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Tarra Bulga National Park and Aussie wildlife in the wild

Monday, November 28th, 2016

Tarra Bulga National Park is a mountainous region of cool temperate rainforest which once covered most of Gippsland until European settlers cleared most of it in the mid 19th century.

Access is via Traralgon from the north (2.5hr drive from Melbourne)  or via a windy narrow two-way bitumen road from the south along the Tarra Valley which is not suitable for caravans, but which takes you to other picnic areas en route such as Tarra Falls (not an easy photograph) and Cyathea Falls (a short circuit loop walk accesses this small waterfall), the remote Tarra Valley Caravan Park (this is as far north on the Tara Valley road that caravans can access – they can’t go further north to the NP), and then access to coastal Gippsland including historic Port Albert (Gippsland’s first port, established c 1850) and Wilsons Promontory  (The Prom).

If you are coming from the south then a short detour to Victoria’s tallest waterfall, Agnes Falls is well worth it:

Agnes Falls

Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 lens at 17mm.

Tarra Bulga NP has a nice open picnic ground and nearby tea rooms. The picnic ground has a variety of birds including the very friendly crimson rosellas which you may find end up sitting on your shoulder while you try to eat:

rosella

The flighty wrens and robins are much harder to catch such as this flame robin which was about 10-15m away and required cropping:

wren

and even the Laughing Kookaburra likes you to keep your distance of about 10-15m:

kookaburra

on the road near the picnic ground was this poor wombat who appeared to be coping well despite a limp from past trauma:

wombat

The main attraction though at Tarra Bulga NP is the historic suspension bridge within the majestic Eucalpytus regnans rainforest (the tallest flowering plants in the world) – if you walk the full circuit “scenic track” it is a pleasant largely shaded 2.8km circuit walk with total ascent of 129m (mainly up graded path rather than steps) which will take just under 1hr allowing for time to get a few pics.

suspension bridge

suspension bridge

If you have the time to also visit Wilsons Prom you can complete your Aussie wildlife in the wild experience with a few more such as this cute kangaroo joey feeding at dusk:

joey

or these emus:

emus

and if the prevailing winds have been westerlies, you may find the beaches covered in these small beautiful but painful Blue Bottle Portugese Man’O'War jellyfish which will give you a painful sting if your skin touches the tentacles which can measure some 1m in length:

blue bottle

and nearby, this Sooty Oyster Catcher was taking a bath:

oystercatcher

I hope this has inspired you to get out and go for a drive, or better still stay for a couple of nights or more and explore the region.

We had an amazingly tasty and healthy lunch at the Port Albert Cafe and Wine Bar – the owner is a brilliant chef who obviously loves her cooking, the crispy duck with mango and cashew salad was awesome and the many cake options for dessert (or take with you for your NP walk) make it well worth the visit – unfortunately she has the business up for sale so make sure you get there before she has moved on.

Most of the above photos were taken with the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens, or for the birds, the Olympus mZD 300mm f/4 lens using a Micro Four Thirds Olympus OM-D E-M1 or E-M5 camera.

Road trip to Victoria’s wonderland – the Grampians

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

The Grampians is a group of mountain ranges formed from uplifted resistant Palaeozoic sandstone bed making it one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world and the beautiful sandstone boulders, epic views and with access to native flora and Australian wildlife make it an iconic bushwalking destination for tourists from around the world.

You will see kangaroos, black wallabies, emus,  Australian birds such as tiny robins and wrens, parrot species, New Holland honeyeater, laughing kookaburra, wedge tailed eagles and the really noisy white sulfur crested cockatoos. While walking on a sunny day you are likely to see a range of small to medium sized lizards – mainly skinks (and hopefully not a snake – these are generally very shy and avoid tourist areas but are deadly if you step on one and it bites you – a great reason to stick to the paths where you can see where you are stepping!). If you are lucky you may see an echidna (a  monotreme) looking for ants on the side of the road at dusk. If that is not enough wildlife, or you want to get up close to a snake or other animal, you can visit the nearby Halls Gap Zoo – the largest zoo in Victoria outside of the urban districts around Melbourne.

This Australian National Park is the biggest national park in Victoria and covers 167,219-hectare (413,210-acre) and is situated in western Victoria and to the north of the volcanic plains which formed most of south-western Victoria. The forest is mainly dry sclerophyll eucalypt forest with an understory of tea trees with their white flowers dominating in spring.

The sandstone was laid down from sediments from rivers during the Devonian period 380 million years ago which forms a 7km thick layer of sandstone which then became uplifted, tilted and then eroded. When sea levels rose 40 million years ago, the sea lapped at the north-western area which now has become the Little Desert National Park. The Devonian period was a time of wooded plants, insects and amphibia but before spiders, reptiles, dinosaurs and conifers had evolved.

Aboriginal occupation of Gariwerd (their name for the Grampians) dates back more than 20,000 years and they had six seasons for the region – check out the Brambuk Cultural Centre for more information.

