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Cristalino - birds and butterflies

Our last full day in the Amazon


View Pantanal and Amazon 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Another early start today, up at 05:00, breakfast at 06:00, and leave at 06:30.

There is a mist hanging over the river this morning, creating an ethereal scene.

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Black Fronted Nunbird

Long Nosed Bats
They are so incredibly well camouflaged, as they try their best to hide from the Bat Falcon.

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Sunbittern

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Striated Heron

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Greater Ani

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White Tipped Dove

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Saffron Playboy Butterfly

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Rufescent Tiger Heron

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Plumbeous Kite

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Capped Heron

Centipede
I love the way the pattern creates a false set of eyes on his rear end, and that he looks like a series of glass beads joined together.

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White Throated Toucan

Rapids
We return to the same area we visited yesterday, as the moving water often attracts birds.

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Red Throated Piping Guan

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White Banded Swallows

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Bearded Turtle

We are not the only ones from the lodge out and about on the water today.

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Bird Watchers

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A boat waiting for the trekkers to return

White Winged Swallow
I am still chasing these little birds around trying to catch one flying – I have some success, but still not completely happy.

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Scarlet Macaws

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Red Throated Piping Guan

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Ruddy Ground Dove

Reflections
From the rapids we enter an area where the water is completely still, creating perfect reflections.

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Amazon Kingfisher

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Snowy Egret

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Olive Oropendula

Cristalino Lodge
The usual taxi (luggage truck) is waiting for me at the top of the steps to take me to the room when we get back from our morning's boat safari.

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Butterflies
On our way to the lodge when we arrived on the very first day, I saw a number of butterflies on a rock near the lodge, and I asked Gui if we could go back and take a closer look. They are more active in the middle of the day, so we go out at 11:45 to see if they are there.

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There are literally thousands of them, and they rarely stay still for more than a second, flittering about left to right, right to left.

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It is like being in the middle of a living, breathing, confetti shower.

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I spend over an hour photographing these mesmerising butterflies, with lots of exclamations of “wow” and “isn't this amazing”. The experience is like nothing we have ever known before.

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We have a photobomber

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Not one, not two, but three photobombers

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My taxi takes me directly to the restaurant this lunchtime, via the staff quarters (the truck can't drive the pedestrian path as there are too many tree roots along the way).

Lunch
I try and remember what I ordered last night (you pre-order the food for the next meal at the previous one). I photographed the items on the menu, but the starter bears little resemblance to what I receive. Whatever it is, it is very enjoyable.

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The main course is a Micaela-style tenderloin stew with parsnip chips and country-style corn meal.

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Dessert is something called Cupuaçu, a traditional dish of fruit pudding with crunchy Brazil nuts

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I spend some time trying some gentle exercises for my knee, as it is feeling very much better today. The rest of the afternoon is spent chilling in the room with the fan on before confidently walking the ¼ mile path through the jungle to reach the restaurant for dinner, without the use of my knee braces.

Dinner
Everything seems a bit of a shambles this evening, and while the service is friendly and helpful, it is a little hit and miss and at times rather slow.

After sitting down at our usual table, we ask the waitress for a jug of water. When after a while it has not arrived, we ask another of the waiting staff. Some time later, the maître d' comes over and asks if everything is OK. We mention the missing water, and he goes off to chase it. Soon after someone arrives with two jugs, immediately followed by two other people carrying three jugs between them. We now have five jugs of water, although they do take four of them away, thankfully, otherwise, I'd be up every half an hour throughout the night.

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Courgette hash with poached egg

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Cristalino steak - so tender and tasty

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Coconut pudding - delicious!

So much for the confidence earlier – walking back to the room, my knee is suffering big time. Full of disappointment and frustration, I take some painkillers before bed.

Goodnight from the Amazon, and thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 21:43 Archived in Brazil Tagged reflections wildlife river bird safari brazil lunch mist birding brasil amazon toucan south_america bats butterflies heron egret dove rapids guan ani boat_trip centipede boat_safari undiscovered_destinations swallow early_morning_mist wildlife_photography river_safari painful_knee cristalino sunbittern nunbird cristalino_lodge bird-watching centiped oropendula painkillers Comments (0)

Araras - Alta Floresta - Cristalino

Transfer Day


View Pantanal and Amazon 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

We are leaving Araras at 07:30 this morning, but I am awake from 03:45. As soon as it is light, I do some last-minute bird watching.

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Plumbeous Ibis

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Chaco Chachalaca

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Packed and ready to go

Our new-found German friends, Tina, Kristian, and their four children are moving on to the same lodge as us today, too, and we joke at breakfast about who will get to the airport first to put the towels down to reserve the seats.

We win.

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Cuiabá Airport
We do have a couple of advantages, however, one being that we are on a private tour so that we can don't have to wait for other people, and not travel in a 12-seater minibus, which means we spend less time loading and unloading luggage as there is only us.

The other advantage is that Roberto arranges special assistance for me once we arrive at the airport, which includes priority check-in as well as boarding, and special seats on the plane (the first three rows are dedicated 'disabled' seats, with extra legroom)

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The city of Cuiabá from the air

Alta Floresta
At the small airport (which only gets two flights a day, apparently) there are two vehicles waiting to take guests to Cristalino Lodge: a small truck for us and the luggage, and a minibus for all the others.

The first part of the road is on tarmac, but that soon turns into a gravel track, as we pass farms and logging stations. If we thought the Transpantaneira road was bad, that is nothing compared to this. We bounce all over the place each time the truck hits a pothole – which is often – and the driver seems to spend his time apologising. He doesn't speak much English but has a great sense of humour, and we laugh a lot on the one-hour journey.

