A Travellerspoint blog

Grand Bois Forest

A drive in the country

semi-overcast 30 °C

Millet Bird Sanctuary
There are many nature trails in St Lucia, and there is one I particularly want to see due to its high concentration - and ease of spotting – endemic and other birds found on the island: The Millet Trail.

As I have said before, road signs are almost non-existent and maps do not show enough detail; but again we have a pretty good idea about where to find the trail. The road is not too bad (for this country anyway), and when we see signs for Millet School we know we must be getting close. In fact, we find the trail without too much trouble, only a couple of wrong turns this time.

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We also find that the trail is closed. A group of local youths hanging around near the junction offer to show us the (unofficial) trail. We decline as the main reason for coming here is the birds (the kids have no birding knowledge) and the feeding station for said birds – which are inside the fenced off area.

Oh well. We decide to drive into the surrounding forest area instead. Play it by ear and see what we can find.

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Grand Bois Forest

The road becomes more interesting the further into the forest we drive. We meet a timber truck soon after turning off the main road, but no other traffic. There is just us.

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At one stage half the road has been washed away in a landslide, but in typical laid back St Lucian style, there are no warning signs, no safety rails and we just drive by as far away from the crumbling edge as we can possibly make it.

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The road is flanked by some awesome ferns the size of trees, and although it is a fabulous drive; there isn't much to photograph.

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Then I see a movement from the corner of my eye. I beg David to stop the car and to my amazement there is actually small area to pull over just along the road. I get out and start walking. The movement I saw is a hummingbird (Purple Throated Carib) and he is still around.

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Standing still, he seems to perform for me – flitting here and there, from branch to branch, all around me, sticking his tongue out, looking around, landing on a branch straight above my head, then heading for a heliconia to suck its nectar. And then he is gone.

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Can you see his tongue?

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The whole show lasts for about twenty minutes and is absolutely breathtaking. Totally wild, in an area rarely frequented by people, let alone tourists. Awesome!

Banana Plantations

The growing of bananas is big business in St Lucia, and all over the island you see these large fields with blue plastic bags used to keep pests away from the fruit. Much of the production is organic and large signs boasting “Proud to supply Sainsbury's with Fair Trade Bananas” can be seen along the road side.

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We arrive back at the hotel just in time for a (very) late lunch which becomes even later because the restaurant is so busy. Today must be changeover day for tourists, as we see many more people dressed in travel clothes than we normally do, and even a simple dish of a salad takes over an hour to arrive. The pregnant waitress – who looks like she is way too young to be expecting a baby – is very embarrassed about the delay and keeps apologising.

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We spend what is left of the afternoon chilling before the Manager's Cocktail Party this evening. Every week the hotel arranges an evening for the guests to meet the staff – who are very sociable, mingling and chatting with the customers to ensure everyone is having a good time and enjoying their stay.

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The cocktail party is also a platform for local artists and vendors to come and display their wares. I am interested in a carved mask to add to my collection, but find the ones here to be more tourist tack than local art. I will wait.

Posted by Grete Howard 11:08 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

Soufriére

Caribbean's only drive-in volcano

semi-overcast

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And today for something completely different. Renting a car is one of the best things we did here in St Lucia – not only has it given us the freedom to do what we want when we want it; it has also saved us tons of money. Take the trip today to Soufriére for instance, if we were to take this as an excursion from the hotel, it would cost us $120 each! For the two of us, that is not far short of the cost of the hire car for the week.

Anse la Raye

Heading down the coast, we pass through small fishing villages where life goes on as it has done for decades - long before the all-inclusive tourists or cruise day-visitors arrived. Clapper-board houses line the narrow streets, fish and fruit markets spill out on the narrow pavements, and people sit on their porch watching life go by.

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We stop a few times along the way at view points overlooking particularly scenic stretches of coastline, or as here, one of the fishing villages which line the shore.

Canaries

Canaries is also known locally as 'Kanawe' and means Amerindian cooking. The small town was founded in the 18th century by the French and until the late 1960s, was only accessible by boat.

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At each of these view points, stalls selling souvenirs have sprung up, often with self appointed “guides” who will tell you a little bit about what you are seeing, in the hope that you will feel obliged to buy something. The highlight of this stop, however, is not so much the view or the tat for sale, but overhearing a St Lucian trying to explain cricket to a bunch of Germans. I'm afraid most of it fell on deaf ears.

Pitons

Although they appear to be standing side by side, the 750m high peaks are in fact on either side of the bay, with three miles separating them. In 1997, the Pitons National Park was declared a UNESCO Heritage site and they are the symbol of St Lucia, appearing on many local goods such as the very pleasant beer by the same name.

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Soufriére

The town of Soufriére got its name from the sulphur mining in the 19th century and is now a quaint village with a sleepy feel.

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The village is a favourite destination for themed boat trips carrying tourists on day trips from their hotels.

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Sulphur Springs Park

The springs were formerly an active volcano which last erupted in 1780, although the last major seismic activity was some 40,000 years ago. Are we due for another any time soon?

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The crater dome of the volcano has collapsed, forming a huge caldera and hotter than boiling sulphur (at 170 °C) still billows from cracks in the walls, and bubbling muds fills murky pools.

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Drive-in Volcano
It is billed as “the Caribbean's only drive-in volcano” - does that mean there are other drive-in volcanoes elsewhere in the world? Until I came here, I really wondered how that worked in reality – I had seen photos of the volcano from Google Earth, but that didn't make me any wiser.

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In reality, after paying your entrance fee, you drive up and park along the side of the road next to the active area. Like most tourist sites in St Lucia, there are no formal arrangements, and everything is very laid back. You do, however, get a guide. Up until a few years ago, you were able to walk in amongst the cracks in the rocks and bubbling pools, but after a fatal accident, the whole area has now been made much more secure and an elevated wooden walkway takes you safely along the sides of the bubbling mud pools, naturally hot waterfalls and fissures with steaming sulphur.

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When thinking of a “volcano”, the first thing that springs to my mind is a cone shaped mountain with a caldera at the top that you can look into after climbing its steep and slippery scree walls. Here the whole area is a caldera, and it is open on one side towards the ocean, so it doesn't look like my traditional image of a volcano.

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Anse Chastanet

Having read about this place on a birding forum, I ams keen to head out to the hotel of the same name for lunch. The narrow, winding, potholed, forest track leading here is an experience in itself, no wonder most tourists arrive here by water taxi!

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The restaurant is set right on the beach and the food is superb. We opt for the dish of the day which is pan seared mahi on a bed of pineapple couscous with a beurre blanc. Easily the best fish lunch on the whole trip!

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As I'd hoped, we have a few birds to entertain us, including the endemic Lesser Antillean Pewee, and two of the three hummingbirds found on the island:

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Green Throated Carib

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Bananaquit

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Zenaida Dove

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Lesser Antillean Pewee

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Antillean Crested Hummingbird

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Grassland Yellow Finch

Castries

St Lucia's capital city has around 70,000 inhabitants. Most of the city’s historic buildings were destroyed by major fires between 1785 and 1948, but there are still some ramshackle backstreet areas where life appears not to have changed in over a hundred years. On our way back to Rodney Bay, we stop on a hill overlooking the town to get a good view.

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We have noticed a huge difference in the atmosphere of the town when there is a cruise ship in port, as well as the number of people of course. The more I see the huge cruise ships, the more I am put off by that kind of holiday; but each to their own. Today the town is quiet.

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While enjoying a little pre-dinner drink on the balcony, I overlook the window of some French guests who also do not know that net curtains become see-through after dark when there are lights on inside. I am beginning to feel like a voyeur!

Posted by Grete Howard 04:11 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

Martinique

There's a reason why the boat is called "Wave Rider"

semi-overcast 29 °C
View St Lucia on Grete Howard's travel map.

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An early start this morning for a day trip to the neighbouring island of Martinique. Despite the marina being just around the corner from our hotel, we are one of the last to board. We manage to find a seat at the front of the catamaran, fairly protected from the wind and the spray – the latter of which doesn't become evident until we leave the sheltered area around the marina.

