Torres Del Paine

Torres Del Paine, National Park must be Eden on earth for landscape photography. I first went here in 2009 and was captivated by the whole region.

Many people are confused about 'what is Patagonia?' It's a vast area of wilderness land mostly in Argentina but also in Chile. Actually, the Chile parts of Patagonia are some of the most stunning, mostly because of the mountainous influence on the landscape. This is the tail of end of the Andes and the infamous granite massifs, that are so iconic. Patagonia was a favourite of Galen Rowel (whose work inspired me to go there) and many others have lost themselves in the natural beauty.

It's incredible watching the morning light bathe the sides of the mountain in soft coloured light, which causes the granite to glow golds and yellows. Lots of places have gorgeous light but it is different here.

Patagonia is also the destination of one of our Creative Trails trips, which you can find out more about here.. Come along in November if you fancy sampling it for yourself.

Mountains of Torres Del Paine in Patagonia. This surreal shot was taken at first light in the national park, Chile.

Old Man Of The White Desert

Some places are just more photogenic than others. While it's true that you can take a great photos just about anywhere, there is without doubt, some environments that make life so much easier. One such place is the White Desert in Egypt.

The bizarre rock formation that looks like a human head!

The bizarre rock formation that looks like a human head!

This one of the most interesting of what are generally known as the 'mushroom rocks'. The white desert is, rather oddly, right next to the black desert. Getting there takes a bit of determination although the main highways in Egypt are usually in good condition.

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Toy Train Darjeeling

Darjeeling is home to the famed Toy Train or more accurately, The Darjeeling Himalaya Railway (DHR). This fascinating train is little changed from when it was originally created in the late 1800's. Confusingly, there are two trains that run on the line that extends from New Jalipuguri in the south to Darjeeling in the north. The first is a diesel powered commuter train that runs the whole distance (or rather, it did, the line has been closed south of Kurseong for some years due to a land slide). The second is a steam powered train that runs back and forth from Darjeeling to Ghum, several times a day.

What makes a trip on this train so interesting is that for most of the journey, it rumbles along the old Hill Cart Road, sometimes only inches from buildings on one side and passing traffic on the other.

Originally built by the British, to transport tea and other goods from the hill station of Darjeeling, the railway was an incredible feat of engineering. The narrow gauge track of only 2 feet was carved out of the hilly terrain and included multiple loops and switch backs. It has hardly changed to this day. The service is maintained by a dedicated workforce who run and maintain the antique trains and track.

The original line was opened in 1881 and the lineclimbs from NJP, at around 100 metres, up to Darjeeling at around 2,200 metres. The section from Ghum, is the most spectacular. The train blows its whistle almost constantly, in an attempt to give itself a clear run among all the obstacles. There are also some fantastic views across the lower Himalayas en route.

Besides a stop for water, shortly after leaving Darjeeling, the train also takes a rest at the Batasia loop, around half way. This has a well manicured garden and great views. Price for the train cost 270 rupees for a return trip Darjeeling - Ghum. Tickets are available at the station in Darjeeling but it's advisable to book a few days in advance as there are only two carriages and they are often full. The ride is popular with Indian tourists as well as foreigners. A round trip takes around four hours. Just be careful not to confuse this train with the regular diesel service. As fun as that is, it's not quite in the same league as sitting behind a puffing and panting Victorian steam engine rattling along the road at what feels like a break neck pace.

The engine driver and his accomplices are forever making adjustments and twiddling with levers and taps. There seems to be a long and well rehearsed ritual to coax the engine in to the right mood for its job. When it pulls out of the station at Darjeeling and crosses the road to the other side, it starts making so much noise it feels more like sitting in a dragon than in small train. Nevertheless, in true Indian fashion, it somehow makes its way along and after a while you stop holding your breath every time the engine scrapes by a car, or house, or pedestrian. It's huge fun and I hope it continues running for another 130+ years.

Keeping the fire stoked. There always seems as though there is something to do to keep a steam train running! Finally, if you do make it here and decide to have a ride, make sure you allow enough time to get a cup of tea from the tea stall at Darjeeling station. It's the best you can find and perfect for fending off the chilly high altitude air.
 

Tea Time

If you think of India, and your British, one thing that will spring to mind is Tea. In particular, Darjeeling tea. We drink oceans of the stuff in Britain and just about everyone will have heard of Darjeeling tea. While in India, I went to a plantation, and spent a few nights in a home stay with the workers to find out what goes on and how tea is produced.

Lady working in tea plantation in India.

The growing and harvesting of tea is one of the few crops that still has to be done manually. The terrain is often tough and the plants are close together but it's the skill needed for picking that means it has be done by the human hand. It's tough work! Typical pay is 90 rupees per day (just under $2) with bonus for picking over 8kgs in a day. Besides picking, there are other jobs that have to be done year round like pruning which is done after the end of the picking season.

