“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” –Mark Jenkins

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Sleeping, blogging and image-sorting

The view from top of the Liad
enjoying my 2-day old breakfast sandwiches!
So the Tupperware breakfast arrived at 9:00am and was missing a few ingredients... namely milk. Tea without milk is really not an option for me, so I donned my slippers and grabbed the room key.... if you want a job doing... do it yourself.... I headed out to the corner shop in my pjs, and returned ten minutes later with milk, chocolate, biscuits and noodles. Displeased at having paid for breakfast only to be getting it myself but equally as displeased at the prospect of drinking milk-less tea all day. I tramped back to my "suite" and made my breakfast in a huff, (immaturity can turn me into a right "Kevin" sometimes). Once the flask was filled with tea and the music channel found, I calmed down and actually looked forward to finally getting a chance to review my images from the week. A few disappointments as always, but also some surprises. The session Wednesday night in the water hide was most definitely the best and the cub eating my two-day old breakfast sandwiches had me in fits of giggles again.
I stopped for a break mid-afternoon and took a few minutes time-lapse from the roof before getting stuck in again to filling the remote HD and sorting the images into days, keepers and those suitable for this blog. It's surprising just how long that takes with the number of different gadgets we have these days to copy from, so I was thankful I had the time to do it. Returning home to the madness of work, wood and home tends to add months to these kinds of tasks.
Moldavian Cheesy Leek "Pies"
Keith had spent the day investigating the wider delights of Bucharest and the old town, meeting up with a friend of his for a more informed local tour (fine art photographer, Cristina Velina Ion).
We all met up for dinner at the Moldavian again, La Placinte, and talked photography and flowers. A lovely evening with good company and a very nice menu, that thankfully had pictures to accompany everything as well as sensible prices, the wine was not bad either. Perhaps Bucharest could grow on me over time.

Friday, 6 May 2016

It's mating season!

last session in the hide - a tad chilly
Our last session in the bear hide and since Zoltan was off on a series of birding trips in Hungary for the next 2 months, we let him go home and get packed properly, leaving Keith and I safely positioned in the main hide on our own.
After a fleeting glimpse of a young bear around 6am, we saw absolutely nothing for 3 hours. With the last session disappearing rapidly and our list of bear-activities-yet-to-see still as long as ever, I started to lose a little hope.... not to mention warmth... my fingers were like ice.
Then all of a sudden Keith spotted a stray dog trotting through the forest towards the clearing. The dog was to kick-start a frantic 30 minutes which included almost everything still on the list! I have to say bears mating in the woods has to be THE funniest thing I have ever seen whilst sat in a hide. Soon afterwards, "Goliath" turned up and we thought that a fight might break out, but the younger male simply dashed off into the trees and left Goliath to the two females. Thankfully though he was more interested in food than he was sex... not sure I could have coped with any more; trying to stifle uncontrollable giggles and take pictures at the same time is not easy you know (but I've heard growing up is even harder).
leaving Nagy's for the last time
Zoltan returned around 10am to collect us and we trekked back down to the Desag to do all our packing - what with my Tartan Welly purchase, I had no room left for the unused nappies, so I slid the bag under the bed giggling to myself at what the hotel owner or cleaner might think of this strange English girl who possibly wets the bed.
My weeks bar bill came to €18 which was a pleasant surprise, so we left Zolly a tip and headed off for a last lunch at Nagy's on the way back to Bucharest, Bean goulash again, this time with floating smoked pig rind - euw!
Regional syrup-filled sponge cakes - very nice indeed
Back over the glorious Carpathian mountains and into the crawling traffic of Bucharest. A fairly tired and dilapidated city with poor roads, non-existent road signs and an over-abundance of pharmacies. We eventually found the hotel about 8pm in the commercial sector, and to be honest, it was nothing like we had imagined. What can I say.... they spent all their money on a very good marketeer perhaps?
The poor lad on reception, Mikail, was without a manager and it was his very first day on the job. The roof top terrace bar that I had been dreaming about all week and looked lovely on the website, has not been open for almost 2 years and to top it all.... the hotel DOES NOT SERVE BEER!!!! I was not a happy bunny. My wind-down weekend of blog-writing and image-sorting was in tatters and so we agreed to at least see the rooms first and make a decision as to whether or not we were staying.... well.... the "Suite" that I was in came straight out of MFI and looked to have been thrown together (some years ago) by one of Dominic Littlewood's subjects - broken furniture, ill-fitting windows, blinds that didn't shut.... However, it was late, we were tired, we were hungry and since I planned to sleep most of Saturday anyway, the speed of the wifi persuaded us to stay. Then Mikail innocently asked what time we would like our breakfast delivered,
The stunning Carpathians
"Delivered?!?!?" I asked... "what do you mean delivered?.... you mean you don't serve breakfast either???!!!" We had even paid extra to have breakfast included in our room rate.  Turns out they don't do breakfast at all.... a cleaner nips down to the corner shop in the morning, puts a bunch of ingredients into a plastic box and delivers it to your room at a pre-arranged time. I can't wait... breakfast in a "suite" stinking of open sewers every time you flush the loo - what more could a girl want? You had to laugh. So we did. Plenty.
We decided to pop out for beers and supplies at the corner shop and heat up something edible using our in-room microwaves, but after finding nothing in the local shops, we wandered further afield and found a lovely Moldavian restaurant and stuffed ourselves with beer and food in there instead. Sadly Bucharest has already made a lasting impression, for all the wrong reasons.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

