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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Broadpool

Rufus and I head off to Broadpool a lot. It’s within 20 minutes of the house (on a good day with little traffic) and it’s a beautiful environment. Occasionally we have to give it a miss if there are cows around and I tend not to stop there if there are horses or sheep as they can easily be spooked and end up on the road. But more often than not we can spend up to an hour wandering around the lake and over the common. The variety of wildlife there is surprising. Apart from the farm animals, we’ve spotted rabbits, ducks and a solitary lapwing. I try and avoid the pool when the heron is there as she gets a lot of visitors and is very nervous. There are swifts and swallows, tree pipits, long tailed tits and geese. I’ve watched a barn owl hunting at the end of the day and recently a kestrel has watched over us as we walk.

Last Sunday it was a beautiful morning and we were at the lake before 8.30. The sun was warm and golden, the sky cloudless and the water mirror smooth. In the distance, cows called as milking time approached. We set off from the car and I let Rufus wander. We were testing Rufuscam which you can read about in this post, and he got some nice photos. All the wildlife photos here are from that morning.

I was happy witch my photos too and you can see them below. But how things change. At around 4pm, I saw a thin sea mist coming in over Mumbles and I thought it would make a great photograph to catch it in the sunset light over Broadpool. So Rufus and I jumped in the car and off we went. By the time we reached the pool, the visibility was down to yards and there was no sign of the sun. We went for a short walk in the gloom, which sucked all the colour from the landscape. Although the photos I took were in black and white anyway, had I used colour the only difference would have been a slight blue cast.

For most of the walk the road was invisible and only the sound of traffic betrayed it’s presence. In the distance, the cows still called, along with sheep and horses. The familiar became unfamiliar. It’s what I like about Broadpool; there’s always something different.

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Hopalong Hound

At 9 years old, (63 in dog years), the last thing Rufus should be doing is chasing rabbits. Unfortunately, when the rabbit calls, Rufus is honour bound to answer. Thus it was on Betws Mountain last Tuesday night, as we were returning to the car after watching the sun set over the distant Mynydd Preseli. A rabbit popped up out of nowhere, surprising Rufus and I and before I could stop him, he was off chasing it. Rufus kept within a couple of feet of the rabbit until it started turning to throw him off. As I stood trying to call Rufus back, they circled me. At one point the rabbit was heading directly for me and I had an image of Rufus crashing into me and us both going over. But the rabbit swerved again and Rufus followed. This must have gone on for about 30 seconds or more – it felt like minutes. In a straight line, I think Rufus would have caught the rabbit but the turns were too much for him.

Suddenly, I heard him yelping and he pulled up, limping to favour his back right leg. I did a quick check over to see if there was anything obviously wrong. In particular, I was worried about a fracture as I would have to carry him back to the car. But he let me examine his leg and there was no obvious injury. So we slowly made out way back down to the car and judging by the way Rufus was reluctant to leave, pulling on the lead to follow the scent of the long departed rabbit, it wasn’t too bad an injury. I assumed an overnight rest and some TLC would sort it out.

The following morning, he still wasn’t right and I could tell he was in pain as he tried to walk. So a trip to the vet was in order. Rufus struggled down the steps to the car but still wanted to go for a walk along the street. At the vet, he was diagnosed as have torn his cruciate ligament. It’s the bit of us that holds the knee joints together. I had a similar but less serious injury of this ligament which forced me to postpone my Kilimanjaro climb.

Although there was an option to rest it and let it heal naturally, this would take a long time and risk damage to the joint. Rufus is an active dog and keeping him quiet and inactive for the healing time would be difficult. And every time he didn’t rest, it would risk making it worse. So I agreed for him to have an operation on Monday to repair the ligament.

He’s a fit and healthy dog and I’m not too worried about him. I’m more concerned with his ability to let the leg heal. Since he’s been to the vet (and is on pain meds so in no discomfort) he has gone up and down the stairs with little problem, discovering the best way to balance and in the process giving me heart attacks as he wobbles and threatens to take a tumble. He won’t wait for me to go down in front of him. He hops up and down the garden, ensures I know when he’s hungry (which is all the time as I’ve reduced the amount of food he has as he’s not exercising, and I want his weight down so that his one good back leg has an easier time). The one thing I can’t do is take him for a walk, although he dragged me down the steps to the street on Thursday night and we did stroll up and down the pavement for a couple of houses either side of mine.

