Posts Tagged ‘Travel writing’

‘Out in the Big Sky Country’, as featured in Canary Wharf magazine, November 2012

February 10, 2013

The Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith,

There can be few better remedies for the stresses and strains of metropolitan life than an activity break in the classic landscapes and wide-open spaces of Montana’s ‘Big Sky Country’. Nick Smith goes glamping at the exclusive Ranch at Rock Creek…

It’s like something out of an old Wild West movie. The sun dips over the snow-capped Pintler Mountains, while horses are being ridden home along the trail. Tucked away in the lush rolling foothills, surrounded by miles of ranchland a fast, shallow river runs past the Granite Lodge. Inside, a fire crackles, champagne is served and all around there is memorabilia from the old days of the great railroad hotels, hard rock quarrying and the Ghost towns of the silver mining boom years. There’s a frontier spirit and a pioneering zest with a twist of luxury here at the Ranch at Rock Creek. And it’s paradise.

The Ranch at Rock Creek, Montana, by Nick Smith,

The Ranch at Rock Creek, Montana, by Nick Smith,

Twenty-four hours ago I was in London. But now, here in Montana I might as well be on another planet. Gone is the impersonal hurly-burley of a city bristling with commerce and bursting with traffic. Surrounding me is the huge jagged landscape of the bones of old America, where the sky is blue, the grass is green and everything else is… well, there isn’t much else. Just space. It’s no wonder that the Rock Creek’s owner Jim Manley, after a lifetime’s search for the perfect ranch, chose this utopian pocket of land near a fork in the creek which, if you exclude the small town of Philipsburg (population 914), is fifty miles away from anywhere. To try to understand how peaceful and isolated Montana is you need to savour the statistic that it is the fourth largest of the American states, and yet fewer than a million people live here.

Riding the trail at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith,

Riding the trail at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith,

Montana gets its name, with some justification, from the Spanish for ‘mountainous country.’ But it is also the ‘Big Sky Country,’ and absurd as it may sound, this is a region of the world that seems to have been blessed with a disproportionately large canvas of ever changing cloud formations. As we spend our days fishing, riding, shooting and hiking, the sky is a constant source of amazement. If you climb to the Top of the World – a vantage point on the ranch that no photographer can afford to miss – there are sweeping, uninterrupted 180-degree horizons. This is something you don’t get in the city. And this is why ‘city folk’ come to Rock Creek.

Mailboxes at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith,

Mailboxes at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith,

They also come here to experience the rustic simplicity of ranch life. It has to be said though, at Rock Creek there are a few small embellishments that seem to transform rough frontier living into something of a master-class in uncomplicated guilt-free luxury. Everything is thought of and nothing is overstated, but the first order of the day is privacy and seclusion. If you chose, you could spend your whole time here and never see anyone outside your own party. And yet, as I quickly found, evenings are a sociable occasion, when after fine dining in the Lodge, there’s 8-ball pool, karaoke and bowling in the Silver Dollar Saloon. Everyone joins in, and it was in the saloon that I met Jim Manley who tells me, as he sits on a bar stool made from a saddle, that his childhood dream was to own such a ranch.

The 'Big Sky' at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith,

The ‘Big Sky’ at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith,

But it is a dream fulfilled with a thread of luxury woven through its fabric. With the distinctive style of Americana, the accommodation works more like a village, where you can stay in rooms in the lodge or log homes dotted around the ranch. I stayed in one of the ‘tents’ down by the creek, a term that does nothing to prepare you for the experience of ‘glamping’ taken to a new level. My classic canvas cabin, named Cut-Bow after one of the six breeds of trout that live in the creek, had a fireplace, screened-in porch and was furnished in a reassuringly rustic style. Facing the river, in the early morning the only sounds you can hear are those of the creek rushing past and the breeze in the cottonwood trees.

Cottonwood trees at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith,

Cottonwood trees at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith,

For outdoor types – and by the time it comes to leave Rock Creek Ranch, that means everyone – the rhythm of your stay is dictated by the activities that are on offer. What this means is that very quickly you become familiar with the Blue Canteen and the Rod & Gun. The former is where you fill up on coffee and pastries before setting off for the day, and where you sit around the fire with a pre-dinner drink on your weary return. The latter is where to saddle-up, tackle up and otherwise prepare for any of the ranch’s dozen activities that range from archery to clay pigeon shooting, horseback riding to fly-fishing. For many, the main attraction will be to take a horse out along the trail and there is plenty of superb riding at the ranch. But for me the jewel in the crown is the creek itself.

After a quick induction on fly-fishing I find myself out on the creek with one of the expert resident fishermen who tells me that we’re on one of Montana’s finest stretches of ‘Blue Ribbon’ water, meaning that it is environmentally pristine with great sport to be had too. Within half and hour I’d caught two trout (and released them) and was thoroughly hooked myself. For the rest of my visit, I did little other than go fishin’ and take the photos that go with the article.

License plates at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith,

License plates at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith,

Rock Creek Ranch is one of those places where you vow to return and actually mean it. It’s a great way to get away from the buzz of the city. The people are friendly, the food is sumptuous and you can take ranch life at any pace you like. But more than anything, it’s Montana’s landscape that is so captivating. To walk and ride amongst it feels like a privilege, as if you are experiencing America at its best, having discovered one of the last great secret places on earth.

Travel notes

Carrier is offering 7 nights from £5745pp, including accommodation in the main Granite Lodge, ranch activities (one morning and one afternoon) and return flights from London Heathrow with United Airlines. The price is based on 18 August 2013 departures and excludes transfers. (Carrier: 0161 492 1356,


Nick’ Smith travels ‘A Circular road to Cambodia’, Daily Telegraph, 1st October 2011

October 5, 2011

From the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh City to the awe-inspiring grandeur of Angkor Wat, Indochina is a feast for the traveller. Nick Smith tries to get his breath back…

Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Nick Smith

Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Nick Smith

Picture four million mopeds, scooters and motorcycles. Now picture all of them carrying at least two people, sometimes an entire family, sometimes even a cow. Behind the boxes, packing cases, crates, string bags, bundles of bamboo, building materials, fresh market produce and cages of chickens there are the drivers. These are the unsung heroes who thread through the congested arteries of an oriental metropolis with the precision and grace of a ballet dancer. This is Ho Chi Minh City and it’s magnificent.

