The Camino de Santiago (also commonly known as ’The Way of St James’, or ‘El Camino’ in Spanish) is the name given to the pilgrimage routes that start all over Europe, but all lead to the same destination: the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (Northwest Spain).
Since moving to Spain in 2011, I had heard many people talking about doing ‘El Camino’, and each of them saying how incredible the experience is (life changing for many). For the past few years, it has been on my ‘to do’ list, and this August, I decided to combine three of my passions (travel, cycling and photography) and see what all the fuss is about!
The first choice I had to make (although it wasn’t really much of a difficult one) was whether I should walk, or cycle. As a keen cyclist, the choice was simple; I would do a cycle tour. By cycling, it also meant that I could see much more of the coast in a shorter time, and also easily take detours if I wanted to explore the area.
The second choice that I had to make was which camino to do. It was a toss up between the most popular, but easier and better facilitated route; the Camino Frances, or the more difficult and less crowded Camino del Norte. I decided to do the ‘Camino del Norte’. This is the route which follows the northern coast on Spain. I chose to do this route as I had heard it is the most beautiful but also one of the most difficult routes due to all of the mountains! I decided to start in the beautiful coastal town of Castro Urdiales (50km west of Bilbao), and had approx 17 days to cycle the 780km to Santiago de Compostela.
The third choice that I had to make was where I would stay. Typically walkers (commonly known as Pilgrims during the camino) stay in Albergues (which is like a simple hostel, solely for pilgrims). However, cyclists get the last priority of beds in Albergues (walkers first / those on horses – yes, horses – second / cyclists third). As I had no guarantee of a bed, I decided to bring a tent and camp where possible.
There seem to be as many reasons for doing the camino, as there are pilgrims. I met people from all walks of life, including entire families, married couples, adventurers, grandparents and even one guy who had walked out of his front door – in the Netherlands – 11 months ago, and is still walking now!
At the start of my camino, I overheard people saying things like “The Way gives you what you need”. I rolled my eyes and blew this off as some hippy thing, but after 17 days of cycling, I agreed with this.
I think that the nature of any repetitive action (in this case ‘wake up/eat/cycle/sleep/repeat’), gives you a lot of – almost meditative – headspace, and can teach you all sorts of things about yourself. I had a lot of time to ponder on things (I was, after all, cycling by myself for on average 5 – 8 hours a day).
I also feel that the challenges taught me a lot about myself, and man, there were challenges! It was way more difficult than I could imagine. Some days I would battle a constant uphill mountain for more than 2 hours without escape. On average, I was ascending and descending between 800 – 1000 metres of altitude a day. And when it’s 32 degrees, and your loaded bike weights 30kgs, you feel every meter.
Before starting, I expected to have many highs, and many lows (such is the beauty and the curse of solo travel), and the camino gave me both of these. I had extreme highs after making it through hours of rainy mountains to be rewarded with parted clouds over the most breathtaking views. And I had extreme lows when I questioned my reasons for this ‘stupid idea’ and was 90% sure that I was going to quit and just hang out on a beach for the remainder of my trip.
Each persons experience of the Camino is unique and I feel that if you listen, you can learn a lot about yourself during this journey.
Why I chose the X100s
I’m not sure if other photographers are like me, but I spend so much time in a constant debate over which camera equipment to bring before any trip.
Since selling my Canon gear 3 years ago and slowly building a collection of Fuji (X100s / X-T1 / X-T10 / XF16mm / XF35mm / XF56mm) I was fortunate enough to have the choice of what to bring for this trip.
I had narrowed it down to the X100s, or the X-T10 + XF16 and XF35 lenses. After changing my mind on a near daily basis, I eventually decided to simplify EVERYTHING on this trip, therefore I would only bring my X100s. I had previously spent 3 months backpacking around India with this camera and think it’s an incredible travel camera.
My reasons for bringing just the X100s was that I wanted simplicity. This was very much my philosophy behind the entire trip – to get away from every day life of choices and go back to basics (this was also the basis for my terrible decision of bringing only 2 pairs of socks for a 17 day cycle trip). I was clear that this was not a photography trip; it was all about the experience of the camino, and the X100s was always at hand to document it.
And if I had to choose only one reason why this is still my favourite travel camera, it’s because it doesn’t interrupt your experiences; but instead is there to complement them. Photography has taught me how to see, and when a camera fits in so seamlessly with your life, it can help deepen your appreciation of that moment.
