I shot this time lapse video from our place yesterday as a severe thunderstorm system moved across Melbourne. It was shot at an interval of 12 seconds, over a four-hour period. About 20 seconds into the movie you can see where the cold front moves across the sky from left to right. As it does, it condenses water from the warm, muggy air that’d been sitting over us for several days, forming a very dynamic band of cloud that looks like the underside of a breaking wave. Even in real-time it was one of the most dramatic cloud formations I’ve ever watched, moving and developing extremely quickly. A very exciting evening.
The Somali-bound plane sitting on the apron at Jomo Kenyatta airport has a shattered windshield, but the crew don’t seem to mind. And because I’ve been up since three in the morning, I dismiss the pang of discomfort and board anyway.
The aircraft is a Dornier twin-engine jet, seating 25. We cruise over the Rift Valley, lush volcanic craters emerging from the morning haze as we bank northwards. From 20,000 feet I watch northern Turkana roll into southern Ethiopia, and somehow the windshield is still intact. I’ve had four hours’ sleep so I’m too dozy to really care.
I’m flying to Somalia. I’ve never been there before. Not so long ago, I swore it was somewhere I would never visit. Not with a wife and a six-year-old featuring prominently in my life. Nor with a healthy aversion towards being kidnapped by pirates, or blown up by IEDs, or dodging mortar fire. But talking it through, rationalizing it, doing a bit more learning, the idea grew on me. By the time I’m actually inbound, I’m really intrigued.
Failed State Number One
Somalia doesn’t have a good reputation when it comes to travel destinations. By which you could say that it’s at the very bottom. Iraq and Afghanistan are both more likely to draw casual visitors. It’s name is synonymous with chronic warfare, entwined clan politics, a violent fundamentalist Islamic insurgency, drought, anarchy, piracy and human suffering. More than 600 people are currently being held by pirates along the eastern coastline. As many as 400,000 people are believed to have died in fighting since 1991. Last week, the Failed State Index once again listed Somalia in its top spot.
Somalia’s in a second year of drought, though to be fair, as a largely arid nation, somewhere in Somalia is experiencing drought conditions at any given time in any given year. This one’s particularly bad, with the UN estimating 2.5 million of the country’s 9 million people in need of assistance, and Global Acute Malnutrition rates of 45 percent in some sections of the population.
The war, raging since the 1991 overthrow of then-President Siad Barre, shows no signs of abating. Initially pitting a complicated array of shifting clan allegiences against one another (Somalia is ethnically homogenous but riven by clan groups vying for control), the civil war over the last 10 years has become increasingly characterised by an Islamic-based insurgence. Uniting many clans is a group called ‘Al Shabbab’ (literally, “The Guys”), who have recently claimed alignment with al Qaeda. They fight an internationally-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), based until very recently in Nairobi for security reasons. The TFG, with the backing of an Africa Union peacekeeping force and heavily supported by Ethiopia (itself trying to crush insurgencies on its long porous border with Somalia), currenly clings to a small patch of land in the capital Mogadishu, engaging in almost daily firefights with Shabbab fighters in the city. Meanwhile, Shabbab has slowly been consolidating its control over Southern Somalia, so that it now contols the bulk of the ground there.
This is the Somalia people may be familiar with- and in its most popular version, characterised by the [breathtaking] movie Black Hawk Down and book by the same name, recounting the Battle of Mogadishu (locally, Battle of the Rangers) fought by US troops against an overwhelming Somali militia in 1993. But there’s more to Somalia than understood in superficial reporting.
Somalia, as it currently stands, is three states in one. South-Central Somalia (SC) continues to embody much of what’s described above. Mogadishu remains, arguably, the most dangerous city on earth. The fighting there, deeply entrenched by over a generation of vicious warfare, shows no signs of dying down. The TFG, dysfunctional at best, is rapidly losing international support and legitimacy, but the West, loathe to let Shabbab take unmitigated control of SC, still props its ailing structures up.
To the north of South-Central, however, is Puntland. Claiming allegience to the government in Mogadishu and with a desire to maintain a Federal identity, Puntland has its own state structure and functions largely as a unit independant from South-Central. While South-Central makes it look comparitively stable, it has its own very significant security concerns- specifically, insurgent-style clan fighting with state security forces, skirmishes with Shabbab-aligned militia in the south, and a piracy problem that makes the Barbary Coast look like a bunch of drunks in a dinghy.
And around the top-end of Somalia, we find Somaliland. Unlike Puntland, Somaliland has no interest in aligning itself with Mogadishu, and considers itself an independent state, although internationally it is defined as a semi-autonomous republic. Fighting its way to independence in 1991, it has recently celebrated 20 years of freedom, and is wrestling for international recognition- with only limited success. With a functional government in Hargeisa (Somaliland recently held democractic elections which international observers declared as free and fair, after which the previous President gracefully stepped aside to his successor), Somaliland is largely peaceful, with some territorial disputes along the border with Puntland and some minor internal security issues.
