Shots of Africa

After a quick scroll through the posts on my blog site, it became blindingly clear that I have been extremely lax at posting as often as I should. Despite all the good intentions, time and places seem to pass without getting a mention. The plan was to post the majority of photos on the website, however I have come to the realisation that the vagaries of Word Press are simply beyond me. Perhaps it is a better idea to simply post more photos on the much easier to use blog.

With that in mind, I realised that I have very few shots of some of my favourites trips to Africa. Below are a selection of shots from my various trips to Tanzania and South Africa. These trips were definitely worth more in-depth stories but these stories are better written at the time and not down the track. The photos themselves are the most important thing and I decided to simply add a selection here. Hope you enjoy them.

Pride male with his cubs in Balule Game Reserve … South Africa

Balule Game Reserve.

Wildebeest wondering whats down the road.  Manyeleti Game Reserve … South Africa

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A female hyena nursing her cub in Balule Game Reserve … South Africa

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This big male leopard had fought a fierce battle to claim this big warthog.

The slash on his head tells the tale.

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African Wild Dogs in Balule Game Reserve … South Africa

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Frolicking ellies in Kruger National Park … South Africa

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Juvenile male lion in Tarangire National Park … Tanzania

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Lion cub, Manyeleti Game Reserve … South Africa

South Africa 2015-1922-EditThis male Cheetah and his brother were resting before a hunt at Zululand Rhino Reserve … South Africa.

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Down for a drink in a waterhole at Zululand Rhino Reserve … South Africa

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A very relaxed male leopard at Balule Game Reserve, this guy was literally 3 meters away and really didn’t care … thankfully.

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Baby Baboons playing in Kruger National Park … South Africa

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First hand experience of the tragedy of poaching. Hluhluwe Imfolozi National Park … South Africa. 

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Black & White !! Kruger National Park … South Africa

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The cycle of life … Serengeti National Park … Tanzania

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A rare daytime sighting of a hunting Servil. Ngorogoro Crater … Tanzania

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Cape Buffaloes, Isimangaliso Wetlands Park … South Africa

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Grazing White Rhinos, Isimangaliso Wetlands Park

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Yawning Hippo, Kosi Bay … South Africa

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Sani Pass … Lesotho.

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Collecting firewood on the Sani Pass

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My mates lovely gardener Sinhle, Durban … South Africa

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Breeding Ellie herd, Ngorogoro Crater … Tanzania

Ngorogoro Crater ... Tanzania.

Bantu lady … Lesotho

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Boabab tree, Tarangire National Park … Tanzania

Boabab ... Tarangire ... Tanzania

Roller … Serengeti National Park … Tanzania

Blue Roller ... Serengeti ... Tanzania

Manyara National Park … Tanzania

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Relaxing Lions, Serengeti National Park … Tanzania

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Zebras, zebras and more zebras. Tarangire National Park … Tanzania

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Black Rhino, Manyeleti Game Reserve … South Africa

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Kruger National Park … South Africa

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Lappetfaced Vulture … Serengeti National Park … Tanzania

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So there you have it, a few long overdue African wildlife shots. I really hope I get to go back there again before long. Namibia, Botswana and Ethiopia have long been on my list. Its something everyone should do, once in their lifetime at least 🙂

 

 

 

Cuba

I first visited Cuba back in 2010 and have treasured the memories from that trip ever since. Since I was heading from Central to South America anyway, a diversionary month back in the land of cigars seemed to make sense. Another enticement was the fact that I was offered the chance to spend some time at a friends place in the sleepy village of Cardenas. A few weeks of putting the bags down and having time to write, photograph and learn some Spanish made a lot of sense.

 This trip was however, much more difficult than I remember as an independent traveller. The infrastructure in Cuba has remained the same, however the number of tourists seems to have increased exponentially. A lot of these trips are totally pre-booked and made trying to book Casas on the fly very very frustrating at times. So much so, that I basically just decided to spend my few weeks only in Havana, Cardenas and Varadero. My plans to travel further south this time were scuppered by the lack of room on any of the buses. Of course there is always the options of the shared cars, which are cheap and can be a lot of fun but I was more than happy to put my feet up and concentrate on things that float my boat, especially with the thought of long journeys to come in South America.

