Alex Nail is a full-time landscape photographer based in Bristol with a passion for mountains and wilderness areas. He increasingly head to remote or hard to reach locations in search of new images. His photography is largely illustrative, showing magical lighting conditions and spectacular scenery.
Below I’ve compiled a graphic (for both Windows and Mac) showing my most commonly used shortcuts. I come from a landscape photography background but these shortcuts should be useful to those working in other genres as well.
Learning these shortcuts will save a lot of time. Whilst it might seem tedious at first it will soon repay the investment. The masking shortcuts in particular will allow you to paint or modify layer masks relatively efficiently.
Photoshop Shortcuts for Windows (Click to open full res image)
Photoshop Shortcuts for Mac (Click to open full res image)
Here are the shortcuts I have proposed laid out in text form should you wish to simply print the text versions. This are the Windows shortcuts, but to change them to Mac just replace Ctrl with Cmd.
Ctrl + X : Cut
Ctrl + C : Copy
Ctrl + V : Paste
Ctrl + S : Save
Ctrl + Z : Undo
Ctrl + Alt + Z : Step Backwards in History (repeatedly undo)
Ctrl + + : Zoom in
Ctrl + – : Zoom out
Space : Hold and mouse click to move with hand tool.
Topping up the fuel of my hire car in Bergville I was keen to get inside and buy a cool drink. I checked the temperature gauge – 37 Celsius. Inside in the air conditioned building I picked up a guava juice, paid the attendant and checked the weather forecast on my phone – heavy snow. I stepped outside into the heat.
The intense heat of the previous days made snow seem rather unlikely.
That evening I met Hougaard at Witsieshoek, a mountain retreat high up in the Berg. After sharing a few Anglo-Saffa witticisms we launched into hopes for the upcoming days. Hougaard was after snow whilst I was anticipating heavy rain – at least that would get Tugela Falls going.
Hougaard arranged the trip a year previously for members of a Facebook group associated with his landscape photography gear business. The aim was to camp on the Amphitheatre for a few nights and see what came of it. Hearing of his plans earlier in the week I was asked if I wanted to join. I would stay for the first two nights before returning to Joburg to pick up a group of my workshop clients.
I was gradually introduced to a ramshackle bunch of guys mostly from the Cape. It was clear that for some of them this was to be an entirely new experience. The Drakensberg is no joke at any time of year, but with heavy rain, snow and strong winds forecast some of our group seemed hopelessly underprepared. Trainers, jeans and cotton clothing have no place on a mountain, particularly not in the snow. Add in a complete lack of experience and you have a potential recipe for disaster!
That night I had a much needed sleep in a bed (I had been camping up to that point) and woke up raring to go. We met up at breakfast and, a couple of bacon sandwiches later, promptly watched the heavens open. Several millimetres of rain fell in a matter of minutes – a reminder of what might yet happen.
Our group. A mixture of experience and equipment!
We caught a transfer up to the Sentinel car park and started our hike in cloudy but dry conditions. Every time the skies grew dark I worried about the rain, not wanting any of us to get caught out. Mercifully it never came.
The chain ladders, the only real difficulty on route, were navigated without any issues by the group and before long we were setting up our tents on the south side of the Tugela River. So began *The Waiting Game*.
Cloud was with us throughout on that first day. The landscape was snowless, uninspiring and devoid of views. Since everyone was now safe inside the tents I began to hope for apocalyptic rain, but only occasional showers came. Most of the time in the tent was spent playing ‘Countdown’ on my phone whilst Hougaard read a biography of Elon Musk. We went to sleep hoping for change in the morning. Overnight the gentle patter of rain gradually grew silent as the temperature dropped.
We woke to snow covered tents
The alarm went off a while before sunrise and we emerged to a covering of snow and biting cold air. The South Africans, in some sort of snow delirium, set about vastly over estimating the snow depth at anything up to a foot. It was a little less than two inches, but it was beautiful. Pristine, white and velvety it was the kind of snow we all hope for but rarely find; if only that cloud would lift.
Tugela Falls in somewhat unfamiliar conditions
Hougaard led an optimistic charge to a viewpoint for sunrise. I stayed much closer to the tents at the edge near the falls expecting the poor visibility to continue. A while later everyone returned to the tents – much like me they had little reward that morning.
Waiting inside a tent is always a risky game, particularly with the doors zipped shut to keep out the cold. The best images often come as the weather changes, so if you notice your tent suddenly lit up by direct sun the chances are you’ve missed your moment. Fortunately our excited group was on constant watch; every glimmer of an opportunity was capitalised upon.
So it was that I found myself running through the snow towards the edge of the Escarpment as a shaft of light broke through in the distance. The rays moved and reformed next to the Eastern Buttress catching the low cloud below. Above were the vast snow covered ramparts of the Amphitheatre, their structure and scale revealed by the snow. It was a scene of overwhelming grandeur. I composed the frame, pressed the shutter, checked the image and held my hands up in celebration.
I would have done the whole trip for this image alone; a rare moment.
For the next 20 minutes the sky occasionally broke up with the clouds below the Escarpment adding an amazing sense of depth. I tried a number of different compositions, responding to the changes in the cloud. Before long the snow returned.
Sentinel Peak from the plateau and an alternative view of the Eastern Buttress
The Tugela River and our camp when the snow had set in once more.
Later, once the snow had eased, I made my way up towards Sentinel Peak to the viewpoint Hougaard and co. had tried at sunrise. On the way a view down a gully provided a brief opportunity but for the most part I struggled with the flat conditions.
The view down the main gully on route was a welcome surprise. The Tugela can be seen at the bottom after its colossal plunge.
My hopes to capture a shot of the Escarpment with the hills of Lesotho beyond ultimately ended in disappointment despite waiting in worsening conditions for nearly two hours.