The Basque Country is an area spanning both Spain and France on the Atlantic coast.
In the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit this unique Spanish region (what most people are referring to when they talk about the Basque Country) several times and have been able to learn a little about the culture, traditions and food; all of which are extremely rich.
On my last visit, I was able to join in the yearly celebration of ‘San Pedro’ (or ‘San Pedroko Jaiak’ in Basque). This is celebrated all over Spain, but this festival is especially important to the village of Boroa. Boroa is made up of 15th Century farmhouses, rolling hills of farmland and dense forests, but also has a pioneering industrial centre. Interestingly, Boroa has it’s own Michelin starred restaurant.
The Basque Country is a place with many rich, rural traditions (many dating back centuries), and they celebrate their heritage by keeping these traditions alive during special events throughout the year.
The climax of the Boroa’s San Pedroko Jaiak celebration is a traditional rural sport named ‘Idi Probak’ (which can be loosely translated to ‘Oxen Tests’) and takes place in Boroa’s village centre.
There are a few variations of this game (depending on the region in which it is held) but I will briefly describe the one which I saw.
The game involves two oxen dragging a rock (in this case, a 1800kg concrete slab) along the length of a cobbled track (named ‘proba toki’ – the length of this is typically from 22m – 28m). The oxen are guided by an ox-herder and a goader, whose job it is to steer both the oxen, and the rock along the track. They have 30 minutes to do as many lengths as possible, dragging the 1800 kgs behind them. The spectators bet on how many lengths the Oxen can carry the weight in 30 mins.
I heard that in the past, it wasn’t uncommon for the competitors to bet their harvest, their houses and even their land during this event!
The oxen are trained throughout the year in preparation of this competition, and are regularly taken for long walks in the hills and mountains as well as trained by dragging rocks.
During the evening of the event, the locals (and also those from neighbouring villages) come to watch the spectacle, socialise and end the night with traditional music and dancing.
The Basque country is a very unique place, full of natural and untamed beauty. The people are proud, the food is incredible and the landscapes are stunning.
By Danny Fernandez
During the first half of 2014, I decided to pack my bags, say goodbye to what I knew as ‘life’ and spend 3 months traveling around Northern India. This blog is to share my journey with you. All my images were shot on the FUJIFILM X100S and processed in Lightroom.
Varanasi, or ‘the holy city of India‘ sits on the banks of the river Ganges, in Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi (or Banaras) is known for being the most spiritual part of India, and this is reflected by the amount of devotees attending various religious ceremonies every day. Some Hindus believe that death at Varanasi brings salvation. It became my home for 6 weeks, and this is my experience of it.
My entire trip was somewhat based around a 6 week stay volunteering in Varanasi. Allow me to backtrack for a moment and explain:
A year before arriving in India I was going through a bit of a rough time, and decided that I needed something to focus on; something new, exciting and adventurous. It had been 5 years since I had last strapped on my backpack and been for a ‘big trip’. As I had always wanted to visit India, and always wanted to volunteer, I began googling ‘volunteering in India’. After getting over the shock of the extortionate price asked by many charities to volunteer, I added in the keyword ‘Free’ to my Google search. After reading through a few posts, I found an article titled ‘top 1o places to volunteer for free, in India’ (or something along those lines). At last I found a company called Fairmail. In a nutshell, Fairmail works with children from disadvantaged backgrounds, trains them in photography, encourages them to explore their creativity and take photos which are in turn made into greeting cards and sold worldwide. The children receive a percentage of the sales, which pays for their education, housing, medical etc.
I applied to become a volunteer there, and joined the 12 month waiting list.
Fast forward 12 months and I step off an 18 hr train journey tired and hungry (I had forgotten to bring snacks so had bought some spicy bombay mix which served me as lunch, dinner and breakfast).
I was met by Dhiraj, a former student and one of the managers of Fairmail Varanasi. As we were driving to my guesthouse, the first thing which hit me was the apparent lack of any kind of road rules. I had felt the same way when I first arrived in Delhi, but this was next level when it came to driving. The roads were a mess of rickshaws, excrement, bikes, potholes and goats.
It took quite a few days to adapt to the pace of Varanasi. I remember constantly being on edge as I walked around during the first few days, as at any one time you could: Get charged by a cow/get run down by a car, motorbike or rickshaw. This was mixed with the constant loud noise of the traffic, the ceaseless bombardment of flies, and the heat (which reached a scorching 47°C while I was there. Let that settle in for a moment. Forty seven degrees). Varanasi is not the place to go and relax.
