Boats and Ice

Until a few years ago the mention of the word ‘cruise’ would have sent me into mild panic – the idea of being trapped with several thousand other people interested only in the theatre shows, bar or dining rooms sent a cold shudder up my spine. And the only time you get let off the boat is to mill around an over-crowded resort with the same several thousand people.

There are other cruises where the tone is very different – expedition cruises.  The emphasis on these trips is on the “expedition” bit rather than the “cruise” bit.  The boats are small, the itinerary is often vague, the meal times subject to change and dressing for dinner might involve finding a clean T-shirt – and you are very likely to get tannoyed out of your bed in the middle of the night too.

I’ve been on four “small boat” trips in recent years.  Three of these fall into the ‘expedition cruise’ category and a fourth trip, along the Norwegian coast which although it followed a rigid timetable had lots of the other elements of expedition cruising.  In this post I’ll say a little about each voyage – there will be a further post about each over the next few weeks. In addition to involving small boats, the other thing all the trip had in common was snow and ice.


The first trip was on MS Fram with Hurtigruten.  Hurtigruten are best known for voyages up the Norwegian coast, but they also run voyages in the Arctic in the northern summer, and in the Antarctic in the southern summer.   The MS Fram was purpose built for polar tourism, and although it can carry close to 400 passengers, in polar regions it usually sails with a maximum of 200.  This means lots of space on deck, and plenty of chances to get ashore.  My trip on the Fram started in Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina, and then headed due south to the Antarctic Peninsula.  We signed up for what the guidebooks call the ‘classic’ Antarctic Peninsula itinerary.  This is an 8-day/7-night trip from Ushuaia – with the intention of getting across the Drake Passage as quickly as possible and spending most of the time on the peninsula.  MS Fram is probably the ideal boat for a first trip across the Drake Passage – it’s very fast and it’s very stable.  If you’re lucky, the seasickness ‘on the Drake’ won’t be too bad, and even if it is, it’ll only take about 36 hours to get across to the relative shelter of the South Shetland Islands. Once across the passage the expedition crew will figure out a suitable itinerary probably taking in about 6 or 8 of the 25 or 30 regularly used landing sites either in the South Shetlands or on the peninsula itself.  The time you get ashore at each of the possible landing sites will be depend on the weather and also on how many fellow passengers you have.  While the Fram is an ideal ship for crossing the Drake Passage, it’s one downside, once you’re across the Passage, is that the boat is likely to have close to 200 passengers on board.  Under the terms of the IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) Charter – the ground rules for all the ships operating in Antarctic waters – ships are only allowed to put 100 passengers ashore at a time. If you are on a really small ship, this means that everyone can get ashore for the full time available for the landing. On a bigger ship, like the Fram, this means that shore time needs to be limited to ensure that everyone gets time ashore at each landing site.  I’ll say more about the landing sites in the next post, and say something about the wildlife at each location too.
 
My second expedition voyage was to the far north.  I spent a fantastic eight days cruising around Svalbard on a converted Russian spy ship.  The “Akademik Sergey Vavilov” was built for the Russian Academy of Science in the 1980’s as a “hydrographic research” ship and is now run by Quark Expeditions.  It’s a small ship, carrying just over 100 passengers, and is ideal for wildlife watching. It was designed to run very quietly for its “hydrographic research” which makes it perfect for stalking wildlife. I joined a trip in June 2010 where the boat been chartered by Exodus as a photographic charter searching for polar bears.  We joined the ship in Longyearbyen and then spent the next seven days searching for (and finding) polar bears, walruses and huge numbers of sea birds.  We spent many hours exploring small fjords in inflatable boats getting amazingly close to polar bears.  One real bonus on a trip to the High Arctic in  summer is that it doesn’t get dark – the downside of having fantastic scenery and wildlife to photograph 24 hours a day, is that after a few days sleep deprivation kicks in.  Another bonus of a summer trip to Svalbard is that the weather is likely to be pretty good, and there isn’t a reach of exposed sea to cross before the wildlife appears, unlike the Drake Passage which always seems to do its best to protect Antarctica from visitors.  I wrote a blog post about Svalbard at the time of the trip, and I’ll be adding another post as part of this series.

