we are descending lower and lower to our final campsite. I knew that we would eventually encounter our final river crossing, but I did not anticipate how wide the Pronga River was – which eventuated into 5 smaller crossings to get to the other side of the bank.

It was a surreal experience; the last few kilometres of the trek were through lush green forests before seeing the huts at Thorsmork, ringed by tall hills and glaciers in the distance. We made it, in roughly 2.5 days of trekking, even though the recommended duration is around 4 days for many people.

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02735*A short rest on the hill, before crossing the wide Pronga river below us. In the distance is a column of smoke rising from an active volcano near a glacier. It truly is the land of fire and ice*

Looking back, the three of us sincerely believed that was one of the most unique treks and landscapes we have witnessed and traversed. There was nothing else like what we saw on Earth – from prehistoric landscapes to witnessing the collision of fire and ice, to the stark and desolate beauty of ash-covered calderas. We would do it again, but for longer, to truly take in this unique place in the world.

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02737*At the picturesque Thorsmork campsite, finishing off the last of our pasta and waiting for the bus to arrive*

MY REFLECTIONS – four months on

I had seen different friends on social media visiting Iceland in the last few months, their photos are beautiful, but they are all the same. Road trips and day trips around Iceland and the coastlines are stunning, but it does not offer the type of diversity as what we had witnessed on our trek. To us, and to the locals that have walked the trail – that is the real Iceland, a place of abrupt changes in diversity, of fire and ice and of desolate features that had to be seen and experienced with one’s eyes. You really have to visit the interior of Iceland to see the real country, the highlands is where its true beauty lies.

iceland-trek-aug-2016-02643*One of my favourite landscape photos from the trek, a hut by Alftavatn Lake at dusk*

Follow me on Instagram at @jackietranphotography.

or my Facebook work page – Jackie TRAN.

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FAR NORTH QUEENSLAND – Rainforest to Reefs

I have seen a lot of Australia, more so than the average Australian. From crossing the Nullabor, to the beautiful alpine regions of Victoria and New South Wales, to the Top End, to remote towns in the middle of nowhere or along desolate coastlines away from the tourist trail. But far north Queensland took me by surprise, and it was a wonderful experience.

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Many see Cairns and Port Douglas as the last major city and town in northern Queensland, before it becomes wild, uninhabited country that is only frequented by big 4WD vehicles that are prepared for extended trips. Although Cooktown is a sizeable town five hours north of Cairns – but by then it is beyond the reach of most tourists.

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We heard great things only three hours north of Cairns and intended to find out, without having to venture too far off the beaten track. To the place called Cape Tribulation, just past the world famous Daintree rainforests – the oldest tropical rainforest in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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For this trip I had a Sony NEX5N in an underwater housing, rated down to 40M depth – it was only $100AUD on Ebay, and had served me well in a few countries from scuba diving and snorkelling trips. The lack of an external strobe light meant that using natural light or the small onboard flash was usable at up to 15M depth at good visibility. I also had no red filter as well so it made the post processing more challenging altogether.

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I felt like I was in South-East Asia. The air was humid and muggy, the constant noise and sound from the rainforest mixed with the faint salt smell and crash of the waves. I was able to witness something that is incredibly rare on Earth – a rainforest reaching out to touch beautiful white beaches – a rare sight anywhere in the world. This was not the Australia that I thought I knew, the lush green landscape made everything even more beautiful.

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Our rental Mitsubishi Outlander performed satisfactorily as expected on the unsealed roads around the Daintree and Cape Tribulation. The occasional deep ruts and potholes were of no concern to the raised height of the vehicle, compared to a normal sedan. I would recommend to any tourists spending a few days exploring this part of Australia to rent something of this calibre, or even better such as a proper 4WD vehicle, especially if you are carrying a heavy load or passengers.

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Back in Cairns and out on a scuba dive at Hastings Reef, I saw first-hand the effects of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, and it was a sad sight to behold. The last time I had dived at a big reef system was in Vanuatu at Hideaway Island – the colours and aquatic life with its mesmerising colours and abundance of marine life, where I literally had to brush fish away in front of me just so I can follow my dive instructor – was an unforgettable memory.

