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Anjouan Island tour

Lobsters and lemurs

We both slept reasonably well, considering the party right below us went on until 04:00 this morning.

Sunrise

I stay behind taking photos of the sunrise while David goes off with Patrice to collect our bags from the port.

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Sunrise from our balcony

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Sunrise over the rocky beach

Picking up the luggage

Over at the quayside, David takes up the story:

”Arriving at the docks, we are faced with (what seems to be) a corrupt official, who insists we have to pay a 'port fee' just to go and collect the bags. They charge us per bag. It all seems like a total rip-off to me, and Patrice is furious.

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By the time we reach the ship, the crew are just starting to unload the bags, but ours are nowhere to be seen. Patrice arranges for me to be able to climb on board the ship to search for them rather than having to wait for every single case to be unloaded. Today there are not even any steps, nor gangplank, so I have to jump across the gap between the quayside and the ship.

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On board the boat last night's crew are busy cleaning up sick from the seats and gangways - not a job I envy them. I thankfully spot our luggage almost immediately, sitting just behind the bulkhead, and as soon as I hand over the luggage tickets, I am free to take the bags; which then have to be manhandled across the same gap between the ship and the docks. Once we are off the boat, we still have to transport them the considerate distance between the mooring and the dock gate, and from there back to where the car is parked, a couple of streets away. Thank goodness for luggage on wheels”

Back at the hotel, after a decent breakfast we finally have our shower and change, before setting out on a tour of the island with Patrice as the guide and Khalid as the driver.

Anjouan

A bit of a rebel child, Anjouan has never really fitted in. Declaring its independence from Comoros back in 1997, then changing its mind and asking to be re-integrated into France. Not being welcomed by the French, Anjouan reluctantly re-joined Comoros in 2002, only to once again declare itself an independent nation in 2007, prompting military action from the Comoros. The island now has a semi-autonomous status.

Island tour

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Setting off in a clockwise direction, we initially skirt the coast, then head inland and up into the highlands.

Cloves

Our first stop is at Koki Village where we see cloves being dried by the side of the road.

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Originally native to Indonesia, the Comoros is now one of the top exporters in the world of cloves. Patrice talks us through the whole process from harvesting through to bagging it up ready for export.

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The clove tree is an evergreen that grows up to around ten metres high, with large leaves and crimson coloured buds growing in clusters, turning into white tufty flowers.

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When the flower buds have turned a bright red, they are ready to be harvested. Patrice gives us a raw clove to try – it is very strong and the taste lingers for a long time afterwards.

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At this stage they are 1.5-2.0 cm long with one end housing four outer petals and a central ball of four tight, unopened petals.

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The flower buds are then spread out on the ground to dry in the sun where they gradually turn brown, hard and slightly shrivelled up, just as you see them for sale in the west.

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Used in many culinary dishes as well as medicines and even cigarettes, cloves are also often used as a traditional treatment for toothache.

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I love spices and find it interesting how various spices are produced from various parts of the plants they come from: cinnamon is the bark, ginger is a root, and cloves are the aromatic flower buds. The whole area where we are standing is filled with the aroma, and I am sure from now on the scent of cloves will always remind me of Anjouan.

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Cloves bagged ready for export.

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Some of the local workers

Village of Bazimini

Further along the road, we look down on the village of Bazimini, which has been built inside the basin of an old volcanic crater.

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Sisal

Introduced to Africa from its native Mexico in the 19th century, the fibrous leaves of this spiky plant are stripped and dried to produce fibres used in rope, twine and sack production as well as mattresses, carpets and handicrafts.

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Pigeon Peas

Patrice calls them “petit pois model Comorione”: pigeon peas are very popular here, and are often served cooked in coconut milk.

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We try them raw and they are very pleasant.

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Tratringa Falls

Featuring on the 100FC and 125FC stamps, this waterfall is popular for more than one reason. and the natural beauty of these cascades is obvious.

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Unfortunately, the tranquil charm is ruined by heaps of trash floating in the water and blighting the side of the falls.

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The falls are wide (at least during the rainy season, today the water does not extend across the whole width of the falls) and tumble into a small pool before making their way under the road into another narrower chasm the other side.

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Being a Saturday, the area around the falls is quite crowded, and Patrice explain that they have mostly come up from Mutsamudu. The reason this place is so popular does not just have to do with the beauty of the place (although we do see a car full of locals pull up, get out, snap a few pictures with their mobiles and drive on); it is a much more practical and mundane explanation: People from the capital come here to do their laundry in the river.

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The paradox of someone driving here in a large, fancy, 4x4 or gleaming pick-up truck to wash their clothes in the river by the side of the road completely blows me away.

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Ylang ylang

Anjouan is affectionately known as the ‘Perfumed Isle’ as a result of its bountiful flora whose aroma often wafts with the wind and hangs in the air as we found earlier with the cloves.

The most prominent of those aromas, however, is arguably the ylang ylang, an ingredient found in many of the world’s most popular perfumes (including Chanel N°5, my mum’s favourite perfume). The ylang ylang, a tropical tree producing yellow flowers, is highly valued for its essential oil, of which Comoros is the world’s largest producer, exporting some 50 tonnes each year.

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The process is a fairly simple operation in this basic and somewhat primitive set up. But it works, and the surrounding area is enveloped in a glorious aroma.

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The aroma is slightly floral, so it is primarily used in women’s perfumes and other cosmetics, but it can also work as a middle note in fragrances and products for men.

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This aromatic oil is not just used for perfumes; however, it is also popular in aromatherapy. It is also said to increase libido, help fight depression, lower blood pressure and strengthen the immune system. Maybe I should try some to get mine back up to scratch after all the illnesses and antibiotics I have had this year! It is also said to be extremely effective in calming and bringing about a sense of relaxation, and is thought to help with releasing feelings of anger, tension, and irritability. David says I definitely need some!

