in association with

Posts Tagged ‘BBC’

End of the Road

Human Planet

The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases

After a year and a half of non-stop traveling with Human Planet, it appears that for me this particular journey is now over.

It’s been an amazing experience and one that has brought me into contact with our incredibly diverse species across almost every inhabitable environment on the planet.  I’m sure you won’t be too surprised to learn that I can report back that human beings are the same the world over… individuals dealing with their own versions of personal struggles to secure food, find a mate, put a roof over their heads and protect their offspring.  I’m also sure that you won’t be too shocked to discover that no matter where I went in the world, doors were opened to me, food was shared with me, knowledge was exchanged freely and help was offered unconditionally.

I’ve really enjoyed blogging about my experiences… so much so in fact that I have decided to continue doing it on my own website. So, if you would like to carry on following my travels and read about the other work I do outside of the BBC, then please click HERE, or alternatively you can join me on Facebook.

In the meantime, I will leave you with my personal Top 40 roundup of favourite photos from my Human Planet journey to remind you of some of the amazing stories that will be appearing on the programme when it hits your screens in January 2011.


Bajau village, Tun Sakaran Marine Park, Sabah Malaysia

Huli Tribe, Central Highlands, Papua New Guinea

Pa-aling fishermen, South China Sea, Philippines

Wodaabe women with tattooed faces, Lake Chad area, Niger, Africa

Illulisat, Greenland

Fisherman on wire bridge, Mekong River, Laos

Fisherman on wire bridge, Mekong River, Laos

Timothy Allen Photographer

Central Highlands, PNG

Whale hunters, Lembata, Indonesia

Honey gatherer, Central African Republic

The urban jungle, Jaipur, Rajastan, India

Eagle hunter, Altai Mountains, Western Mongolia

Courtship ritual, Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea

Sulphur miners, Mount Ijen, West Java, Indonesia

Bajau breath diver with rock and spear gun, walking along the sea bottom, Sabah, Malaysia

Replastering the mosque in Djenne, Mali.

Replastering the mosque in Djenne, Mali.

Timothy Allen Photographer

A remote camp, Simien Mountains, Ehiopia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Gerewol, Niger, Africa

A nomadic family moving to their winter camp, Mongolia

Stick fighters, Southern Ethiopia

Camel herders, Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Guarding crops, Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Making a living on Mombassa’s waste dump, Kenya

Bajau sea gypsy girl on her family boat, Sabah, Malaysia

Double rainbow all the way, Central Mongolia

Watering the garden, Mali.

Watering the garden, Mali.

Timothy Allen Photographer

Skin diving, Tun Sakaran Marine Park, Sabah Malaysia

Mother and child in a cave, Zanskar, Ladakh, Indian Himalayas

Donga – a Suri stick fight gathering, Ethiopia

Eagle Hunter, Altai Mountains, Mongolia

Eagle Hunter, Altai Mountains, Mongolia

Pa-aling diver loses his air tube at depth, Philippines

Honey gatherer smoking out bees nest, Central African Republic

Families walking to Leh for 5 days down the frozen Zanskar River, Ladakh, India

Botos, freshwater dolphin in the murky depths of the Rio Negro, Brazil

Kids playing Tetris in their ger, Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Living root bridge, Wahthyllong, East Khasi Hills, Meghalaya, India

Children barbecuing Goliath Tarantula Spiders, Venezuela

Herding the family livestock, Mongolia

Young boy asleep on a rubbish dump, Mombassa, Kenya

The leather Tannery, Fez, Morocco

The majestic Golden Eagle, Altai Mountains, Mongolia

.  .  .

This will be my last post on this blog.  For those of you who would like to continue following my work on my new blog, please click HERE.  planeta humano

Alternatively, you can get my latest updates and join in our discussions on my new Facebook page.

Room with a View

My Top 5 most memorable Human Planet camp sites

Thanks to Iceland’s recent explosion in exports of Volcanic ash, I had to cancel my last Human Planet trip back to Mali, and since our filming schedule is now slowly beginning to wind up, I thought I’d plough through the picture archive and dig up some snaps of my favourite camping locations from the last year and a half’s travel.

So, here we go with my top 5 favourite lesser-known camping spots.

No. 5    Zanskar River, Jammu and Kashmir, India

A quiet spot by the river

During our foray up the Zanskar river a few months ago, my tent remained redundant for all but one of the nights spent out on the ice.   Before this point, the penultimate night of the trip, I had been staying in caves and mountain houses during my time in Zanskar.  This particular camping spot is well-known by the local Ladakhis who, lacking their own tents, still tend to sleep in one of the handful of caves that flank it on either side.  However, we arrived here late in the afternoon to discover that all the caves were already full, and being the large team that we were by that point, we opted for setting up our tents at this fantastic spot beside the frozen river.  One day’s walk from here is the beginning of the road back to Leh, so everyone was in great spirits and the weather was really mild… only -12°C at night which was actually quite warm compared to the temperatures further up the river.

Popping next door to borrow a cup of sugar

.  .  .

No.4  Niger’s Sahara Desert, near Lake Chad

A bed under the stars

On our trip to Niger last year, we set up a small camp in the middle of a gathering of a thousand or so Wodaabe nomads.  They had all travelled there to attend a week-long Gerewol during which most of them slept very sporadically, in between lengthy bouts of dancing and singing.  Our camp was very simple.  One tent for kit, a small dome tent for each of the crew and a few mats and cushions on the floor for dining.  Since the weather is always fine at that time of the year, some of us slept outside under the stars as all of the Wodaabe did, which is the reason why this camp has remained so memorable.

Sunrise at our camp

.  .  .

No.3 Dogon Country, Mali

Wot no camp?!

Our camp in Dogon Country was magnificent in as much as we got to wake up to this view every morning.  Dwarfed by the huge escarpment dotted with ancient dwellings above us, we were nestled in the trees just to the right of view in the picture above.  Unfortunately I don’t have a photo of our camp in Dogon country I’m afraid.  I do have a good reason though.  Before I’d had the inclination to document its serene setting, an incredible storm blew in and completely destroyed it.  By chance however, I had a time lapse camera set up and running as the storm blew in.  You can see what happened  here…

(Excuse the rather abrupt ending – I had to make a run for it!)

What you can see here is a 1000 ft wall of sand engulfing us.  The storm began out in the desert, the winds stirring up the sand and driving an ever enlarging dust cloud towards us.   It came in with such speed and force that the camera only managed to capture 28 frames before becoming completely engulfed by the sand cloud.  Inside the cloud it went completely dark for about 2 minutes before the huge deluge of torrential rain arrived.

The next morning, a crocodile was proudly swimming at the spot on which our camp formerly lay, by then 3 feet under water.

.  .  .

No.2  Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Off the beaten track

In Ethiopia’s Simien mountains we were filming farmers who grow their crops on the incredible steep slopes you can see surrounding our camp above.  If working on a sheer cliff wasn’t enough, they also had to fend off the many packs of  devious resident Gelada Baboons, hell-bent on stealing their barley before they managed to harvest it.   It was a beautiful camp, even if we did need to keep one eye out for our mischievous neighbours.

Nice spot, shame about the grumpy neighbours

.  .  .

No.1 Gobi Desert, Mongolia

The lengths some people will go to avoid a visit from the Jehovah's witnesses

When it comes to all round amazing camping spots, Mongolia has got it topped for me.  However, if I were to pick one, it would have to be this little gem from our recent trip to the Gobi Desert which resides at number one on my list of favourite campsites.   For our crew, the way in and out of this incredible location was via the valley you can see far off in the distance in the top right of the picture beyond the sand dunes, beneath the snow-capped peaks.  The problem with a topography like this of course, is that it is very hard to travel as the crow flies.  In fact, to arrive at this point, we actually had to drive about 2 hours to the left hand side along the dunes where there was a small thoroughfare navigable with a vehicle.   The dunes are continuously shifting and the way through wasn’t always in the same place, something that we discovered first hand when trying to rescue our cameraman Terry during a violent storm one day.

