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In these years of waning numbers of Christmas cards, both sent and received, I try to keep the cards I receive one year so that I am reminded to return the favour the following year. This year, there was one card I didn’t get around to returning, as I got caught up with overseas visitors, and then once Christmas had passed, it seemed too late. I’m sorry, Betsy and Craig!

I have had the card sitting on top of my desk, and finally, yesterday, after several weeks, I actually looked at it, and I thought, “I know that square!”
I knew exactly where it was, and went immediately to the photograph that would prove it:

Yes, in December 2016, my friend in Florida (though first met in my home town in New Zealand 37 years ago when she was an exchange student) sent me a Christmas card with a scene on it from Stockholm, a city I had already booked tickets to visit in May 2017, Then on my visit, without realising it, I photographed the same corner of the same square, in the Old Town, Gamla Stan. Although I will admit, the square looks much more appealing in December.

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A week ago, we packed our bags and the car, and headed over the hill – this one – to stay overnight with friends at their charming cottage amidst an olive grove.

They welcomed us with a lovely late lunch of delicious dark, seedy bread and cheese and tomatoes and asparagus and pâté and salami, and of course, being in a wine town we had to indulge in some local rosé, which is always perfect for a summery lunch and for nibbling with fresh berries from the garden.

Then came the business end of the day, as the croquet lawn was calling to us, and the game of the day was Croquet Golf – or was it Golf Croquet? My husband and I have only ever played once, some years ago, but beginner’s luck must have been upon us, as we took the first game 7-4. The second game didn’t go so well, with my husband wondering aloud, after further fortification from the rosé, just why the ball wasn’t going straight anymore! By that time it was close to 5 pm, and we figured that it must be time for some champagne – of course!

After a delicious biryani dinner and more berries from their garden, we took to the lawn for the deciding game, although by this time, our croquet brains had decided that attack was the best form of defence, and we all aimed at each others’ balls as often as we aimed at the hoops to score points. Appropriately, our hosts’ years of practice paid off and they trounced us soundly, so we retired to the campfire, and as the sun set and the almost-super moon rose, we chatted and sipped some more; a perfect end to a perfect day.

 

 

 

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Yesterday I finished a major project. It was the third of the photobooks I have created from our trip earlier this year to Iceland, the Baltic, and Norway. I’m very proud of it, as our photos from Norway in particular are beautiful. It would almost be impossible to visit Norway and come away without beautiful photos. Some of my favourite photographs were taken out the front of the car as we were driving, and some required a bit more thought or design; here are just a few.

Fjaerlandfjord, with boats in the foreground and snow on the mountains

Fjaerlandfjord, from our beautiful hotel, is the cover of our Norway photobook

A bookshelf on Fjaerlandfjord, with Boyabreen glacier behind

Mundal, on Fjaerlandfjord, is an international book town

The Geiranger-Trollstigen national scenic tourist route, surrounded in snow

The Geiranger-Trollstigen national scenic tourist route

Fb reminded me that this time last year I had already booked our flights and the Baltic cruise, and I was right in the middle of researching and planning our travel. I realised last night that, on and off, I’d spent a year planning and organising our trip, being on the trip, or completing photobooks after the trip. Of course, those aren’t the only things I have been doing, but I do feel that now I have some real space to think about other things. It’s time to move onto other long-neglected projects, and you know, that’s quite an exciting thought.

 

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My major project at the moment is sorting through hundreds of photographs from our trip. Both my husband and I had cameras – his a compact but with an enviable 40x zoom lens, and mine a mirrorless with interchangeable lenses – and we snapped away merrily at anything that took our interest.

There’s a point of view, often expressed scathingly, that those of us who like to take photographs (I’m focused on travel photography, rather than events or family gatherings) become observers, rather than staying in the moment, really experiencing what is around us. I heard this opinion again recently on the radio here, and then saw another article about it, and I have to confess that I’m getting a bit sick of the holier-than-thou attitudes of those who profess it. They seem to assume that photographers just want bragging photos they can put up on Instagram or Facebook and that by looking through a lens, we’re not actually looking with our eyes. As with anything, there are always extremes, and I like to walk the middle road.

