Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Trekking the Alta Via 1 with children

In late June 2016 we went for a hiking trip in the north of Italy doing a portion of the Alta Via 1 in the Dolomites.

We landed in Milan and rented a Fiat 500L Trekking which we will throughout the trip refer to as "our monstrosity". Next came a long drive on the autostradas towards Cortina d'Ampezzo, including a 20 minute nap for me at an Autogrill near Venice. We got to Cortina d'Ampezzo successfully and started looking for the road towards Rifugio Dibona, where we'd spend the night and leave the car for a week. The initial attempt to follow Google Maps directions wasn't very successful as the road kept getting steeper and steeper and more and more rocky, until we agreed we should turn back. That we did, and managed to find the right road after making a detour.

The next morning we departed towards Rifugio Laguzoi. It was a nice hike until we got to Laguzoi where the snowy slopes started. They didn't seem that dangerous as they weren't very exposed, but the children found them quite difficult and were slipping on the snow, which they didn't find very amusing.

On the way from Rif. Dibona to Rif. Laguzoi
On the way to Rifugio Laguzoi

It took us nearly 5 hours to get up there and we were somewhat surprised to see the many other tourists who had also managed to do it. Turns out a cable car goes from the parking down below to the refuge, which had taken them all up!

Next morning I took a short morning hike to the nearby Piccolo Laguzoi, which afforded lovely views to the valley below and Rifugio Laguzoi.

From Piccolo Laguzoi
From Piccolo Laguzoi

Then the girls also got ready and we proceeded from Rifugio Laguzoi to Rifugio Scotoni, which was a relatively straightforward hike with Lake Laguzoi with "fishies" as an intermediate stop, and a long descent in the end. At Scotoni the girls were happy to see a dog and a few alpacas, we played cards and had a nice meal.

Leaving Rifugio Laguzoi
Towards Rifugio Scotoni
Dog & alpacas

The next day from Riguio Scotoni to Rifugio Fanes was the most challenging of them all, as there was a thunderstorm with plenty of rain and wind. Not all of us were sufficiently prepared with proper rain gear, and even those who were didn't enjoy the weather.

We made a detour to avoid a mountain pass which lost valuable altitude, and made an intermediate stop at refuge Gran Fanes where we had some pancakes and warmed up. In the end, we got to Rifugio Fanes successfully which reminded us more of a hotel than a refuge.

In the rain

The rain clouds had cleared the next morning and we went from Rifugio Fanes to Rifugio Pederu.

Towards Rifugio Pederu

The next day was one of the longest and we had to go from Rifugio Pederu to Rifugio Biella which is about 1.1km elevation gain in some 11km, but the girls were in good shape by then and coped easily.

Leaving Rifugio Pederu
Towards Rifugio Sennes

Rifugio Biella was the most rustic of the refuges we stayed in, but also felt the most authentic and served great pasta bolognese.

At Rifugio Biella three of us decided to go for a short walk up a nearby peak which was a nice evening walk. A local dog was leading the way and watched after the girls when I left them for a brief moment to scramble up the very top.

From Rifugio Biella
Dog leading the way
From a small peak near Rifugio Biella
View from Rifugio Biella
View from Rifugio Biella
View from Rifugio Biella
View from Rifugio Biella
View from Rifugio Biella
View from Rifugio Biella

The next day was our last day of hiking, going from Rifugio Biella to Lago di Braies (also called Pragser Wildsee), taking a bus from Lago di Braies to Dobbiaco, then another from Dobbiaco to Cortina d'Ampezzo, then another one to a bus stop relatively close to Rifugio Dibona. Due to partly luck and partly my good planning, we only had a few minutes between each bus and it all worked really well.

Departing Rifugio Biella
Towards Lago di Braies
Towards Lago di Braies
Approaching Lago di Braies
Approaching Lago di Braies
Lago di Braies
The last kilometers from the bus stop to Rifugio Dibona met quite a lot of resistance as some of us had assumed that the hiking had finished by this point. Still, staying at the forest was not an option, and when Rifugio Dibona was finally visible the attitude immediately changed from "I cannot walk any more, my legs are falling off" to "let's have a race!". We had a nice dinner at Rifugio Dibona and went for a short walk to shoot some pictures of the nearby mountains.
View from Rifugio Dibona
View from Rifugio Dibona
View from Rifugio Dibona

Overall, we had a lovely time on the Alta Via 1, it was very child friendly and we would certainly return there with children. If we were just adults, I'd probably prefer a less touristy long distance path, but with children this was perfect.

Thus having finished the hiking portion, we got in "our monstrosity" and drove to Lake Garda, where we visited Gardaland, which was really quite nice as much as such attraction parks can be.

The next days we stayed at an agriturismo not very far from Lago d'Iseo, where the Floating Piers exhibition had brought so many other tourists that while we managed to walk from Iseo to Sulzano, we didn't get to visit Monte Isola or enjoy the area much.

We stayed at Agriturismo Locanda Macina where the proprietor made us feel very welcome.

