Author Archives: coxdavid55

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

 

Travel Report from Four-Corners Area Utah-Colorado, May 17, 2018

I last reported from the Verde Valley in central Arizona.  From there I traveled north, ascending the Mogollon Rim to Flagstaff and onward through Waputki National Monument, the Navajo Reservation with Navajo National Monument and Monument Valley (all of which I have visited many times), and across the San Juan River to one of my favorite tiny towns, Bluff, Utah, in the southeast corner of the state.  In recent years I have been staying at the Cottonwood RV Park, just north of the river, and next to the Cottonwood Steakhouse (not the best, but pretty good).  Bluff is one of the non-dry towns in Utah – this means one can buy beer and wine in the local store and restaurants, but the beer is all 4% ABV (what we used to call 3.2 beer, which then was measured as alcohol content by weight ‘ABW’).  Restaurants are limited by law to serving no more than 2 drinks per person, and only if accompanying a meal.  Bars, Taverns, Saloons and Pubs simply do not exist.  On the other hand, most towns in Utah, and the entire Navajo Reservation stretching into 3 states, are completely dry, so complaints need be muted (the situation is completely reminiscent of that I recently faced and reported from the Northern Outback in Australia).  Knowledgeable travelers, intending to spend a fair bit of time here, stock up their vehicles before entering this part of the country.

I find the Southeastern quarter of Utah to contain the finest and densest concentration of rock art in the US.  Within just a few miles of Bluff, along Comb Ridge and Butler Wash where they intersect the San Juan River, lie over half of the great petroglyph panels I have photographed in the Southwest.  I spent three days hiking and creating very high-resolution stitched photos of several panels I have only partially glimpsed before.  In doing so I discovered a couple of new panels previously missed – the changing angles of sunlight and shade, and the evolving cover of shrubs or tree branches, can hide or suddenly reveal faint petroglyph groupings.  Many of the oldest are 25 to 40 feet above the current ground level and must be viewed from 60 to 80 feet away; often only careful searches with binoculars or a telephoto lens will reveal the obscure panels.

I have included photos of a number of the panels.  I use the term “panel” for a single large rock face which contains numerous petroglyphs of apparent same age and style, and which appears to present some interaction among or symbolism associating the many petroglyphs.  I have arranged the panel photos approximately chronologically, starting with a presumed Pleistocene Colombian mammoths and bison panel (11,000 – 9,000 BC), followed in succession by Glen Canyon Linear Archaic (3,000 – 500 BC), Basketmaker (predecessors to Anasazi) (1,000 BC – 700 AD) and both Ute and Navajo style panels (proto-historic, after 1500 AD).  Almost all the photos are small copies of very high resolution composites of stitched photos covering the entire panel in detail (10 to 50 telephoto shots covering the surface of each panel are stitched together producing a single high resolution composite image of 60 to over 300 megapixels).  These should be viewed on a high resolution monitor to see any detail. I view the original photos on a 4K monitor, and at 100% enlargement must move around within the photo, as a single photo would fill 20 monitors.

I finally was able to hike to the famous Procession Panel high up Comb Ridge (my previous two attempts were thwarted by recent rainfall which made the Butler Wash impassable).  Although the individual Basketmaker (500BC to 700AD) petroglyph figures are a little rough, the overall depiction is spectacular.  Three columns of anthropomorphic figures (originally over 180 individuals) converge from 3 opposing angles to a large circle.  Along the sides of the longest column are taller figures with curved headed staves; also standing outside the lines a small group of 6 figures appear to be bearing a prone body.  Several figures have a bird adornment on top of the head, as appear in a number of other individual petroglyphs along the San Juan basin. Overlaid are outsize deer, bighorn sheep and canids, and perhaps some hunting scene.  The entire panel, about 30 feet across, almost certainly presents a single symbolic idea or event, but the meaning remains subject to much speculation.  At the least, the lines must represent some form of travel or procession, with the three groups converging.  I have produced a very high resolution stitched photo of the entire panel, and included below a much smaller copy for web viewing.

I also again briefly visited the Valley of the Gods area, with towering bluffs reminiscent of Monument Valley in a smaller version, and traveled to the spectacular overview in Goosenecks State Park.  The San Juan River, over 100 million years ago, “meandered” over the flatland as the ancient sea drained.  The “meandering” was frozen in time when the land started rising 80 million years ago, forcing the river to cut into the rising landscape.  The river now flows in its meander 1000 feet below steep cliffs, forming three spectacular “goosenecks” – geologically the formation is called an “entrenched river meander,” this being the most spectacular example.  The river flows over 6 miles through its loops while advancing just 1.5 miles to the West.  I was able to capture the whole scene in a set of stitched photos creating a panorama about 160 degrees wide (I have viewed many other professional photo shots of the Goosenecks and none seem to quite capture this view).

From Bluff I traveled the short distance to Cortez in the Southwest corner of Colorado.  After a few days I moved 10 miles north to the tiny town of Dolores, where I have spent a week camping in the huge Dolores River Campground under a forest of trees right on the river.  I have made several short trips and hikes to revisit Mesa Verde National Park, Canyon of the Ancients, Anasazi Heritage Center and Hovenweep National Monument.  All of these sites are very familiar to me, and so I have done less photography and more relaxing.

A number of the spring days have been very windy at all my stops, so I have not been cycling although I brought my bike with me.  Around the Dolores River Camp I have spotted several interesting birds, including Wild Turkey, Downy Woodpecker and Evening Grosbeak.  I have enjoyed every late afternoon, 4pm to 6pm, sitting outside my RV in a great canvas chair, reading sci-fi, drinking cheap red wine (out of my 15 year old stained blue plastic coffee cup which has been around the world multiple times), snacking on cheddar cheese popcorn, smoking a pipe or cigar, and chatting with fellow travelers.

I am planning to travel tomorrow from here to Green River Utah, then on north where I have reservations at two campsites for 9 days in Yellowstone starting May 29.  Later.  Dave

 

Travel Report – 2018 USA RV Trip, West Texas Parks, May 3, 2018

My trip commenced April 4 with a long 9 hour drive from Tucson to the town of Van Horn in West Texas, which sits between 3 National Parks; Big Bend, well to the south, and Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns to the north.  The first evening I cracked a tooth while munching on popcorn; I made telephonic arrangements to return to Tucson for the dental work and necessary crown, but because the tooth was not painful, I spent the next 8 days visiting the Parks before the long backtrack drive.

Big Bend National Park comprises a large swath of West Texas which sits within the north-side bowl of a big bend in the Rio Grande River.  The entire south-eastern to south-western boundary of the Park, which forms the international border with Mexico, is riparian river basin cutting through very dry desert.  Within the bend just north of the river rise the majestic Chisos Mountains, a range of island mountain tops within the desert which provide pine-oak canyon habitat for a large number of animals and birds.  For the most part the Park has few to no amenities.  I spent the first several days on the far southeastern border of the Park, called Rio Grande Village – there is no village, just campgrounds, but there is a tiny one-room general store, two archaic gas pumps, and 16 RV sites with hookups.  The birding was reasonably ok, though I never managed to find the Black Hawks in their nesting trees. I did get some nice photos of a Vermilion Flycatcher, Greater Roadrunner and Golden-fronted Woodpecker.  I subsequently moved to the tiny, dusty, but actual village of Terlingua on the western border of the Park, and spent time driving and hiking the Chisos Mountains and visiting the southwestern Rio Grande.  Terlingua itself is a ghost town, with a fascinating history extending from the mid-late 19th century through the First World War – it was the site of a major mine for cinnabar, from which mercury is extracted, for use at the time in explosives and munitions.  After the war the town died, though today it houses several art galleries and small dining establishments, alongside a wonderful old cemetery.

From Big Bend I drove north to the Guadalupe Mountains at the border of New Mexico, a long north-south limestone ridgeline pushed up from the ancient Permian Era sea; Carlsbad Caverns lie just within New Mexico at the northern end of the ridgeline.  Guadalupe Mountain NP in Texas has no amenities other than a ranger station – I did three mid-length hikes to various natural springs for birding, and visited one of the rare original Butterfield Stagecoach stations.  Two weeks before my arrival Carlsbad Caverns just had lost its elevator service which had been running since 1932.  The main chambers of the caverns with outstanding living formations start at 800 feet underground, reached either by elevator or by a huge gaping shaft which runs at more than a 45 degree angle into the earth.  Most people take about an hour to walk down the very steep switch-back trails from the natural entrance to reach the depths; the great room and other lower chambers all branch off from the depths.  The majority of visitors then return by taking the elevator 800 feet back up directly into the visitor center.  Because the elevators were old and too small for today’s crowds (I heard lines were backed up over two hours at the height of last year’s tourist season), two new, larger elevator shafts are under construction and close to completion.  However, a few weeks ago some cable system of the old elevators stopped working, and so for a time no elevators were functioning.  That meant, of course, if one hiked the 1.3 mile entrance trail down through the natural opening, dropping 800 feet in elevation, one must, after hiking the various chambers, climb the 800 feet back out through the same entrance.  It was, therefore, a lovely time to visit, for those fit enough, as the number of visitors making it into the lower chambers was very small.  I took a special guided tour into the deeper (1,000ft down) King’s Palace Chamber, as well as circling the 1.2 mile trail around the Great Room almost twice.  Most of the caverns still are wet and active, with running and dripping water, and most forms of cave formations are on exhibit.  Carlsbad still is as stunning as I recall from visits five decades ago.

