Africa – A first journey into a beautiful continent. Part 4: The Okavango Delta

The next bigger stop on our trip was Maun, a little city in the Okavango Delta. It is the capital of the North West District and as it’s biggest city, the starting point for most trips and safaris into the Delta.

The first stop was the local supermarket and money exchange. While we had relatively little human contact after the busy streets of Cape Town and all the way through Namibia, Maun was the first place where a “welcome to Africa” escaped my mouth. It was busy. People everywhere, selling and buying things, going after their daily business and a little bit of chaos in the car parking lot. On one side you were missing the loneliness of the desert, but on the other you were a bit excited that finally the scenery you knew from TV was right in front of you. Of course everybody is more than used to tourists, so don’t think you’re anything special there. You just blend in.

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One of the main activities of the day was the scenic flight over the Okavango Delta. I didn’t book it up front and thought I had plenty of time on a plane in my life already, but changed my mind on the way there and was happy that I did.

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The view was just amazing and it was really great to see all the streams, rivers and lakes across the wide plain. The Okavango River drains the summer (January–February) rainfall from the Angola highlands and the surge flows 1,200 kilometers in approximately one month. The waters then spread over the 250 km by 150 km area of the delta over the next four months (March–June). The high temperature of the delta causes rapid transpiration and evaporation, resulting in a cycle of rising and falling water level that was not fully understood until the early 20th century. Every year, approximately 11 cubic kilometers (11,000,000,000,000 liters) of water flow into the delta. (Source)

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From a pure photography standpoint, you shouldn’t take the normal flights and rather book your private trip and pilot. I’ve seen videos of people who were able to take a door of the plane out and shoot straight down. Unfortunately, that’s not what we did and the pics used in the blog never made the album for a reason. Our plane had scratched plastic windows and it was quite a bumpy ride for most parts, so please excuse the low quality. At some point, and that is probably the best tip I can give for most parts of traveling, I just put the camera back in the bag and enjoyed the flight.

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As you might be able to spot in the last picture, we saw a herd of elephants walking around the little collection of trees. For me, these were the first free living elephants I had seen in my life (many more to follow on the trip) and really a special moment. We saw a few more and also some giraffes and hippos, but I guess this will stay with me forever.

Back in Maun it was time to check into the hotel. The Sedia Riverside Hotel was quite a view. The reception area was luxurious and the staff more than friendly. The same could be said for the rooms and as I was lucky to have no roommate on the second part of the trip, my room was filled with a very very comfortable king size bed, most importantly equipped with a mosquito net big enough to have a peaceful night. The hotel also has a nice pool with a well stocked bar, so life was good and we enjoyed our evening there a lot.

‘Unfortunately’ we were supposed to leave already the next morning, but thunderstorms were rolling in and our night out in the Delta was canceled. We had to switch from the rooms to quite spacious chalets, but were able to stay one more night and I can totally recommend the place if you ever go there.

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Instead of camping in the rain, we opted to go on a day time trip into the delta. After getting picked up right after breakfast by 4×4 vehicles and being woken up by the 45 min ride across bumpy gravel- and sand covered roads, we arrived at the camp of our pole rowers, or ‘Polers’ as they are called in the Delta. We split up in groups of two to man the dugout canoes, commonly knows as mokoro or makoro (plural mekoro), depending in who you ask.

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Back in the day these around 6 meter long canoes were made out of trees, but with growing tourism and the mekoros only lasting so long (wood of course rots), a decision was made to save the trees in the area and not cut all of them down. Nowadays they’re made out of molded fiber-glass. We were randomly assigned to one of the Polers and soon started gliding through the sheer endlessness  of water, plants and water lilies, on our way to a bigger island in the Delta.

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Fortunately enough, we didn’t encounter any hippos, but were also avoiding the bigger channels as much as possible, where these massive creatures usually like to hang out at. The landscape was just amazing. After a lot of chatter in all of our mekoros for the first 30 minutes, it got a lot more quiet after a while and everybody  was just sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the view and peacefulness of the area.

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While it was not easy to get good shots through all the high plants, there was an opening every now and then. We also met a few other boats along the route, mostly fisherman who seemed to be very proud of the big catfish they pulled out of the nets!

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Through our Poler, we were able to speak to one of the guys and he asked to get the pics I took of him. Unfortunately, as these thing seem to be too often, I never got any e-mail address and he probably won’t ever get them. Maybe your G-Adventures guy Jaco could help!

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After arriving at our place to be, we quickly got all of our stuff out and went on a walking safari. It was one thing to sit in a jeep, looking around to find some animals and wildlife, but it certainly a different kind of thrill when walking through the bush. In retrospect, I wonder if there weren’t any predators in the area in general, or if our Polers then turned safari guides just knew how to act. They were definitely not armed.

Being later in the morning and the sun standing high above us, it wasn’t easy to find animals. If you have read my blog post about Namibia, you know that we’ve faced the same problem in Etosha National Park.

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Some Impalas ran by early on, but were way too far away for a shot with the camera. After around 15 minutes of walking and asking myself already if it made any sense, we approached a herd of about 30 zebras.

The beauty of digital photography is definitely being able to take almost as many pics as you want to. And I took a lot of the zebras, but you really never know if you get another chance in wildlife photography. Being about 100 meters away first, most shots where just good for the trash can. We kept gettng closer and closer though, always stopping, waiting, taking a few shots, moving again, until we really got close to the animals. As we got closer, the pictures of course kept getting better and better. I think the difficulty with a herd of zebras is getting the symmetry without making them look boring. The patterns are wonderful though and if you then get a few more details in, like the birds on the third zebra pic, you know it is a keeper!

One thing that no photo can give you is the smell. Such a distinct smell of horses, which was really intensified with every step we took in their direction.The closest we got before really making them anxious was around 40-50 meters I’d say.

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They didn’t seem to mind us too much, until we really got close, but mostly we were watched with interested eyes. The guides told us, that if you’re moving as a group, most animals will take you as one bigger animal. In our case, we probably looked like a big, slow and lazy one.

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As got too close, they took off and galloped about 100 meters away, just to stop and eat grass again.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much else to see. We found some elephant bones along the track, which are really really big. You wouldn’t believe it actually.