A view I wish I had had the conditions for! You can make out our tents on the right had side.
The cloud eventually filled in the Amphitheatre but the wind on top kept it pegged back just below the rim.
I started to become aware of the thin cloud and my vision started to go, so bright was the snow. I pulled my buff up over my face and descended the mountain looking through a mesh of red fabric. All the while I cursed myself for leaving my sunglasses in the tent!
The rest of the afternoon was spent back At camp, but after the burst of fantastic light that morning the wait had a very different feel. This time I was paying my due!
The following morning brought with it clear skies and a significant temperature drop from the previous night. Our boots and water were frozen in the porch overnight and as I stepped out of the tent the cold felt like an entirely different animal. I had planned to return to the viewpoint for my image, but I hesitated, walking to the edge first to check for an inversion. After more hesitation I decided I didn’t have enough time left for the hike and settled on more modest ambitions, a decision I still slightly regret!
I spent 20 minutes before sunrise looking for interesting snow formations to use as a foreground eventually settling upon some windblown snow slightly above the main plateau. The shot itself was a little awkward technically – shooting at 30mm didn’t allow sufficient depth of field for a single frame so I focus bracketed. I also exposure bracketed for the tonal range. Getting 2 sets of shots with strong spindrift was a real gamble but luck was on my side that morning.
Exposure bracketed and focus bracketed. A tricky shot to pull off given the dynamism of the scene.
One crystal clear mornings in the Drakensberg it isn’t long before the light becomes too harsh to work with and I managed just one more image before it was time for me to pack up, walk off the mountain and head back to Joburg. I think ultimately this image sums up best the experience of being up there: winter in summer.
An apt final image. Winter on top of the Berg, summer in the valleys of Royal Natal below.
It’s noon on Day 3 of a packrafting route in Senja, Norway, and I’m tent-bound with Harsharn. Wind and rain have been battering the tent for the last 20 hours. Pools have formed around us and a small stream is running under the groundsheet. All we can do is wait it out and be glad that at least we managed to catch up on some sleep!
A few months ago, staring at a gap in my calendar, I picked up the phone to Harsharn and suggested packrafting trip in Senja. It was two years since our epic adventure in Greenland and we were overdue another outing on the boats. A Google Earth scout of Norway’s mountains and fjords soon had me interested in the island of Senja. I picked a few potential routes for the boats, eventually settling on a 6 day route combining paddling fjords and lakes with hiking mountains and passes.
We allowed ourselves 16 days to properly explore the area and provide flexibility to go packrafting during a good weather spell – the boats are pretty susceptible to strong winds. After flying in to Tromso we spend our first night camped at a lake in the Lyngen Alps before moving on to Senja where we initially hiked the peaks of Kongen, Segla and Barden largely in nice weather interspersed with wet and windy spells.
Unfortunately after a while it looked like we were never quite going to get the run of weather we would have liked to make the most of the packrafting so we dialled back our ambitions somewhat to make sure we hit good conditions on the most remote portion of the trip.
Harsharn tackles the first short but steep climb up to the lake
Day 1 started on the trail up to Svartholvatnet a short but steep route through the trees with the odd bit of boulder hopping. The additional weight of the packrafts brought back unwelcome reminders of our difficulties in Greenland, but we were excited to get on the water once more.
Looking back on Segla. The early afternoon brought dramatic light
Svartholvatnet was calm as we inflated the boats and began paddling. The heavy clouds that had hung around for the start of our hike began to melt away. We soon found our paddling rhythm.
Looking back at Harsharn and Segla – he was soon out in front
Approaching the opposite shore
6km later on the opposite shore we began hiking up the river that formed the outflow of Nedre Hestvatnet. We stashed our boats at the end of the lake and set about trudging upward, hoping to find a route that would lead us up Istindan.
The outflow of Nedre Hestvatnet
The scramble we chose quickly became a little overcommitting. The ground was wet and loose underfoot and the gradient was too steep to be comfortable. Nevertheless we persevered, in part because going down the same way would have been hellish!
The ascent was often wet and loose – we would have to find a different way down.
At the top of the climb we started looking for a camp spot but it quickly became apparent that camping on the mountain would be almost impossible due to relentless rock outcrops. We ended up pitching on an old snow patch with lovely views out over Nedre Hestvatnet and on to Stormoa.
Camp for the night. I had a winter mat with me so sleeping on snow wasnt an issue.
A view to Breidtinden from near our camp. We climbed this peak 5 days later.
After dinner and with sunset approaching we hiked up towards Istindan, the most remote peak of our trip.
Hiking towards Istindan – there was plenty of foreground interest which made it tempting to stop early!
The view from close to the summit was staggering and we were treated to a surprisingly colourful sunset.
Sunrise the following day was clear – a non-event, and we went back to sleep confident that we wouldn’t be missing anything. After a breakfast of porridge we packed up and found a different route down following a nearby stream. Once again this proved a little harder than we initially hoped but it was a marked improvement on our ascent route.
Still a steep descent but much easier than our chosen route up.
We had an early lunch at the shore of the lake before inflating the boats once more. The water was tranquil as we set out but the cirrus overhead indicated a change in the weather. By the time we had reached the end of the lake the water had become agitated and the blue sky had all but disappeared.
A perfect Norwegian scene awaited us at the shore.
Paddling on a calm lake in nice weather is a sheer joy – I must do it more often.
Packing up at the end of the lake.
Another unknown was the pass between Nedre Hestvatnet and Store Hestvatnet. It did at least look possible on the map, but you never know until you are at the base of a climb just what ‘possible’ really means. Fortunately on this occasion we found the route to be easy enough, climbing through scree and secure vegetation.
