Friday, June 17, 2016

Rhodes, Greece : Beaches, ancient ruins, medieval palaces, walled city !

End of May, beginning of June, 2016 we had a chance to hop over to Greece. Specifically the island of Rhodes (Rodos in Greek). It has good beaches but for us the chief attraction was the medieval walled city, Mandraki harbor with their ancient windmills, acropolis in Lindos and the archaeological sites. The medieval city is indeed a cute throwback to the old. Once can almost feel the "ancientness" as one walks in the night through the city or sit down to eat at one of its multitudes of restaurants.

We covered Rhodes (including couple of beaches and the walled old city), Kamiros, Filerimos and Lindos (with its famous acropolis). Sandhya took time out to go visit some more archaeological ruins at Kamiros. Ancient Kamiros along with Lindos and Ialissos forms Rhodes and is one of the oldest Greek cities. While Lindos is on SE side of the island and hence in Mediterranean sea, the western cities are all overlooking the Aegean sea whose eastern limit is the Rhodes island. 

Sharing some stories via images. (All shot with my new FF Canon 6D and 17-40 L)


Rhodes is less than 20 NM from Turkey. We stayed at the Sheraton and from the balconies one can see the Turkish landfall pretty clear on most days. One of the main attraction there is the medieval harbour which is now called Mandraki port. Supposedly, this is where the Colossus of Rhodes once stood. (Regarded as one of the 7 wonders of the world.
Mandraki port with walls of the old town visible
Sea view out to Aegean coast from within the old city walls
Old windmills that were once used to ground grains brought into the port
View of walls of medieval Rhodesian town during sunset
Palace of Grand master of Knights of Rhodes
History of the above palace is very interesting. Initially, when Knight Hospitallers took over Rhodes this was made palace of their Grandmaster. After the island was captured by the Ottoman Empire, the palace was used as a command centre and fortress. later it was converted into a holiday home for Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, whose name can still be seen on a large plaque near the entrance. But it seems he never set his foot upon the palace.


Kamiros was one of the three large Doric cities of the island, which united with Ialyssos and Lindos in the 5th century B.C. to create the powerful city - state of Rhodes. 
(All pics by Sandhya)

Kamiros archaeological site


The Monastery of Panagia Filerimos is located on a hill above Ialyssos, about 10 km from Rhodes Town. The monastery is dedicated to Virgin Mary 
(All pics by Sandhya)

Side walls of Monastery

For me, one of the most breathtaking parts of the Island is the Lindos village and the associated Acropolis with amazing ancient ruins overlooking the Mediterranean sea. 
Village of Lindos

Lindos Acropolis

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

100 hours in Tblisi, Georgia

Bridge of Peace, Tblisi

Got a chance to spend a few days in the capital of Georgia this winter. The idea was born out of a plan of a bunch of us friends to go on a boys only trip. The specifications were quite simple - should be relatively cheap, weather must be good, must have decent night life especially availability of good quality wine and beer ! Above all, visa should be quick or on arrival even for Indian passport holders ! Now these might appear to be relatively straight forward needs from a vacation but still its not so easy to find such a spot, given the mighty desi passport ! Luckily, a friend had recently gone to Georgia and mentioned that the visa is on arrival if you have GCC residency. We quickly decided on Tblisi - thankfully we knew nothing about the city and hence decided to take it as it comes. This does add to adventure ! Unlike my solo trips where I prefer to plan most things to a detail that makes others go nuts !

Quickly booked tickets through fly dubai and the nights at holiday inn. Upon reaching the terminal, we were told that though visa is on arrival, you still need to show some bank account details to ensure you can afford hotels there and that you will not stay put. Would be interesting to know who would want to stay put in Tblisi. Anyways an ATM slip was enough as proof that we have enough moolah to get us into Tblisi and back and still spare change for hotel and food. Once that was done, the flight was short, sweet and uneventful.

The 100 odd hours we spend there was all a blur. We covered quite a bit - Jvari, old cathedrals, longest wine cellar there including wine tasting, purchased Georgian special wines, had Indian food (with an appetite that made the owner think we are seldom given food back home!) and gorged on Georgian food like Katchapuri - especially the beans filled one which was oh so tasty ! The weather was great - around 10, but with no significant rain. We did get a few drizzles every now and then which also made us miss some fantastic sights from afar at Mtshketa but overall for an unplanned vacation, it was par for the course.