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We soon returned to camp and were a bit disappointed. Only a few zebras and impalas, but no lions, elephants, rhinos or anything else that would get your heart beat faster. Lunch was ready and well prepared, but suddenly we were assembled again and headed back out in the bush. An elephant sighting, very close to our camp.

Through tall and very sticky grass, your shoes and pants were plastered with it after a few steps, we approached the area. Quiet, careful and always listening, but we almost didn’t find them. Elephants are very silent when walking, which seems to be quite unbelievable, just looking at them. Suddenly, a crack in the bush up ahead and through thick branches and bushes, there was thick grey skin passing by. Way too small and dark to take a photo, but nevertheless a great feeling.

Personally I was still a bit disappointed though, as I would have liked to see one in an open field. They must have read my thoughts, as one suddenly turned and took a few steps outside to take a look at the big, slow and lazy animal walking by (see the group reference further up). It looked at us, was surprised as we are and while people were scrambling to take photos and get into a good position, it got a bit upset and showed us with his ears spread that this is his place to be, not ours.

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I had only one shot. The whole scene happened so quickly and I was one of the people who had to get into position. When the elephant clearly showed a bit of aggression, our guides got a bit nervous and everybody had to stop. The only way out was to retreat respectfully and so we did. And yes, an encounter like this will get your heart beating faster.

After returning to camp, we all had a bit of adrenaline pumping through our body and I believe most members of our little safari group were still excited for days. I was at least and even though this might not be a photo to make anybody’s wall at any time, for me that is one of the best shots of the whole trip. Especially when adding the story to it.

After a quick lunch, the polers still wanted to sing and dance for us, which they usually would have done next to a fire in the evening. Clouds were rolling in already and we knew it was the right decision to not camp there. The dance was quite funny and I enjoyed it a lot.

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It was time to head back, which was a good decision. About 2/3rds of the way back, raindrops fell down to earth and we got a bit wet. The big thunderstorms were rolling in later and as we were sitting at the pool with a beer in our hand, it rained cats and dogs and we could cheer to a dry bed instead of a flooded tent.

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The Delta is a great place to visit. You should not miss it on your trip through Botswana and you should also go in a mokoro out on the water to explore (with a poler guiding you). Good luck on finding some animals and hopefully you’ll also be looking back smiling about the things happening to you!

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Africa – A first journey into a beautiful continent. Part 3: Visiting the San tribe

Continuing our trip, we left Windhoek on another early morning and had a rather emotional moment, as parts of our group stayed behind. When I booked a 18 day trip, I didn’t realize that it was actually split in two parts. Cape Town – Windhoek and Windhoek – Victoria Falls. So four group members left and we welcomed eight new ones. Keeping things fresh. The good news for me though, after sharing with a German guy for the first part, I got to sleep on my own for the rest of the tour, as numbers were odd and I got lucky.

Our first stop after another interesting African border crossing was the Ghanzi Trail Blazers camp. The camp is a recreated San bushmen village, offering a westernized view on the life of the local tribes. The rustic traditional grass huts actually have a concrete floor and even lights, but electricity is switched off at 11 pm and you’ll be relying on your flashlight as well as shared facilities but separated by genders.

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Each hut has two tiny beds inside and thankfully a mosquito net, which was needed badly, as the ‘doors’ don’t really close and you could hear all sorts of insects and flying things celebrating when entering the quite small hut.

The main reason we stayed here, as I’m not going to get into details about a tour provider saving money on accommodations and selling it as the ‘really authentic’ experience, was to meet the people of the San tribe. The San are part of the bigger Khoisan tribe, which splits into the San and the Khoikhoi, previously known as the Hottentots.

*Private memory on*

The Hottentots were often misused by my mom and grandma to describe untidiness aka my room for most parts of my teenager life, as they always said “it looks like we’re at the Hottentots”.

*Private memory off*

From what we’ve learned on site, the tribe used to live freely in the area as hunters – gatherers, but  government-mandated modernization programs forced them to relocate them to a provided area, changing their lifestyle from semi-nomads to ‘modern’ citizens, relying on farming and a permanent home. They used to only own the clothes on their back, tools and of course weapons like bows and spears for hunting. Their ancestors are considered to have been the first inhabitants of what is now Botswana and South Africa.

Guests at the Trail Blazer camp have the opportunity through the activities offered to have a glimpse of San Bushman culture, which is fast disappearing, providing San Bushman with sustainable employment.

After a couple of cold beers at the bar, we met a few people of the San for a bush walk.

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We all went through a traditional greeting ceremony before they took us on a 45 min long tour through the area around the camp, showing off their knowledge about plants and roots, explaining in a very animated way of what these were used for and gave us a glimpse into their language, which is a typical African click language and really impossible for us to use.

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There was only one guy speaking English, as he went to school when he was younger, who translated all explanations and animated people to try leaves and roots. I personally tried some myself and it is really interesting how simple leaves can taste or how much they store. You can easily hydrate from some of the plants.

The younger women were carrying their kids on their backs, but as much of a kid animator as I usually am (I can turn to a 3 year old kid within a millisecond), those were just ignoring me.

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We’re not sure what would be happening to these giant caterpillars after the walk, but I was quite amazed by the size.

The atmosphere was friendly, as we had lots of smiles all around, but I just couldn’t get off the feeling that something was odd. We found out later, that the English speaking member of the group was not liked very much and he also tried to oversell a lot of the things they told or showed us, especially at the dance in the evening. A few days later, we heard that he was fired and I must admit, that was a bit sad in retrospect.

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For me as a photographer, this was still like heaven. Although it was a set up walk and not a real genuine experience, a look into the culture and even though just interacting mostly through hand signs and face expressions, it was leaving you with a feeling of connection. It is hard to describe I believe, but language really isn’t always the key to everything. Communication can easily be done in other forms.

The photography part of it still felt like a unique chance for portraits and a documentary styled series, which I hope you’ll get out of this blog post as well. They might be used to tourists taking their pics and some of them actually posed, but others were quite hard to get on camera.

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As the walk continued, we got to know more about their skills and usage of naturally provided tools for making fire, carrying water, etc.