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Mango

As it is my favourite fruit, I am disappointed when I find out that this is not the mango season.

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Patrice, however, picks an unripe fruit from the tree, and eats it like he would an apple, skin and all. I remember having a salad in Laos some years ago made from green mangoes, and try the hard fruit when offered.

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After finding the skin a little tough and difficult to bite through, the fruit is tart and quite refreshing inside, like a cross between an apple and a pear.

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Once I have finished the whole fruit, I recollect the old adage about eating fruits and vegetables ‘abroad’: “Peel it, wash it or forget it”, and my mind goes back to eating an apple bought from a market in Ghana and the subsequent dreadful sickness that I suffered as a result. Oh dear, maybe I shouldn’t have eaten this mango… only time will tell.

Mausoleum of Abdallah

Continuing south, we reach the town of Domoni and the revered resting place of Abdallah. The first president of Independent Comoros in 1978, the late Ahmed Abdallah Abdermane is considered to be the ‘Father of Independence’ and very much a national hero. He was assassinated by a military guard during a coup d’état in 1989, allegedly on the order of the French.

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Turning inland and climbing higher, we can get a good look back on the town on Domoni.

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The town of Domoni

Sales people line the road side.

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As we turn inland, both he road conditions and the weather deteriorate, with a thick mist enveloping everything in its wake.

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The road snakes its way down from the highlands towards the south-west coast in a number of spectacular switchbacks

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Men and women climb the steep road, carrying firewood and animal fodder.

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Sometimes the road disappears into oblivion, as we can barely see more than a few feet in front of us.

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As we descend, however, the mist gradually lifts, and we can start to make out the beautiful coastline below.

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Moya

The road leading into the small town of Moya is particularly bad, with more potholes than actual road.

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Lunch at Moya Plage Hotel

After climbing down a number of pedestrian switchbacks and steep paths, we reach the Moya Plage hotel, perched on a ledge overlooking the ocean.

The table is bulging with seafood: lobster, tiger prawns, octopus curry, and tuna fish; plus a number of accompaniments such as fried bananas, taro, salad, mataba (cassava leaves) and rice.

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It is all absolutely delicious, and I gorge myself full of lobster, one of my favourite foods! (I eat three of them, but don’t tell anyone. Shhhh)

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Maki

Being very disappointed that I am not going to get to Mohéli Island on this trip to see the whales, dolphins, turtles, bats and lemurs, I am overjoyed when I spot a baby maki (AKA mongoose lemur) on the restaurant terrace. Never mind stuffing myself on lobsters… I am off to photograph the lemur!

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I don’t know what it is about feet / shoes and lemurs; I remember the ring-tails in Madagascar licking our feet. It must be something to do with the salt in the sweat, but why feet in particular?

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Although it seems my fingers don't taste too bad either.

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Despite not quite understanding my excitement about seeing a maki (“but they are always here…”), the kitchen let us have some fruit to entice the young animal with.

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Comoros is the only place outside Madagascar where you can find a population of wild lemurs. This little guy, although still quite young, is obviously used to people and is quite content to clamber over anyone who sits still long enough and happy let you stroke his back.

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In fact, he is rather partial to having his ears scratched.

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When Patrice informs us it is time to leave, I reluctantly tear myself away from my newfound friend.

William Sunley

In the 19th century, there was great rivalry between Britain and France in the Indian Ocean, prompting the British to establish a consul on Anjouan. The man appointed was a retired naval officer, William Sunley, who was later invited by the local Sultan to establish sugar plantations. As a result of using slaves provided by the Sultan, he was forced to resign as consul (slavery was by that time abolished in the British Empire). Concentrating on his export business, his holdings expanded and at one stage he controlled around half the arable land on Anjouan.

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What remains of William Sunley's warehouse

With a widespread rebellion among the slaves in 1889, the French took the opportunity to intervene and conquer the island. Thus started the French sovereignty in Comoros. Despite being implicated in the slavery trade, William Sunley appears to be some sort of hero on the island.

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The tomb of William Sunley

Coastal Road

Patrice gives us the option to travel back the way we came, or go along the coast, but “the road is bad, very bad” he says. We are OK with that; I would rather see something new.

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As we travel along the south west coast, we see glimpses of sandy beaches and rocky promontories with surf spraying up over the built-up road.

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Seeing those waves crashing in, I am glad I am not on that inter-island ferry today; yesterday was bad enough. Patrice tells us that the ferry is actually cancelled today and tomorrow because of bad weather.

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Small communities cling to whatever flat land can be found, eking a living from the sea.

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On this narrow country lane we meet a cavalcade of flash looking black cars with blackened windows and headlight on full beam. “It’s the Vice President” explains Patrice.

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Breakdown

We also come across a friend of Patrice’s, whose car has broken down. His battery is flat because the alternator is not working. We swap batteries so that he has a good battery, while we take the flat one and hopefully our (good) alternator will recharge his duff one by the time we get to the next village.

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Naturally we have to jump-start his car, but after that everything goes well all the way up a long hill to the village where we yet again swap over to the original battery.

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Another spanner in a trip full of spanners.

Malagasy Pirates

Comoros was a favourite haunt for Malagasy pirates in their quest to capture slaves they could sell on to Europeans. Patrice points out the headland where the buccaneers used to hang out and congregate before raiding the capital Mutsamudu.

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Abandoned ship

It seems that it is not just cars that are abandoned where they die; we see this rusting hulk beached just outside Mutsamudu.

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Hotel Al Amal

Yesterday the reception hinted that they may move us from Room 121, so when we arrive back at the hotel today, we ask “which room”. "121" the receptionist confirms, the same one as yesterday. As we are not particularly bothered whether we change rooms or not, we go and start to undress ready for a shower.