The highest peak is Mount William at 1167 metres creates the Grampian Wave – a weather phenomenon at certain times of the year when strong westerly winds create a large scale standing mountain lee wave enabling glider pilots to reach extreme altitudes above 28,000 ft (8,500 m).

Towards the end of a decade of drought, a massive bushfire in Jan 2006 devastated 50% of the forest, but this allowed Parks Victoria to re-discover places such as Fish Creek Falls and design and create new bush walks such as the Grampians Peak Trail which so far is at Stage 1 and allows for 3 days / 2 nights walk with overnight remote camping.

Major flooding in Jan 2011 and heavy rain events again in Sept 2016, forced parts of the park to close for several months. Before you go, check the park’s website to ascertain which areas and remote camp grounds are closed.

I am pleased to report that the park now looks even better than before the fires and is an absolute pleasure to explore as long as you take the usual precautions of sun protection, wind and rain protection for those sudden late afternoon thunderstorms, plenty of water (2L per person for 2-3hr walks on warmer sunny days), and sturdy shoes. On hotter days, go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the extreme heat conditions which may prevail.

It is a two and three quarter hour easy drive from Melbourne, mainly along freeway and highways which allow for a nice coffee break half way in the small town of Beaufort. The more adventuresome with time on their hands might like to return via a longer and more interesting route either to the north through winery and historic gold field towns of Avoca, Maryborough, Maldon, and Castlemaine, or to the south to Dunkeld with its highly regarded Royal Mail Hotel restaurant, then the volcanic park of Mt Eccles, then to Port Fairy, the volcanic Tower Hill park and then along the Great Ocean Road and the Twelve Apostles and Otway Ranges.

The main tourist town in the Grampians is Halls Gap which lies in the valley and the shops and main camp ground are within a short walk to the beautiful Wonderland region. There are plenty of accommodation options but these can get booked out in peak seasons. There are dozens of kangaroos and maybe a few emus grazing in the camp ground and at the cricket ground, and as you sit and eat your dinner outside at the Harvest Cafe, you are likely to see a few of them hopping down the road at dusk.

Best time to go is in Oct-Nov when the spring wildflowers are at their best, the weather is not too hot and, to avoid the crowds, avoid school holidays, public holidays and weekends – although your choice of restaurants becomes severely limited, but your accommodation options increase and there are less people on the narrow winding roads and at the walks.

November can also be noisy cicada time – cicadas live most of their life underground (several years) as a nymph in burrows along a tree root from which it feeds on the sap. After spring rains and when the weather warms up, they climb a tree, latch on with their two big front claws,  and emerge from their nymph shell through the dorsum, leaving their dried shell and becoming green with transparent wings as adults. The rest for a while then for a few short weeks they join their mates in the trees, eating and creating a piercingly loud noise and mate before the females lay eggs and then die.

While I was there, a cicada had mistaken my car tyre for a tree and the nymph shell was on one side and the new adult cicada on the other:

cicada

Nymph shell – note the large front claws and the dorsal exit. Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens at 150mm f/5.6.

cicada

The newly emerged adult cicada – Olympus mZD 60mm f/2.8 macro lens at f/7.1 with some mild cropping as I didn’t want to get too close in case it flew away but in retrospect I probably could have got a close up of just its eye!

pinnacles

Perhaps the number one walk to do is the walk to the Pinnacles which gives a great expansive view over Halls Gap and the valley looking eastwards and if, as with this young lady, you wish to partake in some daredevil mindlessness you can sit and enjoy the view from the adjacent protuberant cliff face edge. The actual Pinnacle is a protuberance which has fences to reduce risk taking behaviours.

There are several options to walk to the Pinnacle, all of which require rock hopping, rock steps and sun exposure, but are well worth it, and within the capability of most people – even sedentary ones as long as they can walk up steps and negotiate rocks:

  • a longer ascent from Halls Gap camp ground for the fitter walkers with good knees
  • a shorter ascent from Wonderland Carpark which can optionally include the Grand Canyon loop
  • an easier ascent from the Sundial carpark – 4km return, allow 2hrs, total ascent 180m

pinnacles

On a hot sunny day with cirrus clouds and blue skies, drink plenty of water, wear a hat and sunscreen, but don’t forget to look for contrasty dramatic rock formations such as this one, but make sure you watch where you walk as it is easy to miss a deep ravine, step on a poor skink, or sprain your ankle!

sundial peak

When there is a strong, hot, north wind blowing, a better option may be the walk to Sundial Peak which is more sheltered from the wind and provides more coverage of trees in the event of lightning which tends to come on such days. The Sundial Peak also looks out over Halls Gap but being more south than the Pinnacle, it overlooks Lake Bellfield, although the Pinnacle cannot be seen from this lookout. The walk from Sundial carpark to the lookout is 4km return, allow 1.5-2hrs and ascent is only 115m making it more friendly than the Pinnacle walk.

sundial peak

You do also get lovely views to the south down the valley from the Sundial Peak.

sundial peak walk

The Sundial Peak walk early in the morning when no one was around – but I did get caught in a thunderstorm!

reeds Lookout

After your walks and you have had dinner, head up to Reed’s Lookout and The Balconies for an epic sunset view looking south across Victoria Valley. Be warned though – even mid-week, you will not be alone!

