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Austvågøya - Vestvågøya

My birthday!


View Northern Lights in Lofoten 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

This morning we are moving on to another place and another apartment. Along the way, of course, we stop frequently to take photos.

But first, a last goodbye to Laukvik, which has been our home for the last couple of nights.

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Sunrise over Vestpollen

Vatterfjorden

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Tjelbergvika

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Lyn at Tjelbergvika

I am loving the patterns created by the frost on the puddles in the car park.

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Hopspollen

Henningsvær

Our last landlady suggested Henningvær would be a worthwhile diversion from a photographer's point of view; so we turn off south just before leaving Austvågøya. The road there along the coast is very pretty in itself.

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Sometimes dramatic with deep oranges and silhouetted islands, while other times showing delicate pastels, the sunrise is still waiting to fight it out with the upcoming sunset for our attention.

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The bridge across to Henningsvær

This is as high as the sun will rise above the horizon - it's just before midday, so soon the sun will starts its journey back down again and sunrise will become sunset.

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We find somewhere to park and go off for a walk around the small town. Today being my birthday, Lyn has promised to treat me to waffles and hot chocolate. We feel sure that Henningsvær – being a well known and somewhat touristy place – will have somewhere suitable.

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The gallery / souvenir shop / café is, like everything else in these parts, closed for winter. No waffles for me today then.

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Henningsvær is a quaint little town, and like so many others in this area, it is nestled between steep sided craggy mountains and the sea.

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How's that for a stone wall!

We leave Henningsvær behind and carry on our journey today, past ever-changing stunning scenery.

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It has been a lot milder the last couple of days, hovering around freezing most of the time, which means much of the snow has melted.

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The bridge to Gimsøya

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The sun has now turned and is on its way down again.

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Gimsøya

Vestvågøya

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Just above the horizon, strange cloud formations gather, merging in with the mountains below.

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The light is failing now, even though it is only 13:45!

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We have been through some amazing tunnels on this trip, some several miles long. There is a bit of a joke about the tunnels in this area: “Go to Northern Norway to see the mountains – from the inside!”

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We check out a few places for possible northern lights photography before continuing to our overnight accommodation.

Ure Rorbuutleie

There is some confusion when we arrive at the apartment. We try to ring the number provided, but no reply. Reception is closed, with a sign on the door suggesting that we ring them.

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After several attempts, we eventually get through and are given the secret location of the key!

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For a number of years I have wanted to stay in a rorbu. Traditionally a type of seasonal house used by fishermen, the buildings are built on land, but with the one end on poles in the water, allowing easy access to vessels. These days they are mostly rented out to tourists.

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Having checked the aurora forecast and found it to be some good activity this evening, we grab an early dinner and head out in search of Northern Lights.

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For my birthday dinner I chose to cook a traditional Norwegian meal of reindeer balls with boiled potatoes.

Utakleiv

We found this place earlier and decided it would make a good location for capturing the aurora borealis. It seems we are not the only ones. It's a large car park here, and several other people out with their tripods.

There is some light cloud cover, but you can still quite clearly see the green streaks in the sky.

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As the evening wears on, however, the cloud cover thickens.

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After a while it becomes increasingly difficult to see the northern lights with the naked eye. The camera, however, is still able to capture it.

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More and more people arrive, unfortunately for them it is too late to see the best part of the light show, and their torches shine brightly across my photos.

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When the sky is completely covered in a thick cloud, we decide to call it a day and go back to the apartment for a drink to celebrate my birthday.

Cheers!

Posted by Grete Howard 14:32 Archived in Norway Tagged sunset travel lights sunrise birthday northern norway lofoten aurora northern_lights nordland rorbu norge ure aurora_borealis northern_norway nordnorge austvågøya laukvik gimsøya vestpollen vestvågøya vatterfjorden tjelbergvika hopspollen henningsvær rorbuutleie utakleiv Comments (2)

Bristol - Gatwick - Dubai - Ashgabat

We're on our way


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

At this point I will admit that I put very little thought into this trip. It was only much later it became obvious that at the time of booking, I was a little scatterbrained, my mind still very foggy following my dad's death. I would have done some things slightly differently if I had really thought about it, but more about that as we go along.

There were a couple of reasons why I wanted to go to Turkmenistan:

1. The main draw was the “Gates of Hell” burning gas crater that I had seen photos of some years ago and really wanted to visit.

2. I was in need of a 'proper adventure' after a few 'vanilla' trips recently – I wanted my trip to be a voyage of discovery, not a ritual of reassurance.

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Getting very excited when seeing a group tour advertised on line, I asked our agent Undiscovered Destinations if they could arrange something similar as a private tour for the two of us. Turkmenistan is a highly regulated country, akin to North Korea in many ways, and independent tourists are not permitted to enter: you have to travel with a tour company.

After a few minor adjustments to the itinerary, I booked it, flight inclusive as I didn't have the time, nor the inclination to sort out logistics myself.

It wasn't until I started to read up about the places we were going to visit that I realised just how much the country has to offer and how incredibly unique it is. Even Undiscovered Destinations, who obviously (from their name) arrange tours to some pretty unusual places, claim that “this is one of our most exciting trips”.

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What I learned about Turkmenistan before I left:

With only 7,000 visitors a year, it ranks as the 7th least visited country in the world.

Turkmenistan is one of the richest countries in the region as they have the 4th biggest natural gas reserve on earth.

The country is 3.5 times the size of England and slightly larger than California, with a mere 6 mill inhabitants.

Fewer than 1% have (highly censored) internet access, with all social media and mainstream news channels banned. Even my chiropractor's website was blocked!

90% of the workforce are employed by the government

80% of the country is covered in desert

The country's first president after independence in 1991, Saparmurat Niyazov, made a number of demands as part of his dictatorship:

Banning:
lip syncing at public concerts
recorded music at weddings
dogs from the capital
long hair and beards on men
TV presenters wearing make-up
opera, ballet and circuses
gold teeth (very popular at one time in Central Asia)
cars not registered in Ashgabat from entering the city
any cars that are not white from the capital

Renaming:
the word for bread with the name of his mother
names of the months based on other family members
days of the week
a meteorite
the airport
cities
a breed of horse
a canal

He also closed all hospitals outside Ashgabat, as well as the libraries, stating that the people only need two books: the Quran and the book he wrote himself (the Ruhnama, a spiritual guide made mandatory reading in school. Knowledge of the book was also required in order to get a driving licence).

He also decreed that all public buildings in the capital should be made of white marble – the city now holds the Guinness World Record for the most white marble buildings in any capital city (5 million cubic metres of marble mostly imported from Italy)

Continue reading if you'd like to find out how my pre-trip perceptions match up with reality.

In order to enter the country, we needed a letter of invitation, a pre-booked guided tour and a visa.

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As I mentioned earlier, my planning was a little off for this trip, and it wasn't until a couple of weeks before we were going that I realised that the flight was very early from Gatwick the morning after the opening night at my camera club. Normally we'd go up to the airport the night before and book into a hotel, but as I am the chairman of the local camera club, I felt I really ought to be there for the first meeting of the season. Hence we're up at 02:00 and on the road by 03:00.

At least Gatwick Airport is quiet at this time in the morning, with no queue for check in at Emirates. That is fuddled brain quandary number two – as we are flying with Emirates, why did we not try to get a flight from Heathrow? Even more perplexing – as we found out through a Facebook post - is that there are direct flights from Birmingham to Ashgabat five time a week. Really? With only 7,000 tourists a year (and only a small number of those would be British), and not a great deal of trade between the two countries; how can they fill those planes?

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Anyway, we are here now, and there is nothing we can do about it. The lady on the check-in desk insists that we take our bags to the 'Oversized Luggage' counter as they have wheels on them. Really? Those bags have travelled on three dozen flights already without their wheels being called into question; several on them on Emirates. Who are we to argue with her logic, so we do as asked.

