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A stay in a hunting lodge

India day nine continued - and day ten


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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In the seventeenth century Jodhpur’s royal family built a hunting lodge on the edge of a small village in the heart of the Aravalli hills, Narlai. Today that lodge is an exquisite hotel, and my favourite of all the places we stayed in Rajasthan – I would very happily have stayed longer here than the two days that we had.

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On the road to Narlai

We drove to Narlai from Dechu, where we had spent the night in Samsara Desert Camp, by way of Jodphur where we stopped for some hours to visit the fort and old town. The journey was otherwise uneventful but we enjoyed watching the desert scenery gradually change to a greener, more agricultural landscape, dotted here and there with small mountains. We spotted antelope at one point, or rather the large deer, Nilgai, that the locals sometimes call antelope and sometimes wild cows, but they moved before I could grab a photo - one, the male, leaping over a fence of some considerable height.

We passed through small villages that seemed a little more affluent than those of the desert, some with quite grand houses here and there. And arriving at Narlai we found it much the same, with a large white temple at its heart and a few streets of quite humble houses with just a sprinkling of smarter ones, plus a few local shops to serve the farming community. The other main source of income here is the hotel, Rawla Narlai, which is located right in the village and which was to be our base for the next two nights.

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Courtyard and bar

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Around the grounds

This hotel has been very tastefully converted, retaining bags of character, and still feels old, unlike the other heritage hotels we stayed in which were perhaps almost too well restored, albeit beautifully. Our room was really lovely, packed with historic detail and antique furniture, yet with the modern conveniences we appreciate such as good plumbing and air conditioning. There were tea and coffee making facilities and complimentary bottles of water. The king-size bed was very comfortable. We had seating inside and a day bed on the shady terrace outside. This room was in the older part – I gather that those in the newer wing are larger but have less character, and personally I am very happy we were where we were as the room was more than large enough and I wouldn’t have wanted to sacrifice the character!

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Our bedroom

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There are plenty of activities on offer, including jeep safaris and village walks, and we took advantage of some of these, but it was also a great place for some time out from our busy sightseeing schedule in Rajasthan. The hotel grounds are gorgeous. Bougainvillea, morning glory and frangipani flowers trail everywhere. There's a good-sized swimming pool tucked in one corner, while elsewhere there are pretty courtyards, fountains and lots of marble elephants – a bit of a theme here because of the huge carved marble elephant on the top of a rocky outcrop, Narlai Hill, that towers above the property.

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The swimming pool

Narlai Hill

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Rawla Narlai lies at the foot of Narlai Hill, a rocky outcrop typical of this landscape, on the top of which stands a huge white marble statue of an elephant (and hence you will hear locals refer to the hill as Elephant Rock). Although we didn’t do this, the hotel organise free escorted walks up the hill at sunrise – there are a lot of steps to climb but I reckon the effort would be rewarded.

Towards the bottom of the hill are several temples. From the hotel we could see the large one that nestles under the overhanging rocks, and in the early mornings and evenings could hear chanting carried from here on the breeze. This is the Temple of Shri Aai Mata, who was an incarnation of the goddess Ambe Maa, found in a garden in Ambapur (Gujarat) as a baby by Rao Bika Dhabi and brought up as his daughter. It is said that she visited Narlai and stayed in the Jekalji Mahadev Temple in the village from where she taught the local people. According to local legend she created an opening in a cave on the hills with lightening and in it placed a Jyoti (divine lamp) which burns with a continuous flame which produces kesar (a saffron coloured soot) instead of a black one.

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Shri Aai Mata temple

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Lord Shiva cave temple

Near the foot of the hill and right opposite the entrance to the hotel is a much smaller temple, set in a cave and dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is said that the sage Shri Narad meditated here to please Lord Shiva and that the village was named after him.

So much for the temples on the hill. But about the elephant I have not been able to find anything – who put it there, why and when – all is a mystery!

Arriving here in the late afternoon we settled into our room; explored the grounds and took some photos; signed up for a couple of activities the next day; and spent a lovely evening which included an enjoyable and tasty dinner served by candlelight on the flat roof on top of the bar in the pleasantly cooling evening air. The food was excellent, especially the wonderful aubergine curry flavoured with mustard, and very reasonably priced.

A day in Narlai

With just a day in which to enjoy the facilities and activities here we were up fairly early and enjoying breakfast in the restaurant overlooking the main courtyard. Opposite this, on the far side of this courtyard, the hotel has a small shrine which on that morning, a Monday, was the focus for some activity.

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Shrine and village elder

The service at the Rawla Narlai is as attentive as everywhere, and that attentiveness seems to expand to include those living in the surrounding village. Every Monday morning the village elders are invited in for tea and a chat about village matters. I and another hotel guest spotted them while we were at breakfast and we went across to ask permission to take some photos, which was willingly granted. We had in mind to take photos from the courtyard but we were invited up on to the terrace (removing our shoes, of course) where I took these photos.

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Village Elders' meeting

This seems a great custom for the hotel to have introduced, as it helps to ensure good relationships between local community and hotel, and if any problems did arise they can be talked through straight away. Mostly though it seemed to be an excuse for a good gossip and plenty of tea!

