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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 (6)

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 by 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 (6)

Roots

Gambia day three


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Slavery museum, Albreda

For anyone who has read Alex Haley's book, Roots, or seen the TV series, it's possible to take an organised ‘Roots’ tour which provides an insight into the places and people behind his story and that of thousands of others.

We had never read or seen Roots, and tend to shy away from large group tours, but I didn’t want to visit The Gambia without acknowledging, and learning more about, the history of slavery in West Africa. And with limited time this seemed as good a way as any of visiting some key sights.

The trip was expensive compared with what we would have paid had we arranged it with a local guide, but we decided it was worth the extra cost to have someone put it together for us and take care of logistics. However if we were to go to The Gambia again I would probably make the extra effort to plan any similar outings myself.

On the river

We were picked up at Ngala Lodge by a bus that already had a number of tourists on board, and stopped at one more hotel before driving to Banjul to board a boat for a two hour journey on the River Gambia. We secured seats on the top deck with excellent views of all the activity on the river as, although the sun was hot, the fresh breezes made sitting in the open bearable – a decision I was to regret later however!

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Old pleasure boat near Banjul

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Fishing on the Gambia

Albreda

After two hours on the Gambia River we arrived at our first stop, the small fishing village of Albreda on the north bank. In less happy times this was one of the embarkation points for slaves being transported to the Caribbean and Southern states plantations, and the village contains several memorials of those days.

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Welcome to Albreda - view from the jetty

Albreda was formerly a French outpost, having been given to the French by a local ruler, Niumi Mansa, in 1681 to strengthen trading ties with Europe. This gave the French a foothold in the otherwise British-owned territory in this region and led to regular skirmishes, with nearby Fort James changing hands between them several times, before settling down under British control from 1702 onwards. Albreda itself was transferred from French control to the British Empire in 1857.

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By the river in Albreda


Today the village survives on fishing and tourism, the later sustained by these memories of its dark past. Down by the river where the boats dock is a dramatic statue of a human figure, part black and part white, with broken chains hanging from its wrists and a globe for a head. On the plinth are inscribed the words, ‘Never again’.

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Slavery monument, Freedom Flagpole and cannon

Nearby are the ruins of a ‘factory’ or fortified slaving station, and the so-called Freedom Flagpole which we were told gets its name from a story that if a slave managed to escape from James Island and swim here, and to touch the pole before being caught, he would gain his freedom - but none ever did because they feared the river and never learned to swim. I am not sure how true this is ...

The cannon next to the flagpole dates from the 19th century and was used by the British to deter slaving ships from sailing further up river.

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In Albreda

From here our group was led by the local guide who had met our boat on a stroll through the village with its dusty football pitch and shady baobab trees. As we walked we were ‘serenaded’ by local children with drums, singing and some rather bizarre costumes and dancing. Every group had a bowl for tips, but we were encouraged instead to make a single donation to the village in a box outside a small council office.

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Village children

I shot some video clips of the various groups.

Slavery Museum

Our walk brought us to the slavery museum, housed in a wooden building dating from the mid 19th century, known as the Maurel Freres Building. This building was somewhat ramshackle, despite being described in a sign on the outside wall as ‘one of the best structurally preserved historical buildings in the James Island and related sites world heritage complex’. It was built by the British in the 1840s and is named for a Lebanese trader who later used it.

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Sign on the Slavery Museum

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According to the same sign, the James Island and related sites present ‘a testimony to main periods and facets of the encounter between Africa and Europe along the River Gambia, a continuum that stretched from pre-Colonial and pre-slavery times to independence.’ That could be said to be the aim of this little museum too.

We were left by our guide to walk around three rooms which tell the history of the slave trade (both in this region and more generally), describe the appalling lives of the slaves, and, more positively, celebrate the more recent achievements of black African-Americans. A number of artefacts such as manacles, chain neck-locks, and foot-locks bring the gruesome history to life, as do quotes and posters from contemporary sources. It is somewhat cramped, and the artefacts not imaginatively presented, as they might be in a more sophisticated museum, but they are all the more telling perhaps for that reason.