Men sharpen the knives used for pruning in the tea plantation. The grinding wheel is driven by pulling back and forth on a rope wrapped around a drive spindle.

Once the leaves are picked, they are carried to the local processing factory. Here they go through a process of drying, sorting, shredding and roasting before the final product is produced. The processes seem to be intricate and are borne out of many years of experience in making tea. On the Makaibari tea estate, where I was, they produce a variety of different teas that vary in quality and taste.

The shop foreman watches over the latest crop of finished tea.

The workers live in local villages that are part of the estate and it struck me that they didn't seem to have much room, as their neat and tidy houses all had small rooms. However, the living standards seem good compared to regional equivalents. There is no doubt the work is hard. I struggled to get up and down the plantation carrying my backpack and yet the ladies working the fields carried baskets supported with a strap around their foreheads. I tried it, much to the amusement of the other workers, and managed to carry the basket well enough but it was empty! I think if it was full, I would have just fallen over backwards.

Tea pickers of makaibari tea estate. The ladies were friendly and seemed to enjoy the diversion of being photographed, although they were initially shy to pose. This is the mother of the household that I spent three nights staying at. She was up at 5am and worked until past 8pm.

I also got to meet Mr Banerjee, the third generation owner of the estate. He's an amusing and eccentric character with an impeccable English Oxford accent. His conversation switched from tiger hunting, to global climate change, to the price of a hotel room in Paris, with barely a pause. I got the impression that he cared about his responsibility not just to the estate but to the welfare of the workers too.

Mr Banerjee, the owner of Makaibari estate.

The tea tasting, at the end of the factory tour, was a ritualised affair with lots of gentle sipping of various teas, followed by spitting out the sample in to a sink. Similar to wine tasting, it seems that this is the correct way to taste tea. Or maybe it just adds some drama to the event!

What's your favourite tea?

It's a wonderful experience and a fascinating insight in to an industry that is hundreds of years old. Little seems to have changed in that time. The area is also outstandingly beautiful and there is no better way to end the day than walking around the village and watching the sun set over the hills, followed by going home to a nice hot cup of sweet tea.

Amazing sunsets are not rare but this one was particularly special.

The makaibari home stay is fairly easy to reach. From Darjeeling take a share jeep that is going down to Siliguri and ask them to drop you at the factory. Make sure they don't drop you in Kurseong which is about 4kms short of where you need to be. Coming from Siliguri (or NJP) is a little more tricky as they might not want to take you or if they do, charge you the full rate for going to Darjeeling. Just insist and they will do it. The other option is private hire of a taxi which from either direction shouldn't cost much more than 500 rupees.

For more info on the estate and the home stay you can check out their website here.

If you go, why not check out the Toy Train that runs from Darjeeling to Ghum. The unique experience of riding a victorian steam train winding along Hill Cart Road, sometimes just a few feet from buildings, cars and people is just about as much fun as you can cram in to one afternoon.

Holy Varanasi

Reputed to be the city with the longest continual history in the world, at over 3,000 years, Varanasi in India is like no other city on earth.

The city is spread along the west bank of the Ganges River (or Ganga as it's known in India). Confusingly, the river, which flows from the Himalayas in the North to the ocean in the South East seems to be going the wrong way, so it appears that the sun rises on the wrong side of the river. This is due the fact that the Ganges makes a switch back in its course and flows North past Varanasi. Perhaps, this contributes to its holy mystic.

The Ghats on the River Ganges at Varanasi.

There are two points of interest in Varanasi to the visitor. First is the ancient, winding back streets of the old city. Often only wide enough for two people, they seem to bustle with people, motorbikes, cows, stalls, rickshaws and all manner of other 'chaos'. In a way that only Indians can manage, everyone (and everything) seems to always get to where it's going in the end. Here, you can find every type of produce on sale - flowers, spices, food, mobile phones, furniture, clothes and the most important of all, chai wallas.

The narrow streets of Varanasi, complete with holy cow.

The other area, and where it all happens, is the Ghats, which translates roughly as river bank. Depending on when you go, the ghats are either right on the edge of the river or 20 metres or so down steep steps. In the dry season, the river is considerably lower than during the monsoon season.

Varanasi and River Ganges at dawn.

The river is a holy revered place in Hindu culture and legend has it that taking a dip in the waters cleanses away sins and prevents the cycle of rebirth. It also has some significance for Buddhists and there is a large Muslim population.