An ostrich egg for example, is a perfect water transportation system. It’s shell is hard enough to not break easily and the San carried them in a little leather holster on their side. I didn’t get to taste, but it was a nice change from our plastic bottle infested world.

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Fire was made using a hand drill and while this is something I’ve seen plenty on TV, it was quite nice to see it live in action. It went very quick as well, and the ember was good to get a fire going.

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Beside the fire being a good time for a short break, the tribesman gathered around and also used it to get their ‘little’ pipe out. They did mention that it was nothing bad and all natural ingredients, but I’m still suspicious about what was stuffed into the pipe!

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The walk came to an end shortly after and most of us had smiles on their faces. I like to believe everybody enjoyed the experience. A pick up truck was waiting for them at the camp and they drove off sitting on the bed, which felt wrong, but is just signs of modern times.

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We met the San again later, as we had also booked a dancing performance after dinner. When traveling, I like to carry my little Fujifilm Instax Printer and a few cartridges of film with me. As an example, back in Myanmar I was able to hand out a few pics of school kids to them and their teachers, or gave a picture to a tea shop owner, featuring his old dad peacefully sitting in front of a stove. These moments are always special.

My bag was probably the heaviest of our group, but I didn’t regret bringing extra things like the printer with me. It was nice to print out a few of the shots that I’d made during the walk and give something back beside money.

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There’s a new version of the printer out, but both can easily be accessed by WiFi, either from your Fujifilm camera or your smartphone through an app. I don’t get anything for these recommendations, but check it out if you’re interested, it is a great thing to carry around. Of course you can also buy an Instax camera, but then you don’t have a digital copy for yourself!

For the dance, a bonfire was set up and it created a nice atmosphere. The women assembled aound the fire and started clapping and singing, while the men performed traditional dances of various types, mostly featuring wild animals and imitating their movements in the wild.

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It was a nice ending to a day in the Kalahari Desert, even though I wouldn’t really enjoy the night later. The air in the huts was a bit sticky and my mosquito net had a few holes in them, which gave me a bit of unnecessary anxiety. All in all, it was good to be there, spend time with the San and get to know them a bit better, as I had no idea about them or their culture before traveling to Botswana.

I’m also very excited about the pics I got out of the walk, but it was hard to shoot the dance in almost total darkness. The last pics were shot in high ISO (3200-6400) and wide open at f1.4 in case you’re wondering.

If you get to visit the Ghanzi Trail Blazers on a tour (most companies stop here), I hope you’ll enjoy the company of the San and please let me know what you thought about it.  One tip, upgrades to ‘real’ rooms are available 😉

 

A Sunday afternoon at the Hessenpark

Don’t worry, the next part of the Africa story is already in work. Nothing really to show yet, so I wanted to take the time to talk about last weekend.

Summer has finally arrived, or should we say we went from the cold to a hot Spring? After a nice breakfast in the sun, I decided to follow up on an invitation from one of my Meetup.com photography groups and go to the Hessenpark open air museum (click on the English flag on the top right for – guess what – an English version).

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Hessen is the name of the state I live in, which translates to Hesse in English. The park was opened in 1974 and more than 100 endangered buildings have been re-erected in accordance with scientific standards. The buildings in the Museum have been divided into five groups, each group representing a Hessian type of settlement typical of its region of origin. Houses and farmsteads from different villages have been placed as to give a realistic impression of the social and economic situation in the respective region.
The houses are utilized in a variety of ways. In part they are home to permanent and special exhibitions, whilst others have been furnished with original furniture and household items. In addition, you can also visit several historical workshops in the buildings. (Source)

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And to be honest, even though I’m not really good in taking photos at home or even find the motivation to go out and have Germany itself, local things, history or just daily life as a subject, I always love to go back to that place. It is just a good mix out of buildings, nice little details and history.

One thing you’ll notice when you go there on a weekend, taking photos is quite difficult. The place was packed and you had to wait for a good moment if you didn’t want to have anybody in your picture. Yes, the good old discussion. Do you want to tell a story, or just have a landscape / architecture shot of the building. I personally don’t mind the people, but got a bit lucky on Sunday as most shots were possible without having anybody in.

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Or at least you won’t see them anymore 😉

I’m a big fan of the workshops there. Most of them are not always open, but you’ll always find somebody working or selling their items. This weekend, the basket- and rope maker showed off their skills and the little carving shop was also open. I should have brought more cash, as I saw a few things I’d have loved to take home, but you can’t pay by card. Old school. Don’t forget to haggle at least a bit when buying more than one item!

The shops have all kinds of details, but were really busy. I found the closed wheel makers workshop though and had nice light coming through the windows.

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The open air museum is quite large and it is also a nice walk if you take the full tour. It is also worth checking the inside of every building, as some of them really show life in the past. There’s a nice little old shop just after the market square on the left hand side, which unfortunately has everything hidden behind glass, but it’s a very old mom-and-pop store with lot’s of old goods and features displayed.

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The big thing of course are the timber frame buildings itself. I’m a huge fan and I’m always happy when I still see some in local towns, even if they are completely renovated. They just give me a nice feeling of home and German culture. Yes, if you have read my Namibia blog, you can find them in Swakopmund as well! Of all places…

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One thing you should look out for while visiting are the special exhibitions. Very interesting stuff if you’re a museums buff and like to see or read about e.g. the development of technology over time. Right now they have an exhibition about miniature cameras and it’s worth checking out. Click here for more info!

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After talking a lot about the park and what it offers, I’d like to go back and talk about the pictures you can find here and in the gallery on my website. When shooting these things at home, I’m usually quite excited and feel like a little kid exploring a big new world. Later, when working on them on the computer, I often don’t have that feeling anymore and get thoughts like “who really cares”, booooring, or this is really not that special… But in the end, even though it is not as exciting as riding the train in Myanmar, walking up and down the hills of Lisbon or not hearing your own words when standing next to a massive waterfall in Africa, you should document these things, show people your home country and daily life of where you live. So sorry if this was really boring, but looking back, I’m quite excited again!

