Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Van Life: Powering up on the road.



Vroom with a View: Menai Straits from The Mermaid Inn, Ynys Mon, North Wales.

Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right


Yes, it’s been a while since I took the camper on a road trip but in the next couple of weeks I’m planning on a trip to the Lakes for starters, with Scotland, North Yorkshire coast, Radnorshire and maybe The Isle of Man pencilled in over the next few months. To get my fix of V Dub van life. I’ve been watching some of the many You Tube videos put out by Camper aficienados. I mentioned the brilliant Kombi Life/Hasta Alaska a couple of weeks ago. Another nice set of videos have been put out by Theo and Bee whose Brummie tones and upbeat positivity add real zest to their slickly produced slices of van life, wild camping and general outdoorsyness coming at you through their 'Indie Projects' series of vlogs.

One of the issues they dealt with which has become a familiar problem for travellers in this high tech age; how can you keep all your gadgets charged up on the road? I know for myself that if you are into recording your adventures and want to set them down on a laptop when you get back to the van, then it can be a problem. Especially given the variety of gadgets we use these days. Typically, even on a days hillwalk I’ll take a Phantom drone with a powerful battery that only gives 20/5 minutes of flight and needs charging after every session. Ditto the drone controller. Then I need a tablet to monitor drone recordings in flight, a digital camera, a sports cam, an iPhone and if I’m away in the van..a laptop/netbook.

Most gadgets can be charged through a car powerpoint or cigar lighter as we used to call them. Even my drone has a car charger adaptor. However, a lot of travellers use inverters which basically is an electronic device or circuitry that changes direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC). That is, you can plug it into a 12v car charger or direct to the battery terminals and power something like a laptop or even a small TV. However, I’m no expert so I’ll point you in the direction of this page which goes into detail about inverters.

The aforementioned Theo and Bee use a power pack called a ‘Goal-Zero’ when on the road. This small device offers USB points, car charger and AC points.It can be charged on the road or plugged in at the mains. No denying that the Goal Zero looks rather cool. Not much bigger than a car battery, its chunky green and grey exterior ticks the aesthetic boxes as far as gadgets are concerned, but here’s the thing. Does the average weekend or holiday traveller actually need one? Even allowing for the amount of equipment that those of a photographic or video recording bent will take with them on a trip?

I would suggest no. The thing is, a powerpack like the Goal Zero starts at nearly £200. Add on a solar charger and there’s another £100+ The small GZ’s don’t actually throw out much power. You might get two full laptop charges from a fully charged GZ  but here’s the thing; apart from the fact that as I previously mentioned, you can charge most things from you car charger-buy a triple adapter and charge three things at once-you can actually buy a powerpack at a fraction of the price. I’m talking about a good old fashioned car jump starter/power pack. These start at around £30, have a bigger output and almost all will include a car charger point which you can plug devices into. Including iPhones, laptops, cameras etc-providing you have the adapters of course. You won’t get an AC socket but you will get a tyre compressor and built in lantern to boot! The more powerful booster built for diesel engines will of course being carrying a more powerful battery within its plastic housing,hence you will be able to charge more gadgets on a fully charged booster.

So...there you have it. If you’ve £300 spare and fancy a trendy powerpack, go for it. On the other hand, you could spend one tenth of that and get something which will also do the job.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Outdoor Writing: Reviewing the Reviewers



Outdoor writing in the UK, particularly relating to rock climbing or mountaineering, tends to be pretty parochial and generally does not have a huge appeal to those outside of what is after all, a relatively small climbing fraternity. As such, books written about pre-war mountaineers or those autobiographies of rock jocks whose fame extends no further than the UK, generally find  sales tallied in the low thousands or in some circumstances, even in the hundreds. Although a ‘name’ like Chris Bonington or Doug Scott will find an international audience of course-particularly in the US- and will also pick up sales from the general public who as a rule have no interest in the great outdoors but like a good yarn. Witness Joe Simpson’s extraordinary crossover success with Touching the Void. Not surprisingly, climbing and mountain publishers tend to be specialists and not literary Jack of all trades, although occasionally a well know publisher like Faber & Faber will dip their toe in the outdoor market.

