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Lake Natron - Mto Wa Mbu walking Tour - Kilimamoja

Something a little different today


View Baby Boomers - Tanzania 2020 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Lake Natron Camp

I slept reasonably well last night, despite someone's alarm going all through the night. The 'alarm', we are told, was a distressed nightjar!

Breakfast is good, with a Continental selection including peanut butter, followed by a cooked breakfast.

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Before we leave the camp, I use the facilities near the mess tent – a compostable toilet with buckets of sand to cover up any excrement, yet there is modern 'luxuries' such as running water in the basin and individual terry towels neatly rolled up in a basket.

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Ol Doinyo Lengai Volcano looks pretty this morning with her pink hat on.

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Wishing our friends Lyn and Chris could have come with us on this safari, we took with us large photos of them and pretended they were here too, creating this photo for them.

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It is time to head back to 'civilisation' again this morning. The roads have not improved any, that's for sure.

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Giraffe

Our path is blocked by a giraffe again today.

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Strange earth mounds appear on the side of the road.

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Crowned Lapwing

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You can quite clearly see the reason it got its name here

Kori Bustard

A large bird, this male is displaying the courtship ritual by inflating his throat, spreading the white frontal neck feathers outwards and raising his tail. All the while emitting a loud and powerful drum sound that can carry for several kilometres.

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While we are watching the bustard, an inquisitive Lesser Masked Weaver comes to investigate what we are doing.

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Capped Wheatear

It is obviously the time of year when birds have making babies on their minds, as this pair of wheatear are at it too!

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Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse - today's first lifer

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Eastern Chanting Goshawk, lifting one leg for thermoregulation.

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Although not quite as loud as the Kori Bustard, the Goshawk seems to still have plenty to say.

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White Throated Bee Eaters

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This Kori Bustard seems to be more intent on looking for food rather than sex – could it be the female our previous mate was trying to impress?

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Ostrich harem - one male five females. Good luck to him!

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The hillside is ablaze with colour

Zebra

We spook a zebra mummy and her young foal.

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They soon settle down, though, joining a few others.

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A couple of Maasai Warriors in their full regalia walk past in the field.

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I find it interesting that the men are dressed in what appears to me to be their finest regalia, with brightly coloured shúkà (cloth), rungu (club) and spear, while just casually walking in a field.

Also, look at the length of the hair on the guy on the right. His long braids indicate that he is a moran, or warrior; a title achieved after an initiation rite when puberty is reached, involving circumcision (traditionally without anaesthetic), and spending time living in isolation in the bush, learning tribal customs and developing strength, courage, and endurance—traits for which Maasai warriors are noted throughout the world. During this time the young men will wear black and often have their faces painted with bold patterns. Historically a Maasai man should also have killed a lion single-handedly using only a spear to prove that he is worthy to be a moran; although that practice has been outlawed today.

Some 900,000 Maasai people are spread throughout Kenya and Tanzania, and although some of the younger generation have steered away from the nomadic life to positions in business commerce and government roles. During recent years, projects have been implemented to help Maasai tribal leaders find a way to preserve their traditions and way of life while also trying to balance the education needs of the Maasai children for the modern world.

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The local bus service

It looks like we have another river to get across.

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Dark Chanting Goshawk

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White Breasted Bee Eater

Ngaruka

We pass through the small town of Ngaruka again.

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The roads are still pretty awful

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Donkey Cart, AKA Maasai Landrover

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The roads are affectionately referred to as “Free African Massage”.

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Where did the road go?

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Here it is. Or rather, was.

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This looks like fun


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Road Re-Construction

It looks like they are finally trying to do something about some of the washed away areas of this road.

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We stop and give them some bottles of water.

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Goodness knows the could do with some improvement in many places along this route.

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Cactus

We pass a complete forest of cacti. I don't think I have ever seen that before.

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Mto Wa Mbu

We are back in civilisation for the time being, having stopped in Mto Wa Mbu, a large-ish town on the main road from Arusha to Serengeti. The local name means Mosquito River, as a reference to the numerous insects that frequent this area. The only time we've ever stopped here previously, is to buy some little red bananas. This time we are partaking in a 'Cultural Walking Tour' of the plantations in the area. By now it is 12:00 and blistering hot; making me think of the old saying: “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”. As I am not English, I must be the mad dog.

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Water from the river is re-directed into canals to provide irrigation for plantations.

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Mango tree. Unfortunately right now is not the season for harvesting – I love mango!

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Crops are rotated three times a year, between, rice, corn and cassawa. Here they are clearing the fields ready for replanting rice.

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It's a muddy job!

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Rice plantations are started off in a dedicated seed bed, then transferred to their final growing area by hand. It's a labour intensive job.

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It's back-breaking work. The ladies invite me to join them after we share a joke; much as I would love to for the fun of it, I have to decline – my back would not thank me for it.

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Farmers often rent very small plots to grow just enough rice for their family and to maybe make a small amount of money.

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Dried out corn husks will be used as animal fodder.

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Taking it home for the cattle

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Okra or Lady Fingers

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Cassawa Plants

Three days ago during the heavy rains, this complete area was flooded. We did notice that when we drove through, the sides of the road were under several inches of water.

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Banana Plantations

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Three main types of bananas are grown here: the green bananas used for cooking, which take 6 months to mature; the yellow bananas that we all eat take 9 months, while the sweeter red variety take the longest to be ready, at a year.

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Lunch

We are taken to a small local restaurant set in amongst the plantations, with a bamboo hut housing the kitchen and an open-sided covered area with chair and tables for the diners.

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It's good to be out of the fierce sun

The food is served buffet style, with a number of dishes available.

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From left to right, back row: fried green bananas, boiled potatoes, aubergine (eggplant). Front row: mixed beans and corn (maize), a green vegetable similar to spinach, ugali - a staple in Tanzanian homes, it is made from flour (millet, maize, sorghum or cassawa) boiled with water to make a stodgy mass. It is bland but filling and I like it with a sauce.

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Back row, left to right: bean casserole, salad, beef stew. Bottom row, left to right: pilau rice, white rice and potatoes in a tomato sauce with green beans.

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Lake Manyara

As we climb up into the Ngorongoro Highlands, we look down on Lake Manyara. Not only can we see that the lake has swollen way past its normal size; but also that it has turned red from soil washed down from the hills.

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Kilimamoja Lodge

Arriving back at this lovely lodge is like coming home after a long trip. The staff are out in force to greet us, calling out: “Hello Grete, hello David, welcome back”.

This time we are in the room furthest away from the reception, and they provide us with a golf caddy to take us there.

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On the front porch, a very nice message is spelled out in green beans!

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With a couple of hours to spare, we debate whether to go for a swim, or sit on the balcony for a bit followed by a nap. The relaxation wins.

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Towel art on the bed


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We have an unobscured view of the valley below

Although the pool does look inviting, the balcony provides a very welcome breeze after the heat of the day, and we are delighted when we spot a pair of Verreaux's Eagles soaring over the Rift Valley – another lifer for us!

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Always prepared for a great photo opportunity

Dinner

We are the only guests in the restaurant this evening, and spend ages chatting to the chef, who appears to have worked all over southern Africa in some very high class establishments, including Palace of the Lost City (which this place reminds me of).

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I have never before been served a samosa in a cocktail glass

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A delightfully presented and beautifully tender rare fillet steak with a slightly spicy sauce.

While not actually on the menu this evening, the chef makes me another one of his better-than-sex-chocolate-fondants.

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Cappuccino Art

As before, there are chocolates on our pillow from the turnback service when we return to the room. Such a nice touch.

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Thank you so much to Calabash Adventures for arranging this safari for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 12:23 Archived in Tanzania Tagged wildlife volcano cactus river rice breakfast africa dinner safari tanzania zebra eagle lunch donkeys bananas canon maasai giraffe flooding masai plantations cappuccino rice_paddies ugali nightjar kori_bustard lake_manyara ostriches calabash_adventures mto_wa_mbu plover lapwing bee_eater sandgrouse goshawk wildlife_photography kilimamoja_lodge lake_natron ngaruka lake_natron_camp ol_doinyo_lengai courtship_titual wheatear maasai_warriors road_construction road_workers cactus_forest mosquito_river rice_planting banana_plantation red_bananas crop_rotation okra lake_manyara_flooded verreaux's_eagle samosa_in_a_cocktail_glass rare_fillet_steak Comments (1)

Ashgabat - Bugdayly - Kipchak - Geok Tepe - Nohur - Serdar

Horses, mosques, and goat horn graves

33 °C
View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Today we are leaving the city behind and travelling west, and we soon find the green parks of the capital replaced by dry, sandy conditions, which is not surprising as 80% of the country is covered with desert.

Bugdayly Ahal Teke Horse Stables

Our first stop today is a stable housing the famed Ahal Teke horses. Known as 'the gift from the desert,' this breed was developed for endurance and agility. Considered the art piece of the horse world - elegant and graceful in appearance and stride – Ahal Teke horses are among the rarest, most exotic full-sized breeds in the world, with only around 6,600 animals, mostly in Turkmenistan and Russia.