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You know it is going to be a rough crossing when you overhear the captain say: “oh huh, it's a bit choppy out there”.

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This day trip is obviously billed to appeal to those people who are staying in all-inclusive resorts, who don't want to miss out on their cocktails, and as soon as we get on board a young girl comes around with rum punches, and a light breakfast is available inside. Nice friendly crew, although at times it leaves me with a “hi-dee-hi” feeling of being a holiday camp with enforced jollity. Fortunately it is not overdone and once we're on the open seas we can't hear anything over the loudspeakers anyway.

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On the way out of the marina we get a good view of Pigeon Island, and the fort at the top of the hill.

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We are followed for a while by a couple of beautiful Red Bill Tropicbirds with their long, elegant tails.

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A school of flying fish perform near the boat, using their wing-like fins to glide over the water for a considerable distance. The average “flight” of a flying fish is around 50 metres and they are able to stay out of the water for up to 40 seconds. Quite impressive!

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One by one passengers make their way inside as they get drenched by the spray coming over the front and side each time the catamaran slams down into the swells. The video below just shows a very light dusting, as I really don't want to damage another lens – salt water and cameras don't mix well.

Apart from the odd Brown Booby hanging above the boat, there really isn't much to see until we get near to Martinique.

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As we approach land, Fort-de-France (Martinique's capital and our destination) looks very much larger and more commercialised then any town in St Lucia.

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===Martinique===
Martinique is an overseas region of France, and an integral part of the French Republic as well as being a member of the European Union. They speak French and the currency is the Euro. Damn! If I'd known I was going to be visiting the Eurozone, I would have brought some Euros with me as I do have a few stashed away at home. Not that I am really thinking of buying anything.

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Our first stop on arrival in Martinique, is the cruise terminal Duty Free shopping area. Here people rush off to get their cheap cigarettes, alcohol and perfume; while we don't even bother to look at what they are offering for sale apart from picking up a couple of post cards. No stamps available though, but the lady explains to me where the post office is in town. Or at least I think that's what she is telling me; my French is almost non-existent.

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One of the conditions of being able to buy goods without paying excise duty on them, is that you return immediately to you ship. So once everyone is back on board (a few did get somewhat carried away in the store and didn't quite make the allocated return time) we travel the very short distance from here to the main dock, which is conveniently situated right in the middle of the town.

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As part of the day trip, a guided tour of the town has been arranged, starting with the “craft market”, which turns out to be a warehouse on the docks themselves, packed full of souvenir stalls, through which we are herded like cattle. So far our time on Martinique has been exactly how I have always feared cruise ship visits would be, and I am not impressed! We walk from the waterfront area up the side streets through the town. The whole area is tatty, run down and totally devoid of charm.

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Our second stop on the walking tour is the St Louis Cathedral, a late 19th-century Romanesque Revival church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The original cathedral was built in 1657, but it, and the subsequent five cathedrals built on this site, has been destroyed by various natural disasters that have plagued Martinique over the years. The current structure dates back to 1895 and was built with an iron frame in order to withstand these calamities – but of course is now totally rusty!. Hence it is currently covered in scaffolding. The church's main claim to fame is that it was designed by Gustave Eiffel, and as far as I can see, its only redeeming feature.

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In fact, I get more excited about the reflection of the church in the modern glass building behind it.

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The tour is led by one of the crew from the boat, and although she is very sweet, she lacks enthusiasm and knowledge about her subject, reading the information from a small notebook. We decide to opt out of the rest of the trip - which includes the library and another shopping stop at the spice market - to go in search of the Post Office and a pair of swimming shorts for David instead.

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We find the post office. Closed. We ask in a couple of small souvenir shops if they sell stamps. They don't, and they cannot understand why the post office is shut. Great! We have more luck with David's swimming shorts, and fortunately he can pay by credit card so doesn't need to change any money into Euros.

Unfortunately the fort by the entrance to the wharf is also closed, so we rather dejectedly return to the boat where a BBQ lunch is being served. And guess what? They've run out of chips! The burger is nice though.

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Fort St Louis

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We are joined by a shirt-less pot bellied Scotsman who is around 4ft 6in tall with facial hair in places where no human should have facial hair. Like his appearance, he has a clown-like personality, and I am not sure whether it is a good or a bad thing that I can't understand most of what he says.

From Fort-de-France we make our way along the coast, and the biggest excitement of the day so far is seeing a Marine sea-rescue exercise. A man is lowered from a helicopter into the water and picked up by others in a rubber dinghy – like something out of a James Bond movie.

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At the black sandy bay of Anse Noire, we have free time to swim, snorkel, sunbathe or just chill.

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The snorkelling is extremely well organised, with everyone provided with an inflatable buoyancy aid (great idea!) which not only helps those swimmers who are less than confident in deep water (such as David), but it also helps the crew to keep track of where everyone is. Not only do they have a lead snorkeller at the front, one of the crew members goes out in a kayak to keep an eye on everyone – I am very impressed with this set up and their attention to health and safety.

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Rocher du Diamant

During the Napoleonic wars, the British built fortifications on the top of this "island" and hoisted two 18-pounder cannons to the summit! Looking at the sides of the rock, this seems like a physical impossibility! 120 men were stationed here, with caves on the Rock serving as sleeping quarters for the men; the officers used tents. For two years the rock was the stronghold of the British before being captured by the French. It has now been handed over to the local birds.

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The 175m high basalt island - Diamond Rock - gets its name from the reflections that its sides cast at certain hours of the day, which evoke images of a precious stone. In reality, the glistening white material is guano – bird poop!

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On the way over, people were fighting to get the front seats on the outside deck of the boat. For the return crossing, there is only four of us out there. Such wimps! There are an awful lot of green faces during the crossing, and a few hasty visits to the facilities. OK, so it is pretty rough, and we do get absolutely soaked to the skin, but it is a lot of fun!

Trying to get some pictures of the Brown Boobies hanging on the thermals above the boat is challenging to say the least! Not only the usual complications of trying to photograph flying birds; attempting to hold the camera steady with a long lens attached when I am bobbing up and down on the ocean, is more miss than hit.

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Having recently read this story about photographer Dawn Kish who ended up looking rather battered and bruised after encountering rough waters, I am a trying very hard to be careful not to hit myself in the face with the camera in the process.

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I finally manage to get a few decent shots of the Boobies.

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We return to the hotel tired and windblown, and although we both enjoyed our day trip to Martinique, I can't say it was good value at $200 per person. I did, however, come back with more than I bargained for: a sunburn! I obviously did not take into account the reflection of the sun on the water. Plenty of moisturiser and the red will turn to brown in a couple of days.

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When David orders a cocktail called “Kiss Sex Goodbye”, I realise it isn't going to be my night. Our favourite waitress, Cathy, teases him about it relentlessly.

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I am not sure whether she is showing off her exhibitionist side, or if she has just lost her common sense, but one of the single girls in the hotel goes back to her room which is on the ground floor right next to the restaurant. From where I (and numerous others) am sitting, I get a perfect view when she changes her clothes as she hasn't bothered to draw the curtains. No pictures of that, sorry.

Cathy (the waitress) confirms that the Jerk Chicken is spicy and she is somewhat taken back when I tell her to ask the chef for extra chilli. When she brings the dish out, she jokes about getting me a large jug of water.

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The chicken, like everything else we have eaten at this hotel, is lovely, but even with the extra chilli I would say it is still only a 5-6 on the Grete Scale of Spiciness.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:07 Archived in Martinique Comments (0)

Cotton Bay and Union Nature Trail / Mini Zoo

Getting lost is half the fun


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It always takes a while to get used to “Island Time” where there is no rush, people are perpetually laid-back and time-keeping is an alien concept. One of the German guests in the hotel really has not adapted to this mentality yet, as she tries to storm the breakfast gates when the restaurant does not open at 07:30 as advertised. The otherwise friendly staff are not amused by her thunderous face (really not a pretty look), and they still carry on regardless, taking no notice of her. Take a chill-pill woman!