The best night's sleep I've ever had

For a more detailed look inside this Mongolian Human Planet camp click HERE

To see a video tour around a Human Planet camp on the Arctic sea ice click HERE


Black River Secrets


No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man

It’s a funny old world we live in.  Today I’m sitting writing this in a hotel room at São Paulo airport, our flight home cancelled indefinitely because a volcano has erupted in Iceland, almost 10,000 km away.   Yesterday, on our boat in the Amazon, if you’d have asked me to make a bet on the possibility of this particular reality transpiring, you’d probably be smiling your way to the bank right now with a fist full of very easy money.

It’s always a strange transition, traveling back to the urban environment from isolation in nature.  The Amazon river is a formidable force of nature that consumes you with its magnitude and majesty, much like the awe-inspiring images of Iceland’s bellowing clouds of ash that I’ve seen here on CNN in the last few hours.  I can’t help being reminded that whilst we continue living the somewhat strange contemporary lifestyles that many of us now do, it’s so easy to forget that we are still very much an intricate part of Mother Nature, even whilst we are sitting drinking a cappuccino in some faceless airport departure lounge.   She can reach out to us at any time and completely redirect the course of our lives in a moment, something that the people with whom we’ve spent the last two weeks filming know only too well.

We have been living with a small community of 4 families who live on a small sand bar on the Rio Negro, about 2 days’ boat ride up river from Manaus.  Our story here has been centred around the trials and tribulations of this isolated community who live within the ebb and flow of the largest fresh water mass on the planet.   The seasons of the Amazon basin result in great changes in the volume of water surging down its arterial waterways.   At this time of the year the people of the Rio Negro are preparing for the coming of the high waters and for our new friends here, this means the yearly ritual of saying a temporary farewell to the terra firma of their island existence as they retreat to their stilted houses for the 2-or-so months when the river surge completely floods the forests around their village, forcing them to adapt to a waterborne existence.

The forest is beginning to disappear

What none of us really understood very well before we came here, is that this small group of people have built up a beautifully inspiring relationship with some of the other non-human residents of the Rio Negro, and it is this story which has completely consumed me on this trip and the one that I have chosen to recount here.

On the day that we arrived we were greeted by our new hosts and promptly taken to see the water cages in which these people are nurturing thousands of young river turtles to be released back into the wild.  It is a community run project attempting to swell the numbers of wild turtles in the Rio Negro which form an important source of food for the local inhabitants.  By rescuing the buried eggs from well-known spawning beaches around the area and then allowing them to hatch within the safety of their own village, these people are safe guarding the young turtles from a short, hard-boiled life destined to appear on the dinner plates of local villagers.

Whilst we were standing waist deep in the Rio’s black waters observing the baby turtles, a dark shadow brushed past my leg and to my amazement, promptly swam up to one of our hosts and nudged her dangling hand with its long beak.  “Botos”, she mumbled as she grabbed its protruding nose with both hands, bursting into laughter as they momentarily play-fought in the water.

My first underwater glimpse of a wild dolphin in the Negro's murky black waters

Botos are the Amazon’s resident river dolphins.  At many spots along this part of the Rio Negro they are a common feature of people’s day-to-day lives due to their incredibly friendly nature.  According to Wikipedia, ‘The brain of the river dolphin is 40% larger than a human brain‘.  Now, whilst I can’t back up that fact with any of my own scientific evidence, I must admit that after a week of intimate interaction with these fabulous creatures in their natural habitat,  I have to say that there is definitely something other-worldly about an experience within their wonderful auras.   I feel very much more connected with the natural world right now.

The other day as I was resting on my bed in our boat, a small brown nondescript moth flew into my cabin and landed on the wall beside my head.  Mesmerized, as I lay there staring at it, I realized that for the first time in absolutely ages, possibly even since I was a young boy in my family garden, I was looking at it with a genuine sense of awe and fascination.  Such a seemingly mundane and insignificant creature had become an incredible manifestation of the beauty of nature with a huge beaming personality to boot!  I am sure that it has been my interaction with these terrific river dolphins over the last week that has prized open that childlike side of me again.

.  .  .

A close encounter with a wild animal is always a humbling experience.  Dolphins, however, appear to be one of those rare organisms on our planet that genuinely appear to want to reach out to our species. There’s a reason why dolphins have captured such a special place in hearts of many of the world’s cultures and that’s something that I hope will continue for many millenia into our shared futures.

If you ever want to feel like a kid again, go out into the world and see if you can meet a dolphin.  You won’t be disappointed.

. . .

There is such a thing as a free meal when your brain is 40 percent bigger than the cook's

.  .  .

Still reading?  Join in the discussion on my Facebook page.

Flight off the Concourse

Photographer Kieran Doherty in Dubai

While waiting for the sun to set on a snowy Stonehenge, I received a phone call from Tim,  ‘Do you fancy an eight day trip to Dubai to shoot a story on an urban falconer?’  When someone asks you that question as you are sitting in minus 10 degrees cold, there is really only one answer.  So two days later I arrived in Dubai to meet Human Planetʼs Urban team, consisting of Mark Flowers, producer/director, Mark MacEwen, cameraman, the invaluable Andrea Jones, production co-ordinator and Julia Wheeler, the BBCʼs middle east correspondent.

Dubai... Science fact

Hereʼs an interesting fact.   One third of all the worldʼs construction cranes are currently in Dubai.  I imagine itʼs every architectʼs dream to design a building for Dubai.  They come in all shapes and sizes.  Everywhere you look you can see office blocks, skyscrapers, apartments with penthouses that have swimming pools on the 47th floor.   Hotels have motorised gondolas to ferry you from one part of the complex to another. Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Verons and Bentleys sit parked outside hotel lobbies.  I felt a bit like Jim Carreyʼs character in the Truman Show.  Is all this real?  Maybe this is the Dubai experience everyone was telling me about?  Stepping inside the 7 star Burj LʼArab hotel was just that…  Fountains filled with glycerine so that the water doesnʼt separate when it arcs everywhere.  Forty seven sushi chefs in the Japanese restaurant alone…  Well believe it or not, even with all this wealth, technology and state of the art know how, Dubai still suffers from pigeon infestation and there is only one way to clear them out properly.

Did someone say pigeon?

This story centred around falconer David Stead, and the schedule of sequences required by the team were too numerous to mention, suffice to say that David probably experienced what it feels like to be George Clooney.   Every format of camera angle was afforded him, from helicopter cineflex to steadicam, crane, car mount and tripod… I just had to shoot the stills.

And so for the next six days we rose with the light and shot David flying his beautiful falcons against the impressive skyscraper backdrop that is Dubai.  Falcons are the fastest birds of prey in the world,  so filming and shooting them mid flight was fraught with difficulties.  Trying to keep focus with a hand held 400mm lens on a bird that drops out of the sky at over 100 mph is pretty full on.  And I had it easy compared to cameraman Mark, who was having to operate his camera on a tripod.  These birds are like thoroughbred horses and can tire very quickly while being directed for the film crew.  If we averaged about 4 minutes air time per bird, a day’s shooting could be over in just a quarter of an hour. Each falcon had a personality that kept us all entertained.

David is the most extraordinary of falconers, a man who cares passionately about his birds and their welfare.  His ability to control them while they are flying has to be seen to be believed.  On our final afternoon of filming, we witnessed Nimr disappearing for almost two and a half hours while she devoured a pigeon squab, only for her to return to David in almost complete darkness, something that had never been done before.  This in itself was a very special moment as eye contact and visibility is paramount between falcon and handler.

We were also lucky enough to ascend the Burj Khalifa, the tallest man made structure (at almost 3000 ft ) in the world.  So if you are squeamish about heights…..look away now.

