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Report on Birding the Caribbean North of Colombia, Jan. 21, 2017

I flew from Bogota to Barranquilla, the third largest city in Colombia, on December 27; my earlier flight from Leticia, in Amazonia, to Bogota was held on the tarmac for 40 minutes as we waited before liftoff for a rainstorm to subside.  My flight from Bogota also was delayed on the tarmac for an hour, in clear weather, with few overall flights, and no information from the crew as to the problem.

I decided to spend 3 nights in Barranquilla because I could not book a hotel room in either Cartagena or Santa Marta.  Colombians flock to the northern Caribbean coast from the middle of December to the about the 10th of January when they celebrate the “Dia de los Reyes Magos” (day of the wise men), and everything during this period is booked and double priced.  Barranquilla is an exception – it is a large city with few tourist sites or hotels – a rather grim place in the “historic” Centro comprised of mostly concrete and cracking sidewalks, with street vendor stalls blocking easy passage through many of the streets.  It also has a bad reputation for street theft, at least according to the huge numbers of local police who often insisted on accompanying me from my hotel entrance (I suspect looking for tips was more likely the reason, although I had few doubts as to the criminal element).  Further from the center, the city was more modern, but bland, with nothing to attract tourists (the one huge exception being that the city hosts the second largest Carnival celebration in the Americas, after Rio de Janeiro – this year it is in late February).  I did use part of my stay to visit ATM machines many more times in preparation for further cash currency requirements to occur with my birding in the north.

From Barranquilla I traveled by shuttle van – (never Marsol again, Marsol vans were located on the wrong side of the city for transport anywhere, requiring over an extra hour of travel time, the vans were over-packed, with dripping AC units, broken seats, and ours broke down one kilometer from the destination) – to Santa Marta, a delightful port town to the northeast.  I booked in Santa Marta for 6 days to get me through New Year’s, thinking that would be the worst of the crowded season (I was later proven wrong).  Many of the streets through the old center of town are now converted to pedestrian use only,  the sandy beach coast is lined by the broad “Malecon” pedestrian walkways, which themselves line the roadway all the way north to the large seaport where containers are constantly being loaded and offloaded from large ships.  Many of the little restaurants are new (the highest ranked 3 restaurants in my Moon travel guide do not exist anymore, despite the guidebook being published 1 year ago).  My favorite finds were a “little hole in the wall” called La Oficina on a pedestrian street (unknown why the strange name), which each morning served me a pile of steaming scrambled eggs with diced tomatoes and onions, a large freshly fried “arrepa” (a cornmeal and white cheese cake) and a plastic glass of wonderful fresh squeezed orange juice –  the price 6,000 Pesos ($2.00); the other favorite was “China Town,” another hole in the wall restaurant with sidewalk tables on the Malecon facing the sea; it was always crowded, and owned by an old Chinese couple, grandparents, who always were there and jumping to meet me each day (I think I made an especially good impression the first day by admiring and commenting on their grandbaby, always tightly cradled in the grandmother’s arms while she sat close to my table).  The food was mediocre, but I pretty much like any Chinese food, especially the mostly seafood types, and the portions were so stupendous that everyone carried out half of what they were served (I sadly had to leave my uneaten portions, and did not feel comfortable suggesting they be fed to the always present, emaciated and sad looking, dogs begging around the tables).

My evenings I spent on the Plaza de los Novios (roughly “lover’s plaza”), the main center of the old town, watching the dogs barking and the little kids playing with their new Christmas presents (huge numbers of various kinds of skates and 3 wheeled boards with various motive mechanisms), reading and sipping cheap red wine from Argentina or Chile (available in 1 liter boxes), which I consumed from 16oz diet Coke bottles (the red wine looks exactly like Coke in the bottle).  My days I spent wandering the Malecon and again hitting many ATM machines getting the “efectivo” cash necessary for several weeks in the mountains, to pay expensive guides and transport where there are no banks, internet nor acceptance of credit cards (I noted previously the fact that ATM machines would not dispense more than $100 to $200 worth of Pesos at a time, each time unfortunately charging up to a $3 fee).  One day I traveled by local bus to the little town of Taganga, just a few kilometers north over some coastal hills, which has become the popular haven for backpackers.  It lies in a small protected cove at the edge of the famous Tayrona National Park, has a lovely beach completely crowded with colorful boats waiting to entice the tourists to go to the secluded beaches of the Park.  I checked on the prices to go to the park for a day of birding – they wanted P1,000,000, or about $330.  I declined.  All prices were doubled or tripled during this festive holiday period.

On January 4 I traveled by private taxi the roughly 30kms from Santa Marta up to MInca, a small town at about 2,000ft elevation in the low foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, perhaps the most bird rich patch of land on earth (at last count over 630 bird species in the mountains alone, about the area of New York City, with roughly the number of species existing in the entire US and Canada).  The Santa Marta Range is the highest coastal mountain range in the world, and includes the highest peak in Colombia at just under 19,000ft, which also boasts title as the fifth most prominent mountain in the world, meaning height from the base ground level from which the mountain is viewed (Everest is both highest and most prominent).  The range is not part of the Andes, and so forms a huge mountain “island” system, separated from all other mountains, and over millennia has produced a huge number of endemic species of birds, reptiles and plants, found nowhere else on earth.

In Minca I stayed at the basic, but delightfully situated, Hotel La Casona, which has hummingbird and fruit feeders scattered at the edge of the forest below its back veranda.  I spent 5 days in Minca, photographing the birds around the hotel in the afternoons, and hired guides (the first of 5 guides I used during the next 13 days in the Caribbean region) to take me early mornings to nearby bird rich spots and to hike the senderos and dirt roads above Minca.  Birds photographed for the first time included the Steely-vented hummingbird, White-vented Plumeleteer, Crimson-backed Tanager, Swallow Tanager and Golden-winged Sparrow, as well as the Collared Aracari and Gartered Trojan.  All tiny restaurants in town which were open in the evening seemed to just serve hamburgers – I finally found a restaurant, most inappropriately named “Burger Town,” which actually had most of its menu devoted to fish, ribs and pasta – a welcome change, and my nightly regular choice.

Whereas in Amazonia I had problems with my allergy to the local chiggers, in Minca occurs a species of gegenes (no-see-ems) which gave me the same allergic reactions, now on my arms rather than legs – three days of intense itching and bright redness surrounding the bite, followed by a growing blister which would often reach the size of a dime, taking weeks to heal.  Application of 100% Deet to clothing and skin was generally effective for prevention, but a nuisance to use twice daily.  I really need to visit a specialist to find why I have become so allergic to certain types of bites with age – I thought the immune system was supposed to weaken, not go into overdrive.

From MInca I arranged 4-wheel drive transportation up to the El Dorado Reserve, the first and most famous private reserve of the ProAves Foundation, which now owns about 25 private reserves in Colombia, protecting the rarest and endemic species of birds found here in the most bird-rich country on earth.  The  El Dorado Reserve is huge, and covers elevations from about 4,000ft up to the local Kennedy Peak at about 10,000ft.  The El Dorado Lodge is fairly rustic, hugging the steep mountain-side at about 6,600ft, and is surrounded by thick cloud forest and steep trails, somewhat reminiscent of Kodai where I went to boarding school as a child in India.  To reach the Lodge, and continue up to the local peak, required body-wrenching travel in 4-wheel drive vehicles – available for hire with driver and/or guides for very hefty prices.

I stayed in one of the many “dorm” rooms below the lodge, all of which were advertised to require sharing if necessary, but as very few people visit the lodge before February, I not only had a large room to myself (3 beds including a bunk), with private bath and hot water, but a huge picture window overlooking the Caribbean coast to the west, where at night one could see the lights of Santa Marta, the long La Cienega strip winding through the huge lagoon and the distant city of Barranquilla.  I had full moon nights, so would awake to bright moonlight flooding my room, with the Caribbean Sea reflecting the moonlight up into the mountains.  Beautiful.  For two of my days I shared the Lodge with 5 others, then one night had an international bird tour group, one night with an American bird life-lister and his Bogota guide, and one night I was entirely by myself at the Lodge.  The life-lister was searching for just 3 birds he had not previously recorded in the mountains – the local biologist told me he was ranked number 3 or 4 in the world for number of species listed (seen) in all the Americas.  All but one night we had no electricity, as the severe winds this time of year continued to fell large trees and tree limbs onto the primitive electrical transmission system which somehow climbs into these mountains.  The lodge building had a generator, so had power in the evening, but none of the rooms or walks to the rooms had power, so flashlights or lanterns were necessary for going to bed and getting up each morning.

The food was adequate to quite good (a little too much white rice and sweets for my taste, but they accommodated my personal requests well), and there was a lot of it;  three full meals a day, whether you were hungry or not – and the drivers and guides insisted on taking bags of snacks for the hours between meals when roaming around on the sides of the upper reserve.  Plus, every meal was served with different native fresh fruit juices, filling multiple pitchers on each table.  The endless coffee service, pitchers of exotic juices, and very expensive beer (the glass bottles must be hauled up the mountain in 4-wheel drives, along with all other food and supplies), all combined such that I believe I went 5 full days without every drinking just plain water.

I spent one day hiking out to La Cumbres ridge, where a Reserve forest guard, Cristian,  lives alone with his wife.  This is 5 kilometers of semi steep, hiking only, trail from the main lodge; the guard, with 3 others, built the trail, his own home, as well as the solar power which runs it, a year and half ago.  He has to haul in all food, supplies and natural gas on his back.  We spent part of a day birding along that trail.  On two days I paid for a private 4X4 and driver to take me and the Reserve’s local biologist-guide, Roger, to the top of the local peak, at 10,000 feet, where a number of the endemics are found.  I have posted pictures of many of the endemics; you will notice that a large number of them are named “Santa Marta _____”, accurately describing the only location on earth where they may be found.

Birds photographed include the Band-tailed Guan, White-tipped Quetzal, Blue-naped Chorophonia, Santa Marta Woodstar (together with other woodstar hummingbirds, the tiniest birds on earth, head and body combined barely over an inch long), Santa Marta Brush-Finch, Santa Marta Warbler, Santa Marta Wood-Wren, and Rusty-headed Spinetail, the later 5 of which are endemic.  One day, while continuing my unsuccessful attempt to photograph the Santa Marta Antpitta (at least 6 times we had them answering to recorded calls, often to within less than 20 feet in the brush, but they never appeared in the open), I found a small family of Red Howler Monkeys overhead in a huge forest tree; I got some good photos as Howlers almost always provide interesting portraits.

January 14 I bid El Dorado goodbye, and traveled with Sebastian, my guide for the next 4 days, back down to MInca.  We spent two days birding the 4X4 road well below El Dorado but above Minca, where I was rewarded with my first view of the Groove-billed Toucanet, Black-fronted Wood-Quail, Santa Marta Antbird and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, all rare and difficult to photograph.

On the third and fourth days we traveled on down to the Caribbean coast and then north, where first we birded the edges of Tayrona National Park for its dry-forest birds, and then a trail up Rio Don Diego for humid tropical forest birds.  I was rewarded with the Brown-crested Flycatcher, Russet-throated Puffbird, Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant and Lance-tailed Manakin, among many others.  We drove on into the desert of the Guajira District, which is the northern most finger of Colombia that joins Venezuela, to the small indigenous community of Los Camarones, which sits on the edge of the Los Flamingos National Reserve.  Since I previously have on many occasions seen the American Flamingo, we were not there to take boats out to the Flamingos.  Instead, we birded the small lagoons, where I photographed the Roseate Spoonbill and Scarlet Ibis along with other waders, and then spent hours with a local indigenous guide (necessary here as all land belongs to the indigenous peoples) walking the senderos (trails) through the very dry desert cactus and thorn tree forests.  We were fortunate in locating the Vermilion Cardinal, White-fringed Antwren, Black-crested Antshrike, Orinocan Saltador and Chestnut Piculet, all relatively difficult and/or near endemic species.

The afternoon of the 17th Sebastian drove me back to Santa Marta, where I spent two nights cleaning up, working on photos, and enjoying cheap Chinese food on the Malecon.  On the 19th I traveled by Brasilia Bus (a first class bus service through much of northern South America, and a vast improvement to Marsol Shuttle Service) the 5 ½ hours to Cartagena; the high Colombian tourist season now is over here in the Caribbean, and so finding lodging was not a problem.  I am in a delightful B&B, called the Patio de Getsemani, with very friendly and helpful owners – the lodging lies in Getsemani, the little walled district now part of the Old Walled City, directly across from the San Jose Battlement on the walls.  Views from the rooftop terrace in the late afternoon are stunning, and include a full view across the bay to Castillo de San Felipe, the largest fortress built in the New World.  The Old City is still entirely surrounded by huge defensive walls.  The fortress and walls all were constructed starting in the 16th Century to defend against the pirates of the Caribbean which periodically sacked the city for the gold and silver stored here destined for Spain; the entire Old City is a World Heritage Site.  But more on Cartagena in the next travelogue – this one has grown oversized due to the intervening times, happenings and photos.

I am well and life is good.  Until later.  Dave

Report on Birding in Amazonia, Colombia, posted Dec. 26, 2016

December 10 I flew from Bogota to Leticia, the capital of the Amazona Department.  Leticia is situated on the northeast bank of the Amazon River at the point where 3 countries meet, Colombia, Brazil and Peru.  From my hotel I simply can walk a few blocks southeast and pass into Tabatinga, Brazil – no immigration or checkpoints – although if one is traveling farther into Brazil where documentation is needed, one must get a visa at the proper offices.  Together, Leticia and Tabatinga have a population of around 100,000.  This is the largest town between Iquitos, Peru, which lies a few hundred miles upriver where the Amazon first takes its name, and Manaus, Brazil which is over a thousand miles downriver.   Just west of Leticia lies a large river island and town which is Peruvian and the northwestern side of the Amazon all is Peru.  I am told that most people here speak both Spanish and Portuguese and the currency of all three countries is used freely in the three towns.

I stayed in one of the better hotels, the Waira Suites, where I was upgraded to a double roomed suite with two flat screen TVs, which I did not use, and two air-conditioners, which I did use.  The first 3 days we received one huge downpour each afternoon-evening.  The days were mostly oppressively hot and humid, particularly when the sun came out, which was often.  City traffic is heavy, and consists over 90% of motorbikes, scooters and motor trikes (“tuk tuks”) with covers, used as taxis. This is similar to traffic in Iquitos, Peru, and makes sense when one realizes there are no roads connecting the Amazon towns to the outside world.  All commerce must either arrive by boat on the very long route up the Amazon from the Atlantic, or by air.  Surprising to me was that close to half the bike and scooter drivers are female.

The manager of my hotel put me in touch with a biology professor, Elais Cuao, who is an expert on the birds here in Amazonia.  Although somewhat pricey, I decided to utilize his expertise throughout my stay in the Amazon.  Each of my three full days in Leticia were spent in patches of forest and existence agricultural cultivation north of Leticia, with one day further north in more primary forest.  The trails on the forest floor often run through long sections of boggy ground, interspersed every 100ms or so by small deep ravines with creeks.  Wearing the 15 inch high rubber boots (which I purchased upon arrival) is pretty much mandatory, as much of the ground is two to six inches of mud.  Most of the deep creeks are crossed by single plank bridges built by the indigenous, usually with single pole handholds tied down with strips of bark to poles grounded in the creek below.  The senderos (forest trails) lead to areas where the indigenous have built their communal homes.  The heat really is oppressive, less for the temperature, which I doubt reaches much past the mid to high 80s F, but mostly for the continuous near 100% humidity.  One remains pretty much permanently soaked with sweat while working the trails with the weight of the backpack, two camera systems and a heavy-duty monopod.  My cheaper camera I keep covered to avoid killing it with sweat, as I did with a new camera in Costa Rica a few years ago.  The professional equipment is supposed to be fairly water resistant and I have not had problems with it.

Age has brought a new set of problems for my rain forest walks.  Starting a couple of years ago, one of my toes started pulling to the right and now tries to climb over the big toe.  Doctors don’t recommend surgery.  I have bought good hiking boots with ample vertical room in the toe box to mitigate the problem.  However, here in the rain forest, one must purchase the cheap and available high black rubber boots.  They are relatively narrow and have no vertical room in the toe box – my first day out I almost wore the top off the lifted toe. Ow! Ow! I ordered some medical “paper” tape to tie the toe down.  Turns out they sold me the very sticky surgical tape, and it almost ripped my skin off my toe and foot.  I exchanged it for paper tape for the skin, which worked the third day for about 2 hours, then came apart.  I have since arranged mostly for birding by private boat down the small rivers, and only go to terra firma where mixed flocks of birds are passing through.  Thus I can wear more often my own boots.  However, that has led to multiple chigger bites, to which I am quite allergic (the chiggers, known here as “aradores,” inhabit the high grasses along the edge of waterways, and climb up inside one’s pant legs unless tucked into the high rubber boots).  Never easy birding in the rain forests.