                                            Havana

The Havana that I remembered, resplendent with music oozing from every crevice seemed a little tamer this time around. The amount of cafes playing live music seemed to be a lot less. Still, the vibe on the streets was as much fun as always. My time was split between the old town of Havana Vieja and the more leafy and residential part of town, Vedado. My travelling buddy had struck up a friendship with a group of musicians who performed nightly down along Obispo St. I was lucky enough to share a day with one of these guys. That particular day deserves a blog post of its own but it started with a 3 shared car trip to a tiny village out of town, a day spent in his little tiny house and his Mum buying and quickly dispatching a live duck for dinner. Quite a few very well spent hours later, we drank rum, and partied with the musicians and their music down along the fabulous Malecon. Unfortunately, I had no camera that day so you will have to take my word for it.

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                                           Varadero

I confess to having had preconceptions about Varadero. I avoided it like the plague the first time I came to Cuba. Visions of endless all-inclusive resorts, much the same as Cancun and Sharm El Sheikh came to mind. I must say that I was very pleasantly surprised though. Yes, that resort world does exist, but is mainly confined to one end of the peninsular. The actual little town of Varadero itself is quite nice. Certainly not in any spectacular, once in a lifetime travel story type of place, but certainly a nice spot to spend a few chilled out days on the long ( 20k ) Caribbean beach. It is also very leafy which is a blessing in the middle of the steaming hot July afternoons. I found myself a sweet little Casa Particulares and managed to while away a few relaxing days. It was here however that I learned that my future plans to head south were going to be really difficult. The national bus line, Viazul basically had every bus heading my way totally booked up for a week. Rather than throw myself under the said Viazul bus, I decided to head over to my mates place in Cardenas and just hang there for a week or so.

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                                          Cardenas

I was absolutely shocked when I first landed in Cardenas. I am not sure what I had expected, maybe a preconceived idea of smiling happy people with music in the air from every door. Well I was in for a surprise. It is a very raw town that basically houses and provides for the thousands of Cubans that work and service the resorts of the great national cash cow, Varadero. As such, a majority of the good citizens of Cardenas are not actually from there at all, but come from other areas of Cuba for the work on offer. As such, it seems to lack some of the community vibes that I experienced in other towns on my previous trip. Having said that, there is something quite satisfying knowing that you are likely the only tourist staying in the entire town. My days in Cardenas were spent going over and editing photos, writing ( or trying to at least ) some mildly interesting blogs posts, practicing ( mostly unsuccessfully it seems, ), my Spanish and generally have some down time after travelling through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico and before heading to South America. To that end it was successful and I gradually came to somewhat enjoy the different spirit to the place.

Cardenas was indeed a prosperous and vibrant town before the revolution. As in most of Cuba, the buildings have deteriorated due to lack of maintenance and with little interest from a tourist perspective, it seems that is the way it will stay in the forseeable future,

( though plans are supposedly in place to develop the waterfront area, and again have cruise ships dock here as they did in days gone by. Hopefully that will go ahead and little old Cardenas will get the injection of money and energy that she so badly needs. )

For the history buffs, Cardenas sported the first railway station in Latin America and was the site where the Cuban flag was first raised back in the mid 1800’s, ( though the few tourists who brave a day trip from Varadero are told that it was raised in a different spot. The state of the actual building where it was raised would be an embarrassment it seems. )

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After the initial shock wore off, I came to mostly enjoy my time in Cardenas. It is certainly not on the radar for most visitors to Cuba. The tourist magnets of Havana, Vinales, Trinidad, Santa Clara, Santiago De Cuba and Varadero capture the majority of visitors conceptions. There is however, a very different situation in the other cities and rural areas. One where life is difficult and obtaining the basics to sustain yourself are a constant and daily struggle.