A walk in the village

After breakfast we went for a walk in the village with a member of the hotel staff, a local resident. Narlai is a small village with an unusually large number of temples (even by Indian standards). It faces some of the same challenges as rural communities everywhere, with a declining population caused by some younger people drifting away, tempted by big city life and its wider opportunities. But its streets have thriving little shops, mainly catering only to locals; its farmers manage to feed their families and have produce over to sell; its people benefit from the opportunity to work in or for the hotel; and overall it has a more affluent (or more accurately perhaps, a less struggling) character than many other places we went to.

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Houses in the village

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Of course you can always walk around on your own (the hotel is right in the middle of the village) but going with a local like this enables you to be invited into some village houses. Although having said that, I was also asked inside one by a woman who, when I asked permission to take a photo, insisted on me coming in so that she could pose with her goat which was clearly a prized possession!

We also went in a few local shops – two clothing, one jewellers (and they were very much local shops, not tourist ones). I was tempted by a gorgeous pink skirt in one but it was so traditional I knew I would probably feel silly wearing it at home! The other woman in our group of four did buy a petticoat which I was pleased about as these local village shops must appreciate the additional custom the hotel brings.

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Village shops

In addition to seeing the general life of the village we made a brief stop at the Lord Shiva temple in a cave right by the hotel. We also saw several other temples, small and larger, which are dotted around the village, including the main Jain temple, Shri Adinath, which has a huge elephant outside and was being restored at the time of our visit.

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Village temple

But the highlight, or rather many highlights, of this walk were the large number of village people who greeted us, willingly posed for photos and generally made us feel very welcome here.

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Villagers in Narlai

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In particular the walk gave us a great opportunity to photograph the colourful traditional dress of Rajasthan, thanks to the openness of the women we met and their willingness to pose for us. This is always very colourful. It consists of an ankle length skirt, a short top (this may just skim the waist or stop higher up, leaving the midriff bare) and a long piece of cloth known as a chunari. This protects them from the heat and is also often used to cover or partly cover the face.

Mehar told us that it is the village daughters-in-law (those who have married into local families and come to live with their husband’s family, as is customary) who are expected to cover their faces, especially in the presence of older relatives, men and strangers. Having said that, many whom we met, here and elsewhere, seemed pretty relaxed about dropping the cloth to say hello, smile and pose for photos etc. I noticed that different colours seem popular in different villages. In some we had passed through the predominant shades were orange and yellow, or red and green, while here in Narlai it was pink, purple and reds for the most part.

The women’s adornments often include a large number of bangles worn on the upper arms. These are usually just of white plastic. It seemed to me that they may be cut from pot lids, although I could be wrong! But wealthier women wear metal, even sometimes gold, bangles.

Regardless of wealth though, it is traditional to wear an elaborate gold decoration in one side of the nose, a tradition that some here still follow even on a regular working day it seems. These nose rings are worn throughout India, with different styles popular in different region. In Rajasthan the most usually worn is the nathni, a large but delicate hoop connected to the hair with a thin chain. The women in my photos below though have a rather more elaborate version of this. I didn’t ask, but maybe it was a special occasion in their family (we met them in the same house).

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We spent the middle part of the day relaxing by, and in, the hotel’s pool and enjoying a light lunch there, before our next activity …

A leopard safari

This is one of several optional excursions offered by Rawla Narlai. It costs 2,000 IR per person and you can choose to go first thing in the morning or late afternoon. We chose the latter and set out at 4.30 PM with a number of other hotel guests in three separate jeeps. They reckon on spotting leopards on about 80% of the trips, so you have a good chance – as you can see from my photos below, we were in luck!

The hotel employs some trackers who know the habits and movements of the local leopard population and who go out walking the surrounding area during the day on the lookout for them. If they have a sighting they radio the guides leading the safaris. The leopards tend to stay in one place for some time, so the jeeps have plenty of time to get to the site.

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Tracker on the lookout

On our safari we had headed out of the village to the foot of the nearby Elephant Rock where leopards are apparently often sighted and where one had been seen that morning. We had no sighting here, though we did see some langur monkeys playing on a Jain temple roof. Then the call came – a female leopard with two cubs had been spotted some miles away. We immediately turned back through the village, out on to the main road and headed towards the site where we found the other two jeeps from the hotel already in position, with all eyes, cameras and binoculars trained on the top of a nearby rocky outcrop. There she was! Part-hidden by an outcrop of rock, but definitely there! Her cubs were harder to spot, staying mainly behind the rock, but we did get some glimpses of them too. Of course, being at some distance, it was hard to get great photos, but a few of those I took did come out well enough to at least serve as a record of the experience.

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Leopard on the rocks

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You can just see a cub in this one!

We stayed at this spot for quite a while, taking photos of the leopards, while the hotel guides handed out bottles of water, tea from a flask and sandwiches. As well as the leopards, we saw an antelope and quite a lot of peacocks. There was a hazy sunset which developed into a lovely pearly pink light, and an almost full moon had risen before we finally left and headed back to the hotel. In all the safari lasted about two hours and seemed to us to be very reasonable value for what we had paid – though of course we might feel differently had we not seen any leopards!