Lunch on top of the pass. It would have been nice to hang around here, but the weather now seemed like it might turn against us.
The second lake of the day was rather disappointing. An old waterline scarred the shoreline suggesting it had been dammed, though we never quite figured out exactly what had happened. Needless to say it lacked the natural lush appearance of the area we had just paddled through and with grey skies overhead it felt a little unwelcoming.
Our second lake of the day was, by comparison, somewhat drab.
Our final paddle was a short one on Lille Hestvatnet, which we reached after carry the boats up a short ascent between the lakes. It’s actually the first time I have carried my boat more than about 10m when fully inflated. I found it surprisingly easy, so perhaps it’s something to consider for the future.
Harsharn carrying his boat – I’m particularly fond of this shot, although I’m not sure why!
On the shore of our third and final lake I think we were both aware of the relative pointlessness of paddling just 2km, but we had the boats so it made sense to use them! In no time we had made the crossing and we packed up our boats just as the first rain began to fall.
Setting the tent up in the rain
It took some time to find a camp spot. Although the ground was mostly level it was tussocky or rock-strewn to the extent that at one point I wondered if we would find anywhere at all. As the intensity of the rain increased I came across a small area of sodden ground – just enough for one tent. We didn’t leave the tent until the middle of the following afternoon!
Escape from the tent – time to do some peaks!
With the rain gone we had some catching up to do if we were to tackle Litle Hesten, Burstind and Roalden. The first peak, Litle Hesten was only a short distance from our tent. The ascent was steep but on generally excellent ground.
Nearing the top of Litle Hesten – Burstind in the background.
A composition I was considering for the following morning, but perhaps this one will do!
We had a late lunch back at the tent and then continued on to Burstind. The route to the mountain around a small lake was surprisingly awkward but once we were climbing we found it fairly straightforward.
On our way to Burstind.
The clouds barely lifted through the afternoon but at least it was dry.
The summit view from Burstind with a glipse of sunlight.
We hung around on the summit of Burstind for some time deciding whether there was any point in heading up Roalden – it was completely enveloped in cloud. Ultimately we decided that photographically there was relatively little to be gained from hanging around, so we headed down to to pick up the path to Roalden.
A little bit of hope – the cloud would occasionally break up revealing the landscape below.
The route up Roalden was the first path we found on the entire loop (except the first ascent on day 1). In some guides it is marked as a black (difficult) route, but really its pretty trivial with minimal exposure. The path is really just a series of painted rocks indicating the best route, but it is clearly marked and easily followed. As we climbed higher the cloud that had shrouded the peak broke up until eventually we had a completely clear view.
I’m proud to be part of the Scotland ‘The Big Picture’ team – a group of photographers and film makers promoting the case for a wilder Scotland.
Through my travels I have been privileged to experience a range of landscapes from untouched wilderness to lands which have been heavily affected man over the course of centuries. The more I am away from the UK the more I find an affinity for its landscapes and none more so than Scotland.
Sadly the Highlands have been radically changed by man from their natural state. The often barren beauty belies the fact that once upon a time trees covered the landscape. Hazel, rowan and alder. Oak, pine and birch. Aspen, juniper and willow the all made their home amongst these beautiful hills. The flora supported a whole range of species from humble ants to apex predators like the lynx, bear and wolf. Whilst the full restoration of habits and species remains a lofty end goal, the process of rewilding is well underway. Areas of Scotland are now seeing the planting of native trees and the restoration of ecosystems. All the while awareness is increasing with important conversations taking place between governments, communities and land owners. Challenges still remain, including overgrazing from sheep and deer, the game and fishing industry, wind farms and public perception (particularly with regard to apex predators). However, with a concerted effort, natural systems can be restored.
Whilst recognising potential for the rewilding of Scotland it is also important to celebrate the landscape that we have today. The Highlands are a remarkable landscape enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year. Through public engagement and enthusiasm for the region the case for a wilder Scotland can be furthered.
My small piece in this complex jigsaw is showing the wild beauty of the Highlands through the medium of time-lapse. Hopefully this film can in a small way enthuse people to come and enjoy the mountains.
Thanks to all the contributing photographers including Guy Richardson, Mark Hamblin, Peter Cairns and James Shooter.
I’ve just updated my free resize for web photoshop action. The update adds a few sizes (particularly for Instagram and 4K screens) and removes some lesser used sizes.
There are many resize actions and scripts out there that do similar things but my action is preferred by many professionals because of its simplicity. Simply select the output size and press play. You can change the amount of sharpening by altering the layer opacity or modifying the mask. The result should be a far better sharpening result than the photoshop tools provide on their own – fine details are particularly well rendered.
Here is the new Resize for Web sharpening action:
Photographs are increasingly viewed and purchased for online use. With print media continuing to decline it is increasingly important that your images look great on the web. Unfortunately in displaying your images on the internet they often lose their impact and lack the fine details of the original photograph. This action outputs razor sharp images in sRGB perfect for web display.
Create your own sizes
If you would like to create your own sizes there is an action explaining how this is achieved (just press play to see the dialogue). It’s a quick and easy process thanks to the intermediary steps I have already created.
If you want to apply a change to all the actions then just record into the ‘Optional Customisation’ action. You may wish to use this to add a watermark to your images or even to ‘Save for Web’ to a file on your hard drive.
I recently edited the below image to print to 60 inches and hang on my living room wall. I realised it was a good showcase of my workflow and thought processes. This is intended as a general look at what I get up to with my images and the ideas behind my edits, rather than a processing tutorial per se. However, beginners may find this helpful particularly from a thought process perspective – the hardest thing to learn is not HOW to process your images, but WHY.
I try to create visually successful, realistic images. I also bring creative aspects to my processing, particularly in trying to recapture a sense of wonder or beauty, but ultimately reality takes precedence over pure aesthetics.