The best thing about Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as you’ll end up calling it, is simply being there. You can visit the reconstructed Cu Chi tunnels where the Viet Cong held out during the war. You can visit the War Remnants Museum and marvel at the tenacity of a nation that’s brought itself back from the brink of untold horror. But the best thing is to just wander the crowded streets, or attempt to master the dangerous art of crossing the road. Or you can do as I did and stop for a dish of local noodle soup called pho and read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American in the city where it was written.

Saigon is the starting point for my escorted tour around Indochina, an anticlockwise journey that will take me through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. We’ve only got eleven days, but my guide ­– an outdoorsy Australian called Dave – tells me we can just about do it. He knows this because, having turned his back on the banking industry to do ‘something more interesting with my life,’ he does it for a living with regional specialists Travel Indochina. Dave knows this part of the world inside out, from the mind-boggling array of currencies to an equally varied, but much more interesting, range of cuisine.

Village life hasn't changed much in the Mekong Delta. Photo: Nick SMith

Village life hasn't changed much in the Mekong Delta. Photo: Nick Smith

None more interesting than one of Vietnam’s real specialities, kopi luwak, which I drank in a café in Hanoi after an evening watching the world famous Water Puppets, that enact scenes of ancient history. ‘Weasel Coffee,’ as it is sometimes known, is probably the most expensive coffee in the world, and once you’ve sampled its subtle undertones of chocolate and toasted hazelnut, you’ll never want Starbucks again. If you don’t know how it’s made, you might want to keep it that way, as the manufacturing process starts with fresh beans negotiating their way through the digestive tract of a civet. This supposedly causes a chemical reaction that breaks down the beans’ enzymes, unleashing their full flavour.

From Hanoi it’s a short drive east to one of Vietnam’s most iconic landscapes. Halong Bay is where immense monolithic limestone karsts rise out of the mist like gravestones in a gothic churchyard. As you sail among them in a traditional junk there’s a couple of essential stop-offs, including the Lau Dai caves, followed by a sharp mountain hike for what’s possibly the best view on earth. It’s an ethereal experience and one to be lingered over. But all too quickly the time comes for us to enter the altogether different world of Luang Prabang in Laos.

Monks of the Mekong

Perched on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, encircled by vertiginous mountains, Luang Prabang has a quiet, undiscovered charm. Traditional wooden Lao houses and boutique guesthouses blend in with sumptuous ancient Buddhist temples. The air is rich with fragrances of oleander, jasmine and bougainvillea.

Monks in saffron-dyed robes in Luang Prabang walk along the street collecting alms. Photo: Nick SMith

Monks in saffron-dyed robes in Luang Prabang walk along the street collecting alms. Photo: Nick Smith

Laos is a tiny speck of a forgotten land, often overlooked by today’s busy box-ticking tourist. It’s not an obvious destination in its own right, and so it’s a real bonus to find it playing such a spellbinding cameo on an escorted tour. Once there you soon realise that this is one of the most picturesque places imaginable. It’s also incredibly informal and stress-free. Tempered by the cooling effect of the Mekong and the fresh breezes that come down from the forests, this is the ultimate antidote to bustling Vietnam. Roadside restaurants and cafés serve exquisite steamed fish in banana leaves, sticky rice or spicy pan-fried noodles.

One of Luang Prabang’s most striking temples is the dramatic and serene Wat Mai. Its beauty is such that when the Chinese invaded Laos a century ago, they refused to destroy it. At Wat Mai a young monk tells us about the daily routine and rituals of his life in Buddhism. As we leave him to his meditations, we’re invited to play a quick game of petanque, the local sport, before heading for Wat Pha Bhat Tai. Here, to the sound of monks chanting, we watch the sun set over the sandbanks of the Mekong, fishermen casting their nets.

But the real highlight of any stay in Luang Prabang is a pilgrimage to watch the monks collecting alms. In the early morning light they walk along the street gathering offerings of rice, sweets and coins from locals, whose duty it is to feed them. After the monk ritual, and with a whole day still ahead of us, we return to the river to take a traditional barge upstream to the mysterious ‘cave of a thousand Buddhas’. At Pak Ou we disembark and climb a steep staircase cut through the rock to reach grottos high in a cliff-face. We are rewarded with the stunning sight of thousands of effigies festooned with garlands of flowers and dusted with the ash of thousands of incense burners.

Luang Prabang is paradise for travel photographers who will find the monks in their saffron-dyed robes, the ceramic and gilt ornamentation of the temples and brightly coloured tuk-tuks irresistible. But Laos is as much about its arts and crafts as it is its culture, and the seemingly endless night market that lines the main street is as good as any in the world. Superb juniper paper goods, silver work and silk scarves provide all the retail therapy you could ever need.

Sunrise over the temples

It was with bags groaning that we flew south to Cambodia, where at Siem Reap we tumbled out of the plane into a flat landscape punctuated by rice paddies and coconut palms. Of course, everyone who goes to Cambodia will visit the legendary temple complex of Angkor Wat and you will too. This was where Dave really showed off his local knowledge by smuggling his group in through the lesser-used eastern gate, which meant we were able to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat’s famous quincunx of sandstone towers far away from the crowds.

