10th September 2017
Standing at over 3,700 metres, New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki / Mt Cook is surprisingly accessible. That is at least if you want to gaze at it in admiration as opposed to slogging to the summit. And what a sight it is; the great mount rising from the surrounding landscape, capped in permanent snow and ice.
I take it all in, while savouring a cold beer, from the balcony of my ‘mountain view’ room in the Hermitage Hotel. It all seems a little too comfortable, lounging about while surrounded by such raw natural beauty. So, to make amends, I haul myself up, pack some provisions and join Anne Marie for a wee hike.
We walk along the Hooker Valley Track, an easy 1-2 hour return along the Hooker river, with fantastic views of the surrounding mountains. Mt Cook grows in size and stature as you approach, finer details in it’s crags and glacier occupy the eyes in the changing light. A crack echoes out above us and we turn to catch a cascade of snow and ice sliding down the mountain to our left. I feel happy to be down on the valley floor, where the ground isn’t quite so ‘active’.
The trail ends at glacier lake, where the reflection of Mt Cook dances in the fading light. There are people scrambling over rocks, armed with selfie sticks, all around us. I wonder how many injuries are caused by creative photo positions in places like this. We settle for some standard, ‘standing in front of mountain’ shots and make a move. I want to get out of here before someone falls in the lake.
Even though we’re surrounded by snow capped mountains, it’s early spring and there is plenty of bird life around. On the return journey we happen upon a Karearea, or New Zealand Falcon. Sat on a rock about twenty metres away, the bird seems oblivious as I stalk him with my camera. The closer I get, the more apparent it becomes that I needn’t be so stealthy. These birds have no natural predators here and this guy knows fine well he can outfly me. I relax a little and get some nice close ups before leaving him to his preening.
After a sunset so good, you’d think the hotel had organized the lighting, we eat and drink the night away. There’s always time for another photograph though, and a clear sky provides the perfect setting for some star trails.
11th March 2016
After a long, cold, snow laden Canadian winter, the prospect of thawing out in Portugal was pretty inviting. A change in family holiday plans meant my mother had flight tickets with no one to travel with, so I jumped at the chance.
Edinburgh to Faro takes just over three hours and, after a slight rental car mix-up, our destination of Carvoeiro was about an hours drive away. After a late night arrival, we woke up the following morning to clear skies, sun and panoramic views over the ocean. The town of Carvoeiro is small and picturesque, with narrow shop lined streets leading down to the beachfront, guarded on each side by high, sandstone cliffs.
This being my first trip to Portugal, the sight of white, painted buildings, terracotta tiled roofs and cobbled streets was everything I’d hoped for. The town clings to the steep coastline with plenty of vantage points to take in the expansive horizon. We soon discovered the fantastic local seafood, wine and the country’s national drink, Port, which was often offered after each meal. I feel its taste will always remind me of this place.
Being early spring, the temperature was a mild 17-21 degrees during the day, more than welcome after an average of -10 I’d come from in Canada. I was impressed with the abundance of greenery, something I’m not so sure is quite so apparent in the height of summer. It was clearly the ‘off season’ during our stay, with empty beaches and quiet nights in the restaurants, but as a relaxing, down-tempo trip, it ticked all of the boxes.
Cape St. Vincent and the town of Sagres are just an hours drive from Carvoeiro, and well worth the journey. The south-western point of Portugal, Cape St. Vincent (Cabo de São Vicente) juts out into the Atlantic and despite the sunshine, we were battered by high winds along with the odd shower.
Admiring the cape’s lighthouse, trying to hold my camera still against the wind, it felt like I was back on the Donegal coast. One thing it certainly shares in common is it’s popularity with surfers – Sagres was full of surf shops and the coast dotted with those brave enough to take on the powerful waves.