... and this isn't even the top

The last time I worked with a camera crew was in Baghdad while covering the immediate fallout from the Iraq war.  This assignment was totally different in every sense but both camera crews strived for the same goal… To tell the story.  The rushes looked amazing and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Urban team for allowing me to poke my lens in, around and under them all as they were filming, and of course to David and his sporting cast of falcons.

A Year on the Road


Two weeks into 2010 and I am back from my one month break over the holiday season.  As is the tradition for photographers around this time of year, I have put together a small portfolio of previously unseen pictures from 2009… one from each Human Planet shoot last year.

Yesterday I left my home town of Bristol deep in snow.  Today,  I am filing this post from a hot and humid Changi airport in Singapore on a stop over with the mountains team on our way to the highlands of North Eastern Papua New Guinea where we will be shooting for the next 2 weeks.  Right now, I am also pleased to say that we have British photojournalist Kieran Doherty shooting a high rise story for us in UAE’s capital Dubai with the urban team and he’ll be posting a blog in due course.

Happy New Year to you where ever you are in the world and I hope you enjoy this selection of pictures from a year of travel in 2009.

Looking for a fight in Southern Ethiopia

Dangling from ropes in Galicia

Watching the sun set in the Simien Mountains

Dressing up in Niger

Waiting for the Moon to set in Greenland

Nitpicking in the Central African Republic

Sand blasting in Mali

Braving a sand storm in Mali

Camel herding in the Gobi Desert

Net fishing in Brazil

Plastering in Djenne

Afternoon napping in Dogon Country

Moving house in Mongolia

Casting a net in Laos

Dancing in Papua New Guinea

Trading snakes in Cambodia

Meditating in Angkor

Messing around in Indonesia

Island hopping in Sabah

Scavenging in Kenya

Reindeer herding in Norway

Deep sea diving in the Philippines

Eagle Hunter, Altai Mountains, Mongolia

Eagle Hunting in Mongolia

Extreme barbecuing in Venezuela

To see more pictures from the Human Planet journey so far, click HERE

. . .

Still reading?  Join in the discussion on my Facebook page.

Boy and Nature


There’s an eagle in me that wants to soar

There are two frequently quoted buzz words in the Human Planet offices… man, and nature.  By man, we are of course colloquially referring to the human race and not just the male denomination of our species.  By nature, folk here tend to be alluding to animals in the first instance, and then to our environment if the zoological aspects are less obvious.  Not surprisingly, in the 21st century, with many of us completely cut off from our natural environment living in towns and cities, genuine cultural stories of humankind’s reciprocally advantageous relationship with mother nature are becoming few and far between.

And so I find myself once again in Mongolia,  a country that over the last year has completely captured my heart for ever.  From sandy desert to lush grasslands and now to the snowy Altai mountains in the far west, I have arrived at a remote Kazakh community that is home to amongst others, Mongolia’s fabled eagle hunters.

Six months ago, a Human Planet film crew journeyed here in order to film a father’s search for a golden eagle for his young son.  This involved climbing down a portion of a 500 ft cliff face to collect the flightless chick from its nest and then the subsequent documentation of the adoption process during which the two species, man and bird, both impressive hunters at the top of their prospective food chains,  became partners in a mutually beneficial relationship.

That boy was called Berik.  That’s him in the photo at the top of the page hunting foxes for the first time with his majestically grown up golden eagle.

Coming here to photograph this narrative, I imagined that it would be the story of a father’s tutorship of his son in the ways of eagle hunting.  What has actually transpired for me is a beautifully intimate tale of a boy’s relationship with what must surely be one of the most magnificent flying creatures on our planet.  We have travelled on horseback through the mountains watching in awe as Berik and his father hunt with their eagles, tracking animal prints in the snow and then launching their deadly co-workers from these monumental high peaks to capture their prey.

Treading carefully in the Altais

Observing a golden eagle at close quarters is a rare delight for a British fellow like myself.  Prior to this trip I had only ever seen these glorious beasts down the barrel of a very long lens in a Scottish wilderness.  Now I find myself unusually blasé as I sit eating breakfast in one of our gers, a bird perched either side of me, one rubbing its beak repeatedly on my shoulder.  Mongolia is a truly fantastic place.  This will be my last trip here for Human Planet, but I will most certainly be back some time.

A bond that lasts a lifetime

A bond that lasts a lifetime

. . .

Interested in more stories from Mongolia?  Try HERE


Water World


The coral triangle... where everyone gets a sea view

I must admit, I wasn’t expecting to see this sight when I woke up this morning.  We’ve been suffering the periphery of typhoon Parma since I arrived here in Sabah, shrouding the Celebes sea in rainy grey clouds and dashing any hopes I’ve had of shooting pictures from our helicopter which has spent the last 4 days parked redundantly at the local airfield.  Today however, during an unexpected break in the weather, we managed to get some quality time in the air out searching for Bajau villages…

OMG!  What an incredible sight to behold…  hundreds of small stilted communities perched on reefs a few kilometers out to sea.  One of the most impressive sights I have witnessed on this whole journey so far.

These dwellings belong to amongst others, Bajau sea gypsies who have chosen to live a sedentary life, renouncing their nomadic existence on ocean boats in favour of a front door and neighbours.    Tomorrow we are going to meet them in their homes… and then at work…


. . .

Interested in more stories from Sabah?  Try HERE


Hunting for Whales



Indonesia is one of my favourite countries in the world.  I spent a lot of time here in my twenties, just roaming around, visiting as many as I could of the seventeen odd thousand islands that make up this immense archipelago.  Back then, coming to the remote island of Lembata would probably have involved a gruelling week long journey sleeping on the deck of one of Indonesia’s fabled PELNI cruise liners that were the preferred form of long distant transport for backpackers like myself at the time.  That’s not to say that in 2009 getting here is an easy task, not least from Mombasa, my last port of call for Human Planet, which, as you would imagine, is by no means a well trodden path.  It took four days as it turns out, each one adding to the growing expectation of what I might discover in the famous whaling village of Lamalera, which was to be my final destination.

Lamalera’s Whaling tradition is quite well documented, often cited as being a good example of a sustainable whale cull due to the local fishermen’s reluctance to embrace modern whaling technology, preferring instead to stick to their traditional method of hunting with paddle-driven peladang’s and bamboo harpoons. The concensus opinion suggests that the best time to come here to experience a whale capture is between the months of May and September when the seas are at their calmest, but in reality, whales are caught here all year round on an as-and-when basis, forming just one portion of the immense plethora of nutritious bounty prised from the waters around this island destined to end up on the dinner plates of Lamalera’s inhabitants.

Arriving at our house overlooking the beach last week I was greeted by BBC cameraman Jon with the surprising news that no whales had actually been caught here for over 2 months.  He arrived a week before me and was already well accustomed to the daily ritual of going to bed at 8pm then rising at 5am to begin 10 hours of searching for ways to pass the time whilst keeping one eye on the ocean for the chance of glimpsing the distant plume from a whale’s exhalation on the horizon and the possibility of filming this age old Lamaleran spectacle.

As I write this, I’ve been here nearly two weeks and still no sign of any whales.  Maybe they finally got wise to the fact that swimming near Lembata is not a good idea at this time of the year.  If they have then they are certainly alone in this wisdom amongst their oceanic co-inhabitants.  Judging by the size of catch that fishermen here are pulling in every morning I think it’s fair to say that the waters around here are not facing any impending environmental catastrophe.  Below is a photo I shot this morning of an average night’s net fishing from a small paddle boat just off the coast from where I’m sitting.  I say average because last week one fisherman came limping home with his boat practically submerged due to its bounty of 7 huge marlin, a couple of them topping 7 foot in length.

