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Bristol - Birmingham - Dubai

Let the adventure begin


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

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The day has finally arrived! After weeks and months of planning, we are off on the Great African Adventure with our friends Lyn and Chris.

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Thankfully Chris drives an estate car, which means we can get all four plus luggage into the one car. Unfortunately Bruno thinks he is coming too. On our previous trips with Lyn and Chris we have taken Bruno with us (three different canal barge holidays), so it is perhaps not surprising that he expects to be part of the trip this time too.

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It's an excited little gang who leave Bristol for Birmingham Airport

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For convenience and speed, we have chosen valet parking at the airport, and we just pull up in the car park right by the terminal building, hand over the car keys for someone else to park, and head for the check in.

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I am not saying we are keen, but we end up first in the queue before they even open the check-in desks!

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We sail through the Fast Track security lane and head straight for the executive lounge.

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With free food and drink, we start the trip the way we intend to carry on. There is a self-service salad and pastry bar, a menu to choose hot items from, and a well stocked bar.

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The food is fresh and tasty, although the portions aren't very big. But then we don't really want to be digesting a massive meal on our flight.

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Fish finger sandwiches! Mmmm

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It’s a very relaxing way to start this adventure, and we stay there until our flight is called.

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At the gate departure lounge, Chris spots a bag on the seat next to him which doesn't seem to belong to anybody. Having asked around the people in the immediate vicinity, he reports it to the airline staff, who are quick to react.

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It turns out the bag belongs to a chap who is standing by the window the other side of the room, too busy chatting on his phone to notice the commotion his bag is causing. The official loudly berates him for leaving his luggage unattended, and all is safe and well in our world again.

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Much to our delight, the flight is not full, and we are able to spread out, taking a whole row of seats each. This is Lyn and Chris’s first long haul flight – I hope they realise that having room to spread like this is the exception rather than the rule!

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I ask one of the crew members to take a photo of us all, chatting about the adventure we are about to embark on.
Soon the air stewardess comes back with a Polaroid camera, snapping us (and other passengers) and creating a very nice little personalised memento from it.

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All in all Emirates are a great airline to travel with, and we have a very enjoyable flight, with good food (in fact Chris reckons this is the best air-plane food he has ever had!) and plenty of drink.

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Tandoori chicken - very tasty!

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Two bottles of whisky - Lyn's happy!

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Although no Captain Morgan, Grete is happy too!

After dinner, the cabin lights are dimmed, with little ceiling lights creating the impression of a starry sky, as I settle down with the free wifi and the others watch live football on the TV screens.

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Shame the football results aren’t as good.

Just another five hours to go...

Posted by Grete Howard 01:12 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged travel vacation flight holiday fun africa safari packing emirates birmingham Comments (2)

Port au Prince - Atlanta - London - Bristol

Homeward bound


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

05:00 is way too early for my liking, but I prefer to have plenty of time to get ready. Today is departure day and Geffrard is picking us up at 06:15. He is early and we make it to the airport in no time.

The whole airport experience is a bit of a palaver. Uncharacteristically, we allow a porter to take out bags from the car to check in, and tip him accordingly. He lingers, consistently demanding a “tip for my supervisor” Really?

Suspecting previous experience is to blame for the pre-check-in checks in the departure hall, we are not surprised when a Haitian couple are unable to produce a green card or visa for the US, pretending not to understand the questions posed to them and thus holding up the queue.

In the queue for security, I chat to the Canadian UN security worker in front of me, whose alcohol-breath poses a real fire risk. She gets stopped by the officials – I wonder why...

I am not sure whether it is the Haitian authorities or Delta Airlines whose paranoia leads to the sheer number of checks:

Pre-check in checks: US visa / ESTA / Green Card
Check in – tickets / pre-printed boarding cards / passport
Bag drop – boarding cards
Security – boarding cards, shoes off, x-ray
Immigration – passports, boarding cards
Another check – boarding cards scanned
Second security – boarding cards check, manual bag check, body pat down
Boarding gate – boarding cards and passports
On entering the plane – boarding cards

Finally we board our Atlanta bound plane, and find ourselves surrounded by a large group of Pennsylvania Dutch. Are they Amish? Mennonites? Quakers? I admit my ignorance at not knowing the difference. They are all in plain dress, with the women wearing mostly matching pale blue gingham-checked floor-length dresses, a white bonnet covering their hair and make-up less faces devoid of any smile or outward sign of joy. The men – mostly young lads – nearly all look alike which makes me think they are possibly brothers or even one large family. They speak some variation of German amongst themselves, and English to the crew. As the plane starts to taxi, the sound of two dozen passengers quietly singing hymns emits from all around us in the cabin. In all the 650 or so flights we have taken, this is a first!

Leaving Haiti we head due north, initially over the mountainous interior, then later we have great views of Turks and Caicos islands from the plane.

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After a beautiful start, we soon hit clouds and experience some pretty severe turbulence, eliciting loud gasps and even screams from the passengers.

Atlanta

More officialdom on our arrival in the US of A. The self serve immigration desks scan our passports and take our fingerprints, giving me a green light and the go-ahead to enter the country, but David gets a cross and a referral again. They obviously don't like his passport, as the same thing happened on the way out.

The guy in front of us at the queue for the manual immigration also has problems, and requires a Creole translator. We swap queues and are in luck: an immigration official with a sense of humour, joking that David Howard is a common name. "Less of the common please, I like to think it is popular" quips David.

In most other countries when you are in transit, you literally arrive in the departure hall and remain there until your flight is called and you go to the gate. Not so the US. The hand luggage goes through an X-ray while we have to remove our shoes and go through the complete body scanners, followed by a manual pat down.

We collect the luggage and exit through a security check where we hand in the print out from the self check-in in Port au Prince. The luggage then has to be re-checked-in at the desk. Fortunately there is no queue here, and the lady behind the counter takes a shine to my accent, making me repeat the short sentence “It is” again and again. OK......

One more check of the boarding card and passport, then through another body scanner, then we are back in the departure lounge. We check the information board for details of our next flight – I never get used to the unique way flights are displayed in the US – in alphabetical order rather than chronological like in the rest of the world.

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Ecco Restaurant
Having five hours to kill, we want to sit down for a proper meal, being served by a waiter (or waitress), rather than grab a quick bite to eat at a fast food place. The general manager shows us to our table, and starts chatting. Finding that we are on the same wavelength, we and up talking to him for half an hour or more, covering a number of subjects, including politics, travel, culture and languages.

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David is delighted to find they serve cider

The pizzas are very nice, but nothing exceptional and the wine is expensive even though we choose the second cheapest on the menu. . After a couple of desserts and two coffees each, we are totally shocked to find the bill comes to $160! That is by far the most expensive pizza I have ever had. I check and re-check the bill against the menu, but find it is correct, and leave the restaurant with a sour taste in my mouth (and it wasn't the wine).

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The setting sun is just above the horizon as we taxi out to the runway at Atlanta for our flight back to London Heathrow.

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The rest of the journey home is totally uneventful, and in the car on the way back from the airport in the UK, I reflect on airline security checks. On our journey from Haiti to the UK, my passport was checked nine times, boarding card eleven times. My hand luggage went through three x-rays and one manual check. I had two X-rays, two full body scans and two manual pat downs, as well as having to take my shoes off twice. It's good to know we are safe.

Welcome home.

Posted by Grete Howard 02:58 Archived in USA Tagged sunset travel flight usa security pizza expensive virgin airline passport atlanta luggage heathrow aiport delta immigration haiti rip_off ecco security_check ecco_restaurant Comments (1)

Cormier Plage - Cap-Haïtien - Port au Prince

Back to the Ole Smoke

sunny 34 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day eight of our tour of Haiti with Undiscovered Destinations.

Darkness still hangs over the Caribbean as we go for breakfast this morning, later replaced by an aspiring sunrise which never really amounts to anything.

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In the distant twilight we spot the Anthem of the Seas – The Royal Caribbean's cruise ship - heading for Labadee so that its passengers can spend the day on the beach.

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In the time it takes the ship to make its way across our horizon, twilight has almost been pushed aside by daylight, showing the ship in all its glory. I reluctantly admit that it does look impressive, at least from this distance.

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The sun is still low as we are driven to the airport for our return journey to the capital.

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Arriving at the airport, my heart sinks when I see the long queue of people - complete with huge amounts of luggage - waiting to check in; and when I realise that even the passengers are being weighed ready for the flight, the aforementioned heart plunges further into my stomach. I am therefore immensely relieved when Serge walks past the queue to another check in desk - the poor people heading for the humiliation of having their weight recorded are travelling to one of the outlying islands, not Port au Prince. Phew!

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Pimp my Truck

In Port au Prince Geffrard awaits us, now like an old friend, navigating his way through the morning traffic; all of which is infinitely more colourful and enriched than our min-van.

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Literally meaning 'quick quick', these buses – known as tap-taps, follow fixed routes, but not a timetable – they leave whenever they are full. That is full according to Haitian standards, not European, with passengers often hanging on the back or even sitting on the roof! There are no fixed bus-stops, the passengers knock the roof when they want to alight.

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They are mostly pick-up trucks which have been lovingly home welded and garishly decorated to the point where they resemble art galleries on wheels.

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Often painted with religious names or slogans, portraits of famous people, and intricate, hand-cut wooden window covers, the ubiquitous tap-taps are unique to Haiti.

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Musée Canne à Sucre

Although it is not far from Port au Prince airport, by the time we reach the museum I am feeling decidedly weary. The sun is shining relentlessly, and it's already very hot - I always suffers from the effects of dehydration quite quickly - and severely - and I suspect I have not taken in enough liquids this morning.

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All I want to do is sit down, in the shade somewhere, with a cool drink. Instead we are introduced to the guide who will show us around the museum.

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The first room displays a brief chronicle of Haiti's history, from the Taino Indians through to Victorian times.

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Taino artefacts

I feel listless and disinterested, which isn't at all like me. Normally I love museums, and soak up every word the guides say, but this morning I find myself wandering around the displays aimlessly, not really taking any notice of the explanations offered.

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The museum has the appearance of a haphazard collection of random items, situated in someone's living room.

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Slavery
The second room focuses on slavery, revolution and black history in Haiti. If there is such a human trait as having too much empathy, then I suffer from this condition. Looking at the impassioned illustrations displayed, my mind immediately wants to try and imagine how I would feel if I was in that situation. Damn emotions... STOP IT! If I was indifferent to the exhibits earlier, I now find myself getting quite distraught at the thought of man's inhumanity to man.

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Seeing Haiti today, it is hard to believe that it was once the wealthiest overseas colony in the French empire! However, economic success came at a cost - Haiti's riches could only be exploited by importing up to 40,000 slaves a year. For nearly a decade in the late 18th century, Haiti accounted for more than one-third of the entire Atlantic slave trade.

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Map showing where the slaves came from

Conditions for these men and women were atrocious; the average life expectancy for a slave once they arrived on Haiti was 7 years. Essentially, the owners worked their slaves to death and then just bought more slaves. Those who tried to run away were severely punished and by 1789, there were 500,000 slaves in Haiti.

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Cut-away model of slave ship shows the conditions the slaves were transported across the Atlantic under. Goods at the bottom, people on the middle deck.

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Some of the gruesome ways the slave masters kept their 'workers' in check. It doesn't even bear thinking about how cruelly these people were treated. I find it impossible to imagine how someone would have the mentality it would take to dish out that sort of punishment to another human being, and the fact that it was not just isolated incidents, it was considered the norm.

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Once they arrived in Haiti, slaves were divided into different categories: domestic help, overseers, agricultural workers and those involved in the sugar cane industry.

Revolution
Inspired by the French Revolution, the revolution in Haiti (1791-1804) is the only successful slave revolt in modern times, and makes Haiti the only country where slave freedom was taken by force. A bedraggled group of slaves organised themselves, held a vodou ceremony calling for their liberty and went out with a guerilla war to defeat Europe’s most powerful army.

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Plantations were taken by force, or by using more subtle methods, such as poisoning their masters.

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In 1804, Haiti went on to become the first independent nation in Latin America; it is the second oldest republic in the western hemisphere (after the US); and the oldest black republic in the world. The three main players in the fight for Haiti's liberty were Jean Jaques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Alexandre Pétion.