Pottery can be found everywhere along the Algarve, this store in Sagres with examples covering the entire building, making for an irresistible photo opportunity. I’ve never really been too excited by plates and bowls, but the variety, colour and quality of items for sale was impressive. I had to remind my mother of our baggage allowance, for once thankful that we couldn’t carry much else home on the flight with us. I think she’d have taken half the shop if she could.
The town of Silves lays just inland from Carvoeiro and is a site of historic importance. The town’s focal point, Silves Castle, offers panoramic views over the surrounding countryside and an insight into the local history. Exploring the castle grounds with the sound of cockerels and birdsong echoing off the walls, it was pretty easy to be transported to a different time and pace of life.
I could have spent hours exploring the town’s narrow, cobbled streets and houses; each building showing it’s own character with painted walls and hanging baskets.
One of the largest town on the Algarve, Portimão isn’t nearly as nice as the smaller spots along the coast. The town itself is built up with high rise apartments and hotels, which must be heaving in the summer months. The beachfront is however still impressive, with long, sandy beaches and sandstone stacks, slowly crumbling into the sea.
We were lucky with the weather on this trip; the sun shone every day, with the odd shower here and there. Hiring a car and exploring what else the Algarve has to offer is highly recommended. It would have been easy to spend each day in Carvoeiro, relaxing on the beach and sampling the local cuisine, but we managed this and so much more.
Our trip offered a great mix of culture, relaxation, fantastic food and nightlife. The off-season wouldn’t be for everyone, it wasn’t quite as hot and the bars not as full, but for my wee holiday with Ma Sweeney it was just right.
13th November 2015
Photo: © Soren Rickards
The Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival had been pencilled into my calendar for the best part of a year. It’s one of the biggest and most anticipated annual events in Banff and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Being a ‘local’ for this year’s event gave me the opportunity to get a little more involved than simply watching films. I signed up as part of the volunteer team for the festival, which was a really worthwhile experience. Volunteering brought a unique perspective; helping visitors, working behind the scenes, meeting festival staff, exhibitors, filmmakers and adventurers; really showed what goes into such a large-scale event.
Then of course there were the films; inspiration for the mind and soul. From a 5 minute short about a Welsh woman who swims naked in mountain lakes to 40 epic minutes of death-defying alpine climbing, this year’s line up included something for everyone.
I’ve previously sat for hours in cinemas, watching drivel that someone spent tens of millions producing, and here I am rejoicing at films that are more engaging, thought-provoking and potentially life-changing, produced by relatively unknown filmmakers, often on shoe-string budgets. I really cannot recommend this festival enough, so isn’t it great that they have a world tour bringing the best films to over 40 countries – make sure you check it out.
Intro video from the 2014/2015 World Tour
The films were the main draw of the festival, but there was a lot more on offer besides, including book signings, talks and debate, art exhibitions, presentations by Google and workshops hosted by National Geographic. Krystle Wright and Cory Richards also led a photo tour along the Bow River, accompanied by photo editors from the National Geographic Your Shot team.
The result of all this? A ton of great ideas, creative inspiration and who knows what next – this is my first post in six months, but hey, it’s a start!
20th May 2015
We had barely been in Banff a week before hearing stories of how spectacular the northern lights are here. Because the entire expanse of Banff National Park to the north is uninhabited, the night sky is very dark indeed; perfect for stargazers. Our first trip to Lake Minnewanka, a local’s favourite and probably one of the most accessible locations for aurora watching, came after a few weeks…
Anne Marie receives a call at half eleven on a Tuesday night; our Australian friends David and Katrina are blaring down the line something about flares and are on their way to pick us up immediately. I think the worst; there’s no way I’m going to a fancy dress party at this hour, but gladly I’m informed they’re talking about flares of the solar variety. Solar Flares can cause highly charged particles from the sun to erupt in huge plumes, racing the 92 million miles through space to earth, where they interact with our upper atmosphere. Who cares if you have work the next day when there’s a solar storm on the loose!
We excitedly throw on our thermals, wrap up warm and prepare the camera gear, unsure quite what to expect, but already buzzing at the prospect of a late night adventure.
