Review: Metal

By J F Lawrence

Disappointing post-apocalyptic "Shoot-em-up"

I read this hopeful from the book’s synopsis for a thoughtful, if pacey, sci-fi thriller in the Michael Crichton mould. However it really fails to deliver, descending very quickly into a formulaic post-apocalyptic “shoot-em-up”. The story portrays a remarkably rapid descent of American society into anarchy, in which our protagonists (led by two special-ops soldiers and an ex-military scientist) adopt a policy of “shoot first, think later” (the condition of the recipients consistently precluding any asking of questions).

The author is clearly very pro-gun, and uses the book to push the common justification of “if everyone has guns, we need mo’ guns”. Only one of the myriad interactions between the group and others completes with the exchange as agreed and everyone standing, the more usual outcome is complete carnage with the justification of “the mission” (to find a cure) being paramount. Those in the group with a more sensitive disposition all meet sticky ends, and only the “warriors” survive.

All this wouldn’t matter so much if the story had solid, consistent sci-fi underpinnings, but that’s not the case. The concept of a contagion with an element which rapidly corrodes common metals is a good one. However that is then elaborated past the point of believability, with almost the whole of mankind infected overnight by a cocktail of our deadliest diseases, which have somehow been engineered to produce almost no human symptoms but to destroy any nearby metal with not much more than a nasty look. The fact that we already protect ferrous metals in particular with coatings, by alloying or plating them with less reactive elements, or embedding them in bodies of glass, rubber and concrete is quietly ignored. This results in a situation where a gun can be protected despite repeated handing by wiping it with disinfectant, but someone obviously licked the Golden Gate Bridge and it collapsed.

A corollary of the in-credible science is very little discussion of possible solutions.  What there is, is inconsistent: there’s a list of the viral components and their metal targets, but a few pages later the priorities include one not on the list, and the list of “likely” vaccines ignores the fact vaccines for coronaviruses like COVID-19 have literally been developed within weeks of the viruses being identified. There appear to be other editing errors too: a note from the villain includes a hidden message, but the following discussion refers to elements which are not in the text, at least in the Kindle edition.

If you want a good fast-paced romp with lots of people being shot, this may be for you, but if you want a more measured thoughtful sci-fi thriller look elsewhere.

Categories: Reviews. Content Types: Book, Fiction, and Science Fiction.
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The World’s Worst Panorama 2024

The World's Worst Panorama 2024
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M7 | Date: 22-02-2024 19:37 | Resolution: 20250 x 3496 | ISO: 3200 | Exp. bias: -0.3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/8s | Aperture: 4.0 | Focal Length: 9.0mm (~24.0mm)

As is traditional, here’s my rogue’s gallery from the Lee Frost Iceland Tour 2024. From the left: Philip, Chris, Chris, Andreas, Lee, Yours Truly, Ann, John and Geriant.

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Three Kirks and a Kirkufell!

Camera: Panasonic DC-G9M2 | Date: 21-02-2024 17:56 | Resolution: 14672 x 3967 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/80s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 24.0mm (~48.0mm) | Location: Kirkjufellsfoss | State/Province: Grundarfjordur | See map

Ideally, don’t get a cold when you’re in Iceland. If you must, make sure you have enough of your preferred cold medication. If you’ve failed on that, then you really, really don’t want to discover it on Saturday morning. In Iceland’s smaller towns the pharmacies close over the weekend. We then discovered at 2pm on Monday that Vik’s is only open 9-1. At 9 on Tuesday we discovered that the Vik pharmacy don’t do any over the counter sales, and then at lunchtime we discovered in a larger pharmacy in Selfoss that none of them sell what we’d recognise as cold remedies!

Fortunately my own stock of lemsips lasted just long enough to get me through the worst, and the pharmacist in Selfoss took pity on me and sold me a couple of tablets "for a good night’s sleep" which I took on Tuesday night. I was asleep within minutes and 9 hours later I woke up feeling somewhat refreshed and ready for the day. Now all I need to find is an English translation of the Icelandic-only leaflet and find out just what’s in them!

Wednesday dawned cold and with snow falling steadily. We set off on the drive along the north of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, but what should have been our first stop at Kirkufell was abandoned because we couldn’t see the car park from the road. Lee wisely decided to cut our losses and drive the long way around the south of the peninsula, where the weather was a bit better, and we finally fetched up at Búðir church, which we photographed with snow driving in the foreground and enormous waves breaking for hundreds of yards behind the beach. Kirk 1.

Búðir church (Show Details)

The next stop was the small town of Arnarstapi where we got an excellent fish & chip lunch, and photographed interesting rock stacks around the harbour, and waves crashing through a natural arch a short distance away. We then proceeded to the pretty red-roofed church at Stóra-Hella. This works very well if there’s snow on the ground but clear skies, whereas we were trying to get our shots in driving snow. Characterful, but not quite the shots we imagined. Kirk 2.

In sharp contrast the next town, Enni, is home to a striking, modern and very geometrical church. I think it works well with a monochrome treatment. Kirk 3.

Enni church (Show Details)

A short distance up the road we passed a cliff covered in tumbling ice-falls. I asked to stop and got some wonderful images, but for some reason there were few other takers. All kirked-out?

