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Türkmenabat - Mary

Not a good start


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Having taken an early night last night, I wake up with a jolt at 01:30, panicking that I can't breathe and sit bolt upright in bed. Feeling extremely nauseous, I quickly rush to the bathroom, only to stumble straight from the bed into the wall opposite. By now I feel totally disorientated, unsure of where I am and what is happening; I am still struggling to breathe as I finally make my way to the bathroom to be sick.

I stumble back into bed, too knocked out to worry about anything, and slip into a deep and seriously disturbed nightmare. Half an hour later, I find myself back in the bathroom bending over the toilet to be sick. This cycle goes on for the rest of the night, with ghastly dreams and hallucinations worthy of any Stephen King horror film. By morning I feel like a wrung-out dish cloth, and after the night-from-hell, I decide to look up some information about the tablets I took last night.

Easier said than done. The writing is in Cyrillic (interestingly enough, they are produced in India), and I received no leaflets or information with them, not even a box. The pharmacist spoke no English, and the instructions she gave Meylis were scant.

My first port of call is Wikipedia to translate the Cyrillic characters into Roman letters, then I use Google to access information about the medicine.

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It seems I am taking Tinidazole and Ciprofloaxacin. I have plenty of experience with the latter, so it can only be the Tinidazole that has affected me. Further research discovers that the list of side effects basically described my gruesome experience step by step. Only coma evaded me last night – or at least as far as I know.

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I then read on and discover that my rum and coke in the room and beer in the restaurant most likely exaggerated my malaise last night.

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“...unpleasant side effects...” is the understatement of the year!

Breakfast

We wander across to take the lift from our room on the 2nd floor up to the 4th floor for the restaurant. The lift door closes, we press the button, and the lift drops six inches then kaput. After pressing a few more buttons, with the lift refusing to budge, we (thankfully) manage to open the doors and walk up the stairs.

The lift in this hotel takes a little getting used to – we are in room 102, which is on the first floor as far as British people are concerned but the second floor in Turkmen terms (and Norwegian). For those not in the know, in Britain we talk about the main lower floor as 'ground floor', the one above that is 'first floor', the next one 'second floor' and so on. In Turkmenistan (which is also what I grew up with), the lower floor is called 'first floor', the one above 'second floor' and so on. The lift seems to be confused between the two different ways of denoting floors: the push button for our floor says 1, whereas the LED display above the door when we get there, displays 2. The first time we went up in the lift, we ended up on the floor above us and had to walk back down again.

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Like the rooms, the restaurant is also simplistic modern, but with a white grand piano; and the waiter arrives climbing in through the window. Obviously.

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To start, we are served pancakes with a thick opaque liquid which appears to be some sort of syrup or toffee sauce; with brightly coloured bread rolls.

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The main part of the breakfast is the usual meat, cheese and eggs, served with olives, tomatoes and cucumber.

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Every bar and restaurant we have been to in Turkmenistan have been showing highly sexualised music videos on huge TV screens, even at breakfast time!

Cotton

Having changed our itinerary as a result of David's leg injury, we are heading back to Mary today, passing through areas with cotton plantation, something that is a bit of a curiosity to me.

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Wedding

We also come across a wedding cavalcade with both western style decorations and one with a lot more local flair.

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Merv

We see remnants of the 15th century walls of this famed Silk Road oasis long before we reach the main archaeological site.

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Merv, a definite highlights of this trip, was one of the most important cities of the Silk Road, and served as the capital of a number of empires and kingdoms over the course of its more than 4,000-year-long history.

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Greater Kyz Kala Fortress.
Locally known as the Maiden Castle, as a result of the hair pin found here during excavations, whereas tourists have colloquially named it the Tiramisu Fort on account of the sides being reminiscent of the finger biscuits used in the famous dessert. The corrugated look is in fact designed to prevent erosion. It has obviously worked!

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It is believed that the Kiskala was built in the 7th century AD, when the Arabs invaded Merv, reinforced by the discovery of Arab coins. National Geographic suggests it was used as an elite rural residence. The structure is the largest ancient monumental köshk (castle mansion) in Central Asia

Lesser Kyz Kala
Known as the 'Boys Palace', legend tells that young men wishing to marry the girl of their dreams should use a slingshot to fire an apple from this much smaller castle, for the girl to catch it in the Maiden Castle. Given the distance between the two, it is no wonder the city died out.

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There are plans to restore and reconstruct this UNESCO Heritage site, and we can see a number of mud bricks ready to be used.

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Gäwürgala Town Walls
Reputed to be founded by Alexander the Great, Merv first became a significant centre under the Achaemenian Empire in the 3rd Millennium BC, and It was subsequently ruled by the Sassanids, Greeks, Arabs, Turks and Persians. It was from Merv in the 8th century that Abu Muslim proclaimed the start of the Abbasid revolution. At the height of its importance as the eastern capital of the Seljuk Empire in the 11th and 12th centuries, it was a vital centre of learning. Here Omar Khayyam worked on his celebrated astronomical tables. Meylis points out where each of the rulers have left their mark, sometimes through extensions of the same construction.

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By the 12th century, Merv was the largest city in the world. At this point I have to admit my ignorance, and confess that until I started researching for our trip to Turkmenistan, I had never herd of Merv. As one article states, it is “one of the most famous cities you’ve (probably) never heard of.” Archaeologists have found evidence in this older Merv of a cosmopolitan urban society, boasting communities of Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Manicheans, Christians and Jews.

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But only a decades later, in 1221, Tolui Khan, the fourth son of the notorious conqueror Genghis Khan, entered the city with his Mongol army. Tolui promptly ordered his soldiers to kill every single one of Merv’s inhabitants after they refused to pay tribute to the great Mongol warlord. In all, it’s said the devastating Mongol destruction of Merv left between 700,000 and 1 million people dead, including several hundred thousand refugees that had been seeking shelter nearby and were swept up in the carnage.

The hole in the wall you can see in the image below was created during the devastating attack by the Mongol army.

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Abdullah Khan Kala
Not much remains of the fortress erected by Timur's son Shāh Rukh in the 15th cent. In its heyday, it was covered with mud bricks on the outside, with 44 watch towers. The fortifications were surrounded by huge water filled moats up to 30 m wide, with the only drawbridges in Central Asia at that time.

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Tombs of the two Askhabs
The Askhabs were 'standard bearers' of the Prophet Mohammed. The 7th century tombs belong to al-Hakim ibn Amr al-Gifari on the left, while the larger toms is that of Buraida ibn al-Huseib al-Aslami, who was the first Arab to arrive in Merv in 651, to convert the Zoroastrians, Jews, and Persians to Islam. At the time, Merv was known as 'The City of Infidels'

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The two large portals (known as iwans) behind the tombs are much newer, constructed by Shāh Rukh (Tamerlane's son) in the 15th century.

We are both really feeling the heat this morning. While the thermometer in the car says a mere 36 °C, it feels more like 46 °C. Keep drinking that water, girl, keep drinking!

Sardoba
Built in 1140, the underground reservoir, designed to keep water cool, has been lovingly restored. The original dome was clad in blue tiles, reported to be visible a day’s march away.

