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The last of our Galápagos Island landings

Ecuador day sixteen continued


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Plaza Sur

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Plaza Sur landscape

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Angelito moored off Plaza Sur

The two Plaza islands, North and South (aka Norte and Sur) lie just off the east coast of Santa Cruz. Both are uplifted islands, long and thin in shape, facing each other across a small bay.

We came to South Plaza on the last afternoon of our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito. It was the tenth island we visited, and before we landed I had thought that maybe I was “all island-ed out”, but yet again I was to be surprised by the variety of experiences the Enchanted Isles can offer.

We had arrived at the Plazas just before lunch, and the Angelito had moored between the two islands, of which only South Plaza can be visited (North Plaza being closed for scientific research). It is the larger of the two islands but only 0.13 km square, so a walk here gives you a sense of having seen a whole island rather than just a small part of one.

The panga took us across to the landing place as soon as we had eaten, and we made a dry landing on to a low stone jetty which led to a rocky shoreline. Here there was a stone obelisk indicating that this is part of the Galápagos National Park (as are all the islands and their visitor sites). There were several Galápagos sea lions on the rocks here, along with Sally lightfoot crabs and some swallow-tailed gulls. But we didn’t spend a lot of time here, and instead soon set off on the trail across the island.

This trail is a loop, 2.5 km in length and rated moderate, although I found it easier going than many others. It leads gently uphill from the landing place through a very striking landscape of rocky soil and brightly coloured vegetation. This is sesuvium or Galápagos carpet weed which is turned vivid shades of red by the arid conditions at the end of the dry season (like an ankle-high New England Fall). If you visit in the rainy season however, you will find it mostly green.

We encountered a number of male land iguanas here, of the same species of these that we had seen on our first island visit on North Seymour. Their bright yellow colouring really added to the impression I had of a landscape that was both dramatic and at the same time rather domestic, with the almost tame iguanas resting languidly under many of the opuntia trees.

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Land iguanas

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Landscape with land iguana

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The least bad photo of
a yellow warbler
I took all week!

Other wildlife that we saw on the trail included a yellow warbler, ground and cactus finches, several Nazca boobies and (near the shore) marine iguanas.

We looked out for, but didn’t spot, one of the unique cross-bred iguanas known as hybrids that can sometimes be found here, with (usually) a marine iguana as father and land iguana as mother. These are always sterile, so have not led to the evolution of a totally new species. It isn’t known why this cross-breeding only happens here on South Plaza and not on the other islands where both iguana species are found.

The island is only 130 metres wide so we soon reached the southern edge and turned east towards the cliffs.

On the cliffs

The trail climbs quite gently and on the far side of South Plaza emerges on top of a cliff, from where we had a wonderful view of the bird life of this island. Shearwaters were wheeling in the sky, heading straight for the cliffs and veering away each time just before touching them as if they had some sort of built-in radar.

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The cliffs of Plaza Sur

Frigatebirds were riding the thermals higher up, and a couple of pelicans dived for fish. But the most exciting for me, because it was my first really good look at one, were the red-billed tropicbirds that sailed past our vantage point from time to time. This is a beautiful sea bird, with its bright red bill and flowing tail. It is not endemic to the Galápagos Islands, being widespread across the tropical Atlantic, eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans, but that didn’t make seeing them so closely any less special.

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Red-billed tropicbird

Further along the cliffs we came to a colony of young male Galápagos sea lions, known as bachelors, that is well-established here. I was amazed to learn that they are able to climb these rocky cliffs quite easily, and thus to find refuge from the bossy alpha bulls or “Beach Masters”. Here they can chill out with their mates and refresh themselves before perhaps trying to fight one of the alpha males for the right to rule a beach.

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Bachelor sea lions resting on the cliffs

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And Angelito passengers doing likewise!

We rested here too for a while before following the loop trail back to our starting point, a little sad that our afternoon on the final island of our cruise was coming to an end.

End of cruise party

That evening there was a party on board the Angelito to mark the end of our time together. Not for this little boat the formality of the big cruise ships on such occasions, but instead a really friendly gathering with a buffet dinner for which the chef and his assistant pulled out all the stops! The chef carved some amazing animals and flowers out of all sorts of vegetables, cooked a great buffet dinner with a wonderful fish as the centre-piece, and made a farewell cake.

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Chef's assistant, chef and captain

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What a spread!

After the meal there was an impromptu concert on the rear deck, with some of our travelling companions providing the percussion and others treading the boards. More than a few beers were consumed, and we had a lovely evening to round off what had been an incredible week!

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Music from the crew

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Ryan joins in

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Sue dancing with Brian, while Geoff, Reto and Yolande look on

Tomorrow we would fly back to the mainland, although Fabian still had one more corner of the Galápagos to share with us …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 13:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged people animals birds boats islands iguanas galapagos ecuador Comments (4)

A full and fabulous day!

Japan day five


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Making the most of the Hakone Free Pass

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At Owakudani Hot Springs

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Our bedroom

I slept well on my futon in the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse – a little to my surprise as I had expected the floor to seem hard. Most of us were up early, eager to see what Hakone had to offer and with most of the group opting to join Andrew on a full day out in the region. The shared bathroom facilities meant a bit of polite juggling but we were all soon at breakfast which was served in the adjacent house just a few steps away. Although this is a traditional guest-house, the breakfast was Western in style, with fresh fruit (pineapple and banana), bread for toasting with a selection of jams, yoghurt, cereals, tea, coffee and orange juice.

