Tuesday, July 31, 2007

British Airways and Sucking Eggs

Britain has an extra rule when flying from or through one of their airports. You can only carry one bag on an airplane. No matter that all of the airlines allow two, they'll only let you through security with one. Of course, the airline size and weight restrictions still apply to that one bag you're allowed to carry, so in preparation for our flights to South Africa, I had to make a choice: carry on the laptop and misc electronics, or carry on the camera gear (Canon 20D, Canon 5D and a number of heavy lenses. I figured it would be safest to pack the camera gear in their nicely padded bags, and then pack those bags in a nicely nondescript black roller suitcase. And pray.

We made it safely through London and to Johannesburg this way, even though our flight to Joburg was a couple of hours late so we had to pay for changing our next flight. British Airways said they wouldn't help us ("Go suck eggs" sounds more polite with a British accent). Fortunately, I could carry the camera gear on to and from the short flight to Richard's Bay so all of our gear made it to South Africa.

The joy ends there.

On our return flight to London, I still carried my camera equipment on to the flight back to Joburg and then with us throughout the day visiting the Hills at their stunning home outside of town. When we returned to the airport that evening, we checked all of our baggage with British Airways for our non-stop flight to London. As we arrived in London, all of our bags showed up and looked just fine so we headed, exhausted, to our hotel and checked in. After lunch I went to get my camera gear ready for shooting in London and discovered that my bag had clearly been open because they were not as I left them and my 100-400 lens was not in it's camera bag. "Oh no!" I thought, they could have hurt the lens when they inspected it!

Then I realized it was worse.

Someone had opened my suitcase - this nondescript black roller suitcase that looks like 60% of the other suitcases in the world, and taken my 5D body, 20D body and my 17-40 lens. They left the other lenses in their bags, or at least in the suitcase (why -- I don't know but I'm glad they did).


I tried to contact British Airways but could find nothing in their website about how to contact them, other than to fill out the lost luggage form (which wouldn't let me proceed unless I told them I lived in the UK or Ireland - so I did, though I don't). Then I called my insurance company and emailed them with the list of equipment that was stolen.

This morning I got the response from British Airways:

I am extremely sorry to learn about your missing camera and equipment.

We go to great lengths to take care of our customers' belongings at British Airways, but of course all the checked-in luggage has to pass through various hands on its way to and from the aircraft. So on the rare occasions when belongings go missing, it is virtually impossible to pinpoint what happened. We always advise people to keep anything of special value on board with them during the flight, because of this - and because airlines have only limited liability for any items that do go missing.

Everyone is welcome to bring one piece of luggage into the cabin of a British Airways flight with them. We find this allowance usually caters for any valuable, fragile and electronic items, so I regret that we cannot offer compensation for your missing camera and equipment. If you had travel insurance, though, you may be covered through that. I do hope so.

In other words: Go suck eggs.

I am actually stunned that they have no accountability in situations like this. If people in the secured part of airports can steal cameras from baggage, they can plant any number of dangerous things into luggage as well. Apparently, they don't care.

Rather then spend the week with no camera in England, I went and bought the cheapest camera I could find that works with my lenses -- a Canon 400D. It will do for the week, but when we get home, I'm going to need to figure out what we can do next.

In the meantime, I've learned a few things:
1) Always carry the camera gear AND the computer stuff on the plane.
2) Don't fly through England anymore. Their restrictions make it unsafe to travel with valuable equipment
3) Don't fly British Airways ever again. They have zero accountability.
4) Thank goodness for stupid people. The theives left my lenses which were probably more valuable than the camera bodies they took and the one lens they did take was the least useful one in the bag.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Extreeeeme Whale Watching

After our day with the elephants, we thought it would be nice to go and visit the elephants of the sea... aka whales. We went on a cruise along the St Lucia estuary where we saw a few crocodiles hanging our along the shore and then we pulled up reasonably close to a whole bunch of hippos resting in the mud and giving us nasty looks. Apparently, in a battle between a hippo and a croc, the hippo will win by ripping parts off of the croc (we saw pictures) so the crocs tend to leave them alone.

After the cruise, we went whale watching, but this wasn't your namby-pamby east-coast oceanography-intern, "aren't they magestic?" whale watching. It was extreeeeme whale watching, bordering on whale harassment. There are no jetties out into the Indian Ocean at St Lucia, so we started from the shore on a boat that was then pushed out and we were given very specific instructions for how to hold on to the seat followed by "make sure you hold on tight, or this is going to hurt." The skipper guns the engine and we start flying out across the big waves coming in to the shore, trying to hit them fast enough to fly over them and he did that - we spent several seconds airborne before we made it past the breakers. Leslie lost her grip and nearly went over the side but she was able to grab on to another passenger until we slowed down and she could get a better grip. Finally, we were off at full speed to look for the whales. At this point, I figured that I was not going to take any pictures since the salt water would really mess up my camera (turns out, it wouldn't have mattered, but that's a different post...)

