Departing for Mongolia 2019 In Search of the Pallas Cat

A week at home in Australia has already come and gone and tomorrow I am heading back to the airport (I have lost count of how many times I have been to the airport this year) to begin the lengthy trek to the wild outback regions of Mongolia. This expedition begins with a non stop flight from Melbourne to Beijing before a transfer and second flight from Beijing to Ulanbatar (the capital of Mongolia). From the capital it will be approximately a days drive out into the wilderness to a remote location where we intended to establish our base camp and where we plan to be based for the better part of two weeks.

This expedition to Mongolia has been more than a year in the planning now and as I have alluded to in several previous posts is an attempt to find and photograph a very rare and elusive wild cat. The idea for this expedition first came to me several years ago when I was conducting some preliminary research into possible locations to find and photograph Snow leopard. My research eventually led me to the conclusion that I really needed to invest at least six months of personal time into the Snow leopard project if I was going to give myself a chance to not only find, but to create really powerful and evocative images of this majestic and rarely scene predator. In the end, I decided to shelve the Snow leopard project as I simply did not have the free time to invest to ensure the best chance of success. I was also quite honestly somewhat concerned about the requirement to live at high altitude for extended periods as historically I have not done well above 14,000 feet. During my research however, I stumbled upon a small wild cat that lives in the high step regions of Mongolia of which I had never heard of. A cat for which I could find very little information about and even less in the way of photographs captured in the wild (most of the photographs online are taken in zoos). I decided right then and there that trying to find and photograph this cat in the wild was the perfect personal project for me. I then spent my free time over the coming months reading and researching everything I could get my hands on.

Known as the Pallas cat, this small cat lives in burrows or dens in a remote region of Mongolia (and other parts of Asia) where it hunts small rodents for food. Pallas cats are kept in captivity in several zoos around the world but very little is actually known about their life in the wild. Additionally, there are very few photographs of wild Pallas Cat and their numbers are known to be drastically reducing due to poaching and habitat encroachment by humans.

This expedition will see myself and friend spending our time in an extremely remote area of Mongolia where we expect to be fully cut off from civilisation.There is no infrastructure where we will be basing ourselves so have to resort to tents and camping. It is winter in Mongolia now and temperatures as low as -40ºC are more than possible (and expected).

Our aim is to try and locate a Pallas cat den and then spend our time waiting in portable hides. With luck, the ground will be covered with fresh snow and the Pallas cat will be waiting. The latest weather reports are that snow has begun to fall as of a few days ago. 

For this expedition I am taking the following camera equipment:

2 x Canon EOS 1DX MKII Camera bodies

2 x Canon EOS 1DX MKII Spare batteries

1 x Canon 600mm f4L IS MKIII

1 x Canon 70-200mm f2.8L IS MKIII

1 x Canon 24-70mm f4L IS

1 x Canon 1.4 TC MKIII

Because we are likely to be fully cut off for our time at basecamp this will likely be my only post and update for at least the next two weeks. Cross your fingers (all of them) for us! See you in the wilds of Mongolia.

Wolverines and Wolves of Finland Workshop Report 2019

In October of 2019 I lead a dedicated wildlife workshop to the northern region of Kajaani in Finland. This workshop was dedicated to the photography of Wolves, Wolverines and Bears. I arrived a week early to pre-scout many of the locations I wanted us to try to photograph in order to ascertain which hides (and in what locations) were having the most activity and at what time of the day. By pre scouting I ensured we had the best possible opportunities with the most action for our time in this beautiful part of Finland. This was well worth the effort and time as everyone who participated in this trip came away with a spectacular portfolio of photographs.

To my knowledge, there is no where else in the world you can get so close, so reliably and so often to wild wolves and wild wolverine. At various times during our photography sessions we would have Wolves, Wolverine and Brown Bear within just a few feet of our hides. This provided us with unique and incredible opportunities to produce a really strong and powerful body of work of these apex predators.

Wolves, Wolverines and Bears are typically most active first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening so this is when we concentrated our efforts. As it turned out, most of the action ended up occurring in the afternoon and early evening so we quickly abandoned the mornings and focused our efforts on the afternoons. With the evenings being so incredibly productive we were able to make many thousands of photographs during just a few hours each day. It also freed up our mornings for some informal landscape photography around some of the lakes at the peak of fall colour. The landscape opportunities in this area of Finland at this time of year are well worth a visit alone.

