Category Archives: Gullible’s travels

North Uist From Richard’s Perspective

If you were to say to me “You were thinking of going to photograph the Outer Hebrides, but didn’t know where to start”. Then I’d say, “begin on the Isle of Harris, it’s wall to wall photo locations”. However, I’ve been to Harris three times now and whilst I’ve returned with lots of nice images, I don’t feel as though I’ve captured the true character of the place, there’s something missing and I’m not proud of any of my images.

Last year we felt we needed a change, so we decided to go to North Uist. Our primary driver was to see the machair, but that’s another story, as they say. Uist may be physically very close to Harris, but it’s a different world. It’s a very traditional island, that’s very much un-developed for tourism and still has it’s crofting way of life. It’s also a very sparse landscape and it’s this minimal look that first caught our attention.

Last year we rented a cottage near Balranald nature reserve last year and whilst it was very nice, the location was much more suited to bird photographers, rather than landscape. Add in a hefty dose of very wet, grey weather and we only came back with a couple images between us. However, all was not lost, we both felt we’d seen the photographic potential in the island, we both really felt we “got it”. We’d also spotted a fabulous location complete with a cottage sitting overlooking it, so it was game on for 2017.

The cottage at Gearraidh Iain was expensive, but the location overlooking Traigh Vallay was perfect for us. We marvelled at the colours in the water and the ever-changing shapes as the tide came in. We were in photographic heaven, the location offered so much photographic potential, but as the tide came in, everything happened so quickly it was hard to know what to shoot.

As we drove home after a very enjoyable week, we both felt that the time was right to explore another island, but now we’ve had time to reflect, we both feel we’ve only just scratched the surface of Traigh Vallay, so who knows, we may just back again one day soon!

 

North Uist from Janet’s perspective….

Our home for the week overlooking Vallay Strand

Every year we like to visit the Hebrides for our annual holiday. It’s a place to be refreshed, renewed and feel at peace.

We’ve been visiting the Isle of Mull for many years and in recent years we have also expanded our travels to other islands such as Eigg, Harris and recently North Uist.

Mull is like a second home to us, a familiar place where the pace of life slows and we can immerse ourselves in our passion for wildlife and the outdoors. We both love the island and I’m sure if we had been younger we would have moved there permanently.

Last year we discovered the Isle of North Uist, we’d visited Harris a number of times and expected North Uist to be similar but it was completely different in character and it captured our hearts in the same way that Mull had all those years ago.

Primarily a crofting community it is slowly opening itself up to visitors. A haven for wildlife and famous for its wildflower meadows (machair), it suited us down to the ground.

Last year we booked a week at the end of June in the hope of coinciding our visit with the machair being at its best. Unfortunately for us it had been a cold spring and the machair was barely ready to flower. Though it gave us an opportunity to explore the island and get to know the place a bit better and we decided to go back this year. It’s always a bit hit and miss booking cottages and while we had a lovely cottage near Balranald nature reserve last year, the view wasn’t great, so we did a bit of scouting around and found a fabulous cottage overlooking three square miles of tidal bay at Malacleit.

Getting to North Uist is a bit of a trek for us, it’s just far enough away at 450 miles to warrant an overnight stay at both ends of the holiday. Fort William on the way there and Ballachulish on the way back. We catch the ferry from Uig on the Isle of Skye and cross the turbulent waters of the Minch which takes about two hours. We have only been across the Minch once in calm waters and were really happy to see whales and dolphins from the ferry as well as countless seabirds.

We’d travelled from Fort William in a storm and it continued as we crossed on the ferry in into the first night on Uist. Really heavy rain stopped us going out to explore, so a night in with a glass of wine was called for. The weather was due to improve for the rest of the week so our spirits were high.

Sunday morning dawned clear, bright and calm. Traditionally Sunday is a day when the car stays parked and we explore our immediate vicinity and stretch our legs after all that travelling, but Richard had booked the boat to St. Kilda to camp out there for a few days. A quick trip to Berneray to drop him off then I was free to do some exploring and getting to know the area. 

The cottage proved to be in the perfect location overlooking Vallay Strand. The tidal bay empties to leave a large expanse of beach twice a day. The colours of the ebbing and flowing tides are a wonder to behold, it ranged from slate grey to brilliant vibrant turquoise. The sand is a creamy white and as the tide ebbs and flows the reveal ever changing shapes and layers of colour.