I’m aware that I may be sounding negative, but for all the stresses and difficulties faced, there were many moments of beauty.
The city sits on the banks of the ‘holy river’ – the Ganga. Each morning devotees awake early to bathe in the river and each night, Aarti is performed, where priests perform music while burning incense in front of the eyes of hundreds of followers. It is truly a beautiful sight.
The first 3 weeks of my stay were spent in a guest house in Assi Ghat (Ghats are essentially temples, which line the Ganges river). During my last 3 weeks, I decided to move into the Fairmail office, in Nagwa (a village to the south of the Ghats). My experience here was great, as it allowed me to glimpse into the lives of those living in this area. As I was living in the office, I was also able to spend much more time with my students of Fairmail.
My experience volunteering at Fairmail was also excellent. Alongside other volunteers, we taught the students lots of useful tips for taking better photos. One thing which I contributed was the use of flash photography in their work.
The locals rightfully say “Full power, 24 hours”. Truer words have never been spoken.
I highly recommend a visit to Varanasi for anyone visiting India. Be prepared for a total bombardment of all your senses, but once you adapt to the pace of life, you might learn to love it.
The overall highlight (sorry if this is cheating) was the nature itself. The country is very varied in what it has to offer, and the scenery changes dramatically. You could start the day in rolling green hills, cross the icy snout of a glacier and pass moss covered lava fields in the space of a few hours. There are so many waterfalls, ranging from mighty to tiny. At one moment my girlfriend and I counted 25 waterfalls on the mountain facing us. I would consider it a good day if I saw just one waterfall, but on some days we probably saw more than 100.
I kinda of fell in love with the Icelandic horses. They are such beautiful creatures. They all seem to be very tame and friendly. At almost every chance, I would stop the car to get photos of them. I was desperate to get beautiful backlit photos during the golden hour, but unfortunately, that opportunity never arose.
There is no more sagacious animal than the Icelandic horse. He is stopped by neither snow, nor storm, nor impassable roads, nor rocks, glaciers, or anything. He is courageous, sober, and surefooted. He never makes a false step, never shies. If there is a river or fjord to cross (and we shall meet with many) you will see him plunge in at once, just as if he were amphibious, and gain the opposite bank.
— Jules Verne, A Journey to the Center of the Earth
Due to the geothermal activity, there are many natural hot springs and pools. We visited Seljavallalaug (one of the oldest outdoor pools in Iceland, built is 1923), which was spectacular. The pool is set in a picturesque valley next to a river. It takes a short trek to arrive there, but it is definitely worth visiting. Prepare to bathe in algae filled water as the pool is cleaned just once each summer.
On the second night of the trip, we were fortunate enough to witness the northern lights in Vik. This was an incredible experience. As I had only seen photos/time lapses of northern lights, I was surprised at how they move and dance across the sky. At times they were like the final whisps of a flame, in an attempt to stay alive, at other times they appeared to explode in the sky, spreading in all directions. The last scene of the spectacle looked like ten people flashing torches on the clouds, illuminating them as if the gods were having a party.
Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfallls in Iceland (being 25m wide and 60m tall). We visited early in the morning and there was a rainbow fixed at the base of the waterfall. There is a walk which you can do to the top, which is well worth it. However, I thought the most impressive views were from the base.
About 9km from Skógafoss is a wreckage of an US Navy airplane which crashed in November 1973 (fortunately no one died). The remains of the plane can be found on Sólheimasandur black sand beach. Arriving to the location was a little difficult (without a 4×4) and we had to walk a few kms across a barren landscape to get there. We were blessed with sunny weather and really enjoyed exploring the wreckage (you can go inside it, which is a little eerie).
Jökulsárlón is a glacial lake where huge chunks of ice break off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and enter the Atlantic ocean. This place was phenomenal. We arrived just before sunset, and watched the sky turn red (contrasting the deep blues of the ice) as a thick mist rolled over the glacier and onto the lake. There were seals swimming in the water.
A short walk from Jökulsárlón is an area known as ‘Icy Beach’, which is where the lake actually meets the Atlantic. The lake and the ocean push huge lumps of ice around and many of them get washed up on the black volcanic sand. We spent a night and the following morning here and the icy sculptures are forever changing shape and being replaced.