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Cashews
At a gate across the road, he stops to poach some cashew fruits from a tree by the side of the road. He justifies it by explaining that the farm and land belong to Cristalino Lodge. Cashews always fascinate me the way the nut hangs at the bottom of the fruit.

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The fruit itself is also very pleasant to eat, so we take a couple of them with us.

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Boat Trip
When we arrive at the docking area (a fancy name for where the end of the road goes into the river), there is an army of helpers on hand to get the luggage from the truck into the waiting boats.

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Here we meet our guide, Gui, for the first time. He is to be with us for the next four days.

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The journey along the river to Cristalino Lodge takes around half an hour, and we do some bird watching along the way.

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Amazon Kingfisher

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Green Ibis

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Swallow Wing Puffbird

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Amazon Taricaya Turtle and Dyas Julia Butterflies

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White Winged Swallows

Gui explains that the dark colour of the water comes from minerals washed out of the forest, and contains decomposing leaves and other vegetable matter. The good news is that the mosquitoes do not like this water, so they stay away.

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Cristalino Lodge
This eco-lodge gets rave reviews on every site I have looked at on the internet, with National Geographic Traveller selecting it as one of the 25 best eco-lodges in the world; and another sire describing it as “the best lodge in the Brazilian Amazon for wildlife enthusiasts”. I have high hopes for this place!

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The landing stage also features a sunbathing and swimming platform, with loungers and umbrellas (and apparently a cozy firepit in the evening).

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To get to the lodge there are 30 wooden steps, but before that, I have to get out of the boat.

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I try to step up onto the raised part at the front, but my knee will not let me. I attempt to swing my leg over the side and straight onto the boardwalk. I fail again. Finally, I sit down on the front, but I am still not able to get my legs up.
The aforementioned army of helpers step in and literally lift me up and out of the boat. I am impressed they manage it, but by this stage, I am feeling pretty stressed and panicky.

I manage the steps, and the trail through the jungle to the restaurant, which is up a few more wooden steps. The public areas of the hotel are all on a raised platform: the inside and outside dining areas, the bar, the lounge, the shop, toilets, conference room, and patio. It oozes luxury.

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Gui

We are given a welcome drink, made from a fruit called cocoazu. I have not heard of it before, and I have to admit it is a little too bitter for me.

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As we missed lunch while travelling (it is now mid-afternoon), they serve us a small wrap, some fruit salad, and a delicious cake.

Gui is very laid back and nothing seems to be a rush here. We saunter back down the wooden steps along the path from the restaurant to the crossroads of paths where we came up from the jetty.

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As we turn into the jungle and the track that leads to our room, we come across Mr and Mrs Bare Faced Curassow, reinforcing my high expectations of seeing a lot of birds here.

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Our Room
Having upgraded to a Junior Suite, we find that our room is almost the furthest away from the restaurant and the jetty. But at least it is private, set in its own clearing in the forest.

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The inside is large, bright, and airy. There is an overhead fan, but no air conditioning.

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The welcome pack contains two complimentary metal water bottles that can be refilled at the bar for free, a box of chocolate-covered Brazil nuts, and some postcards.

There is a separate dressing room, toilet, and shower, with an additional shower outside.

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Once we have settled in, we try out the outdoor shower. To say it is refreshing would be a gross understatement – the water is absolutely freezing.

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Dinner
We joke that walking to the restaurant for dinner is about as far as it is to walk to our local Tesco supermarket. “Fancy Tesco for dinner this evening?”

As everything is cooked to order here at Cristalino, they brought us the menus when we arrived for us to choose what we would like to have for dinner this evening. After seven nights of buffet food, it is such a pleasant change to be served at the table.

We are greeted on arrival at the restaurant by the customer relations manager, Gabriel, who is very pleasant, very knowledgable, and has a great memory, but he does talk too much, lingering at the table while we are eating.

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Sun-dried meat croquettes with pepper aioli and a hot sauce. Crunchy outside, with a soft centre. Very nice.

The main course is extremely slow to arrive, but when it finally turns up after around 40 minutes or so, it is worth the wait.

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Grilled tenderloin medallion steak

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The caramel nut pie is only just OK. It has a slightly unpleasant gritty texture and definitely needs more caramel!

With no AC, the room feels very hot as we go to bed, so I lay on top of the sheets without anything on and put the ceiling fan on full.

Goodnight from the Amazon. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 18:44 Archived in Brazil Tagged postcards flight airport river jungle dinner brazil birding brasil luxury amazon turtle butterflies ibis steak kingfisher cuiabá boat_trip cashew bird_watching swallows eco_lodge undiscovered_destinations outdoor_shower water_bottles special_assistance araras curassow chachalaca alta_floresta puffbird cristalino cocoazu caramel_pie Comments (2)

Iguaçu - helicopter, glass lift and boat trip

Another busy day


View Pantanal and Amazon 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

We are joined by the usual crew this morning at breakfast.

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David and his favourite member of staff: Melissa

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Plush Crested Jay

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Toco Toucan

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Planalto Hermit

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Saffron Finch

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A hungry Coati

Helicopter Flight
As soon as we meet up with our guide Carini, we head straight to the heliport, just outside the park gates.

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We have booked a private sightseeing flight over the falls, which means that there is only us and the pilot on board, and I can move around much more freely in the back seat.

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We can see the mist rising from the falls long before we see the falls themselves.

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Here you can clearly see the amazing position of our hotel

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Devil's Throat

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In the pictures below, you can see just how near we were to the edge of the falls yesterday!

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The pilot takes a couple of loops around the falls to give us both some great views, but the ten minutes is soon up and we are back at base again.

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I have hardly had time to breathe on the flight, I have been so busy taking photos, with two cameras, out of the windows on both sides. I would love to go around again without the cameras and just enjoy the scenery. I get out of the helicopter absolutely buzzing with the excitement and adrenalin of it all. Wow! What an experience that was!

