Tag Archives: Adventure

20 unexpected things about South Africa

I was very fortunate to visit this staggeringly beautiful country and it’s been the most incredible, thrilling, awe-inspiring experience of my life. I feel so blessed to have seen magical places and animals, and meet such inspirational people along the way. It really has been a dream come true, but here are some of the MOST unexpected things I came across during my travels:

#1 Everyone has a braai

Virtually every Friday people have a braai- typically the same as a barbecue with PLENTY of unusual meats. On the menu is a wide variety, including kudu, ostrich, crocodile and the famous Biltong. Accompanied by much drinking, smoking, dancing, star gazing and laughs. And I thought people in Spain liked a fiesta…

#2 Everyone can speak at least 11 languages

You literally walk off the stuffy 10 hour flight from London Heathrow to Joho and hear a myriad of clicking sounds, trills, calls, hi’s, shouts of seemingly unconnected languages. People here are remarkably talented when it comes to speaking different languages, and makes me feel incredibly derisible to only speak a mere two. There are eleven official languages of South Africa: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. Pheww! Dutch and English were the first official languages of South Africa from 1910 to 1925. Afrikaans was added as a part of Dutch in 1925, although in practice, Afrikaans effectively replaced Dutch, which was then no longer spoken. Thanks Wikipedia.

 

#3 How salty the sea is

This is an odd one- but having swallowed a bucket load during cage diving, sea kayaking, whale watching and surfing… the water is unusually salty compared to the Uk’s Atlantic. This is because the Agulhas Current which passes along the coast is, like the Gulf Stream, one of the strongest currents in the world ocean. It carries warm and salty water from the tropical Indian Ocean along South Africa’s east coast. South-west of Cape Town it makes an abrupt turn back into the Indian Ocean. In this process huge rings of water with diameters of hundreds of kilometre are cut off at intervals of 3 to 4 months. These so-called “Agulhas Rings” carry extra heat and salt into the South Atlantic, making this a key region for the whole Atlantic Ocean. Just take a look at the Etosha salt pans in Namibia, covering an area of approximately 1,900 square miles (4,800 square km). So get your surfers salt sea spray hair-do in South Africa!

Yeah baby, you can work it like this too!

Etosha Salt pans, Namibia

#4 Monkeys will raid your kitchen

Okay so we all know animals like to pinch your food. In the UK its usually seagulls at the coast and foxes raiding your bins at night. But when you see a 50kg Baboon legging it out of your kitchen bearing its HUGE canine teeth…then its rather grotesque bottom to you, you KNOW you’re in Africa. Vervet monkeys, although a lot smaller will also try their hand at pick pocketing. Having said that, within Europe it is possible to see a precocious primate pinch your picnic…Gibraltar in Spain is home to Europe’s only ape (other than ourselves), the Barbary ape. They’re notoriously known for stealing tourists’ food, so even at home you’re not safe!

#5 People smoke like there’s no tomorrow

I thought Spain was bad…but in South Africa, the cheap price of cigarettes (roughly £1.50, or €2 for the best quality makes) means people smoke as if they need it to breathe! The air is consistently filled with smoke, it’s seemingly unreal. SO if you’re a non-smoker like me, a strong Oust spray or perfume is required when you travel, otherwise you end up smelling like a chimney! In addition, the amount of cooking fires people have just about anywhere means you literally walk around smelling like a smoked salmon…yummy if you’re a brown bear. Thank goodness you’re in South Africa then.

#6 How bright the stars are…the wrong way round

When you look up at African skies- you’re instantly taken aback by the shear clarity and detail of our most beautiful galaxy. Billions of stars scattered across the vast expanse of the universe, like eternal diamonds, glinting and constant…but wait a minute, isn’t the Big Dipper supposed to be over there? So this this is to do with the rotation of the Sky. Because the earth is rotating the sky appears to rotate. Viewed from above the north pole, the earth is rotating counter-clockwise. For an observer on the earth, objects move from east to west (this is true for both northern and southern hemispheres). More accurately put, when looking north, objects in the sky move counter-clockwise. Though all objects rotate in the sky, the observed path stars make in the sky depend on the observer’s latitude. Some are always in the observer’s sky, some of the time, and others are never observable. SO don’t get your stars in a twist! Astrophotography is especially remarkable here, so remember to bring a tripod, I was lucky enough to witness a Blue moon too, as well as the crossing of Jupiter and Venus!

#7 Number of cows and quantity of meat you eat

Agriculture is HUGE in South Africa. In terms of cattle, in the UK there’s now 1.84 million dairy cows in the UK dairy herd, whilst approximately 80 % of agricultural land in South Africa is mainly suitable for extensive livestock farming… that’s a LOT OF COWS. South Africa produces 85% of its meat requirements, with 15% imported from Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland, Australia, New Zealand and the EU. Local demand generally outstrips production, even though there are untapped reserves in the communal farming areas. SO THAT’S WHY they have a lot of Braai’s. Of course it doesn’t stop at cows, you can also chomp on Zebra, Springbok, Kudu, Crocodile and the famous Ostrich. If you head over to Oudtshoorn, not only can you ride ostrich and have a selfie..but have a leather bag and burger to go with that. Not my cup of tea but hey!

#8 How cheap things are

Clutching shopping bags, glugging wine, and lounging on pristine beaches: South Africa’s weak rand is drawing few complaints from foreign tourists getting more bang for their buck. According to a recent Post Office study, a Briton buying £500 in local currency can get 22.3% more for their money, or an additional £91.03, compared with one year ago. The current exchange rates from £ to rand are: £1=20.7 South African rand. I mean that’s remarkably weak…having said that, in the past if was far weaker, only now are South Africans able to benefit from tourism. You can get your regular shop for less than a fiver, go out on a safari for £13, get a taxi for £5, fine-dining for £5, accommodation for £10 or less. Hence why there is such a draw to places such as Cape Town and Plett, the strength of the pound in particular means it’s hugely attractive for students too, looking to enjoy their student finance money!

#9 How little locals actually travel

A sad fact that reflects the state of poverty amongst many white and black South Africans. The strength of others currency against the rand and low wages means locals rarely have the spare cash to experience the delights of SA themselves. The median hourly wage in Pounds in the UK (net) is £5.90 versus £1.05 in South Africa. This is something that should definitely be addressed in terms of local discounts, but it’s encouraging to see that in National Parks residents pay half the price. SO we can consider ourselves very lucky!

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#10 The squeaky sound of the sand

The stunning sands of Plettenberg bay, Mossel bay and Knysna actually squeak! When Marco Polo heard them in the Gobi Desert, he believed they were spirit voices. Ancient Chinese literature describes ritual celebrations of their divine power. After generations of mystical interpretations, researchers are finally closing in on a scientific explanation for the acoustics of sand. They now agree that the phenomenon of noisemaking sand is made possible by the action of displacement, which produces musical instrument-like vibrations in sand grains. The exact recipe for noisy sands is still only wholly known in Mother Nature’s kitchen, so next time you walk on a squeaky beach, know that there’s even an equation that science provides to explain why (there’s even a book on squeaky sand…I’m not kidding!

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#10 The light

Probably one of the most magical things about Africa in general is the ephemeral light during dawn and sunset. When I recently visited, the sun rose 7am, painting the myriad of trees and mountains in golden, pink, burnt umber and orange shades. It brings about such a powerful feeling of belonging and inspiration– along with the equally magical chorus of bird song. At night, when sadly we have to see the sun slip away into the darkness, the hues and intense saturation truly makes you feel alive… casting sharp, vivid colours and creating immense silhouettes; a painters and photographers dream. But then as soon as the sun began to set, it seemingly disappears, as if someone has switched a light switch off, to then reveal a vast sky with scattered diamond-like stars winking at you from the distance. Small Cape river frogs will sing you to sleep with their sweet chirpings, as well as the amorous male crickets… (Anyone for “can you feel the love tonight?”) If you’re lucky you can see Venus and Jupiter in the distance, as well as the Milky way, Southern Cross, Dipper, but of course all in reverse in the Southern hemisphere!

