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Brooke’s text, plus daily slideshows of her photos

In Qatar – June 26, 2013

This will be our last blog from Qatar as we leave in one week; however, we should post our Iceland trip once we get back to Calgary. This last week has been one horror story after another from Calgary and other communities along the rivers in Alberta. Our housesitter sent us the welcome news that our house was OK; some of our friends with homes in Calgary have not been so fortunate. We wish ALL our friends in Calgary best wishes and hope the clean-up goes quickly.

July 14, 2012 – to Perth
Well here we are in Perth, waiting for the hotel shuttle.  It’s fully dark even though it’s only 7pm – I had forgotten that it would be winter here and the days will be short.  But the air is beautiful, about 70 F.  The flight was okay though I really dislike flights that leave in the middle of the night.  The plane was jam packed so Eric couldn’t get a seat with leg room — it’s no fun being that tall.

We booked for this night into a Comfort Inn close to the airport as we need to catch the Darwin flight early.  Oz is going to be expensive this trip — the Oz dollar is about on par with the Cdn dollar and our hotel (not the most expensive by far) is $170 for the night.  We get a small room, but adequate & clean — we would pay about $80 at home, I think. However, they do have a free airport shuttle which saves $15 to $50 each way, depending on the distance from the airport.  We will have dinner at the hotel restaurant and then get as much sleep as we can.

In 2007 we spent four months in Australia.  We started in Darwin, on the north coast and went clockwise around Australia, with many zigzags, all the way to Perth on the west coast, covering more or less three-quarters of the way around Australia.  You can follow our earlier adventures on Brooke’s blog from that trip (which is just text – no pictures).  This trip we are going to cover the other one-quarter of Australia, again from Darwin to Perth, but this time counter-clockwise.

July 15 – Fly to Darwin (N0rthern Territory)
Extremely comfortable mattress but couldn’t get to sleep until 2:30am.  Don’t know why unless it’s the closeness in a queen bed – we’re used to a king where turning over doesn’t mean bumping into each other.

Sitting in the Perth airport with a coffee.  I’m now making a shopping list for when we pick up our camper.  We will have a few days to organize and will bird with Denise Goodfellow in the Darwin area before we set off.  We are staying with Denise and Michael tonight.

It was hot and muggy in Darwin with not much bird evidence in the early afternoon, so we got caught up with Denise.  Then Eric and I went for a walk in a park area near their home.  Started to get familiar again with some of the common birds – Figbird, Striated Pardalote, and a brilliant Blue-faced Honeyeater, to name a few.  Around dusk we all went out for a walk along the Channel Island road but didn’t see too much before it started raining – unusual at this time of year.  Picked up pizza on our way back to Denise’s, had supper and crashed.

Slideshow, July 15

July 16  – Darwin
Today is van organization day.  Traveller’s Autobarn rents older campervans for a quite reasonable price, all kitted out and in good mechanical repair.  We rented from them when we were here 5 years ago and were very happy.  Denise and Michael drove us into town, as they had stuff to do in Darwin and Denise was interested to see Traveller’s Autobarn in order to recommend them to any clients.

Well, it took 4 hours before we got away — in the meanwhile, we went for a walk to the ocean and had a rather indifferent lunch at a nearby noodle house.  Traveller’s Autobarn in Darwin is generally disorganized and understaffed, but provides very good quality for the money.

Later, we bought a large piece of foam to provide a decent sleep (Traveller’s provides separate cushions so you can set up a table during the day, but we just make the the bed up and leave it that way — we use a layer of foam because when you try to sleep on the cushions, you end up sleeping in between them on the wood platform.  We also bought a porta-potty.  It was getting near dark when we went to our campsite at Free Spirit and started organizing the camper — stowing stuff away, opening up our duffle bags and emptying them, getting in each other’s way as we were reaching for areas to put things in a small space and generally getting hot, tired and cranky.  The camp has a bar/restaurant so that’s where we get supper tonight — truly awful food!

Free Spirit is a huge campground with lots of activities and attractions, and cheek-by-jowl campsites with lots of kids.  It’s holiday time so it’s full.  And not cheap at $40 per night, but it’s convenient and the only campsite we could get so near to Darwin.

Slideshow, July 16

July 17 – Darwin
Up early to go birding with Denise – not very much to see but I got a life bird – Arafura Fantail – very pretty bird.  Eric’s brand-new Swarovski binoculars have lost their focus and we cannot fix them, so we had to go into Darwin to buy a spare pair.

As it had got hot we went back to camp for a while to do more organizing and shopping.  The van has pads to sleep on that we don’t need, so we managed to stow them away along with all the other stuff we won’t use.  Sorting out the stuff we do use so that we can find it again is also a challenge.  While this camper is essentially the same as the one we had 5 years ago, there doesn’t seem quite as much space as before.

By 3pm we were exhausted and overheated, but we had done almost as much as we could.  Back to Denise’s for a few more hours of birding.  Eric was hoping she could find us a few birds we had missed the last time but no luck.  Eric had to drive Denise and Michael’s 30-year-old truck (her feet can’t reach the pedals).  The truck is a real rattler if I ever saw one!  By the end of the day Eric was having trouble staying awake.

Out for a quick supper and then to bed with no alarm clock turned on.  By the way, restaurants are really expensive by our standards — 35$ to 50$ for two for rather indifferent food and no booze.  But generally no tax or tipping unless you want to.

Slideshow, July 17

July 18 – to Territorial Wildlife Park
Slept until 8, and still had some organizing chores – get a sim card set up for our cell phone, some groceries, look for a camping table and chairs, dumping the porta-potty [always a fun task :( ].  Then off to Berri Springs Territorial Wildlife Park for the rest of the day.

The park is dedicated to displaying the flora and fauna of the “Top End” of Oz and does a good job.  You can take an open air bus/train from place to place or you can walk the various trails —  the latter is better for seeing birds.  We found a number of new birds for the trip, but not new for life – Rufous Whistler, Varied Triller, Leaden Flycatcher, etc.  At one point while I was trying to get a photo of some ibises fairly close to the path, one caught a snake about as long as itself and proceeded to eat it.  It was very wriggly but eventually down it went.

Unfortunately, the walk-through aviary was closed for repairs.  This was really disappointing as you can usually get good looks at birds which are otherwise exceedingly hard to see in the wild.

Starting walking at mid-day was probably not a great idea — it got hotter as we went along and I was glad to sit for a bit while watching a raptor show.  The park people have trained a number of birds of prey and use them to demonstrate natural behaviours — Osprey diving for fish, Brahminy Kite catching food in the air and eating it on the wing, etc.  Very nice but too short.

There was a nocturnal house, since many animals in Oz are mainly awake during the cooler night hours.  I have often thought that you could have a nocturnal house with nothing in it, just labels over the exhibits, since you often cannot see what’s supposed to be there anyway.  We also went to the aquarium, but freshwater fish are generally not exciting in North America and they are much the same in Oz.  But there were some spectacular coral reef displays and also a walkthrough tunnel where big ocean fish were swimming all around you, including a huge sawfish.

Cooked supper in the camp kitchen as we still don’t have a decent table and chairs, and then off to much needed showers and then bed.

Slideshow, July 18

July 19 – to Fogg Dam
Up a little earlier today and off to Fogg Dam.  Took a magical walk (3.2km return) on the Monsoon Forest Trail — a number of birds singing, butterflies flitting around, leaves falling, all catching your eye when looking for birds.  Lots of green leafy overhead for shade.  Found good looks at Rose-crowned Fruit Dove, Arafura Fantail (life bird a few days ago, dirt bird now), a lot of Gray Whistlers, and many Whistling Kites calling overhead, as well as hearing a Rainbow Pitta which we could not see.  The loop at the far end of the trail ended at an open wetland with egrets, Nankeen Night Heron and a Black-necked Stork.

Then off to Fogg Dam itself.  Not as much water as 5 years ago but lots of birds – Black-necked Storks, Magpie Geese, Whistling Ducks, a few Black-winged Stilts, and Comb-crested Jacanas, among all sorts of egrets, ibises, and others.  This area was dammed a while back in order to turn the land into rice paddies, however the project failed.

5 years ago, most of the camping vans/trailers we saw were quite old, many of which were pop-ups. This year, the preponderance of trailers are large, new and expensive.  It must be a mark of how well off Aussies have become.  Or, perhaps, with the stronger Aussie dollar, the newer vans are more affordable.

Finally cooked supper in the camper, but first was considerably frustrated when the gas wouldn’t stay lit — they had neglected to tell us of a second valve that we had to open.

Slideshow, July 19

July 20 – to Litchfield National Park
The Top End of Oz is really dry at this time of year — vegetation is sparse, mostly some variant of Eucalypt trees and a short palm-type tree.  The grass is dry golden-brown in between the trees.  The rainy season starts in November and then they get torrents, so much that cars can be equipped with snorkels so they can drive through water covering the engine!  On roads which are subject to flooding, there are tall white posts with 2-3 metres measured on them so you can see how deep the water is.  The soil is rich red, and mining iron ore is a major industry.

Along the Stuart Highway running north to Darwin are a number of World War II airstrips, used to leapfrog planes supplying the allied troops fighting in the jungles of New Guinea.  Nowadays, some are used as rest areas for the “road trains”  — trucks pulling up to 4 large trailers which often do 130km/hr on the 2-lane roads — quite a fearsome sight when you are facing them.  It can take 1.5 km to pass them on the open road.

Got caught up on our e-mail at a MacDonalds, which provides free WiFi with your purchase.  Otherwise the access charges at the camps have been very high  — $10-$20 — and you don’t get coffee with it.

Got our campsite at Litchfield — huge sites with lots of room between sites — then off to explore the park.  Florence Falls is very pretty and popular because it has a plunge pool at the foot of the falls where you can swim with the waterfall on top of you.  The walk to the lookout had many Flying Foxes (large fruit bats) hanging from the branches overhead, starting to wake up in the late afternoon sun and, boy, do they wake up grouchy — squawking at each other, flapping and stretching their wings and generally quarreling with their neighbours.  On our way back from the lookout, we spotted 4-5 small black wild pigs.

Saw a few Sulphur-crested Cockatoos on our drive back, and found a friendly Dutch couple also in our campsite — no problem as the site was huge.  I think we are meant to share sites here, as the charge was per person not per vehicle.

Slideshow, July 20

July 21 – to Mary River
Up really early to walk a trail along Shady Creek.  The sun was just hitting the tops of the trees as we started.  The air is lovely and cool and the walk takes us through a drier uplands area and then down into the dense monsoon forest to the level of the plunge pool under Florence Falls.  Lots of honeyeaters on the way, one Mistletoebird, and some Gray Shrike-Thrushes.  Lovely walk of 2.6km return, then stopped at a picnic site for breakfast.

On to Fogg Dam again and then to Mary River Park Campground for the night — very pleasant place, we stayed here the last time we were in Oz — large grounds along the river, swimming pool, and a deck with free WiFi, plus lots of Agile Wallabies hopping around the grounds.  We also had Red-winged Parrots in the trees and 2 White-bellied Sea Eagles doing a courtship flight, and Eric heard a Barking Owl at night.  We had hoped to go on a river cruise, but they have lost their boatman/guide to Kakadu NP and haven’t yet got a replacement.

Slideshow, July 21

July 22 – to Kakadu National Park
Cold last night.  We have packed away the sleeping bags under the bed and will have to get them out.  It’s quite warm at midday but there is a big variance in temperature by midnight.  It was so hot in Darwin that we bought a fan — don’t know if we will need it again.

Camped by noon in the Kakadu Lodge Caravan Park — very nice with a lovely pool where we had a swim as it was quite hot.  Needed groceries as all we had left was 2 oranges, a banana and a tomato, but we forgot it was Sunday.  The one grocery store closed at 1pm, just before we got there.  Luckily the bakery stayed open a bit longer and they had Salade Nicoise ready-made, so that was supper — good too, with a substantial roll.

Last night at Mary River I downloaded an Oz bird app for my iPod — Morecombe’s Birds of Australia.  It’s great — now I have a field guide in my pocket and it has sound too, which I hadn’t realized.  Eric has a ton of bird song on his iPod but I like seeing the bird and listening to the song at the same time in order to make sure I have the right bird in sight.

So we just relaxed this afternoon — swimming, reading, doing the laundry, and taking much needed showers and early to bed.

Slideshow, July 22

July 23 – exploring Kakadu National Park
First thing on the list is groceries – so we stocked up for 3 days – then off for a walk at Ubirr.  On the way to Ubirr, the scenery changes from flat plains to sandstone cliffs.  It’s a good place to look for Rock Wallabies, but we found instead a Black Walleroo by the side of the road — dark chocolate brown.  We stopped to look back at it until a car drove by fast and honked, at which point it hopped back into the woods.

We went for a nice walk, then had a chat with a pleasant couple from Melbourne who were here on holidays — Rob and Bernice.  We exchanged travel experiences.  They had visited Canada — Montreal, Ste. Agathe, Ottawa, and had a hard time understanding tipping.  Evidently they had a $15 meal in Ste. Agathe and didn’t leave a tip, whereupon they were chased down the street by the waitress.  Actually, I find that hard to believe — maybe they didn’t pay the tax — who knows?

We had lunch at a long, shared picnic table with a busload of elderly people on one side and a van-load of neckless noisy wonders on the other.  Only got part way around the rock art walk — it was just too hot, so came back to the AC in the van.  We saw the rock art last time we were here and simply aren’t enthusiastic enough to force ourselves in the heat — the thought of the swimming pool is calling us.  We don’t remember it being this hot last time — perhaps Oz is having a heat wave — after all, this is supposed to be winter here.

Had a lovely cold beer by the pool, supper, a Barking Owl overhead, then bed.

Slideshow, July 23

July 24 – to Cooinda, Kakadu National Park
The mornings are lovely — cool and wonderful light, blue sky and lots of bird song.  Off after breakfast , headed for the next camp by Yellow Waters.  Stopped at a billabong and found Plumed Whistling Ducks and White-necked Heron, and also found 4 or 5 Partridge Pigeons on the road in.

Then to Nourlangie to see more rock art.  The art looks very fresh.  I think I read that certain clans have the responsibility to repaint them.  Saw another Black Walleroo — a small one.

Lots of warnings about crocodiles — there are a number of natural pools in which people are warned not to swim. “The only safe place to swim is the swimming pool in Jabiru.”  There are both freshwater and estaurine crocs, and while the freshwater ones are shy, they can be dangerous, while the estaurine ones are man (and women) eaters.  So you have to be careful walking near water as they will hide submerged and then lunge at anyone getting too close.

Big and busy campsite at Cooinda — we are here to go on the early morning cruise on the South Alligator River.

This, so far, has been a very leisurely holiday, probably due to the midday heat when the birds are all napping, and to the fact that we have seen most of the birds here that we are likely to see.  So after lunch we spent several hours in and by swimming pool, reading.

Late afternoon (4:30-5) we went for a 1-km walk to a billabong but didn’t see or hear much. I had some work to do for a web client, so spent an hour at that with a cold beer, then supper and bed, with the Oz stars shining brilliantly against the black night sky.

Slideshow, July 24

July 25 – to Katherine
Up at 5:45 for the cruise.  A bus picks us up (although we could have driven) and we are on the boat before the sun rises.  A light mist was rising over the reed beds as the sun rose.  A long stream of pelicans flew over the boat and into the marsh.  Egrets, whistling ducks, kites flying over, and crocodiles floating just at the surface.

The boat is very quiet and the guide is very good at pointing out birds.  It’s a magical morning.  Kingfishers — Azure and Forest — flash across the river in a shine of brilliant blue, a Sacred Kingfisher does a loop right by the boat and a Blue-winged Kookaburra sits calmly looking down at us.  When something interesting is spotted, the engine is cut and the boat drifts silently over, often right next to the unmoving target.

And after the cruise we are treated to a huge breakfast — I thought we would just get a bun and some juice, but there was everything you could want — eggs, bacon, sausages, potatoes, yoghurt, fruit salad, etc. plus good coffee.

After we packed up, we went back to the boat launch and walked the boardwalk — lots of flycatchers and 2 Whistling Kites at a nest.

On to Edith Falls, only to find the campsite is full, so after 3 times around the camp futilely searching for an empty site, we go back out to the highway and on to Katherine.  We try to contact the next national park office, but all we get is a recording, so we settle for a local caravan park which has the advantage of being in the country and quite birdy.

Slideshow, July 25

July 26 – to Nitmiluk National Park
Did a major grocery shop in Katherine and got internet access at the very comprehensive info centre, then on to the park.  It turned out there were quite a few vacant sites so we could have come in last night, but it’s 26 km off the highway and if the camp had been full we would have ended up driving back in the dark — not a good thing to do considering all the wallabies on the road (we saw quite a few roadkills today).

Once again into the pool to cool off, and our site is right beside the pool — really convenient — plus there are lots of Great Bowerbirds all over.  This is the park where I spent 1/2 hour filming a Great Bowerbird building his bower and strutting around trying to lure females to it.  (I still haven’t got around to editing the 25 hours of video from our ’07 Oz trip.)  Unfortunately, the park is now too busy and there aren’t the same number of birds as last time, except for Great Bowerbirds.

We have been traveling in sync for a few days with a trio of women from Victoria (Oz), one of whom is a birder.  Every few days we run into them and exchange sighting info.  Most of the Aussies we meet in the campsites are from southern Australia.  As it’s still cold there, they come north for a warm holiday, just the opposite direction of Canadians in the winter.

Sorry, no slideshow today.

July 27 – to Victoria River
Before we left the park, we went to see a Great Bowerbird bower.  Quite a big one with 2 older disused bowers on either side.  The bowers are an open arch of dense twigs that have been woven into that shape by the male bowerbird.  The bird had collected a lot of white plastic plus shiny foil and stones with flecks of shiny stuff and had it displayed at either end of the bower.  To attract females, he stands outside the bower and gives a series of harsh squeaks, then hops through the bower tunnel to the other side, squawks again, fusses with his display, hops around, does it all again, etc.  If he attracts a female he mates with her, then plays no further role in the nesting and raising of the young.  Instead he stays at the bower and tries to attract another female.

After leaving Katherine we are now in virgin territory, not having been on this road before.  We are now headed west to Western Australia in a few days.  So far, it still looks much the same.  Flat grasslands with sparse trees, and lots of 2-4 ft high red termite mounds.

There have been a lot of very sneaky mosquitoes and I am covered with itchy bites which I scratch as we drive along or while trying to get to sleep at night.  I finally found a tube of Bushman’s which is 80% DEET which I hope will forestall many more bites.  Why is it that the mozzies aim for the knuckles while you are looking at a bird?

Stopped at a few places on the way and found several new birds for the trip, two of which were life birds — Star Finch and Yellow-tinted Honeyeater.  Pleasant old-fashioned camp at Victoria River Roadhouse with flocks of Little Corellas (a large all-white parrot) wheeling in the blue sky, looking for a roost for the night and calling back and forth as we eat supper.

