A Travellerspoint blog

London - Atlanta - Port au Prince

Haiti?

semi-overcast 30 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it on Grete Howard's travel map.

Ever since announcing our next holiday destination, I have been faced with questions such as “why?”, “where?”, “what's there?”... but mostly “is it safe?”. This, of course is nothing unusual for me; after all we have been to a fair few unconventional destinations over the years.

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The first time someone replied “I went there” I got really excited and started to quiz them about the country: the people, the customs, the sights... only to find they spent half a day on a private beach (in Cap Haitien) belonging to their cruise company. Sigh.

We did have a few safety concerns ourselves as a result of the elections which were due on the 17th January, then adjourned until the 24th and subsequently postponed indefinitely. As a result there have been a number of fierce and bloody demonstrations throughout the country, something we have been following quite closely through the media. The violence, however, is not directed at tourists, and with a guide and driver at our disposal, we should be able to avoid any volatile areas.

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My initial interest in Haiti as a travel destination was piqued back in the early 2000s after talking to a travel agent friend who'd been. We even got as far as arranging a tour of the country through the Bristol based tour operator he worked for at the time... and then political unrest hit the small Caribbean country (yet again) and the plans were shelved.

(And there's the answer for those of you who don't know where Haiti is, it is the western part of the Hispaniola island. The other – larger – part is much better known: Dominican Republic. People sometimes get Haiti confused with the South Pacific island of Tahiti, or they think it is in Africa.)

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So, fast forward 15 years or so, and we find ourselves yet again planning a trip to Haiti, this time courtesy of Undiscovered Destinations.

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Haiti is not exactly a popular tourist destination, something that is reflected in the lack of flights covering Port au Prince. I was hoping to fly via Miami and kill two birds with one stone by being able to catch up with our good friends Homer and Eddie, but after researching a LOT of options, it turned out that flying via Atlanta was way cheaper. Sorry guys.

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So... let's go!

The trip doesn't start well, with David realising that he's forgotten his wallet. By now we are half way to London, so he will just have to do without. (Thanks Lyn for rummaging through the clothes in his wardrobe to put his mind at ease that the wallet was in fact at home, not lost somewhere en route). So much for having a packing list, and double-, triple- and quadruple- checking it... I guess I will be paying for everything on this trip then.

We have booked the Extra Legroom seats for the long haul journey across the Atlantic, and it proves to be a wise move. Not only does it indeed offer lots of space, we are able to spread out and get a row to ourselves each!

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As usual, I am asleep on take-off and only wake up in time for the food – which incidentally is very good, especially the salted caramel ganache.

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The journey is mostly very pleasant, apart from the man whose breath is so bad I am convinced someone has farted; the chap who plays games on his mobile phone with the sound on, and the ***** on-flight games: who, in their wisdom, decided that touch screens on aircraft seat backs were a good idea?

Transit through Atlanta turns out to be a surprisingly smooth operation, with its self service immigration, friendly staff and total lack of queues. The luggage is just arriving as we get to the conveyor belt, but in our excitement we pick up someone else's bag. Fortunately David discovers it before leaving the hall – otherwise it could have been a nasty surprise, for us and them!

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Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport may be a mouthful to say, but it's not a bad place to spend a couple of hours. The airport itself is about as huge as its name and is the world's busiest airport by passenger traffic, with some 260,000 passengers daily through 207 departure gates! In 2011 Atlanta was named the world's most efficient airport - I can see why.

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While taking a few photos around the concourse, a charming young female staff member approaches us with the suggestion of including both of us in the picture. Although a pretty crap photographer, she is delightful, and we chat for a while, before going our separate ways.

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She may not be a good picture-taker, but we do forgive her, as she turns out to be working on the gate of our flight (which is as much of a surprise to her as it is to us). When she sees us, she grabs our boarding cards, heads over to her computer, and returns with new cards - upgraded boarding cards. What a darling! That more than makes up for an out-of-focus picture!

With not only better seats, but a whole row each (again), the flight from Atlanta to Port au Prince is a pleasure. More so when we get free cocktails - as described by the air stewardess, the Blue Chair Bay Island Punch (coconut rum, orange juice and cranberry) tastes like "vacation in a glass!"

The holiday has started!

On arrival at Port au Prince, we are met by Geffrard, our designated driver here in Haiti, who whisks us past the hustling porters, through the dump that is Port au Prince by night (insisting that we lock all the doors and wind the windows up) to Le Plaza Hotel.

And what an oasis it is, with leafy grounds surrounding a swimming pool, an open air restaurant, plenty of trees, and nicely air conditioned rooms. Too tired to eat dinner, we have a quick drink and retire to bed.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:43 Archived in Haiti Tagged flight holiday virgin atlanta heathrow delta haiti hartsfield–jackson_atlanta-inte virgin-airlines trans-atlantic-flight undiscovered-destinations voyages-lumiere port-au-prince Comments (0)

Tromsø - Oslo - London - Bristol

Homeward bound

overcast -3 °C
View Inside the Arctic Circle on Grete Howard's travel map.

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After a lovely deep sleep, I drag myself out of bed at 06:30 this morning. For breakfast I have one of my all-time favourite Christmas Eve breakfast: 'lefse med sylte' – pressed cold meat (made with flesh from the head of a pig – not dissimilar to brawn or head cheese, but with less jelly) rolled up in a flat potato bread.

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Getting to the airport takes longer than anticipated, not just because we have to ensure the car is filled up with diesel before taking it back, but also because of the icy road conditions this morning. After 1500 kilometers of incident free diving in Norway, David skids at the very last roundabout. Thankfully there is nothing in his path, so no harm done.

We also struggle big time to get from the car park to the terminal entrance at the airport on foot – the sloping path is covered in black ice. After a slow and very careful shuffle, we finally make it to the door, trailing the bags behind us.

At the SixT counter we are somewhat surprised – and a little embarrassed – to find they have already heard about our little unfortunately telephone conversation with Lørenskog Vets (find the story here). Fame (?) at last...

Waiting for the flight to depart from Tromsø, I make two observations:

1. Reindeer get everywhere. Even on pizza.

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2. The digital generation would be lost without their gadgets

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SAS Flight from Tromsø to Oslo

“To the 'gentleman' in seat 18A: if the two inches you reclined your seat gave you half as much extra comfort as it gave me extra DIScomfort; you must have had a wonderful flight.

Lucky you.

I am currently trying to regain some sort of feeling in my legs.”

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The connection at Oslo was already a tight 55 minutes, and our flight departing Tromsø 25 minutes late adds to the rush. The fact that we land at Gate 12 and the next flight departs from Gate 57 doesn't help either. I have never been any good at running, especially not after being cramped in a tight airline seat for two hours.

We make it as the last two people to board, just as they are closing the gate. The upside is: we have three seats for two on this leg! Room to spread and give my knees some much needed space!

The approach to Heathrow is always exciting, and I don't think I will ever tire of looking out of the window to see all the famous landmarks of London spread out below me. Even on a dull grey day through a dirty window...

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And with that, I will bid you farewell - for this time - and get back to planning my next trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:23 Archived in Norway Tagged oslo travel flight norway sas northern_lights tromsø home_at_last homeward_bound Comments (0)

Alta - Tromsø

A dull, grey day with excellent accommodation to finish on

overcast -13 °C
View Inside the Arctic Circle on Grete Howard's travel map.

There was no mouse waking us up last night thankfully – although I did hear the dogs howling at the moon at some stage during the night.

We leave a beautiful sunrise behind us (as well as a cool -13 °C) as we start our journey back to Tromsø today.

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The promise of a dramatic sunrise soon fizzles out and settles into a dull, grey day.

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Even the tunnels seem to be grey today, with a strange mist hanging in the air.

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These red barns with the bridge leading up to the upper floor, are typical Norwegian, and bring back many happy memories of learning to drive – reversing up the sloping bridge, driving down, reversing up, driving down...

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And here is the actual barn bridge and car I learnt on, in a photograph from 1975!

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This journey from Tromsø to Alta and back has made me fall in love with Norway all over again. Not that I was ever out of love with her, but I guess I was too young to appreciate the beauty of the country and its people when I lived here; and during our visits since, the main focus has been on seeing family. This time I have been overwhelmed by the scenery and charmed by its inhabitants.

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The road conditions this morning are not good, with slippery ice covering the surface. Thank goodness for studded tyres.

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The roads are regularly cleared, ploughing away the snow and scraping the ice. Those ice scrapers don't do the road surface much good though and by the end of the spring thaw, deep ruts have appeared in the roads – it must be a maintenance nightmare!

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The scenery along the coast really is quite delightful. Unfortunately there are not many places for David to stop so that I can get out and take photos. I do manage a few 'drive-by-shootings' though.

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As we get nearer Tromsø, we notice a lot more snow on the ground. Not just on the ground: fresh, white snow is hanging heavily on the branches of birch, spruce and other trees.

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Where the forest is thickly vegetated, the snowy branches make for a fascinating abstract monochromatic effect.

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Each bend of the road brings with it another magnificent vista.

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It looks like there might be bad weather ahead...

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By the time we get to Sørkjosen, the light is already beginning to fade.

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Approaching Oderdalen and the first ferry, we see a string of cars coming towards us and realise the ship must be in port. Just as we head around the last bend and into the holding area by the jetty, however, the boat starts to close its bow. Bugger. It's another hour before the next crossing.

Thankfully the workers on board spot our car, and open the gate again, just for us. Such great service!

We pop to the on board café for a late lunch of 'pølse med brød' – probably the most popular fast food in the country.

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I really struggle to order food in Norway – the Norwegian language has no word for 'please'. To my ears it sounds so rude to just ask for “two hot dogs”. I add a “thank you” at the end, but it doesn't sound right.

Although not exactly haute cuisine, the sausage fills a gap and at Kr 35 each (ca £2.70), I can't even complain about the price.

We've been wanting to see elk on this trip and we finally do – in the shape on a photograph by an excellent Norwegian photographer on the wall of the ferry café.

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Today is just a day of driving, and once we hit Tromsø, the traffic is awful. I just want to get to my destination now.

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This is our last evening, and we have treated ourselves to some rather nice accommodation as a treat. We stop at Eide Handel again to buy a few bits of food for this evening as well as some stuff to take back to the UK with us. We wait here for the owners of Tromsø Apartments to turn up and guide us to the house.

And what a house it is!

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Looking quite ordinary from the outside, the interior is nothing short of luxurious. Decorated in a minimalistic retro style, the open living space is stylish and elegant, and the kitchen is a cook's dream!

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I love the way the house number is carved into the door and glazed! As is usual in Norway, there is a small entrance hall where you take off your shoes - it is considered rude to keep your footwear on when entering someone's home in Norway.

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Just off the hallway is the dining room and from there, the bedroom. The dining room also leads onto a lovely balcony overlooking the Tromsø Fjord. Shame it is cloudy tonight as that would be an awesome place to watch the northern lights from!

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A small 'everyday kitchen table' leads us into the spacious main lounge area.

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The bathroom has lovely warm underfloor heating!

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Finally, the kitchen. A decent size, but at first glance it is just an ordinary kitchen. That is, until we see the built in coffee machine, the enormous corner fridge, built in electric wine cooler and induction hob.

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We start opening cupboards and drawers, and soon realise that this is not your average rental 'apartment'. A Kenwood Chef and smoothie maker are amongst the numerous 'gadgets' we find. Shame we are not staying longer!

I rustle up a couple of reindeer steaks for dinner,as you do.

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This is followed by 'fløyelsgrøt', a kind of porridge-like dessert made from butter, flour and milk; served with sugar and cinnamon, and a 'smørøye' – 'butter eye'. Healthy it is not, but this dish brings back many happy memories from my childhood.

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No aurora hunting tonight, just chilling on our last night in Norway. For this time. We most definitely want to come back!

Posted by Grete Howard 10:51 Archived in Norway Tagged road_trip coast travel fjords scenery beautiful norway alta tromsø norhern_lights Comments (1)

Alta and Finnmark: Northern Lights!

♪♫♪ And there was dancing for my birthday, dancing in the sky ♪♫♪

semi-overcast -13 °C
View Inside the Arctic Circle on Grete Howard's travel map.

We both slept really well last night – the beds may be narrow, but those mattress covers on top makes them super-comfortable! That is, until 01:45 this morning when we were woken by a mouse! Yes, a mouse. He (or she) was in the rafters, gnawing away at the wood and the noise reverberated throughout the whole little cabin. After much banging on the walls, it finally scampered off and we were able to go back to sleep.

The original plan was to drive up to North Cape today, but after mulling it over we decided that it would be too much driving in one day. As the last part of the journey there involves driving in a convoy, it would mean (at least) a 13 hour day); which wouldn't be too bad if we didn't want to go aurora hunting this evening. Plus we have to drive back to Tromsø tomorrow.

Alta

So we decide to stick to some local sightseeing instead today, starting with the city of Alta.

Northern Lights Cathedral
Designed by architects Schmidt Hammer Larsen to apparently look like cascading waves of the northern lights, Alta's modern cathedral was consecrated in 2013.

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Sunrise

There's a beautiful sunrise today, so we spend the morning driving along the coast trying to capture it on camera.

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The sunrise goes from being pale and interesting to bold and dramatic! The whole sky appears on fire with huge swathes of glowing orange above the mountains.

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Reflecting in the broken ice on the Alta fjord, the sunrise is nothing short of sensational!

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Continuing on a small side road on one of the 'fingers' of the fjord, I make David stop every few hundred yards for a different view.

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Well, it is my birthday, so he has to be nice to me. Just for one day it won't hurt him, although he is finding it quite difficult! In reality of course, David is nice to me every day, and any comments are just gentle ribbing.

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David stays in the car, checking out the weather forecast for this evening while I run around with my camera outside in the freezing cold.

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The spectacular sunrise fades into a more 'pale and interesting' sunset.

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We are surprised at how little snow there is here compared with Tromsø. We are not disappointed that it is not snowing though. We want clear skies for later!

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At the end of the track at Russeluft we decide to head back to camp for an early finish today – the forecast is looking good for the aurora later, so it could be a long night.

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Post Boxes

Unlike England, where mail is delivered right through a slit in your door; in Norway often all the post boxes for a whole street are situated in a common and convenient place. Our road at home had ten houses, and everyone's letters were delivered to the collection of post boxes in the central part of the street.

Parcels usually have to be collected at the post office. It makes me very grateful for the UK postal service where the postman (or woman) will carry parcels right to your door and knock to ensure safe delivery.

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Shopping

Looking for somewhere to stock up on some food, we find everywhere closed as it is a Sunday. Eventually we end up in the petrol station where I get a few treats as well as tonight's dinner.

