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My gecko house-mates: noisy tokays, third eyes and superpowers

My gecko house-mates: noisy tokays, third eyes and superpowers

I have a lodger.  To be more precise I have at least two lodgers. They are tokay geckos. Living where I currently do, in semi-rural southern Thailand, tokay (sometimes spelled tockay) geckos are pretty much everywhere, and they let you know it.  Each evening I hear their calls echoing across the tracks that lead to my house. ‘Tok-kaaay ……tokaaay’ booms in the darkness, sounding more like a demented parrot than a shy lizard.  Among lizards, geckos are well known for being the noisy buggers.

A pair of Tockay geckos watch and wait for the sun to set before leaving the safety of their shelter under a house roof. Phuket, Thailand. © Colin Munro Images

A pair of Tokay geckos, the larger male above, watch and wait for the sun to set before leaving the safety of their shelter under my house roof.

Most reptiles are fairly quiet, maybe the angry hiss if you disturb them, but otherwise you don’t hear them much. Geckos are the loud guys at the party, and they achieve this by having true vocal chords. We’ve known geckos have vocal chords for a long time, since 1839 in fact, when the German physician and anatomist Friedrich Gustav Jakob Henle published the monograph:  Vergleichend-Anatomische Beschreibung des Kehlkopfs: Mit Besonderer Berücksichtigung des Kehlkopfs der Reptilien (Comparative anatomical description of the larynx: With special consideration of the larynx of the reptiles).  For the biologists among you, this is the self-same Henle that the ‘loop of Henle’ within our kidneys is named after.  Although primitive compared to mammals or birds, the larynx, vocal chords and associated structures found in geckos are quite sophisticated compared to other reptiles.  This adds not only volume to their calls, but also allows a wide range of sounds to be made, with specialised warning calls and mating calls.  The loud, two syllable ‘Tok-kay’ bellow from tokays is produced by the male, aimed at attractive females with his authoritative, manly voice and simultaneously deterring male competitors with his .auth … you get the idea.  Where I live I clearly hear ‘Tok-kaay’ when my resident male tokay advertises his presence. But other people here something different. Many people here ‘Gek-koh’; indeed, this vocalisation is the reason behind its scientific name, Gekko gecko.  Now this may be partly that we interpret sounds differently, but there is more to it than that.  Recent studies have shown not only considerable range in sounds emitted by tokays, but that there appears to be significant regional variation (Yu et al., 2011). Simply put, tokay geckos have local accents. So maybe my southerner tokays really do say ‘tok-kay’ while those rough northerners say ‘gek-ko’.  I’m sure there’s a research paper in there for someone.

As geckos go, tokays are big. A full grown male can be 30cm (12 inches) long.  The largest known gecko, Leach’s giant gecko, can grow to about 36cm (14 inches) long, so tokays are not that far behind.  But more than that, they are quite beautiful (which you’d find hard to say about Leach’s giant gecko).  The ones here are light blue-grey and covered in vivid orange-red spots, complete with huge dark green eyes.  Two colour morphs are known; to the north and east of their range tokays have black rather than red spots. Currently only two subspecies have been identified; the common or garden tokay: Gekko gecko gecko, which occurs all the way from India to Southern China (and incidentally includes red and black spotted morphs) and the rather elusive Gekko gecko azhari, described by Mertens in 1955 and known only from Bangladesh.  Once more genetic studies are completed it may be that we find that tokays are really a ‘species complex’ rather than a single species.

Tokays have yet another unusual feature, a rudimentary third eye (known as a pariental eye) on the top of their heads.  Pariental eyes are found in a great many creatures: many reptiles and amphibians and some fish species (but not in birds or mammals). It does not form an image, like the paired visible eyes, but is sensitive to changes in light levels. The pariental eye is essential an outgrowth of the pineal gland, a small endocrine gland deep within the brain.  The pineal gland is especially known for producing melatonin, the hormone, many of you will know, responsible for regulating sleep patterns (and sometimes sold as a supplement to counteract jet-lag or insomnia). The pariental eye, via the pineal gland, is thought to regulate circadian rhythm (day-night sleep cycle) and seasonal rhythms in activity, by reacting to changing light levels.  Although we do not have a pariental eye, we do have a pineal gland, indeed almost all vertebrates do, and it preforms the same functions in us, letting our bodies know when to sleep and when to wake up, as it does in tokays and other reptiles.  The difference appears to be that we get our visual cues to light levels through our paired eyes.  Which then begs the obvious question; so… er geckos, and monitors, and frogs have paired eyes as well; so why do they need to growth a third eye in order to monitor light levels?  It’s a tricky question.  It turns out that maybe the pariental eye isn’t just about providing information on light levels to regulate sleep patterns.  Numerous studies from the mid-1970s on have shown that, in many different lizards, the pariental eye is directly involved in regulating behaviour related to thermoregulation. Lizards are cold-blooded (ectotherms, to use the scientific term). That means they cannot internally regulate their body temperature; they take on the temperature of their environment.  Consequently, in order to keep their body temperature within the range where their muscles will work well and the body’s chemical reactions occur at the correct rate, they must adopt specific behaviour patterns.  Basking in sunlight to warm up, moving to shade to cool down.  Well it turns out that without the information from the pariental eye, lizards don’t do that; their behaviour becomes a little more random.  For tokays it’s a little different. They are nocturnal, so they can’t really move to bask in sunshine to warm up … or move to shade to cool down. In fact, they are known as thigmothermic, which is a fancy way of saying they warm up or cool down by touching warmer or cooler surfaces. An interesting observation is that the two major groups in which pariental ‘third’ eyes are never found are birds and mammals.  Of course the other key feature these two share is that they are warm blooded (endotherms: they regulate their internal temperatures irrespective of external temperate). Recent studies of fossil evidence tend to suggest that, in the predecessors of modern mammals, the pariental eye disappeared around about the same time as warm-bloodedness evolved. (Benoit et al. 2016)   As luck would have it, the disappearance of a third eye is fairly easy to identify in the fossil record as the connecting nerves fibres pass through a small hole at the top of the skull. So it would seem, for reasons still not fully understood, the real need for a third eye is to allow cold-blooded animals to thermoregulate.

Tokay gecko on vertical wall © Colin Munro

With seemingly no effort, a tokay gecko sticks like glue to a vertical vertical wall

I’ve digressed quite a long way for geckos though, so let’s move back to them. Probably the ‘superpower’ that geckos are most famous for is the ability to run up, and cling to, smooth sheer surfaces.  Apart from my tokays, I have many house geckos living, surprise-surprise, in my house.   If you’re going to be picky, these are spiny-tailed house geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus).  They’re mostly pretty unobtrusive fellas. They eat a fair few mosquitoes, so that’s always a good thing, if fact they eat most things smaller than themselves, including juvenile house geckos.

A spiny-tailed house gecko pounces on, and starts to devour, a smaller house gecko that carelessly strayed too close. © Colin Munro

A spiny-tailed house gecko pounces on, and starts to devour, a smaller house gecko that carelessly strayed too close.

But they’re quiet and generally well-behaved lodgers, apart from leaving lots of gecko crap on the floor for me to sweep up every morning.  I mostly see them running across walls, or across my windows chasing prey and squabbling with each other.  They cut an eerie form when caught in the light, on the outside of frosted windows.

A spiny-tailed house gecko waits and watches on the outside of the frosted glass in my kitchen window © Colin Munro

A spiny-tailed house gecko waits and watches on the outside of the frosted glass in my kitchen window

There have been various theories advanced over the years as to how exactly geckos achieve this.  From suction pads to Van der Waals forces (intermolecular forces created by fluctuating polarisations of nearby particles as a consequence of quantum dynamics …. can you tell I’m out of my depth here?).  Each toe is covered in rows of wrinkled skin forming parallel ridges (like they’ve stayed in the bath too long); these in turn are covered in tiny spatula-like bristles (lamellae).  Capillary action (think of two sheets of glass stuck together with a thin film of water between) between these spatula-like surfaces and the walls is believed to part of the answer. Van der Waals forces (description above, I’m not repeating it) is also thought to play a part. However, recent studies suggest that actually the major force is electrostatic, and that is what primarily allows to gecko to cling to impossible surfaces (Izadi, Stewart and Penlidis, 2014).  So currently, our best guess is it’s a combination of things that give the geckos their ‘superpower’. Whether this is the definitive answer, or whether someone will come up with new evidence for a different explanation, time will tell.  One thing we do know is that it is pretty impressive. Researchers William Stewart and Timothy Higham, of University of California, Riverside, found that tokay geckos were in a league of their own here.  In lab experiments where they attached pulley weights to tokays that climbed up an acrylic sheet, they found that it took up to 20 times their bodyweight before they started to slip.  That’s the equivalent of an 80kg ((~180lb) man gripping on to vertical acrylic, with a saloon car strapped to his back.  This is real Marvel superhero territory.  But even more extraordinary still, the researchers found that the grip remained just as strong in dead geckos.  So when I look at geckos on my wall, and they seem to be hanging on with no physical effort whatsoever, well that’s probably true.  So next time you see a tokay gecko looking striking with blue-green skin and bright orange-red spots remember, that’s it’s superhero costume it’s wearing.

All text and photographs © Colin Munro


Benoit, J., Abdala, F., Manger, P.R., and Rubidge, B.S. 2016. The sixth sense in mammalian forerunners: Variability of
the parietal foramen and the evolution of the pineal eye in South African Permo-Triassic eutheriodont therapsids. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 61 (4): 777–789.

Stewart, W.H. and Higham, T.E. 2014. Passively stuck: death does not affect gecko adhesion strength. Biol. Lett. 10:20140701.