Slideshow, July 27

July 28 – to Timber Creek
Took a walk after breakfast along the river looking for Purple-crowned Fairywren with no luck.  Later walks proved no better.  However life without lifers is not exactly bleak — we are driving along with essentially no traffic, eating Washington (US) cherries and spitting the pits out the windows.  There’s an interesting tree here (kapok?) with bright yellow flowers, no leaves, and fruit ripening.  I don’t know any other tree that both blossoms and bears fruit at the same time.

Camped at Timber Creek and went on a late afternoon cruise on the Victoria River.  Lots of big crocodiles lying on the bank that slid down the mud and into the water as we approached.  Also many wallabies, wanting to get a drink but very cautious while drinking; they are very vulnerable to crocodiles.  The boat took us 35 km downriver to a pontoon boat where hot & cold food was served — snack-type but plenty of it so no need to cook supper.  As the sun was setting we went back upriver, with flocks of Little Corellas wheeling overhead, trying to decide on a roost for the night.

Slideshow, July 28

July 29 – to Kununurra (Western Australia)
When we did groceries in Katherine, we forgot the quarantine regulations about crossing states, so bought too much fruit and veggies.  Gave a bag of fresh new potatoes to the woman camped across from us and will try to eat some of the rest for lunch — otherwise it all goes in the garbage bin.

Another lovely day — not a cloud in the sky and it’s cooler.  But still not much in the way of birds — curious.

Quite a few Baob trees — one of the Baobob family.  These are shorter and more bulbous than the African tree and are not yet in leaf.  In Africa the trunks are all damaged from elephants rubbing against them, but the ones here have lovely smooth trunks, unless people have carved stuff into them, like the one that acts as a grave marker for a poor fellow who committed suicide by cutting his throat with a tincan lid (or so we were told) when he ran out of rum.

There are lots of creeks which cross the road, almost all of which are dry at the moment but which must run rampant in the Wet, as all along the road are the metre sticks to show you how deep the water is.  The creeks have interesting names, like Quart Pot, then PintPot, Scorpion, Spider, Chinaman Creek followed by Chainman Creek.

Staying tonight in a fancy camp/caravan park — pool, playground, near the lake — in Kununurra.  This is a very popular area for vacationers — 6 big caravan parks right in town — it’s the Gateway to the Kimberleys and the scenery is getting better — high red rock escarpments, rising from the plains, and a huge lake (which is probably a dammed up river) so lots of boating and fishing.

It’s also a very attractive town with lots of big trees around homes.  There are quite a few birds around our campsite, from a number of Great Bowerbirds (one building a bower quite close), Double-barred Finches (so tiny), Yellow-tinted Honeyeaters, and Gray-crowned Babblers.  They are all attracted to water dripping from the spout next to us.

Slideshow, July 29

July 30 – Kununurra
Just a lazy day today — checked out some local walks but my polymalgia rheumatica is acting up again.  I had cut my dose of prednisone just before we left and that was a mistake.  As this trip has progressed, I have been gradually getting more muscle aches, to the extent that I really don’t want to walk very far.  Finally today I have had it.  I had packed extra prednisone so I have gone back to my old dose.  It isn’t that much (2.5 mg) but I just can’t seem to get comfortably below that.  At any rate, it’s now late afternoon and the extra dose has kicked in and I’m feeling much better.

Got connected to the internet to pick up e-mail, but nothing important is happening, and I mailed some birthday cards.  Tomorrow we go on a big adventure — flying over the Bungle Bungles.  More after we are back.

Last night we were both awake in the middle of the night and were hearing weird noises.  Eric finally figured that it was Flying Foxes feeding on the fruit in the trees above us.

Slideshow, July 30

July 31 – to the Bungle Bungles
What a day!  We flew over Lake Argylle, a dammed up lake which is the biggest freshwater-body in Australia.  There are two huge cattle ranches that we flew over — one is 1/2 million acres and each cow takes 20 acres.  The Durack family, which founded the first and largest ranch, moved 7000 head of cattle from Queensland to here, taking 30 months to do so and losing half the herd on the way.  The shorthorn cattle just wander all over, and cowhands only come for a few weeks or months in the year to brand and harvest them.  Only recently has there been road access (4WD) into the area.

Then, over the Bungle Bungles — a series of rounded, weathered cones, all striped horizontally red and black, made of sandstone but coloured by rust (the red stripes) and by bacteria (the black stripes).  Just gorgeous from the air.  We flew in a 6-person Cessna single-engine, and the young pilot, Dion, gave good commentary as we flew along.

Once on the ground in the middle of the nearby bush, we walked (3-4 km return) through the Bungle Bungles to Cathedral Gorge where we had a picnic lunch.  Only new birds were 2 White-quilled Rock Pigeons (a life bird).  Close up, the rock colours were beautiful and the termite columns really interesting.  The queen termite on her mating flight lands on the side of the domes and then worker termites have to create a column hive from the ground up to where the queen is. Some of these termite nests are 150 ft. or more up the side of the rock faces.

There was a short break after the hike, and then back in the plane for another hour flight over the terrain back to Kununurra.  On the flight back we flew over and around the largest diamond mine in the world.  It mines mostly industrial grade diamonds, but is most famous for pink diamonds.  It’s open pit mining in an old volcano, and was slated to close this year.  But they found another pocket which they will mine underground for the next few years before they close.

Too tired to cook so we went out for souvlaki/fish and chips.

Slideshow, July 31

August 1 – to Lake Argylle
We have been camped under a big Baob tree which is in leaf — probably due to the water it gets when they water the lawn.  Stopped at Coles (grocery store) for some more cherries — they have just put out a whole lot and dropped the price to $6 per kilo.  There must be a glut in Washington, US, since I don’t remember them being that cheap in Canada.  I got 2.5 kg which should last us until tomorrow when we will be back for more supplies.

Signed on for a cruise on the lake as soon as we got to the camp, had a quick lunch and were off.  Not a bird cruise (they don’t run the bird cruise very often) but at the far end of the lake there were quite a few waterbirds to look at and some raptors that dove for fish that were thrown out.  We stopped to feed archerfish — they can spit water several feet in the air and have really good aim.  You hold out a small piece of bread and in no time it will be hit by a stream of water.  Saw two kinds of macropods from the boat — a Short-eared Rock Wallaby and a Euro — a larger Walleroo about the size of a kangaroo but stockier and adapted to hillsides.

The lake is virtually empty of boats — surprisingly so as it would be good fishing and great for sailing.  The relatively small dam holds back a tremendous amount of water — the only use made of it is for agriculture in the local area.  A full moon lit our way home.

We managed to get our laundry washed and dried before they shut the building — and a good thing too or we would have had to dive into the dirty laundry bag for clothes for the next day.

Slideshow, August 1

August 2 – to Wyndham
Took a look at the camp swimming pool before we left — an “infinity” pool where the one side is level with the water surface so it looks as if there is no side at all.  A bit too cold in the morning for a swim, however.  Will do a big (4 day) shop in Kununurra before going on as we don’t know where the next good-sized grocery store will be.  You can always get bread, milk, eggs, etc. but fresh veggies and meat can be harder to locate outside of a Coles or Woolworths (not a 5 & 10 store but groceries).

A tremendous amount of Oz is burnt over, whether due to deliberate action on the part of government, arson or just carelessness is hard to tell.  However, since the vegetation is so sparse, it mostly just burns the grasses and never gets that hot so the trees here don’t seem much affected.  The new growth comes up bright green, but the whole process must be having an effect on the smaller mammals and reptiles.  We have heard that a number of species are no longer found in some parts of the country.

Northern Australians don’t have seasons as we do – summer, winter, spring, fall — they only have two — the Wet and the Dry.  We have only been here in the Dry, but have seen pictures of what can happen in the extremes of the Wet — towns with water half-way up the sides of stores, cars floating in the streets, etc.  And these disastrous extremes are occurring more frequently — more floods more often and prolonged drought with more extensive wild fires.

White-breasted Wood Swallows are really cute.  When perched they like to sit very cozily right next to each other on a branch or wire.  One will fly in, then another settles in touching against the first, and so on.  They chitter to each other for a while and then all of a sudden they are off, swooping around catching their next meal.

We’re staying in a family-type camp — family in the meaning of people living here for a long time.  One couple has been parked here for 30 years.  Wyndham is a small town and rather tired.  It’s at the end of the paved road with a port at the far end.  As usual, when we pull into a camp there is all sorts of bird noise, but once we are settled, it’s very quiet.

We drove out to Parry’s Lagoon –5 km of dirt road — which is technically in breach of our contract, but the road was solid and dry.  The lagoon/billabong/slough was packed full of birds, including Pink-eared Ducks, Brolgas (cranes), Pacific Black Duck, Whistling Ducks, Hardheads, Coot, Grebe, etc.  At one point a Brown Goshawk landed on the railing no more than 4 ft in front of me, stared, startled, with his huge yellow eyes, and took off in a hurry.  We stayed until just before dusk and hit the paved road again just as the sun set (5:15pm).

We drove out to the harbour to check the tidal flats but saw only a few Masked Lapwings.  Picked up 2 bottles of wine before going back to camp.  The rules for purchase of alcohol here (Kununurra and Wyndham) are extremely complicated.  Very low percentage alcohol drinks can be purchased during the day, but as the % increases, the time at which you can buy it gets later and later.  If you want wine, you can only buy it between 5pm and 8pm.  We think the rules have been set in cooperation with the local aboriginal communities.

Made butter chicken for supper — a really nice feature of a supermarket in Oz is that you can buy chicken thighs that have been skinned and deboned for about the same price as whole chicken, which makes for a much easier preparation when you are cooking in a campervan.

Slideshow, August 2

August 3 – Wyndham
Throughout the night I could smell the fires burning in the bush — a little disconcerting.  There’s a huge Baob tree in the camp , reputed to be 2000 years old.

Eric got up early, hoping to find Gouldian Finches at the camp waterhole, but no luck — they haven’t been seen here for several weeks. As I got out of the van, I was greeted by an old donkey that wanders around the campground.  What a noise they make!  A deep wheeze and then a roar like a freight train.  After breakfast, while Eric was dumping the porta-potty (he’s so nice to do that) I had some time to take pictures of a Tawny Frogmouth that was quietly sitting in a tree.

Then back to the harbour, as the tide was in, to look for mangrove birds — Eric found Mangrove Gerygone but not much else.  Then we drove up to the lookout above the town and got a terrific view of the tidal flats — very extensive as the tides here are the highest in the Southern Hemisphere — 8 metres.  Iron ore is shipped from here.  The road trains bring the ore, then dump it in big piles!  Bulldozers make even bigger piles, and small steam shovels carry shovels-full to a conveyer belt which carries the ore to a barge.  The barge then takes the ore to a ship anchored in deeper water, and small bulldozers on the barge scoop the ore into a big bucket which is then dumped into the ship’s hold.  A very complicated process.

We spent the afternoon at the same billabong (Parry’s Lagoon), just watching the birds and their interactions.  Very peaceful, then a quick look for Gouldian Finches at the football field but with no luck.

Slideshow, August 3

August 4 – to Hall’s Creek
Up early as we have a long drive today — 360 km on the Great Northern Highway.  While it would be more interesting to go across the Kimberleys, the only road is 4WD with no services, and there are no roads that lead to the coast.

We have finished the cherries, so we have to fall back on our other two vices — macadamias and Arnott’s Ginger Nuts.  These last are a type of gingersnap, but are full of flavour and hard as rocks.  When you finally break a corner off, you just let it soften in your mouth — that increases the ginger flavour.  I’ve never been able to find them in North America.  We were introduced to them in New Zealand as a remedy for seasickness.

And that was about it for the day — 360 km of more or less flat scrubby bush, some dead wallabies/walleroos on the road killed by road trains at night and attracting kites, crows and 1 Wedge-tailed Eagle, and not much else.  The road trains don’t (or can’t) stop if an animal is in the road.  They have so much momentum from the heavy weight they are pulling and their speed (130 kmph in NT, 110 kmph in WA).  So on roads with lots of road trains, you find dead cows, horses, kangaroos, etc. littering the lanes, usually with the attendant carrion eaters.  You are advised not to drive at night because so many animals are nocturnal, and the roads are not fenced.

The campsite at Hall’s Creek is scraped ground with a few trees, and jam full of North America-type trailers, some looking so new they have no dust on them.  Obviously built for smaller campervans and tents, the huge campers take two sites where four would have been before.  But — a new lifebird — Gray-fronted Honeyeater — lots of them flitting around the park, and two at one point perching right above me too close to use binoculars.

Slideshow, August 4

August 5 – to Fitzroy Crossing
I’ve been reading the Lonely Planet guide to find out why Oz is so flat.  It says that while the rest of the world was building up soil with glaciation, volcanoes, etc., Oz has been essentially still, with only rain to leach the soil and wind to blow it away.  So former mountains have been eroded to piles of rubble covered with a thin skin of poor soil.

Along the way there are a number of free 24-hour campsites which are often much nicer than campsites you pay for.  If you don’t need power (use ice for refrigeration or have a generator) and carry sufficient water, you hardly need to pay to camp in Northern Australia.  These sites often have clean toilets and even water (non-potable).  Farther south there are not so many or so clean.  There’s a published guide to all the rest areas and cheap campsites across Oz and a separate one for the caravan parks.

We stop to check out a flock of finches by the side of the road and a huge flock of budgies are flying around – maybe 250.  It seems strange to see them in the wild, they are so common as a caged bird.  Final count — Zebra Finches and Crimson Finches (maybe 50 each), several White-winged Trillers, Black-faced Woodswallow, Fairy Martins, the Budgies and some unidentified honeyeaters — not bad!

We opt for the 4.5 star campground in Fitzroy Crossing and what a difference from Hall’s Creek for one whole extra dollar!  Grassed and shady sites, no crowding, huge grounds, a restaurant, pool, tennis court, resort rooms, etc.  They have WiFi throughout the park, and I booked us for the Sunday roast dinner as a change from cooking.

There was a monster caravan/bus ahead of us — it must have been two storeys inside.  I don’t remember ever seeing a camper that big before.  There only seemed to be 4-6 adults in it.  The driver has a microphone to announce stuff to people inside.

There’s a national park close to here which has a gorge and is accessible by paved road, so we had our lunch there and went on a boat trip through the gorge.  On our way out of the park, we came across a covey of Brown Quail, busily foraging right beside the road.  We had stopped to check out some finches but quickly lost interest in them while we tried to determine which quail we were seeing.

Then back to camp for a quick internet check and out to dinner — lots of food, but surprisingly, no salad, which buffets at home try to stuff you with instead of the expensive meat.  Here, salad stuff must be the most costly ingredient.  Best part of the meal was the ginger-carrot soup — thick and creamy.  Eric had 2 bowls.  I can’t do justice to a buffet anymore.  I get full by the time I finish the soup/salad appetizers.

Slideshow, August 5

August 6 – to Derby
There was a large flock of honeyeaters feeding on a Banksia tree just by our van in the morning, including Banded (new for the trip), Brown and Yellow-tinted Honeyeaters.  Banksia have a fuzzy sort of flower that generates a lot of nectar early in the morning, so it’s a good tree to check when it’s in flower.

Derby is a small coastal town (5000 people) with 2 supermarkets, 2 caravan parks, a sewage lagoon that birders are encouraged to visit, and a new jetty bordered by mangroves.  The aborigines seem better off here, more integrated into town life.

This is the height of the tourist season in Northern Australia.  The first campsite we tried was full, but we got quite a nice site in the second, bigger park.  We have made a reservation for tomorrow night in the Broome Bird Observatory.  We would have booked for two nights, but the sites aren’t powered.  Hooray!  Eric just phoned back and found they have fridges in camp kitchens where we can put our perishables, so we have booked in for 3 nights!

Derby protects its Baob trees and there are a number of big old ones scattered through the town as well as an ordered row of them down the centre strip of the main street.  The “Jail Tree” is on the outskirts and is possibly the oldest.  It is hollow at the base and was used to hold kidnapped aborigines who were to be forced to dive for pearls.  Unlike its stately relatives, the Jail Tree looks evil — all bulbous with scraggly branches, as if its shape reflects the ill purpose it was put to.

So first thing is to grocery-up for 3-4 days, then explore the area.  The sewage lagoon was not productive although it had a lot of birds, but all stuff we’ve had before.  Then Eric walked a lot of mangroves while I sat by the water and read.  Around sunset we walked out the jetty, having bought a snack of salt and pepper squid (delicious), and watched people.  Some were just walking, some talking with friends while sipping wine, and some were fishing for crabs.  The info at the jetty said that the tides were the highest in Oz — 11.8 m, so the info about the tides at Wyndham must be wrong.  The sun set as we drove home.

Slideshow, August 6

August 7 – to Broome Bird Observatory
Spent some time after breakfast searching the mangroves at Derby, and finally found the Mangrove Golden Whistler, a life bird, but female or non-breeding, so not very colourful, plus a Singing Honeyeater feeding with a ton of Yellow White-eyes and a Red-throated Honeyeater.

Last minute food, gas and money stock-up (Woolworth’s just brought in a new batch of cherries), then we’re off.  What we can’t figure out is why we are getting perfect Washington cherries in August?  As we remember, June is cherry month and Washington cherries come in before BC cherries.  How are they shipping the cherries to Oz and retaining their perfect freshness over 2 months?  The stems are still green and the fruit is plump and sweet.

35 km of dirt/sand road into the Broome Bird Observatory (BBO) — so we’re not going to go into Broome, or anywhere, until we leave.  It’s very peaceful here — only about ten vehicles or campers, no power for our fridge which died sometime after we got here.  However, any perishables have gone into the communal fridge.  There isn’t a lot of info about where to go to find birds, and very few people actually connected to the BBO who actually know much — all are volunteers.  So we just have asked various people who give us advice.  We wandered down some trails which didn’t lead to much of interest, then went to a viewing platform that overlooks the Indian Ocean.  A few peeps feeding on the flats, but two Tawny Frogmouths (a pair) perched at eye level right beside the platform!  Wonderful views.  We watched them until after sunset when one finally took off.

Then cooked supper in the communal kitchen — lots of chatter and light to see by, a pleasant change from eating in the dark.

Slideshow, August 7

August 8 – Broome Bird Observatory
We learned this morning that although we had booked a bird tour 2 days ago, it never got into their computer, so we were not able to go.  Eric was really pissed, although we have been promised a place on tomorrow’s trip.  The BBO lists a number of tours but actually only gives a few, probably because they don’t have enough staff or vehicles to lead them.  Also we were told that their real interest is the research projects they are doing here, and the birders are looked on as a bit of a nuisance (although paying ones since tours start at $70 each).