It's all about the birds

Beanbag and birdies
Breakfast at the hotel, Omelette, salad, yoghurt, juice and tea. Feeling so much better today, just a few sporadic pains which are still crippling but much less frequent.
Set off soon after 7am and passed through the main town in rush hour, heading South to the open plains and fish ponds of Rareș.
Paused for Warblers by the roadside, wagtails and a Little Owl atop a small dilapidated shelter.
Found and followed the remains of an otter kill by the fish ponds and on to the wetlands for early purple orchids and time-lapse of fluffy white clouds zipping across the valley.
Had a go at using the in-camera HDR function on an old hut in tall grasses overlooked by a grumpy Little Owl and surrounded by bearded tits. Seemed to work quite well given that the sky was so much brighter than the hut. The location was boggy and fairly stinking, and my boots quickly filled with brown water soaking my socks. With, "Suffer for your art Joanne" ringing in my ears I battled on, sticking my tripod in the marsh, but struggling with the camera controls and forgetting I had downloaded the camera manual to my phone. I ended up hitting the reset to get HDR working which, unbeknownst to me at the time, disabled the creation of RAW images and switched everything back to JPG. I have since learnt that if you want to create HDR images in RAW, you must bracket the shots and merge offline! oops. Another valuable lesson learnt.

We had lunch at Nagy Homorod again (becoming locals), bean goulash with the pork hooked out, bread and water, before agreeing that a return trip to the hotel was not necessary as we could get new dry socks in the local village of Martinis - a shopping trip that ended up with me being the proud owner of a pair of tartan wellies too! Nothing to stop me now.

Changing to dry socks outside the village shop
Spent the afternoon cruising dusty lanes shooting from the car on a bean bag - Winchats, Warblers, Buzzards and a Red-backed Shrike. Then went a-wandering around the larger wetlands of Sânpaul, in my new wellies, listening to the Bitterns booming and the frogs building to a crescendo of noise before quietening back down. A marsh harrier passed back and forth over the grasses whilst sandpipers and dippers took off and landed continuously around us.

Skylarks in the grass, yellow wagtails and an eagle graced the open hills and meadows alongside a herd of cattle and their stock-men and dogs. A truly magical place and could have spent many more hours there.

