Archive | Nature RSS feed for this section

A Visit to Slovenia( or was it Slovakia?)

21 Oct

CONFUSION.

I think it was President George W Bush on a state visit to Slovenia, who famously said something like: “It’s great to be here in Slovakia.” I have witnessed the same confusion when I’ve told people about my holiday this year in the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. Almost inevitably, the response has been: “Do you mean Slovenia or Slovakia? I’ve always got the two mixed up!” I suppose they do sound very similar.

HISTORY.

They are both small countries in central Europe that generally don’t feature in the international news. Both are populated by Slavs. Both used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire.  After the fall of that Empire in 1918, both Slovenes and Slovaks were pushed into uneasy partnerships with other national groups. The Slovaks were merged with the Czechs to form Czechoslovakia, while the Slovenes were combined with other south Slav peoples to create the new state of Yugoslavia. It seems that the international community at Versailles didn’t think these two small races were a viable proposition on their own. Both Slovenes and Slovaks fell under the sway of one-party Communist regimes at the end of the Second World War.

It was only in the early 1990’s, following the fall of the “Iron Curtain” and the collapse of communism in Europe that the Slovaks and the Slovenes at last tasted true independence. In Slovenia’s case, 1991 was the year when it finally controlled its own destiny.

As I was visiting it I have tried to make sense of Slovenia’s complex history by reading and by visiting the city museum of Ljubljana, its attractive capital. I have settled for just getting a rough outline. After the usual Neolithic stuff, the Romans arrived. Slovenia today is very proud of its Roman heritage. Next came the Magyars but they were pushed back by the German Emperor who had designs on the area himself. The Turks too were defeated so Slovenia never became part of the mighty Ottoman Empire like some of its neighbours. Thus today, Slovenia is a devoutly Christian country and it was on the Catholic side of the Orthodox/ Catholic schism. From the late 13th century, it became part of the Austrian Empire and therefore developed on largely Germanic lines. In the First World War the Slovenes fought fiercely on the Austrian-German side, especially when, in 1915, Italy was bribed to side with Britain, France and Russia after being promised Slovenian territory, including the important port of Trieste. It’s ironic that Britain, which joined the war to protect little Belgium, was now happy to cynically give away chunks of another small country in the interests of military expediency. Sadly many thousands of Slovenes and other Austro-Hungarian troops died fighting the Italians. The place where we stayed on Lake Bohinj was an important staging post for that campaign. The Italians also suffered heavy casualties in the mountain battles that ensued. One of the more sobering moments of our holiday was a visit to an Austro-Hungarian war cemetery containing over 300 graves from 1915 to 1917.

I now know enough to appreciate how proud the Slovenes must be to have gained their independence. It must be strange but exciting to be a citizen of a country that has existed for less than 3 decades.The guide who led our walking tour of Ljubljana said that everyone was pleased when the population hit 2 million. Out impression was that it is a very clean and environmentally-aware nation. We didn’t see a scrap of litter on the streets. I expected to see a poorer, still- developing Balkan -style country, maybe like Bosnia or Albania. However it is so sophisticated that at times it felt as if we were in Scandinavia. There were stylish designer goods, well maintained buildings and efficient transport systems. The buses ran on time, and in the city, people paid with an electronic card which they pressed on to a sensor.( like London’s Oyster card.) Only when we got out into the rural areas did we see cash being used. While in Slovenia, we had Euros in our wallet and purse. Slovenia joined the Eurozone in 2007, three years after it was admitted to the European Union. It had been the most liberal and progressive of the former Yugoslav republics and had largely escaped the horrors of the Civil War after a brief, 10 day skirmish. The transition to a democracy and to capitalism was achieved fairly smoothly. In 2008 it became the first of the former communist countries to assume the presidency of the EU. Coming from 2017 United Kingdom it seemed strange to us that here was a country that was embracing Europe rather than turning its back on its  neighbours.

THE CAPITAL.

Ljubljana is a lovely city to visit. It is attractive, relaxed and cosmopolitan. It’s small enough to explore on foot. There is a variety of interesting architecture, pleasant riverside walks, a variety of cafes and restaurants to suit most tastes and just about everyone speaks excellent English. We asked an older lady for help at the bus stop. She not only told us which bus to catch and when it would come, but also explained how we should pay ( with the smart-card) and where to get off. All this was in decent English. Apparently, Slovenian is a very difficult language to learn. Ljubljana has a picturesque old town full of renaissance and baroque buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. There are : statues, squares, fountains, interesting little alleyways, pavement cafes and stylish shops. Up above, on a steep hill, is a castle, accessed by a funicular. A river flows through the centre crossed by a series of interesting bridges. The most famous are the Triple Bridge and the Dragon Bridge. The former is 3 pedestrianised bridges in one, furnished with Venetian style balustrades built in the 1830’s. The latter, built in 1901, is a flamboyant, Secessionist structure with 4 dramatic green dragons and ornamental lamps guarded by tiny griffins.

The main square, Preservov trg is flanked by the Triple Bridge, a huge, pink Baroque church, a Parisian Art- Nouveau department stall with a fancy, wrought iron and glass entrance, and a 4-storey Viennese-style Secessionist building. The square is a gathering place for tourists, locals and street entertainers. We were “treated” to a loud display of break-dancing which rather drowned out the poor man in traditional costume trying to sing his folk songs. We settled for a routine of strolling around, popping in and out of little shops and the occasional church, watching the river flow below the avenues of trees, and visiting pavement cafes. At the last mentioned we drank tea or coffee and ate strudel ( me) and chocolate cake (Chris.) For me, it’s compulsory to eat apple strudel if I’m anywhere in the former Hapsburg Empire. Ljubljana has shades of Vienna, Prague and Paris, but on a more intimate scale.

METELKOVA .

One day we strolled out of the main tourist haunts, into an area east of Presernov Square, which had a completely different feel to it. It was more informal and featured more quirky, alternative sights. We saw old music shops, zany art galleries, junk shops and whole walls of colourful graffiti. Virtually the first thing we spotted was a display of old shoes, boots and trainers hanging from a telephone wire slung across the narrow street. There were vegetarian cafes and erotica shops, though I’m not suggesting that there’s necessarily a connection between the two. We were on our way to visit St Peter’s Church, another extravagant baroque concoction. We virtually had it to ourselves as it was off the beaten track. We lit candles for our loved ones, sat in silence for a while and then wandered on.

In fact we ended up wandering into one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen — the Metelkova autonomous artist’s colony. ( That’s my version of its Slovenian name.) It’s a former Yugoslav army base that later became a squat. Today it’s like an alternative city within a city. In the words of one guidebook, it’s “the subversive heart of the city.”  It’s a rambling complex of bars, clubs, galleries, NGOs and a hostel. What is incredible is that the whole site is festooned with bizarre, vibrant graffiti, weird sculptures and strange installations. It is all anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, counter-culture stuff. As we walked in, our jaws dropping, the sounds of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” drifted towards us and the smell of weed pervaded the air. It was like going back to 1967/68. The vivid graffiti was the stuff of dreams ( and nightmares.) The whole scene was surreal. Metelkova has to be seen to be believed.

We enjoyed our week in Ljubljana very much. We made easy day trips to: a castle in a cave, halfway up a cliff ( Predjama), a huge, amazing complex of limestone caves, tunnels and caverns complete with a weird but wonderful array of stalactites and stalagmites (Postojna), and an attractive, medieval town surrounded by wooded hills ( Skofja Loka.) We enjoyed the trips but mostly just wandered the city, trying to scratch a little beneath its surface. We met a Chinese tourist later in the holiday and he couldn’t believe that we had spent a whole week in one place! In the same time-span he had visited 3 countries. He was only going to spend one quick day in Ljubljana seeing the “essential” sights. But, I have turned against this tick-list, rushing around sort of itinerary. I think our more relaxed schedule paid off, at least for us. If we’d visited for just a day, we would never have discovered the art market on the riverbank, the flea market with its Tito- era memorabilia or the wonderful Plecnik’s House. The latter was the home of Slovenia’s most eminent architect, Joze Plecnik. The guided tour was fascinating, revealing the great contrast between his grandiose projects and his modest life-style.

THE MOUNTAINS AND LAKES.

Our second week in Slovenia was a complete contrast. We travelled by public bus up into the north-west, an area of mountains and alpine lakes. It was very like Austria, the country just to the north. We stayed just 50 meters from the shore of Lake Bohinj, the country’s largest lake. It was created by glacial action. Mention “lake” and “Slovenia” to most travellers, and they’ll usually come up with the name “Bled.” Lake Bled is certainly the most famous of Slovenia’s lakes. ( some would say “iconic.”) But Bohinj is more beautiful, in my opinion. It’s an atmospheric, completely still stretch of water. Sensibly, no big buildings have been allowed on the lakeside, so the peace of Bohinj is maintained and its beauty unsullied. The peaceful lake is surrounded by wooded hills and massive, steep-faced mountains. It is a magical and magisterial sight. In winter it is so still that it freezes over. Last year people were able to skate on it for 2 to 3 weeks. That must have been quite a sight!

