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Entries about adventure

Ndutu IV: zebra, stuck in mud, lion in a tree

What an adventurous afternoon!


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Picnic Lunch

We find the only tree for miles around, under which to have our picnic this lunchtime. There is something very special about eating our lunch in the wild.

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After lunch we go on our way again to see what else nature has to offer us today.

Zebra

The first wildlife we see is a few zebra.

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One month old baby

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Two month old baby suckling

This Grant's gazelle is all on its own, miles from anywhere and any other animals. Most odd.

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Bogged Down

There are not many animals in this area, so we decide to move on elsewhere. Although there is a track, it is very muddy and pot-holed, so Malisa drives off-road; heading towards a forested area we can see in the distance. While the plains look fine on the surface, the ground is sodden underneath, hidden by the long grass; so Malisa speeds up to try and avoid sinking in to the soft soil. It makes for a very bouncy ride, and poor Bertha (my 600mm lens) falls off the seat onto the floor and gets detached from the camera body. Hoping she has not suffered any damage, I put her back together again and leave her on the floor - at least then she can't fall anywhere!

The ground gets wetter and wetter, but Malisa manages to stay afloat so to speak, by turning on the four wheel drive and some skilful driving skimming across the surface. Until we hit a hole created by termites. We come to an abrupt halt, and no amount of revving the engine or turning the wheels makes any difference. We're stuck. Well and truly bogged down.

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Malisa gets out the spade and tries to dig us out, while David and I make sure we are facing opposite directions as we scan the horizon for wild animals. In areas with lots of plains game such as wildebeest, antelopes or zebra, you know you are reasonably safe from predators; whereas here there are no signs of life, human or animal for as far as the eye can see. I stare so intently at the surrounding area that every bush and tree becomes a cheetah or a lion. This is not good for my blood pressure! Five minutes later the same bush again looks like a big cat - I soon become paranoid and start seeing signs of danger with every small movement of the vegetation. David admits to his imagination playing havoc with him in the same way too.

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David on the look-out

Having worked up a sweat trying to shift the heavy wet soil and make a sold path for the wheels, Malisa gets back in the car and tries to drive off again. The wheels just spin and spin. It's no good, we are still stuck.

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Time to radio for help. All morning the radio has been going, with the occasional message about an exciting cat sighting, but mostly calls for help to get out of a sticky situation like this. Malisa grabs the microphone. Nothing. Completely dead. We can hear others, but they can't hear us. He keeps trying but it is obvious the microphone is faulty. Kaput.

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Plan C: Modern technology to the rescue, Malisa whips out his mobile phone to call for help. No signal. I try mine. Also no signal. David, who is on a different network to me, has a very weak signal, so Malisa uses it to make a call to the lodge. After initially having to explain to the confused receptionist why he is calling from a British phone, Malisa is able to let them know what has happened, explain where we are as best as he can, and ask for assistance.

Meanwhile continues to try and dig us out, using a spade and a mud board. David and I go back to scan the horizon, not just for predators, but also for any other cars that may be able to help us out of this mess.

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In the far, far distance, we spot three cars heading from right to left. They are too far away to see us, we can only just make them out using binoculars. How to attract their attention? Malisa tries using his torch, and David waves his mobile phone around with the light on. Both are way too weak to be seen, and anyway, the others will probably just think it is a reflection of the sun.

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I have a bright idea. Taking the speedlight flash gun from my camera bag, I set it on full power and use the TEST button to fire it. Again and again and again. It seems to work, as the vehicles change direction and appear to be heading towards us, coming closer and closer. What a relief! When they are within shouting distance, Malisa tells them not to come any nearer, as there is no point for them to get stuck in the mud as well. Protecting himself with a stick against any potential wild animals, he walks over to the other cars.

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All three drivers come back over with Malisa – these are the same guys who we helped rescue earlier this morning down by Lake Ndutu – and discuss a plan of action. A few more attempts at digging us out are made, then the decision is taken that David and I should go with the others, who will take us back to the lodge. Meanwhile Malisa will stay with the car and wait for help. I argue. I don't want to leave Malisa on his own, but I am talking to deaf ears. I guess he is right when he says that we would be more of a hindrance than a help to the rescuers.

We quickly grab all our stuff and walk across to the other cars. Or at least try to. On my third step I sink knee deep in the mud. I manage to get my left leg out, but in the struggle to free the other one, my shoe gets left behind. Malisa ends up having to use his spade to dig it out. Someone mentions: “all that brown stuff is not just mud, you know...” Thanks a lot for that thought!

The passengers in the other cars are very welcoming, cheering as we arrive and offering us welcome drinks (cartons of juice) and cakes when we get inside the car. Thank goodness they have some spare seats! Only when we drive away do we realise that Malisa is stuck in the middle of the wilderness, surrounded by wild animals (potentially) and without any form of communication. We should have left David's phone with him, the only one that worked! I feel really bad about that, but he is too far away to hear me shout, and anyway, none of us feel like traipsing through that mud (!) to go back to where he and the car is.

Douglas, our hero rescue driver, explains that we need to go back to close to the point where we had lunch (they had lunch not far away too - we could see them when we were picnicking) before trying to find the road that will take us back to the lodge. Like Malisa did, he drives at great speed over the boggy landscape, resulting in the windscreen being splattered with mud!

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As we carefully make our way towards the area where we can safely meet up with the track again, we chat to the other passengers. They are on their last day of a five day safari, and are disappointed that they haven't seen a cheetah yet. We try to explain to them where we saw the mother and cubs yesterday.

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Being in a full car (seven passengers plus driver), also makes me realise how spoilt we are for space with just the two of us. Plus Malisa, of course. Having a private safari is the only way to go in my opinion!

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Beautiful late afternoon light over Lake Ndutu

Wildebeest

We drive through large areas dotted with hundreds – no thousands – of wildebeest, some with young babies. Like us, the passengers in this car are on the lookout for a wildebeest-mama just about to give birth. They have not been lucky enough to witness that either, and of course, this afternoon is their last chance. We all frantically scan the herds to look for large bellies.

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We also see a couple of Black Backed Jackals running away. I am sitting in the front seat next to the driver, where photography is not so easy as standing up is difficult because the roof hatch doesn't line up with the footwell, and there is no 'aisle' to stand in like there is at the back. With all my camera gear on my lap, it is hard to manoeuvre myself in any direction.

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Giraffe

Stuck. Again.

Making our way back to Ndutu and the lodges, we have to cross the same boggy area near Lake Ndutu where we helped the car out of the mud earlier this morning. Guess what? Maggie, one of the other drivers in our convoy, gets stuck in the mud.

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Douglas drives our car as close as he dares, then gets out and attaches a tow rope to Maggie's car.

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Here we go:


Easy peasy!

The plains are bathed in a glorious warm glow from the setting sun.

Zebra

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Grant's Gazelle

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Lappet Faced Vulture

Someone in the car complains that they haven't seen anything 'interesting' this afternoon. Another good reason why I am so grateful we are not travelling in a group - to me every wild animal we see is interesting in its own right, it is not just about the big cats and other 'popular' animals. He does take a bit of stick for his comments from the others in the car, to be fair.

Lions

Back by the lake, our three lions are still hanging around. I hope our whinger from earlier is happy now. We notice a vehicle from the KOPE Lion Conservation Project is here too. They have followed these particular lions making their way from Ngorongoro Crater to Ndutu. I later find out that these are the same lions we saw as tiny cubs in the crater back in May 2016 - how cool is that!?!

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Being in a convoy of three cars means that the lead car (which on this occasion is us) can't just find the best position at a sighting, he has to make sure the other two cars can get a good view too.

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We move along to give the other two cars access.

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It looks like the lions have been asleep all afternoon, and are now just waking up.

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He's on the move!

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His brother follows.

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OMG! He's climbed the tree again!

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“I might not make it, but I am going to try. Hold on tight!” says Douglas as he drives straight for the bushes. Not just into undergrowth, but shrubs the height of the car. He cuts through them as if they are just tall grasses. These cars – and their drivers – are amazing!

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The King looks magnificent as his surveys his domain. What light! What colours!

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He doesn't look all that comfortable.

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That's better!

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Definitely not comfortable!

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Unfortunately we have to leave as Douglas is dropping us off, and then taking his original passengers to another camp further away. When we arrive at Ndutu Lodge, he gives the manager the co-ordinates of Malisa's position from his GPS. We are relieved to later hear that help has gone out and have located Malisa; and they promise to let us know when Malisa and his rescuers arrive back safe and sound.

Shower

My feet and legs are filthy dirty after this afternoon's wallow in the mud, and I take my shoes and sock with me into the shower. There is mud everywhere and I feel guilty for using so much water to wash off. I am normally very conscious of my water usage when we travel, so it goes against the grain to stay in the shower for a long time.

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Dinner

The first thing we do when we get to the main building, is to ask the manager if Malisa is back. He is not. It is dark outside now and I am really concerned, but I am reassured to know that he is no longer on his own and they are working hard to rescue him.

There are not so many people in the restaurant tonight, two if the large groups from last night have moved on.

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Starter of Greek Quesadilla drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

Followed by a very nice tomato soup which I did not photograph

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Peppered beef - tender and tasty. One of the many things I like about Ndutu Lodge is that they serve extra vegetables on the side. We eat a lot of veggies at home and I so miss them when travelling, as I find most restaurants merely plonk a bit of greenery on the plate for visual impact (if you're lucky).

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The dessert – described as After Dinner Chocolate Slice – is served too cold for my liking. I dislike any cold food straight out of the fridge! I even take ice cream out 10-15 minutes before serving it, or put it in the microwave at home. OK, so I'm weird, we all know that.

Small Spotted Genets

Ndutu Lodge is famous for its resident population of genets – small cat-like creatures who live in the rafters of the lodge. They are wild, but have become habituated to people (and flash guns). The kitchen staff tempt them into the lounge after dinner with leftovers, but they are free to come and go as they like. We later see them roaming the ground and climbing bushes when we go back to our room.

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I refuse to go to bed until Malisa is back, even if it means staying in the reception area half the night! We position ourselves in the bar so that we can see up the pathway leading to the car park, hoping that Malisa will come down this way before going to the drivers' quarters. Thankfully we don't have to wait too long, and when he arrives at around 21:30, we give him the biggest hug ever.