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Sunset and moonrise

That evening we ate again at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant – there really isn’t any other option here, but as it serves excellent food at a reasonable price we didn't have a problem with that!

Monkeys at Narlai

On our second (and last) morning at Narlai we woke early. I just happened to be looking out of the window when I spotted movement on a roof top - a monkey. We jumped out of bed and soon saw that it was a whole troop so of course we threw on some clothing, grabbed our cameras and hurried outside. It was a troop of langur monkeys passing through, or rather across, the hotel, stopping at a couple of trees that obviously had fruit that is to their taste. There were several cute babies among them and we took loads of photos as they paused briefly on the roofs before continuing on and into the trees. After about five minutes or so they moved on, and we could see them leaping across the roofs of the village beyond, no doubt heading towards more favourite trees, or to scavenge from rubbish heaps.

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India’s langurs are Grey or Hanuman Langurs (the latter name taken from the Hindu god). They are a pale or yellowish grey with a black face and long tails (up to 100 cm and always longer than their body), and rather attractive, I think. They are considered sacred in the Hindu religion and are therefore less likely to be regarded as pests than the macaques which live in this region too, although they do regularly steal food and crops. Watching them was a lovely way to start our day and ensured one more happy memory to take away from Narlai.

After another good breakfast it was time to say goodbye to Narlai, with some reluctance. There had been no time to climb Elephant Hill at sunrise, no time for dinner at a nearby step well (another of the activities offered by the hotel) and no time for a further wander on our own through the village.

But Ranakpur and Udaipur awaited us …

Posted by ToonSarah 21:47 Archived in India Tagged people animals monkeys india village rajasthan customs narlai street_photography big_cats Comments (7)

City of lakes

India days eleven and twelve


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Udaipur

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Fateh Sagar

Udaipur was the southernmost point we visited in Rajasthan on this trip – after this we would turn north again towards Delhi. The city’s setting in the Aravalli Mountains, and around a string of man-made lakes, gives it a unique character among Rajasthan’s cities.

You are never far from the water here, so views are often more scenic. Local life focuses to some extent on the lakes, creating a more relaxed vibe than elsewhere, and the city’s efforts to become the cleanest city in India have borne fruit, at least in the centre.

We spent the largest part of our day here exploring the City Palace, an amazing structure which is actually many palaces in one – all piled on top of each other on the eastern shore of the oldest lake, Pichola. We also had time to stroll in one of the oldest streets, visit a temple and some pretty gardens, but not, unfortunately, to take a boat ride on the lake and visit the famous Lake Palace hotel, nor to visit the Monsoon Palace. Another day here would have been good – but I could say the same about almost every place we visited on our tour of Rajasthan!

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Langurs beside the road

We drove to Udaipur from Narlai via Ranakpur, stopping to visit the stunning Jain temple there en route (see my previous entry). We also stopped in a bustling small town, Sadri; drove through the Aravalli Mountains with some beautiful views; and had plenty of chances to photograph the traditional rural Rajasthani way of life. There were oxen pulling ploughs and turning water wheels to irrigate the land (I made a little video of the latter and tipped the woman operating it for her trouble), and men and women (the latter in the most colourful of saris) working in the fields. We also saw several troops of the Langur monkeys whose antics never failed to make me smile!

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Threshing and drawing water

Waterwheel

By the time we arrived in Udaipur it was late afternoon. We checked into our hotel, the Lalit Laxmi Vilas Palace, which lies a little way out of the oldest part of town on the shores of Fateh Sagar, one of the city’s many lakes. This rather grand old hotel is part heritage property, part newer. We had a large room in the newer (cheaper) wing, but with a lovely lake view that more than compensated for any lack of character, and a window seat from which to enjoy it.

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Hotel entrance and our room

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View from our room

While our reception here was welcoming it was also a bit stifling. A friendly girl from reception showed us to our room, and the bell boy followed with the luggage and showed us all the facilities (expecting a good tip, of course) and also explained how we could give feedback and mention him by name. While he was still doing this the phone rang - it was reception wanting to know if we liked our room. And as he left a lady from the spa arrived to tell us that we could book a massage and the prices were displayed in the room (so clearly that we hadn't needed her visit to point this out!) This over-solicitousness continued throughout our stay - for instance, one morning at breakfast three different staff members hovered over us offering to fetch coffee, bread, pancakes etc., despite it being a buffet! While well-meaning it became a bit wearing at times.

One bonus of our stay at the Lalit Laxmi Vilas Palace was the view over Fateh Sagar Lake, especially at sunset. The hotel faces west across the lake and in on a ridge above it, so perfectly positioned to catch the final rays of the sun as it goes down behind the hills on the opposite shore. The hotel makes the most of these, with musical entertainment as the sun sinks and drinks served on the small terrace overlooking the lawns. But with most if not all rooms facing towards the lake, we found we could just as easily enjoy the sight from the comfort of our own room with its strategically positioned window seat!

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Lake view, late afternoon

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Udaipur sunsets

Evening entertainment is provided in the rather incongruous form of bagpipers who played "Scotland the Brave", among other tunes, as the sun set over the hills on the other side of the lake! I just had to make a video of that. Later there was a puppet show and later still the ubiquitous Rajasthani cultural performance.

