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A small Chinese Hat

Ecuador day eleven


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Sombrero Chino

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Sombrero Chino (taken from the Angelito as we left)

This was the second island we visited on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito. It takes its name from its appearance – the profile of the island when viewed from the sea is very like a hat. It lies just off the south-east coast of Santiago, but although it is so centrally located in the Galápagos archipelago, it is one of the least visited sites. The Galápagos National Park Service restricts the number of visitors allowed here, because of its small size and the fragility of its lava rocks. We felt very lucky to have it included in our itinerary.

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Angelito at her mooring, with Santiago beyond

Early in the morning after our first night at sea, at about 4.00, the Angelito left the sheltered spot where she had been anchored and headed here, arriving at 6.20. After an early breakfast we climbed into the pangas, and before landing in Sombrero Chino, Fabian and one of the crew steered them towards the shore of Santiago opposite.

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Shoreline of Santiago

Here we motored slowly along the shoreline, giving us a sea-level view of one of the most outstanding volcanic sites in the Galápagos. The lava here is very new in geological terms – only a little over 100 years. An eruption on Santiago caused a flow of lava to sweep eastwards down to the sea in the formation known as pahoehoe – a Hawaiian word, meaning "smooth, unbroken lava", which is used to describe lava that has a smooth, hummocky, or ropy surface. These surface features are due to the movement of very fluid lava under a cooling and congealing surface crust. Being so relatively new, it is black, rather shiny, and almost devoid of vegetation apart from cacti and the bright red Galápagos carpet weed or sesuvium. The latter changes its colour from intense green in the rainy season to orange and red in the dry season, which is when we visited.

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Candelabra cacti

The cacti we saw included the large candelabra cactus which is endemic to the Galápagos. Named for its shape, it resembles the organ pipe cactus of the Sonora Desert and can reach seven metres in height. We also saw lava cactus. This plant is often the first coloniser of new lava flows (hence its name) and its presence helps to start the breakdown of the rocks into soil that will eventually allow other plants to move in. They grow in clumps measuring up to 60 cm in height with soft furry spines. New growth on the cacti is yellow, and rather attractive, but as the cacti mature the colour fades, becoming first paler and then eventually a drab grey or black with age.

It was here that we saw Galápagos penguins for the first time, a lava heron and other sea-birds.

Galápagos penguin

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Chris with the penguins

The Galápagos penguin is the second smallest penguin in the world and the only one to live north of the equator. It is mostly seen on the western islands, Isabella and Fernandina, neither of which were on our itinerary, so we were lucky to see some here (a couple of days later we spotted another, swimming just off the beach of Bartolomé). This group consisted of a couple of pairs and one juvenile.

Galápagos penguins nest in loose colonies in burrows or crevices close to the shore, breeding throughout the year depending on food availability, so you might be lucky enough to see a chick or juvenile at any time. They are considered a vulnerable species, and their numbers fluctuate between a few thousand and a few hundred, declining significantly after El Niño years when there is little or no upwelling of the Humboldt Current. Males and females are almost identical, although males are slightly larger than females. Their upper parts, flippers and face are black), with a white line running through the eyes, down the cheeks and across the throat. Their under parts are white with a black line across the breast and down the flanks. Juveniles are grey and lack the patterning of the adults. My photos were taken from a rocking panga so could be clearer, but you can see that the juvenile is on the left.

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Penguin juvenile and adult

Landing on Sombrero Chino

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The view from the beach

After our ride along the rocky shore of Santiago, the boats then crossed the channel to our main destination for the morning. The landing here is a wet one, on a small white sand beach. We waded ashore and sat on the rocks to dry off our feet a little and put on the trainers we had carried in our back-packs. It’s possible too, of course, to use waterproof sandals for such landings, but on the rocky trails of the Galápagos it’s quite good to have enclosed shoes at times, and Fabian always allowed plenty of “settling-in” time on each island so there was never a rush to get shod.

One thing that struck me while sitting here was the beautiful turquoise colour of the water. It made a wonderful setting to get some shots of the Angelito at anchor, especially with a sea lion or two to frame the view! In the background is Santiago, so you can see how close these two islands are.

On the beach

Once we were all ready, we started to look around, staying for the first part of our visit here on the beach. The first sight that greeted us here was a mother Galápagos sea lion and her new-born pup, which Fabian estimated was just a few hours old. We could see the blood on the sand where his mother had apparently dragged him to a more sheltered spot near the rocks, and on her body too.

There were quite a few other mothers and babies around on the beach. We watched one youngster as he struggled to reach his mother from his position on the rocks, and had to resist the temptation to help him! I made a short video of his efforts – you’ll be pleased to learn that he did make it eventually.

"Come to mother"

The same mother, however, then took exception to the new-born pup we had spotted earlier, which appeared to confuse her for his own mum (who was by now in the sea, washing herself clean after the birth) – or maybe she thought it was her pup. Either way, it got a bit too close for her liking. She then took a dislike to it and tried to knock it away, and it also seemed as if she might sit on it. We were really concerned for his safety for a while, but you aren’t allowed to interfere. In the end though Fabian did make a few little noises to distract her, and eventually she went back to nurse her own pup.

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Mother with her own pup and interloper

The lava outcrops

From the beach the visitor trail leads west along the lava-strewn shoreline, so eventually we dragged ourselves away from the sea lions and set off on to explore. The visitor trail here is short (around 400 metres) and easy, mainly following the coast of the island. This coastline consists mainly of lava rocks, which are fragile in places, so it’s essential (as it is everywhere in the Galápagos) to stick to the trail. Only small boats are permitted to visit Sombrero Chino, to minimise the risk, and this meant that it was one of the few islands that we had totally to ourselves.

The lava here is pahoehoe, like that of nearby Santiago. As the pahoehoe cools the crust forms all sorts of weird shapes. Among them here are some small lava tubes (we were to see a much larger example later in the trip, on Santa Cruz). These tubes are caused when the exterior portion of a pahoehoe lava flow hardens while the lava inside continues to flow. Eventually the lava flow stops and the tube is left hollow.