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It is without a doubt The Great Barrier Reef is suffering from coral bleaching, up to 93% of reefs surveyed by the Marine Park Authority in fact, this is an alarming figure. Nowhere did I see the colourful corals and marine life below as I expected from photos and videos – this is supposed to be our world famous reef – yet it is slowly dying in many parts. This is not a political article, so I do not want to get into intimate details about petitioning our government to do more to reduce the rate of coral bleaching and countermeasures. All I can say is – visit the beautiful reefs before it may be too late.

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Of Mountains & Sands – Portraits from Nepal & India

Portraits, something so simple yet sometimes so hard to achieve without looking staged or set up. My love for travel photography centres around ‘environmental portraiture’ – where I am able to capture not only the faces and expressions of my subject, but their surroundings and environment as well. This allows the viewer to better engage with the photo, and to understand and feel how the subject lives and exist. My go to lens is the Canon 35L on an FF body, allowing me to have a wide enough photo yet still maintain a high degree of depth of field.

Near the border and buffer zone between India and Pakistan, in the Thar desert region near Jaisalmer – I spotted an old goat herder. I asked to take a photo of him and he proudly posed for my camera, yet at the same time was quite protective of the girl behind him. His body language indicated that he did not want her to be captured at all. So I thanked him and walked back to the camp site.

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A handsome local who rode up to our campsite to sell soft-drinks with his young son.

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A photo and scene that will stick in my mind for a long time. During our trek in the Annapurna foothills, a local village boy ran up to us and constantly begged for chocolates. Unfortunately we did not have any to give to him. Such luxury goods are highly prized by villagers in remote areas.

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You dont realize how fit locals are living in the mountainous terrains, until you see them carrying heavy loads on their backs – while smiling at you without breaking a sweat, up and down the steep trails.

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The Boudha Stupa in Kathmandu is a place of significant religious value, but open to tourists, monks and those practicing yoga from all over the world. An elderly monk was praying and seeking alms as I took a photo of him.

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Durbar Square in Kathmandu in the afternoons is the place to be for many locals. The destination to meet up with friends, buy produce from market stalls, or to simply sit back and soak in the atmosphere and people watch – particularly wide-eyed tourists who had just arrived in the country. This little girl was playing by herself using rocks and bottle caps.

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A drunken villager who was celebrating with his family when we came by for a break from the descent from the mountains.

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Tourism in the Rajasthan region of India is still growing strongly, with many resorts and hotels being built in the Thar desert, this was one of the workers at a resort site I came across.

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The young boy who accompanied his dad on his own camel, coming by to sell us soft drinks in the desert.

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A shy boy who hid behind other boys and young men, when we came to visit their village outside of Jaisalmer.

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At the Epitaphs outside of Jaisalmer, local school boys came up to us out of curiosity and kept asking us for one thing, which we couldnt understand. It was not till a while after that we found out they were asking for pens and pencils…..

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He was trying to explain to me the rules of this game, naturally our language barrier prevented me from understanding much. But from the time spent with him – it seemed very similar in ways to Chinese chess.

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The morning after. Our guide cooking breakfast for us, before a herd of goats invaded the campsite and tried to steal food.

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The Himalayas to the Thar desert – NEPAL & INDIA

The name Chomolungma, or Sagamartha depending on which side of the Himalayas you are coming from; has resonated strongly with avid travelers like myself for years. Many yearn to climb her but only a few lucky ones will ever succeed. While many are simply content to stand in her shadows and see with their own eyes. Maybe one day I will attempt to summit the peak, but for now I was just happy to be in the same country as Mount Everest!

The main objective of my first ever visit to Nepal was to get a taste of what to expect for future hiking trips in the region. Due to our limited time in the country I opted for the Annapurna range via Pokhara upon hearing of its serene beauty – of both the town and the surrounding hills and mountains. With the first few days in Kathmandu for sightseeing and trying out different variations of the local delicacy ‘momo’ (fried dumplings) – we took the well worn 6 hour car ride to Pokhara.

Looking back, there is nothing I can write that hadn’t been covered before about Pokhara or the Annapurna. All I can stress the importance of is shoes! Looking back, everything else I planned for or equipped for was fine, except for the shoes. I have a nice pair of lightweight Columbia water proof trekking mid-neck shoes (not boots), and worn in enough from previous travels and activities etc. Making the ascent was fine, it was not until the descent that I realized the shoes fit a bit too snugly and my toes were hitting the end of the shoes with every step down. Times that by thousands and thousands of steps and suddenly you are in a lot of pain with no one to blame but yourself. Always buy hiking shoes/boots with room for your toes to slide or move a bit, you will be grateful for it. My fault:)

Then there was India.

