Archive for January, 2010

Nick Smith’s feature ‘The Roads from Damascus’ – from the Daily Telegraph, 23rd January 2010

January 22, 2010

The Roads from Damascus

With its crusader citadels, exquisite mosques and desolate ruins, all of Syria worth is well worth a visit. Nick Smith takes to the highways

Bedouin women selling taditional woven textiles among the ruins of the ruined desert caravan city of Palmyra. Photo: Nick Smith

Bedouin women selling taditional woven textiles among the ruins of the ancient desert caravan city of Palmyra, Syria. Photo: Nick Smith

As the sun sets over Damascus, its last rays shine their golden light along the Street Called Straight. Lined with coffee bars, trendy boutiques and antique shops, in the early evening this part of the Old Town exudes a metropolitan air. But it’s also steeped in Syria’s religious history. At every junction there’s a mosque or a church, and as the Old Town starts to come to life, my guide tells me that this Roman road – the Via Recta – is the only thoroughfare mentioned by name in the Bible. Bound up in the story of the conversion of St Paul, the Street Called Straight is where pilgrims, travelers and the curious congregate to start exploring this exhilarating city.

By the time night has fallen, I’m sitting in a restaurant high on Mount Qasioun tucking into a mezze of humus, grilled aubergines, olives and flat bread all sloshed down with Syrian sweet white wine. I’ve been given a table at a panoramic window, where the view of the world’s oldest city is breathtaking. With no modern skyscrapers or financial district to get in the way, Damascus is an unbroken sea of green lights, each denoting one of the city’s 2,000 mosques.

The most lovely of all is the Umayyad mosque, the fourth holiest site in Islam and understandably known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus. At one time the largest building in the world, it’s famous for being the resting place of John the Baptist’s head (three other sites contest this) and the place where Jesus Christ will reappear at the end of the world. There’s the tomb of Saladin, and there are exquisite golden mosaics. But for all this grandeur, as the clouds of pigeons circulate around the great open courtyard, it’s a functioning mosque, where you can walk among hundreds of Damascenes going about their normal daily prayer.

Guiding me through Syria is Amelia Stewart, who runs a desert adventure and cultural travel company, Simoon. What with all the Christian architecture, Roman ruins and other archaeological sites, she tells me there’s plenty to keep you busy. ‘But you’ve also got to take time to soak up the landscapes, try out the fabulous Syrian restaurants and sample the local wine.’ One of the best reasons for visiting Syria, Amelia explains, is because you’re often literally tumbling over ruins, even in a fortnight ‘you can really get the flavour of the place.’

From Damascus we head for the Krac des Chevaliers, a mediaeval crusader fortress once described by T E Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – as ‘perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world.’ It’s easy to see why he was so impressed. This imposing edifice once controlled the road from Antioch to Beirut, standing as sentinel to the eastern Mediterranean, from which the occupying Christians could scour the landscape for Muslim armies mustering in the valleys below.

All too quickly, we’re heading north across broken, stony terrain deep into northern Syria, where the highlight is the Church of St Simeon Stylites. Simeon was an early Christian aesthete, who in order to remove himself from the conventions of the material world sat on top of a pillar for 37 years. Not much of the pillar remains today, but the ruins of the church, set in a pine wood in these ancient rocky hillsides is one of the more important diversions en route to Aleppo. At Syria’s second city a gargantuan citadel presides over the old town, protected by ‘murder holes’, vents above the gateways through which boiling oil was poured on to its attackers.

Almost a century ago T.E. Lawrence travelled through Syria on foot, pausing to take part in archaeological digs. He stayed in Aleppo at Baron’s before famously leaving this ‘beautiful hotel’ without paying his bill. Today, with its threadbare Turkish carpets, leather club chairs and elegantly rotating brass fans, it looks as though it’s hardly changed since Lawrence’s day. But it worked its faded charm upon Agatha Christie who wrote Murder on the Orient Express while staying here, accompanying her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan on his expeditions.

No visit to Syria can be complete without visiting the desolate, haunting ruins of the ancient caravan city of Palmyra. Only partially restored, it has an apocalyptic ‘cities in dust’ atmosphere that only increases as you wander through the broken stones at night. A Unesco-listed World Heritage Site, it’s probably unique in that you can walk among the ruins unhindered. There are no fences, guards or ‘keep out’ signs – only a photographer’s paradise as the tower tombs and arcades of pillars cast their long shadows in the pale desert sunrise.