I can think of worse places to be stuck twiddling my fingers.  Lamalera is a friendly village, currently playing host to no fewer than 3 camera crews from France, Malaysia and the UK as well as an American photographer and myself, which can make for an interesting comedy of errors when anything remotely interesting happens in the vicinity.  Luckily, packs of playing cards are plentiful here and many of us had the foresight to load up our hard drives with unwatched AVIs, the current favourites doing the rounds being the brilliant Flight of the Concords and a beautifully funny documentary called King of Kong which charts the sublime lives of a group of ageing world class classic video gamers in the States

3pm every day signals the traditional cut off point for any potential whale capturing activities by the fishermen and offers us all the opportunity to get out of the house and into the ocean for a spot of fun, for myself a chance to live out some personal Big Blue fantasies that I’ve been suppressing for quite a while since the last time I visited a pristine turquoise ocean.  Evidently I’m not alone in this desire, sharing it with amongst others, Paul (below), a lucky intern from the UK working with our underwater team and currently missing the new university term in order to stay on for this ever-expanding waiting game.

9am lecture anyone?

9am lecture anyone?

.   .   .

Interested in more stories from Indonesia?  Try HERE


Reindeer, Rain and Rivers

Photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith in Norway

woman leading reindeer lores Sami

We join the Sami people of Arctic Norway at an intense time of year: for the next 2-3 weeks the Sami will be herding their reindeer, who have been roaming free for the summer, down from the snow dusted mountains and preparing them for crossing open waters in search of winter pastures.  It is no easy task and the whole community rallies together to corral the animals, marking them by cutting their ears to work out which animal belongs to which family, giving them anti-parasitic drugs, and preparing them for the journey ahead.   It is a total mystery to me how they tell which reindeer even have which markings, but this is a talent learned over centuries. Although they may use quad bikes where their ancestors walked on foot, the knowledge and the love of the reindeer is in their blood.  I’m taken aback by the energy rushing from the scene unravelling in front of me, and by the harshness of the environment in which they work.  It is pelting with rain, which at times arrives horizontally, occasionally turning to hail before calming until the next gust whips up the mud from the floor.

Sami woman in herd NORWAY lores

I am wearing approximately 8 layers of clothing, desperately clutching my cameras underneath my raincoat to try and protect them from the elements, and the mud being spattered from the thunder of the hooves spinning around me in the corral.  But the Sami seem oblivious to the environment, only caring to make sure the deer are all in order, and calm before crossing the water.  Over the course of the week a few hundred deer are moved each day.  Asking the Sami how many reindeer they have is akin to asking someone in Britain how much money they have in the bank.  The animals are their currency, as well as their livelihood, culture and history.

Sami herd in water NORWAY lores

Ella, our main character, tells me of her family holiday to Turkey this year, which she found too hot too bear, and made her realise beyond a shadow of a doubt that her place rests among the Sami and their deer in the Northern Troms.  Often one of the most under-rated pleasures we get from travelling is realising that what we have right under our noses is to be treasured.

Ella’s mother, May-Torill, watches nervously as the deer cross to the next island and begin their journey towards winter pastures

Ella’s mother, May-Torill, watches the deer begin their journey towards winter pastures

Urban Safari


Sacred ibis take flight

Sacred ibis take flight

Coming to Kenya with the BBC’s natural history unit you’d be forgiven for assuming that I was here to spend a few weeks on safari.  For sure, the BBC’s cameramen and women have had a long and fruitful relationship with Kenya’s amazing wildlife over the years, resulting in some of the most sensational wildlife sequences ever seen on TV, a particular favourite of mine being the awesome spectacle of thousands of wildebeest crossing the Mara river during their yearly migration filmed for Planet Earth.

Not withstanding this age old tradition, we have indeed come here in part to film Kenya’s wildlife, we just aren’t staying in a stilted safari lodge nor whizzing around the plains in an open top four wheel drive.  We’re in Mombasa, and for the last 3 days I’ve been wading through mountains of rubbish in this city’s sprawling waste dump.

On our first morning at the dump we arrived at dawn and I spent the first few minutes clambering over the twilight debris looking for a suitable high vantage point from which to shoot a panorama with the first light from the rising sun.   Atop the largest pile I could see I came across this quiet scene.   I shot a few frames and then climbed down.


I don’t know anything about this boy… what his name is, or how old he is. I don’t know if he has a family.  The clicking of my camera didn’t wake him.  Sitting here now writing this at a desk in my hotel room I wish I could tell you something about this young soul other than the fact that he is one of quite a number of youngsters who live and work at the dump, days spent sifting through Mombasa’s refuse looking for food and things to sell to middle men for recycling. 

Since that first morning here, a steady stream of people have stopped their work to come and talk with us about life on their dump.  Many of them just come to chat, seemingly oblivious to the notion that there is anything that the outside world can do to help them other than continuing with its culture of rampant consumerism.  It’s a cruel irony, but the reality here is that this is their life and work and it provides them with an income that keeps them alive.  There’s no doubt that the majority of people living here would rather be somewhere else; the sad fact however is that their farewell would inevitably herald the arrival of a replacement in no time at all.  Walking around this waste land, I am reminded once more that mother nature is not prejudiced.  Scavenging at a dump is an environmental niche that she invites all species to inhabit, our own included.  

Scavenging for food at the dump

Scavenging for food at the dump

Tomb Raiders


You wait all day for a monk, and then 6 come along all at once

Angkor... you wait ages for a monk, and then 6 come along all at once

As part of the Jungles program on Human Planet we have come to Cambodia to investigate a place where nature has reclaimed the site of a former human civilization.  That place is the 200 square kilometre area of Angkor in Central Cambodia, former home to, amongst others, the great Khmer empire of King Suryavarman the second.  Satellite surveys suggest that Angkor once comprised an urban sprawl of some 3,000 square kilometres, making it by far the largest preindustrial city the world has ever known.  The notion that a place of this magnitude could ever become abandoned is a fascinating prospect, the concensus agreeing that it was a combination of the declining Khmer empire and one final conquest by the Thais in the 15th century that caused a shift of power over to Phnom Penh in the east, thus sealing Angkor’s fate as a forgotten city, destined to be reabsorbed into the surrounding jungle until its modern day resurgence as the seat for Cambodia’s most recent all-conquering empire, early 21st century tourism.

Control of this phenomenal stone-built metropolis has passed between nations over the years, most notably between the Cambodian Khmers and the Siamese (Thais), the modern day tenure currently residing within the hands of the rubber and petroleum giant Sokimex, who own the right to profit from Angkor’s highly lucrative tourist industry.  Ask any local and they’ll insist that Sok Kong, the owner of Sokimex is Vietnamese and therefore this deal represents yet another conquest of Angkor by a foreign invader.   Having never met Mr. Kong myself I can’t confirm this, but whatever the truth, it is certainly a bone of contention in this neck of the woods which will no doubt add more fire to Angkor’s intriguing history.

Angelina does backpacking in South East Asia

Angelina does backpacking in South East Asia

Yesterday we spent all day filming within the ruins of Ta Phrom, possibly Angkor’s most visually stunning ruin.  Many visitors before us have also acknowledged this fact, most famously Paramount Pictures, who used it as a backdrop for a number of scenes in the video game inspired blockbuster Tomb Raider, a production which appears to have employed almost every local resident of Angkor if they are to be believed.  I had a quick look at said scenes today and I must admit that I really love what they did with the lake in front of Angkor Wat – the largest temple in the complex, bringing it to life with a mass of boats and floating water lilies.  Large Hollywood productions invading ancient temple sites is definitely not to everyone’s taste I know, but you have to admit, it really does look absolutely amazing.

If you are planning on making a photographic pilgrimage to Angkor, be prepared to share your space with a number of like minded enthusiasts.  Don’t let this put you off however.  There are still loads of temples that get overlooked by the package tour groups who tend to stick to a well trodden route.  Similarly, if you turn up at sunrise or sunset you’ll not only be blessed with the best light, but also complete solitude in my experience, and Cambodia is a nation of early risers so you’ll have no trouble getting a tuk tuk to drive you out to the temple complex before first light.