The main terminal and eating area is very, very busy, and we struggle to find a table in any of the restaurants for breakfast. Eventually we unintentionally queue-jump in the Sonoma restaurant, by arriving from a different direction than the main entrance (where there are around a dozen or more people waiting). I do feel a little guilty when I realise, but not guilty enough to give up my seat.

London – Dubai

The first flight goes without incident or excitement, and we find ourselves with a long walk to the food court at Dubai T3, where we grab something to eat at the Hard Rock Café.

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Beef Sliders

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Pulled lamb roll with a delicious kale and beetroot salad, coleslaw and chutney

We spend some time chatting to the very friendly Brazilian waitress who promises to cook for me if I ever make it back to Brazil.

Dubai - Ashgabat

We have plenty of time here at the airport, but once we have bought our Duty Free rum for pre-dinner drinks in the room, we decide to move on to the gate for our next flight and just chill.

Heading for the Connections board, we check out the gate details for flight EK2214 at 23:55.

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No sign of the flight. This is rather worrying. Gate F7 is printed on our boarding card and was showing on the Connections board as we stepped off the previous flight, but now it seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.

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When asking the lady at the Information stand for confirmation about our gate and she is unable to find it on the system using her tablet, and asks for our boarding cards instead, we really do start to get a little concerned. Has the flight been cancelled?

We follow the directions she gives us (a very long and convoluted route including a train and numerous escalators up and down) and finally see the arrows point to F Gates, but nowhere to get through the barriers or the X-ray machines which are all for arrivals, not departures. We ask the man at the end of one of the security lines. He points us through the opposite direction X-ray arch (which beeps but they still wave me though), and when we get the other side we have to move some barriers in order to continue. Eventually we make it to where we see an affirmative sign for F gates.

There is a bus to take us to the departure lounge (which is in the other terminal), but the doors from the waiting area refuse to open until someone with a key comes along. Stepping outside, it's like stepping into an oven at 36 °C, and we are grateful for the A/C bus. We now embark on a sightseeing tour of Dubai Airport. Driving around, under, and across the runways, we regularly have to stop and wait for planes to cross, and by the time we get to the actual gate, the bus journey has taken us 25 minutes.

Much to our relief, we see F7 with our flight mentioned as soon as we enter T1. Phew. The flight is just starting to board (there was us thinking we had a lot of time to waste), and a long queue has formed. An official is shouting “One line please, one line” over and over again, but organising the passengers is like herding cats. He spots us, and beckons us over. We, and four other westerners, are taken to the front of the queue and led on to the bus first. Much as it is nice to be treated like VIPs, this sort of cringeworthy segregation always make me feel uncomfortable.

This bus journey takes a mere ten minutes, but we spend a further 15 minutes waiting for the plane to be ready for boarding. We are in the row behind the Emergency Exit, and the plane is not full. The chap next to David has bought a huge display of chocolates on a wooden tray with legs, about the size of a dustbin lid (for those of you who can remember the old fashioned dustbins), and a good 18” tall. It won't go in the overhead locker. He therefore places it on one of the emergency exit seats. The air steward tries to explain that it has to go on a spare seat (but NOT on the exit row), and in the window, not the aisle; and that he has to strap it in and sit next to it; or it goes in the hold. He does not understand, or maybe chooses not to understand. The 'discussion' goes on for at least ten minutes, and finally he walks down the aisle with the display and comes back without it.

The ladies behind us are talking extremely loudly and when the announcements come on, they just up the volume to drown it out. There is a constant sound of cellotape being torn and applied, and a chaotic battle for the overhead lockers. We eventually leave 20 minutes late. As soon as the flight has taken off, the chocolate-man goes back down the plane to retrieve his display and places it in the emergency exit seats again. The same crew member comes over and the argument starts all over again. And again. And again. Eventually he reluctantly returns the chocolates to the back of the plane and sits down in the emergency exit row for the rest of the flight (which we find rather annoying as David asked if he could move there but was told he had to pay extra for the privilege).

As expected, as soon as the plane touches the ground in Ashgabat, we hear the sound of seatbelts being unclipped, and seconds later 95% of the passengers are standing in the aisle (while the plane is still moving) despite repeated announcements asking for them to sit down. I swear the pilot makes a couple of deliberate jerky stops, sending the offending passengers tumbling.

Ashgabat Airport is clean, bright and very modern. At the Visa counter we hand over our passports and are given a printed form in return which we take over to the cashier at another window.

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Once we have paid our dues - US$109 for me and US$129 for David, we are given back the form and return to the first counter where the visa is now issued.

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Armed with the visa, we are totally taken aback when we are faced with automatic passport control stands like they have in some airports in the US. Wow! I really didn't expect that. We still have to go to a manned booth too, but it all seems to be a formality and we are soon in the luggage hall awaiting our bags. A number of locals have enormous amounts of luggage, including the lady in front of me at customs. Like so many places throughout the world, there is an X-ray on entry to the country, and she has been asked to open her huge cardboard box. Inside there must a hundred pairs of trainers. All white. I am beckoned to bypass her, and I am whisked through without even as much as a peek. I had been warned that I would have to show them all my medicines as they have a very strict policy of drugs – we were sent a complete list of 249 banned drugs with our booking confirmation – and I have heard of other travellers who have been asked to produce the original prescription for certain pain killers. The customs officials didn't even mention drugs to us – they barely looked up from their screen.

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A last cursory glance at the passports and luggage tickets, and we are out. Or is that in? Maylis is waiting for us just the other side of the barriers, and leads us to the car park. As I said earlier, all the cars in Ashgabat are white, and finding our driver is proving a little difficult.

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After a short ten minute journey we arrive at the Grand Turkmen Hotel, check in and collapse into bed. It is now 04:30. Welcome to Turkmenistan: our 141st country and the last of the 15 ex-USSR states we've visited.

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

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:16 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged travel flights aircraft hard_rock_cafe emirates_airlines dubai_airport turkmenistan gatwick central_asia undiscovered_destinations visa_application visa_on_arrival check_in flydubai fly_dubai ashgabat_airport grand_turkmen_hotel Comments (14)

Ngorongoro Crater Day 2 Part 2 - kingfisher, baby zebra

From breakfast until lunch


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

Picnic Breakfast

We stop at the now very familiar Lerai Picnic Site for breakfast. On most of our previous visits to the crater we have stopped here, either to have a picnic or simply to make use of the facilities. The first time we came, in 2007, the toilets were pretty horrendous, but these days they are very much improved, with an attendant looking after cleanliness and stocking up on soap and paper.

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David is ready to get going "to see what nature has to offer us" (one of Malisa's favourite sayings)

We share our picnic this morning with a cheeky little monkey and a Hildebrand Starling.

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Black Faced Vervet Monkey

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Defassa Waterbuck

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You can easily tell the Defassa from the Common Waterbuck, providing you see them from behind: the Defassa has a circular white spot on its rear, while the Common Waterbuck features a much more prominent 'toilet-seat-shaped' white mark on its bum.

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Bird Pond

Initially attracted by a Hammerkop, we stop at a marshy area and soon discover the site is teeming with colourful birdlife.

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Hammerkop

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Sacred Ibis

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Egyptian Goose

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Black Headed Heron

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Immature Yellow Billed Stork

Malachite Kingfisher

I spot something colourful out of the corner of my eye, and ask Malisa to reverse to a different view, where I am delighted to see a Malachite Kingfisher sitting on some reeds.

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I grab Big Bertha (my 600mm lens) and wait for him to go fishing. He does, but he misses and so do I. He does fly around a bit and offers me a few different poses though.

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Bad hair day!

Finally he settles on a reed nearer to us, without a distracting background. Yay!

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Rasta Lion

That lump you see under the tree is a sleeping lion. Honestly.

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Hildebrand Starling

Ring Necked Dove

I get really excited about seeing this dove until I realise it is the same ones as we have in abundance back home in the garden. Doh.