After visiting the far north, it seemed obvious that the next trip should be back to the south.  When I came back from the Fram trip I looked at the brochures to try and find my next southern voyage should be.  I had done a land-based trip to the Falkland Islands but the landmark location I needed to add to my collection was South Georgia.  Several operators offer trips that take in the Falklands and the Peninsula along with South Georgia – but although these trips were attractive, they all involved a lot of sea time and limited time at each location.  Eventually I came across a trip operated by a Dutch-based company called Oceanwide Expeditions, who were proposing a 14 night trip from Stanley in the Falkland Islands, spending 8 or 9 days around South Georgia.  All the other itineraries offered 2 or 3 days there, so the much longer time on site was a real attraction.  The Plancius was originally built for the Dutch Navy, but was converted to become a tourist boat a few years ago.  Having sailed from Stanley, the Plancius headed east across the Scotia Sea for 72 hours crossing the Antarctic Convergence, the line in the ocean where the Antarctic starts – in biological and climatic terms at least, until it reached the western tip of South Georgia.  The Scotia Sea isn’t quite the same challenge as the Drake Passage, but it is definitely enough to make carrying soup across the dining room interesting at times.  The next eight days were mostly spent ashore amongst huge numbers of penguins and seals, and at sea in the company of killer whales.  On the Antarctic Peninsula there are usually several other tourist ships around, and one of the skills of the expedition organisers is to ensure that two ships don’t plan to use the same landing site.  In South Georgia there are rarely other ships around, so the chances of meeting another group is pretty limited – this just adds to the sense of isolation of the island. The biggest challenge around any landing in South Georgia is likely to be the weather which can change very quickly.  We were incredibly lucky in only missing out on a couple of landing attempts over the whole visit.   My blog post from late 2011 gives a flavour of the trip, and I’ll saying more about the various landing sites in a later post.

My fourth trip, and most recent trip, was a little different.  It was back with Hurtigruten, but this time doing what they are best known for, i.e. hauling up and down the Norwegian coast.  On this route Hurtigruten run some very big boats, but I opted for MS Lofoten, one of the smallest and oldest boats in the fleet.  This ship was built in 1964 and still, the crew proudly say, has the original engine.  The newer boats in the fleet ripple with modern technology but the Lofoten has classic charm and lots of wood.  I joined the boat in Bergen then spent the next six days sailing north to Kirkenes, before turning round and heading back down to Svolvaer in the Lofoten Islands.  In the summer the sun rarely dips below the horizon and gives endless photographic opportunities, but in February the nights are long and dark.  However, if you get lucky, the deck of a Hurtigruten boat can be the perfect place to watch the Northern Lights.  The Coastal Voyage doesn’t have the unpredictability, in terms of schedules, of the other trips, it does however have the informality of an expedition cruise, with the crew always being ready and willing to point out the landmarks as you sail past them, and to organise excursions at lots of the ports of call. The other attraction is the ever changing group of passengers.  For many Norwegians  who live along the coast, this is the way to travel, and they hop on and off the boat as we do trains.

Over the next few weeks, I’m planning to say a bit more about each of these voyages.  They all provide a wonderful way to get close to the landscape and wildlife in some very remote places, and to do so at a sensible place.  In almost every case these ships allow travellers to get to places than just can’t be reached in any other way.


Petra - The Rose-Red City


There’s a bandwagon around – it's 200 years since Petra was rediscovered – so I thought it was time to jump on.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to spend a few days working in Amman in Jordan, and it’s a few days until your next meeting, there probably isn’t anything better than to hail a taxi, and head south to Petra.

Getting to Petra

There are two roads from Amman to Petra. There’s the new Desert Highway which goes straight to Ma’an, before turning off to Petra and Wadi Musa which takes about three hours, and there’s the old Kings Highway which twists and winds its way past a series of little towns and crumbling castles which takes much longer. My taxi driver wouldn’t hear of my using the Desert Highway for my first visit to Petra.  He was insistent that to see the real Jordan you needed to do what travellers to Jordan have been doing for hundreds of years, and follow the route of the ancient Kings.  True to his word we stopped at crumbling crusader castles at Karak and Shobak, we ate fresh hot bread from roadside bakeries, we went through the Wadi Mujib, we looked for (and found) black irises on the roadside, we visited the Dana Nature Reserve – and to top things off I wound up being dropped at the Crowne Plaza Resort Hotel in Wadi Musa.  I’d picked this hotel from the internet – and the feature in the description that got my attention was ‘200 metres from the entrance to the Ancient City of Petra’.   The hotel didn’t disappoint and I spent the evening sitting on a hotel balcony looking out onto the hills that surround Petra – the hills that give absolutely no clue as to what they are hiding.   Johann Ludwig Burckhardt probably sat somewhere nearby, albeit it in less comfort, in 1812 and wondered what he was going to see when he was taken into the city.