In the distance, we saw a humpback breaching and we zoomed over toward the site where he had jumped. The skipper was careful to not approach too quickly or get too close - at least in the beginning. We soon found 3 humpbacks swimming near each other and we followed them for a while. They would spout a couple of times, then dive deeper, then come back up and spout a few times. Soon the skipper was bored with this and brought us in very close to the whales - about 30-40 feet from them - which made them dive a little deeper to get away from us. After about 30 minutes of this, we spotted some more whales in the distance and we zoomed off after them.

This time, there were five humpbacks in a small group. One was doing fin slaps on the surface every once in a while and after a couple of minutes, one of them leapt out of the water and fell ker-splash just on the port side of the boat. Too bad I was looking out the starboard side trying to keep my lunch in its proper place. I turned around in time to see the large splash, but I missed the breaching. At this point, the skipper was ready to play as well so we were either right next to the 5 whales or about 10 feet behind them as they swam along. Once, they all came up and spouted at the exact same time - five whales in a row. It was like the Blue Angels, except, well, it was actually very different, but you get the idea.

After another 20 minutes of zooming up right on top of the whales, we headed back to shore. Coming in over the breakers is much easier than going out though any time that the boat comes to a stop by gunning it up onto the beach, you're going to have an sudden stop. In the end, we saw plenty of whales but unless you're really into fast and jerky boat rides, I'm not sure I would recommend it. The salt water would really damage any camera equipment so unless you have some sort of protective case, you can't really count on getting good shots. Hence, no pictures. Interesting stories though :)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Elephant Encounter!

On our third day in South Africa, we went to the Hluhluwe Umfolozi National Park to get a wider variety of animal sighting opportunities. Not long after we arrived, we saw a couple of elephants behind some bushes on the right side of the car and the driver pulled forward some and stopped. We said, "look, on the right!" but he just laughed and said "check out the left side." Not 20 yards away there was a herd of maybe 10-15 elephants, slowly working their way through the trees towards the road.

One by one, they passed a short way in front of our truck, usually stopping to flap their ears and look at us as if to say "Hey, don't mess with me!" and then they crossed into a giant muddy area where they started rolling around, and in some cases playing with each other in the mud. A couple of adorable baby elephants joined in the fun, one of them got some mud in his eye and was trying to remove it using his trunk the way we might use the palm of our hand to mush something out of our eye.

A couple of younger elephants were playing off to the side. Chasing each other around, mock-attacking each other and pushing them to the ground. They looked like they were having a blast. I swear one of them looks like he's smiling in this shot...

After about ten minutes of watching this, a young bull came up the road and right up to our truck. Armand clapped his hands once to tell him to chill out and then the elephant just stood there, right at the end of the hood and ate some grass for a few minutes -- just a few feet in front of us! Now, with the long lens on, you're not going to get any full body shots of this, but it was a great time to get the closeups to see how amazingly textured their skin is. He raised his trunk once to tap the top of our truck and Armand said "ah.. ah.." to him, then he wandered off to play with the other elephants. It was really reamarkable to have them so close to us, but even cooler to watch a person who is so experienced with them communicate with the elephants and keep them from getting too frisky.

We saw a variety of other animals in the park over the rest of the day, including a white rhino that was quite the poser but the highpoint of the day, and perhaps the week, was watching the elephants just playing and romping in the mud.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

South Africa - Zulu Nyala

42 hours is a long time to fly. In fact, as mentioned previously, it is about as long as we could expect to fly to anywhere from Seattle, Oh sure, much of that time (about 1/2) was spent in airports, waiting for flights, or rebooking from missed flights (thanks alot, British Airways...) the net elapsed time from when we left our house, until we were at Zulu Nyala in South Africa was 42 hours. So we slept.

On Tuesday morning, we went out on our first safari ride around the grounds of Zulu Nyala. We stopped at our first sighting of warthogs and we were snapping away. Our guide told us that soon, we would be seeing warthogs and thinking, "oh... just another warthog" but for those first few minutes, these were some cool, armed pigs. We went out for about 3 hour rides in the morning and in the afternoon for each of the first two days and had some amazing opportunities to view warthogs, nyala, impala, giraffes, zebras, cape buffalo, wildebeest, monkeys, rhinos, hippos and a couple of somewhat obscured views of the elephants on site.