The day turned out OK anyway.  We found out where concentrations of shorebirds could be found and parked ourselves there in our chairs with binocs, telescope, camera, field guide and lunch, and just watched birds the whole afternoon.  It was a beautiful spot, on a cliff overlooking the beach, and in the shade.  On the beach were : Eastern Curlews, Great Knots (life bird), Black- and Bar-tailed Godwits, Red-necked Avocets, Great and Lesser Crested Terns, Silver Gulls, Caspian Terns, Sand Plovers, Terek Sandpipers, Red-necked Stints, Pelicans, Grey (Black-bellied) Plovers, etc.  On a regular schedule either a White-bellied Sea Eagle or a Brahiminy Kite would glide over the closely packed shorebirds and put them all up.  They would wheel about in dense groups and then settle back down in about the same place.  I’m sure the raptors knew exactly what they were doing and enjoyed the show, as did we.

Coming back we ran into Jackie Hartnell, whom we first met in the Bungle Bungles, and later on the jetty at Derby.  She thought she was lost, so we had her follow us to camp.  She’s booked in for 7 days, mostly just for R & R.  It was very nice eating in the communal kitchen, with lots of pots and pans, space and light.

Slideshow, August 8

August 9 – Broome Bird Observatory
Found out this morning that BBO is laying on a second tour for us to see the Yellow Chat, as well as the shorebird tour so today will be a busy day.  We start off by taking breakfast to the viewing platform and just looking at the ocean and mud flats — very low tide — and checking on the Tawny Frogmouths.

Had an early lunch and then off with Teresa and 4 others.  Teresa is excellent with shorebirds — in the large group of dull grey birds she found us exactly what we were looking for — Asian Dowitcher, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Grey-tailed Tattler.  Eric had earlier found a Mangrove Grey Fantail so he was pleased with the birds seen so far.

The shorebirds are what BBO is here for.  The tides are high, so in the low tide, huge stretches of mud flats are exposed for shorebirds to feed on.  It’s like the Bay of Fundy — same phenomenon and same density of shorebirds.  At high tide the shorebirds pack into dense groups at selected places along the beach to sleep, albeit fitfully, and to wait for the tide to go back down.

As soon as we got back, the Yellow Chat trip started with Simon, a rather taciturn Brit who is working as Assistant Warden.  He warmed up as we went along.  We drove out to a plains area — a sea of grass, just as if we were driving through a wheat field on the prairie.  Eventually we came to a wet spot with samphire where we got quite good views of the Yellow Chat, a life bird.

One problem with the birds this visit is that we are seeing a lot of non-breeding or juvenile birds, making identification more difficult, if not impossible.  This is especially disappointing in regards to the Fairywrens, since they are such pretty little birds in breeding plumage.  So we were happy to see an almost full plumaged Red-backed Fairywren on our chat trip.  We also got brief looks at Stubble Quail which flew up from the dirt track as we headed home.

Slideshow, August 9

August 10 – to Sandfire Roadhouse
Not sure where we will stop tonight.  We have to get a plug-in as the battery that runs the inside stuff — fridge, etc.) seems to have died.  We stopped in Broome to get groceries, money, gas, e-mail and lunch, so a late start on the road and there aren’t many places to stay on the road to Port Hedland.  The Great Northern Highway has now turned south and is passing through the edge of the Great Sandy Desert.  While it parallels the coast, we are at least 10 km from the ocean all the way.

Broome was hot, busy — a total tourist town — and I’m glad we’re not staying there.  From 15,000 it swells to 60,000 during the winter (July/Aug.) — people from the south of Oz come north for the beaches.  Sometime soon they will be heading home, but so will we.  Our lunch was “Asian Fusion”, which we take it to mean the worst of various parts of Asian food.

By the time we left Broome it was at least 12:30 so we are unlikely to get past the Sandfire Roadhouse, as we don’t want to be driving in the dark trying to reach the next site.  The road, as usual, passed through flat, grassy scrubland, much the same as we have been seeing since leaving Darwin.  Scenery, for the most part, is not Australia’s forte.  And the Kimberleys, which in all the photos look stunning, are all but inaccessible without a 4WD and a lot of extra supplies.

Sorry, no slideshow today.

August 11 – to South Hedland
Leaving camp, we spend an hour or so detouring to 80-mile Beach where we would like to have stayed last night but could not chance that no powered sites would be open.  The caravan park is lovely — lots of trees and grassy sites — right on one of the most beautiful stretches of white sand beach I have ever seen.  The air temperature was perfect and the beach sand was firm-packed and easy to walk on.  There were shells everywhere, all different shapes, kinds and colours.  I think Eric regrets limiting his collecting to North American waters — tropical shells are much more interesting.  We just ambled along, me taking pictures and Eric picking up interesting shells to show me.  Only a few birds on the beach although this is supposed to be a good shorebird site — probably at a different tide.  A very refreshing stop.

We decided to skip sandwiches and actually stop for lunch at Pardoo Roadhouse where we gassed up.  Busy place, while food seems expensive, portions are generous so we split an order of fish and chips.

Going on, we were looking forward to a really nice camp (a Big 4 — good chain) at Port Hedland where we would catch up on laundry and have a swim, only to find they were full.  The only other park was closed for construction.  There was no choice but to go to South Hedland, not a tourist destination by any means, but a caravan park for construction workers in the area — what a dump!  And we ended up paying more than for any other caravan park.  The only good thing was they had lots of washing machines and driers.  Port Hedland/South Hedland is a huge port and industrial area for shipping out iron ore, possibly Australia’s busiest port.

Slideshow, August 11

August 12 – to Karratha
Got a quick look at Summer Olympics results in a paper to see that Canada got a gold, but have no idea in what sport.  I gather that we are not doing too well compared to the rest of the world.

Rather dull driving day.  We did stop early on for Eric to check some mangroves where he found the last of the mangrove species he has been looking for — Dusky Gerygone.

Got to Dampier only to find the camp was full.  Back to Karratha where we got a place, luckily.  Most of the camps/caravan parks on this coast seem to be packed full.  If we had known how difficult it was going to be to get places to stay, we could have phoned ahead.  As it is, we had planned to stay in Exmouth for the next 3 nights, but can only get one night (tomorrow) reserved.  And it’s a long drive — 600 km from Karratha to Exmouth — so we won’t be there until almost dark.

Slideshow, August 12

August 13 – to Exmouth
Up before dawn, and picked up breakfast at a McDonalds in order to be on the road as soon as possible.  The scenery is somewhat different here, obviously affected by the nearness to the coast.  It’s still mostly flat, of course, but mostly grassy with low sloping hills like old grassed sand dunes – quite pretty in the early morning light.

The grass is deceptive – it looks soft and supple but is actually quite deadly to walk through.  It grows in round clumps that gradually merge, and each blade has a tip like that of a sharp sword.  it’s called spinifex and in this unfriendly habitat lives the elusive Spinifex Pigeon for which we have looked in vain.  I keep hoping we’ll spot one on the side of the road so we don’t have to go in to look for one.

Well, this is the first day I have actually driven the van, in order to spell Eric.  As a result, we have only now found out that he doesn’t fit in the passenger seat (which does not move back) unless he sits sideways — the joys of being too tall.  However, he gritted his teeth for a bunch of miles.  It was also a first for some birds (for the trip) — 2 Emus, a lot of Little Crows, Welcome Swallow — these last were on a wire above the swimming pool when I went for a dip.

It’s a good thing we reserved a campsite since they were putting up the Full sign as we were registering.  We were told that we had a good chance of extending if we came to the office in the morning.  So parked the van and went for a swim, as it was too late to do much else, and too hot.  Eric booked us for a glass bottom boat trip for the morning.

Slideshow, August 13

August 14 – Exmouth
Our stay is extended for 3 more nights, so we can relax for a bit.

The glass bottom boat trip was a blast!  Half the boat went snorkeling, but we stayed on board and had all the fishes identified for us.  This reef is supposed to be one of the most pristine left in the world, as it’s so far away from any polluting sources.  There were all shapes, sizes and colours of coral, although they mostly look dull green through the glass and the water.  However, the fish were brightly coloured  and lots of different kinds.

The trip also included a bus ride to some of the scenic areas, including a drive up to a lighthouse from where we could see humpback whales sporting about.  Eric especially wanted to see whale sharks, but they aren’t here at this time.  Didn’t get back for lunch until around 2-2:30, then groceries.

Right now we are sitting in the van on the bay side, watching families play in the water and on the beach and enjoying a cool breeze.

Slideshow, August 14

August 15 – Exmouth
Today we are spending exploring Cape Range National Park — like Cape Cod National Seashore — a long protected stretch of coast with beautiful beaches, bays, sandy flats, good swimming and snorkeling (there’s a reef), plus emus and roos, and little birds too but not as evident.

We started off at a blind overlooking a lagoon set in mangroves and before we even got in the blind, I had 2 life birds — Dusky Gerygone and Mangrove Fantail.  After leaving the blind, we gradually worked our way to the end of the park, stopping at the visitor’s centre for a picnic, and at some of the beaches to look at shells and the azure blue water between the reef and the shore.  Didn’t see much more in the bird line — lots of Singing Honeyeaters and a few Western Bowerbirds, and thousands upon thousands of fluorescent green and yellow budgies, plus one Australian Bustard.

Slideshow, August 15

August 16 – Exmouth
What a day!  Whales, whales and more whales!  We went on a day-long whale/snorkeling cruise (every cruise has a snorkeling component, whether you want it or not).  While waiting on the boat to get started, we could see whale blows on the other side of the reef.  We were told that the population of humpback whales in this area had increased from a low of 1800 to 40,000 since whaling was stopped.  The females come here to calve and mate.  Gestation is 12 months, so as soon as the calf is born, they can get pregnant again.

We saw young calves and lots of adults cavorting — fin waving, tail slapping, breaching, and a “heat” run (female in the lead with several males trying to catch her).  It was a real spectacle.

We also got good looks at Coastal Manta Rays, cruising just at the surface with their white mouths wide open and their wing tips breaking the surface.  There were big sea turtles, flying fish, groups of tuna breaking the surface, and Spinner Dolphins which swam with the boat for quite a while.  We also saw a few new birds for the trip — Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, and Hutton’s Shearwater.

And all through this excitement, the crew was passing around tasty bits of food and drink.  We were also served a delicious lunch and then went to the reef for the snorkelers.  Only a few people on the boat had any experience, and they went off with one of the crew.  The rest put on all the gear but mostly milled around, afraid to fully commit.  It was like herding cats.  One woman actually could not swim — I’m not sure if she ever got into the water.  A few people just went in for a swim and I wished I had brought my suit as it was hot with the boat standing still.

Finally they corralled all the snorkelers back on the boat and we motored shoreward.  Back at camp we went for a swim and then out for supper.  Not a great meal, once again, but it was a change from cooking.

Slideshow, August 16

August 17 – to Carnarvon
Before leaving the Exmouth Peninsula, we drove a road that took us up into the interior of the Cape Range — deep eroded canyons on either side — quite beautiful but hairy driving on a rough road that was just scraped rock.

Crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and took pictures for a group of four young people with the sign.  Their car/jeep was jam-packed with stuff — I don’t know how they fitted inside.  It was packed solid to the roof and then the roof was piled with more stuff.

Just drove until Carnarvon, re-supplied with groceries, gas and did laundry — probably the last laundry we’ll do on this trip.

Sorry, no slideshow today.

August 18 – to Horrocks
Again a driving day — not much to explore here — in between towns the country is essentially uninhabited.  However, around the turnoff for Monkey Mia, the bush on both sides of the road turned into a carpet of wildflowers — solid swaths of yellow, pink and white, with interruptions of purple.  The southern part of Western Australia is famous for its wildflowers in September — we were at the end last time we came and are at the start this year.  Well south of the turnoff, the bush gave way to agricultural cropland.

Camped at Horrocks on the ocean — a sleepy little vacation town — quite nice.

Slideshow, August 18

August 19 – to New Norcia
Driving day – we are driving east and around Perth to get to the Dryandra forest to the southeast of Perth.  The Noora campsite was full so we had to go on to New Norcia.  That campsite was closed, as far as we could tell, and we really didn’t want to drive another 120 km in the dark, so we booked into the only place in town — the New Norcia Hotel.  If you are in similar circumstances, drive on.  New Norcia is an old, old town which consists of a monastery, a boys school (now closed?) and the hotel, which was used to house families visiting their boys at school — big old buildings but dilapidated.  The beds sagged, the toilet was down the hall, and the food was abysmal.  And all in all, we ended up paying $140 Aus for the dubious privilege of staying and eating there.

Slideshow, August 19

August 20 – to Narrogin
Driving day.  A lot of Corellas and Galahs, large white or pink parrots, en route.  Not much to say except that the camp at Narrogin is not much to write home about.  We looked at a very nice looking motel with the idea of moving there but it was full up for the two days we will be staying, so we just booked dinner there.  Frankly, I’m getting tired of cooking, eating and sleeping in the van.  Maybe I’m spoiled but I like to have light after the sun goes down, to read or just think about stuff or reorganize.  And it’s not as if we can’t afford it — it’s just that I have a problem with paying twice for something.  We have accommodation in the van even though it’s not the most comfortable, so paying for a motel and a restaurant on top seems wasteful.  All a product of my parents’ experience during the depression, I expect.  So we stayed in the grotty trailer park, and ate supper in the motel — the best meal we have had dining out on the entire trip!  We will go back again tomorrow night!

Sorry, no slideshow today.

August 21 – Narrogin
Birded the Dryandra forest with Peter Taylor, our guide in Western Australia from our last trip to Oz. It was great catching up with him; his birding business is going well and he is still enjoying it.  Dryandra is an extensive dry forest, which is famous for having numbats – a small diurnal ant-eating marsupial.  It is the only southern forest we have a chance to visit on this trip.  It rained off and on all day, but despite the weather, we found 23 new birds for the trip and a lifer — Western Thornbill — not the most exciting life bird, but one more tick. Despite looking carefully, we did not find a numbat.  One fascinating feature of Dryandra was the abundance of flowering bushes and shrubs of many different species, most with large showy flowers.

Supper again at the motel — another excellent meal.

Slideshow, August 21

August 22 – to Perth (my birthday!)
On the road early and got a cabin in the campground in Perth near the airport (same campground as last time). Unpacked everything from the camper in order to repack for the trip home, and started cleaning the van. Much easier this time; we were only in the camper for 6-7 weeks instead of 4 months, so the grime hadn’t had a chance to really settle in. Eric is amazing — he found the same obscure car wash tucked behind a shopping centre that we went to 5 years ago. I didn’t even remember the campground, let alone where the car wash was! We both got liberally soaked getting the van clean on the outside, but now all is ready to turn it in.

Didn’t bother going out for supper; we simply ate what was left in the fridge.

Slideshow, August 22

August 23 — to Doha
As before, we spent the morning in the Perth Aquarium since our plane doesn’t leave until the evening. We ate lunch in their cafeteria and then went to turn in the van to Traveller’s Autobarn. No fuss, no extra charges, and we left them with a list of things which need to be looked at before they rent it out again. Very efficient operation in Perth, in contrast to the sleepy organization in Darwin.

Took a cab to the airport; the driver was originally from Bulgaria but had been in Oz for 8 years and wouldn’t go back. Sat around the airport, reading, checking out the shops and snacking, and then we were off home.

Slideshow, August 23

Photos by Brooke

Kerala blog written by Brooke

Rest written/assembled by Eric.

OUR NEWS

Our time in Qatar is quickly coming to an end.  After 3 and a half years we are leaving the Middle East and returning to live in Calgary.  We leave Doha on July 5, and arrive in Calgary on July 22, as we are touring Iceland en route home.  We are excited to return home to Calgary and to be able to look up all our relatives and old friends (meaning friends we have known for some time).

But just as we are excited to get home to Calgary, we are saddened to leave home in Qatar.  For Doha has become home for us, and we will be leaving lots of good friends here, many of whom we are unlikely to ever see again.  Some of the students today gave a lovely little party for several of the departing staff, including Eric.  They clearly feel the loss of the dedicated staff who have helped them so much, but unfortunately that is the nature of the staff at University of Calgary-Qatar, dedicated but transitory.

THE BLOG

Readers of the blog will know that we have been getting further and further behind.  Getting Brooke’s text, her photos, and photos from the web into an integrated whole has slowed to a crawl.  So we are going to try something different, and we hope it will work.  For our trip to Kerala in South India this past February, we have given Brooke’s text each day, followed by a link to a slideshow for that day.  We can do this more quickly, and we can try to catch up.  This blog is not integrated, and not as good as the other blogs, but we hope it will appeal to you, the readers who have been following our various travels.

In our efforts to catch up, we can report that

1. For birders, we now have posted an updated Qatar list and the lists from all our various trips.

2. The blog for our trip to Tanzania and Uganda at Christmas and the slideshows of our Provence and Istanbul trips have just been sent out.

3. That will just leave our six weeks in Australia last summer to get posted.  With luck we may get it out before we leave Doha and Brooke starts writing up Iceland.

A WINTER WEEK IN KERALA, SOUTH INDIA

Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 – Doha to Kochi to Hornbill Camp, Thattekad, Kerala, India
Well, this is nice – we now have silver passes with Qatar Airways which get us into a special line for check-in and into a lovely lounge to sit without the hoi polloi.  In the lounge we are provided with all sorts of free food from soup and salads, sandwiches to desserts and cappuccino.  And at boarding we were upgraded to Business Class.  Too bad we boarded at 1:30 am! – they served a full meal at 2:30 am but by that time I was trying to sleep as once we hit the ground (not literally I hope), we are off immediately on our tour.

We are met at Kochi Airport by Ajith, who is driving us two hours to our first destination, where we will meet our guide. Our guide, Sathyan Mepayur (South India Birding / Kalypso Adventures)  comes highly recommended by our Keralan birding friends in Doha as being the best bird guide in Kerala.   Kerala is a long narrow Indian state lying along the southwest coast of India extending down to the southernmost tip of India.  There is a range of low mountains, the Western Ghats, forming the backbone of Kerala, and there are a number of birds found in the Western Ghats that are found nowhere else in the world.

I tried to stay awake on the drive to Hornbill Camp, but no such luck.  The area we drove through that I did see seemed more prosperous than Northern India – fewer people on the streets, mostly motorized vehicles, lots of small stores.  When I woke up we were driving through what looked like a tree plantation and were almost at the camp.  It turned out that there are 3 types of plantations here, all privately owned: teak, rubber and pineapple.  The rubber trees have little skirts over the small collection cups.  The sap is harvested every day – about 200 ml from each tree.

We will be at Hornbill Camp for 3 days and a lovely spot it is.  We have a safari tent right on the river with lots of birds around.  Butterflies too.