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Restored bricks

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We can just about make out water at the bottom

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Detail on the original stucco

The Tomb of Hodja Yusuf Hamadani
Born in 1048, Hamadani is regarded as one of the founders of Sufism. He died in 1140 on the way between Herat and Merv, after which his body was was carried to the city and buried here.

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The mosque was built in his honour in the 16th century by the Timurids and was one of the very few mosques in Turkmenistan that was allowed to operate, albeit under tight control, during the Soviet period.

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This site is one of the most important places of shrine pilgrimage in Turkmenistan, and we see members of the Buluk tribe, who are refugees from Pakistan. While illegal, they apparently live peacefully in the village by bribing officials.

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Local people are very superstitious, and many come here to make a wish for a new car, more money, better job, good health etc, by placing bricks leaning against each other, much as western people may create spiritual rock cairns.

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Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar
Hailed by UNESCO as a “unique artistic and architectural achievement comparable in importance to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Taj Mahal”, the mausoleum is also known as Dar-al-Akhyre (" The Other World").

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The Sultan, who died in 1157, is revered as 'Alexander the Great of his time', and the mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage of thousands of believers and a main tourist attraction, yet we have the place to ourselves.

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Unusually, the mausoleum was built while he was still alive, and was restored in 2002 by the Turkish government as a gift to Turkmenistan. The building would have originally stood, not in its current isolation, but as part of a complex of religious buildings, including the city’s main mosque. The monument's foundations and walls were built so strongly that Mongol invaders were unable to destroy the tomb even after setting it ablaze.

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The tomb prior to restoration

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Stele commemorating the Turkish efforts in the restoration

The cenotaph on the floor of the mausoleum was a 19th-century addition, and is not the tomb of Sultan Sanjar.

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There is a legend attached to Sultan Sanjar (oh, how I love such legends!). Despite never having seen her, but having heard all about her great beauty, Sanjar fell in love with a girl known as Peri (the name for a Persian supernatural being). Upon asking her to marry him, she stipulates three conditions:

1. You are not allowed to watch me walk or look at my feet.
2. You may not watch me comb my hair
3. You must not hug me

One day when Sanjar opens the door, he accidentally spots her walking, and it appears that her feet do not touch the ground. When curiosity gets the better of him and he later opens the door again, the Peri is combing her hair, having removed her head from her body. As soon as she spots him, she puts her head back. Dismayed by these revelations, the Sultan exclaims “I don't care how you are, I want you!” and promptly embraces her, only to find her body is devoid of bones.

With the Sultan having broken all three rules, the Peri immediately turns into a dove, soaring high in the sky. Sanjar tearfully begged her: "I shall die if I don't see you again”, to which she replied: “in order to see me, you must construct a building with an opening in the dome so I can fly in; then come every Friday to see me”.

Sultan Sanjar promptly started construction of the building which was later to become his mausoleum, and every Friday devotees still come to see the Peri, in the incarnation of a dove, fly through the structure.

Despite today not being a Friday, we are delighted to spot a dove flying in through the hole in the roof; although I wasn't quick enough to grab a photo.

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The sheer size of the city and its ruins makes Merv among the most impressive and complex archaeological sites on Earth, and there is so much more to see. Artem has been driving us all around the walls, rather than David trying to walk on his poorly leg. It is now time to head back to Mary and a free afternoon for David to rest that leg.

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Meylis is trying to persuade us to stay one more night here in Mary, and then travel from here straight to the airport for our flight home, partly because he really likes it here, and partly because he is concerned that he'll be immediately sent off with more tourists on another trip if he returns to Ashgabat tomorrow. Our flight home is in the evening the day after tomorrow, and it would undoubtedly be better for David to rest his leg up in the hotel in Ashgabat before the long flight rather than to sit in the car for several hours that day. We therefore decide to stick to Plan B and move on tomorrow (Plan A was to go trekking in the far north east of the country, obviously totally out the question as a result of David's injury).

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Modern bus shelter in front of a Soviet style apartment block in Mary

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I love the fact that the bus shelters are fully air conditioned to deal with the hot Central Asian summers

Aladdin Café

But first, lunch. We head back to the Aladdin café near our hotel in Mary, with its great food, reasonable prices and good atmosphere.

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We get all this, plus 1.5 litres of Fanta (most restaurants in Turkmenistan do not have small bottles or cans of pop, only these big ones), bread and watermelon for less than $30. With prices like these, which are cheap for us, but expensive for the locals, we have been paying for Artem and Meylis' meals every day.

After a much welcomed snooze, we have a room picnic this evening, also known as 'Delsey Dining' after the famous suitcase, once the luggage-of-choice for any self-respecting air crew who would often bring foods with them from home to eat in the room, and pocket their daily dining allowance. No alcohol for me today, though – I don't want to go through that experience again tonight thank you very much!

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One of the main benefits of eating in the room tonight is that David is able to elevate his leg, which seems to be turning more purple by the minute.

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Even without alcohol, I start to struggle with my breathing, develop hot flushes, and the diarrhoea has returned this evening, despite staying away all day. It does seem that the body knows when there are no toilets around, such as in Merv this morning. Like most other hotel rooms we've stayed in, this one only offers one nearly empty spare toilet roll.

Many thanks to Undiscovered Destinations who have yet again arranged a fascinating trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:18 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged mosque ruins tomb muslim unesco greek dome pilgrimage mary archaeology ancient_city vodka mausoleum zoroastrian islam cotton dove pharmacy turks superstition wikipedia lift turkmenistan legend refugees tiramisu cyrillic merv silk_road cipro arabs antibiotics reservoir medicines peri stucco central_asia mongols undiscovered_destinations turkmenabat wedding_cars nightmares room_picnic leg_injury aladdin_café sardoba -ex_soviet bruising google_translate tinidazole ciproflaxin ciprofloaxacin dizzy side_effects grand_piano cotton_plantations kyz_kala omar_kayyam achaemenian_empire sassanids persians abu_muslim seljuk tolui_khan ghengis_khan mongol_sacking mongol_army andullah_khan_kaka askhabs ice_house sufism hodje_yusuf_hamadini timurids rock_cairns sultan_sanjar delsey_dining Comments (2)

A lazy morning at Mandina Lodges

Taking it easy


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Coffee is delivered to each room every morning, at a time of your choice. We have ours outside at 07:30 this morning, while watching the beautiful sunrise over the river.

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We're not the only ones enjoying the sunrise.

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The morning goes something like this:

Breakfast
Bird watching
Walk around the grounds
Bird watching
Back to room
Sit outside
Birdwatching
Snooze

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Cheese and chilli omelette, sausage and beans = a great breakfast

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Pied Kingfisher

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Black Headed Heron

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Another one of the fifteen cats at Mandina Lodges

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Village Weavers and Red Eyed Dove in a plant pot on the island in the middle of the pool

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Laughing Dove

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Bats in the ceiling of the restaurant

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The birds are fed every day

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Lovely bougainvillea in the grounds

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Village Weaver

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Black Kite - it looks like he has caught something - a mouse maybe?

