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Taking the High Road to Taos

New Mexico day ten


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

For breakfast on our last morning in Santa Fe we returned to the Burro Alley Café for more of their delicious pastries, sitting inside this time rather than in the pretty courtyard as the weather had turned cooler. Then we checked out of our cosy casita and left on the next stage of our road trip.

The High Road to Taos

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On the High Road to Taos

As with the journey from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, we had options for our drive today to Taos. There are two possible routes from Santa Fe – the quicker (but still apparently pretty) Low Road, and the more dramatically scenic and historically interesting High Road. With all day in which to make the journey we chose the latter and it proved to be one of my favourite drives of all in this state packed with scenic routes. The views at times were fantastic, and we found some fascinating villages to stop at along the way.

Santuario de Chimayó

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Santuario de Chimayó

Our first stop was Chimayó, where the Santuario de Chimayó has been a place of pilgrimage for almost two centuries. We were disappointed at times on this trip to find a beautiful adobe church sadly closed and to be forced to admire it only from the outside, but that was certainly not the case here. This is a very active and open church, whatever the time of day. Pilgrims make their way here year-round, although there is a special importance attached to making the pilgrimage in Holy Week.

As we made our way from the car park we saw the many crosses made from twigs and attached to the fence by pilgrims and other visitors arriving in this sacred place, each cross representing a prayer. Outside the pretty church were wooden pews to accommodate the crowds that flock here for special masses on festivals. But what that draws people here is inside.

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Santuario de Chimayó

The church was built in 1816 on the site of an earlier chapel, and on the site of a miraculous discovery, or so it is said. In 1811 a villager saw a light shining from a spot in the earth. He dug down at that spot and found a large crucifix, which he named for Our Lord of Esquipulas, also known as the ‘Black Christ’. A local priest, Father Sebastian Alvarez, was called and he organized a ceremony to carry the crucifix back to a church in Santa Cruz about eight miles away, where it was placed on the altar. But the next morning the crucifix was back in the spot where it had been found. The villagers tried twice more to move it to Santa Cruz, before they realised that Our Lord of Esquipulas wanted to stay in their village and built a church to house him.

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The church

However there are variations to this legend, as well as some that pre-date it. According to the neighbouring Tewa, this spot had been sacred to various Indian tribes for many generations. At one time there had been a spring here, rich in iron and other minerals, which gave healing. When the spring dried up, the people still came for the dirt to benefit from its healing powers. Arms and quarrels between different tribes were customarily laid aside whenever they visited this sacred site. Many Tewa also held sacred the mountain behind the church, T'si Mayoh and it is this that gave the village its name.

Some believe therefore that the local Pueblo people were simply forced by a wealthy landowner to build the sandstone church over a site which was already sacred to them. There are certainly other instances where early Christian settlers chose to build their churches right on top of the indigenous people's sacred sites, and to force those people to do much of the building, for example at Acoma Pueblo.

Yet another version of the legend says that the crucifix originally belonged to a priest who had accompanied the first Spanish settlers to Chimayó and who had a devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas. He was killed by Indians and buried here. A flood of the Santa Cruz River in the spring of 1810 uncovered the body and the crucifix, and the villagers, who remembered the priest fondly, built a church to honour him and the Black Christ.

Whatever the truth behind the building of the chapel, it is unarguably a place of sincere pilgrimage for believers. Today the sacred spot where the crucifix is said to have been found is protected in a tiny side chapel to the left of the main altar, in the centre of which is el posito, the little well. Visitors and pilgrims can make a small donation in return for digging up some of the ‘holy dirt’ to apply to injured limbs, parts of the body affected by illness – or even to eat (although I noted on the official literature at the church that this is discouraged). A room next to the chapel houses crutches and gifts brought by those giving thanks for healing received. And on the wall of the chapel are these lines:
‘If you are a stranger, if you are weary from the struggles in life, whether you have a handicap, whether you have a broken heart, follow the long mountain road, find a home in Chimayó.’

But although the Holy Dirt chapel is the main draw here, the rest of the church is also very interesting and beautiful. Its walls are lined with reredos, the traditional brightly painted wooden screens, which were restored with the help of Santa Fe's Museum of Folk Art in 2003 and glow with rich colours. There are also several bultos, or statues of saints, including one of Santiago (St. James) on the altar. No photography was allowed inside, unfortunately – I haven’t been able to establish whether that is still the case, but since there are relatively few interior shots posted online, I suspect that it well be.

Outside of course there was no reason not to take photos, and the little church is very photogenic, although the number of visitors at first made it a little hard for me to capture it to best advantage. On this Saturday morning a Mass was just starting, so we hurried our visit of the interior and then had time to take our pictures when everyone had gone in. A local attending the Mass encouraged us to still enter and visit the Holy Dirt chapel, but it did mean that we couldn’t linger and explore the whole church as thoroughly as we would have liked.

Capella de Santo Niño de Atocha

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The Capella de Santo Niño de Atocha

A short walk from the Santurio is another beautiful chapel – in fact, I found the interior of the Capella de Santo Niño de Atocha even more lovely than its (slightly) more famous neighbour. It holds a statue of the Christ Child (El Santo Niño de Atocha), brought here from the shrine dedicated to him in Mexico in the mid nineteenth century. As with the crucifix in the Santurio, there is a story attached to this statue, one that draws believers from all over the country, and beyond.

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Capella de Santo Niño de Atocha

The story starts in Spain in the time of the Moors. They had captured and imprisoned many men in Atocha, near Madrid. The jail did not feed the prisoners, and the caliph ordered that only children could visit and bring them food. The wives and mothers of the men prayed to Our Lady for help, and soon word spread that a small boy had been visiting and feeding the prisoners. His basket was never empty of bread, and his water gourd was always full. He was seen as the answer to the women’s prayers – the Virgin had sent her own son to help them, the Holy Child or Santo Niño.

In 1492 Catholics drove the Moors out of Spain, and the country’s strength and power started to grow. As the Spanish started to colonise the New World, they brought their religion with them, and to the village of Plateros, Mexico, they brought worship of Our Lady of Atocha and her Holy Child. There was a statue here of the Virgin with the Holy Child in her arms, and the child was often removed and brought to help with difficult births. Over time, stories spread about the miracles he performed. It was said that he wandered the countryside at night bringing help to the imprisoned, the poor, and the sick.

It was from this Mexican shrine that the Chimayó statue of El Santo Niño was brought, and this chapel built to house it. The statue now stands on an altar in a side chapel, wearing a pilgrim’s clothing and carrying a bread basket and a pilgrim's staff to which is tied a water gourd. Worshippers believe that as in Mexico, he leaves his shrine each night and roams the local countryside, performing miracles and wearing out his little shoes. Pilgrims therefore bring him baby shoes, and these now line the walls of his chapel, along with photos of children and prayers for his intervention on their behalf. It is all very moving, regardless of your beliefs.

But as with the Santurio, there we also found much to admire in the main body of the church. This had been recently restored when we visited. It is decorated with colourful modern wood carvings and banners, but again no photography was allowed so you will have to take my word for that!

‘Holy chile’

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'Eat more chili'

As well as visiting the two chapels in Chimayó, we also spent a little time exploring the various shops and galleries. Several nationally known weavers live and work here, members of the Ortega and Trujillo families, and both have workshops which can be visited. But there are also several other galleries and craft shops, selling a diverse mix of goods. We liked the two on either side of the road through the village, Santuario Drive, just at the point where it rejoins County Road 98. On the right of the road is ‘Lowlow’s Lowrider Art Place’, selling ‘Chimayó Holy chile’, reasonably priced jewellery and work by local artists.