You can break my editing process down into 2 major parts – RAW edits in Lightroom and final edits in Photoshop. These days Lightroom does most of the ‘heavy lifting’. I try to get my images 90% of the way there with RAW edits in Lightroom, but still leave enough editing headroom for final corrections in Photoshop (so for example I only set white and black points in Photoshop).
Lightroom is used for the following:
Combining the images into HDR DNGs
Combining the HDR DNGs into HDR DNG Panoramas!
White Balance, Exposure, Shadows, Highlights and Contrast changes (also saturation, but unusually this image required none).
Photoshop is used for:
Cloning sensor dust (in this case none required)
White points, Black points
Local adjustments – some of these are corrections, some are creative
Final brightness adjustments
Original RAW images
These are the original RAW images exported directly from Lightroom with no adjustments. I shot 2 bracketed sets at 1.5 stop intervals. These sets can be combined to capture the full tonal range of the scene before then being stitched into a panorama. The brightest frames on the right are closest to what I am aiming for ultimately, but the sky is completely blown and there are some serious flare issues that I will have to address. The left frames retain some detail in the sun but will be used for the blue sky portion of the image. The middle frame is necessary for the computer to combine the images in a realistic way without major fringing issues.
The before image show the result if you take the RAW images into Lightroom, combine them to form an HDR DNG, then stitch them to form a panorama. I have also lifted the shadows and crushed the highlights to give an idea of what a ‘flat’ edit of this file looks like. The advantage of working with these High Dynamic Range panoramas is the level of editability available when working in RAW.
The after image shows the edited HDR DNG Pano with a mixture of global and local adjustments (including use of grads and the paintbrush tool. To me this is already pretty close to where I want to finish, but there is still some work to do in Photoshop.
It is worth mentioning that the stitching process very cleverly eliminated the most problematic flare that you can see quite clearly in the original RAW files. More often than not the software does an outstanding job.
Global Corrections and Adjustments
Lens flare, whilst sometimes desirable, is usually something that you want to avoid in landscape images. With good optics most flares can be removed in Photoshop by manipulating the red channel of a curves layer and locally masking to reduce or remove flare in the affected areas. Along with these early adjustments I also look to set white points and sometimes black points to the image. If I have edited the RAW correctly in Lightroom these changes are generally very small. As you can see from the after image, we are pretty much there already! There are just a few more changes to make…
This edit is aimed at making a few changes locally to the trees in the image, which in my opinion are the main focus. The changes can be broken into two halves – corrections and creative edits.
There is a fair amount of ‘shadow boosting’ involved in the edits I made to the HDR DNG. Mostly this is done to a very high standard, but in some cases the background is undesirably brightened along with the tree. I introduced a darkening curve to correct this affect in those local areas (look at the background between the branches of the left hand tree).
One of the things that drew me to shoot this scene in the first place (aside from the obviously spectacular scene in general!) was the backlight and sidelight on the trees, particularly in the prominent “Mountain Cabbage Tree” which I placed centrally in the image. A series of curves adjustments were used to locally target the highlights in the sunlit portion of the trees to make the light more of a feature in the image.
In the comparison image above you see the effects of curves layers on the brightness of the sun. When creating HDR DNGs in Lightroom there is a tendency of the program to recover as much highlight detail as possible. In the case of the sun you really want it to end up considerably bright to achieve a more realistic rendition. These edits are aimed at undoing the ‘corrections’ that Lightroom itself introduced!
Finally I make last brightness and contrast changes to the image. These are usually subtle tweaks. I often return to this step repeatedly.
Before and After
A final comparison showing all of the changes I made in Photoshop.
By Day 5 we had found our legs and become used to the altitude. The fantastic conditions of the day before had put a bit of a spring in my step, which was just as well given the substantial distance we had to cover!
By morning the inversion had lowered. Thankfully the wind had also dropped a little, a nice respite from the days before.
The route I had planned differed greatly from the route Jeffrey took us on. We were soon descending into a deep valley passing beautiful deep pools – this is where having a guide becomes hugely beneficial. The swimming was fantastic.
We repeatedly crossed the river as we wound our way down the valley.
Red Hot Pokers were a regular site in boggy areas.
A Krall of one of the Basuthos – the dogs at the back seemed very aggressive as we approached but fortunately they were chained.
A lunch stop as we started to gain height again.
Another swimming hole. We were getting a bit behind after a very long day of walking – I was in and out in 10 minutes
We finally emerged at the escarpment edge on the flanks of the Ndemeni Dome. The towers below are the Organ Pipes. Steve and I continued on to Rolands Cave, but finding it occupied we camped in the valley west of Organ Pipes Pass.
Half an hour earlier the pass was completely clear but as sunset approached the clouds filled in. The Organ Pipes are on the right. This view marks the start of Organ Pipes Pass.
With Cleft Peak to climb that day and tired legs from the day before we had a lazy morning. Jeffrey had to leave us at this point. Due to a communication problem he had initially only brought 4 days of food with him leaving the group to make up the shortfall. But with relatively little extra food to offer he now had to head down.
The route up Cleft Peak from the south is a slow steep climb and, still tired from the day before, we made slow progress.
Steve had to wait for a lull in the wind to get this shot. From time to time 50mph gusts would blow in from Lesotho threating to blow us off the edge – needless to say we were very careful!
I have seen many spectacular sights in the Drakensberg, so it is hard to pick favourites, but this certainly ranks among them. In the centre is Pyramid and Column and at the back the Cathedral Ridge. This is actually taken from 100m or so below the summit of Cleft Peak but it gives a much better overlook than the summit itself.
