Author Archives: coxdavid55

Travel Report from Salamanca, Seville, Jerez and Cordoba, Spain, May 11, 2019

Because my first 4 days in Salamanca were wet and cold, I extended the stay in my favorite town to enjoy the forecasted greatly improved weather – this had me moving to a new apartment down by the river.  My last 3 days were sunny and warm, and permitted some good photo opportunities, as well as more comfortable sidewalk tapas bars in the late afternoon.  Of special note, I continued to visit some of my old haunts which I first encountered when studying Spanish in Salamanca in 2003.  One tavern, with great wood fired grilled meats, then was called Patio Chico.  I had trouble locating it years later until I realized its name had changed to Ruta de la Plata.  Still the same great place – and I recognized one of the bartenders and the grill master who had been there for well over a decade.  I wondered some why the haunted eyes of the grill master now seemed more especially familiar, and then realized he was the spitting image of Jack Dorsey, billionaire founder of Twitter. I include a photo below of him with yours truly for your comparison.  Miguel still grills great steak, panceta and sausage – more valuable by far to me than Twitter.  He never had heard of Jack Dorsey.

I climbed the Salamanca Bell Tower for the Old and New Cathedrals in order to get some large composite photos from roof height of the Romanesque and Gothic dome towers and decorations. Both photos are composites of around 45 individual photos, giving a particularly wide viewing angle and tons of detail (you won’t find photos like these elsewhere).  As over the years I have written much, and published dozens of photos, covering Salamanca’s history and edifices I won’t do a repeat now.  The town is feeling more like a second home than a place to visit.

From Salamanca I returned to Madrid, hitting 3 of my favorite tapas haunts in the Santa Ana neighborhood, before traveling on south for a while, stopping first for several days in Seville.  There I had a 3 room apartment that opened onto a large patio.  I visited for the first time the lovely Casa Pilatos, with Renaissance courtyards and pillars and wonderful Mudejar (post Islam Moorish architectural style) decorations.  Also, spent a morning near the huge tourist line to enter the Cathedral, where I watched a street performance of Flamenco.  Again, for long discourses on all things Seville and large numbers of photos, you must go back to prior travelogues available on the website.

From Seville I traveled south to finally visit Jerez de la Frontera.  Jerez is the birthplace of sherry (“jerez” in Spanish), a fortified wine aged in oak barrels.  I used to think of sherry as that disgustingly sweet wine with which 1960’s TV and movie starlets liked to get tipsy.  What I have discovered in later years is that almost all good sherry comes from just the Palomino grapes, and always is dry (not sweet), but includes several very different colors and tastes based on the aging and whether the fortification allows a floral (yeast) growth to cover the top.  The sweet Sherries come from Moscatel and Ximenez grapes, and mostly seem inferior.  The name “sherry” legally can only be applied to the wine from a small triangle area around the town of Jerez.  I spent several hours at a small Tabanco (originally the name for a tobacco shop, but now come to be applied to the bars that carry the oak barrels of sherry, where one often can find impromptu flamenco concerts or dances).  Paulino, the owner of Tobanco Paulino spent over an hour sitting with me, giving me the history and secrets of making dry sherry (I followed only about 80% of his explanations as his was a rapid Spanish) – you will see the photo of us below.  While in Jerez I stayed in a small efficiency apartment well centered in town, and visited the Alcazar (fortress), Cathedral and related church; the churches both were mostly Gothic in architectural style, but had very poor quality stones which already were sluffing off pieces after just 500 years (2000 year old Roman construction and 1000 year old Romanesque churches have much better quality stone).

From Jerez I traveled to Cordoba, one of my favorite towns, for the annual Festival de los Patios, where dozens of wealthy homes open up their patios which are covered with spring flowers in bloom.  The Great Mosque (Mezquita), for which construction started in the 8th Century and reached completion by the 10th Century, was then the center of the largest city and the major Caliphate in the Mediterranean.  After the Reconquista of this part of Spain, the entire Mosque was converted to a cathedral though only the central portion of the Mosque was renovated. The entirety is an Islamic wonder rivaled, in my opinion, only by the Alhambra in Granada and the Taj Mahal in India.  The entire interior, excepting only the space converted into the Cathedral, is a forest of double stone arches supporting the roof over the space of several football fields.  The Mihrab, which unusually does not face Mecca, has three arched portals the outside of which is completely covered with mosaics made of semi-precious stones.  Inside are protected a number of marble pieces from the original Visigoth Church upon which the 8th Century Mosque originally was constructed.  As with Salamanca and Seville, I previously have reported at length on these towns and their vast architectural treasures, and so will not repeat this trip.

I have enjoyed evenings at the Sociedad Plateros (silversmiths society) restaurant with excellent Andalucian dishes. They have barrels of a local “fino” wine – “Montilla” – similar to sherry but in my view much better – it goes great with an order of deep fried lightly battered strips of eggplant with honey, a specialty in Andalucia.  I also spent one evening in the expensive Taberna Patio de la Juderia, with terrific food and a nightly Flamenco performance.  Every late afternoon I sat on the Plaza Agrupacion de Cofradias, a beautiful triangular plaza on the downhill street to the Mezquita, and had red wine while listening to the street performer, a blind old man with a guitar singing soulful Andalucian songs.  Each afternoon the Royal Stables of Cordoba, where by order of the King, they have maintained the pure-bred Spanish horses since the early 1500s, bring one of their beautiful stallions to the plaza for pictures with tourists; this to entice the public to purchase tickets for one of the horse shows during the festival.

I certainly noticed, after publishing the current webpage, that I have included photos of myself in 4 different taverns.  This – after spending years publishing hundreds of photos with only a rare one including my face.  I guess because I am visiting so many familiar places I have taken far fewer scenic photos, and perhaps have spent somewhat more time relaxing in my favorite afternoon haunts.

Tomorrow I return to Madrid from where I will head north to Basque Country for a number of days in Bilbao, Lekeitio and San Sebastian, after which I will travel on North into France.  Later.  Dave

 

Travel Report on Avila Holy Week Processions, and Salamanca, Spain, April 26, 2019

Upon arrival in Madrid from Rome I spent the night, and then traveled by train to the ancient and conservative Catholic town of Avila in Castile y Leon.  Avila started with Roman defenses, but now is famed for its 11th century medieval walls and towers which still completely encircle the Old City.  Its 11th to 14th century Gothic cathedral sits on the high point in the town where its apse forms part of the defensive wall structure and 5 entrance gates.

I specifically hurried to Avila for its Easter week sacred processions, which happen each evening after sunset.  All over central Spain, various regional brotherhoods, known as cofradias in Spanish, maintain floats, here called “tronos,” year-round in the churches and cathedrals.  The floats are foundations for religious sculptures and scenes exhibiting events of the holy week leading to the crucifixion and resurrection.  The cofradias, with various other penitents, dress in colorful robes with masks and pointed headdress, called “capirotes”, then march with the tronos through the darkening streets of the old cities, usually with a band playing mournful music.  The processions in Castile and Leon are considered the most solemn and authentic, dating back many centuries.  Most Americans upon first seeing such a procession are stunned that the penitents appear to be dressed as the Ku Klux Klan, though most robes, masks and tall pointed headdress are colorful.  The penitent’s capirote has been traditional for centuries and the head-dress with mask is worn out of modesty, as penance is to be practiced anonymously.  No one seems to know why, or how, the KKK wound up with such a similar copy of this ancient penitent dress, though KKK robes always are white.

I had a wonderful hotel room in Palacio de la Velada, a late 15th  to early 16th century palace, one of many in town; of its roughly 140 rooms, I had one of only five with a balcony opening onto the Cathedral plaza, and so watched some of the processions from my private balcony.  I believe I watched 5 entire processions and obtained some wonderful video.  Again, I wish I could figure out how easily to downsize the high resolution video (each several minute clip of video is many Gigabytes of data) and make it available on my website.

Avila’s mostly 14th century Gothic Cathedral is a magnificent wonder – but Avila has also, just outside the Arco San Vicente Gate, the early 12th century Basilica San Vicente, thought by some to be the finest Romanesque Church in Spain.  It is a beauty inside and out, and the Romanesque portals, arches and capitals are the best preserved I have seen.  Also, inside just before the altar, sits a massive Romanesque cenotaph to the martyred Saints Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta, with the wonderful gold covered sides and preserved carved and painted wooden scenes from the martyrdom.

After 4 days in Avila, I traveled again by train onward west the short distance to my favorite town, Salamanca.  The weather, unfortunately, was chilly and rainy almost my entire time in Avila, and has grown only worse upon arrival in Salamanca.  The locals are complaining this is a somewhat unusual early spring pattern. Tomorrow the weather is forecast finally to improve, and so I have just booked 3 more days in Salamanca to take advantage of some decent sunshine and warmth for photography and outdoor tapas bar evenings.

Once again I am housed in a magnificent location.  The Baroque Plaza Mayor of Salamanca was built in the early 1700s by the Churriguera cousins, and is one of the largest, and considered by many the finest, Plaza Mayor in all of Spain; to my eyes it easily improves on the great Plaza Mayor of Madrid.  Built per request of the King, it became the city center and was used also for bull fights until the last century. It is formed as a huge unequally sided square, with close to 100 arches on the ground levels and 3 stories of balconied rooms above, completely enclosing the square.  Six large entrance arches permit access from all city directions.  All is constructed of the Salamanca soft yellow limestone.  Ten of the rooms above the Plaza have been converted to a private hotel within the last year.  Each room is modern; 5 rooms open on the market to the East of the Plaza, and 6 have wide double glass doors and balconies opening out onto the Plaza itself.  I have one of these rooms.  In my years visiting Salamanca I never have been able to enter the Plaza’s upper floor rooms for a view and now I am living, for a few days, in one.

Later.  Dave

 

Travel Report on Lucca, Pisa, and 2nd Visits to Florence and Rome, Italy, Apr. 18, 2019

I last reported on Florence, to which I will again return in this segment. From Florence I took, on April 9, the regional train to Lucca, an ancient walled Tuscany town west of Florence, and famous for its complete set of 16th Century walls built to defend against the threat from the Florence Kingdom which then extended to just 15 kilometers from Lucca; the walls never saw defensive use, and now form over 4 kilometers of one of the finest raised set of gardens, overlooks and bike and walking paths completely circling the old city.  The cathedral and the Basilica amaze with their white marble Romanesque and Gothic exteriors. I stayed in a lovely B&B, the Relais Lucca, just inside the walls, and spent a fair amount of time just getting mildly lost in the maze of old city alleys and streets which run at odd angles.

I took a day trip to visit the famous Cathedral and Tower of Pisa, just 25 minutes away on the wonderful local trains.  Although the regional trains are not the various high-speed versions, and stop at many local stations, they still run at over 100 mph, leave and arrive on time (generally to the minute), and spend just minutes in the stations.  Travel by train is faster, cheaper and more convenient than renting an auto (unless you are with a group).

The Pisa cathedral probably is the most amazing I have seen in Europe, sitting inside its own set of medieval walls, and surrounded by sumptuous and massive related marble edifices all set in manicured green expansive lawns.  All the related structures seem ultimately to exist just to showcase that weird, but now expected, gorgeous white bell tower – it just does not look like it should be able to resist falling.  This World Heritage Site seemed to me to have more tourists than any site I have so far visited.  It is hard to exaggerate the numbers of tour groups and student groups scurrying like thousands of ants over the grounds and into and out of the various structures.  And for the thousands of visitors each hour they provided one set of public toilets, with two stalls for women and two for men.  These were not well maintained, had lines which tested bladder control, and required first lining up at a small ticket office to purchase the 80 cent right to use same.  This certainly seemed an utterly preposterous operational miss for such an astounding site.