The plan for the day was to make the most of our Hakone Free Pass and, guided by Andrew, take in some of the major sights using a variety of means of transport. The element that could not be planned was to see Mount Fuji. Fujiyama is a fickle lady and too often shrouded in cloud, but today the sun was shining and we hoped for the best!

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On the funicular
from Gora to Sounzan

We took the bus from Sengokuhara to the small town of Gora, where we changed to the funicular to Sounzan. Confusingly the Japanese call this a cable car, and what I would call a cable car they term a ‘ropeway’! But whatever you call it, this is a useful little service that links Gora, one of the main transport hubs in Hakone, with Sounzan where you can catch the ropeway / cable car proper to Owakudani and onwards to Lake Ashi.

The journey from Gora to Sounzan only took us about ten minutes, with brief stops at a number of stations – one serving a hotel while others seemed to be used by a few locals and walkers.

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Funicular from Gora to Sounzan

In Sounzan we changed to the rope way. This is a cable car system that links Gora to some of the main sights of the region, including Owakudani Hot Springs and Togendai on Lake Ashi. I love travelling in cable cars but a few of our group were less enthusiastic, especially one who had a fear of heights. We were able to reassure her, and all piled into a car for the eight minute ride up the mountain.

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On the way up to Owakudani

There were some lovely views as we went (though there would be better ones still on the way down, as you will see) and we were soon alighting at Owakudani. Here we found ourselves in a rather incongruous modern building with shops and cafės, but a quick look outside the picture window showed us a very different scene.

Owakudani

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Owakudani Hot Springs

Beyond the modern cable car station we were in a landscape that seemed to be from another world. The earth is steaming; this is truly the ‘Great Boiling Valley’ that the name, Owakudani, declares it to be. It also lives up to a previous name, O-jigoku, meaning Great Hell.

We started to climb the path towards the hot springs, but before reaching them we were stopped in our tracks by another sight. There is no more recognised symbol of Japan than Mount Fuji, and every visitor to the country hopes to see this iconic volcano, so perfectly conical in shape, just as a child would draw one. But the weather in this region (indeed in most of Japan) is not especially reliable, and on many days Fuji is shrouded in cloud. For several days before our visit here the talk in our group often turned to this topic - would we see Fuji? And now, suddenly, there she was – completely clear and also, unusually, devoid of snow. Andrew was very surprised by this latter sight as he had never before seen Fuji snow-free.

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First view of Mount Fuji

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Mount Fuji from the path to the hot springs

Andrew promised us an even better view later in the day, when we would, he said, be able to photograph the volcano with Lake Ashi and one of its red torii gates in the foreground. But as I have said, Fuji is elusive and does not reveal herself willingly. By the time we were to reach this spot, however, the clouds would have descended and Fujiyama be hidden from view. But no matter – we had seen what all visitors dream of seeing, a dream that only some are able to realise.

I am getting ahead of myself. For now, after taking loads of photos of the mountain, we continued up the path. As we climbed the steam rose and swirled around us, and there was a strong smell of sulphur in the air.

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Owakudani Hot Springs

The trail leads up and loops around several of the pools, but there are many more on the hillside above. This eerie landscape was created when Mount Kamiyama erupted around 3,000 years ago. Standing here you are in fact in its crater – no wonder the ground hisses and boils beneath your feet. As a visitor to Japan you will have been aware that it is a seismologically active country, with earthquakes a fact of life; here you can really appreciate what that means.

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Kuro-tamago: black eggs

At the point where the path divides to make a loop around the geysers there is a small hut and in one of the hot pools nearby a man was boiling eggs. Eating one of these eggs is said to add seven years to your life! They look black but are just ordinary chicken eggs – the shell turns black due to being boiled in the hot sulphur spring. You can buy them in bags of five but it isn’t advised to eat more than two, however desperate you are for those extra years! However one guy in our group ate three and didn’t seem to suffer any ill effects, although whether he was successful in adding 21 years to his life remains to be seen!

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The egg man

Once you can get over the blackness of the shell I found these really don’t taste much different to regularly boiled eggs. The bags have sachets of salt in them if you want to add it, but the eggs seemed to me to be already a little salty from the chemicals in the water. If you really don’t fancy the eggs, or want something sweet to take the taste away afterwards, the hut also sells chocolate-covered almonds – presumably because their pale interior and dark coating mimic the eggs.

After walking the loop path round the springs it was time to head back to the cable car station and continue on our journey. Rather than return to Sonzan we continued in the same direction along the rope way, with our car ascending further before dropping down to Lake Ashi. Andrew warned us to have our cameras ready as the descent started and we soon saw why, as again we saw Mount Fuji dominating the horizon. Drifting almost silently above the mountains with that distant view of Fuji is something I’ll remember for a long while.

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Descending from Owakudani on the cable car

Cruise on a pirate ship!