When I say ‘minor’, everything is relative of course. Roadside bombs, grenade attacks and assassinations, even in Somaliland, don’t exactly stick it at the top of the ‘must-see’ destinations list. Expats travel with security details. The weekly security reports are pages long, with incidents up and down all three zones. But compared to South-Central, Somaliland comes off with a vibe like the French Riviera.
And this is where I’m headed.
We land in Hargeisa a few hours after leaving JKIA. The plane banks on the edge of town, giving a view of sun-soaked scrubland all the way to the horizon, and a few small huts ringed by thorn-bush fences. Then we’re rattling along the bumpy landing strip and rolling up to the terminal.
I’ve landed in some dingy locales, but Egal has to take the cake for the pokiest International Airport I’ve visited. But- and this has to be acknowledged- it works. Disembarking the UN flight with a clutch of other expats, we queue to have our visas checked against a list, then pay our arrival tax in US dollars. The arrivals hall has the airs of a run-down railway terminal. A single tea-shop sells biscuits, and apparently nothing else: boxes and boxes and boxes of coloured biscuit packets. Resting atop a shelving unit, an enourmous clock with roman numerals adds to the station ambience, askew thirty degrees so that midday points off somewhere to the right and up.
I collect my bags from a heap in the corner of the terminal, and we head off.
Our American program manager meets me with the local security officer. He’s got a wooly beard-growth and is dressed in well-worn khakhis and prerequisite aviators. We skirt the edge of a dusty plateau that looks down onto the city proper, a spreading jumble of houses and low-rise shop-house blocks. It all looks remarkably civilized.
The office is housed a little away from the main international quarter. Other NGOs are dotted around. The UN has its headquarters a ten minute walk away, in what has become a cantonment marked by concrete bollards blocking off the streets to would-be car-bombs; a coordinated series of attacks in 2008 in Hargeisa and Bosaso, one targeting UN offices, claimed 30 lives.
It’s windy, and oddly cool. From the upstairs windows of the office- it’s a large house converted to fit our purposes- I can look out across a rocky landscape and down towards the city. Dust blows. The wind whistles on window bars. Inside the tiled rooms, a slamming door reverberates like a gunshot.
I have a brief with the security officer. We’re heading straight into the field. The young Somali is enthusiastic and committed, and cocky enough that I have only limited confidence in what he’s telling me, but my much more in-depth conversation with the security director in Nairobi the night before has left me with a strong understanding of the context and I’m fairly relaxed.
We set off in the early afternoon. Two four-wheel drives, unmarked, with a security detail in a third. The detail consists of a bunch of guys with Kalashnikov assault-rifles who follow us everywhere we go outside Hargeisa. They’re a standard setup, used by all international agencies, with their training and maintainance costs shared across the organizations. When we approach one of the score of checkpoints along the road, they speed ahead of the convoy and see us through, then drop back to the rear. In the villages, they shadow us on foot, lurking unobtrusively a dozen paces away by a wall or a thorn-tree. I hope their bored countenance covers for a stealthy and deceptive level of alertness. Whatever their demeanour, the villagers don’t seem to care. They’re just a part of the scenery out here.
There’s radio chatter. I’ve been issued my own VHF handset. I’m a security trainer myself, so I’m listening to how the radios are used by the team. There’s some pretty entertaining moments of miscommunication. Protocol is pretty abysmal, but they’re doing the right thing in principle.
The car I’m in has fluffy seats and blacked-out windows. It’s so heavy I can barely see outside, and the window won’t roll down either, so before long I’m pretty carsick. I’m also missing a lot of the landscape, but for the most part it’s the same dull flat badlands that you find all the way from here to Dakar.
We stop for a pee. I’m told to check for coloured rocks. Blue rocks means the area has been cleared of mines. Red rocks means an uncovered field.
I stay close to the car.
A few minutes later we pass an international demining team. Sure enough, we see the blue rocks and the red rocks. They’re out there in their heavy blast gear in the heat, crawling among the rocks in their painstaking, lifesaving efforts.
The road is pretty good, but about two hours out the asphalt breaks down and we’re onto braided dirt trails. The landscape here is more interesting too- steep-sided rock outcrops that puncture the horizon and give something to look at. Green-topped acacia bushes populate the predominate biome.
We rock into Boroma a little before nightfall. The city is unremarkable, save perhaps for its solidity. Unpaved, rocky avenues and a little run down, but with concrete buildings of substance. There’s not much traffic. People watch us as we drive past. The hotel we stay in has three stories, and the rooms, while not exactly well appointed, are spacious and mosquito-free. A sign on the tiled wall forbids couples without a marriage certificate from sharing a room, informs that guns and explosives must be left in the lobby, and closes with the confidence-inspiring message, “We are here to care you.” From the rooftop I can see over fields dusted with light green, and a rocky pitch on which gangs of boys are kicking a football.
We hit the field first thing the next morning. The road deeper into Awdal is rough. Not the roughest I’ve ridden- that title goes to the tracks on Haiti’s Ile de la Gonave, hand-picked after travel to more than 50 countries- but certainly on the shortlist in places. It’s offset by the scenery, which is dry, desolate and intense. We wind up and down steep hillocks. The place is remote and underpopulated. We drive for three hours but see only a couple of villages, and those small and huddled near scant water sources.