Wandering the wetlands in my new wellies
We checked the map and decided to go a different, more rural route back - which took us along an even less-used rocky road to a remote village in the hills called Călugăreni, where we stopped to photograph a couple and their 12 year old horse, Janos, harrowing a vegetable patch in preparation for planting. The village was over 300 years old and in places the untamed flora was winning the battle against the holey roofs and crumbling stone walls of long-since abandoned houses. A few people still around, and some kids were happily playing in the stream and damming it with rocks - no internet here to distract them.
old hut using in-camera HDR

We continued up to the top of the mountain through a high Beech forest which opened out onto an incredible view of the setting sun on the plateau. 7pm and the light was glorious, we played around at some more HDR landscape shots before heading down the other side, eyes peeled for the Ural Owl. Unfortunately the Owl eluded us, unlike the grumpy cattle-herder we passed as we reached the foothills, driving his cattle down the road in front of us in his green felt hat and half a knitted jumper - he reminded me of a stereotypical Leprechaun from Ireland.

Since it was our last night, Zoltan from the hotel served us up a lovely vegetable soup and a Romanian speciality dish eaten at Easter and Christmas, called "Sarmale" (shredded boiled meat rolled in boiled cabbage) along with a large lump of pork with an equally large amount of pork fat. Neither items would make it onto my top 1,000 things to eat, so I was grateful that dessert was apple fritters and since Keith had kindly eaten much of my Samarle (and the pork was wrapped in a napkin and reserved for the bears tomorrow) I got to eat his fritters too... that was until he belched excruciatingly loudly at the table before I had started on the last one! git.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Time of death somewhere between 8pm last night and 6am this morning!

Inside the main hide - Desag
I am ashamed to say I contemplated not even getting up this morning, my stomach was so painful, but I reminded myself why I was here and how little time we had on this beautiful mountain. Sometimes you just have to have a word with yourself and man-up. Before long we were trekking back up the steep slopes to the main hide and I was snugly wrapped in a blanket with plenty of layers and hot milky coffee, pondering the GoPro and what footage it may have captured - it was still too dangerous to retrieve it at that time.
Lunchtime snail shoot in the Desag valley

As the bears arrived we were happily clicking away and watching their antics through the glass when we noticed one of the bears stick it's hand down into a hole under the tree roots in front of us and pull out a black shredded strap... immediately reaching for the binoculars we watched in horror as the remains of the GoPro were dragged from the hole and dropped on the ground! We couldn't get much of a view but it was clear the little black Hero had not survived the night. The question then was whether or not the card inside it had - this required Zoltan to make a stealth trip out to retrieve it shortly after the bears had left around 8am and a patient wait to get it back to the hotel and see what could be done. I rushed back to my room and grabbed the remote drive and laptop, whilst Keith went to his to grab his card reader. Then we spent an agonising amount of time waiting for the files to be transferred so we could view them... and bingo!!!! It might just be the most expensive footage I've ever shot, but well worth it. Will upload in due course.
Off-roading through the Beech forests in Zsolt's 4x4
We had lunch in Zetea village again, this time peasant soup without the meatballs, bread and water.
Since we weren't leaving again until 3pm, we decided to spend the time trying out a few slow shutter speed shots in the stream next to the hotel... even found a beautiful snail to model for me - poor thing.

Our second hide session of the day was at what I shall call the "water hide" and we went with Zsolt Babos, the forest ranger in his 4x4 truck as it allowed us to go off-roading through the high Beech forests. Excellent fun, if a little painful for someone of my physique!

Getting ourselves down to the "water" hide
After a fairly long and giggle-filled wait, we were treated to a Fox, a huge wild boar, plenty of bears and a buzzard circling around the road-kill deer carcass that Zsolt had hanging in a Birch tree.

As the light faded we packed up to leave, but our exit was halted by the arrival of two more bears, followed by another two!! A little nervous that we really had to go, but the bears had not long gone ahead of us, we asked Zsolt what form of defence he had on him and he promptly produced a pocket penknife, followed by a torch! ... apparently bears don't like torchlight flicking through the trees, so we loaded up our gear and tiptoed out the back and through the trees to the truck. The best hide session yet.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Stomach cramps and sleep deprivation

