When leading British travel photographer decided to go on a round-the-clock tour of Bahrain, he wanted to capture a true flavour of the country on film. We join him on his odyssey that took him to places few tourists even know about.

 

In my 35 years as a travel photographer, I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit many countries around the world - more than 80 at last count. Few countries, though, come even close to matching Bahrain for its warmth and friendliness, and I was delighted at my most recent opportunity to visit this island nation, my third trip here.

In the course of my visit, I met up with an expatriate couple from Australia who were winding down in Bahrain after three years in the country. They, like me, were keen on visiting both the well-known attractions as well as Bahrain's more unusual sites to add to their scrapbook of memories before they headed home. It was then that the idea of a round-the-clock island tour was born.

And so it was that I found myself setting my alarm for 3am, an early start for our 24-hour tour. My line of work means that I have to be prepared to get the shots I need, no matter what time of day or night. Even so, I must say that Bahrain is one of the few island countries where it is worthwhile being up at that hour.

 

A 'Bacha' breakfast: The reason for the early start is to visit Bahrain's fish market, and witness the fresh catch being brought in. On our way we pass the Pearl Monument, subtly lit against the dark night sky - indeed I thought it lived up to its name better seeing it this way than the more usual way in daylight.

Despite our early start, by the time we arrive at the fish market, the bringing in of the catch is already well under way. It is amazing to witness the variety of shapes, sizes and multitude of colours of the fish. The sight and smell of the fresh catch somehow invigorates the senses.

What makes it more interesting for a photographer is the fact that Bahraini people, in the main, love having their photographs taken. I had already learnt this on my previous visits, and the fish market, even at 4am, is no exception. As usual on asking the fishermen to hold up a fine specimen or two for more interesting shots they are only too pleased, encouraged as they were with the amusement and good humour of their colleagues.

We cannot stay too long as it is time to move on for an early breakfast. This is not, however, the usual breakfast of cereal or muesli ... In fact this is a very special Bahraini style traditional breakfast known as Bacha.

What makes it unusual is that it is only available before 5am! There cannot be many places in the world with a traditional breakfast at his hour; in fact there are only a few places in Bahrain where Bacha is available. The restaurant we are dining at is in Jidhafs village, and believe it or not, the place is quite full even at 4.30am. Yes, Bacha is certainly popular - one local has been heard to say that if he didn't have it at least once every three days he comes down with a headache!

So, doing as the Bahrainis did, we break up a quantity of the local flat bread into a bowl and join the queue at a very large urn of what appears to be heated meat soup. This is then dispensed onto our bowl of bread and mixed in deftly and thoroughly to a good consistency. One can eat it in the traditional way with the fingers although I prefer using a fork. The Bacha tasted fine, warm and was spiced just enough for that time of the morning. (Only later did I learn that the major ingredients of Bacha are sheep's head and legs boiled in a special way for hours - something that could put off some Western visitors though I have to say it would be missing a unique experience).

 

The Sun and the sea: It's just after 5am now but it's still dark and there's time to drive off to the northeast coast of Bahrain, to Hidd on Muhurraq Island, to photograph the sunrise.

We stop at one of the fishermen's beaches where men are already making new traditional wire traps and repairing old ones that work so effectively for much of the island's fishing. Watching them at work with the dark sky over the sea starting to tinge with the orange and red of the new day's sunrise behind them presents me with very photogenic subjects.

There are more excellent photo opportunities as the sun rises in a beautiful red ball over the horizon, moored fishing boats in the bay being silhouetted dramatically against the early morning colours.

Once again the great friendliness of the local people is revealed, this time by one of local boat owners who offers to take us out on his boat around the bay to see what might have been caught in the fish baskets that had been laid the previous day.

The waters are shallow here, even several hundred metres from the shore, and so we don't have long to wait before one basket after another is raised for us to see the contents of an assortment of colourful fish and crabs. We also see in close-up some permanent fish traps in the form of stakes placed closely together which in turn hold netting to trap the fish as the tides come in and out. They are a familiar sight often visible just offshore in many places when driving around the island. Seeing them from the boat provides a new photo experience for me in Bahrain.

 

Stopping for a smoke and coffee - Arabic style: Although it feels as though half the day is already gone it isn't quite 8.30am when we arrive in Manama for an early walk through some side streets of the city. We visit a couple of shops selling shisha pipes and items for this most traditional way of smoking in Bahrain, sometimes known as `hubble bubble'.

The pipes and bottles, with their wide range of vivid colours set against a clear morning sun, make good close-ups. I also get some other interesting photographs since just around the corner are two tobacco shops preparing whole tobacco leaves whose pleasant aroma unfortunately cannot be captured on film.

A few metres further on and we stop for a welcome break at a typical Arabic coffee shop in one of the pedestrian-only side streets. An excellent local yoghurt and tea goes down well after all the recent activities, made all the more pleasant by striking up a conversation with two Saudi men at the next table who prove most interesting and friendly to chat to. In fact so much so that I have one of my more unusual moments of being in front of the camera to have my photograph taken with them. More unusual still is their insistence on paying for our breakfast and being treated as their guests!

The coffee shop has its own bakery, presenting another very photogenic subject before we move on - though not very far, for just around the corner is another similarly friendly coffee shop, this time frequented by locals who came to exchange and sell their own range of jewellery of rings and beads. My Australian friends have a most enjoyable time viewing and bartering for some items so again I have more subjects for my camera.

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RELATED LINKS:

101 Things to See and Do in Bahrain

In search of the Garden of Eden

Around the Island in Seven Days

 

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PHOTO TIP: When photographing local people politely ask if their permission especially if taking close ups. Even with more distant scenes of people say at markets etc. take notice if anyone objects, even by simple gestures that they do not want to be photographed and respect their wishes.

 

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