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Ashgabat and Nisa

Our first day in the Forgotten Stan

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what the roundabout looks like from Google Maps:

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

White Marble Buildings

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

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

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

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Owadan Tourism

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

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

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

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The Dutar - a two-stringed musical instrument

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

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David 'playing' the Dutar

Silk Road Map

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

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

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

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

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Nisa

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

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

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

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

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

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Restored pillars showing the old and new bricks.

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

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

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

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Lunch

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

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

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

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

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

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Independence Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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National Museum

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

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

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Map showing the five states that make up Turkmenistan

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

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Archaeological finds from the 3rd Millennium BC at Altyn Depe

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

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

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Also found at Gonur Depe

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

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Beautiful Rhytons (horn-shaped ceremonial drinking vessels)

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Buddhist sculpture found at Merw

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

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

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Items found at New Nisa, 3rd century AD

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

Flag

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

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

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Arch of Neutrality

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

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

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

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Wedding Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Turkmen Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serengeti - Arusha

Goodbye 'wilderness', hello 'civilisation'.


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

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Having been awake from 03:30 this morning scratching my insect bites, it's going to be a long day.

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It is still dark when we leave the lodge at 06:00.

Brown Snake Eagle

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Spotted Hyena

A cackle of hyenas congregate on the road, and seem a lot less timid than the ones we have encountered previously, some are even bold enough to come right up to the car.

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Not my favourite animal (sorry Malisa), but I will admit that this seven-month old juvenile is almost bordering on being cute.

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Sunrise

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Topi

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Wildebeest

A confusion of wildebeest are waiting to cross the Seronera River

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Vultures

A committee of vultures are waiting in a nearby tree for the wildebeest to get eaten by crocodiles while crossing the Seronera River.

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I see no crocodiles…

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Martial Eagle

The biggest eagle in Africa, the Martial Eagle can kill a baby antelope! He will grab it, lift it up and drop it until it is dead.

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Hot Air Balloon

We are right in the flight path of the balloon as it glides across the savannah.

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Watching the balloon

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Goliath Heron

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Grey Heron

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Hippo

Usually hippos only come out at night to eat and go back to the water in the morning. During that one night, they can eat as much as 150kg of grass; followed by three days merely digesting the food: just lying around farting, burping, pooping.

”I know someone else like that” says David, just prior to being whacked around the head.

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This hippo seems a little premature: although it is still eating, the smell of ammonia is so strong it makes Lyn gag, followed by a severe coughing fit.

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White Browed Coucal

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Olive Baboons

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Lions

Close to the road, on a flat open area, we see two brothers with one female. It makes a nice change for them not to be half-hidden by the long grass.

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The female is on heat, but the male isn’t the least bit interested at this stage. Dirty girl!

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“Come and get me…”

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Tart!

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“Not this morning dear, I have a headache”

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Even threats don’t work!

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Other than to make him back off further.

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As she is obviously not going to get her wicked way with him this morning, she walks off in a huff.

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It looks like she has had her nose put out of joint at some stage, and not just figuratively speaking. I am assuming that she got her deformity from a fight rather than a birth defect.

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It seems the king has food - rather than sex - on his mind this morning.

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Normally, the male lion will not let the female anywhere near his food until he has had his fill, as we have seen on a couple of occasions on this safari. When the female is on heat, however, it’s a different story: he will allow her to eat alongside him. Typical man! The only time he treats his woman to a meal is when he thinks there is something in it for him!

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Why does this picture remind me of the spaghetti scene from Lady and the tramp cartoon?

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Meanwhile, brother Leo comes to check out what all the fuss is about.

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There’s no room for another diner, so Leo skulks off, complaining loudly.

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Then goes for a drink instead.

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Black Backed Jackal

A jackal waits nearby; ready to move in on the leftovers once the lions have had their fill. I think he'll have a long wait.

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As we seem to be running out of time, we eat our boxed breakfast ‘on the hoof’ so to speak. We have to be out of the park by a certain time – the permits are purchased in blocks of 24 hours, and they are quite strict in enforcing the fines if you overstay.

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Tawny Eagle

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Elephant

A lone elephant is walking across the savannah, presumably to catch up with the large herd we can see in the distance.

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Road Maintenance

Months of rain (we are right at the end of the rainy season now), tourist traffic, heavy trucks and the huge numbers of animals who also use the roads have taken their toll on the unsealed tracks.

By scraping off the top layer, the surface is smoothed out, getting rid of the washboard effect that is typical in this region.

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Simba Kopjes

Named after the Swahili word for ‘lion’, Simba Kopjes are the tallest kopjes (rocky outcrop) in Serengeti and as the name suggests, a good place to spot lions.

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Lions

And guess what? There is the aforementioned simba!

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And another.

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Migration

We come across a breakaway crowd who have obviously been dawdling on their journey up north.

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Look at that long line meandering in from somewhere beyond!

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Secretary Bird

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Naabi Hill

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This marks the end of our safari in Serengeti, as we have now reached the entrance / exit gate at Naabi Hill. We have a coffee while Malisa completes the formalities.

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While Chris goes off to use the facilities, I prank him by hiding his coffee, putting an empty cup in its place. With hindsight it was not a good move, as anyone who knows Chris can attest for his love of coffee. Unfortunately Lyn gets the blame as he accuses her of drinking it. Oops. Sorry Chris. Sorry Lyn.