Lunch was buffet on the terrace with our guide Sathyan, whom we are meeting for the first time.  He has been in touch with Dileep, one of our Keralan friends in Doha, and has some suggestions to increase our bird lists, one being getting up one day at 2 am!!  Food was typical Indian buffet but good – several dishes with a lot of coconut, and the lightest, fluffiest poppadums – they just shatter in your hands.  There’s not much point in birding till 3:30 because of the heat, so we head for the tent and a snooze.  I zonked out as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Birding this afternoon was in a dense forest – very quiet but the birds are there – some endemic birds or specialty birds, all with names starting with Malabar (the region we are in).  Accompanying us was a Hindu celebration – very loud music – as there is a temple in the woods close by and this is the last of some special days.

We climbed up and down an old lava flow to get a good view of some parakeets and also got lovely views of clouds over the mountains.  Some thunder sounded but it’s not likely to rain – it’s been very dry this year with 30% less rain than normal during the last monsoon when the heavy rains hit here.

People are traveling back and forth on the small forest road in small 3-wheeled taxis – a very practical vehicle.

We waited by the side of the road until dark, hoping to call out a Ceylon Frogmouth, but the noise of the temple celebration was being broadcast a way down the road so the birds have likely left the area.  We started back along the road only to run into a long procession on the way to the temple.  First came a group of women drummers doing a fine job on traditional instruments, followed by 2 long lines of women and girls, all dressed in white and each carrying a dish with flowers and a lit candle – very beautiful.  Then came a weird group of men, 2 of whom had long skewers with balls at the ends piercing their cheeks from one side to the other.  Other men were pouring water on their heads.  Then a group of younger people in odd costume and red flowery headdresses.  At the end was a loose group of men drummers and dancers, capering about like monkeys.  Truly fascinating!

Just as we got back to the car, it got quiet.  Sathyan played the tape and a frogmouth answered right away.  It took a few minutes to find it, but when we did we got a splendid view.  Back to camp for a curry supper and hot lemon water and then bed!

Five life birds for me today – Malabar Gray Hornbill, Crimson-backed Sunbird, Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, Malabar Parakeet, Malabar Starling.

Slideshow for Friday, Feb. 15

Saturday, Feb. 16 – Hornbill Camp, Thattekad, Kerala, India
Up at 5 and off at 6am in order to be on the spot at dawn.  It was lovely hearing the succession of bird calls — one would start calling as another would drop out.  Had a nice look at a Red Spurfowl walking along the edge of the forest.  Moved to several new locations then parked the car at the top of a road and walked slowly down the road, stopping for birds. Sathyan called in a pair of Jungle Owlets, one of which sat close above us, glaring down and scolding at the top of its lungs.  While walking we could hear the occasional low rumble from a wild elephant (and saw elephant dung on the road, well flattened by vehicles), and we heard and got glimpses of a Langur monkey, giving low hoots in the background.  Found lots of new birds by the time the sounds of calls died down, and we then drove back to the camp.

Lunch was curry, of course.  We got 3 different curries, one spicy, two not (most have coconut), chapattis, rice, one or two fried dishes, lime pickle and fruit, with variations on rice pudding for dessert.  Most of the curries are vegetarian, but there will usually be one meat dish on the buffet.  We won’t starve here.

Out again at 4, after an afternoon snooze. There are very interesting bugs on the trail, many of which are bright red – Flame Bug, Red Bug, etc.  There is also a bird which is omnipresent in this area – the White-cheeked Barbet.  It calls incessantly, from dawn to dusk, a monotonous pu-kack, pu-kack, pu-kack, etc., one after the other without end.

Most of the birding we are doing is in the dense forest, but there are clearings made by unvegetated lava flows, so we can stop and look around easily and also scan the sky.  Late this afternoon we were walking up such a lava field when we heard the music of “My Darling Clementine”.  Sathyan said that it is a traditional Christian hymn here, but someone must have adapted the words because I don’t think the words I know would be suitable for church!

We waited at the top of the lava field until dusk, at which a nightjar started calling.  Within about 5 minutes we had terrific looks at 3 different nightjar species – 2 of which were life birds – a great end to a great day.

Life birds today: Gray Junglefowl, Red Spurfowl, White-bellied Treepie, Heart-spotted Woodpecker, Large Cuckooshrike, Great Eared and Savannah Nightjars.  (The third nightjar was Jerdon’s, which we had seen previously in Sri Lanka.

Slideshow for Saturday, Feb. 16

Sunday, Feb. 17 – Hornbill Camp, Thattekad, Kerala, India
Breakfast in camp today, consisting of toast and jam, hard-boiled eggs in onion curry, and rice noodles, then off to find morning forest birds.  There were a number of different flycatchers, parrots and parakeets, cuckoos and drongos, including a Cuckoo Drongo.

It’s interesting to watch the people as they walk the same trails on their way somewhere.  The women are in saris, mostly brightly coloured, with their hair tied up or put up.  The men mostly wear dhotis (white) or lunkis (coloured) – these are large pieces of cloth which are wrapped around the waist and can be wound down to the ground or hitched up in a sort of shorts configuration by pulling cloth from the back through the legs and then tucked neatly into the waist in front.  They look very cool and practical, although they must come undone or loose quite often, as adjustments or rewrappings are done frequently.

We have a long break mid-day during which we have showers, lunch and a nap, not necessarily in that order.  Off again at 4:30 to look for owls.  Looking for owls consists of a lot of sitting around waiting until it’s dark enough, during which we scan for birds rather desultorily and chat quietly, getting to know each other’s culture.

We did find some owls preceded by a number of nightjars flying overhead.  The owls were hard to find and very skittish but good looks – Brown Fish Owl (unexpected) and Brown Hawk Owl, but we’ve seen both before.

Tonight we get off at 2am in order to get an early start for Periyar.

Life birds today: Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Indian Cuckoo (heard only), and White-rumped Needletail.

Slideshow for Sunday, Feb. 17

Monday, Feb. 18 – To Periyar
1:30 am is a ghastly time to get up!  And despite Sathyan telling us we can sleep in the car, a lot of the roads were bumpy enough that I kept on waking up.

However, by the time we got to Periyar Tiger Reserve, I got my second wind and we set off on our morning trek.  We got to the trail by crossing a small inlet on a bamboo raft – 8 large pieces of bamboo nailed together and pulled across by a rope.  You have to stand up the whole time as the bamboo is almost underwater, and you hope you won’t slip into the muddy murky water.  The reserve is the starting point for a boat trip on the Periyar River – very popular – most people there were rushing to get on the first boat of the day, which is especially good for sighting wildlife.

The trail we took had a lot of ups and downs – I should have had my walking stick – it would have made it easier, especially as it had rained at night and everything was wet.   However, we got all the birds we came for, and more.  We also saw 5-6 elephants with calves emerge from the bush not too far from us.  We were encouraged by Sathyan to move out of the area quickly as they can be dangerous.  It was the first time we have been on foot near wild elephants.

Then to our hotel – very nice room with a king bed and a veranda that looks over a green area, and lunch – lots of selection here as it’s quite a big place, but mostly I just had soup and naans.

In the afternoon we went for a walk in another area of the reserve.  It started to rain about when we got there and then poured off and on for the afternoon.  We had raincoats but I found I was just as wet inside them as I would be outside, so I took mine off and just let myself get soaked.  I was warm enough until late in the day when I put back on the raincoat for warmth.  I made the mistake of sitting on a rock for a while, and when we got back I found I had two leech bites, which took a long time to stop bleeding. Leeches can crawl on you and attach themselves without you ever feeling a thing. Once full, they just drop off, leaving a bleeding would that will continue to bleed for quite a long time as they saturate the wound area with an anti-coagulant. However, they don’t carry any disease, which is quite remarkable since their main attraction is blood.

While we saw a number of new birds, we didn’t find the one that should have been there, the Wynaad Laughingthrush.  It usually comes to the brush by the stream in late afternoon to drink, but with all the rain, it probably didn’t need to.  As we were walking back, we could hear the “brainfever bird”, otherwise known as Common Hawk Cuckoo.  It’s common name comes from its call which sounds like the words “brain-fever”, repeated a number of times, each time getting slightly higher and louder, as if it is going slowly mad.

I am looking forward to a hot meal and then a solid night’s sleep tonight.

Life birds today: White-bellied Blue-Flycatcher, Malabar Whistling-Thrush, Malabar Woodshrike, Booted Warbler, Nilgiri Flowerpecker, Indian Scimitar-Babbler, and Rufous Babbler.

Slideshow for Monday, Feb. 18

Tuesday, Feb. 19 – To Munnar through Tamil Nadu
Breakfast on the road today.  Shortly after leaving the hotel, we entered Tamil Nadu, a separate Indian state to the east of Kerala.  It seems poorer than Kerala, but not so poor as the rural areas in northern India.  Very agricultural but dry.  They get water from Kerala, and in return ship vegetables back.

Then we started climbing the side of the mountains that make up the Western Ghats, a range of mountains that parallel the west coast of India and that form the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu.  The road side-winded up and up and up.  Great views, and we stopped from time to time to look at birds, and found life birds at every stop.  As we crossed the watershed we entered back into Kerala.  Shortly after, we drove through a tea plantation area – with tea bushes planted right to the top of the slopes from the bottom of the valley.  There are narrow corridors in between the tea bushes to allow the tea leaves to be picked every 15 days.  Only the new leaves are picked and then only the three smallest at the end. It’s a wonder that tea doesn’t cost more, but it’s subsidized by the very poor wages paid to the pickers. It’s back breaking work, and is mostly done by women.  There were miles of plantations and we likely will see more.  Scattered among the tea are tangerine trees and the fruit is ripening now.

Our lodge, Olive Brook, is set on a hillside among extensive gardens.  A very comfortable room with a king bed.  Lunch was served on our patio – 3 kinds of curry, rice and fresh hot chapatis.  Read a bit overlooking the garden, while Eric went for a walk.  The hill is very steep so I bowed out.  Around 4 pm we drove to the end of a road, to the “highest resort in Kerala” (8000+ ft), an then slowly walked up an old road.  Life birds kept popping up, for a total of 8 for the day.  It got quite misty by the time we started down, but I took a picture of an old tree house – it was at one time lived in by a wealthy man, but is falling apart now.

Life birds today: Yellow-throated Bulbul, Nilgiri Pipit, Gray-breasted Laughingthrush, Tytler’s Leaf-Warbler, Nilgiri Wood-Pigeon, Nilgiri Blue-Flycatcher, Black-and-Orange Flycatcher, and White-cheeked Barbet (which we have seen and heard everywhere every day, but which Eric just discovered is a life bird).

Slideshow for Tuesday, Feb. 19

Wednesday, Feb. 20 – Olive Brook Lodge, Munnar
There’s a 48-hour general strike on today and tomorrow so in order to drive anywhere we have a sign saying “Airport Urgent”.  Other people will use “wedding” or “hospital”.  Driving through Munnar, it looked deserted – all shops shuttered and very few people – except for one lone 3-wheeled taxi, we are the only moving vehicle.

Drove again through another tea plantation – tea is beautiful in the sunshine – the top leaves are pale green with darker leaves on the rest of the bush.  At a distance, the clumps of bushes between the walking paths look like soft green pillows – but I wouldn’t want to lie on them!

We started scanning woodland bushes once we got high enough, and scanning, and scanning, trying different spots until finally (I don’t know how) Sathyan heard the bird we were looking for and we watched until it popped out right in front of us – a gorgeous view of a very rare bird – White-bellied Shortwing (or White-bellied Blue-Robin).  Nothing much else of note this morning – I think the birds are on general strike as well – so back to the lodge to read and eat lunch.

Lots of people walking the roads (no cars are supposed to be out), and we were stopped in Munnar by an upset agitator who told us we should have arranged to go to the airport yesterday.  However, he got distracted by someone else driving by, so we just drove on.

Eric was restless after lunch and he had finished all the books he brought to read, so he walked to the place we were headed for this afternoon – not a terribly long way, but up a steep (use 1st gear) road.  We met him about 3:15.  He hadn’t found anything new, but saw some raptors up high.  We had great looks at a Black-and-Orange Flycatcher, then got to an open space and watched for raptors.  They were mostly flying high, so some remained unidentified, but we got Booted and Black Eagles.

We all had to walk back to the lodge as there had been no place to park the car.  With the 2-day general strike, a lot of people have taken the opportunity to have a holiday, and the “highest resort in Kerala” is full, with a concomitant number of cars in the small parking area.

Life birds today: only White-bellied Shortwing.

Slideshow for Wednesday, Feb. 20

Thursday, Feb. 21 – To Ooty in Tamil Nadu
Up early as it’s a 9-hour drive to our next hotel, not counting stops for birds.  Not much new this morning, except a nice look at 2 Grizzled Giant Squirrels, an endangered mammal.

Had a late lunch at a restaurant en route and then went straight to the forest to track down 2 more life birds.  The first place we went to was chock full of people, cars and pedlars, selling everything from knit tuques to spices and hot nuts.  In all this noise and confusion, we found the Nilgiri Laughingthrush almost right away, hopping in the underbrush only a few feet from the crowd.

Next was the search for the rarest bird, the Nilgiri Shortwing.  It’s a skulker, likes to hide itself in dense brush.  We tried quite a few places with no luck, so Sathyan said he’d take us to his “secret” place.  We walked up an unpaved road that was closed to cars and then down a gully into the deep woods.  And there it was!  Really good looks at it too.

So finally, to our hotel, a huge place but cold (we’re in the mountains and there’s no central heating).  Our room is really a suite – 2 huge rooms, one the bedroom with a king bed on a raised platform so high that I have to use a chair to get into the bed, the other a living room – both have big TV’s.  A big bathroom and an enclosed terrace/sunroom almost as big as the other two rooms.  Also a second bathroom.  I think it is probably as big as our apartment in Doha, if not bigger.

Life birds today: Nilgiri Laughingthrush, Nilgiri Shortwing.

Slideshow for Thursday, Feb. 21

Friday, Feb. 22 – To Kochi – Our last full day
Off at 7am (late start!) to see if we can find some quail, but with no luck.  However, in the search we turned up a number of birds new for the trip, and one life bird.  It was lovely out in the country this morning – absolutely blue sky, kids carrying pails of milk home for breakfast, 2 Hindu temples – small ones close by – and brightly painted houses mounting the side of the hill amongst terraces for crops.

We looked for Malabar Lark – well, Eric looked and found it finally, but I elected to just sit on a rock and enjoy the sunshine and scenery.

We were signing Sathyan’s “guest book” (just like you find in B&B’s), and leafed through it to read what other people said, when we came across a friend’s name from Calgary – Peter Roxborough – small world.

Then the long drive to Kochi.  We dropped Sathyan off part way after lunch, as he was taking a bus back home.  Deebu drove us the rest of the way, much of it through rush hour traffic which seems to last for a lot longer than an hour.

Our hotel tonight is charming – the Fort House – a relatively new place but built as if it were a traditional Kerala inn – very similar in layout to a motel but with much more charm.  Two rows of 2-storey units facing each other across an enclosure overhung by trees, with an open air dining area that extends out over the lake/harbour.  We had a delicious outdoor dinner in the dark by the water – giant prawns, parathas and deserts, with sodas, all for about $15 each – and that was the most expensive meal on the menu!

Life bird today: Syke’s Warbler.

Slideshow for Friday, Feb. 22

Overview of Tanzania wildlife (from Wikipedia):

Tanzania contains some 20 percent of the species of Africa’s large mammal population, found across its 14 national parks, reserves, conservation areas and marine parks, spread over an area of more than 42,000 square kilometres and forming more than one-third of the country’s territory. Wildlife resources of Tanzania are described as “without parallel in Africa” and “the prime game viewing country”. Serengeti National Park, the largest declared park area of 14,763 square kilometres, is located in northern Tanzania and is famous for its extensive migratory herds of wildebeests and zebra while also having the reputation as one of the great natural wonders of the world. Ngorongoro Conservation Area, established in 1959 with an area of 8,094.4 square kilometres, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is inhabited by the Masai. Its Ngorongoro Crater is known as the “largest intact caldera in the world”.

Dec. 14 – to Arusha National Park

Blooming tree at Airport

Blooming tree at Kilimanjaro International Airport

Landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport, Tanzania, and managed to sleep for much of the 7-hr flight.  The plane left Doha at 2:30-3am and stopped in Dar Es Salaam.  It was a short hop to Kilimanjaro and somewhat turbulent, so they didn’t serve coffee.

Cuz Maureen - always joking!

Cuz Maureen – always joking!

Met by Anthony Raphael, our guide, and Gaetan, our driver, with a very spacious Land Cruiser, and we were off! We ( comprising of Eric & I and my cousin, Maureen) were off; Eric & I are rather hard core birders, and Maureen is focusing on her first trip to Africa and wants to see big game. I don’t think there will be a problem as we do as well, plus Maureen has been birding with us in Doha. We all get along really well; Maureen is always so enthusiastic about things — she really got into the spirit of planning the trip, got maps, looked up all the lodges, tried to memorize the bird book….

The countryside we first see is dry but prosperous; houses small but substantial – brick and concrete.  Lots of donkeys and goats.  The predominant crop is corn, with recently harvested fields and new crops about a foot high.  A few coffee plantations, including one shade-grown.  But no time for sight-seeing and social observations.  It’s bird time!

Zebras

Zebras

We start off with a field full of White and Marabou Storks with Zebra and Giraffes.  Then we got to a wet spot with Sacred Ibis, Black Crake and Taveta Golden-Weaver. After that they just kept on coming…

Lake around Arusha National Park

Maureen, Eric & Anthony scanning the lake in Arusha National Park

Arusha National Park is between the airport and our lodge, and that’s where we spent the afternoon, with a packed lunch, in the rain,  part-way through.  Meru Mountain dominates the park, with its mist-shrouded slopes looming in the background.  It’s the second highest mountain in Tanzania, only bested by Kilimanjaro at 19,340 ft.

Taveta Golden Weaver

Taveta Golden Weaver

We saw at least 40 new birds for the trip, plus a number of animals — baboons, monkeys, dikdik, bushbuck, buffalo, etc.  Birds of note were 2 life birds: Taveta Golden-Weaver and Golden-winged Sunbird.

Golden-winged Sunbird

Golden-winged Sunbird

Started to doze in the van on our way to the lodge — Korona House in Arusha — built-up lack of sleep and no coffee this morning.

Our lodge is a converted private house with a nice patio at the back and a separate building for dining.  Two very nice fellows make sure we are comfortable and Joseph brought me a (much needed) giant-size Bodum full of coffee.

Korona House

Korona House

There were two American birders staying as well and we all shared a table at dinner — very interesting to hear about their birding travels, especially when we’ve been to the same areas.  We are all exhausted and drifted off to bed soon after supper.

Dec. 15 – to Tarangire Safari Lodge

Variable Sunbird

Variable Sunbird

Off after breakfast but not before watching a brilliant Variable Sunbird have a bath in water cupped in leaves , and then preen in the sunshine.