Troika
One of my childhood favourites, this chocolate is filled with three layers: jelly, truffle and marzipan. Interestingly enough, I don't like marzipan on its own, but love this bar!

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Finnmarksvidda

A bleak and unforgiving mountain plateau (Norway's largest), the temperatures can reach -50 °C on Finnmarksvidda in winter.

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So this is what it looks like where we were in the dark last night!

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Birthday Celebrations

Not since we were in the dry country of Sudan in 2004, have I had a birthday celebration without alcohol. Because of the strict drink-driving laws in Norway (0.02%), we decided we were better off not having any at all. And as we as are going out searching for those northern lights after dinner every evening there doesn't seem to be any point - or time - to imbibe.

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Villa Farris
So here I am with my non-alcoholic bubbles for the special day. Villa Farris used to be called 'fruksjampagne' (fruit champagne) when I was young, but had to remove the word 'champagne' for copyright reasons. I always enjoyed it as a treat when little, and it is still as good as I remember – a fruit flavoured carbonated drink.

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Pyttipanne
Swedish in origin (I believe), pyttipanne is a hash, usually made of leftovers. I add the sausages we didn't eat the other day to a mixture of onions and potatoes. And very nice it is too.

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It's GO for later according to the norway-lights website, so we take an afternoon siesta to prepare us for a long - and late - night. Not sure I will be able to sleep for the excitement though...

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After a delightful nap I have some much appreciated chill-time chatting to friends on Facebook and replying to numerous birthday greetings.

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Dinner
'Spekeskinke med eggerøre' – cured ham with scrambled eggs - has always been one of my dad's favourite dinners, and we used to buy a whole leg of ham every spring which would last us all summer. I am taken aback by the whiteness of the eggs - I am sure we once had a choice of white or brown eggs in the UK too! Now I only ever see brown eggs in the stores - I wonder why?

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Aurora Hunt

As soon as we have eaten, we set off into the wilderness again. Same place, same time, and soon the same car from last night join us too.

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So we sit and wait. And wait. And wait. I get out of the car to take a few test shots... and discover that in my excitement at the prospect of northern lights this evening, I forgot to put my jeans on. I do have two layers of thermal long-johns, but no trousers. Oh well, the underwear is black, it is dark, and we'll never see the other people again, so who cares.

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So we wait some more. We sing all the verses of 'ten green bottles'. We play 'I spy'. We reminisce about holidays past. An then we wait some more.

After about an hour and a half, I go outside to fiddle with my tripod. What is that in the sky? A thin green stripe? Excitedly I yell “aurora” at David and rush to take a few photos.

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It's not spectacular, but it is most definitely the northern lights. It is a fairly thin line which doesn't do much, but I have created this short time lapse video to show the little bit of movement we do get.


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While we are busy watching the green display in the sky, the dog team from Gargia Lodge come back from their evening exercises. We saw them go past earlier, with the dogs all tied together at the front, but instead of a sled, they are pulling a quad bike.

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OK, so they are not actually pulling the ATV, it is presumably there to emulate a sled for the dogs to have a purpose for their running. These are racing dogs, so need to be kept in tip top condition ready for the season.

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Ten minutes later and the light display is all over, so we get back in the car to warm up and wait some more. Twenty minutes go by before the lights make another appearance, this time they start fairly weak, get brighter and longer; and eventually the arc covers the entire horizon!

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The display goes on for 45 minutes this time, so I have the opportunity to play around with different foregrounds... such as David, or the car. Not much else available around here.

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With a three quarter moon, the foreground is lit up surprisingly well; in fact, I have never seen a moon shadow so pronounced before!

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Not before the last of the arc fizzles out do we go back inside the car and pour ourself a much deserved coffee! Two very happy campers, although David is disappointed that his video camera refused to play! I have therefore played around with another time lapse video from some of my shots.

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We don't even have time to drink the coffee before I yet again spot something in the sky. The people in the other car don't seem to be taking pictures, and I haven't seen them get out of the car yet. I wouldn't have thought they can see much outside with their headlights on.

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Feeling extremely happy to be witnessing this, I can't believe it when the lights suddenly increase in luminance, and start to dance across the sky, creating swathes of electric colour across the whole of the horizon from the south east to the north west. What an amazing display.

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As has been said many times, photos cannot do justice to the dancing lights, so here is another time lapse...

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Ecstasy sets in and I find it hard to control myself. The expressions “Oh my gawd”, “wow”, and “this is amazing” are somewhat overused this evening. The display is too big to fit it all in despite a 16mm lens, and I don't know which way to face my camera.

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I lock my main Canon EOS 5D III on continuous shooting and leave it to do its own thing while I set up the spare camera (a Canon EOS 6D) on another tripod facing the opposite direction. Because this camera is not fitted with such a fast lens, I don't find it as successful, and of course I only have one remote control so it is a bit fiddly with the 6D using self timer for each shot.

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All good things have to come to an end, and by ten o'clock there are no more green lights in the sky. We hang around for another couple of hours or more, with no further activity, before we call it a day.

Still on a high from this evening's display, I try to capture the glittering bits of ice on the side of the road, grasses and trees, sparkling in the car headlight beam. Truly an enchanted end to a magical day!

Posted by Grete Howard 05:15 Archived in Norway Tagged winter scenery sunrise holiday cathedral norway aurora northern_lights finnmark norge alta aurora_borealis gargia gargia_fjellsture altafjorden altafjord canon_eos_5d_iii Comments (2)

Lyngen - Alta - Gargia

Sunrise, sunset and moonrise. All within a three hour period. Followed - much later - by the northern lights. Sort of.

semi-overcast -15 °C
View Inside the Arctic Circle on Grete Howard's travel map.

It's still snowing when we go out this morning, but thankfully it doesn't look like it has been snowing heavily all night, as the new snowfall isn't that deep. Deep enough, though.

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The light is mysterious and magical as we make our way towards the mainland and the main E6 highway to the north today.

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As we wait for the ferry, we make another attempt at phoning the SixT car hire place to ask about the tyre pressure warning light that came on yesterday. This time we make sure that the + sign is at the front of the number, not at the end; and thankfully we now reach the right people. They confirm our conclusion, that it is nothing to worry about and it's perfectly safe to continue driving. Good.

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Seeing this guy with his snow-blower, brings back memories of the fun parts of clearing the snow back home.

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Even if we don't see northern lights or experience anything else on this trip, it has been worth coming to Norway just for today's drive along the coast from Lyngen to Alta. The scenery is magnificent, and although it has been said many times that pictures cannot do these things justice, here are a few photos to show some of the vistas we see:

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Whenever David can, he stops for me to get out and take photos. Most of the time, however, it is just the usual 'drive-by-shooting', as these roads are quite narrow and winding, with very few places to stop, or even pass any slow-moving vehicles.

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Is that blue sky I see? This bodes well for our northern lights safari tonight!

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Although it is -4 °C now, because there is no wind it doesn't feel that cold when I nip out of the car without a jacket to take some shots. I don't linger though...

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Although to the untrained eye (ours), the road doesn't appear to need clearing, we see a number of snowploughs on the journey. The local authorities seem to be very much on top of the winter maintenance in these parts.

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In a huge lay-by we stop to have a car picnic overlooking the mountains and the sunset. Up here there is a bitingly cold wind making the 'real feel' very much lower than the actual temperature of -6 °C.

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Today there is absolutely no fear of me falling asleep, as the scenery and sunrise/sunset are absolutely breathtaking! The main E6 hugs the coastline, weaving in and out of the fingers of fjords, inlets and islands, with bridges and tunnels. Although the Arctic winter light is captivating, we so want to come back in summer to do this journey during never-ending daylight!

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Unlike the UK where it is often over in a few minutes, the sunrise and sunset seem to go on forever here in the north. For 2.5 hours we have a bewitching sunrise merging seamlessly into an equally delightful sunset, painting the sky and mountain peaks in hues of pink, orange and purple.

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All too soon daylight fades over this beautiful coastline yet again.

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Suddenly we spot the most incredible moon rising over the mountain on the horizon. With nowhere to pull over, I snap away feverishly through the window of the moving car – this has to be the most extraordinary moonrise I have ever seen! Words cannot describe it, and pictures do not do this magnificent, spine-tingling moment justice.

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A mere ten minutes go by before we can find somewhere to stop – in the small village of Talvik – so that I can put my tripod up to photograph the moon properly. In that time it has already risen considerably higher on the horizon and is no longer quite so dramatic.

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Gargia Fjellstue

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From Alta we are turning inland to get to our accommodation for the night – Gargia Fjellstue, and by the time we get there it is completely dark. So are the lodgings. No lights on inside the main building, nor any of the cabins. We try the door. Locked. We ring the telephone number we were given in the booking. Voice-mail. What do we do now? At -15 °C it is too cold to stand around outside, so we get back in the car and ponder our next move.

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After about ten minutes or so, a young girl appears, walks past the car and around the back of the reception/restaurant. Lights are turned on, and the front door unlocked.

As we are checking in, David comments that she speaks very good English – turns out she is in fact English, from Oxford! Mathild, as we learn her name is, tells us everyone thinks she is a Norwegian who speaks good English. “Just like me, then” I quip, but it isn't until I reply to her in Norwegian that she realises I am serious!

The lodge keeps a number of dogs for sled racing purposes, and Mathild hands me the most adorable three week old puppy! Apparently the young mother ate all the other puppies so this one is being hand raised. The puppy is gorgeous and nestles up against my neck, grunting in a very similar way to the baby wild pig I snuggled up to in an almost identical fashion a few weeks ago in Kenya.

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The dog yard

We settle in to our comfortable little 'hytte' – a small wood cabin with grass on the roof – although the air inside is fairly cool when we arrive.

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The cabin may be small, but it is very welcoming and cosy. The main room features the dining area, sitting area and kitchenette.

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A bathroom off to one side, as well as a bedroom.

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One feature I notice, which is typical Norwegian, is the pull-out bread board in place of a top drawer in the kitchen.

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Dinner
As soon as we've settled in, I start to make dinner. Having turned on the hot plates, I can't believe how long they take to heat up. Being used to induction cooking at home, the classic electric cooking rings seem so old-fashioned and slow. I wait, and wait and wait for the butter to even start melting. I bought a couple of whale steaks in the supermarket yesterday; one of my many nostalgic foods for this trip. Whale was almost as common as beef for Sunday dinners back home.

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I know it is a very controversial subject, and I don't want to get into a discussion about the ethics of whale hunting. I would just like to point out that the minke whale available for food in Norway is not an endangered species; unlike cod - the most popular variety used for the English fish and chips.

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Whale is nothing like fish or seafood in appearance, texture or taste. It is more akin to a very lean steak.

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Whale steaks served with mushrooms and potatoes in a creamy sauce.

Sugar Tongs

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These very commonly used tongs in the sugar bowl remind me of a rather old Norwegian joke: “The farmer was well known for popping behind the cow shed for a quick pee, even while having visitors; and his wife was fed up – and embarrassed – that once back inside, he didn't wash his hands, and would grab a couple of sugar cubes using his fingers. One of their friends suggested the solution was to get some tongs.

A week later the same friend was yet again having coffee and cakes with the farmer and his wife, when she noticed the farmer disappeared outside, came back in again, and as before, used his hands to help himself to sugar.

“Did you not get any tongs” she asked the farmer's wife. “Oh, yes, I did” she replied “and I hung them behind the cow shed...”

Aurora Hunting

Gargia Fjellsture has free wifi in the cabins, and the signal is strong enough that we can check out the various weather and aurora forecasts for this evening. It is not looking too brilliant, but we decide to go off in search of the lights anyway.

This is one of our favourite sites for aurora forecasts.

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Mathild recommends we carry on up the track past the cabins, for four kilometres, to a high plateau where there is a large area suitable for parking.

We find the spot without any trouble, and from here we can see in every single direction, without much light pollution. I set up my tripod and take a few test shots to determine which settings are best for the conditions. There is quite a glow from the bright lights of Alta, and the presence of the moon means it is not pitch dark outside, which makes it easier to navigate around.

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After a short while we are joined by another car and we sit there and wait and wait. Then we see something... It may be a cloud, but as the camera can pick up way more colour than the naked eye can, I take a few test shots.

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Yes, it is definitely a green hue in the sky, but it is very weak and mostly hiding behind the clouds.

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For the next three hours, we sit, wait, drink coffee, pop out to look at the sky, see a cloud, get back in the car, drink some more coffee, stand outside wishing the clouds to go away....

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Finally we admit defeat and make our way back to the cabin. The rooms have heated up while we were out so I don't have to go to bed with all my clothes on after all.

Posted by Grete Howard 10:13 Archived in Norway Tagged landscapes mountains sky snow winter sunset coast travel roads scenery sunrise clouds holiday fun beautiful moon norway ferry moonrise wind cold aurora northern_lights night_time stunning alta car_hire road-trip aurora_borealis snowing biltrend nord_norge e6 norwegian_coast night_photography gargia gargia_fjellstue snow_plough snow_plow ploughing moon_rise talvik self_catering sugar_tongs Comments (1)

Tromsø: Lyngen Alps, Kaldfjord and Sommarøy. And Finland?

Snow, snow and more snow. Oh, did I say snow?

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View Inside the Arctic Circle on Grete Howard's travel map.

Breakfast

Breakfasts in Norway are generally very similar to lunch and usually consist of open sandwiches with meat, fish, egg or cheese. The bread is most often wholemeal and quite dense. My breakfasts (as well as packed lunches for school) in the 1960s and 70s used to contain home made bread with either Gouda cheese or a salami-like deli sausage called Stabburspølse made from horse meat, pork fat and blood. My favourite! The school did not allow white bread or sweet fillings for lunch, and the headmaster personally checked each and every sandwich-pack! Fruit and vegetables were allowed but no snacks such as crisps (chips) or chocolates!

Unable to find Stabburspølse in the supermarket yesterday, I bought something similar, made from lamb meat, pork heart, beef heart, pork meat and beef fat. I am delighted to find it tastes very similar to the one made from horse.

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I have another slice of bread, topped with 'rekesalat' - a rich mixture of prawns, sugar beets and mayonnaise - another treat we used to have occasionally at home, which makes me think fondly of my mother, as it was one of her favourites.

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Sandwiches are nearly always the open variety in Norway, not one slice of bread either side of the filling.

Cheese
David is not as adventurous as me when it comes to food, and is happy to stay 'safe' with Jarlsberg – at least it is a Norwegian cheese! In my day (gosh, that makes me sound sooo old!), we didn't talk about different cheeses by name; it was either 'gulost' (yellow cheese) or 'brunost' (brown cheese). The former was almost always Gouda, whereas 'brunost', AKA Gjetost, is a caramelised whey cheese made from goat's milk – an acquired taste. One I have not acquired!