Whilst we had initially planned to hike the short distance over to Pyramid and Column to camp, Hougaard suggested we change plans to camp just below Cleft Peak. Having found Rolands Cave occupied the day before I was keen to return with Steve – it didn’t make sense to hike further to a place that I had already photographed on a previous trip. Instead we hoped that sunset, or sunrise the following morning, would provide spectacular conditions from Cleft Peak.
Last light on the hills of Lesotho. Sadly Cleft Peak was clouded out for sunset but we could see from our vantage point that camping at Pyramid and column would have been equally pointless!
The morning brought with it the highest inversion I have seen in the Berg and I made quick time up Cleft Peak to catch the earliest of the light. Cathedral Ridge and all the surrounding notable portions of the escarpment were submerged but it was nevertheless a productive morning.
An early morning inversion encircles the flanks of the Ndemeni Dome. As seen from Cleft Peak. This is the first time I have seen an inversion get over the escarpment (which is making the edge of the wave on the left) and into the hills of Lesotho.
I’ve have long wanted to capture an image of the hills of Lesotho that I could be proud of. With this image I think I have achieved my goal.
A Krall at the bottom of the image gives you an idea of the scale of the landscape that the Basuthos inhabit.
I brought my timelapse rig along for the trip and I tried to make up for lost time on this, and subsequent mornings. The winds of the days before had severely hampered my ability to use the rail – incredibly frustrating given that I had carried it all that way!
Steve and I were keen to return to Roland’s Cave to spend the night whilst Hougaard and Milly planned to head down Organ Pipes Pass to get most of the way back to the hotel. Our walk to the head of the pass was in mist throughout. We said a quick goodbye (we would be seeing them the following day) and made the final climb up to Rolands Cave which is not easy to find unless you have been there before!
The approach to Roland's Cave - YouTube
The final approach to the cave is pretty sketchy and takes some courage on the first attempt. Leaning against the cliff wall certainly helps, as does reminding yourself that the footing is actually very good. After walking the route a few times you become worryingly confident!
Finding Rolands Cave in the mist we had an entire afternoon and evening of waiting for things to change which they never did. Steve amused himself by climbing around the cave.
Roland’s offers good shelter if you are brave enough to visit.
I was up at 2am whilst Steve slept to capture this interior view of the cave. It took a lot of messing around in the dark to get the camera in position (the back of the cave is quite confined) but the image gives an accurate impression of the experience.
Predawn brought a lovely Earth Shadow and the most perfect inversion of the trip. The gradient is quite useful from a compositional perspective to break up a fairly large swathe of sky.
The entrance to Roland’s Cave at sunrise
All too soon it was time to leave the escarpment. Steve and I took Camel Pass, which we had heard was quite dangerous but for any experienced hiker the route is a complete joy. It may well be the best route I have ever walked (although Langisjor in Iceland is a close contender).
The exposure makes Camel Pass a lot of fun. It’s also much shorter than Organ Pipes pass which I did on a previous trip and frankly found to be pretty similar!
As we walked the inversion thinned out and valley floor revealed itself
On last view up at the ridge from Tarn Hill before we reached our goal.
Cathedral Peak Hotel, the home of soft beds, showers, proper food and beer. A great place to finish the trip!
Just occasionally I bite off more than I can chew and before I know it a hiking trip has become and adventure.
Since my first visit a couple of years ago I have fallen in love with the Drakensberg. The landscape is wild, remote and relatively unknown. The weather is dramatic, tranquil and pleasingly reliable. In many ways it’s hard to imagine an area better suited to landscape photography.
This time I was joined by three friends: Hougaard Malan, who has been on all 3 of my Drakensberg hikes. Steve Sellman, who came on the last two, and Milly (Hougaard’s sister) who was a new addition! Our ever present guide, Jeffrey, also came along to show us the way, talk the local language, and occasionally confuse us with his basic English!
The plan was to hike from Injisuthi to Cathedral Peak Hotel – a long 60 mile route which I knew would be significantly harder than our previous trips. ‘Hard’ became ‘Very Hard’ almost immediately as we struggled up the 2000m climb over the first couple of days with our back-breaking packs. The following days brought long days of hiking leaving little time or energy for photography, yet it was still a magical experience made all the better by great company.
Our first day took us from Injisuthi to Centenary Hut, an elevation gain of around 1000m. This day was perhaps the most amazing of the trip for me, not necessarily because of the conditions, but because the landscape was so unexpected. Much like visiting the Mweni area in March, the tropical nature of the surroundings took my breath away. So much of the route we walked felt untouched and the flora was like nothing we have in the UK. I would have loved to spend some time taking photos, but our schedule dictated that we keep walking. As it was we arrived at Centenery Hut in the dark.
Jeffrey giving Milly a helping hand across the first and only river crossing of the trip. The boulders and fast current made it surprisingly tricky underfoot. After rain this would soon become inpassible.
The start of the hike from Injisuthi to Centenary Hut is straightforward and incredibly beautiful.
Protea trees line the valleys and there are numerous stands of untouched woodland
Making our way further up the valley. This is just before the turning to Marble Baths.
The Drakensberg is one of the best places in the world to see Rock Art. These paintings are in some cases thousands of years old.
The bottom of Centenary Hill. It didn’t seem too bad from the bottom but it soon became a trudge. The altitude is hard to get used to at first as your lungs struggle to get the oxygen they are after!
Our camp at Centenary Hut was clouded out all night and the following morning. It’s just as well because we needed the rest! The hut itself is sadly ruined and in need of serious repair.
We awoke on our second day with tired legs and not particularly excited about the prospect of another 1000m climb. Your legs soon start to feel like lead with the oxygen just 60% of sea level.
Corner Pass was about what I expected in terms of difficulty, the Northern High Approach proving to be a worthwhile shortcut to the pass itself.