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Black Necked Weaver

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Beautiful water reflections in the river

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Long Tailed Cormorants

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David at the poolside

Lunch

We eat our lunch in the shady bar, while watching a Whimbrel trying to catch a crab on the mud flats. The crab gets away several times before the bird finally managed to grab it.

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The crab has lost its claw.

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He still managed to escape though.

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But not for long.

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A Grey Heron wants to get in on the action.

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As well as a Western Plantain Eater.

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Time for another siesta.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:52 Archived in Gambia Tagged birds reflections dog river cat sunrise breakfast kite wild africa forest birding coffee bats crab heron dove whimbrel west_africa weaver gambia omelette bird_watching cormorants the_gambia the_gambia_experience plantain_eater wild_birds mandina_lodges makasutu mandina makasutu_forest water_reflections Comments (8)

Tanji Beach and Bird Bath

Last morning at Tanji


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With no early morning bird trip booked today, we have a lie-in this morning and don't rise until 07:15. Luxury. It is also the first time in the four nights we've stayed here that we've had breakfast in the lodge.

After a lovely omelette, we go back to the room and pack for today's transfer to our next lodge, then take a long, leisurely stroll along the beach.

Tanji Beach

Tanji Bird Eco Lodge borders what could be a nice beach with a bit of TLC. As it is at the moment, it is littered with all sorts of rubbish washed up or discarded by fishermen. Other than the locals who are either using it as a short cut from one place to another, or are here to look for bait for their fishing trip; the beach is deserted.

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It could be so nice.

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The beach is suffering badly from erosion

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I was hoping to find some sea birds along the coast, but the only one we see is a lone Whimbrel.

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Instead I try my hand at some creative photography using the crashing waves as my subject.

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We return to the lodge and spend the remainder of the morning by the birding pool.

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With a drink, of course

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Black Necked Weaver enjoying a splash in the bird bath

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Red Eyed Dove

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Village Weaver

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African Silverbill

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African Silverbill

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Common Bulbul

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Black Necked Weaver

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Western Bluebill

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Pied Crow

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Red Billed Firefinch

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Common Wattle Eye

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Agama Lizard

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Western Red Billed Hornbill

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White Crowned Robin Chat

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Red Bellied Paradise Flycatcher

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Yellow Throated Leaflove

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Snowy Crowned Robin Chat

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A Green Vervet Monkey tries to muscle in on the scene too

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Bronze Mannikins

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Red Cheeked Cordon Blue

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Grey Headed Bristlebill

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Senegal Coucal

Lunch

During our long chat with Haddy yesterday, we were asked what time we would like to arrange the transfer from Tanji to Bakotu for today. As we love it so much here, we decided we'd like to have one last lunch at this place before moving on.

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Fish and chips

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One last coffee under our favourite umbrella

It is always hard to say goodbye when you have been treated like part of the family as we have here. Spending four nights in the same hotel is rather unusual for us, so we have really got to know the staff quite well.

The driver who picks us up for the transfer is the most miserable Gambian we have met to date, and a poor driver to boot. His driving style is jerky and aggressive and he travels much too close to the vehicle in front. Thankfully the journey to Bakotu only takes half an hour.

Posted by Grete Howard 06:49 Archived in Gambia Tagged beach monkey waves rubbish crow lunch lizard birding trash coffee erosion pollution flycatcher dove fish_and_chips west_africa weaver bulbul finch gambia omelette bird_watching hornbill eco_lodge coucal cordon_bleu the_gambia tanji robin_chat bristlebill cordon_blue mannikin firefinch tanji_bird_eco_lodge bluebill leaflove tanji_beah creative_photography slow_shutter_speed silverbill wattle_eye verver_monkey saying_goodbye Comments (3)

Abuko

Big day today: Lifer # 1000


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

I spent most of the night tossing and turning, trying to find a position that didn't hurt my arm. That'll teach me for spending so long at the waterhole photographing the birds. Not. I even struggle to bring my hand up to my face this morning, affecting washing, brushing my teeth and hair, and eating. Photographer's elbow. A bit like a tennis player having played in an all day tournament after normally just having a game once or twice a week. The pain won't stop me going out taking photos of birds though.

Abuko

This morning Malick is taking us to Abuko. He's decided that we are going to be better off walking along the plantations just on the outskirts of the woods, rather than inside the thick forest itself, where the conditions will be rather difficult in terms of photography: dark and too many branches in the way. Sounds good to me.

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Onions

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Bitter Tomato

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Sweet Potato

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Mango

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Tapping the palm toddy

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Scarecrow. Or should that be scaredog?

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I don't think the strips of cloth hung from this pole to keep the birds away from the crops are working too well.

We almost immediately spot birds in the trees and on the ground. As before, any lifers (new species to me) will be denoted with *

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Sacred Ibis

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African Grey Hornbill

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Hooded Vulture

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Blue Breasted Kingfisher*

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Grey Woodpecker*

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Woodland Kingfisher

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Spur Winged Plover

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Striated Heron

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Black Crake

Malick warns us to be careful as we step over the ants who are making their way along a well-defined path.

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African Jacana

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Senegal Coucal

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White Billed Buffalo Weavers*

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Two different species of Egrets - Intermediate and Cattle

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Squacco Heron

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Black Heron

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David testing out his directional microphone, hoping to cut out some of the "click click click" he normally gets on his videos from my photography.

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Blue Bellied Roller*

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Giant Kingfisher with a Tilapia in his beak

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Rose Ringed Parakeet

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Pied Crow

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Gull Billed Tern*

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Red Eyed Dove

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Long Tailed Cormorant

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Senegal Thick Knee*

This is a very special and important moment in my birdwatching mission – my 1000th lifer!

Ta da!

While I have been interested in seeing and photographing birds for a very long time, it is only in the last 13 years or so that I have taken it to the next level and making a point of identifying and recording the birds I see. I would not consider myself a serious birder, but I am an ardent list-maker, so to make 1000 different species makes me jubilant and proud.

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Little Bee Eater

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Hammerkop

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Broad Billed Roller

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Hooded Vulture

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Reef Heron

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Purple Heron

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Long Tailed Cormorant

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Great White Egret

I came to The Gambia with a very short wish list, consisting of only three species that I really wanted to see: Western Bluebill, Western Plantain Eater and the Abyssinian Roller. Having ticked off the first two yesterday, Malick promised me the roller today. He succeeded in spotting it, and the bird put on a delightful display for us.

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The perfect finish to a perfect morning's birdwatching. Thank you Malick.

Posted by Grete Howard 06:36 Archived in Gambia Tagged birds crow birding mango ants roller woodpecker heron egret vulture ibis parakeet dove west_africa kingfisher plantations garlic cormorant sweet_potato tilapia gambia bird_watching hornbill hammerkop thick_knee coucal tern the_gambia malick_suso crake afraica abuko bitter_tomato palm_toddy scarecrow 1000th_lifer lifer life_tick Comments (3)

Afternoon at Tanji

Making a splash


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

Afternoon at Tanji Bird Eco Lodge

As soon as we get back to Tanji Bird Eco Lodge from our birdwatching at Brufut this morning, we head for the bird baths, of course.