From Lucca I had to back-track to Florence before returning to Rome.  I spent two days back in Florence to pick up a couple more visits to their unmatched wealth of artistic highlights.  I visited the Medici Capellas, the domed burial crypts for the most powerful members of that wealthy Florence family dynasty.  The chapels were designed by Michelangelo, and contain a number of his marble sculptures and architectural achievements.  I spent 5 hours the next day visiting a one-time exhibition, presented in the Palazzo Strozzi, entitled “Verrocchio Master of Leonardo.”  Here, for the first time ever, sculptures, paintings and drawings were borrowed from many of the best museums in the world to display the works of Verrocchio, one of the Renaissance great masters, who also was perhaps the greatest teacher producing in his workshop a crop of famous later masters, including Leonardo da Vinci. I understand this Exhibition will move this fall to the US for a few months.

From Florence I returned for a final two days in Rome, traveling via Tren Italo, a competing high speed train doing the entire journey at about 180 mph.  My Rome hotel room this time was across Via Cavour from my last apartment; I now had a balcony facing north over the majority of the Roman Forum and the massive “Altar to the Fatherland” monument, with exceptional evening views.  As in Florence, I used the time to pick up a few of the many sites previously missed.  This included a day spent in the Capitoline Museums on the hill above the Roman Forum.  Here one encounters most of the marble and bronze masterpieces excavated from the central part of ancient Rome.  These include the heroic sized bronze of Marco Aurelio on horseback, the incredible bronze of “Spinario,”, the seated boy pulling a thorn from his foot, the marble “Capitoline Galatian,” also known as the “Dying Gaul,” the marble “Capitoline Venus” and a stupendously detailed black marble centaur, recovered from Hadrian’s Villa.

On the 17th I flew from Rome to Madrid, stayed one night near the Chamartin Station and took the train the next day to Avila, the famous World Heritage Site walled city in Castillo y Leon, to spend Easter with the nightly solemn Processions from and to the Cathedral.

Some closing observations from Italy:

The trains and buses leave on time, and almost always arrive on time, usually within one minute of schedule.  And, for almost anywhere you want to go, convenient train service exists with departures throughout the day. Travel is much faster than by auto, and passes through beautiful countryside rather than along busy highways.

Tour groups are everywhere, but now something like 20% to 30% of all foreign groups are Chinese. This is something you just did not see 10 years ago.  Clearly the middle-class in China has grown substantially and now seeks to explore the world. I am curious to what extent the government promotes this.

About half of all late morning tour groups, in all museums and heritage sites, are middle-school students with drag-along teachers and/or parents trying (usually in vain) to maintain order and some semblance of silence inside the buildings.  As a teacher lectures about what is before the group, most of the students seem to pay little attention.  I suppose some of this cultural heritage finds a way in, and actually may reappear in the future as one acquires more context.

Selfies have become a scourge of travel photography.  Younger people no longer desire photos of just cathedrals or gated walls or Michelangelo marbles or da Vinci paintings or “leaning towers.”  All famous landmarks and works of art become simply settings and backdrops – the photographer becomes the main subject.  Most try infinitely overused poses or camera positions, and all require the subject to get as close as possible to any artwork.  The new Chinese tourists seem to have a special appetite for these, or more often small group photos.  Anyway, if one simply wants a photo of the edifice or work of art, it may be nearly impossible without including in the photo a constant stream of selfie subjects vying to stand in front of or as close to the famous piece as possible.  This somewhat narcissistic obsession with inserting self as the main subject into photos of all manner of external wonders bothers me at a deep level.  Clearly the phenomenon has emerged as part of the social media revolution. (Recent news reports make clear the obsession can become deadly when the backdrops are not man made, but include wild animals or scenic canyon overlooks).

I really like the Italian cigars made in Tuscany -Toscano Clasicos come 5 to the box at about $1.25 each – available in any tobacco shop in the country.  The tobacco, now grown in Tuscany, is a Kentucky variant grown initially for pipe mixtures. The tobacco apparently is allowed to ferment, and then the cigar is made with the moist leaves.  The final cigar is long, fat in the middle, and with a heavy ribbed leaf outer wrap.  The cigars are dry and so do not have to be maintained in humidity.  They look like a double cheroot joined at the fat end. They burn decent and long, and provide a mild smoke.

Many people have dogs they walk in the cobbled streets.  In Lucca, close to half the dogs I saw were odd versions of “wiener” dogs, aka dachshunds – this included short-haired, long-haired, wire-haired, longer legged and fat dogs, including one extraordinarily long dog where the backbone strained to hold the belly off the ground.  My family’s first dog in India was a dachshund of uncertain parentage, so I have always loved the breed.

Almost no one in Italy is overweight, despite the seeming occurrence in the “old towns” of ice-cream (gelato) shops almost every other block (pastry stores with sinful chocolate are in between). Families walk with ice cream dribbling from their cones, over their fingers and onto the street.  An exception to this healthful body appearance, you may guess, is with the American tourists; first you notice the expansive pants – then you pass by and hear the unaccented English.

Italians apparently cannot talk if they cannot gesture and wave their arms.  I have had Italians confirm this to me.  It is amusing to watch a person walking down the street, phone in pocket and headset on, talking to the air in front of their face (common in the Western world) – it is more amusing to watch an Italian doing same, but with both arms waving emphatically with various gestures.  Even more amusing when someone is seated at a restaurant table, phone laid flat in front with speaker phone on, and the diner is conversing with the table while the arms are flailing.  I sometimes wish I was more expressive.

Goodbye Italy.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report from Naples and Florence, Italy, Apr. 10, 2019

Italy, during two time periods lasting a couple of centuries each, originated much of what we consider Western Civilization; the first was the height of the Roman Empire (roughly 0 to 200 AD), borrowing heavily on the preceding Greek and Macedonian traditions, and the second was the emergence of the Italian Renaissance (roughly 1350 to 1550).  For an intoxicating immersion in the output of these time periods, one definitely must spend lots of time in, and attention to, two geographic areas; the coastal area lining the Bay of Naples (Napoli) within the morning shadow of Mount Vesuvius, and the great city on the banks of the Arno River, Florence (Firenze).  Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried by Vesuvius’ eruption in 79AD, best preserved great living cities at Rome’s height, along with much of its best art in the form of frescos, mosaics and statuary.  For the output of Renaissance masters, Florence was ground zero producing the earliest, and subsequently also some of the greatest, artwork in paintings and sculpture; these masters included Donatello, Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio.

I arrived in Naples on the West coast of Italy on Mar. 30, after a short bus haul from Bari on the Adriatic Sea.  Napoli, as it is known in Italy, reputedly has the best pizza on earth, though I cannot discern much difference from the pizza in Rome, Bari or Lecce – all are very thin crust in the middle, where, fresh from the wood ovens, the centers can be almost soupy with melted cheese and olive oil.  All are delicious as long as devoured before getting cold.  My apartment was located with over a dozen pizzerias nearby, as well as numerous coffee shops and pastry stores selling sinful dark chocolate stuffed in every type of pastry imaginable.

My apartment, on the 5th floor of a very old building, was huge and bright, modern, two levels, and had 3 sets of 12 foot double wooden doors which each opened onto balconies.  The two eastern balconies looked north and south on Via Duomo, the main street in the Old City which runs by the cathedral; to the south the Bay of Napoli could be seen.  The north facing balcony opened directly on the Duomo square and main entrance to the 13th century cathedral, an amazing sight which fully caught the afternoon sun.

My first day I visited the gothic Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore, with a number of huge rooms around its cloister, each with colorful wall designs, used during the 15th and 16th centuries for various political purposes.  More interesting was what lay under the church; excavations allow one now to descend many meters under this part of the city to walk the complete original stone roadways, lined with shops and bakery stores, and other merchants, of the original Greek and Roman settlements. I also visited the small church called the Pia Monte della Misericordia Museum to view the famous Caravaggio painting called “Obras de Misericordia.”

On Monday I took a local train (see photo of colorful graffiti covered train below) south around the bay to the west side of Mt. Vesuvius where sits the ancient city of Pompeii.  I had little idea how vast an area now has been uncovered – the entire wealthy and main commercial part of the city all are preserved, and one walks along the original stone paved streets of the city just as they existed up until the fateful day of Vesuvius eruption in 79AD.  The building roofs mostly were destroyed, but the walls, gardens, taverns, shops etc. all remain.  The boulder paved streets show the deep ruts cut over the centuries from the wheeled carts and wagons which plied the ancient thruways.  I spent five hours walking most of the main routes through the excavated parts of the city, visiting dozens of wealthy houses, a few maintaining still some fine wall frescos and floor mosaics.

At the main crossroads of Pompeii lies the huge Forum, full of columns, with the adjoining granary, now housing hundreds of amphorae and other items.  The southeast side of the city held the side by side Teatro Piccolo, or Odeon, and the large Teatro.  Further east lay the huge Amphiteatro where the gladiators fought. After the hours of wandering I truly was tired at the end.

A few of the villas have in situ original mosaics and wall frescos. Among my favorites, photo included below, note the vicious black dog mosaic which covered the floor at the entrance to a huge villa – the dog is chained, but the message is as clear today as any posted sign stating “BEWARE OF DOG” –  and the 2,000 year old posting is far more beautiful and impressive.  The partial Alexander Mosaic is a stunning work of tiny mosaic stones depicting horses in battle with an amazing 3D depth and lifelike moving quality; the photo I have included is of the original which now resides in the Museum discussed below.  Among the in situ frescos, I particularly enjoyed the small room walls with complex garden scenes.  Finally, individual personages in frescos were on display from the nearby ruins of Moregine, which seemed to depict gauze and loose clothing as well as some renaissance masters.

The following day I wanted to visit Herculaneum, the sister city to Pompeii, somewhat smaller and less crowded with tourists; unfortunately I arrived at the railroad station to find the regional train serving the Bay area shut down – a result of a workers’ 1 day strike.  I decided then to visit the museums I had scheduled for the following day, only to find they all were closed on Tuesdays. Because of my scheduling then I never made it to Herculaneum.

I later visited the Naples’ highlight, the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, where the best frescos, mosaics and statuary of Pompeii and Herculaneum have been preserved, along with objects from the temples and many implements of daily life.  At the museum one discovers why Pompeii, which seems so perfectly complete and undisturbed, has so few interior spaces still decorated with the famous wall paintings and floor coverings – all have been removed over the past 150 years.  Many were stolen or taken out of the country.  In most cases, just portions of the plaster or mosaic highlights were cut out and retained to be presented elsewhere in frames.  Thus the entire wall or floor coverings were removed from their original location just to preserve pieces.  Some of the signage in the Museum admits that even much of the more recent archaeological work thus destroyed the in situ beauty of what was so perfectly preserved in Pompeii.  Nevertheless, on two floors of the huge museum, room after room is full of small and large fragments of the painted wall frescos and vast and intricate floor mosaics.  I have included a large number of photos below, together with photos of the current villas and casas in Pompeii; mentally one must attempt to put the decorations back together with the architecture.

On Wednesday I visited the Cappella Sansevero at opening to avoid the worst crowds.  It contains one of the world’s great marble sculptures –  “The Veiled Christ” by Sanmartino. Indeed I found it a masterpiece, depicting the dead body of Christ, after crucifixion, covered completely by a veil.  “Astounding” is the correct word describing the appearance of the veil, folds and all, which looks utterly transparent over the body and face of Christ, yet all sculpted from the single block of marble.

On Thursday I took the super-high-speed train, the Frescciarossa, from Naples to Florence – the train travels at 300 KPH, or about 185mph.  It is sufficiently smooth and quiet that, but for the scenery rushing by at incredible speed, one has little idea how fast it is going (bragging rights for these high-speed trains means they put monitors in the passenger compartments which show a speedometer).

My apartment in Florence was the largest I have so far had, 990 sqft; a large living room with two windows over the street, and a huge dining and kitchen area and neighboring bedroom, both with ancient high wooden double doors opening onto an outside terrace.  These large apartments are often in better locations than any hotels (all of my lodging so far has been absolutely central with superb locations – I have only used one hotel). In bridge season like now, I get them at great prices, generally cheaper than most mid-range hotel rooms which are tiny by comparison.  The restaurant next door is Tuscan classic, extremely busy, but wonderful food.

