Author Archives: Anna Downing

About Anna Downing

I'm a freelance magazine editor and I work to travel. I have roots in London but whenever I have the chance I get on a plane to the latest far-flung destination. In the past two years I have been to Australia, Turkey, France, Portugal, Italy, Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Peru, The Amazon, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Valencia, Madrid and Amsterdam. I'm permanently in possession of a flight ticket to somewhere new and exciting. But I do love other things: my cats, baking cakes and Breaking Bad, mainly.

India – Delhi, Jodhpur, Kolkata and Varanasi

India is an assault on the senses. It’s colourful, loud (honking the horn is not just encouraged but actually required) and smells like spices, chai tea and urine.

I went for 10 days with seven other photographers to shoot street photography. Anja is a fave girlfriend of mine from Brighton who has second shot for me at loads of weddings, and we’ve been friends for years. Matt came to my workshop a year before and we’ve been good friends since. We bicker like brother and sister and it’s the most fun. Andrew has interviewed me a couple of times for his podcast PhotoBizX and we finally met on this trip (he lives in Australia). The funniest moment was when he drew the “short” straw and had to sleep in a tiny bed for three nights! John came to our last street photography trip in Barcelona (along with Anja and Matt) and has an epic handlebar moustache that the Indians loved. Alex is a fellow wedding photographer who loves picking people up and swinging them around – he became an honorary girl on the trip as we had hostel rooms with four beds in each and 3 girls and 5 boys. He was the only boy who didn’t snore (he did fart a lot though) so he got a spot in the girls’ room. Carla and Jide I first met on this trip. Carla is a hilarious Romanian/Hungarian who cracks me up and Jide is a Brit living in New York who is an amazing photographer and all round funny dude.

We slept in hostels, homestays and on trains, most of us got the trots, all of us got a cold and the whole 10 days was a whirlwind of curry, Dominos pizza, illicit beer, really terrible Indian wine, sharing poo experiences, getting through vats of hand sanitiser, trying salt lassis (which should not exist), playing Exploding Kittens, waiting for trains, running for trains, and getting increasingly terrible Uber ratings. We got up early and went to bed early, drank our body weight in tiny cups of chai and ate curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We visited the crumbling slums in Delhi, saw burning bodies at the Ganges in Varanasi, and spent hours at train stations and meat markets looking for the perfect street photos. We took tuk tuks everywhere (when we didn’t get an Uber – oh man is Uber cheap there) and raced tuk tuks when we all travelled together.

But the people were the most wonderful part of India. The poorer they were, the more generous they were. We were invited into many houses for a cup of chai and chapati. And when I say house, I mean the floor space is about 2×4 metres and the kitchen is a crawl space.

We didn’t realise how easy it would be to take street photos in India. People begged us to take their photo! I took 10,000 (no exaggeration). Here are my favourite images from India.

 

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New Zealand travel tips

Some things are meant to be – and when my Kiwi hairdresser in Brighton told me she was getting married on a beach back home in New Zealand and she needed a good wedding photographer I lept out of my chair, grabbed her and declared “I simply must be your wedding photographer!” OK so I wasn’t quite so crazy – I subtly asked whether she had a photographer yet… But it was the start of something great, and 6 months later I was driving through the Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand in a Jucy campervan on the way to shoot an epic New Zealand destination wedding.

Since it’s a 24-hour flight from the UK I stayed a few weeks in New Zealand to make the most of it, campervanning all over both the north and south islands. Here are a few things I learned:

 

Jucy Campers are awesome

Jucy campers are awesome. It’s like being in a club, where you wave manically and excitedly to fellow Jucy drivers on the road. Although I once did this while on foot before realising I didn’t have the safety blanket of the Jucy camper around me and the dude just thought I was a nutcase. I ran to my camper and hopped in so he could see I wasn’t a total mental case.

Campsite passes are a waste of time

Don’t bother with the DOC (Department of Conservation) campsite pass. It’s a waste of money. You can only use it for campsites that don’t require booking, and the ones that you can use it for are generally pretty dire (mostly pit loos and no showers or kitchens) and only cost $6 per person anyway. Plus the non-DOC campsites are plentiful, cheap ($30-$50 for 2 people) and have hot water showers, kitchens and a great atmosphere. We used Top 10 Holiday Parks a few times, which while tacky, were awesome. This is me on a trampoline at the Lakeview Holiday Park in Wanaka.

