Posts Tagged ‘elephants’

The weighty problem of airports…

September 13, 2011

Your camera equipment is never heavier than when you’re trying to board a plane. Rules may be rules, but they don’t make any sense, says Nick Smith

My story starts in one of those swish rustic safari lodges nestled deep in the heart of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. After an unpleasant overnight flight from London to Johannesburg, a four-hour delay prior to a short haul to Maun, followed by a hop, skip and a jump in a Cessna, I was exhausted. Exhausted and minus one camera.

Elephants in Botswana by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith

This was a long time ago and I’ve since been told many times what a daft idea it was to put a camera in my hold baggage. ‘Always take your photographic gear on board with you,’ sniggered Martin Hartley over a beer, before going on to tell me that if you put anything of value in your main luggage you’re asking for trouble. They don’t call it ‘Thiefrow Airport’ for nothing, he said, trying to think up a daft pun on Johannesburg to go with his earlier one. ‘I know all that,’ I said, ‘but my gadget bag was overweight and the check-in staff made me take some stuff out and repack it into my hold luggage.’

I told him how I transferred my spare camera body which, as we know never made it, having been smuggled out of an international airport presumably through the same weak link in the system that allows explosives, guns and drugs in. At least I’d had the presence of mind to ditch the spare, but I can tell you I was spitting blood when the insurance company refused to cough up, while the two airlines involved in the connector flight blamed each other. But I’ll have a rant about camera insurance another day.

Over the years I’ve varied my approach to a problem that all photographers on overseas assignments face. Through trial and error I’ve managed to get the weight of my kit down, but I can never get it to under 11kg no matter how hard I try. By the time you’ve packed the laptop, card readers, chargers and all that gubbins, there’s barely room for a compact point-and-shoot.

Sunset shot through bush sage in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Sunset shot through bush sage in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith

I bought myself one of those ‘Airport guaranteed’ ultra light packs, but the truth is that most airlines simply won’t allow you to go airside with more than 10kg of the tools of the trade. This annoys me for several reasons, but mercifully they don’t often check, so long as you pick up your pack as if it were as light as a feather. Once you’re on the plane the real nightmare begins because, while everyone plugs themselves into their iPods, novels, and handy horseshoe-shaped cushions, I’m just sitting there waiting for the hot rectangular tray of what they call food to arrive.

I suppose after years of feeling like a criminal something had to give, and on a recent trip to Malaysia I nearly snapped, before being on the receiving end of an unexpected happy outcome. Heathrow check-in again. ‘I’m sorry sir but this bag is 11 kilos. It’s too heavy to take on as hand luggage,’ came the bored and yet still slightly helpful voice of someone not really enjoying what they were doing. I counted to ten and decided to reason with them.

giraffe bones in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Giraffe bones in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith

Ah, I said, but what about the people who take through a 10kg item of hand luggage and then buy a litre of water airside? As we all know from our physics classes the definition of a kilogram is that it is the weight of a litre of distilled water at 4 degrees centigrade. So, hah! The minute they buy their water they’ll be carrying the same weight as me. And what’s more, not only will I not buy a bottle of water, I further promise to drink nothing between now and boarding.

The woman looked at me sadly before repeating that my bag was overweight. But my check-in luggage weighs less than my cameras, I remonstrated. If you aggregate the total weight, I’m miles under. ‘It doesn’t work that way, sir,’ said the lady who, despite knowing I was morally right, had started to take a dislike to me. In frustration I pointed out that the portly gentleman she’d just let through was easily ten stone overweight, but did she pick on him? Oh no, that would be weightism. Maybe he’d eaten his cameras before arriving at the airport…

After further heated discussion where logic failed, and after more ‘computer says no’ moments, I was desperate. But somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered what a teacher of mine once told me years ago: that politeness and kindness would open more doors than any amount of swagger and bluster. ‘Please let me through,’ I begged. ‘Oh all right,’ she replied, ‘just this once.’

So next time I go to check in with my 11kg of kit – that I can’t put in the hold because someone will steal it – I’m going to be sweetness and light. If challenged, I’ll ask their advice, help and expert opinion on how to solve the problem. The cynical misanthrope in me doesn’t for a second think such flattery will come naturally, but I suppose we could all do with learning from our mistakes.

This article appears in the latest edition of Outdoor Photography magazine

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Nick Smith’s feature on travelling in northern Kenya – ‘A New Take on Africa’ – as published in the Daily Telegraph 27th February 2010

March 8, 2010

A new take on Africa

Beloved by honeymooners in the Seventies, Kenya is back and it’s better than ever. But if you want to beat the crowds it’s best to head north, says Nick Smith

A herd of 36 elephants cross a river in the Samburu reserve

A herd of 36 elephants cross a river in the Samburu reserve. Photo: Nick Smith

It’s easy to get a bit blasé about Kenya. But for many of us it will have been our first brush with Big Africa, an unforgettable leap into the glamorous, romantic world of the safari. Ask anyone about Kenya and they’ve either ‘been there, done that’ or don’t intend to, because it’s no longer fashionable, having tailed off in popularity since its heyday as a honeymoon destination in the 1970s.