Looking forward to relaxing in the cool air-conditioned room, we are dismayed to find the remote control for the A/C is missing. With no other way of turning it on or off, we put our clothes back on again and go back down to reception.

”Oh, we have moved you,” says the same receptionist who a mere five minutes earlier told us we were in Room 121.

We pick up the key for Room 112, one floor down, and move all our stuff over. Yet again I take my shoes and trousers off and slump down on the bed and try to switch on the A/C. However much I try, and whichever button I press, the remote does not work. Clothes back on and back to reception. They agree to send an engineer up to look at it. He arrives around ten minutes later and after fiddling for some ten minutes more, concedes that the A/C is not working. Yes, we know.

Change rooms. Again. Clothes back on. Again. Move stuff over. Again.

Room 114 does have a working A/C! Hurrah! “No TV” reveals the engineer. “No problem” we assure him, but is it safe to get undress (again) yet? We check the bathroom. There is only one towel, which is wet. We still have the key for Room 112, so collect the one and only towel from there. That is also damp. I cannot work out whether they are leftover from the last occupant or just haven’t dried from being laundered, but as I’d rather not risk it, mausoleum I use the towel I brought from home.

The bathroom is somewhat shabby to say the least, with a shelf that looks like it is just about to disintegrate any minute. As for the bath mat – it is dirtier than the cloth I wash my floor with at home! Thank goodness for flip flops.

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Time for a shower. As there is no shower curtain,, it’s a sit-down job. I didn’t realise how much dirt was on that road today – the water that is coming out of my hair is the colour of mud!

Feeling much more refreshed after the shower, we go to change into something cool before going for dinner. “Where are the shorts?” Both David’s and mine are missing, and I know I packed them in Grand Comore. We wore them on the last night there and I distinctly remember asking David: “Is it OK if I put these in your bag as I have already done mine up?” I placed them on top of the other clothes in his bag and zipped it up. Oh dear. Somehow they have gone ‘missing’ between packing the bags before going for breakfast in Moroni and looking for them this evening in Anjouan. Hmm.

Dinner

One saving grace about this hotel is that they do serve a very good pizza! I have mine topped with lobster, while David chooses a pizza called Oslo, with meat and vegetables.

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What they don’t have, however, is stocked up on beer after David drank the last one yesterday. Another dry evening.

After dinner I look for stars. Last night the skies were full of them, but my tripod was in the luggage that was still on the boat. Tonight I have a tripod, but no stars. Oh well. Time for bed then I guess. There is a party on again this evening; in the sports stadium right next to the hotel.

This trip was booked through Undiscovered Destinations, an excellent tour operator who specialise in adventure tours to unusual destinations. Such as Comoros.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:45 Archived in Comoros Tagged hotel surf waves ship river sunrise fruit waterfall africa dinner lobster lunch mist docks pirates ferry trash pizza bags mango breakdown swimming_pool luggage aroma fragrance indian_ocean octopus chasm laundry lemur abandoned towel distillery smell a/c perfume spray ylang_ylang comoros cloves malagasy_pirates anjouan al_amal_hotel quayside luggage_on_wheels maki photograhy bazimi sisal pigeon_peas tratringa_falls runnish unripe_mango green_mango moya moya_plage hotel_moya_plage ahmed_addallah_abdermane mausoleum_of_abdallah domoney switchbacks bad_road mataba tuna_fish william_sunley coastal_road car_battery alternator jump_start abandoned_ship room_121 air_conditioning Comments (3)

Grand Comore - Anjouan

Another day, another island, another spanner in the works

This morning there are no bowls or spoons at breakfast, so David ends up eating his cereal out of a coffee cup with a teaspoon.

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After breakfast we meet with Omar in the lobby to hear of news about today’s ferry to Anjouan. “We leave in five minutes” he declares, which is not a problem for us: we are ready and packed!

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Another small car, unable to close the boot with our luggage inside, arrives to take us to the ferry ticket office to check in our bags. We are an hour early: check in starts at 09:00, with the ferry leaving at 10:00. Inshallah.

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We are not the first, however, there are already a lot pf people here: families travelling together, young men arriving in taxis, sales people trying to cash in, children throwing tantrums…

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Rather than hanging around here in the heat and melee, Omar suggests we go for a drive around town and come back when the office is open. Good idea.

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It seems to me that all the streets of Moroni are one giant market place with everyone selling and no-one buying.

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Volo Volo Market

We take a short walk through the new market, which, to be fair, doesn’t look all that different to the old market in the Medina that we saw a couple of days ago.

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Clothes, household good and food are sold from a number of very similar stalls.

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The Grand Marriage

On our way back to the check-in area, we come across a Grand Marriage. An age-old tradition that has been passed from generation to generation and is very much kept alive today, the Grand Marriage is so much more than a ‘mere’ wedding; it is all about a symbol of social status, being elected to the rank of a person of note, something that every self-respecting Comorian must do. A Comoran man can only wear certain elements of the national dress, take part in decision-making at the bangwe (gathering place where village elders meet to discuss important matters), or stand in the first line at the mosque if he has had a grand marriage. Apparently, the current president has not had a Grand Marriage and for this has become the scandalous subject of consternation and ridicule.

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While most people here in Comoros get married in a small wedding like many other places in the world, some men will then devote the entire rest of their lives to pay for the Grand Marriage. Most men are middle aged before they can afford to pay for this important celebration, having been officially married to their spouse for years already. Sometimes the Grand Marriage involves taking a second, much younger wife; Comorian men are permitted to have up to seven.

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The celebrations for this important occasion involve a major series of parties, processions and gatherings that can last up to two weeks and take over the whole village.