Roadside ice at Búlandsgil (Show Details)

However the main event was still to come. We had completely circled Snæfellsjökull at the end of the peninsula, and worked our way back to Kirkufell, which was now clear and bathed in the light of the setting sun. There were countless images to be made, but the classic one of the mountain in the background and the waterfall in the fioreground worked very well when I was able to quickly grab a shot without too many other people in it.

Kirkjufellsfoss (Show Details)
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The Road North

View of Vik Sea Stacks from Loftsalir
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9M2 | Date: 20-02-2024 09:59 | Resolution: 5809 x 1936 | ISO: 125 | Exp. bias: -33/50 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 4.0 | Focal Length: 68.0mm (~148.0mm) | Location: Loftsalir | State/Province: Vik | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

After a leisurely breakfast we hit the road for the long drive up to the Snaefellsnes peninsula, up on the Iceland’s North-West coast. Among a number of other attractions, this is home to the volcano Snæfellsjökull, famous as the point where Professor Otto Lidenbrock & co start their Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

First stop was the road to Dyrhólaey. On the drive in yesterday I had seen a great composition with the three Vik sea stacks framed on both sides by a combination of the mountains around Vik, and the edge of the island. It took a little finding, and my best shot was probably taken through the windscreen with the van momentarily stationary, but I not only found the composition, I was rewarded by a great sky including rolling clouds and breaking sunshine.

Next was the waterfall at Seljalandsfoss. I have seen this before, in Summer when it’s possible to walk behind the water. In winter that’s roped off for obvious safety reasons, but you can still get some great shots from the front, with the benefit in early Spring of much greater water flow. Images are all variations on a simple, obvious theme, but it’s worth the short stop to add one to your collection.

Seljalandsfoss (Show Details)

The drive into Reykjavik and out North was challenging due to the combination of frequent heavy rain showers, and occasionally settling snow. However we made it, including a lunch stop, to Borgarnes, beyond which the drive was again punctuated by snow showers, but also a couple of brief stops (brevity enforced by the inclement weather) to capture combinations of dramatic scenery and skies.

The Harbour at Stykkisholmur (Show Details)

We finally arrived at Stykkishólmur. The Foss Hotel is modern and spacious, but doesn’t offer a laundry service so I had to resort to hand-washing a couple of items I needed to tide me through to the end of the trip. Unimpressed.

On a positive note the dinner was excellent, the lamb one of the best meals I have had in some time.

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Inappropriate Footwear, and an Inaccurate Prediction

Camera: Panasonic DC-G9M2 | Date: 19-02-2024 09:35 | Resolution: 14005 x 3658 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/50s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 12.0mm (~24.0mm) | Location: Skógafoss | State/Province: Skogar | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8II

On Sunday we moved on from Höfn back towards Vik. I was still feeling fragile, but after a better night’s sleep somewhat improved, and I knew the day would be mainly a fairly steady drive.

We did make one photography stop, at the Svínafellsjökull Glacier. At one level this was very depressing. I visited in 2011, and I remember a short walk of maybe a minute or two, to a glacier towering above us. Now it’s a 10+ minute hike in, to a glacier which is at its leading edge some way below the viewpoint. It has obviously retreated at least 0.5km in the intervening 13 years, and maybe as much as 1km. There really is a case for tying all oil company executives to the front of glaciers at the start of spring, and explaining that if they are right about global warming, they won’t drown…

At another level it was quite hilarious. The path from the car park starts with about 100m of a steady moderate gradient, which was covered in sheet ice, in turn running with melt water. Those equipped with crampons (including all members of our group) just walked straight up on down the middle. Those in boots without crampons walked gingerly, occasionally on all fours, close to the path’s edge. And then there was this young oriental couple!

Inappropriate Footwear – Thanks to Andreas for the Image(Show Details)

The Hotel Vik is by some margin the worst of the trip (at least so far). The rooms are poky and so poorly lit you can’t see what you’re doing unless you get them to provide an additional lamp. Given what most residents will be doing the lack of either rails to hang damp clothing, or a boot puller is a complete mystery. To sit at the desk you have to make movement between the bathroom and bedroom areas impossible. There was obviously a competition and the architects who claimed to put stuff into the smallest possible space won the job, but it’s not a good one. (Interestingly it only scores 25 on the dysfunctional hotel rooms scheme. That’s high, but not excessive – the issue is more the cumulative effect of everything feeling a bit squeezed and cheap.)

To add insult to injury dinner is served after 7, but happy hour is 4-6. WTF?

In the morning I was almost back to my normal self. Our first stop was the waterfall at Skógafoss. Even though we arrived by about 8.30 the site was already quite full of other visitors. Most of my group resolved this by setting up tripods some distance back and shooting over their heads. I found a different solution, put the 9mm lens on the camera, and walked in front of the grockles to get a clean shot without them. It took a couple of goes to get one before the spray covered the filter, but it worked. Afterwards I felt sufficiently recovered to do the short walk to the high veiwpoint, and was rewarded by an opposing hillside lit by the rising sun in wonderful oranges and browns, with the river and top of the waterfall providing leading lines below. Shot of the day?

