Sunday, November 20, 2011

Skydiving

Tandem Skydive, Perris, CA
Tandem Skydive, Perris, CA

Growing up, the very thought of skydiving used to instill a feeling of excitement and euphoria in my being. I remember watching adventure shows on AXN TV that showcased skydiving and vowed to try it someday. The idea of jumping out of an airplane from 12,500 feet had a certain radical appeal – it symbolized freedom and adventure and allowed one to experience human flight. As I grew older, the desire to skydive remained strong, but I was too chicken to turn my childhood dream into reality. Fast-forward to 2011. One evening while checking out my Facebook newsfeed, I saw a picture of a friend doing a tandem skydive. “This is not possible,” I thought to myself. My friend is not into extreme sports and he did what? Not to be outdone, I decided to finally take the plunge and go for a tandem skydive.


Tandem Skydive, Perris, CA
Tandem Skydive, Perris, CA

I decided to skydive at Skydive Perris on Memorial Day. Skydive Perris is one of the largest drop zones on the west coast. Furthermore, their website has a video of Mandy Moore doing a tandem skydive with one of their instructors – can we say “sold,” boys and girls? I booked my skydive via their website and spent the night before my dive, tossing and turning, doubting my decision to actually go through with it. Come Memorial Day morning and the drive to Perris was accompanied with apprehension, nervousness and a lot of questions. What if I screamed like a little girl during the free-fall? What if my parachute did not open? What if we hit the ground hard? Would 'The Maury Show' still exist if there was no DNA testing? Does Simon Cowell really buy his t-shirts at Baby Gap? Well at least no one would be able to hear me as we hurtled towards the earth at 120 mph.


AFF Skydive, Perris, CA
AFF Skydive, Perris, CA

Upon arrival at Skydive Perris, I checked in at the reception. Paperwork completed, where basically you sign your life away and waive the DZ of any liability in the event of a mishap (injury or death), I was led to meet my instructor, Piya. Piya suited me up in an overall and a harness and walked me through the procedure. In essence, I would be harnessed to Piya and at 12,500 feet, he would push the two of us out of the plane and into free-fall. We would fall approximately 7,000 feet at the rate of 120 mph – a descent that would take around 45 seconds. Piya would then release the parachute and we would (un)happily descend to the earth, at a rate of 10 mph. Easy Peasy!

AFF Skydive, Perris, CA
AFF Skydive, Perris, CA

As the plane took off and climbed higher towards our jumping altitude, my fellow tandem jumpers and I started to get really nervous. Watching the houses and trees become smaller and smaller and knowing that we would, in a few minutes, be jumping from the safety of the plane, was unnerving. At 12,500 feet, Piya nudged me towards the now open door. Standing at the edge of the door and looking out at the vast openness below, I questioned my sanity. Was I crazy for doing this? And then before you could say "Jerry Springer," we fell! The first few seconds seemed to be a blur due to the sensory overload. But once we achieved terminal velocity, it was incredible. There was no falling sensation, the kind that one experiences in a rollercoaster. Rather it was almost as if we were floating on a cushion of air. Suffice to say, that it was exhilarating. 45 seconds later, Piya launched the parachute and I found myself peacefully floating towards the drop zone. The parachute ride down took around 5 minutes and the landing was incredibly soft. Wow, this experience was nothing like I had imagined. I would actually do this again!

AFF Skydive, Perris, CA
AFF Skydive, Perris, CA

A few weeks later, I decided to go in for another skydive. This time though, I did not want to be harnessed to an instructor and thus opted for an AFF skydive via the First Jump Course. The First Jump Course consists of ground school for around 6 hours followed by the student jumping wearing their own parachute system. Two instructors accompany the student and will test the student’s knowledge during the skydive. The student will free-fall for around 45 seconds, during which time he/ she will complete certain tasks assigned for the jump and then pull their parachute at around 5,000 feet. The student is responsible for steering and landing their parachute. The ground school was pretty intense, but great. Upon completion of the written test, I was introduced to my two jump instructors, Bret Townley and Benjamin Summers – two very cool guys. Although nervous about jumping solo, without the safety of being harnessed to an experienced skydiver, the jump went off well. Below is the video of my AFF jump (skip to 3:00 to avoid the chit chat).

AFF Skydive, Perris, CA

If you haven’t tried skydiving, I strongly urge you to try it once. It is definitely an experience you will not forget.


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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Horsetail Fall, Yosemite National Park, CA


Horsetail Fall, February 2016, Yosemite National Park, CA
Horsetail Fall, February 2016, Yosemite National Park, CA

For the past three years, I have been wanting to visit Yosemite National Park to photograph the natural fire-fall. No these aren't lava spewing, heat dispensing falls of fire like the ones in the LOTR movies. Rather for a few days in February, the sun's angle is such, that it lights up 'Horsetail Fall' in Yosemite National Park as if it were on fire. It really is a spectacular sight and one that I have been fortunate to photograph last year as well as this year.