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Set in the grounds of the ruined old sugar plantation Habitation Chauteaublond, the museum courtyard features a collection of antiquated material relating to the sugar cane industry.

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17th century water mill, brought over from England, was used to extract the juice from the sugar cane.

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The guide turns the water on for us to show the wheel in operation. As we are the only people in the museum, it makes sense not to have the mill running continuously.

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As well as hydro-power, animals were used to operate this traction wheel.

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Vats for boiling the sugar cane to make molasses for export to Europe where it would be fermented to make rum.

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Belonging to the Haitian American Sugar Company, S.A. (HASCO), this – the first train in Haiti – was used for transporting sugar cane from the fields to the processing plants.

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Relais de Chateaublond Restaurant
Although the gorgeous on-site restaurant is famous for its selection of flavoured rums (such as passion fruit, anise and various herbs), we stick to Diet Coke with our lunch.

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Croix des Bouquets

In the suburb of Noailles is the commune of Croix des Bouquets, famed for its metalwork artisans. The flamboyant movement of recycling metal into art was started some 60 years ago and today there are over 1,000 artisans working in Croix des Bouquetes, hammering away to create intricate masks and other wall hangings from discarded oil drums, car parts and even kitchen utensils.

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We visit the workshop of Jacques Eugene, a renowned artist who was born here in Croix des Bouquetes and now employs several other locals in his studio.

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Like most of the artists, Jacques takes his inspiration from vodou, creating extraordinary wall hangings which are as bizarre (to us) as they are curious.

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Jacques explains the process from the raw material to the finished product: the oil barrel is cut open, burnt and flattened, then a pattern is traced on the surface. The rest is done with a hammer and chisel, metal cutters and artistic skill.

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This handsome mask now hangs proudly in my living room along with the two masks we wore for Jacmel carnival and the one I bought at Milot (well, I had to have something to do while David and Kyle were visiting the Citadelle – that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!)

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In addition to the intriguing masks, one of the most popular designs for steel drum art is the Tree of Life, a symbolic image with a cultural significance to the people of Haiti. Representing immortality, new life, blessings and fertility, the branches of the tree reach into the sky, while the roots burrow deep into the earth; uniting heaven, earth and the underworld. Having seen several different variations on walls in our hotel rooms as well as restaurants, we are keen to pick one out to bring home.

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David also adds a lizard to his collection.

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Making our way back to Hotel Le Plaza (again), we are stuck in a traffic jam (again). The cars are completely stationary, and we soon become aware that several cars in front of us make a turn. Serge goes off to investigate what the problem is, and comes back to explain that there was an accident between a car and a motorbike, and all the bystanders have taken the side of the motorcyclist. They then set about beating the car driver, who very wisely retreated to the safety of his vehicle. That didn't stop the mob apparently, and now they are pelting his car with stones. Justice Haitian style!

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We also decide to get out of here before this escalates. That means driving through a 'less-than-salubrious' neighbourhood, and we are advised to close the windows and put the cameras away. So what do I do? Take photos of course...

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With so many cars having turned around to avoid the melee and are now travelling the opposite direction, the traffic is still terribly slow moving, so it's a great relief to finally arrive at the hotel. This being our third visit to Le Plaza in the last week, it's like coming home.

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Feeling awfully jaded and quite unwell by now, I am rather grateful we don't have any plans for the rest of the afternoon; and after re-packing for tomorrow's journey home, we take a siesta. I notice I have the beginnings of a cold sore on my lip, something that causes me some concern after last time I had one, which developed a secondary infection, resulting a several courses of antibiotics.

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When Geffrard turns up to pick us up later, he brings me a gift from Serge: spicy peanut butter! What a wonderful surprise.

This evening we have arranged to meet up with Jacqui (the local agent) and Paul (the Bradt Guidebook writer we met in Jacmel) for dinner. Jacqui has also invited Dawn (she was at the carnival with us too), who is bringing a friend; so it is quite a happy little band who turn up at La Plantation Restaurant in Pétionville.

The cocktails are good, the food is great and the conversation is even better.

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It's a delightful way to end this tour – we have found Haiti to exceed our expectations in every way. This small nation has so much more to offer than the usual Caribbean attractions of sunshine, beaches and sunset cocktails – although it has its fair share of those too! With extremely welcoming people and an intriguing culture, I am already planning my return visit to delve deeper into its vodou customs and celebrations.

Posted by Grete Howard 05:37 Archived in Haiti Tagged beaches art planes beach history travel vacation hotel museum caribbean artisans photography cocktails revolution slavery pilot metalwork artists aerial_photography slaves spicy haiti undiscovered_destinations canon_eos_5d_iii voyages-lumiere port-au-prince port_au_prince baron_samedi paul_clammer bradt vodou cap-haïtien haitien_revolution haitien_food haitien_art labadee cormier cap_hatien petionville croix_des_bouquets jacques_eugene sugar_cane haitian_revolution peanut_butter Comments (1)

Port au Prince – Cap-Haïtien

Palace Sans Soucie and Citadelle la Ferrière - incredible UNESCO Heritage sites

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

Day six of our tour of Haiti arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.

An early start this morning for our transfer to Aérogare Guy Malary (the domestic airport) for the short flight to Cap-Haïtien. Even at this early hour (we leave the hotel at 06:15), there is quite a lot of traffic on the streets of Port au Prince, with many more people walking to work. One young lad jumps on the ladder at the back of our van to catch a free ride for a while, then knocks on the roof when he wants to be let off.

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There is not much action at the airport – we are supposed to be meeting an American guy called Kyle here, who is joining us for the day. Meanwhile we hang around, eating the packed breakfast provided by the hotel.

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Kyle eventually turns up – his driver took him to the international airport rather than the domestic one, so he had to grab a taxi to bring him here. To add insult to injury, his flight ticket has been cancelled, so he is put on standby. Kyle is very laid back about it all, and we keep our fingers crossed as we watch people arrive in the waiting room. His luck is in - fortunately not all the booked passengers turn up and Kyle is on the flight!

It's only a small plane, and I sit right at the front with a good view of the cockpit. When the pilot arrives, I ask him if he is able to fly over the Citadelle for me to take some photos, and he promises to try.

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My view is restricted by the engine, but I still get a reasonable good look out over the spreading metropolis that is Port au Prince as we take off.

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The urban sprawl soon gives way to mountains as we head north.

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It's only a 30 minute or so flight, and about half way through, the captain beckons me to come forward into the cockpit just as the imposing Citadelle la Fèrriere comes into view, perched spectacularly atop a craggy peak.

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As we pass the fortress, the pilot dips his wing so that we all get a good view, even through the side windows with the engine in the way.

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What a star!

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Sans Souci

From Cap-Haïtien airport we are whisked to Milot, where we meet with Maurice, our local guide.

Sans Souci palace was constructed in 1806 for King Henri Christophe to concentrate all administrative functions of the monarchy around the royal residence. The gates were allocated according to rank – only the king could enter through the middle gates, and the soldiers used the door on the right.

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The building you can see with a domed roof, is a catholic church.

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Originally decorated in European style, the palace was looted after the king's death in 1820 and later suffered damage during the earthquake of 1842 before gradually turning into the ruins you see today.

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Christophe had this palace built (along with his fortress which we will be visiting after this) for three reasons:

1. to defend the country from the French
2. to defend his kingdom from enemies from the south (Haiti was divided in two at that time)
3. to show the world what a great nation Haiti was and what it was capable of

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When Napoleon sent two spies to Haiti to report back on how the palace was organised for a possible raid, Christophe tricked them into believing that he had an enormous army. The French envoy stood in this very position at the top of the stairs (below), while Christophe's soldiers marched down the steps opposite.

Christophe's entire troupe of one thousand soldiers paraded down the stairs, then snuck around the back and up into the palace, changed into another set of uniforms and filed down those steps again (and again and again...); thus giving the French spies the impression that Haiti had a ten thousand-strong army!

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Christophe greatly admired Napoleon. So much so, that he had his portrait hanging in one of his galleries. When news reached him that Napoleon had been captured alive, Christophe tore down the picture, tearing it to pieces with the words: “Great men should never survive!”

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Later, suffering from illness and fearing a coup, Christophe committed suicide in 1820, aged 53. The deed was done in this very room (below), using the silver pistol we saw in the museum on our first day in Port au Prince.

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Fearing attacks from the French as well as the southerners, security was strict at the palace. The guards in the sentry box would stop any visitors, and if they were unable to show the right ID, it was straight to the dungeons. Fortunately Maurice doesn't exercise the same defence policy!

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The palace complex also includes the Queen's apartments,

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her pool and fountain,

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and a printing press. Christophe's philosophy was that all children should receive a decent education.

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Having been here before the palace was built, the authorities are now trying to keep this 300 year old star apple tree alive. It was known as the Justice Tree, because the king used to sit under its branches, handing out judgement to his people.

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Kyle turns out to be quite the mountain goat, and he climbs a crumbling old wall for a better view of the palace from above.

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We take our photos from the safety of terra firma.

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Citadelle la Ferrière

From Sans Souci Palace, we continue up the hill to Citadelle la Ferrière.

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This is the number one tourist attraction in Haiti, and the most common way to reach the towering heights of the fortress, is on horse back.

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As I am adamant that there is no way I am going to subject any horse to the weight of my body, Maurice tries to organise a 'rhino' for me. I struggle with the thought of a one-horned African animal with a saddle on its back ferrying me on narrow stony paths in Haiti... especially after my last close encounter with a rhino. I am therefore very relieved to know that the 'rhino' they refer to is in fact a small motorised vehicle similar to a golf cart.

Unfortunately, however, the rhino is sick today. Looks like there will be no visit to the Citadelle for me then, as the 1.6 mile long track is notoriously steep and not something I relish the thought of attempting in this heat. I therefore give David my camera, wave him goodbye and stay behind with the horse handlers, self-appointed guides and souvenir vendors; while David mounts his horse and rides into the great unknown with Kyle, Serge and Maurice.

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David has never really been at ease on a horse (he has similar memories of Peter the Plodding Pony as I do of rhinos), so I am impressed that he manages to take photos while riding!

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At the top, riders alight the horses onto cannons, some of many still left around the grounds of the fort.

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It is customary to buy the horse handlers a drink from the conveniently positioned vendors (above), while the horses get their own water and are left to graze as the tourists explore.

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The imposing Citadelle was commissioned in 1805 by Henri Christophe - who at the time was chief administrator in the region, became the president of Northern Haiti in 1807 and declared himself king four years later.

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The largest fortress in the western hemisphere, it took 20,000 men 15 years to build. Created as a protection against the French, who were expected to return after Haiti's independence to re-take their colony by force, the citadel was built to be able to accommodate 5,000 defenders - as well as general / president / King Christophe and his family - for up to a year, enabling the king to use the so-called scorched earth policy in case of attack.

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The construction of the Citadelle is certainly monumental, with ten feet thick and 130 feet high walls, making it a daunting prospect for anyone to try and storm the fort.

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Three of the four sides are virtually impregnable, with only the south aspect a little more exposed. To counteract this weakness, another fort was built on a small hill nearby to protect the Citadelle from any would-be invaders choosing to attack from this direction.

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Not to mention the amazing artillery battery pointing in this direction.

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The Citadelle was outfitted with 365 cannons of different sizes obtained from various monarchs including this British one (bottom photo).

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The height of the mountaintop upon which the Citadelle resides is 950 meters, and provides an exceptional views of the surrounding landscape, something which was the main factor of the fort's position - King Christophe and his men were able to observe any ships arriving at the coast. Apparently it is even possible to see the eastern coast of Cuba (140km away) on a clear day.

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Under Christophe's policies of corvée, or forced labour, the Kingdom increased its wealth by trading in sugar; but the people resented the system. Unpopular, debilitated by a stroke, and concerned about being overthrown, Christophe committed suicide in 1820, by which time the Citadelle was only 95% completed. His body is allegedly entombed within its walls, as is that of his brother-in-law (below), who died in an accidental explosion.

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The fort complex included a printing shop, garment factories, a hospital, schools, a distillery, a chapel, and military barracks.

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And apparently a pizza oven!

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One of the more impressive features is the rainwater collection system on the roof. With a lack of underground water (the Citadelle is built directly onto the rock), the fort was constructed so that rain could be utilised to supply its inhabitants with water.

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Citadelle la Ferrière was never put to the test, since the French did not come came back to reconquer Haiti; and the fort was later abandoned.