X. Yu, Y. Peng, A. Aowphol, L. Ding, S.E. Brauth & Y.-Z. Tang (2011).  Geographic variation in the advertisement calls of Gekko gecko in relation to variations in morphological features: implications for regional population differentiation. Ethology Ecology & Evolution, 23:3, 211-228, DOI: 10.1080/03949370.2011.566581

The important things in life, Ukuleles and Fine Art prints

The important things in life, Ukuleles and Fine Art prints

These are definitely interesting times we are living through. fine art prints for sale

A screenshot from my new gallery of fine art prints for sale

Nurses, doctors, refuse collectors, food delivery drivers, supermarket cashiers and many others are working harder and longer then ever, while most of the rest of us pace the house, flick through facebook or netflix, or stare wistfully out of the window.  And it’s been a real learning curve for me, not least in reminding me who the really essential workers in society are: the nurses, the doctors, the care-workers, the supermarket workers, the bin men. Not, alas, the marine biologists, the expedition ship guides or the photographers.  Which leaves me with rather a lot of time on my hands.  So all those tasks I’ve been putting off for weeks, months, or even years in some cases, well …. now I don’t really have an excuse anymore.  So, after my third cup of coffee, and having checked emails one last time (you just don’t know … so much could have happened in the last four minutes) I finally applied myself to the list in front of me.  Number one was …

1.Learn Thai

Well, currently living in Thailand it kinda makes sense.  Now I hold my hand up and freely admit I have no aptitude for languages whatsoever.  At school I was booted out of French class at the first opportunity.  In latter years I’ve tried to learn Spanish.  It’s a pretty cool language and it’s the main language in so many countries that I like to spend time in.  For around four years now I’ve subscribed to online courses, watched youtube videos and poured over my Spanish phrase book, and still …. still, words fail me after ‘Dos cervezas por favor’.  But, I am currently in Thailand, so a little more Thai than ‘Sawatdi kraap’ might be useful.  So Thai it is.  Fortunately I found this great youtube series of videos ‘Learn Thai – Thai in 3 minutes‘. Each lesson is exactly three minutes long, so even my bird-like attention span can cope.  Three minutes and boom! I’ve ticked numero uno off my list for today.

Seriously! I am not making this shit up.

2. Learn to play the ukulele

This is hard.  I have even less musical ability than I have aptitude with languages. Which is  a great disappointment to me, as I love music.  Throughout my life I have struggled with this dis-ability, convincing myself there had to be at least one instrument that was simple enough the even I could play a tune on it.  Pandering to this delusion, I am now the proud owner of several harmonicas and two ukuleles, none of which I can play.  So with time on my hands and few neighbours to annoy, I have been forcing my stubby fingers to develop muscle memory for simple chords like A, A minor, G7 whilst startling local cats with my attempts to strum (‘startling cats’ what a great name for a band…).

Why is it so damn difficult? There are only four strings.

3. Updating my website and selling some art prints

Okay you knew there had to be a sales pitch in here somewhere, and here it is.  Working at sea much of the year is a fantastic opportunity to see some wonderful, remote places and provides great photo opportunities.   The price I pay is lousy internet.  This is often eye-wateringly expensive satellite internet where speed is measured in single digit kilobytes per second, or brief pit-stops in quirky port cafes (one of my favourites being Spooky Boogies in Lyttleton, New Zealand.  Lyttleton is sort of New Zealand’s land that time forgot, and Spooky Boogies is every bit as quirky as it sounds, great music played on vinyl and a wifi password of ‘F–k you baby’ last time I was there).  But I digress.  Anyway, the end result is that luxuries like updating my website simply don’t happen.  So now, like everyone else, I am sitting at home with mostly working internet and plenty of time on my hands.  So if you check out you will find lots of new images added to my galleries.  There is also an embryonic Basic Photography Course in development, possibly some video (not me playing uke, I hasten to add) but most importantly there is now a fully fledged Prints for Sale Gallery up and running.  For many photographers, the bane of their lives is that images that look great on screen do not necessarily print that well (for reasons relating to differing media, differing screen settings and differences between transmitted and reflected light that I will not bore you with now). So what I have done is poured over thousands of images, selected a little over 20 of my favourite ones, and tweaked each one to ensure it prints really well.  I say 20 something as I am continually adding to the gallery.  Currently, you can buy these prints as traditional canvas wraps on a wooden frame; stretched canvas on wooden frames; flat-mounted canvas on rigid gatorboard; metal prints on aluminium sheet or acrylic mounted on metal.  Most prints are available from 8 x 8 inches (20 x 20 cm) up 30 x 40 inches (76 x 102 cm) some even larger. These prints can be ordered directly from my website. Simply visit the Buy Art Prints Gallery, click on the image you chose, them follow the choices.

An example screenshot from my Art Prints Gallery. The image can be zoomed in for a close check. Purchasing is as simple as clicking the ‘BUY PHOTO’ button.

Selecting ‘BUY PHOTO’ will take you to a side bar menu where you can specify media (canvas wrap, acrylic on metal etc.) and print dimensions

Before completing the purchase, you have the option to adjust the crop of the print, seeing exactly how much will be visible on your chosen media.

I have chosen Bay Photo Labs near Santa Cruz , California, to create and deliver all these prints. Bay Photo Labs have been in operation for over 40 years and have a terrific reputation as a pro photo lab delivering excellent quality.  They are also a Certified Green Business and part of the Monterey Bay Area Green Business Programme, actively working to reduce their impacts on the environment. They ship both throughout the US and internationally.  Depending on interest, I may set up a duplicate gallery offering printing from the UK to facilitate faster shipping to Europe. For the moment, only this gallery offers purchase of large prints.  This is because many of the images I have uploaded in other galleries have not been uploaded as large enough files for good quality large prints.  However, I am working through these files and gradually replacing ones suitable for prints with full size images.  Of course, if you are outside of the USA or Europe, and you would like to purchase a print of any image you see on my website, simply contact me by email using the ‘contact me’ form on my website (make sure you identify the print by description, gallery, title or even a screen grab).  That applies to images that are within my Buy Art Prints Gallery and to ones that are in other galleries. So why not check it out?




Setting Sail: the outrigger canoes of Papua New Guinea

Setting Sail: the outrigger canoes of Papua New Guinea
Setting Sail.  Hoisting the sail on a traditional outrigger sailing canoe (a sailau) Dobu Island, D'Entrecaseaux Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. © Colin Munro Photography

Setting Sail. Hoisting the sail on a traditional outrigger sailing canoe (a sailau) Dobu Island, D’Entrecaseaux Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea

Sailing outrigger canoes, known as sailau in Paupua New Guinea, are still vital for trade, fishing and transportation between islands in Milne bay Province, PNG. The canoes are built locally out of mastwood trees (Calophyllum inophyllum) by expert boatbuilders, then traded. Mastwood (also known as Alexandrian laurel, Indian laurel and beach touringa) is found in coastal regions throughout Australasia and the Indo-Pacific.  As the name suggests it is often used in the construction of boat spars and hulls.

Unlike most sailing vessels (but shared with other Proa outriggers throughout the Pacific) sailau do not tack. Instead they swap ends, the bow becoming the stern (shunting) thus keeping the outrigger permanently to windward.

Sailau, a lug rigged outrigger canoe, or proa, Dobu Island, Milne Bay Province, PNG.

Sailau, a lug rigged outrigger canoe, or proa, Dobu Island, Milne Bay Province, PNG.

Sails are made out of whatever is available: tired old dacron sails traded with passing yachts, patches of plastic sheeting, old tarpaulins, often creating patchwork quilt effect. Sailau, use lug sails (four-cornered sails with the top spar attached across the mast). These sailau have what is known as a balanced lug. These rigs are extremely efficient and have the advantage that they require little standing rigging to support them. They also have the advantage that the shape and tension of the sail is far less important than on a bermudan rig, an important consideration considering the patchwork repairs.

Update 2020/10/18

I’ve recently been going through my images from Papua New Guinea to create a small collection of some of my favourites, and make these available as acrylic facemount prints.  I’ve also been thinking about how I can use this to give something back to the people of PNG, who have unfailingly been so warm and generous.  I’ve decided the best way is to donate part (20%) of the profits of any sales to a charity supporting education, health and environmental issues Papua New Guinea. The charity I’ve chosen is Wantok Support.   They are a small, UK based charity working to support the people of PNG. You can read more about them on their website. If you’d like to check out my acrylic prints of Papua New Guinea, you can see them on my website here:  I produce these prints in the UK, with shipping rates to Europe, The US and Canada.  You can always contact me if you’d like them delivered elsewhere.

Further reading:

Smaalders, M., and Kinch, J., 2003.  Canoes, subsistence, and conservation in Papua New Guinea’s Louisaide Archipelago. SPC Traditional Marine Resource Management and Knowledge Information Bulletin. 15. July 2003.

Photography in the digital age: what’s changed?

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro
A school of Convict Surgeonfish graze a reef promontory, Nuie Island, South Pacific. © Colin Munro Colin Munro Photography

A school of Convict Surgeonfish graze a reef promontory, Nuie Island, South Pacific. Photographing light coloured fish against blue water is one of many situations where you don’t want to use auto settings. Image taken with a Nikon D610 and Nikon 20mm in an Aquatica housing, while free-diving around Nuie Island, October, 2019.

When I was young, both the World and photography was much simpler. The changes that have occurred in the World would take more than a blog to describe, so I’ll stick to those that directly affect photography. Back in the 1980s photography was film, and cameras were electro-mechanical machines – and so fairly simple to understand how they worked.  In fact, I started out in underwater photography before ever seriously using a camera on land, and the camera I started with (a second-hand, mid-1970s vintage Nikonos III) was entirely mechanical, to all intents and purposes a slightly tweaked version of the Calypso-phot designed by the Belgian engineer Jean de Wouters for Jacques Cousteau’s La Spirotechnique  company.  Incredibly simple by modern standards, my Nikonos III had the great advantage that if the camera flooded during a dive, one simply took it apart – a very easy process – washed it with fresh water, left it to dry, and put it back together.  Good luck doing that with any modern camera!  A second advantage of my mechanical Nikonos was that taking pictures underwater wasn’t that easy, especially so in the dark, turbid waters of the Firth of Clyde where I was based at that time. That may be counter-intuitive, but if you actually wanted to make money from taking photographs, then you definitely did not want it to be something that could be done with little or no skill or training.  There was no light meter, so you had to base settings on experience.  Flash lighting ( a necessity in such waters) was manual only, so you needed to know the power of the flash, estimate the total light path distance and set your camera aperture accordingly.  Add to this that a film roll contained only 36 frames, and of course film could not be changed underwater.  Once the 36 frames were used up, that was it. Dive over.  The end result of this was that there were far fewer underwater images around in the early 1980s, and a pretty low percentage of these were actually useable.  Nowadays there are estimated to be around 6 Million active SCUBA divers Worldwide (Diving Equipment and Marketing Association, 2019) and a fair percentage of those are taking underwater photographs.