The Florence art scene must be the envy of the world – here there was far too much to digest in a few days.  The crown jewel was the Uffizi Gallery with its massive collection of Italian Renaissance paintings; most were commissioned or acquired in Florence by the Medici family or other nobility during the Renaissance, and most were acquired by or gifted to the Uffizi centuries ago.  Three of the only 15 da Vinci paintings in existence reside here, jostling for space with Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Caravaggio and Titian works, all of which fill rooms.  Four hours and my feet wouldn’t allow more time.

The next morning was reserved for the Bargello Museum, filled with its statuary including several pieces by Michelangelo and Donatello’s two different David’s, one in marble, the other bronze.  Sansovino’s Bacchus in marble was made to compete with Michelangelo’s earlier one, and later joined by Giambologna’s bronze, all three of which are found in the same room.  Finally I visited the Gallery Accademia with its masterpiece, Michelangelo’s huge marble of David.  The Accademia held a number of other Michelangelo marbles, and a huge collection of Byzantine-Gothic-very-early Renaissance painted panels.

My final full day I visited the Basilica Santa Maria Novella, with its huge Romanesque exterior and gothic cloisters and austere interior. The Gothic marble facade is a delight for the eyes.  Inside were more riches, from Gothic to early Renaissance frescos and wood panels painted by Masaccio, Botticelli, Uccello and Giotto, all very early artists.

Bottom line, Florence simply contains way too much to try to take in on one visit.  On Tuesday I head to a small town, Lucca, in western Tuscany, where the medieval city walls still are in place.  Smaller towns permit a much less frenetic pace in trying to soak up the history.

Later.  Dave

Travel Report on Southern Italy – Rome – Lecce – Bari – Matera, Mar. 30, 2019

Gastronomically, Italy compares well with other northern Mediterranean locales. Although I again am drinking mostly red wine – wonderful but not as cheap as in Spain – I have found the Italian Birra Moreti La Rossa on tap to be an extremely malty double bock German beer and quite excellent.  Half the restaurants are pizzerias although most serve more than pizzas.  The pizza generally is excellent, always thin crust with fresh ingredients, unlike the horrid thick breaded pizzas with thawed toppings served often in the US.  Travel is relatively easy, as train service is widespread and comfortable.

The trip to Rome commenced with a flight from Hell – the regional AA flight Tucson to Dallas was delayed 6 times for “mechanical” issues, while all later scheduled flights left on time – ahead of our earlier “delayed” flight.  This caused me missed international connections, twice, with scheduled flights to London and on to Rome.  Twice I had to exit secured gate areas to be rescheduled at the check-in desks.  Then in Dallas, where American had massive cancelled flight problems due to weather, I had to find a special line, one hour wait, to get a boarding pass for the onward flight from London, which the computers in Tucson couldn’t issue.  Upon final arrival in Rome, now late at night, the timing coincided with the simultaneous arrival of 4 jumbo jets from China, full of new Chinese tourists, creating massive lines through the terminal trying to get through passport check.  I did not feel as “joyful” as usual upon arrival.

In Rome I stayed in a large “apartment” type room, with balcony, right at the end of Via Cavour, half a block from overlooking the Roman Forum and the forums of Minerva, Caesar and Augustus, and within sight of the Colosseum about 3 blocks away.  I spent five days wandering through the various ruins, and walking the narrow streets to the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain.

From Rome I traveled by high speed rail the long distance south to Lecce in Italy’s heel.  Here the “Old City”, with its maze of alleys and narrow stone streets, almost 100% was uniformly constructed in the 17th and early 18th centuries in late renaissance and baroque style; all structures built of soft yellowish stone giving the entire town an unusual ancient feel.  Scattered throughout are excavated Roman constructions (a small theater and larger amphitheater) over which the baroque city now sits.  My accommodations were in an apartment – really several large rooms – part of an old palace (Palazzo Bernardini).

Part of the excitement of foreign travel is associated with eating in restaurants where the menus are indecipherable, and the waiters do not speak English or Spanish.  In my favorite Lecce eatery, I ordered what appeared to be translatable as a dish of rice mixed with meats – turned out to be a huge load of grilled meats and sausages on a board.  A little heavy, but good.  Later, trying to chat with a local at the bar, I discovered that a couple of the meat cuts and the sausages were horse (my sister will be upset with me – she always loved horses).  It seems Italy eats more horse than any other country, and the heaviest consumption is down south in the heel, i.e. Lecce.  Later, at another restaurant, having carefully checked that no horse (cavallo) was listed, I later discovered that foal or young horse requires a different menu word.

From Lecce I traveled the short distance back northwest by train to Bari on the coast – Bari also has a large Old Town sitting between two harbors on a peninsula sticking north into the Adriatic Sea.  Here sits one of the more amazing churches I have visited anywhere; the Basilica St. Nicolas.  Saint Nicholas is one and the same with St Nick, aka Father Christmas.  Much venerated by Catholic and Orthodox Christians in the northeastern Mediterranean region, I had visited the Island of St Nicolas and his original burial place in Southern Turkey.  Apparently in the 11th century Italian sailors removed his bones from his burial tomb, and brought them to Bari where a Norman built a large crypt as the new burial chamber and constructed the massive Romanesque Basilica over it.  Now devout Orthodox Christians and Catholics pilgrimage to the site and light candles, sit and pray, and kiss the icons and glass encased relics of the saint in the underground crypt.  Above, the church constitutes a massive towering Romanesque structure, outside a brilliant white stone, and inside rows of columns with carved capitals and spanning arches.  The very high ceiling is 100% covered with colorful frescos.

From Bari I traveled by local train to Matera in the neighboring region of Basilicata.  Old Matera is a World Heritage site, one of the oldest continuously occupied cities on earth.  The two halves of the ancient city sit in opposite tilted bowls which descend from a high ridge into a steep and deep canyon with a small river. At the top of the ridge rises the massive cathedral. The rock bowl and cliff faces all are a soft, yellow-white sandstone or volcanic tuft, and are full of natural caves.  Many of the upper caves have been converted into sculpted cave dwellings over the past 1,000 years.  Throughout the middle ages, Byzantine era and into the baroque period large numbers of churches and convents also were carved into the soft stone.  Inside, on walls and ceilings, most of the religious structures were covered originally with colorful frescos, now much destroyed within the last century as the country forced a clean-up the deplorable conditions the people had lived in.  Within the last several decades most of the better preserved caves have been converted to houses or opened as cave museums which can be visited.  Architecture and frescos which still can be seen within the best churches, including in those now built above ground, date mostly from the 11th through the 16th centuries, and usually patterned on Byzantine style.  In many ways this could be a sister location to the great fairy chimney caves and cave churches around Goreme in Cappadocia, central Turkey, although the Turkey cave churches are often older, superior in construction and many still completely covered with wonderful frescos.

As with a few other unusual sites I have visited, Matera is one of those magical places where the normal laws of physics do not apply.  After a day of roaming the narrow and very steep alleys and never ending stairways, it seems clear upon return to the day’s starting point that one has ascended far more than descended.

The weather often has been overcast, cold and windy.  Not unexpected for early spring. From Matera I returned to Bari to catch the direct bus to Naples on the opposite coast.

Later.  Dave

 

Travel Report from Kenya – Kakamega Forest, Masai Mara NR and Ol Kinyei Conservancy, Dec. 11, 2018

I traveled, again by private car and driver, from the Great Rift Valley lakes to the far West of Kenya, where the last remaining tropical forest remains – the Kakamega Forest is equatorial forest which extends from the West of Kenya through Uganda and into the Congos. Here can still be found equatorial bird and primate species not found elsewhere. I stayed at the Rondo Retreat deep inside the forest. With a good bird guide set for the first morning, my plans were badly altered when, as I went to bed, I suddenly developed severe pain in my left foot behind the big toe. I was certain I had fractured one of the Metatarsals, although I had experienced no trauma. I could not sleep most of the night and could not walk, and the next day cancelled all other plans and had my driver drive me an hour and half to the third largest city in Kenya, Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria. There I went to the emergency room of the largest hospital, and spent some hours getting through all the bureaucracy. Finally seeing an orthopedic surgeon, I had X-Rays and blood tests as well as a physical exam. The Dr. absolutely ruled out a fracture, and noting the extreme tenderness around the joint between the 2nd and 3rdMeta Tarsals, as well as a slightly high uric acid level (which I admitted to having had for years), he pronounced the likely culprit a sudden severe onset of gout in that joint. Without going into more detail, I survived the pain for 3 days, then acquired some naproxen (Aleve in prescription strength). I have managed with only slight soreness since, and concluded I should be fine until back in the US.

Upon learning I had no fracture, just pain, I returned to Kakamega for two more nights, and managed to hobble around with my guide to get photos of some new monkeys and birds, including the Guereza Colobus, Blue Monkey, Black and White Casqued Hornbill and Joyful Greenbul.

From Kakamega Forest we returned to Kisumu for one evening and then proceeded south to the famous Masai Mara National Reserve. The Masai Mara is in the Southwestern corner of Kenya, and is bordered to the South by the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania. It is between these two great Parks that the largest migrations on earth take place twice a year, when more than a million Blue Wildebeest and Zebra follow the rains first north and then back south. In Masai Mara they must cross the Mara River, which forms a deep channel through the grasslands; this river is home not only to innumerable Hippos, but the largest Nile Crocodiles on earth. Most of you probably have seen the wildlife videos of the Wildebeest crossing where the giant Crocs wait just under the water, springing up to grab the poor creatures by the heads to drag them to their death. The smaller rivers and grassland/woodland areas provide sustenance to not only the aforementioned,but countless Topi, Grant’s and Thomson’s Gazelles, giraffe, buffalo, elephant,Black Rhino, and the heaviest concentration of Lions anywhere, as well as all the larger carnivores, the Leopards, Cheetahs, Hyenas and Jackals.

The Ilkiliani Tented Camp was on the Talek River which marks the Eastern boundary of the Reserve. My second day was a very good one for the least seen carnivores. Early morning found us joining a few other vehicles by a tall dirt mound on which sat a beautiful Leopard studying the surrounds for game. This sighting is quite unusual as leopards usually only are out at dusk to dawn, and seldom seen during the day. Less than half an hour later I spotted another mound in the distance topped by a sitting cat which turned out to be a Cheetah. We were alone with the Cheetah when a Spotted Hyena came along, apparently following the Cheetah. I could hardly believe it when the Hyena started up the side of the mound and approached the cat, which crouched and snarled. The hyena was twice the weight of the Cheetah. When the hyena moved to within about 6 feet the Cheetah moved faster than the eye could follow, and struck the hyena on the nose with all claws extended. I actually captured that action photo, as well as the prologue and epilogue photos, which are included below in sequence.

New birds for me in the Park included two Lapwings, the African Wattled and the Black-winged, which is found almost nowhere else. Along the Talek River and around camp I also photographed the beautiful tiny Klass’s Cuckoo and African Paradise Flycatcher.

From the Masai Mara I drove the short distance to the Ol Kinyei Conservancy on the edge of the Park, where I spent my last 4 safari days in the tented Porini Mara camp. Here I had private game drives with bird guide and driver, and spent 6 hours daily seeking bird and mammals. We had wonderful luck and spent much of two days with two prides of lions, including, finally, 3mature black maned males (the beautiful black maned lions are basically only found around the Serengeti and Masai Mara). We first encountered the pride off males with 2 half-grown cubs and 3 6-week old cubs. As the mother of the younger cubs crossed in front of our vehicle 2 of the youngsters followed her into the brush, but one stopped and appeared transfixed by the front of my land-cruiser. He kept approaching, to within 15 feet, and at times appeared to open his mouth in a tiny snarl (see photo). His mother had long since disappeared into the brush, and when he finally realized he was alone, he chose to backtrack as opposed to following his mother. Fortunately the other female with older cubs joined him and he was soon dashing off after the others.