After that we headed back to the island of Dyrhólaey. Lee suggested that we might want to try and capture the intricate patterns of foam from waves breaking gently on the black beach. Right:

"You might want to try and capture the intricate patterns of foam from waves breaking gently on the black beach" (Show Details)

Once we’d tuned into the stormy sea (not accompanied by a significant local wind) I did manage to get a few different shots, but most involved catching very big waves either in front of, or breaking over, the other features.

After lunch we went down to the Black Beach. Again this rapidly became a game of catching the biggest most threatening looking waves breaking in front of or over the rocks. While doing so I was caught out by a rogue wave which charged up the beach and reached me at thigh level even though I was some distance from the average water position. Fortunately I kept my balance, didn’t fall over or drop the camera, and the combination of muck boots and over trousers kept almost all the water out. One sock was a bit damp, but that’s not too much to complain about when it could have been very much worse.

I had wondered why the flashing light at the entrance was only on amber. I looked up and in the intervening 5 minutes it had gone to red. Fair enough.

We gave up on the Black Beach and drove round to Vik beach, which is usually calmer. Not today. After a short session trying to catch the scariest-looking waves breaking in front of the sea stacks it started to rain, so we finally called it a day.

The Sea Stacks from Víkurfjara Black Sand Beach (Show Details)
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The Cold Gives Me a Cold

The Witches Hat, Snokksnes
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9M2 | Date: 16-02-2024 15:51 | Resolution: 5678 x 3549 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0.33 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 15.0mm (~32.0mm) | Location: Snokksnes, Hornsvík | State/Province: Hofn | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8II

The following day we moved on from Jökulsárlón to near Höfn, a relatively short drive but we stopped on the way to photograph wonderful light over the hills a mile or two back from the coast, despite the fact that we could only see thick cloud. We also stopped to photograph a cute little yellow house where Lee used to stay in years gone by, and a particularly photogenic group of Icelandic ponies.

Dramatic light on the road near Jokulsarlon (Show Details)

Yellow house at Fellsá (Show Details)

Icelandic Ponies (Show Details)

We checked in to the hotel quite early, as obviously this far up the coast they are not busy at this time of year. The other good piece of news is that Chris was finally reunited with his missing bag! (After "only" 5 days…)

We took lunch at the Kaffi Hornið. They’re interpretation of the Icelandic principle of "get at least this amount of money out of each tourist" is delicious fare, but portions at least twice the size they need to be. I had a steak sandwich, which was absolutely delicious, but looked suspiciously like a sliced cow between two pieces of bread.

After lunch we found the Höfn computer store, and I was finally equipped with a working mouse, which has transformed the work on my writing and images.

We then drove up to Stokksnes, a small peninsula in the shadow of Vestrahorn Mountain, the famous "witches hat" which extends over a black beach full of small black dunes, and also puddles which were just melting to give me some scope for reflections.

The Witches Hat, Snokksnes (Show Details)

Unfortunately by the end of the visit the cold was starting to catch up with me – I felt very weary and had a dreadful runny nose. I managed dinner, but then went to bed and slept soundly for many hours.

I woke up somewhat rested but still feeling rough, and gave the group breakfast and morning trip a miss. Fortunately this wasn’t a major issue, as the weather closed in and those who went out were battling rain showers and the like.

We again took lunch at the Kaffi Hornið. I tried to negotiate a smaller portion, but failed miserably. Fortunately the fish & chips was less enormous than some of the other options.

I spent the rest of the day alternating between rest (not completely comatose) and sleep (out for the count). I just hope that come tomorrow I will start to feel a bit more human again.

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No Sitting Down Time

Inside the Sapphire Ice Cave
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9M2 | Date: 15-02-2024 16:40 | Resolution: 5776 x 3610 | ISO: 800 | Exp. bias: -2 EV | Exp. Time: 1/13s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 25.0mm (~54.0mm)

Day 3 started back at Jökulsárlón with another sunrise over the beach. Overnight some larger icebergs had reached the outlet and then beached, and the waves were somewhat higher than the previous day, providing for more dramatic images, but maybe less subtle ones.

Ice on the Diamond Beach (Show Details)

Just as the sun rose we noticed wonderful pink light on the hills behind the lagoon, so I made the short walk up from the beach to photograph in this new light. It was also interesting to see just how much the visible bergs had changed, with several large ones poised to leave the lagoon, and others having changed position noticeably since the previous evening.

Pink Ice! (Show Details)

The other point of interest was the force of the water flow under the bridge and through the lagoon’s outlet. This reverses twice a day and at high tide salt water literally pours into the lagoon, helping to melt the icebergs, then the flow reverses taking any loose ice out to the sea. It was by stopping that flow that the Bond team made the lagoon freeze for the car chase in Die Another Day, then they simply unblocked the outlet and normal service resumed.

Bridge Over the Outlet from the Lagoon (Show Details)

After a couple of hours of photography we were ready for coffee, but we again had to choose between the warmth of the cafe, and the use of a seat. I joked that when Lee said there would be limited down-time on the trip, I hadn’t realised he meant limited sitting down time.

Fortunately a resolution presented itself. Several of the group wanted to go back to Fjallasarlon. I joined them, but just went for an extended lunch in the warm, seated cafe at the new visitor centre.