Many of the changes in underwater photography over the past few decades have been replicated on land. Cameras have changed from being (relatively) simple devices for creating images on film, to hugely sophisticated instruments that convert light to electrical charge and so create and store digital images.  A modern digital SLR will produce images that are sharper and contain far more detail than the best 35mm film images of just a few years ago. They are also created at a far greater rate.    A total of somewhere around 25 thousand million photographs were taken in 1980, a vast number that is true, but compare that with 2017. Around 1.2 Trillion photographs were uploaded in 2017.  Gizmodo estimates that 300 million photographs were uploaded on to Facebook alone in 2019.  This creates two immediate problems for any serious photographer. Firstly, almost all of the millions upon millions of images that are online can be viewed freely, so why should someone pay for your images?  Secondly, even if they want to pay for your images, how on earth do you get people to find them within this staggery vast array of pictures?  These are the key problems facing pretty much all photographers trying to sell images nowadays.

The problems do not end there. Most images are licensed through stock agencies to print companies, newspapers or magazines (e.g. a licence is granted to use the image for a limited period of time or set publication or print run).  Back in the 1980s this could generate a serious income.  But now, not only are there many, many more images to choose from, but the newspapers and magazines no longer make the same profit from advertising as they too have lost out to the online world.  Almost all newspapers nowadays lose money, so they are looking for the cheapest images possible much of the time.  It is not possible to come out with a scientifically robust figure, but from personal experience and talking to lots of friends and colleagues, I estimate that – for similar levels of effort – the income generated from stock image sales is between a 1/10th to 1/20th of 1980s levels.   That does not mean you cannot make money selling images through stock agencies (or directly) but it does mean you will need to work hard at it and are unlikely to make your fortune doing so.

A black and white edit of beach and skyline, One-foot-Island, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Polynesia. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro

A black and white edit of beach and skyline, One-foot-Island, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Polynesia. Monochrome for landscape is very much a personal preference. Generally it works better with high contrast images.  Nikon D610, Nikon 20mm, polarising filter. Aitutaki, October 2019.

One of the great things about modern DSLRs and mirrorless digital cameras is that they are incredibly powerful image-creating machines, with a huge array of setting controls, functions, custom-settings, menus and sub-menus that allow the photographer enormous control over the appearance of the final image.  But the awful thing about modern DSLRs and mirrorless is that they are incredibly powerful image-creating machines, with a huge array of settings and controls ……  so you get the idea.  Picking up a modern DSLR or mirrorless for the first time can be a very daunting experience.  Our cameras have never been better equipped to capture images that are incredibly faithful to real life or to create stunning artistic images, and yet the overwhelming majority are rarely used other than on auto mode. Fortunately, many people are motivated to get to grips with more of the full potential of the high tech piece of very expensive hardware they have paid good money for.  As a consequence many professionals, myself included at times, have made the shift across from solely taking photographs to teaching photography.

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. I prefer longer lenses for people shots.  It makes obtaining a shallow depth of field so much easier, but just as important, it provides some distance, so the subject is more likely to be behaving naturally rather than posing for the camera. Nikon D610 and Nikon 80-400mm 4.5-5.6D lens.

Teaching photography can be a rewarding process.  For one thing their is nothing like teaching any subject to make sure you really understand it yourself. Secondly, this is far from a static field.  The techniques I teach now have changed radically from those I taught  ten years ago, because cameras themselves have changed radically in that time.    Photography is a constant learning and re-learning process.  When digital photography began to supplant film based photography I deeply resented it.  Digital was precise, more automated; photochemical changes in silver halide crystals were not precise.  Film was ….. well, magic.   But the more I learned as a (initially) reluctant convert to digital, the more I appreciated that many of the skills I had learned in the previous 25 years were not redundant but actually quite transferrable and highly useful still in the digital era.  More than that, the limitations of my early mechanical cameras and the photographically challenging environment of the dark waters of Southwest Scotland meant that I was forced to really learn the basic principles of photography and how light behaved.  These basic principles still underpin photography using todays latest digital camera systems.

An Australian Flatback Turtle, Natator depressus, hauls itself up a deserted beach, Adele Island, Kimberley Coast, Northern Australia. © Colin Munro

An Australian Flatback Turtle, Natator depressus, hauls itself up a deserted beach, Adele Island, Kimberley Coast, Northern Australia. A wide-open lens helps isolate the subject from the background. A long lens allows nice tight shots without encroaching close on the subject and possibly disturbing her.  The arrival of a fallback on the beach was completely unexpected, but her slow progress across the sand to above the high water mark where her eggs would be laid allowed plenty of time for multiple shots to be taken.  I like this one because of the eye contact.  Nikon D610, Nikon 80-400 4-5.6D lens.


Despite all the advances, photography still remains the manipulation of light in order to obtain a sharp (mostly) and correctly exposed image on light sensitive media. The control we have in order to achieve that has expanded almost out of all recognition, but the fundamental variables: shutter duration, aperture size, ISO, lens properties and sensor dimensions are still fundamentally unchanged since the days of George Eastman’s Box Brownie developed 120 years ago.

The Grind. Is campaigning for it to stop or condemning it on social media hypocritical?

Recently killed pilot whales at the end of a grind or grindadrap. Torshavn, Streymoy, Faroes.
  • The grind, or grindadrap, is a non-commercial, community based whale and dolphin drive in the Faroe Islands.  It is a bloody, some say barbaric, affair.  Most notable among the groups campaigning for the grind to stop are the organisation Sea Shepherd.  Earlier this month, Sea Shepherd UK wrote to 16 cruise ship companies, asking them to stop visiting the Faroe Islands until the grind stops.
Recently killed pilot whales at the end of a grind or grindadrap. Torshavn,  Streymoy, Faroes.

Recently killed pilot whales at the end of a grind or grindadrap. Torshavn, Streymoy, Faroes, May, 2019.

The grind, or grindadrap, is a non-commercial, community based whale and dolphin drive in the Faroe Islands.  Around 840 pilot whales and white sided dolphins are killed every year.  This is done by local boats driving them in to designated beaches (there are 26 around the Faroe Islands. Grinds occur spontaneously, when pilot whale pods are sighted. It can only be initiated by sightings from land.  The whales are driven by small boats on to the beaches, where local people gather and kill the whales using a specially designed lance that severs the spinal chord.  The meat is not sold, but distributed equally and freely to all households in the Faroes.  It is bloody, some say barbaric, affair.  There are widespread calls in Europe and North America for it to be halted.  Most prominent among the groups opposing the grind is Sea Shepherd, who have an ongoing campaign, Operation Bloody Fjords, to stop or disrupt the grind.

I was in the middle of writing a completely different blog when the topic of the Grind started resurfacing on social media posts.  The post most frequently reposted, and commented upon, that I saw, was one from Sea Shepherd calling upon cruise ships to stop visiting the Faroe Islands until the Grind is stopped.  Published on the Sea Shepherd UK website, this has been shared on Facebook and other social media platforms, as widely reposted and commented upon, including by several friends and work colleagues.  In this, Sea Shepherd UK has written to 16 cruise ship companies (12th August 2019) calling on them postpone visits the Faroe Islands until the hunting of pilot whales and dolphins is stopped.

This is part of a larger campaign by Sea Shepherd UK, known as Operation Bloody Fjords, aimed at halting or disrupting the grind in the Faroes.  This is something I have given a fair bit of thought to and so, at the risk of alienating quite a few people, I decided to write this blog.

So to firstly declare my own interest in this matter. I consider myself a conservationist; for most of my professional career I worked as a freelance marine biologist/environmental consultant. I have a particular interest in the effects of fisheries on the marine environment, having worked for over 20 years collecting data on the effects of benthic mobile fishing gear on seabed marine life and habitats, and working to establish no fishing zones and monitoring their effectiveness.

Secondly, I work – as a self-employed contractor, on small cruise ships and have more than once been to the Faroes on such ships (though this is entirely a personal blog and represents solely my own views).

Thirdly, I have witnessed a grind, in 2018, and have talked to quite a few Faroese about it the grind and their views on the subject.

I should also add I am no fan of Sea Shepherd, or their founder Paul Watson. I consider them overly aggressive and confrontational with little or no science behind any of their activities, largely ineffective in terms of conservation, and that the prime (often sole) beneficiary of their activities are the finances of Sea Shepherd and their media profile.  Sea Shepherd also prominently bills itself as a conservation body, but nowhere in their letter to cruise companies, or on their website campaign information, do they mention conservation.  The most obvious reason for this is that the grind has no real impact on the conservation of pilot whales and their campaign has nothing to do with conservation. But more of that later.

I am genuinely conflicted regarding the grind.  There is no doubt that pilot whales and white-sided dolphins are highly intelligent social animals.   So I absolutely do not like to see them killed.  Reposting and commenting on social media is quick and easy. It requires little effort and, unfortunately, often little thought.  It can however have significant effect if done by a large number of people.  For me, the core questions are proportionality, effectiveness and comparison of the action I am considering condemning with my own actions.  We don’t want to spend our lives endlessly condemning things on social media to little effect, so it is a question of priorities – what is really important and what is not. Equally we should not be hypocritical: condemning things where our own personal deleterious impact is actually greater.  With the Faroese pilot whale and dolphin hunt I believe the key questions are, sustainability and cruelty, so I will attempt to address these before returning to the question asked at the top of this blog.


The number of pilot whales killed annually in the Faroes is around 840 – since detailed records began over 300 years ago, and around 640 per year (2000-2017).  All the science suggests this is a sustainable fishery.  The Central and N.E. Atlantic population of pilot whales is estimated over 750,000 (Buckland et. al, 1989) although figure is now quite old.  A more recent assessment of the Faroese pilot whale hunt (NAMMCO 2013) found that, for the grind to be sustainable, a population (in Faroese waters) of 50-80,000 pilot whales was required.  The current estimation puts the Faroese population at over 100,000.  Unless this is a significant overestimate, then the pilot whale hunt is sustainable, with around 0.1% being killed annually.  The most recent study (Pike, et al, 2019) looking at data between 1987 and 2015, indicates that the pilot whale population in the North East Atlantic is relatively stable during this period, with no long term trend of increasing or decreasing.

This is not something to be considered lightly – few British fisheries, for example, could be considered anything like as sustainable.  It is also one of the best regulated fisheries in the World. Each year every single whale or dolphin killed is recorded, along with location and species.  Very few other fisheries have such accurate records.