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Old photo

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Manacles

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Yoke

Outside the museum was a moving sculpture in a naïve style depicting a slave family – father standing and manacled to the mother kneeling at his feet with a baby on her back. There was also a replica slaver ship which we could climb inside to see the cramped conditions suffered by the slaves.

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Monument outside the Slavery Museum

Village school

Next door to the museum was the small village school which we were encouraged to visit. Although it was a Sunday, some children were inside doing colouring and happy to chat to their visitors. We made a small donation, as had been suggested, and some people in the group handed over pens, pencils etc., but were discouraged, I was pleased to note, from giving sweets.

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Pupils at the village school

We all sat for a while in a nearby sheltered area known as a bantaba, which gave us a welcome break from the hot sun. A local musician was playing the korah (a stringed instrument) here and aiming to sell CDs to the visitors although I don’t think anyone from our group bought one. Some of the other villagers had gathered here - perhaps to listen to the music, perhaps to inspect the visiting groups!

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Village woman

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Korah player

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Woman in Albreda

After a brief rest it was time to move on, walking to the next village, Juffureh.

Juffureh

Juffureh is the neighbouring village to Albreda, about a kilometre away along what appeared to me to be a wide sandy track but could equally as easily have been a dried-up river bed. Only the ‘Welcome to Juffureh’ sign gave any indication that we were entering another village.

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Entering Juffureh

And Juffureh would be just that, ‘another village’, were it not for one black American man, Alex Haley, and his search for his African ancestors. He told in his semi-fictionalised account how he traced his family back to a certain Kunta Kinte who originated from Juffureh, from where he had been captured and sold into slavery in the plantations of the American South. Haley came here to see if any of his relatives could be found. He discovered the descendants of Kunta Kinte's brother still living here in the family compound. Alex Haley himself claimed to be a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte and here he met a woman also of that generation. She has since died but other members of the family remain and take it in turns to represent the rest (‘sit for the family’, as our guide put it) when tourist groups visit. We met the daughter of that seventh generation woman who had welcomed Alex Haley, and another family member whose relationship was not explained. The women greeted visitors and posed for photos, and in return sold small booklets about the story or simply accepted a small donation for their time.

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Kinte women, Juffureh

There have been some challenges to the authenticity of Haley's account. He himself admitted that he took some details of Kunta Kinte's story from another book, and papers found after his death cast doubt on his claim that he was descended from him. But there is no denying the fact that these villages, like most others in the region, suffered terribly from the impacts of the slave trade – both on those who were taken and those left behind.

Not having read ‘Roots’, I was more interested in the general history of slavery than this one man's story. For me the more memorable encounter in Juffureh was not with the Kinte family but with the village chief, who just happened to be, at the time of our visit, a woman – still an unusual and remarkable occurrence here. She sat in the village banaba to receive visitors, welcomed us (through a translator) and spoke a little about her appreciation of the efforts we had made (truly not that considerable!) to leave our hotels for the day and travel to see something of village life. She happily posed for photos with anyone who wanted to (I myself preferred to take more candid shots of her alone as she spoke) and gave anyone who wanted it a small ‘certificate of visitation’ in return for (another) small donation. I made the donation in recognition of the photos I had taken but declined the certificate. But it was certainly an interesting experience to meet her and one of the highlights of the day out for me.

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Village chief

In addition I found that visiting Albreda and Juffureh not only gave me an up-close perspective on the impact of the slave trade on this region but also the opportunity to see a bit of life as it is lived in these rural villages (notwithstanding the fact that these villages are visited by many tourist groups). OK, we didn’t have the place to have it to ourselves, and there was a (manageable) degree of hassling, but, I concluded, why shouldn't these people cash in on the opportunities we bring their way?