This was a love it or hate it type of country. I loved it, but some of my friends didn’t. Our gruelling and tight schedule did not help either. For many years I had dreamt about visiting Jaisalmer and staying in the fort in the desert, and was adamant we had to get there somehow.

From Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, then to Jaipur, Jodhpur and finally Jaisalmer – everyday was roughly 6-7 hours in the car traveling to the next city. This was the most cost effective way with the short amount of time we had, as last minute trains and flights did not match to what we needed.

The colours, my gosh the colours of the Rajasthan region was breathtaking! You see it on television but to see it in person or through the camera lens was like looking through a kaleidoscope of vivid scenes. I love history and culture, and to see the famous forts in each city of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer – I tried to imagine myself walking through those narrow streets or battlements hundreds of years ago.

We wrapped up India in a relaxing, albeit slightly hot and painful manner. Camel riding in the Thar desert, and slept overnight on the sand dunes. A nice and surreal way to end what had been one of our most physically tiring trips so far, in terms of duration spent driving, flying and training it. Add in white water rafting, para-gliding and that unforgettable and arduous ‘little’ hike we did in the Annapurna. I hope to return as soon as possible!

Below are some images from both countries during the journey, enjoy:)

 

Our first day in Kathmandu, finding our way to Durbar Square and trying to get through the afternoon traffic.

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Local sellers in Durbar Square in the late afternoon.

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People watching in the local market – Durbar Square.

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Young monks at the Boudha Stupa – Kathmandu.

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I shot this of a fellow para-glider in front of me whilst up in the air, with Pokhara and its serene lake in the background.

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Another shot of a para-glider skimming over the ridgelines near Pokhara. It looked a lot more cooler in person:)

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Landed!

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The long and amazing ascent/descent/ascent etc to Panchasse village for the night – Annapurna hills

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One of the most unforgettable nights I ever had on my travels around the world. Sitting around the village campfire getting to know travelers from around the world and sharing food with the local women who looked after us.

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Stunning view of the Annapurna Range when the clouds lifted from our hotel room, with Diana in the foreground. We all rushed to take photos when it became visible.

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The ubiquitous Taj Mahal + crowd shot:)

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There is a certain beauty in the aesthetics of Amber Fort in Jaipur, the flowing walls and layout made for a less imposing structure than another photo below in another city.

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Mehrengarh Fort in Jodhpur the blue city. Atop the hill overlooking the city, its imposing structure stands at a vast contrast to Amber Fort in Jaipur. It has never been conquered by any army.

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The view of Mehrengarh Fort from our haveli. You can see why this is referred to as the ‘blue city’.

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Another fort, this time in Jaisalmer in which we stayed inside and was a highlight in terms of exotic locale and customer service. The city of Jaisalmer resembled something from the Middle East in some parts, you wouldn’t think you are still in India.

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The camel ride out into the Thar desert, an hour outside of Jaisalmer. It was a painful experience for the guys, for obvious reasons:)

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This was the moment we woke up in the early morning in the Thar desert.

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Inside our accommodation in Jaisalmer Fort. One word = colours!

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Borneo to Japan – Nov/Dec 2013

A few weeks after coming back from a stunning road trip of South Island in New Zealand, we were off to Borneo to see the Orang-utans, and for me to do a story on them and interviewing staff there. We had not been to cities like Kuching, Penang and Langkawi island so this was a good opportunity to knock them all off at once before heading over to the colder climate of a Japanese winter.

Kuching was a great contrast to the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur. We spent the morning at Semengoh sanctuary for Orang-Utans and I was able to interview several park rangers, and able to photograph the feeding time up close. But thats for another story for a travel magazine:)

Coming back to Tokyo was a moving experience. It was one of the two cities I had first explored when I begun my traveling in 2007, and to see old and new places again was amazing! My biggest highlight was masquerading as a foreign photographer and wandered onto the Pit area of Mt Fuji Speedway during a regional race – Toyota Vitz Endurance Cup. I had always been fascinated with this legendary race track from watching it on TV and through video games such as Gran Turismo series. But to actually stand next to teams making pit stops and race officials poring over race data was a surreal moment!