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Pirate ship on Lake Ashi

The cable car took us to Togendai on the lake shore, and here we changed to yet another form of transport, the most unusual of them all. When I heard we were to travel on a pirate ship I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I don’t think it was this! The ships are really just regular lake boats ‘in disguise’, with masts added, and with sails and even ropes moulded from plastic. The pirates are equally artificial, being just models (I think I had expected that the crew would be dressed up!) Apparently the ships are modelled on medieval sailing vessels, but once on board they are fairly indistinguishable from any modern boat.

Nevertheless this was a fun ride and the scenery around Lake Ashi is wonderful. We got one more view of Mount Fuji from here, while around the shore are wooded mountains and some brightly coloured torii. On our busy day this was a relaxing and scenic way to travel.

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Pirate ship and torii on Lake Ashi

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Pirate ship with Mount Fuji behind

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Lakeside hotel and pirate ship

This beautiful lake, also known as Ashinoko, lies about 720 metres above sea level and has an area of seven square kilometres, making it the largest lake in this area. It is a crater lake lying along the southwest wall of the caldera of Mount Hakone and was formed after the volcano's last eruption 3,000 years ago.

This is the place to come for views of Japan’s most famous mountain, although by the time we were crossing the lake on our ‘pirate ship’ the clouds were just starting to creep in, and were soon to cover her completely and hide her from view.

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Lake Ashi

The name 'Ashinoko' means lake of reeds (ashi is reed and ko means lake). According to legend Lake Ashi is home to a nine-headed dragon, and to appease this it is presented with an offering of traditional red rice at the Hakone Shrine Lake Ashi Festival on July 31st each year. But no dragon made an appearance to disrupt our journey, which was pleasant but uneventful.

Hakone-Machi

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Soba noodles, Meihika

We got off the boat in Hakone-Machi, a small town on the shore with several hotels and restaurants catering to visitors. Andrew recommended one of the restaurants, Meihika, so most of us went there together for lunch. There was a good selection of dishes and the menu was thankfully in English and with illustrations. Many of the dishes were noodle ones and I chose one of these – soba noodles in a soup with seaweed. Chris had the curry rice, a popular Japanese take on that Indian staple with a simple curry sauce over the rice. Both were tasty, though my soup was so generous a portion that I didn't finish it. Another dish that proved popular with our group included the raw tuna with rice. The service was friendly and when we paid at the till on leaving we were all given a small gift of an origami fish to thank us for our custom.

Hakone secret boxes

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Craftsman making secret boxes

After lunch Andrew suggested that we visit a shop where a craftsman would demonstrate how Hakone’s famous secret boxes are made. As we approached the shop and entered I was anticipating the all too common ‘quick demo then hard sell to the gullible tourists’ that we have experienced in some other places, but this was much more than that – we saw a real craftsman at work.

The traditional craft of the Himitsu-Bako, or Secret Box, is over 100 years old. The boxes are made in various complexities, and require a precise series of small moves to open them. The difficulty of opening a box goes up as the number of sliding panels involved increases. They must be manipulated in the correct sequence, and there can be as few as two moves needed, or (so I have read) as many as 1,500! But most usual are boxes ranging from five to around 60 moves. The number of moves is one factor in determining the price; the size and (most important) quality of craftsmanship are the others.

However, the craftsman we met is not a maker of secret boxes, yet his work is just as skilful, just as traditional and an important element in the intrigue of a secret box. Many of these are covered in intricate inlaid patterns that mask the secret panels that are the key to eventually opening the box. The technique used to make these patterns is known as Yosegi Zaiku and it originated in the late Edo Period. The Hakone Mountains are noted for their great variety of trees and the local craftsmen make the most of the various natural colours of woods to create these intricate designs. The one we met also made beautiful marquetry pictures known as Japanese inlay work or Zougan, but it was the Yosegi Zaiku techniques that he demonstrated to us. The patterns are created by assembling together thin sticks of wood in different colours and then shaving very thin layers off the assembly across the grain to reveal the design. By using the wide variety of tree species and colours available here, he can create complex and surprisingly vivid designs. The thin layers can be applied not only to the secret boxes but to many other items, from coasters to furniture.

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The sheets of shaved wood patterns

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Tools of the secret box trade

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Our little secret box

As we watched the demonstration the man shaved off and passed round a number of strips, enough for us each to have one as a souvenir. He also showed us how the secret boxes worked. There was absolutely no pressure to buy, but of course we were all intrigued by the boxes and we all browsed around the shop, with several of us succumbing to temptation, including us – we bought a small seven move box for which we paid about 1,500¥ (just over £9 or $14). It still sits on a shelf in our front room but unfortunately I have lost the slip of paper illustrating the moves, or possibly (and stupidly) left it inside the box when I last opened it. Either way, for now the box is sealed to me as I can’t get past the second move!

Hakone Checkpoint

Leaving the secret box shop we walked along the street to this reconstruction of a checkpoint on the Tokaido Way, the old highway which linked Tokyo with Kyoto during the feudal Edo Period. This was the most important of the highways, and connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. At intervals there were checkpoints like this one, known as sekisho, where travellers had to show the permits that were necessary to allow them to travel the route.

