A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about sunsets and sunrises

The Kalahari Desert

Namibia Day Two


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Cactus at Anib Lodge

Our first full day driving in Namibia! After a good breakfast at the Eningu Clay House Lodge we loaded up the car and headed south.

We spent the morning on the road, taking it easy and enjoying the scenery, and arrived at our destination in time for a late lunch.

Anib Lodge

Our base for the night was this comfortable family-run hotel near Mariental in the Kalahari Desert. I say ‘family-run’ because it was at that time, although checking their website they seem since to have been taken over by a larger company. Not much seems to have changed however, except that maybe they have more rooms these days.

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Our bungalow

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Another cactus

We enjoyed a light lunch sitting by the swimming pool but I don’t remember that I had a dip, unusually for me! Instead we relaxed for a while in the pretty grounds, where I enjoyed taking photos of the large sculptural cacti until it was time to depart on the sundowner outing we had pre-booked.

Sunset in the Kalahari

We wrapped up warmly for this trip as we knew it would get cold as soon as the sun set, and even before then it was cool in the lodge’s open jeep. The plan was to watch the sunset from the nearby dunes but first we stopped to photograph a tree with several Sociable Weavers’ nests.

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Sociable weavers' nests

These birds are endemic to southern Africa and unlike other birds build large community nests. These nests are the biggest built by any bird and can house over a hundred pairs of birds. Each pair of birds has its own chamber within the nest, rather like a human apartment block. The size of the nest means that the chambers stay relatively cool during the heat of the day, and warm in the cold Kalahari nights.

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Kalahari view

Then it was time to head for the dunes. The Kalahari is perhaps more properly regarded as a semi desert, so the dunes aren’t pure ridges of sand but rather are dotted with scrub, camel thorns (acacias) and grasses. Our jeep driver parked at the top of one of them and we and the other guests got out to enjoy the views. We were served with a glass of Glühwein (the hotel was run by an Austrian couple) to keep us warm as we watched the sun set over the Kalahari which gradually started to take on an orange glow.

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Kalahari sundowners

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Chris with the jeep

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On the dunes

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Kalahari sunset

Then we climbed back into the jeep and snuggled under the provided blanket for the return to the lodge, as already the temperature had dropped below freezing.

Later dinner was served in the cosy dining room ‘family style’, that is, we were seated with other guests rather than at a table for two. This led to plenty of swapping of travellers’ tales – we got chatting to a Swiss couple near the end of their trip who gave us several good tips and ideas of places to go. The dinner was absolutely excellent and was accompanied by good wine (included in the accommodation costs). Our Austrian hosts’ love of good food, wine and schnapps was very evident, as we were to discover after dinner when we sat at the cosy bar and chatted with the landlord about our own favourite Austrian wines. A lovely way to end the day!

Posted by ToonSarah 05:19 Archived in Namibia Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises trees birds desert sunset road_trip hotel africa namibia cacti kalahari Comments (13)

From the Kalahari to the Namib

Namibia Days Three, Four and a bit of Five


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

On the road

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In Mariental
(taken by Chris)

After our overnight stay at Anib Lodge we faced our longest drive of the trip so far, but by now we were getting more used to the road conditions here – or rather, Chris was getting more used to them, as it was he who was doing all the driving. My role as navigator was much easier as there are relatively few roads in Namibia and therefore relatively few junctions! My most important task, therefore, was identifying on the map where we could refuel – petrol (gas) stations are also relatively few in number, and we were pleased that our map indicated where these were. Our car had one of those in-built computers that estimate how many more miles you can drive on what you have in the tank which, although not 100% reliable, was a reassuring extra. In any case, the advice was to top up whenever you have the chance, even if the tank isn’t even close to being empty, so our first stop this morning was in the town of Mariental just half an hour into our drive. While there we took the opportunity for a short stroll and a few photos.

Then we headed west, gradually leaving the scrub of the Kalahari behind and driving the long straight roads through a barren landscape towards Namibia’s other main desert region, the Namib-Naukluft. We stopped in what felt like the middle of nowhere to take some photos, with not another car in sight.

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On the road to the Namib Desert

The total distance was about 300 kilometres / 190 miles, but it took a lot longer than a similar distance would on roads at home, as even the recommended 50 mph speed limit was too fast for many stretches of these gravel roads. And although a saloon 2WD is fine on the somewhat better maintained roads that we stuck to, you do have to take care. It’s all too easy to skid and spin the car, as we were to find out in a few days’ time!

