Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Socks go Wild in Hokkaido - Part III Dancing Cranes


Our second and last morning at the Wilderness Lodge and we got a lie-in! Ando had already disappeared with the next small group to be hauled out of bed at the crackov and carted off to see the cranes in their early morning river setting.  So it is a late 8.30 a.m. before we were packed and off on the snow covered roads.  We decided to drive around the marshlands for a while to see what we could find on our own and then return to the crane reserve at Tsurui in the hope that the cranes would turn up on schedule this time.  We had seen cranes in the evening, cranes in the morning, but had yet to see them in their full glory dancing!

We were so sad to be leaving this area, the beautiful intense brightness of the light and our luck to have such blue sky'd sunny weather had already improved my health and well being, the wildlife encounters turned my anxieties to excitement and cut through my general state of exhaustion, buoying me up with enough energy to keep going. How we wished we were spending longer here to explore this wilderness landscape. Even our short drive produced curious deer, buzzards, kites and distant eagles. We could have happily have spent a week or more there, instead of our meagre two days.

We returned to the crane reserve and waited patiently, with a few other photographers, praying that we would see a few more cranes than the couple pootling about in front of us in a desultory fashion.

And then the cranes suddenly raised their heads to the west and started hollering!  A small squadron of three more cranes was on its way

They looked so funny their large bodies so graceful in flight, a little ridiculous as they glided slowly over the tree tops. Daddy Crane, Mummy Crane and Baby Crane!

Mummy and baby (not yet old enough to develop the red crown of the adults) land first

then Daddy comes in to land


In Japan everything comes with a tune, like the announcements on the Shinkansen which start with a little jingle in my mind segueing straight into 'Young Gifted and Black'. Most videos of the cranes are accompanied by tinkly Japanese music - but as the next flight of cranes arrived all I could hear was Beyoncé  playing in my mind.  The Red-Crowned cranes were dancing to 'Single Ladies'.... , as in the video of  Beyoncé and her backing dancers,,

All the single ladies (All the single ladies)


All the single ladies (All the single ladies)


Now put your hands up!


Cause if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
If you liked it then you should've put a ring on it

Wuh uh oh uh uh oh oh uh oh uh uh oh
Wuh uh oh uh uh oh oh uh oh uh uh oh

And then more and more cranes started to arrive, flights of three to six birds starting as distant dots until descending over the trees and landing like dancers in the field in front of us. After an hour we drag ourselves away... we have owls and eagles to see and our first view of the Hokkaido coast.  What a wonderful, life fulfilling, spectacle it has been - I laughed out loud at the joy of it and the crazy, funny, cranes.

The cranes are extremely rare and as their meat was prized they were almost wiped out by hunters in the early 1900s. And then, as in so many places, their breeding grounds were eroded by
rampant land development for agriculture the population reduced to fewer than 20 surviving in the Kushiro marshes.  As the population dwindled to the point of extinction, local people around Kushiro started to provide food for them in the winter and they gained legal protection. Over the years the population made a dramatic recovery - it is believed there are up to 2000 cranes around this part of Hokkaido now.  A wonderful story of conservation!

[Photography note: the Bedsock used the Canon 70D with 600mm sigma lens and tripod. I used the Canon 600D and 75-300mm lens handheld.  Both had their uses and drawbacks, it was more difficult for the Bedsock to track the moving cranes and to get a full 'squadron' in the photo. But obviously the quality of his pictures is better. I got better framed subject matter due to the ease of handheld and being able to change position more easily without a tripod - but the quality is not as good and I didn't have the camera on an ideal setting as I had forgotten to reset the sensor.  Nevertheless we are pleased that between us we got some pretty good and occasionally 'artistic' photos as a wonderful souvenir of our trip.]

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Socks go Wild in Hokkaido Part II - Owling

I recently read a birders blog who noted that according to the dictionary of Urban Slang 'Owling' means, not searching out and watching owls but
"the new viral craze; a bit like planking, except you crouch down, and stare like an owl. You then take a picture and post it on facebook. Brownie points for random places to owl"
Who knew?  I suspect that is another craze that has been long gone before I even heard about it.

I doubt Ando, our wildlife guide in the Hokkaido wilderness, would have been too impressed by this definition, although after his revelation of the previous evening, that he loved The Who, Brighton and wanted to be a Mod (rather than a Rocker) it was clear he was a man of many surprises.

General view of Kushiro wetlands

After breakfast we are loaded into Ando's van along with the students, and the 'Birders' who are fun company and a mine of interesting and useful information. First stop is the nearby feeding station where the red-crowned cranes are due to show up at about 11.00a.m. They don't! This is the trouble with wildlife - so flippin' unpredictable! As the cranes have refused to stick to Ando's schedule we are packed back into the van and driven along snow compacted lanes to our next stop - we have been promised a Ural owl!  And what an exquisite creature it is too, roosting in a tree that is picture perfect on its own.  Like so many things in Japan, the owl comes beautifully packaged.

Ural owl, Kushiro area, Hokkaido

But this is where the slight disappointment creeps in! Despite the general remoteness of the area, we are suddenly not alone! Another van load of people has turned up bursting into the reverent silence we and the Birders observe for our encounters with wildlife.  This is not just an owl, it's a tourist destination! Small groups at a time are allowed to clamber down the path, boots crunching deep into the snow and instructed to keep at a certain distance to photograph the owl.  The Bedsock and I are very excited by the chance of a good picture but the Birders are less happy with the experience, particularly as the other group seem more interested in chatting loudly to each other than watching the owl.  As it happens, the owl doesn't do much other than occasionally opening its eyes and glaring disdainfully at those disturbing its peace.