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Entrance to Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint

The sekisho had two main purposes: to control ‘incoming guns and outgoing women’, i.e. to prevent weapons from being brought into Edo and to prevent the wives and children of feudal lords from fleeing from Edo. At Hakone the second purpose is thought to have been by far the more significant. I found this dramatic story on a website which brings to life the harsh reality of the purpose of the checkpoints:

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In the officers' quarters

In February of 1702, a young girl was captured by authorities in the mountain area behind the Hakone Check Point (barrier station). She didn’t have legal permission to pass through the gate and so she tried to secretly cut across the mountain. After being detained in prison for about two months she was executed, and her head put on display in public. The poor girl’s name was Otama. She had wanted to go back to her parents’ home in Izu, leaving her place of employment in Edo without permission. If she had finished her apprenticeship, she could have gotten a legal pass. But she hated working there and ran away. She was accused of breaking through the barrier – a very serious felony at that time.

The checkpoints were removed soon after the Meiji Restoration, which saw the end of the feudal period. But in recent years this one has been restored exactly as it would have been, thanks to the discovery of some old records which showed every detail of the buildings here. This has the somewhat disconcerting effect of the various structures looking incongruously new. But a visit is worthwhile as the work has been very carefully done and the role of the checkpoint cleverly brought to life. We visited the reconstructed officers’ quarters and the much less spacious ones allocated to the lower ranks. Shadowy grey figures have been used effectively to show the activity that would have taken place in each part of the buildings – sleeping, cooking, checking permits and even inspecting the long hair of female travellers for hidden weapons. Apparently researchers were not able to discover enough details about the colour or design of their clothing, so the models were created like this, but I also found it rather evocative – almost as of the ghosts of the past officials still linger here.

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Checking papers

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Officers

In the open area between the two sets of quarters the tools used to catch criminals (those trying to evade the checkpoint by passing around it) are displayed, and they look pretty effective. I didn’t take a photo but you can see one on the website – nasty!

After visiting these quarters we climbed a hill to the lookout tower. It was a bit of an effort on rather large steps, but we were rewarded with a good view of Lake Ashi (but not Mount Fuji). From here the soldiers would keep watch over the lake as it was prohibited to cross it my ship and thus evade the checkpoints. We also went in the small museum which has displays about the checkpoint and about the Tokaido, but unfortunately no English signage whatsoever, so many of these were lost on me. I did however find the video of the restoration work quite interesting.

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View from the lookout point - Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint

The Tokaido Way

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Path through the cedars on the Tokaido Way

Just north of the checkpoint we were able to walk along a short stretch of the Tokaido Way. This was the most important of the Five Routes or highways during the Edo period, and connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. Tokaido means East Sea Road – this was a coastal route along the sea coast of eastern Honshū (there was also a less well-travelled inland route).

The name lives on today in the Shinkansen (bullet train) line linking Tokyo with Kyoto and Osaka, and the highway itself can still be found in a few places. Here in Hakone-Machi the path runs for about 500 metres, to Moto-Hakone, the next settlement on the lake. The path (which was an easy walk but a little muddy in places) lies between rows of ancient cedar trees, some as much as 400 years old. They were planted by the Edo government to provide travellers with shelter from winter snow and summer heat, and approximately 420 of them remain to this day. The trees reach up to 30 metres high, and some have a girth of over four metres. Walking here you are following the route taken centuries before by travellers to Edo. Most would have been on foot, as we were, though some higher-class people would have been able to afford to travel in a kago, a form of litter or sedan chair carried by a team of men.

At one point on the path you can apparently get the classic view of Mount Fuji, with the red of the Hakone shrine in the foreground, Lake Ashi beyond, and the mountain rising majestically above them both. I say ‘apparently’ because, having been blessed with great good fortune earlier and some fantastic views of Fujiyama, by now our luck had turned and she was hidden in the clouds. But we had nothing to complain of, and did not. We knew that many come here to Hakone and never see her at all, so we were all simply grateful that we had been honoured.

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Torii seen from the path

At the end of this stretch of path we walked down to the boat landing in Moto-Hakone. There we caught another pirate boat back to Togendai where we caught a bus to Sengokuhara and to our guest-house there.

Koto music and kimonos

When we got back to the guest-house our hostess there announced that she had been able to arrange a treat for us. She had invited a local woman, a retired teacher who has been playing the koto for a number of years, to give us a demonstration. This is a traditional stringed instrument, played horizontally on the floor. The 13 strings sit on moveable bridges which can be adjusted to change the pitch.

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The musician

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Koto detail

The musician had set up a small area in the lounge with a screen as backdrop and fabrics to create a sort of stage. She started by explaining something about the instrument and the different styles of playing, both traditional and more modern – she herself plays in a traditional style. She then told us the story of the song she would perform – a cheery piece about a general who kills a young boy fighting on the opposing side despite realising how much he reminds him of his own son, and afterwards feels such remorse that he renounces warfare and becomes a monk. Then she played and sang.

I think you maybe need to have grown up listening to traditional Japanese music, or to have had your ear trained over many years, as to most of us it seemed very strange, even discordant. If you want to hear what I mean, check out my short video. It certainly didn't have the haunting quality of the koto music we had heard a few days previously at the Edo-Tokyo Museum -maybe that was the more modern style, although that seems unlikely in a museum devoted to history.

