Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Favorite Places: Patagonia

Favorite Places: Patagonia - Images by Paul Souders

It's a strange and not always wonderful thing to finally arrive in a place you've dreamed of for years. More than once I've taken stumbled off the plane, looked around, and started shaking my head. There are times when it just isn't worth the trouble.

I had long admired images of Patagonia's windswept mountains. Like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, Chile's Torres del Paine stand as one of the world's iconic destinations. I arrived in the park after crossing a continent and a half, then flying the 3,000 mile length of Chile and finally driving six more hours on dusty and rock-strewn roads.

I was not disappointed.

Patagonia loosely applies to the region where a vast South American continent dwindles to a windswept and forbidding point at Cape Horn, "Behold the terror of mariners…" was what my first Antarctic skipper gravely intoned over the howl of a 70 knot squall, before he returned below deck to his bottle and psychotic tendencies.

Battered by storms that circle the globe, Patagonia offers weather at least as dramatic as the scenery. I have worked my way through a thesaurus' worth of descriptions for the winds there. Expletives too, now that I think about it. I have been lulled to sleep by the banshee wale of gales ripping through Andes peaks and awoken to the eerie, unnerving silence when the earth caught its breath. And only gone back to sleep when the familiar roar resumed.

Several grand national parks grace the continent's southern reaches Argentina's, including Glaciares and Tierra del Fuego and Chile's iconic Torres del Paine. The explosion of 'eco-tourism' has brought boom times to once sleepy towns like El Calafate and Puerto Natales. Now tour buses are filled with seniors in sensible shoes clutching their Chatwin paperbacks.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

My last Patagonia trip came on the heels of icebreaker 'expedition' to Antarctica, photographing emperor penguins there. And as much fun as that was, I was done with industrial tourism and traveling grannies for a while.

So I rented an new if entirely unsuitable car and set off up Argentina's Ruta Cuarenta, a gaucho version of Route 66. Without the cool teepee motels. Or very little else in the way of services, either. I spent a memorable night swaddled in the front seat with windblown gravel pelting the windshield, the nearest hotel room hours distant. By the time I finally reached my destination at Peninsula Valdes, the windshield was cracked, I'd angrily kicked in a door panel and the muffler remained attached only with the help of a coat hanger.

Among all the tour buses and commercial whale boat operators, I stumbled across a small dive shop that let me charter their zodiac and go exploring. Which was how I found myself some days later sitting on the ocean floor sucking up the last of my oxygen staring up at the silhouette of a Southern Right Whale and her small calf. She was the size of a locomotive, but they fell toward me no faster than an autumn leaf.

They settled in the sand beside me, her immense eye staring into mine. It felt like looking into the eye of God.

At the end of my week on the peninsula, one of the pretty Spanish expat girls asked me, "Why don't you stay here and be a hippie with us."

I had a ticket in my hand and it was time to go home, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tempted.

Best Bits: Patagonia offers astounding landscapes within easy reach. There's a wide range of backpacking trails for either day trips or more ambitious circuits. Peninsula Valdes offers crazy cool wildlife, including the calving and breeding grounds of most of the world's Southern Right Whales in the austral spring, and hunting Orca whales in February or March.

Worst Bits: The weather can beat you like a junkyard dog. Rental cars are expensive. Distances are long and roads can be treacherous. Taking a rental across the border from Chile to Argentina is theoretically possible; I've managed even with my terrible spanish. The other way is almost impossible. Driving from Ushuaia into the rest of Argentina is similarly difficult. The cross-border bus service is supposed to be comfortable and reliable, but where' the fun in that?

What to Bring: It's windy and it rains. A lot. Bring the obvious stuff for hiking in crap weather. And prepare to be pleasantly surprised when the sun pops out. A good spanish phrase book will come in handy for the monolingual among us.

How to Get There: Fly into Punta Arenas on the Chilean side. If you're heading onto Antarctica, Ushuaia is your departure point, but further exploration by car is restricted to Tierra del Fuego. You'll need to take an international bus to cross the border into Chile and back to Argentina if you want to go north to Glaciares. You can now fly into El Chalten or El Calafate from Buenos Aires.