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Black Necked Weavers

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African Silverbill

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Common Bulbul

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Red Bellied Paradise Flycatcher

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Snowy Crowned Robin Chat

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Western Red Billed Hornbill

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Common Wattle Eye

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Red Billed Firefinch

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Village Weaver

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Grey Headed Bristlebill

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African Thrush

Lunch

As I said yesterday, we are the only overnight guests at the lodge, although other visitors come for a drink or just to watch the birds at the bath; including the two Dutch ladies we saw this morning at Brufut. For lunch, however, there is just the two of us, and we sit at one of the tables on the ridge overlooking the sea beyond.

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Fish with spicy sauce

After lunch I return to the paddling pool while David goes to the room for a siesta. The girls have been in to make the bed and have lovingly created some more designs with flower petals.

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Black Necked Weaver

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Red Cheeked Cordon Blue

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Village Weaver

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There is quite a pool party going on.

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Black Billed Wood Dove

All through the afternoon, birds come and go, different species, some of which are familiar to me, but many of whom I'd not seen before this morning. I am absolutely captivated by the goings-on and can't tear myself away.

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This poor little bulbul has a bent beak, and I am not sure if it is a birth defect or whether he has collided with a window or similar. He is still alive, so is presumably able to survive on soft fruits and suchlike.

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The Little Bee Eaters dart in from the confines of the trees, swoop down for a brief dip in the cool water and once again return to the safety of the woods. All in the blink of an eye.

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Blue Spotted Wood Dove

I am particularly fascinated by the splashing in the shallow water. Dialling in rapid shooting on my camera, I fire off picture after picture after picture of the weavers (mainly) cleaning their feathers.

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There is even a squirrel who makes a brief appearance at the water hole.

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Feeling a slight twinge in my elbow from spending the last ten hours or so photographing birds (taking nearly 5000 pictures in the last 24 hours while holding a heavy lens in the air); I figure it is about time to call it a day. Popping into the bar on the way back to the room, I grab the last three Cokes to go with the Duty Free rum for me, and the last beer for David; for us to enjoy a little snifter in the room before dinner. It looks like we have drunk the bar dry. Again. This seems to be a fairly regular occurrence on our travels.

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Dinner

By the time we wander down to the restaurant for something to eat, the bar has thankfully been restocked, and we can both enjoy a beer with our food tonight.

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Sarra, the manager, comes over for a chat and asks: “You want wine? I'll get you wine for tomorrow”.

Followed by “We have internet, a service we offer to The Gambia Experience. 200 Dalasi for the duration of your stay”.

As I do like to be in touch with the world (really?), I reply with gusto “Great. What's the password?”

“I will go and get it”.

Sarra proceeds to walk over to a pile of papers and start to rummage. Nothing. He pokes around in the bar. Still nothing. Continuing his search in the kitchen, it is apparent he still has not found what he is looking for. Nor in the office. Eventually he wanders off to one of the bedrooms, presumably still looking for the elusive piece of paper with the code on it.

The food arrives, but still no wifi password. Oh well, it is not that important anyway.

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Chicken and chips, Gambian style. The chicken is served in a delicious sauce, but I am missing my veggies. I find the vast majority of restaurants, both in the UK and abroad, serve far too few vegetables with their meals for my liking.

Just as we finish our food, Sarra comes back with the password and I am yet again in touch with the world.

Acutely aware that we are the only guests in the lodge, we vacate the restaurant and retire to our room for the night so that the staff can go home. Before we go, we ask for an extra duvet to put on the bed - not something I expected to do here in the Gambia.

The room is eerily dark, with the only sound coming from the crashing waves and rustling palms. Pure heaven.

Posted by Grete Howard 16:47 Archived in Gambia Tagged birds africa birding flycatcher dove wifi weaver bulbul gambia bird_watching hornbill eco_lodge thrush bee_eater the_gambia tanji robin_chat bristlebill the_gambia_experience cordon_blue firefinch tanji_bird_eco_lodge tanji_bird_reserve bird_photography wood_dove wifi_password Comments (1)

Brufut

So many lifers


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

Yet again Lariam (malaria prophylaxis) upsets my sleep with a series of bad dreams: while faced with a plethora of colourful birds, my camera refuses to operate despite repeatedly and frustratingly pressing the shutter. I wake up agitated and distressed, realise it is thankfully just a dream and return to sleep. And the dream. The same horrid dream. This repeats itself time and time again and by the time the alarm goes off at 6am, I am exhausted.

Birding Pool

Knowing we are too early for the breakfast, and will be out for most of the morning, we grab some snacks from our bags and head to the bird pool to wait for the guide to arrive.

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As it is still fairly dark, photography is almost impossible, so we just sit and enjoy until Malick turns up.

Police Check Point

We pre-booked Malick – Chris Packham's birding guide of choice - through The Gambia Experience before we left home, just to make sure we had a couple of days of serious birding organised. Having someone who knows where to go and the transport to take us there is half the battle.

As with so many African countries, The Gambia has its fair share of Police Road Blocks where they check the drivers' paperwork. It also acts as an opportunity to investigate the birds that hang around here, feeling on rubbish left behind.

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Yellow Crowned Gonolek

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Red Cheeked Cordon Blue

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Red Bellied Paradise Flycatcher

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Western Red Billed Hornbill

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Brown Babbler

Brufut

Our destination for today, however, is Brufut, a community-organised bird sanctuary protected by the West African Birds Study Association.

Before we reach the woods themselves, we stop near some habitation at the edge of a few plantations and take a short walk to see what species can be found around here. We are very excited to spot so many 'lifers' (species new to us, indicated by * below) in such a small area.

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Yellow Billed Shrike*

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Stone Partridge*

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Piapiac*

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White Crowned Robin Chat*

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White Faced Whistling Ducks

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Greater Honeyguide*

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Village Weaver

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Blue Bellied Roller*

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Senegal Wattled Plover*

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Black Crake

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Long Tailed Glossy Starling

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Fine Spotted Woodpecker*

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African Jacana

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Pied Crow

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White Billed Buffalo Weaver*

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Greenshank

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Spur Winged Plover

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Beautiful Sunbird (female)

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Bearded Barbet

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Splendid Sunbird (female)

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Copper Sunbird*

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Intermediate Egret

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Northern Red Bishop in non-breeding colours*

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Variable Sunbird (female) The female sunbirds all look very similar.

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Common Sandpiper

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Pied Kingfisher

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Black Headed Heron

The plantations include such crops as cashew nuts and mango trees.

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Unripe cashew fruits with the nuts not yet having developed - they will be hanging down below when ripe

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Mango fruits

Brufut Woodland Bar

We continue to an area known as Brufut Woods, where there is even a bar serving drinks. Fearing that they may not be open this late in the season, Malick had already contacted them by phone earlier, to make sure they put the kettle on.

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A number of benches are set out, overlooking an area with several bird baths in the trees and on the ground. I notice that rather than putting out food for the birds so that they become dependent on humans for feeding, only water is provided. I like that.

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This is the civilised way of photographing the birds.

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We spend the next couple of hours watching, photographing, and listening to the birds, seeing their family squabbles, how they interact with each other and some obvious pecking orders.