The hotel has three restaurants. On that first evening we chose to eat in Aangan, which serves Indian food and has outside seating with a view of the lake. The food was OK but the menu very limited as they were having a kebab festival which meant that we were restricted to choosing between a set platter of meat kebabs or one of vegetarian ones, with both of us having to eat the same. Prices though were reasonable (we paid 3,200IR which included three drinks and a three course set meal). A shame, as I think their regular menu would have suited us well and made this a good choice.

On balance we probably liked this hotel among the least of all those we stayed in on this trip. It looks very grand, and has wonderful views - these are its best feature. But it lacks some of the facilities you would expect of a hotel with these pretensions, such as a bar (!) and swimming pool (it would have been better by far to use the lawns for this purpose than to add a third unnecessary restaurant). Also, while I did feel staff really wanted to be helpful, the attentive service felt drilled rather than genuine.

Udaipur's lakes

Arriving in Udaipur it is immediately obvious why it is so often called the “city of lakes”. A string of them runs through its heart and you are never far from water here. All the lakes are interconnected, and you will see different numbers cited, as it seems to depend on whether you count the smallest stretches of water as an actual lake or not. Wikipedia suggests that in total there are three main lakes in the upper catchment area above the city, six lakes within its municipal boundary and one lake downstream. Our guide on the other hand said there were just five in the centre. In practice though you will probably be most aware of just three – Pichola with its famous Lake Palace in the southern part of the city, Fateh Sagar in the more modern northern part, and smaller Swaroop Sagar which links the two.

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Pichola from near the City Palace

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Swaroop Sagar

The lakes are not natural; they are all manmade. Pichola is the oldest, constructed in 1362 and extended in 1560, while Fateh Sagar was added in 1678 and Swaroop Sagar in the mid-19th century. In the past there have been considerable problems with water pollution, caused by poor treatment of sewage, but there have been efforts in recent years to clean up the lakes. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t recommend bathing here. It is possible though to take boat trips on both Pichola and Fateh Sagar, and I wished we would have found time for this during our brief stay.

City Palace

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Most of the next morning was devoted to the building which dominates Udaipur’s old town, the City Palace, which stands on the east bank of Pichola Lake. It was founded by Rana Udai Singh II in 1559 – according to legend he chose this spot on the advice of a hermit who was meditating here and whose blessing he sought. It has been developed and much added to by subsequent generations of maharanas to create what is actually a whole complex of palaces – most sources describe eleven in total. Part of it is still occupied by the Mewar royals, who in today’s democratic India have retained their titles (and wealth) but no power. They run the complex as part tourist attraction / museum, part heritage hotel.

Entrance fees can be confusing as there are many ticket options, depending on which parts of the complex you want to see. Our tour was pre-paid as part of our holiday but if buying your own ticket you’ll want to study the options in advance (not easy, as the official website doesn’t explain them properly!) I did however spot at least one ticket counter part way round the tour where those who wanted to add extra sections could do so.

The publicly accessible parts are something of a rabbit warren of narrow passages, steep stairways, and hidden courtyards. We were very glad we had a guide, although the audio guide you can hire would also be helpful in finding your way and ensuring you don’t miss anything.

You enter the palace either from the south, as we did, climbing up a path with great views of Pichola lake (see above) and passing the private quarters of the maharana, or from the north via the old city and the Badi Pol, the main gate. Either route leads you into the Manek Chowk, a large courtyard with lawns which was created in around 1620.

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City Palace seen from Manek Chowk

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Park your elephant here

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This is the main ceremonial area of the palace and is still used today for royal festivities and public events. The buildings of the palace tower above you on the courtyard’s west side. Near the northern end of the courtyard you will see some large indentations in the ground which our guide explained were where elephants would be tethered (you will get a better view of these later, looking down from above). A large wall in the north west part of the courtyard was used for elephant wrestling – two elephants would stand one each side of the wall and wrestle each other with their trunks (you can see photos of this inside one of the palaces).

On the wall of the palace look out for the large sun – the Mewar maharanas worshipped the sun and would greet it each morning. In the event of cloudy skies, they would greet instead a pure gold sun mounted on an inside wall of the palace, and to encourage the people to do likewise they had this gold plated version mounted here.

From the Manek Chowk you pass through the Toran Pol, with its heavy spiked gates and a wonderful painting on the ceiling of the arch depicting dancing girls.

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Toran Pol

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Ganesh Deodhi

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Glass inlay decoration

One of the first sights of note on our explorations of the City Palace was the Ganesh Chowk, off which is this small statue of Ganesh, the Ganesh Deodhi. It was sculpted in marble in 1620 and is an object of reverence. It is set in a small niche and surrounded by beautiful glass inlay work depicting girls with fans, flowers and vines, peacocks and more.