But the performance was certainly interesting, and the musician couldn't have been more charming. As well as singing and playing for us she had brought gifts for each of us of origami figures, little dolls which she asked that we take with us on our journey and remember her as we travelled. I have carried mine ever since in my travel wallet!

She also brought some kimonos and with the help of the guest house owner and one of the staff offered to dress a few of us up in them so we could find out for ourselves what it was like to wear one. I volunteered and loved the experience of wearing such a beautiful garment, though it was a revelation to see how much binding, padding and clipping goes into the dressing process.

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Group photo, with some of us dressed up

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Zen garden, Hoshino An

After the performance it was time for dinner. There were no restaurants within an easy walk of the guest-house so as on the previous evening we all agreed to Andrew’s suggestion that we go with him to one of his favourites, this time Hoshino An, some way out of Sengokuhara. Because of this isolation the restaurant arranges pick-ups from local hotels if pre-booked, so we piled into the cars that had come to collect us and set off.

The setting of the restaurant was lovely, with a pretty Zen garden. We ate in the first floor area, where the seating was that perfect compromise between traditional and modern – low tables but with a well for your feet so no need to sit cross-legged.

There was an English menu, with photos. Most of the dishes came as part of a set meal with soup, pickles and an oddly salty egg custard dessert. The soup was a DIY affair; we were all brought a bowl with a few small mushrooms and spring onions, and a larger one over a flame with steaming miso soup. We waited till this was hot enough, then ladled it into the bowl of vegetables and tucked in!

The main course dish I chose was of salmon with steamed rice, while Chris had a similar one but with chicken. Also in the dish were a few vegetables - carrot, peas, radish, and a large tasty mushroom. I rather enjoyed my salmon dish though some of our group who aren't keen on fish were a little disconcerted to find that even the non-fish dishes tasted fishy (we think because the rice here may be cooked in fish stock). And as mentioned, the dessert was weird!

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DIY soup and chopsticks, Hoshino An

Still, all in all this was a good experience. The service was friendly, the beer cold and the meal tasty enough and reasonable value. Afterwards it was all back to the guest-house and over the road to stock up on evening treats (plum wine in my case!) at Lawson’s before relaxing in the cosy lounge and later in the outdoor onsen, as on the previous evening.

It had been a long but fabulous day!

Posted by ToonSarah 07:10 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains lakes boats restaurant japan history hot_springs cable_car funicular crafts hakone Comments (4)

Travelling to Fathala

Senegal day two


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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River bank in Banjul, from the ferry

Having spent the night at the Kombo Beach Hotel, we were up early and eager to set off for Senegal. But first came breakfast. This was included in our stay and served buffet-style. We didn't have time to sample everything because of our early departure for the ferry, but what I did have was good - a roll with pineapple and ginger jam, a croissant and wonjo juice (made from hibiscus flowers – delicious). The exception was the coffee which was weak and flavourless. However, on our second visit to the hotel at the end of our trip I found the coffee rather better, so maybe I was just unlucky this first time.

The Banjul ferry

We were picked up after breakfast by a driver who took us and three other tourists to catch the ferry in Banjul. We arrived at the port in good time and stood chatting for a while before the boat arrived. When it did so it was packed with people travelling to the capital to start the working day – some carrying goods to sell at the markets, some coming to buy; some dressed, it appeared, for office work, others labourers probably seeking day work; school children in uniform and a few goats and chickens!

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Ferry passengers in Banjul

After the people, the cars and lorries trundled off, and then it was our turn to board. Thankfully at that time of day the northbound voyages are quieter so there was plenty of room.

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Boarding the ferry in Banjul

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River bank in Banjul, from the ferry

On our driver's advice we secured seats up on the top deck while he guarded the luggage down below. It took a while for some lorries to come aboard but once they had we were off.

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Departing from Banjul

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Ferry passengers

The crossing took about thirty minutes (I gather though it can be as much as forty or fifty) and we then disembarked, being careful to stay out of the way of the lorries doing the same.

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The north bank of the river

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Disembarking in Barra

Fathala Lodge

We were met here by a driver from the lodge we were heading to in Senegal, Fathala. The drive took about an hour, with a stop at a police-check and further stops at both the Gambian and Senegalese borders. The scenery was dry, dusty but rather attractive bush, and the road well-surfaced, so we enjoyed our journey - indeed, I would have been happy if it were a little longer!

[Aside: this was perhaps just as well, as two days later we were to repeat the trip – a broken tooth meant a return to Banjul for a morning for dental treatment, helpfully arranged by the hotel manager and staff.]

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On the road to Samé

Fathala Lodge lies not far from the border near a small village called Samé. It claims be a unique hotel for Senegal – a tented lodge on a private wildlife reserve. Accommodation is in large tents set along boardwalks that lead away from the public areas on either side. As we were shown to our tent, about halfway along the row to the left of the central area, we were warned to stay on the boardwalks at all time, as the long grass below often harboured snakes. You can believe that we followed this advice to the letter!

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Our tent

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The tents all have mosquito nets, free-standing bath tubs and twin washbasins. In a separate block behind are two outdoor showers (I love outdoor showers!). There is plenty of storage, a small fridge, tea and coffee, but no TV – this is an away-from-it-all destination.