Sunset over Angkor Wat during on the vernal equinox. Photo: Nick Smith

Sunset over Angkor Wat during on the vernal equinox. Photo: Nick Smith

Provided you’re prepared to step off the beaten path, you could spend weeks wandering among the lonely, deserted ruins and hardly see another person. But most, constrained by time, will stick to the well-trodden tourist circuit, which is spectacular in its own right. There is a bewildering array of carvings, friezes, and bas-reliefs set among the silk-cotton trees whose buttresses weave their way in and out of the tumbled masonry. Sadly there are times when much of the mystique is lost, the spell broken by the continual reminder that we’re on the ‘Tomb Raider’ movie set. But it’s part of the fun, and watching crowds of Japanese and German tourists pose for their hero shots in front of the iconic architecture is a welcome break from the occasional ‘temple fatigue’ that can afflict even the most dedicated amateur archaeologist.

Although it is the beating heart of Cambodia, there’s more to this country than Angkor Wat. But to find out what really makes the country tick, you’ll need to visit the artisanal silk producers, where hand-spun and dyed textiles make wonderful souvenirs. There’s also a fascinating local ballet performed in traditional costume, which is a far cry from Saddlers Wells. At the end of the performance less reserved members of the audience jump up on stage to have their photo taken with the dancers. It’s about as surreal as you can get, as is the Dr Fish foot massage in the night market, where for a few thousand Riel (about two dollars American) you can have the dead skin chewed off your feet by hundreds of ravenous flesh-eating gouramis.

Limestone caves in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo: Nick Smith

Limestone caves in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo: Nick Smith

The length of time you can keep your feet in the communal pool is something of a badge of honour, as the sensation of being eaten alive is not a pleasant one. I managed to last for half and hour, before the hungry shoal moved on to a new punter with (presumably) tastier feet. I left with a definite sense of regret that this unorthodox massage has reached its end. As I dawdled back to my hotel drenched by a tropical rainstorm I discovered a new spring in my step.

With refreshed feet, the following day we set off for a day’s sailing on Tonlé Sap – the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia – where we encountered the famous floating villages. The dramatic rise and fall of the shoreline with the seasons means that many of the local fishermen live in houses on stilts. But some go one better and build floating homes that cluster together in drifting communities. We sailed out to Chong Kneas where life is identical to any other fishing village, only it’s all on water. The children paddle themselves to floating school in buckets and are called ‘bucket kids’. There’s a floating pig farm, a bar, a bookshop and even a souvenir stall where we cram to bursting point the last spaces in our luggage.

Floating village on Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Photo: Nick Smith

Floating village on Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Photo: Nick Smith

It’s impossible to visit Indochina without feeling the ever-present shadow of imperialism and invasion. History has been more unkind to this region than most and yet hope and regeneration seems to radiate from all corners, nowhere more so than Ho Chi Minh City. You could spend a year in Indochina and still feel that you’d only scratched the surface. But a whistle-stop adventure in this part of the world will leave you with a feeling that seems to be so rare in travel today. That you will simply have to come back again and start all over again.

‘Travels with Paul Theroux’ | Nick Smith in conversation with Theroux in the August 2011 edition of Geographical magazine

September 13, 2011

Arguably the finest travel writer of his generation, Paul Theroux has spent as much of his life in the world of books as he has on the road. By Nick Smith

Paul Theroux saunters onto the stage in a dark grey chalk-stripe suit and a white straight-from-the box Nehru collar shirt. His circular tortoiseshell glasses complete the image of the metropolitan intellectual. Urbane and media-groomed, he pauses to stride across the boards, pours himself a glass of water. If he has notes he doesn’t use them, preferring to tell a string of apparently unconnected anecdotes about his favourite travel books. For an hour he weaves the threads of his immense knowledge into a richly textured fabric. The packed house is enthralled.

Paul Theroux at the Royal Geographical Society. Photo: Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Paul Theroux at the Royal Geographical Society. Photo: Nick Smith

The following afternoon Theroux and I meet for a drink in the courtyard of his swanky hotel in Buckingham Gate to discuss his new book The Tao of Travel. Looking relaxed, he admits he ‘winged it last night. I don’t do a lot of public speaking and it can be very stressful.’ It’s hard to imagine how the author of such classics as The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonia Express and Riding the Iron Rooster could find sharing his passion for travel literature with 750 well-read geographers as anything other than an easy stroll. But then again, he’s never happier than when on the road. Or to be more precise, travelling by train.

In his lecture at the Royal Geographical Society’s Ondaatje theatre, Theroux midway through his delivery, makes the observation that as a traveller, ‘if you go to an island, you can only be up to no good.’ This seems like a good place to start: after all, he lives part of the time in Hawaii and here we are in the British Isles. So what’s he up to? ‘Nothing.’ This isn’t quite true, but at the time, neither of us could have known that before his promotional tour of the UK was over, Theroux would be patching up a 15-year feud with his nemesis V.S. Naipaul. A historic handshake in Hay on Wye. ‘I’m sorry. I miss you,’ said the 70-year-old to Naipaul.

It comes as no surprise that Theroux loves decent travel writing, although he admits ‘felicitously written, well-observed books are rather rare.’ As an example of one of the best of its genre he cites Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. ‘I mention that not just because it’s stylish, but because the voice is so consistent, so right, so measured.’ I mention that this might be in some way related to Cherry-Garrard being George Bernard Shaw’s close friend and neighbour. Theroux says: ‘Yeah. He looked closely at Cherry-Garrard’s book.’

In his wrapping up statement at the end of Theroux’s lecture, the Society’s President Michael Palin took a positive view of the state of the art, saying: ‘rumours of the death of travel writing have tonight been proved to be greatly exaggerated.’ Theroux agrees. It’s not all bad: ‘it’s just that publishers fear a certain type of book won’t sell. But that’s not a reason not to write it. And it doesn’t mean that people won’t do proper travel or write proper travel books. It just means that it’s going to get harder for them to get published.’