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Brunost

It is still not quite daylight when we go out at 9am this morning - today sunrise is at 09:56 and sunset at 13:02.

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Parking in the snow and cold

Parking our car outside the house in the cold and snowy north is very different to what we are used to. One of the things we were advised to do, is to make sure the windscreen wipers are up so that they don't freeze onto the windscreen overnight.

Other suggestions include:

Take the snow brush and ice scraper in with us. Should we come out in the morning to find the car covered in a foot of snow we will be glad we did.

Let the cabin of the car cool down before we close the door to reduce the amount of ice forming on the windscreen overnight.

Be prepared to get up early to clear the driveway so that we can get onto the main road. The roads in Norway are cleared regularly, starting very early in the morning (our side road back in the 70s was usually ploughed by 7am), but the disadvantage of this is the ridge which is often left by the snowplough across your driveway!

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The original plan was to visit the Arctic Cathedral and a couple of Tromsø's museums today, but being surrounded by so much beautiful scenery it seems a shame to spend the day indoors. Yesterday at the SixT counter, Hans-Ivar (the guy who helped us with the car) was explaining to us which fjord is best for whale watching; so that's where we are heading this morning. Faced with a choice of seeing whales or visiting a museum, the whales win hands down!

Lyngen Alps

If you thought continental Europe had exclusive rights to Alps, you'd be wrong. Norway has its own mountain range known as Lyngen Alps, stretching some 50 miles east of Tromsø, with several peaks reaching over 1000 metres high.

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The area is truly stunning, with steep sided, snow clad mountains tumbling directly into the blue fjords.

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If you are wondering what those red poles by the side of the road are – they are markers to show where the edge of the carriageway is and road surface ends. They help both drivers and the snowplough stay on the road rather than end up in the ditch when there is a lot of snow.

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Svensby – Breivikeidet Ferry

We return to the ferry at Svensby this morning to travel back towards Tromsø again.

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There are a few more waves this morning, and while not exactly 'rough', we can certainly feel the movement of the boat and the crashing of the waves.

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Sitting in the car on the ferry deck is quite a strange experience, as we cannot see anything other than the very top of the mountains. It's like being in an enclosed simulator – one of those things you get at fairgrounds which are supposed to emulate the movement of a fighter plane, racing car or roller-coaster.

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Upstairs is a nice seating area, with a small café, as well as toilets. This morning most people seem to be staying in their cars, however.

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Key Battery Low

This morning a warning appears on our dashboard about the key battery being low. Not wanting to be stuck in icy conditions unable to get back into the car, we ring the number on the car hire receipt to see what they suggest we do. A nice your girl answers the phone and after ascertaining that she speaks English, David proceeds to explain the situation. “You need help with the car?” she asks after his fairly lengthy summary of the problem. David goes over it again, carefully choosing different words this time in an effort to be understood. As the girl on the other end still seems confused, he hands me the phone, and I go though the whole scenario in Norwegian. She lets me finish then says calmly: “I understand your problem, but you have come through to a veterinary hospital.”

Oops.

Feeling rather embarrassed and foolish, I profusely apologise and sheepishly hang up.

Sunrise

By the time we get to the other side of the fjord, the mist has rolled in from the sea and there is snow in the air. By 10 o'clock, however, we see a glimmer of sunrise – maybe it will be a nice day after all? Blink and you'll miss it. The forecast is not good...

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Biltrend

After the earlier humiliation, we decide not to risk phoning SixT again, and when we spot the BILTREND showroom (we have one of their adverts emblazened in big letters on the side of the hire car) we call in to ask them about the key battery. The friendly sales person changes it for us free of charge. How nice. We tell him about the vet fiasco, and discover that we did call the correct number, but the + sign had somehow ended up at the end of the number rather than in front. How does that work?

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Elk

We are both really hoping to see elk on our travels! And I guess if we are unlucky enough to hit one, we now at least have the number of a veterinarian. Very useful!

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Whale Watching

We head for Kaldfjorden where the orcas were spotted earlier this week. Guess what? It's snowing! Near Ersjordbotn we stop at a viewing area, but all we can see is snow. And more snow.

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And then the really bad weather comes in from the right.

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We can't see a thing any more. Not that we could see much before...

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Thank goodness for coffee and 'pepperkaker' (thin Norwegian ginger biscuits).

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The storm passes as quickly as it arrived – although we can still see the bad weather blowing across the horizon.

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Watching several fishermen bring their boats back in to the harbour, we realise that the weather forecast was probably right.

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David tries his best to check out the weather and aurora predictions for later, but isn't having much success with his laptop or his phone.

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With zero visibility, strong winds and horizontal snow, we decide to abandon the idea of whale watching and take a road trip around Kvaløya Island instead.

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Kvaløya

It has never really got light today, and before we know it, sunset is upon us. It is really hard to tell at what point sunrise ends and sunset starts as they just seem to blend into one twilight zone.

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It's a beautiful coastline, even in this light. Or rather, lack of.

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And then the snow sets in. Again.

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The scenery is magnificent – providing you like black and white, and you don't actually want to see it.

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Driving Conditions

The snowfall intensifies, and soon we find ourselves in the middle of a blizzard, with a white-out – or rather a 'grey-out'. Here we are the ones making tracks in the road, the first to have driven this stretch since the snow started a couple of hours ago!

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The one saving grace for the driving here is the fact that the car is fitted with studded tyres, giving extra grip in the snow and ice. It would be stupid, foolhardy and downright dangerous to attempt this journey on summer tyres.

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Sommarøy

Having come this far, we decide to continue over the bridge to Sommarøy.

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Havfrua Kro

The weather is just as atrocious out here, so we find a 'kro' (road side café) to break up the journey and grab a bite to eat. The island is a popular tourist destination in summer due to its white sandy beaches and beautiful scenery, but at this time of year it is desolate and we are the only customers in the diner.

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For some reason this place makes me think of the 1990s American sitcom 'Northern Exposure'.

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Karbonadesmørbrød
Before I left the UK, I made a mental list of all the nostalgic experiences I wanted to have while in Norway. Eating 'karbonadesmørbrød' in a road-side 'kro' was one of them.

'Karbonader' is the Norwegian version of a hamburger, and as a 'smørbrød' (open sandwich), it is served on a slice of wholemeal bread, topped with fried onion. It is sometimes served cold, but here I get it straight out of the frying pan. This is (or at least was when I lived in Norway some 40+ years ago) one of the most popular cafeteria menu items in this country.

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Waffles
Waffles are a Norwegian institution, and you will find almost all snack bars, cafés and even restaurants serve them. Every household has a waffle iron, and inviting someone over for waffles is common. In our house waffles were most often served with raspberry jam or freshly stewed strawberries when in season. I am therefore quite surprised – and a little disappointed – to find this one is filled with the ubiquitous brown cheese. I don't like brown cheese, but never being one to turn down a food just because I think I won't like it; I decide to give it a second chance and taste it with an open mind. It is actually not bad!

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Eplekake
While David sticks to the more international choice of burger and chips (no surprise there then!), he does at least order something Norwegian for dessert: 'eplekake' (apple cake).

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Now, anyone who has ever visited Norway will agree with me that it is NOT a cheap country, I was therefore not too shocked when the bill came to 340 Kr (ca £26) for a burger and chips, open sandwich, apple cake, waffles, Coke and hot chocolate.

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Norlendinger and nordnorsk

One thing that has struck me since landing in Tromsø yesterday, is how friendly everyone is. Norwegians are not known for their friendliness, at least not towards strangers. I am beginning to think that this is the north-south divide, and that 'nordlendinger' (northerners) are more cordial than the people down south. The lady owner of the diner joins us for a long conversation, wanting to know all about how I ended up in England, what I did for a living, what it is like to live in England, how easy it is to get a job etc.

I love chatting with people and making new friends, but I have to admit that talking to strangers is something I have been feeling a little apprehensive about on this trip. Obviously, growing up in Norway, the first language I spoke was Norwegian. However, I left when I was 15, and since then 99% of my oral and written communication has been in English, therefore my Norwegian is not so much rusty as immature. My vocabulary is that of a teenager and after leaving Norway, my conversation in the language has been almost exclusively with my parents, resulting in a lack of knowledge – and confidence - of small talk, professional contact and chitchat.

Add to that the fact that this the country uses two official variations of Norwegian: Nynorsk (directly translated: new-Norwegian) and Bokmål (literally book-tongue). While mutually intelligible in their written form, I really struggle to understand the former when spoken. There are also 248 recognised dialects, although it is popularly said there are as many dialects as there are inhabitants in Norway. I find 'nordnorsk' – the dialect spoken in northern Norway – extremely hard to understand. Not only is the pronunciation very distinct, many words are completely different to the ones I would use. The image below goes some way to explain the differences even just in the simple word I.

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Over the Mountains

We make our way back down to Tromsø over the mountains, where the driving conditions are just as bad, and I let David down by snoozing most of the way. I just can not keep awake! Must be his smooth and safe driving...

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Tyrkisk Peber
I pop a few Tyrkisk Peber to try and stop myself from dropping off to sleep – these are another acquired taste for sure. They are hard liquorice sweets, with a salt and pepper soft centre. Very strong and very unusual.

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Shopping

Hans-Ivar at the car hire place recommended the Eide Handel supermarket as the best place in the area to get traditional Norwegian food. He was right. I am excited to find reindeer meat, whale steaks, cloudberry jam and a few other favourites from my youth.

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At the entrance is a lady selling her own home made 'lefser' (thin, flat potato bread) with sugar, cinnamon and brown cheese, and she is offering free tasters! Delicious! It isn't until after we get to the car that David tells me how much the lefse we bought was: 149Kr. Gulp. That's nearly £12. For a sweet 'cake' thingy....

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Chocolate
As the weather is so awful this side of Tromsø, we decide to take a trip inland towards (or even into) Finland; hoping for clearer skies – and ultimately northern lights – as there is usually less precipitation the further away from the coast you get . We stock up on snacks to keep us going through the evening so that we don't have to return to the house for dinner.

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SMIL is a milk chocolate with a soft centre, not dissimilar to Rolos, but with a runnier filling.

Tromsø

But first we have to get through Tromsø, which is easier said than done and we get somewhat lost in the one-way and dead-end road systems. At least we get a 'sightseeing tour' of Tromsø by night. Or, more correctly, Tromsø after dark, as it is only 16:30 now, it just feels like the middle of the night...

Tromsø has a rich history dating back around 11,000 years and the city centre contains the highest number of old wooden houses anywhere in Northern Norway with the oldest building dating from 1789. It was the only city in Northern Norway to avoid serious damage during WWII (most of this area was burnt to the ground by the Germans) and it even served as the capital of the free Norway for a few weeks after Germany invaded Norway in 1940. We can't really see much of the town in the dark though, so we just admire the Christmas lights.

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Hurtigruten
It looks like the Coastal Voyage ship is in town. Hurtigruten is a daily passenger and freight shipping service along Norway's western and northern coast between Bergen and Kirkenes, completing the round-trip journey in 11 days. Although it does carry passengers, it is not a cruise ship as such - for many people living in isolated coastal areas, it is a way of life as their main contact with the rest of the world, carrying goods, cars and even the post.

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Ishavskatedralen (Arctic Cathedral)
Officially known as Tromsdalen Kirke, this iconic symbol of Tromsø is technically not a cathedral at all, but a parish church which has popularly attained the moniker 'Arctic Cathedral'. On account of its striking shape and position on the harbour, it has also been nicknamed the 'Opera House of Norway', referring to its (somewhat sinuous) resemblance to the Sydney Opera House. The artist himself is said to have given several different answers at different times when questioned about what inspired him to create this particular design: the Sami tent, icebergs, fish-drying racks and the local style of boathouse amongst others.

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Snow, snow and more snow

Almost as soon as we cross the bridge from Tromsø to the mainland, the snow starts to come down heavily. Really heavily.

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Crunch Time

We are now having to make a decision – do we carry on towards Finland, or do we make our way back to base? From here to Kilpisjärvi in Finland takes around 1.5 hours in perfect driving conditions. Today's circumstances are anything but perfect. We will have to drive back again too of course, which is another 2.5 hours at best. So we are talking about 5-6 hours driving in this snow. Once we get to Finland there is no guarantee that the weather is going to be any clearer, nor that the aurora will make an appearance; so it could all be a total waste of time.

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Decisions decisions.

Talking it over, we come to the conclusion that it is best – and safest – to abandon our the long journy to Finland and any hopes of seeing the northern lights tonight.

We see a small road off to our left and assume it to be a shortcut back to the house. After a kilometer or so, we realise that we have made a terrible mistake, as the snow is falling unbelievably fast and furious now – I can't remember ever driving in such treacherous snowy conditions. Visibility is down to around 3 metres, and we start looking for somewhere to turn.

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That is easier said than done. A single track lane, with no turnings off, nor any obvious passing places or laybys, we end up travelling for another couple of kilometres before cheekily using someone's driveway to turn around.

At least back on the main road the snow is constantly kept in check by ploughing.
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Check Tyre Pressure?

Great! Now we have a warning message to 'CHECK TYRE PRESSURE'. That's all we need! David goes out into the snow to have a quick look at the tyres to see if there is an obvious puncture or flat.

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There isn't anything glaringly evident, so we cautiously drive on. But not until we have taken a quick break with a coffee from the thermos and a Kvikk Lunsj – another Norwegian 'institution', very similar to the English Kit Kat.

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It's a relief when we enter a tunnel for a while, as although those dancing snowflakes in the headlights are mesmerising and very pretty; they are extremely tiring on the eyes, especially for the driver.

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As soon as we find a garage, we stop to check the tyre pressure properly. The gauge says 28 psi on each of the four wheels. The manual tells us it should be 33 psi at the front and 36 psi at the back, but doesn't mention whether this is for summer tyres or studs or both. We are reluctant to make any changes to how we received the car, as it is obvious that the pressure has not changed; it is unlikely for the pressure to have changed an equal amount on all four tyres since we took charge of the car. We drive home to 'sleep on it' and will make a decision about what to do tomorrow morning.

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Back Home

About eight inches or so of snow seems to have fallen since we left the house this morning. As suspected, the snow plough has been here this evening, and created a ridge across the road by the entrance to the house.

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Clearing the front step and drive is one of the things I do not miss about living in a cold climate!

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Hjemmekos

So, instead of watching the northern lights over Kilpisjärvi Lake in Finland, we now find ourselves back at the house, where we 'koser oss' with 'hveteboller' and 'julebrus'. The Norwegian word 'kos' does not have a direct English translation; although it is similar in meaning to the English word 'cosy', it encompasses a much wider emotion: a feeling of contentment, happiness, good friends, good food, comfort, warmth and much more. 'Kos' can be a verb ( we 'koser'), noun (that is 'kos') or adjective ( a 'koselig' place). Norwegians like to combine two or more words to create one longer one, so 'hjemmekos' is 'kos' at home, 'julekos' is 'kos' at Chritsmas, 'lørdagskos' is 'kos' on a Saturday and so on.