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One more thing

If you made it that far, thank you again for reading. Just before publishing this story, I thought I should also have a small paragraph about a second hobby I seem to have developed. It is instant photos. Some of you may know already, but I own a few old Polaroid- and also Fuji Instax cameras. It is fun to make what they call ‘real photos’. Just thought about linking to Instagram, but the hashtag is often misused (of course). After my #thatonemessage project last year, which I should really continue now, I’m using especially the Polaroid to take photos of other things, even architecture. I understand this is not everybody’s taste and some of it has to be seen as quite artistic, but judge for yourself. Here are a few shots of the Hessenpark, taken with the old Polaroid SX-70.

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Africa – A first journey into a beautiful continent. Part 2: Driving through Namibia

One of the top 250 reasons why I’m not a successful blogger might be the frequency I’m posting stories on here. But here we go, continuing the trip through Africa.

Crossing into Namibia

After a mosquito infested night in Lambert’s Bay, we continued to the Namibian border and I went through my first experience with African borders. You pass one border, drive through no man’s land and cross another border. But you also get thoroughly searched, at least our bus received that treatment. We had to unload all bags and open them, while some grim looking border policemen went through our underwear. If you’re a smart ass, you might even get some special attention in “the room”, where first our tour guide was searched for carrying too much cash and then a quite uncomfortable young officer was searching me. Only wearing some light shorts and a t-shirt, there wasn’t much to discover and common spaces where you would actually hide diamonds or drugs, like my shoes or socks, where not checked. Not that I’d carry any.

Our start into Namibia was also the theme for the coming days. The bus had to fight the gravel roads quite hard and our driver never took the foot of the gas. Tip for all you planning a trip with a group, try to not sit in the back. It gets really bouncy and even I (I’m a big guy) was airborne in my seat a few times.

A very hot day ended in a nice way though. We stayed at a very nice resort, right next to the Orange River. Norotshama River Resort is like an oasis in the desert, literally speaking, and the friendly staff greeted us with some cognac and juice to cool down. As a special treat after a hot and dusty drive, the pool was just amazing. Little funny side note though, group travel might not always be best for the little bungalows you sleep in. The bathroom had no door or separator really and my roommate and I had to invent a ‘shut your ears and turn around’ policy, every time somebody needed to go to the bathroom. You were able to have a face to face conversation while sitting on the toilet.

Alright, I know, what does that have to do with photography so far? Nothing much, but that was coming up right after. Just before the sun was setting, I was able to shoot a beautiful panorama of the river. I really like the pic, as (for me) it really shows the nice and calm atmosphere and the peaceful state of mind I was in.

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This was actually shot without a tripod and stitched together out of 5 single pics in Lightroom, while I shot the sunset as a bracketed HDR. Still using the Fujifilm X-T1, I’m missing the bracketing functions of my old Nikon, as the model after (X-T2) seems to be the first Fuji camera carrying decent settings for it.

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The little village

As Norothshama is located next to a big river, water is not really a premium and that has developed the area into a huge table grape plantation. I had to smile a few times as the land was bought and is now owned by a man, commonly only known as “The Serbian” and I bet there are thousands of rumors and stories about the guy. Most of it he’s just renting out to plantation owners though. The workers for all the plantations live close by. It is a tin hut village called Ausenkehr, which reminded me a bit of the townships I’ve seen in South Africa, but certainly not really comparable. Most workers live in these tiny tin houses with one room while grape picking season is on, but we seemed to have missed the busy times. Most ‘shops’ were closed and only parts of the village seemed to be busy with people living there all year long.

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I would have loved to take a look into the barber shops, or into the several photo studios we saw there. Not to make fun of how simple they’d be, but just to communicate with the owners and get the story about what they’re doing and how they’re getting it done. I’m a big fun of barber shops anywhere I go!

As in most places, the kids are the most curious. They seemed to follow us around, always peeking around corners and sneaking in behind us. They never asked for money, but I guess it is easy to confuse curiosity with begging if you don’t keep an open mind. Some of them especially liked one woman in our group, Lise, who seems to have perfected communication with kids in her career as a teacher. I offered to take a photo of them and it was so nice to see all of them enjoy the pic and get quite excited!

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Fish River Canyon

We had to leave Ausenkehr way too quickly and it was sad to not see a fully packed place, but there was way more to come and we were headed to Fish River Canyon next.

Lucky enough, the second most visited attraction in Namibia was not busy that day. We were able to get really close to the edges and enjoy the160 km long, up to 27 km wide and 550 meter deep canyon in it’s full beauty. The bush you see in the picture is poisonous though, so don’t touch it (not even your monitor now!) and be careful if you go there.

At the right time of the year, you can walk down and hike the canyon, but it wasn’t the right season for it.

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While the view from the main view point offers the best camera angle, I thought that the panorama from the side gave me a better perspective. It made me move the Grand Canyon higher up on my ‘To Do’ list again!

Not far from the canyon is the Canon Roadhouse, where you can eat, sleep and spend hours on the quite huge number of old cars and other funky things displayed in and around the restaurant. We just stayed for lunch, but beside eating a quite nice sweet chili chicken wrap, I was able to take a few nice pics with me.

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Seeheim Hotel

After driving a few more hours on bumpy roads, we arrived to Seeheim hotel, 45km west of Keetmanshoop. It looks a bit like a haunted house and maybe is, but has quite some history. Build in 1896 to house German forces in Namibia, it was turned into a hotel 30 years later and has been hosting travelers ever since. There isn’t much to do there, but you can still take a stroll around the railways and find all kinds of weird things. It is in the wild though, as the decomposing zebra body was telling us, but the wildest thing we saw was one of the cows feeling quite hot and drinking water out of the pool, while people were swimming in it. I was a bit jealous of the cow at night, as AC was not available and we had to live through a very hot and sweaty night. I missed taking a good picture of the house though. In retrospect, I should have done that of course, but go and take a look at their website!

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Sossusvlei

The tour was early nights and very early mornings almost every day. Leaving Seeheim Hotel at 7 a.m. was the start of another long driving day. You will have several stops on the way, but don’t really count on having a bathroom available everywhere in the middle of nowhere. The drive to Sossusvlei was about 6 hours and after picking up a trailer with equipment, we spent our first two nights in a tent. I wasn’t really afraid of the scorpions, but they seem to make a lot of people very nervous!