Hot water showers are rarely free

Keep a few dollar coins handy and practise counting to 5 minutes in your head.

Bring the right shoes

Bring flipflops to wear in the campsite showers. Ew.

Wifi is awful

Wifi is never unlimited and rarely free (if it is free you get a very limited amount of data). If you’re staying at a campsite more than one night it’s worth signing up to the IAC wifi for $5 for 1GB over 24 hours.

Public loos are amazing

Public toilets are generally incredible. They’re clean and nice and don’t smell. Even pit loos aren’t tooooo bad (except on the Tongariro Crossing). There’s even a public loo in Franz Josef that talks to you and plays music while you pee.

Get petrol!

If you’re travelling somewhere remote in New Zealand, fill up on petrol first. This isn’t because you can’t get petrol in remote areas, but because they’ll charge you an insane amount for it.

Freedom camping is fun

Freedom camping is allowed in most places – just pull up somewhere you won’t be in the way and as long as you have a self-contained camper you’ll be fine. Enjoy! This was our view from a freedom camping spot near Franz Josef:

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Bring pegs if you’re camping

If you’re driving a Jucy camper, bring pegs and hooks – there’s not a lot of storage space but loads of room to be creative. They’re also super lovely helpful folk, I’m really glad we chose Jucy.

Sometimes the tacky things are the most fun

One of the best things we did in New Zealand was swimming with wild dolphins in Kaikoura. I almost didn’t go because I imagined it would be tacky. It wasn’t. It was mindblowing.

Watch out for tourist traps

One of the worst things we did was Waitamo Glowworm Caves. Yes it was beautiful but each tour has 50 people and there are 3 tours in the caves at any one time. There are other glowworm caves in the country – check those out instead.

If you go to Rotorua be aware that you have to pay to see anything exciting. We arrived at 5pm (just before the attractions closed it turns out), because we thought the hot springs/geysers/mudpools would be public. And it’s not really worth the money to go in.Visit the lakes

The most beautiful lake we saw was Lake Pukaki on the south island. All the lakes are so blue, but this one was the most stunning, and went on forever – it was huge!

It’s windy

So windy. Everywhere. Bring hairbands. Many hairbands.

Visit the small towns

There’s a small town called Ross on the south island. It’s probably the coolest small town you’ll visit. This is one of the houses:

Look up

Look up at night. You can see the Milky Way on a clear night.

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Be careful of Google

If you google Mirror Lakes New Zealand you’ll see incredible photos of a stunning lake. If you go to the actual Mirror Lakes in Milford Sound it is not the lake on Google images – you want Lake Matheson in Fox Glacier. Whoops.

Miss the north island

There are so many beautiful walks in the south island and we didn’t have time to do many at all. Give the south island a few weeks – I would miss the entire north island in favour of more time in the south.

If you’re going to Milford Sound…

There is only one campsite at Milford Sound, at the Lodge, and it has a permanent “all campsite spaces are full” sign on the road sign. It’s not true – but you do have to get there early-ish (we got there at 4pm) to get a spot. If it really is full, you can camp in the classy information centre car park for $20.

Relax

When you find a pretty spot, stick with it. We went to Karangahake Gorge in the north island and it was idyllic, yet we moved on in search of other such beautiful spots near Auckland/Coromandel to spend a sunny afternoon and failed miserably.Hot Water Beach

If you go to Hot Water Beach, get there early. The sand has hot water underneath and you rent a spade and dig your own hot pool. However, half the spots are too hot to touch, half are cold, and a small few are nice and warm. Those spots will be gone if you’re a minute too late! You have to go two hours before low tide to be able to find a spot.

You will kill things

Roadkill is everywhere. We killed two birds, a bunny, a possum and countless bees and butterflies.jucy-camper

Don’t get out the car near a river at dusk

Oh god the sandflies. Buy a nice essential oils repellent and don’t open the camper doors at sunset near water if you can help it. We had toilet breaks away from water before driving into our campsites (ones near water) and just hopped into bed from the front seats! Once they’re in your van you’re a gonner. Fly spray (for a house) and the ability to hold your breath for a full minute is a godsend.

