Monthly Archives: August 2014

Ethiopia: The Danakil Depression

With the Iceland gallery in its final stages of preparation meaning that I no longer have to worry about it, it does free up some much needed time to plan the next trip: The Danakil Depression in Northern Ethiopia. And this trip really does represent my biggest challenge to date.

Looking at some of my recent trips (Iceland, Antarctica and the Bolivian Andes being examples in point) and you probably come to the conclusion that I’m a cold weather kind of guy. And I am. So the thought of spending time in a place whose average daily temperature – in Winter – doesn’t drift much below 40 °C doesn’t really make me want to rush and pack my suitcase. To be fair, I’ve survived 40 °C plus temperatures before, in Egypt, but that was insanely low humidity and I spent much of the midday hours under cover. In the Danakil Depression, the lowest point in Africa and the second lowest land point on the planet, the humidity is to put it mildly, horrific.


The Danakil Depression - Dalol on the map - isn't exactly recommended.

The Danakil Depression – Dalol on the map – isn’t exactly recommended.


The second aspect that would raise an element of concern for most is its location about eight kilometres from the border with Eritrea. A hotly disputed border. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (or FCO) – the UK’s governmental department responsible for issues travel guidelines and assisting UK nationals around the World via regional embassies – is the go-to site when assessing the safety of travelling to various countries. The travel advice for Danakil is “Advise against all travel”. Digging a little deeper however and, aside from an unfortunate episode in 2012, there have been no real problems in the past few years. That said, however, without FCO approval, no normal travel insurance policy will cover you. So I’ve had to look into specialist insurance.  I don’t know if I should be comforted or concerned that they all include kidnap and torture cover.

The third issue is that the area is the home to the Afar tribe, a nomadic people who live off the land by mining salt from the region’s salt flats and transporting it back to civilisation via  camel train. My experience of African people (in Africa) is that they are a proud race but apparently the Afar take that pride up a few notches. So, I’ve got to read up on Afar (and tribal) societies, lest I do something that offends. Not that I’ll come to any harm, but it could well mark the end of my being allowed in what is their homeland.

But despite all of this it is the fourth point that, for many, would be the most problematic. The Danakil Depression is regarded as one of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet. It is a barren, unending desert scrubland. There is no running water here, surface lakes being either extremely poisonous or highly acidic. There is no gas or electricity supply, no medical facilities, in fact there are, well, no facilities at all. Including toilets. If you are the least bit conscious about bodily functions then this is not the place for you. It is not so much you go and squat behind a bush – there are no bushes. No, when you need to go it is a case of grab the paper, walk two hundred metres out on the flat expanse and hope no-one heads your way. And, given that, you can safely assume that there are no washing or bathing facilities at all – a highlight of day eight on the expedition I’m taking is that we get to have a makeshift shower in a river.

So, why on earth would anyone want to put themselves through all of this?

The first reason is that the Danakil Depression hosts the second of five known lava lakes on the planet – the first being up a mountain in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and currently inaccessible after recent civil war. It may be deemed the second best, but it is the oldest lake and still hugely impressive.

The second is that the Danakil region itself hosts some of the most insanely coloured and textured landscapes ever. They look like they’re from another world, or a game designers imagination.

And, as a budding landscape photographer, what more could I ask?

Posted in Travel, Trip Planning Tagged , , , , , , |

Reynisfjara Beach, Iceland.

This is one of my favourite photographs from Iceland.

I had based myself just outside the village of Vik for six days – which is a convenient stopping point as many areas of interest are within easy driving distance – and so had the opportunity to visit most of the places on my list a couple of times. One place I revisited a number of times was Reynisfjara beach with its view of the striking rock spires of Reynisdrangar.

Reynisfjara doesn’t crop up on many ‘Top Beaches of the World’ lists, although I suspect that is because most lists focus on beaches with golden sands, warm breezes and azure seas gently kissing the sands. There are some absolutely stunning beaches out there that fit these criteria, but in no shape or form can Reynisfjara be considered one of them. The sandy beach is jet black volcanic sand. The breeze is the relentless gust of cold North Atlantic air and the ocean doesn’t so much kiss the beach as beat it.

My goal for the beach was to capture the white surf on the black sands and the spires of Reynisdrangar were going to form an interesting backdrop. As a shot it looks good too but once I had captured the image in my head it felt a little, well, incomplete.

Being close it is to route 1 and having an accessible car park right next to it makes it a popular beach. Coach parties make regular stops here and so, as was to be my rhythm whilst in Iceland, I had to shoot in the gaps between one coach party leaving and the next arriving. Of course, independent travellers were there too and this couple caught my eye. Most people were turning up, walking along the beach long enough for the chill wind to suck the heat out of them and then beat a hasty retreat to their cars. But not this couple. They, well, stayed.

