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Pool time at Mandina Lodges - swimming with Bee Eaters

A new experience for us


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

After lunch we retire to the swimming pool, relaxing, reading, swimming, birdwatching. The pool area is full of at least two dozen little White Throated Bee Eater, swooping down into the water, to catch bugs on the surface, or just for a cooling dip.

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They are so fast, and never dive in the same place twice, making it impossible to catch them on the camera. This is the nearest I got:

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After little success using my small waterproof camera, I risk the SLR with my long lens into the pool.

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I don't do much better with the 'proper' camera.

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Looking rather bedraggled after his dip in the pool

A Fanti Saw Tail joins in – a new species to us, but sadly another rubbish photograph.

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Swimming with dolphins is so yesteryear – to be really hip in 2019, you've got to have been swimming with bee eaters. It really is quite something to have them splashing all around us in the pool!

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David in the pool

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We return to our own private balcony for the rest of the afternoon.

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Strange elongated fish in the river - trumpet fish?

The river is teeming with fish of all shapes and sizes.

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At times there appears to be a feeding frenzy, with the surface of the water covered in ripples.

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Palm Nut Vulture flying overhead

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Common Redshank

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Pied Kingfisher

Tourist boat – everything around here is very low key.

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Black Headed Heron

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Hooded Vulture

The kingfisher keeps returning, and hovering above the river for quite some time before diving in after a fish. Again and again and again he does this, providing us with endless amusement.

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We watch as Angela and Keane set off for their sunset cruise.

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Malin, the chef, comes to our room to ask what we would like for dinner, and stays chatting. And chatting. And chatting. He explains he is just about to embark on a hotel management course in Camberley, UK, and says he wants to come and stay with us while he is studying. I don't think he quite realises the distances involved in England, Camberley is well over two hours' drive away from us, each way, even without traffic. Not that I have any intention whatsoever to invite him to stay with us. Sorry Malin, it ain't 'appenin'.

The lights is fading now, but I stay on the balcony taking (bad quality) photographs of the birds flying around.

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Abyssinian Roller

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The Pied Kingfisher is still here, skimming the surface now.

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Common Sandpiper

Dinner

Soon it is time to tear myself away from the birds (which I can hardly see any more anyway, in the quickly fading light), and have a shower before wandering down to the restaurant for dinner.

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Tuna Salad

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Cottage Pie

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Chicken Curry

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Chocolate Ice Cream

The ceiling above the restaurant is home to a large colony of bats. Every evening we see them flying around.

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When we first arrived, I wondered why the dining tables were not positioned under the domed roofs - I have since come to realise that they are strategically placed to avoid any droppings.

The end of another lovely day - the stars twinkle over Mandina Lodges.

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Posted by Grete Howard 15:03 Archived in Gambia Tagged fish bird africa dinner pool birding swimming_pool bats roller heron vulture kingfisher gambia bird_watching waterproof_camera sandpiper bee_eaters the_gambia the_gambia_experience swimming_with_bee_eaters saw_tail redshank Comments (7)

São Tomé - Mucumbili

Sombre history and a west-coast hide-away paradise

-50 °C
View São Tomé and Príncipe 2018 - the Lost Islands in the Centre of the World on Grete Howard's travel map.

Memorial dos Heróis da Liberdade

Yesterday, at Trindade, we saw the memorial at the site of the Batepá Massacre where hundreds of natives were killed by Portuguese forces in 1953 during a rebellion, and Agostinho was telling us how they were “thrown in the sea, like animals”. Today we visit the spot, at Fernão Dias on the north coast, where those murdered were transported by the truckload and their bodies unceremoniously dumped in the sea off the now-defunct pier.

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A memorial has been erected here too, listing the names of all those killed in the fight for freedom.

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An abandoned ship lies off the coast as if to pay tribute to the fallen martyrs.

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Old Tree

We stop beside a tree, more than one hundred years old, for Agostinho to explain how they used to make canoes.

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I am more interested in playing with a young kid who is selling fruit at the side of the road.

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Agostinho Neto

Named after a benevolent Angolan doctor (late president of Angola) who fought fervently in the battle against Portuguese colonialism, the roça (plantation) and surrounding village is now mostly in ruins and lies partly abandoned.

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The abandoned hospital on the hill

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The old botanical gardens is now the governor's house

Many of the picturesque old buildings (these would have been for the managers) have survived and are now in use.

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Hospital

The old hospital, built as part of the roça (plantation), now lies abandoned, with a number of poorer families having moved into some of its many rooms.

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Unleashing my inner Urbex (Urban Explorer, a popular genre in photography), I wander around some of the abandoned halls and wards.