First Sight of the Treasury

The real benefit of having a hotel close to the entrance is getting in early.  I was going to be able to spend two full days (plus a short visit early on a third day) around Petra, so I was first in line when the ticket office opened to get my three-day pass, and to start on the short walk down towards the gateway into the Siq.  The Siq, the narrow passageway into the city, and the Treasury at the far end of the Siq, feature in all the guide books to Petra and you might think that this would take away any novelty or excitement. It doesn’t.  The Siq draws you gradually down into the city.  As you follow each twist and turn, you hope for a first glimpse of the Treasury.  If it’s early in the morning you might disturb a few birds and the only sound is likely to be that of your own footsteps on the rock.  Eventually the Treasury appears between two curves of rock, looking exactly like it does in the guidebooks. But bigger.  And redder.

What the guide books really don’t prepare you for is the sheer scale of Petra.  The buildings, which were famous even before Indiana Jones visited, are spread out over a huge area, and over quite substantial mountains.

There are several different areas within Petra, some dating back to the Nabataeans, others to the later Roman occupation of the site.  The temples and tombs from the earlier period are in some places amazingly well preserved – the Treasury at the end of the Siq, and the Monastery high above the main (Roman) city centre being the most dramatic.  The sequence of elaborate tombs carved into the cliffs also raise graveyards to a whole new level of grandeur.

The High Tops

Once you’ve seen the Treasury and the city centre, it’s time to start climbing.  The Monastery is the most visited of the remote sites, and in addition to the dramatic façade, the climb and the cliff tops beyond give fantastic views across southern Jordan.  On the other high points are dramatic sacrifice sites, some looking down onto the dramatic fascades.  My favourite was Al Madbah, or the Place of High Sacrifice. Some of the routes are easy to follow up staircases and well-marked paths, other are much less obvious and make the map you’ve been carrying worthwhile.

People

Until 1985, when Petra was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site List, there were still people living in the caves around the old city.  Part of the deal for being added to the list was that the residents would be provided with a new village outside the old city boundary, which had things like electricity and water.  The other part of the deal is that the former residents were given permission to come into the old city and continue to act as guides or to run stalls and shops.  They do all these things, and also give the interested visitor the chance to talk about living in the caves.  Some of the residents were happy, and able, to talk in English and to tell me that the new houses weren’t as good as the caves.  The houses were too hot in summer, and too cold in winter while the caves stay at the same comfortable temperature all year round.  Other residents weren’t able to talk much English, but were still very able to communicate.  My strongest memory was encountering a young goat herd on one of the hill tops.  He gestured me over to the little camp fire he had nearby, and insisted that I have tea with him – we weren’t able to talk but I really enjoyed just spending a quiet few minutes sitting with him before I headed back to the crowds around the main sites.

Petra by Night

There are lots of tourist things to do around Petra, but if you only opt to do one thing to complement the walking and wandering, you should visit Petra by night.  The site closes at dusk, but on a few evenings the site reopens again after dark.  You are guided down to the entrance to the Siq by torchlight then left to find your own way down the Siq which is lit from end-to-end by candles, and around the Treasury, which is also lit by hundreds of candles, local musicians play.  I’m not sure that this really gives a realistic picture of which life might have been like in Petra, but it does give your imagination plenty to work with.




Logistics

Petra is really easy to reach from either Amman in the north of the country, or from Aqaba in the south.  Organised trips to Petra run from the big hotels in both cities, but only give you a very short time in Petra.  

There are lots of hotels in/around Wadi Musa, and although all the hotels offer lifts to the entrance gates, however I think there is a real plus to being within walking distance.  This makes it easy to get in early each day, and to be ahead of the crowds.  Petra does get busy, so go early – when it’s both cooler and quieter.

