Tag Archives: landscape photography

SOUTH AFRICA – Thendele, The Drakensberg Mountains

Why does it always rain on me..?

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

Think of South Africa and many images are conjured up – arid landscapes, wild animals, colourful garments, Nelson Mandela. Rain, I have to say, hadn’t featured in my imagination. Rain did, however, feature heavily in our reality. On our journey from Cape Town to KwaZulu-Natal, days sprinkled with the most glorious of sunshine were rudely interrupted by the odd full-day torrential downpour. Forget cats and dogs, on those days it rained rhinos.

South Africa has suffered badly over the last two years with the worst drought in over a century. The consequences have been dire with many big game animals dying – their carcases a reminder of how dependent precious life is upon water. So, this rain was a slight inconvenience to our holiday, but at least the big picture had a big dam full of water.

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“Break it to me…what does it say?”

Weather reports are sometimes wrong, are they not? Nick and I had booked 5 days of camping in the Drakensburg, so named because of how the landscape looks like a multitude of dragons lying down for a siesta. Nick had dreamt of going since being a nipper, and with my love of Daenarys, ‘Mother of Dragons’ (Game of Thrones) I was firmly on the bandwagon.

“Tuesday, rain.”

“And Wednesday?”

“More rain…and thunderstorms.”

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As we looked further into the week, the millimetres of rainfall due increased, and although I didn’t know exactly how much 8 millimetres of rainfall was, it surely wasn’t going to be too much fun in our wee 2-man tent. Having said that, with all our faff trying to work out a route that would coincide with this, that and the other, it was the only blasted thing we had actually managed to book! We would just have to go and hope for the best.

It was a beautiful day as we drove from Nick’s auntie’s in Grey Town to Royal Natal National Park in the Drakensburg. Superstitious though we aren’t, we do always proclaim to be ‘lucky’ with the weather. Aha! Maybe rain wasn’t really due. Maybe South Africa’s version of The Met Office had written the report.

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Splat

As soon as we opened the car door, the hailstones started. Crap.  Having checked in, we both sat in the car next to our camping spot, wondering when, or indeed if, there would be a break in the rain, and both looking decidedly sorry for ourselves. Sinking into the mud, we did what any sensible person would in this situation – we had a beer and decided to…

Screw the budget!

This was one of the things we most wanted to do in South Africa and we had driven about 5000 kilometres for the pleasure. Looking at Nick’s sad face as he realised we couldn’t see the mountains from the campsite, I did a Beyonce and offered to upgrade him, though I had to be clear – this would not involve ‘looking fly’. What it did involve was swapping the 3 nights camping we had booked in Mahai camp site for 2 nights in a chalet in Thendele resort, paying the difference and not worrying about it.

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No words…

Oh c’mon now. We all know I never have no words…

Opening the front door we were like two kids at Christmas. Inside the bedroom-stroke-lounge was an enormous window. Outside the enormous window were some even more enormous mountains. Truely jaw-dropping. The velvety-green mountains sprawled out for miles – wide and expansive, they could have breathed life into a teapot.

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The next day up we got up super early hoping to get a hike in before the inevitable afternoon downpour. I was on track to receive a scar from every country we had travelled in: in Nepal I fell down a hole, in Myanmar I fell off a bike, in Thailand I kicked some coral. I just needed one from South Africa.  Well, the long grass soon sorted that out. With no long socks or boots, my ankles soon looked like that of a dyslexic self-harmer.

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The Policeman’s Helmet

Rocks being personified took us back to a cave tour in Thailand where the guide pointed at abstract looking rocks and said things like, “elephant” or “man with a beard skateboarding on one leg”. The likenesses were a stretch of the imagination at best. Here, however, was a rock looking exactly like that which it was named after – a Policeman’s Helmet. This was our target for the day, rested on a medium high ridge. We were not disappointed! From this ridge we not only had a stunning view of the Amphitheatre, we also had a 360° view of the endless mountains.