Malisa explains how his rescuers were unable to drive right up to where he was stuck, but like we did, they walked across and helped him dig out the car and place mud boards underneath the wheels. While waiting for them to turn up, Malisa also managed to fix the radio to get the microphone working again. He is such a star! We can go to bed happy and relieved now.

Thank you Calabash Adventures for arranging this safari, and Malisa for looking after us so well. We love you guys!

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Posted by Grete Howard 15:05 Archived in Tanzania Tagged animals birds sunset wildlife adventure phone dinner mud safari tanzania zebra flash dirty birding dirt radio picnic shower lions giraffe mobile_phone gazelle stuck wildebeest douglas bird_watching maggie ndutu calabash_adventures jackals game_viewing picnic_lunch wildlife_photography malisa tree_climbing_lions ndutu_lodge lion_in_a_tree stuck_in_mud bogged_down rescued cell_phone no_phone_signal mud_board speedlight flash_gun camera_flash kope genets Comments (2)

Ngorongoro Crater Day 1 Part 2 - lion cubs and more

An afternoon in the caldera


View Tanzania for Lyn and Chris' 40th Anniversary 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Ngoitoktok Springs

Probably the most popular picnic area within the Ngorongororo Crater, there are always a lot of people here, but it is a large enough area to find a spot to get away from the crowds.

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Here you can see the crowds

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And here we are away from them all

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Not only is this place popular with humans, but we also share our breakfast with a number of different birds, who come for the rich pickings where guests drop food on the ground. They have become quite tame and will perch on your car, or sit on the ground below your chair, looking up with pleading eyes.

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Helmeted Guineafowl

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Little Egret

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Black Kite

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Great White Pelicans

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Rufous Tailed Weaver

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Egyptian Geese

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Village Weaver

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Blacksmith Plover

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Superb Starling

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Southern Masked Weaver

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Little Egrets

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Southern Masked Weaver

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Black Kite

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Litle Bee Eaters

I could stay here for ages, just watching life unfold around me – there is always something going on. We see zebra, elephants and wildebeest wandering through the outskirts of the site, and hippo frolic in the small lake, as well as numerous bird species as these pictures, all taken during our lunch stop, show.

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An elephant saunters by

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Wildebeest and Zebra

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Hippo in the lake

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Hippo poo floats to the surface of the water

I love seeing pelicans flying

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Eventually we have to tear ourselves away from this beautiful place to explore some other parts of the crater.

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A lone wildebeest

Grey Crowned Cranes

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Kori Bustard

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Common Fiscal Shrike

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Zebra

Secretary Bird

Malisa spots a few feathers sticking up from between the thorns on the top of the acacia tree and stops the car.

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She looks like she has stuck her talons in an electric socket ~ or maybe she is just shocked to see us.

Initially there is not much to see, but we hang around just in case she decides she is going to fly away, or at least maybe stand up.

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Our patience is rewarded as after a while she decides to rearrange her nest a little.

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Hippos

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As well as the ones we see in the water, there are a few hippos out on land too.

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Eurasian Avocet

I have never before noticed avocets eating the same way as spoonbills – pushing their long beak from side to side in the water.

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Lions

We come across a small dinner party, with two females and four cubs feasting on the carcass of a young zebra.

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We stay for a while (although not as invited guests, more like gatecrashers), watching their eating habits and interactions.

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This little lad may have bitten more than he can chew.

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He's not really getting anywhere with the zebra's head.

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He tries a different tactic.

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But eventually he gives up.

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Gradually, one by one, they've had their fill of fresh meat and wander off for a siesta.

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Or maybe just a poo.

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Children are such messy eaters.

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Mum needs cleaning too.

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“Play with me mum!”

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Time for us to move on and “see what else nature has to offer” (Malisa's favourite saying).

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Blacksmith Lapwing

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Hadada Ibis

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Superb Starling

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Tree Pipit

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Marabou Stork

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Hildebrand Starling, often confused with the Superb Starling. The difference is that the Superb has a white line between the blue and the orange areas on the chest and a yellow eye against the Hildebrand's red.

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Yellow Billed Stork

When we leave the crater by the usual Lerai Ascent Road, but at the top turn left down a private road rather than right towards the hotel on our planned itinerary, we realise that this is another one of Tillya's surprises. Tillya, the owner of Calabash Adventures, is constantly trying to exceed his customers' expectations and we often find ourselves upgraded to a different lodge than the one we thought we were staying in. Today is obviously going to be one of those occasions.

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View of the crater from near the top of the Lerai Ascent Road

Ang'Ata Nyati Camp

The whole team of staff appear to have come out to greet us as we arrive at a small clearing. One by one they introduce themselves by name, handing us a very welcome wet flannel and a soft drink. The complexities and rules of the camp are explained to us and we are shown to the tents. The camp is very similar to mobile camps we have stayed in previously, but I am told that this is a permanent tented camp (rather than a 'mobile' camp that moves every few months, following the annual migration of animals), having recently relocated to the Nyati Special Camp Site from the other side of the crater. A small and intimate affair, the camp has a mere eight tents and tonight we have the 'palace' to ourselves as we are the only guests staying.

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A local 'askari' (security guard/escort) takes us to our 'room', a basic tent with a wooden floor, large double bed, hanging space and a rudimentary en suite bathroom. Hot water is brought to the shower by request, in a bucket. I understand from their website that you are given 25 litres of hot water plus the same amount of cold. Mixing the two, the water temperature is just right, and if used sparingly, ample for two people to shower. As always in an area where water is a scarce commodity, I wet my body, then turn off the water while I wash and apply shampoo. Water back on again, rinse and repeat with conditioner.

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We meet up with Malisa in the cosy and comfortable lounge/dining room for dinner. The food is superb and the staff is wonderful.

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40th wedding anniversary celebrations

There was no doubt in Lyn and Chris' mind where they wanted to celebrate their special milestone, and I feel very honoured that they asked us to share this celebration with them.

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When David's phone rings in the middle of dinner, he is surprised that he has a signal and worried that it may be bad news from home. The concern soon turns to indignation when he realises it is just an advert!

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The camp staff make such a fuss of us, and after dinner the whole crew come out, bringing a cake and a complimentary bottle of wine, while walking around the table singing and dancing. We don't have the heart to tell them that the anniversary is not for another couple of days.

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Originally released as a record back in 1982 by a Kenyan band called Them Mushrooms, the Jambo Bwana song is now adopted all over East Africa and sung to tourists at every celebration. Each lodge have their own version incorporating local details (such as the name of the camp) and I am sure they make up some of it as they go along, especially as I distinctly hear Malisa's name being mentioned in the words. These are the lyrics ~ and translation ~ to the main part of the song.

Jambo, jambo bwana (Hello, hello boss)
Habari gani (How are you)
Nzuri Sana (Very good)
Wageni, wakaribishwa (Welcome visitors)
Ang'Ata Nyeti (Ang'Ata Nyeti ~ name of camp)
Hakuna Matata (No worries)
Okenda Serengeti (Going to Serengeti)
Hakuna matata (No worries)
Okenda Ngorongoro (Going to Ngorongoro)
Hakuna matata (No worries)
Okenda Tarangire (Going to Tarangire)
Hakuna matata (No worries)
]Jambo, jambo bwana (Hello, hello boss)
Habari gani (How are you)
Nzuri Sana (Very good)
Wageni, wakaribishwa (Welcome visitors)
Ang'Ata Nyeti (Ang'Ata Nyeti ~ name of camp)
Hakuna Matata (No worries)

After dinner we gather around the 'Bush TV' (the local expression for a camp fire), where we have a sing song, introduce the locals to the joys of toasting marshmallows, and attempt (very unsuccessfully – I blame the Duty Free rum and four bottles of wine) to photograph the awesome night sky. After a fabulous day in the crater, we have a phenomenal evening in an extraordinary setting.

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When we get back to our tent we find the staff have been in for 'turn-back service' and there are a couple of much appreciated hot water bottles in our bed. At an altitude of 2310 metres, this area can get bitterly cold overnight. Still on a high from the earlier revelry (not to mention the copious amount of alcohol), I slip into a deep sleep, oblivious to the cold and any noises from the surrounding jungle.

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Yet another marvellous day organised by Calabash Adventures, the best safari company by far!

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:47 Archived in Tanzania Tagged animals birds travel elephant adventure kite tent camp africa safari tanzania camping zebra wine lions hippo drunk lion_cubs stars cranes egret stork ibis pelican avocet geese celebration glamping starling weaver wildebeest shrike astro east_africa ngorongoro_crater bird_watching bustard game_drive camp_fire plover secretary_bird lapwing guineafowl pipit ngrongoro ngoitoktok birdning bee_eaters game_viewing lions_eating ang@ata_nyati_camp mobile_tented_camp nyati jambo_bwana song_and_dance toasting_marshmallows bush_tv 40th_anniversary hot_water_bottle Comments (5)

Free Day in Moroni

Just chillin'

I slept really well last night, but I wake up at 06:40 desperate for the loo. Although I still have diarrhoea, at least I have stopped vomiting. I can cope with that. But then I haven’t eaten anything for around 36 hours, so I guess there isn’t much left in there.

Breakfast

I am not exactly hungry, but I am sure it would do me good to eat something, maybe some bread? Usually I love to try local foods, and even if no regional food is available, I tend to order dishes I would not normally have at home. This morning, however, all I want is something familiar. I knew there was a reason I packed those little individual Marmite portions.

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Itsandra Hotel

In stark contrast to the last few nights in Anjouan, the Itsandra hotel comes across as a well-run, nicely finished business hotel. Judging by the other patrons at breakfast, I am pretty sure we are the only holidaymakers here at the moment.

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Our room has a king sized bed scattered with frangipani flowers (despite the ‘nutmeg’ theme), there is plenty of storage space, and we have a terrace which looks out over the grass, garden bar and the sea beyond. There is no furniture on it though.

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View from our balcony

The double basin in the bathroom is a first for us: not because it has two sinks, but the fact that one of them has an integral washboard for laundry! I have never seen that before in a hotel!

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We are also delighted to have not just two (dry) towels, but a hand towel and a fluffy bathrobe too!

The A/C is very efficient, although we did have some trouble getting it to switch on last night. I guess the batteries in the remote control are dead or at least dying.

The lobby is bright and airy, with plenty of seating as well as a bar. It even features an ATM. Complete with an Out of ‘Order’ sticker.