 

On a beach in Langkawi, overcast day and poor visibility meant it was useless for diving or any underwater snorkeling shots!

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Messing around in the water with Diana, shot with the Sony NEX5N in an underwater housing half submerged.

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Behind the scenes shot of feeding time for some Orang-Utans.

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Back again, after 7 years since I was at Mt Fuji! Can you believe this was taken with my iPhone 5!? Use the canoes in the foreground to frame the volcano during sunset.

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One of my trespassing shots in the Pits area of Fuji Speedway. Masquerading as a foreign journalist, I was able to sneak onto the pit area and watched several teams change drivers during the Toyota Vitz endurance race.

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Track officials monitoring timing and conditions on their laptops. Nobody questioned me as I stood there without a badge during the race.

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I love the camaraderie of the racing teams at Fuji Speedway. Here are a group of women handing out free hot food to team members and officials and grid girls during the cold winter morning!

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If you know anything about cars, sometimes the parking lots of Japanese race tracks and drag strips is more interesting than whats being raced! There were plenty of awesome modded cars and quirky ones. But this is one of my faveourite. I had always been a fan of the FD RX7 and to see one that is a daily thrasher with street damage and all, made my day!

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A ceremony at the Meiji-Jingu Shrine in Harajuku, Tokyo. A lot had changed here since I first came in 2007. New and upgraded walking paths and new buildings seemed to have slightly diminished its tranquil setting in the heart of Tokyo.

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Someone famous having a photoshoot at the Meiji-Jingu shrine. We had no idea who we was but asked for a photo together anyway!

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iPhone Photography: Getting the best out of your camera

Spending up to five months away from home and overseas, lugging my full DSLR equipment everywhere I go just wasn’t gonna happen (even though I still try to, and rarely use it due to the size and bulk and lack of discretion). I had tried smaller solutions, such as the Canon S100 and Sony NEX5N – the latter I still use with an underwater housing for recreational scuba diving – they still represented another device one had to carry for the occasional snaps or postcard shots.

It was not until the end of 2012 that I switched over to the iPhone 5, and discovered the very fast camera it possesses – a much better improvement over the ‘shutter lag’ of the iPhone 4 and 4s. Being a professional photographer, I enjoy post processing/editing my photos and having the creative control over everything I shoot for that extra quality. I immediately jumped online and researched the inumerable apps available to the iPhone for editing/manipulation, and the rest was history.

I had found the solution I had been looking for. The iPhone 5 and 5s is more than capable of churning out 8×12 inch prints (A4 size) in good lighting, and smaller sizes easily – I dont think many people using the iPhone would be printing any larger anyway. If I were going to, I’d reach for my DSLRs or the NEX5N etc.

Below are the main apps I use for editing & manipulation in which I will show you the before and after effects in examples below.

EDITING

1) Snapseed – FREE – this app is great since becoming free to download on the app store, with a host of features and special effects – my favourite being the selective adjustment where you can brighten or darken selected parts of the image.

2) PhotoToaster – $2.99 – my third most used apps, for quick changes to Sepia, B&W and other effects fast.

3) Pro HDR – $1.99 – the first ever photo app I downloaded and my second most used – takes 1 underexposed and 1 overexposed photo to combine into a HDR style photo to show more details. This is great for highly exposed scenes where you want to retain details and vice versa. Only works well with non moving scenes however, otherwise there will be light trails or blur by movement.

4) Camera+ – $1.99 – my favourite and go-to app for majority of my photos because of one unique function – the Clarity function. One touch of it and it will brighten underexposed areas as well as increase sharpness and clarity to give your photos an instant pop. Although the app has many other features this is the one I use the most, and you can see the results below. The clarity function naturally results in more noise however, so be wary of using it with photos taken in low light or areas with lots of shadows.

MISCELLANEOUS

PhotoCollage – FREE – this is great for making photo collages, putting together 2 or 5 photos is only a touch away. Great for showing a place or scene in various angles in a collage instead of just a single photo.