Hveteboller
Yet another Norwegian 'institution' is this simple currant bun. Ironically, if you google 'hveteboller', the top entry describes it as 'kos'!

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Julebrus
Another one of those combined Norwegian words, 'julebrus' is merely a Christmas soda or pop.

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We may not have seen the northern lights today, but it has certainly been an enjoyable day, and in many ways it is good to be able to have an early night, as we have a long drive tomorrow.

Posted by Grete Howard 10:11 Archived in Norway Tagged snow norway aurora northern_lights car_hire road-trip tromsø self-drive lyngen biltrend eide_handel nord_norge troms kro havfrua_kro sommarøy kvaløya hjemmekos Comments (0)

London - Oslo - Tromsø - Lyngen

And now for something completely different

snow -4 °C
View Inside the Arctic Circle on Grete Howard's travel map.

We always like to vary the type of travel we do as much as possible, and this holiday can hardly be more different to our last sojourn when we went exploring the deserts of Northern Kenya: we are travelling in search of the Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway.

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This holiday is also a bit of a trip down memory lane for me. Not that I have ever been to Tromsø before, but I grew up in the south of Norway and I occasionally feel drawn to 'Gamlelandet' (The Old Country) which I left in 1973. I went back many times in the first few years to see my parents who lived near Oslo, but after they too emigrated to England in 1998 to be near me, holidays to Norway became a thing of the past.

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Booking the flights

Before I launch into telling you all about my trip, I want to regale the tale of booking the flight to get here.

Having seen a great flight on Skyscanner which offered a 14 hour layover in Trondheim, I was a initially little put off by the name of the agent:

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But the flight was cheap, the timings great, and it meant I would get to visit Nidarosdomen (the cathedral) in Trondheim which has been on my wish list since I was a small child; so we decided to go ahead anyway. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing, so it seemed. The flight was secured, all information input, credit card details taken and all was going well.

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So far, so good. Then a box popped up on my screen to say the price had gone up by £20. “A little odd” I thought, but these things can happen I guess, so I accepted the change and continued. Just as I thought it was a done deal, another box appeared on my monitor:

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What??? You gotta be ******* joking! Obviously I did NOT accept this change in price – how can the cost suddenly DOUBLE - and more - in a matter of seconds?

According to one review site I checked afterwards, I am not the only one who has had problems with Cheap-O-Air in the last month or so.

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Oh well, I live and learn.

Maybe I should have checked out the travel agency before I tried to use them rather than afterwards, but I am not one for relying on other people's opinions. When booking flights / hotels / restaurants / destinations, I prefer to trust my own instincts rather than clouding my perspective by creating preconceived ideas based on someone else's point of view. I like to start with an unprejudiced and open mind, where I can make my own evaluations and impressions. Hence I rarely check review sites before booking anything.

As for the flight, it was back to the drawing board again for me; thankfully no money lost on the abordted booking. Using the tried and trusted site GoToGate, I managed to book a flight which was even better priced than the original El Cheapo one, but I had to miss out on seeing Trondheim unfortunately. Never mind, there is always a next time...

So.... we now find ourselves on the way to Tromsø.

Automation

I am amazed at how everything has become so automated these days. We checked in on line for the flight yesterday and printed our own boarding cards. At Heathrow the bag-drop is self-service, and we attach our own tag. To get through to Departures we scan our own boarding cards.

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At Gardemoen Airport in Oslo, we have to collect our luggage, and again the bag drop is self-service. At an unmanned check-in desk, we just scan our original bag tag, place the luggage on the scale/belt and press GO. The bag disappears down the chute, hopefully to reappear in Tromsø.

While we were lucky on the flight between Heathrow and Oslo, with three seats for the two of us, on the next leg a 'generously proportioned' chappie sits next to David, making it quite a tight squeeze. I still manage to sleep some though.

Tromsø

By the time we approach Tromsø airport, a weak sunset is already in progress, at 13:30. At this time of the year, daylight is in short supply this far north.

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At 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and 69° N, this is the most northerly place we have visited to date, and only the fifth time we have been inside the Arctic Circle; the others being Rovaniemi (Finland), Narvik (Norway), Kangerlussuaq (Greenland), and Kiruna (Sweden).

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Tromsø is the first airport I have been to which offers an official 'Selfie-Spot'. It has to be done – it may be the only northern lights we get to see...

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Car Hire

At the SixT counter we discover that David has booked the hire car through the Town Centre office in Tromsø, not their airport branch. Oops. It turns out to be a blessing in disguise though as we are offered an upgrade to a Mazda 6 for a very small daily supplement. We also receive a massive amount of free advice about where to go for seeing the whales that have gathered in the fjords in the last couple of weeks, to see the northern lights and which supermarket has the best selection of traditional Norwegian foods.

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And what a car the Mazda is! Electric heated seats, built in Sat Nav, electrically heated and operated wing mirrors, electric lumbar adjustments, radar assisted parking plus a major amount of other electronic gizmos. One happy geek driver! The passenger is also very happy, with plenty of legroom and individually adjusted heating for driver and passenger.

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Self-Catering

We stop at the nearest supermarket to get a few supplies on the way to our overnight stop. We are renting self-catering accommodation rather than staying in hotels on this trip for two reasons: trying to curb the cost of eating (and drinking) out in Norway; and more importantly, I am hoping to recreate a few memories from my childhood by cooking traditional Norwegian food.

As we leave the supermarket, it starts to snow. Heavily.

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Accommodation

We carefully selected all the accommodation to be away from the main cities, avoiding major light pollution areas, as well as parking difficulties (we all know how David panics about finding somewhere to park). The first two nights we are renting a five bedroomed house away from Tromsø, which is all very well and good, but as you can see from the map below, roads are few and far between in this region and the area is made up of a number of islands. As the crow flies it may not be very far, but the journey there involves a couple of bridges and a ferry ride, so takes a bit of pre-planning.

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Breivikeidet to Svensby Ferry

Ferries are obviously very much a way of life here, and the whole operation is very slick. The RO-RO (roll-on, roll-off) ferry arrives and opens its bow like a huge whale ready to swallow us.

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We roll on, the mouth closes and we're off! I detect free wifi emanating from the bus parked next to us on the ferry, and try to 'steal' a bit to reply to an email to my friend Kay and wish another friend, Larry, a happy birthday. No such luck.

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At the other end, the whale open his mouth again and we roll off.
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Lyngen Mountain House

From the ferry terminal it is a short drive to Lyngen Mountain House. It's a lovely traditional house in a small settlement. There is a convenient key safe by the door and we are soon inside in the warm. The owner, Kjetil, has kindly been in earlier to light the fire for us.

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The house boasts five bedrooms, but judging by the size of the rest of building, I would guess that the original bedrooms have been subdivided to add to the sleeping arrangements. Each of the bedrooms is small, but adequate, but we struggle to find the bathroom. We try all the doors upstairs. Nothing. Then it must be downstairs. It's not obvious and we open and close each of the doors on both floors of the house several times, as if the bathroom should magically have appeared since last time we opened that door. Nothing. How very odd. There MUST be one around somewhere.

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Eventually David has the idea to go outside into the little (unheated) hallway just inside the front door. And there it is, off to one side. Phew! I was beginning to get a little desperate...

Dinner

I rustle up some quick and easy food. As a child growing up in Norway, it was always a treat to have 'pølse med lompe' – the Norwegian style hot dog - a sausage served in a flat potato bread (like a wrap).

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David is happy as he likes 'pølse med lompe' very much. He has also found himself some 'eple cider' - non-alcoholic cider.

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For dessert I bought some ready made chocolate pudding and custard. In the UK I find the custard far too thick, so was happy to see that the 'vanilla sauce' I remember from my youth is still pleasantly runny!

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Before leaving the UK, David set up his mobile phone with a European Data Package and tethering for the laptop because this house has no wifi available (or as they said on the flight: “vaifee”). Unfortunately the phone signal is not strong enough to be able to use the laptop, so we are unable to check the usual northern lights websites before going out tonight. We checked them late last night, and the forecast was very doubtful for this evening. The weather outside is very cloudy, but we will try anyway.

Aurora Hunt

Soon after we leave the house it starts snowing. Again. Knowing how quickly the weather can – and does – change around here, we still continue up the west coast of Lyngen.

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I take a few test shots, as sometimes a weak aurora can be detected by the camera sensor even if you can't really see it with the naked eye. It can also be quite easy to mistake clouds for northern lights and vice versa.

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The brightness we see on the horizon turns out to be just the glow from Tromsø city lights.

In addition to bridges and ferries galore, the Tromsø area is well endowed with tunnels, such as this one.

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At Koppangen we stop and have a coffee from the flask we brought with us, while waiting for the weather to clear up. It doesn't.

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It's a pretty place... but no northern lights.

The highlight of this evening is the enormous icicles all along the side of the road! Many are up to eight feet tall – I certainly don't remember those from my winters in Norway as a child. Yes, we had icicles of course, but not entire rock faces covered with them.

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We make one more stop for a test shot before heading back to base. I keep seeing clouds, thinking they are dancing lights in the sky. No... they are just clouds. It is still snowing.

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By the time we get back to the house around midnight after having been out for four hours hunting the elusive aurora, the sky has cleared up some and I can see stars, but no northern lights.

We have the option of staying up hoping the clear sky will bring out the northern lights later, or go to bed. Having been travelling since four o'clock this morning travelling, we choose the latter.

Posted by Grete Howard 04:15 Archived in Norway Tagged tunnels holiday norway ferry aurora northern_lights car_hire tromsø skyscanner cheapoair self-drive sixt lyngen snowing Comments (1)

Maralal - Naivasha - Nairobi - Brussels - London - Bristol

A long journey and a long day

overcast 23 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day eight of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

What a difference a cool room makes! I slept like a log last night! Yet again I have the alarm set early, this time so that I can catch the animals coming to the waterhole at dawn.

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I don't have long to wait. Even before the sun is up they slowly and silently appear out of the bush, kicking up the dust as they go. Initially one by one, including little ones; then a large dazzle (yes, that is what a group of zebras are called) arrives, sauntering out of the woods as if they don't have a care in the world.

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The early morning mist, the parading zebra, the dust swirling around their hooves: it's a magical scene. I feel very honoured to be part of this – what a fabulous way to spend my last morning in Kenya.

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The zebra take their time filling their bellies with the cool water, keeping a constant eye out for predators.

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Occasionally something spooks them.

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Then the sun comes out and bathes the scene in a golden glow, transforming it from being magical to a truly extraordinary enchanted world! This change in light, however, signals the time for the zebra to once again return to the bush.

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The sun also brings out a couple of vervet monkeys, a skittish jackal, a few impala and some guinea fowl.

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Leaving Maralal Lodge, we are lucky enough to encounter more animals on our way through the sanctuary – eland, impala and some more zebra.

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At Maralal Town we hit tarmac again for the first time in six days! Luxury!

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The excitement is short-lived, however, a mere 200 metres or so before we are back on the usual gravel track.

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After a while once again return to relative 'civilisation', as we pass several private ranches, run by white settlers who cater to the luxury market. Behind barbed wire fences we spot gazelles, giraffes, buffalo and zebra. This is the canned safari experience for rich westerners.

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The baboons, though, are no snobs and come and go as they please.

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Having forgotten to take our malaria tablets this morning, we swallow them with some water mid-morning in the car; an action I soon come to regret when my stomach starts bubbling. Ugh!

For some reason, today's journey does not seem so exciting as all the previous ones. It must be my mindset – I am expecting it to be boring and merely a way of getting back to the airport for our flight home. Our itinerary has nothing in it for today. Snap out of it girl!

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The shadows created by wandering sheep on the road amuses me for a while. I know, I know: little things for little minds and all that. Just humour me will ya?

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Suddenly something catches my eye. A motorcyclist has stopped in the road, gesticulating frantically towards the crops in the nearby field. Then I see the reason for his agitation: a large herd of 20+ wild elephants grazing happily by the side of the road.

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He looks so cute and innocent doesn't he? You wouldn't believe the sort of destruction he and his family can, and do, cause.

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Often elephants and people overlap in their use of habitats and thus come into conflicts, with negative consequences for both parties. Elephants, in their search for pastures and water, engage in extensive seasonal migrations often including moving through farmland causing large-scale damage. In this area where most people rely on subsistence farming, an elephant wiping out fences and crops is likely to have have devastating effects on the families and their livelihood.

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The elephants are agitated and the motorcyclist is nervous. A Samburu herder is looking on from a safe distance on top of a nearby hill.

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We daren't stop. Driving on slowly, we deliberately rev the engine loudly and sound the horn, in the hope that the elephants will move on.

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Eventually the animals - at least thoseh nearest the road - retreat to a safer distance and we can cautiously pass, with the vulnerable motorcyclist using our vehicle as a shield between himself and the massive beasts.

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After three hours' driving this morning we reach Rumuruti and a proper sealed road. For good this time, all the way to Nairobi. Welcome back to civilisation.

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One of the first things we see is a prison, with the inmates milling around outside doing hard labour – or at least some gardening. We pass by way too quickly for me to even snap one of my 'famous' covert pictures from inside the car, but the scene is like something out of a cartoon, with the prisoners all wearing striped 'pyjamas' and matching hats - a bit like this:

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From Rumuruti the road climbs the escarpment to a height of 2000m. This is where the police come to do their high altitude training and we see many police trucks and uniformed officers.

Continuing on to Nyahururu, we find it to be a 'proper' town, with shops, petrol station, banks and a traffic jam! Welcome back to civilisation.

All along the side of the road as we leave the town are stalls selling vegetables, and John fills a huge sack with a variety of greens ready to send to his family who live near Lake Victoria.

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For lunch we stop at a service station near Naivasha, and not before time: my bubbling stomach has turned into a volcano and I rush off the find the 'facilities'. Much to my delight, there are western sit-down toilets in cubicles with locking doors, a seat on the toilet bowl, a sink with running water and even soap and toilet paper! Pure luxury! Welcome back to civilisation.

John recommends the Indian fast food restaurant in the complex, which suits us fine.

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Chicken and chips, chicken jalfrezi, vegetable biriyani, vegetable thali

Much to David's delight - no, make that absolute ecstasy - they even sell South African cider! Welcome back to civilisation!

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We see a number of white people here, the first we've seen since leaving Samburu six days ago. Most of them are white settlers, not tourists, as this is a favourite hang-out for ex-pats. Welcome back to civilisation.