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In Juffureh

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Woman in Juffureh

In Juffureh this ‘cashing in’ included a small range of items for sale beside our route (loofahs, textiles etc.), more children adorned in leaves as in Albreda, and enthusiastic demonstrations by several women pounding maize – all designed to increase the donations we made to the community, no doubt.

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Women pounding maize

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Woman pounding maize, and loofahs etc for sale

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Child in Juffureh

Kunta Kinte Island

After our visit to Albreda and Juffureh we returned to the boat to travel the short distance to Kunta Kinte Island. Formerly known as James Island (the name was changed in 2011) and prior to that St Andrew's Island, this small island in the River Gambia is home to the ruins of a fort that once belonged to colonial Britain. For many slaves, this would have been the last patch of African soil that they saw before being transported in the bowels of transatlantic slave ships to the Americas.

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Kunta Kinte Island

Prior to coming into British hands in 1661 it had been occupied by first the Portuguese and later the Dutch, among others. For the British it represented their first imperial exploit on the African continent. They renamed the island James Island and the fort Fort James after James, the Duke of York, who was to become King James II of England. The island subsequently changed hands many times, particularly between the French and British. The fort was destroyed and rebuilt several times during this period, both in these conflicts and by pirates.

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Ruined fort on Kunta Kinte Island

Today you can see the ruins of the fort and some of its outbuildings, though many of the latter, including the slave houses, have been lost due to erosion of the island. It is now apparently only about one sixth of the size it was at the time of the slave trade, although much of what has been lost was in fact artificial island that had been built up around the natural water’s edge to enable more buildings to be constructed here. Without constant maintenance it is not surprising that these reclaimed patches of land are being lost again to the river.

Our guide, Ibrahim, bemoaned the fact that his government is doing so little to protect this part of the country's history (and this despite the fact that it is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with related sites including Albreda, Juffureh and Fort Bullen). You can still see the ruins of the main fort building and can enter one of the cells where recalcitrant slaves were imprisoned, and there are still cannons in place on the crumbling bastions. But the outlying quarters where the majority of the slaves were housed are among the buildings no longer standing, so we got only a partial idea of the conditions they suffered, although my imagination, Ibrahim’s explanations and my own reading of history could fill in the rest.

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Our guide Ibrahim

Despite its gruesome history this is quite a peaceful spot. I loved the shapes made by the ancient baobab trees against a backdrop of sparkling river water and wandered off from our guide, informative though he was, to take some photos.

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The Old Landing Place

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Ruins and baobab trees

Then it was back to the boat for the two hour journey back to Banjul and from there the bus transfer back to Ngala Lodge.

That evening …

It had been a long, hot day. We had only been in the country for 24 hours and I was unaccustomed to the heat, coming straight from an English winter, so I found myself suffering a little later that evening with what I concluded was mild heat exhaustion. After our morning ride on the river, when I did sit in the sun, I had tried to stay in the shade, and I’d taken plenty of water, but clearly the damage had been already done. As a result I felt decidedly wobbly for a few hours and had to skip dinner and miss what sounded like an excellent evening’s entertainment with musicians and dancers from the local area. A lesson learned, the hard way!

Posted by ToonSarah 06:29 Archived in Gambia Tagged people children boats islands fishing history ruins fort village river museum school africa slavery gambia Comments (12)

Exploring Bakau and ‘The Strip’

Gambia days four and five


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Shopping for fruit and vegetables, Bakau

As I wrote at the end of my last entry, after our long hot excursion to the villages associated with Alex Haley’s book ‘Roots’, I was a little heat-struck and wobbly. So we decided to take it easy this morning and enjoy relaxing at Ngala Lodge. Inevitably though after a few hours we got itchy feet and decided to walk into nearby Bakau to explore.

Bakau

The town of Bakau lies on the coast not far from the capital Banjul. It has grown up around a fishing village and today has a mix of basic traditional housing; fancier properties occupied by more affluent business leaders, politicians and ex-pats; and hotels.