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African Hoopoe

Lions

These are the same lions we saw yesterday devouring their kill. Having filled their bellies with zebra, they do not need to eat again for three days or so, rather they will now spend the time resting in the shade while they are digesting their food.

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Hippo and Zebra

Thomson's Gazelles

Cute little Tommy babies (Thomson's Gazelle). The good news is they are the second fastest animal in Tanzania. The bad news is, the cheetah is faster.

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Wildebeest

These odd-looking ungulates are renowned for being incredibly stupid with a dangerously short memory. Here they prove that theory by suddenly forgetting why they are fighting.

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Kori Bustard

Bateleur Eagle

These striking raptors have no tail to steady them in flight, instead they use their wings and body weight.

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Lions

These three lions are brothers, and while the one at the front is older, the other two hail from the same litter.

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Male lion

Yet another lion just lazing around, sleeping the day away, not realising that he should be performing for the camera-wielding tourists.

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Augur Buzzard

Zebra

Less than one week old, this baby zebra is torn between exploring the world and sticking close to his mum. When he is spooked by another zebra, mum jumps to his defence and sees the intruder off.

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Golden Jackal

Rhino

Malisa assures us that the blurry blob we see in the far distance is in fact a rhino. We have to take his word for it. Heat haze, dust, and atmospheric distortions make it impossible to take a decent photo, or even verifying his claim.

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Eurasian Hobby

Cape Buffalo

With a baby just a few days old, the mother looks painfully and alarmingly thin.

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Thomson's Gazelle

Although in some ways, and certainly from a photographer's point of view, it is great that the animals in Tanzania's national parks have become so accustomed to tourists that they no longer see the vehicles as a threat; the danger lies when they don't even bother to get out of the way – we almost run this little Thomson's Gazelle over as he isn't the least bothered about moving from our path as we approach.

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Hippo Pool

Some years ago when we came to the Crater, we had our picnic in this spot, and the pond was teeming with hippos (the aroma of 50 hippos belching, farting and crapping is not a good accompaniment to a tasty packed lunch), but today there are only a few of them around.

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Great White Pelican

There are, however, quite a number of Great White Pelicans showing off their breeding plumage.

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This is what a pelican looks like when it's yawning:

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Cattle Egret

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Hyena

Through all the distortions it is impossible to make out what this hyena is carrying in its mouth, even with powerful binoculars or Big Bertha. Could it be a baby Tommy? Or maybe a Kori Bustard?

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Windy

The wind has really blown up today, creating havoc with any dust kicked up by moving vehicles and blowing my hair in all directions (especially in front of my eyes as I am trying to take a photo)

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Grey Crowned Cranes

It seems I am not the only one having a bad hair day.

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In particularly arid areas where there is no vegetation to hold on to the soil, the sand gets blown into the car and we end up quite literally eating grit.

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Warthogs

Looking like they are praying, warthogs eat by kneeling on specially adapted pads on their front legs. This is because their short necks and relativity long legs make it difficult for their mouth to reach the ground in a conventional feeding position.

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Golden Jackal

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Kori Bustard

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Flamingos

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Yellow Billed Stork

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Secretary Bird

The same bird we spotted last night is still busy on her nest. I am not sure if she is still building it or just rearranging the furniture.

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It is time to leave the Ngorongoro Crater – one of my favourite places in the world - for this time. We will be back.

Thank you Tillya of Calabash Adventures for arranging this superb safari.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:48 Archived in Tanzania Tagged animals birds travel breakfast sand africa safari tanzania pool zebra birding picnic buffalo lion windy rhino hippo wind crane hobby dust hyena heron egret stork ibis pelican waterbuck gazelle kingfisher warthog goose kori_bustard grip big_bertha calabash_adventures hammerkop secretary_bird picnic_breakfast augur_buzzard breakfast_box lerai_picnic_site malachite_kingfisher rasta_lion crowned_crane cattle_egret thomason's_gazelle golden_jackal baby_zebra Comments (2)

Ngorongoro Crater Day 1 Part 2 - lion cubs and more

An afternoon in the caldera


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

Ngoitoktok Springs

Probably the most popular picnic area within the Ngorongororo Crater, there are always a lot of people here, but it is a large enough area to find a spot to get away from the crowds.

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Here you can see the crowds

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And here we are away from them all

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Not only is this place popular with humans, but we also share our breakfast with a number of different birds, who come for the rich pickings where guests drop food on the ground. They have become quite tame and will perch on your car, or sit on the ground below your chair, looking up with pleading eyes.

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Helmeted Guineafowl

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Little Egret

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Black Kite

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Great White Pelicans

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Rufous Tailed Weaver

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Egyptian Geese

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Village Weaver

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Blacksmith Plover

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Superb Starling

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Southern Masked Weaver

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Little Egrets

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Southern Masked Weaver

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Black Kite

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Litle Bee Eaters

I could stay here for ages, just watching life unfold around me – there is always something going on. We see zebra, elephants and wildebeest wandering through the outskirts of the site, and hippo frolic in the small lake, as well as numerous bird species as these pictures, all taken during our lunch stop, show.

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An elephant saunters by

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Wildebeest and Zebra

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Hippo in the lake

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Hippo poo floats to the surface of the water

I love seeing pelicans flying

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Eventually we have to tear ourselves away from this beautiful place to explore some other parts of the crater.

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A lone wildebeest

Grey Crowned Cranes

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Kori Bustard

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Common Fiscal Shrike

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Zebra

Secretary Bird

Malisa spots a few feathers sticking up from between the thorns on the top of the acacia tree and stops the car.

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She looks like she has stuck her talons in an electric socket ~ or maybe she is just shocked to see us.

Initially there is not much to see, but we hang around just in case she decides she is going to fly away, or at least maybe stand up.

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Our patience is rewarded as after a while she decides to rearrange her nest a little.

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Hippos

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As well as the ones we see in the water, there are a few hippos out on land too.

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Eurasian Avocet

I have never before noticed avocets eating the same way as spoonbills – pushing their long beak from side to side in the water.

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Lions

We come across a small dinner party, with two females and four cubs feasting on the carcass of a young zebra.

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We stay for a while (although not as invited guests, more like gatecrashers), watching their eating habits and interactions.

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This little lad may have bitten more than he can chew.

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He's not really getting anywhere with the zebra's head.

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He tries a different tactic.

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But eventually he gives up.

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Gradually, one by one, they've had their fill of fresh meat and wander off for a siesta.

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Or maybe just a poo.

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Children are such messy eaters.

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Mum needs cleaning too.

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“Play with me mum!”

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Time for us to move on and “see what else nature has to offer” (Malisa's favourite saying).

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Blacksmith Lapwing

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Hadada Ibis

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Superb Starling

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Tree Pipit

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Marabou Stork

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Hildebrand Starling, often confused with the Superb Starling. The difference is that the Superb has a white line between the blue and the orange areas on the chest and a yellow eye against the Hildebrand's red.

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Yellow Billed Stork

When we leave the crater by the usual Lerai Ascent Road, but at the top turn left down a private road rather than right towards the hotel on our planned itinerary, we realise that this is another one of Tillya's surprises. Tillya, the owner of Calabash Adventures, is constantly trying to exceed his customers' expectations and we often find ourselves upgraded to a different lodge than the one we thought we were staying in. Today is obviously going to be one of those occasions.

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View of the crater from near the top of the Lerai Ascent Road

Ang'Ata Nyati Camp

The whole team of staff appear to have come out to greet us as we arrive at a small clearing. One by one they introduce themselves by name, handing us a very welcome wet flannel and a soft drink. The complexities and rules of the camp are explained to us and we are shown to the tents. The camp is very similar to mobile camps we have stayed in previously, but I am told that this is a permanent tented camp (rather than a 'mobile' camp that moves every few months, following the annual migration of animals), having recently relocated to the Nyati Special Camp Site from the other side of the crater. A small and intimate affair, the camp has a mere eight tents and tonight we have the 'palace' to ourselves as we are the only guests staying.