I love the Eastern Fjords and we spent 2 days driving along them. The fjords are so vast, beautiful and peaceful. I think these were extra special to me as I had never seen a Fjord before. There is one town called Seyðisfjörður (population 665) which I particularly loved. It seems to have a strong artistic community there, with some galleries, public sculptures and beautiful walks. It’s the kind of place that makes me want to rent my flat out and spend a summer there.
We went whale watching in Húsavík, an extremely pretty fishing town. There are many species of whales and dolphin which visit the bay, and we were fortunate enough to have a humpback whale swimming around and under our boat for around 15 minutes. It was the closest I’ve ever been to a whale and was a very memorable experience (freezing cold though!).
Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest urban area as is located in the North of the island. When we drove into the city we were taken aback by seeing so many cars and people. We had come from days of driving through almost unpopulated landscapes and passing perhaps 10/20 people a day, to a city with traffic (albeit not much).
Our trip began and ended in Reykjavik. We spent out first and final 4 days there. Reykjavik is a very nice city, and we particularly enjoyed the many cute cafes. We didn’t experience the nightlife which is it renowned for, but heard it’s very good. I was really impressed by Harpa, a beautiful mirrored concert hall, and Hallgrimskirkja, a modernistic cathedral in centre of the city. We also enjoyed walking along the old fishing harbour and exploring the beautiful botanical gardens (with a nice little cafe in the middle of the gardens).
Other general observations.
The country is extremely sparsely populated. According to Wiki ‘it has a population of 329,100 and an area of 103,000 km2 (40,000 sq mi), making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe.’ Bearing in mind that more than two-thirds of the population live in Reykjavik, when you leave the capital city, it’s gets very, very lonely.
I got the impression that nature seems to be the highest priority. It appears as if no river were diverted, or mountainside cut into, in order to accommodate humans. There seems to be a harmonious balance of humans living alongside the beautiful virgin nature of the country.
Being a witness to the untouched landscapes of Iceland was a unique experience: being able to see what the world may once have been like, before humans came and messed things up.
Iceland seems to be a good model for other countries:
‘Consistently rated the most peaceable of all countries in the world by the Global Peace Index, Iceland has reduced its military expenditure to zero, has no armed forces, and has reduced the inequality gap between rich and poor.’ -Scilla Elworthy
The Icelandic people are very jolly and most of their surnames end in ‘son’.
The names of places are mostly unpronounceable.“Eyjafjallajökull”. ‘Nuff said.
There are sheep everywhere (there are many more sheep than people). They often run across the road so you have to be very careful as you drive.
No one uses cash. In fact I only saw cash twice in 16 days. You can pay for everything by card.
Because of the lack of people, it was great to get out of the car and observe the silence.
Driving along, you can see many huge boulders that have fallen down the sides of mountains. These things can be huge – easily large enough to smash through a house or destroy a car.
Everything is very expensive (at least compared to Barcelona, where I live).
They eat all parts of animals (the least appetising being boiled sheep’s head and ram’s testicles). In Iceland, I was happy to be a vegetarian.
They have their own type of yoghurt (but it’s not actually a yoghurt) called Skyr, and it’s delicious.
There were many more obese people that I expected (which could be explained by their love of hotdogs and coca-cola). I didn’t see any vikings.
They seem to like good coffee and have many cute cafes with good cakes (at least in the cities).
On the way back from Iceland we had to stop over for a few hours in Oslo. Flying over Norway made me want to visit! The older I get, the more I realise my love for nature (perhaps as I’ve always lived in cities). I love forests and lakes and Norway seems to be full of them. I definitely want to experience the northern lights again, and they can be seen there.
Reflections on the trip.
I couldn’t give a higher recommendation than to visit Iceland, and think everyone should see it in their lives. It is unlike anywhere I have ever seen, and the beauty of the place is breathtaking. We were extremely lucky with the weather (it was sunny most days of our trip) and this made a huge difference to our experience. I would recommend visiting in the summer, but I imagine it would be equally as beautiful (but in a different way) during the winter (plus you would see the northern lights in the winter). It is an expensive trip, but it’s one which I will never, ever forget.
To see more images from Danny’s trip to Iceland, please click here.
I could not help observing with interest the mineralogical curiosities which lay about me as in a vast museum, and I constructed for myself a complete geological account of Iceland, [a] most curious island.
— Jules Verne, A Journey to the Center of the Earth
Iceland; a place which I had never considered visiting before, became the destination of my most recent, and most beautiful venture.