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Painted car

This intricately decorated car, parked outside, caught our eye, and while photographing it we got chatting to one of the owners who told us that they have been promoting this idea of holy chilli for years via a succession of colourful signs like the one in my photo above.

My photos below were taken outside the gallery on the opposite side of the road. We didn’t go inside this one, but the eclectic assortment of art works and found objects in the front yard kept our cameras busy for a while.

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'Lady Liberty', and the Good Shepherd

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Gallery entrance

Truchas

Our next stop was in Truchas. This village lies just off the main highway, and was built in a square with an entrance just wide enough for one cart to pass through, for defensive purposes. Today it’s a pretty sleepy place, or so it seemed to us, especially after the relative bustle of nearby Chimayó. Like the other villages along and just off the High Road, it is notable mainly for its church, dedicated to Nuestra Senora dei Rosario.

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Nuestra Senora dei Rosario de Truchas

The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary is a classic adobe structure built in the early 19th century at the heart of this tiny village. Apparently it contains two large altar-screens (reredos) by a renowned santero, Pedro Antonio Fresquis, and other fine examples of early santero art. These were preserved during the Bishop Lamy led modernisations of churches in this area, by Truchas residents who hid them in their houses during the late 19th century. I say ‘apparently’ because unfortunately today it was closed. Not that I was surprised – our Moon Handbook had warned that it was usually only open from June to August. Nevertheless it was well worth the detour to see it, as it’s a very photogenic church.

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In Truchas

Of all the villages we stopped in on the High Road to Taos, Truchas seemed the most closed in on itself, even slightly hostile to visitors. This is not to say that anybody was rude to us – indeed the only person I spoke to, the owner of Hand Artes studio (a small gallery), was friendly and welcoming. But there was a slightly brooding atmosphere, or so it seemed to me. Maybe it is the fact that it lies a little off the main road, and until thirty years or so ago had no paved access? Maybe it is the way it is constructed, with most of the older buildings having their ‘backs’ turned to the road, facing into the central plaza? Maybe I was affected by the somewhat aggressive barking of an invisible dog in a nearby yard?

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Bones of Truchas

Or maybe my impression was created by the seeming obsession with the bones of dead animals. Not only were these skulls slightly artfully arranged on a ladder propped in a corner of the plaza, but there was also a somewhat bizarre heap of bones, bleached white by the sun, stacked against one of the adobe walls that surround the little church. We weren’t quite sure what to make of this ‘arrangement’ but it certainly gave the village a distinctive touch!

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Peering into Truchas general store

On the road near the entrance to the plaza where the church lies is Truchas General Store. This too was closed when we visited – a shame, as peering through the window we could see a place seemingly untouched by the passing of the years. I would love to have gone in and ferreted about!

San José de Gracia, Trampas

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San José de Gracia, Trampas

About seventeen miles further down the road from Truchas we came to Trampas (sometimes referred to as Las Trampas), with another gem of a colonial church. Like other traditional villages in New Mexico, Trampas (or Santo Tomás del Río de las Trampas to give it its full name) was built around a plaza, dominated by the church, which during times of war could be blocked to serve as a fortress. The sleepy plaza was almost deserted when we visited, apart from a dog and young child kicking a ball around, and one other tourist taking photos of the church. We didn’t stay long, but the beauty of this church made an indelible impression on me nevertheless, even though we weren’t able to go inside (unfortunately the church is apparently only rarely open).

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San José de Gracia

When the village of Trampas was established around 1751 it was initially considered too small to have its own resident priest, so Franciscans from the nearby Picuris Pueblo ministered to the faithful here. But around twenty years later a new church, dedicated to Saint Joseph, was built, being completed around 1776. It is considered possibly the finest example of early mission churches in New Mexico and has even been called ‘the most perfectly preserved church in the United States’. Unsurprisingly it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

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The bell towers

The church is well maintained, with its thick adobe walls coated with a fresh coat of mud every year, and its chunky bell towers recently restored. Its most striking external feature is the balcony that runs across the front, above the main door. Experts disagree as to its purpose. Some say it was for the choir to perform during outdoor ceremonies, but others are less sure. The reason for the ladders propped on it is also uncertain.

Picuris Pueblo

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San Lorenzo de Picuris Mission Church

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By Tu-Tah Lake

A few miles north of Las Trampas Highway 76 meets Highway 75 and turns to the right. We decided to make a short detour at this point and so turned left to see Picuris Pueblo, one of the more open pueblos in the area. Visitors are welcomed to a small museum telling the story of the pueblo, although this was closed on the day we were there – possibly because it was already quite late in the season.

But even with the museum closed the village was still worth the detour. It has a pretty lake, Tu-Tah Lake, and we found a few picnic tables set out on its shore. Here we ate our picnic lunch while watching a couple of local men, and a small boy, fish on the far side.

There is also an attractive church, dedicated to San Lorenzo. This collapsed in 1989 due to water damage (to which adobe is prone if not properly maintained) but has been painstakingly rebuilt over an eight year period by hand by pueblo members, who followed exactly the form of the original 1776 design.

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San Lorenzo de Picuris Mission Church

According to our Moon Handbook the pueblo maintains a herd of bison but sadly none were in evidence when we visited, or at least not within the area immediately around the village.

Ranchos de Taos

Just south of our destination, Taos, we made our final stop in Ranchos de Taos, one of the places that was high on my ‘must see’ list when were planning this trip. Why? Because its church, dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, inspired one of my favourite photographers, Ansel Adams, and I was keen to see the place for myself.

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San Francisco de Asis, Ranchos de Taos

The San Francisco de Asis Church may be made of adobe like many others in the region, but its appearance is very different. Its thick walls with their jutting buttresses look more like a fortification than a place of worship, and its massive bulk seems completely out of proportion to the small community it was built to serve. But this becomes less surprising when you understand its origins, as it was built to resist unwanted attacks from aggressive tribes such as the local Apaches. The tamped-earth buttresses were further added to in order to strengthen the walls when threatened by floods and erosion. San Francisco de Asis has stood for over 250 years (having been built around 1772) and is still an active church. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970, and is also a World Heritage church.

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San Francisco de Asis

This church provokes a range of responses in observers. Some find its so-solid bulk and heaviness off-putting. But for many, especially artists, it has been a source of inspiration. Georgia O’Keeffe painted it several times, and Ansel Adams photographed it – brilliantly. For those who like me admire the latter’s work, following in his footsteps and attempting to capture San Francisco de Asis on camera is quite a challenge, but one I thoroughly enjoyed. The light was great when we were there, with just a few white clouds and the sun low enough (at around 3.30 pm) to create some interesting shadows.

Unfortunately we were less successful in our attempts to see inside the church. A sign said that it was closed for cleaning and would re-open later in the afternoon. So we spent some time taking photos of some pretty houses in the area immediately around the church, visited an interesting shop which had a display of photos taken when ‘Easy Rider’ was being filmed in the area, had a cold drink in one of the nearby cafés, and came back – only to find it still closed.

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In Ranchos de Taos

A couple of New Zealanders were also trying to get in and one of them had the idea of going into the Parish Centre opposite the north side of the church, but although that was open we couldn’t find anyone there to ask. With time getting on, and still not checked into our Taos accommodation, we decided reluctantly that we would have to give up, so we left without ever getting to see the interior. A shame, but to be honest it was the exterior I most wanted to see, having seen it already through Adams’ eyes, so at least I was happy to have done that much.