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Check in – another spanner in the works

When we get back to the port area, lots of people are queuing with their luggage, ready to check it in. Omar takes our nags to go and get them weighed and comes back looking somewhat concerned. “There is a little bit of a delay…” he says his voice trailing off into a kind of embarrassment.

The security police are on strike and refuse to go back to work until the government has made promises that they will repair the badly potholed road leading onto the docks. Their luggage truck has been damaged several times now and they are fed up with it.

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The luggage truck ready to go

”How long is it likely to be?” I ask. Omar shrugs and looks defeated: “It could be one hour, or two, one day or two days or more…”

My heart sinks. This trip started off as a three-island tour; then yesterday it became a two-island itinerary after all the flights were grounded. Now it looks like we may be stuck on this main island for the duration.

Omar suggests going to the Itsandra Hotel (the best hotel on the island) for coffee while we wait. He leaves our bags in the safe hands of the harbour master while we head for some refreshments.

Itsandra Hotel

Even in the aftermath of a heavy rainstorm, the hotel looks friendly and welcoming.

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We sit and enjoy a cold drink and the view out over the bay, while Omar goes to check on availability of a room for tonight, ‘just in case’. They have two rooms left and Omar asks them to reserve one of them for us, in case that ferry never leaves.

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Back to the dockside check in area

In order to reach the docks again, we have to drive right through the capital, Moroni, and as usual there is a traffic jam. At least this gives me a chance to people watch and take some photos.

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Love the name of this boat: Air Force One 007

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Meanwhile, back at the loading area, everyone is still waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

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The only people benefiting from this situation are the local tradesmen and women.

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The nearby 'Old Market'

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After 1½ hours of nothing much happening, Omar thinks lunch is in order, so we yet again leave our luggage in the office and head out.

New Select Salon de Thé

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Today being Saturday, I decide to try the Comorian Saturday Special. It’s off. We see someone on another table with a very tasty looking baguette, so order ‘”one of those please”.

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Chicken, chips and coleslaw sandwich. It was really tasty and fresh.

Rain

Suddenly the heavens open and torrential rain that within minutes has caused quite some flooding of the roads outside.

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Half an hour goes by, no sign of Omar. We pay for our lunch and get ready to leave, and after 45 minutes they turn up. Africa time. There has been no change in the strike situation and Omar suggests we go down to the docks one more time, and if there is still nothing, we’ll grab the cases and go to the hotel for the night. That sounds like a plan to me.

When we get to the docks it is all go! A compromise has been reached, the luggage has left and the passengers are making their way on foot towards to docking area. Omar hands us our tickets and luggage tags and we drive the kilometre or so down to the docks.

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Yay, I have a ticket! I am a little concerned that the date of departure shows tomorrow's date, but Omar tells me "not to worry, it is correct".

The entrance to the docks is locked. It seems the ferry company decided to tell passengers to go, before any agreement had been sorted with the security, so now we are left standing, in the full sun, on the pavement outside the dock gates. Women on the right, men on the left. After 20 minutes or so of communal baking, we are let through the gate (tickets checked) into a waiting room, where we are asked to take a seat.

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An official walks around the room, collecting tickets (and in our case also our passports, which he has to check in with the ‘big boss’) and puts them in a large pile on a desk. After collecting all the tickets, he then picks them up again, and walks around the room, shouting out the names on the tickets, the corresponding passenger must show ID in exchange for a boarding card (which he carries under his arm in a cardboard box, wrapped in glittery red Christmas paper).

Once we have our boarding card, we are free to leave the waiting room and walk the ¼ km or so to the boat.

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The free-standing aluminium steps are steep and wobbly, without a hand rail, and there is a one foot gap between the steps and the ship. One man each side holds my arms, and they helpfully (and thankfully) take my bags off me as I board. Then I watch the local women carry a child in one arm, a large bag in the other and a bundle of stuff on their head, all while wearing flip flops, negotiate the steps as if they were a smooth marble floor. I suddenly feel very ungainly and awkward.

Having already been told off twice for taking photos, I daren’t scratch my itchy shutter finger any more, despite being ‘desperate’ to document every part of this whole day’s shenanigans.

We take our seats, and as soon as all the passenger have boarded, we cast off. Just then they remember that a motorcycle must come off. The gap between the ship and the step is getting bigger and bigger as four men try to haul the heavy bike across. I am fully expecting it to end up in the water, but it seems they have done this sort of thing before. I risk a photo when I think no-one is looking.

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The crossing

We finally leave at 14:45, nearly five hours late. At least we are on our way.

You know it is going to be a rough crossing when the first thing the crew do, is to routinely hand out sick bags to every single passenger.

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I really cannot find anything good to say about this crossing, much as I would like to. The temperature is sweat-drippingly hot, and the TV is showing a bloodthirsty film full of violence, gore, and carnage (not just one, but three savage films, back to back). There is lots of screaming going on, by unwell kids, and each time a child screeches, a mentally disabled youngster near the front of the ship wants to imitate, shrieking his lungs out, jumping up and down in his seat and frantically flailing his arms about.

In addition to crying children, there are a number of adults shouting into mobile phones, holding the top part of the phone up to their ear for listening (as normal), then removing the phone from their ear and shouting into the ear-piece when talking. I have never seen that anywhere else on all my travels, but it seems quite common over here.

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We follow the shore for some time, and the waves are reasonably calm. Once we round the tip of the island, however, huge swells make the ship bounce around in a most unpleasant way. All around us people are throwing up (I am sure watching the awful films does not help one bit!), and shouts of “sachet” (bag) can he heard almost constantly. The crew are very attentive; collecting used sick bags and handing over fresh ones.