If one compares the pilot whales grind to fisheries in the UK (which I am very familiar with) or other developed countries:

1. it does not destroy the seabed habitat and all animals living there – unlike many of our fisheries where one hour of fishing will devastate a vast area of seabed, often for decades;

2. there is normally no bycatch; many other fisheries kill far more non-target than target species, which are simply dumped back into the ocean.


Cruelty is, almost by definition, a highly emotive issue, and not one easily quantified or compared.  However, think about this hypothetical question.

Before being born you are given two choices for your life:

  1. You will be born into captivity. You will be separated from your mother when still very young.  If male, you will be castrated before puberty.  You will never be allowed to live naturally, in a natural environment, forage naturally, eat a natural diet, live in natural family groups, mate and reproduce, care for your offspring.  You will be slaughtered when a few months old. Your natural lifespan would have been 15-20 years.
  2. You will be born in a total natural environment, surrounded by family members.  Your mother will care for you, and as you grow you will play, be protected, and learn from other family members. You will hunt, feed, socialise, reproduce and raise offspring in a family group in totally natural conditions. You may live 45-50 years, all in a completely natural environment.  Each year, there is a one in a thousand chance that you might be killed.

So if you had to choose one, which would you chose? I would be very surprised in anyone chose the first.  I suspect most people would consider the first a truly horrific fate.  Yet that is the fate of around 25 Million pigs – every single week – globally. That’s 1.5 thousand million pigs every year.  Pigs are also highly intelligent, long-lived, social animals. There is no scientific evidence that I am aware of that suggests that pigs are in any way less susceptible to experiencing pain, fear, loss or loneliness that are pilot whales, nor any rational reason why that should be so.  It is frequently said that ‘I can be against keeping farmed animals and against the grind also.  That is perfectly true, but think of the scale.  If you accept that the life of a wild pilot whale is far preferable to the life imposed on most farmed pigs, then can you really argue that campaigning against the ‘cruelty’ imposed on around 640 pilot whales demands equal effort to campaigning against the greater individual cruelty imposed on 1.5 billion pigs?  The differences in scale of suffering are almost unimaginably vast.  Yet it is not the fate of farmed animals that gets the greatest high profile media attention, or the most reposts and comments on social media.  It is the killing of around 640 pilot whales in the Faroe Islands.  If the scale of campaigning was correlated to the scale of the suffering, then we should be reposting, commenting and campaigning over a million times for every single time we repost or campaign against pilot whales being killed in the Faroes.  But of course that does not happen, reality is closer to the converse.

There is another aspect to this.  For most people the Faroes are simply a group of small, remote islands somewhere in the North Atlantic.  To vilify them online, to call for tourists to not go there, costs us nothing.  We make zero personal sacrifice, but it makes us feel good, and righteous (something Sea Shepherd are well aware of). Conversely, giving up all farmed meat, campaigning against the meat farming industry would, for most of us, involve dramatic changes to our lifestyle and significant personal sacrifices.  So instead we take the easy option of targeting something that has no effect on our own lives.

Sea Shepherd

As Sea Shepherd is the organisation driving this campaign, it is worth examining their record and modus operandi.  I make no secret of the fact I am not terribly impressed by the group. A couple of illustrative examples may help explain this. Sea Shepherd was founded by Paul Watson after he was expelled from Greenpeace in 1977 for his ‘aggressive’ approach and distain for Greenpeace’s non-violent methods.  That following year (1978) he gave an interview broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Association (CBC) about the Canadian harp seal cull, claiming the profitability of the campaign was why Greenpeace campaigned against the cull: ‘Well it’s definitely because it’s easier to make money and because it’s easier to make a profit because there are over a thousand animals on the endangered species list, and the harp seal isn’t one of them’ stated Watson in the radio interview. He then added ‘and now we have a dozen people this year from Greenpeace California — I mean they’re coming from the highest standard of living region in North America — they’re traveling to the place with the lowest income per year on this continent telling them not to kill seals because they’re cute but not endangered species.’ A year later his new organisation, Sea Shepherd, began their direct action campaign against the Canadian seal cull, recruiting celebrities like Brigitte Bardot and Pierce Brosnan to pose next to baby seals on the ice for publicity purposes.

More recently (2010) Sea Shepherd hit the news again when their 24m racing trimaran the MY Ady Gil collided with a Japanese whaling support vessel the MV Shonan Maru 2. The bow of the Ady Gil was badly damaged and she sunk the following day.  Both parties blamed the other; the official inquiry found that both were at fault for the collision.  Paul Watson first blamed the Japanese vessel for the collision, then blamed the Ady Gils captain, Peter Bethune, after falling out with him. Sea Shepherd claimed that the Ady Gil sunk the following day as she took on water while being towed.  Peter Bethune subsequently claimed that Paul Watson had ordered him to deliberately scuttle the Ady Gil for publicity purposes, something Watson denied.  The owner of the MY Ady Gil (the millionaire animal rights supporter Ady Gil) then took legal action against Sea Shepherd and Watson under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. He won. The court in New York ruled that Sea Shepherd had indeed intentionally scuttled the vessel for publicity purposes and awarded compensation of half a million dollars.  In the ruling the Arbiter described Watson as ‘“highly evasive, internally contradictory, or at odds with his own prior written statements, and in certain areas simply lacking the basic indicia of genuineness that instinctively inspires confidence and trust.” She ruled that the order to scuttle her by opening the sea cocks came from Paul Watson and that the accounts given on the Whale Wars reality TV show were false and the sinking staged to maximise publicity.  Sea Shepherd tried to keep the court ruling secret from the public, but failed in this.  I described these two events as I think they well encapsulate the personality of Paul Watson and the aims of Sea Shepherd.  I have no doubt that many Sea Shepherd staff and volunteers are well meaning and honest, but the basic philosophy behind the organisation seems to be to generate conflict and drama and to maximise publicity and profits.  There is very little science behind their campaigns and not a great deal of evidence of their long term effectiveness; rather they often antagonise local people and entrench views to resist change.

Sustainability – wider aspects

In we consider the wider aspects of the sustainability argument, the comparison between the grind and meat farming is even more damning. One is totally unsustainable. It destroys huge amounts of the World’s natural resources, and is directly responsible for the extinction, or imminent extinction, of a great many species.  It is a major contributor to climate change and is a major polluter of land and waterways.  It is also one of the greatest threats to the survival of tens of millions of humans around the planet through the large scale use of antibiotics. And that one is not the killing 640 pilot whales each year.  Meat farming is one of the largest causes of deforestation and habitat destruction around the World.  It causes even greater habitat loss through the growing of crops specifically for animal feed.  Habitat loss and fragmentation are probably the biggest causes of species extinction globally.

As far as I know there is no evidence that the grind has any measurable long term environmental impact whatsoever, and the available evidence suggests it is quite sustainable.

Sea Shepherd UK has written to cruise companies asking them to cease visiting the Faroe Island until the grind is ended.  Sea Shepherd identifies itself as a conservation organisation.  It is pretty clear that, while the grind is bloody and upsetting for many to watch, it is not a conservation issue.  As someone involved in the cruise ship industry I am well aware that this is a far from perfect industry.  It does indeed have major environmental issues.  The amount and type of fuel burned by cruise ships is one.  But this is also a heavily regulated industry and one where all involved – especially those in the small ‘expedition ship’ more likely to visit the Faroes – are deeply concerned and very aware of the issues. These are regularly discussed and ways sought to reduce our plastics use, our carbon footprint and our impact on the environment in general.  One of, if not the biggest, impact is flying. You need to get your passengers to and from departure and arrival ports.  This is a problem for all cruise ships not exclusively operating in local waters, and a huge problem for the tourism and travel industry in general.  It is pretty indisputable that climate change is the biggest environmental threat to our planet at the moment.  Currently, civil aviation accounts for around 2.5% of all energy-related CO2 emissions, and 4-5% of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.  However, emissions from air travel grew 40% between 1990 and 2010.  Air travel is predicted to grow at around 4% a year.  Even with improvements in technology and carbon trading (i.e. buying carbon credits from less polluting industries) there is a still a real disconnect between air travels targets for reductions in greenhouse gases required to have a realistic chance of keeping climate change to the 2o C rise target set as part of the IPPC’s Paris Agreement.  In most Western developed countries, flying is the biggest single contributor to our carbon footprint.  The UK’s carbon emissions are now (latest figures 2018) around 5.6 tonnes per person.  But for one return flight (economy class) from London to Perth, Australia releases around 5 tonnes of greenhouse emissions.  So one long haul flight a year can effectively double one’s impact on climate change.  That is a pretty sobering statistic.  So let’s return to Sea Shepherd UK’s call for cruise ship companies to boycott the Faroes.  Were Sea Shepherd really a conservation organisation one might think, when targeting a particular sector, they would look at that sector’s activities and choose the most environmentally damaging and attempt to persuade them to reduce or mitigate the damaging effects of that activity. So if the target industry is the cruise ship industry, then campaigning for a boycott of the Faroe Islands makes zero sense, in terms of conservation.  If, instead, the target is the marine environmental impacts of the Faroese islanders and Government, then targeting the grind makes zero sense in conservation terms.  Now that is not to say that there are that there are no significant conservation issues with Faroese fisheries.  There are; currently, and for some years, both cod and haddock stocks within Faroese waters are severely depleted, with cod stocks at historic lows, largely due to a combination of overfishing, over-capacity and poor regulation.  Now were Sea Shepherd really a marine conservation body, that would be valid issue to campaign on.  It probably would not command the same media attention though.