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Nearing the Namib-Naukluft National Park

As we approached our destination we started to see larger sand dunes on the horizon. The Namib-Naukluft National Park is home to the world’s highest dunes, although it would be tomorrow before we would see the highest of them all.

Kulala Desert Lodge

We reached our base for the next two nights in the late afternoon. Kulala Desert Lodge is located at the foot of the famous Sossusvlei Dunes and has its own entrance to the National Park so you can get in there early and be ahead of the crowds – something we were to benefit from tomorrow. For now it was too late in the day to do much more than settle into our room and explore our immediate surroundings.

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Our room at Kulala Desert Lodge

The rooms here are really special – thatched and canvas tents, built on a wooden platform, with an adobe ‘extension’. You sleep in the canvas part, while the adobe section at the back houses the bathroom facilities. That section has a flat roof which you can climb up to for wider views. If you ask, they will make your bed up on the roof and you can sleep under the stars. We chickened out as the nights were really cold, something I now regret as it would have been quite an experience.

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Me on our roof

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Chris on our roof

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View from our roof

Even in the day time the roof affords lovely views of the desert, although you can’t see the red dunes from the lodge.

We watched the sun set over a rather distant waterhole from the terrace of the main lodge building while enjoying a beer. Then it was time for dinner but we found the food here rather ordinary compared to what we enjoyed in most places on this trip. Still, the bar was cosy with a log fire and so was our tent!

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Sunset over the waterhole

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Sunset over the waterhole

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In the bar

In the Namib-Naukluft National Park

We were up early the next morning for a day exploring the national park. We had expected to be in a small group but were lucky enough to have our excellent guide, Francis, to ourselves.

Leaving very early, and taking advantage of Kulala’s private entrance, Francis was able to make sure we got to the best photo stops ahead of the tour groups, so we had a great day out.

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Sossusvlei

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The Namib-Naukluft National Park encompasses the desert environment of the Namib and the Naukluft mountain range, hence its name. Here we were very definitely in the desert part!

Dead Vlei

The most famous area of the Namib Desert is Sossusvlei, a clay pan surrounded by huge sand dunes, and the most famous area of Sossusvlei is the part known as Dead Vlei, so that was where we headed first. Francis parked the jeep and we walked across several dunes.

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On the way to Dead Vlei

As we came over the top of the last dune Dead Vlei was spread before us, an amazing sight! As a photographer I absolutely loved it - the contrast between the white dried-up clay, stark black trees and surrounding red dunes is out of this world!

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First view of Dead Vlei
~ the people on the far left give a sense of scale, and were the only other ones here for most of our time here

Dead Vlei, a mix of English and Afrikaans, means ‘dead marsh’, and the name describes it perfectly. It was created long ago after a period of rainfall, when the nearby Tsauchab river flooded, creating temporary shallow pools. These allowed camel thorn trees to grow, but when the climate changed, drought hit the area, and sand dunes developed around the pan, blocking the river from watering the area. Without water the trees died, probably about 600-700 years ago. Their skeletons remain, blackened by the sun but not decaying as the air is so dry. They look like the ghosts of trees long gone.

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Dead Vlei

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In Dead Vlei

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We spent a long while taking photos here and soaking up the atmosphere, with only a few other people around, but as more started to arrive we left, walking back across the dunes to where we had left the jeep, in the shade of some still-living trees. Here Francis set up a picnic brunch, provided by the lodge – cold meats, salad, fruit, yoghurt, soft drinks, coffee.

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Soussevlei Picnic

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Francis and Chris at our picnic site

Dune 45

After a leisurely meal we helped Francis pack up the picnic things and he then drove us back the way we had come. We stopped at Dune 45 – so-named because it lies 45 kilometres past the Sesriem gate on the way to Sossusvlei. It is one of the tallest dunes in the area, although not as high as Big Daddy, the dune that towers above Dead Vlei (seen in my ‘On the way to Dead Vlei’ photo above). That is the highest dune in the Sossusvlei area, about 325 metres, although there is an even higher dune elsewhere in the Namib, Dune 7, which is 383 metres tall.

Climbing Big Daddy is a popular challenge but one that requires the best part of a day. Dune 45 is ‘just’ 80 metres high and it is the most popular dune for visitors to climb, but not this visitor! I decided to leave that to Chris and stayed below taking photos.

Just think – these dunes are composed of sands five million years old, blown here from the Kalahari.

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Dune 45

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View from Dune 45
(taken by Chris)
~ I am down there somewhere!