The following day we encountered all three dark-maned males. Two twins in full prime were sleeping just under the edge of brush. One rolled onto his back and made an enormous toothy yawn (see photo). The other laying on his side occasionally opened one eye to view my camera located just feet away. That gaze was scary. Later we found the other large male coming out of a thicket and sitting in the mid-morning light in full glory. He was magnificent.

The third day, seeking a Cheetah family, we wound up finding two families; first a mother with two fully grown male twins, and later a second mother with 3 half-grown cubs. We followed the first family for a couple of hours, watching first one failed chase of an Impala, then a second chase for a Thomson’s Gazelle which was successful, although bushes and a ravine prevented our seeing the actual kill. We spent over an hour watching the family devour the antelope. The twin males played a macabre tug-of-war over the almost fully formed fetus discovered inside the kill. A couple of hours later we encountered the second Cheetah family, a mother with 3 younger cubs. The mother just had successfully dispatched a Thomson’s Gazelle. I settled down for an hour again while the 4cats devoured the creature (Thomson’s Gazelles are quite small, being half the size of an impala). Somewhat gruesome was the later game that evolved with the 3 cubs playing with the head of the kill. On both kills I was able to take extensive high definition video, which I wish I could display on the website but the file sizes are enormous. When the four Cheetahs were down to eating the rib-cage, one could hear clearly the crunching sounds of the devoured bones.

Later we found two Black-backed Jackals with the kill of an unidentifiable young antelope, joined by a Tawny Eagle nearby taking care of the entrails. Finally we found three large families of Spotted Hyenas; one family had just made a kill of a baby Topi,and the matriarch of the group kept all other hyenas away excepting only her lone cub. The tussles and attempts by the others to get pieces of the kill were quite savage, with the matriarch driving them off one at a time while others tried from different angles. I got good photos of the bloody scene.

Later I finally got to get reasonably close to a pair of Bat-eared Foxes hunting in the rain. Such sightings are rare, usually made at night, with the animals being very timid of permitting vehicles to get close. Of birds we saw many raptors, including the incredible Lappet-headed Vulture eating the leg of some beast, Black-chested Snake-Eagle, Tawny Eagle working on the entrails of a Jackal kill, Pygmy Falcon, Secretary Bird and Sooty Falcon.

My final two evenings the skies opened up and it rained – I was told this was the first rain in 3 months and the parched earth and grazing animals badly needed it. My final morning drive was an exceptionally muddy one, with our Land-Cruiser constantly slipping and sliding. From a small dirt air-strip I took a small bush-flight back to Nairobi. Tomorrow I head for the international airport and the 30 hour flight back to Tucson. So this wonderful Africa trip comes to an end. Later. Dave

Travel Report on Samburu, Mount Kenya, Aberdares and Great Rift Valley Parks, Kenya, Nov. 29, 2018

My driver picked me up from the Meridian Hotel in Nairobi on Nov. 21 and we drove the long 6 hours to the north of Mount Kenya to Samburu National Park. There I stayed at the Sopa Lodge, deep inside the wooded grasslands dotted with rocky hills.  Just to the south side was the heavily wooded river basin.  Along the dry lands and riverside we encountered a number of African specialties found nowhere further south in Africa.  These included the Reticulated Giraffe, Beisa Oryx, Gerenuk and Grevy’s Zebra, along with lots of African Elephants, Lions and Olive Baboons, all of which are included below in photos.  The first afternoon a pride of lions near the river killed a full grown giraffe – very unusual to take on such a large and formidable prey (a kick or head butt by a large giraffe will easily kill or disable a lion).  Around the lodge a number of dryland bird species were encountered, including the Von der Decken’s, Eastern Yellow-billed, Red-billed and Jackson’s Hornbills.  One particular encounter was memorable – an Eastern Yellow-billed Hornbill caught a huge grasshopper and spent the better part of 5 minutes trying to swallow it head-first.  The grasshopper was too big for the bird’s throat, and it kept choking it back out.  I did get a series of remarkable and humorous photos, a couple of which are included.

After three days in Samburu we headed back south to the southwestern flanks of Mt. Kenya inside the Mt. Kenya National Park, a high altitude lush forested landscape.  Mt. Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa, just a tad shorter than Kilimanjaro, and is also an extinct volcano.  The wet heavy forest covering its lower slopes provide habitat for a number of unusual bird species, but most are very difficult to see as they remain deep in the heavy bushes and trees, and it is not possible to walk the trails as the area is home to large families of African Buffalo and Elephant, both of which are deadly when encountered in deep forest.  I did some walks along the single track entrance road, accompanied by a professional guide and an armed ranger.  There the birds encountered included the Hartlaub’s Turaco, Cape Robin-Chat and Cinnamon Bracken Warbler.  At night, from my room’s balcony overlooking a swampy water hole, I recorded the high cries of a Spotted Hyena as it passed on the far side of the marsh at 3 am.

From Mt. Kenya’s slopes we drove West across the valley to the Aberdares Mountains and National Park where I stayed at the rustic lodge named just The Ark.  It is situated on another marshy watering hole, which in evening was surrounded by Elephant and Buffalo uneasily jockeying for space to pick up the mineral salts in the red muddy soil.  A number of shorter and less expensive safari tours visit here and watching many visitor’s reactions and joy at seeing families of Elephants arriving at dusk helped me relive my first such encounters decades ago.  The hills also brag an exceptional number of birds, and just walking the board walk, safely located high above the forested floor, I captured a number of new bird species, including the Golden-winged and Eastern Double-collared Sunbirds.  I also for the first time saw a Giant Forest Hog, immense with a huge wide disc face, similar to a huge Asian Wild Boar.

We drove next around the Aberdares down into the Great Rift Valley, part of the Great Rift of Eastern Africa which runs 5,000 kilometers from the Red Sea south to southern Tanzania.  This is one of the rare spots, outside ocean trenches, where two tectonic plates are pulling apart.  This also is the area where for over 2 million years human’s ancestors evolved.  Olduvai Gorge, made famous by the Leakeys, is just to the south.  In central Kenya the Rift Valley has partially filled with a series of large lakes, some of which are soda lakes, filled with Flamengos and other crustacean-feeding birds, while the others are fresh water lakes filled with hippos, cormorants, herons and kingfishers.  Most are within large National Parks or private conservancies.  I stayed at the delightful Sunbird Lodge, overlooking Lake Elementaita, a soda lake.  The huge grounds of the Lodge provide a large number of flowering plants and fruiting trees which attract a number of beautiful birds, including the Bronze, Variable and Amethyst Sunbirds, Blue-cheeked Starling, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Purple Grenadier and Fischer’s Lovebird.  My cottage, a small house itself with a huge front porch overlooking the lake, sat about 80 feet below the lodge, requiring a stiff walk up or down a steep hillside.  Behind me were rocky cliffs with a large family of Rock Hyrax, which fed on the grasses and leaves around my house, with younger ones looking silly climbing the shorter shrubs and trees.

The first day in the Rift Valley I hired a local bird expert to visit the Soysambu Conservancy on the western shores of Lake Elementaita, where we encountered a number of birds including two Tawny Eagles which just had made a kill of a Great White Pelican – the Pelican is many times the size of the eagles and the evidence of the struggle was obvious.  The second day I hired a boat and bird guide to visit Lake Navaisha, a fresh water lake filled with hippos; Three months ago, upon my arrival in Nairobi, I read in the US news media of the Chinese tourist killed on this lake.  According to reports from local rangers I understand the Chinese rented a kayak and without guide attempted to approach the hippos in the small boat – very unwise.  The third day we just drove around Lake Nakuru, all part of the national park of the same name.  As White Rhino recently have been poached here, we encountered armed rangers wherever a Rhino was visible.  The lake shores supported huge herds of African Buffalo, many with new-born calves, and large families of Olive Baboons, also with many new babies.

For the most part my lodging has been adequate to superb, and the food almost always excellent.  From the Rift Valley I head further west to the Kakamega Forest near the border of Uganda.  Later.  Dave

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Report on Tsavo West and East National Parks, Shimba Hills Conservancy and Mombasa, Kenya, Nov. 18, 2018

We drove from Amboseli, on the northern flanks of Mt Kilimanjaro, south and east to Tsavo West National Park.  There I stayed in the wonderful Serena Lodge inside the Park.  My room, No. 14, was on the second floor directly overlooking two large water holes where I counted at least 10 different species of mammals which came to drink, both during the day and all night.  Large families of African Elephants would wade into the waters, followed by herds of Zebra, Impala, Waterbuck and Giraffe.  Occasional Buffalo and Black-backed Jackal also frequented the water along with Yellow Baboons.  Outside my room I had orange-headed Agami Lizards.  We drove game drives every morning where I picked up a number of interesting birds, including the Black-faced Sandgrouse and 4 species of hornbill – the Eastern Yellow-billed, Red-billed, African Grey and Von der Decken’s.

From Tsavo West we drove further south and east to the Tsavo East National Park, with pretty rolling forested hills but far less animal and birdlife.  The Park is famous (or, infamous) for its pair of Man-eating Lions; back in the 1890’s the railroad was constructed from Mombasa, the main seaport on the East coast of Africa, to Uganda.  Apparently 30 to 100 Indian workmen were stalked, killed and eaten by a lion pair during bridge construction, causing many workers to flee the area.  A British soldier finally killed the lions, which now are on display in the Chicago Field Museum.  Man-eating among lions is almost unknown, but this history gives the area quite a mystique.  Satao Camp was a tented camp, so once again I was in a semi-luxurious huge tent bedroom, with large bath area, and insect netted openings on all sides.  Here the nearby waterhole was further away, but every evening just after sunset the Hippos would exit the water and march slowly by my tent, which was well away from the dining – registration area.  Guests had to be escorted to and from the tents when dark, as the hippos are the most dangerous animals in the country.  I found here the beautiful Golden-breasted Starlings, and the super-strange looking Vulturine Guinea Fowl with huge dazzling bodies of electric-blue and silver stripes, pencil thin high necks which become completely devoid of feathers near the head, except for a ring of rust-red fluff around the back, and a small head with barren black skin and beak.  The head does for all-the-world resemble that of a vulture.

From Tsavo East we traveled to the Shimba Hills Conservancy south of Mombasa, where I spent two days in the lovely Shimba Hills Lodge, overlooking a small stream and pond, both ruled over by a gorgeous pair of immense African Fish Eagles.  The eagles were visible at all hours of the day, sitting on high branches of trees on all sides of the pond, and often loudly crying as they would simultaneously swoop to the pond, passing each other and ritualistically exchanging the tree branches they sat on.  Strange behavior, but fascinating to watch.  Unfortunately, the Shimba Hills, although beautiful forested hills, contain very few birds and very few species of birds.  The one ranger I spoke with told me the Park had 111 species – this is less than half the number of species we have just around my desert town of Tucson, and as Kenya has more species of birds than any country in Africa I simply cannot understand the dearth of birds in this area.

While dining, overlooking the small lake, we entertained food beggars, both at noon and evening meals; noon produced a bushy orange and grey squirrel which would come under our chairs looking for intentionally dropped food.  Evenings we were visited by a Bush-baby, one of the nocturnal primates of Africa – this one would not just beg, but climb the outer railing by the table or an empty chair and steal food off the table.  I lost a roll the first evening, and barely managed to salvage an egg roll the second.

Wednesday morning I left early to take care of a nagging problem I have had since arrival; Kenya has for years provided 90 day tourist visas upon arrival, but the week before my return from Madagascar the Director of Immigration issued a directive reducing all such visas to 30 days, and requiring a return to an Immigration office near the end of that period for any extension; my total time is 44 days.  I tried but could not convince management in the Nairobi main office to grant me an extension while I was there just days after the visa was issued.  It looked like I would have to break my safari travel for a day or more while in the West of Kenya to return to Nairobi just to get the extension.  I had my driver leave early and traveled to the Mombasa Immigration Office Wednesday morning, where the lone officer, after reviewing my flight tickets for returning to the US, granted me an extension of 14 days to extend my visa to my departure date.  This now leaves me worry free to enjoy the balance of my safari travel to the north and west of the country.

