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The Photographer’s Check-List

As I stand in the hallway, about to head out for a day shooting, attempting to get some nice snowy landscapes, I can’t help feel there is something missing…

Over the past few weeks the credit card has taken a beating. There’s been a huge amount of kit to purchase. When you sit back and think about it, this photographer thing entails a lot more than simply a camera and lens. Firstly there was a tripod – it’s an essential for any landscape photographer and the old beat up one that had ungraciously added so much weight to my backpack around South America was just no longer cutting it.

Then there are the additional filters, because of course the lens you just bought doesn’t have the same thread size as all the other lenses. There is the new camera bag – six months constantly on the road/river/path with one bag will ultimately highlight its short comings, especially when you test it to the extreme with a camera, gorilla pod, filters, spare batteries, charger and 6 separate lenses.

Add to this all the “non-photography” items – the tent for when dawn and dusk up a mountain are essential (most of the time for landscapes). The 4 season sleeping bag – because camping in the snow just isn’t as fun when you have hyperthermia. Same reason for the thermals and down jacket.

So all in all, it’s been a busy, and expensive, past month. And so with camera and lenses in bag (filters attached),pockets stuffed full of batteries, tripod on one shoulder, tent on the other, sleeping bag in one hand and sweating in all my thermal gear in-doors, I go to open the door and fail miserably. That’s when it hits me; “The hell I’m carrying all this lot up a mountain”. So there it is, the thing that I have yet to check off the list – a car with a bloody great big boot.

This last item is going to be an expensive one.

So I’ve read all the reviews on 4×4’s, I’ve narrowed it down to the best performing top 10 and I’m hitting the pages of AutoTrader (virtual pages of course). And how does all this prep work pan out for me? I abandon it fairly swiftly in favour of going for a car that I can actually afford. Such is life.

And on that bombshell, I’m off to the dealership to pick it up. Bon voyage

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Going Home with Trepidation

I have a dirty little secret (in all honesty I have several). However this one pertains to me being a secret Neil Diamond fan.

Of all the Neil Diamond songs, there is one that particularly resonates with me, especially now. The song is called I Am, I Said. In it, Diamond examines his feelings of where he belongs, specifically with the lines:

“Well, I’m New York City born and raised
But nowadays, I’m lost between two shores
LA’s fine, but it ain’t home
New York’s home but it ain’t mine no more.”

For me, substitute New York with Scotland and LA with England and you have my situation to a T.

I’ve lived in England since 1989 – almost 23 years to the day when I left for traveling. I enjoyed my life there, found friends and love (albeit love imported from Ireland). Life there was good and the decision to head home wasn’t one taken lightly. However I can’t for a minute say that I was ever fully assimilated. In all honesty I think my living in England made me more proud of Scotland than I would have been had I grown up there.

I have for all my life had the aspiration to return home. I feel something different inside when I’m there – it sounds wishy washy bollocks, but it’s true – friends and loved ones have even gone so far as to say that when I’m north of the border I’m generally happier (no small feet when you’re as miserable as me).

However I also have to concede that the excitement I feel about moving back is tempered with a lot of nerves. I have what can only be described as a quintessential English accent. I know more of England’s systems and institutions than of Scotland’s. Though I care for neither, if forced to I could answer far more questions on the English Premier League than the SPL. The fact is to the casual observer I’m more English than Scottish and I can’t forever hide behind a Scotland rugby jersey.

So how will I be accepted? Only time will tell. I like to think that I’ll slip quietly under the radar and that people will take me as I come. Failing that I’ll keep my trap shut and let the missus do the talking – everybody loves the Irish, right?

To paraphrase Diamond, Scotland’s home and may not be mine yet, but I fully intend to make it mine in time…

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And so it ends; where it began!

It’s hard to believe, sat on a terrace overlooking Rio de Janeiro, that just under 6 months have elapsed since I was last here.

In many ways nothing has changed, in many ways everything has.

In June I found the weather hot and my hair and beard long and unmanageable. Now I scoff at my former self. Old Alistair had no comprehension what hot was, nor what long, irritable not to mention ridiculous looking facial hair was.

The city however is much the same, less friendly, less glamorous and less fun that you’d expect. But somehow I have changed, I see the pale skinned gringos just hitting the beach for the first time, the novice cooks who don’t understand that the ignition switch on hostel cookers NEVER works. And the tourists loosely holding their camera while engrossed in a map late at night. I look at then all with a degree of scorn, of knowing better but also thinking “you’ll learn”.