Lee had planned an ice cave tour for the afternoon, but in the middle of lunch started getting messages that our tour had been usurped by a group of 56 school children, which would make serious photography impossible. After a bit of haggling we switched to an alternative cave and the trip was back on.

The drive out was entertaining, in a capable but very noisy and rough super jeep, followed by another long walk on ice to the cave entrance. Once inside we photographed a few "set piece" compositions, but did get a couple of promising images from each. However my expectation of a lengthy walk through a colourful cave went unfulfilled.

Entrance to the Sapphire Ice Cave (Show Details)

The drive out seemed even longer than the drive in, and we were late back to the hotel. Dinner was fine, but I was starting to feel very weary and departed early for bed.

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On Reflection, This is Really Pretty

Iceberg reflections at Jökulsárlón
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9M2 | Date: 14-02-2024 11:54 | Resolution: 5567 x 3479 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/200s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 72.0mm (~156.0mm) | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

The first full day of the tour started with breakfast, one advantage of being sufficiently far North is that sunrise is around 9, and sunset around 5. After breakfast we drove back to Jökulsárlón and went down onto the Diamond Beach, where many icebergs released from the lagoon are driven. We photographed them with the rising sun behind, with waves breaking over them, and as beautiful sculptures against the black background of the beach’s pebbles.

Iceberg surise (Show Details)

When we tired of that we went the short distance to the lagoon, which unusually was completely becalmed and in bright, low sunlight allowing for dramatic reflections.

The only problem with Jökulsárlón is that it’s become overrun by a massive number of visitors compared with when I visited in 2011, and the facilities haven’t even remotely kept up. The main cafe now only has standing room inside, and a very limited lunch menu. There are a few food trucks in the car park but each has at least a half-hour wait. And don’t mention the queue for the Ladies…

After an adequate but somewhat constrained lunch of lobster soup we set off for another glacial lagoon, at Fjallasarlon. When I was here before this was completely undeveloped, we drove the jeeps to the edge of the lake, and photographed the lake, a small, distant glacier, and a few icebergs. Not only does it now have a nice new visitor centre, where you can sit down!, but in winter the glacier comes right to the edge of the completely frozen lake on which you can walk.

Large iceberg on the frozen lake at Fjallasarlon (Show Details)

Like knowing that aurorae are faint to the naked eye, I also "knew" that in clear air distances can be deceptive. Chris and I walked down the relatively short path from the ridge to the lake, and a few hundred metres to a very large, very sculptural iceberg.

At that point I looked at the front edge of the glacier on the other side of the lake and said "that doesn’t look much farther". So we set off. Some time later we were still walking, with our spikes on the ice, and it was only slowly getting closer. Eventually the ice started to look a bit broken and slushy, and we decided for safety’s sake to turn around. When we got back my Fitbit suggested we’d walked around 5km, and Andreas’ drone had recorded 6km going the full distance, safely above the ice. The walk was very enjoyable, but it was a lot further than I had planned.

Andrew and Iceberg (Show Details)

The last stop of the afternoon was back at Jökulsárlón, however there wasn’t much of a sunset. I got a few more reflection shots, then it was back to the hotel for a nice dinner and early night.

Iceberg sunset (Show Details)
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A Long Road, But a Great Destination

Northern Lights over Jökulsárlón
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9M2 | Date: 13-02-2024 23:16 | Resolution: 5736 x 3585 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 8.0s | Aperture: 1.8 | Focal Length: 9.0mm (~21.0mm)

New one for the dysfunctional hotels blog. Not only is the toilet positioned so close to the shower partition that someone with broad shoulders can’t sit straight, but as you sit there the door gradually swings open and comes to rest between your knees, with your left leg wedged firmly up against the partition, and your nose against the door handle. Double fault, 10 points.

Breakfast was complete with all expected humans, but we were collectively short one case which EasyJet had managed to leave at Gatwick, with an expected delivery date in four days’ time, so big Chris was going to have to do some emergency shopping.

We set off on the long drive to Jökulsárlón, our first stop proper. With the whole of southern Iceland covered in a fresh coat of crisp snow it was stunningly beautiful, but the combination of high winds and some ice on the road made it a very hard drive for Lee. Even though the storm had moved on, at times drifting loose snow caused a near white-out, and we passed at least one accident where a large vehicle had effectively pushed another off the road, albeit hopefully without significant injury.

We had a short stop for lunch, but otherwise we were on the road for about 5 hours. However that got us to the new FossHotel near Jökulsárlón, and after checking in we headed for the glacial lagoon, getting there just in time for sunset. There was great light on both the icebergs near the mouth of the lagoon, and also the hills behind it.

Sunset at Jökulsárlón (Show Details)

Back to the hotel for dinner, and then out again, with fairly clear skies and a good forecast for aurorae. We weren’t disappointed – it got started just as we got there, and put on a stunning show for two hours. I was in my element, with scope for all sorts of wide shots, and the Panasonic 9mm f/1.7 lens I bought for the purpose two years ago finally got used as intended.

One thing of which I was already aware in theory is just how faint the aurora is in practice. With the naked eye it’s just a dim glow and you need long exposures at high ISOs with a fast lens to make more impactful images. With my camera, at least, that leads to quite a noisy RAW image, and I’ll have to experiment to get the best results. However it all looks very promising.