After a half-hour “fitness massage” (which in reality is nothing more than a hard rub and does little to alleviate David's continuing bad back), we grab our gear and head for the hills. The higher we climb, the worse the road becomes. I have seen smoother dried-up riverbeds. Thank goodness for the four-wheel drive and great tyres!

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Travelling at slower-than-walking pace has its advantages as we spot a few birds along the way:

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Common Ground Dove

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Cattle Egret

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Mangrove Cuckoo

Cotton Bay

Beginning to think that we are somewhat geographically misplaced, we are happy when we finally come across some road construction workers toiling away in the tropical heat. “Which way to Cotton Bay”? They put us right. Just around the corner is a nice, smooth road, which in fact would have taken us directly to the bay without the need for the last hour-and-a-half of off-roading; but I bet it wouldn't have been as much fun!

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Cotton Bay is a small crescent shaped bay which is a haven for horse riders and kite surfers, with the occasional jet-skiier thrown in for a little excitement. The riders look like they are having a lot of fun, riding bare-backed and bikini-clad into the ocean.

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Lots of trees shade the beach, with some perfectly placed branches for chilling.

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There is even some eye-candy for us women too.

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Overhead, brown boobies circle, occasionally dipping in the water to pick up some lunch. After strolling the length of the bay, we decide we too are in need of some refreshments, and a rustic beach café provides just the place. We are joined by a friendly and inquisitive Lesser Antillean Bullfinch which flits between the tables, chairs and serving counter.

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Having quenched my thirst, I head around the corner to check out a wooded area for some more birds. A beach salesman approaches me eagerly, and seems somewhat surprised when I explain my quest. “You looking for birds”? he says, puzzled, then “there's one”. I look in the direction of his pointing finger and see a grackle on a branch high above me – a bird which is found on every street and in every garden on the island, much as sparrows are back home. “There's another” the salesman volunteers, pointing to a fast flitting black shape between the trees. Hoping I'd be eternally grateful and repay his generous birding tips by buying some tacky souvenir from his stall, he continues to point out grackles to me for the next ten minutes. His sales ploy isn't working and we decide to head off for some more exploring.

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Turning off the main road, we find ourselves driving past some amazingly luxurious villas. The road, however, leads to a dead end. And the next road. And one more.

Although distances are not great - St Lucia is only about 28 miles long and 14 miles wide – driving times are usually much longer than they would be if covering the same distance at home. There is basically only one main road on the island, plus a number of tracks in various degrees of good, bad and bloody awful state. We soon find ourselves in the middle of nowhere (red arrow on map below), having come from Cotton Bay (blue arrow) and wanting to get to Rodney Bay on the north west coast. After five of the roads end in nothing, we eventually approach a woman waiting at a bus stop on a five way road junction: "which direction to Rodney Bay"? We know approximately where we are from the name of the school, but as we are on the highest point of the ridge, and all roads lead downhill from here, it is hard to judge which way to go to get back to the hotel.

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We make it back in time for lunch, which seems to take forever to arrive. The fish burger is worth waiting for though, this is none of your 'regurgitated, reshaped, covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried' stuff, what I get is a plain, steamed fish fillet on a toasted bap, smothered in fresh salsa.

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The lunchtime menu is somewhat limited in the blu Hotel, and does not change the whole week we are there. It is more than adequate, however, and having tried every single item listed, I can confirm it is all good!

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After a short rest we head for Union Nature Trail and Mini Zoo. We have been unable to find a decent street map of the island and road signs are almost non-existent, but we have a general idea of where the Nature Trail is located from the Forestry Commission website. We find Union village (as identified from the name of a school. Again.) so realise we must be in the correct general area. The website suggests the trail is just off the main road, with a large visitor's building. It certainly isn’t obvious. When it becomes clear that we have driven way too far, we try to turn the car around – not easy on these single track roads – and venture down a few of the little side roads off the main drag. When we find they all take us to a residential area, we finally give in and ask a young chap on the side of the road if he can direct us to the Union Nature Trail. He looks at me blankly, but when I mention Mini-Zoo, his eyes light up in recognition. “Down that way, turn right, then left and left again” he tells us, pointing right. Not sure whether his verbal directions or pointing hands are correct, I look at him quizzically. “Left, left” he repeats, this time pointing in the correct direction. OK, so that is settled then.

The car park for the trail has half a dozen cars in it, so we are confident we have come to the right place. We wander in through the open gate towards the Visitors Centre and ticket booth. Locked. No-one about. We shout out. No-one home. We try the doors upstairs. Nothing. The toilet doors are open however, so at least we can use the facilities.

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We decide to walk around the zoo anyway expecting the person in charge to just come over to us when they arrive back so that we can purchase our entrance ticket. The zoo really is “mini”, and consists of half a dozen aviary style cages, although the first thing we see is a wild merlin sitting on a tree stump.

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The cages contain animals such as the St Lucia Iguana, terrapins, agouti and the indigenous St Lucia Parrot, but it is very hard to photograph any of them as the netting is very fine and you can't get close to the cages.

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The whole thing is very sad and depressing (although the animals appear well fed and in good condition), and I am not sorry when no-one turns up and we can just leave. We never do find the hiking trail, so we give up and go back to the hotel for a cocktail (or five) instead.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:58 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

Pigeon Island

The first day in Paradise is not going too well

semi-overcast 30 °C
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I think I have finally caught up with my sleep, as I slept really well – and long – last night. David, unfortunately, woke up with a really bad back this morning. Not a good start to the trip. We try to book a massage for later, but the masseuse is not in today.

At breakfast I am dying to approach the lady from last night to see how her night out went, but I don't want to admit I was eavesdropping on her conversation. She doesn't look like 'the cat who got the cream', so maybe the evening wasn't as successful as all that after all.

Time to head out to explore the island; but first, I want to take some photos of the hotel and the view from the elevated walkway outside our door.

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I pick up my camera, point it in the right direction, and freeze in shock as my lens is obviously not attached properly and immediately crashes to the hard, tiled floor. I can only watch in horror. I pick the lens up and try to re-attach it to the camera body, but have no joy. The mounting plate has been damaged by the fall, and the lens no longer fits! Bugger. If the holiday didn't start well with David's bad back, it certainly doesn't seem to be getting any better.

I take the injured equipment back inside and check out my other lenses. I have a 16-28mm lens which will do for any wide angles I want to shoot, and the 100-400mm for birds and other distance shots. I don't, however, have anything covering the main, everyday shooting range, between 28mm wide angle and 100mm telephoto. This could be a challenge.... Oh well, I will just have to work with what I've got.

Pigeon Island

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We head for Pigeon Island, a short drive northwards. Pigeon Island is a National landmark, full of civil, military and maritime history and is run by St Lucia National Trust. It once was an island – hence the name – but during the early 1970s a broad causeway was constructed, linking the island to the mainland. The island started life as a hang-out of pirates (although no sign whatsoever of Johnny Depp there unfortunately), and later became a military stronghold for the French, English and Americans at different times. During the late 1900s, the island was used for quarantine and grazing land for animals; and later as a whaling station. Now it is a much-visited national landmark with hiking trails, beaches, ruined historical buildings and a very rustic restaurant.

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One of our reasons for choosing St Lucia as a destination, was to see and photograph tropical birds. Pigeon Island is quite a good place for this, and as we make our way along the coastal path, we spot a few local species:

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American Kestrel

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Grey Kingbird

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Zenaida Dove

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Shiny Cowbird

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Brown Booby

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Tropical Mockingbird

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Bananaquit

Jambe de Bois Restaurant
Bird watching is hot work, and we stop for a milk shake in the quaint restaurant, named after a pirate called Francois Leclerc, better known in the region as “Jambe de Bois” because of his wooden leg. The restaurant was opened in 1947 by an Englishwoman called Mrs Josset Agnes Huskinson, who ten years prior had signed a lease with the Government for the use of Pigeon Island. Josset, a vivacious and unforgettable character, was an actress with the D'Oyle Carte Opera Company, and had a worldwide reputation for her charm and hospitality. Often she would entertain over a hundred guests here with frequent visitors from neighbouring Martinique. The restaurant is built using driftwood and other bits of wood from various ships.