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San Francisco de Asis

Arriving in Taos

Taos is sometimes seen as a mini Santa Fe, but that is to do both towns an injustice. Sure they are both arty, adobe-rich epitomes of the Southwest, but scratch the surface and they are very different. In comparison to its larger neighbour to the south, we found Taos to be more relaxed, less self-conscious, and a little rougher around the edges. There was a bit of a hippy vibe in the air, with crafts on display in its galleries and at the stalls in the Plaza showing something of a New Age sensitivity – scented candles, imaginative modern interpretations of traditional santos, wind-chimes and colourfully flowing clothes. With a rootsy coffee shop at its heart, this was for us a place in which to sit back, chill, and watch the world go by, rather than rush around ticking off the sights.

I had pre-booked accommodation (essential in this small but busy town). My challenge in choosing where to stay here in Taos was similar to that in Santa Fe – find something central, within walking distance of the Plaza, but that doesn’t cost the earth! Now no one could call my choice, La Doña Luz Inn, cheap, but by Taos standards it was certainly reasonable, and we loved our cosy room here as soon as we saw it. All the rooms are different and are decorated to a theme, and I had selected Los Angelitos, mainly because it was the cheapest one still available at the time I booked. You can guess the theme by the name – the room is full of angels – a little over the top but cute just the same. But what we really liked about the room was the semi-separate seating area, with a comfy couch and large flat screen TV, which made for cosy evenings (once we could drag ourselves away from the excellent bars that we discovered in town!)

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La Doña Luz Inn - bedroom area in Los Angelitos

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La Doña Luz Inn - exterior and our seating area

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Angels even in the bathroom!

Indeed the entire building was full of character – a fascinating hotch-potch of the artistic and kitsch covering every possible surface of the old adobe walls. But perhaps the best thing of all about this place for us was its location, just yards from the main drag in the very centre of town. There is parking reserved for guests at the end of the unpaved lane that leads here, so we could leave our car here all day while exploring (except when we visited out of town sights such as Taos Pueblo). This was a real bonus at night especially, as we were just a short stagger home from a margarita-fuelled evening in the Adobe Bar, or even closer to the beers of Eske’s Brewpub!

Talking of which …

The Taos Inn

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Taos Inn sign

The Taos Inn is one of two historic hotels in the centre of Taos, and has bags of character. We did briefly consider staying here but the budget wouldn’t stretch! However that didn’t stop us enjoying an excellent evening in the hotel’s Adobe Bar. This serves the same menu as the more formal restaurant (as well as a simpler bistro menu), but in a more casual setting. This suited us fine, as did the fact that we could get a table immediately whereas there would have been a 30 minute wait for one in the restaurant.

We found a table in a side room off the main bar, which was an attractive space and relatively quiet. Our server was very friendly and made a great recommendation on the margarita – the signature ‘Cowboy Buddha’ was excellent!

I chose the blue corn chicken enchiladas with red chilli (as in most places I could also have had green), Spanish rice and pinto beans. Chris had a green chilli cheeseburger which came with French fries. Portions were good, but we managed to squeeze in a shared helping of dessert – fruit cobbler with cinnamon ice cream. The margarita and a couple of beers for Chris pushed the bill up a bit, but we’d thoroughly enjoyed the meal and felt it was reasonable value for the setting, service and quality of food – and drink!

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Blue corn chicken enchiladas

To make an evening of it, we then moved to the main part of the bar where there was live music. This was pretty full, but we secured seats up on the balcony, where we had an excellent view of all the activity below. I just had to have another Cowboy Buddha, and Chris another beer. The band were very good, playing Western and folk-influenced music which might not be my usual listening at home but fitted perfectly with the atmosphere in this historic spot. What a great evening!

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The Adobe Bar from the balcony

Posted by ToonSarah 11:30 Archived in USA Tagged churches art trees shrines food road_trip restaurants music new_mexico taos Comments (6)

Going around in Enchanted Circles

New Mexico day twelve


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

After breakfast this morning we checked out of La Doña Luz Inn and hit the road again, travelling north. Our destination for the night was Cimarron and once again we had decided to follow a roundabout route on one of the state’s designated scenic byways, the Enchanted Circle. This is a popular day-trip from Taos, following Highways 522, 38 and 64, and for the most part driving is fairly easy though the road climbs pretty high in places – in the winter this is popular skiing country. By driving the byway in a clockwise direction we were able to take in most of the circle, and by adding a detour before turning off to Cimarron we saw most of the more notable sights along the route.

We were only a few miles out of Taos, however, when we took our first detour from the route to visit a couple of sights that intrigued us.

Rio Grande Gorge

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The Rio Grande Gorge

Driving north and then west from Taos on Highway 64 we found ourselves driving across an apparently flat plain. But appearances can be deceiving. After a few miles a dark line could be seen ahead of us, and a large parking lot on our right. We parked, among a number of stalls set up by opportunistic Native traders, and walked a few yards further in the direction in which we had been driving. The dark line opened up and revealed itself as the dramatic gorge of the Rio Grande, at this point crossed by Highway 64 on an elegant and somewhat unnervingly delicate-looking steel bridge.

I had seen photos of the Rio Grande Gorge online when planning this trip, but Chris had not, so he was especially struck by the sudden change in the landscape. We walked out along the pedestrian walkway either side of the highway (not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights!) to stand in one of the small areas that jut out over the river and look directly down into the gorge 650 feet below.

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The Rio Grande Gorge, looking south from the bridge

While it may not have the scale and grandeur of the Grand Canyon, this is a remarkable sight nevertheless. The gorge has been carved over the millennia not just by the rushing waters of the river but also by seismic activity, and the black volcanic rocks are starkly beautiful. I found them quite hard to photograph however. This is one place where the usual rule of photography, that the light is more attractive early and late in the day, doesn’t necessarily apply, as you need the sun to be fairly high if it’s to light both sides of the gorge. But the deep shadows that we experienced at about 10.00 am brought out the drama of the scene, even while being more challenging to photograph.

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The Rio Grande Gorge, looking north from the bridge

The views from both sides of the road are similarly dramatic, and the highway quiet enough for us to cross quite easily between them. But when a vehicle did pass, especially a large truck, I could feel the vibrations as the bridge moved beneath my feet – not for the faint-hearted! I saw at least one nervous woman cling to her companion, and another turn back just a short distance onto the bridge, but it really isn’t that bad – I soon got used to the wobbles and I suspect it’s a deliberate piece of engineering on the part of the bridge builders. This is by the way the second-highest bridge in the US (the highest is in Colorado) and was given the Most Beautiful Span award in 1966 by the American Institute of Steel Construction.

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The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

When we had had our fill of the views from the bridge, we continued to the parking lot on the far (west) side. From here a trail led across the surrounding flat scrubby plain to the edge of the gorge, giving us great views of the bridge and a different angle on the gorge itself. For us this was a great little leg-stretcher of about a kilometre, but you’re warned to look out for snakes, and I would also caution against doing it with small children as there is no fence separating you from the drop to the river far below.

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The Rio Grande Gorge from the western side

Greater World Earthship Development

Before returning to the Enchanted Circle route there was one more sight we wanted to visit in this area, so we carried on along Highway 64 for another mile and a half to the Greater World Earthship Development, today known as the Greater World Earthship Community. This is a cluster of self-sufficient ‘green’ houses built using mostly recycled materials – used tires packed with earth form the walls, while bottles stacked with cement and crushed aluminium cans make colourful peepholes. The resulting homes look perhaps more suited to hobbits than humans, but several hundred people live here and in similar houses in the vicinity. They produce their own energy, reuse grey water, manufacture their own bio-diesel fuel and grow much of their own food. All very admirable, although I couldn’t help wondering whether living in such a relatively remote location would mean a less than green reliance on motor vehicles.