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#11 The variety of birds

South Africa is world renowned for being a birdwatchers paradise, from the stunning iridescent plumage of the Orange-breasted Sunbird, to the cryptically coloured knysna warbler- it is most certainly a top-class spot for any avid twitcher. Of the 850 or so species that have been recorded in South Africa, about 725, (85%) are resident or annual visitors, and about 50 of these are endemic or near- endemic to South Africa, and can only be seen in the country. You can literally be walking in your back garden and spot a beautiful Golden Oriole, or hear the rather raucous calls of the Egyptian Geese. But if you’re not feeling adventurous and want to find the birds for yourself, head over to Birds Of Eden in the Crags- the world’s largest free-flight bird aviary- it truly is a class above the ones in Europe. Having volunteered there myself, the sustainability of the project is exceptional and the species you see are truly stunning.

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#10 Lack  of desserts 

I’m no foodie, but even I will indulge in a fruit salad or yogurt after dinner to cleanse the pallet. It seems here your daily food routine is: Breakfast: Granola, rusks or toast, Lunch: jam sandwich, Dinner: Meat and MORE MEAT…veg if you’re lucky! Also people eat REALLY LATE here: between 8-9pm. In Spain I must say it’s quite similar but I think an earlier 7pm dinner suits many of us better so we don’t all feel like an obese lion and have to literally roll to bed with all that meat in your belly. And during winter when the sun goes down by 5pm, you often feel like a torpid bat by 8pm. Slurp it all down with some Rooibos tea if you can, it’s excellent for digesting food!

#13 How empty houses are

Okay, so no, I didn’t break in like my monkey friends so often do to pinch a bag of apples. But the ghost-time quality of the more luxurious houses and overgrown weeds hinted the lack of human inhabitation. Also locals have told us how many Europeans and westerners will buy such homes as holiday get-always and visit during the summer to escape the increasingly wetter winters at home. So Plett is indeed a playground for the rich!

#14 Berg winds

A week after arriving I experienced an intense hot-blow drier wind which was truly glorious, despite it being winter. It’s one of Plettenberg Bay’s unusual weather phenomenon’s, where squally anticyclonic wind blowing off the interior plateau at 90 degrees to the coast will produce a hot dry outflow of air across the coast. It’s a welcoming change from the sharp cold air that dominates during the mornings and evenings, where the berg winds are especially frequent off the west coast and can raise temperatures to 25-35 °C. Humidity can also drop from 100% to 30% or less- a perfect night to go out and enjoy the stars with the clear dry air, or if you fancy a dance, heading into town with no need for straighteners to control that frizz girls… Berg-brilliant!

#15 The frequency with which you have to tip

I have NO problem at all with tipping- it feels good and people deserve it if they are giving you a service. However, so many people are willing to do things for you, as a student you soon run out of money! Literally everywhere: petrol stations, restaurants, EVERYWHERE YOU PARK YOUR CAR, attractions, even toilets! SO carry some spare change with you where you go!

#16 Surfing when sharks are about

Surfers are crazy- I will say this outright. But then again so are most extreme sports people; cavers who risk their lights busting mid ascent, climbers who play with the forces of gravity, and surfers who like to skim on shark infested waters..! But I really admire them; the way they glide over the water, moving their body in rhythm to the waves, tilted their body…waiting for the right moment to execute a move. And also the fact that they’re not in the slightest way deterred if a shark has been spotted. I recently photographed a surfer in Plettenberg Bay who insisted that a small shark close to the shore would pose no threat if he surfed correctly… Needless to say I gave up the offer of a lesson in return for taking photos! Maybe in Australia…

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#17 How many surfers actually inhabit Jeffery’s Bay

Okay so yes it’s the Surfing capital. But still, it feels like a student town but with surfers. It’s an amazing place to be, with such a cool al-fresco feel about it. We visited when it was raining, but they all seem to be very proud of this most ancient of sports, with a buzz in the air even after the International surfing competitions. We just arrived after the infamous Mick Fanning shark attack which was on everyone’s lips. No surfing today then!

#18 The number of activities you can do

It’s incredible the shear range of activities you can get up to here. In the 6 weeks I visited, I literally only had a single day where I didn’t do much, just because of the shear range of places to visit and get up all sorts of adventurous fun! Plettenberg Bay’s position in the Western Cape means it is perfectly situated to enable tourists to lounge and walk along their stunning white beaches, dine like a king (or queen) in many of its finest restaurants for less than £5, launch yourself of the world’s largest bungee, go on horseback ride safari’s, swim with seals, paraglide, skydive, rock climb, surf, see monkeys, big cats, falconry, craft markets, whale watching……The list is endless! The hikes are especially rewarding and offer the most spectacular scenery. Keep checking here for updates on how to do it on a student budget!

#19 How cold their winters actually are

JUST because its Africa doesn’t mean it doesn’t get cold! I initially thought this; perhaps it just me being foolish or hopeful, but I really did expect it to be warmer! My poncho was a lifesaver which I fashioned into a hiking rain jacket, beach towel, pillow and fashion throw… Do take one on your trip as well as waterproof hiking boots, socks, umbrella, rain jacket, warm jumpers and jackets to peel off. It will get warm all of a sudden when the sun comes out, but in the shade it can get to a chilly 10 or 2 at night!

#20 The Kindness of strangers

This isn’t unexpected I must point out, but its more of a beautiful fact… All my life I’ve been told how dangerous South Africa is; that everyone looking at you is simply there to steal, mug or kidnap you. And don’t get me wrong…I’ve had some pretty close shaves since being there which were unpleasant! As well as being stolen from. But the kindness of strangers is something that stands out the most for me: from locals helping 3 distressed girls on a busy motorway with a bust car (yep that happened to us!), to people offering their smiles, inspiration, laughter and reassurance… and now I can proudly say that many of them are now my friends!

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Western Washington University students and I at Addo National Park- my final leg of the journey!

GO TO SOUTH AFRICA- ITS AMAZING!

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How to become an adventure filmmaker

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SO you wanna be an adventure filmmaker?

Yes – its summer! That time of the year where we all wack out our shorts, shades and sun cream and jet-set across the world to exciting new places with friends and family. Be it glamping in Gloustershire, or snorkelling with Whales in Tonga, we ALL love to film our adventures and trips while we travel. YouTube is good evidence for this, brimming with hours of awful selfie shots of random tourists doing crazy activities, or what unusual tropical fruits they just ate for breakfast on a remote island.

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So WHY go to the trouble of making one?

MEMORIES! These trips of a life-time are so called because of the incredible sights and sounds you get to see, that nobody else will ever encounter or see in quite the same way. So you can capture these moments in a different light to writing and inspire others to get out and pursue their own trails around the world.

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204549-ed53366a-6795-11e3-bdad-d26236de09deFirst off….

To create a successful travel adventure film requires a blend of creativity, planning and decent tech. I don’t believe in the advice that others will say on being able to create amazing films with basic kit, you do need a good SLR or GoPro action camera with 1080p, 30fps specs! But that said, the standard of the compact camera and touch screen phone cameras  nowadays means you can get pretty close to it, so if you’re on a budget this shouldn’t sacrifice the quality too much.