Sea Shepherd has a history of focussing on marine mammals, so what are the main threats to pilot whales in the NE Atlantic, and globally.  Undoubtedly one of the biggest threats is the amount of plastic waste in the oceans.  And not just to pilot whales but a great many other marine mammals and marine life in general. On June 1st 2018, a short fin pilot whale found floating off the coast of Thailand took five days to die.  Hours before it died it started vomiting up bits of plastic.  An autopsy found 80 plastic bags in its stomach.  In March 2019, a Cuvier’s beaked whale washed up dead on the Philippines coast; an autopsy found 40kg of plastic bags in its stomach.  In April 2019 a pregnant sperm whale washed up on the Sardinian coast and was found to have over 20 kg of plastic in its stomach.  In May a dead young sperm whale washed up on the coast of Italy; again its stomach was found to be full of plastic rubbish.  This is clearly the tip of the iceberg.  Undoubtedly many toothed whales (possibly the majority) will have plastic rubbish in their stomachs and be suffering sub-lethal effects.  Equally, many will die at sea and their plastic burden will go unrecorded.  Studies have shown that pilot whales have very high levels of mercury in their tissues.  Sea Shepherd use this as part of their argument to halt the grind.  A more conservation-minded approach might be to ask why they have such high levels of mercury contamination, and what can be done about it. The main sources of organic mercury (methylmercury) in the marine environment are anthropogenic; particularly coal burning power plants, chlorine production and gold mining.  The levels of organic mercury in pilot whales is among the highest recorded for marine mammals (although it is also high in polar bears, belugas, ring seals and many other top marine predators).  In pilot whales the concentrations are considered high enough to produce neurological changes in them, along with liver and kidney abnormalities and changes in lymphocytes affecting their ability to fight infections.  Yet another likely big impact on pilot whales (and many other cetaceans) is noise pollution from ship traffic and seismic survey activities.  Like most cetaceans, pilot whales rely on vocalisation for communication over distance, for navigation and for hunting.  Anthropogenic sources of marine noise, which have grown massively in the past hundred years (and which cruise ships contribute to) has been implicated in in many adverse effects on cetaceans, including displacement and avoidance behaviour, changes in vocalisation and mass strandings.  The above all have real, profound and sometimes catastrophic effects on pilot whale populations and much other marine life besides, yet Sea Shepherd campaigns focus on none of the above. Instead, they chose to focus on an activity for which there is no evidence that it has any significant effect on pilot whale populations, on other marine species or on the wider marine environment. But it is one that garners Sea Shepherd a great deal of publicity.  In my book that disqualifies them from being considered a marine conservation organisation.

The questions posed by this blog title was: is it hypocritical to campaign for the end of the grind or to criticise it on social media?  Ultimately that depends, I believe, on your own personal lifestyle.  If you eat farmed meat, if you use disposal plastics at all (recycling doesn’t count – most ‘recycled’ plastics are shipped to Third World countries of sit around in waste collection centres) if you travel by air at all, then the answer is ‘yes’ it is hypocritical, because your own negative impacts on the environment are almost certainly greater than those of the grind. I certainly do not meet that standard, which is one reason I would be very reluctant to criticise it.  The grind is likely to slowly die out as younger peoples attitudes change; less likely as long as outsiders aggressively condemn the Faroese over it. In my view criticising and supporting campaigns to stop the grind are, and best, simply a distraction.  They divert attention, time and energy away from environmental issues that are genuinely important, and the real threats to whale and dolphin populations.

Short-beaked common dolphins: Cook Strait to Cape Pallister, New Zealand.

A short-beaked common dolphin,Delphinus delphis, off Cape Palliser, New Zealand.

Short-beaked common dolphins

A short-beaked common dolphin,Delphinus delphis, off Cape Palliser, New Zealand.

A short-beaked common dolphin,Delphinus delphis, off Cape Palliser, New Zealand.

Sometimes you have a particular shot in your mind’s eye long before it ever happens. This particular image, taken two days ago, of a common dolphin leaping clear as 50kt winds whipped sea spume off the wave tops, falls squarely in to that category for me. I had created a mental image of this shot several years ago, but it took time, patience and luck for it to become a reality.  The image I wanted required multiple factors to all fall in to place simultaneously.  The proximity of the dolphins, the low angle angle and quality of the light, the wind to be sufficiently high to create the breaking wave crests I wanted, and then a very large dollop of luck. This time I was very lucky. One dolphin approached us at exactly the right angle, and for a few seconds he was close enough for me to track him beneath the surface and gauge when he was about to breach.  So when he did my camera was already poised and focussed …. or then again maybe I just got a lucky shot.

A short-beaked Common Dolphin leaps clear in rough seas, off Cape Palliser, New Zealand.

A short-beaked Common Dolphin leaps clear in rough seas, off Cape Palliser, New Zealand.

Common Dolphin breaching

Common Dolphin breaching


The shots shown here were taken off Cape Palliser, as we emerged from Cook Strait, a narrow and notoriously stormy channel between the North and South Islands of New Zealand.

Fierce winds colliding with the steep-sided hills of Cape Palliser force sea spray over 50  metres into the air.

Fierce winds colliding with the steep-sided hills of Cape Palliser force sea spray over 50 metres into the air.

Off Cape Palliser, emerging from Cook Strait, New Zealand.

A royal albatross (Diomedea sp.) glides effortlessly as fierce winds spume off the wave tops. Cook Strait, New Zealand.

A royal albatross (Diomedea sp.) glides effortlessly as fierce winds spume off the wave tops. Between Cook Strait and Cape Palliser, New Zealand.

Cook Strait, with high wild and strong currents funnelling through the narrow gap that divides the two halves of New Zealand, has a deserved reputation as a treacherous area for sailors.  But the wild, virtually uninhabited coastline between Cook Strait and Cape Pallister, where at night not a single light will be visible, has a harsh beauty that is compelling.

Vanuatu: straddling the centuries

Men perform a traditional dance at a forest village, Malekula Island, Vanuatu. © Colin Munro Photography

Looking down on the neon signs and snaking traffic, from my condo, 13 floors up in the heart of Bangkok, some of the places in Southeast Asia I have visited recently seem not only geographically distant but separated in time also.  This is, of course merely an illusion, but a powerful one.  Dugout canoes, tribal dances and weaving pandas leaves to make hut roofs does not fit easily into a world where people commute by skytrain, discuss cryptocurrencies and every second video display promotes the latest smartphone model as the perfect ‘selfie’ solution.  Probably the greatest change that has occurred in communication with the developed world over the past three decades is the growth of the internet, which for many of us now drives our work and leisure activities and much of our interaction with other people.  In much of Melanesia, internet access is still slow, expensive and in many areas unavailable.  There are numerous factors behind this; probably the most significant is the lack of large population centres, making the laying of cables and associated infrastructure uneconomic for telecommunication companies.  However; almost everyone has a mobile ‘phone; by and large, landline networks have been bypassed for similar reasons to limiting internet.  In some areas things are changing rapidly, in others little changes.  Like elsewhere in the World there is a shift to urban living.  This means that some cities are growing rapidly, equally on small remote islands populations decline.  Simply put, there are few job opportunities there.  As a teenager your dream is to study or work in in Fiji, or New Zealand, or Australia.  Of those that are successful few will return.

Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides) is a sprawling chain of islands, 82 in total, lying in the South Pacific a little over 1700 kilometres East of Australia.  The archipelago is volcanic in origin; the islands forming a line, roughly north -south, The islands are exposed tips of three converging seabed ridges rising up from the surrounding seabed, several thousand metres deep. The most famous volcano in the region is Mount Yasur on Tanna, but there are in fact nine active volcanos in the chain (two are submarine volcanos).  At the time of my visit to Vanuatu (September 2017) increased volcanic activity on Ambae could be seen from our ship as we passed at night.  This lead, shortly after, to a full scale evacuation of all 8,000 inhabitants of the island.  Over a thousand kilometres separates the northernmost islands (Torres Islands) from the uninhabited islands of Mathew and Hunter, the southernmost tip of the chain.  Fairly rapid development is occurring in and around Port Vila, the capital.  Luxury apartments and hotels are springing up through foreign investment (mostly Chinese) aided no doubt by Vanuatu’s reputation as a tax haven (it has zero corporate tax).  I spent a little time discussing this with a Chinese developer and some Ni-Vanuatu (the term for inhabitants of Vanuatu).  The developer was agreed that zero tax was a bad thing, limiting Vanuatu’s ability to develop services and infrastructure but, perhaps understandably, was prepared to exploit it.

Men perform a traditional dance at a forest village, Malekula Island, Vanuatu. © Colin Munro Photography

Men perform a traditional dance at a forest village, Malekula Island, Vanuatu

Malekula Island is the second largest island in the Vanuatu chain.  With a population of only 23,00 (2009) there are said to be nearly 30 local languages spoken on the island.  In Vanuatu as a whole, over one hundred languages are spoken (138 according to a 2015 study by Francios et al)  however an English-based creole, Bislama, is the common language uniting villages and islands. The interior of Malekula is mountainous and heavily forested, with a scattering of villages.  Of the various cultural divisions on the island, the main (and best known) are the Small Nambas and Big Nambas.  Nambas are penis sheaths made from fibre and banana or pandanus leaves, and these two groups are differentiated by the shape and size of their penis sheaths (seriously!).  Given they’re all fairly big, muscular guys I wouldn’t risk making jokes about it.  Dancing is a big part of the culture (or kastom as it’s known) in Vanuatu, and especially in the more remote villages.  each village has its dancing ground. Custom dances are performed for such events as the grading of men and the circumcision of boys.  This is very much a grade-based hierarchical society.  It has been reported than the Nimangki societies of southern Malekula have 17 distinct grades (Reisenfield, 1950).

Village dancers perform at a sing-sing, Malekula Island, Vanuatu., South Pacific. Copyright Colin Munro.

Village dancers perform at a sing-sing, Malekula Island, Vanuatu.

It would be wrong to assume that these are villages untouched by western culture.  Nowadays traditional nambas are worn only during dance ceremonies.  Villagers are as likely to be seen in jeans and t shirts when going about their daily business.  Many of the local languages are also considered under threat (on Malekula and throughout Vanuatu).  Interestingly, this does not appear to be from the spears of English (or French) but from Bislama, the creole that developed out of English colonisation. This, presumably, is due to increased communication between villages. As tourism grows, and the internet becomes more accessible, things will undoubtedly start to change more quickly.  Vanuatus reputation as a tax haven also fuel this.  But for now it remains a strange mix of the old and the new.  It is a country where most people still live in forest villages, have no formal ‘job’ but live off the land, where there is no income tax, yet it is one of the very few countries in the World where one can buy citizenship using bitcoin.

A girl dances during a traditional dance at a forest village, Malekula Island, Vanuatu.. © Colin Munro Photography

A girl dances during a traditional dance at a forest village, Malekula Island, Vanuatu.


A girl dancer looks shyly at the camera. forest village sing-sing, Malekula island, Vanuatu. Copyright Colin Munro

A girl dancer looks shyly at the camera. forest village sing-sing, Malekula island, Vanuatu.


A drummer beats out a rhythm on hollow wooden statues, keeping the dancers in time. Malekula, Vanuatu. © Colin Munro Photography

A drummer, painted with charcoal, beats out a rhythm on hollow wooden statues. Malekula, Vanuatu.