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Lava and Sally Lightfoot crabs

There were some lava lizards warming themselves on the rocks in the early morning sun, and a few marine iguanas well camouflaged on the black lava, but the most striking creatures were the large number of Sally Lightfoot crabs. It was our first close look at these colourful crabs and I took loads of photos here too! One of them appeared to be blowing bubbles (second photo below), and Fabian explained that this was a sign that he would soon discard his shell. Crabs have to do this from time to time as they outgrow them – basically the crab grows, but the shell, being rigid, does not! So the old shell is shed and a soft new one that has formed beneath it is then exposed to the air, where it hardens. For a short time though, while waiting for the shell to harden, the crab is very vulnerable.

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Sally Lightfoot crabs on Sombrero Chino

At the end of the trail we reached a point where we had a great view of the waves crashing against the black lava. Here there were more crabs and some lava lizards. We then returned the way we had come, and back to the boat, as it was time for our first snorkelling trip off nearby Santiago.

Our first snorkel

As this was the first such outing, all of us who wanted to snorkel were first fitted with mask, snorkel, flippers and wetsuits. The first three items are provided free of charge on the Angelito but wetsuit hire cost us $25 for the week. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to wear one, having not done so before, but I soon got used to it and it certainly meant I could stay in the cool water much longer than I might otherwise have been able to do.

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Poor photo of
white-tipped reef shark

The pangas took us from the Angelito, moored in the centre of the channel between the two islands, to Sullivan Bay off the Santiago shoreline. We climbed over the edge and slipped into the water. I found myself wishing I could slide in more gently, as inevitably I went beneath the surface and my snorkel filled with sea water – ugh! I always find it hard to blow the water out as you should, but simply detaching it briefly and turning it upside down usually clears most of it, so I was soon sorted out and ready to explore.

For this first snorkel Fabian came in the water with us (on some of the later ones he stayed in the panga to come to the rescue of the less confident snorkelers in the group if needed – I think he must assess each group and decide what type of support is most needed). Our swim took us along the shoreline, and was a great introduction to snorkelling in the Galápagos. We saw:
~ Galápagos sea lions (although only at a little distance – they didn’t interact with us as they did later in the week at Santa Fe)
~ a marine iguana feeding underwater
~ a white-tipped reef shark
~ and numerous fish, including parrotfish, damselfish, starfish in a rainbow of colours, and many I couldn’t name

As it was our first snorkel I was still getting used to the new underwater-safe camera I had bought for the trip, and unfortunately the most exciting sightings (sea lions, marine iguana, shark) were near the start of the swim. I did get an indistinct photo of the shark however. And later as I got used to the camera and the environment (it had been some years since I last snorkelled) I started to get some better shots, as you can see.

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By the way, there are several sharks that inhabit the waters around the Galápagos Islands – hammerheads, the endemic Galápagos shark, whale sharks, white- and black-tipped reef sharks. Of these, it is the white-tipped reef shark that you are most likely to see while snorkelling. And while the notion of swimming with a shark may seem scary, there is no need to worry, as this species is no threat to humans – they feed at night on small fish and are very docile. Nevertheless I won’t easily forget seeing that shark swim past me as I snorkelled in the Galápagos for the very first time!

Once we were all back on the Angelito it was nearly time for lunch, so we dried and dressed in our cabins and returned to the lounge to eat while motoring to our next island, Bartolomé …

Some of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:00 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals snorkelling fish sharks underwater crabs galapagos ecuador sea_lions Comments (8)

The black island

Ecuador day thirteen


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Santiago

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The Angelito in James Bay

After an all night voyage from Genovesa we were back among the main group of islands, moored off one of the larger ones, Santiago (also known as San Salvador). We had been here a few days ago, snorkelling in the waters of Sullivan Bay on its south-east coast and exploring the shoreline in our pangas. Now we were in James Bay on the north-west side of the island, and for the first time would be landing on its black volcanic sands.

Of all the uninhabited islands in the Galápagos, Santiago (or San Salvador or James) is the one most affected by man’s ability to destroy nature. A combination of early 20th century salt mining, a brief attempt at colonisation and the introduction of several species (goats, pigs, donkeys, rats, and mice) has meant that Santiago’s wildlife and vegetation has in the past been severely compromised. But that is no reason not to visit.

In recent years, a programme of eradication has removed the goats, pigs and donkeys; the Charles Darwin Centre’s breeding programme has revived the giant tortoise population; and the vegetation is gradually being restored. But even without this good news, Santiago would still be worth visiting, I think, for the drama of its relatively young (just over 100 years) lava flows – in fact, this was to prove (somewhat unexpectedly) to be one of my favourites among the islands we visited.

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Near the landing place at Puerto Egas

At the southern end of James Bay lies Puerto Egas, our landing place. The landing here is a wet one, on to a volcanic black sand beach. One thing that struck me during our week in the Galápagos was the variety in the colour of the islands’ beaches – black here on Santiago, white on many others (e.g. Española, North Seymour and Sombrero Chino), yellow on Bartolomé, and even red on Rabida. Fabian explained that the dark colours, as here, soak up the sun’s heat and can become uncomfortable for the sea lions and other animals on a hot day, whereas the white beaches of many of the islands stay cool because they reflect the sun’s rays rather than absorbing them. When it is hot, therefore, you will see more sea lions on a white beach than on a black one.

However, we were here pretty early, at about 6.30 AM, and heat wasn’t a problem, so we were met as so often by a small welcoming committee of Galápagos sea lions. There were also a few blue-footed boobies on the low cliffs alongside the beach, some oyster-catchers and other sea birds.

We had brought snorkelling gear ashore, ready for a swim later, and we piled this up in a spot at the edge of the beach – no need to worry about leaving belongings here! Fabian pointed out the nearby manzanillo, also known as the "poison apple" tree. This is the only indigenous toxic plant in the islands. Touching the sap causes dermatitis, and eating the fruit can be lethal to humans, although giant tortoises can eat it and enjoy it. We were careful not to get too close!