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I love the clock table

The hotel has a lovely looking beach, furnished with parasols and sun loungers; and unlike the beach in Anjouan, this one is easily accessible via steps from the main hotel area. Scuba diving is available, and there is a roped off swimming area. The sea looks lovely and clean and changes colour from a pale blue through lime green to a bright aquamarine according to the weather conditions.

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The cottages in the back belong to the hotel too.

Alas, just like in Anjouan, the swimming pool here is also devoid of water.

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Our favourite part of the hotel, however, is the partly covered outside terrace / bar. We spend the whole morning here, following the shade: moving from one table to the next as the sun travels across the sky, trying to keep out of the hot sun.

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Over a nice cold ginger beer, we chat to one of the other guests, Ian from the UK, who is an armed security guard employed to work on various ships sailing in dangerous waters, protecting them from pirates! “Some people call us mercenaries” he says, “but we don’t like that term”. He keeps us amused for ages, regaling some captivating stories for sure, none of which I feel are mine to share here.

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Lunch

By lunchtime I am still not particularly hungry, but I think some food would do my stomach good. Our delightful waiter, who speaks excellent English, goes to enquire with the kitchen if they can make me some soup. “Vegetable or fish?” he asks when he returns. The mere thought of even just the aroma associated with fish soup make me heave, so I settle for vegetable. It comes with mostly carrot and potato, which suits me down to the ground.

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David orders BBQ chicken. “No BBQ”. Chicken and chips it is then.

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We return to the room to find that the maid has removed our towels, but not yet replaced them. David goes off on a towel hunt (AKA chasing the maid), and comes back with a couple of fresh ones. Towels, not maids.

After a lovely siesta in a very cool room, we return to the terrace bar, where we are almost immediately approached by a young lad who “wants to talk to us”. It soon becomes obvious that he is suffering from mental illness, as he rambles about his life in France and the hardship he has suffered. At first we are quite willing to listen, but he go on for far too long, and then comes the crunch: can we help him? He claims he has been sending money over to his mother is Comoros from France (he proudly shows us his French passport). When he recently arrived here, he found his mother has stolen all the money and now he has no way of getting back to France. According to him, the French embassy are refusing to provide any help, telling him to “get a job and build yourself a life here”. He believes his doctor and psychiatrist are ganging up on him and he has no-one left to turn to. "I need your help!" he begs. Sigh.

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The more we try to make suggestions, the more aggressive he becomes. Looking at the amount of camera equipment sitting on our table and the notebook where I jot down what we do / eat / see each day to help me write this blog, he declares: "You're a journalist, you must have contacts?" When we both renounce my suggested profession, he gets very agitated, flailing his arms around and starting to shout: "That's a joke. That's the biggest joke I ever heard!" Seeing the hotel waiter walking in our direction, however, our new-found 'friend' reluctantly leaves. We breathe a sigh of relief.

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We’ve only just ‘recovered’ from this episode, when we are joined by another 'new friend'. After some general chit-chat, he reveals himself to be a tout, trying to sell us sightseeing tours. Thankfully he does take "no" for an answer and leaves without a scene. Maybe it’s time to retreat to the room. Neither of us want any dinner tonight anyway, we are still feeling far too fragile from the horrible bout of food poisoning.

There is live music on the little stage right outside our window tonight, and it is all rather pleasant. A small band is playing 70s and 80s ballads at a respectable volume. Looking out of the window, I only see four guests sitting in bar. It's not exactly all the rage then? It is all over by 10pm anyway.

By this time I am feeling a bit too cold, even under the bedclothes. I try to increase the temperature a little, but the remote control doesn’t seem to work. Feeling way too tired to even contemplate getting dressed and going down to reception, or even worse, having to change rooms (again), I put on legging, socks and a fleece before crawling back under the covers.

Rude awakening

I go into a deep sleep but a few hours later I am woken by a shrill, piercing noise. It sounds like a telephone. It is a telephone. Do we even have a telephone in the room? We must have. So where is it? I guess I should answer it.

Me, in a sleepy, confused voice: “Hello…?”

Bright, cheerful female voice: “Hello, how are you?”

Me, just starting to wake up: “OK” I reply tentatively, hoping this stranger hasn’t phoned me in the middle of the night just for a welfare check.

Female voice: “I am ringing from Luna, wanting to know the name of your ship”

Me, even more confused now: “Pardon?”

Female voice: “I am ringing from Luna…”

Me, interrupting: “What is Luna?”

Female voice, now containing thinly veiled irritation: “Luna is the name of the company.”

Me, also losing my patience: “But what is Luna?”

Female voice, no longer hiding her irritability, and speaking slowly and loudly as if to a petulant child: “I. Am. Ringing. From. Luna. To. Find. Out. The. Name. Of. Your. Ship. Are. You. Sailing. With. XXX or YYY (she mentions two names that I assume are referring to boats).

Me: “We are flying. To Dar es Salaam. Tomorrow.”

Female voice, now rather sheepish, but still unapologetic for having woken me in the middle of the night: “Oh, OK. Bye.”

Did I just dream this? Unfortunately not. I shake my head, get back into bed, but sleep totally evades me for the rest of the night.

This eventful and adventurous trip was arranged by Undiscovered Destinations, specialists in arranging private tours to unusual places.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:02 Archived in Comoros Tagged travel adventure africa journalist luna beggar a/c phone_call comoros moroni itsandra_hotel air_conditioning mental_health cold_room Comments (3)

Bristol - London - Dubai - Dar es Salaam

First leg of the journey

30 °C
View Comores 2017 - Cloud Coup Coup Land or Secret Paradise? on Grete Howard's travel map.

Where do I begin? I know a lot of you have been anxiously looking forward to reading all about the challenges we faced on our trip to the Comoros, and I shall try my best to make sure this blog lives up to expectations.

So, stay tuned and follow along as we make our way to – and to a certain extent around – Comoros, also known as Cloud Coup Coup Land (explanations of this moniker to follow in the next instalment).

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Flight changes
Our (potential) problems start a few weeks before we lave home, when we receive the email below from Precisionair. All our flight tickets are booked through Budgetair, using Emirates from London to Dar es Salaam via Dubai, and onwards to Moroni (Comoros) on Precisionair.

"Dear Sir/Madam
Kindly be informed that your flight from DAR to HAH on 17th Aug is cancelled and you will depart with ATC departing at 08:00hrs same day. Kindly be at the airport 2hrs before departure time with your precision airline document."

As this really does not cause us a problem, I print the email ready to show at the check-in desk at the time and file according.

Fast forward to five days before departure, when we receive a phone call from Budgetair, our flight agent, offering us a refund on the flight from Dar es Salaam to Moroni which is cancelled. It seems Precisionair didn’t inform Budgetair that they rebooked us on the Air Tanzania flight. I explain the situation and forward them the above email and all is well: they are happy and we are happy.

Five minutes later they ring back. The timing has changed. The 08:00 Air Tanzania flight is now leaving at 06:00. I have to admit that I am impressed with the service from Budgetair, they do seem to be diligent and on the ball. Little do I know…

Check in on line
48 hours to go, and it is time to check in on line for our main Emirates flight. When inputting our details returns an “Unable to process your request” message, I open an on-line chat to find out what is happening. A very nice lady called Yasmin informs me that it is because we have two different airlines on the same booking but reassures me that the flight is confirmed and that we have seat numbers allocated. I am happy with that.

The next day (the day before departure) we receive a confirmation email from Emirates with all the above information as per my conversation with Yasmin, although it seems Precisionair haven’t informed Emirates of the cancellation and re-booking of their flight either, as we are still shown on today's itinerary from Emirates as being on the (non-existing) Precisionair flight from Dar es Salaam to Moroni, not the Air Tanzania one that we have been re-booked on.

I am still not concerned, I am sure it will all be fine when we get to the check in desk in Dar es Salaam. Then we notice the details for the return journey.

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According to the Emirates itinerary, we are now departing Comoros one day earlier on an Ethiopian Air flight. Where on earth did that come from? Having to travel a day early puts all sorts of spanners in the works: it means we will not just lose a day in Comoros, but we will have to rearrange the flight coming back to the main island from the smaller island for a day earlier; and we'll have to get a hotel, transfer and visa in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in order to catch our Emirates flights the following day.

Panicking ever so slightly, I contact Budgetair, first by email and later by phone to try and find out what is going on. The guy on the other end of the phone (most likely in an Indian call centre) does not appear to understand my problem, and he “will get back to me within 48 hours”. Doh! After explaining the situation for the fifth time, I can feel my irritation rising: 48 hours will be too late, we leave in less that 24! He tries to pass me off and says I should contact Precisionair or Emirates, but I strongly remind him that my contract is with Budgetair and stress the importance of this. Eventually he reluctantly promises to get back to me as soon as he can. I certainly won’t be holding my breath.

Surprisingly enough, we do not hear from Budgetair before we have to leave for the airport the following day.

Check in at Heathrow
We start our journey at Heathrow Airport, where we encounter our next challenge at the check-in desk. We have a single ticket all the way through to Comoros, but are breaking the journey for 19 hours in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania (it was the cheapest flight option and we are cheapskates), and the airline representative (or rather the system) wants to check our luggage all the way. Normally this is also what we would want, but as we have an overnight stop in Dar es Salaam, we would very much like to have access to our clothes and toiletries. The guy totally agrees with us, and eventually manages to get his supervisor to override the system.

Another spanner in the works, this one deflected, however.

Dinner
Whenever we have a long-haul flight, especially an overnight one such as this one today, we like to have a decent meal at the airport before we board so that we can sleep through food service on the plane.

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At Planet Restaurant I have Prawn and Chilli Pasta, which at first looks a little disappointing: I can only see a grand total of three prawns. There are, however, several more crustaceans lurking underneath the surface. As they do. The fresh pasta is nicely al dente, and the chilli carries a bit of a kick. David enjoys his fish and chips too, with a crispy coating and flaky fish.

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David’s only disappointment is that they have no ‘proper’ cider, only berry.

Bar
Naturally, the next stop then has to be the bar for David to get his fix. As we are only drinking, not dining, we are not permitted to sit down at a table, but have to perch on uncomfortable, high bar stools, so we don’t linger.

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Heathrow – Dubai – Dar es Salaam
The flights from London Heathrow to Dar es Salaam via Dubai go smoothly (we both sleep a lot of the time), but not totally without incident, as David manages to pour a cup of hot coffee all over his beige trousers. The crew helpfully provides him with a number of face cloths to mop it all up.