A mother and baby watch a sing-sing performance at a forest village, Malekula Island, Vanuatu. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

A mother and baby watch a sing-sing performance at a forest village, Malekula Island, Vanuatu


A small boy watches ceremonial dancers perform at a Kastom (Custom) dance in a forest village, malekula, Vanuatu. © Colin Munro Photography

A small boy watches the ceremonial dancers perform.


Young children watch curiously as they sit on a dugout outrigger canoe, Tanna, Vanuatu. © Colin Munro Photography

Young children watch curiously as they sit on a dugout outrigger canoe, Tanna, Vanuatu.


Ash plains, fallout from previous eruptions, surround Mount Yasur volcano, Tanna, Vanuatu. © Colin Munro Photography

Ash plains, fallout from previous eruptions, surround Mount Yasur volcano, Tanna, Vanuatu


Molten lava explodes out of the vent within Mount Yasur volcano, Tanna, Vanuatu. © Colin Munro Photography

Molten lava explodes out of the vent within Mount Yasur volcano, Tanna, Vanuatu


The megalith culture of Melanesia. Alphonse Reisenfield. E.J.Brill, 1950.


My photographs can be seen, and licensed, through the following websites.


The Kimberley

Saltwater crocodile basking on rocks, Hunter River, Kimberley

Thung Wua Laen Beach, Chumphon, Thailand, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland and St. Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands and various other places.

It felt strange to be writing this account in the sweltering humidity of Thailand’s rainy season after the ferocious, dessicating heat of the Kimberley. Equally, it felt odd in the cool, fresh breeze off Papa Westray in the Orkney islands. This blog was written in no one location, rather it was added to in over a dozen places; from Thailand to the Shetland Islands down to the British Channel Islands via the Outer Hebrides and the Isles of Scilly, Devon and finally completed in Barcelona. Mostly it was done in the evening, at sea, after we had everyone back onboard, briefings completed, daily reports sent and plans for the following day in place. So it was written in very short bursts – ten minutes one night, fifteen the next. As a consequence, completion has taken rather longer than initially intended. This piecemeal approach also resulted in what was written one night rarely flowing easily into the next day’s segment. I eventually became rather frustrated with hits and so decided to cut most of the text. The Kimberley has a unique, harsh beauty and so I have largely allowed the images to speak for themselves.

The Kimberley covers over 163,000 square miles of Northwestern Australia. It is hot, rugged and sparsely populated.  A vast area of sandstone plateau dissected by river gorges.  To many it is known as Australia’s last great wilderness. Over three times the size of England, yet with a resident population of between 35-50,000 (many leave during the wet season). To put that in context that’s a quarter to a third of the population of the Isle of Wight. It is not an area of the World teaming with wildlife, the climate and land are too severe to support life in great number.  Spinifex carpets the land, with occasional boabs ((Adansonia gregorii) and pandanus where water courses run.  The mammals that make their home in the Kimberley are mostly difficult to see, largely being nocturnal (such as northern quolls) or crepuscular (e.g. rock wallabies). But wildlife there is, especially close to water, where eagles, egrets, herons, brahminy kites, water monitors and, of course, saltwater crocodiles are found.

Saltwater crocodile, Hunter River, Kimberley

Saltwater crocodile, Hunter River, Kimberley


Saltwater crocodile basking on rocks, Hunter River, Kimberley

Saltwater crocodile basking on rocks, Hunter River, Kimberley

A saltwater crocodile basks on a rock, its jaws gaping, at the end of a small creek along the Hunter River.  Although this pose may look aggressive, the primary purpose is to cool the crocodile’s brain.  Whilst the croc lies in the sun its body warms.  The optimum body temperature for crocodillians is between 30 and 33 degrees centigrade.  As with most animals, the brain is sensitive to overheating.  Evaporation from the lining of the mouth cools the crocodile’s head whilst the more massive body warms.

A saltwater crocodile cruises slowly along the surface, Hunter River, Western Australia.

A saltwater crocodile cruises slowly along the surface, Hunter River, Western Australia.

At high water, as the above of exposed mudflat and rock diminishes, crocs are more likely to be seen cruising slowly on the surface.

massive rock buttresses line the Hunter River gorge.

massive rock buttresses line the Hunter River gorge.

The Horizontal Falls, seen from the air.

The Horizontal Falls, seen from the air 

The Horizontal Falls have been described as “One of the greatest wonders of the natural world” by Sir David Attenborough no less. A man who has seen a fair few natural wonders in his time.  Viewing the falls, even on neap tides, it’s hard to disagree with Sir David.  On a spring tide the tidal range in the Kimberley can be up to 10 metres.  This tidal ebb and flow is forced through two narrow gaps in the McLarty mountain ranges.  This can result in a drop of several metres at each falls, as water rushes through with tremendous force.

The King George Falls, King George River, Western Australia

The King George Falls, King George River, Western Australia

At around 40 metres in height,the King George Falls are the highest in Western Australia.  There are in fact two waterfalls, side by side on the King george River, separated by a giant rock buttress.


Brown boobies in flight.

A beach stone curlew, Careening Bay

A beach stone curlew, Careening Bay

Beach stone curlews, also known as thick-knees, are large, heavily built waders that feed on crabs and other marine invertebrates.  They prefer isolated beaches for nesting, such as Careening Bay, where this one was photographed.

Mertens’ water monitor (Varanus martensi) is a fairly large monitor, up to a metre in length, found throughout much of Northern Australia.  It feeds mostly on frogs, fish, crabs, small mammals, birds eggs and insects, pretty much anything they can catch.  They are rarely found far from water.  I photographed this one on a low ledge near the base of The King George Falls.   We glimpsed it gliding along as we nosed a Zodiac  up to the waterfall.  Like many other Australian carnivores, Mertens’ water monitors appear to have suffered a decline in numbers in areas to which cane toads have spread.  Toxicity tests indicate that water monitors are highly susceptible to cane toad toxins (Smith and Phillips, 2006).

A Merton's water monitor, Varanus merteni,

A Merton’s water monitor, Varanus merteni,

Each year in early July, humpback whales arrive off the Kimberley coast having migrated from their Antarctic feeding grounds to calve here.  Recent estimates suggest that between  28,000 and 34,000 humpbacks will visit the Kimberley coast between June and September annually. This is believed to be close to their pre-whaling levels; hunting for humpbacks ceased in this region in 1963.

A humpback whale cruises along the surface.  Adele Island, Northwest Australia.

A humpback whale cruises along the surface. Adele Island, Northwest Australia.


The humpbacks of the Kimberley


Smith, J.G., and Phillips, B.L. (2006).
Toxic tucker: the potential impact of cane toads on Australian reptiles. Pacific Conservation Biology 12, 40-49.

Rees Dart Valley Track Mount Aspiring National Park

The views above Rees Saddle are well worth the hike to get there.. Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, Southern Alps, new Zealand. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

The Rees and Dart Valley tracks run through some of the most spectacular scenery in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, and indeed, the Southern Hemisphere.

Rees Dart Valley, Mount Aspiring National Park, Southern Alps, New Zealand, copyright Colin Munro Photography

Rees Dart Valley, Mount Aspiring National Park

In late January this year I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the Mount Aspiring National Park in the south-west of New Zealand’s South Island.  After sampling the crazy, hedonistic atmosphere of Queenstown for a couple of days I was more than ready to leave and head on to wild landscapes, leaving wild party-town behind.  I had planned to fit in a multi-day hike but did not want to be walking with a crowd.  The Rees Dart Track was recommended to me by a couple of friends: It was reasonably strenuous, far less busy than the Great Walks routes, fitted in with my available time constraints and – rather importantly, did not require booking weeks or months in advance as many of the more popular walks did.  It was also only a couple of hours drive from my then base of Queenstown and (and this is what clinched it for me) apparently spectacularly scenic.  Regarding the last point, I was certainly not disappointed, it is an incredibly beautiful, awe-inspiring area.

Before leaving Queenstown, I checked in at the Department of Conservation’s office to pick up a map, tickets for the huts and some advice on the condition of the track.  I learned that the normal circular route up the Rees valley then back down the Dart Valley was not possible at that time.  The Dart Valley part of the track had been blocked by avalanches the previous winter, making the route to Chinaman’s Car Park (the standard end point) impassable.  Blasting to clear it was happening but was not yet complete.

Completing the 46 kilometre drive north to Glenorchy took me far longer than the expected hour.  It was hard not to stop every few miles in order to get out and photograph yet another stunning view over Lake Wakatipu and the Thompson, Livingstone, Ailsa and Humboldt mountain ranges beyond.  Arriving at Mrs Wooley’s General Store, I drove in to Mrs Woolly’s Campsite directly behind, pitched my tent and settled in for the evening.  Mrs Woolly’s store is exactly what one might expect from a store located in rural New Zealand belonging to someone called ‘Mrs Woolly’; constructed from rough wooden planks and packed full of wholesome goodies.  Two teenage girls served behind the counter (Mrs Woolly’s daughters I convinced myself). I imaged Mrs Woolly as a kindly-faced elderly lady with wire-rimmed glasses and a white pinafore over a long black dress; a kind-of antipodean ‘grandma Walton’.  I tried hard not to think that ‘Mrs Woolly’ might be the creation of some bright young advertising executive in Queenstown or Auckland.

My planned early morning start didn’t happen.  For various reasons I found myself completing the drive back to Queenstown and returning to Glenorchy mid-afternoon.  By the time I finally set off for the Rees Valley and the start of the track it was well after 2pm. I drove my little hire car as far as the track would allow; to the track starting point at Muddy Creek Car Park.  There I grabbed a quick bite of bread and cheese from the food supplies I had, locked the remains of the bread loaf securely in the cars boot (a bad decision as I would later find out) shouldered my pack and set off walking around 4pm, much later than I had originally hoped.  The forecast was not great. A weather warning was in place with strong winds and heavy rain forecast, but – on the bright side – it wasn’t raining…  yet.

The walk along the Rees River valley from Muddy Creek Car Park to past Lennox Falls. Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

The walk along the Rees River valley from Muddy Creek Car Park to past Lennox Falls.