Following the road along the coast we passed all of the above, plus local food shops and those targeting tourists. I found the colourful clothing of the women especially attractive so I took lots of candid shots of them as well as quite a few of the men too. This was our first visit to this part of Africa and we found almost everything fascinating!

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Fruit stand in Bakau

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In Bakau

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Shop in Bakau

For the most part our cameras were tolerated – people here are used to tourists. Too much so, in some cases! We had been warned at our welcome meeting about the activities of the so-called Gambian bumster, and on our walk through the town we encountered several, including one particularly persistent young man. Indeed it was pretty much inevitable that we would do so, unless we spent the whole holiday cocooned inside the grounds of the lodge. These are unemployed, mostly young, men who hang around the hotels and tourist areas in the hope of making easy money out of gullible visitors. They are not dangerous in any way, and a modicum of common sense and astuteness will ensure you don’t fall victim to their scams.

The most common of these usually involve a claim to know you. They will approach with a smile, ask how you are, and when you appear not to recognise them will say that they work at your hotel. The more ingenious among them may work in pairs – one will approach, engage you in conversation and ask your name. Further down the road a second man will greet you by that name (having had a call from his mate who will have described you: ‘a blonde English guy in a red t-shirt called John’, for example). If you say you don’t know him, he will seem offended and ‘remind you’ that you have talked at the hotel, or he served you last night at dinner. The naïve tourist, embarrassed not to have recognised him, will be lured into further conversation and into accepting his services as ‘guide’, for which they will be expected to pay at the end of the day. We had been told that all staff at Ngala were specifically trained not to pull this trick so that anyone who tried it on us would for sure not be genuine!

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Bumster in Bakau

Another common scam is to claim to be very recently married and to invite you home to meet his new wife. Seeing an interesting opportunity to visit a typical Gambian home and interact with locals, the tourist agrees. At the home the ‘wife’ (probably in truth a sister or friend) will be traditionally dressed and will shyly accept congratulations and offer tea. But when the unsuspecting visitor makes to leave they will be told that in The Gambia it is expected that anyone paying a visit to a newly married couple will bring money as a gift – and if they say they don’t have any with them, they may be firmly escorted to an ATM to withdraw the necessary cash.

Some of course are less sophisticated and simply ask for money or offer to show you around in the expectation that you’ll reward their services. In all cases it’s best to either ignore them or give a polite but firm refusal, and if the bumster persists just walk away. Or you can do as Chris liked to do, and engage them briefly in conversation just for the fun of it, while making it very clear he has no intention of handing over any money.

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Barbershop

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Batik for sale

Bakau fishing village

We spotted a turning on our left which led to the fish quay, a great spot for more photos. Although tourism has long since overtaken fishing as the main source of income here, the latter is still an important part of the local economy.

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Fishermen and their boats

Although it was by now late morning there was plenty of activity – a few boats still coming in with their catch, others being tidied up and nets mended, fish being prepared, sold or cooked.

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Fish stalls

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Fishing beach

I was interested to watch the various manoeuvres as men moved from boat to boat - presumably to help each other with nets or catch.

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Fishermen in Bakau

Some of the fishermen were trying to make a few extra delasi by showing tourists around. We refused their sometimes persistent offers as we didn’t see any need for a guide when all we wanted to do was wander around and take some photos. We had to be discreet when taking ones of individuals – we could of course have asked permission but getting it could have meant tipping which would have proved expensive given how many photos we tend to take!

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At the fishing quay in Bakau

Fish caught here include barracuda, captain fish and lady fish, all of which you can see on hotel and restaurant menus, plus some smaller fish which tend to be eaten only by locals because of the large number of bones they contain. We were also shown a so-called ‘ugly’ fish by one would-be guide, which had weirdly human-looking teeth!

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Ugly fish

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Preparing fish for cooking

And of course, as anywhere where fish are caught, there were plenty of small cats and large birds (here mostly egrets) hoping for a bite too.