When to Go: I've only ever gone in January and February, which is the high season. I'd love to see this country in the southern winter.

Who to Call: Don't be a wuss. You can totally do this on your own. Learn a bit of spanish (helpful phrases like "the car was like this when I picked it up") and go for it. Call up LAN Chile and get moving. If you're in Ushuaia, I always stop at Kaupe, my favorite restaurant at the end of the world.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Favorite Places: Galapagos Islands

Favorite Places: Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Favorite Places: Galapagos - Images by Paul Souders

Some places on this earth offer the perfect answer to my vanishingly short attention span. I find myself sitting in front of the computer, doing something ostensibly useful when some random synapse fires and I feel the need to flee the office, the state, the country.

If Africa's too far, China's too confusing and Europe is too expensive, there's always a week in the Galapagos. It's a (relatively) short flight. No jet lag since it's nearly due south. Decent weather. Not too spendy. And since you're living on a boat the entire time, there's a finite amount of trouble you can get into.

You're there for a week and then it's back to Quito and an altitude-induced headache and home again before the creditors even notice you're gone.

The islands are quite a magical place as well. Outside of the high arctic and Antarctic, it's one of the only places on earth filled with naive wildlife. And generally speaking, wildlife photography is a lot easier when the stuff isn't running away from you.

The animals there simply have not yet learned to hate and fear us. Watching the hordes that come to gawk and natter, they may yet come around to it.

On the Galapagos, it's a chore not to stumble over the abundant birdlife and reptiles there. And the critters themselves are astonishing. Blue-footed boobies and red throated frigates and marine iguanas basking on the black lava shore like dinosaurs in miniature.

The downside of all this Darwinian fauna is its overwhelming popularity. More than 150,000 tourists visit each year, and all those sensible shoes would reduce the islands to dust if not for stringent guidelines. Every island tour group is escorted by a trained guide and must keep to the prescribed paths and landing sites. It's all perfectly sensible, unless you're me and bristle a bit at all the adult supervision.

Best Bits: I love Marine Iguanas. Can't get enough of the evil looking bastards. Swimming with the sea lions is a very close second. Diving with schooling hammerheads and whale sharks are pretty frickin' cool, too.

Worst Bits: Expect a lot of adult supervision. Outside of the immediate environs surrounding Puerto Ayora, there is not much in the way of independent travel on the Galapagos. You will spend a week with a dozen or more strangers with varying levels of fitness and curiosity. I found I needed to adjust my enthusiasm level down a few notches. The presence of a bar onboard helped markedly.

How to Get There: It's a simple matter to get to Quito and Guayaquil and then on to the islands' airports at Balta and San Cristobal.

When to Go: (Pinched from a travel company website) June to December is generally called the "dry season", and usually offers blue skies and mid-day showers. During this season, sea mammals and land birds are most active. This is a good time to observe sea birds' courtship displays. The waters of the southern flowing Panama current warm the Galapagos waters again around December.

The time period between December and May are considered the "warm season". During this warmer season, the Galapagos' climate is more tropical with daily rain and cloudier skies. The island birds are especially active during that season. Also, the ocean temperature is warmer for swimming and snorkeling.
My trips were in April and December, and were pretty much the exact opposite of conventional wisdom. April was hot and sunny, December cool and cloudy. Go figure.

Don't Forget: Two words. Knee Pads. The black lava is murder on unprotected flesh, and given the vanishingly small amount of time you have in any given setting, it's handy to plop down and blast away.

Also, I love shooting with a 1:1 150mm or 180mm macro lens. The critters aren't shy, but they're not stupid either. Even the most serene iguana gets tetchy when you stick a camera lens inches away from its eye. A long lens gives everyone some breathing room. I use a 90° angle finder attachment on my Canons, an overpriced but invaluable tool for shooting at ground level.