Whether you like it or not, the urge to photograph a monk amidst the overgrown ruins will no doubt overcome your sensibilities at some point, and when it does, make the most of the experience by spending as long as you can engaging in some friendly banter and cultural exchange.  The monks I have met here are very cool cats. They quietly put up with a hell of a lot of probing lenses and they aren’t all touting for dollars as many foreigners will have you believe.


The mysterious lost temple of Ta Phrom... well, kind of anyway

I am leaving you with this picture of 75 year old Kong Di, from Ta Phrom monastery (famously, background monk no. 7 in the scene where Lara Croft arrives at Angkor Wat by boat from across the lake) standing in another ‘famous’ Tomb Raider set location.  For those of you who are more photographically inclined, you might be wondering why I used a fisheye lens to shoot this picture.  Simple.  Last year, a raised wooden viewing platform was built just 3 feet away from the doorway, complete with security guard and a rope barrier to keep tourists from clambering onto the tree roots.  Using a 15mm lens was the only way I could get wide enough to edit it out of the photograph.  Beware the subjective eye of the photographer!

Join me on Facebook

Birds of a Feather

Papua New Guinea


Papua New Guinea’s fantastic cultural heritage has been drawing a steady stream of photographers to its shores for many years now.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that my own particular passion for travelling to remote places was substantially inspired by images from this magical island which have been residing quietly in my subconscious since I first laid eyes on them as a youngster within the pages of National Geographic and the like.

The trouble with visiting places like this in 2009 of course, is that the phenomenal cultural changes that our world has seen in the last 30 years are inevitably much more evident and visible within these so called developing nations, and as such, these days a documentary photograph can be rendered journalistically redundant in just a few short years.

Visiting PNG for this first time, I was quite nervous about what I might discover here.  It has always struck me as one of those places that would definitely have succumbed to the brute force of western cultural imperialism, especially since, of all the tribal societies in the world, PNG’s surely must possess some of the most visually stunning apparel on the planet, the absence of which would be all the more obvious in these changing times.

Evelyn (centre) and friends from The Huli Tribe at a small gathering in the hills of Papua New Guinea

Well.  I can report back that culture in Papua New Guinea is absolutely not dead, in fact it’s authentically thriving, vibrant and still as visually stunning as ever.  Sure, don’t expect to see people walking to the local supermarket on a Tuesday morning dressed like this, but then again, when was the last time you donned your poshest outfit to pop out and get your weekly groceries (Paris Hiltons of this world excepted).

We have come here to investigate the significance that the bird of paradise still plays within New Guinean indigenous culture, which has involved spending time in a remote village and following the locals as they prepare for one of the many occasions on which they are required to dress in their tribal fineries.  As part of our filming we visited the Mount Hagen Show, a yearly gathering of over 100 tribes that was initially orchestrated in the 1960s by missionaries seeking to calm PNG’s ever present tribal tensions by bringing the people together in one huge cultural event.  In its 21st century incarnation, complete with banks of long lens photographers and sponsorship by Coca Cola, it would be very easy to patronize this event, reverting to the seasoned travellers’ mantra of “They’re only doing it for the tourists“.  However, I have to say that if you make the effort to dig under the surface a little and spend some quality time with the people who make up this fantastic spectacle, you will soon realize that this is in fact a genuine display of PNG’s cultural heritage done by the people, for the people… which happily includes those of us who don’t have our own tribal heritage back home.

The Hagen Show - One event, one hundred tribes

The Hagen Show - One event, one hundred tribes

. . .

Interested in more stories from Papua New Guinea?  Try HERE


Jet Lag

Papua New Guinea   

Who's the weird looking guy with the little black box pressed against his right eye?

Who's the weird looking guy with the little black box pressed against his face?

Today I can report back categorically that there is definitely no easy way to get to the centre of Papua New Guinea from the UK.  At the last count my journey here involved 4 planes and just over 30 hours of flying.  Consequently, this week’s post is going to be very short and simple, and I couldn’t help posting this photo that I stumbled across today because I think it sums up perfectly how my mind and body feel right now.

PNG is an incredible place.  However…  Mix it up with a healthy dose of jet lag and it’s an incredibly surreal place!

Tune in next week folks, by which time I will hopefully have deciphered where I am, and what the hell is actually going on here!

. . .

Interested in more stories from Papua New Guinea?  Try HERE



The story behind the image

Nikon D2, 17-35 f2.8 lens @ f8, 1/250 sec, ISO 400, Diffused Nikon speedlight flash bounced off ceiling

Nikon D1x, 17-35 f2.8 lens @ f8, 1/250 sec, ISO 400, Diffused flash bounced off ceiling

In terms of my photography, the most common question I am asked is “What is your favourite picture that you’ve taken”.   It’s a very easy question to ask, but as those of you who shoot pictures regularly will no doubt understand, it’s an incredibly difficult one to answer.

In order to categorize a picture so precisely, I think it’s probably worth mentioning that according to me,  ‘favourite picture’ doesn’t necessarily equate with ‘best picture’.  The former suggests a degree of sentimental value, whereas the latter would probably best be judged by the objective eye of an experienced stranger and not by that of the image’s originator.

So, after quite a bit of thought, and for many reasons, sentimental and other, I have decided that this image is my favourite from my archive.

For those of you that are familiar with my back catalogue, I’m sure that a few of you reading this may be a little bemused by this choice of image.  After all, on surface inspection it is quite a demeaning and derogatory photo – a style in which I am not renowned for shooting.  However, for me the beauty in this photo lies in exactly that uneasy predicament that you are confronted with as a viewer, and one that may make more sense after I’ve elaborated a little on the circumstances surrounding its inception.

I shot this photo about 5 years ago for inclusion in the fantastic BAFTA-nominated documentary Taxidermy Stuff the World.  The film follows the fortunes of a handful of taxidermists from around the world as they find, ‘stuff’ and eventually show their best work at the fantastically glitzy World Taxidermy Championships in Springfield, Illinois, USA.   The photograph shows taxidermist Jeanette Hall from Spring Creek, Nevada, standing with her pedestal mounted Appaloosa horse outside her hotel room in the corridor of the Crown Plaza hotel in Springfield.

Jeanette ended up playing quite a prominent role in the film, not least because she has such a brilliantly interesting and honest character.  Amongst her talents at the time, she was most renowned for her love of diligently mounting the testicles of various animals on small varnished plaques, something that the armchair psychologists amongst our crew identified with her recent status as an embittered divorcee and one that her free-standing freezer choc-a-bloc full of frozen testicles certainly alluded to.

Nevertheless, after spending some time with Jeanette over the course of our filming it soon became apparent that she, like many of her contemporaries in the world of taxidermy whose passion often required them to kill wildlife, was in fact blessed with a strangely genuine love of animals.  For me this paradox was a fascinating revelation to discover and one that I feel gives this portrait of her and her cherished horse so much more poignancy.  For sure, it’s hard to ignore the brutal symbolism of the severed white horse’s head but it is somehow eclipsed by the delicate intimacy evident in the way she’s holding its reins.  Similarly,  the Mona Lisa smile of both Jeanette and her treasured horse beguile the tragically large and prominent 3rd place rosette pinned to this carefully manicured nape.  Of course, quite a large factor in the initial attraction to this image comes from the simple fact that at a swift glance it is surprisingly easy to overlook the ‘minor’ detail that this beautiful horse is not actually alive and indeed doesn’t even posses any body below its neckline.

A few months after I got back from the shoot this particular image was included in an exhibition of photojournalism and ended up framed in a London gallery sandwiched between photographs from the war in Afghanistan and the Asian Tsunami.   In my experience, most people’s initial reaction to the photo is one of either disdain or mockery and this was very much the case at that time.  At the private view I remember wondering what Jeanette would think if she knew that people were sniggering at her portrait in a well-to-do London gallery.   It was an uncomfortable feeling, so I tracked down her contact details and sent her an email asking for her opinion.   Her reply was swift and brilliantly comforting.  She wrote that she absolutely loved the picture and that her horse looked beautiful. She said that she had given framed copies to her family and friends and that in fact, her personal copy took pride of place on her mantelpiece at home.  She didn’t care what other people thought of her picture.