Puerto Egas trail

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Altenanthera

We didn’t spend long on the beach and soon headed off on the trail. There are two possible trails here. One leads inland to the old salt mine workings, but we took the second, which leads along the coast to the area known for its dramatic rock formations and tide pools. This is a fairly easy two km walk, at first among opuntia (prickly pear) cacti. There were other more colourful plants too – the beach morning glory twined across the ground, and bright red splashes of altenanthera dotted the landscape, which here features brown layered tuff stone and black basalt volcanic rock that creates some weird and wonderful formations.

One of the most exciting sightings along this part of the trail was our first glimpse of a Galápagos hawk. We were to see more, and see them much more closely, later in the week, but for now this seemed pretty special!

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Galápagos hawk

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Scorpion on Fabian's sleeve

Another interesting sight was the scorpion that Fabian uncovered from beneath a small rock. He clearly knew exactly where to look as he only tried three rocks before finding one. And he “bravely” picked it up and put it on his sleeve so we could all get a close look and a photo or two! This is I believe the endemic Galápagos scorpion sub-species, which is despite its sting a favourite food of the lava lizards.

The lava rocks

After a while the trail brought us to an area of lava rock formations. This bizarre landscape of twisted black lava and hidden rock pools was one of my favourite sites in all the islands we visited.

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The rocky shore of Santiago

Much of the lava here is in the formation known as “pahoehoe”. This has an undulating, or ropy surface, caused by the movement of very fluid lava under a congealing surface crust. Unlike the “a’a” lava found elsewhere on the islands (and indeed elsewhere in Santiago), which is loose and broken, pahoehoe makes for interesting photos and a relatively smooth walking surface. Here at Puerto Egas it has created a series of pools and grottoes spanned by volcanic bridges, just like a fantastical black garden.

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Pahoehoe lava formations

This area is sometimes referred to as the “fur seal grottos” but we didn’t see any of these relatively elusive creatures here. But there was more than enough to keep us occupied for some time. In one of the pools three Galápagos sea lions were playfully enjoying the in-rushing sea water.

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Sea lions in a pool

There were lots of marine iguanas posing for our cameras too. As well as still photos, I took some videos, and was really happy that on one of these I was able to capture their curious habit of snorting out excess sea-water ingested as they feed underwater. They do this to deal with the excess amount of salt taken in, which is filtered out of the water through large glands in their noses before being disposed of in this manner.

This was the first place where we observed this behaviour closely, and also the first where we saw quite so many of these fascinating (to me anyway) creatures. They congregate in great numbers in places on the islands, and are quite happy to pile on top of each other for warmth and security. Sitting on the jagged-edged rocks of this other-world landscape, eye-balling a marine iguana, must be one of the quintessential Galápagos experiences.

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Marine iguanas

I also made a short video of a sea lion pup here, making his way over the rocks to the sea. There were lots of brightly-coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs standing out clearly against the dark rocks, as did a pretty (but too lively to photograph) yellow warbler. We also saw several oyster-catchers and other shore birds such as whimbrels and turnstones.

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Sally lightfoot crabs on Santiago

I would happily have stayed here even longer than we did, but a snorkelling session needed to be fitted in before lunch, so we eventually tore ourselves away and headed back along the trail the way we had come.

Snorkelling in James Bay

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Our snorkelling here was directly from the beach at Puerto Egas. We had brought all our gear when we landed first thing in the morning for our walk on the trail to the fur seal grottos, and worn swimwear under our shorts etc., so it didn’t take too long for us to pull on the wetsuits, flippers and masks/snorkels. Swimming from the beach meant we could all do our own thing and go at our own pace, though Fabian made some recommendations about good areas to check out. I headed for some rocks to the left of the beach, as did several others. On the way, I swam through a shoal of beautiful small silvery fish that sparkled in the sun that filtered down through the water.

When I reached the rocks, I found that they were green with algae and the sea floor strewn with rounded boulders, rather than the more jagged ones I had seen on the east coast in Sullivan Bay two days previously. Unfortunately, I swam here a little too slowly, or perhaps didn’t go close enough, to see some sea turtles that others in the group reported spotting there. But I was thrilled to get my first good look at a Galápagos sea lion underwater, as one female came right up to me and swam round me several times, although she didn’t stay to play as a group on Santa Fe did a few days later, and I was too excited to remember to take a photo of her! I also saw lots of fish around the rocks – damselfish, parrotfish, sea urchins and many that I couldn’t identify. It was a super end to our time on Santiago.

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In James Bay

After snorkelling it was back to the Angelito. As soon as we were all on board she set off for our next island, Rabida …

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 01:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals birds islands snorkelling fish crabs iguanas galapagos seals ecuador Comments (4)

The red island

Ecuador day thirteen continued


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Rabida

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The Angelito moored off Rabida

Rabida lies immediately south of Santiago, and we came here directly from James Bay where we had spent the morning, arriving in time for an early lunch with a backdrop of this striking red island.

There is just one visitor site here and a visit here begins with a wet landing on the island’s only beach. We had seen white coral beaches, yellow sand and black lava ones, and now here on Rabida (also known as Jervis) we found ourselves on a dramatically red one, surrounded by equally red cliffs. The colour is the result of a lot of ferric oxide in the lava that has been emitted from the spatter cones that form much of the island.

As usual there was a welcoming committee of Galápagos sea lions, but I think maybe they too had just had lunch, as they were pretty sleepy and uninterested in the two-legged visitors disembarking from the pangas nearby! But they made great foreground interest for our first photos here. We also saw some shore birds such as oyster-catchers, and there were frigatebirds wheeling overhead

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The red sands of Rabida

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American oystercatcher, sea lion and pup

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The red trail through the
palo santo trees

This was the one day when I chose to wear sandals for the wet landing, rather than wade ashore bare-footed and dry off on the beach before putting on socks and trainers. This was partly because Fabian had recommended sandals rather than his usual “tennis shoes” (I think the red sand here is a little grittier and less comfortable than the soft white sand in many other places), and partly because I had carried them all this way and I was determined to wear them at least once! But it proved to be a slight mistake – the grit of the beach continued for much of the path and found its way easily inside the sandals, and in addition, being unused to wearing them, I had forgotten to put suntan lotion on my feet and they reddened rather in the bright sun we had for part of our walk.