Northern Lights over Jökulsárlón (Show Details)
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The Cold As Ice Blog

View from the plane approaching Keflavik
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M7 | Date: 12-02-2024 15:07 | Resolution: 4436 x 2773 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: -0.3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 4.0 | Focal Length: 21.1mm (~57.0mm)

Andrew’s off to Iceland, again. I promise I won’t re-use the fish fingers joke, it wasn’t that funny in 2011…

While I have been to Iceland before, this promises to be quite different. The previous trip was in mid-Summer, run by an Icelandic company, and focused mainly on the highlands, and also the end of season cultural events. This is in the depths of Winter, run by Lee Frost, and focuses largely on the coast. I’m hoping to actually see a bit more ice than last time, and maybe even the aurora.

Hopefully my photographic capabilities have improved in the intervening 12 years. At the very least I won’t be trying to work with the execrable Canon 15-85mm lens, but on the other hand the kit I had on that first trip worked wonderfully photographing the puffins at Dyrholaey, so it may be a question of swings and roundabouts.

My travel arrangements worked smoothly, with the exception of the junction between the M4 and the Heathrow link road which is always a nightmare at peak hours. It’s got the same inadequate design as Junction 10 on the M25, which is currently being reworked at enormous expense into a proper cloverleaf interchange, but I suspect the Heathrow one will just have to soldier on.

Once at the airport I had a couple of very pleasant surprises. The first was that I used the trial of the new security scanning – you literally just dump your bag and coat into a tray, and that’s it – all the messing around with liquids, laptops etc. has gone. At the other end they did divert my bag and inspect a couple of items, so I suspect they are still training the system and its users on what some things look like on the X-Ray, but overall a good experience. Then as I walked into the shopping area I was approached by an elderly man in a volunteer’s outfit who offered me a "random act of kindness" and gave me a £5 voucher which covered the cost of a cup of coffee. Very welcome.

The flight was full, mainly due to the presence of a couple of groups of teenagers obviously on a posh school trip. The entertaining element was that a number of the youngsters, especially the girls, had clearly ignored the notes on weather. I would love to have seen the expression on the face of the young lady with a bare midriff on contact with the Icelandic wind!

As we came in towards Iceland the heavy cloud cleared, and I got a couple of great shots of the coast, covered in snow and lit up in wonderful late afternoon, edge of cloud light.

View from the plane approaching Keflavik (Show Details)

I have opined at length about alleged airlines who as actually running a bus service. I didn’t expect Icelandair to be one of them, but after taking us off the plane through a proper air corridor, they then guided us down the steps and out into the freezing cold to get on a bus to the terminal proper. I don’t mind walking a bit or getting a bus in tropical temperatures, but I’m not impressed when that actually involves walking on frozen slush and snow. Not impressed.

The hotel was a short walk from the airport, but not all clear of snow and ice which made it slightly more of a challenge than expected. On a positive note they had sent a warning that the heating had been affected because the volcanic eruption had cut the geothermal power pipes, but repairs have been made and it’s warming up nicely.

The rest of the group arrives overnight, so we get cracking tomorrow.

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Picturing Zanzibar – Advice for Photographers

Welcome to Zanzibar!
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9M2 | Date: 04-12-2023 13:37 | Resolution: 2628 x 2628 | ISO: 640 | Exp. bias: -1 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 11.0 | Focal Length: 12.0mm (~24.0mm) | Location: Shangani Lighthouse | State/Province: Stone Town, Zanzibar City, Zanzi | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8II

With my Zanzibar trip now firmly behind me, I’ve looked back and tried to condense what I experienced into guidance for future visitors and photographers.

This was my first trip to East Africa, and I came away with a lot of positive feelings. This appears to be a happy, vibrant place with lots of friendly people. Most of the practicalities worked fine, albeit sometimes a bit slowly, in a way familiar to anyone who has travelled in the tropics. I never felt the slightest issue in respect of personal security, and all my commercial transactions were honest and straightforward, although there was inevitably some haggling with shopkeepers to agree a price.

Dhow at BuBuBu (Show Details)

Photographic Subjects and Practices

I did get some great shots of people, beaches and boats, and the snorkelling was easily the best I’ve done in about 20 years. For those happy in a relatively small boat I would thoroughly recommend a dhow trip, and a snorkelling trip with Safari Blue.

Snorkelling near Kwale Island (Show Details)

Beaches aside, there’s no scenery to speak of. The island is as flat as a pancake, covered with either very generic tropical vegetation or small-scale agriculture, broken intermittently by what are described as "villages" but many of which are in reality small towns of several thousand people. The historical area of Stonetown is home to some fascinating old narrow alleys and tall buildings, but away from there the vernacular architecture is either 1960s communist blocks, or nondescript smaller constructions of concrete blocks and corrugated iron. Both are, let’s be honest, just ugly. In some parts of the world buildings are at least cheered up by being painted in bright colours, but most in Zanzibar are left unpainted in drab greys and browns.