Fom a view point in Mtshketa

Georgian food and drinks 

So if you are limited on time and want to do the Top-3 things in Tblisi, in my view you should do the following.

1. Mtshketa 
Definitely do the 20 odd Km trip to Mtshketa. On a good sunny day you can see afar from near the old Jvari monastery there. It is a sixth century Georgian orthodox monastery which is listed as a World heritage site by Unesco. At Mtshketa, one can also view the Sveti tshkoveli Cathedral. Both of these are brilliant to spend some time at.
View from Mtshketa
Georgian monastery, Mtsheketa

Tshkoveli cathedral
 Sveti Tshkoveli Cathedral's magical lights

2. Sulphur baths 
These baths are pretty much at the old city centre. If you are OK being naked in front of many other people or in privacy in front of your exclusive massage man (or woman if you are lady), then you can get all the dirt accumulated over decades off your skin in 30 minutes. I did opt for a private bath without the massage but did come out fresh and slightly dizzy. Must be the sulphur plus the steam. It was not the most hygienic thing I've done in life but hey it takes all kinds to make a vacation memorable. And sulphur bath in Tblisi is one memorable experience for sure. There is even an interesting legend regarding founding of Tblisi The legend about foundation of Tbilisi: one day the Georgian king Vakhtang Gorgasali was hunting in the environs of Tbilisi. His falcon caught a pheasant, but soon both disappeared, only after some time King Vakhtang found his bird. Both fell into a sulphur spring and were boiled. As the sulphur spring was warm, king decided to call this place Tbilisi. tbili means "warm” in Georgian and according to his will the capital of Georgia changed from Mtskheta to Tbilisi. There is even a sculpture marking the poor Falcon boiled and mummified in Sulphur spring. 

Sample sulphur bath area

The falcon of the King which is legend entwined with Tbilisi name, domes of the Sulphur bath behind

3. Narikala fortress : It is almost omnipresent from any part of the city. Worth the climb and definitely worth the views of the city from up top. You should be reasonably fit to trek up to the Mother of Georgia statue - but you could also take a cable car if you chicken out from a relatively moderate trail. 

Fort ruins 
View from fort
Mother of Georgia statue
One other thing if you are a wine lover - Khareba's wine cellar at Kvareli : Driving to one of the longest underground cellar is a reasonably boring one. However, once you are in the underground cellar (keep adequate warm cloths since it could be very cold even in summer), you forget all about it as you get to taste some nice wine apart from learning Georgian way of making wine. You could also buy the home wines. 

I might not revisit Georgia or Tblisi since its really not my kind of vacation but nevertheless worth a visit - helps you get to snow fast, still has a bunch of lovely cathedrals and fort ruins and nature. 

Sunday, October 04, 2015

A Road trip in Scotland - 2015

Last year,at the fag end of Summer, while we were vacationing in London, we had done Edinburgh-Sterling and went up till the Loch Lamond national park - which was fascinating ofcourse, but too short. (Read that here) However, what it did was to pique our curiosity regarding a longer road in Scotland. At the time we did not know the Scottish bug had bit us so bad that we would be back within a year. 

Fast forward, September 2015, we decided to go on a 9 day road trip in Scotland. Idea was to fly into Edinburgh, cover the Eastern coast, go up north cutting cross the Cairngorm national park, touch isle of Skye and come back via Pitlochry into Edinburgh. Fly back to Dubai from there. Since I was speaking at a conference in Aberdeen, it fitted quite well. Also it was Eid holidays in UAE and hence the number of leaves to be taken was also quite manageable. Only challenge was how Aarav at 2.5 years would cope with the long drives. Though he loves outdoors almost as much as we do, being on a car seat would get boring in a while. Hence we planned enough pit stops to give him time to run around and enjoy. There honestly, is no better way to see the Scottish highlands other than driving yourself - assuming you love driving as much as I do. 