Two days is barely enough to see the big sights, and get a feel for the place, so if you can manage three days do.  By the time you add in the climbs to the various temples sites around the hills you are likely to be pretty tired and foot-sore.   When I go again I’m going to take decent  walking boots, and if the final walk back up the Siq to the hotel is just too much, there are always going to be local taxis to take the strain.



Confession of a Travel Writer



I've heard it said that the difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance is about 5 years.  One is entirely legal, if not entirely commendable, and the other is definitely illegal.

I suspect there is a similar distinction in exams.  There are some practises which are clearly in the illegal category. Peering over your neighbours shoulder to see their answer to question 7 (tip: make sure neighbour knows more than you). Writing miscellaneous facts on your arm in the hope that the fact is needed and that you can roll your sleeve up far enough to locate said fact without attracting undue attention.  Both of these are illegal, and I've never done either. I was always far too scared of getting found out. 

I did however indulge in the examination version of tax avoidance (the legal option) - this was my first foray into travel writing.

Many years ago I did an O-level in German (for those from outside the UK, or just too young - a school exam typically taken at age 15 or 16).  I enjoyed most of the course ahead of the exam, had a reasonable vocabulary, had some clue about the grammar and could do the direct translation bits adequately.  However, the bit of the exam that always flummoxed me was the bit when you needed to write an essay (in German, of course) about some random topic set by the examiner. Net result was that I only just scraped a pass, at Grade 'C', not exactly an academic high point.

The next year, the O-level in French loomed.  Again I knew some vocab, I knew some grammar, but this time I wasn't going to let the essay get in the way.  Whatever the topic set by the fiendish examiner, it was going to include a journey. Monsieur Bleu was going to get on a train (or possibly a bus), the weather was going to be good (or possibly wet), he was going to buy a ticket (and get some change), he'd be able to reflect on what he was seeing out of the window, and possibly on some of his fellow passengers (which might well include either a cat or a dog).  And both he and I would satisfactorily complete our journeys. He to the bank or supermarket or beach, me to a significantly better grade than the previous year. Result, a first bit of creative travel writing. And, since you ask, a Grade 'A'.

This recollection of "travel writing" came back to me this morning, as I wandered round the fascinating 'Writing Britain' exhibition at the British Library.  The collection of items  'exploring literature and place' made me think about how much writing is actually travel writing.  Some strands of travel writing are about the journey - and I don't just mean Monsieur Bleu's bus trip - others are about place and experience of place.  A good writer is able to transport the reader into that other place, which is certainly the goal of a lot of travel writing.  The travel writer tries to capture place and experience, the fiction writer is trying to do that too, and to overlay a plot round the place and experience too.

The exhibition at the British Library covers almost all aspects of British life from rural living to 'dark satanic mills', the development of the suburbs and life at the coast.  It also covers, geographically, almost all of the British Isles, from Daphne du Maurier and Sherlock Holmes in the south west of England, via Shakespeare in the Forest of Arden, George Orwell at the end of Wigan Pier and Robert Burns at the Falls of Foyers.  My only disappointment was the very limited mention of the Shetland Islands.  The only reference I spotted was 'The Gray Wolf' by George MacDonald, which I've not read, but I gather includes Orkney, Shetland and werewolves.  And I thought the only wildlife I needed to worry about on Shetland was the occasional territorial bonxie.




My Ten Favourite Little Islands



National Geographic Traveller put together a long list of islands that included lots of my favourites.  Trip Advisor sent a list round recently that I really didn't agree with.  So, here's my list of ideal little islands to visit, and to paraphrase (very slightly) a work colleague from earlier this year, Ross was never going to pick a warm Caribbean island.

These are my favourite little islands theyre mostly remote, and mostly uncrowded, sometimes icy and they all appear in my picture library.

I could put together another list of the bigger islands I've been to, and I certainly could put together an even longer list of remote islands I havent yet been to.  In the meantime and in no particular order, my ten favourite little islands.