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Love the home made bicycle

Poverty

Categorised as a 'least developed country', São Tomé is mostly dependent on international aid, and is among the poorest in the world, with more than half of the population living below the poverty line, and 29% in extreme poverty.

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Pounding the corn is extremely hard work, and the locals find it very amusing that I would like to have a go.

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The population of São Tomé is relatively young, with children aged 0 to 14 years representing 44.4% of the population, yet only 38% attend secondary school.

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Blue Lagoon

This sheltered bay is popular with snorkellers as the pristine waters are teeming with fish.

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An ancient baobab stands on the beach – those of you who have followed my blog for a while will be aware of how fond I am of baobab trees.

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Picnic

At a small picnic area, we make a quick stop with coffee, juice, fruit and biscuits.

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This is the place where the Portuguese first arrived back in the 15th century.

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Star fruit. I explain to Agostinho that, although we buy these fruits in the UK, I have never seen one actually growing; and he promises to look out for a star fruit tree for me.

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Taiwanese guava, they taste a little like unripe pears.

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Agostinho calls these carozo nuts, but I believe we know them as 'tropical almonds' (Terminalia catappa). They taste very similar to regular almonds.

Here they are, growing on the tree:

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Dug-out canoes on the beach

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Tunnel

The road hugs the coast on the north-west of the island and at one stage it goes through São Tomé's only tunnel.

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It is a popular place to stop and take photos.

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The coastline here is rugged, with some interesting rock formations and crashing waves.

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As we head inland, we pass imposing old plantation houses and more modest wooden chalets.

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Roça Monte Forté

The old plantation buildings have now been turned into a guest house and restaurant, with a small craft centre and a garden bulging with fruit and vegetables.

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I love this place, it has so much character. The bedrooms look basic but more than adequate, with a bed, mosquito net and en suite bathroom.

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Basket weaving

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Cacao fruit

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Calabash fruit

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Cashew fruit - the nut is the curious dark thing hanging down below the fruit

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Lemon tree

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Love the modern TV screen on the rickety old veranda.

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David takes a pre-lunch snooze while I wander around taking photos.

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Bananas

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View from the balcony

This is the sort of place that we love staying in, but unfortunately it is not to be this time, as we are only stopping here for lunch.

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Grilled bonito fish with onions

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Pumpkin, carrots, cabbage and shoo-shoo (a type of courgette or marrow)

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Fried plantain

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Dessert: cashew fruit and papaya

Another first for the Howards: eating the fruit from the cashew nut tree. It is obviously not that common over here either, as Agostinho takes the rest home for his children, who have never tasted it, plus some seeds to grow his own tree in his garden.

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Mucumbili

After a leisurely lunch we make our way to Mucumbili, our fabulous eco-lodge for the night. We check in and are shown to our room, a rustic wooden cabin built on the edge of the wooded cliff, with a balcony on stilts overlooking the valley and ocean beyond.

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Each cabin has a name rather than a number and I am absolutely thrilled to find that ours is called 'Carambola', meaning star fruit.

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Not only that, we have a star fruit tree right outside!

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We spend the rest of the afternoon on the balcony with a bottle of chilled white wine, watching the birds and the fishermen.

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São Tomé Prinia, and endemic to this island

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São Tome Speirops, another endemic

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Southern Cordon Bleu

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São Tomé Sunbird - yet another endemic

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Bronze Mannikin - not a very good photo, but it is the only one I manage to capture as he is hiding behind long grasses

Above us circle a couple of Yellow Billed Kites, and butterflies and lizards abound.

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This is my idea of heaven: a gorgeous rustic lodge miles from the nearest habitation, lots of birds and other small critters to keep me amused, a glass of something enjoyable and the man I love with no other human sound (or sight) for hours.

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What we do hear, however, is a strange clicking sound. We spend a long time trying to work out what it is. After a while it becomes obvious that it is coming from a bird, but which one? Eventually we discover the answer: the small São Tomé Prinia is somehow flapping its wing in a manner to make a fairly loud clicking sound. How bizarre.

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The noisy little prinia

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Northern Cordon Bleu

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Sao Tomé Speirops

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Prinia

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Cordon Bleu

From our balcony we can see the fish jumping in the sea, causing small ripples on the surface of the water.

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The fishermen all make their way towards that area, but by the time many of them have reached the spot, the fish have moved on.

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Dinner

Dinner is taken in the open-sided restaurant, with each cabin having its own dedicated table.

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Vegetable soup

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Pasta with crab, cream and Parmesan cheese

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This is not quite what David was expecting when he ordered 'apple pie'.

After dinner we yet again sit on the balcony for a long while, taking in the sounds and sights of the jungle after dark. There is next to no llight pollution and the stars are out, but unfortunately so are the clouds for a lot of the time.

