Tales & images from life as me…

Archive for September, 2012

Popping to the Serengeti…for lunch!


Life in Mwanza is generally not glamorous. We don’t really worry about fashion, if you wore high heels you’d break an ankle (been there done that!), we are often sweaty and dusty. There are very limited shops and produce, there are limited restaurants and places to go out… you get the picture, it’s not quite London or New York! But every now again something happens that really makes me feel I’m living the high life and makes me recognise how very lucky I am.

Just recently was one of those times. I was flown, in a private plane, right into a top hotel in the Serengeti just so that we could have lunch! It was a special day – a good friend’s birthday and his fabulous wife had decided to go all out – and so she did!

Turning up at Mwanza airport in a dress and heels in no small deal  – it just isn’t that sort of airport! I don’t think Posh Spice ever has or ever will pop over for a visit. Honestly, as we went through all the usual checks we might as well have been wearing fancy dress – people were fascinated! But what fun to be in full make-up and tottering into a private charter plane!

As we took off and Mwanza, the Lake and finally the Serengeti were spread like perfect miniatures beneath us, the absolute incongruity of what we were doing struck me and yet an odd sort of excitement fizzed. Just for one day, why not live it up? And live it up we did!

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As we approached the centre of the National Park I began to recognise areas, but it was so surreal to see them from above. (Anyone know this bit?!)

Even the odd animal could be spotted. Check out the hippos from the sky!

On landing we were greeted by hotel staff and a fully set up bar – yup, right beside the landing strip in the middle of Seronera plains! Well, what’s a girl to do?… champagne all round 😉

From there we took a short game drive, whereupon we passed the President in a huge convoy of vehicles! – He’d just been staying in the hotel we were heading to…

… which brought us to the hotel where we were treated to bitings (East African term for appetisers for those of you not from around here!) in the sunshine, then invited up to our table.

With the entire dining room to ourselves, overlooking the watering hole and Northern section of the Serengeti, we then sat down to eat – fat juicy steaks. These are not something we can ever find in Mwanza and I was savouring every mouthful (in between mouthfuls of champagne!) – man, I was Oliver Twist, and Rita being educated all rolled into one!

And of course there was cake, and with cake comes the ‘Jambo Bwana’ song we all love to hate!

 

 

All too quickly it was time to return and, after a giggling girls’ exodus to the bathroom, we piled back into our two car convoy to return to our plane (as you do!).

Just as we were about to board the skies darkened and you could literally see the columns of rain looming towards us. Uh oh!

Our captain assured us there was nothing to worry about, but our little aircraft suddenly seemed pretty pathetic against the raging black clouds.

This is what Mike’s face looked like on take-off!!

 

But you’ll be glad to know (I hope) that we all survived and found our way back to our various homes in Mwanza – tottering just that little bit more than when we’d left, thanks to the champagne!

A fantastic day out – not something I’m likely to ever get to do again! Thanks guys 🙂 A very different sort of TIA Tale this week!

 


Ruaha – photo workshop safari


Having arrived back from the UK with my wedding dress in tact, I had around 8 hours with Damien before I was off to the bush again! This week’s blog shows a little of what I got up to on our amazing photo workshop safari with Authentic Tanzania and renowned African photographer, Paul Joynson-Hicks.

It was five days of coffee wafting across the camp at 5am; sunrises setting fire (not literally) to baobabs and rocks; sunsets melting gold over rivers and prides of lions. It was clicking cameras; whispered urgent advice; the bark of a leopard in camp; or guttural roaring bursts from lions. Hot red dust and thirsty wildlife, support and kindness, and good hot food; and hours and hours of fun.  I can’t recommend this experience highly enough.

I can’t give you the full text with descriptions and all the secrets I learned about photography as none of the magazines have gone to print yet, but I can give you a peak at some of the photos and a few good tips I gathered. After that look out for Digital Photographer (out on 4th Oct), Travel News (Nov issue), Active Travel (out in Jan) or Bird Watching (early next year!).