On our second day we hiked the Northern High Approach (NHA) to Corner Pass. Part way up the escarpment briefly appeared from the mist.
On the Northern High Approach as the mist started to disappear.
One of several scrambles on Corner Pass. These are not to be underestimated. We managed without ropes but it certainly wasn’t easy – I wouldn’t recommend this route to beginners.
Part way up Corner Pass itself we were caught in a thunderstorm which dumped an inch of hail on us in a matter of minutes. We soon found out that Milly’s waterproof was completely inadequate! As the pass started to fill with water we made quick time to the top, struggling with the last of the scrambles in the wet. At the top I pulled out a tent flysheet and we all huddled underneath until the storm had passed.
The view towards the Trojan Wall (left), Injisuthi Triplets (centre) and the last of the rain sweeping towards Cathkin Peak (right).
Setting up camp on Trojan Wall. With the heat gone from the day we knew it would remain thunderstorm free and safe to camp up high. Sadly sunset was a non event.
I had big hopes for the view of the Injisuthi triplets at sunrise. Ultimately I was left a little disappointed with the light striking the triplets head on and failing to provide much depth and form. An inversion would have been nice too! Although now this seems a lot like whingeing, at the time I was genuinely crestfallen, after all, this was a location that I had planned the entire trip around.
That really set the tone for the day, whilst I enjoyed the hiking I ultimately didn’t find much motivation for photography!
Sunrise over the Injisuthi Triplets. This image doesn’t quite tell the story of the wind, which made being out incredibly unpleasant! On reflection the lighting direction in the winter would be far more favourable for this view.
A group selfie on Mafadi, South Africa’s highest mountain at 3450m. The sun was brutal throughout the day and we soon realised we were short of water…
After suffering from the effects of heat and dehydration, and with the escarpment in mist, I returned to the tent early that evening leaving Hougaard on the edge in the hope that things would improve. He was well rewarded! This was all I could manage from the tent, about a mile away.
I was actually pretty annoyed that I hadn’t stayed out with Hougaard the evening before and in the morning I woke up with a certain bloody mindedness to get out early and make something of the trip! The sunrise was unspectacular, but enjoyable all the same. A good nights sleep left me with plenty of energy for hiking and I raced along with Steve for much of the time. The afternoon and evening provided a fantastic location and stunning conditions.
The view looking back towards Injisuthi from Old Woman Grinding Corn. This was the first of many inversions and for the first time since I have been in the Drakensberg, it persisted throughout the entire day.
Our 4th day took us along the escarpment via the top of Ship’s Prow Pass and onwards with spectacular views over the hills of Lesotho.
Although we had planned to walk further that day, when we stumbled across this view we soon decided to make camp.
Looking in the opposite direction – the hills of Lesotho
Twilight looking towards Cathedral Ridge
Throughout the day we watched waves of mist crashing up against the escarpment.
With hardly any light left I shot this 2 minute exposure to bring some tranquillity to the mist which was still moving rapidly in the strong wind.
The previous day had passed uneventfully. We spent most of our time eating and playing cards, but the wind that howled that day brought with it something unexpected – smoke. We learned from the local fireman/hunter/teacher that there was a blaze in the pass we were due to walk in a couple of days time. The mountains were obscurred, it was obviously quite some fire. Still, it gave us a well earned rest in the full knowledge that the wind would make packrafting impossible. The wind dropped off overnight and we slept well.
I was up early to shoot a time-lapse of Aapilatoq and the two peaks behind. Whilst my original intention for my film had been to show wilderness free from man, I now felt a certain fondness to this remote village. Sadly when I returned to collect my camera I found that it had been misfiring – the camera wire had a dodgy connection and was now unusable. Disappointed to have missed the shot and knowing that I would now have to make do with the inbuilt camera feature to shoot timelapse (creating sync problems with my slider) I was in a bit of a mood that morning. It didn’t improve.
Sun rise on the twin peaks above Aappillatoq.
Whilst loading my packraft with a few last items it rolled upside down. My Canon 6D, sat on the deck ready to shoot images of us packrafting, took a short dunk into the saltwater. Though was only submerged for a second it was enough to write off the camera and lens. I was now down to a single camera. A few seal hunters looked on bemused, no doubt wondering what we were doing in such ridiculous boats.
Paddling out on to calm water. As soon as we were our of the harbour things changed. Photo (c) Harsharn Gill
We headed out onto the water with a thin veil of smoke in the air. The fire that started the day before was still burning further down the fjord. As we rounded the corner of the natural bay and headed into open water the wind and waves began to gather strength. We picked a route between icebergs to find some shelter but more we paddled the harder it became. These waves were different to the ones I had enjoyed paddling through earlier in the trip. The water was choppier and the waves started to hit our boats progressively harder.
Packing up, then hesitating. We didnt want to walk up from this point but the map showed vertical cliffs just around the corner.
We came ashore just before a section of vertical cliffs, attempting to round them was too committing. Our plan for the day was to reach a peak diagonally above us via an easy approach further down the fjord. At the bottom we could leave our rafts and extra food and come back to collect them the following day. However with no easy way around the cliff we were forced into taking everything with us up a much steeper approach. The first 200m of the climb passed without incident but as we ascended so the slope became increasingly challenging. Soon we were hiking on steep granite slabs which called more for climbing shoes than clumsy hiking boots. A half slip was all it took to shatter my confidence, Harsharn wasn’t enjoying it either.
A steeper route than it looks!
We sat on the mountainside and contemplated our next move. Harsharn was the first to say something. He wanted to head back to Aapilatoq. The slope concerned him and he suspected it would soon become impossible. More pressingly he felt that the fire in the pass, which we had to walk through in the following days, would simply be too dangerous. I scoffed a little – the idea of a wildfire blazing so fiercely that a wide treeless valley could not be crossed was slightly ridiculous to me. Nevertheless I didn’t feel I had the ability to go further up the slabs – a mistake would have been fatal. Reality started to sink in and a sense of despair washed over me. I was within a mile of a place I had dreamt of visiting but we were turning back. Trip over. I started to feel sick. We had come all this way!