I made the long slog back to Tucson on the 12th for the dental work, having to wait in Tucson two weeks for the new crown to be ordered and “installed.”  During that period I photographed the fledglings in the Great Horned Owl nest just two blocks from my house, which nest has been occupied every spring for years.  May 30 I departed for a second time from Tucson, this time heading directly north to spend my first few days in Dead Horse Ranch State Park along the Verde River, one of my favorite places in Arizona.  Now at mid-spring the area is a hot-spot for migrating birds, especially for the little flycatchers and warblers which I find so difficult to identify.  I have been able to photograph a couple of new species of tiny flycatchers, the Grey and the Cordilleran, as well as capturing the Ash-throated Flycatcher, Green-tailed Towhee and White-crowned Sparrow.  The river sides are busy with dozens of the beautiful Wilson’s Warblers, although I am having a devil of a time getting any decent photos as they never stop moving.  Although the area has been parched with no rainfall for months, upon my arrival the clouds built, and It rained all night my second night, then pelted me the next mid-morning with hail before I could reach shelter – rain followed for the duration of the second day. At some point in my recent life I have offended the weather gods.

From the Verde Valley I expect I will drive on north towards Bluff on the San Juan River in southern Utah.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report on New South Wales, Chiltern to Sydney, Australia, Nov. 13, 2017

I last reported on travel through southern Australia, from the Nullarbor Plains to Victoria.  My final morning in Chiltern I drove again to two of the better sites, the ponds which had a lovely Yellow-billed Spoonbill and the forest where I had located one of the Regent Honeyeaters nests – never enough photos of the best birds.  From Chiltern, Victoria I drove into the Snowy Mountains in the southern Great Dividing Range and to the small town of Tumut.  How do you pronounce Tumut? – only in Australia would it be pronounced “chew-mutt.”  This town at the edge of the mountains is half surrounded by wetlands which have abundant birds, including the Red-browed Finch and multiple parrot species.  I encountered the King Parrot but could not get any decent photos.  Out in a forest preserve I did get great photos of the Buff-rumped Thornbill (a tiny bird with nice warm cinnamon color).

After a couple of days in Tumut I drove over the Snowy Mountains and most of the Great Dividing Range to the small town of Bombalo, where platypus are thriving.  My first attempt to find the platypus failed, but I found a rare Diamond Firetail, one of the spectacular tiny birds of Australia.  The next day was glorious, although with lousy, cold, windy, rainy weather.  Over 2 hours I watched a number of platypus feeding in the Bombalo River – no chance for good photos, as the creatures constantly dive for food, merely gliding just at the surface when taking a breath, with a film of water constantly going over their bodies.  I did get nice photos of the Yellow-rumped Thornbill, Yellow-tufted Honeyeater, Striated Pardelote, Yellow-faced Honeyeater and Dusky Woodswallows, among others.

The last several towns I have stayed in grew on me – they all started as gold mining towns about 150 years ago, and the hotels and main buildings, all located along a short “main street”, are over 100 years old with character.  The hotels have wonderful pubs with great food.  I assume the weather is wonderful in the summer, but still has been a little cold and rainy in the mid-spring. Some of the local (relatively) beer can be hoppy and delightful, although expensive, as is everything.

From Bombalo I finally headed to the Pacific coast, to the town of Eden.  It is a popular tourist beach area, and famous for hosting humpback whales right in the bay.  It also displayed a number of new bird species for me, as the southeast coastal forests are different than those further north or west.  I contacted Barbara Jones, the president of the local birding society, who kindly invited me to her country property outside nearby Nethercote, where she has native plants and a large variety of birds. For over two days I searched for an opportunity to photograph the Superb Lyrebird; I saw many, but always just as they dashed into the thick forest.  The final day I did get a couple of quick snapshots of one just before he ran.  I also was rewarded with views of the Eastern Whipbird, Crested Shrike Thrush, Wonga Pigeon and King Parrot.  On and around Lake Coralo I spent time photographing Bell Miners, cormorants and Black Swans.  My campervan was parked between two bottlebrush trees with brilliant red flower-brushes, which attracted large numbers of very noisy Rainbow Lorikeets, perhaps the most populous bird in Australia, but in my opinion still perhaps the most beautiful.

From Eden I drove the short distance north to Bermagui to check out the lagoon which was reputed to be good for crakes and rails.  Unfortunately, that evening the rain set in and, as I headed further north to Ulladulla it rained the entire day without a break – I was told it dropped over 100mm (4 inches).  The next day, my last day in the campervan and birding, was sunny and beautiful.  I spent 7 hours out in two different reserves, where I found but failed to photograph the Glossy Black Cockatoo,  and then drove up about 1,600 feet elevation to the Morton National Park.  There I finally found a male Gang Gang Cockatoo, and got one decent photo of it with its marvelous crimson-pink head illuminated in the sunlight.  I also got to photograph my only Fan-tailed Cuckoo and Eastern Spinebill there.

From Ulladulla I drove into Sydney and returned the campervan, transferring from 85 nights of sleeping on a narrow bench with no restroom inside, to a lovely room in a Value Suites with a gloriously comfortable bed, one wall comprised of windows and balcony over the city, restroom with rain-shower head, kitchenette, etc.  I am just 150 meters from the Green Square train station, from where I can travel anywhere in the city, including 5 stops around downtown, in just minutes.  Friday I spent a number of hours re-exploring the Australia Museum, a mixture of Natural History, History and Anthropology rooms together with a special exhibition of the best nature photographs of the year. Tuesday the 14th at 11:30am I start the long journey back to Tucson, anticipating arrival the same day at 10:40 am, 40 minutes before departure – crossing the International Date Line does strange things.  I already am contemplating where to travel next.  Later.  Dave

Report on Nullarbor Plain to South Australia and Victoria, Oct. 29, 2017

On Saturday, Oct. 14, I departed Esperance to drive north and then east across the great and daunting Nullarbor Plain to enter South Australia.  The first day I drove the section of road called the longest straight highway in the country – probably the world;  for 147kms (92 miles) the two lane Eyre Highway runs absolutely straight with nary a turn of even 1 degree.  For two hours you never worry about whether a curve will creep up on you.  This is the middle section of the Nullarbor Links Golf Course, created about 14 years ago, the longest golf course in the world at over 1,000 kms.  The holes are located at each of the various outback ranches or roadhouses along the way, and are named rather than numbered, so the course can be played in either direction.  The 18 holes are a par 70, but the average distance between greens and the next hole is over 50 kms.  Apparently one can rent irons at each hole for about $5 – a good idea as much of the course is rocks and dirt.  See photo below of one of the promotional posters for the course.

I stayed at the Caiguni Roadhouse the first night.  Below, among the photos, you will find the posted bus schedule for this roadstop in the middle of nowhere – quite funny – Aussie humor.  Another 550 kms the next day and I stayed at the Nullarbor Roadhouse in South Australia, more great signs – see photo of entrance to Pub tavern.  It is difficult to get your head around the time zones in the central part of the continent – West Australia is on western time and Sydney on Eastern, two hours apart, but South Australia is 1 ½ hours ahead of West Australia, and goes on Daylight Savings which West does not, so the change at the border is 2 ½ hours (there actually is a small area of southeastern West Australia which switches by 45 minutes, but as you pass right through it without stopping you don’t notice).

From Nullarbor I drove on to Ceduna, the first actual town since Norseman 1,200 kms ago, and from there on to Port Augusta, the crossroads of Australia.   All highways, except the Great Northern, from Western Australia join into one southern highway which passes through Port Augusta.  All highways from Eastern Australia do the same.  And the lone northern highways which meet at Katherine join just one north-south highway, the Sturt, which runs through Alice Springs and, yes, meets the southern highways at Port Augusta.  Geographically this is where the ocean spears well up into the central desert of the central south of the country.  It is home to the Arid Lands Botanical Gardens which are a refuge for many birds, and where 8 years ago I encountered Peter Langdon, a volunteer and serious bird expert, who spent parts of two days showing me a number of birds in the region.  Peter still was there and I spent a little time with him – he recently published a guide book on the birds of the Arid Lands Gardens.

From Port Augusta I traveled up into the Flinders Range National Park and Wilpena Pound, a beautiful area of magnificent River Red Gum trees and pines, and home to more kangaroos, wallaroos, wallabies and emus than anywhere else I have been in the country.  Driving early mornings or before sunset requires slow speeds and constant diligence as the animals burst out of anywhere crossing the small roads.  This is the one place I have found, twice now, emu fathers followed by their dark and white striped chicks (as I wrote 8 years ago, the emu and cassowary females are n’er-do-well harlots, who lay their eggs then promptly abandon them forever, leaving the nesting and year-long raising of the young, to the males.  I suppose some will find cross-species karma evident in this fact.  I spent one long afternoon driving up to the Brachina Gorge where there are families of the endangered Yellow-footed Rock Wallabies.  After spending well over an hour at the remote rocky site I was rewarded near sunset with one lone photogenic rock wallaby venturing out of the rocks into the small valley to feed.