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At the foot of Dune 45

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Near Dune 45

Once Chris returned from his climb, which he proclaimed worth the effort it took, we headed back to the lodge for what was left of the afternoon and a leisurely evening, as we would have an early start tomorrow.

Ballooning in the Namib Desert

This was not the first time we had the chance to go in a hot air balloon, as we had tried it once previously quite near home, in Oxfordshire. But the green fields of the Thames Valley are a far cry from the deserts of Namibia and we anticipated that this would be a very special experience – as indeed it was.

We were picked up from the lodge a bit before sunrise and given warm blankets to tuck around ourselves as we drove to the launch site a few miles away, along with a couple of other guests. Once there we watched as the balloon was inflated, enjoying the warmth that came from the flames. Desert nights here are very chilly, especially in winter!

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Nearly ready!

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Wrapped up warmly while waiting for our balloon to be ready

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Inflating the balloon

Once the balloon was ready we all climbed aboard and we took off, floating above the dunes as the sun rose over them. This was the perfect time of day for photos – not only was the red hue of the sands at its deepest but the low sun gave each dune a defined edge.

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Ballooning at Sossusvlei

Our pilot gave us a wonderful ride – at times dropping so low that the basket just caressed the top of a dune, at others climbing high so we could get a sense of the scale of the Sossusvlei landscape. At one point we passed above our lodge, at others there were a few deer below us, seeming unaware of our passing.

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Flying low over the dunes

After an hour or so we landed smoothly in a peaceful hollow between the dunes. The balloon was deflated, and breakfast served, with champagne and some exotic Namibian specialities such as smoked kudu. Our pilot opened the champagne bottles rather dramatically with a machete and gave me one of the bottle necks with the cork still wedged in it, which unfortunately has long since been mislaid.

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Opening the champagne

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Our champagne breakfast after ballooning

All too soon though it was time to return to the lodge - perhaps just as well as we had another long drive ahead of us today … but that’s a story best left to my next entry.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:26 Archived in Namibia Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises desert road_trip views hotel roads balloon africa namibia dunes sossusvlei dead_vlei Comments (16)

Our stay at Huab Lodge

Namibia Days Eight to Ten


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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At Huab Lodge

We arrived at Huab Lodge quite hot and dusty after our morning visit to the Petrified Forest and a long drive on Namibia’s gravel roads. And straight away we knew we were somewhere special. This was one of our real ‘splurge’ choices on this trip and it was worth it. Here’s what I wrote for my Virtual Tourist review:

A visit here is more like visiting friends than staying in a hotel. Yes, it's expensive, but if you can afford it it's unmissable! The rooms are fantastic, with huge picture windows with a view of the Huab River (dry for most of the year). Even the showers come with a view (the rooms can't be overlooked by anyone apart possibly by a stray elephant or kudu). The lodge itself is beautifully designed, completely in keeping with the surrounding countryside. There's a natural hot spring, a small pool and a hide for bird-watching. Apart from the birds and the chance of seeing the elusive desert elephants (we weren't lucky) the wildlife isn't as great as elsewhere in Namibia, but don't let that put you off.

What really makes a stay here special are the people. Jan and Suzi will make you so welcome you won't want to leave! Jan is so knowledgeable about the local environment. He can imitate all the birds, identify animals at a glance, and will describe in detail how he and Suzi have restored this former farm-land and given it back to the wildlife. And in the evenings, everyone eats together by candlelight at the long table in the lodge. The food is fantastic and is washed down with a selection of fine wines, lovingly presented by Jan.

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Our room

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Chris on our terrace

On this first afternoon, we had a chat to Jan over a welcome cold drink and discussed what activities we were interested in. At his suggestion, after settling into our lovely bungalow, we headed out with him on a drive around the property. As we drove, he told us more about the land. When he and Suzi bought it in the early 1990s, it had been in use for commercial farming for some time. The farmers had fenced it in, driving away the desert elephants that habitually roam this region and turning them from their traditional migration routes. Other animals had been hunted (the Huab website says that, ‘Some of the previous land-owners shot every animal in sight to make biltong’) and what little water flows here had been diverted to the crops rather than the water-holes on which wildlife relies.

Dismayed by what was happening here Jan and Suzi bought three of the farms along the Huab River. They pulled down the fences and restored the waterholes, to encourage the animals to return. Their aim was to create a private nature reserve which would act as a buffer zone for the desert elephants in particular, and wild animals in general, between the conflicting farming interests. By gradually returning the land to its original condition through anti-erosion measures, and operating a strict hands-off and no-shooting policy, they brought about significant changes.