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We are treated to a fine display at the stables, with several specimens being brought out and paraded around for us. Most of these horses are bred for display and competition purposes, with each animal worth from US$10,000 upwards. The stable never purchases new horses, they breed from existing stock, and when they sell, they make sure that the stallions are unable to sire further offspring.

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The Ahal Teke horses have a reputation for speed and stamina, intelligence, and a distinctive metallic sheen. The shiny coat of palominos and buckskins led to their nickname 'Golden Horses'.

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Named after an oases in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan (Akhal) and the tribe (Tekke) that lived there, these horses are adapted to severe climatic conditions, having to tolerate sparse water and food supplies as well as extremes of heat and cold; and are thought to be one of the oldest existing horse breeds.

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The Akhal-Teke is distinctively fine-boned and flat-muscled. Its body—with its thin barrel and deep chest—is often compared to that of a greyhound or cheetah.

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This white horse is 30 years old – allegedly the oldest ahel teke horse in the country – but she still seems to be fit and frisky.

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After the display, we are taken to see the paddocks and stables, where we swoon over a young foal only born yesterday. The stables themselves, however, are surprisingly small, basic and somewhat dingy.

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David the horse whisperer.

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Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque

Our next stop is the village of Kipchak, and the huge, modern Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque.

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Built by Saparmurat Niyazov, the first president of Turkmenistan, the mosque courted controversy as a result of the president insisting that the walls be inscribed with scriptures from not only the Quran but also the Ruhnama , the spiritual guide to life written by Niyazov himself. He apparently hit back at his critics by explaining how he had talked to God and could confirm that anyone who read the Ruhnama (the Book of the Soul) three times would be guaranteed a place in heaven.

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The dimensions of the 40 metre high dome and 63 metre tall minarets are significant – Mohammed was 40 years old when he became the prophet and aged 63 when he died.

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The colossal gilded door leading in to the prayer hall weighs half a ton, but can still be opened reasonably easily, especially by a fit young man such as our guide Meylis.

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Look at those enormous knockers

The mosque is reputed to be the largest in Central Asia, holding a total of 10,000 worshippers – 7,000 men on the ground level and 3,000 women on the first floor gallery.

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Running in a circular fashion underneath the mosque is an entire 'ablution city', complete with marble, gold and chandeliers.

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There is also apparently an underground parking area with a capacity for 400 cars.

Niyazov's family Mausoleum

Next door to the mosque is the final resting place of Saparmurat Nyazov, (also known as Turkmenbashy the Great), who passed away suddenly in 2006.

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The entrance to the mausoleum is flanked by two guards in sentry boxes.

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We enter the mausoleum on the first floor and look down on the sarcophagi of Niyazov, his two brothers, his mother and his father (his dad died during WWII).

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The mausoleum, a miniature version of the mosque, was finished a couple of years prior to Niyazov's death. His mother and two brothers died in the massive 1948 earthquake that killed nearly 90% of the population of Ashgabat. The only reason Niyazov himself survived, was because he happened to be in the wooden outhouse at the time. The earthquake happened at 01:12, and the other members of his family were asleep in the brick-built house, which was razed to the ground in 15 seconds. The small wooden latrine was all that remained of his family home. This earthquake, measuring 10 on the Richter scale, was one of the most catastrophic natural disasters of the 20th century and destroyed nearly all brick buildings in the capital city and surrounding villages.

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The mosque and mausoleum were built in Kipchak, the home village of Niyazov and his family as well as the site being very close to the epicentre of the earthquake. Niyazov's plan for the mausoleum was for it to become a pilgrimage site, although today we only see one other tourist with accompanying guide and a worshipper in the mosque.

We continue our journey west to the site where the historical battle between the forces of the Russian Tsar and Turkmens of the Teke tribe took place in 1881.

Saparmurat Hajji Mosque

Built on the site of the former Geok Depe Fortress, the mosque commemorates the 15,000 or so lives lost when the Russian army launched their bloody attack, killing all the soldiers and civilians stationed here.

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The mosque also honours President Niyazov’s pilgrimage to Mecca (hence the name of the president and the word 'Hajji' in the title)

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Constructed in 1995, Saparmurat Hajji Mosque was the first mosque to be built in the country following independence after the dissolutionof the USSR in 1991.

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As I mentioned in yesterday's blog entry, carpets are of great importance to the Turkmen people, and each region has its own design, the pattern associated with this area is featured here in the mosque.

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Lunch

Carrying on a little further, we stop at a somewhat nondescript roadside café for lunch. Meylis pops in to find out if they have any tables and chairs, rather than just the large bed-like frames, or carpets on the floor, as is the traditional way of dining in this part of the world.

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We are ushered into a private dining room with a full-sized snooker table as well as a huge flat screen TV showing Lara Croft and Harry Potter dubbed in Russian. It is all rather surreal, and I really regret not taking a photo of the room.

There is no menu, and after chatting with the waiter, Maylis suggests we order grilled fish as this is their speciality here. The chips, salad and spicy tomato dip arrive way before the fish. There is also a whole square tin loaf of bread on the table, cut into one-inch pillars.

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Not only do I not photograph the room, I also forget to take pictures of the food until we have almost finished.

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Unfortunately my tummy is giving me terribly trouble today, and I hardly touch the lunch, rushing to find the fairly basic local-style (hole in the ground) facilities. Oh, how I hate the 'squits on the squats'!

For the next part of the journey I mostly sleep, until we reach the spectacular Kopetdag Mountains.

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Nohur Village

Our destination here in the mountains is the isolated village of Nohur, where the inhabitants are not true Turkmen, but claim to be direct descendants of Alexander the Great. These mixed race people (Greek + Turkmen) have their own language, and according to Meylis, our guide, “live differently”. 'No' means nine and 'Hur' is princesses; as legend suggests that the tribe originates from nine princesses.

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Nohur Cemetery

The main attraction in this village is its cemetery, which is like nothing I've ever seen before (and trust me, I have visited quite a few graveyards in my time): a large number of the headstones have goat horns attached to them.

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The local inhabitants believe that goat horns fight off evil spirits and can assist the souls of the deceased during their passage to heaven. Goats have always been considered sacred in this region, revered for their strength and endurance.

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Another reason for goats being honoured here, is the legend that tells of their forefather, Alexander the Great, having horns on the side of his head. The Macedonian king was brought up with the belief that he was of divine birth, and claimed descent from the Egyptian god Amun, whose symbol was ram's horns. Archaeologists have found a large number of different types of ancients coins from around his time in 300BC depicting Alexander the Great with two horns.

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Here in Nohur (as well as many other places in Central Asia), traditional beliefs co-exists perfectly with the Islam faith.

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Driving back down through the village from the cemetery, we encounter an extremely arrogant and inconsiderate driver – despite there being a drive-way he could pull into right next to him, he refuses to budge and makes us reverse up the narrow, winding road for quite some distance.

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On reaching the main road, we joke that the traffic police are always in the wrong place, never there when you need them!

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Serdar Guest House

Having dozed off a little on the way, I wake up as we pull into the car park of the place we are staying tonight. It is described in the itinerary as a 'guest house', but it has all the facilities of a hotel, albeit a rather quirky one. We are on the ground floor right at the end of a corridor, and the carpet running along the hallways has obviously been bought by the metre from a roll; but instead of cutting it to size, they have just left the rest all rolled up against the wall at the end of the long thin corridor. The presence of a pair of slippers just inside the bedroom door indicates that we are expected to remove our shoes as we enter. It is, however, the curtains that has me perplexed when we enter; or rather the lack of. There are just nets over the windows, despite the fact that our room faces out onto the car park and road beyond; and the curtain pelmet is artistically wavy.

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After a quick shower and change, we settle in with a pre-dinner drink from our Duty Free when there is a knock on the door. Maylis has been told that the restaurant staff would like him to be there when we order dinner as they don't speak any English. Fair enough.

As we enter the restaurant, a tantalising aroma wafts from the kitchen. “I'll have whatever that smell belongs to” I say to Meylis.

But first to more important things: beer! Gotta love their weak larger here: 12%. It is very nice though and carries quite a punch as you'd expect.

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To start we have lentil soup, which is really quite peppery, rather thick and very tasty.

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After following his nose into the kitchen, Meylis comes back with the source of the mouthwatering scent from earlier: lamb with liver and kidneys. I am so eager to dig in that I forget to take a photo until it is nearly all gone (apologies for awful picture). I am happy to report that it tasted as good as it smelled.

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Returning to the room for the night, I look for an electric socket to charge my phone. Really?

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With a distinct lack of ladders to reach this one, we end up unplugging one of the bedside lamps instead. The hotel is hosting a wedding reception this evening (much to David's delight earlier, as he spent the entire dinner checking out the well-dressed and all rather attractive female guests arriving); and between the noise from the party, people coming and going, a barking dog in the car park and the pain from yet another blister on my foot (that is four blisters now, and this one covers the entire ball of my left foot. Thank goodness for Compeed!) ; I don't anticipate getting a lot of sleep tonight.