From the Flinders I headed south and east into Victoria, first passing a pleasant day in Burra on the eastern border of South Australia; Burra is a heritage town, having been built by a copper mining company a hundred years ago.  The copper mine was the largest for 50 years in Australia, and mined some of the purest ore in the world.  The old buildings, hotel and churches in town are real jewels of outback architecture.

From Burra I drove to Mildura on the border of New South Wales and Victoria, the state line of which is the Murray River which runs well over 1,500kms.  Expecting lots of birds around this river plain, as I had found 8 years ago along the Darling River, a tributary, I was disappointed.  Rather than spending two days, I drove on to the Grampians National Park the next day where I was not disappointed.  The Grampians are the highest mountains in Victoria, and contain the best Aboriginal rock art in the south.  They also are full of neat birds.  The days were rather overcast and rainy, but I made the most of them.  After some research and help from the local tourist center, I encountered bird guide Neil Macumber.  I spent over 6 hours with him, discovering a number of new birds.  The next day I spent close to 8 hours driving to the three corners of the tiangular Grampian Park system to visit 4 rock shelters with the best rock art.  This involved not just lots of beautiful driving through the mountains, but about 8 kilometers of hiking trails, most on steep climbs, to reach the various far-flung shelters.  The rock art all was pictographs (paintings), and many appeared quite old, although as usual, dating doesn’t exist.  I was impressed with two shelters containing both red hand stencils and red hand prints.  These are common rock art subjects on three (and perhaps more) continents, which has lead me to much internal speculation about the age of this symbolism with blood colored pigments (Cueva de Monte Castillo in the north of Spain has red hand stencils dated to 22,000 years ago).

Birds encountered included the Red-browed Finch (a member of the Firetails), the GangGang Cockatoo, the Yellow-tailed Cockatoo (finally photographed, after searching 8 years), the Yellow Rosella (subspecies of Crimson Rosella), and the Great-crested and Hoary Grebes.

From the Grampians I returned north to the Murray River at Echuca, where I spent a full day in the Barmah National Park, including a few hours on a cruise along the Murray River. I again was disappointed at the dearth of birds, although I got some nice shots of the Brown Treecreeper and the White-winged Chough (pronounced chuff).  From Echuca I traveled further up the Murray River to Chiltern, a tiny old gold mining town famed for its mid-19th century buildings and for its rare birds. Here, after some inquiry, I met Neville Bartlette, a local bird photographer who helped me find a number of wonderful birding spots.  The best known bird among birders here is the very rare and endangered Regent Honeyeater, which now has been captive bred for some years as its reintroduction is engineered into its only native range.  It is believed that fewer than 1,000 exist.  They are a beautiful black and yellow bird, and I encountered 3 pairs with nests over a two day period – lovely, though one does need to overlook the multiple leg bands attached to most nesting birds as they are continuously studied.

From here I will continue roughly east-south-east to pass through the southern Great Dividing Range (“Snowy Mountains”) to finally meet the eastern coast down at the New South Wales – Victoria border, from where I will end the drive by heading gradually north into Sydney.  Later.  Dave

Report on Perth, Margaret River, Albany and Stirling Range Regions, Australia, Oct. 13, 2017

I last reported from Jurien Bay, just north of Perth; since then I have traveled on south to the cape, through the wine regions, tall tree forests, and a number of mountainous national parks.

On the drive south to Perth I stopped for a large flock of Carnaby’s Black Cockatoos, a threatened species.  I must have spent over an hour on the side of the Indian Ocean Highway photographing the birds in the trees and the grasslands.  These are relatively rare birds, and only recently named a separate species from the Baudin’s Black Cockatoos which I later found in the Stirling Range (see below).  Both species are endemic to the southwest of Australia, occupy much the same ranges, and are exceedingly difficult to distinguish positively.  In that

same location I also picked up my first Western Corella, a white cockatoo also endemic to the southwest, but much more common.  I later passed through Yanchep National Park for photos of ducks, magpies and honeyeaters.

Perth is the only large city in Western Australia (pop 1.7 mil), and by distance and time lies exactly halfway through my journey.  It is said to be the large city most isolated by road from any other large city in the world, with driving distance to Adelaide being 2,700 km, or 1,680 miles (Iquitos, Peru is the large city most isolated with no roads whatsoever leading to it).  I stayed for several days in the delightful Woodman Park about 10 kilometers south of Freemantle, which is the seaport suburb of Perth.  The public transportation in the area is a marvel.  For about $10 (US) I bought a day ticket good on any bus, subway or train in the greater Perth area (about 100 km across).  From Woodman Park, a bus stopped about every 15 minutes right out front, and drove me straight to the train station in downtown Freemantle – from there high speed trains left every 12 minutes or so to central Perth.  In central Perth various bus lines crisscross most streets, arriving every 5 minutes or so, and are completely free to hop on and hop off.

I spent one day visiting downtown Perth, especially the famous and gigantic Kings Park right on the bay, with spectacular views over the bay and downtown Perth – probably not quite as beautiful as the view of downtown Sydney from the botanical gardens, but close.  I say bay, but Perth actually sits on the North bank of the Swan River, about 20 km north of the river mouth and bay at Freemantle, so all large ships dock at Freemantle, but ferries ply the route up the river to the downtown area.

I bought a round-trip day-ticket to Rottnest Island which lies off the coast of Freemantle.  The ticket included free bus pickup at my park, drop-off at the ferry terminal for a high-speed catamaran which travels a number of times a day to the island and a round-the-island bus tour.  The island is famous for its quokkas, extremely friendly and cute small marsupials which inhabit pretty much only this one location.  The Dutch captain who first set foot on the island in the late 1600s, and there spent 2 weeks, wrote that “it was an island paradise, but infested with rats the size of large cats” – and so it received its name “Rottnest.”  The quokkas do sort of look like rats in the face, but are so friendly that everyone loves them.  When they sleep, right out in public on the grass or in front of a restaurant, they curl their head down under their feet, and for all the world look exactly like a brown fuzzy soccer ball with a hairless tail sticking out from underneath.  While discussing Rottnest Island everyone was relaying the story of the drunken British tourist who hauled off and kicked one of the quokkas – all were pleased to report that the hooligan still is in jail.  The “rats” are beloved and fully protected by law.  I had a cappuccino outside a restaurant and watched in amusement as a quokka hopped up to the glass door and sadly sat there apparently hoping someone would let him in for snacks (people do break the rules, of course, and feed the quokkas bits of junk food, which causes the “beggar” quokkas to get patchy fur from the poor diet).

From Freemantle I drove south, pausing one night at Bunbury before continuing on to the town of Margaret River which lies on the river of same name, and is at the center of the entire region of same name; this is wine country, second only barely to the great vineyards which lie just north of Sydney.  It is lush, full of small forested national parks, fruit orchards, and hundreds of small vineyards, almost all open daily to visitors for tours, samples or sales.

I walked a number of times along the trails by the little river where there were White-breasted Robins and Red-winged Fairy Wrens among many other birds.  I was fortunate through a series of inquiries at the Community Center to meet Christine Wilder who generously spent an entire day guiding me to various locals in the Margaret River region for different birds.  This included some of her relative’s and friend’s homes where birds were attracted to the beautiful gardens, which introduced me to the stunning Red-eared Firetails (finches) and breeding pairs of the Western Rosellas (parrots).  I also visited the famous Berry Farm out in the countryside where I enjoyed a cappuccino while photographing New Holland Honeyeaters and a gorgeous male Splendid Fairy Wren in full breeding plumage.  I found many of the meadows in the southwest contained groupings of Emus and Western Grey Kangaroos.

I traveled then east and south through many small national parks which protected various species of the largest eucalyptus trees – these forests are known generally as the “Tall Tree” forests and the trees indeed are tall, running to 50 meters (160 feet).  I stayed at an old logging town, Manjimup, for one night, visiting the surrounding forests and then on to the largest city on the southwestern coast, Albany, where I spent 3 days at a park on Middleton Beach.  Darwin visited this bay for two weeks during his famous voyage aboard the Beagle. For whatever reason he did not find the area enjoyable, and wrote “I depart with no sorrow or regret.”  I found the area rich with birds, and there photographed a pair of Red-capped Parrots engaged in breeding behavior, and found groups of Red-winged Fairy Wrens in breeding plumage at the nearby Cheynes Beach.

Driving north from Albany I stopped at Porongurup National Park where the Scarlet Robin, Western Yellow Robin, Yellow-rumped Thornbill and Inland Thornbill all flew around the picnic area. Nearby I was surrounded by a small mob of Western Grey Kangaroos in the early morning; several females had joeys in their pouches, curious about everything outside.  Later I stopped at Kamballup park where mostly I found large quiet mosquitoes that continued to bite the same spot on the back of one hand until it wept – I have no idea what attracted them to that spot other than the previous mosquito, but I had not put on DEET when I started the walk.