The reason I had never considered visiting Iceland was due to a lack of knowledge of this magnificent country. The name ‘Iceland’ conjured images of Björk, vikings and ash clouds. However, around 1 year before the trip, my girlfriend (who had been to Iceland 6 years ago) suggested that we visit. As I began looking at google images of Iceland, I soon realised that there would definitely be much more to see than Björk, vikings, and volcanoes (I acknowledged that the likelihood of seeing the first two were slim.) I reacted to the image search by quietly saying colourful profanities under my breath. It was at that point that my mind was made up, and soon after our flights had been booked.
Our ideas for exploring the island changed throughout the year leading up to our departure. Limited to time (15 days) and budget, we quickly decided that we wanted to explore at our own pace and freedom, so any type of tour was out of the question. Our original plan was to cycle and camp around the island (thank god we changed our minds. It would have been an incredible, but incredibly challenging experience.) We then decided that a car+tent combination would be better, but after hearing stories of gale-force, tent-destroying winds, plus the expectation of a lot of rain, we finally decided to rent a camper van. For our needs, the camper van (from KuKu Campers) was perfect; giving us our own freedom and shelter, and being able to wake up and travel at a moments notice. Our camper was modest (more like a builders van with a mattress in the back) but it did the job perfectly!
In preparation for this trip, I had decided to prioritise our own travel experiences above those of photography. This wasn’t, after all, a dedicated photography tour of Iceland, but instead (probably) a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I like to remember special moments as myself being in the moment, and not just being a witness to the moment through a viewfinder. Also, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a landscape photographer, and there is no way I could compete with the thousands of awe inspiring images of Iceland, so once I had taken the pressure off myself of trying to get the best images of Iceland, I was left to enjoy the journey for what is was; an exceptionally breathtaking one.
That being said, I did try to plan as much as I could, and some resources which I found invaluable were: The lonely planet (my ‘go to’ for guide books), an ebook called ‘Photo guide to Iceland’ by Hawk and Finn (http://www.icelandontheweb.com/articles-on-iceland/travel-info/photo-guide-to-iceland) and The Photographers Ephemeris (a website and app which allows you to view the sunrise/sunset time and direction from any point in the world. I bought the app so that I could use it on my iPad without internet connection.)
I spent a long time (as always) deliberating what camera equipment to bring. Having a van meant that I didn’t have too worry (as much as normal) about travelling lightly. I wanted to have as much versatility as possible. I decided to bring:
X-T1 + grip.
XF55-140. (the zooms were generously on loan from the friendly guys at Fuji Spain).
X100S (I kind of saw the X100s as my ‘personal documentary’ camera while the X-T1 was the workhorse. It would also serve as a backup if I dropped the X-T1 in a volcano).
Haida 10 stop ND filter (plus step up rings so I could use it on all lenses).
Manfrotto BeFree tripod.
A remote timer (for exposures longer than 30 seconds).
A bunch of batteries (along with car charger).
And my MacBook Pro/Hard drive (so I could add photos to Lightroom/Backup on the road).
All of this was packed inside a Billingham Hadley Pro bag (which holds all the essentials plus fits on as cabin baggage on the plane).
Other important items included a Moka pot with damn good coffee, a notepad, and a miniature dancing hula girl. All the essentials.
I’m a road trip newbie (Iceland being my second; my first was in New Zealand several years ago), but picking up our van instantly reminded me of the huge sense of freedom that comes with road tripping. The van was to become our carriage, our kitchen, our restaurant, and our penthouse for the next 11 days.
With a fully loaded iPad and tank of petrol, we hit the road with an electrical level of excitement. The industrial area surrounding the car pickup location quickly opened up into a wide expanse of green mountains. I couldn’t stop smiling at the landscapes and was amazed at how ‘big, open and beautiful’ everything was. My girlfriend looked at me, and with a soft laugh said “This is just the tip of the iceberg”. And she was certainly right, as what we saw during those first 30 minutes (although incredible) paled in comparison to what we would see during the following weeks.
Doing a road trip in Iceland is very easy, as there is one ‘ring road’ that goes around the circumference of the island. The recommended time to do the ring road was about 7 – 10 days. We had 11 to do the ring road so were sweet. This also gave us time to deviate from the ring road and explore as much as we could. Our first decision was in which direction to drive. We decided to drive anti-clockwise as by the time we were on driving the northern stretch, there would be a higher chance of seeing the northern lights (a lifelong wish of ours). On average, I would say we spent between 3 – 6 hours a day driving/stopping to take photos.