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Ready for an adventure

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Tanzania coastline from the air

Dar es Salaam
The Arrivals Hall at Tanzania’s biggest airport is absolute chaos. The so-called queue for immigration is just one massive throng of people, with no-one knowing what to do or where to go and several flights having arrived at the same time. Passengers with connecting flights struggle to get anywhere near the Transfer desk for the crowds, and there are no signs to advise visitors that there should be one queue for people who already have visas (us) and another for those wishing to obtain visa-on-arrival.

Eventually, after a lot of pushing, shoving and shuffling for nearly an hour in the stifling heat, we get through Passport Control to be faced with the next shambles: the luggage 'carousel'. Five deep with passengers and trolleys, we can’t get anywhere near the conveyor belt. We both hop around on tiptoe to try and spot our cases for a while, then decide to go and check the pile of luggage at the end of the belt. Sure enough, there, right in the middle of a huge mound of bags, is our luggage. With much back-straining, David manages to rescue our cases and we make it out of the terminal building, fighting our way through the traffic jam of luggage trolleys, prams with kids, cling-wrapped boxes, abandoned suitcases and people milling aimlessly around.

Although it is nice to be out in the fresh air, the temperature is no cooler. Having pre-booked an airport transfer with an included city tour on the way to the hotel, we look for someone holding a sign with our name on it. Nothing. We hang around for a while, fighting off the hoards of taxi touts and tour guides. Still nothing.

Checking tomorrow’s flights
While we wait we might as well take the opportunity to visit the Precisionair counter to check on tomorrow’s flight. I hand over the email we received from them and the girl looks at it without a word. With a dismissive wave of the hand, she points to the Air Tanzania counter and states: “Check with them”. Not surprisingly I get the same response (in reverse) from the girl at the Air Tanzania counter. At my insistence, she reluctantly saunters over to the Precisionair counter with the email and comes back stating word for word what is on the email: “Be at the airport 2hrs before departure time with your Precision Airline document.” I enquire if the tickets are definitely confirmed and am brushed off with a “Yes, yes”.

As there really isn’t much else we can do at this stage, we go and change some money and wait for our transfer. And wait. 45 minutes later and having been unable to contact the transfer company, we take a taxi directly to the hotel.

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Dar es Salaam street market

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Safari inspired street sculpture

The traffic through Dar es Salaam is horrendous. A new overpass is being constructed, and the police are directing the traffic. We sit in a queue, not moving an inch, for nearly 20 minutes while we watch the traffic crossing the junction from left to right and right to left. When will the police let our long line of waiting cars go? Eventually we move on.

We are so pleased to finally get to the hotel that David accidentally pays the driver in Pounds rather than US Dollars. Nice tip for the driver!

Golden Tulip Dar es Salaam City Centre
The hotel doesn’t look very welcoming from the outside. The entrance is down a dodgy looking side street and the armed security guard outside doesn’t exactly make me feel any better. The steps leading up from the road are very steep, making it difficult to haul the cases up. Eventually a porter arrives and takes over. That is better.

Reception is on the 20th floor and we travel up in a fabulous glass-sided outside lift, with great views of the city below.

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On checking in, we are delighted to find that not only are they expecting us, we have been upgraded to a suite!

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We have a comfortable living room, bedroom, the usual shower and toilet and a separate large double corner bath with Jacuzzi!

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On the 19th floor, we also have stunning views of the city as the sun is going down and the Muezzin calls the faithful to prayer at the local Mosque.

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Night Photography
After a quick shower and change (thank goodness we have our luggage!), we head for an outside seating area on the 20th floor to take some shots of Dar es Salaam at dusk.

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David, always the joker, thinks it is funny to point out the cladding following the Grenfell Tower disaster.

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Dinner
Not wishing to explore the dodgy-looking neighbourhood, we opt for dinner in the hotel at a restaurant named “Fire” which promises to serve “hot, tasty cuisine”.

What they don’t have, however, is alcohol. This is a dry hotel.

I order a Swahili style Miskaki chicken kebab that is advertised to come with a ‘spicy tamarind sauce’. I ask to have it extra spicy.

David chooses a Red Hot Pepper Beef Fillet, medium-rare.

After some time the waiter appears, full of apologies: the kitchen has cooked David’s steak well done. Can he bring it anyway?

When the food arrives, I am pretty sure they have mixed up the sauces, as David’s steak (or rather small pieces of fillet) comes with a dark, rich, sweet sticky sauce, very much reminiscent of tamarind, whereas my sauce is red and weak without any ‘fire’ at all. I am too tired to even be bothered to question it.

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My somewhat insipid chicken

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David's well done steak

After dinner we slope off to bed very early. Not only did we travel all through the night last night, we are also getting up very early tomorrow morning. With high hopes of tomorrow being a much better day, we drift into a nice deep sleep.

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:11 Archived in Tanzania Tagged travel flight adventure tanzania trip dubai uae flights united_arab_emirates heathrow emirates suite problems dar_es_salaam upgrade comoros air_tanzania golden_tulip spanner cloud_coup_coup_land budgetair Comments (9)

Serengeti Day II Part I - Hyenas, Lions and more

Never a dull moment on safari


View The Howards' 40th Anniversary Tour 2017 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I guess the lioness we heard calling out for her babies yesterday afternoon didn't find them, as she was roaring all night. Hearing nature in all its raw glory is always exciting, but not necessarily conducive to a good sleep. With that and my incessant coughing, I didn't get a lot of rest last night. I feel embarrassed and concerned about keeping other guests awake too, so I am grateful there are no other tourists around in the lodge when we leave this morning.

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The tables are laid out ready for breakfast, which starts from 06:00. I always find it strange that people don't want to make the most of their day on safari by getting out into the park at the earliest opportunity (06:00), which is also when the animals are at their most active. After all, a safari is not a cheap holiday, and for a number of people, a holiday of a lifetime. If you want to relax, build in some chill time at a beach resort afterwards.

Now getting off my soap box.

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We leave the lodge in darkness. As the light of day starts to brighten up the sky, the promise of a beautiful sunrise teases us with a warm yellow glow above the savannah and a blue sky sporting fluffy clouds edged with crimson.

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It is not long, however, before the sun sends its first rays of the day over the horizon, warming the cool morning air.

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A wobble of ostriches (I love discovering apt and humorous collective nouns of animals) enjoy the warm glow of the sun. One male can have a dozen or more females in his harem.

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He is in his breading colours as evidenced by his red neck and legs.

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Having recently been kicked out of the herd (or obstinacy, as I am on a roll with collective nouns), the bull buffalo has anger management issues, as can be seen from his sweaty nose.

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Having a 700 pound animal's stare directed right at me is more than a little intimidating, especially as he keeps walking closer and closer, while snorting angrily. Not that it seems to bother the oxpecker much.

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Time to make a move.

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Oh, to be in that basket floating effortlessly over the African plains in the early morning sun.

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If it wasn't for the price tag I'd be there like a shot! I do realise, however, that part of the reason for the high cost is the huge fee they pay to the park authorities to be able to drive off-road to retrieve the balloon and its passengers.

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Almost totally hidden by the tall grass, a lone hippo wanders towards a small pond. All we can see is the top of his back.

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It is hard to describe the feeling of awe I get when we drive along and encounter wildlife – such as these hyenas – in the road. Being part of, or rather guests in, their natural habitat is an experience I will never tire of. It is at times like this that I realise that it is me who is the stranger here; this is their home. I feel incredibly humbled to have the privilege of being included in their lives, even for a short while.

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There is some serious 'establishing of territory' going on here, with chasing, growling, barking and baring of teeth.

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A cackle of hyenas (♥collective nouns) can be enormously intimidating, especially when they are plotting gang warfare such as here. Or maybe I just have an over-zealous imagination.

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Although sometimes they can look almost cute.

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Three amigos saunter off down the road...

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… while another goes for a drink.

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And then lies down in it to cool off.

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The hyenas do not seem to bother this three banded plover though.

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Hippo flatulence gives off a powerful ammonia-like aroma, with the result that you can usually smell the hippos before you see them, especially when they are present in numbers such as these.

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Meanwhile, we head back to the Maasai Kopjes, where we immediately see a collared lioness atop a rock.

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It looks like she has a cub with her.

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As one cub walks off to the right, another one can be seen sitting up on the left.

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Mum goes off to join the youngster on the left, and we discover another cub in the shade of the tree.

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The Maasai Pride is huge, and rarely venture far from this collection of rocky outcrops known as the Maasai Kopjes (hence the name of the lion pride, of course).

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At the base of the rocks we see another lioness, hiding five young cubs in the long grass.

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The mum on top of the rock leaves her three cubs behind to go for a wander.

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Prompting her babies to explore too.

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Maasai kopjes is teeming with big cats this morning, spread out over a large area. Everywhere we look there is a lion; some seeking the cool shade of the shrubby undergrowth, others the warmth of the sunbaked rocks.

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The kopjes are also home to a number of other species, such as this Dark Chanting Goshawk.

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And the Crested Lark.

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The lark has a most beautiful song, as you can hear in David's video below.

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More lions to follow in the next instalment of my blog. Our safari was arranged by Calabash Adventures, the best safari operators by far.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:03 Archived in Tanzania Tagged animals birds travel adventure hot_air_balloons bird sunrise africa safari tanzania animal birding buffalo balloons lion lions watching hippo ostrich hyena bird_watching hippopotamus ostriches calabash_adventures maasai_kopjes cape_buffalo spotted_hyena plover hippo_pool hyenas spotted_hyenas kopjes Comments (4)

Serengeti Day I Part II - Baboons, Maasai Pride and Cheetah

Cats galore


View The Howards' 40th Anniversary Tour 2017 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As we leave the visitors centre after breakfast, the first animals we come across is a small troop of Olive Baboons, including a tiny little baby less than a week old.

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As we watch the inquisitive youngster play, and then tumble down the slope to the road below while his concerned parents look on in 'horror', I can see so many similarities to humans with their offspring.

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Including the telling off the baby gets when he is back up at the top and joins his family again.

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Dad makes sure the youngster stays close and then takes him away from the dangerous slope.

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We move away too, and continue driving until one of the other safari vehicles calls us over to point out 14 lions sleeping under a tree.

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These lions are too lazy to do anything this morning, the only action we see is the occasional head being lifted and quickly laid down again.

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We let sleeping lions be, leaving them to their morning siesta while we continue our safari.