photographing a bear cub
After a fairly decent nights sleep (6 hours in two stints) we left at 530am and headed out to the main hide, which is a lot more local than Satu Mare, however, what Zoltan failed to tell us, was that this one was half-way up a hideously steep incline that took 15 minutes and a mild heart-attack to climb. Slightly cursing the range of heavy lenses and tripods, we made it... albeit wheezing and sweating on still caffeine-free empty stomachs. The knowledge that large brown bears were wandering the area did not even feature in our thoughts... that is until 3 minutes after getting settled in the hide and our first heavyweight made an appearance.
Yearling bear cub
In fact, by 9am we had seen 6 different bears in the mountain clearing - ranging massively in size and colour. A couple of things they all had in common though was their appetite and their ears - the typical "teddy bear" has it so spot on. The ears twitch and turn with every sound and movement around them; always alert and very wary. Sadly we shoot from behind special glass, so your ears and nose are pretty starved, but I understand the reasons for it. One bear in particular, Goliath, still had the dried blood around his face from killing a local cow last week!
Zoltan from the hotel (I shall call him Zolly from now on) had provided us with a packed breakfast of fruit and sandwiches, but unfortunately they were entirely wrapped in extremely noisy tin foil... even the apples! Keith had not slept at all last night and so was fighting the eyelids for much of the morning - but in between the snoring and rustling of biscuit wrappers, we both managed to get some good shots and I was certainly getting back into the swing of ISO juggling and DoF monitoring as the bears continued to wander right up close and then back again.
The clearing at the main hide is on a steep slope with the hide at the bottom looking up - I found distances very hard to judge from this viewpoint and isolating a bear for a decent portrait becomes tricky with the ground so steep and the window so high; makes the shooting angle all wrong or should I say "challenging".

We went into Zetea village for lunch - chicken soup and trout - which was very nice indeed, served by a woman in what looked to be a traditionally embroidered Romanian dress;
heading out to set the GoPro up
I had been getting painful stomach cramps all morning, so I had a short sleep after lunch and felt a little better. We headed back to the main hide about 3pm, and Zoltan and I were keen to try out the GoPro. It had not been safe to set it up in the morning, but he was happy to let me out there in the afternoon to find somewhere to put it as the bears are typically further afield at that time. We chose the rock pile in front of the hide as it seemed to be the place where they mostly congregate. It also had be close enough to the hide to be within wifi reach for remote control. I had strapped it to a rock and wedged the rock underneath another so it was not visible from the hide and also almost ground level - we wanted close ups of them feeding. Once fixed, I checked the image on the phone app and switched from wide angle back to medium, (I didn't want comically deformed fish-eye bears in the footage), I crept back to the hide, only to discover the location did not reach far enough anyway and so we had to simply set it recording and hope the bears turned up before the battery or card ran out - there was no more time to move it especially with the irresistible smell of chocolate sauce wafting around. Now time to wait and hope.
45 minutes later we were certain we had got what we wanted when a family arrived with cubs and got stuck in. Sadly though, my stomach had gotten much worse and by 7pm I was struggling to breath through the spasms. So we decided to get back to the hotel, which meant I had to leave the GoPro in the rock pile as there were still bears around. We left the hide door open for a while to let our scent flow downhill along the track we would use to get back to the vehicle, and after a few minutes, we loaded up the gear and snuck silently out the back and down the mountain.
Dinner in the evening at the hotel was chicken soup and trout again - we were starting to wonder if all rural Romanians had set days to eat the same thing all day - kind of like fish and chips on a Friday at home I guess. I was in bed by 830pm - slightly concerned about the GoPro, but more concerned about what was causing my stomach to spasm so badly.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Travel to Transylvania and first session in the hide (Satu Mare)

comfort break en route to
the mountains 
The Angelo is typical of airport hotels - void of people, overpriced and underneath all the fancy signage and trendy wooden platters... really quite simple. The room doubled as a sauna and to get the aircon even remotely breezy it had to be on full throttle and sounding like a motorbike racing round the ceiling - the same noise level was reached if I opened the windows of course, with planes thundering overhead. As a result I started the day on just 3 hours sleep. I can hear all you insomniacs out there saying... "you lucky cow", but believe me, as an 8-hour-a-night girl, I didn't feel tip-top.