After Palmyra it’s time to complete the circle and return to Damascus, back to the Street Called Straight, the rooftop restaurants and the atmospheric late-night bars. I decide to pay a final visit to the House of Saint Ananias, where it’s claimed, St Paul was baptized. But on my way I’m stopped by a man who asks me into his trinket shop for tea. He tells me he once played the part of St Paul in a movie version of the saint’s life. We drink glasses of sweet tea and he tells me the his story and lists the places I should visit – the Armenian Church, the Jewish quarter, the shrine of Saint George. As we say goodbye, I look ruefully at the ‘traditional damascene dagger’ he’s sold me, and wonder how much of his story is true.

Way to go

1) Simoon Travel offers an 11-day ‘Highlights of Syria’ tour. Departing 5th March 2010, starting at £2695 pp. Includes flights, transfers, accommodation, guides. For further information phone +44 207 622 6263, or www.simoontravel.com

2) bmi offers daily flights from Heathrow to Damascus. Return flights are from just £353 (economy) and £1168 (Business) including taxes. For further information visit www.flybmi.com

Nick Smith’s column ‘A shot in the dark’ – Outdoor Photography, February 2010 edition

January 22, 2010

A shot in the dark

When he was asked to report on night kayaking on a phosphorescent lake in November, photojournalist Nick Smith thought that someone was pulling his leg…

One of the great things about being a photojournalist is you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. One minute you’re embroiled in a public spat over the latest Arctic ice-thickness statistics and the next you’re being flown to Ireland to take photographs of people kayaking in pitch darkness.

Let me explain. The phone call went like this. ‘We’re looking for a photographer to cover one of our tourism attractions’, chimed the mellifluous tones of a sophisticated West End PR lady called Kath. It turns our her client, Tourism Ireland, was flying a gang of UK newspaper journos to do some kayaking in Lough Hyne, a marine lagoon west of Cork. Would I like to take the photos?

Well, when anyone asks me if I’d ‘like to take the photos’, I tend to answer in the affirmative without so much as a second thought. But this sounded like it could be a poisoned chalice. I asked Kath to tell me more, and after a long conversation it boiled down to this. She was asking me to take photographs in the middle of November, in the dark, in Ireland where you could wager the shirt on your back that it would be raining. ‘But the good thing’ said Kath, ‘is that the lake is naturally phosphorescent, which should make your photos even more special.’

There’s something magical about arriving at Cork airport in the late afternoon with the autumnal sun setting in the west. The almost horizontal rays skimmed across the idyllic countryside and instinctively I started to write stuff in my notebook along the lines of ‘it’s not called the Emerald Isle for nothing’. But, by the time I’d got off the plane the coppery sun had given way to a ‘soft day’, which roughly translates as a slate grey sky with precipitation in the form of stair rods.

As we drove west to Skibereen – famous for its famine burial pits – I started to realise the magnitude of my task. To add to the rain, it was now very dark, and I was beginning to entertain no hope of getting any photographs at all. Rubbish, I said to myself. As my mentor Martin Hartley tells me – there’s always something a professional photographer can shoot. But what if he’s wrong?

Feeling that I was sliding into the photographic equivalent of the valley of the shadow of death, I decided to cheer myself up by getting my brand spanking Canon 5D II out of the bag. I reasoned these babies can take photos in the dark, and since this is exactly what I was commissioned to do, I’d obviously bought the right tool for the job. Although I’d never ramped it up that far, the 5D II has an ISO upper limit of 6400, which lifted my spirits. I rootled around in my gadget bag for the lens with the widest aperture (Sigma 24mm f1.8) and screwing it onto the body thought life couldn’t be that bad after all. What with a little noise reduction here and a tad of sharpening there, we’d be in business.

Lough Hyne, as I later found out, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. But when I arrived in the bible black darkness and thick drizzle that penetrated every layer of clothing, I was too miserable to care. We strapped on our headlamps, got in our kayaks and paddled out onto a phosphorescent lake that refused to phosphoresce. I took my first look through the viewfinder. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Big fat zero.

This was just before I found that you can’t direct a torch, use an off-camera flash cord and press the shutter at the same time. The idea was that I’d illuminate another kayak, get a fix on the autofocus and get shooting. By now you’ll realise that this was a bad idea for so many reasons but the main one is that if the autofocus can’t see anything it can’t autofocus. In desperation I switched to manual focus, shoved the aperture on F8, set the focal length at infinity, and blindly accepted whatever shutter speed the camera decided to give me while in aperture priority. Please don’t write in and say I’m an idiot. I knew that the moment I got on the plane to Cork.