To put into some kind of perspective of what I mean, consider the life of my friend Luis. He’s an old guy, lived in Cardenas for a long time. He sleeps in the house my mate is renovating. Luis is a sports teacher at a local high school. His wage is 600 pesos a month. That’s $ 21 USD a month folks. Cuba has two currencies, one for tourists and one for locals. In Varadero it costs 5 CUCs, ( Cuban Convertible Pesos ) or USD $5 ) to get a horse drawn taxi for 5 blocks. That’s a quarter of Luis’ monthly wage. When he retires, he will earn the princely sum of 200 pesos a month, ( so about $ 7 a month ). Without family support, it’s impossible to even feed yourself. So next time you are enjoying a 4 CUC Cuba Libre down on Obispo, consider that you may not be seeing how difficult life is for average Cubans. The game plan for a lot of educated Cubans ( and the free education system provides plenty ), is to somehow earn CUCs as opposed to Pesos. That’s the reason a lot of the tour operaters and drivers are former doctors and lawyers, especially in the tourist hotspots.

I wonder what the local people make of me as I take photos of ruined buildings on a camera worth about 5 years wages for them. I hear them cackling behind me, probably not quite sure why an old white guy would want to be taking photos of derelict buildings in Cardenas I suppose, who knows. I am still not totally sure of what to make of Cardenas, certainly the smiles I was hoping for are at best blank faces, sometimes scowls. Maybe I represent something they long for and cannot have or maybe not. It certainly made me think of the freedoms of choice that we take for granted in Australia. I really don’t know. Maybe my friend having her bike stolen on my last day there maybe summed it up best for me.

So finally my last couple of days in Cuba arrived. I had hoped to spend a couple of fun days down on Obispo, meeting up again with the musicians from the few weeks before, but true to form I quickly learnt it was a two day National Heros holiday, both Friday and Saturday and no music was allowed anywhere. It sort of summed up this trip to Cuba.

For now, Panama and points south beckon, and I can’t wait.

 

The best swimming spot ever !!!

Travelling is sometimes a hit and miss affair. Some places are well publicized and written about, both online and in guidebooks. Others not so much, and it sometimes takes a bit of luck and perseverance to discover the hidden gems. The Los Rapidos of Bacalar, in the deep south of the Mexican Yucotan peninsular are one such place.

I have only been in Mexico a couple of days and I am quickly learning that the features and interesting sites can be hard to get any locals particularly enthused about. I am spending my second day at the beautiful, quiet little town of Laguna Bacalar. It is a pretty little place, right on the shores of a fresh water, Cenote fed lake. The lake is huge and supplies much of the Yucotan with its fresh water.

There seemed to be two main places to visit outside the town, one a fresh water deep Cenote and another site that is simply know as Los Rapidos ( The Rapids ). I spent much of the morning asking about the merits of these places and I was struggling to find anyone particularly interested in telling me much about them. The most I seemed to be able to glean regarding the Rapids was that I would need a taxi to get me there. There are no local travel / tour operators ( that I could find anyway ) in the main town square so I simply took a punt, paid a taxi man 150 pesos and headed for the Los Rapidos.

The Rapids are about 12 k’s from town and located at the end of a dusty road. I arrived and arranged to have Taxi man return for me in two hours. I spotted a gentleman behind the bar / restaurant counter and asked about what I needed to do to swim in the rapids. To say he was of dubious appearance and attitude is an understatement and my appalling Spanish was not doing me any favours. My attitude toward him and the restaurant was not improved when I spotted a Spider Monkey tied to a tree as a pet / tourist attraction. Luckily, I recently befriended an animal activist on a bus in Belize who specializes in monkey recapture, rehabilitation and release. She will be notified and hopefully the relevant authorities made aware.

The water here is a perfect temp for swimming and the idea is to walk a distance upstream ( had to work that bit out myself ) and either float back down to the starting point or just use the rocks as a seat and enjoy the clear flowing water. I can certainly say, it was simply the best swimming spot I have ever seen. I was not raised on the coast and am not a huge beach person, so to have this crystal clear fresh water river flowing was an absolute treat.

While a story of a swimming spot may not be the most interesting travel yarn of the year, the above video will give you an idea why I was so taken by it and motivated to write a blog post.

For anyone visiting Bacalar in the future, the Los Rapidos are certainly not to be missed !!!!!