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private tour for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 16:48 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged mosque cemetery horse muslim lunch mausoleum islam saparmurat_niyazov bugdayly ahal_teke horse_stable türkmenbaşy_ruhy_mosque niyazov kipchak saparmurat_hajji_mosque geok_depe snooker_table nohur nohur_cemetery serdar Comments (9)

Ashgabat and Nisa

Our first day in the Forgotten Stan

33 °C
View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As he dropped us off at the hotel last night, or rather early this morning, Meylis (our guide for the trip) suggested meeting at 11:00 today, allowing us time to catch up on a little sleep. We are therefore rather surprised when we get a call from reception at 08:30: “There is a man from your company here who needs your passport for registration”. Reception sends the bellboy up to collect the passports, which is great as we then don't have to get dressed yet.

Five minutes later there is another call from reception: “There is a man from your company here who needs your passport for registration”. David tries to explain that we have already dealt with this and that the bellboy has our passports. They don't understand and after a few minutes of trying to explain in every different way possible, David ends up having to go down to talk to them in person. By the time he gets down there, it is all sorted, of course. So much for sleeping in!

This is what we were woken so early for – several copies of a 'Entry Travel Pass'. Ironically we were never asked for copies of this during our two week tour.

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This was our first sight of the capital city of Ashgabat in daylight, the view from our hotel window.

We later ask the guide what the amazing monument is. "Oh, that is just a roundabout" he said. As the trip goes on, we find that every large roundabout in the major cities has such beautiful white marble and gilded monuments in the centre. Quite surreal.

This is what the roundabout looks like from Google Maps:

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The 8-pointed star seen on the aerial view of the roundabout is found everywhere in Turkmenistan. And I mean EVERYWHERE: railing, lifts, walls, lamp posts, the country's flag, trash cans, emblems.... you name it, it probably has a star on it! Apparently it signifies the Muslims' belief that there are eight steps to heaven.

White Marble Buildings

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog post, the former president of Turkmenistan had a thing for white marble, a tradition that his successor has carried on. Today Ashgabat holds the Guinness World Record for the most marble buildings in any city, with 80% of public buildings covered, using 5 million cubic metres of marble.

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It certainly makes for a bright and clean look for the city, something that is further enhanced by the total lack of advertising hoardings, graffiti, litter and traffic. Ashgabat has to compete with Pyongyang in North Korea as the capital city with the least amount of cars on the road.

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We see a few of the many gleaming buildings as we drive through the empty streets this morning.

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Owadan Tourism

Our first stop this morning is at the office of our local agent, where we are introduced to the General Director.

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They have created a small one-room ethnographic museum where tourists can learn about the history and culture of the various aspects of Turkmen life.

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Here we see two different types of carpets – the white one, made from felt, symbolising spring; while the red carpet, coloured by pomegranate, indicates autumn.

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The Dutar - a two-stringed musical instrument

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I love these colourful boots. On the shelf above you can see the traditional skull
caps many of the local men wear.

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David 'playing' the Dutar

Silk Road Map

The Silk Road Map on the carpet is prepared according to the map from Seyahatname 'Book of Travels' written by the well known 17th century Turkish traveller Evliya Chelebi (1611-1684), who travelled for more than 40 years, mostly on the western part of the Silk Road.

UNESCO considered Chelebi 'Man of the Year' in 2011 on the 400th anniversary of his death.

The carpet was woven by the General Director's family in 1999.

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Before we leave we are encouraged to have a cup of tea, and are given a box of chocolates to take away, as well as a couple of traditional wallets.

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Nisa

By the time we arrive at the ruins of this 3rd century capital of the Parthian Empire, which are reached via a long staircase, I am very hot, my back is hurting, the two blisters on my feet are painful, and the jet lag is catching up with me. It all seems too much trouble.

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Known as Midridatkert city in ancient times, the fortress of Old Nisa had walls that were nine metres thick with 43 rectangular towers and has now been given a UNESCO Heritage status.

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The so-called Round Hall, with a diameter of 17 m. The Old Nisa architecture is unique, original and is unprecedented in whole Central Asia, merging architectural traditions of antique Greece, Rome and the East.

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Old Nisa's walls protected the royal palace, Zoroastrian temples and the power and prestige of successive ruling dynasties until its eventual destruction at the hands of the Mongols in the 13th century.

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Old bricks and shards. I am utterly disgusted to see some Australian tourists picking up bits to take home as souvenirs, boasting about the age and historical importance of the fragments. Shame on them! I really regret not saying anything at the time.

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Restored pillars showing the old and new bricks.

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The necropolis. Only about 30% of the site at Old Nisa has been excavated.

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The Red Hall; so called because remains of red walls have been found underneath the mud.

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Looking out over New Nisa in the distance. It has not been excavated as yet, so does not feature on our itinerary.

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Lunch

Returning to Ashgabat, we stop for lunch at a tourist restaurant where seating is offered in private yurts with no furniture where you sit on a carpet on the floor; or at 'proper' seating areas in the leafy gardens.

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The waitress brings over a menu in tablet form, with photos of each dish and a clickable caption in English which brings up more information about the dish. Love this idea, especially when you don't speak the language.

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For starters we choose a dish called Dograma, consisting of lamb, bread, green onion, fresh tomatoes, water, salt and pepper. It is very tasty, and extremely filling.

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Main course is Manty, which is delightful little dumplings, a very traditional Turkmen dish. They are usually filled with a choice of meat, pumpkin or spinach. We decide on the meat variety. They are served with a small dish of smetana (a type of soured cream).

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The choice of salads in Turkmenistan really impresses me. Each and every restaurant has a huge selection of interesting salads, not at all what I am used to from the UK. Today we choose a concoction called Men's salad: green leaves, boiled beef, gherkins, mayonnaise, white cheese, salt and pepper.

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Independence Square

The Independence Monument is an extravagant affair, covering an area of more than 80,000 m². The entire structure is 118m high, with the minaret-like tower standing at 91m.

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The monument is surrounded by statues of 27 of the most prominent Turkmen heroes.

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Quite by accident we manage to time our visit to coincide with the changing of the guards; which takes place every two hours.

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The square is also home to a number of spectacular fountains.

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The founder emperor of the Seljuc Empire that reigned in this region prior to the Mongolian invasion in 1037.

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Statue to the first Turkmen leader. In his hand he holds three arrows. Legend has it that he demonstrated the power of team work by breaking an arrow in two, quite easily. Then, holding all three arrows in his hand, breaking them was not so easy; and when he had six halves together, it was impossible to break them – proving that alone you are weak, together you become strong.

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The five heads of the eagle on this symbol represent the five states of Turkmenistan, protecting both internal and external enemies (the two-headed snake)

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Everything in Ashgabat is ornate, include the street lamps; here decorated with the crescent (symbolising the new moon = new country) with five stars representing the five states, and the ubiquitous eight-pointed star denoting the eight steps to heaven.

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One of the numerous gold-plated statues to the former president Saparmurat Niyazov. As the self-declared 'President for Life', Niyazov gilded the country with his own image in a cult of personality that makes Kim il Jong look like an amateur.

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National Museum

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As with nearly all museums and archaeological sites in Turkmenistan, we have to pay a 'camera fee' in order to be able to take photos inside. Mostly the price is 50 manat as here, around US$14 according to the official exchange rate of 3.5 manat to the dollar.

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Like so many of the places we visit on this trip, the museum is housed in a grand building, with lots of gold and marble.

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Map showing the five states that make up Turkmenistan

The museum covers several sections, from prehistorical man to more recent finds.

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Archaeological finds from the 3rd Millennium BC at Altyn Depe

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Model of how Gonur Depe - which we shall be visiting later on during our trip - would have looked in its heyday in the 3rd millennium BC

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Bronze Tools from Gonur Depe, dating back to the 3rd - 2nd millennium BC

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Also found at Gonur Depe

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Terracotta fragments of Ossuary found at Munun Depe, from 1st century AD

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Beautiful Rhytons (horn-shaped ceremonial drinking vessels)

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Buddhist sculpture found at Merw

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The campaign of Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC

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A much more recent ceremonial sword, set with 98 precious stones

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Items found at New Nisa, 3rd century AD

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Turkmenistan has been very much a crossroads of cultures over the years, including being part of the famed Silk Road.

Flag

Everything is grand in Turkmenistan, including this flag pole, complete with a jet engine at the bottom to ensure the flag billows even on windless days. There is no need for it today.

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After independence from the USSR in 1991, a new flag was designed for the independent Turkmenistan, and it is the only country in the world that has carpet designs on its flag. The red stripe on the left with the five patterns, shows the various traditional design of carpet from the five different states in the country. These five motifs, like the eight-point star, feature in so many places within the country: boxes of chocolates, hotel door frames, posters, building decorations, the airport etc. The crescent moon, as well as being a traditional Islamic symbol, also represents the rising of a new country, and the five stars its separate states.

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Arch of Neutrality

While countries like Switzerland and Sweden have neutral foreign policies, Turkmenistan in the only country which is officially recognised by the United Nations as truly neutral. This has been recognised by the addition of a wreath below the carpet symbols on the country's flag.

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Note the five carpet designs on the plaque, as well as the eight-pointed star decorations.

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On top of the 75 metre high monument stands a 12 metre high gold statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, the infamous previous leader. His statue was designed so that it would rotate in order for the great leader to always be facing the sun. Upon his death in 2006, it was agreed that the statue should 'die' with him, and the rotations were turned off.