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Egrets on the fishing beach

Back at Ngala Lodge

After our hot walk we spent what remained of the day relaxing at Ngala Lodge. I had a swim and we took some photos around the grounds

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Bulbul

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In the grounds

Later we were treated to a beautiful sunset. Indeed, almost every evening of our stay at Ngala, we had a beautiful sunset. Some were pale and subtle, some fiery, but all were lovely when viewed from the cliff-top just above the beach.

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Ngala sunset

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Fish for dinner

We had dinner at the lodge’s excellent restaurant, where there is live music every evening. This evening it was a wonderful Senegalese singer called Tabou Diop. We enjoyed her singing so much that later in the week we bought a CD in the lodge shop. You can see and hear her on this video, which looks to me as if it was shot at Ngala:

While this one definitely was:

The next day: around the lodge

The following day was equally restful, although there was the excitement of seeing the UK Ambassador to The Gambia visit the restaurant for a business lunch. The embassy is almost next door to Ngala Lodge, but of course being a VIP, he arrived by car!

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The ambassador's car, and bougainvillea in the grounds

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More bougainvillea

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Red Hornbill

We split our time between the hotel grounds, where I enjoyed several swims in the pool, and the decking down by the beach with lovely views out to sea.

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View from the decking

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Beach and decking from the cliffs

I managed to shoot some video footage of one of the pirogues, with the fishermen hauling in their nets. You can see they caught some decent sized fish.

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Fishermen seen from the beach

On the Strip

Having spent all day at the hotel we were keen to get out for the evening, so we booked a taxi to take us to what is known locally as the Senegambia Strip or more simply just The Strip. This is a short road that leads from the Senegambia Hotel in Kololi to the main road. With several large hotels nearby, it has become a focus for tourist nightlife as well as for locals looking to meet and mix with those tourists.

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On the Senegambia Strip

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We checked out a few of the restaurants and settled on Darboe's for dinner, just off the Strip. We ate on the outside terrace (there were only a handful of table inside and outside looked by far the more attractive option) and decided to try some local Gambian cuisine, though standard international dishes were also available (steaks, seafood, pasta etc). We asked the waiter to describe the dishes and both opted for the style known as benechin, in which meat, fish or vegetables are cooked in a red sauce and served with rice which is also red (I believe tomatoes account for the colour). Chris chose a chicken one and I asked for vegetable, foolishly forgetting to ask what vegetables are included. When it arrived, I was taken aback to find the dish full of peas, which I really really don't like! Luckily I was able to find quite a few other vegetables in there too but it wasn't the best choice to have made. The sauce though was good, and Chris liked his chicken version.

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Chris at Darboes

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Darboes

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Dinner at Darboes

After dinner we went for beers in the Jazz Café on the Strip itself. Prices seemed very low after getting used to those at upmarket Ngala Lodge – our JulBrews would have cost probably three times the price there.

The Strip is an excellent place for a spot of people watching. We observed young local men hanging out in the hope that a (by local standards) ‘rich’ female visitor would take a fancy to them and buy them a few drinks in return for their company, or maybe more. We also spotted several ill-matched couples that were almost certainly the result of such an arrangement. We saw ex-pats chatting up young local girls, groups of these girls out for a giggly night out over a few soft drinks, and older men chewing the fat and making one beer last as long as possible.

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The Jazz Cafe

After our beers we took a few more photos then walked back up to the taxi rank at the main road to go back to the hotel, where we enjoyed a final much more expensive drink in the bar while enjoying this evening’s low-key entertainment, a local jazz trio.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:01 Archived in Gambia Tagged beaches people birds night boats food fishing flowers restaurant coast hotel music africa gambia street_photography Comments (20)

Into the forest

Gambia day eight


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View from our Floating Lodge, Mandina Lodges

After a final morning at Ngala we said our goodbyes to Jenny, the friendly manager, to all the staff and to Rasta, the cute tabby cat, hoping to return one day.