He follows me out into the garden too. I like to keep an eye on him but he’s getting his confidence back and I don’t really need to be there. This morning, I took some macro photos of the insects on the hedge but Rufus got bored and went back in to rest.

I suspect he will be a difficult patient after the initial post operation period is over. The vet will give me a 6 week recovery programme of exercises for him to do. I haven’t explained this to Rufus yet – I’m waiting for the right moment.

Post script – by Rufus

I could have had the rabbit. Easy. I was toying with it. But Dave yelling at me distracted me. The knee hurts, but hey – wounded in action! When he took me to the vet, they gave me weird drugs and everything went psychedelic for a while. When I came to, I was back home. I love watching Dave’s face when I charge down the stairs. It was hard getting used to the balance at first, but now I know what I’m doing, I even fake a wobble now and again to hear him swear. I think I might enjoy the next few weeks!

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How does the sun cut his hair?

Eclipse!

Sorry. Over the last few days, the weather has been good enough and the evenings just long enough for Rufus and I to head out to Cefn Bryn after work for a stroll. Every time, there has been a beautiful sunset. I love sunsets (I love sunrises even more). In many photographic circles, they are considered cliched and unworthy, but I don’t move in those circles and so I keep taking my cliches, and enjoying them too.

At sunset, things start to calm down.  Apart from traffic noise, which isn’t intrusive on Cefn once you are out of sight of the road, it gets quiet, and usually still as the wind drops. The light is less intense, shadows are longer and the orange glow makes things appear warmer than they really are. There has been a haze on the last few evenings which has the effect of softening colours and turning everything into pastel shades. And when the sun finally reaches the horizon, it is a deep red colour.

Staying with the sun, there was an eclipse on the 20th, and where I live the moon covered around 90% of the sun. With the help of a welder’s mask and a variable density filter (thanks Pete), I was able to view and get some photos. It was eerie as the skies slowly darkened and when I went to the window in the office, there was a great mix of people all standing to witness the event using a variety of filters, some of which seemed distinctly dodgy. But more importantly, it brought a load of people of all ages and roles together more effectively than any scheduled meeting.

Outside, it was chilly and the shadows were odd. Being used to sunsets coming from the west, it was odd to see the different direction of light as it faded. I can just imagine what the people from thousands of years ago must have thought when their source of heat and light disappeared. And the relief when it started getting warmer and brighter again.

Today, as a reward for behaving at the vet when he had his vaccinations (he always does, but today he had a couple of compliments on how well behaved he was and how healthy he looked), Rufus had two walks. We started off at Broadpool where we were watched intensely by a solitary Canada Goose, who called over and over again. But Rufus didn’t want to play. Then we headed on up to the River Tawe, where despite my best efforts to fall in the river while jumping across between rocks, we climbed up to the waterfalls on the west side of the valley. Compared to last week, when I could barely move from the sofa, I felt so much better. Add to that the warm sun, which made it feel like a summer’s day, and watching Rufus bounding between and over tufts of grass or paddling in the water, and it was a most enjoyable morning.

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Rufus and Dave’s Fortnight of Fun part 10: Holiday’s End

When I woke up this morning, Rufus had managed to take over about half the bed. Usually, he is waking me up but this morning the alarm beat him to it. Expecting a wet nose in the face, I was surprised to hear just a deep sigh from his half of the mattress. He was reluctant to head out into the garden and very keen to get back to bed again. We had a nice lie in while the sun came up.

It was a much better day today but I decided to let Rufus have a rest, so after breakfast I set off to explore Dinas Rock, near Pontneddfechan. It’s at the other end of the river that we often visit for its waterfalls. I’ve only been here a couple of time. Once to film a promotional video for the Princes Trust, when I went gorge walking with a bunch of volunteers. It was a fun packed couple of hours for me, as a non-swimmer. I spent most of my time bobbing along in a wet suit trying to keep a £2k video camera from sinking into the water. The second time was a brief visit with Rufus after we’d been drenched on Moel Feity.

