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Sucevita - Moldovita - Marginea - Sucevita

Monasteries, painted eggs and black pottery

sunny 33 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Despite all the snoozing I did in the car yesterday, I slept really well last night. The room was nice and cool, the bed comfortable, and we had two single quilts rather than one double. Luxury! I have never understood people wanting to share one large duvet rather than having their own – there is always one person who hogs the covers (me – I like wrapping myself up in them), exposing the other person to the cold air; and often there is a gap in the middle. In Chișinău the duvet was exactly the same size as the bed, so that when we put two generously proportioned bodies under it, we had to bundle up in the middle in order for the quilt to cover us. Much as I love a good cuddle, I sleep way better when not snuggling up.

Anyway, I digress. In daylight this morning we can fully appreciate the architecture and surroundings of the delightful family-run Casa Felicia, a collection of traditional old cottages that have been brought together here in the village of Sucevita.

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Our room is in the right hand side of this cottage, and Andrei is staying in the other half. We have a private bathroom behind the room off a shared corridor (there are two bathrooms there, one for each of the rooms); and all around the outside of the cottage is a lovely balcony with seating.

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We take breakfast in the ‘sun room’ in the main building.

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Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

The main reason I wanted to include this part of Romania in our itinerary is the painted churches in this area, all of which have been dedicated UNESCO Heritage sites. These Medieval churches are richly decorated on external and internal walls, with scenes from the Bible to spread the word of Christianity to those unable to read or write at that time. The churches served a dual purpose - in addition to religious services they were heavily fortified with strong defensive surrounds and sheltered large armies of soldiers preparing to defend the country against Turkish invaders.

Moldovita Monastery

Dating from 1532, the paintings that adorn this Gothic-style church were completed over a five-year period, using the fresco style of adding paint to still-wet plaster.

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One of the main frescoes on the exterior walls, is the Siege of Constantinople, depicting the divine intervention of Virgin Mary during the attack by the Persian Army in 626 AD.

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It is very sad to see graffiti on such ancient and important pieces of art, even if it is from a couple of centuries ago.

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The Last Judgement covers the entire surface of the west wall around the tall arches of the entrance, featuring a river of fire with the sea giving up its dead to judgement.

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Like the exterior walls, every inch of the interior is covered with frescoes illustrating scenes from the Old Testament and the Bible.

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While photography is technically not allowed inside the church, it is explained to me that this came in to force because so many people were unable, or unwilling, to switch the flash off on their cameras, with the intense light damaging the valuable paintings. The ban is not strictly enforced and I take a couple of pictures – without flash of course.

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Egg Painting Workshop

Decorating eggs for Easter has long been a tradition in Romania that has now turned into a year-round cottage industry. We visit Gliceria Hrețiuc’s home and workshop to see it all in action.

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There are many legends and beliefs surrounded these painted eggs; here are a few of them:

  • If the Easter egg is still in one piece the following Easter without cracking, the family will be protected for the whole year.
  • Cracking eggs with friends and family at the church on Easter Sunday will ensure that you will all meet on the other side.
  • It is thought that badly decorated eggs were created so that the hens wouldn’t recognise them
  • Red eggs are traditional at Easter, symbolising the Passion of Christ - when Mary went to see her crucified son, she was carrying a basked of eggs unto which some of Jesus’ blood was spilt, colouring them red.
  • The shell of an egg is symbolic with the stone covering the grave of Jesus. Friends will crack each other’s eggs with the words “Christ is risen", to which the other will reply “Indeed he has”.

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Gliceria mostly uses ducks’ eggs because of their strong shells; and the first thing she does it is drill a hole in the bottom and pump out the centre. I guess they live on omelettes in this house!

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Duck eggs with ostrich eggs behind

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There are two ways in which she decorates her eggs; the first one is the lost wax batik-style method. Everyone around here keeps bees, so there is no shortage of beeswax.

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The wax is melted and the reservoir in a hollow stylus is filled with liquid wax and applied to the egg to cover the areas that are to remain eggshell white.

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Any mistakes can be rectified fairly easily using a razor blade.

