Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Real Africa? (Kembe, Central African Republic)

Many years ago I overlanded, hitched, trucked, boated and hiked through Africa, the planet's most adventurous continent. Of the numerous countries travelled, Congo and Central African Republic somehow stole my heart as the real dark continent. Ironically rich in valuable minerals, both are tragically war-torn, underdeveloped and with little semblance of a controlling central government. Regional lords often hold a loose control over a province or area of the country. Poverty and corruption abounds and they are risky to travel to with strong travel advisories from most western countries.

Yet the two countries are full of some of the most stunning wildlife and natural treasures. Magnificent verdant rainforest, untamed rivers, gushing waterfalls and rich and colourful tribal cultures abound. Friendly villagers with beaming smiles and generosity of character hide the harshness of their existence.

This is all encapsulated in the village of Kembé (in the very south of the Central African Republic) and the neighbouring twin Kembé Falls. Stereotypical village life continues on in this simple community of mud huts and grass roofs with the women grinding grain, sorting beans, supervising kids, cooking or cleaning while the men attend to house repairs or organising the village affairs. The odd goat or chicken scavenge for a few tasty morsels among the scrubby bushes and tussocks of grass.

Each afternoon, Kembe Falls provide a haven from the steamy heat of central Africa. Swimming dangerously close to where the falls tumble through a rocky gorge, the children exhilarate as they are swept by the strong current towards the falls before emerging on the shoreline as you imagine they are about to be consumed by the thunderous chutes. The mothers appear relaxed as they complete their washing duties further up stream, as generations of children have undoubtedly diced with pending doom in this stunning location.

Everyone in the village seems neatly coiffured. The local barber with illustrations of their services clip, cut and shear their share of villagers while catching up with gossip and goings-on. As excitable chatter in a mix of French and the tribal dialect filled the air over the rollicking rhythmic music crackling from the radio, there seems more gossiping than cutting with most appearing pretty tidy before any hair was cut. Being rather shaggy, I decided to test the local haircutting service though none of the styles appear very suited to someone with straight, light-coloured hair. To the amusement of several villages, the barber chopped and cut his way through my tangled thatch making me feel much better and neater. Rampaging children dived for locks of hair as they floated to the dusty ground, like I was some kind of rock star.

The late afternoon floated away in the gentle currents of the upper river as the sky turned a vibrant orange in the dusty environment and the luminescent stars quickly dominated the pitch-black environment. This truly is real Africa.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Photo of the Week - Leopard Seal (Antarctica)

With its huge head and mouth, the Leopard Seal has the ferocious look of a fearsome predator. Though more innocent looking in its relaxed pose in the photo, they are demonised as evil by movies such as Happy Feet. These solitary seals efficiently hunt penguins near the Antarctic shores as they depart and arrive at the rookeries over the summer months.

Other Wildlife Photos of the Week
Brown Bear
Mountain Gorilla
Hoary Marmot

Friday, February 20, 2009

Photo Tip: Painless Panoramas with Autostitch

Connecting photos together has always been a challenge. For the last few years I've been using an amazing piece of free software called Autostitch. Developed by a pair of Canadian university students for their thesis, the software takes a collection of photos, analyses their content and automatically joins them both vertically and horizontally into a panorama.

The program is based on the photographer taking a series of photos of a landscape from one location in any sequence you wish. It doesn't matter if the camera is set on automatic, as the program will automatically adjust for changes to light, scale, orientation, exposure and aperture settings of the different photos. Photos without any overlap are conveniently ignored. Autostitch even works with photos scanned from film.

In my example, I took a series of fifteen photos of Purling Brook Falls in south-east Queensland (Australia). Individually, they look like a random collection of shots, though all overlap each other. When fed into Autostitch, the jpeg image at the top of the post results. Cropping this photo gives a final excellent panorama without the usual hassles of connecting photos or correcting any anomalies such as the strange banding which invariably occur with other software.

The user interface is terrible and the instructions scant. Easiest is to group all the relevant photos in a single folder and use all the photos in that folder as input (use File > Open). The output will be a photo called pano.jpg into that same folder. This needs renaming to avoid it being over-written by further runs of Autostitch.

Additionally, I recommend altering a few options (under Edit > Options tab) as follows:
  - set the width of the panorama (or scale) noting that making this much larger considerably slows the program;
  - consider enabling gain compensation which modifies the darkness or lightness of the various photos to make them consistent;
  - set the JPEG option in the bottom right to 90 or 95 to improve the quality of the final panorama (less compression).