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#Tip 1:

The key here is to OWN a TRIPOD and keep your video footage STILL. Then you’re practically 70% closer to making an amazing video. This is because in most videos that move everything around with additional handshake can result in unpleasant and messy images. This is the worst way to showcase your amazing holiday, and something nobody wants to see – even if the quality is superb, a still camera shot marks the sign of a decent film. All the videos I’ve been shooting in South Africa have been largely on a tripod whilst filming monkeys and big cats at Monkeyland and Jukani sanctuaries. The rule applies to both GoPro’s AND SLR cameras too, mainly the SLR’s as the shake from them can be unruly.

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#Tip 2:

Next up is the sound….

Now unfortunately the budget cameras that we all buy have awful quality audio- the sort that sounds like your voice has been turned into a million billion amps then compressed into sounds waves via a small cheap pair of crappy tin speakers…So your best bet is to buy a relatively inexpensive Rode mic for your SLR cameras, and if not, then don’t bother with the sound and add some on Adobe Audition or Cool pro edit. Both can be downloaded for free (Adobe audition version 3.0, not the new one). You’re an extra 10% there now.

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#Tip 3:

Have a story. There’s no point I filming literally anything you walk past, have some sort of journey through which we can follow. This won’t always be possible note, and DO film exciting things you’ve never seen before, but think of whether you want to make it more of an adventure adrenaline junkie one with plenty of action shots, or a buddies trip over with long braai nights and sit arounds which may be nice to film. Of course including local people and cuisine is important, and most exciting of all, the wildlife and landscapes!

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21 Jun 2011, Indonesia --- Sea Kayaking in Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia, New Guinea, Southeast Asia, Asia --- Image by © James Morgan/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis

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Planning a shots list always helps too, any close ups of preparing food, tight close ups of animals, then the more scene setting views of the area- so streets, mountains, the ocean, a fiesta, ect.

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Then interviews should always have a personal perspective and be directly on them, with the potential to have a camera on you if you have +2 cameras. When you find an interesting place, person, animal or situation you ALWAYS film it in a proper sequence in that you get at least 25 different shots of the event in that given location, so that youre able to tell the story visually. Don’t bother if the place/event isn’t particularly memorable, better to save your memory card and battery for somewhere that is. Many a time have I been somewhere and filmed away, then run out of battery for the next day without being able to find a plug socket!

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#Tip 4:

Shoot transitional shots. So whether you’re driving to your next location, passing maps, road signs, street scenes, day to day events, passer by’s, film a few seconds of it. People brushing, cleaning, eating, chatting, commuting – its all great stuff to add to your film an give it a more professional finish. Now your 92% closer to being a pro!

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#Tip 5:

The edit– this makes up the final 99%! Its key to mix up the interspersed transitional shots that you’ve got, and intertwine these to make your movie more professional. Add music or commentary to suite your film and then voila!! You should have an amazing travel holiday video that you can be proud of and show off to all your friends and family. And if your feelin brave, why now show it to the world and put it on YouTube (to reach full 100% pro rating of being a good distributer), Vimeo and then spread it around on social media? Who knows, maybe you can et sponsored to take videos by GoPro, mammut, Nike, Canon, Bergus, Timberland, ect and other outdoorsy companies that would love to promote themselves through your incredible work. More about that soon, but for now, keep filming!

Into the realms of Giants- Whale watching in South Africa

It is only when, for the first time, that you see one of these COLOSSAL creatures in their element do you realise how small species we are – and yet able to cause so much damage to the world’s greatest biome that the Great whales live in.

These great whales are frequently found along the coasts of South Africa as the currents that pass through the Indian Ocean bring up-welling’s of nutrients and food to feed these 20 tonne giants. This is where the fresh, cooler waters from Antarctica meet with the warmer currents of the Pacific. However the main reason for the presence of the whales is to mate– this is literally a clubbing lek for whales wanting to find love, and also for mothers to give birth to their calves. Many locals have told me about remarkable sightings of females being pursued by amorous males for many kilometres on end, what sight that must be!

Their numbers are slightly increasing since the 1970’s ban imposed by the Whaling Union in Durban, and the dreadful practice of killing these magnificent mammals has halted. Most people now see the whales as being more valuable alive than dead which is huge plus. The whaling industry was hugely prolific back in the 1950s, from the shores of Argentina and South Georgia, (in particular during the Falklands war). South African whaling stations along the coast were also being established along False Bay where the meat was processed, where you can see remnants of the place today. Namibia also had a large station as well as Durban and Cape Town as well as in New Zealand and South Australia.

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Thankfully, there are dedicated researchers setting off into the blue in all weathers to study different species and populations around the entire coast of South Africa. This is principally conducted by aerial photography, isotopic DNA analysis from  samples as well as fin photography. Through identifying individuals, the researchers are able to determine the return of philopatric individuals, where previous calves were born and returned to their birth place to mate and give birth themselves. Humpack whales in particular are attuned to this cycle. They will take 3 years to recover from giving birth, as it’s a very energetic process. I’m pretty sure if I was that big and gave birth to a 4m, 1.5 tonne baby I’d be in no hurry for more…

To see whales in their natural environment has always again been a life-long ambition. Watching Sir David Attenborough documentaries, and seeing incredible camera operators such as the multi-talented and hardy Doug Allen and Diddie made me want to come into contact with these gentle giants myself. Ocean Safari’s made this possible with their coastal tours of Plettenberg Bay, they are the oldest whale watching tour guides on this part of the coast and offer discounts to volunteer students (was 800 rand, now to 500 rand which is around £25-27) for 3 hours of whale watching. You have different excursion times from 9:00am, 12:00 and 2:00pm daily throughout the whole week (weather dependent). So you should always call up if you want to have a tour and book it.

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The boat names Fat Boy, after the local name for the Southern Right Whales

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The different species of whales you can see include Southern Right, Humpack whale, Brydes whales, and bottle nose dolphins, common dolphin, sharks, cape seals and Orca! The possibilities are endless. The Captain of the Ocean Dafir’s was Marvin, who was an expert sailor- and I asked him how long he’d been sailing this particular vessel- and his response of 15 years assured me that we would be in good company and able to see and spot the whales. Our guide was equally qualified and friendly to us all. We had a quick safety briefing as usual and then headed off to the Plett central beach bay with our life jackets.

We were ready to set sail!

Thrash! We speed off towards the sea and jet stetted off towards the headland of Roberg where the Cape Seal colony resides. The weather had improved significantly compared to the previous day, although clouds did loom ominously in the distance. I had taken my trusty sea sickness tablet, Kwells, which I would recommend taking even if you “don’t get sea sick,” just because it give you that reassurance. I warn you, you WILL GET WET.

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Do take a rain jacket if the company you go with doesn’t provide you with one. The sea salt will leave you looking like a shipwrecked drugged up model with sea salted hair but don’t let that put you off! It was glorious bouncing along the Indian Ocean, and being kissed by the spray peppering our face. As we approached the seal colony everyone grabbed their cameras and gasped at the extent of the Seals climbing abilities. These were apparently the highest climbing seal colonies in South Africa, some at least 40m above the progressively swelling sea that thrashed against the rocks, sending a jet of white foam into the air like flecks of white paint.

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Above is Roberg, a fantastic place to hike and below the seal colony is visible as well as the whales and sharks!

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I’m not going to lie, I was a little perturbed by the size and progressive onset of swells that efficaciously emerged from the seemingly endless ocean- this was my first experience on a boat on a choppy day. I have previously been on a dolphin safari in Spain, but the waters were tame compared to this. As we bounced along the sea, we kept focusing on the sea horizon, and the reassuring words of our friendly guide who assured us we would see Whales, and to keep looking out for the spouts of spray. The humpbacks and Southern Right whales have the two blow holes from which they breathe when they surface.