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Huab Lodge bungalows
(from their website, which I trust as I am recommending the place they will forgive!)

They started to take in paying guests – initially at a simple rest camp, then at the luxury lodge they built here. The proceeds paid for more improvements to the land and they set up the Huab Conservation Trust which financed the purchase of ten giraffes and eight ostriches. But unlike other reserves, Huab isn’t fenced, so these animals and others are free to roam where they want. Their intention in reintroducing game is not to fence it in and manage it for a selected few, but to assist nature in restocking itself.

And it’s working. The numbers of species such as kudu, oryx and mountain zebra are growing and the elephants now sometimes pass through, following their ancient paths, although we weren’t lucky enough to see them.

Jan also told us lots about the different trees we passed, including the bottle tree, Pachypodium lealii. These striking trees are distinguished by their thick bottle-shaped trunk, which is almost branchless until the top. The branches are few and covered with thorns up to a foot long. The flowers appear in the spring, when the tree is leafless, which is why they look so dramatic. Jan told us it was quite unusual to find a tree with as many blooms as this so early in the spring (i.e. mid July).

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Bottle tree in bloom

The Bottle tree is an endemic species of Namibia, growing in semi-desert areas and dry bush, especially Damaraland. Jan described how local people have traditionally used the latex as arrow poison for hunting. In contact with the eyes this latex can produce blindness.

I also liked the white bark of the Mountain Chestnut glowing in the late afternoon light.

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Mountain chestnut tree

Back at the lodge we freshened up and went to dinner in the large main building called the Lapa. It is a large open-sided space, partly built into a granite outcrop and covered by an enormous thatch roof which echoes the shape of a nearby mountain. The meal was served ‘family style’, with all the guests sitting at one long table with Jan and Suzi. Before the meal the menu was presented to us by the chef in her mother tongue, Damara, which intriguingly for us is one of the so-called click languages, helpfully followed by an English translation. Jan then introduced his recommended selection of wines for the evening – both these and our meals were included in our stay. The food was excellent and afterwards we went out on to the verandah with Jan while he pointed out some of the stars and planets, using his telescope for another look at Jupiter and his moons.

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Huab Lodge Lapa at night
(again from their website)

Over dinner we had discussed plans for tomorrow with Jan. The other guests were leaving, and new ones arriving, so we were the only ones accepting his suggestion that we join him on an early morning walk around the property – something he does every morning to check all is well. With that in mind we didn’t linger too long after dinner but headed back to our lovely bungalow to enjoy a comfortable night’s sleep.

Sunrise walk at Huab

We were up early as planned and were glad of the hot coffee served by the Lapa before leaving on our walk with Jan. We set out in the half-light of dawn. It was still pretty chilly so warm clothes were needed. Of course Jan knows this land intimately and as we walked was looking for any signs that all might not be well, but thankfully it was.

We followed the dried-up river-bed for part of the walk and Jan described to us the very different scene in the wet season when for a few short weeks the water (usually) flows through the farm. We also climbed a small outcrop for a wonderful view of the sunrise.

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Huab sunrise

Jan is an expert on the local birds, as on so much else, so was able to tell us which birds we could hear in the bush and even imitate them to encourage more calls and singing.

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Landscape near Huab

Heading back to the Lodge Jan took us up the hill behind the accommodation bungalows and showed us the extensive solar panel system and small generator that keep all the buildings supplied with light and hot water. We arrived back at the main building just as breakfast was being served, a wonderful spread: home-made breads, fruit, various meats, cereals etc – all served on the terrace under what is by then a beautifully warm sun.

We then decided to have a relaxing rest of the day, enjoying the lodge facilities and surroundings. We took books, cameras and binoculars to the hot spring a short walk away, where Jan and Suzi have built a stone shelter and added comfortable seating. We enjoyed a dip in the springs followed by a laid-back couple of hours, although we didn’t spot any passing wildlife.

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At the hot pool

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Helmeted guinea fowl

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Grey Go-away bird?

I did manage to get a decent photo of a Helmeted Guineafowl and a very poor one of what I think may be a Grey Go-away bird, based on a photo I took of one years later in Botswana: https://toonsarah.travellerspoint.com/239/ (unfortunately I wasn’t interested enough in birds back then to have noted its name anywhere).