Boroka Lookout

If you are enthusiastic get up well before sunrise, drive the 20 minutes or so in the dark to Boroka lookout which faces east overlooking Halls Gap, for some shots BEFORE the sun comes up – I was lazy and couldn’t be bothered using a tripod and just relied upon the Olympus OM-D E-M1′s awesome image stabiliser plus used a Reverse ND gradient filter to help reduce the contrast at the horizon.

Grand Canyon

The “Grand Canyon” short circuit within the Wonderland on a cloudy day with the Olympus mZD 7-14mm f/2.8 lens at 7mm and f/8.

This is a first post on the Grampians and I have only touched the surface – the main tourist attractions – although I didn’t get to go to the Zumsteins and Mackenzie Falls on this trip.

 

 

 

Victoria’s famous Wilsons Promontory – the Prom – a mecca for nature tourists

Monday, October 17th, 2016

Victoria has several main tourist destinations which are must see for many who come to Australia such as:

  • the fairy penguin parade at nearby Philip Island
  • the Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road along with the rainforests and beaches of the Otway Ranges
  • Wilsons Promontory with its unspoilt beaches, lovely orange moss covered granite boulders and plenty of Australian wildlife including kangaroos, wallabies, emus, wombats, echidnas and perhaps you may see koalas and other animals.

This week I had the luxury of a few days off by myself to explore the Prom – it’s been a long 30 years since I was last there, and is only now recovering from devastating bush fires, storms and floods from just a few years ago – but none of these have adversely affected the lovely beaches which are just as I remembered them.

The following photos were taken with my Micro Four Thirds cameras – the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and E-M5.

The Prom is around 2.5-3 hrs drive from Melbourne (including the 30 minute drive from the entrance gates to the main camp ground at Tidal River).

Before you go, check the 7 day forecast here.

Note that the Prom is regarded as THE most windy place on mainland Australia thanks to the exposure to the south-easterly winds coming across Bass Strait from the Antarctic, and note that October is generally the most windy month of the year. Hold onto your hat when you climb the Big Drift!

October is a great time to visit the Prom because:

  • there are not too many people down there, especially mid week when you can often have the beach to yourself and accommodation is not an issue (accommodation needs to be booked months in advance for school holidays and public holiday peak periods)
  • the weather is not too hot given that most of the walks and the beaches as well as the very exposed Big Drift dune system have little sun protection
  • the weather is not too sunny – October is generally a rather cloudy month but that makes for more pleasant walking and more interesting photography
  • the weather is not too cold, although it did struggle to get to 21 deg C, the overnight lows though were only down to around 9 deg C so not too harsh for overnight campers
  • it is Spring and the multitude of wild flowers including native orchids are in bloom, along with the swarms of native bees (which don’t attack you!) and other flying insects including butterflies – a downside is that your car will need the multitude of dead insects removed from windscreen and bonnet!
  • in Summer and Autumn, there is not only far more people to contend with but sand flies with their delayed onset severe itching, and biting march flies are more problematic.

Facilities at the Prom:

The prom is managed by Parks Victoria who run the bookings for accommodation – which includes cabins, huts, powered and unpowered camp sites including the various unpowered remote overnight walk camp sites  (there is no free camping within the park).

An overview map of the park can be downloaded here and the Parks Visitor’s Guide can be downloaded here.

The last petrol is just before the park entrance at Yanakie where there is also a general store and a bakery cafe (although the cafe is not open every day!).

There is a general store and take away food cafe at Tidal River and they make nice hamburgers, although obviously, prices at such a remote place are not on the cheap side. Note that this cafe closes at 4.30pm in daylight saving time and 4pm at other times (winter). This means you MUST provide for your own evening meals in the park – but they do offer free gas BBQs to use.

There is a general store in Yanakie and Sandy Point but like most rural shops close around 5-6pm, so after this time you will need to go to the pub in Fish Creek or a restaurant further afield such as Meeniyan or Foster.

A map of Tidal River can be downloaded on this link.

At most of the camp sites the tank water probably should be treated to ensure it is potable, or bring your own water.

An information pamphlet on the many walks can be downloaded from this link.

The lovely beaches that require only a short walk from your car:

Tidal River and Norman Beach:

This is an incredibly beautiful pristine beach with a lovely tannin-colored but clear freshwater stream flowing alongside uniquely coloured granite boulders to the sea.

On warmer days, the beach will be filled with kids playing beach cricket or football, while others surf or just enjoy the sand, river and exploring the boulders.

tidal river

Squeaky Beach:

A favorite of mine – the sand grains are fine which results in a lovely squeaky noise as you walk – you will need to get your toes wet as you need to cross the shallow stream to get to the beach – but it is well worth it.