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Yes that is a helicopter drone you can see above the spray, they are being used now to take samples of the animals and take aerial photos- top class!

The sound they make as they breach is a characteristic “ptfffffffff” which is seemingly imperceptible amongst the sound of the waves and wind resonating through the hull of the boat. Everything seemed to be a Whale, every wave! After 30 minutes even I was beginning to lose hope and wish the trip was over as my stomach began to churn…but then I saw the cool waters break and an immense grey dark shape emerged from the depths and glided across the surface effortlessly, the afternoon light reflecting profusely along its streamlined body- it was a Humpack!

“Over there!” I gasped in awe.

The captain and guide then followed my hand signal to my surprise, was it a whale or did I imagine it? Nevertheless we sped on, and then there it was again, the spouting and the appearance of the whales back, this time accompanied by a miniature version of itself- a calf! This was a female travelling with its mother, perhaps one that had been born there and now off to feed. They did indeed seem to be hungry and moved with remarkable speed. I had no time at all to take photos, and so filmed everything on the GoPro. I would recommend the same. The water and spray could really damage your camera, and the Gopro on the selfie stick works wonders as a stabiliser.

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We followed them towards the north and Roberg, and then were surprised to see yet another whale join us at the side, and fluked with its broad and knarred tail, slipping once more into the deep dark depths of the ocean. It’s truly was magical. Then to top it all off, one of the males breached and its immense body left the waters for seconds, water streaming down its muscular and colossal body, and then landed with an all mighty splash. Wow! We saw a few more sightings of the mother and calf, and I believe we saw up to 4 individuals all busy on their way to feed or mate…

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And then all of a sudden as soon as it had started, it was all over, and the skipper had already extended our trip to get further views, and so we headed back past the seal colonies. I spoke to our guide about any BBC film crews that had shot in these waters, and apparently Dolphin Army was filmed off these waters! I mentioned my plans to film in South Africa as part of my final film project next year, and he said that they would be more than happy to accommodate students! Score!

So who knows, I may return to film some of these remarkable marine species in more detail the following year. But if you’re around Plett or South Africa in general, I can’t recommend a Whale Safari more highly, it’s one of those experiences that never leaves you, and it’s now made more aware of what we’re putting into our oceans. As part of the #BigBlueLive filming that will shortly hitting our screens on the BBC, I think it’s vital that we get behind our gentle giants of the oceans and keep putting pressure on our governments to create more marine reserves around our waters in the UK and worldwide. Happy Whale watching!

Shark Week- Malevolent misconceptions

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“The white nictitating membrane rolls, the 6 inch teeth glean and the grey sleek tail cuts through the water with astonishing speed- the Great White Shark approaches in all its power and terrifying instinct towards the cage…”

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It’s always been a lifelong ambition to go cage diving with these remarkable evolutionary powerhouses of the stunning coasts of Southern Africa. Ever since watching Blue Planet as a child, the images of these great fish, perfectly adapted to their environments with their colossal 6m size, 1.1 tonnes in weight and 300 blade like teeth, it naturally appealed to me as a passionate zoologist as I am certain it does you if you’re reading this. This week is the International Shark Week by a happy coincidence, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time to be able to have the incredible opportunity to see these superlative predators of the ocean in Mossel Bay, one of the Great White hotspots of South Africa. I joined 3 other volunteer students at Monekyland, Tsisikama National Park, on a 3 hour drive from Plettenberg Bay to the “White Shark Africa” ocean extreme experience diving and viewing these magnificent species. We rented a car from Euro car at a reasonable price of 500 rand (£33) a day split between us travelling along the scenic route of the N2 motorway through the resplendent lagoon town of Kysna (30 minute drive from Plettenberg Bay), George and finally Mossel Bay. It was one heck of a last minute arrival faff trying to find the place but eventually we found it in time!

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We had arranged to get there for the 12pm slot where the 1st group of people would be returning from their trip and where we would be getting ready to go to Seal Island at 1pm. The last cohort had mixed facial expressions, some with a hint of fear, others with a perpetual smile on their face. The cost of the trip isn’t cheap at £70, although relatively less expensive than some other tour operators in Cape Town (£120). We got a discount to 1250 rand (£60) for being volunteers at Monkeyland, usually being 1350 rand.

And so as soon as we signed away a form agreeing to the conditions of the possibility of being cleaved in half by a Carcharodon carcharias, we were offered a mini buffet of assorted food which I managed to get down after a sea sickness tablets. I would highly recommend the Kwells as you only need to take them 30 minutes earlier rather than the usual day before ones. Dan our instructor gave us a snappy (pardon the pun) talk with regards to the species and what was happening, and a rather overzealous depiction of his favourite individual, Black Gill. Apparently he was the more aggressive one and we were to look out for him. So we were primed and ready to head down to the bay to set sail on the “Shark Warrior,” their 11 m long vessel complete with shark cage. And so off we went towards the rather adeptly named Seal Island, and off into the misty murky waters we went…The boat itself felt rather stable and robust as we hummed along the Indian Ocean and pivoted around Seal Island, with the 2500 Cape Fur Seals nonchalantly sunning themselves in the winter sun, blissfully unaware of the predatory fish beneath them in the dark, deep waters.

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Everyone was feeling nervous and excited at the prospect of coming face-to-face with a Great White, and the possibility of some incredible photos. We eventually anchored and it was time. We were asked whether we wanted the first dive, we replied with a confident why not. We zipped up the dry suit having changed on deck to the crew’s amusement, whilst I struggled to contain my hair within the head section as it budged out rather prominently!

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Other research students from the University of Melbourne and several other South African Universities were also on board and helpful and friendly. They had the hard job of monitoring the Great White’s populations and laser pointing them to determine the measurements. What a research dissertation!

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So we were all ready to get in. We listened intently to our instructor as he gestured for us to pull over our leg onto what then all of a sudden seemed a very fragile cage. The water was being chummed with a delectable concoction of fish oils and guts…it smelt repulsive. It then seemed like the most unnatural thing to then lift our leg and lower down into the cage having just seen a 4m shadow lurking in the depths- we were in.

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We adjusted our masks and waited for the sharks to approach us. Note that you DO NOT need SCUBA DIVING experience, when they see the sharks above, the crew will tell you to “get below” and you can hold your breath and take a dive to see them as they pass.

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It seemed an age before the first shark was sighted with the tuna bait on the rope consistently being tossed about in front of us. Then all of a sudden, a dark shadow appeared from the murky depths, with the distinctive shape of the Great White; its immense size only then became apparent to me, an even more so as it headed straight towards the cage, teeth bare, gills flashing, eyes rolling… it was Black Gill– at an astonishing 4.3m.

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The white nictitating membrane was rolling, the 6 inch teeth gleaning and the grey sleek tail cutting through the water with astonishing speed, and simply its presence was enough to render us SENSELESS- such a potent force of nature was before us. It truly was one of the most THRILLING and exciting experiences in my life, I never thought I would have the opportunity to get so close to such an incredible animal. The sightings then began to increase as we continued to float closer to Seal Island, closer to their true prey.

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This is one of the biggest misconceptions about sharks- that they deliberately attack humans to eat them. Seals are the Sharks natural prey, and they have evolved to process such species and enable them to survive and reproduce successfully for over 50 million years. Humans are bony and contain little fat content, both of which the sharks are not fond of. It is ALWAYS a case of MISTAKEN IDENTITY. Surfers are frequently attacked as they resemble the seals on the surf boards and can often cause the shark to breach and attempt an attack.