As before, any lifers are denoted with *

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Red Cheeked Cordon Bleu

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Senegal Coucal

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Black Billed Wood Dove*

I usually have a wish list of birds (or animals) I wish to see when we travel, and this is one of only three on my list this time:

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Western Plantain Eater*

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Bronze Mannikin

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Yellow Throated Leaflove*

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Laughing Doves

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Common Bulbul

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Red Billed Firefinch (female)

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Black Necked Weaver*

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Greater Honeyguide*

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Lavender Waxbill*

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Orange Cheeked Waxbill*

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African Thrush*

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Splendid Sunbird

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Hooded Vulture

We employ the services of a local guide to help us go in to the woods to look for the Long Tailed Nightjar which is often found in this area. After a short moment of concern when the bird is not where he saw it half an hour earlier (as nocturnal birds, nightjars don't tend to move far during the day unless they are spooked), he spots it on the ground, very well camouflaged.

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We start making our way back to the main road, along dirt tracks frequented by more animal carts than vehicles.

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But first, Malick wants to check out some palms on the way.

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Grey Woodpecker*

Having seen them here in the last couple of days, this is what he was looking for:

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Red Necked Falcons*

And so ends a very productive morning's birdwatching. Now back to the lodge for the rest of the day.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:41 Archived in Gambia Tagged birds crow africa birding coffee mango woodpecker heron egret vulture dove malaria west_africa kingfisher starling plantations weaver falcon shrike bulbul dreams finch barbet gambia lariam nightjar bird_watching hornbill sunbird jacana cashews coucal plover thrush sandpiper life_list robin_chat mefloquine malaria_prophelaxis malaria_tablets nightmares disturbed_sleep police_check_point chris_packham malick_suso the_gambia_experience gonolek cordon_blue brufut brufut_woods piapiac whistling_ducks honeyguide crake glossy_starling greenshank red_bishop mango_trees cashew_nuts cashew_trees plantain_eater mannikin firefinch waxbill Comments (4)

Gatwick to Tanji

Better late than never


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

As expected, the hotel room was way too hot overnight (it is a common problem with Premier Inns) and I didn't sleep very well. The benefit of this is that I will then hopefully sleep on the plane, making the flight go quicker.

After dropping off the car at the valet parking, we head for the Titan check in desk. It is a number of years since we travelled on a charter flight, and I am concerned about my hand luggage which is full of camera equipment and borderline as far as the weight limit goes. To mitigate this, David is carrying one of my lenses in his backpack, and another in his coat pocket, whereas I slip all the batteries in my pocket and wear one of the cameras around my neck with yet another lens on it.

As it turns out, all this worry has been for nothing – they don't even give the hand luggage a second glance, yet alone weigh it.

Wondertree Restaurant

Duty Free purchase comes next, then breakfast.

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David's full English

I order pancakes with bacon and syrup.
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Flight

Boarding is simple and straight forward and we strike lucky with a row to ourselves.

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As we settle in, ready to relax for the next six-and-a-half hours, our hearts sink a little when the captain comes on the intercom with an announcement: “Things don't seem to be going too well for us this morning; we have developed a technical fault and have to go back to the stand to get an engineer to check it out.”

Oh dear.

One hour later, he updates us: “We're ready to go, air traffic control is ready, but Eurocontrol is not ready”.

At this point he switches the engine off to save fuel, which of course means no A/C. The cabin becomes hotter and hotter and hotter as people's patience wears thinner and thinner. After some (uncomfortable) time, he reassures us: “I am aware that you guys are getting rather warm back there...” and switches the power back on.

More time passes before the next announcement: “A restricted no-fly zone has cropped up in the south of France, so our flight path needs re-routing.”

More waiting time.

That sorted, we are informed that “we need a courier to push us out from the stand and they are all at the other side of the airport”.

At this point the lady across the aisle from us becomes very irate, shouting obscenities, calling the captain a liar, refusing to switch her phone off etc. While I understand that nerves are getting frayed and tempers short, that sort of outburst is not doing her – or us – any favours.

We finally take off two hours and twenty minutes late. What should have been a 6 and a half hour flight, now becomes nearly nine hours of having to sit in this tin can.

The flight itself is reasonably painless after all that, with quite good food (spicy chicken noodles and a very nice chocolate and orange mousse). Wine, of course, has to be bought – and paid for – separately. I guess we have been spoilt over the years with scheduled long haul flight where everything is included.

Banjul Airport

The modern terminal building has been added since we were last here; in fact, it is not fully completed yet. We are last in the queue for immigration, but it doesn't matter as the luggage has only just started to arrive when we get out there.

Some things have never changed since we were here last, 23 years ago: porters wishing to change the British coins they have been given as tips into notes which they are then able to convert into Dalasi, the local currency. I am happy to oblige.

My bag arrives and we watch everyone else collect theirs, one after the other. Still no sign of David's. Some bags go round and round, again and again, but David's is not one of them. More and more people are leaving the baggage area and heading for the customs and exit. Still no sign of David's bag. With only a handful of passengers still remaining around the carousel, all apparently in possession of their luggage, the belt stops. Without David's case. After a few tense moments, I spot it, partly hidden by the curtain at the entrance to the belt, stopping just short of actually coming into the baggage area. Phew.

Tanji Bird Lodge

As expected, we have a private minibus transfer to the hotel. Our accommodation for the first five days is in a very small eco-lodge with just eight rooms, and it soon becomes apparent that we are the only tourists staying here for those nights.

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The lodge is all very open plan, with a thatch-covered bar and tables in amongst the trees as well as on a ridge overlooking the ocean for eating and drinking.

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A meandering path leads us to the four simple brick huts housing two rooms in each.

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There is no A/C in the room, but it has been designed with a high domed ceiling to help disperse the heat, and with slatted windows, the sea breezes are allowed to flow through.

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The inside is basic but adequate, featuring a narrow double bed which has been lovingly strewn with flower petals. In all the years we've travelled and all the hotels we've stayed in, this is a first for us. We have had petals on the bed before, of course, but never has it spelled out our name – such a special and personal touch.

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Domed ceiling

The bathroom has a shower and toilet but no running hot water (we were fully aware of that when we booked), and we cannot seem to manage to get any water out of the shower hose, only through the tap. Cold bucket showers it is then. In this heat, that can be quite refreshing, and is an excellent way to preserve water.

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Bird Baths

But first things first: bird watching. The lodge is set inside Tanji Bird Reserve, and have enticed birds to visit the grounds by providing a series of bowls and pools filled with water. To encourage human visitors, chairs and benches are available for us to sit on as we watch our feathered friends come to bathe and drink; with strategically placed tables for our drinks too of course.

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David's preferred way to spot birds

We see a surprising amount of birds in the short time we are here this afternoon (by the time we get settled in to the room, we only have around half an hour left of daylight). They come to bathe and drink, or maybe just hang around with their mates. Here is a small selection:

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Blue Spotted Wood Dove

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Blackcap Babblers

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Red Eyed Dove

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Village Weavers

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Snowy Crowned Robin Chat

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Black Necked Weaver and Grey Headed Bristlebill

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Laughing Dove

Dinner

As is the Howard tradition, we enjoy a Duty Free tipple in the room before going down to the restaurant for dinner. We find it surprisingly chilly, with a cool wind, to the point of wearing a fleece. We never expected that in The Gambia; in fact, while packing we contemplated whether or not to bring any type of warm clothing at all. Just as well we did.