With most of the options being indecipherable (terms like theta max and psi orientation abound) to all but the most astute mathematician, I'd suggest leaving them alone. Indeed, Autostitch does a great job without altering any options at all. If mathematics and image gymnastics is your thing, a detailed conference paper on the science behind the technology is available. A forum entry details the best description of all the options (scroll down a little).

Finally, note that the program is only available as a trial so it will eventually expire (after a year or more) and will need to be downloaded again. The technology has been incorporated into a number of commercial photo editting programs as shown on the Autostitch website.

Download a copy of Autostitch and start building your own painless panoramas.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Anything But Another Bloody Cathedral (Helsinki, Finland)

If you have travelled around Europe for more than a couple of weeks, you become very accustomed to the expression "ABC" or another bloody cathedral/church. Every major city, town or small village is adorned with a church perched on prime real estate which is hundreds of years old rich in history, art and religious symbolism. They are remarkable architectural achievements (such as in the photo below of St Stephens in Vienna) that stand in testimony to the significance religion has played throughout the ages.

The first couple you see are uplifting experiences, wandering around for hours in silent reverence, soaking in each small chapel, fresco, icon and grave. Photos are joyously snapped of each element of the cathedral.

In the next couple, the pace quickens and only the more remarkable elements of the cathedrals are cause for a considered pause and a photo. After a couple more, though no less spectacular or significant, you start to steer well clear and develop a nauseous uncomfortable fear that you'll be sucked inside and start screaming "let me out, it's another ABC". After a few days, the churches all blur into a fog with only the most remarkable elements even surviving your short term memory.

Helsinki's cathedral is entirely different. This travel wonder doesn't even look like a cathedral. Indeed, at first sight, it looks more like a nuclear fallout shelter than a haven for spiritual enlightenment or private reflection. The entrance is little more than a dark concrete tunnel. What you see when you get inside is certainly a surprise.

Built only forty years ago, the stunning Temppeliaukio Cathedral (in the unusually named Töölö) is gouged out of the suburban bedrock with the walls being simply the unfinished rough rock walls. The cathedral is bathed in natural light which streams through a string of windows that sit between the rock walls and the polished copper ceiling. A large copper pipe organ matches the gleaming ceiling with the rocky exterior making for a blissful acoustic setting.

Its unusual design and stunning architectural use of natural light and rock means that Temppeliaukio Cathedral is remembered well after many other cathedrals have faded from memory. If touring the travel wonders of Finland, this striking cathedral must be on your agenda. It is anything but another bloody cathedral.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Photo of the Week - Half-Timbered Houses (Lavenham, England)

Lavenham is a delightful old English village with a disproportionately large church and delicately balanced medieval half-timbered houses. It looks as if a strong breeze could blow these ones over, though they've probably been there for 400 or 500 years. Ironically, the leaning house was the office of the local real estate agency when I took this photo!

One of the regulars at the local bar jocularly claimed that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star was originally written in Lavenham and offered to sing it. The frowns and stark expressions around me suggested I refuse the offer and it was clear that he'd already enjoyed a few pints. Who knows if he was correct but it is something that I've never forgotten.

Other Photos of the Week
Stave Church (Norway)
Remote Sign (Iceland)
Bad Hair Day
The Asymmetric Chapel (France)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Tragedy of the Victorian Bushfires (Australia)

While I live in Sydney, many Australians who live in the south-eastern state of Victoria have had their lives changed forever. Over the last week in temperatures in excess of 45°C (110°F) , the horrific tragedy of bushfire has swept across parched rural and forested lands leaving a trail of destruction and death. Around 180 people have lost their lives (with the final count likely to approach 300), around 1800 houses have been lost and over half a million hectares burned out (equivalent to the state of Connecticut or 1/8 of Switzerland). Both stock and wildlife in large numbers have perished. Everyone from these towns and village will have lost family, friends, neighbours or property in what is now considered to be Australia’s worst peacetime event.

Indeed, entire towns and villages have been reduced to ash. As if frozen in time, others lie in a tangled wreck of wrought iron, charred brick chimneys and the faint shadowy structures of houses and buildings. Children’s toys lay blackened where they were last left. Tangled and burnt clothing flutter in the wind pegged to clotheslines.

The stories of heroism fill the newspapers. Thousands have risked their own lives to save others. Communities have come together in support. People all over Australia and around the world have given blankets, food and money to help rebuild these people’s lives. The fire fighters, many of them volunteers and some having experienced deep losses themselves, have fought heroically beyond the point of exhaustion undoubtedly reducing the fires from causing far greater damage. Governments, so often criticised in such tragic events, have been quick to assist and have been impressive in their responsiveness and efforts in aiding those most in need.

While most of the fires have started by lightning strikes, it is beyond comprehension that some of these fires are believed to have been intentionally lit and still others by the carelessness of discarded cigarette butts. Entire towns have been declared as crime scenes.