Streymoy, Faroe Islands

This is the biggest island in the Faroe Islands group, looks and feels like a Shetland-Iceland hybrid, which is geographically apt.  Very friendly people, despite an unfortunate (in my mind) line in whaling, with a very long lived democratic tradition, and one of the few grass-roofed parliament buildings in the world.  You can get to the Faroe Islands either by boat or plane but pretty much every visit to the islands is going to need to be preceded by a trip to Denmark.




Austvågøy, Lofoten Islands

The Lofoten Islands are a string of mountainous little islands off the coast of Norway – from a distance it’s easy to see why there are collectively called the Lofoten Wall, they stretch across the coastline appearing to block the way north. Austvågøy is one of the bigger islands and its rugged mountain interior is ringed by fantastically picturesque little villages.  There are lots of ways to get to the Lofoten Islands  - the Norwegian Coastal Steamer stops here every day on both northerly and southerly journeys, there are a couple of little airports, and if you are so inclined and have the time you can get here by road too.  The Norwegian government recently built a series of bridges and tunnels to connect the islands to the Norwegian mainland.

Mainland, Shetland

This probably only just fits the little island designation but I wasnt ever going to leave the main island on Shetland off a list of my favourite islands. Despite holding most of the Shetland Islands 22,000 people Mainland rarely feels crowded, and there are plenty of places where you can be far away from people with only the wind (of which there is plenty) and sea birds (of which there are also plenty) for company.  In days gone by Shetland was pretty cut off from Scotland, but these days there are regular flights to the southern end of the mainland from Aberdeen Glasgow and Edinburgh, and there is an overnight ferry to and from Aberdeen every day.  There's even an occasional flight to Bergen in Norway if you want fit Shetland into you  bigger Scandinavia tour.

Barra, Outer Hebrides

Barra is at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides, and is a delightful little island.  One of the unique features is that there is an airport but no runway. The little planes from the mainland take off and land on the beach (tide permitting).  If you dont fancy tangling with the tides, the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry turns up two or three times a week.




East Falkland, Falkland Islands

East Falkland is one of the two big islands in the Falkland group.  There are lots of little islands around that are the main lure for the wildlife watching tourist, but pretty much everyone turns up to have a look at Stanley the main town in the Falklands at some point in a visit to the islands.  Most people get here on cruise ships, and get to spend an hour or two around the harbour visiting the local pubs (there are several) and the souvenir shops (there are many).   A little further afield is the most accessible King Penguin colony in the world, at Volunteer Point about 2 hours drive from Stanley.  Accessible is a relative term here  the first hour of the drive is on a gravel road, the second hour needs a decent four-wheel drive vehicle and a driver who knows how to use it. If you want to get here other than on a cruise ship, you only have two options, flying on an RAF charter flight from the UK (8000 miles with a refuelling stop on Ascension Island), or on the weekly scheduled flight from Santiago in Chile.

South Georgia

If the Falkland Islands arent remote enough, the next stop is South Georgia.  To get here you either need to get posted by the British Antarctic Survey, or buy a berth on one of the small number of expedition cruise ships that visit here each year.  Its about 72 hours sailing on an expedition ship to get here from the Falklands across what can be pretty entertaining seas.  The reward of getting here, in the summer at least, is unbelievable numbers of seals, penguins and lots of other seabirds. Until youve shared a beach with 400,000 King Penguins and several hundred very grumpy fur seals, you cant really imagine what its going to look, sound and smell like.  Neither the penguins nor the fur seals are frightened of tourists. The penguins are just curious.  The fur seals seem to have a vague recollection that we tried to make them all into fur coats in the 1920's, and if then can get close enough to take a revenge bite of a tourist they will happily do so.

Alderney, Channel Islands

One of the smaller of the Channel Islands, and arriving here is a bit like stepping back in time. The island has a remarkable resident to restaurant ratio, and from any point on the lovely coast path you are only a few hundred yards from a good lunch.  The only real downside is that the island probably isnt big enough to walk off the lunches without getting dizzy. The easiest way to get to Alderney is on one of the little yellow planes operated by Aurigny, the Channel Island airline the runway was a grass field until recently, but its now a proper runway, and much less fun to land on.

Svalbard

The most northerly of my islands is Svalbard.  This is close to 80 degrees north, and until recently it was mainly a mining colony.   Nowadays most visitors turn in the hope of seeing polar bears and other wildlife in the amazing clear northern air.  Despite the remote location and the fact that its dark for several months in the winter, there are regular flights each day from mainland Norway.