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The Serengeti is dotted with rocky outcrops such as these, referred to locally as kopjes. This particular area, known as Maasai Kopjes, is always a good place to spot members of the resident lion pride.

Today we see one male lion atop a rock, fast asleep.

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And that is what I do too as we continue on our way: go into a deep sleep complete with some strange and unpleasant dreams. This chest infection is depriving me of so much on this safari, but at least I wake up as we approach the next kopje, where we see a further three lions.

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These rocks are also home to several rock hyraxes, as well as a black mambo, but I am not quick enough to take a photo of that unfortunately.

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These lions are all part of a large tribe who have ten cubs between them, so we are hoping we might see some more cats around. The dad we saw earlier had obviously gone off to sleep on a different rock to get some peace and quiet away from the kids. I don't blame him.

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And there's a cub at the bottom of the rock.

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This poor female is limping – she is left handed and has hurt her paw while hunting. I do hope it doesn't hinder her looking after her family in the future.

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As I am feeling really quite unwell again now, I take some more tablets, then fall into another deep sleep as we leave the Maasai lions behind.

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The next time I wake up is when Malisa pulls up alongside a couple of other cars by a tree. After opening my eyes and feeling rather disorientated trying to get my bearings and figure out what is going on, I see a cheetah in the shade of the tree.

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I don't notice the baby at first. What a cutie!

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There's two!

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They are less than a month old and seriously cute.

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Over the back of mum a third little head pops up.

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I love the way the colouration of baby cheetah is designed to mimic that of the honey badger, in an attempt to keep them safe from predators.

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We stay with the cheetah mum and her three adorable babies for some time, watching their playful antics and tender moments as the youngsters explore the tree and the shady undergrowth.

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After more than 2½ hours it is time to leave our little kitties behind and move on to see what else nature has to offer us today. Stay tuned and read my next instalment for more safari stories and pictures.

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Thank you Calabash Adventures for another fantastic safari experience.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:32 Archived in Tanzania Tagged travel adventure cute fun africa safari tanzania cheetah lion lions baboons lion_cubs serengeti adorable calabash_adventures excitemnt olive_baboon cheeta_cub Comments (8)

Serengeti Day I Part I - Lion Cubs and Topi Fighting

A beautiful morning. Again.


View The Howards' 40th Anniversary Tour 2017 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Although I slept well, I wake up feeling crap this morning, and struggle to walk from the room to the restaurant even at a snail's pace, having to stop several times to catch my breath. Thankfully Malisa very kindly brings the car half way down the slope enabling me to miss out on climbing most of the steep hill.

This morning starts with one of the strangest – and most spectacular – sunrises I have ever seen.

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Across a gully we see a large pride of eleven lions. I do miss Ndutu and being able to drive off-road. Here at Serengeti that is a definite no-no, so we remain at some distance from the cats

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While the adults mostly just lie around enjoying the early morning sunshine, some of the cubs captivate us with their play fighting and usual energetic antics.

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Making the most of the morning sunshine, this rare mongoose is in a difficult spot for photographing; but it is a thrilling sighting for us: only once before and only for a brief blink-and-you'd-miss-it moment have we seen one of these.

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We haven't travelled far before we spot three more lions.

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They are heading directly for the big cats.

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We had been planning to go for breakfast, but decide to hang around to see what pans out between the wildebeest and the lions.

So we wait. And wait. And wait. It all peters out and we head for the picnic site. That's the nature of safari – occasionally you are rewarded with something exciting, but mostly you spend a lot of time waiting for nothing.

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On our way we spot a couple of topi. They are so remarkably near that Malisa comments he has never seen any so close to the car before.

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They are presumably engrossed in the job in hand – fighting for a female.

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Although it seems all rather half-hearted to me – they clash, then stare each other out and them look all chilled out as if they are best of mates.

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The truce doesn't last long, however, and hostilities soon recommence.

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Topi fighting is scary stuff, especially if you are a topi. The guy on the left is so petrified he shits himself.

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Mind you, I would be frightened if I had a huge horned antelope coming towards me like this.

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The fighting gazelles are right by the car, and we can hear the loud clashing of the horns.

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By now they are so close I can't get them both in the picture, even at the widest setting on my lens.

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An uneasy ceasefire is declared for a spot of breakfast.

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Ding! Ding! Time for Round Three.

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Will this end only on the death of one of them as often happens?

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Thankfully not; one of the would-be suitors capitulates and runs off to lick his wounds, leaving the victor standing proud.

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Just like we did last year, we stop at the Visitors Centre to have our breakfast. Not only do they have a number of shaded picnic tables, there are also nice, modern toilet facilities.

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The breakfast supplied by Kubu Kubu is excellent: omelette, potatoes, sausage and bacon; plus several pastries, bread and cakes. We are certainly not going hungry on this trip. The only thing that rather amuses me, is seeing half a tomato in the fruit salad. It reminds me of the saying: "Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad."

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The other good thing about the Visitor's Centre is all the local residents – a large number of Tree and Rock Hyraxes.

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Another great morning game viewing with much more to come in the next instalment of my blog. Thank you Calabash Adventures for arranging it all.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:49 Archived in Tanzania Tagged travel adventure sunrise breakfast fun tanzania lions serengeti topi mongoose calabash_adventures serengeti_visitors_centre wildebesst sasafari Comments (2)

Naabi Hill - Kubu Kubu

The BIG FIVE are in the bag!


View The Howards' 40th Anniversary Tour 2017 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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So called because they were the five most dangerous (and desired) animals for hunters to capture. These days of course 'hunters' are replaced by 'photographers'.

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At the entrance gate to the Serengeti National Park, we take our lunch picnic overlooking a small bird bath for entertainment.

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Superb starling partaking in their daily ablutions

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Laughing Dove

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Speckled Pigeon

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Ashy Starling

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Lesser Masked Weaver

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Superb Starling

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Superb Starling having a wardrobe malfunction.

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Red Billed Buffalo Weaver

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Hildebrand Starling

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Speckled Fronted Weaver

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Wattled Starling

With all those breadcrumbs flying around, it is not just birds who are attracted to this picnic area.

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Field mouse?

We also watch a small herd of elephants walk past. As you do.

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Having failed miserably to get his beloved Savannah Cider in Arusha, David is delighted to find that the small grocery store at Naabi Hill sells it.

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The UNESCO Heritage ecosystem of Serengeti is one of the oldest and most diverse in the world, and has barely changed in the past million years or so.

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It is, however, the annual migration that the Serengeti is most famous for, consisting of over a million wildebeest and some 200,000 zebra making their way from the north to south and back to the north continuously every year following the rain in search of greener pastures.

Below is a map of the Serengeti showing approximately where the migration usually is during the month of May. This morning we left Lake Masek Tented Camp at the bottom right of the map and later we entered the park through Naabi Hill Gate. We are heading for the Seronera area tonight.

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Soon after we enter the park, we encounter a few thousand of the migrating animals. It is hard to get my head around the fact that all those little dots in the distance are animals

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Serengeti has to be one of my favourite places in the world, but today I seem to be sleeping my way through the wilderness. I guess those antibiotics must be working. I feel totally knocked out. Fortunately David and Malisa do wake me up when they see something of interest.

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Such as this leopard with her kill in a tree, resting on a branch right above the road.

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There are already a few cars at the scene – we have been so spoilt in Ndutu by mostly being completely on our own at animal sightings, that having company takes a bit of getting used to.

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Malisa points out the bad form by this driver – he has a full vehicle, yet he positions himself face on to the sighting, which means his passengers (seated in three rows) have to try and dodge each other to be able to photograph the leopard.

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Looking around at the other cars, we seem to be the only ones that are not taking selfies with the leopard. It's not just youngsters either, it seems 'everyone' is doing it, even people our age. I just don't get it....

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Our leopard is most definitely not comfortable, and keeps fidgeting and moving to a different position.

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Feeling sure she is going to jump down from the tree and head off for a drink shortly, we stand around in the vehicle, waiting, waiting, waiting, while all the leopard does is shuffle around some more. I am feeling rather fatigued by it all, but I don't want to miss any action by sitting down.

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Malisa believes that if the leopard yawns three times in a quick succession, it is an indication she will leave the tree and go for a drink.

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One.... two...

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Three.... four....

Bang goes that theory.

Or does it? Maybe she was particularly tired and just wanted an extra yawn today? We all get very excited when she stands up.

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Excitement over. It seems she is just hungry.

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She then proceeds to pull off the tuft on the baby wildebeest's tail with her teeth, getting quite distressed when she gets a mouthful of hair, trying desperately to spit it out.

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Obviously feeling hungry - again - from all that effort required to de-tail the wildebeest, she tucks into some juicy leg meat.

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Right! She has finished eating, maybe she will now go for a drink?

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Apparently not, although we hope she may just move the kill to a better and safer position, then jump down to look for a drink.

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Ooops! Almost dropped it!

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With some serious effort, she manages to haul her trophy back onto the branch again.

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She puts her dinner back in the fork of the tree where it was before. Well, that was really worth the effort wasn't it?

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Determined to find a better place to store the kill (to safeguard it while she leaves the tree for a drink hopefully), she has another go at moving it.

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Sigh. She has another feed. Doesn't look like she is going anywhere for a while.

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Suddenly her ears prick up and she sits bolt upright looking to our right. With eyesight and hearing five times as good as humans, our leopard has sensed something in the long grass.

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She goes off on another branch to investigate.

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It takes a couple of minutes before us humans can make out what she is looking at: a hyena.

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Being able to smell the much coveted fresh kill, the hyena makes his way towards the tree.

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Under the watchful eye of the leopard at all times of course.

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The hyena finds a few small morsels of meat that dropped onto the ground when the leopard moved the prey earlier.

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The light is fading fast (it was never very good for this whole encounter to be fair, it is just as well my Canon EOS 5D IV performs so well under low light / high ISO), and it is getting very late, so we have to leave the leopard and hyena to make our way to our lodge for the night.

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Despite the fact that she never actually did leave the tree while we were here, it is still the best leopard sighting we have ever had in Tanzania (or anywhere else for that matter, we've been lucky enough to see them in Kenya, South Africa, Sri Lanka and India as well), so it is two very happy campers who drive away into the sunset.

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I offer no apologies for the number of sunset pictures I have included in this blog.

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Before we left home, Tillya told us he had a surprise for us for our wedding anniversary, and this evening's accommodation is it.