Stonetown does have a wonderful tradition of impressive, studded timber doors. These were present, but unfortunately at the time of our visit almost every one was covered in complex sets of numbers scrawled in chalk, the legacy of a recent census. Hopefully when the process is complete most will be cleaned and returned to their usual photogenic state, but I’ve come away with relatively few shots of these vaunted features.

We didn’t see any wildlife except fish, a few birds, a couple of impressively large rats, and some amazingly colourful dragonflies which frequented the hotel pool but were impossible to photograph. An occasional rustle in the trees or roadside vegetation suggested some slightly larger fauna, but it didn’t make itself obvious.

That brings us to the people. Most were pleasant and interesting, but not all were willing photographic subjects. They seemed to split down into a few groups (albeit with lots of borderline cases):

  1. Those who are happy to be photographed without immediate reward. A lot of people in direct tourist-facing roles are naturally in this group, however they are not the majority.
  2. Those who can be persuaded, especially if you engage with them first and take a genuine interest in their activity or situation, and then ask permission. This is down to your powers of persuasion, or those of your guide.
  3. Those who are happy to pose on the transactional basis that they will be paid. As well as entertainers working for tips you will find a number of the general public who operate on a "dollar for photo" or similar basis. Stallholders who have either just made a sale of who have a real prospect of one are also usually willing.
  4. Those who really don’t want to be photographed. I reckon this can be 50% or more in some cases. Some will make it very obvious with a "no photo" or covering their face. You have to acknowledge and honour this.

Ladies happy to be photographed, for a fee! (Show Details)

The reticence of many of the people seems to be down to a combination of the standard Muslim concern about images of people, more modern concerns about publishing one’s likeness, and an annoyance that their daily lives are being scrutinised by foreigners. It has to be said that most of us would be the same if the situation was reversed. I started to feel a bit uncomfortable tramping around the villages, and after a while focused photography on those in groups 1-3.

You also should be alert to those who due to peer pressure appear to be in group 2 or 3, but are actually in group 4. You may detect unease, or just poor poses and expressions – these are passive expressions of the same unwillingness. A good example is where we were invited into school classes, but some of the youngsters were obviously much less comfortable than others. Again, there’s no point in pushing with an unwilling subject.

Finally you have to be aware of the psychological aspects of the photographic process on willing but inexperienced subjects. In a couple of cases we found a great model, but the first photographer in the group thrust an enormous camera and lens into her face and insisted on taking dozens of images, and the rest didn’t get a look in. That’s unfair on both the subject and the other photographers.

If you do have to pay a subject it won’t require much – 1 US dollar is a good reward for a some shots of an adult, and you can scale up to maybe $10 for a group. Carry lots of $1 notes. However it’s not a good idea to pay kids directly – this is clearly driving a lot of poor behaviours.

Tumblers on the beach (Show Details)

Photographic Kit

There’s not a great deal to say here. Any good camera should serve you well, and unless you’re going underwater the practical demands are limited. The beauty of Micro Four Thirds allowed me to take a range of lenses covering from ultra-wide angle to long telephoto without breaking the luggage limit, but the longer lenses got very limited use, and a standard pair of zooms covering the equivalent of 24-70mm and 70-200mm or similar would cover the vast majority of subjects.

My new Panasonic G9ii behaved faultlessly, and like its predecessor proved an ideal camera for travelling "light but fully equipped". I took 1662 images on it, about 110 on the Sony Rx100 mk 7, and about 316 using the waterproof Olympus TG6, across about 8 days of "active photography" (as opposed to lying by the pool). The count was lower than many trips, but reflected the limited need for multi-shot techniques or high frame rate action photography. About 50% of the shots have been retained for further processing after an initial edit, higher than usual for the same reasons.

Make sure you have a circular polariser for each lens. I just left mine on most of the time, as the light frequently demands it, and it’s good protection against the dust and moisture. Alternatively you might want to take clear or UV filters, but that’s arguably overkill. My ND filters didn’t come out of the bag, and I didn’t catch any of my companions messing about with square filters, ND Grads and the like – the subjects really didn’t call for it.

Underwater the TG6 worked well enough, and avoided the literally fatal failings of its predecessor. However the images are not that sharp, and battery life is very poor, as I found to my cost when I lost power halfway through the second snorkelling session. If you are doing a trip with multiple snorkel or dive sessions in the water, change the battery after each one, and accept the risk of opening the camera in a less controlled environment.

Sea star on Nungwi beach (Show Details)

You could get away without taking a tripod. Mine never left the suitcase. Obviously it depends on your style, and your tolerance for higher ISO for evening shots, but I worked exclusively handheld. By and large it was too cloudy for genuine night photography, and otherwise the light levels and subjects were always workable.

If you are travelling to that part of the world with significant photographic kit, avoid Emirates as an airline. They have a ridiculous 7kg and one piece limit on cabin baggage which they enforce quite enthusiastically. My work-around was to wear a photographer’s vest which ended up almost as heavy as my bag, but I shouldn’t have to be forced to do so.