Stopped at a craft store – really nice handicraft.  Maureen bought a large crouching hippo – very light, made of leather and quite beautiful.  I got a painting of exotic birds – what else? We crossed through a wide grassland area with Masai villages.  Unfortunately, it’s also a military raining area, so no pictures.  The “houses” are circular, made of sticks and wattle and straw, with a conical roof.  Everything is very tidy.  There is also a thorn bush (Acacia) corral to keep the livestock in at night.  Sometimes the whole village (8-10 bomas) will be surrounded by the hedge.  Some of the men are in the traditional red blanket, a wonderful contrast with the green acacia and the pale yellow of the dry grasses.

Young men waiting for the ritual

Young men waiting for the ritua

A number of times we pass by small (6-7) groups of young men who are participating in a circumcision ritual, dressed all in black blankets, their bodies, including their faces covered with a layer of black (mud?).  Those who are partway through the ritual have their faces painted with white patterns – very striking.  The whole thing takes 2-3 months.  It used to include going into the country, and when they rejoined their community, they had to bring back the head of a lion – but there are no more lions here.

Young children (boys?) mind large herds of goats and/or cattle – the area is seriously overgrazed.  Women walk to market with huge bundles on their heads, or on their way home with pails of water balanced the same way.

Our safari tent at Tarangire LOdge

Our safari tent at Tarangire Lodge

The lodge is in Tarangire National Park and truly lovely, with a most magnificent view over the plain.  Herds of elephants move across in front of the lodge.  There’s a swimming pool too, and we are in safari tents – big bed (6′ 8″ long) and a huge bathroom.  Electricity is on from 6 to 11 at night but we can charge our electronics at the bar.

Yellow Collared Lovebirds

Yellow Collared Lovebirds

We had a very nice lunch and then off into the park for the afternoon.  Maureen decided to take the afternoon off to enjoy Africa (and the pool).  Great birding, as usual, with elephants quite close as well as giraffes and warthogs.  Special birds were : Mottled Spinetail, Straw-tailed Whydah, Ashy Starling, Yellow-collared Lovebird.

Got bitten in several places by Tsetse flies – feels like a black fly bite but no itching after.  Anthony said that only 1 in 10 carries sleeping sickness, and that you have to have been bitten to the equivalent of a bucket of tsetse saliva before you are in any danger.  Eric, however, said ominously “you’re going to die”.

Joseph serving snacks & drinks

Charles serving snacks & drinks

Before supper, drinks and snacks were free on the terrace and I talked at length with Charles who was serving.  He is a Masai and had gone through the circumcision ritual and told me a lot of details about what happens.

Another great meal, but I”m trying to keep roughly to my diet, so no rhubarb pie for dessert, then a shower and bed.  Eric woke me up twice to hear the lion roaring fairly close.

Dec. 16 – to Ngorongoro

Kirk's Dikdik (not much bigger than a big rabbit)

Kirk’s Dikdik (not much bigger than a big rabbit)

Up really early in order to see the sun rise over the plain.  Close look at a male Van der Decken’s Hornbill, a Kirk’s Dikdik munching grass around the terrace, and a herd of mongoose (mostly Dwarf) stampeding across the path.  Also a very close look at a Northern White-crowned Shrike.  Small panic when I couldn’t find my cap and good sunglasses, but just before we left Eric found them in his backpack.  I had a spare but was glad to have my good ones back.

The Baaobob trees here are again different from ones we have seen before – extremely thick trunks, fairly evenly thick to the crown, and heavily scored by elephants.  The crowns are fully leafed out, and the one by our tent last night had some white blossoms being thrown down by a monkey.

Lunch at Gibbs Farm on the terrace

Lunch at Gibbs Farm on the terrace

Off in the park for a few hours after breakfast – best sight an Aardwolf!  Then off to Gibbs’ Farm for lunch – a garden spot on the verdant edge of Ngorongoro Crater.  Big area filled with flowers, and they grow all their own produce.  The area approaching here is a lush agricultural valley where the food is grown for most of the lodges around the crater.

Lunch was outside in a garden with Paradise Flycatcher and various sunbirds.  Lots of variety for lunch, and the best were the salads – carrots, tomatoes and beets (separately) in a light and aromatic dressing with fresh basil.  After lunch we birded the gardens – both flower and vegetable, plus herbs – sage, savory, rosemary, basil – all smelling lovely.

Gibbs’ Farm has been in business for many years, and recently sold their hotel.  The people who bought it tripled the price of the rooms, but the farm is still owned by the Gibbs, and is open for birders and lunchers.  Anthony said the cottages rent for $1000 (US) per night.

Off then to the rim of Ngorongoro Crater.  The soil here is very red.

Ngorogoro Crater - wide angle

Ngorogoro Crater – wide angle

What a spectacular view!  We are looking over the rim down into the huge crater of maybe 10 miles across.  The plain is lush green grass covered with animals – buffalo, wildebest, zebras, and ones you can’t identify because they are so far away.  You can see all around to the far rim of the long dead volcano.  There’s a large lake in the middle which looks as if it has flamingos.

Our lodge overlooking Ngorongoro Crater

Our lodge overlooking Ngorongoro Crater

Our lodge is at the eastern end of the crater, perched on high looking down into the crater.  Fantastic location and beautiful inside.  Our room has a balcony that also faces the crater, and has 2 big beds.

Life birds today: White-tailed Blue-Flycatcher and Rufous-tailed Weaver, but we also had wonderful views of Klaas’ Cuckoo (juvenile and adult), and one of my favourite birds, the Red and Yellow Barbet, which looks as if it were designed by a committee that couldn’t make its mind up as to what they wanted, so put in everything.

Quite a lot of people here, unlike most places we’ve been to so far; the dining room was crowded.  Food quite good, but I was full by the time I finished the absolutely delicious spicy carrot and sweet potato soup.  Eric had 2 bowls.

Dec. 17 – In Ngorongoro Crater

Nice lion!

Nice lion!

After breakfast, we went down into the crater for the day.  We birded slowly down into the crater, looking for birds that are at higher elevation, then into the vast crater itself.  There are a fair number of vehicles, but quite widely separated so you don’t feel crowded.  We first encountered some of the huge herds of buffalo mixed with zebra and the occasional wildebeest (or gnu).  After that the species came fast: spotted hyena, lion, various antelopes, bat-eared fox with kits, black rhinoceros, hippopotamus, elephant, and warthogs; then many different birds: Hartlaub’s, Black-bellied and Kori Bustards, Gray-crowned Cranes, and vast numbers of Lesser Flamingos to pick out a few.  We had some very heavy rain, but it didn’t last long.

Abdim's Stork

Abdim’s Stork

We ate lunch by water with hippos, where we met up with the two Americans (Richard and Brad) that were at our first hotel.  We continued to drive the plain, picking up a few more species, including 2 more life birds, Yellow-throated Sandgrouse and Abdim’s Stork (about 250 at least, which may have come down with the rain).  Other lifers for the day were Icterine Warbler and Hartlaub’s Bustard.  A long day but very impressive with the great numbers of animals and the wide variety of species.  We saw quite a lot of lions, but almost all were sleeping, likely because hunting was good last night.  There were a number of carcasses being picked over by vultures, hyenas and jackals.

Shortly before dinner, there was a display of Masai dancing – about 10 men in robes and jewellery who mainly chanted more or less together while shuffling, and occasionally one would step in front of the group and jump as high as he could.  They all looked bored.  Considering how expensive this lodge must be, the food has not been impressive – okay but not outstanding.  However, as Eric says, we don’t go on birding trips for the food.

Dec. 18 – to the Serengeti

Tree Hyrax

Tree Hyrax

Early morning birding with Anthony found us a Schalow’s Turaco, Brown-headed Apalis and Tacazze Sunbird, as well as a Tree Hyrax who scampered up the path and then stood and stared at us for a long time.

Masai Village

Masai Village

After breakfast we packed up and drove to a beautiful area of Masai villages.  The herds of cattle and goats were being moved to pasture up the hillside and the small herders ran up to the road to wave and yell “Jambo” (welcome!)  The older boys and men stand among their herds looking down at us from the hillside, dressed in red blankets and leaning on their long staffs.  It was a lovely pastoral scene with the early morning sun warming the land.  We were looking for, and found, Jackson’s Long-tailed Widowbird and Alpine Chat, but I was more interested in the scenery.

Olduvai Gorge

Olduvai Gorge

We took a side trip to Olduvai Gorge to see were we all came from (and to have lunch).  2 million years ago (give or take a few years), Ngorongoro volcano blew up and covered the area with layers of ash, preserving the bones of several early women.  (Not the oldest on earth – the earliest hominid was found in the Ethiopian part of the rift valley – “Lucy”.)  Subsequent floods and rivers eroded the gorge, exposing some of the remains.  Excavations have found a number of successive types of hominids up to us – Homo sapiens sapiens.  It remains to be seen if we are as wise as we named ourselves.  The gorge and surrounding area is dry and barren, but it was lush when early woman (and presumably early man) was here.

Many, many Wildebeest -- like ants (with vulture in front)

Many, many Wildebeest — like ants (with vulture in front)

Arriving at the gateway to the Serengeti National Park, there is an incredibly vast herd of wildebeest covering the plain (but a long way away).  They migrate here for the winter, and go north to the Masai Mara in Kenya around June to escape the dry season on the Serengeti.  As we drove through the park we came across a long line of them, moving toward the herd we had just seen.  There are about 2.5 million wildebeest in total in the Serengeti ecosystem.  The zebras migrate ahead of the wildebeest because they like the longer grass.

Every day we get beautiful African skies!

Every day we get beautiful African skies!

We are staying for three nights at Seronera Wildlife Lodge in the centre of the Serengeti, an older lodge which looks as if it is undergoing some upgrades – the gift shop and an internet room are empty except for boxes of computers and souvenirs.

It was a long drive on dusty roads from Ngorongoro to Serengeti, but some spectacular scenery and animals on the way.  Life birds today: Gray-breasted Spurfowl, Black Bishop, Brown-headed Apalis, Alpine Chat.

Dec. 19 – Serengeti  
I brought along a jar of good coffee, as on many of the trips we take, the only coffee is a powdery Nescafe that tastes horrible.  However, the coffee so far has been fresh brewed and strong – a good waker-up.

Swimming pool

Swimming pool

The lodge is built around a huge kopje – a series of huge round rocks – and the dining room and bar are set right in the kopje with the bare rock forming some of the walls – quite spectacular.  there is a swimming pool formed by a natural pond in the rock.  There are numerous Bush Hyraxes and Rock Hyraxes living in the kopje and scampering around the grass, trees and walkways.  The management has recently changed and they are making a lot of improvements and updatings, including an internet cafe, exercise room, massage parlour and boutique.  However, where they need to improve is the food – much like cafeteria food with about as much interest.  but the soups are wonderful, as they have been so far everywhere we have been.

Nubian Woodpacker

Nubian Woodpacker

We spent the day cruising around the savannah, and found quite a few lions, and one leopard sleeping in a tree under its kill, which it had dragged up the tree to keep it away from lions and hyenas.  In one place, a pride of lions were looking on while hyenas and vultures finished off their kill.

We are still finding new birds for the trip, but not as quickly.  Nevertheless, it’s great to get reacquainted with some spectacular birds, such as Fischer’s Lovebirds and Nubian Woodpecker.  Life birds today – only Red-throated Tit.

Dec. 20 – Serengeti

Leopard - close-up

Cheetah – close-up

Off today especially looking for cats – and any other big game.  Within a short time we found a number of Topi (a beautiful antelope), including several young in the trees, followed by more adults out in the open, with one standing on a termite mound, keeping watch.  Then we came across 4 lions doing what lions do best – sleeping.  We next found a small group of wildebeest walking single file along a ridge.  Then came the topper – 2 male cheetahs very close to the road, resting in the shade of an acacia, but alert.  We watched them for a long time until they finally got up, stretched, and set off to hunt.  What beautiful animals!

We stopped at the interpretation centre and walked a trail up a kopje – very nice spot – so we decided we would like to come back on our own after lunch and spend a couple of hours.  We went back to the lodge and ate early, then Gaetan (our driver) took us back.  It was great, having the time to bird and walk leisurely, and we found a life bird all by ourselves – African Penduline-Tit.  Unfortunately Eric took a fall on the rock steps and badly scraped his arm and cut his leg.  We washed it as best we could but will have to wait till we get back yo the lodge to treat it properly.

Anthony and Gaetan picked us up at 4 to complete the day.  We found a few new birds for the trip, but the special sighting was a very large group of elephants close to the vehicle, near a waterhole.  Several young males were practicing fighting until a big male slowly started toward them.  They stopped sparring and slowly backed away, watching him closely all the while.  The females had a number of young and they were busy drinking and feeding on the fresh green grasses.

Dec. 21 – to Speke Bay

Black Chested Snake Eagle

Black Chested Snake Eagle

A long drive today from the Serengeti to Lake Victoria with lots of stops for wildlife and birds.

More gorgeous African skies

More gorgeous African skies

There were a number of new raptors – Black-chested Snake-Eagle, Lizard Buzzard, Dark Chanting-Goshawk, and Little Sparrowhawk – plus a lot of grassland and acacia brush birds, like weavers and queleas.  At a distance were a number of Southern Ground-Hornbills – huge black birds with big bills and spectacular red on the face.  On reaching the highway near the lake we passed through a Tanzanian checkpoint where they were looking for smugglers bringing in items from nearby Kenya.

Our cottage at Speke Bay

Our cottage at Speke Bay

The lodge at Speke Bay is lovely, right on Lake Victoria, and our units are round cottages with thatched roofs and a veranda about 15 feet from the beach!  There is a lovely and fairly brisk cool wind blowing off the lake, which was very welcome after the hot dry drive.  There are birds everywhere.  You can’t swim in the lake because of schistosomiasis (and crocodiles and hippos).  Our needs are taken care of by the most charming young woman, Jacqueline, one of the warmest and most obliging people we have met at any lodge.  Supper was delicious, and a shower and bed even better.

Jacqueline

Jacqueline

Dec. 22 – Speke Bay – Craig’s birthday
We were served breakfast on our porch this morning, and no wind to speak of – Lake Victoria was almost flat.  Best coffee of the trip!

Birding the lodge grounds this morning.  Their property is quite extensive and has a number of different habitats in a small area, so the variety of birds was excellent.  Later we sat with Anthony and talked about a lot of things, including African politics – very interesting.

After lunch we went out looking for nightjars, and found 3 within a few minutes, sleeping in the grass under trees right near the lodge – Square-tailed and Slender-tailed Nightjars – then we flushed two species of quail – Common and Harlequin.  Shortly thereafter it started to sprinkle so we called it a day.

Maureen and I had a drink on the porch and gabbed about family, making up for the many years we never saw each other, then we joined Anthony and Gaetan for supper.  We had not eaten together before, except for the first day’s breakfast, as guides usually have separate quarters and eating facilities.  A lot of general talk, exchanging info about Qatari and Tanzanian customs and life.

Cleaned up on life birds today: Cardinal Quelea, Red-headed Quelea, Zebra Waxbill, Blue-headed Coucal, Slender-tailed Nightjar, Harlequin Quail.

Dec. 23 – to Uganda

Where we sat & had drinks at Speke Bay

Where we sat & had drinks at Speke Bay

Very leisurely morning – breakfast on the terrace, then just watching all the little birds close by, and gazing over Lake Victoria at the waves of terns flying by mixed with groups of African Skimmers.  We had lunch with Anthony and Gaetan when we took the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to Gaetan, who will be returning with the van to Arusha after he drops us at the airport.  He has been unfailingly cheerful and a very competent driver during the trip, as well as being a second bird guide and spotter.

After lunch, Eric paid the bar bill, left a tip in the tipbox, and we are off to the airport.  The original plan was to fly directly to Entebbe (a 1-hr flight), but that flight was cancelled, and now we have to fly through Nairobi to Entebbe, which means we don’t get to our final destination until midnight.

We are now in Mwanza airport and standing in line.  Now this is NOT Toronto International Airport – this is a tiny, tiny, tiny local airport where the check-in line goes from the baggage scanner to the outside – a total of 25-30 feet.  There are a few benches on either side of the line, and we just found out that our plane has been re-routed to another destination on Lake Victoria, and we have to wait until it gets back.  We have now snagged 3 spaces on one of the benches.  We can’t actually check in until our plane is about to leave, because there is no waiting room on the other side.

Dec. 24 – SHOEBILL!

The dock at Shoebill Swamp

The dock at Shoebill Swamp

Had a very sleepy 5:30am breakfast after a short night’s sleep, then off to the swamp.  We got into a dugout canoe with our local guide, Ishmael, and his boatman/helper, Samuel, and were off through a narrow waterway bordered by high reeds, papyrus and waterlilies.  At first we motored, and as the way got narrower and shallower, paddled, scanning carefully until in the distance, got a glimpse of the head of a Shoebill over the reeds!  Ishmael and Samuel then proceeded to edge us closer, at times even sliding into the waist-deep water to pull and push the heavy wooden boat through the marsh.  We got close enough, finally, to see the whole body of this strange, prehistoric-looking bird.  It stood very quietly, then lunged for a fish, then stood impassively again.  It finally flew to a nearby spot where it was in even better view.

Shoebill!!!!!!!

Shoebill!!!!!!!

The fee to see the Shoebill goes to the local community and part to the government.  The only recompense the guide and helper get is any tips given.  Ishmael is the official guide and organizer; the role of assistant is rotated among the local boatmen.

Anthony at the Masindi Hotel

Anthony at the Masindi Hotel

The rest of the day was spent driving to Masindi, half dozing the whole time.  The Masindi Hotel is an old (1923) hotel, full of wood carved posts and decorations with a “Hemingway bar”.  It was built by the Kenya/Tanganyika/Uganda Railway as a waystation on the way to a port on Lake Albert, but is now also used by tourists going into the forests to look for chimpanzees and/or birds, as well as visiting Murchison Falls.  It is beautifully decorated with carvings depicting the history and wildlife of Uganda in mahogany friezes above the reception and on door and wall posts.  It is slightly the worse for wear, the beds are iron cots with thin mattresses, and the food is standard with everything coming with cold french fries.  But it is reasonable considering  how poor everyone is here.  It’s Christmas Eve and there are lots of celebrations going on.

Dec. 25 – Christmas Day

With Vincent in the Budongo Forest -- "The Royal Mile"

With Vincent in the Budongo Forest — “The Royal Mile”

We go into the forest and immediately start getting life birds – 23 for me by 1pm.  Our local guide is Vincent, who has been a warden, birding and caring for these woods (Budongo Forest) for 20 years.  Huge mahogany trees – all the forest is primary so the birds are way up high.  We walk the “Royal Mile” – a trail used by the king of Buganda to a site in the forest where rituals were held.