The sky that night was maybe the best we had all trip long. I was waiting for that, as I planned on shooting pics of the Milky Way, but that really didn’t work out. Being only equipped with my light travel tripod, I had no chance fighting the winds that night. I took a couple of long exposures, but they only looked decent on the display of the camera, not really in a bigger size. Too bad really, as it was cloudy the day after and later on in the national parks, we never had a clear sky like that again.

Another early morning brought us into the Sossusvlei area, as we camped outside and waited at sunrise for the Sesriem gate to open. You and everybody else will then drive into the park and mostly everybody will stop after 45 kilometers in to see and climb up a big dune, which they called Dune 45. You can make the connection why it is called that I bet…The sand is actually around 5 million years old and comes from the Kalahari desert, which gives the dunes its unusual red color. Walking up that thing was not really my thing and I gave up 2/3rds of the way up, but at least I got a cool shot out of it!

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After collecting everybody, we went further on to the Sossusvlei Pan and Deadvlei, which is famous for its dead trees. There you can find the highest dunes in the world, some reaching almost 400m. They gave them funny names, like Big Daddy, big Mama or just Crazy Dune. A lot of people actually climbed up Big Daddy and I was quite happy that this was not on our agenda.

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Deadvlei is famous for its dead camel thorn trees, which died 600-700 years ago, when the dunes cut off the river supplying them with water. Every serious (and not so serious) photographer will come back with a few nice pics after a visit. You almost can’t do anything wrong there, as the combination of the salt pan ground, the dead trees and the high red dunes are a certain winner. The next picture is actually printed and featured on my wall already.

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The tree was separated from the pan where everybody ran right away, so I called it “my tree” and ran off like so often, just to get a different view and shot to what everybody else is doing. Jaco, our guide found another one that I really liked, also a bit away from the others. You can actually see “my tree” just behind it as well.

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As it happens quite often when traveling in a group, time for these things is limited. I had to rush, but believe I still got a few good memories and photos out of it. The sun was brutal and I’d really like to get back there again, maybe very early after sunrise or just before sunset. The shadows of the trees must be amazing then.

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Solitaire

Dried out and probably burned from a few days in the desert, we left the next morning and made our way to Swakopmund. The drive there was an exciting one for photographers, as we first stopped in a town called Solitaire, a little settlement founded in 1848 and nowadays around 90 people call it their home. There’s a few things you can find there, which you might not expect. Gas for your car, cold drinks, a bakery with great coffee and one of the best apple strudels I’ve ever had, but also a junkyard full of old American cars. I have no idea how they got there, but they really take you on a time travel and you think you’ve just landed in 1950’s Texas.

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Swakopmund

We continued on and stopped again 30 km east of Swakopmund. The area there is called the Moon Landscape and looking at the picture, you might be able to find out why. We stopped at one spot, but I believe this is also an area where you can stop many times and take quite a few nice landscape shots.

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When you drive through Swakopmund as a German, you don’t know what to think. You see German names and signs everywhere, while the town looks a bit like an American beach town in Florida. You will find the odd German architecture though, as our Hotel Europa Hof was a timber frame building, that you could find at every corner in a small Bavarian or Black Forest village. I took a picture of another very interesting building just around the corner the next evening, when I bypassed it on the way to the beach.

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Hotel Princess Rupprecht was built in 1902 by the German army and served as a military hospital. The house was plundered during World War I but became a home and facility for healing and to help different groups of people in need ever since. Nowadays half of it is a hotel and the other half a retirement home. I found the building very interesting when walking by and I like the old Volkswagen Golf Model 1 in front of it as well!

Swakopmund has a nice oceanfront area, including a jetty (pier) that is well worth photographing. I first went down to the beach and was at water level to take long exposures, but that got dicey really fast, as the high tide was coming in and the waves got quite close to my tripod. I ended up a level higher on the path along the beach, but was able to get a few nice shots in. The photo you see here is actually three long exposures in one, as I first worked on the single shots and they just didn’t look cool enough, so I tried to create an HDR and that did the trick!

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Make sure to clean your lens and ND filter before you do these though, as I had to delete a high number of black dots out of the merged image! Thank you Photoshop!

I’m going in wrong order here, as some of us went on a tour through the desert in the morning. The tour was named ‘Living Desert’ and went after little animals in the desert, which were nicknamed the ‘small five’. It took a bit of searching by the guides, but in the end we found them all. A gecko, a trapdoor spider, a shovel head lizard, a little sidewinder snake and a chameleon, that was just climbing a rock and changed it’s color to grey therefore. I really like these five pictures and I’m quite happy that I was able to take them, but if you google ‘gecko’, you’ll see how many people have taken these pics and why they are probably not so special after all!

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The fun part actually came at the end, when the guides got some worms out of a can and started feeding the chameleon with it. I tried a few times to get the fully extended tongue snapping the worm out of the guides hand, but either my camera wasn’t fast enough on continues shooting mode, or I just started in the wrong millisecond! Still a great picture though!

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Etosha National Park

Another long day in the bus brought us to the outskirts of Etosha National Park. The tension got a lot higher, as everybody was scanning the area for animals. This might be one of the reasons why this trip in general was so special and I can’t really imagine this being different the next 15 times I’ll travel to Africa. The special warm feeling you get when spotting a wild animal on the side of the road. It was difficult, as Namibia was so green, that you sometimes thought you’d confuse it with Ireland, so the animals could hide pretty well behind thick trees and bushes, or wouldn’t need to come to dedicated watering holes, as the rain had created them everywhere.

As we were getting close to Etosha, the first animals were spotted by several people on our tour. Springboks and other types of antelopes ate and ran along the road and while most people would use the time in the bus to read, write, listen to music or just sleep, you were now almost able to grab the attention out of the air.

After entering the park through one of the main gates, we started on a game drive. While you’d now picture a jeep with a guide in an olive green or beige uniform, it was done right there in our bus. As weird as this sounds, it wasn’t actually that bad. Well, beside one incident where I spotted a rhino on the right side of the road, but before I could yell it to the front of the bus, we went past and couldn’t return. It was devastating, especially because it remained the only rhino sighting we had all trip long. But there it was, my first animal of the legendary ‘Big Five’.