After spending a little time on the beach, photographing the sea lions against the strikingly coloured backdrop, we followed a path through the pale palo santo trees. The trail here is just one km in length, and is rated easy / moderate, as it involves a little bit of climbing but is generally easy going with a red gravel-type surface.

The redness of the soil and rocks here is due to the very porous lava, which has combined with rain, salt water and sea breeze to act as an oxidising agent. It makes for a great colour scheme, offsetting the dusty grey-green of the palo santo and opuntia that form the main vegetation. The former in particular looked stark and almost dead, as it was the dry season – in the wet they would be covered with green leaves. These are plants of the arid zone, and we saw another typical one of these, cordia lutea or yellow cordia, which added some bright colour to the landscape.

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Cordea lutea & opuntia on Rabida

An aside on vegetation, which in the Galápagos is usually divided into three zones: coastal (mangroves of various kinds, saltbush, beach morning glory and Galápagos carpet weed or sesuvium); arid (assorted cacti, including opuntia, lava cactus and candelabra, palo santo, palo verde, poison apple or manzanillo, alternanthera); and humid, found only on the larger islands.

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View from the cliffs

The path led us at first to a point on the cliffs immediately above the beach, from where we had a good view of the lagoon that lies just behind it, the red sands, the bay and the Angelito moored just off shore (the photo at the top of this page was taken at this spot).

The colours and the views are the main attraction here, as there are fewer wildlife species than on some other islands. This is due in part to the introduction in the 1970s of goats, which probably led to the extinction of several native creatures including geckos, land iguanas, and rice rats.

The goats were eradicated in 1971, reintroduced in 1975, and finally eradicated by 1977. Since then the island has remained goat-free, but there remains a problem with introduced Norway and Black Rats, which have negative impacts on both native vegetation and birds and reptiles. In January 2011 a rat eradication project was launched which hopes to clear Rabida of these and allow native plants and animals to thrive.

Despite this, there are the sea lions to be enjoyed, marine iguanas, and plenty of birds. On this part of the trail we saw several cactus and other Galápagos finches, pretty yellow warblers and a Galápagos dove.

From this high point the trail forms a loop, following the cliffs on the east side of the island. It led us next to another even more spectacular viewpoint on the cliffs where the contrasting colours of red rock, green opuntia , blue sky and turquoise sea made for great photo opportunities. In the distance was Santiago, where we had spent the morning (left-hand photo below).

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The red cliffs of Rabida

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Opuntia growing on the cliffs

There were various sea birds fishing off the cliffs, including brown noddies skimming the waves and a few blue-footed boobies with their characteristic bullet dive. But as before, for the most part of our time here the scenery was the greater draw, with its dramatic colour contrasts and texture too – craggy rocks, spiny opuntia, liquid ever-moving sea.

We had already spent some time here, admiring the views and taking photos, when someone spotted what we thought at first might be a dolphin or shark, but which on closer inspection by Fabian proved to be a huge manta ray in the sea directly beneath us. I had seen rays before (in an aquarium!) and loved the graceful way in which they move. But I had never before seen a manta ray, the largest of the species.

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Manta ray and brown noddy

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Manta rays can grow up to seven metres across, and when their triangular “wings” appear out of the water you might at first think a shark is swimming past, as we did, until you spot the large mass of its body just beneath the surface.

This one is likely to have been an oceanic manta ray, and as these can grow to seven metres wide, it is not surprising that he seemed really big even viewed from so high up on the cliffs above. He stayed for a long while, turning languidly in the waves. He was patrolling up and down the coast and I imagine looking for food there. Many rays are bottom feeders but others filter plankton from sea water passing through their mouths and out of their gills as they swim, and it seemed that “our” manta ray was probably doing this. We watched as he moved slowly along, from time to time lifting a giant “wing” above the surface. Watching this huge fish drift past below us here was a special experience and it was hard to tear ourselves away (not for the first time on this trip) but eventually he left, and so did we.

We followed the loop trail away from here and back down to the beach to visit the saltwater lagoon, which lies behind some of the mangrove trees that line the red sands. In the past this has been home to flamingos, but none were to be seen on our visit, and Fabian explained that it was likely that they’d been driven away by the groups of bachelor Galápagos sea lions who have chosen this spot as a place to chill out, undisturbed by the alpha male who throws his weight around on the beach. With each group of females presided over by a single male in this way, there are always plenty of bachelors who are unwelcome in the main colony and who need to find their own space. Maybe after some R & R here they will feel ready to fight for the right to rule a beach themselves.

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The saltwater lagoon

Meanwhile I can see why they favour this peaceful spot. The lagoon is surrounded by more mangroves, a bright green line below the grey-green of the palo santo trees, and has enough water for a leisurely swim to cool off in the midday sun, while the sea is only a short distance away when they feel the need to do some serious fishing for food. All the same, it is a little disappointing for us as visitors that they have caused the flamingos to leave.

We had hoped to have time for swimming or snorkelling here, but time was getting on and the Angelito had to sail that afternoon for Santa Cruz, so we said goodbye to the red cliffs of Rabida and headed for our next island. As we left we were treated to an amazing sunset.

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Tomorrow we were in for a change, visiting one of the few inhabited islands in the archipelago, Santa Cruz …

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 02:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals islands fish galapagos seals ecuador Comments (4)

Onwards to Osaka

Japan day six


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Modern Japan – with a touch of history

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Waterfront in Osaka at sunset

For a slice of modern Japan you could do much worse than visit Osaka. It has some striking modern architecture, a vibrant nightlife scene and tasty local cuisine.

