Category Archives: Gullible’s travels

Why Greenland in Winter?

Greenland, a land of icebergs and Inuit’s. Conventional wisdom says Greenland is only visited by intrepid explorers’ like Amundson and Rasmussen, plus a few hardy trekkers who come in the summer, but ordinary people like us just don’t go to Greenland in winter. Well they do now!

After the demise of my ill-fated St. Kilda trip, we spent some time wondering where to visit next. Most of our photography is done locally, but every now and again we fancy an adventure, so we on the lookout for new places to go to. We looked at Iceland, but we’re much happier shooting un-recognisable scenes, so Iceland was off the list. We really enjoyed our trips to Lofoten and may yet return one day, but Lofoten has become the new Iceland, so we decided to look a bit harder. We also looked at the Faroes and Spitsbergen, but Spitsbergen is more of a wildlife destination. Then we spotted some images by Russian photographer Daniel Kordan who’d been to Scoresby Sund in east Greenland and we loved them and this started our minds running.

Greenland’s a place so far off most people’s radar that they understandably have no idea what it’s like, but we’ve been fans of Ragnar Axelsson’s photography for several years and had read a couple of his books, so we had some idea of what to expect.

A small boat trip like Kordan’s was out of the question for Janet who doesn’t like boats, but we found a land based autumn trip to west Greenland with Wild Photography Holidays. Unfortunately, this trip was booked up, but the company had just announced a winter trip which looked right up our street. We thought about it overnight, then gave them a call the next morning and got the last two places!

How to Get There?

Getting there proved surprisingly easy. Train direct to Manchester, followed by a flight to Reykjavik. An overnight stay in Reykjavik, then a three-hour flight west over the ice-cap direct to Ilulissat town where we were staying. A fifteen-minute taxi ride and we were in our hotel, easy!

Reykjavik

What’s it Like?

Nothing can prepare you for beauty on this scale! Flying over the ice-cap and looking down on this immense white landscape defies description. As lovers of wild, remote places, we were definitely going to enjoy this! Greenland, first named by “Eric the Red” to boost his colonisation dreams, is the ultimate marketing scam, or in today’s parlance “Fake news”. Whilst the rim of this huge island is ice free in the summer, the island is totally snow covered in the winter. Greenland’s also a place facing great social and economic change; the old hunter/fisher subsistence way of life is rapidly giving way to a modern society where people live in towns, so visiting now was going to give us a glimpse of the old life before it finally disappeared altogether.

How Cold is it?

Getting off the plane at minus 30C takes your breath away! But in reality, once we got layered up and protected from the cold, it really wasn’t bad at all. Being a very dry cold helps a lot and provided you keep your fingers  and other extremities covered at all times, operating a camera didn’t prove to be a problem at all.

Ilulissat Airport

Climate

South Greenland is renowned for having a wet climate, but the winter weather in the east tends to be settled with little wind, or precipitation, so it makes the cold temperatures much more tolerable. Kneel, or sit in the snow and you don’t get wet and it doesn’t feel any colder than the air.

Ilulissat harbour

What is there to see?

Our hotel in Ilulissat proved to be bright, modern, well-appointed and served good food, so proved to be a really good base and it was also only a 30-minute trek over rough snow covered terrain to reach the Kangia Icefjord. Kangia is rightly a UNESCO World heritage site and truly a sight to behold. A 60km glacier makes its way slowly to the sea and calves icebergs the size of Manhattan into the mouth of the Icefjord and out into Disko Bay. Our vantage point on this first evening overlooking the icefjord gave us our first view of these bergs, but the scale is so immense, words and pictures fail to do them justice.  As sunset approached, we were treated to a subtle pink and blue sunset that only cold climes like this can give you, but at minus 34C, you don’t want to stay too long!

The Kangia Icefjord

Ilulissat itself proved to be modern and sprawling town of 3500 inhabitants, but with echoes of the old life all around, with sled dogs everywhere. What really struck me as incongruous though, was how many cars there were in a town that has no roads leading to anywhere outside the municipality.