Twenty minutes drive through dark, windy forest road later and we arrive along the ice bound lake shore, along with what seems to be half the town. I can’t believe just how many people are already here, with plenty more still arriving. Some are clearly well prepared, set up in groups down by the water’s edge, snuggled up in camping chairs.
Being new to the whole scene we make do with our parking spot along the roadside and eagerly set up our gear, all the while gazing skyward, waiting for our eyes to adjust to the dark. With such a throng of spectators arriving, spurred on I’m told by aurora forecast text and email alerts, it takes a while for the car lights to settle down and for us to fully take in the night sky.
Slowly but surely a myriad of stars appear above our heads, the familiar band of the Milky Way only barely visible, but for the haze of light emanating from behind the mountains in front of us. The light, ghostly, with only the faintest suggestion of green, sweeps across the northern sky in a huge arc, as though reflected from the far distant pole.
We fiddle with the settings on our cameras; ISO, Shutter Speed, Focus, waiting with baited breath between the closing of the shutter and revelation of the image on the camera LCD. A camera’s eye is so much better than ours in some ways, particularly for night photography. Imagine if with every second you gazed skyward, the light of the stars was multiplied again and again. That’s what happens with a camera’s sensor, and after ten, twenty, thirty seconds or more, what it reveals is truly breathtaking.
“Oh yeah… it kinda looks like a giant green blob”, remarks Aussie David, insightfully.
Indeed, the great arc of light is rather green and blob like. But we needn’t speak so soon. After half an hour or so in ‘warm up mode’, the aurora, sensing our collective anticipation, bursts into life. There’s an audible gasp and an echo of hoots from along the lake front as huge pillars of light slice through the sky above. Appearing slowly, fading, shifting and dancing across the night sky like an ancient ritual of the heavens as old as the Earth itself.
Apart from the clunk of camera shutters and excited gasps from those around us, the aurora, now visibly green with a hint of red, performs its art in eerie silence.
I feel a shiver trickle down my spine and glance over my shoulder into the blackened trees behind. It’s only now that I think about where we are, in the heart of Banff National Park, home to wolf, cougar, lynx and bear, and I sense other eyes watching from the forest beyond, perhaps sharing in our awe and wonderment of the boreal lights of the North.
15th March 2015
It took well over a year of planning – making sure we secured visas, saving and getting our lives in order – but Anne Marie and I have finally made it back to Canada. After a quick stop over in Toronto visiting relatives, we hopped over to the west coast and Vancouver to catch up with friends and enjoy some more of the city. It felt like we’d never left; street pizza, Granville Island, hipster restaurants, beer served in jam jars and of course city views with that awesome mountain backdrop.
We could have spent this year living in Vancouver, but the call of the mountains was just too strong. Why just look at them when you can live IN them? So we took the bus for fifteen hours through the Rockies to the small town of Banff. If we had any reservations about venturing into the ‘wilderness’ they were soon quashed as dawn broke to mountains of snow. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen so much of the white stuff; the conifers in some places were completely loaded, barely a green branch visible. Drifts piled down mountainsides and covered everything below in fluffy plumes. We craned our necks to look up at the peaks overhead and I kept bugging Anne Marie to ‘look’, ‘look!’ out the window like an excited child.
The snow seemed to peak just north of Lake Louise and by the time we reached Banff town there was not quite as much on the ground, perhaps a few inches. Still, we arrived with a sense of adventure and the prospect of a fresh start.
As I write this now we’re well settled in. In just over six weeks we have both secured work and a small rental apartment in the heart of town. Although we’ve spent a few days hiking, snowboarding and exploring, our focus has been on ‘setting up’ and now that we’re getting over the necessary life chores we can concentrate on really enjoying what Banff National Park has to offer.
