A Glorious Evening in May

Today has been another glorious day at the beginning of summer; the weather has been spectacular for the last few days. It has probably been the hottest day of the year so far and it was one of those lovely summer evenings that you remember nostalgically in the winter. The daylight slowly fades into the late evening twilight as the sun sets and the wood pigeons ‘coo’ in the trees.

The sun was setting in the valley as we set off for an evening walk from home. You can just make out the slate roof of our house in the trees in the bottom left of the picture below. The land beyond the trees running up to the skyline belongs to us.
Sun Setting in the Valley

The valley is spectacular with wild flowers our route takes us around the valley, crossing the river twice on a circular route.

Harebells are amongst the myriad of wild flowers on the roadside.Harebells













The hedgerows are alive with wild flowers, the primroses and bluebells are just starting to fade but soon there will be wild strawberries that we pick and eat on our walks.Wild Flowers

The whole valley, with virtually no traffic or road noise is a very special place.The valley

We cross over the river in the bottom of the valley via the small footbridge.River

It is cool in the woodland by the river.Wood

The evening sunlight starts to fade across the floor of the valley.Valley Sunlight

Look at the ivy on the old clinging wall
Look at the flowers and the green grass so tall
It’s not a matter of when push comes to shove
It’s just an hour on the wings of a dove
~ Van Morrison


Almost the last sun of the evening falls on the recently cut fields. The small road beyond leads down to our house. Three Red Kites honoured us with their presence and soared overhead nearby.valley curves

We cross back over the river by the small metal road bridge that leads to our house.cothi (9 of 11)

Liz lingers on the bridge that leads back home to look for Dippers and Wagtails.Cothi Bridge

The very last rays of summer light fade as we walk home.cothi (11 of 11)



Photographing Red Kites at Gigrin Farm

With the recent blast of cold weather we took the opportunity to get out to try to get a few winter shots.

Elan Valley Farm House in Winter
Elan Valley Farm House in Winter with a dusting of snow.

As this meant being out and about looking for wintry locations (as above) we ended up back at the Elan Valley and decided to go Gigrin Farm the Red Kite feeding centre near Rhayader, Powys. Gigrin is well known to many wildlife photographers and at feeding time you will see dozens, if not hundreds of Red Kites at close quarters.

Red kite at Gigrin
Red Kite at Gigrin Farm, Powys © John Burton

Feeding takes place at 2.00 p.m. in winter and 3.00 p.m. in summer; so get there at least 10 minutes before. There is a selection of wooden viewing hides and some taller specialist photography hides. They are all roughly the same distance from where the birds are fed and the photography hides are probably only necessary for those with very large lenses (particularly if they want to point them skywards) and tripods. For first timers here like us it’s probably just as good to use one of the ‘normal’ (and less expensive) hides. Particularly as the Kite behaviour at feeding time is frantic and it takes a while to observe and learn how the birds are behaving. When the initial action stops after 45 minute stick around because the younger birds who have waited their turn (there is a ‘pecking order’) will come in to feed. By now there is also less of a frenzy to the feeding and picking out shots becomes a tad easier (not easy!).

Unfortunately, despite a bright start to the day, the cloud built up so that by 2.00 p.m. the light was fairly grim making focusing difficult and exposing even harder. As I don’t have a very long lens I used a 300mm f4.0 on Liz’s Canon 40D (to take advantage of the crop sensor). This enabled me to quite usefully fill the frame. It was also necessary to use AI Servo mode to assist with focusing and whilst difficult the 40D did better than I expected in the poor light. However, exposing for the birds correctly against the dull bland sky meant an almost perfect white background and resulted in images that have a very ‘graphic’ quality; as if they are straight out of a bird illustration book. Whilst the shot above, for example, was not what I was hoping to achieve I think they have an interesting quality and would look good as greeting cards etc.

So we’ll definitely go back when we think the light is better one day.


Langtang to Helambu Trek in Nepal

At the end of November we travelled to Nepal and spent most of December there, returning to the U.K. for Christmas. The first couple of weeks we spent trekking in the Langtang region and this blog details how we walked from Langtang to Helambu (I’ve put a map here) across the Laurebina Pass (4610m). The information and prices here are correct as of December 2011 and is provided on a goodwill basis (i.e. use your own common sense, check nothing has changed and don’t blame us if it doesn’t go as planned!). The weather was warm and dry but did turn increasingly cold at night as we moved into mid December. There was a very small amount of ice on the trail but the route was easily done with normal trekking gear although the high altitude lodges were cold at night. This trek would become harder in January and February, once there is snow, without proper gear (crampons and an ice axe?). The variety of scenery and the comparative lack of other trekkers (although the time of year may well have been a factor here) made this one of our favourite treks in Nepal.

On arriving at Kathmandu we went to stay initially at a guest house in Thamel; The Sacred Valley Inn. The owners Ailsa and Ganga are old friends who we first got to know twelve or thirteen years or so ago when John used to bring trekking groups to the Annapurna region. This is without doubt probably the best value guest house in Kathmandu and unless you are a backpacker on a very tight budget or need unashamed international style luxury I doubt you will find better value. You may also note that Liz is the model on their website page as John took some photos for them when we stayed there there last year!