But then I broke what for me is a cardinal rule. My first commandment is, if you don’t know what you’re doing, stop and think. But I didn’t and I carried on regardless and over the next hour I blasted away and filled an 8GB card. Back in the hotel, after several much needed restorative glasses of Jamesons I reviewed the evening’s carnage. I’m not proud of this at all, but there were enough salvageable shots to put a small set together, and the results have already appeared on several national newspaper websites.

And the moral of the tale? Well I’m not sure, but talking the PR boss of Tourism Ireland on the flight home to London I tried to manage his expectations. ‘You see the thing is’ I explained gently, ‘cameras can’t really take photographs in the dark.’ Of course not, said John. That would be silly.

Visit Tourism Ireland at www.tourismireland.com

Nick Smith’s article on his North Pole adventure as published in Winter 2009 Explorers Journal

January 22, 2010

Ninety degrees North, the easy way

A century ago no one had been to the North Pole for certain. Today you can sail to 90° North as a tourist on a Russian nuclear icebreaker. Explorers Journal contributing editor Nick Smith did just that and, glass of chilled vodka to hand, ponders the issues involved when you travel to the end of the earth the easy way

Nick Smith at a ceremonial North Pole with the Russian nuclear icebreaker '50 Years of Victory' in the background

Nick Smith at a ceremonial North Pole with the Russian nuclear icebreaker '50 Years of Victory' in the background

For more than a decade I’ve been writing about North Polar affairs, the history of the region’s exploration, its climate, ice cover and biodiversity. And although I’ve interviewed climatologists, photographers, conservationists and sea captains, the people associated with the Pole that I’ve enjoyed listening to most are those explorers who have travelled in the region on foot. These are the people who seem to instinctively understand the big picture, the people with ice in their blood. I’ve learned much about the Arctic from classic explorers such as the late great Wally Herbert, as well as from today’s most notable expedition leaders such as Pen Hadow. Over the years I’ve become fascinated by what draws human beings to this desolate frozen desert at the end of the earth, but never once thought I’d go there myself.

Prior to the 20th century no one had even seen the North Pole, much less set foot on it. We know that a century ago – in 1909 – U.S. naval Commander Robert E Peary might have got there on foot with a team of dogs. He certainly believed he’d achieved his goal, but some commentators think he may have fallen short by as much as 100km. Richard Byrd may or may not have reached ninety degrees north in an aeroplane in 1926. In 1948, Russian Alexandr Kuznetsov set off under the instructions of Joseph Stalin to fly north for scientific and strategic purposes, and in so doing became the first person to undisputedly set foot on the Pole. In 1968 Ralph Plaisted reached it from Canada by combination of snow scooter and air. In 1969 Briton Wally Herbert broke new ground, and his arrival at the North Pole by dog-sledge was the crowning moment of one of the greatest ice journeys of the century.

Since these landmark expeditions there have been many successful arrivals at the Pole by fixed-wing aircraft, helicopter and even parachute; by surface traverse, whether complete, one way or partial; by submarine (USS Skate was the first in 1959) or surface vessel. Of these, the first was the Soviet icebreaker Arktika, which reached the Pole on 17th August 1977. Since then there have been 65 Soviet or Russian voyages to the Pole, of which 64 have been in nuclear powered ships. Twelve other icebreakers from five other nations have made token expeditions to the top of the world, but the Russians are the experts.

The reason for this, according to Captain Dmitry Lobusov of the Russian nuclear powered icebreaker 50 Years of Victory, is simply that there is a need. Of those countries with extensive Arctic Ocean shorelines, only Russia relies on the commercial transportation of goods through the sea ice. ‘We have very vast country from west to east and there is need to carry cargo by sea and so we need an ice fleet.’ Captain Lobusov explained how the development of nuclear technology has led to icebreakers of increasing power and range, with the ability to remain at sea for long periods without refueling. In the Arctic summer, when the atomic fleet is less in demand for keeping open commercial seaways, the 50 Years of Victory – or the ‘50 лет Победы’ – becomes available to adventure tourism companies such as Quark Expeditions, who commission the ship in order to make the armchair explorer’s dream of going to the North Pole a reality.

I joined the Victory at Murmansk on the extreme northwest of Russia, on the Kola Bay. Way inside the Arctic Circle, the world’s northernmost city consists almost entirely of glum communist tenements hastily thrown up after the Second World War. After near annihilation by the Germans, who had an airbase only eight minutes away, Murmansk was designated one of only 12 ‘Hero cities’ in Russia. In 1943, Harper’s published an article about Murmansk by Dave Marlow called ‘How it Looked to a Merchant Seaman’, in which he quotes a Scots-Canadian mess-man: ‘they’ve took a beating here.’ The mosquitoes are like flying fortresses and the only dabs of colour are the buttercups and dandelions that seem to grow everywhere in Murmansk.