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And so ends another delightful day in paradise. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 12:27 Archived in Sao Tome and Principe Tagged children birds fish fishing memorial kite paradise tunnel lizard birding fishermen bananas poverty heaven stars hospital baobab cacao rustic abandoned plantations bonito massacre astro martyrs blue_lagoon bird_watching roca eco_lodge undiscovered_destinations calabash astrophotography batepa_massacre prinia endemic_birds vinho_verde fernão_dias memorial_dos_heróis_da_liberdad agostinho_neto urbex abandoned_hospital star_fruit tropical_almonds rugged_coastline roça_monte_forte basket_weaving lemon_tree cashew_nut cashew_fruit mucumbili carambola life_list white_wine cordon_bleu speirops after_dark apple_pie Comments (4)

São Tomé city tour and Monte Café

An easy day


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

I set the alarm for 06:30 this morning for some bird watching in and around the hotel grounds before breakfast. I am not disappointed.

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Yellow-billed kite

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Village Weaver

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São Tomé Prinia

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Yellow Fronted Canary

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Yellow Billed Kite

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Village Weaver

Four 'lifers' (new species to us) before breakfast on the first day! I also spot a couple of cute little lizards.

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Breakfast

Forte de São Sebastião

The old San Sebastian Fort has now been turned into a museum.

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The square outside is home to statues depicting the first settlers in São Tomé and Principe.

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São Tomé & Principe were both uninhabited prior to colonisation by the Portuguese in 1470 who came in search of land to grow sugar and as a base for trade with mainland Africa. São Tomé, being right on the equator and more than wet enough, fitted the bill perfectly. Slaves were brought over as forced labourers from Congo and Angola on the African coast to work the plantations. The first successful settlement was established in 1493 by Álvaro Caminha, who received the land as a grant from the Portuguese crown and by the mid-16th century the islands were Africa's foremost exporter of sugar.

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Attracting settlers proved difficult, however, and most of the earliest inhabitants were 'undesirables' sent from Portugal, mostly Jews, a great number of whom soon died.

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By 1515, São Tomé and Príncipe had become slave depots for the coastal slave trade centred at Elmina in Ghana. The interesting little museum chronicles the history of the country, but unfortunately photography is not permitted inside most of the rooms in the fort, so you will just have to make do with some external shots from the courtyard.

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Sugar cultivation declined over the next 100 years as a result of competition from the West Indies, and São Tomé was now primarily a transit point for ships engaged in the slave trade between the West and continental Africa.

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In the early 19th century, two new cash crops, coffee and cocoa, were introduced to São Tomé. Large plantations (known as roças), mostly owned by Portuguese companies, sprung up all over the islands. Soon São Tomé became the world's largest producer of cocoa, with 800 of these plantations, and although this is no longer the case (and so many of the roças lie in ruins), cocoa remains the country's most important crop.

The second room in the museum shows examples of the different types of cocoa beans (and there was I thinking a cocoa bean was a cocoa bean). The plant was originally brought from Portugal as an ornamental plant, and remained so until someone said: “You're wasting your money, this plant grows so well here you should start a plantation”. Experts were imported from other Portuguese colonies such as Mozambique and Angola, and the rest is history.

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Other rooms are devoted to Catholicism, the President, the Flag, dining room, culture room (including voodoo paraphernalia and mannequins in various traditional costumes) and a gallery of old pictures from the city.

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By far the most emotional and poignant of all the exhibitions, is the Massacre Room. I find most of the pictures too distressing to look at, yet again despairing at man's inhumanity to man.

By the time we get to the 'turtle room', my back is giving me a lot of pain. I had hoped the pain would be gone by this morning after a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed, but not so; it is getting worse and worse.

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São Tomé is home to five different species of turtles, and much education work is taking place to ensure their continuing conservation.

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I had no idea Leatherback Turtles could grow that big!

Climbing onto the roof is proving to be quite a task because of my painful back. It is worth it for the view though.

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The graves of some 'important people' of a bygone age.

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Catedral de São Tomé

The 16th century cathedral is the oldest on the island and is reputed to be the first Catholic church to be built in an African country.

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The original building was constructed from wood, but the church was rebuilt in a more durable material - concrete - in the 17th century.

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As a place of worship, it is popular, especially for Sunday mass, when the pews are full.

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Damaged by fire during a revolt in 1975, the church was repaired from donations.

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Beautiful relics from the Portuguese era.

Parliament Building

Photographing this building is not permitted, with armed guards posted outside. Despite my experience in 2011 when I was chased down the road by one such guard after taking a picture of a bank in Algiers, I risk a covert shot from a distance.