A black eagle chick changes our plans

By dinner time the new guests had arrived – a woman a little older than us, her adult son, and her brother. As we all ate, they were naturally discussing with Jan their plans for the following day. We were due to leave after breakfast so had no such plans to make, but were interested listeners. The conversation turned to eagles and Jan mentioned that a pair of black eagles was nesting on the property. The nest was high on a cliff face, but he had climbed up a couple of times to check all was well. Last time he was there the egg looked almost ready to hatch and the new baby should have arrived by now. By the way, he did reassure us that unlike other eagles, black eagles won't desert a nest that has been visited, hence his regular trips to check up.

The woman asked if this was something they could see tomorrow and was told yes, if you’re able to make the climb. She assured Jan that she was, as was her son, while the brother said he would be happy to relax at the lodge while they went. I was sensing that Chris was a bit disappointed that we were leaving and wouldn’t be able to join them on this adventure, when suddenly Suzi asked if we’d like to stay until after lunch so that we could do so. With only a fairly short drive to our next destination of course we accepted the invitation. This is one example of why I said in my review that staying here was more like staying with friends as that’s just the sort of thing a friend might do – ‘Stay for lunch, don’t rush away, there’s something interesting happening this morning’. How many hotel owners do the same?

[Incidentally, I’ve read in recent reviews that although Jan and Suzi still own Huab Lodge they are no longer so actively involved in running it, and guests no longer get these personal touches, nor is the guiding quite so good now Jan has stepped back from that too.]

Jan suggested that, instead of waiting at the lodge as he had planned, the brother/uncle might like to come along for the ride and wait at the foot of the cliff, something I was also keen to do (no way could I climb a cliff face!) So we stayed below to watch and take photos of the climb, while Chris and the others started up the cliff.

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The climb to the eagles' nest

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Seen near the eagles' nest

The nest was perched on a rocky ledge high above the dried-up Huab River and wasn't easy to reach. Once up there they could no longer see it, but Jan had left me with a walkie-talkie and using that I could direct them from below so that they went up past the nest at a little distance and then approached quietly from above. The climbers’ efforts were repaid by some stunning views of the young chick, who was about seven weeks old and already the size of a hen. Obviously all the photos here were taken by Chris or others of the party!

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View from the eagles' nest
(taken by Chris)
~ you can see the lodge's jeep and perhaps just make out the figures of the uncle and me beside it?

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Jan & Chris by the eagles' nest

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Chris by the eagles' nest

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Baby eagle chick, 7 weeks old
(by Chris)

We learnt later that the chick continued to thrive and took to the skies a few months later, none the worse for the invasion of his privacy!

Meanwhile we headed back to the lodge for a lunch of spaghetti and a useful chat with Suzi who suggested a better route to Etosha, our next stop, than that proposed by our tour company. So with the route mapped out we loaded the car and somewhat reluctantly said goodbye to Huab and our wonderful hosts!

Posted by ToonSarah 11:01 Archived in Namibia Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises trees birds road_trip wildlife hotel africa namibia eagles Comments (16)

We take the golden road to Samarkand *

Uzbekistan day six


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Desert sunrise

Today we were to travel to perhaps the most famed city of the Silk Road, Samarkand. Would it live up to expectations?

Morning in the yurt camp

The day certainly started on a high note. I had slept well at the desert camp at first, until the cool wind coming through the lattice frame of our yurt at about 4.30am woke me. I opened my eyes to see a thin but incredibly bright crescent moon hovering above the nearby sand dune. After dozing fitfully for some time, I decided, about an hour later, to give up and get up. Slipping into my shorts and reaching for my camera, I left my still-sleeping yurt-mates and stepped outside. I didn’t know what time the sun would rise but I figured it would be great to try to capture it on camera and much better than lying on the slightly hard ground trying unsuccessfully to sleep.

I had rather more of a wait than I had expected, but it was a lovely sensation to be, for a short while at least, the only person up in the camp. Gradually though a few others woke up and joined me outside, but still not so many that when the time for the sunrise came we couldn’t almost have a sand dune each to watch it from! Certainly I was alone on mine when the sun first climbed above the more distant dunes.

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Desert sunrise

Soon after this I headed back down into the camp where more people were by now up and about. In fact my one tiny criticism of the camp would be that, with breakfast not served until 8.00, and so many of us up before 7.00, they didn’t think to provide a pot of tea at that time. Nevertheless, this was a wonderful time to be in the desert, with sun growing in strength and warmth every minute and the dunes glowing in the early morning light.

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The camp from the dunes

And when breakfast was served it was very good: bread, pancakes, cheese, meat, jam and hard-boiled eggs, washed down with either green tea or decent (though instant) coffee. After this, and a short walk on the dunes with Chris, who had slept through the sunrise, it was time to leave the camp to the next visitors and head back to Yangikazgan to pick up our bus.