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A local 'askari' (security guard/escort) takes us to our 'room', a basic tent with a wooden floor, large double bed, hanging space and a rudimentary en suite bathroom. Hot water is brought to the shower by request, in a bucket. I understand from their website that you are given 25 litres of hot water plus the same amount of cold. Mixing the two, the water temperature is just right, and if used sparingly, ample for two people to shower. As always in an area where water is a scarce commodity, I wet my body, then turn off the water while I wash and apply shampoo. Water back on again, rinse and repeat with conditioner.

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We meet up with Malisa in the cosy and comfortable lounge/dining room for dinner. The food is superb and the staff is wonderful.

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40th wedding anniversary celebrations

There was no doubt in Lyn and Chris' mind where they wanted to celebrate their special milestone, and I feel very honoured that they asked us to share this celebration with them.

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When David's phone rings in the middle of dinner, he is surprised that he has a signal and worried that it may be bad news from home. The concern soon turns to indignation when he realises it is just an advert!

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The camp staff make such a fuss of us, and after dinner the whole crew come out, bringing a cake and a complimentary bottle of wine, while walking around the table singing and dancing. We don't have the heart to tell them that the anniversary is not for another couple of days.

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Originally released as a record back in 1982 by a Kenyan band called Them Mushrooms, the Jambo Bwana song is now adopted all over East Africa and sung to tourists at every celebration. Each lodge have their own version incorporating local details (such as the name of the camp) and I am sure they make up some of it as they go along, especially as I distinctly hear Malisa's name being mentioned in the words. These are the lyrics ~ and translation ~ to the main part of the song.

Jambo, jambo bwana (Hello, hello boss)
Habari gani (How are you)
Nzuri Sana (Very good)
Wageni, wakaribishwa (Welcome visitors)
Ang'Ata Nyeti (Ang'Ata Nyeti ~ name of camp)
Hakuna Matata (No worries)
Okenda Serengeti (Going to Serengeti)
Hakuna matata (No worries)
Okenda Ngorongoro (Going to Ngorongoro)
Hakuna matata (No worries)
Okenda Tarangire (Going to Tarangire)
Hakuna matata (No worries)
]Jambo, jambo bwana (Hello, hello boss)
Habari gani (How are you)
Nzuri Sana (Very good)
Wageni, wakaribishwa (Welcome visitors)
Ang'Ata Nyeti (Ang'Ata Nyeti ~ name of camp)
Hakuna Matata (No worries)

After dinner we gather around the 'Bush TV' (the local expression for a camp fire), where we have a sing song, introduce the locals to the joys of toasting marshmallows, and attempt (very unsuccessfully – I blame the Duty Free rum and four bottles of wine) to photograph the awesome night sky. After a fabulous day in the crater, we have a phenomenal evening in an extraordinary setting.

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When we get back to our tent we find the staff have been in for 'turn-back service' and there are a couple of much appreciated hot water bottles in our bed. At an altitude of 2310 metres, this area can get bitterly cold overnight. Still on a high from the earlier revelry (not to mention the copious amount of alcohol), I slip into a deep sleep, oblivious to the cold and any noises from the surrounding jungle.

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Yet another marvellous day organised by Calabash Adventures, the best safari company by far!

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:47 Archived in Tanzania Tagged animals birds travel elephant adventure kite tent camp africa safari tanzania camping zebra wine lions hippo drunk lion_cubs stars cranes egret stork ibis pelican avocet geese celebration glamping starling weaver wildebeest shrike astro east_africa ngorongoro_crater bird_watching bustard game_drive camp_fire plover secretary_bird lapwing guineafowl pipit ngrongoro ngoitoktok birdning bee_eaters game_viewing lions_eating ang@ata_nyati_camp mobile_tented_camp nyati jambo_bwana song_and_dance toasting_marshmallows bush_tv 40th_anniversary hot_water_bottle Comments (5)

Salalah: Taqa, Derbat, Sumharum, Bin Ali's Tomb, Mirbat - UK

Last day in Oman


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

Taqa Open Air Museum

A small collection of replica dwellings shows how local people lived in the Dhofar mountains in the old days. The hut on the left would have housed the family, while the building on the right was for the animals.

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Taqa Castle

Built in the 19th century as a private residence for the Sheikh and his family, the castle was restored some 15 years ago.

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Barza – the vestibule where visitors would wait to see the governor.

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Issa shows us the type of bowl used when milking camels. Camels are majorly fidgety animals and have to be milked quickly as they won't stand still for long. Stones from the fire are then added to the bowl to 'sterilise' the milk.

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The responsibility for the camels is usually the men's domain, while the women look after the sheep and goats.

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This room was used as a store for household items and as a workroom for grinding wheat, pounding spices, churning milk, and grating coconut.

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Tannur Oven

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The prison

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They seem to have left behind a prisoner in the cell.

Wadi Dirbat

As we make our way towards Wadi Dirbat, we see a number of camels in the road; creating the quintessential Middle Eastern scene of my imagination.

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There are camels everywhere and they are all heading the same direction.

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This is what they have come for: the water. And this is what we have come for: to see them in the water.

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Sumhuram Archaeological Park

The ancient site of Sumhuram dates back to the 3rd century AD and is the most important pre-Islamic settlement in this area.

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Built near the harbour of Khor Rori, it was once a wealthy port situated on the trading route between the Mediterranean and Asia.

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The city gate of Sumhuram was an imposing defensive structure. The access was tortuous, steep and blocked by three successive wooden doors.

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The fort was protected on all sides and almost impregnable.

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Khor Rori Port - the approach to the fort from the sea - the walls on this side did not have any openings, thus making it very secure.

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Flamingos in the bay

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The fascinating and informative Audio Visual show in the Visitors' Centre brings the whole place to life.

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Bin Ali's Tomb

Originally from Tarim in Yemen, Bin Ali came to this region in the beginning of the 12th century to teach Islam and build schools. A mosque has been built over his tomb, which is still used for prayer and mourning and this is now one of the most important Islamic sites in the region, partly because Bin Ali is said to be a descendant of the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

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The tomb and mosque are surrounded by a large traditional cemetery.

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Issa explains how the female graves have three headstones and those containing the remains of a man have two.

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Mirbat

Once the capital of Dhofar, Mirbat is now primarily a fishing village with many old decaying merchant houses.

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I find the crumbling old buildings quite charming despite some being in a badly dilapidated state.

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We take a little wander around the old town, and again I am drawn to the ornate doors and windows, some of which are in a better state of repair than others; but all of which could tell a story or two about the people who once lived and worked here.

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The Old Town is deserted, and the busy working port is not exactly bustling either.

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When we get back to the hotel, we are informed that our flight this afternoon has changed and is now 5½ hours later. We manage to secure a late check out and have a snooze followed by something to eat and then listening to piano music in the lobby before trying to check in on line for our flights. When we get an error message stating “Flight Cancelled” we panic ever so slightly, and email Undiscovered Destinations (who arranged our trip) to see if they can find out for us what the situation is. They quickly come back to us to confirm that the flight is indeed running, so we assume the error message is just a computer glitch.

Homeward Bound

Salalah Airport is a joy. There is no queue for check in, and I chat up the guy on the counter who gives us window and aisle seats and blocks out the middle seat so that we can spread out. Success.

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At Muscat Airport we have to collect our bags, but again there is no queue to check in. Just like we did on the way to Salalah, we are made to wait in the bus while they finish off getting the plane ready to board.

The flight back to the UK via Istanbul is uneventful and at Heathrow we get plenty of exercise walking from the gate to the main terminal building – I swear it is at least half a mile!

And so ends another successful tour with Undiscovered Destinations. If you are interested in travelling to some of the more little-known places off the beaten path, check them out. They can arrange group or private tours and have a huge selection of destinations to choose from.