The Mombasa hotel I had booked months in advance had me wait a couple of hours for room cleaning, then the manager told me they had no rooms available as they had unexpectedly agreed to house an entire German Delegates meeting which required special security.  They booked me in another hotel for which I had to pay twice as much and endure a location much further from the Old Town for which I had come to Mombasa – basically the Voyager Resort comprises a beach and pool destination for Eastern Europeans and wealthy Kenyan families with little kids.  Oh well, the food was good and the ocean view terrific.

Mombasa has the major seaport of East Africa; it was visited by the earliest Portuguese explorers, starting with Vasco da Gama in 1498.  In the 1590s the Portuguese built the huge Fort Jesus (now a World Heritage Site) to protect the port.  Nevertheless, control of Mombasa has changed at least 9 times.  For long periods Mombasa, along with Zanzibar, were under the control of Oman or Omanis in Mombasa.  For centuries it was the major African seaport for trade in spices, gold, ivory and slaves.  I visited the Fort Friday morning, traveling there by the wonderful tuktuks (3 wheel motorized taxi bikes) which ply the city’s narrow alleys, and break every decent traffic law – if there are such laws.  A highlight of the Fort was walls with intricate drawings (graffiti) left by Portuguese sailors around 1600 – most are of various types of ships and boats.

Saturday I returned by air to Nairobi for two nights, again in the Meridian Hotel, after which I start the long stretch of my safari, going north and west for a total of 21 days, visiting 10 different Parks and Reserves.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report on Amboseli National Park and Selenkay Conservancy, Kenya, Nov. 10, 2018

After an uneventful flight back from Madagascar and 3 nights in Nairobi, I took a bush flight to the dirt airstrip in Amboseli National Park. The small single engine plane carried 8 passengers, and after taxiing to the runway at the Wilson Airport, we were told we had to exit the plane and walk back to the terminal.  The plane was towed back manually by the crew.  One of the foot pedals apparently was stuck.  Thirty minutes late, we again boarded and took the 50 minute flight to Amboseli.  There I was met by the 4X4 vehicle from the Selenkay Conservancy, and with 3 others we spent 7 hours touring Amboseli National Park, about which I will write more below.

The Selenkay Conservancy is a private reserve north of Amboseli, consisting of about 25 square miles of bush land held in trust for about 50 Maasai villages.  The local villagers basically provide all the employees, drivers, guides etc.  Only one tented camp has been allowed in the reserve – the Porini Amboseli Camp, with 16 large private tents.  While I was there for 4 nights, the camp never had more than 6 guests, as the high season now has ended.  I was provided access to my own jeep, driver and bird guide while there, and spent every morning for about 6 hours on game drives.  The conservancy has most of the large Kenyan game animals, including elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, giraffe and 8 species of antelope, including the elegant long-necked Gerenuk, the rarely seen Lesser Kudu and the tiny Kirk’s Dikdik – Dikdiks are the smallest antelope in the world.

The tents were very large canvas rooms with huge bathrooms.  Showers were anytime, involving a room assistant bringing large buckets of hot water, lifted with pulleys and ropes high enough for the water to gravity drain into the inside shower.  It worked great, but one must keep careful track of the water use, or it runs out before you rinse the soap off.  I learned to wet, turn off the water, soap and shampoo, then turn the water back on to rinse.  The tent was generally rather well occupied by not only yours truly, but a number of black crickets, black tent spiders and a lovely young toad which lived just under my shower’s raised wooden slat floor.  During the day, the heavy canvas over the large windows and the 6 X 10 foot entrance was rolled up and all openings were covered by just light insect netting.  At night all the heavy canvas was rolled down and zipped up tight over all entrances for security and privacy.  The camp was in the middle of the reserve and had no protection from the wildlife.  We had to be escorted at night to our tents, as on occasion buffalo, elephant or lion wandered through camp.  My third night, someone forgot to roll down and seal my canvas coverings, and I went to bed with just the insect netting over all openings.  I initially preferred that, with the fresh air passing through and stars visible; then around midnight a male lion started roaring every half hour from the waterhole about 200 meters away.  I realized I had nothing but bug netting all along the side of the bed, 6 inches from my head, and I faced the large front opening onto the “veranda,” where, I had been told, a lion once had strolled through.  I didn’t sleep as well as I would have liked that night, but learned later to make a passable impression of the lion’s roar (which I didn’t practice after dark, as the others told me it sounded real enough, and I didn’t wish to attract the lion to a perceived intruder).

The camp was all-inclusive, (except, of course, tips), and the meals too frequent and large.  The second day in the afternoon I joined 4 others to visit the closest Maasai village; the visit was a real treat, and due to the association of the villages with the reserve, no crafts were offered for sale and no tipping was expected.  The young warriors escorted us into the village, which comprised a group of thatch and cow dung circular structures with no windows for light, and single doors opened first going through a narrow passage one way, then turning 180 degrees and passing the other.  The entrance blocked all light and allowed smoke and local herb vapors to fill the hut keeping it free of flies, mosquitoes etc.  The warriors did a number of dances, including those with the famous high leaps, and the ladies sang and danced.

I photographed a number of birds and animals, including the huge roosting Verreaux’s Eagle Owls, largest of Africa’s owls, the Tawny Eagle, Secretary Bird, and very colorful Von der Decken’s Hornbill and White-headed Buffalo Weaver.  We spent about an hour one day by an old high termite mound which was occupied by a very large clan of Dwarf Mongoose.  They all would mingle on top, chirping and cleaning each other. Any unusual noise and all would instantly turn their heads in the same direction.  The most common bird in this part of Africa probably is the most beautiful also – the Superb Starling is an iridescent metallic gun metal blue and orange.

My 5th day I was met by a private car and driver who will escort me for most of the rest of my days in Kenya.  We drove south to near the northern slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro at the southern edge of the Amboseli National Park.  There I stayed in the Sopa Lodge for 3 nights.  Daily we drove into the park and along the shores of shallow soda Amboseli Lake, which this time of year appears pink from a distance as it is practically covered with huge flocks of both Lesser and Greater Flamingos.  Along the edges are numerous species of plovers and sandpipers among many other shore and water birds.  Around the lake stretch endless grassy plains, interspersed with occasional small wooded areas.  Large herds of Blue Wildebeest, Grant’s Gazelle, Impala and Zebra mingle here, and large families of Elephants pass through the marshy areas around the lake.  Lions, buffalo and giraffe also are common.  I could endlessly watch the families of African Elephants pass from one forested area to another – parking along their route provided unforgettable views of them in single or double file majestically marching toward or away from us.  The Park is full of raptors, and after photographing a huge Martial Eagle on a tree top in the morning, at noon we passed by again and the Eagle did a stoop from on high, dropping straight to the ground onto a young warthog – the pig dodged at the last instant and the Eagle missed.  That same day we sat and watched two lionesses finishing off a Blue Wildebeest carcass; one spent the entire time delicately removing parts of the animal’s face, which was a little gross.  The largest Wildebeest bulls and Grant’s Gazelle males, in their prime, often were seriously sparring with clashes of horns as mating season approaches.  One lion couple was mating every 10 minutes or so – I was informed this could occur in any season, and when the female was in heat, the mating would continue day and night for several days.

From Amboseli we drove west to the Tsavo West National Park, down in the south eastern corner of Kenya, just east of the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro in neighboring Tanzania.  Here I am staying in the lovely Serena Lodge from where I can post this report.  Later.  Dave

 

 

Travel Report on Andasibe National Park and Surrounds, Madagascar, Oct. 28, 2018

Hello all.  My driver/guide Miary and I drove 2 very long days to return from Ifaty, north of Toleara on the southwest coast, to Antananarivo, the capital.  We stopped for one night at the nice Zomatel Hotel in Fianarantsoa, and then I stayed 2 nights at the Petite Flower Guesthouse north of Tana.  Last Monday we headed east to the rainforest parks and private reserves around Andasibe, a small village by the large Andasibe National Park entrance.  I stayed at the Feon’ny Ala Hotel in a rustic but nice large cabin with balcony right over a small stream at the very edge of the Park’s primary rainforest.  Every afternoon and evening the haunting songs of the Indri, serenaded my room. The Indri are one of the largest lemurs, completely black and white, with fluffy ears and bright green-yellow eyes, and do look like furry teddy bears sitting on the sides of tree trunks.  They live in family groups (as do all lemurs), fairly high in the rainforest canopy, and their calls or singing is one of the unforgettable sounds of Madagascar – they make a high pitched cry that rises and falls, very loud, and very reminiscent of recordings of Humpback Whales singing.  I made good recordings by using camera video.  Also almost every afternoon, the local family tribe of Common Brown Lemurs would cross the little stream via tree branches, and sit on the embankment below the cabin balconies – unfortunately many guest had learned to throw them bread or bananas to attract them.  This band of lemurs, unlike all others I encountered in the deep forest, were overweight, some just plain fat.  They had to rely on larger branches than most because of their extra weight although they still could launch themselves goodly distances.

The first day I hired a self-described bird expert to visit the neighboring primary forests in Mantadia National Park, an hour and half drive by 4X4 north to the start of trails.  Unfortunately, the expert was not so expert, and not a very good guide and we encountered no birds new for me.  We did however encounter 5 species of lemur, including the Grey Bamboo Lemur, Black and White Ruffed Lemur, Red-bellied Lemur and the extremely rare and critically endangered Diademed Sifaka, a large white and deep golden lemur with handsome black face.  Photos of all are included below.  The second day I visited a small NGO Reserve, Matsinju, which was mostly secondary forest, but where we achieved an up-close view of an Indri, as well as an encounter with the Common Brown Lemurs.  I also got my first viewing of the Parson’s Chameleon, large and spectacularly colored green and orange with horns and neck shield.

Day 3 saw us on an 8 hour trek through the primary rainforest of the private village reserve of Maromizaha, where with a village guide we encountered the sought after Red-fronted Coua, the Velvet Asity and the White-throated Oxylabe, though great pictures were not obtained.  Day 4 I finally visited Andasibe National Park, with another “expert” bird guide, and now realize that for the most part the Madagascar “experts” simply do not measure up to anything close to the abilities I am accustomed to in Central and South America and Asia, though they all charge comparable prices.  Some lovely photos of the unusual Nelicourvi Weaver were possible, both male and female beautifully colored.  Also we encountered a female Indri with an extremely boisterous young one – video was possible of this little one simply leaping from limb to limb going in rapid circles around his mother, who paid no attention.  He was practicing his travel techniques, and often somewhat miss-timed his jumps and barely held on to the target branches.  It was extremely amusing and I will need to find some way to present videos and sound recordings in my website.  The final morning I visited another local village private reserve which covers half the Andasibe Rainforest which is not operated by the federal government as National Park.  There we sought the Madagascar Crested Ibis and ground rollers, with little luck except for a brief viewing of the Pita-like Ground Roller.  I got a decent view of a Madagascar Long-eared Owl roosting high in a pine tree, and a juvenile Madagascar Scops Owl in its nesting hole.

From Andesibe my driver returned me to the Sakamanga Hotel in central Tana, where I am spending my last 2 nights in the country.  On Monday the 29th I will fly back to Nairobi for 45 days of adventure in Kenya.