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The first stop was a watering hole, not too far off the main road. We got to see a family of about 50 springboks and even though we’d see plenty of them on the trip, it was still a bit special.

*NERD TALK ON* (skip this section if you’re not into camera gear and problems of a traveling photographer)

When I started planning the trip, I faced the problem of not having the right lenses or focal lengths for a safari. Fuji offers four choices to solve the problem, the 50-230 f4.5-6.7, the 55-200 f3.5-4.8, the 50-140 f2.8 and the relatively new 100-400 f4.5-5.6. They also offer a 1.4x and a 2x converter, while the 1.4x only works with the 50-140 and the 100-400 as of now. The 50-140 was disqualified early on, as it was too expensive and not really the focal length I’d need. Money wise, I faced the same issue with the 100-400, as it is around 1900 Euros in the store and about 1500 Euros on the used market. Way way above my budget to be honest. So it was between the 50-230 and the 55-200, the latter being the better lens, but also the heavier one. Budget constraints, weight considerations and a test that said they are equal in quality, made me buy a used 50-230, which in full frame, is actually a 75 – 345mm lens. If you think that is enough for a safari, think again. It wasn’t nearly enough focal length. I was lucky that we got close to a few of the animals, but the 230mm focal lengths is a joke in Africa. Quality wise, the lens didn’t keep all the promises, especially if you had to go further than 200mm. So in retrospect, I bought the cheap lens as a compromise, which was a good compromise of budget and weight, but not the best choice I’ve made in acquiring photography gear.

*NERD TALK OFF*

After setting up camp and eating around a little campfire, we were hoping to see a few animals coming to the watering hole next to the camp. Rainy season will do that to you, as none showed up. You still sit there in peace and watch the sun go down though, listening to the sounds of the animals, the bush and wilderness, which is a very special memory in itself.

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Another early morning had us go on a ‘real’ safari through Etosha. The morning tour was quite amazing. Giraffes, lots and lots of antelopes, fascinating birds and their loud and exotic chirps, ostriches running around, but last and certainly not least, a young leopard drinking out of a water puddle right in front of us on the road.

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The leopard didn’t really seem to mind the jeeps parked next to him too much, as he gracefully finished his drink and walked just next to our car back into a little grass field.

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After dropping some poo as his next act, he suddenly stopped, listened and started hunting down some little animal a few steps away. Unfortunately for us, the grass was too high to follow the whole scene, but the hunt seemed to be a success and he was having a late breakfast not too far from us.

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The rest of the morning tour was boring after the leopard experience, but you still get to see quite a few other animals and need to appreciate it. Now, a couple of months back, I’d pay money to see a wild springbok or giraffe at the side of the road.

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One thing I didn’t know about the national park before, was the existence of the Etosha Pan. At 130 km long and up to 50 km wide in places, it is comfortably the largest salt pan in Africa and is the park’s most distinctive and dramatic feature, visible even from space. In the language of the Ovambo tribe, Etosha means ‘great white place’. (Source)

There’s not much to see, but maybe that is the beauty of it. We stopped to take a picture of some ostriches, but when I saw the lonely tree, I suddenly turned from animal to landscape photographer again in a heartbeat. Still, the dancing ostriches is also a favorite.

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Our guide was a bit confused when he turned around and saw that all of his passengers suddenly turned to the tree and took photos of it. Probably not to be expected on a safari!

The afternoon was hot and lonely when it came to animals. Most where hiding in the shade and we were driving around for a few hours, without really seeing much but birds.  A highlight was definitely a baby giraffe, but I don’t really have a photo to show, as it was too far for my lens.

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On the next day, we continued our way to Windhoek, which was the last stop in Namibia. I can’t show you any photos of the place though, as we arrived in the afternoon, chilled in the room, said good bye to a few fellow travelers and continued our tour to Botswana with some new people on board. But that is another story for another day.

Africa – A first journey into a beautiful continent. Part 1: Cape Town and Lamberts Bay

Some would call me strange, as many of my fellow travelers and friends like to travel alone, stay at a hostel, meet a lot of new people and be happy. I work in a different way, as I can do 3-5 days on my own, don’t necessarily meet a lot of fresh faces, but usually take home better photographs of the place and vibe, compared to traveling with friends. If I stay longer, or want to travel around the country, I mostly rely on group travel. Most of my friends just don’t go to these places and at the times I like to leave the country.

Group travel sounds horrible at first. You picture the big bus, 50 (mostly elderly) people getting out, shooting on their phones, tablets and compact cameras, just to turn around and drive off. It can be like that, if you don’t know what you’re booking, but since I found G-Adventures, Intrepid and others, these scenarios are far from true. You have small groups with usually not more than 15 people, which suits me, my style and usually leave enough place for photography and some alone time.

My now 8th trip with G took me to Africa. A three week trip through parts of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, ending in Victoria Falls Zimbabwe. Each will deserve it’s own little story.

Flying to Cape Town was easy, yet all in all it was a 19 hour journey for me. Tired and a little dehydrated, I arrived at my hotel in Kloof Street, which seemed to be a nice neighborhood with plenty of bars and restaurants. Some people still warned me and said it wasn’t safe. I never felt this way, but I can see why people would.

The first impressions of Cape Town were already great. Beside the nice weather, sun and quite hot temperatures, I got my first glimpse of Table Mountain and the great looking cityscape. I had 3.5 days on my own, before meeting my group and heading onto an 18 day tour north, so I tried to make the best of it by pre – booking a few tours for the first few days.

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After dropping my bags in the room and chilling on the bed for a few minutes, it was already time to pack my camera bag and meet Ryan Torres of Cape Town Photography Tours. Ryan and I talked a bit beforehand and I booked his sunset tour, which would take us to some small beach town, where we’d shoot and have a small dinner, before heading off to watch the sunset and suck in the atmosphere while getting a few good shots. Plans change, especially when the weather is not playing along. It was way too windy, which seems to be normal in Cape Town. They call it the cape doctor, as the wind cleans the air in the area and therefore pollution is mostly not a problem. Ryan was cool about it and suggested a few other things. We agreed on taking two e-bikes out and ride along the other side of the coast, where the wind wouldn’t be as much of an issue. The idea was great, as it first took us through downtown and then over to the V&A waterfront, where we continued to Clifton and Camps Bay. The coastline is beautiful and you have a mix out of great scenery, landscape, street photography opportunities and really a very active bunch of people doing all kind of things down there.