He goes on to argue that in this respect ‘the future of travel writing greatly resembles the past’. But the future of books doesn’t. ‘That’s the $64,000 question. No one knows what’s going to happen to books. We never foresaw the effect of the internet, or e-books or Kindle. We’re in the middle of some kind of revolution, but I’d like to think that the book with a binding and a jacket, that’s full of good writing, will endure. And I think it will, only maybe there will be fewer.’

The problem with making predictions, says Theroux, is that everything looks superficially identical to how it used to. ‘Sitting here in London today it still looks pretty much the same as when I first came here in 1965. When people write science fiction the first thing they do is change the look of a place, but actually places look the same. It’s on the inside that real differences happen.’

This can be especially true of returning to a place after a long absence, and I ask Theroux what happens on a writer’s return. Is it the writer or the place that has changed over time? ‘The truth is I’ve changed and I’m a different person when I go back. It’s a wonderful and educational experience to go back to a place, because you see what the future will look like elsewhere. In general the quality of life is vastly different and yet not as good.’

Ideal travel books have the gifts of description and a human element, says Theroux. For sense of place Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, ‘is wonderfully written, dramatic.’ But that’s not a travel book. ‘He’s not travelling, but he’s in a foreign place. It’s an experience of solitude and confinement. Not a lot of people think of that as a travel book, you’re right. But I think it’s terrific.’

This is important for Theroux, and the demarcation lines between genres are endlessly fascinating for him. As with two other great travel writers of his generation – Colin Thubron and Jonathan Raban – he’s also a novelist. And these two existences, for Theroux at least, are not entirely separate or separable. He says that writing novels is – just like Levi’s book – all about confinement, stuck in a house, stuck behind a desk. At the end of typically eighteen months ‘you really want to get out and do something.’ While travelling to South America for The Old Patagonia Express, Theroux passed through Costa Rica and came back with the idea for his novel The Mosquito Coast. Recently, while in India for Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he developed the idea for The Elephanta Suite, three novella which ‘I think are great. I loved writing them.’

It is this combined affection for travel and literature that led him to crystalise his vast reading in The Tao of Travel. There are plenty of literary anthologies in print, many with generous travel sections, but Tao is much more than simply a commonplace book of interesting snippets. For Theroux it deconstructs his reaction to people ‘who don’t travel alone. A lot of people who write believe that they have to come up with a certain type of book. They conceal the fact that they didn’t spend as long a time in a place as they should have. They conceal the fact that they were doing other things or were with another person.’

Theroux says there’s a virtue in travelling alone, but it’s difficult; there’s a virtue in travelling for a long period of time, but that’s difficult, too. ‘It’s much easier,’ he says, ‘to travel for a month than a year. And people conceal this. They conceal the fact that they have to pay bills, they’ve got a family and there’s someone on the other end of the phone saying come home. I don’t know where it will end.’

It’s this artifice of concealment that rankles with Theroux, who confesses not to understand why authors write books that ‘appear to be one thing when they’re really another. In Tristes Tropiques Claude Lévi-Strauss makes out he’s travelling alone, but he’s not. He’s travelling with a whole expedition. And his wife.’

Theroux is equally critical of his former enemy V.S.Naipaul, whose A Turn in the South is an exercise in this type of concealment: ‘his mistress is driving the car and yet she’s never mentioned in the book. He paid her $40,000 to drive, find restaurants and fix tickets, while his wife is back in London. As a reader you don’t know that. And that’s kinda interesting, but it’s not what the book is about.’

Despite a literary career in which he’s often blended fiction with reality –sometimes with legal and emotional consequences – when it comes to travel writing, ‘the truth is always more interesting than what’s made up. This is my objection to some travel writing and this is what informs my selections in Tao.’ Theroux says he wanted to expose other writers’ concealments, and so one of the tasks he set himself was to compile a league table of how long famous travellers claim to have spent on the road and then to hold their claims up against reality. One of Theroux’s ambitions was to dissect and atomise travel books in ‘my own eccentric way of evaluating the truth.’

As the conversation threatens to become a metaphysical disquisition of the nature of truth, Theroux suggests that too many travel writers get hi-jacked by an unknown reader that increasingly requires the writer to have travelled alone, suffered, had moments of great incident and enlightenment. He goes on to say that publishers get bothered too when these boxes don’t get ticked. As a consequence, the writer is often tempted to take the path of least resistance and fabricate an experience that conforms to these expectations. I ask him if there’s an absolute relationship between the travel writer and the literal truth? Theroux adjusts his Ray-Bans, considers the question, before restating the challenge that has tripped up virtually every travel writer since the dawn of the genre. ‘You have a great duty to tell the truth, without being boring.’

At this point the sky turns black with helicopters and our voices are drowned out. ‘That’s Obama,’ shouts Theroux reminding me that we’re a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. ‘I think he’s staying with the Queen tonight. Great president. Nice guy. I just hate his political decisions on things like Iraq and Afghanistan.’

Soundbites: Travelling with Paul Theroux’s books

Tearsheet of Nick Smith's interview with Paul Theroux in Geographical magazine

How the interview appeared in Geographical magazine, September 2011

The difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows – The Great Railway Bazaar

A train isn’t a vehicle. A train is part of the country. It’s a place – Riding the Iron Rooster

The best of travel seems to exist outside of time, as though the years of travel are not deducted from your life – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

A landscape looks different when you know the names of things, and conversely, can look exceedingly inhospitable and alien when it seems nameless – Fresh Air Fiend

In countries where all the crooked politicians wear pin-striped suits, the best people are bare-assed – Dark Star Safari

Villages endure destitution better than towns, and rural poverty can perversely seem almost picturesque – The Pillars of Hercules

The nearest thing to writing a novel is travelling in a strange landscape – Sunrise with Seamonsters

When something human is recorded, good travel writing happens – To the Ends of the Earth

Travel, which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion the opposite. Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture – The Happy Isles of Oceania