Ando explains that although he is a registered guide there are some who operate without license, picking up the GPS co-ordinates of the various wildlife sightings and driving (small) bus loads of tourists around them.  Worse, there is mention of some of the unregulated tourists chucking snowballs at the owls and generally being disrespectful.  We are saddened by this but aware that in terms of 'wildlife tourism' we are part of the 'problem'.  The fact is tourists bring money into areas and ultimately that helps in the conservation of wildlife.  The red-crowned cranes were hunted and eaten almost to the point of extinction before it was realised they were worth more to the area alive and dancing!

We leave the Ural owl to a bit of peace and quiet before the next visitors turn up and Ando drives us to a Sushi-go-round restaurant in Kushiro the largest town in the area, for lunch.  It's fun and cheerful, the sushi is the best ever and Ando orders some of the more unusual fish sushi for us to savour. Then onwards for cake and coffee at a rather chic cafe! We are amazed, last time we were in Japan we had some difficulty outside of the big towns finding places to lunch, and certainly not cake unless it was of the disappointing type that looks wonderful and turns out to be full of bean paste!  It's worth having a guide just to find the best local eating establishments.

Sika deer - might have been a great photo had it not been taken thru van window as we travelled

The Birders are doing a similar circuit of Hokkaido to us, arriving the previous day Ando has already taken them to see owls which they had all to themselves and also white-tailed eagles. We see a very distant solitary Steller's eagle on our tour but we hadn't expected to see them here at all.  We will be travelling to Rausu on the coast the next day in the hope of seeing both eagles and the famous Blakiston Fish Owl.  The owl is supposed to be a major highlight of our holiday but the Birders tell us that when they researched it they found that fish owls only live for about 40 years and 'Blakey' was nearing that so there was a possibility that poor 'Blakey' might have carked it! As the brochure described the accommodation for viewing the fish owls as  'VERY basic' they didn't want to risk it being a no show!  Blakey's possible demise would be terrible for the Socks but even worse for the poor owners of the 'very basic' shack which Blakey has turned into a moneyspinner for them over 20 years!  We speculate that they may have nailed Blakey to a perch and be working him with strings, in a tragic copy of the Dead Parrot sketch.

Whether Blakey lives or not remains to be seen on another day, for now there is another chance to see a different pair of Ural owls snuggled together on the edge of a small woodland.

Ural Owls, Kushiroshiysugen, Hokkaido

And then a stop for some beautiful landscape photography, a sighting of Hooper swans on a frozen lake in the Kushiroshitsugen National Park. 

Black kites circle overhead the scene and the light are amazing.

Our day out is over, the Birders go to the local onsen for a good soak in the hot spring waters but I am regrettably too exhausted for this and grab a quick pre-dinner snooze.  I can't wait to wake up and see what the next day holds... so much to see and so little time to see it in.  Will Blakey be a no-show? Will we be lucky enough to see eagles? Will we ever see the red-crowned cranes dance?  All will be revealed in the next few blogs.. I could be writing them for some time...

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The Sock's Guide to the Breakfast Buffet


A tiny part of the Best Breakfast Buffet ever at the Tokyo Station Hotel

Tokyo, and at 6.30a.m. awoken by jet lag in the early hours of the morning we  decide to hit the breakfast buffet at the Tokyo Station Hotel before it has been 'Laverne'd'.

I'm going to let you in on one of those annoying private little made-up words that families or couples share. We coined the verb 'to Laverne' some years ago on our tour of Iceland...

Outside of Rejkyavik Iceland is mostly gloriously empty and unpopulated.  For those not venturing into the desolate interior, there is a road circuit around the island and a limited amount of hotels en route that everyone stops at.  When I say 'everyone' what I mean is the unexpected coachloads of Americans (we deduced, parents of the young military quartered in the (now closed) naval air station on Keflavik). We bump into these coachloads on too many occasions.

I don't remember much about the Icelandic breakfast buffets other than that at one of our more 'off piste' destinations, along with the various cured fish, meats and cheese, little shot glasses were laid out filled with a glowing golden liquid.  "How civilized - a little snifter with brekkie" I thought as I seized what I took to be an Icelandic 'Eau de Vie' and downed it in one.  Yurgggggghhh! My throat filled with a viscous slime and the disgusting taste of neat cod liver oil, leaving my mouth filled with a fishy after taste for hours afterwards.

Other than that the buffets passed without incident until our stay at Husavik for a whale watching cruise.  Perhaps the midnight sun affected our sleep patterns but we arrived late next day at the breakfast buffet and to our disappointment much of the food had disappeared and not been replaced. Worse, the remaining decimated meats and cheese had been mushed around, fingered and smeared. What was once a neatly piled plate of herrings, smattered and smashed. The butter covered in toast crumbs, globs of jam and other substances in an unappetizing, inedible mess.  Towards the  far end of the buffet strip a large American with a butt the size of China was still loading her plate Desperate Dan style, greedily mauling the remaining pastries. The Bedsock and I, with rapidly diminishing appetite, salvaged what we could from the remaining food massacre and retreated gloomily to our table.  Nearby I heard the Americans' tour guide say, without sarcasm, to the Large Lady "Enjoying your breakfast, Laverne?" 