I’m told the country is as green as people have seen it in many years. I’ve spent lots of time in arid regions, so I know what they’re talking about, and I believe it. Drought’s familiar. That said, to consider what we’re looking at as ‘lush’ is a stretch. Pretty much the only thing growing are flat-topped thorn-trees, their leaves open and lending a spotty green acne to the hillsides. Near the few villages we pass are some cultivated fields, growth present but scatty. The only trees of substance congregate along wadi beds. We see tortoises and camels. The sky is white with heat-haze.
The track winds its way through a narrow canyon, barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass on what is unmistakably the bed of an intermittent stream that, come the rains, will be a writhing torrent. It’s the sort of setting in which a 1950s western director would have the cavalry ambushed by clifftop Apaches.
We reach the town. On the map it’s a largeish dot with bold letters next to it, one of the major settlements in the region, but away from the abstract it’s a gathering of dwellings spread over a dusty basin where subterranean water presumably gathers in the wet season. If it’s home to a couple of thousand people that’s all there is here. We visit some of the children’s work being done, segregated boys and girls groups providing kids a place to play and interact and receive positive messaging around conflict management and child rights. The girls play volleyball in brightly coloured headscarfs, and when asked what they would like their group to be provided with, they say ‘computers’, so they can learn important life skills. At another compound, we watch boys in uniforms engage in an energetic football match. It may sound very normal and civilized, but it triggers staff to point out that in South-Central Somalia, this would not be possible. Sports are forbidden by al-Shabbab. Last year hand grenades were rolled into a room where men had gathered to watch the FIFA World Cup on television. We acknowledge that this basic right at home has special value for these kids.
We visit the local school. Community outreach has made the enrollment of children- boys and girls- blossom here, with the result that it’s growing overcrowded. Tacked onto the back of one of the concrete blocks is a makeshift shelter made from thorn branches and walled with cardboard from aid deliveries. Desks and benches are jammed inside so tightly that the only way to reach the back is to walk on them. A blackboard, the focal point, is nailed to the outside wall of the school building.
The next day we’re visiting farmers. While Awdal is experiencing a good rainy season, the last few years have been less kind. Crops have been poor, animals have died. We’ve been running recovery work for families affected, helping them improve the productivity, sustainability and resilience of their livelihoods.
The farmers are good-natured and energetic. They’re happy to learn and put into practice what they’ve been taught in terms of new farming techniques, and hungry for more support. I’m amazed by the fluency with which they speak ‘NGO’. It’s kind of interesting, and kind of disturbing. I hope we’re not in the process of creating another NGO-dependent state like Southern Sudan. But I’m impressed by how much hard work they’re willing to put into getting ahead. Oddly, it’s not something I see everywhere I go. When we see the fields themselves, however, it’s sobering. The ground, while not as poor and sandy as I’ve seen in farms in Niger, is still dry and dusty. It’s hard to see how families can grow enough to support them through a year with what they have available to them. We’re there at the start of the rainy season, though, and I’m hoping to see photos of what it looks like in two months’ time.
There’s storm-clouds on the horizon. We pull back onto the main road, then stop. The local staff are having a discussion about whether we should travel to our next field site. It’s forty-five minutes across the plain. Down into a dip, then up to the hills on the far side. The road is a cattle-track. They’re worried about the rains and getting back in time. There are several river-beds to cross between here and Hargeisa this afternoon. But the program manager steps in, and we make a call to procede. Worst case scenario, we spend the night stuck in the trucks.
We judder past a village with a mix of stone cottages and traditional Somali homes- bound bundles of fabric and thatching worked over a wooden frame like an inverted bowl. The ground in the shallow depression is fertile and grass is growing. Cows graze. Up the other side we are back among the rocks. It’s a good crop of rocks this year in Somaliland. Dikdiks, tiny deer no more than eighteen inches high at the shoulder, scamper away among the bushes as we pass by.
The clouds build. We can see columns of rain, dark against the horizon. The light is full of drama, one part intense sunlight, another part glowering cumulus.
In the village, we meet in a school-room. It’s dim under the impending storm. We’re starting our conversation with a women’s income-generating group when the rain arrives. There’s no warning, not even much of a build-up. In thirty seconds, the pounding of the water on the sheet-metal roof is so intense we can’t hear eachother talk unless we shout in one another’s ears. Water dribbles from holes in the ceiling. We laugh. There’s no way we can continue the meeting. We wait, but the rain doesn’t abate. Finally the local staff urge us back to the vehicles. If we don’t get a move-on, we could be cut off.
They pull the car up to the door of the schoolroom, and in the three feet from doorway to car seat the downpour has me liberally soaked.
The desert transforms. The sky is dark and visibility is down to a few hundred yards. What had been scrubland punctuated by rock, thorn-bushes and dry dirt twenty minutes ago is now running with water. It’s been raining for five minutes, but already the little track we followed is axel-deep. Water flows in sheets off the sloping terrain, inches deep everywhere we look, so it’s like being on a lake-bed that’s been tipped on an angle.