Somehow the moment I saw them I had an idea for a shot; silhouettes of them against the milky white of the sea. But there were problems. First the shot would only work if it were just the two of them, so the shot had to be taken between coach parties and other visitors who would get in the frame. Second, the silhouette would only work if they were contrasted against the sea – a dark silhouette on a black ash beach doesn’t really work, after all. And third, for the water to be a milky white, I had to take a long exposure, during which they couldn’t move.

It took 20 or 30 shots and well over an hour to finally get the image I was happy with and, unsurprisingly, in that hour they realised that they were being, err, photo-stalked. So we got talking and I discovered that they were a young couple from Singapore who were travelling around Iceland. I apologised but explained that they had just helped make the photograph I was after and luckily when I showed them the shot they liked it too.

Persistence pays off...

Persistence pays off…


For me this image has a couple of attractions. The first is the simplicity. As I have developed I have begun to discover my ‘style’ of photography. I favour the images where there is a bare minimum of distraction – the kind of photograph where, if just one more thing were to be removed, then the whole image would lose meaning. I think the artistic turn of phrase would be “the use of negative space to draw the viewer’s attention to the subject”. Some people don’t like negative space , some do, but I find that the photographs that I keep coming back to – that I continue to enjoy looking at, follow this minimalist approach.

The second thing I like is the silhouette of the couple. As mentioned in a previous post ( when you can’t distinguish people’s features, they become less an individual and more a representation of people in general; they could even be you. I also liked the fact that, when they stood still long enough for the six second exposure, it was pretty much exactly where I wanted them to be – on the right of the frame.

Posted in Landscape Tagged , , , |

Iceland: The Selfie

I defy you to find anyone who travels who hasn’t once taken a selfie. For years I resisted, but in Iceland I finally cracked.

This is Skogafoss, one of the more impressive waterfalls in a county known for impressive waterfalls. It is also typical of many of Iceland’s sights – when the coach parties disappear, you have it pretty much to yourself.

And yes, it was very, very wet…

My first, and hopefully my last, selfie...

My first, and hopefully my last, selfie…

Posted in Landscape Tagged , , |

Site Update: Israel, Iceland and the New Menu. Oh, and Regret…

Despite there not being many updates of late, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been busy behind the scenes making a few things happen.

The first is that the Israel photographs are now on the web site and can be found here. In the end I picked 21 photographs. Two are very similar, but I include both silhouettes as I prefer the shot of the guy on a bike, but the young surfboarding-wielding couple remind me of one of the pleasures of photography – meeting new people.

The second thing is that there’s a new ‘destination’ site navigation menu. When I initially created the site I liked the idea of dividing photographs into different themes but the first galleries to be included were the ones from Antarctica – which weren’t included in the themed galleries at all. That should have been a clue for me right there! As time allows I will work through the photographs currently in the themed galleries and create destination galleries but the future of the themed galleries is as yet uncertain: My early work was more miss than hit and so Egypt – where I took only one photograph I like – would be somewhat empty.

The third thing that I have been working on is finalising the Iceland photographs. I am tempted to simply upload all 68 in the second pick, but I’ve always wanted the site to show what I consider my best work. Whilst I like all the second pick photographs, I do need to learn to self-critique my work.

Speaking of self-critique, some photographs will be disappearing. I’m learning that, like any creative art form, the artist evolves along with the art. I look back at my work from seven years ago and feel a sense of regret. I have been very lucky to go to some great places and have some great experiences but my ability to capture the moment was woefully poor. My regret is that, if I honest with myself, I know that I will not be returning to these places. My moment has been lost. But as my body of good work grows, I do not want to keep images, on the site at least, as the token ‘Because I went to China’ shot.

Posted in Site News

Svínafellsjökull: Walking on Water

A long time ago I had a couple of bad experiences with organised trips, bad enough to tarnish the experience in fact. After the second I resolved that I would never go on an organised trip again. Never.

The problem is that, if you are interested in travel photography there are only two options: You rely on someone else to plan the trip or do it yourself and because my obstinance on the matter had precluded the former option I have had, over the years, to become quite adept at the latter. To be honest, I’ve even come to actually enjoy the process and wholeheartedly believe in the old axiom: If something is worth doing, do it yourself – or something along those lines…

But there are some things that you can’t, or shouldn’t, attempt alone.

Destinations such as Antarctica firmly fall into the can’t category. Just getting there is a challenge: The Drake Passage is not a body of water that you would want to cross in a fishing boat and nor would you want a fishing boat captain, and specialist vessels and specialist staff require specialist organisations.

As for the shouldn’t category, well, that’s a bigger list. However here’s one example from Iceland.

Of the three organised trips I booked in Iceland the first was a glacier walk on Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. Walking on glaciers is not only fun, but presents great photographic opportunities too. But walking on a glacier can also be dangerous – after all, you’re essentially walking on a gigantic skating rink, albeit one with man-eating crevasses, soft spots and, of course, gravity-affirming slopes. Walking out onto a glacier when you do not know what you are doing or are ill-equipped usually puts you one step closer to asking your maker – personally – as to why such wonders of nature exist in the first place.