I passed two very busy days at Stirling Range Retreat in the Stirling Range National Park where there was an enormous variety of hard-to-find birds.   After seeking for two weeks I finally found a large flock of endangered Baudin’s Black Cockatoos, only recently split from the endangered Carnaby’s Black Cockatoos discussed above.  The two species are practically identical in appearance and only very slightly different in their calls, the Baudin’s having two middle syllables. To positively distinguish the two, other than at a nesting site (they use different species of nesting trees), one needs to get a very clear look at the upper bills from the side, difficult in the males as the beaks are black like the feathers, and the males puff out the cheek feathers which covers the tips of the beaks.  The females have white beaks and don’t puff their cheek feathers.  Seen from the side, with the beaks open, the tip of the upper bill in the Baudin’s is fully half the height of the entire upper bill, while in the Carnaby the tip is only one third the height.  With good high resolution photos it is quite easy to have a positive id, but I believe most people simply cannot distinguish the two.

Walking in the forest edges produced also the breeding Regent Parrots, Elegant Parrots, Purple-crowned Lorikeets, Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrikes and Grey Currawongs, among many others.  The Stirling Range is the highest mountain range in southwestern Australia, and the only place in West Australia where it snows.  The weather for much of the last 3 weeks has been cold and windy, with scattered showers daily, but that does produce nice rainbows.

From the Stirlings I drove east to Hopetoun at the edge of the Fitzgerald River National Park, and encountered a wonderful pair of nesting Tawny Frogmouths within the caravan park.  As the Frogmouths are related to nightjars, and are night-feeding birds, they sleep during the day.  This allowed relatively close photographs, and especially of the female in nest with two young that constantly were popping their heads out from under to see what was happing down below.  The Fitzgerald River National Park has breathtaking views over the ocean, and incredible rare flowering plants found nowhere else on earth; it is considered one of the biosphere hot-spots.

My final birding stop in Western Australia is at Esperance, from where I am sending this report. I have not been lucky in seeing Cape Barren Geese, which usually frequent the golf course, but did have good results at Lake Munjingup where I photographed the lone male Musk Duck crying to attract a mate, and the elegant Yellow-billed Spoonbills.

Esperance is the last town of any size before the long haul north and east to South Australia through the infamous Nullarbor Plain.  The distance across the Nullarbor Plain and to Port Douglas in S Australia is almost 2,000 km or about 1,220 miles.  Considering the poor 2 lane roads, and my non-aero-efficient hi-top van, it will take me at least 5 long days.  I do hope to stop for seashore life.   Later.  Dave

Western Wattlebird, Lake Monjingup, near Esperance, WA, Australia

Report on the Pilbarras, Ningaloo Reef, Shark Bay and South, WA, Australia Sept. 26, 2017

I last reported from Broome where, for the second time, I had to go to a McDonalds in order to find internet with broad enough band-width to upload my photos.  Internet just is not generally available at the caravan parks or restaurants outside the southeast coast, and when available, dreadfully slow or limited to a couple of MBs upload data.

I went the next couple of days to the eastern shore of Roebuck Bay outside Broome for shorebirds.  There are an almost unbelievable number of shorebirds with a huge variety of species.  Photos of mixed flocks on the shore sometimes reveal 8 or 9 species packed together.  I would not have been able to pick out many of the species without the help of guide George Swann.

From Broome the drive was southwest across the 600 kms of dry dusty plains to the industrial-mining town of Port Hedland.  Halfway is the Sandfire Roadhouse, the first available gas in 300 kms, where they had dozens of Peafowl, the males all in breeding plumage and calling.  In the morning a very large red hen (chicken) kept jumping in different campervans, going into hidden spots, trying to lay an egg – we all had to keep an eye out for it constantly.

Port Hedland is the largest town in the Pilbarras, the large dry hilly area of northwestern Australia now covered with various large mining operations.  Much of the iron acquired by China is mined and shipped as ore from this area.  Port Hedland itself is practically all industrial and port, with a huge mountain of white salt lying just of the highway.  I spent over two days driving south from Port Hedland through the central Pilbarras, and through the Karijini National Park, where red limestone gorges border the number of small rivers which cut through the area, producing numbers of small waterfalls and beautiful clear water pools for those who hike into the canyons.  I spent one night in the delightful mining town of Tom Price, just outside the eastern end of the park, where I ate a huge buffet dinner in the mining worker’s cafeteria.

From Tom Price I back-tracked north to the coast at Dampier on the Burrup Peninsula where the tumbled giant red boulders, which cover the peninsula and offshore archipelago islands, form the canvas for the largest grouping of petroglyphs on earth – estimates put the number of petroglyphs here at between 500,000 and 1 million.  The ages are unknown, but some work puts the oldest at 22,000 years, although I am skeptical of the geologic methods employed for such estimates.  The etchings into the rock are generally deep, and many represent figures of animals, including apparently extincted species.  Most of the petroglyphs are crude in comparison to many of those in the US southwest, such as those of the Basketmakers (Anasazi ancestors) and Fremont.

I left the Pilbarras driving further southwest to Exmouth on the peninsula surrounded by the Ningaloo Reef, a marine park.  The land portion on the west side is a low ancient reef ridge of mountains forming the Cape Range National Park – the sea for a couple hundred kilometers comprises the Ningaloo Reef Marine Park – all now a World Heritage Site protecting a number of endangered land and sea creatures.  In the Cape Range Park I finally obtained an opportunity for decent photos of the very elusive Australian Bustard, the largest (heaviest) flighted bird in the world, although it normally runs on the ground.  I hiked up the beautiful Yardies Gorge, the only canyon in the range with year-round water, seeking unsuccessfully some rare Rock Wallabies.

All day Sunday I spent with 19 others on the expensive Kings Ningaloo Reef Tour on the largest boat on the reef, the Magellan.  It turned out to be well worth the price.  We spent about 7 hours on the water, both inside, outside and over the reef.  The crew provided us with shorty wet-suits (the water temperature was about 75 F. degrees inside and over the reef which is quite chilly) and snorkel gear including prescription goggle lenses for those of us desiring correction.  Early morning and mid-afternoon we snorkeled over portions of the corals viewing the many species of fish; I did not find this portion of the reef nearly as colorful or impressive as the Great Barrier Reef, but still wonderful.

The Ningaloo Reef Marine Park is famous and World Heritage listed for a number of reasons, but is most famous with tourists for its numbers of whale sharks, the largest shark and largest fish in the world, growing to over 50 feet – the size of humpbacks.  These sharks were practically unknown 50 years ago, and still almost nothing is known of their reproduction and usual annual movements.  They look like giant sharks with grey-black bodies covered in large yellow-white polka dots.  The heads are flattened with extremely wide mouths with which they gather plankton as they slowing swim at the surface in tropical up-welling waters.  I have previously snorkeled with a large number of whale sharks over a two day period off the west coast of central Mozambique in Africa (perhaps the best location in the world).  At Ningaloo the sharks normally can only be found through the winter, and they leave by the end of August, which they did this year.  For three weeks no sharks were sighted, then, 2 days before my arrival, sharks showed up again.

The sharks can only easily be found or spotted from overhead, and so our tour employed, for 2 hours, a spotter aircraft overhead to call in whale shark locations. We thus encountered 4 different whale sharks and were in the water with them for several hours.  With each shark encounter the boat would maneuver to a point somewhat ahead of where the shark was swimming, and we, with wet suits and snorkel gear, would hit the water in two teams; then with hand directions from a spotter on the boat, we would locate and swim with the shark.  Whale sharks swim slowing and at the surface when feeding, and are quite easy to keep up with.  They seem undisturbed by human followers as long as the humans don’t get directly in front or around their heads or swim below them.  We were advised to stay at least 13 feet from their bodies.

We also were blessed with encountering two separate pods of humpback whales, the first directly in front of the boat with large ones seemingly in a contest to see which could breach the best.  Seeing two full-grown humpbacks, 50 feet apart, breach simultaneously is indeed awesome.  We also saw sea turtles and dolphins.  Proving the world is getting smaller, I met a couple of retired lawyers from Tucson on the cruise; we plan on getting together when back in Tucson.

The tour included the presence of an independent professional photographer who spent the day photographing, with stills and video, on deck and underwater, us and the wildlife.  For 50 dollars I acquired jpg copies of all of his photos and video of the day – I was a little distressed I had not brought my underwater camera, but then his underwater setup was better, and I was actually visible in some of the pictures which never seems to happen when I am behind the camera.

From Exmouth driving south I finally passed out of the tropics, passing the Tropic of Capricorn, and within a day the very hot weather just ceased.  I spent one night in the quiet town of Carnarvon, apparently one of the vegetable/fruit capitals of Western Australia; for the first time on this trip I was surrounded by orchards and fields.  Further south from Carnarvon I turned west and then back north to journey onto a very long peninsula which bounds Shark Bay; on this peninsula sits Denham, the “most westerly town” with the “most westerly hotel”, the “most westerly pub”, etc. in Australia.  The huge north-facing peninsula, joined parallel by a large island to the west, are easy to spot on a map of Australia as they constitute the western tip.  The entire area, including all of Shark Bay, constitutes a World Heritage Area, and is comprised of a number of National Parks and conservation areas.  The southern point of the Bay contains the largest collection of the few remaining Stromatolites in the world; these are coral like build-ups created by mats of thousands of types of microbes.  This was the only life on earth 3.5 billion (not million) years ago, and some of these microbes started synthesizing oxygen using sunlight, which created the atmosphere we have today, and permitted the later evolution of all life which needs oxygen for survival.