By six in the evening I was stomping through the waterlogged meadows that bordered the braided, meandering river as it flowed along the wide glacier-carved valley, walking directly in to the wind-driven rain.  Every so often the track would head up in to the steep sided valley walls.  Here the path was far drier but slower as one clambered over or under fallen trees.  As the rainfall became heavier the steep muddy track became ever more slippery.  To my surprise, as I negotiated my way along the narrow track, I suddenly came upon a tiny one-man tent erected in the shelter of the shallowest of depressions in the rock face that bordered the upslope side of the track.  I was impressed at the ingenuity in pitching a tent on mud-covered rock in what was no more than a 3 or 4 foot deep undercut in the cliff.  This was the first (and only sign of others) on the track I encountered that evening.  I was to meet very colourful character who occupied the tent the next day, but for now I tramped on.  Eventually I abandoned it in favour of a direct route through the meadows, fast becoming a calf deep bog.  There are poles marking the preferred route across the valley floor but, as the wind increased, they became trickier to spot in the driving rain.  I leaned in to the gale-force wind, my jacket hood pulled low and the collar high so only my eyes and nose were exposed to the needle like rain drops, and plodded through what now resembled paddy fields more than grass meadows.  I reckoned I was carrying a few extra pounds with the mud that filled my boots and encased my legs to mid-thigh after numerous plunges in to troughs hidden beneath the water’s surface.  I thought about the warm sunshine and gentle, cooling breeze that had lulled me in to a false optimism at the start of my hike only a few hours earlier. The same question went around in my head: where the hell I was going to pitch my tent that night.  It was 20km from the car park to Shelter Rock Hut, 7km from the park boundary which I had still to reach, but continuing to walk after dark seemed like a pretty dumb idea.

A couple of suspension bridge (swing bridge in NZ) must be crossed before the track enters Mount Aspiring National Park . Rees Dart Track, New Zealand. copyright Colin Munro Photography

A suspension bridge (swing bridge in NZ) must be crossed before the track enters Mount Aspiring National Park


No sense wasting material building these bridges any wider than necessary must be the thinking I guess.

No sense wasting material building the bridge any wider than necessary must be the thinking I guess.


Sandflies, attracted no doubt by the CO2 from my breathe and the smell of octenol compounds in my sweat, congregate across the mesh ventilation patches of my tent as the sun rises.

Sandflies, attracted no doubt by the CO2 from my breathe and the smell of octenol compounds in my sweat, congregate across the mesh ventilation patches of my tent as the sun rises.

When I finally reached the park boundary the sky was already darkening.  The track climbed out of the valley floor up in to the trees.  The park boundary sign estimated a further 3-4 hours walking to Shelter Rock Hut, that would be 3-4 hours in very dark conditions, under the trees with heavy cloud cover, along a slippery, muddy footpath with possible steep drops at the edge of the track.  Maybe not tonight I though.  The alternative was to pitch my tent for the night.  I found a raised clearing in the trees; slightly drier than the surround land but with a soft carpet of sphagnum moss.  I watched the surrounding trees sway and creak in the wind but decided that chancing a tree fall on me while I slept was a risk worth taking given the alternative option of pitching on open, boggy ground where, if my tent didn’t blow away, I’d probably find myself lying in several inches of water.   Despite my tent almost blowing flat at times, and the ominous creaking of nearby trees, I fell asleep quickly and slept until the early hours.  I awake around 3a.m. to a persistent scratching noise.  Something was trying to get in to my tent. I thought about the empty tin from the cold chilli con carne I had eaten before crawling in to my sleeping bag, now tucked under the awning of the tent.  Okay, so something was feasting on the scraps in the tin – but no, the noise was inside the tent.  I was a little more awake now.  In fact, the scratching was on the outside of my sleeping back, and I could feel small footsteps on my shoulder.  Fumbling for my torch I discovered a mouse had somehow got into my tent (quite how remains a mystery, the tent was zipped fast and no holes were later discovered).  Extracting a very athletic and clearly terrified mouse from a small tent crammed with soggy clothes is no easy feat. After several minutes of trying to corner an animal that that appeared capable of leaping many times its own body length and changed direction far faster than I was capable of, it finally discovered the (now unzipped) tent door and leap to freedom.

A highly athletic mouse in mid-leap in my tent around 3a.m.  It proved just as hard to photograph as it was to catch.

A highly athletic mouse in mid-leap in my tent around 3a.m. It proved just as hard to photograph as it was to catch.


Cooking porridge amidst clouds of sandflies as my boots and trousers dry. Rees Dart Track, New Zealand. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

Cooking porridge amidst clouds of sandflies as my boots and trousers dry. Actually ‘dry’ is a euphemism; more correctly I should say ‘become less saturated’.

The remaining hours of darkness passed uneventfully. By dawn the wind had died away to nothing and the rain ceased.  I lay in my sleeping bag watching sandflies form frenzied mobs on the other side of the mesh vents of my tent. Female sandflies (more properly west coast blackflies, Austrosimulium ungulatum) are attracted by the CO2 from exhaled breath; this would accumulate within my tent through the night.  They are also believed to be attracted to chemicals such as 1-octen-3-ol that also occurs in exhaled breath and in sweat.  Again this was something that abounded within my small tent and the soggy clothing within after by exertions of the previous evening.  All the flies congregating outside my tent were females.  I knew this because only the females are attracted in this manner.  The reason for their frantic pawing at the mesh vents, in a manner reminding me of the zombies in a George A. Romero movie, was their need to drink blood (my blood, specifically, at this moment in time).  If a female cannot obtain a blood meal she lays only a few eggs, but if she is successful then she may lay several batches of two to three hundred eggs.   Personally, I’m not too keen on helping produce more sandflies, and I had already been driven to distraction by the intense itching that is the after-effect of their dining on me.  So I lay in my sleeping bag, safe from their bloodthirsty attentions, for a little longer.  In many other parts of the World black fly species are the vectors for some pretty nasty diseases (e.g. river blindness through transmission of the nematode worm Onchocerca volvulus).  I wasn’t aware of any similar concerns in New Zealand, but even so I had no desire to be bitten more than absolutely necessary.

Sandflies try to reach me through the knee of my trousers as I cook breakfast. Fortunately the breadknife-like mouthparts cannot penetrate the material.

Sandflies try to reach me through the knee of my trousers as I cook breakfast. Fortunately the breadknife-like mouthparts cannot penetrate the material.


An inquisitive South Island robin, Petroica australis, inspects my tent, Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park. Copyright Colin Munro Photography.

An inquisitive South Island robin, Petroica australis, inspects my tent. Until recently considered a sub-species of the New Zealand robin, recent (2006) studies of mitochondrial DNA have lead to the the North and South island populations now being regarded as distinct species.

Once up there was no incentive to hang around.  After a quick breakfast of porridge and coffee I packed up my tent, pushed my feet in to still sopping wet boots, shouldered my rucksack and headed on up the track.   The first part of the track within the park is a very pleasant hike through beech forest with a dense undergrowth of ferns. Sphagnum moss blanketed much of the forest floor whilst lichens hung from and encased the tree trunks and branches.  Occasional streams cascaded down the steep walls and, more often than not, I couldn’t resist the urge to dig out my camera and set up a few shots.  Thus it’s fair to say my progress was slow, but my intention was to make it no further than Shelter Rock Hut that day, so I had all day to cover 7 kilometres.  After an hour or so the forest came to an abrupt end, the track continuing through open meadows of tussock grass interspersed with Spaniard plants (Aciphylla species) or speargrass as they are sometimes known due to their stiff, erect, spear-like leaves which are sharp as razors and definitely to be avoided.  As the morning progressed, the sky cleared, and the walk became very pleasant.  Shortly before arriving at Shelter Rock Hut I met the first other people on the track.  Jesse and Alecia, a couple from Colorado, caught up with me as I took my time and stopped to take photographs (Jesse has his own blog on travel and living cheaply,  We walked the last couple of kilometres together.  As we arrived at the hut we were greeted by the wardens, with boiling water for a hot drink and a coal burning stove throwing out a radiant heat that filled the room. We settled in for the day with our fellow trampers: Craig, an Auckland geneticist and artist, his teenage son and his son’s friend, and our two wardens. We were joined later by the occupant of the tent I passed last night.  A fascinating guy who spent most of the year living out of his car, and the summer months tramping the tracks of Otago and Fiordland.  As it transpired, the following day was one of persistent rain and wind, so the day was spent drinking coffee, stoking to stove and swapping yarns.

I had intended to write and publish this as a complete article, as ever, time became squeezed with other projects and so I decided to publish this first part before too much time elapsed. In the words of those old ’60s TV cliffhangers ... to be continued.

A mountain stream cascades down the densely wooded valley slopes. Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park. copyright Colin Munro Photography

A mountain stream cascades down the densely wooded valley slopes. Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park


Below the tree line the slopes are covered in dense forest, mostly beech. Tree branches are often smothered in  a variety of lichens, testifying the moist climate that prevails here. Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park. copyright Colin Munro Photography

Below the tree line the slopes are covered in dense forest, mostly beech. Tree branches are often smothered in a variety of lichens, testifying to the moist climate that prevails here.


Walking from Muddy Creek car Park to Shelter Rock Hut once the wooded valleys are left behind. Colin Munro

The slow slog up to Shelter Rock Hut. As in much of the Southern Alps, the tree line ends quite sharply, to be replaced by tussock grassland.


The views above Rees Saddle are well worth the hike to get there.. Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, Southern Alps, new Zealand. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

The views above Rees Saddle are well worth the hike to get there.


The welcome sight of Shelter Rock Hut as the rain clouds begin to gather.

The welcome sight of Shelter Rock Hut as the rain clouds begin to gather.


Jesse and Alecia, companions along part of the track, at one of the many stream crossings.

Jesse and Alecia, companions along part of the track, at one of the many stream crossings.


Snowy Creek plunges down the side of Mount Cumminham, north of Rees Saddle, en route to Dart Hut, Rees Dart Track. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

Snowy Creek plunges down the side of Mount Cumminham, north of Rees Saddle, en route to Dart Hut.


Trecking along Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park. Colin Munro Photography

When the sun does shine in the mountains it is such a glorious place to be. Especially when you take your pack off!


Mounts Clarke and Cunningham loom over the Rees River, near Shelter Rock Hut, Rees Dart Track. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

Mount Clarke and Mount Cunningham loom over the Rees River, near Shelter Rock Hut.


The carnivorous plant Alpine sundew Drosera arcturi) is common in boggy areas.  It is found throughout the alpine and sub-alpine zones. Rees Dart Track,. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

The carnivorous plant Alpine sundew Drosera arcturi) is common in boggy areas. It is found throughout the alpine and sub-alpine zones.