It takes us the better part of an hour to get back to the road. The drivers do well. We spend most of that time with the wheels in water from six to eighteen inches deep, occasionally threatening to bog, but here the rocky terrain is on our side. The depression down the middle of the shallow valley is filled with water and we’re lucky to get back across it. When the rain stops and the cover lifts, everywhere gleams a dirty silver. By the time we reach the rivers on the way back to Hargeisa, evidence of heavy rain is present, but we’re able to ford the new streams without too much drama.
I fly out a couple of days later. A short visit, but an interesting one. I’m struck by the energy that the Somalis have put into building a future with meagre resources in a harsh landscape. It’s easily one of the more hostile I’ve travelled.
So too I’m struck by Hargeisa. Home to nearly a million people, it’s a far more developed place than I was expecting. My benchmark for underdevelopment is the provincial towns in Niger or the shanty-esque towns of Southern Sudan in the early 2000s. Hargeisa was more like a tidy version of Nouakchott, with evidence of commercial growth and a hum of activity.
Sitting in the Ambassador Hotel the night before my departure- despite being behind blast walls and buried within a patchwork of streets sealed to vehicle traffic- I muse how remarkably safe Somaliland feels. Perhaps it’s an expectation thing, comparing it to the myth of Somalia, Number One Failed State. But I feel more relaxed here than I have in a range of other locales- Nairobi, Abeche, Port Moresby, and a bunch of others besides.
That feeling of safety evaporates with my departure from the airport. The same airplane with the shattered windshield is waiting for me. I learn that our pilot is a 23-year-old lad from Mexico, and that three weeks ago the aircraft had two failed attempts at take-off, and then, the next day, an emergency landing due to engine-failure as it tried to leave Hargeisa. The only person on the flight more nervous than I is the Hungarian aid worker who tells me these stories, as he was on the plane both times. We watch a squall-line slowly closing on the airstrip, a single patch of blue sky ringed by dark grey hanging stubbornly over the airport itself. I find myself hoping the incoming flight won’t land before the storms get here so we won’t have to fly into them. No such luck. We take off into the turbulent clouds, me hanging on to the arm-rest with white knuckles, and it’s not until we’re above the storm twenty minutes later that my ears stop straining for the sound of an engine dying and I know we’re not about to die.
We touch down in a small village in northern Kenya. It’s a tarmac strip surrounded by round thatch-roofed tukuls and a small administration building. In contrast to stormy Hargeisa, here the afternoon sunlight is strong from a clear blue sky, and it makes the soil achingly red. We’re processed through immigration- they don’t like letting the Somalis get too close to Nairobi in case they’re entering illegally, I guess- and we’re back at Jomo Kenyatta by sundown. We glide through the same smokey haze into Nairobi’s mix of grey, green and red. An hour later I’m winding through rush-hour traffic back to the hotel in the back seat of a hire taxi, quietly scanning for carjackers. Just another day in the office.
About once a fortnight I get a request for emergency funding from one of our field offices. These requests typically relate to events that affect between 50-100,000 people, with minimal deaths (less than 50), and are often either weather related (floods/droughts) or minor earthquakes. In the last week, there have been requests for support to people affected by Cyclone Laila in India, monsoonal flooding north of Colombo in Sri Lanka, and the flooding of a major river system in Somalia. And those are just the ones in my portfolio.
In fact, at any one time there are dozens of emergency responses going on. Right now, for example, we’ve got the follow-on from recent bigger emergencies, such as the earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and China; ongoing protracted responses to conflicts in places like Darfur, southern Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, northern Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Gaza and the Caucasus region of southern Russia; food responses across the Horn of Africa, Western Africa and Southern Africa; emerging slow-onset emergencies such as the food emergency in Niger and the response to the harsh winter in Mongolia; and the long-term follow-up to disasters like Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, the Sichuan Earthquake in China and the Padang Earthquake in Indonesia.
Three times a week our office produces a daily digest of current emergency-related issues relevant to our work as pulled from global media. This morning’s listed 17 different items, a pretty standard number. I also received our monthly early-warning brief for the Asia-Pacific region. There were more than 45 seperate issues listed as building concerns or events in the region.
In short, there’s a lot of emergency traffic going on. Never mind the two or three appeals you get through your letterbox each year. We all heard about the Haiti disaster. But there’s stacks more out there to which humanitarian agencies need to be aware of and, in many cases, want to respond to.
The challenge, though, is how best to do-so. We have limited financial, human and organizational capital to draw on. When big high-profile emergencies such as Haiti occur, we can raise lots of funds from governments and the general public, but it’s impossible to do-so on a weekly basis to respond to all the minor emergencies that come along. We face what’s called ‘donor fatigue’. Repeatedly asking people to give to emergencies taxes their goodwill and their limited financial resources, and ultimately runs the risk of turning them off to giving altogether. In the same way that aid workers often become desensitized to violence and tragedy due to overexposure, we risk numbing the hearts of the general public if we hound them every five minutes for yet another crisis.