6 months ago I’d sit by the beach drinking a beer wondering what it will be like, whether it was the right thing to do, if I’m cut out for it, and what will be the highlights.

Now I sip the same beer on the same beach and say to myself; “how can I ever have questioned whether this was the right thing to do? Why did I ever contemplate turning back?”. And the highlight, frankly there are too many to choose just one!

The experiences that I have had whilst traveling will last a lifetime, the memories of the good times I can look back on with a smile, and the bad times look back on having made it to the other side.

I will go back home with a new future to look forward to and a new appreciation of all the little things we take for granted; our safety, free healthcare, good public transport, tap water you can drink. Toilets you can flush paper down!

But I’ll also miss South America, the stunning scenery, the vastness, the diversity, the history and the culture.

It’s been an amazing trip and it’s sad to leave but good to go home.

Plus I still don’t like Rio!

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The Amazon Rainforest was the absolute highlight of Brazil. I can honestly say I never thought I’d see it.

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Peru had so many amazing sights, but for sheer ‘take your breath away’, it had to be Machu Pichhu.

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Bolivia was a surprise for me, there was huge diversity of scenery and the people were lovely. Salar de Uyuni was a photographer’s dream.

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Chile had far too much to even lost. Torres del Paine National Park was beautiful and spectacular

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For me, the whole trip was going to be about Patagonia. I had always wanted to go there and it is one if the few places that was even better than expectations.

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Although it was only for a few days break across the Rio Plate from Buenos Aires, Colonia and Montevideo were great cities and the Uruguayans were exceptionally friendly and fun.

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The Home Straight

Buenos Aires must be a really cool city! The implication from that is that I didn’t find it that way… quite the contrary.

Having spent just over a week in the city, with a three day jaunt over the Rio Plate to Uruguay in the middle, we had a really good time. The neighbourhoods are all really distinctive, whether bohemian San Telmo, with it’s tango-ing, artisan street market and cool urban stencil graffiti, or Palermo with it’s trendy, “yummy mummy” shops and parks.

Like Rio, it has it’s fair share of architectural mistakes, but somehow these are either too few and far between to matter, or made edgy in a way that you don’t mind looking at them from a bar with a beer or a glass of Malbec in your hand.

The people are glamorous in an understated way the Brazilians could only dream off, yet all the while friendly and approachable.

What’s more, we didn’t have anyone try and mug us, pick-pocket or kill us, which in my book makes it preferable to Rio regardless of anything else.

So why then, do I say it must be a really cool city rather than it is a really cool city? Because I liked it in spite of having to leave Patagonia for it. I found the people friendly despite the crowds, despite the pushing and rushing, and despite the simple fact that they weren’t Patagonians and the weren’t in Patagonia.

Buenos Aires is cool and a great place to visit and spend time in. But nothing is Patagonia. Sorry BA!

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Tango is an integral part of Buenos Aires’ culture, although most of those now partaking are either doing so for tourism or are part of an older generation.

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The bright coloured houses of La Boca show the more cultural and less intimidating side of the neighbourhood famed for it’s football team and their ‘hardcore’ supporters.

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Modern architecture, warehouse conversions and swanky restaurants typify the regenerated docks area of Puerto Madero.

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Leaving Patagonia

The change could hardly be more pronounced, or faster.

Had we taken the bus, we would have been treated to several days of gradual change in the Patagonian (and latterly simply Argentine) landscape. Had we gone west, along Ruta 40, we would have been treated to the Andean foothills and the Patagonia of Chatwin and Theroux – Esquel, El Bolson and Bariloche. Had we gone east, along Ruta 3, we would have had the barren, raw Patagonia that greeted the Welsh settlers – Trelew and Puerto Madryn.

The change would have been gradual – as would the slide into madness only two solid days of bus travel can offer.

However to board a flight in the sleepy town of El Calafate – where doors are left unlocked and neighbours’ dogs are welcomed like long lost family. Where a wallet can reside in one’s back-pocket without fear – and 3 hours later arrive into Buenos Aires, one of the largest cities in the Americas, is quite a juxtaposition. Doors are locked if not shut in your face, dogs are stray and more often rabid than neighbourly and money – if the city leaves you with any – is quickly shoved into the waterproof money belt you have secreted down your trousers.