Many of the hides we used to make our photographs are actually located in no mans land between Finland and Russia and special permission is needed to enter this demilitarised zone. The benefit of being in this remote restricted region is that we have it completely to ourselves. No other human being for many kilometres. Of perhaps even greater importance is that there is no hunting allowed of any kind in this zone. With hunting pressure across much of Finland (for Grouse, and unfortunately also for Bear and Wolves) the animals are pushed into this region and concentrated more closely than they might otherwise normally be.

During the week we spent in this remote part of Finland we had what can only be described as some of the most amazing, unusual and incredible encounters with wildlife anyone could ever hope for. We had a pack of six wolves (two Alphas and four one year old pups) that were consistently coming within just a few metres of our hides on a daily basis. To have wild wolves within just a few meters of you is virtually unheard of. We also had close encounters with Wolverine and brown bears; often close enough that they were approaching minimum focusing distance!

During one early afternoon we were waiting to go into the hides when a wild wolverine emerged from the forest and promptly came straight up to us to investigate. This is extremely unusual behaviour for what is notoriously an extremely shy and elusive animal.  With the wolverine so close I took the opportunity to use my iphone and grab some video of this once in a lifetime encounter.

Due to my continual travel schedule this year, I have not as yet had time to sort, edit and process the many thousands of photographs I made during this week in Finland, so rather than delay my trip report I am instead including a few snippets of video I shot on my iphone during the workshop. I will post final images at a later date once I have had time to edit and process them.

This years workshop was such a success that I have decided to repeat the workshop again next year from the 14th of October until the 21st of October. As per this year, I will take just five photographers with me for this experience. We will be based in a quaint and cozy remote cabin just a few kilometres from the Russian border where we will make daily sojourns to our hide locations for photography of Wolves, Wolverine and Bears. Drop me an email to register your interest as places are strictly limited and some are already spoken for. Full details on my website at www.jholko.com 

Greenland East Coast Back-to-Back Expeditions Report 2019

In  September of 2019 I ran two back-to-back expeditions to Scoresby Sound and the East Coast of Greenland with long time friend and fellow pro-photographer (Or as he prefers – the ‘Bus Driver’) Daniel Bergmann. For these two expeditions we flew by private charter flight from Reykjavik in Iceland to Constable Point on the East Coast of Greenland where we boarded our sailing ship, the Donna Wood. Flying across the Denmark Strait (the body of water between Iceland and Greenland) saves at least two days of sailing in both directions and gave us more time for photography in the field.

For both our expeditions we chose to sail north to the rugged and scenic Bjørneøer Islands (Bear Islands) where we made landings at both sunset and sunrise for contemplative landscape photography. Along the way we photographed many of the gigantic icebergs that drift as giant sentinels silently through the fjord system. For our landings in this area we were blessed with a magnificent iceberg with a full arch that was grounded against a stunning mountainous backdrop and we spent many hours in this location with the late afternoon and early evening light. The landscape topography in these islands is a landscape photographers paradise with beautiful boulders and stunning back drops in every direction.

From Bear Islands we sailed west through Øfjord as we rounded Milne land. This region of Scoresby Sound offers stunning glacial scared mountains that were freshly dusted with late Autumn snow that serve as a majestic backdrop for the plethora of transient icebergs that drift through this system. We rounded Storø island into Rodefjord and made our way down to iceberg alley at Red Island. This iceberg graveyard offers up some of the most incredible iceberg photography I have ever experienced anywhere on the planet (I actually rate it as the worlds best iceberg graveyard for photography). With perfectly still conditions and heavily overcast skies (absolutely ideal conditions for iceberg photography) we photographed for hours amongst the gigantic icebergs on both expeditions as we drifted on our zodiacs through the ice maze.

From Red Island we travelled east through Fønfjord for more gigantic iceberg photography as we made our way to the small Inuit village of Ittoqqortoørmit (first expedition only) where we did a short landing before making or way back to Constable Point to conclude our expedition.

The East coast of Greenland is one of the most spectacular locations on our planet. Speaking candidly, if I could only photograph one place for the rest of my life it would almost certainly be Scoresby Sund and the East Coast of Greenland.  It is absolutely miraculous on every level.