On the higher slopes, heading towards Cascade Saddle; low, ground-overing shrubs producing red berries were common. I haven't managed to identify them (possibly Pentachondra?) so if anyone knows what they are?

On the higher slopes, heading towards Cascade Saddle; low, ground-overing shrubs producing red berries were common. I haven’t managed to identify them (possibly Pentachondra?) so if anyone knows what they are?


Snowy Creek cascades down near Rees Saddle. Rees Dart Track. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

Snowy Creek cascades down near Rees Saddle.

© Colin Munro 2017

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Christmas in Abu Qir – a wander through Egypt’s backstreets

Street performers entertain children in Abu Qir's backstreets. Colin Munro Photography
Street performers entertain children in Abu Qir's backstreets

Street performers entertain children in Abu Qir\’s backstreets

Christmas in Abu Qir
A little over ten years ago I spent Christmas in the small Egyptian seaport of Abu Qir. This was not a planned stopover, even in summer Abu Qir is not on any tourist route. Abu Qir is a freight and naval port situated at the end of a spindly headland jutting out into the Eastern Basin of the Mediterranean. Nitrogenous fertiliser production is the main industry in Abu Qir. Within the harbour it is stored in vast warehouses awaiting shipping. Fertiliser dust lines the trucks and blows into all crevices along the quays. After any time spent there it fills the tread in your boots; when the wind blow a light dusting coats most surfaces. Winter rains easily penetrate the warehouses and wash across the roads. On contact with water the fertiliser, presumably ammonium nitrate, decomposes to release ammonia fumes powerful enough to make you catch your breath and set your eyes streaming. This may be one factor in the lack of tourists or tourism infrastructure. Grain is a major import here. All day long one can watch trucks pull up beneath a large hopper. A fountain of grain cascades into the truck from on high whilst the hapless driver, or driver’s mate, stands beneath it and levels out the accumulating pile with a broom. This has to be one of the worst jobs in the world. With only a rag tied around his nose and mouth he is mostly obscured within a blizzard of wheat dust and chafe. Standing a hundred metres or so away the dust filled my nose and I couldn’t help but wonder how much of his lungs remain functional.

A dusty boulevard leads away from the port, becomes a tarmac road and soon after hooks up with the Trans-African Highway, the artery running across the top of Africa. Some twenty odd kilometres to the West, in its International Highway coastal detour, it skirts Alexandria, then joins the Trans-African Highway proper (TAH1 to be precise) heading endlessly West to finally hit the buffers at Dakar, over 8000 kilometres distant. To the East the route is much shorter. The Highway threads its way along the narrow strips of land that separate the Mediterranean proper from the coastal lagoons of the Nile Delta to Port Said on the Eastern bank. The intrepid can continue a further 240 kilometres along the edge of the Sinai Peninsula, before being stopped at the barricade at the Rafah border crossing into the West Bank. This is currently closed by Egypt, apparently under pressure from Israel.

Abu Qir is a small spike off this grand conduit linking most of the great cities of North Africa. The area is growing in significance with the current development of the Abu Qir gas field but the small town remains mostly unaffected. The main boulevard is wide and rather elegant, if pot-holed. In late December the sun still blazed, but every now and then the town was hit by sudden downpours that created great lakes over a foot deep, spanning road and pavement. Despite the inconvenience of having to carefully pick your way through these waterways the street was still bustling with people. Once the rain subsided sheets of polythene would be whipped back to reveal wooden stalls creaking under the weight of vast piles of aubergines, oranges, bananas, broad beans, tomatoes, courgettes, carrots, peppers and potatoes. Most of Egypt’s agricultural land is located in the fertile and well irrigated Delta region, and Abu Qir’s market stalls are testament to the productivity of the region. Though the Delta is not without problems, since the construction of the Aswan dams upstream the fertility has declined as fewer nutrients flow into the lower reaches of the Nile; pumping ground water to supply the growing urban population has lead to salt water intrusion rendering some land unusable for crop growing whilst urban sprawl is rapidly reducing the land available for cultivation. Perhaps the greatest threat to the region is global warming. Much of the delta is less than two metres above sea level. Current predictions suggest the area would suffer a double whammy: extensive loss of cultivated and developed land through sea level rise and increasing groundwater salinity, exacerbated by reduced freshwater inputs due to increased evaporation. Yet as I waded across a stretch of rainwater-flooded road, reduced freshwater inputs seemed a rather distant concern, but perhaps gave an indication of what future conditions may look like as the Mediterranean starts to encroach.

I had arrived in Abu Qir to work based on a local boat. Being a naval port they were rather touchy about cameras. Any found were confiscated, and wandering around the port with a camera would undoubtedly invite the attention of the military police. Although I have no interest in naval secrets I suspect that would cut little ice. Getting my camera aboard the boat was relatively straightforward. I simply gave it to my local taxi driver, who kept it beneath his jacket while we were searched. A wise move I thought as I hauled out my bags and watched the sentries carefully going through their contents at the roadside.

Stormy weather meant we spent a lot of time sitting in port, and so I was able venture out into the local town. However, getting my camera out with me was slightly trickier. As I was simply walking in to the local town I had to walk past the guards without the assistance of a trusted local. I did, however, have baggy trousers and a set of juggling balls. With juggling balls stuffed in my trouser pockets and digital SLR and zoom lens tucked in the front of my underpants I sauntered, as casually as possible given my attire, slowly towards the port gate. I walked slowly, partly because a faster pace required me to waddle, suggesting I had an incontinence problem, and partly because any sudden movement was likely to send my camera crashing to the ground down my trouser leg. With a big grin and a ‘kaif halak?’ I passed the guards my passport and jacket, which I had draped over my arm to conceal my odd appearance. This immediately drew attention to the bulges in my trousers and a request to empty my pockets. I withdrew the juggling balls being careful not to dislodge anything else which, naturally, led to requests for a demonstration. A twenty second flourish, a few handshakes and I was allowed on my way without further inspection.

The main boulevard, Abo Qeer, has a relaxed and rather timeless feel. There are of course trucks rolling to and from the port, and aged taxis that will take you to Alexandria much faster than any sane person would wish to travel on that road. But there is almost as much non-motorised transport. A popular means of transport by locals is horse-drawn cabs. These are marvellously inventive crosses between Victorian ‘Clarence’ carriages, gypsy caravans and buggies with jacked-up suspension. They are frequently drawn by horses so skinny they appear all but two-dimensional. Horses, mules or donkeys pulling carts loaded with cauliflowers, car axles or boisterous kids clip-clop past almost as frequently as internal combustion powered vehicles. They may exist, but I found no supermarkets, no Ronald MacDonald, no KFC, no chain stores, no glitzy glass and strip-lighting shop fronts. Indeed mains lighting was strictly limited; most shops lit only by kerosene lanterns and shopkeepers smiles. Scattered amongst the fruit and vegetable stalls were the obligatory chai and coffee houses, where groups of men stared seriously at backgammon boards or puffed on shisha pipes filled with fruit and molasses soaked tobacco and watched the World go by. If one ventures away from the main road the look of the town changes abruptly. Turn west and you enter a maze of narrow alleyways between tall tenements. Flocks of small chocolate-fleeced sheep wander about, often venturing into the open-fronted butchers’ shops where freshly skinned carcasses of their brethren hang from great meat hooks. As I wandered these alleyways I came across a street performer. Forty or fifty young children sat in doorways or hung from first floor windows, watching wide-eyed from between lines of washing. The act consisted of a showman, his younger assistant, a small dog and a spiked, steel triple hoop rigged on a stand in the centre of the alley. It was far too interesting an event to miss, but taking pictures in such situations is never easy. You do not want to offend anyone; nor do you want to detract from the main event. From experience I knew that pulling out a large camera was likely to have most of the children turn there attention away from the performers and focus on the westerner with the camera. A scrum of children shouting ‘take my picture’, leaving the show with no audience, was most definitely not what I wanted. I sat down in a doorway some distance back and waited for the initial curiosity to subside. I then casually took out my camera from under my jacket and sat it on my lap without looking at it. With minimal props the showman knew just how to work an audience; pacing slowly and deliberately back and fore he prepped the dog, which it seemed would be the star performer. All the while his sidekick beat out a roll on a small side drum. After a few minutes I was able to catch the showman’s eye. I lightly tapped the top of my camera and looked at him enquiringly. He gave a slight nod then turned his attention back to his canine protégé. Dressed in dapper brown trousers and waistcoat, with a rather dashing red scarf around its waist, the little white dog bounced into the centre of the street. Upon a slight hand gesture from the showman it rose onto its hind legs and tottered around to the beat of the drum. The drum beat increased in vigour and the audience clapped in time as the tiny dancer jigged to the beat in a slightly unbalanced manner, not altogether unlike a slightly tipsy girl dancing in way-too-high stilettos. To a round of applause the showman swept his star performer into his arms and carried him to the side where he carefully wrapped him in a damp blanket to cool off.

Returning to centre stage the build up for the finale commenced. Two flaming torches were produced with a theatrical flourish and used to light three similar-looking torch heads within the metal hoops. As I gazed at the flaming hoops I realized they were actually bicycle wheel rims bolted on to the tubular stand for a fan or similar. The inward pointing spikes were six-inch nails punched through the spoke holes. For a moment I though the diminutive pooch might be expected to leap through the fiery ring, hence the dampening blanket, but as the ring was raised to at least three times his height I dismissed that idea. Surely that would be a feat beyond even a dancing dog? The showman paced back and fore in front of the hoops, the drum roll intensified, the dog watched from beneath his blanket. I was impressed, not only was the showman going to leap through a flaming spiked hoop it appeared his shoulders would only just fit through, such was his confidence he had not even bothered to remove the bulky denim jacket or heavy boots he was wearing. With his young audience worked up into a frenzy of anticipation, he stood fifteen paces back from the ring and gave a nod. At this his young accomplice un-slung his drum, walked smartly to the centre of the street broke into a run and performed a perfect dive through the ring of fire. The crowd burst into spontaneous cheering, the performers bowed graciously and a collecting box was passed around. I dug a handful of piastres from my pocket as the box reached me, took a few pictures when asked to and showed the results in the cameras’ LCD screen to a chorus of giggles and screams. After congratulating the performers and thanking them for their indulgence I decided it was time to wander on.