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Earthships

For $5 we could have done a self-guided tour of a model Earthship and watched a video about the building process and the thinking behind the designs, but that would have taken an hour which we couldn’t really spare, so we just had a quick look around and took a few photos. For rather more dollars it’s possible to rent one for a night or a week, or even buy one for yourself! The group behind the development, Earthship Biostructure, also offer guidance to anyone wanting to build their own earthship elsewhere, but I note on their website that tours of the community now need to be pre-booked, presumably to provide some privacy for the growing number of residents.

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Earthships

Once we had taken our photos we returned along Highway 64 to rejoin Highway 522 just north of Taos Pueblo and continue on our ‘long way round’ drive to Cimarron.

The Enchanted Circle

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Autumn colour on the Enchanted Circle

This route took us over higher ground than we had driven for the most part on this trip and as a consequence the aspens were especially colourful, even though today the mostly great weather we had enjoyed so far deserted us and we drove part of the route in rain. We stopped several times on this first stretch to take photos, as the mostly green shades turned to yellow and orange as we climbed.

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Aspens on the Enchanted Circle

At Questa we reached the furthest point north on today’s drive, only a few miles from the border with Colorado. Although we were to be slightly further north on the following day, I guess you could regard this as something of a halfway point on our round trip from El Paso, although in terms of days we were already over the halfway mark. We turned east on Highway 38, passing through Red River (a slightly incongruous-looking ski town with a seeming passion for the Swiss chalet style of architecture), where we stopped briefly for a coffee and on round the circle.

The next stretch of road seemed to me to be the most scenic of all, despite the fast approaching rain clouds. The highway climbs steeply out of Red River, reaching 9,854 feet at the top of Bobcat Pass. In places the scenery reminded us of Scotland or Wales, perhaps more so because of the weather, but the views of the golden aspens on the mountain slopes were pure New Mexico. Luckily there were a few pull-outs where we could stop for photos, and simply to admire this awesome landscape.

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View near Red River

Elizabethtown

We had already visited several ‘ghost towns’ in New Mexico by the time we came to Elizabethtown, and while they were all interesting in their various ways, and all very photogenic, and while some of them had relatively few residents, none of them really loved up to the image that the name conjured in our minds. That is, none of them seemed truly to be inhabited only by ghosts. Until we came to Elizabethtown.

We arrived here in the rain, and parked up to eat a snack lunch while the worst of the bad weather passed over. A couple of horses stared at us mournfully from the shelter of an overhanging eave on a nearby hut. A solitary car pulled off the main road, passed us where we sat, and then turned back. Otherwise, we were alone.

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Old chapel, Elizabethtown

Once we’d finished eating, and the worst of the rain had abated, we drove on into the ‘town’, which is really just a cluster of buildings. One is a museum, only open between June-August, so we were unable to see its collection which, according to our Moon Handbook, ‘details Elizabethtown’s brief but lively history, from the discovery of gold in 1866 through assorted gunfights to the town’s slow fade after a dredge-mining project failed in 1903.’ As well as the museum you can see the stone ruins of the Mutz Hotel, around which the social life of the town would have revolved.

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Museum and stables

The museum may have been closed, but both it and the other structures, and a few rusting vehicles, made great subject matter for our cameras, the more so as the still-falling rain added an air of desolation.

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In Elizabethtown

Like most of New Mexico’s ghost towns, Elizabethtown owes its existence to the gold rush. It was the first incorporated village in the state, and at its peak was home to more than 7,000 people – almost impossible to believe if you visit it today. It was named for the daughter of its founder, a Captain William H. Moore, who came here looking for copper, led here by friendly Indian traders. As well as copper, he and his men found gold, and in the ensuing rush, a town was born.

Returning to the main road and continuing south, in a few miles we came to Eagle Nest. Here at a T-junction the Enchanted Circle route picks up Highway 64 again. To reach Cimarron we needed to turn left, but we had time for another detour so instead turned to the right, travelling a short distance back towards Taos.

Vietnam Veterans' Memorial

Our detour took us to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, which back then was a New Mexico State Park but I understand has since been transferred to the Department of Veteran Services. This Memorial is a labour of love constructed by the parents of one soldier, David Westphall, who was sadly killed in an ambush on May 22, 1968, during a battle near Con Thien, South Vietnam, in which 17 men lost their lives.

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Vietnam Veterans' Memorial State Park: the Chapel

And in building this memorial to their son, Jeanne and Victor Westphall also created a memorial to all victims of that controversial war. It has now become a place of pilgrimage for the many other families who lost loved ones there. For anyone old enough, as I am, to remember that time, a visit here is a moving experience even if you have no personal connection to it. For me, this is a memorial too to all those who protested against this war and whose efforts dominated the news footage, and the songs, of my formative years.

The Chapel

At the heart of the memorial is the chapel. Its elegant design, resembling a sail, inevitably draws the eye, and will draw your footsteps too. The chapel was originally known as the Peace and Brotherhood Chapel and is the focal point around which the rest of the memorial was developed.

It is never locked – one of the conditions imposed by the Westphall family on passing the memorial over to be run as a state park (another was that there should be no charge made to visitors, which made it the only free state park in New Mexico). The reason for this ‘always open’ policy is simple. When Victor Westphall was first building the chapel, he used always to lock the doors at night. One morning when he returned he found a note that had been scrawled on a piece of scrap plywood, which read, ‘Why did you lock the doors when I needed to come in?’ Since then the doors have never been locked.

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The chapel, outside and in

Inside the chapel is a small auditorium with a few rows of seats looking down to an elegant candle stick caught in a shaft of light. The impact that the chapel makes on visiting bereaved families was evident to me in the strategically placed boxes of paper tissues dotted around the benches.

Photographs of thirteen Vietnam War dead are on display in the Chapel. The photographs are rotated every month, alphabetically by state. The one of David Westphall remains on display permanently.

The Visitor Centre

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In the grounds

The Visitor Centre was built in the 1980s, largely underground so as not to detract from the flowing lines of the chapel. Its collections cover the creation of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial and also the Vietnam War itself. There are lots of old news photos and news footage of the period, as well as displays about the experiences of those fighting the war, and of the local people who became caught up in the bloodshed. It is naturally a disquieting museum – a place to inform rather that to entertain. But I found it an effective reminder of what happened for those of us who lived through that dark period of US history, and an introduction for anyone who did not.

It is all too easy to forget the impact of this war on individual lives among all the political and moral debates about whether it should ever have been fought. The displays here are a salutary reminder of this, although personally I found that they were a little too US-centric in their view of the world at times. For instance, they talked about the good work done by troops in giving the local people ‘real toilets’. I was sure that those locals thought that what they had was real, and felt that the reference would be better made to ‘improvements in sanitation’ perhaps – annotations like this and a few similar ones felt a little patronising, even ‘colonial’, to me.

Huey Helicopter

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The Huey Helicopter

In the grounds of the memorial we saw this Bell Iroquois UH-1 Helicopter, popularly known as the Huey. These helicopters are the most widely used in the world, and it was during the Vietnam War that they evolved into an essential resource on the battlefield. They were used for troop transport, ferrying cargo, air assault and medical evacuation, helping to overcome the challenges of warfare in the dense jungles. A Huey made it possible for a wounded soldier to be in a hospital within one hour, dramatically increasing survival rates.

This particular Huey, named ‘Viking Surprise’, was involved in a difficult and dangerous rescue mission in March 1967. It laid down smoke cover while other helicopters saw to the evacuation of troops. In its 13 passes over the area it was hit by 135 bullets, six of them through the pilot’s compartment. After repairs it went back into service and was brought here to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park by the New Mexico National Guard in May 1999.