It's also a premier place for a funeral for Hindus and this is where cremations are carried out, on funeral pyres on the river bank, in public view. Photography of cremations is not appreciated and is considered disrepectful (understandably) so this is the only area of Ghat life that I didn't capture during my week in Varanasi. That said, you are welcome to sit and take in the ceremonies, if you are so inclined, and they are truly fascinating.

There are many temples along the Ghats where devotees come, often also consulting with Sadhus, the mysterious monks who chant mantras, intervene in disputes and more. However, it is bathing in the Ganges that is at the heart of all worshipping.

A worshipper bathing in the Ganges.

The best time of day to experience the Ghats is at dawn, which is around 5am. The best views are from the river and it's easy to rent a space on a boat or even the whole boat. Prices vary depending on who you are, how busy they are, time of day, and your bargaining skills. We paid 400 rupees for 2 hours of slow rowing up and down the river. The experience was magical!

Drifting along the Ganges at dawn.

If you love people watching, and most do, then a day on the Ghats is like nothing else. Life, love, death and everything in-between plays out every day. For photographers, another major plus is that Indians, in general are not in the least bit camera shy. It's very rare for someone to refuse a polite request. Be prepared to do some modelling though. As much as they like be photographed  they enjoy just as much taking snapping pics of you, and often as part of a big family group shot. Those that make living on the Ghats may ask for some coins for the privilege of making a photo of them but this is not unreasonable.

The nightly show in Varanasi is performed by priests to a set routine.

After your dawn river trip, a day people watching, lots of tea, maybe some samosas from a stall, an afternoon watching ceremonies and you still have some energy, you can watch the Ganga Arati. This is a ceremony that follows a set routine and involves music, chanting and various rituals. You can watch from on land or by boat from the river. No one minds if you sit right in the mix of it at the front either. It's very well done and popular with many Indian tourists that descend on Varanasi every day.

A Sadhu meditating in a temple at dawn. This was built in to the river bank and not visible from land.

Getting here is easy and information is widely available. Most foreign visitors either fly or take hte train from Delhi. It's also possible to rent a car from Delhi and have a driver take you. There are countless hotels and guest houses but be careful with some of the more budget ones with river views. They will be buried deep in the narrow streets and can be awkward to find.

And here is a small sample of the many shots I made from this incredible destination....

 

Ronda - The heart of Moorish Spain

Andalusia, in Southern Spain, is spectacularly beautiful and an ideal destination for a keen photographer. Ronda, in particular, is gorgeous and has everything from classic Spanish architecture, Moorish old city, landscapes, and photogenic people. The centre piece of the town is the New Bridge (El Puente Nuevo) which spans the El Tajo Gorge, linking new Ronda with the old citadel.

The Bridge at Ronda, shot at dusk.

On/Off resident Ernest Hemingway is thought to have based his book 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' on Ronda and the surrounding region. THe classic book is an account of the struggles during the Spanish civil war, and there is a passage in which Franco sympathisers met their end in the gorge. This closely correlates with actual events during the 60's when suspected fascists were thrown from the bridge. You can feel the drama and mystery in the rocks and stonework when you stand on the bridge.

Before any of this happened, Ronda was an Arab stronghold during the Moorish occupation of southern Spain. The castle, streets, Arab bathes, and other key buildings are all still evident. I find it fascinating how the Spanish have built on and around the old Moorish architecture in a way that seems to compliment it. There is a certain harmony in the two, opposite styles.

The building teeter on the edge of the gorge and almost look as if they are part of the landscape, rather than built on it.

The great thing is that there are stunning views and landscapes visible from the town. You can face one way and shoot and city scape and then turn 180 degrees and shoot the sun setting over the hills on the horizon.

Orson Wells was another fan of Ronda, and often stayed there. Like Ernest Hemingway, they were drawn by the food, music, climate and colourful joy for life of the Spanish. There was another big draw, and that was bull fighting. Ronda is credited with being the birthplace of the modern bullfight. Although something of anathema to most foreigners, it was and still is, an integral part of Spanish life. The town centre is dominated by the Plaza de Torres , which was opened in 1785.

The Plaza de Torres in Ronda.

In bars and restaurants it's common to see old photos and drawings of the bullfighters and their famous guests. There are few events here nowadays but if you want to go, you have to book ahead. Photographically, the Plaza de Torres makes a great location for interesting compositions.

Shot at dusk of the old town.

Getting here is easy. The nearest main airport is Malaga and from there you can either rent a car or take the bus up to Ronda. The journey is about 1.5 hours and goes through amazing scenery as the road climbs up from the coast to Ronda. Alternatively, if you like the idea of joining in a photography tour with me, I have several workshops a year that take in Ronda and a visit to the Alhambra in Granada. You can find details here...

A lookout over the valley from the vantage point in Ronda.

A few more shots from Ronda and the surrounding area to give you a taste of this Spanish gem..