And so a new word was born into the Socks vocabulary, to 'Laverne' meaning to decimate the breakfast buffet,  or used descriptively as in  'The breakfast buffet has been Laverne'd'.

The next morning, alarm clocks set, we ensured an early pre-crowd arrival at the buffet and noticed a sign had gone up saying "Food must not be taken outside the restaurant - sandwiches can be made and paid for on request!". 

I confess to a certain amount of guilt over this, not being above snaffling something tasty from the breakfast buffet for laterz.  On my childhood travels abroad YoungMaSock would carry an enormous handbag bought specially for the purpose of  packing full of goodies from the hotel breakfast tables which would then form our picnic lunch. In Figuere da Foz we breakfasted in our room, as usual in Portugal, breakfast came in an enormous basket laden with fruit and cakes. But to my and BroSock's disappointment pretty much all of it disappeared into YoungMaSock's bag to be doled out as meals for us kids over the next couple of days!   OldMaSock never grew out of this habit and for years carried a tupperware box in her handbag into which substantial portions of restaurant meals would be stored for later.  On an early acquaintance with OldMaSock, The Bedsock was unsuprisingly shocked to see her stuff two large sausages into her serviette and transfer the bundle into her handbag, despite the fact she was being well fed and watered by us and this being years before her becoming a tad demented!

As usual I have digressed, back to the Tokyo Station Hotel at a far too early 6.30a.m in the morning. As it is, even Laverne couldn't defeat the Japanese ethos of beautiful presentation and the Tokyo Station Hotel has the best breakfast buffet ever! No doubt, in the event of a Laverning the well-trained staff would discreetly repair the damaged buffet, restoring its pristine beauty for the next person.  But even with such a cornucopia of exquisite food there are still pitfalls to avoid!

The buffet is lined up on two sides of the long, elegant Atrium room at the top of the hotel (in this case the 'top' is in fact the third story in a refreshing change from the skycraper hotels around it!).  On one side a bar serving freshly cooked eggs etc., then an eclectic mix of European dishes, including cheeses, smoked salmon, shrimps in mayo, lasagne! (yes lasagne! whoever heard of lasagne for breakfast? Unless you are at home with a hangover eating leftovers from the fridge.) Moving on past  mouthwatering French and Danish pastries, breads, toast and jam, a sudden delve into various Chinese pancake rolls and dim sum. Leaping over to the opposite side where a variety of top class teas await (NOT the ubiquitous Twinings varieties that most foreign hotels offer when they think they are being posher than those who just dish out Liptons!) green tea, roast green tea - my favourite!, various fresh juices, fresh fruit, several delicious types of yoghurt.  Then on to the best of all - the Japanese breakfast! Rice dishes and 'select your own' sprinkles to go on top, miso soup to ladle into your bowl with your own choice of accoutrements, natta (this was a weird fermented thing that gave me wind but apart from that aspect the Bedsock thought it was rather tasty!).  Then various dishes of unknown provenance, mostly delicious and probably kelp and squid based - all accompanied by pickles and condiments for our delectation.   Then finally, the piéce de resistance (see top photo) almost too beautifully laid out to touch! But touch we did, filling our plates with raw tuna served with a spicey lime dip, tofu skin in little glasses (our absolute favourite), little sticks of burdock root in a sesame dressing, chopped up okra and yam, rolled omelette, herry spawn on kelp (whatever that is), pickled nozawa greens, and whatever was in the bowl filled with black snakey stuff in the middle which was probably so outré they refused to label it for fear of putting westerners off!

No worries here either about using our usual trick of digging to the bottom of the platter in case someone has coughed their germs all over the top layer!  Although on the occasions when I feel it incumbent on me to do this, I remove the article I want with precision and not leave the plate messy and Laverne'd for the next person.

The Bedsock's choice from a breakfast buffet in Hakodate - rice, salmon eggs, raw prawn and tuna!

The only peril was where to start? If we filled up on Japanese food would we have room for a croissant with our coffee?  As we were staying several nights we formed a plan to eat
a different 'style' of breakfast each day although I confess to wolfing down a quick croissant with my coffee whilst still having the taste of tuna with wasabi dressing in my mouth. At other hotel buffets we were shocked to see Japanese people (normally so delicate and fastidious!) piling their plates with a bit of everything in food combinations like, raspberry tart with salmon eggs, bacon, and pickled veg, that would give you indigestion just to think about! Which just goes to show there is a bit of Laverne in all of us.

Monday, 29 February 2016

The Socks go Wild in Hokkaido - Part 1 Dreaming Cranes


It's six o'clock in the morning and minus 20 degrees centigrade - the slowly rising sun is suffusing silver frosted trees with a soft pink blush, the shadowed snow banks on the river have taken on a bluish tint, so have my fingers, released from the confines of three layers of gloves in order to set up my camera.

I am standing on a bridge in the wilderness of Hokkaido, the quiet murmur of twenty or so other photographers and wildlife enthusiasts broken by the occasional distant caw and shriek of red-crowned cranes. Downriver is a scene, so mesmerizing, so dreamy, so exquisite,  that if the frozen air had not stolen my breath away I would have lost it anyway.  It seems surreal but then after the events of the last 24 hours we should be used to that.