Nothing is more bewildering to a foreigner than a nation’s pleasures – The Kingdom by the Sea

Quotations taken from The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton £16.99

Travels without a tripod

August 23, 2011

The first commandment reads that you should never, ever travel anywhere without a tripod and woe betide anyone who does. Nick Smith has just returned from an assignment where he forgot to take his three-legged friend…

Silk spinning in Cambodia. Photo Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Wide-angle floor-shot of woman spinning in a silk workshop in Cambodia (not Vietnam as the article implies). No tripod used, but the camera was set on the floor with a stack of lens caps to create elevation. Canon 5D MkII, Sigma 24mm, f/1.8 set at f/4, 1/10 sec, ISO 200, rear curtain flash, short duration self-timer. Photo: Nick Smith

I was once told by a veteran professional that the best piece of advice he could give any aspiring outdoor photographer was to always have your tripod with you. There wasn’t a single photograph, he insisted, that couldn’t be improved with the assistance of this indispensable stability-providing device. Doesn’t matter how steady you think you are, a tripod will always do it better. In fact, the answer is always: ‘Yes, you will need a tripod. Now, what’s the question?’

I’ve always tried to remember this. And so when a few weeks ago I stepped out of Ho Chi Minh City’s airport and into the solid wall of heat and humidity I was dismayed to find that I was without my faithful three-legged friend. Had I left it in the transit lounge in Kuala Lumpur? Had I somehow become separated from it in one of those interminable security checks that humiliate the innocent without ever uncovering a terrorist? No, it was exactly where I’d left it twenty-four long hours before. In my front room, along with all those other bits and pieces you leave behind because you can only carry 20Kg with you.

I remember now why I left it. My thought process went like this: tripods are big and heavy (even my state-of-the-art carbon fibre one that cost almost as much as a fish-eye lens); even the most well-intentioned of us hardly ever use them; they’re time-consuming and fiddly to set up; they get in the way of the creative process, and to cap it all, whenever you really desperately need to use one, there’s always a sign saying ‘no tripods’ because someone, somewhere has decided that they break health and safety regulations or something stupid like that. So I decided to take my monopod instead. But I forgot that too.

Now, I don’t know if I decided to punish myself for this laziness by looking for shooting opportunities where only a tripod would do, but pretty soon I found myself spending more time rueing its absence than taking photographs. I couldn’t adopt the simple solution of buying a new one because you can’t get a decent tripod in Ho Chi Minh City for love nor money, and even if you could I wasn’t going to lash out because I had a perfectly good one at home.

For anyone who’s not been there, Vietnam is brimming with caves stuffed full of Buddhas, enticing interiors of traditional brick factories, as well as countless museums and cathedrals where tripods are welcomed with open arms. Just about every low-light condition demanding a steady hand for a lengthy exposure rears its head at each turn. I burnt up energy looking for shots I couldn’t take, rather than working out how to improvise with the gear I had on me.

Psychologists will no doubt say that the importance of such shots was amplified in my mind precisely because I didn’t have a tripod and that I’d started to acquire an obsessive-compulsive disorder about it. And I think they’re completely right.

I’ve never liked the aphorism ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ because it hardly ever applies in the real world. After all, you can’t invent a wide-angle lens just because you need one, and a full flash card won’t suddenly invent for itself a few extra gigabytes just because you want it to. But you can, I discovered, with a little patience and practice, jury-rig quite nifty solid platforms for your camera with a little lateral thinking.

I soon became an expert with a big plastic bag full of (uncooked) rice and a self-timer, deftly stacked piles of lens caps and the occasional blob of Blu-Tack. And because in Vietnam there are very few convenient or level pillar-boxes, fence posts or any other sturdy platforms of a reasonable height, I drew the conclusion that the ground beneath my feet was my best friend. Wide-angle floor-shots became the order of the day, and as I reviewed my work on the Mac in the evening I found that I’d invented something of a ‘perspective idiom’ for my assignment in the Far East. Of course, from time to time there were clefts and niches in geological formations I could jam the camera into for – quite literally – a rock solid base, but mostly I lay on the floor, sweaty, dusty, attracting bewildered looks from people with fully automatic point-and-shoots, and thoroughly enjoying myself.

Of course, in the process my camera body got horribly scratched, but I told myself this gave it the ‘lived-in’ air of an instrument that had served its time on the road. As another long-serving travel snapper once told me: ‘you can always tell the real old pros because their gear looks so beaten up.’ Now I know why.

This article first appeared as an ‘Inside Track’ column for Outdoor Photography magazine

Quick sketch of a recent trip to Mozambique

February 8, 2011

Mozambique: a destination with a difference

From the wild untamed bush of the interior to the pristine coral sands of the Indian Ocean, Mozambique is Africa’s next ‘go to’ destination

Sunset in Mozambique by Nick Smith

Sunset over Guludo in Mozambique. Photo: Nick Smith

As the sun sets over Africa’s interior, through my binoculars I can see a small herd of elephant making their stately way to a water hole amongst the acacias. Here at Guludo the sky is aflame with rich apricot orange and salmon pink. Below me, the endless expanse of untamed African bush is abuzz with impending nocturnal activity. Sitting on the crest of this huge escarpment it’s hard to believe that only hours ago I was lounging on a coral island watching a pod of humpback whales, listening to the cry of swift terns circling in the tropical breeze.

Forget Botswana. Forget Zambia. For the intrepid adventurer in search of ‘barefoot luxury’ today’s African destination of choice is Mozambique. For nearly half a century this breathtakingly beautiful country has been a closed book due to its turbulent politics. But today it’s safe to travel here and for the modern pioneer, eager to see a land that’s been in the shadows for so long, now’s the time to get to know the country at its best, before it becomes the next fashionable destination. In so many ways Mozambique is ‘real Africa’, where the thrilling sights and sounds of the bush are waiting for the truly discerning traveller.