Lewis, Outer Hebrides

This is at the other end of the Outer Hebrides to Barra and is a much bigger island.  This means that there is space to fit in more beaches, more cliffs and even the magnificent Standing Stones at Callanish.  These may not be quite as big or well known as Stonehenge, but they are in a much more dramatic setting.  Lewis is comfortably the biggest of the Outer Hebrides and main town Stornaway is able to offer both a little airport and a regular ferry service across the Minch to mainland Scotland.


Fair Isle, Shetland
  
The Shetland Islands spread over quite a large area but the extreme southern outpost is Fair Isle, twenty-five miles south of the Shetland mainland, and just visible on a good day.  The island is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and occupied by less than 100 people and (in the summer at least) by an awful lot of seabirds.  The main reason most people visit is to see the birds and to stay at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory.  The poor sailor will need to get to the island on one of the weather dependent little planes run by the Shetland Islands Council, the good sailor (and those foiled by the weather) will need to run the gauntlet of the Good Shepherd IV as it crosses the Noost south of the Shetland mainland.  This bit of sea is where the currents from the North Sea and the Atlantic mingle and it can be a challenge to the most hardened seafarer.

Travels with a D200



I've had my trusty Nikon D200 for nearly five years.  It's taken close to 45,000 images (some of them quite good). It's clocked up some 120,000 airmiles. It's got a few scratches on the body and a speck or two on the sensor.  It's time it went back to Nikon for a little tlc, and to get set up for a few more years of travel.

My D200 wasn't my first foray into digital photography.  I'd already been using both a Fuji compact and Nikon D70 for a couple of years, but the D200 was a big stepping stone.  It was, at the time at least, a significant investment but more importantly it marked my final  transition from film. When I collected my D200, I traded in a big bag of film-based kit.  I had real qualms about getting rid of my film camera collection, but given that it's main purpose over the previous couple of years had been occupying cupboard space and gathering dust it was undoubtedly the right thing to do.

So where has the D200 been to while it's been in my camera bag. 

Port Lockroy, Antarctica
For several years it was my main camera, with the D70 lurking in the bottom of the bag as a spare.  During this time it got as far south as the Antarctic, north to Tromso, east to Beijing and west to Seattle.  It's role as main camera meant that it made it into my bag on any trip where I thought there were likely to be interesting photo opportunities - but it did miss out on quite a few short trips, and on work trips, where the itinerary fitted the 'plane-hotel-plane' model.

Black-browed Albatross, Falkland Islands

In early 2010, having been top dog in my camera bag for two years, the D200 acquired a serious rival, a D700.  This addition made a big change in how the D200 got used, but it didn't mean that it got relegated to being just a spare.  While I was carrying the D70 and the D200, I tended to regard the D70 as little more than a (mosty unused) backup.  I carried the D70 round the Falkland Islands in 2009 simply because I could run it on standard AA batteries if I wound up somewhere where I couldn't charge the normal batteries, but hardly used it. This wasn't the fate that has met the D200.


Polar Bears, Svalbard
With the arrival of the D700, the two cameras became a complementary pair.  It helped that they used the same memory cards and the same batteries, but the real bonus was that they had different sensors. The D200 and D70 have small (DX in Nikon-speak) sensors making them great with longer lenses, but less versatile with short, wide-angle lenses.  The D700 has a full-frame (FX in Nikon) sensor, which gives fantastic image quality in all light conditions and great wide-angle images but doesn't have quite the same reach as the D200.  This pairing means that I've moved to the approach, on most days at least, of trying to figure what I'm going to be during the day, and setting up each camera with an appropriate lens for the day.  Usually this has meant putting a longer lens on the D200, and a wide-angle zoom on the D700.  This double act meant that I can easily swap between long and wide-angle shooting (and back again) without needing swap lenses in the back of a dusty landrover, or in a bobbing zodiac, meaning both faster change-overs and minimising the sensor muck-collecting opportunities.  This means that the D200 can still claim some of the most memorable images in my recent collections - from Svalbard, South Georgia and Sri Lanka.
King Penguins, South Georgia

As the D200 (certainly the most heavily used camera I've owned) has started to get longer in the tooth, I started to think about whether it's time to replace it and, if so, with what.  Nikon have recently launched the D800, and there are D600 rumours, both with FX sensors, and the D7000 (with a DX sensor) has has wonderful reviews.  Any of these would be great company for the D700.  I've found, since I've been carrying both D200 and D700, that this DX/FX combination is an ideal one for the mix of wildlife and landscape photography I like to do. 

