Sahara

All scarved up, we went out to meet the camels. Six camels knelt in the sand near our Auberge. They were restless and our guide, Abdul, explained that they would all be male. Then he offered an explanation for why they might be restless. ‘It’s the mating season,’ he said with a grin. We were warned not to approach too closely until the camel driver called us over. The lead camel was already working up a great gob of spit which was leaking from its mouth. ‘If they don’t like you or your camera,’ said Abdul, ‘they’ll spit at you or it’. I used the telephoto end of my lens to snap the camels.

The driver chose which camels we would ride based on size. I was second from last on the second smallest camel, which I promptly named Herbie for no reason other than I couldn’t think of anything else to call him. I just about managed to get my leg high enough to clear Herbie’s back and managed to shuffle awkwardly on top. To Herbie’s credit, he let me shuffle and didn’t try to get up. I had been warned by friends that when they get up, there is a rapid and potentially disastrous movement up and forward, which if you are not ready for it will tip you over the camel’s head. Abdul said hang on, and the driver let go of Herbie, who promptly got up back end first and tried to throw me over his head. But I was leaning back and gripping the T bar attached to the saddle in front of me tightly and after an equally violent backward motion as Herbie rose up fully, I was 6 feet off the ground and could relax a little.

They guy in front was next and he struggled to get on to the camel having shorter legs than mine. His camel didn’t know what was going on and became nervous. This, in turn, made Herbie and the last camel in line nervous and they both paced back and forth as much as the rope tether would let them. I continued to grip the T bar just in case.

Eventually, we were all mounted and ready to go. The camel driver led us off at a slow pace away from the Auberge. It was much cooler than I was expecting now as the sun was on its way down again. Once I’d got the hang of the motion of the camel, a gentle swaying forward and back, I started to enjoy the experience and a few minutes later, I felt confident enough to let go of the T bar with one hand and take some photos. Abdul was walking along side us and every now and then he’d take a snap shot with his phone. The gentle motion of the camel was soothing and all the nerves I’d had before starting off were soon gone. And then we started to go down a gently sloping dune! Ciaran’s camel (the one behind me) wanted to go faster than my camel, which meant it started to overtake me. Herbie was having none of it and it felt as if he was digging his hooves into the sand to hold the other camel back. This meant I was being jerked forward with every step. Both hands gripped the T bar again and I lent back, just in case. And then I felt a gentle caress on my left leg and looked down to find Ciaran’s camel nudging it with its lips. A brief recall of Abdul’s ‘it’s the mating season’ flashed through my head.

We ambled on with the occasional love tap on my leg to assure me that Ciaran’s camel was keeping up. Every time we went down a slope I’d be jerked forward and my new friend would appear alongside me. I wanted to tickle it behind the ears but given the season, I thought that might end badly for all concerned.

Then I started noticing that I was slipping off ever so slightly to the right, so I shuffled back towards the left. I had to do this a couple of times but Herbie didn’t seem to mind. I was concentrating on this and so didn’t notice Abdul slipping away to the top of a nearby dune. The first I knew was the sound of some traditional Arabic music playing in the distance. I looked up to see Abdul filming us as we walked along in line. He later sent me the video, and the music has come out on the sound track. I look ungainly and Ciaran’s camel is clearly interested in my left leg.

When the music stopped I noticed the sound Herbie was making as he plodded along. It was a gentle swishing noise and when I looked, all the camels were lightly dragging their feet through the sand rather than picking their feet up with each step. Every now and again, a camel would utter a deep, rumbling sound as if their bellies were full of wind. And then there’d be a loud, extended farting as the wind escaped. They also made very high pitched, bird-like noises, which was completely unexpected. And they spluttered a bit, which I was expecting. There was no spitting though so I guess they must have been content,

After just under an hour, we reached our camp for the night. It was hidden in the lee of a large dune and we stopped about 30 yards from it on a flat stretch of sand. Now came the adventure of getting off. I waited for the driver, who took my bag, and I somehow managed to half climb, half stagger off Herbie without kicking him or the camel behind us. There was some spluttering and rumbling but no farting or spitting, so I guess it was okay. I half expected my legs to collapse as they’d been aching a bit as we went, but all was fine. Everyone got off without incident and as the camels were led away, we were shown around the camp site.

The night at the camp was memorable mainly because of the absolutely stunning night sky. From horizon to horizon were the brightest stars I had ever seen. And I’ve been to dark sky sites in Britain. There was no comparison, with no stray light, cloud or pollution to dim the brightness or to interfere with the delicate colours of the Milky Way. I spent a lot of time just looking at the sky; I had expected it to be spectacular and it far exceeded those expectations.