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Lakou Lakay

We too abandon the Citadelle and make our way to Lakou Lakay Cultural Centre for lunch. Run by Maurice (our guide) and his family, the aim of the centre is to preserve the rich cultural traditions of Haiti including folk dance as well as teaching local children to read.

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There are many beautiful items for sale in his small boutique, all locally made.

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In the grounds of his property grow various fruit trees, including this soursop tree. The leaves are thought to cure cancer and the juice made from the fruit cleanses the blood. We have become rather partial to this drink, so it is good to hear that it has medicinal properties too.

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We are greeted by Maurice's beautiful daughter with a bowl of water and some soap; so that we can be nice and clean in preparation for tucking into the delicious spread provided: there is chicken, vegetables, fried plantain, diri djon djon (rice cooked with the juice from black mushrooms), potatoes stuffed with fish...

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… with a special mention to the hot pickles. For many years now I have graded chillies and spicy food on a 1-10 'Grete Scale'. Since arrived in Haiti, much to Serge's surprise, I haven't found anything spicier than a 6. These chillies, however, are super HOT, and I would say they are a good 8.5 or even a 9! Pretty mind-blowing stuff!

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After lunch we need to drop Kyle off at the airport for his flight back to Port au Prince. Unlike his outbound flight this morning, the check-in process goes without a hitch, and we are soon on our way across town, leaving Kyle to wait for his flight.

Cap-Haïtien

Cap Haïtien was an important city during the French colonial period, serving as the capital until it was moved to Port-au-Prince in 1770. Again after the revolution in 1804, Cap Haïtien became the capital of the Kingdom of Northern Haiti until 1820. The town is now a mix of a shabby and somewhat seedy port area and a much more charming 'down-town' section where brightly painted, well-kept houses mingle with dilapidated and crumbling properties.

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Wherever we go, there is traffic. Always traffic. Which is one of the reasons the waterfront area looks like it does - a whole swathe of buildings have been removed to make way for a brand new freeway.

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And well turned out school children. As per education policies, children are not allowed to turn up at school looking in any way unkempt. However poor the family may be, their kids always look immaculate: neatly pressed uniform, hair with half a dozen or more bows, highly polished shoes. Just like the children back home in England. Not.

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Hotel Roi Christophe

At this point I must have a little whinge about my lack of linguistic abilities. OK, so I am bilingual in Norwegian and English, I speak enough German to just about hold a simple conversation, and I can order food in Spanish; so why, oh why, do I struggle so with French? Pourquoi indeed. To me the pronunciation is just totally illogical: take the word roi (meaning king) for instance. How on earth this word goes from being written roi, to being pronounced wah is beyond me. (See here for the correct pronunciation).

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Anyway, back to the hotel, named after Henri Christophe, the former slave and a key leader in the Haitian Revolution, which succeeded in gaining independence from France in 1804. Christophe created a separate government in this area and in 1807, three years after the end of the revolution and independence of Haiti from the French, he was elected President of the State of Haiti, as he named that area. Alexandre Pétion was chosen as president in the South. In 1811, Christophe converted the state into a kingdom and proclaimed himself Henry I, King of Haïti.

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Touted by Lonely Planet to be the most charming hotel in Cap HaÏtien, the Roi Christophe is a delightful colonial building from the 18th century. Once a palace belonging to a French governor, it now has a Spanish hacienda feel to it.

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The moment we arrive I am in love with this place. So much greenery, so many little gems hidden away amongst broad leaved banana shrubs and flowering hibiscus, such as intimate seating areas and eclectic art.

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There are several bar areas dotted around, although the service is more than a little slow... funnily enough, having tipped well when the first drink is brought out, the speed of the server suddenly increases rapidly.

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Eventually we settle on some chairs by the pool, overlooking several large trees for some bird watching. With a drink of course.

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While we haven't seen many birds here in Haiti up until this point – the Roi Christophe grounds are overrun with the endemic Hispaniolan Woodpecker!

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I have never seen so many woodpeckers in any one place – everywhere we look there is another one – I count at least a dozen!

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Parents flit back and forth feeding their babies, and some even seem to service two nests at once. How does that work?

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They may be pretty birds, but look what they've done to the poor trees!

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Also spotted in amongst the foliage is the Hispaniolan Palm Crow and the Palm Chat – both endemic to this island; the more widespread Grey Kingbird and the near-endangered Plain Pigeon.

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Palmchat

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Grey Kingbird

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Plain Pigeon

We see what initially looks like a 'blob' (a fruit maybe?) high in a tree, and wander off to investigate. The 'blob' turns out to be a large bird, but we are really not sure exactly what it is. After further inspection, a lot of discussions, and googling on our phones, we decide it is a juvenile Yellow Crowed Night Heron.

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Seeing several adults in the same tree later, including a nest, seems to confirm our suspicions.

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There might not be a great variety of birds here, but there are certainly more than we have seen anywhere else in Haiti; and it's such a charming place to while away a few hours that we are almost sorry when the light fades and it's time to get ready for dinner.

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Dinner

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Not particularly memorable, but the Griot de Porc is very tasty, albeit a little too fatty and bony for me. The fried plantains, however, are the best we've had so far on this trip!

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The flan (vanilla/caramel pudding) is quite nice.

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We have another couple of drinks before retiring to bed.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:58 Archived in Haiti Tagged birds traffic horses history travel ruins hotel fort flight palace canons caribbean unesco photography airline revolution woodpecker chillies pilot aerial_photography spicy haiti bird_watching horse_riding fortifications citadelle cap-haïtien sans_soucie citadelle_la_ferrière sunrise_airways cap_haitien roi_christophe haitien_revolution fotress canon_balls lakau_lakay haitien_food haitien_art soursop school_kids yellow_crowned_night_heron fried_plantain Comments (1)

Jacmel Carnival

Party Time

semi-overcast 31 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day five of our tour of Haiti, arranged by Undiscovered Destinations

Today's the day!

Today's entry is full of photographs from what is undoubtedly the highlight of this trip - Jacmel carnival. What you will see, however, is only a small fraction of the 2000+ photos I took today. I have also included a number of short video clips (mostly courtesy of David), as these far better convey the electric atmosphere of the day.

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The day doesn't start well. At breakfast I pour what I think is syrup on my French toast, only to discover it is honey! Honey is one of the few foods I really can't stand! Fortunately I notice fairly straight away by the consistency, so manage to avert too much of a 'disaster'.

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We hang around in reception while everyone checks out of the hotel, so that we can travel together to the city centre for today's highlight: CARNIVAL!

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Balcony

Jacqui (of Voyages Lumiere)has arranged a private balcony for us all to use today, overlooking the main carnival route. We have the downstairs and upstairs, and can come and go as we please. We even have chairs and a cooler box full of drinks where we can just help ourselves on an honesty basis. To top it all, a 'servant' will fetch food and anything else we might want. This is the life!

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We arrive in plenty of time, and people-watch while we wait for the parade to start. The police is certainly out in force here today, with the different factions such as the motorcycle police, military police and riot police amongst others. I never knew there were so many different types of police! At least we should be safe!

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The Carnival is supposed to start at 12:00, and at 11:30, Paula's man at the port (where the procession starts from) says: “We're almost ready to go”. That's great news.

At 11:45, news comes through that the Tourism Minister has decided she wants to be there at the start, so everyone has to wait for her. That is not good news – she is not known for her punctuality (at last night's meeting that Paula and Xiomara attended, she still hadn't turned up by the time they left, nearly two hours after she was supposed to)

We keep seeing masks being carried along the road, and people (almost) in costume, fuelling an already rapidly rising anticipation. I am so excited, like a little kid before a big birthday party!

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Seeing a large crane heading towards the carnival start point is a great cause for concern as last year 18 people died and 78 were injured in an accident at the Port au Prince carnival, after a float struck a power line and a stampede ensued.

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I am a little surprised at how few people there are on the streets, apart from vendors selling coconuts, sunglasses, hats and the like, there aren't anywhere near as many people as I had expected.

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The first aiders are arriving en masse, now all we need is the parade! Come on guys!

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Carnival

Finally! Huge crowds appear around the corner, at the bottom of the road! Jacmel Carnival 2016 is officially under way!

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OK, so we've seen a few pretty dancers, but I have to confess that I am a little disappointed. Jacmel carnival is famous for its flamboyant masks, many of which we saw yesterday. Where are they? Surely this is not all we are going to see?

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The crowds part as these guys run through, threatening to smear onlookers from their buckets of mud.

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At last the masked participants start arriving, with figures inspired by politics, history, topical issues, vodou, folklore and legend. Plus a LOT of imagination.

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I love the Haiti versions of the selfie stick.

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This guys has even got a smart watch!

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Some of the troupes take quite a bit of deciphering, especially as I don't speak French (let alone Creole), so can't even read the banners. But I am guessing that this band are mocking the president.

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There are boys showing off their toys...

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… and references to Haiti's freedom from slavery.

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United Nations is not spared from ridicule relating to the belief that they were the ones who brought cholera to the already heavily suffering nation post-earthquake.

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Anti-violence is a common theme at this year's Jacmel carnival.

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Transvestites feature heavily too.

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I leave my sheltered balcony hideaway to go down and mingle among the pretty girls in their colourful dresses.

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The Chaloskas represent a parody of the brutal General Charles Oscar, who terrorised Haiti at the start of the last century.

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A large band of people dressed in various African animal costumes arrive. The parade has now come to a standstill, with a bottleneck further ahead in front of the official grandstands where all the troupes want to show off their best performances and dance routines for the local dignitaries. This causes the following participants to bunch up, just in front of where we are hanging out.

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I am very surprised to see a drone flying above the crowd. As soon as I point my long lens towards him, he flies off.

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The next troupe is the stuff that nightmares are made from – I hope I can sleep tonight!

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A little light relief before the Lanset Kod arrive.

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The intimidating and sinister-looking Lanset Kod, who symbolise Haiti’s struggle against slavery, are smeared with a mixture of charcoal and cane syrup, and run through the crowds, smearing their gunk over anyone who gets in their way.

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There must be thousands of people in various costumes – this is a photographer's delight and a photographer's nightmare. A riot of colour and so many fantastical shapes, but also so hard to get any sort of definition in my photos, picking out a single figure against a backdrop of so many, or trying to avoid other people getting in the way of my photos. After all, I am not the only one who wants pictures of this day!

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The temperature is around 30 °C in Jacmel today. In the shade. The parade route is in full sun, and those people inside the masks must be absolutely melting! We see several of them lifting up the huge creations covering their heads, just to get some much needed air; especially while they are stuck in a 'traffic jam'.

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Or for a selfie of course...

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More animals follow – some 'real', some mythical, all colourful, exotic and imaginative.

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One of my favourites is this little elephant doing his best Jungle Book routine.

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The 'anti-hunt' theme is strong, and like most of these troupes, they play out a scene. Here the lions chase – and catch – the hunter.

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Haitian Kanaval (the local Haitian Creole name) is held over several weeks each year leading up to Mardi Gras. Jacmel's carnival is said to be one of the best in the country and it certainly one the main reasons we are here now.

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The so-called Mathurin Bat-Devils clack their wings together, creating an air-piercing gun-shot like noise!

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The loud bangs don't seem to bother the horses though (although not all are real of course), they are calm and collected through it all.

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Mardi Gras rituals are thought to date back to seasonal pagan traditions, although Christianity and in particular, Catholicism, has put this celebration firmly on the calendar of many a country. Literally translated as “Fat Tuesday”, Mardi Gras is celebrated the last day before Lent starts. Traditionally, groups of people would come together on this day, bringing with them whatever foods they had leftover before embarking on several weeks of fasting, creating a frenzied overindulgence on eggs, milk, cheese and meat, and generally having a raucous old time. The word Carnival is thought to come from the Medieval Latin words carne vale, meaning 'farewell to the flesh.'

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Was I really 'complaining' about the lack of crowds earlier?

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The tradition of wearing masks for Mardi Gras celebrations date back at least a couple of thousand years, to a time before Christianity, when young men in disguise roamed the streets making merry during the winter Saturnalia festival in ancient Rome, dressing up in outrageous costumes and generally ridiculing their superiors. Later, in Renaissance Italy, masked balls became a way for people of all walks of life to mingle with anyone and everyone without being tied to the usual class constraints and social demands. In New Orleans they are a bit of a hot potato and were banned for a number of years. Some stores still requests wearers to remove them before entering their premises.