‘Dear Mom and Dad’

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'Dear Mom and Dad'

Elsewhere in the grounds of the memorial is this moving sculpture by Taos artist Doug Scott, depicting a soldier struggling to compose a letter home to his parents. An inscription by the sculptor reads:

‘The words “Dear mom and dad”
are written ... now what?
He can’t tell them what he is seeing.
He can’t tell them what he is doing.
His eyes see a foreign land.
His heart sees the other side of the world.’

This may be a memorial to one particular war, but surely those words, and that dilemma, must ring true to any soldier, anywhere. For me this was the most moving thing at the memorial, as it emphasises the gulf between those who have fought, and are fighting, and the rest of us, who can only guess at (and only half-comprehend) a fraction of what they must experience.

After visiting the memorial we retraced our route back to the road junction in Eagle Nest. It was time to leave the Enchanted Circle and head further east.

Cimarron Canyon State Park

Highway 64 passes directly through this pretty state park, giving us a very scenic stretch of road for the last part of today’s drive. But this is a narrow, winding road so we made sure to stop briefly once or twice, so that Chris, as driver, would also have a chance to appreciate the scenery.

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The Cimarron River

Several pull-outs gave us the opportunity to stretch our legs with short strolls that in one case brought us to the banks of the Cimarron River that carved this small gorge. It was by now quite late on this rather damp, dull afternoon, so it was hard to capture the scenery adequately on camera, although the dark clouds gave the canyon a moody atmosphere that suited the landscape well. Steep granite cliffs overhang the tumbling river here, adding to the drama of the scene, and the rich October colours of the leaves were an additional bonus.

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Cimarron Canyon

The geology of this gorge is apparently especially complex and interesting as nearly two billion years of complex geologic history is exposed here. The Cimarron River is the only water course sufficiently powerful to have cut through the Cimarron Range. I’m sure a student of such things would want to spend time exploring the many features of this landscape, but for us, simply to marvel at the rock formations and the mountains that loomed above us was enough.

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Flowers in Cimarron Canyon State Park

New Mexico typically charges for day use of its state parks (the fee in 2011 was $5), but we couldn’t see anywhere to make our payment. I found out afterwards that some of the short trails off this road are designated for ‘free access’, so it seems that in fact there was no need to pay.

Cimarron

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Schwenks Hall in old Cimarron

To be honest, there’s not an awful lot to see in this part of New Mexico, but sometimes that’s how we like it. This north east corner of the state has none of the big draws – no arty Santa Fe or Taos, no Indian Pueblos, no striking Spanish colonial architecture. But it does have wide open skies and a spirit evocative of the Wild West days that here seem like only yesterday. And Cimarron seemed to us likely to be worth driving a little off the usual tourist routes in New Mexico, which indeed it proved to be.

While modern-day Cimarron straddles Highway 64, the old centre lies a few blocks to the south. In the 1800s, few towns had such a reputation for gun-play and violence as this – indeed, its very name, Cimarron, means ‘wild and unruly’. Today it is a peaceful backwater with enough of that history remaining to lure anyone intrigued by the ‘Wild West’, as we are.

When we arrived in Cimarron we headed straight to the Visitor Centre which is right on Highway 64 as I’d read that it provided a good free walking tour leaflet. Unfortunately, though, the office had closed for the afternoon (in October they were already on their winter timetable). So we gave up and drove over to our hotel to check in.

The St James Hotel

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The St James Hotel

As soon as I read about the St James Hotel in Cimarron, I knew I wanted to stay here, and indeed one of our main reasons for including this corner of New Mexico in our route was in order to do so. The hotel boasts an incredible history for anyone who has ever been even slightly excited by tales of the Wild West. If you grew up watching cowboy films, whether old John Wayne Westerns or, like me, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you would be as fascinated as we were by the real-life events that took place here at the St James.

It was opened by a French chef, Henri Lambert, in 1872, and soon became the place to stay in Cimarron. Given the nature of the town, it is unsurprising that many of its guests were famous or even notorious. The Earp brothers and their wives stopped here on their way to Tombstone. Buffalo Bill Cody was a friend of the Lamberts and stayed here often, as did Annie Oakley. Author Zane Grey began writing his novel Fighting Caravans while visiting the hotel, and various outlaws, including Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Black Jack Ketchum, also stayed here.

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The Lobby

The hotel offers a choice of historic rooms in the main building or more modern ones in the adjacent annexe. My choice would have been for the former, but Chris (less enamoured of history than I am) had opted for the creature comforts and lower prices of the latter, and on this (rare!) occasion, his choice won out over mine. Our room was large, with a king-size bed and all mod cons, and what it lacked in atmosphere it gained on size and price – in fact it was the bargain of the trip! When I’d called some weeks before to reserve a room (there were no online reservations back then) I was told it would be $80 plus tax, but on checking in we were informed that there was an off season deal for mid-week reservations and it would cost only half that!

We did get a chance to see a few of the historic rooms, as on the ground floor of the main building the corridor is lined with old photos and framed press clippings, and you can also view any unoccupied rooms. In my eyes the one we popped into looked lovely – but Chris was keen to point out the much smaller size of both room and bed!

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Corridor in the main building, and an historic bedroom
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Our bedroom, by way of contrast

A walk around Old Cimarron

Having checked in, we found a copy of the free walking tour leaflet we had been hoping to get from the visitor centre provided in our room. So we donned our waterproofs (it was a drizzly afternoon) and set off for a stroll around the immediate area. I didn’t take many photos on this walk – partly because of the rain and partly because many of the historic buildings are nowadays used as private residences

The first place we came to, behind the St James’ Hotel, was the old Plaza, now simply a grassy field with a 1960s replica of the original gazebo in the centre. The gazebo covers an old well, dug in 1871 and used by freighters hauling goods from the Kansas Territory to Fort Union. A branch of the Santa Fe Trail passed through Cimarron just by here, and the Plaza was used as an overnight campground for those on the Trail, while the well provided water for their horses and oxen. But in 1880 the arrival of the railroad in Santa Fe led to the decline of the Trail, and of Cimarron.

To the left (north side) of the Plaza is the Dold Brothers’ Warehouse, now a private residence. It was built in 1848 as a depot to serve stage lines operating on the Santa Fe Trail, and later became first an Indian Trading Post and later a General Store, before being used as the offices of the newly-launched Cimarron News and Press in 1875. Since 1908 it has been the home of one family.

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The Dold Brothers Warehouse

To the south and west of the Plaza, behind the St James Hotel, we came to the old National Hotel (1858, now a private residence) and the 1872 Carey Building, which was built to house a hardware store and livery stable, and is also now a private home.

But for me the more photogenic buildings were those lying just to the south of the St James, in particular the Barlow, Sanderson & Company Stage Office, which was built in 1870 according to the leaflet, but 1863 according to the sign on its gable. This had lots of colourful details, having apparently been in recent use as a gallery. It was built to serve the Stage route between Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe, which operated monthly and carried passengers and baggage for a one-way summer fare of $100 for the three-and-a-half week trip. Hard to imagine travel so slow in these days of fast cars and planes! But the mail and stage route closed in 1880 with the coming of the railroad to Springer, 25 miles to the east. The building was then used as a Wells Fargo Office and later converted into a store in the early 1900s.

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Stage Office details

There were more colourful details on the building opposite the Stage Office, known as Schwenk’s Hall. This was built in 1854 as a brewery, but bought by Henry Schwenk in 1875 and turned into a gambling house and saloon.