Otherwise that’s about it. The phrase which sums it up well is "f/8 and be there…"


This section does need a significant "your mileage may vary" warning – it reflects my experiences and others may be different. For example all the advice beforehand warned that insects might be a major issue, but I was sufficiently untroubled that by the end of the trip I wasn’t even putting repellent on, just making sure the mosquito net was secure overnight. However another member of the group did get a very nasty bite on the first night…

Zanzibar is well set up for tourism, and a lot of things "just worked". With one ultimately amusing exception, I didn’t experience any major hotel room malfunctions. Toilets were uniformly clean and functional. Transport arrangements were unproblematic.

Money is straightforward. Take lots of small US dollar bills for tips and small purchases – these are uniformly acceptable, the locals are well versed in applying a pragmatic exchange rate and rounding up or down as required, and it keeps your wallet simple. You can also get Tanzanian Shillings, or you might receive some in change, and that’s not a problem apart from the fact that the exchange rate is about 2500 to the $, or 3200 to the £, so you need to be careful with the number of zeroes! Larger bills will be presented in USD and can be settled with a credit card – just live with the small surcharge.

You will need a guide unless you’re just sticking to the environs of the hotels, and you will need a driver if you’re moving around. The main roads between towns and around Stonetown are very good and I’d be perfectly comfortable driving them, but get 10m off them and they are biblically bad. Both services are readily available at reasonable cost, so let them take the strain.

It is hot – in the 30s Celsius during the day, low 20s overnight, and humid, often without much of a breeze. Wear high factor sunscreen and be prepared to change your clothing fairly regularly. Be respectful with your clothing, but I didn’t find it necessary to follow the "cover up" guidance you get from some sources. A T shirt and shorts should be OK.

Try and adapt to the temperature. In your hotel room turn the air conditioning off, and the fan on. I slept like a log, but then I am used to the tropics and run a warm house at home. This is one of those YMMV bits.

One complaint we did have is that not enough water is served in hospitality settings. In most warm countries the first thing that happens in a restaurant or hotel is you get a glass of cold water, served from a freshly-opened bottle when required. Not in Zanzibar, you have to ask for water at meals, and you may have to manage your own supply in the hotel room. It’s not a problem – bottled water is readily available and inexpensive, but you do need to be alert to the issue and make sure you don’t accidentally get dehydrated.

Be absolutely religious about sticking to bottled water for drinking and tooth-cleaning. One of our party made a mistake on the latter and was then ill. I did try filling a kettle from the tap, but the cloudy fluid didn’t look like even boiling it would necessarily remove everything untoward, and I switched back to bottled water even for tea.

We all suffered from some measure of "tummy trouble", some, as in my case, fairly minor, some less so. My suspicion fell on the attractive salads and ice cream served by the Z Hotel, and I switched to the "bottle and burger"™ diet. This is very simple: don’t drink anything you didn’t see come out of a bottle – water, wine, beer and spirits are fine, but no cocktails. Don’t eat anything which hasn’t been baked, grilled or fried immediately before serving. Hot drinks are OK, as are boiled vegetables but only if they are still steaming – cold rice and similar are a no-no. It worked for me.

After the trip we did share our concerns about the salads with the hotel manager who assured us that all vegetables were washed using boiled water. As they say in the British Parliament, "I refer the gentleman to my earlier statement."

I mentioned that in most respect most of the hotel rooms worked quite well. However we did get one new entry for the dysfunctional hotels blog. In my first room at the Emerson Hotel in Stonetown the active and spare toilet rolls were strung on a rope from the ceiling, conveniently positioned for when required. In principle this is a good design, however in a tropical downpour on the first night water got in from outside, ran down the rope, and soaked both rolls. Annoying, especially as this is not an obvious failure until your need is unavoidable!

Coconut weaving (Show Details)

Service and Sophistication

Service was always willing and helpful, but occasionally annoying despite the good intentions. Paying or signing for drinks at the hotels is a good example. The staff don’t want to bother you while, or immediately after, consuming your drink. That’s great, but it can turn into either an interminable wait when you’re ready to go, or to your being pursued around the hotel with an unsigned chitty at shift end. Being proactive doesn’t necessarily help: I got a great cup of coffee early one morning, but while the barman could work the coffee machine to good effect, neither he nor any of the other staff on duty could work the till. I had to come back later.

More complex services are a mixed bunch. I had absolutely outstanding service from Safari Blue who not only provided a snorkelling trip but also arranged my travel, meals and changing facilities for my final day.

On the other hand I was also hoping to get two additional side-trips into the last few days: a deep sea fishing trip, and a catamaran cruise. I have done each many times in the Caribbean, you just ring up, book your place, turn up and pay. Often they even provide a taxi from your hotel. Not in Zanzibar. You can’t walk 100 yards down the beach without someone pestering you about a fishing trip, but it’s a completely different commercial model. They will happily charter you a boat, for anywhere between $400 and $1000, but it’s then your job to fill it. There’s no such thing as a "shared" trip where they do that work, apart from the dhow cruises. I couldn’t interest my companions, so the week came and went without fishing or a catamaran trip.

It’s apparent that the challenges in the educational system are failing many Zanzibarians. The inability to work the till was one example, but in fairness that was obviously a "training" hotel. However I found quite a few examples of limited reasoning skills or "learned stupidity". For example, The Z Hotel will make you a nice latte and serve it in a tall glass as per custom. So far so good. They have two sizes of saucers in their crockery set: a larger one with a dimple the right size for the latte glasses, and a smaller one where the dimple is too small and the glass wobbles alarmingly on top. You can guess which one they had all been told to use, and no amount of demonstrating the issue to the waiters every day for a week made a blind bit of difference.