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Omar told us the journey should take 3½ - 4 hours from Moroni to Anjouan. After four hours its starts to get dark, and land is still nowhere to be seen. 5½ hours: I see land!

Anjouan

There is another big step to negotiate off the boat at this end, with the added disadvantage that it is almost pitch black. As soon as we step on land, Patrice, the local guide, greets us warmly. I guess, as the only white passengers, we are easy to spot.

Although I was not actually sick on the journey, my stomach does feel a little unsettled, and it feels good to be on dry land again. I can’t wait to get to the hotel for a shower and change out of these clothes that are soaked through with sweat. So, where do we collect our luggage? “Tomorrow” is the answer. The crew are not taking any luggage off the ship this evening; we will have to come back at 07:00 tomorrow morning. Groan. No toiletries. No nightwear. No sandals. Thankfully I always carry a change of clothes in my hand luggage, so at least I do have some dry clothes.

As it turns out, by the time we reach the hotel, it is so late that we go straight to dinner.

The good news is that they have beer! The bad news is that they only have one.

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We both opt for chicken pizza tonight. There is a cute old guy (he looks about 80, but I am guessing he has just had a hard life) who speaks excellent English waiting on the tables tonight. Table. We are the only two diners this evening.

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As we leave the restaurant at around 22:00, we notice some pretty impressive speakers being installed in the restaurant. We soon find out that Saturday night is party night in Al Amal Hotel, with loud music (our room is two floors directly above the restaurant), singing, dancing and shouting. I am too exhausted to take any notice and despite the ruckus below, quickly drift into sleep.

This trip was organised by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:18 Archived in Comoros Tagged rain market ship music party africa sick docks ferry pizza floods street_market queue strike sandwich comoros nausea delay moroni grand_comore spanner_in_the_works itsandra_hotel tantrum anjouan volo_volo_market ferry_crossing al_amal_hotel grand_marriage new_select_salon-de-thé rain_shower torrential_rain sea-sick boarding_card loud_speakers violent_film Comments (3)

Danube Delta - Galati - Moldova - Chișinău

The end is nigh

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

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

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

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

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Thankfully it is a much bigger boat this time

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

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

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Little Egret

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Common Gulls

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

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

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Andrei enjoys a spot of sunbathing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blue Acqua Restaurant, Galați

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vatra Neamului Restaurant

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

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Chicken with cheese sauce

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Pork with cheese and mushrooms

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

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

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

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

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

Galați - Tulcea - Crișan (Danube Delta)

We've arrived at the Danube Delta, finally.

semi-overcast 32 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I have a rude awakening from a nightmare this morning, but it’s time to get up anyway. We wander down to breakfast at the Vila Belvedere and are soon joined by Andrei.

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From our guest-house in Galați, the drive takes about half an hour to the ferry port where we cross the Danube to Brătianu.

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Disembarking at Brătianu

Tulcea

A further one hour drive takes us to the large ferry port of Tulcea. This is where the Danube ‘ends’ its journey as a river and empties into the legendary Danube Delta, the largest wetlands on earth.

Built on seven hills like Rome, Tulcea has been an important harbour since ancient times. We only really see the harbour-front part of the town, as we wait for our passenger ferry to take us along the Sulina Canal to the small settlement of Crișan.

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Terasa Scorpion

While Andrei goes off to sort the paperwork for the next three days – special permits are required for us to visit the Delta – we take lunch in a pleasant-looking restaurant on the promenade.

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The service is incredibly slow, so we have plenty of time to people-watch – unsurprisingly, the port area has an transient feel to it – passengers arriving, meeting and leaving. Plus the inevitable beggars that this sort of place attracts. We watch two young lads solicit diners with the hope of being bestowed with some leftover food. They can’t be more than around ten years old, and really should be in school. Andrei suggests they are probably Romani, who make up around 3.5% of the population in Romania.

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Eventually our food arrives – we are sharing a mixed platter containing sausages, chicken fillets and shish kebabs plus a salad and cheesy chips. The food is quite pleasant, but probably not worth the wait.

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If the food was late to arrive, the bill is even slower. Andrei comes back with our tickets and permits and goes in to give them a ‘gentle’ reminder in Romanian.

Navrom Delta Passenger Ferry

Having finally found some seats on the very cramped ferry, Andrei goes off to get something from the car. When he returns he informs us that there is another ferry also going to Crișan; a direct boat and it is almost empty, so we transfer across. We are advised to sit inside rather than on the small deck, as ‘everyone’ smokes outside.

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Apart from it being VERY hot, the seats are quite comfortable, we are sitting right in front of the bar, and the barman has the most amazing Paul Newman eyes! A little bit of eye candy never hurts.

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Crișan

The Sulina Canal was dug between 1880 and 1902, and is the main navigation route for passengers and commercial traffic. For many of the villages on the Danube Delta, a boat along this canal is their only means of access.

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After about 1½ hours, we reach the small fishing village of Crișan, where we will be spending the next couple of nights.
It’s a small linear settlement, with a few houses spread along the bank of the Sulina, with canals and lakes of the Delta to the other side.

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Image from Google Earth

Pensiunea Oprisan

A friendly, family-run guest house, the Oprisan is a 15-minute walk from the ferry port in Crișan.

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The pensiunea has a handful of rooms; and a smallholding out the back with fruit trees, vegetables, pigs and chickens.

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Dinner

We have some free time in the village before dinner. Being a fishing village, it is only natural that tonight’s food is fish.

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Fish ball soup

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Fried catfish

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Pancakes filled with jam

We open one of our wine bottles from Et Cetera Winery, the pensiunea provides some single-distilled acacia-flower moonshine, and Andrei has brought along his double-distilled plum moonshine; so we have plenty of choice as far as alcohol goes tonight.

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Looks like we may sleep well again tonight...