Took Etihad from Abu Dhabi given that it was almost at 60% the cost of Emirates. One hour drive from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and within no time we were in the Etihad flight to Edinburgh. It was overnight red eye flight but I had to sleep given the amount of driving I had to do once we land. Got some thankfully. Landed in Edinburgh to fantastic sunny morning with temperature at a very pleasant 15 degrees. After some coffee and sandwiches, went straight to the connecting walkway which takes one to the car rental lobby just outside of the airport. 

Took our pre-booked car - the new Jag XE Sport. A fantastic white diesel car with great handling and planted drive. Ofcourse with the British pedigree ! I'd have preferred a defender or range rover but then we would have been left with no money to fill petrol/diesel ! The white feline would be our companion for many miles over the next 9 days. 

We had booked a B&B with a check in time of 4 pm in Stonehaven, a 120 mile drive. Stonehaven is a nice beach town situated in Aberdeenshire. Since we had plenty of time, we had decided to do a bunch of castles enroute. Stonehaven itself was picked due to proximity to Dunnottar castle, which was one of the places I wanted to do some photography around. However, we took a pitstop at a beautiful lakeside garden in Brechin and then decided to drive straight to Stonehaven. After dropping Aarav and Sandy at B&B I decided to trek up the castle areas for photography in the setting sun.

Also covered the Stonehaven war memorial which was a couple of miles from the castle. The straight walkway to the war memorial (On right in the picture below) proved to be very photogenic.

Next day morning, all three of us decided to go out for an early morning drive. Idea was to see the sunrise over the Stonehaven beach. It was a bit cold early in
the morning at around 8 degrees. After catching the sunrise, we decided to drive to Dunnottar and take some family portraits next to it and be touristy ! Since we had missed the castles the previous day, we decided to dedicate most of today to castle tour. Since a lot of them were around Stonehaven- Ballater route, we covered Crathes, Drum and Corgaff.

Out of these, the drive to Corgaff via Tomintoul was amongst the best I've driven anywhere in the world. Simply awe 
inspiring vistas though the castle itself is a simple star shaped white structure.

Total of around a 100 mile drive before wrapping up the day in a fascinating B&B in the royal dee side in Ballater - a little village by the river Dee where the Queen comes visiting most summers. (Her castle, the Balmoral is just a few miles from here)

Day three was dedicated to driving around the beautiful Dee side. We even managed to have some Indian lunch ! It was also Sandhya's birthday and hence we decided to celebrate it in a fashion that both of us love. Walking into a forest and relaxing while enjoying the nature. We planned to walk a simple trail in Cambus O  May forest given that we knew we will have to carry Aarav after couple of Kms. Did a short 4-5 km round trip trail and celebrated the birthday ! We did another recce of Tomintoul up the mountains followed by relaxing next to river Dee in a caravan park late in the evening. 

Next day we would cover quite a bit of distance since we were cutting right across the Cairngorm national park. We took the Braemer (saw the Braemer castle), Tomintoul (saw Corgaff once again), Glenlivet, Aviemore, Carrbridge. We had booked couple of days in Carrbridge in the event of deciding to go see the wild life of the national park. We did see deer (red and roe) but since I was not carrying my usual wildlife kit, no good photographs to show for it. Another less than 100 mile day but some fantastic roads covered. I'd say its one of the best routes in UK - inverness, Loch Ness, Isle of Skye can ofcourse give it strong competition as we were to find out soon enough.

It was now getting colder the higher we went. The evening that we spend doing timelapse on our Iphones of a rainbow appearing at Loch Morlich was a biting 5 degrees with some strongish winds.

The Caledonian pine forests around is beautiful but also makes driving quite difficult especially at nights - given that there are no streetlights for most parts, a number of sharp bends and super tall trees on either side of the road, one has to be more careful than usual on the pedal. 