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We wanted to stay longer – up on this ridge was the perfect picnic spot, but knowing how quickly the weather can change in The Drakensberg and not wanting to push our luck, we headed back to enjoy our luxury digs. As it was, the weather was good all afternoon, too. We were still thankful for that first down pouring of rain, though – it gave us the perfect excuse to indulge ourselves for two nights. Drinking wine by the fire and looking out at the stretches of those slumbering dragons was absolute bliss!!

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THAILAND – The Golden Triangle Motorbike Loop: hill tribes, hot springs & a Honda PCX…

“Hill tribes, hot springs and a Honda PCX…”

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

We had arrived in the north of Thailand only a couple of days before our visas were due to expire. But a couple of days would be fine to get an extension…or so we thought. Ah. The weekend. It had been so long since we had endured a proper working week that we had forgotten about the fact that offices close on Saturdays and Sundays. So we would have to extend on Monday, the day our visa expired. Donning our smartest clothes, as advised on the net, we headed off down Chiang Mai’s superhighway towards the visa office, and crossed everything that we could whilst riding a bike.

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Without a hitch (bar recognising our own names as they were called out in Thai accents) we got our visas extended for another month. Now we were free to do what we had planned since the beginning – explore the north, full of jungle, waterfalls, tribes and greenery. Time to get back on the bike – quite literally…

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Days 1 & 2

It was only day two of our second motorbike trip in the north of Thailand, and we had already met some funny characters. It was Christmas holidays, and so the Thai middle class, who love camping even more than me and Nick, were still out in full force. We got to a hot springs, of which there are plenty in Thailand, to a setting of picturesque pools, small bridges..and children…everywhere. We opted for the hot spring pool with the least kids in, and dipped in an empty corner.

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“Jingle bells, jingle bells, la la la la la”

It was perhaps less than a minute before a Thai couple started talking to us. The guy’s English was minimal, but what he lacked in language, he made up for in laughter. He had a story and he was committed to trying to communicate it.  Oblivious to the stares of the more conservative eyes around him, he started clapping the back of his hand against the palm of the other; the next thing he was cradling an imaginary baby. We got the jist. As he got on his knees and mimed praying to Buddha, he reached his pièce de résitance, “Jingle Bells”; we were in fits of hysterics. He and his wife had been married a couple of years and had been trying for a baby. Camping was their romantic setting and Jingle Bells their prayer song to Buddha. We would have to take a note for future reference.

That night we rocked up at Wat Thummuangna, a monastery just a kilometre from the Myanmar border.  Nick’s friend Chris had told us he had stayed there before, but on arriving, it seemed like most of the people staying there had come to practise Buddhism. Funny that. Feeling a bit presumptuous, we did the obligatory tour before being offered some food and a bed for the night by a friendly monk. I have to say, it was the most glamorous room we have ever stayed in, though I’d hesitate to call it The Honeymoon Suite for obvious reasons. We made ourselves at home to the soundtrack of mantras being chanted, and in the spirit of things we decided we might join them for a while. How long would it go on for, we enquired. Oh, only three days…THREE DAYS?! People in the temple (built into the side of a cave) were literally falling asleep mid-chant, waking up and joining in again. For THREE DAYS! Forty-five minutes and my legs were going dead. The only Nirvana I knew about was in my CD collection.

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Days 3 & 4:

By the next morning we had racked up several offers from the monk – it seemed like he was taking his vows seriously and trying to give away anything and everything he owned – tiger balm, candles, snacks. However, “Thou shalt not take copious amounts of pictures of oneself” was evidently not in the Buddhist guide. As we sat together with him and his side kick – one very extrovert nun, he got out his phone to show us photos of where he’d travelled. This monk was a serial-selfier. Hundreds of pics and not one missing his face!

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Actually it was fascinating talking to those two, as well as a couple of other nuns there. What I hadn’t realised is that anyone can become a monk or a nun, and they can choose how long for. Each had their own reasons for being there, and each chose the length of time. One woman told us of her controlling Japanese husband she needed some space from, while our fun-loving nun had worked for the U.N. for a time and didn’t like what she found out. As for the reasons they shave their heads, stop wearing make-up, give up possessions, and meditate, I thought I might have had an idea. However, I wanted to ask those willing to do so what was their perspective.  Essentially, the fullest explanation I managed to wrangle was, “Because Buddha did.” Nuff said.