What to do then? Well, some agencies are able to raise what we term ‘non-designated’ funding, that is, pockets of money that is not tied to a specific location or emergency event, which we can contribute at our own discretion where most needed. But such funds are, sadly, hard to raise. Most people give because of specific triggers- such as a disaster they’ve seen on the news which they are moved to sympathy by. It’s much harder to encourage people to give ‘on principle’ and trust agencies to make the decision about where that money should be directed. That’s not a criticism, just a reflection on the reality of donorship. To some extent, agencies themselves bear the responsibility to educate the giving public to change these behaviours.
The practical reality is, no agency can respond to all the need out there, and disasters have to be ‘triaged’. We can respond to this one over here, but not that one over there. How do we decide who benefits from support and who is ignored? Ultimately, we need to be using the Humanitarian Imperative to guide this- that is, where are the greatest levels of need? Pragmatically, this is difficult (and costly) to measure empirically. It is more often, which implementing office can put forward a more compelling argument, and which offices have the capacity to do a better job with the money we give them? It can be hard to compare like with like across continents and across emergency types.
State capacity also plays a part here. Aid agencies aren’t lining up to help shrimp fishermen in the Gulf states of the US because, although they face a real economic need due to the human-made disaster of the BP oil spill, there are structures like insurance, recourses such as the court system, and a highly functional and wealthy government with a history and precedent of supporting its people when faced with difficulty (and sure, the US government might have its shortcomings, but when you compare it to the governments of Somalia, or Myanmar, they come out looking pretty good). NGOs mustn’t undermine a state’s sovereign responsibility to help its own people when in need. But where states don’t have the ability or the will to intervene, there is a higher onus on agencies to step in.
Finally, agencies employ long-term development programs with a risk reduction element. Communities living in areas where disasters are commonplace and cyclical (drough and flood cycles in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, or monsoonal storms in south Asia) are provided with tools and training to manage their own risk environment- that is, to identify the threats they face, and put in place measures to reduce those risks. Those might include growing more drought-resistant crops, or building raised cyclone shelters, or moving houses away from slopes prone to landslide, or creating village-level micro-insurance systems, or storing next season’s seed on raised platforms where seasonal flooding won’t ruin them. Anything to make communities more resilient to these regular disasters.
Risk reduction activities take time to implement, and longer to bring about behaviour change in at-risk communities. And, like I’ve mentioned above, we can’t be everywhere, nor can local-level activities mitigate against larger disasters. So our dilemma remains. Myriads of emergencies, and only limited resources. It’s a daily tension in my job. Who do we help, and who do we turn away?
Any thoughts on how to manage this situation from an organizational perspective are most welcome.
1. Maradi Flooding: A small girl uses stepping-stones to cross a flooded street in the central Nigerien city of Maradi. Rainy season storms routinely flood streets and houses, and wash out roads and bridges, in Niger and across the Sahel, displacing hundreds of thousands of people a year in many small events.
2. Dust Storm, Niger: The same city, nine months later. And nearly nine months has passed since the last rains. Winds whipped up by cyclonic systems cause intense dust-storms that damage homes and crops. Drought itself brings economic hardship and food insecurity to millions of households in pockets across Sub-Saharan Africa annually, and to many children, death.
One of my favourite things about road trips is not so much the destination (although these can be great fun), but the journey. And I’m not just talking about the process (although I do love that too- driving new terrain is a favourite past-time, and if the company is good (and here it was spectacular) then the whole thing is a happy medley). I’m talking about the opportunity just to stop willy-nilly and enjoy whatever surprises the landscape has to offer.
Given that we drive a fairly large portion of Tasmania in our six-day circuit, these little surprises were a regular feature of the journey. I’ve already showcased one such little surprise, the church in the field, in Buckland. Here’s a smattering more.
Those who know my photography by now have worked out that I’m an absolute sucker for road shots. Love ‘em. The way they lead the eye, teasingly, across a landscape, or into a vanishing point, giving both a visual sense of motion, and a soulful sense of travelling. They’re reminiscent as subjects of the very feeling they evoke- that of moving from one place to another. And, of course, they’re the archetypal road-trip image. Can’t go wrong.
I snapped the top image of a road snaking down through gentle country somewhere an hour or two north of Hobart, coming down off the Great Western Tiers. The contrast between bright fields and somewhat patchy sky add drama to the view, and the road guides the viewer through the scene.
In a similar vein, on our second day we found ourselves south of Swansea on the way up the east coast, beneath a dark and brooding sky which threatened rain at every turn. The road was largely empty of traffic and the mood was quite desolate in its own way. Tassie was drier than either of us were expecting, and the fields were full of yellow-white grass which was a lovely counterpoint to the dark clouds. I took a little detour into a field we were passing (which required an involved negotiation of a pair of barbed wire fences at the bottom of a little ditch- quite the delicate operation with an expensive DSLR camera and associated lenses…) to frame up this shot of a gum tree in a field, accompanied by a cattle track. The otherwise-dull light was made more interesting by upping the contrast and saturation for a somewhat artificial but (in my humble opinion) engaging image. This next image was snapped feet away in a different direction, and turned into a high-contrast black-and-white photo to emphasize the mood of the gusty wind in the hay.
