About Me

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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The iPad Chronicles

“For me, the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.” 
 Henri Cartier-Bresson

As a photographer, particularly one who travels quite a bit, I have several cameras at my disposal.

For the most part I am a Nikon aficionado, though I count a Canon video camera and a Fuji still camera as options when needed. Recently, as I discussed I a previous column, I added a new Nikon, the underwater and heavy duty AW 1, which so far has been exemplary.

Mokolele Airlines, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
Each of my cameras have their own niche specialty and use -- and each of them has contributed in some way or form to my overall portfolio. I have my favorites for indoor shots, landscape shooting and most of the usual lighting challenges. By far the majority of shots here on the blog are from the Nikons, but an upcoming series if videos were shot using the Canon. (Though my recent underwater videos, which will be posted soon, are the AW1.)

But if you follow my posts on Twitter, or Facebook -- or any social media for that matter -- those are not the pictures you're seeing.

Those photos, used to highlight my adventures as they happen, are from my lowly iPad 2 -- which in no way shape or form can boast a VISUAL advantage. But what it does offer is immediacy. The ability to shoot something and post it online, making the iPad's images among the most timely.

Rockefeller Plaza at Christmastime
I bring it almost everywhere when I'm traveling. It's a good source of entertainment, as well as a handy tool for writing, notekeeping or other activity. This column entry, as well as others, was written on my iPad first, then transferred to the blog.

One of many US Airways flights
But what about those iPad images? Those pictures which, by and large, echo the ones I make with the more sophisticated cameras? They usually sit, under-appreciated and lonely, gathering electronic dust in my archives. A few of them --quite a few of them -- tell as much of a story as the higher resolution shots from the 'real' cameras.

I am aware, and often witness, other travelers and tourists using their iPhone or other smartphones for photography. I disagree that SLRs (those are the cameras with the big interchangeable lenses, as opposed to those which are point-and-shoots) will ever be replaced by cellphones, but recognize their use by the casual photographer. My version of the iPad is not quite even up to those cameras' resolutions, but it handles the requirements I ask of it nicely enough.

A little bistro in old town Nice, France
They aren't portfolio or gallery ready, but I must profess a fondness for these shots. They, more than the rest, really are about the everyday. The fun. The moment. A lot of martinis and airport shots, which is likely related to the fact I am at a bar in an airport when I most use the iPad. Waiting for flights, or watching the world pass by as I sit and take notes.

They're the moments in between.

And sometimes those are the moments we need to remember most, particularly when we're traveling.

Below are a handful of other examples of the iPad's adventures...

The view from our balcony in Rome
Sunset in Port Douglas, Queensland

Mount Saint Helens

The back lot at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood

Sunrise in Oakland, California

In a hot air balloon over Albuquerque

Breakfast scone and reading material, Napa Valley

Live band playing, Austin, TX

Monday, June 2, 2014

Three Sisters and a Busload of Tourists

 "I imagine you're surprised to see me here"
                            - Lincoln Hall

I typically don't think of Australia as featuring much in the way of mountains. Well, to be accurate: didn't. The age of the continent -- the oldest of the seven -- means that the eons of weathering have taken their toll and largely eroded any vast peaks of sharp escarpments. Yeah, Ayers Rock and the mountains of Queensland, but the rest of the continent is relatively flat. At least, that's what I thought.

Lincoln Rock
In truth the Blue Mountains, some 80 kilometers west of Sydney -- an hour and half by train or car -- offer stunning views and some great natural beauty. Just outside the mountaintop town of Katoomba are some of the most beautiful overlooks and adventures which I figure will appeal to both casual tourists and adventure travelers alike. I was not sure what to expect, but was happily surprised and impressed with the astounding views and ancient beauty.

There is also a spiritual side to the Blue Mountains, as many of the caves in the hills are regarded as a excellent places for The Dreaming -- the aboriginal altered consciousness in which the dreamer is in contact with the past, present and future, and all things become one. In fact, the most notable landmarks in the park is a three-pillar sandstone formation known as The Three Sisters. According to legend (or folklore), they are the daughters of the Katoomba Tribe chieftain who was worried that his daughters would be captured in a battle with his neighboring tribe -- the chieftain of that tribe had three marrying age sons. The daughters had fallen in love with those sons, but the marriage was forbidden. A battle ensued and to protect the daughters the chieftain had an elder turn them to stone. The elder was killed in the ensuing battle -- leaving no one to restore the daughters to their human form.

(We have a friend who recounts his own visit to the area a couple of decades ago in which he wandered into a cave and doesn't remember much about it until he was found, hours later, by his friends. All he can recall today is the immense feeling of peace and calm.) (CAVEAT: Unless you're an experienced hiker and woodsperson, I'm not recommending you wander off the path and get lost. NOT a good idea.)

Our first stop and effective morning agenda began just off the main highway, and down a dirt road to a spot called Lincoln's Rock, one of the best out-of-the-way viewpoints in The Blue Mountains National Park. Named for famous Australian explorer named Lincoln Hall, the first Aussie to scale Mount Everest, the rock is an open-air unguarded overlook across the Jamison Valley. It's a terrific spot which is enough off the beaten path that only small tour vans will go there, meaning it's you and handful of visitors instead of the parade of Canon-clutching herds dropped off by the megabusses to noisily interrupt both pristine views and quiet moments. (This is the power of a small-group tour. While I have no particular problem with the megabus tours when nothing else is available, if you have an option I strongly recommend finding a small group tour that leaves earlier in the day and allows for a more intimate connection with the sights and sites.)