Unfortunately there were 2 attacks in the past 3 weeks at Plettenberg Bay on surfers attacked by great whites, and many argue that it’s the cage diving activities that is causing such attacks, sue to them associating humans with the chum and food bait placed out for them. It’s actually illegal to feed them, but tempting them near to the cages is obviously the main way to attract the species to the cage. I still believe however that cage diving doesn’t have such an effect, as surely the negative reinforcement of no food reward with the chum and mouthful of metal cage doesn’t exactly results in more sharks wanting humans as food.

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It’s simply a matter of probabilities and stats- the more surfers there are in the ocean = greater chance of being bitten. All of these victims have survived fortunately, but many people are now blaming such touristic activities on this behaviour. This YouTube video below shows a Great White “attacking” the very cage I dived in with the same boat at Mossel Bay, approximately 3 days earlier!

I spoke to the crew leader and shark scientist Dan, who assured me that the shark was in fact “mouthing the cage” as this is very common behaviour. Hence the shark was not attacking the cage, but in fact testing it out in terms of edibility.

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The number of sharks that are killed every year is far more numerous than human attacks, of just 16 in the US compared to the 200 million sharks being killed for the notorious shark fin soup. They will cut all the fins off and let them sink to the bottom of the ocean to die. This is why I believe shark conservation needs to pour money into further safeguarding the oceans and creating more protected areas, that will not only keep the sharks safe, but all the other species in the ecosystem.

Again this will have cascading effects along the food chain, as recent research papers discussing the “seascape of fear” whereby the presence of the shark will have impacts on the mesopredators such as dolphins which will avoid them in the area. This in turn will increase the smaller predators or numbers of fish in the area, which then can either graze more, or filter out more plankton, alterning the baseline primary producer output- effecting the whole ecosystem. If we remove sharks, this interferes with the entire community of species.

The fantastic news is that recently UNESCO’s decision to recognise both the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve and the Magaliesberg Biosphere following their nomination for biosphere reserve status by the Government of South Africa means that under law these beautiful animals are even more protected and so can ward off potential hunters In California. Hopefully such organisations can help push shark conservation, but I am still dubious that it’s a fair game that we are teasing these animals to get viewings of them. Perhaps we could adopt a more natural approach to viewing sharks and simply wait to see if we can get such viewings, reduce the price of the trip and lower our expectations of seeing them- the simple excitement and possibility of seeing these creatures out of their own accord is far more magical and awe-inspiring than tempting them in.

Happy Shark week! Updates about Monkeyland and how YOU can volunteer on a student budget soon.

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SO you wanna be an EXPEDITION CAVER?

SO! You wanna be an EXPEDITION CAVER?

Calling ALL adventurous students!

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A motley crew of 40+ cavers, with a range of ages, will descend upon the Austrian Alps for the Dachstein summer Caving Expedition 2015. This is literally all the low down on the cave exploration scene in the Alps. It is as well renowned for its deep, tortious and hard alpine cave systems, as the Austrians are for lederhosen and beer. A staggeringly high peak of 2995m, the possibility of a 2500m deep entrance point to the water table below is tantalisingly closer than ever before. And YOU could be part of the team that is part of this historical event!

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The Winter project requires dry, frozen, stable conditions to enter the 100km long, 1.1km deep single monster cave at the main project to the far west (Sahara), deep snow, and involves a breath-taking 2-6 hour approach hike. This is however not for the light hearted, a 10-18 hour caving trip in extreme cold conditions is the likely scenario, and trust me when I say these cavers are literally rock hard and (sorry), rather insane!

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But nevertheless, it’s a most exciting trip to be had if you’re fed up of a gentle walk up Ilkley Moor, and if your local Hyde Park snowball fight isn’t quite giving you enough frost nip…get your crampons and ice picks at the ready and sign up to this winter’s expedition! For more info head to their Facebook page and have a chat with them, they’re a really friendly bunch once you get past the grimy remarks and jokes about your incompetence (I kid of course). A plan of the cave route can be seen here:

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As for THIS summer, the project involves connecting the hysterically named “Wat have U-got-Pot” and the Hirlatz (yes I think its German). So for the fit and keen there will be the opportunity to take part in the exploration of the mighty Wot-U-Got Pot (800m+ deep and 6km long) which requires camping underground for 4 days at a time. But do be warned, this is a dangerous, cold, flood-prone pothole that demands skill, ability, bloody-mindedness & a twisted sense of humour which I must say was provided by the bucket load this weekend (I can’t remember or understand most of it, but do join us if you want to hear some).

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It is this cave that gives Joel and his team the best hope of breaking into and connect to the massive Hirlatz Hole from WUG Pot- then it will become a 1.5km deep monster system and mastercave (1.5km+). Recently over the past few years teams have shortened the distance between these two mega cave systems to under 500m. If the connection is made the journey from top to bottom could well be the ultimate adventure sports challenge involving winter mountaineering, abseiling, caving and cave diving taking several days to complete.

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SO just think of all the mud, sweat, darkness, smelly feet, lack of sleep… I mean- ADVENTURE, EXCITEMENT, HEROIC APTITUDE, SWANKY CV BOOSTER (a ‘what scenario shows teamwork skills’ drill), and most of all FUN 2 weeks of caving during one of the most exciting times in caving exploration history in Europe. The price really is fantastic too (£250 for 3 weeks).  Here’s a little break down courtesy of Joel:

  • Expedition fees (to go towards metalwork/hardware, ropes, communal food, etc) £60 for the duration;
  • Weekly allowance (fresh veg, fuel, etc) €10 (so €30 or €40 for the duration);
  • Accommodation of approx €3.50 or €4 a night = approx €80 total;
  • Travel: very rough guide but maybe £100

hiking-austriaThe team are insistent that it’s not necessary to be a pro but the willingness to train and have a go! I think I may be going to simply take the photographs, document the expedition and have a nice hike and climb until I feel ready to undertake the caving trip- so if you fancy a nice sight-seeing holiday, come along! It’s not just all about that hard-core exploring, there’s plenty of other activities to do and get involved with, including prospecting in the mountains looking for new caves, continuing the exploration of previously discovered caves, assisting with the re-rigging as all the ropes and much of the metal work needs to be replaced.

And if deep dark caves aren’t your thing, there’s even an ice cave nearby that makes for a stunning tourist trip, just so you can pose with those new ice picks you’ve bought (lads), and girls yes you can pretend to be Elsa.

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For all you animal lovers out there, Joel tells me there are marmot colonies near by, gams in the hills at dawn (similar to chamoix), foxes, snakes, etc… Where you’ll be based at 1850m its about 100m below the transition from the superlative carpeted green slopes to more bare alpine scenery- a haven for wildlife, and wild ADVENTURE!

This is the greatest cave exploration project in the world: no discussion!! Matt St Clair will be organising & will appoint key people to the role of “Dachstein Reps” as some of the lifers cannot commit 100% these days. If you feel you would like to assist in the organisation then please make yourself known. Dates are provisional but will probably be 3 weeks in total, see their dedicated Facebook page for more information: info.https://www.facebook.com/events/1490999744511831/

BUT WAIT!!!!

First of all, before you go jet-setting to the Alps with your shorts, T-shirt, trainers and multi coloured running leggings… there’s a few things you need to know about surface gear and caving gear, as well as the health and safety aspects to the trip. I’ll try and make it as painless as possible I promise!

Kit List

“NORMAL” CLOTHES (e.g., trousers, underwear, t-shirt, socks)

Recommended 2 sets for caving (one for each trip) and one for the hut. (You could get away with two sets one for caving one for the hut relying on the drying room – it should be noted that the term drying room is a misnomer, it just makes all things marginally less damp)

DO NOT BRING JEANS TO CAVE IN!!!!!!