I take photographs, but either before I take shots or after or both, I drink in the experiences. We spend a lot of money on our travels, and I am determined to embrace them – the sights, sounds, food, and feelings – to the limit. As I am a writer, I like to fully experience something so that I can describe it later. For every photograph of a fjord in Norway or a grand building in St Petersburg or every volcanic cone or lava field in Iceland there were dozens taken in my mind or written about in my head, and believe me, they take much more concentration and awareness of where I am and what is happening around me.

When I take photographs, I try to capture what had me gasping in awe, or laughing in amusement, or reeling in horror, in those photos. Whilst I’m an opportunistic photographer – I take what is in front of me (or within easy walk!), rather than carefully planning and composing shots – I also try to think about what I’m taking, and why I am taking it. I’m not good at taking photographs of people, as I feel rude and voyeuristic, though I adore looking at others’ shots of interesting people or people in interesting places. I wish I was braver!

I find thinking about composition or zooming in gives me an added appreciation of the view or events in front of me. Zooming, in particular, allows me to capture small nuances that might otherwise be missed. For example, I’ve learned a new appreciation and love of birds since I’ve had a camera that could capture them in detail. And sometimes there might be an unexpected bonus when we look at our zoomed-in image.

For example, here’s a long shot of a farmhouse dwarfed under a rock face, and then the close-up when we were able to find an off-road park.

But I was truly delighted when we got home to discover that this shot included a lot of old turf buildings outside the main farmhouse.

P1030951 cr

The unexpected turf buildings

Blown up they’re grainy, but even when I look at the long shot, I now know they’re there, and it tells me so much more about Iceland and farming life and living there in the past.

I don’t take photographs just for Instagram. In fact, until we left on this trip I didn’t even have an Instagram account, and I probably posted more photos (maybe one or two every couple of days) on Facebook for family and friends who were interested. Equally, because I adore travel, I also adore seeing other people’s photographs too.

I don’t take selfies for a lot of reasons. But when they’re too frequent – they always seem to be more about the person (“look at me, look at me, look at me,” as Kath would say) than the place or events occurring where they are. Though my father always said that he liked to see a photograph with a person in it, so we always take a few shots with one of us in it or both, and likewise, when family or a friend is travelling, I love seeing their faces pop up in exotic places. Most recently I’ve loved seeing friends’ faces in Istanbul and Macchu Picchu and Scotland.

Unlike a lot of people, I actually do things with my photographs when I get home, and love looking back at favourite trips in our photobooks (and albums in the pre-digital days), or with the photos hung on my wall or the ones that flick up in my screensaver (which is one of the best ways to regularly see your favourite photos). I have a good memory for people and places – but seeing the photos keep the memories alive. And besides, it means we’re getting better value for money for those flights and accommodation every time I look at a photo and smile.

It’s not a case of “pics or it didn’t happen.” Many of the most memorable occasions on our trip could not be captured in a photograph. Driving across the vast sand and ash plains of southern Iceland, desperate to beat the predicted high winds that could sandblast our rental car (and empty our bank accounts), was a bit scary but quite exhilarating. Likewise, it was wonderful driving through the huge lava fields of southern Iceland, enjoying the textures and play of light of the lichen and moss growing on the lava, imagining what it must have been like as the lava flowed. The three or more hours we spent sailing through an archipelago of islands when leaving Sweden gave us a wonderful snippet of rural and weekend Swedish life. Standing out on the deck of our ship as it spun on a pinpoint in the river in St Petersburg, pushed and pulled at the same time by tugs, was a special treat few would ever get to experience. Photographs couldn’t really capture these experiences (although I tried), and yet these were such special parts of our trip.

My name is Mali, and I unashamedly like taking photographs. Doing so helps me stay in the moment.

 

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One of the joys of hosting visitors from overseas is showing them about my city. Yesterday, instead of staying at home and writing my Microblog Monday posts, I was walking through our town with my sister-in-law from Perth, Australia. She lived here briefly in 1989 and has visited periodically, and now as her children are growing up, it is easier for her to leave them for a few hours, and we recall the pre-children days when we used to explore the Wellington designer shops on each visit. Yesterday, we poked through a few NZ designer clothing stores (she tried on and rejected, I drooled and resisted), poked through some favourite gift shops (she purchased, I didn’t, though I did find a display cabinet that I want to buy if it is for sale, but that’s another story), and had a long chat over udon noodle soup for lunch.