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As the sun goes down, some interesting clouds appear, later taking on a muted pink hue from the setting sun.

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With us being the only two guests in the lodge this evening, catering is down to what they have in the kitchen, which is fish and chicken.

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We choose butter fish, which is thankfully de-boned and absolutely delicious. I have mine with rice while David orders chips.

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With a glass or two of the local beer, of course. While the main religion here in The Gambia is Islam, they are a secular nation and quite liberal – the country even has its own brewery.

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Being situated inside a bird reserve, there is no light pollution here. Walking back to the room in almost complete darkness, we are glad to see someone has been to the room and switched our outside light on while we were eating dinner. How thoughtful.

We have only had a couple of beers each this evening, but David really struggles to get the key in the lock. s we are fiddling, a knock from behind the door makes me jump – there is someone in our room! Then it dawns on us: this is not our room. It seems we have tried to enter the room where the manager was sleeping. Oops. Sheepishly we continue to our own room and make a mental note of leaving the outside light on tomorrow night.

Being used to a super-king sized bed at home, we worry that the four-foot bed in this place is going to feel rather cramped. Surprisingly, it doesn't, but it is somewhat chilly this evening so we reluctantly grab the duvet from the cupboard and put on the bed. While the bed is narrow, the duvet is miniscule. It is basically a single quilt inside a double cover. It looks like we will have to cuddle up all night, then.

Once the lights are out, the room is pitch black. The sort of blackness that you cannot imagine without having experienced somewhere with absolutely no light whatsoever. Your eyes never get used to it. You cannot see anything. At all. I make sure my torch is within groping distance, and drift off to sleep.

The Gambia Experience featuring Tanji Bird Eco Lodge

Posted by Grete Howard 10:59 Archived in Gambia Tagged birds hotel flight airport breakfast dinner birding dove weaver gatwick titan bird_watching delay valet_parking check_in bajul charter_flight wondertree tanji tanji_bird_lodge bird-bath babbler robin_chat bristlebill butter_fish narrow_bed Comments (4)

Pench National Park - Part I

A very rare and endangered sighting this afternoon


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

There appears to be some sort of confusion about our park tickets for today. It seems our agent booked them for the wrong gate, some 60km away. Hence the very early start of 04:30. Rakesh (the driver who brought us down from Jabalpur) is picking us up and driving us to the gate in his car, where we will change into the open top safari vehicle (known as a 'gypsy'), so that we won't get frozen solid by taking the long journey in an open top car. Wise move.

4:30 comes and goes. No Rakesh. At 05:00 I ask the young receptionist what is happening. He wanders off to check with the manager. After a few minutes, he comes running back and continues on to the car park.

A short while later a Gypsy arrives for us. There has been a change of plan. We are going to the nearest gate just a few kilometres away after all; and will pay for a new ticket instead, saving all the hassle of the long journey. That sounds good to me, as it would take well in excess of an hour to travel 60 km on these roads.

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We also have to pay for a (compulsory) park guide who will accompany us on this morning's safari. Once that is all in order, we can enter the park.

The first thing we spot, is an Oriental Honey Buzzard, another new tick on our life list.

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Seeing very fresh tiger pug marks is promising for a sighting this morning.

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The sun is just beginning to break through the mist as we make our way deeper into the forest.

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Dhole
We are very excited when our guide spots a rare and endangered dhole (Indian wild dog) in between the trees. Our very first sighting of this species in the wild.

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There are thought to be fewer than 2500 of these animals left in the wild, so it is in fact even more rare than the tiger.

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We follow him as he makes his way through the forest.

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Indian Ghost Trees
Found all throughout the park (as well as being quite common elsewhere on the subcontinent), the bark of this very distinctive tree (Sterculia urens) exudes a gum that is used for laxatives.

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Rufous Treepie

Jungle Fowl

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The sun is slowly warming up the air, but the mist is still hanging over the lower ground, creating a mystical and eerie atmosphere.

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Yellow Footed Green Pigeon

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Spotted Dove

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Indian Peafowl

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Indian Pond Heron

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Indian Pond Heron

Changeable Hawk Eagle

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Another Peacock sunning himself

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Brown Fish Owl
The guide keeps telling us the name of this bird, but I just can't get what he is trying to say. It sounds something like 'ground peace owl'. It is not until very much later that I realise he is saying 'Brown Fish Owl'.

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We pass a flooded area with a Green Sandpiper feeding in the shallows.

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Golden Jackals in the far distance

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Indian Roller

Breakfast
We stop for breakfast in a dedicated picnic area. A structure has been created to provide shade or shelter you from the rain, but as the temperature this morning is still very much on the cool side, everyone remains outside to catch some warmth from the sun's rays.

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The breakfast box is rather disappointing this morning, especially considering how superior the food was at the lodge yesterday.

A rather hideous plastic Mowgli adorns the site, which is appropriately called Mowgli Picnic Area.

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We continue to a large wetlands area that is teeming with birds, and spend some time with binoculars picking out various species, many of which are new to us. It is all rather exciting.

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Indian Cormorant

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Bonelli's Eagle

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Green Sandpiper

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Little Ringed Plovers

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Painted Storks

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White Rumped Vulture

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Indian Pond Heron having a bad hair day

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Great Egret

There are also a couple of jackals around.

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We reluctantly leave the pond area behind to go in search of more wildlife.

Hanuman Langurs

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Red Wattled Lapwing

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Hoopoe

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Chital

Nilgai
This is the first nilgai we see on this trip, and then only for a few seconds as she disappears into the forest.

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Jungle Owlet

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Black Drongo

Upon hearing loud warning calls, the driver stops the car and we sit and wait. There is obviously a predator in the vicinity, and a lot of very distressed langurs. We wait. And wait. And wait. As time is now getting on, we eventually have to move, despite not having seen any tigers.

It is time to leave the park and return to the Lodge as the park rules have very strict timings for just morning and evening safaris rather than the whole day as we are used to from Africa.

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On the way we spot these two gorgeous Indian Rollers, one with his lunch.

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As we were up so early this morning (plus I didn't sleep well last night), I decide to forego lunch and spend the time snoozing instead.

Stay tuned for the next entry.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:37 Archived in India Tagged animals birds india sunrise breakfast safari eagle mist birding picnic national_park pigeon peacock roller heron egret stork vulture dove langur gypsy owl cormorant jackal chital drongo bird_watching pench nilgai buzzard early_morning hanuman_langur owlet plover tiger_park breakfast_picnic pench_tiger_park pench-tree-lodge pench_national_park tiger_pug_marks dhole indian_wild_dog wild_dog ghost_tree indian_ghost_tree treepie jungle_fowl early_morning_mist mowgli sandpiper hoppoe snooze Comments (3)

Kanha National Park Part IV - Kisli Zone

A disppointing turnout of animals in the park


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

Having returned to Kipling Camp after this morning's game drive, we have time to take a little nap before lunch. David chooses to chill in a hammock while I snooze in a chair in the lovely shady courtyard.