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Snuba
From the restaurant overlook tourists partaking in the sport of “snuba” - basically a form of scuba diving, but instead of carrying a tank on your back, the tube from your mask is attached to a tank which floats on the surface of the water. The theory is that you walk off the beach and just carry on walking, under water, being able to breathe through the tubes. I like the idea of it, but as someone who is unable to sink, if I carried on walking I would just float to the surface. It looked fun though.

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Josset's House
This is all that remains of the private house of Josset Huskinson after it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1980. Despite relinquishing her lease, Josset retained an acre of land on the southern secluded part of Pigeon Island, where she was allowed to live out her days. She returned to England in 1976, aged 89, after a forty year romance with her tropical paradise. She died just a year later.

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Lime Kilns
During one of the British occupations of Pigeon Island in the 1800s (the British and French fought fiercely over St Lucia, and captured and recaptured St Lucia seven times each), a number of lime kilns were built. Lime was used as a binding agent for all masonry work and was made from coral and shells which were piled up and set on fire. The subsequent powder and ash was mixed with water, egg and straw to form a binding agent.

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Soldiers' Barracks
The Peace of Brede recognised French Sovereignty in St Lucia in 1667, but the colonial struggle between Britain and France continued well into the 1800s, although fighting was interrupted by short term treaties and peace settlements. These barracks were built to hold 60 men when the French fortified Pigeon Island in 1763, but were damaged by hurricanes in 1817 and again in 1824.

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We really enjoyed Pigeon Island, finding it peaceful, tranquil and delightful. Not so the group of middle aged Americans we were following back to the exit apparently: “I f****g hate this place”. “They should f****g rename it Hell Island”. “You would have to have a f****g death wish to want to come here”. When she started to talk about the toilets and how wet her “f****g ass felt” I was glad they went one way (to the bar) while we returned to our car.

Rodney Bay

On the way back to the hotel, we stop in the small town of Rodney Bay for a quick stroll among the tourist shops and bars. We have no sooner stepped out of the car, when we are approached by a smartly dressed young man who claims to be hungry and complains he doesn't have any money to buy food. The more we say “no” to his begging, the more aggressive he becomes. We eventually manage to shake him off, but it doesn't take long for another one to replace him. “Hi, I recognise you from your hotel” he starts off. Yeah, right... my scamming radar pricks up, but I initially give him the benefit of the doubt. However, when after a bit of chit chat he continues “I shall see you later, but first I need to take my boys for a game of cricket but I can't afford to buy a new ball, could you...?” At that point I just walk off with a dismissive wave as I hate being taken for a fool.

These two individuals leave a bad taste in my mouth, so we cut the walk short, just calling in the bottle store on the way back to the car to pick up some ciders. Unfortunately they are not locally made – in fact they are produced in Denmark – but David doesn't seem to mind.

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After BBQ dinner we stay for a while listening to the steel band before going to bed. Another day over, hopefully tomorrow will be better in terms of David's back and no more accidents.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:23 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

London Gatwick - Rodney Bay, St Lucia

We're here!

semi-overcast 27 °C
View St Lucia on Grete Howard's travel map.

I didn't sleep at all well last night, but feel some better after a full English breakfast. As I said yesterday, the airport is literally a one minute walk from our hotel, although once inside, we have to take the little train from the North Terminal to the South, which is where our flight departs from. There is no queue for the bag drop, and when our gate is announced we board the flight immediately. Much better than being kept in a holding pen for 20 minutes. Every time I have to squeeze myself into one of the tiny seats in the economy cabin of an aircraft, I say “never again, I am tired of travelling cattle class”. Of course, I soon forget the discomfort when I start researching the next trip and see the difference in price for the larger, more comfortable seats. What's nine hours of discomfort out of a week anyway? The seat may be one inch shorter than my legs and two inches narrower than my hips; but the friendliness of the crew makes up for it. Always smiling, always genial, and nothing is too much trouble. When they come round with tea and coffee after the meal, David asks: “Do you have any hot chocolate”? “No, but I can make you one. Just give me five minutes”.

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Despite being trapped in the seat like a sardine in a can, I still manage around four hours 'sleep'. I even miss the take-off. Again.

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Castries from the air

At St Lucia Hewanorra International Airport, there is quite a long walk from the plane – initially across the tarmac, then along the outside of the terminal building. The lengthy queue for the immigration soon disappears and in no time we have the luggage and we are ushered through the customs area with a dismissive wave. Outside is the usual hustle and bustle of Arrivals, and we eventually spot the young lady holding up a sign saying: DAVID HOWARD.

The formalities for the hire car seem to take longer than getting through immigration and customs, but it is probably because I am eager to get on the way. The 4WD Suzuki is small, but adequate and goes well. The roads from the airport to our hotel take us right across the country from the south-east to the north-west. In better condition that I expected, the road is reasonably smooth, but very hilly and winding. Welcome to St Lucia!

After a couple of hours we pull up at the hotel and as I walk towards the entrance, a uniformed chap with a clipboard and a friendly smile asks tentatively: “Mrs Howard?” After exchanging greetings and welcoming us to the blu St Lucia Hotel, he goes on to enquire: “Can I get you a rum punch Mrs Howard”? It seems they know me already. I like this place.

The room is very pleasant, quite spacious and has a lovely balcony overlooking the restaurant, with the pool behind. Perfect for those sundowners.

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After a couple of relaxing rum punches on the balcony and a very refreshing shower, we go down for dinner. As I said before we left home, I was very concerned about the hotel, and in particular, the other guests. I need not have worried – this is a different world to the last all-inclusive resort we stayed in back in 2009 in Dominican Republic! The restaurant has an a la carte menu rather than the dreaded buffet; the guests are quiet and sedate, no raucous bars, no loud muzak, and smoking is not allowed anywhere within the hotel grounds. Phew. So far so good.

In the bar I overhear a conversation between a middle-aged woman who appears to be travelling on her own and some other guests. Apparently she met "a really nice man" on the beach this afternoon who she is meeting up with later on for him to take her 'somewhere nice'. Sounds very interesting. After a lovely fish dinner (battered grey snapper in ginger sauce), chosen from a limited but more than adequate menu and served by extremely friendly waiting staff, we retire to bed. It's been a long day.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:31 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (1)

Bristol - Gatwick

We're on our way!

semi-overcast 8 °C

As we have an early morning flight, we thought we'd travel up to Gatwick the night before and stay overnight in a hotel close to the airport, and you certainly can't get much closer than Premier Inn at the North Terminal – it is literally across the road from the terminal entrance, within the airport itself.

David drops me off at the front door and goes off to park the car in the long term car park – the hotel itself may be cheap (especially considering its position), but their car parking charges sure ain't! Trying to negotiate two main bags, my camera bag and a hand bag; I am somewhat confused in the hotel “lobby”, as there does not appear to be a reception desk there. Nor any other desk. In fact, there is no furniture whatsoever. I can't be the only one who has been a little flummoxed by this, as a uniformed “meeter-and-greeter” is directing everyone to the lifts to reach the check-in area two floors up. OK

I use the expression “check in area” rather than “reception”, as this place is very modern and high tech and doesn't in fact have a “reception” in the traditional sense, just a row of self service check in machines like are now often found in airports.

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You enter your surname and the computer brings up all your other details. It is quick and painless and spews out a couple of room card keys. I leave one with the attendant for when David arrives back, and head for the lift to take the luggage to the room.

Our room number is 324, so I press the 3 button in the lift. As there is only me in the lift, I don't have too much trouble wheeling both the bags out when the lift stops. I look for the familiar signs pointing which direction room number 324 is, but again this hotel has managed to confuse me – all the room numbers start with 7. It appears the lift completely missed the third floor and went straight to number seven. Oh well, maybe I didn't press the right button.