So we had a week of peace and tranquility. We walked the lake’s shores, sailed on a very quiet tourist boat, explored a dramatic limestone gorge and trecked for one and a half hours up through lovely autumn woods to the spectacular Savica Waterfall. This plunges from a cleft in the towering rock face, 78 metres down into a striking turquoise/green pool. The villages around were Alpine in character with little wooden houses and geranium decorated balconies. They were surrounded by bright green meadows and all had neat wood stores and old hay-drying racks. We half expected to see Heidi and Peter running down the slopes with their goat-herd or hear Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp family bursting into exultant song.

This used to be a big, alpine dairy- farming and cheese making area but this has almost died out as the younger generation has drifted off to the towns and cities. Local cheeses can still be bought however. We saw old, black and white photographs of villages communities in the past wearing their traditional costumes. Each village had its elegant church with a tall bell-tower or slender spire piercing the air. We also came across wayside shrines with little statues of Jesus or Mary and strings of rosary beads.

Bohinj is an area rich in nature. Every spring it has a wild-flower festival. We came across: heron, dippers, wagtails, nuthatches and robins. We also heard a couple of red squirrels squeaking excitedly as they scurried up and down a tree, and saw speckled trout lazily swimming in the river that fed the lake. On our last full day we got the most sensational views of all, when we ascended on a cable car to the Vogel ski centre. We were treated to panoramic views of the massed peaks of the Julian Alps. Bohinj is part of the Triglav National Park, the only one of such parks in Slovenia. It’s a place to preserve and treasure. We really enjoyed our week there. Yes we stayed for a relaxing 7 days. The Chinese tourist would have been shocked all over again!

BLED.

We met the nice guy from Beijing on a side trip to Bled, a 40 minutes, cheap bus ride away from our base. Bled is beautiful too, but sadly it has been partly ruined. The culprit is mass-tourism and the commercialization that follows in its wake. Lake Bled is world famous. I’d heard of it long before I knew anything else about Slovenia.The usual image shown is of a graceful, old church on an enchanting island in a lake, with a backcloth of hills and mountains. Also impressive, is an old, red-roofed castle on a cliff soaring above the water. That’s all true. But the chocolate boxes, jig-saws and calanders don’t show the built-up mess on the other end of the lake. There’s the huge, ugly Hotel Park, which advertises lakeside views but ruins everyone else’s view. There’s the large, modern casino, plus the usual motley assortment of bars, souvenir shops, hotels and cafes, not to mention a busy road, constantly choked with traffic. The place is heaving with tourists from all over the world. When our bus from Ljubljana to Bohinj arrived at Bled, just about everyone got off. Bled, from certain angles, is very picturesque but with its swarms of visitors, it is in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

We walked along the lake’s quieter, wooded shore and it was very pleasant. However, when we decided to sail across to the island and the church, it wasn’t as idyllic as I’d imagined. It’s good that there are no noisy launches ploughing up and down. One can hire a rowing boat, get a quiet but expensive electric boat or go on a pletna. This is a traditional, wooden stretched gondola propelled by a gondolier standing at the back. ( No, he doesn’t wear a stripy shirt or sing just one cornetto!) We chose the latter. 20 adults and 2 children all piled on, at the steep price of 14 Euros each. We had to squash tightly together on either side of the boat. What I thought would be a peaceful, serene experience, gliding across the water, never materialised because of my fellow tourists contorting themselves into all sorts of positions to take the best photos and then posing for numerous selfies with their friends and family. We had 40 minutes on the island which was crowded. Even though it was only a small island, containing a church and bell-tower, they have still found space to squash in a cafe, an ice-cream stall and a shop. We decided to visit the church which has lovely 18th century frescoes and other baroque adornments. However, we were shocked to find that we were expected to pay 6 Euros each to go in. This included the bell tower but we didn’t want to go up that as we are both nervous of heights. I cannot recall ever having to pay to go into a church before. The exquisitely frescoed medieval church of St John the Baptist near our hotel in Bohinj, is free. But we swallowed our indignation and “coffed up.” It was rather small but quite beautiful. Unfortunately, any hopes of enjoying a spiritual atmosphere were ruined by a constant procession of camera-wielding fellow tourists. They queued up to pull the bell-rope and make a wish. It has been dubbed the “wishing bell!” They posed in mid-pull for photos, with inane grins on their faces. Isn’t it funny how so many fall for such gimmicks? The bell-tower was entered through a modern turn-style activated by a bar-code on one’s ticket. The 18th century interior has been hollowed out and replaced with a modern zig-zag staircase. We didn’t bother going up. Any shred of historical authenticity had been sacrificed in the interests of making money( it seems.)

Our visit to Bled was rescued by a totally unexpected but brilliant Salvador Dali exhibition in the base of the casino. ( a private French collection.) We also enjoyed a small craft market and a display of vintage cars, incongruously parked along the lake-shore.

RADOVLJICA.

Our other trip from Bohinj was to Radovljica, a pretty, old town set in lovely countryside. It featured an exquisite old church, a beautiful, historic square and a grand, old mansion containing the delightful “Beekeeping Museum.” Keeping bees is a Slovenian tradition. The highlight was a wonderful collection of bee-hive panels from the 19th century. These were religious and satirical paintings to decorate the hives. They were another Slovenian speciality.

It was a great holiday — an interesting, attractive city followed by a week among the glorious mountains and lakes. Apart from the obvious tourist traps the costs ranged from cheap to reasonable. We found it to be a civilized and progressive country. Yes, it was an excellent visit to Slovenia ( or was it Slovakia?)

 

Advertisements

Durham Coast walk — Last 2 days — Horden to Hartlepool to the mouth of the Tees, 2017.

29 Aug

Following a night in the ex-mining village of Horden we retraced our footsteps back to the Durham coast path which we were following, north to south. It was another fine day, the 4th of our trek. After a mile and a half we made it back to the coast at Warren House Gill, the scene of yesterday’s lunch and cold shower. We headed south along the grassy cliff tops. We now walked through a series of nature reserves complete with wild flowers, swaying grasses, colourful butterflies and birds. Out at sea, the day before, we had seen birds dive-bombing into the sea to catch fish. They were probably terns. Above the cliff top meadows we now enjoyed the sweet songs of ascending sky-larks.

We descended to an area of reeds and marshlands just inland from the sea. In the middle distance another impressive Victorian viaduct took the coastal railway across another dene. This was the locally famous Castle Eden Dene, originally scooped out by retreating ice-sheets. It is now an important, woodland nature reserve, a magnet for walkers, horse riders and bird-watchers. Information boards outlined its history and importance, but we couldn’t read them as they had faded badly with time. Also, it seemed as if locals had used them as target practice for they were pock-marked with pellet holes and scars. This reminded us with a jolt that we were not really in the midst of the countryside but were actually skirting the urban fringe, on the boundary where rural meets urban, sometimes with unfortunate consequences. We also saw tyre tracks of motor-bike scramblers. The birds, bees and butterflies did not have this area completely to themselves. Only a little inland, we were passing the ex-mining towns of Easington Colliery, Horden and Blackhall Colliery, as well as Peterlee, the post-war new town built to rehouse some of these  mining communities.

Eventually, after another steep sided dene we made it to Crimdon Holiday park. Row after row of neat caravans and chalets lined the cliff top. Many had little gardens, balconies and television aerials as well as the inevitable vehicles parked outside them. It was more like a housing estate by the sea. It never fails to amaze me that many people go on holiday to get away from it all, yet they then take it all with them! Signs featuring the naturalist David Bellamy, told of the precious and wonderful flora and fauna in this special area. However the presence of so many people, their mobile homes and their cars suggested to me that the wildlife would be under constant threat from human encroachment.

At the end of the holiday park was a convenient seat for our lunch. We read about the rare Little Tern population that bred there. A special project had been set up to protect them. We also read how Crimdon Dene had been even more popular in the past, before the age of cheap foreign travel. People flocked there to play on the beach, stroll in the picturesque dene and enjoy the sea air. They rode donkeys, ate ice-creams, listened to brass band recitals and held beauty contests. Apparently, according to an info. board we read, young ladies paraded up and down in their swim-suits right up to the 1970’s. The Miss Crimdon contests were very popular events. One regular judge was the famous Labour MP and peace campaigner: Manny Shinwell. He famously declared that he preferred ” legs to arms!” Somehow, I don’t think all this activity was helping the poor Little Terns. As we left the vicinity of the holiday camp, we saw plenty of people but no wild-life. The closest we came was a photograph of the endangered bird.