I was fortunate in three days of Leticia birding to photograph a number of new species, including the Solitary Cacique, Short-tailed Parrot, White-throated Toucan, Chestnut-sided Aracari, Paradise Tanager and Red-throated Caracara.

I did spend a couple of hours one afternoon “visiting” the muelle (dock or port) in Brazil – this involved simply taking a tuk tuk from Leticia, crossing the border which runs down the middle of a street, and continuing south to the larger port of Tabatinga.  There one finds docked the larger 4 story boats which ply the 3-day route from Manaus to Tabatinga.  If a person wishes to continue up-river into Peru, she must head for the Leticia muelle, where the smaller “Express” boats start the 10 hour run up to Iquitos.

On December 14 I traveled by “Express” boat from Leticia to Puerto Narino, the only other town of any size on the Amazon in Colombia.  I had made the decision that, despite the cost, it would be worth the price to have Elais accompany me throughout my expedition on the Amazon tributaries.  The trip upriver took about 2 hours to cover the approximately 90 km.  Puerto Narino is a small town made up of indigenous peoples from the three tribes who live in this part of Colombia.  It is touristed by daytrip groups from Leticia, and is known as an ecologically minded town.  The homes are clean, everything green and lush, and the only “streets” are concrete or paving stone pathways throughout the town.  No motorized vehicles are allowed (excepting the boats at the two piers, as all traffic is by river).  Although my hotel in Leticia had AC rooms and all facilities, the related hotel, Waira Selva, in Puerto Narino was rather basic; an overhead fan, a small balcony, cold water shower, bed and cupboard.

I stayed for 5 days, and our daily routine, rain permitting, was to be out the door by 6:30 generally to take a pequepeque (small canoe type wooden boat, powered by a gas engine which runs a small propeller on a very long 10 ft. shaft), which are the most common powered local transport in Amazonia, and able to navigate over submerged logs and through heavy masses of water plants.  Purchasing gas on the river means pulling up to small wood cabins over the water where the expensive fuel is kept in large plastic containers.  It is sold by the liter poured into plastic Coke bottles for use by the pequepeques (see picture).

We traveled three times into Tarapoto Lake, a lovely large ox-bow lake deep in the forest, where we encountered a number of birds, including the wonderfully named Horned Screamer, White-headed Marsh Tyrant and the incredible Long-billed Woodcreeper, with its giraffe like neck, long narrow head and long bill, all designed for searching for little frogs which live inside the bromeliads growing on the largest of the rainforest trees. We did one night trip, as I was interested in photographing the black caiman and night birds I previously had seen in Ecuador.  I had been told, but found it hard to believe, that no black caiman remained, not even babies (if caiman are present at all they are very easy to locate at night with a good spotlight, as their eyes shine at the edge of the water like brilliant red beams).  I was told repeatedly that the indigenous had hunted them to extinction in this area in the last 20 years.  Similarly, I had hoped to see the much endangered Amazon manatee, which my books claimed were in this lake – again I was told they had been hunted to local extinction. I was able to photograph two new species of nightjars, using the light of only my powerful Fenix LED torch (flash reflects from their eyes and ruins the picture).  We spent one day traveling a long distance up the Loretoyacu to the Cocha Soto, a black water marsh area, where we got great views of a pair of Slate-colored Hawks, a Red-throated Caracara and the brilliant Masked-crimson Tanager.

From Puerto Narino, on December 19 we traveled by small boat downriver a short ways to the Amacayacu National Park, and mouth of the Amacayacu (Yacu means river in Quechua, so if I said Amacayacu River it would be like saying Amaca River River).  About 20km up the Amacayacu lies the small indigenous village of San Martin, lying just inside the edge of the Park.  There I stayed at the Casa Gregorio, a very rustic lodging (one night I was sharing the lone bathroom with 7 others) run by Heike, a Dutch biologist who arrived 12 years ago to study leaf-cutter ants, and wound up staying, marrying Juan Gregorio, a local leader.  They provide a few rooms and all meals, mostly entertaining European independent travelers who wish an authentic rainforest experience, including lessons in various crafts from the locals.  I spent my days again departing at 6:30, for usually 8 hours or so, by private boat to various birding areas, where I took my first photos of the sadly named Drab Water Tyrant, as well as the common Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures circling overhead.  Mostly we traveled up the Amacayacu, but did walk one day a short way further into the Amacayacu National Park, where I achieved a photo of the skulking, hard-to-find White-shouldered Antbird.

After about the 5th day in the Colombian Amazon, I started to complain a little, more each day, about what to me seemed a lack of bird density compared with my memories of Amazonia in Peru and Ecuador.  Elais kept telling me that there were too many people living up the tributaries near the Amazon in Colombia, and they hunted many of the birds, as well as animals.  On my final day in San Martin, my 12th day in Amazonia, we crossed the Amazon to, first, Isla Cacao, a river island in Peru, and then onto the Peruvian mainland up the Yanayacu tributary.  What a difference.  Within a couple of hours we encountered as many birds as we normally would have in two days, and a number of harder to find species, such as both the Long-winged Antwren and Cherrie’s Antwren and, very unusually, both the Green and Rufous Kingfisher and the Pigmy Kingfisher; both are tiny (the pygmy really small), and both quite rare to find, much less photograph.  I also achieved my first half-way decent photo of the beautiful Scarlet-crowned Barbet.  We also encountered Squirrel Monkeys traveling the high tree-branch highways, and a 3-toed Sloth.

On December 22 we returned by Express boat to Leticia, and on the 23rd I paid an exorbitant price hiring a “fast” boat and we traveled once more across the Amazon into Peru, this time up the Gamboa River.  Again, we were rewarded with an abundance of species and overall bird numbers, including the Chestnut Woodpecker, Black-tailed Trogon and Mustached Wren. The river runs through entirely indigenous land, but quickly reaches untouched forest, except by fishermen.  Because it is low water season, the narrow river channel was choked with a type of water lily plant that the wind pushed into giant mats completely covering all water.  Great habitat for some water birds, but difficult for the boat motor, which continued to get clogged with the plants.  In the indigenous communities, many local families, with all their kids, were out in the water at reed choked river edges, harvesting the yellow egg pouches of some small spiny fish – “Amazonian caviar”.

Quite clearly the small stretch of Amazonia that lies within Colombia, all on the North side of the Amazon, has had problems maintaining the abundance of birdlife, and has had local extinctions of various wildlife.  This may partially be due to a higher human density in the very small area available to Colombia, but I rather suspect is may have a lot to do with the fact that less than 20 years ago, this stretch of the Amazon was heavily traveled, lived on and used for the drug trade by the FARC, the Communist revolutionary army which perpetrated against the Colombian army the longest formal war of the 20th Century, only officially ended by a peace treaty signed a few weeks ago.

Food has been somewhat less than wished for – generally consisting of small pieces of either chicken (often fairly dry) or most commonly fish (usually quite bony).  These are accompanied by rice, potatoes and lots of yuca, a plant stem that, when cooked, mostly resembles somewhat stringy potatoes cut into thick sugarcane type lengths.  Breakfast can usually include eggs, but almost always lots of fruit variety – other than bananas, papaya and pineapple I don’t recognize any of the fruit.  Much of it ranges from grape sized to mango sized colorful spheres, tough skin surrounding a tart fruity interior, usually enclosing a large single or double seed.  The local beers are much like local beers in any Latin American country – all straw colored lagers with lots of flavor (not necessarily good flavor).  I actually now tend to buy the Poker brand, which my guide and a couple of local boatmen describe to me as “agua de burro” (you should be able to interpret).

I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas working on my photos, writing, reading, checking the handful of emails I could eventually open on the OH SO SLOW internet here, and drinking the local Poker beer.  At least they have internet in Leticia, unlike Puerto Narino.  This year, although I have a full set of all my music with me, including about 20 Christmas albums, I listened to no Christmas music.  There was none around town, and the only sign of celebrations were a couple of special programs for kids in the main hall of my hotel.  The women’s shoe store across the street from my room balcony played horrid loud music all day, and the store was always packed with shoppers just before Christmas.  The only other sign of the holiday was unbelievably long lines at the Bank ATMs the two days before.  I guess Christmas just doesn’t quite work the same in the Amazon.  Ebenezer Scrooge would have found few spirits here to guide his redemption.

I left Amazonia December 26 and flew back to Bogota, where I have finally had internet sufficient to upload this report.  Tomorrow I fly to Barranquia on the Caribbean coast, and start my several weeks in the Santa Marta region of the North, which comprises the most bird rich area of Colombia.

Later.  Dave

 

Travel Report on First Days in Bogota, Colombia, Sat. Dec. 10, 2016

Hello everyone.  I am delighted once more to be on the road, anticipating this trip will cover many parts of Colombia for wildlife and bird photography.  I left Tucson Monday morning Dec 5, and arrived in Bogota shortly after midnight on Tuesday.  Multiple sources recommend never hiring a taxi off the street or hailing an open one at the airport – a common problem in Bogota being referred to as the “millionaire ride,” where the taxi in transit stops on a side street allowing 2 friends to hop in, and they then spend the next several hours first robbing, then forcing, the hapless victim to utilize ATMs for cash on all cards until the daily limit is reached (This taxi crime is common also in Mexico City).  Therefore, one always is encouraged to call a taxi from an authorized company, or buy a taxi ticket at the authorized booth at the airport or bus stations.  There is a catch at the Bogota airport – the authorized taxi ticket booth is inside the international terminal where one exits customs, but the taxi ticket vendor only accepts cash payment in Colombian pesos.  Beside the taxi ticket booth is an international monetary exchange booth with outrageous expensive exchange rates.  The Bank ATMs which dispense Colombian pesos at the bank’s daily exchange rates are located just outside the terminal exit.  I went out, used an ATM for cash, then found I could not reenter the terminal to purchase a taxi ticket.  Instead, outside I was directed to another special taxi booth where I could buy an authorized ticket for a large luxury van at exactly twice the regular taxi rate.  What a system.  I took a normal taxi from the taxi ranks without issue, other than the extra 20 minutes of drive time the elderly driver spent going in circles trying to locate my little B&B hotel.  Next trip I will utilize the hotel’s offer to arrange an authorized taxi to pick me up.

Bogota is quite a clean and relatively modern city, at least around the Centro Historico (the colonial town center), and along the Avenida El Dorado which hosts one leg of the Transmilenio transport system down the middle. The El Dorado road runs from downtown all the way out to the airport. My hotel is closer to the airport, a location decision made to save me over an hour each way in taxi time.  To visit downtown, I just hopped on the Transmilenio, the ultra-modern bus system famous in Bogota, and now copied in Madrid and Mexico City, among other world capitals (sadly not in Tucson, where they chose to start with an overpriced rail line).  Rather than subway or metro rail lines, the Transmilenio utilizes buses which have 2 to 4 cars joined like trams.  They run entirely in dedicated lanes, and stop at frequent stations which operate like most metro and subway systems; that is you purchase rides on refillable cards outside the station, then simply touch the card to the entry turn-style to enter the station.  Once inside one can freely ride the system anywhere in the city, changing buses as necessary, and exiting the system at the destination.  It took me just 15 minutes to get downtown, and I could watch in amazement at the endless multilane traffic jams on either side of the Transmilenio.

Practically all of the really old colonial era buildings and churches, of which there never were many, have been destroyed multiple times by fire or war, and so the city does not compete with historic centers like in Mexico City, Guadalajara or even Lima.  But around the famous and original Plaza Bolivar (practically all South American cities of any size surround a Plaza Bolivar, named for Simon Bolivar, the independence hero for South America), are a number of interesting 17th to 19th century buildings, with pedestrian streets and many “living” statues lining the way as in Barcelona (these are “artists” which set up props and then generally paint themselves entirely silver, bronze or gold and strike poses representing a scene as one might encounter with a work of metallic art).

I have found a street with a dozen cheap restaurants a few blocks from my hotel where I am taking my evening meals.  On the 7th of December I went into a large open-fronted restaurant called Asadero de Carne, Mi Lindo Ranchito, a grilled meat restaurant.  The large interior had a couple dozen tables, but no customers.  Several young men were gathered partying in front of the large wood grill located behind a large bar.  They insisted the restaurant was open (I normally eat about 6pm, and almost all restaurants are then empty, but fill by 7pm), so I ordered a beer and had them show me what cuts of meat were available for grilling.  The day, Dec 7, is a special festival here in Colombia, the Dia de las Velitas, or Day of the Little Candles, which honors the Virgin Mary.  The staff, including the owner, stood drinking rum and 7-Up, which they shared with me (I only took a sip, sticking to my beer).  I wound up ordering the Punta de Anca cut of meat, which is a tri-tip sirloin cut famous for grilling in Colombia.  I cannot properly describe the huge platter they eventually brought me.  They thick-sliced and grilled the entire tri-tip cut, close to two pounds of meat, and served the slices spread to entirely cover a mound of French fries, roasted yucca and guacamole on a large oblong platter.  I can eat a huge amount of food, but was fully stuffed just a little over half way through that meal.  The entire meal plus two beers and lots of fun set me back just over $9 US.  As other customers started to arrive we toned down our private party, but took a bunch of pictures. On my 6 block walk back home through residential streets, almost every 5th house had the family outside lighting sets of candles on the sidewalks.  I have great memories of the Day of the Little Candles.

I spent Thursday with a hired taxi visiting two “humedals” (marshlands) just northwest of greater Bogota.  These sites were recommended for rare and endemic birds in my guide book to birding sites in Colombia.  Both sites recommended, and I agreed, to be accompanied by an armed guard, as robbers had plagued the large marshlands in recent years. Two rare endemic species exist nowhere else except in these local marshlands, and so may go extinct in the not distant future, one being the Bogota rail. Unfortunately, both sites appeared somewhat polluted, with one being completely bordered on one side by new high rise cheap apartment buildings which drained sickly looking water into the marsh.  I did see a number of birds, but all were of the more common varieties, and so the day was not what I had hoped.

From Bogota I flew to Leticia on Saturday – Leticia is a small town sitting on the bank of the Amazon River, at the point where Colombia, Brazil and Peru all meet.  I will spend the next 17 days along the Amazon, hoping the oncoming rainy “season” (it always rains, but is most constant and heavy around February) does not start early.  Later.  Dave

 

Travel Report on San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Aug. 18, 2016

Hello all.  I am just nearing the end of a month stay in the central highlands of Mexico.  I last wrote reporting on Yellowstone, while still on the road in the US in my small RV trailer – that trip ended in June after a long detour to Kansas City to visit my brother, who lives there, and sister, who traveled up from Florida.  From Kansas I spent three days on the long drive back down to Tucson.  After a month in Tucson, I realized once again how little I enjoyed the really hot summer temperature, and so decided to spend a month in the highlands of central Mexico.

On July 21 I flew to Mexico City, where I spent a week just wandering around the central historic area.  I have been traveling there for decades, and so had visited most sites many times before. I stayed again in the Hotel Catedral, spending late afternoons on the terraces overlooking the Mexico City Cathedral from the North.

I did visit for the first time the relatively new Diego Rivera Museum to see the famous Alameda Park mural, moved after the great 1985 earthquake leveled the original building around it without touching the mural.  I also spent time visiting friends, two graduate archaeology students (at University of Arizona), working on their PhDs researching ancient humans.  Ismael and Kayla both were spending the summer in the INAH (Mexico’s Agency over all archaeological sites) labs where were deposited the gomphothere (form of extinct ice age elephant) bones they had excavated along with human stone tools in Northern Mexico over the last 2 years.  They are preparing for making a presentation at a seminar this next week.

I had one very unfortunate experience traveling on the Mexico City subway system while there; on my way to visit the National Anthropology Museum, a group of young men physically “jammed” my body while I was trying to enter a crowded subway car.  This lasted all of about 1 second, long enough for one of them to get my wallet from behind (even though I carry it in a front pocket).  This form of physical robbery is exactly the same that was used on me in Thessaloniki Greece last fall.  Anyway, once again I found myself wasting over a day trying to cancel, then get replacement, credit/dedit cards (I always carry multiple cards, and split them so I carry half and leave half in my hotel room, thus only losing and dealing with two cards upon a theft).

From Mexico City three weeks ago I traveled by bus to San Miguel de Allende.  San Miguel is a World Heritage Site, with most of its central heart made up of 18th century historic buildings.  It was part of the cradle of the independence movement from Spain.  The town sits at well over 6,000 feet in elevation in the central highlands, and has a year-round spring climate.  July-August is the rainy season, when everything is very green and fresh; it rains most days, but usually just for an hour or so, with brilliant blue skies much of the rest of the time.  Very lovely.  I probably have been to San Miguel about 10 times previously – originally in the mid-1970s when it was a small pueblo, and then when I spent months originally learning Spanish in 2002.