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Wedding Palace

On a small hill outside the otherwise very flat capital city, sits the bizarre and eccentric Wedding palace – also known as the Palace of Happiness. Built in 2011, the Wedding Palace is created of a number of star shaped floors topped with a 'disco ball' featuring a map of Turkmenistan in gold. Note the eight-pointed stars around the globe and the carpet pattern decorations on the sides of the stars.

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As well as six halls for wedding ceremonies, there are banquet halls for parties and receptions, shops, hair dressers, beauty salons and photography studios, and a small hotel with 22 rooms for newly-weds, Apparently, you can get a divorce here as well, as it is said that divorce can bring some people happiness too! There is also a huge portrait of the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and one of the conditions for being granted a marriage licence is to have your photograph taken in front of his picture.

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The (white, obviously) wedding cars in the country are always lavishly decorated.

Further up the hill stands the equally offbeat building that houses Yildez Hotel. The roads, like elsewhere in the capital, are totally empty for cars, and the numerous street lamps sport unusual, and elegant shapes.

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Being just slightly higher than the main part of town, we do get a bit of an overview of the White City below.

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Grand Turkmen Hotel

When we get back to the hotel, we notice a couple of little things that we later realise will come to be standard in most the places we are staying on this trip: just one set of towels and no spare toilet paper.

The view from the balcony is pretty darn good though, with changing coloured lights on the monuments.

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Considering this is supposed to be a four star hotel there are a few other annoyances too: the bedside table and the glasses in the bathroom have not been cleaned when they made the room up today; one of the bedside lamps do not work; neither does the standard lamp next to the TV, and there are no spare sockets for charging our phones, so we have to unplug one of the bedside lights. I suppose as it is not working anyway, it doesn't really matter.

We are too tired to even contemplate going out for dinner tonight, and settle for a glass or two of Duty Free rum and some nibbles. My back is hurting, and I now have two more blisters on my feet!

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private tour for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 15:11 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged fountains ruins monuments flag museum necropolis lunch unesco carpets turkmenistan ashgabat nisa silk_road united_nations central_asia national_museum manty undiscovered_destinations wedding_car smetana ethnographic_museum lamp_posts guinness_world_record neutrality dutar grand_turkmen_hotel ex-ussr entry_travel_pass eight_pointed_star white_marble empty_streets owadan_tours turkmenistan_national_museum old_nisa parthian_empire parthian tablet_menu dograma independence_square changing_of_the_guards seljuc saparmurat_niyazov arch_of_neutrality neutral_country wedding_palace gurbanguly_berdimuhamedow yildez_hotel Comments (11)

Morning Boat Trip at Mandina Lodges

Such variety of bird life


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

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

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

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Speckled Pigeon

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

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It's a glorious sunrise.

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An old boat lies moored near the lodge.

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The water is very still, creating beautiful reflections.

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Guinea Baboons

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

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

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

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I am so in love with their facial expressions.

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African Darter drying out his wings.

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Great White Egret

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Green Backed Heron

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Blue Breasted Kingfisher

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Pied Kingfisher

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Rose Ringed Parakeet

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African Darter

A crocodile sunbathes on the bank of the river.

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He doesn't look too friendly.

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

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

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

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Oyster Factory

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

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Oysters growing on the mangroves

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Pied Crows mobbing a Harrier Hawk

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Greenshank

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Spur Winged Plover

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Senegal Thick Knee

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Common Sandpiper

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Whimbrel taking off

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Long Tailed Cormorant drying his wings out

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

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

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Isn't he cute?

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Look at him yawn! ♥

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Today there is also a Speckled Pigeon in the rafters.

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

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He is after the crabs, of course.

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

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

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This girl is looking down on us from the rafters.

It looks like she is raising a family.

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

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

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

Tanji Beach and Bird Bath

Last morning at Tanji


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

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

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

Tanji Beach

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

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It could be so nice.

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The beach is suffering badly from erosion

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

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

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

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With a drink, of course

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Black Necked Weaver enjoying a splash in the bird bath

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Red Eyed Dove

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Village Weaver

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African Silverbill

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African Silverbill

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Common Bulbul

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Black Necked Weaver

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Western Bluebill

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Pied Crow

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Red Billed Firefinch

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Common Wattle Eye

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Agama Lizard

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Western Red Billed Hornbill

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White Crowned Robin Chat

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Red Bellied Paradise Flycatcher

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Yellow Throated Leaflove

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Snowy Crowned Robin Chat

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

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Bronze Mannikins

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Red Cheeked Cordon Blue

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Grey Headed Bristlebill

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Senegal Coucal

Lunch

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

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Fish and chips

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One last coffee under our favourite umbrella

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

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

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

Serengeti Day 3 Part 3 - steenbok, eles, breaking into tent

A varied afternoon with an adventurous ending


View Tanzania for Lyn and Chris' 40th Anniversary 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Lunch

While we are having our picnic lunch, the leopard (the reason we are eating inside the car) jumps down from the tree and disappears in the long grass. Good for him, getting away from the baying crowd.

Hippo

A small pond is home to a handful of hippos, including a couple of youngsters.

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Yellow Billed Stork

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Black Winged Stilt

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Those legs are impossibly tall!

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It must seem like a long way down.

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Cape Buffalo

Including some cute little babies.

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The public transport of choice in the Serengeti.

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Wattled Starling

Lion Cubs

Three young babies, around two months old, have been left home alone while mum goes off shopping (AKA as hunting for food); and chances are that she will stay out all night. In the UK she would have Social Services on her back.

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Being under strict instructions from mum to stay put (we actually saw this in action on our last safari, the way a lioness 'barked' orders to her offspring – very impressive) doesn't seem to deter the naughty youngsters who boldly leave the safety of their hideaway in the long grass to explore the world around them, oblivious to dangers.

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Saddle Billed Stork

Although not a lifer, it is a very unusual bird to see and the first time I have been able to take a decent photo of one.

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Steenbok

Startled by our vehicle, these steenbok make some impressive jumps trying to get away.

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Olive Baboons

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Pale Tawny Eagle

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White Bellied Bustard

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Lilac Breasted Roller

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Spotted Hyena

I love the long shadows created by the late afternoon sun.

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He's out looking for love by the looks of it.

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Brown Snake Eagle

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Reedbuck

Hiding in the bushes

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Lilac Breasted Roller

Another roller, this time captured by Big Bertha, bathed in the delightful golden hour.

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Elephants

Backlit elephants + dust + setting sun = happy photographer

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With side-light, the mood changes drastically.

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Banded Mongoose

Plural of mongoose is mongooses, not mongeese, and a group of these animals is called a band.

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They are looking for termites.

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Yellow Fronted Sandgrouse

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Reedbuck

Doing what reedbucks do best: hiding in the reeds.

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Sanderling

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The light is fading fast now.

More elephants

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Lions

Lots of cars are gathered around these four lions, three of which are sleeping.

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The large rasta, however, is walking near, and later on, the road. One of the drivers gets so close to the animal that I fear he is going to run the poor guy over.

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White Headed Vulture

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Black Backed Jackal

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Sunset

As we yet again rush back to reach camp before dark, we are following several other vehicles. I love it when this happens as the cars kick up lots of dust which add wonderful atmosphere to my photos.

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Leopard

Just before we turn off towards the lodge, a leopard crosses the road just in front of us. He has gone long before Malisa manages to stop, let alone us getting cameras out. How exciting, though.

Evening at Ole Serai

At dinner this evening Rashid, the manager of Ole Serai Luxury Camp, spends a lot of time chatting with us. Even chef Raymond comes out from duties in the kitchen to say hello.

Lyn and Chris join us in our tent for a drink after dinner. From very close proximity we can hear the roar of a lion, as well as the loud American group who arrived today. Go lion, go!

I have my first walkie-talkie experience this evening as I call for the askari (Maasai escort) to take the others back to their tent. Hearing the lion so close by, they are naturally nervous. It is very dark out there, the cat could be anywhere.

Trying to get in, Lyn and Chris find the padlock on their tent stuck. The askari tries everything, including the master key, but to no avail. The lion is still very vocal, very near. Eventually they use a rock to break open the padlock and our friends can let out a sigh of relief as they return to the safety of their room. An added adventure they could probably have done without.

Thank you yet again to Calabash Adventures for arranging such an amazing safari.

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Posted by Grete Howard 13:11 Archived in Tanzania Tagged animals birds sunset elephants safari tanzania eagle lunch picnic buffalo lion hippo baboons lion_cubs roller serengeti hyena stork vulture mongoose bustard game_drive tented_camp lilac_breasted_roller padlock calabash_adventures olive_baboons cape_buffalo spotted_hyena brown_snake_eagle sanderling wattled_starling game_viewing ole_serai sandgrouse lunch_picnic white_bellied_bustard packed_lunch yellow_billed-stork black_winged_stilt saddle_billed_stork steenbok reedbuck ole_serai_luxury_camp luxury_tented_camp Comments (3)

Ngorongoro - Turner Springs - Ole Serai surprise

What an amazing surprise


View Tanzania for Lyn and Chris' 40th Anniversary 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Lunch

Last night Malisa asked us if we wanted to eat our lunch today as a picnic in the crater or go back to Ang'Ata camp for it. We chose the former. As it turns out, the timing means we end up going to back to Ang'Ata, to have our picnic lunch under a tree near the lounge. It works out well as we have to go back to collect something we forgot anyway, and thankfully the camp is not far out of the way.