The public areas are all open air under a large thatched roof. There is lots of comfortable seating, a bar and restaurant, and a small plunge pool with sun loungers. The atmosphere is one of casual but well-designed comfort, with local crafts, a few antelope skulls and similar African decorative touches. There is free wifi available here, although not in the tents.

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Bar and lounge

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Plunge pool and deck

We had arrived in time for lunch which we had on the terrace overlooking the lodge’s small waterhole just beyond the plunge pool. This naturally attracts local wildlife. If you are lucky (we weren’t, either today or throughout our stay) this will include the resident white rhino, as well as the frequently-visiting waterbucks. But we did spot some warthogs this afternoon, getting us in the mood for our planned afternoon activity.

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Warthogs at the waterhole

Safari drive in Fathala Reserve

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In the reserve, Fathala

The lodge has a variety of activities on offer (all of which are available to non-residents, by the way, who come on day trips from hotels in nearby Gambia). We signed up for a number of these as soon as we arrived, starting today with a safari-style drive in Fathala’s own game reserve.

The reserve has been stocked with some species that would once have been at home in Senegal, such as giraffe and rhino, and of course has still-native species including a wide variety of birds and several monkeys. A highlight of the reserve is the rare Western Giant Eland (also known as the Giant Derby Eland) which is bred here as part of a rescue programme for this endangered species.

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Western Giant Eland

We went out in the late afternoon with a driver plus a local guide who spoke good English and was adept at spotting the animals and telling us something about them. We didn't see all the species that the reserve has (you would have to be exceptionally lucky to do so) but we did see a lot, including several of the Western Giant Eland. On our drive this afternoon we also saw ...

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Plains Zebra

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Giraffes

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Patas Monkey
- we saw both Red and Green Patas Monkeys, but I'm not sure which this is, although my guess is red!

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Warthogs

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Roan Antelopes

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Waterbuck, and another Western Giant Eland

We also saw lots of birds.

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Both Red-billed and Grey Hornbills

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Palm Nut Vulture

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Abyssinian Roller

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Blue Glossy and Purple Starlings

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Stone Partridge

Plus some I failed to get decent photos of:
African Harrier Hawk
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Red-eyed Dove
Guinea Fowl
Drongo

We stopped a little before sunset, when the light was at its best, to enjoy a beer and some nuts while photographing the starlings at a waterhole. I also videoed them, and later combined that footage with some taken earlier of the giraffes:

So while we didn't see the hoped-for White Rhino this was still a great outing and we thoroughly enjoyed the more than three hours we had spent driving around the reserve. The light was fading as we drove back to the lodge, ready for our dinner.

Evening at the lodge

Our stay at Fathala was on a bed and breakfast basis. I found it surprising that they didn't just make it half-board, since there is nowhere else to go to eat round here! So of course we took all our meals in the restaurant and found them very good on the whole, although the choice was understandably limited.

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Thai fish curry

Dinner was a set three course meal, with no choice of starter or dessert and just two options for mains. Although we didn’t have any specific needs ourselves, we were told that the chef will cook for these, e.g. vegetarian, with prior notice. We got chatting this evening to a young vegetarian girl (another Sarah!) who was staying here with her mother, and she told us that she was very impressed with the variety and quality of the dishes prepared for her. As indeed were we – the choice might have been limited but the meals were excellent and I loved this evening’s main course of a butterfish fillet in a Thai curry sauce.

Before and after dinner we enjoyed drinks in the Baobab Bar, an informal spot with views across the dried up river channel and, after dark, a fire pit. Then we walked back along the boardwalk, watching carefully for snakes, and settled down in our cosy tent, excited about what tomorrow would bring ...

Posted by ToonSarah 06:33 Archived in Senegal Tagged people animals birds boats wildlife hotel africa safari zebra giraffes gambia senegal fathala Comments (10)

Dealing with the mishap, and a holiday resumed

Senegal day four


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Back to Banjul

It was just as well that we had enjoyed our ferry ride from Banjul to Barra two days ago, as here we were, back again. My broken tooth necessitated a visit to the dentist, the dentist was in Banjul, and so we were making the day trip from Fathala Lodge (in Senegal).

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On the road to the ferry

Of course a broken tooth wasn’t going to stop me taking photos and the scene at the port in Barra, where we had to wait quite a while, was as colourful as it had been on our previous trip. Women carrying babies, women carrying chickens, children travelling to school, labourers to work, farmers with goods to sell in Banjul’s markets.

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Waiting for the ferry in Barra

And once we boarded there was plenty of activity on the river bank to watch, with colourful pirogues ferrying other locals across the river. I was amused to see how passengers boarded these vessels, carried on the shoulders of one of the boatmen!

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Boats in Barra

The journey passed smoothly and as before we enjoyed sitting on the top deck and watching all the activity, although apprehension about visiting an unknown dentist in this very different part of the world prevented me from fully appreciating the scenes around me.