Finally, some sort of underwater camera is ideal. Nearly all of the trips allow some sort of snorkeling and swimming excursions, and the opportunity to swim with Sea Lions is simply brilliant.

Who to Call: I enjoyed a week-long scuba trip with Peter Hughes Diving in 2007. Decent boat, good staff, a surprisingly fun group of fellow divers and amazing critters.

For shore excursions, I don't have much advice on specific boats to charter. Going on a photo specific trip might be helpful, but it's generally more expensive and the thought of spending a week with scrumming with a dozen photo enthusiasts makes my stomach hurt.

I'd strongly advise going with one of the smaller boats though, no more than 15 passengers. I sailed on the MV Beluga in 2005, and had a lovely time of it. Not perfect for photo work, but I decided to avoid being a bigger pain in the ass than strictly necessary.

The times I went, I looked online for last minute cancellations. My first trip involved a Tuesday email inquiry, a Wednesday confirmation and scoring a cheap plane ticket and a Thursday departure. I was on the boat Friday feeling very pleased with myself.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Favorite Places: Kenya

One question I'm often asked is, where is your favorite place?

I should have a quick and easy answer, but it always feels like picking your favorite child. They're all different, and special in their own way. Maybe I don't need to go back to visit the kids hurling rocks at me in Gaza, peel off another affectionate drunk in Nome or scrape any more shit off my shoes in Manila's slums. But those are all treasured memories.

Over the next few weeks, I'd like to share images and musings from some of my preferred corners of the world.

First up:

Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya

As I packed up the rented four wheel drive and nervously edged out into Nairobi's morning traffic, a tall and lovely Austrian blonde waved goodbye. Whether to me or her beloved truck I didn't really know.

I first ventured to Kenya in February of 2001, brimming with a confidence unfettered by caution, wisdom or experience. Somehow, over a course of many slow and dusty hours I made my way toward the Rift Valley and into the Masai Mara Reserve.

I stared in wonder as I drove into the park, gaping at families of big cats, herds of grazing gazelle, endless plains of tall grass. In the ensuing years, I've spent nearly 150 days there, driving the mud tracks, getting lost and stuck, making some new friends and becoming marginally less stupid along the way.

But it is the chance to spend hours and days watching African wildlife at close range that is the greatest gift the Mara has offered to me.

Best Bits: Big Cats. I know of other place with such densities of large, hunting predators. My first visit, I witness no fewer than 14 cheetah kills in three weeks. Top that off with several dependable lion prides and a healthy population of leopards.

There is an upside to all those other safari trucks, and that they're a whole lot easier to spot than critters. If you see a circle of trucks, you'll want to head that way.

Worst Bits: Crowds. Teaming hoards of safari trucks and minivans filled with tourists swarm over the park. In constant contact via radio and cellphone, they converge on a lion kill or river crossing in minutes. Be prepared to share a cheetah hunt with 80 or 90 of your closest friends.

There are also steep park fees, tsetse flies and malaria, and tracks that turn impassable in the rains.

Getting There: To my knowledge, there are no direct flights from the US to Kenya. KLM, British Airways and Air Kenya all offer flights from Europe. Americans require an entry visa, but you can purchase it upon arrival at the airport.

Normal people book a complete safari package from any number of vendors. I prefer to hire a four wheel drive with roof tent and go camping. The roads are terrible, the traffic perilous and navigation difficult.

And that's just the four hour drive to the park.

Inside you'll find an unfathomable network of four wheel drive tracks with little in the way of signage. I carry a GPS with the camp sites marked and over the course of a few days I get my bearings.

Finding the critters, without a guide, is a matter of patience, skill and luck. For any but the most dedicated or stubborn, hire a guide. They work in the park and know the habitat and the wildlife.

When to Go: The annual wildebeest migration peaks in August and September, and the short rains arrive shortly afterward. I've also visited in February, ahead of the long rains of April and May.

Who to Call: Contact Gabriele at Sunworld Safaris for package safaris and four wheel drive rentals. She and her husband David, along with their staff are knowledgeable, endlessly patient and helpful.