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After grabbing a bite to eat and resting my dehydrated body, we rode the bikes up to the base of Lions Head, one of the well known mountains surrounding Cape Town. We had a beautiful view over Camps Bay and the setting sun, which really kick started my “holiday feeling” and made me smile for the rest of the night. Ryan is really a very pleasant guy to hang out with. We didn’t nerd it out on photography and he had to deal with my dehydration cramps along the way, but he did a good job and I’m happy to have met him.

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On my second day, I met Greg Hillyard of another Cape Town Photography Tours who took me around the wine lands. Greg’s a great guy and when I contacted him about the itinerary, I mentioned me liking beer better than wine. He changed the program quite a bit for me and we went by four different craft beer breweries instead of the three usual wine tastings. Yeah, you don’t need to understand that part! It was more of a philosophical day about photography and life in general, than shooting a great series of awesome pictures, but the area was really nice and  I sucked a lot of memories into my brain. The vineyards are beautiful and a visit is almost a must when you’re down there! Part of the reason that I didn’t come back with a lot of keepers from that day was certainly my off day in creativity. If you are a photographer, you most likely know what I’m talking about. On some days you just don’t seem to have it in you.

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Day 3 was planned way ahead. I definitely wanted to go to the Cape of Good Hope and see the landscape there. After two photography based tours, I chose the no. 1 rated tour in Cape Town, which was Robs Cape Convoy day tour to the Cape Point national park. Another early morning start, but it was so worth it. On the way to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope sign, we stopped at Scarborough Beach. I could have stayed there for hours. The pictures will tell you a bit of the story, but beautiful looking water and a great view on the coast and the waves rolling in. The kite surfers also had their fun and I’m a big fan of the salty smell you get near an ocean. Nothing better.

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Cape Point itself is a viewpoint, where you can hike up a hill to the lighthouse and see the Cape of Good Hope from above. It’s a great spot for panoramas and you have a great view of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean fighting each other. Don’t forget your sunscreen though, I got burned a bit because I didn’t really think about it!

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The second picture was taken just next to the sign at the Cape of Good Hope. I thought the lines of the different colored stones make it quite a special contrast, framed by a great sky and the waves.

Robs tour continued with more highlights. For lunch we stopped in Simonstown, a nice little beach town at the Cape peninsula, famous for good seafood and a nice harbor, as well as cool old buildings. Next door you find Boulders Beach, home of the Cape penguins. Beautiful little creatures, which you can watch for quite a while without getting bored. Robs tip was fantastic, turn right after the entrance for the lesser frequented walkway. We watched the tourists fight for spots on the other side, while having a bunch of penguins to ourselves!

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I’ve met two American girls on my tour and I liked them quite a bit. Funny, entertaining and really nice to hang out with. Both had some cool jewelry on them, which was great to feature in two photos.

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The second picture was taken at the end of our tour, at Chapmans Peak Drive. Beautiful place and what a view. We didn’t have the time to wait of course, but this must be one of the coolest sunset spots around. I’m almost sorry if it sounds like I’m using too many exaggerations, but all of this left quite an impression on me, something I haven’t had on a lot of trips lately. DSCF1130-Pano-Bearbeitet

Rob dropped us off at the V&A waterfront, which is a great place to spend quite some time in the later afternoon. Great food and bars, a nice shopping mall, music performances and the always present view on Table Mountain make it special. I was tempted to get on the Ferris wheel. Really tempted, but a beer and some food seemed to be the better alternative!

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The last day in Cape Town was also the first opportunity to go up Table Mountain. The mountain is often covered in clouds, as you probably have seen on the pics, so visibility isn’t great or there at all. You need to go if the big cloud is gone! It took a while, as EVERYBODY had the same idea, but after over an hour of waiting in a line, I was rewarded with spectacular panoramic view over the city. I can only imagine how many good pictures you can actually take from up there or from the surrounding mountains (Signal Hill, Devils Peak and Lions Head), if you have time and weather is on your side. I should definitely go back and spend a week, hiking or biking up to these places and enjoy every sunrise and sunset. DSCF1258-Pano

3.5 days in Cape Town just don’t seem to be enough. I need to plan better next time, but I guess if you’re reading this, you would rather agree or be prepared for your own trip.

My group and I left the next morning to travel north. After several stops on the way, we reached Lamberts Bay in the evening. The town doesn’t have much to offer, beside Bird Island, which is filled with thousands of birds, and a nice little restaurant at the beach called Muisbosskerm. The birds are amazing. And loud. Another place where you can just sit and watch and shoot photos for hours. DSCF1307

For Muisbosskerm, which means mouse trap (I was told), you shouldn’t miss the place. They provide an all you can eat fresh grilled fish buffet and just keep food coming all night. I spare you the food pics, you can go on Facebook and see enough of them, but in addition to seafood en masse, you get to see a beautiful sunset. DSCF1401

My time in South Africa was too short and I only got to see a few places, of what is a very nice, friendly and beautiful country. It might not be the safest place on earth, but if you’re not careless and follow the advice of locals, blogs on the web and use common sense, you’re not really in danger. I’ll most definitely go back at some point and drive down the garden route, take a look at the other cities and visit Kruger National Park. But for now, the little taste has to be enough. It was a delicacy and as you tend to do with sweet and delicious things, you come back for more.

This was part one of a blog series about Africa. Part two will feature my first impressions of Namibia. If you want to take a sneak peak of the photos for the next blog entries, go to my website and check out the galleries. You’re welcome to contact me about any picture you see here or on www.gesele.com.

 

The best photos of 2016?

New years eve, Germany. I’ve taken the time today to assemble a gallery of 50+ pics from 2016. I’ve been traveling quite a lot and also had a lot of inspiration back home, so it wasn’t an easy choice.