Compared with some other tropical locations, there does seem to be a genuine intention to try and reduce the environmental impact of both general living and tourism. Waste was minimised and well-managed, with impressive recycling or reduction of most plastics. I even saw an old lady recycling nylon rope, using exactly the same method as others use with coconut fibres. That said there are some messy corners in villages, and on some non-tourist beaches, but you feel that they are trying to do the right thing.

Dhow at Jambiani Beach (Show Details)

And Finally…

There’s a Swahili phrase which gets a lot of use: "Pole Pole" (pronounced pole-ay, literally "slowly, slowly"). Sometimes this is meant as "go carefully", for example when getting on or off a boat. But it’s also an excuse, like "island time" or "maņana". If you’ve travelled in the tropics before the relaxed timekeeping and unhurried approach will be nothing new. If you haven’t, then sit back and relax – there’s not much you can do about it!

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Starfish and Snorkelling

Dolphin near Ras Fumba
Camera: OLYMPUS CORPORATION TG-6 | Date: 17-12-2023 15:40 | Resolution: 1189 x 1585 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -0.3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 18.0 | Focal Length: 18.0mm (~100.0mm) | Location: Ras Fumba | State/Province: Ziwani, Zanzibar Urban/West | See map

Several of us tacked a few days onto the end of the tour, primarily for a lie in the sun next to the Indian Ocean. For that the Z Hotel was perfect, with a beautiful pool literally on the edge of the beach. Some of the group were keen and insisted on hiking up to the fish market every morning, but between a touch of gout and tummy trouble I was content to take it easy and just soak up the rays.

The beach at Nungwi shelves very slowly, with high tide almost reaching the hotel steps, but low tide allowing you to walk out 100 yards, maybe twice that if you don’t mind getting wet up to your knees. It’s also famous for its starfish, which are regularly swept around the shallow reefs within walking distance. You don’t need specialist equipment to photograph these – a phone will do nicely if it’s rated for the odd short immersion. I had the TG6 and my snorkel, so I could go out with the tide a bit higher and get them in slightly deeper water which removed any issue with reflections from the surface.

Sea star off Nungwi Beach (Show Details)

I was also hoping to get two additional side-trips into the last few days: a deep sea fishing trip, and a catamaran cruise. I have done each many times in the Caribbean, you just ring up, book your place, turn up and pay. Often they even provide a taxi from your hotel. Not in Zanzibar. You can’t walk 100 yards down the beach without someone pestering you about a fishing trip, but it’s a completely different commercial model. They will happily charter you a boat, for anywhere between $400 and $1000, but it’s then your job to fill it. There’s no such thing as a "shared" trip where they do that work, apart from the dhow cruises which I’d already experienced. Sadly none of the others on Lee’s trip were keen, so the week came and went without fishing or a catamaran trip.

Happily I fared better on snorkelling, although there were some "administrative complexities"… Two of our group, Richard and Laura, had come out to Zanzibar early to do a dive, and they’d also been on a snorkelling trip with Safari Blue which they highly recommended. The only trouble was that the trip was based out of Fumba, some distance south of Stonetown and 1-2 hours’ drive from Nungwi, not ideal for a day trip. However I was also looking at the problem of a very late flight back, which would potentially mean paying the hotel for another day’s use of the room, and we came up with a cunning plan.

On the way to snorkelling near Kwale Island (Show Details)

I got in touch with the very helpful Khamis at Safari Blue, who organised the whole thing. For an extra $65 I would get a driver for the whole of my final day, who would pick me up from my hotel and drive me down to Fumba for the trip. My luggage would stay in his vehicle under his watch. After the trip I could get a shower and meal at the Kayak Club in Fumba, change into my travel gear, and then the driver would drive me straight to the airport. The total for the driver and the trip actually worked out less than the hotel would charge for a day room and an airport transfer, so the snorkelling trip even saved me money! And it worked like a dream. I did have to talk the driver and the people at the Kayak Club through the arrangements, but once they understood they were all very helpful, and I ended up at the airport fed, luggage intact and fresh for the flight.

The trip itself was excellent. "Captain Morgan" (a stage name, I suspect) welcomed about 15 of us onto a medium-sized wooden sailing boat and took us first to a small sand-bar to see some seabirds, then out to the shallow reefs for snorkelling. This was easily the best snorkelling I had done in 20 years, splendid colourful coral and numerous entertaining fish, some of whom were actively curious coming up to the camera to be photographed. Lunch was taken on a small island with a fish BBQ followed by a "fruit tasting" with Captain Morgan. After lunch we routed back to Fumba beach via an area frequented by dolphins, and were privileged to see a number swimming round and breaking the water. I got very lucky with one grab shot of one of the dolphins breaching clear of the water – pretty much my last shot of the trip, but what a last shot. A bit blurry due to the distance, but who cares. Job done.

Snorkelling near Kwale Island (Show Details)

Snorkelling near Kwale Island (Show Details)

Snorkelling near Kwale Island (Show Details)
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