Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hunting Leopards

Patience is a virtue......... especially for a wildlife photographer! 
The reason I got in to photography was because of my interest in wildlife.... and the reason I got into wildlife was because of my wife. Even though I always had an interest in wildlife and nature, I never actively pursued it until I met my wife, who is a wildlife fanatic. We used to go on nature excursions in Sri Lanka - to rain forests and national nature parks - when I realised that recording these trips and the wildlife we saw, would be a good thing. Unfortunately my attempts at photography at that stage was, to put it mildly, crap. So I started researching, learning, reading and collecting equipment to become a better photographer. It was around this time that (fortunately or unfortunately) I came over to the UK which has limited my ability to do wildlife photography. But whenever, we visit Sri Lanka, we try to cram in as much of it as we can in the short time period we are there. Our holiday in August was no exception. 
I had always wanted to go to Yala National Park, especially to see/photograph leopards in the wild but never got the chance to do so. Since it was the dry season in August and because there was a particularly severe drought this year, it was deemed to be ideal leopard viewing time as they would be visiting water holes quite regularly. So, together with our good friends Jerome (wildlife expert, tracker extraordinaire and general funny man), Rajive (wildlife enthusiast, vehicle expert and philosopher) and Damith (....uhmmm.... just a funny guy), we made a trip out there. 
My primary reason for the trip was to photograph leopards - seeing anything else was considered a very low secondary objective. We got some reports of several sightings the weekend before we were to go there so we were very encouraged, motivated and even quite sure that we were going to have some good sightings. Inspired by the Planet Earth series and photographs by Rukshan Jayawardena, all I wanted to do was track or lie in wait at a water hole and then photograph a leopard at leisure. Very unfortunately, things don't always go according to plan.
Yala, especially during the drought season, is a burning hot, dry and dusty land which takes a lot of your energy. We were allocated a young guide (part of the regulations) who, even though new at the game, seemed knowledgeable and competent enough and assured us that he will do his best to show us leopards. He was particularly impressed with the DSLR and the (relatively massive) 150-500mm lens and wanted to ensure that we get some good close up photos of the elusive animal. Unfortunately, in his endeavour to please us, he became over enthusiastic in his efforts... 
My idea of leopard spotting was to spend hours at a water hole and lie in wait for the animal. The guide had different ideas. Yala is quite a large park and there are about 5-6 spots that were supposed to be popular with the leopards. The problem was that these spots are quite far apart and required a lot of very tedious driving on hard, rocky and unpaved roads. In his efforts to show us the leopard, our guide made us run around these spots quite a lot. We would go to one spot, wait for 10-15mts and when nothing turned up, he would make us go to the next spot. And the cycle continued, for the next 3 days, during  the first couple of hours in the morning and last few hours before sunset which are the times when leopards come out. 
Our first day was almost coming to a close with disappointment in the air because we had not spotted even one leopard when we suddenly came upon a procession of trucks parked in the middle of the road. There were some whispers that a leopard was crossing the road ahead. In my excitement, I actually got out of the vehicle - which is strictly forbidden and might even be fined - to see the animal but was only treated to a brief glimpse of it in the undergrowth. The shot below is just a random click I took while getting out of the vehicle - from the hip - didn't even put the eye to the viewfinder.