With its national parks teeming with wildlife, Portuguese colonial architecture and far-flung luxury beach resorts, this quiet and isolated country is one of the continent’s best-kept secrets. And Guludo – a multi-award winning eco-lodge – is an example of top-end eco-tourism at its best. Here you can chill on the white coral sands, go for a scuba dive or a game drive, play a game of beach volley-ball of take a cultural visit to one of the local villages.

For many though it’s the colonial ruins that give Mozambique its special atmosphere of faded grandeur. Not far from Guludo there’s the exquisite Ilha do Ibo, a remote and tiny speck of a coral island in the Indian Ocean, a former regional capital of the colonial era. Visit the restored fortresses and churches built by the Portuguese, but by far the most intriguing is the ghost town of Ibo itself. Once a bustling centre of colonial administration, the centuries old deserted civic buildings are a photographer’s paradise, as well as home to countless wild flowers, butterflies and geckos.

But Ibo isn’t just about its cultural heritage. Take a boat out onto the ocean and spend a morning on your own desert island, snorkelling in the turquoise lagoons or enjoying an al fresco barbecue breakfast of freshly caught fish from the ocean. But whatever you want from Mozambique – the extraordinary green-barked fever tree, the majestic royal blue goliath heron or the sound of lions roaring in the night – this is a land of real adventure.

For specialist small group travel to Mozambique visit

Nick Smith’s latest book ‘Travels in the World of Books’ was published last May.


‘Travels in the World of Books’ by Nick Smith – publication date announced, 11th May, 2010

April 8, 2010

‘Travels in the World of Books’ by Nick Smith, publication date 11th May 2010

‘I find it difficult to recall anything I’ve read over the past few years that is as amusing and interesting as this lovely book. A triumph.’ Alexander McCall Smith

For the past three years Nick Smith has written a column for Bookdealer magazine that – despite his remit to cover the inner workings of the book trade – often drifted from the beaten track as he recorded his own travels as a photojournalist on far flung assignments. The result was the immensely popular monthly ‘Travels in the World of Books’, collected here in their entirety.

Bored with wasting time in airports, planes and hotels, he decided to catch up on his reading, only to find that travel and literature go together like gin and tonic. The more geographically wide-ranging his travel became, the more he rediscovered the works of great travel writers, classic novelists and immortal poets.

Part travelogue, part literary criticism and sometimes simply gossip, Nick Smith’s Travels in the World of Books offers an insight into some of the remotest regions of the world through the eyes of the writers who went there before him.

‘I cannot imagine a better companion than Nick Smith for a wander through the world of books. Amusing, interesting, and always perceptive, he takes us into the parts of the publishing industry that the public rarely reaches. Quite wonderful.’ Alexander McCall Smith

‘Nick Smith writes with fluency and insight, equally happy musing on ancient world history as tackling swashbuckling epics of adventure and exploration. Entertaining, thoughtful and unmissable’ Justin Marozzi, author of Travels with Herodotus

‘A fascinating voyage into the world of books. Nick Smith, like an experienced captain, steers the boat of his narrative – past the hidden rocks of publishing and sales – to the coveted Eldorado of high literature. An insightful, educational and highly entertaining journey.’ Vitali Vitaliev, author of Life as a Literary Device

Travels in the World of Books, by Nick Smith

Published by Rare Books and Berry, 264pp inc 8pp colour photos, Hardback, Price: £14-99, ISBN: 978-0-9563867-0-0

Available from all good bookshops or direct  from the publisher (£14.99 plus £1-63 post in UK)

or from Amazon Click here

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

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

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

Nick Smith reviews Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’ in September 2009 edition of Bookdealer

August 26, 2009

Revelling in the Reeperbahn

Nick Smith reviews a new edition of Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’

It’s been a busy time of late for James Bond aficionados. There’s been the release of the latest movie Quantum of Solace as well as Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care, apparently the last ever Bond novel. The latter was published last year on 28th May, on what would have been Ian Fleming’s 100th birthday, and the Queen Anne Press brought out a sumptuous 18-volume centenary edition of the author’s complete works at the same time.

For those not suffering from Fleming fatigue, wondering if there’s a little something left in the tank, there are reissues of two of Fleming’s works of journalism: The Diamond Smugglers, a piece of investigative journalism that penetrates the world of international gem trafficking, and Thrilling Cities, thirteen essays of travel writing, urban portraiture commissioned by the Sunday Times exactly 50 years ago. Of the two Thrilling Cities is by modern standards the better book, and there will be travel editors up and down the land tearing their hair out that they neither have the budget nor a sufficiently imaginative publisher to allow for the commission of a series of such sustained brilliance as this.

Despite being overlooked by collectors – you can get a decent UK first for around £100 (compare that with, say Thunderball) – Thrilling Cities is Fleming at his best. There are a few negative comments to make about it because any collection of newspaper articles bundled up for publication, as a book will suffer from inconsistencies and repetitions. And although it is tempting to say that Ian Fleming Publications could have produced an edition with more critical apparatus and textual analysis, at the end of the day we’re dealing with journalism that was – no matter how good – of its day. To me at least the most important concern is that we’re presented with the unexpurgated versions of Fleming’s essays. He rather revels in the strip clubs, topless mud wrestling and red light districts of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn and so would have been peeved to have found these details hacked out by assiduous sub-editors working under a nervous editor’s instructions.

Another problem with reproducing newspaper journalism is with the contractual obligation stuff that all travel hacks have to (quite often against their will) include. There will be nightclubs that have given you a smashing night out, restaurants that have killed the fatted calf, as well as airlines and hotels that have upgraded you to both seats and suites bigger than your house. All this has to be paid for with name checks and superlatives. Despite having bought a round-the-world air ticket for £803 19s. 2d. and having drawn £500 in travellers’ cheques from the Chief Accountant, Fleming is no exception to this time-honoured barter system and there are times when his (often very amusing) ‘Incidental Intelligence’ notes extend to several pages, as with New York.