This is the time of year in San MIguel for the annual International Chamber Music Festival – every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday a different concert is presented by a world renowned chamber group in the historic Peralta Theater.  I will attend my 8th concert this Friday, presented by the famous Parker String Quartet.  I already have attended a number of concerts by the Hermitage Piano Trio, formed by three extraordinary young Russian immigrants to the US, each individually a world class concert soloist, performing as the trio.  They are heavy on Russian composers, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, but also performed Beethoven, Brahms and Dvorak.

Every evening I enjoy my wine and smoking my pipe while reading up on the terrace, viewing the magnificent church tops over town.  I have 5 favorite nearby restaurants I alternate for dinner, including one Indian restaurant.  After dinner (and some mornings) I usually have been glued to the TV watching the summer Olympics in Rio.

I plan on returning to Mexico City this Saturday, and then flying back to Tucson on Monday, to put up with what still will be very hot weather for the next month or so.  I already am researching my next trip, considering three months of bird photography in Colombia.  Later.  Dave

 

 

Travel Report on Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, MT and Yellowstone Nat. Park, WY, June 5, 2016

Hello everyone.  I last wrote from Bozeman, MT. preparing to enter Yellowstone.  In Bozeman I spent one afternoon at the famous Museum of the Rockies.  I arrived while they had two special exhibitions of great interest to me (and the general public); both were specials by the National Geographic Society.  The first was a display of the “Fifty Greatest Photographs”, which included the editorially selected 50 most compelling cover photos ever displayed in the National Geographic Magazine.  These were poster sized reproductions, with a discussion of the detail behind each photo and the impact it had.  This was an awesome undertaking, occupying two large rooms, and many of the photos staggered me.  Most were not up to my current technical standards for photo resolution and color (for almost all came from the film era), but of course it was the content that was stunning, pleasing and/or disturbing.  A real treat.  On top of that, they filled a third room with the photos taken by a young European couple who spent two entire years trekking on foot along the ridge line of the Andes, from Quito, Ecuador to the southern tip of Chile, along with their journal entries recorded with each photo.  Another visual treat.  The main regular attraction at the museum is the dinosaur and paleontological collection, including the largest collections in the world of Tyrannosaur and Triceratops skulls.  The museum collection is (was) curated by the world famous paleontologist Jack Horner.  He already was well known among enthusiasts and scholars, but became especially well known to the general public as the advisor to all 3 of the Jurassic Park movies, as well as being the inspiration for the paleontologist character, Dr. Grant, in the original film.  The museum was great, and it turned out to be Dr. Horner’s retirement day celebration, open to the public; he was there, sitting under the large full Tyrannosaur skeleton, chatting with children (see photo).

I drove from Bozeman following the Madison River, source of the Missouri River, upstream to the West entrance to Yellowstone on Monday the 23rd.  I had some unusual stomach trouble for two days, picked up from a dish of vegetarian eggs Benedict in the best breakfast restaurant in Bozeman (which I won’t name publicly).  My first night in Yellowstone, camped in the one RV loop that already had had a number of grizzly visits in the past 3 days, I needed to make several quick trips to the rest room facilities.  This was a long walk from my RV, in the rain, keeping an eye out for that neighborhood grizzly.   I had experienced poor weather for 8 straight days prior to Yellowstone, ever since visiting the Snake River Canyon, with mostly heavy cloud cover and high winds, plus rain daily, often for hours straight.  Well, it didn’t change in Yellowstone.  My first 8 days produced practically constant rain, snow, sleet, “slush balls” (huge slushy hail) and wind – on the second day I awoke to 3 inches of snow and it still was falling – high road passes were closed.  Other than the general wetness, the major depressing factor was the very heavy overcast and lack of visibility.  Most of my decent photos all came from the last two days in the Park, which mostly were clear and sunny, albeit cold.

I spent the first 7 days at Fishing Bridge, the spot where the Yellowstone River exits the Yellowstone Lake.  This site was famous for cutthroat trout fishing until 1973 (indeed, I have memories and B&W photos of fishing trout here with my father in 1960). The cutthroat were overfished, and then in the 1990s someone illegally introduced lake trout to the ecosystem, and the cutthroat now have been decimated.  Fishing today is permitted on much of the river and lake (not from the bridge), but barbless hooks must be used and cutthroats must immediately be released, whereas lake trout or rainbow trout, if caught, must be killed.  The Fishing Bridge Camp offers the only RV hookups for power etc. inside the Park, and do not allow soft-sided camping such as tents or pop-ups due to the grizzly bear problems.  I ate most of my meals in the little cafeteria in the General Store.  I re-visited much of the Park those first 7 days, obtained some nice “storm” photos, but it was very much less than ideal photo weather.  My last 3 days I moved up to Canyon Camp near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  Weather cleared, and most of my wildlife photos were from these few days.  As the Canyon Camp had no hookups, I had no electricity and could not do my photo work, consisting of daily developing, captioning, key-wording and sorting the still and video images on my computer – this had to remain for after I left the Park.

Yellowstone basically fills with tourists starting from the time of year the roads connecting the two main wildlife valleys (Hayden and Lamar) open in late May.  By getting out to explore by crack of dawn, a little after 5am each morning, one can travel and see wildlife and the attractions with only a few other hardy souls; by a little after 8:30am or so, the crowds start hitting the roads and filling the parking areas – by 9:00am the throngs and tour busses have left their lodges, finished their breakfasts, boarded their transport and the Park becomes filled with a mass of humanity until sundown.  In addition, for wildlife viewers with spotting scopes and long-lens photo-gear, the ground heats enough soon after sunrise so that by 10am viewing through powerful optics becomes blurred at distance (due to cells of air turbulence).  I spent some of the busy parts of several days revisiting the thermal areas of the park, which display more geysers, hot springs, mud pits and steam vents than all those found in the rest of the world combined.  I spent many beautiful days photographing these attractions three years ago, and so really was focused this time on wildlife.

A number of the birds photographed were, for me, uncommon or not often photographed, including the rare Harlequin Ducks, Trumpeter Swan and American Dipper, which is the only aquatic species of all Passerine birds (songbirds or perching birds, which make up fully half of all species on earth); it feeds on insects underwater. I also photographed the colorful Barrow’s Goldeneye duck, Osprey at their giant nest, Cliff Swallows in flight at their “jug” nests and a Dusky Grouse, among others.

I successfully found most of the larger mammals, including the three most sought after, wolves, black bear sows with cubs and grizzlies.  Four times in the Tower Falls area I saw one or both of the two sow black bears that inhabit the area, each currently with two wonderfully funny tiny cubs.  The cubs tumble and rumble with each other and scramble several feet up the side of a tree at any perceived frightening sound.  A lone bull elk just off the road attracted hundreds of viewers in Hayden Valley one day; herds of cow elk were everywhere, attracting the wolves.  I viewed an unfortunate abandoned newborn elk for half an hour, mewling pitifully for its mother.  Two cow elk came out of the woods from different directions attracted to the mewling, but the baby was not theirs, as evidenced by smell.  The next day, however, in exactly the same location, I noted a newborn with a cow, and believe one of the cows eventually accepted the calf.  Moose are rare to see in the Park now according to the rangers.  I did see one in very unusual circumstances; I was driving through a forested valley north of Canyon, when I stopped for a couple of cars pulled off the road to ask what they saw – they were watching a bull moose just down below the road in the trees.  I got out to photograph, but the moose was moving behind the trees but toward the road behind us.  I assumed the moose was going to cross the road there, and got my camera ready.  As I was looking through the camera finder, a car came spurting toward us, around the blind corner, just as the moose appeared climbing up onto the road.  The car screeched to a halt, just bumping the moose, which jumped, slipped on the pavement, and “skated” across the road.  Yes, I got a photo of the moose skating; proof is in the attached photo below.  We followed the moose into a clearing on the far side, where it resumed eating, apparently uninjured. (Maximum speed limit anywhere in the Park is 45mph for this reason.)

In the Park, most grizzly and wolf sightings are at great distances (generally too far to see with the naked eye, or seen only as dots in the distance), whereas black bears with cubs often are along the roads near Tower Junction.  A fair number of “trained” visitors and professional photographers now spend much of the summer in the Park doing nothing but following and recording these three species.  I spent parts of two days viewing wolves at an elk kill, including interactions with ravens and bald eagles. As usual, it was viewed at great distance, as was the recently located wolf den with several pups (about two miles from the viewing location). Elk constitute the main prey of the wolves, though one pack in the Park is said to specialize in bison.

In Lamar Valley, probably the best big-game viewing area of the Park, I witnessed a black bear on the far side of the river chased first by young bull bison, then chased back into the woods by a lone coyote (I call him the lone ranger).  Subsequently, coyote howling broke out behind me on the hillside, and on the far side of the river two more coyotes joined the lone ranger coyote, with tails wagging and much hopping around.  I mentioned to a photographer standing next to me that they probably were saying “Jake my man – Way to Go, Jake – you really showed that bear.”  The next morning we discovered the source of howling on the hill behind us, as someone spotted the coyote den; I spent a couple hours watching after being told one coyote had carried a pup out of the den and into a neighboring growth of poplars.  Soon, the mother coyote came to the den, from the opposite direction, and two pups came out of the den and suckled and romped around.  The mother seemed suddenly to realize she was missing a pup – she walked a few feet away and started howling.  An answering howl came from the poplars, whereupon the mother jogged over into the poplars, returning about 10 minutes later with the “lost” pup in her mouth, which she deposited back into the den (much of this I also was able to record on video).  I again “anthropomorphized”, after explaining to a neighboring photographer the scene of yesterday, when the lone ranger coyote had run off the black bear – this time I suggested the same lone ranger had gone too far in taking one of his pups to visit the poplar grove.  I imagined that he had received a severe “talking too” (the howling), as well as nips when the female came to retrieve the pup.

Of great interest to me, along with watching the wolves, black bears with cubs and the coyote den, was watching and photographing the lines of “watchers,” lined as we were along the road with our cameras and spotting scopes.  I have included below photos of, not only the wolves, bears and coyotes, but an image of the “watchers” in each case, which properly sums up what you will experience if you spend much time in Yellowstone seeking wildlife.

I spent much time especially seeking grizzly encounters closer than the common sightings, which are at well over a mile.  After 10 days I still had had no luck, but on the morning of departure I decided to take a last early two hour drive through Hayden Valley.  A little before sunrise, at a point where the Yellowstone River curves right along the road, I noticed an unusual black object lying on the river bank just on the far side; three other people had stopped there, and one told me he thought it had moved and was a black bear.  I viewed it through my long lens and almost jumped for joy – the black blob resolved itself into a huge grizzly resting on a bloody carcass.  At that point the grizzly, apparently disturbed by our voices, stood; it was a very large grizzled brown male, looming over a bloody newborn elk kill.   I then noted a lone cow elk a few hundred yards further up on the opposite bank – almost certainly the grizzly had taken the calf shortly after its birth.  Grizzlies are the largest predators on earth, and certainly can take down full grown elk, as well as moose, but often take the easiest kill.  The grizzly was about 150 yards from us, and we were protected by the Yellowstone River running between.

For the next hour and half, as it gradually grew brighter with the sunrise, I stood and took photos, as well as some wonderful video clips (as to which I haven’t figured out whether insertion is possible into my travelogues).  The grizzly interacted aggressively with a couple of brave ravens, which kept sneaking up to grab pieces of the carcass.   As I had 7 hours of driving ahead, I reluctantly left at a little before 8am to retrieve my RV back at Canyon.  Driving out of the Park took me back up the Hayden Valley, where I passed again by the grizzly kill-site at close to 9am.  Now, the road was a traffic mess, not only with the crowds finally emerging from late breakfasts to congregate about the grizzly site, but with the arrival of 5 large bull bison, which had descended the steep bank from the back of the road, coming down to the river to water – they split the crowds on the road into a north and south group, and jammed up traffic, turning the road effectively into a single lane (a most unusual dual “bear-bison jam”).

I drove out of the Park through the east entrance, through Cody and down to Casper, WY, where I am staying for 3 days to catch up on work on the 600 photos and 30 videos I have taken since I last had electric power for my computer equipment.  I am camped here along the North Platte River, and will follow it down to Scottsbluff and later Mormon Island, both in Nebraska, before heading on to Kansas City for a mini-reunion with my brother and sister.  Later.  Dave

 

Travel Report on Birding around Klamath Falls and Snake River Birds of Prey, Sat., May 21, 2016

Hello everyone.  I last wrote just after arriving in Klamath Falls, OR, and was then starting my birding around the lake.  I remained for 6 days, and spent each morning visiting Putnam Point, at the south end of Klamath Lake where it flows into the Klamath River.  This probably is the best spot in the world to view both Clark’s and Western Grebes during breeding season.  The two species are very similar, distinguishable only by the placement of the black cap above the eye, and the subtle beak color.  Both species re-establish mating pairs in April and early May, and engage in spectacular courtship rituals.  Patience and time spent observing them paid off with some action photos, including the most spectacular ritual, the courtship dance.

The “Dance” normally starts with what I call the “Challenge” – a pair, either of Clark’s or Western Grebes, face off on the water, with necks extended forward and low over the water, the jet black hood feathers raised to produce a half moon over the face.  The two face each other from about 1 foot.  Five different ritualistic head movements were displayed during the Challenge phase, which itself lasts from a few to 20 seconds.  The pair in the face-off alternate the very distinct head and neck positions, which include: head low and fully forward on the long neck, “glaring” at the other; head dunking forward and under water; head and neck raising up high above the level of the other; flipping water to one side with the beak; and turning the lowered head 45 degrees to one side.  After the challenge, with no warning the eye can discern, the birds take off “running” on their legs at right angles to their Challenge faceoff position.  Within a second or so they lift their bodies fully up and out of the water, literally running on top of the water, side by side, continuing for up to 60 feet while leaving a trail behind of boiling water.  They run with wings pinned open and back, necks arching upward and curving forward, with the head and beak tilted back up.  This running on water is called “Rushing”.  At the end of the Rush, both birds dive under water.  The Challenge and Rush are considered one of the most remarkable animal courtships of any animal species on earth.  National Geographic reported on a study done last year researching how this bird can literally run on water; it is the largest vertebrate in the world that can do so.  High speed cameras show the grebes taking around 20 steps per second (the world’s Olympic sprinters are just approaching 5 strides per second), with the webbed feet angling out sideways for each return stroke.  I have included a separate photo gallery with a number of photos taken in rapid series which, if you click through them using the slide show, will give a visualization of this spectacular courtship – this gallery starts with the 24th photo below.  The slide show is started by simply right-clicking on any photo in the gallery.  (I obtained some video, but the still photos are much higher resolution quality).
Link to Clark’s Grebes Courtship Gallery

Other Grebe rituals include engagement in what I call the “Necking” ritual, often after chasing off an intruder who came too close to the pair’s space.  The pair will raise their heads straight up on the very long necks, then, alternately, or simultaneously, coil their neck down pulling their head onto their back where they will grab at a feather with the beak.  This ritual can continue for 10 to 20 seconds.  The birds have in addition a “Weed” ceremony that occurs at the site of nesting, but this I did not observe.  I did, however, observe what I call failed Challenge and Rush ceremonies.  Twice I observed a pair of Western Grebes start the Challenge faceoff phase, which continued normally for a number of seconds, followed by just one of the grebes taking off for the Rush; the other just sat and watched the lonely Rush of the other.  Indeed, the second time I photographed this, I was astonished that, as soon as the poor lone grebe took off on the Rush, the remaining one almost immediately stopped watching, turned and dove under water for fishing.  Brutal.  I automatically assumed in both cases it was the female who presented the false Challenge, because it so reminded me of Lucy eternally promising Charlie Brown that this time she would not pull away the football.  (I expect some guff for admitting my assumption, as the sex of the grebes is indistinguishable).  Finally, over several days I watched the same complaining juvenile grebe follow an adult, making begging noises insistently for food; the adult completely ignored the youngster, even after catching and bringing a fish to the surface (the fish usually are consumed underwater).

I visited Lower Klamath Nat. Wildlife Refuge twice more, and continued to see a very large variety of birdlife.  A Golden Eagle in first year plumage grabbed a partially grown Canada Goose gosling.  Although I only got a quick photo of the eagle air-born after dropping the gosling, I did photograph the parent geese trying to shelter the remaining goslings from further predation.  Later, in the same area I observed a coyote hunting the banks.  All the predators knew it was easy feasting this time of year.

From Klamath Falls I drove the short distance to Bend, OR, where I stayed just a day, and then drove on to the small town of Homedale, Idaho to stay at the green Snake River RV Park right on the river.  My target was the very long-named “Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey Conservation Area,” encompassing the Snake River Canyon; it provides the densest raptor nesting area in the US and probably the world.  Eighteen different species of raptors congregate here, most using the area for nesting along the basalt cliffs over the Snake River.  The plateaus above the cliffs are covered with grasslands bored full of the holes of countless Piute Ground Squirrels, which, together with Black-tailed Jackrabbits, provide the main nourishment for the nesting raptors.  The area particularly is famous for the nesting Prairie and Peregrine Falcons, together with Golden Eagles and three different species of Buteo Hawks.  Unfortunately, both days I had scheduled for driving the cliff ledges were rainy and extremely windy – poor weather for the nesting raptors to be hunting, though I got a few decent photos.