As for Oman: we absolutely loved it! The country as a whole has moved directly into our Top Three list of favourite countries, with its friendly people, cleanliness (including a number of fabulous public toilets), good food, nice hotels, stunning scenery, and a host of interesting historical and cultural sites. Go now before everyone else discovers it.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:34 Archived in Oman Tagged history travel fort cemetery tomb museum port castle necropolis old deserted asia camels ancient mediterranean oman archaeology wadi trade middle_east frankincense salalah taqa taqa_castle camel_milk wadi_dirbat sumhuram sumharam_archaeological_park frankincense_trade impregnable khor_rori bin_ali mirbat dhofar Comments (1)

Wahiba Sands

Lunch in a Bedouin camp, sunset over the dunes and the stars at night


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

As soon as the sun rises at 06:15 this morning, the peace is broken . It is a case of “Gentlemen, start your engines”. Except these are no gentlemen: the sound we can hear is cars revving up to trash the dunes by young lads who have come out from town for the weekend. They make as much noise as possible, take unnecessary risks on the steep slopes and leave a lot of rubbish behind in the desert. They are about as popular as stag parties in the UK.

I try to get down a little something at breakfast, but as I still have the runs, I also want to be careful with what I eat.

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As I wander around the restaurant area taking photographs after breakfast, I somehow manage to miss a step and splat flat on my face. Thankfully I am able to avoid my camera hitting the hard concrete floor. Phew. My knee doesn't fare as well, unfortunately. Before I have even had time to realise what has happened, four strong men are there to help me up. Thankfully there are no serious injuries, so I am able to continue with my day.

Bedouin Camp

Today we are seeking out a Bedouin settlement to learn about their way of life and have lunch with the family.

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We are visiting Salma and her extended family, with her two sons and a daughter living in the camp. The daughter and one of the sons are married, while the other son remains a bachelor as the family cannot afford the dowry (the going rate being around £14,000).

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Salma's daughter-in-law and her children

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Salma's daughter is expecting her ninth child; she already has two sets of twins.

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We have lunch in their dining tent: chicken, biriyani, 'desert fish', vegetables, rice and Omani bread.

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It is all very tasty, but I am still very conscious of my delicate tummy, so I just nibble a little of each dish. I hate for Salma to think I am being rude or fickle, so I ask Said to explain to her why I am not eating much.

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After lunch, the Bedouin women dress me up in their traditional face mask and I ask Salma's daughter-in-law to paint my hands with intricate and beautiful henna designs.

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We return to our camp in time for a pre-dinner drink in the 'Boat Bar'.

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When I say “drink”, I am not talking about an alcoholic beverage unfortunately, as this, like so many in Oman, is a dry hotel. Chocolate milkshake it is.

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We don't linger too long, as the place is swarming with pesky little flies.

Sunset

After a short snooze, we leave the camp once again in search of some suitable sand dunes for creating beautiful vistas as the sun goes down and the shadows become longer and darker. My favourite time of day.

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We are certainly not the only ones enjoying this evening's sunset.

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We leave before the actual sunset, as we saw the big red ball in the sky last night, and it is nowhere near as bright tonight. I am really only interested in photographing the shadow-sculpted dunes anyway.

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Entertainment

After dinner, a local Bedouin family entertain us with songs and dance.

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There is what appears to be a party of local lads and hearing all their cheering, clapping and whistling, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were watching a couple of strippers rather than this demure family-friendly display.

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The Stars at Night

When booking this trip, I paid special attention to the moon phase, to ensure we were going to be here in the Wahiba Desert where there is almost zero light pollution at the darkest time of the month.

So here we are. The stars this evening are fabulously bright and I try to take some photos with the tents in the foreground and then wander into the car park to get a different view of the camp.

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We get chatting to a couple of guys who had also been out taking pictures of the stars over the dunes, and when they complain that this is a dry hotel with no alcohol for sale, we invite them back to our room to share our rum and some great travel stories.
Sebastian and Kasper – if you are reading this – thanks for a fun evening!

Yet another fantastic day in Oman, thank you Undiscovered Destinations once again for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:24 Archived in Oman Tagged night desert sunset travel sand shadows dancing drums sand_dunes oman stars henna singing rum bedouin astro bedouin_camp burqa wahiba_sands night_shots night_photography astro_photography wahiba 1000_nights_camp henna_painting dowry face_mask burka long_shadows stars_at_night Comments (4)

Ras al Jinz - Wadi Bani Khalid - Wahiba Sands

From turtles on the beach to a gorgeous oasis and finally a fabulous desert.


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

Bleary-eyed, we drag ourselves out of bed when the alarm goes off at 04:10 this morning in order to get down to the beach for the sunrise and hopefully see some more turtles.

Unlike last night, this morning's excursion is only available to hotel guests, so thankfully there are nowhere near as many people as there were last night. Today's walk is further than yesterday, however, as the one remaining turtle is further down the beach; and it is still dark when we reach the nesting site. The turtle is just finishing off covering her eggs with sand when we get there.

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The sunrise is a little disappointing (especially as this is the most easterly point on the Arabian peninsula I was expecting a little more), but the surreal rock formations along this stretch of the beach more than make up for it.

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As soon as it is light, the turtle makes an awkward dash back to sea, having deposited her eggs on the same beach she was born on many years ago.

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Back to the hotel for breakfast and then meet up with Said, our guide, for the today's journey. Having been up so early, we sleep most of the way, but wake up as Said takes a turning off the main road, into the mountains again.

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Our hotel seen from the track leading up from the beach.

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Said turns off the main road up this track

Wadi Bani Khalid

At the top of the hill, Said stops the car for the view over the bleak and desolate landscape. The scenery may be barren and harsh, but it has a stark and austere beauty to it that totally mesmerises me.

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Said beckons for us to walk to the edge of the cliff (my fear of heights has kept me well back so far), and tells us to look at the crack in the plateau. Our eyes follow the canyon down and then we see it. Wow! There, nestled on the valley floor, is the most picture-perfect oasis: Wadi Bani Khalid.

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After taking our photos from above, we drive back down to the oasis and walk from the car park along the felaj (ever-present irrigation channels) to reach the stunning pools of iridescent aquamarine water.

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The water is unbelievably clear and glistens in various shades of blue and green under the bright sunlight. Apparently this place is extremely popular on weekends, and I can see why.

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Said relaxes in one of the many pavilions that dot the area around the emerald-green pools.

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The pools are fed year-round by a stream making its way down through the crack we saw in the Hajar Mountains. This is known as Oman's most beautiful wadi, and for good reason.

Lunch

In the town of the same name, we stop at a small restaurant for lunch. As my stomach is still very much playing up, I just order a plate of hummous and some bread, while David chooses a schwarma. Said, of course, has his usual mountain of rice.

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And, no, this is not water from the oasis, but a refreshing minty drink.

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Back in the car, I doze until we reach the small town of Bidir, where we lower the tyre pressure on the car for the journey into the desert (plus pick up a tow rope, 'just in case').

Wahiba Sands

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Suddenly the tarmacked road ends, rather abruptly, and we continue on a reasonable track of compacted sand. “This used to be like a washboard” Said says, and explains that the camps come out occasionally with heavy machinery to create new 'roads' in the sand.

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This vast expanse of perfectly formed rolling sand dunes stretches 200 miles from North to South and is named after the local Wahiba tribe who still spend their winters in the desert tending to their camels before migrating to the coast in the heat of summer.

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Other than the tourists camps, there are no permanent settlements in this hauntingly empty swathe of sand, featuring towering dunes, reaching almost 100m in places, sculpted by the wind into delicately moulded crests and hollows.

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Every now and again Said makes a detour off the main track, shimmying up the soft dunes and back down again.

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1000 Nights Camp

Nestled comfortably on the valley floor, this is one of a handful of tourist camps in this area, surrounded by nothing but sand with high dunes either side.

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Just outside the gates, an old truck is partially buried in the sand.