A low point of the trip – I was completely gutted that we would have to turn around.
I dropped my pack and ran up the slabs 50m or so. If we were going back I was going to make sure there was no other choice! As I climbed I found a break in the slabs just six inches wide but filled with grass and gravel. It was a near perfect diagonal line leading straight up the granite face – I couldn’t believe my luck! We didn’t hesitate in putting our packs back on and following the new lead. We made confident progress, struggling under the weight of our packs but increasingly optimistic that we would reach our goal, a 650m peak above the fjord. With a final scramble over a tower of rock a vast scene revealed itself. Even with the smoke trying to spoil the view it was a sight to behold – vast granite faces shot up vertically up from the fjord below and behind them ice capped mountains and jagged ridges. A quick search revealed a sheltered camp spot, which was just as well given then strength of the wind. I felt an enormous sense of achievement!
Harsharn stands above the smoke filled pass we hoped to hike in the following days
Our tent 600m above Aappilattup Avanna fjord. Not too shabby.
By the following morning the wind had gone and the air was clear revealing the view in greater clarity. As I packed away my tripod a leg fell off – the casting had broken. I now had a largely useless bipod – wonderful! Including my camera and lens I was now hauling 3.5kg of dead weight.
We awoke to a crystal clear morning
On route down to the fjord.
The route of our descent (which had scared me a little in the wind the night before) looked easy enough in the sunshine. We picked a route down steep scree slopes, over old snow, across a river and down grassy banks. Before we knew it we were back at the water’s edge with inflated packrafts and only a short distance to paddle.
The shortest paddle of the trip over to the shore on the right.
Once ashore again we felt energetic enough to carry on along the pass, somewhat curious to see the source of the smoke which for the time being seemed to have died down. Initially it seemed like we had an easy path to hike along (the first of the trip) but we soon lost it and instead made our way across ankle twisting tundra. By the end of the day I was totally exhausted and glad to see the lake come into view which was our planned camp spot.
Our camp, a load of smoke and the ever present mosquitos!
A helicopter transporting fire fighters (and more mosquitos).
From camp we could see the source of the smoke very clearly – a fire burned on the valley side not far away. It was with some regret that we camped in the smoke that night. Our equipment and clothes smelt for a long time after.
A view from the tent
The following morning we carried on over the pass and near to the fire’s edge. I had previously assumed that the wind would blow fires downwind. Instead we saw the wind fanning the flames, creating an intense heat which dried out the greenery in front before it, in turn, spontaneously burst into flames. So the fire advanced into the wind. It was quite a sight to behold and the heat on close approach was astonishing to me.
One of many fronts of the fire. Although it looks quite tame it was advancing rapidly and generating a lot of heat.
Our hike continued on uneventfully and, as we left the best scenery behind, I took very few photos. Sight of the opposite side of the fjord at the end of the valley gave us initial encouragement before we realised how far we still had to go!
We made camp right on the tide line and laughed as the sea came up a little further than expected! We fished a lot that evening but caught nothing big enough to eat.
We camped pretty close to the sea…
Sunset in the tent playing cards
Our penultimate day in Tasermiut was totally unplanned. We had arrived 2 days ahead of schedule (the smoke had hurried us along) and it made no sense to relax. Instead we paddled across the bay towards Malik our boat drivers farm, finding it empty. and then along a hill and up a ridge. We stashed most of our kit below and ate up the small mountain like it was hardly there. Along the way I collected berries which ended up in my porridge the following morning. It was apt that from our final camp spot we could see down Tasermiut fjord to where our adventure had began and along Tasersuaq lake to where it had continued. It seemed like and age ago that we had started and as we looked out on this last remarkable view our thoughts finally turned to home and a good rest.
An epic final camp spot
Tasersuaq Lake which we paddled down a week before is teaming with fish. The section of river you see flowing from it is a popular fishing spot for locals.
The following morning and we were out fishing on the bend again. The fish were particularly suicidal that morning, but every time we reeled on in we decided it was too large to justify as breakfast. Four released fish later we gave up and let them be.
One that lived to see another day!
A short paddle took us around the lake to the start of the pass to Kangerluk Fjord. It was here that we realised how much we were about to suffer! In front of us stood a seemingly endless thicket of birch trees which had so nearly beaten us the week before.
Now restocked with food our packs were brutally heavy. Harsharn, unable to even balance correctly resorted to an additional front pack to help balance the weight. He looked ungainly, particularly with the full length paddle, but it did the trick.
Our fully laden packs – 35kg for me (an extra camera system) and 30kg for Harsharn.
This beautiful river enticed us into what turned into another brutal hike through the trees and over boulders.
At least we never had to carry much water. The drinking water in Greenland is mineral perfection.
This high pass between Tasersuaq and Kangerluk was incredibly beautiful. With high rock walls on all sides and an azure river winding its way through green pasture it was hard to imagine a more stunning scene. Yet it didn’t give up its secrets easily. We were often left guessing at what the best route might be: A direct line from A to B? Follow the river? Zig-zag between patches of cottongrass? Go high onto the slopes? In the end we did a mix of all of them but once again, the defining experience was forcing our way through birch trees at a painstakingly slow speed. We covered the first 4 km in 4 hours.
After another tough time forcing our way through the trees we were in the open once more.
Flowers at the riverside – it was surprising to me just how abundant flowers were in Greenland.
A river crossing and a welcome opportunity to refresh our tired feet.