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Schwenks Hall window

At this point the rain defeated us, as it was getting harder to take decent photos without getting the cameras too wet – and besides, the welcoming and historic bar of the St James was calling us loudly. So we decided to continue our walk the next morning.

Where the West was won (well, fought over at least)

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In the dining room

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Cimarron Chicken

We started our evening at the St James with dinner in its historic restaurant. we started with a shared appetiser of ‘Cimarron Toothpicks’, which were battered deep-fried jalapeños pepper strips served with a ranch dressing. These were fine, though nothing special. But my main course was excellent. I had been eating (and enjoying) mainly New Mexican staples such as burritos etc, but decided it was time for a change. I opted for the interesting-sounding ‘Cimarron Chicken’ which was described as ‘Plump marinated chicken breast grilled to perfection, topped with a gourmet raspberry sauce, inspired by the Salman Raspberry Ranch in Mora County, then sprinkled with pecans.’ This was accompanied by a baked potato (I could also have had mashed potato, fries or sweet potato), mixed vegetables and a helping from the salad bar. The meat was tender, and the sauce worked well, so I was very happy with my choice.

Chris too decided on a break from New Mexican dishes as his favourite food, pizza, was heavily featured on the menu. He chose the Veggie, with green peppers, onions, mushrooms, black olives, mozzarella cheese, and jalapenos on request (he requested!). This was a good size and he enjoyed it, but as it had no accompaniment, he was glad to share my salad.

After dinner we headed to the adjoining bar area, where the sense of history weighs even more heavily. Cimarron was a wild place, and fights at ‘Lambert's place’, as the saloon became known, were commonplace. Everyone carried a gun, and wasn’t slow to use it. The ceiling of the bar is pockmarked with bullet holes, bearing testament to the 26 people killed here during those fights.

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Sign in the bar, and detail of decor

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The bar

The bar itself is gorgeous – all dark wood, highly polished and well-mirrored, with a wonderful old cash register as a centre-piece. We got chatting to the barman over our Jack Daniels, and learned that this bar is however not the original, but was imported by the hotel’s owner a few years ago from a nearby town. However the old photos on the wall show that it is very similar to the one that would have witnessed those fights and at which such famous characters as Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill would have drunk – and that was good enough for us!

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The old cash register

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Chris at the bar

Posted by ToonSarah 03:28 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes trees food architecture road_trip restaurant monument history views hotel new_mexico war_and_peace Comments (8)

In the Japanese Alps

Japan day twelve


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

Kamikochi

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Japanese tourists in Kamikochi

Kamikochi is a high plateau, surrounded by mountains, through which the Azusa River flows. It is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park and, because of the climate, only open to visitors from around mid April to mid November each year. When we visited in mid October the foliage was beautifully tinted with reds, golds and greens and the park, always popular with Japanese visitors, was busy even in the rain. And in the rain is how, for the most part, we saw it!

We had been enjoying great weather on our trip through Japan, but in Kamikochi our luck finally ran out. Rain is not at all unusual here, but we got more than just rain – we got one of Japan's autumnal typhoons!

Travelling to Kamikochi

But I am running ahead of myself – first, we had to get here from Takayama where we had spent the previous two days. We had arrived there by train but when we left a few days later it was by bus. The bus station is just next to and north of the train station and has a small waiting area with the ubiquitous vending machines – very useful for stocking up on provisions for the journey or an extra morning coffee. There’s plenty of seating and you can take advantage of free wifi if you’re going to be here any length of time.

Our bus arrived exactly on schedule to take us from Takayama to Hirayu, the first leg of our two bus journey. These are just local buses, not designed for tourists on lengthy visits to Japan, so we had used the excellent Japan Rail luggage forwarding service to send most of our luggage to Tokyo, where we were heading after Kamikochi, and took only small overnight bags on this trip. The buses were quite full, and we were very glad we didn’t have more bags to accommodate.

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Seen from the bus

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Kamikochi traffic jam

The journey to Hirayu took about an hour. There we changed buses, with a wait of about 15 minutes, for one bound for Kamikochi. No private vehicles are allowed beyond the entrance to the long Kappa tunnel that leads to Kamikochi; the only access is by bus or taxi and when you get on the road you see why. It is very narrow and winding and even with those restrictions in place seems to struggle to cope with the traffic. We were stuck for a while behind a bus that was manoeuvring inexpertly to allow another coming in the opposite direction to pass.

The views throughout our journey from Takayama were great, but on this last stretch spectacular – despite (or arguably because of) the very low cloud and rain. I was glad I had secured a window seat and could capture these first impressions of the Japanese Alps with my camera.

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Nearing Kamikochi

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Rainy Kamikochi from the bus

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Soba in hot soup

The bus deposited us at the terminal near the centre of the park, Kappa-bashi. Although it was a bit early for lunch Andrew suggested that we ate in the restaurant there (above the gift shop) as we wouldn’t be able to get anything at the hotel at this time. The wet weather had, it seemed, prompted everyone to have a similar idea, as although the restaurant here is large we had to wait a while for a table and our group broke into twos and fours to secure spaces.

Once seated we enjoyed our warming meal. visit I had soba noodles in a hot soup, which was described as being with ‘edible' (thankfully!) plants, and Chris the katsu (pork cutlet).

Kappa-bashi Bridge

After lunch we regrouped and headed for our hotel. This was right by the river on the far side of, and just a few metres from, the Kappa-bashi Bridge. This wooden suspension bridge is 36.6 metres long and just over three metres wide. It is something of a symbol for Kamikochi and is also the busiest point in the park as almost everyone crosses it at some point in their visit. By the way, bashi means bridge, but most English translations add the tautological 'bridge' to the name.

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Kappa-bashi in the rain

The bridge is named for a mythical creature, the Kappa, a name meaning ‘river child’. The Kappa is a trickster, as found in many mythologies, but a pretty malevolent one. They are said to lure people into the water to drown, to kidnap children and even to drink the blood of their victims in order to capture their soul. Even today you may see a sign warning of the presence of a Kappa by some bodies of water in more remote Japanese towns and villages. According to Wikipedia:

‘Kappa have been used to warn children of the dangers lurking in rivers and lakes, as kappa have been often said to try to lure people to water and pull them in.

‘Kappa legends are said to be based on the Japanese giant salamander or hanzaki, an aggressive salamander that grabs its prey with its powerful jaws. Other theories suggest they are based on historical sightings of the now extinct Japanese river otter as seen from a distance, otters have been known to stand upright and a drunk, frightened or hallucinating person may think they are seeing a humanoid entity and not a wild animal.

‘The kappa is typically depicted as roughly humanoid in form and about the size of a child. Its scaly reptilian skin ranges in colour from green to yellow or blue.'

The bridge is surrounded by a number of mountains including Nishihotakadake, Okuhotakadake and Myojindake, which are all over 3,000 metres above sea level. But on this first afternoon in the park mountain views were in short supply, so we simply crossed the bridge and made the short walk to the hotel, Nishi-itoya Sanso, a good-sized guesthouse with traditional Japanese accommodation.

Nishi-itoya Sanso

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Exterior of Nishi-itoya Sanso - our room is bottom right

Our ground floor room here was probably the largest we had during our trip to Japan. We had a wash basin, but other facilities were communal - toilets in the corridor nearby, and a public onsen (separate men's and women's) on the second floor.

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Our room at Nishi-itoya Sanso

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Yukuta set

Sleeping is traditional style, on futons, which the staff laid out for us each evening while we were at dinner. But a welcome Western touch was the provision of a small table and chairs in the window alcove, from where we had a good view of the surrounding trees and a footpath traversed not only by human visitors to the park but also occasionally by the resident macaques!