En route to New Zealand…

If you fly Singapore Airlines you’ll stop at Singapore Changi Airport which has a secret rooftop pool at the Transit Hotel in Terminal 1. Bring your swimmers! They provide a towel.

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Enjoy New Zealand!!

Scotland – Skye, Moray and Edinburgh

A couple of weeks ago I went on a little holiday to Scotland with Thomas – we went walking in Skye (and I was left gripping on to the side of a mountain in fear for a good 10 minutes…), spent Halloween in Edinburgh and discovered a spiritual community in Moray called Findhorn.

The community is in a pine forest and has the most beautiful beach, and to live there you have to spend a week there doing community work, meditating and proving you can fit into their way of living. Everything is eco friendly and even the sewer system flows into a giant geenhouse which they use to grow plants (cue poo jokes). Basically, I love Scotland. I think our next house might be a log cabin in the forest!

Iceland – hot springs, volcano and the Northern Lights

I have a lot of hobbies. I like to skate, I love baking cupcakes, I enjoy dance classes and I’m even writing a book. But I’m pretty bad at keeping them up. I haven’t skated for a year, I haven’t baked since last November and the last dance class was so long ago I can’t remember a single move. And the book is stuck at 70,000 words.

But there are two passions in my life that I will never give up: photography and travelling. And Iceland is the perfect place to take a camera.

You can gaze over a massive landscape that goes on for miles and miles and not see a shred of evidence of human life. Not a house, person or macdonalds to be seen. This country is all about nature. It’s such an active country. I really think that if the world is going to end, Iceland will be the one to see us trash-dropping, deodorant-spraying, tree-chopping humans off. The whole country is bubbling under the surface; it feels like it’s on the verge of just exploding in a great burst of lava! Wherever you go you can see steam filling the icy air, and if you’re lucky you can even go and bathe in the hot water.

If you want to really truly get off the beaten path, go to Iceland.

Now I’m going to share a secret with you. Ok it’s not so much a top secret as a lesser-known thing. But it’s my ultimate travel find and is pretty much the greatest thing ever.

There’s this hot spring. It’s near Reykjavik, it’s free, it’s in the middle of nowhere and it’s HOT. You can bathe in hot water surrounded by snowy mountains and you will most likely have the place to yourself. It’s called Hrunalaug and is close to the village of Flúðir.

You need to drive road no 344 (Hrunavegur) from Flúðir and turn off it towards Sólheimar. Drive past the church and stop when you come to a parking space that has a ‘no camping’ sign. Just over the hill (2 minute walk) is Hrunalaug.

Here’s how to find it:

Drive the ring road out of Reykjavik along the south coast eastwards. When you see a sign for Flúðir, hang a left. Just before you reach the town, take the 344 towards Hruni and  Sólheimar. When you see a cute white church, turn right, go past it, then take the first right, signposted Sólheimar. Right there is a small car park with a no camping sign. Park up, head over the hill to the right, cross the first stream (cold) and jump right into the second stream (hot!). There is a little hut where I’m guessing people used to change before bathing. Jump in naked – usually there’s no one else around. Then enjoy the view from your very own natural hot tub!! Below is a photo map to help you find it:

Here are my top tips for Iceland:
Go there. Don’t even think about it, just buy plane ticket and go
Go there for as long as you can. There’s so much to see and do
Bring a towel, rent a car and submerge yourself in natural hot spring
If you insist on going to the blue lagoon, bring your own towel, wear a swimming cap and go at sunset  ( Im serious about the cap, my hair is ruined)
On  a clear night, keep looking up. Sometimes you can’t see the northern lights with your eyes so take a long exposure photo (15 seconds, 2000 ISO, f2.8 min) and you’ll see it on your camera screen!
Rent a 4×4 – you can explore more
Get off the ring road and get lost among the ponies and mountains
Check out these photos, including the Northern Lights and the volcano that blew in 2010!

