Travel. Those who love it swear that they can keep traveling for years at a time without settling down. For the past decade or so, this is exactly what I’ve been doing. I’ve traveled somewhere for about 9-10 months each year. I've even managed to keep this kind of schedule with 3-year-old daughter and wife. When not traveling, we visit family and friends in Sydney, Australia. That’s the closest to what I can call a home. It’s where I grew up.
Generally, I head out of Sydney again around May or June (winter time in the Southern hemisphere). Because May/June is the beginning of new journeys for me, it kinda feels like the beginning of my year. Add the fact that my birthday is in June and it really feels like a new year.
So, just before I leave on the next journey, here’s a photographic overview of my last year of travels (June to June).
Last journey started in the motherland – Belarus
I was born in Belarus. Most of my family still lives there. My wife is from there. These links inevitably lead us back, almost every year. Sometimes I don't stay long. Last year I did a little project for Panasonic, so I stayed a couple of months.
Above is lake Rozhevo in the beautiful Braslav region in Northern Belarus. I loved this particular lake so much that I bought a wooden house not far from it. It was super cheap for a house. I thought – Why not? I envisioned myself spending the European summers here sometimes. Unfortunately I didn't take into account that summers in Belarus are generally... not great. You get about 2-3 warm and dry weeks. The rest of the time it's raining and relatively cold.
While I haven't spent any time in the house, I have enjoyed the beauty of Braslav. Last year I brought my drone and was able to see the region like never before.
I spend a lot of time in and around the lakes in Braslav. Braslav is in fact a region of about 300 lakes. It's only natural then that I should photograph in the lakes too. Here's my nephew Fedya diving with me.
Fedya is pretty keen to learn how to catch crawfish. Crawfish are one of the main reasons why I like the above lake so much. Nothing quite like catching your own lunch and living from nature. Braslav is a place where I can do that to an extent.
I should mention that the house I have is actually not liveable. It needs a lot of renovation. Above is the place where I've been staying during my visits to Braslav since 2010. It's the house of my friend Yuri. The nearest neighbour is almost 200 meters away. All about peace, quiet and nature here.
Yuri (below) is quite a character. This is reflected in the look and feel of his home. An old TV on a barrel. Goats roaming around and stealing your food if you look away. There was another goat that used to block the way to the water well. He wouldn't let anyone past unless he was offered a piece of bread.
Yuri would test the quality of cheap local salami on his cat named Carpet. If Carpet the cat ate the salami – it was good enough for Yuri. Very quirky ambience.
One of Yuri's most beloved activities is banya. I made a blog post about it, if you want to know more about what banya involves. To the left is one of my favourite photos from the banya. It says a lot in a very minimalist manner. The look on Yuri's face is confusing – Pleasure? Pain? Green leaves from the banya bessom. All very characteristic of the banya experience and instantly recognisable by any Russian or Belarusian.
Yuri always has people over at this remote house of his. With every new group of visitors come copious amounts of alcohol and endless conversations.
Having grown up in Australia, it's hard for me to completely connect with people in this region. We constantly argue about politics and ethical values. Sometimes I feel that we're from different planets. However, a fire, an accordion along with some popular songs and a strange feeling of nostalgia sets in. During these moments, it's hard to deny that my heart is still Belarusian.
Genovefa is Yuri's neighbour. Elderly women in rural Belarus will often treat you with something when you visit. Some won't let you leave the house without it. The latter doesn't happen as much as it used to, but it did in this case. Genovefa poured me some rasberry compote. It was good!
It often gets foggy in and around Braslav. Scenes shot in fog can look magical. I got the above photo on my birthday, I spent most of it on the road. Once the sun set, the temperature quickly changed, the fog appeared. Almost anything would have looked special in these conditions, but having the horse in the fog really made the shot.
More fog. This time near the lake Rozhevo area. The interaction of the fog and the rising sun is one of my favourite photo subjects.