Shark Bay is shallow in much of its extent which is ideal for the growth of sea grass.  This in turn supports the endangered Dugongs, relatives of the Manatees of the Americas.  Shark Bay is home to 10% of the world’s population of Dugongs.  I spent several hours on a cruise on the Aristocat-2, a large catamaran and the only boat in Shark Bay registered to pass into the sea grass conservation areas.  We spent two hours searching for and encountering Dugongs in the shallow sea grass beds – they can be spotted from above as large brown shadows, and each normally surfaces every minute or so for air.

In the deeper waters were large numbers of Bottlenose Dolphins, apparently displaying mating behavior.  The small docking area, with large accommodations and restaurant is known as Monkey Mia, and requires an entry payment in addition to the National Park fees – for tourists it is the best known feature of Shark Bay because 6 female dolphins have been enticed to come into the beach 3 times each morning to be fed fish by some lucky kids among the crowds of onlookers standing on water’s edge.  Although the park claims it all is part of conservation and study, and the dolphins (each recognized and named) only are permitted 20% of their daily caloric requirements (so being forced to continue natural hunting), I find it all rather tasteless.  There is no denying, however, that Shark Bay is exquisite as a most unusual place on earth.

From Denham I back-tracked 130 kms to get off the peninsula, and drove on south to the Kalbarri National Park and the little seaside town of the same name.  The park is spectacular this time of year for the rare and unusual wildflowers and the gorges through which runs the Murchison River.  The entire day was blustery with squalls off the coast and winds whipping to 60 km/hr.  I had trouble keeping my little hi-top van on the roads, and every time I would leave the car for 15 minutes to visit a gorge, I would end up getting soaked.  I booked a cruise up the Murchison River, which empties into the sea at the town of Kalbarri.  Mostly the cruise provided the 400 year European history of the area, with little bird or wildlife.  The cliff views over the sea just south of Kalbarri are stunning.

From Kalbarri I ventured on south to Jurien Bay, a nice little seaside town.  Unfortunately, after weathering almost 40 days of baking hot dry weather, I now have suffered 4 of the last 5 days with very cold sea squalls and high winds which keeps most birds, and me, under shelter.  From here I will head south to Perth, the half-way point, in both distance and time, of my journey.  The weather forecast for the coast looks like it will start clearing in 3 days, so I am hoping for better bird weather soon.  Since Exmouth I am finally able to buy cask red wine again, gas prices are dropping, and interesting restaurants are more plentiful, so life is good, as always.  Later.  Dave

 

 

 

 

 

Report on Katherine in Northern Territory, and Entry through the Kimberleys into Western Australia, Sept. 8, 2017

I currently am writing this from Broome, on the north-west coast of Western Australia.  I last reported on Darwin and Kakadu upon my arrival in Katherine, located in the middle of the Northern Territory, at the cross-roads to travel north, south or west, with the branch going east cutting off further south. Although I found my first WiFi internet in a couple of weeks in Katherine, all service had too little band-width or restrictions for uploading my photos, until I tried the local McDonalds.  It, as advertised, provides free, limitless, good-speed internet connections, and I was able to get the travelogue posted.

Katherine is nice with a compact core full of small restaurants and coffee shops.  It sits on the Katherine River which runs from southern Kakadu west to the sea.  Just east of Katherine is the Nitmiluk National Park which contains the awesome Katherine Gorge, which actually is a series of 9 deep gorges which channel the river within towering red cliffs.  Trails run all through the southern side of the gorges.  I hiked one of the short ones.

At the parking area for the boat ramps to Katherine Gorge, the surrounding tall trees simply were filled with Little Red Flying Foxes.  Counting the approximate number in each tree, and the approximate number of trees, I estimated over 5,000 bats in this group.  They are noisy all day, and some constantly moving to different trees and jostling neighbors.  From the ridge line trail about 700 feet above, the parking area seemed to be surrounded by a forest of black dead trees.

I spent 3 days at the lovely Low Level Pass caravan park, situated a few kilometers west of town by the Katherine River where it passes under a historic low level bridge which can only be used during the dry season.  At the bridge a number of herons spent their day fishing from the rocks, including a White-necked Heron and a White-faced Heron.

From Katherine I drove west to Timber Creek, the only “town” – a few buildings along the north side of the two lane highway – within the 500 kilometer stretch between Katherine and the border of Western Australia.  I stayed at the Timber Creek Hotel campground along a small waterway with Freshwater Crocodiles.  I arrived on a day when the camp entertainment was to walk down to the creek at 5pm and watch the owner feed an old almost toothless male croc that lives there.  They then throw hunks of meat into the air for a free-wheeling aerial battle between dozens of Black Kites and one Whistling Kite which swoop faster than the eye can follow to grab the morsels. I hiked a short trail in the morning which followed the Timber Creek, and was rewarded with good flocks of Red-winged Parrots but little else.  Much of the land had just been burned – this is something they do intentionally every dry season to cull out the dead grasses and undergrowth and promote good growth in the coming wet season – it is not, however, very good for birds immediately after a burn.

From Timber Creek I drove the 230 km. to leave the Northern Territory and enter Western Australia.  How to describe entering Western Australia? First, there only are two paved roads which even connect the western 1/3 of the continent to the rest.  I entered on the “Great Northern Highway,” uncertain with what it is to be compared to earn the moniker “Great.”  There is no other northern highway.  The entire length of the highway consists only of two lanes, with nary a passing lane, and already I have crossed 14 one-lane bridges, marked only with red signs attempting to alert drivers that speed must slow to a crawl to make sure a “road train” is not entering the other side. …

(What is a “road train?” – this is what tractors hauling semi-trailers are called – and with good reason – almost all pull 3 full trailers on the little two-lane highways, and the petrol semis haul 4 full tanker trailers.  These really are massive road trains, which barrel down the narrow roads, and incidentally are responsible for the unbelievable overnight slaughter that takes place on the highway each day.  In the morning one passes dozens of road-kill marsupials, providing good opportunities for photographing the massive Wedge-tailed Eagles, which patrol the roads at sun-up, along with the Black Kites, Whistling Kites, Little Eagles and Toresian Crows.)

Somewhat concerning is the fact that upon approaching each one-lane bridge the pavement is marked with dozens of 40 foot long, double-tire skid marks from the frantic  stops that road-trains must have made when coming from opposite directions.  I started this section mentioning that only two paved passages exist into western Australia, so I best mention now the other road, located near the southern coast, portions of which less majestically are called the South-western Highway, Coastal Highway and Eyre Highway.

Also concerning Western Australia: The northern portion, from Kununurra, at the border of the Northern Territory, stretching west over a thousand kilometers to Derby on the coast, comprises the Kimberleys, a famous area of escarpments and gorges, full of rivers, dreadfully hot year-round. The Kimberleys are very popular with Australians for taking multi-week 4-wheel drive journeys (even more people take tour companies which drive large bus like carriers built on high-clearance multi-axle-drive truck frames).  The escarpments and gorges are the remnants of giant ocean reefs built during the Devonian Age of the earth, 350 million years ago.  The area is famous for its limestone caves, and perhaps the best spot on earth for recovery of remnants of 350 million year old sea life.  The area also features some unique plant life, the most iconic of which is the Boab trees.  These grow to eventually form gigantic gnarled trunks, which can get to diameters of 4 meters (14 ft) – the trunks often balloon in the middle, and the leaves only emerge after rains.  Much of the year the limbs, which rise as crooked jags from the huge trunks, are leafless, but have huge coconut sized seed pods.  I have included a photo as I cannot properly describe the trees.  They are closely related to the Baobab trees of Madagascar and Malawi.

What else about northern Western Australia?  The strictest alcohol laws I have encountered. Purchasing wine or beer has been difficult since Darwin, and has become increasingly problematic as I have progressed.  Due to issues with alcohol abuse, particularly among the aboriginals, who may have a genetic intolerance such as exists with some Native Americans, the restrictions have become much harsher in recent times.  A national registry system has been implemented, and one’s identification is scanned into a special connected machine with each alcohol purchase.  The amount of these purchases is severely limited each day, and the system disallows multiple purchases from different stores.  For the cask-wine I buy (to avoid glass bottles), the limitation in the Northern Territory was one 2-liter box per day.  In order to stock up I had to go through the process multiple days to get a few liters for the long haul through the outback.  Upon entering Western Australia the casked wine simply is prohibited from sale.  In Halls Creek the only take-away alcohol which can be purchased is 2.7% beer (that is half the strength of Budweiser which many already consider water).  The restrictions have just gotten worse all the way to the coast, including Derby and Broome.  I have been forced to survive on the strongest Australian beer I can find – 4.9%.  Wine can be purchased only in glass bottles, with restrictions and at astronomical prices.  Interestingly, liquor is freely available, though the prices are more than double that of the US.

At the border entering Western Australia was the strictest food quarantine I have seen.  The RV in front of me, with an elderly couple, was halted for some 10 minutes, holding up a long line of vehicles forming behind me; the inspector finally emerged with two large sacks completely full of fruit, fresh produce, nuts and honey.  Multiple large signs warn of the coming inspection all the way from Katherine, as well as in all guide books, and large signs in all campervan parks also advise re the coming “quarantine” upon entering WA.  I had no problem foods to report, as I was well aware of the coming inspection.  I do not know how that couple remained so ignorant, but it looked like they lost days-worth of fresh food stuffs.