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We saw this outfit in the exhibition yesterday - Ati Brino. This was the explanation they offered: Created in 1975 by Sergio Anceon who disguised a donkey with human costumes. Because the people seemed to find this humorous, the tradition has been around ever since.

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Body paint with or without slogans abound.

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A girl plaits the hair of her mask while she waits for the bottle neck to disperse.

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And a bottleneck it certainly is!

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This chap – drunk as a skunk – staggers through the crowds, spraying unsuspecting onlookers with talcum powder.

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Baron Samedi is the Haitian Vodou loa (spirit) of the dead, and is usually depicted dressed to resemble a corpse prepared for a Haitian style burial.

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Audience participation is very much the name of the game here, and the troupes play to the spectators, while the spectators tease the characters.

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Papa Jwif, the Haitian version of the Wandering Jew from Christian folklore

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The parade participants come in every imaginable shape, colour and rendition, and I really wish I knew what they all represent. Here are a few more of my favourites:

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In the distance I spot smoke, and discover these guys with fire coming out of their hats!

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After taking a few shots from the balcony, I go down to street level to mingle with them and take a closer look. They are nowhere to be seen, and no smoke billowing up amongst the crowds either. I wander around looking lost for a while, weaving in and out of the performers; until I finally catch David's eye on the balcony, who directs me to their position from his birds-eye perch.

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Most of the outfits are too fantastical to be scary, but I have to say I find this guy a little creepy – and I am not sure the snake is too impressed either!

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We are not the only people who have sought a refuge on a balcony or rooftop, away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds below.

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These guys are seriously disturbing, with their bodies painted black and carrying a coffin! The crowds disperse as they make their way up the road, possibly in fear of being smeared with the black stuff on their bodies, although I see what looks like genuine fear as the spectators scatter.

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OK, so how many legs are there on a turkey? We count eight on this one...

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Doesn't everyone want a selfie with a giant turkey?

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Jacmel Carnival 2016 is now officially over, and the streets fill with crowds who have been following the procession.

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Bringing up the rear are three typically painted Haitian buses as we say goodbye to the owners whose balcony we have been occupying, and try to find where our own transport is waiting.

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Somehow we end up forgetting to say goodbye to Jenis and Andrew (sorry guys) who are staying on in Jacmel for another day or two.

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We see more carnival floats and dancing bands as Geffrard picks us up in the minibus and we make our way back to Port au Prince this evening.

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In addition to Jacqui, we are joined in the van by Paul Clammer who is in Haiti to update the Bradt guide book to Haiti he previously wrote. The journey goes really quickly as we share travel stories and regale tales of unfortunate incidents and difficult co-travellers. Over the hills the sun is setting; the end of a crazy, absurd, extraordinary day.

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Coming back to Le Plaza Hotel in Port au Prince is like coming home - familiar and comfortable.

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We almost don't get here, however, as the road outside our hotel is closed again - this time for pre-carnival celebrations. Geffrard argues with the police and they finally let us through. The noise if deafening, with blaring music and fireworks, and people everywhere!

I feel quite exhausted and we decide we'll miss dinner this evening. I an certainly not up for partying in the street! Later, when I realise that it is 12½ hours since I last peed, I surmise that I am well and truly dehydrated, which would explain the tiredness. At least it means I sleep through all the commotion outside.

Posted by Grete Howard 06:00 Archived in Haiti Tagged masks travel folklore holiday caribbean parade costume cosplay procession rollerblades mardi_gras haiti lent jacmel cyvadier_plage canrival carnavan kanaval baron_samedi paul_clammer bradt vodou dressing_up Comments (1)

Tromsø - Oslo - London - Bristol

Homeward bound

overcast -3 °C
View Inside the Arctic Circle Tromsø & Alta 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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After a lovely deep sleep, I drag myself out of bed at 06:30 this morning. For breakfast I have one of my all-time favourite Christmas Eve breakfast: 'lefse med sylte' – pressed cold meat (made with flesh from the head of a pig – not dissimilar to brawn or head cheese, but with less jelly) rolled up in a flat potato bread.

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Getting to the airport takes longer than anticipated, not just because we have to ensure the car is filled up with diesel before taking it back, but also because of the icy road conditions this morning. After 1500 kilometers of incident free diving in Norway, David skids at the very last roundabout. Thankfully there is nothing in his path, so no harm done.

We also struggle big time to get from the car park to the terminal entrance at the airport on foot – the sloping path is covered in black ice. After a slow and very careful shuffle, we finally make it to the door, trailing the bags behind us.

At the SixT counter we are somewhat surprised – and a little embarrassed – to find they have already heard about our little unfortunately telephone conversation with Lørenskog Vets (find the story here). Fame (?) at last...

Waiting for the flight to depart from Tromsø, I make two observations:

1. Reindeer get everywhere. Even on pizza.

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2. The digital generation would be lost without their gadgets

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SAS Flight from Tromsø to Oslo

“To the 'gentleman' in seat 18A: if the two inches you reclined your seat gave you half as much extra comfort as it gave me extra DIScomfort; you must have had a wonderful flight.

Lucky you.

I am currently trying to regain some sort of feeling in my legs.”

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The connection at Oslo was already a tight 55 minutes, and our flight departing Tromsø 25 minutes late adds to the rush. The fact that we land at Gate 12 and the next flight departs from Gate 57 doesn't help either. I have never been any good at running, especially not after being cramped in a tight airline seat for two hours.

We make it as the last two people to board, just as they are closing the gate. The upside is: we have three seats for two on this leg! Room to spread and give my knees some much needed space!

The approach to Heathrow is always exciting, and I don't think I will ever tire of looking out of the window to see all the famous landmarks of London spread out below me. Even on a dull grey day through a dirty window...

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And with that, I will bid you farewell - for this time - and get back to planning my next trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:23 Archived in Norway Tagged oslo travel flight norway sas northern_lights tromsø home_at_last homeward_bound Comments (0)

Alta - Tromsø

A dull, grey day with excellent accommodation to finish on

overcast -13 °C
View Inside the Arctic Circle Tromsø & Alta 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

There was no mouse waking us up last night thankfully – although I did hear the dogs howling at the moon at some stage during the night.

We leave a beautiful sunrise behind us (as well as a cool -13 °C) as we start our journey back to Tromsø today.

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The promise of a dramatic sunrise soon fizzles out and settles into a dull, grey day.

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Even the tunnels seem to be grey today, with a strange mist hanging in the air.

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These red barns with the bridge leading up to the upper floor, are typical Norwegian, and bring back many happy memories of learning to drive – reversing up the sloping bridge, driving down, reversing up, driving down...

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And here is the actual barn bridge and car I learnt on, in a photograph from 1975!

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This journey from Tromsø to Alta and back has made me fall in love with Norway all over again. Not that I was ever out of love with her, but I guess I was too young to appreciate the beauty of the country and its people when I lived here; and during our visits since, the main focus has been on seeing family. This time I have been overwhelmed by the scenery and charmed by its inhabitants.

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The road conditions this morning are not good, with slippery ice covering the surface. Thank goodness for studded tyres.

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The roads are regularly cleared, ploughing away the snow and scraping the ice. Those ice scrapers don't do the road surface much good though and by the end of the spring thaw, deep ruts have appeared in the roads – it must be a maintenance nightmare!

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The scenery along the coast really is quite delightful. Unfortunately there are not many places for David to stop so that I can get out and take photos. I do manage a few 'drive-by-shootings' though.

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As we get nearer Tromsø, we notice a lot more snow on the ground. Not just on the ground: fresh, white snow is hanging heavily on the branches of birch, spruce and other trees.

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Where the forest is thickly vegetated, the snowy branches make for a fascinating abstract monochromatic effect.

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Each bend of the road brings with it another magnificent vista.

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It looks like there might be bad weather ahead...

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By the time we get to Sørkjosen, the light is already beginning to fade.

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Approaching Oderdalen and the first ferry, we see a string of cars coming towards us and realise the ship must be in port. Just as we head around the last bend and into the holding area by the jetty, however, the boat starts to close its bow. Bugger. It's another hour before the next crossing.

Thankfully the workers on board spot our car, and open the gate again, just for us. Such great service!

We pop to the on board café for a late lunch of 'pølse med brød' – probably the most popular fast food in the country.

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I really struggle to order food in Norway – the Norwegian language has no word for 'please'. To my ears it sounds so rude to just ask for “two hot dogs”. I add a “thank you” at the end, but it doesn't sound right.

Although not exactly haute cuisine, the sausage fills a gap and at Kr 35 each (ca £2.70), I can't even complain about the price.

We've been wanting to see elk on this trip and we finally do – in the shape on a photograph by an excellent Norwegian photographer on the wall of the ferry café.

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Today is just a day of driving, and once we hit Tromsø, the traffic is awful. I just want to get to my destination now.

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This is our last evening, and we have treated ourselves to some rather nice accommodation as a treat. We stop at Eide Handel again to buy a few bits of food for this evening as well as some stuff to take back to the UK with us. We wait here for the owners of Tromsø Apartments to turn up and guide us to the house.

And what a house it is!

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Looking quite ordinary from the outside, the interior is nothing short of luxurious. Decorated in a minimalistic retro style, the open living space is stylish and elegant, and the kitchen is a cook's dream!

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I love the way the house number is carved into the door and glazed! As is usual in Norway, there is a small entrance hall where you take off your shoes - it is considered rude to keep your footwear on when entering someone's home in Norway.

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Just off the hallway is the dining room and from there, the bedroom. The dining room also leads onto a lovely balcony overlooking the Tromsø Fjord. Shame it is cloudy tonight as that would be an awesome place to watch the northern lights from!

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A small 'everyday kitchen table' leads us into the spacious main lounge area.

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The bathroom has lovely warm underfloor heating!

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Finally, the kitchen. A decent size, but at first glance it is just an ordinary kitchen. That is, until we see the built in coffee machine, the enormous corner fridge, built in electric wine cooler and induction hob.

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We start opening cupboards and drawers, and soon realise that this is not your average rental 'apartment'. A Kenwood Chef and smoothie maker are amongst the numerous 'gadgets' we find. Shame we are not staying longer!

I rustle up a couple of reindeer steaks for dinner,as you do.

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This is followed by 'fløyelsgrøt', a kind of porridge-like dessert made from butter, flour and milk; served with sugar and cinnamon, and a 'smørøye' – 'butter eye'. Healthy it is not, but this dish brings back many happy memories from my childhood.

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No aurora hunting tonight, just chilling on our last night in Norway. For this time. We most definitely want to come back!

Posted by Grete Howard 10:51 Archived in Norway Tagged road_trip coast travel fjords scenery beautiful norway alta tromsø norhern_lights Comments (1)

Lyngen - Alta - Gargia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gargia Fjellstue

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

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

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

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

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The dog yard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sugar Tongs

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

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

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

Aurora Hunting

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

This is one of our favourite sites for aurora forecasts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maralal - Naivasha - Nairobi - Brussels - London - Bristol

A long journey and a long day

overcast 23 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day eight of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

What a difference a cool room makes! I slept like a log last night! Yet again I have the alarm set early, this time so that I can catch the animals coming to the waterhole at dawn.

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I don't have long to wait. Even before the sun is up they slowly and silently appear out of the bush, kicking up the dust as they go. Initially one by one, including little ones; then a large dazzle (yes, that is what a group of zebras are called) arrives, sauntering out of the woods as if they don't have a care in the world.

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The early morning mist, the parading zebra, the dust swirling around their hooves: it's a magical scene. I feel very honoured to be part of this – what a fabulous way to spend my last morning in Kenya.

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The zebra take their time filling their bellies with the cool water, keeping a constant eye out for predators.

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Occasionally something spooks them.

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Then the sun comes out and bathes the scene in a golden glow, transforming it from being magical to a truly extraordinary enchanted world! This change in light, however, signals the time for the zebra to once again return to the bush.

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The sun also brings out a couple of vervet monkeys, a skittish jackal, a few impala and some guinea fowl.

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Leaving Maralal Lodge, we are lucky enough to encounter more animals on our way through the sanctuary – eland, impala and some more zebra.

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At Maralal Town we hit tarmac again for the first time in six days! Luxury!

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The excitement is short-lived, however, a mere 200 metres or so before we are back on the usual gravel track.