Horsetail Fall, February 2011, Yosemite National Park, CA
Wide View of Horsetail Fall from the Valley floor, February 2011

This fall was made famous by Galen Rowell through his photograph 'Last light on Horsetail Fall'. Since then throngs of photographers descend upon Yosemite during the month of February, to capture this natural wonder. This event happens twice a year - in October and in February. During October, the fall is dry and hence one cannot see the event. Even in February, a few conditions have to be met before one can see this beautiful phenomenon - there should be sufficient snow melt for the fall to flow and the sun should not be obstructed by clouds around sunset (when this phenomenon takes place). During this window in February, as the evening sets in and the sun goes down, the light falling on El Capitan assumes a rich golden color. As the sun nears the horizon, the light falling on either side of the fall, gets narrower and narrower, until the light is focused just on the fall, giving the impression that the fall is on fire. It was thus with the intent of photographing this elusive event, that my friend Mike and I drove from Los Angeles to Yosemite on a cold Saturday morning.

Horsetail Fall, Yosemite National Park, CA
Horsetail Fall, February 2016, Yosemite National Park, CA

We arrived at Yosemite National Park around 1 pm and found a great spot with a clear view of the fall. We set our chairs down, mounted our cameras on tripods and high-fived each other, excited that we had got a prime spot to photograph this event. While gorging on sandwiches and washing them down with coke, we waited for sunset and watched as the initially empty landscape, began to fill up with photographers. By 4 pm, all the good spots had gone and panic was setting in among the late arrivals. Some took to the trees and some waded into the river water to try and get that perfect composition. As the excitement mounted and the friendly chatter of all present drowned the babbling of the Merced river, 'Ra' decided to play dirty and hid behind some clouds.

Horsetail Fall, Yosemite National Park, CA
Horsetail Fall, February 2011, Yosemite National Park, CA

Some of us started to get nervous, thinking that we might not see the fire-fall, while others started to pray for the clouds to part. It was really interesting to watch the reaction of people around us - people from different walks of life and interests, all hoping and praying for the clouds to part and let the sunlight through. Fifteen minutes before sunset, the clouds were completely obscuring the sun and most of us had lost hope of seeing the event. And then... Magic! The bottom of the fall started to light up as the sun's rays broke through the clouds. "It's happening", I shouted out to the other photographers, who then looked up and ran towards their gear. Slowly, but surely, 'Horsetail Fall' transformed into the 'Fire-Fall' right before our eyes. Noisy chatter was replaced by shutter clicks as awe-struck spectators marveled at the sight before their eyes. And then, ten minutes later, it was all gone. The 'Fire-fall' reverted back to 'Horsetail Fall', as everyone let out a collective sigh of disappointment.

One thing is for sure - Mike and I will be back next year to capture this event. I for one, just want to be in the presence of this indescribable beauty.

Here is a video that I created of the event.



Recently my video of 'Horsetail Falls' was profiled in a program that aired on NHK, Japan. My segment can be seen from 00:15 to 01:35 in the clip below.


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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Death Valley National Park, CA


Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley
Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley

I had been wanting to visit Death Valley National Park for the last couple of years and finally got the chance to do so this past winter. Visiting the park in the winter held a couple of incentives for me; first, the climate was pleasant during the day, and second, the temperatures were sufficiently low (in the 30s) during the night, to allow me to photograph star trails with little image noise during the long exposures. I hoped to leave Los Angeles around 4 AM- the keyword being 'hoped'! Sleeping late and getting up early don't really mix well together, and after hitting the 'snooze' button on my alarm clock a few times, I finally managed to leave my apartment around 5 AM. A quick stop at the local gas station for a cup of joe, and I was cruising along CA-134.

Moonrise over Ubehebe Crater
Moonrise over Ubehebe Crater

I decided to take CA-134 to the I-15 N, before finally taking CA-127 at Barstow. The journey time from LA to Death Valley is approximately 5 hours. I arrived at Death Valley around 10 AM and after checking in at the visitor center, I headed to my campsite located in the Furnace Creek campground. The campground is well laid out with RV campsites in the middle and the tent sites circling the RV ones. If camping in a tent, it's advisable to book tent specific sites, as they have a softer ground (for the stakes). I made the mistake of booking one night in the RV site and could not for the life of me, hammer half of my stakes into the hard ground. I then decided to just hammer the stakes in at a 45 degree angle and set some stones on top of the stakes. As luck would have it, it was horribly windy that night and I was just hoping that the stakes/ stones combo, would keep the tent in place (which they did).