Ilulissat town

The Icefjord

Temperatures in west Greenland normally average around Minus 15C in February, but our visit coincided with an unusual cold snap and we saw temperatures as low as minus 34C. This had the knock-on effect that the sea in Disko Bay froze over altogether, making the boat trips we had planned, out of the question. Then on day three the temperature rose to the low single figures (Negative) and within 24 hours the sea was opening up again allowing us to take a boat trip to the mouth of the icefjord. It’s hard to describe the immensity of these bergs, with some of them towering hundreds of feet high, but an unforgettable experience to see them soaring high above us from close up.

Kangia Icefjord

The Oqaatsut settlement

All too soon the iceberg trip was over, but our next adventure was about to begin with a move to our second location in the tiny settlement of Oqaatsut. The frozen sea ice meant that sailing 2-1/2 hours to the Oqaatsut settlement was impossible, so we made the 30km trip by helicopter in approximately 6 minutes.

Arriving in Oqaatsut

Oqaatsut, formally known as Rodebay is a tiny settlement of some forty or so people, largely living the traditional hunter/fisher way of life, so it gave us a great opportunity to see the last remains of what was the way most Greenlanders used to live. Though the recently reopened fish processing factory has provided employment for a few of the village inhabitants and the tourism provides more much needed income with a steady stream of trekkers walking from Ilulissat in the summer.

Oqaatsut settlment

Oqaatsut proved a fascinating place and even had a supermarket which sold everything from beer at reasonable prices to sticky tape to seal my lens in focus to capture the northern lights if they were to appear. But what did surprise me in a village with more sled dogs than people, was the supermarket sold cat food!

The Nordlys hotel Oqaatsut

The Oqaatsut settlement required a totally different, documentary approach to photography, then on night two we were treated to the ultimate prize of a glorious display of the northern lights filling the sky for over an hour.

Dancing aurora lights over the blue house in Oqaatsut

Was it worth it?

You bet ya it was! Photographing in minus 30C now holds no fear and to witness such incredible beauty is worth a little bit of discomfort. Would we go again, too right we would!

One final view of the ice from the hotel Icefjord balcony in Ilulissat.

Keeping An Open Mind

The Making of the Reine Panorama

Following the interest in Janet’s Reine panorama image, I thought a brief account of how this set of images came about might be of interest.

We’d arrived in Reine village on the beautiful Lofoten islands in the early afternoon after a hard day and half’s travelling, but by the time we’d found our accommodation and got settled in, it only left a little time for exploration. We’d done our research on the internet before embarking, so had some ideas about the area, but there’s nothing to compare with local knowledge. We had a meagre meal that evening using the limited cooking facilities in the cabin then turned in early full of excitement and anticipation for the following morning.

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The alarm went off at 5.30am and we bounced out of bed, had a quick coffee and out into the cold winter wonderland. We were just thawing out the car and loading up when Bruce Percy and his party trudged up the street towards us. It was our love of Bruce’s work that first gave us the idea of going to Lofoten, so I bounded up to him and introduced us. He looked pretty taken aback, so we let him and his party move on and we got ready to move off.

Next problem, the sun was coming up quickly, so where do we go to take advantage of it? We had to move quickly, so drove out of the village and parked in the car park overlooking the village. The sky was looking great by now, but the foreground from the carpark was scruffy and all the time the light was strengthening.

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Panic was starting to set in, this was going to be a lovely sunrise, but were we in a position to do it justice? I moved slightly to my left and managed to get a shot of the village without the scruffy undergrowth in the foreground, but it could be better.

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Time to calm down a bit and engage my brain. Check the image on the monitor and consider how it could be improved and also do a recce of the immediate surroundings for a better composition, as well as check the histogram and camera settings.

As I looked around I spotted a steep track out of the carpark that led to a flat area with an uninterrupted view of the village and mount Olstind. This was definitely what I wanted! Once in place and set up, the light was getting fabulous, this was the moment we’d come here to experience and capture! A mixture of the crystal clear arctic light and calm conditions was giving us an opportunity to capture some beautiful images. Note to self, engage brain again and do a good job. By now the light on the mountains was fabulous, so I set up and captured a landscape format image.

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Then set up to take it in portrait format.

Early morning light on Olstind and Reine town

Bingo, a nice image in the bag, then back down to earth as I remembered Janet was still in the carpark. I shot back up the track to help her down the slippery slope to my vantage point, but all the time I was conscious that the sunrise was happening very rapidly infront of us.