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It looks very different in the daylight

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When we arrive a number of zebra are roaming around the grounds of the camp.

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Ngorongoro Headquarters Tourism Office

After lunch we continue to the Park HQ to pick up our permit for the next chapter in our adventure: Serengeti National park. Modern technology has simplified this process, and Malisa just pops into the office and comes back almost immediately with the all-important paperwork.

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Ngorongoro Conservation Area

We make our way from the crater to the entrance gate to Serengeti National Park, through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

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Greater Spotted Eagle

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area does not have the same protected status as national parks do, which means wildlife share the space with Maasai tribesmen and their cattle, goats and sheep. There are no boundaries around the parks, so the wild (and sometimes domestic) animals wander between them freely, at times causing conflict between man and beast.

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Giraffe

Dust!

We are on a much faster main road, which means vehicles kick up a great deal more fine particles of sand and grit. Large trucks are sent out with water to dampen down the roads to try and control the amount of dust in the air. Unfortunately, in this heat the effect doesn't last long.

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Black Breasted Snake Eagle

Secretary Bird

It's unusual to see one so close to the road and so bold even when we stop the car to photograph it.

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Coke's Hartebeest

Also known as kongoni, the hartebeest is a sociable animal often found in small herds. Despite its clumsy-looking appearance, it is one of the fastest antelopes and most enduring runners, which is just as well as it is a popular animal among hunters. Hartebeest means 'tough ox'.

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Bohor Reedbuck

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Seronera Hippo Pool

We stop at a small pond filled with hippos and a plethora of bird life.

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Yellow Billed Stork

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Greenshanks

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Terek's Sandpiper, Greenshanks, Common Sandpiper

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Black Winged Stilt

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Black Headed Heron

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Croaking Cisticola

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Fischer's Lovebirds

There are even a couple of Nile Crocodiles lurking in one corner.

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A mother hippo with a young baby also discovers the crocs and immediately pushes her baby out of harms way and chases off the crocodiles.

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Time is moving on, it is now just after 18:00 and the light is fading fast. According to the park rules, driving is not permitted after dark and as we still have some distance to go to our camp for the night, we have to get a move-on.

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Cape Buffalo in the very insipid sunset

The sunset does get better, however.

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Ole Serai

When we arrive at the sign for the Ole Serai Luxury Camp, I can finally share the information that I had been sworn to secrecy about a few weeks ago: Tillya has yet again upgraded our accommodation.

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We see a sprinkling of lights in the distance and can just about make out the outline of the tents.

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We receive a very warm welcome when we pull up in the car, with drinks and wet flannels meeting us while the porters unload the car, and, like in Ang'Ata Nyeti, staff introduce themselves one by one and use our names thereafter. The atmosphere is upmarket but relaxed as we are given the customary security briefing, and while the reception area is very comfortable, all I want to do is get to my tent and have a shower.

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As the askari (security escort) walks us to our home for the next three nights, we see lightning on the horizon and hear the roar of a lion, appearing to come from somewhere rather too close for comfort.

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And then we arrive at the 'tent'. There is only one word to describe this accommodation made from canvas (tent is glaringly inadequate): "WOW". Wide steps lead on to a concrete platform where we find a couple of normal seats and an egg-shaped hanging wicker chair. As it is almost pitch black by now, photography outside is too challenging for me to want to contemplate (it would mean either setting up a tripod for a long exposure or using a flashgun; but both options would involve calling for the askari to return as venturing outside the tent after dark on your own can be dangerous with wild animals around - especially as we can still hear that lion!)

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Larger flaps are opened up to reveal the interior, and it is like stepping into an opulent city flat. Wow again. Immediately inside the 'door' is a seating area consisting of two large comfortable armchairs and a coffee table, behind which is the enormous double bed. While technically made of canvas, every single wall has 'curtains' that pull aside revealing insect-proof netting, allowing a 360° view during daylight hours. Tonight, however, the staff come along and make sure everything is geared to privacy.

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To the right as we enter is the toilet and dressing area, with antique mirrors, modern basin and a good selection of teas and coffees.

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On the opposite side is the shower, fronted by an area with a writing desk, hanging space and a trouser press.

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The room, however, is dominated by a huge double bed, while lighting is provided by a number of lamps, including a safari-inspired chandelier. Obviously.

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Feeling suitably refreshed after removing a thick layer of Tanzanian dust from our bodies, we head for what turns out to be a fabulous dinner with incredible service. Ole Serai is only a small place, and tonight there is just one other couple staying. Once I get a glass or two of the local wine inside me, I forget all about taking any more photos of the evening. Sorry. All I can say is that the food is superb!

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When we return to the room after dinner, we find the staff have been in to perform a turn-back-service, leaving a chocolate on each pillow.

I cannot thank Calabash Adventures enough for everything they have arranged for us on this trip and on others, including all the little details that make for such and unforgettable adventure.

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Posted by Grete Howard 13:43 Archived in Tanzania Tagged zebra lunch picnic photography ngorongoro tented_camp calabash_adventures nyati ang'ata_camp ang'ata permanent_tented_camp ang'ata_nyati nyati_special_cam_site picnic_lunch picnic_box Comments (2)

Jebel Shams - Misfah - Al Hamra - Wadi Bani Awf - Muscat

From 3000m to sea level, we travel full circle back to where we started


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

Despite last night's shenanigans, I slept surprisingly well. I do feel like a wrung-out dish cloth this morning though, and therefore decide to miss breakfast. Said is very concerned when he hears I was sick last night; he says I should have woken him so he could have taken me to hospital. Really? Like they are going to want to know about a little vomiting.

We had been warned before we left home that the night time temperatures here in Jebel Shams can drop drastically and looking at the weather on-line a couple of weeks ago we saw that it had fallen below zero. We left our thermometer outside last night and when checking it this morning it said Minimum 5 °C. Quite cool, but not freezing.

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Weather forecast for Jebel Shams prior to leaving the UK

We take a different route down from Jebel Shams today, and the journey is, if at all possible, even more spectacular than driving up yesterday. I hang out of the window holding on to my camera for dear life, trying to get a decent shot. My success rate is very hit and miss.

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Look at this hairpin bend!

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Followed immediately by another.

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The impressive turns continue all the way down.

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Craggy peaks line the horizon.

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Goats seem to thrive in this hostile environment.

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Misfat Al A'briyeen

This 400 year old village is considered the most beautiful in Oman.

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Some of the houses are still occupied, mostly by farmers who grow dates, mango and papaya on the slopes below the village.

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Many of the older generation are reluctant to move from their family home, although some of them only use their houses in the village as a weekend retreat/holiday home, escaping the heat of Muscat in the summer months.

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A sign at the entrance to this village, a popular stop on the tourist route, asks visitors to show respect by covering their arms and legs before entering and always asking before taking pictures of people. I have deliberately learnt that one phrase in Arabic: “Mumkin sura, minfadlik” (May I take your photo please), and have not been refused yet, as people are usually so taken aback that I have spoken to them in their own language.

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The donkey doesn't seem to object to having his photo taken, although I have to admit I didn't ask. All transport within the village is by donkey or hand carts.

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It's a fascinating place, with narrow alleyways and steep, uneven stone steps. There is a lot of renovation work going on though, making it very difficult to take decent pictures.

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The village rises around 1000 meters above sea level and is named after the original inhabitants, the Al Abri family.

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There are no wells in the village, the only fresh water available is from a spring higher up in the 'Grand Canyon'.

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Al Hamra Village

This traditional village with its mud brick houses dating back some 200-400 years, is very reminiscent of many such places we saw in Yemen back in 2007.

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We wander along narrow passageways, with towering walls either side, trying to imagine what this place would have looked like when it was bustling with women in dark abayas, men in their flowing white dishdash kaftans, donkeys braying and goats roaming free.

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Today, the only people we see are construction workers.

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The village is otherwise hauntingly empty, with just the remnant echoes of bygone days and happier times.

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I am fascinated by the many ornate doors, some in better repair than others. “Who passed over these thresholds?” “What secrets lay behind them?” I mentally transport myself back 400 years and try to imagine the families who lived here.

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Wadi Bani Awf

From Al Hamra we continue downwards, through Wadi Bani Awf, the magnificent 'Snake Canyon', one of the most spectacular road trips we have ever taken. Not for the faint-hearted or those suffering from vertigo, the sheer escarpment of the Western Hajjar Mountains provides a breathtaking vista around every nerve-wracking hairpin bend.

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The drive is nerve-janglingly dramatic, with stupendous scenery and a rough, vertiginous track which challenges the skills of even experienced off-road drivers, and a 4WD is a must. Not to be attempted lightly, this journey is positively lethal during or after rain.

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As we swing around each and every bend, I try to get some photographs by either hanging out of the window or holding my arm up through the open window and over the roof of the car, neither of which are terribly successful (or safe).

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Very occasionally we see another car, but mostly we have the track to ourselves.

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Our road on the left, the village of Haat on the right, at the bottom of this canyon.

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Look at how this track snakes its way down the canyon - hence the name "Snake Canyon".