Thankfully the snow is currently falling again; the season hasn’t been great so far really. In fact, it’s well reported that the west coast of Canada is experiencing its worst snow season in over 100 years, forcing most of the ski fields to close early. On the other hand, the east coast has been snowbound for months, with minus 20 and below temperatures. Global warming is certainly starting to have a real affect on the ski industry. If the balance can return, we might still have a couple months of snowboarding here in Banff so fingers crossed X.
Some highlights in Banff so far include a romantic day spent on a horse-drawn sleigh ride, going up the Banff Gondola to the peak of Sulphur Mountain, then soaking in the warm waters of Banff Hot Springs. Several walks along the Bow River have seen encounters with the local Elk or Mule Deer, and just last week we spotted a group of Coyotes howling on the shore of Vermillion Lakes. You don’t have to venture far out of town before you start encountering the wildlife of the park.
Another draw to Banff is that it is home to the Banff Mountain Book and Film Festival, which tours the world annually, showcasing the very best in mountain cinema and literature. Our first special viewing of short films at the Banff Centre was an emotional one, with the main feature ‘Mending the Line’ causing the whole theatre to choke up! The tale of Frank Moore, a 90 year old World War Two veteran returning to fish a river he stopped at during the invasion of Normandy, is as heart warming and life affirming as anything you’ll ever watch.
Needless to say that Banff has already made a great impression, and we have only scratched the surface. There’s a whole mountain range out there just waiting to be explored. Watch this space for updates!
14th March 2015
We’re all set for a two week long road-trip around British Columbia and Alberta. Our hire car is jam packed, the route is mapped out and every single battery device is fully suped. No sooner than the key is in the ignition however, the heavens open to a biblical scale rainstorm. You can’t plan everything I guess.
Fortunately though we are heading for The Okanagan Valley, which is considerably warmer, sunnier and receives less rainfall than the rest of BC. The climate makes it the ideal location for fruit growing, and where there’s fruit, there follows wine!
The climatic claims are thankfully proven as, after a four hour drive through thundering rain and hail, the skies clear on our descent into the Okanagan Basin. I’m immediately reminded of Central Otago in New Zealand as the mountains give way to rolling hills and lush fields of vines.
There are currently over 120 wineries in the Okanagan, so we would be crazy not to sample a few of them. With a little bartering Anne Marie agrees to be the designated driver on our self-drive wine tour. I meanwhile make a firm promise not to enjoy the wine too much (I wouldn’t dare). Starting from our base in Penticton, we drive south along the eastern side of Skaha Lake towards Osoyoos.
The first winery on our list is Inniskillin, named after the Irish Inniskilling Fusiliers. With so many great vineyards to choose from, liking their name isn’t a bad start to planning a tour. As it turns out the wines we try are also excellent, in particular the ice wine, which is the first we’ve tasted. Canada is one of the world’s largest producers of Icewine, with most of it being grown in Ontario.
With our tastebuds sizzling we head to the next winery on our list, Nk’Mip (pronounced in-Ka-meep), which is North America’s first Aboriginal owned and operated winery. The vineyard is set on a vast stretch of land which also includes a holiday resort and cultural centre. Wine is clearly big business here in the Okanagan.
The rain is held back by the surrounding mountains as our tour continues to Stoneboat, Jackston Triggs, Elephant Island (some very different fruit wines) and Poplar Grove (above). Unfortunately I’m no wine critic so I’ll spare you the detailed sensory analysis. All you need to know is the wines are all of a very high standard, which seems to improve as the day wears on. Anne Marie can only handle so much so it’s back to our campsite for dinner and an evening stroll along the lakeshore in Penticton to clear my fuzzy head.
The next day takes us further up the valley towards Kelowna and along the way we stop in at some seriously plush wineries. Mission Hill is more like a castle than a winery with very modern architecture and expansive views over the lake.
After sampling so many fantastic wines I can’t believe Canada doesn’t export more product to the rest of the world. As said before I’m no critic, but I have tasted my fair share of wines over the years and the Okanagan certainly makes an impression. Perhaps I’ll have to do some more research just to be sure…