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Chris at breakfast – sad to be leaving Ngala, but happy to be going somewhere new

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Rasta looks sad to see us leave too

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Arriving at Mandina Lodges

We were picked up in a minibus around lunch time. There were also three other guests already on board who had been staying at different coastal hotels and like us were moving on to Mandina Lodges - a young couple who I think were on their honeymoon, and a man of about our age travelling alone. Incidentally, we learned when we arrived at Mandina and got chatting to him that he had been due to come on this holiday with his wife, but at the last minute she got cold feet as she was nervous about the (very low) risk of catching malaria. Having already paid in full he had decided to leave her at home and come alone. I couldn't help thinking that there would be some 'interesting' conversations when he got back!

Our luggage was piled on the roof and we set off, soon leaving the more touristy strip behind and driving through dusty markets and local villages. After about half an hour we turned off this busy road on to the track to Mandina and immediately saw why everyone comments on this road - it is a very bumpy, sandy track that must take its toll on the vehicles as well as the comfort of passengers. The oft-repeated joke is that you are getting a free Gambian massage! But this part of the journey only lasted about 15 minutes and we were soon pulling up in the car parking area of the lodges, to be welcomed by the smiling staff.

Mandina Lodges

Mandina consists of a small group of very individual lodges set among the mangroves in the Makasutu Cultural Forest. Three of the lodges (‘Jungle Lodges’) are tucked among the trees, with a roof terrace that looks out over the forest. Four of them (‘Floating Lodges’) are moored among the mangroves on the edge of the river, which is an off-shoot of the Gambia. The two most luxurious are large two-storey affairs - one on the river (the ‘Stilted Lodge’) and one slightly set back from it (the ‘Mangrove Lodge’).

We had booked a Floating Lodge as I liked the idea of being near the water, and were allocated Floating Lodge 1, a short walk along the boardwalk from the communal area where we had been welcomed. The room was large, with a centrally-placed four poster bed facing out over the water. It all looked lovely, but this is a remote area so there are some compromises within the apparent luxury - no A/C (we had a ceiling fan however), erratic electricity supply and a composting toilet in the open-air bathroom that was inclined to be smelly at times. But while the room got rather hot during the day, by bed-time it was always comfortable and we even found that we needed the cosy bedding provided; while a good door kept the toilet smells at bay!

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Inside our Floating Lodge

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The open-air bathroom

Outside our Floating Lodge was a large private deck with sun loungers and chairs, from where we had wonderful views of the river with lots of passing birds. On several occasions during our stay we saw the local Goliath Heron here in the mornings as he often comes on to the lodge decking to fish. We could watch the local fishermen paddle past, and the women in search of oysters which they gather from the mangroves.

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Decking outside our Floating Lodge

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Our first priority on arriving had been to make plans for our stay. Every lodge is assigned a private guide - ours was Amadou – and almost all activities are included in the price of your stay. One activity is extra however, but as I had read countless very positive reviews about the Sunset Cruise we were keen to pay the additional cost and mentioned it during our welcome chat. We were told there was space available this evening, so we signed up, and then were free for a few hours to settle in and enjoy our new temporary home.

Once we’d unpacked, we made for the large pool which is well provided with seating and loungers and surrounded by the shady gardens. I had a swim (possibly Chris swam too – I don’t recall!) and we made friends with one of the many cats who live at the lodges.

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By the pool

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One of the cats

We also spent some time enjoying the river views from our deck, but as sunset approached it was time to head for the main jetty to join our ‘cruise’

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Jetty with our boat waiting for us and the Floating Lodges beyond
~ ours is the nearest of the four

Sunset cruise

The small motorboat used for this outing takes six people, but we were lucky to have just one other couple with us, leaving room to move around a little – great! Before leaving we were asked about our beverage of choice - red or white wine, beer or soft drinks. We chose white wine as did the other couple, who had helpfully planned ahead and brought a can of mixed nuts from Marks & Spencer with them which they gladly shared and which made a great accompaniment to the drinks. But I am getting ahead of myself!