Next day was a long drive day. Started very early after a heavy breakfast. First 
pitstop was Inverness, the capital of Scottish highlands. After filling the tank to full, drove along Loch Ness to Isle of Skye route. Passed the beautiful Urquhart castle just 15 miles south west of Inverness. This was followed by the breathtaking beauty of Eilean Donan castle at Kyle of Lochalsh. 
After Lochalsh its a straight road onto the bridge connecting Isle of Skye. We spent only couple of hours exploring Skye since we were planning to do a lot of shooting at Eilean Donan on the way back for sunset. As luck would have it, the whole evening was almost rained out. But it did give a shot of the castle within a rainbow. Money shot which goes on a big print in the hall ! Eilean Donan is a small tidal island where three lochs meet, Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh, in the western Highlands of Scotland; since the castle's restoration in the early 20th Century, a footbridge has connected the island to the mainland.

We realized we did not do justice to Western Highlands since areas around Lochalsh and Skye requires atleast couple of days. The drive from Inverness through Lochalsh into Skye would remain etched in memory as one of the best in the world. The wilderness atop the mountains is probably matched only by some stretches in Africa. (Reminded me of my drives in the Rift valley province in Narok, or the Selous / Morogoro regions)

Spent the last day at Aviemore driving to Cairngorm mountains and doing some timelapse of clouds slowly covering the mountains leading to heavy downpour. I must confess, Iphone has become an able companion to my SLRs and grudgingly I now accept that phone cameras have become usable tools ! The panorama and timelapse functions are quite useful for some nice end products - especially if one is not printing big.

The last day was a longish 150 mile drive back to Edinburgh but along the beautiful A9. However, as luck may have it, there was major traffic disruption and hence we took a deviation via a bunch of small villages around Perth - including some fascinating places like Hermitage forest in Dunkeld. Saw some of the tallest trees I've seen outside of Africa and India. As they say, everything that happens, happens for good. Though late and tired, we reached Sheraton Edinburgh in time for a warm bath after days on road followed by a proper sit down dinner with couple of Scottish lagers. 

The car for most part was fantastic - I had to pay through my nose for a chip in the tire. The very low slung nature of the XE R sport meant its pretty easy to bump into grass covered side walks and scratch its underbelly too. I paid for a full Pirelli ! That was the only fly in the ointment of an otherwise impressive experience with the car (Well mistake was mine, so can't complain!)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Welcoming monsoons at Ranthambhore national park

I had always been fascinated by rains..and tigers ! So when a chance presented itself to photograph the two together I latched on to it. I joined my friend Nimish who was travelling from London combining Ranthambhore and bike trip to Ladakh. As usual, we decided to stay with Dicky and Poonam at Ranthambhore bagh. There is no place like it in Ranthambhore and it feels like home than a lodge - interesting also to share days events and photo tips with co-photographers. Most visitors are wildlife lovers, conservationists and photographers - so the kind of people I absolutely love hanging out with. Invariably you end up making more friends.

Took Emirates from Dubai to Delhi which landed at an odd hour of around 2-3 am. Since Nimish's Qatar Airways from London was also landing around same time, we caught up at the airport and took a pre-paid taxi to Nizamuddin railway station. We had to wait till around 8 am for our train to Sawai Madhopur. It was the worst 3 hours of the trip in what is clearly one of the filthiest major stations of India. For the life of me, I can't fathom why the government would not want to clean up such a major railway station - used by both tourists and residents alike. Swach Bharat could do well to start from here. We sat at the AC waiting room - which potentially is the cleanest area to "relax" ; it still had rats, wrappers and people sleeping all over. Bathrooms were ofcourse bad but compared to the filth outside, it was relatively well kept ! People would come and wake us up to keep watch over their bags so they could use the loo or brush teeth which I found quite amusing.
Thankfully the train was not delayed and we reached Sawai station without much fuss.

We were driven to Bagh in their open top jeep - it felt amazing to sit in the gypsy after almost a year taking in the new sights of Ranthambhore. Almost felt the number of hotels are increasing exponentially year after year. We had Rajinder as our guide for the full trip - nowadays, you cannot fix your jeep and driver for entire trip length and it keeps changing by trip (You could fix vehicle by paying an exorbitant 4000 rupees per trip). I personally prefer to have both guide and driver same for full trip because you kind of develop kinship and an understanding of which angles, light and subjects I prefer shooting. Anyways with the experience of Rajinder in the jeep, we were quite OK.  Having a row to yourself in the jeep is important for serious photography since that helps you cover all angles even while using long lens without disturbing others.