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The eggs, complete with a pattern painted on in wax, are dipped in a colour. Once the colour is dry, subsequent layers of wax, followed by more dipping, can be applied; until she has completed the design.

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Gliceria then holds the egg over a naked flame to melt the wax (which can be re-used) to reveal the pattern underneath.

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The result is a smooth and glossy egg.

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The second method uses oil colours mixed with wax and painted directly on to the egg. This gives a very different result, with the pattern protruding from the shell creating a raised 3D effect.

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Sometimes she uses a mixture of both methods to create the effect she wants.

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She has even been known to carefully cut out parts of the shell to create an even more fragile and exquisite design.

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Gliceria shows us some quails’ eggs she has painted – such delicate and painstaking work!

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With so many beautiful eggs in Gliceria's workshop it is hard to know which to choose. I want to get some for myself as well as a gift for a good friend.

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We choose these three for ourselves

As we are leaving Gliceria’s place, we hear the sound of a steam train whistle; and sure enough, just up the road a small tourist train approaches.

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I am baffled at how any train can run on tracks so uneven!

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Many aspects of Romanian life has changed beyond all recognition since we last visited the country some twelve years ago, but the rural scenes remain the same. Agriculture dominates the landscape in this part of the country, and horse carts remain popular for transport.

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Lunch

We stop for lunch at a small road-side guest house popular with German tour groups (around 50 of them arrive as we are eating)
The food is very nice, and the outlook pretty – what more could you want?

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Bread Basket

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Ciulama de pui - chicken in smetana (soured cream) sauce with mămăligă (polenta)

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Mititei la Grătar - minced meat sausages with mustard

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Tocinei Moldovineşti - potato pancakes with smetana (soured cream) and sirene (brined cheese)

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View from our table

On the way to our next monastery, we stop to refill our water bottles at a natural spring.

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Sucevita Monastery

High walls and heavily buttressed defensive towers surround the monastic complex of Sucevita, giving it the appearance of a fortress.

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The complex was a princely residence as well as a fortified monastery.

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Sucevita is said to be the largest monastery ever to be covered in frescoes.

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One of the most noteworthy and impressive murals is that depicting the Bible story of Jacob’s Ladder; showing red-winged angels leading the righteous on their climb to heaven.

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Dating from around 1600, the paintings have retained an impressive amount of colour and detail, and is the best preserved of all the painted churches in this area.

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In 2010 the monastery was inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

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Marginea Black Pottery

The pottery produced in this small village is unique in that it is the only place in the world where the black colour is obtained without any additions to the clay.

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The Magopăţ family has produced the pots in the same way since the 16th century – hand turned and fired in a coal furnace.

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Around sixty families practised the art in Marginea up until the communist era, when it became illegal to own a pottery wheel. Many families chose to give up the trade and only a couple continued to practise the art surreptitiously.

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Today it is a thriving business, with tourists from all over the world visiting. We buy a small mask to add to our ever-growing collection.

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While Andrei goes off to try and find a traditional embroidered blouse for a friend, we sit in the shade with a jug of home made lemonade each.

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Very tart, the lemonade is served with sugar sachets to sweeten to taste. This is exactly ‘what the doctor ordered’ on a hot day.

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Chill Time

We go back to Casa Felicia for some free time.

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When we find they don’t sell beer, Andrei goes off in the car to get us a can each. Good man.

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As we sit on the balcony surrounding our cottage and sip our cold beverage, the owner arrives with his horse and a cart-load of firewood.

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I had no idea it was even possible to reverse a horse and cart. Until today, that is.

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Having offloaded the wood, the horse is once more put out to graze and the cart stored again for next time.

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Dinner

Simple but delicious home cooking is the order of the day here at Casa Felicia.

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Noodle soup

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Pork meatballs

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Vegetables and noodles

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Plum slice

Lots of home made red wine and some horincă, a double distilled moonshine.

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While David finds the pure alcohol rather too strong, I love it and have a little too much. Andrei and I get into a deep and heated but extremely interesting discussion, about anything and everything, from childhood memories through European history to cooking, culture, religion and politics.