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for organising this private tour of Moldova, Transdniestr and Romania.

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Posted by Grete Howard 08:49 Archived in Romania Tagged danube boat harbour port romania harbor ferry fishing_village car_ferry danube_delta tulcea undiscovered_destinations galati crisan sulina sulina_canal bratianu passenger_ferry navrom_delta Comments (0)

Lyngen - Alta - Gargia

Sunrise, sunset and moonrise. All within a three hour period. Followed - much later - by the northern lights. Sort of.

semi-overcast -15 °C
View Inside the Arctic Circle Tromsø & Alta 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

It's still snowing when we go out this morning, but thankfully it doesn't look like it has been snowing heavily all night, as the new snowfall isn't that deep. Deep enough, though.

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The light is mysterious and magical as we make our way towards the mainland and the main E6 highway to the north today.

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As we wait for the ferry, we make another attempt at phoning the SixT car hire place to ask about the tyre pressure warning light that came on yesterday. This time we make sure that the + sign is at the front of the number, not at the end; and thankfully we now reach the right people. They confirm our conclusion, that it is nothing to worry about and it's perfectly safe to continue driving. Good.

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Seeing this guy with his snow-blower, brings back memories of the fun parts of clearing the snow back home.

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Even if we don't see northern lights or experience anything else on this trip, it has been worth coming to Norway just for today's drive along the coast from Lyngen to Alta. The scenery is magnificent, and although it has been said many times that pictures cannot do these things justice, here are a few photos to show some of the vistas we see:

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Whenever David can, he stops for me to get out and take photos. Most of the time, however, it is just the usual 'drive-by-shooting', as these roads are quite narrow and winding, with very few places to stop, or even pass any slow-moving vehicles.

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Is that blue sky I see? This bodes well for our northern lights safari tonight!

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Although it is -4 °C now, because there is no wind it doesn't feel that cold when I nip out of the car without a jacket to take some shots. I don't linger though...

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Although to the untrained eye (ours), the road doesn't appear to need clearing, we see a number of snowploughs on the journey. The local authorities seem to be very much on top of the winter maintenance in these parts.

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In a huge lay-by we stop to have a car picnic overlooking the mountains and the sunset. Up here there is a bitingly cold wind making the 'real feel' very much lower than the actual temperature of -6 °C.

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Today there is absolutely no fear of me falling asleep, as the scenery and sunrise/sunset are absolutely breathtaking! The main E6 hugs the coastline, weaving in and out of the fingers of fjords, inlets and islands, with bridges and tunnels. Although the Arctic winter light is captivating, we so want to come back in summer to do this journey during never-ending daylight!

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Unlike the UK where it is often over in a few minutes, the sunrise and sunset seem to go on forever here in the north. For 2.5 hours we have a bewitching sunrise merging seamlessly into an equally delightful sunset, painting the sky and mountain peaks in hues of pink, orange and purple.

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All too soon daylight fades over this beautiful coastline yet again.

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Suddenly we spot the most incredible moon rising over the mountain on the horizon. With nowhere to pull over, I snap away feverishly through the window of the moving car – this has to be the most extraordinary moonrise I have ever seen! Words cannot describe it, and pictures do not do this magnificent, spine-tingling moment justice.

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A mere ten minutes go by before we can find somewhere to stop – in the small village of Talvik – so that I can put my tripod up to photograph the moon properly. In that time it has already risen considerably higher on the horizon and is no longer quite so dramatic.

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Gargia Fjellstue

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From Alta we are turning inland to get to our accommodation for the night – Gargia Fjellstue, and by the time we get there it is completely dark. So are the lodgings. No lights on inside the main building, nor any of the cabins. We try the door. Locked. We ring the telephone number we were given in the booking. Voice-mail. What do we do now? At -15 °C it is too cold to stand around outside, so we get back in the car and ponder our next move.

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After about ten minutes or so, a young girl appears, walks past the car and around the back of the reception/restaurant. Lights are turned on, and the front door unlocked.

As we are checking in, David comments that she speaks very good English – turns out she is in fact English, from Oxford! Mathild, as we learn her name is, tells us everyone thinks she is a Norwegian who speaks good English. “Just like me, then” I quip, but it isn't until I reply to her in Norwegian that she realises I am serious!

The lodge keeps a number of dogs for sled racing purposes, and Mathild hands me the most adorable three week old puppy! Apparently the young mother ate all the other puppies so this one is being hand raised. The puppy is gorgeous and nestles up against my neck, grunting in a very similar way to the baby wild pig I snuggled up to in an almost identical fashion a few weeks ago in Kenya.

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The dog yard

We settle in to our comfortable little 'hytte' – a small wood cabin with grass on the roof – although the air inside is fairly cool when we arrive.

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The cabin may be small, but it is very welcoming and cosy. The main room features the dining area, sitting area and kitchenette.

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A bathroom off to one side, as well as a bedroom.

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One feature I notice, which is typical Norwegian, is the pull-out bread board in place of a top drawer in the kitchen.

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Dinner
As soon as we've settled in, I start to make dinner. Having turned on the hot plates, I can't believe how long they take to heat up. Being used to induction cooking at home, the classic electric cooking rings seem so old-fashioned and slow. I wait, and wait and wait for the butter to even start melting. I bought a couple of whale steaks in the supermarket yesterday; one of my many nostalgic foods for this trip. Whale was almost as common as beef for Sunday dinners back home.

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I know it is a very controversial subject, and I don't want to get into a discussion about the ethics of whale hunting. I would just like to point out that the minke whale available for food in Norway is not an endangered species; unlike cod - the most popular variety used for the English fish and chips.

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Whale is nothing like fish or seafood in appearance, texture or taste. It is more akin to a very lean steak.

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Whale steaks served with mushrooms and potatoes in a creamy sauce.