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We spent the next two days camping at Fang hot springs, right next to the pools. It was pretty idyllic, bar the smell of eggs from the sulphur in the springs. This is where photos sometimes do lie.

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Day 5:

The next day we headed up Doi Pha Hom Pok, the country’s second highest mountain at 2285m. So far Thailand had been tarmac heaven. Although we loved the smooth curves of the previous motorbike loop, it had admittedly been just a little too easy. Not that I was complaining – there’s no way I would have had a go on the bike otherwise (a brief 2 hour affair). We had ummed and ahhed about whether to both get a small bike for this loop (Honda Wave 120cc) or for me to take up my usual pillion position on a Honda PCX 150cc. As we approached the road leading up to this national park, I was pretty relieved we had gone for the latter of the two options! A steep dirt road, full of large rocks and uneven ridges led us up to the top, finally arriving at dusk. Just time to set up the tent and get some food…

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“Beer?”

We had asked for noodles. There were no noodles. Soup?  No soup. The cafe seemed to be strangely unoccupied, and instead, a national park guard was taking us on a tour of the stock room to see what we could find. It seemed they had had a big weekend and the cafe owners had gone to town to restock. Eggs and beer it was then. What more could a girl want? Actually, a thermal blanket for the brutal cold. The plan was to get up early to hike the last few kilometres to the summit – a hike that would start in the dark, last 3 hours, and get us there for sunrise. Bitterly cold, we renaged on that one.

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DAYS 6 & 7:

We stayed in a simple room next to the river in a lovely Thai town called Thaton. It’s the perfect place to take a 2 day boat journey to Chiang Rai, but we had the small matter of the bike we had hired. Instead we passed sunrise at the stunning, if slightly commercial, Monastery, Wat Thaton; swam in the river; and made a plan for the next day. We decided that, as wonderful as Thailand had been, we had only scratched the surface when it came to the hill tribe people there. There are 6 main tribes: the Akha, Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong and Mien, but like everything in Thailand, these tribes were now increasingly merging with the mainstream – a Thai commodity in fancy dress. We had even heard that the long neck Karen tribes (so called because of the beautifying coils placed around their necks as children, which encourage their necks to grow long like giraffes) had sometimes been forced into commercial tourism – fenced in and peered at like animals in a zoo to make somebody else profit. Sounded like something we would be loathe to support. So how could we meet these groups on a non-commercial level? Surely they all lived somewhere hidden in the hills…

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“Turn around. It’s another one. “

Looking ahead we could see this was another army base, small but ubiquitous this close to the Myanmar border.  Nick had had the cunning idea of using google’s satellite imagery to try and pin point some extra small villages on the map. Unfortunately for many of the hill tribes, the Thai government has tried to relocate them from the hills, where they go about their traditional ways of life, to near roads.  Something about border control and security. Still, it gave us the chance of finding an authentic group, or so we thought. This was the third army base we had mistaken for a village on the map, and we only had one more place to check out…

“What now?”

We arrived on our roaring bike to stares of disbelief, or bewilderment, or perhaps a mix of the two. Entering the village there were perhaps 5 houses on either side, and one at the end. So, casually pretending we were just passing through wasn’t going to wash with them. Enclosed in their horse shoe village, we conspicuously dismounted the bike, looking around for a guise – maybe that old, “Let’s sit in a cafe and have a cup of tea” defence. Scanning from left to right, there was no cafe, not even a plastic table and chairs set up outside someone’s house as we had come across so many times before. There were people, and pigs. And maybe a few chickens.

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“Sawadee kaaaa”

We saluted the suspicious faces with the Thai “Waa” (hands together in prayer position, and a bowing of the head to show respect). Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Hill tribes have their own customs and language; had we been in any doubt, this confirmed that we were now looking at one.