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Spectacularly situated on the slope of an escarpment, we can see the lodge from a distance as we approach.

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We arrive at the lodge and are helped with our luggage by the local porters. One of them promptly grabs my camera and proceeds to take several photos.

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As I try to get it off him again, he is full of apologies, but all I want is to change the settings on the camera so the pictures won't be so grainy (It is pretty dark by now). Then I give it back for him to play with again.

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At first glance the lodge looks very much like so many other tented camps in Tanzania, but this one is rather special.

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We are shown down into the main building which houses the reception, bar and restaurant, plus a large open atrium in the middle. Outside is a lovely wooden deck with far-reaching views of the Serengeti plains and a swimming pool on a lower level.

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Our room – named Swala, which means gazelle in Swahili – is about half way down the path. In all the hotels I have been trying to ask for a room as close to the reception as possible, as I am still feeling pretty awful and struggle to breathe, making walking a real effort, especially uphill.

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Our tent is beautifully furnished, with a large four poster bed, a seating area, a writing desk, a water cooler / heater and an outside terrace on stilts with a table and chairs.

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A large dressing area leads to the separate toilet and outside shower room – which has amazing views.

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Views from the outdoor shower

Hot water is plentiful, heated by large solar panels during the day.

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After a refreshing shower, we go for dinner – the best meal so far on this trip, with a BBQ chef cooking steaks to our liking and other dishes (lamb, chicken, okra curry, crispy spinach and macaroni) brought to our table. If ever proof was needed that I am quite ill, it is this: I didn't take any photos of our dinner!

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Making our way slowly back to our room accompanied by an askari (Maasai guard), we see the eyes of three hyenas in the long grass on the slope between the tents. As we walk along, so do they, constantly following us with their eyes. Although hyenas are not generally known for attacking people, I still find it a little disconcerting and I am pleased when we make it to the safety of our room.

This blog was made possible thanks to Calabash Adventures – the best safari operator by far!

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Posted by Grete Howard 15:50 Archived in Tanzania Tagged birds adventure africa safari tanzania birding serengeti leopard hyena bird_watching african_safari tented_camp calabash_adventures naabi_hill seronera african_bush kubu_kubu kubu_kubu_tented_camp Comments (6)

Ndutu Day II Part I (Mist, Dung Beetle and Elephant Mudbath)

From misty beginnings


View The Howards' 40th Anniversary Tour 2017 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I drag myself out of our tent at 05:45 only to find that the world outside is enveloped in a thick mist this morning.

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It is not easy to spot any animals in the thick pea-soup surrounding us. These hartebeest are so close to the vehicle it would be hard to miss them, but goodness knows what else is hiding behind nature's grey cloak.

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The sun is trying its best to burn off the low cloud, which it manages eventually, but meanwhile it turns the mist a delicate shade of pink.

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The morning mist has also ensured that dew drops on the spider's webs glow delicately in the low sun.

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With cute little babies.

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Life is always more colourful with a Lilac Breasted Roller

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Another one. They're common as muck around here.

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We find a suitable place in the shade of a tree, with no obvious predators in the vicinity, to stop and have our breakfast.

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David doing his artistic bit

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We are soon on our way again “to see what nature has to offer us” out here on the Short Grass Plains.

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With a tiny baby, no more than than two weeks old.

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The wildebeest have scent glands in their hooves helping the others to follow the leader. The theory is: if their man (beast) at the front gets through, then it must be safe.

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That is why you often see them walking in a single file, keeping their heads down.

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As always, lots of dust being kicked up.

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It makes such a pleasant change to see these ungulates standing still rather than running away from us for dear life.

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Or rather, just her eggs. I have no idea how Malisa manages to spot these things as he is driving along, they are so well camouflaged!

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Those of you who followed my blog from Tanzania last year, will probably remember my fascination with dung beetles.

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This little stretch of land is Dung Beetle Central! Everywhere you look there is a beetle rolling its prized poo ball across the plains.

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So what's the collective noun for a gang of dung beetles? Shitload. Not sure if that is the official term, but it sure fits!

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As the original recyclers, dung beetles are probably the most industrious resident on the savannah, clearing up the mess left behind by other animals.

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Imagining the savannah knee-deep in excrement, makes you appreciate the importance of these tiny animals.

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“Let me whisper sweet nothings in your ear...”

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“Lean on me”

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We see a hyena hiding in the undergrowth and drive nearer to take a better look, by which time she has completely disappeared, so I guess she has a den hidden somewhere in the grass.

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Keen to locate a big cat of some sort, Malisa drives from tree to tree, copse to copse to check out what is hiding in the shade, but no luck.

We do see a few other birds and animals though.

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It is strange how the distribution of animals is so different from this same week last year – so far we have seen more steenbok in the first couple of days than we saw on the entire trip in 2016.

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Another Long Crested Eagle – this one is having a bad hair day.

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When eating, the flamingo shift their legs up and down to disturb the algae, a movement Malisa likens to a dance. To me it looks more like little kids hopping from leg to leg shouting: “Mum, I need to pee!” Malisa agrees with me and finds my analogy particularly amusing.

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The elephants love to cover themselves in mud as this helps to get rid of any ticks.

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The small herd look like they are really enjoying their wallow – I expect the mud is nice and cooling in the midday sun too.

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They are so ungainly when they try to get out of the water!

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This little one is rubbing her belly on the ground to ensure the mud sticks.

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In their breeding plumage. Here seen with a Blue Capped Cordon Bleu.

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To me, this is the quintessential African safari scene – zebra and giraffe grazing on a dry, flat savannah.

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Nothing worse than being photobombed by a giraffe.

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It always amuses me the way they have to kneel when they eat because their neck isn't long enough to reach the ground.

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Apart from this guy at the back who seems to have perfected the art of eating standing up.

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Another giraffe photobomb.

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Giraffe are at their most vulnerable when drinking. Despite their long necks, they have to get themselves into a very awkward yoga pose in order to reach the water. Not only do they then struggle to get up again, they are also not able to keep a close eye on any predators that may be approaching.

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Not that it looks like there is much water there.

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As soon as the giraffe stands up, a number of oxpeckers fly off.

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The oxpecker has a symbiotic relationship with many of the larger animals on the savannah, cleaning its host by feeding on the ticks, horsefly larvae and other parasites that make their home on the skin. The bird also acts as an early warning signal, alerting the other animals to danger by making loud chirping and hissing noises.

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It seems they are enjoying themselves.

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In Lake Masek

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Normally we like to stay out all day, taking a picnic box with us for both breakfast and lunch, but today I thought it would be nice to go back to the camp for a meal in the middle of the day as it is our wedding anniversary.

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There is only us staying here these last two nights, but they have made us an impressive spread with a choice of dishes: spaghetti with a bolognaise sauce, okra curry with rice and mixed vegetables. Soup to start and fresh fruit to finish.

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After another amazing morning's safari with Calabash Adventures, it is time for a short break before we go out exploring again.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:11 Archived in Tanzania Tagged animals birds travel adventure africa safari tanzania zebra giraffe bird_watching african_safari ndutu calabash_adventures ngorongoro_conservation_area Comments (1)

Kilimanjaro - Ngorongoro

Let the adventure begin


View The Howards' 40th Anniversary Tour 2017 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Much too excited to sleep, I wake early this morning. Far too early. It's going to be a long day having had a mere two hours sleep.

We take breakfast in the lodge before Tillya and Malisa arrive to whisk us away on the start of our adventure. The first stop is in Arusha, at a different supermarket to the one we usually use. To David's horror they don't stock Savanna Cider!

While Malisa goes off to get us some brand new tyres for the safari vehicle, we enjoy a leisurely coffee.

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Nice wheels!

Having not slept well for the last three nights, I dose on and off as we make our way from Arusha towards Ngorongoro. This journey is becoming very familiar – it is now the fifth time we have driven this stretch over the years.

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Kisongo Market

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Kisongo Market

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Kisongo Market

Along the way we see three funeral cars for the children killed in the horrendous accident last week involving a school bus that plunged down a ravine killing 36 children. Later on in our journey we pass the exact spot it happened, but unlike some other safari vehicles, I request Malisa does not stop as I really don't feel the scene of such devastation should be treated as a tourist attraction.

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Cattle Crossing

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Yellow Billed Storks nesting at Mto Wa Mbu

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Yellow Billed Storks nesting at Mto Wa Mbu

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Yellow Billed Storks nesting at Mto Wa Mbu

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Butterflies at Mto Wa Mbu

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Although we usually have a picnic lunch box, today Tillya has arranged for us to take lunch in Karatu, at Kudu Lodge.

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Dining room

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Vegetable soup - lovely and peppery

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Creamy coconut chicken curry - delicious!

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You know it's a decent place when the public toilets have individual terry towels

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The lodge has beautiful grounds with this stunning Variable Sunbird flitting around

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After lunch we continue on our way, entering the Ngorongoro Conservation Area at Lodoare Gate and drive to my all time favourite view over the spectacular Ngorongoro Crater.

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Entering the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

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View over the crater from the rim

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Malisa assures us these are in fact lions. We take his word for it.

Malisa tries to speak with these Maasai women, but they either don't know, or refuse to understand, Swahili, only talking in their own Maa language.

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As we are arriving at our lodge during daylight hours for a change, we quickly shower and change, and head for the bar to wait for sunset and maybe even some stars later. I can really feel the altitude this time (we are at 2,326m/7,633 feet here), and with my lungs still being rather weak from the recent bout of pneumonia, I actually struggle to walk. I am therefore very grateful when the staff take pity on me and give us the room nearest the reception (which is still down two flights of stairs, but at least it is on the same level as the bar!).

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Our room

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Great view from the bed!

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The outside terrace of the bar

Choosing an appropriately named Ruby Cabernet (it is our 40th wedding anniversary tour after all!), we settle down to watch the clouds roll in and the shadows getting longer across this mesmerising vista.

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Great view

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Great wine

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The sunset is a total non-event, but the moonrise more than makes up for it.

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For dinner I choose a local dish called Kuku Wa Kupaka (Traditional Swahili favourite chicken simmered in coconut curry sauce served with naan, boiled and Tamu Tamu Rice), while David has the poached red snapper in garlic sauce.

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Chicken Curry

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Red Snapper

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Cream and Yogurt Mousse Cake with Chocolate Sauce

At this altitude the air is really quite cold tonight and I am feeling very grateful for the hot water bottle I discover in my bed when we return from dinner.