Sometimes the light just works out, even when you’re not in any particular location, and this can make the simplest of subjects turn quite dramatic. Part way through an afternoon sprint across the north of the island, the blue sky was dripping with saturated colour behind my polarizing filter, transforming quite the ordinary tree in the ordinary field at the roadside into a set of photographs worth indulging in:
Given my exhortation of road photography above, the next two images need no justification, save to point out that they were taken about forty-five minutes outside Launceston in some beautiful countryside, again beneath that un-ignorably blue sky. The clouds were a great balance to break up the texture above.
Meanwhile, this next landscape was taken at near-full zoom standing in almost exactly the same spot as the above two photos (perhaps a little off to one side to avoid passing trucks)- but shot at right-angles out towards the line of hills in the middle distance. The landscape was one I could have explored for far longer had I the time.
And finally, on the same afternoon but a couple of hours and several hundred k’s further on, these two shots of Mt. Roland were begging to be taken. In the first shot in particular I loved the faint rows of cut grass leading the eye up to the mountain. The blue sky against the green fields and that textured rock made this a shot I was really chuffed with.
All up, lots of great touring to be had in Tasmania. Destinations aside, I’m pretty sure I could go back and just drive around taking photos of random aspects. That’s the sort of place Tasmania is. We basically spent six days looking out of the car window going- ‘oh wow, isn’t that beautiful!’ You may have noticed, but this is the nth post I’ve put up now exhorting you to go visit. Taken the hint yet? Get there!
Up soon: Wineglass Bay
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I have to confess I didn’t really start paying much attention to the sky until I started taking photographs. Now I can’t get enough of it.
As a landscape photographer- and even taking portraits- what the sky is doing is paramount to the end result of your photograph. Once upon a time I figured blue skies (ideally ramped with a nice polarizing filter) were the bees knees when it came to taking a nice scenery shot. I’ve since learned that the variety of clouds you can get- especially on a sunny day- is delightful and can add depth, texture and contrast to a photograph, and make the difference between a postcardy-type of holiday snap, and a truly stand-out image you’d like to hang on your wall. Best of all is when cloud formations line up to mirror part of your landscape or draw the eye to your point of focus.
Sometimes, the sky itself can be a fascinating enough subject. The array of cloud formations and styles is quite literally endless and changes every few seconds with the wind and the changing light- it is quite simply impossible to take two photos of the sky that are identical, and for that the potential is infinite.
Other times it’s nice to frame a little something against the sky just to add a dash of interest, as I’ve done with a couple of these shots. It really depends what’s available, and what adds to an image rather than distracting from the cloudforms.
Of course, shooting clouds at sunset is reminiscent of fish and barrels. As light passing through ever-thickening atmosphere is variously refracted into prismatic shades of the visual electromagnetic spectrum, the painting on the sky is invariably magical, and some of my most satisfying outdoors shots have been taken at dawn or dusk.
This is just a little sampler of some of the sky-focused images I’ve taken over the last couple of years. Lots more to come, I assure you.
1. Cumulus clouds build up on a steamy summer’s afternoon outside Pretoria, South Africa. It stormed later.
2. Dawn cloudscape in the South Australian outback, along the Oodnadatta Track.
3. Is that the Cat in the Hat? Wispy formation hangs over Melbourne’s Central Business District.
4. Gumtree sky: A variety of cloudforms drift over Victoria’s Yarra Ranges near Warburton.
5. Skytrain: Clouds hang behind a crossing sign marking the abandoned Old Ghan railway line across South Australia’s outback near the Oodnadatta Track.
6. Suburban dystopia: Clouds blur above a power line, one of zillions in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Shot with a neutral density filter (ND8) to give several seconds’ worth of exposure in broad daylight, hence the apparent motion in the sky.
7 & 8. Stormy monsoonal clouds soak up setting sunrays over the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo.
9. Speckles of fluffy cloud spot a rich blue sky behind a Brisbane apartment tower.
10. The twin towers of Melbourne’s Bolte Bridge are backlit against a sunset cloudscape.
11. A stream of condensed exhaust pours from a factory stack in Melbourne’s industrial westlands near Williamstown.
12. Rich hues dance in the fading light of Sri Lanka’s monsoon season.
(Written 19th May 2009)
I was in Colombo yesterday, the day they overran the LTTE.
In the grand scheme of things, maybe it wasn’t a world event. It made international headlines for a couple of days. The overthrow of a notorious rebel group. The slaughter of a group of men dubbed psychopaths and meglomaniacs, along with several hundred of their most stalwart fighters. More than thirty years of implied and overt conflict, finally brought to a bloody and inauspicious end at the edge of a salty lagoon on a strip of sandy coastline that few people- other than its locals- have ever seen or heard of- let alone know how to pronounce properly. Mired in controversy amidst allegations of human rights abuses on all sides and the alleged slaughter of cilivians.