The car park is almost full as we arrive (being a Thursday, it's the eve of the weekend here, with most locals having Friday and Saturday off), with almost every car being a self-drive 4x4.

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We are greeted with a refreshing wet towel in reception and after the usual formalities an electric golf buggy takes us and the cases to our room.

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The rooms are fashioned on the traditional goat wool Bedouin tents but with a touch of modern comfort.

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The camp is nicely spread out in amongst mature trees, with four levels of accommodation: basic Arabic tents with no bathroom facilities; the Sheikh tents that we are in with attached open-air bathroom; luxury glass-sided Ameer tents with A/C; and lastly, two-storey brick-built Sand Houses.

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Also on site is a large restaurant, a snack-bar on board a wooden boat and a swimming pool.

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Restaurant

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Traditional seating area

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The snack-bar

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Swimming pool

With no A/C, the temperature is almost the same inside the tent as it is outside: 32 °C.

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Sunset from the dunes

After a quick change, we leave the camp behind and head for a bit of fun on the dunes with Said. Seeing a group of lads just outside the gates, crowding around a wreck of a car that has obviously been 'rolled' doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. I check that my seatbelt is properly fastened before we tackle the off-roading.

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As we race up the steep-sided dunes, large amounts of sand gets thrown about, and the car slides around like a ballerina on ice. Great fun!
Here, on top of the dunes, the wind is quite ferocious, sandblasting everything in sight (including us and the cameras). No wonder these dunes are constantly on the move, shifting inland at a rate of 10m per year.

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There is a definite driving skill involved in scaling the soft dunes, and Said makes it effortlessly to the top every time, unlike these Germans in a self-drive car. The secret is to keep the speed high and the tyre pressure low.

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After trying unsuccessfully to free their car, which is stuck half way up the dune, the tourists walk back to camp to recruit a local expert to help them out. The local guy gets the car out of the pickle without too much trouble, then shows off as he reaches the crest of the dune: taking off and landing awkwardly, dislocating the bumper of the car. Oops. Having finally reached the top, the Germans join us to watch the sunset, and we have a good laugh with them. The ridge is in fact full of tourists waiting to see the sun go down over the desert.

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These people seem to have brought a picnic

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Strangely enough, as soon as the sun goes down, the wind drops. We head back to camp, driving straight down the dune in front of us. Eeek!
What a fantastic way to finish another eventful and exciting day! Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for organising this fabulous Oman trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:01 Archived in Oman Tagged mountains turtles oasis desert sunset beach travel scenery sunrise valley sand camp camping dunes sand_dunes wadi glamping bedouin middle_east hajar_mountains wahiba_sands ras_al_jinz wadi_bani_khalid hajjar_mountains natural_pools wahiba sunset_over_the_dunes off-roading dune_bashing 1000_nights_camp desert_camp Comments (2)

Tadoba National Park - Part III

No tigers this morning


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

Black Ibis
Considering it was only yesterday that we saw our very first Black Ibis, today the first thing we see is a whole flock of them flying.

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Another first: Muntjack AKA Barking Deer

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Gaur

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Black Headed Ibis

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Lesser Adjutant - another new one for my list.

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Crested Serpent Eagle

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Green Bee Eater

The park is looking really pretty this morning, with rising mist and rays from the emerging sun seeping through the trees.

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Sambar in the sunrise

Wild Boar

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Sambar

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Vehicle Check
We are most surprised to find ourselves being stopped by the traffic cops in the middle of the park. Do they get danger money for being surrounded by wild animals at work?

Black Drongo

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Rose Ringed Parakeets

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Red Wattled Lapwing

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Green Bee Eater

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White Throated Kingfisher

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Gaur

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We turn off the main road onto a smaller lane, and the next three cars coming the other way flash their lights at us. With high hopes for a tiger sighting, we set off at great speed!

Down by the waterhole there is a large gathering of Gypsy safari vehicles, all waiting for the tigress and her cubs to re-appear from the woods where they were spotted earlier.

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We sit around for ages, some 45 minutes or so, with no sighting of even a stripy tail!

A couple of birds appear to help us pass the time.

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Green Bee Eater

All too soon it is time to make our way out of the park and back to the lodge for lunch.

On the way we spot a gorgeous Indian Roller sitting on the telephone wire.

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And a couple of women carrying her stuff for the day in a bowl on their heads.

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Back at the lodge I discover just how dirty this game driving lark is, after wiping my face on a white cloth.

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Time for a rest and some food before this afternoon's safari – the last one of our trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:37 Archived in India Tagged animals birds travel india sunrise safari eagle birding travelling roller ibis parakeet kingfisher gaur barking_deer tadoba sambar drongo bird_watching lapwing indian_bison adjutant bee_eater muntjack sambar_deer Comments (3)

Bristol - London - Delhi

We've arrived in Delhi


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

After a reasonably comfortable and totally uneventful flight we land in Delhi, one hour early. Unsurprisingly, our driver is not yet here. To our surprise, however, our friend Sabu turns up soon after we arrive, showering us with flowers and gifts.

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From the airport we head directly to our hotel, fighting for space on roads crowded with scores of huge trucks, which are banned from the country's capital between 05:00 and 23:00. With the time now at 23:30, we are caught up in the middle of a transport frenzy, as an avalanche of overfilled, slow-moving trucks enter Delhi to make their deliveries to shops, restaurants and hotels, contaminating the still, hot air with plumes thick pollution as they go.

Jivitesh Hotel, Delhi
At Jivitesh Hotel we enter another world, one that is clean, quiet and cool, where we collapse into bed and immediately fall into a deep sleep.

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Welcome to India.

Posted by Grete Howard 01:19 Archived in India Tagged travel india flight delhi air_india jivitesh hotel_jivitesh Comments (4)

Free Day in Moroni

Just chillin'

I slept really well last night, but I wake up at 06:40 desperate for the loo. Although I still have diarrhoea, at least I have stopped vomiting. I can cope with that. But then I haven’t eaten anything for around 36 hours, so I guess there isn’t much left in there.

Breakfast

I am not exactly hungry, but I am sure it would do me good to eat something, maybe some bread? Usually I love to try local foods, and even if no regional food is available, I tend to order dishes I would not normally have at home. This morning, however, all I want is something familiar. I knew there was a reason I packed those little individual Marmite portions.

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Itsandra Hotel

In stark contrast to the last few nights in Anjouan, the Itsandra hotel comes across as a well-run, nicely finished business hotel. Judging by the other patrons at breakfast, I am pretty sure we are the only holidaymakers here at the moment.

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Our room has a king sized bed scattered with frangipani flowers (despite the ‘nutmeg’ theme), there is plenty of storage space, and we have a terrace which looks out over the grass, garden bar and the sea beyond. There is no furniture on it though.

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View from our balcony

The double basin in the bathroom is a first for us: not because it has two sinks, but the fact that one of them has an integral washboard for laundry! I have never seen that before in a hotel!

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We are also delighted to have not just two (dry) towels, but a hand towel and a fluffy bathrobe too!

The A/C is very efficient, although we did have some trouble getting it to switch on last night. I guess the batteries in the remote control are dead or at least dying.

The lobby is bright and airy, with plenty of seating as well as a bar. It even features an ATM. Complete with an Out of ‘Order’ sticker.

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I love the clock table

The hotel has a lovely looking beach, furnished with parasols and sun loungers; and unlike the beach in Anjouan, this one is easily accessible via steps from the main hotel area. Scuba diving is available, and there is a roped off swimming area. The sea looks lovely and clean and changes colour from a pale blue through lime green to a bright aquamarine according to the weather conditions.

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The cottages in the back belong to the hotel too.

Alas, just like in Anjouan, the swimming pool here is also devoid of water.

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Our favourite part of the hotel, however, is the partly covered outside terrace / bar. We spend the whole morning here, following the shade: moving from one table to the next as the sun travels across the sky, trying to keep out of the hot sun.