Given, the tight profit margins involved in publishing books which often won’t even cover costs, it’s no surprise that publishers tend to be cautious and generally only plump for books by or about-relatively speaking- well known figures in the game. Often, in the case of a climbing autobiography, if that person is not an experienced or accomplished writer then then the publisher will suggest the involvement of an experienced writer who can then make something of an acceptable literary silk purse out of what may have been, something of a mangy sow’s ear!  For reviewers of outdoor books, this generally means that most books coming up for review tend to be well written and interesting.

As someone who does on occasion review climbing and mountaineering books, then I’m sure I speak for anyone who has ever reviewed a book when I say that no one ever wants to damn someone’s hard work. If a writer has put months or even years of effort into researching and collating information about a historical figure, or if they have poured out their soul into an honest and frank autobiography, then its difficult to write a bad review even if the work is underwhelming. In these cases, usually the reviewer will couch their review in terms which emphasize the positives and play down any negative elements. Thankfully, as I’ve already suggested, publishers-particularly in a narrow field like climbing-don’t tend to publish turkeys so the need to either tread lightly or be bluntly truthful doesn’t arise.

Although I’ve read plenty of climbing books which were a bit so-so and forgettable, I’ve read very few books that I’ve felt were really poor or I’ve disliked for whatever reason. One book which springs to mind was written by a US writer about bouldering. The author’s attempts to instill a Zen like spirituality into the activity and his purple flights of fancy into the far reaches of West Coast surrealism left me cold. Unable to make head nor tail of the book I passed it on to Harold Drasdo whose intellect and sharp literary mind far surpassed my own. Perhaps he could review it? A week later it came back.Nope...he was as nonplussed as I was!

Ninety Nine per cent of reviewers, I would suggest, are honest and conscientious. they tend to be scrupulously fair and objective and never allow personal feelings about an author cloud their judgment. However, that’s not to say that there are not some bad apples in the barrel. One of our best known climbing writers does a good line in rubbishing authors he sees as rivals by writing one and two star reviews on Amazon under a series of pretty transparent pseudonyms. Rather amusingly, he gives his own books five star glowing reviews. Rather he did although I hear that Amazon, under pressure over false reviews, are now only allowing verified purchasers the opportunity to offer reviews and the company have been busy deleting these phony reviews after pressure from other writers and reviewers.

Writers as highly regarded as Robert Macfarlane, David Craig and Boardman Tasker winner, Harriet Tuckey have all been victims of this literary villain’s poison pen. As least they can console themselves that a rather sad attempt to undermine their work was quickly exposed and recognized by other writers in their field before any damage to their reputation was done.

Thankfully, cases like this are very much the exception and in the main the UK outdoor media can pride itself on the honest and sober objectivity of its reviewers.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Lights, Camera, Outdoor Action!



Respected Lakeland explorer Vyvian Withnail above Hawswater
For those seeking a televisual fix of the great outdoors, UK TV offers pretty meagre fare to say the least. Apart from very occasional programmes featuring people like Julia Bradbury walking the fells, or Steve Backshall on some adventure in far off climes, the only fairly regular  TV programme which based on the Great Outdoors is BBC Scotland’s The Adventure Show. Only available in England and Wales through iPlayer of course.

Thankfully, these days we are no longer solely dependent on terrestrial or digital TV channels and can access a huge variety of material through the magnificent media behemoth that is Google’s You-Tube organisation.


From sailing the high seas to mountaineering; road trips to white water pack rafting. Whatever your bag, its out there on You-Tube, and if you have a modern TV which has a YT channel pre-installed then you can sit back and watch these films and documentaries in the comfort of your armchair rather than squinting at a laptop or desktop screen, as was the case when You Tube was first launched.

These days, making a half decent climbing, hillwalking or road trip video is totally within the reach of just about anyone with the creative drive and equipment. Modern advances in photography and movie recording devices have brought professional quality stills and recordings within reach of nearly everyone. Of course, you can make a video with a smart phone or £20 digital camera and there are indeed, some watchable videos which have been made on the most basic equipment. However, as a rule of thumb, to make a quality You Tube film-I’m discounting Vimeo here as unlike You Tube, Vimeo’s free service is frankly appalling and limited to one tiny media file per week- you essentially need three good quality bits of kit. A drone, a super compact digital camera which records HD video files, and a Go-Pro style sports cam. To these recording devices add on an extending selfie stick which holds a sports cam, a dashboard mounted sports cam holder-for road trip films-a smart phone or small tablet-essential for recording drone footage and of course a laptop for editing.