At 7.20 the following morning we all gathered in the pre-dawn light to make our way to where the camels would be waiting. Although the sun was still half an hour below the horizon, it was light enough to see the way clearly. High above us a crescent moon shone down. The sand was a dull pink colour as we left the camp and climbed up to the flat area of sand where our camels knelt in anticipation of the antics to come.

Ciaran and I managed to mount our camels – the same ones as yesterday – and I survived Herbie’s attempts to hurl me off over his head again as he got up. But the guy in front was having difficulty getting on and after the first attempt, his camel thought it was okay to get up. When the driver pushed it back down again, Herbie decided to kneel too and I was thrown violently forward once more. Fortunately, I’d managed to anticipate the move a split second before it happened and I hung on. There followed five minutes of skittish behaviour from Herbie and Ciaran’s camel, while the chap ahead struggled to get on. In the end the driver pushed him on and shortly afterwards, we were all loaded and ready to set off.

By now the sand was turning a deeper pink colour as the dawn approached. The plan was to walk for about 15 minutes and then dismount, climb a nearby dune and watch the sunrise. With all the games that had just taken place, part of me thought it would be nice to watch the sunrise from Herbie’s back. We set off at a faster pace that the journey out yesterday but the camels were up to it and so were we.

With the sand and sky brightening every minute, we stopped at the dune and the camels behaved well enough to allow us to dismount and make the short climb. With the dunes glowing a deep reddish pink, the sun appeared over the dunes in the distance and we all watched in silence as it rose until the whole disc was visible. It was immediately noticeably warmer and for a few minutes we enjoyed the spectacle, watching the sand fade from a deep red to brown before we headed back down to the camels, waiting patiently at the bottom of the dune. Remounting was a little easier and we were soon on our way again, keeping the pace up.

Around the next dune I spotted two camels on their own and as I watched, I noticed one move awkwardly forward. They had both been hobbled by tying the left leg up with a piece of rope. It didn’t seem to bother them as they stood but it prevented them from moving any distance. I later found out that they belonged to our camel driver and as they weren’t needed for our group, they had been left there.

Unfortunately, they spotted their fellow camels and decided they wanted to join in. As they began to slowly lollop over Herbie and the camel behind us became quite agitated and without warning decided to run away. As they were tied to the rest of the camels in our train, they didn’t get far but instead at the end of the rope, they did a kind of tail skid, twisting around to the left and doing their best to throw us in the process. Anticipating a forward throw, I wasn’t prepared for the sideways motion and quick reflexes were the only thing that saved me from flying off to the left. Ciaran also managed to stay on as both camels tried to get away from the two individuals, who by this time had given up trying to get to us. The camel driver was quickly alongside us and calmed Herbie and his mate down enough so that he could go and see to the two hobbled camels. Abdul led us away and the camel driver made sure his two individuals stayed where they were.

Our driver finally met up with us just before we got to the Auberge and we dismounted with no trouble. There was a lot of huffing and spluttering and that high pitched whining from the camels, which I took to mean that they were happy we weren’t on their backs anymore, but no spitting, so we hadn’t been awful. With a couple of group photos taken, we said goodbye to the camel driver and I waved to Herbie, who was eyeing up the greenery near the oasis.

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Catching the Sunrise

Yesterday, I decided that I’d climb Pen y Fan to take some photos as the sun was rising, The weather forecast was good, I was in the right mood.

The Plan:

Get up at 5am, make a snack breakfast, walk Rufus (as he would be house sitting), set off at around 5.45 top get to the car park for 6.45. This would give me a good hour to get to the ridge where I would be able to set up and wait for the first golden rays of sunlight to hit the southern faces of Pen y Fan and Corn Du. Then, a quick stroll to the summit of Pen y Fan itself before heading back to the car and the journey home. I expected to be back starting 2nd breakfast by 10.30am.

The Reality:

I woke up at 4am and dozed fitfully until 4.45 when I finally gave up and got up. There was much huffing and puffing from Rufus, who had clearly found the most comfortable, warm and cosy spot ever just before I disturbed him. Breakfast was thrown together (scones, of course) and Rufus had some gourmet concoction which included chicken. Then we went out for a short walk around the block, sharing the pavement with two foxes who didn’t seem too worried by our presence. I often take Rufus out before work and I love the bits of our walk where there are no streetlights, as the stars seem to shine much more brightly. Orion was just sinking in the west as we walked. Rufus decided to check every blade of grass for evidence of other dogs so by the time we got back to the house, it was 5.50am. I could already see the plan starting to go wrong.