Maramures Romania and the Panasonic G80 Campaign
Last July I was involved in what I've called the Dream Travel Photography Project. I shot a campaign for Panasonic Lumix G80. One of the main reasons that I consider this a dream project is the amount of creative freedom that I was given.
I was basically asked to shoot what I normally would. They gave me a yet to be released camera to work with too. What's not to like?
A blend of staged and pure documentary photos
I worked with my mate – a talented young photographer/videographer Jacob James. He shot the video, I did the stills. Since this was to be an add campaign, we needed a lot of beautiful images, which sometimes don’t just occur by themselves.
We decided that I’d not only shoot my regular documentary stuff, but that we’d set up some scenes too. This was to ensure that we’d get everything we needed.
Above is Mariutsa. She kinda became a star of the campaign. I made portraits of her and we followed her around a bit as she did her everyday chores.
Mariutsa with one of the family horses. This is probably my personal favourite photo from the campaign. I like the warm, dreamy feel of it. The veil-like effect in the photo was created by shooting right in front of stems of grass. The grass was blurred because I used a large zoom lens. The grass in front of the lens is what created the veil-like effect.
Shooting in a church on a Sunday was something pretty spontaneous and unplanned. I felt that we needed to make sure that there are enough "real" images, not just beautiful romantisized ones.
Cosmin the shepherd boy getting the animals out of the enclosure to be milked. It was quite journey to find some of the shepherds in the mountains of Maramures.
Cosmin and his dad lit a fire and gave me and our team some tasty home-made cheese. It gets chilly in the mountains in Maramures, even during the summer months.
More Belarus and the beloved UAZ van
A couple of years ago I was naive enough to get an UAZ van in Belarus with the idea of driving it all the way to Mongolia. Not the short way via Russia either. But, through Turkey and everything that comes on the way after. Trouble started when a couple of weeks into my ownership the engine needed to be changed. I changed it for a Soviet engine from the 70s/80s. Supposedly that’s the last era when quality control on these was still decent.
The Soviet engine has worked just fine, but something else seems to always pop up. Additionally, this UAZ van is not well equipped. Doesn't even have power steering. I did have another naive idea that I’d get the UAZ modified for my epic adventure. But, in Belarus getting someone sober enough or someone who’s not renovating their flat or doing almost anything not to touch the UAZ proved too difficult.
I still love this car. It has such a spacious cabin. There's even a little table in the passenger section. The idea of crossing continents with it is incredibly romantic. It would be an amazing house on wheels. The reality is that traveling 200 km in it leaves you as fatigued as if you had traveled 1000 km. There are just too many other shortcomings too. The cost of making it expedition-ready would amount to buying a used Landcruiser. So, the UAZ sits in the parking lot most of the year, until I come back during the summers and drive it to Braslav.
Mud and water – what UAZ was created for. Such a fun vehicle to drive and as long as it’s within Belarus, it will get me virtually everywhere. On the right is my daughter (in the window) and my nephew. The kids love the UAZ, though it seems that the older they get, the more cynical they are about it.
Just look at that warm light. Feels like a cozy little house. I do remember that it was ridiculously comfortable working in the UAZ when I took it to the Baltics a couple of years ago. I'd sit in the back, stretch my legs and do whatever I needed on the laptop.
To Georgia in the Landrover Defender
Before I bought the UAZ, I had a Landrover Defender. The idea was to equip it and to travel all of Africa. My wife and I were well on our way, but life is full of surprises. In Mauritania she found out that she was pregnant with our daughter. She went to Belarus and I never drove further than Senegal.
The car was parked in a friend’s farm in Portugal for a year. I hung on to the hope that I’d take it back to Africa soon. But, as I realised that my UAZ wasn’t going to take me to Mongolia, I decided to not let Landrover sit around in uncertainty. I drove it all the way to Turkey, then to Georgia. That’s where I hope it’s still waiting for me.