If you’re thinking of doing a trip around Iceland, I would strongly recommend a camper van (if on a budget), or renting a 4×4 and staying in accommodation (if you don’t mind splashing out). Having a 4×4 would have been a big advantage for taking photographs as you are able access many places which you are unable to in a van. But saying that, the ring road (accessible by all vehicles) leads you to an uncountable number of stunning places.
This was our route:
Reflecting on the trip, it is very difficult to put the experience into words. I hope that my photos can somewhat evoke the sense of natural beauty and magnificence in you (the reader) that Iceland did on me. I will do my best to share some experiences.
TO BE CONTINUED..
Check out part two where Danny takes you right into the heart of Iceland and shows what it really has to offer..
At some point during 2013 it dawned on me that I hadn’t had an adventure for a number of years. Bored with my job and in the need of a change, I began looking at voluntary positions in India. A year later I boarded a flight to Delhi with high hopes of adventure, new experiences and great photo opportunities. Luckily, all of these wishes were granted.
6 weeks of my time were spent volunteering in a small village called Nagwa, just outside the intense city of Varanasi. My job was to teach young people from the local area how to use cameras. The students of the charity (named ‘Fairmail’) then take photos which are in turn made into greeting cards, and sold throughout the world. The students receive money from sales, which pays for their education/health/housing costs etc.
During my time teaching there, I became good friends with the students. One student had previously mentioned that his brother takes part in Kushti, an ancient tradition of Indian wrestling which still thrives in Varanasi.
He told me that we could go to the the temple where they train to meet and possibly photograph the wrestlers. I was super excited at this prospect as if it happened, it would allow me a glimpse into the mostly unseen world of Kushti wrestling.
We arrived to the temple a little before 7am and were met with some suspicious eyes from the wrestlers (foreigners are not normally allowed into the training grounds, especially those with cameras). My student spoke to the wrestlers while myself and a few other students (each with their cameras) held back. I was nervous and felt out of place, especially as I had brought a small lighting kit with me (which I imagined made the wrestlers think I was shooting for professional/commercial reasons). After a few minutes one of the wrestlers came over and my student introduced us; he told us that it was ok for us to take photos and I was incredibly relieved. I felt like a National Geographic photographer on his first assignment, with feelings of intimidation and self doubt. Was I ready for this? What if I screwed it up?
The training grounds were basic, but very serene. The ring reminded me of a temple, and there was a beautiful tree in the middle of the grounds. The various weights and equipment were made in traditional, and primitive, ways. Examples included solid wooden bats which are swung around your head, and a 50kg circular weight which you wear around your neck.
The training began with the wrestlers entering the ring to pray. I couldn’t understand the words, but the feeling transcended language barriers. As with many other moments in Varanasi, there was a momentary sense of peace. These moments always took me by surprise, as Varanasi is the most chaotic place I have ever experienced. It was refreshing to see religion and tradition still deeply rooted in a land that often idealises the West.
My work began slowly, taking a more documentary style approach, allowing the wrestlers to get used to me being there. I kept a distance and began documenting their training and their gym. After a while (and after I put down my camera and began training with the wrestlers), they welcomed me to come closer to photograph them.
Despite my initial intimidation, the wrestlers were very friendly, and after they had warmed up to the camera, I felt like they began to show off. At times I had different wrestlers asking me to take photos of them as them attempted heavier weights and more difficult exercises. You could tell that they were proud to be continuing the Kushti tradition, and wanted it to be recorded.
There are two things that I think helped me in this situation – firstly, I was a volunteer, working with the local youth, so they knew my intentions were pure. Secondly, I had been growing an awesome Indian style moustache that they all found hilarious (this actually helped me out in many situations during my travel!).
The highlight for me was when the wrestling began. Usually witnessing a fight makes me feel uneasy, but when I watched Kushti, I could appreciate the skill and dedication of their art. Perhaps it was the beauty of the surroundings, or the inner peace that seemed to radiate from the wrestlers, but I sensed absolutely no aggression on a personal level between the wrestlers. They seemed like a band of brothers.
Towards the end of the training when I was taking group shots, they insisted that I was included in the photos. The also insisted that I took my top off so that we were all the same. I felt like they had accepted me; somebody who has lead a completely different, and completely privileged life in comparison to theirs, but at that moment when we shirtless, bare footed and stripped of our normal identity, we were equal.