John, knowing that we are interested in bird watching, asks if we would like to take a boat trip on Lake Naivasha and visit Crescent Island. It sure beats spending that time hanging about in the airport, so we gladly accept.

Lake Naivasha

At the docks we wrangle with the boat operators to let Abdi come with us out on the lake. They insist only authorised guides are allowed to accompany tourists in the boats.
“He is not a guide, he is a tourist” I stand firm.
“But he has a Kenyan ID” they argue.
“He is a Kenyan tourist from North Horr” I protest, truthfully: Abdi's 'guiding' duties finished in Loiyangalani, but he decided to come with us to Nairobi anyway, and visit a friend there.

Eventually they relent. It is Abdi's first visit to Lake Naivasha and he is very nervous about the boat as he can't swim. As a strong swimmer myself, I promise to save him if he falls in. With that, we all go out to look for birds.

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And birds we see! This is a true bird watcher's paradise - Naivasha is known as a world class birding destination with over 400 species of birds recorded.

Following years of drought and sinking water levels, in 2011 WWF got involved to help the fragile ecosystem around the lake recover and all the people it supports in terms of agriculture and fishing amongst other things. It seems they have been very successful, as the water level is now the highest it's been for a number of years, with evidence of many semi-submerged trees along the shore.

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Before we even leave the shoreline, I spot a number of birds.

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Great White Egret

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Grey Heron

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Hadada Ibis and Glossy Ibis

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African Black Kite - beautifully camouflaged

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The Giant Kingfisher is of great excitement to us both!

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The very ugly Marabou Stork

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Pink Backed Pelican

As we make our way out onto the lake, we scatter huge flocks of Red Knobbed Coots – I have never seen so many coots in one place before.

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There is even an albino coot in amongst all his black mates.

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The submerged trees are home to a huge number of cormorants too.

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They are mostly the Great Cormorant, but we also see a few Long Tailed Cormorants.

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The high water level means large areas of flooded ground, rich with fish and shallow enough for wading. The fish community in the lake has been highly variable over the years, influenced by changes in climate, fishing effort and the introduction of invasive species. These days the carp, introduced to the lake in 2001, is by far the most common species caught. Fishing provides jobs and income as well as being an important source of protein for local communities.

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I love these guys wearing tops made from cement bags!

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Anyway, back to a few more bird pictures:

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Cattle Egret

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Yellow Billed Stork

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Little Egret

Lake Naivasha is also home to a sizeable population of hippos, with some 1,000 of them estimated to live in the lake.

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Although hippos may look cute and friendly, they are one animal you definitely do not want to cross: hippos are responsible for more human fatalities in Africa than any other large animal.

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Although not bloodthirsty like big cat predators, hippos are easily frightened and can be extremely aggressive, especially males defending their territories as well as females protecting their babies.

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Hippos can run at speeds of over 20 miles an hour and are built like tanks – you certainly wouldn't want to get in the way of one of these! Most deaths by hippo are caused by being trampled to death, although they also sometimes overturn boats, drowning their victims.

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Hippos consume over 100 pounds of vegetation per day.

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They seem to coexist with the fishermen when in water, and once they are on land, most of the lake is fenced in, so hippo deaths in and around Lake Naivasha are rare apparently.

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I think it's amazing how people just go about their daily life as if these were just sheep grazing, not Africa's greatest killers!

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We cruise out to Crescent Island, which is a private game park and is said to have the country's highest concentration of animals per acre, with wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, gazelle, impala and waterbuck.

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By now my stomach is like a cauldron, and I dare not risk leaving the boat at the island, so I let David and Abdi go off with the local guide, also called David, while I do some more bird watching.

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African Spoonbill

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Squacco Heron

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Great White Pelican

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Little Grebe

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Red Billed Teal

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Spur Winged Lapwing

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Pied Kingfisher

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African Jacana

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Black Winged Stilt

We pick up the boys from the island and Abdi comes back quite excited about his short walking safari. David is a little more nonchalant: “There was nothing much there that we haven't seen elsewhere” he reflects.

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Anyway, this is what I missed:

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Before we return to the jetty, we spend some time watching fish eagles doing what fish eagles do best: fishing.

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This sees the end of our sightseeing program in Kenya – for this time. Now all that remains is the final stages of our long journey home.

First we have to climb up the Mau Escarpment to make our way to Nairobi. Due to resurfacing roadworks, it's a long, slow slog, but the views over the Great Rift valley are not bad, despite the mist.

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At the best viewpoints the ubiquitous souvenir stalls have sprung up, selling sheepskin hats of all things.

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On the outskirts of Nairobi we pass the infamous Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, and the largest urban slum in Africa, with an estimated population of over one million people.

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This is the depressing info on Kibera according to Wikipedia:
Most of Kibera slum residents live in extreme poverty, earning less than $1.00 per day. Unemployment rates are high. Persons living with HIV in the slum are many, as are AIDS cases. Cases of assault and rape are common. There are few schools, and most people cannot afford an education for their children. Clean water is scarce and therefore diseases caused by related poor hygiene are prevalent. A great majority of people living in the slum lack access to medical care.

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Check out more facts about Kibera here.

By now I am getting quite desperate for a toilet again, and am not happy to see another traffic jam! I am, however, very impressed with the local agent that Undiscovered Destinations have used on this trip. The Africa Journeys' manager, Wycliffe, who picked us up at the airport (which seems like weeks ago but it has only in fact been eight days) joins us for the last few miles before the airport to ensure we are happy with the trip and answer any queries or complaints. I am delighted to assure him that we cannot fault any aspect of the trip whatsoever! The journey, the sights, the people, the safari, the food, the accommodation... it has all exceeded our expectations. We'll be back!

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The flight is full, including a huge crowd of Somalian refugees on their way to a new home in the US, sponsored by IOM. Many are understandably frightened, and they are very subdued as we all gather in the gate lounge.

Still suffering with an upset tummy, I am feeling decidedly ill by this time, so much so that I am contemplating requesting a wheelchair to board the plane. Somehow I manage to make it to my aircraft seat before I throw up. David rings the bell for assistance from the crew, and gets a very curt reply when he asks for a glass of water: “You can get it yourself from the back”. Noticing that I have my eyes closed and am leaning back in the chair, she continues acerbically: “but I see you are somewhat stuck, so I will get it for you. This time” When she returns with the water, I am in the midst of emptying the contents of my stomach into the sick bag. Her attitude completely changes: “Oh dear.... are you OK? If you need anything else just press the button a couple of times, that way we'll know it's urgent”. I am just about to answer: "How about you learn the meaning of customer service instead" but (probably fortunately) I started heaving again at that very moment.

Having endured three screaming kids on the way out, we are rather concerned to see at least a dozen young children among the refugees, but not a sound is heard from them all through the eight hour night flight. I wish the same could be said for the American group. They really hit the pinnacle of stereotypicalness (a new word to add to 'Grete's Dictionary') when one girl exclaims as we are exiting the plane in Brussels: “Do they speak Spanish here?”

By the time we open our front door, it has been 34 hours since we left Maralal Lodge. It's been a loooong day!

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to settle my upset tummy (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke.

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Cheers and welcome home

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:32 Archived in Kenya Tagged landscapes lakes animals boats travel elephants holiday kenya hippo roadtrip equator lake_naivasha naivasha bird_watching undiscovered_destinations great_rift_valley Comments (0)

Loiyangalani - Maralal

Revelationary!

sunny 23 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day seven of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

We set off early this morning, just as the sun is rising.

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And so begins our long journey back to Nairobi.

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For the first 45 minutes we follow the shores of the lake, which really brings home to us just how enormous the lake is! You can see from the map below that the distance we covered in those 45 minutes is tiny compared with the size of the lake!

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On our right is the glistening life-giving water of the Jade Sea, on the left a sea of hot lava rocks of death as can been seen in the photo which shows the road we have just come along.

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The stones fascinate me. Huge piles, as if someone has come along with enormous tipper trucks full of the things and just deposited them here. Quite surreal.

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What's even more amazing is that right in the middle of these huge piles of rock, a tree will manage to break through, stretching its branches towards to light and the sun. Isn't nature wonderful?

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Or some fluffy grasses.

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The light is glorious this morning, with the magical glow of the early morning sun peeping over the horizon, casting a golden hue over the entire scene. It's already blazingly hot.

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Instead of posting pictures, for a change I will share a quick movie – a whole day's driving in 47 seconds as the road goes from the fiery rocks around the lake, through soft sand, compacted washboard effect (affectionately known as 'African massage'), then climbing up through the hills with more and more vegetation appearing along the side of the road:

We even spot a few animals and birds along the side of the road, such as these dik diks and a kori bustard. A small herd of zebra graze in amongst the acacia trees and the odd hornbill flutters about.

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We come across several groups of cattle herders, but I am warned not to take any photos as they are all heavily armed. I shoot a couple from the inside of the car anyway. OK, maybe the use of the word “shoot” wasn't my best choice under these circumstances...

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Before we left Loiyangalani, we filled all our empty water bottles from the spring there, and we hand these out through the car window to the tribes-people we pass along the way. Carrying large amounts of water while they walk all day with their herds is not practical, so they rely of the generosity of passing motorists for water.

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John finds a safe place to make a 'bush-stop' for a quick pee.

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The car is filthy and the local kids yesterday were amusing themselves with writing in the dirt.

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While we are strecthing our legs Abdi suddenly spots something – or more likely someone - on the horizon and becomes agitated. “Let's go!” he urges so we pile back into the car and zoom off.

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This area is supposed to be a 'buffer zone' between the Samburu and Turkana tribes, a sort of safe no man's land, but it seems a few (armed) Samburu nomads have encroached onto this land with their cattle, which is seen as bad news. The Samburu have a fierce reputation and are mistrusted by other tribes.

Great Rift Valley

The Great Rift Valley is a name given to the continuous geographic trench, approximately 6,000 km in length, that runs from northern Jordan Rift Valley in Asia to Mozambique in South Eastern Africa. The valley is bordered by escarpments to the east and west, with the floor broken by volcanoes, some still active. The valley floor also contains a series of lakes, of which Turkana is one, but with the surroundings being reasonably flat there, the scenery is not as dramatic and well... 'valley-like'... as it is here.

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Maralal Safari Lodge

As we pull up outside this, our very last lodge on our Kenya trip, it looks deserted. At all the other places of accommodation so far, a small army of workers have magically appeared, ready to take our luggage, hand us a welcome drink or a damp face cloth, or merely to welcome us to the lodge. Not here.

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The reception is empty. No one. No bell to ring. We call out: “Anybody home?” several times before someone eventually saunters in. He looks confused as to why we are here. “You should be expecting us...” we volunteer. Despite turning the pages of his register, he appears unable to find our booking. After more page turning, John hands over the voucher for tonight's accommodation. Still nothing.

Several uncomfortable minutes later, a young Aussie girl appears, and she seems to have a bit more oomph about her. She goes over to the reception and she too peers into 'the book'. Finally David spots our name in the register. That's a relief.

As we fill out the obligatory registration form, the owner of the lodge arrives and walks through the lobby to the office behind the reception, trying his very best - successfully - to avoid eye contact with us, before again disappearing.

The key to our room is handed over and someone is instructed to carry our bags. “Aren't you going to give a briefing?” asks John. The guy on reception looks perplexed: “Briefing...?” “You know, telling them where the restaurant is, what time lunch is, what happens next... that sort of thing.” John replies sarcastically with thinly veiled exasperation. The guy has obviously never come across such a suggestion before and says simply: “You go to room, have shower and then you have lunch” “And where is the restaurant?” I enquire. This is beginning to get a little tiresome.

Despite the totally underwhelming and disheartening first impressions, I find myself uttering little exclamations of joy as we make our way to the room. The pathway is arched with brightly coloured bougainvillea, there are flowers and trees in the gardens, even a swimming pool, and everything looks so green and fresh. Not at all like the dry dusty North.

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The rooms consist of little wooden cottages dotted around the gently sloping grounds, each one with a balcony overlooking the valley behind. With its in-room fireplace and all that wood, it reminds me of a European ski chalet. While not in any way luxurious, this place has lovely rustic charm and is just up our alley.

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After freshening up and relieving ourselves of the dust from the journey here, we make our way to the restaurant for some lunch. We see the owner again on the way, and this time he is full of joviality: “Are you the Howards?” Ah, fame at last! As in previous places, we are the only people staying, so I guess we are the Howards...

Having already mostly redeemed itself by the delightful cottages and grounds, the lodge has now gone right up in my estimation: the restaurant has an outside terrace overlooking a waterhole, complete with zebra!

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The lodge is located inside the National Sanctuary of the same name, and overlooks the only permanent water in the park, hence why wild animals congregate here. I really did not expect to be doing any more game viewing on this trip, I thought Maralal was going to be just a convenient overnight stop on our journey back to Nairobi. What a lovely revelation this is turning out to be!

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It may be a minor point, but a pleasure all the same: being able to order what we want for lunch rather than just having whatever happens to be available. It's the first menu we've seen since leaving Samburu five days ago.

While we wait for the food to be served, we get yet another delightful surprise: finding that the lodge doubles as an animal orphanage! Maralal Lodge is owned and operated by Africaility; a non-profit operation run to raise funds for the protection of endangered species.

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The charity work includes employment of game rangers to counter poachers; the rescuing of orphaned animals, and the ongoing establishment of a wildlife orphanage. Kira, the Australian girl, brings us another enchanting experience: one of the inhabitants, a baby wild pig names Gus. I am not sure who is most content when Gus snuggles up to my neck. Not to mention that he has incredibly soft ears. Aww! This place gets better and better!

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The burgers come sans rolls. Just two burgers on a plate with a heap of fried onion. David calls the waitress over: “Should this not come with rolls?” “I'll check” she says and goes off to the kitchen. “We have run out of rolls” she explains when she returns, “but you can have some sliced bread...”

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My loaded chips are great.

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We have almost finished our meal when one of the staff come running: “Would you like to feed the bushbuck?” Two injured bucks were rescued, brought back to health and released, but they come back most days to be fed. They have just turned up in reception (and they obviously got a better welcome than we did). The waitress babysits our food, protecting it from the marauding vervet monkeys, while we go and see the old deer.

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OK, my initial let down has been fully redressed and more! This place rocks!

As we are finishing lunch, the bushbuck wander down to the terrace to take a closer look, to see if we have left them anything.

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The pièce de résistance is yet to come: we are asked if we would like to go and see the cheetah. Cheetah?

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If you can imagine my pleasure at finding the camp is run as an animal orphanage, then I am sure you can picture my excitement at discovering they have rescued two young cheetahs which are kept at the lodge.