Osaka is Japan's third largest and second most important city. It might even have become the capital had Tokugawa Ieyasu not moved the government to Edo (now Tokyo) when he came to power in 1603. While it has some historic buildings, the main impression it left on me was definitely of modernity when compared to the other places we visited in Japan – even Tokyo. But there’s nothing wrong with modernity!

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At Shin-Osaka Station

After our two nights at the cosy Fuji-Hakone guesthouse in Sengokuhara we said farewell to our friendly hostess and took the bus back to the station at Odawara to catch the bullet train to Shin-Osaka station.

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Bento box bought at
Odawara Station

Although we had been on the Shinkansen (the proper name for the bullet train) from Tokyo to Odawara, this was a much longer ride (2.5 hours) and it was the first time we had experienced the train getting up to full speed. Everyone says how smooth the ride is on a bullet train and they are right – you would never know that you are going as fast as you are. Of course, the landscape outside rushes past, but inside it is hard to accept that you are travelling at 170 mph (270 kph). I had thought that there would be displays in the carriages showing the speed as I have seen in (much slower) Italian express trains, but there was nothing – so you just have to have faith! Actually, it’s easier to appreciate the speed if you watch one of the trains flashing past, as we did while waiting on the platform at Odawara – maybe my short (very short) video will demonstrate this better than I can describe it (although I think the trains slow down for the stations even when not stopping).

Shinkansen passing through Odawara

Travelling on this route meant that we were on the original Shinkansen line, which was built in the early 1960s to link Tokyo and Osaka - the so-called Tokaido line (named after the ancient route of the same name).

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Umeda OS Hotel

When we got to Shin-Osaka we took the regular JR line the single stop to Osaka Station which was near our hotel. The reason for the two mainline stations so close to each other is that in several cities, Osaka among them, the introduction of the Shinkansen necessitated the construction of new a station to handle the faster (and I think longer) new rolling stock.

From Osaka Station it was about a five minute walk to our hotel, the Umeda OS. It was only late morning, and we weren’t able to get into our room, but we could store our bags in their luggage room which already held the larger suitcases we had sent directly from Tokyo using the excellent luggage forwarding service offered by Japan Rail.

Leaving the hotel we headed back to the station to catch the JR Loop line to Osakajo Koen Station. From here we had a fifteen minute walk to our first Osaka sight, the castle.

Osaka Castle

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Osaka Castle

The first thing to say about Osaka Castle is that it is not as old as it looks. This is a concrete 1930s copy of the first Osaka Castle, which was built in 1585 by Hideyoshi Toyotomi. This was considered the finest in the country and was a powerful symbol of Hideyoshi’s supremacy – it was he who brought an end to the wars of over a century, thus unifying the nation. He was succeeded by his son, Hideyori Toyotomi but the latter was challenged by Ieyasu Tokugawa (Hideyoshi’s former retainer) who, in 1615, vanquished the Toyotomi family and destroyed Osaka Castle. Tokugawa moved the shogunate government to Edo (present-day Tokyo).

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Osaka Castle from the moat

In 1620 the castle was rebuilt by the Tokugawa shogunate who held it until 1868, although the main tower was struck by lightning three years before that and destroyed in the ensuing fire. The remaining structures were also destroyed in the battle between the Tokugawa shogunate and the New Government Army. Under the Meiji Restoration the castle precincts were requisitioned and in 1931 the main tower was reconstructed according to the original 16th century design, as it had been under Hideyoshi Toyotomi. It was used as a military base and arsenal, and during World War Two 60,000 workers were employed in the armouries here. It was targeted repeatedly in the bombing raids and badly damaged, with a particularly bad attack on August 14, 1945 destroying 90% of the arsenal and killing 382 people working there.

The main tower was fully repaired in the 1990s, and despite being now made of concrete, externally retains its historic appearance, although inside there are modern touches such as lifts. Meanwhile the 1620s boundary walls came through these various disasters relatively unscathed and are still today pretty much intact, made out of interlocked granite boulders without mortar.

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Roof detail

You can enter the castle precincts without charge and wander the grounds, from where you can get some good photos of the dramatic castle perched high above. To enter the main tower you must pay a fee of 600¥ (adults, October 2013 price), which Chris and I decided to do (having travelled here as group we split up on arrival to explore, as was usually the pattern for this trip). Once inside we were directed to the lifts as you have to start your visit on the top floor, working your way down by the stairs.

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Looking up at the eighth floor gallery

The first thing we did on arriving on the eighth floor was to get outside, where you can walk all round the tower and get some great views over Osaka. We also had an excellent close-up look at some of the detailing on the castle tower itself, including the gilded shachihoko, sometimes also called orcs – a mythical creature, a fish with the head of a tiger.

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Osaka skyline from the tower
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In the garden around the castle

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Close-up look at a shachihoko

Once we’d seen our fill of the view we started to explore the museum, which has a comprehensive collection. On the top-most (seventh) floor, dioramas tell the story of Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s life, and on the fifth (the sixth isn’t open to the public) there are miniature models of the Summer War of Osaka (in which the castle fell and the reign of the Toyotomi family came to an end) and a folding screen telling the story of the battles fought. Although not normally especially interested in military history, I found these some of the most appealing exhibits because of the level of detailing of the costumes etc.

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Model of the Summer War

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The castle moat

On the fourth and third floors there were various artefacts and models of the castle during different periods. These are the only floors where photography is not allowed – I imagine that they might be concerned at flash damaging some of the more delicate objects. The ‘stars’ of the second floor displays are the full size replicas of one of those golden shachihoko and a fusetora (crouching tiger). There is also an area where you can dress up in a kimono, wear a helmet or try on some armour (all replicas, naturally) and have your photo taken for a small fee as a souvenir of your visit.

Once we had finished exploring all of this we were hot and a bit weary, so we were very happy to spot ice creams on sale at one of several refreshment booths in the grounds. We enjoyed a tasty mango soft scoop cone (chocolate, vanilla and green tea also available) and a chat with an elderly local who stopped while cycling through the park, keen to practice his English and find out what we had been enjoying in Japan – a pleasant way to while away the last part of our visit here.