On Tuesday I drove to the tiny town of Arco, Idaho, close to the Craters of the Moon National Monument which covers one of the major volcanic hotspots of the last several thousand years.  I spent one afternoon visiting, but had, unfortunately, again bad weather.  The tiny town of Arco, population about 900, sits below a cliff face (really a hundred faces) with almost every face of the cliff marked in white paint by each high school class year, starting from about 1920.

Wednesday I drove north through the beautiful Salmon and Bitterroot Valleys, from Idaho into Montana, to visit Loey, a high school friend from my time in boarding school in India.  We drank wine out on her magnificent yard and reminisced about long-ago times and school mates who still seem as family. Loey is planning our 50th class reunion to be held next summer at her location in Montana.  From Stevensville I drove to Bozeman for a last few days before my planned 10 day stay inside Yellowstone Nat. Park, where I will have no Wi-Fi or cell phone access for the duration.  Later.  Dave

PS. Below are two separate photo galleries available for slide show. Click any picture of the top 23 photos for a set of pictures covering the travelogue. Below those start a second gallery, starting after the Swainson’s Hawk in flight; this gallery shows a complete series of Grebe’s Challenge and Rush ritual, which can be viewed, rapidly advancing through the pictures, to get a sense of the actual ceremony – this set of photos starts with the 24th photo below and is labeled at that point.
Link to Clark’s Grebes Courtship Gallery

Full Series of Clark’s Grebes Challenge and Rush Courtship Ritual Below.

Travel Report on Lava Beds Nat. Mon., Tule Lake & Lower Klamath Nat. Wildlife Refuges, May 8, 2016

Hello all.  I last wrote from Lassen Volcanic Nat. Park.  Starting at Lassen in north-central California, the Cascade Range is a string of volcanoes running north through central Oregon and Washington (and on through Canada and into Alaska, though with different names).  From Lassen I drove the short distance to Lava Beds Nat. Monument, where I camped for 4 days.  I had no nearby restaurants either at Lassen or Lava Beds, and survived off of sandwiches and salads stockpiled from a Walmart in Redding the week before – great meals neither to anticipate nor in which to indulge.  The couple who owned the RV park, Eagle’s Nest, in Tionesta, was delightful, making up for any “out-in-the-boonies” issues.  Their property, along with most of the Monument, was filled with the little Belding’s Ground Squirrels, which dug their holes everywhere. Cute babies (see photo)!

Lava Beds, well off any beaten track, has few visitors – but is marvelous.  The Park Service claims over 700 lava tube caves, of which about 18 have been improved to the extent of having ladders or stairs permitting entrance and exit into the different levels.  Some of the caves approach a mile in extent.  Many are wet, with bacterial or fungal mats lining the walls and ceilings, and amazing colors when lit with a light source.  Exploration requires obtaining a permit after certification that one is free of fungal spores from caves elsewhere within or out of the country for the “white-nose” fungus which infects bat populations.  The accessible caves are shown on park maps, and rated 1, 2 or 3 for difficulty; rating 1 signifies little stooping and no crawling, and relatively smooth walking surfaces – rating 2 signifies the need to at times climb over rocks, and some stooping (duck walking) through areas with less than 4 foot ceilings – rating 3 signifies the need for helmets, gloves and knee pads to traverse crawl spaces sometimes less than 1 foot high, and tunnel complexes within which someone could get lost.  I avoided “3s”, but visited 7 different 1 and 2 rated caves.  Two tube-caves dropped down through 3 different superimposed lava tube levels, to sufficient depth underground that they had permanent ice floors.  Others opened into larger chambers ½ mile downtube where the ceilings were covered with a hydrophobic bacterial mat which formed microscopic water beads on the outside of the mats which reflected all light as brilliant gold veins.  All required good light sources; the Park Service recommended 3 lights per person and not traveling alone.  I, of course, travel alone, but always carried 4 quality LED light sources (the idea of being half a mile underground, with no idea of direction, in an earthquake prone area, in total blackness, with no light source spooks me just a little).

Ancestors of the Modoc Indians lived in the area for many thousands of years, and a number of sites are rich in rock art, mostly petroglyphs, but with two small lava tube cave entrances displaying pictographs.  Petroglyph Point is a very long sandstone shelf along the base of a mountain which, until a hundred years ago, was an island in a much larger version of what today is Tule Lake National Wildlife Sanctuary.  In the early 20th century the federal government drained much of the lake creating thousands of acres of new fertile farmland, still farmed today.  What remains of the lake, with man-made channels, connects with vast marsh lands and seasonally flooded areas which run north and west, connecting with the Upper and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, which extend into Oregon almost all the way to Crater Lake National Park.  The petroglyphs must number in the thousands, depending on what one counts as a single item.  Large areas of the shelf have been degraded by century old and modern graffiti.  The petroglyphs mostly are geometric designs, including many “saw tooth” lines, dot formations, and some anthropomorphic figures.  As their original creation occurred on the rock face where it rose vertically out of the water of the lake, the petroglyphs are said all to have been made from canoes. Considering the quality (low) and scrawling nature of most of the “art”, I almost can picture groups of happy native American kids swimming in the warm shallow summer lake waters, along the islands shore around to the cliffs, where they scribbled whatever “art” they chose onto the soft walls.  Who knows?

From Lava Beds I drove the short distance north, west and south again to go around Mt Shasta to Weed California (when clear and covered with snow,  at over 14,000 ft. Mt Shasta presents one of the most stunning volcano appearances in the world). The town’s name “Weed” has been somewhat controversial in recent years as many businesses have used it to create tourist paraphernalia such as “I ‘heart’ Weed”.  The local brewery, Mt Shasta Brewery, even got into a legal tiff with the California legislature a couple of decades back by using the web address and selling beer known as Weed Ale (the brewery won the legal battle).  In fact, the town is named for its founder, a lumberman by the name of Abner Weed, founded back around 1900.  Mt Shasta Brewery (still WeedAle online) is a rather strange pub.  A huge sheet metal building with 30 foot ceilings, located on College Street in the middle of a small residential neighborhood, it produces and sells the normal micro-brewery assortment of beers.  I have visited it twice, and continue to find the brews mediocre at best, but an interesting visit none-the-less.  I stayed in the Trailer Lane RV Park out of town, between the highway and the railroad tracks: needed white noise at night to sleep.  I did get to see there my first Granite Spiny Lizard, pretty with its blue throat, but never saw the black bear that had torn the trash cans apart the day I arrived.

I remained in Weed for 4 days, working out my travel course for the next 6 weeks, as I had given little thought to what to do after visiting the California parks.  Deciding I had several weeks before revisiting Yellowstone, I decided to spend some days further visiting the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge for its abundant birdlife.  I first moved to tiny Dorris, on the California Oregon border, but as the only RV Park, owned by a lovely but very elderly couple, had no Wi-Fi, locked bathrooms with showers advertised as hot on Tuesdays and Saturday and sited between the railroad and highway, I moved on to Klamath Falls, Oregon the next day.  Klamath Falls is a lovely old lumber town, sitting on the Lower Klamath Lake and River, and sporting dozens of interesting restaurants and brew pubs.

The two Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, the Lower spanning the California-Oregon border, and the Upper between Klamath Falls and Fort Klamath to the north, are among the premier waterfowl refuges in the country.  The wetlands, marshes, river, and lakes lie in one of the major flyways for migrating waterfowl, and host a huge number of permanent species, including birds of prey, which nest here.  I have spent two days driving the dirt roads around various marshes, lakes and canals, and have seen an astounding variety of birds, including a number of new ones for me, some quite rare, or difficult to view, such as the Tufted Duck, Tricolored Blackbird, Marsh Wren, Burrowing Owl and White-fronted Goose.  I had great luck in locating the nesting burrow of a Burrowing Owl with the help of a local photographer, and so obtained good close-ups of the owl.  Other birders told me where to go to find the lone Tufted Duck, a rare if not unique sighting in Oregon.  I regularly see over 12 species of ducks and geese, 3 of grebes and over 12 of shore birds, along with numerous birds of prey and songbirds.   Putnam Point, just outside Klamath Falls, is reputed to be the best spot in the country for viewing the mating dances of both the Western and Clark’s Grebes.  I have photographed both species there, but have yet to witness the dance.

I will spend a couple more days in Klamath Falls, hoping for a chance to observe the grebes dancing, then move on to Bend, OR, and from there east to the Snake River Birds of Prey National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho, another premier birding sanctuary, but for nesting eagles, hawks, falcons and owls rather than waterfowl.  Later Dave

Travel Report on Fort Bragg, Redwoods Nat. & St Parks & Lassen Volcanic NP, Mon. Apr. 25, 2016

Hello.  The Pacific coast by Ft Bragg and for several miles north comprises MacKerricher State Park, a wonderful string of small secluded beaches hidden in coves of rocky, bluff shoreline, with thunderous surf and breakers roiling over hundreds of sharp black rocky extrusions.  Pacific harbor seals, cormorants and other seabirds sit on the rocks.  On the small wildflower strewn and grassy bluffs over the shoreline are the usual sparrows and numerous California ground squirrels which were completely unmindful of humans.  Two rivers flow into the sea through the park, both offering sandy shorelines busy with ducks, geese, mergansers and shorebirds.  I spent a couple of days photographing wildlife and scenes, and a couple of hours bicycling the park.  I would have stayed longer, but the weather report had 5 days of rain moving into northern California within a couple of days, and I wanted at least one rain-free day in the redwoods.

On Tuesday I drove the short distance north on Route 1 (combines with 101 part way up) to Trinidad; the wild coast and evergreen forests of the coastal hills are beautiful – and far less traffic and only low population centers.  If I were required to live in California, I would want it to be here in the northwest.  I am staying in the Sound of Sea RV Park a few miles north of the little town of Trinidad, on a bluff just a mile south of Point Patrick.  The owner has a large and beautiful two story house, manicured lawns, an Australian cockatiel as a “guard bird” in the office (it makes lots of noise when someone enters) AND a white Maserati sitting in his carport.  I no longer need to wonder whether some RV parks can be profitable.

Just a dozen or so miles north of here one enters a series of parks protecting the remaining old-growth coastal redwood forests; the system includes a number of California state parks, made up in large part of a number of donations by wealthy patrons in years past, and the National Park; the total extent is a hodgepodge of corridors connecting the major groves.  Most of the system is administered as a joint California-Federal park.  I was surprised to learn that the original (pre-19th century) “Old-Growth” redwood forests covered just 3,000 square miles (about 20 by 150 miles).  The very mature trees of the old growth may be over 2,000 years old, over 20 feet in trunk diameter, and rise to well over 330 ft. (100 m), the tallest trees on earth.  These forests have existed for 350 million years (before and during the dinosaur age).  Due to logging, the old-growth forests now make up barely 5% of the original, or about 150 square miles (about 10 by 15 miles if all compacted).  Restoration of cut areas would obviously take several thousand years just to re-create the largest trees.  I now appreciate the “wisdom” of some of the more radical environmental groups that ultimately successfully stopped the logging, and resulted in the patchwork of protective parks that today exists.

My first evening, dining at the locally very popular Lighthouse Restaurant, I found myself in conversation with a wiry, elderly, thin man as we stood in the long ordering line.  He is a current member of Earth First (the perhaps best known radical group taking on the loggers), who moved from LA to Trinidad 17 years ago to commit full time to the continued effort.  I was surprised to learn they just succeeded in stopping some further logging some miles away.  I did not know the redwood logging wars of the 70s continue.

A quick word regarding the relationship between the redwoods and the giant sequoias.  Until this trip I assumed they were the same trees, and thought there was but one national park.  I found I was ignorant. Though both are evergreens, and both have very red wood, and they both grow into giants, they are not even of the same genus taxonomically, though belonging to the same sub-family.  The giant sequoias (genus sequoiadendrum), the most massive trees on earth, grow only in the drier mountains at around 6,000 feet, and stand like aliens among other scattered evergreens, with little undergrowth.  The wood easily breaks, and is not useful as lumber. Groves of giant sequoias are found in Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks.  Redwoods, confusingly of genus Sequoia, are the tallest trees on earth.  They grow only along the northern California coast at just above sea level, in very humid, rainy, dense fern and mossy environments.  They, unfortunately, produce excellent lumber, and so almost have met their demise from logging.  The remaining redwoods mostly now are protected within a patchwork of the Redwood National Park together with several adjoining California State parks.

I spent my first afternoon exploring the length of the Prairie Creek Redwood State Park on a small paved road through the middle of old growth.  I also hiked the short trail through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove in the National Park.  The next day I drove the unpaved Davison Road through several miles of very dense redwood. The tree density was so heavy most of the travel seemed dark as night and headlights were required. The redwoods along this route all were well under 2 feet in diameter.  Only on my return did I notice the very dark and giant stumps among the thickly clustered smaller trees – stumps 5 to 20 feet in diameter, and 5 to 20 feet high – upon inspection all with obviously flat tops.  They sat black and house-sized within the forest.  It was then that I realized this forest had been logged long ago, and twenty to thirty young trees now occupy the area once claimed by a single giant.  I was passing through a graveyard of giants – the hulking black stumps indicating where the magnificent mature trees once stood, now almost completely hidden within a much too dense cluster of younger trees.

Eight miles up the Davison Road brought me to the end of the road, from where I hiked the short distance in to Fern Canyon.  Fern Canyon is simply magnificent.  The canyon walls, though not so high (maybe 50 feet), are sheer – the width at the bottom probably averages under 35 feet – the bottom is mostly a shallow stream which has created switchbacks every 50 feet or so, providing new vistas at each turn.  The cliff walls are covered with up to 5 different species of ferns, producing a complete wall “papering” of hanging plants.  The valley bottom hosts dozens of fallen trees, which crisscross the stream, or jut at odd angles and heights.  Hiking the canyon bottom requires crossing the stream about 15 times, balancing precariously on narrow fallen trees, or climbing over giant logs, or simply trying to hit the shallowest parts where the water spreads over rocks.  The ferns, along with the redwood trees, are said to be of the same types as created much of the ancient wet forests of the dinosaur era.  A number of scenes from “Jurassic Park 2”, BBC’s “Walking with Dinosaurs” and IMAX’s “Dinosaurs Alive” all were filmed here.  As I spent a couple of hours navigating the canyon, I thought about coming face to face with, not a tyrannosaur, but rather a flock of those little chicken-sized, chirping carnivores (Compys) from Jurassic Park.

On Thursday I obtained a permit from the National Park Service to hike the “Tall Trees Trail”, which permit allows visiting the grove of the largest redwoods which include the tallest trees.  The visit starts with a 7 mile drive from sea level up to a little over 2,000 feet, then using the provided “combination” to pass through a locked Park gate, followed by a 7 mile steep descent on a dirt road to just below 1,000 feet elevation, where the car is parked.  From there one hikes down another 800 feet along a steep trail into the Redwood Creek Valley, where exist the very tallest trees along a beautiful rocky stream.  The “Libby” tree is along the trail, and for years was considered the tallest tree in the world; in recent years its top has died back, and several nearby trees have been discovered to be taller – the location of these is kept secret.  Maple Trees, which grow closest to the streams, have trunks and huge twisted limbs completely covered in green-yellow moss, and sit among the large ancient ferns.   A very majestic arena in a deep valley far from crowds of people.

On Saturday I traveled to Lassen Volcanic National Park, which I previously visited 3 years ago.  The drive took twice what I anticipated, as first I experienced a flat tire (2nd within a year – picking up nails on old logging roads), having then to find a tire shop in tiny McKInleyville to repair it, followed by a number of road construction zones on the passes through the mountains, requiring flagmen and multiple stops.  I had thought I would pass over a short coastal mountain range before again crossing the northern San Juaquin Valley before climbing to Lassen.  I did not realize I was north of the valley, and basically the entire 200 miles was continual mountain roads; very scenic, but slow going.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is higher in elevation than I recall, and even my RV park, located well below the entrance, is close to 5,000 feet.  Freezing nights, cold slushy rain with periodic pebble hail, and this morning snow, greeted me.  The road through the Park, which climbs to close to 9,000 feet, is mostly closed (usually doesn’t open until mid-June), but is open up to Devastated Area which provides many of the great views.  The Manzanita Lake has a number of Buffleheads, as well as Canada Geese.   The Lassen Volcano famously blew its top in 1915, much of it captured on film by an intrepid early settler in the area.  Huge rock slides, two succeeding massive pyroclastic flows, and car-size boulders catapulted for miles, devastated much of the eastern and northern flanks of the mountain, all clearly still visible today.