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Ferry passenger

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Refreshments on board

We had been given instructions on how to find the dental clinic in Banjul and had been told that the lodge guide would just see us on to the ferry and then wait for us on the other side, but he insisted on coming with us to make sure everything went well. With his guidance we easily found the clinic, where the dentist was on the lookout for us. Somewhat ironically, since I had been thinking that it was good to be visiting a French-trained Gambian dentist rather than a Senegalese one (after the manager at Fathala told us that the usual practice in that country was to pull out any tooth giving trouble rather than try to save it), it turned out that although living in Gambia he was actually from Senegal! Incidentally, it might also be considered a bit ironic that my dentist back at home did have to eventually remove the tooth to deal with the problem!

Anyway, this particular Senegalese dentist, who spoke reasonable English to match my passable French, agreed with me that a temporary filling would be the best solution in the immediate term. He had soon performed the procedure but not without giving a running commentary on the quality, or rather the lack of quality, of previous work I’d had done on my teeth – even calling on Chris to come and have a look at one point!

But he worked well, and quickly – so much so that we were able to hurry back to the port afterwards and catch the same boat that we had arrived on back to Barra rather than have to wait several hours for the next one. On the way back we got talking to three local guys who had parked next to our vehicle on board, who insisted that I took their photo, so I did!

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On the ferry back to Barra

What is more, thanks to the speedy work of the dentist, we were back at Fathala in time for lunch, and I even managed to eat some!

By the way, the dentist had done his work well – the filling lasted for the rest of the trip and until I was able to visit my own dentist back in London.

Boat ride among the mangroves

The prompt work of the dentist meant that we were back in plenty of time to go ahead with our planned activity. a late afternoon ride among the nearby mangroves. We took a jeep ride of about half an hour through some small villages, where children rushed out to wave to us as we passed. We felt a little self-conscious and pseudo-regal waving to them from our high perches in the vehicle, but it would have been mean to disappoint them and it was fun to see their excitement. One toddler in particular shrieked with such joy you would have thought we were the only foreigners he had ever seen, despite this being a fairly well-visited tourist area.

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The road through a local village

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Local children


We reached the point where our boat was waiting for us – one of the traditional local vessels known as pirougues. Once we were all aboard (as well as the two of us there were the two elderly English ladies in our group) we cast off, and spent the next couple of hours cruising slowly among the mangroves.

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The waiting pirogues

Although there was less bird life than we had seen on similar trips when staying at Mandina Lodge in Gambia two years previously, we did see quite a few.

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Goliath Herons

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Osprey on mangrove tree

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Hooded Vulture

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Great Egret

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Egrets in flight

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Hamerkop in a baobab

The other birds we saw, but I failed to photograph, were:
Senegal Thick-knee
Lapwing
Pied Kingfisher
Caspian Tern
Whimbrel
African Darter

We also saw a crocodile and, as at Mandina, a number of locals collecting the oysters that grow on the mangrove roots.

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Collecting oysters

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Crocodile


Part way through the ride we stopped in the shade to enjoy cold drinks and some snacks in this peaceful setting. As we watched we chatted a bit with our companions, who were an interesting pair. They were clearly good friends but were like chalk and cheese! One seemed to be a fairly experienced traveller, taking everything pretty much in her stride, while the other was in an almost constant state of bewilderment. Neither of them could manage to work the rather complex camera that a daughter had lent them for the trip and were in unjustifiable awe of the photos we were capturing – so much so that we swapped email addresses so I could send them some as a reminder of the outing. I wondered afterwards if the mother passed them off to her daughter as her own, so that her incompetence with the camera could remain a secret!

As the sun sank a little lower the light became rather magical, and I especially enjoyed seeing the almost sculptural silhouettes of the baobab trees that dotted the landscape, rising out of the deep greens of the mangrove trees.

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Sunset on the river
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Baobab, late afternoon light


After a couple of hours we returned to our starting point and boarded the jeep for the ride back to the lodge. The landscape glowed red in the late afternoon sun and our ride home was punctuated by even more greetings and waves from the small children we passed.

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Senegal sunset


Although not so exciting as the other lodge activities (and especially the lion walk), this was a very pleasant way to spend a few hours, and visiting the mangroves introduced us to a very different landscape from the dry and dusty bush surrounding Fathala.

We spent the last evening here much as we had the others, with drinks at the bar and a tasty dinner, which tonight I was able to enjoy as much as on the first evening, thanks to my newly mended tooth! And we went to bed in our cosy tent looking forward to seeing more of this fascinating country tomorrow, when we would travel north to the Saloum Delta in the Sine-Saloum region.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:06 Archived in Senegal Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises children trees animals birds boats wildlife village river reptiles dentist gambia senegal fathala Comments (7)

Travelling to the Sine-Saloum Delta

Senegal day five


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Waterbuck mother and baby visiting the waterhole

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At breakfast today we were treated to the sight of a couple of waterbucks, mother and baby, who came to drink at the waterhole and lingered for some time. A lovely ending to our short stay at Fathala.

Our journey to Fimela

After spending three nights at Fathala we left to travel further into Senegal. We drove (or I should say, were driven) north on what was at first a good road but which soon deteriorated into a dusty red sand track, made worse by the fact that work was in progress (February 2016) to surface it properly.

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Roadworks

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Scenery on the road

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Passing through a local village

But after 25 kilometres of bumping along through a string of very traditional-looking villages, each with a number of the family compounds so typical of rural Africa, we turned west, and back on to a properly surfaced road. Our driver explained that rather than travel through Kaolack, as we had expected, he planned to take the ferry from Foundiougne, cutting off a corner of the journey and avoiding another long stretch of unmade-up road. We might have to wait for the boat, he said, but that would still be preferable to the much longer alternative by road. This suited us, as the boat ride would break up the journey and sounded more interesting.