[Photography note: The Bedsock is set-up with our Canon 70D, tripod and Sigma 150-600mm 1:5-6.3 telephoto. I am using the Canon 600D, Canon EF 70-300mm 1:4-5.6 IS USM telephoto handheld interchanged with the Canon EFS 17-55mm wide angle lens for landscapes. We take joint credit for most photos which are copyright 'Sea of Immeasurable Gravy' as it isn't always clear who took the shot - we swap cameras around. If it's handheld 600mm lens then it's usually the Bedsock's as I find it too heavy for my muscles to keep steady long enough to hold the shot. The Bedsock is considerably more adept at setting up a shot using the full camera's capabilities - if he sets up the tripod and the camera but I press the button whose shot is it?  A 'team' combination of both telephotos seems to work well, the 70-300mm giving more flexibility for capturing wider and moving images, the 600mm for a closer, more defined shot. Landscapes are generally mine.]

Me wearing many layers of thermals!

The bravest people are not the fearless but those who feel the fear and do it anyway! This is what I told myself at Heathrow airport four days earlier when I wasconsidering whether I was actually mentally and physically well enough to board a plane to Japan.  I had  hoped to be in as good a state as my health permits for what was planned to be both a dream and daring holiday, a big leap into the unknown.  But as usual things have gone awry and we have been down to the wire as to whether to cancel at the last minute.  Life events have conspired to add hugely to my already chronic anxiety on top of chronic fatigue and my entire being has been disordered.  Muscle spasms sending endless waves of small vibrations across my body, weird tingling sensations running like an electric current through my extremities, my mind fractured and broken, each anxious thought replayed constantly and obsessively. I wake in the night with my heart pounding out of my chest. At Heathrow the muscles in my throat spasm making it difficult to swallow.  I can't go........... I can't not go.

I think of my friend Helen who escapes the annual angst of English winters by holidaying alone abroad, I think of my sister-in-law travelling in a wheelchair to Bali for a last dream holiday before dying of Motor Neurone Disease, I think of the girl I used to be hitching around France and spending summers camping in Biarritz years before it was either acceptable or fashionable for women to travel alone. Over the years my health problems have closed too many doors to me, I must make the most of those doors I can open. Feel the fear and do it anyway... I can't not go.

Somewhere down the line I have lost myself..and the less I have believed in my own existence the less I have been perceived to exist.  I feel like I have become nothing and am treated accordingly. I need to feel real again, to feel worth something, to feel inspired to write on my much neglected blog and to have something interesting to write about.  What better place than Japan which we loved so much on our last trip five years ago.  The food, the onsens, the landscape, the quirkiness, the amazing all-singing and dancing toilets and above all the respect that the Japanese people pay to you, to each other and to their country.  Respect has been in short supply the last few years.

For someone with various free floating anxieties I could list some of my top fears as, flying, earthquakes, tsunamis, tunnels, trains, high rise buildings, people.  So my obvious dream holiday choice is Japan, with its daily earthquakes, tragic tsunamis, skyscraping cityscapes, undersea tunnels in earthquake zones, and billions of people. I can confront all my fears at once!  In any event we must go.. I have spent the last couple of months stocking up on silk thermals and snowboots.  The Bedsock also desperately needs a holiday, I can't let us down, I can't not go.

After three nights in Tokyo - shaking off  the worst of the jet-lag in the long awaited sunshine, taking in the fish market, Japanese cuisine and an unexpected and life affirming close-encounter with a kingfisher in the Imperial Palace gardens - we have flown north to Hokkaido for our wilderness adventure.  Inspired by the BBC series 'Japan: Earth's enchanted isles', coupled with our increasing interest in wildlife photography, we have become entranced with the idea of seeing the red-crowned cranes. We have booked a two night stay at the Hickory Wind Wilderness Lodge where the owner, award winning photographer, Makoto Ando, will be our guide to the cranes and other wildlife for a day. We are driving there having picked up a hire car at Kushiro airport.  Most of the few tourists around this area are part of small tour groups, bussed from destination to destination, but in spite of the very real possibilities of being caught in snow drifts or blizzards we prefer the independence of our own transport.  We are lucky - there is a coating of snow everywhere but the main roads are clear and some of the smaller roads passable with care on the compacted snow.  We have already seen our first cranes, slewing the car to a halt as I screech 'Cranes! Cranes! Look there's cranes..' as three huge graceful birds sail over the road in front of us disappearing into a snowy field as we go into a frenzy unpacking cameras and grabbing what shots we can.

As we approach our destination we find another field full of the cranes lit by the red-gold of the setting sun as they mosey around humming and strutting, twerking their bottoms before raising their heads to make a long ululating caw.  We leap from the car and grab some photos but can't stay long as I want us to find the Hickory Wind Lodge before it gets dark.

A fox is scuffling around on the snow searching for prey and again we stop,  the Bedsock whipping the camera out of the car to capture it mid-leap!  Everywhere we look there is a photo opportunity.

[Photography note: Canon 70D with 600mm Sigma lens in low light, handheld - not bad for a quick photo grab!]