It’s not to disparage Buenos Aires as such – I haven’t seen enough of it to do that yet – it’s to critique all cities. To come from the rural, the slow pace and fresh air, to any city takes it’s toll on any number of people, and God knows I’m one of them. It’s good, useful to know who you are and where you belong – some people crave it, can’t live without it. I’m just not one of them.

There is a legend in Patagonia – if you eat a Calafate berry (after which the town was named), you’re destined to return to Patagonia. At this time of year they’re not yet ripe and bitter to the taste. Nonetheless I picked and ate two of them to be doubly sure.

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Trials and Tribulations of a Photographer

There are, without a doubt, easier ways to see Torres del Paine – the jewel in the crown on Chile’s National Parks. To see the Torres themselves can be, just about, done in a day trip.

However, for the more adventurous, and those who are wanting more of the park than just it’s centrepiece, there is the 5 day W Trek – the stuff of legend for those hiking around Southern Patagonia.

It’s a long trek, just over 80km, most if which takes place on the middle three days. This is exacerbated by the 15-20kg of kit that you must take with you, tents, sleeping matts and bags, enough food to last you 5 days and clothing suitable for the -5 degrees that can be experienced at night.

But all of this hardship is offset by the sheer beauty of the park. Soaring peaks, turquoise lakes, knife edge towers of granite and a 27km long glacier that marks the end of the great Southern Patagonian Ice-field.

Working from west to east, we were bucking the trend and “doing the W” the wrong way round. After a fairly easy 11km walk uphill to our campsite on the side Glacier Grey. After pitching the tent, I thought nothing would beat sitting in wall-to-wall sunshine on a bay, looking over the glacier and watching hundreds of icebergs bob up and down. However, after dark and dinner cooked over a camping stove, we went to the disproportionately swanky refugio, where the more monied (read American) tourists stay. Next to a log burning fire and classic black and whites of the surrounding park, I sipped down a large Johnny Walker Black Label on the rocks. The whisky was a blend of minimum 12 year old Scotch’s. The ice, perfectly formed 25,000 year old glacial ice.

The next few days were even more challenging, averaging 20km each day, but the mountains to our left and the emerald and turquoise lakes to our right more than compensated.

By the end of day 4 we had climbed more than 600 meters in a few hours, through a blizzard and our chances of seeing the main event, the three Torres (towers) we’re fading fast. After pitching camp with damp equipment in the snow, we fired up the stove and had dinner. As we wolfed down our last mouthful, the weather broke and we could see, just, blue sky and sun.

Camera in waterproof bag was grabbed and almost at a jog we climbed the remaining 1km and 250 meters in altitude in just over 35 mins. When we crested the rim of the crater we were greeted by one of the most majestic sites I have seen in the trip so far. All three Torres unobstructed by cloud, with the sun behind them and a shimmering blue lake in front.

Had we done a day trip, we would be on our way home by now, disappointed as so many visitors are. It goes to show, with photography, it’s all about patience and perseverance, that and having the stupidity to hike for 5 days.

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Lago Grey with Glacier Grey in the background and icebergs filling the small inlet

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Lago Nordenskjold

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Torres del Paine, or Blue Towers in the mixture of Spanish and Native American in which they were named

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It’s not about Patriotism…

A few years back, I was marched out of Tate Britain, the art gallery in London. It wasn’t by security or staff, but by my girlfriend. The reason was, we had seen a painting depicting the government reprisals after the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Under the painting, the gallery staff had included an explanation of the painting, stating “English troops round up a Highlander after the Battle of Culloden.” the problem was that the soldiers, regardless of where they were from, weren’t English, they were British.

The Battle of Culloden took place 39 years after The Act of Union, making Scotland, England and Wales one political entity – Britain. Any government forces were acting in behalf of the British Government. It wasn’t because I was Scottish that the inaccuracy annoyed me, but because it was simply inaccurate, and further more it was an institution that people took to be accurate and educational.

Anyway, I was marched out before I could ask for the curator to complain, so I’m sure it’s still there if you wish to check

The reason I mention this is thus: For just aver a month now we have been traveling around Argentina. In almost every place we have stayed there has been a map of South America and/or a map of Argentina. On every single one has been an archipelago of islands about 300 KM south of Argentina’s southern tip. They are labeled as “Islas Malvinas (Arg)”.