When I see a pool like this there is only one thing to do.
The final route up to our camp spot for the night. Harsharn was really struggling at this point – no surprise when you consider that he was carrying almost half his body weight.
As we hiked through this mountain paradise I couldn’t help but wish we had more time. You could have spent a week photographing this valley alone. In the image above you can just about make out waterfalls which were pouring from a lake at the head of one of the side valleys. Oh for the time and energy to have gone there!
Camping at the head of the pass with abundant drinking water.
Arriving tired we set up camp and planned a short hike for sunset. Heading up the walls of the pass we found little enthusiasm for going higher and, in a somewhat enclosed situation, enjoyed a remarkable sunset without taking a single photo!
The following day a quick glance at the map was all it took to suggest that our route down to the fjord on the opposite side would be easier than the previous day, and so it proved. A short climb over some old snow was followed by a quick descent onto a comparatively flat pasture – a hanging valley above the fjord below. Even better, a strong breeze was blowing and for once we were completely insect free – BLISS!
Snow at the start of the day.
More perfect weather – it certainly helped keep us happy!
The open pasture just before the descent to the fjord – a lot of the ground here was waterlogged and gingerly stepped across the spongy ground.
Captain Ridiculous – I don’t suppose outdoor brands will be queuing up to use this photo!
With the majority of the days hiking over we had a short route down to the fjord. Originally we had planned to camp at the bottom, but given that there was still plenty of daylight left we thought it would be better to crack on. I have to say, I was pretty excited about packrafting again and getting the weight off my feet!.
Kangerluk Fjord – full of beached icebergs. The glacier at the end was particularly interesting from a geography perspective. Terminal moraine anyone?
The last of the day’s hiking.
Packing up ready to get on the water again.
We started rafting with the wind at our backs and the outgoing tide helping us further. We barely even paddled but still managed to go a few miles an hour. We made camp at Issortusut, part way to Aappilattoq, which we planned to reach the following day. We spent our evening enjoying our surroundings and looking for compositions on the nearby river.
Harsharn fishing at a river mouth. Sadly no luck, but we both found fishing to be enjoyable regardless of success.
The river at Issortusut as sunset approaches.
A magical sunrise greeted us the following morning. The opportunities for strong images were a little limited in the local area and, not having anticipated the light I was caught a little off guard. Ultimately the image is a little disappointing but I had long since come to realise that this trip was more about the experience than the images.
The best sky of the trip, but I was left scrambling to find subjects to shoot!
What started as an incredibly colourful sky soon became a plain, overcast sky. We packed up the tent (which was starting to get incredibly repetitive by this point) and paddled out onto calm waters, staying close to the cliff edges to give a sense of speed!
Packing up at Issortusut – judging from the detritus in the area this spot was popular with the locals, perhaps for fishing.
Packrafting the short distance to Aappilatoq on a grey morning.
We didn’t really know what we would find at Aappilatoq – information on these remote Greenlandic settlements is comparatively thin on the ground. Stopping in this tiny village was one of our best decisions.
We pitched our tent on the edge of the village and within minutes were invited to a 66th birthday party. It would have been rude to refuse and we were soon crammed into a tiny living room full of people. Photos covered the walls and the overall decoration felt dated yet cosy. Each of these tiny houses had room for a living room, a small kitchen and a tiny bedroom or too. Some had showers, but many made do with the communal facility.
For most of the time we stood there like lemons, smiling and wishing we could speak a single word of Greenlandic. Fortunately one of the men in the room, Seth, did speak very basic English and we chatted a little. When we showed everyone our plans for the following days they looked concerned “Bear here two days” was one phrase that caught our ears. After a while trying to figure out exactly what was being said, we discovered that two days previously a polar bear had been seen swimming in the fjord. They asked if we had a gun.
We had plenty of questions: How long do polar bears hang around for? What’s the probability that it would be there when we paddled through? What should we do if we see a polar bear? Nothing really got through, the language barrier was simply too great. Eventually the response came “YES, polar bear VERY dangerous, Big Teeth, Big Claws!” accompanied with wonderfully dramatic miming.
Harsharn was excited to see a bear and said something to the effect of “Wouldn’t it be great to spot one in the fjord!?”
“NO” came the response, clearly Harsharn had taken leave of his senses!
The local shop. Although not exactly up to western standards it had everything you could really need. It would have just about been possible to restock here.
That afternoon we went on a little food shop. Everything was expensive, but that didn’t stop us buying a few luxury items for dinner. The wine and pizza went down very well indeed! Attached to the shop was the post office complete with an internet connection. We asked for a weather forecast. 60mph winds were forecasted for the following day, and, with boats the only way of accessing the village and no route out we were completely stuck! HOORAY!
The swing was in constant use during our stay at Aapilatoq. I really love this image, but sadly it’s Harsharn’s!
Back at the tent we looked over to a large flat gravel area where two boys were having a kick about. Keen to take part in a bona fide international football match I suggested to Harsharn that we head over. I blame my hiking boots mostly, but the final score finished 10-0 under the watchful eyes of half the village. The teams grew larger for the second game but we were clearly a disadvantage to whatever team we were on. Seth, who it turned out was father of one of the boys, invited us back to his house so we could shower. He regaled us of how the village football team were regional champions. We felt better.
A surprisingly competitive game! One of the ladies who joined must have been 60, it seems the Greenlanders know how to have fun!
The football shirt were an appropriate measure of the relative abilities of the two teams. We were thrashed!
After eating I headed up to a viewpoint over the village, finding myself briefly joined by a couple of locals on an evening stroll. It was remarkable to see just how isolated the settlement was.
A high view of Aappilattoq, Kujalleq.
That night the wind picked up and the rain fell. I couldnt have been happier to be camped low down with an enforced rest day ahead.
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