Due to hunting pressure the wildlife is often skittish and hard to find in Greenland. Local inuit are unfortunately still allowed to hunt and shoot up to thirty six Polar Bears a year and Musk Ox and Arctic Hare are hunted relentlessly and without mercy. Despite the general lack of wildlife in the area we did encounter and photograph Musk Ox, Bearded and Ring Seals and quite a few Arctic bird species. We did not encounter or sight any Polar Bear during these expeditions (although we had a report of a mother and cub in our area)

If you missed out on a place on the 2019 expeditions but would like to travel to the East Coast of Greenland to photograph this amazing region then I will be repeating this very special ‘Winters Cusp’ expedition in September of 2021 (the 2020 expedition already sold out). Full details are now available for download from my website at www.jholko.com including a complete PDF itinerary. Drop me an email for further information.

Polar Bears of the High Arctic 2020 – Now Limited Availability

There is now only a few places left available on my Polar Bears of the High Arctic expedition this July before the expedition will be sold out (Read the report from last years expedition). The expedition runs from the 6th of July until the 15th of July and is strictly limited to twelve participants.

The High Arctic is a place to inspire the imagination. Nowhere is it more accessible than the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, located deep within the Arctic Circle. Nowhere else can the Polar Bear be seen more reliably in its natural habitat, and photographing these magnificent animals will be our main objective. We will also search for walrus and the other wildlife of the region. Dramatic glaciers, plunging cliffs and beautiful drift ice formations will be present as well.Our intention is to sail directly north from the small town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard to approximately 80o degrees north, to the very edge of the permanent pack ice. At our northerly most point we will likely be less than 600 miles from the North Pole and depending on the sea ice we may get even closer. We will be using the ice hardened expedition ship M.S Freya that will enable us to skirt the edge of the pack ice searching for and photographing Polar Bears. M.S Freya is widely regarded as the best ship in the Arctic for Polar Bear Photography. With low-lying decks we can photograph at eye level with wild Polar Bears. Our expedition ship has private cabins (no need to share unless you wish) and is also equipped with sufficient zodiacs (2 x Zodiac MKV models) and crew for all photographers to be shooting simultaneously with plenty of room to spare for camera equipment – So bring what you need! Watch the expedition video ‘Kingdom of the Ice Bear’ to get an idea of what this expedition entails.If you are excited by the idea of traveling to the edge of the permanent pack ice to photograph Polar Bears in their natural environment with a small group of dedicated photographers now is the time to secure the very last place. You can download a detailed PDF itinerary HERE. Drop me an email to register your interest or to register for one of the last remaining places.

Workshop and Expedition Update 2019

It has been more than six months since I last did a blog post on what is coming up for Workshops and Expeditions and a major update is well and truly over due. I have a crazy travel schedule to round out 2019 with both workshops and expeditions as well as personal travel (photography related) that includes the opening of my new exhibition ‘Antipodes’ in Cuba opening in November. I will also be undertaking a new scouting trip to the far wilds of Mongolia (more on this below) and so my time at home is preciously short for the rest of 2019.

On return from Greenland and Finland (I am currently in Greenland for another week or so, before I head to Finland for my Wolverines and Wolves workshop) I will have just a few days in Melbourne before I leave for the USA and Cuba. Time is working against me and I will unfortunately have just a few days in the states for a private print workshop before I make my way to Cuba for the opening of Antipodes.  I was hoping to make it to PhotoPlus in New York again this year, but time has not aligned and this will have to wait until 2020. I plan to spend just under a week in Cuba before I return to Australia for a few days (I will be speaking on wildlife photography at the Portrait Conference in Melbourne) and then make my way to a remote area of Mongolia on a new scouting trip to attempt to photograph an extremely rare, elusive and shy cat (not the snow leopard). I will be spending two weeks in this remote region of Mongolia tent camping in winter and I am expecting it to be quite arduous and primitive. I am nevertheless extremely excited at the prospect and potential this trip could yield and will have more to say about this as we get closer.

After Mongolia I will return to Australia for the Christmas period and some brief travel respite before I fly out New Years Eve bound for Canada and my Sold Out Snowy Owl workshop. Snowy Owls are my absolute favourite bird to photograph – they are simply magnificent and I am excited to be offering this workshop again for a small group of photographers in mid January 2021. You can download a complete PDF HERE.