To do the trek from Langtang to Helambu you will need to reasonably fit and have some decent boots, rucksack, sleeping bag and warm clothing. Other than ‘broken in’ boots (which you need to bring with you) everything can be bought cheaply or hired in Kathmandu at a shop like Shona’s trekking shop (there is an interesting article on Andy the ‘Brummie’ who runs it with his wife here). The lodges will have extra blankets so you don’t need a fantastic sleeping bag. Take a water bottle (or Camelback) and some water purifying tablets to avoid having to pay for bottled water (and more importantly reduce the use of plastic in the Park).

Before you start you need a TIMS card and a park entrance permit. Both are probably just an excuse to extract money from tourists. Anyway you can get them from the Nepal Tourism Board in Kathmandu (ask your hotel to direct you) for $20 per person for the TIMS and 1000 Nepalese Rupees for the trekking permit (the later can also be purchased at the park check point). In addition to obtain the TIMS you need to take along a copy of your passport and two passport-size photographs. Note that the Tourist Board office helpfully (Not) closes at 14.00 hrs so get there in good time before then.

Nepali Visa, TIMS Card and Trekking Permit
Nepali Visa, TIMS Card and Trekking Permit

So fully kitted out we set off to the starting point of Syabru Besi not far from the Tibet border. This is probably the most dangerous part of the trip (i.e. seven or eight hours on a Nepali bus). The bus is caught from the bus stand at Macha  Pokhari (in Kathmandu – most taxi drivers should be able to take you there) and leaves at around 7.00 a.m. we got their at 6.30 and obtained seats OK, but in busy times you may need to book the day before. Seats at the back of the bus are not recommended as they get very bumpy and the ride is bad enough. By the way at the end of the journey I counted 14 people get out of the front 2 rows; in addition the bus will be loaded up with chickens, rice, vegetables and barrels of cooking oil. Many people choose to ride on the roof but the bus will stop before every check point to allow them to climb down and cram inside to satisfy the authorities. It will then stop half a mile later to allow them back up on the roof! Ensure that you have sufficient water and snacks for the journey although the bus will stop halfway for a food break. Eventually, the bus will reach Dhunche where you need to get out and complete the Langtang Park formalities (or get a Park Permit if you didn’t get one in Kathmandu). The bus will then travel on another hour or so to Syabru Besi.

Our Bus Needs a Bit of Maintenance in the Lunch Stop!
Our bus needs a bit of maintenance in the lunch stop! Careful lads, that tyre actually has a bit of tread on it.

Note that this road is being extended and improved by the Chinese all the way to the Tibet border. Once it does become sealed all the way the journey should improve dramatically but I fear that the unique character of this Tamang area will rapidly be changed forever.

At Syabru Besi there are a number of Guest Houses to choose from. We went to the Village View, a small guest house where we had stayed previously.

Syabru Besi at its best. The Village View can be seen (Blue Gates)
Syabru Besi at its best. The Village View Guest House can be seen (Blue Gates)

I asked the owner of the guest house if he knew a reliable local guide who could also carry up to around 15kg for us. I had hired a suitable 60 litre rucksack to hold our sleeping bags and waterproofs etc at Shona’s (50 Nepalese Rupees per day) back in Kathmandu.

The Lonely Planet suggested a rate of 1000 Nepalese Rupees per day for a local guide (most guides from Kathmandu start at 20$ per day). Here we met the lovely Tempa Tamang who became our guide and we agreed on 1300 NR per day with him carrying our bigger pack whilst we carried day packs with our personal gear and clothes etc. Tempa (pronounced more like Demba), although in his own words uneducated, proved to be a very reliable guide who spoke some English. Although not a professional registered guide he was excellent company and should you wish to seek him out ask for him at the Village View Lodge in Syabru Besi or try emailing his wife’s sister in Kathmandu –Starting at Syabru Besi there are a number of treks and combinations. The main ones are the Tamang Heritage trek to Gatlang, Tatopani, the Tibet border and finishing around Khanjim before returning. This trek is more home stay based than trekking lodges so has more potential for interaction.

Another option is to trek straight up to Langtang and Kyanjin Ghompa before returning much of the same way (perhaps coming back from Rimche to Khanjim). We had previously done this trek and it makes a nice short trek with some great views up at the highest points.

The third option is to trek to the sacred lakes of Gosainkunda then across the Laurebina Pass to Helambu and finish literally back on the outskirts of Kathmandu. This trek can be combined with either or both of the previous treks to make a longer trek. We decided on the last option with a slight detour at the start to take some photographs (we took last year) back to the villagers in Khanjim. In addition because of the altitude of the trek this gave us a couple of nights to acclimatise a little. Above 3000m it is advisable not to sleep more than 300m higher each day.

Our route was as follows and although we broke the 300m rule by sleeping at Laurebina we had no problems as we had had a couple of nights to acclimatise.

Yes! You do have to cross that bridge
Yes! You do have to cross that bridge!