 

 

The Monkeys, a Hyena & the Mozambican Spitting Cobra

January, 2016

In mid September 2015, I took up a long promised offer from my mate Brett Drew to join him on a 21 day boys own type odyssey through KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Brett and I met initially while he was working in the UAE, running a conservation bird breeding program at a Sheikhs private reserve just out of the town in which I lived called Al Ain, situated on the eastern border of the UAE with Oman, roughly equidistant to the desert cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi . We struck up a friendship based on our mutual love of African wildlife, and generally just enjoying a good time, despite there being a 20 year plus age difference. When I learnt that Brett was also an experienced and licensed guide who had worked at some of South Africas most famous and legendary game reserves, the seed was sown that we would get in a trip when our respective planets aligned. I had long been planning an extended sabbatical year in 2016 so the time was ripe to take up Bretts offer and get an African Photo based trip in beforehand. September seemed as good a time as any, so flights were booked and the excitement started to mount.

Our trip was an epic and rambling experience and will form the basis of more than one blog post here. Our adventure began at Bretts base, a small farmhouse on the outskirts of Durban, among rolling hills of sugar cane. The safari journey began from Durban and took us through the lovely countryside known as the Midlands Meander. The trip through the Midlands first awakened me to a fact that I would notice continually as we worked our way through the varied regions of KwaZulu Natal, and that was the similarities of many of the landscapes to my home country of Australia. You could easily have been driving through the Yarra Valley or the prime farming country of the NSW Southern Highlands.

The Midlands led us to the southern Drakensburg Mountains and to a beautiful place called Lotheni, onwards and upwards to the spectacular Sani Pass and the border of Lesotho, up the coast to lovely St Lucia and the brilliantly diverse Isimangaliso Wetland Park and Cape Vidal .The Drakensburgs reminded me a lot of fly fishing trips to the Victorian high country and so on and so on as the trip progressed. From now on though, our trip would become a game photographers dream as we explored Hluhluwe ImFolozi National Park, Zululand Rhino Reserve, Kruger National Park, Balule Private Game Reserve, Manyleti Private Game Reserve and finally the beautiful Kosi Bay. As I explained earlier, there are ready made blog posts for those places by themselves and for today, without further ado, comes the story of one of the most memorable days of this trip and perhaps my life.

Having spent a large chunk of his childhood visiting and camping in Hluhluwe Imfolozi National Park, Brett certainly had the inside running when it came to game viewing in the park but also when it came to acquiring a safari tent. Upon registering in the fabulous Mpila Camp, we managed to get a tent that was right on the edge of the park, with nothing between our deck and the parks wildlife. I should point out that a day game driving with Brett is not for the light hearted, he is passionate about his work and I sometimes thought he was more excited than me at some of the sightings, ( he actually squealed when we saw my first leopard, despite him probably having seen thousands ). It also means LONG days game viewing. Not that I had a problem with that, I did not want each day to end but it did mean that we were often the last folks back in before they shut the gates and as the sun was going down.

Our second day in the Park was such a day, long and indescribably fantastic with loads of sightings and we wound our way back right on closing time. The tents in the park are well appointed and have a thick lining of velcro coupled with zipped padlocks for security, all of which we had done up before heading out in the morning. Upon our return and before unloading the car, I noticed that the thick velcro had been ripped aside and the zips pulled apart. Adrenalin on both our parts kicked in as we realised that we may have been burgled. We stormed into the tent to find a scene of carnage. My only thought was for my passport and thankfully it was still in place, locked in my bag. As we quickly realised, the burglars had not taken anything of value and it was obvious that the culprits were local monkeys and they had done a number on us. Apart from some bitten toiletries and electrical gear thrown about, no major damage was done so we decided to calm down, crack a long neck of Carlsberg Black label and get organised to cook a feed on the Braai and relax a little.