Unable to sleep, I lay in bed listening for hours at the 24 hour radio coverage of our national broadcaster, the ABC. In this time of internet, instant messaging and mobile phones, the radio was the primary source of information and the most up-to-date reports on where the fires were striking.

Balls of flames shot overhead like comets in the hot dry northerly winds lobbing randomly and igniting the tinder-dry ground. It is impossible to imagine the horror that people must have experienced guarding their property as towering flames fanned by gusting winds lapped at neighbour’s houses and property fences. Soot fell like torrential rain and the smoke cut visibility down to a point where driving was impossible.

Everyone will remember stories from the fire. Some are distressing, others poignant and even others seem minor in detail. A parent who packed their children and belongings in the car, returned inside to get their pet dog and returned to find their vehicle in flames. Another who ran to connect a second hose outside never to return. The sheer terror of people stranded in cars blocked by fallen trees unable to escape their burning township. A singed family parrot with only a single yellow feather remaining sits relaxed on a playing field having been rescued, seemingly unaware of its strange appearance.

Maybe photos such as those of the ABC and international coverage says more.

Bushfires are a harsh reality of Australian life with a number of plant species relying on fire to regenerate. Much as these hardened Victorians will slowly rebuild their lives, and the houses, schools, sports fields, shops and community halls of these towns and villages will be reconstructed, the first signs of new growth will appear in these ashen bushlands within a few days. The shell-shocked wildlife will return to their lands able to feed on the tasty new shoots of grass and leaves.

And while it will take years to rebuild the towns, the memories of these bushfires will be talked about, recalled and reflected upon for decades and centuries to come.

Photo Sources: 1, 2

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Travel Website with a Difference - Travel Blog Exchange

Around the start of the year, a new website called Travel Blog Exchange was created as a central collaboration point for ideas, experiences, blog sharing, photos, videos and travel knowledge. With a wide variety of travel blogs spread around the internet, along with travel industry sites, agencies, travel forums, online version of travel guides and more, Travel Blog Exchange provides a virtual meeting place for this eclectic group.

Formed by Kim Mance of Go Galavanting and Debbie Dubrow of Deliciousbaby, it is seen as beneficial with over 400 members already registered and numerous interest groups as wide ranging as wine lovers, travelling with disabilities and travel writing having formed.

While I know that many of my readers are not travel bloggers, those who are should join this excellent initiative and participate in the group discussions.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Winter Hiking in the White Mountains (New Hampshire, USA)

Guest Article by Jamie Sward

The opportunity to move out East was a dream come true! The promise of things to come was tremendous and my wish list of things to do in New England was a mile long! Here I am five years later and I haven't made it halfway through my list yet. How frustrating! One of the most exciting prospects for me was getting out and enjoying all of the beautiful natural wonders that the North East has to offer. Doing the 9 to 5 thing five days a week sort of put a damper on those plans, leaving me too exhausted to move on the weekends. Well, it's a new year and I have new motivation so this year I plan on putting myself out there. First plan of action - planning a trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire!

I've always enjoyed hiking. Family trips to Jackson Hole, Wyoming stick in my memory as was the myriad of hiking trips I took during my stint with the Boy Scouts. Winter hiking however is something that I have never tried before so research and planning is definitely a must! Luckily, I have someone who's done this all before accompanying me but there's still a lot to think about before embarking on this little adventure. Here are some important tips to consider before planning a Winter White Mountain Hiking excursion.

Take Precautions & Be Prepared

Be prepared for extreme temperatures, harsh winds, snow, rain and the occasional thaws. Snow shoes or skis are recommended for a winter hike in and around the White Mountains. Sudden storms can quickly come and go, unexpectedly leaving massive amounts of snow in your path. This risk of course increases the higher you go. Being an experienced hiker/camper is necessary before embarking on any sort of winter hiking excursion. Minor problems and injuries can become even more serious when combined with harsh winter conditions. Be prepared and bring along all the necessities. Here is a list of ten essential items you need to pack for your trip, courtesy of

    • Map
    • Compass
    • Warm Clothing
       o Sweater or Pile Jacket
       o Long Pants (wool or synthetic)
       o Wool Hat
    • Extra Food & Water
    • Flashlight or Headlamp
    • Matches
    • First Aid and Repair Kit
    • Whistle
    • Quality Weather Proof (Wind & Rain) Jacket and Pants
    • Pocket Knife

Other Recommended Items

A backpack of some kind is of course necessary. It should have a thick, protective outer layer to keep all of your food, extra clothes and supplies dry. For overnight trips you definitely must be prepared with your own shelter in case weather conditions prevent you from making it to a cabin or hut along your path. Bringing along a sleeping bag and some sort of air mattress is also very important. Other recommended items include crampons, hand warmers and of course a sturdy, comfortable pair of boots.