Next we spent a few days at Stresa, visiting the islands on Lago Maggiore, the bobsled at Alpyland and Orta town (where we had a long walk at Sacro Monte di Orta with more chapels in one place than I've ever seen).

Isola Bella on Lago di Maggiore
Isola Superiore della Pescatori at Lago Maggiore
Lago Maggiore
Orta main square
Lago d'Orta
L'isola di San Giulio

Overall, this was a very successful trip with everything going according to plan and the plan turning out to be a very good one.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Meike macro extension rings used on an Olympus 40-150mm

I don't shoot macro enough to justify buying a dedicated macro lens, but I've spent some time searching for a low-cost, low-weight macro alternative. I had a close-up lens that I didn't think got good results. I had manual focus macro extension rings, which only worked with my manual focus lenses, and thus I sold them on. And lately I got the Olympus 12-50mm pseudo-macro kit lens with my Olympus OM-D E-M5, but, while it gets decent results it doesn't provide as high a magnification as dedicated macro lenses, and its 211g of weight felt a bit too much for hiking trips where I would only use it for a few shots.

 10mm ring, f/5.6, 128mm 1/400s, ISO 200

I knew of Kenko macro extension tubes with auto-focus (AF) capability, but they seemed a bit too pricy for what are essentially pieces of metal with some wires going through, but recently I found out of some lower-priced alternatives.

16mm ring, f/5.6, 123mm, 1/800s, ISO 200

So I ordered Meike macro extension rings in for ~$50, which also offer AF pass-through.

I tested them at home with mixed results, but then took them out on an outing and got some results which will justify taking one of them with me on an upcoming hiking trip, especially in conjunction with the Olympus 40-150mm f/4-5.6 lens which I quite like and which is almost always in my bag

16mm ring, 150mm, 1/200s, ISO 200

They come in 10mm and 16mm versions and you can combine them to get 26mm although in my experience the 26mm combination is not easy to use in the field due to very narrow working distance.

16mm ring, f/5.6, 1/130s, ISO 200

The rings were quite nice to use - the DoF was quite thin at f/5.6, but it would be helped by stopping down and using a dedicated macro flash. The AF worked reasonably fast although it seemed to get confused more often than usual.

The working distance when extended to 100mm or beyond was very nice, but the magnification you get at 40mm was higher at the cost of a smaller working distance.

All shots were hand-held and at natural lighting, and all were focused only using auto-focus.

All in all, I will be leaving the 12-50mm home for most of my outings, as, while the 43mm macro-mode may get slightly better results the 40-150mm with the extension rings is more versatile working distance wise, and the Meike rings only weigh 8g + 8g + 21g + 27g = 64g; including front and rear caps.

Also the rings are quite versatile - in addition to the 40-150mm I also got nice results from them using the lovely Olympus 45mm f/1.8 and they also work in conjunction with the 43mm pseudo-macro mode of the 12-50mm!

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Nepal, Annapurna Base Camp trek, 2012

I recently returned from Nepal where I did the Annapurna Base Camp trek (also called Annapurna Santuary) in ~10 days (adding 5 more for all the travel from the UK).

Annapurna range from the path between Gorephani and Tadapani #1

I took the following photographic equipment:
  1. Olympus OM-D E-M5 (450g) - awesome camera that I got recently before the trip; I got used to the ergonomics and the menus, and really enjoyed the features it offers (mostly excellent IBIS, great DR, great EVF, the tilting screen which is very useful on tripod photography, etc.). As cons I can mention size/weight (yes, it seemed distinctly larger/heavier than my old Panasonic GF1 to the point that I couldn't carry it in the side hip backpack pouch as I used to, and had to move it to a front-dangling pouch which stressed my neck a bit), and concerns about battery endurance (was not a problem on this trip as I could pay to charge my batteries in lodge kitchens; might be a problem on other trips where that is not available). Overall, I was happy with the camera but had the Olympus Pen E-PM2 been available before my trip I would have probably gone with that due to the lower weight.
  2. Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 (100g) - lovely little lens, no complaints. Very sharp, very low weight. My go-to lens for astro-photography as the 9-18mm didn't work for that for me.
  3. Olympus 9-18mm f/4-5.6 (155g) - shot only at 9mm. Didn't work well at astro-photography as I never got the stars to display on the EVF so could never focus on them. Strange, could be I'm doing something wrong. I may consider replacing it with the Olympus 12mm f/2 for next trip to get better image quality, but then again 9mm is a lot wider than 12mm.
  4. Olympus 40-150mm f/4-5.6 (202g) - great lens, did everything that was asked of it, and very light for the very useful focal range it offers. With the better high ISO / IBIS of E-M5 it performed much better than on my previous trip w/ the GF1. Very glad I took it. Alternatives? There really weren't any for me, the Panasonic 45-200mm is much heavier and not as sharp, the other tele options are all way more expensive and generally aren't any better.
  5. One step-up ring and one step-down ring to bring all my lenses to 52mm filter thread size (~20g) - I could therefore use my two filters on any of my lenses
  6. Hoya ND8 filter (~13g) - used on waterfall shots
  7. Hoya HD circular polarizer filter (~13g) - used on quite a few landscape shots
  8. Home-assembled tripod which uses cheap tabletop tripod top in combination with carbon fiber custom-ordered legs which double-function as my backpack stays (50g) - The nice thing is that it only added ~50g to my daypack. The not so nice thing is that it only works well on level surface, and even then leveling the camera takes some fiddling. That being said, some waterfall shots would not have worked without it.
  9. Slik Sprint Pro II GM tripod (~1000g but in porter's bag) - excellent for the weight and price, performed very well. Went in the porters bag so was used for sunset/sunrise shots (carried it up Poon Hill and to Annapurna Base Camp for this purpose).
  10. About 18GB of SD cards of various sizes - of which I used up about 15GB
  11. Aftermarket wired remote (~30g in porter's bag) - always forgot to take it so never actually used it. Could have done without it easily.
  12. Original BLN-1 camera battery + two aftermarket batteries + two different chargers (one for each kind of batteries) (~150g in porter's bag) - mostly just used the original and recharged for $1 - $2 in the evenings.
I didn't really miss anything, even though I had considered bringing the weather resistant Olympus 12-50mm with me (didn't need it, as it rained very rarely), or a macro lens (didn't really have much macro opportunities).