Great Blue Turacot

Great Blue Turacot

We could hear a large family of chimpanzees in the background, and then suddenly spotted 2 chimps close by – the one we could see best was spotted by Maureen.  These two large chimps would be “wild” ones, that is not part of the local family which has become accustomed to human presence.  It took all morning to walk the mile, there were so many birds to see and the majority were lifers.  Lots of other monkeys too – red-tailed, blue and colobus, as well as olive baboons.

On our way back to the hotel for lunch, we passed all sorts of people dressed in their Sunday best for Christmas.  Dinner will be a big meat stew, and for many people it’s the only time in the year when they will eat meat.  Yesterday, as we passed little villages, we could see huge carcasses hanging and butchers hacking off chunks.

Not our hotel bar!

Not our hotel bar!

The people here are so poor (over one-third live on less than $1.25 a day).  Housing outside the cities is primarily mud or thatched shacks, with some concrete boxes, with red mud everywhere.  Cooking is done outside and water has to be brought (on the women’s heads) in large yellow jerry cans.  No electricity, of course.  Local transportation is by foot, ancient bicycles, and motorbikes (which are used as taxis).  Longer distances require small vans, often Toyota, which seat 10 or 12, but seem to accommodate more, plus baskets of food, chickens, and the occasional goat.  Hardly any private cars.

A number of shops display hand-made furniture, primarily beds, in front, plus coffins painted purple or black with white crosses on the top and sides.  HIV/AIDS used to be rife in Uganda (30% in the 1980’s) but has fallen to 6.4% by 2008 – the most effective response of any African country.  One sadly unamusing fact is that there was a spike upwards following Bush’s inauguration of “abstinence only” AIDS prevention program, but that has been somewhat corrected.

Our covey of curious children

Our covey of curious children

We went out late in the afternoon to bird a narrow country road where we found 4 more life birds.  For a while we were followed by a group of curious children who giggled with excitement when I showed them their pictures.

Too many life birds to list them all (28), but some of the outstanding were : Chocolate-backed Kingfisher, Chestnut-capped Flycatcher, Lemon-bellied Crombec, Dusky Tit, Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo, Cameroon Sombre Greenbul.  The chimps were also lifers.  In the afternoon we saw a brilliant scarlet Double-toothed Barbet, not a life bird but a stunning one nevertheless.

Dec. 26 – Boxing Day – to the top of Murchison Falls

Ankole‑Watusi cattle with huge horns

Ankole‑Watusi cattle with huge horns

Driving today to the escarpment overlooking the western branch of the Rift Valley, which is very wide at this point.  From the escarpment we can see the Congo at a great distance through much haze.  We walk along the road for a while, checking out the bushes and trees for birds, and find Black-billed Barbet, Cliff Chat, Palm Nut Vulture, Black-bellied Firefinch and Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting, among others.

Continuing on, the country is much drier, and there are cotton fields quite ripe with white balls.  There are also herds of the huge horded Ankole‑Watusi cattle being moved from one pasture to another.  They make Texas longhorn cattle look like pikers.

Sambiya River LOdge - our cottage

Sambiya River Lodge – our cottage

Maureen at the top of Murchison Falls

Maureen at the top of Murchison Falls

We stop from time to time along the road, and have a picnic lunch at a bridge, then continue to our lodge – Sambiya River Lodge.  After checking in and ordering supper, we set out to see the top of Murchison Falls – a huge cascade of water (the White Nile) being funneled through a deep narrow gorge that the river has cut through the rift valley escarpment.  The special bird here is the Rock Pratincole, of which there were 7 or 8 on the rocks.  Lots of people wandering along the edge or just sitting and watching the water pour through and boil up with rainbows in the mist.

We waited until 7pm in hopes of seeing a Bat Hawk, but no such luck.  However we did see several Pennant-winged Nightjars in the headlights on our way back to the lodge.

Ten life birds today, of which a few have already been mentioned.  Red-throated Bee-eater and Black-billed Barbet were the most spectacular.

Dec. 27 – to the bottom of Murchison Falls

View of Murchison Falls from the river at the bottom

View of Murchison Falls from the river at the bottom

Breakfast was incredibly slow this morning, even though we had pre-ordered last night.  After sitting for a long time, Eric was brought a plate with only his scrambled eggs.  It took another 5 minutes before I was brought 2 eggs, hard-boiled.  Since I had asked for 1 soft-boiled, they were taken back to the kitchen.  I got up and asked for coffee – it came quite a bit later.  Then finally I was brought 2 more eggs – they were hard-boiled, but by that time I didn’t care.  Eric’s sausages came about this time but still no toast.  We had to ask for it.  It finally came shortly before we needed to leave, but no butter.  It was something like a Marx Brothers comedy without the slapstick.  Plus there were three waiters and we were one of only two tables eating.

Finally in the van, we hot-tailed it in order to get on the small (8 cars?) ferry across the White Nile.  However, there were lots of birds on the way, including a number of life birds so we got to the ferry just in time – we were the last car on, but mainly because later cars formed a second line who were let on equally with the earlier cars.

Once across, we explored the gently rolling grassland, filled with antelope of all kinds – thousands of antelope plus a lot of buffalo.  Lots of birds too.

Paraa Safari Lodge - very posh

Paraa Safari Lodge – very posh

Lovely lunch at Paraa Safari Lodge

Lovely lunch at Paraa Safari Lodge

Then at 12:30 we checked into our lodge (Paraa Safari Lodge) – very posh with a swim-up bar – had lunch and were off on a boat ride up the White Nile to see the bottom of Murchison Falls.  Along the river were crocodiles, lots of hippos, some elephants, African Skimmers in a huge group, and Fish Eagles every quarter-kilometre.  There were also lots of Red-throated Bee-eaters, as they have a mass nesting site in a vertical bank – they make holes in the sand bank just like our Bank Swallows.  The falls are better from the top, by the way, because we couldn’t get near enough to hear the roar as the water tumbles into the Nile.

Maureen and I had a swim when we got back – the first time I’ve had my bathing suit on this trip – then had a drink by the pool watching the sun set.  Supper and then bed.

Dec. 28 – to Entebbe

Abysinnian Ground Hornbill

Abysinnian Ground Hornbill

Early morning drive into the park – our last chance before the long day’s drive to Entebbe.  We passed 400 men and women jogging on the road, singing rude things about us as we passed, in beautiful deep voices, like Ladysmith Black Mombasa.  They are wildlife and park rangers in training.  In Murchison Falls National Park, there are mixed rangers and military, as it borders on the Congo.

Jackson's Hartebeest

Jackson’s Hartebeest

Overcast today so no spectacular African sunrise, but lovely and quiet.  Not much moving, but we had a hyena very close to the car, and 2 life birds – Heuglin’s Francolin and Black-headed Batis.

Packed up and prepared for the long haul to Entebbe.  Dirt roads, as usual, for part of the way, but then on paved roads.  We ate lunch in Masindi at a small hotel/restaurant.  We had a table outside under an umbrella, and Maureen and I investigated the little gift shop of local women’s crafts.  I bought a set of ebony coasters – rather nice carvings on them – and light, very hard wood.

In Entebbe we stayed at the Boma Hotel where we spent 4 hours sleep the night we arrived in Uganda.  This time we could better appreciate its old world charm.  Had a very good dinner then off to bed on the first really comfortable king-sized bed on the trip.  Life birds today were the francolin and batis mentioned above, and Splendid Starling as we pulled into the Boma parking lot.

Dec. 29 – to Doha
Had an early morning stroll through the Botanical Gardens, but it started to rain so we cut it short.  We need to be at the airport early because Qatar Airways might change our flight time again.  Said good-bye to Anthony at the airport, then spent some time checking out the crafts in the duty free, but no sale for me.  Then on the plane back to Doha.

Where's Maureen? Our intrepid cousin trying to choose where to go next.

Where’s Maureen? Our intrepid cousin wondering why we’re going back to Doha

It seems as if we have been away for a lot longer than 16 days.  Eric counted the birds seen at 438 – pretty good – and at a rough count 72 life birds for me – about 17%.

We were very impressed and pleased with the job that Birding & Beyond Safaris did for us.  Our guide, Anthony Raphael, was top-notch, Gaetan was a great driver, and the accommodation was great most places, and as good as possible at one or two out of the way places.  They are a small company out of Arusha, Tanzania, (http://www.tanzaniabirding.com/) and they do big game safaris as well as bird tours.  We highly recommend them.

We covered a lot of beautiful country, and saw some new animals, chimps being the most memorable.  Plus all those birds.  And being able to spend so much time with Maureen was a bonus.  Although we have known each other all our lives, most of that time we have lived on different continents or far apart in Canada.

A MAY WEEKEND IN ISTANBUL, TURKEY

In May, we went for a long weekend to Istanbul in Turkey.  We stayed on the edge of historic Istanbul and explored the many magnificent historic buildings, after spending the first day birding.  There is no written blog, as Brooke’s pen was again stilled, but  her pictures are organized in daily slideshows.

We spent the first day with two Birding Pals (a loose organized collection of birders that will take you birding) in the country looking for birds and the rest of the time sightseeing in Istanbul. Life birds: Pygmy Cormorant, Levantine Shearwater.

Slideshow, May 17, 2013 – birding along the Bosphorus

Slideshow, May 18 – historic Istanbul – Hagia Sophia, Museum of Archaeology, Mosaic Museum

Slideshow, May 19 – historic Istanbul – Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace

Slideshow, May 20 – historic Istanbul – Suleymaniye Mosque, Chora Church

WITH THE FAMILY IN PROVENCE

In April, we went for a week back to Provence in France.  We rented a villa in the country halfway between Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence, and brought Brooke’s son Craig, her daughter Margot, and Margot’s husband Claude over for a week.  Lots of family time, great cooking, great food and great wine, and lots of exploring of the many scenic and historic features of the area.  There is no blog, as Brooke’s descriptive pen was temporarily stilled.  But we have her pictures organized in daily slideshows.

Slideshow, April 21, 2013 – exploring the area not far from our villa near La Destrousse

Slideshow, April 22 – to Avignon (sur le pont d’Avignon)

Slideshow, April 23 – along the Mediterranean coast

Slideshow, April 24 – to the hill towns of Gordes and Roussillon

Slideshow, April 25 – to Bandol on the Mediterranean

Slideshow, April 26 – to Aix-en-Provence

If any of you are really following my blog, you might notice that this post is NOT about our holiday in Australia this summer. That post is long and I’ll get around to it soon (???) but I thought I’d tell you a bit about what’s been happening here and then about our trip to the Seychelles.

Sheika Moza with the UofC Executive and graduates

The big event for us in Qatar recently was the Convocation of the 2012 graduates from the University of Calgary Qatar.  A huge event, made so because the Emir’s wife, Sheika Moza, came and even got on stage with the graduates at the end, shook each of their hands and talked personally to them. This is a big boost for the nursing program in the eyes of potential students at UCQ, somewhat akin to the Prime Minister coming to graduation. It was held in a splendid new hotel, and about 500 people attended. The ceremony was followed by a sit-down dinner for everyone who came.

In town this week is a huge UN Climate Change conference — around 17,000 people are expected and traffic will be affected. I was on the main road today (something like the 401 or the Bonaventure) and one whole side was blocked off for about 5 miles., luckily, not my side. The only vehicles to be seen were a stream of police on red motorcycles and then about 20 red police cars surrounding 5 rather ordinary-looking cars. That’s the way the Emir moves about, rather than in the typical black limo. On my way back, I noticed several of the things which make Doha a bit tricky to drive in: a young man was driving in the fast lane in a golf cart in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and  a young boy was half-out of the sunroof window, evidently standing on the back of the seat (no one seems to put seat belts on their children), all this in traffic going 80-100 km/hour.

The weather is quite lovely now, generally in the low 80’s, so good for outdoor activities.  I am “at leisure” now, as my contract at Qatar University is over and so I can take advantage of the good weather and go to a number of events — there is always something happening here in Qatar, from exhibitions, film festivals to sports events.

So, on to the Seychelles…. Our good friends, Merv & Peg Sharpe from London (the REAL London, not that one in England), joined us in Qatar for a few days before & after our joint trip to the Seychelles. It was great fun to be together again and we never ran out of things to talk about. We got (or should I say keen-eyed Peg found for us) a number of life birds and almost every bird we saw was a lifer for Merv.

The Seychelles – (Some Qatar first)

Tuesday, Oct. 16,2012
Picked up our friends Merv and Peg Sharpe at the airport following their flight from London, Ont., sat around chatting for a bit, and then they tumbled into bed, rife with jet lag.

Wednesday, Oct 17

Museum of Islamic Art

Eric had to work, so after a leisurely breakfast, we three drove to see some of the sights of Doha — the Pearl (a huge development of about 50-75 highrises plus several hundred villas on an artificial island) — walked the Corniche (a 7-8 km paved walkway surrounding the bay) and looked at the dhows (local fishing boats lately converted to tourist boats) —  and then off to the Museum of Islamic Art, where there was a new exhibit of Arabic scientific advances which influenced Western science.  However, the museum itself is the real attraction.  Designed by I.M. Pei, it is one of the most beautiful buildings I know – set out in the harbour, surrounded by water.

Eric met us at the museum, and we then went to Souk Waqif to browse the old market and have supper at the good Malaysian restaurant.

Thursday, Oct 18

The mosque at Katara

Walked around Katara, an area of buildings all in various styles of Arabic architecture, which house museums, restaurants, and a huge open-air amphitheatre like the ones in ancient Rome or Egypt. They were staging Aida that night so we couldn’t climb up into it. Drove around Education City, where the government has built huge complexes for the universities invited to establish campuses in Qatar, then had lunch at Villagio, the large shopping mall with a Venetian canal complete with gondolas.  Then home for supper and to do a final pack as we leave this evening — late.  We left after midnight for the Seychelles, and no-one got much sleep on the flight.

Map of the Seychelles

Friday, Oct 19 – to the Seychelles
The Seychelles are a group of tropical islands in the Indian Ocean, stretching from the equator south and west more than 1000 km to the top end of Madagascar, well east of Africa.  The main islands are granitic (which is unusual as most mountainous oceanic islands are volcanic in origin), a leftover piece when Gondwanaland broke apart and the various pieces headed north.  The highest peak is 740 m (2427 ft), and the slopes are often quite steep, so the roads tend to be winding, often with some quite steep sections.  The islands are lush, covered with rainforest except where cleared for settlements.  In addition to the main islands there are many coral atolls spread over a thousand kilometres of open ocean.  The population is 85,000, whose mixed ancestry is from Africa, India and Europe.

We landed on Mahe, the largest island in the Seychelles, to sun, heat and humidity, and stumbled groggily around until we got the plane on to Praslin (pronounced Pra-lin), the next largest island.  We were met at the airport by Tessier, from whom we rented our car — we had been told it would be a Jeep, but actually it is a very small car with low power and bald tires.

From the front garden of Villa Milou

The house, “Villa Milou”, where we are staying is lovely — huge, airy, well-equipped and right on a beach.  It is surrounded by flowers and quite quiet as we are on the less-visited part of the island.  Natasha, the owner’s daughter, welcomed us and explained what we need to know, and told us about herself and her family.  The wife of one of her brothers will cook supper for us tonight and bring it to the house.

The kitchen at Villa Milou

So all we really needed to do was get in some supplies for breakfasts and lunches.  Natasha had left bread, eggs, milk and jam, so we had toasted jam sandwiches for lunch and lay down for an hour or two, and then went shopping.  There was a small Indian grocery store several km down the road which had some basics and some decent South African wines.  So we were all set for a couple of days, especially as we will eat in tonight.

View from an overlook onto Possession Bay (Anse Possession)

The island is beautiful, now that we have relaxed enough to appreciate it – lots of trees of all sorts, hibiscus and other flowering bushes everywhere,  soft air, a fairly constant breeze near the water, and blue skies and even bluer water.  Life birds today – Seychelles Sunbird and Seychelles Blue Pigeon.

Saturday, Oct 20
Eric got up at 6 and took a long walk, eager to get new birds – the rest of us had a lovely long lie-in, recovering from jet lag.  While Eric was out, there was a torrential downpour, and he came in sopping wet – everything was soaked through.  The warm rain continued off and on during the day, so we spent the day driving around sightseeing.  We found a very nice deli where we got good cheese, pate, bread, crackers, etc.  It also had a nice selection of wine so we picked up a few more bottles.

Seychelles Bulbul

In breaks in the rain, of which there were many, we did some walking, had delicious drinks at one end of the island overlooking a beach and a bay (coconut and vanilla milkshakes using local coconut and vanilla).  Moseyed back to the house for a leisurely lunch, then motored the other way on the island.  Went out for supper at a local restaurant up a hill with a beautiful view over the water – excellent food, great service.  The Seychelles food concentrates on fresh fish of all kinds and they know how they should be cooked.  Life birds – Fairy Tern and Seychelles Bulbul.

Peg on a beach

Sunday, Oct 21
Up not too late as we were taking the local ferry to La Digue at 9 (however, our info was wrong – it didn’t leave til 10).  La Digue is a smaller island with a reserve for a Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher, a bird found almost nowhere else in the world except La Digue.

We were approached as we got off the ferry by a young man offering us a ride on an ox-cart to the reserve (about 1.2km) one way for 10 Euros each – that’s about 50$ or more.  We wondered just how many tourists he scams with this offer. We decided to walk, which was a much better idea anyway as we could stop and look whenever we wanted.

Female Paradise Flycatcher

Male Paradise Flycatcher

Peg, though professing to NOT be a birdwatcher, spotted the first Paradise Flycatcher, a feat which she repeated throughout our vacation with a number of life birds.  To celebrate, we stopped to supplement our hasty breakfast with pastries which we munched on our way.  At the reserve we found a number of Paradise Flycatchers, both male and female plus a young one being fed – all very close up, some within a few feet.  The male is all black with a tail twice as long as the body.  We also found a number of Seychelles Bulbuls.  The reserve is quite small so by lunch time we were pretty well finished with it, although we found some interesting giant land snails.

Zaroff Restaurant

Zaroff Restaurant is next to the park so we stopped for lunch – smoked fish salad, garlic prawns, local beer.  Saw Seychelles Swiftlet while having lunch – again Peg spotted it.

Took the 2:30 ferry back and scoped out a few restaurants for supper – not much is open on Sunday.  We had decided on one and were getting ready to go when Bruno (Natasha’s brother) stopped by the house to confirm arrangements for tomorrow.  When we asked him about good restaurants he named one we hadn’t heard about or seen.  He tried to explain where it was, but when he saw our blank faces he offered to show us the way to La Pirogue – a wonderful restaurant, with great ambiance, excellent food and spectacular presentation.

Our supper dishes at Le Pirogue

About 140 Euros plus tip for appetizer, main course, dessert and wine for 4!  That’s about 45$ each.  Life birds today – Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher and Seychelles Swiftlet.