You may think that I’m mad to have cars in different countries. Maybe I am. But, for the kind of travel that I do they’re the perfect tools. They’re more than cars, they’re homes and offices too. The Landrover is the best equipped. I’ve spent a lot of time on getting it modified. It feels great to finally get it moving. The best thing is that it's suitable enough to allow my little family to stay in remote places pretty comfortably.
A land of mountains, traditions & hospitality
Georgia – I’ve been fascinated by this former USSR republic for some time now. In Belarus Georgians were well known for their odd accents, their sense of humour and their warm hospitality. The closest I’d ever gotten to Georgia was through their food, which is amazing. Now, having driven the length of Turkey I was ready to explore the country.
Ask most people from the former USSR how they envision Georgia and they’ll quickly say mountains. There certainly no shortage of those. There are also plenty of monasteries and churches, often built in the most scenic locations.
This might be the most dramatic location of any church in Georgia. This is the Katskhi pillar. There is not a monk who lives in the church. Food is delivered to him by devotees via that cable you see to the right of the pillar.
Speaking of churches, Georgians as a whole are devoutly religious. They’re Orthodox Christians, which is a big part of the reason behind the bond with Russians, Belarusians and Ukranians.
I spent most of my time exploring small towns on the way to Tbilisi (from Turkey) and around Tbilisi. Above is a taxi driver in Signakhi. Most people I’d met were as welcoming as the stereotype we had formed in Belarus. Virtually all of them were quite happy with being photographed too.
They make wine around Signakhi. I was invited by my guesthouse owner to see the process and to partake in the wine drinking. Way too much wine for someone who rarely drinks, but the important thing was the good company.
A man selling communist paraphernalia in Tbilisi’s flee market. There are still plenty of Soviet remnants in Georgia. There’s even a sense of nostalgia for the Soviet times. From my countless conversations it seems that Georgians had it pretty good during those times. No one really asked them if they wanted to break up the Soviet Union. Many people over 45 seem to speak fondly of the times gone by.
Shashliks are among the many foods that Georgians do incredibly well. They’re a part of almost any celebration. It only makes sense that there were many shashliks during Tbilisovo – the name day for the city of Tbilisi.
RElics of the Soviet past
One hint of Georgia being an integral part of the Soviet Union is the amount of Soviet era factories and other industrial constructions. Some are even still functioning.
Chiatura is a mining town. Now it’s very much on the decline, but a few of the original cable cars that take miners to the mines to work are still functioning. These things go back to the 50s and 60s. There used to be more that would take the residents to different parts of town, but now they’re under renovation.
A view of Chiatura from one of the mining spots above the town. During the blue hour it looks much more pleasant and romantic than it really is.
A boy looks over the town of Chiatura from inside the cable car at dusk. You can read more about my first visit to Chiatura HERE.
The factories of the impressive, now semi-funcional industrial town of Rustavi. It’s amazing that something one would generally consider so incredibly ugly looks so strangely beautiful from above and at sunset.
The smoke belching factories reminded me of a spaceship from a sci-fi movie. Of course, these giants are far from harmless, as I was reminded by one of the employees who was finishing his shift. He said – people are dying from all the chemicals here. We don’t even know all the types of poisonous components we’re working with.
I left Georgia just before it started to get really cold. I found it to be a wonderfully unusual country that I’ll continue exploring soon after I get back to these parts of the world.
Colombia – my window into Latin America
My first destination in Latin America was a spur of the moment kind of decision. I'd been thinking, dreaming of going to Latin America for years. I studied Spanish in university. My first destination after finishing uni was to be Latin America. But, it was so far from Australia and from almost everywhere else I’d traveled to. I put off my plan for Latin America for 14 years!
"No matter what, I’m going" I finally said last year. Didn’t matter where specifically. It was now or never. I was in Madrid, ready to fly somewhere, but where? I hadn't decided yet. Mexico, Panama or Colombia were geographically the closest to Madrid. I looked at the ticket prices. The flight to Mexico was surprisingly costly. The weather report said rain, rain and more rain for much of Panama. I wanted sunny days near the sea so, I decided on Cartagena, Colombia.