In total I was lucky enough to spend 2 mornings with the wrestlers, and I felt extremely privileged to have seen this beautiful art form in action.
Upon leaving Varanasi, I regrettably didn’t have time to visit the wrestlers to say good bye, but I left my student with prints which they gave to the wrestlers. Apparently they loved them.
As I took the final few steps and reached the peak of the hill, the Himalayas came into full view for the first time, and left me speechless.
But let’s begin the story several hours earlier.
I had been staying in Dharamkot, in the foothills of the Himalayas, for an incredibly relaxing 2 weeks. My days had been spent walking through beautiful forests, reading in a hammock and eating delicious organic food.
But before leaving Dharamkot, there was one thing left that I had to do; spend a night on Triund Hill (don’t let the name ‘Hill’ fool you, as for me it seemed more like a small mountain, casting a shadow on the village of Dharamkot and standing at 2,875m high).
On the morning of the trek I left my guesthouse and began the ascent up the hill. The beginning of my trip did not go smoothly. There are 3 things in life which I suck at: singing, playing football and following directions. Somehow, I managed to get exceptionally lost – before I had even found the path which takes you up the hill. The problem began when I came to an intersection along the track which I was following. I glanced in both directions as I tried to remember the directions that the lady at my guesthouse had given me, and then took the path leading to the right. I passed through the garden of a house, and asked a young girl if I was walking in the right direction. She said that I was, and gestured to me to continue walking up the side of the hill (which was essentially a pathless mountain covered in thick, and at times impenetrable vegetation). My instincts told me that this couldn’t be the right way, and I debated turning back and starting again, but as I had already been walking uphill for most of an hour I chose to continue up the side of the mountain.
The bush became thicker and thicker and started cutting at my legs, but stubbornly, I refused to turn back. After a long struggle, I eventually crossed a foot-wide, crumbling flint ridge, which then opened into an area of flat ground which I thought offered some hope in leading me to the top of Triund. I carefully paced back and forth through the labyrinth of plains, but I kept facing dead ends; thick wild bushes that required a machete to pass through. After about 20 minutes of trying to find a walkable route, I decided that this had been one big bad idea, and turned around, attempting to retrace the steps that had led me to this next level of lostness. I walked along the ground on which I thought I had trodden, but to my frustration, I was hit by another dead end. I walked back and tried again and faced another dead end. I began to panic as I remembered those basic tips you hear when doing things like walking up a mountain. Things like “tell someone where you’re going”, “make sure you have a phone” or “make sure you are wearing appropriate clothing”. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going (other than the lady at my guesthouse), I didn’t have a phone and was wearing a pair of old beat up Nikes with barely any tread left.
It was one of the first times when I’ve felt truly scared and alone in the wilderness. I thought about how this is how people probably end up dying on mountains, and became annoyed at myself for getting into this situation. I was frustrated, scared and felt defeated. I decided that as soon as I found my way out, I would check into another guesthouse (as I was too embarrassed to return to the guesthouse where I had been staying – as it was supposed to be an easy trek), spend the night in a bed, and then leave Dharamkot the next day without reaching the top of Triund Hill.
I knew that I had to remain calm, and took a few moments to recompose myself and look over the way which I thought I had walked. I tried to logically plan a route back to my starting point and to my relief, I eventually came across the narrow flint path which had led me into the labyrinth. From this point, it was easy to return down the side of the mountain and past the house with the garden.
I finally relaxed and felt an extreme sense of relief. My negativity began to lift as I walked towards familiar territory and came across a path which actually looked walkable. I came to the crossing that had been the origin of my nightmare, and after a few meters saw a spray painted sign reading ‘Triund’, with an arrow next to it. After my brief ordeal of getting lost, I finally felt safe again, and made the decision that I would not return to Dharamkot today, but would trek to the top of Triund Hill.
I soon crossed paths with two American girls who were also walking to the top, and shared the journey with them. The trek to the top was a breeze in comparison to my first attempt. The walk took about 3 hours and took us though some incredible scenery. Hand built wooden Tea shacks were dotted along the route where trekkers could rest and stock up on supplies. Occasionally we would have to squeeze to the side of the path as a drove of donkeys passed, hauling supplies to the top of the mountain.
After a few sweaty but exciting hours, I approached and took the final few steps over the peak of the hill, and as I did, the Himalayas came into full view for the first time, and left me speechless.