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This terrain is definitely best suited to goats.

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We see the occasional isolated village (this one is Haat again), but mostly it is just stark mountain after mountain as far as the eye can see. It is an austere but beautiful vista, although living here must be harsh.

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Around villages we find plantations, and even a beautiful oases in a narrow gorge cut into the mountain.

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The most incongruous sight of them all, however, is this football pitch; miles from any obvious human habitation and on the only flat ground around. A abrupt piece of civilisation in an otherwise forbidding and almost monochrome environment.

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What? No floodlights?

We travel ever downwards, past fascinating rock formations on tracks that at times throw up a lot of dust, making us shut the windows to keep it out of the car and our lungs.

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We come across a convoy of vehicles filled with tourists travelling the opposite direction. I am so glad we are going downhill as I am sure the view is better this way.

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I am overawed by the technical engineering logistic and sheer amount of work it must have taken to create this road in such a perilous location. How did they get machinery up here to cut into the declivitous rock face and construct a road in such an improbable place?

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It makes me feel somewhat (but not a lot) safer to know we are in a 4WD vehicle, and Said is an excellent, and very experienced, driver. Just look at that drop along the side of the road... “gulp”.

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Bait Bimah

At a flat area in the bottom of one of the gorges we stop in the shade of a tree. Intriguingly, there is a gate next to the tree. What on earth would you want a gate for in this remote and wild area? And what is behind the gate?

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We go through and find a gravel path leading past a building made from rocks. I look around as various parts of the surroundings come into view and I cannot believe my eyes: there is a veritable oases, with colourful bougainvillea adorning the perimeter fence, a restaurant, clean toilets, children's playground, sunbeds and outdoor seating areas. Unbelievable!

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To one side of the covered seating area a buffet is laid out with delicious looking curries and rice. After last night's vomiting my stomach is still very fragile so I daren't eat anything. There are no public toilets along this road, and with a steep mountain one side and a sheer drop the other, 'going behind a bush' isn't an option either.

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After lunch, we continue on our journey ever downwards, and the scenery doesn't exactly get any worse.

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A large group of German tourists are blocking the road as they have got out of their cars to take pictures of the view. Again I feel grateful for travelling on a private tour for just the two of us.

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We drive precariously near the crumbling edge to get past them.

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As the dirt track meanders in a zigzag fashion further down the valley, we see more goats and a traditional felaj (irrigation channel) running alongside the road.

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Irrigation channels a couple of metres up the rock face.

The felaj brings water to the plantations that start to appear.

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We both wish we had a geologist with us to explain the various types of rocks, and how the fascinating and varied strata are formed.

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Eventually the mountain track joins a main road and we are out of the canyon.

Nakhl Fort

At the imposing Nakhl Fort, built in the 16th century to protect Muscat from invading marauders coming across the mountains, we make a brief photo stop.

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From here, the 120 kilometres or so to Muscat is along a smooth, asphalt road, and I doze in the car all the way.

Al Falaj Hotel

We have now made a full circle and are back where we started. This time, we have been upgraded to a corner suite, with a dining table for four and a lovely seating area with a cosy sofa and armchairs.

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The bedroom itself is no bigger than a standard hotel room, but the living room is enormous!

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Muscat by Night

Said, being the kind gentleman he is, has agreed to take us down to Muttrah Corniche tonight, just as the lights are fading, so that I can photograph the city after dark.

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He goes off to the mosque to pray while I set up a tripod and admire the bright lights reflected in the harbour.

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Room Service

Once we return to the hotel, we consider what we are going to do about food this evening. Despite having dinner included tonight (buffet) we decide to treat ourselves and order room service instead. It seems a sin not to make the most of the facilities we have here in this suite, and as most of you know by now, we are not at all keen on buffets. I eat half a burger and three chips, which is the first thing I have eaten all day after my vomiting last night.

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And thus ends another fascinating day here in Oman, all thanks to Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:35 Archived in Oman Tagged road_trip view ruins panorama lunch deserted journey buffet vista muscat 4wd steep vertigo suite goats ruined corniche haat spectacular jebel_shams hairpin_bends al_falaj_hotel lunch_buffet muttrah hajjar_mountains al_hamra falaj precipitous specticular declivitous craggy_peaks misfat_al_a'briyeen narrow_alleyways deserted_village wadi_bano_awf snake_canyon nerve_jangling football_pitch bait_bimah muttrah_corniche muscat_by_night room_servce upgraded felaj irrigation_channels nakhl_fort wadi_bani_awf Comments (5)

Kanha - Pench

It's got to be around here somewhere, surely?


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

Today we move on to our next tiger park in search of new safari pastures. The good thing about that, is that we don't have to be up at the crack of dawn to get to the park gates for 05:30 this morning. We can actually have a lie-in, and are woken at 7am by the barashinga deer shouting out a warning call to the other animals of an impending danger.

After breakfast it is time to say goodbye to Kipling Camp and the delightfully warm crew we have come to love. It is all very sad, but new adventures await us in Pench National park.

But first, the journey there. A road trip in India, especially in rural areas, is always an adventure in itself. I love photographing street scenes, and today's reoccurring theme is bullocks.

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Pench 55 kms. We're on the map! Today is a five hour journey from Kanha to Pench, on mostly good roads with little traffic.

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As we get nearer Pench, we turn off the main road onto country lanes through much more rural countryside.

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Gotta love those telegraph poles.

It soon becomes blatantly obvious that Rakesh has no idea where he is going. It is also evident that the people he asks for directions also have no idea where he is going.

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After stopping twice more to ask directions, we come across the entrance gate to the park. Although I cannot hear, nor understand, what they are saying, it looks to me something like “It's just over there, turn right then a few bends and then turn left. Seems simple to me.

The map below, which I photographed later on the wall in the lodge, shows how simple it really is. Or rather could have been.

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We drive down through villages and the road does not seem that obvious. We stop again, and Rakesh asks an old man, who then comes up to the car and demands payment for – what turns out to be – giving us wrong directions.

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We stop a couple of more times to ask different people, even flagging down a passing motorcyclist. We can see the type of person Rakesh chooses for his questions: well dressed, with an air about them that says the person has maybe been to school. Thankfully I printed out a list of all the hotel name and addresses before I left home, which was just as well, as Rakesh had not even been told where we were staying, let alone been given an address or directions; and out here in the sticks there is no mobile signal to phone the lodge even.

Each time we stop, we are sent in a different direction. We drive through some villages several times – I am sure we must have driven down every single road in this area by now. Twice, at least. Eventually we come across someone who reads the piece of paper with a look of recognition on their face. He sends us down a narrow country track, and we feel quite confident that this is the correct road, finally.

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But no. It leads to a lodge, yes, but sadly not the one we are staying at. (It would probably have been a good move to pop in there and ask, but we didn't think about that at the time)

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We drive around a few more country lanes, most of which we have already driven down at least once before.

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The villages are getting to be rather familiar now, and I am sure I can see people laughing at us.

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We reach another entrance gate to the tiger park, where three officials scratch their heads for a while, then write something in Sanskrit on my paper. Directions in Hindi, hopefully.

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As you can see from the map, it really is a very easy journey from here. Of course, we don't have the map, and hindsight is a wonderful thing.

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We cross the river for the fourth time. Or is it fifth? I feel intimately connected to each and every boulder by now.

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This village looks awfully familiar. I begin to recognise individual people.

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Rakesh shows the paper with the Hindu directions on it to a family who are just about to get on their motorbike. They nod and immediately start pointing. This is promising. I think the woman eventually says: “Follow us”, as that is exactly what we do.

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We go through the same villages yet again.

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Even the birds are looking bemused. I swear I can hear him tweet: “I am sure I have already seen that car at least five times this afternoon...”

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We get stuck in a bit of a traffic jam (consisting of just us) at a construction site. The workers are not keen to move their vehicle for us to pass – they are busy unloading bricks, manually one by one it seems.

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At an intersection the family we have been following dismount their bike and the austere and officious-sounding matriarch tells us to head off the road onto a very bumpy, not-really-suitable-for-this-sort-of-vehicle track. This is new territory to us this afternoon. How exciting!

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After what seems like an eternity of pot-holed sandy track (also known as the 'Indian massage'), and a couple of little villages, we spot a very welcome sign. A big cheer goes up in the car.

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Pench Tree Lodge

We are greeted at the reception with some refreshing wet towels with a difference: these are dehydrated into little 'tablets'; but with water sprayed on them, they come back to life! I have never seen this done before and I love it!

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Another member of staff turns up with a tray full of powder for the traditional Indian blessing of bindi – a small red dot on the forehead.

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The Reception
The reception is a free-standing open area with some seating, maps on the wall, toilets and the office.

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On arrival we are each given a rather splendid aluminium water-bottle (to keep, not just for the duration of our stay), and I am impressed by the bottle-filling station at the reception, using filtered water.

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Lunch
As it is already getting on into the afternoon, we go straight to lunch. A winding path leads from the reception to the restaurant, and although not far as such, it is considerably further than is normal for a lodge. You can barely see the restaurant from the reception area.

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The path is pretty though, with some colourful grasses, a couple of small bridges and a pond.

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Finally we can see the restaurant.