Itaipu
Carini suggests we go on an optional excursion this morning, to see something different while we are here: Itaipu Dam. I remember it being pointed out to us when we were here last in 1990, but these days they offer guided tours of the hydroelectric plant, something David thought might be interesting.

We drive through the town of Iguaçu, very much a tourist place, with lots of hotels of every size and budget, and many restaurants. It looks like a laid-back and interesting place, but I would still rather stay inside the national park in the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas.

We get to the power station, where we find the gates locked shut. A security guard explains that they have recently started closing it to tourists on a Tuesday, something Carini was not aware of. Oh well.

Lunch
Instead, we head for a large tourist restaurant at the head of the falls, driving past our hotel to the end of the road. This was definitely not here when we last visited!

In addition to the restaurant, there is a visitors centre and a large souvenir store, where David finds a pair of nice thin trousers, ideal for the jungle.

The restaurant is huge, with seating inside and out. We pay a fixed price on entry and find ourselves a table outside overlooking the river with the top of the falls in the distance.

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The food is an all-you-can-eat buffet and is quite pleasant, nothing more, nothing less.

Glass Lift
I remember walking down to this from the hotel when we last came and being amazed by the proximity to the falls and the little swallows nesting behind the falls, flying in and out of the spray.

From the road, there are stairs and a ramp leading down to the upper platform, from which you take a glass lift down to the lower viewing area. We walk straight into the lift, with no queue.

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There are further walkways to take, in order to get nearer the falls. Both David and I decline the offer.

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Selfies
Selfies are the bane of a photographer's life! While having the odd picture of myself or me and David while we travel is nice, I cannot see the desire to be in every single photo I take! It just seems so narcissistic to me. “Look at me! Look at me!” Can people no longer just purely enjoy the surroundings, or it is just for likes on Instagram?

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Mind you, it is infinitely better than before the selfie invention, when one person would stand near the edge and their companion on the other side of the path to take their photo so that no one could get past.

And here is our selfie!

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There is a long line of people waiting for the lift to go back up again, but Carini has a word with the operator, and not only do we jump the queue, we actually get a private lift to ourselves (the service lift).

Macuco Boat Trip
I am constantly impressed with the way Brazilians accommodate less able people. The transfer truck that takes us from the entrance to the funicular, is easily adapted to take a girl in a wheelchair and me on a ramp, while still being able to seat a number of able-bodied passengers. I have never felt that I am a nuisance, every single adaptation and modification has been carried out without hesitation and with a smile.

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The truck takes us to the top of a funicular, where there are lockers and changing rooms. There is a choice of “wet” or “dry” boats, and we decide to go for the dry boat so that I can take photos. At the last minute, however, we change our minds, leave everything except the waterproof cameras in the lockers, and go to get wet!

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Getting into the boat is down some very steep steps, from where you step across into the boat. I manage with a bit of help, and the staff effortlessly carry the paralysed girl and place her in a seat. There is no turning back now!

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The boat is extremely powerful and weaves from side to side, leaning right over to add to the adventure, negotiating the rapids with ease. It reminds me very much of the jetboat on the Shotover River in New Zealand.

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We stop to view the falls from a distance, and this is the point at which the “dry” boat would turn around. As a result of all the mist, the view is not great, so I am glad I didn't risk my cameras, as even the “dry” boat would have got us wet from the spray.

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From here it is full steam straight into the falls!


How can I describe it? It starts off as a gentle shower and you brace yourself for the downpour. It doesn't come. Just as you think that “this is actually quite bland, it hits you. Quite literally! Imagine a huge barrel full of icy-cold water dumped over your head without warning... that is what it feels like. To say it's a shock is an understatement!

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David looks shell-shocked!

Then they do it again. And a third time. By this time we are both shivering, and the wind as we speed back to the jetty does not help.

For sure it was an adventure, and I am glad I did it – would I do it again? Not on your Nelly!

At the jetty, I struggle to get out of the boat, as I haven't got the strength in my knees to step up onto the seat. It hurts like hell when I try. Panic and distress set in. Eventually, I manage to manoeuvre myself so that my bum is leaning on the back of the seat, and with David's help manage to lift one leg up, and then the other. By the time I have climbed the steep steps back up to the platform, my legs are shaking, and I haven't even got the strength in my knees to walk. I drag my feet on the floor, shuffling along like a zombie.

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Carini is worried about me, and as soon as we get back to the hotel, she asks for a wheelchair for me, as well as some ice to be delivered to the room. As he is pushing me up the incline in the hotel corridor, the porter comments “leg day yesterday, arm day today, no need for gym”.

Dinner
On Carini's suggestion, we order room service for our dinner this evening. This hotel can manage to make a salad and sandwich look like a five-star meal!

The waiter arrives with a large tray complete with condiments as well as a small bunch of flowers.

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My chicken Caesar salad

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David's tuna sandwiches

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Some fresh fruit to share for dessert

I see housekeeping has been having fun with my glasses again while we have been out, creating a little pouch for them from a face cloth. How sweet.

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Tonight we need to pack, as we are moving on to pastures new tomorrow. Why is there so much less room in my bag now than there was when I left home, even though I haven't bought anything?

Goodnight from Iguaçu for the last time. Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 16:59 Archived in Brazil Tagged waterfalls breakfast brazil lunch mist brasil jay jetty jetboat shock pain coati iguacu devils_throat pilot wheelchair iguassu hermit finch boat_trip hummingbird selfies itaipu hydroelectric helcipter helicopter_flight heliport glass_lift macuco macuco_boat_safari painful_knee room_service Comments (2)

Isle of May & Bass Rock

Well worth the hassle to finally get here!


View Scotland & Lake District 2021 on Grete Howard's travel map.