We met up with the rest of the group and Andrew proposed a visit to the aquarium. Most agreed but a few opted to go back to the hotel to rest. I was in two minds, as I was quite tired and inclined to think that I could visit an aquarium anywhere, without coming all the way to Japan to do so. But Andrew enthused about this one so much that I decided to give it a try, and I was glad that I did, as this is quite a special aquarium!

So we walked the ten minutes or so to Morinomiya station on the Chuo subway line, which we took to Osakako station about five minutes’ walk from the aquarium. As we walked towards it we saw a huge Ferris wheel which looked like fun – something for the to-do list in the probably unlikely event of a return visit to Osaka.

Osaka Aquarium

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Giant tank at the Osaka Aquarium

This very well thought-out aquarium presents the marine life of the Pacific Rim in a really effective way. At its heart is a huge tank with whale sharks, smaller hammerheads, rays and many other Pacific fish. You wind you way down a gentle spiral around this tank with multiple opportunities to enjoy watching the fish at all levels, from near the surface to the ‘ocean’ depths. The experience is enhanced by the carefully chosen background music, and seats are provided at intervals so you can sit and admire the spectacle.

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Whale shark

But there are other delights too. We loved the river otters and their marine cousins, the rainforest fish and monkeys scrambling overhead, and the huge leggy king crabs. Among other highlights for me were the penguins (I do love penguins!), who have the experience of gently artificial snow drifting down on their heads, though I felt their tank area was a bit small. And the beautifully lit jellyfish drifting against another well-chosen background track were mesmerising.

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Jellyfish

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Emperor penguin

The creatures are housed according to the area of the Pacific Rim where they live, so you will visit, for instance, the Gulf of Panama, Monterey Bay and the Tasman Sea. An excellent balance is struck between education and entertainment, with touch tanks for children (and adults!), informative displays about climate change and so on.

Having said all this, I have to acknowledge that these beautiful creatures are captives here and their lives would be better lived in the open seas where they belong. In particular, the main tank, while huge, is still a very confining space for the larger fish that are kept there. It is wonderful in some ways for people who will never get the chance to dive or snorkel to see and appreciate these magnificent fish, but the animals pay a high price for our education and entertainment.

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Standing on the right

Chris and I left the aquarium a little before some of the others in the group, keen to have a little time back at the hotel to settle into our room and freshen up before a planned group outing to see something of Osaka’s famed night-life. So we took the subway back to Higashi-Umeda station right next to the hotel. As in Tokyo, we found it easy enough (with the help of a map) perhaps because we are so used to the London Underground system. We were surprised though to spot one difference from Tokyo. In Japan, the general rule on escalators is to stand on the left, the opposite of what I am used to in London. This surprised me a little as the Japanese drive on the left just as we do in Britain, and I thought that like us they would also climb their escalators on this side. But no – you stand on the left and walk on the right. And being the Japanese, they all stick to the rule. But when you get to Osaka, suddenly it’s all change. In Osaka they like to do things differently, so here you stand on the right and walk on the left!

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Our bedroom at the Umeda OS Hotel

Back at the hotel we retrieved all our bags from the luggage store and settled into our room. This was on the top (17th) floor with a great view of some of Osaka's skyscrapers – particularly good at night. The room was small (as is usual in Japan) but comfortable, with everything we needed. Two large twin beds, a sofa, small desk and large TV were all neatly fitted into the space, while the bathroom had a good shower over a 3/4 size tub. A good range of toiletries, hair dryer and sundries were provided, as well as light dressing gowns and slippers, and there was free wifi too.

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View at night

But there was little time to make use of the wifi or to take photos, as we had arranged to meet up again with most of the group in the hotel lobby for an evening out together. We took taxis from our hotel for speed and comfort, after the very long day’s sightseeing, and were soon in Dotonbori.

Dotonbori

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Entrance to Dotonbori

Osaka generally is known for its nightlife, and in Osaka one of the best places to spend an evening is Dotonbori. This single street draws both locals and tourists in their thousands to eat, drink and play, and has done so for centuries. First built in 1612 as part of a development programme in this part of the city that also saw the construction of the nearby canal of the same name, it was declared the entertainment district of Osaka in 1628 by the newly established Tokugawa Shogunate. Within 35 years the avenue offered as many as six Kabuki theatres and five Bunraku theatres, plus the unique Takeda Karakuri mechanical puppet theatre. Many restaurants and cafés sprung up to cater to the hordes of people who thronged here nightly.

But interest in these traditional forms of entertainment declined and with the interest, the theatres themselves. The five that were left at the time of the Second World War were all lost in the bombing raids. The restaurants, bars and cafės however remain. In Japan, Osaka is famed for its cuisine, and Dotonbori is the main destination for food travel in Osaka. You can get anything here, from local specialities through fast food to high-quality meat and fish.

We were heading for a restaurant recommended by Andrew which serves an Osaka speciality – okonomiyaki. But first we took the time to stroll along the street and observe all the action and bright lights. Many of the establishments here have become known for their extravagantly large decorative features that aim to lure diners, such as the giant crab of Kani Doraku. I also spotted giant sushi, a huge dragon and a rather fierce looking chef. There are neon lights everywhere and a real buzz in the air from all the people out to enjoy themselves. This is definitely a great place to see Japan at play!

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On Dotonbori

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Cooking takoyaki
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Our takoyaki

We stopped at one of the food stalls to sample takoyaki, another Osaka speciality. These round octopus dumplings are sold by street vendors and stalls in Dotonbori and elsewhere. The octopus is chopped and mixed with other ingredients such as spring onion, covered in the batter and cooked in special takoyaki pans. A sauce is added (typically a brown sauce similar to Worcestershire sauce) and other flavours such as green laver (a seaweed) or bonito (dried fish flakes) sprinkled on. The ones we bought also had some cheese inside which added to their deliciousness and also to the challenge of eating them – they are served piping hot and are quite liable to burn your mouth if you bite into them too soon, as of course we did!