From Canada I will return to Australia for a week before I make my way to the South Island of New Zealand where we will be departing on my thirty day Sold Out Ross Sea Antarctica expedition. This will be my first expedition into the Ross sea region of Antarctica and I am very excited to be venturing into this rarely visited area of the great white continent. Because of the duration (thirty days plus travel time) of this expedition it will likely be the first and only time I take a group of photographers into this region of Antarctica. The time commitment required precludes most people from being able to join and the significant cost of the ship for a month makes this a very difficult expedition to repeat. Nevertheless it promises to be an extremely special experience. One of the trip highlights will be the chance to see and photograph Emperor Penguins on icebergs – something I have wanted to do for a very long time (although I have photographed them on the sea ice at Gould Bay many times). By way of a forward tease – I will be offering a future Antarctica trip to the Peninsula  – likely to be October 2022.

On return to Australia I will have a week off before I head back to the far north of Iceland for my annual Arctic Fox expedition.  The 2020 expedition has long been sold out – but I am now taking bookings for the 2021 expedition. This is a ‘deep immersion’ expedition into Arctic fox photography. We will be staying in a small, homely and remote cabin that provides us immediate and incredible access to this tenacious little predator. If you want to photograph Arctic fox this is the workshop for you.  You can drop me an email to register your interest.

At the completion of the Arctic Fox expedition I will take some personal time and head to the northern region of Norway to photograph Puffins and Snow Hares in winter. This scouting trip is a precursor to a future workshop I will lead with David Gibbon for a small group of just six photographers in March of 2021 – You can download a complete PDF of the 2021 Trip HERE.

After I finish in Norway I will travel back to Iceland and onto Greenland for a Sold Out invitation only winter polar bear expedition. This will be the first time I have travelled to Greenland in winter and I am just so very excited to try and photograph Polar Bears in winter in the landscape of Greenland.  Once we finish our Polar Bear expedition we will stay on in Greenland for another new and sold out expedition for Musk Oxen in winter. It has been a lot of logistics work to put these two expeditions together into the East Coast in winter, but it should offer up some really unique and very special opportunities.

After Winter in Greenland I will return to Australia for a few weeks before I again head north for Svalbard in late Winter / early Spring. April / May is a wonderful time of the year to visit this part of the Arctic. With the sun low in the sky the quality of the light is sublime and the photographic opportunities are limitless. The birds are returning this time of year and the area will still be heavy with ice and snow.  There are now just two places remaining on this expedition before it will be sold out. Check out the Kingdom of the Ice Bear Video Below.

I will return again to Svalbard in July for my annual Polar Bears of the High Arctic expedition. (Read the report from last years expedition). The expedition runs from the 6th of July until the 15th of July and is strictly limited to twelve participants (some places already spoken for).

From Svalbard I am travelling to northern Alaska where we will depart on my first expedition to the Russian Arctic territory of Wrangle Island. This expedition is a co-operation between myself and Heritage Expeditions and promises to offer up some amazing landscape and wildlife if this years trip reports were anything to go by. Wrangle Island has long been on my destination wish list and I am very much looking forward to this expedition. You can download a complete PDF itinerary of this expedition HERE.

In September I am returning to Greenland for a sold out Winters Cusp expedition to the east coast and Scoresby Sund fjord system. For those of you who missed out on a place on the 2019 and 2020 expeditions I will be repeating this expedition again in September of 2021. Places are already limited – you can drop me an email for more information. Watch the Adobe Spark Presentation on Greenland.

I will then finish up the 2020 year with another expedition to sea ice of Gould Bay in Antarctica to photograph the mighty Emperor Penguins. This expedition to camp, photograph and live with Emperor Penguins is the only one of its kind to offer this incredibly special experience. This will be my fourth expedition to Gould Bay and I look forward very much to the incredibly special experience of living with Emperor Penguins. For the 2020 expedition I will take just six photographers (only two places remaining before it will be sold out. Drop me an email to register your interest.

For those of you who have made it this far and wanted an update on the Russian winter trip for Siberian Tigers……Well, I am afraid it is a case of no news at the moment. Things just move very slowly in that part of the world and although I am doing my best to actively drive this project forward I am encountering quite a few road blocks that are causing very significant delays. As soon as there is forward progress I will make a post update on the site.

If you want to get a peek into 2021 and what is coming up then you can check out the workshops page HERE on my website.