Fans of the BBC series, Top Gear will recognize the Transfagarasen Pass as the greatest driving road in the world. It is a 93km stretch of alpine tarmac, ordered by the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1970, its construction cost the lives of 40 soldiers. It crosses the beautiful Fagaras mountains and at its highest point rises some 2034 meters above sea level.
With sunrise at 7.43, I set off from Sibiu at just after 6am to make sure I reached the pass as the sun rose. As I was approaching from the north, I knew much of this side of the pass would be in shadow but decided to use HDR to try and bring life to the images.
The drive to the uppermost point of the pass was both exhilarating and scary. Because of the time of year, the road was more or less deserted, which gave me time to “enjoy” the precipitous unprotected drops into the valley below. At various points on the ascent I stopped to take shots, the cold and wind making photography hard. I had prepared for the coldness, the highest levels of the pass can be 15 C lower than the lowlands but the wind was a problem. Using a carbon fibre tripod, has it’s benefits but coping in wind is not one of them. I partially relieved the problem by weighing it down with my camera bag.
The top of the pass was spectacular – two small lakes, the centerpiece. Again I shot HDR, the sun just coming over the mountains behind, causing some intense contrast. I also used a slow shutter speed to smooth over the lake’s water.
With about an hour of shooting and getting cold it was time to drive the southern, sunlight section. After stopping several times, I made one stop below the tree line to capture some of the spectacular autumnal colors. On pulling away from this stop, my car started to have problems, stuttering under load. Being 40 miles from the nearest large town and with no other cars or phone signal, I decided the best policy would be to nurse the car to civilization, forgoing, unfortunately, Dracula’s castle and the spectacular Vidraru Dam. The problem with the car turned out to be a feather sucked into the air filter, which was frustrating, as it I could have easily solved it back on the pass, but in hindsight, it was probably the best policy to get to civilization.
So what conclusions and lessons do I take from this photography trip? Well firstly, all the planning in the world is not enough. Whilst I had most bases covered, the cock up by DVLA delayed my journey by more than two weeks. This had knock on effects of poorer weather and the need to get to the Transfagarasen Pass before the winter snows closed it, usually in late October.
- Camping in your car to get the early light is possible but with preparation. I had a sleeping bag, eye mask and ear plugs to aid sleep and of course a descent sized car. Each time I slept in the car I managed to get 5-6 hours unbroken sleep.
- One day and one night is not enough to cover a city location, even with good preparation. Two days is borderline. Also expect the weather not to play ball. I was lucky with Cologne, Sibiu and the Transfagarasen but unlucky with perhaps the highlight of the trip, Budapest.
- Knowing someone in a location greatly helps. In Budapest I spent two days in the company of a Hungarian friend who not only took me around interesting locations, but gave me a great insight into the cities’ history.
The camera equipment worked faultlessly, I one thing I had brought with me was a car charger for the camera’s batteries. This was extremely useful. Time was spent most evenings backing up images and posting a few highlights to Facebook as well as cleaning equipment in preparation for the next day.
The real unsung hero of the trip however, was my 9 year old Nissan X-Trail who covered more than 2000 miles of sometimes difficult road conditions virtually without a hiccup. The only minor issue was that of the ingested feather which was easily solved.
Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. You can follow him on Facebook or visit his site, The Odessa Files. He also maintains a blog chronicling his exploits as an Expat in the former Soviet Union
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