I think that is why I like this picture so much.  To some it’s disgusting, to others beautiful.  For me it is deeply ironic… for Jeanette it’s just a lovely picture of her and her beloved Appaloosa horse.  It can mean so many different things to different people but most importantly, it does so without actually causing offence to the person who originally posed for the photo in good faith, something that I think about a lot when people allow me the opportunity to photograph them.  All in all it’s a picture full of paradox and irony and I like that.  Ironic too that the picture I have ended up choosing as my favourite was, out of necessity, shot with flash, something I normally can’t stand and almost never use in my photography.

I suppose that one of the prominent qualities that keeps me enamoured by a picture is whether or not, as I study it more and more, I discover things about that image that I would like to change… things that I feel would improve it somehow.  In the case of this image, after quite a few years I am still happy with it just the way it is.  Well, almost.  I’ve often secretly wished that Springfield’s Crown Plaza Hotel had had a slightly more garish wall paper adorning its corridors.  But then again, nothing’s ever perfectly right when you’re a photographer.

As an amusing postscript to this story, I am including the link below to an article about Jeanette that I found in The Telegraph and which I think sums up the complexities of her philosophy on life brilliantly.  Absolutely classic!

“Woman who turns pets into pillows faces death threats”  The Telegraph, 10 Apr 2005

To see more of my photos from the World Taxidermy Championships.. click HERE

Man on Wire


Rush Hour on the Mekong

Allow me to introduce you to Samnieng… that’s him in the middle of the picture on his way to work on a typical Monday morning in August.  He lives about a kilometre from this spot on the wrong side of the river from his place of work which lies on a small island amid the mighty Mekong river of Laos in the area known locally as Siphandon, or The 4000 Islands.  Actually, Samnieng’s walk to work every day is not as unique as you may imagine in this part of Laos despite the obvious severity of the journey.  Many of the thousands of uninhabited islands in the area offer a unique habitat in which local fishermen can exercise their skills at catching the fabulous bounty of large fish that frequent these isolated rapids throughout the year.  Of course there are obvious drawbacks in this line of work.  During the rainy season the river swells horrendously rendering many of the prime fishing spots so dangerously inaccessible as to make them completely unreachable but for the efforts of the few brave and/or foolish fishermen who dare to venture where the majority fear to go.
Brave or foolish? I’ll let you decide… however Samnieng has been working here since he was a small boy and he assured me that as long as the fish keep coming to his part of the Mekong to spawn then he has no plans for a career change.

Extreme fishing... it's a serious matter

Extreme fishing... it's a serious matter

Interested in people who work under extreme conditions?  Click HERE to meet Mongonjay, a honey gatherer from the Central African Republic.

Join me on Facebook



Kaosan Road... the best place in the world to see 'unspoilt' backpacker culture

Kaosan Road... the best place in the world to see 'unspoilt' backpacker culture

This particular trip to Laos has begun for me in Thailand.  The story I will be covering in a few days was filmed by a Human Planet crew a few weeks ago whilst I was in Mongolia, so I have taken this opportunity for independent travel by choosing to make my way to the destination in Laos overland from Bangkok and in the process treat myself to a little of one of my favourite pastimes… backpacking.

I’ve been backpacking on and off for over 20 years now and have to admit that I still get butterflies in my stomach at the mere thought of roaming around with a bag on my back.  For those of you who’ve done it yourselves, you will know exactly what I am talking about because once you have experienced that unique feeling, it never really leaves you… just hides away quietly, resurfacing from time to time throughout your life.

Bangkok has figured quite extensively in my travels over the last 2 decades… it’s just one of those places that is very easy to end up in.  On this occasion, as with every other time I find myself here, I am always sure to make my pilgrimage to the now infamous backpacker haunt, the Kaosan Road

I’ve seen Kaosan change a fair bit over the years.  I think it was probably amidst the well worn pages of an early edition of Maureen and Tony Wheeler’s South East Asia on a Shoestring that I first heard of this particular  traveller hangout.  Back then, backpacking was something that relatively few people did and places like Kaosan Road were a vital meeting point for the exchange of information between travellers.  As with all major capital cities in South East Asia at that time, independent travellers could also count on them for the exciting opportunity to indulge in such rare pleasures as visiting a pharmacy, collecting their mail from Post Restante at the central post office, and swapping or selling some possessions (particularly books) before heading off again on the road less travelled.

Tonight somehow, I feel as if I have seen the life cycle of the Kaosan Road come full circle.   Earlier, I stood and watched a newly married Thai couple who had chosen to have their wedding photos taken in the middle of the street on Kaosan, formerly the site of a dusty rice market.  

Now it seems that backpacker culture itself has become a bonafide tourist attraction.  Such a beautifully fantastic irony and one that I’m sure the Wheelers could never have predicted when they first began putting pen to paper writing the Yellow Bible back in the 70s.

Hooked on Travelling


OK at the sunset corral

My last sunset in Mongolia

I am actually writing you this post from my home in Bristol, UK.  I got back from Mongolia two days ago via a rather overdue trip to the tropical diseases clinic in London in order to have a small community of uninvited parasitic squatters exorcised from my backside.  The good news for me was that what we initially suspected were tumbu fly larvae actually turned out to be canine hookworms.  I say good news, because when tumbu fly maggots set up camp in your butt cheeks you are left with only two options.   You must either wait the long, excruciatingly itchy weeks until they crawl out of their own accord in order to pupate, or you can coax them out prematurely using any one of a bizarre variety of available methods, one such vaseline-and-gaffer-tape inspired version that can be seen HERE being used by an unfortunate traveller in Panama dealing with an infestation of the closely related South American cousin of the tumbu fly, the bot fly.

As it turned out, evicting hookworms from beneath your skin is quite a simple procedure involving just a large, one-off dose of 6 pills that sorted them out in a matter of one day.  Thank you to the Tropical disease clinic in London for that, and no hard feelings to my lovely canine companion from our recent trip to Mali who faithfully accompanied me during my many long and lonely days sitting on a rock in Dogon county waiting to photograph the rains arriving, and who was most probably the unwitting originator of said hook worms.

Don't worry bouncer, I still love you

Tomorrow I am flying to Bangkok and then traveling overland to Laos in order to spend two weeks living and working on an island in the Mekong river.  No need for an additional pet passport as it turns out.

See you there!

City Slickers


Another day... another sunset corral

Riding a horse in Mongolia has been a secret ambition of mine for a few years now.  Well, to be more precise, riding a horse across Mongolia actually, an aspiration that I knew I would never realize on this short trip, but one that has since become a permanent fixture at the top of my things-to-do-before-I-die list.

Riding a horse across Mongolia.   Just the phrase itself is enough to elicit magical feelings of wild adventure and freedom.  Of galloping through epic panoramas, the wind blowing away any memories of the futile concerns born of a life back home lived with unnecessary complications.  You may scoff at my romanticism, but Karina who runs the company that organizes our logistics here in Mongolia has fixed it for quite a few people to realize their Mongol horse riding fantasy over the years, and by all accounts this particular dream is very much real.

Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying that “…There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”.   Never have those words rung so true to me as during these last few days in the saddle.  I have now earmarked a 3 month window in 2011 after Human Planet has finished as the time to make my own equine pilgrimage back to Mongolia in order that I can give this amazing place the time and attention it rightly deserves.

And at the end of it all, if I’m just half as happy as the locals here appear to be, then it will have done its job royally.  Rural Mongolia certainly contains some of the friendliest, most cheerful people I’ve ever met on my travels around the planet, and I’m sure that their easy and regular access to horse riding has had something to do with that.  Of course, I suspect that the thousands of square kilometres of uninterrupted landscape may also play a fair part in eliciting the huge smiles we encounter here every day.