Day 1 Syabru Besi to Khanjim – half day trek. Good walkers could easily push on to Rimche.
Day 2 Khanjim to Rimche – an other easy walk; only half a day.
Day 3. Rimche to Thulo Syaphru
Day 4 Thulo Syapru to Shin Gompa
Day 5 Shin Gompa to Laurebina
Day 6 Laurebina to Phedi – A long day walk over the pass at 4610m.
Day 7 Phedi to Tharepati
Day 8 Tharepati to Kutumsang
Day 9 Kutumsang to Chisapani
Day 10 Chisapani to Sundarijal. Then return to Kathmandu by bus

We estimate (very roughly) the total distance to be around 95 kilometres. Trekking lodge room rates varied from 100 NR at Kanjim to 500 NR at the high lodges (around 80 pence to 4 pounds for 2 people). We probably spent between 600 and 800 NR each on food for a whole day.

Come as a guest, Go as a friend
Come as a guest, Go as a friend

At our guides village, Thulo Syapru, we spent the day at a Tamang wedding and the singing and dancing went on late into the night. The food was excellent and they had killed a buffalo especially for the occasion. It did come as quite a surprise though to see all the locals videoing the wedding on their latest ‘smartphones’!

Wedding Guests at a Tamang Wedding in our Guide's Village
Wedding Guests at a Tamang Wedding in our Guide's Village get into a discussion.
The Wedding Celebrations Continue into the Night
The Wedding Celebrations Continue into the Night
The Mighty Himalayas at Sunset at Laurebina 3910m
The Mighty Himalayas at Sunset at Laurebina 3910m
John, from Lancashire, who we met on the trek.
John, from Lancashire, who we met on the trek heads towards the Sacred Lakes.

At Chisapani you hit roads (or rather tracks) and I’m sure that you could negotiate a vehicle (not sure if local buses come this far) back to Kathmandu from here. We walked on to Sundarijal (probably another 5 hours from Chisapani) which is literally on the outskirts of Kathmandu. We then returned to Kathmandu from Sundarijal by bus (only about 40 minutes or so). As we had met a few other trekkers along the trail we negotiated a whole mini bus for 2000 NR to take all of us and the guides back into Thamel. Back in Kathmandu we had a welcome hot shower, a few beers and some respite from eggs for breakfast. We then went onto Bardia National Park in the south west of Nepal.


The Elan Valley

The elan valley
Mist in The Elan Valley

Oh dear we’ve been very lax in updating the blog recently. Too busy enjoying ourselves. For the last two weekends we’ve been spending time in the Elan Valley camping overnight in a wood near Rhayader in mid Wales and photographing and walking round the lakes during the day. We were there to take advantage of the amazing Autumn colours and as you can see from the photographs this was enhanced by the amazingly still water.

The Amazing Autumn Colours at Carreg-ddu
The Amazing Autumn Colours at Carreg-ddu

The dams, reservoirs and 73 mile of aqueduct of the Elan Valley waterworks in mid Wales were mostly built about a hundred years ago to supply clean water to the city of Birmingham in the English Midlands. Although it looks like a bridge the Carreg-ddu dam (below) is partially submerged to keep the water level up at the extraction point.

Carreg-ddu Submerged Dam
Carreg-ddu Submerged Dam

Leaving aside the morality of removing the original residents to flood the valley the reservoirs and dams which supply water to Birmingham entirely by gravity are a an amazing feat of engineering. It is almost beyond comprehension that thousands of men could build these structures. It really does put in perspective the rubbish that we see built today. In addition the foresight of elders of Birmingham to conceive and undertake such a scheme is astonishing. As well as building the dams this also involved building a 73 mile long aqueduct down which the water travels at less than 2 miles per hour, taking one and a half days to get to Birmingham.

The Foel tower is where water starts its journey to Birmingham
The Foel tower is where water starts its journey to Birmingham

There is more information on the Elan valley dams here.

The walk around Carreg-Ddu reservoir is a lovely walk and you can start at various points. We parked at the car park by the Carreg-Ddu dam and did a complete circuit of the lake. The map below shows a longer walk starting at the visitor centre.

Carreg-ddu Walk
Carreg-ddu Walk

Chasing the Light

One of the great things about retirement is the ability to devote more time to other things; particularly photography. I’ve been trying to get some decent landscapes (and I’ve never considered myself too much of a landscape photographer) for a while now that we live in such a beautiful area. However, landscape photography is all about the light (usually early in the morning or in the evening). So with Derek, the BBC Wales weatherman, forecasting a misty start followed by a sunny day we set the alarm for 5.30 and set off into the Breacon Beacons.

Brecon Beacons
The Breacon Beacons on a glorious April morning © John Burton

We were rewarded with some lovely cloud and light for about 20 minutes or so. I got one or two good shots. I’ve been trying to photograph Carreg Cennen for a while now and this is probably as good as I’ve got so far.

Castle Cennen
Carreg Cennen © John Burton

In any event it was a glorious morning to be up on the Brecon Beacons. A full English breakfast when we got home would have been heaven but Liz doesn’t allow those on health grounds!!