The main reason we went in July was to see the wild flower meadows that the island is so famous for and we weren’t disappointed. A walk through the accessible meadows (most are behind fences to keep the sheep out) is a joy for the senses, the heady scent of the flowers transports you to an era when meadows were the norm across most of the country. Bees, butterflies and insects abound as well as insect eating birds. An ecosystem at its best, long may it last. A worry about the viability of it all is that the islands rely on EU subsidies to keep this way of life going. What will happen when we leave the EU is anyone’s guess. I truly hope this unique way of life is not lost.

As well as the meadows, North Uist is all about wide open spaces, big vistas and turbulent weather. There are hardly any trees on the island to stop the westerly gales scouring the land in the winter time. The storms must be a sight to behold. The folk as well as the sheep and the wildlife must be incredibly hardy.

The people are some of the friendliest you are likely to meet. At the very least you get a wave, and they love to talk. I got talking to a lady who was telling me that living in paradise does have some downsides, the weather was top of the list! The other was the work involved for the peat fires, cutting, stacking, drying the peat is back breaking work.

All in all, a fantastic week, the wild flowers and wildlife were glorious, the weather was decent and the place worked it’s magic as always.

Would I go again? You bet I would.

Could I live there? No, it’s very remote and the weather in winter would drive me bonkers.

If you haven’t yet been to the Hebrides I can highly recommend North Uist, a truly fabulous, unique place.

St. Kilda – Part 1, The Motivation

  

I’d been aware of the isles of St. Kilda for many years, but it was a television programme with Bill Oddie that brought it to the front of my mind, then whilst planning a visit to the Isle of Harris in 2010, we discovered that it was possible to go to St. Kilda for a day trip.

That first trip out to St. Kilda was a bit of an eye opener; think 700 hp minibus travelling over continuous humpback bridges at speed for three hours and you get the idea, so I felt pretty second hand by the time we got there. But that was all immediately forgotten as we sailed into Village Bay. I’m not big into history, but I was totally blown away with the look and feel of this place!

St. Kilda is renowned for its severe weather and I’d just landed on a day of clear blue skies and blistering heat, meaning my photos didn’t reflect the true character of the place, so I’d just have to go back again one day and do it properly. Once back home I saw another television program with Steve Backshall spending a night camping on St. Kilda and that really appealed to me, then by chance I discovered that it was possible to camp on the island. This had huge appeal, I really fancied experiencing the feeling of true remoteness and I’d get a chance to shoot the island under more favourable conditions. (ie. Not midday sunlight)

I did some investigation into getting to the island and how to book a stay, then immediately bought a tent and all the other gear I’d need. I hadn’t camped for something like thirty-five years, so this was going to be an experience! I’d got so soft, my idea of roughing it was not having on-suite facilities. I booked my boat ride with “Sea Harris” to coincide with another holiday on the Isle of Harris and set off full of excitement and anticipation. Once on Harris the weather closed in on us and the stormy weather meant I didn’t get my chance to camp on St. Kilda, but I was determined to get there one day, so had already started to plan alternative strategies.

This story of failure and frustration continued over the next few years, every time I got to Harris, the weather closed in and the trip was cancelled. I even got as far as the gang way in 2015 before it was finally called off. The big problem is one of being in the right place at the right time. Harris is two days travel from home and accommodation is at a premium, so if the trip gets cancelled or delayed, you are suddenly needing somewhere to stay and the delays can be lengthy, so without a benefactor offering me a cottage for a month in high season, my chances of getting to St. Kilda were looking very poor.

Fast forward to 2017; we booked a cottage for a stay on North Uist and although I hadn’t intended to have another try for St. Kilda, it was always there in the back of my mind festering away.  Quite by chance I discovered that “Go to St. Kilda” did pick-ups from Berneray on their way from Skye and Berneray was only twelve miles from where we were staying, so suddenly it was game on again!

As we travelled north “Go to St. Kilda’s” website said that the Sunday trip “Was in need of some weather improvement”, so the trip was in doubt once again, but we got a phone call from the owner Derek Gordon to say it was on. To say I was elated was an understatement!

After a stormy Saturday night, Sunday morning dawned calm and bright and we arrived in Berneray harbour just as the boat came into view. So, after all these years of trying, failing and heartache it was finally happening, I was going to get to stay on St. Kilda.

But why go to St. Kilda in the first place? I’m someone who spends a lot of his days in the countryside, but I don’t get to experience true remoteness and isolation; I wanted to experience what it would feel like to see the boat sail away and leave me all on my own. Also, I’d been blown away by the look and feel of the island from the moment I arrived there in 2010 and I didn’t feel I’d captured the true character of the “islands in the mist” after three visits in bright sunshine! Add in a desire to shoot something relatively unique and you start to get a picture for what was driving me to keep on pursuing this dream.

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.