Cartagena is described with the most positive of adjectives by most people who visit it. To be honest, I’ve only come to appreciate it recently, as I've been reflecting on my journey. It is one of the prime tourist locations in Colombia. The old city sometimes doesn’t feel real. Hardly any regular people live in the historical centre. It’s all businesses, restaurants, cafes, bars and fancy shops to impress the tourist. As clichéd as it sounds, if you want real Colombia you’re not going to find it in the tourist places.
Somehow I did manage to tap into the real Colombia though. One night I met some musicians while they were gathering and enjoying each other’s music, singing and dancing in the street. Just that one night led me to a few friendships.
One new friend invited me to a party in a favela-like neighbourhood. That's where the above images are from. Another new friend, a talented singer let me stay a few days at her house. I also shared one of the best dinners with her and her mother for New Year's Eve. Any time anyone offers me lobster – I'm there and I'll remember them with the warmest of thoughts for the rest of my life.
I also became friends with an acquaintance of my guesthouse owner. One of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. For whatever mad reason he spent an entire week of his time helping me find and buy a car. The costeños, as they are called by the non-coastal living Colombians are in my experience warm, fun-loving and dynamic people. While Cartagena might be a bit too polished for my taste, the people there and in the surrounding areas are just my kind.
Riohacha and the Wayuu people
From Cartagena I drove along the coast. In Riohacha – the capital of La Guajira I had my first encounter with the indigenous Wayuu people. Almost everywhere in the world I've seen indigenous people looked down upon. They’re generally spoken about in a negative manner. As is always the case, the negativity stems from stereotypes and a lack of understanding. No exception here.
While I only had very brief encounters with the Wayuu I certainly can’t say anything negative. From the first place I met them – in a fishing settlement in Riohacha through to the rancherías – their settlements in the arid parts of La Guarjira. They're just regular people with more struggles than most because of where they live, the discrimination and the corruption they have to deal with.
Above is Rafael. Like most Wayuu men who live along the coast he's a fisherman. Thankfully it seems, at least from his words, that the coastline is protected enough for the smaller local boats to be able catch plenty of fish. The situation for the Wayuu in the interior is much tougher by comparison.
Rafael’s sister knitting a traditional style bag. Many Wayuu women knit and sell these anywhere there’s tourism of any sort.
A boy from the fishing settlement hanging out by the shore. The tires you see are used to make artificial reefs to attract more fish.
To the edge of the world - La Punta Gallinas
As I followed the coastal road east, I entered one of the driest areas of Colombia and probably the toughest to survive in. My final coastal destination was to be La Punta Gallinas. It's the northernmost point on the mainland of South America and one of the most remote and fascinating places I’d been to.
Though it hadn’t rained for 8 years in a row recently, it seemed that storm clouds were ready to burst into a downpour at any time. In fact they did a few days earlier, changing the route to La Punta Gallinas, because some parts became impassable.
Wayuu children on the way to La Punta Gallinas. They were getting the family’s donkeys back home.
Valeria and Veronica – the daughter and the wife of Julian, a fisherman I befriended. I met him on the shore and went out fishing with him twice.
The Wayuu fishing net is called a chinchorro. I decided to take some photos of the fish caught in the chinchorro underwater.
Julian’s nephew with one of the fish from the catch. During my two outings I saw Julian catch a fair bit of fish. He considered me good luck by the second time.
Valeria frying the fish and the thing in the pot is chicha – a maize drink loved by the Wayuu.
Mountains, Carnival, a desert & lands of coffee
I had about two months to explore Colombia after getting my car sorted. Might seem like a decent amount of time, but Colombia is big. I would have loved to stay longer by the coast, but I wanted to see more of the country. First I headed into the mountains.