From here we climbed some steps which led to the Rajya Angan, the earliest courtyard of the palace, built by Rana Udai Singh II in the 16th century. The early coronation ceremonies of the Mewar rulers took place in this courtyard. A room off this courtyard has displays about Pratap Singh and his famous horse, Chetak, who carried his master to safety despite having been shot in the leg during the Battle of Haldighati fought between the Rajputs and Mughals in 1576; once Pratap was safe, Chetak died of his wounds. Chetak is depicted in this model wearing a strange elephant-like truck, which was intended to deter attacks from the battle elephants who were trained to wield swords in their trunks and slash the enemy. It was just such an attack that caused Chetak’s wounds, so we can assume that the disguise was not good enough to fool the elephants on that occasion at least.

Pratap and
Chetak

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From the Rajya Angan we climbed further to the Chandra Mahal which was created by Rana Karan Singh II in the early 17th century as a leisure place for the rulers. In the centre is a large basin carved from a single piece of marble which is thought to have been used during Holi celebrations. It is also said that on the occasion of Karan Singh’s wedding the basin was filled with 100,000 silver coins which were later distributed among the poor of Udaipur. A balcony to one side of the courtyard offers fantastic views of the lake below.

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View from Chandra Mahal

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Wall carving, Chandra Mahal

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Roof detail, Chandra Mahal

The next part of the City Palace that we came to on our tour was the Badi Mahal or Garden Palace (also sometimes known as Amar Vilas after its creator, Rana Amar Singh II). This dates from 1699 and was designed as a summer house. It has a marble basin in the centre and is planted with trees, like a roof garden (we are 30 metres or so above ground level here). Around the edges are terraces with 104 intricately carved marble pillars to support their canopies.

You can get some great views of the town below from here. It was also from here that my photo (above) of the elephant tethering pits in the Manek Chowk was taken.

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In the Badi Mahal

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Badi Mahal windows and view

From here we descended (I think!) past a room which displayed paintings of court life to one of the most ornate rooms, the Kanch ki Burj. Like the Chandra Mahal this dates from the reign of Rana Karan Singh II. Its walls are covered with red zig-zag mirrors (a 19th century addition) and it has some beautiful tile-work and a mirrored dome.

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Kanch ki Burj

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Continuing our tour we came next to the Badi Chitrashali Chowk, a square courtyard built during the reign of Rana Sangram Singh II (1710-1734). This space was used for music and dance performances, and was another of my favourites. It is decorated with blue tiles imported from China and windows of brightly coloured glass in which it is possible to frame a photo of the city below.

Beyond lies a terrace which provides another good spot for views - the city from one side, and Lake Pichola from the other. You can also look down into Manek Chowk and get a more detailed look at some of its features less easily visible from ground level, such as the statue of Ganesh in my photo below. There were a lot of visitors here all jostling to get the best photos so you may have to be patient!

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Views from the Badi Chitrashali Chowk of the city and of Manek Chowk

From here, steps lead down to the Moti Mahal or Pearl Palace, its walls covered in mirrors and coloured glass. This is another of Karan Singh II’s additions – he seems to have liked rich colours and ornamentation. He was also responsible for the Manek Mahal or Ruby Palace which lies on the far side of the Mor Chowk.

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Moti Mahal

We passed then through a succession of rooms, the names of which I didn't always note although my camera was kept busy!

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We came at last to one of the City Palace's most photographed and acclaimed areas, the Mor Chowk. This is arguably the most beautiful of the palace’s many delights. Some other parts are more colourful, and it lacks the views of other courtyards, but its decorative elements are among the most exquisite and it has a pleasing uniformity of design. The stand-out features are the five mosaics of peacocks, commissioned by Rana Sajjan Singh in 1874. Each is made from about 5,000 pieces of coloured glass and stones. They are protected by windows so hard to photograph without reflections, but I got my most successful image by putting my lens right against the glass to capture the intricacies of the work – each fine strand of the feathers is a separate shard of green glass, for instance.

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Although easy to overlook when focusing on the peacocks, the rest of the courtyard is also beautifully decorated, especially at the upper levels.

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Upper levels of the Mor Chowk

At this point I confess I started to tire and although I took more photos of the remaining rooms and palaces these were mostly of small details that caught my eye, and at times I omitted to note where we were exactly within the complex!

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Manek Mahal

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Details - door, painting, lamp

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Detail of carved wall

I have written a lot about the City Palace and shared lots of photos, and yet this was not all we saw here! It’s an amazing place and you could quite easily spend the best part of a day here. As it was, we were here for several hours and still missed things I am sure.

City Palace Road

After our visit to the City Palace we took a walk along this road which I found held a wealth of fascinating activity and photo opportunities. Udaipur prides itself on being among the cleanest of Indian cities, and while that cleanliness seems only to apply to the very centre (we saw the ubiquitous rubbish heaps everywhere else) it was definitely in evidence here. There was also perhaps less traffic than we had become used to in the cities we visited, at least at the top end of the street, making it easier to find the best position for a photo. But as everywhere we found locals happy to see our cameras and for the most part to be included in our shots, when they realised this was the case.

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This was also a good place to find local crafts, and although I didn't buy anything here (we stopped later in the day in a cooperative where I got a lovely cushion cover however), I did enjoy photographing the many puppets on display. Some of the shop signs raised a smile and made for good photos too.