By contrast there is no incidental intelligence relating to Monte Carlo, the last thrilling city in the series. Maybe this is not that much of a discrepancy, as the essay on Monte Carlo is so lacking in local colour of any description it is hard to believe that Fleming ever even went there, at least for this commission. Some early editions of Thrilling Cities have the so-called ‘lost Bond story’ – ‘007 in New York’ – appended to the New York essay, but this reprint doesn’t, which is a shame because it’s not well-known and this edition might have benefitted from its inclusion.

Fleming’s journey is divided into two series: the first is a truly global jet-setting affair, with the second a rather glamorous blast around Europe in his seven-litre Thunderbird, which he tells us is ‘very comfortable, roomy, and as quick as hell.’ And off he went leaving ‘humdrum London’ not because he could see much literary merit in the enterprise but because he wanted to ‘see the world, however rapidly, while it was still there to see.’

Anyone expecting Fleming to be a fish out of water in the travel genre will be sorely disappointed. He’s a terrific journalist and travel writer whose observations are blunt, colourful, patriotic and at times reassuringly elitist. Hard for us to imagine now of course, but at the time you could only do journeys like this if you were the creator of James Bond with a seemingly unlimited license to travel. This license came from Leonard Russell, Features and Literary Editor of the Sunday Times, who in October 1959 ‘came up with the idea that I should make a round trip of the most exciting cities of the world and describe them in beautiful, beautiful prose.’

Of the 14 cities Fleming visits I’ve been to only four, which in itself says much about what cities were thrilling then and are no longer now. The way in which European travel has changed over the past half a century means that many of the places Fleming visits are now industrialised clichés where you might stop in order to change plane while heading for somewhere thrilling in Africa (a continent studiously avoided by Fleming). Having said that, the shared experience is important because it shows just how good he is at grasping the essential character of the city.

Even so we’re worlds apart: I can honestly say that I’ve never stayed at the house of the most powerful English taipan (‘big shot’) while in Hong Kong. Likewise, in many visits to New York I’ve never dined where it’s necessary to tip the headwaiter $50 simply to get a table and wouldn’t know where to. While in Hamburg I’ve certainly been to gigantic Bavarian beer halls, my head half blown off by brass bands, but I’ve never found places where ‘you can enjoy really hot jazz.’ In Geneva I’ve paid ten pounds for a fried egg and yet never encountered a single occasion where a working knowledge of the anonymously numbered banking account system has been absolutely necessary.

Fleming’s world is swanky and suave – just like James Bond – and the reason his cities are thrilling is simply that he seeks out what the guidebooks omit. Doors fling themselves open before his fame and charisma, both a better passport than a passport. But at other times the thrills turn into grief simply too hard to bear. He leaves Berlin without regret: ‘From this grim capital went forth the orders that in 1917 killed my father and in 1940 my youngest brother.’ For all these quite unexpected personal reflections, Jan Morris is entirely correct when she says in her introduction to this new edition of Thrilling Cities that as P.G.Wodehouse is to the comic novel so is Ian Fleming to the thriller. His travel journalism is wonderfully flashing, humorous and quick as hell. Those who through over-familiarity with the Bond novels have grown tired of Fleming should get hold of a copy of this marvelous edition of Thrilling Cities and have their faith restored.

Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’ is published by Ian Fleming Publications, £15.00 · ISBN 978-1 -906772-00-0

Nick Smith regularly writes travel features for the Daily Telegraph and has been a judge on the Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year award

To find out more about Bookdealer magazine visit

Nick Smith’s ‘Going Green in the Galapagos’, as featured in Organic Life magazine (full version)

June 19, 2009

Going green in the Galapagos

Travelling to the Galapagos need not mean a guilt trip. There are environmental issues to consider, but your cruise around these equatorial islands to view the stunning array of  wildlife will do far more good than harm. By Nick Smith

There can’t be a single traveller who doesn’t dream of going to the Galapagos. Cast adrift 1000km west of Ecuador, this remote archipelago is perhaps the ultimate wildlife-watching destination. Visited by Charles Darwin in the early 19th century, the Galapagos provided the inspiration for his theory of evolution by natural selection, often said to be mankind’s greatest intellectual achievement. With National Park status, these volcanic islands teem with birdlife, from the impossibly rare lava gull (barely 400 left) to the trademark Blue-footed boobie. The Galapagos is also a living laboratory, home to some of the more bizarre quirks of evolution, from the giant tortoise to the marine iguana. In short, this lonely Pacific eco-system is a symbol of everything that’s right with the planet, and the cradle of conservation.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Darwin barely set foot on Galapagos, and the endemic reptile populations have been unstable ever since mankind discovered the islands and introduced predatory mammal species (the most dangerous of all, of course, being Homo sapiens). The only reason conservation is a word synonymous with the islands is that there is a pressing need for it.

Annexed by Ecuador in 1832, Galapagos has a chequered history, which has come to a head in an almighty ecological tug-of-war over what is the best use of the region. The main players are the science and conservation lobby, the tourism industry, settled Ecuadorian nationals, fishermen and farmers. Each is a powerful group with its own agenda, and each applies pressure to a government itself under pressure from the international community to return the islands to their pristine condition.

Whatever balance is eventually achieved, both tourism and wildlife conservation will play a major part in the islands’ future. Although conservationists will debate the point, there is no need for today’s responsible tourist to feel any guilt about going to the islands – a visit and the revenue it generates can only be a force for good. Despite the fact that scientists want to relieve the pressure on the local environment by reducing tourism, visitors substantially fund their research and provide revenue for the government, while volunteers on projects run by bodies such as Earthwatch even provide the labour. Simply by turning up to the Galapagos and paying your National Park entrance fee, you’ve invested US$100 in the future of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Although tourism accounts for 90 per cent of the human traffic on the islands it is not the tourist who causes the most pressure on the environment. The uncomfortable truth is that it is the islands’ settlers – past and present – who have done the most damage. Even though the residents take up only 3% of the land area of the archipelago, ruins of abandoned farms, airbases, factories, salt works and even a football pitch can be clearly seen from San Cristobal to Fernandina, while environmentally friendly cruise ships chug about in the distance keeping the luxury tourist literally at bay. Residents keep dogs, cats, goats and cattle, all of which could have devastating effects on the local wildlife.