My initial goal on this trip was to visit all 7 of the California National Parks, of which previously I was acquainted only with Lassen.  That goal now is achieved.  I am uncertain exactly where I am heading from here, though probably I will stop again in Weed to visit their unusual brewery, and also in the Lava Beds National Monument which apparently has dozens of lava tube caves filled with bats, both along the California Oregon border. Later.  Dave

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Report on Yosemite National Park & Bodega Bay, CA, Mon. Apr. 18, 2016

Hello all.  Five days, in and around Yosemite National Park, provided unique and transient beauty.  Fires had scorched sections of the forests on the northwestern entrance side, but wildflowers were everywhere along the roads climbing and descending the mountain passes.  Yosemite Valley presented 7 major waterfalls, all engorged by the heavy winter snowmelt and recent rainfall.  The valley floor was lush green with a number of trees in bloom. The rivers and streams filled their banks and presented cascades at every turn.  El Capitan, the granite cliff face, rises vertically well over 1 kilometer (3,600 ft.) above the valley floor, and is one of the largest exposed granite monoliths in existence.

I spent much of my first early morning in the park photographing, from the far side of the valley, the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls disgorging exceptionally large volumes of water.  Due to recent rains, small streams and water pools existed on the valley floor which normally would not be there.  This permitted photos with foreground reflections providing great color depth.  I took multiple series of shots, from different vantage points, in order to produce composite “big” prints of the scene.

I visited the Ansel Adams Gallery, which, rather than being a museum as I had hoped, was a store selling prints of many photographers, including Adams.  They did have large copies of many of his best Yosemite photos.  Nearby I enjoyed, each day, a large coffee in place of lunch, sitting outside and photographing the ever present Steller Jays, Rock Squirrels and Red-winged Blackbirds.

I stayed in an RV park in the tiny gold rush town of Groveland, some 25 miles outside the park’s northwest entrance.  I previously wrote about finding breakfast in the Iron Door Saloon, reputed to be the oldest continuously operating drinking establishment in California (note the use of the phrase “drinking establishment”, rather than “saloon”, as during prohibition the old photos show the outdoor sign advertising only “cold soda”).  I had supper there a couple of evenings for their wonderful homemade soups.

As in all parks I have visited over the years, early morning from first light until about 9am provides a fair amount of solitude and most wildlife viewing – from about 9am on the roads fill with crowds of tourists and solitude ceases unless one is willing to hike off the major roads.  Yosemite parking lots become almost full by mid-day – this is in mid-April.  Summer must be overwhelming.  My last day in the park I spotted two climbers about 1,000 feet up the side of El Capitan.  The one with a bright red shirt was just visible as a speck to the naked eye.  I understand it normally takes over 4 days for climbing parties to ascend, spending the nights hanging in special “tents” from the cliff face.  Not for me.

From Groveland I drove northwest across the state to Bodega Bay on the coast, sliding between the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento.  Crossing major freeways, with their 6 lanes of heavy traffic, I took wrong turns several times, having to make U-turns to regain my route.  Most of the distance was driven on the small California state highways, 2 lane roads, but packed with traffic, particularly big rigs.  The scenery is pretty, but California has installed concrete barriers down the middle of many two lane highways to prevent any passing and head-on-collisions.  This, along with rush-hour-like traffic, pretty much destroys any scenic appeal.  The small roads cross a number of weird draw bridges which span the inland bay and rivers – at one of these traffic was stopped and I watched the workings of the bridge.  Rather than two sides opening upward, the entire central span of the bridge rotated sideways 90 degrees to create the opening.  I have not seen this before.

Bodega Bay is a very small town situated along a gorgeous stretch of coast and rocky headlands.  I stayed in a lovely, though rather expensive, RV Park – very few campers on Thursday, but over the weekend it absolutely filled every available space.  I believe 100% of the huge RVs had California plates.  This was an experience similar to others I have had in every national park in California.  Apparently the state is so populous that the national and state parks fill with residents.  A far cry from my experiences in most national parks outside California where the majority of campers are foreign or from out-of-state (I did meet some Europeans at my camp in Groveland).

I spent two days walking along some marsh lands by the coast, and walking around the rim of Bodega Head, a mountain which forms the seaside arm of the bay, and is surrounded on the open Pacific side by sheer cliffs and roiling surf on the rocks below.  The mountain top is covered with various species of wild flowers, and is habitat to at least 5 sparrow species.  All the male sparrows are singing from the high points of the low shrubs (see photos).  The bay itself contains a large marina, at which were docked two wooden “tall ships” from Oregon for the week.  Several species of grebes and the common loons (which I have not seen before) were diving for fish in and around some of the marina walkways.

I met a bird watcher up on Bodega Head, where the grey whale watchers congregate.  He helped confirm some of my identifications of difficult species (3 different species of cormorants were present).  Sitting in a chair on the cliff face he kept swatting and killing the very annoying, longish flies that were bothering us.  I asked him what they were, and if they were biting; he replied they were kelp flies, and they did not bite – they were just nuisances.  He said he was teaching them to stay away.  I noted that, as they each were being methodically killed, they probably were not learning anything.  He then clarified that he was “teaching” the species through evolutionary pressure – he had taught each of his daughters to kill every kelp fly that landed, and they would teach their children and grandchildren, and eventually the genes which give the flies the proclivity to land on humans would disappear, as those flies all will have been killed, hopefully before reproducing.  I thought long and hard about this, and did some complex mathematical modeling on the back of a beer napkin (of course that is where I would do such modeling), and concluded he may have a valid idea.  Sometime, just a little before our sun grows to a red giant and bakes the earth, he will have produced enough descendants with the proper training to eradicate the “human-bothering” gene with which the flies obviously are afflicted.  Of course, by waiting just a handful of eons longer, the sun would engulf the earth and eradicate the gene anyway.  Nevertheless, there is something really satisfying about being able successfully and consistently to swat extremely annoying kelp flies when they land.

From Bodega Bay, on Sunday, I drove the roughly 100 miles north to Fort Bragg, all on the famous California SR 1, which winds up and over the seaside cliffs which mark the northern California coast.  It really is a beautiful drive, but in many places one averages a scant 25mph.  I will continue north from here, in a day or so, to the Redwood National Park.  I see more rain is in the forecast for much of this week.  Oh well, that is normal for spring in the northwest coast.  Later.  Dave

 

Travel Report on Buckskin Mtn., Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Sequoia & Kings Canyon Parks, Apr. 10, 2016

Hello everyone.  I have started a several month long road trip, hauling my little Scamp RV to the western US – at least 6 National Parks in California I never have visited, plus a number in the northwest I wish to visit again.

My drive started Monday Mar. 28, a hot dry day in Tucson.  I drove the short distance directly west to the tiny “town” of Why, Arizona (couple of houses, gas station, tiny reservation casino).  The only “restaurant” closed at 4pm.  The casino (room with some slot machines, no players) had a snack bar but the fryer was down, so they only had a microwave to heat some prepackaged hamburgers from the fridge.  I drove the 15 miles north to the small mining town of Ajo to find dinner.  Why stop in Why?  Because it is the closest RV park to the Organ Pipe National Monument.  Organ pipe cacti are one of the 4 types of giant columnar cactus, along with the Saguaro, Cardon and Senita, all of which occur only in the Sonoran Desert of southwestern Arizona and northwestern Sonora, Mexico.  Unfortunately, the weather chose a very rare rain day as I drove through the Monument; cool but not conducive to photography.

From Why I drove northwest up to the Colorado River just south of the Parker Dam and Lake Havasu, an area called The Parker Strip.  For about 20 miles, on both the Arizona and California side of the river, the river basin is lined with communities and resorts, including the Colorado River Indian Reservation, many homes with back porches constructed as private boat docks onto the river.  Nestled halfway up the Arizona side is the wonderful Buckskin Mountain State Park, right on a huge bend in the river, with plentiful trees and full RV hookups and facilities.  I hiked out to the turn-of-the-last-century copper mines which dot the mountain tops east of the river.  The 30 and 40 foot deep shafts of the mines along the trails have been fenced to keep people from stumbling into them.  The almost barren hillsides were completely devoid of any wildlife or birdlife, although the riverside had an abundance of birds, almost all European “trash” imports (common worldwide, such as European starling, Eurasian collared doves and house sparrows).

From southern Arizona I drove to my first major destination, Joshua Tree National Park in southern California.  Although I had done some research into what to look for and to do, somehow I missed the fact that from the end of March to the middle of April is the absolute high season for both this park and Death Valley, apparently due to the nice weather, the spring flower season and the California universities’ spring breaks all coinciding in time.  All 7 campsites in the park were full, outside RV parks were booked through the middle of April, and hotels were booked.  I got the last room, one night only, in a motel in the town of Joshua Tree.  The Park Service told me this time of year always is busy, but this year is breaking all records – they have not seen such crowds before.  I enjoyed one 5 hour early morning drive through the loop encompassing the best of Joshua Tree, with a number of fine views, but very little in the way of any wildlife.  The Joshua trees themselves, for you unfamiliar with them, are the signature plant for the Mojave Desert, as is the saguaro cactus for the Sonora Desert.  Joshua trees are simply one of many species of yucca plants – they are called “trees” because they happen to have such large stalks, and multiple branches, that fully grown ones actually are “trunked” and branched up to 35 feet in height.

Because of the overflow at Joshua Tree, I called ahead to Death Valley National Park for reservations, and found the same situation – all campsites booked and full.  I found a private RV park site just at the western edge of the Park, in Panamint Valley, with an opening for one night only on the upcoming Sunday, 3 days in the future, which I reserved on the spot.  I drove north from Joshua Tree to stay for a couple of days in Mojave.  I was amazed at the extensive wind turbine power plant starting just north of town, and similarly amazed two days later driving up to Death Valley at the two huge solar power plants just to the east of Mojave.

My RV park in Panamint Valley was desolate (this pretty much describes all of Death Valley National Park outside of the mountain tops).  Panamint Valley is the valley just west of Death Valley itself.  On a different subject, Tucson AZ has the cheapest gasoline prices in the US (always).  California the most expensive.  So I was not surprised at finding prices rise from $1.70 to around $2.70 upon crossing into California.  Driving north into the desolate reaches of the Mojave Desert to reach Death Valley it did not surprise me much to find the California prices jump from around $2.70 to about $3.40.  This price held true even inside the Park – except at one pump – the one where my RV camp was – there the private owners jumped the price to $4.50.  Finally, at that price I was willing to accuse them of price gouging.  Fortunately, I could avoid that pump and so paid “merely” $3.50 further inside the park.

Most of Death Valley itself lies below sea level, and due to the triple range of mountains to the west, is robbed of all moisture laden air which would drop rain; it averages less than 2 inches per year.  This year it had fairly decent winter rain, following good seed dispersal in prior years, so this was a blockbuster wildflower year.  Crossing the two 6,000 foot mountain ranges, to the west of the valley itself, provided a profusion of roadside wildflowers.  Even below sea level, the roadsides were colored in many places with flowers.  Much of the valley floor itself at the lowest levels is sheets of white alkali salt flats, as well as alien landscapes of giant broken chunks of salt-mud composites created as the ground swells and shrinks with the infrequent rain and baking heat.  The end of March temperature while I was there was a cool 97 degrees Fahrenheit.  Again, the lowlands were devoid of wildlife during my visit.

From Mojave I drove north 6 days ago to Three Rivers, just outside of Sequoia National Park.  The drive up through the southern Sierras was beautiful with wildflowers, and the long drive on small highways through much of the San Joachim Valley presented miles of citrus and nut groves.  Three Rivers sits at the junction of two forks of the Kaweah River, in a lush valley at the base of the Sierra Nevada Range.  I stayed at the Sequoia Ranch RV Park, with its large family flock of very noisy acorn woodpeckers, constantly swooping to the thousands of holes drilled into the various tree branches to insert acorns.

Upon driving the small winding road up into Sequoia National Park, at around 7,000 feet one finds oneself inserted into the heart of the largest of a string of Sequoia groves, the Giant Forest.  The sequoia tree is shy just a few feet from being the tallest tree species on earth (the Redwoods are slightly taller on average), and the sequoia is within a few feet of being the largest in diameter (girth) at the base (the baobab trees of southern Africa bear that record), but, because the sequoia trunk maintains so much of its massive girth for almost its entire height, it is the largest tree on earth, and, indeed, the largest living thing on earth. Viewed from some distance, and in isolation, the trees do not appear as truly massive as they in fact are.  Once one stands next to the trunk of a very mature sequoia (very mature taking thousands of years and achieving trunk diameters of between 20 to 30 feet) the scale at the base becomes obvious.  Standing at a distance, the overall effect, where the sequoia stands among its much more numerous various pine species, is that of some sort of alien construct, an aberration built among the normal forest.  The trees reach full height of between 250 and 300 feet at about 700 years, at which point the very tops die back and become rounded and any remaining lower limbs fall off, leaving a massive columnar trunk rising 250 feet into the sky, the first 150 feet of which is barren of branches.  Then, over the next couple of thousand years, the trees simply continue to grow in girth, until they exceed in size all other living things – Magnificent!

I spent one day driving north to the neighboring Kings Canyon National Park, which contains more sequoia tree groves, including the perhaps best single spot for public viewing right around the Grant Grove parking lot.  While there I did manage to photograph a beautiful male Audubon’s warbler (subspecies of Yellow-rumped) and a raven scavenging for nesting material.

Back at Three Rivers my RV campground filled up for the weekend, apparently partly because that is when people from the coastal cities head for the parks, and partly because of a Jazz Festival occurring over the long weekend.  I inquired about attending some of the festival, with sessions at a number of close-by locations, but the $40 per day ticket price dissuaded me, along with the approaching multi-day rain moving in.

The night before last it started raining, and is supposed to continue raining throughout central California for about 5 days.  Yesterday I decided to leave the Three Rivers area, where the rain would have had me stuck inside my RV in a crowded campground, and drove up to Groveland, at 4,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, a tiny old gold-rush town outside the entrance to Yosemite National Park.  Here I found an RV park with practically nobody in it.  Even with the rain, it is a fresh treat.  The Iron Door Saloon in town claims to be the oldest continuously operated drinking establishment in California, being established sometime during one of the two local gold rushes of the 19th century.  Surprisingly, it served me quite a good breakfast this Sunday morning.

Tomorrow am is supposed to be rain free so I intend to make my first visit into Yosemite.  Until later.  Dave

Report on Cyprus, including Larnaca, Choirokoitia, Limassol, Ancient Paphos & King’s Tombs & Nicosia, Dec. 5, 2015

Hello all. I last wrote from Chania reporting on Crete and the very ancient Minoan civilization. From Chania I flew on the 24th back to Athens for one evening. The day I arrived in Athens, a huge police presence had blocked off a commercial street 2 blocks from my hotel; turns out a bomb had been detonated in the middle of the night in the Association of Industries Building, apparently by a radical political party averse to large business. The insurance adjuster, with whom I spoke as he was waiting for the forensics team to let him in the building, told me the bomb had been called in 15 minutes before detonation to ensure the building was evacuated, and had done only damage to the improvements. Early the next morning I flew on to Larnaca, Cyprus.

In Larnaca I stayed at the nice Hotel Achilleos with its good buffet English breakfast (includes fat sausages, baked beans etc.). The first afternoon, after purchasing a sim card to obtain a local cellphone number, I visited the Agios Lazaros Church, originally constructed in the 9th century, and said to be built over crypt and tomb of St Lazarus, the very one and same said to be raised from the dead by Jesus. Tradition says he fled to Kition, the original name of Larnaca, Cyprus, and, after being appointed the first bishop of Cyprus by Paul, died and was buried here, only to have his remains removed to Constantinople 900 years later (like the fate of the chryselephantine statues of Olympia & Athens Acropolis). Anyway, the Church is very nice and full of little ladies lighting candles and kissing all the icons and images of various saints, including Lazarus.

The next morning I took the Intercity Bus from Larnaca half way to Limassol, where I got off near the World Heritage Site of Choirokoitia (pronounced Kirokiteeya with the accent on the “tee”).

Cypriot Recent Aceramic Neolithic Culture

Warning: If you do not wish to read a fairly long exposition on a 7th Millennium BC culture, tracing its development extending backward to the ice age, skip this section. I am utterly fascinated and delighted by being able to connect the farmers and herders, who constructed a walled stone-age town, back to their ice age progenitors. I have not found this information easily available in any single document, but have pieced it together from various archaeological information signs posted at the site, together with information from several different artifact displays at two different museums, plus internet research. The major source of information comes from a large poster, detailing the culture, on the wall of the Neolithic Room in the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia.