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Stall selling takoyaki

The takoyaki were a great appetiser, and now we were ready for the main course. Andrew had called ahead to reserve a couple of tables at Warri-Wa which specialises in okonomiyaki (most of the restaurants in Japan serve only one style of cooking). These are often described as Japan’s answer to pizza, but we found them to be more like omelette. The base for the dish is a batter made with flour, eggs, grated yam and shredded cabbage. Various ingredients are added to this to give the different flavours, just as you add toppings to a pizza or fillings to an omelette. These can be seafood, meat (usually thinly sliced pork), vegetables or cheese. In Osaka the ingredients are all mixed together before grilling, while in Hiroshima, where the dish is also a major culinary tradition, they are cooked in layers.

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Enjoying a beer in Warri-Wa

Our tables were upstairs on the first floor. Okonomiyaki are traditionally mixed and grilled on a hot plate at the table by the diner – you order your fillings of choice which are brought separately to the batter for you to mix to taste and cook. But in some places they come ready-made, and Warri-Wa is one such, so although our table had a large hot plate in the centre, this was just intended to keep the okonomiyaki hot as we ate.

My okonomiyaki, with a filling of pork and squid, was delicious, though I'd have welcomed more squid (I found just three pieces!). Chris had a similar one but with pork and shrimp. The okonomiyaki come topped with a special sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce but thicker) and sometimes other toppings are added – we had dried fish flakes (bonito) at the table to add ourselves, and some of the options on the menu had salad leaves on them too. They were very filling and tasty – one of my favourite of the various Japanese delicacies we tried on this trip.

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Two variations on okonomiyaki

After dinner we wandered around a little more before again choosing to take taxis back to the hotel. It had been another long but fascinating day in this most fascinating of countries.

Posted by ToonSarah 05:40 Archived in Japan Tagged night osaka castles fish streets japan history restaurants museum aquarium Comments (2)

An island of shells

Senegal day eight


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Souimanga sunrise

Another Souimanga sunrise greeted us this morning. They seemed to me to be quite different each day – some more orange, some (like this one) pink, some dramatic, others more subtle.

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Souimanga sunrise

We had successfully hidden anything that might tempt our resident mouse and were congratulating ourselves on having adapted to sharing the suite with him as we went back inside to get ready for breakfast. However when we put the A/C on I heard the by now familiar scrabblings coming from nearby. I went over and looked up at the machine, mounted high on the wall. I was just in time to see the mouse disappear inside and the machine grind to a halt – the mouse had clearly come to an unfortunate end. I guess some might say that he got what was coming to him, but I can't help feeling a little sorry for the mouse despite having lost a favourite necklace and Chris's best noise-reducing headphones!

When we went to breakfast we reported the fact that our A/C was broken but were a little bit vague about the reason! On our return later we would find it repaired; the mouse was never mentioned but we did feel a little guilty that one of the lodge employees would have had the unpleasant task of removing his remains.

In Fimela

Cheikh picked us up after breakfast for today’s excursion which would take us west to the Atlantic coast. Firstly however, he needed to stop in Fimela to fill up with petrol.

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General store in Fimela

This slightly longer stop than yesterday’s money-changing one, and on a busy Monday morning rather than a Sunday, gave us an opportunity to see, and photograph, the town and its people. We were finding that in comparison to Gambia we were less hassled here, with most people more interested in going about their daily business than in us.

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In Fimela

A bus drew up as we were strolling around, disgorging its passengers many of whom were laden with goods, presumably to sell in the small market. One lady had so much to carry that her small handbag had to dangle from her clenched teeth!

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Bus and bus passenger in Fimela

Yayeme palm forest

Not far from Fimela is the small community of Yayeme, part of the same administrative district or commune. On the outskirts of this village is an extensive forest of palms where we stopped for some photos. These tall elegant trees are known locally as Ron palms, but their Latin name is Borassus aethiopum. Every part of the tree is used by the locals – the leaves to makes thatched roofs, baskets, mats, etc.; the trunk for timber to build houses; the leaf stem for fencing or for fibres; the fruit eaten.

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Yayeme palm forest

Cheikh taught us how to make a belt by weaving two strands together.

As well as the palms, the landscape is dotted with baobabs and we stopped for photos at the largest of these. Cheikh described how in the past the dead would be mummified and left tucked into the holes in the trunk in accordance with animist beliefs, but added that this practice was made illegal by the first president, Senghor, after the country’s independence.

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Cheikh and car next to the largest baobab

We saw several makeshift tent-like shelters here, the temporary homes of nomadic cattle herders. Their cattle grazed among the palms, and one curious child came out to stare at us.

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Nomads' tent and child

There was something very peaceful for me in this landscape, due perhaps to the regularity and rhythm of the tall vertical trunks. A few local people were walking through the forest, dwarfed by the trees, and I wondered how it would be to follow these tracks daily, absorbing the tranquillity of nature. Or were they just thinking about work they needed to do, or focused on everyday matters of feeding the family?

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Yayeme palm forest

From here it was about an hour’s drive to the coast and our destination, Joal-Fadiouth

Joal-Fadiouth

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Village street, Shell Island

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The bridge to Shell Island

Joal-Fadiouth is a small town / large village on the Senegalese coast just north of the Sine-Saloum delta region. Or rather, it is a large village (Joal) linked to a small one (Fadiouth) both for administrative purposes and physically via a bridge. And it is the latter that forms the main attraction for tourists, and where we spent most of our visit.

The island is also known as Shell Island, and the reason for this is pretty obvious – it is built on layers and layers of shells. These have accumulated over the centuries as the locals subsisted on cockle fishing in the shallows of the mangrove lagoons and simply discarded the shells, or used them as building materials.

Cheikh parked near the bridge which leads to the island. He explained that he would not be able to act as our guide here, as if you want to visit Fadiouth you have to hire one of the syndicated official guides. He arranged for us to visit with Edouardo, who lives in the village and proved to be an excellent guide.

We started our visit with a walk across the wooden bridge, which is about 500 metres long and used only by pedestrians and donkey or horse carts.