The north end has a maze of large “plum pudding” type granite boulders in which to explore at low tide with a back drop of Mt Bishop whilst one looks out to small islands.

squeaky beach

squeaky beach

Whisky Bay:

Another photographer’s favorite beach with its large boulders at each end which can be explored at low tide.

whisky bay beach

whisky bay beach

whisky bay beach

Hand held long exposure using a ND400 filter and the Olympus OM-D cameras with their amazing image stabilisation.

The regenerating forests make for relaxing walks:

An easily accessible nature walk is the Lilly Pilly Gully Nature Walk which not only takes you through some nice eucalypt forest regenerating after the bushfires but is abundant with wild flowers and wild life such as these which were all taken with the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens:

echidna

An echidna quickly crossed the path ahead of me – it pays to have your telephoto lens always ready to shoot!

native orchid

Native orchid

butterfly on a flowering native grass tree

Butterfly on a flowering native grass tree

forest

Forest

forest

Fire affected forest

At the end of the day you may be blessed with a lovely sunset:

forest

This image was taken with the brilliant Olympus mZD 300mm f/4 lens giving hand held 600mm telephoto reach allowing good views of the peninsula at South Walkerville in the distance which in itself is a nice area to explore with its historic limestone kilns on the beach.

My next post, is my favorite area at the Prom – the massive, remote and very eerie sand dunes that are the Big Drift.

Fascinating maps of cities comparing where tourists take photos vs the locals

Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

Tourists experience cities in a vastly different way to local residents.

Eric Fischer has created a series of fascinating maps of the major cities of the world from a database of geo-tagged photos.

The red bits indicate photos taken by tourists, while the blue bits indicate photos taken by locals and the yellow bits might be either.

See the maps at https://www.flickr.com/photos/24431382@N03/sets/72157624209158632/

and a more readable blog post at http://brilliantmaps.com/tourists-vs-locals/

Sydney

Sydney, Australia

 

 

One week in South Korea – Part 5 – Seoraksan National Park

Monday, September 5th, 2016

Seoraksan National Park is a beautiful mountainous park dominated by rugged granite peaks and maple gullies amongst cyprus forests only 15 minutes drive from the coastal resort town of Sokcho on the north-eastern coast of South Korea.

One should take care with mosquitoes as there apparently is a small risk of mosquito-borne Japanese encephalitis virus and even malaria according to WHO, but the more dangerous animals such as tigers and bears are now extinct from most of South Korea including in this region.

Sokcho is a 3-4 hour bus ride from Seoul depending upon traffic conditions.

These images were taken with Micro Four Thirds cameras – the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and E-M5 with the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 and Olympus mZD 7-14mm f/2.8 lenses.

We only had one day in our itinerary to hike in the park and that one day coincided with almost constant heavy rain which absolutely soaked not only my active wear but also my Olympus E-M1 with 40-150mm f/2.8 lens and its lovely rain protective lens hood which fortunately are highly water resistant and did not suffer any ill effect from the constant rain over a 5 hour period – unlike my friend’s “water-resistant” Garmin watch we failed permanently half way due to the rain.

The hike we chose was to the rugged granite peaks which was some 11km and 5hrs return in the rain with seemingly thousands of steps and a total ascent of over 600m to the ~1200m altitude peak which overlooked the Sokcho valley in the very brief intervals where the clouds parted and we could see what was below us.

The scenery so reminded me of Japanese ink sketches that I decided to post-process these images in that style.

The peaks which we were to climb up as seen from the Seoul-Sokcho bus.

At the start of the walk is a Buddhist Temple which provided for some very nice imagery:

Whilst at this temple we took pity on a very keen Canikon elderly Korean man who was trying in vain to get some shots of this temple with his camera on a tripod wrapped in towels to keep the camera dry as well as trying to hold an umbrella in the wind – unfortunately for him he did not choose a weatherproof camera and lens with image stabilisation such as we had with our Olympus gear, and so we helped him out by holding his umbrella so he could get his shot.

As we start our walk alongside a fast flowing stream, we walk over some nice old bridges:

and then perhaps half way up our ascent we arrive at a remote old Buddhist temple built into the mountain side:

a tourist wet and tired and its only a third of the ascent work down:

Perhaps at this point I should have said a few prayers because the ascent from here on became very steep indeed but gave very rewarding vignettes dominated by these beautiful trees amongst the peaks:

and now ascent into the clouds:



and finally to the peak – the hiker and his umbrella – as we found – no match for the strong up-draught winds hurtling upwards and playing havoc with the umbrellas:

The price to pay for these beautiful sights was 3 days of very painful calf muscles but thankfully, we did not trip and fall in the wet, slippery conditions.

After the hike, an incredibly kind young Korean lady who worked in a park cafe finally worked out what we were trying to ask her – “where is the local thermal spas?” and she offered to drive us there as the cafe had closed and so we made it to the thermal spa baths which were in another valley – but to our naive surprise they were authentic Oriental style baths which banned all forms of clothing – so when in Rome ….