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The Saloum from the road

This better road led across salt flats and along causeways lined with mangroves to the town of Foundiougne, from where we were to catch the ferry across the Saloum. The queue of vehicles was too long to allow of us crossing on the ferry that was then loading, so we had to hang around for about 45 minutes while it crossed and returned.

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The ferry in Foundiougne
- this is the one that was too full to take us!

This unscheduled break gave us time to stroll around and take lots of photos, as well as to try to converse a little, in our sometimes inadequate French, with the local market traders etc. They were naturally keen that we shopped at their stalls (we didn't) but less keen on our cameras, although most tolerated them.

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Locals in Foundiougne

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Drums for sale in the market

The favoured local transport option of a horse or donkey and cart was much in evidence, carrying both goods and passengers.

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Local transport in Foundiougne

I rather liked the design of the building housing the port offices here - very 1930s, it seemed to me!

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Port building

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Decorated bike waiting for the ferry

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Ferry approaching Foundiougne

When the ferry returned we paid the foot passenger fee of 50 CFA francs each while our driver drove on separately (no passengers are allowed in vehicles). Life jackets were much in evidence, but thankfully not needed!

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Leaving Foundiougne

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On the ferry
- a white-breasted cormorant, I think, and two gulls

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Approaching Ndakhonga on the far bank

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Disembarking from the ferry in Ndakhonga

The crossing took only about 15 minutes, and once on the far side it was an easy drive of around an hour via the small town of Fatick and on to Souimanga Lodge near the township of Fimela.

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On the road to Fatick

Souimanga Lodge

When I booked our stay at this fairly remote small hotel in the Sine Saloum I opted to pay a little extra for what they term a ‘lagoon’ rather than ‘garden’ bungalow, as these face directly on the water and have their own private boardwalk and shaded jetty overlooking the water. But when we arrived it was to discover that for some reason we had been upgraded to a suite. These (there are just two) have the same lovely waterside setting as the lagoon bungalows, but the extra bonus of a small private plunge pool and a separate inside seating area. What a treat!

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Seating area

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Bedroom area


The room was beautifully decorated with interesting art pieces and lighting. It had plenty of facilities including air conditioning, mini bar, espresso coffee machine and a TV with French channels. The bathroom was very attractive with a monsoon shower.

At the end of our boardwalk was a deck with large beanbags and some shade, perfect for bird-watching. After a quick dip in the rather chilly plunge pool we spent what remained of the afternoon relaxing there and taking photos of the many birds who live among the mangroves.

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View from the deck, with next door's hide, and the boardwalk to our private hide

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Our suite from the hide

The Sine Saloum Delta is known for its bird-life. While I wouldn’t describe myself as a keen birdwatcher, as a photographer I am drawn to them and the challenge of capturing the beauty of something that hardly ever keeps still for long enough!

I also like to know what it is that I am photographing, something I found slightly frustrating here. The local guides here seemed much less knowledgeable about the names of the bird species than those in Gambia, and naturally when they could name them, they did so in French. A comprehensive guide to the birds of West Africa on the bookshelf in the bar area was also in French, so I resorted to Google and to sharing photos with well-informed Facebook friends! All bird photos labelled in this blog therefore come with a disclaimer – I am pretty sure I have the names correct but not 100% so. I’d be grateful to readers who can correct any errors, either on this page or the following ones!

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Bird-life among the mangroves

Today we saw herons, egrets and more, including several pelicans swimming among the mangroves.

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Pelican

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Black-winged Stilt

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Cormorants
- too far away for me to be sure which kind!

Back on the deck we saw a few more birds who came to drink from our plunge pool. There were Senegal Doves, also known as Laughing Doves, and also a Red-Eyed Dove.

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Senegal or Laughing Doves

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Red-Eyed Dove

We also saw several Common Bulbuls and a Weaver – either Village or Little, I wasn’t able to determine which.

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Common Bulbul
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Little (or Village?) Weaver

We were to see many more of the same species during the week we spent here, and more besides, so expect to see lots more bird photos in my following entries too!

Evenings at Souimanga

In the evening we had dinner on the decking by the main building. This is on several levels with only a few tables on each, and you have the feeling of eating in a tree-house – wonderful!

Dinner was a set menu but with a choice of two main courses, which seemed almost always to be either beef (served as a steak or brochette) or fish, again served either as a single piece or a mix of fishes on a brochette. One of the kitchen staff came to seek us out each afternoon to ask for our choice and also at what time we wanted to eat. Before our choice of mains, there was always an amuse bouche and an entree, and after it a dessert. There was no choice of these, but generally we found them tasty and they were thankfully much more varied than the main courses. We also really enjoyed both our pre-dinner drinks each evening (a beer for Chris and a cocktail for me, which came with what we still talk about as the best olives we have tasted anywhere in the world!

Posted by ToonSarah 07:15 Archived in Senegal Tagged landscapes animals birds boats views hotel river roads africa seabirds senegal street_photography Comments (8)

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