Given the cold temperatures and the fact that hypothermia is a year-round hazard, layering is key. Start out with some wicking underwear made out of polypropylene. For your insulating layers, fleece or wool is preferred over down, as the latter loses warmth when wet. Your outer layer needs to be water and wind proof and have an integrated hood. Don't pack cotton, because just like down, cotton is useless when wet. Mittens are recommended over gloves as the fingers are kept warmer. A neck gaiter, face mask, and extra wool socks are also key.

Have Fun!

While it should always be safety first when it comes to winter hiking, you also should have fun! The views, scenery and wildlife you're likely to encounter are worth the trip in and of itself! Also, winter hiking means fewer crowds so if you find yourself bothered by too many people on the trails, chances are it's going to be pretty isolated. At the same time, while fewer people might be less nerve-racking, it's important that you have a buddy or two with you and that you let someone know where you will be and what your planned route is. Expect the unexpected!

One other thing to keep in mind is that weather conditions are the determining factor in the distance you are able to travel. With skis and good weather you can easily cover 10 - 15 miles in a day. But if the weather is not perfect or if you are snow-shoeing - you'll be lucky if you make it two miles! If you properly pack for your trip and have all of the essentials then you'll be golden!

Photo Source

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Colourful Caminito (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

One of Buenos Aires’ most popular travel wonders is the colourful and energetic borough (barrio) of La Boca; a somewhat rundown area inhabited and built up by Italian immigrants over 100 years ago. Though overcrowded with tourists, buses, snapping cameras and vendors flogging tacky souvenirs, La Boca’s magnetic appeal is captured in the vividly painted narrow street, Caminito (literally, little camino or little street).

This haven for photographers has an enchanting history. Originally settled in the late 1800s by wharf workers from Genoa, it seemed practical to settle in the port suburb of La Boca. Being poor, they built shared housing (conventillo) from discarded materials such as wood and corrugated iron scrounged from around the warehouses. Elevated from the ground to avoid occasional floods, the conventillos were long narrow houses with small private rooms running off a central large patio area. To further save money, the houses were painted in a patchwork quilt of colour, using a variety of leftover paints from the shipyards.

Today, most of this original character has gone but Caminito was recreated as a project by successful Argentine artist, Benito Quinquela Martin, whose fame derived from the crusty and character-filled illustrations of old La Boca. Turning Caminito into a pedestrian walkway and encouraging budding artists to populate the area, Martin rebuilt this alleyway to capture traditional La Boca in all its vibrancy.

Today, stunningly dressed couples entrance the tourists and encourage tips, passionately dancing the tango to pulsing rhythms and reviving the musical culture of past times. As you overlook the conventillos, it is easy to picture families getting together on the shared patios after a hard day’s work, playing their musical instruments and singing and dancing the night away. Cleverly, Caminito was also named after an original and popular piece of Tango music written by a famous resident of La Boca from the early days of the 1900s.

For more passion, nothing beats the rampant enthusiasm from the blue and yellow-clad supporters of the local football (soccer) club La Boca Juniors, who bred such legendary superstars as Diego Maradona, considered by some to be the finest player of all time (he shared the award of the world football association’s Player of the Century). His mural dominates walls throughout the barrio.

Like in many cities, if you wander a short distance from Caminito, you are a chance of discovering some fine paintings and crafts (especially, the colourful hand-woven shawls) at good prices and maybe get an opportunity to garner a more authentic experience of this bustling working-class district.

So while Caminito is highly commercial and touristy, it warrants a jaunt south from the European splendour of central Buenos Aires to experience the unusual history, a strong coffee at one of the street-side cafes and a chance to snap a few photos of the kaleidoscopic houses which line this lively cobbled street museum.

Photo Source: Football

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Photo of the Week - Aboriginal Hand Stencil Gallery (Australia)

The Australian aboriginals are believed to have the oldest living culture in the world, estimated at over 40,000 years (that is around 2,000 generations). Renowned for their deep spiritual connection with the land, one of their lasting legacies is magnificent rock art including galleries of hand stencils in caves and rocky overhangs. The photo comes from the Blue Mountains around 90 minutes by car or train west of Sydney. The hand prints are estimated to be up to 1600 years old though probably were added to over the centuries. Pigments are made by grinding sandstone and mixing it with water and animal fats into an ochre paste. The aborigines either dip their hand in this paint to make a hand print or take a mouthful and blow the ochre over their hand leaving a stencil on the cave wall.

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