Choirokoitia is the oldest major village site found on Cyprus, dating to the early Neolithic around 7,000 BC, and was abandoned around 5,500 BC. The community is fascinating in that the village construction is so advanced, built by a culture now called the Cypriot Recent Aceramic (without ceramics) Neolithic – which occupied the island from about 10,000 to 5,000 BC (nine other sites have been identified as being of the same culture and time period). The people practiced animal husbandry with goats and pigs (and cattle with ancestors at a nearby site), and farmed a variety of cereal grain crops. Only partially excavated, visible in the village now are the lower remains of the walls of some 80 circular rooms (hundreds must be unexcavated), the basic architectural unit, with stone and mud brick walls constructed up to 1 ½ meters thick at the base, with inside diameters of from 2 to over 7 meters. The interiors often were further partitioned for various purposes. Evidence was found for flat roofs built of clay upon a thick wood thatching, fragments of which are in the Larnaka District Museum. The circular rooms were arranged into larger groupings forming houses consisting of several rooms around small common communal areas outside. The entire village, with its very dense packing of structures, sits on steep slopes straddling the top of a small mountain. Several dozen human burials were found under the floors of the circular rooms, indicating perhaps continuing relationships with ancestor spirits. Together with the burials often were artifacts and occasionally juxtapositioned animal remains.

Most impressive, the village is surrounded by perimeter earthen and brick walls (from 2 different periods) with stone facings, of almost 300 meters in total extent. The walls were up to 4 meters in height, with a single entrance; the entrance to Village 2 penetrated the outer wall with a series of 3 sets of stairs set at right angles to each other, requiring a sharp turn and climb inside a narrow opening beside an inner second wall, finally entering the village against the wall of a building. This pattern suggests clearly, to me at least, a defensive purpose. It took some powerful social organization and cohesiveness to create the pattern of houses with stone walled circular rooms, and to construct the massive community perimeter walls with defensible entrances; this greatly surprised me, realizing this village was first constructed almost 9,000 years ago, double the age of the First Kingdom of Egypt from whence came the pyramids. I generally pictured stone-aged peoples of 9,000 years ago as living in caves or wood-framed pit houses covered with thatch or animal skins, not in plastered stone-walled houses in villages with huge perimeter walls. In the attached photos, I have included some examples of the sophisticated stone goods, and an absolutely unique anthropomorphic bust of clay.

I also have included a photo of a unique 9,000-10,000 year old zoomorphic bust made of serpentine, with feline features, which came from Parekklisia-Shillourokampus, a nearby earlier period site of the ancestors of Choirokoitia, which was occupied from about 8200 – 7500 BC. The bust is a remarkable and beautiful piece. The site had collective human burials in designated areas, often positioned with intact animal burials; these reportedly are some of the earliest such burials in the world. One recent excavation of a burial found a cat in association with the human burial, suggesting the earliest known domestication of cats, far earlier than that at Egypt, and, to me at least, supporting the identity of the serpentine piece as representing a cat. Dogs also were domesticated. Evidence from genetics suggests that certain cereal grains were first domesticated in Cyprus at this particular site. Remarkable also are the presence of domestic cattle remains at this site, and also at an earlier site (9000 BC) named Kissonerga-Mylouthkia. Cattle were not among the native fauna of Cyprus, and so had been imported from the mainland by these very early Aceramic Neolithic peoples at this time. Cattle disappear from the record by the time of Choirokoitia, suggesting to me that cattle husbandry could not be sustained (domestic cattle reappear in the record around 3000 BC). Also in this early phase, around 8200 BC, obsidian, imported from Anatolia (Turkey), was used for blades – evidence of trading with the mainland. Obsidian disappears from the excavations, replaced entirely by local flint and chert, by the time of Choirokoitia. Structures in the earlier settlements were of wood within perimeter trenches. Both Shillourokampus and Mylouthkia had a number of deep, circular, man-made water wells, up to 25 feet deep to reach underground streams, with built in hand and foot holds down the sides. At the earlier Mylouthkia site one human skull, buried in one of the well structures, clearly displayed cranial deformation with flattening of the occipital, a custom found on the nearby Asian mainland (also common in Mesoamerica 8,000 years later). In the latest phase of Shillourokampus, the architectural units began to become curved stone walls, presaging Choirokoitia.

The Cypriot Aceramic peoples first arrived on Cyprus around 10,000 BC (12,000 years ago), and occupied a rock shelter site called Akrotiri-Aetokremnos, about 40 km west of Shillourokampus. Cyprus was home then to dwarf elephants and pygmy hippos, which survived at the end of the most recent glaciation, and bones of both were found at the rock shelter, the hippo bones together with the strata of human artifacts; many of the hippo bones showed burning, though no evidence of cuts. Experts have debated “hotly” whether the arrival, at the end of the Pleistocene, 12,000 years ago, of the ancestors of the Cypriot Aceramic Neolithic culture, was associated with the extinction of these creatures.

Absolutely fascinating, to me, is starting with the of arrival of man on Cyprus, near the end of the Pleistocene; then being able to trace these people through early settlement formation, the domestication of animals and importation of cattle, domestication of cereal grains, production of very sophisticated stone ware, and gradual evolution of architecture to the multi-use circular building units, cohesively arranged into housing units, within a town with huge perimeter stone walls, and defensible entrances, at Choirokoitia. The culture seems then to have disappeared around 5000 BC (over 1,500 years before the start of the Mesopotamian, Indus Valley or Egyptian civilizations), but perhaps future work will reveal a continuation, or connections with subsequent cultures.

End of Cypriot Aceramic Neolithic Discussion

The day after visiting Choirokoitia, I visited the recommended Pierides Museum in Larnaca, a private foundation museum for display of the extensive archaeological collection of the Pierides family, mostly accumulated during the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. As with most such collections, this one was started with the claimed purpose of preserving on Cyprus the ancient artifacts extracted for sale by tomb robbers. It seems to me that these large private archaeological collections simply increase the value of the trade in stolen ancient artifacts, thus supporting and expanding such trade. The sad result is that these artifacts never can be properly placed in context. Further, the sites from which the objects were removed are irrevocably damaged for further study. Finally, because so many of the artifacts are sufficiently unique and in relatively good shape, questions must invariably arise regarding authenticity. Similar museums I have visited include Amparo in Puebla, Rufino Tamayo in Oaxaca, Mimbres pottery collections in Deming & Lordsburg, the Gold Museum in Lima, and Popol Vuh in Guatemala City. The Gold Museum was exposed 20 years ago; up to 90% of the “precious” Peruvian artifacts being viewed as fakes by investigators.

I did a walking tour visiting several areas of Larnaca where excavations have revealed the sanctuaries and walls of the ancient city of Kition, a major center during Hellenistic and Roman Periods, and also visited the little Larnaca District Archaeology Museum which had several stone vessels and roof fragments from Choirokoitia.

On Saturday I traveled by bus from Larnaca to Limassol which sits on the central southern coast. The first afternoon I hopped a local bus west to the Kolossi Castle, a medieval tower built by the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, aka Knights Hospitaller, Knights of Malta, Knights of Rhodes or just Hospitallers. This was one of the two powerful Catholic military orders of the medieval period of the crusades (the other order being Knights Templar). I previously reported on Old Town Rhodes, where the Hospitallers had their headquarters for two hundred years. Prior to acquiring Rhodes, and after losing their base in Acre in northern Israel to the Arabs in the 12th century, they briefly established headquarters in Cyprus and built the initial Kolossi castle; it was destroyed over the intervening 300 years by earthquakes and various attacks, and a new castle was built in the mid 15th century which stands today. I particularly admired the single small closet sized outer room on the 2nd upper floor which served as the private toilet of the Master. From the outside I could see the extruding drain which would have carried the waste outside the castle walls.

Sunday the 29th I traveled by bus to Ancient Kourion, a great Hellenistic and Roman Period city just west of Limassol. The area actually was first populated during the 12th century BC by the Mycenaeans, and remained a center through the Greek Dark Ages, Archaic Period and Classical Periods, but all structures which are visible today are from the Hellenistic and later periods (after 325 BC). The Roman Nymphaeum, Stoa and Agora create a great jumble of walls and columns, and on one side are great areas of Baths, with the underground water systems visible today. The most interesting remains, to me, are the two great houses of late Roman design (early Christian period 4th C. AD), both of which contain well preserved mosaic floor designs left in situ (much better than removal to a museum – of course one must accept huge modern roof structures overhead to protect what has been exposed). The site of Kourion is spectacular, sitting on the edge of low limestone cliffs overlooking the southern Cyprus Mediterranean Sea.

While waiting for the return bus from Kourion, sitting on the bus-stop bench under trees in the middle of nowhere, a half grown kitten took a liking to me; I stroked it for some minutes, and then it would not leave me alone. While I sat on the bench, it proceeded to climb all over me, draping around my neck, up over my head, and down my back returning to my lap. I finally got up and stood several feet from the bench; it stood on the bench mewing pitifully at me for some minutes, then took a great leap landing on the left side of my chest with four paws splayed and 20 sharp claws extended to catch itself on the verticle surface. OW! OW! OW! That hurt, and brought little spots of blood traced onto my shirt. I did not consider taking that kitten home with me.

On Sunday the 30th, a rainy day, I traveled by bus from Limassol to Paphos on the southwestern coast of Cyprus. It has a very pretty old-town promenade along the sea and harbor, but most of the town seems deserted now; except for the restaurants facing the sea, the streets are lined with dozens of closed taverns, sheesha houses, discos, bars, restaurants and car rentals. Apparently they simply shutter the doors from October through sometime in March.

Nea Paphos (New Paphos) is the “new” ancient city which grew massive from the Hellenistic through the Roman Periods (about 325 BC through 300 AD – the old city of the Archaic-Classical age lies to the north). The central Agora (market), theater, Asclepion and a number of homes have been excavated overlooking the sea at the very southwestern corner of the island. At the south side of the ancient city are several “villas” of astounding size, with dozens of rooms with extensive floor mosaic designs – all left in-situ. The House of Dionysus covers 22,000 sq. ft., with the mosaic floors covering 6,000 sq. ft. of the villa. That represents enormous wealth. Large protective buildings have been built over the sites to protect the now exposed mosaics. This is the densest collection of mosaics I have seen, and many are stunning. I particularly liked the Mosaic of baby Dionysus in Hermes lap, surrounded by a number of personages, the five panel-mosaic in a room of the House of Aion, and the Mosaic of Icarus in the House of Dionysus, photos of all of which are included below.

Several kilometers north of the villas and the Agora are the “Tombs of the Kings”; it is in fact one of the cemeteries of the Romans of ancient Nea Paphos, where the very wealthy had entire “houses” carved into the limestone rocks to serve as tombs. In arrival at some of the tombs, one is confronted with an opening into the ground, and looks down into a solid stone courtyard surrounded by verandas behind carved stone pillars. Upon climbing down steps into the tomb, the “courtyard” is surrounded by underground rooms carved into the soft sandstone in which are various chambers where the dead were laid to rest. All artifacts, of course, were looted millennia ago. Nea Paphos, Old Paphos and the Tombs of Kings together are a World Heritage Site.

On Wednesday I traveled to Nicosia, capital of the island, which lies in the heartland on the border between the Republic of Cyprus, recognized by the UN, and all nations but one, as the legitimate government of the island, and North Cyprus which, for 45 years, has been governed and occupied by Turkey. After decades of strife, the border now is easily crossed, and as of this year, new talks are underway by both sides which may ultimately lead to some lasting resolutions to the old conflicts. I spent several hours yesterday on the Turkish side of the border, after an easy crossing where only a passport must be shown going either direction. The Selimiye Mosque (originally the St Sophia Cathedral), built in 1208-1326 AD, is a marvel of Byzantine-Gothic-Ottoman construction mix.

I visited for 3 ½ hours the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia; it is reputed in many sources as the must-see archaeological museum in Cyprus, and highly recommended. It was a let-down. I did get to see the available artifacts from the very earliest culture, the Cypriot Early Aceramic Neolithic, discussed above, which established Choirokoitia 9000 years ago. The museum certainly has a number of nice pieces, including from Kition and Nea Paphos. I will not dwell too much on its short-comings, but the lighting was very bad, with little spot beams inside small glass cases which shone like the sun on narrow spots, leaving the rest in darkness. Little was labeled, and much that was labeled often identified artifacts as “from various”, or “provenance unknown”, or listed half a dozen sites without telling what was from where. A majority of artifacts apparently were donated or on loan from various private foundations or families; this emphasizes the sad fact that the majority of great Cypriot ancient pieces have been pilfered over the last two centuries by grave looters, gathered into various private collections, and what has been recovered or donated now makes up the bulk of the museum’s pieces. I intend no blame for the curator or country; the fault almost certainly lies with the political chaos that Cyprus has endured for a couple of hundred years.

I have delighted in the evenings, while drinking wine on my balconies, in watching the small insectivorous bats which whirl through the air around the buildings of the coastal towns. I watched what I believe to be the same bats in Rhodes, and by my recollection they are identical to the ones that amused me 10 years ago in the southern ancient Roman port of Antalya, Turkey. These were replaced, to my astonishment, in Nicosia which lies at the interior of the island, with large flocks of wagtails, which would circle overhead after sundown, calling constantly, reminding me more of the common swifts of the western Mediterranean. Without binoculars or my long lenses, I am uncertain of the species. I never have seen wagtails congregate in this manner.

While in Cyprus, I have been eating often at Kebob Houses, which are common in the western Mediterrenean. They serve up not just kebabs, but dozens of various grilled dishes and veggies, at very reasonable prices. The last two days the weather finally broke, and turned cold (50 degrees F) and windy. I have been spoiled with sunny beautiful warm days for almost 3 months, with only a handful of rainy periods.

Today I have returned to Larnaca from Nicosia. Tomorrow I fly back to Athens for 3 days, and probably will again visit the Archaeology Museum – a world class museum. On Wednesday I depart for the long return trip to Arizona. I reflect back that on the island of Crete, studying the MInoans, the oldest link in Western Civilization, I feel I completed my archaeological trip through Greece. On the island of Cyprus, I have been able to examine one of the oldest sophisticated cultures in the world, and trace it back to the Ice Age. I apologize to those of you who would rather see photos of birds and wildlife. I will return to that hobby soon. Dave

 

 

 

 

Report on Heraklion, Minoan Palaces, Roman Gortyn, Hippie beach at Matala & Old Chania, Crete, Greece, Nov. 23, 2015

Hello all. I last reported from Old Town, Rhodes. On Nov. 10, I flew a small prop plane from Rhodes to Heraklion, capital of Crete, where I lodged in the Hotel Kronos overlooking the old Venetian Harbor on the north-central coast. The Old City part of Heraklion mostly still is surrounded by very thick Venetian fortress walls, built in the 13th century, and has the remnants of the Venetian ship-building structures around the old harbor. The major attractions for me were the Archaeology Museum, which houses all of the great artifacts of the Minoan civilization, and the most famous of the Minoan Palaces, Knossos, which lies just south of the present city.

I previously have written of the great Mycenaean culture, which produced the original flowering of Greek civilization on the mainland. Occurring roughly from the start of the 15th through the 12th centuries BC, the Mycenaean culture preceded the Greek Dark Ages. The Mycenaeans borrowed much of their culture, including styles of architecture, frescoes, pottery, metallurgy, religion and writing script, from the earlier Minoan civilization which grew without major antecedents on the island of Crete (the Minoans, of course, influenced and were influenced by the neighboring Egyptians, among others). Although present on Crete throughout the Bronze Age and before, the Minoans reached their cultural heights during the periods known as the First and the Second Palace Periods, which occurred from 1900-1700 BC and 1700-1450 BC, respectively. After the Second Palace Period, there appears to have been a blending or merging of Mycenaean and Minoan cultures, with perhaps Mycenaean occupation on Crete or Minoan occupation in the Peloponnese, or both.

Western civilization or European civilization has its roots in the Roman Empire, which in turn very heavily borrowed from and was influenced by Classical Greek civilization. The Classical Greeks were influenced, in religion and mythology, concepts of honor and heroism, as well as art and metallurgy by the preceding Mycenaean civilization, which itself adopted heavily from the Minoan civilization. Thus it is that the well-known historian Will Durant famously referred to the Minoans as “the first link in the European chain.” I feel, in tracing my own culture back through archaeological time, with the Minoans I have arrived at the beginning.

During the Minoan Palatial Periods, from about 1900 through 1200 BC, several great palace complexes, the centers of large urban populations, existed throughout the island of Crete (there were two major events of destruction followed by new construction, creating the distinction between the Old, the New and the Mono Palace Periods); the two perhaps most important Palaces were Knossos, just south of Heraklion, and Phaistos near the southern coast of Crete. Just a few kilometers west of Phaistos was the somewhat smaller Minoan palace of Agia Triada, referred to as a “villa.” Most of the great artifacts in the Heraklion Museum of Archaeology came from these three sites, and so these were, of course, on my “must visit” agenda. Knossos, the most famous, is claimed to be the palace of Homerian King Minos, and the minotaur jailed in its labyrinth. Knossos lies on a low hilltop just south of the north-central coast. It probably is not the best place to visit a “real” Minoan Palace, though it remains the major tourist attraction on the Island. It was excavated first at the end of the 19th century by Sir Arthur Evans, who, although he correctly extracted and deduced much of Minoan culture, and discovered many famous artifacts, unfortunately “reconstructed” many parts of the Palace stylistically under the influence of his “sense” of how 19th century European royalty would have used various parts of the buildings; the reconstructions are controversial, at best. This detracts from getting a decent and accurate overview of the ruins, as well as enclosing many of the most important rooms, thereby limiting access by tourists. Further, even now in the middle of low-season, great busloads of tours still arrive from the cruise ships docking daily in the Heraklion port.