The following post was written some time ago for friends and family while on deployment in a restricted context.
The day I get my permission to head north we get clearance to get into the camps. They’re controlled by the military- an affront to International Humanitarian Law (IHL)- but this isn’t our country so we work with what we’re given.
The Checkpoint is twenty k’s north of Town. The IDPs (our user-friendly acronym for Internally Displaced People; the word refugee relates to people who flee across an international border and has specific conotations under IHL, while IDPs stay within their country of origin) come through here to get to the camps. The UN reckons up to 190,000 of them are stuck in a tiny strip of coastline a few kilometres long and about sixty klicks from here. They’re in an area known as the Safe Zone (SZ). The SZ is a few hundred metres from the battle lines pitched between the army and the rebels.
Sitting in the SZ, these civilians are getting shelled by either the army, or maybe the rebels, or maybe both. Nobody knows. But we do know that they’re getting shot at if they try and leave the SZ by the Rebels, who are using them as a human shield to stop the army using aerial bombardment and heavy artillery, and that the SZ is one of the greatest misnomers since ‘misnomer’ was first coined. It’s not a pretty picture. One of the worst, actually. Dozens are getting killed each day, hundreds more injured and maimed. The IDPs trickle through in small groups, risking their lives to do so. When they make it to ‘safe’ territory, the government considers them as possible terrorists, so it takes them first to a screening post deep within the military-controlled north where there are no international monitors, before shipping them south to the Checkpoint.
The Checkpoint is the second screening post. The IDPs get trucked here, then dropped off and detained for a while. Maybe a few hours. Maybe a few days. Military intelligence is looking for any rebels it can find hidden in the population. They’re not wrong to be worried. A few weeks ago a female rebel blew herself up at one of these checkpoints, killing nearly a dozen people including three soldiers. However it doesn’t merit locking up an entire subpopulation of the country on the basis of their ethnicity.
The Checkpoint is up in no man’s land. Aid agencies haven’t gotten in here for six months. We’re going this morning for the first time…
It’s still raining in Manila. It’s been raining consistently and lightly for the last eighteen hours, but nothing to get excited about. I imagine the water-levels in some of the flooded areas are going up again, but people are prepared for worse so they should be okay.
As of a couple of hours ago, Typhoon Parma made landfall up north, but if the forecasts and satellite images are to be believed, it’s substantially weakened and really just skipping off the very corner of Luzon, about 400km north of here. It’s now listed as a Category II storm and we’re all still waiting to see what happens, but feeling a lot more hopeful today than we did last night. With luck we’ve dodged this bullet and the system will skip back out into the Pacific and dissapate. Thoughts remain with those up in Aurora district right now, where they’ll be feeling the impact of the winds and rain, but we probably won’t hear much news before tomorrow. Meanwhile, the teams have resumed relief operations here in Manila, still trying to respond to the half-million people who’ve been displaced from their homes from all the flooding last week. Business as usual, as they say.
I realise that my blog has been a bit one-dimensional these past few weeks, a reflection in part of a slow couple of months in the office without much to talk about, and different priorities during my free time that have meant I haven’t spent as much time maintaining the site as I sometimes do. All part of the journey.
I found out yesterday afternoon that tomorrow morning I’ll be deploying to Manila to help with our office’s response to the flooding caused by Cyclone Ketsana that hit over the weekend. I’ll be out there for an initial couple of weeks, and see what happens from there.
As always with our line of work, when it rains, it pours. As well as trouncing Manila, Ketsana went on and as of last night had hit the Vietnamese coastline as a Category I typhoon. We’re still waiting to see the extent of the damage, and have teams on standby to help there as well. Three more tropical storm systems, two already named, are still queued up in the northern Pacific and tracking towards the east Asian coastline. Additionally, last night a shallow magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck Samoa, resulting in a small (5-foot) tsunami that has swamped villages and so far claimed at least 14 lives. And in Guinea, heavy-handed forces allied to a military government that seized power in a coup last year have been violently quelling protests with live rounds, resulting in over 150 deaths and 1,200 injuries. Guinea is in a state of growing instability and observers will be watching closely to see what unfolds over the coming weeks.
All this, of course, in addition to the usual humanitarian fare of forgotten crises that plod on with minimal support or international concern: ongoing warfare in southern Somalia, massive displacement in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur, continued rebuilding amidst the instability of north-west Pakistan, the detention of 250,000 civilians in camps in northern Sri Lanka, simmering tribal warfare in Southern Sudan, not to mention northern Uganda, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and the three thousand people who will die from HIV/AIDS today. To name a few.
I’ll try and keep you updated with thoughts, experiences and images while I’m on the road. Hopefully I won’t face quite so many restrictions this time around.