Lake Aidarkul

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Lake Aidarkul

We didn’t drive immediately to Samarkand but instead made a detour to Lake Aidarkul, which seems to be standard practice on all these tours. Opinions in our group about this were rather mixed, with some of us enjoying the interlude in the intensive sightseeing, and others regretting that it gave us less time in Samarkand. I think it depended on whether you found something there to appeal to you. If like me and a few others you were keen to swim it was great, and if like Chris you fancied a walk and a chance to see the desert scenery from somewhere other than out of the bus window, it was also good. But this isn’t really a place to come to simply relax – there is no shade, and although an awning was set up for us to sit under, it was rather small and everyone was rather on top of each other. Those who wanted peace and quiet to read, write up their journal or just unwind would have found the chatter of the others distracting.

For me, the highlight of our visit to Aidurkal Lake was the opportunity it afforded for a swim. After several days travelling, and some involving long bus journeys through the hot desert, I was glad of the chance to relax in its cooling waters.

There were no bushes for privacy behind which to change, so those of us wanting to swim went off to change in the bus. The edge of the lake was a little stony, so I kept my flip-flops on, but we didn’t have to wade too far for it to be deep enough to swim, though the odd sand bank beneath the surface meant that I did find my toes scraping the ground again at intervals. There was also no shade at all, so I had to resist the temptation to stay in the water too long, however lovely and cooling it was.

Meanwhile Chris, who is not so keen a swimmer, chose to climb a small hill near where we had parked to get some photos of the lake from above. Aidarkul is man-made, created during water supply projects in the area in the early 1970s (resulting in the Sirdarya river overflowing from the Chardarinskaya Reservoir). It is over 200 km long and in some places as much as 15 km wide – enough that you can’t see the far side. The bay where we swam was fairly uninteresting to look at, apart from the pretty green rushes captured in Chris’s photo below, but elsewhere I’ve read that it attracts a lot of birds such as cormorants, pelicans and herons – I would have liked to have visited that part. It’s also well-stocked with fish, and indeed fishing is the main industry in this region, apart from (increasingly) tourism as more and more travellers choose to spend a night (or more) in one of these yurt camps as part of their Uzbekistan experience.

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Photos taken by Chris from above the lake
- you can just make out the small group of swimmers, of whom I am one!

Our visit concluded with a picnic lunch that had been provided by the Kazaks at the yurt camp – salads, cold potatoes, bread, watermelon, with bottled water and green tea to drink. You can see how small our awning was in the photo below, as we all jostled for some shade in which to eat!

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Picnic at Aidarkul Lake

Then it was back into the bus for the long (over five hours) drive to Samarkand.

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On the (not very golden) road to Samarkand

Arrival in Samarkand

We arrived here late afternoon and checked into our accommodation at the family-run B&B Zarina. This rivalled the Hotel Mosque Baland in Bukhara as the friendliest we stayed in on our travels, and definitely took the prize for best location! It is situated only a few minutes’ walk from the Registan and set back from the main road in a quiet cul de sac. Our room wasn’t large, but it was clean, with an en-suite bathroom and air-conditioning (though the latter wasn’t as efficient as I’d have liked in that heat.)

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Our room at the Zarina B & B

The building itself was lovely. The courtyard was decorated with a large number of antique architectural objects such as old doors and the family were obviously keen collectors because the basement breakfast room had displays of old radios, musical instruments, a Russian adding machine and more! The columns supporting the front porch seemed to be antiques too.

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The hallway at the Zarina B & B

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In the courtyard

There wasn’t time left today for sightseeing so our thoughts turned instead to dinner. A small group of us decided to visit a restaurant just a short walk from our hotel, the Marco Polo. Marat, our guide, had told us that it was just recently opened so he had no reports about its quality, but he knew the chef who had a good reputation. Well, we had to conclude that it was the chef’s night off!

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At the Marco Polo restaurant
- Chris, me, Georgina, an Irish lady (whose name I've unfortunately forgotten) and Sue
Thanks to Sally-Ann who took the photo

The setting was nice, with a large paved area screened from the main road with bright yellow and white awnings. Our group of six got a good table in the centre of this area. The waitress though spoke no English, and unlike everyone else we met in Uzbekistan, was not inclined to be helpful, although was not exactly unfriendly. We managed to decipher some of the options on the Russian menu, but everything we tried to order seemed to be unavailable – although one of her colleagues did eventually appear with the hoped-for cold beers.