The Hickory Lodge, stands alone a short distance from the main crane sanctuary in Tsurui, the wooden building more reminiscent of a New England house than our idea of a Japanese dwelling.  We are greeted (without the usual Japanese great ceremony) by a man I take to be Ando and shown to our sparse but comfortable room.  We weren't expecting luxury - this after all is a wilderness lodge, but I  am slightly perturbed that we seem to have wifi!! I had been looking forward to an enforced break from it and the possibility that bad news from reality might intrude on our adventure. I came to the wilderness to be cut off and refuse to open my ipad for the next few days!  We tuck ourselves up on the beds, open a bottle of sake and rest-up until a knock at our door signals supper-time!

The dining/living room is on the first floor, a wonderful, homely, higgledy-piggledy mess of photography, artwork, books, guides and knick-knacks for sale.  A log stove is burning away in the corner and a large table, central to the room, has another eight or so people waiting for us.  We later learn these comprise of the owner Ando, a couple of birders* doing a similar tour to us, some chap from the National Geographic magazine and his wife and several young, Japanese, photography students who are apparently here for work experience, looking after the visitors and the house in exchange for spending time with the master!

Curiously, there is also a line of guitars against the wall - when we arrived we had noticed a music room in the owners part of the house which was also burgeoning with guitars, we are about to find out why!

Ando cooks our supper over a table griddle, okonomiyaki - a kind of Japanese pancake crisscrossed with sauce and mayonnaise and served on noodles. Hearty, filling, street food.  On hearing we are from Brighton, Ando's face lights up! "Brighton! Mods and rockers, Pete Townshend my hero!". Ando is not content with being an award winning photographer and wildlife guide - he has a not terribly secret desire to be a rock star, hence the many guitars! After dinner he treats us to an extremely good rock rendition of Norwegian wood.

Next up, the National Geographic guy gives a photo slideshow of the area.  He says he has taken 11,000 pictures in two days and these are the best. They are fantastic but part of me felt that even BroSock (who can't take a decent picture to save his life) could probably have managed a couple of goodies out of 11,000.  And how has he found time to go through that many photos to pick the perfect ones out? Was that his wife's job? These unspoken questions go unanswered as my jetlag is catching up with me, rendering thought and speech difficult.  The best advice from National Geographic man is never to dwell on the photos you didn't get but be happy with the ones you did.  A bit like the way you have to treat ME, think only of what you CAN do not what you can't - and in spite of everything, I CAN go to Japan and photograph wildlife in the wilderness.

A final slideshow from Ando of some of his amazing photos leaves us daunted that our own photos will do justice to this extraordinary location but totally inspired to start snapping.  I go to sleep dreaming cranes..

And so we came to be on the bridge at the crack of dawn, the mist rolling back from the riverbanks to reveal the cranes at their early morning feeding place.  I can't feel any of the usual weird tingling sensations in my feet, I can't even feel my toes! The stinging, Siberian cold has penetrated through three layers of socks and my snowboots!

I've cropped some of the photos but otherwise they are how it was... Unforgettable.

We return to the Hickory Lodge at eight a.m. for a typical Japanese breakfast - rice porridge drizzled with sesame oil, fish, rolled omelette, kimchi, tiny cooked shrimps eaten whole, pickles etc.  a delicious and welcome start to a day which will be filled with wildlife encounters, laughter, sushi and cake..and the dreaming cranes will finally start dancing for us. But that is another story....

* The other British couple staying at the lodge identified themselves as 'birders'. This being people who were interested in finding and watching birds and enjoying the whole location, rather than the more aggressive 'twitchers' who may travel miles to sight and photograph a rare bird so they can strike it off their 'tick list'.  We identify ourselves as amateur wildlife photographers, enjoying our attempts to capture the beauty of wildlife on camera, but not to the extent that our only view of it is through a lens.

SocksTopTip: Gel footwarmers (like the little hand ones you slip in your gloves) can be purchased at the Lodge! I wish we had known this before my toes nearly fell off! We later found that gel warmers could be bought in all shapes and sizes for pretty much any bit of your anatomy!! 

Friday, 11 September 2015

Photographing Vultures in Crete


I thought I had better post a quick blog as I had the sudden realisation that if I got run over by a bus, not only would I be worrying that I hadn't worn a decent pair of knickers but my very last blog post would have been a depressing and unedifying one! And we can't have that, so today, dear reader, I am going to tell you about the uplifting experience of photographing vultures in Crete earlier this year.

Early May and we were staying in a fabulous villa on the North Western tip of Crete.  The holiday plan was mainly relaxing in the sun, (warm enough for sunbathing but not quite hot enough to stop our chic pool at the villa from still being just a little bit nippy!), swimming in the sea and photographing wildlife.    A drive along the Balos peninsula, famed migratory route from Africa, had produced little wildlife except elusive crested larks, a distant view of a 'black-eared wheatear' and some rather pretty grasshoppers.

We were feeling a little short changed on the birding photo front, I had promised the Bedsock eagles but the best bird we had photo'ed so far was a Sardinian Warbler.  So, nearing the end of our holiday, we had one last chance to find something more exciting to test out our new 600mm Sigma telephoto lens.  Tripod, cameras and lenses packed into the Suzuki Jimny -(a hire car 4x4 that judging by the scratches already looked like it had been driven through a great deal of off-road undergrowth and which also squealed somewhat alarmingly when cornering) we set off  along the 18km Rodopos peninsula on an extremely 'unmade' road track to investigate the ruins of the  Diktynna Sanctuary, dedicated to the daughter of Zeus, at the tip. I'm always a little trepidatious about these off-piste jaunts.. having ME means I can't walk very far and the possibility of the jeep breaking down miles from 'civilization', with no mobile signal, and being left in the car on my own at the mercy of any mad axeman lurking in the wilds whilst the Bedsock staggered 18km to fetch help, was a slightly worrying prospect.  But hey-ho, you can't worry about everything - although I do have a jolly good try!