Surprisingly, the English Coast Path now led us right into the middle of a golf course! Hartlepool Golf Club is right on the coast. Notices warned walkers to be aware of the danger of flying balls. As it happens we stayed safe and the local golfers were quite friendly, exchanging “Good mornings” with us as we tramped past with our ruck-sacks. In fact we got a bit lost amidst the fairways and greens and were put back on the right track by 3 golfers who suggested we headed left at the end of the fairway, and thus back to the beach. As we crested a small ridge, a long, straight, lonely beach came into view. ( Hartlepool North Sands.) The official path actually led through an area of “development” so we were glad to make it on to the sands. Ahead of us was the headland of old Hartlepool and in the middle distance, an old wooden pier thrusting out into the sea. We marched slowly towards it but just then our progress was rudely disturbed by the coming of the rain.

This time it wasn’t just a passing shower. The rain truly set in. We sat on our rucksacks to drag our over-trousers over our boots. Hoods up , we gritted our teeth against the persistent downpour and trudged on. To be honest, this part of the walk was pretty miserable. We had already walked 10 miles or so that day with at least a couple still to go. The rain, combined with our aching feet, served to dampen our spirits and make us question our motives. In the sunshine the walk had seemed a great idea but now we weren’t quite so sure.

Eventually we reached the dark silhouette of Steetly Pier. It’s a large, impressive wooden structure with large pipes running down the length of it. According to my research it used to serve the magneside industry, whatever that is. Now it is abandoned and slowly rotting. A section on the beach had obviously collapsed in the past as there was now a big gap like a missing tooth. It is now largely used by fishermen who are brave enough to clamber up its disintegrating legs. It made for great pictures though, especially the shots from underneath it, looking out to sea. Increasingly damp and fed up, we tramped on towards old Hartlepool, which slowly got clearer as it emerged out of the rain haze.

Old Hartlepool is situated on a scenic headland. It is normally a charming place to visit with sea views, some old pastel painted houses, stretches of cobbles, the original sea wall and an impressive, very old church ( St Hilda’s.) However, because of our tiredness and the unrelenting rain, our exploration was very half-hearted. A travelling fair was just setting itself up on an area of open ground but there were no punters. Nearly everyone was being sensible and staying indoors and dry. The little Second World War Museum was similarly deserted. We did find a Catherine Street though which raised a smile as I took a picture of a rain-soaked Catherine standing in front of her own sign. We also took the obligatory photos of the little Andy Capp statue as his creator hailed from Hartlepool. Luckily the rain eventually eased and then stopped. However we were in no mood for lingering, so tramped on, leaving the headland in order to reach our accommodation in the main town. This unfortunately meant a dreary trudge down a long, busy dual carriageway. It took a good half hour. We looked forlornly at the buses that regularly passed by, but reminded ourselves that we were on a sponsored WALK! Finally we reached the main centre of Hartlepool, and, having been there before, I quickly navigated us to our accommodation — the Grand Hotel!  I had booked it to give us a treat on our last night. ( I also got a good deal!)

To be honest, it isn’t all that grand. There are some nice stained glass windows on the first floor stairway and the odd chandelier. Our room, although comfortable, was pretty plain. However it did have the luxury of a bath with plenty of hot water, which we both took advantage of. For a town of its size, Hartlepool does not have many decent restaurants — hardly any in fact. As we ‘d had enough of walking for the day, we took the easy option and ate at the hotel. There is a very good and very popular Indian restaurant in the basement. It was our 3rd Indian of the week. Our stomachs must have thought we were hiking through the hot sub-continent rather than merely through a stretch of North-East England.

The next morning we had an excellent breakfast at the Grand, including porridge and plenty of fresh fruit. Then we hauled on our rucksacks for the last time, checked out and stepped into the morning rain. Yes, it was raining again! As I’ve written before, modern Hartlepool does not have a proper town centre. Everything has been moved into an anonymous mall. After buying lunchtime provisions, we headed out, passing the depressing streets where  original town centre used to thrive. They had grand signs but no shops. One ex-department store had been converted into a hotel. Most of the other shops have been knocked down. It is a sad sight. We passed a Thai restaurant where we could have eaten the night before if the hotel receptionist had known about it. Then we headed out around the attractive new marina, passing some fine old port buildings ( including the Customs House I think). We looked over to the attractive and interesting historic harbour with the magnificent early 19th century sailing ship, the Trincomalee. It’s like a north-east version of the Cutty Sark. As we reached the prom and turned south, we could see the old headland where we had been the previous day. It was still veiled in a mist of  grey rain.

We walked on down a newly built promenade which we largely had to ourselves. Then, a small miracle — the rain relented, patches of blue sky appeared and the sun made a welcome return. A new spring came into our steps as we headed to the seaside resort of Seaton Carew. The sunshine now glittered on the water and we were once again happy to be out walking. Seaton Carew is another resort that had seen better times. Nostalgic information boards showed us how popular it used to be. Now, it has a fine long beach and a nice promenade but the main drag is filled with charity shops and fast food joints. Bizarrely, Seaton Carew has an art deco bus station. That description makes it sound more exotic than it really is however. It’s a curving off- white façade with a graceful clock tower at its centre. The buses stop in the semi-circular lay- by in front of it. It also has public toilets which proved to be very fortuitous.

The final stretch of our walk was down a long beach towards the mouth of the Tees. Strangely the views were now of Redcar and Saltburn in Cleveland where I live, but these were on the far side of the big river. In the far distance we could see the cliffs of North Yorkshire. The beach petered out as we neared our destination and we were forced to clamber up and down a small mountain range of sand dunes. The thick marran grass rustled in the breeze as we ploughed through the soft sand. This last little bit wasn’t the easy stroll we had imagined. We crested a final mound and, at last, the mouth of the River Tees was now spread out before us. It is a bizarre combination of: a wetlands nature reserve, a curving  beach and the ugly mess of an industrial port. Once again, man and nature were existing uncomfortably side by side. As we watched, a large freighter glided in from the North Sea on its way to nearby Teesport. To our left we saw the North Gare breakwater, the “official” end of our walk. We had trecked from the mouth of the Tyne to the mouth of the Tees, taking in the mouth of the Wear en- route. We had walked the entire coast of the original county of Durham, linking up the 3 great river mouths of north-east England. We hugged and took the now obligatory selfies. Finally we turned back to Seaton Carew where the walking would stop and the little train would take us on the first leg of our journey home and back to normal life. Including walking round all the headlands and the detours to and from guest houses, we had covered about 48.5 miles. Between us we raised around £470 for wild-life charities. It had been a satisfying and worthwhile project. Now the only question is — where to next?

Durham Coast Walk, Day 3 — Seaham to Horden, 2017.

28 Aug

Day 3 of our long-distance charity trek began at the Lamp Room Café on Seaham seafront. Our guest house, although clean and comfortable, did not provide breakfast as they had workmen busy downstairs. There were a few eating possibilities on the front but we were attracted into The Lamp Room by the enticing prospect of poached eggs on home-baked toast with rocket and crushed avocados! It was delicious and made a change from the boring, full English fry-up. A young Australian with his long braids coiled up on top of his head, served us to the accompaniment of laid-back music ( Fleetwood Mac, Lady Antebellum, Elbow.) I imagined a young British traveller doing the same job at a beach café in Sydney or on the Queensland coast. The lamp that gave its name to the café was the miner’s safety lamp that was used in the local collieries. As its use dramatically cut down on the number of underground gas explosions, Sir Humphrey Davy’s invention was nicknamed the “Miner’s Friend.” It was a nice recognition of Seaham’s mining history.

Replete, we now set off south on the Durham Coast Heritage Path, recently opened by the National Trust as part of the English Coastal Path. We looked down on Seaham harbour, a double set of piers protecting it from the sea. It is still a working port. A freighter was being loaded up by 2 cranes from a glittering mountain of scrap-metal. Soon we left the coast road and went on to the path proper. It is a very attractive walk with cliff- top meadows featuring a colourful display of wild flowers. Tangled clumps of blackberries provided us with tasty free fruit. Butterflies flitted and bees buzzed. A group of swallows swooped low over the meadows, looking for their insect breakfasts. These magnesium limestone grasslands have helped the coast become an area of Special Scientific Interest as they support a unique population of plants and animals.