All this will set you back at least £1k but that’s small beer if like the cream of the YT outdoor movie making crop, you want to make watchable films and perhaps establish your own You Tube Channel. When it comes to Movie editing you can save money by using the excellent free Windows Movie Maker editing suite. Although its no longer supported by Windows-it has been around since 2013 and was part of the excellent Windows Essentials package which included a very good photo editing suite-you can still download the full Monty from some third party sites.  Another money saver will be found by avoiding the horrendously over-hyped and over priced Go-Pro range of cameras and buying one of the many copies out there. The best of which can easily match the Go Pro in terms of quality and at a fraction of the price. One of the best is the Apeman series of Sports cams. Identical to the GP in size and the interchangeable range of accessories which will fit either camera. The top end Apeman 4k. 20mp sports cam comes in a zipped case with a range of accessories and spare battery and costs £79.99.The popular Go Pro Hero 4 costs £300 by comparison.


It's der gear la; The outdoor vloggers basics

I have a basic 1080p Apeman which costs under £40 and the image quality is still pretty amazing and more than adequate for videos. Most videos include stills and really you need a good quality camera like one from the Sony stable-the NEX or Alpha range- which take quality photographs and video footage. The Sony A 5100 for example offers 24mp and packs a DSLR sized sensor which gives you DSLR quality but in a pocket size camera. The Sonys are mirrorless cameras with detachable lenses although when you buy the camera it does come with a 16-50 zoom lens which is often all you need anyway. Not cheap. The 5100 for example costs £450+ but you can buy cheaper if don’t mind buying through the so called ‘grey market’ where you can find them up to £100 cheaper than through traditional outlets.

One of the biggest breakthroughs in creative video work in recent years has been the rise and rise-no pun intended!- of the ubiquitous drone. Previously the preserve of the military and professional media and access organizations, the availability and subsequent drop in price of what were up until a few years ago, a pretty rare site in the outdoors, has really opened up a whole new creative dimension to video creators. Those sweeping overhead shots and dramatic eagle’s eye view of rolling vistas were previously only available if you had access to a helicopter or small plane! Now anyone can achieve stunning aerial footage at relatively little cost.

One of the most popular ‘serious’ drones in the world-you can get drone or quad copters as they’re sometimes called, for under fifty pounds on eBay- is the DGI Phantom 3 Standard. Retailing at around £400, The Phantom 3 comes with an on-board 2.7k camera which shoots AVI and Mp4 footage and HD quality stills. Its probably the most widely used drone being used by amateur outdoor vloggers at this moment in time.

If you haven’t delved into the wonderful world of the outdoor vlogs on You Tube then here’s a few of my own personal favourites....


Kombi Life/Hasta Alaska...Adventurous Jersey boy Ben Jarman escapes island life and heads to the tip of South America, buys an old air cooled VW Camper and over the next 4 years wends his way to Alaska. En-route picking up young travellers and a Peruvian street dog, (a cocker spaniel he names ‘Alaska). Beautifully filmed and skillfully edited, Hasta Alaska perfectly captures the trials and tribulations which are part and parcel of travelling in a 25 year old air cooled V Dub. More importantly perhaps, the vlog also captures the spirit of the people and places he passes through.

Scotland’s Mountains/Steaming Boots...I’ve only recently discovered this but it sure looks good. Described as the work of ‘a team’ I’ve only actually seen one vlogger on camera but by using more or less the equipment described above, they capture perfectly the wild beauty of the Scottish mountain environment. Some great drone aerial footage (Using the aforementioned Phantom 3 Standard) and some great photographs really show off the Scottish mountains in all their glory.

SavedPurpleCat...The curiously titled vlogger is actually Tim from Buxton way who with his partner Mandy are keen wild campers,gear reviewers and road trippers in their Mazda Bongo. Tim’s videos have technically come on leaps and bounds in the last couple of years and again, using similar gear to the above, and he has created some really attractive vlogs which have been complimented by some stunning photography. Tim is a bit of a born again Christian but thankfully, his vlogs are not overtly proselytizing although the odd Christian power ballad does occasionally make its way on to the incidental soundtrack!