I stopped for 3 days in the only real town between Katherine and Broome, a distance of about 1,700 kms.  The town, just inside Western Australia, is Kununurra.  My caravan park was in Hidden Valley just north of town, right on the border of the Mirima National Park, a very small park made up completely of very red sandstone escarpments surrounding small deep valleys.  I hiked all the trails in the Park, including a couple climbing the escarpment for nice views.  I got to view my first White-quilled Rock Pigeons, and a couple of Variegated Fairy Wrens, as well as the beautiful Yellow-throated Miner.

From Kununurra the drive was all through the hilly Kimberleys to the tiny community of Halls Creek where I found a dusty campervan park – the town is under perpetual water restrictions so none is wasted on green plants.  Next door was the lovely Kimberley Hotel with the only real restaurant and pub in town.  Here I arranged my tour of the Mimby Caves.  The Mimby Caves are within a Devonian escarpment and are located within Aboriginal land.  A two hour guided tour takes one through the winding bottoms of the majestic escarpments and into two limestone caves, each with ponds and running water but not much current stalactite formation.  The flies are awful (of course, they are pretty much awful everywhere in the north of Australia).

Fitzroy Crossing is a tiny community at the Fitzroy River bridges (both one-lane), where I stayed at the terrific Fitzroy River Lodge campgrounds right on the banks of the river.  I spent one morning hiking down river for birds, and enjoyed the Sunday evening buffet with carved roast lamb.  I drove up to the Geikie Gorge National Park where I took a boat trip up into the gorge, the walls of which are the Devonian limestone escarpments.  The large river has a number of Freshwater Crocodiles and some birdlife.  The gorge wall views are spectacular.  The parking area and tourist gazebo areas are covered during the wet season each year by up to 20 feet of flood waters.

From Fitzroy I drove the distance to reach the Northwest coast at the small dusty town of Derby, called the entrance to the Kimberleys.  Derby sits by a narrow bay with the second or third highest tides in the world, at 11 meters or 36 feet.  Because the bay is shallow, filled with silt from the river which enters it, at all times other than the highest of tides, which occur only a couple of times a month, the water’s edge is a few kilometers from the town.

Just a couple of hundred kilometers south and west of Derby sits Broome, on the gorgeous Roebuck Bay.  Broome also has very high tides, but is surrounded by mangroves and simply is charming, though rather hot year-round.  It also is unbelievably expensive.  My first night I tried a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown – the cheapest dish, served a la carte without rice, soup, eggroll or anything else, was $37 (about $30 US).  I have stayed at the Roebuck Bay Park right on the tip of the small peninsula which juts south into the Bay, and located right on the beach.  The first evening, after dark, I had a Tawny Frogmouth (large tropical type of nightjar) landed on a post just feet from my van.  With only my powerful flashlight and huge good luck I was able to get my first photo of this night bird.

I spent two mornings with a local bird guide, George Swann, driving the first day out to clay pans (permanent clay water pans) for various shore birds, including the Oriental Pratincole, the Red-headed Plover and the relatively rare Yellow Chat.  The next day we slogged through mangroves (my shoes were caked with inches of white clay, with splatters up my pants and on my cameras) and swarms of sand flies for the various uncommon mangrove species, including the Mangrove Golden Whistler, the White-breasted Whistler and the Broad-billed Flycatcher.  I also got some photos of a White-bellied Sea Eagle drying its wings, and a Brown Goshawk.

The trip has gone smoothly so far, but the heat has been bothersome here in the north. From Broome I will start driving south, zigzagging between the coast and inland as I aim for arrival around Perth in under 3 weeks.  Later.  Dave

 

 

 

Travel Report on Darwin and Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia, Aug. 26, 2017

I departed Tucson on August 12.  From locking my front door on Saturday afternoon to checking into my hotel in Darwin in the Northern Territory on Monday afternoon the journey consisted of a grueling 30 hours of travel, but included a day entirely skipped from crossing the international dateline.  Each of the three flights was crammed full with nary an empty seat.  A couple of drinks and food during the fairly long layover in the LA airport started my customization to Australian prices.

I stayed just one night in a small highway inn on the outer edge of Darwin, which was within walking distance of where I picked up my Britz campervan rental.  The van is a short wheel-base hi-top Toyota with built-in fridge, stove, microwave, sink, cabinets and bed with housewares and linens included. This will be my transport and lodging for the remainder of this trip, which will see me start in Kakadu National Park in the far North of the Northern Territory, and then head West wrapping around all of Western Australia before traveling East through South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales to Sydney.

I stayed at a nice Campervan Park near Darwin for 2 additional days to stock up on supplies, including a large water jug, sim card for Australian smart phone service, and initial supplies of foods, snacks, wine and beer.  I also did a little bird photography up north of Darwin at Lee’s Point and then south inside the Charles Darwin National Park.  Both are great for nature viewing, but also contain numerous historic WWII installations, including machine gun bunkers and multiple underground depots for storage of all of the bombs utilized from the nearby airbase.  Darwin was a major terminus for the Pacific battles, though only attacked by the Japanese by air once.  Early on in the engagement Japan controlled all the Pacific Indonesian islands almost to the shores of Darwin.

From Darwin I traveled southeast toward Kakadu and Arnhem Land, stopping first at Fogg Dam Conservation Area for some wetland hiking for water birds.  There I photographed the Forest Kingfisher and the hundreds of Magpie Geese.  Thursday night I stayed at the Mary River Wilderness Retreat at the edge of the National Park of the same name.  I had many fond memories from 8 years earlier when I visited the same place – the owners were avid birders and ran a wonderful boat trip twice a day up the Mary River for viewing all manner of birdlife, as well as Estuarine and Fresh Water Crocodiles. Here I had photographed rare completely white morphs of a breeding pair of Grey Goshawks.  I was hugely disappointed to find ownership had changed, and no one had heard of any boating up the Mary River.  I did an early morning long walk along the river, encountering a hard-to photograph Golden-crowned Cisticola and some Crimson Finches, always inevitably hiding within thickets.  Around the campsite were flocks of noisy Little Corellas, and in the evening dozens of Agile Wallabies came to feed on the watered grass.  Enjoy the photo of the joey sticking his head into his mother’s pouch for a meal.

I drove onward on Friday to the Aurora Kakadu Lodge near the South Alligator River, just inside Kakadu National Park, again to find no boats plied the river except for fishing.  Instead I spent almost 6 hours on and around the Mamukala Wetlands, where I found a number of interesting birds around the fringes, including the Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo and the Cicadabird surrounded by gorgeous red tree blooms.  I also encountered a wonderful lizard living in the water by running on the lily pads, half its body always submerged – I have been unable to find what it was.

Saturday I drove on to Jabiru, the small township at the heart of Kakadu, which exists to serve a nearby uranium mine.  I stayed three days at the Kakadu Lodge (all these “lodges” have both small cabins and caravan camping sites, as well as facilities such as restaurant, pub and pool).  Food at the bistros in these camps is generally quite good, though very expensive (plates running US $19-$30, with weak beers generally about $6).  One evening I had local sausages over mashed potatoes and green beans; the sausages were huge – three of them – one of buffalo, one of crocodile and one of kagaroo.

Sunday and Monday I visited the areas around two of the most famous aboriginal rock art sites in Australia.  Arnhem Land, which includes Kakadu National Park to the West, covers well over half of the Darwin Peninsula – about 100,000 square kilometers – it is the largest and oldest aboriginal land in Australia.  Other than the Park, it may only be visited by non-tribal members with special permits and accompanied by native guides.  I traveled into Arnhem 8 years ago on a day-trip and photographed the great rock art on Injalak Hill.  Kakadu National Park, to the west, also is owned by the aboriginals and leased to the Australia Government as the oldest and largest national park.  Both areas have been occupied by aboriginals for over 40,000 years, and much great rock art exists.  The two most famous sites are Ubirr, right on the border with Arnhem Land at the only road crossing, and Nourlangie Hill a little to the Southwest.

Ubirr probably is the best overall rock art site in the country (there are thousands of sites);  Ubirr presents a number of panels, or galleries, with images painted mostly in shades of reds and yellows, with some blacks and whites.  The largest panel contains dozens of large fish of different species, most painted “X-Ray” style, showing parts of the internal organs or bones. Along with the fish are images of several food animals, including long-necked turtles, goana (monitor lizard) and wallaby.  The entire panel, some 35 feet long and about 3 feet high, seems to contain nothing but wild animal food sources.  A nearby panel contains the Namarrgarn Sisters, two figures of spirit characters who permanently changed into the deadly Estuarine Crocodiles – the Sisters, painted in faded yellow, are overlaid on top of a running battle or hunting scene of running men with spear-throwers, painted in red. This Namarrgarn Sisters Panel is my favorite of all aboriginal rock art I have seen.  I have created detailed panoramic stitched photos of the panels, copies of which are included below.