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After a while once again return to relative 'civilisation', as we pass several private ranches, run by white settlers who cater to the luxury market. Behind barbed wire fences we spot gazelles, giraffes, buffalo and zebra. This is the canned safari experience for rich westerners.

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The baboons, though, are no snobs and come and go as they please.

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Having forgotten to take our malaria tablets this morning, we swallow them with some water mid-morning in the car; an action I soon come to regret when my stomach starts bubbling. Ugh!

For some reason, today's journey does not seem so exciting as all the previous ones. It must be my mindset – I am expecting it to be boring and merely a way of getting back to the airport for our flight home. Our itinerary has nothing in it for today. Snap out of it girl!

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The shadows created by wandering sheep on the road amuses me for a while. I know, I know: little things for little minds and all that. Just humour me will ya?

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Suddenly something catches my eye. A motorcyclist has stopped in the road, gesticulating frantically towards the crops in the nearby field. Then I see the reason for his agitation: a large herd of 20+ wild elephants grazing happily by the side of the road.

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He looks so cute and innocent doesn't he? You wouldn't believe the sort of destruction he and his family can, and do, cause.

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Often elephants and people overlap in their use of habitats and thus come into conflicts, with negative consequences for both parties. Elephants, in their search for pastures and water, engage in extensive seasonal migrations often including moving through farmland causing large-scale damage. In this area where most people rely on subsistence farming, an elephant wiping out fences and crops is likely to have have devastating effects on the families and their livelihood.

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The elephants are agitated and the motorcyclist is nervous. A Samburu herder is looking on from a safe distance on top of a nearby hill.

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We daren't stop. Driving on slowly, we deliberately rev the engine loudly and sound the horn, in the hope that the elephants will move on.

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Eventually the animals - at least thoseh nearest the road - retreat to a safer distance and we can cautiously pass, with the vulnerable motorcyclist using our vehicle as a shield between himself and the massive beasts.

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After three hours' driving this morning we reach Rumuruti and a proper sealed road. For good this time, all the way to Nairobi. Welcome back to civilisation.

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One of the first things we see is a prison, with the inmates milling around outside doing hard labour – or at least some gardening. We pass by way too quickly for me to even snap one of my 'famous' covert pictures from inside the car, but the scene is like something out of a cartoon, with the prisoners all wearing striped 'pyjamas' and matching hats - a bit like this:

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From Rumuruti the road climbs the escarpment to a height of 2000m. This is where the police come to do their high altitude training and we see many police trucks and uniformed officers.

Continuing on to Nyahururu, we find it to be a 'proper' town, with shops, petrol station, banks and a traffic jam! Welcome back to civilisation.

All along the side of the road as we leave the town are stalls selling vegetables, and John fills a huge sack with a variety of greens ready to send to his family who live near Lake Victoria.

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For lunch we stop at a service station near Naivasha, and not before time: my bubbling stomach has turned into a volcano and I rush off the find the 'facilities'. Much to my delight, there are western sit-down toilets in cubicles with locking doors, a seat on the toilet bowl, a sink with running water and even soap and toilet paper! Pure luxury! Welcome back to civilisation.

John recommends the Indian fast food restaurant in the complex, which suits us fine.

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Chicken and chips, chicken jalfrezi, vegetable biriyani, vegetable thali

Much to David's delight - no, make that absolute ecstasy - they even sell South African cider! Welcome back to civilisation!

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We see a number of white people here, the first we've seen since leaving Samburu six days ago. Most of them are white settlers, not tourists, as this is a favourite hang-out for ex-pats. Welcome back to civilisation.

John, knowing that we are interested in bird watching, asks if we would like to take a boat trip on Lake Naivasha and visit Crescent Island. It sure beats spending that time hanging about in the airport, so we gladly accept.

Lake Naivasha

At the docks we wrangle with the boat operators to let Abdi come with us out on the lake. They insist only authorised guides are allowed to accompany tourists in the boats.
“He is not a guide, he is a tourist” I stand firm.
“But he has a Kenyan ID” they argue.
“He is a Kenyan tourist from North Horr” I protest, truthfully: Abdi's 'guiding' duties finished in Loiyangalani, but he decided to come with us to Nairobi anyway, and visit a friend there.

Eventually they relent. It is Abdi's first visit to Lake Naivasha and he is very nervous about the boat as he can't swim. As a strong swimmer myself, I promise to save him if he falls in. With that, we all go out to look for birds.

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And birds we see! This is a true bird watcher's paradise - Naivasha is known as a world class birding destination with over 400 species of birds recorded.

Following years of drought and sinking water levels, in 2011 WWF got involved to help the fragile ecosystem around the lake recover and all the people it supports in terms of agriculture and fishing amongst other things. It seems they have been very successful, as the water level is now the highest it's been for a number of years, with evidence of many semi-submerged trees along the shore.

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Before we even leave the shoreline, I spot a number of birds.

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Great White Egret

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Grey Heron

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Hadada Ibis and Glossy Ibis

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African Black Kite - beautifully camouflaged

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The Giant Kingfisher is of great excitement to us both!

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The very ugly Marabou Stork

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Pink Backed Pelican

As we make our way out onto the lake, we scatter huge flocks of Red Knobbed Coots – I have never seen so many coots in one place before.

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There is even an albino coot in amongst all his black mates.

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The submerged trees are home to a huge number of cormorants too.

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They are mostly the Great Cormorant, but we also see a few Long Tailed Cormorants.

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The high water level means large areas of flooded ground, rich with fish and shallow enough for wading. The fish community in the lake has been highly variable over the years, influenced by changes in climate, fishing effort and the introduction of invasive species. These days the carp, introduced to the lake in 2001, is by far the most common species caught. Fishing provides jobs and income as well as being an important source of protein for local communities.

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I love these guys wearing tops made from cement bags!

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Anyway, back to a few more bird pictures:

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Cattle Egret

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Yellow Billed Stork

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Little Egret

Lake Naivasha is also home to a sizeable population of hippos, with some 1,000 of them estimated to live in the lake.

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Although hippos may look cute and friendly, they are one animal you definitely do not want to cross: hippos are responsible for more human fatalities in Africa than any other large animal.

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Although not bloodthirsty like big cat predators, hippos are easily frightened and can be extremely aggressive, especially males defending their territories as well as females protecting their babies.

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Hippos can run at speeds of over 20 miles an hour and are built like tanks – you certainly wouldn't want to get in the way of one of these! Most deaths by hippo are caused by being trampled to death, although they also sometimes overturn boats, drowning their victims.

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Hippos consume over 100 pounds of vegetation per day.

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They seem to coexist with the fishermen when in water, and once they are on land, most of the lake is fenced in, so hippo deaths in and around Lake Naivasha are rare apparently.

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I think it's amazing how people just go about their daily life as if these were just sheep grazing, not Africa's greatest killers!

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We cruise out to Crescent Island, which is a private game park and is said to have the country's highest concentration of animals per acre, with wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, gazelle, impala and waterbuck.

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By now my stomach is like a cauldron, and I dare not risk leaving the boat at the island, so I let David and Abdi go off with the local guide, also called David, while I do some more bird watching.

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African Spoonbill

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Squacco Heron

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Great White Pelican

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Little Grebe

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Red Billed Teal

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Spur Winged Lapwing

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Pied Kingfisher

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African Jacana

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Black Winged Stilt

We pick up the boys from the island and Abdi comes back quite excited about his short walking safari. David is a little more nonchalant: “There was nothing much there that we haven't seen elsewhere” he reflects.

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Anyway, this is what I missed:

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Before we return to the jetty, we spend some time watching fish eagles doing what fish eagles do best: fishing.

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This sees the end of our sightseeing program in Kenya – for this time. Now all that remains is the final stages of our long journey home.

First we have to climb up the Mau Escarpment to make our way to Nairobi. Due to resurfacing roadworks, it's a long, slow slog, but the views over the Great Rift valley are not bad, despite the mist.

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At the best viewpoints the ubiquitous souvenir stalls have sprung up, selling sheepskin hats of all things.

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On the outskirts of Nairobi we pass the infamous Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, and the largest urban slum in Africa, with an estimated population of over one million people.

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This is the depressing info on Kibera according to Wikipedia:
Most of Kibera slum residents live in extreme poverty, earning less than $1.00 per day. Unemployment rates are high. Persons living with HIV in the slum are many, as are AIDS cases. Cases of assault and rape are common. There are few schools, and most people cannot afford an education for their children. Clean water is scarce and therefore diseases caused by related poor hygiene are prevalent. A great majority of people living in the slum lack access to medical care.

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Check out more facts about Kibera here.

By now I am getting quite desperate for a toilet again, and am not happy to see another traffic jam! I am, however, very impressed with the local agent that Undiscovered Destinations have used on this trip. The Africa Journeys' manager, Wycliffe, who picked us up at the airport (which seems like weeks ago but it has only in fact been eight days) joins us for the last few miles before the airport to ensure we are happy with the trip and answer any queries or complaints. I am delighted to assure him that we cannot fault any aspect of the trip whatsoever! The journey, the sights, the people, the safari, the food, the accommodation... it has all exceeded our expectations. We'll be back!

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The flight is full, including a huge crowd of Somalian refugees on their way to a new home in the US, sponsored by IOM. Many are understandably frightened, and they are very subdued as we all gather in the gate lounge.

Still suffering with an upset tummy, I am feeling decidedly ill by this time, so much so that I am contemplating requesting a wheelchair to board the plane. Somehow I manage to make it to my aircraft seat before I throw up. David rings the bell for assistance from the crew, and gets a very curt reply when he asks for a glass of water: “You can get it yourself from the back”. Noticing that I have my eyes closed and am leaning back in the chair, she continues acerbically: “but I see you are somewhat stuck, so I will get it for you. This time” When she returns with the water, I am in the midst of emptying the contents of my stomach into the sick bag. Her attitude completely changes: “Oh dear.... are you OK? If you need anything else just press the button a couple of times, that way we'll know it's urgent”. I am just about to answer: "How about you learn the meaning of customer service instead" but (probably fortunately) I started heaving again at that very moment.

Having endured three screaming kids on the way out, we are rather concerned to see at least a dozen young children among the refugees, but not a sound is heard from them all through the eight hour night flight. I wish the same could be said for the American group. They really hit the pinnacle of stereotypicalness (a new word to add to 'Grete's Dictionary') when one girl exclaims as we are exiting the plane in Brussels: “Do they speak Spanish here?”

By the time we open our front door, it has been 34 hours since we left Maralal Lodge. It's been a loooong day!

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to settle my upset tummy (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke.

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Cheers and welcome home

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:32 Archived in Kenya Tagged landscapes lakes animals boats travel elephants holiday kenya hippo roadtrip equator lake_naivasha naivasha bird_watching undiscovered_destinations great_rift_valley Comments (0)

Lake Turkana

People of the lake

sunny 40 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day six of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

The wind certainly kept us awake in the night, rustling through the palms, banging tree branches against each other, sending the wind generator mental, knocking over chairs and making our mosquito nets billow out away from the beds. But it definitely helped keep the temperature down: I even had to cover my legs with the blanket at one stage!

Travelling overland down through Africa in a Land Rover has always been my dream, but one that I have never been brave enough to set into action, nor have the circumstances been right. I am now beginning to feel we are getting too old for it – I am therefore quite surprised when I meet Andrea, an Italian photographer and the occupant of the overland truck, this morning: he has at least ten years on us, maybe even fifteen! They have driven all down through Africa from Italy and are now on their way back home again. In broken English he asks John for directions to Sibiloi as his Sat Nav is “kaput”. We get our map out and explain as best as we can: 20 kilometres north, turn left, then left and left again. Seems simple enough, but his English is extremely limited. I cannot help to wonder how much his lack of English is a hindrance in his travels – not many people speak Italian in this part of the world! They scoff at the offer of taking a local chap as a guide and confidently set off on their own.

We are off to the lakeside this morning, starting early to avoid the heat of the day. Seducing and mesmerising in its simple beauty, the conflict between the abrupt and severe surroundings against the dazzling and dreamy water of the lake makes it all the more beguiling.

The Jade Sea

Originally named Lake Rudolph in 1888 by two Austrian explorers, in 1975 the lake was renamed Turkana after the local tribe who inhabit this area. It is also known as the Jade Sea because of the colourful, ever-changing reflections that decorate its surface – which you can't always appreciate fully from ground level.