Chris and I ended up ordering beef shashliks, which were OK but not what we’d wanted. Meanwhile Georgina, having been assured that the salad she’d ordered was vegetarian (and in fact their only vegetarian option), was quite surprised to find a small pile of meat on it – which the waitress ‘helpfully’ suggested could be pushed to one side to turn it into the vegetarian dish requested. This would have been less irritating had we not spotted, some minutes later, two local men eating a very obviously vegetarian aubergine dish.

Oh well, at least we had enjoyed the beer!

The Registan at night

Of course, we couldn’t be so close to the famous Registan and not take a first look. I will save all the history and detailed information for a later entry as for now all we wanted to do was see it!

Some evenings there is a son et lumiere show at the Registan, usually arranged especially for tour groups. I had read that this wasn’t of great quality – the sound poor and the commentary fairly dull. We didn’t bother even trying to get to a show during our stay, but there had been one on this first evening, and although it seemed now to have finished it meant that we got to see the magnificent buildings nicely illuminated.

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The Registan at night

Guards ensured that we didn’t get too close, as we hadn’t paid for the show, but no matter – we could see a fair bit from further back, and the edge of the fountains made a good rest for my camera. And what we saw certainly whetted our appetites for a more detailed look tomorrow.

* James Elroy Flecker

Posted by ToonSarah 10:35 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises lakes night architecture desert restaurant hotel camp uzbekistan samarkand registan Comments (8)

Our first landing

Ecuador day ten continued


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North Seymour

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Taking photos on the beach

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The Angelito from North Seymour

As you can imagine, tourism to the Galápagos Islands is very strictly controlled. There are about 60 designated “visitor sites” which you can visit only with an authorised guide. You stick to a marked trail, leaving most of the island free for the animals to enjoy in peace. Some islands have only one visitor site, some have two and the larger ones have multiple sites. Each site is designed to showcase specific scenery, vegetation, and wildlife, although much of the latter can be seen at most locations. And each site will be designated as a “wet” or “dry” landing, depending on whether you have to wade ashore or can step directly on to land (usually a small stone jetty). Before each landing our guide, Fabian, told us what to expect and what footwear would be most suitable (“I recommend you tennis shoes” became something of a catch phrase!) Normally these briefings took place the previous evening but on this occasion we had just boarded the Angelito after landing at Baltra, so our briefing took place as we sailed.

North Seymour was the first island we visited on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito, on the afternoon of our arrival day. Many cruises do this, as it is very near Baltra where most tourist flights arrive. And it’s a great introduction to the Galápagos! This is one of the smallest islands in the archipelago, less than 2 square kilometres. It is rather flat and was created by an uplift of land rather than, like many of the larger islands, being the eroded top of a volcano.

Landing on North Seymour

The landing here is a dry one, on lava rocks dotted with crabs. Even a small boat like the Angelito can’t moor directly at the island, so to cross to the island we took the pangas or small dinghies. We wore life-jackets every time for these short crossings, putting them on before getting into the dinghies and discarding them in the boat before stepping out on to the shore.

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Rocky shore near the landing place (with swallow-tailed gull)

Once on the rocks we all gathered around Fabian for a first introduction to the island, while the dinghies returned to the Angelito to await his call later to pick us up. This way the landing place is left free for any other groups arriving on the same island. Sometimes we did get an island to ourselves, but inevitably on others there would be more than one group there at a time, so we had to leave room for them to land. But Fabian was quite clever at making sure we didn’t get too caught up in other groups – for instance, we often went the opposite way round a loop trail so that we just passed them at one point!

The lava rocks

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Our first marine iguana

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Lava lizard, North Seymour

The trail on North Seymour is about 2.5 km in length and is rated as moderate/difficult, although as an inexperienced walker with a dodgy knee I didn’t find it too bad! It starts here on the lava rocks by the landing place. This rocky area was a good introduction to some of the wildlife of the Galápagos, as we saw our very first endemic species here, the idiosyncratic marine iguanas. These are the world's only sea-going lizard. They have developed a flattened snout and sharp teeth in order to feed on the algae on the underwater rocks, and can stay submerged for up to ten minutes, before having to come up for air. When not feeding, they are usually found sunning themselves on lava rocks, and this was how we first encountered them here on North Seymour.

We also saw swallow-tailed gulls here (endemic to the Galápagos), and lava lizards, as well as our first Galápagos dove.

On the trail

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Land iguana on North Seymour

From here we headed inland on a rocky trail which took us over mainly flat ground through a forest of grey palo santo trees and opuntia. This is where we saw our first land iguanas, and realised for the first time just how close we could get to the animals here.