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Driving by the market and later past the popularly named 'Think Square' where Sãotoméans gather to work out a survival strategy when they have no money (unemployment sits at 70%), we head out of town and up into the hills. I am pleasantly surprised at the condition of the road: there is some sizeable areas of tarmac between the potholes. The first settlement of any size we reach is Trindade, the second biggest city in São Tomé, with 45,000 inhabitants. It was here that a rebellion took place in 1953, where hundreds of native Creoles were killed or captured and tortured to death (known as the Batepá massacre). Later their bodies were thrown in the sea, like animals. "Throw this shit into the sea to avoid troubles," the Portuguese governor was quoted as saying. A memorial has been built to mark the spot and its anniversary is officially observed by the government.

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Roça Monte Café

One of the largest coffee plantation on the island, Monte Café has now been turned into a museum offering a tour of the coffee production process.

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At 600m above sea level, the air is considerably cooler here than in town, and the climate is ideal for growing Arabica coffee.

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We are invited up the stairs of one of the old warehouses, to walk through the exhibitions with a Portuguese-speaking guide, and Agostinho as a translator. Here the men toiled the plantations while the women worked in the factory.

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I am in agony with my back now, and seek out a chair on the balcony after the first couple of rooms, especially as photography is not permitted inside the museum.

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Alei Coffe Shop

Despite taking a double dose of painkillers, my back is still going into spasms, unfortunately marring my enjoyment of the excellent lunch.

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Ceviche with marlin, passionfruit, onion and cucumber

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Red snapper with plantain, breadfruit and rice. The green stuff is described as a 'lusoa sauce' and is really quite nice. I have been unable to ascertain what it is in English - maybe the green tops of sweet potato.

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David tries the locally brewed beer, Rosema, which comes in unmarked bottles without a label.

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Passionfruit cheesecake

Passionfruit is grown in abundance here on São Tomé, and I am intrigued by the size of them. I had no idea there was more than one type of passionfruit.

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Miramar Hotel

With my back being so painful, we return to the hotel a little earlier than planned, where I have a short siesta and feel some better afterwards.

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Like last night, we wander onto the terrace for a drink outside before dinner. Tonight we choose some Portuguese Vinho Verde, which goes down very nicely.

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Dinner

I am assuming the hotel is not full this evening, as we are the only diners at 19:30. Tonight's special is chicken stroganoff, and we both choose that. It is very good.

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Coconut jelly on a biscuit base

The end of another interesting day in São Tomé, arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:45 Archived in Sao Tome and Principe Tagged turtles fish fort museum cathedral africa birding parliament coffee trindade pain slavery ceviche defence canary plantations weaver massacre demonstrations cocoa bird_watching roca red_snapper undiscovered_destinations sao_tome batepa_massacre miramar_hotel prinia endemic_birds forte_de_são_sebastião sugar_plantations roca_monte_café vinho_verde passionfruit back_pain Comments (4)

Muscat - Sur - Ras el Jinz

Along the north coast


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

The breakfast buffet this morning is huge, with choices of various breads, Indian, English, American and Middle Eastern dishes, plus Continental cold meats / cheese and cereals.

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The whole place seems in a bit of a muddle this morning though, as there are no cups by the coffee machine, so people take them off the tables; there are no spoons in the cinnamon nor syrup, they run out of waffles as well as orange juice, no teaspoons are available so David has to stir his coffee with a dessert spoon.

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I managed to get a couple of waffles before the ran out

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David had to 'make do' with a fry-up.

Fish market

Our first stop on today's journey is at the fish market in Muscat, housed in a nice new modern building, a mere four months old.

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The long thin fish on the left are barracuda, while the big yellow ones with spots are the famed kingfish.

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The market is all very clean and the produce looks of high quality.

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Tuna

Most of the workers in the market are 'middle men' rather than the fishermen themselves, often ex-boatmen who maybe now find the all-night fishing a bit too much.

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Totally in awe of his skill and speed, we watch this man de-bone and fillet a large fish in next to no time.

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.

Vegetable Market

Next to the fish market is the equally new and modern vegetable market.

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Most of the produce is imported, and among the more familiar items, we see a lot of typical Indian vegetables, obviously to appease the immigrant population.

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The dates, however, are local and a must to accompany kahwa, the traditional Omani coffee.

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Off-roading

Said asks if we would prefer to take the main road between Muscat and the coast, or a short-cut which would mean 20km of off-roading.
Without hesitation, we both answer in unison: “off-roading please”

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The road is way smoother than either of us anticipate, but the geological formations alongside it are fascinating: bleak, ragged, crumbly hills more akin to man-made slag heaps than anything nature has created.