Just so you understand the premise – I joined a small group of people who’d signed up to learn more about photography from one of Tanzania’s top photographers. We were given little folders of information to start with, including a timetable for the five day trip and told to bring whatever equipment we had.

I was relieved to discover that the group was extremely friendly, plus it hadn’t occurred to me what a pleasure it would be to spend time with people who love photography as much as I do and don’t mind analysing the best depth of field for the scene for ten minutes! We were very varied – covering four decades, four countries and a beginner to a full-time professional, amongst five of us – but we had photography and a love of the bush in common and it turned out that was enough.

In case you’re interested in the way it all worked this is it in a speedy summary: We camped in Authentic Tanzania’s fabulous ‘fly-glamping’ spot, chosen just for us so that we’d be right in the middle of the bush and the game (for more details of how these work check back to my piece on the Selous) and started early in order to catch the light each morning. We did bush breakfasts and were usually focused on a team or individual challenge so that we were learning specific skills. We’d return in time for lunch at the camp, download images, review the best of each person’s and then have a workshop tutorial. In the afternoon we’d take what we’d learned in the workshop and head out again – usually with another challenge in mind. Evenings were time to relax, have a drink, download the afternoon’s shots, review them in the group and do the next workshop. It was busy, it was nerve-wracking at times, (even stressful when you knew you hadn’t got the shots you wanted), but I learned so much and loved every second.

Wanna see the results? I’ll share a few hints and tips I gathered as I go. Here are a few of the shots I took (I can’t show them all as they’re being used in magazines). These are iPhoto downloads – I now have fancy LightRoom to learn too (inspired by this trip) so hopefully with improved editing I can improve things even further later.

So, to begin with landscapes – top tips: check your depth of field, use a tripod, use lines to guide the eye, keep it simple, ISO 100 whenever possible for best quality.

 

Unusual angles keep things interesting:

It was the middle of dry season so there were plenty of thirsty animals hanging about…

We were told to try to capture animals in context, not just close up, so that images tell more of a story. This thirsty elephant wandered down and dug about in the river bed to open up a drinking hole.

Small patches of water are tempting drinking spots – Sven (our Authentic Tanzania guide and animal behavious expert) encouraged us to learn about animal behaviour in order to help us anticipate what might happen and have the camera ready, on the right settings, for the shots. 

This thirsty herd of buffalo were making their way down to what was left of the river. The dust and dramatic boabab tree set them off nicely.

Capturing movement: A whole new area for me and we were introduced to panning – deliberately blurring all or part of the image but maintaining the clarity of what is actually being photographed. It resulted in a few interesting images (most of which went in the bin!) and these were some of my favourites.

This was shot by tracking the animal and allowing the background to blur with a relatively slow shutter speed.

The lines of the last of the water in this dry river bed help to guide the eye and form a simple background too. Yes, in this one the animals are blurred more than the one above, but I’m told that as long as the animals are recognisable and the shot carries a feeling or story then it’s all good – some people love it, others hate it but it starts a conversation!

This one’s fun because it captures the flick of the head, peeps through blurred grass at a low angle, but the yellow flowers in the centre of the image are sharply in focus.

Birds in motion are always tricky, this is one of the few I managed to get sharp!

And this is the Ruaha Horn Bill – unique to the Ruaha region (and not moving just randomly stuck in!)

During our time in Ruaha there were several highlights, but there was definitely a lion theme running through a lot of them – and that was largely down to Sven’s excellent knowledge of the park and his ability to anticipate what the lions might do next. As a result we witnessed some really magical moments (several of which are in other sections) but here are a few:

A group of two females, three cubs and a male began staccato roars, pushed from their bellies so that they echoed across the river and suddenly the rest of the family appeared responding with the same sounds so that the noises were all around us, bouncing off the inside of our chests. Spine chilling and completely captivating.

This is a pic of some of the family as they all met up!

And one of the males, shaking his head and looking pretty evil as he did so!

In fact, we were asked to try to capture animal personalities and behaviour as one of the challenges. Here are a few of mine:

Cute little guy

Alert and beautifully camouflaged.