Time was marching on and the light was moving from that cold early morning blue and pink to a much warmer orange, but we were in the right position, so concentrate, work the scene and hone our compositions and keep checking that histogram.

Early morning light on Olstind and Reine town

Once set up Janet captured the warming light on Olstind, then it was time to work the scene further. As the light grew stronger, it became ever warmer and Janet was able to capture the panorama that was to become one of the highlights of the shoot.

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All this happened in the space of just under an hour, so elated with what we’d witnessed, we returned to our cabin for breakfast and time to review what we’d captured. It was at this point I was mortified to see that I’d chopped the reflection off the Olstind image.

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I’d been so wrapped up in capturing the sky I’d failed to follow my own rule of check and double check the composition. Everything happens so quickly in these situations, it’s hard to keep your mind fully open, but it has to be done and only comes with practice. Looking back on the positive side, this image I’m so disappointed with has just sold twice to magazines, so that I guess isa  small consolation. As it turned this was by far the best morning of the trip, as the weather gradually closed in on us. Once home we were soon planning a return trip for the following year. Lessons had been learned, set out earlier, stay focussed and keep an open and active mind and above all check, check and check again. Our second trip was very good and allowed us to produce a strong set of images, but the conditions never compared with the morning I chopped the reflection off mount Olstind. It’s these little details that matter and I’ll never forgive myself for this silly error.

 

 

Cape Wrath

Hearing stories of the car park at Storr on the Isle of Skye being filled with photographer’s cars and queues of people at the Fairy Pools on Skye fills me with horror. Queuing at a location is not my idea of landscape photography, for me it should be a relatively solitary, contemplative occupation, so when Janet and I started to plan this year’s itenery it had to be somewhere quiet and relatively unknown. So Iceland was definitely out, no queuing to shoot icebergs on beaches for us and as much as I love Lofoten and feel I have plenty of locations I want to visit, the thought of joining up to 50 others on Utakliev beach has little appeal.

We wanted somewhere wild and remote and considered Orkney and Shetland and even looked at the Faroes and Fair Isle, but it was a chance viewing of Nick Crane at Cape Wrath on the “Coast” program that really got us thinking. I was very taken with his visit to Sandwood Bay, so we decided to investigate the Cape Wrath area. In the end we found a super little cottage on the edge of Balnakiel bay that would serve as our base for a week.

Balnakeil

The location proved perfect, with miles of quiet beach stretching out before us. We could sit in the window and watch the sun setting in the bay in front of us, perfect! The only drawback was the constant wind that made using the tripod difficult.

The original plan was for me to take the tent and wild camp for a night or two, but for various reasons that didn’t happen, but I still had a fancy for a recce visit to Cape Wrath. This was a mini adventure in itself, requiring a ride on the ferry from Keoldale across the Kyle of Durness to meet the minibus to Cape Wrath itself. The 12 mile route on a very poor road took a full hour but we were entertained by our genial driver Reg from London! Now there’s a commute!

Kyle of Durness

Keoldale

Those that were savvier with the area all piled off the bus with their camping gear at the track to Kearvaig Bay, leaving me feeling very envious. The Cape itself is an interesting location with it’s high cliffs, but Kearvaig is definitely on my list of must visit locations next time we’re up in the far north West.

Cape Wrath

The following day I just had to visit Sandwood Bay, so we drove down to Blairmore and prepared for the trek across the moors to Sandwood. I wasn’t sure just how long the trip to Sandwood would take me, so out came the spare lenses from my camera bag and in went water and sandwiches. The 4 1/2 mile hike proved much easier than expected, with the first two miles being on a reasonable moorland track, then the final stretch being on a rough, but well defined path.

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I made good time and reached my first glimpse of the bay in 1 ¼ hours and wow what a view!

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Well worth the trek. It took another 15 minutes to walk down the dunes to the beach, but what a place! The roar of the wind and the crashing of the waves gave it amazing atmosphere. I’d definitely messed up not bringing the tent, I think bedding down with that sound track in my ears would have been terrific!

Sandwood Bay

Sandwood Bay

Sandwood BayFor anyone traveling in the far North West area with a tent, Kearvaig and Sandwood Bays are both definite must do’s and places I really must return to visit one day.