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Jagdish Temple

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Where City Palace Road becomes Jagdish Temple Road there is the large Hindu temple that gives the latter street its name, perched somewhat incongruously (or so it seemed to me) above a row of shops. This was built in 1651/2 by Rana Jagat Singh, and is dedicated to one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu, Jagannath. A black stone image of him stands inside, carved from a single stone (no photos allowed here), and around this central shrine are four more dedicated to Lord Ganesh, the Sun god, the goddess Shakti and Lord Shiva. A brass image of Garuda (the half-bird, half-man vehicle of Lord Vishnu), stands in a separate shrine in front of the temple. Outside every surface is decorated with carvings – elephants of all sizes, lions, images of Vishnu, scenes from the life of Krishna, dancing nymphs and all sorts of geometric and floral shapes.

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Jagdish Temple

Sahelion Ki Bari

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These pretty gardens dotted with fountains are a peaceful oasis in this busy city. The name means “Courtyard of the Maidens” and commemorates a group of 48 young female attendants who accompanied a princess to Udaipur as part of her dowry. The garden was laid out by Rana Sangram Singh in the early part of the 18th century. It is said that he created it for his queen and these 48 companions, to give them somewhere to relax away from the court.

Although not large, there is quite a lot to see here, with several distinct parts to the garden. Near the entrance are lawns, and a square walled garden with a large pond in the centre of which is a pretty white marble chhatri. Water is something of a theme here – there are several other pools and numerous fountains ornamented with cranes and other birds, as well as elephants. A later Maharana, Bhupal Singh, added a group of rain fountains whose sound is designed to mimic rainfall (a rare treat in this desert state). Some fountains in the gardens play constantly, while others are activated by clapping your hands nearby.

There are also plenty of flowers, including oleander and bougainvillea. Some of the fountains were imported from England and the gardens show an English landscaping influence in places, just as English gardens of that period were often influenced by Indian styles.

There is a small entry fee (our guide paid so I’m not sure what this was) but the outer lawns are accessible free of charge and are a popular picnicking spot for locals.

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Fountains of Sahelion Ki Bari

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Gardeners

From here we drove back to Fateh Sagar, the lake a little to the north of the centre, where we stopped for lunch at a lakeside hotel. Later we stopped on a bridge over Swaroop Sagar which had super views in both directions. We could see locals washing their clothes at the water’s edge and had a good distant view of the Monsoon Palace. We met some local school boys too, keen to pose for photos!

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At Swaroop Sagar

We also visited the crafts cooperative where I bought my pretty cushion cover, before returning to the hotel to relax and catch up with emails etc. It was then that I wished that the hotel had used its extensive grounds for a swimming pool rather than a third restaurant!

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But after another lovely sunset it was in that third restaurant that we ate our dinner. This is the Garden Grill. Its tables are set out among the trees and there is a nice view of the palace that houses the hotel, but not of the lake. Service was again stiflingly over-attentive (we were the only guests dining there as the hotel was quiet that night) and the food, which is "multi-cuisine" but all quite spicy (think Cajun chicken and Indonesian satay), was merely average. But we enjoyed the setting and the birds (stilts, I believe) that wandered the lawns between the tables. A full moon rose over the hotel palace and made a lovely backdrop to our final evening in Udaipur.

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Tomorrow we would turn our sights northwards again ...

Posted by ToonSarah 12:25 Archived in India Tagged buildings people india palace garden udaipur rajasthan street_photography Comments (7)

Travelling to Fathala

Senegal day two


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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River bank in Banjul, from the ferry

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

The Banjul ferry

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

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Ferry passengers in Banjul

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

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Boarding the ferry in Banjul

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River bank in Banjul, from the ferry

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

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Departing from Banjul

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Ferry passengers

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

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The north bank of the river

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Disembarking in Barra

Fathala Lodge

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

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

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On the road to Samé

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

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Our tent

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

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

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Bar and lounge

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Plunge pool and deck

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

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Warthogs at the waterhole

Safari drive in Fathala Reserve

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In the reserve, Fathala

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

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

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Western Giant Eland

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

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Plains Zebra

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Giraffes

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

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Warthogs

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Roan Antelopes

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Waterbuck, and another Western Giant Eland

We also saw lots of birds.

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Both Red-billed and Grey Hornbills

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Palm Nut Vulture

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Abyssinian Roller

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Blue Glossy and Purple Starlings

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Stone Partridge

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

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

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

Evening at the lodge

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

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Thai fish curry

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

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

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

To Mass in Mar Lodj

Senegal day seven


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Sunrise at Souimanga Lodge

Our second morning at Souimanga Lodge, and again we awoke to a beautiful sunrise over the lagoon.

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Souimanga sunrise

Learning from yesterday’s experience with our resident mouse, and Chris’s damaged earphones, we had tried to make sure there that was nothing so tempting within reach. But we didn't think to remove the fruit bowl, and discovered this morning that he had helped himself to more apple. Oh well, there was enough to spare – but we resolved to hide the fruit bowl too on subsequent nights!