Perky!

This beautiful girl just lowered her head to gaze in through the vehicle window in a sudden moment of curiosity, the sun had almost set but you can just about make out the last of its rays along the edge of her face and in the catch lights in her eyes (which I now understand are very important for creating strong portraits). This little lady was so brave – her wings are spread to protect an egg she had amongst the rocky soil. She stayed put even in the face of our safari truck, several telephoto lenses and all our heads sticking out. Amazing what mum’s will do for their babies! It was almost entirely dark when I took this and that was one of the lessons I learned – how to get the shot, even in failing light. It’s never as great as it is when you have stunning light, but at least I now know it’s possible.

It’s amazing what the camera is capable of if you treat it right. Here are a few others I shot in near darkness:

This leopard could barely be seen, amongst the leaves on the side of the road, but using high ISO and a steady hand a clear image was captured – the quality is compromised as I had to pump it up to maximum but at least I got the shot!

And for this it was total darkness as Paul ran us through a tutorial on taking photos of the night sky.

But of course the best light is morning or evening – and we had some spectacular ‘golden hours’ during our trip.

A huge thank you to Sven and everyone at Authentic Tanzania who made it such an amazing trip, to Paul Joynson-Hicks who shared so much knowledge and left us all with lessons we’ll keep for life, and to all my fellow enthusiasts on the trip – they were all so talented I was pretty overwhelmed initially, but so kind I managed to keep going.

The trip of a lifetime – can’t recommend it highly enough. If you want to know more visit:  www.authentictanzania.com or Email: info@authentictanzania.com


The Africa in me!


So, moving through my insane adventures from the past few months and staying, to some extent with the ex-pat theme I wrote about last week, I thought it might be interesting to consider how the African part of my identity has begun to change things in my life – particularly during my visit to the UK and in the run up to our wedding!

Having returned from Selous, I spent some time in Kenya, got plenty of work done in Mwanza and then, in early July, I left for the UK to see family and friends and do all the shopping I had been dying to do for the wedding. Seriously, I’d been downloading bridal magazines and wishing I could trawl round Accessorise and the like for months by this time – it’s like there’s some freaky chemical change in our brains and no matter how much you swear you won’t be like this… you bloody well are!

Anyway I arrived in the UK with lists, and lists of lists – yet still with this bizarrely ironic awareness that it’s just one day and the planet would survive if I didn’t get everything sorted in the time I had available. This is a decidedly odd Jekyll and Hyde schizophrenia that I am still struggling with. When we agreed this wedding would be small, tiny actually by most people’s standards, I thought (smugly) that I’d cunningly avoided all that craziness – well Hyde is having a good laugh at Jekyll right now!

So the first of the marriage-journey right-of-passage to be observed was the hen do. My sister and amazing friend of 34 years had done an incredible job to keep everything a surprise and put together a weekend of activities with a group of friends from literally all over the world. In all over twenty girls appeared at various moments over the weekend to join the fun and most of them had never met each other – yet in true traveller spirit and in a joyous surge of sisterhood everyone got on famously.

I won’t share all the details – what goes on tour and all that! – but must explain the relevance of one particular moment. There we were… on a barge…as you do! Yes, and I was wearing a captain’s hat and sailor outfit! We’d been given some basic instructions (1. You have to reach point x in order to find a spot wide enough to turn around 2. You can’t steer in reverse 3. Use the rudder to steer forwards, left = right and right = left) and then sent off ALONE to enjoy the river! After some impressive zigzagging and the occasional bounce off someone else’s boat we were just starting to get the hang of it when… right across the canal there was a huge fallen tree! Now the English, organizer part of me would have freaked: we can’t turn around, we can’t steer backwards and we have a day hire boat with a schedule of activities to keep up with, but the African me knew something would get sorted and suggested we crack open the bubbly. Everybody knows bubbles make things better! And sure enough we were quickly spotted as a day hire (and a boat full of females in sailor outfits!) and before we knew it a dozen men had grabbed ropes and were walking along the side of the canal, pulling us all the way back to a turning point – while we raised a glass to them! Don’t worry we paid them in cake! Anyway, the point is, there is always a solution and sometimes the problem and its solution turn out to be more fun than the original plan anyway. (I recall a dinner party my parents held when I was very young; the chimney caught fire and everyone ended up having drinks and nibbles around the fire truck – brilliant!)