Nourlangie Rock art site, now called Anbangbang as originally named by the aboriginals, contains fewer panels than Ubirr but has one rather remarkable one of Lightning Man, wife and children.  I did some hiking to an overlook with a terrific view of Nourlangie Rock in the morning sun, as well as visiting the nearby Anbangbang Billabong (don’t you love the names – a billabong is a year-round lake or pond which becomes connected to a river or floodplain during the wet season). I thrice climbed large rocky escarpments looking for the rather rare Black Wallaby and smaller Rock Wallabies, but had no luck, although I did find droppings.  The small flies here in Kakadu, especially during the hottest part of the day, are dreadful.  They are “sticky”, meaning they don’t frighten off easily with hand motions, and come right back to alight.  Because they are “sticky,” however, they are much easier to smack than flies from elsewhere – it always gives me a bit of perverse pleasure to observe the dropping fly – dead, following the smack.

On Tuesday the 22nd I drove back westward on the southern Kakadu road to Cooinda, where I stayed 2 nights in the Lodge Park.  As at Jabiru, the grounds are nice, including restaurant, bar and very large swimming pool with surprisingly cool water.  I have used the pools 3 times and it certainly does help cool off after the 35 C degree days (95 F degrees).

Cooinda is located at the edge of the Yellow Water Floodplain, into which flows the Jim Jim River and out of which flows the South Alligator River, which continues north 100 km to the sea.  The Yellow Water Floodplain is a World Heritage Site, with several hundred species of birds, huge numbers of Estuarine Crocodiles, and many wild buffalo (originally imported from Indonesia, but now all feral and dangerous).  Flat-boat cruises are available from the Lodge; these take one into the various floodplain channels and up the river for remarkable wildlife viewing. I did successfully get great photos (2nd time) of the very tiny Little Kingfisher, brilliant blue and white, and about the size of medium sized hummingbirds.  They are very rare to see, my last one being on the Daintree River 8 years ago.  Also I was able again to photograph the other magnificent small kingfisher, the Azure Kingfisher, with its pinkish-orange breast and brilliant azure back, also quite rare to see.

The waters seemed full of 6 inch, fat catfish – fortune was with me in permitting photos of the Australasian Darter (snakebird), Intermediate Egret and Nankeen Night-Heron, each catching and trying to eat one of these catfish, which were huge relative to the bird’s gullets. The catfish have long backward facing spines which the fish lock up until dead.  The egrets and herons both strike downward into the water to grab fish in their long beaks, and then flip the fish so they can be swallowed whole, always head first.  The darter, on the other hand, actually swims underwater to chase down fish, and rather than grabbing them, it spears the fish with the two forks of its beak, then must come above water to remove the speared fish, which then is maneuvered to be swallowed whole, head first.

In the foggy early hours of one morning we had extreme luck in witnessing a mating display of two Brolga, very large red-headed cranes similar to Sarus Cranes. The cranes extend their great wings, and leap into the air in a form of dance for each other.  Added to these views were encounters with the “grinning” toothy Estuarine Crocs, White-bellied Sea Eagles, protected Radjah Shelducks, a tiny 2-day old Crested Jacana with feet bigger than its body walking on a lily pad, and a couple of dozen other great encounters, all photographed and included below.

On Friday I drove out the south entrance of the Park, and turned back North toward Darwin to spend one day at the Litchfield National Park.  There I found some wondrous termite mounds (among many in this part of Australia), which included the Magnetic Termite Mounds – the mounds appear as giant flat stelae, all perfectly aligned North to South for temperature control, with one part always toward the sun and the other side always shaded, and also the Cathedral Termite Mounds, which are simply monstrous castles, up to 25 feet high, with numerous turrets. Whereas most termites live in colonies underground, these Australian mound termites live in floodplains and so build their “underground” nests above ground level.  I also visited the great plunge pool and double waterfall of Wangi Falls, home to fresh water crocs (all in hiding), Black Flying Foxes loudly filling the trees surrounding the pool, and feral pigs in the forest.

Saturday I headed south to Katherine where I now am staying for a few days.  I have been without Wi-Fi for nine straight days, and so needed some time to get this travel report posted.  Also, I now will start my travel west which will take me around Western and then Southern Australia over the next 10 weeks. While stocking up supplies a consistent issue here in the Northern Territory is a little annoying.  Due to some drinking problems with the aboriginals (similar, I believe, to that with some Native Americans such as the Navajo, in which their livers genetically do not process alcohol as rapidly as other people), severe restrictions exist on some form of purchases.  Arnhem Land is completely dry (except for the licensed lodge pubs).  Darwin and Katherine have liquor stores, but operating hours are limited to 6 hours per day, and many wines, including the cask wines I buy for travel (no glass) are limited to one purchase per day – this is enforced by requiring one’s identification to be entered into a national database, which is accessed before each purchase, and will alert the store if a purchase already has been made that day.  This restriction means a trip to the liquor store daily in order to stock up for the weeks in the outback.

As two weeks have passed, and a lot of photographic activity has occurred, quite a number of photos are included below, though these still only represent about 1 out of every 200 photos I have taken.  More time may be needed to permit download of these even in the relatively smaller format of my travelogue.  Also, as a reminder, these photos can be fully appreciated only on a high-resolution monitor (Smart phones just don’t do the photos justice, though they will reproduce low resolution full images).

That is it for now.  Life continues to be good and being on the road again always is marvelous.  Dave

 

Report on Puente Viesgo, San Sabastian, Zaragoza and Madrid, Spain, June 11, 2017

I last reported from Salamanca, where I spent 6 days eating and drinking too much.  I traveled by train on Wednesday north through Valladolid, and then on to Santander on the northern Atlantic coast.  From there I took a local bus the short distance south into the mountains to the tiny hamlet of Puente Viesgo.  It is a well-known town by Spanish for thermal and cold baths, spas and beautiful scenery.  For me it boasts the Monte Castillo Caves, two of which may be visited for their Paleolithic art.

The cave entrances are ringed around the upper part of a very unusual pyramid shaped mountain which climbs up from the beautiful valley and small running river below.  The largest cave, El Castillo, contains a huge entrance chamber which had a large opening facing east overlooking the valley. The chamber had been occupied by Neanderthal and then early humans for 10’s of thousands of years.   Inside the chamber archaeologists have been excavating for years, and now are working down into their 25th strata, dating back to 140,000 years ago.  They have unearthed a large number of engraved bones and all forms of habitation evidence.  Standing at the top at what was the current age level in the chamber, one can see the orange markers about 30 feet below where the strata layers were dated to 40,000 years ago, marking the passing of the Neanderthal phase and start of the modern humans in the cave.

Passing beyond the entrance chamber, one climbs through a newly man-made opening and enters multiple chambers with no natural light, which are filled with every form of stalactite and stalagmite, with stone columns and stone waterfalls of many different colors.  In some of the most inaccessible places the paintings exist, consisting of outlines of various animals, including reindeer, horses and bison.  Very often these utilize convex patterns in the rock walls along with cracks or natural lines, which give the animals three dimensional raised engraving appearances.  Mostly red paint from iron oxide was used, along with some yellow and also charcoal black.  The charcoal could be directly dated with carbon 14 dating, but the iron oxide could not – these older paintings were dated by dating the calcium carbonate lime build ups over portions of the paintings, giving the paintings dates of “at least as old as”.

The animal imagery all is 12,000 to 28,000 years old.  The really old images are all iron oxide paint, most apparently sprayed onto the walls by blowing the wet colored powder through straws.  The most common items are negative hands, where someone would place their hand onto the wall, and then the paint was blown onto the hand leaving a large red disk with the hand imaged negatively in the middle.  The hands are of various sizes and with slightly different shapes, but most appear to be the left hand.  One wall contains almost 60 of these images.  Another long passage way is marked for about 40 feet along one wall at shoulder height with a series of a couple of hundred red disks, smaller than the ones with the negative hands.  These negative hands and the disk lines are dated back to “at least” 40,800 years ago, this being the oldest dated paintings in the world (some recent discovery in an Indonesian cave also dates some paintings to 40,000 years ago).  Fascinating to see.  Upsetting that the Cantabrian Regional Government has banned photos, apparently solely so they can market their “official” photos.  This is now a Unesco World Heritage Site, and the cultural highlights are deemed to belong to all humanity, not owned by the local government.  Oh Well!

The weather had gotten worse, from mostly overcast in Salamanca, to heavy dark overcast much of the time in the mountains.  I traveled from Puerto Viesgo on the 31st of May to Santander and from there on to San Sebastian, the major Basque town – for two days I had off and on rainfall and black overcast.  Not so pleasant.  Even trying to bar hop for the world famous pinxos (Basque artistic versions of tapas) was somewhat out of the question with the heavy winds howling in from the sea, blowing the fine rain perpendicular to the ground.  I did spend several enjoyable hours visiting the famous aquarium on the northern marinas.  From San Sebastian I traveled by train to Zaragoza, my first visit to the capital of the old Kingdom of Aragon.