The restaurant is in another free-standing building on a raised platform, with two floors and an observation tower.

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There is an outside covered terrace, and next to the main building is an inviting-looking infinity pool and changing room.

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There are in fact two dining rooms, one either side of the kitchen.

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The food is as classy as the rest of the establishment and beautifully presented.

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Beetroot Salad

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Cauliflower Cream

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Chicken raviloli

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Chocolate mousse

Our Room
After lunch, we are taken to our rooms, along another long and winding jungle path.

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When I say rooms, these are in fact tree houses, some 18ft above the ground!

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After climbing the stairs we are greeted with a small entrance hall, leading to another hallway connecting the bedroom, dressing room and bathroom.

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Accessed through French windows from the bedroom is a large balcony overlooking the river – although the surroundings are fairly overgrown so you cannot see much. Lyn and Chris can see even less from their balcony.

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Distant view from the balcony, through a very long zoom lens.

We sit outside for a while, looking out for birds (not many) and waiting for the sunset.

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Black Drongo

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Female Plum Headed Parakeet

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Red Vented Bulbul

The sunset is very much a non-event, as the sun turns into a red globe, then later simply dissolves into the mist.

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Dinner
I am woken up from a nice little snooze by a telephone call from reception: “We have dinner arrangements for you tonight, what time would you like to come?”

In order to get to our 'dinner arrangements', we have to walk past the restaurant to “meet in the welcome area”. From there we continue to the lodge's own Organic Farm, where a BBQ area has been set up. The path is very uneven, with gnarled roots and small trees in the way, and lit only by occasional lanterns and our torches.

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The place is already full, and we are put on a table in the far corner. I had no idea there were so many people staying tonight, I haven't seen any other guests until now. The manager tells us they are all one group, from various countries, who have been on a cycling trip through the park.

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We are all a little confused by what is happening, but the food just keeps arriving: salads, soup, small portions of grilled meat...

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Again there is very little light, so it is quite hard to see what we are eating, and I am still rather full from our very late lunch.

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The arrangements are all very well done, but have an atmosphere of being somewhat too formal for my liking, a complete opposite to our last three nights in Kipling Camp where we ate with the staff. We were also spoilt there, of course, by there being only two other guests, making it really personal and informal. I find this a little too impersonal and touristy. I have to confess that I find the whole eveing a complete waste of time and effort.

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The mobile bar in an old hay cart

Despite the firepit near our table, we are all feeling a little chilly as the evening goes on. With no toilets down at the farm, we have to go back to the welcome area to use the facilities there, and we retire to the room for an early night as we have an even-earlier-than-normal start tomorrow.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:50 Archived in India Tagged road_trip dinner lunch getting bbq lost kanha organic_farm tree_house pench posh kipling_camp pench_tree_lodge rural_street_scenes bullock_cart luxury_accommodation Comments (4)

Kanha National Park Part II - Suri Zone

Another tiger?


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

When we arrive back at Kipling Camp after our morning safari drive, we are greeted with the very welcome wet flannels (a custom I like very much – here in India it happens after every game drive and is very much a necessity because of all the dust. In Africa, despite the same amount of dirt generated, the flannels are generally just offered on your very first arrival at a lodge, not usually thereafter)

Tara

One of the main reasons I chose Kipling Camp when I was in the planning stages of this trip, was Tara, the resident elephant. Featured in the book Travels on my Elephant by Mark Shand, Tara was gifted to Kipling Camp in 1989 (you can read the full story of how Tara came to live at Kipling Camp here)

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Lunch

A lunch table is laid out in the shady courtyard under the trees, and we have a refreshing nimbu soda (fresh lime soda) while we wait for the food to arrive.

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Lamb curry, okra, chillies, dhal, yogurt, chutney, poppadom and puri

All around the grounds there are signs of wildlife, from butterflies to frogs and birds.

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Greater Coucal

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Orange Headed Ground Thrush

Afternoon Game Drive

This afternoon we have been allocated the Suri Zone of Kanha National Park and we head off to see what this area has to offer.

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King Vulture, a very rare bird and a first for us

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Hanuman langurs

Sambar Deer

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Porcupine
There is much excitement when a porcupine is spotted; it's an extremely unusual rare sighting indeed and a first for us. Absolutely rubbish photo, as by the time I'd turned and pointed my camera, he was well on his way into the undergrowth. But trust me: this reallys is a porcupine.

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Jungle Owlet

Gaur (Indian Bison) - the laregst wild cow in the world

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Jackals

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Hanuman Langur

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This guy is also a new one to us: Lesser Adjutant

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And then he was gone

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Indian Roller

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Cheetal with a Black Drongo passenger

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Cheetal with a Common Myna on its back

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Cheetal

Barashinga
This particular genus of Barashinga, the Southern Swamp Deer, is only found here in Kanha National park, so it is obviously our first sighting in the wild, thus generating considerable excitement.

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We ford the river in a beautifully serene area, where we also spot a Common Kingfisher.

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Common Kingfisher

Bees Nest
The action of the bees moving in unison on this nest reminds me of a Mexican Wave.

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.

Barashinga in the water
As the sun becomes lower in the sky, we spot a small herd of barashinga in the water. As we stop they look up and across at us, water dripping from their heads, backlit by the evening sun. Another magical moment.

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More animals backlit by the low sun, this time cheetal

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More barashinga

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The last rays of the sun are seeping through the trees.

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Rose Ringed Parakeet

Sambar
The light is faded fast and it is getting dark quickly.

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Tiger
As we make our way back towards the exit gate to leave the park for the evening, I comment to Lyn that as we haven't seen a tiger, at least we don't have to tip the guide quite as much this afternoon. Then we turn a corner and see a number of vehicles all looking into the bushes.

Just as we pull up alongside them, we spot a tiger disappearing into the undergrowth. Wow! It is brief, but at least I manage to shoot off a couple of frames.

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“Hold on!” shouts Rahim, as he reverses the Gypsy at great speed, around sharp bends, on a badly potholed road, uphill; with some of the most admirable driving skills I have ever been party to. Experience and knowledge means he knows exactly where the tiger will be coming out of the bushes.

And he is right, of course. Again.

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Great excitement ensues as we are joined by the other vehicles (whose drivers were not as on-the-ball, or maybe not as capable, as Rahim, and thus much slower off the mark), to watch the tiger saunter down the road.

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It is getting quite dark now and I am having to push my ISO right up to 8,000 in order to get a decent shot.

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ISO 10,000 now, despite Rahim having moved the vehicle nearer the tiger for a closer shot.

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ISO 16,000 - gotta love the Canon 5D IV's low light capabilities!

Sadly we have to say “goodbye” to our new-found friend, as we have a deadline time to be out of the gate.

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There is now a mad rush to get to the gate so as not to be fined for overstaying our welcome.

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It's impossible to avoid the dust generated by the other vehicles.

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We do make a couple of stops though, one for a Sambar crossing the road...

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… and some wild boar.

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Including some little baby piglets.

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We make it out of the park without penalty and return to the lodge for a shower, change, drink and dinner.

What an amazing day we've had!

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:50 Archived in India Tagged india elephant lunch tiger tara national_park deer butterfly kanha bison bees vulture parakeet langur kingfisher jackal gaur chital sambar myna drongo indian_food swamp_deer porcupine coucal kipling_camp cheetal wild_cow travels_on_my_elephant mark_shand nimbu_soda thrush indian_bison adjutant barashinga spotted_deer wild-boar piglets Comments (6)

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 Island Tour

A brief glimpse of life on this island


View Comores 2017 - Cloud Coup Coup Land or Secret Paradise? on Grete Howard's travel map.

After a good night’s sleep, I feel ready to take on Comoros: today we have a tour around the main island, Grand Comore.

Breakfast

But first, time to fill our bellies.

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While I hate being presented with a buffet for dinner, I am rather partial to a breakfast buffet.

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David’s breakfast of fried egg, potatoes and beans.

The restaurant is full of sparrows nesting in the rafters and hanging around waiting for the opportunity to grab a few crumbs.

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They are really quite cheeky, swooping in on abandoned plates as diners leave the tables to refill their coffees or whatever.

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Island Tour

We make an anticlockwise tour of the northern part of the island; but first we travel a short distance south along the west coast.

Iconi Cliffs

It was here, in the 16th century, that a number of local women threw themselves off the cliffs rather than allow themselves to be captured by Malagasy pirates to be sold into slavery.

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Kavhiridjewo Palace

Strategically positioned on a rocky promontory, the 15th century Kavhiridjewo Palace was built entirely from lava blocks and still retains some of the walls and defence towers from the time of the last Sultan.

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The Sultan was captured by the French and taken to Madagascar, whereas the Prince is buried here (the larger, more elaborate tomb) alongside his mum (the smaller, simpler grave at the front).

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There are no rivers or other waterways on the whole island, and although there is one spring that feeds the capital, most people have to rely on digging wells such as this one in the Sultan's palace for their drinking water.

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Spider

There is a legend attached to the Guardian of the Palace, the ‘humble’ spider: when the enemy wanted to attack the Sultan, the spider created a web strong enough to protect him. From that day on the Sultan vowed not to kill spiders.

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My on-line searches suggest that this is a female Red Legged Golden Orb Spider, a rather large spider (it is a bit bigger than the palm of my hand) who weaves extremely strong webs.