There’s a town called Pueblo Bello. It’s the closest settlement with modern infrastructure to a very special place – Nabusimake. Nabusimake is the most sacred site for the indigenous Arhuaco people. They believe it’s where the sun was born.
The Arhuaco are known for being very traditional. Many still wear the costumes that their ancestors wore. Importantly, they also follow the laws that their ancestors and their elders have laid out.
Above is a typical scene from Pueblo Bello. The Arhuaco men instantly stand out in their all white clothes, with their cowboy (or conical) hats and their long hair.
A trip to Nabusimake that was not to be
Of course I really wanted to make it to Nabusimake. I was told that I may not be able to get in, as there’s a gate at the entrance. But, an Arhuaco man who had just come back from there told me it should be ok. I decided to see for myself. You can read more about my little adventure in THIS post.
A couple of river crossings and 3 hours of driving on roads full of rocks and crevices. I reached Nabusimake only to be turned back. There was no way for me to get in. I later found out that there was an internal issue within the community. Until it would be resolved – no outsiders were allowed to enter. The Arhuaco do not compromise when it comes to their culture. This is the reason why they've preserved it so well.
I was disappointed, but there was nothing I could do. I decided to wonder around Pueblo Bello and to take photos there to make the most of my time. Above is a young Arhuaco girl heading towards Nabusimake with her mules.
To Zona cafetera via... Mompos
I headed towards the famous Zona Cafetera – the spectacular coffee growing region of Colombia. I continued with the idea to see as much as possible of Colombia on this trip. For this reason I drove via Mompos, which is a bit out of the way.
Mompos is one of the best preserved collonial towns in the country. Once upo a time it was a bustling hub for transportation along the Magdalena river. Now it’s very chilled and the main business seems to be tourism.
When I arrived there was a carnival taking place. Nothing like the famous carnival of Baranquilla, but I still wanted to make a photo or two.
As I left the Mompos and the plains, the landscape changed to misty mountain slopes like in the photo above. MORE IMAGES from Zona Cafetera in my past blog post.
A coffee farmer on his horse along a mountain road. I was struck by how culturally and racially diverse Colombia is. The coastline has a dominant afro-latino population, as well as the Wayuu. The mountains in the region of Santa Marta are home to the Arhuaco. Much of Zona Cafetera seems to be dominated by people with Spanish roots.
The dramatic landscape of Valle de Cocora. Colombia is full of spectacular landscapes. Once I got my drone I made it my mission to photograph them as much as possible.
My car parked in a camping spot in the desert of Tatacoa. About this car… it’s a 97” Landcruiser. I had it modified it a little. The plan is to take it all the way down to Argentina over a few years. Of course plans always change, but, that’s the idea.
The striking, windswept desert of Tatacoa from my Mavic drone. You can see more photos from Tatacoa HERE.
Final days in Colombia
During my final days in Colombia I went to a little town called Jericó. Beautiful place, full of character. No crime to worry about, which was a change after hearing the locals always get worked up about crime in the bigger towns.
I love little towns like this one. Peace, quiet, picturesque architecture and a very chilled vibe. What’s not to like? You can read more about Jericó HERE.
Luis Alberto and Umberto Flores (further from camera). The men are coffee farmers. They asked me if I wanted to take a photo of them, so I invited myself to tag along a little as they made their way to their farms.
Above is the oldest church in Jericó photographed with my drone. Jericó was a great choice as the last town to hang out in before leaving Colombia. I recharged my batteries a little after a lot of driving around and enjoyed the cool climate.
The Landcruiser is now in Medellin. My somewhat ambitious plan now is to make two journeys over the next few years. One to Mongolia, with the Landrover. When it gets cold in those parts, the other plan is to drive towards Argentina, with the Landcruiser.
There are still a many logistics to figure out, like in which countries I can actually leave my car while I am gone. Mongolia and Argentina are the final destinations, but my goal is simply to make those journeys and to get to know the many countries on the way to the final destinations.
And so, I depart again, first to Belarus, then to Georgia to continue my journey there.
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