We spent the first three days of our snowkiting tour in a small hut atop a rounded mountain ridge somewhere in the Crown Ranges vicinity, not far from Snow Farm. I like mountain huts. I like that they give instant access to views and terrain to play on. I like that they are remote and cut off from the complexities of life. I like that you get exposed to all sorts of wild weather conditions that you don’t find down in the valleys. And I like that they cut through all the crap and return you back to what’s important about living: Survival.
To say we stayed in a hut isn’t quite true. We actually stayed in two huts. One was a corrugated tin cylinder, like a can turned on its side, which had beds down either wall, gas-rings and basin at one end, a cast-iron wood stove at the other, and webbing hanging from the ceiling to dry gear in. It was warm, cozy and pretty comfortable. The other was a glorified aluminium shed with three bunks, no heater, and no facilities. There was already a group in the first hut, so we got the second. When we moved in, the door hadn’t been closed properly, and wind-blown snow had caked one interior wall of the place and had to be swept off the floor. When we got up the next morning after spending a night in the place, the snow was still caked over the wall.
Hut life revolves around staying warm, dry, fed and watered. Basic tenets of survival. When we’re working in refugee camps we’re looking at pretty much the same stuff. Shelter, water, food. The huts themselves should provide the shelter. There’s nothing quite like being esconced in your sleeping-bag, listening to a raging windstorm rock the mountain outside. I love it.
Warmth is a bilateral job. If there’s a fire in the hut, then a steady provision of wood (or sometimes, gas cylinders) will do the trick. It’s also up to you to bring the right gear. A good warm sleeping bag. A down jacket. Some good layers. Some hut booties. It’s also a good idea to keep at least one set of clothing dry and for hut use, because there are few things more demoralizing than sitting in a mountain hut, wet and cold and unable to warm up.
Food you pack up with you. You can go from the very basic (dehydrated rations and muesli bars) right through to the gourmet (I once saw a group in a hut preparing sushi rolls), and it depends on what facilities are available and how hard you want to work for it. Water is a more basic mechanism, but luckily in the mountains in winter there’s usually lots of it around. You just have to melt it first. So we keep pots atop the stove, slowly cooking away, and every half hour head out and top them back up with snow we shovel from designated ‘clean’ spots outside.
The other necessity is the toilet, of course. This tends to be the least appealing part of any outdoors trip, never a truer statement than in the mountains in winter. In this case, the toilet was in a standalone stall sheltered behind the huts, caked in snow and ice on the inside, which presented some comfort challenges. Not the worst I have had to use. That award goes to the dunny in the Arrowsmith Ranges behind Christchurch. As well as being a hundred yards away from the hut on its own- unsheltered and a miserable trudge through deep snow in a nighttime blizzard- there was a gap underneath the door through which wind whistled, depositing granular snow into your lap as you were taking care of business. A thoroughly unpleasant experience.
In a perfect world, hut life takes place at the beginning and end of a day. You spend most of the day playing in the mountains, only to return in the evening. Of course, as any mountain traveller knows, the mountains are rarely perfect, and any trip involves down-time when the outdoors simply isn’t a welcoming place. During the trip to the Arrowsmiths, for example, we spent the better part of five days sitting in our cramped mountainside shed, listening to the wind howl as snow flew horizontally past the window, and making the terrain far too dangerous and avalanche-prone for travel. On this trip we were far luckier, and while we had a few hours each day in the hut waiting for the wind to pick up or visibility to rise, we managed to find several hours a day when the wind was just right to get out and do some kiting.
Not that we didn’t get our fair share of feral weather. Most of it came through in the evenings, when howling gale-force winds whipped over the top of our rise, obscuring the ground with blowing snow and ice grains like a sand-blaster. Blizzard-like snow-storms kept us hutbound one morning while wet snow plastered the side of the buildings and we braced ourselves each time we had to step outside to top up the water pots or use the toilet. Eerily serene whiteouts wrapped around the mountains like thick scarves, dulling sound and making faint light scatter until all the texture in the snow vanished, making safe navigation impossible. During those times, we lounged around on bunks, lost in our own thoughts, listening to music, reading books, or making idle chatter, while checking on the weather every few minutes to see if it was changing. It sounds boring, but actually it’s a very simple way to exist, and if you’re prepared for it, it’s really very relaxing.
The weather signalled when it was time to leave, as well. Shifting wind patterns suggested we might be better off on another mountain range, so we prepared to head out on the fourth day. There was no kiting to be had, as the day started with a flat calm and soft, textureless light after a night of snow. The guide and I decided to skin out along a cross-country ski trail while the rest of the group waited to see if the wind would pick up. For the first hour or so we crossed the undulating landscape, trying not to lose the path where the wind and snow had covered old tracks. It’s good honest work that breaks a sweat, and I was down to rolled-up sleeves and bare arms, when we paused for a break and a few small flakes of snow started to drift from the sky. The wind gusted, a chill settled, and all of a sudden, the weather had changed. Within three or four minutes we were bracing ourselves against driving snow and powerful blasting wind. It wasn’t a big problem- we rugged up and slogged on- but it was a reminder of just how fierce the mountains can be- even in relatively safe, low terrain. I love it. Wouldn’t hang out anywhere else.