InstaEffect – FREE – I rarely touch this app, but I’m sure there are many out there that would love the cool effects and colours it can throw over a photo. The only time I use this is for my Star Wars Re-Imagined by Lego series with my iPhone which is still being shot.

PhotoSync – $3.99 – absolutely invaluable to me and worth every cent! Fast selection of which photos from your camera to send wirelessly to your laptop or computer. I can usually send about 20 photos from my iPhone to my Macbook Pro in a few seconds flat. This is great if you want to do some further editing or retouching of the photos via Lightroom or CS which I do sometimes.

PHOTO EXAMPLES

Riding a scooter through rice fields and ponds near Hoi An, Vietnam. Taken with normal camera, then Clarity applied later to bring out more colours and contrast as it was a dull overcast dayIMG_0148

The world’s fastest production car – the Bugatti Veyron – parked everyday on Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles. I used the Clarity function of Camera+ to once again bring out the colours and details of the car.

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A small shrine in Shinjuku, Tokyo. I used Pro HDR to merge 2 photos together as the foreground tori gate was quite underexposed. After the photo has been taken, the app allows for further adjustments in exposure, saturation, warmth etc – very handy! On another note, if you have time – dont catch the train from Shinjuku to Shibuya – spend a few hours walking there instead, the quaint little stores and boutique shops make it a very enjoyable experience in which many tourists simply miss out on. It is under 5km in a straight line.

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I dont really know how to explain this photo, but how awesome is his little car! Saw this well dressed middle aged man driving this in Shinjuku, luckily he stopped at the traffic lights long enough to get a shot of him. Later on I applied Clarity to make it pop more.

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This was my return to Mount Fuji in Japan after nearly 7 years. I used Pro HDR to achieve the details in the foreground and background, then loaded it to my laptop via PhotoSync and then reduced some noise via Lightroom. I really like this as the mountain is well framed by the stack of rowing boats in the foreground.

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This is a life sized, 18m high original Gundam machine, outside of Diver City shopping complex on Odaiba Island, Tokyo – Japan. Not satisfied with the original shot, I used Clarity on it to give the machine more oomph. This is a side by side comparison of before and after Clarity. However the difference is more notice during daylight as there is more dynamic range for the program to work with. But you can see that below in other examples. IMG_1295

Toyota Mega Web museum on Odaiba in Japan is a must for any car enthusiast. In the historic side of the museum, there is a vintage set up complete with faux vintage surroundings and props and period items. Because I wanted to capture that vintage essence, I used Sepia via PhotoToaster, then Clarity via Camera+ to make it look more aged. IMG_1296

This is another angle of the above shot, but wider. I hate crooked shots, so I applied the same as above as well as the straighten too via Camera+ – the straighten tool is available in most photo apps and is an often overlooked function.

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At my resort in Cancun, Mexico. This gives you a better idea of how  Clarity works in daylight and the difference it makes with one simple touch. IMG_1300

On the rooftop of my hotel in Antigua, Guatemala facing one of the volcanoes overlooking the town. Here I used Clarity again, and it is able to brighten up previously darkened areas in the original photo.

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Thats the end of my beginner’s guide to iPhone photography and editing. My biggest word of advice is – BE CAUTIOUS. A new iPhone is rare in many countries and often seen as an object of status. Therefore muggings and robberies purely for iPhones whether you are on foot or on a vehicle is not unheard of. Be careful of where you pull your phone out to get that amazing shot.

Happy shooting!

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SOUTH ISLAND – New Zealand

It was a surreal, yet raw and brutal experience – being able to walk on a gigantic glacier shaped by the forces of nature. While the occasional rock falls sending down tonnes of rocks would echo loudly in the valley making us weary of our paths. It was brutally beautiful, that sheer wall of white and blue ice amongst an almost alien and colourless landscape. There were no human comforts to be found here.

Fox Glacier, on the stunningly rugged and beautiful South Island, New Zealand – is a 13km long ice glacier that is formed in the Southern Alps and ending near rainforests and the township, which serves as the gateway to exploring this natural wonder. The tours to the glacier are easily booked and can accommodate all levels of age and fitness – with helicopter tours and landing on the glacier naturally being the most expensive.