These is a long story behind my gannet workshop to Bass Rock off the Scottish east coast, starting with one of our very first  first motorhome trips; during which we got as far as Sheffield before the van broke down. Instead of going to Scotland, we travelled back home on a recovery trailer. 

On the second attempt we managed to get the motorhome as far as Seahouses, only to be told the workshop was cancelled because of bad weather. 

The following year (2020), a photographer friend from the USA, Freddy, was planning to come over to visit us with his wife, so I booked TWO places for the gannet diving workshop. Of course Freddy never did come over, and the workshop was called off because of the Covid 19 pandemic.

After rebooking the workshop (again) this year (2021) for myself and Freddy, it becomes clear that visitors from the US are still not allowed to enter the UK, so our friend Paul from Scotland agrees to take over Freddy's place on the boat trip. A couple of weeks before the trip, Paul had a stroke so sadly will not be coming with me out on the boat (post note: Paul is recovering well). I suggest David takes his place instead, even if he is not really interested in photography.

Unfortunately the fishing boat we are supposed to be going out on, does not manage to get its certificate allowing it to carry passengers in time, so the workshop is yet again cancelled. I am now beginning to think we are jinxed.

Spending some time on the internet looking for a replacement boat trip, I come across BlueWild and arrange for them to take me - and David - out on a privately chartered trip to Isle of May and Bass Rock. 

The day before we are due to go out, their boat breaks down, so our trip is yet again cancelled (are the gods trying to tell us something?). Thankfully, they are able to get the repairs done in a day, and re-schedule us for a couple of days later.

On the sixth attempt, we finally manage to get out on a boat! All I will say at this point, is that it is so worth the wait!

This is the boat that will take us out, with skipper Alan, and crew Philip. It really does make a huge difference to have the boat to ourselves - we have given up group tours some time ago, as we prefer the flexibility of being just the two of us, so this is perfect from that point of view. Alan does everything he can to make sure we see what we want to see, and that I get the shots I want.

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After a quick, but thorough safety briefing, we leave Dunbar Harbour and head straight across the Firth of Forth shipping channel to Isle of May.

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Dunbar Harbour

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BlueWild is one of the few companies that have a licence to land on Isle of May, and we are offered the opportunity to so so should we wish. As my main purpose of this trip is to see the gannets at Bass Rock, we decide to forego the landing on this occasion.

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Isle of May

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There seem to be plenty of people on the island on well defined paths

Until I spoke to Alan on the phone about this trip a few days ago, I had no idea that puffins make their home on the island. Alan explains that sometimes you see whole rafts of them on the surface of the water, but so far this year there have only be a few around.

The first birds we see, however, are kittiwakes - there is a colony of them roosting at the entrance to Dunbar harbour.

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I get very excited when I see a small flock of gannets flying low over the water. Alan assures me that I will see plenty more later on. That has to be the understatement of the year!

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I still get a bit carried away taking photos of them.

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Alan does warn us that we are likely to get 'blessed' at some stage during this trip - he is right!

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Being a great fan of puffins, I am delighted to just spot one single one.

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They are so comical the way they run across the water when they take off!

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We soon start seeing more and more of them floating in rafts too. Alan shuts the engine to an idle as we drift through them. Some take fright and fly off as soon as they spot us, others totally ignore us, and let us float right on by.

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The experience of just sliding past a whole raft of puffins, is truly magical!

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I get some really good close-up photos too!

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Photography is challenging to say the very least. The birds are bobbing up and down on the swell, and so is the boat, but seemingly to a different rhythm. I manage focus on the puffin, but the next minute all I can see in the viewfinder is sky, followed by the bird being being 'swallowed up' by the waves.

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My hit rate is appalling!

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The area also has a great number of guillemots, and they remind me so much of penguins when they take off, the way they skim across the surface on their bellies, much like the stones we threw as kids!

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Except, of course, penguins never do take off, unlike guillemots!

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Guillemots create rafts too!

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We continue to the craggy shores of Isle of May.

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Steep cliffs and basalt pillars greet us, with thousands of guillemots crowding into every available space.

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In many places, the rocks are white with guano.

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This would make an amazing jigsaw. For someone you don't like.

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As we make make our way around the island, the odd puffin appears on shore too.

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A couple of seals bask on the rocks, and a few heads pop out of the water to see what is going on.

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The Isle of May is home to an incredible array of wildlife, with up to 200,000 seabirds nesting here.

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Kittiwakes

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Razorbill

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Shag

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Cormorants and Herring Gulls

The steep cliffs hide beguiling grottos, with tales of smugglers and pirates.

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In a secluded bay stands the solitary rock pillar, known as 'The Bishop'.

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From Isle of May we make our way to Bass Rock, the home of 150,000 gannets. From a distance the flying gannets look like a swarm of mosquitoes around a light – they seem to be completely surrounding the rock.

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We can hear them long before we can make out each bird clearly: the racket is quite simply unbelievable! As we get nearer we can clearly see that the white dots on the top of the rock are in fact birds on nests. Wow!

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These large, striking-looking birds are everywhere: on the rocks, on the water and in the air.

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Launching themselves off the rock, they hang on the thermals before diving into the depths of the sea to gather seaweed for their nest building.

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The dots you see are not water droplets on my camera lens, they are in fact other flying birds!

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I spend the rest of my time at sea shooting anything that moves. Only with my camera, of course. Here are a few of my favourite shots:

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Can you believe that each one of those dots is in fact a gannet!

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One of my favourite moments of the trip is just sitting in the boat, gazing up at thousands of gannets effortlessly hovering overhead.

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One of my main photography aims of this excursion, is to capture a flying gannet with nesting materials in its beak. I take literally thousands of photographs to try and get a good one. As I said earlier, the extremely difficult conditions means my hit rate is dreadful! I do have some success, however.