Travelling Light

For almost as long as I can remember, photography for me has meant using a tripod, mirror up, cable release and square filters. Whilst this approach tends to make me slow down and be more measured in my approach, it can also be more restrictive, particularly now I use a backpack rather than a shoulder bag, I tend to be much more reluctant to stop and take the odd quirky detail shot. This has led to my photography becoming much less spontaneous.

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Ceannabeinne

In the past when on week long trips like this, I end up getting tired of carrying the heavy backpack and tripod and eventually give up and go for walks without a camera, just to get a rest from it. This usually resulted in my regretting not having a camera when I spotted something interesting. My solution was to buy a Canon G1X compact camera. My first impressions of this camera were that it was excellent and produced first class results, but as I pushed it harder in less favourable light conditions, it soon became apparent that it had some limitations, particularly in low light, so it soon lost favour.

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This trip to Cape Wrath has proved to be so windy that using a tripod at all has become almost impossible, so I’ve had to resort to using the camera hand held and I must say I’m finding this quite liberating! I’m able to travel light with just the SLR fitted with the 24-120 lens and a screw on 2 stop ND grad. No tripod to carry and no big weight around my neck. I can walk for miles without suffering stiff shoulders and I’m free to shoot all those quirky details such as interesting rocks and seaweed patterns and suddenly my photography is much more spontaneous again. It’s very liberating!

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Project St. Kilda

The island of Dun off St. Kilda

Janet often tells me I can be very negative, but I can also be very tenacious when I set my mind to doing something I really want to do and my pet project of camping on St. Kilda is proving one such project that requires all my powers of determination and staying power. I first visited St. Kilda, 40 miles due west of the Outer Hebrides, on a day trip in 2010 and it left me blown away with the feel of the place, but it was a television program with Steve Backshall marooned for a night on the island of Boreray with a gorgeous sunset in the background that got my mind racing! This was just the place I was looking for, highly atmospheric and little visited, so I did some research about the island and the way of life and became totally hooked. My research also revealed that it was possible for limited numbers of people to camp on the island, so I started making plans for a trip in 2013.

People often ask me why I want to go to such a remote place and in reality my reasons are many and varied, but over the years it’s become a bit like a mountain, it’s there so it has to be climbed, or possibly like an itch that just has to be scratched, but put simply it’s just a place I really want to spend some time. I’ve got so many ideas of things I want to do there photographically, I’m determined to make it happen.

Attempt 1 – 2013

We booked a cottage on Harris as a base and I treated myself to a new tent and sleeping bag along with many other bits and pieces. I’ve done very little camping and most of that has been within walking distance of civilisation, so I was very aware that anything I didn’t take, I would have to manage without on the island. The other problem with St. Kilda is that you need to take a lot of spare food in case you get stranded by bad weather! I have heard of people going for a couple of nights and having to stay for up to 3 weeks. With my camping gear, food and camera gear, I ended up with 35kg on my back and feeling very fortunate it was only a couple of hundred yards walk from the jetty to the campsite.

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The weather forecast for North West Scotland the week before we left looked poor, but with the accommodation booked we were committed to going, arriving on Harris on the Saturday evening. A phone call from Seamus the boatman on the Sunday night confirmed my worst fears that the trip to St. Kilda was definitely off until at least the following Thursday as we had gales and intermittent rain coming our way. Fortunately Seamus rang on Wednesday night to say that we were on for Thursday, albeit only for a day trip. I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to get to stay overnight, but it was an awful lot better than nothing.

Attempt 2 – 2014

So after one failed attempt, I had to do a lot of thinking and try and figure how I could make another attempt. Then by sheer coincidence I met an ex-workmate and got talking and he said that he and another friend were going to try to get to St. Kilda via a boat from Uig on the Isle of Sky. I was due to be on Mull the week before, so that all fitted in well and meant a reasonably cheap trip. Once off Mull on the Saturday I saw Janet on to a train from Oban to home and I headed for Skye in dense fog.

With the boat not due to sail to St. Kilda until Monday, I had a couple of nights to kill on Skye, but that sounded great as it’s a place I’ve never stayed before. After a bit of exploring in the rain, I met up with my friends in the Uig pub and had a meal while we waited for a call from Dereck the boatman. He finally rang to say that the day trip was on, but it would be unlikely we would get back off the island for at least a week! As I had barely enough food and toilet paper to last a week, I had to reluctantly settle for a third day trip.