One week in South Korea – Part 4 – Seoul by day

Monday, September 5th, 2016

Seoul is an interesting city to walk around the various neighborhoods, and unfortunately we did not get time to visit more palaces or other interesting sights such as the Seoul Tower, the wall around the city, etc.

So this gives me incentive to head back there another time to continue my explorations.

These images were taken with Micro Four Thirds cameras – the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and E-M5 with the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 and Olympus mZD 7-14mm f/2.8 lenses.

cityscape

From the top of a building

Quintessential Seoul urban streetscape.

The old and the new – traditional Korean residences with the Seoul Tower in the background.


Korean gate

Gate on one of the traditional residences.

The far majority of tourists in Seoul are Asian – Caucasians are a rare sight indeed!

graffiti

Seoul is generally a very clean city at least on the surface and has very little graffiti – but I did manage to find some in a remote alley way.

and some minimalistic graffiti in a shopping area laneway.

another gate to a residence

The locals dressing up in hired traditional costumes for a day of taking pics in the streets.

One week in South Korea – part 3 – Seoul at night

Saturday, September 3rd, 2016

Seoul in August is a wonderful balmy warm and seemingly safe city to explore at night as long as you take reasonable care and respect the locals who rarely like being photographed unless they are doing it themselves – the number of young Koreans walking around taking selfies as they walk is quite disturbing for safety reasons alone – luckily there is no Pokemon Go in South Korea (due to military security concerns with Google street view imagery – although there is a small area in Sokcho where it is possible).

I had no safety concerns carrying my cameras and even having them visible on the subway trains at night – something I would be reluctant to do in my own city of Melbourne !

Usually when I walk streets at night I carry discrete wide aperture lenses on my compact Micro Four Thirds cameras (OM-D E-M1 and E-M5) which allow low light photography and allow the camera to be quickly returned to a jacket pocket – for example the Panasonic 20mm f/1.8 pancake lens and the Olympus mZD 12mm f/2.0. In Seoul, I decided to ditch the 12mm lens and use the larger Olympus mZD 7-14mm f/2.8 for greater versatility.

The most popular districts to explore are Itaewon, Hongdae and ultra-modern Dongaemun.

Itaewon

Itaewon is where the US Military tend to congregate at bars and clubs, and thus is the main district for Caucasian tourists – although the night we went there, there were very few of either and it was mainly the local Koreans, and in the back alleys you did need to keep your eye out for opportunistic predators although we did not see any aggression or criminal activity even to 1-2am.

We enjoyed an awesome, albeit, expensive, authentic Korean BBQ in one of the side street cafes, then headed off to some of the bars for some cultural exchanges.

Back alleys of Itaewon where there were a few dodgy people.

Dongaemun

Dongaemun is a popular night precinct for shoppers with lots of street shops, shopping plazas, market and the ultra-modern Dongaemun Design Plaza (DDP).

DDP

DDP

DDP

Ceiling mobiles display in DDP.


DDP

Dongdaemun Design Plaza and the newly opened shopping plaza in the background right.

Helping out the locals with their selfie sticks.

Street stalls

A market which unfortunately had largely closed by the time we arrived at 10pm

A market mobile karaoke lady with her doll who was keen to pose for me.

The famous mung bean pancakes in the market – we were surprised to find a busy cafe behind this stall where we enjoyed our pancake with the local Koreans.

This was a signal to call it a night – perhaps too much soju?

Just managed to catch the last train on the subway – a rare deserted platform but we made it back to our hotel!

Hongdae

Hongdae is a Korean university student night precinct with many bars, clubs and shops, lots of intoxicated young Korean adults and few older adults while there were signs banning US military fro entering clubs due to potential conflicts, and the clubs seem to have an age cut off of 38 years, so no entry for an old guy like me but again, despite the flow of alcohol, there was no overt aggression or criminal activity evident and we felt safe walking the streets and there were plenty of taxis near by to take us back to the hotel (as long as you had the name and address of the hotel in Korean!). I took very few photos here but we did find a quiet late night bar for a dart throwing competition at 2am which finished the day off nicely.

street alcohol vendor for the students

Street alcohol vendor for the students (the vendor refused to allow his photo but did allow this shot).

Back alleyway.

Hongdae bar

Older style Hongdae bar.

This club security guy politely refused entry to the club for my travel buddy who was devastated as apparently now too old to go clubbing!

Not only older folk are banned from the clubs but also the US Military! Korean prevention is the best medicine!

Hongdae street bar.

Finally found a quiet bar where we could relax, talk and play some darts.

 

One week in South Korea – part 2 – The Secret Garden

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

sunrise from my hotel room

My first sunrise in Seoul – from my hotel room using the Olympus mZD 7-14mm f/2.8 ultra-wide angle zoom lens

Our first morning in Seoul was a hot 34degC partly sunny, humid day with little wind as we headed off to a guided tour of The Secret Garden in Changdeokgung Palace – a lovely relaxing walk with plenty of shade and beautiful little vistas.