We sailed for a week via Franz Josef Land, the northernmost Russian archipelago, and landed at Cape Tegetthof, where we saw the wind-blasted remains of explorers’ huts. Then to Cape Fligley on Rudolf Island from which Kuznetsov departed on his successful flight to the Pole. We saw polar bears, kittywakes, walruses, ivory gulls and memorials to dead explorers. As we reached the higher latitudes we navigated through the last of the open water before crunching our way through the pack that got denser and denser as we approached the Pole. Were there any ice conditions that the Victory couldn’t negotiate, I asked the captain through his interpreter Irena. ‘No’ was the reply.

When I set foot on the ice at the North Pole I was the 22,500th person to do so, give or take a small margin for error created by the possibility of unrecorded military expeditions reaching ninety degrees North. The Pole is, of course, an imaginary place; a point on a grid of invented geometry, that in reality is no more or less impressive than a thin membrane of ice floating on the surface of the Arctic Ocean. The ice that is here today is not the ice that was here yesterday or will be here tomorrow. There is no marker other than one you may bring yourself, and the sapphire blue pools of water that lie on the surface of the multiyear ice here are just as beautiful here as they are at 89°N.

T.S.Eliot wrote in his poem ‘Burnt Norton’ of what he called ‘the still point of the turning world’. At the earth’s ‘axle-tree’ he imagined the past and future to coalesce, a place where the spiritual and terrestrial worlds meet. And although it may be too fanciful to say that to stand at the Pole is to stand with one foot in another world, if you look directly upwards along the earth’s axis you will come to Polaris, the North Star, the so-called celestial pole. Look down and beneath your feet after a couple of metres of sea ice, there are 4,000 metres of sea. Then, after 14,000km of planet, you will reach sea level at the South Pole, after which there are then another few hundred metres of rock, followed by 2,835 metres of ice. If you have managed to maintain a straight line down through the globe you will end up almost in the middle of the geodesic dome of the Amundsen-Scott science research base at the South Pole.

The significance of the intersection of all lines of longitude depends as much on who you are and how you got there as anything else. I arrived at 11:57pm 15th July 2009 sitting in the bridge bar of the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker with a glass of ice-cold Russian vodka in my hand. Something like a hundred passengers from 24 countries had gathered below me in the bright midnight sun to wander around with their global positioning systems, anxious to be the first to claim that theirs read ‘90°N’ exactly. Of course, any such claims were irrelevant because the icebreaker was only at the Pole when the Captain said so, and his GPS on the bridge was the only one that mattered.

As champagne corks popped we cheered and congratulated each other on our passive achievement, as if we’d arrived on skis after weeks of doing battle with pressure ridges, half-starved, frostbitten and with exhausted dogs. A ringed seal popped its head out of a channel of inky black water to see what the commotion was about, to find out what was breaking the rhythm of the creaking ice. There were no birds and despite the razzamatazz that goes with this extraordinary adventure tourism, it was possible to detect something of the deep primal spirituality that has lured the great explorers of the past to this pinprick of nothingness in the middle of nowhere.

Accounts by explorers who arrive on foot after weeks of man-hauling sledges over pressure ridges vary wildly on how time at the Pole is spent. Some scrape together the last of their tobacco and alcohol for an all too brief party, while others become stranded while waiting for the twin otter to get in to pick them up. Tom Avery describes how in 2005 he arrived at the Pole with 4 other humans and 16 dogs only to see an immaculately dressed woman step off a helicopter with a bottle of champagne. She was leading a small group of tourists who had flown to the Pole (presumably from an icebreaker) on a once-in-a-lifetime ultimate tourist experience, as marketed by top end adventure travel companies.

The jury will probably remain out forever on whether tourists should be allowed to travel to ecologically sensitive destinations such as the higher latitudes of the Polar Regions. But the prevailing sentiment on the 50 Years of Victory was that, provided the operator transacted its business responsibly, that the environment came first and that we didn’t cause any unnecessary stress to the wildlife, then not only did we have a right to enter this pristine world, but we would come home as ambassadors, to write articles and tell our friends exactly what it is we’re supposed to be protecting.