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Over a nice cold ginger beer, we chat to one of the other guests, Ian from the UK, who is an armed security guard employed to work on various ships sailing in dangerous waters, protecting them from pirates! “Some people call us mercenaries” he says, “but we don’t like that term”. He keeps us amused for ages, regaling some captivating stories for sure, none of which I feel are mine to share here.

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Lunch

By lunchtime I am still not particularly hungry, but I think some food would do my stomach good. Our delightful waiter, who speaks excellent English, goes to enquire with the kitchen if they can make me some soup. “Vegetable or fish?” he asks when he returns. The mere thought of even just the aroma associated with fish soup make me heave, so I settle for vegetable. It comes with mostly carrot and potato, which suits me down to the ground.

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David orders BBQ chicken. “No BBQ”. Chicken and chips it is then.

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We return to the room to find that the maid has removed our towels, but not yet replaced them. David goes off on a towel hunt (AKA chasing the maid), and comes back with a couple of fresh ones. Towels, not maids.

After a lovely siesta in a very cool room, we return to the terrace bar, where we are almost immediately approached by a young lad who “wants to talk to us”. It soon becomes obvious that he is suffering from mental illness, as he rambles about his life in France and the hardship he has suffered. At first we are quite willing to listen, but he go on for far too long, and then comes the crunch: can we help him? He claims he has been sending money over to his mother is Comoros from France (he proudly shows us his French passport). When he recently arrived here, he found his mother has stolen all the money and now he has no way of getting back to France. According to him, the French embassy are refusing to provide any help, telling him to “get a job and build yourself a life here”. He believes his doctor and psychiatrist are ganging up on him and he has no-one left to turn to. "I need your help!" he begs. Sigh.

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The more we try to make suggestions, the more aggressive he becomes. Looking at the amount of camera equipment sitting on our table and the notebook where I jot down what we do / eat / see each day to help me write this blog, he declares: "You're a journalist, you must have contacts?" When we both renounce my suggested profession, he gets very agitated, flailing his arms around and starting to shout: "That's a joke. That's the biggest joke I ever heard!" Seeing the hotel waiter walking in our direction, however, our new-found 'friend' reluctantly leaves. We breathe a sigh of relief.

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We’ve only just ‘recovered’ from this episode, when we are joined by another 'new friend'. After some general chit-chat, he reveals himself to be a tout, trying to sell us sightseeing tours. Thankfully he does take "no" for an answer and leaves without a scene. Maybe it’s time to retreat to the room. Neither of us want any dinner tonight anyway, we are still feeling far too fragile from the horrible bout of food poisoning.

There is live music on the little stage right outside our window tonight, and it is all rather pleasant. A small band is playing 70s and 80s ballads at a respectable volume. Looking out of the window, I only see four guests sitting in bar. It's not exactly all the rage then? It is all over by 10pm anyway.

By this time I am feeling a bit too cold, even under the bedclothes. I try to increase the temperature a little, but the remote control doesn’t seem to work. Feeling way too tired to even contemplate getting dressed and going down to reception, or even worse, having to change rooms (again), I put on legging, socks and a fleece before crawling back under the covers.

Rude awakening

I go into a deep sleep but a few hours later I am woken by a shrill, piercing noise. It sounds like a telephone. It is a telephone. Do we even have a telephone in the room? We must have. So where is it? I guess I should answer it.

Me, in a sleepy, confused voice: “Hello…?”

Bright, cheerful female voice: “Hello, how are you?”

Me, just starting to wake up: “OK” I reply tentatively, hoping this stranger hasn’t phoned me in the middle of the night just for a welfare check.

Female voice: “I am ringing from Luna, wanting to know the name of your ship”

Me, even more confused now: “Pardon?”

Female voice: “I am ringing from Luna…”

Me, interrupting: “What is Luna?”

Female voice, now containing thinly veiled irritation: “Luna is the name of the company.”

Me, also losing my patience: “But what is Luna?”

Female voice, no longer hiding her irritability, and speaking slowly and loudly as if to a petulant child: “I. Am. Ringing. From. Luna. To. Find. Out. The. Name. Of. Your. Ship. Are. You. Sailing. With. XXX or YYY (she mentions two names that I assume are referring to boats).

Me: “We are flying. To Dar es Salaam. Tomorrow.”

Female voice, now rather sheepish, but still unapologetic for having woken me in the middle of the night: “Oh, OK. Bye.”

Did I just dream this? Unfortunately not. I shake my head, get back into bed, but sleep totally evades me for the rest of the night.

This eventful and adventurous trip was arranged by Undiscovered Destinations, specialists in arranging private tours to unusual places.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:02 Archived in Comoros Tagged travel adventure africa journalist luna beggar a/c phone_call comoros moroni itsandra_hotel air_conditioning mental_health cold_room 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)

Dar es Salaam - Moroni (Comoros)

We're here!


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

Much as I love Tanzania, this trip is something totally different. Today we are continuing to the small island nation of Comoros.

“Comoros? Where’s that?” has been the common refrain when I tell people where I am going.

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Nestled between Madagascar to the east and Mozambique on the African mainland to the west, Comoros consists of three major islands: Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Anjouan (Nzwani) and Moheli (Mwali). Internationally, the islands are known by their French names, and I have added the local Comorian names in parentheses.

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It’s not exactly all the rage

The reason you haven’t heard of Comoros lies largely at the door of its total lack of commercial tourism, unlike that which its neighbours Mauritius and Seychelles close by ‘enjoy’ (or endure, whichever side of the fence you are). According to the Tourist Office, the islands receive fewer than 3,000 visitors each year (the last data I could find was from 2011, when 2,497 tourists entered the country). To put things into perspective, the Seychelles received 36,000 tourists in April this year alone.

As described by an online travel deal comparator promoting the islands: “Not many tourists travel to Comoros in the Indian Ocean and for good reason: there is regular seismic activity on top of great political instability”.

Cloud Coup Coup Land

Affectionately known as ‘Cloud Coup Coup Land’ as a result of its numerous (more than twenty) coups d’états since its independence in 1975, with various heads of state assassinated. Subsequent instability has left the small archipelago desperately poor (said to be the third poorest country in the world), unsurprisingly corrupt, and relatively untouched. It has an unemployment rate of 80% and it is believed that around 50% of the population live below the poverty line of US1 a day; and unfortunately it has few natural resources with which to recover its failing economy.

Dar es Salaam - Moroni

Anyway, back to today’s journey.

We are up at the crack of dawn this morning for a 5am pick up for the transfer to the airport. The journey that took well in excess of an hour last night in the terrible traffic, takes us a mere 20 minutes this morning.

Check in

We approach the Air Tanzania check-in desk with trepidation, and hand over our passports. The young girl types away on her computer and we are asked to place our bags on the scales. This is looking promising. My heart sinks, however, when she asks: “Are you travelling with Air Tanzania?” I hand over the original e-ticket plus the email and explain that we were originally booked on the Precisionair flight this morning which has been cancelled and that they informed us we have been re-booked with Air Tanzania instead (see yesterday’s blog for the full explanation). "Ah, that's why I can't find you on my system" she confirms. I hold my breath, waiting for the rejection and expecting her to pass the buck and tell us to go and sort it with Precisionair. She doesn’t. She calls them herself and asks us to sit down and wait while she sorts it out.

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We sit and we wait. And we wait, and then we wait some more. After around 30 minutes the supervisor comes over to tell us “it is being sorted”.

One hour. I go and ask. The supervisor tells me: “It is all confirmed, we are waiting for the second paper to be completed. Just sit down and relax.” I sit down. And relax. Sort of.

We eat the packed breakfast the hotel provided us with while we wait. And wait. And wait some more.

20 minutes before the departure of the flight and 2½ hours after we first checked in, we finally have boarding cards!

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Passport control is very slow, leaving us no time to buy any rum in the Duty Free as we go straight on to the plane.