The local Koreans seem to love to hire traditional apparel and wander the palace grounds and taking selfies, and on some I was asked to assist and others I asked them for permission to take an even better shot with a proper camera and lens – my trusty Olympus OM-D E-M1 Micro Four Thirds camera mated with the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens while I also carried a E-M5 with Olympus mZD 7-14mm f/2.8 ultra-wide angle zoom lens for the occasional wider perspectives.

It was a great introduction to Korean culture, although unfortunately much of these palace structures were severely damaged during the early 20th century Japanese occupation.

As I mentioned in my last post, the Korean people I met were lovely, quiet, generous, respectful and honest looking people with no evidence of pick pocketers, violence or aggression.



Out of a population of 50 million, there are apparently only some 130,000 muslim people, and these are nearly all foreigners.

A modern Korean lady on the garden tour.

Yours truly helping out a couple of ladies with their “selfie” shots.

Of course there are hundreds of shots one can achieve of the gardens and palaces which I will not post here apart from these:

My crazy tour buddy!

One week in South Korea – part 1

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Last week I had the fantastic opportunity of spending some time in South Korea (the Republic of Korea), most of which was in its bustling capital Seoul but also a weekend in the coastal resort town of Sokcho on the eastern coast and adjacent to the beautiful Seoraksan National Park.

This first post is to give some background of South Korea and introduce its culture.

Geography and how to get there.

South Korea is the mountainous southern part of the Korean Peninsula located between China and Japan and, obviously, south of North Korea, with which it is still technically at war and thus is separated from it by a Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

Seoul has a population of 25 million (half of Korea’s population) being the world’s 6th leading city and 4th largest economy while over half the population live in high rise apartments and only 3% are non-Korean foreigners and half of these have Korean ethnicity! South Korea had the world’s lowest birth rates in 2009 but it has been increasing since

It’s time zone is only 1hr different to Australian Eastern Standard Time.

From my home town, Melbourne, Australia, there are no direct flights to Seoul as thus I needed a short flight to Sydney first before catching a direct 10hr 30m flight via Asiana Airlines.

One should allow around 90 minutes to get from Incheon Airport to Seoul CBD by bus or taxi, and there is also a train service.

Be warned taxi drivers can be lacking in safety awareness with Korea having high road trauma rates, one of our taxi drivers thankfully slowed to 140kph in 80kph zone.

In Seoul, there is a very advanced subway system, just download the app for your smartphone to navigate it, purchase a CityPass card at the vending machine (there are English instructions), load it up with some won – perhaps around 5000-10000 won at a time (~$US5-10 and this pass can be used on buses, or even to buy food in some shops).

Half of all tourists are Chinese.

Climate:

South Korea has a humid continental climate and a humid subtropical climate and the best time to visit for comfort is Sept-Nov (autumn) but no matter what time of year, an umbrella or rainwear is advisable.

Seoul has an average annual rainfall of 1,370mm, mostly in July and August which receive over 300mm each month.

There are four distinct seasons:

  • spring: late-March to early-May which may bring yellow dust pollution from strong winds from China and Mongolia
  • summer: mid-May to early-September which is hot, wet, humid and may be associated with East Asian monsoonal rains as well as a brief high rainfall period “jangma” which occurs in July
  • autumn: mid-September to early-November
  • winter: mid-November to mid-March which can be extremely cold with the minimum temperature dropping below −20 °C (−4 °F) in the inland region of the country

July and August are the hottest, most humid and wettest months, and we arrived in a mini heat wave with daytime temperatures of around 34degC with high humidity and night temperatures dropping to around 27degC. Later in the week the temperature cooled to 27degC max and 18degC minimums and the last two days on the east coast were dominated by heavy rains.

A brief history:

Koryo was one of the leading East Asian powers from around 1st century BC and ruled northern China, Inner Mongolia and parts of Russia for over a millenium of relative tranquillity.

Buddhism was introduced to Korea in the year 372.

In 1446, Sejong the Great, created a unique alphabet Hangul, which enabled anyone to easily learn to read and write.

These dynasties resulted in establishment of 12 World Heritage Sites.

In the 19th century, the Joseon Dynasty tried to protect itself against Western imperialism, but was eventually forced to open trade.

After the 1st Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), Korea was liberated from Chinese influence as a state of the Qing dynasty, and after the Donghak Peasant Revolution of 1894 to 1895 , a short-lived Korean Empire formed (1897-1910).

After Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), Korea initially became a Japanese protectorate and then was annexed by imperial Japan in 1910.