From Yala

The next day we did more of the "running around" and I was becoming increasingly irritated. I tried to suggest that we lie in wait at a water hole but was quickly shot down as the guide felt that we might be missing an opportunity elsewhere. Even though we came upon a sighting that day, the leopard was so well hidden in the forest growth that we hardly could spot him let alone photograph him. 
The 3rd and final day dawned and we piled in to the vehicle in high spirits hoping that today was going to be the lucky day. Being the final day, I wanted to adopt my "patiently wait in one spot" strategy but the guide was a bit apprehensive that we still had not got a good sighting and wanted to maximise the time running from one spot to another even more faster than we did the last 2 days. I did not over ride him on this because I was not sure whether my strategy would have worked, especially we had only 1 day, as numerous other guides/visitors were also not having any luck with sightings near the water holes. But that didn't stop my mood from going bad to worse and the guide was becoming very anxious about this. Even though I knew it was not his fault nor blamed him for our bad luck, he took the lack of sightings as a personal failure which only increased his determination. After a disappointing morning session and a tiring lunch, we set off on the evening rounds. Even though we saw several other animals and birds, there were no leopards - disappointment being expressed by a lot of the visitors/guides who were out that day. Several vehicles had been parked at some water holes for hours and they had not seen anything either nor had we, with all our running around. 
With just a couple more hours to the park closing time, things were becoming desperate and I was about to put my foot down and insist that we stay in one place, when our guide suggested one last attempt at a spot which was a bit difficult to get at so might not be crowded with vehicles. He sounded quite keen and his own disappointment at our failure so far made me relent and we followed his directions. I had already given up and didn't even have my camera on "stand by mode" to take a shot. We were making our way slowly across some rocks when our guide gave an exclamation and asked the vehicle be stopped immediately. 
I craned and twisted my neck and looked ahead to get my first proper glimpse of leopard, who was sitting quite strong and proud and looking at us quite curiously. But my "un-readiness" was costing me dearly cos it took me a few seconds to get the camera up to my eye and the lens through the window to compose the shot. Unfortunately, just as I had lined up the perfect shot, Rajive (who as driving at that time) thinking that I had no clear view of the animal because of the delay in me taking the shot, moved the vehicle slightly forward. The guide was horrified at this cos he immediately ordered, quite strongly, not to move the vehicle. But too late! The vehicle movement threw off my perfect shot and also alerted the leopard, who turned his back on us and started walking away and all I got was this shot. 
Exhilaration at the sighting and disappointment at the missed photo opportunity, filled me at the same time, in equally strong proportions. The guide was more optimistic - he had been so anxious that he would not be able to show us a leopard that the first thing he did was put his hands to the air and give praise to the Gods!!! After this, he ordered us to drive around the rocks very slowly, expecting the leopard to be on the rocks where (s)he disappeared to. (S)he wasn't there so we stopped the vehicle and waited a few minutes. The sharp eyed guide gave another shout - even though the leopard was not on the rock he had expected it to be on, it had gone over to another rock a bit further off and we were able to see it clearly. However, our positioning was not great as there were several trees right in front of the animal and there was no way I could avoid them in my shots.
The best shot that I could get, and the only one with the leopard's eyes in them was this one - unfortunately it has a twig going right in front of its face which takes away a lot from the picture. And the twig is positioned in such a way that it is going to be difficult to clone it out.
The leopard slunk away soon after and even though we did try a couple of other spots we did not get to see another one. 
After all  the excitement died down, we realised we were quite lucky to have had that sighting, cos even though not great, we were one of the few that had a sighting at all that day. The guide was relieved and also happy with the big tip he got (which he would have got even if we didn't see a leopard). I would have preferred to have had used patience and a wait strategy but there are no guarantees when hunting leopards - you win some and you lose some.
Even though I realise that having had that small sighting is much better than having had no sighting at all, it really pained me when the guide phoned us a couple of days later to tell us that he had had several sightings of leopards since then and that there was one which waited at a water hole for a full 2 hours, drinking and playing, whilst it got its photograph taken by a lot of people. Talk about being unlucky! Maybe the leopards were just hiding from me!!! 
PS. In recent times the knife has been twisted even harder when I see that Amila and Imran have had such great luck viewing and photographing these beautiful animals.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Raving at the beach

The original idea was to do a running update of our holiday to Sri Lanka with weekly updates to this blog as well as twitter feeds. Unfortunately, plans are always supposed to go wrong and this was no exception due to the inability to get a PAYG internet connection and our busier than expected schedule.

As soon as she heard we were coming down in July, the first thing that my wife’s cousin did was to beg (yes beg) us to take her to the Hikkaduwa Beach Fesitval. The festival was organised by Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau and was a 4 day event with a Drum Festival on the 1st night, a Beach rave on the 2nd and themed parties on the 3rd and 4th nights.

So a week after we landed, together with the cousin Natashaaaaaaaaaa, and our dear friend Damith, we made our way to the south of the Island to the tourist beach paradise that is Hikkaduwa. Needless to say we had many adventures – the 1st of which was trying to find accommodation. Natasha, in her brilliantly organised way, had arranged for 2 rooms in 2 different hotels and that had to be changed for the 2 nights we were going to be there. Confused? So were we. After much discussion with hotel staff, numerous calls to Natasha’s “friends” and a few trips up and down between hotels, we were able to secure 2 rooms, next to each other, in the same hotel for both the nights (better?).

Natasha and Michelle

After settling down in our rooms and relaxing with a drink, we set out in the evening to take a walk on the beach before went on to the Drum Festival. It had been quite a while since Mich and myself had walked on soft beach sand and we found it quite relaxing. Half way through the walk, we realised we were hungry and decided to take Natasha’s advise to sample some “Chicken Rotti” which was supposed to be a speciality down there with one particular shop doing a really tasty dish. According to Natasha, the way to find the shop was to look out for a board which said “Chicken Rotti” on the side – unfortunately, every shop we looked into had a board like this and after a bit of a walk we settled on a way side shop with a friendly enough shop owner. However, we fell in to the much dreaded “tourist” trap – we went in, ordered and had eaten without checking the price first – big mistake. We ended up paying a relatively big amount for something that really didn’t taste all that good and could have got for a fraction of the cost in Colombo.

After the meal we headed back to the beach to catch the sunset. I had wanted to photograph a proper sunset for a long time and I struggled a bit with setting up the tripod to the angle that I wanted. I also took my time to check the shots, use ND filters and even position a branch I found on the beach to a pleasing angle. All this preparation was a cause of great amusement and laughter for the others – including my wife – who were joking about the time that I took to take a simple sunset shot and that all the camera equipment I was carrying was actually a burden if I was going to take so long to take a shot. Well, all I can say is good photography takes time and now that the result is posted below, they can all eat their words!! Ha!
Sunset on Hikkaduwa Beach

The Drum Festival, which started 1½ hours later than scheduled, had its ups and downs. We were quite excited about one particular group (can't remember their name) who we had seen live before and considered them to be quite good. They were one of the first to play. They are quite a young group and they quickly got the crowd on their feet with some excellent rhythmic beats.
This guy is the leader (I think) and is extremely talented 

Here are a couple of videos of them performing – image quality is not great but the sound should give you an idea of what they are capable of

After they finished, the night went in to a slow decline in terms of entertainment. After such a high octane performance, the last thing we expected was a traditional drum performance. These guys were accompanied by dancers wearing traditional masks depicting devils and though entertaining, was inherently slow and down beat.