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Unsure what to do next, we latched onto the kids. Even though they were shy, they seemed happy to entertain these strange people who had just invaded their village. The elder people were more cautious, although not unfriendly.  Obviously us turning up uninvited was probably quite bizarre for them, and with a communication barrier the size of the ocean between our respective lands, we weren’t able to convey anything about why we were there. Indeed, why were we there? I suppose were curious about a more minimalistic way of life and keen to understand what life was like for hill tribes in a society either trying to change or marginalise them. However, being there actually felt intrusive.

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Feeling like we should move on, we took a quick walk up the road first. Here we got a clue as to what these people hold dear and what they don’t. There a concrete building stood, with smashed windows, quite obviously abandoned. Venturing inside we found walls painted with colourful pictures, each next to the relevant word…in English. Whoever had opened this school, had seemingly tried, and failed, to introduce Western schooling to these people. As we so often do in our society, we assume that our ways are the best ways, not considering the fact that other societies live by a different set of ideals, perhaps contented to continue as they are.

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THAILAND – Snorkelling in The Surin Islands

Welcome to Paradise…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick & some downloads)

We thought we were done with islands. We had done beaches, and we had even done a bit of snorkelling off Ko Phi Phi, but when the workers in the jungle bungalows told us we had to go to the Surin Islands, we were convinced. They were guys that really knew Thailand, in particular the great snorkelling spots, and we knew we’d probably regret not going. The speedboats there were going to be expensive, and we had to pay a national park entrance fee, but once there, we were told we could camp on the beach. As Cheryl Fernández Versini would say, it sounded “Reet oop mai streeet.”

Looking on the map we realised that the Surin islands, although within Thai territory, were right next to the Myiek archipelago that we had passed on the boat to get to the south of Myanmar. The ones that we had really wanted to visit but were off limits. This nailed it for us. We were going.
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We arrived to water that didn’t even look real. I want to say it looked like water from a swimming pool, but it was even more turquoise than that, if that’s even possible. After we got off the speedboat on one side of the island, we got a longtail boat to the other side, where we had been told there would be less “day trippers.” With only a couple of bungalows and lots of tents, staying here wasn’t ideal for everyone. Luckily Nick and I love camping.

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Our humble abode
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The view from our tent!
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Mangroves

Our first afternoon would be one of the craziest. A couple of hours after arriving and choosing our tent (the tents for rent were so spacious and breezy, we still didn’t use the one we had carried around for 3 months!) we headed out on a boat to go snorkelling. The area here is vast, so each trip takes you to several different spots. The spot this first day was Sakut. According to a Korean guy on the trip, he had seen sharks here many times before. Nothing like starting big.

Mask fixed, I lowered myself carefully into the water. I took a deep intake of breath, closed my eyes (force of habit) and tentatively lowered my mask under the water, face towards the sea bed. Head submerged, I opened my eyes and immediately took in a sharp intake of breath. The sea was deeper here than in Phi Phi, but you could see literally to the bottom of the ocean. It was like being on the set of The Little Mermaid, but less safe and certainly somewhat overwhelming. There was an entire world down there, carrying on, oblivious to us humans. Calming myself and taking a few deep, slow mouth-breaths, Nick and I, curious more than brave, headed towards the bay where the Korean had said he’d seen sharks. I had always maintained that the things I was afraid most of in the world were crocodiles and sharks. But hey-ho, here I was heading straight towards their territory.

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The Water Monitor Lizard - a harmless land resident of the island

I’m not a strong swimmer. In fact, I should fess up, I’m actually really shocking. My 8 year old niece could leave me in the dust spray. Those water baby classes didn’t reach my household and my first memory of swimming was my parents sending me to classes at around the age of 11. I was fast, but got puffed out after a width or two. Here I was in the big bad ocean – no life jacket, no flippers and completely out of my depth.  I should have been petrified, but I took Nick’s tips of using a slow breast stroke, and much to my delight, head down and my hips up, I discovered the science of salt water and buoyancy.