Knossos produced many of the best artifacts to be seen in the Museum, and almost all of the discovered palace frescoes, the great wall paintings done on still-wet plastered surfaces. Most of the frescoes exist as fragments, which have been removed from the palace ruins and are reassembled in the Museum over panels which attempt to reproduce the missing portions, so the entirety of the scenes can be appreciated. I wonder at some of the reproductions of missing parts, but overall the frescoes are one of the huge highlights of Minoan art. I have included photos of the best of the restored frescoes, including the famous “bull-leaping” fresco (the Minoans had a number of different artistic representations of people using a charging bull’s horns to leap acrobatically over the top).

From Heraklion I traveled, Sunday a week ago, south across the island by bus, traversing the central mountain range, and dropping into the Messara Plains to the small town of Moires, situated centrally for the visitation of four target sites. Moires is not a tourist town, and is not mentioned in either of my guide books, nor in online research sites for hotels and restaurants. I found a hotel with a large relatively modern room, but plagued by mosquitos. I was not bothered, finally, on my last of four nights, after eradicating close to 2 dozen of the nuisances the previous 3 nights, using a fairly effective, rolled-up, damp hand towel to throw at them sitting high on the 11 foot bright yellow walls (successful “hits” were easily determined as most left behind a small bloody spot, establishing that each already had enjoyed my company). The first day in Moires the electric power went out for 8 hours, leaving many restaurants unable to serve customers. The next day the power was restored, but in the interim the town water supply stopped flowing, somehow related to the prior power outage and the pumps. Water was finally restored late afternoon allowing me my first shower in over 2 days of sweaty walking. The owner of my hotel stated this was the first time this had happened.

Phaistos Palace and Agia Triada “Villa” are both situated just west of Moires, and easily visited by hiring a taxi. At Agia Triada I was the sole visitor, and was informed by the gate keeper, who arrived half an hour after I did, that many days would have no visitors. Yet this was a most fascinating site, and source of many of the most famous Minoan and Minoan/Mycenaean artifacts. Because the site was not used by any later peoples after its collapse at the end of the Minoan occupation, and because the archaeologists wisely excavated and consolidated but did not “reconstruct” based on invalid assumptions, the site retains original walls, rooms, stairs and stone paved streets, as well as the many stone channel water delivery and sewage systems for which the Minoans are famous. I walked the 3 kilometers from Agia Triada around the side of the mountain to the site of Phaistos, a full Minoan Palace system. It, like Agia Triada, has been left relatively intact without annoying reconstruction, and I shared the site with perhaps only 4 other tourists. One of the more interesting features of the palaces is the large areas of “storage magazines,” rows of enclosed rooms built off of long corridors, which still contain huge pithoi, ceramic storage jars larger than barrels, where food stuffs apparently were kept.

Along with photos of the Minoan sites themselves, I have included a number of photos of the most famous artifacts, all of which reside in the Heraklion Museum. My favorite is the tiny gold “Bee Pendant” (from the Palace at Malia, which I did not visit) – it is a masterpiece of delicate jewelry design, said to combine all four types of gold metal working, and should appear on a computer monitor about 3 times its actual size of 4.5 cm.  During the Old Palace Period (1900-1700 BC) the Minoans produced a famous and beautiful style of luxury pottery called Kamares ware, which is quite spectacular considering the age; I have included several photos. During the later New Palace Period the Minoans produced many fine ceramics displaying “Marine” style images, especially octopuses (I prefer the term “octopi,” but am informed that that form of plural has no etymological basis, although accepted in use), which wonderful creatures likenesses later were adopted copiously by the Mycenaeans on their ceramics. Also famous is the Phaistos Disk, a ceramic disk engraved on both sides with a still undeciphered hieroglyphic script which appears to travel circularly in a coil, though unclear whether to read from the center out or outside in. The spectacular solid limestone sarcophagus from Agia Triada, from the Mono-Palatial Period after the Mycenaean merger, completely is covered with painted scenes of funerary significance. Too much to absorb!

I spent one day visiting the ancient site of Gortyn, the Roman capital of Crete and northern Africa during the early centuries of the 1st Millennium. The ruins cover several square kilometers, spread through the most ancient olive trees I have ever seen; the city must have had a population of over 100,000. Although most of the ruins seen today date to the Roman Period, the city actually dates to the Archaic Period (about 700 BC), and contains the famous early 5th century BC stone wall inscribed with what today is called the Gortyn Law Code; only about 10% of the original remains, but still covers huge cut stones forming a curved wall of over 30 feet in length. My guide books state it contains such arcane rules as the requirement for the testimony of five men to convict a free man of a crime, but the testimony of one is sufficient to convict a slave.

On Wednesday the 18th I took a bus south to the tiny town of Matala, population a few dozen this time of year, but apparently receiving many thousands of visitors daily during tourist season. On the southern coast of Crete, the village sits above the beach in a pretty half moon bay facing west. On the north side of the bay is a cliff face of limestone, penetrated along its length by rock-cut Roman tombs (popularly referred to as caves), many having double and triple chambers, with benches for several bodies per chamber. In the late 1960s Matala attracted a large number of hippies, and was immortalized by Joni Mitchel who recorded a 1971 song (Carey) concerning her relationship while there. Internet sites claim Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Joan Baez and Janice Joplin all stayed there for a time, all claims almost certainly untrue, but, the hippie occupation was real. Many apparently took to free living quarters in the Roman tombs, until after some years the scandalized locals, led by the Bishop of Gortyn Province, had the squatters evicted. The Roman tombs now constitute a fenced off, and, thankfully, cleaned-up archaeological site, but the rest of the village is filled with rainbow colors and peace and love and flower-power signage on much of the commercial businesses. A short hike over the mountain to the south leads to another bay enclosing the Red Beach, reputed to be an infamous nude beach. I hiked up and over the mountain for scenic photos – not a living person anywhere on the trail or on Red Beach – one elderly couple, perhaps returned ex-hippies, on Matala Beach. The guide books state the tourists who visit in high season are aged hippies who claim to have spent time in the “caves” in the 60s and 70s. Who knew. I was, I guess, a hippie by all counts in the late 60s, and have no recollection of hearing of Matala, but then I was hardly at the center of everything that was “happening.”

On Thursday I returned to Heraklion, and spent hours the next day exploring again the Archaeology Museum; easier to navigate and understand now that I have seen the principal Minoan sites. On Saturday I traveled 3 hours by bus to the northwestern end of the island to the old city of Chania. The Old Town is surrounded by massive inner Byzantine and outer Venetian stone fortress walls. On the harbor, at the south-western corner of the walls, is the 400 year-old home converted to boutique Hotel Alcanea, where I now am staying. My window opens with a view out onto the harbor and the Venetian lighthouse built in 1600. The Old Town has the usual fascinating tiny passageways which penetrate maze-like in all directions though the ancient and sometimes crumbling buildings. Many little restaurants, seaside cafes and shops, most geared to the huge tourist influx during the “summer” season (April through October). Things are very quiet this time of year, though the weather has been beautiful.

I now have visited all of the places I had listed as must-see prior to arrival in Greece, plus a number of places I only learned of after arrival. I find I have about 12 extra days remaining before my previously purchased return flight to the US. Rather than returning to areas I already have passed through, I have decided to spend 12 days in Cyprus, never having visited before. I fly back to Athens tomorrow, and from there fly to Larnaka, Cyprus the following day. I have purchased a Kindle version of Lonely Planet’s guide to Cyprus, and am buried in reading through that book, and doing quick online research, to try and get the most out the side-trip. I will return to Athens for a couple of final days back at the Archaeology Museum, before returning to the US Dec. 9. Later. Dave

PS – I have noticed that many of the photo captions do not appear in the photo thumbnails as set forth directly below – PLEASE click on any photo to start the slideshow.  In the slideshow the photos display larger and better, and all captions correctly display.

Report on Nafplio, Palamidi, Mycenae, Tiryns, Epidaurus & Rhodes, Greece, Nov. 10, 2015

Hello. I last reported from Monamvasia. From there I traveled by bus to Nafplio on the SE Peloponnese, where I spent 7 days visiting nearby ancient sites. Nafplio is a delightful small town; the “old town” an ancient port city. Today’s narrow passageways and streets mostly date from Venetian periods (15th-18th centuries) and it became the first capital of Greece for a decade or so, right after independence in 1829, until the capital was moved to Athens. Nafplio is surrounded by not one, but 3 different fortresses; the most imposing is the Venetian fortress known as the Palamidi, which encircles the top of the 720 foot mountain top overlooking Nafplio from the east. The ancient staircase switches back and forth as it climbs straight up the cliff face to the battlements. The Fortress has 7 different bastions, or castles, within its walls, all built in the early 1700s. I had a small hotel room at the top of an old building in the old town, with a small balcony overlooking the red-tiled roofs of much of the town spilling out to the sea, and a full view of the western face and staircase of Palamidi Fortress. I watched from the balcony each evening, drinking wine, as the bastions, great staircase and cliff sides turned completely gold in the setting sunlight, and visitors like ants marched down the 999 steps from the Fortress.

Nafplio lies just a few miles from the two major Palace-Fortresses of the very ancient Mycenaean Kingdom, Mycenae and Tiryns. I pointed out in a previous report that Greece enjoyed two great eras of flowering of ancient civilizations, separated by several hundred years of the Greek “Dark Age.” The flowering which followed the Dark Age was the Archaic-Classical-Hellenistic era which generally is considered “The” Greek culture, and forebearer of Western Civilization. The earlier flowering era, prior to the Greek Dark Age, was during the middle and late bronze age, and is divided into 3 separate groupings by geography, though all interacted. The islands produced the earliest civilizations, on Crete the Minoan civilization and on the smaller island group known today as the Cyclades, the Cycladic civilization. Both persisted through the 2nd millennium BC, although the Minoan civilization was subsumed into the third group, which flowered on the Peloponnese mainland from about 1500-1100 BC – this latter was the great Mycenaean Kingdom, famed by Homer for engaging the Trojan War. The palace and tombs of Mycenae are real, as discovered along with Troy by Schlieman, in the 19th century, and produced as stunning a collection of treasure as ever found. Most of those artifacts are in the Athens Museum of Archaeology, and I previously have uploaded photos of some of my favorite pieces.

Last week I traveled by bus to visit the hilltop Palace Fortress of Mycenae. One enters through the famous “Lion Gate,” built as a megalithic stone lintel; all fortress walls are built of giant stones, each cut individually to fit without mortar over those below. The ancient Greeks that came after the Dark Age were amazed at the size of the rocks, and concluded the fortresses only could have been built by the giant cyclops, so the Mycenaean fortress construction is referred to as “cyclopean”. Just inside the Lion Gate is one of the several amazing circular tombs – Tomb Circle A excavated by Schlieman; giant royal interments used over centuries, from the Tomb Circles multiple royal graves came the many treasures in the museums. A couple of days later I visited the nearby ancient Mycenaean port Palace-Fortress of Tiryns. Today, due to silt, it lies several kilometers from the sea, but served as the port and major trading city of the Mycenaeans. It also is constructed of cyclopean walls. Mycenae and Tiryns together comprise a World Heritage Site.

I spent one day traveling by bus to the Archaic-Classic-Hellenistic Period ruins of the Sanctuary of Asclepius and ancient Theater of Epidaurus, another World Heritage Site. The Sanctuary of Asclepius was dedicated to the healing arts, Asclepius being the God of healing, and made much use in ancient times of serpents, although it is not clear exactly how they figured in the practice. The rod of Asclepius, with entwined serpent, has become the worldwide symbol of the medical profession. The Theater, dating from the 5th century BC, is considered by many to be in the finest condition of any Classical period theater, and is in use today for the summer presentation of plays.

From Nafplio I traveled back to Athens last Thursday, and the next day flew to the Island of Rhodes. Rhodes Town, the capital on the northern tip, sits less than 12 miles from the coast of Turkey, and I was surprised to find it is just 50 miles from Fethiye and Oludeniz from where I sailed on a Turkish Gulet 10 years ago. Rhodes had major seafaring settlements through the Greek Dark Ages, Archaic and Classical Periods. Indeed, the Rhodes Town harbor was the location of the Colossus of Rhodes, a titanic bronze statue of Apollo erected in 305 BC, and one of the 7 Ancient Wonders of the World. Rhodes of Classical Greece held a population of 100,000, much larger than it is today. What is known as the “Old Town”, completely enclosed within massive 40 foot double walls, and 30 meter wide moats, is almost entirely medieval, with just a few patches of Classic Period ancient walls excavated here and there. The Old Town, another World Heritage Site, was mostly constructed and maintained for over 200 years (1309-1522) by the Order of the Knights of St John, better known as the Knights Hospitaller, for centuries the last bastion of parts of Greece against the Ottoman Turks. The Knights were differentiated into seven different language groups of medieval western Europe, including Castillano, Italian and French, and were housed in seven different “Inns” or quarters, all built along a long sloping street now named the Street of the Knights. Each “tongue” (group by language) was responsible for the protection of a different Gate and segment of outer walls and bastions of Old Town. At the top end of the Street of Knights is the Palace of the Grand Masters, the headquarters and residence of head of the Knights Hospitaller Order. At the lower end, now converted to the local archaeology museum, is the great structure of the Knights Hospital. Rhodes finally fell to Suleyman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire, more than 70 years after the fall of Constantinople; according to records Suleyman arrived on the island with 400 ships carrying between 100,000 and 200,000 troops, and still took a 6 month siege to defeat the force of 7,000 Knights defending the Old City. After the defeat Suleyman permitted the remaining Knights to return to Malta. For 400 years Rhodes Old Town declined under Ottoman rule, until liberated in the very early 20th century by Italy, which promptly removed almost all traces of Muslim construction, restoring the Old Town to the medieval gem that it is today.

Two days ago I traveled by bus down the eastern coast of Rhodes to the tiny white-washed village of Lindos, sitting at the sea edge under the mountaintop Acropolis Lindos, where the Venetian Fortress surrounds ancient temples dating from the Greek Dark Age through the Archaic and Classical Periods. The town of Lindos, although practically empty when I was there, has such narrow cobblestone passageways that all traffic, including motorbikes, is banned. Tour buses, when they come, must stop at the highway hundreds of meters up a steep road, and only foot-traffic is allowed down and into the town. Unfortunately, at least to me, the town itself seems alive today solely for catering to tourists (which apparently simply fill the streets in the summer season). When empty, it is quite a sterile, but very clean, set of white curio shops and crepe restaurants waiting for the throngs. As the climb up to the Acropolis is steep and long, the town’s foot-traffic includes donkeys which are happily provided (for a fee) if one wishes a lift up the mountainside.

Today I fly to Heraklion, capital of Crete, finally ready to explore the oldest of the great Greek civilizations, the Minoan. Later. Dave

 

 

Report on Ancient Corinth, Ancient Olympia, Ancient Sparta & Byzantine Mystra & Monemvasia, Greece, Oct. 30, 2015

Hello all. I last reported from Athens. On Wednesday over a week ago I traveled by train to the Peloponnese, the large southern dangling section of Greece that just barely is connected at the “Isthmus” to the rest of the landmass. Actually, now, as of the last 122 years, it no longer is connected (except by bridges), as a canal has been built, without locks, across the 6 kilometer neck. The Peloponnese played an outsize role in Greece’s history, producing first the Mycenaean Civilization, and during the later Classic Period producing those great warriors of Sparta and hosting the major original ancient Olympic Games. The Peninsula, on the eastern side, has a greater concentration of ancient ruins than any other part of Greece.

I first stopped in Archaea Korinthos (Ancient Corinth) for a few days. This was one of the oldest continuously occupied cities, from the middle Helladic Period (middle Bronze Age, from 2000 BC), through late Helladic (Mycenaean late Bronze Age), and on through the Greek Dark Ages, the Archaic, Classic, Hellenistic and on into the Roman Period. Here, in the mid-1st century AD, Paul claims to have spent a year and a half attempting to convert the Jews, then the heathens to Christianity, with limited success; however his influence was sufficient to first get him brought before fthe Roman Proconsul on heresy of the faith charges – he was aquited as his teachings were viewed as internal Jewish disagreements. Paul is credited with composing perhaps the greatest Christian letters; those to the Church of Corinth. Today a modern Greek church, standing overlooking the ancient city ruins, has in front a large stone monument engraved with 8 famous verses from Chapter 13 of Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians. After 50 years, I still can almost recite the passage by heart

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

…………………

Powerful words even for one who no longer believes.