I have to say that the trip is amazing and one I would highly recommend to anyone with a strong stomach, but sailing from Uig rather than Leverborough adds an hour to each journey. While we were on the island, the weather changed for the worse and we ended up with a horrendous 5-1/4 hour trip back on the rolling and pitching SS Huey and even the cabin girl was sick!

Once back home and over the disappointment of another failure, I went back to the drawing board to plan my next moves…………………

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Options as of 2014

Option C was to volunteer to go sheep counting, but I reckon that I would go to sleep so that one was out!

Option D looked the best bet, volunteering to go on a work party with the National Trust. This would give me two full weeks on the island with alternative days off, so loads of chance to explore and take photos. I duly filled out the long and complex application form and sat back and waited to hear if I’d been accepted.

As January finally arrived, I got the bad news that they were oversubscribed and I’d only made the reserve list. It’s knock backs like this that made me even more determined to have another go so I started to plan for a 2015 attempt. My options were limited and after swapping a few emails with Seamus, I settled for a flying visit in May. The big problem is that whichever way I go, it’s still two days travelling to get to Leverbrough and the next problem I encountered was not only the cost of B & B accommodation on Harris, but the island was very busy in May and pretty solidly booked. I did manage to get accommodation booked, but I would run into problems if I had any slippage.

I arrived on Harris on the Sunday evening after two days of gales and occasional rain, then had a quick meal and waited for a call from Seamus. When the call finally came through it was the bad news I had been hoping not to hear, the trip was off due to a big swell out at sea. However, some other guests in the guesthouse had just had a call from Angus in the other boat and told that they were going, so clutching at straws I gave Angus and ring and he suggested I come along in the morning and see how the conditions looked before making a final decision. I sorted my kit before retiring to bed and read an interesting article by Chris Weston in Outdoor Photography magazine on positive visualisation of your goals in life to help make them happen. I slept soundly full of positivity about finally getting there and woke to a beautiful bright, crisp clear day. The gale force winds of the days before had abated and the sea looked calm as we all waited on the quay ready to board the boat. We then heard that Angus was ringing the warden on St. Kilda to get a weather report; 20 minutes later we got the disappointing news that the trip was off due to 5m swells out at sea and no chance of landing on St. Kilda. So very tantalisingly close this time, but I’ll get there one day!

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Options for the Future

I’m still determined to have yet another go, despite spending many, many hours thinking about my options, in reality they are very few.

A flying visit using B & B like on this trip is fraught with limitations and lacks the necessary flexibility to cope with delays, so I don’t think that is a viable option again.

Renting a cottage is a better if expensive option, but even having two weeks may not guarantee success.

Renting a camper van for two weeks would give the requisite flexibility, but is also expensive and would be very embarrassing if I got stuck on the island and couldn’t get it back at the end of the second week!

Right now applying to the National Trust again looks like the best option, though one or two other ideas are staring to percolate into my mind, so watch this space, I may get there yet……….

There again if someone would like to lend me a holiday cottage for a month in high season, I’d be happy to accept.

Light, Camera, Passion

This say photography is all about light, composition and passion, but to my mind it’s light that is right up there at the top of the list.

Wednesday morning I woke up to a heavy frost and a bit of mist. Perfect conditions for photography, so despite being full of a Christmas cold, I dragged myself down the Costa Beck for a walk to see what I could find. The conditions should have been perfect, but nothing captured my imagination as it all looked a bit dull and flat to me. At the time I thought it was my lack of enthusiasm through feeling ill that was the problem.

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So fast forward to Sunday and I woke later than intended after a bad night’s sleep and equally lacking in enthusiasm to Wednesday morning. This time the frost on the ground was even heavier and the sun was just coming up over the trees as I walked down the river, but this time the land was alive with splashes of gorgeous warm winter light. All of a sudden the enthusiasm, nay the passion was there; I could see compositions and the scenes ignited my imagination!

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As I walked further down the river I saw deer in the distance, then they walked closer illuminated by this golden light, oh for a lens longer than the 24-70 I had on the camera! As I walked further back up the river, I met other people who were filled with enthusiasm about what they had seen and all was well in our little part of the world.

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I love the fact that despite living in a town, I only have to walk a mile to get scenes like these and as I reflected on a good morning out, I realised that without that light there is no composition and the passion came from my reaction to what I saw before me.