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Another Surprise appearance – an Eider Duck

We finally have to say goodbye to Bass Rock and return to shore. I glance back and sigh with contentment, delighted that I finally managed to see and experience this wildlife extravaganza.

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The circling gannets appear to be following us for a while, although I am pretty sure they are more interested in what is under the water than they are in us.

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On our way back to Dunbar Harbour, Alan points out the ruins of the 14th century Tantallon Castle.

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By the time we get back to solid land, I am soaked to the skin, slightly sunburnt, very cold, and covered in white spots from bird dropping; but I feel like I am floating on air with blissful excitement at what I have just witnessed. In all our travels I have never seen or experienced anything like it!

Posted by Grete Howard 11:18 Archived in Scotland Tagged birds cliffs scotland boat wildlife wild pirates seal seaweed gannets puffins cormorant smugglers boat_trip birds_nest bird_watching guano shag wildlife_photography flying_birds isle_of_may firth_of_forth dunbar dunbar_harbour guillemots bass_rock bluewild blue_wild eider kittiwake razorbill herring_gull smuggler_cove tantallon tantallon_castle Comments (2)

Sunset Cruise from Mandina Lodges

What an amazing amount of birds!


View Galavanting in The Gambia 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

This afternoon we are taking another boat trip, this one with two added bonuses: a bottle of wine and the sunset! Hopefully. The sunset, that is, the bottle is most definitely present!

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My plan of action this evening is to take photos of birds just as they take off. I always like a challenge and to step outside my comfort zone. I start with this Long Tailed Cormorant.

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Fishing centre

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I have a soft spot for baobab trees

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Whimbrel

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Wattled Plover

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Black Kite taking off

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Palm Nut Vulture

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Great White Egret

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Preening

I think she's going to fly...

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Here she goes!

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It looks like she is having a blast!

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We see a tree full of Pink Backed Pelicans.

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Yellow Billed Stork

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African Spoonbill

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Goliath Heron

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Black Kite

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Blue Cheeked Bee Eater

The sun is getting low now, and depending which direction I point my camera, the sky glows a warm yellow, glistening in the ripples on the water surface.

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Great White Egret

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Common Sandpiper

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Sacred Ibis

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Sacred Ibis

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Whimbrels

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And they're gone

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African Darter

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Cattle Egret

The sun is only just above the horizon now, as we have entered an area enclosed on three sides by mangroves and an island in the middle.

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Max, the captain, explains we will wait here for the sun to go down and the birds to come back to roost.

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We see a few single birds flying around in the sunset, then coming in to the island to settle down for the night.

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The sun has painted the sky a deep orange now.

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Beautiful reflections on the water

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Where there were initially just one or two, they are now coming in thick and fast, it seems to be never ending, and they seem to appear from nowhere.

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More and more egrets are gathering in the trees, and when you think there is no room for any more birds, a whole lot of others arrive.

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It is hard to know where to look, the birds are coming from three out of four directions, and seem to suddenly appear out of nowhere from behind us with a whoosh. It is an air traffic control nightmare!

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When there is no more room at the inn and the light is fading rapidly, we start to make our way back to the lodge, stopping from time to time to take photos of the sunset. To say this evening's performance has been spectacular is an understatement!

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By the time we reach the hotel, darkness has all but enveloped Makasutu Forest and the twinkling lights of Mandina Lodge welcome us back.

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Dinner

As time is getting on, we go straight to dinner from the sunset cruise; the boat conveniently lands at the jetty right by the restaurant anyway.

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Pre-dinner drink of Pina Colada

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Prawn Cocktail

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Butter fish with Lyonnaise potatoes and a delicious home made tartare sauce

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David's Samosas

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Gambian Rice Pudding with ground peanuts - a very delicate flavour

We decline the offer of an early morning coffee in the room tomorrow, in favour of a lie in, and sneak off to bed after a magical day in Makasutu Forest.

Posted by Grete Howard 15:16 Archived in Gambia Tagged trees birds fishing reflections sunset pelicans kite africa dinner forest birding captain baobab stork vulture ibis egrets spoonbill birdwatching mangroves cocktail west_africa samosas cormorant gambia boat_trip fores sunset_cruise piña_colada darter roost plover bee_eater sandpiper the_gambia butter_fish mandina_lodges makasutu makasutu_forest whinbrel flying_birds birds_flying air_traffic_control prawn_cocktail rice_pudding Comments (5)

Morning Boat Trip at Mandina Lodges

Such variety of bird life


View Galavanting in The Gambia 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I get up early this morning to catch the sunrise – there is a beautiful mist rising over the river.

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Sensing some movement out of the corner of my eye, I spot a new bird (to me) in amongst the foliage: a Mangrove Sunbird.

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Speckled Pigeon

Catching the sunrise was not the only reason I got up early today; we are off on a boat trip through the mangroves this morning.

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It's a glorious sunrise.

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An old boat lies moored near the lodge.

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The water is very still, creating beautiful reflections.

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Guinea Baboons

Just around the corner from the lodge, where our tributary meets a wider river, the trees are full of baboons. There are five different species of baboons worldwide, and the Guinea Baboons found here in The Gambia are the smallest.

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These are a new (sub)species for us, and I am very excited to see and photograph them at such close quarters.

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It looks like there may be more baboons here in the future.

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I am so in love with their facial expressions.

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African Darter drying out his wings.

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Great White Egret

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Green Backed Heron

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Blue Breasted Kingfisher

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Pied Kingfisher

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Rose Ringed Parakeet

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African Darter

A crocodile sunbathes on the bank of the river.

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He doesn't look too friendly.

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I hope he didn't hear me and is coming for his revenge!

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I am very excited to see this elegant and flamboyant Violet Turaco fly over – another new one for me.