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I shouldn’t have been shocked. I’m not sure what exactly I expected. It should have been thinner, more friendly looking, more like the ones in the aquarium…less…shark like. Just up ahead of me was a black-tipped shark and it was FAT.  Maybe it had had its fill of human for the day.
I had been so distracted with the swimming, that when I saw it, I was completely taken off guard. I quickly looked around, but I had out-swum Nick. I had to share the news. Lifting my head out of the water,  I called to him in a mix of panic and pure exhilaration.

“Nick! Nick!”

I did the pointy signal that means little on land, but on a snorkel site means, “Get your head under water – you are not going to believe this!” I quickly resubmerged my head, but it had gone. Looking in every direction, it was a strange feeling to know it was somewhere still near us, but we had no clue as to where.

From then on, I became intent on seeing more sharks, and I did, although no other shark was a match for that first one. We loved that snorkel so much, that what we had intended on being a one or two night stop over turned into 5 days, where each day was a new snorkel site with treasures untold to discover.

Our time in the sea was an eye-opener each and every time. Sometimes full of joy at finding Nemo, for example; or full of amazement at the octopus that Nick spotted, following its transendent appearance from plastic bag to rock, skin morphing into its surroundings like something from The XFiles; or the fear I felt when spotting what I thought were barracuda and realising I was one very strong current away from anybody. It’s really lucky we didn’t know just how dangerous some of the animals we encountered were until we left the island. With no internet, we were left to imagine what might be unfriendly, with absolutely no warning from any of the staff, or our boat captain, who didn’t seem that bothered. He, we guessed correctly, was a sea gypsy, from a group called The Moken. We were obviously amateurs in his eyes. I legged it paddled it away from needle fish, thinking they looked aggressive, only to find out that they only harm humans “by accident”. They do this by diving out of the water at 30mph without looking, having speared the odd unsuspecting human at various points in the past: the aquatic version of the Indian driver.

Later a German girl was telling us all about “trigger fish” and how vicious they can be.  Imagine my horror when she showed us a video of one of these beasts attacking a diver and I realised I had swam over that very fish! Luckily I had been late heading back to the boat and only gave it a cursory glance as I paddled furiously overhead.

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The Black-tipped Reef Shark. Meaty but harmless...apparently! (NOT OUR IMAGE)
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The Clown Triggerfish (NOT OUR IMAGE)
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Accidental impaler, the Needlefish (NOT OUR IMAGE)

But we also had so many magical moments. At one point Nick and I swam quite far away from the boat, where built-up coral full of big colourful fish gave way to deep mid-blue ocean. These parts tended to be full of schools of tiny fish, whirling around cylinders of themselves the depth of the ocean. Suddenly we happened upon another school of fish, only these were bright yellow and about 30cm long – bigger than all the other schools. There were hundreds of them, moving around like a synchronised swimming team. We spent half of that dive just swimming amongst them, watching them part as we went between them, or swimming directly above them as though we were part of their gang. Somehow I don’t think we made the grade, but they didn’t seem to mind us too much. 

Maybe because they seemed to be being “bullied” by a couple of enormous metallic blue fish and they assumed we were some kind of protection. I still haven’t found out what fish these were, but Nick and I agreed this was definitely one of our highlights.

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Our serious looking captain

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They say size isn’t important, but in the sea it is. Had we not been the size of sharks (we aren’t quite as fat, but with all the beer we’ve been drinking, we certainly aren’t far off) we never would have had my favourite deep sea encounter.

“Over here!!!!”

Our korean friend, Subin, new to swimming and waving her arms around, spluttering and panting was calling to me. It took me a few seconds to realise that, no, despite the fact that she had taken her life jacket off, she wasn’t drowning. Good. I had left my red swim suit at home.