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On a positive note: they have upgraded their toilets since our first visit in 2007 (PS these are the old ones)

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Kori Bustard

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We’ll be back!

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Just because we have left the Serengeti behind, does not mean our adventure is over. As soon as we enter the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Malisa drives off-road. Because he can.

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White Stork

Just like us, the White Stork is not a resident in Tanzania, he has flown in from Europe and is just here for his holidays.

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Vulture Feast

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The zebra died of natural causes, and now the vultures are having a banquet!

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I love the red-necked vultures – no, they are not a new species, that is blood from where they have stuck their heads right inside the carcass.

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It’s a chaotic and grotesque scene, yet morbidly fascinating.

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You can’t hear it too well in this short video clip because of the wind noise, but the sound is deafening: like a huge mob of bleating sheep!

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Giraffe

It is unusual to see a giraffe sitting down as it makes them extremely vulnerably to predators. Here it seems every tree has one.

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Dust

As we rejoin the main ‘road’, we also meet up with traffic. And traffic means dust. Lots of it.

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Ngorongoro Highlands

The road to Arusha takes us back up into the highlands, and at this altitude David soon starts to feel the cold.

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This area is farming land, and we see many herders with their livestock and small stock along the side and even on the road.

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More Giraffes

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Malanja Depression

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Ngorongoro Crater

Not the worst view I have seen from a toilet stop.

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But David is still feeling the cold.

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Family Planning

The Maasai have an ingenious way of temporarily stopping their goats from reproducing. It is uncomplicated, cheap, safe for the animal and easily reversible – a simple flap physically stops the goats mating! I love it!

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Maasai Village Elders’ Weekly Meeting

Beats a day at the office any time.

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Picnic

We have our lunch in a picnic area within a camp ground between Ngorongoro and Arusha. We are all very sad that the safari part of our holiday is now over. Apart from maybe Malisa, as he now gets to see his family again and have a few days off.

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Makuyuni

Coming back into ‘civilisation’ again after eight days in the wilderness seems almost surreal – markets, shops, saloon cars, motorbikes, noise, traffic, and even a political rally!

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Traffic Check

We also experience the ugly side of ‘civilisation’: Malisa is pulled over for ‘speeding’. Being totally secure in the fact that he was most definitely NOT speeding, Malisa argues the case, asking them to prove where and how fast he was going. Knowing they haven’t got that sort of evidence, the police eventually back down and let him go! Cheeky! I bet they were looking for a bribe!

Arusha

Back in the big town there is a hive of activity as usual.

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Sugar Shortage

Due to some political agenda, there is a temporary shortage of sugar and we see long queues at the few stores that have any left.

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The Surprise

“Do you need anything from town?” asks Malisa, “if not, Tillya has a surprise for you”.

Avoiding the centre of Arusha, Malisa turns off the main road and weaves his way through the middle of Tenguru weekly market.

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Lake Dulutu Lodge

Surprise! Our original itinerary had us staying at Kibo Palace in the centre of Arusha, but Tillya felt that we needed to finish the trip in style; and he was worried that we might not sleep well as the area around Kibo is very noisy. The service we get from Calabash Adventures never ceases to amaze me.

And neither does Lake Dulutu Lodge. Wow!

The entrance drive is long, with vegetation either side, and the car park is empty when we arrive. Nothing particularly awesome so far.

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While the receptionist performs the registration formalities, we are invited to sit down in the lounge. This is where the wow-ness starts. The lobby is like something out of Harper’s Bazaar and I feel decidedly scruffy in my dirty safari gear.

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Our room is an individual cottage in the grounds, which look nothing much from the outside.

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Once we get through the front door, however, its opulence is evident.

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And the moment I enter the bathroom I am extremely impressed: despite having been lucky enough to stay in some pretty luxurious properties over the years, I have never seen a bathroom like this before.

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Only two other tables in the restaurant are taken, so I guess the hotel is pretty quiet at this time of year. The service, food and wine are all excellent.

Vegetable Spring Roll with Chilli Sauce

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Chicken with Rosemary Sauce

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Beef Medallions with Pepper sauce

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Wine

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Banana Tart with Chocolate sauce

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After all that we should sleep well, especially knowing we don't have to get up for a 6am game drive tomorrow morning.

Thank you so much to Calabash Adventures for the last eight days of safari, and for Malisa's expertise, knowledge, sense of humour, excellent driving and caring nature.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:11 Archived in Tanzania Tagged wedding travel market elephant police balloon sunrise holiday africa safari lodge zebra eagle luxury picnic coffee donkeys lions maasai hippo cold lioness ballooning giraffes cows serengeti ngorongoro dust hyena heron stork vultures cattle goats topi wildebeest hot_air_balloon arusha ngorongoro_crater kori_bustard hippopotamus african_safari grey_heron bustard family_planning political_rally speeding calabash calabash_adventures which_safari_company best_safari_company opulence olive_baboons maasai_cattle ngorongoro_conservation_area naabi_hill kopje coucal seronera babboons spotted_hyena brown_snake_eagle snake_eagle seronera_river martial_eagle goliath_heron white_browe_coucal lioness_on_heat tawny_eagle simba_kopjes simba elephant_herd confusuion_of_wildebeest speed_check white_stork off_road_driving tower_of_giraffes feeling_the_cold malanja_depression goat_family_planning makuyuni weekly_meeting wedding_car sugar_shortage tenguru tenguru_market lake_dulutu_lodge best_safari_operator which_safari_operator Comments (1)

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