The track seemed never ending.  One of those where you think the end will be just around the next corner - but round the next corner is just another few corners of wilderness.  There were a substantial amount of goats around to keep us company!  These were having a bit of a face off!

Pause for interesting fact: The chapel of Agios Ioannis, dedicated to St. John the Baptist lies isolated at the end of a hiking path about half-way down the peninsual. Every August 29, to honour the day of St. John, a pilgrimage of those named John walk to the chapel, and stay there for a day and a night.

No Johns around for us though, just goats and distant black-eared wheatears.   The sun was hiding from us behind a slightly damp cloud and every bone in my body was jarred and shaken as we rattled along never seeming to get nearer to our destination.  Several times, I said we should turn back as the track got more and more boulder strewn and dangerous but each time we agreed to just go round the next bend to see what was there.

And finally we could see the southern tip and the sea where the track, hewn into the cliffs, plummeted down dangerously to a tiny cove with some disappointing ruins! We stopped high above the cove to admire the view but no way was I continuing down to the beach. I was just wondering whether it had all been worth the effort when I turned round to see an enormous bird rise out of the deep gorge that snaked back round behind us from the cove.  Then another, and another, "BIG BIRDS" I screamed at the Bedsock as I ran for the cameras.  We grabbed a few photos as they soared  just above us, then they disappeared back where they had come from, seemingly swallowed up by the earth  a 100 metres or so from where we stood.

The photograph below shows a distant vulture cruising along the top of the gorge. It was taken with my old Canon 400D with 70-300m telephoto. Not a great picture but gives an idea of the terrain.

We scrambled over the rocks to a small ridge protecting us from the sheer drop into the gorge. At first we could see nothing, then sweeping my binoculars over the side directly opposite us I saw them, not eagles as I had first imagined but a colony of vultures, twelve of them, their brown feathers nearly camouflaged against the ochre walls of the gorge.

My initial disappointment that they were vultures,  not a bird with a better press, quickly vanished as they took it in turns to cruise along the sides of the gorge, up and out into the open skies before returning to the colony

Not only were the vultures spectacular but the sides of the gorge were festooned with colourful plants, their roots clinging into crevices, their foliage and flowers tumbling downwards into the gorge like one enormous, vertical rock garden.

It was absolutely breathtaking. Finally the long 600m lens came into play and the tripod proved it's worth as we clicked photo after photo. A slight enlargement on the photographs and you can see their blue eyes!

Vultures get a bad press and there is no doubt they can look a little spiteful when they are hanging around hissing and spitting at each other.  Actually the spitting is "defensive vomiting" the smell of the vom is enough to put off enemies and is corrosive enough from their acid stomachs to burn! Sometimes I feel like that after a bad Saturday night!

They should also be known as natures 'eco' bird.  They only eat dead meat, perhaps a tasty goat that has died on the peninsula.  They dispose of the rotting remains - natures garbage men or the ultimate clean-up team.  Whatever their dietary habits and slightly bad manners they were beautiful and awe inspiring that day.  The memory of several of them flying maybe 20ft above us, their huge wings like some magnificent Native American Indian headress, will stay with us forever.  The adrenalin rush from the experience akin to that we had had when abseiling for the first time in the Lake District.

The jolting, drive back along the peninsula seemed less onerous - we had at last had our Cretan birding experience!

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Disabled Hate Street


Many years ago the Bedsock and I were in the car listening to 'Any Answers' on Radio 4.  The topic was along the lines of the way society dealt with criminals.  Mrs Angry of Tunbridge Wells phoned in to say that "criminals should have the fact tattooed on their foreheads so we will all know who they are!"  We laughed long and hard at this and it became one of our private catchphrases with reference to identifying ne'erdowells.

In the past twenty years of my disablement through ill-health (Myalgic Encephalitis) I have learned one truth.. people like their 'disableds' all neatly wrapped in wheelchairs so they know who they are.

I have written before about the definitive moment of my illness when I realised just how and why ME sufferers were likely to be vilified.  Whilst being pushed around Brighton Shopping centre in my wheelchair we found the lifts full of kids playing around.  As the BedSock wheeled me over towards the escalators, a woman and her friend smiled kindly at me. But her smile turned to a coarse shriek of outrage when I got out of the chair for the BedSock to carry it down the escalator.  "Look at that!!! There's nothing wrong with her!" she shrilled, angry that I had robbed her of a smile.

In general we try and live by the rule that we make the best of any situation.. not dwell on what my illness prevents us doing, but to have as much fun as possible with what we can do. But you must allow me a little bitterness.. not because of the ignorant woman in the shopping centre, not because of the kid who spat at me in Avignon on our somewhat ill-fated first 'wheelchair' holiday when I wasn't really well enough for it. Not because of the posh woman who leaned over my lap at an Apple Fair, her tweed jacket brushing my face as she reached for a slice of fruit saying "You don't mind do you?"  I did mind.  No - what makes me bitter is that after twenty-six years in a house and area I once loved, I now think of my road as  'Disabled Hate Street'.