I wait for another lift to come, so that I can go back down to the correct floor. Despite there being three lifts, it seems to take ages, with a couple of lifts going straight past the floor on their way down from a higher elevation. Oh well, maybe I didn't press the button hard enough. I press it again, and eventually a lift does turn up. I get in and make sure I press the 3 button. It doesn't stop at the third floor, however, it goes straight down to the ground floor again. This time I know for sure that I did not make a mistake! I am not too keen on lifts at the best of times – not only do I suffer from claustrophobia, I was also sexually assaulted in a lift as a teenager – so this isn't exactly building up my confidence.

Finally. The lift and I are both on the third floor. After dumping the bags and ringing David to tell him where to collect the key from when he arrives, I go down to book a table at the restaurant for tonight's dinner. I press 0. The lift goes up to floor 6. A couple of other guests get in and they press 0. The lift goes straight to the correct floor. This is getting personal.

On the way back up again I get in a lift with a woman in a wheelchair and her carer. I am relieved when a staff member presses the buttons for us: floors number 3 and 6, as this time we surely will get to the correct floors. No such luck. The lift decides it wants to go to floor -2, despite there not being anyone on that floor awaiting the lift.
Eventually I get to my right floor, via levels 9 and 6. Thank goodness we are leaving this psycho lift behind!

At dinner we chat with Antony, the Venezuelan waiter, about travel in general and the political situation in his home country in particular. I order a starter after dinner instead of a dessert – a lovely baked Camembert served with sweet onion marmalade and a couple of cute little mini-baguettes.

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Our table overlooks the short term car park at the terminal, so we can watch the cars driving down and down the spiral exit. Oh, the excitement of a world traveller!

Posted by Grete Howard 07:20 Archived in England Comments (0)

Finally time for another trip

Caribbean bound

overcast

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I think this trip can best be described as a consolation prize, after not being able to go to Eritrea as planned in February because the visa didn't turn up in time. (Incidentally, the visa still hasn't arrived, some four months after applying. We were obviously not meant to go to Eritrea.) We haven't had a “proper” holiday since September last year, and the next one is not until June, so we were both getting itchy feet.

We wanted something relatively easy, something that didn't require too much planning. Somewhere that has a reasonable selection of birds which can be seen fairly easily independently. The Caribbean appealed to us both and we looked into going back to Tobago; but as our favourite hotel was fully booked all though March, we decided that we wanted to travel somewhere we had not been before instead. Hence we are now off to St Lucia on an all-inclusive holiday.

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Some of you may remember our week in the Dominican Republic in 2009, “affectionately” dubbed the Chav Safari. I said then I would never again do an all-inclusive resort holiday to the Caribbean.

Until now.

It is the same old story with St Lucia as it was with the Dominican Republic – the price for All Inclusive was too tempting. We are getting the flight, hotel and all food and drink for less than the cost of buying the flight alone. It's a no-brainer.

Wish us luck.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:14 Archived in England Comments (4)

Arusha - Nairobi - Doha - London - Bristol

The long 'road' home

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View The Greatest Show on Earth? on Grete Howard's travel map.

We have a few hours today before our evening flight back to Nairobi and onwards, so Tillya has decided we are going out for a little adventure. That suits us. Relaxing is for wimps.

We start off with a visit to the Cultural Market for some shopping. Not being shoppers, it wouldn't be our top priority, but it's quite fun to see what's available and have a little banter with the (very eager) sales people. “You come see my shop” “No charge for looking” You wanna buy?” Beckoning us in to their store and trying to 'encourage' us to go in by blocking our way.

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I manage to get a pretty good deal even if I say so myself (two masks for less than half the original asking price for ONE); and even Tillya comments to David that “She drives a tough bargain”. I take that as a compliment.

We head out of Arusha towards Namanga and the Kenyan border, although exactly where we are heading I have no idea. Even Dickson isn't so sure. One thing is for certain – there is plenty of dust and the road still isn't finished! We were told three years ago when we came this way by bus that it will be done “soon”.

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At Longido we stop to try and find the Tourism Office – which turns out to be the Post Office as well.

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Somehow the name Longido rings a bell, and I rack my brain trying to remember what it is. An on-line newspaper article from a couple of weeks ago eventually comes back to me, reading:

“A herd of elephants wreaked havoc in northern Tanzania’s district of Longido, killing one person and injuring several others”

"Some people sustained with severe injuries in the tragic incident," the commissioner said, adding that "The killed man was at his home when a herd of elephants attacked him."
The official said after a few hours, fully-armed wildlife rangers arrived in the village, teamed with villagers and killed one of the elephants.
"They also managed to chase away the group of elephants, which were still roaming around the village," he said, adding that the dead man becomes the sixth to be killed by elephants in the past three years.

That's OK then. Thankfully we see no elephants on our visit to Longido. We are here to see birds, I believe, and pick up a guide called Samuel at the Tourist Office, who apologises every other sentence that we are not seeing as many birds as he thought because “not many birds in the afternoon”. Bless. The middle of the day is not the best time to go bird watching as the birds – like humans – will try and hide in the shade of the trees from the heat of the sun. But it is still a nice little outing.

The most common bird around here is the White Browed Sparrow – a pretty little weaver bird.

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This is why they are called “weaver birds”.

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We do see a few other birds too, such as...

The Square Tailed Drongo

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Red and Yellow Barbet

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Male Red Billed Hornbill

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and Speckled Mousebirds.

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The area around here is very dry and parched – they haven't had any proper rain for over three years.

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At the camp site we share our picnic with Samuel

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I am surprised at the interest, and knowledge, of the local people regarding the Scottish independence. Often they will bring the subject up and ask our opinion, especially as today is the day of the referendum!

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You think recycling is a modern, Western thing? Think again – these sandals were once car tyres!

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Soon it is time to head back to Arusha for a quick shower, change and re-pack, before going to the airport for the long journey home.

Leaving Tanzania and saying goodbye to Tillya from Calabash Adventures is sad, but we'll be back!

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We are very impressed at Kilimanjaro Airport that they are able to check our bags in all the way to London, despite having booked the flights separately and it being different airlines. I just hope it works.

The Precisionair flight on the way out was half an hour late departing, so this one leaves 25 minutes ahead of schedule to make up for it. I suppose if all the passengers are here and they have the time slot available at both airports, why not?

Arriving at the new terminal in Nairobi is a pleasure. Shame we have to go back into the old terminal for the onward flight. We linger in the newly built departure lounge as long as we can (rebuilt after the devastating fire last year) before moving on to the older, shabbier section. Here we have to report to the Transit Desk as although we checked in on line from the laptop last night, we were unable to print boarding cards. The chap at the desk is extremely helpful, but he doesn't seem to be expecting us – we are not on his list of transiting passengers. He takes all our details, including the information from the luggage tag.

We wander over to the area around the gate and sit down to wait for the departing flight. We have five hours in total here, so there is no rush. After a while the guy from the Transit Desk comes over and asks us how heavy are bags were. 37Kg for the two. He is happy with the answer and walks off. Some time later he comes back and delightedly tells us “We've found your bags, they are safe.” That's a relief. We didn't even know they were lost.

At Doha it is absolute chaos in the Transfer Screening Area. Although they have over a dozen X-ray machines, only three of them are manned. The queues are enormous and it seems to take forever to get through.

The flight from Doha to London is not full, and we would have three seats for the two of us if it wasn't for the “lady” next to David with a small child. She has only paid for one seat, so David very kindly moves across so that she doesn't have to spend the entire flight with the child on her lap.

What a brat the kid turns out to be! He spends the entire flight (or at the least the part where he is awake) kicking the seat back of the person in front, with his feet right up by the tray, making as much noise as he can. When his mother half-heartedly tries to calm him down, he kicks her too, in the face. As we are landing, he (and his mother) are not wearing a seat belt, he is still lying on his back with his feet near the top of the seat back in front, playing on a mobile phone! There really should be a “Passenger Re-training Program” (like there is for offending drivers) where passengers are banned until they have completed the course!

Welcome home to a UNITED Kingdom (well done Scotland on deciding to stay in the UK).

Posted by Grete Howard 09:57 Archived in Qatar Comments (0)

Mara River - Arusha via Lake Manyara

Time to say goodbye to the wildebeest


View The Greatest Show on Earth? on Grete Howard's travel map.