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I desperately try to take pictures through the car windows at every turn in the road, most of which don't turn out at all.

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The only other car we see on the 20km journey.

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Eventually, we stop on a ridge to tale photos out over the surreal landscape at Wadi Al Hawh. Is this really Planet Earth, or did we travel to the moon by mistake?

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Hawiyat Najm Park, featuring Bimmah Sink Hole

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Fresh water is mixed with sea water in this sink hole, making for a beautiful iridescent aquamarine colour, some 50m x 70m large and 20m deep.

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Despite the Arabic name Hawiyat Najm, which literally means 'the falling star', this depression was not caused by a meteorite as suggested by local folklore, but rather as a result of limestone erosion. Said suggests it was a fairly recent occurrence, maybe 25 years ago.

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The area around the sink hole has been turned into a leisure park, with decent toilets, shaded picnic areas and steps leading down to the water for locals and tourists to swim. Apparently it is a very popular place with families on the weekend. I can see why as there is a nice cooling breeze coming in from the sea.

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Kahwa and dates

Before we leave, we are invited for kahwa by Said's friend who is the gatekeeper guardian of the park.

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Kahwa is more than just a 'mere coffee' to the Omanis, it's a ritual that occupies a special place in their society. Friends and guests will always be served coffee and dates, usually in small, handle-less cups.

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By handing back the cup without any further ado, you indicate that you would like some more. If you have finished, you should shake the cup as you give it back.

Wadi Shab Oasis

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What an odd place. The initial access to the oasis is underneath a highway flyover, with the pillars supporting the road sitting on an island in the wadi.

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Having read all about this place before we left home, I had already decided I was going to give it a miss. Hearing that after the initial boat trip across the river we have to walk for an hour or more along a small rugged ledge and scramble over huge boulders just to get to the initial pools; then if we want to see the main attraction, we need to swim and wade across three pools; and in order to enter the cave, we actually have to swim through a hole between the mountains then climb up using a rope to reach the waterfall.

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I think we'll leave this place to the adrenalin-seeking youngsters we once were.

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Apparently, the 2012 Red Bull Cliff Diving final was held here in Wadi Shab.

Wadi Tiwi

To make up for not fully exploring Wadi Shab, Said suggests that we drive up the road through the five villages of Wadi Tiwi. Sounds like a fair exchange to me.

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My, oh my, what a drive! This really has to be one of the most amazing roads ever. Initially the road runs along the valley floor, between date and banana plantations and rock pools with boulders so large we discuss how they could possibly come to have rested in such a place.

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Known as the 'Wadi of Nine Villages', the road snakes its way between towering canyon walls in amongst old, traditional settlements (where Said seems to know everyone), criss-crossed by a network of aflaj (the traditional Omani irrigation channels).

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I am fascinated by the huge, upright boulder in the middle of this village. Real or mad-made I wonder...

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Said expertly handles the car around huge boulders and rocky outcrops in some impressive bends.

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Trying to grab photos of passing scenery is proving quite a challenge, with me hanging out of the window holding on to the camera for dear life.

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Eventually Said does stop the car so that we can take a proper look at the views.

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If driving up was impressive, travelling down is mind-blowing, with impossibly sharp bends, large rocks jutting out into the track, crumbling plantation walls and local houses seemingly blocking our way.

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During the rainy season this road becomes completely impassable for a few days as flood water gushes down the valley.

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The ever-present falaj (irrigation system).

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Lunch

At the bottom of the valley, we stop at a small road-side restaurant in the village of Tiwi.

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We order traditional Omani kingfish which is lovely and fresh and comes in a tasty coating. We also have a dish with vegetables, a spicy sauce, a salad and roti; and no self-respecting Omani would have lunch or dinner without a mountain of biriyani rice.

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Sur

With the appearance of a sleepy little seaside town, it is surprising to learn that Sur is the fourth largest city in Oman (after Muscat, Nizwa and Salalah) with nearly 70,000 inhabitants.

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Said looking out over the estuary

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Turtle in the water

During the 1500s, Sur was the region’s most important port, importing and exporting goods from India and Africa, including slaves.

Dhow Museum

It's for the construction of dhows, the traditional Arab sailing vessels, that Sur is famous today, however.

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Sur established itself as Oman’s most important ship-building centre around the 16th century, a trade which continued until the beginning of the 20th century and is barely kept alive today.

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The word 'dhow' is generally used to describe all traditional wooden-hulled Arabian boats, although locals will either refer to them as safena or suh-fin which both basically mean just ‘ships'; or they will use the more specific names such as boom, sambuq, ghanjah – which for all intents and purposes are different styles of dhow.