Once we’d settled in we went for a walk in the immediate area, and despite the rain enjoyed taking photos of the trees, with the autumn leaves just turning, and the low clouds drifting through the wooded hillsides.

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Kamikochi in the rain

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Autumn colours

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Rainy day details

But having been warned not to be out after mid afternoon because of the approaching typhoon, we quite soon returned to our room to enjoy the views of the rather damp trees and equally damp passing macaques.

The macaques of Kamikochi

One of the delights of a visit to Kamikochi is the opportunity to observe the resident macaques, who are not too timid to venture into the ‘populated’ area around the hotels. From our limited two days’ experience, it seemed they would put in an experience mid to late afternoon, with a troop making its way along the path in front of our hotel and others taking a short cut across the staff car park behind. It was so much fun to observe their antics, especially those with little babies in tow or (very cute) riding on their backs.

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Bedraggled macaque with baby

The Japanese macaque is the most northerly-living primate (apart from humans, obviously!) and is sometimes called the ‘snow monkey’ because it is happy to live even where snow regularly covers the ground in winter. But you’re unlikely to get the opportunity to see it in the snow in Kamikochi because the park is closed during the winter months. However, we found that soggy-furred monkeys are almost as cute as snow-covered ones!

The macaques have a distinctive red face which makes them look permanently a little cross. They have thick brown or greyish fur which grows thicker in cold weather. They live in large groups or troops with males, females and infants all living, feeding and travelling together. The babies spend their first four weeks hanging from their mother’s belly before being transferred to her back where they spend most of their first year.

The macaques move quite quickly (or at least, they do when it rains) so you need to have your camera at the ready. I have a lot of very blurred photos to show for my efforts, and more than a few of bushes where, a fraction of a second before I pressed the shutter, a monkey was passing! The photo above was my only successful effort on this first afternoon, although I was to do better the following day.

After a relaxing couple of hours watching their antics, reading and catching up on my journal notes, it was time for dinner, which Andrew had promised us would be quite an experience – and it was!

A Japanese feast

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Table set for dinner

Stays at Nishi-itoya are on a half board basis and the dinners served are amazing, classic Japanese feasts, with multiple courses (albeit all served at once in the Japanese way). The table as we walked in to our group's private dining room on the first evening had us all gasping, and even so this was only part of our meal, as various hot items were added soon after we took our seats.

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An individual place-setting

Even with a printed menu sheet in English, some of the items remained hard to identify, and some of us found some of them a little hard to stomach, but really there was nothing here to deter anyone other than the ultra-squeamish (no odd parts of animals or insects, for instance!) and most of us sampled most things, though the non-fish eaters struggled a little at times. But everyone, whether they cleared their plates or simply grazed, found this an experience to remember.

The menu on that first night was (taken verbatim from the printed sheet provided):

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Walnut tofu

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Assorted samplers

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Grilled char

Appetiser: walnut tofu

Assorted samplers
~ burdock rolled with sea bream
~ boiled prawn
~ chestnut
~ cheese with citron

Sashimi: local salmon and char

Grilled char with salt

Sweet bun of lily root

Roast beef and salad

Fried salmon with eggplant
Fried potato with shrimp

Clear soup with mushroom paste

Rice with vegetable pickles

Fruit [grapes]

Wow! Of course, some dishes appealed to each of us more than others. My own favourites were the walnut tofu (I normally don't much care for tofu but this was a revelation), the sashimi and the fried potato with shrimp - a sort of Japanese fishcake. I also rather liked the lily root bun, which had the texture of mashed potato and a fairly mild flavour. The char was good too, though I found it a challenge to eat with chopsticks! Chris is not a big fan of fish so I traded some of my beef (which was his favourite) for his sashimi, and I noticed that around the table others were engaged in similar negotiations – one of the advantages of eating with a group ;)

After dinner we sat in the coffee shop for a while with Andrew and another couple from the group, Sue and Jim from Australia, with whom we were becoming friendly. We could buy sake here, tea and coffee, water and beer, although as the coffee shop closes at 21.00 we didn’t stay up late but headed back to our room to snuggle down in our futons and hope for better weather tomorrow.

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Andrew, Jim and Sue in the coffee shop

Posted by ToonSarah 10:05 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains trees monkeys food rain japan weather national_park kamikochi Comments (7)

Kamikochi in the rain

Japan day thirteen


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

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Rain over Kamikochi

After yesterday’s typhoon and associated rain, we awoke today hoping for better weather. Well, it was slightly better, in that the typhoon had passed and there was nothing to stop us getting outside, but the rain was still falling and not forecast to stop before the evening. Clearly we would not be getting mountain views today, but we were still keen to get out and see something of Kamikochi.

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Breakfast at Nishi-itoya Sanso

Over the Japanese style breakfast (salmon, pickles, miso soup, rice and tea) Andrew proposed leading a group on a walk to the Myojin area of the park, east of our hotel. The shrine that is located at the Myojin Pond is a popular sight and sounded lovely, but Chris and I decided we would rather do our own thing today. So after supplementing the breakfast with the free coffee available in the coffee shop, we got ready to face the elements. Chris’s umbrella had given up the battle with these in yesterday’s wind, so it was good that the hotel provided them for any guest needing one. While we had waterproof clothing, I find an umbrella invaluable in protecting not just me but my camera – most of the photos on this page were taken juggling camera and umbrella!

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Chris with hotel umbrella

Our riverside walk

Leaving the hotel we turned right, having decided to explore in the opposite direction to the main group. Kamikochi is a park for walkers and hikers (there isn’t much else to do here) and there are paths to suit everyone, from an easy stroll by the river to a challenging hike up one of the mountains. In this weather however the riverside routes are the only practical ones (even the best walkers in our group stuck to these) and the area around the hotels and Kappi-bashi was busy with visitors. But many don’t go very far from the hotels and bus terminal and we knew we would soon leave the bulk of them behind.

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The path by the river

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Information sign

The trails are easy to follow and clearly marked, and helpful little maps are available, small enough to slip in a jacket pocket. I had picked up one of these at the hotel, where they are free, but you can also buy them for 100¥ from the tourist information office at the bus terminal and from various shops. There are also signs along the way describing the landscape, trees, bird life etc. These are in Japanese and English, and are very informative – although it was somewhat frustrating to see on some of them the pictures of the stunning mountain range that was totally hidden from our view by a blanket of low cloud!

Following the park rules (naturally!)

Kamikochi is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park and, like national parks everywhere, there are various regulations in force to ensure the protection of the wildlife here. These include specific protection for certain animals, the rock ptarmigan, antelope and char, which are designated as ‘Precious Natural Animals’ in Japan. A voluntary group called ‘Kamikochi Preservation’ was established by the local community in 1965 to support conservation activities in the area. They promote three regulations that visitors are asked to observe in order to preserve Kamikochi for future generations:

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Tree with moss

1. Don't Feed & Disturb!
Do not disturb or feed birds, insects, fish or other wild animals.

2. Don't Harm!
Do not harm or damage wild flowers and plants.

3. Don't Dump!
Carry all your garbage home with your splendid memories.

With these in mind, and cameras and umbrellas at the ready, we started our explorations!