This is no place for ignorance and silliness, as safety is of the utmost importance to both visitors and tour guides. With the most recent deaths being in 2009 when 2 Australian tourists ignored warnings and safety barriers and were crushed by over 100 tonnes of ice falling. The glacier is constantly shifting and evolving so the danger and risk are assessed on a day by day basis.

If you ever land on South Island, it is worth making the drive here to visit Fox Glacier, I had done and seen many wondrous things in my life, and this has to be up there with the most memorable of them all.

P.S be careful with your cameras if they are not waterproof or weather sealed. Even my Canon 5D3 and lens were deemed highly weather sealed – albeit not as much as a 1D body – but they still got soaked enough from the constant rain over a few hours to exhibit error signs. However this was remedied by me placing it on the bed with an electric blanket to kill any moisture inside. But dont try this yourself!

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ANTIGUA: Guatemala’s volcanic playground

High noon, and somewhere between Belize and Guatemala and close to receiving deep vein thrombosis – I was jammed into a van with 18 other locals from the border town of Melchor after crossing over from Belize. With a 16kg backpack on my lap, and a stranger resting his head upon my shoulders quietly snoring away – I pondered about life. Not because I had a lot on my mind, more so because I literally could not move or do much else.

We looked for a way down south, hearing the allure of a historic Spanish colonial town, built in the Baroque style and nestled at 1500m above sea level – sounded like a supermodel amongst a pack of tired, middle aged businesswomen. Tired being the hotel beds in Cancun, or the tired hotel staff putting up with the constant supply of American all-inclusive resort guests’.

The four days spent in Antigua was filled with seeing quaint wonders – from climbing the still active Volcan Pacaya to wandering the colourful cobbled stone streets – it was a much needed respite after the arduous journey overland from Cancun through Belize to Antigua, with our final destination being Guatemala City 2 hours away, before flying back to Cancun and back to LA.

I had never seen so many people carrying shotguns before until I arrived in Guatemala City, from shopping mall guards, car parking attendants and bread delivery drivers. It was shotgun heaven for enthusiasts. But that is inevitable from the very high crime rate in the capital city. I was glad to leave the capital after an uneventful night there, otherwise there would have been a lot of ball bearings flying around!

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ISLA MUJERES – MUSA Underwater Museum – Cancun, Mexico

I consider myself to be an enthusiastic scuba diver, albeit a novice one with the occasional dive whenever I am overseas and weather and location permits it! As diving in Adelaide isn’t that great with visibility usually low etc.

On a recent trip to Central America starting in Mexico, I had planned to dive MUSA – which I read about online. We were lucky enough to be able to visit one of the artistic and diving wonders of the world, a vast underwater museum and sculpture off the coast of Isla Mujeres and Cancun, Mexico.

Created by artist Jason deCaires Taylor and other artists, it was utterly surreal to see everyday things and people, 5-10 meters below the water.

Unfortunately, we commenced our dive at the onset of a torrential downpour and after 1 tank we decided to go back to shore. For this series I used a cheap Fuji waterproof camera which cost round $140, if I had my DSLR and underwater housing the image quality would have been vastly different with the added ability of shooting in RAW to edit!

For anyone interested in photographing this, there is currently no facilities in Cancun that offer rental services on underwater housing or specialized cameras. Best to bring your own equipment for now.

If you have time visit Jason’s website, where better photos are taken and not from mycheap underwater camera:)
http://www.underwatersculpture.com/pages/gallery/latest-works.html

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NO VACANCIES – Abandoned resorts and projects in Da Nang, Vietnam.

I trespassed, evaded security guards, hid in unfinished luxury villas, and stared at the sad sight of empty infinity pools which were destined for the luxury holidaymaker. This is a side of Vietnam that the government did not want the world to see. Locations of failed investments, corruption, and ultimately heartbreaks and prison.

I have seen the dramatic growth and expansion of the coastlines around Da Nang and Hoi An every year, for the last four years. From monolithic resorts and hotels, to boutique and family operated businesses catering for every type of tourism possible. In the race for expansion during the midst of the global financial crisis – not every project became sustainable and many were abandoned or put on hold for an indefinite period of time. Thow in the usual corruption that is ubiquitous in Asia and parts of Europe, and suddenly dreams of grandeur, profitability and luxury became rusting metal and faded concrete blocks. Below are some images of a few resorts I managed to sneak into.

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