So what changed? When we moved here I was delighted with the Victorian terraced house, its fair sized garden, the generally decent community, in a prized part of Brighton.  The neighbours were fine too - we have always tended to be a bit reserved rather than overly friendly with those at close quarters, but have discretely kept an eye out for the elderly or isolated. We were lucky with our nearest neighbours, Molly next door and her family always visiting. Walking out into my garden I would often be greeted by gales of noise and gossip blowing over the fence as Molly and her friends laughed hilariously over some joke or story.  Heart warming, life affirming laughter. They reminded me of  slightly risque 1950s postcard ladies - naughty but nice. There was Brunhilde, the German lady, who invited us around one afternoon and proceeded to drink us under the table. An outspoken no-nonsense woman who once caused us a great deal of amusement by bellowing down the gardens at another neighbour's offspring "Be quiet children! You are not on a council estate now!" Hilariously rude but remarkably effective - I only wish she was here to shut the current batch of screaming kids up.  Flora a sharp, intelligent, elderly Scots lady, as impatient with her infirmities as she was with the new computer skills she was acquiring in her eighties.  We corresponded by email in her last years sending each other news from the 'other side of the fence'. 

All these have now moved or died - the greatest loss being Molly. One day Bill her aged lodger called over the wall that he needed help as Molly, who had been sitting happily in the sunny garden, had gone into the toilet a while before and not come out. I rushed round, managed to ease the door she was slumped against open and squeezed into the tiny space, cradling her in my arms as Bill called for an ambulance.  I chatted gently to her, how much everyone loved her, how pretty she looked in her dress, how wonderful to have been out in the garden on such a day.. I'm not sure she heard me.. I think she had already gone.. but she would never have doubted all those things.  Such was the love of the community for her that at her funeral the local church was packed with many standing at the back.

Molly's death marked the end of an era and the beginning of an influx of uncaring, self-interested people, often younger families.  The sound of genuine laughter replaced by the constant whining and screaming of spoilt, angry children and the equally constant, ignored, reiteration of "get on the naughty stair". Their lives and conversations foisted onto the unwilling, captive audiences in neighbouring houses by the fashion for converting the backs of these houses into big openable glass doors.  The cushioning effect of foliage lost, as one by one each lovely, cared for, garden is ripped out and replaced by nothing but bindweed and discarded kids toys.

Initially I didn't want a disabled parking space outside my house.  At that time there were rarely problems parking and I disliked the idea of having so prominent an advertisement for my condition emblazoned across the road - like having the word "criminal" tattooed on a wrongdoer's forehead.  Nevertheless, as more and more cars filled the street making it uncertain whether I could park near my house,  I was finally persuaded. If I couldn't guarantee a parking place I couldn't go out - as simple as that.  All was well for a few years and then the trouble over the disabled space started.

I awoke early one morning to find a parking fine attached to my car.  There had been a spate of cars broken into and badges robbed in the area and I was worried that someone might damage my car badly in an attempt to steal mine.  I had been taking the badge out of the car at night and putting it back first thing in the morning.  In the many years we had lived here we had never seen a traffic warden around - why would they come to this peaceful residential area?   Nevertheless, my mistake, and although I wrote explaining the situation I still had to pay the fine.  Too bad. A few months later, totally fatigued after having been out for shopping, I forgot to put the badge up on my dashboard.   At 7.20 the following morning a neighbour from across the road rang my doorbell and woke me - my car was in the process of being hoisted onto the back of a lorry to be towed away.  I rushed out in my dressing gown and produced the blue badge from the car,  they didn't take the car away but I got fined again.  This was too much of a coincidence, someone close by was watching my car and despite knowing I was disabled, reporting my 'transgressions'.  Having ME often gives you 'memory fatigue' and I became so anxious as to whether I had remembered to display the blue badge I would sometimes go out in my dressing gown in the middle of the night, in the cold and rain, to check.

Spiteful anonymous notes started appearing, pinned under my windscreen wipers or pushed through my door - by the style of the handwriting from different sources.  I can't park on the disabled space without a badge and if we are going out or away in TheBedSock's car I need to take the badge with me,  so I can't leave the car on the space.  A main complaint from those too ignorant to understand or find out the law regarding Disabled Parking was that I "should get my car back on my own space."
I began to dread returning home from holidays to find yet another dumped on my doormat or worse that someone had 'keyed' my car. Not knowing who these were from made us close in on ourselves and distrust almost everyone.

Then one day a community policeman called round to talk about the mock-up of the front-page of the local paper, slipped through many people's doors, deriding the disabled people in the street.  I hadn't got a copy - surprising as I was one of the disabled people mentioned (the one with the 'Beatle' (sic) who had acquired the disabled space so I could admire it out of my window!).  I was too stunned to be overly worried by this - everyone blamed 'the taxi driver' (I suspect because he had been heard to moan about the amount of disabled spaces on the road).  I don't think it was him. I think it's the same supposedly respectable man who walked past my house when I was deadheading plants in my tiny front garden last year and with his head down, muttered loudly under his breath "Look at that! She's in the fookin' garden when there's fookin' white lines on the road".  He seems to have a thing about disabled people gardening!