Sunset from Tadapani
Overall, I was happy about the gear I took, both photographic and non-photographic (which I will discuss in a further post). I saw a lot of people dragging heavy DSLRs up the mountain, some even with attached battery grips, really large tripods, weighty tele lenses, and so forth. I would like to think that I achieved a very flexible kit which has the capability to take photos as good as theirs at a fraction of the weight.

Distant waterfalls
Our route went (* = spent a night there): Kathmandu* -> Pokhara -> Nayapul -> Ulleri* -> Ghorepani* -> Poon Hill -> Tadapani* -> Chomrong* -> Dovan* -> Machhapuchhre BC* -> Annapurna BC -> Bamboo* -> hot springs -> Jhinu* -> Nayapul -> Pokhara* -> Kathmandu*. The portions between Nayapul and Pokhara were done in a car, and between Pokhara and Kathmandu in a plane.


The trek itself for me could be categorized in 3 stages. The first day and to lesser degree second day were quite difficult, as the path largely went straight up through what is called "3000 stairs". At night I had heart palpitations, difficulty sleeping, very vivid dreams/nightmares, and overall a (perhaps unjustified) concern that I may be pushing too hard.

Then I grew acclimatised and things suddenly got easier, the climb at 4am from Machhapuchhre BC to Annapurna BC felt relatively easy, even though I had had minor altitude-induced headache at MBC.

The way down felt a bit rushed and on the last two days one of my knees started aching really badly on descents, and I had some chafing, but got back alright and could relax in Pokhara.

Towards Annapurna Base Camp

Other lessons learned:
  • I'd not climb Poon Hill, it is basically a tourist trap. The same mountains can be seen from the path from Gorephani to Tadapani, except you a) have better foregrounds b) don't share the same few square meters with hundreds of other tourists c) Don't have to gain ~400 vertical meters only to immediately lose them.
  • I'd consider flying directly to Pokhara (in our case from Delhi), skipping the whole Kathmandu part. I disliked the dirtiness and loudness of Kathmandu so much that I didn't do any sightseeing there. The traffic also seemed insane there. Pokhara was much nicer in that regard, more like a resort town. Kathmandu also seemed to have a lot of touts, and people who would sneak up to put your bag in the trunk of the taxi and then persistently demand tips for these 0.5 seconds of effort.
  • We could have probably saved money if we had just hired a porter and done the rest of the organization ourselves.
  • The only medicine (Compeed for blisters) I needed I of course had forgotten. Luckily, some friends we made on the trek helped with some. It was in my pre-travel checklist, I just had missed it - need to be more attentive.
  • While ABC trek was very well maintained and the path quality was very good, it often felt overdeveloped - too many people, too many lodges. I'll certainly pick a more remote location next time.
  • Bringing a lot of food to the ABC trek was not needed. I had heard stories from my friends about other Nepal treks and how getting decent food was difficult. In the case of ABC, it was quite the contrary. I had made the decision not to eat meat/fruit/salad in the mountains due to hygiene concerns, but found it easy to subsist on omelets of various kinds, vegetable soups, chapatis and a delicious Nepali staple - dal bhat (which generally comes with free refills, quite useful when expending so many calories). I had brought some biltong with me but ended up selling some on the way down as while it was still fresh and showed no sign of spoiling I just didn't get the opportunity to eat it.
  • "Hot mint" (hot water with some mint leaves) is one of the best drinks to have on a trek. Healthy, refreshing and warming all at the same time.
  • Whether to hire a porter or not depends on your physical condition. I personally would have had a miserable time without one, but I saw younger and fitter trekkers with both heavy and light bags going without. And I saw one group which had heavy bags despite having employed porters - they had simply brought so much stuff that it would have overloaded the porters who, while carrying superhuman loads up the mountains still have their limits.

Jungle plants in Nepal #2

P.S. For now all of the pictures can be viewed here, after some more processing I will eventually post them also inline as blog posts:

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Butterfly in Nepal