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One of the birds on my wish list when I came over here, was the Western Plantain Eater. Here they are two-a-penny!

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Oyster Factory

Oysters are big business around here, with the meat being eaten, and the shells burnt to make lime which is mixed with water to make house paint, and with sand to make cement. There are no wasted elements as anything left is used for chicken feed.

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Oysters growing on the mangroves

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Pied Crows mobbing a Harrier Hawk

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Greenshank

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Spur Winged Plover

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Senegal Thick Knee

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Common Sandpiper

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Whimbrel taking off

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Long Tailed Cormorant drying his wings out

And so the morning's boat trip is over, and we are back at the lodge in time for lunch.

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I am absolutely fascinated by the bats in the ceiling of the restaurant.

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Isn't he cute?

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Look at him yawn! ♥

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Today there is also a Speckled Pigeon in the rafters.

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Mr Heron is back in position in amongst the mangroves as usual.

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He is after the crabs, of course.

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I am not sure what is happening here – it looks like the big crab is stalking the little one.

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We return to the room for a little siesta, but find we are not alone.

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This girl is looking down on us from the rafters.

It looks like she is raising a family.

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I know every mother thinks their babies are the most beautiful in the world; but, I'm sorry, there is nothing remotely attractive about these chicks.

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I drift into a light snooze, knowing that I am being looked over by the pigeon family.

Posted by Grete Howard 05:36 Archived in Gambia Tagged birds wildlife river sunrise africa crocodile hawk lunch forest birding pigeon dawn crabs baboons bats heron parakeet croc west_africa kingfisher cormorant oysters siesta gambia boat_trip bird_watching crows sunbird darter thick_knee plover sandpiper river_trip the_gambia the_gambia_experience greenshank plantain_eater wild_birds mandina_lodges makasutu mandina makasutu_forest guinea_baboons turaco oyster_factory Comments (6)

Lazy afternoon at Mandina Lodges

Taking it easy in the shade


View Galavanting in The Gambia 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After lunch we retire to the room, and I notice to my horror that my legs have come up in a dreadful rash with red skin and little blisters. It is burning, stinging and itching so much that I jump straight in the shower, hoping the cold water will relieve it. It doesn't. Smothering it in antihistamine, I take myself off to a shady spot on the terrace while David goes on a boat trip with Nicola and AJ, our guide.

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As a result of previous severe sunburn, I now have an area on my shins that suffer from photosensitive dermatitis, hence why I do not want to expose my legs to the sun this afternoon.

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I spend the time with my long lens pointing at the sky, trying to catch flying birds while keeping out of the sun. The wind has dropped and it is blisteringly hot. Literally in my case.

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Hooded Vulture

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Long Tailed Cormorant

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Oyster collectors

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Black Headed Heron

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Some strange, elongated fish in the river.

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White Throated Bee Eater

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Collecting firewood

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Black Kite

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Western Plantain Eater

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Pied Crows

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Bearded Barbet

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They are funny looking birds when they fly

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A much bigger bird. Although we are fairly near the airport, the flights are so infrequent that they do not bother us.

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Whimbrel

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Common Swift

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Pied Crow

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More oyster collectors returning home

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Pied Crows into the setting sun

As soon as David returns, we have a shower and sit on our private deck with a drink before dinner. The chef came round to the room earlier to take our orders for this evening.

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Starter - Vegetable Spring Rolls

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Chicken and rice for main course

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Dessert is Banana Fritter and Ice Cream

When we return to the room, we find that the mosquito net over the bed has been lowered while we were eating, and the room is thankfully very much cooler now, which will hopefully aid sleep tonight.

Posted by Grete Howard 16:41 Archived in Gambia Tagged birds boat wildlife airport crow kite birding plane canoe heron vulture whimbrel west_africa cormorant barbet gambia boat_trip blisters bird_watching rash firewood swift spring_rolls itching bee_eater wildlife_photography plantain_eater dermatitis red_skin mandina_lodges makasutu rive floatinf_lodge oyster_collectors collecting_firewood dug_out_canoe banana_fritter mosquito_net Comments (4)

Rolas Island - São Tomé Town

Heading back to the main island


View São Tomé and Príncipe 2018 - the Lost Islands in the Centre of the World on Grete Howard's travel map.

After having enjoyed a relaxing couple of days here on Rolas Island, it is time to move on, travelling back to São Tomé Town for our last night in this small African island nation.

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All the luggage travels first, again on the smaller, open boat. We are a little concerned that once they reach the other end, our bags are going to be mixed up with those of the big party travelling with the Pestana bus (which is basically all the other passengers). Pestana owns three hotels on the islands and a shuttle bus ferries tourists between them.

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The luggage boat goes off and the passenger vessel arrives.

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We are grateful that it is not raining for our boat trip across to the main island.

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This time we sit near the front of the boat to avoid getting soaked from the spray like we did on the way over. It may not be raining, but it is quite windy and the water is rather choppy.

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Once we approach the bigger island, we see lots of fishermen, with their nets out trying to catch today's lunch and dinner. Most people in São Tomé live from day to day, just catching enough fish to feed their family.

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Spotting Nino (our driver) on the jetty with a firm grip on our bags, we relax and realise our concerns were unfounded. It is comforting - and rather impressive - to know he remembered what our cases look like.

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The Pestana bus is picking up all the other guests coming across from Rolas island, as well as bringing more tourists from the main island to take across to the resort. This, of course, means the entertainers are here again, singing their hearts out.

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Having reunited with Nino and our bags, we offer a couple of the workers a lift to the next village. The extra manpower comes in handy when we get stuck on an uphill section of the gravel road with the wheels just spinning and spinning.