The tents have a small deck area in front and a separate kitchen that stands a couple of meters away. Brett had grabbed a large storage box and was about to take a step off the small landing step when we both heard a loud hiss and a thud. By the time I reholstered my Black Label and Brett had managed to see over the box he was carrying we quickly learned that the sound had come from the landing of a very large and unhappy Mozambican Spitting Cobra from its strike position. After a string of African and Australian expletives were fired off, we quickly decided that this thing had to go. The adrenalin did not have a long way to go to get back to max levels again after the monkey episode and was now going full blast. As an Aussie boy who has spent extended time on farms, venomous snakes do not generally worry me too much and I know that a clap of the hands or a well aimed stone will usually send them packing. Well this one was having none of it. No matter what we did it would just keep doubling back to try and get back under the kitchen area. I can only imagine that it either had a nest of young there or it was simply a good place to hunt rodents from, either way it was going nowhere. Despite several attempts we basically gave up and decided that the MSC could stay there, right under the kitchen. As the kitchen was only 3 meters from where we sat on the deck ( with big gaps in the slats ), the Black Labels were not as quite as relaxed as before.

After some beers a few laughs about the days events and a return to normal adrenalin levels we thought we should check out that the snake was ok and then start the braai going, the braai ( BBQ for you Aussies ), was located just off the deck on the ground. I really should have thought to take a decent photo of the MSC but it skipped my mind. Brett managed one with his phone, which while not a great shot, does give you an idea of what it is like to have a beer with the eyes of a MSC watching you.

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I honestly thought that we really had had enough excitement for one day, so I prepared some food, lit the Braai, worked my way through another beer and quietly pondered if days actually do get any better than this. Obviously, being a South African and and Australian, meat formed a sizeable part of our meal and we polished it off in no time flat. We had decided for a change to eat from our chairs down on the ground, away from the deck and the MSC and I was now feeling very full, fulfilled and pretty happy with things in general. I was half way through some, no doubt entertaining yarn when I noticed that Bretts attention was not quite with me and his eyes were darting back and forward. He quietly let me bang on with my story and when I was finished he just quietly mentioned that I was in no way allowed to panic or run but it would be great if I could just take a peek over my left shoulder. I shifted a bit in the chair and slowly turned around to be looking directly into the bottomless black pits that are the eyes of a Spotted Hyena. My first thought was that these hyenas are obviously attracted to the smells of the cooking in the campsite and are probably ( ??? ) well used to humans. Luckily that thought process was about right. It still does not however, totally prepare you for unexpectedly finding yourself face to face with an apex African predator, especially when you consider the events of the preceding couple of hours. Our solution was to simply quietly get up, check that the MSC was still happily under the kitchen and head back to the deck for a last bevy and to let the hyena do what he had obviously come to do, and that is sample the Braii. I do not know what Hyenas tongues are made of but it must be tough as leather as the grill on the Braai was still blazing hot. It certainly didn’t seem to bother this fellow as he spent a few minutes licking off the fat and any little meaty bits left.

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I must confess that by now, I was beginning to have had enough excitement for one day. Bretts only repost was that ” Africa is not for sissies mate “. Thankfully the night was generally uneventful, though the roars of a lion nearby did having me wondering if the crazy daily events were actually over.

There are many ways to visit and experience African wildlife, from expensive high end lodges to basic bush camps. all bring their own unique characteristics but one thing is certain, no matter how you do it, a visit to Africa and being close enough to smell the animals becomes like a bad itch, you can never really scratch it enough to make it stop. Africa has a magnetic effect. Other destinations are currently on the horizon for me, but I will go back to Africa, that is a given.

For anyone ( still reading ), Bretts safari company is called Mangaleka Africa and he does tailored trips to all parts of Africa. The website is at http://www.mangalekaafrica.co.za

If you want an interpretive, impassioned guide for your African Safari, Brett is your man. I cannot wait to get back there.

Dave Mitchell

Jan 2016

New York … New York

JUNE 2, 2016

When deciding upon where to start my extended sabbatical journey to Central & South America, I really had no clue about a start or finishing point ( I still have no clue about the finishing point ). My vague original idea was to fly somewhere into Central America via Eastern Europe. I have never travelled there before and it made sense to spend a month or two there on my way to a yet to be determined starting point in Central America. This plan was the focus until I was lucky enough to make a great friend of a person who happens to work at a major airline in the Gulf, ( many thanks, and you know who you are ☺ ).