A parting comment on the Madagascar road system – it truly is terrible – I have seen as bad only in Mozambique, Malawi and Nepal (and, unfortunately, only here exaggerating a little, in parts of my hometown, Tucson).  The major highway in the country runs from the capital Antananarivo south and then west 1,000 km to Toleara on the southwest coast; the other major road heads north and then west from Tana to Mahajanga (just beyond Ankarafantsika National Park where I started).  We have driven both.  The roads never are more than single lane each direction, and often not that on narrow curves and where the edges have crumbled.  Most bridge crossings reduce to one-at-a-time single lane.  Large stretches present huge potholes, often impossible to drive around, requiring all vehicles practically to come to a complete stop to pass.  Huge, very slow moving trucks ply the road, exuding black clouds of diesel exhaust, as they inch up the inclines at a cool walking pace.  In our days of travel I believe we encountered 4 recently overturned trucks, where unsecured loads inside shifted when the trucks outer wheels encountered a deep gap in the edge of the pavement – the shifting loads broke through the cheap sides of the semi-trailers and the shift would overturn the truck.  Trucks also broke down in the middle of steep ascents, taking up most of the roadway as no shoulders exist.  Mini-buses, called taxi-brousses, form the backbone of all public transportation, plying all roads between all towns.  These travel packed so full of passengers that breathing room is difficult.  The roofs are often packed 4-5 feet higher with luggage and transported goods, often huge bags of charcoal, and sometimes wicker baskets with dozens of chicken or duck heads sticking up through the holes.  These taxis are broken down so often I suppose we would pass one each 10 minutes or so – the 20 plus passengers sitting on the embankments in the sun, while driver and aide would be underneath trying to repair something.

One comment also on the politics of Madagascar – I have read about the history since independence from France in 1960, and am utterly confused, with which reaction most of the Malagasy people I have spoken with agree.  The same names appear in each presidential election over many years, and this year is not different.  The election for President will occur just after my departure in a few days.  The national law allows just one month of campaigning (oh how I wish the same existed in the US).  36 candidates have been in full swing for the last 3 weeks. Due in part to the sheer number of candidates who will be on the ballot, but also to illiteracy and overall confusion, the candidates now are each ascribed a number, No1 through No36, which number appears in bold on all campaign posters with the candidate’s picture, and which number will be used on the ballots to identify for whom the vote is cast.  I am told that Madagascar’s disappearing endangered mature rosewood trees, which only grow in the far northeast, a rather inaccessible part of the country, have their protections lifted by the crop of perpetually high-level candidates running for President.  Large numbers of irreplaceable trees (requiring 100s of years to mature) are cut and the wood shipped to China where it is prized.  Thus have campaigns been financed for decades.

A fond farewell to Madagascar; at last count I photographed 88 species of birds new to me, almost all of which are endemic to Madagascar, and 17 species of Lemurs, all of which are endemic and so of course new. The next travel report should be on Kenyan Parks.  Later. Dave

Travel Report on Toleara and Southwest Coastal area, Madagascar, Oct. 18, 2018

One very full day was passed at the lovely bungalow in the Arboretum, outside Toleara, where an amateur Swiss botanist collected and planted almost 1,000 species of exotic plants from southwestern Madagascar.  With dripping water faucets, and surrounded by native dry forest, the site is excellent for birding as well as night walks.  At night we encountered the nocturnal Rufous-grey Mouse Lemurs, about the size of chipmunks, which scamper among the trees in search of insects on which they feed.  These lemurs are the tiniest primates on earth. They didn’t like my flashlight, shutting their eyes when I used it to acquire photos, but the flashlight was much kinder on their eyes than the camera flash some people use, and I can manage some very low light photography if close enough.  Also encountered at night, a very tiny Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec (Telfairi), ensconced inside a tiny ¾ inch crack in a tree trunk – when the guide stuck a small twig inside, the hedgehog bit it viciously – I did not stick my finger inside. Common on low twigs were the Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches – my driver and guide laughed when I said some kids kept them for pets; they said in Madagascar they are squashed when encountered. Finally, we discovered the most exquisite Warty Chameleon on a small tree branch – a must-see photo.

During the early morning I got good shots of the Green-capped Coua devouring a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach, as well as a pair of nesting Madagascar Kestrels, a gorgeous Male Souimanga Sunbird and a flame colored Madagascar Red Fody.  We moved on into Toleara, second largest city in Madagscar, to a first class hotel for the evening.  The following day we took a boat south about 35kms across the St. Augustine Bay. The boat ride was most unusual in that no deep inlets or port exist on the coast.  Therefore, even the flat bottomed boats such as we took cannot get right onto the beach but must be out in a few feet of water.  To load onto the boat a series of bullock carts are driven by young boys onto the beach to collect the luggage and passengers, then head out into the shallow waters by the side of the boat to off load the cart.  At the arrival points in Anakao to the south, groups of young men wade out to gather the luggage onto their backs to carry from the boat to shore; passengers must do a “wet” landing, simply wading to shore (lots of sand in the sandals, which hopefully one has been advised to wear).

In Anakao we were met by a driver with 4X4 to continue our transport south along the dirt and sand single track another 45kms through very unusual dry scrub, into territory with no paved roads. My accommodation, at the Le Domaine d’Ambola, is the home and guest house of the regional head of the ABC Domino, a French NGO which has built schools around the southwest coast for the villagers who live in the middle-of-nowhere (see the photo of the 4X4 “bus” below).  We were on a beautiful white sand beach coastline, had running water turned on for parts of the day, took bucket baths in the bathrooms, and relied on rather dependable solar power which periodically was turned on for the rooms. The first late afternoon after arrival a booming thunderstorm and downpour passed over us, flooding much of the property, and was pronounced most unusual by the owner.  It cleared quickly and that evening the sunset was beautiful.  This was the only spot within easy 4X4 access of the Tsimanampetsotsa National Park, my reason for coming.  The Park consists of marshes and a shallow soda lake full of unusual water birds with the surrounding dry spiny forest full of a different set of birds.  Barely 1,000 tourists a year visit the Park as it is rather difficult to get to.

Because of the very heavy thunderstorm of the first day the difficulty level increased the next 2 days; even the 4X4 could not reach the Park, so alternate transport by bullock cart was arranged for the 6 kilometers passage through shallow standing water in the briny pans to reach the main lake and Park areas.  The previous day I had sought out the only guide with knowledge of the birds and arranged for him to accompany me for the 2 days.  At the Lake edge we encountered three species of small plovers, the White-fronted, Kittlitz’s and rather rare Madagascar, as well as Greater Flamingos, and two more species of Coua, the Running and Verreaux’s.

The second day by bullock cart, in order to get deep into the Park on the far side of the lake, we crossed a number of deep water depressions, and twice got stuck, once with one of the bullocks tail down into a deep hole.  Both times required the driver to release the bullocks to extricate themselves, while my driver, guide and cartman then man-handled the cart wheels to extract the cart from the muddy depression.  You may have read that cattle contribute very significantly to global warming by emitting greenhouse gasses consisting of methane, CO2 and nitrous oxide, which together are worse than all auto emissions combined, as the methane is over 20 times more heat-trapping.  The two bullocks pulling my cart had achieved superstar status in this regard.  Needing to sit down in the cart, to avoid falling out, I was low enough to endure some really noxious emissions – effused heavily with aerosol particulates and vapors that only bullock bacteria apparently can produce – odiferous is way too polite a term.

For those who may think this travel sounds rough, well it is, in fact, adventure travel.  All the better hotels in this area have no running water.  At the Safari Vezo, in Anakao, they daily brought me a small bucket of very hot water, dark brown and briny, into which some palm leaf had been steeped to a tea strength, which bathing solution was reputed to have many medicinal qualities to heal one’s aches.  The bath was taken sitting in the nicely tiled bath chamber, with huge plastic buckets of briny water from which one poured a mixture of the hot and cold via a large plastic cup.  Electricity all was via solar power, and generally was supplied to the rooms for only a few hours in early evening.  Getting up daily at 4am, I was reliant on flashlights to get around.  All battery recharging, in order to get my computer work accomplished, had to be undertaken within a 4 hour window.  For coffee in the early morning hours, I often relied on borrowing a thermos filled with hot water in the evening, with which I then could make instant coffee in the morning.  Mosquitoes were not so bad this time of year around most of the rooms, though DEET or nets are advised.  Mosquitoes could be horrid in the Parks, as was the mid-day sun.

My one full day in Anakao, I hired an outrigger (with tiny motor) to visit the nearby island of Nosy Ve.  Most tourists go, if at all, for the completely deserted white sand beaches.  I went because it has the southern-most breeding colony of Red-tailed Tropicbirds.  One finds the scattered nests under brush, inland a distance from the beaches – somewhat reminiscent of the many nesting birds in the Galapagos.  We also encountered a number of shorebirds, Grey heron and Newtonias on the island.

On Monday we returned by boat across the Bay to Toleara, and after stocking up on a few supplies, traveled north to the small village of Ifaty on the coast, surrounded by more spiny desert and some rare endemic birds.  The next day I spent 5 hours in the private Reniala Reserve, with a young university educated guide, and was rewarded with great photos of two rare local endemics; the Subdesert Mesite and the Long-tailed Ground Roller.  Both are found only in a roughly 10 by 35 kilometer stretch of coastal thorny forest centered on Ifaty – nowhere else on earth.  Both provided very nice colorful photos, presented below.  We also were fortunate in locating two somewhat rarely seen birds at their nests; the Madagascar Harrier Hawk, a very large magnificent bird of prey, and the Hook-billed Vanga, which was presenting its young a headless lizard at its nesting hole in a Baobab tree.  Incidentally, this reserve provides protection to a number of amazing Baobabs, some 1,200 years old (see photo of yours truly), plus the fantastic Octopus tree, a towering collection of very spiny leafy poles reaching into the sky. The vegetation in the spiny southern forests is some of the most exotic on earth – I never have seen so many really strange dry forest type plants – and most indeed are spiny.

The following day I arranged a different guide to visit some shallow soda lakes south of Ifaty, where we photographed more plovers, as well as a bedraggled looking Madagascar Swamp Warbler (I pictured it just to show the meaning of “bedraggled”), and a Baillon’s Crake, very difficult to see as it never leaves the thick reeds.  We return by vehicle to the Capital Tana over the next two days – each will require 11 to 12 hours of driving.  I will then spend 5 days back in the Eastern rain forest to try to pick up a number of final endemic birds and lemurs.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report on Ranomafana, Isalo and Zombitse National Parks, Madagascar, Oct. 9, 2018

After leaving Ankarafantsika and reconnecting for 3 days with the capital, Antananarivo, I met with my new driver, Miary, and headed south for the longest loop of my visit to Madagascar.  I was somewhat incapacitated for a couple of days in Tana from a lower intestinal bug (probably virus), but recovered sufficiently to continue my journey south; I suspected my green mango chili sauce might be the culprit, although I had been adding it to my food for 5 days by then – perhaps the viral incubation period was that long.  I figure now I am immune, though I have suspended use of the sauce for a while. The first stop on the journey south was an overnight in Ambositra.  We stayed at the L’Artisans Hotel, a nice oasis in the middle of a very crowded dusty town.  The area is famous for its wood carvers, who do entire panels, balconies, statues or anything to order, by hand.  The small bungalows were a little dark, but the entire upper outside walls were carved dark wood panels – very ornate.

After a 6 hour drive the first day, the second leg should have been shorter but was lengthened somewhat by two events.  The first, we passed a small forested area which my driver told me was a new private reserve owned by the local village of Ambotovaki, created just 3 years earlier to protect the critically endangered Red Lemur (aka Rufous Brown Lemur).  I paid for entrance and services of a local village guide and we spent a little over an hour hiking up the forested hillside to ultimately encounter two small families of the lemurs.  I was able to capture some decent photos, although all birdlife escaped my lens as the undergrowth simply was too thick to permit the camera any chance of achieving focus.

Shortly after the stop at the reserve we were halted by a long line of vehicles extending up and around a hill.  I walked along the line and found the cause – a tractor trailer had overturned on a corner, unleashing a load of newly cast concrete power poles along the roadway.  They had temporarily shut the road in both directions to try to right the trailer with steel cables, but ultimately failed, and eventually traffic was re-opened but took some time to pass the roadblock.