The village has no motorised transport – both bridge and all its streets are designed for pedestrians and the ubiquitous horse and cart alone. This makes it a relatively peaceful place, which Edouardo clearly loved – he talked a lot about the contrast with Dakar (which he enjoys visiting for occasional lively weekends but where he would not want to live) and about the magical evenings here with everyone relaxed, visitors all gone home and the lights of the village reflected on the water.

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Building details, Shell Island

Edouardo took us on a meandering walk along many of the village's streets, and on all of them we were walking on shells. With no cars to worry about, and small houses, it seemed to me that many locals live much of their lives on these streets - not just going about their business (working, shopping etc.) but also meeting friends for a gossip or simply relaxing. It also seemed to me, perhaps unfairly, that the women were doing most of the work and the men most of the sitting and gossiping! But I shouldn't judge on just an hour's visit.

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Village street

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On the streets of Shell Island

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Locals in the main square

Apart from tourism the main source of income here is of course fishing. You will see conch meat and other shell fish drying in the sun

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Conch meat for sale

The conch shells can be seen on sale in the sprinkling of tourist-orientated craft stalls, alongside crafted objects such as wood carvings and paintings. We didn't buy anything, but prices looked reasonable to me, and there was little if any hassling to shop.

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Small market in Fadiouth

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Man weaving

The villagers also farm land on the mainland, with the main crop being millet which they use as couscous – we saw women washing the grain in the waters of the lagoon using large calabashes. This, with fish, forms the staple diet here.

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Rinsing the millet

A significant difference between Fadiouth and most other Senegalese villages is that the religious balance here is the exact opposite of the country as a whole, with 90% Christian (Roman Catholic) and 10% Muslim. Edouardo explained how the two religions live side by side in harmony, as they do generally in Senegal. When the church roof was destroyed in a storm a few years ago the whole village addressed the problem and contributed to its repair, with left-over funds later being put towards restoration work at the Friday Mosque.

But older than either of these religions is the ancient belief of animism, which continues to be practiced to some extent today. Christians and Muslims alike overlay their official worship with traditional elements, and a sacred baobab tree stands side by side with an impressive Calvary in the main square. Edouardo explained that at funerals the body is paraded through the streets and brought here to be blessed according to the customs of both faiths.

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The main square
- calvary on the left, baobab on the right

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The calvary

The village is divided into six districts, each with its own patron saint whose image can be seen on the large red and white coloured plaques around the wall of the church, and as a statue at the heart of ‘their’ district. I didn't manage to get any good pictures of these statues however, as they are protected by glass, but we were able to take photos of those around the church. We also caught a glimpse of the main Friday mosque at one end of the village, and passed another small one.

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Church tower, and statue outside

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Inside the church

Another thing that struck us here was the large number of pigs, as of course the largely Christian population is happy to eat pork. These roam freely around the streets – truly ‘free-range’ meat!

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Pigs on shells!

Shell Cemetery

Our stroll around the village with Edouardo had given a good insight into how the locals live in this region, but the main ‘sight’ in Fadiouth is the so-called Shell Cemetery.

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Shell Cemetery with access bridge on the right

The religious tolerance of which Fadiouth is so proud extends to its famous cemetery, which is located on a smaller neighbouring island, joined to the village by another wooden bridge, and which accommodates deceased Christians and Muslims in two distinct but undivided sections. The Christian graves are marked with white crosses, the Muslim for the most part with simple iron plaques, and the latter are notable for being all aligned with the head facing east, to Mecca, while the Christian graves are more higgledy-piggledy in their arrangement.

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Shell Cemetery
- Muslim graves in the foreground, Christian beyond

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Crosses, Shell Cemetery


On the highest point of this tiny island (high being a relative term - we are talking about an elevation of only a few metres) is a large cross. From here we had extensive views back to the village and to the nearby old granaries, raised on stilts above the water. These are no longer in use but are kept to show tourists.

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View from the mainland, showing the large cross on the 'hill'

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Shell Cemetery, with Fadiouth and mainland beyond, seen from the highest point

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Granaries


From the cemetery you can either cross by boat back to the mainland, detouring close to these granaries, or retrace your steps over first one and then another wooden bridge, which is what we did.

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Looking back towards bridge and mainland

Back on the mainland we met up again with Cheikh and headed out of town to visit the sardine smokeries.

Sardine smokeries

On the outskirts of Joal the road runs between a series of sardine smoking enterprises. While no one could consider these attractive (the rubbish they produce makes them something of an eyesore) they are interesting to see. The fish are smoked on long racks supported with stone walls, beneath which fires are lit.

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Spreading the fish for smoking

Once blackened they are skinned, the skins being discarded on the ground and making a major contribution to the mess! The fish are then spread out to dry in the hot sun before being packed for transporting to other parts of the country or for export to other African countries including Ghana and Burkino Faso.

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Waiting to be skinned

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Skinning the fish

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Fish drying


I found that some people here were happy to pose for photos, such as the guy above who was spreading the fish out on the smoking racks. Others were less keen, or in one case asked for money – as you can imagine, I didn’t pay, given that none of the others made such a request!

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Children playing between the drying tables

From the smokeries we drove straight back to Souimanga Lodge, arriving mid afternoon.

Afternoon at Souimanga

We had a dip in the pool on our return to the lodge and then spent some time relaxing and bird-watching on our private jetty. Today’s sightings included some Great and Little Egrets and a beautiful Pied Kingfisher who took a dip in our plunge pool and then posed very nicely for me on the wall while drying off!

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View of the lagoon with egrets

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Pied Kingfisher

There were lots of crabs out on the mud exposed by the low tide.

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Crabs at low tide

We also had a visit from a friendly lizard.

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Visiting lizard

In the evening there was the usual nice dinner on the decking among the trees surrounding the main lodge building before retiring to bed in our wonderful suite - now, perhaps sadly, mouse-less.

Posted by ToonSarah 10:57 Archived in Senegal Tagged bridges churches trees birds islands fish fishing shells village africa reptiles seabirds customs senegal Comments (9)

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