Monday, Oct 22

Noddy Tern on nest

Fairy Tern with egg on branch

The days are going by too quickly.  Today we went out to 3 offshore islands – Cousin, Curieuse, and St. Pierre — with Bruno, plus about 6 other people.  Good day for boating as long as you have sunscreen.

Hawksbill Turtle laying eggs

Chick – White-tailed Tropicbird

On Cousin there were so many nesting Lesser Noddys (a seabird) in the trees that were constantly screaming at each other – thousands at least.  Also Fairy Terns, some nesting, others in pairs; White-tailed Tropicbirds floating overhead or nesting on the ground, with some chicks to be seen; Hawksbill Turtles (a huge marine turtle) laying eggs on the beach (we saw nest #65 being laid).  Lively pairs of Magpie Robins, or triplets with one a begging young, Seychelles Warblers and Seychelles Fodys, plus the occasional brilliant orange/red Madagascar Fody.  Spectacular!

For 30 years I have always wanted to see a Fairy Tern, ever since I saw a slide show by Tony Diamond (CWS) about his research on Fairy Terns in the Seychelles. They lay their egg on a branch — no nest, just on the branch, and hope it doesn’t roll off.

BBQ on the beach

BBQ cooking

On Curieuse when we arrived, a BBQ was set up – lots of fresh salads and BBQ barracuda and chicken.  Merv, Peg and Eric walked across the island after lunch.  It was quite a steep climb, so I waited back on the beach and explored the historical doctor’s house.  He was a Scottish medical doctor who came to Curieuse to improve the life of the lepers there.  Later in life he became Governor of various places, including Newfoundland, before he retired.

The Doctor’s house

Charles Darwin also visited the area, and on finding that the Seychelles Giant Tortoises were almost extirpated, he suggested that Curieuse be made into a sanctuary for them.  On the other side of the island Merv, Peg and Eric saw more than 20 of these giant land tortoises..

Swimming on St. Pierre (doesn’t it look like a movie set?)

We (the boat) picked up Merv and Peg and Eric and went to the small island of St Pierre, which looks like a fake movie set with artificial rocks and palm trees.  Some of our boat people went snorkeling, but Merv, Peg and I just swam – beautiful water in a lovely setting.

Back to shore and tonight we have guests for supper – two birders that we met this morning.  We asked Bruno to arrange 2 more meals for supper, and Eric and Merv have gone to get extra wine and some other supplies.

Oscar and Gilian Campbell arrived bearing juice and water, so the extra wine wasn’t necessary after all.  Lots of lively conversation ensued.  They have been teaching in the United Arab Emirates for six years, and have been taking advantage of the travel/birding opportunities, as have we.  They also know Gordon Saunders, a fellow from Labrador who was a great birder, but who left Qatar for Canada two years ago, only to return this fall.  Small world!

Life birds today – Seychelles Fody, Seychelles Warbler, Seychelles Magpie-Robin, Lesser Noddy.

Tuesday, Oct 23

Coco-de-Mer National Park on Praslin

Coco-de-Mer nut

Off to the National Park this morning to track down our last Praslin-area endemic – Seychelles Black Parrot.  We followed the trail to the lookout through a forest of multitudes of Coco de Mer trees (males and females) and other palms.  The female fruit can weigh up to 35 kg and would kill you if it lands on you.  The huge fruit, when the husk is removed, looks like a woman’s bare bottom, and is quite popular as a souvenir.

Eric spotted the first parrot at the lookout, flying at quite a distance and not particularly exotic-looking – a grey/brown parrot.  However, later on our way down, Eric heard the whistle and then Peg, who else, pointed out some parrots quite close.

Stopped at the deli on our way home for lunch stuff, had a quiet meal and now Eric, Peg and Merv are napping, as I will be shortly.

Locals on the beach in front of our house

There’s a very West Indies feel to the islands — laid-back, friendly, coconut-palm fringed lovely white beaches and azure waters, and the music, when not imported from North America sounds like West Indian reggae.  Breadfruit and banana trees abound with mangoes and jack-fruit, hibiscus and poinsettia are blooming.  The locals are of all mixed colours from slightly-tanned to shiny black, with hair from long and softly curling to Rastafarian locks.  Dress is very casual – flip flops, shorts and tank tops or rugby shirts plus baseball caps.  And bikinis on the beaches.

Went out for supper – were thinking of pizza for a change, but Bruno suggested a different pizza place which was too far to drive at night – the roads are very narrow with a steep drop off at each side of the concrete pavement.  We looked at one place which was supposed to be good and a reasonable price, but the cost had doubled since Lonely Planet had reviewed it.  We ended up back at La Pirogue – good food but no one was very hungry.  Life birds today – Seychelles Black Parrot.

Wednesday, Oct 24
Today we go with Bruno to the island Aride — supposedly full of birds.  Although we have now seen all the endemics we can expect around Praslin, there will be other interesting birds as it’s a major seabird nesting site.

Tropicbird nesting in an oven

The old pizza oven

A rough ride — lots of chop — to Aride.  Quite a few staff and volunteers work out here, monitoring bird and turtle populations, and helping visitors ashore via a Zodiac-type boat — which was quite difficult to get in and out of in all that chop.  Lots to see — Fairy Terns on their eggs laid right on the branch; Lesser Noddies in the trees on nests made of leaves cemented together with their own poop, and White-tailed Tropicbirds tucked into sheltered hollows such as tree roots with eggs or white fluffballs of chicks.  One Tropicbird was nesting in an old oven which had been used to prepare coconuts for sale to the copra factory on the mainland, but was now used as a pizza oven (when the bird has finished nesting!)

Beach watching on Aride

Great and Lesser Frigatebirds soared effortlessly high overhead, and Tropical and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Bridled and Sooty Terns were all nesting on the island.  There were lots of tapes marking turtle nests and a beautiful white beach, but the surf was just too powerful for me to go in swimming so I sat in the sand and let the waves come to me.  Eric and Merv climbed with the guide to the top of the hill to see the shearwater nests; Peg and I stayed below.  A BBQ prepared by Bruno and his wife and then another rough ride back.  Supper again via Bruno and an early bed.  Life birds today – Lesser Frigatebird, Tropical Shearwater (Eric).

Thursday, Oct 25
No alarm clock today so slept in till 8:30 – I was the last one up.  No plans for today.

Where we were having supper while the thief came in the back way

A very quiet and relaxing day with an extremely disturbing evening.  While we were having supper, someone (or someones) snuck into the house, rifled through our stuff, and cleaned out Peg’s wallet to the tune of $350.  Natasha and Bruno and the whole family came over when we phoned, but we all feel it’s a done deal – there is no way to find out who did it.  We had been so careful all week to lock up at all times when we were out of the house, but since we were eating in, we had left the bedroom doors unlocked.  We think someone came in by a corner of the veranda that was not in view of the dining table, got into our bedroom which opened onto the veranda, then into Merv and Peg’s room, and left via the window which they opened.  We never heard a thing.  Today also it turns out, Bruno’s anchor was stolen from his boat.  So if by any chance you decide to visit these beautiful islands, lock up everything at all times.

Natasha made up half of Peg’s money, which was very kind of her, but we still have a sour taste despite otherwise having had a lovely week.

Friday, Oct 26  — To Mahe.

Our bedroom on Mahe

Got an earlier flight to Mahe and we are now waiting in the airport for our car.  An overcast day which sort of fits our collective mood.  I just hope the new place is more secure so we don’t have to worry.

Merv & Peg at the pizza place — Peg is copying my blog notes

The rental car is small again but newer and more comfortable.  The owner of our cottages met us at the airport and showed us the way.  We have separate cottages with big beds — no footboard so Eric will be more comfortable.  Both cottages are modern and fully equipped with big bathrooms and showers, lots of light, and in private grounds with flowering trees.  We flipped a coin to see who got which — Merv and Peg are in the upstairs of a 2-floor house; we are in a self-contained cottage.  Not as scenic as Praslin but more secure.  There seems to be a lot of people around, and a security guard at night.  Right now we are waiting for pizza for lunch, sitting in a restaurant by the ocean, and Peg is reading what I’m writing.

We drove around the south end of Mahe, and managed to miss most of the roads we intended to take – not much in the way of signs here.  This end of the island is not very developed, probably not as attractive beaches for the resorts.  The only stores we saw were the Indian-owned groceries with basics — no pate or cheese other than cheddar, no fresh meat, few fresh vegetables.  People here mostly eat fish and breadfruit, or variants thereof.

Our constant cocktail hour snack

Sat on Merv and Peg’s balcony overlooking the road and beyond it a small beach — had some wine, cheese, and the last of the pate from Praslin.  Then out to supper at the Takamaka Rum Distillery.  Beautiful old building with 10 inch wide wood flooring, all very dark wood — maybe mahogany?  We were first presented with a huge drinks menu with 2 full pages of rum drinks showing the history of rum, and then a lot more just of various ages and blends.  The waitress seemed surprised when we asked to see the food menu first!  Good food and a pleasant atmosphere, plus only a short drive from our cottages.

Saturday, Oct 27

Market day in Victoria

Our plan is to go into Victoria (the capital city) today to see the botanical gardens and tour the city.

This week is Creole week on the islands, so there are a lot of local celebrations with music, food booths, etc.  We strolled around Victoria, but it’s pretty small and very crowded – there was a big market with fresh veggies, fish, etc., but no street food that we saw.  The Natural History Museum didn’t have very much to see, but we found a decent grocery store where we got pate, cheese, etc.  I think mostly tourists shop there, as the other grocery store was jammed.

Flower at the Botanical Gardens

We took our groceries back to our place and had some lunch and a bit of respite from the heat, and then went to the Botanical Gardens –  very nicely laid out, but in the aviary there were only a few geese and 2 very ratty-looking peacocks.  Then drove around the island for a bit — up and then down a steep winding road over the mountains, with some spectacular views but very few places to stop and get out of the car.

We sat around back at the cottages, ate the pate and cheese and some wine, and then went out for a light supper and so to bed.

Sunday, Oct 28
Up late this morning by mutual agreement – no real plans.  We are running out of ideas and any we have involve driving on the very narrow roads.  This island has a lot more people and traffic than Praslin.  Once finally up, we explored the beach in front of us, across the road, but it’s fairly short.  Overcast skies, which gave a lovely scene with the water blending into the sky and the few moored boats seemingly floating in air.  The tide was out, and a few Gray Herons perched on rocks or sand bars, waiting for some unwitting fish or crab to come by.  Bought a few more supplies from Kumar & Kumar (the small grocery) and then back for a light lunch and rest from the heat.

Downtown Victoria

Later, after looking through the guide books and birding info, we decided to go into Victoria to see about glass-bottom boat tours and to try to find a few other target places.  Being Sunday, just about everything was closed.  However, it’s Creole Week, so along the road there were scattered areas of bands, market stalls, food stalls, etc., and tons of people walking and parked.  We would have stopped but could find no place to park the car.

The beach at night at the pizza place

We found the bird sanctuary on a small marsh, but it won’t open until tomorrow, and the art museum in town is presumably the same.  We drove around Victoria, since the streets were deserted and the town seemingly abandoned (except for the casino!)

On our way back, the traffic was jammed going past the party sites, so we decided to go for an early supper rather than have to drive in the dark with potentially overstimulated drivers on the road.

Had a nice dinner by the beach as the sun gradually set and the moon rose over the ocean.  However, we still ended up driving home at night in jammed traffic.  Early to bed as we plan an early morning in the bird sanctuary.

Monday, Oct 29
Wakened in the middle of the night by a text message on the cell phone, but ignored it as I have continuously been getting messages from AirTel about specials.  Eric checked when he got up to find it was a message from a bird guide who he has been trying to reach.  When Eric finally contacted him, he was unable to take us out at this point, but will do so later in the week.  Eric also got an e-mail from another contact, who gave us info about some vagrant birds near Victoria.

The Sanctuary at Roche Caiman

We went to the small reserve (The Sanctuary at Roche Caiman), and found several Yellow Bitterns, which we had been looking for.  A group of women were taking yoga lessons at the centre.  Nice walk on a boardwalk through the marsh, very calming.

We then drove up through Victoria and around the north end of Mahe in search of the Seychelles Kestrel with no luck, but we did find Great Crested Tern and a Frigatebird.  I thought the north end would be more prosperous, but although there were some big houses, it looked just as poor as the south.  We looked for a snack shack, but only found the same local restaurants where meals start around $15.  We have realized that our vacation money is hemorrhaging.

Stopped at the grocery store on our way back to buy stuff for tomorrow’s supper — we are cooking pasta tonight.  Peg put together dinner, I brought crackers, pate, cheese and wine, and we had a pleasant evening on their porch.

Tuesday, Oct 30
Off this morning to look for the vagrants.  After trying some incorrect roads, Eric found the bits of ponds.  There was a Greater Flamingo, Greenshanks, Wood Sandpiper, White-winged Terns, Curlew Sandpipers, a Garganey, etc.  Very grotty shallow water pools with a junk/scrap yard on one side, and torn-up tree roots amongst the litter.  Eric regretted not having the telescope in order to check on one or two smaller shorebirds he wasn’t sure about.  Very hot as today the sun is shining and we have blue skies for a change.

Kenwyn House

Went into Victoria and visited Kenwyn House, a historic building – very gracious design – that has been turned into an art museum for local artists.  A very nice exhibit of watercolours and prints by Camille Mondon.  There was also a lot of jewelry for sale.

Creole dance exhibition

Across the street was the National Cultural Museum/Building from which blasts Creole music.  We rather timidly ventured over and followed some people in.  That was lucky as there was a very interesting exhibit on the social history of the Seychelles.  The National Library is also housed there and a large children’s library.

Some of the entrants in the culinary competition

As we were about to leave they started serving food — 3 cooking schools from different islands were demonstrating different Creole dishes — several pork dishes and an octopus curry, plus they were also handing out a rum punch drink — so lunch was taken care of.

Shrimp for supper – can you smell the garlic from there?

A bit more shopping to get some books, and shrimp for an evening meal, more cheese, pate and wine (our pre-dinner cocktail food) and then back home to cool down and nap.  Cooked the shrimp in lots of butter and half a bulb of garlic — very yummy! big sweet tiger shrimp with rice and a green salad.  As good as any restaurant and one quarter the price.

Wednesday, Oct 31 (Hallowe’en)
Tomorrow is a national holiday — we aren’t sure what will be open.  Eric and Merv were up very early to go back with the telescope to the grotty pond to try to identify the odd shorebirds.

The Praise ‘n Faith Takeaway — not where we ate, but typical of the island food stalls — but none had a better name!

Lying in bed I could hear the rain teeming down for at least a half-hour, and wondered if Eric and Merv would be wet when they got back.  They arrived around 10 am, dry as a bone — they had had no rain, and got the Seychelles Kestrel (very tiny for a kestrel) and good looks at some new shorebirds.

Peg and I decided that dinner last night was better than any restaurant meal we could have locally, so we looked in Kumar & Kumar and found a kilo of big shrimp, even cheaper than in town, so we are all set for Friday night.  We went out for lunch to “Simply Delicious” – a lunch wagon quite close, and had various dishes for a total of 200 Seychelles rupees ($16) for four.  Interesting and quite a contrast with the restaurants.

Beautiful beach view

After lunch we explored the south of Mahe, missing once again the road to the south, but finding a long steep narrow road that took us to an exquisite beach at Anse Lazar.  Too bad we hadn’t brought swimsuits.  We simply sat in the shade, watched the ocean and the ghost crabs on the beach for an hour or two, and finally came home to rest from resting.  It’s quite a bit cooler today and very comfortable as long as you are not in the direct sun.

Cooked the chicken in a huge gob of butter and one-half bulb of garlic, then dumped it into a jalfrezi sauce with tomatoes.  Will reheat at Peg’s with corn, rice and salad.  Unfortunately (for me), the headache I’ve had off and on for several days sent me to bed without my supper – which will probably be good for my waistline, such as it is.  Eric said the chicken was good.  Life birds today – Seychelles Kestrel (Eric)

Thursday, Nov 1

Birding in a forest reserve with Gerard Rocamora

Didn’t do much today but sit, talk and read, until Gerard Rocamora came around 3pm to take us to see the Seychelles White-eye and the Seychelles Scops-Owl.  Made sandwiches to eat on the way, and packed tight in his tiny car, we drove up into the hills to a forestry station where we found the White-eyes quite readily — 4 adults and a youngster they were feeding — cute little things with their prominent white eye-rings.  Gerard then took us up and over back roads, lanes, dirt paths, etc. in search of more White-eyes, and then over the same types of paths after dark, looking and listening unsuccessfully for the Scops-Owl.  Gerard is a biologist who is doing a lot of research on the various birds of the Seychelles and an interesting character.  A Catalan by birth, he speaks 7 languages, has been in the Seychelles for more than 20 years and knows everyone.

Finally home after 9pm, we ate our sandwiches with wine and ice cream and then off to bed.  Life birds today – Seychelles White-eye.

Friday, Nov 2

Madagascar Fody — not a new bird, but a spectacular one, and everywhere in the Seychelles

The last full day — we packed as much as possible before breakfast, just to get it out of the way.  Somewhere on the bird trip yesterday, Eric must have dropped the cell phone, so he had to e-mail the car rental company to tell them when would be returning the car (6am tomorrow).  The computer has been very helpful and inexpensive, since we are only using it for e-mail and I’ve paid for up/download bytes, not minutes.

One more beach view

Drove once again to the far side of the island to visit the National Biodiversity Centre — probably fascinating for a botanist but mostly just trees with plaques or plants in pots.  Found a take-away by the sea for lunch and sat and/or walked the beach, just staring at ghost crabs or the nearby islands and enjoying just being.

Will cook shrimp again tonight – this time with garlic, jalfrezi sauce and peaches, accompanied by ??? (rice and corn are what we have left) and white wine.

Evening sky on Mahe

Henri, our host, came over to give us both a lovely print of the rocky beach on La Digue with a Grey Heron looking out to sea – rather pretty.  He also brought a copy of the local newspaper featuring a photo of Eric and I eating at the festival of cooking schools on Tuesday — horrible picture of us so I’m not scanning it into the blog, although I’m keeping the newspaper as a reminder to go back on my diet!  Why is it that every time my picture is taken, I am eating?  Could that be a clue as to why I need to be on a diet?

While we were having supper, Gerard Rocamora’s wife came by with our cell phone — Eric had dropped in in the car as we drove along. That was handy, because it’s an old Nokia phone we take on trips, rather than replace the SIM card on our good phones.

Saturday, Nov 3 — back to Qatar
Early departure and flight back to Qatar.  We then drove up to the top end of Qatar (1 hour) to show Merv and Peg the Qatar countryside (bare flat desert), the coastline with sandy beaches and mangroves but nowhere close to as nice as the Seychelles, plus a number of birds that we see regularly, but that were new for Merv.