(When wet they get cold, heavy and chafe, they also take ages to dry, fine for the hut though.)

BRING WHITE STUFF AT YOU OWN RISK

(Water in caves is often a bit muddy and can dye white clothes a permanent brown)

  • WARM STUFF FOR THE HUT

Caving huts can vary wildly in temperature (also good to keep warm on the way to the pub)

  • A FLEECE to cave in

Fleeces are ideal to cave in as they are warm and drain relatively quickly when wet.

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  • THERMALS to cave in

Very good for keeping you warm in wet caves. (A cheap set can be made with any tight fitting top e.g. modern rugby tops and a pair of thick tights (yes even for the blokes) looks silly? yes Warm? Definitely. I mean, who can resist a guy in tights? (Definitely me…guys don’t go for the 1D look outside of caving, only wimps wear girly tights for fashion).

  • WELLINGTON BOOTS (gum boots) to cave in

Wellies are quite simply the best footwear to cave in. The club has a good selection which it is happy to lend out but please email to request them as unless you were born with 3 size 9 left feet we may not have any in your size (particularly true for small/large sizes)

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  • GLOVES (marigold washing up gloves) to cave in

A controversial one this (some cavers like gloves some don’t) but good for keeping your hands warm they are cheap and can be god-send so you might as well bring them

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  • HAT to cave in

A wooly hat/balaclava is good for keeping warm underground. People with long hair should bring some stuff to tie it back e.g. hair bands, buff e.t.c

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  • SLEEPING BAG

To sleep in. No really.

  • TORCH

So you can find your way to your bunk/ back from the pub. Oh and the cave.

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  • WASH KIT (Tooth brush, soap, deodorant etc.)

PLEASE bring this guys to wash with. Don’t bother with beatifying stuff (hair straighteners), but perhaps a hint of mascara and eye liner..oh and concealer for those equally dark eye circles around the eyes from days of no sleep. Trust me everyone will thank you for it. Shower gel- many cavers don’t even bother to shower after a trip, merely washing will make you look like a god/goddess compared to the other muddy and smelly cavers.

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Because it looks so swish I hope this encourages the guys to get one 😉
  • TOWEL

To dry off with / avoid flashing everyone when getting changed and to hide from the prying eyes of cavers

  • MONEY

Money for the pub crawls and to buy dinner and any drinks

  • BEER/DRINKS

There will normally be quite a few drinks had Friday and Saturday night. We normally stop on the way at a supermarket. Even if you don’t drink alcohol it will probably be worth bringing some coke/ squash to quench your thirst. Missing something? The club has some spare kit it can lend (particularly wellies).

CAMPING

Please Bring:

  • ROLL MATT

A length of foam mat to keep you of the tent floor and hence much warmer.

OPTIONAL KIT (if you have it please bring it):

  • Any PERSONAL CAVING KIT
  • WETSUIT

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Some caves have some great (if cold) swimming opportunities. Chances of using one is slim but swimming in crystal clear pools deep underground is worth the effort of packing it. Please don’t pack your bikini.

  • FURRY / Thermal Undersuit

A giant adult sized fleece baby grow. Known universally by cavers as furries they are also sometimes used by sailors and divers under dry suits. These are the crème de la crème of caving insulation and many cavers’ first purchases. They can be very expensive so if yours is a non-caving one for use under a dry suit you use it at your own risk.

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Oh! I almost forgot. Warm underpants…I’m not fooling around here, its vital to keep yourself nice and snug down there. Nothing worse than soggy bottoms is there Mary?

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Well that’s all from me, write up on first aid and cave photography soon!

South Africa and Bristol MA Wildlife Filmmaking

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This last week has truly been one of the most exhilarating, emotional and thrilling times of my life…I will be visiting South Africa this Summer, AND have been offered a place on the incredible Masters course in Wildlife Filmmaking at Bristol, in partnership with the BBC! I literally wept with happiness, joy and relief when receiving the news on Tuesday…literally just had the interview two weeks previously at the University, and everything I have worked for these past 6 years has been worth it. I am truly grateful for both amazing opportunities.

Thank you to all my friends and family for their endless and continual support, as well as belief in me to pursue my dreams. This feels like this is the beginning of some very exciting adventures, and can’t wait to find out what excitement, hard work and challenges lie ahead!

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Hopefully you can join me on this journey and that I can inspire you to feel passionately about the natural world around us, and more importantly preserve it for future generations. It is our duty as filmmakers to protect the stunning and awe-inspiring places we visit and continue to tell the fascinating stories that unravel on a daily basis on this beautiful blue planet of ours.

UWESince I was very young, the remarkable literature talents of Lauren St John, David Alric, Michael Morpurgo and of course all of my history/biology/geography reference books provided me with an escape and world of wonder and curiosity about the natural world. I could travel the world from my bed, chair, rock, beach towel… and one place, always so vividly represented in all the books I read, was South Africa. Its rich culture, bright colours, sublime smells and majestic animals- and I yearned to visit one day. BBC documentaries and the mild attempts of the Spanish equivalent further gave me the impetus to one day visit this staggeringly beautiful country, and this I finally decided that THIS WAS IT! I’m going to SA this year after I graduate to have the experience of a lifetime.

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This is it! I am going to volunteer at the South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance, Plettenberg Bay and work as a multilingual tour guide (sounds posher than it is)and photographer/filmmaker intern. Each of the sanctuaries under SASAA include Monkeyland, Birds of Eden and Jukani wildlife, which fund themselves through revenues from tourists who take educational tours of the sanctuaries to continue to bring in funds.

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A detailed catalogue of all the SAASA species has not yet been made of the primates, birds and apex cats, and so compiling this information, along with taking photographs and film footage (for YouTube) of individual primates is an important part of the project. They do great work here and I am honoured to be a part of it, and help out in any way that I can.

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SO this will be my ‘job’ from June 2th till August 2nd! I’ll be writing regular updates on what I get up to, and how practical it is for YOU to VOLUNTEER for CHEAP ABROAD, it took me many hours to research ethical, well respected places that treat their animals well and don’t actually charge you to volunteer. The only cost involved is the homestay at Rock Road Backpackers (contact Mac: info@wwisa.co.za) which again is AMAZINGLY priced at £18 a night, FOOD, ACCOMODATION, TRAVEL to and from the sanctuaries included. Total cost for 36 days will be around £1600, but I’ve applied for £500 funding from the Leeds for Life Foundation, fingers crossed! Still an amazing prices considering.

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They are SO lovely there, I’m feeling really confident about heading over now as they seem to be very experienced in receiving students. Currently taking my vaccinations now (ouch tetanus hurts!), which are all covered by the NHS, but be warnerd, rabies is £40 a shot! It is necessary though, especially since I’ll be working with primates, (and an odd bat or two if I get the chance).

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I really want to be able to make a difference at the SAASA (South African Sanctuary Alliance) by bringing my skills as a photographer/videographer/zoologist and researcher, as well as help to build up a collection of all the species and individuals at the sanctuary. Having studied zoology at the University of Leeds for 3 years now, I feel the need to travel and experience different cultures, sights and wildlife encounters before I go on to study for my Master this coming September. Not only do I feel I would grow as a person, but also gain further insight and build upon my current portfolio which will prove to be very useful when applying for jobs as a freelance camera woman. It has always been a life-long ambition to visit South Africa, I missed out on an opportunity field trip last summer due to my research project that was to be conducted in the UK on bat foraging distributions. There’s so many amazing activities to get up to there too, canyoning, scuba diving, sky diving, caving, whale watching and I’ll also be going to the world renewed Addo National Park with students from Washington University!