It wasn't just in our street either, driving to our local shops I saw a car belonging to one of the local businesses parked without a badge on the disabled space I had hoped to park in.  Such is the difficulty parking in this busy little area that I have on more than one occasion had to drive home empty-handed having been unable to park near enough to the shops to walk the short distance my fatigue levels often dictate.  This time I managed to park near enough but as I walked past the office of the culprit I popped my head around the door and politely informed the man working behind the desk that one of their cars was parked on the disabled space without a badge.  I thought nothing more of it but when I came out of the bank a man was standing in right in front of my face, frothing with rage! Stunned, I asked what the problem was.  It was the man from the office and apparently, despite his committing an illegal offence, everything was my fault! I walked off trying to ignore him but he pursued me up the road and spat "You fucking poisonous old witch!" at me. Amazingly a load of people sat at outdoor cafe tables and walking around the area witnessed this and not one intervened!  Totally shaken, I managed to drive home and phone the police.  They did caution the man on this occasion.

Worse was to follow.  As Brighton has become more and more congested and parking more difficult the Council have seen fit to roll out Residents Permits zones.  A new zone, finishing at the bottom of our road, moved all the parking onto our streets, packing them with builders lorries, commuter cars, those who didn't want to pay for  permits in their zone.  This meant that throughout the day it was difficult to park, and after 7.00pm almost impossible.  TheBedSock,  returning from work would face a long walk from wherever he could  find a parking space. Rather than turn up at a local residents meeting to discuss this problem (as TheBedSock and I did) neighbours' eyes turned with envy and anger to those most vulnerable in the road.  Whilst TheBedsock and I had always tried to park as unselfishly as possible, we now found a pretty much permanent procession of cars parked illegally, overhanging the disabled space making it difficult (and often extremely painful and tiring for my muscles) to manoeuvre out. Tempers were running high and I awoke one morning to find that in order to park their own car, someone had moved the scooter of a neighbour (who was away) onto my disabled space blocking my car in.  Unable to move the scooter myself I contacted the Parking Authority who said the only action they could take would be to remove and impound it. As this would cost my neighbour a lot of money and inconvenience to reclaim I didn't pursue it but was unable to go out.  When TheBedSock returned (he is often working away) we finally moved the scooter off the space so I could free my car.  The next night I heard some noise outside and went out to find a man moving the scooter back on to my space in order to park his car.  It was dark and I was in my dressing gown but I called out to ask what he was doing and was it him who kept moving the scooter onto the disabled space. He gave me a mouthful and I got my camera and photographed him and the car. Stupid mistake! The man then shouted threateningly at me "If ever I see your car off that space I'm going to get you!"  I slammed the door and when TheBedSock got home from work he found me sobbing hysterically. We agreed to phone the police.  At that time I had no idea that the man was in fact a fairly close neighbour (had I known I wouldn't have bought the police into it but at the time there were a lot of somewhat insalubrious people parking around the area).  When we finally attended an interview at the police station it was with an unsympathetic policeman who seemed intent on telling me off and catching me out. "If it was wrong for that man to move the scooter on to your space then surely it was wrong for you to have moved the scooter off?" He ended by totally disempowering me saying "You shouldn't confront people unless you want to see your husband's brains splashed across the pavement."  As we left the police station, me sobbing with total angst, we noticed two police cars parked on the disabled spaces outside.  I felt worse after the police interview than the original confrontation and would never involve the police in my business again although they did contact the man and suggest that threatening 'disabled women' wasn't very nice.  And what of the scooter owning neighbour? When I started to try and explain the situation to him he cut me short as he didn't want to hear anything bad about the person who had threatened me as their kids played together. I hadn't been going to mention that part as I didn't think it fair to involve more people than necessary.  No one has shown me the same courtesy. When the wife of the threatening neighbour walked past me coming out of my house recently she turned to her child and said "We don't like her!".

After nearly two years of nastiness turning neighbour against neighbour my area was finally turned into a Residents Permit Zone and it is now relatively easy to park here.  Somehow this doesn't stop people parking partially over the disabled space even if the rest of the road is empty. Don't even get me started on the builders who think they have every right to park there when I'm out and make me wait on my return whilst they spend ten minutes unloading. Because as one of the builders replied when I explained I was unwell "You look alright to me, luv"! Perhaps I should have my illness tattooed on my forehead.

 One of the many problems that people with long term ME are likely to encounter is increased anxiety, partly caused by the weird things mental and physical you have to cope with and partly because of your alienation and isolation from society.  Over the years the few friends I had left in Brighton moved and making and sustaining new ones is difficult when you have so little energy to give so I have no local support network. Over the years I have developed, and am trying to deal with, both an acute sense of 'stranger-danger'  and chronic anxiety.  This is horribly exacerbated by the 'community' I live in which has failed me on every level.  I am now too anxious to spend time in my front garden, or to clean my car outside my house, or to attempt to walk to my local shop, in case I am being watched... "Look at that, there's nothing wrong with her!"

 We want to move away.  I always felt my identity was in Brighton but now feel it's  'No town for disabled people'. Perhaps the problems will follow us elsewhere, though certainly our new home must have off-street parking.  I want to be somewhere that will restore my faith in humanity..  I want to have a 'Molly' living and laughing next door..