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Having ‘put the world to rights’, we retire to bed after yet another fascinating day in Romania. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:31 Archived in Romania Tagged beer travel church train sleep monastery unesco europe photography frescoes soup haystack pottery eggs noodles kiln quilt legends eastern_europe bucovina meatballs discussions duvet smetana casa_felicia sucevita unesco_heritage_site painted_monasteries egg_painting easter_eggs gliceria_hretjiuc red_eggs christ_is_risen steam_train spring_water horse_drawn_cart ciulama_de_pui mititei_la_grătar tocinei tocinei_moldovinesti peninsuea_valcan marginea black_pottery marginea_black_pottery moonshine horinca how_to_reverse_a_horse Comments (0)

Tiraspol – Causeni – Et Cetera – Romania

Three countries, three drivers


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

After last night's debauchery, I am in a deep sleep when the alarm goes off this morning. Unfortunately not mine. Debauchery, that is; The alarm is sadly very much mine.

I notice a huge bruise has appeared on my wrist from yesterday’s encounter with the stocks at Bendery Fortress. That’ll teach me. Not.

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As we exit the lift at the ground floor on our way to the breakfast room, there is a burly security guard between the lift and the exit – maybe to stop guests leaving without paying?

We take breakfast in another retro-style dining room, and it appears that we are the first - and only - guests to surface this morning. I am not surprised.

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When Valeriu arrives to pick us up, we tell him about the girls last night. “Oh they are hookers” he shrugs.

Back into Moldova

From Tiraspol it is only about half an hour drive back to the border with Moldova, but we have to make sure we leave the country before 10:04:14! It’s been a memorable visit for sure, but I have to concede that Transdniestr is one of those places you visit in order to be able to say "you’ve been", rather than as a result of any attractions it may or may nor have. Unless you are after stunningly beautiful hookers, of course, then Transdniestr should be right at the top of your travel wish list.

The border formalities in this direction are smooth and easy. In no-mans-land Leonid awaits us and we say goodbye to our Transdniestrian driver Ivan. Soon we find ourselves back in Moldova, singing the old Beatles song “Back in the USSR” at the top of our voices.

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Church of Assumption of Mother of God, Căuşeni

The church is officially closed for restoration, but the curator kindly opens it especially for us and gives us a guided tour.

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The sign says: CLOSED FOR RESTORATION

The church, which dates from 1763, is set three feet below ground level as the Tatars only allowed the construction of churches on the proviso that the roof was no taller than the height of a man on horseback with his sword pointing up into the air.

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In 2002 the roof tiles of the church were all changed with the help of US funds in order to protect the frescoes inside the church from moisture damage. The curator explains how the tiles were made – the curved shape was obtained by forming the clay around the potter’s thigh, and on most of the tiles you can still see their fingerprint.

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Just like we’ve sponsored a plank at the zoo in return for a plaque; in those days the donors who gave money towards the construction of the church had their portraits pained on the walls.

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The first church on the site was made from wood; later stonework was added. In 1977 an earthquake caused a crack in the walls.

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The entire interior of this small, but impressive church – the oldest in Moldova - is covered in frescoes. These are the only preserved Medieval frescoes in Moldova.

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Excellent acoustics are aided by empty clay jars, and the early morning light that enters through the windows is said to create a symbolic cross.

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Three doors separate the nave with the altar area, but only men are permitted to enter this area.

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And now for something completely different...

Et Cetera Winery

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Our last stop in Moldova is the small family owned winery of Et Cetera, where we are greeted by Igor, one of the owners, who gives us a guided tour.

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Frustrated by the lack of high quality wines in Moldova, Igor and his brother Alexander bought the land in 2002 and subsequently planted 50 hectares of vines that they imported from Italy and Georgia. Today they employ 20 people in the production of an excess of 10,000 bottles of superior wines annually.

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The grapes will be ready to harvest next month (October) - they are all picked by hand. The grapes are collected in small boxes; then carefully sorted, with each berry checked to ensure that only the best are fermented.

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Next the grapes are placed on the vibrating table where the berries are separated from the stems and other unwanted bits.