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After another delicious lunch of egg curry, spinach, pumpkin, dhal and curd, we go off for the last game drive here in Khana.

This afternoon we are allocated Kisli Zone, and Astrid (the manager at Kipling Camp) comes with us. Lyn and Chris, however, go off to spend the afternoon with Tara (more about that later).

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The first thing we see this afternoon is a dead baby chital, who most probably died during the birth.

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A few minutes later we see a female sambar with her offspring, and I can't help thinking about the poor chital who lost her baby.

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Maybe this is her?My heart breaks.

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Rahim stops the car to show us pug marks on the track – that looks promising.

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The sun is getting low now, and we haven't seen a great deal yet this afternoon.

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The spider's webs are enormous out here, maybe some 4ft across. While I don't mind spiders at all, I would hate to walk into that web!

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Oriental Turtle Dove

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Indian Peafowl

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Indian Grey Hornbill

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Yellow Footed Green Pigeon

All too soon it is time to leave the park behind, despite having seen no tigers this afternoon. We see the piglets again by entrance as we leave - it is almost pitch black now.

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When we get back to camp, we are eager to hear how Lyn and Chris' afternoon went.

Tara
Lyn and Chris debated long and hard whether to come out on safari this afternoon, or to stay in camp and go with Tara, the resident elephant, for her daily bath in the river. I persuaded them to do the latter, and am so glad I did, for several reasons, not least of all the fact that we saw very few animals in the park this afternoon.

Lyn and Chris, on the other hand, are full of it. “It was the stuff that dreams are made of” Chris enthuses when I ask him about it. Here is a brief resumé of their experience:

Tara led the way for them down to the river, and the mahout made sure she didn't go in the water until Lyn and Chris – who were unable to keep up the same speed as their much larger friend on the walk through the forest – arrived. Into the deep part of the river she went, splashing about to her heart's consent.

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©Lyn Gowler

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©Lyn Gowler

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©Lyn Gowler

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©Lyn Gowler

Tara then made her way to the shallow part near the bank where both Lyn and Chris were able to get into the water with the elephant, and even assist in washing her.

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©Lyn Gowler

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©Lyn Gowler

She gets a good scrub with a rough rock every day to ensure she gets all the grime and dirt off her skin.

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©Lyn Gowler

When her daily ablutions were over, she showed off to her new-found friends, before crossing her legs ready for her pedicure.

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©Lyn Gowler

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©Lyn Gowler

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©Lyn Gowler

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©Lyn Gowler

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©Lyn Gowler

For Lyn and Chris this was most definitely a highlight of the trip, and I am so glad they got to experience this.

After a lovely dinner and a few drinks in the bar, it is time to tuck in for our last night at Kipling Camp. I am sad to leave but excited to see what our next camp, Pench Tree Lodge is like.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:25 Archived in India Tagged india elephant hammock spider tara pigeon kanha peacock dove chital sambar wild_boar kipling_camp kanha_national_park tiger_park cheetal piglets tiger_safari kisli_zone hotnbill pug_marks low_sun elephant_bathing Comments (3)

Port au Prince

It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it

semi-overcast 32 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day 1 of our Haiti trip with Undiscovered Destinations.

As somebody said: ‘This is not the Caribbean. This is a West African country that just happens to be in the Caribbean!’

This is the Caribbean where few tourists go; an extraordinary place of intoxicating carnivals, dramatic scenery, audacious art, charming architecture, curious religions and tumultuous history; where the only thing stronger than the rum is the spirit of its people.

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Le Plaza Hotel looks even more delightful during daylight hours. The layout is somewhat back-to front, with the reception being a long way from the car park; linked by shaded paths where trees have been allowed free reign.

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I was hoping that there might be a few exotic birds around, but all we see this morning is a Black Crowned Tanager and this Mourning Dove, plus a few lizards.

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I am not sure whether to be reassured or concerned by this sign in reception.

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Breakfast is good, and I am a bit taken aback when we meet a group of surgeons complete with blue scrubs and face mask as we enter the restaurant. They have presumably refuelled before rushing off to perform life-saving operations. Good for them!

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We meet up with Geffrard - the driver - again, and Serge, our local guide, for a tour of Port au Prince. Where Geffrard is a bulky man with an imposing look (he turns out to be a real sweetie though); Serge is of slight build, with long dreadlocks and a ready smile. We instantly like him.

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Port au Prince

The French made Port au Prince the capital of their colony of St Domingue in 1770, and the city later went on to be the capital of the new independent Haiti in 1804. With nearly 3 million inhabitants, Port au Prince is the largest city in Haiti and represents close to 30% of the country's total population.

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Gingerbread Houses

The 200 or so 'gingerbread houses' of Port au Prince are so called because of their resemblance to the edible variety: with latticework snaking around the eaves, porches, windows, and doors. This architectural style originated here in Haiti in the late 19th century, but the moniker 'gingerbread houses' wasn't coined until the 1950s, by foreign tourists who claimed the style resembled that of Victorian houses back in their native American South.

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The architectural movement was in fact not just based on American buildings, but also taken from the vibrant colours and flamboyant patterns of French resort architecture, and was started by three young Haitian architects who had travelled to Paris. The initial wave of gingerbreads were built by the nobility, featuring wide sweeping staircases, large wrap-around verandahs and steep roof lines.

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In order to make the houses more suitable for the Caribbean climate, glass windows were replaced by louvred shutters to create a breeze through the rooms; tall doors and high ceilings to help disperse rising heat; and flexible timber frames to hopefully withstand hurricanes and earthquakes. The design certainly seems to have been proven to be fairly seismic-resistant as only about 5% of the 'gingerbread houses' collapsed after the 2010 earthquake, against 40% of all other structures. Could this be a model for the future?

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Haiti's distinctive architectural heritage is now seriously under threat by the weather, age of the materials and the cost of any restoration work. There are hopes to turn some areas into a cultural heritage district, charging tourists an entry fee to see the buildings, which in turn can be turned into restaurants, shops and accommodation. Currently they are leased to local 'guardians', with up to half a dozen families sharing one of the large houses. Others are turned into a medical centre or a law firm (not "love home", as David heard)

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Having our own car, driver and guide is beneficial in so many ways, including being dropped off right by the sites we want to visit and having someone knowledgable to explain the culture and history of the places we are visiting.

Having a man with insider knowledge also opens doors, sometimes quite literally. Serge is somehow able to get us in to the closed off Champ de Mars square in Downtown Port au Prince.

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The square is where 20,000 Haitians created a tent city after their homes had been tumbled following the 2010 earthquake, or they were too scared to return to their own houses. Today there is no sign of the refugees, nor of the damaged National Palace.

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The National Palace after the earthquake

There are, however, monuments honouring some of the important people in the history of Haiti.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Dessalines arrived in Haiti from Guinea as a slave, working on plantations in Cap Haitien where he rose to become foreman. In 1791 he joined the slave rebellion and led the successful revolution towards liberating the country. Dessalines was the first ruler of independent Haiti from 1801 until he later crowned himself Emperor Jacques I of Haiti (1804–1806). He is regarded as a founding father of Haiti.