Vietnam on two wheels: Hanoi to Ha Giang

The best way to see Vietnam is on a motorbike. For a start, nothing beats being out in the open, having the freedom to take any path you want, and being able to shout hello to all the excited children you pass. Another good reason is because the buses and trains are like hell on Earth. I cannot tell you how much they are Not Fun. The sleeper buses were designed for tiny people with a wild resistance to sharp braking, ear-drum-bursting disco music and painfully bright lights. The sleeper trains, from what I hear, are even worse.

As for being on the back of a motorbike, which is where my bum was parked for 15 days of our 21-day trip to Vietnam, I can safely say that aside from a bit of exhaust burn, it is a hell of a lot of fun.

We started off with a six-day tour around Ha Giang. This is totally possible to do with just yourselves, a bike and a good map, but we decided to take the much safer route of booking a tour. It cost $550 each, but it was the highlight of the trip, without a doubt. There are loads of companies that do this sort of thing, and we went with Vietnam On Trails. The reason I chose them was because after email conversations with several companies, this was the only one who had someone with excellent English and who was understanding of our needs.

“Thomas excelled, whizzing around and then zooming off up and down the main street. I stalled 10 times in a row, gave up and let Thomas be the designated driver”

Our driver was a guy called Tan, and he was excellent in every way. He was the only person in Vietnam who didn’t have a phlegm-spitting habit, he had a Western standard of cleanliness, his English was brilliant and he went out of his way to give us what we wanted. For example, if he heard the shutter of my camera as we were driving along (whenever I was on the back of his bike instead of Thomas’s), he’d slow down so I could get the picture; he gave me his own personal helmet as mine was a bit uncomfortable; he moved tables to the outside of restaurants at lunch (much to the confusion and amusement of the restaurant owners and patrons, who like to eat in dark rooms) because he knew we liked to eat outdoors; and he was an extremely safe driver.

The tour started with a free motorbike lesson the day before, as neither of us had ever ridden any kind of motorbike, even a scooter. The lesson consisted of standing in front of a huge motorbike in a car park, and the company owner Ngoc explaining where the gears, clutch and brake were, then sending us off to do a loop of the car park. Thomas excelled, whizzing around and then zooming off up and down the main street. I stalled 10 times in a row (no exaggeration), gave up and let Thomas be the designated driver.

The next day the tour began. It was really beautiful and so much fun being on the back of a bike. We arrived at our first homestay in Vu Linh while it was still light out, so Tan suggested we head down to the lake for a swim (“don’t worry, it’s clean” he said). We took the bikes there as it was a km or so away, much to our regret, as the path was very steep and sandy, and Thomas came off his bike in spectacular fashion, burning the inside of his right calf on the exhaust and earning himself a permanent reminder of Vietnam. We struggled the rest of the way to the lake to wait for assistance, where we saw a buffalo lower himself into the water and take a massive dump. We didn’t go in for a swim.

“When we got to the lake we saw a buffalo lower himself into the water and take a massive dump. We decided not to go in for a swim”

Getting back to the homestay, we cleaned Thomas’s wound and spent the night in a wooden stilt house with a minority family who taught us “cheers” in their local dialect (“ho me do”) – or maybe that means “bottoms up”, I can’t remember – and made us drink lots of rice wine, which helped with Thomas’s leg pain. We ate dinner in the big communal room that also housed all our beds, sitting on the floor around a delicious selection of homemade food before passing out at around 8pm after way too much rice wine.

Day 2 took us to Ha Giang. The town itself was unremarkable, but the village we stayed in was gorgeous – rice terraces, farms in back gardens, local people who liked to touch my hair… The air smelled fantastic too – in fact it smelled great everywhere in Vietnam, like you’ve stuck your face in a big bag of rice.

Day 3 started out well, with gorgeous scenery (of course) and windy mountain roads. Then my stomach started telling me something was very wrong. As I was sitting on the back of Tan’s bike and we were in the middle of nowhere I decided to keep quiet and hope it would go away. Then we had a rest break, surrounded by nothing but beautiful scenery, and my stomach told me that now was the time. I had to embarrassingly ask Tan to undo my backpack from the back of his bike so I could get tissues and wet wipes, and sprint to the nearest rock. This was possibly the lowest moment of my life.