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Houri Al safeena – a small sailing boat used to send a rescue team to stranded boats.

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Launch samak – diesel boat from 1983 used for fishing with cast nets.

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Al Mashouh – a light canoe with a square shaped stern used for ferrying sailors to their ship and back.

Dhow Shipyard

The traditional Arab sailing vessels known as dhows are still being produced here at this shipyard in Sur, the only remaining of its kind in Oman.

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This dhow has been a 'work in progress' for over two years now, and will cost somewhere in the region of 200,000-300,000 Rial (ca £400,000-600,000).

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Traditionally, dhows were constructed of teak planks sewn together using coir rope and powered by enormous triangular lateen sails. These days iroko wood is mostly used.

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Many people work on the construction, with each person having a specific task, such as this woodcarver. Traditionally all the work was carried out by locals, but these days many immigrant workers, mostly from India, have taken over the jobs.

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I decline the invitation to climb on board the partially finished ship as health and safety is non-existent.

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Ras al Jinz Hotel

We continue to our hotel for the night, and as soon as we have checked in, we go to our room and await the porter bringing our bags.

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He arrives fairly promptly, but once he has left, we can't find the key to our door. We search everywhere. No sign of it. Eventually we give up and ask Housekeeping for a spare, so that we can actually lock the door when we leave the room.

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As it will be a late night tonight and an early start tomorrow, we try to have a bit of a nap, but struggle to get to sleep on the very hard bed.

Some two hours later, a very sheepish porter turns up with the key that was in his pocket all along. Doh.

Turtle Information Centre

There is only one reason for coming here: turtles.

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One of the main tourist destinations in Oman, Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve was set up in 1996 to protect the rare and endangered green turtle which returns every year to lay its eggs on the same beach where it was born decades ago.

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The well laid out visitor centre showcases the lifecycle of the green turtle as well as the archaeological findings from this area through museographical displays – whatever that means!

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There are interactive displays and a short film showing the life of a turtle and the work carried out here.

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Dinner

Having a bit of an upset tummy, I am not feeling up to much food this evening. The buffet is mostly Indian, with the odd international dish thrown in. I stick to potatoes with a yogurt-type dressing.

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Turtle Watching

Turtles are big business here, and I have to admit to finding the whole organisation rather too big and commercialised with far too many people.

This is considered the low season as far as turtles go, so we are told to gather in the lobby at 20:15 for news on whether any turtles have been spotted on the beach this evening. The area is very crowded, with nowhere near enough seats for everyone. We are lucky, as we arrive early to find a spare sofa.

We wait. And wait. And wait. No news.

Finally, at 21:15 we rush off in seven different groups. As hotel residents, we have priority and are in group # 1.

We exit through the rear of the hotel, each group being led by a local naturalist with a torch. Initially there is a smoothish gravel path, but soon the ground becomes like slippery mud, then slightly looser sand. As we get near to the water, the sand is deep and soft, making walking rather hard work.

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This photo, taken the next morning, shows the gravel path leading out from the hotel

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Here you can see the 'slippery mud' (the shiny bit reflecting the sun) and just how far away the sea is.

With just a small torch, it is hard to see what is going on, but eventually we come across the one and only female who is on this beach today. She has finished laying her eggs and is now covering them with sand, ready for her to leave them to their own devises as she returns to sea. Flash photography is strictly forbidden, as is individual torches, making for very dark conditions for getting any sort of photograph of the turtle. (For my photography friends: these images were taken on ISO 32,000)

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After digging a hole by scooping out clouds of sand with her flippers, the turtle deposits up to 100 eggs, before carefully covering them again and returning to sea, exhausted.

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The eggs take around 60 days to hatch, and the tiny creatures then have to not just burrow their way to the surface of the sand; they have to make it safely to the ocean, avoiding any predators on the way.

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AS there is only one turtle on the beach tonight, each group is only given five minutes at the nesting site, before moving on to make room for the next group.

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Sitting on a rock at the water's edge I become aware of something luminous in the water, being washed up on the beach with each wave: bioluminescent algae or glow-in-the-dark plankton. Never having seen this phenomenon before, I am absolutely mesmerised. Trying to take photos proves impossible, so I just sit there enjoying the spectacle, which coupled with the bright starry sky above, makes this a totally magical moment.

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As we leave to return to the hotel, the turtle has finished her duty and sets off to sea. Confused by all the people crowding around her, she leaves the nesting site in the wrong direction, and it saddens me that maybe we have caused her some unnecessary stress by our presence here tonight. Or at least the sheer numbers of us – there must be between 70 and 80 tourists here this evening.