The best way to sum it up has been "WOW!" I mean, here are these animals you've seen in zoos many times, but it is totally different when you see them on their own home turf, roaming freely. They are all simply gorgeous to watch and learn about. The terrain here is mostly rolling hills and we were driving in safari vehicles with the driver up front and eight of us in the back, either two or three to a seat. As we bounce along the roads, knowing that there are all sorts of amazing animals nearby but just out of site, we all turn into novice trackers, looking for clues as to where the buffalo have gotten to, or where the elephants are today. If only I had the beast tracking ability that my hunter in WoW has - man that would rock!

Oh, and the rides are bumpy! Leslie and I were riding in the front seat of the vehicle (behind the driver) and I was holding my camera in my left hand wrapped around the base of my Canon 70-200L 2.8 IS lens. We hit a particularly deep hole in the road (dug by a warthog for protection) and the lens banged against one of the metal support poles on the truck, well it would have had my hand not been sitting between the lens and the pole. More accurately, my wedding ring was between the lens and the pole and it was squished between then into more of a thin oval than its traditional ring shape -- while still on my finger. It took a few minutes of work with a Leatherman to get the ring back into a shape that would let me take it off of my finger. When we get back home, we'll need to do some work to make it round again, though it seems to me that if I can get a small hammer and a rhino that will hold still for a while, I could probably fix it here...

The sunsets here have been stunning -- probably due to all of the dust in the air. Each night around 5:30, the sun turns wonderful shades of orange and progress to pink and red as it slides behind the hills. We shoot photo after photo, hoping to find the right way to capture the amazing colors and vistas though I'm not sure that digital photos can quite do it yet, or maybe it's just me...

This is George. He is very tall :)

Next up: Hluhluwe National Park and the Elephant Encounter...

btw, posting from South Africa is quite slow, so it might be a while between posts. More pictures will come when we make it to London.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Longest... Flight... Ever...

Leslie and I are flying to South Africa soon for a photo safari. We are totally psyched for this trip, but MAN is that a long flight. First to London, and then to Johannesburg, and then to Richards Bay which is along the southeast coast of South Africa. A 9 hour flight followed by an 11 hour flight, followed by a one hour flight. I started thinking that this MUST be about as far away as you could possibly fly from Seattle and it turns out it pretty much is.

I first went to Google Earth and did the calculations to figure out where the farthest point from Seattle was and it looked like it was off the coast of South Africa, near the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. Zooming out from there, it looked like the nearest inhabited landmass was southeastern South Africa. Yeah, Durban and Richards Bay are a pretty reasonable nearest cities to Seattle's antipodal point.

Then I found AntipodeMap.com, which does the math for you and also uses Google Maps to display where that spot is. Not quite as cool as SameLatitude.com, but what is?

Now the trick is to make sure I'm bringing the right camera gear for the photo safari. It's not like I can just pop back to get my 100-400L if the perfect shot presents itself. I need to know now what to bring and then tote it for two days on airplanes and through airports. I think I've got it figured out. I'm just hoping that I won't wish I had a very wide lens, cuz I don't have one.

On the way back, we're stopping in London for a few days to break up the return flight and to see a few sites and shows. Sounds great!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Damn crows!

On my way to play golf at Newcastle with Tony this morning, I was driving behind a car that also appeared to be headed to the course, but not until he hit a crow that seemed to be eating something in the road. He just drove straight into him, no swerves to avoid the bird. I was thinking that was pretty mean and hoped it was the only birdie he would get that day.

On the 12th hole, while we were putting, a crow flew into my golf cart and grabbed my muffin that I had not yet opened, took it out of the cart, opened it, and started eating it. WTF!?! He flew away before I got back but there was no way I was going to eat that avian flu laden muffin anymore. Crow owes me 3 bucks.

After the round, I went to CameraTechs in Ballard to get the sensor on my 5D cleaned up before our trip to South Africa. On my way out, laden with 8 cupcakes from Cupcake Royale, I ran into Christopher Vaughn and while we were talking, a crow up in the tree crapped on my shoulder. WTF!?!?!?! I bet it was the same one from Newcastle thinking "here's your crappy muffin back -- I ain't payin' 3 bucks for that..."

Next time I get a chance, I won't swerve either.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Rollin' rollin' rollin'

A few weeks ago, I started riding my bike to work about once per week. Besides being better for the environment, cheaper than gas, and good exercise, it is fun! I picked up a new bike (a Cannondale Road Warrior 800), got a rack for my car and starting this weekend, Zach and I are going to start going for some longer rides.
In the spirit of Duffergeek I'm going to need to pick up more geeky toys to keep track of our rides!

Another iPhone first (for me anyway)

I picked up my new 4 gig iPhone last week and so far I'm loving it! This is my first blog post from it though. Cool!