Towards the end of World War II, Russia liberated Korea north of the 38th parallel, while USA liberated the areas to the south. After Japan surrendered to Western and Russian powers at the end of World War II in 1945, Korea was then divided into North and South Korea, and this, along with Cold War issues resulted in North Korea invading South Korea with China and Russia coming to aid the North, and USA-led UN forces backing the south in the Korean War (1950-1953) which saw Seoul change hands four times, until a truce was formed by signing an armistice, but the two states are technically still at war, and the threat from North Korea, always present and seemingly increasing.

 Culture, language and health:

It has the world’s eighth highest median household income, the highest in Asia, and its singles in particular earn more than all G7 nations, and half have no religious affiliation, most of the remainder are either Buddhist or Christian.

The world’s most innovative country in 2015 and has the world’s fastest Internet speed and highest smartphone ownership.

South Korea is the most industrialized member country of the OECD.

South Korea has a universal healthcare system and amongst the most technologically advanced healthcare in the world and has over triple the number of hospital beds per capita compared to USA, UK, Sweden, and Canada!

Compulsory military conscription for men continues and South Korea has very high defence spending – 15% of all govt spending.

Few Koreans speak English as it only became compulsory in schools this century and although young adults may be able to read some English, their verbal skills are quite limited. This is compounded by the very few English speaking tourists who arrive and the monoculture of 97% Koreans who live there. Despite this, the Korean language is quite phonetic and signs are often  in English.

Korean food is still largely devoid of Western influences (although there are some Western take away food places such as MacDonalds, Dominos Pizza and many coffee cafes), you will probably not find fish and chip shops, dim sims, potato cakes, french fries, chocolate bars, ice cream and in addition, wine is rare but beer, soju and whisky/rum are plentiful – in fact, the Koreans are generally heavy drinkers after their long hours at work.

The Korean population generally come across as quiet, cool, calm, collected, well dressed, high-tech savvy, generous, respectful and kind people with very little obesity issues although smoking and high alcohol intake is still problematic.

Seoul feels to me to be the safest of cities I have been to – I felt ashamed that I may cause offense in securing my valuables in the hotel room but I still did so. There is no evidence of pick pockets in the areas I visited and free WiFi is everywhere and given the apparent trustworthiness of the Koreans and lack of Western tourists, I felt I could get away with not using a VPN.

The widespread free WiFi – in hotels, on train platforms, bus stations, airports, etc, meant that one does not really need to have a Korean sim card or use international roaming – just switch phone to airplane mode and turn WiFi on and communicate using a messaging app such as WhatsApp.

Koreans respectfully bow to each other to thank or give leave and there is a strict aged-based hierarchical respect system stemming from Confucian and Buddhist teachings and Koreans are taught from a young age that they need to know who is their senior and who is their junior and that they must obey and respect their seniors, who in return, provides support and pay for meals, etc.

Young men in the city generally wear a shirt, tie, trousers with black belt and stylish shoes reminiscent of the well dressed Italian.

Young women generally wear smart summer dresses, shorts or short skirts whilst the upper part of the body for both sexes remains covered – no cleavages or open shirts (even for men as the upper torso is regarded as a sexual zone – legs are not).

The Koreans appear to have a body image issue as plastic surgery rates are amongst the highest in the world with some 25% of young adults having had surgery – and the surgical skills appear to be very high tech and transformative – see here for some mind blowing examples!

As most Korean young people live with their parents in high rise apartments, many go to resort towns for the weekends for romantic getaways in “Love Hotels” such as in Sokcho.

Koreans appear to like booking small rooms for karaoke fun for 2-4 people. K-pop is an extremely popular Asian music and culture phenomenon.

Communal thermal spas are generally true Oriental style with clothing and underwear banned, and a requirement for a good, long, whole of body soapy scrub and shower before entering the bathing area au naturale (although women and men have separate areas).
Korean temple

Korean temple in Asian ink sketch style – Olympus OM-D.

old and the new

Old and the new – Seoul – Olympus OM-D

the essential umbrella

The umbrella – an essential sun shade and for those rain periods – Olympus OM-D with mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens.

Uluru and Kata Tjuta revisited – Australia’s iconic Ayers Rock monolith

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

I went to Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) last August in the Australian Winter – the blog posts are here.

This week I took the opportunity to visit them again, but this time during the full moon which coincided with the autumnal equinox when both the sun and the full moon appear to be at the celestial equator and thus both rise in due East and both set in due West, although when one is setting, the other is rising.

This makes for the rise and set to be better in line with these two popular tourist attractions, and thus I had planned to get a super telephoto view of the full moon rising above Uluru from Kata Tjuta some 50km to its west while the sun set and then next morning, a sunrise helicopter flight to photograph the full moon setting behind both Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

A potential bonus was a penumbral eclipse of the moon which was to start only a few minutes after moon rise – although these events are not really photographcally interesting unless they are full lunar eclipses.

I thus arranged my holiday to fly into Uluru from Melbourne, then pick up a hire car at the airport and drive the 3.5hrs bitumen highway to my initial 2 night destination at Kings Canyon which I had missed out on seeing last visit, and which is one of the best day walks in the world – my blog post of this can be seen here.