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I would have loved to have been able to take a sightseeing flight over it for photography, but as that is not an option, you'll have to make do with some images from google:

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The colour comes from algae that rise to the surface in calm weather.

El Molo Tribe

The lake is a source of life for some of Kenya’s most remote tribes, including the El Molo people who live in just two small villages on the south-eastern shores of Lake Turkana. We are visiting one of them this morning.

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I am guessing our escort and facilitator Abdi is some sort of 'royalty' or high caste within the local society, as after speaking with the village chief, it was agreed that Abdi should be called Number One, while the local chief would be referred to as Number Two.

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Number Two shows us around his village and explains about their culture.

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The name El Molo comes from the Samburu expression loo molo onsikirri which means 'the people who eat fish'. Also known as gurapau, 'people of the lake', they are the smallest indigenous tribe in Kenya – in numbers, not stature - with around 10 true members left (only one in the village we visit) out of approximately 1000 inhabitants; the rest being of combined Samburu and Turkana bloodlines though intermarriage.

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As a result of their almost constant suffering from other tribes over the years, they prefer to remain cut-off from much of the world, maintaining a very traditional life eking out an existence from fishing.

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Hunting/Fishing and Diet
When the El Molo originally migrated down into this area from Ethiopia around 1000 BC, they found the land to be too arid to sustain their livestock, so they abandoned agriculture in favour of fishing.

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The El Molo have no access to fresh water, and as they do not engage in agriculture; they survive on fish alone, turning to the alkaline lake for their drinking water. According to Wikipedia, the water is “potable, but not palatable”, yet later in the same article it is claimed that it “is more alkaline than seawater”. Either way. I fail to understand how people can survive on a constant diet of fish and salty water.

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When fishing, the El Molo use number of different implements depending on the circumstances: spears; harpoons; fishing rods made from the roots of an acacia with doum-palm fibre and a forged iron point or hook; or nets made from doum-palm fibre.

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The fishermen brave the waves, winds and swells of Lake Turkana in traditional boats crudely made from doum-palm logs held together with rope. Modern boats would be too difficult to maintain and are rarely available anyway, due to their expense. Imagine the skill required to ride this into the waves of the lake and chase after crocodile or hippo - then kill them with a hand held harpoon! These days, however, they mostly fish for catfish, Nile perch, tilapia or Solomon fish.

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The catch is either roasted immediately or preserved for eating later by sun-drying it on mats on the ground or the roofs of the huts.

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Every part of the fish is utilised, including all the innards.

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Housing
The El Molo live in lakeside homes made from the little vegetation this volcanic wasteland has to offer – straw and palm leaves are woven together by the women to create little igloo-shaped huts.

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People
It is thought that the singular and exclusive diet (high in protein but lacking in fruit, vegetables and carbohydrates), along with drinking the salty lake water, is to blame for the high incidence of ill health and genetic defects amongst this group – blindness, bow legs, and early death. I also guess with so few members of a tribe, inbreeding is inevitable, adding to the genetic deterioration. In addition, every few years cholera outbreaks run rampant through the village causing the demise of the very old and the very young. In a society where reaching the age of 40 is considered 'old', their spartan lifestyle has taken a toll on their appearance way beyond their years.

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Seats
Men often carry stools, known as ekicholong, which are used as simple chairs. They also double as headrests or pillows, keeping the head elevated from the sand, and protecting ceremonial head decorations from being damaged when they lie down. I remember seeing these in a museum in Ghana some years ago and thinking how uncomfortable they look but it's the first time I have actually seen one in use.

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Journey to extinction
There are calls from human rights groups and environmentalists for the government to step in to provide much needed medical and sanitary facilities, secure funding for a fresh water drinking source and save the community from the impacts of climate change, as they fear the ethnic group is on a journey to extinction if nothing is done.

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Thirty years ago an anthropologist who visited the El Molo wrote, "I felt as if I'd stumbled on a race that had survived simply because time had forgotten to finish them off." Very little has changed since then.

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Counting my lucky stars
Spending time amongst these people and seeing how they barely eke a living in such a hostile and inhospitable environment, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of appreciation for the privileged life I was born into, and gratitude for the hardships I have not had to face. I humbly admire their resilience in the constant uphill battle against adversity and the mercilessly grim terrain as they cling steadfastly to their somewhat tenuous existence. Having adapted to their surrounding environment, their simple code of life is built on survival: eating, sleeping and reproducing.

We are One
Being with these indigenous tribes with their seemingly naïve purity and primordial lifestyles, I feel like I have been transported to a bygone era, the Africa of long ago. Despite enormous disparities between our lifestyles and prosperity, I sense a strong connection – we may have lives that are poles apart, but we are still the same - and I find myself wondering: "What are their dreams for the future?" Not the all-encompassing future popularly written about by environmentalists and social reformers, but the more tangible, everyday, personal circumstances of tomorrow or this evening. Fun, laughter, love, appreciation, family, friendship, food... we surely share the same emotions and desires?

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Island of Ghosts
El Molo practice a traditional religion centred on the worship of Waaq, with shrines known as gantes. The shrines are located on an island known as the 'Island of Ghosts' or 'Island of No Return'. Legend tells the story of how the tribes people would retreat to this island when being attacked and use huge piles of catfish to barricade themselves in. The spiny fish bones would ensure raiders were unable to reach the villagers.

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We take a boat out to the island – thankfully a much bigger, motorised boat than the ones the locals use when fishing.

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There are four shrines (which look curiously like the huts the people live in on the mainland) on the island, each with a different function:

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The first hut is a shrine where barren women spend time with a village elder to receive blessings in order to conceive. Today there are baby goats inside...

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Next is the place where sacrifices are made and ceremonies are held to ensure good luck while hunting hippos, although following Kenya's anti-poaching laws, hippos are now officially off the menu. The El Molo's hunting prowess, especially with regard to the ferocious and murderous hippo (hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal – apart from the mosquito), have earned them a reputation for bravery among other Kenyan tribes. During the ceremony – known as ngwere – songs and dances pay tribute to ancestors and the young warriors have their bodies whipped and slashed before being sent out on the hippo hunt!

The third hut is reserved for female circumcision. The practice is outlawed in Kenya, and the hut appears dilapidated. While in the west we have an absolute abhorrence towards what we call Female Genital Mutilation, the general feeling on the subject here is much more ambivalent and complex. Although ingrained in their culture, some girls feel it is an outdated and barbaric practice and they are glad it is now outlawed; while others are more philosophical. As one girl we spoke to said: “the circumcision is all the girls here have, that is purely for them. Everything else in society is about the men - women are rated somewhere below the goats - and this ceremony is the only time in their lives they are the main and most important character.” While I can see the rationale behind this theory, I can think of way better ways of making a young girl feel special and valued!

The last shrine is dedicated to the sick, used as an isolation unit or a place to make requests for protection against diseases.

Birding
While David and Number Two go hiking to the top of the hill on the island, I do some birdwatching with Abdi.

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Crested Lark

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Little Egret

During March and April, Lake Turkana is a major stopover point on the flight routes of migratory birds on the journey back north to their European summer homes. The area also has many local residents, with up to 350 species recorded, including pink backed pelicans and flamingoes who thrive in the brackish water, supported by plankton masses in the lake.

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Slender Billed Gull

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Pink Backed Pelican

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Egyptian Goose

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Grey Headed Gull

While not a true twitcher, more of a dude; I am a lister and am happy to announce 103 trip ticks so far, of which 27 are lifers.

Roughly translated from 'bird watching speak' to plain English, this means that “I am a keen birder but a novice and more into the photography aspect rather than serious study. I do, however, like to keep a list of birds seen in the wild, and I have identified 103 different species so far on this trip, 27 of which are new to me”.

See more English twitcher vocabulary here.

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Spur Winged Lapwing

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Long Tailed Cormorant

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Kittlitz' Plover

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Ringed Plover

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Common Sandpiper

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Long Tailed Cormorant

From the island we spot the Landrover carrying the two Italians driving along the shore of the lake, which is somewhat strange as they left Loiyangalani long before us!

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As we say goodbye to the El Molo village, we give a lift back to town to three girls. One of them is nine months pregnant. She was intending to walk to Loiyangalani, some 20 kilometres away (in this 40 °C heat), in order to try and find a truck which would hopefully be able to take her the six hour drive to Maralal to the maternity hospital. It's a hard life.

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When she gets out of the car in town, I slip her some money “for the baby”, which reduces her to tears. Through Abdi she thanks me and asks my name – she is so grateful she wants to name her baby after me! I feel very humbled and honoured so I cry too. To me it is not a huge amount of money, but I am later told that it is probably the largest sum of cash she is ever likely to have and is equivalent to a week's wage of a skilled worker. I guess that would be the same in relative terms as a stranger giving me £500.

Back at the lodge we are told the Italians got very lost this morning, having not listened to – or understood – the bit about driving 20 kilometres north before turning left. They effectively drove around in a circle and ended up back at Palm Shade Camp where they changed their mind and sheepishly hired a local guide to show them the way.

It is at times like this that I am grateful we have our trusty driver John.

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John bought some some fresh fish in the El Molo village this morning, which the lodge chef cooked up for him and served it with ugali, the staple starch in East Africa. Made into a porridge-like consistency, using millet, maize of sorghum flour, ugali is eaten by rolling a small amount into a ball with your hand, creating an indent for scooping up the sauce. We have come across this in various guises throughout Africa. It is bland but filling. For someone (that someone being me) who has such a low boredom level that I dislike having the same meal two days running, I cannot imagine this being my complete diet. Every. Day. Day in. Day out. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Only intersperced with some salty water. My heart sinks and my tastebuds go on strike at the mere thought of it!

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Turkana Tribe

After lunch John suggests we visit the local Turkana tribe to see if we can negotiate for the women to don their 'skins' and dance for us. David is somewhat taken aback by Abdi's question while he is conferring with the ladies: “How many women do you want?”

Well....

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While Abdi puts the finishing touches on the deal, the children crowd around the car: shaking our hands, touching our skin and practising their English: “How are you?” “What's your name?”

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Goat or cow skins are tanned, carefully sewn together and adorned with beads and ostrich egg shells. The skins are worn by both men and women on special occasions such as the annual Turkana Cultural Festival where many different tribes from the region come together to show off their outfits and traditional dances. Today these ladies are putting on a private performance just for us.

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Livestock is the core of Turkana culture with goats, camels, donkeys and zebu being the primary herd stock. Livestock functions not only as a milk and meat producers, but also as form of currency used for bride-price negotiations and dowries. A large herd is a sign of wealth, so it is not surprising that the songs and dances of the Turkana culture are a means of boasting about their prized cattle reflecting the economic life of the tribe.

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Dances are held during a variety of special occasions such as giving thanks after the rains or a successful cattle raid; the birth of a child or a marriage and so on. As well as when the Howards visit of course.

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Love this woman's earrings: key-rings and beer-can ring-pulls seem to feature heavily.

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The women seem to be having a lot of fun; and even John joins in the festivities.

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The audience too are enjoying themselves.

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No, this is not the result of some bloody sacrifice thankfully, just a custom to smear oil followed by ochre on your body for decorative purposes.

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Time is moving on, shadows are becoming long, the sun is getting low, and we are getting thirsty. It's time to go for a sundowner. And what better place than by the shores of Lake Turkana.

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The three boys that made my journey special: David, John and Abdi

As we wait for the sun to make its daily journey behind the mountains, I play around with my cameras, my 'models', different lenses, white balance and aperture/shutter speed settings.

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It is not until this evening, with the background being a single, plain colour, that I realise just what a curse dust is for a photographer and what a toll it has taken on my camera! The amount of dirt that has managed to get in to it and settled on the sensor is quite phenomenal! Thank goodness for in-camera sensor cleaning!

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to relieve a nagging headache (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed. Cheers and welcome to Lake Turkana.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:41 Archived in Kenya Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises lakes people children birds boats desert travel village holiday africa hot kenya roadtrip dust tribes turkana undiscovered_destinations northern_kenya laketurkana loiyangalani el_molo Comments (2)

Nairobi - Equator - Isiolo - Samburu

Crossing the Equator - it's all a matter of latitude

35 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day one of our private Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

After last night's safety paranoia, the surroundings look peaceful and tranquil this morning as we explore the hotel grounds and load up the car for the great adventure that lies ahead of us.