Sugar Tongs

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These very commonly used tongs in the sugar bowl remind me of a rather old Norwegian joke: “The farmer was well known for popping behind the cow shed for a quick pee, even while having visitors; and his wife was fed up – and embarrassed – that once back inside, he didn't wash his hands, and would grab a couple of sugar cubes using his fingers. One of their friends suggested the solution was to get some tongs.

A week later the same friend was yet again having coffee and cakes with the farmer and his wife, when she noticed the farmer disappeared outside, came back in again, and as before, used his hands to help himself to sugar.

“Did you not get any tongs” she asked the farmer's wife. “Oh, yes, I did” she replied “and I hung them behind the cow shed...”

Aurora Hunting

Gargia Fjellsture has free wifi in the cabins, and the signal is strong enough that we can check out the various weather and aurora forecasts for this evening. It is not looking too brilliant, but we decide to go off in search of the lights anyway.

This is one of our favourite sites for aurora forecasts.

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Mathild recommends we carry on up the track past the cabins, for four kilometres, to a high plateau where there is a large area suitable for parking.

We find the spot without any trouble, and from here we can see in every single direction, without much light pollution. I set up my tripod and take a few test shots to determine which settings are best for the conditions. There is quite a glow from the bright lights of Alta, and the presence of the moon means it is not pitch dark outside, which makes it easier to navigate around.

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After a short while we are joined by another car and we sit there and wait and wait. Then we see something... It may be a cloud, but as the camera can pick up way more colour than the naked eye can, I take a few test shots.

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Yes, it is definitely a green hue in the sky, but it is very weak and mostly hiding behind the clouds.

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For the next three hours, we sit, wait, drink coffee, pop out to look at the sky, see a cloud, get back in the car, drink some more coffee, stand outside wishing the clouds to go away....

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Finally we admit defeat and make our way back to the cabin. The rooms have heated up while we were out so I don't have to go to bed with all my clothes on after all.

Posted by Grete Howard 10:13 Archived in Norway Tagged landscapes mountains sky snow winter sunset coast travel roads scenery sunrise clouds holiday fun beautiful moon norway ferry moonrise wind cold aurora northern_lights night_time stunning alta car_hire road-trip aurora_borealis snowing biltrend nord_norge e6 norwegian_coast night_photography gargia gargia_fjellstue snow_plough snow_plow ploughing moon_rise talvik self_catering sugar_tongs Comments (1)

London - Oslo - Tromsø - Lyngen

And now for something completely different

snow -4 °C
View Inside the Arctic Circle Tromsø & Alta 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

We always like to vary the type of travel we do as much as possible, and this holiday can hardly be more different to our last sojourn when we went exploring the deserts of Northern Kenya: we are travelling in search of the Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway.

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This holiday is also a bit of a trip down memory lane for me. Not that I have ever been to Tromsø before, but I grew up in the south of Norway and I occasionally feel drawn to 'Gamlelandet' (The Old Country) which I left in 1973. I went back many times in the first few years to see my parents who lived near Oslo, but after they too emigrated to England in 1998 to be near me, holidays to Norway became a thing of the past.

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Booking the flights

Before I launch into telling you all about my trip, I want to regale the tale of booking the flight to get here.

Having seen a great flight on Skyscanner which offered a 14 hour layover in Trondheim, I was a initially little put off by the name of the agent:

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But the flight was cheap, the timings great, and it meant I would get to visit Nidarosdomen (the cathedral) in Trondheim which has been on my wish list since I was a small child; so we decided to go ahead anyway. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing, so it seemed. The flight was secured, all information input, credit card details taken and all was going well.

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So far, so good. Then a box popped up on my screen to say the price had gone up by £20. “A little odd” I thought, but these things can happen I guess, so I accepted the change and continued. Just as I thought it was a done deal, another box appeared on my monitor:

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What??? You gotta be ******* joking! Obviously I did NOT accept this change in price – how can the cost suddenly DOUBLE - and more - in a matter of seconds?

According to one review site I checked afterwards, I am not the only one who has had problems with Cheap-O-Air in the last month or so.

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Oh well, I live and learn.

Maybe I should have checked out the travel agency before I tried to use them rather than afterwards, but I am not one for relying on other people's opinions. When booking flights / hotels / restaurants / destinations, I prefer to trust my own instincts rather than clouding my perspective by creating preconceived ideas based on someone else's point of view. I like to start with an unprejudiced and open mind, where I can make my own evaluations and impressions. Hence I rarely check review sites before booking anything.

As for the flight, it was back to the drawing board again for me; thankfully no money lost on the abordted booking. Using the tried and trusted site GoToGate, I managed to book a flight which was even better priced than the original El Cheapo one, but I had to miss out on seeing Trondheim unfortunately. Never mind, there is always a next time...

So.... we now find ourselves on the way to Tromsø.

Automation

I am amazed at how everything has become so automated these days. We checked in on line for the flight yesterday and printed our own boarding cards. At Heathrow the bag-drop is self-service, and we attach our own tag. To get through to Departures we scan our own boarding cards.

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At Gardemoen Airport in Oslo, we have to collect our luggage, and again the bag drop is self-service. At an unmanned check-in desk, we just scan our original bag tag, place the luggage on the scale/belt and press GO. The bag disappears down the chute, hopefully to reappear in Tromsø.

While we were lucky on the flight between Heathrow and Oslo, with three seats for the two of us, on the next leg a 'generously proportioned' chappie sits next to David, making it quite a tight squeeze. I still manage to sleep some though.

Tromsø

By the time we approach Tromsø airport, a weak sunset is already in progress, at 13:30. At this time of the year, daylight is in short supply this far north.