It was very sad to leave the tented camp this morning, especially as all the staff came out to shake hands as we left.

Our flight is not until 10:30 this morning, so we will be doing a little game viewing on the way to the airstrip, which is only about half an hour away.

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Just outside the camp we see a herd of elands, some helmeted guinea fowl, a large group of banded mongoose and a long crested eagle. Good start.

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We thought we'd just pop down to the river to see what the wildebeest are doing, when we suddenly see cars rushing off. Dickson shouts out the usual “Hold on” and off we go at break-neck speeds. I really admire this guy's driving!

Along the way we see several abandoned picnic tables, where visitors from some of the further-away camps have brought their breakfast to enjoy here and then just rushed off when got word of a crossing.

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One of them didn't just leave the table and chairs behind, the red “blob” on the left of this photo is actually a person! That is rather worrying – I certainly wouldn't like to be in the middle of the Serengeti on my own with only a croissant to protect me!

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By the time we arrived at Crossing # 4, it was all over. Again. It was only a small crossing apparently, just a few dozen animals. Oh well, I thought it was too good to be true to get one more piece of excitement in!

The carcass of a wildebeest has attracted a few different birds, such as the Superb Starling, Red Necked Spurfowl and Rueppell's Long Tailed Starling.

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A Black Backed Jackal attempts to chase a rabbit, but is nowhere near quick enough.

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Sandpiper

At the Kogatende Airstrip, there is a lot of activity this morning, with many flights arriving and departing, and people just popping in to use the only public facilities in the area.

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A Regional Air flight arrives and we get excited. It turns out he was just dropping off, not picking up. Oh well. Next one.

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One of the other flights is two passengers short. The captain is wandering around the various cars and people hanging about, asking for names. He finally finds them, and even carries their luggage to the aircraft for them. That's not something you see very often!

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Finally our aircraft arrives back again, and Dickson goes to check us in, which involves the captain looking at his list of passengers and seeing if our name is on it. It is.

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There's supposed to be a 15kg weight limit for luggage, which in theory is said to include your carry-on. In reality there are no scales, and Dickson makes sure he is the one who loads our bags, not the captain, so we manage to escape the excess baggage fees.

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And we're off! It's a 12-seater Cessna Caravan and ten passengers. No head room to stand up but plenty of leg room.

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The first part of the flight is mostly over flat terrain as we make our way across the plains of the Serengeti.

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Then the odd hill starts to creep in...

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In the distance we can see the cone of Oldonyo Lengai, (“Mountain of God” in the Maasai language), which is considered a sacred mountain by the Maasai. It's an active volcano in the Gregory Rift, part of the East African Rift, and is and the world’s only carbonatite volcano . The last eruption was in 2008.

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We could easily make out Ngorongoro Crater despite the presence of a few little fluffy white clouds.

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We land at Lake Manyara for two people to get off, before continuing on our last leg of the journey to Arusha.

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Soon we are back in Arusha – where we started – and our safari is over. For this time.

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No having to wait for our luggage here!

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Tillya is there to greet us, just like he had been at Kilimanjaro Airport a week earlier.

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Shanga Shangaa
I mention to Tillya that we want to treat him to lunch, and it so happens that we are just coming up to the turning to this place – and what a gem!

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Shanga Shangaa, meaning "amazing beads", in Swahili, is a small business employing 36 deaf, mute and physically disabled people and their workshop is open for visits every day.

It all started back in 2006 which a local girl making beads for the Christmas market. The necklaces were so successful, they now have a serious and sustainable operation employing 32 people and supplying retail outlets across Tanzania and beyond.

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Beads are produced in these moulds, with sticks to create the holes.

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The wood burns out during the baking, leaving a hole in the centre of the bead.

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Add water, turn on the motor for a couple of hours, and you have nice, smooth beads.

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It's all about recycling at Shanga Shangaa. Wine and beer bottles are collected from local tourist lodges and hotels in Arusha, as well as broken window glass; and this is then melted down to make new glass items, including the beads.

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We are given a guided tour with explanations of the work they do, how it helps the local economy, schools and charities, and we walk around the workshops themselves, seeing the glass blowing in action.

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Shanga Shangaa also features weaving and cloth making.

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This young chap was paralysed aged 17 when he fell out of a tree; and did not have any opportunities in life until he was offered a position here, making painted plaques for tourists. I buy a couple of them for Isla and Emmie.

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All sorts of stuff is recycled here, including metal.

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They also produce mosaic.

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Even the chairs and tables in the courtyard are made from recycled tyres.

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There is also a very nice restaurant within the grounds of Shanga Shangaa, and the head chef is Arnaud, the cook who travelled with us on our very first trip to Tanzania back in 2007.

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The food is excellent (of course, I wouldn't have expected anything else from Arnaud), with soup to start, then some delicious paneer and vegetable samosas with mango chutney; a fabulous BBQ buffet with tender fillet steak, chicken and fish; tasty lentils with coconut, courgette fritters, home made chilli sauce and various salads.

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Dessert is a selection of little dishes which included fresh fruit, a kind of millionaires shortbread, some little doughnutty things and chocolate with ground coffee beans in it.

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Tillya wants to buy us some coffee to take home, so we stop at the BURKA Coffee Estate just down the road. I love the smell of freshly roasted coffee.

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Back at Moivaro Lodge (was it really only a week since we left?), we chat with Tillya in the bar for a while, where he tells us about his plans for the future of business and how my reviews and forum replies on Virtual Tourist and Trip Advisor helped “pull his business up” during the recession. His genuine appreciation of my “help” is very humbling. As he said, it isn't much to me, but has meant the world of difference to him, his family and his business. Knowing that I have made a enormous positive difference to someone's life on another continent gives me a warm, glowing feeling.

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For the rest of the afternoon, we sit on the balcony of our room, enjoying a drink and looking back on the many highlights of this last week.

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As the light fades, hornbills come loudly trumpeting back to roost in the trees and black faced vervet monkeys scamper around the grounds, looking at us quizzically from their lofty branches.

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The only not-so-happy memory I have of the Serengeti, is the tse tse fly bites. They are really pesky little things, and hurt when they bite (a bit like a horse fly). It also seems like I am slightly allergic to their bites as I have come up in an angry red patch around the actual bites, about 3 inches in diameter. They itch like hell too!

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Dinner tonight causes some mixed feelings.

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Neither of us are hungry, so we don't want the set four course meal, but that is all they have. We order just a small dish of vegetarian pasta and a dessert, but still have to pay the fixed price of $25 for the full fixed menu. What a rip-off! The food is very nice though, and the staff are so sweet.

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And so it is time for our last night here in Tanzania. For this time. As Arnold Schwarzernegger said: we'll be back.

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Safari arrangements by Calabash Adventures

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:03 Archived in Tanzania Comments (2)

Mara River Area - Day 3

Lamai Wedge and Wogakuria

storm
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We found a frog in the room late last night - cute little thing. David took it outside and let it go.

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I shall want to have coffee and biscuits brought me every morning when I get home – but preferably not at 05:45!

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Last night David half-jokingly said about having baked beans for breakfast this morning – and today this Pyrex bowl of beans turned up! Where on earth did they find those in the middle of the bush?

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Guess what? Another stunning sunrise this morning.

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When Dickson said about spending the day looking for cats and other animals, I was actually quite grateful. Much as I loved seeing the crossings, spending two whole days just waiting for a few minutes of excitement is enough.

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Black Backed Jackal

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Vultures on a Wildebeest carcass

Wildebeest migrations are closely followed by vultures, as wildebeest carcasses are an important source of food for these scavengers. The vultures consume about 70% of the wildebeest carcasses available.

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Rueppell's Griffon

Marabou Stork

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The marabou stork always reminds me of chocolate. Why, I hear you ask? Growing up in Norway, one of the most popular chocolates used a marabou stork as its emblem.

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Sweet childhood memories aside, the marabou is ugly as sin, and the fact that it is a carrion-eating scavenger doesn't really add to its appeal.