Returning to the hotel we are offered a ride in the pick-up truck, which we gladly accept.

What a perfect ending to an amazing day! Thank you Undiscovered Destination for this fabulous trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:05 Archived in Oman Tagged mountains boats turtles fish oasis park canyon scenery breakfast valley sur ships sinkhole coffee oman stars buffet muscat wadi dhow dates shipyard fish_market ragged starry_night short-cut outer_worldly bimmah bimmah_sinkhole sink_hole hawiyat_najm_park kahwa wadi_shab ras_al_jinz bioluminescent glow_in_the_dark_plankton plankton egg_laying tiwi wadi_tiwi Comments (2)

Danube Delta

A day on the Delta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grey Heron

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Black Headed Gulls

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Hooded Crow

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Mallard

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Squacco Heron

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Whiskered tern

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Mute Swan Cygnets

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Herring Gull

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Common Tern

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

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

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Pygmy Cormorant

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Marsh Harrier

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Mute Swans

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Hooded Crow

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Great Egret

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Purple Heron

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Great Cormorant

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Grey Heron

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Little Egret

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

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Little Egret

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Floating hotel

The marshes are studded with glorious water lilies.

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

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Our cheeky guide Andrei

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

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

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

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The tall reeds dwarf a Little Egret!

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

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Squacco Heron

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

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

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Marsh Sandpiper

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Grey Heron and Great Egret

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Northern Lapwing

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

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More waterlilies.

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Lunch

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

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

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

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

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

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As well as other birds, of course

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Common Gull

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Squacco Heron

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Great Cormorant and Common Gull

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Coot

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Mallards

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Black Headed Gulls

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

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

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

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

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Frogs on the lily leaves

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

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Dinner

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

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

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

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

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:37 Archived in Romania Tagged birds fish boat travel marshes destinations photography soup delta boat_trip bird_watching danube_delta undiscovered_destinations crisan fishball_soup Comments (0)

Birmingham - Dubai - Nairobi

We've finally arrived in Africa!


View The Gowler African Adventure - Kenya & Tanzania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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As we approach Dubai Airport after seven hours or so in the air, the sun rises and we get a brief glimpse of this modern metropolis from the air.

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On exit from the plane, a series of transfer buses are waiting to take us to the terminal – it’s all very well organised, with a different bus depending on your onward flight destination or whether you are stopping in Dubai. We board a bus for Nairobi. Not literally of course.

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We have a three-hour layover here in Dubai, so we spend a lot of time sitting about in the airport lounge.

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Eventually we are called for the flight and moved to another lounge at the departure gate, where we learn that the flight is delayed for over an hour – more sitting around, waiting.

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The next flight is also very comfortable, with space to spread out. I spend most of the time sleeping, only waking for food and again just before landing at Nairobi.

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At the immigration control in Nairobi, David is berated for having a Transfer Visa and is told that he should have a ‘proper’ visa if he is to leave the airport and stay overnight. This, of course, is quite contrary to the information on the Kenya Immigration Website, and the three of us go through the passport check without a single comment. David must have got the grumpy one this afternoon. Thankfully he is let through and we have finally arrived in Africa!

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The luggage is very slow to turn up, and as more and more bags arrive but ours are nowhere to be seen, we start to get a little twitchy. Eventually the last one appears on the luggage carousel and we breathe a sigh of relief. I suppose someone’s bag has to be the last one.

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At customs I am questioned at length about commercial filming due to all my camera equipment, but we finally make it through to the outside world, where William is waiting to take us to our hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi.

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As usual, the Nairobi traffic is appalling despite the fact that we are not even entering the centre of town, and we sit in one huge jam as the road improvement works causes major diversions and delays as we make our way to the suburb of Karen. Eight months ago when we came this way on the way back from Lake Turkana, the road was pot-holed, rutted and chock-a-block with traffic. It is comforting in a way to see that some things never change.

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As we pull up at the hotel, we are delighted to see our friend Abdi, who has travelled down from North Horr to meet up with us.

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Karen Blixen Coffee Gardens, Restaurant and Cottages

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Tillya (of Calabash Adventures) came out to Nairobi last month to personally check out our rooms here at Karen Blixen Cottages, and as we are shown to our room, we concur that he has made a good choice.

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Each room is set in an individual period-style cottage designed after the historic Swedo House in the so-called first generation style , and comes complete with a four-poster bed, a seating area with a fireplace, high-beam ceiling, a dressing room and a large bathroom with separate shower, toilet and bathtub. There is also a nice verandah (with a very friendly resident cat) for relaxing with a pre-dinner drink. The room evokes a taste of the past with yesteryear historic ambience from Kenya's early pioneering days.