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One day..one step closer…

SO! I’m currently studying for my exam finals now, and can’t stop thinking how lucky I am. I mean, I have worked really hard to get to where I am…and it’s not been easy by any measure. These past three years a Leeds have been a rollercoaster of emotions- but cannot recommend going highly enough. University teaches you more than simply lectures and how to avoid drunk people! But it allows you to find yourself, your purpose, your dreams, what your capable of and most of all determined to, no matter what, follow your dreams and CREATE YOUR OWN LUCK too.

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Dachstein Austria caving expedition training: A weekend in Wales

This weekend was all about the SRT, caves, sheep and the industrial valleys of the wonderful country that is Wales! I went down with the Leeds University Speleogical society to Summit centre (Wales), Merith Tyfild to further enhance my caving expedition skills. This is all in preparation for the rather excitingly named “Dachstein expedition” which will be going ahead this summer, more of this towards the end! As well as how YOU can join Matt St Claire on caving EXPEDITION– yes YOU could be then next Ralph Reynolds, and best of all the prices are student friendly. A guide on what kit to take and first aid is all you need, (and frankly to be slightly insane) to go on this exciting adventure.. But firstly our trip down south began 10:30am, Friday 27th March…

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#CarSelfie

The trip down in the van was probably the most entertaining, where much fun was had ridiculing the sheep, lack of windows in and how industrial Wales appeared to be- enveloped in mysterious and ethereal blue smoke. We stopped off in what only could have been described as a town full of Morrison’s and Gregs to buy an entire chicken, which we carved and ate later on our picnic stop, much to the delight of Rachael, (not so sure about Daniel’s reaction though).

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Last bone picked dry

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Whilst Luke and Rob frolicked along the banks of a quaint river, skimming stones and generally skipping around, I took a few photographs of their later modelling efforts- just take a look at these stunners…

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The competition heated up…

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We then set off again, feeling ebullient and joyous about what lay ahead. One more coffee stop and we arrived at a rather late time of 7:30pm, but relatively earlier than the rest. Joel Corrigan (the event organiser), was suspended 12m in the air rigging the equipment for the following day, and so we decided a nice dinner would suffice until he was within audible shouting distance. When we returned from the small village, the car park seemed rather more packed than before, so we made our way to the meet and greet hallway areas, bumping into a few budding cavers.

I met another fellow Zoologist, Kieran, and he told me that he was studying at Cardiff Uni– a brilliant place for research as is Leeds. His research was fascinating!Victoria was a very funky archaeologist and Raphael a smiley German student, both at Cardiff again. Meg, a French exchange student, was telling me all abut the trip to Austria, and what a great time its is for students to get involved with expeditions now. We then popped into the climbing centre where we were astonished by the size of the walls… I mean this really does beat the Leeds wall and Edge!

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Big ass climbing wall

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Climber-eye candy, we had a go at some bouldering. Later after a brief meeting and hearty salad for dinner, a furious networking session with a group of lovely cavers was had! We chatted about our research (how sad…), hopes for the summer, and the thought of what lay ahead the next day. By the time we got to bed my contact lenses were peeling off my eyeballs (it was that long a day)…but fell fast asleep to the sniffling and constant rotations of my top bunk bed partner… thanks Brendan!

Day 1

Morning came rather soon, whilst everyone was slightly hung over and reluctant to emerge from their roosts. I couldn’t stay in bed any longer, so I quietly snuck out to have a shower and sniff out some wifi. No luck with the internet I’m afraid. Or with breakfast for that matter. Despite the long drawn out morning, an energetic meeting was had about the plans and details of our training.

First up, basic SRT practice! The basics of kitting up with your descender, hand jammer, chest jammer or Kroll, cows tails, D-ring, friction karabiner (don’t ask me where these names come from!), chest piece and of course the hip and leg loops/harness from which you attach all these marvellous metallic pieces of kit.

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Henry sorting out his chest straps.

I had fun getting my chest jammer in wrong for the 6th time, but got there eventually. Raphael was being shown by the experienced Elliot (tree surgeon, yep that’s an actual job title!) how to kit up, whilst I took photos of everyone.

The others did the more advanced SRT and Joel swanned around cursing at the ineptitude and lack of safety of the caving clubs tackle masters with their incompetent uni SRT kits… scary times.

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He did have a good point however! And was very knowledgeable about ALL aspects of caving. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who is generally that cave keen.

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Everyone also had a go at some easy rope access, tight re-belays, tension lines, rope to rope transfers and cave surveying (attended by Rachael and Luke using Clinos, compasses and Distal X’s).

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Group photo with the lovely Cardiff lot. Will definitely be joining them when I head down to Bristol!
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Testing out the flash
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Lots of SRT hanging around.
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Some quick gear checks to ensure each others safety
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Joel’s Cows tails. Mine were too short apparently…
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Some rigging with alpine butterfly knots. Proud to say I managed them after 6 attempts. Handy for a deviation.

A bit more swinging around on ropes, rock climbing and belaying rounded off the day nicely and brought us to the evening where we watched Joel’s rather insightful home videos. Well, caving videos, which all left us feeling inspired about the trip this summer. Dinner was a bit of a brawl over the last morsel of stuffing and lemon tart piece. Luckily I didn’t want pudding…just as well, the guys went back for more! We all went to bed buzzing with butt ache and the clinking sound of our SRT kit ringing in our ears.

Day 2:

The next day we went to a first aid talk with Rob, a vet, on getting wrapped up in tinfoil (like our chicken counterparts), how to prevent hypothermia, blood loss, broken limbs, painkillers, rock fall, ect… check this space for a special first aid section soon. Also a cave rescue was executed – a very brief intro to French style cave rescue with their system of vertical rescue. That rescue dummy looked awfully heavy!

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As well as this, we attended a fascinating talk by an amazing cave photographer, Andy Harp and his wife- what talented individuals. I got a severe banging on about my tripod, so will have to consider changing mine in the future. I’m afraid its too unstable to get the kind of shots that require the upmost stillness. His cost over £500! But the rest of his kit was surprisingly cheap. Daniel also came with Brendan, also keen photographers. To our delight a 12 month year old puppy chewed at our feet whilst we sat staring in amazement at his incredible shots. This man had travelled to the depths of the steamy amazon rainforest cave formations and some of the most extensive Chinese karst systems. I seriously hope if he’s reading this he enters a Nat Geo photography competition and showcases his photography online, such an eye for incredible compositions, here is just one of them.

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Another special post on how to get into cave photography will be up soon. A final bit of SRT and rock climbing rounded off the trip, and we headed back to our dark van, although Rachael very kindly let me sit in the front, and journeyed through the Brecon Beacons back to Leeds. Such fun!

SO! You wanna be an EXPEDITION CAVER?

dat1

A motley crew of 40+ cavers, with a range of ages, will descend upon the Austrian Alps for the Dachstein summer Caving Expedition 2015. This is literally all the low down on the cave exploration scene in the Alps. It is as well renowned for its deep, tortious and hard alpine cave systems, as the Austrians are for lederhosen and beer. A staggeringly high peak of 2995m, the possibility of a 2500m deep entrance point to the water table below is tantalisingly closer than ever before.

Dachstein_Touren

The Winter project requires dry, frozen, stable conditions to enter the 100km long, 1.1km deep single monster cave at the main project to the far west (Sahara), deep snow, and involves a breath-taking 2-6 hour approach hike. This is however not for the light hearted, a 10-18 hour caving trip in extreme cold conditions is the likely scenario, and trust me when I say these cavers are literally rock hard and (sorry), rather insane!