Sunset at Badwater
Sunset at Badwater

I basically wanted to photograph a few specific places in Death Valley. I knew that I definitely had to shoot the sunrise from Badwater as well as Dante's View, and the sunset at Ubehebe Crater (which is a few miles from Scotty's Castle and quite a distance from Furnace Creek). The drive to the crater is very scenic (with some great views). I recommend going to see the crater if you visit Scotty's Castle. The crater is also en-route to the Racetrack (which I have never been to, as one requires a 4WD high-clearance vehicle to get there). Besides these photos, I wanted a couple of panoramas and star trails (specifically from Zabriskie Point and Dante's View). I tend to shoot star trails around 2 AM or so, and was thus apprehensive about heading off to these remote areas alone at that time. I especially remember the trip to Dante's View (for those of you that have never been to Death Valley, Dante's View is a very scenic point at around 5000 feet above the valley below and is a good distance from civilization)- images of myself being stalked by an Axe-murderer kept flashing as I was driving up the solitary road towards my destination.

Sunrise at Dante's View
Sunrise, Panamint Range, Dante's View

If you do decide to go to Dante's View for night photography (I highly recommend it), then try and go with a friend (and don't forget to load your thermos up with some hot coffee the previous night). One of the great things about Death Valley is that they have a couple of restaurants and a grocery store very close to the visitor center. One of the most photographed locations in Death Valley is 'Zabriskie Point' which happens to be close to the visitor center. The view from this point is great and the light early morning and late evening is spectacular. This point has a lot of tourists for the sunset, but not too many show up for the sunrise (they tend to show up after the sun has risen). I shot an hour long star trail at this point (around 2AM or so) and it turned out well. I had planned my two visits to Death Valley so that I got the chance to photograph the valley, both during the new moon as well as the full moon.

Star Trails at Zabriskie Point
Star Trails at Zabriskie Point

A few weeks ago, I decided to go to Death Valley once again as I wanted to capture shots for a panorama at Badwater. At 282 feet below sea-level, Badwater is the lowest point in Death Valley (and also the USA). One of the cool things at the parking lot is a sign up on the mountain by the parking lot, that says 'Sea Level'. The location is very scenic and can provide some great photo opportunities. The panorama below is composed of around 13 shots stitched together (representing approximately 270 degrees of view). I got lucky that day as there were clouds and the panorama turned out quite dramatic. If you can go to Death Valley during a rainstorm, I think you will be well rewarded with some great photo opportunities.

To see the panorama below in all its glory, click on the photo and once it opens, use the scrollbar at the bottom to scroll to the right to see the full picture.

Badwater Panorama- Click on this photo to open large version
Badwater Panorama, Death Valley


Death Valley should definitely be on your list of must-see attractions. It's a great place to relax, shoot photos and just have a good time.
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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

I first heard about the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park through a friend. He told me about this park, famous for miles and miles of dirt roads (five hundred miles to be precise) and close to the Salton Sea. Over the past weekend, I decided to take a short trip and check it out. Anza-Borrego lies Southeast of LA and is a 3 hour drive along the I-15S and CA-79 routes. The drive along CA-79 is very scenic, and in particular while approaching the park along Montezuma Valley Road.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Unlike most other parks, there is no fee to enter Anza-Borrego. The town of Borrego Springs is located within the park and has a few restaurants and a couple of gas stations. The visitor's center lies to the west of the town along Palm Canyon Road. Incidentally, Borrego Springs is the first town in California, where I have come across a traffic roundabout, known as the Christmas Circle.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

The park is beautiful and as mentioned earlier, has a lot of dirt roads that lead to incredible vistas. Fonts Point, probably the most prominent viewpoint, provides a good view of the Borrego Badlands and the valley below and can be reached by a four-mile drive on a primitive (read dirt) road. Park rangers advise not to attempt driving on that road without a four-wheel drive vehicle. Coyote Canyon and Palm Canyon offer great hiking and riding trails. Traveling east along the S22, you can see Truckhaven Rocks which are sandstone slabs inclined at an angle. This seems to be a hot tourist destination too and I saw a lot of people taking pictures. I did not have time to check out the Desert Gardens and the Mud Caves.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Unfortunately, I traveled in my dinky car and was unable to check out most of the touristy destinations which are only accessible via dirt roads. To really appreciate Anza-Borrego, you would need a 4WD. Anza-Borrego is a picturesque park that deserves to be on your list of travel destinations.

Camping at Anza-Borrego

There are a few campgrounds in Anza-Borrego. I chose to stay at Tamarisk Grove which lies to the south of Borrego Springs. The campground has around 27 sites with restrooms and hot showers. It is one of the better campgrounds I have visited and I really enjoyed my stay there. Reservations for this campground can be made at Reserve America.

