Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Picture of the Week - The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is one of those amazing places that actually lives up to the hype.  I got the opportunity to visit the Great Wall on the recent trip to China with the FIA GT1 World Championship, travelling 2-hours outside of Beijing to a 20km stretch of restored wall with some of my work colleagues from SRO and several of the GT1 drivers.

The guide on the trip started throwing some amazing statistics into her introduction.  Parts of the wall date back over 2500 years and at one stage was 10000km long (yes ten thousand!), which makes Hadrian's Wall look a bit of a poor relation.  We spent the morning on the Wall in 30 degree heat, with some steep climbs and steps that changed pitch at irregular intervals (this was a defence mechanism to keep attackers who gained a foothold on the wall off guard).  The climbs and heat certainly gave us all a work out which came as part of the entry price. 

An amazing place and very pleased we got to visit.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Ph..Ph..Photograph a Penguin

Penguins - cute, flightless birds that live in the Antarctic, right? 

Well, yes, this is correct on the whole. Most people think they are cute, and penguins are definitely flightless, but not all wild penguins live in the cold Antarctic, there are colonies of penguins that live further north, some in South Africa and South America. One of these is the colony of African Penguins at Boulders Beach near Simons Town on the Cape peninsula in South Africa.

On our recent trip to Cape Town we put it on the agenda to go to the Cape of Good Hope and on the way we decided to visit Boulders Beach.  This turned out to be a great choice as we've never seen wild penguins before.  These are wild penguins but they are used to thousands of visitors that travel to Boulders beach so aren't in the slightest bit bothered by the human presence.  To keep humans and penguins apart there is a series of wooden walkways that have been built above the beach.

You arrive and pay the entry fee to the colony,  at 35 Rand for adults, 10 Rand for children - 80 Rand, or £8, in total for the three of us - it is a bit of a bargain. Once you are in you follow the boardwalk to the beach. We arrived at the end of the breeding season and there were plenty of fledglings in evidence around the reserve.  I'm used to seeing penguins on TV that are swimming in frozen seas or standing on frozen wastes and it was a bit surreal to see them amongst the sand dunes or waddling across the white sandy beach in 22 degree sunshine.

The middle of the beach was a crèche of fledgling penguins, guarded by adults while some of the other adults were off fishing for food in the surf.

African penguins are also known as Jackass Penguins and the reason for this name became clear very early on.  The noise is just like a braying donkey and is very loud.

We stayed for a couple of hours before carrying on toward the Cape.  Our visit was time well spent and gave me another card full of images to sift through.  Would I like to go further south and photograph penguins in the colder parts of the world – possibly.  However the Boulders Beach colony beats taking pictures of penguins at London Zoo every time!



Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Whale Watching in South Africa

Many moons ago back in the late 1980s we bought, (or were given – I can’t remember which) a book detailing the best places around the world to watch whales. Top of the list was a place called Hermanus in South Africa, a place where you could watch whales from the cliffs and we made it our goal to visit Hermanus at some point.  Fast forward to August 2011 and we decided to visit Cape Town for our annual holiday.  August is at the end of the South African winter and while the average temperatures aren’t as bad as cold, rain swept Britain, there was an even better reason to go – it was the start of the whale season at Hermanus, which was just 120km from Cape Town.

Twelve hours in the cheap seats of a South African Airways Airbus was soon forgotten on arrival at our hotel in Cape Town, which was basking in unseasonal 20+ degree sunshine.  Trips were planned for the 9 day stay and top of the agenda was hiring a car so we could get to Hermanus.

Car was duly delivered and off we set on the fast South African roads.  On arrival in Hermanus we parked up and lo and behold we spotted our first whale within 5 minutes of parking up. A Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) mother and calf were swimming just 100 metres from the cliffs, with plenty of people with cameras and binoculars taking in the scene.

Southern Right Whale Mother and Calf in the bay
Hermanus boasts a 'Whale Crier' who announces where the whales can be spotted

After having a picnic on the cliff top and spending the time whale watching we decided to go out on one of the many boats to see if we could get a better look.  The 2-hour trip was scheduled for 2pm at a cost of 1300 Rand (£125) for the three of us and after the usual pep talk by our guide off we set with 20 other whale watchers .

Southern Right Whale breaching
The boat headed across Walker Bay and after 45-minutes we were starting to wonder if we had wasted our money.  However we needn’t have worried because just as the diesel engines slowed a Southern Right breached 200 metres right in front of us, quickly followed by a second and third whale leaping from the water.  Nikon motordrive on 4.5fps and images were duly captured.

The Classic Whale Shot
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better the three whales did the classic tail out of the water pose followed by a sequence of fin slapping.  We had to remind ourselves that these were not performing animals but wild whales but it was as if they heard to boat approaching and went into a routine of breathtaking moves.  It didn’t matter; it was one of those magical moments that you will always remember.  We went whale watching in Quebec in 1993 and there the whales also seemed to know when the boats were around and ‘performed’ accordingly – perhaps it is something whales do naturally?

Three Southern Rights just 20 metres from the boat
The three Southern Rights then cruised around the boat for the next 30-minutes and there was plenty of opportunity to fill two memory cards full of images.  The adult whales were huge and were around 50 feet long.

Close up shot of the classic V blow of a Southern Right
After 60-minutes the skipper headed back to Hermanus and we saw two other whales breaching in the distance as we left.

We decided that our third day with the hire car would be spent back towards Hermanus but this time we headed to the Walker Bay Nature Reserve.  Picnicing on the beach we were given another display of whale acrobatics ending a magical whale watching experience.

Walker Bay Nature Reserve
Having been on whale watching trips in Canada and off the West Coast of Scotland Hermanus is justly deserving of its reputation as the whale watching capital of the world.  My only disappointment was not seeing a Humpback but we were a month too early for that – maybe on the next trip!


Fin slapping on the water

Another shot of the classic V shaped blow of a Southern Right

Sievers Punt - Hermanus


Picture of the Week - Table Mountain and Cape Town

The last two months have seen me visit Belgium, Slovakia, France and two weeks in China with the FIA GT1, GT3 Championships and the Blancpain Endurance Series.  During this time we also managed to grab a 10-day family holiday in Cape Town, South Africa.  What a place!  There is so much to see and do and I will post some of the pictures and stories from our stay in this fantastic country at a later date. 

The picture of the week is a shot taken of Table Mountain and Cape Town from across the bay on Robben Island, the site of the prison that held Nelson Mandela and the other political prisoners from the Apartheid era.