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Some awesome friends we made on the island, including Subin, at the front in blue

I swam over to her quickly, hoping that whatever she had seen hadn’t floated away with the tidal wave from her frantically treading water. There, under her life jacket, were two of the tiniest fish I have ever seen. Black and yellow striped, they measured about a centimetre each in length. I put my head under the water and they immediately swam to my mask. They disappeared. I turned my head, they were right there, by my ear. Then in front of my mask. I had fun for a few minutes before swimming off to explore something new. But these guys were in it for the long haul. I swam on only to realise that these guys were swimming alongside my head. Whenever I stopped, they swam in front of my mask.

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We found Nemo! (NOT OUR IMAGE)

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Long fin Bannerfish a-plenty (NOT OUR IMAGE)

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Regal Angelfish (NOT OUR IMAGE)

“Are you looking at me?”

I would like to think that these little guys just really valued the friendship we had made and were trying to do their bit for land/sea relations. Alas, no.  These were the same ones an American guy we had been hanging out with had told us about. They had followed him in the same way, too. On googling back on the mainland, I found out these are called “Golden Trevally fish” and they normally display “piloting behaviour” accompanying sharks. They eat the bacteria off the sharks, and in return, the sharks act like some kind of protection. So, really we were just dirty bodyguards. I had to keep my mouth clamped round the mouth piece for fear of swallowing the sea water, and possibly the fish, but inside I was grinning from ear to ear.

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HOW TO GET THERE:

– The speedboat goes from aThai town called Kuraburi – small town, dress conservative. Nice food markets daily. Bus goes there from Surathani to Phuket or Krabi (or vise versa).
– Tom & Am tours were just where the bus dropped us on the main road. They can book your boat and will even take you to the port and pick you up. Great English and super nice couple.
– If you want somewhere cheap to stay, they also have some very basic bungalows for 290THB (about £6 or 9 USD) per night. Take mozzie lotion as these are quite open to the elements! They do have nets for night time, though.

COSTS:

– 1700 THB for the return speed boat (about £36 or 54 USD)
– 500THB for the national park entrance fee (about £10 or 15 USD). This lasts for 5 days. If you wanted to stay longer, on the 6th day, you would have to pay this again.
– 300THB to use one of their 3 man tents (about £6 or 9USD). Mats are about 40p a night, pillows, 20p and sleeping bags something similar.
Note – if you take your own tent, it is only 80THB a night, but I don’t know if this is per tent or a per person charge.
– 150THB for a long tail boat to take you to various snorkelling sites. These go at 9am and 2pm everyday, and work on a two day rotation. If you want to see sharks, the afternoon trip to Koh Samut is the place. There are two locations on this trip and this is the first of the two. Head towards the sandy cove. This is where they hang out!
– Rent masks and flippers for around 40p each for a half day.

OTHER THINGS TO DO ON THE ISLAND:

– Take a hammock!
– Read a book
– Get up early and go monkey spotting on the beach 200m walk from the quiet camping beach (this is the one the longtail boat will drop you off at when you first arrive).
 – Do the trail that goes from this beach to one of the other beaches. I think it’s a couple of kilometres (we only did the first part and then went off piste to monkey spot).
– Spot the water monitor lizards! There are a few of them just by the campsite, especially near the little bridge.
– Swim! There are also some good things to spot further out on the camping beach if you are a strong swimmer. Mantarays and turtles were cited to us by other tourists, but we didn’t actually see these ourselves.
– Visit The Moken (sea gypsy) people on the neighbouring island.

THINGS TO BE AWARE OF:

– Food works in a voucher system, so you buy vouchers from the reception and hand these in in the restaurant.
– Food is only served at certain times, 3 times a day.
– There is only one restaurant and the food is so-so. Also, there is no bar, although you can buy cans of beer.
– Maybe go prepared and take some food and drink with you, although beware the monkeys that can not only smell food, they can also unzip your tent!!
– Thailand is home to over 200 different types of poisonous snakes – be careful in the jungle and near mangroves.
– Do not feed the monkeys! It’s not good for them to become reliant on humans, especially just so you can take a close up picture. For that matter, don’t feed any of the animals. 🙂
– Before you go snorkelling, look up some of the fish so you know what to be aware of. Barracuda, needle fish, trigger fish, stone fish, octopus etc. The sharks are all fine.