There are several operators who offer glacier hiking but I went with Icelandic Mountain Guides, aka, for a couple of reasons. The first was the number of options they offered for glacier hiking. I was on a tight time schedule and having various options available meant that I could plan my limited time effectively whilst still getting the experience into my itinerary. I initially opted for the full-day hike, but ended up taking the half-day for the reasons discussed below. They also included all the safety kit – so I didn’t have to worry about last minute costs or hassle. Probably the thing that ‘sealed the deal’ however, was that they responded quickly to my emails – when I am planning something I want to get it organised quickly and out of the way. I want people to move at my speed.

It was only a few weeks after booking that I saw the BBC documentary “Julia Bradbury’s Icelandic Walk” and Icelandic Mountain Guides were the local guides involved. If they’re good enough for the BBC, they were good enough for me!

Even after paying my money, they were very responsive and, when they had to cancel the full-day trip I had booked as I was the only person, they gave me an option to have a full refund, move to the half-day trip (and refund the difference) or move to another day. They really could not have done much more.



The day before the start of the season and operators are out checking safety conditions.


So what are the benefits of going on an organised glacier hike?

The first is, quite simply, safety. Certain activities carry a significantly higher risk of serious or fatal injury for those who are badly equipped and  glacier hiking is one of them. I only have to cast my mind back to last winter here in the UK when a bit of ice resulted in the endless news spots showing  people slipping and falling over.  Ice is nice, but there more of it there is, usually the more dangerous it can be. With an organised hike all the necessary safety equipment is provided and all you have to do is use it. Perhaps more importantly, there’s someone watching to make sure you use it properly. Of course, you could walk past a crevasse without using guide ropes and 99 times out of 100 you would be perfectly fine. But that one time out of 100 will really ruin your day.

Going with the experts has a number of benefits. Not falling into a crevasse being one.

Going with the experts has a number of benefits. Not falling into a crevasse being one.

The next benefit it is educational. Do you know what an ablation zone is? Do you know that the ice at the front of the Svínafellsjökull tongue moves at 1.5 metres per year whereas the ice at the rear moves at 50 metres per year? Do you know why? Do you know why crevasses form at different angles? I didn’t. But after a few hours with Árni, our guide, I did, along with a whole bunch of other interesting facts. At some point you’re going to be telling the folks at home about your trip and it is going to be so much more interesting to them if you can explain why the patterns in the ice are the way they are. Yes, you’ll learn that too.

300 year old art: Icelandic glaciers mix pure ice and volcanic ash to create some truly stunning abstract art. It is possible that the catalyst of the French Revolution is in this very photograph…

300 year old art: Icelandic glaciers mix pure ice and volcanic ash to create some truly stunning abstract art. It is possible that the catalyst of the French Revolution is in this very photograph…

The third is that you meet new people. That is always a reward.

So, maybe I am slowly recovering from my earlier experiences with tour operators and that my adamant refusal to consider them in the past is exactly that – in the past. As the saying goes, never say never…



Disclaimer: If this post sounds like a bit of an advert for Icelandic Mountain Guides, I guess it is. One of the problems I’ve always had in planning a trip is finding recommendations for excursion operators that are photographer-friendly. Whilst this trip is not a photographic hike – and I was the only photographer on this particular hike – two things make me recommend it. The first is that I felt like I had plenty of time for photography. Whilst I spent a lot of time shooting on the move, there were plenty of stops. The second is that I was pretty much allowed to move at my own pace – I frequently drifted behind the group to get them in the ‘sense of scale’ shots as well as look around at other things that caught my eye. Other than keeping a watchful eye on me, Árni let me drift behind and catch up as I needed. It was only as I approached something potentially dangerous that he intervened.

Some more shots from the hike…

From a distance you get a real sense of the scale of Vatnajökull - Svinafellsjokull is a relatively small glacial tongue.

From a distance you get a real sense of the scale of Vatnajökull – Svinafellsjokull is a relatively small glacial tongue.


At the foot of the glacial tongue. Up close the black rocks in front of us turned out to be ash-covered ice.

At the foot of the glacial tongue. Up close the black rocks in front of us turned out to be ash-covered ice.


Close to the mountainside friction causes the glacier to twist and buckle.

Close to the mountainside friction causes the glacier to twist and buckle.


Having an experienced guide like Arni meant that I could concentrate on photography safe in the knowledge that I wasn't going to kill myself.

Having an experienced guide like Árni meant that I could concentrate on photography safe in the knowledge that I wasn’t going to kill myself.


If you've never tried hiking on a glacier, you should add it to your list - it is great fun!

If you’ve never tried hiking on a glacier, you should add it to your list – it is great fun!

Posted in Destinations Tagged , , , , , |