Pico Cão Grande

Translated from Portuguese as 'Great Dog Peak', this finger-shaped pinnacle is a volcanic plug. Created as magma hardened within a vent on an active volcano (now extinct), over the years erosion has worn away the surrounding rock, leaving this distinctive shape behind.

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The peak rises dramatically over 370 m (1,000 ft) above the surrounding terrain and the summit is 668 m (2,175 ft) above sea level. It is well-known within the rock climbing community, its near-vertical walls having first been conquered in 1975. It is quite a landmark and can be seen for miles around.

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Palm Oil Plantations

Like many other places, these palm oil plantations have ruined the local agriculture: while other trees have a symbiotic relationship with fruits and vegetables growing amongst them, nothing will grow underneath these palms. The result is that local people, who were previously more or less self-sufficient, are now unable to grow their own produce and have to pay for a taxi to travel to the market in town to buy (much more expensive) vegetables.

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Another Laundry day

Every day is laundry day somewhere in São Tomé, and we stop to photograph people doing their washing and absolutions in a small inlet along the coast.

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Hotel Miramar, São Tomé Town

Back in the same town, the same hotel and the same room – it's a bit like coming home after a holiday. We take lunch on the outside terrace, ordering from the bar menu . For someone (me) who is trying to cut out simple carbs, the choice of burgers, pasta and pizza doesn't really offer a lot of options.

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I soon find out that the burgers were not a good choice in more ways than one, and spend the rest of the day in the room to be near a toilet.

I do make it for dinner, but don't eat a lot. In fact, the highlight of my evening is this amazing model car that our waiter has made, complete with a steering column, moving wheels and opening doors. All created from wood. He is obviously a very talented man.

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Thank you yet again to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip to São Tomé for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:26 Archived in Sao Tome and Principe Tagged boat burgers washing laundry plantations singers boat_trip ablutions sao_tome hotel_miramar rolas_island pico_cão_grande volcanic_plug great_dog_peak palm_oil palm_oil_plantations Comments (1)

Delhi - Jabalpur - Bhedaghat - Kanha

Don't rock the boat


View Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright - India 2017 on Grete Howard's travel map.

The jetlag continues to blight me this morning as I lie awake from 02:30 onwards.

Flight from Delhi to Jabalpur

At Delhi Domestic Airport we are approach by a uniformed official as we queue to check in. “Would you be interested in an upgrade?” At 700Rs per person (less than £10), we gladly accept. It includes extra legroom and free food, as well as priority baggage. It doesn't stop us from having to pay excess baggage fees for being over the 15kg limit for checked in bags, however.

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Waiting at Delhi Airport

The choices for food on board are not great – sandwich or pot noodle (or rather pot lentil).

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It's a quick flight and soon we are met at Jabalpur Airport by Rakesh, our driver for the next few days. He takes us directly to a fancy hotel for use of the facilities and where his boss (I assume) talks to us about our itinerary; about which there seems to be some confusion. Rakesh does not speak any English, just a simple few words, and my Hindi is no better.

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Jabalpur from the air

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Fire engine at Jabalpur airport

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Baggage trolley at Jabalpur airport

Marble Rocks

Before heading to Kanha National Park for our tiger safari, we want to make a detour to Bhedaghat.

The small town is famous for two things: Dhuhandhar Falls, and Marble Rocks. After climbing down a number of steps, we reach the river's edge where we board a covered boat for our trip into the steep-sided gorge where the aforementioned marble rocks can be admired.

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As the boat moves upstream, the Narmada River flows through a narrow gorge flanked either side by steeply rising cliffs in various colours, from dazzling white to pale yellow and from a pinkish hue to different shades of green.

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Indian Cormorant

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Fisherman

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White Browed Wagtail

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Red Wattled Lapwing

Jumping boys
For 50Rs, young buys jump off the cliffs into the water below.

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The Journey to Kanha

The steps back up to the town and car again seem steep and we are all feeling the heat. The car, thankfully, is beautifully air-conditioned as we make our way towards our home for the next three nights: Kanha National Park. At this stage we realise that we will unfortunately not have time to stop at the waterfalls, as we still have a 4½ hour journey ahead of us.

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One step up from a zebra crossing - a horse crossing

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Overloaded bicycle

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Judging by the number of people we see along the road carrying hay, I would say it is harvest time at the moment.

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We go through some rural and agricultural communities, with the odd long-distance truck on the road.

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Once the sun goes down, we realise we are not going to reach the lodge in the light.

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Indian roads can be quite intimidating for the first time visitor, and even more so after dark. Lyn describes the experience as “Wacky Races on Speed”.

Kipling Camp

Our arrival at Kipling Camp is exceptionally welcoming. As we pull up in the dark, a whole welcoming committee appear with torches and wet flannels to wipe away the dirt from the journey. Astrid shows us around the main facilities of the camp – the Shamiana, an open sided terrace with comfortable seating as well as a bar and dining area; while the two volunteers, Alex and Franco, take the luggage to our rooms.

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As we relax with a drink, Ahmed, the friendly chef, brings round the tastiest pakoras I have ever eaten, followed by cream of vegetable soup in little cups. Dinner is buffet style, with chicken curry, cabbage, potato with capsicum and dhal, followed by a tasty sweet treat (banana fritters if I remember rightly).

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After dinner we continue our friendly chats with the staff: Astrid, the manager, the two young boys, Alex and Franco, who are here as volunteers and show a maturity way beyond their years, and Jeswin, the naturalist. We are the only people staying tonight, and by the end of the evening, we feel very much part of the Kipling family. What a fabulous place!

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Our Room
Our room is in a single-storey cottage set in the lovely grounds, shaded by tall trees; and with a path leading to it, lit by intelligent solar lamps that glow dimly and 'magically' light up brightly as we approach.

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Our cottage in the middle.