In many towns, they have gone so far as putting up signs stating that “Islas Malvinas son Argentine”.

That they want to call the island Islas Malvinas doesn’t bother me. On English language maps we call Germany Germany, not Deutschland. What bother’s me is that the islands are not Argentine sovereign territory, nor are they administered from Buenos Aires. They are, by the islander’s own wishes, British.

If the Argentine authorities want to spend tax payers money on this agenda, that is there business. But for me it’s sad that children are being thought this instead if basic economic principles that may help bring their county back from the fiscal brink.

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In Search of… Something

In 1962, Walt Disney made a film. In the late 1980’s, my Mother, remembering the film from her childhood, and thinking it a film my sister and I would enjoy, popped a VHS into the machine and recorded it.

The film was “In Search of The Castaways”, a live action adaptation of the Jules Verne novel “Les Enfants du capitaine Grant” or “Captain Grant’s Children”, in it’s translated version.

The plot centres around Captain Grant’s two children chasing clues to find their missing father having received a message in a bottle after his ship was wrecked.

One of the reasons that I enjoyed the film so much, and it sticks in my memory to this day, is the setting for the main adventures. I can still remember the excited voice of the French professor helping the children – “ah, PatAgOOnia!”

I had no real concept of where or what Patagonia was, only that it was a place one could ride horses across The Andes, experience earthquakes, avalanches and ride giant rock sleds over glaciers and through ice caves. There were native American Indians, giant condors and vast flood plains. To top it all, there was a chance of meeting a young Hayley Mills.

From that day to this, Patagonia has had a hold on me. Not necessarily a driving, obsessive hold, but a hold that sticks in the back of your mind. A hold that says, ‘one day’.

So when we were planning our South America trip it was that, and Patagonia, that were for me, going to be the highlights. For most, it is Machu Picchu or monkeys in The Amazon. These were very nice, but for me, as we drove south from Bariloche along Ruta 40, that was where the trip really got exciting.

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Och Aye Mon, I’m Scotch!

I can say with absolute certainty that the last time I made a conscious decision over what I was wearing was the 25th May. It was a friends wedding and I wore a navy pinstriped suit with coordinating shirt and tie.

Since then, it has been a case of wearing whichever t-shirt and shorts combination happens to be at the top of my backpack, shamefully often the same outfit several days in a row.

That is, until today. Today, at 3:30am as I woke up and dressed, I did so very deliberately in an outfit chosen in advance. It wasn’t a suit, or even remotely smart. It was a pair of green cargo pants, walking boots and a Scotland Rugby shirt.

And the occasion for this outfit? Nothing to do with Scotland actually playing rugby (or any other sport for that matter). Today was the day we crossed from Bolivia down into Argentina, and if there was one thing that I was certain I didn’t want the Argentine Military thinking of me, it was that I was English.

It sounds petty, and don’t get me wrong I’m very proud to be British, but given everything that has happened between our two countries, and that numerous other Brits have been advised to tell people they meet here that they are Australian, I felt a Scotland shirt may grease the wheels a little.

In the event, I passed the border in the seemingly usual way of a cursory glance at my passport and a 90 day visa being stamped in.

As for the Scotland shirt, at just below 0 degrees and having to queue for 2 and a half hours, it was firmly buried under several layers of down-insulated clothing… C’est la vie.

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The Colour of Bolivia

In his diary as he traveled through Bolivia for the first time, Che Guevara wrote “the color green has been banned”.

Sat on a bus traveling through the country – whether in the north, south, east or west – and stare out at the grey hills, the brown rocks and the bleached beige grass, and it’s easy to see why Guevara thought this.

Indeed he’s right, the high altitude, cold and lack of water conspire to make Bolivia a country distinctly lacking in green. However, what Guevara failed to appreciate is the diverse range of other colours that more than make up for green’s absence.

Whether the brilliant white of Bolivia’s salt flats (the world’s largest) contrasting with the azure blue of the sky, or the vibrant pinks, oranges and yellows of the country’s volcanos, rich in iron ore and sulphur. Perhaps it’s the deep red of Laguna Colorado, a lake so full of iron ore that it shimmers red in the wind, or the turquoise blue of the many smaller glacial lakes.

The country is full of colour, it’s simply green isn’t one of them.

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