As we returned from the Pole the sense of anticlimax was inevitable, but on the 20th July I reminded some of my fellow travellers that we should celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing. After all, we had more in common with one of the astronauts than most of us might have suspected. In 1998 Buzz Aldrin travelled to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear icebreaker. He too went with Quark, only he sailed on the Sovetsky Soyuz, on a trip organised by the Explorers Club and headed by Mike McDowell. Aldrin’s experiences were remarkably similar to ours aboard the Victory, and indeed, ‘except for comments about the cold, I never heard a negative word.’ While at sea Buzz spend much of his time skipping lectures and designing a new rocket on the ship’s stationary, and like me he kept a journal. ‘There’s something about being at the top of the world that’s exhilarating,’ said Buzz. ‘We set up a baseball diamond and played a game of softball at the North Pole, and a group of younger passengers even took an extremely brief swim. The adventure was priceless.’

Nick Smith went to the North Pole with Quark Expeditions. Visit their site www.quarkexpeditions.com

Nick Smith’s ’10 Questions’ with adventure travel photographer Aldo Pavan as published in Outdoor Photography magazine February 2010 edition

January 22, 2010

10 Questions – Aldo Pavan

With his experimental style and background in philosophy, Aldo Pavan is the ‘thinking man’s’ outdoor photographer. Nick Smith hears his story…

Aldo Pavan is a journalist and freelance photographer specializing in travel reportage. He’s been on hundreds of assignments in five continents, publishing books and working with magazines. He has taught photo-reportage in Milan and is dedicated to photographic experimentation, crossing over into the role of artist.

Born in 1954 in Treviso, Aldo has been a painter since he was young, becoming interested in aesthetics and experimenting in the dark room. After graduating in philosophy, he began writing for the local newspaper Tribuna di Treviso. Since then he’s worked on countless magazine and book projects.

In 2003 he began working on a series of hugely popular photographic books about the rivers of the world. The Ganges, The Nile and The Yellow River are published by Thames and Hudson, with The Mekong and The Danube, lined up for the near future. Another project he is preparing is entitled The Routes of Man, a series of books dedicated to the great trade routes of the world.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Aldo Pavan: I have always been interested in visual media. I used to paint and draw a lot. My parents had many cameras and I started taking pictures for fun. After my university degree, I began writing for a local newspaper and using my photographs to illustrate my words.

NS: What was your first camera?

AP: With the money I got from my first job I bought a Canon FT 35mm film SLR. I remember that the first reportage I did was about a gypsy camp, but it has never been published because it was too strong. After that I photographed and interviewed a doctor who carried out abortion, which was illegal at that time in Italy. It was a small scoop.

NS: What formal training do you have?

AP: I have a degree in philosophy and I am self-taught in photography. I never took a specific course about it. I studied aesthetics, attending semiotics courses by Umberto Eco at the University of Bologna. I think that to be a good photographer you need to study a lot, as well as working on the field. Studying Roland Barthes is not wasted time.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

AP: I should say that it is very important, but I never did. I had to adapt to what my clients were asking for and sometimes keep my passions quiet to make them happy.

NS: What is the best assignment you have been and so far?

AP: I am doing a series of books about the big rivers of the world. It’s a huge work, first at home and then on the field. To photograph each river I needed from 5 to 8 trips, at least two weeks long. And after shooting I spend two months writing and laying out the book.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

AP: I’d like to answer ‘nothing’. It’s a big game for adults… it’s fun. How can we compare this to some really hard jobs, such as miners, surgeons, judges. I spend too much time away from my family.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

AP: Digital, of course. We don’t use horse carriages to go from Venice to London any more because there are faster, better, more modern means available. There is no competition between film and digital. Digital has endless benefits that give more space to creativity.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

AP: I spent hours studying the forms of Chagall, the colours of Matisse and the portraits of Francis Bacon. I love the shadows of Caravaggio, Titian’s reds and the backdrops of Giorgione. Photography has taken the place of the paintings that illustrated the history of man.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

AP: Photography is a language that works along with traditional media like text and words to form the human being and the society we live in. Working with it is a great privilege.

NS: What makes great travel photograph?

AP: Walking and walking. Good photographs do not come out alone, you have to look for them, chase them. You can get there with patience and research, plus a lot of obstinacy.

Aldo’s Golden Rules

1) Avoid cliché and break aesthetic rules

2) Always look for new ideas while you are shooting

3) Don’t be satisfied – you can always do better

4) Establish good relationships with your subjects

5) Don’t ask your subject to pose – look for a spontaneity

Aldo’s Kit

Cameras: Nikon D300 and Nikon D700

Lenses: 12-24mm, 24-120mm, 35-70mm, 35mm f2.8, zoom 70-200mm, 300mm

Flash: Nikon SB800

Tripod: Manfrotto

Notebook and pen

Check out Aldo Pavan’s work at  www.aldopavan.it