The marabou storks soars great heights and will descend on a carcass at high speed in a vulture-like fashion. In fact, it has been known to to drive away vultures when feeding on a carcass. The marabou also eats locusts, frogs and small birds.

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African White Backed Vulture

As we were heading for the “bridge” to do our very own Mara River Crossing this morning, we came across a couple of lionesses sunning themselves on the opposite river bank.

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On our side of the river a large lizard family were emerging from their crevice to enjoy the morning sun.

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A dazzle of zebra

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So, the eternal question – are they white with black stripes or black with white stripes? Some people think that a zebra is white because its stripes end towards the belly and the belly is mostly white. However, the zebra is actually black because if you shaved all the fur off a zebra the skin is mostly black. Not that I have ever tried shaving a zebra...

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At first glance zebras in a herd might all look alike, but their stripe patterns are as distinctive as fingerprints in humans. Their shiny coats dissipate over 70 % of incoming heat, and helps the animals withstand intense solar radiation.

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A tower of giraffe

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The giraffe has no vocal cord, although the can cough, bellow and miauw , snort, moo, snore and hiss. Mostly they communicate with their tail though.

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Giraffe have one of the shortest sleep requirements of any mammal, averaging only 1.9 hours per day

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Unlike many animals, the giraffe sees in colour

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A family of elephants

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Elephants are found in matriarchal herds (or “memory” as a group of elephants are also known as) usually led by the oldest cow. Much like humans then. Closely knit families are made up of a number of related females and their dependent young. Female elephants stay with their mothers all their lives, whereas males leave the family unit upon reaching adolescence, usually around 12-13 years old.

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During a recent survey (in May and June this year), 7,535 elephants were counted in the whole of the Mara Serengeti eco-system, which is an increasing trend from 2,058 in 1986.

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Elephants are the largest land mammal in the world – they can weigh up to 6½ tons! Put in to context, the original mini weighed under 700kg and the average family car these days – our Toyota Prius for instance – weighs 1325kg. So these guys are basically five times the weight of a car and totally not worth messing with! The African elephant by the way is considerably bigger than the Asian one, with bigger ears.

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At one stage we were completely surrounded by elephants, going about their daily life, eating breakfast.

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Thomson's Gazelle

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Olive Baboon

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The river is full of activity, with hippos....

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…. Yellow Billed Stork ...

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... and crocodile

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In order to reach the area north of the Mara River known as Lamai Wedge, we have to cross a “bridge” - just a concrete causeway really, which gets flooded regularly after the rains.

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In fact you can see what it what like when we drove past it on the way up through Serengeti the day we arrived.

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Lamai Wedge

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Lamai is 300 square miles of open plains, similar to the landscape of the Masai Mara in Kenya which forms one of its borders. This sweeping vista of rolling grasslands, dotted with the occasional acacia tree, is of stark contrast to the rest of Northern Serengeti's dense woodlands south of the river, where the herds of wildebeest tend to split up and stay in amongst the trees. Here in Lamai you can really appreciate the full visual impact of the massive wildebeest herds – the vast landscape stretching endlessly beyond covered in a vast carpet of gnus.

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In amongst the four legged animals we came across this Crowned Plover and her two cute little chicks, very well camouflaged in the grass.

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As far as the eye can see, in all direction, are wildebeest. And more wildebeest. Dickson estimated there were around 150-200,000 of them, the numbers are just totally mind-blowing.

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The shifting, grunting, grazing mass of animals is like a giant wasp's nest, buzzing with life and movement.

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Everywhere you look there are wildebeest. And more wildebeest. Up to a million hooves pounding the open plains.

And the odd Thomson's Gazelle....

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A lone concrete beacon marks the border between the Serengeti in Tanzania and Masai Mara in Kenya. No fences, no border posts, no passport control. Does this make us illegal immigrants?

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Kenyan elephants

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After the frenzy of the Mara River crossings which unsurprisingly attracts a number of tourist cars (although apparently nowhere near the amount they get on the Kenyan side), the main draw here is the peace and tranquillity – we see no other vehicles for hours. Just wildebeest, wildebeest and more wildebeest.

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Even in death, the wildebeest continues to be part of the eco-system, attracting a large number of vultures.

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Different species of vultures have different beaks – they have evolved to feed from different parts of the carcass so they don't compete for food and can co-exist quite happily. Ain't nature grand?

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Here you can see a Nubian Vulture at the back on the left, with the African White Backed in front of him. On the right is the Rueppell's Griffon and a Marabou Stork standing behind.

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Rueppell's Griffon

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African White Backed Vulture

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Nubian Vulture

Sometimes the vultures eat so much they are physically incapable of flying – they then have to spend some time resting on the ground until the food is digested so they can manage to take off.

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Photos cannot convey the enormousness of the landscape itself, let alone the experience of driving through the centre of a massive herd of wild animals with the surround sound of grunting wildebeest.

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Reedbuck near a small stream

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The stream was also home to a Pied Kingfisher.

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Marabou Stork
Marabou Storks are one of the heaviest birds that can fly; with a wing span of up to 2.8 metres, they are enormous! Their toes and legs are hollow in a bid to make them lighter for flying.

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The Marabou stork has a long, reddish pouch (gular sac) hanging from its neck which can be filled with air in hot weather in order to increase surface area for heat dissipation. This sack is also used in courtship rituals as it is directly connected to the left nostril and acts as a resonator allowing the bird to produce a guttural croaking.

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Hammerkop

Wattled Plover

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Impala

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Ostriches
Male ostriches have a harem of 3 to 5 females, all of which lay their eggs at a similar time in a nest made by the male. The social life of the ostrich is one of the most complex in the animal world. The male and his females all live together in small troops. Incubation is shared by both parents, only one hen being chosen for the job. Ostrich eggs weigh up to 1.5kg and have the same volume as over 20 hens eggs! The shell of the egg is so strong, it can hold the weight of a human standing on them. I know, we tried at an ostrich farm in South Africa.

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White Bellied Bustard

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Picnic with a view

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Elephants
While enjoying lunch, we noticed a herd of elephants coming our way. We were down-wind from them, so they hadn't spotted us yet, but we kept a really close eye on them.

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It is estimated that about 500 people are killed each year by elephants, either where they live or in captive situations. Generally speaking though, elephants are peaceful animals and providing you don't upset them they won't upset you.

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They seemed to be completely oblivious to our presence, however, and were in fact heading for a waterhole.

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Before wandering off into the distance until they became mere dots on the huge landscape.

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A baby Tommy, some 10 - 14 days old.

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Grey Headed Kingfisher

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As we have had showers and storms every afternoon we've been here, we decide it is a good idea to get back across the Mara River before any rain starts. We don't want to get stuck the other side, nor take the risk to drive across that causeway when it has flood water rushing across it.

(Footnote: I heard later that the day after we left, they'd had heavy rain causing terrible flooding, to the extent that not only was the causeway completely impassable, even the local airstrip was closed!)

Back on the Kogatende side we spent some time at a beautiful spot near the river, watching the different wild-life which were also taking advantage of this great place.

Nile Crocodile

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Red Headed Agama Lizard

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Grey Headed Kingfisher

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Goliath Heron

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Green Bee Eater (in the rain)

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More crocodiles - apparently this is where they go to lay their eggs

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Egyptian Geese

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Spur-Winged Lapwing

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Sacred Ibis. It was raining really quite heavily by now – thank goodness my camera and lens are waterproof.

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Water Thick-Knee - well camouflaged

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Monitor Lizard
Dickson got REALLY excited about spotting this, as it was one of the species on my wish list. Well done that man!

I still want to see an aardvark though.

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Common Sandpiper

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Hippo

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Elephants

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Black Headed Heron

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What great spot! Eventually we had to tear ourselves away, and headed for Wogakuria, an area dotted with kopjes and known for its cat population.

Eland

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Banded Mongoose chasing a Spring Hare. I am not sure what they thought they were going to do with the hare if they caught it (they didn't) – he's bigger than them!

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Can you see the hare?