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Alexandre Pétion
Another of the 'Founding Fathers' of Haiti, Pétion was born to a wealthy French father and a free mulatto woman. After the revolution, he became the first President of the Republic of Haiti from 1806 until his death in 1818.

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St. Jean Bosco Massacre Memorial
Memorial to the people killed on 11th September 1988 when a Catholic Church was set on fire by the National Army during a mass led by the future president Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

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Toussaint Louverture
Born to slaves from Benin, Louverture, also known as 'Toussaint Bréda', was freed at 33 years old and went on to lead the slave uprising and Haitian Revolution in 1791. He was captured by forces sent by Napoleon to restore French Authority on the island in 1802 and deported to France, where he died a year later.

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Neg Marron
Memorial to the 'Unknown Slave', the maroons who ran away from their masters, hiding in the forest, communicating with other slaves by blowing a conch shell - the start of the uprising leading to the Haitian Revolution.

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The Ex-Eternal Flame
This is where Papa Doc held his vodou rituals – I am not sure why the flame is no longer eternal.

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Bicentenary Monument
This is another ex-flame – Artiste's monument celebrating 200 years of liberty is also supposed to be topped by a torch.

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High Court
Also on the square is the High Court, built in the place where the National Palace once stood before it was ruined by the earthquake.

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In front of the High Court stand two golden lions, controversially taken from Sans Souci Palace in Cap Haitien.

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All around the square are vendors selling paintings, leather shoes and ice cream – it seems even the police find today's weather a little on the hot side...

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Musée du Panthéon National
Haiti's National Museum is an underground space topped with a sculpture garden at street level. The structure started life as a mausoleum built by Baby Doc (Jean-Claude Duvalier) for his father François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. After his wife suggested the building should be a 'memorial to the forefathers' instead, the current museum was born.

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The strange looking 'chimneys' on the roof represent the shape of the Taino huts (the original inhabitants of Haiti). They also help let light into the exhibition hall, as we found out during a power cut!

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The compact and historically interesting museum does not allow photography inside unfortunately.

There are seven sections within the museum, covering Haiti's history from the Taino Indians, through the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the slavery years and subsequent revolt, liberty, to modern times. I always find slavery exhibitions particularly harrowing: the thought of man's inhumanity to man terrifies and appals me.

Some items of particular interest in the museum are the bell of independence from 1793; the anchor from Colombus' ship the Santa Maria which ran aground off the northern coast of Haiti in 1492; a small rock from the moon brought back by the Apollo 11, the pistol with which king Henri Christophe committed suicide; and a rather spectacular royal crown.

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption
Built in 1884, all that remains after the 2010 earthquake are a few walls.

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Work is said to be under way to demolish and rebuild the cathedral; meanwhile a new church – constructed in the style of the original cathedral – houses the congregation until its completion.

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Unfortunately, Haiti is currently most well known for the magnitude 7.0 earthquake which hit the city of Port-au-Prince in 2010, resulting in more than 200,000 deaths and one-and-a-half million people being left homeless. The epicentre was near the town of Léogâne, some 25 kilometres west of the capital, Port au Prince. It is estimated that 250,000 private homes, 30,000 commercial buildings, 4000 schools and over half the government buildings collapsed or were severely damaged during the quake or its many aftershocks. Damage and death toll was greatly exacerbated by existing poverty; poor housing conditions with densely-packed shanty towns and badly-constructed buildings; and widespread deforestation.

As this article in the Guardian points out:

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I feel totally overwhelmed just thinking about amount of injured victims (not to mention dead bodies); with rescue and aid efforts hampered by the devastation caused to communication systems, transport (main roads were blocked and the seaport rendered useless), hospitals, and electrical networks.

The images on the news were heartbreaking.

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In the aftermath, political, humanitarian and medical chaos ensued, with sporadic violence and looting. A cholera outbreak which is believed to have been introduced to the country by UN Peacekeepers has claimed nearly 9,000 lives and made hundreds of thousands of people sick. The country is still in the throes of a massive health crisis.

Lynch Mob
Just around the corner from the cathedral, we run across some sort of demonstration. One young man is being beaten about the head and torso by an angry mob, and I am told by a number of gesticulating crowd members to put my camera away. Not being one to toe the line, I snap a few (really bad) covert pictures anyway. As the 'offender' is led away, we make our way towards the Oloffson Hotel for lunch.

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Hotel Oloffson is probably Port au Prince's most famous and well loved gingerbread house, and featured in Graham Greene's novel the Comedians (as Hotel Trianon). Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis and Mick Jagger were regular guests in the 70s and 80s.

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The hotel is like a peaceful oasis, far away from the country's turmoil and catastrophes, with its faded glory of Gothic spires, elegant latticework and decorative wooden shutters. It's like entering not just a different world, but another epoch.

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Built in the late 1800s as a private home for the ruling Sam family, it was later used as a hospital during the US occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934. In 1935, the house was leased by a Swedish sea captain called Werner Gustav Oloffson, whose wife turned the building into a hotel to relieve the boredom during her husband's long absences while on sea voyages. The name still sticks today.

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The hotel has changed hands a few times since then, and is currently run by a Vodou priest. At the entrance to the hotel stands the statue of Baron Samedi, the Vodou spirit of sex, death and resurrection.

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Hotel Oloffson is a beautiful old Victorian style mansion, full of quaint decorations suitable for a place run by a Vodou priest.

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As well as conducting vodou ceremonies, Richard Morse, the owner of the hotel, is also the founder of a mizik raisin band called RAM, whose music 'incorporates traditional Vodou lyrics and instruments, such as rara horns and petwo drums, into modern rock and roll. ' They play here at the Oloffson every Thursday night.

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From the beams above the balustrades, hang small plastic bags filled with water. These have me totally perplexed, but Serge explains that the are mosquito repellents. Apparently the flies see their own much enlarged reflections in the bags and are frightened off. An interesting and unconventional theory – I wonder how well it works?

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We choose a simple lunch – a Haitian Sandwich consisting of cheese, ham, avocado and pikliz, the local spicy coleslaw. Except it is really not at all spicy, much to my disappointment. It is probably toned down for tourists. I enjoy the fresh lemonade though, which is served au naturel with sugar in a separate bowl for tempering the tartness of the citrus. Very refreshing!

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David tries the Prestige, Haiti's locally produced and best-selling beer. Similar to an American style lager, it is very drinkable, but experience has taught me to avoid alcohol at lunchtime in the heat.

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Sundowners are a very different matter, however, and I later indulge in some fruity rum punch while we wait to meet up with Jacqui, the owner of the local tour operator.

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And what a delight and surprise Jacqui turns out to be! Not only is she from Bristol, our home city, we even have mutual friends there! What a small world!

Joining us for dinner, Jacqui advices us on the local food, and we try Lambi (conch with a creole sauce) and Tasseau de Boeuf (crispy fried beef with vegetables); both very nice.

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:59 Archived in Haiti Tagged beer museum caribbean lizard slavery dove lumiere slaves haiti undiscovered_destinations papa-doc voyages_ oloffson_hotel port_au_prince premiere_beer rum_punch Comments (1)

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