I was expecting temperatures upwards of 40 being peak summer - but the early rains had meant it was a more manageable 34. It also meant the red dust which is a big bummer for photographers was a non issue. However, it also meant few tiger sightings. You could ofcourse enjoy the newly sprouting green shoots, and the photographs did have a rainy feel to it, especially in mornings - something which I was eagerly looking forward to. Most nights, it rained and that meant the prey animals like Sambar left the lakes for higher grounds. That also meant most tigers followed to higher ground and we never really quite saw them to our heart's content.

The season's stars were T-19 (machali's daughter and current queen of lakes) and her litter - we never saw them together though we saw T-19. We also did see their dad - T28 or the star male. And a male leopard in Zone 4. Birding as also good through the week as was time lapse shooting I was doing to create a 3 minute multi format clip. I wanted to shoot the monsoons hitting and on our last drive we had this amazing storm clouds gathered in zone 3 with prospect of T28 walking out of the hunting lodge where he had gone in the morning. Though he did not come out, I could shoot some amazing timelapses around Rajbagh and Padam Talao with the clouds gathering and then bursting into a torrential downpour. It was beauty, peace and excitement combined into one heady cocktail ! Though we spent considerable time at Zone 3 in anticipation of tiger action, it never happened. However, enjoyed to hearts content the amazing lakes, amazing birds and overall amazing feel of the monsoon forests - especially the dancing peacocks, large number of monitor lizards, Indian hare, osprey etc.

Here are a few of my favourites

One of the earliest safaris, we had Zone 4. After an uneventful morning and larger part of evening safari, we met queen of lakes T-19. Since there were many gypsies following her and shooting would have been average, we decided to track the cubs. As we were doing so, we saw the father T-28 walking towards the grass lands next to Mallik Talao - one of the male cubs was resting amongst the grasses. We were looking forward to some dad-son love - however, the cub ran away as soon as it got the whiff of the large male. We however got a nice shot of the star male lighted by a setting sun - just his visage lighted up.

We had the good fortune of T-19 walking direct to us one evening - most probably looking for the cubs since we could hear her late in the evening moving up the hill roaring loud for the cubs. We found out latter that she had made a kill in the hills and was probably wanting to lead the cubs towards the food. That also meant she was not sighted again till parks closed - most probably she took the cubs in the night up the hill towards the kill.

One evening, as we were tracking T-19 family we saw them resting far away in a gorge, the cubs being partially visible. That is when, across from our position, on the far bank, amongst the rocks we sighted this beautiful male leopard. Must have been one brave fellow to be walking the grounds with a tiger family relatively close by. Typically if they even get a whiff of tiger, they run up trees to avoid being targeted.

Chinkaras have become very rare in Ranthambhore - so one morning when we saw a gang, we decided to wait to enjoy them grazing the new life brought along by the rains. I got this ethereal shot as one of them walked up a bank surrounded by new leaves all around and a rising sun reflecting off the leaves. I would have loved to frame the tree on right better for a full natural frame but you don't get everything always right especially when you shoot with long primes !

Given the onset of rainy season, I was expecting to shoot dancing peacocks - issue was always what can you add as a photographer to one of the most beautiful spectacles. I wanted to keep the head still and sharp and get a blurred feather effect using slow shutter speed. After many trial and error , finally got something relatively better.

Osprey eating fish - had never seen this bird in any of my trips to Ranthambhore and hence was nice to see it going about its lunch !

It is always nice to see a forest that is lush green - since I have always been in late winter or summer to Ranthambhore I never got this lush green feel for the forests. This was such an eye pleasing view from the top most point in the park with the clouds coming in. Most of my timelapse work was done from around this part and the lakes.

As a sweltering morning drive in z 2 was coming to an end without much happening, we took a bend and suddenly from nowwhere this lady appeared for 2-3 seconds and vanished like a ghost ! No clue where she came from and where she went - also no one has a clue who she is which is not saying much since there are many tigers in the non tourist zones that tourists typically do not see often. This was one special sighting !!

A bunch of other interesting images made during the trip