I managed to set of just after 6am and the streets were clear of traffic as I drove through Swansea and off to the north. Of course, once I left the dual carriageway I hit traffic in the form of a slow lorry. The temperature was below freezing and the road narrow so I couldn’t overtake. I managed to get to the car park at about 7am.

It wasn’t quite dark, so I didn’t need a torch. I set off up the path and with my goal of beating the sunrise, I set a good pace for the first 10 minutes. I hadn’t done any preparation for this walk and the last time I climbed Pen y Fan was in August and I quickly realised the pace I set wasn’t the right pace. A short stop, a rethink and a couple of photos later, I was on my way at a much more realistic speed. As the light levels increased, the view to Fan Fawr and the west was beautiful, with a gorgeous pre-dawn light bathing the hills. But ahead, I could just make out mist covering Corn Du. As I got further up the hill, the mist came further down to meet me. With 10 minutes to go before the sunrise, I entered the clouds. By the time I got the the ridge where I had planned to see the first golden rays of sunlight, all I could see was 10m of the path either side of me. But I had made it there with 5 minutes to spare.

I decided that to have any chance of seeing any golden rays, I’d need to be on Pen y Fan itself so without waiting, I set off. As I walked along the side of Corn Du I noticed the path ahead of me light up as if someone had switched on a street light. The ground here is red sandstone so even though I couldn’t see the actual sunrise, the red dawn light was making the path shine. I looked over to my right and there was a large patch of orange red mist. No sun, though.

On Pen y Fan, I had the summit to myself. There was a thick white frost on everything, making the stone path very slippery. After a couple of  photos, I went to take a drink. As I took my back pack off, the wind picked up until within a minute it was blowing hard enough that I had to brace myself to stop being blown over. The wind was sharp and icy and I decided not to hang around on the top of the clouds to clear. I caught a glimpse of blue sky as the clouds sped over  the summit but I was already heading back down again.

I quickly dropped down below the clouds and the wind dropped again so that it became pleasant walking. By now, the light on the hills opposite was exactly as I’d hoped I would see on the summit and I stopped frequently to take photos. I stopped to chat with a guy climbing up to work on the paths and he asked me about the conditions on the summit. He said he wasn’t going there himself but he wanted to advise people who were going up as more often than not they were unprepared for the reality of a mountain in winter. I chatted to another guy who was planning on picking up rubbish on the way down. Then I reached the relative warmth car park and a few minutes later, I was heading home.

I managed to get the cooked breakfast going by 10.15 and I was sat down eating it by 10.45.

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A great day

I just popped out on the off chance I might be able to spot Comet Panstarrs tonight. I had a clear sky, a rough idea of where to look and my binoculars. And there it was. Just peeping above the hedge to the north west.

I grabbed the camera and took a few hasty shots before it dipped below the trees and shrubs. In some of the photos, you can see the Andromeda galaxy, too.

I’ve had a lovely birthday today and this just ends it on the right note.

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How to find a comet

Comet Panstarrs is visible low in the north western sky just after sunset. You’ll need a pair of binoculars at the moment as the comet is barely brighter than the sky that surrounds it. Later in the month it will be visible later in the evening but it’s getting dimmer as it heads away from us. Find where the sun set and look to the right.

Yesterday, with a clear western sky promised, I drove down to Broadpool in Gower to try and get some photos of the comet. Alas, I was beaten by the cloud, which formed a dark band just where Panstarrs was due to be. Even the sunset wasn’t spectacular. I drove home disappointed.

This evening, I went back a bit earlier but the same cloud band seemed to be there again. At least the sunset was better and I got a few photos I was pleased with. Imagine my horror, then, to see dark horizontal smudges on all the photos! I’d cleaned the sensor before leaving and the wipe had left smudges. Panic! I’ve just spent half an hour cleaning, checking, re-cleaning and rechecking. At least they weren’t scratches!

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Painting with light

The translation of photography is ‘painting with light’. It’s also a technique of iluminating an object at night with a torch, or using a light source to draw patterns and shapes in the dark and photographing them. I’d ben readng up on the former and had been planning to try it out at Arthurs Stone, on Cefn Bryn one clear night. I wanted to get a starry sky in shot too.