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They then travel up this conveyor belt…

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… to the steamer where the skins are removed…

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… and into the presser. Only the white grapes have the skin removed before juicing; for red wine the skin is retained.

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We are given a glass each and head into the factory which is full of huge storage tanks for maturation of the wine.

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Degustation takes the form of opening a tap on the side of the storage tank!

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Today the bottling and labelling plants are devoid of any action.

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The wine is really excellent and we buy three bottles to take home.

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Back at the Winemaker’s Cottage, the sound of a piano fills the air and we discover Valeriu singing self-composed love songs. This trip seems to be full of surreal moments such as this!

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Lunch at the winery
Lunch is in the bright and airy conservatory, and starts with the unfortunately named ‘Bride’s Placinta’, a cheese and potato pie cooked by Alex and Igor's mother.

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A chicken and vegetable soup follows.

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I ask Valeriu what the main course consists of. “That’s rabbit casserole,” he tells me, “But…” he continues, pointing to the side dish, “That does not have an English name”. “Kasha?” I ask rhetorically (and to Valeriu’s surprise; he obviously isn’t aware of my great love – and knowledge – of food), “that is called buckwheat porridge in English.”

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Romania

After a big lunch with lots of wine, sleep is unavoidable on the four-hour drive to the border between Moldova and Romania; in fact only Leonid, the driver, (thankfully) manages to stay awake.

Exiting Moldova is smooth and easy, whereas entering Romania – and thus the EU – is painfully slow. First of all they want our passport and the car documents, then they check the luggage. Eventually, after queuing for nearly an hour, we are in; and meet up with our new (Romanian) driver-guide Andrei. It is very sad to say goodbye to Valeriu and Leonid, they’ve been such good company for the last five days in Moldova.

But now it’s time to explore new horizons with new people. Andrei is very different to Valeriu – where the Moldavian guide was our age and rather traditional (old fashioned even); his Romanian counterpart is a much younger 'free spirit' and a bit of an anarchist.

Again we doze in the car most of the way from the border, it soon gets dark, therefore making it hard to see anything along the way.

Dinner at Hanu Ancuţei Restaurant

Once we reach Târgu Neamț, we stop for dinner in a rustic and cosy restaurant, as we still have a number of miles to go today.

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Although the menu has a convenient English section, the choice is so great that we ask Andrei to pick something typically local for us. He orders a selection of three dips to start – zacusca (aubergine preserved in oil and spices - absolutely delicious! ), white bean pure with fried onion, and mashed beans with smoked meat.

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We follow that with a soup of veal with beetroot and soured cream, and for afters we share a plate of little pastries.

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Casa Felicia

After dinner, which was accompanied by an excellent botle of wine, we again struggle to stay awake on the way to Sucevita and our accommodation for the next two nights: the delightfully rustic Casa Felicia. By the time we arrive it is nearly midnight, so we merely collapse into bed after a long day with many miles - and three countries - covered.

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Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip to one of the least touristy parts of Europe.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:50 Archived in Romania Tagged church grapes romania winery moldova vinyard wine_tasting transnistria undiscovered_destinations bruise tiraspol transdniestr church_of_assumption_of_mother_ tirgu_neamt hanu_ancutei hanul_ancutei casa_felicia sucevita căuşeni et_cetera et_cetera_winery Comments (0)

Marsabit - Chalbi - North Horr

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

sunny 50 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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

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

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

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

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Egyptian Geese

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Bateleur Eagle

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

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Black Headed Heron

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Buffalo

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Rufous Chatterer

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Parrot Billed Sparrow

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

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

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

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

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David looks fed up as well as filled up!

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

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

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Goodbye Marsabit!

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

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

Urban civilisation African style, that is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The stones give way to compacted sand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Here comes the technical stuff, pay attention now!

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

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

Thank you Wikipedia

Maikona Village

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

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

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

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

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

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Chalbi Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Abdi and Grete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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North Horr

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

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

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

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

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The key to our room

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

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

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

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

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House Sparrow

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Common Bulbul

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

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

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

Ruso Sand Dune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cheers and welcome to North Horr.

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

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

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

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