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But nevertheless, it’s a most exciting trip to be had if you’re fed up of a gentle walk up Ilkley Moor, and if your local Hyde Park snowball fight isn’t quite giving you enough frost nip…get your crampons and ice picks at the ready and sign up to this winter’s expedition! For more info head to their Facebook page and have a chat with them, they’re a really friendly bunch once you get past the grimy remarks and jokes about your incompetence (I kid of course). A plan of the cave route can be seen here:

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As for THIS summer, the project involves connecting the hysterically named “Wat have U-got-Pot” and the Hirlatz (yes I think its German). So for the fit and keen there will be the opportunity to take part in the exploration of the mighty Wot-U-Got Pot (800m+ deep and 6km long) which requires camping underground for 4 days at a time. But do be warned, this is a dangerous, cold, flood-prone pothole that demands skill, ability, bloody-mindedness & a twisted sense of humour which I must say was provided by the bucket load this weekend (I can’t remember or understand most of it, but do join us if you want to hear some).

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It is this cave that gives Joel and his team the best hope of breaking into and connect to the massive Hirlatz Hole from WUG Pot- then it will become a 1.5km deep monster system and mastercave (1.5km+). Recently over the past few years teams have shortened the distance between these two mega cave systems to under 500m. If the connection is made the journey from top to bottom could well be the ultimate adventure sports challenge involving winter mountaineering, abseiling, caving and cave diving taking several days to complete.

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SO just think of all the mud, sweat, darkness, smelly feet, lack of sleep… I mean- ADVENTURE, EXCITEMENT, HEROIC APTITUDE, SWANKY CV BOOSTER (a ‘what scenario shows teamwork skills’ drill), and most of all FUN 2 weeks of caving during one of the most exciting times in caving exploration history in Europe. The price really is fantastic too (£250 for 3 weeks).  Here’s a little break down courtesy of Joel:

  • Expedition fees (to go towards metalwork/hardware, ropes, communal food, etc) £60 for the duration;
  • Weekly allowance (fresh veg, fuel, etc) €10 (so €30 or €40 for the duration);
  • Accommodation of approx €3.50 or €4 a night = approx €80 total;
  • Travel: very rough guide but maybe £100

hiking-austriaThe team are insistent that it’s not necessary to be a pro but the willingness to train and have a go! I think I may be going to simply take the photographs, document the expedition and have a nice hike and climb until I feel ready to undertake the caving trip- so if you fancy a nice sight-seeing holiday, come along! It’s not just all about that hard-core exploring, there’s plenty of other activities to do and get involved with, including prospecting in the mountains looking for new caves, continuing the exploration of previously discovered caves, assisting with the re-rigging as all the ropes and much of the metal work needs to be replaced.

And if deep dark caves aren’t your thing, there’s even an ice cave nearby that makes for a stunning tourist trip, just so you can pose with those new ice picks you’ve bought (lads), and girls yes you can pretend to be Elsa.

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For all you animal lovers out there, Joel tells me there are marmot colonies near by, gams in the hills at dawn (similar to chamoix), foxes, snakes, etc… Where you’ll be based at 1850m its about 100m below the transition from the superlative carpeted green slopes to more bare alpine scenery- a haven for wildlife, and wild ADVENTURE!

This is the greatest cave exploration project in the world: no discussion!! Matt St Clair will be organising & will appoint key people to the role of “Dachstein Reps” as some of the lifers cannot commit 100% these days. If you feel you would like to assist in the organisation then please make yourself known. Dates are provisional but will probably be 3 weeks in total, see their dedicated Facebook page for more information: info.https://www.facebook.com/events/1490999744511831/

BUT WAIT!!!!

First of all, before you go jet-setting to the Alps with your shorts, T-shirt, trainers and multi coloured running leggings… there’s a few things you need to know about surface gear and caving gear, as well as the health and safety aspects to the trip. I’ll try and make it as painless as possible I promise!

Kit List

“NORMAL” CLOTHES (e.g., trousers, underwear, t-shirt, socks)

Recommended 2 sets for caving (one for each trip) and one for the hut. (You could get away with two sets one for caving one for the hut relying on the drying room – it should be noted that the term drying room is a misnomer, it just makes all things marginally less damp)

DO NOT BRING JEANS TO CAVE IN!!!!!!

(When wet they get cold, heavy and chafe, they also take ages to dry, fine for the hut though.)

BRING WHITE STUFF AT YOU OWN RISK

(Water in caves is often a bit muddy and can dye white clothes a permanent brown)

  • WARM STUFF FOR THE HUT

Caving huts can vary wildly in temperature (also good to keep warm on the way to the pub)

  • A FLEECE to cave in

Fleeces are ideal to cave in as they are warm and drain relatively quickly when wet.

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  • THERMALS to cave in

Very good for keeping you warm in wet caves. (A cheap set can be made with any tight fitting top e.g. modern rugby tops and a pair of thick tights (yes even for the blokes) looks silly? yes Warm? Definitely. I mean, who can resist a guy in tights? (Definitely me…guys don’t go for the 1D look outside of caving, only wimps wear girly tights for fashion).

  • WELLINGTON BOOTS (gum boots) to cave in

Wellies are quite simply the best footwear to cave in. The club has a good selection which it is happy to lend out but please email to request them as unless you were born with 3 size 9 left feet we may not have any in your size (particularly true for small/large sizes)

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  • GLOVES (marigold washing up gloves) to cave in

A controversial one this (some cavers like gloves some don’t) but good for keeping your hands warm they are cheap and can be god-send so you might as well bring them

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  • HAT to cave in

A wooly hat/balaclava is good for keeping warm underground. People with long hair should bring some stuff to tie it back e.g. hair bands, buff e.t.c

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  • SLEEPING BAG

To sleep in. No really.

  • TORCH

So you can find your way to your bunk/ back from the pub. Oh and the cave.

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  • WASH KIT (Tooth brush, soap, deodorant etc.)

PLEASE bring this guys to wash with. Don’t bother with beatifying stuff (hair straighteners), but perhaps a hint of mascara and eye liner..oh and concealer for those equally dark eye circles around the eyes from days of no sleep. Trust me everyone will thank you for it. Shower gel- many cavers don’t even bother to shower after a trip, merely washing will make you look like a god/goddess compared to the other muddy and smelly cavers.

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Because it looks so swish I hope this encourages the guys to get one 😉
  • TOWEL

To dry off with / avoid flashing everyone when getting changed and to hide from the prying eyes of cavers

  • MONEY

Money for the pub crawls and to buy dinner and any drinks

  • BEER/DRINKS

There will normally be quite a few drinks had Friday and Saturday night. We normally stop on the way at a supermarket. Even if you don’t drink alcohol it will probably be worth bringing some coke/ squash to quench your thirst. Missing something? The club has some spare kit it can lend (particularly wellies).

CAMPING

Please Bring:

  • ROLL MATT

A length of foam mat to keep you of the tent floor and hence much warmer.

OPTIONAL KIT (if you have it please bring it):

  • Any PERSONAL CAVING KIT
  • WETSUIT

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Some caves have some great (if cold) swimming opportunities. Chances of using one is slim but swimming in crystal clear pools deep underground is worth the effort of packing it. Please don’t pack your bikini.

  • FURRY / Thermal Undersuit

A giant adult sized fleece baby grow. Known universally by cavers as furries they are also sometimes used by sailors and divers under dry suits. These are the crème de la crème of caving insulation and many cavers’ first purchases. They can be very expensive so if yours is a non-caving one for use under a dry suit you use it at your own risk.

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Oh! I almost forgot. Warm underpants…I’m not fooling around here, its vital to keep yourself nice and snug down there. Nothing worse than soggy bottoms is there Mary?

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Well that’s all from me, write up on first aid and cave photography soon!