Tamarisk Grove Campground, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Joshua Tree National Park, CA


Sunset from Keys View
Sunset from Keys View

I first visited Joshua Tree National Park over ten years ago. I was visiting my sister in LA for a few weeks and after watching endless hours of mindless tv, I asked her to take me to Joshua Tree. We left LA around 10am or so and arrived at the park around 2pm (after making the customary stop to grab a Big Mac). We had barely spent 20 minutes in the park- driven a few miles in the park and taken a couple of photos, when we decided to head back to LA. Joshua Tree park, it seemed, did not hold our interest. After all, we had better things to do in LA- like watching mindless tv! Since then, I have always remembered Joshua Tree as this arid, barren park which had not appealed to me.

Moonset from Keys View
Moonset from Keys View

Fast forward a few years. I moved to LA in the fall of 2006 and the travel bug bit me big time. The problem was that the only national park within a couple of hours driving distance was Joshua Tree. Even though I had not so pleasant memories of my previous trip, I decided to go to the park once again. The rationale being that if I did not like the park, I could always swing by Palm Springs or better still, do some mindless shopping at the outlet malls.

Full Moon at Cap Rock
Full Moon at Cap Rock

The park has three main entrances- one each from the West, North and South. Since I was driving from LA, taking the 10E, I decided to enter the park from the West entrance. The drive by the way, is really scenic, especially as one meanders between the windmills on the 10 freeway, just before exiting onto CA62 (which leads to the park).

Sunrise at Joshua Tree
Sunrise at Joshua Tree

At the entrance I was convinced by a very happy park ranger (I was able to count all of her pearly whites) to get an annual pass which would allow me entry into all the national and some state parks (the pass is called 'America the Beautiful' and is probably one of the best purchases I have made. I strongly believe in supporting the national park service and this pass is a bargain at an $80 value). This time around though, I was struck by the stark beauty of the park. I guess the last time I wasn't really 'looking'.

Star Trails at Joshua Tree
Star Trails at Joshua Tree

I think the best way to see this park is to drive from one end of the park to the other. Driving east from the West entrance along Park Boulevard, one can see lots of interesting rock formations and undulating landscapes. After crossing Hidden Valley campground, you can stop by to visit Keys Ranch and Barker Dam. South of Hidden Valley at Cap Rock, the road forks with the south segment leading to the Lost Horse Mine and Keys View, which offers spectacular views of the valley below. I have always obtained great shots from Keys View- whether it be sunrise or sunset. From Keys View one can see the San Jacinto Mountains and Palm Springs. Take it from me- Keys View is a must see and if you can stay on for the sunset or get there for the sunrise, you will be very happy.

Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park

Traveling east along Park Boulevard, you can check out Jumbo and Skull rocks. Skull rock is a pretty interesting rock formation that looks like- you guessed it- a skull! A lot of people spend some time here hiking or just chilling out (especially in the afternoons and evenings). Past Skull rock you can either go North towards the entrance or choose to go South towards Cottonwood. As you head South towards Cottonwood, the change in the scenery is quite dramatic, especially past the Cholla Cactus Gardens (which are really beautiful). The landscape starts to get pretty barren and flat especially in the Pinto Basin area. Incidentally, Pinto Basin is a great place to photograph wildflowers in the spring.

Cholla Cactus Garden
Cholla Cactus Gardens

While heading towards the park's exit, stop to see Cottonwood Spring and the Lost Palm Oasis. There is also a visitor center at this point with restrooms etc. The park does not have any shops or restaurants, so make sure you come with food supplies and plenty of water (particularly in the summer months).

Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park

Since my second visit to Joshua Tree in early 2007, I have been there around six to seven times- the more I visit it, the more I like it. It should definitely be on your must see list should you be in the area (or even LA- it is after all only a three hour drive from LA).

Camping at Joshua Tree

There are nine campgrounds in Joshua Tree. Most of these are on a first-come first-served basis (viz. Belle, Cottonwood, Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rocks, Ryan, and White Tank. The Black Rock and Indian Cove campgrounds are first-come, first-served only during the summer months). I personally really like the Indian Cove campground (the only drawback being that vehicular access is from outside the park). Indian Cove is famous for its rocks and a lot of campers spend time climbing and hiking. Some of the campsites here are HUGE! At under $20 a night for a campsite, it's a great deal.

Rock Climbing at Joshua Tree
Rock Climbing at Indian Cove Campground

Booking for Indian Cove and Black Rock campgrounds can be made either via the phone or the internet. These two campgrounds may be reserved from September through the Memorial Day weekend up to six months in advance of the date you want to reserve.

Camping at Joshua Tree
Camping at Indian Cove Campground

So what are you waiting for? Grab your tent, sleeping bag and camera, and head out to Joshua Tree. Even Bono would approve!
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