Soon we arrived at a headland called Nose’s Point. It provided spectacular views down “Blast Beach.” This is a long, empty beach, bordered by cliffs and punctuated by caves and stacks. A pointy stack like a jagged tooth stood at the near end, while at the far end was a very large, flat-topped rock covered with grass. The sea and the efforts of conservation organisations like the National Trust have turned “Nose’s Point” and “Blast beach” into a beautiful place, but it was, until quite recently, a scene of industrial devastation and desecration. Dawdon Pit extracted coal from beneath the sea here from 1901 to 1991. It was one of the most productive in the country. In 1925, 3862 men and boys mined over 1 million tons of coal. Even today, lumps of coal can be found amongst the rocks on the beach. Waste from the pit was dumped directly on to the beach. The scene was so hellish that it was chosen for the opening scenes of “Alien 3”, representing a devastated planet in outer space. On the cliffs above, in the 19th century, there had been blast furnaces for the iron and steel industry and these were succeeded in the late 1860’s by a chemical works. All this has now disappeared and nature has returned. One of the few clues left of this industrial past, apart from the name of the beach, is a mysterious layer of bare rock that stretches along the entire beach between the cliff base and the sand. This used to be the dumped spoil from the mine which has been flattened and hardened. A retired miner, walking his dog, told me about this. During the days when this coast was a metaphor for industrial dereliction, it was also used for a bleak scene in “Get Carter” the famous Michael Caine film.

After a while our path took us over the railway line that skirts the coast and into a deep, wooded ravine. This was/is Hawthorn Dene, one of several denes or little coastal valleys we had to negotiate. It is a steep sided gorge cut by glacial action. We descended through beautiful swathes of elm, ash and yew. It was like a secret wood, hidden from the world around. We crossed the stream and a huge chunk of magnesium limestone reared up before us. This rock is unique to this area. Then, as we climbed out of the ravine, we started catching glimpses through the trees of a large, impressive, red-bricked viaduct. Eventually we passed under one of its arches on our return to the coast. The Victorians had built it to take their railway north to Sunderland and Newcastle, and south to Hartlepool and Stockton. The current little “Pacer” trains, rattling along the rails, were a constant accompaniment to our walk.

We walked on along the coast, now chased by ominous dark clouds. But for the time being we were still treated to fine weather and sunny periods. Every now and then we were enlightened and entertained by information boards about the history and/or the nature of the area. We also came across lovely examples of sculptural art — which became a characteristic feature of the walk. One memorable example was a  large, metal representation of a seabird on the grassy cliff-top. Following a steep climb down and up the sides of another dene, 2 giant, iron butterfly wings announced Warren House Gill. The wings had shapes cut out of them showing miners going to work, and birds and butterflies, representing the mixture of industry and nature that form the rich heritage of this Durham Coast. A nearby seat was similarly carved with reliefs of leaves, flowers, miners’ helmets, shovels and hammers. The seat was a welcome sight as we were able to take the weight off our feet and enjoy a belated bite of lunch.

We were now near the village of Horden, our destination for the night. Today had been a shorter walk of about 7 miles, although we were still quite tired because of all those up and down denes. As we turned inland, the rain finally caught up with us. Waterproofs were hastily dragged on as the heaven’s opened. Luckily it was only a heavy shower. Ten minutes later we were skirting large puddles but getting rather warm as the sun returned. We walked under a railway bridge and up by a sewage treatment works and a waste recycling centre. On this walk we saw all the sights! We then turned up a long residential road, looking for our destination — the Bell Inn. Horden is supposed to be a village but we never found any actual village centre. There was no idyllic green or pond. It just seemed to be a long, linear development, eventually merging with the sprawling New Town of Peterlee. In the past, Horden had had one of the country’s biggest coal mines. In fact it still holds the world record for the largest amounts of coal extracted in a year. (4000 miners extracted 1.5 million tonnes of coal.) Hardly a trace of all this is discernible today, except, perhaps, the prominent presence of working men’s clubs.

The Bell, our guest house, was really a pub, that provided accommodation for largely contract workers. It was closed when we got there as it was only 2-30pm. However, a couple of men smoking and coughing outside a nearby club said it would open at 4. There was no convenient café to sit it out. Horden didn’t seem to be that type of place. So we sat on a handy wall outside the pub, took off out damp rain-proof togs, and waited. Luckily the barmaid arrived at 3 and kindly let us in early. It was a clean and comfortable room and so we were able to rest up and put the kettle on. We enjoyed the biscuits as well. From our window we enjoyed the unexpected view of a green field rising up behind the buildings that lined the road.

We had planned to eat at the pub, but unusually it did not serve food in the evenings. So we were snookered. The nearest eating place was a Weatherspoons about 25 minutes walk away up a busy road.We didn’t fancy that! The barmaid kindly suggested that we could order a take away and  said we could use the dining room to eat. So thanks to Catherine’s magical smartphone skills, we ended up having a Mexican meal in the pub’s breakfast room. We were intrigued to see who would deliver it. Would it be someone in a colourful poncho or sombrero, from a little-known Latin American enclave of Peterlee or Blackhall? We sipped our drinks and waiting in a state of high excitement. After only about 15 to 20 minutes, an older guy in tee-shirt and jeans entered the bar, asking if “anyone here has ordered some grub?” Without further ado, he shoved a carrier bag full of Mexican wraps in our direction and was gone (we had paid by card on the internet.) It was a bit of an anti-climax but the food was welcome and good. We ate it in the pub dining room watching the Channel 4 news. It was a satisfying end to Day 3 of our Durham coast trek.

 

 

Durham Coast Walk, Day 2 — Seaburn to Seaham. ( July, 2017.)

21 Aug

The second day of our long-distance walk announced itself with a cacophony of shrieking gulls rather than the usual melodious chorus of songbirds. It was a reminder that we were on the coast. After our 9 mile tramp from South Shields to Seaburn we were now ready to press on south to Seaham. The only problem was that a massive obstacle now stood in our way — the River Wear and the City of Sunderland! It wasn’t all going to be quiet bays and empty beaches. We were going to be sucked into an urban jungle and hopefully spat out the other side.

We ate a hearty breakfast at the excellent Mayfield Guest House with the proprietor, Vincent, quizzing us about our walking plans. Then we dragged on our boots and heaved on our rucksacks and set off. We were heading due south but first had to head the wrong way in order to visit Seaburn Morrisons for our lunchtime provisions. Not for the first time, we found that our large rucksacks proved to be conversation catalysts. They caught the eye of the lady on the till who also quizzed us about our venture. We evidently were not her average customers. Turning south out of the supermarket we headed up Seaburn promenade towards a gleaming white lighthouse standing on a promontory at the end  of the beach. This was built in 1856 and used to guard the end of the old South Pier at the nearby mouth of the Wear. The lighthouse now overlooked Parson’s Rocks and at low tide we could have scrambled over them round to the next beach. Unfortunately the tide was high so we had to climb up to the road and take the more conventional route. We were compensated for this disappointment by reading an information board about the geology of the area and spotting some small, wading birds scurrying about over the wet rocks. I guessed Dunlins but Catherine and her smartphone over-ruled me in favour of Turnstones. I must admit I had never heard of them.

We now arrived at Roker beach, complete with amusements, cafes, bargain shops and attractive, raised-bed gardens. Slightly faded information boards showed us how  popular and crowded with holiday-makers it had been in the past, before the age of cheap foreign travel. Roker was also the beginning of the Sunderland Sculpture trail. This had been created between 1991 and 2001 by a sculptor Colin Wilbourne and a writer, Chaz Brenchley, in consultation with local people. It had several interesting and/or attractive sculptures to distract and entertain us. The most memorable for me were “Taking Flight”, 5 steel representations of a cormorant taking off — a common sight on that stretch of water, and a large, twisting steel tree, apparently bending in the wind. On the concrete base of the latter were pictures of a lighthouse, a sailing ship and a local monster called the “Lampton Worm.” We were also intrigued by a series of 3 stone doors flanked by colourful stained glass panels. These represented the past, the present and the future. The footpath only passed through the door of the present.

By now, the trail had reached the river mouth and continued inland along the north bank of the Wear. Across the water we viewed cranes and industrial buildings. It’s not the most picturesque of river mouths because Sunderland was built on the backs of its industries. We walked round a marina, listening to the clanking of the yachts in the breeze. Schoolchildren in orange life jackets were being given a canoeing lesson, watched with interest by 2 old nuns, leaning on a fence. The weather was fine and sunny but dark clouds were approaching as we walked alongside the river. We passed the National Glass Centre which we didn’t have time to visit except to cheekily use their toilets! Then we passed Sunderland University campus which Catherine was interested in as she works at its Leeds equivalent. It had a symbolic, sculptured pile of  huge, stone books in front of it. As the river curved round to the right, our immediate goal came into view — Wearmouth Bridge, the last bridging point of the river before it reached the North Sea. Behind its graceful single arch was the city’s rail bridge.