The ruins of Ancient Corinth are very concentrated and compact, and sit on the slopes above the Corinthian Bay to the north, and under the shadow of the 2,000 foot limestone mountain, with shear cliffs, called Akro Korinthos (Acropolis Corinth). The Akro always has served as a fortress, although today the impressive remains are all medieval (mostly Byzantine and Ottoman). The largest structure in Ancient Corinth was the famous Temple to Apollo, which still crowns the highest hill.

From Ancient Corinth I traveled by bus around the northern coast of the Peloponnese, by the city of Patra with its huge suspension bridge over a narrow neck of the Corinthian Bay, to connect the Peloponnese to the mainland of central Greece, and on to Pyrgos. From there a short hop further inland to the ancient site of Olympia, where the original games were produced for almost 1,200 years – makes our 120-or-so-year history of the “modern” games seem rather weak, although with 200 nations now participating, the world coverage is somewhat better than existed in ancient Greece. I think I previously wrote stating that the games at Delphi, called the Pythian Games, were the archaic predecessor of the games at Olympia; this is not true as both started during or before the Archaic Period, although the start date of either is uncertain. During Archaic and Classic Period times, games were organized at both sites along with two other sites (together all called the Panhellenic Games), at 4-year intervals at each site.

The site ruins at Olympia spread over quite a large area, and a confusion of archaic period through late Roman period construction makes the site in some places difficult to understand. Upon entering the site, the first really large structure, with double rows of marble columns on all 4 sides, is the Palestra, the school for wrestling, one of the Olympic sports. The Temple of Zeus is at the heart of the site, along with the older 7th century BC Temple of Hera, for whom earlier games (among women) were established. The Temple of Zeus during the 5th century BC contained a 45 foot chryselephantine statue of Zeus seated (see my prior report for explanation of “Chryselephantine”). Both the Chryselephantine statue of Athena, from the Parthenon (previously reported), and the one of Zeus at Olympia were created by the famous Phidias at his workshop during the 5th century BC. Both were monumental and must have been breathtaking, with the carved ivory skin (Zeus was seated and his entire upper torso, perhaps 10 feet high, was bare, and so covered with ivory, along with his face and hands), the rest covered with gold. The statue of Zeus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Both statues disappeared in the 5th century AD, with independent reports suggesting each was brought to Constantinople, and there lost to mankind.

The Olympia Archeological Site Museum has some wonderful treasures from the ancient sanctuaries. The marble statue of Hermes, photo below, is considered a masterpiece of the Classical Period. Also, the well preserved marble pediments of the Temple of Zeus, especially the Western end showing the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, contains some wonderful marble work.

From Olympia I traveled on Saturday to Sparta, where I stayed in a relatively modern hotel right on the city center. Of Ancient Sparta, very little remains. The ancient theater still sits at the foot of the Acropolis, which contains some ruins of structures. A fair amount of work is ongoing in the area trying to expose and consolidate other ruins, but nothing is labeled. A small museum exists for artifacts found at the Acropolis and nearby Sanctuary of Orthia Artemis, but takes less than half an hour to see everything, and is rather disappointing. Bottom line, Sparta is not worth visiting for Ancient Sparta.

But, 6 kilometers west of Sparta, tumbling down the extremely steep slopes of a rocky mountain at the edge of the Taygetos Range, lies the remains of the medieval Byzantine city of Mystra, and very well worth a visit. At the rocky summit of the mountain sits the ancient fortress, first built by the Franks in the early 13th century, along with that at Monemvasia (my next visit). Within 2 decades Byzantine forces captured the fortresses, and for 2 centuries, as Constantinople declined, Mystra and Monemvasia became the major Byzantine cities in the Greek world. By the mid-14th century, the town of Mystra held 20,000 people, spilling down 900 feet of slopes from the fortress into the “upper” and “lower” cities. By the late 15th century, the town was taken by the Ottoman Turks, and later by the Venetians, before independence in 1821. Today Mystra has been abandoned (except by one small convent of nuns), and the ruins of the city follow the alleys and passages down the mountainside. A number of monasteries and churches remain with magnificent 14th century frescoes covering much of their interiors – I have included photos of 4 of my favorite frescoes, including one unusual view of the Last Supper (over 100 years earlier than Da Vinci’s), and one taking Jesus down from the cross. Mystra now is a World Heritage Site.

From Sparta I traveled yesterday by bus southeast to the coast and the rocky island fortress town of Monemvasia (a sister Byzantine city to Mystra). Monamvasia is a fortress town, like Mystra, which sits on the side and top of a massive rock island which juts almost 2000 feet from the sea, shear cliffs surrounding the upper island, with a low narrow shelf on the south side on which the lower city was built. It served for 200 years as the Byzantine commercial seaport during the 13th and 14th centuries. Unfortunately, the Byzantine ruins of the Upper City are closed (for construction – don’t get me started again). The Lower City has the original alleys and passageways, but is now small hotels and shops for the tourist trade.

I travel next to Nafplio as a center from which to visit half a dozen ancient sites, including Mycenae, finally.   Later. Dave

Report on Delphi, Osios Loukas, Acropolis & Athens, Greece Oct. 19, 2015

My last day in Meteora, the other-worldly site of 14th century monasteries perched upon the rock pillars, I hiked up a short canyon around the base of several pillars to view ruins of some old monastic dwellings in caves, including what are referred to as hermitages. Some of the rock pillars have small caves, alcoves and cracks into the rock face, ranging from 40 to over a hundred feet up the pillar’s wall. Within a number of these openings, religious hermits constructed wooden platforms and railings, often on multiple levels connected by rickety ladders; they apparently lived out their lives here partially exposed to the elements (see photo below). I took also one last panoramic photo (actually a composite of over 60 photos) of the Meteora from the south with Kastraki in the valley below; two monateries are visible perched upon high pinacles, but appear tiny in the photo.

On Saturday 9 days ago I traveled from Kalambaka by bus to Delphi, site of the Sacred Sanctuary Precinct of the Oracle of archaic and classical Greece. The travel, although not far in distance, occupied much of the day as I had to board 4 different buses to make the journey. The modern town of Delphi, which exists solely to provide tourist services to those who visit, consists of several parallel streets running around the edge of a steep mountainside, one above the other, overlooking a deep olive grove filled valley with the Bay of Corinth to the southwest. Nice view from my hotel balcony.

Just around the corner of the mountain to the east, on a steep slope under the western end of the rocky ridge that rises into Mt Parnassus, lies the Sacred Precinct of Delphi. From the late Bronze Age through the early Roman-Greco period, this was a most sacred place where people came to seek prophesies and advice concerning all manner of life questions, from whether engaging in war would destroy an empire to prospects for successful marriages. These prophesies, rendered by priests and conveyed to the seekers in metered rhyme, first were interpreted from the ravings of the sibyl or priestess, known as the Pythia, an elderly, “blameless” woman who sat over an opening in the earth within the Temple of Apollo, breathing rising fumes of perhaps ethylene or burning oleander (either somewhat toxic and probably producing trances). Delphi also was the site, every four years, of the Pythian Games, archaic period predecessor to the Panathenaic Games at Olympia and, much later, the modern Olympics.

For the Oracle and the Pythian Games, the Sacred Precinct was filled with temples, sanctuaries, treasuries, theaters, stadiums and monuments, constructed by the powerful city-states and surrounding kingdoms of the time. Though much of the site itself now is not much more than foundations, having suffered through a number of huge earthquakes, sackings and fires, the site museum contains some remarkable finds – to my eye the most spectacular the three restored life-size chryselephantine statues, produced in the late Archaic Period (6th-5th C BC), found in the “Repositories” in front of the Stoa of the Athenians. The adjective “chryselephantine” derives from the Greek words for gold and ivory, and so denotes objects made of gold and ivory. Chryselephantine statues of people or gods were carved wooden bodies completely covered with gold, except for all exposed “skin” parts which were carved of ivory (the face, arms, hands and feet). See my pictures of the two outstanding chryselephantine statues’ heads – the ivory faces somewhat blackened from the offering fire with which they were buried millennia ago. Also see the bronze “Charioteer”, from the Archaic-Classical boundary around 480 BC, the first and perhaps the most famous of the handful of great life-size Classical bronzes ever found. It was preserved intact in a deep burial resulting from an earthquake in 373 BC, though almost all of the attached bronze chariot and horses were looted millennia ago. Finally see the marble statue of the Sphinx, which the powerful kingdom of the island of Naxos offered to Delphi around 560 BC during the Archaic Period, sitting atop a 40 foot pillar.

From Delphi I made a day trip by taxi to the Byzantine Monastery of Osios Loukas, built in the 11th century. The larger of the two Monastery churches, the Katholikon, is famed for its well-preserved Byzantine mosaics, considered by many the best in all of Greece. The Monastery, unlike those at Meteora, sits on the side of a low mountain overlooking a green valley. I have included several photos of the mosaics, most of which are within concave curved surfaces giving them a special dimensionality. Within the crypt under the church are a number of well-preserved frescoes, particularly on the ceiling.

On Wednesday last I traveled from Delphi to Athens – exactly 4 weeks to the day after arrival in Greece, I finally arrive in its main city. I am ensconced in a fine little hotel called the Acropolis House, known for providing mid-term stays for various students and professors of the classics; it is located in the heart of the area know as the Plaka, within walking distance of just about all of importance, including the Acropolis and Ancient Agora.

My first full day I toured the Acropolis and Agoras (Ancient & Roman), the “must-sees” for any visit to Greece. The Acropolis, for those who have not visited, is a rocky hill rising straight up sheer cliffs over 200 feet above the level of the surrounding ancient city of Athens. The top is approximately flat, mesa-like, about 1000 feet long and half as wide. Below the cliff face of all sides the talus is covered with dirt forming sloping areas – various ruins of sanctuaries, temples, theaters and stoa occupy the lower these dirt-covered talus fields, particularly below the southern cliff face. An ancient causeway, now converted to trails and stairs, provides access to the top from the west. At the top, today, survive just four Classic Period Greek structures, set among older foundational ruins. One enters through the great pillars and halls of the Propylaia on the western end. It shelters and hides the very small but beautiful Temple of Athena Nike which sits right on the southwestern corner over the cliff-face. On the northern side of the Acropolis sits the Erechtheion and its famous Porch of the Caryatids. Finally, at the center south, and the highest point, towers the monumental Parthenon, much larger than the presentation provided by pictures.

Unfortunately and, to my mind, obscenely, practically the entirety of the views of the Propylaia, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Parthenon are marred by scaffolding, work-crews, canvas and giant cranes. Further, on the southern approach, the Sanctuary and the Temple of Asclepion, the Stoa of Eumenes II and the Theater of Herodus Atticus and its entire stage are roped off with scaffolding and work equipment. I understand some reconstruction and repair work was initiated to be completed in time for the 2004 Olympic Games held in Athens; that work apparently has now been ongoing continuously for 15 years, with expectations it may go on for that much longer into the future. Restoration and consolidation work on the world’s great monuments is necessary and understandable – but ordinarily this is done on small segments at a time so as not to mar the entirety of a World Heritage site for decades. I suppose the economic crisis has resulted both in reduced government funding available at the same time the government is trying to employ more for public works. By my calculation, the only photos in existence of the entire Parthenon, unblemished by scaffolding and cranes, are photos taken on film – no digital photos of a clean Parthenon exist. Still, for all my complaining, the overall impression of the towering structure is exhilarating.

In ancient time, the eastern, larger, chamber of the Parthenon served as a Temple to Athena, and contained a 40 foot chryselephantine statue of the Goddess known as the Athena Parthenos. The gold used to cover the statue was recorded to weigh 2,400 lbs. (in round numbers worth about $50,000,000 today), and accounted for a substantial portion of Athens’ Treasury, which was housed in the smaller chamber at the west end of the Parthenon. The statue was constructed around 447 BC, but had its gold removed around 390 BC in order to be able to afford to pay troops (the statue thereafter covered with gold-covered bronze plates). Over a millennium later the statue apparently was moved to Constantinople, but since has disappeared.

The much smaller structure called the Erechtheion, to the north, is the only building now without reconstruction obscuring its beauty. The east and west ends have the roof supported by Ionic columns. On the southwestern side is a lower porch extending out from the building with its roof famously supported by six statues of women known as the Caryatids; the original statues now are displayed in the nearby wonderful Museum of the Acropolis – see the included photo. The Museum also displays remaining fragments of the pediments, metopes and friezes of the Parthenon, the sculptured architectural details at both ends and around the roof edges of the building. The frieze, which extended around all four sides of the inner structure, was 524 feet long, and the entirety displayed a massive procession, perhaps the Panathenaic Procession, starting at the southwest corner of the Parthenon and extending both directions around the building to end at the eastern entrance. Although the majority of the remaining parts of the frieze were hauled off by Lord Byron 200 years ago, and now sit in the British Museum, many of the great scenes of the horsemen are displayed in the Acropolis Museum, of which I have included sample photos.

Below the Acropolis, on the slopes of the north side, lies the Ancient Agora, or public gathering place and marketplace, of Athens, with the beautiful Temple of Hephaistus and various Stoa among other structures. The completely rebuilt Stoa of Attalos now contains the Site Museum for the objects found in the Ancient Agora, mostly funerary ceramic items from the many burials found in this area.

Yesterday I finally got to visit one of the world’s great archeological museums which I so far have missed, the National Archeological Museum of Greece. Unlike the regional and site museums I already have visited, this museum covers, of course, the entire archeological record of the ancient Greek world. Interestingly, this coverage comes to a chronological conclusion with just a relatively small collection of late Hellenistic and Roman artifacts, and no Byzantine coverage at all; those periods are considered well into the historical rather than archeological record. I spent six solid hours on my feet within the museum’s halls, and kept finding rooms I had missed. I am quite sure I still have missed much, and hurried past most, and hope to return before leaving Greece.

Among the museum highlights are – 4 life-size bronze statues of the Greek Classical Period, including a very young jockey riding a very large galloping horse, recovered from the sea from an ancient shipwreck – a huge collection of marble statues and grave markers, extraordinary pottery – and, most popular, the many finds of the famous 19th century German, Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann was the famous pioneer who insisted the major actions and places recounted in the Iliad, the story of the Trojan War between Troy and Mycenae, were not myth but real historical references. He proceeded then to locate both Troy, near the western Dardanelles in northwest Turkey, and the 16th–12th century BC Mycenaean Capital in the Peloponnese of Greece.

A brief digression to put Greek ancient history in very rough perspective. Greece had not one, but two separate eras which saw great flowering of the arts and construction of monuments. The latter, from about 700 to 323 BC, was referred to as the Archaic and Classic Periods; these periods saw the production of the city states, democracy, the great philosophers and playwrights, along with the bronze and marble sculptures, fine ceramics and the written classics. Prior to these periods was a 400 year gap sometimes referred to as the Greek Dark Ages, during which little development and no writings are found (possibly a result of not digging in the right places). Prior to the Dark Ages, from 2500 to about 1100 BC, a millennia before Classic Greece, two great civilizations emerged and ultimately merged; first was the great Minoan civilization of Crete, followed by and ultimately merged into by the great Mycenaean civilization from the Peloponnese. From this period two forms of writing was developed, the latter of which which morphed into ancient Greek. The Mycenaean/Minoan merged civilization of the 16th through the 12th centuries BC comprised the canvas upon which the mythic heroes and gods of Greece roamed and played out their stories. During the early 12th century BC the Mycenaeans apparently fought a real war with Troy, the archeological remnants of which are present at Troy.

From excavations in the Mycenaean capital, Schliemann unearthed a mass of precious artifacts and relics, including a very large number of fantastic gold objects. See the picture of the famous death “Mask of Agamemnon”, though whose royal corpse it actually covered is unknown. My favorite Mycenaean artifact is a fragment of a bronze dagger, perhaps 5 inches long, the side inlaid with gold and silver to portray an amazing tiny and intricate scene of two felines chasing through flying ducks, running over a watery patch with fish and papyrus reed flowers. Consider that the view of attached photo on an ordinary monitor screen displays the blade at about twice life-size.

Also a museum highlight, the statue of Athena Parthenos, a marble copy (called the “Varvekeion Copy”) of the original Chryselephantine statue, which at 1 meter (1/12 size) still gives some sense of the awesome presence the original must have instilled in the Parthenon. I have included photos also of a large decorated spherical clay vase from Dimini, which astounded me by the fact it is 7,000 years old, and Cycladic (from the Island group of that name) clay vessels from the early bronze age (2800-2300 BC) called “frying pans,” a reference to their shape although their use is unknown.

I am taking a few days breather to catch up on captioning photos, and am researching how best to attack my visits to the Peloponnese and islands. Some have inquired why I include no bird and wildlife photos; for this trip I chose not to bring a heavy telephoto lens for bird shots, partially to reduce the weight I carry, but also because Europe just does not have the wealth of bird diversity found in other continents; this trip is for the archeology. The food and red wine continues to be good, and I enjoy my late afternoons sitting on my little balcony reading sci-fi and drinking the red.

Later. Dave