We were also treated to some "Brazillian Dancing" by some dancers brought in from the UK, which got the crowd going for obvious reasons. 
(Picture by Damith de Silva)

Several other drum groups performed and some of them were good, but none of them could get us or the crowd as excited as the first group did.
One of the drummer really got in to the "swing".... 

To make matters worse, the heavens opened up and we were treated to a nice shower at which point we realised that the organisers had not arranged for any shelter even though rain was forecasted for the day. I had to protect the camera so had to squeeze in to a tiny space near the stage to get out of the rain whilst the others held the chairs over their heads!!! As soon as the rain passed and we settled back in to our seats, we had a power outage – most probably because of all that water on the equipment – which made us realise that the organisers had not actually “organised” anything properly. They actually had a big sign to say the event was “child friendly” but we had to question why a “child friendly” event would not any kind of shelter so that at least the children don’t get soaked in the rain!!! The last straw was when we were treated to a fireworks show with the fireworks being shot over the crowd. Admittedly, the effect was great but this meant that the burnt out fireworks were going to fall on to the crowd. We had quite a few of the people scrambling and screaming as the fireworks fell on them and one of them actually fell on Michelle’s arm and left a burn mark visible to this day. If this event was held in the UK, the organisers would have been sued for Health & Safety violations….

Another funny incident involved the writer himself (yes, moi) – after the drink at the hotel, the long walk, dodgy food, running around a beach to avoid the rain, having ears and head constantly assaulted by the heavy and loud drum beats, I was suddenly feeling woozy and faintish. I had to take a break and we went back to the hotel to take a shower and then hit the beach again to hear some of the DJ music. We finally got some sleep at about 5am.

The next day we got up at about 9:30, had breakfast and then headed out to Unawatuna Beach – a surfers and sunbathers paradise. The sea is great for bathing here as it is quite shallow but there are quite a lot waves which meant that the surfers were out in force

It was great to be just sitting around, doing nothing but look at the sea, having good food and a nice cool drink (makes we want to cry as I think of it now….).

Dam the man
Yours truly - all cool and dapper
(Picture by Damith de Silva)
Michelle - finding it amusing being photographed

Quite a lot happened during the time we were there – a few of the guys showed off their football dribbling skills, a newly wedded couple came on to the beach for some photographs (Damith took some nice shots of them but will avoid posting here so as not to infuriate the official photographer), Damith asked for and took a picture of a very “colourful” couple, a few cute dogs ran around doing funny things which got Michelle to run around with the camera.

Damith with football dribblers in the background 
A sweet couple - our only regret being not getting their email address so that we could have sent this pic 
(Picture by Damith de Silva)

On our way back we decided to stop over at the Galle Fort – which was first built in the 17th Century and is still standing even after 400 years of existence and a devastating tsunami in 2004.

The Lighthouse at Galle Fort 

The clouds were rolling in and it looked like it was going to pour but there were patches of sunlight through the clouds, when I took this shot.

But the cloud passed and the sea was starting to get rough, with some of the waves crashing on these rocks with quite a bit of force

And just before we left, I tried to do some off camera flash shooting of the 2 ladies. Again they were very amused about the time it took for me to balance the ambient and flash to get the shot but hey – results speak for themselves :D

That night we went for the Beach Rave at Hikkaduwa. It was a bit confusing for us cos it looked as if we had stepped right in to a nightclub at Brighton (UK). The reason was because the DJs were all from UK and they were playing typical trance/techno music – and the thing that confused us was that the Sri Lankan crowd normally doesn’t like such music. Most of the nightclubs play pop/dance music as that is what is popular with the crowds. This was apparent because after a couple hours the heavy crowd that was at the main stage started moving towards the rear towards the Dialog (one of the sponsors) stall, which was playing more popular dance music. By the time we left, at about 3am, there were more people near the Dialog stall than the main stage.
(Picture by Damith de Silva)

Damith had a great time running with the camera photographing all the women – they thought he was the official event photographer (with the 40D and flash attached) and were quite keen on posing for him. He also found some very interesting characters in the crowd.
(Picture by Damith de Silva)

We also spent most of the night screaming out Natasha’s name (Natashhhaaaaaaaa) every time the music stopped – I think most of  the crowd thought that we were shouting the DJ’s name and were looking out for "DJ Natasha". Or maybe they just thought we were weird.

We had to leave the next day as Natasha had to get back to Colombo so we missed out on the theme nights. The journey back was quite interesting as well cos we had to locate one of Natasha’s friends who was unable to give any form of directions or landmarks as to where he was and then 5 people squeezed into a tiny car for a 3 hour journey!!

Overall a great time – thanks Natasha and Damith!