Sunday, Nov 4
Eric had to work, but Merv and Peg and I had a leisurely day.  In the evening Merv and Peg left to take the overnight flight to Paris.  It has been a wonderful visit and a wonderful holiday.

Some afterthoughts

Even another beach

Late October/early November is probably not the best time to visit the Seychelles – we had a lot of rain, although to be fair, most occurred at night.  The driest and least humid months are July and August, but every month has rain and some months are exceptional – 21 inches in January, for example!  We found the heat and humidity in the middle of the day a bit hard to take, although it seemed better on Praslin.

While the beaches are all the brochures say they are, white sand over-arched by palm trees, and the water is a gorgeous shade of azure blue, very few beaches offer comfortable swimming since the sea bed is very shallow and you may have to walk a long way out to swim.  The best beaches have been snatched by the big resorts.  We hardly went swimming in the 2 weeks we were there.

La Digue street scene

I would highly recommend both places where we stayed, despite having been robbed while we were in the house on Praslin — extremely comfortable and very obliging hosts, as well as being in relatively central locations without being surrounded by people.

Birding on Praslin and the surrounding islands gave us all the endemic birds we were looking for, and did not leave much that was new for us to find on Mahe.

Eric did all the driving in the Seychelles, and I am sure we all were happy that he took on this responsibility — the roads are extremely narrow, and on Mahe the roads across the island are winding and treacherous, filled with big buses and trucks coming the other way on tight curves.

Farewell to the Seychelles

We have spent close to 3 weeks with two of our best friends and it has been wonderful — we never ran out of things (and people) to talk about, we enjoy the same things, and have been good company for each other — at least as far as we are concerned — maybe they might have a different opinion!

Where are we going next?

Our next holiday is coming up fast — to Tanzania and Uganda for the last two weeks of December, with my cousin Maureen. More in the next post….

A few more pictures

The ox-cart of La Digue that we didn’t take

Fairy Tern sitting on its egg

A friendly skink — everywhere on the islands

The beach in front of the house on Mahe

A little local colour — buying spices in the souk

As usual, this post comes long after our trip. We are getting ready to set off for seven weeks camping in Australia starting mid-July, so I need to update the blog before we leave.

It’s mighty hot here in Doha now — thank heavens for air-conditioning! When you step out of a building at mid-day, the heat is like a blast directly from the sun. Luckily, except on the weekends, we are pretty well protected.

There was a tragic fire in the big mall here; an illegal nursery in the mall was cut off from escape, nobody knew what to do, the fire alarms were ignored and a number of children and adults died, including a set of young triplets, here with their family from New Zealand. Since then, the Emir has cracked down heavily on the large malls and is mandating very strict safety standards. The two biggest malls in Qatar are now closed, so the mall nearest us is now jammed. It’s almost impossible to get parking within several blocks and you really don’t want to walk that far in the heat, especially if you are carrying groceries.

Doha’s mounties

On the positive side, since a lot of people have already left on summer vacation, the traffic is much lighter, which is much more than a small blessing, considering the terrible drivers, the number of cars on the road, and the constant upgrading and repairing of the main arteries.

FRANCE 2012

April 20, Friday – Nice to Neoules

View from the car rental area of the Nice airport

Most of my posts are all about birds – this one is much more concentrated on food!  We don’t expect to see very many new birds, but I am really looking forward to lots and lots of good eats!

Well here we are in Provence at last.  The plane left Doha at midnight so we were well past our bedtime when we boarded.  Got some snoozing in, but the plane stopped at Milan on the way to Nice so we were awakened for breakfast at 4:30 – too bad, because unlike most Qatar Airways meals, it was pretty well inedible.

Lunch in a gas station — pretty fancy!

When we arrived in Nice, the sun was shining, the sky was that clear azure blue, with piles of white fluffy clouds over the mountains.  Flying into Nice the coastline is all curves – bays, rocky outcrops, red stone with the occasional cruise ship parked in a bay.  Snow-topped mountains form a line back of the coast.

After a few hours drive, we stopped for a rest — overnight on the plane and then directly onto freeway is not particularly relaxing. To our surprise, the gas station had a lovely restaurant with shaded outdoor picnic tables and several acres of wooded walkways — a good and refreshing break.

View along the coast road

We drove the coast road from Nice to Port Grimaud, stopping at various pull-offs to admire the view – lots of houses in Provencal terra-cotta colours from deep to pale, with tiled roofs, covering from the shoreline and all the way up the slopes of the red rock hills that rim the coastline.  The trees are just starting to leaf out so their leaves are that beautiful translucent pale green, while there are a lot of wild flowers in bloom, including lavender which perfumes the air.  Just wonderful!

Grape vines before the leaves come out

After we left the coast, the road was much less busy and the countryside was more agricultural – especially field after field of grape vines.  They are only just stating to produce a few leaves, so you can see the black gnarled shape of the old stock.  We stopped at a wine outlet in Grimaud to buy a few bottles of the local wine – very cheap – only about $5 a bottle, and as I write this I’m sampling one – delicious.  It’s called Gris and is very slightly pink in colour.  The whites of Provence are often roses.

Mme Delorme’s B&B

Our B&B is in the small town of Neoules – a typical Provencal village with two restaurants, both supposed to be really good, but both seem to be closed.  If they don’t open by 7pm, we have a fallback – pizza from a truck or French bread and pate or cheese which we bought in the local store.

Well, I was surprised!  Mme Delorme, our hostess, came to tell us that she had made us reservations at 7:30 at one of the restaurants.  Eric and I had just decided to get pizza from the local truck so we were rescued!  Eric had spaghetti carbonara (not really knowing what that was, he found it a bit salty).

Moules et frites

I bit the bullet and ordered mussels and fries – the mussels were cooked in white wine, garlic and cream and were delicious.  The restaurant specialized in mussels, which I had thought I didn’t like (I was wrong but they were so fussy to eat that I probably wouldn’t order them again).  There were maybe 25-30 ways they would cook the mussels – I chose what the cook recommended.

And now to bed – we both are totally wiped.

April 21, Saturday – Neoules to Ste. Jalle
Over breakfast, our hostess, Mme Delorme, sat with us and chatted.  My French is awful – I forget common words, mix up tenses, disregard gender, but I can make myself understood and can understand most of what I hear without asking for too much repetition.  But after 15 minutes my brain is fried. As a child, Mme D. had come to Neoules every summer with her family and stayed in the same house she is in now. When her husband was offered a post in Provence, they took the opportunity to buy the house and moved from Paris.

Statue commemorating the war heroes in a town square

As much as possible we are driving on small country roads – winding and quiet, so slower but you see so much more.  We pass through or by a lot of small villages, in the middle of which the road is often very narrow as in old English villages.  However there will also be a square with large sycamore trees, a building for town offices (le Mairie), a bar on the other side, and perhaps a bakery or a restaurant, but usually just houses.

The view from our lunch picnic spot

We stopped for lunch by the side of a road overlooking a small stream with a ridge of snow-topped mountains in the background near St Vincent sur Jabron.  Very picturesque – fresh French bread, artisan pate and goat cheese, and huge sweet fresh strawberries.

Black Woodpecker feeding chick

Shortly after lunch, as we were driving along, we were in exactly the right place at the right time to see a life bird fly across the road in front of us – a Black Woodpecker – a big (pileated-sized) woodpecker, black with a red crest.  We played some tapes of woodpecker drumming but it didn’t come back.

Fields of lavender against the mountains

The agriculture focus changed as we got a bit higher and higher on our way to Ste Jalle.  Viniculture gave way to rows and rows of lavender, still early in the season so no flowers, then a valley encrusted with apricot and peach orchards.  Finally, descending a little, we are back into mixed lavender and vines.

View from the road going up into the Ventoux area

We are staying for two nights with Andy Hargraeves, a bird guide Eric found on the web through BirdingPal.  We have a small, 2-storey apartment, and all meals are supplied by Ruth, his wife.  We will bird with him for the next 2 days, tomorrow in the mountains and the next day in the Camargue, a large marshland.  Supper tonight was delicious – salmon, endives, etc. with a huge apple tart and 4 different kinds of cheese.  Far too much food, but we can eat some of it for supper tomorrow.

April 22, Sunday

Eric and Andy Hargreaves checking the birds in the valley

We drove up into the mountains – the Ventoux – looking for a few target birds and found them all – Citril Finch and Ring Ouzel to name two.  Lovely scenery all the way up and great views looking down into the valleys – collections of stone houses, lavender fields with very neat rows of bushes, old vine stocks in rows too waiting for warmth to produce leaves and vines.  Lots of fruit orchards – Andy told us that Ruth first came here for a lark as a young girl to pick fruit and never left.  He had known her in England and came to visit her while on a trip to Italy, and “that was that” – so he moved here and eventually set up a birding guide business with Ruth providing the delicious lunches in the field, complete with fresh espresso cooked over a camping gas cylinder.

Wonderful picnic lunch provided by Ruth Hargreaves

In the afternoon we went to an area where they have been reintroducing vultures very successfully for a number of years.  We must have seen easily 50-75 Grifon Vultures and a few Black Vultures, along with a pair of Short-toed Eagles and some Golden Eagles.

More views in the mountains

The sun was strong up that high and my face feels quite red at the moment.  I’m sitting outside our apartment in their garden, enjoying some lovely local wine with some of the cheese from last night’s supper.  Ruth will bring us dinner in a bit, and then we will need to prepare to be off early tomorrow to go to the Camargue with Andy.  It’s almost 7pm but the sky is still blue, and the sun has just gone behind a building so only the house wall behind me is lit and it’s starting to get cool.

Supper was dauphinoise potatoes and boeuf bourginon – Ruth is a really good cook!

April 23, Monday

The white horses of the Camargue

Up early as we have a reasonably long drive to Arles and the Camargue.  We left our car at the north end of the Camargue and then drove with Andy.  What I hadn’t realized is that most of the Camargue is privately owned and used primarily for pasture and rice fields, so there aren’t that many birds.  Mostly we drove roads that Andy knew went by reasonably birdy areas, and we saw lots of the white Camargue “wild” horses and some large black bulls at one place.  We did get Eric’s target bird – the Mediterranean Gull – and we had a really good look at a Cetti’s Warbler after hearing it everywhere.  It’s a very skulky bird, but in this case it wanted to cross a little stream so we watched it work its way along the bushes on the far side.

The black bulls of the Camargue

Another lovely lunch provided by Ruth, more driving and finally we parted with Andy and made our way to our cottage north of Arles for a week. It looks exactly like the pictures on the internet and is really in the country.  We found a grocery store and got some supplies for breakfasts and lunches and I’m cooking supper here tonight as we ate too tired to try to find a restaurant.

April 24, Tuesday

Our lovely rental near Arles

First possibility to have a nice long lie in.  The bed is very comfortable, although just a double.  Finally got up, made a leisurely breakfast of scrambled eggs , toasted French bread and cappuccino, and then drove to the outskirts of Arles – much easier than expected.  From our cottage it’s only 15 minutes and lots of parking at the train station.  Then only a short stroll into the old and scenic part of Arles.  Lots of Roman ruins to see and other spots of interest, although I was also very taken by the shops with colourful tablecloths, pottery and all things lavender.  We strolled all over the historic area; just poking around, going in some places; in others just looking at the outside.  At one point, about 1:30 we started to look for a place for lunch.  We looked at a lot of menus – some seemed quite expensive, others not just what we wanted, although several sushi places looked tempting (but why eat Japanese in France?).

Garden where Van Gogh painted

Finally we saw a colourful site through an archway and stepped, all unknowingly, into the garden of the sanatorium where Van Gogh recovered (I think from cutting off his ear).  The garden which he painted has been kept (or restored) to match his painting.  It was one of the loveliest sites we had seen all day.  And there was a terrific restaurant attached!

Our lunch spot beside the garden

We had a lovely lunch (I forgot to take pictures) for a very reasonable price and charming waiters.  Later, we went into a museum which had some Picassos, but we couldn’t figure out what the art was all about – all sorts of modern things – sculptures? photographs of things which you couldn’t make out, and all stuff mixed up with no rhyme or reason.  The Picassos were weird sketches of men with beards or women with lopsided eyes and noses.  Eric wondered if we could get our money back! (see Fodor p 56)  Lastly, we stopped at a small boucherie and bought stuff for supper as I didn’t think we would want to drive back into town later.

Late afternoon “tea”

Right now, I’m sitting in the garden, the sun is shining, the red wine I bought several days ago is luscious and I can smell the wisteria which is in bloom behind me – all exactly as I had hoped our holiday in France would be.

April 25, Wednesday

Gordes – one of the lovliest towns we saw

Drove to Gordes today – this is like the town (Menerbes) made famous by Peter Mayle’s book “A Year in Provence”.  It is situated on top of a hill with wonderful views over the Luberon.  The houses cling to the hillside up to the top where an old Renaissance chateau sits.

Fruit & vegetable shop in Gordes

We got there quite early and just wandered around town – very narrow winding streets, some shops selling Provencal tourist stuff, restaurants and patisseries/boulangeries.  A charming town which is obviously doing very well – there are lots of new houses on the outskirts, although they are built in the Gordes style so they fit right in.

Abbey of Senaques with lavender fields in front

After that we went to the Abbey of Senanque, although we didn’t go past the bookshop.  It was founded as a Cistercian monastery in 1148 and looks over large fields of lavender.It has gone through various changes as religious zeal waned and became state property, then was eventually sold back to the monks.  However, only 6 monks are left.  A lovely but simple and undecorated building, in keeping with the Cistercian beliefs in austerity.

House door with typical pink walls in Rousillion

It was getting to be lunch time by then so we puttered over to Roussillon, another hilltop village, but one which gets its local colour from the ochre rock which forms the hills.  We had a very nice lunch of lamb chops and real frites on a terrace overlooking an ochre valley, then walked about the town.  Again very narrow winding streets, and by now quite a few tourists.

Finally heading home we went by another hilltop village – Les Baux – and from a distance it was hard to tell where the rock ended and the buildings began.  We didn’t walk up as it was starting to get late.  We were going to go into Arles for supper but I was still full from lunch so we picked up something to reheat in the house.  Another very satisfying day – I have wanted to see Gordes for a long time and hadn’t realized how many other hilltop villages there were in this area.

April 26, Thursday
This holiday is going too fast!

Saucisson de Toro on the hoof

We went back to the Camargue, to a different area from where we went with Andy.  Not really many new birds or much new scenery; however, we went to an interpretation centre to have a picnic lunch and walked the boardwalks.  Shortly before we had stopped to get some Saucisson de Toro (supposedly made from the local black bulls, but who knows?).  It was somewhat peppery and very rich and good.

View of Aigues-Mortes

Later we drove to Aigues-Mortes – a failed bastion of Louis IX for one of his abortive crusades.  It was originally built on the sea, but is now quite far inland, as the coast has been building up in this area.  It may have been a failure in the 12th century, but it’s a big success now – tons of tourists and every street lined with shops selling stuff.

Supper in Arles

Back to the house to rest a bit and then out to supper at Arles.  Finally got “daube” and Eric had duck breast.  Charming spot, lovely to eat outdoors, and very relaxing.

April 27, Friday

Beach front

Our last day here – tomorrow we head back to Nice.  A leisurely breakfast and we are off, exploring a part of the coast just west of Marseilles.  Small fishing villages now becoming tourist destinations, although the first two we went to were dead ends with practically no room to turn around.  The first one, Nilon, we ended up facing a locked gate to the local police station on a narrow road with cars parked down one side.  I got out to help Eric turn around, only to find 2 cars and a truck already behind us.  Luckily one of the cars had a policeman who saw our predicament and unlocked the gate so we could get turned.  Everyone else went into the police yard so we scooted out and got back out of the village without even seeing the sea.

Finally we hit a stretch of road that ran through various small towns where we could park, walk along a beach front, watch people playing in the sea or stretched out getting a suntan, including one topless young thing (NOT a child).

Eric’s calamari salad

We stopped in Sausset-les-Pins for lunch in a cafe overlooking the sea.  Nice salads – mine a baked goat cheese on toast with a local dried tomato dressing plus some dried ham; Eric’s a calamari salad – heaps of calamari over various greens – served with a basket of fresh, heated crusty rolls with Coke (guess who) and an Espresso with hot cream for me.  Yummy!

We gradually worked our way back to Arles using small country roads through the Camargue and stopped at a nature reserve for a bit of a walk, with the same result we have had on much of this trip – no birds to be seen.  We can’t figure out why this area is so birdless – very little song (some loud nightingales0 and few to be seen.

We are eating in tonight as we need to pack up and do some tidying of the cottage.  Lamb chops sprinkled with herbes de provence and pepper, a tossed salad of mescalin and tomatoes with balsamic dressing and boiled new potatoes.  Not particularly different from what we eat at home, but good anyway.

European Scops Owl

I thought I would eat French cooking for at least two meals a day the whole time we were here, but find that the food is so rich and flavourful that once a day is sufficient.

Eric went out after supper to see if he could find the European Scops Owl that he thought he had heard a few nights ago.  He was back in a few minutes to say it had landed within 6 feet of him.  I followed and not more than 10 feet from the cottage got a good look at it n the flashlight, sitting on a post.  Lots of nightingales singing loudly in the dark around the cottage.

April 28, Saturday
Tidied the cottage and said farewell to a charming spot; gave the wisteria a final sniff before on our way to Nice.

To make some time, we took the autoroute – you can cover a lot of kilometres in a short time.  The roads are wide; you can go up to 130 kph; and they are expensive – lots of toll booths.  They have really nice rest areas with walks through the woods to have a nice break, and the ones with restaurants serve great sandwiches or baguettes and excellent coffee.

Forest with ground cover of flowers

We then took a small road over the mountains (hills) to the coast – a bit hairy as the road was narrow with lots of blind curves.  Luckily there weren’t too many cars on the road.  The road was forested on all sides with an occasional view down into more forested valleys.  Wildflowers everywhere – white , yellow, lilac, pink, blue, etc.  Also more bird song than we have heard on this trip, but probably a lot of Nightingales and Great Tits.  We saw several new birds while driving – a European Roller yesterday, quite close to the cottage, and European Wren and great Spotted Woodpecker today.

Our plan was to drive the coast road for a bit, but it was rally built up and full of tourists, so we just stopped near St Tropez for coffee and ice cream and worked our way back to the highway.

Our last meal in France (not counting breakfast in the airport)

We are now ensconced in the Airport Novatel and will eat here, get some sleep and take off to Doha tomorrow.

Some more pictures from our trip:

Playing boules at Arles

A cafe at Arles in the main square

The Colosseum at Arles

Gorgeous door at Arles

Fountain in Arles

The roads are lined with overhanging trees

Narrow street in Rousillion

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