The Weston Relief

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The Weston Relief

This is the shorthand name given locally to the Reverend Weston Memorial Plaque, which we came to after a short walk from Kappa-bashi. It commemorates the Reverend Walter Weston, an English clergyman and missionary of the Church of England during the late 19th / early 20th centuries. He first visited Japan at the age of 27 and was captivated by its mountain regions which he introduced to the world through his book, ‘Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps’ (1896). It is he who is credited with spreading the popular name for this region, the ‘Japanese Alps’, around the world. He was influential in establishing the Japanese Alpine Club in 1906 and was its first honorary member.

In 1937, Emperor Hirohito conferred on him the Japanese ‘Order of the Sacred Treasures (fourth class)’, and the Japanese Alpine Club erected a bronze plaque in his honour here at Kamikochi. Today’s plaque is a 1965 reproduction of that earlier one which had got badly damaged over time.

From here we continued along the riverside path.

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The Azusa River near the Weston Relief

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Colours of Kamikochi

Tashiro Bridge

About a kilometre from Kappa-bashi the path, which at first follows the northern bank of the Azusa River, crosses it via the Tashiro Bridge. The river views on and near the bridge are great, and the water so clear as it runs over the pebbles, even on a wet day. On the far side of the bridge is a small shelter with some interesting information displays about the park’s wildlife. From here you could walk straight ahead to reach the main road and bus stop, but we turned right to continue along the trail.

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Kamikochi streams

Soon after this point the path divides and you have the choice of following a route near the river or one that runs among the trees. We chose the former, and followed the path as it crossed a couple of smaller streams that feed the Azusa near here, before arriving at the beautiful Tashiro-Ike.

Tashiro-Ike

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Tashiro-Ike

This was easily my favourite spot of those we visited in Kamikochi. We had been walking in the rain for some time, enjoying the soft light and changing colours, when suddenly the path through the trees emerged into a more open area, filled with rust-tinted reeds and edged with larch and other trees. This was Tashiro Marsh, which is gradually being formed by the silting up of Tashiro Pond through many years of accumulated dead leaves. A raised path crosses the marsh and leads to the edge of the pond itself, Tashiro-Ike. Its clear waters reflect, on a bright day, the surrounding mountains but today, in the soft Kamikochi rain, they glowed deep and green, reflecting only the nearby trees. In this busy park, and only minutes from its most popular trail, we had this spot almost to ourselves; many visitors, it seems, don’t bother to make the 100 metre or so detour to see this pond. They are missing a treat!

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At Tashiro-Ike

Tashiro is from all accounts lovely whatever the season. In late spring and summer it is surrounded by flowers, including Japanese azalea, and later the autumn colours that we enjoyed appear. In winter Kamikochi is closed to visitors, but if you were able to visit Tashiro you would find the waters still flowing, as it is fed by an underground spring and never completely freezes over.

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At Tashiro-Ike

From here we retraced our steps to the main path and continued in the direction we had been walking.

Taisho-Ike

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Taisho-Ike

This trail ends at the Taisho Pond, one of Kamikochi’s most popular and photographed spots. The pond is a relatively recent addition to the landscape here, having been formed in 1915 by the volcanic activity of nearby Yakedake. On June 6th that year an eruption caused an avalanche of mud which blocked the Azusa River and led to the creation of Taisho-Ike. The trees drowned when the river was dammed still stand, withered but upright, and make for an eerie sight, especially in the grey misty light of a rainy day. By contrast, a clear day will reveal reflections of Yakedake and Mount Hotaka in the pond’s still waters (we were to get a glimpse of this from the bus the next morning as we left the park).

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Taisho-Ike

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Reflections, Taisho-Ike

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Taisho-Ike

To reach the water’s edge we scrambled over the rocky foreshore to take some photos. We then climbed a short path up to the hotel that sits here, which in fine weather has great views of the reflections in the pond, and is consequently often crowded, I believe. But today it was quiet here and it was easy to get good photos from both foreshore and above.

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Taisho-Ike

Once we’d seen and photographed all we wanted to, we climbed up the short path to the hotel where we were able to use the toilets. We also went in the café here to get a hot cup of coffee to warm us up after the rainy walk. The café also has lovely views of the pond so there were more photos to be taken of course!

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On Taisho-Ike - taken from the hotel above

A relaxing afternoon

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Salmon and meat patty set

The only walking route back to Kappa-bashi from here is to retrace your steps along the same path, but we decided we had had enough rain for one day. So instead we caught the bus from a stop just outside the hotel. This took us to the bus terminal from where it is just a short walk to the bridge and hotels on the far side. But by now we were hungry so we went back to the restaurant above the gift shop where we had eaten on our arrival in Kamikochi the previous day. Again it was busy with visitors escaping the wet weather but we didn’t have to wait too long for a table. I had a ‘set’ with a small piece of salmon in crispy crumb, a meat patty cooked the same way, salad, rice, miso soup and pickles. It was more than I wanted but I fancied having salmon, so I ate that, the salad, a little rice and the soup. Chris had the meat patty along with his ‘curry rice’ - the Japanese take on curry which consists of a rich meaty curry sauce with very little actual meat! While this meal too was fine, I have to say I had preferred my soba dish of the previous day.

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Bedraggled Macaque

After this late lunch we crossed Kappa-bashi back to the hotel where we relaxed in our room for a bit. Later we visited the coffee shop for cake and coffee, and sat at a counter with a great view of the path outside that was favourite route for passing macaques. I loved watching their antics, especially the young ones, and managed to capture a few more photos than on the previous afternoon. I also made a little video of a couple of them, although unfortunately the window frame kept getting in the way, so you only get short glimpses of each as it passes.

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Macaque with baby on board

Dinner that evening was as much of a feast as on the previous day and served in the same traditional style, with all courses beautifully presented and served individually to each place-setting at the same time. This time the menu was:

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Assorted samplers
including river crab

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Sashimi

Assorted samplers
~ grilled saury [a fish] with citron flavour
- river crab
- chestnut
~ persimmon jelly
~ pumpkin millefeuille

Sashimi: local salmon and maraena white fish

Grilled sweetfish with salt

Hot buckwheat noodle

Beef steak and salad

Fried buckwheat noodle rolled with laver
Fried ginkgo nuts

Clear soup with mushroom paste

Rice and vegetable pickles

Fruit [apple slices]

Again, a fabulous spread! I loved the sashimi again and also enjoyed the buckwheat noodles both fried and served in their hot sauce. The river crab was really too tiny though to have any significant flavour or meat to it. But as on the previous evening we all came away from the table feeling very full and rather pampered by the whole experience.

When the skies cleared

Later that evening, at around 9.00 PM, we were sitting in the inn’s coffee shop, drinking beers and sake with some of the group, when the guy who was on reception came hurrying in. In his limited English he explained that if we came outside we would see the full moon and ‘white mountain’. So we left our drinks and hurried out, to find that at last the skies had cleared and we could indeed see the nearest mountain glowing palely in the light of the moon. It was bitterly cold, so we didn’t linger long, but that tantalising glimpse made us eager for the next morning.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:27 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains trees monkeys rain water wildlife monument river weather national_park kamikochi Comments (2)

Dealing with the mishap, and a holiday resumed

Senegal day four


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Back to Banjul

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

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On the road to the ferry

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

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Waiting for the ferry in Barra

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

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Boats in Barra

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

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Ferry passenger

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Refreshments on board

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

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

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

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On the ferry back to Barra

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

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

Boat ride among the mangroves

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

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The road through a local village

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Local children


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

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The waiting pirogues

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

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Goliath Herons

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Osprey on mangrove tree

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Hooded Vulture

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Great Egret

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Egrets in flight

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Hamerkop in a baobab

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

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

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Collecting oysters

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Crocodile


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

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

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Sunset on the river
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Baobab, late afternoon light


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

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Senegal sunset


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

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

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

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