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At 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and 69° N, this is the most northerly place we have visited to date, and only the fifth time we have been inside the Arctic Circle; the others being Rovaniemi (Finland), Narvik (Norway), Kangerlussuaq (Greenland), and Kiruna (Sweden).

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Tromsø is the first airport I have been to which offers an official 'Selfie-Spot'. It has to be done – it may be the only northern lights we get to see...

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Car Hire

At the SixT counter we discover that David has booked the hire car through the Town Centre office in Tromsø, not their airport branch. Oops. It turns out to be a blessing in disguise though as we are offered an upgrade to a Mazda 6 for a very small daily supplement. We also receive a massive amount of free advice about where to go for seeing the whales that have gathered in the fjords in the last couple of weeks, to see the northern lights and which supermarket has the best selection of traditional Norwegian foods.

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And what a car the Mazda is! Electric heated seats, built in Sat Nav, electrically heated and operated wing mirrors, electric lumbar adjustments, radar assisted parking plus a major amount of other electronic gizmos. One happy geek driver! The passenger is also very happy, with plenty of legroom and individually adjusted heating for driver and passenger.

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Self-Catering

We stop at the nearest supermarket to get a few supplies on the way to our overnight stop. We are renting self-catering accommodation rather than staying in hotels on this trip for two reasons: trying to curb the cost of eating (and drinking) out in Norway; and more importantly, I am hoping to recreate a few memories from my childhood by cooking traditional Norwegian food.

As we leave the supermarket, it starts to snow. Heavily.

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Accommodation

We carefully selected all the accommodation to be away from the main cities, avoiding major light pollution areas, as well as parking difficulties (we all know how David panics about finding somewhere to park). The first two nights we are renting a five bedroomed house away from Tromsø, which is all very well and good, but as you can see from the map below, roads are few and far between in this region and the area is made up of a number of islands. As the crow flies it may not be very far, but the journey there involves a couple of bridges and a ferry ride, so takes a bit of pre-planning.

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Breivikeidet to Svensby Ferry

Ferries are obviously very much a way of life here, and the whole operation is very slick. The RO-RO (roll-on, roll-off) ferry arrives and opens its bow like a huge whale ready to swallow us.

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We roll on, the mouth closes and we're off! I detect free wifi emanating from the bus parked next to us on the ferry, and try to 'steal' a bit to reply to an email to my friend Kay and wish another friend, Larry, a happy birthday. No such luck.

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At the other end, the whale open his mouth again and we roll off.
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Lyngen Mountain House

From the ferry terminal it is a short drive to Lyngen Mountain House. It's a lovely traditional house in a small settlement. There is a convenient key safe by the door and we are soon inside in the warm. The owner, Kjetil, has kindly been in earlier to light the fire for us.

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The house boasts five bedrooms, but judging by the size of the rest of building, I would guess that the original bedrooms have been subdivided to add to the sleeping arrangements. Each of the bedrooms is small, but adequate, but we struggle to find the bathroom. We try all the doors upstairs. Nothing. Then it must be downstairs. It's not obvious and we open and close each of the doors on both floors of the house several times, as if the bathroom should magically have appeared since last time we opened that door. Nothing. How very odd. There MUST be one around somewhere.

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Eventually David has the idea to go outside into the little (unheated) hallway just inside the front door. And there it is, off to one side. Phew! I was beginning to get a little desperate...

Dinner

I rustle up some quick and easy food. As a child growing up in Norway, it was always a treat to have 'pølse med lompe' – the Norwegian style hot dog - a sausage served in a flat potato bread (like a wrap).

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David is happy as he likes 'pølse med lompe' very much. He has also found himself some 'eple cider' - non-alcoholic cider.

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For dessert I bought some ready made chocolate pudding and custard. In the UK I find the custard far too thick, so was happy to see that the 'vanilla sauce' I remember from my youth is still pleasantly runny!

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Before leaving the UK, David set up his mobile phone with a European Data Package and tethering for the laptop because this house has no wifi available (or as they said on the flight: “vaifee”). Unfortunately the phone signal is not strong enough to be able to use the laptop, so we are unable to check the usual northern lights websites before going out tonight. We checked them late last night, and the forecast was very doubtful for this evening. The weather outside is very cloudy, but we will try anyway.

Aurora Hunt

Soon after we leave the house it starts snowing. Again. Knowing how quickly the weather can – and does – change around here, we still continue up the west coast of Lyngen.

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I take a few test shots, as sometimes a weak aurora can be detected by the camera sensor even if you can't really see it with the naked eye. It can also be quite easy to mistake clouds for northern lights and vice versa.

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The brightness we see on the horizon turns out to be just the glow from Tromsø city lights.

In addition to bridges and ferries galore, the Tromsø area is well endowed with tunnels, such as this one.

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At Koppangen we stop and have a coffee from the flask we brought with us, while waiting for the weather to clear up. It doesn't.

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It's a pretty place... but no northern lights.

The highlight of this evening is the enormous icicles all along the side of the road! Many are up to eight feet tall – I certainly don't remember those from my winters in Norway as a child. Yes, we had icicles of course, but not entire rock faces covered with them.

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We make one more stop for a test shot before heading back to base. I keep seeing clouds, thinking they are dancing lights in the sky. No... they are just clouds. It is still snowing.

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By the time we get back to the house around midnight after having been out for four hours hunting the elusive aurora, the sky has cleared up some and I can see stars, but no northern lights.

We have the option of staying up hoping the clear sky will bring out the northern lights later, or go to bed. Having been travelling since four o'clock this morning travelling, we choose the latter.

Posted by Grete Howard 04:15 Archived in Norway Tagged tunnels holiday norway ferry aurora northern_lights car_hire tromsø skyscanner cheapoair self-drive sixt lyngen snowing Comments (1)

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