“My stomach told me that now was the time. I sprinted to the nearest rock. This was possibly the lowest moment of my life”

Then it started raining. Hard. We managed to drive slowly to Dong Van, a nothing town with a few other tourists milling about, sheltering from the rain. We realised we wouldn’t be able to go any further that day, so found a horrendous hotel and holed up for the night. We ventured out in the evening, so that we didn’t have to spend any more time in our grotty hotel room than we had to, and were dragged into an outdoor bar by some extremely drunk locals, and force-fed rice wine once again. The good thing is that it’s so strong it doesn’t take long before you’re so drunk you can’t tell how disgusting it is anymore, and you’re past wondering who made it and in what conditions.

Day 4 was the most beautiful of all. We almost missed out on this part of the trip due to the rain nearly forcing us to reroute – but thank god we didn’t. It was all the superlatives you can think of so I won’t bore you with them here. Just look at the pictures:

 

I rode with Thomas most of the time over the final few days. The roads were windy, the drops steep and the conditions ever so slightly bumpy in lots of places. At the beginning all he could hear in his ear was “eeeee” “argh” “oh god!!” as I squealed around every slight corner. So after a few days of him getting used to the bike and me getting used to the fact that the bike won’t tip over when we go round a corner, I jumped on the back and enjoyed the view.

As we had stopped early the day before, we were late to turn up at our next scheduled homestay. It was getting dark by the time we arrived, which wasn’t good because we were staying in a national park with no outdoor lighting, only accessible from this side by junk boat. We arrived as the sun was dropping, but as it had rained recently we had a little bit of trouble getting the bikes off the boat and onto the mainland. The banks were steep (very) and muddy and there was no flat bit – we had no choice but to push the bikes up this swampy slope. Ok I admit, I stood and took photos while Tan, Thomas and the boat driver pushed. If they’d slipped or let go, them and the bikes would have ended up in the lake.

We made it up the hill (ok, they did) and we rode in the dark through the jungle along an unlit two-foot wide path to the homestay. I think I’d rather have slept in the junk boat. The house itself was ok, but the bathroom stank. So bad. The toilet was covered in… erm, stuff, and the bathroom had an unshifting stench that even with the door open it felt like you’d fallen into one of those toilets like they have in Slumdog Millionaire. Needless to say I didn’t drink anything for the whole time we were there so I wouldn’t have to go in there, I cleaned my teeth in the bedroom and spat over the balcony, and in the morning when I had to pee, I “went for a walk” and did it in someone’s farm.

Breakfast there was the best we had, though. Fried bananas with honey and sugar. They made these alongside the tiny fish they were frying, to sell outside the house to a boatload of rich Vietnamese travellers from Saigon, wearing jeans and polo shirts.

We left the homestay by boat, and ended up sailing into Ba Be Lake – a major Vietnamese tourist destination. I went for a swim in the cold water (after half an hour of sitting on the edge of the boat, saying to Thomas, “you’ll have to push me or force me to go in, I cannot and shall not do it on my own! I’m too weak!” He counted to three, I plopped myself in and instantly regretted the wasted time whining on the edge of the boat. Five glorious minutes of swimming later and Tan was calling me in to get moving for lunch.

Lunch was amazing too. We ate at the homestay we should have stayed in the previous night, if it hadn’t been too dark to reach it. It was an amazing place. The bedroom overlooked rice paddies on the lake and the toilets were clean to the standard of a person with OCD.

The last night was spent in a small village where the homestay was a bit more contrived. Less a local family and more a travellers’ hostel, the accommodation was clean but the food and company was seriously lacking.

“We were back to reality. Back to crossing a road with a 50% survival rate”

The last day of driving took us through a bunch of ugly towns and highways, before reaching Hanoi. I was still on the back of Thomas’s bike and he had never driven in traffic – and Hanoi traffic is like nowhere else on Earth. I resumed screeching into his ear, telling him about every car or bike that was within a mile’s radius of us. I’m sure that didn’t irritate him at all. We were dropped off in a cab at a hostel we’d booked, a world away from the quiet, scenic countryside we’d got used to. We were back to reality. Back to crossing a road with a 50% survival rate. Back to being ripped off by shops and restaurants. Back to being “just another tourist”. Bah.