Ranomafana National Park is the most famous and expensive of the Madagascar Parks, and the small town near the entrance has a number of hotels with a number of foreign tourists.  I stayed in the Centrest, with very nice rooms, mine with a balcony overlooking the greenery of the town below.  It at least had power, in theory, 24 hours a day although it seemed often to go off for short periods.  My first full day I headed out with car, driver, chief guide and 2 finders, only to have fog and heavy drizzle continue all day ending any viewing whatsoever.  Rotten luck – they kept telling me this was the first precipitation they had had in over a month – little consolation as the rainy season was not to start for another month.  It is, however, a rainforest.  The second day started overcast, but cleared by mid-morning and we took full advantage with a 6 hour trek in the am and another 3 ½ in the afternoon.  The park consists of very steep hillsides with creeks running in each valley, all covered with dense rainforest with the hardwood canopy reaching 150 feet.  While the upper story is ablaze with sunlight and clear sky, at the bottom it is near full dark.  For those who know camera settings, for a single lemur jumping from double shade understory into a shaft of full sunlight, the appropriate setting would go from ISO 6400, f5.6 at 1/60sec to ISO 400, f8 at 1/1000s – that is a 9 stop difference, which is huge.

The Park was created after the major discovery in 1984 of a new species of primate, the Golden Bamboo Lemur (which I vaguely remember reading about at the time). The Park has over a dozen species of lemur, including now 3 species of Bamboo Lemurs, the Grey Santel, Greater and Golden – all three critically endangered, living only within this Park.  The Greater may have as few as 60 members left.  We spotted all 3 species of the Bamboo Lemurs on the same day, pleasing me to photograph so many endangered creatures.  The price paid for getting the photos, other than some luck, was a drudging hike through and over a number of very steep mountain trails on the south side of the Park to get into the bamboo forests.  Also in the park are families of the Edward’s Sifakas, another beautiful deep brown and snow-white lemur, which we twice encountered on the north side of the park, along with a beautifully colored Leonartus Gecko and a super camouflaged Devil’s Gecko (a must see photo to determine if you can make out which parts are gecko – the answer is almost all).

To give an example of the problems facing the protection of these species, the day we drove into the Park, I noted with some disgust a small forest fire on the hillside which my driver and I assumed was caused by a careless cigarette.  Two days later my driver reported to me the full story – residents of a small village outside the Park were making forays into the Park to gather wood for making charcoal; Park rangers caught them and 2 people were jailed – in retaliation the villagers set the forest fire the day we arrived.

My guide in the park, now 55 years old, worked with the small group of scientists who camped for 2 years in the forest in 1984 studying the lemurs and making the Golden Bamboo Lemur discovery.  He now apparently is the senior bird guide, and although long on bravado is not one of the better guides I have experienced over the years, although he prices himself way above any normal Madagascar level.  Unfortunately, the beautiful rainforest also seemed very thinly populated with birds, though we found a good mix of lemurs, reptiles and insects.

From Ranomafana we drove west across the great plateau to Ranohira to visit the Isalo National Park.  On the way we stopped at another village reserve, the D’Anja, where they have a small forest of Lilac Trees with a dozen or so families of the Ring-tailed Lemurs.  The villagers dig water holes to assist in maintaining the relatively high concentration of lemurs through the dry season.  On to Ranohira where I stayed at the Hotel Isalo Ranch, 5 kilometers from the town, with bungalows scattered throughout a large area planted with all forms of tropical trees and shrubs.  The restaurant was known for its quality of food and lived up to expectations.  The rooms were a small step above rustic, with 24 hour electricity and solar heated hot water tanks.

After some inquiry at the Park headquarters we met with Roland who turned out to be one of the best guides I have had anywhere.  The Park is amazing – One heads from the town across almost barren grass covered plateau to a line of rising granite massifs and cliffs.  The cliff wall is broken every few kilometers by gorges, the entrances to which appear green from the distance.  As one hikes into the gorge the trail follows a running stream through a verdant wonderland of towering Pandamus and larger and larger trees until deep within it is a narrow lush tropical forest.  A number of bird species inhabit this area, along with a large number of the most unusual insects, spiders and reptiles.  Included in my favorites were a ‘twig-mimicking’ preying mantis (you must see the photo) and a ‘snout-nose’ bug (also a must-see), which appears to have a sawed off twig nose extending well beyond the eye, which is near the legs.  We found three roosting owls, including the Madagascar Scops Owl and a White-browed Owl, as well as the beautiful Forest Rock Thrush (considered in the Park a separate species – the Benson’s Rock Thrush) and the elusive Madagascar Buttonquail.  The owls were in very dense dark understory, and required a lot of work in very low light, as well as inching through the undergrowth in search of the little windows through the branches to permit some kind of decent photos.  Though viewed at a distance, we also saw the sole surviving Verreaux’s Sifaka (a lemur) left in this Park, who now has joined with and been accepted by a family of Ring-tailed Lemurs.

From Isalo we drove the couple of hours further west to Sakaraha to visit the nearby Zombitse Park.  En route we passed by Ilakaka, a booming frontier mining town where 20 years ago deposits of sapphires were found – the population since has grown from 40 to 60,000.  The red-earth gravel is dug up manually from pit-holes 30 to 60 feet deep, into which the diggers are lowered by ropes; the dirt gravel then is washed in the river to find the sapphires.  The entire portion of Highway 7, crossing the southern  part of the country from Fianarantsoa in the east to Toleara on the west coast, is still considered dangerous, with bands of thieves at night – the long distance public transport, the taxi brousse (mini buses or vans), often travel in convoys with special flags and armed guards on board (for me this was reminiscent of travel in most parts of Egypt some years ago, permitted only by convoys with armed military vehicles leading and following).  We have avoided staying in certain towns, and certainly do not travel at night.

Zombitse National Park is a last remaining isolated section of interzone dry forest among relative barren rolling hills where all other trees have been felled.  It is renowned for a handful of endemic species, especially including the Zombitse Sportive Lemur and the Abert’s Tetraka, both found nowhere else.  The Sportive Lemurs are nocturnal only, but they tend to come out of their tree holes to investigate annoying humans.  This also is where I finally got a few decent photos of the hawk size (and sounding) Madagascar Cuckoo-Roller with its green and gold wings, as well as the terrestrial Giant Coua.

From Sakaraha we drove the short remaining distance west to just outside Toleara on the Western Coast to stay one night at the Aboretum, before continuing south by boat to a wetlands park.  Dave

 

Report on Ankarafantsika National Park, Madagascar, Sept. 27, 2018

My private car and driver picked me up Sept. 22 from my lodging at the Sakamanga in Tana at 7am for the 8 1/2 hour drive north to Ankarafantsika National Park, my first adventure in Madagascar.  The park is large, consisting of dry thorn forest in gently rolling hills near the Northwest coast of the island.  The trees often grow to a canopy of 100 plus feet, and below are thickets of vines and dry bushes.  All Parks in Madagascar require a fairly steep daily entrance fee, and none have access for vehicles.  Local guides must be hired at preset prices to enter each Park, and all exploration is done on foot on the fairly well maintained trails.  Ankarafantsika also boasts a fairly large, crocodile infested lake which is accessible by small boat (for an additional large fee, and still requiring one be accompanied by a guide).  My first day I met and arranged three days visit with Modeste, a young local guide who is an expert on the local birds.

My legs were a little sore at the end of three days of hiking, starting each morning at sunup and going for 4 hours and then that again each afternoon.  I probably downed a gallon of water after trudging through the mid-afternoon heat each day (something about mad dogs and Englishmen).  My lodging, the Blue Vanga, located in the nearby village from which the local guides came, was in the usual “rustic” style, meaning thatched roof bungalow with mosquito netting sort of forming a ceiling below the thatch.  The windows were shuttered with wood – no glass or netting.  The shower, which ran from an outside raised water tank through 5/8 inch plastic piping above ground, put out blazing hot water at mid-day.  Electric power was available from banks of batteries solar recharged during the day.  Power only was available from 6pm to 6am, just enough to power extremely weak compact florescent lighting.  A small fan over the bed, along with many geckos, held off the flying insects and helped sleep during the sweltering night.  The only staff stayed in and walked over a kilometer from the nearby village.  Evening meals could be prepared as long as orders were put in well in advance.  No problems waking up, as the resident rooster started crowing each night on the half hour from 1:30 am on.  When the rooster missed, the three resident dogs were certain to take up the slack by barking outside the door by 2am.

The local villagers just north of the park specialize in a product from the local mango trees – this time of year the small pot-holed highway is lined with wooden stalls selling combinations of hot mashed chili mixed with finely julienned green mango or lime, sold in reused plastic water bottles in liter or half liter size.  It might not look great, but this is some of the finest condiment I ever have tried.  I purchased 4 half liters to take with me on my further journeys, as I was told it  is only a specialty of this region.

My hikes with guide Modeste, plus time on the lake, resulted in a number of fine bird and other wildlife sightings.  We found most of the extremely rare and endangered endemic species resident only around this area.  This included the fabulous Madagascar Fish Eagle, a magnificent large rust colored eagle with whitish tan head – an estimated fewer than 120 mating pairs are in existence.  Also on tap were the gorgeous Schleger’s Asity, Madagascar Kingfisher, Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher, Sickle-billed Vanga, White-breasted Mesite, Long-billed Tetraka, Madagascar Crested Coua, Coquerel’s Coua and Red-capped Coua, along with the dazzling Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher.  At least a dozen more endemic birds were photographed, along with the endemic mammals and reptiles, including the Brown Lemur, Coquerel’s Sifaka and Milne-Edwards’ Sportive Lemur along with the Green Gecko and Oestalet Chameleon.

I spent late afternoons trying to develop and caption my photos in the hot bungalow.  Without power this inevitably would exhaust my laptop battery power with Photoshop Lightroom running very hard and read-writing twin half Terrabyte flash memory banks.  I was able, in the capital Tana, to find 3 liter casks of Spanish red table wine, and so happily sat outside on the shaded porch sipping wine and smoking my pipe while the computer was running its tasks and overheating (in the tropics I usually have to turn the laptop upside down to keep the internal temperature within range).  At 6 pm with the solar bank power turned on I could recharge my computer and camera batteries overnight.

Basically all my expenses, other than lodging and transport which I pre-arranged, have to be paid in cash, the Ariary, the local currency.  As my Park entrances and guide fees are quite high, this creates issues with obtaining and carrying enough cash.  The largest bill is 20,000 Ariary, but the largest generally obtained and used is 10,000 – sounds like a lot but that translates into a $3 bill US.  Many days, with entrance fee, guide fee, boat fee, meals and tips, paying out 250,000 to 300,000 per day ($75 – $90) is common.  This requires 25 to 30 notes of the largest bill.  A week’s worth of cash can be a stack of bills 2 1/2 inches thick, which cannot be carried conveniently in a wallet, but stored in a plastic bag within my backpack.  To make matters worse, ATM machines are not available outside the larger cities, and the largest ATM withdrawal per transaction is generally 400,000 Ariary, or $120, so multiple withdrawals must be made daily while in Tana to fill up my plastic bags, in order to have sufficient cash for the excursions.  I ran into similar problems in Leticia, Colombia on the Amazon River.  One needs to plan, and stay several days in the large cities with banks, to organize enough cash for travel into the boondocks (I did wire $1,000 via Western Union from the US for starting cash, and was greeted at the airport with a stack of currency over 3 inches thick).

I am now back in Tana for a few days, getting ready for a 21 day excursion throughout the southern half of the island.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report on Nairobi National Park, Sept. 21, 2018

I am at the beginning of a 3 month visit to Madagascar and Kenya for wildlife and bird photography.  After leaving my house in Tucson I endured four flight legs and one long taxi ride, covering 30+ hours, to get to my hotel in downtown Nairobi (my return trip is scheduled to be 4 hours longer).  From Nairobi it is several hours more of flight time to Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar.  Because I could not book flights directly all the way to Madagascar, I spent 5 days in Nairobi before flying on (I will return to Kenya after 6 weeks of travel in Madagascar).