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Lesoro and Neten came to Maralal Lodge via Kenya Wildlife Service. The male is about six months old and is still thoroughly wild, hence his Samburu name 'Lesoro', which means 'Of the Wild'. The female is named 'Neten' ('The Fast One') and is probably around a year old. They are kept in an enclosure in the grounds until a larger and more permanent home can be found for them.

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So, the camp is gorgeous, it is run as an animal orphanage and they have two young cheetahs – can it get any better? Oh yes it can! “Would you like go in to feed them?” The guard hasn't even finished his sentence before I answer a resounding “YES PLEASE!”

My exhilaration knows no bounds! Waiting for my turn to get close to this gorgeous cat, I am an agitated, euphoric mess. Jumping up and down with excitement (figuratively speaking of course, as the only real jumping I am capable of is 'jumping to conclusions'), I am literally shaking with the thrill of it all...... and yes, it really is all that!

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Still on a tremendous high, we spend the rest of the afternoon on the terrace, with a drink, watching the comings and goings at the waterhole. What a great day this has been!

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Black Faced Vervet Monkey who sadly had to have his hand aputated.

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Impala

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Black Faced Vervet Monkey at the waterhole

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The warthogs arrive.

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Red Cheeked Cordon Bleu

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Brown Babbler

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Grévy's Zebra

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Lizard

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Northern Black Flycatcher

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Grévy's Zebra

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Grévy's Zebra

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Superb Starling

This is the ultimate lazy man's safari. Sit back in the bar with a drink and let the safari come to you!

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Red Billed Oxpeckers

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Squirrel

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Impala

Despite being scared off earlier by my mobile phone which emits a loud quacking duck noise when receiving a text, the warthogs come back and bring the whole family!

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Impala

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Impala

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Speckled Pigeon

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Brimstone Serin

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Red Eyed Dove

Things you learn while travelling # 2,663,187
Black Faced Vervet Monkeys have bright turquoise scrotum!
I have seen - and photographed - these monkeys numerous times in the past, in several different locations; how come I have never noticed their blue balls before?

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It's not as if you can exactly miss them!

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Speckled Mousebird

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Heuglin's Robin Chat

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Northern Black Flycatcher

It is only when the light fades that we reluctantly tear ourselves away from this gem of a place to go and have a shower and get changed.

For dinner we treat ourselves to a decent bottle of wine and sit talking to Jack, the proprietor of Maralal Lodge for a while.

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Beef stew with chapati

Jack explains all the animals that can be found here in the park, from aardvark to zorilla! I cannot believe my luck when less than half an hour later I shine my torch into the undergrowth, and see two eyes staring back at me. Both David and I look at the owner of the eyes. For half a second or so, he stares back at us, then runs. OMG! We just saw a zorilla! That really is the icing on the cake at this wonderful place!

The staff build us a camp fire, and we bring out the marshmallows, much to the delight of Kira!

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As this is our last night in Kenya, we have packed the toasting forks at the bottom of our bags, so we ask the staff if they have anything suitable. Some sticks are quickly fashioned into make-shift forks, and we teach the Africans about the delight of toasted marshmallows!

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to bring me back down to earth from my cloud nine (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed.

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Cheers and welcome to Maralal

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Posted by Grete Howard 12:32 Archived in Kenya Comments (1)

Lake Turkana

People of the lake

sunny 40 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day six of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

The wind certainly kept us awake in the night, rustling through the palms, banging tree branches against each other, sending the wind generator mental, knocking over chairs and making our mosquito nets billow out away from the beds. But it definitely helped keep the temperature down: I even had to cover my legs with the blanket at one stage!

Travelling overland down through Africa in a Land Rover has always been my dream, but one that I have never been brave enough to set into action, nor have the circumstances been right. I am now beginning to feel we are getting too old for it – I am therefore quite surprised when I meet Andrea, an Italian photographer and the occupant of the overland truck, this morning: he has at least ten years on us, maybe even fifteen! They have driven all down through Africa from Italy and are now on their way back home again. In broken English he asks John for directions to Sibiloi as his Sat Nav is “kaput”. We get our map out and explain as best as we can: 20 kilometres north, turn left, then left and left again. Seems simple enough, but his English is extremely limited. I cannot help to wonder how much his lack of English is a hindrance in his travels – not many people speak Italian in this part of the world! They scoff at the offer of taking a local chap as a guide and confidently set off on their own.

We are off to the lakeside this morning, starting early to avoid the heat of the day. Seducing and mesmerising in its simple beauty, the conflict between the abrupt and severe surroundings against the dazzling and dreamy water of the lake makes it all the more beguiling.

The Jade Sea

Originally named Lake Rudolph in 1888 by two Austrian explorers, in 1975 the lake was renamed Turkana after the local tribe who inhabit this area. It is also known as the Jade Sea because of the colourful, ever-changing reflections that decorate its surface – which you can't always appreciate fully from ground level.

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I would have loved to have been able to take a sightseeing flight over it for photography, but as that is not an option, you'll have to make do with some images from google:

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The colour comes from algae that rise to the surface in calm weather.

El Molo Tribe

The lake is a source of life for some of Kenya’s most remote tribes, including the El Molo people who live in just two small villages on the south-eastern shores of Lake Turkana. We are visiting one of them this morning.

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I am guessing our escort and facilitator Abdi is some sort of 'royalty' or high caste within the local society, as after speaking with the village chief, it was agreed that Abdi should be called Number One, while the local chief would be referred to as Number Two.

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Number Two shows us around his village and explains about their culture.

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The name El Molo comes from the Samburu expression loo molo onsikirri which means 'the people who eat fish'. Also known as gurapau, 'people of the lake', they are the smallest indigenous tribe in Kenya – in numbers, not stature - with around 10 true members left (only one in the village we visit) out of approximately 1000 inhabitants; the rest being of combined Samburu and Turkana bloodlines though intermarriage.

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As a result of their almost constant suffering from other tribes over the years, they prefer to remain cut-off from much of the world, maintaining a very traditional life eking out an existence from fishing.

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Hunting/Fishing and Diet
When the El Molo originally migrated down into this area from Ethiopia around 1000 BC, they found the land to be too arid to sustain their livestock, so they abandoned agriculture in favour of fishing.

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The El Molo have no access to fresh water, and as they do not engage in agriculture; they survive on fish alone, turning to the alkaline lake for their drinking water. According to Wikipedia, the water is “potable, but not palatable”, yet later in the same article it is claimed that it “is more alkaline than seawater”. Either way. I fail to understand how people can survive on a constant diet of fish and salty water.

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When fishing, the El Molo use number of different implements depending on the circumstances: spears; harpoons; fishing rods made from the roots of an acacia with doum-palm fibre and a forged iron point or hook; or nets made from doum-palm fibre.

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The fishermen brave the waves, winds and swells of Lake Turkana in traditional boats crudely made from doum-palm logs held together with rope. Modern boats would be too difficult to maintain and are rarely available anyway, due to their expense. Imagine the skill required to ride this into the waves of the lake and chase after crocodile or hippo - then kill them with a hand held harpoon! These days, however, they mostly fish for catfish, Nile perch, tilapia or Solomon fish.

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The catch is either roasted immediately or preserved for eating later by sun-drying it on mats on the ground or the roofs of the huts.

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Every part of the fish is utilised, including all the innards.

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Housing
The El Molo live in lakeside homes made from the little vegetation this volcanic wasteland has to offer – straw and palm leaves are woven together by the women to create little igloo-shaped huts.

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People
It is thought that the singular and exclusive diet (high in protein but lacking in fruit, vegetables and carbohydrates), along with drinking the salty lake water, is to blame for the high incidence of ill health and genetic defects amongst this group – blindness, bow legs, and early death. I also guess with so few members of a tribe, inbreeding is inevitable, adding to the genetic deterioration. In addition, every few years cholera outbreaks run rampant through the village causing the demise of the very old and the very young. In a society where reaching the age of 40 is considered 'old', their spartan lifestyle has taken a toll on their appearance way beyond their years.

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Seats
Men often carry stools, known as ekicholong, which are used as simple chairs. They also double as headrests or pillows, keeping the head elevated from the sand, and protecting ceremonial head decorations from being damaged when they lie down. I remember seeing these in a museum in Ghana some years ago and thinking how uncomfortable they look but it's the first time I have actually seen one in use.

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Journey to extinction
There are calls from human rights groups and environmentalists for the government to step in to provide much needed medical and sanitary facilities, secure funding for a fresh water drinking source and save the community from the impacts of climate change, as they fear the ethnic group is on a journey to extinction if nothing is done.

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Thirty years ago an anthropologist who visited the El Molo wrote, "I felt as if I'd stumbled on a race that had survived simply because time had forgotten to finish them off." Very little has changed since then.

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Counting my lucky stars
Spending time amongst these people and seeing how they barely eke a living in such a hostile and inhospitable environment, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of appreciation for the privileged life I was born into, and gratitude for the hardships I have not had to face. I humbly admire their resilience in the constant uphill battle against adversity and the mercilessly grim terrain as they cling steadfastly to their somewhat tenuous existence. Having adapted to their surrounding environment, their simple code of life is built on survival: eating, sleeping and reproducing.

We are One
Being with these indigenous tribes with their seemingly naïve purity and primordial lifestyles, I feel like I have been transported to a bygone era, the Africa of long ago. Despite enormous disparities between our lifestyles and prosperity, I sense a strong connection – we may have lives that are poles apart, but we are still the same - and I find myself wondering: "What are their dreams for the future?" Not the all-encompassing future popularly written about by environmentalists and social reformers, but the more tangible, everyday, personal circumstances of tomorrow or this evening. Fun, laughter, love, appreciation, family, friendship, food... we surely share the same emotions and desires?

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Island of Ghosts
El Molo practice a traditional religion centred on the worship of Waaq, with shrines known as gantes. The shrines are located on an island known as the 'Island of Ghosts' or 'Island of No Return'. Legend tells the story of how the tribes people would retreat to this island when being attacked and use huge piles of catfish to barricade themselves in. The spiny fish bones would ensure raiders were unable to reach the villagers.

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We take a boat out to the island – thankfully a much bigger, motorised boat than the ones the locals use when fishing.

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There are four shrines (which look curiously like the huts the people live in on the mainland) on the island, each with a different function:

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The first hut is a shrine where barren women spend time with a village elder to receive blessings in order to conceive. Today there are baby goats inside...

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Next is the place where sacrifices are made and ceremonies are held to ensure good luck while hunting hippos, although following Kenya's anti-poaching laws, hippos are now officially off the menu. The El Molo's hunting prowess, especially with regard to the ferocious and murderous hippo (hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal – apart from the mosquito), have earned them a reputation for bravery among other Kenyan tribes. During the ceremony – known as ngwere – songs and dances pay tribute to ancestors and the young warriors have their bodies whipped and slashed before being sent out on the hippo hunt!

The third hut is reserved for female circumcision. The practice is outlawed in Kenya, and the hut appears dilapidated. While in the west we have an absolute abhorrence towards what we call Female Genital Mutilation, the general feeling on the subject here is much more ambivalent and complex. Although ingrained in their culture, some girls feel it is an outdated and barbaric practice and they are glad it is now outlawed; while others are more philosophical. As one girl we spoke to said: “the circumcision is all the girls here have, that is purely for them. Everything else in society is about the men - women are rated somewhere below the goats - and this ceremony is the only time in their lives they are the main and most important character.” While I can see the rationale behind this theory, I can think of way better ways of making a young girl feel special and valued!

The last shrine is dedicated to the sick, used as an isolation unit or a place to make requests for protection against diseases.

Birding
While David and Number Two go hiking to the top of the hill on the island, I do some birdwatching with Abdi.

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Crested Lark

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Little Egret

During March and April, Lake Turkana is a major stopover point on the flight routes of migratory birds on the journey back north to their European summer homes. The area also has many local residents, with up to 350 species recorded, including pink backed pelicans and flamingoes who thrive in the brackish water, supported by plankton masses in the lake.

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Slender Billed Gull

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Pink Backed Pelican

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Egyptian Goose

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Grey Headed Gull

While not a true twitcher, more of a dude; I am a lister and am happy to announce 103 trip ticks so far, of which 27 are lifers.

Roughly translated from 'bird watching speak' to plain English, this means that “I am a keen birder but a novice and more into the photography aspect rather than serious study. I do, however, like to keep a list of birds seen in the wild, and I have identified 103 different species so far on this trip, 27 of which are new to me”.

See more English twitcher vocabulary here.

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Spur Winged Lapwing

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Long Tailed Cormorant

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Kittlitz' Plover

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Ringed Plover

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Common Sandpiper

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Long Tailed Cormorant

From the island we spot the Landrover carrying the two Italians driving along the shore of the lake, which is somewhat strange as they left Loiyangalani long before us!

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As we say goodbye to the El Molo village, we give a lift back to town to three girls. One of them is nine months pregnant. She was intending to walk to Loiyangalani, some 20 kilometres away (in this 40 °C heat), in order to try and find a truck which would hopefully be able to take her the six hour drive to Maralal to the maternity hospital. It's a hard life.

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When she gets out of the car in town, I slip her some money “for the baby”, which reduces her to tears. Through Abdi she thanks me and asks my name – she is so grateful she wants to name her baby after me! I feel very humbled and honoured so I cry too. To me it is not a huge amount of money, but I am later told that it is probably the largest sum of cash she is ever likely to have and is equivalent to a week's wage of a skilled worker. I guess that would be the same in relative terms as a stranger giving me £500.

Back at the lodge we are told the Italians got very lost this morning, having not listened to – or understood – the bit about driving 20 kilometres north before turning left. They effectively drove around in a circle and ended up back at Palm Shade Camp where they changed their mind and sheepishly hired a local guide to show them the way.

It is at times like this that I am grateful we have our trusty driver John.

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John bought some some fresh fish in the El Molo village this morning, which the lodge chef cooked up for him and served it with ugali, the staple starch in East Africa. Made into a porridge-like consistency, using millet, maize of sorghum flour, ugali is eaten by rolling a small amount into a ball with your hand, creating an indent for scooping up the sauce. We have come across this in various guises throughout Africa. It is bland but filling. For someone (that someone being me) who has such a low boredom level that I dislike having the same meal two days running, I cannot imagine this being my complete diet. Every. Day. Day in. Day out. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Only intersperced with some salty water. My heart sinks and my tastebuds go on strike at the mere thought of it!

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Turkana Tribe

After lunch John suggests we visit the local Turkana tribe to see if we can negotiate for the women to don their 'skins' and dance for us. David is somewhat taken aback by Abdi's question while he is conferring with the ladies: “How many women do you want?”

Well....

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While Abdi puts the finishing touches on the deal, the children crowd around the car: shaking our hands, touching our skin and practising their English: “How are you?” “What's your name?”