Or maybe there’s just something special in the local fermented horse’s milk.

Got mare's milk?

. . .

Interested in more stories from Mongolia?  Try HERE


There’s No Place Like Home


… a place that I’ve heard of, once in a lullaby

… a place that I’ve heard of, once in a lullaby

For some people who were brought up living sedentary lives, the urge to travel is irresistible.  I think that I am one of those people.  I have long maintained that this desire stems from an undeniable fire within the souls of each and every one of us that compels us to search out new experiences in order to better ourselves as human beings.  Mind you, it has been mentioned on occasion that maybe I simply have commitment issues that make me incapable of settling down anywhere for any sustained length of time.  It’s a close call… probably a murky mix of the two if I’m honest.

Second only to my love of travelling is probably my love of camping and the outdoors, so our return to the roaming lifestyle of Mongolia this week has renewed my zest for life no end.  Last time we were here, these vast plains were glazed with an icy white patina and the nights were long and painfully cold.  Today, we are camped by a stream amidst a luxuriant green panorama, wearing shorts and factor 30 sun cream on our pink noses.  We’re here to spend some time with a family of nomadic horse herders as they tend to their herd, breaking in the new foals and reaping the rewards of this lush summer landscape.

A few days ago, our family of rosy cheeked travellers arrived.  A pickup drove up and out popped a party of beaming faces.  Huge smiles and eleven warm handshakes later, the family set to work at unpacking their worldly possessions.

Here’s what happened…

Here in the Blue River valley, it is quite common for our Mongolian friends to spontaneously burst into song.  On this particular occasion, for this clip I recorded a rendition of a folk ditty called Scenery of My Country sung as we sat together sharing food in the family ger.   Here’s a translation…


Our gers look so beautiful

Seen from a distance

Is this the scenery of the country I was born in?

There are many gers as white as milk

Decorating the animals’ pasture

Is this my mother who always wished good luck for me?


You will find a tutorial explaining how you can make your own time lapse movies HERE.

. . .

Interested in more stories from Mongolia?  Try HERE TASEARCHMONGOLIA


Praying for Rain


Image COPYRIGHT - Timothy Allen - - You may NOT reproduce this image in any media format without written consent. Please contact for syndication options.

When we ask something of mother nature, does she listen?

Another day… another awe inspiring location that would sit quite comfortably amidst the pages of Lord of the Rings.  We’re guests of the Dogon people this week, camping by a small village at the base of a huge escarpment facing the desert plains of the Sahel.  There are strict rules to living here.  I’m not just talking about practical things like preserving water or running for home the moment you see a yellow dust cloud on the horizon.  There are supernatural rules here.  Age old dos and don’ts forged from a culture’s tumultuous history of attempting to grasp an esoteric mastery of their unforgiving environment.  As a result, our every step is being closely scrutinized by our protective neighbours.

The cliff faces above us are scattered with the remains of dwellings perched precariously hundreds of feet up the sheer rock.  These were the houses of the Tellem people who predate the Dogon by almost half a millennium.  The Dogon maintain that the Tellem had the supernatural ability of flight in order to access their isolated homes  and I must admit that after a week of contemplating their high rise lodgings, I am still at a loss to comprehend the Darwinian pay off for living in such a dangerous location.  Maybe they could fly.  Who knows?  The Dogon certainly can’t, however, and so these sacred places remain off limits to everyone.

Sleep walkers beware

Sleep walkers beware

Filming in this sacred landscape has been interesting.  Tracing our daily pathway through the boulder-strewn village is not for the uninitiated, especially if you happen to be a female of the species, something Cecilia has discovered on a number of occasions already, the familiar cry of “sacre!” halting her progress following the footsteps of myself or fellow male colleague, Robin.   Women cannot go there!  Those rocks are sacred… those are OK…  Don’t touch wood in piles…  No torches allowed after dark in certain areas (usually the most treacherous  places too I might add, especially now the moon is not rising until 1am).

Last night, with a blessing from the chief… a rare opportunity to witness a sacrificial ceremony intended to usher in the first rains.  Well, for me and Robin at least.   Cecilia had to stand aside, with a somewhat redundant boom microphone whilst a procession of poultry got the chop and the village elders muttered their fireside incantations.


Not for female eyes

As a vegetarian and general lover of all animals it is never a pleasant experience watching an animal sacrifice.  Somehow, I’ve never sat comfortably with the notion of loving animals on the one hand, and killing them for food on the other, a sentiment that is unique for a meat eating species within the natural world and one I don’t pretend to understand.

Over the years I’ve been present at quite a few blood offerings and the one thing that has united them all has been the cooking and eating of the sacrificial meat after the ceremony.  This time was no exception.  What I always find interesting about sacrifices though, is how an unsavoury experience such as watching an animal being slaughtered can turn so quickly into the highly sociable and warm experience of dining in a group as the meat is shared out.  It’s an interesting paradox that most meat eaters in my country never have to face, enjoying the fruits of just the latter part of their meat’s  journey from farmyard to plate.

When I witness animal slaughter first hand like this I am prompted once again to ponder the reason why I have chosen to be vegetarian because my decision to be so appears to be in conflict with my nature.  I mean, where else in the animal kingdom will you find an organism at the top of its food chain showing compassion to a prey, refraining from the kill?  Indeed, as many fans of natural history films will know, the footage that remains the most memorable to us humans very often involves the process of hunting and killing.  The truth however, is that during those sequences, most people will be secretly willing the prey to escape and rarely do such programs show the kill in graphic detail in order not to distress viewers.   I wonder why that is?   I honestly don’t know.  We are an omnivorous species after all, designed to be genetically successful by evolving the ability to eat both meat and plants.  How is it that I have ended up feeling uncomfortable with the process of slaughter?

An evolutionary step in the wrong direction?  I’ll let you decide.

. . .

Interested in more stories from Mali?  Try HERE


Extreme Makeover – Mosque Edition


Ty Pennington, eat your heart out!

Ty Pennington, eat your heart out!

This week I didn’t expect to be back in Africa, especially not Mali, the country Abbie has been calling home for the last 3 weeks, but thanks to a small political situation caused by a disagreement over the ingredients of this locality’s fabled mud plaster I am currently in the 45 degree desert heat of Djenné, Mali’s fabled city of mud.  Yesterday was the annual replastering of the great mosque, a fantastic building rising majestically above the city’s rooftops and constructed completely out of mud and palm wood.  Djennéans travel from far and wide each year to make their pilgrimage back home to lend a hand to the renovation work, on a day when the whole city comes out in force to participate in this town’s extraordinary mud festival.

Now I’ve had my fair share of muddy festival experiences… I grew up in England after all, a country for whom no summer cultural experience would be complete without at least one soggy visit to a recital of One way by The Levellers, knee deep in a west country quagmire.  However, never before have I been lured to an event specifically as a result of its muddy credentials, not least when your job involves carrying an array of expensive polished glass lenses with you at all times.

Needless to say, I love what I do and I am definitely the kind of person who likes to immerse myself in the places I visit so I wasn’t about to make this trip to Djenne an exception…

If you play with fire...

If you play with fire…

This morning, the rising sun revealed the beautiful extent of the previous day’s efforts.  Now, with all our equipment cleaned and packed and the rest of the crew on their way back to Bamako, cameraman Robin and I are ready to head north to Dogon country to meet up with another Human Planet crew in search of the first rains of the year and hopefully a little respite from the relentless heat of the Sahel.

You make me feel brand new

You make me feel brand new

. . .

Interested in more stories from Mali?  Try HERE


They Call it Mellow Yellow

Photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith in Mali

Can't talk right now, I'm in a meeting

Can't talk right now, I'm in a meeting

“Abbie, would you mind going to the Sahel for 3 weeks to hang out with elephants and Tuareg warriors?  Oh and you can’t wash or the elephants will smell you.  It shouldn’t be too hot, only 43 degrees in the shade and watch out for the camel spiders and scorpions….”