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An early start to some great birding:

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African Harrier-Hawk

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Streaky Serin

I would have loved to have had some more time to take advantage of the hotel's facilities, but as always there are places to go, things to see.

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It feels good to be on African soil once more, a continent I fell in love with many visits ago and which still touches my heart and soul like no other - that's why, 30 years and 25 visits later, I keep coming back for more.

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Africa, often referred to as the “Dark Continent”, is inherently misunderstood by most westerners and consistently misrepresented by the mainstream global media. Mysterious, complex and enigmatic, there is so much more to Africa than meets the eye.

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#TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou

Today we set out to explore some of Africa's many secrets and hidden wonders, on a voyage along roads less travelled.

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Let's go!

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Heading out of town on the main TransAfrican highway going north, we encounter a number of police check points, each with a vicious 'home-made' stinger across the road. At some they make us stop so that they can check John's papers; at others they just wave us through.

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Wide load on the highway:

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Our first stop is the obligatory curio-shop. The toilets are nice and clean, and the artwork they sell is of high quality. We rarely buy souvenirs, but I do have a weakness for traditional masks, of which I have a wall full at home. I am tempted by an unusual carved set of two 'masks' (maybe not traditional, but beautiful all the same), and manage to negotiate an acceptable price. That'll be my shopping for the week!

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My living room wall at home, full of masks from all over the world!

Crossing the Equator

The Equator is an 'imaginary line' around the middle of the earth, dividing it into two: the northern and southern hemisphere.

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The above picture is dedicated to a friend's daughter who, after having been taught about the Equator at school, excitedly ran home to tell her mum about the 'imaginary lion' running around the centre of the earth.

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The Equator dissects Kenya some 90 miles north of Nairobi.

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Crossing from one hemisphere to another is theoretically painless and unremarkable, indiscernible even. However, always looking to exploit a money-making opportunity, souvenirs stalls have been set up next to the signs which attract camera-wielding tourists and notorious selfie-takers: YOU ARE NOW CROSSING THE EQUATOR

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Coriolis effect
You may have heard about the water going down the plug hole clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anticlockwise in the southern hemisphere, and drains straight down on the equator?

David, our guide, uses a bowl with a strategically placed hole in its bottom, a jug of water and a couple of matchsticks to demonstrate the effect. It does indeed seem that the water changes direction just 20 metres either side of the equator.

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So what causes this? It is something called the Coriolis effect, which is a result of the rotation of the Earth and the inertia of the mass experiencing the effect. This force causes moving objects (including ocean currents, wind patterns and hurricanes) on the surface of the Earth to be deflected to the right in the northern Hemisphere and to the left in the south.

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So far so good.

However, it grieves me to say that according to scientists, the effect the Coriolis force has on a bowl of water is much too small to actually see, especially so close to the equator; and may be better explained by the conservation of angular momentum: any rotation around the drain hole that is initially present will accelerate as water moves inward.

In other words, the person carrying out the demonstration gently encourages the water to travel in the suitable direction by carefully angling the stream of liquid or the placement of the object.

I feel quite disappointed and truly deflated; rather like a child who has just discovered that Santa is not real.

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Please say it is not so!

I study the movements of the guide. I look at the direction of the spiralling water coming out of the bowl as well as the way the matchsticks move. I even try to shake the bowl to make the matchsticks move in a different direction. They don't. Call me gullible, but I still want to believe the effect is true, and if not: this guy is good, damn good!

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After the demonstration and the presentation of a certificate, we are obliged to visit one of the many shops. For fairness, visitors are taken to a numbered shop in turn – one vehicle to number 28, next car to number 29 and so on. Having already done all my shopping for the trip earlier this morning, we do our duty by browsing the allocated store, but despite calls to have a "closer look", we return to the car empty-handed.

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The Birminghum Cool Shop!

A few miles later we stop at a road side stall to buy some vegetables for the evening at North Horr in four nights' time. The accommodation there doesn't offer meals, so we have to bring our own food. Ingredients are more readily available, and offer greater variety, here than they do further north, so now is the time to stock up on fresh stuff.

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John chooses a courgette for our dinner

In this heat, these green tomatoes should ripen to a beautiful red by the time we need them.

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As we head further north, the scenery becomes more and more rural, the countryside filled with pastorialists toiling the soil in age-old fashion.

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Isiolo

The town of Isiolo apparently has a newly acquired status as a 'resort city' (billed as 'the new Dubai'), as part of Kenya's 'Vision 2030' plan. The design is for Isiolo to become a tourist centre to include casinos, hotels, upmarket retail outlets, a modern airport and transport facilities. This brings up a burning question: “why?” The answer lies in the pipeline that brings crude oil from the fields in South Sudan to the ports on the Kenyan coast. With the area's reputation for lawlessness, I guess the government felt it prudent to consolidate the surroundings politically and offer some hope for the future to its inhabitants in order to protect their 'black gold'. John points out the site of the new international airport as we pass.

Wikitravel isn't too optimistic about the town: “Isiolo is the 'last stop' before travelling off the paved road to the towns of Marsabit and Moyale in northern Kenya. Be very aware that Isiolo is not the safest place on earth, and if you are on your own, hire somebody to protect you from the thugs.”

Reading the local news I can see their point...

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Oh, and there is apparently a cholera epidemic here – thankfully we made sure that our inoculations were up-to-date before we left home.

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Isiolo is the north-east’s most important town and a frontier town in every respect, separating the sedate south from the wild, wild north; inhabited by a rendezvous of AK47s and their uniformed owners. Having been rigorously warned by Wycliffe last night not to take pictures of people in the north without asking first, I resist the urge to photograph the gun-toting locals. Probably a wise move.

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I am beginning to be grateful we are merely passing through, although to be fair, we do not notice even the slightest amount of tension or hint of danger. What is noticeable is that the town is inhabited by a larger percentage of Muslims than further south, which is evident by the presence of several mosques and the attire of the people.

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Isiolo is the last big town on our journey, so we stock up with diesel, as do several other safari vehicles on their way to Samburu. In order to ensure the tank is filled to the brim, the vans are either shaken as the fuel goes in; or put up on a one sided ramp to make the most of every available centimetre in the tank.

Fuel (as well as a number of other items) can be paid for by phone using a branch-less banking service known as M-Pesa. Each till has its own number and you dial in from your mobile to make payment. In an area where banks are few and far between, this is a great idea!

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The land is flat, dry and fairly barren here, and the cattle we saw further south is replaced by camels, while straw huts take over from tinned-roofed mud shacks.

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At the side of the road I spot a number of Rendille nomads carrying their entire lives – including the materials to rebuild their huts – on donkeys as they migrate from one place to another. The scene is colourful, exotic and picturesque, and I am itching to take photos, but John's earlier warning resonates in my mind: “People here are not photo friendly, be careful! Don't even snap from a moving car as they might come after us and there are a lot of armed bandits here.” OK then.

Archer's Post

Disappointed we don't get the same level of welcome as President Kenyatta did when he came to Archer's Post earlier this year. Don't they know who we are?

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The Howards have arrived!

Safari time!

We are now entering the wilderness and heading for the verdant bush; ready to come face to face with Africa’s storybook animals. The route to the Jade Sea just happens to be taking us close to one of Kenya's finest wildlife reserves (as you do), so it would be rude not to 'pop in' for some game viewing.

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The expression 'Safari' is derived from a Swahili word, meaning simply 'long journey', although over the years it has taken on a broader meaning, with the dictionary describing it thus:

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Sentrim Samburu Safari Camp

From the gate we head directly to our home for the next two nights: Sentrim Samburu Safari Camp. Located on the shores of Ewaso Ng'iro River, the camp originally consisted of individual safari tents dotted along the riverbank. In 2010 unseasonal and heavy rains created a devastating flash flood which raged downstream, destroying bridges and washing away buildings and tents, scattering furniture and equipment. Sentrim was one of six camps wrecked by the wall of water, which completely demolished the camp, leaving everything covered in a thick layer of mud. Since rebuilt on higher ground and further away from the water, the lodge is now constructed from more permanent material and features individual cottages on concrete platforms with views of the grounds and the river beyond.

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Our room

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View from our balcony

We check in and go for a late lunch, followed by a little siesta.

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Welcome drink

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Glazed pork with rice

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And of course a Tusker

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Siesta on the balcony

Samburu National Reserve

Located just north of the equator in the rain-shadow of Mt. Kenya, the rugged and semi-desert Samburu is a lot drier and hotter than the rest of the Kenyan parks; featuring a mix of wood and grassland interspersed with riverine forest and swamp.

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Samburu National Reserve is relatively small in size compared to the other Kenyan parks, such as Tsavo (which is massive) or even Masai Mara; and minuscule in relation to the Serengeti in Tanzania which has been the destination of choice for our last few safaris: 64km² against 14,763km².

Putting it further into perspective: the area administered by Bristol City Council (our home town) is 110km².

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Samburu Special Five
Most safari-goers – especially first-timers - have their heart set on seeing the 'Big Five', but here in this park the most famous collection of animals to spot is the 'Samburu Special Five'. These are rare species of animals not found in most other East African parks: the long necked gerenuk, Grevy's zebra, reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich and Beisa oryx.

Having been lucky enough to see the zebra, giraffe, ostrich and oryx back in 1986 when we came to Mount Kenya and Meru National Parks (both of which are in this region), I explained to John that the gerenuk is of particular interest to me on this trip.

When the very first animal we spot on this afternoon's safari is a gerenuk, John dryly comments: “You can go home now then”. I do like a driver with a sense of humour!

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Gerenuk
Looking like something of a cross between an antelope and a giraffe, the long-necked gerenuk is also known as the Waller's gazelle. The name gerenuk comes from the Somali word Garanuug, which is translated as 'giraffe-necked'.

The gerenuk is endemic to the semi-arid areas of North east Africa, from Kenya through to Somalia. The secret to its survival in the harsh conditions of the desert-like terrain, is its ability to go without drinking water, instead obtaining enough moisture from the food it eats.

Entering through the lodge gates directly into the park this afternoon, before us lies the endless plains, stretching out as far as the eye can see: a flat and uniform landscape, speckled with acacia trees. Initially the open savannah is seemingly bereft of any wildlife; then with mounting excitement I pick out a few vulturine guineafowl. Slowly more and more birds and animals come into view and over the next few hours we absorb a string of heart-stirring animal encounters. This is the quintessential Africa of wildlife documentaries, but no matter how many TV programmes you may have watched, nothing prepares you for the real thing.

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Vulturine Guineafowl

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Olive Baboons

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Eastern Yellow Billed Hornbill

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Northern Red Billed Hornbill

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Tawny Eagle

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Blue Naped Mousebird

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Elephant

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African Pygmy Falcon

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White Headed Buffalo Weaver

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Yellow Necked Spurfowl

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Black Faced Vervet Monkey

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Impala

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Dik Dik

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Superb Starling

Reticulated Giraffe

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The reticulated giraffe, also known as the Somali giraffe, is one of nine subspecies of giraffe, and is native to Somalia, southern Ethiopia, and northern Kenya and is one of the Samburu Special Five.

So how does it differ from the more common Masai giraffe?

  • The reticulated is taller than the Masai, especially the males.
  • The reticulated giraffe has lighter brown spots in a polygon shape with straight, smooth sides, while the Masai giraffe has rather unpredictable, very deep brown spots

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  • The reticulated is only found in northern Kenya and Somalia, whereas the Masai is resident in southern Kenya and Tanzania.
  • Sheer numbers – while there is estimated to be just 5,000 reticulated giraffes left in the wild, some 40,000 Masai giraffes roam the African plains.

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Donaldson Smith's Sparrow Weaver

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Common Waterbuck

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Impala

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Gerenuk

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Elephant

John is constantly in contact with other drivers via his CB radio, and gets to hear about a sighting which he wants to check out. In the distance we see a herd of safari vehicles and realise it must be something good.

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We arrive in time to see a lioness out for an evening stroll.

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There are five lions in total, scattered around in the undergrowth.

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Born Free
For those of you who can remember the book and movie 'Born Free', Samburu is one of the two areas in which conservationists Joy and George Adamson raised Elsa the Lioness and later re-introduced her to the wild. The film itself was in fact shot here in the Samburu National Reserve.