Nairobi is a sprawling city of over 5 million, and includes a huge shantytown only a little smaller than Soweto in Johannesburg. Threats of street crime and terror attacks have been somewhat reduced with new security measures in the last 4 years.  Entering the international airport from the city has one navigate 3 different security checks.  First, almost a mile from the airport all vehicles are stopped and searched, and all passengers must exit the vehicles and form a huge line which passes through a building with dual metal detectors.  At the terminal, vehicles must park some distance from the entrance, where a second full security detail now has all luggage pass through huge belted scanners, and all passengers, after showing identification, pass through full body-scan machines.  At this point one checks in and acquires boarding passes.  Then one goes through the final security checkpoint where, again, after removing all metal, computers, etc. bags again are scanned and one walks through the third set of body scanners.  My hotel in downtown Nairobi had guards fully inspect all vehicles before they could pull up to the hotel entrance.  At the entrance one passed through a scanner and luggage went through an x-ray machine.  Upon exiting the elevators, one needed the electronic room card to open steel doors to exit the elevator lobby and approach one’s room, which of course also required the key.  On major roads, overhead cameras constantly monitor traffic and photos are snapped of all occupants of the vehicles (they operate like speed cameras, but photograph everyone).  I suspect the people who operate all this security probably stop paying much attention, but the effort certainly is impressive and a little oppressive, and I am told attacks and crime has been much reduced.

My downtown hotel, the Ibis, had a lovely rooftop bar where I enjoyed my late afternoons with the most popular local beer, the Tusker, in imperial pint bottles.  Marabou Storks flew in small groups overhead returning to their roosting grounds, as Black Kites circled together with Pied Crows.

As I had 5 initial days in Kenya I opted to spend just 2 nights downtown then was transported into the Nairobi National Park, the only large game park in the world located literally bordering a large city.  The Park contains all the dangerous Big Five animals except elephants, as well as many antelope species, giraffe, hippos, zebra and hyena among countless others.  An electric fence is all that separates many miles of the northern park boundary, and its lions, buffalo and rhinos, from busy Nairobi streets and apartment buildings.  The southern boundaries of the park are open and permit the animals to migrate out and into other parks.  I stayed at the only tented safari camp permitted in the park, the Nairobi Tented Camp, a semi-luxury camp with solar power, large private tented accommodation with private baths, good food and excellent service.  Although the park is separated from the city, the camp deep within the park is open and unprotected.  After sunset one must be accompanied by staff to walk to and from the tents, group dining and gathering areas.  Wild animals routinely walk through the camp, including bushbuck, suni, warthogs and buffalo, although I was told lions and rhinos are relatively rare.  Nights under the trees were pitch black, and the cries of the many animals “interesting” – especially the Tree Hyrex, which were located around the camp, one directly over my tent.  Their nightly communication involved an extraordinarily loud series of creaks, as of two huge tree trunks grinding against each other in a storm, followed by loud wails that invoked images of a large grazing beast’s (or person’s) last cries while being slaughtered by a lion. The spotted hyena’s ascending whoops also were a little chilling.

I spent early mornings and late afternoons on game drives throughout the Park.  We encountered many zebra, giraffe, buffalo, impala, hartebeest, eland, ostrich, hippo and lion.  This is one of the few Parks in all of Africa with large numbers of both species of endangered rhinos, the Black and the White.  We watched a number of small social groups of white rhino.  The Blacks are fewer in number, solitary, and stay within the shrubbery which they consume, and so are quite rare to see.  I lucked out my last hour of the last day in locating a large male, which slowly moved to cross the dirt trail right in front of us.  Below I have posted photos of many of the animals, as well as some of the wondrous birds, including two species of the tiny iridescent sunbirds, the Scarlet Chested and Variable, and the Grey-crowned Crane, Superb Starling, Little Bee-eater and Speckled Mousebird, among others.

On Tuesday I was transported to the airport, passing eventually through the onerous security previously described, and flew onward to Madagascar to spend the next 41 days, mostly with a private vehicle and driver traveling throughout the island’s various habitat zones to visit around a dozen National Parks and private reserves. I look forward to viewing the unique and mostly endemic wildlife and birds.  I currently am spending a few days in the capital city, wandering the over-crowded, traffic-jammed narrow streets which wind throughout the hilly region.  My hotel, the Sakamanga, has nice rooms filled with unique local artwork, and one of the best French restaurants, along with an outdoor bar area around the pool.  Wandering throughout the pool area is the semi-pet resident bald parrot, slightly crazy, and constantly accosting guests.  My first day, he would not leave me alone, climbing up my legs and chair to get on the table and opening my backpack.  It knew precisely how to open various plastic snaps and straps.  Then it would sit in a corner brooding and make the most wondrous whistling noises and songs.

Later.  Dave

Travel Report Central to Northern Utah and Wyoming, June 9, 2018

From Dolores Colorado I headed north to Green River Utah, where I have been a number of times to visit the Barrier Canyon rock art which many consider the best pictographs in North America.  These include many eerie life-size paintings, mostly in red and white, of human figures, generally without limbs as if in death shrouds.  Age estimates vary from 2,000 to 5,000 years ago, with most agreeing they date to the Archaic and pre-date the Basketmaker and Fremont petroglyphs.  They are found in a number of sheer sandstone cliff alcoves throughout central Utah.  The very best, for which all are named, lie deep in what was originally known as Barrier Canyon, now renamed the Horseshoe Canyon and made a dis-contiguous part of Canyonlands National Park.  To visit one must drive to the remote part of central Utah, the final drive being 40 miles of dirt road to the trail head at the top of Horseshoe Canyon, all primitive area.  A rocky trail descends 800 feet into the canyon bottom where one hikes the sandy streambed several miles upstream through the towering sandstone cliffs.  The views are breath-taking even as the slog through the soft sand with camera gear leaves one muttering.  At varying distances from the descent are four separate alcoves with panels of the mysterious paintings.  The best is at the farthest point several miles up-stream, and consists of a gallery of figures along a wall about 150 feet long. Over 25 of the life-sized figures are spread across the cliff face, many with multihued colored “shrouds” and some with elaborate decoration on the “shrouds.”  Interspersed among these figures are multiple smaller anthropomorphic figures, some in apparent action poses, and occasional animal figures.  At the end of the slog back down the canyon awaits the climb back up the 800 foot cliff, where my mutterings often included colorful words.

From Green River I drove to the northeastern corner of Utah for my first visit to Vernal.  There I spent a full day in Dinosaur National Monument.  The Green River cuts through ancient layers of uplifted earth which contain huge numbers of dinosaur bones.  I believe I read that, of all the largest dinosaurs which may be viewed in museums around the world, more complete skeletons came from this location than any other.  From about 1910 through the 1950’s the giants were excavated.  Now the long cliff face, which once was a flat river flood plain, has been exposed showing thousands of remaining animal’s petrified skeletons, and a huge building constructed around it, to permanently display to the public the richness of such a natural find.  Of equal interest to me were the many Fremont petroglyphs found in the Monument.  The Fremont were the northern neighbors of the more prolific Basketmakers in the 4-Corners region, and also produced extremely fine detailed petroglyphs from perhaps 500BC to 1200AD.  Here one cliff face contained a number of very large lizards, which is unique, and leads one to speculate as to the meaning.

In another canyon just 25 miles from the monument are a several more unique Fremont petroglyph panels, each displaying from 6 to 12 finely detailed and ornately costumed individuals standing side by side facing the viewer. Each individual’s attire is different, including different head-dresses, but all have large chest necklaces.  Some have speculated that the objects held between the two largest figures in two of the panels are decapitated heads.

From Vernal I drove northeast into Wyoming, crossing the continental divide on a high plateau, then continued across the Wind River Indian Reservation (Arapaho), through Shoshone and up through the Wind River Canyon to Thermopolis.  I visited there 5 years ago, but returned to again see the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, one of the two great dinosaur museums in the US (the other being in Bozeman).  Here they have continued to add new complete skeletons of various monster species, and are in the process of building an entirely new center further out of town to better display the huge collection.

Onward north to Cody, Wyoming, the town built in the early part of the 20th century by Buffalo Bill Cody, perhaps the most famous person from the West at the time.  Today it still has a famous Rodeo throughout the summer months and a huge set of western museums, but still is known mostly as the gateway to Yellowstone.  The highway into Yellowstone follows the North Fork of the Shoshone River all the way into the Park, and has spectacular scenery and many animals.  Much wilder and little known outside locals is the South Fork Shoshone River Canyon which meets the North Fork in Cody.  I spent part of one day driving up the South Fork to view Mule Deer, White-tailed Deer, Elk, Pronghorn and Bighorn Sheep.

On May 29th I drove into Yellowstone National Park where I had reservations at two different campsites for a total of 9 days (these campsites reserve out months in advance, and the Park is ever more strained for accommodations).

The first four days I stationed myself in Canyon, named for its proximity to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  The weather did not cooperate for three days, switching sometimes hourly from snow-thunder storms to sleet to pea size hail to sun to rain then back again.  My second day the power went out in all of Yellowstone and no one could pump gas for their cars; half of the food sources closed, and the other half tried what they could with natural gas and backup power to make whatever sandwiches etc. they could for hungry people.  Each day I traveled over the Dunraven Pass and down into Lamar River Valley which usually has the largest population of wildlife.  During late spring the wild flowers are in bloom and most of the larger animals have new-born popping into existence.  The bison are in relative large herds and spread over the valley, with large numbers of the cinnamon colored babies.  I spent four hours late one rainy morning patiently observing a lone Pronghorn female cleaning, feeding and waiting for her just dropped twins to get strong enough to move.  The young took perhaps half an hour to start standing; within two hours they were exploring the surroundings. Very surprisingly, and I believe very unusual, the male hung around and even went nose to nose several times with the newborn.  Many of the Black Bears and Grizzlies have twin cubs, which if visible from the roads cause “bear jams.”  I have seen fleeting views of the cubs, but more commonly find the mama bear at mid-day sleeping at the base of a pine tree, knowing the cubs are hidden somewhere up the tree.

On two of the days I was able to observe the wolves of Soda Butte Creek Valley, a tributary of the Lamar River.  The first day they were across the river on an elk kill.  The next two days the kill was attended by three Bald Eagles, but the wolves did not return.  The third day I spotted them traveling high up a hillside with food, apparently returning to a den of pups.

On June 2 I relocated to Fishing Bridge Camp where power hookups are available, but the restaurant was closed, so it was necessary to prepare all meals in the trailer.  The weather turned nice for four days in a row with blue skies and mid-60s temperature.  I spent the days looking for grizzlies but with no luck. I did spot the Wapiti Wolf Pack members on two different days, but at well over a mile away.  I also put together one massive stitched photo of Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – millions of pictures have been taken of the view from Artist’s Point, but I suspect few to none with original resolution of over 350 million pixels.

My final morning I got stuck in a “bison jam” (bison created traffic jam), as a large herd moved up Hayden Valley through a number of very narrow spots between the river and cliffs – the bison find the paved roads the preferred means of getting through narrow passes and water locations.  Because the herd is stretched out, only a few start down the road at a time, but before they clear others start, and completely block traffic.  I timed the stop at exactly 45 minutes.  That was probably painless compared to what I witnessed exiting the West Entrance to the Park.  About 12 miles from the entrance, 3 lone male bull bison were slowly making their way up the road into the higher elevations – traffic entering the Park were backed up, though our exit lane was clear.  As I read off the mileage, curve after curve, I was stunned to find the entering traffic was completely halted with the jam stretching to well over 3 miles.  I estimate well over 500 vehicles were trapped on the winding two lane road with no hope of proceeding for probably hours.

From the Park I have headed south to spend a few days in Idaho Falls with its charming Green Beltway of trails and parks along the Snake River.  I probably will continue on south through Nevada to return to Arizona.  Later. Dave