But first, we visited the Gallipoli (a battle in World War I that is iconic for Australians and NZers) exhibition at Te Papa, the National Museum, which her children had visited a few days earlier when the adults had retired to a nearby restaurant (a good excuse for me to try a place I’ve been wanting to visit for ages) for a more sophisticated lunch. Amidst the exhibits of clothing and provisions and the simulated trenches and periscopes and the animated battle scenes, Weta Workshop (the brains behind the special effects and models of The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit/King Kong movies, as well as a myriad others, have created huge life-like models of particular personalities at Gallipoli, some soldiers, a doctor and a nurse. We see their eyes, their sweat, their injuries, feel their fear and pain and exhaustion and caring, and hear their stories, thanks to letters shared by their families. It’s a reminder of how lucky we are in little old Wellington, to have such world-class artists here to bring these people and their stories to life so poignantly.

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I’m going to drip-feed a few travel stories from my trip, but I need more than eight sentences, so won’t be doing it on Mondays. I wrote a first story on the weekend here (The Great Puffin Hunt), and may continue writing on a new travel blog.

Yes, I know I have been procrastinating about restarting a travel blog for a long time, but the thing is, it is all bound up with procrastination over relaunching a travel business (designing custom-made itineraries for travellers) that I started many years ago. Back then, at the same time that I was starting to get clients, I also began getting a lot more (and better paid) consulting work that took all my time and energy. Consequently, my fledgling little business was sadly neglected and has effectively been put on hold for the last decade or so.

Times have changed, and whilst there is much more information available on the internet now to assist travellers, it can also be overwhelming and extremely time-consuming, so I still believe there is a market out there. I’m almost ready to relaunch it now, but I am still figuring a few things out, at the same time trying to boost my confidence. So at this stage, all I can say is watch this space.

 

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The hunters crossed the globe in search of these small, cute, ungainly birds. Okay, they were crossing the globe anyway, but the birds provided an extra degree of motivation. They knew that it was early in the season, but reckoned that if they missed them at the beginning of their trip, there would be another chance towards the end of the trip. They went armed, not heavily, but with zoom lenses and a tripod, and were full of hope, though had fewer expectations.

Their first serious hunt was in Dyrhólaey in southern Iceland, where dramatic rocky cliffs soared from the North Atlantic, icy winds whipped and cowed even the hardiest of hunters, and any overly optimistic hunter’s tripod would have taken flight towards the ocean below.  Conditions were, therefore, perfect for the little birds to be at home in their nests.

Dyrhólaey cliffs

Dyrhólaey

But the puffins had yet to return from the ocean this year, a little later than usual, the hunters were informed by the staff at the nearby hotel. That explained, they figured, why even the commercial boats that took puffin watchers out near Reykjavik had not been operating. Or maybe it was just that the current, stormy weather had kept them, and the puffin hunters, safely inside, dry and warm. There was some disappointment, but there had been so many other wonders to behold in Iceland that the little birds were forgiven.

So the hunters left bleak, windswept but beautiful Iceland and continued on their journey, forgetting about the puffins until several weeks later. Hopeful and thorough research before their departure had identified a little island on the Atlantic coast of Norway. The island is called Runde, and websites and guide books grandly describe it as a bird island, with a population of around 25,000 puffins, and about the same number of other birds. It turned out that a fully booked hotel elsewhere had presented our puffin hunters an extra day in the area, and so – given that a day exploring Art Nouveau architecture wasn’t really their thing – they decided to take up the hunt again. They set off in the middle of the day, despite knowing that this wasn’t prime puffin-hunting time, and were rewarded with a wonderfully scenic drive, island hopping by ferry, causeway, bridges and tunnels. At first, the countryside was classic Norway, with forest-covered hills and mountains, swooping down to green fields on the banks of a blue fjord. Later, as the hunters came closer to the coast, the islands turned barren, rocky and mossy, typical of the famous Atlantic Coastal Road further north, stark but still beautiful.

The puffin hunters arrived in the mid-afternoon and were buoyed by the encouragement of the guy in the information centre, who advised that although it was early in the day, it was also windy, and that meant some of the puffins would not have gone to sea for the day.