The journey to Mar Lodj

After another lovely breakfast we were off on today’s activity. Perhaps unusually for a hotel, one of the offered excursions here is to Mass in a nearby village, Mar Lodj, which is on an island in the delta. Many of the tourists here are French and therefore I would assume many are practising Catholics, so that might be a reason the hotel offers this activity – or it could be in part because it is a fascinating experience for any European or other first world visitor. Either way, as Chris is a Catholic and we often do go to Mass when on holiday (and have had some equally fascinating experiences elsewhere as a result), this activity was a must for us, and indeed had been one of the things that attracted us to stay here.

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CFA notes

Our driver picked us up straight after breakfast. He introduced himself as Cheikh and said that he would also be taking us on the various excursions we had booked for later in the week. We asked about changing money – so far we hadn’t needed any local currency as we’d been on full board at Fathala, but today we would want some for the collection at Mass and later in the week no doubt for shopping in the markets we hoped to visit. So Cheikh suggested a stop in the local village, Fimela, where a shop doubled as a currency exchange.

The currency in Senegal is the West African CFA (Communauté Financière Africaine) Franc which is pegged to the Euro. Many hotels and tourist-oriented establishments accept the latter, and in any case it is easier to exchange Euros than Sterling or US Dollars, so it makes sense to travel with these. Our transaction was quickly and satisfactorily concluded (we were offered 13,000 CFA per €20 note, which was a fraction under the then-official rate of 660 CFA to the Euro, but with no exchange fees or interest seemed a good deal) and of course a few photos were taken!

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Locals shopping in Fimela

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Inside the store where we changed our money

We then drove to Ndangane, a major fishing village in this region. Here we boarded a pirogue for the 20 minute ride across the creek to Mar Lodj, which was an opportunity to see and photograph life in this fishing community from the water.

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Ndangane from the water

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Great Egret near Ndangane

Mar Lodj

Arriving at the island we moored by a sandy beach a short walk from the village.

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The coastline of Mar Lodj island

We were early for the service so there was time for a stroll around the village first. The main ‘sight’ here, apart from the rather attractive church which draws both locals and tourists, is a tree, or rather group of three trees – a kapok, mahogany and palm (although it has to be said that the latter has seen better days!) These have become intertwined, which locals like to say reflects the way in which the three religions of Islam, Christianity and Animism co-exist peacefully here.

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Sacred trees in Mar Lodj

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In Mar Lodj

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Local family on their way to church

Mass at Mar Lodj

The church itself is a striking round building, its design echoing local houses. By the time the Mass started it was packed – mainly with locals but also a sprinkling of visitors such as ourselves.

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The Church of the Holy Family in Mar Lodj

I think anyone, whether a strong believer, or any believer at all, or none, would find this experience interesting, although you have to be prepared for a lengthy service with a long sermon in French. I speak a little, but I found this hard to follow as the accents are different to European French and the microphone was dodgy. I was so impressed by the excellent behaviour of the young children who sat quietly together at the front throughout, neither fidgeting nor talking.

The music and singing was beautiful, and I made a video of part of it, as a few other visitors were doing so and no one seemed to mind.

After the service we lingered outside for a while, taking discreet photos of the locals. I had of course dressed respectfully, but there was no way I could compete with the wonderful dresses worn by some of the local women for whom Sunday best clearly means exactly that.

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Locals after the Mass


On the way back to our pirogue we were invited to visit the local ‘market’, which was really just a group of local women who had spread their goods out in a strategic location on the walk up from the jetty. We didn't bother to look as we had a visit to a much larger market planned for a few days later. Instead we headed back to our boat and retraced our journey back to the hotel.

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Chris on the pirogue leaving Mar Lodj

Birds, birds, birds

We decided to skip lunch as we’d had a decent breakfast and knew that dinner would be another four course affair. So we made coffee in our suite to drink on the deck (once we’d mastered the intricate Italian ‘pod’ system machine) and then spent another relaxing afternoon with a mix of pool time and bird-watching by the lagoon. The stars of today’s show were Spur-winged Lapwings, Great and Little Egrets, Black-headed Heron and Western Reef Herons, Whimbrels and various gulls.

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Herons, Egrets and Gulls

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Spur-winged Lapwings

The day ended with another excellent dinner on the decking among the trees, with more explorations slightly further afield to look forward to tomorrow.

Before going to bed we remembered to move our fruit bowl to the safety of the fridge and hide all cables etc. in our suitcases, well away from the munchings of our resident mouse. But about 30 minutes after going to bed I heard the scrabbling noises and realised I'd left a silk bead necklace, bought the previous year in Tallinn, on the coffee table. I got up to put it away but too late - it had already been shredded! Yet another casualty of our room mate's insatiable appetite!

Posted by ToonSarah 03:47 Archived in Senegal Tagged people birds boats hotel church village africa customs senegal Comments (7)

Fishing in Senegal

Senegal day nine


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Sunrise at Souimanga Lodge

The sunrise this morning was just as beautiful as the previous mornings here, but hazier, and perhaps unsurprisingly I was more restrained in the number of photos I took!

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Sunrise at Souimanga Lodge

Several birds again joined us at breakfast, including a Village Weaver and some Common Bulbuls.

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Village Weaver

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Common Bulbuls

Palmarin

Today we were heading towards the coast again but this time a bit to the south of Joel-Fadiouth where we were yesterday. Our main destination was the fishing village of Djiffer, but we made a few stops for photos on the way. Not far from Fimela we drove across an area where locals gaze their cattle which are of the distinctive West African N'Dama breed.