So that’s a change that’s settled in to my subconscious. In Africa things go wrong, you expect it and you adapt. The great thing is there is always a solution.

The other thing that becomes ingrained is the value of money. I’m not pretending that every time I spend a tenner on a meal I think about the family of Africans I could have fed – sadly you just have to get used to that sort of inequality. But, when it comes to big stuff like you ted to face whilst spending on a wedding – particularly if you spend it all at once in a concentrated period of just three weeks – oh you feel the guilt! Things I may not have compromised on ten years ago – the three thousand pound dress I loved so much for starters – suddenly became a simple and easy ‘no’. I love the dress I found and I can wear it guilt free!

Another thing you build, as an ex-pat, is a circle of friends who are your stand-in family. You have to or we’d never survive the daily madness. They understand and share it all with you. As I mentioned in my previous post, that can mean family and friends back home can become one step removed… Not mine. Our family and friends bent over backwards to be there for meet ups, to shop with me, give me lifts, help with decisions and just generally listen. That was a good reminder that: partly nothing has changed and yet everything has because now I appreciate it and know the value of that time and energy given freely by people who care. Move somewhere where you have to start from scratch (which I’ve now done several times) and then say you don’t miss it!

Actually, it wasn’t just people who knew me who helped. I had a right laugh explaining to people in the UK what we were doing trying to sort a wedding in Africa just three weeks. Which bits do you explain: I live in Tanzania but am getting married in Kenya, it’s not until October but I only have three weeks to get everything I need in the UK and it all has to fit in my suitcase. In the end I said ‘I live in Kenya and I’m getting married in three weeks!’… and people helped. Complete strangers went out of their way: The manager in Coast Oxford Street who phoned around warehouses to get the bridesmaids dress sizes I needed and then paid on my behalf; loads of bridal shop assistants who spent hours helping me in and out of dresses; the patient underwear sales girl in Debenhams who later rescued my wedding shoes when I left them at the till; the charity shop woman who let me plug in my dead phone; the seamstress who stayed after hours because I was sobbing over a botched job from somewhere else; the watch seller who sent what I needed all the way from London after I made a decision too late – honestly the list was endless! And that’s another Africa thing I’ve found – when you need it, people help. Or maybe that’s a world thing and it’s not such a terrible place after all!

Right so my next Africa thing had to be getting home. To start with I’m so used to a total lack of health and safety or any sort of standards that I calmly packed fireworks and matches into my suitcases and then was surpised when they all got confiscated! – oops! And then there was the delay – a full 24hrs with every possible nightmare in between (including lost suitcases). In this particular scenario I was not even remotely calm and African about the whole thing – I was tired and blubbering and pathetic! But Damien was – calm and kind and wise on the end of the phone, he made it all work smoothly in the end.

I have to say it was only when I arrived back that Hyde kicked in again and I had one brilliantly giggling moment with Damien where we realised the whole thing is completely ridiculous. I’d spent the day gluing pearls on hurricane lamps and wrapping soaps in hessian so that I could be sure this would be the best day of our lives!! Really?! Just that phrase should be warning enough – I mean how disappointing are days that hotly anticipated and built up? – Birthdays, valentine’s, Christmas, New Years, first date… never quite live up to expectations. Best thing, do it the African way and enjoy today, let tomorrow take care of itself and don’t set your expectations too high!

Set against the inspirational stories of the Olympics and ParaOlympics (or ‘powerlympics’ as a very cute kid of a friend of mine has been saying!), or against the heart-melting stories of my friend who runs a streetchildren’s home who I was chatting to yesterday, well it’s all pretty silly! … but I still can’t wait!