Alastair Humphries...British adventurer and promoter of outdoor ‘Micro Adventures’ has created some very watchable short videos. Covering everything from bothies, to biking and pack rafting. Long distance travels to scrambling, these skillfully made and creatively edited videos are well worth a gander.

Rob Johnson...North Wales mountain guide Rob Johnson has created some great videos with the drone used to great effect to capture our dramatic mountain environment. Rob throws in some tutorial stuff into the mix such as choosing a wild camp site, and offers features on the work of the local mountain rescue team of which he is an active member.



So...the moral of the story is, if you are dismayed by the lack of outdoor related material on the box, then you are looking in the wrong place. Then again, why not go out there and make your own videos like these guys!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Explaining Pictures to a Dead Hare



In 1965, The German conceptual artist, Joseph Beuys, performed a piece entitled ‘Explaining pictures to a dead hare’. It took place on the opening night of Beuys’ exhibition of drawings at Galerie Alfred Schmela in Düsseldorf. The invited public arrived at the gallery to find the doors locked. Through the glass front of the gallery they saw Beuys sitting in a chair with his face covered in honey and gold leaf, cradling a dead hare in his arms. Slowly he got up and wandered around the exhibition, as if explaining each work to the hare.

The connection between one of the great artists of the 20th century and co founder of Die Gruenen-The German Green Party and the rather less intellectually endowed brethren of the Scottish Gamekeepers Society and their Landowner/Sporting Estate employers, might appear tenuous to say the least. But here’s the thing; for Beuys and for many who spend their time in the mountains and uplands, the hare is simply a magical animal. The sight of which, exploding into life on the hillside, encapsulates the very essence of the wilderness experience. For Joseph Bueys it was one of the six sacred animals which informed his art. Certainly, the sighting of a hare on the open uplands near here-particularly in the early summer when its tawny coat stands out from the young green sward-always raises the spirit. Inevitably, the first sight of a car or bike trundling over the high road over the open mountain expanses, sparks the skittish hare into action. Literally haring off into the blue beyond.


Inevitably it will be a single hare. Unlike their fellow members of the Leporidae family, the populous and sociable rabbit, hares tend to be loners. Outside of their breeding season in spring they are usually to be seen on their own. Nibbling the vegetation or scanning the skies for buzzards and the fields for foxes.Those powerful hind legs, cocked and ready for flight in the blink of an eye.

For those who love the hare, the past few years has been a highly depressing period as across the Scottish countryside, particularly the the grouse shooting moorlands, hares are being slaughtered in their tens of thousands. Photographs show grinning imbeciles in waxed jackets and flat caps, proudly posing behind their prey. A bloodied carpet of white hares laid out before them. The excuses used by the landowner associations and sporting estates which drive the slaughter range from the need to cull the hare to prevent a population explosion to the unfounded belief that hares carry ticks which spread disease to the precious grouse. However,  Dr Adam Watson, a mountain ecologist and author has described the situation as  "a preventable catastrophe’ and ‘a national scandal."

Professor Watson who has published a book on mammals in the northeast Highlands highlights the unique the plight of the mountain hare which has  ‘suffered massive declines over the last 10 to 20 years’. "I would say that spring abundance of adults has been reduced by at least five-fold to 100-fold on most of these moors," he said. ‘In some areas, hares have been completely wiped out.’ Chillingly he adds "Gamekeepers on several estates have told me they were instructed to reduce hare numbers and to try to eradicate them."

While estate goon squads carry out their bloody work on behalf of their profit driven employers, the Scottish government’s wildlife conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), which is charged with protecting the nations wildlife, has been depressingly supine towards the landed interests and decidedly hands off on the issue. 

Image: Raptor Persecution Scotland

The issue has certainly produced strong feelings of outrage in the outdoor community with people like leading climber Dave Macleod recently tweeting a photo of estate workers carting their bloody bounty over the empty moorland killing fields. At this moment, there is no sign of the slaughter coming to and end anytime soon. Perhaps given the general public's distaste for the practice, Scottish Natural Heritage might finally do what they are supposed to do and protect this important element of the upland ecosystem. Then again, given their record of inactivity, perhaps not?
 
Apparently,in Irish and Scottish myth and folklore,the hare is often associated with the Sidh. A supernatural race whose activities inform early Pagan belief systems. In these stories, characters who harm hares often suffer dreadful consequences.’....Let's hope so!!!