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History

Much history is attached to this place - Karen Blixen Coffee Gardens, Restaurant and Cottages (that is the longest hotel name we have come across since the 'Best Western Premier Amaranth Suvarnabhumi Airport Hotel' in Thailand) is set in one of the largest and oldest formal gardens in Kenya, in what was once the estate of Karen Blixen (the author of the best selling book 'Out of Africa' which was later made in to an award-winning film).

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Meandering paths lead through the gardens, connecting the cottages with the main buildings, gym and swimming pool. It is hard to imagine how the original house was surrounded by indigenous forest, bush and grasslands at the time of its construction in 1906 – the 5½ acres of formal hotel gardens are now full of ornamental trees such as candelabra cactus, jacaranda (my favourite tree when in bloom) and bottle brush, as well as numerous (over 200 species I am told) exotic flowers.

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I am a little disappointed however, with the lack of bird life – I expected the flowers to attract a number of birds, but all I see is this ‘measly’ little sunbird.

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Swedo House

This building within the grounds was once the hunting lodge, and the farm manager's residence for Karen Blixen's coffee farm. Later Thomas Dinesen (Karen Blixen's brother) lived in this house, and Karen herself also spent a great deal of time here. It has since been refurbished to its original style.

The architectural style of Swedo House is typical of the pioneering days of Kenya, being built on stilts with the original walls of corrugated iron lined with wood inside; and sporting raised verandas with arched roof supports. The corrugated iron walls were later replaced by cement plastered over chicken wire. These days the house contains the lounge and gift shop.

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Meaning ‘medicine’ or ‘magic potion’ in Swahili, Dawa is the signature cocktail at Tamarind (the chain which owns the hotel restaurant). Based on the famous Brazilian Caipirinha, the cocktail it is made from vodka, sugar, quartered lime, ice and honey, and is apparently one of the most widely consumed cocktails in Kenya. As I really don’t like honey, I didn’t think I’d like it. I was wrong. The honey is served on the little wooden stick in the glass, and just tastes sweet rather than a strong honey taste.

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The curiously named Elephant Mudbath cocktail is a must as we are going to be visiting the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in the morning. The cocktail comprises of coffee liqueur, Amarula, Vodka and ice. A little drop of heaven in a glass!

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To go with the cocktails, an amuse bouche of chilli chicken and crab cocktail arrives.

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The chicken is surprisingly bland, whereas the crab cocktail is nicely spiced and absolutely delicious.

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At dinner I practise the little bit of Swahili I have tried to learn in the last few weeks, much to the amusement and delight of the staff.
“Nataka chakula cha kiafrika” (I would like African food) I ask, and John, the waiter, suggests the Chicken Ndogo Ndogo, a whole spring chicken grilled with ginger, soy sauce, garlic and lime juice.

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Ndogo ndogo apparently means “young lady” or "nice thighs" in Swahili, and a few slightly risqué comments are banded about.

I ask for the chicken to be served kali (spicy), but instead they include a selection of pili pili (chillies), hot sauce and freshly chopped coriander. The chillies certainly pack a powerful punch!

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To go with my chicken I order ugali – the staple food throughout East Africa – a stiff polenta-like dough made from millet flour and water.

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Chris settles for the Fish with Mushrooms, a fillet of fish topped with mirin-flamed mushrooms and served with fried rice and creamy champagne sauce. From the contented murmurs and delighted exclamations, I am deducting that he is enjoying it.

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My request “tafadhali nakata nne bia Tusker baridi” gets us exactly what we want – four cold Tusker beers! This Swahili-speaking lark sure is fun!

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At the beginning of the meal John (the waiter) asks Chris to write down all our names on a sheet of paper, and from then on he calls us by name as he dishes up our food. Very personal service indeed. I am even more impressed when the dessert is delivered. Only David orders a pudding – crepe suzette – but the rest of us get complimentary petit fours, beautifully served on personalised plated with a Swahili saying and our names written out in chocolate! This certainly is a first for me!

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As we leave the restaurant, the serenade of the frogs in the grounds is almost deafening as you can hear from this little video. There is no picture as such as it is pitch black by now, but it is worth a listen for the sound alone.

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Having travelled for 24 hours through the night to get here, jetlag descends on us after dinner and we retire to bed for an early night.

Thank you Calabash Adventures for a great start to our trip!

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:00 Archived in Kenya Tagged food fish restaurant travel vacation flight holiday fun africa safari packing chicken dubai karen kenya cocktails emirates birmingham gourmet nairobi good_food tamarind african_food calabash calabash_adventures the_best_safari_operators karen_blixen_coffee_gardens_and karen_blixen dawa_cocktail dawa Comments (1)

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