For the tourist, the island’s main attraction is of course that wildlife, which is abundant, camera friendly, and quite unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else. For many visitors, the sheer novelty of all these little ecological niches filled from unexpected angles will be the abiding memory of a trip to the Galapagos: lizards that can live in the sea; tortoises that belong to a subspecies dependent on which volcano they inhabit. At the moment the tourism impact is kept to a minimum by there being only 45 landing spots throughout the entire park, which means that much of it never gets visited. In fact, one of the real criticisms of a trip to Galapagos is how regulated the experience is and how little you’re allowed to see. The ‘hiking’ routes are seldom more than a few kilometres along well-marked and well-trodden paths. Guides are with you at all times, and as official park rangers they have the power to arrest you for any transgression of park rules. You cannot linger to take photographs, you will at no time be left alone, and – most importantly – you cannot stray from the path. It’s their job not to trust you, which is frankly annoying when the only possible motivation for visiting these islands is a sincere love of the environment and its wildlife.

Although independent travel around the islands is possible it can be an expensive lottery, and given the restrictions imposed at every turn, this is one of the few times where it can be an advantage to be part of a scheduled package tour. These take the form of boat cruises, which have the important benefit of providing tourists with floating hotels. Although the traditional view of cruising is negative – a pastime of the ‘newly wed and the nearly dead’ – it could have been designed for a sensitive eco-system such as the Galapagos. With draconian regulations regarding waste disposal within the national park, operators are kept on their toes, and many boast of their ‘open bridge’ and transparent environmental policies. Cruises are getting greener and greener. And while the purist will say that these ships leave a huge environmental footprint, their impact is negligible compared with the effect that building a luxury hotel and its required infrastructure would have.

For a start, the number of boats visiting each of the landing sites is carefully monitored to ensure that there isn’t too much traffic at hot spots such as Floreana, Espanola and Bartolome (where Master and Commander was filmed). Secondly, tourists are kept off the land for most of their visit, reducing pressure on the wildlife. They are fed and watered off the islands, the waste gets taken back to mainland Ecuador, and there are no unwanted fires, raves, or fishing or hunting expeditions. Lastly, and by no means least, visiting the Galapagos is an enormously expensive project, well beyond the means of budget travellers, which means that the operators generate high per capita revenue while tourist numbers are regulated by their own disposable income.

The whole Galapagos question is one of compromise, and the future of the islands is in the hands of organisations such as the Galapagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation, which manage the park and advise on scientific issues. If they can manage the competing pressures on a sustainable basis, then the endemic wildlife will flourish. If the endemic wildlife flourishes and the right balance between tourism and conservation can be found, then the future of these crucially important islands will be secure.

Heading for Galapagos? Nick’s travel hints…

1. Take a fleece. Even though the Galapagos Islands are on the Equator they can be surprisingly cold due to the cooling effect of the Humboldt current coming up from the Antarctic. In the garua season (June to November) the islands are grey and rainy.

2. If you are taking a film camera calculate how many rolls you think you’ll need for the trip and then double up. Take spare batteries, a tripod and, if using digital equipment, spare memory cards. Wild animals don’t like flash photography.

3. Time spent actually on the islands themselves will be relatively short, perhaps as little as a couple of hours per day. The rest of the time you’ll be chugging between islands, which can be tedious. Make sure you take plenty of books with you.

4. In fact, take everything with you. Don’t rely on ship libraries or on-board shops. They won’t have the right film/sunblock/maps/guidebooks/novels/batteries. And if by some slim chance they do stock what you need, it will be hideously expensive.

5. Do not bring any live material such as seeds, soil or animals to the islands. You will be searched on arrival and offending items will be confiscated, but after that you should be especially careful not to transport plant seeds from island to island.

6. Take good walking boots. Even though you will at no point be allowed to walk far, you will need them to protect yourself from goat’s head or puncture weed (Tribulus cistoides). The spiky seed pods are agony! Remove them from your soles regularly.

7. Keep a diary. In an all too short a time, you’ll see such a variety of islands, birds, endemic plants and other natural wonders that you’ll never remember it all. But you will have plenty of time to keep a diary that will become a treasured possession.

8. If you are going to the Galapagos from the UK you will have made at least SIX flights by the time you get home. You have very little choice in the matter. But you can repay your debt to the environment by carbon-neutralising your air travel.

9. Be an eco-warrior. Not everyone will share your conservationist views on plastic bags, chewing gum, loud noises, flash photography, graffiti and souvenir hunting. You have a duty to obey National Park rules and to explain them to others if need be.

10. Remember to get your passport stamped on the way out by the Galapagos National Park officials at the airport. It’s not an official entry stamp, but it looks cool and is a reminder that you contributed $100 to the conservation of the Galapagos.

Contacts and further reading

Organic Life travelled around the Galapagos Islands on board the Celebrity Xpedition, one of the most environmentally friendly small cruise liners. For further details on cruising the Galapagos visit

The best general wildlife guide to the islands is the Collins Safari Guide Wildlife of the Galapagos by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter and David Hosking

Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, A Novel will while away the hours on the boat

Jonathan R Green’s Galapagos: Ocean, Earth, Wind & Fire is an excellent coffee table book with outstanding wildlife photography

Offset your long-haul carbon emissions at Climate Care

Become a Friend of the Galapagos by joining the Galapagos Conservation Trust

Find out more about the Charles Darwin Foundation on