Back then it was all about the wildlife, chasing around the bush in safari minivans ticking off the ‘Big Five’. Then it was watching the sunset silhouetted through an acacia tree, with an unopened copy of ‘Out of Africa’ to hand, sloshing down G&Ts. But Kenya’s back with a bang and has reinvented itself, providing so much more than lions, leopards and white-gloved colonial ambience.

Today’s Kenyan safari lodge is much more of an all-round experience, with many supporting their local indigenous communities with craft and health projects. This so-called ethical approach aims to redistribute income from your visit to the people who need it most. As the droughts become more frequent and prolonged, responsible tourism of this kind has never been needed more.

My trip to Northern Kenya was arranged for me by Imagine Africa, a London-based independent specialising in off-the-beaten-track trips to less well-known parts. Managing Director Ben Morison knows Kenya well. He says that for those who’ve been there before, or think they know what it’s like, there are big surprises on offer. ‘Up North you’ll meet the Samburu tribe – if you’re lucky they might even take you for to see where they live.’ The message is, go up-country.

By ‘north’ Morison means north of the Equator, where the landscape is more rugged, with fewer humans and isolated lodges brimming with character. My adventure started with a short hop in a ‘Caravan’ light aircraft past Mount Kenya to the evocative Saruni lodge on the fringe of the Samburu Park. ‘Nowhere gives you a better sense of space than Saruni, arguably the best view in Kenya,’ says Morison.

As we drive from the bumpy earthen airstrip to Saruni lodge we pass through sweeping grassland that’s littered with giant igneous outcrops that form the dramatic skyline. With its diaphanous blue and red plumage, the aptly named superb starling is a constant companion as we spot impala, oryx and gerenuk on the plains. Late in the afternoon we encounter a herd of thirty-six elephants silently ambling up to the waterhole at the base of the kopje on which Saruni sits. In the Samburu language ‘Saruni’ means sanctuary.

When the dirt track runs out my guide selects the low-ratio gearbox and we head straight up a steep rock face and climb steadily. With its tubular steel and sailcloth construction, Saruni seems a touch modernistic for such a landscape, and yet it blends in so well it’s almost invisible. After dark we descend to the foot of the outcrop for a bush dinner where the Samburu people gather to entertain us, singing and dancing in the light of the stars and some old hurricane lanterns.

Leaving Saruni, I’m met at the airstrip by Andrew Francombe of Ol Malo lodge in his 6-seater Cessna. As we fly west along a brown muddy river he tells me that Ol Malo is about as remote as it gets. The nearest lodge is more than 20km away. ‘Down South,’ he says, ‘you can see the animals. But up north you see Africa.’

In Ol Malo – ‘the place of the greater Kudu’ in Samburu – I spend less time in a Land Rover and more walking through the bush. This is a better way to learn about the landscape, with my guides explaining the whistling thorns and baboon spiders, and pointing out tawny eagles building nests. When the sun gets too hot to go on foot you can trek by camel. But not until you’ve sampled a ‘Bush Cappuccino’ – hot, frothy milk straight from the camel, mixed with a spoonful of coffee granules.

As the sun reaches its zenith I dismount, and while my guides sit in the shade of a flat-top acacia I walk slowly up to a herd of reticulated giraffe, a rare specimen that’s not seen in the wild down south. Often thought of as the most handsome of all giraffes, its patches are rich red in colour, interspersed with a mesh of white lines from which it gets its name. Then it’s lunch by the river, and a quick dip while elegant citrus swallowtail butterflies flit in the hot breeze.

But it’s not all about the animals. While at Ol Malo I visit a local manyatta or village where the semi-nomadic Samburu people set up camp. Here I see young warriors dancing in their traditional red and white costumes, hair braided and dripping with beaded necklaces, bracelets and anklets. As the sun sets, the men continue dancing and are still to be heard way into the night.

I say goodbye to my hosts at the airstrip and head back to Nairobi on the caravan, where I can’t resist visiting the farm where Karen Blixen lived almost a century ago. Here the old colonial ‘Out of Africa’ Kenya will always be a popular literary fossil. But the magic of Kenya remains, waiting to be rediscovered.

Way to go

Imagine Africa has 7-day tailor-made safaris to Northern Kenya from £2,695 per person. Includes flights, transfers, accommodation, meals and drinks and safari activities. Call 0207 622 5114, or visit www.ImagineAfrica.co.uk