There was a cloudless sky as I drove home and I decided that the combination of sky and snow would make a good photo opportunity. So after a snack I packed the camera bag, donned three fleeces and an insulated jacket and set off for Cefn Bryn. I enjoy driving at night and once I was away from the traffic it was fun. Fairwood Common was white with snow that hadn’t melted. I had to stop to avoid two small ponies wandering along in the middle of the road.

Heading up to Cefn Bryn, the road was icy and I could feel the car sliding now and again. I took it easy, avoided a big icy puddle and pulled off the road on the top of the hill. Walking across the deep snow in bright moonlight felt eerie. It was quiet and there were none of the familiar landmarks. Several times, my boots sank into semi frozen mud and although I had a head torch, it was hard to tell if I was heading in the right direction.

Eventually I saw the bulk of Arthur’s Stone silhouetted against the lights of Llanelli across the Loughor estuary. I set up the tripod and started taking photos. I was using a long exposure of between 20 and 30 seconds and during that time, I was shining a torch on and around the stone. The results weren’t quite what I was after; the technique needs some practice. I switched to normal long exposure shots and thanks to the moon and snow, I got some pleasing results. (Have a look here for a photo of me taking a photo).

The journey home  was even more exciting than the one out, as the temperature had dropped and more ice had formed on the roads.

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Lads Weekend

Friday night, pouring with rain. That’s okay, because we were having a lads night in. Me and Rufus!

Neither of us drink and we’re both single, so the reality of our lads night in was really quite boring. In fact, after food and some TV channel hopping, we were both asleep around 10.30 because the following morning we were due to be out early for a stroll around Fairwood Common.

Fairwood Common was soaking wet, as you would expect after the rain we’ve had over the last few weeks. When they built the airfield during World War 2, thousands of tons of slag from the local steelworks, and other hardcore was dumped in the marsh to stabilise the ground. It meant that there were limits to the size of aircraft that could land there. But it was successful. You can get an excellent idea of what the ground was like before the hardcore was dumped by walking the perimeter of the airport, which is what Rufus and I did. I was interested in the tree trunks and took some photos for processing into black and white. Rufus was interested in getting wet, which he did with great efficiency.

I was out with friends for the rest of the day but Rufus stayed with me again on Saturday night and we did more lads stuff, like watching Top Gear and fighting. Someone rummaged through my rubbish bin as well, shredding the contents and spreading them out over the floor. But it’s not for me to grass a mate up.

This morning, we were out early for a walk up to Llyn y Fan Fawr. The weather was grim, misty and dark. Not long after we left the car, it began to rain and the showers kept coming all morning. At the lake, the mist was thick enough to hide the mountains and at some points, the opposite bank of the lake. It was dark, too and it felt quite claustrophobic. After some stone throwing at the lake, we decided to go around it’s edge and we headed off into the mist.

The mist rose and fell as we went and a chill wind blew across the water. At the far end, I sat for a while and sheltered behind a large rock and a shower blew in. Rufus wasn’t impressed and made a point of running around and posing of rocks while I cowered behind mine.

Then it was off around the other side of the lake, beneath the towering Fan Brecheiniog. I would have liked to have climbed it today as it’s been a while since we’ve been up there. But the weather wasn’t good and however cold it was at the lake, it would be worse on top. Instead, we meandered around it’s base and across the mud slides and land slides that dropped from its slopes. We were soon back at the starting point and after a snack break, we headed back down to the car.

It rained pretty much all the time we were making our way back and the little streams were turned into fast flowing rivers Lower down, the rivers were torrents and the waterfalls thundered with the amount of water crashing over them. By the time we got to the car we were both dripping wet. And the sun chose that moment to come out. As I stripped off the wet waterproofs, the sun warmed us up and a bright rainbow shone in the north. Typical!

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Road Test

I picked up my new car last night. It was sad to see the Audi go but I’m looking forward to having new adventures in the Freelander.

I only drove it for a short time last night – I picked Rufus up for our lads night in and took him home – 30 minutes at the most. Even a short detour to add some driving minutes wasn’t enough. So this morning, early, we set off for Cefn Bryn and a walk in the pre-dawn gloom. The car was covered in frost, but after two minutes of faffing (trying to set the Bluetooth reciever for the phone) the windscreen was clear and we set off.

It’s great. My 7 year old’s excitement was justified. It handled differently to the Audi – as you might expect, as the Audi was a sport model. But it was firm and positive on the road, not bouncy like a tall vehicle can be. The driving position is nice and high giving a great all round view. Rufus seemed comfy in the back – another important element as he’ll be in it a lot I expect.