I then had booked 3 nights at Ayers rock Resort in Yulara, the modern village tourist resort for Uluru to coincide with the full moon.

Many people go to the Australian outback to witness the amazing Winter Milky Way skies filled with millions of stars well away from urban light pollution. But this is best in Winter when the Milky Way is best seen and the skies are more likely to be clear – and very cold (temperatures can drop below zero Celsius), and when the moon is NOT in the sky to cause its own light pollution.

Obviously having timed this with the full moon I was not interested in Milky Way astroscapes this time and the weather forecast was an ominous central Low pressure system sitting over the area causing overcast conditions and possible afternoon storms – this was to adversely impact my first goal of capturing the full moon rising over Uluru but in return it gave me some very nice images of quite rare rain showers over Kata Tjuta exactly at sunset which was indeed awesome.

Walpa Gorge walk

Before sunset I quickly did the thankfully short 1hr return Walpa Gorge walk at Kata Tjuta in 36degC heat, flies and full late afternoon sun. Above is the start of the walk and below is the towards the end of the walk as storm clouds gathered.

Walpa Gorge walk

Then I went to the Kata Tjuta sunset viewing platform (thankfully I was fully prepared for the mass of bush flies constantly harassing my face by wearing a mosquito net over my head – nevertheless, the flies did create issues in timing of my shots as they kept flying in front of my lens!), and on arrival a rain shower was passing over the very spot where I had just completed the Walpa Gorge walk and the setting sun was showing it off beautifully:

sunset shower

sunset shower

Unfortunately the view east over Uluru was not one that filled me with optimism of capturing the full moon rising rising but still provided a nice dramatic backdrop to Uluru:

uluru

moon over uluru

Eventually the full moon partly appeared over Uluru, but far too late (the above shot is only included to show that you need a 260mm lens in full frame terms to frame Uluru in portrait from that location), so I turned back to another shot of Kata Tjuta in the dusk light showing the lovely contrast of the red sand which gives the region its alias The Red Centre:

Kata Tjuta dusk

Earlier in the day I partook of a AAT Kings sunrise bus tour of Uluru highlighting cultural aspects which was again well worth doing although it did mean a 5.15am bus departure time to get to the 6.45am sunrise and then explore the waterhole on the south side of Uluru and then a chance to watch the film at the Cultural Centre which again is well worth viewing as it demonstrates vividly the adverse impacts upon the indigenous population with the arrival of white men and tourism.

sunrise

Sunrise on Kata Tjuta from Uluru sunrise viewing platform – no tripod.

waterhole

Uluru waterhole just after sunrise – just love the wonderful colours of the Uluru sandstone.

rock art

Indigenous rock drawings in a cave on Uluru – colours have been enhanced in post-processing.

goanna

Goanna lizard on Uluru at sunrise

Fortunately most of the clouds cleared for my pre-booked helicopter flight next morning (the 6.15am pick up time was a welcome improvement on the previous day’s 5.15am pick up time!) which was another fantastic experience which I would highly recommend:

Yulara

Yulara and Ayers Rock Resort from helicopter at sunrise.

Uluru sunrise

Above, the image I had planned – Uluru with Kata Tjuta in the background with the full moon setting at sunrise. The indigenous village is in the foreground – whites are not permitted there without invitation.

Kata Tjuta

Kata Tjuta with the full moon setting at sunrise taken with the Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens.

Kata Tjuta sunrise

Closer to Kata Tjuta with the full moon setting at sunrise taken with the Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 lens.

Petermann ranges

In the background are the Petermann Ranges with part of Kata Tjuta in the foreground. Kata Tjuta and Uluru are massive sedimentary deposits formed before life began on earth from erosion of the Petersen Ranges which were then as high as the current Himalayas!

sand dunes

Ancient fixed sand dunes stabilised by spinifex grasses – these are the oldest fixed sand dunes in the world.

That afternoon I did the short Mala walk at sunset and it was a beautiful ambience in the balmy warm breeze with no one around and very few flies – those that were there diminished greatly in number soon after sunset.

rock formation

Rock formation from erosion within a cave at sunset.

shadow

Shadow of a tree at sunset in a large cave.

Gorge

The gorge on the Mala Walk at sunset – there is a waterhole at the end of this lovely short walk.

I hope this has shown that the Red Centre of Australia is a photographer’s wonderland and even Uluru itself with its many dimensions to explore – photographic, cultural and geological is indeed an amazing destination – just respect the indigenous peoples and the environment – no rubbish, no wastes, and definitely no graffiti.

Photographically, Uluru is a wonderful challenge in any weather and light condition with its many varied shapes, and its wonderful colours and textures – a great place to experiment with composition, lens choice, graphic design and more.

All the above photos were taken with Olympus OM-D Micro Four Thirds cameras such as the E-M5 and E-M1.

No tripod was used for any shots apart from the attempted full moon rise over Uluru, and apparently there was no utility in using one in the helicopter.