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Cattle on the salt flats near Fimela

On a tree here I spotted, and managed to photograph, this Senegal Coucal, a bird from the cuckoo family.

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Senegal Coucal

Our route took us across the extensive salt flats of the Palmarin region, known here as tanne, a French corruption of the local Wolof word tan, which means ‘an extent of saline lands’.

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Cheikh by the roadside on the way to Palmarin

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Road across the salt flats

These salt flats have a wild beauty, especially if you are drawn to wide open skies as I am. They are great for spotting birds too. We saw flamingos, pelicans, various gulls, terms, an osprey and several I couldn't identify. We also saw a fox trotting across the sand.

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Fox

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Osprey

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Sea birds above the salt flats

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Gulls

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Flamingos and gulls

Very little grows here, because of the salt content of the soil, and in the rainy season the sea can sometimes cover much of this land.

A little further south, on the fringes of the flats we saw an area where salt is collected. The local women dig shallow pools and extract the salt, which is then left to dry in covered mounds or on wooden platforms in little huts, known as greniers (even though they are contain no grain!), to protect it from the rains. Senegal is the largest salt producer in west Africa, producing over 450,000 tonnes every year, much of it through small-scale operations such as these. Here and elsewhere in the country we saw sacks of it waiting by the roadside for collection (much as English farmers leave milk churns).

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Salt flats with greniers

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Salt greniers near Palmarin

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Diakhanor

We stopped briefly at a simple coastal hotel, whose owners were friends of Cheikh, so that we could use the ‘facilities’ and get a cold drink.

Just north of Djiffer we stopped again in the small village of Diakhanor. Like Fadiouth, which we had visited the previous day, this village is unusual among Senegalese communities in being 90% Catholic and just 10% Muslim. Cheikh is a Muslim, and had married a Catholic girl from this village. He was keen to introduce us to her parents, his in-laws. He showed us inside their simple home, from which he and his wife were married, and we met some of the neighbours too.

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Cheikh's mother-in-law

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Neighbours


Like others we met in Senegal, Cheikh was proud of the fact that the two religions co-exist peacefully here. Mixed marriages such as his own are not uncommon, and the two faiths celebrate each other's festivals. I asked about the religious upbringing of his three children and learned that the two boys are Muslim and his daughter a Catholic. He also said that his sister had like him married a Catholic and, unlike him, had converted. It all seemed very easy-going and flexible - long may it continue thus.

Djiffer

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A village living on borrowed time

Djiffer lies at the southern tip of a spit of land that separates the sea from the waters of the Saloum. Its narrow strip of houses is squeezed between the waters of the Atlantic to the west and the lagoons of the Sine Saloum delta to the east.

It is a major fishing village for this region and the activity relating to this is the main (possibly only?) draw for tourists. By the time we arrived it was late morning, and the many colourful boats were all drawn up in front of the beach, anchored by rope to large tires or tree trunks. Each was surrounded by a throng of men waist-deep in water, heaving crates of fish on to their shoulders to be brought ashore. Cheikh explained that they were paid ‘in kind’ - for each nine crates that they brought ashore they would be given a tenth and could sell its contents themselves.

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Landing the catch

On the shore small market areas (little more than stone shelters) provide the focal point for the buying and selling that follows each landing. Some of the best fish are bought by hotels and restaurants, the remainder of the best go for export. The less good and the smaller fish are sold to locals.

Standing here we could clearly see the challenge Djiffer faces due to its location on this narrow spit of land. The Atlantic Ocean to the west is continually nibbling at its sandy shores in an effort to meet up with the waters of the Saloum. Cheikh pointed out trees that were once on dry land, were now on the beach and would soon be in the sea. People living here are doing so on borrowed time.

In another area of the village, just to the south of where the fish are landed, are the fish-drying tables. Shark, conch, sea snails, cat-fish, and many more are laid out here to dry in the hot sun before being packed for transport all over Senegal and abroad. Much of the fish is also salted before drying, to help with the preservation process.

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Fish-drying tables

We met a Ghanaian man stuffing large, almost rigid slabs of shark meat into sacks to be sent to his native country, and he explained how they cook it – cut into pieces, soaked in water for at least an hour (but preferably overnight) to remove the salt, then stewed with tomatoes and onions.

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Shark drying


This was a fascinating place to visit but the smell in this fish-drying area was pungent. I like fish but could only take a little of it, and Chris who doesn’t much care for fish found it really pretty unpleasant!

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Egrets picking over the remains

Back at the lodge

Leaving Djiffer we drove back across the salt flats (without stopping this time) and were back at Souimanga Lodge by mid-afternoon.

There was plenty of time for a swim, and more bird-watching from our little hide.

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Pied Kingfisher with fish

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Common Bulbul

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Grey heron

And of course as always at Souimanga the day finished with a candle-lit dinner on the decking among the trees, overlooking the lagoon.

Posted by ToonSarah 10:44 Archived in Senegal Tagged people birds boats fishing coast shells village houses africa sharks flamingos salt_flats seabirds customs senegal Comments (7)

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