There is an interesting story attached to the land iguanas here on North Seymour – a rare example where man’s interference in nature has proved to have a positive consequence. It is told fully in a Galápagos Online blog article, but to summarise:

In the early part of the 20th century neighbouring Baltra (also known as South Seymour) was home to numerous land iguanas, because of its plentiful supplies of opuntia or prickly pear cactus, their favourite food. In the 1930s the members of a scientific expedition noticed that, surprisingly, there were no land iguanas on North Seymour, despite it having even more vegetation. They had already been concerned to note that those on Baltra seemed to be suffering from starvation, so decided to move some to North Seymour. Such interference would normally be deplored, as introducing non-native species can have a disastrous effect, but it turns out to have been providential. In 1943 a military base was established in Baltra, and shortly after the end of the war land iguanas became extinct on that island. The reason for the extinction has been speculated for many years. The military personnel stationed here have been blamed for killing the iguanas for sport, but it seems more likely that the destruction of their natural nesting habitat, through the use of local sand etc. in construction, was to blame, and/or possibly workers from the mainland killing them for their skins.

Whatever the reason, by 1953 there were no more land iguanas on Baltra. The Baltra sub-species would have been extinct, were it not for the population by now thriving on North Seymour. In the 1980s the Galápagos National Park Service captured iguanas on North Seymour and brought them to the Charles Darwin Research Station for a breeding programme. In the 1990s these land iguanas were reintroduced to Baltra. Today Baltra has a healthy population of land iguanas that live happily alongside the military base and airport, but they also still remain and thrive on North Seymour.

Bird life

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Palo santo and blue-footed booby

This trail took us through an area full of blue-footed boobies, and also magnificent frigatebirds. I had been looking forward to seeing the former especially, as they seemed to me one of the symbols of the islands, so it was great to see them on this very first landing. Even more exciting, some of them had chicks! Lying so close to the equator, the climate in the Galápagos Islands is relatively stable, and many of the species that breed here do so year round. Here on North Seymour you are likely to see blue-footed boobies with eggs or chicks whenever you visit.

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Blue-footed booby & chick

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Blue-footed booby chick

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Magnificent frigatebird

But it was the magnificent frigatebirds that most attracted my camera – those bulbous red throat displays of the males are pretty hard to ignore! North Seymour is home to the largest nesting site in the archipelago of these well-named “magnificent” birds.

They were sitting in the bushes either side of our path, and many of the males were inflating their scarlet throat pouches, known as "gular pouches", to attract females to mate with them. We saw several groups each vying for the attention of a single female who happened to land in their tree – fascinating to watch and excellent subject-matter for our cameras!

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The female magnificent frigatebird -

Back to the coast

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Sleepy mother sea lion

After a while the trail looped round and returned us to the coast near where we had landed, but further west. The beach here is home to a colony of Galápagos sea lions. It was our first close look at these – and I mean close! We were still learning just how tame the wildlife here could be, and were thrilled at the photo opportunities. We spent a long while here, slowly making our way along the beach and stopping frequently to photograph yet another cute pup. The mothers too looked very photogenic in the golden light of late afternoon. Sea lions typically have just the one pup, and look after it carefully for the first six months of life, so here, as elsewhere on the islands, there were plenty of opportunities to observe the interactions between mum and baby.

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Mothers and pups

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Posing for Chris

As we walked back to our landing point the sun started to sink and we enjoyed some beautiful light for these last photos, with the skin of the sea lions almost golden in colour. There was a lovely sunset over the neighbouring island of Daphne Major. What a wonderful start to our explorations!

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Sunset from North Seymour

Evening on board the Angelito

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Relaxing in the lounge
Geoff and Simon

Once back on board we were able to properly settle into our cabins, before gathering in the lounge area for dinner. This was our first taste (literally!) of the excellent dining we were to enjoy all week – not fancy but very tasty and generous, and especially impressive given the small size of the galley. It was also a chance to start to get to know each other, which we did over a few beers from the honesty supply (note what you take from the bar on the sheet of paper pinned above it and the tally will be totalled at the end of the week). Fabian also delivered the first of his evening briefings, outlining the plans for the next day when we would visit two of the small islands that lie off Santiago – Sombrero Chino (Chinese Hat) and Bartolomé.

The Angelito spent most of the night moored off North Seymour, before sailing to Sombrero Chino in the early hours of the morning …

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 07:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises animals birds islands lizards iguanas galapagos ecuador sea_lions isla_seymour Comments (6)

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