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As we climb high and leave the metropolis of Dar es Salaam behind, I am looking forward to lazy days on tropical beaches in this ‘hidden paradise’.

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I am surprised to be served a small snack on the short flight – it is only about one hour and 20 minutes long.

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It’s not long before we spot the peaks of Comoros’ highest point, Mt Karthala in the distance.

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The origin of the name Comoros comes from the name given to the islands by an Arab geographer in the Middle Ages: Djazair al ‘Qamar’, which translated into English means Moon Islands. It is said that the first Arabs who arrived in the archipelago were enthralled by the lunar-like landscape caused by petrified lava on the pure white sand of the beaches. Looking down on the coastline below, I can see what they mean.

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Soon we are approaching the small runway of Prince Said Ibrahim Airport in Moroni (I have no idea how this airport got its three letter code HAH).

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At immigration there are two forms to fill in, and my Norwegian passport seems to cause a bit of a stir, with the official calling her supervisor over to check it out. She speaks no English, I speak almost no French and even less Comorian. She keeps repeating “Visa! Visa!” I am not sure if she means I should have obtained a visa before travelling or that she is going to issue me with a visa.

It turns out to be the latter.

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I am very impressed they manage to produce a sticky-backed printed visa complete with my picture right here in the little immigration booth. She even asks me which page of my passport I would like it stuck on. There isn’t much choice in my case, as I only have one single spare page left in my passport; the rest is full with stamps and visas.

After a cursory luggage check in the Customs area, find ourselves outside in the sun looking for someone carrying a sign with our name on it. Again. We look around, nothing. Again. Neither of our mobile phones seems to work here in the Comoros, something we were warned about, so we are unable to call our guide or the office. Hovering by the exit for a few minutes soon attracts the local taxi touts, one of whom speaks a little English. He is thankfully not persistent and we chat to him for a while, explaining that we have someone coming to meet us from a local agency. When, after around 20 minutes or so, our pick-up still hasn’t arrived, he kindly uses his own mobile phone and rings the telephone number we have been given for the local agent’s office. It goes through to an answering machine. He then tries the number the agent supplied for the local guide we are to have for the duration of our stay here, Mr Akim. Success. David talks to Mr Akim and explains that we are waiting at the airport for him. Mr Akim is somewhat perplexed, and stutters as he laments: “I didn’t know you were coming… I am nowhere near the airport…” He sounds genuinely concerned (and extremely confused) and asks us where we are staying. “Take a taxi to the hotel… but the hotel is not booked…” We are both feeling a little tense and rather uneasy by this stage, wondering what else can go wrong, and if this trip is maybe jinxed in some way

Out of the corner of my eye I spot a chap walking purposefully directly towards us, and in his hands I can see a sign “Grete & David Howard”. He introduces himself as Yahaya, and is full of apologies for being late. Great! First a feeling of relief, then confusion. Oh. So, if this is our guide, who is the person we are talking to on the phone?

(It later transpires that the local agent had arranged another guide for us, but didn’t let us, or Undiscovered Destinations, who we booked the trip through, know)

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Waiting for the car at the airport

The car boot is not big enough to take both the bags and close as well, so we drive along with the boot lid open. It doesn’t really matter: these are not fast roads.

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But first we must get the car started. It fires, turns and then dies. Time after time, again and again. We, and the luggage, get out of the car in order to access the spare battery the driver keeps in the boot, and the tools under the rear seat. This is obviously a regular occurrence.

As we approach the capital, we hit a huge, slow-moving traffic jam. “There is a strike,” says the girl whose name I heard as Malika and David thinks is Monica. We take a short cut through some badly pot-holed back streets, and stop at a small shop that doubles as a money changer.

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Pretty beach outside Moroni, the capital

National Museum

On the way to the hotel we stop for a visit to the small, but reasonably interesting National Museum.

All the Comoros islands were created at various times as a result of volcanic activity on the seabed resulting in each of the islands having a distinct topographical characteristic as a result of their different ages.

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Volcanic stones

According to pre-Islamic mythology, however, a jinn (spirit) dropped a jewel, which formed a great circular inferno. This became the Karthala volcano, which created the island of Grande Comore.

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A cross section of the earth, showing Mt Karthala, the still-active volcano on Grand Comore

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Pottery shards

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Coelacanth - the fish thought to be extinct for millions of years until it was re-discovered here in Comoros in 1938

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Pufferfish

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Whale skull

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Shells

A few bedraggled and sad looking stuffed birds

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Caspian Tern

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Common Ringed Plover

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Comoro Blue Pigeon

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Drums and other musical instruments

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Various pots and containers

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Oil lamp - usually whale oil was used

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Outrigger canoe - the museum guide explains that he was a fisherman himself, using one of these for many years; much to his father’s disappointment, as he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and become an Imam.

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Sugar cane crusher. The juice is later turned into 'honey'.

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Items made from the coconut palm - no part of the plant is wasted

Medina

Walking down through the Medina (old market) of Moroni, we cause quite a stir. There is lots of laughter, pointing and many shy smiles, plus a few requests for us to take them back to England with us. Tourists are a rarity here.

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Fruit and vegetables

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Beans

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Chillies

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Onions

Many Comorians believe that having their photograph taken will bestow them with bad luck, so I am therefore very surprised when this lady actively wants to have her picture taken with me. Don’t you just love the look on the face of the woman behind though?

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Butcher

This lady not just asks us to photograph her young daughter, she begs us to take the child back to England to “give her a better life”.

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I am not sure the girl, however, is equally enthralled with that idea.

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Some more images from the market:

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Shoes

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Tailor

Also in the Medina, behind these elaborate doors, is the palace once used by the last prince of Comoros.

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The Old Town

We continue through the maze of narrow alleyways in Moroni Old Town.

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Similar in many ways to Zanzibar’s Stone Town (they share a lot of history and culture), the old town has many beautifully carved doors.

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As we get nearer to sea level and the large Friday Mosque, the alleyways open up and the vestiges of grand mansions appear, now but sad relics of faded glory.

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Sultan Ahmed Mwigni Mkou Mosque

Historically, Comoros was divided into a number of Sultanates following the arrival of Arab settlers starting in the 11th century. Mwigni Mkou was the biggest of these Sultans, reigning for over 40 years.

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The Town Hall

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Retaj Moroni Hotel

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After checking in and dumping the bags in the room, we head down to the restaurant to see if we can get a small snack for lunch. Passing through the bar, we see a pizza oven and someone rolling dough, which will be perfect as neither of us are particularly hungry.

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Pizza oven!

When we arrive at the restaurant, all they are doing is an international buffet. We both hate buffets with a passion and decide to forego lunch and take a wander around the hotel grounds instead.

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Swimming pool complete with water!

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Dinner

After a stroll to the local supermarket and a nice little siesta, followed by a shower and change, it is time to go down for dinner. This time they do have pizza, which is what we order.

Mine has meat, chicken, vegetables and egg on it – it is the first time I have ever had egg on a pizza.

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David chooses his to be topped with turkey and mushrooms.

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The Retaj Hotel is own by a Qatari organisation, and as such they abide by their strict Muslim beliefs: no alcohol served in the hotel at all!

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It is not quite the same toasting our safe arrival in Comoros – our 139th country – with water!

Starry sky

As we make our way back to the room, I notice the sky is clear and full of stars, so I go and grab my camera and tripod and head for the darker areas of the hotel grounds to look for the Milky Way. Considering we are on the outskirts of the capital, there is surprisingly little light pollution here.

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The land arrangements of this trip was organised by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:47 Archived in Comoros Tagged mosque beach travel hotel volcanic_rock market flight museum africa tanzania muslim lava tourism old_town pizza swimming_pool airline islam indian_ocean medina town_hall sultanate hah dar_es_salaam comoros undiscovered_destinations air_tanzania precisionair moroni retaj_moroni coelacanth pufferfish mt_karthala Comments (4)

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