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These lionesses could then be descendants of Elsa herself!

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Sign at the entrance gate to the park

Moving on, we come across a kill tucked away under a tree – an oryx partially devoured by a lone lioness.

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On the horizon a black backed jackal eyes the meat hungrily, looking for any opportunity to move in for a meal.

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The moment the lioness starts to walk away, the jackal makes a beeline for the oryx carcass.

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Realising that tomorrow's cold leftovers may be lost to a much smaller rival, the lioness decides to come back to protect her food source.

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The jackal scampers at the mere sight of her, but hangs around in the background for a while hoping for a tasty titbit.

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When the lioness settles down close by her kill to protect it, the jackal slinks off into the bush. For now.

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Kamunyak
Seeing the lioness with the oryx kill brought to mind an unusual story that took place in this park some years ago: the tale of Kamunyak, a lioness with a reputation for adopting orphaned and abandoned young antelopes. Kamunyak (meaning 'Blessed One'), is known to have cared for at least 6 oryx calves, establishing an inconceivable relationship with her unlikely protégés, defying nature and baffling scientists.

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This amazing and bizarre story was told by Saba Douglas-Hamilton in a BBC / Animal Planet documentary called Heart of a Lioness in 2005. I would recommend you watch the incredible film (42 minutes) which is available on YouTube. But I warn you – it does not have a happy ending.

Another congregation of safari vehicles promises a leopard on the hillside in the distance. Apparently. Everyone says there is one there, but no-one seems to have actually seen it. We leave them to it.

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No sooner have we driven away from the leopard traffic jam, John hears word of a cheetah sighting and rushes off. On the way we spot a herd of elephants but decide not to linger in order to prioritise the cats.

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The cat sighting is a false alarm. A wild goose chase. It is now getting quite late, and way past the time we are supposed to have left the park. We head for the lodge but encounter a bit of a road block. Just like the men with guns in Isiolo – you don't argue with these guys!

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A stand-off ensues with a couple of mock charges by the young bull.

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Eventually they disperse and we can be on our way.

Nearby we spot a dead donkey under a bush, most likely killed by a leopard. The leopard doesn't appear to have eaten much, and will probably be back later for more.

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Unfortunately we have to leave – regulations state there must be no driving in the park between 18:30 and 06:00. The time is already 18:50 and we have some way to go to get to our camp. John speeds off on the rocky track with me holding on for dear life. David, however, is fast asleep in the seat, with his head bobbing up and down with the bumps.

Back at the camp we have a refreshing cold shower (when the temperature is 35 °C, a cold shower really is refreshing, trust me!), followed by dinner of Vegetable Spring Rolls with a Dipping Sauce and Chicken Maryland.

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to stop me getting dehydrated in the heat (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed.

Cheers and welcome to Samburu.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:14 Archived in Kenya Tagged landscapes animals birds travel holiday africa safari hot kenya lions equator samburu game_drive undiscovered_destinations safari_vehicle isiolo northern_kenya Comments (1)

Seyun - Tarim and Aynat

Arabia Felix - Yemen December 2007


View Arabia Felix - Yemen 2007 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Today is Christmas Day and we turn up for breakfast in our red Santa Hats, which the drivers willingly wear for us to take photographs.

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Heading east towards Tarim, we pass by many typical everyday scenes in Yemen. It is often these snapshots of daily life that remain the best memories from my travels. Much as Mohammed is not the best local guide we’ve ever had, his redeeming feature is that he does stop at various places he thinks might be of interest to us, such as these people carrying out building work during the dry season.

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The bricks are made nearby, and stacked up for drying in the sun, so at least the materials don’t have far to travel.

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The Hadramawt area is well known for women with large straw hats, either this type with a flat top or the conical shape. We don’t see many women out and about, mostly working the field or herding the goats, and all are covered from head to foot in black. Some with a small slit for the eyes, some with the full veil.

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Camels are a common sight throughout Yemen and are used for transport as well as food.

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Everywhere we go in Yemen; there are remains such as this, a rich man’s palace abandoned some 200 years ago. These are signs of the affluence which once reigned in this area.

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There is always surface water in the Wadi Hadramawt, even during the dry season. I can only imagine what this place looks like after the rains. The scenery everywhere is jaw-droppingly beautiful.

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Tarim

Tarim is best known for its mosques – 365 of them, one for each day of the year - and the skyline is dotted with minarets. The city is in a beautiful setting, on the valley floor of the Wadi Hadramawt, flanked by vast rock cliffs on one side and surrounded by palm groves on the other.

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Another of Tarim’s claim to fame is its collection of 19th century palaces in the Al-Kaff area. Mostly built by Javanese immigrants, they are now what you might call ‘ripe for restoration’.

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Many of the mansions here were built by Sir Sayyid Bu Bakr Ibn Shaikh al-Kaf, who used some of the fortune his family has amassed in Singapore to build roads, palaces and mosques in Tarim. This palace is also known as Ishsha Palace.

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This is the only palace we are able to enter, and it is partly made into a museum. Apparently, Freya Stark was entertained here on her visit to Tarim, by the owner himself.

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Many of the rooms are empty, but still offer some insight into what life must have been like in those days.

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There is a small but interesting museum within the building, mostly displaying firearms. I just couldn’t resist playing with the exhibits!

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One of the more interesting items is a passport issued by the British in 1963. It seems so recent, yet still a totally different world.

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The building itself is really quite elaborate; it is hard to accept that this is a mud-brick creation.

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Some of the rooms have decorated walls and ceilings, like this one with mirrors on the ceiling. It’s a shame there is no furniture in here, it must have been very grand in its time.

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One of the many things I love in Yemen is the beautifully decorated doors. Whether they are made of metal, such as this one, or carved wood, there seems to be such love and pride put into the creation of the entrances here.

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The most famous mosque in Tarim is the al-Muhdar Mosque, named after the religious leader Omar al-Muhdar who lived in the town in the 15th century. The minaret, the most prominent feature of Tarim, has been repeatedly renewed since the period of the Islamic middle ages. The current minaret, 50 metres tall and built of mud and brick, was added in the beginning of the 20th century.

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Walking around the town, we come across a stall selling artifacts and souvenirs. I am really taken with a niqab made from black velvet and beautifully coloured beads. I try it on and get encouraging comments from my fellow travellers. I try to bargain with the stall-holder, but he won’t drop below $40. I really want it, but walk away. Halfway down the street, I change my mind, and David goes back to buy it for me.

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I wonder what I would look like as a ‘real’ Bedouin woman, with brown eyes and dark skin?

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Isn't Photoshop fun?

We pass through a market selling fish, grains and fresh produce.

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Some fish looks better than others, although most of the produce I see in Yemen is fresh and looks appetising.

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Tarim has always been a very important scientific centre in the Islamic world, and the Shafa’i school of Sunni Islamic teaching, spreading the word in and around the Hadramawt area. The Al-Ahqaf Library was founded in 1972 to preserve the spiritual heritage of the region’s Islamic teachers, and the books were gathered from all over Hadramawt.

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In the library are 14,000 volumes, amongst which some 3,000 manuscripts could be classed as ancient.

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Many of the books are adorned with beautiful gold and colours in their pages.

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Lunch

We stop for lunch in Tarim at a small restaurant obviously aimed at tourists, as there is another group there. We are all shocked at how disrespectful these other tourists are to the local customs here in Yemen – women wearing close-fitting tops with short or no sleeves and not covering their hair. They quickly leave and we have the restaurant to ourselves. We order from the non-existent menu: fried fish, chicken, goat or camel.

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Fish

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Goat

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Camel

The chef is outside the restaurant cooking the meat on a large barbecue.

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While we’ve been eating, the drivers have been off to get their daily fix of qat, and Musad looks very happy.

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Lime Production

We stop to see how limestone is collected from the valley, placed in the large kiln and fired with wood for 3-4 days.

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It is then further soaked in water for another 2-3 days to soften the stone.

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Once it is soft enough to manage, the stones are beaten with a stick to break them up. Once they are the desired size, the lime powder is dried, bagged up and sold at markets.

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Bee Keeping

There was a time when Yemeni honey was almost as expensive as gold, and although the value of the honey has come down, it is still prized all over the world. Beekeeping methods have barely changed in Yemen over the centuries. Box-shaped hives are made of sukan wood, stacked and covered from the fierce heat of the sun.

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During extraction, beekeepers will use smoke to get the insects to move away, then draw out the honeycomb through the rear of the hive, which is sealed with mud and thus easily opened, causing minimum disturbance to the brood inside.

The honey is then strained to remove excess bee larvae and pollen. The first extraction is called balade and is sold directly to a traditional clientele. It is the most prized honey of all as it is considered pure.

Good Yemeni honey is so highly prized that its possession is considered a status symbol in Yemen. Being offered honey when welcomed into a Yemeni home means you are an honoured guest.

Yemeni folk medicine prescribes the use of honey for a wide range of ailments. For example, when mixed with myrrh it is said to provide efficient relief from constipation, with carrot seeds it is an aphrodisiac, with various plants it can be used against epilepsy.

Husn Dhiban Masilah

Everywhere we go in Yemen, there are relics of fortifications from a bygone era, such as this fortress called Husn Dhiban Masilah from where the name Wadi Masilah has come to identify the remainder of the route to the sea.

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Aynat

Aynat was once one of the largest and most famous towns in the Wadi, but recurrent floods have gradually washed away crops, houses and small dams. Still left is the white qubbas of the cemetery. Being on the pilgrimage route, this has become a site of worship.

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The main tomb is that of Sheikh Abu Bakr bin Salim, and there are other tombs of important sada close by, with hundreds of ‘lesser’ graves scattered around.

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Women all in black with the conical hats so typical to Wadi Hadramawt tend to their goats along the road. The women object to being photographed, and will throw stones at the car if they spot us. The secret is to slow down as we approach, take a couple of shots with a long zoom lens and then speed up again before they realise what we are doing.

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Tomb of Ahmad Ibn Isa al-Muhjair

The Tomb of Ahmad Ibn Isa al-Muhajir (‘the immigrant’) is a place of pilgrimage and is especially popular with women pilgrims, as it is also the burial place of a sheikha – a holy woman. Ahmad Ibn Isa was the sayyid who re-established orthodox Islam in Wadi Hadramawt about 1200 years ago. Originally from Basra in Iraq, he made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and continued south to spread the Sunni orthodox branch of Islam. He was the seventh generation descendant of Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law.

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At ground level is a mosque and ablutions room, alongside which is the domed tomb. Steps lead up the lower slopes to another collection of tombs and graves, those of members of his family. Stuck to the inside of the tomb walls and ceiling are hundreds of little balls of thread, placed by pilgrims hoping to be blessed with good luck.

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Christmas Party!

We return to the hotel in Seyun for a Christmas Party (it is after all Christmas Day). This morning we were given gifts by Emad – the gents all had futas, the Yemeni dress of choice for most men. They all sport their new fashion items and pose willingly by the swimming pool.

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Emad has a special surprise for us for dinner – the chef has killed a goat for us and cooked it whole. Some people feel a little uncomfortable about the fact that it still very much looks like a goat, complete with legs, neck and tail. I think it’s delicious.

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Emad carves the goat for us, we have plenty of other food, and a bottle of Duty Free Vodka does the rounds at dinner. Although Yemen is a ‘dry country’ per se, it is not illegal to bring in alcohol for non-Muslims, a fact that we’d taken advantage of.

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Somehow Emad has managed to arrange for a few jugs of cocktails to be delivered from the tea shop in the centre of town. A very special surprise indeed.

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David learns how to sit cross-legged on the ground with the help of the band that is so often worn by the local men. Now we know what that is for! For someone who has never been able to sit like this before, not even in assembly at school, it is quite a revelation.

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Also arranged for us, is some local entertainment, some music and dancers.

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Knowing how conservative the Yemeni women normally are, not wishing to be seen in public and certainly not photographed, we conclude that this must be the Yemeni equivalent of a strip club. This is the first woman in Yemen we have seen with her face exposed, all others have been wearing the niqab or the full veil.

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As with any dance display in any country, there is audience participation.

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It has certainly been a Christmas Day to remember!

Posted by Grete Howard 02:16 Archived in Yemen Arab Republic Tagged travel palace cemetery party christmas yemen library hadramawt christmas_day middle_east hejab seyun tarim niqab Comments (0)

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