In the short term at least, I think I'll be hanging on to the D200.  Might revisit the decision when it reaches 100,000 frames.

All the images in this post were taken with my D200, except one.

A Career break is for life, not just for six months.


I've been back from my career break for a couple of months now, and it seems like a good time to reflect on the experience, and particularly on coming back.

When I first returned I people expressed surprise that I'd came back at all, and then sympathised that I had to come back.  However, recently I've started to hear more direct questions like "Have you settled down again yet?", "Have you got that out of your system?" and "Does it feel like you've never been away?".  The answers to these questions are, in order, No, No and No.

More Penguins
A holiday might well "wear off" after a few weeks, but I think a long period of time doing other things, rather than just being on holiday, does have a deeper, more long lasting impact. There is plenty of writing around about career breaks, and lots of that is about the mechanics and emotions of re-entry.  For me, so far at least, re-entry has been in three phases.

There's the denial phase.  This involved floating above the job rather than engaging with it and spending lots of time talking to people about what I'd been doing, usually in the guise of finding out what they had been doing in my absence. This phase lasted for a couple of weeks, at the end of which I probably annoyed people sufficiently with my penguin anecdotes for them to start to wish that I was about to go off and spend a bit more time with them.

The Joys of the Commute
The second phase is the resentment phase.  I’ve resented having to drop back into a routine. I’ve resented being told what to do.  I’ve resented not having time to act on the creative ideas bubbling up out of my travels.  And most of all I’ve resented the commuting time.  I had always recognised that I wasn't going to enjoy coming back to the regular drive between Oxford and Milton Keynes, but I'd rationalised that away by telling myself that when I came back it would be summer and there wouldn't be so much traffic around.  I had failed to recognised that although we'd moved to British Summer Time, the entire population hadn't committed to taking extended summer vacations, and that the commuter traffic in April and May is always heavy as most folks work through this time before taking summer holidays in July and August.  I fear that the resentment was pretty obvious to those around me both at work and at home.  At one level I was trying to pretend I was still away, and that there was the space to do the job (which I was now re-engaging with) and to do the more free-spirited stuff I'd been able to do before.  The attempt to do both of these on top of the inevitable tiredness induced by the commute was always going to turn into frustration and resentment.

Shetland - the nearest Wilderness?
And then there's the third phase, which is where I am now.  I hesitate to the use the label enlightenment, but as I’ve got past the resentment, I started to think about how to balance the demands of working life with the uplift of being out in the wilderness.  This step involves recognizing that there are parallel worlds around.  There’s a work world – of meetings, reports, busy-ness and commutes, and there’s a real world – of wilderness, photographs, peacefulness and being in the place.  Both universes exist and barring a big win on the lottery life will, for a few years yet, need to include some of each.  The trick, rather than trying to pretend that southern England is in some way satisfactory wilderness, for me is to find ways of swapping between the two realities.  Being able to ‘park’ the real routine and pick up the work routine is as important as being able to do the reverse.  The really difficult and possibly most frustrating option is trying to juggle the two worlds together, which is what I’ve probably been trying to do for the last few years.

The career break has given me both a long glimpse of the real universe, and the time and space to think about how to best to appreciate it.  When I’m in the office I will carry on thinking about the day job, but when I get out into the real world I expect to leave the office far behind.   My plan for the next few years is going to be about how I can balance (or re-balance) the time I spend in each of the realities.

UPDATE: 10 months after return. I have finally decided that it's time to look seriously at rebalancing so that there can be more real world and less office world.  At the start of January I resigned from my job at The Open University, and I'm due to finish there at the end of March.  Exactly 12 months after I got back from the Temporary Escape.  So in the spirit of the rest of this piece. Phase Four. Escape.

And I've added a Plan B post - my thoughts on what happens next.