I’ve already heard that the selection was somewhat odd, which I don’t necessarily would agree to, but I accept people’s opinions of course.

Have a look at the pics and let me know what you think? You can comment this blog entry or if you like and what I’d prefer, directly in the Facebook gallery.

You can of course also copy & paste this link: https://goo.gl/AqOfY9

See you all in 2017, happy new year everybody!

Stefan

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A short trip to Lisbon

As the year 2016 is coming to an end, I took the opportunity and went on another trip. After already visiting Lithuania, Portugal (Porto), Latvia, Ireland, Romania, Finland, Cuba and the US this year, I can look back and say that I feel quite blessed. I have a good job, which allows me to travel within and outside of business almost as much as I can afford to, as well as certainly providing enough funds to do so. Don’t expect me to invite you into my newly built house though, it might be a few more decades of no travel before I could afford that.

Lisbon almost seemed like a logical choice. I’ve had the city on my list for quite a while now and also went to Porto this year, so I was actually eager to get it checked off. My friend Ian (follow him at ichongtm) was on a what seemed to be never ending trip through Europe and I thought tagging along would be quite nice. Ian is also quite the photographer and his daily tease from all of his trips is mostly something really interesting. I tried to stay away from planning the 2.5 days in Lisbon too much therefore and let Ian do most of the groundwork, so just followed along and tried to concentrate on what appeared in front of my camera.

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Alfama

We met on a nice and sunny day at the big square of the Arco de Rua Augusta, which is probably a good place to start. It’s inside of Alfama, the oldest and really nice part of town, where you can do most of what Lisbon is famous for. Eat a tart, have an espresso at a corner, climb the hills through tiny little streets and architecture of the past, or just follow the famous number 28 and 12 trams throughout the quarter. I personally liked the trams better from the outside, so I could take my photos, but if I’ve taken one thing back home with me after walking 55000 steps in 2.5 days, it is using public transportation and saving your legs whenever you can.

One thing I’ve learned about Alfama during the late afternoon, the light is beautiful then. We were desperately looking for a good place to watch the sunset and of course didn’t want to pay 12 Euros to enter the Castelo de S. Jorge for it, but while walking around you can get great reflections of the cobblestone streets and buildings.

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Alfama is actually full of wonderful things. While Portugal is full of great architecture, featuring beautiful tiles on the outside of the buildings, you can always find very special versions of it. Just look at the cover photo of this blog post.

While I’m always hunting for little details, you can’t forget the people. Sucking in the last days of sunshine, a lot of people seemed to hang out in little squares, having a beer or coffee and just chatting about the daily chores.

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I was really tempted to get onto one of the Vespa cars. While most of them seem to be in really bad shape over here in Germany (if you see them at all anymore), Lisbon seems to be a dreamland of finding one great looking model after another. Somebody might tell me now that they are all new or not really original, but who cares. It adds a lot of flair to the city and gives you a real Mediterranean feeling when walking around.

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The Metro

While the Lisbon Metro is certainly not competing against the nicer stations and platforms of Moscow, Stockholm or even London, it certainly deserves it’s place in this story. You can find a few gems here and there to photograph, but mainly it should be used wherever and whenever you can! A full day pass is only 6 Euros and you can quickly get from here to there without much effort. You’ll certainly need it after a few days, as walking will get tougher.

Belém

Belém is a bit outside of the city center and you’ll need to take the tram or a taxi there. It will count as tourist heaven, with the famous tower Torre de Belém, the national archeological museum and the even more famous monastery Mosteiro dos Jerónimos being located there. We couldn’t visit the Padrão dos Descobrimentos this time, as it was closed for renovation, but went to the modern art museum Museo Berardo instead.

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The Torre is a typical old defense tower, which was used to defend the city from incoming ships. It’s a nice place, but the view from it is a bit overrated. I managed to get a decent shot of it from the distance I believe and if you’re there, walk up, it’s not that high. You might be able to get a good look at the Ponte 25 de Abril, the Golden Gate styled bridge across the Rio Tajo, with the statue of Christ the King behind it. I usually don’t carry a long enough lens to get closer (to Christ) though and 135mm (or 200 equivalent) only leave you with a panorama shot.

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The monastery is probably the highlight of the tour to Belém and you will definitely need to visit when in Lisbon. Opened in 1601, it was built in the late Gothic Manueline style and offers so many details, ornaments, gargoyles and photo opportunities, that you can spend hours walking around, even though you’ll have to fight the other tourists. For me as a photographer, it was a big challenge to wait and get the shot without anybody in sight. Try that, it will drive you crazy, but you’ll get rewarded afterwards!

One thing seems to be my new thing after already finding the lonely woman in Cuba. The monastery offered another chance of it and if I can, I might get a series about it over the next few months or years.

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Sintra

Day 3 took us away from Lisbon and into castle wonderland Sintra. It’s an easy 45 minute train ride there, but make sure you’re there in time to get tickets from the machines. We didn’t expect the long line and therefore missed our first train. If you’re from Europe and you know castles, it’s probably not that special to you, but for everybody else it is also a must see. And in case you like castles, old mansions and houses, as well as a nice little city at the bottom of a few mountains full of these things, stay over night and do a two day tour around. We managed to see three of them (thanks to Ian who dragged my lazy butt to a third one) and it was actually nicer than expected.

Personally, I enjoyed the Quinta da Regaleira the most, followed by the Pálacio de Monserrate and Palácio da Pena. I can’t speak about the others, but those were manageable in not a full day there.

You might notice that I haven’t uploaded full castle pics to the blog or even the gallery. The weather turned out to be a sad and grey day, some raindrops a completely covered sky just didn’t offer much in terms of landscapes. Maybe a reason to come back?

Summary of the trip

While I think I’ve managed to shoot a few nice pics in Lisbon, I’m definitely not done with the city. I didn’t really have time to go to all parts, be in places several times to maybe have some better light at a different time or even sunrise or sunset atmosphere. Traveling there in early November might also not be the best time of the year in general as you will get the grey and boring sky quite a lot. So hit me up if you want to spend a weekend there and I might join you!

If you’re interested in more pics, check out my Lisbon gallery on my website.