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This amazing adventure was made possible thanks to Calabash African Adventures.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:21 Archived in Tanzania Tagged children adventure africa safari tanzania moonlight moonrise stars ngorongoro cider ngorongoro_crater night_sky african_safari african_food moon_rise calabash calabash_adventures ngrongoro_serena ngorongoro_conservation_area moonshine starry_night Comments (1)

Danube Delta - Galati - Moldova - Chișinău

The end is nigh

sunny 34 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Setting the alarm early to see if I can catch the sunrise was well worth it – the river is bathed in a beautiful light this morning as the sun peeks up through the mist.

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It’s not even eight o’clock in the morning and it is already blisteringly hot as we walk down to the jetty to wait for our boat out of the Delta. This region of Romania has not seen a drop of rain since June and farmers are getting desperate.

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The early ferry back to the mainland seems to be attracting a lot of passengers.

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Thankfully it is a much bigger boat this time

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We sit outside on deck, next to a group of Russian men with a couple of youngsters (sons?). They start drinking as soon as they have boarded (as well as chain smoking – it seems to me that everyone here does!), and get louder and increasingly more annoying as the morning wears on.

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There is not a great deal to see along the shores of the canal, especially not once we get to the end of the linear village of Crișan.

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Little Egret

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Common Gulls

So many of life’s necessities here in Crișan and other similar villages in the Delta, have to be brought in from the mainland – including farm equipment, building materials, furniture etc.

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The ferry is most people’s lifeline here, and we make a few stops along the way.

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Andrei enjoys a spot of sunbathing.

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The canal-side offers some inviting beaches, where we see people picnicking and fishing.

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The arrival at Tulcea heralds the end of our Danube Delta adventure.

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Andrei shows us the map of the Delta and where we went on yesterday’s two boat trips.

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Today is going to be a long day, so we grab a couple of pastries at Tulcea before continuing on our journey.

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Plăcintă cu brânză – sweet pastries filled with cheese. (2 lei is ca. 40p)

I giggle to myself when I see the name of the local petrol station. I Norwegian the word ‘rompetroll’ (directly translated ass-troll) means tadpoles; and in my mind’s eye I can just imagine pouring a bucket full of baby frogs into the fuel tank of the car. OK, OK, it’s childish, I know, but this really tickles me!

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We get the ferry back over the Danube to Galați, where we have to call in Vila Belvedere (where we stayed on the way down), as Andrei walked away with his room key in his pocket!

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Blue Acqua Restaurant, Galați

We stop for some lunch at this riverfront restaurant specialising in seafood.

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David chooses a mixed seafood skewer with sweet chilli sauce, which is really nice.

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As usual, I like to scour the menu for ‘new’ food – dishes or ingredients that I have never tried before, are local to the region, or just somewhat unusual. This Snail Skewer fits that bill perfectly. Quite tough and rather chewy, I am very pleased it comes with a spicy Hoi Sin Sauce. Not my best selection, but it is always worth a try!

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The road from Galați to the Moldavian border is mostly smooth, traffic free and winding its way through beautiful countryside. From time to time we see these portable beehives – transported and parked to follow the blossom.

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The outside temperature is 34 °C, but the A/C in the car is efficient. Having suffered really badly with my knee on the way down here, I park myself in the front seat today, something which proves to be an excellent move as have no pain in my knee even after several hours in the same position. Andrei tries to engage me in one of his in-depth and serious discussions this afternoon (this time about crime and the success - or not - of penal reform systems), but I am just too tired.

Andrei worries me when he asks: “Do I need a passport to enter Moldova?” “What? You don’t have a passport?” I demand incredulously. “No, it ran out a couple of years ago.” he answers nonchalantly. For a few seconds I have visions of being stuck for hours, or even overnight, at the border with a passport-less guide; until I remember that most European countries issue ID cards that are good for international travel within EU. As it turns out, we have no problems at the border and we are soon out of Romania, through the ubiquitous no-man’s-land and back in Moldova. We just have to purchase a vignette for road tax, and we are on our way to Chișinău again, just as the sun starts to set.

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Andrei pulls up outside the Codru Hotel at 19:40, and we are thankful that there is no queue for check-in tonight; as we are being picked up for dinner in 20 minutes. Back in the now very familiar Room 313, we have a quick shower and change; and make it to reception with plenty of time to spare before Leonid arrives promptly at 20:00.

Vatra Neamului Restaurant

We explain to the waiter – whose English is only marginally better than our Moldovian – that tonight’s meal is paid for by Amadeus Travel; and ask if there is a special menu, or maybe a set meal that we should be ordering from. He just passes us a normal menu, smiles and walks away. We are nor particularly hungry, and as we have a very early start tomorrow morning (04:30 pick-up from the hotel), we just order a simple dish with no starters, sides or desserts.

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Chicken with cheese sauce

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Pork with cheese and mushrooms

The restaurant is quaint, with antique furniture and several cosy alcoves. We appear to be the only people eating here tonight, although I think there might be a private party in a back room. Strange, considering it is Saturday night.

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Two pretty singers and a chap on a cobza (a kind of lute) entertain us – at least the words to the song are easy to remember should we wish to sing along.

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So, our travel adventure is over for this time. Moldova, Transdniestr and Romania have all been compelling destinations, and despite considerable shared history and culture, they are surprisingly dissimilar to each other in so many ways. Each has given us highlights and new experiences to remember for years to come.

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for showing us these hidden places in a small world.

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:37 Archived in Moldova Tagged danube adventure dinner snails romania border_crossing ferry delta immigration moldova danube_delta undiscovered_destinations galati traditional_dinner Comments (0)

Chisinau - Cricova - Lalova - Orcheiul Vechi - Butuceni

A varied day for sure - city walking tour, wine tasting, boat trip and cave monastery

semi-overcast 34 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day ONE of our private tour of Moldova, Transdniestr and Romania, arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.

As we weren't served any food on either of yesterday’s flights, it has been a long time since we last had a meal, so we head straight for the breakfast buffet this morning. And very nice it is too.

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Any place that serves champagne as a regular item on their breakfast buffet gets my vote.

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For holding the bread hygienically while cutting it, the restaurant provides plastic gloves. Very different - I have not seen this in any of the 650 or so hotels we have previously stayed in.

The Repulic of Moldova

And so it is time to start our exploration of Moldova, yet another of our trips to draw a response of “where’s that?”

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Until 1991, Moldova was part of the Soviet Union, and it sits between Ukraine and Romania in Eastern Europe. It has a chequered history, but now appears to be very stable, politically. The name ‘Moldova’ comes from the river of the same name, which again is said to have been named by a 14th century prince whose dog called Molda drowned in the river.

Itinerary

We are amused to receive a very detailed itinerary from the local agent, setting out our days minute by minute. I see the old Soviet regimented precision style is very much alive and well.

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Chișinău

We start our sightseeing in the capital. Dating back to the 15th century, most of the older buildings in Chișinău were destroyed by extensive bombing during WWII. Rebuilt on a typical Soviet grid system of streets, the city now contains one of the highest proportions of green spaces found in any large European city.

Cathedral

Built in 1936; the cathedral suffered serious damage during WWII, but has since been reconstructed to its current state and today it is the main Russian Orthodox place of worship in Chisinau, as well as the biggest church in Moldova.

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As we enter the church, we can hear singing emanating from inside. There is a service on, and we are not permitted to take photographs of the gilded and highly decorated interior.

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Arc de Triomphe

Built in 1841, the Triumphal Arch was constructed to commemorate the victory of the Russian Empire over the Ottoman Empire in 1829.

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A bell was made by copper smelted down from cannons captured from the Ottomans during the Russo-Turkish war, to be installed in the arch. Unfortunately, when the bell was completed, they discovered that it was too big to fit in to the space allocated, so a separate belfry had to be especially constructed nearby to house the bell (hence the tower between the arch and the church). Doh!

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Belfry

The current bell tower is a replica and was built in 1961 to replace the original, which was destroyed during the Soviet era.

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Parliament

During the civil unrest in 2009 that caused some serious damage to the building, the parliament moved out, to return in 2014. Today we see preparations in place for tomorrow’s celebrations of Army Day, including lines depicting an outline map of Moldova. This national holiday was established to celebrate the anniversary of the establishment of Armed Forces of Moldova in 1991 after the country declared independence from the Soviet Union.

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Ştefan cel Mare Monument

Stefan The Great is a national hero who defended the country against an Ottoman invasion in the 15th century. This sculpture replaces a previous statue to Alexander II (destroyed in 1918 by the Romanian authorities).

It’s a well-travelled monument: being moved to Vaslui (East Romania) in 1940, then two years later returned to Chisinau. A couple of years after that it again travelled to Romania, to finally be returned to Chisinau in 1989.

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City Hall

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Giant chess set

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Monument to popular folk musicians who died in a car crash.

Complexul Memorial Eternitate

Commemorating the Soviet soldiers who fell for the liberation of Chişinău and Moldova during the Second World War, this striking memorial is made up of five stylised ‘rifles’ coming together in a pyramidal point some 25 metres above a central eternal flame.

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Cricova – an Underground Wine City

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Who knew Moldova was famous for its wines? Not me for sure.

Moldova is in fact a country full of wine, vineyards and wineries, with 360,000 acres of the stuff, mostly for export. 250,000 acres of that are commercially grown vines, the rest are smaller family businesses, with grapes strands and recipes that have been handed down through generations.

A very commercialised and slick operation, our visit to Cricova Winery starts with a ‘train’ journey into their cellars. And what cellars they are!

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The wine cellars of Cricova are the second largest in Moldova (after Milestii Mici, which are the largest in the world), boasting 75 miles of underground labyrinthine roads descending to a depth of 100 metres).

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In the 15th century, mines here were excavated for limestone to be used as building materials in the construction of Chisinau; the tunnels were later converted to an underground wine emporium in the 1950s. During WWII, wine barrels were used to hide Jews from the Nazis, and Putin is said to have celebrated his 50th birthday here.

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Pictures of some of the famous people who have visited Cricova Winery.

We are taken on a journey through some of these cellars, first by ‘train’, then a short walk amongst the barrels accompanied by an informative talk about the winery.

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Later, after another little ‘train’ journey, we see an English film about Cricova and its history.

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In the bottling room the guide explains how six workers – all female – spend their days turning the bottles of sparkling wine. One woman can gently twist 50,000 bottles in two days. That sounds like a soul-destroying job to me.