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Goat or cow skins are tanned, carefully sewn together and adorned with beads and ostrich egg shells. The skins are worn by both men and women on special occasions such as the annual Turkana Cultural Festival where many different tribes from the region come together to show off their outfits and traditional dances. Today these ladies are putting on a private performance just for us.

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Livestock is the core of Turkana culture with goats, camels, donkeys and zebu being the primary herd stock. Livestock functions not only as a milk and meat producers, but also as form of currency used for bride-price negotiations and dowries. A large herd is a sign of wealth, so it is not surprising that the songs and dances of the Turkana culture are a means of boasting about their prized cattle reflecting the economic life of the tribe.

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Dances are held during a variety of special occasions such as giving thanks after the rains or a successful cattle raid; the birth of a child or a marriage and so on. As well as when the Howards visit of course.

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Love this woman's earrings: key-rings and beer-can ring-pulls seem to feature heavily.

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The women seem to be having a lot of fun; and even John joins in the festivities.

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The audience too are enjoying themselves.

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No, this is not the result of some bloody sacrifice thankfully, just a custom to smear oil followed by ochre on your body for decorative purposes.

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Time is moving on, shadows are becoming long, the sun is getting low, and we are getting thirsty. It's time to go for a sundowner. And what better place than by the shores of Lake Turkana.

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The three boys that made my journey special: David, John and Abdi

As we wait for the sun to make its daily journey behind the mountains, I play around with my cameras, my 'models', different lenses, white balance and aperture/shutter speed settings.

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It is not until this evening, with the background being a single, plain colour, that I realise just what a curse dust is for a photographer and what a toll it has taken on my camera! The amount of dirt that has managed to get in to it and settled on the sensor is quite phenomenal! Thank goodness for in-camera sensor cleaning!

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to relieve a nagging headache (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed. Cheers and welcome to Lake Turkana.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:41 Archived in Kenya Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises lakes people children birds boats desert travel village holiday africa hot kenya roadtrip dust tribes turkana undiscovered_destinations northern_kenya laketurkana loiyangalani el_molo Comments (2)

North Horr - Loiyangalani

It is good to have an end to journey towards but in the end it is the journey that matters

sunny 40 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day five of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

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Finding it hard to sleep at 38 °C, I wake several times in the night. From outside the room I can hear loud meowing and moreover the sound of buzzing around the mosquito net: both hoping to get inside. As with elsewhere in North Kenya on this trip, it is totally, utterly pitch black. Eventually my bladder wins the battle of wills, and I get up to use the loo, swinging my legs over the side of the bed as I grab my torch from the bedside table. There is something soft against my legs! I gasp audibly and switch the torch on. In the beam I can see a pair of eyes staring back me. I gasp once more, and my heart begins to beat faster – until I realise the cat has somehow managed to get into the room during the night. We have another cuddle for a while, before the kitty is once again shown the door.

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Managing to catch a few more hours of sleep, I get up early to see the sand grouse which fly over North Horr every morning just after sunrise on their way from the local waterhole. For the best part of half an hour, the sky is filled with birds: there must be thousands of them! What an amazing sight!

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When we've just finished eating a hearty breakfast of beans, tomatoes, onions and bread, Sister Annicia brings us freshly made mandazi, a very common local food, not dissimilar to a doughnut. They are popular in this part of East Africa, as they can be eaten in accompaniment with many things. They are usually made in the morning or the night before, eaten with breakfast, then re-heated in the evening for dinner.

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We pick up Abdi who has spent the night with his family in town, and almost immediately drop him off again at the other end of the town as he needs to go and check on his mother-in-law. She was bitten by a scorpion yesterday, and despite suffering badly, she is too afraid to take any 'modern medicine', relying instead on natural remedies. Abdi worries for her.

North Horr is built around a waterhole, as are all the towns and villages in this area. Again we find literally hundreds of camels waiting to be watered. I had no idea there were so many camels in Kenya, it is not an animal I associate with this country!

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Compared with yesterday, today's journey is fairly short, but again with changing road surfaces and a vast emptiness of bare but beautiful scenery.

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Gas

We pass through a village called Gas, a stark reminder to appreciate what we've got back home: homes with temperature regulators, electricity with lights during the hours of darkness, comfortable beds, refrigerators with cool drinks, taps with clean water, supermarkets with a huge variety of food, telephones, television, internet, washing machine, cooker, shower, access to doctors, dentists and medicines but to mention a few of the necessities we take for granted. None of those are afforded to the inhabitants of this village. I cannot even begin to fathom how people live under these conditions.

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With the help of EU money, public latrines have been installed in this and many other settlements in the region. A small but very important comfort which helps keep diseases at bay as well as assisting privacy, modesty and safety.

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'Pocket Tree'

Affectionately known locally as the 'Pocket Tree', the mutually beneficial relationship between the acacia tree and ants is what you might call symbiosis: an affiliation between two parties which is advantageous to both.

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The tree provides food for the ants in the form of nectar as well as hollow thorns which they use as nests. The ants return this favour by protecting the plants against being eaten by much larger animals.

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I am constantly left with the question: “What do the animals find to eat in this area?”

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Turkana Herders

She is nine or ten years old and is never likely to know any other life. Her home is the dry boulder-strewn semi-desert of the Turkana region and she spends her days watching her family's animals, 'protecting' them from cattle rustlers and wild animals such as the hyena. Her older brother carries a home made spear. For 100 Ksh (around US$1) she is willing to forget about the 'evil eye' of the camera, and let me photograph her.

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This is her 'workplace'. Day in, day out. At temperatures around 40 °C most days. What a life!

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Just contemplating the simple act of walking on these boulders brings my ankles out in a nervous quiver.

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From chatting to her brother, Abdi establishes approximately where their village is, and John goes 'off piste' to search it out, making tracks where no tracks existed before.

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We see camels in the distance and head that way.

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The village remains elusive, but from a viewpoint on a ridge, we spot a number of Gabbra digging a well. Abdi goes to talk with them to see if they will let me take pictures. From where we are sitting, still inside the car, discussions do not appear to be going well, things get a little heated, negotiations break down and we make a hasty departure. Photography didn't happen this time (boohoo), but here is an explanation of the famous Gabbra Singling Wells:

Singing wells

It's not the wells themselves that sing, of course, it's the people tending to them. In an age-old tradition local Gabbra herders bring their animals to drink and to fetch water for themselves and their cattle. The wells are deep, with crude steps cut into the walls: each ledge holds a young boy, part of a human chain to haul up precious water from the depths of the earth. Rudimentary tin cans and leaky leather buckets hoisted by long frayed ropes are passed from person to person, hand to hand, one by one. It's a laborious task. And all the while they sing. From each well comes a distinctive, simple song, each family's ballad being different to the next one.

It is undoubtedly a joyful way of making the drudgery seem less of a tiresome slog, with the tempo of the music defining the rhythm of the action much in the same way as we would rock along to music in the gym back home. Except this is not a first world artificially-constructed exercise machine, this is a way of life, a daily slog and an absolute necessity for survival.

The singing also has another, more important, purpose: with so many animals and their handlers in one place, confusion is the order of the day, cattle mingling aimlessly here and there. However, over time the animals have learned to recognise 'their' song and subsequently head to the correct well to be watered. Now that is a great connection between man and beast!

This Youtube clip gives you an idea of the wells.

In our rush to get away from the uncomfortably hostile atmosphere at the Gabbra wells and back to the 'main road', we follow a well trodden footpath. As you do.

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After getting a little stuck in some soft sand, John locks the front wheels to engage the four wheel drive. I am surprised that this is the first time he has felt the need to use the car as a 4x4. Impressive!

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Lake Turkana

As we reach the crest of the ridge, the jade waters of Turkana opens up before our eyes, the iridescent colours of the lake dramatically counterbalancing the black and almost lifeless surrounds. Like a resplendent jewel, the glistening waters are almost bewitching with their vivid shades of turquoise and blue.

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After days of monochrome landscapes seeing the sparkling lake, twinkling like little fairy lights at Christmas; we can be forgiven for thinking we have stumbled upon a mirage.

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At a length of 300 km in North-South direction and a width of 50 km, Lake Turkana is the largest alkaline lake in the world, the worlds largest permanent desert lake and the largest lake in Kenya. It has a longer shoreline than Kenya's entire Indian Ocean coast and is also the most northerly of the Great Rift Valley lakes.

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Larger than Warwickshire, about the same size as the US state of Delaware, and just slightly smaller than Luxembourg; standing on the sandy shore of Lake Turkana and looking out across the water it is hard to believe this is not an ocean. In fact, talking about size, and putting it all into perspective, Lake Turkana is 38 times as large as Samburu National Park which we visited a few days ago.

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Loiyangalani

On a journey that can be best described a punishing, this is probably the toughest stretch of 'road' we have encountered so far.

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Of course we could have just flown in and saved ourselves the last few backbreaking, bone-rattling, bum-bruising, spine-jarrings days; but the saying “getting there is half the fun” has never been more appropriate. The overland journey to reach Lake Turkana has been an ambitious, adventurous and arduous expedition, challenging and demanding at times, punishing and exhausting, but that is all part of the allure. It has been a compelling, engaging and thought-provoking odyssey through what can only be described as a 'living ethnological museum'; to a remote, exotic and far flung destination well off the beaten path - and it's by no means over yet.

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Although not exactly 'undiscovered', this region is certainly an extraordinary, intriguing and rarely-visited corner of the world.

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Some things are always better retrospectively, however, as someone once said: "An adventure is never an adventure when it's happening. Challenging experiences need time to ferment, and an adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquillity".

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Palm Shade Camp

The camp consists of a cluster of mud huts with straw roofs, all shaded by doum palms in this delightfully green oasis of calm and serenity. I love it!

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Having devoured what little information I could find on line prior to leaving home, I had read good reviews about this camp's clean but shared long drop toilets so I get a huge surprise when I enter our little cottage: we have a more classic style brick building with our own western style en suite bathroom! Yay!

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Our room is next to the bar, and as soon as we've checked in, John arranges for a couple of chairs and a table to be brought to our terrace followed by ice cold drinks. Bonus!

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Again we are the only ones staying here, and the service is exceptional. Nothing is too much trouble.

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The camp is beautifully natural, with an unpretentious, laid back feel to it, including hammocks (although this one appears a little too high...?)

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Today the heat has finally got to me: I have zero energy. I collapse for the rest of the day under the mosquito net in the room like a lazy lion (one of John's favourite sayings). The temperature is still in the high 30s (centigrade) and I have a restless sleep with many odd dreams.

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By the time I wake up and brave the outside world, an overland truck has turned up. We are no longer alone, but they are camping and self catering, so our paths never actually cross.

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After dinner we sit outside gazing at the stars for a while, which is about the extent of the night-life here. Suits me!

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to give me much needed energy (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed. What more could a girl want? Stars, rum and a head torch. Life is good.

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In order to relieve the stifling heat inside the room, we lift all the curtains away from the windows, exposing the net-covered grills to let the wind pass through the cottage during the night. And boy is it windy!

Wind

This region is well known for its turbulent air which is caused by the fact that the lake heats and cools slower than the surrounding landmass. This creates extremely strong on- and off-shore winds, with sudden, violent storms making frequent appearances.

Initially we both agreed the breeze permanently rustling through the palms was a charming feature, cooling the air and giving us some respite from the searing heat. However, what starts as an inviting breath of fresh air, soon turns into an unparalleled wildness with ferocious gusts lashing through the camp, thrashing anything not secured, hurling it in every direction like an electric whisk in a furnace.

The wind is unrelenting.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:42 Archived in Kenya Tagged africa kenya roadtrip turkana northhorr laketurkana loiyangalani Comments (1)

Marsabit - Chalbi - North Horr

♪♫♪ I've been through the desert in a truck with no name...♫♪♫

sunny 50 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day four of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destination.

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Some time during the night, I wake up to use the toilet - boy is it dark! There are a lot of wilderness noises, although I can't make out what any of them are. I try peeking through the curtains to see if there are any elephants on our balcony, but no such luck.

The alarm is set for 06:00 so that I can watch the sunrise over the lake. It is still not light when I get up, and certainly no sunrise: the crater is swathed in a thick atmospheric mist!

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For a while I sit outside and listen as the jungle wakes up. From the eerie stillness of pre-dawn, to the air coming alive with sound: birds chirping, eagles screeching, baboons barking and buffalo squelching through the boggy grass. With no human sound whatsoever, I feel at one with nature.

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Egyptian Geese

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Bateleur Eagle

As day takes over from night the mist descends further into the crater and for a while I can barely see the lake. A few birds flit around the bushes and buffalo graze by the lake. But no elephants.

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Black Headed Heron

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Buffalo

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Rufous Chatterer

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Parrot Billed Sparrow

The breakfast waiter tells us there are elephant footprints and droppings in the grounds from a nocturnal visit, but the elephant has gone. Hmph!

I order one sausage and a Spanish omelette. David asks for omelette, two sausages and beans. I get two sausages, David gets one sausage. No beans. With so many people staying it must be hard to get the orders right. Ha!

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When we are half way through the meal, David's beans arrive. Note the luminous ketchup on David's omelette!

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Filled up with sausages, beans and chapatis (!), we are ready for another adventure-packed day.

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David looks fed up as well as filled up!

As he takes our money for last night's drinks, the manager insists: “You need security for North Horr. Many bandits. You need gun.” Sigh. Here we go again... How to make foreign visitors feel safe. Not.

John, having spent the night in town, arrives with the car and we bid farewell to Marsabit National Park and the cool air, with our fleeces firmly packed in the bottom of our bags. All the staff turn out on the front porch of the lodge to wave us off. Such lovely people.

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Goodbye Marsabit!

In Marsabit Town we pick up our (non-armed) guard. The instantly likeable Abdi is a quiet man of slight build and gentle nature who is going to be our facilitator and translator on the journey across the desert to Loyiangalani.

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The jumbled nondescript town of Marsabit, with a population of around 5,000, is a dishevelled outpost of urban civilisation in the vast surrounding desert.

Urban civilisation African style, that is.

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Old plastic bags never die, they just hang around in the 'Marsabit Plastic Bag Cemetery'.

As soon as we exit the town, we leave the sealed highway and relative civilisation behind, for quite a while this time.

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Initially the surroundings are dreary and uninspiring as we head for Chalbi Desert on empty gravel tracks. This is the main road to Lake Turkana.

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After many miles we meet our first vehicle: a truck carrying dried fish from Lake Turkana. We can smell it before we see it!

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Despite the rocky track, John manages to get quite some speed up on these roads while I try to hang out of the window to take photos of the surroundings. After three bumps on my head from the window frame and the second bash on my cheek by the camera, I give that idea up and just hold the camera out of window, point it in the general direction and press the shutter button, hoping for the best. While not exactly artistic, it gives me a few record shots from today's long journey.