Zoltan arrived just as I was checking out, so we loaded the minibus and waited for Keith, chatting about his life as a guide. He started some years ago and has a share in the Sakertour business which he explains ensures interest in the company's success. Speaks very good English and has a good sense of humour. Sadly though, he uses a Canon, but no-one's perfect.
Today was also expected to be another day of travel, which was very tiring but picturesque - 275kms, driving up and over the mountains into Hargita county. It's a long journey but the roads are better than I had been led to believe... the potholes are indeed enormous, but they are so big as to be obvious and occasionally even marked.
When we were about an hour from our hotel, we stopped for a simple chicken and potato lunch at a restaurant called Nagy Homorod  (meaning "Big Homorod" which is the name of the local river).
Birch saplings gifted for "Arminden"
As we pulled up, I noticed a number of houses in the village had varying numbers of cut birch saplings leaning on the gates outside... Zoltan explained that these were the houses where young single girls live; on 1st May every year Romanians celebrate the start of summer in a tradition known as Arminden (or Mugwort day with lots of alcohol consumed for cleansing purposes apparently!). The trees are placed outside under cover of darkness on May Day's eve by anonymous admirers, which explains why some houses had only 1 or 2 and others had 6 or 7. Traditionally the saplings are kept until the wheat harvest when they are used in the fire which will bake the first bread from the new wheat.

Baclava and fruit for the bears
The journey had taken longer than expected what with lunch, a vehicle switch at Zoltan's house to a smaller 4x4, followed by a retracing of our steps for something important Zoltan had forgotten and topped off with a speeding ticket and 2 points on the outskirts of town! So instead of getting to the hotel, getting our bags sorted and camera gear ready to go... we went straight into our first hide session!! I was ill-prepared and my camera bag was bursting at the seams with everything packed inaccessibly and more importantly, noisy to get out of the bag and get ready. Even so, we did see our first wild Carpathian bear, squaring up to an equally-sized wild boar. I seriously had no idea those things were so big. We got a few shots, but the battle was so far away that they were not what I would call usable images. I was happy watching the whole thing unfold through my binoculars.
There were a few surprises on our first session .... firstly, no hide rules were discussed, no safety chat was given and no disclaimer, or in fact paperwork of any kind, was signed- that has to be a first for me, secondly Brown bears are all different colours and thirdly they are scared of EVERYTHING! (especially ducks).  Which is why our first session was well and truly thwarted around 7pm when a truckload of locals turned up in their 4x4, knocking on the hide door and asking to see the bears - completely trashing our chances of seeing any more. So we decided to call it a day and head off to the hotel - today simply was not going our way. Quite frustrating, but if I'm honest, a bit of a relief - I was shattered and just wanted to sleep.
Dinner was first though - which was kicked off by our hotel manager, Zoltan (another one), with a home-made blackberry Schnapps; at 48% abv it certainly woke my taste buds up! ready for more chicken and potatoes washed down with Romanian red wine. Crawled into bed at 10pm.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Here we go a-bear-hunting...

Did nothing but eat, drink and travel today! Gareth arrived bang on time at 730am to take us to Heathrow terminal 5 for our £50 business class reward flight to Bucharest (courtesy of an age of collecting Avios points at work!). Had to swap the rucksack for a suitcase in the end on account of the nappies and warm jumpers - I'm really not used to packing for cold conditions, but definitely excited; as David would say... "you must suffer for your art".
knackered and hungry in
Angelo airport hotel
We arrived with plenty of time to get to the lounges, although passing Ben Fogle at the scanners looking pretty knackered, we knew he would be heading for a lounge a little less crowded than ours. He is on his way to Long Islay in the Scottish Hebrides to start his "tour de landrover" - good luck to him. We are off to start our Tour de Harghita!

So what am I expecting of Transylvania? not sure really; Lush forests and high peaks, castles, fairy-tales and brightly coloured gypsy clothing. Peasant farmers, traditional ways and horse-drawn travel. I'm not expecting too much from the food or the comfort, as I know it will be basic, home-cooked and probably fairly limited - but I have stated a "no red meat" diet so we shall see. The evening meal in our airport hotel was actually quite nice - roasted vegetables with a wedge of deep-fried polenta. Serious sleep needed now though if I am to make it through the week ahead.