On Cefn Bryn, I even took it off road. Well, slightly off road, on to the car park where other people take their normal cars. Still, it was off the road and that qualifies in my mind.

We wandered off towards Penmaen along the ridge, the moon shining brightly and Jupiter and some of the brighter stars shing in the sky. All the while we were watching the sky lighten in the east as the sun neared the horizon. It was cold but not excessively so, and Rufus was happy that there were a lot of new smells to investigate. A lot of sheep and horses were nearby.

By the time we reached the high point, the deep red top edge of the sun had just popped into view and I stopped for a few minutes to watch it climb above the sea. Then it was time to turn around and head back to the car. By now a chill wind had risen blowing out to see and I was heading into it. Over Broadpool, a low ribbon of mist hung, making drivers on the nearby road turn their headlights on.

We drove home through the mist and, taking a short cut through a small village, we hit large patches of ice on the road. It gave me a chance to legitimately change the terrain response control to the slippery conditions settings. I’d like to describe the instant change in handling and grip, but to be honest, I didn’t notice anything. After a small adventure in the petrol station, where I misjudged the size of the car and had to reverse twice to get to the pump (in my defence, it was a very tight turn), we got back safely.

I’m a happy 7 year old!

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Remember, remember…

…when you were a kid and fireworks were the coolest thing ever? Well, in that respect, I never grew up. I love fireworks. I love the smell, the sound and the light. I’m fortunate where I live that I have a grandstand view of most of the organised displays in the area. After festivals, parties in the park and on the 5th of November, I get to see the fireworks in all their glory.

Tonight was no exception. In fact, it was a lovely clear night, with the stars out and good visibility. Our council put on yet another brilliant display that lasted around 30 minutes. I enjoyed every second.

I couldn’t resist taking some photos of Andromeda afterwards.

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Flora’s Barn 1

Travelling on a Saturday is always to be feared, Shoppers, holiday makers, caravans, people who don’t normally drive on motorways. But for some reason, the roads were clear today.

In what seemed like no time (maybe it wasn’t, maybe time travel is possible) we reached the bridge and after that, apart from a few minutes joining the  M5, the roads were relatively clear. Caravans miraculously stayed in the inside lane, as did the lorries. Everyone else seemed sensible. Continuing the tine travel theme, we arrived at Flora’s Barn before we left home. (Paradox – discuss).

Rufus is with us and it his his mission in life to escape from any confines we impose. The garden of the barn was his latest challenge and he rose to the occasion admirably. Despite seeking and finding his escape route, I was unable to block it sufficiently well to prevent him from getting out – the last time by crawling on his belly under a low wooden beam before leaping from the top of a wall to almost bump his chin on landing.

It’s later now and I’ve just finished a pizza. It’s about time to enjoy the scones and cream that our landlord left us. The sky is dark outside, and the milky way is clear to see even with the naked eye. I think some photography is in order later.

The Milky Way

The Milky Way

Cefn Bryn

You’ve encountered Cefn Bryn before in this blog. I used to go up there quite often. It’s the spine of Gower, with views across the peninsula of the northern and southern shores, and the bulky wall of Rhossili Down to the west. It’s the site of a number of Neolithic and later monuments, the most famous being Maen Ceti, or Arthur’s Stone. The story goes that King Arthur, walking in Carmarthenshire (some say Llanelli) on his way to battle, found a stone in his shoe and threw it away. It landed on Gower. The truth is that this is the remains of a Neolithic chambered tomb some 4,500 years old. The great capstone, now split in two, was probably deposited on Cefn Bryn by glacial action as the predominant rock on the ridge is Old Red Sandstone. Beneath the capstone is double chambered tomb.

Just after I started college, some friends and I were making movies during our summer holidays. We used Arthur’s Stone as the location for a sacrifice scene. I don’t know what the visitors must have thought of us there. Since then, archaeologists have uncovered a number of cairns, most of which are probably piles of stone cleared from farmland. But three large cairns have been identified as tombs. These days, there are wild horses all around the area.

I’ve been in that area a few times to take photos of the night skies. The streelight glow from Swansea and Llanelli is still quite strong but directly overhead the light pollutions is minimal. Over the last few years I’ve taken part in the Gower Gallop long distance sponsored walk and the route always passes over Cefn Bryn. The first few times I did the challenge, the summit was a half way check point at which chocolate cake was available. Very welcome!

Rufus likes Cefn Bryn too. There is lots of space for him to run around in, plenty of mud and puddles for the cooling of paws and the odd rabbit for him to play with.

These photo were taken yesterday morning with the Infra Red camera.

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