The Three Sisters
Following the stop at Lincoln's Rock and a short break for scones and tea, we arrived at Scenic World, a great tourist little attraction jet three rides and a walk through a cliff side rainforest. The scenery is breathtaking, and as we stood looking out a flight of white birds crossed in front of the distant cliffs, generating an almost Jurassic Park vibe to the moment. Very cool, though it gave me momentary chill when some bird in the rainforest below decided to use that moment for its best velociraptor impression. (The timing was impeccable enough that in other parts of the world I might have suspected Disney Imagineers to have been behind the effect.)

At the park are three rides, and all three are strongly recommended unless you enjoy steep hikes up and out of the canyon. The first is a glass-bottom tramway that takes you from one side of the canyon to the other. It's only a minute or two in duration, and has some spectacular views, though it goes by relatively quickly. There is a road which you can take to the visitor center, but the ride is impressive, as is the view.

"Indy, Heellllp!"
For the second ride -- and an an Indiana Jones moment -- there is a short railway down the side of the mountain, which is actually a modern version of the very steep coal cart tracks once used to pull full loads up from the bottom of the canyon (where the mines were) to the trains sent back down the mountains to Sydney and other coal-hungry towns. And I genuinely mean "down the side".

The ride bills itself as the steepest railway in the world and I have no reason to think they are anything beyond exactly accurate. As the cars leave the station the track suddenly curves down like a roller coaster and plunges you into a very black tunnel for a moment before you emerge into the nearly pre-Cambrian rainforest below. It's a real shift between worlds and nicely done, though if you're prone to a fear of heights the cars have three adventure settings for the seats: completely flat, slightly angled and "whoa Mama, I'm falling!". For fun we chose the latter and managed to hold onto almost everything except a single bottle of water that went careening down into the darkness below. (We recovered it at the end. The seats are securely caged on all sides by steel fencing -- despite your fears and a lack of seat belts, you really can't fall far nor hurt yourself. There's a padded bar for your knees, and plenty of hand rungs to grab onto. Still, it's a roller-coaster-scream inducing moment if you're prone to that sort of thing.)

At the bottom of the railway --- after passing a couple of educational exhibits on the coal-mining once done in this part of the mountains -- there is a walk through the rainforest on well-maintained pathways, clearly marked with three different levels of challenge. 

The primeval views
One is a leisurely ten-minute walk through a pretty level section of pathways. The second drops down a few flights of wooden steps for a more diverse and deeper experience, and the third is for people who are in good shape for a half hour or so of steeper trails and stairways. Each offers its own rewarding experience, and all finish at the last of the rides, an old style mountains tramway that takes you back up to the visitor center. It's a well done attraction, and I would budget between an hour and an hour and a half. Well worth the diversion, though again I would caution you to get there before the megabusses -- we were down on the trail when a load of quite loud and energetic tourists came down the mine train, completely disturbing the serenity of the forest with their screams then excited chatter as they raced through the various pathways.

This is probably a good time to bring up one of my angriest pet peeves: mobs of tourists from the megabuses who act like mobs of tourists. 

In this instance we were enjoying ourselves in the quiet serenity of an amazing natural beauty. The setting is very primeval, as I've noted. Scenic World has a wonderful series of hiking trails through the rainforest on the floor of the valley. As were were casually walking along we we became aware of a lot of chattering voices on the path behind us. A lot. We paused, figuring the best way to get back to the serenity would to wait for the mob, let them pass and let their voices vanish into the distance.

Within a few moments they caught up. Some twenty people noisily talking moving down the path as a single unit. Pausing every once in a while to take photos of themselves amongst the greenery, while entirely missing the experience of the moment. To them it was a simple nature walk, perhaps something they could have had in a local park back home. Despite the periodic signposts explaining something about the plants and ecology, the only pauses in forward motion came at those moments someone wanted themselves photographed in front of a tree, or a bush. And no stop to the chattering in either case. It's a shame that they missed such a spectacular moment to simply absorb nature -- but far the worse that they were so oblivious to their surroundings that they impacted the experience for everyone else on the trails.

Tram back up from the base of the Valley
I certainly don't object to taking day tours to experience the destination...but too many of those tourists really aren't trying to internalize the adventure. It's their loss, but their discourtesy to others trying to have an adventure of their own is a very sorry state of affairs. It's likely always been that way.

Thanks for the vent. Now, back to our story.

Again, to each their own, but if you're the sort of person who believes pristine rainforests ought to be quiet and experiential spots, the sudden appearance of the madding crowd can be a bit jarring (as, undoubtedly it is for the forest's inhabitants, who likewise won't make an appearance under those circumstances).

If you're a nature buff, or simply enjoy a stunning view, I strongly recommend the Blue Mountains as a great daylong side trip from Sydney. 

Just don't be a tourist about it.

Scenic World Park - http://www.scenicworld.com.au/
For more information on explorer Lincoln Hall: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln_Hall_(Climber)

The Jamison Valley