I was extremely lucky to score a super cheap business ticket, the condition being that the main destinations were in the USA. My plans very quickly changed from a European focus to a US perspective. This was not an issue as I had never visited the USA before, and I now had several options which made deciding on a destination in the huge country a load easier.

The decision was made a lot easier by the fact that I have lived in London, spent various visits in Paris, which only left one of the big 3. New York it was !!!

The Big Apple was everything I had imagined it be, even though I was really only based in Manhattan. As a westerner growing up with US movies, TV and music etched into our beings, it amazed me how much I recognized in the buildings, parks and museums.

I managed to find a hotel in the Midtown district of Manhattan on 42nd St that, while cheap by New York standards, still managed to blow my backpacker budget out of the water. I decided that my week there was going to be expensive, so I just sucked it up and went out to see the sights and enjoy myself. Midtown is a great spot to explore Manhattan from, sitting about half way up, near the restaurant district of Hells Kitchen and walking distance to Times Square and Broadway.

As the main focus of my trip is based on photography, I spent a few mornings up early and wandering around the fabulous Central Park. For me, Central Park is the highlight of New York. It seems to be the living breathing lungs and character of the city. From beautiful formal gardens all blooming with flowers, to nice lakes ringed with bikers and walkers.

I was really surprised to find so much variety of cultural life in the park. A short centrally located tunnel provided me with a few nice photo ops.

The lady pictured below was going through her ballet moves, with a young friend photographing her. I simply asked if I could take a few snaps and they were more than happy to oblige. I found in general that New Yorkers are exceptionally friendly and happy to help with whatever you need. In this case, some photos.

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I then turned around and saw a guy setting up his guitar and stand for some busking and snapped a couple of him too.

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I had almost finished up and was heading out of the Park when I stumbled upon a Korean couple having their wedding photos taken. I politely asked if I could snap a couple of photos and was told none too politely that as she was the commissioned photographer, to just go away. I adhered to her advice but as it was rudely delivered, I took a few snaps anyway.

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I also stumbled upon a group of art students and their teacher, drawing away to their hearts content. Some were keener than others to have their photo taken though !!!

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Obviously there is far more to New York than the Park and you could spend months there exploring. With only 6 days, my opportunities were limited in what I could see. I was eager to photograph the Brooklyn Bridge so I made a point of heading there at sun up on a weekday when it was not so busy. It’s a great bridge to photograph with leading lines all over the place, (it also affords a great view over the neighbouring Manhattan Bridge as the sun comes up ).

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The upside of getting up early was that I could walk over to the 9/11 Memorial site well before the hordes arrived. I was very lucky in that when I arrived, a load of New York Fire Department graduates has amassed for a memorial ceremony at the Reflection Ponds and later a visit into the museum. I lined up early to be one of the first ones into the Museum and it was a really moving experience to be in there with only the FDNY guys with me as they silently took in the memorials and significance of the place.

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By the time I had finished in the Museum and was heading out, the hordes of tourists were filing in. I was so happy that I was there early. It is the absolute secret to visiting popular tourist destinations, always be there at opening time and definitely before any tour buses arrive !!!! This goes pretty much for anywhere in the world.

There were so many great places in New York that I loved and will not go into detail here, but certainly some highlights were the High Line (a converted overhead railway line that has been renewed into a living green space with arts works, shops and places to escape the hustle and bustle below and a great example of urban renewal ). The sculpture below is called ” The Sleepwalker ” and is located near the Chelsea end of the High Line. I was reliably ( ?? ) told, that it was previously placed in a girls college but was removed as it was deemed “ predatory “. Beats me, but there you go. No problem with predators on the High Line.

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Other highlights were the views from the Rockefeller Centre,

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The crazy lunacy of Times Square at sun down.

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The iconic landmark buildings of New York.

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I also managed to take in my first Broadway play, Jersey Boys. It just happened to be the lead actors last performance after a record number of performances and added a nice twist to an incredible show.

So, at the end of a whirlwind 6 days, my time in the Big Apple was over and it was time to make arrangements to get to Guatemala. At the time of writing, my return ticket to the UAE is via New York again so my experiences of this incredible city are not yet over.

Watch this space !!!!!