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Our room is on the far right of the cottage

We have a balcony with seating, and the interior consists of a four-poster bed with mosquito netting, ample storage space and a generously sized bathroom.

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The terrace in front of our room

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My only 'complaint' is that the bed is rather high, making it impossible to sit on the edge of the bed to get undressed

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I know we will enjoy our stay here very much, and I go to sleep a very happy and contented bunny.

Posted by Grete Howard 01:18 Archived in India Tagged boat canyon india cows harvest boat_trip jabalpur kipling_camp bhedaghat marble_rocks rowing_boat harvest_time khana Comments (5)

Danube Delta

A day on the Delta

semi-overcast 31 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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After the wine and moonshine last night, we both slept well. A little too well I think, as David wakes up with a bad back this morning.

Breakfast consists of a typical continental selection, although I can’t say fish balls appeal this morning.

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Today we are fulfilling a long-time dream of mine; exploring the Danube Delta by small boat has been on my wish list for as long as I can remember.

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Although this is one of the most popular tourist areas in the Danube Delta, it never feels crowded. We do see other boats, of course, but for a lot of the time, it is just us and the awesome nature around us.

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The Danube Delta is not only the world’s largest wetlands; it is also a paradise for wildlife, with over 300 species of birds in its numerous lakes and marshes.

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Grey Heron

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Black Headed Gulls

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Hooded Crow

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Mallard

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Squacco Heron

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Whiskered tern

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Mute Swan Cygnets

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Herring Gull

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Common Tern

It is a struggle to get good pictures of the birds – as soon as we get anywhere near them; they fly off en masse. I am guessing the sound of the outboard engine is scaring them off.

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I try to capture the birds in flight, but my success rate is rather low.

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Pygmy Cormorant

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Marsh Harrier

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Mute Swans

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Hooded Crow

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Great Egret

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Purple Heron

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Great Cormorant

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Grey Heron

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Little Egret

The Danube Delta consists of an intricate network of waterways and lakes, and we transverse many of the tranquil canals this morning. Some are wider than a motorway, others so narrow that two boats cannot pass easily.

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Little Egret

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Floating hotel

The marshes are studded with glorious water lilies.

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After a while David’s back begins to really bother him on the bench-seat – which offers no back support – so he lies down across the boat instead. It’s a hard life here on the water.

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Our cheeky guide Andrei

Out on the lake, the sun glistens magically on the surface of the water.

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A great number of Egyptian White Pelicans arrive here every spring to raise their young, but are usually gone again by this time of year, so I am very excited to see a small flock of them flying in formation right above us.

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From time to time we stop for Pavet, our trusted captain, to remove reeds that have stuck in the propellers. The Delta has the largest reed beds in the world (625,000 acres), which provide ideal spawning and nesting grounds. The floating reed beds – known as plaur in Romanian - are a mixture of reeds, roots, soil, and grasses. Reed was intensively harvested, and large areas drained, during the Communist era; as the regime had plans to transform the Delta into a large agro-industrial zone. These days the reeds are slowly invading the water surface, extending the delta into the Black Sea at a rate of 24m a year!

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The tall reeds dwarf a Little Egret!

The Danube Delta is home to 60% of the world's population of Pygmy Cormorants.

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Squacco Heron

The serenity of these calm backwaters attracts fishermen, sightseers and people just wanting to get out into nature for a few hours.

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The floating hotels look rather cool, but are not as practical as they first appear – their size means they are unable to enter the smaller canals.

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Marsh Sandpiper

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Grey Heron and Great Egret

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Northern Lapwing

There is said to be a lot of wildlife – in addition to the birds – here at the Delta, but all we see this morning is a few horses and some cows.

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More waterlilies.

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Lunch

After a beautiful morning on the water, it is time to return to Crisan and our guest house for lunch.

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For lunch we have …. wait for it…. fish ball soup, followed by…. fish. This time Prussian carp (with the fetching name “crap” in Romanian), as well as the catfish we didn’t eat yesterday; served with the ever-present polenta.

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After a short walk to the local ‘supermarket’ to buy some wine for tonight, it is time for a siesta (and a cuddle with the resident cat) before this afternoon’s boat trip on the Danube Delta.

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This 5000 km² area of floating reed islands, forests, pastures and sand dunes is inscribed as a UNESCO Heritage Site. The still afternoon and lack of other boats on the smaller canals, makes for some gorgeous reflections.

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The Danube Delta is home to 70% of the world’s white pelican population.

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As well as other birds, of course

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Common Gull

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Squacco Heron

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Great Cormorant and Common Gull

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Coot

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Mallards

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Black Headed Gulls

The Danube River is the most international river in the world - its course runs through or alongside nine countries: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine.

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Unfortunately one of the fishing lines gets stuck in the propeller of the boat and we drag it along with us as we move on.

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Stormy clouds + low afternoon sun + glistening water = some awesome photo opportunities.

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The Danube Delta Reserve has the third largest biodiversity in the world, exceeded only by the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Galapagos Archipelago in Ecuador.

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Frogs on the lily leaves

As we make our way back towards Crișan, the low, pink sun shows some promise of a good sunset to come.

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Dinner

Concerned that as tourists we may not wish to eat fish for every single meal, our host serves us pork chops with rice and pickles for dinner today.

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We share the bottle of red wine we bought from the shop earlier, but David is the only one who enjoys it, so he finishes the bottle off.

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I stick to the double distilled plum moonshine. It goes well with the cake made from grapes grown in the guest-house garden.

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Yet another day – the last one in Romania – has come to an end. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for this totally fascinating private tour of Moldova, Transdniestr and Romania.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:37 Archived in Romania Tagged birds fish boat travel marshes destinations photography soup delta boat_trip bird_watching danube_delta undiscovered_destinations crisan fishball_soup 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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