A sudden, sharp shower interrupted us as we approached the bridge. I’m sure it contained sleet even though it was still July. We scrambled into our waterproofs but as soon as we had got them on, the rain stopped. We found this was a good trick to stop the rain. On several occasions, showers ceased the moment we had donned our rainproof togs. It’s called sod’s law. We passed below the ancient St Peter’s Church and climbed up a steep road to the bridge. Wearmouth bridge is a graceful, single- arched, steel structure built in 1929. Two earlier bridges had spanned the river at this site. Before that a ferry service had been in operation. The bridge helped Sunderland to grow as it united the north and south banks of the Wear. It looks like a smaller version of Newcastle and Gateshead’s Tyne bridge, which in turn is a smaller version of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Walking across it, I was impressed by its spectacular array of criss-crossing girders. We were now assailed by the full-on noise of the city — cars, buses, lorries, trains and people. It wasn’t a peaceful river crossing. Down below we saw a shrine decorated with flowers, photos, hand-written messages and a red and white striped Sunderland football shirt. Suddenly we realized that this high, precipitous bridge was an ideal suicide spot. A notice from the Samaritans confirmed this suspicion.

We descended down a steep, slippery slope and  the brown ECP ( English Coastal Path)signs led us on a meander through the run- down city streets south of the Wear. We passed Sunderland’s oldest pub, the Butcher’s Arms, standing in a short terrace of  crumbling buildings that had somehow escaped demolition, through areas of post-war high rise flats, and round the grassy space of the Town Moor. Finally we were compelled to tramp along a noisy, busy road full of  heavy-duty traffic travelling to and from the docks. These docks were what was preventing us from heading straight back to the coast. As we trudged along the relentlessly noisy road, with no end in sight, we got very dispirited. It was one of the lowest points of the entire walk. At long last we turned left off the main road and headed down a quieter street that skirted the southern edge of the docks. Then finally we reached the sea again. We had made it to Hendon beach. We walked down a slope to a small promenade and settled on a low wall to have our sandwiches.

Hendon beach is not very pretty. At its northern end it is adorned with a collection of oil storage tanks and other port buildings. It is bordered by low grassy cliffs. The beach itself is a mixture of scruffy sand and stones. However it does have a series of well-weathered groynes which I always think add character to a coastline. They are low timber walls built to stop the sand drifting to one end of the beach as the tide invariably comes in at an angle. As we munched our little lunch I noticed something bobbing up and down in the nearby sea. It was a seal — our most exciting wildlife encounter of the day. It kept diving down for fish and then bobbing up again. We were so close that we could see its whiskers. It obviously wasn’t a common sight at Hendon as all the dog walkers commented on it to us. One chap took 10 minutes trying to get a photo. The other thing we discovered at Hendon beach was a new way to walk one’s dog. A man drove down to the prom, which was just wide enough to take a car. He then decanted 2 Dobermans who proceeded to chase after the car as their master drove it at speed to the far end of the prom and back. Then he let them back into the car again and drove off. Job done!

From Hendon we could see a pier and lighthouse way off to the south. This was Seaham, our destination. Saying good bye to the seal, we walked up on to the grassy clifftops and headed south. It was easy walking and such a relief to be appreciating coastal scenery again, now that the city was at our backs. We once again enjoyed views of deserted beaches, cliffs and pointy stacks. A couple of times we headed slightly inland to negotiate a dene, a wooded valley formed by glaciation at the end of the last ice age. Ryhope Dene was the prettiest. We waded through bracken and undergrowth and skirted woods before we were delivered back to the sea-coast again. The cliff tops were adorned with lovely meadows of wild flowers and tall grasses. One stretch of flowering thistles, rose-bay willow herb and vivid red poppies was particularly pretty. It was like a Monet painting. It was around this point that a mountain-bike rider caught up with us and stopped to talk. It was Vincent, the Guest House owner from Seaburn. We had inspired him to get on his bike and follow  our route. It was a now a lovely day for cycling and walking, with frequent sunny periods and that nasty shower just a distant memory.

Finally, after a walk of around 11 miles, we reached Seaham, announced by a car park, a busy beach and an ice cream parlour. ( Tony Minchellas delicious ice cream is the most popular in the Sunderland area.)  Now, at last, we officially left greater Sunderland and entered County Durham proper — “Land of the Prince Bishops.” Catherine took a picture of me by the road sign, instructing me to look like a Prince Bishop. I don’t think they carried heavy ruck-sacks in those days though. Soon, to our right, we could see an old church and the historic Seaham Hall. I’ve not checked but I guess it was built around the early 19th century. Apparently Lord Byron got married there to the daughter of a local landowner. The marriage didn’t last long but Seaham still exploits the connection by naming its shopping mall, Byron Place.

Seaham is an old coal town now trying to reinvent itself as a resort. It recognises its history through information boards and sculpture. We learnt about the coal trucks thundering down the hill to the docks. At the waiting staithes ( coal-loading piers), they would open-up at the bottom and decant their loads on to chutes that led to the holds of  waiting ships. A striking metal sculpture showed 3 miners ready to descend into the pit. It was titled: “The Brothers — Waitin’ t’ gan down.” The grandest building in the town is the former Londonderry Offices. From here,  the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry’s estates and coal mines were run. It’s a building that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Bloomsbury or on the Liverpool riverside next to the Liver Building. The Marquess himself lived in the aforementioned Seaham Hall, which is now a spa and a luxury hotel.

However, the most striking sight in Seaham was a giant, steel statue of a British soldier at the end of the ordeal of the First World War. It’s called “Tommy” and was created by Ray Lonsdale. It stands 9 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 1.2 tonnes. The soldier is slumped in a seat, looking exhausted and traumatised, reflecting on the horrors he has witnessed and endured. He’s propped-up by his rifle and still wears his tin helmet. The soldier stares out at the viewer with blank eyes and a glazed expression. Originally “Tommy” was only going to be in Seaham for 3 months, as part of the town’s commemoration of the Great War a century ago. However, the towns- people, helped by donations from an increased number of visitors , have purchased it, so that it can act as a permanent memorial. ( and visitor attraction!)

The town is a hotch- potch of old and new. Near the ancient church of St Mary’s ( one of the 10 oldest in the country) is a new health centre. Near the modern mall is the original main shopping drag, Church Street, which is pedestrianised but quiet. At night all the shops are hidden behind metal shutters which hint that there has been a vandalism problem. We found our guest house with the help of some ladies in a hairdressing salon. One custoner, her hair glistening with red dye, phoned her husband up on her mobile and he put us in the right direction. The Adolphus Guest House, although in an obscure place ( Adolphus Street West) was comfortable and fine. It was run by a couple with 6 dogs but they kept them very quiet. Most of the eating places in Seaham are daytime cafes, ice-cream parlours or fast food take-aways. We ate at the only restaurant we could find — an Italian based in a converted pub just off the main square — Marinos. The food was delicious and the service very good. Finally we walked back to our guest house past the floodlit church and hit the sack. The second day of our trek was over.

Walking the Coast of old Durham– South Shields to Seaburn, 2017.

16 Aug

On a bright, sunny late July morning we waited on the north bank of the River Tyne for the first ferry of the day. Across the water lay South Shields which would be the starting point of our walk. The sun made the water sparkle. On a day like this, even the industrialised river looked beautiful. To our left was North Shields Fish Quay. Above it stood the twin white lighthouses known locally as the High and Low Lights. In the past, before the modern piers were built, these used to guide ships safely into the mouth of the Tyne, avoiding the treacherous rocks that lay just beneath the water surface. To our right were 2 large cruise ships, probably bound for Scandinavia. We were heading for less exotic destinations– the ex-coal mining towns of the Durham coast. My daughter, Catherine and I, had decided to walk the entire coastline of the original County of Durham. Initially, we would be in South Tyneside, but in the old days (pre-1970s), the River Tyne was where Northumberland met Durham. Ahead of us, as the ferry quietly slid across the water, was the tall, stone, domed tower of South Shields Town Hall.

A small posse of family members had gathered to wave us off. It had seemed a good idea at the time, walking the coastline of an entire county, and linking up 3 great river mouths– the Tyne, the Wear and the Tees. However, as we took our first steps and our bulging rucksacks hung heavily from our shoulders, I’m sure we were both tinged with tremors of trepidation. Neither of us were gym subscribers, fitness freaks or sporty types. Neither of us did long distance walks as a matter of routine. But a sense of adventure and the excitement of going into the unknown spurred us on. We were both being sponsored for animal and wildlife charities and so were determined to succeed. Also we would enjoying valuable, extended family time together.

The surprises started early. As we plodded past a relatively new housing development just off the riverbank, we came across a pool  of water that had a cluster of small, shiny metal galleons anchored in it. This unusual armada was the first of many sculptural installations we were to encounter. The whole riverside area had a nautical air about it. We peeped into an old garage to glimpse a man working on his boat rather than on a car.

Soon, we left the river and arrived at the coast. South Shields has a beach, a curving pier crowned by a pier ( matching that of its northern neighbour), a fun-fair and a large park. Loud music periodically blasted out as we walked down the prom. A pop festival was being held that day and they were testing out the PA system. We saw the festival goers queuing up. Many had rain-proof ponchos and/or umbrellas. Despite the sun, nobody ever totally trusts the north-east English weather!

As soon as we hit the coast , we had a glorious view of Tynemouth’s ancient Priory and castle on their dramatic headland across the river. We were just enjoying this view when we stumbled across an unusual art piece by a Spanish artist called Juan Munoz. It was/is called “Conversation Piece.” 22 strange figures” are clustered in groups just off Littlehaven beach. They have bemused many visitors since being installed there at the turn of the millennium. The sculptures have round, bulbous bases. Locals call them the “wobbly men.” Others have described them as “Munchkin – like” characters. I thought they looked like giant chess pieces. They are surreal and slightly unnerving. Some of the figures have their eyes closed while others gaze silently into the distance. It was fun viewing and photographing them from different angles.

We walked south, gradually leaving the crowds and the noise behind. I recognised the finishing line of the great North Run. I had twice run that half marathon in the late 80s. Now we left the road and entered a gently rolling grassy area known as the Leas. It is important for wild-life and is managed by the National Trust. We passed little bays and beaches and saw our first stacks. Seabirds swirled around, punctuating the peace with their raucous calls. We stopped to watch a Little Egret fishing in the shoreline rock pools. Once these birds only frequented warm tropical areas, but now, thanks to global warming, they can even be seen in traditionally chilly north-east England. A local dog walker stopped to talk to us, asking if we’d seen the strange, albino heron. As we are both big Springwatch and Chris Packham fans, we were confidently able to put him right. He then told us about a Little Owl which he had regularly seen hunting during the daytime in that spot. He pointed out its probable nest in a cleft in the rocky cliff.

We walked on over the Leas and eventually reached a dramatic beach fringed by a tall cliff and decorated with limestone stacks, arches and caves. Our physical geography lessons came flooding back. This was Marsden Bay where I had taken the children when they were young, to see the spectacular collection of nesting sea birds, including: kittiwakes, fulmers, cormorants and shags. It’s one of Britain’s most important sea bird colonies. At the bottom of the cliff at the far end of the bay is a restaurant in a cave or grotto. It’s one of the very few “cave bars” in Europe. Access is by a lift in a brick shaft or a zig-zag staircase on the cliff, next to the screeching birds.

An ex Allendale lead miner, Jack Bates and his wife Jessie moved into the area in 1782. For some unknown reason they decided to live in the cave at the base of the cliff. Jack used explosives from a local quarry to blast the small cave into a much larger one. This unusual dwelling attracted visitors and the entrepreneurial couple started selling refreshments. They also might have sold refreshments to local smugglers.  The cave had other dwellers and went through various incarnations. At one point it was extended into a 15 room home including a kitchen and a ballroom!

To escape a short shower we descended in the lift.  The sun returned and we enjoyed our sandwich lunch entertained by the views up and down the coast and the constant chorus of gulls. After the relaxing sit down we were reluctant to don our heavy burdens again and walk on, but thinking of the miles still to cover we got going again. First stop was the red and white striped Souter Lighthouse and its giant fog-horn. Next to the lighthouse was an empty field which mysteriously had an information board all to itself. What could they say about a field? Well, this was the site of the Lost Village of Marsden. It was once the home of a thriving mining community. Nine rows of terraced houses, 135 homes in all, sat near a pit-shaft and winding wheel. Around 700 people used to live there. The village had a :church, a Methodist chapel, a Cooperative store, a Miners’ Institute, a Post Office and a school. Marsden was established in 1874. The houses had back-yards and middens ( cess pits.) Most of the villagers had gardens and some had allotments, meaning that they produced much of their own food. Rubbish was tipped over the cliffs into the sea. This was an age when people were not so environmentally sensitive as today. They were not so aware of the damage they were doing.

The air would have been thick with coal and lime dust, so it wasn’t particularly healthy in old Marsden either.When the colliery closed in 1968, it marked the end of the village’s existence. The people moved into modern houses in nearby Whitburn, just inland. The old village was demolished. Nearly a century of busy human life has now been reduced to a field and a tourist information board.

We walked on along wide, grassy clifftop paths, enjoying more coastal scenery, until eventually the extensive beach of Seaburn spread out before us. When we arrived at Seaburn we officially left South Tyneside and entered the Metropolitan Borough of Sunderland. All of this used to be the county of Durham but it’s been carved up into more manageable chunks in the modern era.

Seaburn is the city of Sunderland’s playground. As well as its fine beach, it has: a promenade, cafes and restaurants, amusements, and a smattering of hotels and guest houses. The place was busy with holiday-makers and trippers, crowding out the fish and chip shops and ice-cream parlours. In the distance was a pier and lighthouse that announced the mouth of the River Wear. We arrived at our guest house, put on the kettle and finally pulled off our boots. We ate at a popular modern Indian restaurant (Goa)that evening and, after a relaxing stroll along the prom, we finally turned in for the night. Day 1 of our big walk was completed.

 

Wildlife Encounters– Costa Rican Style.

1 Feb

It was none other than Christopher Columbus who gave Costa Rica its name. Although he “pretended” to be an ambassador for Spain and a missionary, the explorer was primarily a treasure hunter. Thus when he saw some of the locals wearing fine gold and jade adornments, he thought he’s hit the jackpot! Columbus named his latest discovery Costa Rica, or Rich Coast. Unfortunately for him and his greed, the natives he saw were important chiefs and the dazzling jewellery they sported was obtained largely through trade. Columbus never made his fortune here but today Costa Rica is indeed rich, although not in gold or precious stones. It is rich in pristine tropical rain forests and has a huge diversity of wildlife for such a small country. In an age when other countries are recklessly destroying their valuable rain forests to sell the timber or clear the land for cash crop farming, the Costa Ricans have bucked the trend and have succeeded in saving much of their forests and the increasingly precious flora and fauna that inhabits them. This is why I ended up following in Columbus’s footsteps, attracted not by gold but by the chance to see exotic: animals, birds, trees and plants in their natural habitat. A nature loving friend went there a few years ago and came back raving about what he had seen. Once I had saved enough money, I was determined to go and see for myself the rich wildlife of Costa Rica.

A blow by blow account of the entire trip would be too boring, but instead, here are descriptions of just a couple of my Central American wildlife encounters.

Wildlife on the Beach — Manual Antonio, Costa Rica.

Our hotel was set in tropical gardens just off the ocean front of Manual Antonio, on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. Vibrantly coloured humming-birds darted around, collecting nectar from the flowers and every now and then a large iguana ambled across the lawn. It was just before the end of the rainy season and we had had a very wet night. Our first rain forest wildlife walk had been delayed until the weather decided to settle. It was just like being on holiday in Britain — sitting in a hotel room waiting for the rain to stop. Except of course, you don’t see humming birds or iguanas in Blackpool or Skegness. ( at least I’ve never spotted any!)

We sat on our little balcony and looked out towards the ocean. Wooded islands punctuated the middle distance and in the foreground, swaying palm trees fringed the sandy beach. Black vultures soared around and then landed in the tree tops, spreading their large wings to dry. Just across from our room, a man quickly shinned up a palm tree, using no ropes or special equipment. He hacked at a clump of coconuts until they dropped down to his waiting mates below. His climbing skill was amazing. Again, I suspect that this is not a regular occurrence in Britain. I remember Keith Richards falling out of a coconut tree but that was while he was on a World tour, not back in his homeland.

When we had arrived the day before we had taken a walk on the beach. It’s one of those magical places where the rain forest sweeps down to the sea. It’s a popular spot. We had just passed someone having a massage, when we noticed people pointing up to the top of a tree that had encroached on to the sand. We looked up and there was our first ever sighting of a sloth! This was one of the main reasons why we had decided to visit Central America — to see exotic wild-life. Once one has got over the excitement of spotting a sloth however, the actual “spectacle” can be something of an anti-climax. This is because the sloth rarely moves. It can spend up to 15 hours a day sleeping and when it does stir, is officially the world’s slowest animal. In fact the sloth is so sedentary that algae grows on its furry coat. Its greenish tint helps to camouflage the animal as it sits high up in the rain forest canopy.  Luckily, “our” sloth, one of the 3-toed variety, was in a small tree so we got to see it more clearly than usual. It was hanging from a branch and its head was half-turned towards us, revealing  big, soulful eyes and a shy smile. It may not be the most thrilling of mammals to watch but it is certainly one of the most endearing. People love animals that seem to have human characteristics. The sloth’s natural mouth position makes it appear to be smiling, so as far as most people are concerned, it’s a winner.

Manual Antonio is a popular spot for picnickers but those that do so, find that having an open-air meal is not the most relaxing of experiences. We watched a lady and her children enjoying a bite to eat at the edge of the forest when they were suddenly surrounded by a family of raccoons which had appeared out of the trees. The lady let out a scream as a racoon snatched one of her sandwiches. She quickly had to pack away all her food and make her escape. This, apparently, is a very common occurrence. Later, as we were nearing the end of our  walk, a whole troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys bounced on to the beach, causing quite a stir. They sped around on all fours , sporting lovely, curling prehensile tails. Some had cute little babies clinging to their backs. They had been attracted by fallen coconuts which afforded an easy feast. However, like the raccoons, these intelligent monkeys are not afraid to grab human food it it’s unguarded or on offer. We were told not to feed the monkeys as this increases dependency and can lead to more aggressive behaviour. Being surrounded by a whole horde of teeth-baring monkeys can be quite intimidating. However, for us, just watching the coconut- eating from a safe distance, proved to be a fascinating spectacle. It made this Costa Rican beach so very unusual and exciting compared to what we were accustomed to back home.

NIGHT WALK IN THE JUNGLE. (MONTEVERDE– The Green Mountain.)

We had driven north along the Pacific coast on the Pan American Highway of Costa Rica. At one point we stopped on a bridge across a wide river and when we looked down, saw at least 20 huge crocodiles basking on its banks. Then we turned inland and started to climb. We were heading for the Quaker established settlement of Monteverde, up in the spectacular cloud forests. American Quakers had migrated there in the 1960s, in order to escape the dreaded Vietnam draft. Costa Rica is a good place for conscientious objectors as it is a peaceful country and is the only one in its continent to have no standing army. They set up a successful community and were instrumental in preserving large reserves of rain forest and cloud forest in the surrounding area.  After an hour or so of climbing, the road turned into a narrow, twisting, unpaved track. It has been deliberately left unsurfaced to discourage mass tourism which could end up destroying the very things the visitors had come to see — pristine rain forests and exotic, increasingly rare wild-life.

The rain started to lash down relentlessly, and as we slowly ascended into the clouds, it seemed as if we were travelling to the very edge of the known world. At one point the road had almost disappeared following a landslip. Our minibus had to manoeuvre very gingerly around the diggers which were attempting to restore it. Any slight mistake and we would have plunged down a precipitous slope to our right. Mid-November should have been the start of the dry season, but an unseasonal hurricane was hitting the north Caribbean coast and all the weather systems had gone haywire.

So, it felt as if we very lucky when, the next morning, we woke up to a fine, hot ,sunny day in the beautiful cloud forests. Some hurried off to go zip-lining or horse riding, but we, acting our advanced age, chose the more sedate activities of visiting a butterfly garden, a hummingbird feeding station and a tropical frog pond. Later we also visited a fascinating orchid garden.  Many of the orchids were so tiny that they gave us magnifying glasses to view them. However, irrespective of their daytime choices, the whole group came together for what was to be the highlight of the visit: a night walk, deep into the cloud forest.

I’ve always been frightened of going into dark woods at night. We had a large wood near where I grew up. I loved playing in it during the day but avoided it like the plague after dusk. So, when I heard of the Night Walk in the Monteverde  Cloud Forest, I was at first filled with trepidation. What if I got detached from the group and was left, lost in a strange, tropical jungle? I had heard the rain forest at night while down at Manual Antonio. After dark it was a cacophony of sounds — the constant loud chirping of the cicadas, the croaking of the frogs, the growls of the howler monkeys and all the other strange and frightening hooting and screeching. We heard all this from a road that ran alongside the forest, but now we were deliberately going to walk into that pitch black unknown! The prospect was a bit nerve- shredding. The trouble is, I had read too many frightening books about the jungle when I was a child. The rain forest was painted as a place of menace and danger with poisonous spiders, fierce wild cats and huge snakes dangling down to bite you with their venom or squeeze you to death. Then in the rivers and streams were crocodiles and razor toothed piranhas which can strip a man of all his flesh in just a few seconds. Why would anyone voluntarily want to go there?

However, as this was probably a once in a lifetime experience, I conquered my fears and signed up to go. Of course, I was completely safe. We were issued with torches and followed an experienced guide along well trodden paths. So it wasn’t really recreating Tarzan and Jane. The real reason for going at night was because up to 80% of rain forest creatures are nocturnal. In other words they are mostly active at night. For many, this is because they are safer from their predators. But “safer” is a relative term, as many of the predators operate at night too, as we were to see.

Our little group of 7 plus a guide set off into the darkness. We stayed close together. There was no hanging back to take that extra photo on this trip. We trained our torches on the ground as we didn’t want to trip over obstacles such as rocks or low branches. The first creatures we spotted were a couple of tiny tree frogs, one green and one a golden-brown.  They sat totally motionless on large green leaves. Think of the cover of David Attenborough’s original “Life on Earth” and you will get the picture. We would never have seen them without the guide as they were so minute. They didn’t seem to be bothered by our torches. A powerful telescope was trained on them and we were all able to have a close-up look. The guide could even take a picture with his camera phone through the lens of the scope. The same applied to a sinister looking scorpion, sitting completely still on a tree trunk in the middle distance. When the light was shone on it, the scorpion glowed an eerie, luminous blue. We could clearly see its curly, sting-tipped tail. Also completely motionless were yellow and green vipers coiled around branches with their heads in the attack position, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting passing mouse or small bird. We were warned not to go too close so as not to disturb the reptile and not to stray into danger. We heard of one foolish tourist who had touched a poisonous snake to make it move in order to get a better picture. He got bitten for his troubles and had to be rushed to hospital to be given the anti-dote.

The walk had many highlights. A rustling in the tree tops revealed a feeding kinkajou — a sort of ferret w Iith a large prehensile tail acting as a fifth limb. It was as agile and lively as a monkey. A rustling in the undergrowth revealed what for me was the most exciting spot — an armadillo. The silver, linked, armour-like body made it look like a tiny knight returning from the Crusades. Both the armadillo and the kinkajou took me right back to my childhood when I saved the Brooke Bond tea cards. On one side was a coloured picture of the creature and on the other was the description of its appearance, habitat etc. My sister and I bought special albums to stick the cards in. I distinctly remember our albums of: Tropical Birds, Wild Animals of Africa and Wild-life of South America. Maybe the planting of that early seed in my brain was one of the prime reasons that had led me to the jungles of Latin America all those decades later.

The next highlight was seeing a large, female tarantula sitting menacingly at the mouth of her lair, halfway up a bank of earth. When the telescope was trained on her she looked enormous. I was mesmerised by it and must have looked at the frightening, magnified image at least 7 times. The tarantula had orange and brown striped hairy legs. I know it posed no danger to us but a chill still ran down my spine. Maybe I was thinking of the scene in Ian Fleming’s “Dr No” in which James Bond, on a mission in Jamaica, finds a large tarantula crawling up his body as he lay in bed. Fleming, who lived in Jamaica, which is not a million miles from Costa Rica, greatly exaggerated the danger posed by the spider for maximum dramatic effect. The sight of a real tarantula just a metre away from me was still a pretty chilling moment though.

The jungle night walk lasted for 2 hours but the time just flew by. We saw sleeping toucans with their spectacular bills tucked into their feathers. We saw endless columns of leaf cutter ants and when we switched off our torches, we were surrounded by the incandescent lights of glow-worms or fire-flies. We also saw sloths perched high up in the canopy. One was actually moving, painfully slowly, collecting leaves to eat. Apparently they stay up there most of the time and only come down to earth to defecate, about once a week.

It was a memorable and spectacular walk in my opinion. It encapsulated perfectly the reasons that I had so much wanted to visit Costa Rica. I think it’s important to see and appreciate wild animals, birds, reptiles and amphibians while they are still with us. Destruction of habitat is threatening so many species around the world, especially in sensitive areas such as the tropical rain forests. Zoos are fine for getting prolonged close ups of animals and also have praiseworthy breeding programmes for threatened species. However seeing a creature in an enclosure or a cage is nowhere near as satisfying as seeing it in the wild , in its natural habitat. Catching a glimpse of a feeding kinkajou or an ambling armadillo is a priceless, probably  once in a lifetime experience for me. One churlish reviewer on Trip Adviser expressed disappointment that he had only caught brief glimpses of the jungle creatures. He said that he would have been better off staying back at the hotel and getting a superior view on Google images! Just think, if I had read this review earlier, I could have saved a lot of money and watched a DVD or TV wildlife programme back at home. Come to think of it, I missed BBC’s “Life on Earth2” because I was foolish enough to go on holiday to Central America!  I’m just joking of course. I couldn’t disagree with that reviewer more. I think the live experience thrills much more than the canned, on-screen one. My wildlife experiences on Costas Rica’s beaches and in its rain forests have left me with a whole array of wonderful, indelible memories!

 

 

 

 

 

Queensland Adventures — The Jungle.

16 Jul

Chris and I travelled to the far north of Queensland, Australia to experience the Great Barrier Reef and the tropical jungle. In the popular imagination, fashioned by films and fiction, the jungle is a steamy, noisy, dangerous environment. One has to hack through dense, tangled undergrowth with a machete, be on the lookout for venomous snakes dangling down from the tress and be deafened by a cacophony of chattering monkeys, shrieking birds and a rasping chorus of cicadas. Rivers are infested with voracious piranhas and deadly crocodiles. Then there is the constant threat of encountering fierce cannibals or head-hunters.
Of course, that wasn’t the reality for us in the Queensland rainforest and we weren’t naïve enough to expect it. We had already been on a jungle trek in Ghana, Africa and the most dangerous thing we encountered was an army of viciously biting red ants which marched up several tourists’ legs! We found out where the phrase “ants in your pants” came from. Much of that African guided walk concentrated on the medicinal qualities of plants and the symbiotic relationship between certain trees and certain insects. All the birds and animals were hiding away high up in the forest canopy and we would have had to have got up before dawn to have any chance of seeing them.
It was the same in Queensland. The rain forest was disappointingly “safe” and quiet. Much has been chopped down anyway to make way for sugar-cane plantations. The Daintree Rain Forest even has a fairly busy, metalled road running through the middle of it, so the biggest danger for a bird or an animal is not being pounced on by a predator but being mown down by a 4 by 4. A lot of the wildlife is endangered because of loss of habitat or human enchroachment. Before the Daintree was turned into a National Park and a World Heritage Site, the Queensland government was actually selling off large chunks of it for development in order to make money. Luckily the buyers were prevented from creating farms, logging businesses, golf courses or tourist resorts by conservation laws that came in the nick of time to protect such a unique and fragile environment.
We drove up from Port Douglas on a small group tour. We knew that we wouldn’t be visiting the fantasy jungle of popular fiction, but did have high hopes of spotting a crocodile or possible catching a glimpse of a snake. There was also a very slim chance of coming across a weird flightless bird called the cassowary. It is the third biggest bird in the world after the ostrich and the emu. Only 110 survive in the huge Queensland rain forest and our chances of seeing one were rated as only 10%.
Our first little jungle trek was in the Mossman Gorge. It was along a well worn tourist track. No machetes were needed. A crystal clear river tumbled over a scattering of boulders, whilst jungle trout lurked in the shallows. A colourful Bush Turkey scuttled through the undergrowth. But apart from that, the main interest was in the trees, all fighting each other in a race for the light. We learnt about the Strangler Fig, a silent killer, which slowly squeezes the life out its host. Then there’s an unusual tree ( name forgotten) that opens up little splits in its bark to secrete a sweet, sticky sap. This attracts ants which then repel any other predators which might harm the tree. It is a fascinating example of cooperation in the wild. OK, we didn’t get pounced on by a jaguar or half squeezed to death by an anaconda ( wrong continent anyway), but it was still an absorbing and unusual experience for us urbanites from the UK.
Our first big opportunity to encounter one of Steve Backshall’s “Deadly 60” was our crocodile cruise on the Daintree River estuary. Here salty sea water mixes with the freshwater running down from the mountains to form an ideal habitat for Australia’s largest and most deadly predator, the Estaurine Crocodile. I had read about lethal crocodile attacks on people foolish enough to swim in the quiet lagoons just off the main river. We were told the story of a man who had taken his two sons, 7 and 5, on a fishing trip on the Daintree. At the end of the day, he pulled his boat up on to the river bank and briefly turned his back on his sons to secure it. When he turned back, his 5 year old, who had been playing at the water’s edge, had suddenly disappeared. An estuarine crocodile had struck without warning.
So it was with a frisson of fear tinged with nervous excitement that we set off on our croc cruise. I had already decided that if we spotted one I wouldn’t lean too far over the side of the boat to take a picture! The river is densely bordered by mangrove forests. We glided slowly along the river bank, scouring the tangled roots and branches for signs of life. As the undergrowth closed in on us I was briefly transported to the scene in “Dr No” when Bond and his companions are penetrating deep into the villain’s jungle heartland. The side creeks, favourite haunts of crocodiles, were so overgrown that we could barely struggle through them, with overhanging branches regularly lashing the roof of the boat. We went to a place where a female crocodile had been located all week, but when we got there, she’d disappeared! Another crocodile nesting place on a wooded island had been attacked and destroyed by a gang of feral pigs, eager for an easy meal of eggs and tiny reptiles once the adult mother was away. The pigs had been set loose by people in the past so that they could have fun hunting them. Now they are a real problem.
We didn’t have much luck. All we saw were two baby crocs, one a few weeks old and one about a year. They had left the care of their mother and stood very little chance of survival. Both of them lay completely still on logs by the waterside, well camouflaged and barely discernible. As we looked at the second young croc, a green tree snake slithered through the leaves, causing a ripple of excitement to run through our group. It disappeared in seconds. The snake proved to be the highlight of the river trip and our scary encounter with a giant crocodile remained firmly in our imaginations.
North of the Daintree river, we left the main drag to explore a side track barely wide enough to contain our vehicle. This went through a stretch of private forest that the tour company had negotiated entry to. On another bushwalk we spotted a large, greeny grey lizard clinging to a trunk. It was completely motionless. It was a Boyd’s Forest Dragon. It had large, swivelling eyes, a double crest on its head and a line of fleshy spikes running along the length of its back. Like the baby crocodiles, it was very well camouflaged and we only spotted it due to the expertise and sharp eyes of our excellent guide. With patience and skill there is wildlife to be found in Australia’s rain-forest. It’s not just a mass of trees.
We drove on, deeper into the jungle. Then, as casually as you like, a very large, flightless bird wandered out of the forest and on to the track right in front of us. It had a blue face that turned pale orange at the back of its longish neck. At the bottom of its throat hung a small red, turkey-like wattle. It’s round, dark brown body looked as if it was covered with fur rather than feathers and its long white legs ended in 3 large splayed toes, festooned with talons. The most extraordinary thing though was a bony crest that sat on top of its head. It was an adolescent cassowary, one of those mysterious birds that we had only a minimal chance of spotting. It was probably a female as it was on its own. The males look after the eggs and the chicks. while the females wander free, leading a promiscuous lifestyle.
It was the high spot of the trip. We had seen a large exotic and rare bird, in the wild. This wasn’t a zoo. We watched it for a minute or more and then it melted back into the forest.
Later we went to see an adult cassowary at Port Douglas wildlife park.( the excellent Wildlife Habitat.) Its head and neck were a deep glowing blue. It had a bright red wattle hanging down at the front and red, bubbly skin at the back, just before it’s neck joined the dark feathers of its body. The bony crest or helmet was large and striking. It is called a casque and grows to about 7 inches ( 18cms) in height. Nobody know for sure the purpose of this casque. It could be used for sexual signalling or employed as a weapon or a foraging tool. It may be a device for amplifying sound or simply a battering ram, as the cassowary lowers its head and charges through the forest at speeds of up to 31 mph. It’s a strange but beautiful bird and still very much a mystery wrapped up in an enigma ( with apologies to Winston Churchill.) Cassowaries can be dangerous when startled, lashing out with their large, sharp claws. The middle one is particularly dangerous. They are capable of disembowelling a human or a dog if cornered. But such attacks are rare and it is the cassowaries that are in most danger, from dog attacks or speeding traffic. Also those pesky feral pigs are a problem again. They destroy eggs and nests and compete for food. Cassowaries can swim in rivers and the sea. They emit a low, booming sound, right on the edge of human hearing. They live for 40 to 50 years.
So, no big crocs, only one small snake, no poisonous spiders, no Tarzan and no Jane. But our brief sighting of the elusive Southern Cassowary in the wild was a thrilling encounter leaving an indelible memory. It was our David Attenborough moment and the unexpected highlight of our Queensland jungle adventure.