After one full day of heavy rain, the weather finally cleared for beautiful blue skies and cool weather.  Zaragoza was an ancient Roman city, founded as Caesar Augusta, from which the modern name derives.  Under the old part of the modern city, in the last 40 years, archaeologists have excavated parts of the four major edifices of the Roman city, the Forum and Market, the Theater, the Baths and the River Port Warehouse.  These four now constitute a series of 4 underground museums – very interesting.  Zaragoza also is home to the Basilica del Pilar, a magnificent Baroque church with a huge central dome, 4 massive corner towers and around 8 colorful tiled smaller domes.  From the stone bridge crossing the Rio Ebro it is an impressive site in the morning sunlight.  The Moors also left their mark, most famously in their old palace now called the Aljaferia, since enlarged by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.  It is described as the best Islamic architecture outside of Al-Andalus in the south.

On the 8th I boarded my final train, this time the “El AVE” series train, from the massive Zaragoza station back to Madrid.  El ave literally translates as “the bird”, but the name is actually a play on the word, as it is the acronym for “Alta Velocidad Espanol” or “Spanish High Speed”.  The El AVE trains ply a new gauge of tracks between the largest cities, and are very fast by comparison to US transport.  Whereas the regular intercity trains run up to 150km/hr. (almost 95mph), and the intermediate Alvia trains, which can run on the new and older tracks are much faster at up to 250km/hr. (155mph), the AVE trains run up to 310km/hr. (193mph), but cost considerably more for the usually relatively short distances.  Still, it is quite an experience to watch the countryside pass outside the window – the speed of perspective change, even miles away, is unreal it is so fast, something akin to the couple of seconds just as a jet is lifting off the runway.

In Madrid again, without jetlag this time, I am taking it easy and revisiting some of my favorite museums.  The Museum of Archaeology has been closed throughout my last two trips to Spain for renovations (it took years), and now is opened again.  It is a wonderful museum with many of the greatest national treasures, from the earliest homo genus occupations of the great cave systems of the north, through the early Phoenician cities, the great Roman-Carthage battles and Roman settlements, on through the Visigoths, Moors and into the early middle-ages.  Of most interest to me were the exhibits of objects from the Monte Castillo cave system I visited in Puente Viesgo, presumed Neanderthal prior to 40,000 years ago, and modern human thereafter; these objects include the famous collection of incised animal drawings made on deer scapular bones (the shoulder blades), which provided a relatively planar medium.  These are referred to as the first examples of “portable” human art – over a dozen were discovered in the cave, all at the same age level of about 17,000 years ago (see photo).  Also of interest were the large number of sculptures, mostly life-sized, of apparently deified women found among various Iberian grave-goods from the 5th to 3rd centuries BC (post-Phoenician, pre-Roman), as well as the treasure hoards of the Visigoth Kingdom (post Roman).

I also revisited the Thyssen Museum, one of the three great art museums of Madrid (and the world) which also include the del Prado (perhaps the world’s best art collection) and the Reina Sofia modern art museum.  The Prado and Reina Sofia collections contain great depth in that for many of the world’s foremost painters the museums contain multiple adjacent rooms filled with just the works of each artist, such as Bosch, Rubens, Velazquez, Goya or Picasso. In contrast, the Thyssen, perhaps my favorite, contains a collection of unbelievable breadth – it contains examples of practically every famous painter in an immense collection, covering over 700 years starting around 1300 with mostly religious paintings on wood, through all the classical transformations and onto impressionism, surrealism, modern and pop art.  It even has an entire room of just American art.  All is arranged chronologically so one over hours can meander through the entire history of Western Art, seeing the famous examples of practically every famous painter whose name one can recognize.  I have read that this probably is the finest private collection ever made, and now is owned by the Government of Spain.  At the end of the attached photo collection I have included 19 photos of some of my favorites from the Thyssen Museum, in chronological order, creating a quick romp through the history of some of the finest paintings from 1300 through to the end of the 20th century, skipping the 18th century as that is more properly viewed in the Prado Museum, and heavily weighted to 19th and 20th century (more modern styles – impressionist, cubist, modern and even pop).  As some of you know, I have little expertise in fine art, but do have a great many prejudices anyway – my favorites tend to the early and classical greats, with the evolution of painting from 1300 through the early 19th century, but this museum makes it fun to pass through what I consider the following devolution of art after about 1870.  The masters include Mates, Ghirlandaeo, Cranach, Holbein the Younger, Rubens, Brueghel the Elder, Honthorst, Rembrandt, Renoir, Manet, Gauguin, Matisse, Cezanne, Hopper, Picasso, Dali, Pollack and Licktenstein.

This is the end of my trip as I return to the US this Wednesday, for the long flight back.  Until later.  Dave

 

 

Report on Caceres, Trujillo and Salamanca, Spain, May 30, 2017

I last reported from Merida, one of the great ancient Roman cities of Spain with the best preserved structures.  From Merida last Sunday I traveled north to Caceres in Extremadura, the region which was home to most of the best known Conquistadores of the New World.  Caceres preserves what is known as the Monumental City, the “old town” still completely walled, and infused with towers and palaces, parapets, spires and family shields on almost every building. Most buildings date from the 15th and 16th centuries, and display the splendors of construction made possible by the wealth brought home by the conquistadors.

I spent one day traveling the short distance east to Trujillo, a smaller sister city which, in addition to incorporating an old walled city as in Caceres, also contains the older fortress originally built by the Romans, but completely re-built by the Moors during their brief period in control of the region in the 9th and 10th Centuries.  Trujillo was home to the two greatest South American Conquistador families, the Pizarros (4 brothers who conquered the Incas) and Orellana (first European to venture up the Amazon). I have, on previous trips, discussed much detail on the various structures and history of the two towns, and will not now repeat that.

From Caceres I traveled further north to my favorite town, perhaps in the entire world – Salamanca.  I first came here for a couple of months in 2003 as I was trying to internalize Spanish – actually Castilian, as Spain recognizes 4 different co-official languages nationally, which include Basque, which bears no relationship whatsoever to the other 3 Romance languages – Catalan, Galician and Castilian.  I have been back a number of times and always love the place.  Again, I will not dwell on all the history and incredible structures, but suffice it to say that the large walled Salamanca Old City is filled with Romanesque, Gothic, Plateresque Renaissance, and Baroque masterpieces of architecture and interior decorations, to accompany one of the greatest of old Roman bridges and one of the four great medieval universities of the world, with the oldest library in Europe.  The Old Town still is home to a great university with its 10’s of thousands of university students who party all and every weekend.  Through the years of coming here I have always been woken at sunup on Sunday mornings by the loud singing of groups of drunks, returning home from their all-Saturday-night revelry. I love this place.

I have once more a great value hotel room, a huge modern space with balcony and fridge, right off the Plaza Mayor, for about 80 Euros per day. The ancient alleys and streets of the Old City are simply filled with many of Spain’s great Tapas Bars, Cafes and Jamonerias, all with outdoor tables filling the narrow passageways.   A handful of my customary tavern hangouts have changed hands, but my three old-time favorites all are still in place and still popular, the Meson Las Conchas, the Ruta de la Plata (used to be called Patio Chico) and the El Ave.  Las Conchas was the first tapas bar I was introduced to in Spain back in 2003; it is very traditional, and always has a selection of about 45 different tapas on display, constantly rotating.  A wine, or beer, and tapa costs about E2.50.  Three to four rounds is quite filling.  Many locals order their wine or beer mixed half with sparkling water, thus making a terrific meal without getting drunk.  Ruta de la Plata has forever perfected the open, huge, wood-fired grill, which specializes in ribs, lomo and pancetta, all grilled to crackling perfection, which can be enjoyed as tapas or large serving platters as raciones.

Weather, for all but one day in Caceres and every day until today here in Salamanca, has basically been white overcast – rather unimpressive for photos.  I did want to re-enact one old custom from my 2003 and 2006 trips; Back then I initially was overwhelmed by the excellent jamon Iberico bellota (the dry-cured ham from the ancient special breed of black Iberian hogs, which are raised in open oak woodland on wild acorns), considered the best – and the most expensive – ham in the world, along with the famous manchego cheese (hard, medium strong flavored sheep milk Spanish cheese), and baguettes integral (freshly baked whole grain crispy baguettes) – these three ingredients combined make the world’s best sandwich – especially when combined  with a bottle of Spanish red wine from the Duero River Valley.  With these four delicacies in my daypack, quite cheaply acquired from the local Jamonerias, I instituted private picnics on weekends in the tall grasses along the south banks of the Rio Tormes, where there were a number of hidden coves in sight of portions of the Roman Bridge, surrounded by huge cottonwood trees, and backed by a field of Spring wildflowers.  I have very fond memories.  How unfortunate now to find this entire stretch of the bank of the Rio Tormes gone – where once were the trees and low banks now is just wide shallow river, although the flower covered field still exists.  Apparently, within the last 5 years or so, the river flooded and came around the bend and just completely washed out the area, including trees.  Well, I am looking for a new spot further down the river.

I have made reservations next to travel north tomorrow by train to the Asturias and Cantabria region, which faces the Atlantic Ocean gulf between France and Spain, to a small village called Puente Viesgo.  Close by the village are the Cuevas Monte Castillo, which caves contain the oldest cave paintings in Europe, and together with a recently discovered Indonesian cave contain the oldest known paintings in the world (dated to 40,000 years ago, almost 10,000 years older than the better known paintings of the nearby Altamira Cave and France’s Lascaux Cave).  Well, so long for now.  Dave