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Part of our group consists of a 13 strong stag party from Israel, who do seem to have already been drinking rather a lot. Despite the guide frequently requesting: “Please do not touch the bottles”, they seem unable to restrain themselves.

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The first time they burst into patriotic songs it is amusing, the next dozen times it just becomes plain annoying. The guide is having a hard time trying to control them, with the rest of us becoming increasingly frustrated by their lack of respect and general disruptiveness.

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Around 50% of the roads are used to store the 1.25 million bottles of wine, the oldest dating back to 1902. I wonder if they would miss a couple? The porosity of the limestone creates a perfect environment to store wines, where the temperature is about 12 °C all year round.

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Not only is the winery full of underground 'streets' where wine is stored, there is a whole little city here, complete with meeting rooms and lounges for relaxing, and it is very popular as a wedding venue.

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The Presidential Suite

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Meeting Room

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Working fireplace with a 60m high chimney!

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Map of the underground city!

At the end of the tour we are shown in to a nautically-inspired Tasting Room. Thankfully the Israeli stag party have not paid for tasting, so we manage to lose them. There are eight of us: a delightful couple of Asian-Africans from London who are here for a friend’s wedding, a young couple from Poland and their friend who have hitch-hiked their way here, a lone Italian guy and us. It is all very civilised.

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Each table setting has two wine glasses plus one for champagne and another for water. There is also a selection of snacks to help clear the palate and soak up the alcohol.

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Four wines are being offered: a very fresh white wine, a light rosé, a very drinkable red and a rather enjoyable sparkling wine; with each one being explained to us.

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Wine making is certainly not a new thing to Moldova – the tradition dates back 5000 years, and is a major contributor to the country’s economy: 25% GDP and 50% of total export earnings. Not only that, this small country (4.5 million inhabitants, about the size of Holland) ranks as 7th amongst the top wine exporters of the world. And to think I have never before tried a Moldovan wine! Until today, that is.

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Before we leave there is the opportunity to purchase some of the wines, at a cost of ca. €2 per bottle. Bargain! We get a red and a rosé, and the couple from London buy a whole case of sparkling wine to take to the wedding.

Moldovan Countryside

Heading out of town, the surroundings change dramatically, from a modern post-Soviet big city, to an eastern European peasant society with donkey carts, one-storey wooden houses in desperate need of modernisation, and frequently-used wells along the side of the road.

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After the pre-lunch snifters, it is time for a siesta in the car until we turn off the main road on to a washer-board effect dirt track. The scenery is picturesque with rolling hills, blue-domed churches and far-reaching fields of sunflowers.

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Lunch at Hanul lui Hangana

Our next destination is the village of Lalova and the Hanul lui Hangana Guest House where we are taking lunch in a beautiful rural setting overlooking the Dniester River.

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Soups are customary for every meal in this part of the world, and we start lunch with a chicken noodle soup called zeama, which is served with smetana (Russian style soured cream) and a whole fresh chilli for nibbling.

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Valeriu is horrified when I pick up the chilli and go to take a bite from it; shouting out the warning: “it is very hot, be careful; it is REALLY hot”. I just smile and carry on, while David reassures our very caring guide that “she will be fine, don’t worry”. Which of course I am.

Branza, the home made brined cheese, reminds me of feta cheese – it is very salty and absolutely delicious, way better than its more famous counterpart! Out of politeness I take one of their home grown cucumbers, despite this being just about the only food I do not like the taste of. I try it to see if my tastes have changed. They haven’t. I eat it out of courtesy, but make sure I have plenty of tasty cheese and the scrummy tomatoes to take the taste away afterwards.

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Stuffed cabbage leaves is another popular dish in this region, where it is known as sarmale.

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Just as I think we cannot possibly eat any more, a dish of cheese-stuffed pastry, called plej placinta, is brought out. They are really fresh and doughy and I wish I could have room for more.

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Throughout the meal, home brewed wine is flowing freely for us with freshly made peach juice for Leonid the driver and Valeriu the guide.

Boat trip on Dniester River

As we walk from the guest house down to the river, we notice a Land Rover parked in the water and muse whether it is a local car wash. It seems a rather odd sight, but we soon forget about it.

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At the end of a small naturally made ‘jetty’, a speedboat is waiting to whisk us off for a trip on the Dniester River.

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The boat is fast, and skims the surface as it speeds past fishermen and fishing birds.

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Many fishermen spend considerable time on the river, staying in specially constructed floating cabins, some of which are quite elaborate and look rather comfortable.

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The opposite bank of the river is Transdniestr, the breakaway nation that sided with Russia during the disbanding of the USSR, despite being officially part of Moldova. A self-declared republic, relations with Moldova are tense after bloody skirmishes in 1992, followed by an uneasy ceasefire.

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Tipova Monastery

From the river we get a good view of Tipova, the largest cave monastery in Eastern Europe. The monastery dates back to the 10th century AD, and is best known as the place where Stefan cel Mare, the local hero who defended Moldova from the Ottomans in the 15th century, got married. The caves have now been turned into a museum.

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In the distance we see what looks like a lighthouse, but as we get nearer we discover that it is in fact the sun reflecting on the gold roof of a church, creating a bright beacon of light! Totally surreal!

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The boat trip is serene and exhilarating at the same time, as we watch eagles soar above and the sunlight sparkling on the surface of the river.

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On returning to the shore, we discover why the Landrover is parked in the water, as the captain floats his boat on to a submerged trailer to pull it back on land.

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For me, one of the highlights about the boat trip is listening to Valeriu in the car afterwards. I am assuming from his exuberant comments that it was his first time in a speedboat, and he is waxing lyrical about the experience, exclaiming that is was the highlight of his day.

As we continue on our journey, Leonid tells me that the owner of the guest house where we had lunch was convinced I was from Romania, because I "spoke fluent Romanian" (the language of Moldova). My conversation with her consisted of the only four words I know in Romanian: “hello”, “please”, “thank you” and “goodbye”. I feel flattered and amused in equal parts.

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David talks to the locals.

Orheiul Vechi (‘Old Orhei’)

The name ‘Old Orhei’ comes from the word ‘orhei’, meaning ‘fortification’; referring to the original (ie old) city built in this place. The position - on a ridge overlooking a valley on one side (now a village) and the river on the other, is certainly strategic.

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The earliest discoveries in this ‘smorgasbord of civilisations’ is a Late Palaeolithic camp site, believed to be some 25,000 years old – give or take a few thousand years. Other settlements date from Copper Age (4,500-4,000 BC), Iron Age (1,200-100 BC) and the medieval period (500-1,550 AD).

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Today Oheiul Vechi is an open-air museum, showcasing a number of man-made caves that pre-date Christianity in the region, created some 2000 years ago by the Dacian tribes. Orthodox monks turned some of the caves into a monastery in the 13th century; and occupied the site right into the 18th century. In 1996, a handful of monks returned to the cave monastery and have since been working on its restoration.

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Here you can see the caves hewn out from the limestone rock underneath a much later chapel (as well as people standing outside the cave on a ledge). We climb up a number of stairs to reach the chapel, followed by a number of stairs down to reach the cave.

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The evening service is just finishing off as we arrive, with solo chanting creating a spiritual atmosphere. We are the only people here, apart from three monks.

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The cells where the monks stayed are very spartan – they would sleep on the hard concrete floor without the use of any mats, and the ceiling was kept deliberately low so that they would have to stoop. The current monks are no longer living here.

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There is a great view over the valley from the ledge outside.

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Ascension of St Mary Church

Built in 1905, the church has recently been restored after it was shut down in 1944 and abandoned during the Soviet era. Services resumed in 1996.

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Butuceni Agro-Rural Pension

Situated in the small village of the same name at the bottom of the ridge, Butuceni Agro-Rural Pension is a collection of traditional peasant houses set inside mature gardens. We are warmly welcomed by the owner, whose English is only marginally better than my Romanian.

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Our room is large and comfortable, with the traditional style under-bed heating!

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In the grounds we find an adorable and playful kitten who keeps us occupied for some considerable time.

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As the light fades, dozens and dozens of house martins hang around on the telegraph wires before retiring for the night.

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Dinner is scheduled for 20:00, but when we wander around the grounds a few minutes before, we are unable to locate a restaurant. Or any sign of human life inside or outside the building.

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After much searching we discover a faded sign on the outside wall of the pension, directing us to the restaurant 200 metres along the road.

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We find the restaurant but it seems to be full of a wedding party, who all stare at us as we walk through. As there doesn't seem to be any other rooms where food is being served, we ask a girl in a national costume (who looks like she works there) about the ‘hotel restaurant’. She speaks no English and my Romanian doesn’t stretch that far; so David holds up the room key while I make eating motions with my hands. She gestures towards some stairs at the back of the hall, and we clamber through a pile of DJ equipment to reach them.

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At the top of the stairs is a very unwelcome closed door that we reluctantly open, leading into a room with one long table full of tourists, who all turn around and stare as we stand there somewhat lost and bewildered. We find a small table suitable for two people and sit down, not quite sure what to do next.

After what feels like a long, awkward period (but is probably just a few minutes), a waitress walks in, and while she initially looks at us quizzically, her face suddenly lights up and she flashes us a lovely warm smile before rushing off again. OK… now what?

She returns with food. Lots of food. Bottles of water and a jug of home made wine. Then more food.

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I love the home made cheese, the tomatoes are really tasty too; and there is enough Placinta du Branza (cheese pie) to feed a large family.

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Friptură de porc (stew) with smetana (soured cream) and branza (brined cheese); served with mămăligă (polenta) which the waitress cuts into segments using a thin string.

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For dessert there is Placinta cu visine, a delicious sour cherry pie.

We feel really bad for leaving so much of the food, and hope there are some very well fed pigs around (in addition to us). All the dishes are delicious, but we had a very late lunch, and there really is way too much food for two people!

We waddle back to the accommodation and retire to bed after the long and varied first day in Moldova.

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging our trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:42 Archived in Moldova Tagged food fishing boat travel river adventure rural wine lunch pie winery tourism speedboat chisinau vinyards cheese moldova pastry boat_trip polenta orheiul orheiul_vechi dniester_river spee_boat placinta hanul_lui_hangana bryndza plej_placinta sarmale zeama moldovan_food butuceni butuceni_agro_rural_pension mămăligă cricova cricova_winery smetana branza Comments (0)

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