I have to admit, I was a little  nervous of what lay in store, but there’s something about this place that penetrates your soul, leaving an imprint far larger than you may have first acknowledged, that blossoms into a feeling of peace and the realization of what it really means to be a human.  I am at Banzena, a fast shrinking lake south of Timbuktu, and after 8 months of no rain, everything is thirsty. Including us.


“A dark wind is coming” says El Mehdi, our local Tuareg elephant expert and as I turn around the sky is literally coming at us.  Within minutes we are lost in a sea of dust, the world has morphed into an orange, hazy whirlwind and I feel as if I’ve just been transported onto the set of a science fiction movie.


At that precise moment I realize I am falling in love with the desert… and everything it represents.  The raw ebb and flow of nature and how this has such a soothing effect on our bodies and souls in spite of the harshness of the environment.  I can feel the grit being swept in into my ears and up my nose, and I’m frantically ripping off my turban and wrapping it round my camera.

The air clears, but my excitement remains, and I’m grinning from ear to ear, at which point Cecilia, our director on this sequence, starts giggling at all the orange dust stuck to my teeth.  Luca, our cook has a new sand-blasted tan.

You know when you've been Tango'd

You know when you've been Tango'd

This special place is a refuge for the elephants of the Sahel, now numbering only 200.   Banzena lake is one of the last stops on their migration route before the rains come in a few weeks time.  In the 2 weeks since we’ve been here, we have watched, almost in real time, the lake shrinking before our eyes.  Watching the effects of climate change first hand is something of a shock.  Not just to me and the crew who would have given anything for a drink cooler than tepid, but to the thousands of cattle who cross the desert from their pasture to come to drink, and the herders who need donkeys to carry their water supply through the many mirages that we can see.   And of course the elephants, who rely on this dying watering hole to sustain their existence.

Later on, as I am showering beind a thornbush in the moonlight with half a bucket of water and a cup, trying not to step on the fresh elephant dung as my body vibrates to the sounds of a rumbling herd nearby, I’m struck by what an amazing planet we live on,  how lucky I am to be here and whether I really will be telling my grandchildren stories of the last of the Sahelian elephants.

. . .

Interested in more stories from Mali?  Try HERE


Sisters’ Meal Festival

The story behind the image

Canon 5D, 85mm f1.2 lens, 1/250th sec @ f1.8, ISO 640

Canon 5D, 85mm f1.2 lens, 1/320th sec @ f2.2, ISO 160

A lot of people have been asking me about this image, a cropped version of which appears on the masthead of this blog, so here’s the story of how it came about.   I shot this photograph in 2007 whilst on a 2 month tour of south west China.  It was taken on the last day of the yearly Sisters’ meal festival of the Miao people of Guizhou Province.   The Miao are a beautiful highland dwelling tribe with a strong tradition of silver jewellery making and embroidery and this festival is one chance for the women of the tribe to show off their fantastic traditional dress.   In particular,  it is a time for the young single ladies of the tribe to get pro-active and attract a suitable partner and as such, the four days of the festival involve a series of elaborate rituals and community dances specifically designed to encourage new relationships amongst the youth of the tribe, many of whom travel from outlying villages to take part in the gathering.

Much of Miao culture has evolved from the significance of rice in their daily lives and the Sisters’ Meal festival is no different. Throughout the festivities, young Miao men will give small parcels of multicoloured sticky rice to the ladies who they have their eyes on.  As a sign to their prospective partner, a woman will bury a pair of chopsticks inside the rice and give it back as a symbolic acceptance of their advances.   However, a single chopstick in the returned package denotes interest rather than full acceptance, while what every courting Miao male fears the most is receiving a chilli, which signifies a refusal.

If you are planning to visit this festival, my advice is to travel to Shidong in advance and stay there for a few days.  The festival happens at a number of  locations around the area but Shidong, with its beautiful location on the banks of a river, was the most authentic in my experience.  The majority of the handful of foreigners I met there had just come for the day and, in my opinion, missed some of the best aspects of the festival.  It is possible to find many enchanting pictures if you get up early and walk around the nearby villages visiting families in their homes as they prepare for the festival.  The Miao are a very friendly bunch and I was invited in to countless houses to share food and see the ladies getting ready.  Proud people like the Miao are a joy to photograph because they love to show off their colourful culture to visitors.

If you want to shoot a picture like this you will need a fast prime lens, preferable f1.8 or less.   If you don’t have any primes,  I would suggest you go out tomorrow and buy yourself a second hand 50mm f1.8.   It might just change your life.   They are incredibly cheap and will open up a whole new world of photographic opportunities that may have previously eluded you, especially in low light situations where you will be able to shoot in places you probably never dreamed possible with your f4.5-5.6 zoom lens.  Additionally,  using a fixed lens will train you to focus on the specific area around you at that lens’s particular focal length without being distracted by the barrage of potential opportunities that zoom lenses seem to offer the user.  Pick your focal length, then move around to find the images that fit that lens and forget everything else.   Remember that one of the best tools at your disposal with a fast lens is depth of field, so play around with it as much as possible by filling the frame with plenty of out of focus objects but don’t forget to use these points to lead the eye into the main focal point of the image which must be absolutely pin sharp,  in this case the lady’s eyes and gaze.

A wide shot of the dance taken from the rooftop of the village hall

Another shot of the dance taken from the rooftop of the village hall

As you can see from this wide image, the full scene reveals the fantastic photographic opportunities available at that dance.  With so many beautiful women in amazing costumes there was plenty of time and opportunity to find a striking image.

Famous for 15 Minutes


The quiet before the storm

Arriving at a sleepy southern Brazilian beach 5 days ago, none of our team could have predicted the scenes that would be surrounding us today.   Back then, the area around our hotel resembled the opening scene of 28 Days Later due to fact that we have chosen to come here in Brazil’s winter season when the city’s population shrinks dramatically in the absence of its seasonal inhabitants.

Over the last few days we’ve all got very used to the quiet life here on our secluded cove,  especially the 20 minute walk to work from our hotel . On our journey down the mile long deserted coastline we are accompanied only by the odd jogger and the beach’s resident population of turkey vultures which congregates here at first light in order to siphon off the last night’s bounty of carrion, washed ashore as the city slept.

Well,  today that all changed.   We came here to film the local fishermen.  What we weren’t banking on was the fact that we ourselves might end up becoming the subject of inquistive cameras as word got out and the might of Brazil’s media descended upon our lonely beach to see what a BBC TV crew were doing in the area.

Needless to say, when you spend your life pointing cameras at people for a living,  it’s only fair that you get as good as you give,  so Director Tom and Rachael,  our researcher,  were happy to step up to the podium,  taking turns to speak to the myriad of assembled reporters…


Tom talks to Teleglobal TV..


.. and UNISOL TV..


.. and poses for the local paper


Rachael graces Bandeirantes TV..


.. and the city's official website..


.. and a fan's dubious home video

Cameraman Justin on the other hand, had to put his foot down in the end and point blank refused to talk to Canine Monthly

No comment

No comment


This particular Human Planet shoot has demanded that I spend a fair bit of my time attempting to take pictures of dolphins breaching the ocean’s surface.  It’s not something I’ve ever spent much time doing, but it has subsequently become a fascinating and quite addictive pastime.  As an ode to my newest hobby, here is a clip of what for me still remains the most astonishing sequence ever recorded of an animal breaching at sea…  Simon King shooting with a high speed camera for BBC’s Planet Earth in South Africa…

I think I must have watched this clip over fifty times since I first saw the original film… and it still gives me goose bumps.  Combined with its ethereal soundtrack the images elicit such a graceful yet dramatic melange of emotions inside.  A flawless exemplification of the bitter-sweet beauty of mother nature. Truly astounding.

This website is made by BBC Worldwide

More from BBC Worldwide


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 169 other followers