I was extremely satisfied with reaching the top, and after walking along the ridge of the hill taking in the beautiful views, I needed to organise my night’s accommodation as well as get something to eat. I entered one of the few huts at the top that supply tents and food to tired and hungry trekkers. As I rested and ate a snack there was a middle aged man sitting opposite me. He was smoking a cigarette and had an incredibly interesting face. His looked different to most of the Indians I had seen until then, with light eyes and thick skin. My X100s was in my hand and after a few minutes, I began taking photos, firstly of the hut and the area, to allow him to get used to the camera. After a few frames, I gestured to him to ask if I could photograph him. He agreed and continued doing what he was doing, and looked lost in his thoughts. I shared my food with him and then left, as I didn’t want to be intrusive.
I hired a tent, found a clear spot on the ridge and set it up. My view overlooked a part of the Himalayan mountain range. I was blown away by the beauty.
The mist that was present as I approached the peak subsided and the golden light of the setting sun began to illuminate the mountain. I became excited as I was basically in landscape heaven and everything I saw looked astonishingly beautiful.
I decided to take advantage of the golden light and explore the length of the ridge. As I passed the other campers and approached the elevated side of the hill, I could hear the bleating of mountain goats in the distance.
I continued walking up the hill and came across the goats. There were lots of them, grazing and playing on the rocks. I enjoyed quite some time taking pics of them. They were very fun and cute to watch and I found their noises very entertaining.
After a few minutes I saw the man from the hut. I now realised that he was tending to the goats, and had taken them to the other side of the ridge to graze. He had made a fire and was drinking chai tea. He had seen me taking photos of the animals and after a while I approached him with a smile. He invited me to sit down and poured me a cup of tea. With few words being spoken we shared each other’s company, and again, he allowed me to take some photos of him. He seemed extremely peaceful.
The sun was going down behind the mountain and I was excited to carry on shooting. I shortly came across another animal herder, this time a man who was shearing some of the goats.
After maybe an hour with the goat herders, I walked back down the hill as dusk approached.
On the horizon the reddest moon that I have ever seen began to rise. I watched in astonishment as it peaked over the mountains and into the sky. I chatted to fellow trekkers about the colour of the moon.
As night fell, small bonfires lit up the hill to keep the trekkers warm. I joined a group of Indian guys around the fire for food and tea, but decided to get an early night as I knew I wanted to be up before sunrise to take photos.
After a pretty bad night of rest (due to a lack of warm clothing) I crawled out of my sleeping bag, unzipped my tent and walked into the fresh mountain air. It was still quite dark as the sun had not yet began to reach over the mountain top. I decided to walk to the far end of the ridge that I hadn’t ventured to the day before. I had my mini tripod with me and began taking photos. In a distant tree I saw a huge eagle, which was another first for me. After about 40 minutes, I heard the familiar bleating sound that I had heard the day before coming from behind me. As I turned around, I saw lots of goats (perhaps more than 100) running and jumping towards me. This instantly made me smile and as they ran past me, I climbed onto a rock so they could pass without knocking me down. The goats raced past playfully.
It was around this time when the sun began to appear over the mountain, bathing Triund Hill with glorious golden light, which also brought a warmth to the brisk mountain air.
I followed the herd of goats and whenever possible, climbed upon a rock to get a better view of the scene. There were different goat herders from the previous day, and I followed them along the length of the ridge, snapping away. As the other trekkers were sleeping, I was grateful to be witnessing this unique moment and felt invigorated to be there.
The walk along the length of the ridge took about 30 minutes, and on my part, it was a process of running ahead, stopping, shooting, and then running ahead again. These leap-frog manoeuvres lasted until we reached the elevated end of the ridge.
I gestured to one of the herders with my camera, and he stopped for a moment to allow me to take his photo.
After reaching the high end of the hill, the herders stopped and allowed their animals to feed. I thanked the herders and returned to the camp feeling extremely grateful and happy with the events that I had just seen.
After some breakfast, I began my descent back down Triund Hill, with extremely high spirits (and an increasingly swollen ankle – which later turned into an infection). My experience on top of the hill was fantastic, and reminded me how nice it is to be surrounded by nature and simplicity. I’m so glad that I didn’t give up on the trek after my bad experience at the start, as Triund Hill proved to be one of the most memorable events of my trip.
Danny Fernandez is a creative photographer living and working in Barcelona. He likes cycling, records and vegetarian food.
To see more of his work, please visit: