The stretch of Highway One between Kununurra and the turn-off to Wyndham was a long series of road works but not too many traffic lights. The bush was a little greener here with blossom appearing on some trees. At the junction we joined the Great Northern Highway heading southbound. We stopped at the Doon Doon Roadhouse for a break. It has a little bit of everything you might need for your journey including some new and secondhand books. Further on hills appeared and the landscape became drier and rockier.
We passed the sign to a mine which my road atlas said was ‘Argyle Diamond Mine: no public access’. Most of the small creek crossings on this part of the highway are single track bridges. However, at Bow Bridge a new bridge and road access is being built. We stopped for lunch at a rest area and for the first time in the last couple of weeks, were not pestered by birds, just a few flies. Many of the trees surrounding the area had peeling bark and James suggested it might make and abstract painting. I only have a sketchbook and a few pencils with me on this trip and I might get started on some ideas.
Not long after the lunch break we passed this cow sitting by the road.
Halls Creek is the only sizeable town on this stretch of road. Its population was only just over 3,600 in 2016 of 70% are indigenous. On Christmas Day 1885, a prospector found a huge gold nugget here. The subsequent gold rush was very short-lived but the Visitors’ Centre still has a leaflet on tips for gold prospectors. The town is the administrative centre for the locals and the surrounding cattle farming region with a hospital and police station in addition to a school and some shops and churches. There is also an indigenous art centre but unfortunately this is closed at the weekend so I could not visit it. If you have a 4WD vehicle with high clearance e.g. A Toyota Landcruiser, you can drive the 52km from the highway north of Halls Creek into Purnululu National Park or drive 200km south of town on the Tanami Track to the Wolfe Creek Crater. Other options include rather expensive helicopter or plane flights over the National Park. We had decided to have a fairly lazy day so drove the 6km on the Duncan Road to China Wall. The last 1.5km is on gravel but easily accessible with 2WD.
China Wall is a vertical layer of white quartz which in places is 6m high standing above the surrounding land. The section near Halls Creek can be viewed from the path in the wet season but in the dry season you can walk right up to it across the creek.
There were a several wildflowers in bloom in the bush.
Heading back into town there was a long queue at the filling station as some of the pumps were out of order but the shops were open so we got stocked and prepared to continue our journey the following day.
Interesting article on lone female travelling
A family birthday celebration in Derbyshire and roads closed due to snow dictated our route over the Staffordshire Moorlands and into Derbyshire via Leek and Ashbourne. Driving over in the late afternoon just as the sun was dipping below the horizon and finding a layby just after sunset and where sheep were feeding was a good opportunity for some photos. The return journey was in the dark.
It was a strange feeling, driving up to Edinburgh on Friday evening, wondering what it would have been like to be living in two different countries. This was the first trip done in almost total darkness, no doubt to be followed by many more over the winter. On Saturday, after a long lie we went to a talk given by artist and bird watcher, Leo du Feu at the Arts Club. I really enjoyed his talk about his work (landscapes of Scotland and birds) and how he develops paintings. One of the things I find frustrating sitting on trains or as a passenger in the car is when a glimpse of landscape or some arrangement of objects is just asking to be turned into a picture but there is no time to take a photograph or it is not possible to stop. He has done a lot of work by train and uses sketches with colour notes to capture a picture. I must try that on the next long train journey. James was attending a course on Sunday so Flora and I had a walk down to the Meadows (she cannot manage Blackford Hill any more). I had a coffee at the dog-friendly Pavilion Cafe while Flora watched much younger dogs racing after balls and bring them back to their owners. This morning it was time to come hom. The mist was clearing and the day warming up as we drove back down the M74. The roadside and railway banks were covered with seedheads of Rose Bay Willow Herb, a plant my grandfather (a locomotive engineer) called ‘Railway Flowers’ because of their propensity to grow in disturbed ground. A reminder that this warm weather will come to an end was the sight of seven new snow ploughs heading north.
Two smaller journeys today – the walk from my hotel to the University and back, along the beachfront. In the morning, everyone I passed who was walking, cycling or jogging said hello. South Wales is definitely more welcoming than the South of England in that respect. Much of the path is shared with cyclists and they all seem to have bells and acknowledged me when I stepped out of their way. The other side of the road has numerous hotels and guesthouses. The University is just less than two miles away and in a pleasant setting. I soon found out where I should be and had a very stimulating day. The glorious sunny weather continues and after finishing a workshop, I walked back. The tide was beginning to turn and there were several fishermen nearer to the hotel. I asked them what they were fishing for and they responded ‘anything’. I wished them luck and headed inside for a fairly lazy evening and early night.
My train journey home on Friday was enlivened by the company of three fifty-something Liverpudlian women who were heading to Birmingham for the weekend. Nail varnish was applied, eyebrows tweaked, hair colour and texture discussed and family misdemeanors dealt with on the phone. They had a discussion with the woman opposite about the standard of nightlife in Liverpool, Wolverhampton and Birmingham – conclusion: Liverpool is for young people, there is nothing happening in Wooly these days and Birmingham is the best option. Drinks and crisps were consumed (and I was very generously offered some) and then one turned the music on her Blackberry up and we enjoyed some Michael Jackson as we crossed the Runcorn-Widnes Bridge. The train manager emerged after Runcorn to check tickets and had not got very far down the carriage before he returned to our table to ask that the music be turned down as someone had complained. The volume was reduced by a small amount with the knowledge that it would take the train manager some time to do the whole train and return to us at the back. All too soon I got to Crewe and wished my companions a good weekend.
Time to head back to Dar es Salaam on Thursday. I had a quick look at the snake museum next to the hotel before the departure. The warden woke some of them up by poking them with a long stick. The queues at the weigh bridge were quite amazing. Many of the lorries are second-hand and from the UK. It is quite strange to see familiar hauliers’ names in East Africa. We passed the sisal plantations we saw on the outward journey and there was very little traffic compared with that first journey. We had to squeeze past an accident where those involved were having a vociferous argument. Back at the Dar hotel, there was a conference in full swing on globalisation and sustainability. Not sure how they square that circle. The hippy count is much higher than the average medical conference and there were lots of people in the bar staring at their laptops. There was Ibiza-style music from the bar until 11pm. On our last day we took a trip to Mbudya Island and had a relaxing time on the beach and wandering around the island which is a nature island. It was low tide so we had to wade out to the boat. The water near the shore was quite brown and cloudy but cleared to brilliant blue further out. Once on the island I did some beach combing. Lunch arrived (freshly caught fish) and later reappeared as fish and chips.
Back on dry land we had dinner with Elwyin who was leaving at 4am the next morning to drive back to Malawi. Our nightcap was on the pier. We were turfed out of our rooms fairly early the next morning by the cleaners so sat in the cool reception awaiting our taxi. The booked one failed to appear so we spotted the driver who had picked us up at the start of the trip. He got us to the airport in time via some back roads in much less time than expected. Once we were airborne, we flew over Zanzibar as I listened to music. As the sun set we left the Indian Ocean to fly over Somalia and then on to Dubai. After three hours between flights, I had discovered a paper without a sport section. Now we are back home with the washing machine on overtime and trying to settle back into the world of work and planning the next trip.
On Saturday I awoke in the banda before the alarm. I had heard hippo noises and hyenas laughing in the night. Wandering over to the river, I could see five hippos including two youngsters on the island and the male circling around the island to protect them from crocodiles. After breakfast we said goodbye to the local staff and after dropping the empty beer bottles at the shop for reuse, headed off back towards Iringa. At one ford we saw the local ambulance being washed and many local people were selling firewood by the road. The Greek Orthodox Church seems to be quite a presence in this area with several churches as we neared Iringa. We just made it before the bank closed as Elwyin had to change some dollars. So far, the only felines seen have been two domestic cats. One was hunting over the road from the café and having failed to catch her prey, wandered over to scrounge from us. Fortified with samosas and a quick trip to the market for essentials, we set off for Mikumi, described in the guidebook as having ‘the air of a truck stop’. The road descended through a gorge and into a valley where many crops are grown and the roadside stalls are piled high with onions, tomatoes and charcoal. Wood left over from the forestry industry is being made into boxes to transport the produce. About 75km from Mikumi, the exhaust developed an alarming rattle. Elwyin checked it (he was a mechanic in a previous life) and said we could proceed and he hoped to get it fixed in Mikumi. On the way out we had thought that some of the stalls were selling salt as they had sacks of a crystalline white substance for sale. These turned out to be quartz, used decoratively in gardens. Closer to Mikumi, the road surface deteriorated with huge ruts made by overweight HGVs. It was being repaired. Our motel was the other side of town and felt a bit like being in a service station close to a busy motorway due to the sound of trucks passing. The courtyards were filled with tropical plants and there was a welcome fan in the room that made up for this. James was happy as there was a TV and some crucial football match was on. Elwyin managed to find someone to weld the split in the exhaust. On Sunday morning we decided to go the 10am service at the local Anglican church. One of the hotel staff took us in his car. The congregation was very friendly but the service was in Swahili so I contented myself with humming along with the hymns. Morning worship took two hours so we were somewhat relieved that it was not communion. A quick change back at the motel and we were on the road south to the Udzungwa Mountains. The first part is paved but the last 23km is a heavily rutted road that took a considerable time to navigate. The area is noted for sugarcane growing and there were stalls selling it and also bananas. At one spot baboons were doing their best to steal the produce but were being dissuaded by small children with sticks. We did buy some corn on the cob (mealies) and enjoyed that. Other children were asking for mia (money) every time we had to slow down to negotiate a pot hole. We arrived at our hotel and asked for a late lunch, which was finally eaten at about 4pm. A short walk to the village we stocked up on provisions for our lunch the next day and then checked at the National Park HQ that a guide would be available for our hike the next day as you cannot go without one. In the grounds we saw a Black and White Colobus, the Iringa Red Colobus only found in these parts and a Sykes monkey.
After the food shopping was completed at the market, a coffee stop and some purchases at Neema Crafts (a workshop, shop and café run by people with disabilities) we were on our way to the Ruaha Game Park. Very soon the tarmac gave out and the red, sandy road stretched ahead for miles. At every hill, there was more road to be seen with blue mountains in the background. We were entering Maasai country and at one point, a herdsman with his cows and goats crossed in front of us. It was clear, that in the rainy season, large amounts of water would come down this road and there were run-offs into the forest. We began to see glimpses of wildlife, including red-billed hornbills, a vervet monkey and copious amounts of elephant dung. Suddenly, there were several giraffes in the road in front of us. Once in the National Park there were impala, giraffe and elephants easily visible from the road.
We settled into our bandas on the banks of the Greater Ruaha River and that same evening the park staff had to frighten away two elephants trying to enter the site. The next two days were spent on driving around the park or sitting in the gazebos outside watching the birds and animals. On the first drive out we saw an elephant family trying to cross the river with the adults holding up the baby when they came to a deeper part. There are innumerable giraffes, zebras, impalas and elephants, plus we have seen baboons and monkeys, jackals, mongooses, Grants gazelles, water buck, kudu, crocodiles, warthogs and the birdlife is amazing. No big cats as yet. So far, we have seen one other group staying at the bandas but otherwise we have the place to our guide and ourselves. Many of the animals are easy to see at close hand so despite discovering on the second day of the trip that my 13 year old telephoto lens is not working, I still have some good shots. Tomorrow we leave for Mikumi via Iringa and then on to the Udzungwa Mountains where the biodiversity is even greater. Settling down to sleep now with the hippos grunting down at the river.
Tuesday saw us up before sunrise to finish packing, have breakfast and get on the road by 7am. This did not entirely go to plan. We did finish breakfast in time, entertained by Indian House Crows stealing sugar packets from the tables. When we went to check out, the reception clerk had difficulty deciding what our bill should be (three dinners and a few drinks, not to complicated we thought). Once that was sorted out, we squeezed our bags into the back of Elwyin’s Toyota Landcruiser on top of all his camping stuff and set off into very heavy traffic. A few miles later I realised I had left my camera at the hotel so we backtracked and there it was to my intense relief. It took until 10am to get out of Dar due to heavy traffic and road works. We took the road to Morogoro that was plagued by dangerous drivers including HGVs, motorcyclists and cars over-taking on blind bends and summits. We saw numerous accidents, fortunately non requiring medical assistance so we remained off duty. At one point Elwyin was pulled over by the police and accused of speeding, which we knew he had not been doing. I suspect this was because he was driving a Malawi registered car. Eventually, after intense negotiation and us wondering whether intervening would help or hinder, he was let off. Continuing, we saw our first Vervet (or Tantalus) Monkey, Pied Crows and White-Rumped Swifts. Then: the flat tyre. Fortunately the spare on the Land Cruiser is under the vehicle, not in the boot so we did not need to unload. Elwyin quickly changed the tyre and as we had stopped opposite a local fruit stall, bought some small Ladies’ Finger bananas and some oranges. In Morogoro we got a new inner tube into the tyre and back on the car. As were behind schedule, we grabbed some supplies from a supermarket and munched as we drove on. The fields alongside the road had corn and sunflowers growing which was a reminder of Route 66 last September when they were our companions for many miles. In Mikumi National Park we saw several troops of baboons hanging around by the road hoping to be fed by passers by, giraffe, zebras, antelope and glimpses of elephants. As we are returning here for a stay on our way back to Dar we continued on into the upland forests and the Baobab Valley, towards Iringa. It was late afternoon by now and the blue of the mountains ahead and baobabs silhouetted against them would have made some great photographs but we did not really have time to stop for long. Nearer to Iringa we passed small communities selling red onions neatly stacked by the road and sacks of rock salt. After easing past slow lorries on the last climb, we neared the town but turned off a few miles before to our campsite. It was now dark and there seemed to be some confusion as to whether we were camping or in a banda. As non-one fancied erecting the tent in the dark, we opted to pay a few dollars more and have a little luxury as we are camping for the next three nights. Breakfast this morning was not at 7pm as advertised but eventually arrived. We were all packed up only to find that the car was difficult to start. We got up the dirt road and found the necessary part at a garage on the way into Iringa. Have picked up food from the market in Iringa and now are en route to Ruaha for three days then the Udzungwa Mountains so will be offline for a while.