To start with we followed the small river downstream from the lodge. On the way we saw the small village and factory where the local women open and clean the oysters they collect from the mangrove roots.

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Mangrove roots

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Local children near Mandina

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White-throated Bee-eater

We also saw lots of birds, and our knowledgeable guide, Amadou, pointed these out. Among many others we saw:
~ Egrets - Great White and Cattle
~ Pied Kingfishers
~ Whimbrels
~ White-throated Bee-eater
~ Sandwich tern
~ Spur-winged Plover
~ Various herons - Grey, Western Reef, and the amazing and very well-named Goliath

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Pied Kingfisher

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Grey Heron

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Great White Egrets

After a while we reached the mouth of this river, where it opens into the wide expanses of the Gambia River, opposite Dog Island. The light was just fading, the sky was a pearly hue, and it was time to open the wine. We drifted for a while, enjoying our drinks, those nuts and the beautiful view, and chatting with our companions. We learned that he was now retired but had been the British Ambassador in several countries, which made for an interesting conversation.

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The Gambia River

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Near the Gambia River

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Banyan tree, late afternoon light

After a while Amadou said that we should start to head back up the river in time to view the sunset and more birds. As the sun dipped lower the sky turned a beautiful shade of orange.

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Mandina Sunset

And when Amadou said more birds, he meant it! First we passed a large group of Black Kites, settling down in some treetops to roost for the night.

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Black Kites at sunset

Then we came to the small islet he termed Bird Island, where some Cattle Egrets were doing the same. As we waited near the opposite bank more and more birds started to arrive - Cattle Egrets, Great White Egrets, various herons, Pelicans, Cormorants and Darters. They came singly and in small groups, from all sides, until the trees were thick with them. Several times we exclaimed that there was no room for more, but still they came.

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Pelicans

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Pelican in a dead tree

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Great White Egret

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Goliath Heron at sunset

My video can give only a small sense of what the experience was like, as I wanted to spend most of the time simply soaking up the atmosphere.

Before leaving this amazing sight, we sailed right round the islet, very close to the overhanging trees and the birds just settling down there for the night, who took no notice of us as we passed.

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Bird Island at sunset

Then it was time to return to the lodge, sipping the last of our wine and reflecting on a wonderful few hours.

Dinner time

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Chris at dinner

Stays at Mandina are on a half-board basis. The dinner menus are somewhat limited, constrained by the remote location and the availability in the local markets, but the food is of a good quality and well-prepared. Choice however is limited – understandably, as they can’t be expected to buy in loads of ingredients that may not be used. The chef makes a point of visiting all the guests each afternoon somewhere around the lodge to explain that evening's options and take their orders, and also confirm what time they want to eat. We found that there was a choice each day of two starters (one always a soup), two main courses and two desserts. The main courses were usually both meat or one meat and one fish, but vegetarians could be catered for if advance notice was given, as could other dietary requirements.

Today he had spoken to us earlier in the afternoon to take our orders, so as soon as we returned from the cruise we popped back to our lodge to freshen up and change, and hurried back to the open sided restaurant next to the pool. We were allocated the same table and waiter for the whole of our stay and it was good to get to know ours (whose name I have sadly forgotten), just as he got to know us and our tastes. Although the day had been hot, once the sun set it was quite cool and breezy so I was glad I’d brought a light jumper to slip over my shoulders.

After dinner we had a night-cap around the fire pit, sharing the day's experiences with the other guests. We found that the drinks list was somewhat limited compared with that at Ngala Lodge, but there were some decent house wines and the local Julbrew beer, so we were happy enough!

We went to bed in our beautiful Floating Lodge looking forward to the adventures to come!

Posted by ToonSarah 07:32 Archived in Gambia Tagged birds boats sunset views hotel river africa cats gambia Comments (13)

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