Witchcraft Lake

In the old days, the people of Comoros strongly believed in witchcraft (many still do); and when the Sultan wanted to win the war, it was only natural that he consulted the local witch. The Sultan was told to kill his slaves and throw them in the lake for the spirits to drink their blood and the fish to eat their flesh, which he duly did (and he went on to win the war).

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It is said that for many years, screams could still be heard until the whole village got together to pray for the lost souls.

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Car Breakdown

As we go to drive away from the lake, the car won’t start. Again.

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The driver fiddles under the bonnet of the car, but still nothing. It fires, then dies. I use the time to wander over to the lake again to take some photos of the egrets in the trees on the far side.

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Still no joy with the car. The driver phones for a mechanic to come and have a look at it. We hang around, photographing more birds.

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Pied Crow

When, after half an hour there is still no mechanic, there is only one thing to do: we have to make a sacrifice!

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An hour passes. There is not much around here, and Yahaya suggests we have to call for another car and driver rather than wait for the mechanic. Of course, soon after the call has been made, the mechanic turns up! By this stage neither the driver nor the guide is anywhere to be seen.

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The mechanic spends less than a minute ‘tinkering’ with the engine and once the other two realise the car has been fixed, we make a move!

Parliament

Politics of the Union of the Comoros takes place in a framework of a federal presidential republic, whereby the President of the Comoros is both head of state and head of government, and of a multi-party system. There are 42 members of parliament, none of whom are women. There seems to be widespread corruption, with the president giving himself a huge pay-rise as soon as he came to power, and all the important jobs going to his mates.

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Friday Mosque

Today is Friday and we can hear the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

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Badjanani Mosque

Built in a unique Comorian architectural style, Badjanani Msoque (AKA Ancienne Mosquée du Vendredi – Old Friday Mosque) is a symbol of the rich cultural and historical heritage of the country. Originally constructed in 1427, it is the oldest mosque in the Medina in Moroni, although the minaret was added much later, in 1921.

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Plateau Diboini

We drive across the island from the west coast to the east, over the picturesque Diboini Plateau with its seven cones of extinct volcanoes.

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Mount Karthala

On a clear day (not today), you can see Mount Karthala from this point on the east coast. The highest point of the Comoros and at 2,361m, it is the largest active volcano in the world, as well as one of the most active. Over the years it has had a devastating impact on many parts of the country.

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Mount Karthala hiding behind the cloud

Like so many of these type of disasters, the eruption of Mount Karthala has a bit of a legend attached to it: a tired and thirsty holy man wandered from home to home in the village looking for water, but everyone turned him away, apart from one old lady who was generous enough to offer him a drink. Complaining about the bad people of the village, the holy man insisted on taking the kind woman and her family with him when he left. Cursing, he turned to the volcano and with that the lava erupted, flattening the village they had just left.

Heroumbili

During one of the many eruptions (there have been more than twenty since the 19th century, the last one in 2007), the lava from the volcano reached the sea here and created an extension of the coastline land in the village of Heroumbili.

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Reclaimed land on the coast

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The village kids come out in force to interact with us.

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We continue along the north-east coastal road.

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Turtle Island

This small island has been given a 'protected status' to stop locals rowing across and 'harvesting' the turtles who nest here, or their eggs.

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Kissing Rocks

In Comoros, strictly-followed tradition means that the first-born girl must be kept pure until her parents find a suitable husband for her. She is not allowed to have a boyfriend, unlike any subsequent daughters.

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Legend tells of one such first-born girl, who had gone against tradition and her family’s wishes by secretly dating a young man. Hearing of her father’s arranged marriage to a suitor she did not know, she feared what would happen in the morning after the wedding night when all the male members of both families traditionally meet to inspect the bed sheet for signs of blood. She was very much in love, and not wanting to cause shame and embarrassment to her father, she and her boyfriend chose to jump to their death from the cliff.

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As they kissed one final time, their bodies turned to stone. If you look carefully, you can still see them there now, kissing.

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From the top there is a great view of the coastline below to one side and the mountains on the other.

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The house where the daughter lived - now abandoned

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On the road again.

Lac Niamawi, AKA Lac Salé (Salt Lake)

In the 16th century, an eruption demolished the city of Niamawi. In its wake, it left a crater that has since filled with salt water.

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The lake changes colour throughout the day, from brown to blue to green and is said to have healing properties due to its high sulphur content. No one knows how deep the lake is. In 1977 a team of Belgian divers went down to investigate, but they were never seen again.

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Lunch

Near Mitsamiouli we stop at a small restaurant called Mi Amuse, where we have lunch.

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The food consists of barracuda served with sweet and ordinary potatoes, carrots, fried bananas and rice, with a side of pickled lemon and chilli sauce.

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The restaurant, which is also a hotel, has a bar serving alcohol and a nightclub with lively music and dancing of an evening.

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Baobab Prison

As baobab trees get older (this one is a few hundred years old for sure), they very often become hollow in the centre.

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Hollowed-out baobabs have been utilised for a number of different things all over Africa, including as here, a prison

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In the old days, wrongdoers were put inside this ‘organic’ prison for three days, with the added night time punishment of the only light being the moonlight shining down through the gap above.

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Galawa Hotel

“Once upon a time…” Isn’t that how all fairy tales start? Unfortunately this story does not have a happy ending.

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Back in the 1980s and 1990s, this part of Comoros was a really ‘happening’ place, with a luxury hotel that employed 750 people and saw 350 visitors arrive twice a week on charter flights from South Africa.

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Yahaya proudly tells us he worked here for ten years, and Omar was his boss then, as he is now.

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At least the frangipani still flowers

After going into decline following neglect by the Comorian government, the hotel was razed to the ground by the French some fifteen years ago. Promises of renewed interest and investment from Dubai have not materialised and all hopes were dashed by the financial crash of 2008.

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One of Galawa's three beaches, there was a popular beach bar here

Today locals enjoy the warm waters of the Indian Ocean at this site

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They are even enjoying a little song and dance routine as they bathe.

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The only evidence of the former leisure hub is the tiled fountain and a redundant gate (the gate doesn't actually do anything, as we can drive around the side)

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Yahaya also points out the spot where the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed in 1996.

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Mtswamwindza Mosque

It was here that Islam was first introduced to Comoros in the 7th century. Mtswamwindza, whose real name is Mhassi Fessima embarked on a journey to Medina where he converted to Islam and then returned to his city, Ntsaoueni, and converted the people to the new religion.

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It was only the second mosque to be built in Africa, and Mtswamwindza is buried here.

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Rain

On our way back down the west coast, the heavens open and throw bucket-loads of water on us. Thankfully we are dry inside the car, albeit a little warm once we close the windows. The roads are horribly potholed from the frequent torrential showers.

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Along the coast we see beautiful sandy beaches, mangroves and lava flows reaching the sea.

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Note the abandoned hull of a car - the whole island is littered with such wrecks, just left where they lost their will to live.

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Road side grocery store

Bad News

Later Omar meets us in the reception of the hotel to tell us the arrangements for our flight to Anjouan tomorrow. There has been a change of plan... Really? That seems to be the theme of this trip.

The domestic airline Int’Air Iles has two planes: one 28-year old Airbus and a small 9-seater Cessna. The government has taken the larger plane to Kenya. We believe (hope?) it is for servicing; as I understand both Réunion and Madagascar have recently banned the airline citing safety issues.

What this means for us, is that we will have to take a ferry (hopefully) to Anjouan Island tomorrow instead of flying; but we will not be able to visit Mohéli Island as planned because there are no ferries connecting the island. The former is not a big deal, but the latter is a great shame, as our stay on Mohéli was to be the main part of our trip and the highlight: that is where we were going to go whale and dolphin watching, see turtles lay their eggs on the beach at night and see the rare Livingstone bats as well a the maki lemurs.

Oh well, there is not much we can do about it, we will just have to make the most of our time on Anjouan. Omar has arranged for us to come back to Grand Comore one day earlier than planned, so that we can easily connect with the new departure date from Comoros, also one day earlier than planned. That means four nights on Anjouan instead of the planned two.

Dinner

The restaurant has run out of lobster (I was hoping to try the local speciality of lobster in vanilla sauce) as well as fries, so it is rice or vegetables tonight (we can't have both).

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Chicken with mushroom sauce and vegetables

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Beef in mushroom sauce and rice

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations, specialists in adventure travel to unusual destinations (such as Comoros), for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:46 Archived in Comoros Tagged rain mosque travel volcano hotel lake kids island breakfast crow africa prison spider muslim lunch parliament buffet islam sultan slavery baobab egrets sparrows sacrifice legend breakfast_buffet comoros barracuda undiscovered_destinations moroni grand_comore sultan's_palace karthala_volcano karthala iconi inconi_cliffs malagasy_pirates kavhiridjewo_palace witchcraft car_mechanic car_breakdown pied_crow friday_mosque badjanani badjanani_mosque plateau_diboini mount_karthala heroumbili turtle_island kissing_rocks ivoini mitsamiouli mi_amuse baobab_prison galawa_hotel galawa mtswamwindza mtswamwindza_mosque int'air_iles Comments (2)

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