The area around Dinas Rock is full of history. On the rock itself, there are the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, which gives the area its name (Dinas means fort in Welsh). The car park was once a limestone quarry and nearby were other quarries and adits for the millstone grit that outcrops around here. Further down the valley is the Dinas Gunpowder mill, where carbon from the forest was combined with saltpetre from pigeon droppings and other ingredients to make gunpowder. They tested the quality of the gunpowder by using a sample to fire an 8″ cannon ball. If it didn’t meet the standard, the whole batch was destroyed. Carefully! When the site was decommissioned in 1931, the buildings were burnt out to remove the risk of accidental explosion at a later date from gunpowder residue.

The track I walked along was suspiciously flat and as I suspected, it turned out to be the route of an old railway. In fact, it was a tramway which led out of the valley and down towards Glynneath, following the route of the old road. The remains of the powder works and the watermills that powered it are still visible lining the river, but in a precarious state of decay. Back in the car park, groups of nervous school kids were heading off to do their gorge walking as I drove out.

Rufus had a good rest while I was out and after I got home, but this evening it was time for him to have a little walk. The sunset promised to be quite good so we set off for Broadpool, where we were fortunate in that there were now cows hovering around the pool. I forgot that the car is no longer a 4×4 and we bumped off the road to park; thankfully, I didn’t catch any body work on the ditches. After a short stroll around the shore of the lake, we returned to the part closest to the road where we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset complete with mirror like reflections in the water.

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Broadpool

Back to Broadpool this evening to have another go at snapping the heron. It was a lovely evening and there was the promise of another nice sunset to tempt me, too.

I also wanted to try a couple of lenses on the infra red camera to check for hotspots. Boring bit alert. Some lenses suffer from internal reflections, particularly in the infra red spectrum. These manifest themselves as bright areas in the centre of the frame, but only on the image, not in the viewfinder. It’s nothing to do with the quality of the lens, rather the materials used to construct it. It’s almost impossible to get rid of the hotspot effectively post camera. Tonight I was trying a 24mm prime lens and the 18-270 zoom. Both passed with flying colours (well, flying shades of near infra red actually).

At the pond, a young couple were fishing. That’s not a euphemism. They were actually fishing. So I didn’t hold out much hope for spotting the heron, which is very shy. So I walked around the pond and concentrated on the tiny world of macro. You can see from some of the photos, there were a few tiny things around.

Making my way back towards the car, I suddenly heard a commotion ahead and at the same time, the heron leapt up into the air from about 5 yards away and flew off into the reeds. I hadn’t seen it and I was almost close enough to touch it. I have to learnt to walk more slowly to give me time to look more closely.

I was quite pleased with the infra red photos, though.

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Heron

I’m turning into a bit of a birder. First Kingfishers, now a Heron. They’ll call me Bill Oddie next.

I first spotted it yesterday with Rufus but this evening I went back to see if I could get closer and snap a few more pictures. There was also the promise of a colourful sunset. How could I miss out on that?

My first sighting of the heron was as it flew over me, having spotted me first. It crossed the road and settled in the ferns opposite the lake. I didn’t want to disturb it too much, so I headed back to the car with the intention of using it as a hide. But the heron saw me and flew back to the lake again. I got the photos of it flying then. Carefully, I edged around the lake shore until I spotted the heron in amongst the reeds. I approached it using a tree as cover and took a few more photos through the branches. The heron looked relaxed and wasn’t looking at me.

Conscious that it needed to settle for the night, I turned and walked away.  I managed to get some nice sunset shots, the but they weren’t as great as I’d hoped.

On a technical note, I’ve been using the D600 with high ISO settings in low light conditions and I’m really pleased with the results. Most of the wildlife stuff I’ve posted over the last few months has been at high sensitivity settings either on the D7000, D700 or it’s replacement, the D600. The heron in the reeds was taken at 1600 ISO.

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