So the puffin hunters drove to the carpark, and looked up, further up, and up again at their intended destination. It seemed that their venture involved climbing to the very top of the island to reach the high cliffs where puffins love to nest. Considering one of the puffin-hunters had been limping around Copenhagen just a few days earlier, they were doing this with crossed fingers. They consulted the map and, in an attempt to minimise the effort required, opted to try the route to the nearest cliffs. The initial ascent was steep, but on a wide, easy gravel path, through a few gates to keep the sheep away from the few houses scattered at the entrance.

They set off, pacing themselves, but enthusiastic. They passed one puffin hunter having a rest. He was heavily armed with tripods and heavy long lenses. It didn’t bode well for him at this early stage that he was using his asthma inhaler already. It was, however, reflective of the steepness of the climb. The ground was a peat bog, and so was soft, with water oozing out all over the place. It was slippery in parts, but not too bad, and the intrepid hunters ploughed on upwards. The carpark got further and further away, the view of all the coastal islands stretched out before them, but the top didn’t seem to get any closer.

There was a moment when disaster almost struck. The soft ground wobbled, the weak ankle tweaked with a shot of pain, and they both worried that this might have been the end of their quest. The ankle stabilised, but they took it slower and more carefully from then on. Their steep climb continued. Eventually, after an hour or so, they reached the first cliffs. There were a few birds soaring around above them, but they were too big and flying far too swiftly and gracefully to be the sought after little birds. The abundant bird life that had been promised by websites and guide books had not yet emerged, however. There weren’t even that many gulls.

The hunters passed a few other trekkers, and asked, hopefully, if they had seen any. Some shook their heads, and one said that she had seen some in the distance only, right at the top. They turned south along the ridge, towards the cliffs at the back of the island, and tried to keep up the pace. The sunny day had turned dark, the clouds had lowered and engulfed the puffin hunters, reducing visibility to metres. They continued on, trying to keep up their spirits. One hunter said, “we’re those tourists we hear about on the news at home. They venture off on a hike when it is fune and sunny, with only a bottle of water between them, the weather closes in and they become a cautionary tale!”

The weak ankle was holding up, but the stronger of the two had disturbing thoughts going through his mind. He was trying to figure out how he’d get his partner down if her ankle ceased up again. His best idea, he confessed later, was to lay one of their windbreakers down on the ground, and have her slide down the slope on it. Fortunately, they didn’t have to put this concept into practice.

Eventually, they came to the other side of the island and cautiously started down to the other cliffs. A slip and a turned ankle here would not be a good idea, toboggan-option or not!  They emerged out of the mist, and found they were not alone on the island. Other hunters had made their way up via another, lower and much easier route, one they had seen several hours earlier, one that had stone paving stones laid out (but which hadn’t been obvious at the junction) all the way. Along with the others, they found a large, flat rock on which to sit and rest and wait. Some of the others set up tripods. Our hunters laughed with each other ruefully; their tripod was still in the car, but they also knew it would have made the climb even harder than it had been.

It was peaceful. The mist rose, the wind died down a little, and the sun even shone for a while. A friendly crow kept them amused as they waited.

P1050488 friendly crow cr ed web

They noticed birds starting to fly in from the sea, and briefly, some excited activity ensued amongst those with the huge cameras and long lenses and tripods. The birds though kept their distance, and it was getting cold, and late, given that the hunters had a couple of hours drive back to their hotel.

In the cliffs below them, they saw an ungainly bird fly in. It was the right size and shape and colour (black and white) with the right flight patterns to be a puffin. Then they saw another one. Anticipation grew, then waned. The birds were all simply too far away to determine if they were puffins. The photographs of the island on the internet, showing puffins within arms reach of photographers, seemed like a cruel joke at this point. It was getting cold. Really cold. Dusk was hours away – in fact, in these northern climes, dusk only lasted a few hours around midnight, and they weren’t so committed that they would stay that late.

So the puffin hunters admitted defeat and made their way down the ridiculously easy path they should have taken in the first place.

Path down and Atlantic view

About half-way down on the road more travelled

Runde nesting birds

One of the few birds we saw on the island

They had to put the disappointment behind them. The day had been an adventure. The drive back was beautiful. But ultimately, these were the only positive puffin sightings of the whole trip:

P1000512 puffin stockings web

 

 

 

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