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Throughout the morning, the under-wheel surface changes from almost-smooth concrete sections, to shifting soft sand, to hard compacted dirt rutted into a bone-rattling washboard effect.

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We hit traffic congestion, Chalbi-style: we follow another vehicle for a while and eat their dust!

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While there is a (sort of) cooling breeze created by having all the car windows open, the relentless sun is inflating the already smouldering heat of the desert making it 'somewhat warm'!

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After about an hour David pipes up: “Are we nearly there yet?” The saying obviously doesn't translate well, and the joke falls on stony ground. Well, there's plenty of that here!

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This is a sea of red hot lava rocks: large boulders everywhere, fiery rocks of death. Apparently a previous tourist asked John: “who put all these stones here?”

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Uneven doesn't even begin to describe the surface. We bounce and bump along in this cocktail shaker they call a Landcruiser, crumbling and crunching on the ridged and jerky track. This is not the 'Rocky Road of my dreams.

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The stones give way to compacted sand.

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Here in the desert wilderness there are no road marking, no street signs, no landmarks. You have to know your way. Do we turn left or right at this 'junction'? Having driven this route more times than he cares to remember, John fortunately knows the way.

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Ahead of us lies a vast expanse of ... nothing.

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The sinister ocean of volcanic sand and lava rocks commands respect and yet seduces with its own brand of beauty and harmony. It is a seemingly extraterrestrial landscape where only the toughest species survive. Looking carefully we see that far from being devoid of all life, the flat and far reaching desert floor is in fact home to a rich habitat with an abundance of plants that have adapted to the harsh environment here, overcoming a life of thirst and deprivation.

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Amazingly, herds of impala, baboons and ostriches make their home in this forbidding environment.

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More traffic! It is now over an hour since the last vehicle we met on this road.

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For a while we waltz our way along in the soft sand, sliding around like little ballerinas on ice.

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We come across a number of livestock carcasses scattered by the side of the road as a result of an accident a couple of weeks ago. The driver, travelling at night from Lake Turkana, fell asleep. At least 70 animals and one person died in the carnage. Not much is left of the dead animals now: vultures and other carrion-eaters will no doubt have had a feast, and maybe even local nomads.

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Mirage
I get extremely excited when we spot our very first mirage. A naturally occurring optical phenomenon caused by light rays bending to produce a displaced image of distant objects, desert mirages are often mistaken for water reflections implying the presence of an oasis.

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Here comes the technical stuff, pay attention now!

Cold air is denser than warm air and, therefore, has a greater refractive index. As light travels at a shallow angle along a boundary between air of different temperature, the light rays bend towards the colder air. If the air near the ground is warmer than that higher up, the light ray bends upward, effectively being totally reflected just above the ground.

Once the rays reach the viewer’s eye, the visual cortex interprets it as if it traces back along a perfectly straight "line of sight". However, this line is at a tangent to the path the ray takes at the point it reaches the eye. The result is that an "inferior image" of the sky above appears on the ground. The viewer may incorrectly interpret this sight as water that is reflecting the sky, which is, to the brain, a more reasonable and common occurrence.

Thank you Wikipedia

Maikona Village

As we near the village of Maikona, the only settlement we've seen this morning, the scenery changes and the vegetation becomes more abundant. Straw huts appear on the horizon, goats graze on whatever little food they can find and camels are kept in thorny enclosures.

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The local Gabbra people believe that being photographed will take their blood away, so I merely snap a few photos from a safe distance inside the car, hiding my lens from their sight. The scenes are so photogenic and I am itching to walk around with my camera at the well with all those camels, goats, people and cattle. But I believe in respecting the local culture as much as I can so I shall just have to keep the images on the 'memory card in my mind'.

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For miles and miles and miles and miles (you get the picture?), the track and surrounding terrain is just loose sand. The car acts as a whisk and the sand gets everywhere. I eat dust, I breathe dust, I feel dust, I blink dust, I hear dust. I am dust.

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After a while we pass another small oasis, complete with goats. Some of these people walk for days from their village to get to a well, and can often been seen carrying water in bright yellow jerry-cans on the back of donkeys.

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Ostriches wait in the wings for their turn at the waterhole. There is a distinct pecking order at the wells, and not just for animals: many a tribal dispute has started over watering rights and escalated into violent clashes.

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Chalbi Desert

A huge area of virtually flat desert, Chalbi is an endless wasteland of clay and white salt, where the horizon dissolves into a mirage.

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The name 'Chalbi' comes from the local Gabbra language, and means 'bare and salty'. This is one of the hottest and most arid regions in Kenya, a barren salty pan surrounded by volcanic craters and lava flows. Long ago this was in fact part of a lake and even now, during periods of particularly heavy rainfall, large areas flood. Being such a flat area, expansive shallows of standing water and mud form, causing the desert crossing to become impossible. Today, however, the pan is an immense spread of salty, cracked earth.

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The desert is restless and unpredictable, nothing is constant. Even the road is transitional: when John came this way three weeks ago, the track took a different route across the desert to where it is today, making for challenging navigation!

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The temperature in the car is stifling. Having the windows open is akin to being assaulted by an industrial strength fan heater with a sandblaster attachment. Keeping the windows closed is not an option.

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Having read horror stories on the internet before we left home about how the temperatures regularly reach a blistering 60 °C here, I am grateful the thermometer shows 'only' 51 °C ! It is feverishly hot with the brutal sun relentlessly blazing down on the already scorched and bleak ground, cremating it further to a despairing sizzle.

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In the midst of this dystopia*, a young boy herds his cattle to the waterhole, which is likely to be at least a day's walk away.

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*dystopia (dis-toh-PEE-ah) — an imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror. The opposite of utopia.

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The top layer of the salty earth is caked to a crusty skin, much like you'd find on snow after rain, making a delightful crunch as you step on it! Gabbras nomads collect salt here, which they then sell in Marsabit.

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Dual carriageway! Because...? There is so little traffic here that if you are unlucky enough to break down, you may end up having to spend the night here as it could be a day or two before help, in the shape of the next vehicle, comes along.

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Thankfully we didn't break down. John, David and Abdi are just having a bit of fun.

Today we actually do meet another vehicle during the crossing of the desert! The truck initially appears as an unrecognisable mirage on the dusty horizon.

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The stark and austere beauty about this bare and desolate landscape captivates me, despite not being at all like the romantic images conjured up by common (mis)conceptions of what a desert should look like.

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Abdi and Grete

Another oasis, more camels. I don't think we have ever seen so many camels together in one place.

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Followed by another mirage. Or is it a fata morgana?

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Kalacha Dida
These goats are not a mirage, but signal the start of civilisation. We are now on the edge of Kalacha Dida, an oasis surrounded by doum palms offering a shady haven from the hot and intense sun. This is a true oasis with a natural spring. Herders bring their camels, cattle, donkeys and goats from all around – often several days' walk - to water their livestock here.

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This region is one of the poorest in the country, with the poverty level measured at 92%. The main causes of the poverty are: low agricultural production due to harsh climatic conditions, frequent and severe droughts, inadequate water supplies, lack of reliable and lucrative market for livestock products, few employment opportunities, over dependency on relief food and livestock economy, underutilised resources, illiteracy, poor infrastructures that are hardly maintained, insecurity and conflicts, which of course include ethnic clashes and cattle rustling. There is not much going for the region then.

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The presence of a permanent water source attracts wild animals too, such as these impala. Following a prolonged drought this year, most shallow wells (which are the main water source in the area), have dried up, and the few that have remained cannot cope with the increased demand.

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Although our itinerary states that we are spending the night here, in a camp overlooking the Kalacha Oasis, we will be continuing for another hour to North Horr. Previous clients found the facilities at this camp less than adequate, so John sourced alternative accommodation elsewhere. In this region there isn't a great deal of choice, so I am sure that was quite a challenge!

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The camels look bemused as we drive by, briefly suspending their grazing to stare at the passing mzungu (white foreigners).

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Camels
Called the 'ships of the desert', camels are a sign of wealth and status and a must-have animal in this region - they help the nomadic peoples move, transport goods and fetch water. A camel can be loaned or given to other Gabbra families in this, a reciprocal society, with future favours being expected. Camels also provide most of the meat the Gabbra eat, as well as milk during the dry season. The camel has an almost sacred status for the Gabbra, and selling camels or their by-products to outsiders is taboo.

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This region of Northern Kenya is the most barren and desolate area we have ever been to, which is quite a claim to fame considering all the travel we have done and the places we've been over the years.

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The track beyond Kalacha initially traverses glaringly white salt pans before hitting soft dunes of shifting sand and continuing amidst clumps of lifeless palm trees pretending that they hide a refreshing oasis.

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Adorned with 50 shades of brown, and its severe and sombre beauty, Chalbi Desert is spellbinding in a bleak and dismal way. An absolute highlight of this trip for sure!

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North Horr

Built around a natural oasis, 'town' is a gross exaggeration for this vague agglomeration of grass- or mud-huts and tin shacks; sprinkled with a few permanent concrete structures. With the smaller, outlying settlements, North Horr number around 5,000 inhabitants.

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The streets appear deserted: we see very few people out and about in the searing heat of the day. And who can blame them?

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Looking at these dwellings as we make our way through town, I reflect on the fact that inside each and every one of those homes there is one or more person(s) whose life revolves around them in the same way as my life revolves around me. The enormity of this extraordinary perception is overwhelming: fantastic, mystifying, scary and magical, all at the same time. Or as some youngsters of today might say: “That's mental!”

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Catholic Mission
Our home for the night is the Catholic Mission in North Horr where we are greeted warmly by Father John. Aimed at visiting missionaries, rather than foreign tourists, the room is nevertheless comfortable with an en suite bathroom.

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The key to our room

Skin caked with dirt and grime; hair matted into a knotted, twisted tangle by grit and dust whipped up by the prevailing wind; I take my filthy self straight to the bathroom. Having a shower has never felt so good! Although the temptation to stand under the deliciously cool water for hours is almost overwhelming, I am mindful of the fact that water is a scarce commodity around here. My modest effort at preserving water by turning it off while soaping / shampooing and back on again for rinsing, makes me feel a little less guilty about the fact that this is a luxury that most of the local population may never experience.

With the temperature nudging 40 °C, we find a spot in the shade, with a cooling breeze, while John goes off to hire a local woman to cook the food we brought with us from Samburu.

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Father John returns and his next sentence comes as a huge surprise: “Would you like a beer?” Resisting the temptation to answer: “Is the Pope Catholic?”, we are even more delighted when the drinks arrive cold! The situation strikes us as rather surreal: sitting in a Catholic Mission in an oasis in the middle of a desert in Africa, drinking cold beer.

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We amuse ourselves watching the birds come to drink from the outside tap while we wait for the food.

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House Sparrow

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Common Bulbul

A young lad comes over and introduces himself and his two sisters, suggesting that we go with him to the hospital across the road, where we can photograph his sick brother (really?) and of course give a donation. We decline, but he is pretty insistent. When father John re-appears, the three youngsters scamper. “What did he want?” he asks suspiciously. “No, no, no” says Father John when I tell him, “Don't go with him, he is a bit risky”.

The food arrives, and very nice it is too – a mixture of potatoes, carrots, cabbage and corned beef, served with spaghetti. Known to his mates as 'Chilli Boy', John has brought his own bottle of chilli sauce to liven up the dish. He is delighted when we both concur that we too like our food spicy.

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Time for a siesta, although sleeping at 40 °C is proving a little tricky.

Ruso Sand Dune

The people of North Horr are very proud of their one and only sand dune, and 'everyone' from Father John, Sister Annicia and indeed our very own guide Abdi (whose home-town this is) insist that we must see it at sunset, so after our 'refreshing' siesta, we head out into the desert.

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Surprisingly, the scenery here is vastly different to that of the Chalbi Desert.

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I love the way the low sun casts magical shadows over the tiny 'dunes' formed behind tufts of grass by the shifting sand and wind. At first glance the grass looks like trees and the whole image could almost have been one taken from a high vantage point overlooking a large area of desert. It is not.

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Then we see it, looming ahead. The 'famous' Ruso Sand Dune.

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This is a traditional, classic sand dune: a crescent shaped, ridged mound created by the wind.

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Rising from the otherwise course, flat desert floor, it almost looks out of place: like someone has taken a huge bag of fine sand and tipped it out here, waiting for the wind to sculpt it.

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Ruso is longer and less steep on the windward side where the sand is pushed up the dune, and the boys climb to the top, leaving their footprints on the otherwise pristine slope.

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This is a favourite spot to take the village children for a day out, so I am surprised to find we are the only ones here. Then the realisation hits me that 99.99% of the people in the village do not have access to any sort of motorised transport, and as the dune is around 12km outside town, an outing would have to be planned carefully.

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Ever-shifting sand dunes often have a negative impact on humans when they encroach on settlements. Movement occurs when small sand particles skip along the ground like a bouncing ball, colliding with others, in a knock-on effect known as creeping. Dunes move at different speeds depending on the strength of the winds. In a major dust storm, it may move tens of metres at a time!

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I leave my own footprints as a wander around the lowers lopes of the dune, walking further and further away in an effort to try and get a picture without my shadow in it.

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Like an over-excited kid, Abdi jumps off the 'slip-face', the shorter and steeper side in lee of the wind.

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The low sun makes for long shadows, with the ridged dunes creating beautiful patterns in nature.

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Not wanting to be driving through the desert after dark, we make our way back to North Horr and the Catholic Mission just as the sun is setting.

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As we sit under the starry sky, drinking cold Tusker beer and eating delicious spicy lentils, we have to pinch ourselves to make sure this is real. What an amazing adventure we are having!

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After dinner sister Annicia invites us to see their home, which is relatively luxurious, with a huge courtyard in which they grow their own vegetables, plus well-furnished living quarters. As my flash gun blew up a couple of days ago, I only have my mobile phone to take pictures, so I apologise for the poor quality!

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We play with the cats for a while, then say goodnight to Sister Annica and Sister Maggie.

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to help me sleep in this heat (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed. John placed our Diet Cokes in the Mission's fridge when we arrived, so they are lovely and cold now.

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Cheers and welcome to North Horr.

large_Reasons_wh..rink_No_245.jpgAs soon as we open the door to our room, the cat slips in. We play and cuddle for a while, until it is time for bed, when I let it out into the courtyard of the mission.

As the temperature is still 35 °C, we leave the curtains open to let some breeze through the iron grills, and fall asleep to the sound of Midnight Mass in the church.

Posted by Grete Howard 09:27 Archived in Kenya Tagged desert church kenya catholic marsabit northhorr chalbi catholicmission Comments (1)

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