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Spring Hare

Last time we came to Tanzania in 2007, I also had a wish list for Dickson, and he spent ages trying to find me an African Spoonbill. We did see one in the far distance – apparently – but this time he did a great job of finding one for me! Right close to the car too!

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Yellow Billed Stork

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Sacred Ibis

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Pygmy Kingfisher

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Klipspringer

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A large impala family

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On one of the many kopjes, we found our cats, seven of them in total, mostly hidden from view though!

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The skies went all stormy on us again, and we even saw a rainbow! When the thunder started, Dickson decided to head back home as we still had some precarious stretches of track to negotiate. The thunder went on and on and on, with no let up. Quite close too.

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Dark Chanting Goshawk

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Steenbok - often confused with baby impala

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What's that smell?
As we were driving through a lightly wooded area, David sarcastically commented on the “smell of fresh earth” as we passed through some foul smelling stuff. Dickson explained that certain types of acacia trees pass on an ‘alarm signal’ to other trees when they are attacked by animals such as the damage done here by elephants.

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The leaves of the tree produces lethal quantities of tannin (have been known to kill antelopes in huge numbers in South Africa) and pungent ethylene into the air which can travel up to 50 metres, and acts as a warning to other trees, which almost immediately produce their own tannin in order to keep animals away. This stuff really had a most unpleasant odour!

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We travelled through some areas with very heavy rain and subsequent flooding on the way back to the camp.

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What do you get when you mix a stormy sky, the smoke from a (controlled) bush fire, an orange sunset and an elephant?

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Even without the elephant, the sunset was not bad....

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We spent the evening watching the fire flies around the camp – unfortunately any attempts at photographing them failed miserably! And there ends the last full day in Serengeti.

Thank you to Calabash Adventures for the safari arrangements.

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Posted by Grete Howard 11:31 Archived in Tanzania Comments (1)

Mara River Crossing - Day 2

The waiting game......

sunny
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Another pretty sunrise this morning.

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After breakfast we head off towards the river again, to spend another day with the wildebeest, waiting, watching, waiting, watching.

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There is a big herd at Crossing # 2, mostly grazing. When some of them move down river, the other vans follow. We decide to stay and see what happens.

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We didn't have to wait long. Without warning a few wildebeest start jumping 10-20 metres from the crossing, hurtling their body several feet into the air with the power of an Olympic diver! Go! Go! Go!

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A frenzy of curved horns and shaggy beards ensued into in a thin line across the river, and we had front row seats for this dramatic spectacle. For a while we were the only humans present.

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Soon the herd became a moving, breathing bridge that spanned the width of the river and their grunting bray matured into a low steady hum.

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Taking a leap of faith, the wildebeest throw themselves off the river bank and into the unknown, all too aware of the dangers that lie ahead. Many animals are injured when others land on top of them as they enter the river.

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Upon reaching the opposite bank, some wildebeest continue running further afield, while others are too exhausted to do anything more than drag themselves up on dry land.

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Others are very confused and actually cross the river back again to where they came from. What a waste of energy – they say wildebeest are not very bright animals!

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Many mothers get separated from their babies during the crossing – with around 1500 animals it is perhaps not really surprising. For ages afterwards you can see them walking around, looking lost, calling for their offspring (and vice versa). Most are reunited within a few minutes, but sometimes they end up on opposite sides of the river when one of them crosses but not the other.

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As suddenly as it started, it is over. Something (or someone – a crocodile maybe?) spooks the wildebeest and hysteria to get back up the bank ensues.

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It's over again for this time.

For the next few hours we sit and watch the (non) action. The herds run right to left, left to right, congregate (or “build” as it is known) at Crossing # 2, stare at each other across the river, search for their babies, graze, sprint towards the river, sprint away from the river. We also move accordingly. Back, forth, splitting up, getting back together.

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The excitement rises as they run down the embankment...... and up again.

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There are still some pretty big herds on the north side of the river, but will they cross? Will they heck!

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As we are so close, we go back to the camp to use the facilities, and take a few photos.

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This is how close the camp is to the migration!

The camp consists of a dining tent (on the left) and a lounge area (on the right), as well as the ten individual tents for sleeping.

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Dickson wearing the Bristol T-shirt we brought him over last time we were in Tanzania in 2011.

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Sudden starting of car engines gets the adrenalin going again; only to find that it is news that the rangers are on their way which causes a flurry of activity. Technically you are not allowed to drive off-road here, so all the cars parked under trees waiting for the action would get a telling-off if the rangers caught them. We all move to sit in an orderly line on the marked track. In the sun.

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To kill a bit of time, we ask Dickson to show us photos of his wife, young son and their wedding on his laptop. No sooner has he switched it on – and the crossing starts again! This time it is only a short drive away, so we are there almost immediately.

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Strong currents shift the crossing downriver, and it ends up as three crossings in one at one stage.

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One of the more surprising information I gleaned while researching this trip, was the fact that the migration is not quite such a natural phenomenon which has been happing since year dot - it only started in the 1960's. Even Ernest Hemingway, who wrote extensively about his safaris in Africa, wouldn’t have seen the Migration! It all started after an epidemic nearly eradicated the wildebeest population in the late 19th century. After treatment and immunisation had been found for the disease, the wildebeest population was slowly restored. In the next 50 or so years, the population boomed and soon became too large for the Serengeti's grasslands to sustain. Subsequently the large herds started moving further and further afield to find new pastures, eating their way across the Serengeti, the Kenya border and in to the Masai Mara. Once they had exhausted all the fresh grass in the Mara, they made their way back across the Serengeti to start this circular route again. Other herbivores, including zebras and Thompson gazelles, have followed.

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The spectacle is insane, but while it may appear as a total, chaotic frenzy, it isn't as random as it seems – wildebeest display what is known as “swarm intelligence” whereby the huge herds of animals systematically explore and overcome the obstacle as one.

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Like the previous crossing, something spooked the wildebeest, and they make an about-turn in great numbers.

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A few of them run up river for a short distance and start a new crossing there – until they discover the crocodile you can see in the background.

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As I have said before, wildebeest aren't the brightest of creatures, and this young fellah decided he was going to take a different exit from the river – and promptly got stuck in the mud.

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We were all holding our breath as the crocodile discovered him and went to check it out. You're be glad to know that the baby managed to free himself before the croc got there.

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Most of the plains animals give birth between February and March, so it is unusual to see such a young zebra as this – this one was only about one or two weeks old – although sometimes they are able to prolong the birthing season if there is a shortage of food.

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Crocodile
As an opportunist hunter, the crocodile can lie in wait for hours, days and even weeks for a suitable prey, and moment, to attack. They are agile and swift with a powerful bite, sinking their teeth into the flesh for a grip that is almost impossible to loosen, holding their prey under water to drown.

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But just because you see a crocodile on the banks of the river, doesn't mean to say that he is waiting to attack - the Mara River crocodiles are said to feed only once or twice a year during the wildebeest crossing! It is thought that some of these mottled green giants are over 50 years old!

We thought we'd hang around for a bit to see if he was going to take any notice of the impala on the shore – but he totally ignored them. He'd obviously eaten already this year! The reason for the open mouth is to lose heat on warm days.

So, it was back to waiting, watching, watching, waiting again. In the warm afternoon sun we all ended up having an unintentional siesta in the car!

There were no more crossings this afternoon, but we did see a few more animals and birds before returning to the camp.

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Black Backed Jackal

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Elephants

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Bare Faced Go-Away Bird

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Eland

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A male reedbuck

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Giraffe

Another nice sunset tonight. I do love African sunsets.

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Something else I love about Africa (and there is a lot to love about this place!), is the night sky. I have never seen stars like it anywhere else in the world. With almost no light pollution for miles, the stars are unbelievably clear and there are more stars in the African sky than I ever believed existed.

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After dinner I set my camera up on a tripod to try and capture some of these stars, including the Milky Way. I am quite pleased with the way they came out.

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I even caught a passing plane:

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This would not have been possible without all the great arrangements by Calabash Adventures

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:50 Archived in Tanzania Comments (1)

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